Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What to Wear?

Unlike a lot of folks, I never have any trouble figuring out what to wear to a wedding, funeral, or swanky event. For better or for worse, I have been the same jacket size since the Reagan administration, when I bought my first tuxedo. It's a traditional black, Clark-Gable-style monkey suit, with no frills or adornments, and a simple bow-tie. In other words, classic. I take it to the cleaners immediately after the event and store it in a garment bag, and think I look just spiffy, thank you very much. Halloween, on the other hand, always torments me. So many costume ideas, but I can only choose one.

Hey did you know that dressing up in costumes on Halloween is a tradition dating back over 2,000 years? Yeah, the Celts - who lived in what is now England, Ireland, Scotland, and parts of France - celebrated with a festival called Samhain (pronounced "sow-in") right around this time of year. It was more of a harvest festival, and a "let's hope we make it through the winter" type of affair than the high-fructose corn syrup bonanza we know today. They built great bonfires, offered up animal sacrifices, and dressed in costumes made from animal hides, heads, and other gruesomeness. Then they crossed their fingers and hunkered down for the winter. They also felt that at this time of year the boundary between the living and the dead was thin, like a veil, and evil spirits could slip right through and wreak havoc on the souls of the living. Man that's creepy! I get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it.

Anyway, the Romans conquered the Celts and added their own rituals. Then Romans got religion and added Catholic beliefs to create All Saints Day. Then there was the reformation and Protestants added their two cents. And before you know it, everyone left and went to America and created entirely new rituals. Most notably among them was the idea of going door-to-door and begging for treats. Lots of people attribute this to the Irish which, considering the circumstance under which they left the Old World, makes a fair amount of sense. Whatever the case, once large numbers of Irish immigrants began flooding American cities, trick-or-treating began in earnest. And for me, that is what Halloween is all about. That and scaring the bejeezus out of the little kids that come to my door.

Which brings me back around to my costume conundrum. Thought I forgot about that, didn't you? I am not the type to buy a costume. I feel that any good costume, like any good meal, is one that is homemade. But I may be in a dwindling minority on this point. According to some recent statistics, approximately $1 billion will be spent on children's costumes this year, another $1.2 billion on adults, and get this, $310 million on pets. That's right: dogs, cats, ferrets, and anything else you can manage to wrestle into submission long enough to strap a costume to. Combine this with candy sales, and you are talking almost $7 billion dollars spent for this one day. If nothing else, it's comforting to know that in these troubled economic times, everyone has their priorities straight. For my part, I thought I'd find a dead animal along the side of the road, strap it to the top of my head, and go as Donald Trump. But the odor was off-putting, and the turkey vultures didn't give up on the carcass as easily as I thought they might. I kicked around being Mark Zuckerburg. All I'd have to do is wear a black hoodie, stuff my pockets with cash, and make uninspiring speeches all night. But that seems about as fresh as my Lady Gaga costume from last year. I took a bath on all of that prosciutto.

It's almost enough to make me want to skip town and get away from it altogether. I could get a timeshare rental at Mayan Palace Acapulco and celebrate Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) instead. Or maybe hit The Hilton Club New York and watch the freaks go by down at the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Then there's always New Orleans, which pretty much has a parade and/or festival for every day of the year, not to mention lots of great timeshares.

But no, that would be running away from my problems, and what kind ambassador does that? I think I just need to hunker down, and go with my gut. Which means I need to get to the drug store right away and lay in as much Fake Bake Sunless Self-Tanning Lotion as I can get my hands on. If I am going to pull this Snooky costume off, I've got be as orange as a carrot by this time next week.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ready for a Fall

Well it is that time of year again. No I don't mean your annual teeth cleaning, although that's not a bad idea. I am talking fall foliage road trip! If you read my blog (you do read my blog, don't you?), then you know that this is the time of year that I pay some neighborhood kid to rake my lawn and hit the road for this annual display of color, compliments of Mother Nature. Last year I learned exactly why the leaves change color, and would like to share that with you again. Those brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows are actually present in the leaves all year long. That's right, the carotenoids in leaves are responsible for yellows, oranges, and browns; while anthocyanins provide the reds and purples. But the chlorophyll used in photosynthesis by leaf-bearing trees has a dominant green pigment to it, obscuring the others. As the nights grow longer and cooler, chlorophyll production slows and the hidden colors are revealed; sort of like watching Paula Deen remove her face makeup.

Anywho, I've got a route I take each year, starting way up north in New England and finishing in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. I rent timeshares at some great resorts along the way, and catch a bit of the local flavor from the great towns and villages as I go. As you may have heard, there was some pretty whacky weather this summer and fall in both the north- and southeast, and it has had an effect on the color. Most of Maine has already seen its peak color, and if it is any indicator, this is not going to be a "super peak" year. More likely, you'll see trees that have lost all their leaves, trees in full color, and some that have yet to start changing. It's still gorgeous, and well worth the trip. Heck, I'd go to Vermont just for the maple syrup and to make sure everyone was okay after the terrible flooding they had. It's easy to forget about that when there are so many other things competing for your intention. Like Paula Deen, for example.

