Dec 20, 2011

Next Iron Chef: Finale

I'm in a giving mood this Christmas season.  And I feel like giving you some blog posts.  If you're interested in that kind of stuff, be looking for several posts on seasonal things, year end reviews, and Christmas thoughts.  But first, I wanted to give my final thoughts on what was a tremendous season of Next Iron Chef.

At the very beginning, I picked Geoffrey Zakarian to win the contest.  So, I had a major rooting interest in the finale.  In addition, as I expressed in my last recap, I felt that Elizabeth Falkner was getting unfair advantages due to her being "just a pastry chef" and being "a woman."  I know that reality shows - especially ones created to generate a new position within a network - are going to be somewhat rigged in favor of the demographic the network is desiring.  The fact is that on Iron Chef America, there are no female Iron Chefs any more.  I'm not sure what happened with Cat Cora, but she isn't pictured on the roster.  Food Network would, naturally, want a female back in the lineup.  And, watching the season, the females seemed to be getting advanced on less than their male counterparts.  But, the problem came when it got down to the final five.  Women had to be eliminated and it was impossible to keep them in without it being blatant.

I didn't think that Elizabeth Falkner should have been in the finale.  Michael Chiarello was clearly the right choice to compete against Zakarian.  Throughout the entire competition, those two were the top chefs.  Now, Falkner was incredible.  At times she was brilliant.  But it always felt like she was being graded on a curve.  Even in the finale, Bobby Flay made the "just a pastry chef" comment.  At this point, that shouldn't matter.

If you watched the show, this next summary was said about fifty times.  But it came down to technical mastery (Zakarian) against creativity (Falkner).  That isn't to say that Zakarian isn't creative or Falkner isn't technical gifted.  Both chefs are insanely good.  But it really did come down to the fact that Zakarian is a technical master and Falkner is one of the most creative chefs I have ever seen in these contests.  This kind of conflict made it very tough to decide who should win.  Both chefs did an extraordinary job.  They had to create a holiday feast and both of them crafted something truly amazing.  So, what do you pick?

Michael Symon and Bobby Flay are brilliant judges in addition to being great chefs.  In the finale, they both made some extremely insightful comment that really distilled the challenge of who to pick.  Symon said that Zakarian is really a chef at the top of his game, his peak.  Falkner is just scratching the surface of how great she can be.  The flip version of that is Zakarian is older and there is nowhere to go be down and that Falkner is still somewhat inexperienced.  We see the same battle in an NFL team when choosing a quarterback.  Do you pick someone like Peyton Manning (before the injury) or Tom Brady who are technical masters and absolutely brilliant RIGHT NOW - but who will be sliding down the charts before too long?  Or do you pick someone like Andrew Luck or Andy Dalton who has tremendous upside - but who will make some mistakes over the next few years?  If you take the older master, you get to enjoy their brilliance without suffering through the learning process - but their shelf life is shorter.  If you take the new superstar, you put up with a few years of rocky performance - but you get to enjoy their ENTIRE career of brilliance, once they get there.

Flay's good comment came when assessing the range of skills the two chefs offered.  He said that Zakarian is at the absolute top of what he does.  But with Falkner, she probably does MORE things and gives a wider range of skills - due to her pastry background.  But she doesn't do those things as well as Zakarian.  This seemed to be the prevailing opinion with the judges.  As they went around, they were asked to give their favorite single dish of the showdown.  They all said Falkner's cranberry sorbet dish.  Then they were asked who made the better meal.  All of them said Zakarian.  This really was a picture of the competition as a whole.  Falkner's highs were higher.  But the consistency was all Zakarian.  He never really DESERVED to be in the bottom two.  Once he got thrown in there due to a rule technicality.  Once it was dirty pool by Anne Burrell.  The judges never really had anything bad to say about his dishes the entire time.  In fact, the first really negative comments he got were from one judge about one meat dish in the finale.  But Falkner made several dishes that were just ridiculously good.

I think that if you broke down the finale, it was really even.  At first they were supposed to make three dishes.  Then the Chairman threw two more dishes and a cocktail at them.  So they had to make five total dishes and a drink.  The reviews were pretty even - lost of positives, very few negatives.  In a real twist, Falkner won the "main course" over Zakarian.  His restaurant specialize in meat dishes.  But her Beef Wellington seemed to be better than his "gifts" of beef and vegetables.  I think something very telling was the dessert round.  Falkner was naturally brilliant.  She made a chocolate cake with peppermint snow and peppermint ice cream.  This should have been where she blew Zakarian away.  If he had done a passable dessert, he would have lost.  But he came up with a buttermilk and peppermint ice cream thingee that wowed the judges (except one).  I think that gave him enough leverage that he didn't fall too far behind in her expert area.

In the end, I was seriously worried that Falkner was going to win.  As I was watching with Heather, I told her as much.  "I really think Falkner is going to win.  Oh well, I just won't watch her episodes like I didn't watch Cat Cora."  It isn't because they were women.  It was because I hardly ever wanted to eat anything they made.  They weren't relatable.  Conversely, when Zakarian was presenting his food, Heather said to me, "I want to eat everything he makes."  We have actually talked about the fact that we will have to make sure we visit his restaurants when we finally get to go to NYC together.  That is the way I feel about Bobby Flay.  That is how I fell about Michael Symon.  And Guy Fieri.  I want to eat their food.  (And having eaten at Flay's Mesa Grill, I can attest that his food is absolutely amazing.)  I felt that way every week about Zakarian.  I rarely felt that way about Falkner.

When the results came in, Zakarian's picture was hanging on the wall as The Next Iron Chef.  I felt bad for Falkner.  She had put up a tremendous effort.  I was very impressed with her skills and resourcefulness.  But I had a hard time warming up to her, which is not a good quality for a network chef.  [On a side note, during the finale the Food Network announced a poll for viewers to vote on which Next Iron Chef contestants should get a shot at redemption.  Is this next year's theme?  I hope so.  I can only imagine Falkner, Anne Burrell, and last year's loser Marco Canora will be a part.  Sound great already.]  All in all, I thought the season was amazing.  The cooking was out of this world.  And it was fun to see these personalities that are all over the Food Network actually demonstrating WHY they are all over the network.  I look forward to Zakarian's first battle this Sunday.  Thanks to all for putting up with my thoughts on the series.

Dec 10, 2011

2011 in Review: The Year Sports Imploded

In the coming weeks, you will be inundated with Year in Review posts from every self-obsessed blogger out there, as well as every news, entertainment, and sports site.  So, far be it from me to avoid jumping on the bandwagon.  My seven followers demand no less.  I have always been a sucker for Year in Review stuff.  It was a fun way to go back through and revisit events and remember where I was.  Now that I am older, I often forget what happens on a day to day basis, let alone stuff that went on back in February.  So these recaps are useful for me.  "The Royal Wedding II was THIS year? Man it seems like forever ago."

As I go through these posts, though, I want to do something different than just a recap.  I am not qualified enough to give a thorough rundown of the importance of events.  And I am biased.  Things that don't interest me would not be included - even if the rest of the world think they are important.  Looking at Yahoo!'s top news stories of the year, they had the Casey Anthony trial and the death of Amy Winehouse.  Those may have been notable - but I never would have listed those.  I also don't know how many of these I'll do.  It's like Christmas - surprises around every turn.

I'm going to start with sports.  Again, I don't plan on just recapping who won the different titles.  If it isn't my teams (it's never my teams) then I really could care less once the event is over.  I had to think for a minute to even remember who the title winners were this year.  Instead, I want to look at how sports in general progressed (or regressed . . . mainly regressed) in my view.  This year will be forever remembered (by me) as the year the sports world lost its collective mind.  It also will be the year that, for the first time, my affection for sports was smaller than my disdain for sports.  If I were being polled on if I viewed sports favorably or unfavorably, it is definitely unfavorably.  Here are some of the biggest reasons.

NBA LOCKOUT: Personally, I was more irritated by the NFL labor situation than the NBA one.  But I am putting them in this order so that I can highlight some points.  The NBA lockout was frustrating on many levels.  The biggest is no matter how noble some of the points were, the basic concept of millionaires fighting with billionaires over money still is hard for most Americans to stomach.  But it didn't affect me that much.  I don't usually watch basketball until the All Star break anyway.  I'm too busy with football.  So the NBA starting late didn't bother me.  And the reasons FOR the lockout were somewhat understandable: player salaries are out of control, there needs to be some level of revenue sharing, fans of small teams need some hope.  So I could see that and realize something needed to be done.  What I hate about these labor situations, though, is that the people who get hurt the most aren't the players or owners.  They are the complementary industry people.  Living in Orlando, I was made more aware of stuff like this.  The city paid a LOT of money to open a new arena for the Magic.  There are tons of companies whose existence are completely dependent on the Magic playing.  The city itself was counting on the All Star game.  It was awarded because of the new arena.  And it was constantly threatened.  People lost their income; some lost their jobs.  And for what?  At the end of the day, nothing seemed to change.  Immediately after the new agreement was signed, owners started overpaying players, players in small markets started manipulating the new rules to escape to big cities, and the teams took the opportunity to cut staff.  The Magic had promised they would not cut positions during the lockout.  Immediately after the agreement was reached, the team laid off twenty employees and eliminated twelve seasonal positions that had not been opened yet this year.  Good job, guys.

NFL LOCKOUT: Basically, take the offensiveness of the NBA lockout, remove the legitimate concerns.  There's the NFL lockout.  Where the NBA one at least was somewhat about reconstructing a flawed system, the NFL was purely about money.  It was two sets of extremely wealthy individuals fighting over EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS.  Bill Simmons likened to Scarface, with the giant pile of coke on the table.  Except with this lockout it was a gigantic pile of dollar bills - and there was a gang war over who got the most.  Yes, there were some peripheral issues that were addressed.  But those could have been dealt with during a conference call or small meeting.  The lockout was strictly money.  I don't know about you, but that is extremely hard for me to accept.  The cities are the ones who built the stadiums, who provide the fans, who create the secondary companies.  And they are basically told to shut up and sit on the sidelines while the money is split up.  Lots of people have already forgotten the lockout and moved on.  I'm not like that.  I never really was interested in baseball after their last labor problem.  I can still enjoy a game, but I never have been as invested in.  I have a feeling this lockout (along with #8) will have a similar effect on me.  I rarely check my fantasy lineups.  I only watch games when I'm with my in-laws.  That's pretty bad for a guy whose favorite sport (by far) is football.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL SCANDALS: It seems like scandals have ben a part of college sports for as long as I can remember.  I very clearly recall SMU getting the "death penalty" in football back in the 1980s.  I remember when Florida won the SEC and couldn't take the title.  But this past year seems like it was one of the worst I can remember - not even including #4.  Ohio State sent Jim Tressel packing due to coverups.  USC can't play in a bowl game from numerous issues.  Miami penalized themselves to try to avoid bigger sanctions.  Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton was surrounded with controversy as he won the national title.  The national title game was jokingly referred to as the battle for which team would earn the right to forfeit the title in five years.  Even my beloved UCF was caught up in recruiting violations all over the place.  Throw in the inappropriate behavior by the Fiesta Bowl officials and the questionable movements by lying head coaches and you have a for a very rotten system.  Of course, that all pales in comparison to the next point.

