Dreaming My Way to Roger Ebert
...Neither proposal comes of sanity. If we must all be crazy, I'd rather spend my madness exploring my own dreams and I'd rather you did, too.
The End, Beginning, or Middle
STOP THE PRESSES, STOP THE PRESSES
Yet Another Epilogue a Few Years Later
More Crazy People
Well! Here I am once again, at another coffee shop, with espresso and cigar, writing in my notebook. It’s now April, 2010. I'm seated outside on the sidewalk at a wiggly round table. It's painted black so that the writing etched into the tabletop is obscured. In wiggly artistic-hippie printing, it begins "You thought you could have your cake and eat it too." Then it trails off into gibberish.
It's sundown and the location is Champagne-Urbana, Illinois. This is one of many coffeeshops that festoon the skirts of the University of Illinois, Roger Ebert's alma mater. Seated at the wiggly table next to mine is a woman about sixty, showing every sign of being an old hippie. Her sentences begin rationally then trail off into gibberish.
She's been prattling at me sociably since I sat down. This was the only table available.
We'll call her Elsa. I'm not telling her that Roger invited me to his 12th Annual film festival, which begins tomorrow.
Elsa saw my notebook and announced that she too is a writer -- a writer who needs to get paid for writing, and in a hurry, too: she needs the money to get back home to Alaska. For a second I believed her. One does sometimes meet real writers in coffee shops. She asks this fellow writer, "What's your subject?"
"Oh, my favorite subject! How many notebooks have you filled up?"
"Seventeen thousand pages," I reply, thinking of the barrel of notebooks I still have, dated from 1981 to 1996. There must be some-hundred thousands of pages all told. I don’t know where most of them went to.
Elsa tells me she used to give notebooks to children to write their dreams in. She taught sign language to deaf children. I learn about her first student, a boy who became deaf at age eight.
And then I learn about rocks. Her dreams and her books of dreams all became rocks. This, if I understand her, was because of her husband. Apparently he owes her a great deal of money. At least, I can get the gist of her story down because she's now so absorbed in her prattling that she doesn't notice I'm taking notes. After a lengthy tale about meeting with psychiatrists, she finishes with this:
"All I've admitted to is that I'm bipolar."
Not a surprise. I think I won't mention Roger Ebert to her. Elsa prattles some more about ex-husband, needing money and writing to get some.
"I'm going to start writing books for dirty old men," she announces. "What did they tell you when they tucked you in at night? You know, when you were a kid and it was time for bed and they put you to bed and tucked the blankets all around you?"
I think a moment. "Nothin',” I reply, "I just went to bed." That's true enough. "What'd they tell you?"
"Oh, I could write a book about what they told me," Elsa says, dreamy-eyed.
Ah. She's wandered off now and left the little cigar I gave her smoldering in her ashtray. A moment of peace. I can catch up on my notes about how I wound up getting an invitation from Roger Ebert to his famous film festival. But I've forgotten what I was going to say.
Oh. Yes. A couple of hours ago I checked into the Illini Union Hotel after a long drive from Abiquiu, New Mexico, where Kittles and I are now living. I spoke to her by cellphone as I walked down the street to find the Virginia Theater, where the 12th annual Ebertfest, a festival of overlooked movies, will begin tomorrow morning.
Funny coincidence! I found the Virginia Theater right there on “Roger Ebert Boulevard.” Another funny coincidence: I’ll be meeting Roger there tomorrow morning for the third or fourth time. We met a few times a couple weeks ago in Boulder, Colorado.
Roger’s an awfully likable fellow. Uh-oh, here comes Elsa again. She’s plopped down in her metal chair.
“I’m feeling mean tonight. God I hated it when I got smart. I’ve got so much money I don’t know what to do with it. But that’s what happens when you save your money, you get too much of it. What do you do when your dreams come true?”
“What I’m doing right now,” I reply, as though reading an esoteric punchline from a script.
