June 21, 2008

Losing One’s Senses

Posted in Personal at 1:59 am by Calico Jack

I like to think of myself as someone rarely caught off guard, almost always able to think cogently regardless of whatever circumstances in which I might find myself. Occasionally, however, there will be a sensory trigger that flips a switch in my brain, promptly turning me into a mindless, quivering blob of jelly. This picture is one of them:

That image has been nothing but deleterious to me; I can scarcely remember to breathe, let alone use any of my higher brain functions. Every nervous system in my body has shut down, and all I can do is gaze rapturously upon such a vision.

One must surely require a piece of music to accompany the above picture. I’m partial to Francoeur’s Suite in G Minor: Contredanse but Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.4 in D Major: La Réjouissance also works quite wonderfully. Are there any other suggestions?

May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

Posted in Personal at 6:59 pm by Calico Jack

Nothing more needs to be said.

May 25, 2007

Reflections from a Second-Generation Star Wars Fan

Posted in Movies, Personal at 10:04 pm by Calico Jack

Note: This post is a contribution to Edward Copeland’s Star Wars Blog-a-Thon, in celebration of Star Wars’ 30th anniversary today.

I think that there are three different generations of Star Wars fans: those who saw the original trilogy in theaters, those whose first exposure to the saga were with the prequels, and those in-between — too young to have watched A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi on the big screen, yet too old to view Lucas’s later trilogy with the unrestrained enthusiasm that can only come from experiencing something completely novel.

Unfortunately, I was born several years after Return of the Jedi brought an end to the Star Wars trilogy in 1983, after the furor over Lucas’s pop-culture icons had died down and his one-time comment that he had three trilogies planned brought only a wistful smile to many faces. Yet the earliest recollection of my childhood is from 1989 when I was three years old, sitting in the shopping cart at Price Club (a precursor to Costco). My mom pointed to a pallet of videocassettes and asked, “Daddy really likes these movies. Do you want to get him these for Father’s Day?”

These movies, of course, were the Star Wars trilogy just released on VHS for all of America to enjoy. I had no clue what my mom was talking about, but I enthusiastically nodded agreement and put them in the cart. The next memory I have is several weeks later, after my dad had opened up his Father’s Day gifts. He wanted to watch A New Hope with me, but my mom was unsure; she thought I might be too young for some of the more intense scenes. But my dad promised he would cover my eyes if I got scared; and from the moment Tantive IV roared across the top of the screen with the colossal Star Destroyer Devastator following closely behind, I was hooked. I vividly remember watching the Rebel troopers lining the corridor of Tantive IV, blasters drawn and apprehensive looks on their faces. I didn’t quite understand what was happening, but I knew something exciting was about to occur (immense thanks must go to John Williams for his masterful soundtrack; even at three I could follow the story far better than I normally would due to his tonal cues and character themes). And when Darth Vader himself appeared through the airlock, labored breathing pouring through the speakers and an undeniable sense of dread filling every frame, I could scarcely breathe. Here was a villain (and he had to be a bad guy; he was wearing a face mask, wasn’t he?) whose presence was unlike anything I’d seen before. Although, to be fair I was only three — but it left a huge impression on my young psyche.

The rest of that first Star Wars experience is a blur, but not as a result of boredom. Rather, those beginning scenes completely enthralled me, and I could barely focus on the rest of the film because I was so excited to see this movie. When it was over, I’m pretty sure I was suffering from the effects of a sugarless sugar rush. And there were two more movies to go! We watched The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi the following two Sundays, and when the trilogy was over I knew that this was something I would enjoy over and over again.

My younger brothers followed much the same path; by the time each of us were three or four we had all experienced this sense of wonder that came with a first viewing. The early ’90s weren’t a great time to be a kid at the movies; in fact, there was quite a dearth of films that could stimulate a young boy’s imagination, let alone set it on fire like the Star Wars trilogy could. My brothers and I watched those movies every time we had an opportunity, eventually reciting iconic phrases along with the characters like “She’ll hold together. Hear me baby, hold together” or “You’re wrong, Your Highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” Our love for the films never wavered, but there wasn’t always an opportunity to express it like we wanted to — by playing with Star Wars toys. They were pretty much impossible to find in stores: even as another generation was being introduced to these movies, the ability to truly become our favorite Star Wars characters through playacting was almost nonexistent.