PENN STATE and SYRACUSE SCANDALS: I wrote about the Penn State Jerry Sandusky scandal when it first surfaced.  And it just seems to get worse.  That is coupled by the accusations that emerged about the Syracuse men's basketball program.  Both schools have many similarities - a small city that is completely wrapped up with the university in question, a long time head coach who seems to transcend other authorities in the area, a long time assistant coach who has almost as much power as the head coach and is shielded by the head coach.  Both are heinous.  Due to the scope and detail of the Penn State case, it is worse.  It seems like just the tip of the iceberg has been discovered, too.  What happened to that D.A. who was investigating and disappeared?  How in the world can Sandusky be so adamant about his innocence?  How many more kids will come forward?  These were two of the "good programs" in college sports.  They didn't deal with the scandals and the negative garbage - or so it seemed.  Instead they were hiding horrific secrets.

NBA PLAYER MOVEMENT:  One of the biggest stories of last year was LeBron James stringing along the people of Cleveland (and New York) before bolting to Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a "super team." One of the biggest stories of this year was James choking the Finals as the Heat lost to the Mavericks for the NBA title.  At least, that is the story to average people.  To NBA stars, it showed that James' plan to bolt and partner with his buddies instead of making a career in one city worked.  Remember, this was the FIRST YEAR in Miami.  They didn't even figure out how to make all those egos work until half way through the year.  They will probably run roughshod over the league this year, now that they have had time to work together.  It was like the floodgates opened.  Now, big shot players started to force their owners' hands to allow them to leave for bigger markets.  Carmelo Anthony held Denver hostage until they sent him to New York to partner with Amare Stoudemire.  Deron Williams did the same thing in Utah, ending up in New Jersey.  So, one of the big sticking points in the NBA lockout was finding a way to keep these big name players tied to their teams - even if it was in a small market.  So, what happened?  The agents had figured out a way to circumvent the process before it was even started.  A player could sign for far more money with their current team than any other in free agency.  So, instead of playing out their contract, now these players are forcing trades a year early so they can resign with their dream team.  It is dirty pool.  Chris Paul did it the Hornets.  Then David Stern went completely bananas and voided the trade with NO GOOD CAUSE.  It was perfectly legal.  Stern was just ticked that the players were able to go around the rules so fast.  Now Dwight Howard is about to do it Orlando.  These guys all want to team up and, in effect, create a handful of "super teams."  You'll have superstar jammed teams in Boston, Miami, Chicago, L.A., New York (which includes the Nets now).  Then the other teams will basically be the farm system to the big teams.  It is going to turn into baseball.  The small teams draft and develop talent, get a few years out of those players, and watch them leave to win titles.  As a Magic fan, I detest this.  I know all the fans of big teams love it.  Yet another reason to not care a whit about basketball.

MLB PLAYER MOVEMENT: For years, I have hated how the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, and Phillies poach big name free agents from the smaller teams.  I have learned to really like the Tampa Bay Rays.  They play in a division with the two richest, most loaded teams in the sport.  Yet, they still make the playoffs on a regular basis.  They have a payroll that is a third as big as the Red Sox, but they eliminated Boston from the playoffs last year.  The problem is, they can't keep up.  The Rays had an amazing team a few years back - one that easily could have won a World Series if it had five years to play together.  But they got one shot.  Then they got poached.  The thing is, those players that flee for bigger paychecks seem to be disappointing more often than not.  Take Carl Crawford.   On Tampa he was the big dog - making all the right plays.  He was a legend.  In Boston, he's getting booed.  He's just another overpaid player who isn't reaching the impossible to reach expectations.  It is the perpetual question for these superstar athletes.  If they stay with their original team, they will become legendary.  But they will probably leave money on the table and may only win one title (or they may never win one).  If they leave, they COULD become one of the biggest stars ever.  Chances are they won't, but they will at least be rich. Look at A-Rod.  If he had stayed in Seattle his whole career, he would have been seen as the greatest of all time.  He probably would have one ring at the end.  Now, though, he is seen as the flagship example of the overpaid athlete.  He's widely mocked and ridiculed.  He still could be the greatest of all time, but no one likes him.  And he still has just one ring.  My hope had been that things would be different with Albert Pujols.  He was so synonymous with the Cardinals.  He is such a nice guy and good model.  I hoped he would be willing to buck the trend.  Instead, he listened to his horrible jerk agent (seriously, go read about that guy) and signed with the Angels.  Now he's just another big name on a big team.  Another owner trying to outspend the rest for a title.  Pujols will be richer.  But he'll never be as loved or legendary as if he had stayed.

COLLEGE CONFERENCE INSANITY: Boise State is in the Big East.  That is all you really need to know to understand just how stupid this whole conference realignment process has been.  It was a mad scramble to consolidate power.  No one wanted to be left out of the big money.  And, like with the lockouts, no one wanted to share.  The big teams don't want to see other teams develop and enter their ranks.  They want to keep the other teams down.  If big schools had their way, they would pare down their own conferences and just have a mega conference with only the elite schools.  Instead, we had a massive reshuffling of the deck.  Syracuse and Pitt are in the ACC?  Nebraska is in the Big 10?  Colorado is in the Pac 12?  Rivalries, histories, allegiances.  All of those went out the window.  All that mattered was getting a piece of the pie.  Texas and Texas A&M aren't in the same conference any more.  Neither are Nebraska and Colorado.  Then the Big East, the weakest and most vulnerable of the BCS conferences, had to find some way to survive.  So they pulled in two Texas teams, one California team, probably one Colorado team, and Boise State.  It was all about getting Boise State.  And for the Broncos - the team with the best record in the nation over the last five years - they got tired of watching the big paydays from their dorm rooms.  So they needed a seat.  As a UCF fan, I'm not going to lie and say I'm not excited to be in the Big East.  I will now get to see a real rivalry with USF develop.  I will be able to watch some of the best college basketball teams in my own backyard.  And I'll have the chance to watch the incredible Boise State Broncos play my Knights.  I just hate the machinations that happened to get things there.  And I realize that for those teams left on the outside looking in, their hope to ever play for something significant is basically dead.

FOOTBALL CONCUSSION PROBLEMS: The concussion issue has been bubbling at the surface for a few years now.  The studies have been out there.  The arguments have been starting.  But it seems like in 2011, things accelerated.  The NFL had enacted measures last year to try to avoid concussions and help players who had suffered them.  But this year we watched as players who obviously had experienced a head trauma go back into the game.  We saw multiple retired players die unexpectedly and under suspicious circumstances.  We also saw college and (especially) high school players get seriously hurt - or even die - from head injuries.  Football has become a sport that is on the verge of improving itself to death.  The rules that were enacted decades ago do not take into account how fast and strong modern players have become.  The human body is not built to take that much damage.  And if we see athletes from the 80s dying due to complications from head injuries, how much worse is it going to be with modern players?  (The same thing goes for professional wrestling.  How many wrestlers have to die in their 40s or start to act completely irrationally before we realize there is a serious problem?)  I have not been able to enjoy football anywhere near as much since I started reading about concussions.  And with every story like Dave Duerson's, I get detached a little bit more.

There were some great sports moments.  But it seemed like this year had more than its share of negative ones:  Dan Whedon dying in a wreck and the Oklahoma State coaches dying in a plane crash, the idiotic riots in Vancouver when they lost the Stanley Cup, the attack by Dodger fans on the Giants fan.  It used to be that sports was an escape from the ugliness of the news.  Instead, it has become just another source of disappointment and stuff I don't want my kids to hear or see.  And I am less and less interested in it.  I think there is a larger divide between sports and the common person.  I can't relate.  I don't understand why it is necessary to squeeze every dollar out of a contract.  Isn't $220 million enough?  Why does it have to be $250 million?  I don't see how it benefits colleges to screw over other colleges.  I can't understand how you can turn a blind eye to children being abused or players knowingly getting seriously hurt or your own employees suffering.  There are certain qualities I find important in my own life.  And I find that those are less and less represented in the world of sports.  I know there are people out there who will cry, "You are so old fashioned!  You can't impose your values on other people!  Wouldn't you take a higher paying job if you could?!?"  I am old fashioned.  I miss being able to cheer for a player and know they will spend their career with one team.  I believe in loyalty.  I have taken less money (or no money) to work at a place I believed in.  More than anything, I guess my love affair with sports has ended because we just grew apart - like Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries did.  Sports and I don't want the same things.  We have irreconcilable differences.  It has been this way for a while.  I suppose this year was the one where I couldn't take it any more.  Sports just went too far.  It wasn't one moment; it was a lot of moments.  That's what I'll remember about 2011 when I think of sports.  It was the year it went nuts.

