Another friend of the family, this time a college friend of my late stepfather's, Lyle Guttu, who has been close to everyone on that side (mother/stepfather) for years - I believe he's performed all the marriages of my step-siblings, or if not all, then most, as well as Mom and Woody's marriage in '87. He's been with us for many holidays, and I spent hours and hours talking to him on a variety of subjects over the past 20 years. He was a fine mind, a kind heart, and a great conversationalist, and I am very upset about his leaving us due to a sudden accident.
My sympathies to his family.
I think Lyle would have been pleased that a Google search on his name turns up as many (if not more) references to his time as a star forward for the Harvard Crimsons ice hockey team as to his Lutheran Reverendship . . .
Death death death. On my mind a lot. Not that it's ever been far away. I never have really talked to my father and uncle about growing up in a funeral home as they did (my grandparents' trade and craft - and they were damned good at it), so I'm not sure what their point of view is on this (I'm sure Dad and I will talk about it sometime), but just spending the weekend/holiday time that I did at the Hill Funeral Home, 17 Purdy Avenue, Rye, NY (which has now been chopped up into several businesses that for some reason all amuse me), as I grew up, well aware of what the family business was, and occasionally seeing a body in the embalming room or on display, affected me in certain ways (my grandfather would show off particularly good embalming jobs of his on occasion - I particularly remember the young man who had cut across a church parking lot in Rye on his motorcycle not knowing a chain was drawn across the other exit - it caught him in the chest - I could just see into the casket - I remember the large ring on his hand, with a blue glinting stone - a high school ring? - he had a big moustache - he looked very peaceful; I could see even then why Grandpa was proud of his work, the man looked so so peaceful). I've noticed a certain acceptance and fatalism and matter-of-factness about the whole death business in myself that I've never seen in most of my friends and contemporaries.
I've twice now dealt with being the person there in the house, with what was formerly a loved one in the other room, calling the people you have to call, answering the questions, supervising the removal. I handle it well. On both occasions, when those who came for the removal remarked on my coolness and suggested that maybe I wanted to break down or something, I just mentioned that my family had been in the business, there was a look of recognition, and suddenly we were able to deal with the whole matter efficiently, like professionals. I've handled it well. When I am at open-casket funerals, even of loved ones, my main thoughts are generally about the quality of the embalming work - usually, "That's not a Fred Hill job."
But mid-way now through my 40th year, almost certainly over half-way through the years I'll probably wind up having, my matter-of-factness is changing. I'm not sad about death, I'm not angry about death. I feel cheated, just plain cheated by death. About a year ago, I lost the first two contemporaries I knew somewhat and liked quite a bit (Stephanie Mnookin) or knew and liked quite well once upon a time (Jason Bauer, whose death I only learned about in May), and each time I thought, with a deep breath, "Okay . . . here we go . . . it's starting . . ."
I read Joan Didion's terrific The Year of Magical Thinking recently, and, while enjoying it, was a bit stunned at her complete and total lack-of-preparedness in losing her husband. No, not something you want to consider for very long at any time at all, ever, but it seemed as if Didion had just never even thought about how to deal with an existence without John Gregory Dunne for even a moment of her life until then. I can't quite understand that mode of thought. Everything truly human is transient and ephemeral - we create and leave behind fragments that attempt to say something about what it is to be human, but they are necessarily limited. This is as comforting as it is disturbing, for at least it also means that the evil mankind does is also a blip in the grand scheme of things (though as my friend Sean Rockoff pointed out when I mentioned some similarities in US history between our own horrible Administration and that of William McKinley, to try and show how things can swing back for the good, or at least better, eventually, "this too shall pass" rings terribly hollow when you are in the middle of a horrible time). I would have thought that most couples in lifetime relationships would have faced the unpleasant idea of how the partnership is going to stop someday no matter what they want, but talk with friends and associates gives me the impression this isn't the case.
