WOMAN: Every time I get you out, Vacuum, I think about my life.
VACUUM: Do you have to?
WOMAN: Look at this carpet.
VACUUM: No, I mean, do you have to think about your life? Plenty of people do housework without thinking about life. It probably makes the work go faster if you don’t.
WOMAN: (She turns the dining room chairs upside down and places them on the table.) I don’t try to think about my life when I vacuum. I don’t say to myself, “Time for housework, let’s think about life.” It just happens. For example, when I put the chairs up on the table like this, it reminds me of my first job.
VACUUM: I didn’t know you then. I probably wasn’t even born then.
WOMAN: Watch it.
VACUUM: Seriously, was I around when you were 14?
WOMAN: No, you probably weren’t. You’re a very sleek Miele Jazz, in case you didn’t know and though I enjoy looking up obscure facts on the internet, I just can’t get that excited about looking up when you were first made. (Pause.) Well, now I’m curious.
(The WOMAN stops moving furniture and goes to her desktop computer. She stands there for some minutes, clicking and reading.)
WOMAN: — since 1927, but I think your model first came on the scene in 2009. This is so pointless. What was I saying?
VACUUM: Your first job.
WOMAN: Right. My real first job was at the little diner in my small town. As soon as I was 14, I went in and asked if I could be a waitress there.
VACUUM: That’s kind of romantic.
WOMAN: Ha! Spoken like true non-sentient being. Waitressing is not romantic, especially at a small-town diner where you’re running biscuits and gravy to hungry farmers from 6:00 a.m. to 3 p.m. and burning yourself on the Bunn-O-Matic coffee maker fifty times a day.
VACUUM: Fifty times?
WOMAN: (Narrowing her eyes at the VACUUM.) Yes. Fifty times.
VACUUM: Literally fifty times a day, you burned yourself on —
WOMAN: Like I was saying, it’s not a romantic job but I do think fondly of it, now. When I put chairs up on the table like this to prep for vacuuming, whenever I mop a floor, I think back on the Northside Cafe and I feel… Nostalgic, I guess. I learned a lot there. (Beat.) Maybe you’re right; maybe I am conferring some romance on the experience. Maybe I’m in a nostalgic mood. Or a romantic mood — romantic in the classical sense, I mean. Does that even make sense? “Romantic in the classical sense?”
VACUUM: I’m not sure. You mean like —
(The WOMAN starts to cry.)
VACUUM: Woah, woah. What’s wrong?
WOMAN: I’m talking to my vacuum!
WOMAN: There’s something seriously wrong with me.
VACUUM: It’s not bad to talk to me. I think it’s great. I felt really lonesome in the pantry. I was hoping you would vacuum this weekend and look, here you are, getting ready to vacuum. I love the memory you’re shared with me about your job. You’re making me feel really important.
WOMAN: (Sniffs, wipes her nose on her sleeve.) Really?
WOMAN: Well, that’s… Great. That’s great. (She looks around her living room.) You… You wanna do this thing?
VACUUM: Yep, fire me up.
(The WOMAN and the VACUUM vacuum the apartment and it looks great when they’re done.)
Many people who read the ol’ PG started coming around because we share an interest in quilting. You saw me on TV or online and poked around and hey, look: blog. You know by now I’m glad you’re here.
But there are other readers. The survey this summer (which you can still take if there’s nothing good on TV) showed me a goodly portion of people are here because we came in contact with each other via the world of Chicago performance. In 13-ish years in Chicago I’ve logged untold hours as a performance poet, I do a lot of “live lit” events around the city, and from 2006-2012, I was an active ensemble member of a theater company called the Neo-Futurists.
When I am dying — hopefully a long time from now, on a divan with comfy pillows, lipstick perfect — I will look back on my life and see plainly at that time — just I do now — that being a Neo-Futurist was one of the most gratifying and soul-affirming experiences of my time on Earth. More on that later.
Tonight, I want to tell you what’s going on with that company right now, for there is news. I aim to share the story so that anyone reading this blog, whether they’re Quilt Camp people or Chicago Performance Camp people, will come along. (And both of those things need to be actual camps.)
The Neo-Futurist ensemble was formed 28 years ago, back in 1988. The group became famous for a show called “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind: 30 Plays In 60 Minutes.” I’m not going to describe the show too much here, except to say that yes, there were 30 plays, we only had 60 minutes in which to perform them, the ensemble wrote all the plays and the show changed every week. It was not improv (go to Second City for that), and the short pieces were always true to our lives in some way.
This is because the aesthetic, or guiding principle, for the Neos was — and still is — to never pretend to be something we’re not or be somewhere we aren’t. So if I do a cheerleading routine with two other girls in Too Much Light about how I had my colon removed and how it really hurt, the audience at a Neo show knows that what I’m talking about really did happen. (I did a lot of plays about my colon circa 2011 but I never did a cheerleading routine. That would’ve been awesome.)
The one other thing to know about Too Much Light is that it was a phenomenal success. There were three performances every weekend; people would line up around the block to get in to see this thing. Our 120-ish seat theater would sell out most nights. Too Much Light became the longest-running show in Chicago theater history. Twenty-eight years that show ran.
