Aug 24, 2010

Reading: A Story

I went through a period last year where I didn't read very much.  I think it was during the summer, when I was in the midst of my "What in the Wild Wild World of Sports did I get myself into?" phase.  This was highly unusual for me.  I don't go through many phases of not being interested in reading.  I have always loved books - from when I was a smallish boy.  I got it from my parents.  My dad read voraciously.  One of the most indelible images of my childhood was my dad laying in bed reading books until he fell asleep.  He had hundreds and hundreds of books in his room that he had devoured.  I'm not a big fan of all the stuff he read - but he loved reading.  My mom was similar.  I can distinctly remember her sitting in her chair by the window and front door, reading something and taking notes in it.  She had her own bookshelf down in the living room, stocks with books on theology and other Biblical study books.

I married a reader, too.  Heather tells me about how she used to get in trouble for reading too late in her room.  She reads faster than I do - a great quality for a Med Student.  Her mom has a huge bookcase full of her various interests.  Heather's grandparents always were reading - as are her brothers.  And our kids are following in our footsteps.  Even our little guy, Gabe, now has gotten hooked on books.  Every night, we have to read him Go Dogs Go and Whose Nose and Toes.

All of that is to say that I don't remember a time when I avoided reading.  At some point, though, my older self took back over my big stupid self and I went on a reading tear that was unlike anything that I can remember doing in my past.  I began to notice this.  And, being the enormous wonk that I am, I decided to start tracking my book consumption.  (I'm a nerd.  This is news to you people?!?)  Here's what it looked like when the year was over.

