Roger Ebert (and Chicago)

Roger Ebert died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. A cancer that did things to his body that would crush the soul of many many people. Ebert continued to write. And write and write and write. That his jaw was removed and suffered bouts of pain I will never be able to begin to imagine is slam dunk no-brainer Inspiration 101 stuff. If your best friend or a family member was dealt the same hand and they lived their lives like Roger Ebert did over the last 7 years—staying positive, being productive with his life’s passions, never outwardly raging against his situation—you would be profoundly affected at their comportment and outlook. And profoundly sad when the cancer finally claimed their life.

I never met Roger Ebert in person or talked to him on the phone or had an email conversation with him; there’s a good chance that you have not either. This would be the perfect place to segue into my own memories of watching At the Movies, or exploring all of the ways in which Roger Ebert affected people by being a gifted passionate writer who was also by all accounts a genuinely outstanding human being. I could go down that path but you can find gardens of beautiful words written by others online about Ebert and I would suggest that you seek those gardens out. Those people—colleagues, admirers, writers, directors, actors—have done a better job than I ever could in explaining why his show was groundbreaking, and why some of his reviews deserve a frame and a spot on a wall in a museum or hallway of a journalism school, and how he was a pioneer in his embracing of the Internet.

Instead, I would like to write a few words about how his death affects Chicago, a city I’ve lived near for 99% of my life.

Right now Chicago, as they say, has seen better days. The shocking murder rate numbers from the last couple years aside, Chicago is in the midst of political experiments—experiments born out of decaying laboratories run by people you would not buy a car from. Experiments that prove the fallacies inherent with the far left and far right worldviews: trying to pass a gun control law that everyone knew would be struck down as unconstitutional just to see if it could pass (just like the red states do with their dehumanizing anti-abortion laws that will never be allowed), and privatizing as many things as possible because hey free markets and capitalism. The city is trying to sell and privatize anything it possibly can (Midway Airport will probably be next) and the money made from these deals disappears almost instantly, with the majority of it seemingly not being reinvested back in to the city. The city will be closing sixty one schools later this year. But don’t worry: almost all of them are in poor areas and the blacks and the browns will primarily be hardest hit by it.

I understand that the school closings can be tied to the No Child Left Behind Act, a ridiculous thing that George W. Bush pushed through presumably to find out once and for all if the road to hell really is paved with good intentions (spoiler alert: it is, and always will). I understand too that Times Are Tough and cities need to do things to generate revenue and make difficult decisions with regards to schools sometimes. The difficult decisions usually involve wanting to cut teacher pay, though, and not closing schools outright, especially in poor neighborhoods where violence can spike again if you all but ensure that poor kids choose the street over a longer commute to a school somewhere outside of their community. But, again, this is really only affecting the blacks and the browns. We can probably just gentrify everything later now that I think about it. Take a page out of Daley’s handbook. That Rahm Emanuel, whose reptilian aura is probably strong enough to make half the animals at any zoo shriek for their lives, is letting the schools close is indefensible. You don’t choose to fuck over kids’ access to education. Ever. It makes you a monster by proxy. Rahm might as well be the guy watching a kid getting the shit kicked out of them by their dad and not calling the police. And he’s going to choose to fuck over kids.

That Chicago is politically corrupt is not a shocking story but it all seems so much more soul-crushing now. A guy who was under investigation and didn’t campaign at all because of it won re-election in November. Easily. I could go on and on with this stuff. You probably already know too well what I’m talking about. One of the things—quite possibly the biggest thing—that I really hoped Barack Obama would be able to do once he became President was to come down on Daley in some back room a la FDR with La Guardia, convince Daley to cut out the old politics shit. FDR knew New York was an important and vital city that was being bogged down by bullshit. Chicago is an important and vital city, a city that I and many others love despite its glaring flaws. Obama could have affected some change when Daley stepped aside. Instead, his friend is going to close schools. It pisses me off. It pisses me off not because of my own provincialism, but because if Chicago could be cleaned up—a thing that many people would file under Impossible—it would set a great example for the rest of the country on how to combat seemingly soul-crushing and ubiquitous corruption, just like with New York in the ’30s and ’40s.

Which brings me back to Roger Ebert.

The man was not only a national treasure, he was a local giant. He made Chicago an important satellite city of Hollywood and Los Angeles, an amazing feat that probably can’t be adequately conveyed. His writing, and the quality and mainstream reach of it, put him in the same class as two other Chicago giants: Mike Royko and Studs Terkel.

The world lost an icon but Chicago lost a pillar, a giant. And maybe the news of Ebert’s death is affecting me because everything just seems so damn bleak now; the timing is awful, my stomach’s been punched. Or maybe I’m being properly affected by it regardless of circumstance because Roger Ebert was the embodiment of everything we aspire to be: a person who passionately loved his work and life, and who was a kind and amazing person to co-workers, colleagues and strangers alike. There seem to be more people like the politicians in Chicago these days and not enough Roger Eberts, and it doesn’t fully hit you until they are gone and it’s all so very very sad.

I Am The Cosmos

Impolitic, by Molly Ivins

I Am the Cosmos

Austin, Texas — “So write about Camille Paglia,” suggested the editor. Like any normal person, I replied, “And who the hell might she be?”

Big cheese in New York intellectual circles. The latest rage. Hot stuff. Controversial.

But I’m not good on New York intellectual controversies, I explained. Could never bring myself to give a rat’s ass about Jerzy Kosinski. Never read Andy Warhol’s diaries. Can never remember the name of the editor of this New Whatsit, the neo-con critical rag. I’m a no-hoper on this stuff, practically a professional provincial.

Read Paglia, says he, you’ll have an opinion. So I did; and I do.

Christ! Get this woman a Valium!

Hand her a gin. Try meditation. Camille, honey, calm down!

The noise is about her oeuvre, as we always say in Lubbock: Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. In very brief, for those of you who have been playing hooky from the New York Review of Books, Ms. Paglia’s contention is that “the history of western civilization has been a constant struggle between … two impulses, an unending tennis match between cold, Apollonian categorization and Dionysian lust and chaos.” Jeez, me too. I always thought the world was divided into only two kinds of people — those who think the world is divided into only two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

You think perhaps this is a cheap shot, that I have searched her work and caught Ms. Paglia in a rare moment of sweeping generalization, easy to make fun of? Au contraire, as we always say in Amarillo; the sweeping generalization is her signature. In fact, her work consists of damn little else. She is the queen of the categorical statement.