Then Hasbro released a brand-new line of action figures and MicroMachines playsets in 1995. Finally, here was an outlet for us to make our own stories in the Star Wars universe. My brothers and I snatched up every action figure we could, and staged epic battles on the back patio between armies with dozens of figures each. All of us had our own favorites, of course; I was partial to the Rebel pilot figures and the bounty hunters, while my brothers preferred the Han Solos, Chewbaccas, and stormtroopers of the line. Over time, we became familiar with our local Target and Toys ‘R Us’s restocking dates, and often showed up at eight in the morning with our allowance money tucked safely away in pockets, waiting for the latest shipment of new figures to be put out on shelves. There was a constant battle between those of us who actually opened up our figures and played with them, and the collectors and scalpers who wanted them only for their potential profit. Often we would arrive at a store thirty seconds after a new box of figures had been opened, and only a few (not-as-cool) ones would be left sitting on the pegs. But after weeks and months of diligent searching, we would finally strike gold: there would be a few Jedi Knight Lukes or Removable Helmet Vaders waiting for us to claim them as our own. Was it all a bit obsessive? Perhaps. But we experienced both the thrill of the hunt and the rewards that followed (i.e., bigger and cooler battles) after stumbling upon that ever-so-elusive figure. It taught both patience and persistence, important life lessons for kids who weren’t even teenagers yet.

Along with the toys came a resurgence of interest in the Star Wars films, especially after the announcement that Lucas would finally be making the long-awaited prequel trilogy. That confirmation sent shock waves through the entire Star Wars community, and barely anyone could stop talking about what might happen. For my brothers and me, this was what we had been waiting for: the chance to experience brand-new Star Wars movies for ourselves. No longer would we be latecomers to the party. We would be witnessing the fall of Anakin Skywalker, and for the first time in our lives not know what was going to happen next, not have the minutiae of these films endlessly discussed and debated until nary an original thought could be found.

Apart from collecting action figures, the biggest Star Wars thrill that we could receive in the years leading up to the prequels was the arrival of the latest issue of the Star Wars Insider in the mail. That magazine was always full of Episode 1 updates, from conversations with producer Rick McCallum about characters and storylines to exclusive set photos and prop displays. Even a picture of background Jawas could send us into a frenzy, scrutinizing extras dressed in funny costumes and wondering what these characters added to the story. For several years, Episode 1 was a puzzle to unravel; and the biggest pieces came from the Insider.

The Special Editions arrived in early 1997 (in fact, A New Hope premiered on my birthday), and we eagerly trekked traveled to the theaters to see what changes Lucas had made to our beloved films. For the most part we were extremely happy, although I’ll always be sad to see the “Yub-Yub” song go from Return of the Jedi. And while it was awesome to finally see our favorite films on the big screen, it wasn’t the same experience for us as it was for those who were sitting in the theaters on May 25, 1977 — not knowing what they were about to witness. Our best bet lay in the upcoming movies.

When the trailer for Episode I premiered in late 1998 (the official title hadn’t been announced yet), we were ready. TV stations all over the country jumped at the chance to show the trailer during their news segments, and we managed to videotape it for permanent viewing. Here was a piece of brand-new Star Wars footage, and it had so much to analyze and dissect. What were those funny-looking creatures coming out of the fog? Did the queen live on that Italian-looking planet? Yoda! And — stunned silence — a painted Sith with horns and a double-bladed lightsaber? Whoa!

After what felt like decades of waiting but was only years, May 1999 arrived with the thunderous boom of universal hype. We were determined to be a large part of that experience; and together with our friends we planned a Star Wars night to remember — first waiting seven hours in line to purchase tickets a week before the premiere, then camping outside of the theater for its midnight showing of The Phantom Menace (something we repeated for both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). We brought Star Wars Trivial Pursuit to play with our friends; by that time we were so intimately familiar with the films that the Trivial Pursuit game became a one-turn win for us. Whoever scored the highest number on the electronic R2-D2 went first, and ten or fifteen minutes later collected all of the pie pieces necessary to win without giving anyone else the chance to take a turn. But it was always fun for us to spring the game on some unsuspecting adults; after all, who would suspect that a nine- or eleven- or thirteen-year-old could correctly answer every single question on the cards? Even if one did consider himself a fan, it was doubtful he could name every single alien in the Cantina scene from A New Hope, list a Star Destroyer’s complement of weapons, or be able to recreate the entire Endor battle scene from memory — with dialogue and accurate ship movements. We were big Star Wars freaks, but that carried a lot of clout in certain circles.

