Art, Religion, and David Bowie


 This is a tale about art and religion, with some David Bowie added in for good measure.

The story begins in a Catholic grammar school during the 1970s and early 1980s. The pastor of my parish was an elderly man who called every boy “Butch” and every girl “Sissy.” The priest’s name will not be used here since–as with most of my recollections–it’s not really germane to anything. But he was the leader of my church, and a figure that everyone in the parish was familiar with.

I never embraced Catholicism very much, and by the time I started high school in the early 1980s, I was going through the motions of going to mass every Sunday morning. I’d routinely find ways to get out of it, usually by claiming to go to Saturday mass instead and then driving around for an hour. My parents always went to mass on Sunday, and we (my brothers and my sister) went with them more often than not.

After I went away to college in the late 1980s, I found that even the pretense of attending mass was no longer necessary, so I stopped going altogether. My break with Catholicism was several years in the making, but by 1987 it was finally done. I became the “recovering Catholic” that I have been ever since.

In the summer of 1988, I attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ at the Biograph theater in Chicago. It played in very few cities, and on a very few screens, because of the controversial nature of the book that it was based on. In a nutshell, the movie plays out the story of Jesus’ life, and then adds a twist as he is nailed to the cross. He is offered a chance to live as others do, with a wife and children. And Jesus is shown with Mary Magdalene and a family. And that was more than some were ready to handle, including my old parish priest.

A week after seeing the movie, I went home to visit with my family before classes began again in the fall. And, as per family custom, we all went to mass on Sunday. I hadn’t gone in a long time, but I didn’t want to create a scene by refusing to go, and so I joined in.

The mass was the same old same old until the time came for the priest’s homily, and that’s when it got interesting. It turns out that he had an opinion about the movie, and he wasn’t afraid to share it, either. The very idea that the movie showed Jesus “fantasizing on sex” (an odd phrasing, but one that he kept repeating over and over throughout the sermon) was just too much. It was a reprehensible movie, in his view, and no one in our parish should go and see it.

After years of mass attendance, and hundreds of services, I had finally heard too much. It was obvious to me that the pastor had not seen the movie at all, and had only read or heard about it from someplace else. The very limited release of the film meant that anyone in his parish could not see the movie for themselves, absent a 400-mile round trip to Chicago. And nobody should ever go to those lengths to see a movie.

The movie didn’t show Jesus in the way that the priest was claiming. People might fantasize about something of their own volition, but temptation–as I understand it–comes from an external source. The devil in the movie holds out the possibility of a different life to Jesus, with the hope that he will find this way preferable to dying on the cross. But Jesus rejected Satan’s offer, and at the end of the movie he dies on the cross, instead.

The only difference between Jesus in the movie, and Jesus the way I learned the story in Catholic school, was that the fictional Jesus was tempted, unsuccessfully. The devil’s failure to persuade Jesus to give up his divinity for a domestic life instead was intended to challenge–but ultimately reaffirm–the traditional ideas about Jesus. Roger Ebert understood this, but it was somehow lost on my parish priest. Perhaps this is because Ebert had actually seen the movie in question.

I began writing this piece in the summer of 2013, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the film’s very limited–and very controversial–release in theaters. Something came up on that day, and I saved a draft of what I had written, with the  intention of finishing it off and getting it onto my blog. It wasn’t until the death of David Bowie earlier in the week that I even realized this was still here, languishing in my Drafts folder. And at this point I’d like to pivot to Bowie’s involvement in the movie, in one scene as Pontius Pilate.

Bowie was certainly no stranger to the silver screen, and his list of film roles underlines what a screen presence he really was. I don’t like like writing about him in past tense, either, but that’s the way it has to be now.

So the film’s second-worst character (after the big serpent, of course) was filled by one of the biggest musical stars of the decade. If there was any sense that this could have been a hazardous or toxic role for Bowie’s career as an artist, it didn’t prevent him from brushing them aside and taking the role, anyway. And he nailed the part, playing a Roman official with a gravitas that made you forget about his Ziggy Stardust days and his jumping around with Mick Jagger in the Dancing in the Street video.