Never one to dodge a simple dichotomy when she can set one up, Ms. Paglia holds that the entire error of western civilization stems from denying that nature is a kind of nasty, funky, violent, wet dream, and that Judeo-Christianity has been one long effort to ignore this. She pegs poor old Rousseau, that fathead, as the initiator of the silly notion that nature is benign and glorious and that only civilization corrupts.

Right away, I got a problem. Happens I have spent a lot of my life in the wilderness, and also a lot of my life in bars. When I want sex and violence, I go to a Texas honky-tonk. When I want peace and quiet, I head for the woods. Just as a minor historical correction to Ms. Paglia, Rousseau did not invent the concept of benign Nature. Among the first writers to hold that nature was a more salubrious environment from man than the corruptions of civilization were the Roman Stoics — rather a clear-eyed lot, I always thought.

Now why, you naturally ask, would anyone care about whether a reviewer has ever done any serious camping? Ah, but you do not yet know the Camille Paglia school of I-am-the-cosmos argument. Ms. Paglia believes that all her personal experiences are Seminal. Indeed, Definitive. She credits a large part of her supposed wisdom to having been born post-World War II and thus having been raised on television. Damn me, so was I.

In addition to the intrinsic cultural superiority Ms. Paglia attributes to herself from having grown up watching television (“It’s Howdy-Doody Time” obviously made us all smarter), she also considers her own taste in music to be of enormous significance. “From the moment the feminist movement was born, it descended into dogma,” she told an interviewer for New York magazine. “They stifled any kind of debate, any kind of dissent. Okay, it’s Yale, it’s New Haven in ’69, I am a rock fanatic, okay …. So I was talking about taste to these female rock musicians, and I said the Rolling Stones were the greatest rock band, and that just set them off. They said, `The Rolling Stones are sexist, and it’s bad music because it’s sexist.’ I said: `Wait a minute. You can’t make a judgements about art on the basis of whether it fits into some dogma.’ And now they’re yelling, screaming, saying that nothing that demeans women can be art.

“You see, right from the start it was impossible for me to be taken into the feminist movement, okay? The only art they will permit is art that gives a positive image of women. I said, `That’s like the Soviet Union; that is the demagogic, propagandistic view of art.’ ”

Well, by George, as a First Amendment absolutist, you’ll find me willing to spring to the defense of Camille Paglia’s right to be a feminist Rolling Stones fan any hour, day or night. Come to think of it, who the hell was the Stalin who wouldn’t let her do that? I went back and researched the ’69 politburo, and all I could find was Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Gloria Steinem, none of whom ever seems to have come out against rock music.

I have myself quite cheerfully been both a country-music fan and a feminist for years — if Camille Paglia is the cosmos, so am I. When some fellow feminist doesn’t like my music (How could you not like “You are just another sticky wheel on the grocery cart of life”?), I have always felt free to say, in my politically correct feminist fashion, “Fuck off.”

In a conversation printed in Harper’s magazine, Paglia held forth on on of her favorite themes — Madonna, the pop singer: “The latest atavistic discoverer of the pagan heart of Catholicism is Madonna. This is what she’s up to. She doesn’t completely understand it herself. When she goes on Nightline and makes speeches about celebrating the body, as if she’s some sort of Woodstock hippie, she’s way off. She needs me to tell her.” I doubt that.

Bram Dijkstra, author of a much-praised book, Idols of Perversity, which is a sort of mirror image of Sexual Personae, said that Paglia “literally drags the whole nineteenth-century ideological structure back into the late-eighteenth century, really completely unchanged. What’s so amazing is that she takes all that nineteenth-century stuff, Darwinism and social Darwinism, and she re-asserts it and reaffirms it in this incredibly dualistic fashion. In any situation, she establishes the lowest common denominator of a point. She says, `This is the feminist point of view,’ and overturns it by standing it on its head. She doesn’t go outside what she critiques; she simply puts out the opposite of it.”

“For example,” Dijkstra continues, “she claims, `Feminism blames rape on pornography,’ which is truly the reductio ad absurdum of the feminist point of view. Of course, there are very many feminist points of view, but then she blows away this extremely simplified opposite, and we are supposed to consider this erudition. She writes aphorisms and then throws them out, one after the other, so rapid-fire the reader is exhausted.”

Tracing Paglia’s intellectual ancestry is a telling exercise; she’s the lineal descendant of Ayn Rand, who in turn was a student of William Graham Sumner, one of the early American sociologists and an enormously successful popularzier of social Darwinism. Sumner was in turn a disciple of Herbert Spencer, that splendid nineteenth-century kook. Because Paglia reasserts ideas so ingrained in our thinking, she has become popular by reaffirming common prejudices.

Paglia’s obsession with de Sade is beyond my competence, although the glorification of sadomasochism can easily be read as a rationalization of bondage into imagined power, a characteristic process of masochistic transfer. Dijkstra suggests that the Sadean notion of the executioner’s assistant is critical to her thinking, though one wonders if there is not also some identification with de Sade the Catholic aristocrat.

Paglia’s view of sex — that it is irrational, violent, immoral, and wounding — is so glum that one hesitates to suggest that it might be instead, well, a lot of fun, and maybe even affectionate and loving.

Far less forgivable is Paglia’s consistent confusion of feminism with yuppies. What does she think she’s doing? Paglia holds feminists responsible for the bizarre blight created by John T. Molloy, author of Dress for Success, which caused a blessedly brief crop of young women, all apparently aspiring to be executive vice-presidents, to appear in the corporate halls wearing those awful sand-colored baggy suits with little floppy bow ties around their necks.

Why Paglia lays the blame for this at the feet of feminism is beyond me. Whatever our other aims may have been, no one in the feminist movement ever thought you are what you wear. The only coherent fashion statement I can recall from the entire movement was the suggestion that Mrs. Cleaver, Beaver’s mom, would on the whole have been a happier woman had she not persisted in vacuuming while wearing high heels. This, I still believe.

In an even more hilarious leap, Paglia contends that feminism is responsible for the aerobics craze and concern over thin thighs. Speaking as a beer-drinking feminist whose idea of watching her diet is to choose either the baked potato with sour cream or with butter, but not with both, I find this loony beyond all hope — and I am the cosmos, too.