  • In February and March, I read The Watchmen by Alan Moore at 416 pages, Tuck by Stephen Lawhead at 464 pages, and Hooked by McIlhaney & Bush at 178 pages.  Then it came to a screeching halt.
  • I didn't read anything until at least July.  That was when I started reading some books at Heather's parents' house - John Grisham in particular.  I guess it kick started things.  Starting in July, here is what happened.
  • Anger by Gary Chapman - 242 pages
  • The Associate by Grisham - 284 pages
  • Bleachers by Grisham - 192 pages
  • The Street Lawyer by Grisham - 384 pages
  • The Partner by Grisham - 416 pages
  • The Testament by Grisham - 480 pages
  • The Summons by Grisham - 304 pages (I was reading these Grisham books in one and two days - just flying through them.)
  • Samson and the Pirate Monks by Nate Larkin - 224 pages
  • The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown - 528 pages
  • The Jesus You Can't Ignore by John MacArthur - 256 pages
  • The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons - 736 pages (yeah - like an encyclopedia - took me three weeks to slog through it)
  • Harry Potter Saga (seven books) by JK Rowling - 4324 pages (took three weeks to read all of it)
  • Psych Books: Mind over Magic by William Rabkin - 288 pages (based on the USA series)
The grand total for the year was over 9600 pages.  I know that I probably forgot something here or there, so I'm guessing I actually was up over 10,000 pages.  I don't know what I had read in years past, but I don't know if I ever had touched that total.  Well, this year I swore I would continue the process and keep reading.  So far, after almost eight months, here is where I am this year.
  • The Alchemyst by Michael Scott - 400 pages
  • Crazy Love by Francis Chan - 192 pages
  • Other Small Harry Potter Books by JK Rowling - 216 pages total
  • Another Stupid Psych Book - 284 pages
  • Percy Jackson Series (five books) by Rick Riordan - 1824 pages total
  • Game Change by John Hellemann - 464 pages
  • How to Train Your Dragon 1 & 2 by Cressida Cowell - 480 pages
  • Artemis Fowl Series (six books) by Eion Colfer  - 1700 pages
  • Circle Series (four books) by Ted Dekker - 1551 pages
  • Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry - 451 pages
  • The Rise and Fall of Darth Vader by Ryder Windham - 224 pages
  • Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan - 528 pages
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo  by Stieg Larsson - 644 pages
  • Against Medical Advice by James Patterson - 284 pages
I've already read 9500 pages this year.  And I already have the second Stieg Larsson book waiting.  Plus I've started several other books that are ones I pick up, read a few chapters, and lay back down.  That means that in the last thirteen months, I have read about 18,000 pages!  That's is a lot!  After all of that, here are a few observations that I have come up with - about myself and books in general.
  • Some of you have probably noticed there are not a lot of "Christian" books on that list.  It used to be that all my reading was in the "Christian Living" or "Christian Topics" sections of the bookstore.  In this last explosion of books, I can see nine that would even be sold in a Lifeway Store.  I have tried to figure out what happened with all of that, even talking to my good buddy David Tarkington - pastor at First Baptist Orange Park - to see what he thought.  I think part of it is that I am not in church work now.  So I don't have a desire to read a bunch of books on that, like I used to when I worked for the church.  Second, I often will read books that have something to do with Defender Ministries, but those rarely are "Christian" books.  There aren't a ton of "Christian" books out there that deal with the stuff we work with.  When a good one comes along (like Samson and the Pirate Monks) I read it.
  • Furthermore, I have kind of gotten a little tired of a lot of the "Christian" titles out there - at least the approach that I have begun to see take root in the Christian publishing world.  A lot of books seem like they were generated by a sermon series.  That series is then turned into a book.  I know this happens all the time because big famous Christian authors do it (Stanley, Swindoll, and MacArthur - to name a few).  Also I talked to a pastor before about doing that very thing with his sermons.  The problem is, a lot of times that is enough information to generate about two-thirds of a book.  So you kind of figure out where everything is going and there just seems to be a lot of fluff and repetition to fill up a full sized book.  Then it is just fluffy and repetitive.  Very much repeating and fluff.  See how annoying that is?  I still keep my eyes open for good books in that realm.  But I probably should be in there a bit more.
  • "Young Readers" literature is fun to read.  So far, I have tackled part of all of seven different series that would be classified as "children's books."  Let me be perfectly honest - they are just as well written as John Grisham books and just as challenging.  I found it humorous that he actually put out a book in this genre this year.  It would basically be a normal John Grisham book, but probably with less cursing and adult situations.  They are far better than stuff like the Psych books I wasted my time reading.  They are usually fast paced, interesting, and don't have a lot of the language, violence, and sex that so many books struggle with.  And some of them, like the Harry Potter series, are far better than the vast majority of literature out there.
  • Non-fiction books can be just as exciting as fiction.  I always steered away from non-fiction books.  Maybe it was the bad memories of my college years when I had to read countless volumes of those type of books.  I don't know.  But I also avoided documentary films.  Lately, though, I have found that I have thoroughly enjoyed numerous non-fiction tomes.  The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons was immensely fascinating - even though it was a beast to work through.  The book Game Change, about the last Presidential election, was even better than most thrillers.  I couldn't put it down.  And I blew the heart-rending Against Medical Advice by James Patterson today.  It was about a boy who battled OCD, Tourettes, and Anxiety Disorder and how his family struggled to find a cure.  Gripping and fast paced.
  • The latest "big reputation" novel I finished was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  It was brilliantly written, very intelligent, and hard to put down.  It also was very hard to stomach.  It dealt with the hunt for a murderer and dealt with issues of rape, abuse, and incest.  There were scenes that made me want to put the book away for good.  The book was just too good to abandon.  The other thing that kept me going was that the author interspersed the story with stats about how common those things are in Sweden (where he is from and the book is set).  It is truly heartbreaking that evil of that sort exists - especially on that scope.  But the book itself was just an amazingly crafted work.
  • One of things that I am learning through all of this reading is how to be a better storyteller.  This is something that I see in myself - the ability and desire to communicate stories about life, God, the world.  I think it is a noble calling that has existed as long as man has.  I love writing, teaching communicating messages through graphic work.  I also want to write books.  I have several started, but need to work harder on them.  Over the last twelve months I basically have been in a crash course with some of the best authors in the business.  JK Rowling, John Grisham, James Patterson, Stieg Larsson, Bill Simmons, Ted Dekker, Dave Barry.  I have seen how they craft stories that enthrall.  And they also can sustain a long term series of books.  I feel I have actually grown as a writer by reading these other writers.  It is almost like I have been in school.  
That all being said, there may be some changes in my blogs.  I have been thinking about the direction I want to take both this blog and the Darth Fatso site.  The other day, I looked into WordPress.  They have a better way of organizing blogs - where I could host both under one roof.  I am still thinking about what all I want to do, but that may be something that happens sooner rather than later.  I, of course, will let you know.  Just keep reading.

