Life Itself (July 12, 2014)

On May 2, 2009, legendary writer and film critic Roger Ebert published the essay, “Go Gentle Into That Good Night” on his blog, Roger’s Journal. Almost four years later, the man of letters was dead at the age of 70, finally succumbing to a long bout with thyroid cancer. Ebert’s post is elegant, beautiful and heartbreaking in so many ways, invested with extra pathos given his sustained and painful illness. I don’t know where he found the strength.

 

The opening has stayed with me for years:

“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”

I’m an atheist who struggles with her godlessness, so much that I’ve rarely mentioned it in print. I try not to talk about it either, not only because there’s good sense in the axiom that one should avoid discussions of politics and religion in mixed company. Although I believe there’s a certain rhythm and harmony to the universe, I can’t get down with any particular faith’s explanation of who’s in charge. This is a tough position to take in a family mixed with devout Lutherans, Catholics and Muslims.

I am a scientist and logician. Math and tested research. It’s the latter principle that reinforces my belief. Eight years of parochial skill, learning the Catechism and memorizing Bible verses in lieu of world geography. I’ve given it a lot of thought and study. But I don’t know how to talk about it, especially when you throw in the almost perverse jealousy experienced when I encounter a true person of faith. How much more serene and relaxed their worldview.

And so Ebert’s gentle, profound passage on death, his conviction that there is nothing more than this life, is inspirational. My atheism is not the confrontational type in the style of skeptic legends Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. I don’t begrudge another human being what works for them, as long as they display the same courtesy. Yet the softer voices of atheism are often drowned by those of the white alpha males in the room. Ebert’s is a lovely contribution, and a model for articulating my own spirituality.

Last weekend, a friend and I went to the theater to see Life Itself, the new documentary about Roger Ebert’s birth, career and death from filmmaker Steve James. A must-see for any loyal fan certainly, but the movie is important for so many reasons. It’s no deification of the brilliant icon. We learn of Roger’s outsized ego, his alcoholism, the womanizing before settling down at the age of 50 with soulmate Chaz. Somehow, these imperfections set in relief the humanity that infused every word written over a 45-year career.

What the film makes clear, what Ebert’s body of work certifies, is that he soaked in everything he could from his time on Earth, believing as he did, that you only get one shot. He ate, drank, loved and fought with frenemy Gene Siskel with gusto. He wrote about so much more than the art of filmmaking. Chicago architecture, screenplays, social commentary – Ebert’s career defied the pigeonhole.

And so the title of the movie about the man who loved movies is perfection. Roger Ebert’s fervor for experience both was and is contagious. Whenever the symptoms of the autoimmune disease with which I struggle unleash a pity party of one, an excuse parade for why I can’t, I recall that my hero was missing half his face and two days away from the grave when he published his final essay, “A Leave of Presence.” It’s better than anything I’ve ever written, perhaps better than anything I’ll ever write. But who knows? I’ll keep trying, as I’ll continue searching for explanations to the confounding. Because I believe, as Roger Ebert did, that’s life itself.

30 Days of Gratitude: 2013 Edition (November 26, 2013)

Yes, I have seen this meme work its way across Facebook over the course of November. I thought about participating, but my brain is usually too stream-of-consciousness for that level of daily content commitment, and I refuse to violate my personal rule of one status update per day (any more than that and I run the risk of the dreaded newsfeed “block” by bored connections). So with that in mind, here’s a month’s worth of people, events and phenomena for which I am grateful over the course of 2013, all in one shot.

1.Occupying the top spot with good reason, I am grateful for April’s reconciliation with my sibling and her family. Life is a lot less funny and loving without my baby sis.

2.Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, recently described by funny man Stephen Colbert as a “possessed Cabbage Patch doll,” I thank you for two things: reminding North America that the USA does not have the monopoly on mentally challenged local politicians, and for instilling waves of nostalgia for the comedic stylings of Chris Farley.

3.Early summer period of unemployment: I salute you. Were it not for the unexpected job loss, I would not be happily ensconced as a Marketing Manager with a wonderful company in downtown Chicago.

