Sunday, January 10, 2010

Roger Ebert's powerful, deeply moving reflections on what he's lost and what he's gained

Professional journalists who turn to blogging, as more and more are forced to do, often find it a rocky transition. Many never seem to get comfortable with the medium, especially its potential as a two-way channel communications channel with their readers.

Film critic Roger Ebert took to it like a fish to water in the aftermath of his disastrous series of surgeries that followed his diagnosis of metastatic salivary gland cancer. He survived the cancer but was left forever changed. He could no longer do his TV show but soon resumed a heavy schedule of reviewing.

But he had some other things on his mind that could not be captured in the movie review form, and he turned to blogging. Now he seems to be reinventing blogging as a powerful form for long-form personal essays. His most recent post, Nil by Mouth, is one of the most moving pieces of writing I've read in a long time.
I mentioned that I can no longer eat or drink. A reader wrote: "That sounds so sad. Do you miss it?" Not so much really. Not anymore. Understand that I was never told that after surgery I might lose the ability to eat, drink and speak. Eating and drinking were not mentioned, and it was said that after surgery I might actually be able to go back to work on television.
Without the slightest hint of whining or self-pity, Ebert answers his reader's question with a sort of postmodern Proustian evocation of food memories, beautifully written accounts of foods and tastes and beverages he can no longer experience except in memory.

Although he is now beset by a flood of memories, Ebert notes that food as such never was that important to him. What was important was the experience of dining, socializing and talking with a group of friends. Now his blog, which receives some of the most thoughtful comments in the blogosphere, to which he often personally replies, fills that role. For Roger Ebert, the idea of blogging as a great dinner table conversation is much more than a metaphor.
So that's what's sad about not eating. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. It may be personal, but for, unless I'm alone, it doesn't involve dinner if it doesn't involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments and shared memories I miss. Sentences beginning with the words, "Remember that time?" I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to break out in a poetry recitation at any time. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it's sad. Maybe that's why I enjoy this blog. You don't realize it, but we're at dinner right now.
Roger Ebert is a lifelong writer who began writing in grade school and just never stopped. Illness deprived him of much more than most of us could possibly bear to lose. But it did not take away his ability to write. Far from it. He explained in another remarkable blog post, I think I'm musing my mind," which is about his feeling that losing his ability to speak improved his writing.
Blind people develop a more acute sense of hearing. Deaf people can better notice events on the periphery, and comprehend the quick movements of lips and sign language. What about people who lose the ability to speak? We expand other ways of communicating.
Roger Ebert is on a roll. I can only salute him in awe and admiration.


Anonymous said...

we used to see him from time to time at various establishments and restaurants around sw michigan ( only an hour or so drive from chicago ). we were used to the jolly round ebert so it was quite a shock to see the post-surgery ebert. but he was always willing to sign autographs, pose for photos and such. no swelled ego / head.

thanks for alerting us to his blog. we will check it out.

thechrisproject said...

I love Roger Ebert. I have enjoyed his reviews and essays for decade(s) now. I'm so glad he was able to return to reviewing.

His relationship with Gene Siskel was fairly fascinating.