Dec 7, 2011

Next Iron Chef: Final Four

I made sure that I didn't allow myself to write weekly recaps for Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs - even though I wanted to.  The series has solidified itself as one of my favorites during this fall season.  It has more drama than most shows on network television.  And some of it is funnier than any sitcom.  And, the way the judges blather on about the food, it is like some sort of romance....  That's just weird.  Anyway.  Let's really quick run a comparison of my picks to how things have panned out:


  1. Geoffrey Zakarian
  2. Robert Irvine
  3. Anne Burrell
  4. Marcus Samuelsson
  5. Michael Chiarello
  6. Alex Guarnaschelli
  7. Elizabeth Falkner
  8. Beau MacMillan
  9. Chuck Hughes
  10. Spike Mendelsohn
  1. ???
  2. ???
  3. ???
  4. ???
  5. Anne Burrell
  6. Marcus Samuelsson
  7. Beau MacMillan
  8. Chuck Hughes
  9. Robert Irvine
  10. Spike Mendelsohn
Yeah, I haven't done so well.  Only one of my final four is still left.  The thing about this show is that the level of cooking is so insane that on Sunday a guy almost got eliminated because he put powdered sugar on a souffle and one judge didn't like it.  Alton Brown (in a rare moment of non self aggrandizing clarity) asked him, "Are you seriously prepared to eliminate someone because you didn't like the fact they used a dusting of powdered sugar?!?"  The judge replied that in this competition something like that could actually send someone home.  And the crazy thing is that he's right.  So far, no one has had that classic train wreck day where they completely bombed something and got booted.  Every elimination was extremely difficult.  Anne Burrell summed it up best on her way out this week.  "Usually it is whoever sucks less stays.  But in this it has been who is less excellent."  I have a couple of observations before I do a quick evaluation of the remaining chefs.
  • Food Network is NOT rigging this competition.  My rankings were based partly on the cynical opinion that the Network was directing the judges (at least somewhat).  They were worried that an early exit could hurt the legitimacy of one of their "face" judges.  Or they were trying to push someone into a higher level of notoriety. Or that they were going to favor their own chefs over Top Chef contestants.  All of those were wrong.  One of the biggest faces of Food Network went out in the second show.  One of the biggest Top Chef contestants is still left - and probably the favorite at this point.  Aside from the slightly annoying way that the females have gotten more breaks, the show has been surprising fair.
  • The Females Have Gotten More Breaks.  At the halfway point, Anne Burrell noted that all the ladies were left in the competition and none had been in the bottom two.  Sadly, that isn't because they have done the best.  It seems like Food Network would REALLY love to have a second female Iron Chef.  Personally, I think Guarnaschelli should have been out a couple weeks ago.  And Falkner should have followed her out.  But they are still here.  And, at this point, they have as good of a shot as anyone - if not better.
  • I Was Really Wrong About Beau MacMillan.  When I first reviewed this show, I commented on how I didn't like Beau.  I thought he was arrogant and wished he went home early.  Well, I was wrong on that.  When he finally got eliminated, the judges all looked at each other and said how incredibly nice he was and how they hated to send him home.  And it was obvious on the show.  He was the most gracious of the contestants.  And his cooking was great.  It made me think that the reason he was SO bad on Worst Cooks in America was because it was so against his character, instead of because he was just bad on camera or a pompous turd.  
  • These Chefs Can Really Cook. Sometimes you have to wonder just how good a television chef is.  Are they really THAT amazing?  Or is it the huge test kitchen, the sous chefs, the infinite budget that makes them great.  That is one of the great things about this show - and shows like Iron Chef.  After watching Bobby Flay for years on Iron Chef and Throwdown (and eating at Mesa Grill twice in Vegas), there is no doubt this dude can cook.  Some of these celebrity chefs or tv judges - we've never seen them do anything.  So to see them on a show like this?  It shows you just how talented they are.  Geoffrey Zakarian is the best example of this.  For years on Chopped and 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, he was just this older judge.  Who the heck is this guy?  Then he competed on Celebrity Chopped and destroyed people.  The other chefs were terrified of him.  Then he gets on this show and has been heads and tails above the others - when it comes to technique and flavors.  Similar story with Michael Chiarello.  It makes you realize just how these chefs got to where they are. 
  • Very Talented People are Often Arrogant Jerks.  I hate listening to some of the arrogant comments coming out of these contestants' mouths, though.  Anne Burrell has always been like that.  It is part of her, uh, "charm."  I hate it.  I have no doubt it my mind she is a crazy good chef.  But I hate her arrogance.  On this past episode, she had the chance to put one chef into the elimination round.  She was rude about every dish she tasted - far more critical than the real judges. (Falkner wondered if her taste buds were compromised from having just cooked three dishes with sardines.  Good question, in retrospect.)  Then SHE got voted into the elimination round and was sent home.  She had her arms crossed, had a rude look on her face the whole evaluation time, was very ungracious upon elimination.  It made me glad she was out.  I know that talent and arrogance often go hand in hand.  Doesn't mean I have to like it.
Okay, so there are just four chefs left: Geoffrey Zakarian, Michael Chiarello, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Elizabeth Falkner.  And I think two get eliminated this week, which will set us up for the final.  Below is my scouting report on the last four.  I'm going to include their highlight moment, what could send them home, and their odds on winning.  Of course, remember I didn't do so great predicting.  So don't blame me if you lose all your money betting on them in Vegas.
  1. Michael Chiarello  It is hard to decide what his best moment has been.  So far, he has been in the bottom two only once.  In that episode he made handmade pasta and a pesto using peanuts.  In thirty minutes.  The other chefs were incredulous.  Then on Sunday he made a lobster risotto.  In twenty-five minutes.  Risotto takes forty-five minutes.  He did it in almost half that time.  I don't know how.  Maybe he has a time turner.  He doesn't have a lot of flaws.  His biggest problem is that he does not listen to criticism AT ALL.  But, he doesn't get criticized a lot.  It is hard to see what he will do to get eliminated.  Odds: 2 to 1
  2. Elizabeth Falkner  She is a pastry chef, the underdog, underestimated by the others.  We know this because she says it EVERY EPISODE.  Frankly, I'm tired of her schtick.  And so are the other competitors.  She has made exemplary food.  BUT, it always seems to be more highly rated because "she's just a pastry chef."  It is like the judges are impressed, but more so due to her background.  That's not to say she doesn't do hard stuff and do it well.  Burrell made the comment, "She's made three ice creams and a souffle.  When is she going to make some real food?"  If the judges pick up on this, that could (and should) derail her.  But they seem to be oblivious so far, and blinded by her ability to do things outside of her comfort range - even when they aren't.  [Good example.  Sunday, she made a tuna jerky souffle.  (yeah, gross)  It was superb.  She got raves, again partly because "she's just a pastry chef."  Zakarian did some amazing, intricate, wonderful beef dish and it was like, "Well he runs a steakhouse.  Of course he did it well."  And then when he made a souffle for the elimination, no one made a big deal about his ability to make such a great dessert when "he's just a steak guy."]  Odds: 4 to 1
  3. Alex Guarnaschelli  She's good.  (Her sausage and peppers meal at the ballpark was phenomenal.)  And she's lucky.  And she the judges cut her too much slack.  Every time she has botched her meal (at least three), someone else botched theirs worse.  Or one element of hers was so good that it made up for the one that wasn't.  She's never been in the bottom two - and if she was, I think she would lose.  She gets panicky very quickly if something goes wrong and overwhelmed, but somehow finishes.  If she was to have two things go wrong, she would crack.  And with such a small set of contestants, it won't be as easy to hide her mistakes.  She would have been in the bottom two last week and probably gone home, if it wasn't for the fact that one spot was filled by Burrell's pick.  Like I said - lucky.  You can look at that two ways.  One, luck runs out.  Two, a run to a championship usually involves a little luck.  Odds: 7 to 1
  4. Geoffrey Zakarian  If this was a straight up cooking competition, he would have already won.  The other chefs would have quit.  Michael Symon said this the other day.  "Your technique is so consistently good that it makes me hate you sometimes."  He has never really misstepped on a meal.  Any grievances were tiny - and should have been dwarfed by other major miscues of other chefs.  Yet, somehow, he has been in the bottom two three times.  I think two things can derail him.  First, things come so easily to him that there isn't a "Wow Factor" for him.  Falkner impresses by being outside of her comfort zone.  To Zakarian, everything is in his comfort zone.  So they blow his errors out of proportion and minimize his successes.  Second, he doesn't follow the rules.  When they say, "Make one dish" he makes three.  When they put their goofy rules on a competition, if he doesn't like them, he doesn't do them.  He came the closest to elimination on the ballpark challenge because he refused to make ballpark food.  I can totally see him getting kicked out because he is stubborn.  And too good for his own good.  Odds: 3 to 1

Dec 6, 2011

Florida's Bowling Gutter Ball

What in the world has happened to college football in the state of Florida?  Once upon a time, there were three college football programs in the state that routinely challenged for the national title.  Then there was a boom of secondary programs that made waves and ended up in bowls at the end of the year.  But this year, well, this year is pathetic.
You have just three state schools in a bowl - UF, FSU, and FIU.  But that doesn't fairly represent the situation.  UF ended up 6-6, barely finishing bowl eligible.  They got a New Year's Day bowl bid.  But it was Jacksonville's Gator Bowl - and the possibility of filling the stadium with swarms of local fans combined with the tasty Ohio State matchup (Urban Meyer's former and future teams) was too much to pass up.  FSU is the Champs Bowl in Orlando against Notre Dame (another matchup that looks better due to history than to this year's performance).  And FIU...  Let's be honest no one cares about FIU.  They had the best record of any team in the state.  But I don't know anyone who gives a rip about them.

How did things fall so badly?  How did we get from national championships to barely .500?  This year was even more insulting because hopes started out so high.  FSU was nationally ranked.  UCF was predicted by some to run the table and challenge for a "real bowl" bid.  UF is UF, so they were expected to do well.  There were some promising players that showed flashes of brilliance last year.  You would think they would develop this year into something more special.  BJ Daniels, Jeffrey Godfrey, EJ Manuel.  All three of them seemingly regressed, rather than advanced in their development.  (Godfrey got benched by the end of the year and is now considering transferring, unhappy that he has to compete for the starting job again.)  What went wrong?

Florida is blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to high school and college football.  I would argue that Florida has the best high school football in the country.  At the very least it is on par with the other big states (Texas, California).  In addition, the colleges here have the reputation to also pull from other states like Georgia and Illinois and Alabama.  There is a consistent pipeline of talent to keep the big colleges full.  However, with the emergence of other schools, that pipeline is now diverted into other rosters.

It used to be that the best players would go to UF, FSU, and UM - with a few of the stars getting pilfered by Michigan State or Ohio State or Georgia.  These were the four and five star high school athletes.  After that class, you had the two and three star guys.  Now, they would also sign with UF, FSU, and UM to be backups.  There was always a chance that there would be an injury to a starter or academic problems.  Or these kids would bulk up and get better with better training and coaching.  So, by their junior and senior year, they would be in line for a starting spot - or at least good playing time.  The general mindset was that it was better to be second or third string at UF than starting at UCF.