Once The Phantom Menace finished playing, I remember having a distinct sense of disappointment that the total was less than the sum of its parts. We had eagerly gobbled down every single tidbit we could find on the making of this film, yet the story, once shown, seemed so bland — even banal. Trade disputes? A queen’s wooden acting? The coolest-looking villain in ages getting killed off before the end of the film? And we won’t even mention Jar-Jar. Sure, there were some cool scenes, like the Podrace or the Duel of the Fates; but on the whole, Episode I was a huge letdown from all of the excitement that had preceded its arrival. The next day I watched the videotaped trailer for The Phantom Menace (now starting to wear through constant replaying), and could hardly believe that the movie I had seen in the theaters not twelve hours earlier was the same film depicted on my television screen. Perhaps I overreacted a bit too harshly, since it was impossible to recapture that sense of mystery and awe that came before watching the film and having every question answered in two hours. Yet no matter how I tried to look at it, the original trilogy was far better in every aspect.

But we quickly put the discouraging taste of The Phantom Menace behind us: Episode II was just around the corner. And once again we scoured each latest issue of the Insider (and websites like TheForce.Net) for clues to the next movie. One of the biggest teasers was the statement that Boba Fett would appear in the movie, if only as a young boy. And we quickly learned that Mace Windu would get a chance to show off his Jedi fighting skills with a purple lightsaber. Anakin grew older and was replaced by a different actor, and we finally got to see the precursors to stormtroopers: clone troopers, with much the same body armor and helmets. Tidbits like these held us over for the next three years until one momentous weekend in April 2002 shook up everything: Star Wars Celebration II, held at the Indianapolis Convention Center.

This was the mecca for Star Wars fans: a full weekend of non-stop seminars, exhibits, shopping areas, exclusives, previews, art shows, autograph signings, and games — with 25,000 other people along for the ride. Celebration II was an amazing experience for everyone; but the highlight was a sneak preview of Yoda and Dooku’s fight scene, disguised as a Spider-Man trailer. When producer Rick McCallum asked the packed audience if they wanted to see a new Spidey trailer on a digital screen, most of us were somewhat lukewarm. Words started scrolling across the screen, and I remember thinking that this was a rather boring trailer.

Then Yoda appeared out of nowhere and ignited his lightsaber…and the audience went wild. I’ve never heard that much cheering in an enclosed space before. Everyone was on their feet when the trailer ended, and suddenly I couldn’t remember anything about Episode I. That Attack of the Clones trailer had wiped away any lingering doubts about Star Wars’ return to awesomeness, and once again I was pumped for the next film.

Unfortunately, while Attack of the Clones wasn’t nearly as disappointing as The Phantom Menace, it still didn’t give me that sense of wonder and pure exhilaration that I received all those years ago watching the original trilogy for the first time. I wanted that same experience, and I wasn’t getting it, leaving me rather disgruntled with the way these prequels were turning out. But then I noticed something that made me think: some of my friends’ younger brothers and sisters were seeing the prequels for the first time without any knowledge of the original films — and they were falling in love just as I had when I was their age. They embraced Lucas’s recent creations wholeheartedly, and in some cases preferred them even after seeing the original trilogy. This third generation of Star Wars kids were stretching their imaginations and accepting the newer films on their own terms: as movies that sought to entertain, no matter what one’s age.

Another three years passed, and Revenge of the Sith hit theaters with just as much fanfare as the preceding two. This time, however, I was finally able to appreciate the film as pure entertainment and let all preconceptions go (especially comparisons to the original trilogy). It didn’t hurt that Revenge of the Sith was, by far, the best of the prequels. I found it much easier to forgive interminable plotting and stilted acting than I had previously, and simply enjoy the experience of seeing a new Star Wars film for the last time. I laughed, I cheered, I cried…and when the film ended and we spilled out onto a darkened parking lot, I felt complete. Here was my Star Wars experience at last.

Today I’m still as much of a fan as ever. I read all of the novels and occasionally pick up an action figure that catches my eye. And I eagerly await the animated Clone Wars and the live-action prequel TV shows to come. Yet even if those projects never come to fruition, I’ll still have all six movies to savor and enjoy for the rest of my life. And I will eventually pass on that same experience I had to my children, sitting them down in front of the TV and saying “Here are movies that Daddy grew up watching and still cherishes. Let me show you why I love them so much.”

Happy 30th anniversary, Star Wars.

