Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Have I Told You Lately?

So I am here in Orlando for the 2011 ARDA Convention & Exposition. I'll save you the trouble of Googling it and tell you that ARDA is the American Resort Development Association, and this is their annual brouhaha. Which is to say it is a week of meetings, exhibits, presentations, and get togethers for all of the muckety-mucks in the timeshare industry. And if that sounds to you like an awful way to spend a week in Orlando, you'd probably be right. But I am in the biz, so to speak, and I've got your back on this one. I'll endure the breakfast workshops, breakout sessions, VIP network centers, and the awards gala - all to ensure I pass along only the best, most timely advice about timeshare travel as I can. I do this because I love you. Remember that when you save a ton of cash renting a timeshare for your next family trip, instead of cramming into some bleak hotel room.

Now of course I am not going to spend all of my time at the convention. I plan on taking in The Mouse, SeaWorld, Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, and all of the other attractions which have made Orlando a premier destination for travelers worldwide. But I am also going to sniff out a few lesser known attractions, like Fantasy of Flights in Polk City (about 45 minutes away). World renowned aviator Kermit Weeks's collection of vintage WWI & WWII aircraft is like no other in the world. And with most of them in working order, you are guaranteed to see at least one take flight daily. Aviation buffs and anyone with kids should definitely check this place out.

Or how about Ripley's Odditorium right here in Orlando. Part of the Ripley's Believe It or Not empire, this place is a 10,000 square foot tribute to the bizarre, odd, strange, and at times, disgusting. Examples? How about a portrait of singer Beyonce made entirely from candy, a balloon-powered chair that flew over the Rocky Mountains, or an actual human shrunken head. And if you weren't sold at the Beyonce portrait (I was), how about the return of the legendary fertility statues. Have you heard about these things? Apparently all you have to do is get in the room with them, and you are immediately impregnated. Over two thousand pregnancies have been attributed to simply rubbing the statues while on display at the Odditorium or on their recent world tour. Now the statues are - how do I say this - anatomically correct. So they keep them in a back area with a sign in sheet for adults wishing to conceive. Not being in the market for a baby or a cheap thrill, I skipped this gallery. But if you are considering either, it's included in the admission price, so why not?

And if you still have energy for something a little bit different, try WonderWorks: "Central Florida's only upside down attraction". That's right, the entire building - a big one - looks like it has been picked up by a tornado and dropped upside down on its roof. It's truly bizarre, and hard to describe. One of those things you just have to see to believe - like Dolly Parton. Anyway, once inside your senses will be bombarded with exhibits and activities like laser tag, a 4-D theatre (whatever that is), a 3-story rope climbing challenge and 5.3 magnitude earthquake simulator. I'm not much for rope climbing - as you may have guessed - and I think we've had enough of real earthquakes lately to last a lifetime. But I am so there on the laser tag. I always bring my own equipment, rather than use the crap they try to rent you at these places. It's fine for amateurs, but I like to know my equipment is going to perform when the rubber meets the road, if you know what I mean. But I will say it is getting harder and harder to explain to TSA screeners why a grown man is checking so much laser tag weaponry in his baggage. Oh well, boys will have their toys, right?

Well, I am off to an afternoon presentation called "Predictive Modeling and Survey Data" followed by the "Extending Your Financial Runway" workshop, capped off with an evening performance of the Blue Man Group with a bunch of accountants from Wells Fargo. Have I told you lately that I love you?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring Has Sprung

So if you live in the northern hemisphere, you probably know by now that Spring made its official arrival at 7:21 PM EDT last night. As your thoughts turned towards getting the short-sleeves out of the attic and tidying up the place, our friends in the southern hemisphere were contemplating getting their sweaters out of storage, and putting on a few pounds. And coincidentally, the night before was the biggest full moon we've had in these parts in almost 20 years. Yeah, it's called the "perigee" full moon, and the last time we had one that big was 1993. Did you see that thing? I was out for a drive - heading east as it came up - and I thought I was going to drive right into it. Then I thought it was a billboard of some type, like maybe for National Geographic or some such. I seriously gotta get my eyes checked.

