Remembering Roger Ebert and Jane Kleinman
[Regular Toqueland readers will have to forgive me – this post has nothing to do with chefs or restaurants – but I wanted to share these thoughts.]
I learned of the death of two people who had a tremendous impact on my life last week: One you’ve heard of and one you probably haven’t. One I knew personally and one I never met. Both helped me understand myself a little better when I was a teenager and then, unexpectedly, taught me something about death and dying as an adult.
The one you probably never heard of was my high school drama teacher Jane Kleinman. I have no recollection of when I first met her; when I think back at that time in my life, it just seems that she was always there. As a student at Ransom-Everglades school in South Florida, I took her drama classes and acted in her productions, rehearsing on weekday afternoons and performing on Friday and Saturday nights: Carnival, Our Town, Guys and Dolls – if you were an adolescent thespian, you can probably guess some of the others. When I directed our senior class play David and Lisa, she flattered me by playing a small role herself.
Jane’s classroom wasn’t a typical one. It was a wide, desk-less space and I remember hanging out there before homeroom and during down times between classes. Rehearsals for her plays were the social highlight of my adolescence, along with weekend set-construction sessions, road trips to state acting competitions, post-performance gatherings at the local Swenson’s, and the wrap parties that followed the end of each run.
Jane was also my first connection to the greater artistic world. She had studied with some up-and-coming actors of the time, such as Jim Puig, a local talent who had gone on to Broadway success in Rum and Coke, and Steven Bauer, who played Al Pacino’s aide de camp in Scarface, and who was married at the time to Melanie Griffith. This was the early 1980s and our school was a tony private academy on Biscayne Bay, but it was also situated in Coconut Grove, which retained much of its ramshackle 1970s hippie charm — after school, a bunch of us regularly strolled into the Grove, past palm trees and pink, Spanish-style houses to sit at breezy outdoor cafes and on weekends we’d go to the Grove Cinema and participate in midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Against that backdrop, Jane helped guide my creative awakening, along with the brilliant English teacher Dan Bowden; the big-hearted Beau Siegel, a raspy-voiced New Yorker and art instructor; and another teacher – I’ll leave her nameless here – whom a bunch of us called by the nickname we overheard an adult friend call her one day, “Doobie,” until she told us we had to stop before we got her fired. (We didn’t know what it meant!)
Jane was not a slim or glamorous woman, but she had a beautiful face and a heavenly voice. One year, at the school talent show, she stood on a bare platform illuminated by a harsh spotlight and somewhere between Jenna Robinson’s rendition of “Nothing” (the song about Mr. Karp) from A Chorus Line and Jeremy Haft’s monologue from Feiffer’s People, sang “Send In the Clowns.” Thirty years later, I can still hear the wistful, Patsy Cline-worthy ghost of a laugh she inserted between “Don’t bother” and “they’re here.” Most of us had never heard her sing before and we were spellbound, as though discovering she possessed some kind of superpower that she’d been hiding from us.
My most indelible memory of Jane – Ms. Kleinman to me in those days – is the warm-up exercise she engaged us in before each play we put on. The cast would gather in a circle backstage and hold hands. We closed our eyes and she’d talk about “the heartbeat,” a pulse that united us and which would ensure that we were in synch on stage. As she spoke, she squeezed the hand of the person to her left and told that person to pass it on to the next one, and to keep it going until the heartbeat came back around, over and over again.
And there we stood, eyes closed, waiting for the squeeze on our right hand, then squeezing the hand of the person to our left. She’d talk us into a trance, describing how we were a unit, how our hearts beat together, and as she did, she’d direct us to pass the heartbeat along a little faster, and the pulse would make its way around the circle, coming back around almost as soon as it left us. When it seemed to be moving as swiftly as an electron, she’d quietly say, “Break a leg,” and we’d all let go of our hands and open our eyes, a little dizzy from the experience, and go to our respective ready positions for lights up.
