Roger and Me (April 5, 2013)

Roger and Me

Not since the 2008 passing of former Meet the Press moderator, seasoned journalist and accomplished author Tim Russert has the death of a celebrity or public figure hit me this hard. I am referring of course, to the sad news of legendary film critic Roger Ebert’s expiration yesterday, following a long and public battle with various cancers. I spent most of last evening drinking wine and reading some of Ebert’s classic meditations on the afterlife and the collapse of Chicago’s once grand movie palaces through sorrowful tears. As was the case with Mr. Russert’s untimely demise, I felt bereft, quite as if a friend or family member I knew intimately had left a gaping wound that could only be treated by traveling backward and savoring the witty, intellectual memories.
During the course of this binge, I ran into an essay Ebert wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2010. Entitled “Why I Loathe Top 10 Film Lists,” it turns out that the man who rose to fame in part for his ability to determine quality via rank, actually had no taste for the task. But among many wonderful attributes the icon possessed, a sense of humor was decidedly one of them. So it is with a purposeful mix of gratitude, respect and good-natured ribbing that I present my parting gift to the man whose erudite musings on film, politics, pop culture and life in general will inspire my own work for as long as I am able to do it.
The Top 10 Things I Learned from Roger Ebert
1. Be a Lifelong Student
Did you know that Ebert was a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, studying English Literature, even while employed as a general reporter for the Sun-Times? I didn’t until yesterday and dammit, this little nugget only increased my respect. But beyond traditional academic learning, the critic was a pupil of the world. Long after he lost his audible voice, Ebert was still looking for information and answers to some of life’s greatest mysteries. Complacency and arrogance are boring and lead to mental stagnation. He understood this – a huge reason his work continued to connect across a career that spanned nearly half a century.
2. Writers May Enjoy Diverse, Satisfying Careers Without Moving To New York City or L.A.
Robert Ebert was born and raised in Urbana, IL, enjoyed most of his career highlights in the Windy City and literally put Chicago on the film criticism map. To this day, most aspiring writers are under the impression that a stint in the traditional publishing and Hollywood scriptwriting centers is the only way to be “seen.” Ebert did it his way and in process, collected a Pulitzer Prize, a hit syndicated television program and millions of enthusiastic readers. Following his example, I have cultivated a four-year freelance theater criticism career – over 700 miles away from Broadway.
3. Late Bloomers Rock
I didn’t get my first period until I was almost 15 years old, kept growing until I was 20, had my braces removed at age 31 and didn’t form a functional adult romantic relationship until I was 33. As odd as these delayed milestones sometimes made me feel, I was in good company. Because my hero Roger Ebert segued into the genre that made him famous only after trying and discarding several other journalism ventures. He also married the love of his life, wife Chaz, at the ripe old age of 50.
4. Collaborating with Rivals Can Be Inspiring
Ebert famously said that when he was originally asked to co-anchor the popular show that eventually became At the Movies with his contemporary, Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, he had little inclination to team up with “the most hated guy in my life.” Imagine all we would have missed had Ebert not reconsidered. Taking a page from Abraham Lincoln’s formula for greatness, Ebert was self-aware and gracious enough to comprehend that butting heads with adversaries produces the need to consider and articulate one’s viewpoint in ways that surrounding oneself with sycophants cannot.
5. You Can Have Strong, Divisive Opinions and Still Be Universal
This claim would seem to be an oxymoron in the overly politicized and hyper partisan 21st century, but Ebert personified it. An avowed atheist and liberal as well as a stinging pundit gifted with a turn of phrase, the icon nonetheless engendered almost universal esteem. Film director David Wain, a frequent target of Ebert’s negative reviews, still felt compelled to tweet: “Roger Ebert was an ongoing inspiration (if not always a fan) to me and I am truly, truly saddened by his loss. I will miss him.”
6. Be Human First
While Ebert made a livelihood out of sharing his unvarnished opinions with the masses, he was never cruel. The legend always understood that real people stood behind a piece of work – people with thoughts, feelings and emotions who poured themselves into a finished product, no matter how wobbly. As producer Chris Weitz said yesterday, “Rest in Peace, Roger Ebert. You were a gentleman. Sometimes loved my movies, sometimes hated them, but you were always fair.”
7. Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
If he so chose, Roger Ebert could have played it safe. As a beloved critic and public figure, there was absolutely no reason for him to risk popular rejection by accepting director Russ Meyer’s 1970 commission of the screenplay for cult film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But he did it anyway, and even though the movie was almost universally panned upon its release, Ebert harbored no regrets. According to a report in the New York Times, “the film seemed a point of pride for Mr. Ebert, who was paid $15,000 and never tired of talking about it.”
8. Embrace Change
At the time of his death, Ebert had over 800,000 Twitter followers and was a frequent tweeter. He had an active Facebook fan page and was an avid blogger. It is important to remember that the man was 70 years old and began his career when “status updates” meant pulling out the electric typewriter and mailing the finished product via USPS. Ebert, rather than running scared from New Media, used it to share his topical musings and promote his brand, even after cancer had deprived him of the ability to speak. By jumping into the 21st century with both feet, Ebert was able to regain his voice.
9. Physical Challenges Are Only Limiting As You Allow
See above. And there’s this: two days before his death, Ebert took to his blog to announce a “leave of presence,” that included never-realized plans to continue reviewing the films he loved. It seems he never got the memo that illness and disfigurement require you to retreat and watch life happen from the sidelines. Literally nothing short of dying could get between Ebert and his work.
10. When You Can’t Talk About Anything Else, There’s Always the Movies
There are many good reasons why it’s best to steer clear of religion and politics as conversation topics in mixed company. But everyone has an opinion about film and, should discourse come to a screeching halt, they’ll be more than happy to share them.
On a personal note, Ebert’s annual film review anthologies offered me a platform for connecting with a confusing father when it often seemed impossible. Overrun by mental illness and debilitating addictions which included gambling and hoarding, sports and a love of film were the links that bonded my dad with a daughter desperate for common ground.

