This May: Spread The Love

Art is nourished by criticism. An honest and educated appraisal of a work’s strengths and weaknesses helps us better appreciate art, both as creators and consumers. I say this up front so it is clear that what I am about to propose is not attacking art criticism or art critics. It is a worthy profession, an important one in the right hands, even a noble endeavor for a select few.

Criticism, though, is becoming angrier and duller. As the adage goes, everyone is a critic, and this has never been more true than in the Internet Age. This wondrous invention that allows us to experience the world from the comfort of our bedrooms is filling up with poison, and we’re all responsible for it.

We use Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, blogs, forums, and innumerable websites to spout off on all manner of experiences, and with inevitable frequency, we are voicing displeasure. We can’t simply click past, our disapproval must be known. We feel compelled to inform the creator that they have failed and then troll the fan base. The world cannot be allowed to spin another minute without it being known that this random thing that you, of your own volition, experienced did not live up to your satisfaction.

So here is my proposal:

For the month of May, let us refrain from negative criticisms.
Instead, let’s focus on the positive and ‘Spread the love’.

This will not be easy, I know.

For all of May, refrain from criticizing Youtube videos, skip the Facebook bashing, don’t tweet about a movie you loathed (or its stars) and let your disdain for a TV show subside. Don’t even hit the thumbs down button on Stumbleupon. Just move on. Criticism is not all bad, but maybe, just maybe, we’ve become so obsessed with what we hate that we’re losing sight of what we love. So, for 31 short days, why not refocus our energy on enjoying art?

Suggestions for things to do as an alternative to criticizing:

1. Share a favorite work of art with a friend or stranger.

2. Read positive reviews of art you’ve never experienced and consume it.

3. Write a positive review of something you loved.

4. Request art recommendations from friends.

5. Close your browser and go outside; see a live band or go to a movie theater, or get cozy in a chair at your local bookstore and read two to three chapters.

6. Watch porn.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter, just expend the energy some other way. Be cool.


I know it will be a struggle for most people, it will be for me, too. But I think we need a hiatus from our jobs as the world’s critics. It’s not like it pays well.

Before I’m accused of squashing Free Speech or I’m dismissed as a ‘Love Is All You Need’ hippie, let me reiterate that I’m not proposing the abolishment of all negativity. This is a finite challenge I’m proposing for all of us, like a New Years Resolution or Lent, except instead of trying to lose weight or fasting for spiritual purposes, we agree to refrain from spewing hatred for one month. And then, in June, we can return to our regularly scheduled vitriol.

I assure you, the world will not stop spinning if you delay telling Dave Matthews fans how much he sucks, nor will a new ice age befall us if the failings of the new Spider-man movie aren’t thoroughly documented on your blog. Terrible art exists and it deserves to be called out for its shortcomings, but for the month of May we can ignore it in order to celebrate the truly great art.

To address some other possible concerns:

1. This challenge is about art. Politics and science require constant scrutiny. Which is not to suggest that art is lesser than politics or science – not by any means – only that art’s impact on the world isn’t as immediate or dire.

2. If you make your living as an art critic, it might not be feasible for you to only write positive reviews. Then again, maybe your editor would be on board if you devoted May exclusively to spotlighting your favorite works. This should be easy for non-professional critics.

3. Even if you’re not someone who regularly discusses art, use this month to spread the word on what you like. You may just introduce someone to their new favorite band, book or show.

4. If you enjoy the idea, don’t feel like you have to limit yourself. Spread the love to other realms of your life.

5. If you think this is an insipid, meaningless gesture, maybe you’re right. But why not give it a try for a month anyway, what could it hurt?

Don’t think of it as giving up criticism. Think of it as a month’s vacation from things you don’t like. So this May, practice the fine art of saying something nice. You might even grow to like it.

Thumper Quote

If you like this idea and plan on participating, please share this post and use #SpreadTheLove to keep it trending. What could one month of positivity bring about?

