Moments: On smoothies and small victories

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“I’m having a bad day,” I complained to my friend Memphis Paul, the co-founder of this blog.

I had him on speakerphone as I went through a drive-through window. I ordered a strawberry-banana smoothie. It’s one of those beverages that sounds healthier than it really is. I ordered it anyway.

My brain is in knots, I explained to Paul. Sunday night, I became obsessed with something and my brain wouldn’t let it go until almost 8 a.m. I ended up taking a sick day.

The obsession was a paperback book. I wanted to read a few chapters before I nodded off. I couldn’t find it. I tore up the apartment. I looked in all the usual spots. I finally found it wedged between my mattress and the wall. By the time I found it, my heart was racing and I was so angry I could have chewed nails.

I was in the midst of a panic attack. I didn’t recognize it. I was slow to take my medicine to abate the symptoms. And thus I ended up tossing and turning and staring at the ceiling until it was almost time for work.

The causes are varied and complex. The bottom line is sometimes my brain doesn’t work the way it should and the emotions I’m feeling don’t match with the reality I’m living.

I tried to regroup during the day. Then a malingering depression settled in like a thunderstorm. All the usual thoughts — how worthless I am, how stupid I am, how poor a human being I am — rattled my brain.

Finally, at about 8:30 p.m., I managed to rise from bed and go out for some food, including the aforementioned smoothie.

Paul, my good friend, listened as he usually does.

He replied in his mild Tennessee drawl. He recalled an incident a week or so ago when I had him on speakerphone in the car. I had spilled my smoothie on the passenger-side mat. I cursed as I beat the mat against a tree to get the milk and ice off the rubber surface.

Paul then asked me, “Did you manage to get inside your apartment with your strawberry-banana drink?”

In fact I did, I replied.

“Well,” he said, “that is progress.”

I love my friends.

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On Movies: ‘Life Itself’ hurts to watch in a very good way

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Live Itself” | Rated R | Time: 2 hours | DirectorSteve James | SubjectsRoger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene SiskelWerner HerzogMartin Scorsese and Errol Morris.


 

The story of a man — his triumphs, failings, passions and weaknesses  — is difficult to capture, but documentarian Steve James offers a remarkable survey course in the fantastic life of the late film critic Roger Ebert.

LIFE ITSELF - FINAL SUNDANCE POSTER-page-001We meet Ebert near the end of his life, in 2012, when cancer that took his jaw and his ability to speak, eat or drink, advanced on his spinal column. He is in a Chicago hospital rehabilitating from a fractured hip.

He is, frankly, hard to watch at first. His lower jaw is gone. The skin remains. It hangs in an odd, clumsy loop of flesh from the top of his face. It wags when Ebert makes expressions, but, of course, no words come out.

The first thing one notes about Ebert is he is loved, by his wife, Chaz, and his stepchildren and step-grandchildren. The dote on him and delight at his quips delivered by typing messages into a computer and playing them in a mechanical voice similar in sound to that of Stephen Hawking, the great physics professor.

The movie takes us back to the beginning, to Ebert’s life in Urbana, Ill., where he read three newspapers a day and wrote, edited and printed a neighborhood newspaper when he was an elementary school student.

Ebert went to the University of Illinois in Urbana, became a towering and imposing editor of the campus newspaper. He landed his first and only job as film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times.

He joined with his rival, Gene Siskel, to produce a public TV show about movies called “At the Movies.” It was a hit coast to coast and their “thumbs up, thumbs down” routine brought film criticism out of the stuffy air of highbrow circles down to everyday people who stood in line and bought tickets.

The just wanted to know if somebody thought it was any good or not and Siskel and Ebert gave that to them. The best moments of the film come in showing the tenuous, adversarial and downright hostile attitude the two men had toward one another.

They sparred verbally and Ebert came off as pugnacious and petulant at times, but it is a credit to both Ebert and director James that those clips that show Ebert on less than his finest behavior are such an important part of the narrative.

The film is rich in newspaper lore, the stories of drunken Chicago newsmen stumbling from bar to bar, loudly telling stories about life in the Second City. Some of them were probably even true. Ebert became an alcoholic, but dried out and stayed that way for the rest of his life.

His mercurial nature mellowed when he married Chaz, where he found romance and an outlet for dormant paternal feelings toward Chaz’s children and grandchildren.

