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.
Thanks, Jane, for the beers and the life.
On Orwell, On Money (Sounds Hot)
By Mary Fons for SALONATHON
© August 2013
(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.
“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.
Hey, [AUD. MEMB]. Give me all your money.
I am on TV, so that means I get letters. Here’s one now.
This is the envelope. Address and name redacted. Check out the lower lefthand corner, there. Let’s see what he has to say:
Listen, I actually didn’t freak out or feel too strange about it. So he wants to see my toes. So what? I have a rule: My wardrobe on camera is never dictated by the audience. I have enough sense to wear appropriate things, so whether a viewer is a grandmother who hates my shirt (I’ve gotten that letter before) or an inmate that wants to see my pedicure (see above) it matters little to me. I will wear the shirts I please and the shoes I please, open-toed or not.
Regarding this most recent inmate letter: I didn’t post it so we could all laugh at this guy. He’s done something heinous enough to land in prison, so none of us necessarily need to twist ourselves into knots to celebrate his humanity, but no one should be made to look like a fool; thus, a redacted name, which I would’ve done anyway, jail, foot-fetish or not. But the letter is entertaining, for sure, and I thought you all might get a kick out of it. What’s fascinating to me is that it’s the foot thing that strikes me as more remarkable than the prison part.
Isn’t just fabulous to get something like this in the mail?
A few months ago (in Las Vegas of all places) I saw the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Now, I’ve received a lover’s gaze, I’ve seen a child take his first, wobbly steps toward mom, and I’ve seen a miniature Golden Doodle puppy run across a lawn. Today, I’m speaking of the art visual, observation as opposed to interaction. And I can say that on its face, the most beautiful thing I have seen ever in my life was the Michael Jackson hologram in the Cirque du Soleil show, “One.”
I beg you: allow me to attempt, however feebly, to describe it.
I had never seen a Cirque du Soleil show before and I did not feel sad about this. I knew the performers were talented and I had respect for the whole operation, but trapezes aren’t a selling point for me, especially if part of the spectacle involves a small man in a lizard leotard climbing over me and sticking a forked tongue in my face. Wasn’t that Cirque du Soleil’s whole schtick?
I was in Vegas on business. Cirque’s Michael Jackson show was in previews. I had a last-minute opportunity to go, and I jumped at it. I bailed on Penn & Teller ticket I had purchased already and ate the cost, even. I wouldn’t miss Michael for anything. I had no idea how smart my decision was when I took my seat.
From the time the lights went down, I was transfixed. I sat straight up in my chair like I was an 8-year-old at, you know, the circus. The dancers were astonishing. They have rubber bodies! And if a dancer has a rubber body and can bounce off a damned wall and do a spin in mid-air, you can bet your sparkly glove they can moonwalk, breakdance, and destroy any hip hop move you can throw at them. Man, were they good. I was chair-dancing, boogie-ing as much as possible without actually standing up because there wasn’t room to do so. Michael Jackson’s music is just so good, you guys. It’s made for joy and dancing, for fun and for life. I love his music, always have.
And it’s painful, because we killed him. We did. The star-maker machine, the press. Pop life, the cult of celebrity; it was a homicide. I believe with grave sincerity we all have Michael Jackson’s blood on our hands. You can exempt yourself if you like — it’s not polite of me to say so, having never met most of you — but that man was a fragile person with a one-in-a-billion gift and as a culture, we crushed it into bone powder, slopped it with a mop, and smeared the slurry till it squished under our feet. And Michael still made great music, still kept living when he was deadened by the crush of the crowd on the streets, in the news, and in his head.
So there I am, I’m grinning from ear to ear while watching the show and in the back of my mind I’m deeply sad, too, thinking about Michael and how this genius in our time died so painfully. It was bitter and it was sweet, the worst kind of bitter, the best kind of sweet.
And then it happened.
The theater goes totally dark. Then: stars. Twinkling stars wink, wink, winking across us, all the way from the back of the house to high up in the grid. Woosh… Woosh… Golden stars twinkling, spinning, starting to pick up speed as they collect and move, impossibly, as a group, like a school of fish! Everyone is craning their heads around, a full theater of adults like children, looking here and there and back again at this crazy cloud of stars and the strains of music begin. One couldn’t tell exactly what it was, though it sounded familiar…
The stars floated to the stage. The stars whirled around each other like glowing hummingbirds, faster and around and then, just as it hit you that the music was “Man In the Mirror,” there he was: Michael Jackson. The stars made Michael Jackson. They made a hologram of him. I gasped. Everyone did. This was alchemy.