4.I am grateful that pompholyx eczema, while challenging and painful, has thus far limited itself to my hands. In many cases, the feet are also affected, ushering in a whole new wave of debilitating restrictions.

5.Early Fall welcomed Act III with the love of my life. We’re making it work this time, applying the lessons of the past with strategic guidelines for a balanced future. That might sound more business jargon than romantic sweetness, but I’ve finally learned that hard work and commitment are every bit as important as passion. And we’re lucky enough to have that too.

6.I’m grateful that the Illinois Woman’s Press Association chose me as their 2013-2015 leader. Together we’ve grown membership by 20 percent in six months, introduced dynamic new programming and collaborations with other communications organizations. The era of siloing and membership bleed is over. This makes me proud.

7.Thank you to the rollerblading ukulele player and singer who often greets me as I alight from the Red Line stop near my apartment. The sight of you gliding in circles with perfect tune and pitch never fails to put a smile on my face.

8.I cannot stress enough how much I love my de facto stepdaughter Amber and four year-old grandbaby Chloe. I leapt right over motherhood into a full and diverse family life as unexpected as it is treasured. Our growing bond is a source of continual joy.

9.Dr. T: You with your string of pearls, pale blonde hair and Stepford Wife looks. You may not have been the ideal of how my perfect therapist should appear, but when you echo my angry “f” bombs, I never feel more understood.

10.Salt Lake City: As an atheist from an all-business metropolis, I never expected to find your exceedingly friendly locals, natural cultivation and Mormon-culture appealing, but your $4 beer and shot specials, clean streets and sincerely helpful citizens won me over.

11.Breaking Bad: Thank you for five seasons of jaw-dropping storytelling and acting. I held my breath, I cried and I was angry. You shall never be duplicated. Thank you as well for leaving the party long before you got stale.

12.Mr. Roger Ebert: Your April death provoked a sense of public loss I had not experienced since the 2008 premature passing of NBC’s Tim Russert. My sincere gratitude for your thoughtful, diverse body of work and the opportunities to bond with a father who was and remains, mostly incomprehensible.

13.Thank you soft, black doughnut cushion (February 2013 – August 2013) for making hours of sitting bearable as my poor, busted tailbone slowly healed. Thank you also for doubling as a comfy Metra train sleeping pillow. I apologize for carelessly leaving you behind in the Salt Lake City airport. I like to think you are enjoying a second life comforting the buns of another injured soul.

14.Epsom salts: I just wrote about you last week, but it bears repeating. For your affordable, diverse ability to treat and soothe so many conditions, this Bud’s for you.

15.My growing adoration for the NFL, despite its imperfections and the perennial so-so-ness of the Bears, is the reason I do not entirely succumb to Seasonal Affective Disorder each Fall.

16.The Republicans behind the late-Fall government shutdown: grazie for providing a much-needed, if temporary distraction from the abominable rollout of Obamacare.

17.President Obama: Thank you for breaking with eight years of W’s “Cowboy Diplomacy” to show the world that we are capable of talking and negotiating our way to a more peaceful world. Thank you also for being tough enough to stand up to warmongers who love to try to settle scores with bombs, yet failed to learn from the Iraq and Afghanistan examples that getting in is a lot easier than getting out.

18.I regret the coming conclusion to PBS’s Downton Abbey, but am grateful for the modern-day Austen void this society drama has filled.

19.Red wine: You’ll be on this list every year, you angel/devil, you.

20.The Boston Marathon bombing was tragic, frightening and a terrible blow to the assumed security of community events, but it taught the nation a couple of critical lessons: don’t assume Islamic terrorists are brown-skinned folks from distant lands and most of all, DON’T mess with the Boston PD.

21.Pope Francis: Like I said I am an atheist, but I am a huge fan of the compassion, good sense and humility you’ve unleashed on the Vatican thus far. There may be hope for a modern, relevant Catholic Church yet. I still can’t believe you made it through the Conclave given your radical ideas about poverty and tolerance, but I’m glad you did.

