Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gelatinous Goo

So did you have a nice Memorial Day? I hope so, and that you took some time - however brief - to thank those who gave their lives in service of our country. I decided to spend the week in beautiful Cocoa Beach Florida. After hitting the local farmer's market and attending a Memorial Day observation, I took to the famously clear blue waters of Florida's Central Coast and, like the more than 800 people in the region, immediately got the hell stung out of me by jellyfish. Did you hear about this on the news? Seems conditions were just right for a "perfect storm" of mauve stinger jellyfish to "bloom" on beaches all over Brevard County. In hindsight, I should have noticed all of the purple blobs at the water's edge, and the fact that there was no one in the water as I approached, but I was in full-on "Big Kahoona" mode as I headed for the break with my boogie-board. Everything after that is a bit of a blur.

I can say that the lifeguards were amazing. They fished me out of the drink and immediately doused me with a vinegar solution that greatly reduced the burning and itching of the stings. While I still smell like a giant pickle - even after numerous showers - I am forever grateful for their efforts. Just the same, I've decided to stay poolside and bone up on my jellyfish facts. For example, did you know that all jellyfish are part of the family of creatures known as Cnidaria, and that another name for them is Medusozoa (like the Greek monster Medusa)? Yeah, they can be found at every depth of every ocean in the world, and even in fresh water. Most don't harm humans at all, and none of them are actually "fish" or even vertebrates. In fact, most aquariums have taken to calling them simply "jellies", and many in the scientific community call them "gelatinous zooplankton," but that's just gross.

But the little buggers that got to me are the ones most of us are familiar with. They use stinging tentacles to stun their prey and then absorb it through a rudimentary digestive system called a gastrodermal lining. In fact, everything about jellies is rudimentary. They have basically no nervous, circulatory, nor respiratory systems to speak of, and yet they have been around since before the dinosaurs; possibly 500 million years. Are you kidding me?! I guess sometimes less really is more.

The life cycle of jellies starts with the polyp phase. This is a super simple organism that is basically just a larva covered with cilia. It can be free-floating or attach itself to hard structures and even other organisms. But at this stage it is able to asexually reproduce itself into other polyps. So more like a plant than an animal, really. Here's where it gets really weird. Each polyp can then asexually produce a new organism called a "medusa". This is what grows up to be a full fledged jelly, and possibly ruin your day at the beach. So the original polyp remains, enabling it to continue to pump out more medusas until it dies. This is how "blooms" like the one I swam into occur, and goes a long way towards explaining their success as an organism. But just to up the ante, scientists recently discovered a species of jelly that may be essentially immortal. Yeah, the Turritopsis dohrnii has the unique ability to revert from the medusa phase, back into a polyp, and start the process all over again - skipping the death part altogether. That might sound attractive on the face of it, but the first time you have to buy yourself a Father's Day card would expose the obvious limitations with this approach for sentient beings - taking the "who am I" question to a whole new level.

Anyway, these jelly blooms are rare, and should not prevent you from heading to Cocoa Beach. My timeshare rental is a 2-bedroom/2-bathrooms oceanfront unit at The Resort on Cocoa Beach that puts me right in the heart of Florida's Space Coast. There's a tennis court, gymnasium, an elevated outdoor jacuzzi, even a 50-seat movie theater, all onsite. It's no wonder RedWeek users rate this place 5-stars.

Well I am off to get some dinner, and on the menu tonight is Stomolophus meleagris, a.k.a. cannonball jellyfish. That's right, there are over 80 species of jellies that are harvested for food around the world, and the cannonball is by far the most popular in the U.S. I'm told it is crunchy, salty, and even a bit smelly. I am sure it is going to be absolutely repulsive, but sometimes you need to send out a reminder as to who is at the top of the food chain, and why. I may be a mere mortal whose species isn't built for the long haul, and tomorrow I will still be a sun-baked boomer that smells like a pickle, but tonight...vengeance will be mine!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Don't Forget Winona

