Aug 24, 2009

The Cheese Pizza Conundrum

I have always heard it said that to have a fun and peaceful dinner party, you should avoid discussions about politics and religion. And while that may be good advice, I have noticed that many a good party has been damaged by something less obvious than the chatter. It was waylaid by the actual food served. For, alas, the poor hosts decided to order pizza.

I really believe that the most contentious topic on earth is pizza toppings. You could take a delivery menu into a monastery high in the mountains that has observed a millenia of silence and gets the residents fighting within five minutes. "Anyone in their right mind knoweth that boar goes better on pizza than pemican." I think people are more opinionated about their pizza toppings than just about anything, and they are not willing to compromise. They want what they want and aren't going to choke down nothing else. Even if they say they will "eat anything," they are dirty liars. I'm not talking about ordering pizza from one of those fancy places with funky new wave toppings. Places like that usually have figured it out and have personal sized pizzas. So each person can order their own weird combo at Pizzeria Uno (Chicago Classic with Hamburger instead of sausage) or California Pizza Kitchen (Carne Asada) without bothering anyone else.

I'm talking about the long-standing tradition of having a dozen people over and trying to order pizzas from the local pizza joint for the group. It is worse than negotiating a corporate merger. It is worse than a divorce settlement. It probably has caused a few divorces. There are few things I hate more than ordering pizza for a group. Sure, you can go with the approach some youth pastors have with their 200 person group - 20 cheese, 20 pepperoni, get here on time or don't gripe. But that doesn't usually work for that group of 10-25 people that we usually have to deal with. I have worked in student ministry for so long I have nightmares about ordering pizza. I'll wake up in a cold sweat, "Don't worry, you'll get your five bucks' worth."

You have different pizza people. There is the garbage guy - the one who insists on getting every topping on the pizza. "The more junk the better." His pizza is basically a replacement for a salad bar plate at this point. It has twenty items on it. The structural integrity is completely compromised. Then there is the pepperoni crowd. This is the number one group - they swear by pepperoni like it was in the Bill of Rights. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of long aged meat sticks." You have the mushroom people - and there is NO middle ground with mushrooms. You either love them or hate them. I don't know people who are ambivalent about mushrooms. It is either, "Oh man these things are great" or "What the heck is this? A tumor?" You also have the fringe people - the heat addicts, the anchovies loving weirdo, the vegetarian, the people who think fruit belongs on pizza, and the no-sauce totalitarians (my kids).

But there is that one group - the cheese only crowd - that becomes the biggest problem. I know because for a looooong time I was in this group. I finally have switched to the "Ground Beef" camp, for the most part. But until recently, I was a cheeser. My wife is usually a cheesehead - except at Donato's (mmm, Donato's. Tearing up.) My father-in-law is a huge cheeser. The thing about this group is that they don't like other pizza toppings. I understand completely. I never have been a big pepperoni lover - too much oil, weird floppy texture. I don't usually get veggies on my pizza - unless it is part of a whim combo. I won't eat mushrooms because who would willingly put fungus in their mouth? You don't suck on athlete's foot. But we'll eat the fungus that springs up in the woods behind our house. And the other meats have been hit and miss depending on the store. Cheese is safe, it is pure, it is easy. It is the same reason why so many people like vanilla ice cream. How bad can you screw up a basic cheese pizza?

The problem is that the other people all will eat cheese, but the cheesers won't eat the other stuff. So you order five pizzas. You get the garbage one for the one guy who swears he'll eat it all, you get two pepperonis for that huge group, one sausage and peppers, and one cheese. What is left at the end of the night? Two-thirds of the garbage pizza, half of a pepperoni pie, a couple pieces of sausage, and no cheese. And not only that, the cheesers each got one slice and are starving - eating potpourri in the corner. Why? Because everyone else went, "And I'll take one piece of cheese," and there was none left. All the toppings crowds get irate if you order too many cheese pizzas - saying it is boring. But they will all eat it.