Aug 18, 2010

Terrible Twos?

I have three kids, so this makes me an expert.  I firmly believe three kids means you can make general statements about kids and it has validity.  Like Bill Cosby said, you aren't a real parent if you only have one kid.  I would go a step further and say that having two kids still isn't a real parent.  Yes, you have sibling rivalry and all that.  But you are not outnumbered.  When the third little person shows up, you are now outnumbered every single day.  They can double up on you.  They can play a zone.  It isn't a fair fight.  That is when you really become a parent.  And you look like one too - you develop that slumped over look.  Bags under the eyes.  Looks like you haven't slept in a week because you stay up late to get "time to yourself" and then get dragged out of bed at ridiculously early hours.  You have that same world-weary look that every over the hill cop on tv or in the movies has.  Basically you have the same face as Bruce Willis in Die Hard.  He wasn't so grizzled because he had to constantly save the world - it was because he was a parent.

Anyway, once you have three kids you can make wild statements and generalizations and no one can really argue with you.  One kid can be an anomaly.  Two kids is a good start, but it still could be a freak happenstance (or something happening with your freaks).  Three kids is a pattern.  If anyone tries to argue with you, you can just hide behind things like "Well you're just a better parent than me" or "Well your kids are freaks - just look at them."  That's another thing about being a parent of three or more - you don't have a lot of patience for back talk.

This is my wild statement about kids.  You hear a lot about the Terrible Twos.  This is a crock.  The Terrible Twos is NOWHERE near as bad as Age Three.  Whoever did the marketing for this is amazing.  Age Two has been presented as this bad-butt terror of a year.  It's the TERRIBLE TWOS!!!  What else has earned the nickname "Terrible"?  Ivan the Terrible.  Terrible Terry Tate.  It is TERRIFYING!!!  RUN!!!  Age Three just sits there all quiet, snickering.  It doesn't want to be feared.  It was to sneak up on you, punch you in the groin and step on your neck.  You're sitting there wondering what the heck happened.  "I thought the Terrible Twos were over.  Why is my kids becoming Jack Jack from The Incredibles?"

Some of you new parents may not believe that.  Or, you have a two year old and are reading this - the blood running out of your face.  "He can't be serious, right?  Please tell me he's joking."  No, my friend.  I am not kidding.  Abandon all hope ye who enter this post.  Age Three is worse than Age Two.

When a kid is two, they are learning all the truly stupid and annoying things they can do.  They stop wanting to sleep, so they fight naps and pitch fits at nighttime.  They race around the house.  They are not coordinated enough, so this running usually leads to tripping and falling and busting lips and knees and foreheads.  They learn lots of new ridiculous noises and like to make them all the time.  They stop eating right and scream unless you maintain their strict regimen of McNuggets, Fries, and hot dogs.  They make some of the most horrendous screeching sounds - ones that feel like they actually are splitting your soul in two.  And everything becomes theirs.  Every toy, crayon, piece of furniture is subject to the "MINE MINE MINE" chant.  That is age two.  Age three is all of that, except with their newfound understanding that all of those things really bug their parents.

Somewhere near the end of Year Two, the child realizes that these things are very effective.  They have noticed the vein bulging out in our forehead when they scream.  So they do it more.  They see how frustrated we get when they don't go to sleep, so they stay up later.  They have picked up on how frazzled we get when they race everywhere, so they run faster.  Age Two is amplified, and enhanced with a extra infusion of nastiness.

The other thing is that they realize that their parents are largely full of it.  For the first couple of years, there is a healthy level of fear between child and parent.  We are these big tall creatures.  They are tiny and helpless.  So when we threaten to swat them or flick them or take a toy, they are afraid of what that means.  So they give in to our wishes.   By Age Three, they realize that most of what we have is hot air. We can swat them, so what?  They know that sting will end at some point and they can go on their merry way - continuing to wreck havoc.  And they also know that most parents are hesitant to actually swat for each offending action.  So the kid will do things like twenty times.  Who is going to swat the kid twenty times?  After ten, you start to feel like a jerk.  Time OUT!!!  The kid has learned that this is also known as "Brainstorming Time."  Those quiet minutes allows the kid to recharge their batteries.  It is actually a mini-nap for them.  But it also is a chance for them to come up with new ways to annoy and irritate.  You could argue that time outs are actually more damaging to the parent than kid.  So the child has learned that much of the sway we held over them was based on fluff - which encourages them to, by all means, continue.

