I was saddened yesterday to hear that Roger Ebert had died. Like many of my generation, I grew up watching him and Gene Siskel talk movies and do their thumbs-up-or-down routine on TV, probably my first public role models for cultural criticism of any kind. Ebert gave you permission to have an opinion–a strong one–about a movie, yet also didn’t seem consumed by loftiness. At least, not completely. You could disagree with another person and still be generous to them; it was clear that he and Siskel were friends. Plus, you always got the sense that he genuinely liked movies, which is rarer than it sounds. The Atlantic tweeted a quote from him yesterday that really resonated, “Look at a movie that people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may be”. I like to think that’s a spirit we try to uphold on Mbird, consciously or not.

Speaking of Twitter, it is the real reason this feels like a loss. I know I’m not the only one who came back into regular contact with Ebert via his hyperactive Twitterfeed, which was consistently one of the most interesting out there. Exasperating at times and more sanctimonious than his longer published pieces, the slightly manic self-expression (“I tweet therefore I am”) was easy to overlook in light of his surgery in 2006, which took away his ability to speak. Thankfully, just when you thought you had him figured out, he would produce a truly sorrowful and thoughtful essay about (sort of) losing his faith or what it means to be a proud Catholic who doesn’t believe in God, or something similar. My favorite thing Ebert wrote was his account of getting sober, which appeared in 2009. Yes, he broke the anonymity thing, but I can think of no more winning defense of Alcoholics Anonymous that has appeared in the “mainstream” media before or since (I can definitely think of one that’s appeared in the non-mainstream media…). You really should read the whole thing. But if you don’t have time, I’ve reproduced a few favorite sections. RIP:

tumblr_mkqyelFm8H1qesw8yo1_500[Speaking with a beloved psychotherapist] I said I didn’t need to go to any meetings. I would stop drinking on my own. He told me to go ahead and try, and check back with him every month.

The problem with using will power, for me, was that it lasted only until my will persuaded me I could take another drink. At about this time I was reading The Art of Eating, by M. F. K. Fisher, who wrote: “One martini is just right. Two martinis are too many. Three martinis are never enough.” The problem with making resolutions is that you’re sober when you make the first one, have had a drink when you make the second one, and so on. I’ve also heard, You take the first drink. The second drink takes itself. That was my problem. I found it difficult, once I started, to stop after one or two. If I could, I would continue until I decided I was finished, which was usually some hours later. The next day I paid the price in hangovers…

Yes, I believe A.A. works. It is free and everywhere and has no hierarchy, and no one in charge. It consists of the people gathered in that room at that time, many perhaps unknown to one another. The rooms are arranged by volunteers. I have attended meetings in church basements, school rooms, a court room, a hospital, a jail, banks, beaches, living rooms, the back rooms of restaurants, and on board the Queen Elizabeth II. There’s usually coffee. Sometimes someone brings cookies. We sit around, we hear the speaker, and then those who want to comment do. Nobody has to speak. Rules are, you don’t interrupt anyone, and you don’t look for arguments. As we say, “don’t take someone else’s inventory.”

…I went to a few meetings of “4A” (“Alcoholics and Agnostics in A.A.”), but they spent too much time talking about God. The important thing is not how you define a Higher Power. The important thing is that you don’t consider yourself to be your own Higher Power, because your own best thinking found your bottom for you. One sweet lady said her higher power was a radiator in the Mustard Seed, “because when I see it, I know I’m sober.”…

I began to realize that I had tended to avoid some people because of my instant conclusions about who they were and what they would have to say. I discovered that everyone, speaking honestly and openly, had important things to tell me. The program was bottom-line democracy.

roger-ebertYes, I heard some amazing drunkalogs. A Native American who crawled out from under an abandoned car one morning after years on the street, and without premeditation walked up to a cop and asked where he could find an A.A. meeting. And the cop said, “You see those people going in over there?” A 1960s hippie whose VW van broke down on a remote road in Alaska. She started walking down a frozen river bed, thought she herd bells ringing, and sat down to freeze to death. The bells were on a sleigh. The couple on the sleigh (so help me God, this is what she said) took her home with them, and then to an A.A. meeting. A priest who eavesdropped on his first meeting by hiding in the janitor’s closet of his own church hall…

There are no dues. You throw in a buck or two if you can spare it, to pay for the rent and the coffee. On the wall there may be posters with the famous 12 Steps and the Promises, of which one has a particular ring for me: “In sobriety, we found we know how to instinctively handle situations that used to baffle us.” There were mornings when I was baffled by how I was going to get out of bed and face the day…

A “cult?” How can that be, when it’s free, nobody profits and nobody is in charge? A.A. is an oral tradition reaching back to that first meeting between Bill W. and Doctor Bob in the lobby of an Akron hotel. They’d tried psychiatry, the church, the Cure. Maybe, they thought, drunks can help each other, and pass it along. A.A. has spread to every continent and into countless languages, and remains essentially invisible. I was dumbfounded to discover there was a meeting all along right down the hall from my desk…

“Everybody’s story is the same,” Humble Howard liked to say. “We drank too much, we came here, we stopped, and here we are to tell the tale.” Before I went to my first meeting, I imagined the drunks would sit around telling drinking stories. Or perhaps they would all be depressing and solemn and holier-than-thou. I found out you rarely get to be an alcoholic by being depressing and solemn and holier-than-thou. These were the same people I drank with, although now they were making more sense.