Years ago, when my mother-in-law was fighting what would turn out to be a losing battle with breast cancer, she was riding in a golf cart with my two small children when her wig blew off, briefly exposing her head, as bald as a golf ball. My daughter's eyes grew wide with alarm, but my mother-in-law quickly defused the moment with extraordinary aplomb: "Bet you can't do that with your hair, can you?"
I was reminded of this when reading Jenny Allen's "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow," one of many winning essays in this seriously funny book. Discussing her ovarian cancer, also the subject of her celebrated one-woman show, I Got Sick Then I Got Better, Allen considers the arguments for scarves versus wigs, which for her touch on deeper questions about her attitude toward illness: "What kind of cancer person was I going to be?" she wonders after her diagnosis in 2005. "Would I try to maintain my privacy? ... Was I all right with people knowing?" In the end, she opts mainly for scarves, saving her wig for special occasions — including a college graduation in Chicago under scorching sun. Dripping with sweat, she removes her sunhat, but to her horror, the wig comes off with it. Allen, like my mother-in-law, sees the humor, but she also worries about having shocked the people sitting behind her.
Most of the 35 very short essays in Would Everybody Please Stop? are either hilarious, heartfelt, or both. Many, including "I'm Awake," first appeared in The New Yorker. Some are over-the-top silly, others read like material for her performances as a monologist and may be even better live. Yet her wry voice — sometimes confiding, sometimes overbearing — comes through loud and clear in print.
The wonderful title piece is essentially a stickler's volcanic eruption of linguistic pet peeves, beginning with "Would everybody please stop saying iteration? ... Who started iteration?" she asks. "Doesn't it just mean 'version'?" Other words she wants gone: meme, surreal, ginormous, meta, iconic, deplane, Big Pharma, It's all good. And on and on. Like a knife slashing at the inflated balloons of our verbal pretensions, she's got a point.
One essay isn't enough to contain all of Allen's bêtes noirs. "Canonize Me" begins, "Just when I thought that life might be too irritating to be worth it, it turned out that I have a knack for performing miracles." As "patron saint of the annoyed," she smites "fat-free half-and-half" and penned, and hits the pet in peeve when she turns "Young Adult Dystopian Fiction into a small animal that was crossing the road" — and runs it over. With the exception of a few notable side-swipes, she mostly steers clear of the political — perhaps because it's too easy a target.
Allen can be playful, sarcastic, and astute. In "Can I Have Your Errands?" the narrator reconstructs another woman's privileged life from a to-do list she finds in her grocery cart: "Take in Lexus, Derm — filler, Take R to groomer, B Bros — suspenders." There's sharp wit and social commentary aplenty in the contrast with the narrator's own chores — Laundromat, Dump, Hardware store for Drano.
Like Nora Ephron, Allen has her drugstore reading glasses – when she can find them — focused on the indignities of aging, including the insomnia and "menoeternity" of menopause, fear of falling and ending up in grim rehab, and esoteric memories "made up of a few odd, insignificant bits stuck there like chewed up gum to the underside of a classroom desk" while important information is nowhere to be found. In her hands, "rotator cuff" reads like both a threat and a punchline.
As delightful as her humor is, her serious essays hit deeper — especially reflections on being single and re-entering the social fray alone after a long marriage. (Her 30 year marriage to cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer ended in divorce in 2013.) "It's About Time" begins, "I live alone. These things happen. Your children grow up, your husband leaves, and then you are one. This is a happy story, I promise, but I do need to say this: Get ready. You may be next. And if you are, please, please try to remember what I am telling you now: You know how you never have enough time? You will have it."
If, after reading Would Everybody Please Stop? you're tempted to befriend Allen, just don't ask her to a macrobiotic restaurant or sporting event or a talk on investing. ("Shoo; go away. I don't have any money," she comments. "In fact," she writes, "the correct translation of divorcee is 'person with no money.'") Whatever you do, be sure to double check her extensive — I mean, ginormous -- list of no-go's and sources of irritation first. It's all good.