I used to have to take drastic measures. I would hide a cheese pizza in the oven for the true cheesers. I would pay for my own pizza to make sure I got enough. I would stand there and police the cheese pizza, driving off the interlopers. I made a lot of enemies, but I defended my cheese-loving minority. People would say it was wrong. I would say, "Go eat the one with goat cheese and salamanders - that is what you wanted, right?"

You see the same conundrum played out whenever there is a lot of choices - the vanilla ice cream, the plain milk chocolate, the sugar cookies, the plain potato chips all get scarfed while the more elaborate jalapeno and anise cookies sit there. There is always just a small minority pushing for these items, but a large minority ready and willing to eat them. I am not sure the best way to even deal with the issue. You can always order one extra cheese pizza just in case, but then everyone gripes about the price per person. And that is already ugly enough - everyone wants to gorge themselves and have someone else pay. And I'm sure our government isn't going to be working on solving this any time soon - they're too busy working on health care and running for re-election. So, until then, please try to take care of your plain cheese loving guests. It is the good and right thing to do. It is American. "Bring me your huddled masses, starving and craving cheese pizza." I think I read that somewhere.

Aug 7, 2009

A Week of Answered Prayer

So by the old filing system, you can tell that this is a posting of the religious nature, so decide if you want to continue. I can wait. . . Oh, hey, so you're still here. Good. I know that I have posted a few times about the troubles and difficult days of our New World Order - me being home and wifey being at school. I was thinking about it, and it isn't right for me just to post on the weird and bad stuff and not mention the good - or the REALLY good. There are a couple of reasons that I shy away from the happier topics. First of all - and this really is the biggest thing in my mind - the rough stuff is funnier. I like to write and make people laugh. And it is easier to tell the weird stuff in a way to bring cheer - you know, laughing at someone else's expense, commiserating together, stuff like that. This leads into my second reason. Too often, when one is expressing the good stuff going on, it seems like bragging or rubbing it in. I don't want to do that. For all I know, you may have had a horrible week. I don't want you to sit there and resent my good week because you had a bad one. I know my friend Jill lost her dad last week. And I'm mourning with her, but she also could use some encouragement. Third, I'm a weirdo. But you already knew that.

So this is how this all went. We have gone through the whole summer. Heather is finally going to finish this semester next week. It is hard to believe that we already have been here for a whole semester! Of course, Heather has done awesome in her classes and is already establishing herself as a medical force to be reckoned with. Her classmates love her and so do her professors. And she is having a ball. And things have gone well at home. The kids have really acclimated well. There have been bumps - boredom is never a good thing for three kids in a small apartment. We actually had a rough stretch of a couple weeks where I was wondering if the kids had been swapped with human torturing robots. But it seemed everything turned late last week.

To what do I owe this transformation? I would like to have something really impressive like I cracked open a new set of parenting books or had a good talking to with them. But the fact of the matter is that we were at Sam's last week and bought a new Wii video game. DON'T JUDGE ME!!! I can see you shaking your heads already. The kids had been bored - and they had put up with a lot. So we were looking at the Wii games and Super Mario Galaxy was there for $25. I thought about it and had heard good stuff about the game. I had rented it and the kids seemed to like it. Well, I figured, "We don't go to movies. We don't go out to eat much any more. This is a better investment than those things." Well, the kids have found endless hours of play time - both Nat and Josiah like it. So that helped right away.

The other things that were giving us a some difficulties was the fact that we had not met anyone really up here. Heather had all of her med school classmates. And we, of course, have Greg and his parents. And there is Amanda, but she just went through a big life change herself. And then a couple of others - but nothing like we had in Orlando. We had not found a church, yet. We actually have only had a couple of Sundays to even have a chance to look. And that was really started to wear on us. Combine that with the "end of the semester financial strain waiting for the new disbursement to happen" and things were getting to be hard.