The Curse of the Class of ’96 (December 14, 2010)

I am a fairly tortured soul, as is obvious to anyone who either reads my work regularly, or is personally acquainted with me. My childhood struggles were complex, painful and more than any kid deserves, but I have been pretty fortunate as an adult. The bulk of my psychological work these days is to try to make sense of my past and come to terms with it; to find a way to live and move forward despite having the two least capable parents on the face of this Earth, who still pop up to torment my sister and I now and again. But as I mentioned, in adulthood, Jen and I have a pretty good thing going: solid marriages, thriving daughters and nieces and a wonderful relationship with each other. I often forget to count my blessings, which I believe the self-indulgence of writing often renders a tempting oversight.

In the last 18 months, I have come across the stories of three of my fellow female graduates, Lincoln Park High School class of 1996, that render me shamefaced with my own weakness. What these brave, formidable women have endured, I am certain I would never have had the stones to face. And the accounts of their survival and endurance must be shared, must be written by my pen, so that I can continually remind myself of the preciousness of life, that I haven’t a moment to waste in depression and wallowing.

Right before the graduation rituals and festivities of my senior year, my close friend and confidante, Niki, was struck by a CTA bus on her way to school. One of the most brilliant, beautiful yet small built people I have known, the impact with the large vehicle sent my friend skidding across Halsted Avenue on her head. There was every reason to worry. However, after a fairly lengthy hospital stay, Niki made a miraculous recovery and appeared at our senior luncheon with nothing more than a slight limp. There was much rejoicing after a terrible scare.

Sadly years later, the fallout from the accident reared its uly head once more when Niki suffered a massive stoke that forced her to learn to walk and talk again. Obviously, this much adversity would be more than enough to put most of us in a bad mood, but the always well-dressed, still smarter-than-I-will-ever-be Niki has gone on to earn a law degree, marry her soulmate and become the co-founder of a successful fashion blog:

http://sequinsthatdontsuck.blogspot.com/

I have written about my friend Jesika more than once on this page. Jesika, the nonstop hysterically wry and funny presence in my life for 16 years. In late April of 2009, this gifted woman (also a trained lawyer) died after a tragically short 17-day battle with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer. I will never forget this brief period of illness, not only because it was so difficult for everyone who loved her, but because she never, ever lost her spirit. At our final meeting, before I departed for what turned out to be an ill-timed 10-day trip to Israel (I was not there when Jesika breathed her last), she had her priorities in order: making fun of my “ghetto” black, puffy winter coat, mock pleading with me to get a new one. Despite the months of endless grief that followed, this final taking of the piss could not have been more apt – and comforting.

And only yesterday, I learned of yet another heartbreakingly awful blow dealt to a female member of my graduating class. My first memory of Bahar, a fellow student in Lincoln Park’s International Baccalaureate program, was of her approach toward me, all torn stockings, black eyeliner (it was the grungy 90s after all) and open heart. Another student in the program had mentioned my name to her, favorably it seems. So she approached me on the playground, and after announcing the need for introduction, politely shook my hand – all earnest business.

I never grew as close to Bahar as I often wished I had. She ran with the “cool” crowd, but appeared to be one of the few who actually deserved the label. I never saw her mistreat anyone she encountered, so quick with a smile or compliment. I always admired that as well as her alternative, exotic good looks.

So when a mutual friend sent a link to this story from the Chicago Tribune yesterday, I was heartbroken beyond all reason for my classmate. But I was not at all surprised by the depth of her character that the story portrays:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/ct-met-cancer-marriage-20101212,0,1667137.story?page=3&track=rss

Bahar met her husband, Nick, two years ago, when he was already sick with an advanced form of the cancer, sarcoma. She fell in love with him anyway, married him despite the inevitable conclusion, and devoted her life to looking for a cure. Sadly Nick passed away December 1st, a mere two months after the couple finally made it legal.

I do not know where she finds the strength. Bahar is my hero. Though we have not spoken in many years beyond the casual bonds of Face Book, she needs to know, as she picks up the pieces of her life, what an inspiration she is to everyone who hears her story.

I don’t know why so many miserable challenges have befallen such a crowd of fantastic young women. I know that life is full of terrible experiences that often defy explanation. I spent all day yesterday, forgive me, coming up with a silent mental list of lives I would trade in order to restore Bahar’s husband to her. But I am not God and I have no say in these matters.

I wrote about this trio of people from my formative years not to point out coincidence, but to synthesize the collective strength of these women. I don’t know if fortitude and moral fiber can be absorbed by osmosis, but in the name of Niki, Jesika and Behar, I am obligated to try.