What we have here, fellow citizens, is a crassly egocentric, raving twit. The Norman Podhoretz of our gender. That this woman is actually taken seriously as a thinker in New York intellectual circles is a clear sign of decadence, decay, and hopeless pinheadedness. Has no one in the nation’s intellectual capital the background and ability to see through a web of categorical assertions? One fashionable line of response to Paglia is to claim that even though she may be fundamentally off-base, she has “flashes of brilliance.” If so, I missed them in her oceans of swill.

One of her latest efforts at playing enfant terrible in intellectual circles was a peppy essay for Newsday, claiming that either there is no such thing as date rape or, if there is, it’s women’s fault because we dress so provocatively. Thanks, Camille, I’ve got some Texas fraternity boys I want you to meet.

There is one area in which I think Paglia and I would agree that politically correct feminism has produced a noticeable inequity. Nowadays, when a woman behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, “Poor dear, it’s probably PMS.” Whereas, if a man behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, “What an asshole.” Let me leap to correct this unfairness by saying of Paglia: Sheesh, what an asshole.

********************

[From Mother Jones, September/October 1991]

“IRS excerpt” From The Pale King

From pages 83-84 of The Pale King by David Foster Wallace:

“[...] Probably that’s all I should say right here in terms of summary. If you know how to search and parse government archives, you can find voluminous history and theory on just about every side of the debate. It’s all in the public record.

“But here’s the thing. Both then and now, very few ordinary Americans know anything about all this. Not much about the deep changes the Service underwent in the mid-1980s, changes that today directly affect the way citizens’ tax obligations are determined and enforced. And the reason for this public ignorance is not secrecy. Despite the IRS’s well-documented paranoia and aversion to publicity24 secrecy here had nothing to do with it. The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull.

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this feature. Consider, from the Service’s perspective, the advantage of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex. The IRS was one of the very first governmental agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting. People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it. Keep in mind that the period we’re talking was only a decade after Watergate. Had the Service tried to hide or cover up its conflicts and convulsions, some enterprising journalist(s) could have done an exposé that drew a lot of attention and interest and scandalous fuss. But that is not at all what happened. What happened was that much of the high-level policy debate played out for two years in full public view, e.g., in open hearings of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Senate Treasury Procedures and Statutes Subcommittee, and the IRS’s Deputy and Assistant Commissioner’s Council. These hearings were collections of anaerobic men in drab suits who spoke a verbless bureaucratese—terms like ‘strategic utilization template’ and ‘revenue vector’ in place of ‘plan’ and ‘tax’—and took days just to reach consensus on the order of items for discussion. Even in the financial press, there was hardly any coverage; can you guess why? If not, consider the fact that just about every last transcript, record, study, white paper, code amendment, revenue-ruling, and procedural memo has been available for public perusal since date of issue. No FOIA filing even required. But not one journalist seems ever to have checked them out, and with good reason: This stuff is solid rock. The eyes roll up white by the third or fourth ¶. You just have no idea.25

24 (attitudes that are not wholly unjustified, given TP’s [The Public's] hostility to the Service, politicians’ habit of bashing the agency to score populist points, & c.)

25 I’m reasonably sure that I am the only living American who’s actually read all these archives all the way through. I’m not sure I can explain how I did it. Mr. Chris Acquistipace, one of the GS-11 Chalk Leaders in our Rote Exams group, and a man of no small intuition and sensitivity, proposed an analogy between the public records surrounding the Initiative and the giant solid-gold Buddhas that flanked certain temples in ancient Khmer. These priceless statues, never guarded or secured, were safe from theft not despite but because of their value—they were too huge and heavy to move. Something about this sustained me.

Twenty Years Ago

The term “life changing” is one that by default has a percentage of hyperbole attached to it. I can say unequivocally that the first time I listened to The Velvet Underground & Nico it changed my life within the confines of how I listened to music and ingested art in general. But to someone who has never heard this album—or, conversely, to someone who thinks that this album is a tortuous, 11-track pile of crap—this admission would seem crazy. What could be life changing about listening to an album, they might they think. And they are half right I suppose.

Another facet of life that may not have an amount of hyperbole attached to it so much as it entirely subjective is how we perceive sporting events. To the people of my father’s generation the final game of the 1951 season between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers is something that is on par with the Kennedy assassination in terms of how a sporting event can affect one’s life. The same can probably be said of the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants.

For me, my definitive sporting moments consist of John Paxson’s three-pointer against the Suns, Patrick Kane’s overtime goal to clinch the Stanley Cup, Tommie Frazier almost single-handedly eviscerating the University of Florida, both Bulls-Jazz Finals series, and a Miles Simon and Mike Bibby-led University of Arizona upsetting Kentucky for the national championship (just to name a few).

And the Demolition-Hart Foundation two-out-of-three falls match in SummerSlam ’90.

A WWF[1] wrestling match from 1990 is something that I would consider life changing? Abso-frickin’-lutely.

On August 27, 1990 at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, the then-WWF and their summer pay-per-view event SummerSlam took place. I did not watch it live (we didn’t have cable television at the time) but I rented it from Blockbuster a few months later.[2] The match lineup for this particular SummerSlam was somewhat blah, mostly because the WWF was at a weird crossroads of having too many wrestlers who were either too old (Dusty Rhodes or Nikolai Volkoff anyone?) or too… uncool (hello, Texas Tornado and Tito Santana). Look at some of the matches from that night:

Power and Glory (aka Paul Roma and Hercules) vs. The Rockers[3]

Texas Tornado vs. Mr. Perfect

Jake “The Snake” Roberts vs. Bad News Brown

The Warload vs. Tito Santana

Not exactly a murderer’s row of entertainment. The main event was The Ultimate Warrior vs. “Ravishing” Rick Rude in a steel cage match.[4] But the Demolition-Hart Foundation match? It was like Jordan dropping six 3-pointers in the first half against the Blazers in the ’92 Finals—something totally unexpected. (And, yes, I still realize that I am talking about a Pay-Per-View wrestling match—something that was scripted weeks before the event aired.)