I like to throw in a stop in Beantown to get some chowdah, even if it is wicked ha'd to pa'k your ca' there. A timeshare rental at Marriott's Custom House is an excellent base for taking in all of Boston's historic sights, and getting out into the country to "peep some leaves". From there, I like to swing across Connecticut, catching more color and great antiquing along the way, and head into the Catskills region of New York. Villa Roma Resort Lodges in Callicoon provides me a front row seat for the colorful display, and is just two hours away from the Big Apple, should I decide to take in some "people-peeping". You know they've got a Naked Cowboy down there in Gotham? They've got everything in New York. You might just want to keep north of Wall Street for the time being, particularly if you are involved in banking or finance in any capacity.

Next up I like to hit Depuy Village at Shawnee Resort, in the Delaware Valley between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I always seem to hit great color in this stretch of the Appalachians. Of course I have to make my yearly pilgrimage to the Crayola crayon factory in nearby Easton, PA, and the Hershey Chocolate factory, which isn't nearby at all. But when you start talking crayons and chocolate bars, reason just doesn't factor into the equation.

Then I turn it south and cross the Mason-Dixon line into the Old Dominion State of Virginia. The Summit at Massanutten puts you in the heart of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and some spectacular fall vistas along Skyline Drive and the Blueridge Parkway. And if the America Civil War is your thing, there are fourteen battlefields in this region alone. Most of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson is buried in his hometown of Lexington, VA; a lovely little town you should definitely check out. His right arm, which was blown off by his own troops, is buried in Orange County, VA, about 2 hours away. Seems like a bit of a morbid detour, but to each their own. Finally, I wrap it up at the MountainLoft Resort in Gatlinburg, TN. This quiet hillside community is nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains, and I can't think of any better place to wrap up a fall foliage trip. Of course if I get a hankerin' for some good ole country music, spandex, and rhinestones - which I am wont to do - I can head on over to Dollywood. That's right, Dolly Parton's got her own theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge, the town of her birth. How long before Paula Deen gets her own theme park do you think? Can you say butter flume and bacon bumper cars, Ya'll?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jazz Takes a Holiday

When you think of jazz festivals, perhaps New Orleans, New York, or St. Louis jump to mind. But summer and the festival season are long gone in those places, not to return until next year. But in Clearwater, FL - from where I am writing to you today - they are gearing up for the 32nd annual Clearwater Jazz Holiday. For four days in mid-October musicians from all over the world, and from all genres of jazz, descend upon Clearwater and the greater Tampa Bay area.

Now I know that greater Tampa and jazz festival sound like they'd go together like peanut butter and codfish, but this free event has drawn such greats as Tony Bennett, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Tito Puente, Stephan Grappelli, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, The Neville Brothers, Branford Marsalis, Natalie Cole, George Benson, and many more. Beyond the great line-up, the setting is just spectacular. As the rest of the country is raking leaves and winterizing their homes, Clearwater enjoys daytime temperatures in the mid-eighties, and evenings in the mid-sixties. Just three miles long, it is an island bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the West and Tampa Bay to the East, with beaches Conde Nast Traveler calls some of the best in the country. Art Blakey, the great be-bop drummer, once said "jazz washes away the dust of every day life." Miles of pristine, white, sandy beaches with sunrises and sunsets over crystal clear waters don't hurt none either.

In fact, with the festival going on for four days, I am going to have a hard time squeezing in everything else I want to do in the area. For example, have you heard about that new movie Dolphin Tale? It's the story of a dolphin named Winter, and it stars Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr., and presumably a dolphin. I am sure it's absolutely terrible, but the dolphin that inspired the film, Winter, lives right here in Clearwater. She was found at 4-months old caught in a crab trap. After being taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, it was determined she would lose her tail. What in the wild would have been a death sentence, inspired a physician to spearhead the effort to construct a prosthetic tail for the marine mammal. I'm not making this up. It worked, and today Winter is the star of the show at the aquarium, where they also care for and exhibit other dolphins, sea turtles, otters, stingrays, sharks, and more. I can't wait to meet her, and secretly hope I run into Ashley Judd while I am there. I know, I know, but a guy can dream, can't he?

Then there's sailing on a 3-masted schooner with Classic Cruises, swimming with dolphins at Encounters With Dolphins, Murielle Winery (I know, peanut butter and codfish again, but trust me on this one), and the Sunsets at Pier 60 Daily Festival. Every single day of the year, starting two hours before sundown, you will find crafters, entertainers, food, and fun for the whole family at the end of historic Pier 60. This free, daily event typically includes a spectacular sunset as well. This is all without ever leaving Clearwater. But just minutes across the bay is the greater Tampa area, which includes Adventure Island (Tampa's only outdoor water park), Busch Gardens, Florida Botanical Gardens, Museum of Science and Industry (with IMAX), the Salvador Dali Museum, and more golf that you can possibly have time for. I'm definitely going to need a Jazz Holiday.