January 22, 2007

Birthday Bashes Boycotted

Posted in Food, Games, Personal, Random Oddments at 12:34 pm by Calico Jack

I had quite a few birthday parties growing up, and my parents always worked hard to ensure that my friends and I had a great time. Usually there were only a couple of ingredients necessary for an awesome party: friends, cake and ice cream, and occasionally some sort of activity–whether mini-golfing or going to the roller rink or rock climbing…or even just staying at home and watching a movie or playing games.

As I got older, I stopped having the formal parties with their invitations and gifts given, and instead preferred to simply have a few friends over to stay the night. Some of my fondest memories growing up are from my friends and I bringing all of our Star Wars MicroMachines together (which, let me tell you, is a gigantic collection), spending several hours dividing up hundreds and hundreds of figures and ships into miniature armies, and having a gigantic Star Wars battle that lasted well into the next morning. Such battles often ended with a few sleepy-eyed preteens valiantly defending each side’s prized Millennium Falcon playsets from the hordes of Jedi and stormtroopers who were swarming the ships. Small plastic missles flew in all directions, knocking a dozen Rebel Troopers to the ground with one blow. TIE Fighters swooped overhead to perform recon against the enemy on the other side of the living room, and dozens of dead and wounded Luke Skywalker figures were scattered everywhere (because, as we all know, Luke didn’t become powerful until the end of Return of the Jedi, so when it came time to take turns picking the figures we wanted for our army, we always chose the green lightsaber Lukes first instead of the Hoth or Dagobah ones).

Those were the some of the happiest times of my childhood — and there are a lot to choose from. Today, however, parents have turned birthday parties into competitions. What once was an excuse for children to eat lots of cake, give presents and play games has become, in many households, a lavish production costing hundreds and sometimes even thousands of dollars. The children become spoiled, and the host parents can now thumb their noses at the other parents who were unlucky enough to spend a few hundred dollars less for their children’s parties.

Some parents are standing up and refusing to get caught up in this tsunami of materialism. From Yahoo News:

Birthdays Without Pressure is taking aim at the oneupsmanship that drives moms and dads to throw parties that will really, really impress the kids and the other parents, too.

“We feel there’s a kind of cultural runaway going on right now around the birthday parties of kids,” said William Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor of family social science who had a hand in organizing the group, launched publicly earlier this month.

Birthdays Without Pressure has started a Web site and launched a media campaign.

Among its suggestions for more modest, stress-free party planning: Hold gift-free parties, with a note on the invitation that says any presents will be donated to charity; eliminate theme parties and gift bags for the guests; instead of organizing elaborate activities, let kids play outside or hold a treasure hunt; and invite children only, not their parents as well.

I don’t agree with all of the suggestions listed. I often had gift-free parties; but as a seven- or eight-year-old, I wouldn’t want to see my friends give me gifts and know that I promptly had to give them away. And small gift bags are always nice thank-yous for the more formal parties…just don’t go over the top. Still, it is nice to see some parents who realize that these contests (because that is what they are, honestly) miss the whole point of having a birthday party for their children–to celebrate the passing of another year in their lives.

Let them eat cake. It’s all they need to have a great time.

January 3, 2007

Library Love

Posted in Books, Personal at 11:28 pm by Calico Jack

I was working at the library this evening an hour before closing, and there was little to do apart from straightening shelves and amusing myself with the library’s computer system. A boy of about thirteen walked around the corner and stopped in front of the children’s desk with a rather quizzical expression on his face. He asked the librarian about a certain book for which he was looking, and from the way he spoke I could tell that he was disabled. Fortunately, I had shelved the book he wanted less than an hour before, so I walked with him over to the rack and gave him the book. He asked me, “Do you have another one? The teachers at my school have lots of copies of their books, and I don’t know if I need one or two.”

I responded, “I’m sure you’ll do just fine with one. Is there another book I can help you find?” He nodded and named another title which I recognized, so together we went to find the second book he wanted. After he had both books firmly grasped in his hands, he looked at me and burst out, “Thank you so much for helping me!”

I smiled, said “My pleasure” and started to walk away. He came up, threw his free arm around my shoulder, patted me on the back and told me, “Just so you know, I love all of you guys at the library.” I just grinned at him and answered, “We’re always happy to help.”

It made my day.