Hey did you know that the term vernal equinox (the first day of spring) is Latin for "spring equal night"? Yeah, it is the point at which the sun passes directly over the equator, and it happens twice a year: one vernal, one autumnal. Now this has led to some confusion and misinterpretation. You probably have heard that on an equinox we experience equal amounts of night and day, i.e. twelve hours of each. And the Latin name certainly seems to suggest this. But it is not the case. In fact, the actual equinox - the point when the sun is directly over the equator - occurs only for a moment and not the whole day. And only someone standing directly on the equator would be able to observe it. But, why let physics spoil a good yarn?

One fable which should be debunked is this idea that you can stand an egg on its end on the equinox, due to some special atmospheric property associated with this day. Now, as I've already told you, the equinox occurs at one precise moment in time, and at the equator only. But even if that wasn't the case, what in the world would having the sun directly over the equator have to due with balancing and egg on its end? Why not a salmon or a watermelon, for that matter? The fact is, you can stand an egg on its end any old day of the year if you have enough patience and time to waste doing so. But doing it on the equinox is the only day of the year that will get you on TV or in the local paper, no matter how many times this myth is exposed. Oh well, I guess it is no stranger than eggs being sold as "dairy" at the supermarket.

So if you are looking to kick off your spring with a nice getaway, I have a few suggestions for you. How about the Washington, D.C., National Cherry Blossom Festival? Every year more than a million visitors come to D.C. to see the Yoshino cherry trees lining the Potomac tidal basin paint the city pink with their blossoms. And for three weeks (starting March 26th this year) there are parades, exhibits, music, food, and more. Like most of the attractions in D.C., the events are largely free. And since the trees themselves were a gift from the people of Japan back in 1912, this year's festival has taken on special meaning in light of recent events. The Red Cross and festival organizers have partnered to make this year's festival theme Stand With Japan, with numerous fund-raising events to benefit the Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami fund. So you can get a little R&R and help a good cause. I suggest renting a timeshare at the Wyndham Old Town Alexandria in nearby Alexandria, VA.

Or how about World-Fest at the Silver Dollar City amusement park in Branson, MO? It's dubbed "America's largest international festival" by its promoters, and judging by the line up of performers and culinary offerings, that might just be the case. Every year, representatives from all over the world descend upon the Ozarks to show off their cultures with performances and regional food. The line-up includes a Russian circus, Canadian fiddle champions, Irish harpists, Indian dancers, and performers from just about every other corner of the globe. They've even got the only fiddling aerialist in the world. That's right, Janice Martin is a world-class violinist, pianist, and vocalist who also happens to be an accomplished aerialist. Rather than choose between the two career paths, she combined them. So while dangling from a wire 100 feet above the crowd, she belts out jigs, reels, and hornpipes for the delighted masses below. Are you kidding me?! I can't even walk and chew gum without banging into something. This year's festival is April 7 - May 8, and Branson timeshare rentals are available on RedWeek.com.

Finally, there is a festival that just passed in Nederland, CO, called Frozen Dead Guy Days, which you should really put on your calendar for next year. Started in 2002, this festival commemorates the frozen corpse of one Bredo Morstel. Who is Bredo Morstel you ask? Well, he was the grandfather of Trygve Bauge, a Norwegian citizen who moved to Nederland in 1989. For reasons not explained, Bauge brought the frozen body of his recently deceased grandfather with him upon his relocation to Colorado. Bauge intended to build a cryogenic facility on his property to store dear old grand dad, but instead overstayed his visa and was deported. Apparently INS doesn't get involved with deporting frozen corpses, so Morstel was stranded - and thawing - in Nederland. Well long story short, the town came together to fulfill Bauge's dream of having his grandfather permanently on ice in the U.S. - even while he himself was shipped back to Norway. Thus, a festival was born. Now a three day affair the second weekend in March, it features coffin races, a slow-motion parade, the "Frozen Dead Guy" lookalike contest, and a polar plunge. Now folks, just about any water in the area is frozen solid this time of year. So they chop a hole in the ice, and anyone stupid enough to jump in is cheered on by the assembled crowd. Seems like it won't be long before Frozen Dead Guy has some company in his slumber. Oh, I know what you are thinking, and the answer is yes: you do get to have a look at old Bredo if you come to the festival.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I am sure if you've been on an airplane in the last twenty years or so, you've thumbed your way through the SkyMall left conveniently in the seat-back pocket in front of you. Unless you remember to bring a book or magazine, it's pretty much your only reading option, aside from the aircraft safety card and the barf bag. Long story short, I had intended to read the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson on my twelve hour journey to Australia, but somehow managed to leave all three of them on the airport shuttle. So I guess I am going shopping.

