OH MY GOD! REALLY?

On a cold day in February, as I sat at my desk balancing my checkbook, the phone rang.  I snatched it up.  “Hello??!!”  I’m sure the caller could sense my irritation.  I’ve been told I wear my heart on my vocal cords.

“Good afternoon!” the woman said.  “Is this Joan Harris?”

“Depends.  Who’s calling?”  I was poised to hang up if she launched into a spiel asking if I was the person who handled the family electric bill, or offering me a special cable TV promotion.

“This is Debe Dockins,” she said, “I’m calling from the headquarters of the Erma Bombeck Essay Contest to inform you that you’ve won first prize in the local humor division.”

I was so flabbergasted I almost dropped the phone.  I must have said “Oh my God!  Really?” about fifty-seven times as her congratulations and instructions floated in one ear and out the other.  I’d need to send them a bio and a “head shot.”  I’d need to confirm my address and fill out a tax form so they could send me the prize money.  I’d need to commit to reading my piece at an awards ceremony on April 1st and make hotel reservations for the days of the workshop.  My head was spinning.  She said they would send a confirmatory e-mail, thank the Lord, containing all the details.

After the shock wore off, I opened the email and set about the required tasks.  I was looking forward to being back in Dayton for a spell, reading for an appreciative audience, attending a delectable array of humor writing classes, reconnecting with old neighbors and friends, noshing at our sorely-missed favorite restaurants.  Of course, it all went down the toilet when Coronavirus came to town.  They’re shooting for new dates in October, but truthfully, anything could happen.

Without further ado, here is my prize-winning essay.  I have included a link below so you can read the other winning essays and runners up if you wish.  Pretty stiff competition.

    We need these in the Ladies dressing room!

SWIMSUIT ISSUES

I almost scrapped the idea of joining AquaRobics because it meant buying a swimsuit.  Why do dressing rooms have three-way mirrors that provide a panoramic view of every bulge on your personal landscape?  Wouldn’t it make more financial sense to install funhouse mirrors that stretch corpulent customers into five-foot-ten supermodels?  As it happens, I was able to bypass the cellulite confessional because, according to the retail calendar, summer is the off-season for swim-suits.  In January, they’re plentiful as flies in an outhouse but in July, you must shop online or make do with a Wonder Woman Halloween costume.

Catalog dot.coms offer hundreds of swimsuits modeled by lanky teenagers.  You wade and click, wade and click, comparing features and trying to imagine what the suit would look like on an older, flabbier person.  They need to create a Midlife section where you can narrow your search by figure flaw, like Jelly Belly or Butt Requiring its own ZIP Code.  Or by remedy, such as Compress it with a Spandex Panel, Hide it Under a Skirt, or Draw Attention from it by Using Bright Colors on the Opposite Half of the Suit.

I ordered a navy swim dress with tiny white polka-dots.  It skimmed over my figure flaws as promised and seemed quite perfect, until I got in the water.  Submerged, the skirt had a mind of its own.  It floated at armpit level, twisting and tangling.  Doing AquaRobics was like wrestling with an umbrella in a monsoon.  After class, the sodden skirt sagged to my ankles, having somehow grown three feet while I was in the pool.  So I exchanged the swim dress for a color block tank designed to divert attention from my behind, a goal it achieved each time a shoulder strap abandoned its post and allowed a breast to escape.  I traded in the tank for a 97% Spandex racer-back suit.  The top is snug as a mammogram machine and the material in the tummy control panel could be used for building levees.  It performed commendably in the water – no tangles, sags, or peek-a-boobs.

“How’s the new suit working out?” a classmate asked.

“This one’s a keeper,” I replied.  When I hit the showers a few minutes later, I realized truer words had never been spoken.  My body heat had vacuum-sealed the wet Spandex to my torso and although the wide, X-shaped straps had gone on with ease, their removal would have flummoxed Houdini himself.  After ten minutes of contortions and tug-of-war, I heard a loud pop and the swimsuit surrendered.