Some background: Demolition was the WWF’s equivalent of The Legion of Doom,[5] a tag team that sported two men who looked like they were equal parts biker and potentially demented KISS (or Raiders) fan. They wore face paint that was silver, black and red, and they wore black spiky leather masks and jackets over their black tights. Demolition originally consisted of just two guys named Ax and Smash (more on this in a moment). The Hart Foundation, on the other hand, wore pink and black tights and leather jackets. One wrestler, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, had long-ish black curly hair and could probably be described as “a more athletic-looking mechanic, or stoner.” His face is long and sleepy-looking, to the point that if he weren’t a wrestler he’d probably be a bouncer that wore a Metallica or Megadeth jacket. Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart was the other member and he was the opposite of Bret: Neidhart had a buzzcut, a ZZ Top length goatee, and the physical build of someone who used to be a football player but had gained some weight in their 20′s.

So, this match was designed as a best two-out-of-three falls match which means what you would think it means: the first team to get two pin counts wins. I always liked this idea because it meant that the matches would run longer than normal but the WWF rarely scheduled them (maybe fearing that people would lose interest after 15 minutes? I don’t know). The wrinkle with this match was that shortly before it Demolition introduced a third member to their crew, a gentlemen by the name of Crush. You can probably guess what happened, right? Demolition started the match with Crush and Smash and then at some point Ax inserted himself in the fight. But, alas, the ref was clueless to Demolition’s trickery—apparently, white dudes wearing face paint and leather all look alike (even if two of them have their face paint smeared and the other guy’s face paint is unblemished when he entered the ring).

You can probably also guess what happens next as well. Demolition (aka The Bad Guys) win the first fall and resort to trickery and cheap shots, and other standard Bad Guy things. The Hart Foundation (aka The Good Guys) squeak out the second fall (due to a disqualification) and then win the third and final fall in resounding fashion. Even before I saw it, I knew what the odds were high that Demolition would lose. So why is the match so great?

The short answer: it was great theater; all participants played their roles and performed their moves and countermoves perfectly. Everything about the fight, all 20 minutes of it, was a perfect balance of absurdity and guys pretending to fight. If this doesn’t make sense to you, I completely understand; wrestling isn’t a sport. So allow me to end this with a story.

Almost three years ago I was at a bar in Indiana for a birthday party and I started bullshitting with two guys who were hanging out near our table. We were all the same age. At some point we started talking about how we used to watch the WWF during our junior high and high school lives. We covered the big events (Hogan vs. Macho Man in Wrestlemania V, Shawn Michaels turning bad by really kicking Marty Jannetty in the face during Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake’s interview) and the crazy occurrences (Jake “The Snake” using a de-fanged cobra on Macho Man, Rick “The Model” Martell’s marathon performance of 50+ minutes in Royal Rumble 1991). But when we got to this Demolition-Hart Foundation match we probably talked about it for a good 15 minutes. Yeah, we were all drunk while we were talking about it but it made up the bulk of our wrestling-themed bullshitting.

Can you quantify the significance of this match any better?

[You can view part 1 one of the match here, and part 2 can be found here.]

____________________

Footnotes

[1] I know, I know, it’s called the WWE nowadays. But this occurred in the early ’90′s—back when the WWF meant wrestling and not a panda-logoed non-profit organization. And, besides, it will always be the WWF to me (sorry if that offends you, Mr. Panda).

[2] Note: I grew up in Frankfort, IL and the nearest Blockbuster at the time was in Orland Park, IL—roughly a twenty five minute drive, depending on traffic. Not to get all Grumpy Old Guy on you but… in my day we couldn’t watch and rent stuff on our computers without ever leaving our house! If you wanted to a watch a movie or wrestling event that wasn’t on TV you had to go get it! You couldn’t just connect to some site and download it via some kid in Beijing! And we liked it! We loved it….

[3] You may remember The Rockers as being the tag team that typically wore hot green pants and doing a lot acrobatic moves. If Bill James kept track of wrestling and created a statistic for DKPM (drop kicks per match), The Rockers would’ve routinely averaged an 11.7 per year I think.

[4] “Ravishing” Rick Rude was second only to “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase in terms of hilarious caricature of a wrestler. DiBiase threw money at people and toted around a black slave, er, servant named Virgil; Rick Rude had a porn mustache, porn haircut, and tights that sported a picture of himself and a woman or two (I forget how many there were). The WWF was, um, different—it was the ’80′s…

[5] The Legion of Doom were stars of the NWA and WCW. They eventually came into the WWF (wait for it!) and they even made a surprise entrance into this very match.

David Foster Wallace Commencement Speech

Transcript from David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. One of the only times he ever candidly spoke about life.

“If anybody feels like perspiring, I’d advise you to go ahead, because I’m sure going to. In fact I’m gonna.

“Greetings and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’

“This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

“Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about ‘teaching you how to think.’ If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

“Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: ‘Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’ And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. ‘Well then you must believe now,’ he says, ‘After all, here you are, alive.’ The atheist just rolls his eyes. ‘No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.’

“It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from inside the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

“The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

“Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or your monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

“Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted,’ which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

“Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education—least in my own case—is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

“As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

“This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

“And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in day out’ really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

“By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

“But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to ‘Have a nice day’ in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

“Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

“But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

“Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

“You get the idea.

“If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

“The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in his way.

“Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

“Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

“Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

“This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

“Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

“They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

“That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

“I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

“The capital-T Truth is about life before death.

“It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“‘This is water.’

“‘This is water.’

“It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really is the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

“I wish you way more than luck.”

Best TV Shows Of The ’00′s

With 2009 winding down so too are the aught years. So, while everyone else has put together their “Best Of The Aughts” I figured I would whip up something as well.

[NOTE: this list is solely comprised of shows that I have seen. Therefore, do not take it personal that I have not included The Office, The Wire, Firefly, or Deadwood (or any show that barely had an audience to begin with and was thus cancelled to little overall fanfare--hello Pushing Daisies). It also worth noting that The Sopranos does not make this list. Yes, the first season was great, and the second season was very strong. But the last few seasons were laughably mediocre--especially when you consider the huge gaps of time in between some of the seasons. Additionally, the series finale of The Sopranos was so reprehensibly terrible, and was such a thoroughly uncreative cop-out that it made me retroactively hate the entire show. If I were to ever meet David Chase I would demand that he give me those 86 hours back. I bring this up because Mad Men is the product of a former Sopranos writer or producer (I forget which) and, therefore, I will never watch Mad Men. I am not a vengeful person by nature but any new show or movie--if they mentioned that it is done by Chase or someone from The Sopranos--I will not watch it. The series finale was that bad to me. So, all of you people who love Mad Men now: be prepared to drink some Kool-Aid if you want to believe that the last season will be good. Don't say I didn't warn you.]

