Tuesday, November 05, 2013

on eating at Charlie Trotter's

I wrote this unpublished review for the Chicago Reader the day after eating at Charlie Trotter's in May 2005  (a one-paragraph version of it might have been blurbed at some point). It was the second of two times I ate at his restaurant in my life, and they were beautiful experiences. I interviewed Trotter for an article that same year, and he was extraordinarily generous with me -- his time, his food, his cookbooks. 

 . . . At its best, as on a recent spring night, a meal at Charlie Trotter's comes with that expansive sense of well-being and world-enough-and-time that being led on a beautiful gastronomic trip in a thoughtfully-designed, sybaritic environment with the most sensitive of service brings.

The converted town homes that comprise Trotter’s four dining rooms are entered via a discreetly covered set of stairs that contributes, once inside, to a sense of cozy but spacious comfort. The lighting is flattering and bright enough to feel comfortable, inviting curiosity about what’s around the corner without making you feel cut off from other rooms or confused about the space. The fabrics have subtle complementary sheens, the wood gleams. The banquette where I parked for over five hours that night was the most comfortable piece of furniture I’ve ever sat in and didn’t require any discreet can-can kicking afterward to get stretched out when I finally got up. The space feels human-scaled, intime, well thought-out.

There are three usual offerings at Trotter’s: the grand and vegetarian prix-fixe menus, each about eight courses, or the hard-to-book kitchen table menu, where diners occupy the thrilling space twixt kitchen and laypeople and nibble on about 18,000 courses. Trotter’s waitstaff makes it clear from the very beginning, setting the tone for the evening, that they can customize these menus however one wants; I found myself confessing an aversion to shellfish much earlier in than in any previous relationship. And I saw a flicker in the waiter’s eye as he noticed me unpacking my Lactaid and was attempted to ride that for a request for a dairy-free meal--just to see what I got. But I wanted the grand menu, although I found myself more seduced by Trotter’s mastery of vegetable cooking than I expected to be.

The meal was springy and seasonal in happily subtle but effective ways. I started with salty-sweet Tasmanian ocean trout with spiky, even saltier hajiki. The vegetarian amuse guele was a combination of spongy morels and perfect crisp/tender fiddlehead ferns, a vegetable that a friend of mine describes as “Mesozoic” in flavor. There’s something completely seductive about that earthy, tightly coiled vegetable that makes you understand the rhapsodic language of truffle-hunters--I tasted dark, chocolate-cake dirt and morning dew. There was baby asparagus, equally tender and glowing green on the plate with the halibut and noodles (which I had substituted for the scallop with the curled pork rind atop like a jaunty hat), although the savory turnip puree it rested on almost stole the show, turning the halibut from clean-tasting to almost bland. Indeed, the vegetarian menu in general seemed to often grab our collective attention; the caramelized maui onion soup with a “flan” at the bottom made our eyes roll back in pleasure. That stuff was unbelievable.

Is the food fussy? Yes, it’s fussy. Serious. Food there is assembled--the verb to describe the last thing that happens to the food before you see it is assemble, not grill, fillet, debone, broil (before flinging on a plate). Any of those things and more might be done first, to any one of innumerable components, but in the end they are fluffed and nudged and sliced and fanned and dribbled onto their last home. Some courses look almost nouvelle cuisine-like in terms of food:plate ratio, but the food doesn’t taste small, nor did I leave the restaurant remotely hungry. The guinea fowl and celeriac terrine (oh so good, not in the least gamey) was arranged on an oblong plate with droplets of onion relish and vinaigrette and tiny snips of parsley, looking a bit like a Starry Night landscape before my big bad fork pillaged it. But even the tiny bits of herb were full of flavor, asking you to notice them. The chocolate mousse terrine was inter-layered with single crepes that within grew soft and almost melted, so that the teeth barely noticed them.

The desserts in general were astonishing--all that piling up of ingredients really works in the land and proportion of desserts. The kaffir lime sorbet with the chocolate mousse; the suave olive oil ice cream with the kumquat baba (just slightly too unmoist, somehow, I think, by contrast) that I had primed myself to dislike out of an attachment to catholic ice cream flavors (and which I loved, of course); the rhubarb sorbet on a jewel-like bed of vegetables and fruit such as gooseberries. Even the bread (what a bad thing to say about the staff of life -- "even") rocked my world. It was chewy in the most deliberate and hospitable of ways -- fresh, warm, based on various grains and in one case Carolina low country rice, with just the thinnest layer of salt in the outside crust. It made me happy for the attentive bread service and sweet butter that at just the right time kept one from being Without.