The bad news?  I’ll have to buy a new suit.  The good news?  By the time I finish therapy for my dislocated shoulder, they’ll be back in season.

ERMA BOMBECK ESSAY CONTEST WINNERS

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YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO HOME BUT YOU CAN’T STAY HERE

Today’s response to MURI’S 2020 CHALLENGE FOR NATIONAL POETRY MONTH.  Like the 2019 challenge, this consists of 13 prompts, one for each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in April. They can be completed in any order.  If you are interested in participating, click on the above link for the prompts and posting guidelines.

Prompt #11 is “Write an acrostic poem using a word to describe your worst enemy.”

Menopause hit me like a ton of bricks.  Fat cells gathered for a family reunion in the space between my armpits and knees.  When the party was over, I couldn’t get them to leave so I let them hang around.  I fed them cheese manicotti and Pringles.  I encouraged them to be fruitful and multiply.  “Size doesn’t matter” became my mantra, along with its pants tag cousin “16 is the new 14.”  But those extra pounds caused a lot of old friends to turn on me.  Suddenly, everything felt tighter—elastic waistbands, t-shirts, armchairs, the space between my car and the garage wall, my chest when I walked a couple blocks with the dog.  There were more and more things to avoid—fitting rooms, swimsuits, photos that showed my chins, high school reunions, rickety lawn chairs, Spanx garments capable of suffocation or entrapment.

When I resolved to lose weight, the cosmos used every trick in the book to try and stop me.  NOOM proved too technologically challenging.  The local gym was pricey and required an extra pair of shoes, ones that had never set foot in the outside world.  Nine days after I joined, they shut down due to Coronavirus.  The same week, the nurse called with my lab results; I was to decrease my thyroid medication, which would make my mission even more difficult.  The grocery store ran out of low-fat mayo and multi-grain flatbread.  But the more the universe thwarted me, the more determined I became.  I counted calories, swore off snacking, and upped the daily dog walk to a mile.  I crocheted to keep my hands busy.  Over a period of six weeks, my afghan grew and I shrank.  Not so much that I’d blow away in a strong wind, but my enemy is not as formidable as he once was.  I’m on the road to victory!

IN THE REARVIEW

Worrying about BP, diabetes, heart attacks
Every year, buying new jeans in a larger size
Insecurity, avoiding mirrors, dodging selfies
Going toe-to-toe with the fridge and losing
Hating the scale with its big black numbers
Trying to squeeeeze into a shrinking world

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AU CONTRAIRE, L’ DOCTEUR!

“Sweets are gonna kill you,” my doctor is fond of saying.  Thanks to my friend Darlene, I will go to my next appointment armed with proof to the contrary.  Darlene and her husband had enlisted their son’s help to move stuff from their old house to their new one.  The son stopped on the way over and impulse-bought a fresh strawberry pie, the berries swimming in sugary red goo, smothered beneath a blanket of whipped cream.  They trucked load after load to the new house.  It was late, but Darlene wanted to go back and stay the night; she had to meet with a potential buyer early the next morning.  Her son talked her out of it by tempting her with the pie, which looked too yummy to resist.  Midway through dessert, their cell phones began buzzing with warnings from the National Weather Service.  Had it not been for that strawberry pie, Darlene would have been caught in the eye of the storm.

OWED TO STRAWBERRY PIE
(diminished hexaverse)

They had spent all day
moving heavy loads
from old house to new.
She wanted to go back
but her son stopped her.

“What about the
strawberry pie?”
he said. “Let’s sit
and have a piece.”

While they ate
and talked, a
tornado

flattened
their old

house.