House M.D. Finale

I have loved a lot of television shows over the years.  Stone cold classics like The Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men; cultishly beloved comedies like Arrested Development and Community (yay for a 4th season! #sixseasonsandamovie; nay for no Dan Harmon!); and plenty of other shows that are less officially cool but still had compelling characters, conceits and/or plots.  I think the first show I every truly obsessed over was MacGyver, a show that doesn’t hold up all that well but was certainly iconic (and fed a burgeoning interest in science which was being starved in Christian elementary school).

But only one show has been a borderline religion for me.

House M.D. was the groundbreaking character study of an Americanized Sherlock Holmes in the form of brilliant, acerbic, bitter and atheistic diagnostician, Dr. Gregory House , played by the incomparable British actor/comedian/novelist/musician/etc. Hugh Laurie.  Considering that the show has gone down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most popular show in the world, it seems like there can’t be anyone who wouldn’t have at least some familiarity with the show.  Here is proof that I’m not a hipster: I’m glad that something I love is loved by millions (billions?) also.

Though the show has always been a strong performer for its home network, Fox, its audience in the U.S. has declined in the most recent seasons, and with fair reason.  The ‘Huddy’ romantic plotline of season 7 was terrible, something I knew was coming for years but always hoped they’d find a way to avoid.  Even when they set it up in the season 6 finale (spoilers!), I had hopes that the writers could find a way to make it interesting.  I was, unfortunately, too optimistic.

I write that paragraph to get my shit-talking out of the way.  In my opinion, the best seasons of House were 2 and 3, but other than season 7, every year has had its strong runs that are worth revisiting, including this current and final season, the 8th.

The show has its fair share of critics.  Some of the laziest are those that decry it for having a formula (what show doesn’t?  Even fans of Mad Men must realize that there is a loose formula to most episodes which makes the odd ones stand out).  To criticize the show for sticking to the formula of the brilliant doctor who solves medical mysteries is like complaining that all Sherlock Holmes ever did was solve mysteries.  That’s the entire conceit!  (And that ignores the fact that the show actually did a good job of throwing in random off-shoot episodes.)

There are those who criticize the medicine and actions of the characters.  I hate to break it to you, but the real lives of doctors, like that of lawyers, cops, firemen and teachers are boring.  That’s why we have television, to make life seem more interesting than it really is.  And, yes, the actions and procedures House and his team takes throughout the series are over the top and something real doctors would never do, but again, it’s a show centered around a doctor who is far more brilliant than any doctor around.  You just have to go with it (I knew a girl who complained about the ‘unrealistic’ choices of the doctors on House, and then would turn on Grey’s Anatomy; welcome to Irony 101).

But forget the criticisms.  The show is ending and I just want to express how much it has meant to me.

Everybody Lies

I started watching the show here and there while I was in Charlotte, the first of my 10 Cities Project.  I didn’t really get hooked until Philly, just as the show had finished up its 2nd season.  Right at a time when I was coming into my own and for the first time starting to actually label myself as an atheist (even though I had stopped believing in God years earlier), here was this amazing show about a sarcastic, dark, vaguely-depressed but very-intelligent atheist.  Not to toot my own horn, but yeah, I related.

Atheists don’t see too many portrayals of themselves in media.  Or, at least, we didn’t.  That’s changing, but up until House, I can’t think of a single atheist who was the central character of a major network television show.  If there was one, it wasn’t a character where atheism and the pursuit of pure rational truth was his (or her) defining trait.  In the era of Bush, House was a breath of fresh air.

Hugh Laurie has said about the character of House that he is “on the side of the angels but that doesn’t mean he is an angel,” and that pretty much nails it.  The character of House, and the show that takes his name, is all about dichotomies in human nature, the contradictions that make us undeniably human.  We can be logical but overwhelmed by emotion.  We can be a good person and do something terrible.  We can be fundamentally honest but lie, because, well, everybody does.  We can know that it’s never lupus, but still have one case of it.

At its best (I’d argue season 2’s “House vs. God“) the show could be a gripping medical mystery, a compelling philosophical discussion and a tremendously funny drama (there’s that dichotomy again).  Plus, the show was always an actor’s class put on by Hugh Laurie (with assistance from Robert Sean Leonard).  The fact that Hugh Laurie never won an Emmy for his work on the show is a testament to how strong the acting work on television has been the past 8 years, but that still doesn’t mitigate the fact that it’s one of the great oversights in the award’s history.  House on the page is a great character.  House on the screen is an icon.