And the wine. The wine degustation is what puts the average per-diner cost at Trotters’ in the over-$200 category. The wine and beverage service is as attentive as the food’s, unostentatious enough that I didn’t notice all the refills of Fiji water from their snug square coasters. On this night the evening began with the most perfect, pale Bellini, per a springtime urge, which set just the right note. Among the wine menu there was a crisp Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs Brut; a delicate Kruger-Rumpf Riesling Kabinett that brought seconds from our wine steward, perfect as it was for a May evening; a Movia Pinot Nero that, as my friend said, was full of leather and smoke; Bodegas Catena Zapata "Alta" Cabernet Sauvignon. The meal ended with Olivares “Dulce” Monastrell and a petal-yellow, honeysuckle-flavored Tokaji-Aszu "5 Puttonyos" Chateau Pajzos, which made me think winily about late afternoon sun and shadows sliding through Art Nouveau buildings onto the river in 1920s Budapest… The swerves in taste and temperature and texture of the various wines pulled us through the meal with layers of complimentary and challenging flavors that made it more than worth it.

Dining at Trotter’s -- which is leisurely, and should be -- gives you enough time for life to flip through the looking glass into the rarified, expensive, fine-dining world where more things are as you would wish them (delicious, waited-upon, comfortable) than not. This context of special treatment makes the mistakes stand out more sharply (I get the feeling Trotter is well aware of this). Even the puny things. Especially the puny things. Very princess and the pea. The butter knives, for instance, which I found strangely ill-balanced in the hand due to the weight and the “tilted” design (which work well at full-size) bothered me. I kept gripping and regripping them. Or the mignardises, which in our case were small chewy Parisian macaroons, one of my favorite things in the world. The filling holding the hibiscus-flavored variety together hadn’t set all the way and the cookie sandwich slid around as I held it, me confused like a spoiled child princess by the fact that it wasn’t quite perfect, delicious as it was.

More to the point, bigger mistakes in this high-paid context become all about how the restaurant handles them. For instance, unlike the juicy grilled Dakota bison tenderloin, I found the unctuous crimson meat of the roasted squab (served, among other accompaniments, with simple but highly-seasoned velvety grits I wanted to take a bath in) so underdone as to be totally without tooth. Raw as heck. The waitstaff took it back with absolutely no fuss and happily fixed the mistake, checking in unobtrusively but clearly about how the fix was working, letting me know they knew I knew. They knew I knew they knew I knew they knew I knew. The tiniest of gestures and eye movements made it clear. They are on your side. The service at Trotter’s is as good as rumored: thoughtful, attentive, energetic, full of forethought, interactive at just the right level.

Trotter and his staff often end an evening -- smooth the transition to valet parking, or work to seduce an unimpressed diner -- with a tour of the restaurant or the kitchen itself. I couldn’t decide I how I felt about seeing behind the curtain; it was a little like seeing a blooper reel for a film that until then had engineered complete suspension of disbelief. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to feel my feet slide around on the tile floor after hours of banqueted comfort, nor was I sure I wanted to encounter Trotter’s Michelin star-chasing / Jack Welch-style cheerleading MO in action -- I wanted to just taste. The kitchen was astonishing, though. I had the usual first impression of galleys in a submarine, but shining through was also a sense of the energy and order that put the food I had eaten that night on my plate. There were arrays of the most beautifully polished copper saucepans I had ever seen, some of them adorably tiny, rows of similarly hunched-over (à la mode de Trotter) absorbed staff, and everywhere intense and layered aromas. When I left I could still smell tiny zephyrs of lavender and peas and fennel, a little dazed in the spring evening that seemed to have a pale green haze hanging above the damp streets. There are probably worse ways to ease back to life. •

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Lalah Hathaway

I like Lalah Hathaway. I love Lalah Hathaway. I like following what she's doing even when I'm not in love with all her music, because she is clearly in it for the long haul, constantly exploring her musical choices and becoming more masterful. I love her voice, and I love hearing what she does with it - those two things together are very exciting. She has a huge range, but she uses it as she wants to, musically, not to point out how big it is. Her bottom range is really unusual - unusually big, controlled, deep, fluid, solid. I don't offhand know any other women vocalists who live so much in lower registers like that except maybe other jazz musicians (which I'm not that familiar with.) Not even opera mezzos or contraltos. Nor, for the record, am I sure if she more properly belongs in R&B or jazz. Not sure that matters.