Until it ended, very abruptly, at the beginning of this month. Which brings me to the meat of my tale.
Though the show changed every single week, the 30 plays/60 minutes format was created by a man named Greg Allen. Greg founded the company and owns the trademark and copyright to Too Much Light and the concept of “30 Plays in 60 Minutes.” Every year for a lot of years, the company would pay Greg for the rights to keep doing the show.
This was a terrible situation for the company to be in. The “rights thing” became a rug Greg could whip out from under us at any time. It didn’t have to be that way, but it was.
This is because Greg wanted it that way. A corrosive figure who behaved abominably within the ensemble, Greg abused his position of power in the company as Founding Director over and over again for years in ways too numerous and varied to detail, positioning himself for personal gain (e.g., teaching opportunities, lecture gigs, etc.) while the ensemble made the art and ran the day-to-day operations of the theater. His misdeed are legendary; every ensemble member since the company started has horror stories. He antagonized or manipulated the board of directors; he harassed ensemble members; he offended everyone; he hurt people. My grandmother would have called him “a real rat fink.” My grandmother would not like to hear what I call him.
You needn’t worry that I’m getting petty or assassinating his character: This has all been corroborated in the papers over the past month. The Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Chicago Reader, TimeOut Chicago, they’ve all covered this story because in Chicago, it’s pretty big news, what Greg did. Wanna know what he did?
Greg used the election of Donald Trump as an excuse to pull the rights to Too Much Light.
For the rest of the despicable story, for more juicy details, for my best attempt at an explanation of this foolish person’s behavior, and for a whole bunch of beautiful silver linings, tune in tomorrow, my gorgeous ones.
How I Imagine an Interview for Employment Goes at This One Chain Coffee Shop on Michigan Avenue by Mary Fons
(The HIRING MANAGER and APPLICANT sit at a table in a busy coffee shop.)
HIRING MANAGER: Hi! Thanks for coming by. We were really impressed with your application and I’m glad you could make it today.
APPLICANT stares at HIRING MANAGER.
HIRING MANAGER: Awesome. So I want to start out just telling you a bit about the company and what we’re looking for. We’re a full-service coffee and tea shop. We have many locations across Chicago and are really leaning in, as they say, haahahahahaa, to disrupt the market, you know, as they say, which is cool. So we want team members, you know, to really be a part of the family. I want to see if you’re a good fit, so I’m going to just ask you a few questions. Sound good?
HIRING MANAGER: Okay: hypothetical question. A customer comes in. Chipper thirtysomething. Smiling. She exclaims, in a cheery way, to you guys at the counter: “It smells great in here! Wow! What is that? Muffins?” How do you respond?
APPLICANT: Just…nothing. No response.
HIRING MANAGER. Well, you’re off to a good start. Okay, next question. When there’s a line — and there is always a line at this location, always — and a customer finally gets to the register after like, 20 minutes of waiting, ignored, what do you do?
APPLICANT: Just stare at them.
HIRING MANAGER: Good. And…?
APPLICANT: When they start to talk, I guess I’d turn to someone else behind the counter and ask them something and then go to the warmer and put something in and take something out. And then return to the register and then just wait.
HIRING MANAGER: I am…impressed. That’s exactly right. Okay. Hot tea. Serve it hot or stone cold?
(APPLICANT takes out phone, plays Candy Crush. HIRING MANAGER also takes out phone. Text messages boyfriend.)
HIRING MANAGER: Anyway, the tea, whenever… Did you already answer? About the tea temperature?
APPLICANT: (Putting phone away.) I don’t care.
HIRING MANAGER: (Laughs at her own text. Puts phone on counter and glances at it through the rest of the interview. She looks up at APPLICANT.) You got the trick question? Seriously? “I don’t care” is exactly right. Oh, and here’s a tip, but don’t tell them I told you: When a customer asks, super nice, if you can heat up her beverage, be extremely, extremely sour about it. And make sure it takes forever.
HIRING MANAGER: All right, we’re almost done. I see on your application you have no prior job experience whatsoever. Nothing. That’s perfect. Oh, also… Yeah, there’s something called a cash register. Do you think you could use one?
APPLICANT: Is it hard?
HIRING MANAGER: Nope. A baby could do it.
(APPLICANT is silent, stares off into space.)
HIRING MANAGER: I know it’s scary. But we’d train you. Well, another employee who has been on the register for one day would train you. Melissa. She’s the girl who gave you the application that came out of the printer that needs ink.
APPLICANT: I guess I could learn it.
HIRING MANAGER: You, my dear, are hired. Welcome to the family! Everyone here is family. You’re already invited to the Holiday Party! It’s here in the shop during business hours, so we’re closed on a Thursday afternoon at high traffic time. I don’t think people will mind.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: I don’t know what to write about California. I’m still mourning Paris. I can’t handle the anger and powerlessness I feel about citizens of my city being murdered by their fellow citizens every day. I can’t process, much less speak about any of this so I wrote this silly play. But I wanted to say that I’m as anxious and depressed as all of you and maybe this (possibly true) play will distract us for two seconds. I just want to know how a person chooses to cut a brother or sister’s life short. I can’t understand it and I try not to write about things I can’t understand. I fail all the time. But I can’t even approach this one.
