Monday, April 25, 2011

On How Roger Ebert Heard of Me, and 30,000 Views In a Week

I read this cheesy self help sort of book called "The Love Book," by Leo Buscaglia in college I picked up at a thrift store, being the bourgeoning hopeless romantic poet I was. It was a pretty simple book that got quickly redundant in my opinion and was mostly filled with common sense to anyone that had any sort of compassionate heart in them already, but there were several quotes I underlined back then and copied into the front covers of journals for years as inspiring reminders of positive ways to strive to live my life. One such quote, was this: "Just because the message may never be received, doesn't mean that it is not worth sending." I have lived my life that way ever since, if not before.

I have no fear of "celebrity," nor do I get starstruck, having met many of my "famous" idols and heroes in person throughout my life. I know that not every person on facebook or myspace is who they claim to be, but it has never dissuaded me from trying to message anyone. Even if perhaps my words might only reach a personal assistant at first, who knows? Right? Or, even if a celebrity might not want to support my fan art or read my writing, if it was a fanpage chances are those very fans would probably be more interested in a painting of their favorite star or to read similar lyrics, etc than the actual star. Maybe, at least.

I have known people previously who have written to Derrick Jensen and received personal responses, and I ultimately have always considered him a kind and thoughtful person who seems to respond to most everyone on his page, even if only to say "thank you," which frankly, is enough in my book. I was nonetheless grateful he chose to respond to my post on his wall, but I also was not surprised. He is after all, Derrick Jensen. You can certainly catch more flies for the green resistance to Capitalism, Civilization and Global Destruction with sugar, than you can with vinegar, or no response. Haha.

Shortly after I wrote to him that night, on Wednesday, April 13th, I happened to stumble upon a link to Roger Ebert's TED talk. I'd never actually watched anything on TED and didn't really know what to expect, and frankly, at first glance I thought it was Steven Hawking or something! (Hey, just being honest.) I have checked in with Roger's reviews most every week, along with for the past few years, but honestly had no idea of his struggle with cancer. After watching his whole twenty minute talk with his wife and friends, I immediately went to his facebook wall and posted this, to which you can see his response shortly after, and my subsequent reply as well:

I went to bed that night, excited though somewhat in disbelief at what such a repost might mean for me and my story, my life. Early the next morning before work, I noticed that the views on my blog had jumped almost 500 overnight! How could this be? Could it really be just from actually having those two posts on his facebook wall? I had been writing for over two months and last night was only at a little over 1,600 views. I think I averaged 20-40 most days, the record being around a hundred a couple times.

I biked to work and shared my news with coworkers, trying to find out if he had indeed "tweeted" me or not. I could not find news of this anywhere, but I noticed that suddenly my views had jumped another few thousand! Now THIS, I got a kick out of. I hit refresh again, just to watch them jump 10, 20...50! Just in a matter of a few seconds! Where the hell is the world finding out about me??

As it turns out, I had been looking on the wrong twitter site for a different Roger Ebert. When I found the correct one and saw his over 400,000 followers, I found my answer. Though the title made me a little uncomfortable, there, below was his tweet:
The Man Who Dared Not Smile. One of the saddest stories I have ever heard.

Over the next 24 hours I would receive over 28,000 view from nearly eighty countries, almost a thousand dollars in donations from all over the US, and all sorts of comments, friend requests on facebook, emails and notes from all over the world, the response being overwhelmingly positive and supportive. I was reposted by twitter, facebook, metafilter, mentalfloss and who knows how many other random urls. And for the record, it made me particularly happy that this also happened to occur on my grandmother's 81st birthday, who for years always wanted nothing more than for me to be happy and successful, even if she can barely remember me from the confines of a nursing home in NY as she continues to live through Alsheimer's. My happiness and well being has always been the best gift I could truly give her after all she was watched me struggle through the years. I know that even if she can no longer use a phone and can't hear me, that on this day, my endless joy all day long glued to internet was one of the best gifts she could possibly receive.

I don't know what is to become of my story now, how many more people it can reach, and who will follow along with me for more than just the one entry of my sad backstory twittered around the office in the morning over Starbucks, but I am feeling more and more, that it is slowly taking on a life of its own. I aim to remain faithful to my voice and my intentions and keep writing, and simply enjoy the ride and see what happens. I have been joking with my dentist for some time now that I was going to make us famous, and I for one, don't think that she will underestimate me any longer, though I also don't presume that she ever even has.

