Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When in Rome

So do you know what it's called when the axial tilt of the earth's polar hemisphere is farthest away from the sun? And no, that's not the set-up to a joke only astrophysicists get. It's the technical description of what occurs on the winter solstice, also known as midwinter in parts of the world. In the northern hemisphere that is this Thursday, December 22, at precisely 5:30 AM UTC. In other words, the shortest day of the year. Sort of.

Of course all days are 24 hours long, but we all know that some "feel" longer than others. Take Christmas with the in-laws, for example. But the amount of sun we get in a day can make it feel shorter as well, and on the winter solstice, we record the least amount of daylight of the year. Which is why it has a special name, and is the source of numerous celebrations and observances worldwide. Did you know that Stonehenge was built to align exactly with the location of the sunrise on solstice? Yep, and you can bet your hat that place is crawling with druids, hippies, and all manner of freaks and geeks as we speak, as a result. Of course in Seattle, where I am from, a day with almost no sunlight is just called Tuesday.

But what about the other half of the world, down in the southern hemisphere? You guessed it, it's the summer solstice, and they are getting ready to celebrate the longest day of the year. So while it means missing Christmas with the in-laws, I've decided to head to the land of the Kiwis, a.k.a. New Zealand.

New Zealand was one of the last land masses to be populated by humans. It is estimated that Polynesians began arriving here around 1250. These folks became the Māori, and are considered to be the indigenous people of New Zealand. Prior to their arrival, there were no mammals at all and the land was noted for its numerous bird species, many of which can be found nowhere else. Among them, a flightless bird called the Kiwi became the national symbol and nickname for the people of New Zealand. The first contact with Europeans came in 1642 when a Dutch explorer named Abel Tasman (as in Tasmania), "discovered" it. However, the Māori discovered him and his crew, and let's just say it went very poorly for the visiting team. Europeans did not come back again for over 100 years. But when they did, it was the British and they have never left. The British brought with them English, mammals, muskets, potatoes, and Old World diseases. And all of that worked out about the same is it did elsewhere, and today about 15% of the population identifies themselves as Māori. The remainder are predominantly of European descent with minority Asian and Pacific Island groups represented as well.

New Zealand is made up two primary islands: North Island and South Island. They stretch almost 1,000 miles from north to south. So you really can't see all of this country in one go. Most people focus on one island and perhaps a portion of the other. At their closest, North and South Island are 14 miles apart, separated by Cook Strait. I chose South Island, which is the larger of the two, and is divided lengthwise by a mountain range known as the South Alps. This mountain range has 20 peaks that are above 9,000 feet, and one - Aoraki/Mount Cook - towers at 12,316 feet. So as you might imagine, the weather varies wildly depending on your relationship to the mountains, and the sea. My timeshare rental is in Wanaka, which is among the few places in New Zealand that enjoys four distinct seasons. And while they are approaching the summer solstice, the spring (September to December) is noted for rain. So it is a little soggy here and there, but the temperature is hovering in the 75 - 80 degree range and the sun is showing itself a little more each day. We don't have a name for that in Seattle, since the sun never shines for more than two days in a row.

Wanaka is located in the Otago region of South Island, just south of Lake Wanaka, from which it derives its name. It's primarily a resort town, but is not intensely developed. Kiwis are very concerned about over-development and creating a sustainable society, even when it comes to tourism. Over 30% of New Zealand's land mass has been set aside in the form of parks, reserves, and natural areas. And more and more inns and hotels are being built or retro-fitted to reduce the consumption of natural resources. It makes a lot of sense when you consider that the very thing tourists come for - the natural setting - must be preserved in order to stay viable. In this way, Kiwis see preservation and hospitality as two sides of the same coin. And having taken in some of the breathtaking natural splendor of the place, I have to agree.

Summer in Wanaka offers hiking and climbing, mountain biking, fishing, paragliding, kayaking and rafting, jetboating and close proximity to Mount Aspiring National Park. In winter, it is all about skiing, snowboarding, and anything else you can strap to your feet and scream down a mountain on. Plus there are several nice wineries in the region, as well as some seriously good golfing. And for a cinephile like me, no trip to Wanaka would be complete without hitting the Paradiso Cinema at least once (and maybe more). It's a classic old movie house, but instead of rows of stadium seats, it offers couches, easy chairs, and even an old Volkswagen convertible. Plus they have an in-house restaurant and welcome you to eat before, during, and after the show. They even show each film with an intermission, so that you can enjoy your meal and stretch out a bit. Of course, none of this is going to help a movie like Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill stink any less, but what could, really?