Below is a conversation I heard tonight as I waited for the east elevator here at the beautiful Kennedy Warren. In case you are just joining us, my towering, Art Deco, super-historic building borders the Smithsonian National Zoo. My neighbors are animals. From time to time, one can hear the call of the wild when heading out to the store or opening the window for some fresh air. And now:
IT WAS LIKE A DRAGON:
A short play by Mary Fons
Woman 1: It was like a dragon.
Woman 2: A what?
Woman 1: A dragon.
Woman 2: Maybe it was a wild boar. They’ve got the wild boars out right now.
Woman 1: I don’t know…
Woman 2: Maybe it was just the zebras. You know how they’re always going on.
There are many fantasy conversations we’d like to have. Maybe it’s a “Lottery Prize Official to Your Spouse” conversation that begins with, “Mr. Jones? I have very good news for you…” Perhaps a dream conversation for someone under eight years old might be, “Hello, is this Little Suzy? This is Elsa from Frozen.”
I have a dream conversation. I’m going to share it with you now, but in case this concept doesn’t fly, I’m going to spell it out for you: I need to rent my South Loop condo in Chicago. It’s a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1500 sq. ft. space. The apartment is furnished in mid-century modern style (for the most part), and the kitchen is recently remodeled, as is the master bath. There’s an exposed brick wall.
The building staff is amazing. Doorman. Hot tub. Community room. I could go on and would love to. If anyone — you or someone you know — is looking for a home in Chicago for the next year or so, will you please contact me? Having a referral from a reader is so preferable to a stranger. I will, however, be happy to talk to strangers, provided they are well-groomed. Email me at mary @ maryfons . com and we will have a little chat. I’m a great landlady; I don’t live in town, I’m not a meddler, and all maintenance and management is on-site. Contact me and I’ll let you know the rent amount. It is fair.
Okay, here we go. A phone call:
PERFECT TENANT: Hello, is this Mary Fons?
PG: Yes, it is.
PT: My name is Perfect Tenant and I’m very interested in your space. I’m a well-groomed adult professional. I might be a doctor or a lawyer or a person with Important Responsibilities, which likely means that I would not trash your home. I also might be a family man/woman with well-groomed children who are into books. This means they would likely not trash your home.
PG: Well, gosh! You sound like such an interesting person/family. What brings you to Chicago?
PT: A project that will take a year or so, maybe two. I/my family has a home in [INSERT PLACE, EAST COAST POSSIBLY] and we’re not looking to buy in Chicago, at least not yet. We’d like to rent a lovely place to live and we really, really like the looks of your condo. Is it rented yet?
PG: (fanning self.) No, in fact, it isn’t. Did I mention it’s two blocks from the Harrison Red Line?
PT: You didn’t! That’s fantastic!
PG: Would you like to see the space? I’m living in Washington, DC, but I’m sure my sweet medical students could let you in…
PT: You know, I actually don’t? I don’t need to see it. I trust you completely. I don’t know how to explain it, but you’re just a good person, and I’m a good person, and let’s just do it. I mean, why wait when something feels so right?
PG: Did you say you were married?
PT: [INSERT ANSWER HERE.]
PG: I see. Well, yes! I think this sounds great. You can move in June 16th and I’ll send the lease today!
PT: I just love it when things are this easy. Thank you so much. I/we love your style and we will take great care of your home.
PG: Gosh, this is the best day ever. Your email address?
I am flat on my back. My goals are to eat a piece of steak and answer emails. In that order. But this morning I took a little time to write a little play. The 10-minute play is a great form. It’s just get in, get out. There are 10-minute play festivals around the country; audiences love them because in chocolate and in theater, bite-sized is probably best.
Many of you will recognize the names of famous quilters in this play; I assure you I gave each woman the script to approve ahead of time. Not surprisingly, they saw the satire as all in good fun and happily let their names be used. Resist skipping ahead to see who; it won’t make sense without reading from the start.
MARY – Thirtysomething white woman. On-camera quilt show host, designer. MARY gesticulates wildly and has an expressive face; some viewers are vocal about hating these qualities in her but what can she do? MARY has exceptional taste in footwear. Uncombed hair.
CYNTHIA – Twentysomething, in her first job out of charm school. She wears oversized red glasses that are forever sliding down her nose. CYNTHIA dreams of vacations she will not have for many years. She plays guitars at open-mics on Tuesdays.
SETTING: MARY’S office, morning.
CYNTHIA: (rushing in.) Yes, Miss Fons.
MARY: Where am I going next week? Hilton Head? Tahoe?
CYNTHIA: Omaha, Miss Fons, and Southern Illinois.
MARY: (sipping tea) I see. Southern Illinois is a rather large territory, Cynthia. Where in Southern Illinois am I going? Carbondale, surely.
CYNTHIA: Perry County, Miss Fons.
MARY: Cynthia, in the time it took you to tell me that, I have googled Southern Illinois and discovered the region is known as “Little Egypt.” Were you aware of that?
CYNTHIA: I’m afraid not, Miss Fons.