She opens up songs in amazing ways. I'd argue one of her biggest strengths is as a cover artist, as she takes songs and plays with them and makes them totally hers, something she does without having to fill in every last empty space. She's a musician. I have been more than a little obsessed for the last 10 years with how she has turned Luther Vandross' "Forever, For Always, For Love" into her song; I'm always listening to the latest version. In concert it's now 10-12 minutes long (usually with a very long guitar solo in the middle), and she is willing to be slow, to be quiet, to be precise, to live in it. It's full of flourish and ownership, but it can also sound simple - sometimes - made of the kind of simplicity that "could only have sprung from the highest art," as E.F. Benson would say. It's exhilarating. A clinic.

Anyhow, she has been doing this thing more and more recently that is really fun to listen to: she harmonizes with herself. She sings two - or three - notes at a time. Like throat singing. (Or David Lee Roth!) Maybe it more properly belongs in the category of a stunt or trick, but there is something so cool about it, not to mention watching audience members and fellow musicians alike lose their minds when they hear it. She doesn't do it like a big ta-dah or kicker at the end of a performance or something - she does it with a lot of musical care, like all her singing - but either way there is something incredible about hearing these noises - hearing a chord - come of out of a human being. People go INSANE.

Some spots to hear it:

- in the middle of call and response, singing Randy Crawford's "Street Life" - c: 6:45 (if you don't listen to the whole thing, at least start at 6:00 to hear her play with Arabic-style vibrato)

- singing "Something" with Snarky Puppy - c. 6:10 - 6:25 (watch the musicians go bonkers)

- singing "Summertime" with: Jason Morales - c: 5:30 - 7:00

- a clip of her doing it (not sure what song it is) - c: 0:15

- another clip - her bit is 0:00 - 2:15 and the self-harmonizing happens around 1:30 - 2:00, after she throws in bits of The Wiz

If you're not familiar with Hathaway, here is a bit of her singing Anita Baker's "Angel," showing off some of how she does, in general:

Here is my current fav version of her singing "Forever, For Always, For Love" (Paris, 2012). (Also great: versions with Errol Cooney on guitar -  this is another really gorgeous version.) All the clips from this concert in Paris are fun, because you can really see her leading her band, being in charge. Make sure you hear 4:30 - 5:30:

And here, of course, is her father, who is, you know - god. She does sound like him, I think. The size of her voice is sort of shaped the same way, with that insane bottom to it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

How silly Rhoda is, thought Deirdre, almost as if she were interested in Father Tulliver in a flirtatious way. She was as yet too young to have learned that women of her aunt's age could still be interested in men; she would have many years to go before the rather dreadful suspicion came to her that one probably never does cease to be interested.
Less Than Angels, Barbara Pym

Thursday, June 06, 2013

great iPhones news photos in history

Phil Rosenthal started this hashtag - #iphonenewspics - yesterday. Silly. Extremely satisfying. These are some of the ones I've made so far. Hard to stop.

Iwo Jima!

situation room...Bin Laden

a Great Day in Harlem
cops pepper spray at #OWS
1968 Olympics...I think they're checking
their shoelaces or something?
Einstein selfie
tear gas in Turkey
migrant mother, Dorothea Lange
...sorry about the thumb
Wright Brothers
Mission Accomplished!