As I live and breathe, the man appeared as real and as vital as any flesh and blood person there that night. The effect was incomprehensibly executed, an optical illusion without parallel. Michael Jackson was onstage. Humans haven’t evolved to understand this kind of thing. He is dead, but he was there, he was there, young and talented and he was singing, dancing to “Man In the Mirror,” a song I have long believed must’ve been among his favorites because it simply won’t end. There’s an extended coda to MITM that would be uncomfortable if the song wasn’t so freaking great. After his first “shah-mo” at the final third of the song, you really think it’s going to wrap up but it just keeps going. One gets the feeling Michael wanted that song to go on a long time, maybe forever.
If it would have been appropriate, we all would’ve been clapping, but no one spoke or whooped or did anything. We were all just either crying or holding our breath. The dancers danced with him. They moved as an ensemble with him and it was beautiful. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen because it was human ingenuity that brought it into existence. The work that it must’ve taken to build that effect, the science that went into it, the tweaking, the bug fixes, the failures on the way to the end result. I cried the whole time, from the star cloud to the ending strains when the stars whooshed away into nothingness, partly for Thomas Edison for heaven’s sake: we have him to thank for this, too.
It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen because glowing stars are pretty. And it was the most beautiful because a brilliant entertainer who cared about the world way, way too much to be in his line of work, lived again. And he was doing what he loved the most in a place where he was totally safe and sound: onstage. I don’t believe in ghosts and I don’t believe in heaven. I don’t have to. We have holograms and Thomas Edison, Michael Jackson and airplanes to take us to Las Vegas (and back, thank goodness.)
If you can see that show, you should. Let me know if you do.
About a month ago, my sink was plugged up.
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.
I pass by the Joel Oppenheimer Gallery on Michigan Avenue at least a few times a week when I’m home. It’s on the ground floor of the Wrigley Building, and for several years I didn’t go in because it appeared painfully fancy from the outside. The Wrigley Building, referred to as “the jewel of the Mile,” is a two-winged castle, Chicago’s Big Ben, a tribute to human potential and intelligence, it is among our finest hours as a city. A gallery worthy of space on the first floor of a building like this can’t help but be intimidating, but then I reminded myself one afternoon that the whole Wrigley empire was built on chewing gum. That day, I went in.
The Joel Oppenheimer Gallery, which is staffed by a small number of terrifically friendly people (including the handsome Sarah and Mr. Oppenheimer himself, who on the day I met him was wearing a snappy bow-tie I’ll wager is part of his daily ensemble), specializes in John James Audubon prints. Did you have Audubon’s Birds of America in your house as a kid? We did. Kids are nuts about animals and drawings and drawings of animals and I remember poring over the illustrations in that huge book for hours, freaked out by what I considered ugly birds (vultures, and I was right) and delighting in the sweet ones (lo, the tufted titmouse!) All creatures great and small may be wise and wonderful but some are more wonderful than others:
I had my eye on a print in the window for so long and when greeted by the kindly Sarah on the day of a big sale at the gallery, I pulled the trigger. I love my art and I now love the gallery. On their website they say, “Inquiries are received with pleasure.” With pleasure! Note: Sarah’s desk is a bit foreboding when you walk in, all lacquered and finely turned, but her ever-present, generous wine glass of orange juice atop it quells nerves.
There’s one other piece I’m after. Something about life in the last few years has made me more open to a certain strain of ugliness. The jolie-laide is cool with me, surely because I’m more of a realist than I ever was and there is comfort in looking at things the way they are and the way they are is not always soft n’ glossy. While I don’t plan to inquire to Joel or Sarah’s pleasure about any vulture renderings, I have been obsessing slightly about that guy up top. The warthog.
He’s huge. Several feet across and so tall. Where would I put him? The bathroom? Would I get ready faster in the morning? He couldn’t go into my bedroom; I’d scare my guests. Perhaps the hall, but he needs room to breathe. If the price is even within the galaxy of possibility for my budget (doubtful) I’d get him and figure it out later. Maybe he could go in the kitchen. He looks pretty hungry.
I like him because he’s ugly. I like him because he’s so ugly, he magnificent. He didn’t choose not to be a titmouse. He’s just a lil’ peccary, squalling and stomping, feral and powerful enough to go into any building, faster than me.