Art, such as the Last Temptation novel and the film it was later turned into, has the ability to challenge us, and make us question who we are and what we’re all about. It has the power to change us, if we want to be changed, and the power to reinforce things that we may already know. But art’s ability to do either of these things is limited to our willingness to expose ourselves to it in the first place.

I wouldn’t have allowed a priest to tell me I can’t see a movie, not in 1988 and certainly not today. And if I hadn’t already seen the movie when I heard that ill-informed homily back then, I would have missed an interesting film and a very credible performance from an artist who’s no longer with us. And that would have been very unfortunate, indeed.

David Bowie could do it all: sing, play guitar, write music, act, and look the part of a Roman with a style that nobody else had. Dusting off an old, half-finished idea from long ago and posting it online is a humble tribute to him, but one that I’m still very glad to offer here.

Art has always been made, and will always be made, and Bowie’s role in this process is worth remembering and emulating, whenever possible.


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 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.

A bittersweet day

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There are some things in life that I truly enjoy, and writing is at or near the top of the list. While I’ve written things all my life, putting them into a form where they can be read by other people has been a relatively new development for me. And today offered some reminders of what this action means.

This morning I was paging through a Baseball preview magazine for 2014. It was the type of a publication that I would have devoured from cover to cover at one point in my life, before life and work and family came along. Baseball matters a great deal to me, but not at the expense of everyday life.

As I was flipping through the first few articles, I came upon a “storylines for 2014” article. All of the team-specific and fantasy baseball stories were still ahead, but this was a general type of a story, written in the form of a list. If it were a webpage–and for all I know, it does exist as a list somewhere on line–it would have been a click-through type of story, with a few ads interspersed along with the content. But this was a print story, and no clicking was required.

One of the points that the story identified as a storyline for this season was the progress of Chicago’s two baseball teams, from the wretched season that they both had in 2013. The story asserted that the 195 combined losses of the two teams was more than any season in the history of Chicago baseball. And I smiled at this, because it came from an idea I had, and some research that I had done last summer. Grouping the Cubs and the White Sox together goes against all Chicago urges and yet I did it, and wrote a story that ChicagoSideSports published in early August of last year.

I enjoy writing for different websites, or else I wouldn’t do it, but ChicagoSide holds a special place in my heart. I enjoy the books written by Jon Eig, the founder of the site, and I liked the print possibilities that writing for the site had offered. A piece I wrote for ChicagoSide last year occupied a two page spread in Roger Ebert’s newspaper on the day that he passed away. For the rest of my days I’ll be proud to say that.

Putting a nugget of an idea out into the online or print world is a very gratifying feeling, but unless outlets for these thoughts and ideas exist, there’s no reason to produce them in the first place.

When I read, in either late 2011 or early 2012, that Jon Eig and a friend of his were putting together a sports website, I wondered if I would be able to contribute to it in some way. My blog had been going for a few months by then, and I wanted to see if the stuff that I write might be of interest to anyone else. There was a great chance of hearing “no,” but I soldiered on anyway.

My initial idea for a ChicagoSide story was a recap of the first game that the Cubs and White Sox played against each other, back in 1997. I was at that game, and I had a particular idea about how to go about describing it. I planned to give a description of the game’s events, using only African American players’ names. At the end of the retelling, I would point out that such a story could not appear in 2012, because neither the Cubs nor the White Sox had a single African American player on their rosters. This was a disturbing development to me, as a kid who was raised on Lou Brock and Reggie Jackson and George Foster and many others in the 1970s and 1980s. Jon liked the piece, and said he would run with it in a multi-part series about African Americans and their dwindling numbers in the game that I love.

The series ran on ChicagoSide, but my piece was not included. I could have taken this as a sign that what I wrote wasn’t up to snuff, because after all what have I ever done? I’m well aware of my limitations when it comes to producing anything of note. But I sucked it up and pitched another idea at him, instead.

I was very clear that I felt like I could make a contribution, and would do whatever I could to make it happen. The piece was about an upcoming Bruce Springsteen concert at Wrigley Field in September of 2012, and I learned that it would run on the site at the end of August.

On the day that the piece was scheduled to go live on the website, I was at Universal Studios with my family. My girls were excited about going into the park as it opened for the day, while I was anxiously checking my phone to see if the piece was published yet. Seeing the piece go live, along with some Chicago-inspired art of Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album cover, made a fun day at the theme park that much more enjoyable. I hope I never forget the feeling that I had that day, not only because I was proud of the piece I had written, but also because of the perseverance that it took to get to that point.