As these secondary schools (UCF, USF, FIU, FAU) grew their programs that mindset started to change.  For a kid looking at schools, it wasn't so cut and dry any more.  You didn't have to be a Gator or a Nole to get national exposure.  UCF plays on some ESPN station four times a year.  Thanks to the Conference USA's willingness to play on Thursdays and Fridays, their colleges are on national television for half the season.  As a UCF fan, I was able to watch every one of their games on tv this year.  Four of those games were on Brighthouse Television (since they are the sponsor of the UCF stadium).  But the rest were on ESPN and CBS Sports.  The same goes for USF and FIU and FAU.  They get national exposure.  In addition, USF has crashed the national polls several times in the last few years.  They knocked off some big name teams (FSU, Notre Dame).  They got lots of airplay.  And, all four of those schools have received bowl bids.  (USF was in seven bowls straight before this year.)  The playing field wasn't so different now.

Some of those two and three star athletes started to think differently about that old belief.  It may NOT be better to be a backup at a BCS school.  You started to see guys like Godfrey and Daniels sign at other places than you might have expected.  Daniels was from Tallahassee.  His lifelong goal was to play for FSU.  But there he was as a freshman, knocking FSU off while wearing the Green and Gold of USF.  Daniels was a lock for UM.  They payed some good hookers to make sure of that.  Instead, he went to UCF and started as a freshman.  For those guys, the opportunities were better at a slightly smaller program.  They still would get national exposure, get bowl game experience, have an outside shot at the pros.  And they wouldn't have to wait until their junior year to get it.

So here's where you see the first issue - the dilution of talent.  UF, FSU, and UM don't have a stranglehold on recruiting any more.  The massive talent pool is being spread out to seven schools instead of three.  That obviously is going to affect things.  Sure, the big guys are still getting amazing recruiting classes.  They still are pulling in tons of big name kids.  The problem is that they aren't getting the high quality backups.  My friend Eddie, who is a major Gator fan and understand sports way better than me, once explained the different between UF and UCF baseball to me.  He said that in college baseball, pitching is the key.  UCF's first and second pitchers can match up with the 1/2 guys anywhere in the country.  The problem is that UF's 3-5 guys are also as good as UCF's 1/2 guys.  UCF's 3-5 guys are where the problem comes.  So UCF can win those regular season games against UM and UF because they are 1 vs 1 or 1 vs 5 with pitchers.  But in the playoffs, when the depth matters, UCF always gets drummed out.  (It has proven true every year.)

That same thing can be applied to football.  UCF and the others can always make a go at it when it is starters vs. starters.  You add in the fact that to a team like UCF, playing a BCS team is the biggest game of the season - and to that BCS team, UCF is just a speed bump to the "real" games.  So UCF will be amped up and prepared and the other team won't be.  So in the first half, UCF will stay tight and play hard and may even lead at halftime.  But as the emotional high wears down, and the depth begins to be the more important element, the big name school pulls away.  This happened so many times over the years that I could almost plot out the moments when each step would happen.  I watched UCF "play tough" against Nebraska, Georgia, FSU, Auburn, Virginia Tech, South Carolina and then ultimately lose.  Sure, they would sneak a win out against a big team when they were horrible (like Alabama in 1999).  But those big teams' depth would win out.

Lately, that hasn't happened.  USF doesn't wilt in the second half.  UCF doesn't always let the win slip away.  They beat the big teams more often.  In fact, they have problems winning the games they should win.  USF has no problem knocking off a top 25 team.  It is Rutgers and Cincinnati they can't beat.  UCF loses stupid games to Southern Miss and FIU - after they destroy Boston College.  You also see where UF, FSU, and UM doesn't have the depth they used to have any more.  They still have fabulous NFL-ready starters.  But when an injury happens, the cupboard is bare down the depth chart.  This was UF's big issue this year.  I think they started a ball boy at quarterback one game.  The talent is more distributed.

But there are two other major issues, as I see it.  The first of those kind of mimics what was going on in the NBA a few years ago.  They had so many players jumping straight to the pros from high school that the league was suffering.  These kids have the talent to play in the NBA, but they don't have the strength, the discipline, the full body of skills.  If they would have gone to college, some coach would have developed that stuff.  Or they would have flamed out like so many playground legends before them.  The college level either enhanced what was there or exposed it.  When you took a player like Kwame Brown and threw him right into the pros, he flamed out.  Why?  Well, he probably shouldn't have been there.  If he had gone to college, he would have either gotten more coaching and training and entered the league as a better player.  Or he would have never been drafted because people would have realized he sucked.  (I voted for the second.)  Instead, he got into the league too early, had too many expectations on him, and bombed.  Yes, you are going to have some freaks like LeBron and Dwight Howard and Kobe who can make the jump and immediately be an All-Star at 18.  But you also have a lot of guys like Tyson Chandler and Sebastian Telfair who could have used more development.  And a lot of those players never were the same without that.

I think the same thing is happening with some of these guys like Godfrey and Daniels.  In the old days, they would have gone to FSU and UM and sat the bench for two years.  They would have learned, bulked up, gotten coached.  And then when they got their chance, they would have been ready for it.  Or they never would have because they were actually head cases and the coach realized that.  Instead, they went to a school where they could start right away.  Their insane talent made them successes.  When they made stupid mistakes, it was written off to "they are a true freshman and still learning."  But, in their second year, they still made a lot of stupid mistakes.  Opposing defenses were more prepared for them.  And the weight of expectations made them buckle.  I think with both players they never should have been starting. They weren't ready.  They still thought like a high schooler - improvising, relying on talent and dumb luck.  They never learned it is sometimes better to take a sack or throw it away than try to force something.  So they throw killer interceptions, fumble at the worst time, and get frustrated easily.

The same thing happened at the big schools.  They didn't have as deep of a roster to pull from so they were forced to start players too early.  And their quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs weren't really ready either.  Ten years ago, they wouldn't be playing at all as freshmen.  They would have been red shirted.  They would have rode the bench for two more years.  And then they would have busted out of the gate their junior year with all the frustration that comes from sitting for three years.  Instead, they were forced to play as freshmen and sophomores and weren't quite ready.

The other big issue comes from the turmoil this states has undergone lately.  Look at the coaching situations for the Florida schools in just the past three years:

  • UF - Urban Meyer quits, comes back, quits again.  His top assistants all leave to coach other schools.  Will Muschamp is a rookie coach.  Meyer gets hired by Ohio State.  UF also gets a lot of press for player arrests.
  • FSU - Bobby Bowden is forced out.  Jimbo Fisher comes in with a completely different attitude.  Instead of laid back, FSU, it is a clone of Nick Saban's corporate, prickly, jerkwad programs.  FSU, as usual, is in the news for players being arrested.
  • UM - Randy Shannon is fired.  Al Golden is hired.  (I had to look that up.)  In addition, the schools is wracked with scandal and kept themselves out of a bowl game.
  • UCF - Coaching is somewhat stable.  But the Athletic Director and WR coach are fired for illegal recruiting.  The school is going to face NCAA sanctions as a second time offender (already in trouble for problems just two years ago).  They lose a multi-million dollar case for basically running a player to death.  And the team fluctuates between winning and sucking every year.
  • USF - Founding coach Jim Leavitt is fired for physically assaulting a player.  Plus they are in the Big East, which is as stable as a fault line.
  • FIU - no one cares.
  • FAU - The team never had much traction.  But now, founding coach Howard Schnellenberger retired after the season.
NCAA sanctions, new coaches, conference upheaval.  Sounds like a great place to go to school, right?  Kids aren't stupid.  They will overlook those problems if the future looks bright.  But, for most of these schools, do you think they are the verge of righting the ship?  I have a feeling for all of these (except FIU) that things may get worse before they get better.  UCF is going to get slammed by the NCAA.  If they have another bad season, O'Leary is gone.  UM still hasn't heard the last of hooker-gate.  The Meyer Ohio State hiring may hurt UF with transfers and recruiting leaning up north.  FSU seems like they just can't get it together.  USF is the only school that never had a suitor in the Big East exodus earlier.  In addition, the schools surrounding the state of Florida keep getting stronger.  LSU and Alabama are in the national title game this year.  Georgia seems to be back on track.  Georgia Tech made a run at the conference title this year.  Auburn won the title last year.  If I was coming out of high school and had to pick between a school that may not be allowed to play in a bowl, one with coaching turmoil, or a stable program with national title hopes a few miles north - I would seriously have to consider those other places.  I think this is going to be a tough stretch for Florida college football.  How long that lasts remains to be seen.  For now, though, Florida sports fans will have to get used to being in an unfamiliar place - looking up at the pack.

Nov 30, 2011

FERRET FIVE: Christmas Album Wish List

"Oh, no he didn't.  He went and resurrected the Ferret Five lists!!!"  Yes, yes I did.  The whole idea behind the Ferret Five list was a little list of something I was thinking about.  Like most of my blog ideas, I never saw it through to a regular feature.  But I just had to bust it out for the holidays.

Christmas albums.  I like them.  We usually buy a couple every year.  You have a few classes of them.  There are the classic ones with famous takes on Christmas songs.  I would throw things like Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Ella Fitzgerald's "Baby It's Cold Outside" and Trans-Siberian Orchestra in there.  These are the essential Christmas albums that get played to death by December 11.  Then you have the quality or fresh tak Christmas album, where a famous artist actually puts some thought into crafting a Christmas album.  Faith Hill's "Joy to the World" is a good example of this.  Then you have the money grabbing album by an artist.  Everyone knows it isn't really an artistic album and is just a cash move.  They are like glorified karaoke albums.  (Or they are by an artist that makes you go, "Huh?  Do they even celebrate Christmas?"  Like Lady Gaga or Gwar.)  Justin Bieber's "Mistletoe.  Enough said.

Every year there are dozens of albums that come out.  And I have tons of them.  As I wrote in my post on multiple song versions, I have like 25 versions of "Silent Night."  (Why does everyone do THAT song?)  As a frequent purchaser of Christmas music, I feel that my voice is important when it comes to who should put out Christmas albums.  As I was listening to the 24-hour Christmas station, it popped into my head who should be the next Christmas album generators.  So, these are my five most wanted Christmas albums.  Get on it, record labels.  I want to see these next year.

