Sunday, August 22, 2010

Song of the Day: Mutt, Blink 182

Roger Ebert has been running through my mind.

He’s popped up on several occasions recently, including about 10 days ago when NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast (or podcast) an old interview with him and Gene Siskel to honor the curtain coming down on At the Movies, the movie-review television program they created 35 years ago. Then, old friend and photographer Scott Lewis posted this link on his Facebook page, which outlined Ebert’s thoughts on the Islamic Cultural Center being built near the old World Trade Center site. (If you haven’t got time to click on the link, about all you need to know can be found here: “The Bill of Rights has a parallel with pregnancy. You can’t be a little pregnant and you can’t be a little free. Nor can you serve yourself from it cafeteria style.”)

It’s that sort of pithy commentary on a wide variety of matters that ensures that you won’t have to scroll too far in my browser history before Ebert pops up. In fact, he’s got a bookmark in my Firefox ( abbreviated “rog”) and every Friday I get the email update from the Chicago Sun-Times that provides links to his latest reviews.

I was spoiled growing up in the Chicago suburbs and living there into adulthood as I got to read Ebert’s reviews every week, see him on the television and, in the Sunday Showcase section of the Sun-Times, got to read his Great Movies feature or his Answer Man column. It took me a while to recognize his genius and eventually came to take it for granted. I imagine it’s kind of like the people who were alive in New York during the 1920s and 30s and got to see Lou Gehrig play every day. Sure, he was good, and you realized it and you appreciated it. But you didn’t realize just how good until you went across town and watched the other team’s first basemen for a few days. Nor did you notice how good Ebert was until you picked up a different paper and read their reviewer. Inevitably, that guy wasn’t as informative. He wasn’t as funny. He was nowhere near as witty. He wasn’t Ebert.

In addition to all those movies he reviews, Ebert maintains a blog that gets, ahem, a few more visitors than mine. There he writes about just about anything that comes to his mind. And a lot comes to his mind. You don’t win a Pulitzer for criticism, as Ebert did, if all you know how to do is write about movies. I throw around the word “genius” a bit too loosely at times, but the label fits him. In recent years he’s also become something else. Something that most people who saw him on television all those years would have never guessed. He’s graceful. Most folks are aware of Ebert’s ongoing battle with cancer. Many of those who weren’t got an up close look at it in the March 2010 issue of Esquire, which included a beautiful story along with some less than beautiful photographs. He’s aging more gracefully without his jaw, and his ability to eat and speak, than do most people who have no such issues. It is an inspiration.

I’ve watched movies with Ebert on two occasions. OK, OK. When I say I’ve watched movies with him, I mean I’ve been in the same theater as Ebert while a movie was playing. I wasn’t nudging his arm off the armrest. We weren’t sharing popcorn and knowing head nods. He didn’t even know I was there. But I was certainly aware of his presence.

The most recent time was in April 2004, when I drove over to Champaign, Illinois, from Bloomington, Indiana to take in a film at the
Overlooked Film Festival that he hosts each year. I got to see him and Errol Morris as they presented and talked about Morris’s film “Gates of Heaven.” Ebert calls the movie one of the 10 best he’s ever seen. I’m partial to Morris’s “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” but the fact is that I probably wouldn’t have ever become a fan of Morris’s had I not been a fan of Ebert’s first.
The first time I “met” Ebert, though, is why I think of him when I hear Blink 182. It was five years before our second encounter and it was only slightly more intimate. I was working at a newspaper at the time and the movie reviewer there offered me two passes to a screening of the teenage sex comedy American Pie. Apparently all the guys in the sports department were busy.

I was delighted, even if it meant that I’d have to drive to Chicago to see it. I called a guy who was a bit closer to the movie’s target audience, Nick, my youngest brother. He was 19 at the time. I figured he’d leap at the chance. He didn’t. He, like many people who live in one of Chicago’s dozens of suburbs, was reluctant to drive the hour or so it took to get into the city under any circumstances, except maybe a Cubs game. It was if I’d asked him to go on a
Cannonball Run with me to California. That mentality is something I never quite understood, but it has a corollary that’s a bit more annoying: the folks who move from the suburbs to the city and then, when asked to make a trip to the suburbs, they react like you were going to make them walk it. And guaranteed that they’d get dysentery, Oregon Trail style, along the way. Hey, Dick, the highways lead out of the city, too. The traffic, unfortunately, still sucks.