22.Not a fan of Edward Snowden, but I’m grateful for the public conversations about privacy and surveillance his shenanigans invited. It can easily be argued that we would not be having them otherwise.

23.Paul Krugman: For keeping Keynesian economics alive and mainstream and for standing up to destructive austerians and “deficit scolds” on the regular. Your brilliance, approachability and determination demonstrate why they don’t hand out Nobel Prizes to just anybody.

24.I thank the National Federation of Press Women for seeing fit to bestow my second first place national writing award in four years. The fact that my 2013 prize was for last year’s work on this very blog makes the victory that much sweeter. This page is me.

25.I am grateful for my diverse, eclectic neighborhood of Rogers Park, and the multi-faceted benefits of lakefront living.

26.Zipcar: Thanks to your affordable membership prices and pickup location plentifulness, I don’t miss vehicle ownership one whit and shall never purchase an automobile again.

27.I don’t know whose decision at CNN it was to allow Newt Gingrinch to assault the airwaves on a weekday basis, but thank you. I now have a place to channel my sweaty hate whilst running on the treadmill.

28.Much love to PK and his painful, awful craniofacial massage techniques that have helped the Great Migraine Crisis of 2012 seem like a distant memory.

29.Wendy Davis: Your June, 11-hour filibuster badassery in the Texas Senate may not have killed the State’s assault on abortion rights, but your honey badger determination announced a new leader for women’s issues – and spiked sales of pink sneakers.

30.Last but not least, I am grateful that I have been given another year on this planet upon which to reflect.

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.

Don’t Let the Door Hit You on The Way Out: Goodbye, April 2013 (April 30, 2013)

april-2013

By any conceivable standard, this has been a grueling month. The term “War on Terror” was given new significance as it became clear that enemy combatants do not exclusively hatch their plots “over there.” In addition to the devastating work of the Brothers Tsarnaev, both longtime U.S. residents (19 year-old Dzhokhar, a citizen) at the Boston Marathon lo these two weeks ago, we have the still-unexplained Texas fertilizer plant explosion and a series of ricin-laced letters mailed to various office holders in Washington.

But the month of April 2013 also presents an argument for the idea that our interpretation of the word “terrorism.” is far too limited. In the wake of Congress’ embarrassing failure to address the growing problem of mass public executions through the passage of a universal background check law for would-be gun owners, eight of our nation’s children continue to be shot and killed everyday. According to a February report from The Washington Post, the U.S. has experienced at least one mass shooting per month since 2009.

Throughout the course of an incredibly violent month, martial law to catch a killer has increasingly become the norm. Boston went on lockdown during the denouement of the hunt for Dzhokar Tsarnaev and today we learned that the business of rural California town, Valley Springs, has come to a halt as law enforcement searches for the killer of an 8 year-old girl. The victim, Leila Fowler, was brutally and randomly stabbed in her home in front of her 12 year-old brother. If such community harassment and intimidation is not the stuff of terrorism, the word has officially lost all meaning.

Compounding the violent challenges facing the nation and the inertia of elected officials in addressing the relative ease of weapon procurement. As well as the mental health and socioeconomic stratification that is surely playing its role, April 2013 has also given the lie to the right wing insistence that climate change is but a liberal conspiracy. Ask citizens of the Midwest bailing themselves out of monsoon-esque flash floods (Chicago) or mid-spring blizzard (Minnesota) if they think global warming is a hoax. Extreme weather has become more frequent, bizarre and devastating (Hurricane Sandy in Manhattan). We don’t need scientific data to confirm this. We can see it for ourselves.

April 2013 has also been marked by the loss of great artists, thinkers and newsmakers.  Adieu Margaret Thatcher, Roger Ebert, Annette Funicello, George Jones, Jonathan Winters and Ritchie Havens, among others. Will inspirational leaders rise up to take their place?

