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.

CNN, I Can’t Quit You (June 15, 2011)


God help me, but I adore Elliot Spitzer.

When I separated from my husband in April and moved into my own apartment, a serious decrease in income necessitated a downgrade of my cable services. Goodbye HBO, so long Showtime, and even the basic package I agreed to was a step down from the hundreds of HD channels at my disposal in a former life. No worries. I am a busy and resourceful girl and besides, the network TV stations were in the throes of wrapping up their episodic seasons.

Now that it’s June and my serials are on summer break, options for amusing myself while I eat dinner, clean the house and work out my Power Hoop, have become limited. My go-to for years has been CNN when all else fails. However with the gearing up of the 2012 U.S. Presidential election (particularly the GOP primaries), the continued unrest in the Middle East, the trial of Casey Anthony and the antics of Anthony Weiner, my always more than passing interest has taken on a life of its own.

I need help. I can’t enough of Fareed Zakaria. He may be the wisest man in the world and whether it’s his regular program GPS, or one of his illuminating specials, such as “Restoring the American Dream,” I wish I could empty his brain into mine.

The gay community scored a real coup back in May when adorable and charming weekend anchor Don Lemon came out of the closet. I think a number of my single sisters will join me in finding it terribly unfair that the two most gorgeous members of the CNN news team, including the venerable blue-eyed stallion, otherwise known as Anderson Cooper, are out of our reach. What’s left for us? Wolf Blitzer? Bah!

My love for all things CNN does not extend to John King, who for whatever reason never fails to remind of John Tesh (maybe it’s the whole “Blonde Frankenstein” thing – thank you Howard Stern), and is furthermore, a crushing bore. Ditto Soledad O’Brien, who I have noticed has become increasingly marginalized by the network since her April test in the weekly 7PM slot was deemed “unwatchable” by CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton. So why is she still there?

Wolf Blitzer and Jack Cafferty quench my thirst for curmudgeonly old men who have seen it all. Commentators and panelists David Gergen and Jeffrey Toobin never fail to elicit my interest. Ditto Roland Martin, who is always as excitable as he is intelligent.

Sanjay Gupta, you make me want to contract an unusual disease just so you’ll drop into my living room to do a special report.

And I can’t leave out my favorite CNN ladies. Dana Bash, Candy Crowley and Kiran Chetry – I heart you all.

I started and will end with an explanation of my most controversial CNN crush – Elliot Spitzer. When Parker/Spitzer debuted early this year, I didn’t give it a snowball’s chance in hell. Elliot, the former Governor of New York, remains a political punch line in many circles, and Kathleen Spitzer may be a hell of a writer, but she doesn’t give good TV. At all. The partnership had all the chemistry of a flat Diet Coke.

Mercifully, the brass at CNN realized that their true star is Spitzer. I may receive hate mail for saying so, but he fills the void in my heart left by the death of NBC’s Tim Russert. Spitzer will ask the tough questions. He knows he has nothing to lose and seems grateful enough for this career second act to leave it all on the court every evening. He will ask anybody anything and seems immune to squirming. He truly does not give a shit, and I love it! I am surprised the show is still able to book guests. That’s what I call keeping them honest.

Alright enough because clearly I could go on all day. For variety’s sake, I tried to give MSNBC a whirl last night, but the fit just wasn’t there. If watching CNN until my eyes cross is wrong, then I just don’t care to be right.

 

Obama’s “Bad Blood” with Business (August 5, 2010)

Much has been made recently of the strained rapport between the Obama administration and corporate interests. Various talking heads and opportunistic Republicans have seized upon the trumped up “war” between the President and Big Business as the cause of everything from the consistently high unemployment rate (“corporations are afraid to hire in this era of policy uncertainty”), to hard times for small business (“Obama’s desire to let tax cuts for the wealthy expire harms entrepreneurship”), and even, to my incredulity, the fallout from the BP oil spill. For example, the UK’s new Business Secretary, Vince Cable has been quoted as saying of Obama’s rampant criticism of BP’s actions before, during, and after the deep well explosion, “the president talks in a cheap way about ‘kicking ass’. Whether or not the American president can kick our asses, he can certainly hurt our wallets and purses.”

Thank you Mr. Cable for your ever so enlightened inclusion of ladies’ “purses” in your corporate lament. We now see you for the truly forward thinking, fair-minded guy you are (cue laugh track).

Even the “liberal media” has enjoyed taking the issue apart. Sunday morning talk show Meet the Press featured a panel discussion this past weekend including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Greenspan, while rightly declaring the state of the economy to be “touch and go,” also added “The financial system is broke and I see we just stay where we are. There’s nothing out there that I can see which will alter the level of unemployment.”

As soon as the former Chairman uttered these words, I gleefully clapped my hands together and waited for host David Gregory to give him the what for. After all, that is what the incomparable and disinterested Tim Russert would have done. But the moment never arrived. How can Greenspan credulously state that he “sees nothing out there” to act as a positive force on current unemployment rates, at a time when Big Business is posting record profits, and holding onto wads of cash?

