Spending an afternoon with my mom

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There’s a scene from Good Will Hunting that has stayed with me, more so than the remainder of the movie. In the scene, the Minnie Driver character says that she would trade all of the money she has to spend another day with her dead father. And the reason she would is because once somebody is gone, there’s no way of bringing them back. So enjoy your loved ones while you still can.

My mom was 21 years old when I was born. At an age when I was still finishing up college and enjoying the carefree (as in, child-free) days of my early 20s, my mom didn’t have that. She had me and my sister and two brothers to contend with. Not that it was an actual competition, but she had demands on her time and resources that I can’t imagine. And she did a great job of raising us, I have to say.

I’m very pleased to report that she’s still with us today. I get to enjoy spending time with her while she’s still young enough to get around without a wheelchair or a walker. And we did exactly that a week ago, for the funeral reenactment of Abraham Lincoln. It was six hours in the car to spend four or five hours with the woman who did so much for me back when I was unable–and sometimes unwilling–to appreciate what that meant. It was a trade that I was glad to make.

I know that my mom reads my blog. So in a sense, I’m writing to her knowing that she will see it and probably get emotional. I’m getting emotional writing it, myself. But on the off chance that anybody else ever finds this online, here’s a picture and a story about my mom. She, like all mothers, loved her children and didn’t get nearly enough in return for her emotional and financial investments through the years. This is a humble attempt to repay a debt that can never be fully squared. And I’m very pleased to still have the opportunity to make payments on this account.

A victory for weirdness


I’m very glad that Birdman won the Oscar for best picture tonight. The director admitted it was a crazy idea, but somehow the film got made. I’ve never seen a movie quite like it, and this award will hopefully inspire more people in the movie business to follow their weird ideas until they make it to the screen.

In Technicolor


Today I was futzing around with an app called Photo Booth on the laptop, and found that smiling for pictures just looked dumb. They were forced smiles, after all. But when I glared at the camera, the images seemed to turn out better. Funny how that works.

Having recently seen The Birdcage in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, I recalled a scene where Nathan Lane’s character was dressed in a suit, but when he crossed his legs it revealed the bright pink socks that he was wearing. His response was perfect: “One does want a hint of color.”

So to take the edge off of my glaring visage, I added an effect called “Pop art.” The result, in my mind, is the Technicolor Badass shown above. And now that it’s online, it can live forever. The internet is an amazing thing, indeed.

Radio Raheem for a new generation

Twenty-five years is a long time. I have many memories of the Summer of 1989, and one of them was going to see a movie that shook me up, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” And apparently, the current president and his then-girlfriend saw the movie too that summer, as evidenced by the film clip above.

The event that sets off the riot that marks the high point of the movie was the strangulation death of a character named Radio Raheem. I was appalled as the police placed his character in a choke hold and ended his life. It touched off a riot where Sal’s Pizza gets destroyed, and Mookie–Spike Lee’s character–leads the way by throwing a garbage can through his boss’ window. I walked out of the movie examining American society, and that was clearly what everyone in the theater was supposed to be doing.


Now flash forward a quarter century, to the tragic case of Eric Garner. Whatever it was he may or may not have been doing on the streets of New York on a Thursday afternoon, he met with the same fate that Radio Raheem did in Spike Lee’s movie, all those years ago.

But Eric Garner had a family, unlike the fictional creation that Radio Raheem was. Still, it seems hard to believe that our current president, who apparently remembers the movie very well, doesn’t have something to say about how life–and death– has imitated art.

Leadership involves, well, doing the right thing. And when an unarmed black man is choked to death on the streets of New York, or any other city, it’s something we should reflect upon.

Yes, we have an African American president, which twenty-five years ago did not seem possible. And yes, he has other issues to deal with, from Gaza to the border issue. But an unarmed black man died at the hands of police in our largest and most visible city. I’d very much like to hear what our president has to say about it. Even if he channels that young man who took his girlfriend on a date to see a movie 25 years ago, it would be worth listening to.

As fresh as a Foghat concert


I was on my way to work yesterday when, for reasons I’ll likely never understand, one of the greatest movie insults I have heard came to me. It happened in the movie Kingpin, where Woody Harrelson’s character is told that his act is “about as fresh as a Foghat concert.” The implication is that Foghat, a band from the 1970s, had long passed its shelf life by the time this movie appeared in 1996.

Of course, something from 1996 is now almost as stale as Foghat was in the 1990s. But that’s beside the point. It was a funny line then, and it’s still funny now.

