Writer and performer Jenny Allen takes the stage at City Theatre in a one-night-only event on October 2nd (presented in partnership with Classic Lines), sharing humorous stories about her life and excerpts from her performance about surviving ovarian cancer. Her latest collection of essays — Would Everybody Please Stop? — explores everything from chemotherapy to empty nesting, with her signature wry humor. Allen’s award-winning solo show, I Got Sick and Then I Got Better, has been seen in venues across the country, and her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue, The Huffington Post, and many more; Andy Borowitz calls her “One of the funniest writers in America.”
Allen’s daughter, Halley Feiffer, is the playwright of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, on stage at City Theatre September 23 – October 15, 2017.
From the publisher: “In Would Everybody Please Stop?, a collection of first-person essays and humor pieces, Jenny Allen asks the tough questions: Why do people say ‘It is what it is’? What’s the point of fat-free half-and-half? Why don’t the women detectives on TV carry purses, and where are we supposed to think they keep all their stuff? And haven’t we heard enough about memes?
Reporting from the potholes midway through life’s journey, Allen addresses these and other more serious matters, like the rude awakenings of being single after twenty-five years, of mothering a teenager, and of living with a serious illness. She also discusses life’s everyday trials, like the horrors of attempting a crafts project, the anxieties of being a houseguest, and the ever-changing rules of recycling.”
That’s what Buddha said. Buddha said, “I am awake.” Buddha got that idea, that whole concept, from a middle-aged woman, I’m sure.
Not that this sleepless business ends at any time. I think you have to die first.
If you added up all the hours I’ve been awake, it would come to years by now. Fifty may be the new forty, but it feels like the new eighty.
Thank you, that’s a very good idea, but I already took a sleeping pill. I fell asleep right away—it’s bliss, that drugged drifting off—but now I’m awake again. That always happens! I fall asleep, boom, and then, four or five hours later, I wake up—like it’s my turn on watch, like I’ve had three cups of coffee. Like I’ve just had a full night’s sleep. But if I act as if I’ve had a full night’s sleep, if I get up and do things, I will be a goner after two o’clock in the afternoon. I will confuse the TV remote with the cordless phone and try to answer it, I will not notice any of my typos—I will type pubic school this and pubic school that in e-mails to people whose public schools I am looking at for my daughter. I will scramble words as if I have had a small stroke. I will say, “I’d like the Drussian ressing,” and then I will have to make one of those dumb Alzheimer’s jokes.
I could take another sleeping pill, but I worry about that. I worry about becoming too used to sleeping pills. Sleeping pills always make me think of Judy Garland. Poor Judy.
It’s funny about the name Judy, isn’t it? No one names anyone Judy anymore—do you ever meet five-year-old Judys?—but half the women I know are named Judy. You would probably be safe when meeting any woman over fifty just to say, “Nice to meet you, Judy.” Most of the time you would be right.
I am going to lie here and fall asleep counting all the Judys I know.
Thirteen Judys. Including my ex-husband’s ex-wife. Who’s very nice, by the way.
I’m still awake.
Some people who knew my ex-husband before I knew him used to call me Judy. “Hi, Judy, how are you?” they’d say, and I never corrected them. Who could blame them when they knew so many Judys? Although I did sort of hope that later they realized they’d called me the wrong name and made note of my graciousness in not saying anything. “I can’t believe I called her Judy—and her husband’s ex-wife is named Judy. She could have been really unpleasant about that, but she didn’t say anything at all. What a fine and self-restrained person she is. I’m going to try and be more like her.”
Are all my Judy friends up, like me? Judy in Brooklyn Heights, are you up? Judy on Amsterdam Avenue, Judy in Carroll Gardens, Judy in Morningside Heights, Judy on Riverside Drive? I’m here in my bed imagining I can see all of you outside my window—I probably could see a few of you if you waved at me; one of my bedroom windows looks out on a nice-sized chunk of the city. But I am imagining that I am seeing all of you, like the teacher on Romper Room when I was little. She used to hold a big magnifying glass the size of a tennis racquet in front of her face so that it was between her and you, and she would say, “I see Leslie, and Barbara, and Scott, and Bruce, and Judy. And I see Karen, and Peter, and Derek…” She must have called my name, because I knew she saw me.
That is how I feel about my friends when I lie awake at night. I see them. I see all the Judys, and I see Jackie and Polly and Ellie, Naomi and Cindy and Cathy and the Deborahs (three!). I see them lying there in their nighties, their faces shiny with moisturizer. Some of us lie alone, some of us lie next to another person who is, enragingly, sleeping like a log. How can these people next to us sleep so profoundly? They snore, they shake their restless-leg-syndrome legs all over their side of the bed, they mutter protests in their dreams—“I didn’t say Elmira!” and “It’s not yours!” They’re making a regular racket, and yet they sleep on.