What we have is a toddler, who doesn't look much different than the little angel we remember.  But in their brain, they have become a devious child in a toddler body.  Kind of like Chucky in Child's Play - except a toddler instead of a doll.  We, as parents, are kind of at a loss as to what to do to handle the situation.  We used to be able to write off a great deal of behavior to "they are young" or "they are tired" or "they are two."  Now, however, we begin to realize we have underestimated them.  Our first thought is "Did they do that on PURPOSE?!?"

I remember with Josiah that we, of course, struggled with him as a two year old.  But we kept telling ourselves it would get better.  We had heard all about the Terrible Twos and assumed that it would change on his third birthday - like a big present to us.  Instead, he got WORSE.  It was so bad that we actually sent him up to Heather's mom's house for a few days so she could tell us "what was wrong with him."  This is what Year Three does to you.  You begin to worry there is something wrong with your child.  No normal child would do some of the flat out stupid things that your child is doing.  It happened with Josiah.  It happened with Natalie - except intensified by the fact she was a girl.  Now, Gabe is about to turn three.  What do you think is happening?  That's right . . . he's morphing as well.

He does ridiculous stuff like refusing to sleep when he's dead tired.  I don't get this at ALL.  If you're tired, go to bed.  Don't claw your face, smack yourself around, and scream like you're screen testing for a horror film.  GO TO SLEEP!!!  He wakes up in the middle of the night and refuses to go back to sleep.  He pinches people.  He takes his tools and toys and hits his siblings - all under the guise of "playing with them."  There is this new thing he does where he flails his arms up and flings whatever toy he is holding into the air: stuffed flamingos, rockets, toy food, drink cups.  "WHOOSH!!!"  Everyone is ducking to avoid the projectiles.  He runs all the time - even when I tell him not to.  Last night he woke up at 12:30 and didn't go back to sleep until 3:15.  He's been a big pain all day, naturally.  Earlier, he was running back and forth.  I told him to stop several times, finally forcefully.  He looked up at me and ran across the room - keeping eye contact the entire time.  He just smacked Natalie with his Wonder Pets Flyboat.  I think he was "giving it to her."  Despite his exhaustion, he managed to stay awake in the van while we were running errands in the rain.  I was having trouble staying awake because the rain made me so sleepy.  But he, through sheer strength of will, managed to keep his eyes open.  Now, if he holds to form, he will either fall asleep on his own at 4pm, which will ensure him staying up until 10:30 tonight OR he will zonk out for the night at 5:30pm, which means he'll wake up in the middle of the night OR he will hold off until 7:00pm and then pitch a fit when it is actually time for bed.

Such is the life of a Three Year Old.  My nephew does the same stuff - drives his mother and grammy nuts.  And when I tell experienced parents that I think Year Three is worse than Year Two, almost unanimously they agree.  "Oh yeah, you're right.  Year Three is the worst until the Teen Years begin."  If this is such common knowledge, it makes me wonder why I never knew that until I got blindsided by it.  It makes me wonder if parents have this big conspiracy against new parents.  "We won't tell them about Year Three.  Then we can laugh at them when it hits them unawares."  It's kind of like they feel that since they had to deal with it, than new parents should as well.  It's a right of passage.  Makes me think of Sinbad's character in Necessary Roughness when he tells the college students they had to take this one class.  "It doesn't make sense to me why you need to know this, but I had to learn it when I was in school, so you have to learn it to."

So, new parents, don't hate me for being so brutal.  Instead, realize that I have broken the Parent Code and shared a secret with you.  Brace yourself.  Year Three is coming . . . and bad things are coming with it.  Be prepared and aware - and make sure you duck those flying fire engines.  It will all be over soon.  Just try not to think about the fact that Year Four can be even worse.  (Oh, wait, I wasn't supposed to say anything about that either.)

