On To Contestant’s Row

clean roomI like to enter writing contests. I love how they force my brain to think in new and exciting ways. I would even say that some of my best writing efforts were the direct result of such contests – especially the ones with strict rules regarding subject matter and word count.

I suffer from a sort of Contest Compulsion, I think. Sometimes I win these contests, which, of course, is awesome. More often than not, I lose — but losing never bothers me much; for the real victory is in the final written product, the story that didn’t exist before I decided to compete.

Thanks to Patricia Tilton, I recently learned about the Erma Bombeck Humor Writing Competition. Due to my Compusion, I had to enter. The rules were simple: One had to submit a humorous essay fewer than 425 words written in the style of the great Erma herself.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed channeling Bombeck’s propensity for exaggeration. She also loves dialogue, which allowed me to exercise my long-atrophied playwrighting muscles.

What’s posted below didn’t win a thing, but I thought it might be fun to share. Here’s hoping you agree.



My son, Alex, and I have two very different definitions of the word “clean.” This poses a problem when I attempt to use the word in a sentence, such as “Clean your room.”

My “clean” is defined as, “Put every single solitary thing away forever.” His definition is, “Consolidate the six or eight smallish piles of stuff into one, colossal pile of stuff. Then shove the pile into the mathematical center of the room.”

“Is your room clean?” I shout down the hall.

“Yes!” he shouts back.

Since our definitions of “clean” differ somewhat, I pose a follow up: “Would I find your room clean?”

“Yes!” he shouts back. Unfortunately, Alex and I also have different definitions for the word “yes,” so I trundle down the hall and steady myself for anything.

The pile of garbage I discover is large enough to bury a marching band with their instruments. If I wasn’t so horrified, I’d almost be grateful, for even a casual viewing reveals a treasure trove of objects I assumed had drifted off into an alternate dimension.

“The battleship!” I cry.

“Hm?” Satisfied with a job well done, Alex was busy evaluating a Lego — perhaps attempting to decide if it was hard and sharp enough to leave on the bathroom floor.

“You have the battleship from Battleship.”

“Oh, yeah, it’s for a game.”

“I know it’s for a game. The game is Battleship. Why is it here in your landfill instead of in the Battleship box?”

“Because I needed it for my own game.”

“The refrigerator magnets!”

“I need them for my game, too.”

“All of them?”

“It’s a big game.”

“I can see that. So while your playing your game, I’m duct taping phone messages to the fridge.”

“You should use Post-its.”

“Where are the Post-its?”

“They’re in here somewhere…”

Growing bolder, I plunge my hand deep inside the pile. As it negotiates mystery objects that poke, jab, scratch, and nibble, I feel a piece of paper. Out of fear that Alex’s epic game includes the deed to the house, I yank it out.

It’s a two of clubs.

“No wonder I can never win a game of solitaire,” I mutter. “And is that the Christmas silver?”

“You don’t need it. It’s April. I’ll put it back in December.”

“Will you?”


But, again, we have that differing “yes” definition problem.

So, at that moment, I decide to change my definition of the word “clean.” The sentence “Clean your room,” now means, “Play your games in the attic.”

Alex happily consents.

“Use a dust mask up there,” I caution.

“No problem,” he replies. “I have at least a dozen in my pile.”

73 Replies to “On To Contestant’s Row”

  1. Brilliant Mike 🙂 And the fabulous doodle is the icing on this fine cake of a story. Yep – it can be one whole complicated mess when folks share words but not definitions! May you enter and win many more contests, and share their fruits here! H xxx

  2. Great story! So true, too!
    My sister just piles everything along the walls (the piles get impossible high too! I don’t know how she does it!). I pile things, but periodically go through and put things away – I’m way too neat to let it get too big (Stop laughing Mom!). 😉

  3. Always loved Erma. Dave Barry too. Thanks for helping us laugh at the absurdities of life and parenting!

  4. My son and your son could have a pile war.

    And when did you change your blog theme? I’ve been wanting to revamp my site and haven’t been able to figure out what to do….

      1. I think the boys would present a united front against their parents: GIVE PILES A CHANCE!

        Yes! The new theme is tres cool! Gotta get to work on mine one of these days…..jetting off to Florida tomorrow before the crack of dawn. Carrying green rocks to my niece’s wedding.