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ORDINARY, YET EXTRAORDINARY

After my dad passed away last summer, my mom consolidated his stuff and let each of us kids choose a few keepsakes.  These items reside in a special box:  an everyday zip cardigan, a necktie, a cloth handkerchief, a Craftsman wristwatch with a leather band, a pair of clip-on sunglasses, a child-sized rosary (perhaps the one he received for First Communion), a copy of the letter I sent him for Father’s Day containing a hodgepodge of childhood memories, and the eulogy I wrote and read at his funeral.  Unbeknownst to me, he had been a journaler.  In small notebooks and diaries were records of his daily activities dating back to the late 70’s.  We didn’t fight over them, but we all clamored for our share.  On days
I really missed him, I would read a few pages.  His life, though ordinary, was full of surprises.  Who knew Dad was the garbage man’s favorite customer, a closet romantic who rewired lamps and misspelled words?

One of the diaries I have is from 1986, the year I graduated from high school and went away to college.  It was interesting to read about the months right before and after I left the nest.  The following poem is a mix of summary and insights in the style of Dad’s journal pages:

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CODE 88 BROWN

I’ve been a subscriber to The Sun Magazine for several years.  They print honest, moving, socially relevant pieces you won’t find anywhere else.  And it’s ad-free!  One of my goals was to appear in their Reader’s Write column and at long last, I have succeeded.  My short story on WEIGHT was one of about 20 chosen for publication in the March 2019 issue:

CODE 88 BROWN

I worked at an amusement park one summer in college, helping people on and off a small rollercoaster.  The ride’s safety equipment consisted of a seatbelt and a bar that snapped down over riders’ laps.

With heavier riders, securing the safety bar was a challenge; even the loosest setting pressed uncomfortably into their thighs.  Really large people simply couldn’t ride and no matter how tactfully I broke the news, it caused a scene.  Some would plead with me to keep trying; others would yell obscenities or threaten to have me fired.

I had only thirty seconds to get one group of riders out and the next buckled in, so I was always on the lookout for large people.  If a patron had trouble navigating the turnstile due to size, the worker stationed there announced “Code 88” over the PA system, followed by the color of the patron’s shirt.

One busy afternoon, a Code 88 Brown alerted me to an obese man on the platform.  Although I’d warned him about the tight fit, he stuffed himself into the narrow seat and egged us on as two, then three of us, struggled to lock the bar.  When it clicked into place, the man howled in pain, but there was no time to investigate:  a full train was waiting to pull up and unload.

The operator hit the button and the brake released.  While that poor man continued to wail, we pushed the train out of the station, then high-fived each other for a job well done.  When Mr. Code 88 Brown returned at the end of his ride, he was still screaming.  Our efforts to secure that safety bar had broken his leg.

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PRECIOUS OR PRECOCIOUS?

When I was a child, I loved staying at Grandma’s house.  I packed my suitcase and lugged it up the creaky stairway to the alcove bedroom with the framed print of the alley cat whose huge eyes glowed in the dark.  Crisp morning breezes carried the sweetness of lilacs and bird song through the open window.  Grandma didn’t play with us so much as let us tag along as she did her chores.  We clamored to help gather fallen apples for a pie, knead bread, or feed laundry through her old-fashioned wringer.  She never cut us a break when we played games.
It didn’t matter if you were six or sixteen, if you misspelled a word in Scrabble, she would challenge you and you would lose your turn.  She had the patience of Job, fielding our questions all day without a trace of irritation.  When I pointed to a ceramic jar on the bathroom counter and asked what ‘Chopper Hopper’ meant, she told me choppers were teeth and a hopper was a place to keep them.  “C’mon, Grandma, you can’t put teeth in a jar!” I said, certain she was pulling my leg.  I about flipped when she opened it and showed me Grandpa’s dentures.  At bath time, I told her I didn’t want my hair shampooed; I had sounded out the words on the bottle and was convinced that a product called ‘Hurr-ible Essence’ would smell bad.  Her rosary resided in an elegant plastic box whose lid was a statuette of the Holy Family.  Across the front it said, “The family that prays together, stays together,” which
I solemnly repeated every time I retrieved it for her.  My fascination with reading everything in her house must have driven her bananas.