I turned on the radio to hear some music and lo and belold, Foghat was playing. Since my car flashes the name of the artist and songs–at least it does once in a while–I snapped a picture to record the moment for posterity. Maybe I subconsciously knew Foghat was playing on the radio before I turned it on. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense.

Whatever it was, the world didn’t really need a Foghat story on the internet, but it has one now. Isn’t technology great?


The best film ever made


Sometimes my daughters ask me questions about what my favorite things are. When they ask about my favorite song, or my favorite book, or my favorite food, I usually give some sort of dodgy, non-committal answer because I like many songs, and many books, and too many types of food, but none really stands out above the rest. When it comes to movies, though, it’s another story altogether.

My favorite movie is–and shall probably always remain–Field of Dreams. Twenty-five years ago, I described it in the Northwestern Film Guide as “magical,” and I stand by that description today. It’s a concoction of love and family and baseball and, above all else, belief in dreams. Not everyone buys into these things, and that’s just fine. But I do, and I always will, and I’m happy that there are others who do, as well.

Yesterday, I was “having a catch”–as Ray Kinsella called it in the movie’s last scene–with my ten year-old daughter in my small backyard in Chicago. We were using a purple softball from a trip to New Orleans many years ago, and since I didn’t have a glove I was catching her throws barehanded. But none of this mattered to me.

What mattered was that this funny, smart, and lovely little girl, who I’ve watched grow from the time she was born during the All-Star game ten and a half years ago, was sharing a moment with me. I was doing a thing that I love, with a person that I love. Not a single thing was wrong with the world in that moment. I’ll do my best to keep that memory for as long as I walk this earth.

No other movie has ever moved me like Field of Dreams did. And when life imitated this art, as it did for me yesterday, the cosmic tumblers all clicked into place.

Roger and Me


As a college student in the late 1980s, riding the el was an entirely new experience for me. I secretly envied those who hailed from New York, or Chicago, or any place large enough to have a train service in operation. There were a few bus lines in Springfield, Illinois, where I grew up, but nothing remotely similar to the CTA.

The CTA was different in many ways back then. You could pay the conductor in cash when you got on the train. You could request a paper transfer, if you had an extra quarter for it. You could smoke at the el stops while you were killing time, waiting for the train to arrive. And that automated voice telling you what the next stop would be? That was announced by a real live person. In other words, the CTA was far removed from what it is today.

But one of the things that still remains is advertising on the el platforms. And one of the signs that I remember seeing in the 1980s has made a return visit to my memory, in the aftermath of Roger Ebert’s passing. It was a large photo of Ebert sitting at a typewriter, looking into the camera, with the words “Trust Ebert” superimposed. And that seemed like an entirely reasonable thing to do.

When I encountered this “Trust Ebert” ad on the CTA, I was writing for Northwestern’s A&O Film Board. We would show movies someplace on campus, either in the Norris Student Center or the Tech Auditorium, and charge a few dollars to cover the price of renting the film reels from the distributors. It was a way to recreate the movie-going experience, without the expense of going to Evanston’s lone theater on Central Street. I greatly enjoyed the process of selling the tickets and running the projector and, most of all, describing the films that were being shown.

The A&O Film Guide was a quarterly publication, which described all of the films that would be shown during a quarter. All of this would be made available online today, but it was a different world in the late 1980s. Each film had a short blurb, which provided the essentials about who was in the film, when it was released, how long it ran, and a short paragraph describing the plot.

Writing blurbs for the Film Guide was extraordinarily fun for me, because I took each one as a chance to mimic Roger Ebert’s writing style. Describing a movie like Midnight Run as if I were talking to an old friend was the way that I approached writing these blurbs.

In a small way, this process allowed me to be like Roger Ebert, and I enjoyed that immensely. When I became the Film Guide’s editor in 1989, my responsibilities included reading over other people’s blubs and–when necessary–writing blurbs for films that I had never heard of before. I always approached this task in the same way, by treating the reader as an intelligent, experienced person who wanted to know something about whatever film we were showing on any given night. That’s the way Ebert’s reviews always felt to me.

I was very proud of the film guides that were produced in this way, and my days of Trusting Ebert–by writing in a style that I had patterned after his–remain as one of the best college memories I have.

After the Internet came along in the 1990s, and began transforming the newspaper landscape, Ebert stayed at the forefront of these changes. He continued writing reviews—he never stopped doing that—but he also became a blogger, well before many people knew what that meant. A blog post that he wrote in 2009 inspired me to give up drinking. Upon reading Ebert’s description of his experiences with alcohol, I saw a lot of myself in his words. If he could give up drinking and still do well, I reasoned that I could do likewise. Again, I was Trusting Ebert.