August 20, 2006

Quality Dates Quality, Or, You’re Not Good Enough For Me

Posted in Personal, Random Oddments, Relationships at 11:01 pm by Calico Jack

Once in a while, I run across something on the internet that seems so laughable as to be a parody…until I find out that it’s completely serious. Take Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey, for example. I had never heard of her blog until I ran across a link to it this afternoon. It seems that a week ago, this woman decided to write her list of qualities that potential boyfriends should know about. That’s nothing new, right? I mean, people strew personals all over the internet in the hopes that someone will find them interesting and/or attractive. But Paisley Passey (sounds like a children’s book title) is apparently unique in that she is hit on by guys everywhere she goes, and she felt the need to try to fend off some of their advances. Let’s take a look at her lovely blog post, shall we? I’m being selective in what I put on here; otherwise I’d spend all day on this.

I’m slim (whereas 62% of American women age 20 to 74 are overweight)

I’m attractive (my new picture has been rated more attractive than 86% of the women on Hot or Not — and the women who upload their pictures are a self-selected sample that is probably already biased towards being more attractive than the general female population)

Ahem. Let’s look at the evidence.

I’m relatively young (whereas 82% of American adult women are over 30 years old)

I’m intelligent (IQ tested at 145 when I was a child, which is 3 standard deviations above the mean — higher than 99.85% of the population. Even if I’ve gotten dumber as I’ve aged I’m probably still at least a 130, which is higher than 97.5% of the population.)

Three standard deviations? Umm…I hate to break it to her, but three standard deviations above a mean only makes her smarter than 99.73 percent of the population — a full .12% lower than she thinks she is. That must account for her inaccurate statistics. I think she should stick to blogging; leave the math to people who actually know what they’re talking about.

I’m educated (whereas 77% of American women do not have bachelor’s degrees)

I really, really doubt this.

I have my financial s*** together (no debt, perfect credit history, 6+ months living expenses saved, adequate insurance, self employed)

And she curses? What a catch!

Most of my interests tend to be more popular with men than women: science fiction, libertarianism, blogging, politics, economics, guns, gambling, etc.

Given that self-improvement is an ongoing project of mine this list will continue to grow (I’m currently working on adding bilingual, very physically fit, well-traveled, higher income, and fantastic cook to the list). So even when “relatively young” (an important criteria for most men) drops off that list, I should have added enough other things that my overall dating market value should remain the same or even improve.

“Overall dating market value”? What is she, a commodity to be traded at a livestock fair along with other swine?

The above list explains why I typically receive 50-100 (sometimes more) responses whenever I post personal ads. This is in addition to getting hit on almost every time I go out alone (and all that those men know about me is that they like the way I look, they don’t even know about all the other qualities I have that make me more appealing than most other women).

I just have one tiny, insignificant question. If she’s such a great catch, why is she posting personal ads? Shouldn’t she have found a great guy by now? And if by “other qualities that make me more appealing than most other women” she means “arrogance, insecurity, and a forehead with its own ZIP code,” then yes, I agree with her.

I realize that some of you will find this post depressing because you’ll realize that you don’t qualify as a high quality man and thus won’t be able to get a high quality woman.

Now that I realize I can’t get a high-quality woman, my life is over. I have no future. I must cry myself to sleep, sobbing in my pillow. “Why can’t I be a high-quality man for you, Jacqueline? Why?”

You have a few options:

Whoopee! I’m saved!

Lower your standards and stop pursuing women who are out of your league. There are lots of fat single mothers out there who can’t find dates either.

Wait a second…if you’re implying that all of the guys who hit on you can’t normally find dates, wouldn’t that mean that you are a last resort for many of them, a desperate attempt to find a mate after going through the entire barrel? You’re the dregs, Jackie. Hate to break it to you.

Look in the developing world. If you’re literate with a home computer and an internet connection you are very wealthy compared to the rest of the world. Citizenship or legal permanent residency in a rich country makes you more attractive to women in poorer countries. Your value on the dating market is thus much higher there.

I have no comment.

Self-improvement! I used to be a fat unattractive college dropout who couldn’t get her life together. Now I’m thin, attractive, and successfully self-employed after graduating. You can make yourself over into a higher-quality man capable of winning a higher-quality woman too.

Hey! You don’t have a boyfriend, but you feel the need to write this long, self-love post because you’re insecure! We have a word for people like you, Jackie…loser.

I do still want to spend time with *friends* as *friends* over the next few weeks, but I am *not* in the market for a new boyfriend right now.

On this, I completely agree. You’ve just spent an entire post going over all of your ugly attributes, which means that every guy in America now knows to stay away from you. I’m so thankful you aren’t looking for a boyfriend; I’d hate to see you so disappointed.

