Casaubon's Book

I Want to Be Erma Bombeck

I’ve always meant to write a post with this title, but somehow never got around to it. Then I saw The-always-amazing-Zuska’s latest about the way that Erma Bombeck’s name is being used to derogate people as being unserious and tied somehow to domestic life. Somehow I hadn’t realized that “Bombeck” was an insult – although it shouldn’t have surprised me, given our deep social contempt for women and women’s traditional work (the subject of most of Erma Bombeck’s humor.) Not that I needed another reason to be bored and annoyed by the eternally over-rated Steve Pinker, but here’s one.

This royally pisses me off, because to be absolutely honest, when I started writing about Energy Depletion and Environmental writing, I thought I a little bit about who I wanted to grow up to be. Did I resolve to be Aldo Leopold or Wendell Berry? No, I just can’t do that degree of seriousness. Did I resolve to be Richard Heinberg, George Monbiot or Fred Pearce? Nope. Did I want to be a great literary genius like Emerson, Thoreau or Mary Shelley? Nope. I wanted to be the Erma Bombeck of peak oil and climate change. I still do.

Why Erma Bombeck? Because of this – because she wrote about things that nobody else thought mattered, that everyone worried about in the back of their heads but no one articulated because it didn’t seem important enough. On her first column, she wrote, “I’ll be honest…when I started, I thought I was squirrelly. I thought it was just me. After the first columns, everyone on the block confessed it was them too.” That’s what I’m after – that moment when people look inside their heads and confess that they too have doubts about whether things can go on this way, and whether we really can put all the water and oil and emissions out just to keep driving around. And what’s funny is that a lot of people do look up and say “yeah, me too.”

900 hundred newspapers carried her column. She had 15 million readers, because they knew she wasn’t perfect, she wasn’t sitting in judgement, she was just trying to do the radical thing of saying what other people were afraid to say, because they were afraid it was only them, and that others would judge them.

The reality is that whatever changes are coming – voluntary or forced – they are going to engage the masses by necessity. Either we need everyone to participate, or we will all be caught up in the same great tragedy. I admire people who speak in complexities to an audience that can understand. I admire people who are great artists with a keyboard or a pen. I admire people who speak directly to a particular audience. I aspire (and don’t really expect to ever achieve), however, to be Erma Bombeck, surrounded by people who look up and say “oh, me too!”

That moment, that “me too” moment in which people say “I’m afraid for the future too.” Or “I want to make a change too” or “I never knew anyone else felt that way” is a tremendously powerful moment. Unmaking the strangeness between us – unmaking the sense that we’re alone in our heads and our worlds and that our battles to use less and make things better don’t really count – is tremendously important.

I’m not Erma. I’m not as funny as she is, and I don’t have the same sentimental attachment to the suburbs. There were things she was really wrong on – disposable diapers, the idea that happiness goes mostly with mothehood and marriage

We’re not the same – among other things, I’ve got maybe 1/500th of her audience. But that’s cool – a woman’s reach should exceed her grasp, after all, or what is writing for? But all these years, in all these pieces, I’ve taken swings at writing policy pieces and other stuff, but when I come back to my desk at the end of the day, I want to be Erma Bombeck. That’s a compliment of the highest order, and anyone who suggests otherwise is a complete asshole.

In this, I’m definitely with Zuska:

I say, any d00d who resorts to trying to insult women writers by calling them Erma Bombeck – as if that were an insult – must be trying to overcompensate for his phenomenally small weiner.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Shamba
    January 4, 2010

    Erma Bombeck was a wonderful, intelligent strong woman who I loved reading.

    She lived a long and, by any measure at all, a long and successful and satisfying life.

    To be called an Erma Bombeck is, just as you say, a very good thing! and if you’re a writer, its an even better thing.

    thanks for this column,
    peace,
    Shamba

  2. #2 Donna
    January 4, 2010

    I always wanted to be Erma Bombeck too! She continues to this day to help me see the humour in everyday tasks, to know I am not alone, and realize that sometimes all you can do is laugh. One of my fondest memories is a summer spent canning fruit and making jam with my mother and her sisters, while we took turns reading aloud from,”If life is a bowl of cherries what am I doing in the pits?”
    I love your blog, you make me think, and laugh, and realize I’m not alone in my struggles to be come more self sufficient, a better gardener, and a good role model for my children. If I don’t reach all my goals for one year, it is perfectly acceptable to say “I’m letting that piece of land lay fallow this year, to build the soil”.

    I agree, anyone who thinks being compared to Erma Bombeck is an insult has their head up.. well lets just say a dark hole with unpleasant ordours, where the sun doesn’t ever shine!

  3. #3 Jen
    January 4, 2010

    Growing up in a Catholic household, Erma Bombeck received the same reverence as the priest! She was also from our neck of the woods. I remember her columns and how sad my mother was when she passed away. To be like her would be a fine accomplishment, she was important to so many women.

  4. #4 Sandra Porter
    January 4, 2010

    I agree.

    I grew up reading Erma Bombeck’s wonderful insights into life and family. It’s amazing that anyone could consider a comparison to her writing as something derogatory.

    Those guys must be completely clueless.

  5. #5 Claire
    January 4, 2010

    Count me in as another Erma Bombeck fan. I read her columns as they were written, growing up in the 1960s as I did. I was about the same age as her children, and her family sounded a whole lot like mine. She was a favorite writer of mine at that age – and I suspect if I went back and re-read them in her books, I’d like them as much now. Erma Bombeck was the Dave Barry of the 1960s (and I’ll bet Dave Barry was in part inspired by Erma).

  6. #6 Yllaria
    January 4, 2010

    I haven’t read anything else on this blog, yet, but for this article, alone, it gets a bookmark. Erma was a great writer.

    I’ll get to the rest of it.

  7. #7 Laurie in MN
    January 5, 2010

    I *knew* there was a reason I liked your writing! *grin*

    I grew up in the ’70s reading Erma Bombeck and finding her waaaay funnier than any kid my age should have. I always liked the way she made some very serious points with a generous side of wacky humor. Whoever is using her name as a derogatory deserves to be roundly laughed off the interwebz.

  8. #8 Jen C.
    January 7, 2010

    That’s *exactly* why I read you, and not the plethora of older white dudes who speak about similar topics. You are so relatable, so real, so much like me that I had that “moment” when I first read you that “wow, finally, there’s someone I can really relate to!” You *are* the Erma of the peakclimateconopocalypse, and I’m so grateful for you and all your words. You make me feel slightly saner in this crazy-ass world. So thank you!

  9. #9 Zuska
    January 8, 2010

    Sharon, you definitely have your Erma groove goin’ on! Thanks for the shout out to my post.

    I do feel I should let your readers know, however, that one of my readers, Samia, took me to task for the very line you quoted at the end of your post here. Interested readers can stop on over at my blog and check out what she had to say in the comments. She made some very good points.

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