Aug 12, 2010

Ten Years

Ten years ago today it was raining - much like it is today.  But that's just about the only similarity between August 12, 2000 and August 12, 2010.  Honestly, it feels like it was a hundred years ago.  I remember getting up early - way too early.  I had stayed up late the night before working on a final project.  I drove back home with bleary eyes.  I just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep for a week.  But that wasn't possible.  It was my last night sleeping in that bed.  And I knew, as tired as I was, that it was going to be a restless sleep.  I was getting married in the morning.

It should have been the most amazing feeling ever - at least that was what I had been led to believe by countless movies and television shows.  There should have been unbelievable excitement and borderline giddiness.  For me, though, there was exhaustion and frustration.  I had to work all the way up to my wedding day - getting all the publications done for the church for that week AND for the next week when I would be gone on my honeymoon.  As a result, I had been forced to delay moving all my stuff until after the honeymoon - a good chunk had been moved, but I still had a ton at the old place.  I was running around like crazy, trying to finish writing a reading for the wedding.  I was late to my own rehearsal finishing that project.  And the night before the wedding, I was up late getting the music for the reception onto a CD.  I didn't even have all the music until I went to Walmart on the way to the wedding.

We had a huge wedding party - largely because we had trouble deciding who to include and not include.   But, managing that many different people had proved very stressful.  There were many times during the weekend when I wished I had trimmed the number waaay down.  Actually, Heather and I both had openly wished we had taken up her dad's offer and eloped with the wedding budget in our pocket.  I was tired and really just wanted the day to be done.  Hardly what I expected.

The whole event was surreal.  There were some wonderful moments.  Most of it was a blur.  I still am not completely clear on who was there.  People will tell me they were at my wedding, and I don't remember that at all.  I think the frustration actually boiled over once we were up in Vermont for our honeymoon.  We got off the plane and I couldn't remember where our car reservation was.  I was convinced it was at Budget.  I checked there and they had no record.  I wracked my brain, trying to remember.  It was an internet deal - pretty novel for me at the time.  I started worrying that I had been snookered.  We were going to have to pay for another car!  I started panicking in the airport and Heather was standing there wondering just what she had gotten into.  I finally started going from car rental counter to car rental counter.  I knew it was Budget and that it was NOT Avis - I would have remembered that because we used Avis in Australia about a month before.  Budget - NOPE.  Hertz - NOPE.  Random Local Company - NOPE.  Finally, in desperation, I tried Avis.  "Oh, yes, Mr. Staples.  We have you right here for an Explorer for a week."  Grrrrrr.

It is funny, we spend so much time and money preparing for our weddings and honeymoons.  And then we get home and it feels like we don't have a clue what is going on.  We had premarital counseling.  But I'm not sure how much it helped.  (Of course, how much WORSE could it have been without it?)  Life has a funny way of nullifying all those lessons.  We had plans.  I was going to work at the church, go to seminary extension, have Heather finish her degree at USF.  Then we would think about things like kids.  But that didn't happen.  My relationship with the staff at the church eroded quickly, leading me to resign four months after we got married.  Two days after I resigned, we found out we were pregnant.  A month later, Heather had to pull out of USF classes due to the pregnancy.  Two months later we were living in Orange Park with Heather's parents.  Six months later, Josiah was born and 9/11 happened.

Our life together had never gone according to plan.  I thought I would be the best husband ever and the best father.  Most days, though, it seems like a struggle to be wonderfully mediocre.  Rarely do we feel like we are in control of the situations we are facing - mostly we are reacting to them.  People teach young couples to plan and make goals and save.  But there is very little teaching on how to deal with things when life frustrates those plans and goals and savings.

I had this idea that marriage was going to be this magical, passionate, romantic experience.  I didn't get that from my parents.  But it was this ideal that had been generated through media, entertainment, church.  We would be madly in love, walking together arm in arm through the adventures in life.  But that is not reality.  Real life is more like movie The Fugitive.  It feels like you are constantly running and escaping and figuring out how to make things work.  The big difference is that you are doing it with another person.  And that can be good and bad.  You aren't waging this war alone, but it also means that there are two people trying to take care of each other and themselves.  The other day on the show Burn Notice, a couple was described thusly:  "They love each other, they hate each other, but at the end of the day - it is always EACH OTHER."  The important thing was that they were a pair - when that was good or bad for them.