MARY: (Puts feet up on desk, chews pencil absentmindedly.) Cynthia, put on your list that every time I go to a new place, I want one fascinating fact about that place. It’s good for the blog. (Cynthia scribbles note.) Now, then. What am I doing in these places? Begin at the beginning, Cynthia. Omaha.
CYNTHIA: (shuffles papers.) You’ll be teaching “A Quilt Called Whisper” on the first day —
MARY: (dreamy) “A Quilt Called Whisper.” Now there’s a class.
CYNTHIA: One of your most popular.
MARY: It’s no wonder! It’s what a patchwork class ought to be. Classic design. Updated palette. Tips. Tricks. Color play. All with book support. They eat it up, that one. Go on.
CYNTHIA: (reading from clipboard) Trunk show in the afternoon, then a lecture in the evening. Dinner beforehand with —
MARY: Which lecture?
CYNTHIA: “A Thirtysomething Quilter Tells All,” Miss Fons.
MARY: Aces. It’s got everything, that lecture. Drama. Intrigue. A story arc. Inspiration. There’s not a dry eye in the house when I finish that one. I make them laugh, I make them cry. Can Tula do that? Kate Spain?? I’d like to see them try. Does Angela Walters have women clutching their fellow guild members in overwhelming, emotional sisterhood feelings? Can Denyse Schmidt get people pulling out Kleenex from their purses? Please! No, Cynthia, it takes that special Mary Fons sauce to get those women truly being in their folding chairs. That reminds me… Get Denyse on the phone. (CYNTHIA retrieves cell phone; hits button because, you know, speed dial. She hands phone to MARY.) Denyse! It’s Mary. How are you? Doll, I was just at RISD and thought of you… No, no. I wasn’t speaking, just, ah, driving through, you know, to get to a remote town in Delaware… Look, DeeDee, those bolts from the new collection? You know I adore them; fabulous. Right, right. Well, they haven’t arrived yet, darling, and I just was following up… What do you mean I have to talk to your distributor?! Oh, sure. Well, see if I invite you to my Christmas party in eleven months. Just… Go schedule a retreat or something, will you?? (Slams down phone.) Unbelievable!
CYNTHIA: (hesitant; quietly clears throat) The second day in Omaha you’ve got the Ohio Star Class, then a book signing.
MARY: Did you order books?
CYNTHIA: They’re already on their way. The shop is ordering rulers.
MARY: Thank god. I hate ordering rulers. I hate dealing with warehouses. Never, ever put the warehouse people on the line with me, Cynthia. Those people drink the blood of their young.
CYNTHIA: Understood, Miss Fons.
MARY: Did you know my mother had her own warehouse?
CYNTHIA: An accomplished woman if there ever was one, Miss Fons.
MARY: Those were the days, Cynthia. Before your time. You know, every once in awhile people accuse me of riding my mother’s coattails. (laughs bitterly) Do you know how hard it is to eke out a living in the quilt world today? It’s nearly impossible. The industry is glutted, swollen with the aspirations of hundreds of designers and authors, all vying for an ever-shrinking piece of the pie. Riding on my mother’s coattails… Please. I’d be a fool. Much smarter to try and make a killing in the bitcoin world. Cynthia, check the price of of bitcoin.
CYNTHIA: (taps phone) Around $300 to the US dollar, Miss Fons.
MARY: Balls. Cynthia, make a note: invest in gold this week.
CYNTHIA: (pause) Miss Fons?
CYNTHIA: With all due respect, Miss Fons —
MARY: So much due, Cynthia.
CYNTHIA: Yes, of course; with a week in the hospital and paying your own insurance as a contractor and all… Well, I’m not sure this is the time to be investing in —
MARY: Fine. Look, just finish de-briefing me. Southern Illinois. I’m getting a stomachache.
CYNTHIA: (consults contract) A one-day engagement; afternoon workshop with “Whisper” and the “You Call That a Quilt?” lecture in the evening. A large guild, maybe two-hundred or so.
MARY: Nice big audience and another fine lecture. The women of Southern Illinois have impeccable taste. I’ll tell them as much in my follow-up thank you note.
CYNTHIA: I ordered more thank-you notes.
MARY: You did? Oh, Cynthia. You’re doing a fine job. I’m grumpy this morning and I apologize. It’s the three bags of blood they transfused into me this week. Can you believe my veins are pumping with the blood of three different people right now?
CYNTHIA: (visibly recoiling) It is…strange, Miss Fons.
MARY: I feel like one of those warehouse people.
CYNTHIA: Well, you don’t look like one, Miss Fons. You look great.
MARY: That is what I pay you for, Cynthia. Buttress me! Constantly buttress me. I need lunch. Let’s go to Daniel.
We’re in D.C. for the weekend!** I love this place. We don’t ever want to leave.
For a few hours yesterday afternoon, though, Yuri was crabby. Selling his Chicago condo is giving him headaches; he found himself neck deep in real estate document language when he was supposed to be taking a nap with me so we could be fresh daisies for a night on the town. We had come back to our room after brunch and a trip to the National Portrait Gallery (my favorite museum in the world) and he opened his laptop. One irksome email about sale protocol, and the co-nap was a distant memory. I had never seen him so grouchy.