Companies like Adobe, AirTran, Honda – even the once shaky banks and mortgage lenders who needed a taxpayer bailout are suddenly right as rain. With all this good news, why isn’t a stronger bottom line leading to improvements for long struggling job seekers? As I perused The New York Times last week, suddenly the answer became clear:

Industries Find Surging Profits in Deeper Cuts
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/26/business/economy/26earnings.html

Writer Nelson D. Schwartz declares, “Many companies are focusing on cost-cutting to keep profits growing, but the benefits are mostly going to shareholders instead of the broader economy, as management conserves cash rather than bolstering hiring and production.” On so very many levels, this makes me ill. Seems to me that instead of focusing on the trumped up antagonism between Obama and corporations, we should be talking about how Fortune 500 establishments have become the tormenter of American families.

So to return to my earlier question, how did the rumor that the Obama administration is the enemy of business get started, and more importantly, why is it being perpetuated? From where I’m sitting, it seems that it’s never been a better time to be a CEO, if not a regular working stiff. In addition to the record profiteering, I don’t recall Obama slamming the door in the faces of banks, automakers and other industries that showed up on Capitol Hill with a tin cup begging for change.

Probing a little further, it seems that the convoluted health care and financial reform bills could be the tacit excuse. Big Business would have you believe that the runaway regulations being passed by the “socialist” President are the root cause of its persecution complex (see first paragraph – “corporations are afraid to hire in this era of policy uncertainty”).

Pardon my French, but what a bunch of horse shit. If anything, President Obama hasn’t done nearly enough to roll back the heady days of Clinton/Bush deregulation. I believe I am not alone in my frustration – having to listen to the tiny violin playing martyrdom of corporations, even as they pop champagne over record profits, commending themselves for delighting shareholders on the backs of the jobless masses.

If the Obama administration has been the arch nemesis of business, how much worse off would the nation be if he acted as a friend?

BufBloPoFo 09 DayTwo (March 15, 2009)

If you had the power to put together the most perfect, end-of-the-universe, nothing-better-was-ever-made repast, using whatever ingredients you want, and with whomever you’d like as your co-diners, what would you want? Tell me about one little bit, or all fourteen courses. Tell me about venue, about background music, about which box of wine goes best with which flavor of ramen noodles.

I have invited two temporarily resurrected men, Tim Russert and Jesus, to my place for dinner. Joining the three of us will be one person who remains of this world, Madonna. I have offerred to prepare a zesty vegetable lasagna from scratch. I have chosen a veggie meal because Jesus and Madonna are both Jews, and I do not keep a kosher kitchen. I understood from Tim Russert’s waistline while alive that he is not a picky eater. I set three plates at the bar in my kitchen, and pour three glasses of red wine. Madonna only sips gingerly at hers, requesting a bottle of Kabbalah water alongside her plate. Tim Russert and Jesus start sucking it down. We all know Jesus was a pretty fun wedding guest. Tim Russert came from a blue collar Irish background. ‘Nough said. I keep a plate for myself on the side. I will eat (and drink later). I do not want to be distracted or compromised whatsoever as we begin our discussion.

Wine has reddened the cheeks of Tim Russert and so he introduces a lively debate on the current economic crisis. Russert heatedly lays the blame at the feet of George W. Bush, though he does admit that the U.S. had been a little too lax about a lot of things in the last twenty years. Jesus is of the opinion that he sort of likes Obama’s Robin Hood approach to his most recent budget plan. However, realizing he may have said too much, Jesus grows a little sheepish. The son of God ought not to appear to pick sides, he says, so can we all keep what he said under our hats? It’s not exactly a lie, and thus we wouldn’t really be breaking any commandments. I tell Jesus to relax and poor him another glass. Madonna, who charges $200 or more to see one of her shows, apparently doesn’t realize there is a recession at all. Nevetheless, Jesus is always one to find a silver lining, and though he encourages the Material Girl to get to know some of the “little people,” he nonetheless commends Madge on the adoption of the formerly impoverished David Banda.

As we move toward the dessert course, a homemade banana bread pudding (in this fantasy, I have miraculously learned how to cook. Perhaps the divine intervention of Jesus?), the discussion moves to the subject of children. Jesus, just like Michael Jackson a couple millenniums later, obviously loves them (However, He pointedly resents the Gloved One’s use of “Jesus Juice” to calm them down – J endorses no such product), but immediately lets us know not to believe everything we read. The Da Vinci Code is just a work of fiction and there were no Jesus Juniors. I can barely mask my disappointment. Tim Russert, by now a little intoxicated, grows misty eyed at the thought of his now adult son Luke. I show him a clip of Luke working on behalf of NBC news during the McCain/Obama debates and he is done for. Madonna has three children from three different fathers (fine, the last one was adopted). Jesus knows it’s 2009 and doesn’t want to come off as a prude, so he stays quiet during Madonna’s confessional.

Tim Russert can barely stand by the time we finish our meal. Jesus tells us the coolest thing about being the Son of God is his immunity to basically, well, everything. He hoists Tim up on his shoulder so they can begin the walk back to heaven. Surprisingly, it’s not that far. Madonna has a chopper on top of my roof and will fly off with her boy toy, 22 year-old Jesus Luz. She realizes the irony of sleeping with a pretty young thing that bears the name of the Chosen One, and accepts that as further proof that her bed hopping is indeed all part of God’s plan.