If you're as old as I am - which is to say not at all - you probably remember the Nat King Cole song "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66". If you're a bit younger, maybe you are more familiar with the Rolling Stone's 1964 version, Manhattan Transfer's in 1975, or Depeche Mode's rework in 1987. Seems not a decade passes without some popular group having a hit with this 1946 Bobby Troup tune. Troup wrote the song to celebrate the fabled route from Chicago to Los Angeles, known by various names including "The Mother Road" (via Steinbeck), "Main Street of America", and even the "Will Rogers Highway". Whatever you call it, Route 66 had a major impact on the growth of the western part of the country, and this tune left an indelible mark on the popular culture. The line that always jumps out at me is the one that says "Flagstaff, Arizona; Don't forget Winona". The song is basically a chronological list of the towns and cities one would encounter along the way, with the exception of Winona, which actually resides east of Flagstaff, and therefore prior to it on a journey west. Seems Troup wanted very much to include Flagstaff in his ditty, but ran into trouble finding a rhyme that worked. So he opted for Arizona and, lo and behold, there was Winona. Hey, see what I just did there?

So that's how I find myself in beautiful Flagstaff, AZ, writing to you today. Good thing I didn't have "Folsom Prison Blues" on my mind instead. Of course, Route 66 was officially decommissioned with the construction of the Interstate Highway System, and even Winona folded as an independent community and was made part of greater Flagstaff. But the lure of the wide-open west can still be felt here and, as the gateway to the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff is a vibrant tourist destination.

Hey did you know that the planet Pluto was discovered from an observatory right here in Flagstaff? Yep, in 1930 an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory confirmed the existence of what had previously been dubbed Planet X by the namesake of the observatory, Percival Lowell. In fact, the name Pluto was chosen in part as a nod to Lowell's initials. Lowell was a businessman, author, mathematician, and astronomer who had the novel idea of placing an observatory in a remote, high-altitude, and largely cloudless area. In other words, Flagstaff. Now this would seem obvious today, but in Lowell's time, observatories were always in or near cities and universities, and rarely provided the vantage point required for studying the solar system. The rest of Lowell's body of work is... let's just say, not so hot.

For example, he became convinced that there was an intricate canal system visible on Mars, and therefore concluded that there must have been intelligent life on the now-barren planet. In fact, he wrote not one, but two books on the subject. While popular with the public, other astronomers couldn't independently locate the canal systems, and they were ultimately (and mercifully) determined to be "optical illusions". Similarly, the "spoke-like features and a central dark spot" he observed on Venus was determined to be the blood vessels in his own eye reflecting back at him. And in what can only be classified as "kicking a guy when he's down", the planet named for him was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006. But the observatory he built has been the source of numerous discoveries of our solar system, including mapping out a landing area for the first Apollo mission. It accepts visitors daily, and you should really have a look.

Flagstaff is also home to the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world, first-class nordic and alpine skiing, fascinating frontier culture museums, a giant volcanic crater with a petrified lava flow, and the University of Northern Arizona. Within easy driving distance you will find Canyon de Chelly National Monument, a meteor crater over 550 feet deep, one of the best Native American cliff-dwelling sites in the country, and a little place known as the Grand Canyon. It's a wonder that the song Route 66 didn't just stop here, rather than continue on to Los Angeles.

Fortunately, timeshare rentals are available by the week, and you will need at least one to do this area justice. I am staying at the Wyndham Flagstaff, featuring indoor and outdoor pools, eight tennis courts, and 18-hole golf, all onsite. Nearby Sedona offers numerous timeshare options as well, and should be part of any visit to the area.

Well, I am off Slide Rock State Park to take in a slippery and chilly local experience. Part of Oak Creek Canyon, and managed by the U.S. Forestry Service, the park has been used as the backdrop to numerous Hollywood westerns, including "Broken Arrow" with Jimmy Stewart, and is home to an interpretive homestead. But its most famous feature is the slick natural water chute that runs adjacent to the homestead. Years of snow melt runoff has carved into the rocks a series of chutes that are as smooth as glass. Visitors are welcome to don their swimsuits and take their chances negotiating the slick and chilly course. Now I am thinking the likelihood of me busting my tailbone or cracking my melon on the rocks is fairly high. So if you don't hear from me for a while, "won't you get hip to this timely tip: get your kicks on route sixty-six".

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Yo Adrian!

