Tony Bluestone: Death Is So Queer

S02 E05

Tony Bluestone:
Death Is So Queer

Artist Tony Bluestone talks about the existential condition of the Wet Paint sign.

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Tony Bluestone lives and works in Queens. Her work has been shown at La Mama Gallery, Rachel Uffner, and the Academy of Arts and Letters, and she has also performed written works at Storm King Art Center. She has held residencies at The Basil Alakazi Residency in Detroit, the Shandanken Project at Storm King, and Vermont Studio Center. In 2017, she was awarded the John Koch Award by the Academy of Arts and Letters. Bluestone is a teacher at Hunter College and at the Whitney, and holds a BA from Bard College and an MFA from Hunter College.

NEIL GOLDBERG: You have a fear of death? 

TONY BLUESTONE: I do. 

NEIL: A fear of dying or a fear of death? 

TONY: I think it’s the dying. Like the process of it. It’s like my fear of like doing anything new. Yeah. And that feels like really new, but maybe it’s not, you know, it’s, maybe it’s, you know, just like getting off the subway. You know, when you’re on the subway and you’re like reading your book and it’s like time to get off, even though subway sucks, it’s like, “Oh God, now I have to walk. I have to go in the building.”

You know, and in New York it’s like dying all the time. You know? It’s like, it’s like, that’s why people are out of their minds here. Cause it’s like this constant change.

NEIL: Hello. I’m Neil Goldberg, and this is, SHE’S A TALKER. Today I’ll be talking to painter, TONY Bluestone, but first, here’s the premise of the podcast, which sounds a little hokey, but thanks in advance for the benefit of the doubt. I’m a visual artist and I have this collection of thousands of index cards on which I’ve been jotting down thoughts, observations, and reflections for about two decades. They’re originally meant just for me almost as a type of journal, but in SHE’S A TALKER, I’m using them as prompts for conversations with some of my favorite New York artists, writers, performers, and beyond. 

These days, the cards often start as recordings I make into my phone here and there throughout the day. Here are some recent ones: People who think something interesting about them is that they’re scared of needles. Just Googled how to do the Heimlich on a cat, just in case. Certain art ideas when you come back to them are like a cup of coffee left out on the counter.

I’m so happy to have as my guest, Tony Bluestone. Tony is a painter who lives in Queens and has shown her work at La Mama, Rachel Uffner Gallery, and the Academy of Arts and Letters, among many other places. She has held residencies at Storm King and the Vermont Studio Center and teaches at Hunter College and at the Whitney Museum. We talked in January at a recording studio at the New School near Union Square in New York City.

I’m so happy to have with me today, on SHE’S A TALKER, Tony Bluestone. Thank you, Tony, for being here. 

TONY: Thanks for having me. 

NEIL: Um, Tony, what is the elevator pitch for what it is you do in life? 

TONY: Oh, right. Well, I’m a painter. That’s like the easiest. And then the follow-up question to that is, well, what are you painting? And then I say, well, I paint people. And then, you know, people are like, well, like, is it abstract? I think they’re testing me. It’s their way of being like, are you a real artist? I feel like that’s the question. Like it’s like, are you actually doing something? Or are you just like painting from life? 

NEIL: So if you’re an abstract painter, then you’re a real painter. 

TONY: I think that’s my impression of it. 

NEIL: Yeah. How old are you? 

TONY: 40. 

NEIL: You’re 40? What? You are, you are not looking like a 40-year-old. 

TONY: It’s my teenage boy self, you know? And I’m very immature. I never got the filter that you’re supposed to get, like after you leave your teenage years, you know, like the one that doesn’t say insane shit.

NEIL: Right.

TONY: Like I don’t drink. And I’m like, how come people don’t notice that I’m not drinking? And I’m like, I think it’s cause I say crazy shit. You know? I’m like, is this, cause like my family is like insane. And they just said everything, like.

NEIL: Presumably you’re Jewish. I know you’re Jewish. Yeah. 

TONY: Yeah. I’m Jewish. 

NEIL: Well, well, you said crazy shit that was said in your house. Like what kind of crazy shit? 

TONY: Like, I dunno. Just things like, you’re going to be a drug addict when you grow up. 

NEIL: Oh yeah. That’s so crazy. That’s so interesting. My mom used to say, my mom – 

TONY:  Just matter of factly. 