Anyway, it was obvious that Nick was going to need some persuading. So, I did what any 27-year-old who was desperate to see the second coming of
Porky’s would do: I lied.

“It’s the world premiere, Nick,” I said. “There’s going to be a bunch of celebrities there!”

“Like who?” Nick asked. His bullshit radar was triggered.

I blurted out the first celebrity that came to mind.
Ben Affleck is going to be there,” I said. “And I think he’s bringing Matt Damon with him.”
Nick was unimpressed.
“Ebert’s going to be there,” I said, knowing that there was only slightly more of a chance of Ebert being there than Affleck, and that only because Ebert is from Chicago.
“Is he bringing Siskel?” Nick asked, knowing full well that Siskel had been dead for a couple years.
“Really nice, Nick,” I said. “Yeah, Siskel will be there, too.”

This, apparently was enough for Nick. So we hopped in the car and headed to the downtown theater. After we arrived we stood in line waiting for popcorn, and I felt Nick nudging me in the arm. Softly at first. A love tap. When that didn’t get my attention off the list of goodies at the snack counter, he started hitting me. Finally, I turned to him.

“What?” I asked.
Nick was dumbstruck.
“What?!?” I asked again.
He pointed to the left of where we were standing and there stood Roger Ebert.
“Yeah, it’s Ebert,” I said, nonchalantly. “I told you he’d be here.”

Nick couldn’t speak for at least another 60 seconds. His brush with fame had rendered him all but catatonic. God only knows what he would have done had he seen Ben Affleck walk through the place. I’m sure he would have soiled himself.

The movie, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, was awesome. It had a pretty good soundtrack, too, including Blink 182’s
Mutt. The movie was credited with ushering in the second golden era of raunchy teen movies. Few were as good as American Pie. Hell, even Ebert gave it three stars, saying that “it is not inspired, but it’s cheerful and hardworking and sometimes funny, and – here’s the important thing – it’s not mean.”

I’d like to think that his opinion was influenced by my brother Nick. For our brush with fame didn’t end in the popcorn line that day. After the movie we headed for the toilet and after we got done peeing, we headed for the sink. In the mirror, we saw Ebert walk right behind us and head for a urinal.

Nick, not going to let this chance slip away, turned toward Ebert, who was standing at a urinal.
“Ebert!” he shouted, drawing the attention of the critic as well as about everybody else in the bathroom. “Thumbs up, man. Thumbs way up!”
Ebert, both thumbs currently occupied, turned to my brother, cocked his head to the side, and said “OK.”

I'm pretty sure he'd heard it before.

Running Update:

Saturday: OFF
Yesterday: 20 miles in 2:49:10
Today: OFF
Tommorrow: 8 miles

Monday, August 9, 2010

Song of the Day: You Can't Always Get What You Want, Rolling Stones

It’s been about 250 miles since the last installment – you probably figured I’d bailed on the marathon training. Nope. Still going (relatively) strong, with just eight weeks away from the big day.

My technology, on the other hand, hasn’t been faring so well. I’m typing this on my new Macbook, which I needed to get after the hard drive on the old one took a poop. It was my second Apple-related disaster over the past several weeks, as I dropped my iPhone (which often doubles as my iPod) down a storm water drain in downtown Denver a short time before that. Assuming we don’t experience any more technological difficulties, we should have some more regular songs to write about. This one by the Rolling Stones has been bouncing around my head for a couple weeks.

Some of my earliest musical memories are tied to the Rolling Stones. Before Start Me Up became an overplayed way to open up a football game (shame on you Kansas City Chiefs), it was a 45 spinning in my brother Brad’s room in the first house I ever lived in, in a neighborhood obnoxiously named Camelot, in a town without much regality, Joliet, Il.

We would play Start Me Up while we were playing Nerf basketball, a plastic piece of junk that you hung over a door and usually ended up having to Duct tape together within two days. The hoop was so flimsy and the ball so light, that the only real way to score was to dunk it. This presented a problem for me, as I was up against my two older brothers, who at that point were eight and 10. While they weren’t the most athletic fellas around, they were unmerciful in exploiting their height advantage over me. Come to think of it, they were unmerciful to me about most everything. They regularly zipped me up inside several sleeping bags, like some sort of sweaty Matryoshka doll, a maneuver that either exploited my claustrophobia or caused it. They shot at me with pick up sticks using rubber bands as propulsion. Hell, I’m still waiting for those bastards to give me my turn on the Odyssey*. If they liked me, they had a peculiar way of showing it.