Anyway, on to the list. First up, some honorable mentions…

12 Honorable Mentions

30 Rock — The absolute best episodes are the first 10 or 12 in the first season when the writers spread the wealth between all of the stars and second-tier characters like Pete and Lutz. The show is still very good but by making almost episode since a constant volley-fest between Liz, Jack, Kenneth, and Tracy (to say nothing of the blatant caricaturization of Jenna, and the over-reliance on guest stars) it has lost a little bit of luster for me.

The Amazing Race — One of the best network TV reality shows. Loses a lot of points in my book, though, because of how anti-climactic the finales usually are. And it would be nice if they had a reunion show every once in a while.

Damages — This would be a no-brainer to be in the top ten if it had more than 2 seasons to its name. But make no mistake, season 1 was outstanding. Possibly the best debut season of any show this decade.

Gilmore Girls — Any show that casually references The Shaggs, The Fountainhead, Stereolab, and The Yearling (seemingly in the same conversation between two characters) gets a thumbs-up from me if they can pull it off. Also, the last 5 minutes of the season 6 episode “Friday Night’s Alright For Fighting” is some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia — With episode titles such as “Dennis Looks Like A Registered Sex Offender,” “Sweet Dee’s Dating A Retarded Person,” and “The Gang Finds A Dumpster Baby,” you will know right away if you will like this show. I like this show.

No Reservations With Anthony Bourdain — Anthony Bourdain takes you all over the world with the goal of finding those non-tourist-y gems amongst the overcrowded tourist havens. It’s one part travel show, one part food show and Bourdain is charismatic enough (and his narrations perfectly written) to be one of the coolest tour guides you could ever hope to find.

Scrubs — Some people might be turned off by Zach Braff’s voice (or presence) but Scrubs was consistently the most inventive sitcom of the decade, pulling out the veritable kitchen sink at any given moment which made it sort of a live-action Simpson’s in terms of surreal, goofy comedy. And even the “serious” episodes were surprisingly touching, especially the last episode that Brendan Fraser appeared in.

Sex & The City — Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda are The Beatles of women in television. Any future show that follows girlfriends around as they make their way through life will be compared to this show. And while I think that show lost a few steps towards the end, seasons 1 and 4 are pretty damn strong.

Six Feet Under — Though this show could be inconsistent at times, the final season was pretty strong (the finale was very good) and each season always had its share of great episodes. The best episode of the show’s run, “The Room,” rivaled anything that was on TV at the time as it perfectly blended humor and death and frustration seamlessly.

South Park — What can you say? When South Park is on, it’s one of the funniest shows on television. It’s really as simple as that.

Survivor — Would be on the top ten for the last couple seasons alone, but I couldn’t put it up there because I got bored by some of the seasons pretty easily. That said, Jeff Probst is still one of the best personalities on TV and some of the obstacle courses they come up with are extremely creative.

Weeds — One of the craziest shows I’ve watched this decade. Some moments from the four seasons I’ve seen: a boy shot a cougar in his backyard, a man had his toe bitten off by a dog, someone inadvertently recorded someone being blown up by a missile, a cross from a church was turned into a large grow lamp. And all 4 season finales have been batshit crazier than this (while also being endlessly entertaining).

Now for the list…

#10 – Big Love

The thing about Big Love for me is that it really is the only show in which every member of this large ensemble was perfectly cast. I mean, Bill Paxton is Bill Henrickson in every possible aspect. I can no longer think of Paxton as someone other than the polygamist husband of three wives who wants nothing but the best for his family, even to a fault as he sometimes falls victim to not thinking things out too clearly. Because Big Love incorporates the mainstream aspects of the Mormon religion as well as the compound aspect of old-school polygamy the show will most certainly not run out of any good ideas and, thus far, the first three seasons have been genuinely engaging and engrossing–capable of bringing healthy doses of emotion at times without ever feeling cheap or corny. The late ’90′s and all of the ’00′s brought to television a new era of anti-heroes or grotesque characters hell-bent on making the viewer constantly swim in a large pool of gray area. While you may be fundamentally against polygamy, Big Love has never aimed to convert opinion; it merely uses it as an updated means of showing a family that is always trying to hold itself together in the midst of external forces. The show outdid itself last season with the episode “Come, Ye Saints” in which the entire family goes on a road trip to Cumorah, NY to go see the Joseph Smith shrine. The episode’s handling of one of the character’s miscarriage is a microcosm of how delicately and profoundly they handle things that should veer hard into gray areas. Instead, it humanizes it to near perfection.

#9 – Veronica Mars

Yes, season two of Veronica Mars was a little too complex for its own good and, yes, season three had its share of misses but the strength of season 1 as a whole and the season 3 episode “Spit & Eggs” were outstanding enough for me to put it in my top 10 list. First things first, season 1. Phenomenal. It had a perfect mix of humor intertwined within the long arc story of who killed Lilly Kane. Its use of flashbacks never felt out of place or corny either. It all culminated up to a legitimately great season finale in which Lilly’s killer is finally discovered, as well as Veronica and her father left beaten up and broke. The season 3 episode “Spit & Eggs” is one of the best episodes in general of the decade. Veronica is a freshman in college and she is trying to find out who on campus is drugging and raping girls (then cutting off all of their hair as a final insult). The episode scrambles the sequencing a bit by starting when Veronica realizes who the rapist is (but the viewer doesn’t know), then working backwards from the night before, and then catching up to everything that later unfolds. Also, the means in which Veronica’s ex-boyfriend Logan gets thrown in jail so that he can stay in the same cell as the rapist is one of the best moments of the show.

#8 – Freaks And Geeks

A show that technically debuted in the ’90′s (1999 in fact), Freaks And Geeks was so spot-on of its portrayal of early-’80′s high school dorks and social retreads that I no doubt believe that many TV and film critics openly weeped while watching the pilot episode, conceding that Judd Apatow hit the nail on the proverbial head and causing all of the weird emotions to surface yet again. The casting of the show was perfect and each episode was handled with such care and nuance that I felt myself believing at times that I attended a high school in Michigan in the early ’80′s. The way that social cliques work (even amongst the stoners) and how delicate communication in any form is when you are in high school are presented with a naturalistic brush stroke. The best episodes are the ones that prey on a high school kid’s worst fear: something extraneously heavy outside of school being introduced. Like the episode when Bill’s mom starts dating the gym teacher (played by the actor who played Biff in Back To The Future), or the episode when someone’s dog is accidentally killed, or when Sam’s friend finds out that his dad is having an affair. None of these are ever played up as Very Special Episodes, but they strike a chord because we feel like we know these kids and their parents.