      2. I’m in FLA right now with my green rocks. They are serpentine, a type of green rock that’s ubiquitous in CA. It contains asbestos, but if you don’t grind it up, you don’t really need to worry about lung cancer. 😀 I’m here for my niece’s wedding. More later…off to Universal Studios today with family to see the new Harry Potter “experience.”

  5. My strategy was to clean their room for them. They then understood what I meant by “Are you ready to clean it or shall I?” I only had to clean (channeling my best no-holds barred Mrs. Clean Machine mide)

    1. Oh, when it comes to dusting, polishing, and vacuuming and such, I’m right there with you. (I would never trust my son to come close to matching my German-ness in this regard.)

      His responsibility is to get all of his crap put away so the dusting, polishing and vacuuming may commence.

  6. You shoulda won. I loved this and smiled throughout. Erma-style. Actually, Patricia Tilton had encouraged me to enter that contest also. So I did (the “I Can Handle It” post in my blog two Friday’s ago.). I agree – it was fun just writing the piece, using Erma as my muse. The winning wasn’t as important. I read the 1st place and 2nd place winners from this year’s contest. Good stories, all. So it’s not in the contest’s wins and losses – we all win with our stories. (And your doodle – just perfect).
    Hmmm, I just got an idea. Have you considered creating/writing/publishing a book of short ‘Erma-like’ essays – all yours, or you could invite some others to join the fun too. That would be a really great anthology of new humorous essays!

    1. Oh! Your “I Can Handle It” post *was* very Bombecky! (And, like everything you write, I looooved it.) I didn’t yet read the winners of the contest, but I’m going to now that I know they’ve been posted online.

      I have not contemplated a book of Erma-like essays, though I have given some serious thought to weaving the childhood anecdotes I’ve posted on the blog into a funny memoir.

      But, ya know, that Erma essay idea of yours would be a great anthology — and we already have two essays we can include in it!

  7. I definitely could see glimpses of Erma throughout the story which I’m glad you shared. My youngest son was somewhat of a packrat/magpie, though he would put his treasures in his Little Tykes desk. I would find my eye glasses in there, my keys, the remote to the television… Happy to report he grew out of it. I also think his wife had something to do with it.
    Good story!!

    1. I am a firm believer that Pack Rats and Anal Retentivee should intermarry. The monomaniacal nature of the ARs will soon overpower the PRs and, as a consequence, help turn the world into a tidier place.

  8. This story rings a bell. Instead of playing in the attic, I told my daughter I would only give her good night kisses if I could reach the bed without tripping over everything. And, the stuff in the room could not migrate to the other rooms.

    1. In this case I did have to pay, but I almost always ignore contests that require an entry fee. One would go broke otherwise! There are plenty of excellent contests out there that are free to enter.

  9. Hilarious details – “Alex was busy evaluating a Lego — perhaps attempting to decide if it was hard and sharp enough to leave on the bathroom floor.” Great observation – and one we can all identify with. You gotta love Legos. Looks like a winner to me

  10. What a brilliant piece Mike. I have the same language barrier with my own son. It’s amazing that I can have him look me in the eye, repeat what I said and still discover his mind was in Bermuda. Maybe I will try hand signals next. However, I must compliment your writing. I have always thought you channeled Erma Bombeck quite easily or perhaps her brother Ernie. Nevertheless, along with the doodle, you have never failed to make me smile or chuckle if not downright chortle. Love your posts.

      1. Well you’ve done it on more than one occasion although I have wised up. I no longer read your blog while drinking coffee. Lesson learned.

  11. I swore I left you a comment. Oh, well. I love your story. It reminded me of the deep shelves in my tiny bedroom and how crowded they always were. I love the art. Dr. Seuss would adore your fish nearly out of it’s bowl as it barely balances on the chair. It looks just like The Cat in the Hat’s poor fish. Very nice. (Your art, not the poor fish’s predicament–though funny.) As for your story, why didn’t you win?! You have a gift for relating life with humor. The University of Dayton blew it when they bypassed your story. (Makes me ashamed to live in Ohio.)

  12. Mike, I’m so glad you shared your funny Erma Bombeck entry. It’s a story many parents can relate to. Loved the dialogue. The graphic really adds to the story. Thank you for the mention. Sorry, I missed this as I’ve just returned from a trip to Phoenix. Am still catching up!

      1. Yes. We celebrated our 35th anniversary. It was so beautiful, but 115 when we arrived. Was close to 100 when we left. Different kind of heat. Had a great time.

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