Tragicomedia with Don Hall, host of Chicago’s The Moth
"I don’t feel regretful because I did something else, and something else happened."

Don Hall, host of Chicago's The MothWhy you should live your dead guy’s life for a day; the 3-day rule for wallowing; and how to “travel all over humanity” as a garage sale trumpet: Chicagoan Don Hall of The Moth explains it all in this week’s Tragicomedia with Nancy Gershman of Art For Your Sake.  Don produces, directs, acts and writes for a variety of Chicago Off-Loop theater. In Chicago, he is Founding Director of WNEP Theater, and the “Caucasian host” of The Moth. Don is “an Aquarius, an Agnostic, and an A-hole with a blog.”


Your last thought on earth should be a “big” thought 
Re-frame guilt as something else
Instead of funerals, live your dead guy’s life for a day
The opposite of love is apathy
The rule is wallow, piss and moan for 3 days, max
On your birthday, write everything you learned that year
Sell me in your yard sale as ashes-in-a-trumpet
Your To Do List

Your last thought on earth should be a “big” thought

“One story, which is true, was that in ‘99 a woman here in Chicago was walking down Wabash and a plate glass window fell, and decapitated her. Everyone was horrified but what hit me in the balls was: What was she thinking in those last few minutes? Was she thinking about bullshit, Cheetohs, bills, and other banal, day to day stuff?

Me personally, I’d want to think about something big, something cool. When I was 5, I had spinal meningitis, which was known as a child killer (basically the body eats up your spinal cord). Mother was 20. They told her it was a certainty that I was going to die or else I’d have blindness, deafness, brain damage, or be somehow physically disabled. Long story short, I grew up. I was saved by the universe. When Mother found God, she put her hand on my tiny skull and told me, “You are special.”

After divine intervention, I grew up thinking I was John Connor, that messiah guy in Terminator. “You are going to be important and what you do is special. “In college, I was diagnosed with cerebral aneurysms which might have been the side effect from spinal meningitis. A college doctor said I would die in 5 years. At that point I was a 19-year old drunk. So instead of being wise or perhaps thoughtful or cautious, I kept on drinking and having more sex – and bar fights – than I should have, until it’s 5 years later and I have a degree from the University of Arkansas.

Around this time I start this bizarre myth that I will die when I am 45. Where did I get that number? I was 24, and 45 seemed a long way off. Forty-five is old. Everything I did from that point on was because I placed a deadline on my life that when I was 45, I’d be gone. It was so deeply ingrained, it wasn’t something I thought about. It was just there. It was like Republicans believing in supply-side economics: it was believable, dammit!

Then the weird awful thing happened. I turned 46. Now I’m like, John Connor’s mother, Sarah Connor. I don’t know where the highway is going. I don’t have a deadline anymore. Now what do I do with myself? I just know I don’t want to die thinking about crap like bills, or infighting, things we all get wrapped up in.

Those few seconds you get before you crap your pants? It’s life flashing before your eyes. Seconds become a lifetime. I would like to think at that moment, there is some sort of revelation.

I’m not a believer in God or religion. I don’t know where you go after you die, but I don’t think after the meat casing ceases to function that that’s the end and then there’s darkness. I think there’s got to be something after this, and I hope it doesn’t include back pain. Either you see [the afterlife] or you get an idea what it’s going to be like. Like those near death experiences. You hear a voice, music. Instead of just being thrown off the high dive, I want to believe you get to make a conscious decision to jump.

A moment where you look back, and say, “Goddamn I should have invested in that thing.” Or “She was the thing I was supposed to marry!”

Instead of regrets say “I did something else and something else happened”

“I regret some things I’ve done in my life. I think regret you either frame as regret or reframe as something else. I’m Irish, but not religious Irish. I didn’t grow up with guilt. Guilt is a tool to control people so I didn’t grow up with guilt. I have a concrete idea: when I screw up, I move on.

If I did such-and-such differently – I don’t feel regretful because I did something else, and something else happened. If I had not gone to college and gone directly to college and Second City fresh out of college, would I have been famous then? I got a music education degree, I got married, it ended in divorce. I got married; it ended in divorce. Now …

With my second wife, that was a harder break up. For a year I thought what a fucking waste of 10 years of life. Then I actively said, That’s lame. I started looking at 10 years of photos where we are doing all this good stuff – having a great meal , being on vacation, etc. -and saw that our marriage was not a waste of time.”

Instead of funerals, live your dead guy’s life for a day

“I went to my very first funeral this year. My grandfather (Grandpa J) was my main role model when I was a kid. He was an oil rigger; a soldier in Patton’s Army, and he stormed Normandy. Sort of like a really drunk, scarred version of Andy Griffith. He died when I was 13. I was so emotionally distraught that day, the family decided it wasn’t good for me to go to his funeral, and I haven’t gone to a funeral since.

I decided funerals are morbid and I’d celebrate each person a different way. A friend of mine from college, he loved his weed. He really loved drinking coffee, smoking and talking about Jack Kerouac. So when he died, I went to a local park with a thermos of coffee, three reefers and “On The Road” for most of the day. I don’t smoke a lot of reefer, and that was a lot. After three reefers, you don’t feel like moving. It was kind of fun, thinking about him. Thinking about him, talking to him; it all became a moment of quiet reflection.

My Uncle Junior had a rough life. He was a trumpet player in the Marine Corps Band. Screwed himself up with drugs and was perpetually adolescent and a loser. Died young at 52. (I’m 47 so that seems really young to me.) The first trumpet I ever got was a pocket trumpet from Junior -a trumpet kind of mashed together so a kid can hold it. He taught me how to play it, and that got me through college, my Fulbright, my music degree, and then playing all over the world in jazz bands. When he died I brought my trumpet and a fifth of Jack Daniels to the beach. It was cold so nobody was out there –and I played. It felt right.

