Happy Birthday Roger Ebert

Happy Birthday Roger Ebert

(Wait a sec, isn’t he dead?)

Roger Ebert would have been eighty years old this week. It goes without saying he died too soon (2013), meaning we wanted to hear more from him.  We wanted him to give us more. What a fine legacy that his written voice lives on for those who have the yearning to listen. I am grateful to his widow, Chaz Ebert for vitalizing Roger through RogerEbert.com.

Roger often wandered around on the page about death, even before he was diagnosed with a lethal form of oral cancer. He easily interspersed philosophical musings into movie reviews. His essay on Apocalypse Now ends: “The whole huge grand mystery of the world, so terrible, so beautiful, seems to hang in the balance.”

When I recently regained semi-consciousness after hip replacement surgery, I thought I was dead. Where am I? Where’s my body? What are you doing to me? Why does this hurt so much? Why am I so cold (a sure sign I was dead)? All these questions were in me but I’m not sure I was vocalizing them. Sounds of voices swirled around me. Were they talking to me? Or was I just thinking they were? It may not naturally follow that a person is consumed with thoughts of death after such an experience, but it certainly is true in my case. Spending a month of recovery reading about death was not my brightest idea, until I found consolation in old blog posts that Roger wrote towards the end of his life. Excerpted here are some of his words.

Happy birthday,  Roger.

Go gentle into that good night 

Roger Ebert May 02, 2009

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.


I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

I don’t expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing.

I was talking the other day with Jim Toback, a friend of 35 years, and the conversation turned to our deaths, as it always does. “Ask someone how they feel about death,” he said, “and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die. Ask them, In the next 30 seconds? No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen. How about this afternoon? No. What you’re really asking them to admit is, Oh my God, I don’t really exist and I might be gone at any given second.”

Me too, but I hope not. I have plans. Still, this blog has led me resolutely toward the contemplation of death. In the beginning I found myself drawn toward writing about my life. Everyone’s life story is awaiting only the final page. Then I began writing on the subject of evolution, that most consoling of all the sciences, and was engulfed in an unforeseen discussion about God, the afterlife, and religion

I was told that I was an atheist. Or an agnostic. Or a deist. I refused all labels. It is too easy for others to pin one on me, and believe they understand me. I am still working on understanding myself.

“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world.

Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. What happens then? From my point of view, nothing. Absolutely nothing. Still, as I wrote today to a woman I have known since she was six: “You’d better cry at my memorial service.”

Read the entire essay at Go gentle into that good night

Photo Credit: Ebert Digital LLC © Copyright 2022

Death by Choice

FeaturedDeath by Choice

What’s a crucifix doing on the wall?

The nurse told me I was in a Catholic hospital. I could have figured that out. I checked into Amita Health Saint Joseph, after all. I assumed Amita appropriated the name for brand continuity. Ok, it’s Catholic, but do they have to display a crucifix on my wall?

A friend came by and said there’s a cross on the wall. 

“That’s a crucifix, not a cross, “ I said.

She shrugged as if it makes no difference. But maybe she just didn’t know the difference. 

“It’s a Catholic hospital,” I said, “only Catholics hang crucifixes. Protestants hang crosses.”

“What’s the difference?” she asked. 

In the late afternoon, the overhead fluorescent from the hallway shed enough light on the crucifix for me to see it from my bed. I said a few words.

Thank you god for replacing my decaying hip with a shiny new titanium rod and ball and clean ceramic joint. 

He didn’t answer. That’s ok. He never does. Specificity was key in my gratitude. I needed to state out loud exactly what just happened to me, to visualize the medical miracle of supplanting the largest joint in my body. 

Jesus’ body hanging there with nails through his wrists and in his crossed feet started to take on a living drama. The nerve block and painkillers from my surgery were wearing off. We were in agony together. I fumbled through the sheets for the control button and banged on it to call a nurse. 

She came. Later than I’d hoped.

“I’m in a lotta pain,” I cried out.

“I have your painkiller. Oh look, your ice pack slipped to the floor. I’ll refill it. Be right back.”

