Having just returned from a ten-day family vacation in Israel, I thought the best follow-up travel location would be Dayton, Ohio.
Although this might not make sense to you, it makes perfect sense to me because Dayton is the location of the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Conference.
This is my fourth time at the conference and my second time attending as a member of the faculty. I remember coming to my first conference in 2006 and being incredibly nervous and in awe of the other writers who seemed like they were so much further along in their journey than I was.
On the first night, I noticed this one writer holding court who was syndicated all over Canada and the US, who had written a dozen books and was like Erma royalty. I thought, gee, if I can get to know him, maybe he can show me the ropes and help me with my syndication dreams. So I introduced myself to Gordon Kirkland and he invited me to sit next to him at dinner.
Then I tried to wipe it off.
Although this was not the impression I was looking to make, it was AN impression, and not one I thought he would forget too quickly. Being a humor writer, though, he could see the funny in the situation and invited me to sit with him at dinner again the next night.
Dinner with Tracy: Take 2
We made it through almost the entire meal without incident. And then while we were having dessert, he made a joke, and I laughed. Unfortunately it was while I had a large wad of partially chewed strawberry cheesecake in my mouth. Did you know that when you laugh with strawberry cheesecake in your mouth, it sprays out in a million little tiny yellow and red spots all over whatever or whomever is directly in front of you?
Now you know.
Gordon assured me that he would not hold my dual dinner faux pas against me, would be happy to mentor me in my humor writing endeavors, and would most likely make sure to wear a raincoat for all future meals together.
I came back to my second Erma Bombeck conference with a syndicated humor column, a website, a new book and a lot more confidence than I’d had two years earlier. With this newfound confidence, I marched right up to the keynote speaker, Garrison Keillor, whom I had actually met twice before and with whom I‘d had extended conversations on both occasions.
I said, “Garrison, it’s so good to see you again. That was a such a great keynote speech.”
He looked down at me and said. “Do I know you?”
In 2010, I came back as a speaker followed by a TV crew from CBS Sunday Morning who came to Dayton to do a story on Erma Bombeck, the conference, and me.
I was feeling pretty cool as I arrived at the hotel and ran into Andy and Betsy Bombeck in the lobby. In case you do not recognize the names, they are two of Erma’s three kids, whom I had met at the previous two conferences.
“Did you hear that CBS Sunday Morning is coming to do a story on you?” I said graciously to them.
“They’re not here to do a story on US,” said Andy. “They’re here to do a story on some hot shot syndicated columnist who thinks she’s the next Erma Bombeck.”
Betsy hauled off and smacked her brother in the head. “Andy, you moron,” she said. “It’s Tracy. They’re doing the story on Tracy.”
Andy looked at me and smiled sheepishly. “Oh,” he said. “Well you’re a very nice hot shot syndicated columnist.”
So now here we are at the 2012 conference. Having been to the conference three times before and having experienced various humiliations, this year I came with a much more subdued demeanor and the decision to keep a somewhat lower profile. As a member of the faculty, I was provided with car service from the airport, and when I got to the meeting spot, I saw a sign that said Tracy Bombeck Conference.
Although I have some notoriety as a nationally syndicated humor writer, I was still kind of surprised when the driver seemed to fall all over himself to greet me.
“It is SO great to meet you,” he said when I got to the exit. “Really, REALLY a thrill!!”
“Um… nice to meet you too.” I said.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked.
“New Jersey,” I said.
“Oh. I didn’t realize any of you lived there,” he responded.
I wasn’t sure which of any of you I was, but I thought maybe he meant humor writers in general.
“My mother actually talked me into it,” I responded.
“Well, you know what your mother always said,” he replied. “‘The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.’”
I thought… MY mother didn’t say that. My mother said, “If you move to New Jersey maybe you can live next to Bruce Springsteen!”
As we got to the car, he said, “So, are your brothers coming, too?”
My one brother is in pharmaceutical sales and the other one is a gynecologist. I wasn’t sure why the driver thought they would be coming unless it was to give out free samples of Prozac to the humor writers or offer them pap smears.
“No.” I said. “They’re not coming.”
“Too bad,” he said glumly. “So can I ask you something? I’m dying to know. What was it like growing up with HER for a mother?”
I thought, HUH? Her WHO?
Suddenly it dawned on me that the driver thought I was one of Erma’s kids! Here I believed he thought I was special for being me, but he actually only thought I was special because he thought I was a Bombeck. I thought back to the sign he held up in the airport that said Tracy Bombeck Conference and it occurred to me that a little punctuation would have gone a long way in this matter.
Now, at first I was insulted. And then I was pretty amused. And then, being a humor writer, I was inspired.
“Oh. It was terrible!” I said. “She beat us mercilessly and fed us out of the same bowl as the dog.”
“REALLY???” he exclaimed.
“Oh yeah, that whole ‘great mom’ thing was just an act.”
“Wow.” He said. “I’m stunned. Wait until I tell my wife!”
I realized then that I’d better set the record straight before I trashed the reputation of one of America’s best loved icons and my personal hero.
“I’m just kidding,” I admitted. “She was a really amazing mom…
“…Even if she did make me move to New Jersey.”