Roger Ebert’s Buddha Smile
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Like many, for most of my life Roger Ebert has been a vaguely familiar and pleasant face — paired with Gene Siskel and opining with his thumbs. And, like many, I was captivated by Chris Jones’ profile of Ebert in a recent issue of Esquire. As a necessary preface to his story, Jones describes how in 2006, after a series of surgeries battling thyroid cancer, Ebert’s jaw was removed — also removing his ability to eat solid foods and talk.
What may sound like a tragedy reads in many ways as a rebirth. The challenges of his new life are very clear, but Ebert seems to have rediscovered himself in a way that he’s made public on his blog and even through his Twitter account. One of the more striking aspects of the Esquire article is a full-page portrait of Ebert that made no attempt to conceal his face, post-jaw removal. Jones describes one aspect of Ebert’s new face in detail:
“… because he’s missing sections of his jaw, and because he’s lost some of the engineering behind his face, Ebert can’t really do anything but smile. It really does take more muscles to frown, and he doesn’t have those muscles anymore. […] Anger isn’t as easy for him as it used to be. Now his anger rarely lasts long enough for him to write it down.”
I was reminded, in a way, of an essay by our recent guest, E. Ethelbert Miller, called “Langston’s Buddha Smile”:
“For me, looking at Langston, with his Buddha smile and easy laugh, makes me think about what it means to possess a poet’s heart. I too have known rivers.”
Obviously, there’s a world of difference between these two smiles in terms of circumstances, but something resonates here with me. Jones’ description of Ebert’s new life seems to hint at spiritual transformation, although perhaps as a self-declared atheist Ebert wouldn’t feel comfortable with that language. Maybe it’s a “poet’s heart” then, but it’s evident in his honest and gracious response to Jones’ profile:
“I mentioned that it was sort of a relief to have that full-page photo of my face. Yes, I winced. What I hated most was that my hair was so neatly combed. Running it that big was good journalism. It made you want to read the article.”
And perhaps moreso in his words on “dying in increments”:
“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.”
(photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
“Myself When I Am Real”
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
“It was kind of like jazz.” That’s what Nancy said when I asked her how Krista’s conversation with E. Ethelbert Miller went. Prior to the interview, Trent began paging through Miller’s second memoir, The 5th Inning, and seemed taken by the book’s honesty and willingness to acknowledge the darker corners of life. From the introduction:
“How do we cope with failure in life? How do we live when everyday we open our eyes to death? This memoir is about how I coped with failure and disappointment in career, marriage, and life. We fail as lovers, parents, and friends.”
Painting of Charles Mingus by Matthew Rigsby Smith
With this in mind, I sent an email to Chris suggesting he give Charles Mingus’ Mingus Plays Piano a listen when scoring the program’s soundtrack. The album has a contemplative and improvisational sound that I really enjoy — an enjoyment that’s enhanced knowing a bit of the story behind it. Appearing in the liner notes to the compilation, The Impulse Story, here’s an account from inside the studio when Mingus recorded the album:
“Somebody was playing the piano in there very hauntingly — very beautifully. Then it would stop, and start again. It didn’t sound like practicing. It sounded like somebody was just thinking on the piano. That’s the best way I could say it. I looked in the music room and it was pitch black. The lights weren’t on. So I went into Thiele’s office and said, ‘Who’s playing in there?’ ‘It’s Charlie Mingus. A very close friend of his died.’ I never knew who he was grieving over. But about a half-hour later Thiele said, ‘Charles, let’s go into a studio.’ That became Mingus Plays Piano.”
“Thinking on the piano.” Replace notes with words and you might say that reading (and hearing) E. Ethelbert Miller can be a similar experience.
My suggestion didn’t make its way into the program. Miller dropped enough musical references during the interview to easily fill the program’s 50 minutes. But you can listen to the first track from the album — “Myself When I Am Real” — to get a taste of what “thinking on the piano” sounds like.