I tried plying him with chocolate, I tried distracting him with kisses. I considered producing a mini-puppet show with gum wrappers and hotel soap, but it was no use: the crabbypants were on. I decided giving him space was best, so I left to explore the hotel.
The Omni Shoreham in D.C. is epic. Seven (eight? two hundred?) glittering chandeliers hang high in the lobby’s vaulted ceilings. There are arches. Domes. There’s a lot of chrome, a lot of oriental rug action. It’s got “historical” written all over it. I wouldn’t mind living there, especially if they’d let me work at one of the many circular banquettes in the lobby. They’re all upholstered in lush velveteen and I want one.
Our room was on the 8th floor, which is the top floor, and we had a perfect view of the grand courtyard out back. There’s a little gazebo and gorgeous flower gardens, cobblestone walkways and huge planters all across the sprawling green lawn. I saw three different wedding parties coming and going in one weekend! Two of them used the courtyard and the weather was perfect for them.
I poked my nose into all kinds of places on my walk; boardrooms, the pool, the east wing, the west wing. I went through a patio door and locked myself out at one point, but found a service entrance and got back to the hotel via a slightly creepy corridor that wound all around.
When I spied the gate to the courtyard, though, I had an idea. There was a hotel phone on a little table and I picked up the receiver. It dialed the operator automatically.
“Omni Shoreham hotel operator, how may I direct your call?”
“Room 848 please,” I said.
When Yuri picked up the phone, I told him to go to the window in exactly two minutes. He said he would.
“Great,” I said. “Enjoy!”
I slammed down the phone and ran to the doors that led outside. I ran right to the place in the courtyard that I knew Yuri could see plain as day from the window in our room. And I put on a little show for him. It was meant to cheer him up, and it totally worked.
(Nellie Bly and Mary are seated at Les Halles on Park Ave., New York City. Nellie wears a two-piece dress and scotch Ulster coat; Mary is in a fashiony black jumpsuit and McQueen lobster booties. Both women carry large handbags.)
NB: You look good.
PG: Please, Nellie! I look drawn and pale.
NB: (Considers this.) Drawn and pale is good in New York City. People spend a lot of money to look like you. (Pause.) But you’re right. You look a little rough. I’m sorry — I lied.
PG: I don’t feel well. I’ve felt pretty terrible since Thursday.
NB: Gut problems.
NB: Okay, well, let’s… Let’s just briefly go over (Nellie takes out a pen and flips through her notebook) the history of your illness. I think there are new readers who will need context.
PG: God, Nellie, please don’t make me go through all that. They can read the archives.
NB: No, they can’t. The archives are all on the old server. A person might be able to dig and find them, but you’d have to have actual blog post titles to search and that’s impossible.
PG: Unless I have a stalker.
NB: (Nellie looks up from her notes.) Huh?
PG: I might have a stalker out there. He’d have all the old blog posts and titles and stuff.
NB: How is that helping new readers?
PG: (Chews on a fancy carrot stick.) I don’t know.
NB: Wait, wait. I’ve got the run-down. (She pulls an iPad out of her bag, opens document.) Here we are. Okay, “Level 3 ulcerative colitis diagnosis in 2008, Mayo clinic. Total colectomy with ileal pouch-anal anastomosis. Major surgical complications, including multiple internal anastomatic leaks, pelvic sepsis, multiple abcesses; stoma separation. Blood transfusions. Malnutrition. Hair loss. Extreme nausea, depression. PICC line. (Nellie pauses, flips papers.) Actually, two different PICC lines. Month-long initial hospitalization and several after that for various walls hit. Then in 2009, takedown of stoma.”
PG: That’s when the real fun started.
NB: “After takedown, loss of appetite, severe abdominal pain. Diagnosis: leaks still present in ileal pouch, abscesses. New PICC line. TPN for 10 weeks to try and ‘starve out’ the leak; you only made it six. Fistulae. Hospitalization. ‘Bio-glue’ inserted into leak. Bio-glue fix unsuccessful. Re-diversion surgery.”
PG: Yeah, my second stoma. Back to the bag. I had a stoma two different times.
NB: Which is not supposed to happen.
PG: Nellie, none of this is supposed to happen.
NB: (Continues reading.) Okay, we’re almost there. So. You had the stoma again for a couple of years. Then the second takedown in 2011. Things looked okay for awhile, but then you developed a fissure. And that had you in and out of the ER six or seven times over the course of 2012-2013. The good news is that you haven’t been in the hospital since… August. Is that right?
(PG, nervous, nods and sips tea.)
PG: I don’t feel good.
NB: Okay, well now we’ve caught everyone up so we can talk about that. What’s wrong?
PG: I can’t seem to get on top of feeling terrible. I’m going to the bathroom a lot — more than usual, which is saying something. I’ve been trying to ignore all week that I feel extremely poor. Weak and tired. Dehydrated. Achy. And it hurts to use the bathroom. It’s… It’s so unpleasant to talk about.
NB: You don’t have to go into all the details. It’s bathroom stuff, intestinal stuff. Everyone poops. We get it.
PG: Well, no, most people don’t. And that’s good. I would not want many people to understand my life vis a vis the bathroom. We’d have a very depressed population.