I am staying at Wyndham At Wanaka, which features rustic timber interiors, heated outdoor pool, sauna, steam room, onsite restaurant and bar, and is in easy walking distance of the lake and the village of Wanaka.

Well, I am off to Stuart Landsborough's Puzzling World. Describing itself as a "unique attraction specializing in puzzling eccentricity," it features leaning and tumbling towers, a great maze, hall of holograms, Ames forced perspective room, and many more illusions and mind-bending installations. There's even a Roman style-toilet. In addition to separate restrooms for ladies and gents, they offer a replica roman communal toilet area, complete with mural. I guess the mural is to give you something to focus on, rather than staring at the fellow across from you while you are trying to take care of business. I'm not really sure that this qualifies as "puzzling" so much as it is just gross, but when in Rome...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

George Washington Slept Here

While many places can accurately state "George Washington slept here" - and many, many more do so falsely - it is here at Mount Vernon that Washington slept most often, and still does. He died 212 years ago today, and is buried in a crypt on the grounds of his beloved plantation on the banks of the Potomac River. On more than one occasion, Congress attempted to have the body moved to nearby Washington, D.C., in what they felt would be a more fitting tribute to "the father of his country". But each time, representatives of southern states objected and the plans were shelved. There was even a thwarted attempt to steal his remains in 1831. Finally, in 1832 the inner vault to Washington's crypt was sealed for good, and the keys thrown into the river.

Washington came from a wealthy plantation family, but Mount Vernon was never intended to be his. In accordance with Southern plantation hierarchy, the whole kit and kaboodle was to go to his older, half-brother Lawrence, who would then pass it on to his first born son. But as luck would have it - for George anyway - Lawrence met with an early death, and left no heirs. So when George's father died, the entire operation passed on to him. At that time it was approximately 4,00 acres and primarily produced tobacco using slave labor. But George brought numerous innovations to the plantation, reducing the need for human bondage, and more than once doubled its size.

An example of his innovation: Washington felt like there was so much competition for tobacco in Virginia, that he stopped growing it entirely by 1766. He planted instead wheat, corn, flax, and hemp. The wheat and corn was ground at his own gristmill - powered by a nearby creek - to be sold at market and for conversion into booze at his onsite distillery. At one point, Washington was among the nation's largest distillers of whiskey. The flax and hemp were extremely valuable commodities used in making fabric, dye, paper, medicines, rope, food, and more. You may recognize hemp as the low-potency cousin of the marijuana plant, which was so vital to colonial life in America, there was once a mandate for planters to grow it. Of course if you tried either of these endeavors today, you'd be locked up as a moonshiner and a drug dealer. But in the mid to late 1700s, they made Washington a very rich man indeed.

In fact, after marrying into the Custis family - Martha's klan - it is estimated that he was one of the richest men in America. So you can imagine that the outbreak of war with the British was not exactly good for business. Yet he stepped up anyway, and took command of the rag-tag Continental Army to fight the mightiest military force in the world. Think about that. It'd be a bit like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet dropping everything to march into the sausage grinder that was the British Army. But he did it anyway. And while he lost most of the battles he fought in, he - and his fledgling nation - ultimately prevailed. Upon his victory, he voluntarily surrendered his command demonstrating his commitment to a military controlled by a civilian government. And had he not been elected the first president of the nation, he was fully prepared to return to his beloved Mount Vernon, and resume his "regular" life.

His life was so extraordinary, in fact, that it has always puzzled me as to why the need for so many myths about the man. Take the cherry tree story, for example. You know the one that says he admitted to his father, after having dispatched with his prize cherry tree, "I cannot tell a lie". There isn't one shred of evidence to support such a story, and there is a good deal of it to suggest that it was entirely fabricated by one Mason Locke Weems. Weems wrote a book in 1850 with the catchy title of "The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen". In it, he recounts the cherry tree story, and it seems to have taken on a life of its own from there. Then there's the wooden teeth business. Washington had awful dental problems, of this there is no doubt. In fact, when he was elected president, he had exactly one tooth left in his head. All of the others had been extracted - without the benefit of painkillers - in varying degrees of decay and abscess. The many dentures Washington owned in his lifetime were made from various forms of ivory and bone, and one even had actual human teeth. They were attached to his sole surviving tooth via a painful tangle of wires and hooks. Remember that this was the richest man in the country, and these solutions represented the "best money could buy". But wooden teeth he never owned.

