I had the pleasure of meeting Roger Ebert recently. Not personally, of course; sadly, he passed away on April 4, 2013. Still, our nightly conversations through his memoir Life Itself: A Memoir went something like this:|
He talked about his childhood in Urbana. Wow – this is so interesting I said over and over (in my head) – my dad is only a year younger than you and graduated from Champaign High School in 1949. I’ve never had some of these conversations with him about what life was like in this town during those years. I need to do this.
Then, he told me about his college days at the University of Illinois, where I also attended. He writes, “Urbana-Champaign was gathered at the feet of the University of Illinois like a medieval town outside the walls of a great castle. It employed us, it fascinated us, it was our fame.” Like many of us, the people he met here and the experiences he gained affected the rest of his life. Roger took every experience he was offered and reflects on how passing relationships and situations can have unforeseen influence on your future. He notes, “You meet someone glancingly in a lifetime who has unforeseen influence…So much of what happens by chance forms what becomes your life.” Yep.
I always thought of him as a “movie person” but he is so much more. He was a passionate walker and traveler. (Note to self to add his The Perfect London Walk to my reading list.) He was a Steak ‘n Shake lover – Chapter 8 is an ode to this restaurant. He shares this appreciation with his early friends – for their 40th high school reunion, the class had Steak ‘n Shake catered to the Urbana Country Club. He was a people person – several chapters are odes to those he admired. I think he saw the best in everyone.
On the more negative side; he was a drinker. He talked about alcoholism, both his and his mother’s, including his daily visits over more than a decade to the newspaper bar, O’Rourke’s. He also let his life, to an extent and mostly regarding his romantic relationships, be defined by his mother, who early on wanted him to become a priest. His honesty throughout is fascinating and admirable; he says, “I will write his book only once and might as well not make it fiction.”
Through his blogs and the Esquire interview, I had already gained a sense of (and great appreciation for) how Roger lived his life after losing his voice. His book touches on that, of course, but moreover, it gave me a sense of what experiences made this man who he was before that and what gave him the strength to handle his challenges with such grace and purpose.
I’ve mentioned a few but not nearly all of my favorite moments and surprises of this book. Some of them I prefer to keep to myself like any good conversation with a friend. We have much in common regarding politics and spirituality. I’m sure anyone reading will find their own favorite moments and inspirations. I finished it last week, and I found myself purposely dragging it out towards the end. I will greatly miss my nightly conversations with Roger.
He says, “The best movies aren’t about what happens to the characters. They’re about the example that they set.” The same can be said about books, and people.