I looked at Jesus.

How could you bear this? I can’t stand it.

I later opened my eyes to Sister Leticia peering down at me. After introductions and medical pleasantries, she fumbled through a sheaf of papers until she pulled out the Do Not Resuscitate form. 

“I’m here to talk to you about your papers. Do you have one of these?” 

“Oh yeah, I have a POLST.”

“You do?”

She thumbed through her pile and pulled out a blank POLST, “Does it look like this?”

“Yes, I’ve got a copy here in my purse.”

We spread my papers out on the bed—what I’d brought and those accumulated a few hours earlier when I checked into the hospital. 

“There it is!” exclaimed Sister Leticia. She found the holy POLST among Amita brochures and post-op instructions.

POLST stands for PRACTITIONER ORDER FOR LIFE-SUSTAINING TREATMENT. It’s a DNR signed by a doctor and witnessed by a third party. Some say it’s too final, a death warrant. Sister clucked with excitement at the sight of my POLST. She could then forego the talk on the tender subject of medical interventions to save my life if I stopped breathing or slipped into unconsciousness. 

Sister Leticia ducked out of sight before I could ask if she, as a Catholic, approves of my choice about my body.

I looked at Jesus. 

He seemed ok with it.

The Day I Turned Old

FeaturedThe Day I Turned Old

My actual (as opposed to official) retirement began the day I walked into Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and asked to volunteer for a few hours each weekday. I’d had a couple of rough years at my final payroller job and I thought volunteering would help lift me into a new way of thinking. Or, more precisely, I wanted a time-filler to keep from obsessing over the aftermath of the soul-crushing previous twenty-four months of my life.

Oh churches! There seem to be so many cries for help, until they try to find a job fit for you. I grabbed the first one offered and plunked myself down in front of a computer in the cubicle next to Vince, a friendly volunteer who was out of work but not yet retired. Our job: clean up the database. 

The database. Every pensioner I’ve met since my stint who looked to the church to help fill the first year’s lonely unproductive hours says the same thing.

“I started with the database.”

Vince knew what he was doing and in fact devised a formula and matrix for our work. I suppose it was simple. If you could pay attention. I couldn’t. At the end of each of my four hour stints, he’d spot-check my work and stay an extra hour or more to correct everything I tried to accomplish. Vince had an advantage—he was good at the game Concentration. He could spot a misspelled name in seconds-flat with his highly industrious mind.

The room next to the dreaded cubicles had been cleared of all furniture. It may have been the size of a football field. For about a year, having been diagnosed with PTSD due to the aforementioned job, my perception of size, space and time was like science fiction, all out of whack. 

One day, I heard an old Frankie Valli tune, “Sherry Baby” seeping under the door from that huge room. Of course I learned all the words—they’re pretty simple—as a teenager and never forgot them. 

“What’s going on in there?” I asked Vince. 

“Sher-er-ree, Sherr-ee, Baby…

“Oh, that’s the old people’s exercise class,” he said.

“Old people?”

“Yeah, ya’ know. CLL. The Center for Life and Learning.”

I didn’t, in fact, know. The church bulletin had notices about CLL but I never thought they were meant for me. Within the next few weeks, each day I grew grumpier and grumpier working on the database.

“Vince,” I said, “No offense, but I’d rather be in that room dancing around to “Sherry Baby” than sitting in front of a computer.” 

“Aw, yes, Regan,” he said, “But would it be as rewarding?”

Rewarding. Now there’s a loaded word. Did I really need to feel rewarded for the hours between sunrise and sunset? How about satisfied? Couldn’t I just feel satisfied?

Or, neutral?

“Vince. I’m logging out today and joining the exercise group tomorrow.”

And that day, that neutral day, is the day I turned old.

Roe

FeaturedRoe

Well, It’s Happening

Long before the Supreme Court decided that a woman’s right to an abortion was a privacy issue, I helped a few friends obtain illegal abortions. They had no choice. I almost had one myself, but chickened out on the steps of the abortionist’s old row house in Newark, New Jersey.

Prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, most women I knew had a secret contact closeted away in the flap of her wallet or scotch-taped to a page in her locked diary. The Supreme Court ended that phase of our lives. No longer would we meet in secret and whisper in corners about where to go for an abortion. 

One year I drove a group of friends from New Jersey to a roadside motel outside of Baltimore. There were two girls to a room. It cost two hundred bucks, paid for with babysitting earnings or waitressing tips. Where did I get the abortionist’s name and number? I have no idea. But I do know this: in the 1960s my friends knew I could and would help them.

The Roe v. Wade decision came as a surprise. I had paid attention, written to Washington in support of the decision and sent plenty of letters to the editor. But I never expected Roe to become the law of the land. It seemed preposterous. Born-again Christians had just started flowering in the 1970s. Hell, I was one myself. I even joined a Christian cult. But anti-abortion wasn’t the primary cause at the beginning of the Christian Right movement. They took aim at teaching creationism in the schools and working against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. To the Moral Majority, the ERA was—and still is—a threat to what they call traditional family values. And I call traditional patriarchal values.

“We certainly can’t have women exercising the same rights as men!”

In the five decades that the right to choose has been law in the United States, a steady, ever-escalating squall has been battering its shutters. I know women and men who have worked tirelessly to keep abortion legal, as if any day now the Supreme Court would unlatch and reverse their 1973 decision. I never really believed it would or could happen. It just seemed preposterous.

Well, it’s happening.

A leaked memo written in early 2022 by Supreme Court Justice Alito tells us the Court is on the brink of reversing Roe.

Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” writes Alito.

There are enough conservative judges on that bench to reverse Roe when they vote sometime before the end of the 2022 session. Abortion laws will go back to the states. Contact information will once again be squirreled away in secret places. An underground railroad of frightened teenage girls will stream into Illinois where abortion is legal. And when we send them back home, there’s no telling if they’ll be discovered and arrested for the crime of having an abortion.

As for me, I will make a bed for any girl who manages to find her way to my door.

May Day! Mothering Rough Seas

May Day! Mothering Rough Seas

For a few years, my son and I lived at the Jersey Shore with his stepfather, Jack, on the confluence of a fresh water river and a saltwater bay. The east-west Toms River begins in the swamps of the Pine Barrens, widens and swells its way east, eventually slamming into the Barnegat Bay. Sailors love the Toms River, especially during the summer’s prevailing southerlies.

I am not a sailor. 

In our family, swimming, passed down from one generation to the next, was a right of passage for a three-year old.  Water is in our blood. Our sandy backyard, bulkheaded rich brine that nourished vibrant sea creatures and, in turn, fed migratory bird colonies. Life on the water with my inquisitive six-year old was pure joy.

Jack arrived home one day with a used polystyrene Sunfish trailing his ’65 Mustang. For fifty dollars, the previous owner threw in a booklet on ‘how to sail’. A 1971 ad in Boating magazine called the thirty pound Sunfish the “Volkswagen of sailboats. A perfect learner’s boat” 

I called it a styrofoam bathtub.

Joe and I practiced our new book-learned sailing skills, 100 feet offshore, moored to the bulkhead. On our first untethered day at sea, Joe rigged the sails. We lulled away the dead calm until Joe spotted our German Shepherd swimming our way. As she approached the boat, I stood up, pointed toward shore and shouted “go home!” Which of course she did. She was, after all, a German Shepherd.

The next time Joe and I unmoored, we sailed expertly into the middle of the widest part of the river. We took turns at the tiller, successfully jibing and tacking as the wind took us west. But then we tacked to come back downriver. The sweet southerlies that had funneled us upriver suddenly turned on us like a mad dog turning on its master. The rogue wind bared its teeth. Thunderclouds whipped up the tide. And the sail luffed out of control. We. Were. Trapped.

The boat, too light for wind-churned waters, threw us around like a sea monster. I reassured Joe we were safe since we were both good swimmers. 

“We can’t leave the boat,” pleaded Joe.

“We won’t!” I assured him. But truth is, he’d seen the thought to abandon the boat cross my brow. I could swim to shore with one arm around Joe’s chest but I couldn’t pull the Sunfish with the other. 