I have found that statement more true than "Happily Ever After" in our life together.  Maybe that is why "for better or for worse" is included in wedding vows instead of "happily ever after."  It is like an around-the-world boating contest.  There are times when things are incredible - like when the boat is docked at some tropical beach for a few days.  Then there are times when the storms are so bad you think you are all going to die.  Other times, it is like going through the doldrums - boring and trying.  And other times it feels like an adventure - outracing pirates, sea monsters, DEA agents.

In ten years, we have had eight addresses.  We've lived in four different metropolitan areas.  Heather has attended three different colleges.  We've attended eight different churches.  There has been four pregnancies.  We have three wonderful, insane, brilliant, beautiful children - and one niece and one nephew we adore as well.  We have traveled together to Vermont, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, California, and Mexico.  We have moved from a tiny Honda Accord to a black "molester van" to Honda minivan - all while keeping the reliable Taurus.  We watched the worst terrorist attack on US soil unfold while in labor with our first child.  And we saw the worst environmental disaster in US history start on my last birthday.  We've survived a whole collection of sprained ankles, allergic reactions, calls to poison control, inexplicable kid injuries, forehead eggs, and meltdowns.  And we have switched which of us was the stay-at-home primary caregiver.

The fact of the matter is that I could not imagine my life without Heather.  Things have been crazy.  They have been hard.  But I have had the honor of having her with me the whole way.  I don't deserve her.  I am not a good enough man to have such an amazing woman.  And the man I am now has so much to do with her.  There are times when I am amazed she stayed with me.  If I was married to me, I would have left.  There are only so many yelling matches, tipped over laundry baskets, thrown smoothies, punched bookcases, childish pouts that a person can take.  But she is still there.  I look at her and wonder how in the world I won her heart.  Seriously, there are times when I still am amazed I married Heather Crissinger.

She's a mother of three going to Medical School.  Not only is she going, but she is excelling.  Not only is she excelling, but she is also pulling other students along with her.  She is the "class mom" - counseling and advising younger women in their fledgling relationships.  She has professors that count her as a friend.  Her integrity has influenced people all around her.  And after that, she comes home every day to spend the evening with us - hours that most other students use for studying.

We certainly don't walk around like two giddy school kids in love.  Our love has been broken down and rebuilt and refined and reforged and reinforced.  It is at the point where I cannot imagine being without her.  It has never been easy, but it has been rewarding.  It has been an adventure.  And it is one that is going to continue to surprise.  Who knows what happens next?  We have learned to not rely too much on goals and plans.  We are probably going to move again next summer.  Two years after that is residency - we have no clue where that will be.  I have no idea what I will be doing.  Will Defender take off (finally)?  Will I be teaching?  Writing?  Something else?  And don't get us started on the fact Josiah will be a teenager in a few years.  (shudder)

Heather, I am glad that you saw something in me that was worth throwing your lot in with.  You saw through the man I thought I was, past the man I really was, and saw the man that I could be.  You were patient with me as I still acted like I was that first man - until God broke that arrogant fraud of a mask.  You loved me when I learned what kind of man I really was - even though I didn't deserve it and took forever to want to move past being that person.  And you believed in me that I could actually be that last man - something that I just now am learning to be.  I hope that I can make that investment worth it.  I love you and am so unbelievably proud of you - and immeasurably grateful that you are mine.  And you will be, no matter how many storms we go through.  I'm a blessed man.

Aug 2, 2010

Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives 2010

What a difference a year makes ...

Last year, we had just moved to Tallahassee and we were discovering all the new culinary options that the state capital had to offer.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that there actually were several great places that helped us to forget the loss of our beloved Orlando.  There were more independent restaurants and less dependence on chain establishments.  So, I put together a little review of the places Tallahassee had to offer and my favorites.