NEIL: Yeah. My mom would say, I saw a homeless person in the, you know, on my way to work. And I, I could just imagine you being that. Very matter of fact.

TONY: I don’t know very many Jewish people that just don’t, they just like, I’ll repeat some of the things that were said and it’s shocking for others and I’m like, Oh, I just thought that’s how we… What is that? Why is that particular to Jews? 

NEIL: You know, when in doubt, the Holocaust and its antecedents, you know. 

TONY: The trauma, the fleeing. It’s just like, we’re going grab your shit. I don’t have time to make this nice. We’re telling. We’re going. 

You know? It’s like, “We’re going.” Like you have to tell everyone and like tell them what the score is. It has to do with speed. 

NEIL: Yeah. And I think it, it may start with the phrase, “Grab your shit.” You know what I mean? It’s like, it’s not about grab your possessions, it’s like “Grab your shit.” 

TONY: It’s like it’s going down. 

NEIL: You mentioned your father died. When he was alive, how would he describe to his friends what you do? 

TONY: Well, by the time I was painting, I think he was in a schizophrenic state a lot of the time, so he might say something totally insane. 

NEIL: Oh, like what? 

TONY: I don’t know what he would say. I think he might just be like, “I don’t know, but she doesn’t have a good job.” Or maybe he would say, “She’s a painter.” What would he say? I don’t think he would say, I didn’t have a good job. He actually was a very caring, kind person, but yeah, I wonder.

NEIL: Is your mom still alive? 

TONY: She is. 

NEIL: What does she say to her friends?

TONY: I think she would be like, “She’s selfish.” 

NEIL: That’s what she does. 

TONY: I think it’s like a selfish act of selfish. Not giving. Not, you know. Holed up somewhere. 

NEIL: Shall we go to the cards that I’ve curated for you? 

TONY: Oh, curation. 

NEIL: Of course. 

So the first card is: That moment when you forget what you should be worrying about and try to reclaim it.

TONY: It’s like you see me. 

NEIL: I do see you. 

TONY: Yeah. 

NEIL: And vice versa. 

TONY: Well, the reason why I have to reclaim it is because the new worry is too terrifying. Right? It’s like, what was I worrying about? Cause this new shit is fire. 

NEIL: So it’s basically like, um, a management strategy. You go back to the more comfortable worrying.

TONY: Yeah. 

NEIL: What’s your most comfortable worry? 

TONY: Um, that’s a good one. My most comfortable worry. Oh, you know: Parking. 

NEIL: That’s a great one. 

TONY: I love that one. Cause it’s, I can figure it out.

NEIL: Low stakes.

TONY: Low stakes. Maybe I got a ticket. If I got towed, that is terrible, but it’s still like, the car. Why do I even have a car? I live in New York. What kind of sick freak am I, you know? But I love thinking about parking. People that know me think there’s like a certain part of my brain dedicated to parking. 

NEIL: Oh, I would hope so. 

TONY: I mean, how else would you park in the city? It’s insane. It’s like a mastering of it and it’s not like worrying about things like painting.

That’s impossible. That’s just stupid. But parking, I can win once I get a spot. Like what if I get a spot in front of my house? You know? That’s, that’s – the worry was all worth it. And paying attention to time, switching the car. Did someone steal the car? I like that worry. 

NEIL: That’s very comfortable. 

TONY: Very comfortable. Very American too. It’s like my car. 

NEIL: Right. Exactly. 

TONY: My beautiful vehicle. 

NEIL: Is your vehicle beautiful?

TONY: No. No, but it is. I mean, yes, it’s beautiful. It’s mine. 

NEIL: Next card. Purple is the colorful Brown.

TONY: I just, I couldn’t, I couldn’t disagree more with that statement. I thought you were going to say like purple is… Just a glorious royal color and I’m thinking of brown as like being a mashup of all the colors and I would never waste my expensive violet in that.

NEIL: Different colors are still more expensive?

TONY: That is correct. Yeah. 

NEIL: And the purples tend to be the most expensive? 

TONY: Yeah. Certain ones. Red too. 

NEIL: What’s like a dirt-cheap color? 

TONY: Green’s really cheap cause green is so easy to find. Brown’s dirt cause they’re literally just mixing dirt. 