Monday, June 03, 2013

on some aesthetics of Behind the Candelabra

Some of what has made Behind the Candelabra, the Steven Soderbergh adaptation of Scott Thorson's book about his life with Liberace, stick with me is the poignant universality of the story: Matt Damon's vulnerable, sometimes heartbroken face as Thorson as he goes from naif to betrayed, jittery ex. Damon is wonderful. Some of it is a longtime fascination with stories of the old and closeted – or just those aging and trying to live their lives with glamour – in Hollywood. Many times this movie reminded me of scenes in Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City (1982), in which the protagonist Michael visits the Beverly Hills house of a character based very obviously on Rock Hudson (named "_____"). In one scene Michael is talking to the knowing houseman, Guido, as "twinkies" show up for a welcome-home pool party for _____:
One by one, the young men began arriving, long-limbed and Lacosted to near perfection.
"What is this?" asked Michael, hovering near the kitchen. "The summer spread of GQ?"
"They wish," said Guideo, frantically fluffing the parsley on a tray of deviled eggs. "They're anybody's spread at this point . . . and honey, when you've been in this business as long as I have, you see them come and you see them go. Mostly come . . . ya know?"
"They're so gorgeous," said Michael. "Are they actors or what?"
"What, mostly. Starlets. Harry Cohn knew all about it, only he did it with girls. Same difference. Same dumb dames standing around the pool."
But a big part of how Behind the Candelabra has stuck with me, it turns out, is how it was made. To this story, which in some ways is not a new one, the film brings precise and artistic movie craft, including a few qualities that really stuck out.

One great effect was the marriage of all the Liberacean "palatial kitsch" to pervasive yellows and glowing, often blown-out light that saturates the film – something I think of as a Soderbergh hallmark. There is yellow and gold all through this film – hair, walls, cars, houses, jewelry – but most of all: light. Light radiates back from Behind the Candelabra, from the shining yellow incandescence inside Liberace's homes and dressing rooms, to the the whited-out glare of the Palm Springs sun, to the colder but still bright-burning stage light. The light hits ominous objects like the never-ending pile of prescriptions Dr. Startz (Rob Lowe) hands Thorson, turning them into pretty luminous squares. From the very first shot – at a gay bar with Damon's back to camera – to Liberace's deathbed scene near the end, as the gaunt Michael Douglas lies on gold satin sheets that shine at the camera, the film glows with Soderbergh yellow.

All this light – which doesn't blur or obscure detail – it tends to make things sharper, even as it creates excess – does one important thing for the movie and its depiction of life inside the jewel box: brings it closer. It animates the insane interiors and spaces Liberace lived in. When you look at old photos – long shots – of Liberace's mirrored rooms and crazy gilded furniture, they can have a kind of bluish, dated feel. I mean, they would, by just virtue of age, but images of the kitschy and ornate decor of his homes – of his self – can feel kind of overwhelming and cold. The light creates focus, lets you marvel at the baroque spaces without getting lost in them. The scenes when the film's palette departs from the warm glow – at the glory holes, lit in purple neon, or the greenish light of the operating rooms during the plastic surgery scenes, or the flat white light in Damon's drug buddy Mr. Y's (Nicky Katt) house after the breakup – tend to feel disorienting, hint at discord. The yellow tends to animate the closest parts of Damon's and Douglas' life together; the other tones often fall outside of it.

The sound in Behind the Candelabra is wonderful, with subtle but sure, judiciously-chosen changes in ambient noise that put happenings in precise place, such as the distant barks of Liberace's dogs in other rooms, or a shot of an an announcement from the Palm Springs coroner (note: more blistered sunshine), which arrives with the sudden buzz of the cicadas that immediately reminds you these opulent Palm Springs interiors actually hide inside desert bunkers:

And the score was great. I have thought a lot about what it means that all the years of Liberace's life he spent playing the piano – decades – and creating his defanged, glammed-up versions of classical music, might make the most sense these days as snipped-off bits in a movie score. (I don't know what it means – I've just been thinking about it.) Soderbergh had amazing riches to choose from – music to undercut, to underline, some of it actually really beautiful. Off-hand the only time I remember hearing any other kind of music in this film is the opening scene, which is scored with Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." The song choice – and the way the song goes from straight soundtrack to sounding like it's being played in a club – makes it clear right from the beginning where this young man is coming from, in every sense.

There are no opening credits in this movie. The scene at the gay bar opens it, after just a card with the year on it:
...which for me (I don't know about you) immediately puts me in mind of 70s to mid-80s album covers. (The type is Sante Fe, designed by David Quay in 1983.) It harkens to diner script and neon signs, and to earlier 20th century script typefaces, but in my mind it feels firmly connected to 70s/early 80s deco. That open join in the "9" immediately dates it, as do the rounded ends of the monolineal characters.

