Monday, February 28, 2011

And the Winner Is...

So did you catch the Oscars last night? That's four hours of your life you'll never get back, eh? I agreed with many of the choices for trophies, but what exactly were Anne Hathaway and James Franco trying to accomplish as hosts? I never thought I'd say this, but I want Billy Crystal back. And I really don't like Billy Crystal. I imagine Ricky Gervais is somewhere today laughing until he wets his pants.

But of course, The King's Speech was the big story of the night, and deservedly so. If you haven't seen it, it is the story of King George VI - the reluctant King of England during WWII. He was reluctant because 1) his older brother was already in line to be king and thus he had resigned himself to a life as the second son of royalty, and b) he was beset by a terrible stutter, and avoided public speaking like I avoid Billy Crystal movies. But his brother decided he wanted to marry an American divorcee - both of which are royal no-nos - and George (his name was actually Albert) becomes king. With the help of some unconventional speech therapy from a man named Lionel Logue (played superbly by Geoffrey Rush), the King overcomes his stutter and helps to inspire the British public during some of its darkest days. By the way, is Geoffrey Rush in all British movies, or does it just seem that way?

Anyway, between The King's Speech and Dowtown Abbey (my latest TV addiction), I was inspired to hit merry old England for a timeshare getaway. I am renting a timeshare at Allen House Club in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, or RBKC to the locals. RBKC is just west of Westminster - the heart of modern London - and until 1965 was two separate boroughs: Kensington and Chelsea. In its day Kensington was the traditional home of British royalty. In fact, from 1689 to 1837 the royals lived at Kensington Castle, which is a must-see attraction. This is one of the most affluent districts of London, and Allen House Club puts you in the heart of all of it, with easy access to the Metro and world class attractions like Royal Albert Hall, The Natural History Museum, and Harrods department store. There's even a life-sized statue of Peter Pan, commissioned by J.M. Barrie, the author of the Peter Pan stories.

Another fun way to take in the sights - and get a little exercise - is to take the Blue Plaques Walking Tour. All around London, homes and buildings are marked with blue ceramic plaques. A tradition dating back to 1867, the plaques commemorate the dwellings of famous London residents, starting with Lord Byron himself. You know, the Don Juan guy who was said to be "mad, bad and dangerous to know". Sounds like me. Anyway, Kensington and Chelsea are each loaded with plaques. A few notables are Howard Carter (the discoverer of King Tut's tomb), Winston Churchill, T.S. Eliot (T.S. for terribly sexy), Oscar Wilde, and A. A. Milne (the author of Winnie the Pooh), to name but a few. Hey I just made a rhyme, without even trying. Or as Pooh would say "poetry and Hums aren't things which you get, they're things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you."

Well, I am off to sample some of the local lunch fare at the Famous 3 Kings pub and restaurant. In addition to a reputation for fine food and spirits, it is rumored to be one of the best places to watch football in all of London. But frankly, I cannot make sense of the schedule. It says here today is Espanyol vs. Real Mallorca. I thought it was supposed to be Steelers vs. Packers? Anyway, "it is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like 'What about lunch?'"

Monday, February 21, 2011

Boys Don't Cry

Snake-bite kit: check. Sub-zero dry suit: check. Air horn: check. If it sounds like I am getting ready for basic training, you're close. I am heading off on my very first "mancation". Have you heard about these things? Apparently it is one of the fastest growing sectors in the vacation industry, and seeing as I am "in the biz," I figure I am obligated to check it out. Now I know what you are thinking: a week of drinking, cigar smoking, gambling, and carousing, disguised as a vacation. Sort of like "The Hangover" meets "Bachelor Party". And while that segment of the travel industry is as healthy as ever, this new phenomenon involves men traveling together, encouraging one another to try extreme sports, physical challenges, and anything involving firearms. And while I have never been much of a "shoot and eat it" type of guy, I'm not the "quiche and needlepoint" type either. So in the spirit of self-exploration and Gonzo journalism, I've put together a crew of my old college buddies, and we're hitting the road.