Like so many people with theatrical aspirations, I came to New York City as soon as humanly possible, attending Columbia University. As a college student, I acted, directed, and produced theater, and after that I spent four years in the film business because movies had by that time became my first love. On a few occasions, when she came to New York City to visit friends, Jane looked me up, then we fell out of touch for the longest time before reconnecting on Facebook a few years back, and then by email. She had moved to Oregon and was running a pet care business.
And then came the news. Jane delivered it in a mass email with the subject line “I’m Okay!” Actually, she wasn’t ok, but she didn’t want people to worry for her or to think she was wallowing: She had been sick with cancer and when the doctors opened her up for the latest surgery, they discovered that it had spread beyond repair. She had between nine months and five years to live, and would make a decision about whether or not to continue medication along the way based on her quality of life.
We arranged a phone call. It was the first time I’d spoken to somebody so immediately confronted by her own mortality. I was amazed at how genuinely interested in my life she was, asking about my wife, kids, and work. Then we moved on to her condition. “I’m doing ok,” she told me. “Better than I thought I would be.” She paused, then added with impeccable timing and that wistful laugh: “Of course, the drugs don’t hurt.”
Those drugs caused her to slur a bit, but there was a moment of clarity when the slurring stopped and she said to me: “It’s been so great hearing from everybody.” She went on to explain her belief that, rather than an actual afterlife, “We live on by how people remember you. I just hope that you and the others remember me.”
I assured her that we did, and that I thought of her and the old days often, and that I knew dozens of others did as well, and that she and her classroom and her productions had been safe havens for so many of us.
I intended to check back on Jane, and was thinking of her just the other day when I saw on somebody’s Facebook feed that she had died in January, at the low end of the range the doctors had given her.
Just a few days after that, I learned – along with the rest of the world – that Roger Ebert, whose cancer it had just been announced had returned, had died.
There’s little that can be added to the outpouring of remembrances for Ebert, especially by somebody who never met the man, but I feel compelled to offer my meager personal tribute: Like Jane, though in a less direct way of course, he was a constant presence in my teenage years, during which my friends and I watched him and Gene Siskel religiously. When their At the Movies program first turned up, we were excited beyond belief at the idea of a 30-minute show … with film clips. (This was before the internet.) But the series quickly became a source of vital information and inspiration: He and Siskel turned us on to independent movies, important directors, and – moreover – showed us how to discuss and debate movies. Here’s the review I remember most vividly, of 1981’s My Dinner with Andre. Siskel does most of the talking in this one, but I’m featuring it for the impression it made; to a 14-year-old kid living way down in Florida, this movie – set in New York City (note the spectacularly filthy, graffiti-covered subway car in the clip) was as enticing as the radio music is to the little girl in Velvet Underground’s Rock & Roll. (Ebert begins talking about 5 minutes into the following clip:)
Of course, over the past decade, like so many people, I followed Ebert’s dance with cancer, a journey that cost him a portion of his lower jaw and with it the ability to speak or eat, and inspired some of the most beautiful and wise writing I’ve ever read on the subject of death and dying. When I revisited some of it after his death, I got stuck on this passage, which reminded me of those long-ago backstage warmup exercises that were already top of mind:
“In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and was communicating to her that I wasn’t finished yet. She said our hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn’t be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive. Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally–not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call, and that she sensed my heartbeat… 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.’”
In the same essay (later rewritten and somewhat reworked in a legendary piece for Salon), Ebert wrote: “I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés, that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and happily torturing people with my jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all eventually die as well, but so it goes.”
I suppose it’s a cliche to say that we live on in the memories of others, and that for those of us who write, there’s an extra motivation there to produce something of lasting value. But the true meaning of those sentiments never really sank in for me until they were expressed by these two figures who faced their own coming mortality with a grace and dignity that I’m pretty sure will elude me when the time comes. If I find something that approximates it, that feat will owe much to their examples.
In the meantime, for the moment anyway, I feel a heightened awareness of my own heart beating, and a renewed appreciation for what a privilege that is. I’ll probably think of Roger and Jane less often as time passes by, but I will never forget them. For as long as I live, I will remember.