Chicago lost a legend this week, and many of us feel like we lost a friend.
After celebrating 46 years writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert passed away from a cancer that, in many forms, had been plaguing him for decades. I wanted to write "film critic Roger Ebert", but that doesn't say enough about who he was. Not nearly enough. I'm not alone in thinking of Ebert as more of a life critic than a film critic. Read any one of the posts and articles from this past week from his fans and friends and you'll find that his mark was much deeper than a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
I do consider myself to be a fan of film, but I only came to read Roger Ebert's film reviews after I connected with him on politics, religion and humor through Facebook and Twitter. It was through his huge internet presence in the time since he lost his ability to speak that I found an inspiration in his voice. Since I began to trust his opinions on social issues, I started trusting his opinions on movies and found the secret of what separated him from other critics: he didn't review movies, he spoke to readers about what a movie could evoke in us, about what we could learn from a character, about what a scene showed us about ourselves. He didn't review movies, he interpreted movies, and, in doing so, interpreted life. I did not love Terrance Malik's Tree of Life as much as he did (and I told him so), but I understood what he loved about it. In recent years he grew kinder in his reviews - just the appreciation that comes with age, perhaps - but he was still always honest.
(An example from Ebert's Review of "A Lot Like Love" starring Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet: "Judging by their dialogue, Oliver and Emily have never read a book or a
newspaper, seen a movie, watched TV, had an idea, carried on an
interesting conversation or ever thought much about anything. The movie
thinks they are cute and funny, which is embarrassing, like your uncle
who won't stop with the golf jokes.")
In recent obituaries, Ebert has been said to have had the soul of a poet. I'd agree. There are plenty of progressive writers on the web with whom I agree, but most of them are either lacking the passion for words, cities, people, and ideas that Roger had, or perhaps lacking the words with which to describe that passion. I bought his memoir when it came out, and waited in line to have him sign it. It's so exciting to meet your favorite writer. I bought a copy for my mother. In the past few days I've been rereading some of the chapters. The words sadden me now, but his clarity about life and the eventuality of death is inspiring. His shameless love for his wife and his life, regardless of its challenges, is something we can all strive to obtain. His final blog post is one example of this inspiration.
Roger Ebert was my favorite writer and my favorite preacher, teacher and philosopher. He helped so many of us see ourselves and our world better through his words. We are lucky to have had him on this Earth for 70 years.
Roger Ebert's 20 Best Reviews (via Jezebel)
Roger Ebert's website (Chicago Sun-Times)
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
I can hardly remember a March 17th that didn’t include an encounter with one or several fools from a cast of alcohol-soaked, green-layered characters: a slurring girl frantically accusing strangers of stealing her coat, a couple weaving home from a bar while one of them cries, a bro breaking his hand on some other bro’s face. Last year, I actually think I saw all of them in one day. It was like getting the Leprechaun Full House. St. Patrick’s can be a time of fun and friendship, but, like night of the full moon, it can also be a time for crazy.
To celebrate this year’s Irish-For-A-Day holiday, I enjoyed approximately 100 beers (give or take) with my friends in the northern suburbs on Saturday night, and returned home on the afternoon of St. Patrick’s day proper more interested in watching PBS on the couch than getting my green on. I was satisfied in doing so, with the exception of one issue. The missing part of my March 17th experience had been the food: I didn’t obtain the corned beef sandwich that I had been fantasizing about for a full year. Although my family is less Irish than Lucky Charms, we usually enjoyed traditional corned beef around the holiday. It was almost 8pm when I convinced myself that I deserved to uphold my family tradition.
I bundled up and entered the elements with one goal in mind – the New York Deli on Clark. If this blog were a Yelp review, I’d give it 5 stars (like most people do) and comment on its amazing sandwiches, classic checkered floor, and small business awesomeness (and I'd mention that the sell AND deliver craft beer), but that night it got even better than that.
That night, while I waited for my corned beef sandwich at a tiny table at the deli, I overheard the story of another St. Pat’s brute and witnessed some St. Pat’s chivalry.
The gal with long curly dark hair had been sitting alone near the back of the tiny shop. I noticed her when I walked in, as I considered if I should order my dinner to go or to stay. She wasn’t eating when I arrived, just sitting quietly, looking intently at her phone.
After a few minutes of us all sitting in the pleasant silence, she approached the store owner as he prepared sandwiches behind the counter. I could hear voice halt and crack. She began to cry, and I looked up from my magazine.
She apologized for loitering.
I just drove 5 hours.
He’s in a rage.
He slashed my tires.
Sandwich making halted.
You are safe here, Dave, the proprietor soothed. Can I get you anything? No rush. Stay as long as you need.
The Girl With Slashed Tires thanked him embarrassedly and returned to her seat. Moments later I heard her on the phone with a friend describe the “rage” of the man she was hiding from the way we talk about making that biannual dentist appointment; no one likes it, but we all live with it. The girl and the brute had been dating for 2 years.
Our shopkeeper, his only employee at the moment, walked away from the sandwiches. He came out from behind the counter with a cup of water for The Girl.