#7 – Boston Legal

It received critical acclaim only in spurts (even though William Shatner, James Spader, and Candace Bergen all won Emmys) but Boston Legal was, I thought, one of the most consistently smart dramedies on television this decade. Oh sure, some of the cases and plot lines were non-sensical. And, yes, some of Alan Shore’s (Spader) speeches were so soapbox-y that the makers of soapboxes surely threatened to pull advertising from the show. But the core cast of Shatner, Spader, and Bergen was pitch-perfect to the point that not even David E. Kelley’s worst tendencies could disrupt the flow of the show from season to season. Add in a fitting series finale and you have one of the more overlooked shows of the decade. Though the show could sometimes over-rely on slapstick-ish humor (Shatner’s repeated mutterings of “Denny Crane!” and such), it’s aim was always true–to portray the odd friendship of two older, single men (Spader’s Shore and Shatner’s Crane) who genuinely cared for one another.

#6 – Top Chef

One of the most underrated entertainment story lines of this decade is: “How was it that a cooking show on Bravo–a network that only a few years ago was primarily known for Inside The Actor’s Studio–became the most popular cooking show on cable when there is a channel called The Food Network?” On paper, this show should have never stood a chance ratings-wise against Iron Chef America or Throwdown; it seemed like a foodie’s wet dream rather than a mainstream hit. But with each new season of Top Chef comes a new set of varied and talented chefs and an ever-growing, impressive lineup of special guest judges. The best part about the show is that the overall package is never presented in an insiders-only or presumptuous tone; they go to good lengths to succinctly explain to cooking idiots like me why this special guest judge is well-respected, or why this dish failed and the other did not. Oh, and the food more often than not looks mouth-wateringly delicious.

#5 – Project Runway

During the course of its six seasons (season 7 will be premiering in January), Project Runway–alongside the show that precedes it on this list–has set the gold standard by which any reality television show should be judged against. For real. Even if the design industry does nothing for you, this show is flat-out entertaining to watch, mostly because the show intrinsically does not put the designer’s back story in the foreground and the competitions are (mostly) individual so you have very minimal amounts of backstabbing and bitching. And the competitions are wonderfully imaginative: make a dress out of produce, make a dress for the mom of another designer, etc., all with budgets as minuscule as $25. Add to this the cheeriness of Heidi Klum, the likability of Michael Kors, and the never-too-harsh opinions of Nina Garcia and you have a pretty likable group of judges. But the main attraction of Runway is Tim Gunn, a guy so inherently likable that he acts as the perfect bridge between the designers and the judges.

#4 – The Shield

Tony Soprano will forever be the poster child of the modern television anti-hero but Michael Chiklis’ “Vic Mackey” is more deserving of the award. The Shield consistently got better with each passing season and ultimately delivered on one of the best series finales ever made–everything comes to a head, the fallout for a few of the characters is death (both literal and metaphorical), and Mackey somehow claws his way out to the other side, albeit in a neutered role. The show’s strength was double-edged: it routinely put Vic’s Strike Team through an always-changing gray area (i.e.–how do you get away with killing a federal agent looking to break up the team that is mostly keeping the street wars at bay? what is the morality, if any, of working with street gangs in order to keep the peace to innocent bystanders?), and it also had some of the best cameos in recent history (Glenn Close and Anthony Anderson in season 4 as the new captain and a gang leader, respectively; Forrest Whitaker as a monomaniacal IED agent). The Shield also had one of the better character developments of the decade too with Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) going from hick sidekick to a multi-layered tragic figure.

#3 – Arrested Development

I think it’s actually a blessing that this show was axed by Fox when it did, because it spared us from ever having to wonder if the show was losing a step (like I’m wondering now with 30 Rock). In any event, to me, there has been no sitcom since Seinfeld that has even encroached the humor and genius of Arrested Development. Even the best episodes of 30 Rock cannot compete with a weaker episode of Arrested Development. The casting is perfect–the subtle sarcasm of Jason Bateman’s “Michael Bluth”; the Bob Newhart-ian delivery of lines by Michael Cera’s “George Michael Bluth”; the over-the-top aggressiveness of Will Arnett’s “G.O.B.”; the dead-pan hilarity that comes from Ron Howard just narrating scenes; every family member was cast perfectly–and the cameos throughout the show’s short-lived history were nothing short of perfect: Charlize Theron’s “Mr. F” and Carl Weathers as himself as a cheapskate were all-out brilliant. The real strength of the show was the insane ability to craft numerous storylines and meta-storylines at any given moment. For example, an episode about marijuana cuts to a scene that takes place 30 years previously about a band who had written a song called “Big Yellow Joint,” which was street code for the banana stand that the Bluth family ran on the side. No other comedy has ever had me consistently laugh out loud like this show. It also comforted me knowing that were also other never-nudes out there as well.

#2 – Lost

A lot depends on how the final season will end but, as of right now, it is amazing that, a, not only did this show get made (its pilot episode is the most expensive pilot episode ever made) but, b, the fact that a show that moved at such a snail’s pace for the first two seasons (the writers essentially kept everything slow until the network gave them an end date) then accelerated the storylines beyond all get-out AND introduced sci-fi elements AND didn’t cause people to run for the hills is nothing short of phenomenal. Lost proved that a show with a gigantic, ever-growing cast with ever-growing plotlines could not only become popular, but could do it in the form of a literature-comic book hybrid sort of way; you didn’t have to resort to David Lynch-ian methods. Additionally, Lost (again, so much of this will depend on the series finale) could go down in history as one of the most important shows of this decade–a cross between The Twilight Zone, M*A*S*H, and NYPD Blue.