So here is the day by day rundown:

Heather got to go in later. And that night, Greg was able to come over. He and I went over to the Downtown Digital Dome to watch the U2 at D3 multi-media show. It was nowhere near as good as the stuff they do at MOSI in Tampa. But it was an hour of U2 on an awesome sound system. And it was free. And I got to spend some time with Greg, which is always a delight. Plus, it got us even more excited for the U2 concert in two months in Tampa.

Like every day, Heather had to take some time to study. This is normal - I can think of only a handful of days since May that she has studied nothing all day. But, we then went to dinner over at one of Heather's classmate's house. He is an old college roomie of a friend of mine, went to UF, and knew several ministers I know. He and his wife invited us over - neither couple is from Tally and neither of us knew a whole lot of people. It was such a wonderful evening, being able to have adult conversation. (Another one of Heather's classmates was watching our kids.) We all had such similar outlooks on life, faith, medicine. It was a really neat time with some new friends - which is something we desperately needed.

We were trying to get serious about finding a church. I don't like missing church and don't want my kids to get into the opinion that it is not important. We had planned on visiting a church across the street that meets in a movie theater. But Greg was trying Thomasville Road Baptist. This was one we had looked at visiting - it was recommended by some fellow ministers. But we just hadn't gotten there. So we decided to go. It was such a wonderful time. The service was not as contemporary as we have been used to. But the music was good and genuine. The pastor's sermon was very solid - encouraging us to pray boldly and specifically. It actually went against a lot of the (as he said) "broad, generic wimpy prayers" that are encouraged now. And the people were so friendly. As a church staff veteran, I know that there are people who "have to be" nice. These are greeters, staff members, deacons. But the people there who were not in those roles also reached out.

The kids loved their time. And Gabe actually made it through service and through part of Sunday School. The cool thing was that they buzzed us when he was not getting calm - a lot of churches take it upon themselves to help your kids acclimate. And when we got him, the director was very sweet to him and us. She smiled at him and said, "He did good. He made it an hour, which is good for a little guy in a new place." That meant a ton - to know that she wasn't going to lecture us on how we needed to be tougher. The strangest thing that happened was in Sunday School - or the 15 minutes we were in there. While I was talking to one of the guys in there, we were comparing similar things in our past. (His wife is from Oviedo, he lived in WPB and went to PBAC when my brother was there, he was a Marine like my dad.) He asked what I had done at the churches I worked at and I told him I was the Graphics Guy. A couple of minutes later, he said, "You do graphics?" I said yup. He asked what I was doing now. I explained how I was the stay-at-home parent. "You want a job?" Huh? Heather asked if I could work at home. He said, "Probably. I would have to check." He explained the situation and said to contact him this week. Whuuuu....? So they are looking at me as a freelancer. Didn't see that coming. After church, we went to lunch with Greg and a couple that he knows from TRBC. Another wonderful time with new friends. Sunday was a good day.

This was the weird day. (Oh, yes, weirder than Sunday.) Heather had school all day and we hung around the house - playing Wii, using the computer, doing our normal routine. Except we were adding in the dreaded realization that we had to go to the store. We were running low on the supporting characters for our meals and . . . (shudder) . . . diapers. When you have little money, shopping is not a cool thing to have to do (especially the money pit of diapers). Add to it that Heather didn't get home until 5:30, so dinner and grocery slammed up against each other. We came up with a game plan. We would go to Target to get their store brand diapers on one bank account, eat there (lousy cheap hot dogs), and then go to Publix for the rest. We toyed with hitting Wally World for all it, but I shot that down. I like Publix brand stuff and wasn't ready to switch at that point. So off to Target. I just couldn't stomach eating there, though. Every time we go there (as I wrote before) the food is a fiasco. I suggested going to Chick Fil A, knowing that it would be painful to the slim account. Surprise - it was KIDS NIGHT! So our final bill was the same as at Target. We ran over and got diapers and headed to Publix.