Ebert’s cancer stole his physical voice, but his voice as a writer only fell silent when he died.

I did not know Roger Ebert. I did not live in his beloved Chicago. But I read his reviews, even though sometimes I thought he was wrong or perhaps too high-falluting for me, a lover of action movies where things blow up and the good guys win.

But I loved him for his writing: his bare, straightforward prose that struck at the truth of the subject and read with such effortlessness that even now I find myself jealous of his beautiful mind and sweet style.

I left the film very sad, I must admit. Ebert died, of course, and I knew that going in. And I won’t bore you with cliches about his bravery in the face of the challenge. What I will say is that if I face terminal illness, I hope that I do it with his grace and attitude. He was realistic — he was dying and he knew it — but he treated his days as precious commodities and never turned away from the keyboard.

I was sad not so much because Ebert died. I was sad because he was a true titan of newspapers and there aren’t very many of those kind of people anymore. In the last year at my paragraph factory, we lost two of our very best titans.

The first was retired managing editor Rick Tapscott, the cigarette-smoking man from Missouri with the voice like Adam West and an attitude of a barroom brawler when it came to hunting the truth.

The second was another managing editor, our friend Randy Brubaker, who died of a heart attack just four months after his wife died. Brubaker was our big brother, the one we trusted, the gentleman newsman who fought the good fight for open government, good writing and decent humility.

They’re all gone now. And we’re less because of it. I suppose these recollections aren’t much in the way of a review of “Life Itself.” It’s a fine documentary. You should watch it.

Because good movies, and “Life Itself” is one, are like the good people from my life I mentioned above: If they make you feel something, you’re probably going to remember them.

 

Twisted TV Listings: ‘Ghostbusters’ vs. ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’

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6 P.M. THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR — COMEDY: Tired of the machinations of the mercurial and pompous poltergeist  Daniel Gregg (Edward Mulhare), Mrs. Muir (Hope Lange) calls in the Ghostbusters to trap the ghost of the 19th century sea captain. But will she find the smarmy advances of Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) any less terrifying?

Morning Mixtape: ‘Word Crimes’ By ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic

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This song is dedicated to all the teachers who tried to get me to pay attention in English class, to all the assignment editors and copy editors who catch my grammatical goofs and to all the retired English teachers who write snotty notes to every person who writes for a living because they may no longer work in a classroom but the can’t resist correcting papers. This is “Word Crimes” by the terrific “Weird Al” Yankovic. Enjoy this song.

On TV: ’24: Live Another Day’ finale was brutally depressing

The networks warn viewers when content might be too graphic for youngsters or the faint-hearted. They’re usually worried about cursing, sex and violence.

24_LAD_PosterBut the finale to “24: Live Another Day” should have come with a viewer discretion alert for those of us with permanently jangled nerves and brains bent toward downers.

Because the final was terribly depressing. Audrey (Kim Raver) is killed. It appears Kate (Yvonne Strahovski) saves her in the final moments from Cheng’s (Tzi Ma) snipers. But there was a second shooter. This one kills her. Kate is so distraught by her failure to protect Audrey, she quits.

Kate tells Jack (Kiefer Sutherland). Jack appears to ponder suicide but then takes his rage out on Cheng’s men. He gets to Cheng and proves to the Chinese government that it was Cheng and not the United States who sunk the Chinese aircraft carrier.

President Heller (William Devane) backs down the Chinese prime minister from World War III. The day is saved. Then his staff tells him: Audrey is dead. He passes out. Next we seem him with the British prime minister.

He notes he won’t remember he had a daughter who died in such a terrible way. He won’t remember anything. He gently places his hand atop the flag-drapped coffin as it is led to Air Force One.

Devany shreds viewers’ hearts here. He’s been good throughout the series. It’s his finest moment — and his saddest.

Jack, of course, has one more mission. The Russians grabbed Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) in the fight at Cheng’s hideout. He trades himself for her freedom. He’s taken off to Moscow to be tortured and probably executed.

I can be a snob about the “Hollywood ending,” you know, where the good guys win and everything wraps neatly. My friend Memphis Paul, the co-founder of this blog, thought it was a flaw in both finales for “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective.” The closers were too perfect, too orderly, he argued.

Well, I could have used some of that tidiness in the “Live Another Day” finale. Everybody died or suffered. I suppose that’s the way of the grim “24.” But damn, man, I’m going to need an extra antidepressant tonight.