NEIL: That’s fascinating, see. When I’ve shared this on Instagram to my tens of followers, um, a couple of people were like, that’s sacrilege. Purple is exalted and glorious. Brown is debased. But it seems to me that in terms of how we arrive at both those colors, there’s some similarity. If you put enough things together, you get brown. Right? And I sorta have the idea, if you put enough things together in a certain part of the spectrum, you get purple. Am I wrong? 

TONY: I mean, that’s not how I would teach it. 

NEIL: [laughs] That’s not how I would teach it. Oh my God. 

I find purple is very divisive within relationships. Like I’m in a mixed marriage, like Jeff is very down on purple, and I feel like I know a lot of people like that. Whereas I would, I would do a lot of purple. I would do purple sheets, absolutely purple towels. You have purple sheets? 

TONY: I do. They’re like lavender.

NEIL: I’m, I’m good with lavender, but I really like a deep purple. 

TONY: Yeah. When I was younger, I was anti purple and I used to have a kind of running joke. There was something about a purple person, like when a person just like exumed their purpleness in the world, not exumed, like exuded. 

NEIL: They gave out lot of purple.

TONY: Purple energy, you know? And it was like, the person who like pulls out the checkbook and it’s purple, and they have the purple pen. 

NEIL: Oh right, those people. 

TONY: You know, and they’re like, I love purple. They have like a cap with a feather.  And at the time I thought it’s too much, but now I’m like, no, it’s not. Own your purple pen and your purple checkbook and your feather.

NEIL: Absolutely. 

TONY: Be out of your, I mean, they’re still annoying. It’s like the type of person where I’m like, my heart is open to you cause I believe in you fully. But I, I don’t know how much time on the clock I have for whatever this engagement is. They want it. They’re like, do you paint abstract paintings? Oh, you’re a painter! Wonderful! 

NEIL: Oh, the purple people have lots of follow-up questions. Yeah.

 Okay. Next card. Indoor cats just have a bigger cage. And there’s a related card, which is: Would I choose to be an indoor cat or an outdoor cat? 

TONY: So I have a lot of thoughts on indoor versus outdoor cats. I have an indoor cat because I live in New York city. Her name is Frank. And, but then I have, I have a dear friend, she lives in Massachusetts and she has four indoor outdoor cats. And what happens is a lot of them die. Because they get hit by cars or they just never come back. You know, they go for a walk and a coyote eats them, but they have a better life. 

NEIL: Right. Right. That’s the paradox. 

TONY: It’s the paradox of the indoor outdoor. Do you want longevity in your giant cage? I don’t know if I’m, I guess I’m an indoor cat cause I, I’m not very… woodsy? I like the woods the way, like, a New Yorker likes the woods. I like a stroll, a swim in the ocean, you know, all those nice things. 

NEIL: Or even a movie that features woods will do it for me. 

TONY: Oh, beautiful. Yeah, that, that sounds nice, but maybe it may be I’m like deep domesticated, even though in my heart I think I’ve, I like to think I’m like a tiger, you know, just roaming. Looking for my next meal. 

NEIL: Yeah, but, but, okay, that’s you. You think of yourself as an indoor cat, let’s say. But if you were a cat, would you choose to be an indoor cat or an outdoor cat? I guess. 

TONY: Thank you. Thank you for clarifying. 

NEIL: Well, it’s, I don’t know if it’s, if that question can be answered. Would you imagine?

TONY: I think I’d be indoor. I mean, it’s like –

NEIL: You choose longevity and safety over – well, you say outdoor cats have a better life. What do you mean by that? 

TONY: Well, I think they get to like run around and play more and be in the woods and get to fight with other cats and that kind of thing, which seems like fun.

NEIL: Oh, you changed your mind.

TONY: I changed my mind. I didn’t think it through. I didn’t think about the fighting part.

NEIL: That made you realize. See, I go, you go to fighting. I go to smells, like you get all these amazing smells outside. And I also think… You say what’s compelling about being an indoor cat is that you get regular meals. But I wonder if the outdoor cats actually are driven by the unpredictability of their meals. You have agency around it. Like, I think my cat freaks out by the fact that she can’t control us. She knows she’s in this cage, which is our apartment. So, often when we leave, I sense that she’s anxious about our leaving. She’s trapped. 

TONY: Oh, yeah. I would be outdoor. I would be outdoor. 