Which brings us to a small detail – in terms of screen time – that really cinched my affection for this film. There are no title credits in Behind the Candelabra, but the end credits, which represent the film's first major graphic design decision, open with this extremely tasty image. I think I sighed when I saw it:

Edwardian Script, a typeface designed by the legendary Ed Benguiat in 1994, is tricky as hell, I think. I'm almost never happy to see it. Even in 2013, with ever-changing design rules, it is tricky. It looks, at a squint, like a lyrical and strenuously uniform/classically regular copperplate typeface, but the minute you're closer you can see it is also emotional and all over the place, especially for one designed to suggest elegance and formality.

You can see some of it the craziness with an up-close look at the join from O to D and the lower-case R, here:

These are bold and variant shapes within the thicket of more regular ups and downs (they almost look like Benguiat shaded in the loops by mistake, as if the ink in his pen had gushed a little there). The thicks and thins often take their own pace; they are not as uniform as they seem at first look (Benguiat created some amazing brush and script typefaces, which fits with this). And Edwardian has some kooky bulb terminals, as in the S and the X, below – look at those things!

I think it's very hard to use the right amount of Edwardian Script. It's not just formal – but it's not just nutty. All those joins and curves, which almost look like blown-up or close-up versions of joins in other typeface, can both lose their effect or have too much effect – overwhelm – unless administered at correct dosages: amounts that let you see the wacky curves and terminals but not get lost in them. And I'm not even taking on the genuinely florid Edwardian capitals, which are excessive and increase illegibility quite a bit when used more than one a word.

In the time that Behind the Candelabra takes place - at the time Liberace Cooks! (for instance) was published in 1970 – there was, in my memory, a lot of lettering like that. A lot of thick, packed-together, flourish-heavy type of a kind you see echoed a bit in Edwardian Script.
You can see when you look a bit closer that the K has an even bigger bulb terminal than the one in the Edwardian Script "X":

A much more common type of copperplate typeface for the moment – Bickham, for instance – renders letters quite differently:

The thicks are less thick and extend for much longer (and along the longer ascenders and descenders), with less variation, shortening and standardizing the transitions from thick to thin that can be so dramatic in Edwardian Script. It leans at a much steeper angle, feels more full of directed movement, rather than movement held inside the letters in Edwardian Script, which can feel kind of static, as if the letters are cages. The curves in Bickham are shallower, the effect much more regular. To me it's a much more pleasing script to the eye, closer to a hand-written script. Edward Script feels drawn.

The way Behind the Candelabra uses Edwardian Script was genius, though. Weirdly, intensely so. It is perfect for a film steeped in kitsch yet apart from it, and absolutely perfect for Liberace in his particular kind of aesthetic of excess. The amount of Edwardian Script they used was great: small and careful, yet clear (another prob with Edwardian I think – lack of clarity), pushed to the front by the soft focus behind it. The limited use of capitals is good – oh the title card! [top image] It makes me drool a little, with that bitchen backward flourish at the top of the C contrasting with the line of type marching next to it... The flat pastel candy color choices contrasted beautifully with the metallics and shiny golds of the tiny pianos, the scale of which set off the whole effect perfectly. The color was genius, period; it embraced, rather than fought with, this type's inability to quite fit in the box. There was – this was the real key, maybe – enough air around the text to give the Edwardian room to be read, and for all the kineticism within the letters to dissipate, and for the regularity in the letters, which is there, to shine through too, and wrap up the movie – tell us it was over.


It is all very...Liberace. Elegant but cheesy – all those swirls and shapes are cheesy. Constrained but florid and romantic. Kind of crazy. A little geriatric, a little dated, a little fabulous. A little bit Precious Moments, a little bit louche. Little jewels of text, next to the tiny, jewel-like pianos.

Does this sound crazy? I care desperately about letters, but I am in many ways more of a self-taught calligrapher than a designer and don't always know if history and the graphic arts back up my visceral reactions. Or if I'm missing things. All's I know is that this was about the first time I ever had a happy reaction to Edwardian Script. The end titles are just gorgeous, and gorgeous in context.

The movie is worth seeing, if you haven't, and I am guessing, given how strong I found the visuals, would have been much better shown first in a theater. I would have loved to drink them in on the big screen.

p.s. A truly great insult from this movie: "You cock-sucking tenor fuck!"

p.p.s. The poster is great too, with its bejeweled lettering: Poppl-Exquisit, I think, a much better choice for the poster than Edwardian Script, but I wish they'd un-capitalize the T in "The"!