Handing her a card he said, This is my personal information.
I’m not being weird or creepy, I’m a happily married man.
You can stay as long as you want.
You are safe here.
You can do better than him.
That behavior is inappropriate and mean.
You call me if you need anything.
I know every cop in town.
She thanked him again and he returned to finish adding the perfect amount of mustard to my hot and fresh St. Patrick’s Day sandwich. I paid in cash and tipped him. I said thank you. Twice.
I walked north to my house while the St. Patrick’s Day Brute surely roamed the neighborhood in a rage. I wished that the Girl With Slashed Tires had never existed, but I had a warm heart knowing that the Dave at the New York Deli was looking out for her. St. Pat's has its fair share of crazies, but it has its heroes, too.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
The inherent survival instinct of my human nature stepped forward in this world of dreams and I definitely stabbed a few zombies without regret. I felt like a bad ass. But my instinct to assume innocence even of those whose flesh came falling off as they lumbered toward me also held on tight.
Among the jaw-flapping living dead on the other side of the elevator cage, there was also a young woman trying to transport orphaned pit-bull puppies to safety. Was she a zombie? Were they were zombie puppies? How did I know for sure if I should stab wildly or restrain myself?
As a person interested in the occult, and all things strange, I am surprisingly not into zombies. I've never much cared for zombie apocalypse discussions, or zombie bar crawls and any other such thing. I have nothing against the undead (go vampires!) but I just can't get into zombies. How they made their way into my dream is a mystery, but I have an inkling where the moral debate may have surfaced.
Over the past 5 years, and especially over the past few months, I've tried to stay abridged in the conversation in this country about gun control. It's a lot of the same stuff – the same arguments from both sides. But yesterday I read an article that made me think.
He recounts of the scenarios in vivid detail:
“Loud screams erupted as I turned and stepped through a doorway. Someone came running from the gloom at the end of a hall—a young woman, crying and pointing behind her. I raised the gun as another person came running—someone chasing her? No, a screaming man with empty hands.
I was gasping audibly, my torso rigid with fear, as I turned left into a classroom. People were lined up against a blackboard, crying. On the floor lay at least one body, maybe two. In front of me, a big woman had her arm around another woman’s neck and a gun to the woman’s head.
Equipped with two massive knifes in a dream world of deteriorating Zombie attackers, even the Rambo version of me froze. Baum froze in a virtual school under siege by a virtual attacker, and assessed he’d probably freeze in the real life situation, too.
Sunday, March 10, 2013
The driver slowed unexpectedly on the expressway, pulling slightly to the left. He put the square, white, utilitarian van in reverse and reached his arm around the back of the seat to see out the back window. For a moment, I worried that there had been a breakdown, engine trouble, a stall. Why else would we be stopped on the expressway? I soon realized that our driver had missed his exit, but he wasn’t going to let that stand in his way.
The traffic in and around Bangkok would make any Chicagoan sweat, but my level of perspiration soared that day on a trip from the convention center to downtown. As was my assignment on this trip, I had completed this journey several times to drop off and pick up supplies by taxi and by train, but this time was a little more uncomfortable. This time I was traveling in the front seat of the utilitarian delivery van with my colleague, Susan. With no seat belts. And a severe language barrier between us and our driver.
Susan and I had attempted to climb into the back of the van but were redirected into the front, next to the driver and a little too close to each other. I got the distinct impression that this seating arrangement was intended to be respectful of us and our white-womaness, but I would have much preferred to sit on the floor of the back of the van. As he pulled out of the convention center, we were hoping that he understood our request.
“Office supplies. We need office supplies. Scissors, staplers, pens? Office supplies?” We knew that repeating yourself several times was the best way to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language. I mimed with my index and middle fingers.
In the rearview mirror, he spoke to his 12 or 13 year-old son, a quiet boy who sat in the backseat of the van engrossed in a comic book. His job was to help us lift and carry all the supplies we purchased and to occasionally interpret for his father using the English phrases he had likely learned from Hollywood movies. The boy nodded. His father smiled and nodded and we continued on our way. Susan and I looked at each other and shrugged.
|Actual photo of me in a taxi in Bangkok. Actual fear on my face.|
Our driver’s style behind the wheel did not seem unusual in BKK. We jerked forward and made unexpected turns. We merged into impossible streams of traffic. We accelerated to dangerous speeds and then stopped suddenly for red lights or slowing traffic. Being seated so close to the windshield made the dizzying traffic feel like a video game simulation, which was both terrifying and nauseating. I’ve experienced plenty of bad drivers, but this man drove like he was kidnapping a couple of American citizens and trying to flee from the law.
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if that was really what he was doing. I’d start to panic, finger my Thai cell phone preparing to call for help, and try to signal to Susan that in exactly 60 seconds I was going to knock out the driver with my sweet left hook, and she’d have to grab the wheel and slide into his seat while I tied him and the boy together and notified the authorities of the international incident we so narrowly avoided.