Elsa rambles on about putting her dreams under a rock and about the rocks in her head. “And the psychiatrists all ask me if I’m suicidal. But I like to spend my time listening to dark jazz."
Well, this Dark is a little harried listening to Elsa’s bipolar jazz. Am trying to write, here.
“I’m not from around here,” I reply. She’s looking at a local newspaper and asking what I think about some local item.
“Where ya from?”
“What part? It’s a big state.”
“Big mountains, crazy people?”
“Well, that’s half the family. Where’s your father?”
“Dead twenty years now.”
“What’s he up to now?”
“I mean does he talk to you in dreams?”
“Once in awhile. He’s been busy thinking.”
Elsa doesn’t like that answer. For many of the Sixties youths, “thinking” is anathema to happiness. She goes on some more about the rocks in her head and concludes, however she got there, “well, we all need a little magic."
Yeah, that’s how I got here, even to this wiggly table next to this crazy lady providing me a crazy little story to write… if I can get to writing the rest of it. She’s on a roll. One of her bi-poles is running away with the other now.
“Have we met before?” Elsa asks.
“Not lately. A long time ago.”
“France. I think it was the middle ages. Paris, it must have been.”
“Why did it have to be so long ago,” Elsa replies, thoughtfully. This reminds her. Her daughter is fluent in French. She loves everything French. That’s because Elsa taught her all about France and read Victor Hugo to her as a child.
This has settled her poles down. She’s quiet. I can write about how I came to meet Roger Ebert, from paying attention to my dreams. Pay attention to your nightly dreams, people.
How I Got Here Oops, She’s Back.
“So where’s the dead baby’s brain?” Elsa interrupts. I don’t know what she’s talking about, I wasn’t listening.
She’s reading the front page of the local paper. “Oh, look, here it is right on the front page of the paper! This film festival thing! Have you seen this?”
Guess I’ll tell her how I got here, then. Yeah, I’m going to it because “this guy” invited me and I’d had a dream about him a couple years ago.
“Isn’t it amazing how often that happens?” says Elsa.
Yup. Yep. Yeah.
Elsa bows out, announcing that she’s going off to sleep on a bunch of rocks.
She reflects philosophically. “Well, I’ve been insane for millions of years. I’ve seen sanity from both angles, and I choose bipolar. God I’m tired.”
“You and me both, sister.”
“Yeah, well, I’m going to sleep on a bunch of rocks. It’s hard to live in an iron shell.”
“Mm-hmm.” She’s left.
Okay, NOW How I Got Here
Millions of people know who Roger Ebert is. His friends and correspondents range from the United States to Korea to Egypt to Europe and back to Chicago, Illinois, where he writes from his laptop computer in a townhouse he occupies with his wife Chaz, who manages their business affairs. Roger’s been a movie critic for forty years. Like other millions of Americans, I watched his and Gene Siskel’s Sunday movie critique show for years. How his fame grew.
I ceased watching television altogether in 1998. I’d occasionally read Roger’s weekly reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times through the internet; they’re always entertaining and straightforward enough so that one can judge for himself whether he’ll like a movie Roger enjoys or doesn’t. He won a Pulitzer Prize for what he does.
As he gained celebrity for writing about celebrities, many people very likely dream about him, as they will about celebrities. Celebrities become like dream-icons the way movies become mass dreams for the public psyche.
I probably dreamed about Roger across the years, thanks to his and Gene Siskel’s TV show and their infectious manners, but no longer recall. My first recorded dream of Roger was in the spring of 2002. In it he appeared to be quite excited about this book I’ve been writing since 1985. It surprised me. Does this guy even care about dreams, in reality?
On March 19, 2005, three years later, I dreamed about Roger again. He and I were traveling around a college campus in the west, in an old gray-green Volkswagen van, chatting away about things now long forgotten. In a little while we were driving on a college campus in the east. The van was now orange, decorated with paintings of palm trees on either side. It was in reality my landlord’s old hippie van. My landlord, like Elsa, was an old hippie.