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

boys club

I made the graphic below for this Boys Clubs Tumblr about institutions that are all men because I have been thinking about it/noticing it for months: every single host of a show on the Travel Channel is a white man. Note: Samantha Brown is still listed as a host on the Travel Channel website, but I haven't actually seen her show on Travel Channel or on TV schedules for months. All these other shows are actually broadcast regularly right now.

These casting choices feel full of meaning, taken together. Among a million things, that: white men are the expert conduit through which the unusual/fun/exotic/interesting/unfamiliar/delicious are experienced and their identity therefore defines all of those things (by comparison); that their eyes are the ones that can be trusted for observation; that men are the only ones badass enough to travel around and do what they do. I really don't like how Travel Channel sells itself, which leans heavily on that last idea. And I really love travel shows! I enjoy some of these shows occasionally. But boy, is it a narrow window through which to look at the whole wide world.

Their newest show, premiering later this month? Hosted by Bret Michaels.

deep thoughts from S06E05

Friday, April 05, 2013

Roger Ebert Is Gone

When I read on Twitter that he had died I was actually sitting at my desk trying to decide what to send him to acknowledge his newest trouble with cancer. Nothing that made for sickbed hassle... A card? A note? A note. On a piece of engraved stationery from my hoarded, dwindling stash. He'd appreciate that. A nice note with words that I'd hope would convey the right type of clear-eyed compassion - the kind of words he always chose: wise, kind, smart, with the beautiful responsibility and directness of a lifelong newspaper man. I would have been careful to not write "Get Well," but, still, something as cheerful and real as I could make it. Writing to him always made me think very hard about the words I chose.

It doesn't matter now, because it's over. It was always going to feel too soon. He had been articulating his death in his strong voice for a long time, but it still hurt when it came, felt an unfairness.

I knew Roger Ebert a little bit. I have my small bag of stories, and I keep it more carefully than I do many things in my life. I don't think my stories are unusual - many, many people have them - and I know the same thing from mine that I know from reading other people's: he was generous. It's such a boring word for what it describes. Maybe because "generous" is sort of outwardly-focused  - opens things up. It's a little vague. There was nothing diffuse in dealing with him, though. He was extremely focused, strongly himself, loyal to his thinking and his emotions. But he showed the best kind of confidence by being interested in and open to others.

I first knew him in 1999 because I sent him my zine. It was an impulsive move, born of killing myself for weeks to finish the second issue only to immediately have no clue what to do with it (a common feeling upon finishing a zine). Then I thought: Roger Ebert! He lives in Chicago too. He loves opera and movies and is an Anglophile, like me. He likes Doris Day and MFK Fisher, like me. I will send my work to him - he might like it. I followed my finger down a page of Who's Who until I found his business mailing address, and flung the zines in the mail with a note. Hail Mary.

I was at work three weeks later on a Monday, after a bad weekend spent dealing with the noise and stereo twiddlings of a crackhead neighbor. As I started miserably slashing through my inbox I was stopped by the sight of an email from Roger Ebert - Roger Ebert, just like any other person. His name shone calmly in the queue onscreen amidst waves of the usual frantic work horseshit.

When I think back I can immediately access the physical sensations that swamped me as I figured out what I was seeing. Adrenaline was shooting through every limb. I kept getting up and sitting back down, leaving my office and coming back, doing laps through the office cubicles with a huge involuntary smile on my face, letting out little yelps.

He wrote me that he did not have time to read 95% of the stuff that was mailed to him ("no human being would") but that his eye had fallen on my zines and started reading. "You are some writer," he told me. It turned out one of my favorite childhood books, Cheaper by the Dozen, had been a favorite of his too, and he offered to submit an essay I had written about it to a literary review on my behalf; "help it through the slush pile."

He offered clear, concrete help right off the bat. I still marvel at the effect of that, years later. He read my work, told me it was "of a high professional standard," and he offered to help me, right then. As it turns out the review did not accept the piece, but Roger's email came at the beginning of a period in my life in which I changed jobs and started to publish work, including, eventually, a (better, reworked) version of the Cheaper by the Dozen piece. As obvious as it seems now, it really is only in retrospect that I can see that every communication with him provided real fuel to my life.