  1. ADELE - I don't think there is any argument here.  The woman has incredible pipes, amazing emotion in her music, and couldn't be any more popular than she is right now.  She could totally get away with this move.  The biggest glitch is obviously her throat problems.  But I can't imagine how amazing her Christmas album would be.  Think of her singing "O Holy Night" or "Joy to the World."  Then think of what she could do with original Christmas music.  Who says holiday music has to be happy?  I think this would be a huge hit.
  2. The Avett Brothers  - They have one song on a compilation album that came out this year.  But I think they could do an incredible job with a whole album.  At our church, they have several worship bands that are in a similar neo-bluegrass genre as The Avett Brothers.  And their Christmas stuff is brilliant.  The advantage the Avetts have is that they also can completely wail like rock artist - remember they were in a punk band before their current music turn.  So they could really come up with a diverse roster of songs.  
  3. Coldplay - Their first foray into Christmas music was last year's "Christmas Lights," which quickly became one of my favorite Christmas albums.  They could pump out a couple of other genius original songs and then do nice takes on some standards.  They are very versatile and could really do a good job.  They don't shy from doing live cover songs - and usually do a phenomenal job with it.  Their collaborations (Jay-Z) and remixes could yield some neat results.  Plus they are one of the biggest bands out there, so there it would be a surefire sales success.  (I don't want to waste the spot, but this entire argument could be made for U2 as well.)
  4. Bruno Mars - I really think that Mars is in the class of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder as far as talent and sound goes.  Motown has always done a great job with Christmas albums.  So have Doo Wop bands.  Mars easily slides into both of those genres.  He could do wonders with fun songs and then completely wail on powerful ones.  Plus he teams up like crazy.  Who the heck else (besides Rhianna) could easily pair up with Eminem, B.O.B., Twilight, and Leonard Nimoy?  Plus he can mix things up and do acoustic and play everything himself.  This would be brilliant.
  5. Shania Twain - She never did a Christmas album.  Doesn't even make sense.  She's done songs on collaborations, but never an album.  Wha?!?  Faith Hill's was incredible.  And just about every Country female singer has AT LEAST one Christmas album.  I can't imagine a better way for her to re-enter the music scene.  She doesn't have to write much, if that is a problem.  She has the voice and the performance ability.  Why hasn't this happened yet?  
Those are my top five right now.  What are yours?

Nov 23, 2011

Microwave Thanksgiving

Lots of people have been doing a "30 Days of Thankfulness" on their Facebook page.  Each day, they post something they are thankful for (if they remember).  I have always thought this was very cool.  And this year I fully intended to do it.  But I forgot.  This is pretty normal for me.  I forget a lot of stuff.  I was very happy that the iPhone came out with their Reminders app.  I use that to remind me of things.  Unless I forget to put them into the app.  In which case I doubly forget.  I'm pretty helpless.  Anywho... This year I really wanted to express my thankfulness.  A lot has happened on a variety of fronts that has helped me to really appreciate all of what I have.  So, here goes 30 Days of Thankfulness in one day.  It's like a Microwave Thanksgiving.  (Oh, hey, that's where the title came from.  Heh heh.  Clever.)
  1. I am thankful for my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  He is the reason I am who I am.  Everything I do, I do for Him.  And He is at the heart of my entire life.  I can't help this and don't apologize.  Without Him, the rest of these don't matter.
  2. I am thankful for my beautiful, brilliant, awesome wife, Heather.  I don't deserve her.  From the very beginning, people told me I was "marrying up."  They think this is a revelation to me.  It is not.  I was aware of this from the very beginning.  I may be dumb, but I am not stupid.  She pushes me to be better and constantly impresses me with her amazing talents.  (You aren't going to get through this without crying.  Are you?)
  3. Josiah.  He's my firstborn.  He is patient with me learning things as I go.  I get the joy of watching him develop his talent and expand his brain.  And he's just a darn cool kid.  
  4. Natalie. She is sweet and beautiful and incredibly smart - my little princess.  She cuddles with me.  I am proud as I hear her sweet heart and watch her grow into a wonderful young lady.
  5. Gabe. He's wild and crazy and funny.  But he also loves to snuggle and hang out with me.  He is just a fun little boy and brings so many smiles (yes, some frustration too).  I'm a lucky dad.
  6. My mother.  Patricia Staples poured her life into my siblings and me.  She fought to help us to become good people, despite the challenges in our path.  And she has always been there for us, no matter how old we get.  She is the best mom I possibly could have had.
  7. My in-laws.  Many people complain about their in-laws.  I don't because there isn't anything to complain about.  Sam and Lois Crissinger are the best in-laws in the world.  They support us and love me and set incredible examples.  I consider myself so lucky to have married into their family.
  8. Holly.  She was my first best friend.  And I still deeply value her friendship.  She forced me to move out of my shell when I was younger and challenged me to be better when I was older.  She's forgiven my stupidity more times than I can count.  Plus she brought my nephew, Toby, into the world - and he's just awesome.  (Bonus Thanksgiving point!)
  9. Chris.  I always looked up to Chris and wish I could have been more like him.  He had the work ethic, the athletic talent, and ethical commitment that I wish I had and was insanely jealous about.  I still look at him and wish that I could work as hard as him and be as diligent.  He pushes me, even when he doesn't know it.  (And, unlike when we were younger, this push isn't in a wagon down a hill.)
  10. Andy and Shell.  - Heather's oldest brother and his wife (along with their two beautiful daughters, Beulah and Chayah) have been two of my biggest encouragements and cheerleaders.  I cherish the time and conversations I have with them.  I often look at them and see the kind of parents and people I want to be.
  11. Mike and Ria.  Heather's youngest brother and his wife also have been incredible encouragements to me.  They also are a reminder to not get so worked up about things - to be patient and controlled.  I can get so high strung by life, but with them, it makes me realize things aren't worth getting so upset about.  (A very similar thing that Mike's grandfather used to do to me - gave me perspective.)
  12. Dave and Lacy. Heather's cousin and his wife have grown to be more than just extended family to us.  They are as close as siblings, but also two of our best friends.  They have filled voids in our lives and allowed us to fill voids in theirs.  In addition, they let my kids smother them with love.  It is rare to have friends like them - or to have family like them.  It is unbelievably rare to have both in the same people.
  13. Extended Family.  There are so many extended family that I could fill the rest of the spots with them.  From my half-sisters, Mary and Sue, to Heather's uncle Rich.  My nieces and nephew.  My sweet Aunt Dee.  Uncle Jim and Aunt Rosie.  Mark, Sherri, and their kids.  And so many more.  The encouraging words of Nila, Paul, and Diane.  Each of them holds a special place in my heart.  And my life wouldn't be the same without any of them.
  14. Defender Ministries.   I am blessed and honored to be able to serve in a ministry where my own personal failures are able to help others.  To be able to write and teach and develop resources is a humbling thing.  Our lessons and materials have been used by thousands of people in over thirty states and over a dozen countries.  That is just incredible.  You can't help but be humbled by that.
  15. Charles Wise.  My ministry partner and one of my best friends.  It is rare to be able to have both in one person.  He is like a big brother, a dad, an uncle - he's family.  He gives me guidance, calls me on my stupid behavior, and allows me to talk a lot.  We've been through lots of ups and downs through the last seven years.  But it seems a lot easier doing it together.
  16. Live in America.  It may seem trite or cliched to say this.  But it is true.  We live in a land of plenty and opportunity.  Even at its worst, with things looking so grim, where else would you want to live?  We have so much.  We are given such an advantage over most of the world.  We are allowed to be free to worship and live how we want.  It's easy to take it for granted, which really is a testimony as to just how blessed we are.
  17. Medical Professionals and Technology at Moffitt Cancer Center.  On Monday, my mother underwent extensive surgery to remove endometrial cancer.  In days past, she probably would not have survived that.  Instead, she is already home to celebrate Thanksgiving - walking around and getting back to her life.  The doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and other personnel there helped that to happen.  I can't express enough thanks for that.  I will also lump into this the people who have made Heather's medical school experience so wonderful - the professors, preceptors, and fellow students.  (Especially Austin and Ashley Henkel. - Bonus!)
  18. Bananas.  I told Natalie today how I thanked God for bananas.  She looked at me weird.  But I do.  They are tasty.  They are a great way for me to stay on track with my food choices.  They aren't too expensive.  I just like them.
  19. Apples.  You may call me an Apple Apologist.  But I really am thankful for their products.  I love my computer, my phone, my iPod.  My wife loves her iPad.  I love the fact that their stuff makes my life easier and richer.  And it allowed me to work with some great people like Veronica Fish and Chris Anenome and the other people at R143.  
  20. Summit Church. We haven't been there long, but we are thankful for it.  I love watching my kids growing and having such a great experience.  I love having so many ways to serve for my wife and I.  It is a great church and we are thankful that we were led there.   And we get to see Erik and Tiffany Wieder a lot now.  And they are just awesome people.  (Another bonus point!)
  21. UCF. I love my alma mater.  On one hand, it allowed me to meet some great friends and have some great experiences.  It also helped East Orlando to develop - which gave us a reason to live there and work there.  I enjoy watching UCF sports.  So many experiences in my life began with my time there.  I'm thankful it was my school.
  22. College Ministry.  College Ministry changed my life.  And it changes so many other students' lives.  I am always broken hearted when I see a church think that college ministry isn't important enough.  Groups like BCM and Campus Crusade are invaluable.  In my own life, it change me forever - for the better.  In addition, it brought me into contact with people like Allen and Candy Turner, Matt and Sarah Sharp, Byron and Bern Kirkpatrick, and dozens of others that made me into who I am.  Having worked in that field for nearly a decade, I got to have so many wonderful experiences.  And I got to work with people like Connie Ricks, Brad Crawford, Rahul Agarwal, Lee Howell, Becky Crandall, Tony Olesky, and Loy Reed.  You can't help but get better in that crowd.  
  23. Holidays.  I love the fact that there are holidays.  They give you a break and a rest - often when you need it most.  But it also gives a reason to be with family and friends.  It isn't practical to drive from Florida to South Carolina on a whim.  But a holiday gives a good reason.  So that means I get to hang out this weekend with numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, and 13 on this list.  Holidays are awesome.
  24. First Years Preschool and Kindergarten.  All three of my children have now attended this school.  And it is, in my honest opinion, the best preschool in the world.  It equipped my kids to be prepared for school, developed their personalities, loved them, and taught them about God.  It has been such a blessing and built such a great foundation.  
  25. Mentors.  I can never express enough thanks for people like Eddie Gilley, Byron Kirkpatrick, Jeff Kipi, Bob Bray, Charles Wise, John Blann, Tadziu Trotsky.  Those guys invested in my life and pushed me to be better than I was.  They didn't allow me to stay in my goofy state - living a mediocre life.  They saw something worth developing and went above and beyond to work with me.  I can never express enough thanks.
  26. Memories. I'm glad that we can remember things.  That may sound stupid, but that is all I have left of people like my dad, my grandparents, and Heather's grandparents.  I may miss them, but at least I still can remember them.  So it isn't like they are completely gone.  
  27. International Community School.  One class.  One year.  It shouldn't have made such an impact on me.  But that school burrowed under my skin.  And I can't help but be thankful for it.  It rewarded me richly.  It gave me friendships with some amazing students, as well as with some terrific adults (Carrie Baker, Robyn Terwilleger, the Kreidts, Greg Willson, the Egglestons).  I still hope that at some point I can officially be a part of that school.
  28. Weight Loss.  I am glad that I no longer wheeze when I tie my shoes.  I'm not embarrassed to be in pictures.  I can play with my kids.  And I don't look like a shaved panda with a severe allergic reaction.  It's been nearly two years since I started the process, and have kept off the weight.  Unless you've been an enormous land dwelling mammal, you can't understand the freedom of being released from that.  
  29. Entertainment.  I like movies, sports, music.  I enjoy playing Angry Birds, Word with Friends, and Jetpack Joyride.  I'm glad that there are things to waste time on.  And I'm glad we live in an era where that is accessible and acceptable.  I'm thankful my days aren't spent winnowing and my evening entertainment is watching crickets mate.  I admit it - I'm soft.  I like my fun time.
  30. Hope.  I am thankful that we have hope.  It is a powerful thing.  It allows us to look to the future and dream of something better.  We can reach a different status.  We can grow a family.  We can think of something beyond this life.  To have no hope is a depressing thing.  I am thankful that is not where we have to be.  
  31. MEGA HOLIDAY BONUS!!! Friends.  I often have avoided doing these lists for fear of leaving someone out.  If I did, I hope I haven't offended you.  I am so thankful for my friends.  They are such a great blessing.  I have tried to embed many of those people in other areas.  But as a way to catch some who fell through the nets, I offer up this point.  I thank God for people like David Tarkington, Benji and Amy Stultz, Toney and Anna Sauls, Randy and Susan Gillis, Tim DeMoor, Thomas Blevins, Greg Ramer, and so many others.  I may stumble along the path, but I never walk alone thanks to these people.  