After cutting alcohol out of my life I began to write, and have found this to be a form of intellectual liberation. On April 4, 2013, a story that I wrote for the website ChicagoSideSports.com was published in Roger Ebert’s newspaper, The Chicago Sun-Times. A picture of him appeared on the cover of that day’s edition, with the headline “Ebert’s not going anywhere.” I read the piece and hoped this would be the truth. But in the late afternoon of that day, the word came out that Ebert had indeed passed away.

In my sadness at the news, it occurred to me that I had filled a considerable chunk of Roger Ebert’s paper on the day that he passed away. Although I never met him, it feels as if I owe him a lot. I once tried to mimic his writing style, and the reason that I write today is because I read a courageous piece that he wrote about his own life.

Having any sort of a connection with him–no matter how tangental–is something that I’ll always feel good about. With the benefits of hindsight, I can confidently say that Trusting Ebert is one of the best things I have done.

Irreverent to the end


What made Harold Ramis and his collaboration with Bill Murray so special was the irreverence that was infused into their films. Whether it was the country club in Caddyshack, the military in Stripes, or the Greek system in Animal House, there was a gulf between those who played by society’s rules, and the heroes of his movies. The wider the gap between them, the funnier things were onscreen.

Tonight’s Oscar awards treated us to one last act of irreverence. When Bill Murray was introduced and walked out onto the stage with Amy Adams on his arm, my first thought was that maybe he would mention his friend and collaborator. I knew–and I’m sure that he did, too–that Ramis was going to be included in the “In Memoriam” clip that gets put together each year, to commemorate the actors and other film people who died over the previous year. We would get to see his face and a few seconds of his work, but we wouldn’t hear his name. And this just wouldn’t do, for a career as accomplished as his was.

So Bill Murray took matters into his own hands. Once the nominees for Best Cinematography had been read, Murray stepped in and added Ramis’ name for his work on Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day. The audience applauded, and whoever actually won the award didn’t seem to matter very much at that moment. Murray had slipped in Ramis’ name, and that was something special for us, and I’m sure that it was for Murray, too.

It had been reported that Murray and Ramis had been estranged from each other for many years, until Murray recently visited his old pal on what turned out to be his deathbed. What they talked about may never be known, but Murray had to know that an appearance on the Oscars was upcoming for him. Did he tell Ramis about his plan to mention his name on the show? Or did he only hatch out the plan after Ramis had passed away? I’d love to know what the answer is, but either way, it took some guts for Murray to depart from the script like that.

Whether tonight was the final collaboration between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis or not, movies won’t ever be the same again. I’m grateful for the movies that they left behind, and hope that Bill Murray gives us some more laughs before his time comes, whenever that may be.


He made the movies funny


Everyone in my generation who likes to laugh owes an enormous debt to Harold Ramis. The challenge of putting that debt into words is very daunting, but I’m going to take it on, anyway.

When Ramis’s classic work was produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was too young to see them in the theaters. The R rating that Caddyshack, Animal House, Stripes, and Vacation carried made them into the forbidden fruit, but cable TV and VCRs eventually saved the day.

The subversive nature of these movies was an invitation to find some way around that restriction, anyway. “So you aren’t 17, big deal,” these movies seemed to say. Watching them anyway felt like thumbing a nose at that repressive barrier. It was the equivalent of smoking a joint after school or drinking beer at a keg party in the woods. Experiencing his movies was a rite of passage, whether any of us realized it or not.

But they never really felt like Harold Ramis movies, even when he was actually on screen. Belushi owned Animal House, but Ramis was the one who wrote the script. Ramis had some of the funniest lines in Stripes because he also wrote that script, but he played it straight while Bill Murray stole the show. Without Harold Ramis, though, those movies would have never come to be. And don’t get me started about Caddyshack, either. A more significant movie hasn’t yet been made, at least in my eyes.

I love the movies that Harold Ramis had a hand in bringing to life. To the extent that life is funny to me, it’s due to his influence. His death today makes me grateful for all of the laughter he brought into the world. And I’ll be sure to remember him anytime one of his films is shown on TV, beginning with this evening’s showing of Stripes, once my daughters have gone to bed. It’s a generational thing, I’m sure.

From one Chicago guy to another, thanks. Thanks a lot.