Did you know that Balboa Park - in beautiful San Diego, CA - is the largest urban cultural park in the nation, and one of the oldest spaces dedicated to public recreational use? Yep, 1400 acres of land was first set aside in 1835 and dubbed "City Park". It remained completely without landscaping or development until 1892. That is when a landscape architect and botanist named Kate Sessions offered to donate 100 trees per year to the park in exchange for 32 acres upon which to put her nursery. The city wisely agreed and the transformation of the park was set into motion. By 1915 the park had assumed much of the look it has today, and was set to host the Panama Exposition. But the name "City Park" was less than inspiring for a "world stage" event and, after a completion, was renamed "Balboa Park". And just FYI, it was not named after the underdog fighter from Philadelphia made famous by the Rocky movies. It was in fact named in honor of the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who was the first European to spot the Pacific Ocean. That little tidbit is free of charge, and will save you the embarrassment it cost me in discovering it.

Today, Balboa Park totals 1200 acres and is home to 15 museums, multiple performing arts venues, extensive gardens, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. You could probably spend your entire vacation at Balboa Park, and still not see it all. I suggest starting with the zoo. If you are old enough to remember The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (Hi-yo!), you'll recall the frequent visits by the zoo's Joan Emberey and her furry friends (the bit with the laughing baby orangutan is about the funniest thing I've ever seen on TV). Today its 100 acres is home to over 4,000 rare and endangered animals and a collection of more than 700,000 exotic plants. I wonder if that orangutan from the Carson show is still here? They live about 50 years in captivity, so it's possible. I'll tell you one thing: the older they get, the cuter they 'aint. Although, they could say the same about us.

But if you're like me, and let's hope you're not, you'll have to hit the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. It is among the world's largest indoor displays of railroad models, and the only accredited railroad-themed museum in the country; 27,000 square feet of HO- and N-scale bliss. And if that last sentence doesn't mean anything to you, all I can say is check this place out and get back to me. Old and young alike will be mesmerized by the miniature worlds found within these walls. At only $7 (kids under 15 are free), it's a bargain to boot - unless of course you have a little problem with compulsively buying more and more trains, to the point where your spouse has threatened to put you out of the house and your kids stop visiting. In that case, you might want to just pass this one by. I'm just sayin'.

My timeshare rental at the Gaslamp Plaza Suites puts me right in the heart of this vibrant city, and very close to Balboa Park. Being a downtown location, the units here are smaller than some other timeshare resorts, but way bigger (and nicer) than a typical hotel. My unit is a 1-bedroom/1-bathroom that sleeps 4, and has amazing views of the city (I think I can see that monkey from here). Plus, there is a free continental breakfast served on the rooftop, fine dining at the Dakota Restaurant, and night club entertainment at Club 66, all onsite. It's no wonder RedWeek members give this place 4.5 stars.

Well, I am off the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater production of "The Three Pigs and Other Funny Stories". Sure Balboa Park is home to Tony Award-winning musicals, world-renowned Shakespeare, and even one of the world's largest outdoor pipe organs, but for my money (which is not much), there is nothing like a good puppet show, especially the "Three Little Pigs". Let's just hope this isn't one of those PC-productions where the first two pigs escape to the third pig's house after the wolf destroys theirs. The moral of the story is to do your best, or pay the consequences, and the wolf totally made prosciutto out of those two.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Your Mother

So did you tell your mom how much you love her yesterday, and thank her for all that she has done for you? I hope so. Because if you didn't, you're a lout, and you should feel terrible about yourself. Unless of course your mom is this woman, or maybe this one. If that's the case maybe cutting ties is the way to go. And hey, there's always Father's Day to look forward to in about a month.

Did you know that Anna Jarvis is the officially recognized founder of Mother's Day? Yep, she petitioned the U.S. government to make Mother's Day an official observance, and Woodrow Wilson signed it into law in 1914. Her inspiration came from the "Mother's Day Proclamation" by Julia Ward Howe (who wrote the lyrics to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"), and her own mother who organized Mothers' Day Work Clubs. The former was intended to heal the losses of the recent American Civil War - shared by so many mothers North and South - and to promote political activity by women. The latter attempted to improve health and sanitary conditions which led to the unnecessary deaths of so many infants and their mothers in childbirth. Pretty heady causes for the day.

Jarvis had a more basic idea in mind for her holiday, however. A graduate of what is now Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, VA (coincidentally the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson), she wanted the day to be a celebration of your mother, "the most important mother in the world," as she put it. She therefore trademarked the phrases "Mother's Day" (note the singular possessive) and "The Second Sunday in May". It was her intention that this day be spent with your mother, thanking her for making your life possible. Note that there was no mention of brunches, candy, cards, or even flowers. Simply a child's love and gratitude for his or her mom. But in what should be a surprise to no one, the day quickly became a "consumer event", even as war was once again raging.