One final note: on her About Me page, Jackie Mackie Passey (hey, that rhymes!) reveals that she has previously been married (read: damaged goods) to a guy for a year and a half before he revealed to her that he was, in his words, “GAY GAY GAY.”

I have no idea what could have brought on his sexual orientation switch. None whatsoever.

Read the 500-some-odd comments after her post, too. This woman has become the latest celebrity in the blogosphere, as everyone seems to be lining up to take a crack at her. We here at Ignorant Critics never want to be left out of the party, of course. This is true entertainment.

Thanks go to Ace, pretty much my favorite blogger of all time, for bringing my attention to this barrel o’ laughs.

Princess Sela adds: Woah! Some people take themselves waaay too seriously! While reading her post I constantly had to ask “Are you kidding me?!”

August 18, 2006

On Kissing

Posted in Personal, Random Oddments, Relationships at 12:14 am by Calico Jack

Thanks to Digg for this article

So how does one gesture come to signify affection, celebration, grief, comfort and respect, all over the world? No one knows for sure, but anthropologists think kissing might have originated with human mothers feeding their babies much the way birds do. Mothers would chew the food and then pass it from their mouths to their babies’ mouths. After the babies learned to eat solid food, their mothers may have kissed them to comfort them or to show affection.

In this scenario, kissing is a learned behavior, passed from generation to generation. We do it because we learned how to from our parents and from the society around us. There’s a problem with this theory, though: women in a few modern indigenous cultures feed their babies by passing chewed food mouth-to-mouth. But in some of these cultures, no one kissed until Westerners introduced the practice.

Other researchers believe instead that kissing is instinctive. They use bonobo apes, which are closely related to humans, to support this idea. Bonobos kiss one another frequently. Regardless of sex or status within their social groups, bonobos kiss to reduce tension after disputes, to reassure one another, to develop social bonds and sometimes for no clear reason at all. Some researchers believe that kissing primates prove that the desire to kiss is instinctive…

Scientists don’t entirely agree on whether kissing is learned or instinctive. There’s support for both arguments, just as there’s support for the different theories of why people started doing it in the first place.

There is quite a lot of disagreement over this issue, isn’t there? I, for one, suggest that we do some more research to solve this problem. Are there any volunteers?

August 16, 2006

Applebee’s, Atrocious Food, and Automatic Gratuities

Posted in Food, Personal at 11:26 pm by Calico Jack

Last night I went out with a large group of co-workers to our local Applebee’s. The company was great, but our experience at the restaurant wasn’t very good. After the waiter took our orders, it took a long time for the food to arrive, especially considering that the restaurant was only half-full.

I had ordered a bacon cheeseburger, but it definitely wasn’t worth the $6.99 that I paid. The bun was soggy, the hamburger patty was lukewarm, and the bacon was limp. My friend Nicole had the fiesta nachos platter, but when it arrived the melted cheese was caked over, as if the dish had been sitting out for a long time. And others had problems with their food too.

After all of us received our entrees (at the same time, which might be part of the reason why quite a few of us had crappy food), the waiter left and didn’t come back once to see how we were enjoying our food. Nicole became so disgusted with her platter that she had to flag down a passing server, because our waiter was nowhere to be seen. The server apologized and promised to return with another fresh platter of nachos, but she had to wait a while as the rest of us finished our meals.

Two minutes after the server went into the back room to tell the cook to make another platter, our waiter magically reappeared and asked us how we were enjoying our food. He said, “I heard that you guys were having problems with your food. I’m very sorry, and I promise we’ll get you fresh food right away.” I almost laughed out loud, because he had done nothing to help us out. He hadn’t bothered to check on us, and a different server had already gone into the back to fix the problem.

When all of us had finished eating, we were handed our bills. There were nine of us at the table, but three sets of couples who combined meals. However, because we were a party of nine, Applebee’s had added a 15% automatic gratuity onto each of our bills. And they helpfully provided an extra space if we wished to tip more than we had already been charged.

Now, I know that this is standard practice for restaurants in dealing with larger parties, but it still irritates me to no end. I wouldn’t mind the assumption that I owe the waiter 15% if the food had been good and the service decent, but they were neither. Why should I be required to pay a certain percentage for a bad experience at a restaurant?