NEIL: Okay. Now, while we’re on cats…

TONY: Okay. 

NEIL: Um, the connection between dislike of cats and misogyny. 

TONY: You know, cats are girls, right? And dogs, and dogs are boys.

NEIL:  Apparently.

TONY: All cats are girls. All dogs are boys. So right off the bat, if you don’t like cats, you don’t like girls. And I think that is the definition of misogyny. 

NEIL: Not liking girls? 

TONY: I think so. Right? You don’t like girls for lots of reasons: because society tells you not to. Maybe your mom wasn’t that nice, you know, she probably wasn’t cause she had to be a fucking mother. And is that nice? Is that nice for you to make her, I mean, you know she made that choice? So that’s on her. But then she made this little man baby, you know, that now hates cats. And here we are. 

Me and my, my friend Sophie wanted, I wanted to do a series with her about paint, about painters, but male painters, called ‘Misogynists We Love’ because there are so many. I mean, it’s just like you can’t get around it. I’m like, you know, and it’s really like about her love of Picasso and my love of Matisse and just, they’re just horrible misogynists. But their paintings. And their paintings are misogynist, but it’s like, ah, what do I do? You know, the complexity. So I, you know, right there, and I’m like, did they hate cats? I don’t know a lot about their relationship with cats. 

NEIL: I think they like cats, both of them. 

TONY: They probably like cats. 

NEIL: Yeah. But here’s my question. Is there some part of you that likes them because of their misogyny, or is it exclusively despite their misogyny? Or can you not tell? 

TONY: I can’t tell and I don’t want to let my, I don’t want to say in spite of, because it’s part of the program. I mean, it’s like we love those women that Matisse painted because it’s like you can just, they’re just like interchangeable and you can just grab them. You know, you just grab one and you take them and put it on your wall and they’re expensive and it doesn’t make any sense, you know? And it’s like, he just gets to make up, you know? It’s just like, how did he make that decision? You know, when I look at Matisse with people, it’s just like, how did, he’s so confident. He just makes these decisions and it’s like, huh?

NEIL: Has anyone written anything good and boring about the existential condition of the wet paint sign?

TONY:  It’s a, it’s like a sign that knows it’s so incredibly temporary and it’s not even allowed to touch the thing that it is standing in for. The way it’s relating to that and it’s so, it’s so… Like my whole existence is here to tell you about paint. And yet I will never touch that paint. I will never be a part of it. I’m only here until it dries. It’s very tragic. 

NEIL: And then maybe I get thrown away. 

TONY: Not maybe. 

NEIL: You do. 

TONY: I think you do. It’s paper. It’s always paper. And, was it even made with paint? The sign? Probably not. It was probably made with ink. So you never touch, you’re not even made of paint. There’s never even paint on the wet paint sign. There’s paint on you, me when I lean on the paint… 

NEIL: The wet paint sign is as much, if not more, about the paint job, not about your clothing. 

TONY: We actually don’t care about your clothing and how it’s gonna mess it up. It’s not about you. It’s not about anyone, but the paint. Right? And it’s, that’s very modern, right? It’s very, like, it’s just about the material. It’s, it’s misogynist.

NEIL: I don’t know why, but I totally agree.

TONY: It’s like we don’t care about any external factors, not even the sign itself. Right? Like the sign itself is like the wall label you shouldn’t even read. You know, cause it’s like everything’s in the material. And that’s the tragedy. I mean, you’ve just summed up modernism right there.

You should put that into a class and the kids will learn. They’ll be like, what’s modernism, what’s the difference between modernism and postmodernism? And then you’ll be like: the wet paint sign. Modernism.

NEIL: This next card is uncanny because I was reading an artist statement of yours where you said something so akin to this card which I wrote, which is: Fog is queer weather. 

TONY: Ah, you know what, I actually didn’t come up with that myself, but put it in an artist statement because a friend said it to me in a studio visit.

NEIL: When did they say it? I wonder if they had seen my card. Is that possible? 

TONY: Well, it was two summers ago we were having this studio visit. 

NEIL: It could have been. I don’t remember when I wrote this. 

TONY: But they said, they said their, they were looking at my paintings and they said there’s like a fog in them. There’s like a weird fog in that and it’s like queer. And I forgot about that and I’m so glad you’re reminding me of it. I love that idea because we kept, we kept using the term queer fog, right? So it’s like…

NEIL: But that’s redundant. Fog is queer. 