We were being careful, getting what we needed. As anyone with a caravan of kids know, you can be a spectacle at the store. The kids were being good, but they were still kids. Josiah had to go the bathroom, so I walked him over and then watched for him as Heather wheeled the other two in the gigantic truck cart. (Have you tried driving those things? With the kids in them, they weigh a thousand pounds. It's like pushing Volvo uphill.) Some guy saw us and joked about how difficult it looked and wondered why I was walking behind instead of pushing. We laughed with him about it and continued shopping. When we went to check out, he was in the aisle next to us and kept smiling at us. I started to feel a little weird, not being used to being ogled. I loaded up the food on the moving walkway. I scanned my card and the cashier told me, "You have a guardian angel. Someone paid for your bill." Uh, what? I looked over at the guy, as he deftly avoided my eyes. I couldn't believe it. I had heard of stuff like that happening. But never had it done. Someone just picked up our $71 grocery bill. He probably had no idea how much that meant to us, but it was unbelievable.

There's been lots of other things, too. Heather had two tests this week and did well on both. She has three next week, but seems really on top of stuff - no surprise there. A bunch of the kids' homeschool materials were 35% off for no reason at all. The kids have been awesome. In short, it seems like we have kind of hit our stride. Next week will be crazy. Heather has the tests, I am going to Orlando to teach some seminars for our old school, Heather has her White Coat ceremony next Friday, Heather's brother and sister in law are coming down to Jax, and we will be driving all over tarnation. We get a week off, and then school starts back up for Heather and the kids. It was kind of like this week was a good refreshing charge-up for the next race. It is just very clear, that even in this new place, we are not doing this alone.

Aug 3, 2009

MEDIA: Why Star Trek Is Better Than Star Wars

I promised a controversial and troubling post for my next entry. And here it is. There are some huge branding battles out there. You know what they are. Coke vs. Pepsi. Ford vs. Chevy. McDonald's vs. Burger King. Windows vs. Apple. There is the number one, the number two, and no one else matters. That is the way that I see the Star Wars and Star Trek battle. You have Star Wars - arguably the bigger of the two, with the marketing and legacy and bulk. And you have Star Trek - the smaller and less of a juggernaut. The rest of the sci-fi properties are not in the discussion. You can talk until you are blue in the face about how amazing Battlestar Galactica was. But until it can consistently put out entries to the levels where it has made over a billion dollars in box office revenue (not counting television, merchandising, or anything else), it is an also ran. The same goes for every other sci-fi offering. You just cannot match those two behemoths.

My experience with these two is different than most. I am 35. I was born in 1974. So, according to the majority of people my age, I should be an unabashed Star Wars fan. The first movie came out when I was three, followed at age five and eight. I should have been right in the mix of those Star Wars fanatics. Most people my age are. I know for a fact that my son would have been in that boat - since he is NOW. But I didn't see the original trilogy until I was 18 and in college. For over ten years, I had been hearing how awesome this series was. "You HAVE to watch it." I wasn't allowed to watch it. When I got to college, I finally saw it.

It was okay. (Ducking the force lightning.) You have to give me a break. I saw these movies in August of 1992. I already knew that "Luke, I'm your father." The good guys won. I already had seen toys and heard stories. As far as the technology goes, remember what had come out by that point. In July of 1991, Terminator 2 had come out. Morphing technology. Liquid metal turning into man. And in the summer of 1993, dinosaurs were about to come to life with Jurassic Park. It was hard to be impressed with a pilot turning a dial and flying into a box of lines. Especially when you had been watching Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the airwaves in 1989. I started watching it in 1990 or so. So, I had been seeing flying spacecraft and impressive sets. There were special effects. Nothing Star Wars put out there was that impressive, in 1992. So I was not that impressed. I tried hard. I bought the movies, watched them with my friends. I went to the Special Edition releases (and realizing how there were long boring stretches in the original trilogy). And I got really worked up about the 1999 arrival of Episode 1 - organizing a big group of people to go. But, it coincided with my own battle with movies (reflected in this award winning blog entry). So I never saw Episode One until last year. I still have not seen Episodes Two or Three.