*I wonder how this guy would have done on the Odyssey.

In addition to reminding me of my sweaty, youthful Nerf Hoop games with my brothers, the Rolling Stones get me thinking of another guy who, in many ways, is like my fifth brother -- my cousin Jim. I saw the Stones with him at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri in September 1994.

The truth is I don’t remember much about that Stones concert other than they had a gigantic snake that hung over the first several rows of the audience. At some point, probably during Start Me Up, the thing breathed fire. A lot of fire. As in, so much fire that I thought for a second that it was going to start us aflame. I was sitting in the fifth row close enough to get my eyebrows singed because Jim had secured tickets there through some sort of student lottery. That’s how it is with Jim. Whether it’s the Cotton Bowl in Texas, a baseball game at Busch Stadium or Wrigley Field, a Bears game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City or the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, he’s always getting tickets to things and inviting me to accompany him, usually refusing to allow me to pay him for them.

So, it was completely in character when he called me with a proposition a few months ago: he was going to fly me out to his home in Colorado Springs. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a game to be seen or a concert to attend. Jim, who’s an officer in the Army, needed someone to watch his truck for him while he was deployed in Afghanistan. Would I drive it from Colorado to Tennessee for him and, during the year or so that he’s gone, start it up every now and again and take it for a spin to make sure it stayed in good running order?

Would I? Even if he had lived in Alaska I would have.

This is the guy, after all, who can still quote complete sentences to me that I’d written a decade and a half ago in our college newspaper.

“Man, Kap,” he’ll say after rattling off words I faintly recognize as my own. “That was really funny.”

The stories about Cousin Jim are legion. They range from the absurd, like when he chased after a would-be gunman on a side street just outside the French Quarter during Mardi Gras; to the comical, like when he helped me carry my bags onto a train in Jefferson City but couldn’t dismount before the train took off, and ended up spending the day at the next stop, the dream city of Hermann; to the fortuitous, like the time two years ago he befriended an employee at the hotel bar where we were drinking the evening before the Missouri Tigers played in the Cotton Bowl. Jim, our friend Brett and I ran up a bar bill that exceeded $400. Jim’s new friend picked up the tab.

Heck, the story of how we met is even a doozy. He’s my cousin, but he’s my cousin in the way that many Greek people are cousins. That is to say, distantly.

I had never heard of him when I showed up in my History 20 class on my first day of college at the University of Missouri. We went around the room introducing ourselves and I declared that I was from Joliet and that I’d come to study journalism.

Jim, I’m sure, said he was from Nixa, Mo., and that he was there studying business. I wasn’t paying much attention. As the class ended and we headed for the door he approached me and, in a voice that gets more and more Southern each time I tell the story said: “You said you was from Joliet?”

“Yes,” I responded, bracing myself for a question about the Blues Brothers. Or prison.

“I got family from Joliet,” he said.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “What’s their name?”

Rousonelos,” he said.

Uh-oh. Did they really make Greek hillbillies?

A few phone calls to family members later, we realized that we were related in the Greek kind of way. His grandma and my grandma were first cousins. Or maybe their husbands were second cousins? It's hard to tell and it's quite possible that both are true given propensity of Greeks from that era to insist on marrying within your kind. Either way, we became roommates. His unwavering loyalty turned us into lifelong friends.

He’s the kind of guy you want on your side in a fight, whether you were using your wits or your fists.

Jim’s usually the smartest guy in the room, and long before he got his law degree he could and would argue just about anything with you. He's conservative, which means we always have plenty to argue about. Unfortunately, he knows how to make your argument much better than you ever could, and knows how to dismantle it just the same. In the end, even after he’s won, he manages to make you feel like a real rhetorician.

I’m going to miss those arguments while he’s away.

Jenna and I made the drive back from Colorado a couple weeks, one computer and one iPhone ago. Jim, meanwhile, landed safely in Afghanistan. I got an email from him the other day letting me know that it’s hotter than a fire-breathing snake in Kandahar. He also said he’s living near the airport’s lone waste-water pond.

“The extreme heat really does wonders for the odor,” he wrote.

He’s supposed to be moving to another base soon, or may have already.

I haven’t heard from him for a few days.

The Rolling Stones were right.

Running Update:

Saturday: 16 miles in 2:05:19, with 12 @ 7:35
Yesterday: 3 mile recovery in 28:55
Today: OFF
Tomorrow: 8 miles