By 1920, Jarvis was completely disillusioned by what she had created, and spent the rest of her life - and all of her money - railing against it. In a cruel bit of irony, she died childless (and broke) in a sanitarium in West Chester, PA. Not exactly a Hallmark moment, eh?

So this is where I would normally tell you to go rent a timeshare in some great location, and take mom along with you. But in light of the story I just shared, that seems somehow inappropriate. So if the true meaning of yesterday's holiday got lost in the shuffle of wrapping paper and gift boxes - or maybe just to make your mom's day - why don't you call or visit her again today, just to say thanks and tell her that you love her.

And fear not, I have thoroughly researched Father's Day and it carries no such baggage. It was purely a "me too" copy-cat creation that was met with laughter and parody during its first few decades, and nearly disappeared altogether. In fact, it was the work of the Associated Men's Wear Retailers who breathed new life into the observance in the 1930's, and it was not even a permanent national holiday until the Nixon administration. So by all means, let the neckties, golf balls, gag-gifts, and grilling accoutrement flow. Don't get me wrong, fathers play an extremely important and necessary role in all of our lives. But ostensibly, so does the Vice President of the United States.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Something Blue

So did you catch that royal wedding? No, not Steve "The King of Las Vegas" Wynn getting hitched, but the actual royals: the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, a.k.a. William and Kate. It is estimated that over 2 billion people viewed the ceremony worldwide. Think about that for a moment. There are more or less 6.7 billion people on the planet. If you figure a third of them are probably too poor to own a television (and have better things to worry about), and another third were at one time or another colonized by the British (and therefore predisposed not care about the goings on of the royals), that means pretty much everyone else tuned in. I had about 30 people at my wedding, and if you throw out family and people actually in the wedding party, they'd all fit in my living room. I cannot even imagine having to recite those vows with that many people hanging on your every word. Let alone having to wear that crazy bright red uniform Price William had on. I thought the redcoats went out of style after the War of 1812. Maybe he didn't get the memo?

Anyway when it comes to weddings, the British royalty knows how to put on a great show. It has been estimated that 20 million pounds (that's $33.4 million U.S. dollars) was spent on the wedding, with a cool $800,000 going towards flowers alone. Are you kidding me?! We did a 2-hour open bar at our reception, and it nearly put us in the poor house. Although, I think the royal affair was probably a bit on the dry side, if you catch my drift. Hey did you notice the diamond tiara the bride was wearing? Word has it that it was on loan from the Queen Mother herself, a gift she received from her father when she turned 18 in 1944. It was the "borrowed" part of the "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue," British tradition. But did you know that there is a lesser known final line to that little poem? Yeah, it says, "and a silver sixpence in her shoe," and is said to have ensured wealth and prosperity for the newlywed couple. Something tells me these two are going to be just fine in that department.

My timeshare rental at The Sloane Gardens Club in the Chelsea section of London actually put me very near the parade route taken by the royal couple. In fact, I am in easy walking distance to Buckingham Palace where it is said that the newlyweds are still holed up after their big day. You'd think they'd head off to some exotic location and live it up like the future king and queen that they are. But word has it that he is returning to work tomorrow as search and rescue helicopter pilot in the RAF. I, on the other hand, am going to enjoy my stay at this fully restored Victorian townhouse in the heart of this very fashionable neighborhood. The shopping, restaurants, and nightlife on the King's Road alone could probably keep me busy for the rest of the week, when I am not enjoying the onsite pool, health club, and casino.

Well, I am off to take the tubes (subway) to the Whitechapel section of town for the nightly Jack The Ripper Walking Tour. Each night at 7:30 PM a guided walk takes tourists along the Ripper's slashing grounds. Check out this description from their website: "as the night sets in and the long shadows fall, we delve into the crooked, cobbled alleyways of Whitechapel to follow the Ripper's bloodstained trail of terror." Is that creepy or what?! I love to get the bejeezus scared out of me, and there's nothing like a knife wielding maniac to make those little neck hairs stand on end. They even offer to show you photos of the deceased, if you are so inclined. I think I'll pass on that, but I will be examining the crime scenes very carefully, and who knows, maybe I will be the one to finally reveal the identity of the Ripper himself? I've packed my deerstalker hat and pipe just for the occasion. Now all I need is to find a sidekick who is also a surgeon and a crack shot with a pistol.