August 18, 2020

Traditional Move In Day

It’s another long post evening. It shouldn’t be. Ten hour work day followed by an hour plus zoom lecture for my church’s adult education program and I really should be curled up in a tight little ball watching some bad film for a a new column, but my mind is racing a dozen different ways so I’ll start typing and we’ll see what comes out this time. I’d like to write about some new theatrical project but there’s not a lot going on there. I do have a small part in an on-line zoom theater production of Henry IV part 2 based out of Columbia, SC (thank you Thurston Howell III and Charlie Goodrich) and I have been asked to do one of the leads in Tartuffe in a future zoom theater production later in the fall but there’s not a lot you can write about sitting at your dining room table waiting to turn on the camera on your cue and deliver your lines before turning your camera off again as your character exits. Classic theater is the way to go at the moment. No rights to pay. Usually constructed that the language is the most important element. Often a collection of French scenes that makes it easy to follow when the cast is a collection of little boxes winking on and off.

The local Covid-19 numbers are falling. This is good news. It remains to be seen what back to school is going to do to them. The news from elsewhere is not good. Both UNC and Notre Dame, which went back this past week with in person instruction, have shut again after flare ups. UAB is in the midst of move in. There is a brand new private student apartment/dorm development across the street from my academic office. I walked past it this morning on my way to the VA and watched move in day for a moment. Lots of excited young people and boxes doing what young people have always done. I doubt there’s going to be a lot of social distancing or mask wearing. I doubt I would have at eighteen or twenty.

The men of Gypsy – Virginia Samford Theater – Summer 2017 Left to Right: Kyle Bass, Lewis Armstrong, Benji Burford, Me, David Strickland, Hal McIntosh, Howard Green

I’m both sad and mad that it’s quite likely their chance to explore the joys of youth and higher education might just be jerked to a halt in a couple of weeks; it didn’t have to be that way. If this country had listened to those who know how to handle pandemic viral illness instead of to politicians with personal agendas, there’s no reason why we couldn’t be in the same position as most of the rest of the civilized world. Cautiously opening up and returning to normal life patterns and prepared to stomp out pockets of disease which are quickly and easily detected. It’s all heightened by the loss of my friend Hal McIntosh to Covid yesterday. Hal, known to generations of high schoolers as Mr. Mac, was one of the legendary theater teachers in town and a stalwart member of the theater community as a director and a performer. There are twelve of fifteen of us character guys of a certain age in town that get all the juicy old guy roles in various productions and I knew Hal from his work long before I actually got to know him. We didn’t do a show together until 2017 when I finally got to spend some time with him. (The character men in Gypsy all have about one scene each, and them two hours in the dressing room until curtain call). He was lovely and kind gracious and knowledgeable and dammit, he should still be here for another decade or two gracing the stage and encouraging the younger set to do their best and always improve. I’m very afraid he’s not going to be the last of the local theater community to exit stage left over the coming months. If your life hasn’t been touched by this disease yet, just wait, it will be. It’s too widespread and the numbers are too high for it to pass you by. The average American has a circle of acquaintance of roughly 5,0000 people. At current rates, thirty people you know are likely to die before it’s all over and hundreds more will have serious health problems, likely permanently.

My lecture tonight was on death, dying and advance directives – not the most light hearted of subjects but I have figured out ways to make even the most lugubrious of geriatric related topics interesting over the years. I first began public speaking in the early 1990s and it didn’t take me long to realize that having a certain patter and willingness to tell jokes and drop one liners when discussing relatively heavy subject matter kept people engaged, helped them remember what you wanted them to remember, and made them not want to slit their wrists after a talk on their upcoming infirmities and indignities that we all age into eventually. I picked a bit of it up by watching good lecturers in medical school. a bit from Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, and a bit from my own idiosyncratic background and early theater experiences. I’ve had a few people suggest I need to come up with some sort of one man show/comedic monologue about all the craziness of geriatric medicine and how it intertwines with the rest of my life. I could probably write it but I’d need a lot of help making it into a theatrical piece.

I did tell one story tonight. It was about death, at least tangentially. There is an odd quirk in Alabama law. You are not allowed to authorize your own cremation. Cremation is only allowed if your surviving next of kin allows it. (I’ve been told it was crafted by the funeral industry to allow for more burials – and it works. Alabama is the state with the lowest rate of cremation. I don’t know if that’s true or not, so none of my funeral director friends come after me with a brick…) Twenty years ago when Steve died, we had had plenty of time to prepare. He was sick for two years. He had gone down to a local funeral home and made pre-need arrangements. He told me he had handled it so I didn’t think anything of it. He was on hospice when he died, so hospice handled the transfer to the funeral home and I went down the next day to see them and to make arrangements for the cremation he wanted. When I got there, the very nice young man told me he was sorry, but they could not possibly cremate Steve. There must be a release from legal next of kin. Despite our 13 years together, I didn’t count (It was 2001, legal marriage was still a pipe dream). I held it together and calmly said that was nice, but his parents were dead, he had no children, and he was estranged from his siblings and I had no means of contacting them. What did he want to do about that? We sparred for a few moments, then he got a twinkle in his eye and said ‘I have an idea’. He went off and made some calls, coming back to me in a few minutes. He suggested we transfer Steve to the low cost mortuary across town where they didn’t ask too many questions. I consented, Steve was moved and off I went to mortuary number two. There, the mortician, who reminded me a bit of a pawn shop counter person, basically said ‘We’ll keep him for three days, if no one comes to complain, we’ll cremate him” wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more…

Steve was duly cremated, I received the cremains – what happened next is another story that I’ve already written up at least once. If you haven’t read it, I’ll try to find it and link to it.

So – if you want to be cremated in Alabama, make sure your family knows it. Your word, even in a will or final instruction’s isn’t good enough. Personally, I’m going to take Tommy’s approach. When I asked him about his preferences, he said ‘I won’t be here, you’ll have to figure it out’ and refused to return to the subject. I trust my family to figure it out – conservation of mass and energy will return my physical being to the cosmos no matter what they do.

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