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.