Sleepless friends, I am thinking about you. Judy on Riverside Drive, are you worrying about your rewrites? Bina, are you thinking about your new twin grandchildren? Are you worried about your daughter getting worn-out taking care of them? Mimi, are you up thinking of whom you haven’t had lunch with lately? You’re 86 years old. That’s 237 in wakeful-woman years. Congratulations for hanging in there.
Sometimes, when I first go to sleep for the night, I fall asleep to the television. And this is a strange thing: No matter what I have fallen asleep watching, when I wake up, what’s on is Girls Gone Wild. I never turn the channel to Girls Gone Wild, let alone turn up the volume, but the volume is earsplitting. How have I slept for even one minute with the volume so high? Am I going deaf? My goodness, those girls must sleep well, when they finally do sleep. I have to change the channel right away when I wake up to Girls Gone Wild because—well, of course because I don’t want to watch it, but also because I always think about the girls’ mothers, and that upsets me. I worry about their mothers, up in the middle of the night, waking to Girls Gone Wild on the television set. “That looks just like Melanie—oh, my God.”
Look: Law & Order is on. I’ve seen this episode. Do they run the same ones over and over, or is it just that I have seen every single episode that exists? What a scary thought. Fortunately I never remember what happens after the opening scene when they find the body, so I can watch them all over again.
That was a good one.
I’m still awake.
When did I last sleep well? That sleep when you touched your head to the pillow and slept so soundly you woke up wondering how it could be morning when you hadn’t even fallen asleep yet? My children sleep like this sometimes, especially the younger one. “Did I go to sleep yet?” she asks on occasion. I didn’t appreciate it when I was young, naturally. “Did you sleep well?” people would ask me in the morning, and I would think, Of course I slept well. Isn’t “sleeping poorly” a contradiction in terms?
Friends, are you all still up? It seems inefficient somehow for us all to be awake separately. Wouldn’t it be great if we could pool all our separate little tributaries of wakeful energy into one mighty Mississippi, and then harness it—like a WPA project, like the Hoover Dam? We could power something. We could get the other awake women in other cities and light up the entire Eastern Seaboard. And have huge middle-of-the-night parties for all the women who are awake.
I should read. No, reading is too hard for the dead of night. It has too many words in it. Including words I might not know. If I read a word I don’t know, I will feel compelled to scrawl it on whatever piece of paper is on my bedside table and then hope I’ll be able to read my writing tomorrow. If I am too lazy to write down the word, I will have to decide whether to dog-ear the page—bad reader citizenship!—and I don’t want the burden of that choice now, in the middle of the night.
Also, even if I do look up a word tomorrow, I won’t remember the definition next week. I keep looking up the same words over and over. Fungible. Heliotrope. How many times am I supposed to look up the same words? I used to remember the definitions, but I haven’t for years. I still know a lot of words, though. Cleave is a funny word because it means “to sunder” and, strangely, it also means “to stick to.” Ouster is a funny word. Ouster sounds like it should mean a person, a person who ousts other people, but it doesn’t. It means the act of getting rid of someone, not the person who does the getting rid of. Temerity sounds like it means “timid,” but it doesn’t. It means the opposite, it means “brave”!
Timorous is another word for timid, but why not just say timid? Timmy was the name of the boy in Lassie, the television show. The theme music for the show was melancholy, shockingly so. It made you yearn, it made you homesick, even as you watched it in the den in your home. When was Lassie on? Bonanza was on Sunday nights, I think. There were three brothers in Bonanza: Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe. My sister was quiet and liked Adam the best. My brother wore clothes from the Husky department and so liked Hoss, who was hefty, the best. I liked Little Joe because I was the youngest and so was Little Joe. Also, I was a scamp, and cute, like Little Joe.
I’m still awake. Only now everything is sort of blending together. It’s the time of night when I think I may finally be losing my mind for good. Here’s a snatch of the theme song from Lassie, but it’s blending into the Brownie song, the one about “I’ve got something in my pocket, that belongs across my face,” about a Great Big Brownie Smile. Where’s my older daughter’s Girl Scout badge sash? Why didn’t the younger one ever do Girl Scouts? What’s in that pot roast recipe besides a cinnamon stick and horseradish and a can of cranberry sauce? What was my old zip code when I lived on Third Avenue? Why didn’t I submit that expense account worth a thousand dollars nine years ago?
Instead of going crazy, maybe I will just lie here and regret things. Let’s see, can’t I blame the really big mistakes on others? Didn’t they fail me, didn’t they provoke me, didn’t they drive me to it? Didn’t they just really strain my patience? Didn’t they expect too much of me?
No, face it, you did all those things, all the bad and regrettable things. Now you have to sit with it, as Buddha would say. In your case, of course, lie with it.
Not exactly the path to Slumberland.
Oh, look. The sky is purple now, not black. It’s going to be daylight. Dawn! How are you, Dawn? How’s it going? As long as you’re up, I might as well get up too. We can keep each other company.
This excerpt from Would Everybody Please Stop is published here courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It should not be reprinted without permission.