NB: Are you feeling depressed?
PG: A little, yes. And that’s a bad sign. My surgeon in Chicago, Dr. Boller, she would get frustrated with me because I rarely run a fever when I’m getting sick. She’d be like, “Dammit, Fons! Could you run a fever once in awhile so we can catch this stuff before you need major surgery?” I don’t get fevers but I do get depressed before I get really sick. I’ll be sitting on the couch feeling crappy and then just burst into tears. That’s when I know I need a doctor, not when I run a fever. Crying is my fever.
NB: You should go to a doctor.
PG: I don’t have a GI doctor in NYC, yet.
NB: You should figure something out, Mary. Otherwise you’ll end up in the ER.
I live within spittin’ distance of Chicago’s legendary downtown Hilton hotel. The Beaux-Arts-style building takes up a whole city block; there are over 1,500 rooms! It has some neat history, too: every U.S. president since 1927 has stayed there, and someone recently told me that when the riots broke out during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, so much tear gas was used by police on the protestors in Grant Park that the gas made its way inside the Hilton, where Hubert Humphrey was taking a shower. Sorry, dude.
The sky-high lobbies inside are gorgeous, especially this time of year; the whole place is festooned with pine bunting and poinsettias and twinkly lights aglow. There’s a towering Christmas tree inside the main entrance, too. Yesterday, I saw a kid nearly fall over backward while he looked up at it.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been working over there during the day. I’ve found an even better spot: downstairs, in front of the lounge fireplace. I go over each day and the first thing I do, the very first thing, is go to the hotel event screen. This is the big screen near the bank of elevators that tells what conventions are being held that day at the Hilton. (Though there are two hotels in the city with more rooms, nobody has more meeting or event space than my Hilton.) Nothing but nothing entertains me more than looking at a list of what people congregate to talk about. Here’s who’s meeting at the Hilton this week:
E & J Gallo Winery
Customer Supply Chain Connection, University of Chicago
The Mid-American Competing Band Directors Association (MACBDA)
Thompson Holiday Event
I love it! I love to think about a band director literally bumping into a wine salesperson in the long line at the interior Starbucks. She spills her latte on him, he’s nice about it, they laugh about holiday craziness and bam! They fall in love. Years later, at a party, they recount the tale to their friend Julie. And now, a short play.
The Hilton Made Me Love You
A play by Mary Fons (c) 2013
SUE: Darling, why don’t you tell it?
CHARLES: Tell what?
SUE: How we met. Julie wants to know.
JULIE: Tell, tell!
CHARLES: (beaming at SUE.) Well… We were in Chicago.
JULIE: I love Chicago!
CHARLES: We do too, don’t we darling?
SUE: Oh, Charles! CHARLES: I was there for Gallo. Sue was there for MACBDA, if you can believe it.
SUE: Back when I was still a band director! Isn’t it incredible?
JULIE: I’m so glad you moved into aeronautics.
SUE: Me too. Go on, sweetheart.
CHARLES: We were in line at the Starbucks and Sue bumped into me. She spilled her entire latte all over my shoes. It was an absolute disaster.
SUE: (swatting him.) It wasn’t the whole latte!
CHARLES: It was an entire latte.
SUE: Oh, you!
CHARLES: We got to talking. Sue actually got on her knees to wipe the milk off my shoes and we started laughing… Honey, that was the first day of the rest of my life.
SUE: (with a wink.) Room 1423?
JULIE: (gasps.) You didn’t!
CHARLES: Thirty years later, you’re still the girl of my dreams.
SUE: Charles, you’re my hero.
Yesterday I swung on a swing. I swang. I love to swang almost as much as I love to ice skate. “Swang” is not a word according to my spellcheck, which is going nuts. But I think it should be a word, so take that, spellcheck.
In the afternoon, I went with my friend Sonja and her little boy to see Redmoon Theater’s Winter Pageant, an annual show heavy on glowy tableaus, light on coherence. No matter; the kids love it. As is customary for Redmoon, when the show is over, the audience is invited to hang out, touch the actors (!) and explore the set. It’s cool. They had rigged up several swings on loooong chains in the huge warehouse that serves as their performance space. My 5-year-old comrade took to them at once. The middle swing was a two-seater so at his request, Aunt May-May hopped on with him. He calls me “Aunt May-May.” I call him lots of loving things, e.g., “Squirt,” “Captain Bunker,” etc.
Sonja gave us a push. We kicked our legs. We sailed over the theater seats, whooshing back, then plunging headlong into space. I looked over at his tow-head and said, “Hold on tight, Babycakes.”
The last time I was on a swing I was home in Iowa. My mother and I had had words and this happens so rarely, I was quite upset. When our conversation had reached a fevered pitch, I tersely excused myself, put on my sneakers, and literally took off running. I ran to the city park, trying to calm down and expend (destroy) my unpleasant energy. Halfway through the park loop I spied the swings up on the hill. I turned on my heel and jogged up to them. Man, did I ever swing. I went so high on the swingset that the chains went slack at the top; this harshed my mellow a bit — I like my skull and would like to keep it from splashing onto park district gravel. I pulled back and settled into a blissful rhythm. I probably swang for a half hour, letting the wind rush past my ears on the back push, feeling my heart in my chest when I cut through the air to go forward.