TONY: Fog is queer. Why do you think fog is queer? 

NEIL: Hm. I just know it. 

TONY: You just know it. 

NEIL: I think it’s something about the feeling you get. Fog blurs distinctions, as queerness will.

TONY: Yeah. 

NEIL: It’s neither rain, it’s not, it’s not any of the usual suspects. It’s not precipitation. 

TONY: There’s moisture in the air, and so light’s reflecting off of it. It’s like it’s making visible what we normally can’t see too, and that feels queer. 

NEIL: That’s queer, yeah. 

TONY: Where like it’s like the queer kid makes visible to the parent that they’re gay too. You know? 

NEIL: That the parent is gay.

TONY: Right, it’s like this thing. It’s like I, when I was younger and I wasn’t out, it’s like the uncomfortability of being around a queer person when you’re just like, Oh God.  

NEIL: Right. Yeah.

TONY: It was all fine until you hit the scene, you know, like the type of thing where it’s like how a thing becomes visible, which also was like cool. Like if you think about it too, and like relationships to ghosts and dead people and like how they become present. And so I feel as if the dead move in that space as well, or they make themselves seen there. And death feels real queer.

NEIL: Next card. The dynamics of a friend getting a bad review that you agree with. 

TONY: I’ve never had that happen. 

NEIL: Really?

TONY: Yeah. 

NEIL: Oh, wow. Lucky you. 

TONY:  I’ve only read like in terms of like painting, I feel like I’ve only read a few negative reviews. I feel like the negative reviews in painting are like when someone just decides they hate someone, you know? And I’m just like, that is so, it just feels like, why did someone write that like terrible review? So I feel that it hasn’t occurred to any of my… Or at least in art I haven’t really experienced that. 

NEIL: I think you’ve just named something though, because that is true that there are rarely bad art reviews, I think in part because of the fucked up complicity of the market with the places where art writing happens. So actually, I was thinking about friends who are, who are writers who make movies, who are performers. I live with an actor, so I read a lot of play reviews.

TONY: Oh yeah, those things get bad reviews all the time. 

NEIL: Absolutely. 

TONY: Wow. What a terrible world to live. I mean. Or fine or, you know, I would just, I’d never even, it’s like you get a review. It’s, I would expect it to be good, but it’s like bad news is good news, you know? Or no, all news is good, right? What is it? It’s like news is – all press is good press? All press is good press. So I think I’d still feel happy if even if I agreed with the thing, I bet it’s still good for them. Right? It’s nice that someone said it and I think I like to be a… I’m like there to process it because then if the, see this hasn’t happened, but now I’m thinking I can be there to process it. 

NEIL: Yeah. You’re ready. 

TONY: And ready to process and like have a conversation like about why does it hurt, right? It always hurts when it feels true. Assuming they would call me to talk about it to process it.

NEIL: Well, so maybe let’s, let’s role play this. I just got a bad review that you happen to agree with.

TONY: That I happen to agree with. Okay. I’m like, who would write a bad review of you? 

NEIL: Ah, way to my heart. 

Ring. Ring. Tony, did you see the review? 

TONY: Hi Neil. 

NEIL: Hi. Yeah. 

TONY: I did. 

NEIL: Okay. 

TONY: I saw it. 

NEIL: The thing that really kills me about this review is that I, I kind of feel like that they’re onto something. It’s like, there’s this thing in my work that I hate. And I, I hate it. And I feel like they have identified it and suddenly I feel like, Holy shit, everyone must see that. 

TONY: I would say, Neil. Neil, let’s take a step back here. Maybe they said some things and you know, you can listen to them, but like, let’s have some like equanimity around it.

NEIL: They called me clever in the worst possible way. And I agree with them. 

TONY: You know, I’ve been called clever, not in a review. It’s terrible. But, um, I use it to cover up things. And sometimes I even feel, in your work, that you do use your cleverness and that there’s actually a deep well there that maybe could be tapped into. So maybe this is a moment for growth around this and not, you know, not feel so bad. And it’s like your cleverness is beautiful, but you know, it might be a cover. So. 

NEIL: Oh my God, that’s very effective. That was jujitsu. 