Well, now we have had more time to experiment and see if my initial thoughts were correct.  The biggest thing, though, happened in January of this year when I completely revamped my approach to food.  (Painstakingly documented on THIS BLOG.)  That has caused us to completely revisit our evaluations.  Places we used to visit frequently have been tossed aside.  And we have learned to embrace other places.  We now value restaurants that offer healthier food and ones with flexibility - where both the kids and the restricted Daddy can be happy.  I thought about it and decided it was time to put out a new list.  You know, for the two people in Tallahassee that actually read this blog.

First, I am going to take a peek at the places I mentioned last year, to see how they are holding up.

  • 1 Fresh Stir Fry - I would say that 1 Fresh was the MVP of 2009 for the Staples Family.  We all loved it.  People who visited us from out of time loved it.  It was our go to choice.  However, all that changed in 2010.  First of all, it was hard to get food there without starch - which is something that I needed.  Second, I started making meals at home for lunch.  They were shockingly like 1 Fresh bowls.  And I began to realize I wasn't too thrilled with paying 9 bucks for what I was creating at home with leftovers.  The third strike came when another restaurant came into town.  But I don't want to spoil that.  2009 Rating: 10 of 10.  2010 Rating: 6 of 10
  • La Fiesta -  I can honestly say that we have not been back to La Fiesta in at LEAST ten months.  I'm not sure what killed it, but I think it was the discovery of a bunch of other Mexican places.  There are several that are at least as good, usually with better kids meal deals.  2009 Rating: 9 of 10.  2010 Rating: 4 of 10
  • Barnaby's Pizza - Now here's a pickle.  I don't eat pizza any more.  So none of the pizza places really rank well with me.  I kind of need to know what else there is at the place.  Barnaby's loses some points with me because it has a lousy menu besides pizza.  Their wings are not very good.  (When you are trumped by Domino's wings, you know you are not great.)  They have steak, but it is expensive.  However, when it comes to the kids and Heather, Barnaby's is still the best place in town.  2009 Rating: 10 of 10.  2010 Rating: 10 of 10.
  • Helen's Silver Bullet Diner -  This place is closed down.  So, that solves the issue.  2009 Rating: 9 of 10.  2010 Rating: 0 of 10.
  • Decent Pizza - We tried this place twice.  It was good.  But it was ridiculously expensive, especially if you wanted it delivered.  And, face it, you don't want to drive down Monroe to pick it up at dinner time.  So we never have gone back.  Combined with my rejection of pizza, this place is dead to us.  2009 Rating: 8 of 10.  2010 Rating: 1 of 10.
  • Red Elephant Pizza Grill - This is the sole ranked place from last year that did not take a hit.  The biggest problem is their prices.  They are not a place we can go often.  However, their pizza is still a clone of Barnaby's.  And they gained points for their extensive menu that I can enjoy.  They have tomato bisque, great salads, and an amazing grilled chicken dish with balsamic glaze.  I actually would raise their score this year.  2009 Rating: 8 of 10.  2010 Rating: 9 of 10.
So that is the look back at 2009's stellar performers.  As you can tell, there is a big change in our view of places.  So, here is a look at the all stars for us in 2010.  
  • Genghis Grill - MVP - Yes, it is a chain.  But this is the only location in Florida.  And it is so . . . dang . . . good.  I have always been a sucker for Mongolian BBQ places.  You know, the places with the giant volcanically hot flat grills.  Be it China Jade in Orlando, the late Stone Turtle in Tampa, or any of the Japanese steak house joints (plus Hu Hot, BD's, and others).  They are just fun and tasty.  The concept is you take a bowl, fill it with all the raw meats you want, put the seasoning you like on it, add the veggies you want, toss on an egg if you like, pick your sauce, pick your starch.  They cook it and put it in a different bowl and send it back to you.  What's not to like?  Every single person I know that has gone to Genghis has loved it.  Personally, I think it is the best one of these places I have been.  And it is perfect for my food needs.  The kids beg to go. It also single handedly killed our love for 1 Fresh - it does similar stuff but WAAAY better at the same price.  2010 Rating: 10 of 10
