There are lots of long-winded explanations about work schedules and business travel and selling homes and choir rehearsals and blah, blah, blah.... But none of them get to the heart of the matter, which is this: I've never made writing a priority. It's not the first thing I do, but the last; a luxury not an essential, a pastime to be indulged only after the chores are done, the checkbook is balanced, the closets are organized..... you get the picture.
Only very recently did it occur to me that it may be time to turn this kind of thinking on its head. It is not a coincidence that this revelation has come to me at a time when the country is mourning the loss of its most popular and, arguably, most prolific film critic - Roger Ebert.
To begin at the beginning....
Ebert didn't figure largely in my early awareness of film and film criticism, despite the fact that I grew up well within the reach of Chicago media. My family was a Tribune-reading household, so it was Ebert's rival, Gene Siskel, whose writing informed my early tastes in film and my ideas of what film criticism could be. I was in my teens when Siskel joined Ebert 'in the balcony' for Sneak Previews, the PBS forerunner of the ground-breaking film review show that would later become Siskel & Ebert at the Movies, and propel the Windy City duo to national fame.
Back in those early days, I watched Sneak Previews every week with the greatest enthusiasm, and it seemed to me that Siskel was the smarter, more persuasive of the two stars, more discerning in his tastes and relentless in his badgering of Ebert whenever the latter professed to have enjoyed some unambitious, mainstream popcorn movie. Those perceptions were obviously biased, fuelled by youthful arrogance and a good deal of "Tribune snobbery" (my image of the Sun-Times, based on nothing that I can substantiate, was of a shoddier, downmarket paper - and that was years before it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch.)
But meeting Gene Siskel in person in 1993 was a turning point. I ran into him at a movie memorabilia collector's show in the Chicago suburbs. It took me a second to realize who he was; I approached him shyly and asked as politely and quietly as I could "Aren't you Gene Siskel?"
Before I could say another word, he grabbed a program out of my hand, signed his name on it in a hurried, irritated way, and moved quickly on. At no time, did he make eye contact. His behavior was all the more puzzling because I hadn't asked - or even thought to ask - for an autograph. All I wanted was to tell him what his writing had meant to me as a young film lover, and then-aspiring critic myself. But he clearly wasn't interested in hearing it.
After that day, my perceptions of Siskel and Ebert were completely turned around. I'd watch them together on At the Movies or the Letterman show and decide that Siskel was the pushier, snottier, more annoying of the two, whereas Ebert was the nice, smart 'regular guy.'
Looking back from my middle-aged perspective, of course I understand that none of my perceptions were entirely accurate or fair. Maybe Siskel was having a bad day or was seriously rushed for time when I approached him. Maybe - probably - Ebert had surly, cranky moments himself. But a bad experience with a one-time idol can be a powerful thing, and I sometimes wondered how Ebert would have responded to me if I'd encountered him at the movie memorabilia show that day. I still like to believe it would have gone down quite differently. From the many accounts I have read over the past few days, it's clear he was an approachable and congenial man,passionately interested in encouraging young people to write. (See this letter he wrote to then middle-schooler Dana Stevens who went on to write about film for Slate.)
In fact, just about everything I've read about the man - not just in the three days since his death, but for the last several years - has only increased my admiration and respect for him. His response to his long battle with cancer is particularly astonishing and humbling. At a time when most people would curl up and retreat from the world, Ebert got busy and put it all out there - first and foremost on rogerebert.com, which is one of my favorite places to hang out, so to speak. His smart, robust, deceptively conversational prose goes straight to the heart of every film he reviews. Few other critics engage so passionately and personally with every film they review. Even when I vehemently disagreed with him, I still found Ebert's work fascinating and a joy to read. I seek out his reviews of almost every film I see, not the new releases, but older films and classics that I am slowly making my way through discovering. And I cheered on every one of his entries in the weekly New Yorker cartoon caption contest. Spend much time on his site, and you'd realize you weren't just dealing with a film critic, but with an man consumed by enthusiasm and a vibrant passion for life itself.
But of all the things Roger wrote, here's the passage that has been stuck in my brain for the last few days:
“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”
That was written by a man who had lost his jaw - and with it his abilities to speak and to eat solid food - and yet was still writing prolifically and living life with passion and vibrancy. (Hell, the man even wrote a cookbook!) I have remembered these words often in the last three days - when I'm in stalled traffic and getting irritated, when I'm frustrated and tired and within an inch of letting go with a cranky remark - and they serve as both rebuke and instruction to me, a gentle but powerful reminder that no matter how bad life gets, there is no excuse for making it worse with my own anger or bad behavior. Roger Ebert didn't do that, even when his ill health would have given him every justification to do so.
I never did meet Roger Ebert, never attracted him to my blog, - although many of my blogging colleagues have rightfully received his notice and blessing; it speaks to his generosity that he was so willing to promote others' writing as well as his own. But the way he lived and the way he wrote have been a legacy to me. Part of that quote is about how making ourselves happy is the first step to bringing happiness into the larger world. Few things make me as happy as writing, and it's a joy I've denied myself for too long. It's time for me to get busy again.
Thank you, Mr. Ebert for sharing your joy and your passionate love of film. There is - was - no other critic like you.