Farewell House

So, it is with great sadness that I will be watching the finale tonight.  It can be a little silly to get so invested in a television show, but no more silly than being invested in The Great Gatsby or OK Computer.  Great television is art just like any other form, and when House M.D. was at its best, it could transcend the medium (think of the powerhouse back-to-back episodes, “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart“).

Everyone has speculation and spoilers on how the show will end, but I’m not interested in that.  So far I’ve been able to avoid most advanced tidbits about the finale and that’s how I like it.  I look forward to sitting down one last time with the good doctor to be insulted, scammed and manipulated before being brilliantly healed at the last minute.  As House would tell you, existence can be an unending string of pain and struggle, so its nice to have a distraction once in awhile.

Farewell House.  I’d say never change, but we both know that wasn’t an option.

You talk to God, you’re religious. God talks to you, you’re psychotic.

Band From TV

If you know me (or read this blog at all regularly), you know I love the show, ‘House M.D.’  I am also an unabashed fan of the star of that show, Hugh Laurie.  His comedic work in ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’ and ‘Blackadder’ as well as his novel “The Gun Seller” (which I have been personally responsible for selling dozens of copies of in my time as a bookseller) are just a few more of the reasons why I am a fan of this multi-talented man.

He’s also a versatile musician and happens to tour with a band of fellow TV actors known as Band From TV, a for-charity group that plays concerts of cover songs across the country.  Today, they played here at the Taste of Chicago for a free show and I went with the intention of getting Hugh Laurie’s autograph and a picture with him if possible.  Spoiler alert, I failed on both counts.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get close.  In fact, I did get the autograph of Jesse “Dr. Chase” Spencer (the other heartthrob from House) and I managed to get up close and personal, enough so for me to tell that doling out autographs was not Hugh’s cup of tea (a roadie explained that Hugh is ‘shy;’ maybe he is, or maybe he just doesn’t enjoy being barraged by fans.  Either way, I can understand).

All the same, I got some pretty good shots (minus one close-up of Jesse that the ladies would have loved, but that I somehow managed to delete).  In another post I’ll add the pictures of the Bible-Thumpers who were out spewing God’s Hate.  It was a well-rounded day.

Here are shots of the Band From TV performing (mostly Hugh and Jesse, though):

Band From TV Taste of Chicago - Jesse Hugh Feeling It Jesse Spencer, Fiddler Jesse Spencer Band From TV - Bob Hugh Mandolin Hugh and Jesse Jam 2 Taste of Chicago - Pirate Lady Pirate Lady Dances Jesse Went Down To Georgia Laurie O'Riley Applause Band From TV Bus Jesse From the Bus Hugh Standing Tall Hugh with Fans

After the show, I made some unsuccessful attempts at getting Hugh’s autograph (or a photo with him).  Hugh was about to disappear on the band’s tour bus (literally, a double-decker tour bus), but a group of überfans held up signs pleading for an autograph, using altered lyrics from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.  It was a brilliant move.  Alas, while I was able to get some good shots out of it, I was not personally bestowed permission to take a photo with him.  Major bummer.

If nothing else, this shot makes me pretty happy:

Hugh Laurie, rocking the Grateful Dead shirt and looking positively House-ish.

It was a pretty good day.

The Best of the Worst: The Television Anti-Hero


Needless to say I have some unusual habits, yet all these socially acceptable people can’t wait to pick up hammers and smash their food to bits. Normal people are so hostile.” ~ Dexter Morgan

Dexter Morgan.  Nancy Botwin.  Walter White.  Dr. Gregory House.

Television right now is a wonderful place for terrible people.

Has there ever been a more despicable class of heroes in our weekly lives?  Serial killers and drug dealers and utter narcissists and psychopaths (in the true, textbook definition of the word).  Movies are still mostly the realm of shining heroes, though so-often flawed in their very human ways.  If the hero of a movie is an unlikeable person nowadays, it’s usually just because they’re an overgrown Manchild (see: any male lead in a comedy) or a plastic-molded succubus (looking at you Sex in the City ladies).  The anti-hero exists in movies, to be sure, but they don’t make ’em like they do on the ol’ idiot box (at least, in the U.S.  The foreign film market is a larger, harder to define beast, and I won’t try to lump it in with Hollywood).

