Monday, November 29, 2010

Cyborg Monday

So it is official. Thanksgiving is over, and the Christmas shopping season is upon us. Some folks - who are completely crazy by the way - ran out on Black Friday to snag deals in a shop-'til-you-drop marathon. Others waited until today (a.k.a Cyber Monday) to get started online. I don't know about you, but it's just not Christmas shopping if you simply sit in front of your PC and clickety-clackety your way down your naughty and nice lists. If you are like me, and I hope you're not, Christmas shopping means just one thing: toy stores. In my opinion, there is nothing like a toy store, and the bigger the better. Below are a few of my favorites which, if you ever get the chance to visit, also have timeshare rentals available nearby.

Starting out in the City by the Bay, San Francisco has two great independent toy stores. The Ark and Ambassador Toys both have downtown locations and feature "classic" toys, like the ones I played with back in the Paleolithic era. That is to say, made from wood, metal, and cloth. Although mine probably had lots of lead and asbestos in them too, the point is that they are durable, timeless, and simply fun. Don't get me wrong, there is a time and a place for some Wii bowling, but there is just something about a pedal car, a really good set of stacking blocks, or a quality hand-made doll. And I think it is more than simple nostalgia, judging by the throngs of young parents found at these stores who came of age in the plastic, play-with-it-once and toss it era. There are also many timeshare rental options available right in San Francisco, so you can do some shopping and dropping of your own.

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you will find Wacko in Los Angeles. As indicated by the name, this place is simply crazy. To call it a toy store would not be quite right. It's more like the largest collection of pop-culture-inspired ephemera in one place. Within that are some of the coolest retro and original collectible toys and accessories you've ever seen. Don't believe me? How about Pulp Fiction action figures? Or maybe a Fonzie lunch box? If you came of age in the 70s (a.k.a. the Plastic Age) this place is like a time portal back to your youth: bad haircuts and all. Nearby Anaheim is loaded with great timeshare rentals and a place called Disney that you might want to check out as well.

Of course, no review of toy stores would be complete without talking about the grand-daddy of them all: FAO Schwarz in New York City. The Toys 'R Us flagship store in NYC is now the largest toy store in the world (and totally awesome by the way), but FAO is legendary. Started in the 1860s in Baltimore, it is the oldest toy store in the U.S.A. and one of the oldest retailers of any kind. Did you ever see the movie Big with Tom Hanks? Remember the scene where he played "Heart & Soul" with his feet on the giant piano? That's the place, and it is even better in person. It's a true hands-on (and sometimes feet) experience. You are encouraged to play with the toys, and locals and tourists alike flock here to do just that. If you can get here to see this place decked out for the holidays, you really should. Try the Manhattan Club for a timeshare rental experience, NYC-style.

Well I am off to see if I can snag LEGO's new Ultimate Building Set. It's 405 pieces of colorful goodness in a durable plastic box, with a see-through lid. That way your little one can see the pieces they need without dumping them out all over the floor. It's perfect for the toddler on your list who is graduating from the Duplo stage LEGO block up to the big-boy leagues. Or, as in my case, an aging boomer whose collection is incomplete without it. It's madness I tell you, pure madness.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Those Aren't Pillows

Did you ever see that John Candy/Steve Martin movie "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles"? They are an odd-couple of strangers, teamed up by accident, just trying to get home for Thanksgiving. But one funny disaster after the next befalls them along the way. In this one scene they have been relegated to a cheesy motel, sleeping in a single bed together. Martin's character, Neal, wakes first to discover that he and Candy's character, Del, are in a spooning position. Del, obviously thinking he is at home with his spouse, is holding his hand and cooing softly. Neal inquires, "Del, why are you holding my hand?", as Del dreamily awakes. Neal frowns and then asks "Where's your other hand?" Del - still waking up - replies, "Between two pillows." Neal breaks the silence of the moment with a shriek of "Those aren't pillows!". The two men jump out of bed and try to shake off an implication of inappropriate behavior with references to football and other manly pursuits. It's a hilarious flick if you've never seen it, and watching it has become a Thanksgiving tradition in my home.