When SkyMall first came onto the travel scene - back in the early 1990s - it struck me as odd that you would buy something from a catalog from 36,000 feet up, only to be delivered at a later date back on the ground. But with the explosion of Internet shopping and mobile devices, pretty much anything goes now.

I was in line to buy some slacks at JC Penny the other day, and the fellow in front of me was shopping at Amazon on his iPhone, while in line to pay for his Dockers. At least he wasn't driving. But the thing about SkyMall that is still odd to me are some of the products. Who buys this stuff? For example, right here on page 28 is The Worlds Largest Write-on Map. It's a 9'x13' laminated map of the world, showing "capitals, countries, major cities, up-to-date political boundaries, time zones, shipping lanes, nautical miles, ocean depths and more - all at a scale of 160 statute miles to the inch". Wow. I guess if you have a 9'x13' windowless wall you just haven't been able to find the right treatment for, this will do the trick. Or perhaps if you are planning a land invasion of say Bulgaria, this would come in really handy. Just $149 bucks, and you can have this baby in 2-4 days.

Or how about the Canine Genealogy Kit on the very next page. Says here it "analyzes your dog's DNA and provides scientific confirmation of the physical characteristics, behavioral tendencies, personality traits, and potential health risks your mixed-breed dog." Now I guess it would be helpful to know if your pooch has any health risks, but aren't you pretty much already aware of his physical characteristics, behavior and personality at this point? I mean, unless you are trying to exonerate him of some sort of crime, I just cannot see why you need to know the DNA of your mutt. But if that's your thing - and you've got $59.95 burning a hole in your pocket - you need only take the enclosed cotton swab and "simply rub it against the inside of your dog's cheek and send to the lab in the provided envelope." Be sure you have a ride to the hospital all lined up before hand, so that when he bites your hand off, you won't be completely up a creek. They'll probably throw a rabies test in for free.

Oooh, and how about an Indoor Dog Restroom (the pet stuff is the best). This glorified door mat gives dogs a place to relieve themselves when they can't get outside. They say it is "made of antimicrobial, porous artificial turf that gives off an organic scent to attract dogs... so they can be taught quickly that it is an acceptable spot for relieving themselves." Further, it can hold up to two gallons of "liquid". Now come on. What in the world are you supposed to do with a mat soaked with with two gallons of dog pee? And is it too much of a leap to think that the "organic scent" that tells them it is acceptable to relive themselves on it isn't going to result in more than pee? Take your dog for a walk for goodness sake, or save the $99.95 and just let him crap on your existing door mat. It's cheaper, and you can just throw it away.

But my favorite item in this edition by far is the King Tut Life-Sized Sarcophagus Cabinet. That's right, a 6'3" King Tut sarcophagus that opens to reveal 14 storage shelves, sitting right in the middle of your living room. Now if you are like me - and I hope you're not - you wouldn't pay $895 for a sarcophagus and then use it to store knick knacks. Sure I'll put some tsotchkes and souvenirs in it for the time being, but when my time approaches, I am knocking those shelves out, and getting ready for that final journey in style. Do you know what a real coffin will run you these days? A pine box will set you back $985 easily, and this thing is totally tricked out with "hand-painted jewel tones". Although I guess I am going to have to put some handles on the sides and install some type of latch to ensure the top stays shut during transport. The last thing I want it is to make an unscripted appearance at my own funeral, if you catch my drift.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Iko Iko

Call it Mardis Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrovetide, or Carnival, but today is the day; the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent is upon us. All over the world people will enjoy a night of revelry, eating, and drinking, before observing a period of abstinence leading to Easter on April 24 (and a whole bunch more will just do the revelry, eating, and drinking part). Hey, do you know how the date for Easter Sunday is determined? I didn't either, so I looked it up. Looks like it's three easy rules to remember:

  1. Easter is the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox

  2. This particular ecclesiastical full moon is the 14th day of a tabular lunation (new moon), and

  3. The vernal equinox is fixed as March 21

Uhhh, yeah. I think I'll just refer to my Dilbert calendar that I got from the Hallmark store. And if the crowds that are already assembling out on Canal Street here in New Orleans are any indicator, I am pretty sure I've got my dates correct. That's right, I am in The Big Easy on Fat Tuesday, and what could be more perfect than that? Did you know that the first Mardi Gras in the Americas dates back to 1699? That's right, a French expedition was dispatched by King Louis XIV to defend the new territory of Louisiane, and the day they made a first permanent encampment happened to be the Tuesday before Lent. With Mardis Gras already a French tradition, albeit much more sedate, they named the patch of land 60 miles down river from New Orleans Point du Mardi Gras - a name it still bears today. And while the first celebration of Carnival/Mardis Gras in the new world was held in Mobile, AL, it is New Orleans that has become the de-facto official American observance of this Catholic tradition.

In Nawlin's the Mardis Gras is the culmination of a season of celebrations. In fact, for the past two weeks there have been daily parades, balls, and other social events all over this town. But today is the finale, and a day for which the Crescent City is perhaps most famous. Traditions change and morph over time, and Mardis Gras is no exception. This is a decidedly American celebration in that it takes a French religious observance and blends it with Native American, West African, Creole, and English traditions, to create an altogether unique variant. The famously colored floats are manned by "krewes", which traditionally were secret social clubs with strict race, class, and gender restrictions. And while some of those barriers have been removed, the traditions established by the krewes remain. Among them are the tossing of "throws" to the spectators lining the parade route. Throws usually take the form of colorful plastic beads, doubloons (wooden or plastic coins), candy, flowers, and even peanuts. Every now and then - if you are really lucky - you might even catch a Moon Pie. That's right, the chocolate-covered, graham cracker and marshmallow sandwich. I have no idea how that got started, and it makes you think tossing Twinkies into the crowd cannot be too far off. Mmmm.... Twinkies.

But perhaps the most iconic symbol of the New Orleans parade are the Mardis Gras Indians. There are at least 30 recognized "tribes" and probably quite a few more independent operations as well. Consisting of primarily African Americans dressed in brightly feathered costumes - inspired by Native Americans and West Indians - the tribes have become an integral part of the Mardis Gras and most other parades in town. The history of the tribes is a bit unclear, but it certainly involves a coalition of the two groups that comprised the lowest rungs on the social order of the city throughout most of its history.
Each tribe has a hierarchy of chiefs, "spy boys", "flag boys", and medicine men. Traditionally the tribes clashed in often violent encounters along the parade route. The famous song "Jocko Mo" or "Iko Iko" tells the story of one such battle. Today the tribes compete against one another with their costumes, dances, and songs, without actually coming to blows. It is estimated that a chief's costume, which is usually homemade with the help of family and friends, costs about $5,000 and weighs almost 150 lbs. Are you kidding me?! And get this, most chiefs will not wear the same suit two years in a row. They completely disassemble it and reuse the feathers and beads in new configurations, but never the same suit twice. Meanwhile, I've been wearing the same tuxedo to weddings and formals since Gerald Ford was in office.

While in New Orleans I am renting a timeshare at Quarter House in the famous French Quarter. The building was designed by renowned New Orleans architect James Gallier in 1831, and has all of the amenities you'd expect from a modern resort: pools, spas, elevators, Internet, etc. It's the best of both worlds and it's no wonder RedWeek.com members rate it 4.5 stars. You can rent a 1 bedroom/1 bath unit, with a full kitchen, sleeper sofa, and living area for $100/night. Talkin' 'bout hey now!

Of course landing a rental the week of Mardis Gras is a tall order, and you are going to pay (I did anyway). But don't despair. You can get all of the booze, food, music, and revelry of the Mardis Gras when St. Patrick's Day parade rolls into town, just two short weeks from now. If that sounds like it conflicts with the idea of Lenten abstinence, I'd say you are probably right. But two weeks is a really long time to not indulge in a city like New Orleans. And besides, you could always claim that you had the 14th day of a tabular lunation marked incorrectly on your calendar... or something like that.