 Who knows what will happen next, but I for one, am excited, and humbled, and thankful. I have waited for over a decade to try to get my voice and perspective further out into the world, always searching for the one person in the back of the room in a crowded coffeeshop who I don't know, hoping they might give a damn about my latest poem. This time, though thousands of people I'm sure skimmed my words and clicked the next link and went about their day, I am incredibly moved to know that my words were capable of reaching so many people of so many different backgrounds all over the world yet were able to inspire them to write to me to say thank you or to "follow" me or donate or email. It truly made last week one of the greatest and most moving weeks of my entire life. It is hard to believe that a single tweet made it possible, and I am eternally grateful for the compassion that compelled Roger Ebert to read and share my words, despite every other possible thing he could have been doing at that moment. If you are reading these words Roger, thank you, for being part of my story, and helping me on my own quest to reclaim my voice. Thank you all for reading, and your continued positive support and kind words. Thank you all, who have made it through the crappy, depressing beginning of the story. Don't worry, I aim to make it a happy ending, for me and all of us who continue to help write these words with me. Thank you for giving me more and "more reasons to smile" as my friend Pete wrote recently in the only local press I have yet to get.

Next up...I'm working on submitting my story to This American Life on NPR very soon. Wish me luck!!


  1. Paul, I shared Roger's latest "Smile, Paul!" link on Facebook with David Dickerson, a friend of mine who's a regular "This American Life" storyteller. Dave's take: "My prediction: he won't get on. He's got an interesting situation, but I don't see an arc yet. Not to say that his story and predicament isn't interesting. I just don't think it's T.A.L. material. Has he tried straight NPR? There the Ebert angle would be enough to launch a story, perhaps."

  2. P.S. The story arc may be there after your mouth has been fully restored, but you're a work in progress now.

  3. Dear Orange,
    Thank you for sharing and for taking the time to write to me. While I respect Dave's and your input, I must also add that my story is bigger and more multi-faceted than a single blog entry. It was that reason exactly a felt slightly misrepresented by Ebert's original post. Roger may be a small part of my story now, along with everyone else who has helped me over the past six months to get to where I am right now, but the real story is not "Celebrity retweet helps renew budding writer's smile or whatever, but in how through honest writing of my own personal suffering and growth of universal struggle over an issue that open dialogue is greatly repressed in this country, I managed to connect with others all around the world and inspire them to ask for help from their communities, to be a living example that change is possible...and to remind them brush their teeth! That at least, is more along the lines of the story that I aim to pitch, whenever I finally pitch it. Though much better written than at 7AM Monday morning without coffee as I just rattled it off to you right now :-)

  4. Paul, I've been reading your blog all this morning and trying not to cry at some of the posts. It all hits a little too close for me, the difficult childhood, the mother issues, and of course, the fucked up teeth. I'm a couple years older than you, and have also been dealing with a mouth that brings me shame and self-loathing for a long time now. While I don't avoid smiling outright, I do what I call the "Geisha smile," when I cover my mouth with one hand. To be honest, I don't think I'm fooling anyone.

    My teeth are the one thing that is preventing me from being happy and accepting of my appearance, and I've been thinking for a while of how I could possibly do something about them without going into thousands of dollars of medical bill debt for the rest of my life. I don't know if that's possible, though, and it's depressing. But I think I have a little more hope now, thanks to your story. My best wishes for a quick and (mostly) painless end to your journey here, and that you live the rest of your life being able to face the world with a beautiful, joyous smile

  5. Oh, I've skimmed through your entire blog! I think it's great how you're reclaiming the smile that was taken from you by a messed-up early life. I hope your writings get more readership and that you reach more of the Genas of this world and inspire them to reach their goals too.

    When you've got a lovely restored smile with perfect new teeth, though, you'll add the happy ending to your story arc and make it killer.

  6. Paul,
    Your story is amazing, you are a blessing and an inspiration. I found your blog through one of the many blogs I follow and just had to talk to you. I am in a similar state as you, poor dental hygiene and care through my life and now I am "trying" to go down the path to get myself a smile I will not be ashamed of. My mouth looks very similar to yours and for many years I've learned to talk without allowing my lips to show my teeth, or talking with my hand in front of my mouth...there are no pics of me smiling open mouthed :)

    I was accepted to nursing school (RN) for this fall and was told that my poor dental "picture" will preclude me from my school appointment. This has devastated me. I've gone to my local (50 miles away) dental college with hopes of correcting my situation. We've come up with a treatment plan, but it may not come to fruition due to funding, so with that my nursing dream may become just that...a dream.

    This is a tough process that you are going through and it's awesome that you chose to share with us. I just hope I can find the support (mentally and otherwise) that you have been blessed to find!

    Thanks Paul!!!