I am staying at a timeshare rental at Chart House Suites, right in Clearwater. You can also find timeshare deals in nearby Belleair Beach, Crystal Beach, and Indian Shores. If you are hoping to hit the 2012 Jazz Holiday, I suggest starting your search well in advance, and signing up for posting alerts.

Well, I am off to Tampa's famous Ybor City neighbrohood, a.k.a. the Cigar Capital of the World. Since the late 1880s billions of cigars have been rolled in this ethnically diverse neighborhood. And while it went into a steep decline for several decades, it has seriously rebounded in the last twenty or so years. The entire downtown district is a National Historic Landmark, complete with a functioning trolley system. I am going to hit the Ybor City Museum and then score some stogies to take to the festival with me. I've got my eye on some Tampa Sweethearts, but I hear good things about the La Herencia De Cuba, too. Fortunately, depending on your perspective, they let you smoke them right there in the shop. I may end up with some of each, since I have a lot of "dust of every day life" I need to wash away.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Great Pumpkin

Do you know what's orange, weighs 1810 lbs., and needs to be transported via flatbed truck? If you guessed my 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, you'd be two thirds right. The bug actually weighs 1900 (without me in it). No I am talking about the current record holder for world's largest pumpkin. That's right, Chris Stevens of New Richmond, WI, grew a pumpkin that weighed 1810.5 lbs. to take home the 2010 prize at the Stillwater Harvest Fest in Stillwater, MN. But if the last few years are any indicator, the gourd's reign will be short lived. Back in 1981, the largest pumpkin ever recorded was "just" 460 lbs. But Stevens's 2010 monster was more than 200 lbs. heavier than the 2009 winner. So it would seem that a 2000 pounder is is very real possibility this year. That's a one ton pumpkin folks. Are you kidding me?!

Of course most pumpkins are of a much more manageable size, at about 5-10 lbs. They are members of the genus Cucurbita, which is in the gourd family. These particular gourds are native to North America, and like many New World crops, the pumpkin's origins are unknown. Seeds dating from 7000 to 5500 BC have been found in Mexico, and remain the oldest evidence of the species existence. Once introduced to the rest of the world, their popularity surged and can now be found on all continents except Antarctica. They are used for everything from agricultural feed (chickens love 'em) to human sustenance like soups, breads, and of course pies. I for one cannot sustain without pie. Others of course are purely decorative, and are destined to be your Jack-O-Lantern in a few weeks - if not sooner. These pumpkins are typically of the Connecticut Field variety, and are familiar to just about everyone.

But the giant pumpkin varieties are in a league of their own. The story goes that giant pumpkins were first created by crossing hubbard and other large squashes with the kabocha pumpkin of Japan. The hybrids were then crossed back with rounder pumpkin varieties, and their size just kept getting bigger and bigger each time out. Eventually they were classified as Atlantic Giant, since most of this pumpkin upsizing was occurring in eastern North America (go figure). Then in 1981, Howard Dill of Nova Scotia (the giant pumpkin capital of the world) produced a 460 lb., pumpkin which shocked just about everyone who saw it, and made it the largest fruit in the world. For a time Dill actually held an exclusive patent on the Dill's Atlantic Giant seeds. Even today, all Atlantic Giants are derived from his stock, making him the Giant Pumpkin King. He should consider going into the giant pickle business next.

Anyway, all of the giants went into the ground back in July, and are just now starting to tip the scales. Growers from all over the world are getting ready to cut their trophies from their vines and see if they can top 1810.5. Just two days ago at the Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh-off, Carol and Dave Stelts hauled in a 1,807.5 lb. monster from Edinburg, PA. Not sure what you do with the second largest pumpkin ever grown, unless you also happen to own the largest chicken in the world, or can team up with the guy with the largest pie crust. Either way, it would seem that a new record holder will roll onto the scales some time in the next two weeks or so. Of course you can't count out Chris Stevens as the reigning champ, and keeping an eye on the Stillwater Harvest Fest in Duluth this weekend is probably not a bad idea. If you want to see it in person, you can get a timeshare rental at The Village at Izatys in nearby Onamia, MN. It puts you about an hour away from the festival and in a really beautiful part of the country.

Giant pumpkins are a bit too passive for me. Sure I'll place a wager on this year's winner (the over/under is 1950 lbs), but I am more into punkin chuckin. Do you know about this? Every year contestants from around the world descend upon the tiny hamlet of Nassua, DE, for the World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition. Contestants enter to see who can hurl a pumpkin the farthest via an air cannon. The current record, set in 2008, is 4483.51 feet, by a team called Young Glory III. That's 3/4 of a mile folks, and it is totally awesome! The technology does not yet exist (at least not in civilian hands) to shoot giant pumpkins with an air cannon, but when it does, I am so there.