Don’t Hate the Ice Bucket

There's hot, and then there's Phoenix hot

I sing at funerals. It’s something I do as part of my church choir.

Most recently, it was for a man who’d lived a long, contented life. An average guy. He enjoyed his retirement, told corny jokes, and irritated the hell out of his employees–he skimped on the air conditioning at his independent business and duct-taped the thermostat dial in place. His story was cheerful, and rang true–I’ve heard enough eulogies to know when there’s a shadow underneath the perfect eulogy portrait.

We sang the usual stuff. Soberly uplifting, composed to invite just about anyone to find some meaning in whatever dark moment they’re suffering. Songs we can do in our sleep.

The cantor was one of my favorites, a young tenor who began with the choir when he was ten years old, a whopping natural talent who never wanted to do anything but sing. He got himself into Juilliard last year after a long battle with his parents, who wanted a traditional college experience for him. The truth is that had he followed their plan, no one would have been happy. When this kid is anywhere but behind a microphone, he can be a huge pain in the ass. He needs Juilliard, and Juilliard needs him. When he opens his mouth to sing, the voice that emerges is so transcendent that were he the devil himself, the diocese would pay him to sing at the archbishop’s funeral.

After mass, feeling maternal, I had to say hello to the cantor. How’s school, what are you doing with yourself for the summer, all that. He gave me his best face, that happy, polite young person’s “I Have Places To Be” face. He gave me the bright version of his story, the one he’s been polishing and presenting over and over for the last year. I released him with a “be good” (my maternal verbal tic), and he flitted away like the songbird he is. Or appears to be.

I’m doing great.

God, I hope so.

The week before, I’d sung (or tried to) at the funeral of a kid just a couple of years older. He’d been in drug rehab for a few months, came home, and overdosed on heroin.

And a few weeks before that, there was the memorial service for a man who’d been suffering from terminal cancer, and committed suicide.

A few weeks later, Robin Williams. He didn’t go to my church, but I think most people I know worshiped at his temple, which we thought would tell the story of humor’s triumph over suffering. There’s so often a story underneath, one that is rarely told, and therefore not so well-polished, something neglected, something ruined after too much time locked away.

You’ve heard that phrase, “preaching to the choir”? It means, to paraphrase Saint Augustine, that whatever prayer you think is so unique, we’ve prayed it twice. We don’t like that we know what we know and feel what we feel, but we’ve gotten your message. We’re with you, brother. Just tell us what to sing.

It’s Labor Day Weekend, not Memorial Day, but this summer has been a bit of a downer, hasn’t it? Ebola. Elevated armed conflict worldwide. Listing it all here would be the blog equivalent of George Carlin’s expletive sketch, except not funny.

I’m tempted to blame August. It’s a more contemplative month than we give it credit for: oppressively hot and contemplative, or misty and chilly and contemplative. It’s the end of the summer and no one wants to talk about it yet. So we internalize our anxieties about the failing light, the shortening days, the trials of fall, and try to enjoy the beach in the rain. The more melancholy trees admit they’re too tired to give a shit anymore, and begin to turn.

Yet this particular August has been, human suffering aside, beautiful here in New York. A local nature expert told me that from July through August, we’ve had a record low of 90-degree days. In my neighborhood, anytime the world looked too dark on our television screens, we could always step outside and be struck by the world’s natural face. We couldn’t help thinking, “How beautiful!”

August also brought the most surprising public display of human compassion in recent American experience–the ALS ice bucket challenge. Yes, there are haters who make every argument about the phenomenon being misguided. Viral videos of teenagers, athletes, and well, just about everyone dousing themselves with ice cannot change the world. But I look at the breadth of humanity and generosity of spirit that produced these videos, and I think critics must not understand. Human joy is best when bittersweet.

(You can’t ignore the outpouring of money either. ALS charities have enjoyed millions in increased donations this month. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that other charities have experienced an “overflow” effect.)

So overall, despite its considerable downers, I think I’ll consider August a success.

As if he knew I was writing about the choir this week, the church music director texted me last night. He was at the beach for Labor Day weekend, enjoying a top-shelf vodka cocktail. He was remembering my family fondly and expansively for introducing him to this particular label as a Christmas gift one year. Come to think of it, he was probably sipping his vodka straight. His exact words were “the nectar of the gods.”

Maybe I shouldn’t end this post extolling a glass of vodka. The gods drink some strong stuff.

Or this might be my bias against vodka talking. I do prefer tequila.

Choose your nectar, whatever it is, on this last weekend of summer. You needn’t self-medicate. You need only take a moment to step outside. How beautiful!

I will send money rather than suffer an ice bucket dousing, but it’s because I’m a chicken, not a judge. Give me an ice bucket at the beach, cooling the nectar of the gods as the sun sets on this summer.

I texted back that I was impressed at his retained capacity to type while communing with said gods. Have a blast!

After all, he’s the director of music. He has to play at every damned funeral.