GRANDMA MARGARET
(Elegy in Ghazal)

Her gentle brown eyes lit up just for me, my grandma
Her hugs were warm and soft and bosomy, my grandma

She stoked the basement woodstove, did her gardening
in a proper dress and hose—always a lady, my grandma

She turned every chore into fun: chopping up vegetables,
making beds or bread, hanging out laundry, my grandma

In card and Scrabble games, she did not pander to us kids;
she played hard, made us beat her honestly, my grandma

She churned out snickerdoodles and homemade noodles
and jars of tiny pickles, as sweet as could be, my grandma

She knew a mourning dove’s cry, made snapdragons talk,
shook down fruit for us from her apple tree, my grandma

When I tossed a Nerf ball in the toilet, talked too much, or
toppled a houseplant, she never grew angry, my grandma

On her Singer, she sewed clothing and puppets and quilts,
and hundreds of pairs of mittens for charity, my grandma

She even made me a black baby doll, hair done up in braids
Provider of my first lesson in racial diversity, my grandma

Each night, she prayed for world peace and those in need,
counting Hail Marys on her worn rosary beads, my grandma

I’m fifty and childless and live in sweatpants and sneakers,
but inside, where it counts, I shall one day be my grandma

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I THINK, THEREFORE I HAVE CANCER

At the direction of my endocrinologist, I scheduled a couple tests to make sure my thyroid cancer is still in check.  My labs were OK.  This week, I went to Radiology for an ultrasound, then Nuclear Medicine for a whole body PET scan.  The ultrasound required no special prep.  The instructions for the PET seemed fairly routine until the last few sentences.  I was distressed by the prospect of sitting around for an hour with nothing to read.  Then I was told I musn’t “think too hard.”   After the administration of the fluorosine glucose, I needed to keep
the ol’ gray matter at rest until the scanning process was complete.  PET scans locate cancers by mapping out areas of increased glucose uptake.  Because cancer cells multiply faster than normal cells, they require more glucose.  As do brains when they’re in use, meaning that rumination by the patient could potentially skew the results.  Tell me, how is a person supposed to “not think” while she lies under a scanner waiting for her fate to be decided?  So much the worse if she’s a writer whose mind churns endlessly, chasing metaphors, counting syllables, and wondering why humor rhymes with something as un-funny as a tumor.

The following poem is a VERS BEAUCOUP, French for “many rhymes.” Each four-line stanza adheres to this scheme of internal and enjambed rhyme: a-a-a / a-b-b / b-c-c / c-d-d.

  

NO READING OR THINKING WHILE THE RIDE IS IN MOTION

Nuclear Med Man schedules my PET scan, explains the plan:
OK, ma’am, fast for six hours prior, wear comfortable attire
It also requires avoidance of brain stimulation as cogitation
could be mistaken by the scanner and read as brain cancer.

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RUNNING ON EMPTY

Did you ever have one of those days when everything runs out at the same time?  It starts small, say, squeezing the final splurt of shampoo from the upside-down bottle.  (The conditioner will be fine; Universal Law dictates that the conditioner will never run out on the same day
as the shampoo.)  You lather up using a sliver of soap.  Grab the last Q-tip.  Force the final unwilling blob of toothpaste from the anorexic tube.  The depressurized remains of the styling mousse comes out in
a puddle instead of a lump.  You whisk the last kleenex from the box, dump the crummy, bottom-of-the-barrel kibbles into the dog’s dish, and resort to scraping the mayo jar with a spatula.  The spotty brown banana you were saving for lunch has gone missing.  The kitchen light bulb blows out.  You pour your coffee directly into the cream carton and swish it around to get the last little bit.  Your prescription needs
to be refilled.  You have two bills to mail and only one stamp.  As you update your to-do list, your pen runs out of ink…

I’ve condensed this phenomenon into a LIRA.  As you may recall, a Lira is a five-line poem with syllabic rules (7-11-7-7-11) as well as a scheme of rhyme and refrain (a-B-a-b-B).

WHAT’S IT GONNA BE?