Private docks, woods and marinas dotted the riverfront. I spotted a sliver of sand and rowed furiously. We pulled the boat up, tied it to a tree and ran to the door of a stranger who drove us home. The next day the Coast Guard towed our Sunfish home. 

“No markings on this thing,” the officer said. 

“You should name her ‘May Day.’”

At twenty-seven years old, I had no reason to believe motherhood would come naturally. All my choices to that point had been daring, radical, reckless.  Only four years before, I’d taken LSD, left toddler Joe with his father and trekked to Woodstock in a station wagon full of Rolling Rock chugging hippies. I was separated from them on the first night while swooning over Richie Havens’ performance of “Freedom”. During the muddy aftermath, I smoked opium with a stranger and hitched a ride home with him to New Jersey.

Ancestral maternal instincts swelled up out of nowhere that first day battering around in the Sunfish on the roiling Toms River. No matter how afraid I was, I had to show no fear, lest my six year old become traumatized and frightened by open water for the rest of his life. 

“Let’s try again,” I announced one day and we eagerly sailed into the prevailing southerlies on a sunny calm morning. Upriver, nature turned against us again.

“We need help,” Joe shouted in the sea spray. And we beached the boat once more.

Our sailing adventures made for wild-eyed good stories with our friends and family, but I feared my recklessness may have given Joe a subconscious dread of the sea  into adulthood.

I needn’t have given it a second thought. In his fifties now, Joe and his family leave their midwestern flatlands to vacation on tropical seas—snorkeling, bodysurfing and scuba diving. 

But.

No sailing.

Earth Day: Turn It Down!

Earth Day: Turn It Down!

April 22 is Earth Day—a time to celebrate nature and to protect the earth against pollution. April also marks the beginning of the Noise Parade! Excessive noise is an often-overlooked cause of pollution. We are constantly bombarded by excessive noise—from gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers, motorcycles, loud car stereos, barking dogs, helicopters, airplanes, noisy neighbors, car traffic, helicopters, raucous restaurants, back-up beepers, honking horns tied to keyless entry systems, train horns, car alarms…did I mention motorcycles?

Noise pollution is real. Heart disease, high blood pressure, hearing loss, sleep deprivation, ringing of the ears, headaches, and chronic fatigue are more prevalent in acoustically chaotic neighborhoods. Excessive noise is a cause of reduced property values and decreased job and academic performance.

High-intensity sound harms Nature’s ecosystem. It can induce fear, causing species to abandon their habitat. Have you noticed the birds are chirping louder? They’re competing with the constant outdoor din. Since the 1960s, there has been a 16-fold increase in ocean noise—posing a threat to fish, dolphins, and other marine life.

Most noise makers are air polluters. Garden equipment is responsible for about five percent of the nation’s air pollution. An EPA study indicates that a gas-powered leaf blower creates as much nitrogen oxide emissions and volatile organic compounds in one hour as 11 cars being driven for one hour.

What can be done? Speak up. Ban gas-powered leaf blowers. Enforce noise ordinances, especially unmuffled cars and motorcycles. Turn down the decibel levels on fire engine, police and ambulance sirens. Reinstate the federal noise pollution control office. Join the anti-noise cause with Noise Free America: A Coalition to Promote Quiet. 

And for god’s sake, turn it down!

Ode to Coffee

Ode to Coffee

Ernie’s voicemail says, you’re gonna love this…buy it ‘fore they go outta biness. Look atch yer email.

…each batch of coffee roasted on order. Shade grown. Bird friendly. Pesticide free. Vacuum packed. Ground. Arrives in seven days.

The payment plan for my $3,000 hospital bill is a hundred dollars a month. This month I click on Ernie’s suggestion and spend the hundred on coffee.

Dark roast. Single origin. Guatemala. The three most important criteria for a good cup. Makes no difference how you cook it after that. I do French press. Cold brewed French press. Spray cold water over six scoops to fill a plastic carafe at night and plunge the slurry mash in the morning. A lifetime ago I acquired a porcelain cup at the farmer’s market on the River Ilen, Skibbereen, West Cork. Nothing wrong with microwave coffee and a dollop of cream in that porcelain cup. 

