Thursday, December 9, 2010

Weird Like Erma

I was a weird kid. Which is not all that surprising, considering I am likely a weird adult. This is probably not a revelation to anyone who knows me and probably not news to my blog followers, since one of my earlier entries (see: Kids Say the Darnedest Things) recounts an ugly second-grade incident that served as the catalyst for many people classifying me as weird, at best, or full-out loopy, at worst. As a disclosure, in hindsight, I also find the child described in that story to be pretty weird.

I don’t think I was aware of being weird when I actually was a kid. I never really felt like I fit in, but that’s probably a universal feeling among kids…found in both “normal” kids, as well as the truly weird. Everyone feels like an outcast at some point, right? So I never thought of myself as weird then. But now, when I am having a conversation with someone and share a memory or detail about the-long-ago-me, I frequently have to pause as I discover that I really was a weird kid.

The most recent discovery of this weirdness has stemmed from some friends commenting that my writing and/or sense of humor are reminiscent of Dave Barry and Erma Bombeck. Though I am immensely flattered by the two comparisons (because I adore both), I have just recently come to the realization that it is weird that I have been compared to Erma Bombeck – who made a climb to fame as a wise-cracking housewife/mother of three in the 1960s and beyond– for about two decades now.

Dave Barry is, of course, more contemporary than Erma Bombeck, but I actually grew up with Erma. A quick review of her titles on Wikipedia confirms that, indeed, I have read everything she’s ever written (I fell in love with her at first read…she had me from the title page). I can remember being on a ski trip as a middle schooler (seventh grade, if I’m not mistaken), riding back on the bus from Powder Ridge, listening to Tone Loc on my walkman, while voraciously reading Family: The Ties That Bind…And Gag, which was my Erma favorite, along with The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank (see what I mean about those titles?!?). This was January or February 1989, which would have made me all of 12 years old. How many 12-year-olds even know who Erma Bombeck is, much less has read her complete canon? How many 12-year-olds knew “supp” hose so intimately? While other pre-teen girls were flirting with pre-teen boys, I was curled up on a bus seat, by myself, laughing out loud to Erma Bombeck. I can remember Amy Testagrossa asking me what was so funny and why was I laughing out loud. I read her a passage from the book and, though I’m almost positive she laughed, I wonder now if she was just being polite, while thinking that I was such a weirdo. To complicate matters, Erma’s books were always mine….they were never my mother’s.

My early penchant for Erma, may she rest in peace, got me to thinking about my childhood reading habits. I can remember “babysitting” John and Ben Van Rheen – I was 11 and, though Ben was a few years younger, he was about the same size as me and totally didn’t listen to me; John was Ben’s lackey who participated in whatever mischief Ben could create– and busying myself reading The Hartford Courant downstairs, while they plotted the overthrow of the world (or, at the very least, me) upstairs. At age 11, I had my own subscription to the newspaper and my weekly gig for the Van Rheens –as painful as it was - not only paid for the subscription but also put some much-needed cash in my pocket to pay for my periodicals (Bop and Teen Beat, if my memory serves me correctly…finally, something about me that might have been normal!). I didn’t know what to do with those two boys, but I think their mother’s main requirement for a babysitter was someone responsible enough to call 911, when needed. Surely someone who showed up toting her own copy of the newspaper could give the police an accurate description of the events leading to the call and accurate directions to their out-of-the-way house.

I maintained a subscription to the newspaper for as long as I could afford one. In my financially destitute college years, I sacrificed fun for the newspaper, delivered to my dorm room. There’s a telling photo of me at a sleepover…all of my floor mates are passed out asleep and I am awake, reading the newspaper in my sleeping bag. The photographer – whoever it was – surely took the picture because I was such an anomaly.

Eventually, I climbed the social ladder and was able to add magazine subscriptions to things I could afford. My first subscriptions, excluding Highlights when I was five or so, included Rolling Stone, Better Homes & Gardens and Mother Jones. How I discovered Mother Jones is a mystery but I loved the investigative journalism. I was 20 and my magazine rack defined me: interests in home decorating, music and socialist-leaning government exposes. Perhaps there’s a good reason I’ve never felt like I never fit in. It’s probably because I haven’t.

Truthfully, I still don’t fit in. But I’m fine with it. There were some lonely adolescent years, but I think that happens for everyone – weird or not. And I’ve discovered throughout the years that “weird” is relative and comes in many shapes and sizes. There was once a discovery of someone who collected their toenails in a jar, which I thought was really, really weird, until one day I was talking to a completely different person who made a reference to…collecting toenails in a jar. I still think this is intensely weird, but if multiple people are partaking in this, maybe it’s not all that weird. Or maybe it is weird, which means that I am not so weird.

Along the way through life, I’ve met one or two of these suburban-housewife-idolizing, 12-year-old girls who grew up to appreciate shabby chic d├ęcor and investigative journalism. I’m not so sure that makes me any less weird, but weirdness loves company. Maybe they also didn’t go outside for recess in all of fourth grade (I preferred helping the teacher, Ms. Morton, correct our class papers), or maybe they played outside with friends, like a normal kid. I guess it doesn’t matter. Maybe Erma was weird, too, but she was able to mask it with funny. And that’s my hope…to temper the weird with humor, so that all that’s really remembered is the funny.