Of course our original Thanksgiving traditions go all the way back to the first colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Jamestown, Virginia. If you have never been, I highly recommend both. At Plymouth (or Plimoth Planation as it was known), you will be treated to an educational and entertaining re-creation of the second permanent English colony in America, and the place from where our original Thanksgiving legend originated (I say legend because much of what we think we know about the first Thanksgiving is probably not quite right). For example, it is very unlikely that the Pilgrims and native Wampanoag tribe celebrated a meal together in 1621. It was noted in several journals and letters that the colonists celebrated their first harvest that fall, and that curious representatives of the Wampanoag dropped by. The fact is, the remaining Pilgrims were happy and lucky to still be alive (many of them were neither) and, understandably, the two groups of people were not on the best of terms. None of this should deter you from enjoying your visit, or continuing to celebrate this treasured piece of our cultural past. Quite the opposite, really. The English plantation is staffed with interpreters who dress in period clothing, and speak in period accents. You can ask them anything you want about their lives, and they will answer from a 17th century perspective. They never break character. The Wompanoag homestead, however, is staffed by modern day members of the tribe. They feel it would be inappropriate to reenact something they still feel culturally a part of and, that not talking about the hardship that befell them after the arrival of the English would be a disservice. I respect and admire both perspectives, and came away with a knowledge of this distant past not really available in any other format. If you visit, you can rent a timeshare in either Boston or Cape Cod. Plymouth is situated along the route between the two.

With our Thanksgiving tracing its routes to Plymouth, it is easy to forget that the Jamestown settlement predates it by thirteen years. On the shores of the Jamestown River you will find a beautiful museum, a re-creation of the English fort, replicas of the boats they sailed from England, and a native Powhatan village. After enjoying the extensive displays of artifacts, movies and galleries at the museum, you climb aboard the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, and see just what a hellish experience the trip from England must have been for those original 104 men and boys. Then you can take a tour of the fort and native village. Both groups of interpreters dress in period garb and occupy themselves with period tasks. But neither pretends to be in the past. So if you ask a Powhatan about their most famous daughter, Pocahontas, they are going to be aware of the Disney movie as well as real life details of the Indian princess. I'll tell you first-hand that they don't know why Mel Gibson was cast in a singing role as John Smith. Nobody does, really. When you go, be sure to rent a timeshare in nearby Williamsburg. It will put you in the heart of America's Historic Triangle of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, where the British finally called it quits in the Revolutionary War. The latter is why we watch football on Thanksgiving and not soccer, I suppose. I for one am thankful for that.

Well, I am off to get ready for my local Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot. Do you know about these? Yeah, a bunch of people who are otherwise sedentary the other 364 days of the year participate in a 5k race on the morning of Thanksgiving. I guess it is a way to try to preemptively burn off the 10,000 calories awaiting them later in the day, and they typically raise money for charity too. But from a pure comedy standpoint, it's priceless and I like to reserve myself a spot right near the finish line. Do you remember the opening segment on Wide World of Sports when the announcer would say, "The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat"? It's like that, without the victory.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I Want To Believe

So did you catch the story last week about a mystery missile in California? Yeah, there's video of the thing circulating around the web, and it seems to clearly show an unidentified flying object leaving a giant trail in the sky. NORAD, The Pentagon, the FAA, and the DOD all denied being involved in any kind of a missile launch, but none could explain what the object - seen by thousands of people - could have been. Each insisted there was nothing to worry about and that there was absolutely no threat, terrestrial or otherwise. Which to me is not all that comforting on the heels of just saying you have no idea what it was. In the end, it would seem that things are not always as they appear. Seems that, due to the curvature of the earth, a commercial airplane leaving a horizontal contrail behind it can create the illusion that it is climbing straight up. But why let facts get in the way of a good UFO sighting?

So I was thinking it might be fun to see if there were timeshare rentals nearby famous UFO sightings that I could write about this week. But the green guys never turn up where lots of people (and cameras) are around to detect them, right? They don't fly right to the White House looking for our leader like they did in that movie Independence Day. Or do they? Turns out that a formation of orange lights was detected by D.C. air traffic controllers and thousands of people on the ground over the course of two nights in January 1952. The objects were verified by radar to be traveling over 900 m.p.h. Even President Truman was notified and kept abreast of the situation. Radio frequencies were scrambled in the Capitol and security threat levels were elevated. To date, no reasonable explanation has ever been offered and, officially, the flying objects remain "unknown". Man that's creepy! I mean, I am sure it was the Russians - or something we were building to use on the Russians - but what if aliens really did come in for a closer look at our capitol? Check out D.C. and decide for yourself by renting a timeshare at either Wyndham Vacation Resorts at National Harbor or Wyndham Old Town Alexandria.