Nov 21, 2011

White Elephant

It is the holiday season.  And we all know what that means, right?  CHRISTMAS PARTY TIME!!!  Sorry, to be appropriate, I guess I should say, HOLIDAY PARTY TIME!!!  (But, let's be honest, when I have ever strived to be appropriate?)  CHRISTMAS PARTY TIME!!!

One of the best parts of any good Christmas party is . . . the Christmas Bonus.  Aside from that, though, the best thing may be the Gift Exchange.  A good party can become legendary with a good Gift Exchange.  There are several versions of this - the Yankee Swap, the $5 and under, the Cookie Exchange, and (of course) the White Elephant.  To help you, my teeming masses of blogosphere friends, with your search for the perfect gift, I will offer up some White Elephant suggestions.  I have always considered myself a very good White Elephant gift exchange participant.  But I have also kept my best ideas to myself, hoping to use them.  However, now I work at a ministry with five employees.  So we don't have gift exchanges OR Christmas parties.  My gift to you, then, is my White Elephant Gift List.

Now, there are some rules for the gift exchange participant.  I want to go through those first, so that these gift ideas don't end up getting you fired or ostracized.

  1. Know The Party Type - This is a big problem.  Many places don't define their gift exchange party, so you get an amalgam of gifts.  If you are running a party, make sure people know what they are supposed to be bringing.  If you are going to a party, make sure you ask what exactly you should bring.  I HATE it when I go to a regular $5 And Under party and some dingbat brings a fruitcake.  There isn't really good swapping going on when all the gifts aren't in the same class.
  2. Don't Bring Fruitcake - Seriously, no originality there.  Ha ha.  Everyone hates fruitcake.  Joke's over.  Also, don't bring singing fish, dancing Santas, or any other cliched item.  Be original.  And, while we are at it, stay away from $5 bills and gift cards.  Those are going to get stolen and locked immediately.  Put some thought into it.  (I can't emphasize this enough.)
  3. No Tennis Shoes - In one White Elephant exchange, I got a dirty tennis shoe.  In another, I got a blown out egg shell.  There was some laughter, but again, there is no swapping with those.  And the person who gets stuck with it feels ripped off.  So, don't bring broken or completely useless stuff.  It is just mean.
  4. Keep It Moving - Gift Exchanges can be great, but they can also drag out for hours.  If you are running the party, keep things moving.  If you are a participant, know when your number is called. Don't hide your gifts.  And don't make a big deal if you get stolen from.  Just keep things going.
  5. Clearly Define and Stick to The Rules - How many rounds?  How many times can something be stolen?  Can the first person go again at the end?  Is everything free game at that point?  You don't want the event ruined because someone got miffed at the end.  Also, don't break the money limit.  Again, it just isn't fun when someone brings a $20 gift and everything else is under $5.
  6. Know Your Crowd - There is a gold mine of suggestions by knowing the people you work with, thinking through shared history, knowing the hierarchy of your company.  Also, if your co-workers don't have senses of humor, that really hampers your flexibility.
Okay, enough preaching.  ON TO THE SUGGESTIONS!!!  These are going to be for the White Elephant Gift Exchange.  I'm not giving ones for the other types.  Remember, White Elephant gifts should be humorous and creative.  So, think about your audience and have fun.  Here are some ideas.
  • A Live White Mouse - Sure, the PETA people will probably get angry at you.  But this is a great idea!  And it is cheap.  I actually did this in college at a Student Government exchange.  The guy who got it was shaking the box and I said, "Uh, you may not want to do that." When he opened it, I guarantee you he wasn't expecting THAT!  And, it ended up being a hot item because one of the guys in our group had a snake.  
  • An Actual White Elephant - The obviousness of this gift makes it a great idea.  I also used this once.  We had a little white ceramic elephant that I used.  And, with the large number of "do it yourself" ceramics places out there, it is pretty easy to make your own if you can't find it.  A White Elephant Mug.  A White Elephant Plate.  Good stuff.
  • Framed Picture - This is an idea I had and never got to do.  If you work at a church or a company with a very identifiable leader, get a picture of this person.  (It works really well if there is already a photo that gets used for promotional materials.)  Print the picture at 8x10 or 11x13 and buy a cheap frame at a dollar store.  Then frame it and wrap it.  It's funny because no one wants to make any negative comments, because the guy is right there.  And it is also fun to see the brown nosers fight to get the picture.
  • "Men Of..." Calendar - It is so easy now to print creative gifts.  And most of them aren't that expensive, especially at places like Sam's or Costco.  Or use Snapfish when they are running a special.  My thoughts for this is to get pictures of several of your co-workers.  Candids work best, especially innocent ones that can be misconstrued in the wrong context.  Then make a 2012 Men (or Women) Of The Company Calendar.  This works GREAT for church staffs, since there is no way this would ever exist outside of a prank.
  • Justin Bieber  - No adult in their right mind will admit to liking the Beebster.  So, get something Bieberlicious and wrap it on up.  There are dolls, shirts, purses.  Lots of available options.  And, since they are aimed at kids, a lot of them are pretty reasonable.  You also could go this same route with Twilight, Big Time Rush, or anything else that makes a tweener girl screech.  [ED NOTE: My friend, Candy, reminded me that she used a Justin Bieber toothbrush at a recent party and it was a HUGE success.]
  • Fake CD - This required some Photoshop skills.  Come up with a fake band and create a fake CD. I did this for my brother-in-law one year and then put an iTunes card inside the case.  Here's how it goes:  Pick a band (Screaming Monkey Trees), come up with a cool album name (The Monkey Within), create some weird and funny cover, and then make a fake CD using some of the worst songs you can find in your iTunes library.  Or, just take advantage of the 69 cent or free songs on Amazon's MP3 store or the iTunes store.  
  • Real CD - If you can't create one yourself, go to a used CD store or Walmart and get something like The Chipmunks or Milli Vanilli.  Better yet, if you know someone in your office who loves a music style/artist that no one else likes, this is a great way to utilize that inner-office history.  Go find a copy of Polka or Tribal Music or War Chants.  Make sure you play up how bad the album is, to tweak your co-worker.  (You can do the same thing with horrible movies like Jumper or Glitter or Gigli or with horrible books like Twilight.)
  • Goofy Ornament - There are some ridiculous ornaments out there.  Find one that you just can't believe is actually offered and wrap it up.  Good rule of thumb: If you think something is beyond stupid, it is perfect for a White Elephant exchange.
  • Sports Team Items - Another chance to tap into your office knowledge.  If you have a lot of Gator fans in the office, get some FSU stuff.  If there are Seminole fans, get Miami stuff.  Alabama fans?  Stock up on Auburn gifts.  If you have one very vocal fan of something like Ohio State, find some insulting pro-Michigan stuff.  Don't be afraid to target one or two people with the gift.  That is still funny.
Well, I hope that gives you some good ideas.  And I'm sure that you will get some good ideas as you shop.  The best thing is to give yourself a little lead time.  If you wait to the last minute, that eliminates things like the homemade and home printed stuff.  Or, if you see something hilarious in July, go ahead and get it.  You know the party is coming up, so it doesn't hurt to have it on hand.  If something looks stupid, it is a good start.  And feel free to share how your gifts went.  Have a great time at the party and be a good sport. 

Nov 18, 2011

On a Pedestal

Apparently, in light of the horrific events unfolding at Penn State, there is a movement to pull down the Joe Paterno statue that currently stands outside of Beaver Stadium.  The school itself has tried to distance itself from Paterno in light of the allegations against Jerry Sandusky, his former Defensive Coordinator.  I spelled out my opinions about the scandal in this sure to be Pulitzer Prize nominated post.  I went so far as to say they should fire the entire coaching staff and shutter the program until they find out what exactly is going on.  However, something just seems wrong about pulling down the statue.  I think the problem is that there ever was a statue in the first place.