In the ten years following, we sent the occasional email. In winter 2004, I messed up a good chance to talk to him in person. I had seen him a few times on the street in passing in earlier years, but this time I was at the theater on Lake Street where Chicago critics see their films, and when I stumbled into the elevator, sweaty and late for a screening, there he was. Standing with someone else, I forget whom (not Chaz, I think), and wrapped up in his winter coat. I just couldn't bring myself work through our outerwear to do the introducing.

That was because I was at the beginning of a period of bad health and quite bad physical mobility that I would acknowledge to no one, and I just could not - did not have the energy to - navigate explaining who I was, sweating with pain as I tried to stay upright, and finding the Right Seat among critics who all had their own spots already, all in the 90 seconds before the film was to start.

So I cravenly avoided his eyes. It pains me to remember that moment now. Now I think that no matter what I should have talked to him, or found him after the show, which I hoped would happen, but didn't. But then I was quite embarrassed by my inability to stand or walk well and didn't have the courage to push it. It's sad in so many ways to think about this: a dumb missed chance (forever), dumb vanity, the poignant fact that he, more than many, might have been able to understand my physical limitations. I did email him later and tell him I had seen him in the elevator. I lied, basically; I said I had been too unawake and uncaffeinated to realize who he was in time to say hi...blah blah. It was stupid. He wrote back a variation on No-way-that-was-you-say-hi-next-time-you-idiot.

In 2009 I got in touch with him again, pushed to do so by two things (three, if you include a smart friend). For one, I was exhilarated by the writing he was doing then, by how good his long-form autobiographical pieces were (such as those on drinking - at O'Rourke's - and on not drinking - at AA). I wanted to tell him how exciting I found his work, how it married intelligence and the humbling specifics of human experience in ways that I couldn't stop thinking about. I also wanted to tell him how much I admired how he handled his illness (and deadlines!), especially as a public figure. By then I knew how hard addressing long-term illness is. For myself, at least. How much it shapes your life, how hard it is to get better, how getting better can be as tricky as getting worse, how you have both no control and too much control over the little things that happen and what an exhausting drain every situation is. I knew that he had spent time at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which is where I had done rehab too. At that point I could have stood in the elevator and introduced myself to him - although at that point he couldn't have spoken back.

I got his new email address from a friend and sent him a letter. He wrote back quickly (he always did), said that he was enjoying writing more, "and, I daresay, better than ever," and told me that he liked my blog and had tweeted about an entry (props to Rog for using the word "fat" in a neutral, descriptive fashion, by the way). He did this again in subsequent years about a few things I sent him: once tweeting a piece I had written about Jeff Bridges (by then I understood Twitter better and what it meant to have Roger Ebert tweet about something you had written, holy cow) and last year Facebooking something I had written about Brideshead Revisited. Each time it happened there would be a brief silence after his email arrived before my Twitter and email notifications would start bonging loudly, my face would get red, I'd yell and jump around, my blog hits would (temporarily) spike to 8,000 a day, and I'd chant to friends over and over, "such a mensch...he's such a mensch!" I never got cool about this. I'd try to write thank-you letters that I hoped weren't too fulsome, or demanding in any way. Or as hyper as the jumping around.

I hope that it isn't too conceited that in describing his generosity I also relate experiences of good fortune in my life (doesn't seem to be any way around that). I want to show how smart and generous he was with me with the power he had. Ours was not a balanced relationship - he could give me more than I could give him - but he did it gorgeously. I always aware of who he was, but mostly I just wanted to show him what I had been thinking about. Share it.

Around ten months ago I decided I wanted to send him a present. From reading his work and keeping a brutal eye on what I could see of the facts of his health I was worried I'd be too late if I didn't do it sooner rather than later. I didn't want to miss him again like on Lake Street, miss him for good. I wanted to tell him directly how much his encouragement had meant to me over the years. I could clearly see the day coming - today, it turns out - when I would be one of thousands of people at their keyboards trying to describe what he meant to us. I didn't want him not to know.

I sent him a two-volume edition from the 1930s of the complete works of Saki in beautiful dust jackets, enjoying the process of packing it up just so, writing the right note, padding to the post office. I knew he'd like them. He sent back a spectacularly sweet thank-you letter that I feel too weepy to reproduce here. And then not long after wrote me back again to say: I want to give you some books too. What do you like?

