Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Don't Worry, Be Happy

I read a lot of magazines; probably 2-5 every month regularly, and that's not even counting all of the online content I read. It's not very often that I read an article that deeply touches me and makes my mind and heart race with countless feelings and impressions; good and bad. But once in a while, I do, and this is one of those times.

If you have not yet read the Esquire article on Roger Ebert and his fight against cancer, DO IT NOW! I actually knew nothing about this (even that he HAD cancer) until I saw him on Oprah yesterday. That interview prompted me to read the much-talked-about article today and see what the fuss was about.

Well, wow. Not only is the writing in this piece extremely engaging, the soul of the story and subject practically jumped off the page and grabbed my face. What a treat to get such an intimate glimpse into the private life and struggles of Ebert; to feel as though I'm at his shoulder as he writes and sitting next to him and his wife as they watch yet another movie in a screening room.

The tribulations that Ebert has endured throughout his cancer struggle are almost unfathomable - a body and face mangled by surgeries, almost drowning in his own blood after the sudden burst of his cartoid artery, the loss of the entire bottom half of his jaw, and to me the worst loss of all - that of the ability to talk, eat and drink. Ebert is almost unrecognizable now, a physical shadow of his former self. I would even go so far as to say that his "new" face looks slightly creepy and unsettling.

But underneath the physical deformity is clearly a warm, intelligent, insightful, brave soul. The article portrays Ebert as a happy, positive, hard-working man - no complaining, no tantrums. In fact, the only time he appears angry is when his loved ones are somehow slighted - which is illustrated in one of the most powerful sections of the article. When Ebert attempts to watch a video of his first "At the Movies" episode by himself (following the death of long-time "other thumb", Gene Siskel in 1999. Ebert embedded the video in his online journal tribute to his partner entitled "Remembering Gene"), he is greeted with blank squares that show the video content has been deleted. They assume the culprit is Disney (you'll have to read the article to get the connections here) due to terms-of-use violations or some bullshit. The account by Chris Jones of Ebert's reaction gave me goosebumps:
"This time, the anger lasts long enough for Ebert to write it down. He opens a new page in his text-to-speech program, a blank white sheet. He types in capital letters, stabbing at the keys with his delicate, trembling hands: MY TRIBUTE, appears behind the cursor in the top left corner. ON THE FIRST SHOW AFTER HIS DEATH. But Ebert doesn't press the button that fires up the speakers. He presses a different button, a button that makes the words bigger. He presses the button again and again and again, the words growing bigger and bigger and bigger until they become too big to fit the screen, now they're just letters, but he keeps hitting the button, bigger and bigger still, now just shapes and angles, just geometry filling the white screen with black like the three squares. Roger Ebert is shaking, his entire body is shaking, and he's still hitting the button, bang, bang, bang, and he's shouting now. He's standing outside on the street corner and he's arching his back and he's shouting at the top of his lungs."

I can't even imagine how frustrating it would be to be robbed of the ability to express emotions like this out loud. Although I love writing and it's a kind of catharsis for me, sometimes nothing compares to yelling or swearing at the top of your lungs. The feeling of the words and sounds rising up your throat, out of your mouth and into the room can be, in itself, a kind of salve for your anger and frustration. To never again be able to have a conversation in an easy, natural way or open my mouth and have words come out just as I think of them would be heartbreaking.

And to never again taste or enjoy delicious food and drink! To never again feel the creamy heat of a chocolate melting on your tongue, or the sweet bite at the back sides of your tongue as you bite into a ripe tomato, or the robust and tangy flow of a cup of coffee flowing through and down. I love food and drink so much I can't event imagine not ever enjoying it again, to be relegated to the bland and sad existence of liquid tube-food, and worst of all, to watch others around you enjoy such luxuries without even thinking about them. I honestly think this would be a kind of hell on earth for me.

And he's been doing it for THREE YEARS!

But I suppose the upside to all of this loss is that you would learn how to appreciate more. And it certainly seems that Ebert does that. At one point he writes to Jones on a post-it, "There is no need to pity me. Look how happy I am. This has lead to an explosion of writing". I was so inspired by this, by the fact that he is still happy after everything he has been through, and that he only sees the good things that have come out of his experience. Too many of us (me included) get caught up in the everyday annoyances and setbacks we encounter and completely lose sight of the good things in life. I have good health (extra weight on my bootay notwithstanding), I can walk, talk, eat and drink as I please, I can go where I want when I want, I have loving family and friends that I can count on, I have a good, stable job and funny, friendly co-workers, I have a closetful of clothing (and two dressers, and another closet and...well,you get the idea) and a fridge full of food. What exactly is wrong with this picture? Really, nothing, when you compare it to the pictures of some other people.

I was so inspired by the strength and courage of Ebert and his wife. The words of this article and of Ebert himself and his ways have opened my heart and my mind. I hope to keep this inspiration alive in the back of my heart and brain for a long time to come, and remember it when I'm feeling down about something that has not gone my way. Imagine what the world would be like if every single person did this too.

I'm giving Ebert TWO BIG FAT THUMBS UP!


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