It would be hard to refute the statement that Joe Paterno is one of the greatest coaches in all of American sports history.  He has the most victories in NCAA Division I football history - more than Bear Bryant or Bobby Bowden or Ron Zook.  He's won two national titles.  What is more impressive is that he did it at Penn State - a former agricultural school in Nowhere, Pennsylvania.  And, by most accounts, he did it well and clean.  The school was never hit with investigations and probations.  They kept high academic standards.  Paterno did all of that.  He was the architect of Penn State football.  And it wasn't just the program.  He was one of the first coaches to take advantage of a corporate sponsorship.  Since players cannot be paid to wear a company's products, national shoe brands will pay the coach instead.  Penn State signed with Nike years ago - back before they got heavily into creating superhero costumes for teams like Oregon and Boise State.  He's been handsomely rewarded for that.  His time spent at Penn State has brought him a lot of money, respect, and love.  In turn, he has donated a ton of money back to the school. By all accounts, he is a good man and a good leader.  He's earned his pension and his position.

But, now things start to surface.  It is like the lid is taken off of the box and the ugliness can start to come out.  People are talking about how he was stubborn and cruel.  He clashed with the administration and basically did whatever he wanted.  He really ran the school, regardless of what anyone's title read.  Some accusations are even worse.  Former Oklahoma Sooner coach (and a guy who knows a thing or two about cheating) Barry Switzer said that there is no way that Paterno did not know what was going on with Sandusky.  He said that at a big time college sports program like that, people don't get access without the coach knowing.  Other people have said that Sandusky's "retirement" was actually a penalty for the original accusation years ago.  And it is widely believed that Paterno did not do everything he could have to protect the kids involved.

I think that the shock of the situation has been so great that no one really knows what to do.  The school is trying to save its reputation.  Alumni and fans are trying to make sense of things and know if it is still okay to love Penn State and love this man.  So you have wild uncontrolled emotions flailing everywhere. This confusion has been brilliantly documents by Michael Weinreb over at  He is an alum of Penn State and has been personally wrestling with all of this and documenting it.  Brilliant articles, all of them.  The big struggle is what to do with this man who has become an icon of greatness to the school - and really all of sports.  How do these accusations affect the view of this man?  He didn't physically do anything to these kids - but his inaction allowed someone else to.  The program he built did not funnel kids to a predator - but the program he created gave the man ways to funnel kids to himself.  The culture he fostered did not force people to have an unhealthy view of him and other coaches - but the culture certainly lent itself to it, and he never discouraged it.

The problem is not so much with Joe Paterno.  It is with putting any human being in a place reserved for a god.  Really, that is what a pedestal is for.  It is putting something or someone in a place higher than others.  It is allowing us to revere and almost worship them as something greater than just the average man.  Look at the statues around you.  They are erected to recognize, honor, and inspire greatness.  Sports teams will frequently put up statues outside of their stadium to tap into a sense of loyalty and team spirit.  FSU has Chief Osceola on Renegade with a spear and an unquenchable flame with a huge sign reading "UNCONQUERED."  UCF has an awesome statue of a knight on a horse.  The Jacksonville Jaguars have a roaring jaguar.  The Bucs have their end zone pirate ship.  And Penn State had Paterno.

We have monuments throughout our country.  There is the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore.  We see people that have done great things and inspired us and put them up on a pedestal.  You don't put some useless dork up on a statue.  (Well, unless you are the city of West Palm Beach.  They had some random soldier and then that got replaced by a guy who designed a disastrous development project.  The only reason he deserved a statue was to give people something to aim the tomatoes at.)  However, there is a great danger in this.  Putting anyone up on that level is begging for problems.

These people, as great as they are, are still human.  They are flawed.  We may be drawn to their great qualities.  But there still is darkness housed in that same person.  We lift that person up and slowly focus only on the good things.  When something negative or unseemly surfaces, we are floored.  It doesn't match the refined and polished view that has been accepted.  Our faith is shaken.  And then we have to go through the messy process of tearing down the pedestal that never should have been constructed.  I see it happen in churches frequently.  Pastors are put up on a metaphorical pedestal.  People listen to their sermons and assume that this person has it all figured out.  They must know everything and being living completely blameless lives.  Many pastors foster this by never talking about anything negative in their own lives unless they have already overcome it.  Then, when the human element starts to come out - when that church member becomes more involved or some of the stuff said in staff meetings leak out - members are devastated that this man is just . . . a man.

We started attending a new church recently.  We loved our old church here, but it was smaller and the kids are at the age where they really needed an expanded children's ministry.  It was a hard decision, but we knew it was the right one.  And we consider ourselves lucky to have two churches we love and feel connected to.  The pastor at our new church is amazing - a truly gifted speaker and leader.  The temptation is to heap too much praise on him and give him too much glory.  I can see where some people there are already doing that.  It is an easy trap to fall into with a growing, thriving church.  And I am doing my best to make sure that I always remember he is a man.  He's a gifted and talented man, but still a man.  It is so easy to do this.  We do it all the time with celebrities and political figures.  Apple fans did it with Steve Jobs - pointing out his many brilliant moves while quietly ignoring the failures (Ping?) and the ugly stuff.  I am very concerned with the horde of people who have elevated Tim Tebow to this level.  Yes, he is a good man with a strong faith and a will to win.  But he's just a man.  God forbid, what happens if he was to fail?  What would happen if we found out that he was hiding a secret?  How crushed would his fans be?  (And, conversely, what kind of sick joy would his haters experience?)

That's another problem with putting people up on pedestals.  There are always going to be people who just love to knock them off.  There will always be cynics, people who refuse to believe anyone should be so loved and honored.  It goes beyond keeping things in perspective and approaching actively wanting to see this person fail.  I have seen it happen with Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, even President Obama.  There is this group of people that (basically) worships these guys and then another group that really hates these guys.  They want to see them fall on their face and laugh if and when it happens.  (Colin Cowherd, shoot, every sportswriter, I'm looking at you.)

Putting people up on a pedestal is a dangerous thing.  It invites disappointment.  No person can live up to that kind of pressure and scrutiny.  No one is that good.  All of us have shortcomings.  And even if they are minor, when someone is elevated in such a way, those shortcomings are magnified.  What could just be something we put up with Weird Uncle Larry becomes devastating when it is done by Urban Meyer.  We expect more from these people - they shouldn't be susceptible to the same things as us.  But that is unrealistic.  We shouldn't have to tear down pedestals because we shouldn't put people up there in the first place.  That isn't to say that we never look up to someone or admire anyone.  We shouldn't go through life negative and critical, assuming every person deep down inside sucks and will disappoint us.  But we should gain inspiration while remaining realistic.  And if someone tries to put us up in a places we don't belong, we shouldn't allow it.  I doubt anyone will ever put me in that place because I am the first to say that I am a messed up person that will only serve to let you down.  I am not going to hide my flaws because I know they will come out anyway - and probably at the most inopportune time.  If you find someone you really want to enshrine, learn from them and admire them.  But then pray - not TO them, but FOR them.  The pressures they face are extreme.  Not only do they have to make the right choices for themselves, but also for the people all around them looking up to them.  And if they do slip up, you won't have to pull them down from their perch.  They never will have been on one in the first place.

Nov 12, 2011

Second Verse, Same as the First

I'm kind of getting into a groove with my writing/blogging lately.  By "a groove," I mean that I am more writing for myself than for the six people who read the blog.  I have often heard that writing needs to be practiced if you want to get really good at it.  And I have found that to be true - when I get out of the habit of writing, I have a harder time getting back into the swing of it.  I also think my writing is rougher when I get back into it.  So I'm pretty glad I am starting to get back into the swing.  (You may not be, but there are plenty other options out there for you.  Like THIS for example.  See, now I'm not such a bad option.)  Of course, me writing more often means that you will probably be subjected to my oft-threatened "Why Green Superheroes Don't Work on Screen" post.  Win some, lose some.

The other night, I was watching a riveting football game between national powerhouses (that was a lie - I was watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for the fiftieth time).  A commercial ran for Like Crazy - a movie starring Chekov from the new Star Trek movie that I will never even think about watching, even under duress.  In the background of the commercial, I heard a somewhat familiar song playing, but being sung by someone I hadn't heard before.  I did a quick Google search and found out it was Ingrid Michaelson singing "Can't Help Falling in Love" - alson known as "Fools Rush In."  I went ahead and got the song on iTunes and it was really good - a completely original version that really added some touching depth to the song.

It got me thinking.  I have four versions of that song in my iTunes library and really like all of them.  (There are probably several hundred takes on that song in existence.)  Do you have songs like that, where you have multiple versions that are equally entertaining?  I'm not really talking about Christmas songs.  I have nine versions of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," fourteen versions of "O Holy Night," twenty-one versions of "Silent Night."  There are only so many Christmas songs to record, so there is going to be a massive amount of duplication.  You have the same situation with hymns and praise songs.  I have multiple recordings of "Amazing Grace" and "Come Thou Fount" and "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever."  I'm talking about regular songs that have been recorded several times, but where the artist brings a fresh take to it each time.  I'm a sucker for remakes, especially really good ones or ones that salvage a cruddy song.  (Go listen to U2's version of Gloria Estafan's ridiculous "Everlasting Love" or Chris Daughtry's acoustic "Poker Face.") If an artist I like does a remake on some obscure album, I usually get it (find Coldplay's live take on REM's "Everybody Hurts").