Empty toilet paper core
A running-out day is what it’s gonna be
No clean socks in my top drawer
Two-crust sandwich, car on “E”
A running-out day is what it’s gonna be

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BEHIND THE CLOSET DOORS

Welcome to the Land of Unfinished Projects!  Partially strung beads, half-baked Christmas ornaments, mostly empty sketchbooks, scrap books and photo albums.  Two tattered duvet covers waiting to be patchworked into one usable one, a file box of semi-sorted medical papers, the “One-Year Bible” I got five years ago, its bookmark still wedged somewhere in Genesis.  I suspect the Road to Hell passes through this closet, albeit an unpaved section, flanked by stacks of perfectly good intentions the construction workers haven’t gotten around to laying yet.

Years ago, I started crocheting an afghan with “found” skeins of yarn from a failed sweater project.  When the “afghan” reached the size of
a super-long, super-fat scarf, I realized I’d need more yarn in order to finish it.  JoAnn’s had long since discontinued that brand and carried nothing with a similar blend of wool and acrylic.  Not to worry, folks, I found it on E-Bay:  36 brand new skeins at a price I couldn’t pass up.  The package arrived and I dived in with gusto, diligently adding a few rows every night.  Until summer came and it got too hot to work on it.
I bought an XL Tote at Dollar General, put the afghan and remaining yarn in it, and shoved it in the closet.  I unearthed it during my recent decluttering spree.  It was below zero, perfect weather to snuggle up under the wooly beast and get my crochet hook moving again.

The poem below is a LIRA.

STALLED PROJECT

Thirty skeins of bargain yarn
tucked away in a box on a closet shelf
for an afghan, thick and warm
one that won’t crochet itself
tucked away in a box on a closet shelf

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CONFESSIONS OF A MAGPIE

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to declutter my garage and my closets.  Having squirreled it away piece by piece, I was stunned by the sheer volume of stuff I had crammed onto shelves and into cupboards, drawers, cardboard boxes, and plastic totes “in case I might need it.”  There were parts from things I don’t own anymore and others I could not even identify.  Warranty paperwork from three lawnmowers ago.  Parallel printer cords, presumably from a dot matrix printer we had in the 90’s.  Most impressive was my collection of “Other-Ware,” lidded plastic food containers I feel compelled to reuse because they can’t be recycled.  I assume I inherited my magpie tendencies from my grand-mother, who saved and repurposed everything.  Margarine tubs held leftovers.  Paper bags became book covers.  Family-sized boxes from Post Toasties lined the bathroom trash can.  When she passed on, the closets in her upstairs bedrooms were stuffed to the gills with fabric.
I recognized a remnant that had been around for decades.  My mom probably had a dress made out of it, one that got handed down to all five of her sisters before it ended up in a rag rug.  When I was a child, Grandma used a scrap of that same fabric to sew a dress for my doll.
It popped up again in the quilt I received for graduation and I’d bet it plays a supporting role in some of my cousins’ quilts, too.

I took a deep breath.  I chucked glass and paper and cardboard into my recycling bin.  I filled two 35-gallon trash bags with Styrofoam and #4 and #5 plastics.  In the end, I couldn’t resist snatching back a few of the discards.  C’mon… you never know when you might need an ice cream bucket or a manila envelope or some packing peanuts…


The following “list” poem is also a KYRIELLE.  Click HERE for the rules on how to write one.

NATURE OR NURTURE?

My storage spaces overflow
with salvaged things I can’t let go
Be it malady or frugality,
my grandma’s spirit lives in me

Empty shoeboxes, tin pie pans,
mayonnaise jars and coffee cans,
tubs from yogurt and cottage cheese
My grandma’s spirit lives in me

Brittle thread and fabric scraps,
reams of paper grocery sacks,
plastic spoons from the Dairy Queen
My grandma’s spirit lives in me

I’ll brave recession or depression
horsemen, trumpets, Armageddon
armed with bread bags and ingenuity
My grandma’s spirit lives in me

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