Are tips not supposed to be an appreciation for quality service? I always thought that tips were dependant on the generosity of the customer. They are not mandatory; they are optional (although expected in certain situations.) For those who work in customer service industries, they should go above and beyond the minimum if they want a larger tip. And just as people are more likely to give a larger tip if the service is extraordinary, they should be able to tip less if they are displeased. Applebee’s gave us the ability to be more generous, but no matter how lousy the service was we were still going to have to pay a flat rate of 15% — standard for restaurant tipping, but only under the assumption that the service was normal; and ours most definitely was not. Short of calling a manager and becoming nuisances, there was nothing we could do.

Our culture has become so self-important that tip jars are sprouting up in the most unlikely of places. They are ubiquitous at coffee shops, although I’m of mixed mind on this. I pay a lot for a Starbucks Java Chip Frappuccino as it is, and throwing in another dollar or so can be a fifth or more of the cost of the drink. And it isn’t like the baristas are paid horribly, that they depend on their tips for income. However, I would feel guilty about not leaving a tip after the barista spent a minute or so mixing my drink, so I usually just throw my change into the tip jar. It makes my coffee awfully expensive, though.

However, I have now seen tip jars at everything from bookstores to gas stations. I’m sorry, but selling items in a store to a customer doesn’t warrant a tip from anyone. Employees should expect tips for providing exceptional service, not for merely fulfilling their job functions. And I would be more likely to give a tip at a store if I’m pleasantly surprised with the attention paid to me, a customer. However, to think that I’m going to leave money in the jar just because the person behind the counter rings up my book and puts it in a bag is ridiculous. However, if they help me find a book that I’m looking for, or go out of their way to assist me, then I’d be more willing to leave something if they had a tip jar out.

I’m not anti-tipping — not at all. In fact, I’m a pretty generous tipper normally. I give a good tip to my hair stylist, although I don’t understand that practice whatsoever. I mean, if I’m paying sixteen bucks for a haircut, and she’s given me exactly what I paid for, why do I give her an extra three bucks? Still, I never fail to do it. I always leave my change at coffee shops, and I give anywhere between 15-20% at restaurants — even more if the service is excellent. What I am against is being forced to pay a gratuity, even though the food was poor and the service lazy. Automatic gratuities, although meant to protect waiters against stingy patrons, completely go against the point of tipping in the first place. It’s a voluntary apprecation for good service. Our waiter didn’t even say “Thank you” as he took our bills…and why should he? He’s guaranteed a decent tip no matter what he does.

It’s time to stand up against automatic gratuities. Adding to the cost of the food would be more honest than getting a bill and seeing an extra 15% added on without your consent. I don’t care if it’s meant to ensure that waiters get a decent wage; removing mandatory tipping would simply encourage waiters to provide excellent service to their patrons. Being a waiter or waitress isn’t without risk; there’s always the chance that they will run into a patron who simply refuses to leave a tip. But if they consistently provide good service, the tips they receive should more than make up for the times when they get stiffed.

And for the record, we won’t be eating at Applebee’s anymore. They just lost nine customers.

Edit: I think I was a bit unclear about my disgruntlement with Applebee’s. I didn’t mean to say that I’m putting a ban on them for life, only that my coworkers and I won’t be eating there anymore as a group. Every Tuesday, we go out for dinner after work, but we’ve decided to patronize other restaurants. A few weeks ago we went to Outback Steakhouse and had excellent service from our waitress; and she received a large tip from us as a result. With so many restaurant options available, we just don’t see ourselves coming back when we have better food and service at other places.

And I’m more than willing to go to a different Applebee’s; I would just prefer not to eat at that particular restaurant again. It isn’t a hard and fast rule, though; if I am invited to dinner with a group I’ll come. But it won’t be my first choice.

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Captain Morgan adds: I go to Applebee’s a few times a month, and have never had bad service. Or bad food. While I don’t discredit your experience, I hardly think one bad time is worth a lifetime of self-banning.

And also…..hair stylist? That’s the gayest thing you’ve ever said. I’ve been going to a barber, the same one in fact, since I was 10. And up until last month, he’s always charged $9.50. Now he’s up to $10.50, but that’s still better than $16. And I’ve never tipped him. Probably never will.

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Edward Teach adds: Tipping of the hair stylist is entirely dependant upon the type of establishment. In a shop where the person cutting hair is the owner, tipping is unnecessary, since all the income is his alone. In a chain hair salon or a salon with multiple stylists, often stylists are paid a smaller flat rate and use tips to bring their income closer to a decent wage much like a waiter would. This is where you would tip.

On Applebee’s, I agree that one negative experience hardly qualifies a life banning. Also, it sounds like a situation where a manager should have been discreetly contacted. That is why they are there, to ensure good service and quality. Talking to a manager can be done without becoming a nuisance.