The goofy fidgets move out as I sip my morning coffee. Am I a cliche? An old woman watching crows on the ledge, drinking coffee from her favorite souvenir cup? No screens. No radio. No TV. Henry the dog snuggling beside. The worries and the fears, in their moments, flitting away.

Oh coffee. 

You wake me up.

You settle me down. 

You take me to the cleaners.

Help Ukrainian Children

FeaturedHelp Ukrainian Children

If you’re anything like me, you are both riveted and repulsed by the images coming from war-torn Ukraine. At your family tables over the spring holidays, conversations about who saw what and who heard this or that may cause a stillness to the festivities.

Isn’t this as it should be?

We’re human after all. It takes a certain amount of fortitude, willfulness to look away, to turn the radio from the news to music. And yet, music soothes the sadness we feel for our fellows. We need it. And they need it.

Davide Martello, an Italian living in Germany, loaded his baby grand piano onto a trailer and drove fifteen hours to the Medyka, Poland border crossing. Everyday he plays tunes like “Let It Be” by the Beatles and “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen for people who cross over from Ukraine to the massive Polish aid station. Most of us cannot mount such dramatic kindness, but we can contribute in other ways. (See below).  

Janice, a Michigan resident and Polish American, writes again about the Warsaw children’s hospital:

Warsaw is now over 25% Ukrainian. Around 25,000 Ukrainians are still coming into Poland every day. The children’s hospital where I am very involved is overwhelmed by Ukrainian refugee children—almost 1/3 of the hospital patients are now Ukrainian.

This is clearly disruptive to us here in Warsaw. The atmosphere is intense, heavy, fearful. Yet also compassionate.  Our house is full, and not our own, as you can imagine. But after 5 weeks of several Ukrainian families, we hope we have found some other temporary housing for our latest family, so we can feel relaxed in our home. Though we still have Ukrainian friends visiting us with needs.

My friend has remained in her hometown near Doline, Ukraine, helping the orphanage/emergency housing center. This western part of the country has received 6 million displaced Ukrainians from the East. The East is poorer and many have died, thus these refugees are really desperate. Plus, and I must add the most heart-wrenching, is that there are thousands of orphaned children. God help us.

There are many kinds of evils and wars in this world. We can only try to gather and spread love.

When will this war end?

Please consider making a contribution to the Warsaw Children’s Hospital. It will go directly to help the refugee children of Ukraine.  

NPR: Davide Martello plays the piano at the Poland-Ukraine border: 

Refugee Kids of Ukraine

Refugee Kids of Ukraine
U.S. President Joe Biden in Warsaw, Poland on March 26, 2022. (AFP/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden visited Ukrainian refugee families in Warsaw, paying close attention to the children. You may remember Joe’s own heart wrenching story about his wife and toddler daughter dying in a car crash. Two Biden sons survived the crash and young Joe suddenly became a single parent, grieving himself and comforting his small boys. President Biden delivered a speech in Warsaw after his meeting with the Ukrainian women and children. He ad libbed, “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

And who doesn’t think this?

TV viewing grandmothers everywhere clutch at the sight of little ones in their puffer coats and backpacks walking out of war torn Ukraine. Some have the great fortune of direct action in helping refugee kids. 

A friend in London texted: “so I raised $25k. Ray contacted the Gov. we went to medical supply warehouse in an East EU country. delivered goods to the border, where Dr and crew drove them 250k back to her 60 bed hospital in Ukraine. We are taking two families of refugees-teachers with three children including a 6 month old…”

Another retired friend activated a network of Eastern European contacts, flew from Chicago to Kiev and set up a food distribution center. 

Janice, a Polish American I met on the beach in Michigan a few years ago writes from her home in Poland. Check out her donation page below. 