I realize that the simple transition to May has no direct correlation with the shift in toxic anti-mojo I desperately desire for my country. On behalf of myself and the Newtown families, the Boston bombing victims and their loved ones and everyone else facing an exhausting cluster of defiance this month, the movement of a date promises no release. But let’s try it anyway, shall we? Rumors abound that the media and constituent flogging unleashed on members of the House and Senate after the shameful defeat of the gun bill may just cow them into tuning out the NRA and adhering to the will of the 90 percent.

May the plentiful miseries of this month produce some good in the next.

The Lessons Roger Ebert’s Life Has for the GOP (April 7, 2013)

roger-ebert

It’s been a busy news week inside Washington and out. In the sports world, we have the coaching abuse scandal presently rocking the Rutgers University campus and reverberating across the State of New Jersey. In the national political realm, we await two important decisions from the Supreme Court related to marriage equality and its application toward our LGBTQ citizenry, even as Obama’s opponents continue grasping for novel ways to attack the POTUS. Did you hear the one about the President calling California litigator Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general” as part of laudatory remarks about her skills and professionalism? Were you offended? Me neither.

But for lovers of film, and most especially, residents of Chicago, the dominant narrative of the week was the retreat of celebrated film critic Roger Ebert. It was only Tuesday that the icon took to his blog to announce a “leave of presence,” a step away from the weekly demands of his column for the Chicago Sun-Times. The theory was that the decision would allow Ebert to focus on battling a resurgent cancer. Before we had time to adjust to his reduced presence, Ebert died just two days later, leaving a legion of admirers bereft.

Although the Pulitzer Prize winner was not a political figure, that didn’t stop him from sharing his civic views early and often, most recently in the active Twitter feed that offered Ebert his tenth act on the pop cultural stage. Many of these tweets contained solid  advice for elected officials on both sides of the political aisle. On March 10, 2012, concerned about he President’s debate performance against opponent Mitt Romney, he volunteered, “Obama needs to use the ‘Bush’ word. #debate.” Cycling back to the previous Presidential contest, Ebert sent this piece of wit across the Internet: “Facebook’s 420-character limit proves doable with @SarahPalinUSA’s policy statements.”

But beyond this clear and incisive commentary, there are many ways in which Ebert’s philosophies serve as a blueprint for course correction that the hopelessly adrift GOP so badly requires. I’m serious. Hear me out.

Let’s take Ebert’s imprint on the World Wide Web as just one example. In a very real way, blogging and social media restored the critic’s voice after he had lost it, and much of his jaw, to a battle with thyroid and salivary gland cancer. 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. This sort of nimble adaptability separated Ebert from the Caucasian, graying male peers that still represent the bulk of the GOP’s membership. Consider RNC Chairman Reince Preibus’ recent post-election “autopsy” report, which indicts the party for its failure to connect with youth voters and other demographics, on the ground as well as on the Web. The GOP’s stiff fear of change continues to be an albatross around the neck that never weighed down Ebert, as diversely popular at the time of his death as he had ever been.

Another lesson from Ebert’s life to which today’s Republican Party would be wise to attend is perhaps the toughest one of all or today’s Grand Old Party to grasp. Collaborating with rivals can produce epic greatness. You hear me, John Boehner? 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.

And when you find yourself backed into a corner, overcome by the growing awareness that your position is no longer tenable, it’s even ok to change it! Imagine that! Check out this excerpt from the critic’s Wikipedia page:

“Ebert revisited and sometimes revised his opinions. After ranking E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial third on his 1982 list, it was the only movie from that year to appear on his later ‘Best Films of the 1980s’ list (where it also ranked third). He made similar revaluations of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, and 1985’s Ran.”

You too, Republican party members, can take your place in a thinking culture constantly re-evaluating its viewpoints, co-opting that which makes sense while discarding that which doesn’t. You just have to want it. It is not necessary to cling to discarded dogmas from yesterday out of a cowardly fear that you can’t win a primary. Who knows? People might even respect you for having a mind of your own. Consider the possibilities.

As a nation, we will miss Roger Ebert for many reasons. But not insignificant among them are the dedication to learning and growth, the lack of arrogance and the genuine humility that allowed us to feel as though we knew him personally. An increasingly tone deaf and detached GOP could learn much from his example.