I would argue that Dexter, Nancy, Walter and Gregory are truly some of the worst people to ever make us root for them.  The anti-hero on television has traditionally been a curmudgeon (e.g Archie Bunker) or a charming rouge (e.g. Sam Malone), somebody that does or says unlikeable things frequently, but is always shown to be well-meaning and genuinely good.

Not the Four Kings, though (alright, Three Kings and a Queen).

These are rotten people through and through.  Because we do ‘root’ for them, we might start to convince ourselves that these are good people just forced into extraordinary situations, but if we knew these people in real life there would be no qualms about it:  These folks suck.

We witness Dexter commit atrocious murders and fake his way through relationships, but because we get flashbacks of his sad childhood, we forgive the sins.  Yeah, he makes Rita and the kids feel good, but this mf-er chops people into pieces and dumps their bodies into the ocean.  If that scale seems even to you, I suspect there might be a severed thumb on one side.

We see Nancy make selfish decision after selfish decision, all the while benefiting from drug-trafficking (and not just marijuana as the title would imply), but we keep coming back to her wretched life.  And, let’s face it, even though we’re all getting a little tired of the deeper hole she keeps digging, I think we can all agree (SPOILER ALERT), watching Shane wack Pilar with a mallet was the most satisfying scene of season 5.  Like mother like son.

We watch Walter go from cancer-stricken father to absolutely deplorable drug kingpin, and that’s just in the first season.  Dude goes off the rails, and it’s awesome (I’m behind on season 3, but I’m looking forward to catching up).  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can tell you exactly when I knew I was going to keep watching this show: The pilot episode when Walter goes all Joe Pesci on some teenage kids in the store because they’re making fun of his son.  Yeah, we’re sympathetic to his plight and he certainly has an admirable motivation (helping his family), but on the list of responsible/reasonable solutions to medical debt, becoming a murderous drug-producer isn’t even in the top 10.

Does Greg deserve a place on this list?  I mean, he doesn’t deal drugs (just takes them), he doesn’t murder people (in fact, he heals them) and he’s even been known to comfort rape victims.  Yeah, he’s a jerk, but c’mon, he’s saving people.  Why include him on this list?

First off, because House doesn’t give a wit about his patients (or anyone, really).  With a few exceptions throughout the 6 seasons so far, House shows no personal interest in his patients (and for the few he has cared about, it’s been people he saw himself in, thus reinforcing his self-interest).  Dexter kills other killers.  Nancy and Walter are trying to provide for their families (albeit, in ill-conceived ways).  But House?  There is no hidden golden reason.  Even his desire to save people is based on his wholly selfish love of puzzles.  If a patient isn’t interesting, he doesn’t care if they die.

But, that’s not the reason I think the good doctor deserves a spot on this list.  I think the true proof of his villainy is his most interesting character trait:  He’s an atheist.  Now, as an atheist myself, I don’t think that makes House a bad person (obviously).  If anything, I think it proves he’s intellectually consistent, and that’s certainly a positive trait.  But we’re talking about a television show that is not only one of the most watched scripted dramas in America, but is also the most popular show in the world.*  Considering that one well-circulated survey a few years back found that Atheists were the least-trusted minority group in America, it’s pretty impressive that so many people still flock to their televisions once a week to see an atheist spit on their religious belief.  When I watch House, I see someone I can relate to, but what about the other millions of churchgoers who apparently have no problem loving (maybe begrudgingly so) someone who represents the complete antithesis of their worldview?

Why do we love television characters we should hate?  Well, that gets to the root of the whole anti-hero archetype, and that’s more of an academic question.  It’s worth contemplating.  I think there is something to the idea that we enjoy watching these people because it lets us surreptitiously live out our darkest impulses.  We get our weekly, cathartic release of our demons and then go back to nodding, smiling and shaking hands at the office the next day.  All the while wondering what it’d be like to stuff Johnson in a hefty garbage bag.