I've sometimes wondered why I've moved from once wanting with all my heart to spend my life making films - documents that would last and (in my ego-view) be revered forever - to devoting myself quite happily to a life of making ephemeral theatre in small boxes designed to flare briefly and vanish, leaving a trace behind in peoples' heads like a ghost you see on your retinas from a flash bulb. I have more and more become concerned with the purely human, those qualities that make us us, and theatre seems closer to me now to these qualities than film, which is about dreams and visions, not life (though whenever I put my eye behind a viewfinder, as I sometimes still do for people as a DP, "that old aesthetic kick" - as Rabbi Richard puts it - comes back, and all those old dreams and visions that want to come out begin yelling in my skull again . . . maybe someday . . .).
When I started making theatre, I was so devoted to the idea of ephemerality that I pointedly refused to document my shows - the show was the show and that was it; you missed it, too bad, it doesn't exist anymore except in memory. I kinda regret that now, though I haven't been able to videotape most of my recent shows anyway due to AEA Showcase Code rules. I'm more fond of still photos than videos in any case, for recalling stage work - videos always look lousy, and they're only useful for help in restaging revivals (and that's enough to make it essential, as I've found out in the long run). Still, photos are better.
So I've been happy to be impermanent - I feel like I have contributed a few original ideas to American Theatre that have actually had some influence, primarily through David LM Mcintyre's and my Even the Jungle and (to my chagrin) my original production of Ten Nights in a Bar-Room - I've seen other artists see these and take ideas from them and go forward with them, and then others keep going with them from there. Some of my (and David's) creative DNA is out there, in people who have no idea who we are or ever will. That's enough.
In the first full production I directed (Egyptology by Richard Foreman, 1997), I cast myself as a combination of God and my grandfather - a funeral director in a waiting room between this life and another, where souls had to let go of what still held them to mortality in order to pass on. My beliefs have altered quite a bit since then, but I still see myself in part of that position, in regards to my work - a funeral director. I'm still stuck dealing with the brilliant life of the 20th Century, which still hasn't, as far as I'm concerned, gotten a proper funeral yet. So I keep bringing out the body and trying to embalm it well, give it a proper and respectful viewing, a clean burial, so we can move on and get on with the next thing. I'm never going to be part of that next thing - I'm too stuck in the past - but I can damned well clear the ground properly for it.
I know some things about death by now, then, and humanity, humans as brief guests here. I had been fine with that, and with my own ultimate cessation for years - even when I believed in an afterlife, I didn't believe in the survival of personality there, just energy. And I was fine with that.
But now I have a life partner, and a home, and pets. And the idea that some of the living things under this roof are going to go before others seems like such a damned cheat now. I've been worried at times that maybe Berit isn't ready for that (hell, am I?). We've been very straight and reasonable with each other about the disposition of our bodies post-mortem, and wanting to be sure that each of us has control of that for the other (pretty much one of the few reasons for our eventual marriage - legal guarantees for one to enforce the other's desires in such a case). Berit, one of the most rational, realistic, level-headed people I know (apart from the irrational hatred of spiders and wind) has been perfectly reasonable and calm about all that.
But there are lines. B doesn't like me to mention that eventually we'll no longer have these amazing cats we have, let alone that, given the odds, the ages, health, I'll be leaving her alone someday. I've made it clear to her that I want nothing but raucous, earsplitting rock 'n' roll music at any memorial service for me - music of life . . . LIFE! - and I was horrified recently to discover that, as a result, she is now terribly saddened by the sound of "Surfin' Bird" by The Trashmen.
I, still, am not saddened by the idea of the end, angered by it. I feel instead like a small child having a tantrum, stamping my foot, screaming, "IT'S NOT FAIR!" Like I did playing tag with someone who wouldn't follow the rules and wouldn't stop when tagged. Cheats. Damned cheats. No fair, to be robbed of years we SHOULD be able to spend with each other.
And then . . . and then . . .
And then I think some more and it all evens out: We are not cheated of that time. Our whole existence here is such a random, improbable accident - life itself, let alone meeting, being in the right place the right time with the right feelings - that each moment we are allowed is winning the lottery. You can't be cheated out of something that wasn't really yours anyway, just something you came into lucky, temporary possession of.
And I am at peace.
It is a cold day in New York City. The wind is whipping and whistling around our home in Gravesend, Brooklyn. It comes in through the cracks around the poorly-insulated windows and chills me. Berit snores. It is time to wake her up so she can get to a stage management meeting for an upcoming show. I hug a cat. It is very warm.