#1 – Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Yes, only three seasons of Buffy aired in the aughts but one of them was season 5, also known as The Best Season Of Any Show I’ve Ever Seen. The season starts with Dracula (Dracula: “I am Dracula.” Buffy: “Get OUT!”), the sudden addition of a sister that never existed (and they pulled it off, even if the actress could get annoying), and ends with the show’s only natural death and a sacrifice to stop the world from being destroyed. This season had episodes that were creatively humorous (“The Replacement,” in which Xander is inadvertently cloned), a foreshadowing of how dark the series would get (“Fool For Love,” when Spike tells Buffy that all Slayers have death wishes), a really underrated gem (“Checkpoint,” in which it’s finally revealed what exactly Glory is), one of the greatest episodes from any show dealing with death (“The Body”), an excellent penultimate episode revolving around a catatonic Buffy (“The Weight Of The World”), and a season finale (“The Gift”) that could rival any Icon-status show’s finale. In addition to all of this, you also have season 6′s “Once More, With Feeling,” which was a musical episode that sets the bar for any show that looks to ditch its format for an episode, and you also have the extra-dark and extra-philosophical Warren/Willow arc (and its fallout) of the last four episodes. Season 7, despite the unavoidable anti-climactic nature of the end, still managed to churn out some masterful episodes dealing with morality (“Storyteller”), the meaning of life (“Conversations With Dead People”), and the choices that are made when dealing with the temptation of unfettered power (“Get It Done”). Additionally, the last quarter of season 7 introduced one the most horrific villains in the show’s history (as well as one of the creepiest villains to have ever graced a television set)—Caleb, the ultra-misogynistic fallen priest (“Dirty Girls”).

“Things You Will Learn From A Substance-Recovery Halfway Facility” Excerpt From IJ

“If, by virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. You will find out that once MA’s Department of Social Services has taken a mother’s children away for any period of time, they can always take them away again, D.S.S., like at will, empowered by nothing more than a certain signature-stamped form. I.e. once deemed Unfit—no matter why or when, or what’s transpired in the meantime—there’s nothing a mother can do.

“Or for instance that people addicted to a Substance who abruptly stop ingesting the Substance often suffer wicked papular acne, often for months afterward, as the accumulations of Substance slowly leave the body. The Staff will inform you that this is because the skin is actually the body’s excretory organ. Or that chronic alcoholics’ hearts are—for reasons no M.D. has been able to explain—swollen to nearly twice the size of civilians’ human hearts, and they never again return to normal size. That there’s a certain type of person who carries a picture of their therapist in their wallet. That (both a relief and kind of an odd let-down) black penises tend to be the same general size as white penises, on the whole. That not all U.S. males are circumcised.

“That you can cop a sort of thin jittery amphetaminic buzz if you rapidly consume three Millienial Fizzies and a whole package of Oreo cookies on an empty stomach. (Keeping it down is required, however, for the buzz, which senior residents often neglect to tell newer residents.)

“That the chilling Hispanic term for whatever interior disorder drives the addict back again and again to the enslaving Substance is tecato gusano, which apparently connotes some kind of interior psychic worm that cannot be sated or killed.

“That black and Hispanic people can be as big or bigger racists than white people, and then can get even more hostile and unpleasant when this realization seems to surprise you.

“That it is possible, in sleep, for some roommates to secure a cigarette from their bedside pack, light it, smoke it down to the quick, and then extinguish it from their bedside ashtray—without once waking up, and without setting anything on fire. You will be informed that this skill is usually acquired in penal institutions, which will lower your inclination to complain about the practice. Or that even Flents industrial-strength expandable-foam earplugs do not solve the problem of a snoring roommate if the roommate in question is so huge and so adenoidal that the snores in question also produce subsonic vibrations that arpeggio up and down your body and make your bunk jiggle like a motel bed you’ve put a quarter in.

“That females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males. That over 60% of all persons arrested for drug- and alcohol-related offenses report being sexually abused as children, with two-thirds of the remaining 40% reporting that they cannot remember their childhoods in sufficient detail to report one way or the other on abuse. That you can weave Madame Psychosis-like harmonies around the minor-D scream of a cheap vacuum cleaner, humming to yourself as you vacuum, if that’s your Chore. That some people really do look like rodents. That some drug-addicted prostitutes have a harder time giving up prostitution than they have giving up drugs, with their explanation involving the two habits’ very different directions of currency-flow. That there just as many idioms for the female sex-organ as there are for the male sex-organ.

“That a little-mentioned paradox of Substance addiction is: that once you are sufficiently enslaved by the Substance to need to quit the Substance in order to save your life, the enslaving Substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you. Or that sometime after your Substance of choice has just been taken away from you in order to save your life, as you hunker down for required A.M. and P.M. prayers, you will find yourself beginning to pray to be allowed literally to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you.

“That in metro Boston the idiom of choice for the male sex-organ is: Unit, which is why Ennet House residents are wryly amused by E.M.P.H. Hospital’s designations of its campus’s buildings.

“That certain persons simply will not like you no matter what you do. Then that most nonaddicted adult civilians have already absorbed and accepted this fact, often rather early on.

“That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.

“That AA and NA and CA’s ‘God’ does not apparently require that you believe in Him/Her/It before He/She/It will help you. That, pace macho bullshit, public male weeping is not only plenty masculine but can actually feel good (reportedly). That sharing means talking, and taking somebody’s inventory means criticizing that person, plus many additional pieces of Recoveryspeak. That an important part of halfway-house Human Immuno-Virus prevention is not leaving your razor or toothbrush in communal bathrooms. That a seasoned prostitute can (reportedly) apply a condom to a customer’s Unit so deftly that he doesn’t even know it’s on until he’s history, so to speak.

“That a double-layered steel portable strongbox w/ tri-tumblered lock for your razor and toothbrush can be had for under $35.00 U.S./$38.50 O.N.A.N. via Home-Net Hardware, and that Pat M. or the House Manager will let you use the office’s TP to order one if you put up a sustained enough squawk.

“That over 50% of persons with a Substance addiction suffer from some other recognized form of psychiatric disorder, too. That some male prostitutes become so accustomed to enemas that they cannot have valid bowel movements without them. That a majority of Ennet House residents have at least one tattoo. That the significance of this datum is unanalyzable. That the metro Boston street term for not having money is: sporting lint. That what elsewhere’s known as Informing or Squealing or Narcing or Ratting or Ratting Out is on the streets of metro Boston known as ‘Eating Cheese,’ presumably spun off from the associative nexus of rat.