We've decided on Park City, UT, as our base. There are at least ten different ways you can break your neck within a 50 mile radius, and there are also great timeshare rentals to be had. I know, I know, we're supposed to be roughing it. And we will be when it comes to our daytime exploits. But I need my beauty rest, and since all members of my posse are old enough to remember the Nixon administration, a couple of extra bedrooms and bathrooms are in order. We've decided on a 2-bedroom/2-bathroom rental at Marriott's MountainSide at Park City. It puts us in close proximity to everything, and sleeps eight.

First up on our docket of events is, of course. skiing. But not just any skiing. We'll be heading out with the Park City Powder Cats to 40,000 acres of privately owned land in the Uinta Mountains called The Thousand Peaks Ranch. Outside of Alaska, the Uintas are the largest east/west mountains in the U.S. with nearly a dozen peaks exceeding 13,000 feet. They offer steep downhills, secluded bowls, and some of the best tree skiing anywhere. And check out some of these trail names: "Warren Miller Chutes", "Giant Steps", and "The Dark Side". I am so dead. But that is what mancations are all about. You push yourself to your limits, and when you're ready to chicken out, you know one of your buddies has your back. Although frankly, I haven't seen some of these guys in like thirty years, and they are looking pretty soft themselves. We'll see. Nightfall will find us at the High West Distillery & Saloon, Utah's first distillery since Prohibition, and the only ski-in distillery anywhere. I am not sure how the ski-out part works, but I guess we'll find out.

Next up it is Utah Olympic Park, home of the 2002 Winter Olympics and a training site of the U.S. Olympic Team. On our list of events is a run down the Comet bobsled course. That's right, three passengers and a professional driver are propelled down the very same course used to crown the Olympic champion, reaching speeds of 80 mph and pulling 5 Gs in the turns. Check this warning from their website: "We strongly discourage anyone with chronic neck problems, back or kidney problems, heart problems, recent surgery, and/or high blood pressure." Are you kidding me?! That pretty much describes my whole crew. And just in case you are a complete idiot, they add this disclaimer: "furthermore, pregnant women need not even inquire about the Comet bobsled, as they will not be allowed to ride under any circumstances." It should also go without saying that pregnant women are disqualified from mancations as well.

The activity that is giving me the most pause, however, is our heli-skiing outing. And yes, it's just what it sounds like. They'll be flying us up to the top of the Wasatch Mountains and dropping us into as much as 500 inches of un-groomed, untouched powder. Now in addition to completing a "Helicopter Safety Orientation" and being taught to operate an "avalanche transceiver" (whatever that is), we need to sign something called an "acknowledgment of risk". Just to give you a flavor of this document, here are a few of my favorite passages:

"Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of this activity. These same elements may, in rare instances, cause permanent trauma or death. We do not want to frighten you or reduce your enthusiasm for this activity, but we do think it is important for you to be informed of the inherent risks."

And then they go on to list - in extraordinary detail - each of those risks. Now if that is not intended to frighten or reduce enthusiasm, the $1,000/person ought to do it. Oh well, I guess what doesn't kill me (or put me in the poor house), makes me stronger, right?

The last thing we need to do is agree on a name for our gang. Right now we are going with "The Silver Foxes" which I really hate. It makes us sound like a bunch of old geezers out on the prowl. I suggested the "Bucket Gang" but was shot down. You know, like that movie where the guys know they are going to die, so they set out to accomplish all of their life-long adventures before they "kick the bucket"? Hmmm. I guess I can see where that wouldn't go over with everyone. But it is a long flight, and I am sure I can flip at least one vote in my direction simply by offering up my Hammacher Schlemmer Neck-Kink Preventing Travel Pillow. I'm telling you, these guys are really old and the slightest twist or sprain could put the kibosh on the whole thing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lover Boy

As you might have guessed by now, I am a romantic at heart. And what better day to be a romantic than Saint Valentine's Day? Hey, did you know that our modern Valentine's Day is thought to have originated before the time of Christ? Yeah, the Romans (who put the rome in romantic) celebrated a pagan holiday around this time of year called Lupercalia, paying homage to the god Lupercus. Lupercus was the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan, or god of shepherds. You know, the goat guy? Anyway, Lupercus's temple, Lupercalia, was dedicated with the sacrifice of two goats and a dog on February 15. So what's this got to do with chocolates and flowers? I'm getting to that part, just bear with me...

