I happened to be among a group of academics discussing criticism when I received the thumbs-down news about our colleague Roger Ebert.
In fact, a few hours earlier I had mentioned something of my own origin story as a critic -- how I'd been inspired by the usual music scribes, more popist than rockist, but that chief among my original inspirations was "At the Movies" or, as it was known around our house, "Burt & Ebert," for the stars' general tall-short resemblance to the "Sesame Street" duo.
After hours holed up in my teenage bedroom reading rock mags, in the more public space of our living room the TV often would be on and every so often there were Siskel & Ebert debating the merits of movies. Their talk often would spark continuations or variations of the discussion in the house, around the table, across the room. Academics like Simon Frith eventually argued for "Taking Popular Music Seriously," but here were two affable schmos taking pop culture perfectly seriously and presenting the wider world with a vocabulary to do likewise. They built a bridge between serious analysis and the everyday conversation about culture that enriches our lives, and they inspired me to help stoke and guide similar chatter.
I met Ebert a few times -- his health had kept him at home thorough most of my tenure here -- and once told him a significantly more slobbering version of that story. The few conversations we shared, the smattering of emails we exchanged -- each was a privilege and usually a teaching moment. That I have been able to call him a colleague is a ridiculous gift.
Ebert was smart, caring and every bit a mensch. Above all, he was a writer. Beyond the intellect and critic, Ebert's writing is some of the best you'll find. Structurally often counterintuitive, his prose often has a way of sneaking its thesis past your defenses and landing it where it counts. It's perfect to teach in writing classes; once students have learned the basic rules, Ebert's work shows how to both better and break them.
That his final words are a promise to keep writing is perfectly fitting. Just two days ago, Ebert announced that his health would cause him to slow down -- and then he listed a truckload of things he still planned to do. His will and determination were trumped only by his grace in the face of his illness.
Ebert once said our emotions will never lie to us. The truth they're telling today is harsh.