Grieving, mourning is for the people left behind. The people who died don’t give a shit. Grieving, I think, is a selfish act, but not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a personal thing, entirely for you.”

The opposite of love is apathy

“Last Christmas, Grandma Betty passed. She’d been in a home for about 5 years. The funny thing was, it was hit or miss whether she’d recognize my mom or my sister. Mom would warn me, “If she doesn’t recognize you, don’t feel hurt.” But from across the room Betty always knew who I was. I think she liked guys better, or it was a joke played on my mom and sister, shitting them, pretending she didn’t know who they were because she was a crack-up.

About an hour after she died, my sister called and said, “Mom won’t say it to you, but she needs you here.” So we drove 12 hours over night and I was nervous, but when we got arrived there was crappy coffee and church cookies. Mom gave a real meat and potato eulogy. It went pretty much like this: Betty was a hard ass who smoked and drank. She didn’t like people very much and had no apologies for anybody. Late that night, Mom and I were sitting and talking and knowing this stuff about Betty, I asked her: “Did you guys ever say I love you?” Mom didn’t think so, so I asked “Did you ever come to love her?” and Mom said, “Did I have a choice?” If that is not just family wrapped up in one phrase, sad and beautiful, I don’t know what is. That was the punctuation to a perfect funeral. It was exactly what I wanted to hear.

I think my mom had to have loved her on some primal level, because she took care of her. My mom was the least likely person to do it, because of the contentious relationship she had with her mom ever since she was born. I believe you can’t be devoted to somebody without having a degree of love for that person. Devotion and dedication and loyalty – those are huge and there’s so few of it. It’s truly rare to see somebody devoted to the well-being of someone else. I believe it’s either love or apathy, and that was definitely not apathy …”

The rule is wallow, piss and moan for 3 days, max

“Millennials are whiney things. So I follow Mom’s Three Day Rule. Mom says (and it’s totally unrealistic and stupid but I’ve actually seen it work): no matter what happens -someone dies, you lose a job – you have three days. Wallow, piss and moan and on the third day you have to get your ass in gear because there are things to be done. After the divorce, I cried my eyes out and three days later I was back to work.”

On your birthday, write everything you learned that year

“I keep names alive through stories. The idea is almost as old as cave paintings. We’re incredibly narcissistic, and what we remember, we’re generally the center of. If it’s true to ourselves, reflected through the lens of me – that’s how we see memories, through our eyes. There’s immeasurable value sharing stories with each other. While we’re all individual snowflakes with idiosyncratic structures, we’re all made of fucking snow. Sharing stories reminds people that we’re all the same. We all know what it feels like to lose love, no matter what culture, religion or country we’re from.

I talk about pretty much everyone I know – a sign to me that you’re a sticky person – or an important person. Even if you were a shit-ass, you made a difference in my life.

I don’t want to forget anything. Eventually I will forget my own name. Everything that happens to me teaches me something. If I forget, I forget the lesson. On my birthday, I like to be 5 hours away from everybody and everything so I can try and write down everything I learned that year. Because I’m stupid, the same issues will come up year after year. What did I learn in my 15th year of life? Up until I think I was 29, I wrote all my stories down by hand. I now have scanned all that paper and digitized them.

Yeah! At 15 I was pretty much the same! I know we do get calcified. We like to look back on our lives and say, those were the good ole days – which is such a lot of horseshit. People are pretty much the same all the time. Teenagers lie and are obnoxious and then we want to kill them. It’s nice to remind myself what I was like. How self-serving I was then.”

Sell me in your yard sale as ashes-in-a-trumpet

“I love the idea that when somebody dies, you can combine different photos of this person into a single photomontage. But I guess I don’t see photos of dead people to be particularly sad. It’s like looking at an empty Coke bottle; the glass ones. When it’s filled with Coke, you know it’s going to be refreshing. An empty Coke bottle serves no purpose. Put sand in it, or a flower. But that bottle doesn’t exist except to be recycled. I don’t find any sadness in that bottle. It’s used up and all the juice is gone. So what do we do with the body?

My favorite thing is green burials. You don’t get embalmed. You’re wrapped a certain way, but ultimately you’re planted and a tree grows from your ashes. What are we but a big meat sack with some bones? What I would love, is for you to cremate me, put my ashes in my trumpet, solder it shut. Then keep selling me in yard sales. Little old ladies will say, “My, my, it’s a sealed off trumpet with something in it!” Eventually they’ll die and the family will get rid of things they don’t want anymore, and lo and behold, I’ll be in another yard sale, traveling all over humanity.”

Your To Do List
  • Think about a family member or friend who died yet never got a fair shake in the way their story is being told. Commission a custom, storytelling photomontage by artist Nancy Gershman to re-frame their life, recalling only the most positive memories left behind.
  • If their legacy has more to do with a philosophy than achievements, work with Nancy to see if there is a symbolic object that encapsulates their essence, as in Joel’s Dreamscape photomontage, which depicts Joel as a dragon, airborne over Arlington Cemetery. Upon seeing her husband’s remembrance photomontage, Joel’s widow expressed why she felt both their wishes were met by the artist. “[Joel] used to say he knew he was a very old soul and that Asian dragons were amongst the oldest ones known … I also like to think the Asian dragon gives me permission to go to the Orient, to continue with my Asian studies, even though he is not of this plane anymore.””

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