TONY: Yeah. Well, because I think, you know, when there’s like a friend that I – I mean, I generally like all the work of all my friends, even when there’s parts of it that I don’t like, because you know, some people are like, Oh, there’s so much terrible work, or this or that, and I’m like, I’m just happy.

Or when people say there’s, there’s too many painters. You know? And I’m just like, there’s not enough painters. Should there be more bankers? No, we should make, what if we lived in a world where we made room for more painters? 

NEIL: Right, exactly.

NEIL: What keeps you going? 

TONY: Oh, Neil, this is a good question. I grew up playing sports obviously, and I love sports language to keep me going. Full blown eye of the tiger talks. Like full blown, like remembering a time when we were down and we won, you know. Or they told me I wasn’t good enough to do something, you know? And I was like, I will prove you wrong, bitch. I love it. It’s so like, it’s so energizing, you know? So that keeps me going. And then, um, and then I think like the, the ancestors. They keep me going. Like I love talking to them. I love thinking that like, that dead people can do anything cause they’re in my mind, you know, like they can do whatever.

And so it’s like when, when it all like feels terrible. Um. You know, it’s like the idea that like, I can talk to the dead whenever I need to. And then, and then also like, you know, it’s so fucking basic, but the community. The people. You know? Like even like things like this. Cause it’s like, you never know what’s gonna unfold with these freaks that we’ve led into our lives or like become our, my family, you know? It’s just like, how did this happen? It’s like, who even knows who’s coming around the corner? You know, like, and that, and what kind of fun possibilities, you know, that is. So all those things. Oh, and humor obviously. 

NEIL: On that note, Tony Bluestone, who I don’t really know very well, although I feel like I know you very well after this, or I, I trust – You know, I have like – I trust know you. We’ve met a few times. We know a lot of the same people in common. 

TONY: That’s why I was so excited to do this cause I was like, we don’t know each other that well and this is, this is, this is how that happens. 

NEIL: Tony, thank you so much for being on SHE’S A TALKER. 

TONY: Thank you for having me.

NEIL: That was my conversation with Tony Bluestone. Thank you for listening. Before we get to the credits, there were some listener responses to cards that I’d love to share. It’s a new thing we’re doing in Season Two. 

In my conversation with activist and filmmaker Jacques Servin, we talked about the card: 

The strange intimacy of seeing a couple’s bed at a party. 

In response to that card, John Kensal wrote that the bed “evokes countless returns, sexual and utterly banal at once, as a kind of mausoleum of coupledom life that I don’t care to know about, but nonetheless washes over me.” Cheers, John, for mausoleum of coupledom. Rosie Bruno wrote, “I’m usually tempted to nap, for the duration of the party, under the jackets.” John Pilsen wrote, “I like to think of the left-behind pheromone cocktail of the coats playing out in all sorts of surprising ways at the end of the night.” And a viewer who wishes to remain anonymous looks at the card from the other side: “Knowing I’m having guests over and wondering what they think when they see our bed. Am I a sloppy housekeeper for one, but, more obsessively, are they thinking, ‘I wonder how often they have sex?’ Depending on who my guests are, I may make more extensive efforts at making the bed so it looks more presentable. So for my friends, I may tidy and arrange more than I would for, for example, my daughter’s boyfriend, though his presence does send me back to the original question of whether he’s thinking about whether his girlfriend’s parents have sex, which now I’ve really gone down a rabbit hole, haven’t I?”

Thanks to everyone who wrote in. I loved all the responses. If you have something you’d like to share about a card on the podcast, email us or send us a voice memo at: shesatalker@gmail.com or message us on Instagram at shesatalker. And as always, we’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or share this episode with a friend.

This series is made possible with generous support from Still Point Fund. Devon Guinn produced this episode. Molly Donahue and Aaron Dalton are our consulting producers. Justine Lee handles social media. Our interns are Alara Degirmenci, Jonathan Jalbert, and Jesse Kimotho. Our card flip beats come from Josh Graver, and my husband, Jeff Hiller, sings the theme song you’re about to hear.

Thanks to all of them, and to my guest, Tony Bluestone, and to you for listening. 

JEFF HILLER: She’s a Talker with Neil Goldberg. She’s a Talker with fabulous guests. She’s a Talker, it’s better than it sounds, yeah!