But that might be an unnecessarily dark reading of the human psyche.  I’m not really sure it matters why we enjoy our heroes to be so despicable, but it’s clear today that we do.  Artistically, the most praised shows, whether dramas or comedies (think Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), of the past decade have all focused on truly scummy people.

Great, isn’t it?

I bet you have your opinion on who you think is truly the worst human being on television.  Go ahead and let me know.  I’m always in the market for a new dirtbag to root for.

*Like Weeds, House has suffered a bit from the dreaded “Past its prime” syndrome.  No show can maintain the high of its earlier, best seasons forever, and unfortunately, in America we tend to run shows into the ground until they’re nigh unwatchable (*cough* X-Files *cough*).  That said, I feel that part of why both shows have lost some of their shine is because the main characters have gone so far into the darkside, the writers have flinched.
Season 6 of House seemed like an attempt to humanize House after seasons 4 and 5 took him into very dark territory.  It didn’t work, and I’m afraid the whole House/Cuddy storyline is going to kill the best part of the show.  As for Weeds, Nancy was always introspective and filled with self-doubt about her actions, but now she just seems mopey and helpless, completely out of control of her own life.  Fingers crossed that the new season will restore order, or just focus more on Shane.  And here is hoping Dexter and Breaking Bad resist the curse and go out strong.

Do You Remember The Episode When Ross and Rachel Broke Up?

Ninety percent of life is context and you’re always out of it
An oblivion that is preserved with sugar pills and false noses
I stand to gain in your windfall or in your downfall
So I’ve given up on playing with predictions, while I’m learning to take the good with your sadness

We take all that we can get
Oblivious to the obvious, that fifty percent of the time the grass truly is greener
We both stand to gain exponential loss from this merger, only to walk away sitting pretty, and pretty tired of discussing dividends
Which is the pretext for our buyer’s remorse

Most of what I say is subtext; even more of what I don’t say
The flippant remarks and the bold justifications write themselves while my pop culture references are just there to salvage my lack of plot
It’s in oblivion that we get by
And after years of debt, it feels like blessings

Better pray for your sins cos the Gay Messiah’s coming

Two recent events are at the heart of this post.

First off, as I am recently transplanted to Chicago and jobless, I have some time on my hands in the daytime.  I have been known to flip through the channels on a television when I’m bored (for you younger readers, a television, or ‘TV’, is an archaic device with which you could once watch ‘shows’ which were essentially longer versions of YouTube videos).  On one particular day, having gotten my fill of Maury (I am not the father!), I switched channels and came across the Tyra Banks show.  I find Tyra to be irritating and almost a trainwreck (not as put together as Oprah, not as much of a nutjob as Wendy Williams).

But her topic caught my eye:  “Exorcisms on Gay Teens!”  As this dealt with my two favorite topics, Sexual Identity and Religious Fundamentalist Gone Wild (coincidentally, the title of the most conflicted porn flick ever), I was hooked.  Damn you Tyra!

Instead of trying to get too far into the background, I’ll give you a video of the exorcism, or as it is known among the fundamentalists, ‘Casting out of evil spirits’ – specifically, the Homosexual Demon.

For some of you, this video may be shocking to look at, or just funny.  It certainly is quite a display.  For some of you, it looks familiar.  I know it’s a scene I’m not unfamiliar with, as I was witness to many ‘casting out of demons’ and ‘miraculous healings’.  This video shows pretty standard issue stuff for the Zealous Christian Crazy-off.
Flopping on the ground?  Check.  Praying and singing interspersed with yelling?  Check.  Stunned/Joyful/Scared/Bemused onlookers?  Check.

Tyra had the 16 boy on who claimed to no longer be homosexual, though he said he still had sexual desire for men so I’m not exactly sure what he thinks ‘homosexual’ means.  Maybe he thinks it means ‘good at crocheting’?  The demon of homosexuality was cast out of him, but getting rid of the thoughts was an ongoing ‘process’.  Like how not believing in a homophobic God is a ‘process’.