I got as far as smiling at Susan, trying to spell out the plan with my eyes, and without notice our driver swung the van right, slamming Susan and I into each other with whispers of fear caught in our throats, and hit the breaks. Practically clutching each other, ready to scream or vomit, we stared at our driver. He pointed up at a sign posted far above our heads.
“Office Depot!?” he shouted, nodding wildly.
And there it was, sandwiched between two blustering lanes of traffic, swarmed by overhead power lines – an Office Depot. Ah yes, I thought, narrowing my eyes, taking us to our destination covers your plot well.
We climbed out of the van in a hurry, thankful to be free of the chaos of Bangkok’s urban bustle and safe in the familiar fluorescent lights and orderly aisles of the Office Depot. Inside, as we filled a cart with office supplies, our driver and his son waited in the van no doubt laughing about how strange and sweaty American touristas can be.
Thursday, February 14, 2013
When I walked off the plane at 4AM, I had officially been traveling for 22 hours. I was exhausted, smelly, and had to figure out how to get a cab to my hotel. Standing in a too bright airport with a language I couldn't read demanding me to go in a million directions, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to google Bangkok.
Hunched over in my cubicle, pouring over multiple spreadsheets on my double monitors, with headphones blasting electronica in my ears, I almost missed the phone call. It was my bosses boss. Terrified that I was about to be fired over the phone, I pulled the buds from my ears and tried to answer the phone calmly.
"Jis is Thean. THIS IS JEAN." I stumbled and then awkwardly shouted.
"Hey Jean, would you mind stopping by my office when you have a chance?"
Of course I would. Only first I'll save all my pictures of cats to a flash drive, and erase my recent google history. You can never be too careful.
Just minutes later, In her pristine office, with the rare and beautiful north side view of the Chicago skyline, Michele cut to the chase.
"How would you like to go to Bangkok?"
This question on its own sounds a little bit like a Brokedown-Palace-under-the-table-your-mom-would-tell-you-to-say-no type offer.
"Sure!" I said. Because I'm a team player.
"Can you leave in a week?" She asked, surely incredulous that I had accepted her dubious offer without even pondering the repercussions of my agreement.
The week did not pass without road blocks. The call out for an unemployed person with no personal life to cat-sit in my poorly venalated city apartment for almost two weeks at short notice for no more payment than a bottle of cheap champagne and a pack of cigarettes only appealed to one desperate person: my best friend of 15 years, Nicole. (Full Disclosure: The promises i made could only be redeemed upon my successful return. Double Full Disclosure: Unbeknownst to Nicole, this was more of a permanent arrangement, as i saw my odds of surviving the trip without contracting a deadly disease or being locked up in Thai prison to be rather low.)
Stay tuned to see what happens...
Sunday, February 10, 2013
I constantly woke up on the floor of my best friends dorm room.
Well, not exactly the floor - usually a bean bag chair that provided some comfort. Some times when I woke on the floor of their dorm room it was early morning after 4 hours of sleep. More often it was in late mornings or early afternoons when we all were recovering from late nights at house parties with TV and junk food.
I'd wake up in my up lofted bed some time in early morning; face to face with both Bob Dylan and Ani Difranco. I'd fuss shortly and then feel lonely or bored or a combination of the two. I'd grab my writing book from its nest of covers, crawl down the bolted wooded ladder and shuffle next door to the room of my 18 year old comrades.
It didn't matter if they were sleeping or not; we rarely locked our doors.
I'd enter their room and we'd all offer greetings in our half awakeness. I'd lower myself onto the beanbag chair, open my tattered writing book to the most recent scribbles and review what I had documented in my inebriation.
Usually, what I wrote didn't fit the definition of "documented" although occasionally I did write down who said what, if it was funny enough. Most often what was scratched into those unlined pages was barely coherent, cryptic verse. I didn't write verse because I loved poetry, or even because I was good at it. I wrote verse because I was secretive and wanted to be sure to keep my real observations and emotions to myself. I wrote verse because I refused to journal. Journaling is for little girls who love horses.
I'd review my notes, and maybe I'd find a nugget of good writing, or an exceptionally funny quote from a drunk buddy. Then I'd work a little more. In those days I could just place my pen to the paper and there would be words. I'd write about everything and nothing; trying to harness and destroy all the fears and confusion that plagues young people.
Usually, I was exhausted from the previous night's binge drinking or my constant nighttime insomnia and eventually I'd fall asleep, clutching my book protectively to my chest. I'd sleep until roused by my friends when they got hungry enough to pull their shoes on and make the journey to the cafeteria.
I still wake up with my book under my pillow. Sometimes its my iPad. Usually its at 6 am, and I'm getting up for the gym, not bemoaning a hangover, but the story is still the same. I just wish the words came as easily. Maybe I should invest in a beanbag chair.
I am sure that you are thrilled to see this post.
I bet for a the past year you've woken nightly with sweats - terrifying images of blank screens and a the black hole created by a lack of witty commentary shuffling through your mind - asking yourself aloud in the dim quiet of your suburban bedroom: "Will MeanJean ever blog again?"
I know its true. Because I know you. I know where you live. Because you are my mom.
So, here I go. I'm relaunching my blog for the 197539853825th time.