An object in motion tends to stay in motion. A kid on a swing tends to want to stay there all night. A fight with a parent is usually over something important. Dusk in Iowa in June is heartbreakingly beautiful. Theater is relevant, but only to some people.
There’s a performance series in Chicago called “Salonathon.” It was founded several years ago by my friend Jane. She and I met at the University of Iowa and I will never forget the night we really became friends. We went to The Foxhead, a cozy Iowa City bar with a lot of small taxidermy and one large jukebox, and we drank some beers. I remember how the bond felt as it formed. It felt great; I knew I’d know Jane for a long time.
Jane curates Salonathon every other week. There are musicians, dancers, poets, comedians, performance artists, writers, and acts non-categorizable. I have had the pleasure of performing in the series numerous times. Each show has a theme, and this week, the theme was “Money.” I did a piece that went over quite well, so I thought I’d post it. If you’ve ever wanted to be a better writer and/or suffer less in regard to money, you’ll like it. I edited for language a bit; Salonathon is raucous; this blog, decorous.
(MARY stands at a microphone. She has Orwell’s rules written on big placards. When she gets to a new rule, she reveals the next placard. MARY may or may not be drinking Tanqueray as she performs this piece.)
I divide my life in two: the time before I discovered George Orwell’s six rules for effective, honest writing, and my life after.
Orwell’s rules work for speaking just as well as for writing, and the theme at Salonathon tonight is “money,” so this brief address is about money and how to better speak (or talk) about it.
Orwell says in his rules and elsewhere, that language matters. It doesn’t matter in the way the Grammar Police say it matters; “ain’t” is a word and has been a word for long time so ignore them; he means that when we write and when we speak, we make seismic choices that shape our faces and our days. And as we make and spend money, we make the same kinds of choices. So when we speak about money? Double whammy.
Orwell’s first rule:
i. “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
Here is what you are not allowed to say and never allowed to write, ever, ever again: money doesn’t grow on trees; money is the root of all evil; money isn’t everything; the best things in life are free; you can’t take it with you.
Let’s pull one of those out: “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” We know what the point is. The point, is that to survive in the jungle, even though it looks like a fairly cushy jungle when you’re raised like most of us here tonight were raised, the earth is a vicious animal. You take away the skyscrapers and the iPhones and the streetlights and you’ve got a thankless prairie under your feet and some hardscrabbling to do, comrades.
We have to eek out a living while we’re alive. We gotta eat. We have to find shelter. It’s deadly serious. Plus, we’re wired to make more of our species. These are our charges as humans. So when you’re headed to work and you hate your work, rather than making it worse by muttering the phrase, “Welp, money doesn’t grow on trees,” say – or just think – “I am earning a living. I gotta eat. I need shelter.” And maybe work will seem more important, less magically crappy than when you say tired, cliched phrases over and over. They don’t help you.
ii. “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
“The members of the Board of Governors and the Reserve Bank presidents foresee an implicit strengthening of activity after the current rebalancing is over, although the central tendency of their individual forecasts for real GDP still shows a substantial slowdown, on balance, for the year as a whole.”
That gush of Fedspeak comes courtesy of Alan Greenspan, during some godawful testimony from some Fed monetary policy report to Congress in 2001.
It means nothing. Language like that is engineered to mean nothing. It’s a card trick. Words and phrases like foresee implicit strengthening and central tendency of individual forecasts, these are the hand you’re watching here while the other hand takes your wallet over there and yes, that’s literal. Taxes come out of your wallet; Greenspan was talking, ultimately, about how much of the money you made today will be removed from your wallet. Reject this language. Do a close read, if you can stay awake — you must fight to stay awake! — and translate. It’s very hard to tell what he meant. But I think that phrase meant: “The money forecasters say the GDP is still bad, but after the budget is balanced, it will get better.”
iii. “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
Let’s say [SELECTED AUDIENCE MEMBER] here is going to have trouble paying her rent this month. She’s got two ways to handle the call to her management company/landlord.
Option 1: “Hi, um, I’m calling to, well, it’s… It’s kind of a, an uncomfortable thing, but I am in a bind with my car. It is in need of some really crazy expensive repairs and without it, I can’t get to work because I can’t take the bus to work, because I work in the burbs three days a week. And I need to have the car repaired before Monday – it’s in the shop now – and for rent this month, I can pay it, but I can’t pay it till I know how much the car will be, the repairs. So it might not be that much, but it might be, I don’t know. So I’m hoping, I mean, if it’s okay, that I can pay my rent by the middle of the month? I know, I know, there’s a fee, it’s not the best, but I kind of can’t… You know, I don’t see… You know, it’s just, well, it’s just hard to see how I can do both and I need to like, figure that out.
“Hello, this [AUDIENCE MEMBER]. My rent will be late. I’ll include the $25.00 late fee when I drop it off. Thank you, goodbye.”