Notes From Janice in Warsaw March 16, 2022

Now we have 1.6 million Ukrainian refugees in Poland. In Warsaw alone we have 400,000. This is about one quarter of our population. We personally have a Ukrainian refugee family staying with us in our home. Warsaw has only been able to accommodate so many. People have opened their homes, fed them, bought their medicine. It’s a private endeavor. Supposedly money is coming to help, but there is absolutely nothing happening. No housing, no public food money.

I’m involved in the children’s hospital, providing care and medicine to the Ukrainian refugee children. I’ve been actively on the board of this children’s hospital foundation for years. We already have hundreds hospitalized and there will be an onslaught of need.There are 200,000 Ukrainian refugee children here in Warsaw. If you know anyone who wants to donate just the cost of a lunch or dinner, every bit helps.

DONATION page. Funds will go directly to Ukrainian children medical care:

https://fundacjaprzyjaciol.org/en/become-a-friend/#donate_button_hook

Please also pass to others. This money is desperately needed. People are sending money to help at the border, but the refugees are there for only 1 day, then they come to live here in Warsaw and other cities in Poland. This is where the need really is, where they are residing and need full services.

P.S. The Ukrainian family is very sweet. They don’t speak a word of English, not a word. Nor of Polish. So I am trying to learn Ukrainian.

I dream of having a moment around the fire on the beach in Michiana. 

Just a moment of joy and peace.

________________________________________________

Thank you for any help you can give to the Ukrainian children in the Warsaw children’s hospital. Watch for more Notes from Janice in Warsaw in the coming days.

Belfast

Belfast

In September 1998, President Bill Clinton and Hilary celebrated the Good Friday Peace Agreement in a whirlwind swing through Ireland. The White House Advance Office called to say Hillary directed them to ask Irish-Americans in the Administration to staff the trip. I turned catatonic with excitement. My responsibility? Wrangling a group of Congresspeople to piggyback on President Clinton’s schedule. I simply had to make sure they got to events on time.

The code word for Congressional Delegations on foreign trips is “CO” “DEL”. The CODEL to Ireland consisted of six Congresspeople. Limited space in official vehicles and tight security meant none of them traveled with staff.

I was it.

The White House travel office expanded the CODEL up until the last minute to include a few Cabinet Secretaries, heads of Agencies and VIPs.

I corralled the twenty CODEL in the lobby of a waterfront Belfast hotel. Scheduled to leave midday, I asked the hotel to ring all their rooms with a post-jet lag reminder. During the hour-long bus ride to Armagh, the Irish-American CODEL understood that their lives had been accorded a peak experience. Some used their phones to share their excitement. Some, unnerved by recent violence in Northern Ireland, prayed silently.

As for me? I found myself reaching for the microphone to give an ad hoc history of Armagh I’d learned mostly in Catholic grade school.

“St. Patrick established the town as the center of Irish Christianity in the third century.”

Just outside Belfast I pointed out the notorious Long Kesh prison, a reminder of the 1980s hunger strikers and Irish republican Bobby Sands. He was elected to the British House of Commons while in prison and died at twenty-seven.

“Margaret Thatcher refused to classify the hunger strikers as political prisoners,” one Congressman piped up, “she made sure they were criminals with no special rights.”

“Ten hunger strikers died,” said another.

At Armagh the CODEL crowded into their VIP seats next to the stage on the Mall, a sprawling meadow at the foot of two cathedrals both named for St. Patrick. One Catholic. One Protestant. CODEL members kept asking me where Clinton was. No one around us nor on the phone revealed anything—not the senior staff, the Secret Service, nor our Irish counterparts. Fear that something ominous may be stirring hovered over the crowd. Violent dissidents had wanted the peace process to fail.

Two weeks earlier a car bomb had exploded in Omagh, a town thirty-five miles from where we sat, killing twenty-nine people. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tony & Cherie Blair, secretly arranged to meet with the families of Omagh victims on the way to the peace celebration in Armagh. They were an hour late.

On that stage, on that night, Bill Clinton roared to thousands, “…in the face of any act of madness born of hatred over religious, or racial, or ethnic or tribal differences, people everywhere can shake their fists in defiance and say, ‘Do not tell me it has to be this way. Look at Northern Ireland.’”