August 15, 2006

Whom do you call?

Posted in News, Personal, Relationships, Technology at 1:03 am by Calico Jack

A new Swiss study reveals some interesting facts about the way we communicate in the 21st century. According to Stefana Broadbent of Swisscom, 80% of our cell phone conversations are only with four people. On first glance, such a claim seems rather unlikely. But then I thought a little bit more about the people I actually spend the most time talking to, and I think Broadbent’s right. Many of us don’t necessarily use our cell phones to get in touch with casual acquaintances. We have a myriad of options when it comes to communication, from cell phones to instant messaging to email to social networking sites such as Facebook and the cesspool of the internet, MySpace. With so many choices available, I often IM or email someone if I want to drop them a note or ask a question. It’s my close friends and family with whom I take the time to communicate personally.

This doesn’t mean that I only have a select few with whom I only talk to my cell; a quick glance at my recent calls displays quite a few names. But the ones who show up most frequently, and for the longest duration, are only a couple of people. If I’m planning a party, I’ll call a bunch of people to see if they’re able to come. But I doubt I’ll spend much time talking to them on the cell, especially if I spent an hour instant messaging them the previous night.

I’m not sure that this study actually means much. What it does point out is that we have many diverse ways of communicating, and we use each medium for different purposes. One hundred years ago, people didn’t profess their love for each other through telegrams — they wrote letters instead. But for business, telegrams were much more practical and efficient than waiting a week or more to receive a letter in the mail. Our ways of connecting are different than our forefathers’, but we are alike in one respect: we seek closeness with other people. However, I wonder if we aren’t less connected with each other than we used to be.

Nothing compares to actually talking to someone face-to-face. It is nearly impossible to read emotions through text, and a phone call removes our most important way of expressing ourselves to each other — through facial expressions. Communication has largely become something that is stripped down to its bare essentials; many people can’t even be bothered to write out full sentences when they write each other. The richness of sincere, leisurely conversation is absent, and I suspect few mourn its passing.

So check your cell phone records, and see how many people you actually call on a regular basis. And think about how many names are on your buddy list who you never IM. Instead of trying to have superficial relationships with as many people as possible, make an effort to develop true friendships with a few people. I suspect we’ll all be better off if we do that.

July 18, 2006

Pop Princess Poseurs

Posted in Celebrities, Health and Fitness, Music, Personal at 2:49 pm by Elizabeth Swann

Have any of you noticed how many of today’s pop artists sound terrible when singing live? It seems to me like they are out of tune for an entire song. I recently heard Kelly Clarkson, Cascada, and Rihanna sing live, and they were awful. It sounded like the way someone would sing at a karaoke bar. Of course these pop artists’ albums sound near-perfect, but if one cannot sing a decent song live then there is a serious problem. Anyone could make a CD and sound really good with all the right digital voice-enhancing techniques and everything else that is involved to get that crystal-clear sound. The real talent appears when one does not need enhancement; it is a natural voice that has been cultivated from years of experience.

While I must say I am a fan of some of these pop princesses, I think their music sells so well because of their bodies, as they have become more of sex symbols rather than being known for their vocals. The reason the average American’s music wouldn’t sell is because they don’t fit that “ideal” image. What kind of message does this send to young men and women? For men, it teaches them them to lust and to desire women who are sexually attractive. While this is damaging, it is even more so to young girls. They see what is desirable, and they feel like they have to fit this perfect image to be accepted. What may then ensue is a period, or even a lifetime, of self-consciousness about their weight and looks as they try to do anything within their reach to attain “perfection.” They often begin without even realizing the harmful effects on the body and mind.

Sadly to say, I have been caught up in this way of thinking–and the more obsessed I became, the more discontent I was with my body. Instead of being thankful for what I did have, I was constantly comparing myself with other girls and their waistlines. But I was never satisfied, even when I was close to reaching my ideal weight. Fortunately, I eventually realized the extent of my foolishness and my wrong way of thinking. I thought being thin would make me happy, but it never did. I was focusing on someone I could never be instead of becoming the woman I was intended to be. An outward beauty does not last, and I wouldn’t want a guy who wanted me just for my body. So with that mostly behind me (I’m sure I’ll always struggle a bit), I am now working on attaining that inner beauty which is of far more value and consequence in the long run. I know changing will be a long and challenging process, but it will be worth it all in the end. Life is too short and precious, and I don’t want to waste it on mere trivialities.

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