In the year and a half that followed, I had several more pieces  that  ran  on  ChicagoSide. I wrote stories that I thought were worth telling, and Jon made it possible for them to be told. His rewrites invariably made my work better, and I am grateful for the time and attention he put in on my behalf.

Earlier today, a few hours after reading one of my ChicagoSide ideas in print, I learned that Jon had sold ChicagoSide to someone else. I was saddened at the idea that I wouldn’t be able to send him any more of my story ideas. I have been told that I can continue to pitch ideas to the new editorial staff, and I’m sure that it won’t be long before I do exactly that. The well of ideas is forever replenishing itself, and I’m truly grateful for that.

I’m also grateful that ChicagoSide gave me an opportunity to share some of these ideas with its readers. I’ve started writing for other websites, as well, and my friends and followers on social media platforms are probably tired of all the ideas that I’ve set free over the past few years. But I’m glad to have done it, and I plan to keep doing it in the months and years to come.

The internet is a brave new world for writers and anyone else who wants to share their creations with the outside world. And as a wise lady once said, there ain’t nothin’ to it, but to do it. I’m very glad that ChicagoSide has given me someplace to do it.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy


I’ve been on a Springsteen bender for the last 48 hours, after I grabbed his Lucky Town CD on my way out the door yesterday morning. I bought it when it was released more than 20 years ago, but haven’t listened to it very much until yesterday morning.

The songs on this CD didn’t speak to me in my early 20s, probably because they didn’t get played on the radio back then. But now that I’m older, and I realize what a racket the radio can be, especially when it comes to something new and unknown, I’m glad that I finally gave this one a chance.

Start to finish, this is a great bundle of music. And the twang that I have to add to my voice when I sing the title track is pretty cool, all by itself. As Roger Ebert once said, it’s better to discover something late than not discover it at all, and this CD definitely fits that category.


Quarterly Report #7


I skipped doing a Quarterly report after the first three months of 2013, which would have been the seventh quarter that I’ve been writing this blog. Perhaps I was busy, of I kept putting it off until it was too late, but whatever the reason was, I didn’t do it. So this report is being written to get myself back on track with these. I really think it’s helpful to tie up the previous three months, and look ahead to the future a little bit. So here goes (and I’m not labeling this as #8, although I did think about it):

I recently celebrated the two year anniversary of this blog, and I really didn’t think that I would have stuck with it for so long. There’s a lot that I have already said in this space, and a lot more that I still want to say, and so the blog will live on until further notice.

At the beginning of this quarter, back in April, I was so sick that I couldn’t speak. That must have been the reason that I didn’t write the last quarterly report, now that I think about it. I had a great time in the Smoky Mountains and then in Memphis, and I wrote about some of it here.

The bombing at the Boston Marathon happened in April, and it was one of those times where I was glad to have some place to put my thoughts out to the wider world. So too was the passing of Roger Ebert a chance to speak to things that I otherwise wouldn’t address. Something that he wrote on his blog about alcoholism inspired me to give up drinking, and it’s now been two years since I stopped trying to wipe out my liver. I’ll be forever grateful for his candor about a subject that most people wouldn’t touch.

On the day that Ebert died, a piece I wrote for ChicagoSideSports also ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, which was Roger Ebert’s paper. It was thrilling to see my words in print, as it always has been since I began writing as a teenager. But then, when the word came that he had died in the afternoon, it became a connection to him that I never thought about before, and one that I will always cherish.

The baseball season began in April, and I returned for another year of writing for ThroughTheFenceBaseball, or TTFB as it’s also known. I started out hopefully enough when the Cubs won their first series of the year, but it has been downhill pretty dramatically since then. Some of my pieces were linked to here and here and here.

In addition to TTFB, ChicagoSideSports, and the Chicago Sun-Times, I also had the pleasure of seeing my pen name in the New York Times, and of course I had to write about that.When things like that happen, it’s better to get something on the record than to just allow it to slip by unnoticed,

The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup at the end of June, and their thrilling run through the playoffs gave me some fodder for this blog, as well. May it not be the last Chicago sports championship that this blog will see.