Roger was driving while the van changed from gray-green to hippie orange palm tree. We continued chatting merrily while navigating wildly around a mountainside. As we came to a main avenue, suddenly his driving grew highly erratic, careening from one side of the street to the other. Good Christ, we're going to crash, I thought. Should I tell him? Should I reach for the brakes? Steer him to safety?
I couldn’t presume to criticize the driving of a famous Pulitzer-prize winning critic, so I made some calculations – the kind that go instantaneously through one’s mind when he’s about to crash in a car, which I have been. Should I jump out, then? Will he be killed if I do that? Maybe he’ll break a leg or both. Maybe I’ll break a leg if I jump.
Soon enough, Roger calmed down and got the old van under control. Satisfied that we’d get where we were going in peace, I woke and wondered what in the world this dream had to do with anything.
So here’s world-famous film critic Roger Ebert in a dream careening around in my landlord Dan’s old VW van. He might get killed, or break a leg or both. But he winds up okay.
Reality: In the spring of 2002, Dan had himself developed cancer in his lower right jaw. The ordeal lasted two years or so. By the time I left the rental in 2004, he was okay. It had been nip and tuck for him for a good while. He could have died. This, I had yet to realize, was also coming up for Roger Ebert. In addition, Roger would break his hip slipping and falling on the hospital floor.
A year after the 2005 dream, sometime in the summer of 2006, I checked into Roger's site for the latest movies and learned that he had developed cancer in his jaw – his lower right jaw, I believe, like my landlord had. Roger's ordeal would also lasted two years or so. At some point, on his way out of the hospital, he slipped on the floor and broke his hip. Careening around like an irresponsible old hippie, no doubt!
I’d seen this before. One may develop an illness when he feels he has reached the end of his creative rope. The psychology that holds one’s health together, finding no further room for creative expression, may go biologically haywire.
Once, a friend cured himself of a certain-death diagnosis by launching himself into songwriting. My landlord was an artist. He changed his artistic tack during the course of his illness, coinciding with the treatment, and wound up okay. I knew of several more cases; all of them were the same basic story, living nip-and-tuck with death diagnosis of cancer, then, simultaneously, changes of heart, direction and disposition, then being just fine again… at least for a while.
In July ’06 Roger Ebert was also nip-and-tuck, according to his website. I hadn’t known of his troubles. This was just as my landlord had been. That partly explains why I'd be dreaming of Roger and me in Dan's van. I wrote him a fan e-mail, a rough-hewn letter, suggesting that maybe he was tired of criticizing movies – maybe it was time to start criticizing reality. I have no idea whether he read it. I’ll ask.
Dream: Roger and I had been driving on two different campuses, one in the east and one in the west.
Reality: I couldn’t write this last night with Elsa in the way, so I’m doing that now. At the moment I’m writing this at yet another wiggly round table, with cigar and espresso. It’s at the student union of the University of Illinois, where Roger’s picture hangs in the hallway of alumni of achievement. This campus is a thousand miles east of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I first met him. So there’s your east and west campuses from my dream. Roger invited me to both for different events here in reality. Me, a total stranger.
Why’d he do that? What would I have to do with him?
By late December ’08 I saw on his website that he was okay again, despite a tracheotomy, some botched operations on his jaw and a broken hip. He’d started an internet blog, sure enough, “criticizing reality;” praise and blame on all manner of subjects – and a newfound, powerful writing voice. Considering my dreams, I thought I’d better join Roger’s blog to see what might happen.
We became e-pals within a few months. Roger invited me to join him at his two favorite annual events, the Conference on World Affairs at the Boulder campus, and his Ebertfest film festival at the Illinois campus. And that’s how I got here.
And now, back to the craziness of following dreams.
END DRE—Oh, Wait…
You’re probably wondering what has become of Kittles and me, which is how I began this probable version of this probable book at Shot in the Dark Café in Tucson. After four years and some roller coaster emotions, we’re doing fine.
That’s not enough to say, is it?