That threw me. If he had been a better friend I would have risked a couple emails to wave him off, saying no, no, they are for you, you owe me nothing, ya dope. But because he was Roger Ebert I couldn't. I felt a little slapped in the face, to get his return offer so fast after my long-planned present. Or as if I had perhaps initiated an uncomfortable and never-ending ping-pong match of escalating gift-giving. Or, worriedly, as if I had maybe created an uncomfortable obligation on his end. But with a little time to think it over (thank God for time, sometimes) I realized: this is a man who will probably not live that much longer. It would be unkind to refuse him the pleasure of giving something. Let him do that. Let him put some books where he wants them.

So I learned yet another thing from him in the end of his life. I listed some favorite authors (he told me he liked my taste and I died another happy little death) and he sent me a few books that I now cherish. I don't really want to say what they are for some reason; he didn't send me Shakespeare Folios - just books that were perfect for me and provided a few new literary directions to sniff in. I have been reminded in the last few days how early I started learning new things from him; how much watching Siskel & Ebert with my family as a teenager influenced me. Decades of my life he informed. To be a critic, he wrote, was to be a teacher.

When he wrote me in 1999 to tell me the Cheaper by the Dozen piece had been turned down, he sent some advice in an email that I printed out and have had hanging on my wall for the almost fifteen years since then. I don't know if I've been able to follow it the way he did himself (very few people could), but it makes me feel special to have been the recipient of it and to have ever had his hilarious, wise eye on me at all:
Well, I guess acceptance the first time out would have been too much to expect. But you DO have a voice--yours--and if you plug away you will be a famous and beloved writer before you know it. (Human nature being what it is, you will have retained the words "famous and beloved" from the previous sentence, when of course "plug away" is the key content.)
very best,
I love that he had my and every other writer's number in that last sentence. And that he signed his emails "RE" then, which (I told him) always reminded me of studio mogul "RF" Simpson in Singin' in the Rain.

I loved learning from him in recent years, loved his vulnerable but fiercely steady take on life and loss. I loved that he wasn't scared to care. I loved that his life prompted me to want to find always better-chosen words, showed me that it was worth telling him what he meant to me before it was too late, although I don't think I ever guessed how soon he'd go. I hope I can even try to be as dogged, as giving, as curious, as of my time and of my life as he was of his - to contribute, as he said, "joy to the world . . . no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try."

- § -

Monday, March 25, 2013

Michael Ramsay, Archbishop of Canterbury during my childhood and during my religious phase a hero and profound influence, was once accused by an interviewer of being wise.
"Am I?" he asked. "I don't think so really. I think it is probably just the impression given by the absurd fecundity of my eyebrows."
"Well, your Grace," the interviewer persisted, "how would you define wisdom?"
"Wisdom?" Ramsay chewed the word around in his mouth. "Oh, I should say that wisdom is the ability to cope."
Moab Is My Washpot, Stephen Fry

Friday, March 15, 2013

"I play the piano a good deal," he said "I have a seven-foot Steinway. Mozart and Bach mostly. I'm a bit old-fashioned. Most people find it dull stuff. I don't."
"Perfect casting," I said, and put a card somewhere.
"You'd be surprised how difficult some of that Mozart is," he said. "It sounds so simple when you hear it played well."
"Who can play it well?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Too heavy. Too emotional. Mozart is just music. No comment needed from the performer."
The Little Sister, Raymond Chandler

The return of the voice also enabled me to begin really to taste the verse [of Titus Andronicus]. I discovered that it was like surfing. Unlike modern writing, the words, the metre and the rhythm contain their own energy. Once you've liberated it, it carries you forward effortlessly. It's a question of putting one's brain into the words and one's emotions into the rhythm. The metaphors have such a vigorous life of their own, that they sweep through one unaided; that is to say, if the rhythmic conduit has been firmly established. I have to confess that in these matters, as with Shakespeare in general, I have found the Stanislavsky system of no use. Metaphor is the problem. It cannot be coerced into the activity-towards-an-action straitjacket.
Being an Actor, Simon Callow

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy 2013!!

It's amazing what you can see...

...when you look more closely!
Blue-footed boobies wish you a happy happy new year!