There were other things going on in this blog over the last three months, and I’m proud–as I always am–of what’s been put out into this space. There will doubtlessly be many more things to write about in the coming months, and I look forward to having much to summarize when the end of September rolls around.

With all my thanks to Roger Ebert


Roger Ebert died today, and as a Chicagoan of 25 years’ standing, that affects me a great deal. I watched his television show with Gene Siskel for many years, but it wasn’t until after Siskel had passed away, and the show went on with someone else, that I realized what made that show work. Ebert and Siskel were two passionate, knowledgeable people with their own views and their own opinions. Sometimes they agreed, and sometimes they didn’t, and neither was afraid to tell the other why he was wrong about a movie. In the end, neither man succeeded in changing the other’s opinion, either. There wasn’t a “Ebert wins” or a “Siskel wins” determination made. If you wanted to break that tie, you had to go see the movie and decide for yourself, which is the way that it should be.

But I owe something to Roger Ebert, and it has nothing to do with his film criticism. I still remember how it felt to read a blog post he wrote called “My Name is Roger, and I’m an alcoholic.” When it appeared, back in 2009, I had been a devout drinker of 25 years. I never once considered myself an alcoholic, but after reading Ebert’s piece, I came to realize that I probably was one. The idea of only having a single drink was my problem. And Ebert wrote about this, too. When you take the first drink, he said, the second drink takes itself. And he hit the nail right on the head.

I can’t say that I stopped drinking immediately after I read this piece. It actually took about a year before I finally went all in with the idea. The behaviors that had begun on weekend nights in high school–and had persisted in a thousand ways ever since–weren’t going to just disappear right away. But an important seed had been planted, all the same. And just like a seed that needs time and sunlight and water in order to germinate, Ebert’s suggestion that life without alcohol was not only possible, but even preferable to life with it, needed some time to take root. But take root it did.

I first gave up drinking altogether in November of 2010. I didn’t go to AA, and I didn’t seek any medical or spiritual help. I just decided that life without drinking was how I was going to live. And I made it through the holidays that year, and past the Super Bowl, and all the way up until the NCAA tournament in March. It was only a few months, but I was very proud of myself, just the same.

I went to a sports bar with some friends one night to watch the tournament, and didn’t have the strength to resist having a margarita with them. I had one, and part of a second, and left the bar with a sense of disappointment that I had failed. I drank again in June of that year, having several mojitos and other drinks at a friend’s 40th birthday party. I bought him a 40 ounce malt liquor as a birthday gift, and it seemed hypocritical to do that if I wasn’t also going to drink that night. So I did. And I felt even worse about this than I did about the margaritas in the sports bar.

In between the sports bar margaritas, and the birthday mojitos, I had started this blog that I’m writing on now. I had always liked writing, but never pursued it seriously in all of the years that I was drinking. Now that drinking was being edged out of my life, I wanted to replace it with something that I enjoyed even more. So writing became my new drug of choice, I suppose. And after 900 and some-odd posts, and nearly 400,000 words written, I’m still at it. It simply would not have happened if I was still drinking, though. I can guarantee that.

There was one final coup de grace that had to come before I could be forever turned away from drinking. It happened on Canal Street in New York in the summer of 2011, and a night of drunken revelry with an old and dear friend from grammar school left me convinced that terrible things had happened. It’s a long story, and I’m so grateful that it turned out the way that it did, but at the end of it, I knew that alcohol and I could not coexist together ever again. And nearly two years later, I’ve held to that.

And now I’m writing, and happy, and very grateful that I was able to read Roger Ebert’s essay before my liver decided to give out on me, and before I got behind the wheel of a car when I shouldn’t have, and before I let anger and booze combine to get the better of me and make something happen that I couldn’t take back.

I feel as if I’ll live, for the rest of my time on this earth, without the things that alcohol brought to me from 1984 in Springfield, Illinois until 2011 on Canal Street in New York City. And I will be forever grateful to Rogert Ebert for planting that seed in the first place. By writing as I do–and trying to bring some joy into the world, as he suggested we must–I am doing my best to repay my debt to him.

Thanks very much, Roger.