When you think of Los Angeles I am sure that a long list of movies about UFOs comes to mind: like ET, Close Encounters, Alien, and so forth. But have you ever heard of the Battle of Los Angeles? No, it wasn't one of those awful 1950s martian invasion flicks, but an actual event that occurred in 1942. Just a few months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the west coast was on high alert for more attacks from the air. On the evening of February 24, a giant flying object was spotted by thousands of people on the ground and by U.S. military installations. L.A. was put under blackout, and massive search lights locked in on the object. Soon the Army's 37th Coast Artillery Brigade opened fire on the object, striking it several times to no avail. In the end, it flew off and was last seen over Long Beach. They've even got a photo of the incident, available here. Are you kidding me?! I guess the nation was too consumed with having just entered World War II to even consider a war of the worlds. I think a trip to Southern California is in order, don't you? I suggest the numerous timeshares available in the Anaheim area as a base for your exploration.

Then there's the case of the Lubbock Lights in 1951. Now you may know Lubbock, TX, as the birthplace of Buddy Holly - or at least you do now. But this event had nothing to do with rock 'n roll. Over the course of several evenings in late August hundreds of people - which is saying something in a town the size of Lubbock - witnessed 20 to 30 objects flying in a V formation in the night sky. Among the observers were three professors from Texas Technical College, and a student of theirs who managed to get several photographs of the objects. The photos were so amazing that they appeared in Life magazine. And keeping with a theme, they remain "unidentified" to this day. Now I won't lie to you. There isn't a timeshare resort within a hundred miles of Lubbock, TX. In fact, there isn't one within 200 miles. But if you are willing to consider neighboring New Mexico... do you see where I am gong with this? That's right, the grand-daddy of all UFO incidents occurred in Roswell, NM. You can rent a timeshare in Ruidoso, NM - about an hour outside of Roswell - and have yourself a UFO-themed timeshare vacation. Sure, your friends will think you're nuts, but you know better.

Should you decide to embark on this quest, I would point out something that famed physicist Stephen Hawking recently had to say about alien encounters. They way he sees it, if extraterrestrials have already figured out how to travel here from the far reaches of outer space, they certainly possess the technology to liquidate us all in the blink of one of their giant black eyes. He makes a good argument for things not going so well for the home team in this scenario. But then again, would you rather be watching X-Files reruns when you get obliterated, or on vacation in the beautiful Southwest?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Miami Vice

The last time I was in Miami Beach, it was all the rage to wear a tight T-shirt under an Armani jacket, white pants, and a pair of impossibly tight Italian loafers. Suffice it to say that this was not a good look for me, and I was never a candidate to replace Don Johnson on Miami Vice during his rift with his bosses at NBC. Besides, I could never get that permanent five o'clock shadow look down. I go from baby-face to werewolf in about twelve hours myself. But that was then, and this is now, and Miami Beach is hotter than ever.

Hey, did you know that Miami Beach was actually once just a sandbar off the city of Miami? Yeah, in the 1860s a couple of guys from New Jersey bought it from the U.S. government for 25 cents an acre with the hopes of operating a coconut plantation on it. They managed to get investors, and even produced some salable fruits. But getting it back to the mainland proved to be a nightmare. After raising a lot of money, and going bust a few times, they built the longest wooden bridge in the country to connect what is now known as Miami Beach to the rest of the country. But being eaten alive by mosquitos and overwhelming debt led to the end of the plantation phase, and the vacation resort concept was hatched. Under new management, plots of land were sold to wealthy northeasterners and a railroad was built to replace the bridge. In 1921, President-elect Warren Harding vacationed at the brand new Flamingo Hotel and put Miami Beach on the map. Then a massive hurricane struck and took it right back. The stock market craze of the Roaring Twenties saw a new boom in development, which was just as quickly crushed by the crash and the Great Depression. Are you sensing a pattern here? This booming and busting has been going on since the earliest days of settlement on this strip of sand, and if the off season signing of NBA great Lebron James is any indicator, we're in a big-time boom right now. Let's just hope history doesn't repeat itself while I am in town.