It is pretty common to have two versions of a song.  Remakes happen frequently - especially in the age of shows like American IdolX Factor, and Glee (especially Glee).  But I think it is much more rare to have a song with three or more versions.  It is also hard to find songs that are uniquely and creatively remade.  Take "Unchained Melody."  Tons of people have done that song, but most of them aren't very original - they just sound like a bad karaoke version of The Righteous Brothers.  So I went through my iTunes library to find out which songs I had multiple versions of and decided to evaluate why in the world I own them all.
  • "Can't Help Falling in Love" - 4 versions - Elvis Presley, Bono, UB40, Ingrid Michaelson - This is one of those rare songs were each version is a winner.  Obviously, the original Elvis version is a classic.  Bono recorded his version for the movie Honeymoon in Vegas with Nic Cage, SJP, and James Caan (forgettable movie indeed).  It was beautiful, with Bono's falsetto floating in during the last third to add a tenderness that wasn't there in Presley's.  Right after that UB40 recorded the song for Sliver with Billy Baldwin and Sharon Stone.  (Okay, the song doesn't have a great movie track record.)  The reggae twist on the song almost transmits a joyfulness in the singer's inability to quit loving this person.  It isn't mourning or longing as much as professing love.  Then Michaelson's version is just incredible and lovely - full of aching and desperation missing in each other version.  I love all four.  
  • "For Once In My Life" - 3 versions - Frank Sinatra, Michael Buble, Stevie Wonder - Right off the bat, my problem is that I am sucker for Motown Stevie Wonder.  I think his version of this song is just amazing.  It is pretty special to have a song that can hold up to a Motown treatment and a too-cool Jazz version.  I'm not always the biggest Sinatra fan, but he does a decent job.  Buble is giving his version of Sinatra's version.  (When you get down to it, isn't Buble's entire career his version of Sinatra?)  To me, the Stevie song is by far the best take.
  • "Hallelujah" - 6 versions - Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, kd lang, Jason Castro, Rufus Wainright/John Cale - I'll admit it.  I never had heard of this song before Shrek.  I fell in love with it in the film (Cale's version).  The CD came with Wainright instead - another good version.  Then I got Jeff Buckley's absolute home run of a version - the one most people recognize.  Finally I purchased the Cohen original and kind of wondered how it had spawned so many remakes, unless people just were convinced they could do a better take on a beautifully written song.  Jason Castro has a surprisingly nice, but not groundbreaking, recording of it.  And kd lang's from the Winter Olympics is glorious.  This is one of those songs where all of them are going to be somewhat similar - haunting, moving, powerful.  There will be degrees of those things.  You probably won't hear a reggae version, thank goodness.  (Well, I won't buy it if there is one.) Personally, I would rank them Buckley, Cale, lang, Cohen, Rufus, Castro.  
  • "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" - 3 versions - BeeGees, Melinda Doolittle, Michael Buble - The last season of "American Idol" we really were into was Season Six.  I even got the CD at the end of the season, which is why you will see Idol versions of several songs.  This song is one of my favorites.  I love the BeeGees version.  It carries with it a level of sadness and pain that is not always evident in the disco loving group.  Buble's take is smoother, but it also incorporates the BeeGees falsetto throughout the last third - a nice move, I always felt.  Doolittle's song is stupid.  She refused to sing "how can a loser ever win" because she didn't like calling people losers.  That alone disqualifies the song.  She also sang it in her too-characteristic milquetoast style.  (I still think if she had embraced her inner Tina Turner she would have won.  Her best performances were the rocking ones.)  Admittedly, I don't have the Al Green version.  I'm probably missing out.  But I never claimed to be authoritative on music.  And his is over six minutes - a big dragged out.
  • "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" - 4 versions - Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival, California Raisins - Another brilliant song.  I'm not a huge CCR fan and I am a HUGE Gladys Knight fan.  Even today, Gladys Knight could sing most divas under the table.  I think it is a riot when they bring her onto a show like Idol and she humiliates whoever it is she is supposed to duet with.  Then she kind of gives them a "nice try" look and walks off stage.  So you can guess where I land on this.  But, the Marvin Gaye version was also incredible.  I have a Motown Classics Gold album with the forty greatest Motown songs (not at all subjective).  It includes BOTH Knight's and Gaye's version - one right after another on the album.  That doesn't happen often.  The CCR version is fine with a nice Southern rock twist on the song.  But the real winner, obviously, is the California Raisins.   
  • "I Want You Back" - 3 versions - Jackson Five, The Waiting, Smokey Robinson - The Jackson Five version is awesome.  The Waiting version is fun.  The Smokey one is slow and too mellow - like a lot of Smokey's stuff.  Again, just my opinion.
  • "I'll Stand By You" - 3 versions - The Pretenders, Gina Glocksen, Glee - This is one of those "what the heck?" songs where having multiple versions don't make sense.  I never was a huge fan of The Pretenders version.  It was a bit much for me.  I got the Glocksen one on the aforementioned Idol CD.  It sounds like karaoke.  Then I got the Glee version on one of their CDs.  It was one of the dumber songs and one of the dumber sequences in the show.  Finn sang this to an ultrasound of his unborn child that wasn't really his.  Why do I have three versions of this?
  • "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" - 6 versions - Judy Garland, Straight No Chaser, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (2 versions), Glee, Matthew Morrison and Gwyneth Paltrow - Here we go... This is probably the quintessential remake song.  Yes, I have six versions.  You have the original one made famous by Wizard of Oz.  Obviously a classic that has led to countless remakes and redos.  Then, along came Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and his absolutely brilliant Hawaiian ukelele version.  That completely changed the song.  The Straight No Chaser version is a mashup with Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" that owes more to Iz's classic than Oz's.  Iz himself released two takes - one stand alone and one incredible mashup with "What a Wonderful World."  Then you have the Glee version that Matthew Morrison sang at the end of Season One.  I have to give Morrison credit; he did a good job.  It is basically a remake of Iz's take, complete with ukelele.  But Morrison's voice is less island, so it makes it a little blander.  His duet with Paltrow on his solo album is kind of a mashup of both the Oz and Iz versions.  It is good, but I don't think it is as good as the Glee version.  All in all, though, you have at least two very distinct takes on the same song that are both very good in their own right.  That puts it in the class of "Can't Help Falling in Love."
  • "Imagine" - 3 versions - John Lennon, Blake Lewis, Glee - This is where I get in trouble.  I hate this song.  I don't care if it is one of the most popular songs in history or that it was written by Lennon.  I hate it.  I have always hated it.  Part of it is that I don't like some of what it says.  I can get on board for prayers for world peace.  But Lennon puts out that the way to accomplish that is get rid of a whole bunch of stuff - including God and religion.  Obviously, that kind of hits close to home for me.  I did not purchase any of these versions - they came on collections that I wanted.  I'll move on before I get blasted by the pro-Imagine crowd.
  • "In Christ Alone" - 4 versions - Travis Cottrell (2 versions), Page CXVI, Avalon - Technically, this would fall into the praise and worship category.  But it is also a very good example of how different takes can completely alter a song.  The Avalon version of this song is the pretty standard version that has been heard in churches all over the country.  It is a good song with a great message and powerful emotion.  The Page CXVI is very low key and mellow.  Personally, I think it really robs the song of its power, but some people love it.  The Travis Cottrell version is incredible.  He mashes it up with "Solid Rock" and brings in a praise team.  I have two different live versions of his of the song.  Both are great and extremely moving.  One of the big challenges of praise music recordings is to make it recognizable, but also unique.  Cottrell definitely pulls that off.
  • "Jesus Freak" - 4 versions - dcTalk, dcTalk (live), dcTalk (lounge joke), Newsboys - It is perhaps dcTalk's most famous song - a great song.  I love it.  The live version is just a more frantic version of the album version.  When Michael Tait of dcTalk became lead singer of Newsboys, they recorded a version of it.  It sounds just like the dcTalk version, except with Tait doing all the voices - which actually hurts the song.  The only version that really brings any freshness was actually put on the Jesus Freak album as a joke.  It is a lounge singer version, which I have always thought was both hilarious and clever.  
  • "My Deliverer" - 3 versions - Rich Mullins, Ragamuffin Band, dcTalk - When Rich Mullins died, he had a very rough copy of his next album recorded on tapes.  It was truly a shame because it was an AMAZING album.  So, posthumously, the album was released on two CDs - the original rough recordings by Mullins and then fully recorded and mastered versions put out by his backing band and industry friends.  The song "My Deliverer" is just an incredible song.  I prefer Rich's original take, but the full album version is also very good.  It is more upbeat and polished, which doesn't actually help it.  When Prince of Egypt came out in theaters, dcTalk made a version of this song with the lyrics changed a bit to make it more about Moses than Jesus.  I never liked the lyric alteration, but the take itself is pretty good and unique.  It adds a rock flavor, which makes it more a celebration of victory.  Rich's original was quieter, like he was reminding himself that rescue was coming and to not give up.  Each subsequent version brought less of that wounded perspective.  I have always been partial to the original - but I also like the middle movie in most trilogies the best.  I'm weird.
  • "To Make You Feel My Love" - 5 versions - Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Garth Brooks, Adele (2 versions) - Another song where every version seems to be a complete home run.  Dylan's folk take, Joel's powerful 80's piano rock version, Brooks' country ballad, and Adele's Motown diva longing. I love all the versions of the song and each artist completely makes it their own (in the words of the Idol judges).  If you didn't know better, you would think that each artist wrote it.  I first heard Joel's song and thought it was his - until a friend corrected me about Dylan.  I had another friend who swore Brooks wrote it - until I corrected him about Joel and Dylan.  And there are people who swear that Adele wrote it.  It's one of those cases where the perfect person for each generation remade the song.  (Adele is really good at this - her version of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" absolutely nails it.)
  • "Somebody to Love" - 3 versions - Queen, George Michael, Glee - There is the Queen classic.  There George Michael trying to replace Freddie Mercury (impossible) with the rest of Queen in a decent, but subpar, version.  And there is Glee mangling the Queen version.  If anyone could have replaced Freddie Mercury, it would have been George Michael.  Which shows you just how awesome Mercury was.
  • "Sway" - 4 versions - Rosemary Clooney, Michael Buble, Melinda Doolittle, Glee - Yeah, I don't understand this one either.  I can't really identify which one is better.  They all are virtually the same take.  And all of them are pretty stupid.
  • "You Really Got Me" - 3 versions - Van Halen, Sanjaya Malakar, The Chipmunks - Speaking of stupid...  What a perfect way to end this examination.  Van Halen's song is hardly a classic.  But it is typical 80s David Lee Roth led Van Halen.  Then you have the complete trainwreck Sanjaya's inexplicably bad karaoke song that really could be used as punishment.  Then you have The Frigging Chipmunks putting out a take that would be considered torture by the Geneva Convention.  This song epitomizes the hit and miss nature of multiple song versions.  You have some songs that are like a framework that a talented artist can conform in any number of directions. Then you have some songs that are like trying to bend concrete.  
Those are what I have to offer.  Feel free to hit up the comments to list your favorite song with multiples - or to let me know which ones I missed.