The ministers who performed the exorcism Casting Out came on the show and defended what they did as God’s will.  Later, a woman who helps and consoles homosexual teens came on and admonished the ministers.  For reasons that should be obvious to everyone, the audience was not on the side of the ministers.  A bunch of bitter fighting went back and forth and in the end no one’s mind was changed.  But I commend Tyra for the show because there will be gay teenagers who will see it and they will realize that they don’t have to feel like sinners and evil people because of who they are attracted to.

The second event that led to this post was more personal.  I recently hung out with an old friend from my Christian days.  Let’s call her, Susan.  She is still of the Christian persuasion, but in a good (sane) way.  She told me that a few years back she had a conversation with two of our fellow Christian acquaintances, two best friends.  Let’s call them Bert and Ernie.  Well, Ernie confided to Susan and Bert that he was gay.  Susan, being a human being, wanted to encourage Ernie to accept himself and live his life.  Bert on the other hand did not agree.  Homosexuality is a sin, after all.

Now, I wasn’t there for this conversation so I won’t speculate what exactly was said.  But Susan told me that Ernie was essentially convinced to live a life of suppression, denying his homosexuality.  Since I never heard that Ernie came out, I can feel pretty confident that this is still the case and Ernie is living a life of denial.

A trillion words have been written about whether or not the Bible says homosexuality is a sin (it does, but it calls all kinds of shit sin; the New Testament is just as guilty of ridiculous prohibitions as the Old Testament thanks to Paul).  Just as many words have been written about whether Christians should condemn or accept homosexuals.  I would say the vast majority of non-Fundamentalist Christians fall nicely in the middle ground where they acknowledge that homosexuality is not high on God’s Favorite Things list (what is high on that list: Paul Rudd movies), but they don’t want to condemn or banish gay people.  They probably don’t even mind sitting next to or sharing a Cherry Coke with a gay person.

In my lifetime (admittedly not that long, certainly not in the cosmic sense), I have seen quite a shifting in views towards homosexuals.  Other than Michael Schwartz, the general views of homosexuality have shifted greatly from disgust and hatred to acceptance and respect.  Granted, I just moved from San Francisco, so my perspective may be a bit skewed, but I know plenty of Christians who would say Homosexuality is not a sin and would even say that homosexuals should have the right to marry (no brainer).

But the backwards thinking exhibited by the ‘ministers’ of Manifested Glory Ministries and my acquaintances, Bert and Ernie, show that certain beliefs just will not go away.  Arguing the point will never help because it is not a logical argument, it’s a question of ‘faith’ and religion.  More importantly, it’s rooted in an interpretation of the Bible.  As anyone who has had any dealings with biblical teachings knows, the Bible offers up a million different interpretations (some Christians say this is because it’s a ‘Living Word’; this sounds profound, but you can get a million different interpretations of the Matrix movies and that shit ain’t even 15 years old).

No, debating this topic is pointless.  Anyone who knows me knows I love a good pointless debate, but there’s a lot at stake in this one.

Instead of getting bogged down in the prattle of morons, focus on the true victims of this fight.  While I think homosexuals should have a right to marry and it’s a worthy cause, I think an even more important cause is helping teenage (and younger) homosexuals accept themselves and know that they are not ‘wrong’ for being themselves.  The more and more the younger generation is taught that sexual orientation is not a choice or a sin, but rather one of the many facets that make up an individual, the less this crazy religious rhetoric will be able to take hold.

(Christians will call that ‘indoctrinating’ the youth without even batting an ironic eye at Vacation Bible School and Jesus Camps.)

Believe minds can be changed.  Mine was.  There was true freedom when I came to understand being gay no longer as an insult but as just one of the many possibilities across the spectrum of sexual orientation.

Kinsey Scale

Religion has historically been the means by which people found peace from their oppressive lives (even if it was the religion oppressing them), but there is hope in our current times that as people better understand nature and our reality, the sorts of divisions and objectifications that have been used as tools of oppression will die off.  Personal peace will be the product of knowledge, not belief in something unseen.

At the very least, we’ll stop telling teenagers they’re going to hell.

Remember, homosexuality isn’t a choice.  But religion is.  Make the right choice.

The Castro