You may know Miami Beach for its famous South Beach (or SOBE, if you are in the know), chic restaurants, vibrant immigrant neighborhoods, and a nightlife scene without equal. But did you know it also has the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world? Yeah, from 1923-43 Miami was a flash point of this internationally acclaimed style. The Art Deco Historic District was featured heavily in both Scarface and The Birdcage, if you saw either of those films. Hey, wouldn't it be funny if they remade Scarface with Nathan Lane as Tony Montana instead of Al Pacino? "Say Hello to my little friend!" Maybe not.

Anywho, Miami Beach is also a fantastic spot to find timeshare rentals. I am staying at the Hilton Grand Vacation Club at South Beach. Located in the heart of the Art Deco District, this is a meticulously restored resort. It features a rooftop deck, whirlpool spa, recreation room, laundry and fitness facilities, and is within easy walking distance to superb restaurants and shopping. Oh, and its location on Ocean Drive -- better known as The American Riviera -- puts you just steps from the beach. You can get a rental at this fantastic resort for as little as $175/night.

Well I have to run. I have it on good authority that there is going to be a "Conchita the Chihuahua" sighting on the strip at South Beach today. Do you know about this pooch? Her former owner and heiress Gale Posner left a $3 million dollar trust fund and her mansion to this "tea-cup" chihuahua. A little bigger than a guinea pig, this canine is officially "The Most Pampered Dog In The World," and I want to see if I can get my picture taken with her. I'd really like to get a picture of Posner's son, Brett Carr, who essentially was left out of the will in favor of the dog. But he understandably keeps a low profile.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Just Do It

Do you know what starts in Boston, stops in London and Berlin, blows through Chicago, and wraps up in New York? No, not an Elton John shopping spree, but the World Marathon Majors fall season. That's right, the 26.22 mile road race that has come to signify the epitome of human physical endurance wraps up its season with the NYC Marathon this Sunday; and I don't plan on missing it. I've logged too many miles not to be there. In fact, I haven't missed the NYC marathon in over 20 years -- as a fan, of course. You'd have to be out of your mind to run that far, unless something really big and hungry was chasing you. Heck, I drive to the mailbox to get my paper! But I love being part of the spectacle that is a world-class marathon, and NYC is the grand daddy of them all.

Hey, did you know that the first marathon is said to have been run by the Greek messenger Pheidippides? The Greeks had just defeated the Persians at Marathon and, having fought in the battle, this fellow ran all the way to Athens to deliver the good news. He proclaimed, "We have won!", or words to that effect, and then dropped dead. That's a really lousy story when you think about it, and why it inspired long-distance foot races is beyond me. You'd think the lesson learned there would be NOT to run 26 miles -- even under the best of circumstances -- but there you have it. These days, the world records for running this absurdly long distance is around 2:05 for men, and 2:15 for women. Are you kidding me?! My flight from Chicago is going to take longer than that, and we'll be cruising at 600 m.p.h.

While in Gotham, I am going to stay at one of my favorite spots to rent a timeshare: The Manhattan Club. I know I have talked about its incomparable elegance and sophistication in the past, so I won't go on and on about it. But seriously folks, this is what going to New York is all about. Right in the heart of midtown Manhattan, close to everything, ensconced in oak and marble, and starting as low as $200/night. It is not out of reach of everyday travelers. Besides, it's not every day the NYC Marathon comes to town.

Well, I have to run to get to another of my favorite NYC events. The New York Comedy Festival happens to coincide with the marathon, and I am equally enthusiastic about the comedy festival circuit. Rather than cheer on the participants -- as I do with the runners -- I prefer to heckle the comedians. I figure it keeps them sharp and their material fresh. They tend not to see it that way, and I am presently banned from Caroline's, The Comedy Factory, or from coming within 500 feet of Lewis CK. For comedians, some of these guys are really wound-up tight. Maybe they should take up running.