“That nose-, tongue-, lip-, and eyelid-rings rarely require actual penetrative piercing. This is because of the wide variety of clip-on rings available. That nipple-rings do require piercing, and that clitoris- and glans-rings are not things anyone thinks you really want to know the facts about. That sleeping can be a form of emotional escape and can with sustained effort be abused. That female chicanos are not called chicanas. That it costs $225 U.S. to get a MA driver’s license with your picture but not your name. That purposeful sleep-deprivation can also be an abusable escape. That gambling can be an abusable escape, too, and work, shopping, and shoplifting, and sex, and abstention, and masturbation, and food, and exercise, and meditation/prayer, and sitting so close to Ennet House’s old D.E.C. TP cartridge-viewer that the screen fills your whole vision and the screen’s static charge tickles your nose like a linty mitten.

“That you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it. That loneliness is not a function of solitude. That it is possible to get so angry you really do see everything red. What a ‘Texas Catheter’ is. That some people really do steal—will steal things that are yours. That a lot of U.S. adults truly cannot read, not even a ROM hypertext phonics thing with HELP functions for every word. That cliquey alliance and exclusion and gossip can be forms of escape. That logical validity is not a guarantee of truth. That evil people never believe they are evil, but rather that everyone else is evil. That it is possible to learn valuable things from a stupid person. That it takes effort to pay attention to any one stimulus for more than a few seconds. That you can all of a sudden out of nowhere want to get high with your Substance so bad that you think you will surely die if you don’t, and but can just sit there with your hands writhing in your lap and face wet with craving, can want to get high but instead just sit there, wanting to but not, if that makes sense, and if you can gut it out and not hit the Substance during the craving the craving will eventually pass, it will go away—at least for a while. That it is statistically easier for low-IQ people to kick an addiction than it is for high-IQ people. That the metro Boston street term for panhandling is: stemming, and that it is regarded by some as a craft or art; and that professional stem-artists actually have like little professional colloquia sometimes, little conventions, in parks or public-transport hubs, at night, where they get together and network and exchange feedback on trends and techniques and public relations, etc. That is possible to abuse OTC cold-and allergy remedies in an addictive manner. That Nyquil is over 50 proof. That boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them. That if enough people in a silent room are drinking coffee it is possible to make out the sound of steam coming off the coffee. That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack.

“That concentrating intently on anything is very hard work.

“That addiction is either a disease or a mental illness or a spiritual condition (as in ‘poor in spirit’) or an O.C.D.-like disorder or an affective or character disorder, and that over 75% of the veteran Boston AAs who want to convince you that it is a disease will make you sit down and watch them write DISEASE on a piece of paper and then divide and hyphenate the word so that it becomes DIS-EASE, then will stare at you as if expecting you to undergo some kind of blinding ephiphanic realization, when really (as G. Day points tirelessly out to his counselors) changing DISEASE to DIS-EASE reduces a definition and explanation down to a simple description of a feeling, and rather a whiny insipid one at that.

“That most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking. That the cute Boston AA term for addictive-type thinking is: Analysis-Paralysis. That cats will in fact get violent diarrhea if you feed them milk, contrary to the popular image of cats and milk. That it is simply more pleasant to be happy than to be pissed off. That 99% of compulsive thinkers’ thinking is about themselves; that 99% of this self-directed thinking consists of imagining and then getting ready for things that are going to happen to them; and then, weirdly, that if they stop to think about it, that 100% of the things they spend 99% of their time and energy imagining and trying to prepare for all the contingencies and consequences of are never good. Then that this connects interestingly with the early-sobriety urge to pray for the literal loss of one’s mind. In short that 99% of the head’s thinking activity consists of trying to scare the everliving shit out of itself. That it is possible to make rather tasty poached eggs in a microwave oven. That the metro-street term for really quite wonderful is: pisser. That everybody’s sneeze sounds different. That some people’s moms never taught them to cover up or turn away when they sneeze. That no one who has ever been to prison is ever the same again. That you do not have to have sex with a person to get crabs from them. That a clean room feels better to be in than a dirty room. That the people to be most frightened of are the people who are the most frightened. That it takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak. That you don’t have to hit somebody even if you really really want to. That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.

“That nobody who’s ever gotten sufficiently addictively enslaved by a Substance to need to quit the Substance and has successfully quit it for a while and been straight and but then has for whatever reason gone back and picked up the Substance has ever reported being glad that they did it, used the Substance again and gotten re-enslaved; not ever. That bit is a metro Boston street term for a jail sentence, as in ‘Don G. was up in Billerica on a six-month bit.’ That it’s impossible to kill fleas by hand. That it’s possible to smoke so many cigarettes that you get little white ulcerations on your tongue. That the effects of too many cups of coffee are in no way pleasant or intoxicating.

“That pretty much everybody masturbates.

“Rather a lot, it turns out.

“That the cliché ‘I don’t know who I am’ unfortunately turns out to be more than a cliché. That it costs $330 U.S. to get a passport in a phony name. That other people can often see things about you that you yourself cannot see, even if those people are stupid. That you can obtain a major credit card with a phony name for $1,500 U.S., but that no one will give you a straight answer about whether this price includes a verifiable credit history and line of credit for when the cashier slides the phony card through the register’s little verification-modem with all sorts of burly security guards standing around. That having a lot of money does not immunize people from suffering or fear. That trying to dance sober is a whole different kettle of fish. That the term vig is street argot for the bookmaker’s commission on an illegal bet, usually 10%, that’s either subtracted from your winnings or added to your debt. That certain sincerely devout and spiritually advanced people believe that the God of their understanding helps them find parking places and gives them advice on Mass. Lottery numbers.

“That cockroaches can, up to a certain point, be lived with.

“That ‘acceptance’ is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.

“That different people have radically different ideas of basic personal hygiene.

“That, perversely, it is often more fun to want something than to have it.

“That if you do something nice for somebody in secret, anonymously, without letting the person you did it for know it was you or anybody else know what it was you did or in any way or form trying to get credit for it, it’s almost its own form of intoxicating buzz.

“That anonymous generosity, too, can be abused.

“That having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward.

“That it is permissible to want.

“That everybody is identical in their unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else. That this isn’t necessarily perverse.

“That there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.

“That God—unless you’re Charlton Heston, or unhinged, or both—speaks and acts entirely through the vehicle of human beings, if there is a God.

“That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.

“That the smell of Athlete’s Foot is sick-sweet v. the smell of podiatric Dry Rot is sick-sour.

“That a person–one with the Disease/-Ease—will do things under the influence of Substances that he simply would not ever do sober, and that some consequences of these things cannot ever be erased or amended. Felonies are an example of this.”