So anyway, the tradition of Lupercalia came to replace the original springtime festival of Februa, from which February's name is derived. And like most springtime observances, once appropriate thanks and praise were given for a successful planting and harvest to follow, thoughts turned to lovey-dovey. Now I know this sounds a bit undemocratic to our modern sensibilities, but it was seen as a vitally important time of year to find suitable mates for young men coming of age (14 or 15 years old). So what could be more egalitarian than a lottery? That's right, the names of all the teenage girls in town were placed in a box, and the young men drew blindly to choose a sexual partner for the remainder of the year. Ahhhh, young love. Not surprisingly, this was a wildly popular holiday among the young men of the Roman Empire and was anticipated perennially in the way that the reporting of pitchers and catchers to spring training is today, and probably quite a bit more so.

But all good things must come to an end, and with the rise of Christianity, the Catholic church set out to claim, change, or outright destroy pagan celebrations. And as you might imagine, they had their own ideas about how to get young lovers paired up, and it didn't involve any goat gods. They changed the lottery to a box of saints names and both men and women got to draw from it - which was a step in the right direction in terms of equality. For the remainder of the year they were to try to emulate that saint in deeds and actions, in the hopes that God would find this favorable. Talk about a buzz kill. Understandably, this "re-brand" wasn't nearly as popular with the young male population, and Lupercalia persisted. So like all good public relations campaigns, the church decided they needed to put a new face on the celebration - a spokesman if you will. Enter, Saint Valentine.

Now believe it or not, there were so many saints named Valentine (Valentius, actually) from this era, that no one is really sure which one the holiday commemorates. Are you kidding me?! I've never met a Valentine in my life. Anyway, the prevailing sentiment is that it was the Valentine who was stoned and beheaded (talk about overkill) in AD 270 by Emperor Claudius. You see, Claudius determined that married men made lousy soldiers, which makes a fair amount of sense when you think about it. But in a rather draconian and short-sighted edict, he banned marriage in the Empire. Valentine (a Christian), would secretly marry young couples, and for a time was able to keep it from the Emperor, who remained a pagan in defiance of the church. But word got back to Claudius and Valentine was summoned for a little chat with the boss. Now I already told you how that worked out for Valentine, but during his imprisonment he worked to convert Claudius to Christianity. It didn't work, but it bought him enough time to fall in love with the daughter of his jailor, or so the legend goes. On the day of his execution, Valentine left a note for his new love with the simple words "From your Valentine". This is thought to be the first Valentine's Day card. So the Christians got their man, and the practice of Lupercalia faded away. But the tradition of passing love notes and other signs of affection on the 14th of February remains a western tradition unrestrained by religious boundaries. In fact, the Catholic church officially removed it as a religious observance in 1969 - the summer of love.

Well, I am off to pick up a bottle of Cocoa Di Vine. Have you heard about this stuff? It's a blend of pure milk chocolate and Torrontes, Pedro Ximenez, and Moscato wines. That's right, chocolate wine. And at 14% alcohol, you and your sweetie can get your chocolate fix with a little something extra to boot. Can bacon beer be very far off?