Star Trek is a different story. I watched the show every week. I watched Deep Space Nine every chance I could - my personal favorite series. I watched Voyager until they got really stupid. And I watched Enterprise for a while, too. I have seen every Star Trek movie. And I have seen every once since Six in the theaters. The newest one? I saw it twice and would watch it again tomorrow if I had the time and money. So, is it me? Is it just my personal preference? I mean, I like Pepsi, Burger King, and Apple. I guess I root for the second place finisher. Or is it something more? Is Star Trek actually better? Let's try to analyze. Winner of each topic gets 10 points. Loser can get up to nine.

You would assume that this is a runaway for Star Wars. You would be right. Total domestic take for Star Wars? $2.2 billion. Total for the Treks? $1 billion. (And that is only because a quarter of that came from this summer's reboot.) $1 billion is nothing to sneeze at - it is ninth all time in franchises. But, not even close.
WINNER: Star Wars 10-5

This one is closer than you may imagine. The hit and miss nature of Star Trek is well documented. The odd number movies are usually atrocious, while the even ones are good. Well, until 10 was terrible and the reboot (11?) was the best ever. I would say, though, that Star Trek 2, 4, 6, 8, and 11 hold up comparably well against the Star Wars saga. Let's be honest here. Episode Five is an all time classic. Episode Four is also a legend. But, aside from that, what about the others? Six was good, but was it great? There are some really bad moments, not to mention that the ending ruined what was one of history's great villains - and probably could be held accountable for the disaster of the first three episodes. Episode One is good - but nothing so much better than Trek Four. Episode Two is ridiculous - at least the part I have seen. The romantic angle is just juvenile and Hayden Christiansen does what entire galaxies couldn't do - takes the bite out of Darth Vader. I haven't seen Three, but I have heard it was good, but not legendary. Honestly, 1-3 are largely bailed out by side characters (Darth Maul, Mace Windu, the Fetts). And Lucas even mishandles those - there is no way you should kill someone as awesome as Maul in the first act and replace him with Saruman. But, even I would be hard pressed to win an argument in Trek's favor here.
WINNER: Star Wars 10-8

Is this a fair category? Probably not. This is where Star Trek began and where it thrived. With the reboot, it may actually become a movie based brand. But for years it has been television first and foremost. Star Wars has dabbled here. The Clone Wars is not bad. It is better than the Star Trek Animated Series and probably better than Enterprise and Voyager. But it is a far distant fourth to the Original Series, TNG, or DS9. There is a new Star Wars live action series coming out in 2010. That could be interesting. And Clone Wars got better as the season rolled on. But you are up against some heavy competition. TNG was a phenomenal show. There are episodes of it that were just jaw-dropping - even by today's standards. They were one of the first to really utilize the end-0f-season cliffhanger to great success. I still remember when Picard, changed to a Borg, was staring at the Enterprise and Riker just said, "Fire." And season ends. WHAAAAAAT!?!?! To this day, when entertainment groups do rankings of cliffhangers, TNG is on the list with Lost and Dallas. The competition in this one is as bad as the box office one. Oh wait, I forgot the Star Wars Christmas Special....
Winner: Star Trek 10-5

This is a tough category. Most Star Wars fans think that sci-fi didn't exist before Lucas and 1977. (Of course, most Trek fans feel the same way.) Trek was first by a long shot. It premiered in 1966. It tackled some huge issues. The first televised inter-racial kiss was on Trek. It was well known that Gene Roddenberry was preaching through his show - making each race a veiled representative of those on earth. As the shows progressed, it continued to tackle issues. Euthanasia, genocide, assisted suicide, ethics, what defines life. It was never just about space exploration - it was about mankind exploration. Star Wars was groundbreaking in the level of technology and how it related to the people. It was pure entertainment and it tried to reach people where they were. It was at Comic-Con when it was just two guys in a treehouse trading comics. And culturally, it would hit a nerve unlike anything before or after. The only way to decide this is with the question, would Star Wars been put out without Star Trek? I really don't know. Lucas pitched SW in 1971. There has to be a winner.
WINNER: Star Trek 10-9