  • Pepper's Mexican Grill - I mentioned this place last year as one of the places we hadn't tried yet. Well, we have tried it now.  Many times.  And it is the reason we have rejected La Fiesta.  They are good and pretty reasonable.  Plus, they have free kids meals on Tuesdays.  AND, when our kids' school sold their discount cards, Peppers was on there.  So we get free kids meals all the time now.  They have fish tacos, which Heather likes to order at Mexican places.  They also have nuggets and fries - a big deal for kids.  And their Fajitas Peppers is a great thing for me to eat now.  2010 Rating: 9 of 10
  • Black Bean Cuban Cafe - Here is the extent of my knowledge of Cuban cuisine up to this point: cuban sandwiches suck.  I lived in Tampa for four years, and they had cuban sandwiches everywhere.  I hated them.  Pork, pickles, mustard - three things I hated beyond belief.  I guess I knew they had black beans and rice, too.  I wasn't impressed.  Well, the other day I was realizing I drove past this place about five times a week.  We had never been.  I finally looked it up on line and realized it was worth trying.  What we found was incredible.  They have a ton of pressed sandwiches, which I can't have.  But they also have tons of other things - many of them I can have.  Mojo chicken breasts, pulled pork, fried pork chunks (you have to try them - the description doesn't do them justice).  All meals come with black beans and rice or red beans and rice - AND plantains.  They also have these little deep fried potato covered meat balls that are just ridiculously good.  AND they have free kids meals ALL THE TIME.  Needless to say, it has become a favorite haunt.  2010 Rating: 10 of 10
  • Piggy's BBQ - I am stunned that no BBQ places were on the 2009 list.  With how much BBQ I eat now, I have a hard time remembering when I didn't do that as much.  There are some good places here.  Dave's BBQ is very tasty - but pricey.  Jim and Milt's is cheap and good - but not great.  Piggy's is my favorite.  Their brisket is stellar.  The pulled pork is the best in town - and it has a peach vinegar sauce that comes with it.  Plus there are daily specials, sausage, and they have the best sweet potato casserole around.  Their kids meals are cheap (free on Saturday), and they come with ice cream.  All the meals come with a drink, which is a huge money drain at most places.  Over all, it is my choice for BBQ in Tally.  2010 Rating: 9 of 10
  • Ichigo - The new food plan has led us to explore frozen yogurt places.  Fortunately, that is a booming industry right now.  We have tried several of the fro-yo joints in town.  Our favorite by far is Ichigo.  They are one of the self serve places where you can get as much, as many flavors, and whatever toppings you want.  They charge you by weight.  But their yogurt is creamier than other places.  Fusions is too icy.  Sunberry is too tart and too expensive -- even though you can't beat their 60 flavors.  And TCBY is too chain - they are like the McDonald's of frozen yogurt.  Ichigo is good stuff.  2010 Rating: 9 of 10
  • Barnaby's Pizza - You have to rank a pizza place.  This is the best.  Since I don't eat it, I can't compare it to anyone else.  But I just go by the loudness of the cheers when I tell my kids I ordered it.  2010 Rating: 10 of 10
  • Crispers - Again, I know it is a chain.  But it is just in Florida, from what I understand.  And it is the best of the soup/salad/sandwich chains out there.  I loved Bagelheads, a local place.  And I like the guy who owns it.  But, their other menu items are not extensive enough for me to rank them.  We haven't been there since December, which is a darn shame because they were great.  Crispers, though, has amazing soups.  I usually just get the soup trio - rotating between Italian chicken, butternut squash, black bean and sausage, and tomato bisque.  They used to have chili, and I am perplexed as to why they don't now.  Their rating is shaky, though.  If there were a full McAllister's or a Jason's Deli here, it would not be on this list.  2010 Rating: 8 of 10
That's the basic awards section.  As always, there are other places that could easily have been ranked.  I basically went by how often we went, how often we were satisfied by our visit, and how flexible they are.  If it is a place that doesn't have something for everyone (except for Barnaby's), it didn't get put on there.  The only other place I didn't list that should have been was Tijuana Flats.  We go there a lot.  Our school discount card gets us a free meal every visit - which makes for a cheap dinner.  But is a big chain.  And if you don't have that card, it can get expensive.  Next year, this post will be based on our apparent return to Orlando.  After two years, there will be all kinds of new places to try.  And with a new view of eating, it will honestly be like trying them for the first time.