Monday, February 7, 2011

The British Are Coming

If you are as old as I am, which is to say not at all, then you may remember that February 7 was the day the British Invasion began. No not the one in 1775, or that other one in 1812. I'm referring to the Beatles landing at JFK on this day in 1964. Do you remember where you were? I sure do. I was in high school and, like most boys my age, my two primary concerns in life were cars and girls - not necessarily in that order. Having grown up on rock and roll, I was more of a Buddy Holly and Elvis man myself and wasn't quite sure what to make of these new mop-toppers. Besides not being able to hear a word of what they were singing over the screaming masses of teenage girls, there was something else about them. They were just a little too, well, British for my tastes. I know that sounds silly now, but at the time it seemed odd to have some band from across the pond come over here and take over "our" music. But then again, there were all those screaming teenage girls. It became increasingly clear that boys my age had a decision to make: you're either for 'em or against 'em. It took about five minutes to figure out which side of that equation I wanted to be on, and I have been a fan ever since.

Hey, did you know that when the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show two days after their arrival that over 73 million viewers watched it on television? That was 40% of the country's population at the time folks. Talk about making an arrival! Although you'd never know by watching the footage of their famous press conference, George Harrison had a 102 degree fever and was unable to even rehearse with the band. While in New York, the Fab Four stayed at the world famous Plaza Hotel. For about $700/night you can do the same, and retrace their steps through the Big Apple. Or, you can go right around the corner and rent a 1 bedroom/1 bathroom timeshare at the Manhattan Club on RedWeek for about $100/night. Your call. Either way, Gotham offers a slew of treasures for the Bealtemaniac, including the very touching Strawberry Fields memorial across from the site of John Lennon's tragic murder in 1980.

From New York, the boys headed by train to Washington D.C. to perform their first U.S. concert at the Washington Coliseum. This was a small indoor arena, holding about 8,000 screaming fans, with the stage set up in the middle of the crowd - like a boxing match. And while they only played for about an hour, they rearranged the stage four times, so that everyone could get a good look at them. Can you imagine a band doing that today? And get this....ticket prices for that historic concert were only $4. Are you kidding me? If you were lucky enough to catch the show and held onto your ticket, it is worth about $1,400 today. Now that's what I call appreciation!

I cannot really recommend the Washington Coliseum as a Beatle-worthy travel destination. You see, it went out of business as an arena and was a trash transfer station from 1994-2003, and has been an indoor parking lot since. I guess what I am saying is that you'd need to be a seriously committed Beatles fanatic to hit this spot. But you can still rent a timeshare in nearby Alexandria, VA and take in the rest of the DC sites (most of which are free by the way).

The Beatles did not stay in the nation's capital very long, however. They went immediately back to NYC to play Carnegie Hall on February 10, and then flew to Miami Beach for their second Ed Sullivan Show appearance, taped live at the Napoleon Ballroom of the Deauville Hotel on the 16th. At the same time, a young prizefighter with a loud mouth was training in Miami Beach's 5th Street Gym for a fight that would shake up the sports world in the way the Beatles were rocking the music world. I am talking of course about none other than the Louisville Lip, a.k.a. Cassius Clay. You probably know him as Muhammad Ali, or simply, The Greatest. But at the time, he was a 6-to-1 underdog to lose to reigning champion Sonny Liston. Rumor has it that the Beatles tried to get an audience with Liston, in hopes of aligning themselves with a winner. They settled for Clay instead, and the few minutes they spent clowning around with Ali for the assembled press proved to be a seminal moment in American popular culture. Ali famously broke the ice with the Liverpool lads by saying to John Lennon, "you know, you're not as dumb as you look," to which Lennon immediately replied, "but you certainly are." They made fast friends after that, and each went on to make history in their respective realms. You can visit the 5th Street Gym and everything else this vibrant city has to offer by renting a Miami Beach timeshare on

Well, I am off to my guitar lesson. I've had it on my "bucket list" to be able to play Blackbird from the White Album for years now, and I've decided that 2011 will be the year I do it - or die trying. I recently read that Paul McCartney drew inspiration for the guitar part from Bach's Bourree in E minor. Apparently both he and George Harrison attempted to master this piece in their youth as a "show off" song to impress the ladies. And while my original motivation was likewise, it's now more of a white whale for me... nam daed no em nrut nam daed no em nrut nam daed no em nrut ...