Dignity. Dignity, [AUDIENCE MEMBER]! It’s your money. It’s your language.
iv. “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”
What’s interesting about [AUD. MEMB] is that she lied about the car. When she gets off the phone with the management company, we hear the truth. And Orwell doesn’t say anything about not lying, so it must be okay as long as its in the active voice. Instead of saying to her roommate,
“I have spent all my money because I have gone shoe shopping.”
“The money is gone. I spent it on shoes.”
And then get on with your life. Enjoy the shoes. They’re fabulous!
v. “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
News anchors, “financial correspondents,” and radio talk show hosts like foreign phrases because they sound fancy, but they are rarely used for any reason other than to make the news anchor or “financial correspondent” sound fancy or to avoid facing the truth. Example:
“The work was done pro bono.”
No, the work was done for free. Ah, but “free” scares people. You’re a lawyer who does something pro bono, you’re still kind of a scary lawyer. You’re a lawyer who admits to doing something for “free” and watch your email box erupt with people who want free legal advice. We hide behind foreign words ad nauseum. See what I did there?
I give you another (quick) example of this foreign phrasing that is garbage: caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware.”
“This drug is not tested.” “This toy has caused choking death in fourteen infants.” “Our lemonade is made with organic cow pee.”
Caveat emptor? Perhaps “run” is more to the point.
* * *
I hope I haven’t sounded pedantic.
The day I read Orwell’s rules, my life changed because my language changed. I’ve spent a good deal of time over the past few years not just “trying to earn a living,” but trying to earn a living that I love. Since the kind of living I love takes a fair amount of money – I’m a shoe person, too, [AUD. MEMB] — I have made choices that have led me to increased income and I continue to make those choices. I have important contract business beginning soon that will span the next few months and all this begins on Monday, when two Important People people will fly into Chicago to for a marathon meeting with me. Briefcases will be involved. There’s a lot to talk about.
Look, the language that I use in that meeting will either a) benefit my livelihood b) keep me where I am, or c) cost me. Any tools of language that I posses must be primed and ready so that I can deploy them when I need to. My language will make all the difference.
Your language is your gun. Your language is your livelihood. Your language is your sex, it can be a drug, it is an integral part of the rock n’ roll we all love. Don’t get lazy. Make more good language and you will make more money.
Ah. Orwell’s final rule:
vi. “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
I emailed my building manager before going a business trip and she replied she had scheduled the fix. I came back several days later, late in the evening, and dropped into bed.
In the morning, getting my tea tray together, I found my sink still clogged. This was extremely gross and I was appropriately annoyed.
“Patricia!” I grumbled to no one and only half-awake. “Grr! This needs to be done immediately. I need my sink! Maybe she’ll send one of the guys up faster if I’ll tell her I’ll be entertaining this weekend.”
And there in my jammies, standing in the kitchen at 5 a.m., I began to laugh. Because the potential of “I’ll be entertaining this weekend” is comedy gold, if you ask me. Consider that “entertaining” is an adverb and a verb and play around with it. You will soon see the logic behind the following little play — and hopefully find it as funny as I did, writing it in my head while I made my tea. I threw my head back and laughed that morning, which is a great way to begin any day, especially when your sink is four days clogged.
by Mary Fons (c) 2013
Woman: I’ll be entertaining this weekend.
Man: Oh will you be.
Man: What are you gonna do, wear a lampshade on your head?
Man: What do you plan on doing?
Woman: Well … I thought I’d make dinner.
Man: That’s it??
Woman: (Confused.) What’s wrong with that?
Man: Little on the dull side of “entertaining”, don’t you think?
Woman: What exactly should I plan? A parade? Man: That would be something: a one-woman parade.
Woman: I can’t afford — Look, I don’t… A parade??
Man: Maybe you shouldn’t be entertaining, then. Why try?
Woman: You’re awful!
Man: I’m only saying that you gotta go big or go home, that’s all.
Woman: Pru and Barry are coming over. It’s not going to be the party of the century or anything. Just a group of friends.
Man: Don’t they deserve your best?
Woman: (pause.) Well…yes.
Man: Don’t they deserve to be entertained ?
Woman: I suppose they do.
Man: So get a band. A jug band or a fiddle band. Dance. Work up a routine. Really push yourself. Confetti. Do some bear work. To prove you’re entertaining, you gotta entertain.
Woman: Confetti and bears.
Man: Absolutely. Costumes, confetti. You’ve thought of food already, and that’s good, that’s very good, but think: how can you use the food in your act? That reminds me: I’ve got a friend who trains poodles to walk upright. Want me to reach out? No, no. I will. Obviously, you have to sing. Loudly. Loud singing.
Woman: (Fumbling for a pen.) Okay…
Man: Are you gonna tell jokes?
Woman: I hadn’t … I didn’t … I don’t know.
Man: You gotta. You gotta tell at least a few jokes. I know a ton, so I can help you.
Woman: I like jokes.
Man: Make sure you’re waxed and polished. Buffed to a shine.
Woman: I don’t think Pru and Barry care about th—
Man: Oh-ho! Yes they do! People care about grooming.
Woman: I had no idea entertaining was … I didn’t realize how much it’s changed. Thank you, I’ll take your advice, I mean … God, I’ve got a lot to do.
Man: You’re welcome. I’m glad you said something.