Even I am not so brazen as to imply Star Trek has had as large of an impact as Star Wars in our culture. Star Wars has done so much - especially if you throw in the impact of things like Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound, Pixar, Darth Vader, The Force, the books, the games, the conventions. Trek has its own contributions: Spock, Kirk, William Shatner, the Vulcan mind meld, Vulcan greeting, live long and prosper, Tribbles, Klingons around Uranus, warp speed. And Star Wars has Jar Jar Binks, so I must give Star Trek an extra point.
WINNER: Star Wars 10-7

Right now the score is 44 to 40 Star Wars. So I have to come up with something to explain why I think Star Trek is better - something to generate them some points. If you go with scope of franchise, Star Wars would win. If you go with quality of actors, Star Wars would win. If you go with coolness factor, Star Wars would win. So this is where you pull out the personal card. Star Wars is a huge battle that basically swirls around one family: The Skywalkers. It is a gigantic family drama. We see Luke alone at first. Slowly you add Leia and Han. They we find out about Anakin/Vader. Then we go back and learn all about Anakin. Later, we jump ahead to Luke's kids in what would be Episodes 7-9. But it swirls around Skywalkers. And it is a huge space war basically brought on by greed and power struggles. Most people are just pawns. You may see someone break through with an identity of their own - like Boba Fett. And that gets exploited as fast as possible. But there is very little for you, the viewer, to connect with. It is like watching Indiana Jones or Superman. You are never going to be that person. You don't have midichlorians or a whip or Kryptonian legacy. You are just some guy working in a cubicle eating Cheetos and spending too much time worrying about things like "Who is Hotter? Padme or Leia?" That guy in Star Wars wears a gray hat and gets killed when the Emperor's ego trip is blown to Kingdom Come. The Everyman factor is not there. It is pure escapist fun.

Star Trek is not. It is a bunch of individuals working together. Someone is going to be a person you can relate to. It may be the maintenance guy who works his way up to station engineer like Miles O'Brien. It may be the son trying to fill the shoes of a famous officer like Wesley Crusher or Jake Sisko. It may be the thieving sneaky bartender who is completely untrustworthy, yet somehow never ends up in jail, like Quark. It may be the hot green skinned Orion slave girl. Whatever. You relate to Star Trek. They are trying to make their ways and learn and make a difference. That was the beauty of the show. It was a bunch of people going to work and us watching their jobs unfold. Sometimes it would be something amazing like a space baby sucking energy out of the Enterprise. Sometimes it would be really mundane, like the episode Data's Day. It was like a sci-fi version of The Office. And the volume of shows and such really brought this home. It wasn't about the six epic showdowns. Sure, there were those. But it was about the day in, day out stuff too. Teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers. Following their leaders and trying to survive and learn. This was brought to light time and again in eleven movies and 725 episodes.
WINNER: Star Trek: 10 to 5

I think that is the tipping point in the argument to me. Books, comics, games. Frankly those are a draw. Movies: 6 vs 11. But when you have to come up with 725 stories? That says something. Once Star Wars dives into the television market, it may be different. They will have to get smaller - more intimate, more relatable. But that is not in their nature. It is always about the big picture. I can't imagine them doing what Star Trek did with Voyager - flinging a ship to the other end of space and then watching them get back. Or DS9 - basically setting a series on the Trek equivalent of the Cantina. And while I enjoy the big escapist epics. I am always going to be more drawn in the long term to the property I can invest in. That is why Lost is better than Heroes - you are invested in the castaways. This is even why I feel good about the new Trek direction - I left that movie being very interested in those people. Someone once said the biggest thing going for Star Trek was the characters. The people. I guess that's what tips the scales to me.
TOTAL WINNER: Star Trek: 50 to 49

Now, feel free to tear me a new one.