Another reason there is a good deal of misinformation regarding Washington is that most of his writings and material possessions were lost. Upon his death, Martha burned all of their correspondences. And while George had expressed concerns numerous times about his diaries and plantation manifests after his death, these too were allowed to largely slip away. Mount Vernon itself fell into a terrible state of disrepair after passing through the hands of several Washington heirs (he fathered no children). In 1848 it was offered for sale to both the U.S. government and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Both declined, and it nearly went on the scrap heap. But in 1858, a group called the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union agreed to buy the mansion and the 500 acres of plantation that remain today. During the Civil War that followed almost immediately thereafter, both sides agreed to spare the landmark of any further destruction. After the war, a restoration and reconstruction project began which continues to this day.

You can visit Mount Vernon daily from a timeshare rental in nearby Alexandria, VA, or at the National Harbor in Fort Washington, MD. Wyndham has properties in both locations and each has Metro options available to get you to and from Mount Vernon. Plan a full day (or two) if you really want to do the man and his home justice.

Well, I am off to catch the George Washington Masonic Memorial tour here in Alexandria. Washington was the first of several U.S. presidents belonging to the various orders of Freemasons. All 51 national Masonic organizations chipped in to build this monstrous combination of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Neoclassical architecture, as a tribute to the first president. I have become convinced that it holds the lost symbol required to finally reveal the secrets (and treasure) of the Knights Templar. Of course I was convinced I saw Dom DeLuise in New Orleans last Mardi Gras, despite the fact that he died in 2009. Turns out it was Paul Prudhomme, who now has a 500-foot restraining order against me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Best and Worst of Times

So I guess it is that time of year again. And no, I don't mean hitting the big box stores and getting crushed to death in a mad scramble to save two bucks on the latest gizmo. No I am talkin' year end lists. That's right baby, the best and worst of 2011 are rolling in as we speak. The big one, Time Magazine's Person of the Year, has not yet been announced, but you gotta figure Steve Jobs has that one all sewn up. Besides his enormous accomplishments and dying way too young, checking out late in the year like that always sits well with the judges. Either way, having gone with Mark Zuckerberg last year, they've got nowhere to go but up.

Of course there are still three weeks left in the year, which is plenty of time for Charlie Sheen or Donald Trump to do something epically stupid and shake things up a bit. But here are some highlights from Time that caught my eye:

The Top 10 Buzzwords includes Arab Spring, Winning, and Man as Prefix. The first one was an obvious, world changing event, and belongs on all sorts of 2011 lists. The second one of course is from our aforementioned friend Mr. Sheen, who by the way, cost me $500 in the office death pool. Yeah, my bracket came down to Gaddafi vs. Mr. Winning. And while Sheen is the younger man, I really thought old Muammar would stick around long enough to see him into an early grave. My bad. The last one, of course, refers to things like mancave, mankini, and of course mancations. Mancations are all the rage in mantravel (see what I did there?), and I saw it as my obligation to round up a crew and head out on one of my own earlier this year. Think "The Hangover" meets "Bachelor Party", only with a bunch of old geezers an no nudity (thank God).

The Top 10 Gadgets has the Apple iPad 2 sitting at #1, which should surprise absolutely no one. In fact, the list is dominated by Apple products or Apple wanna-be products. The exceptions being gaming systems, which I will never understand, and something called the Roku. From what I gather it is a device about the size of the palm of your hand, which enables you to stream digital movies from places like Hulu and Netflix, directly to your TV. I get the feeling BetaMax just isn't coming back, and I ought to break down and have a look at one of these things in '12.

Top 10 Comebacks has congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at #1 with her truly miraculous recovery from gunshot wounds. The rest of the list, however, was almost exclusively people I have never heard of, which begs two questions: did they really come back, and if so, from what? Of course the entry that caused me to nearly fall out of my chair was New Kids on the Block and the Back Street Boys uniting to form one huge boy-band, nostalgia group. Now I know I am no spring chicken, but aren't these "boys" like 40 years old at this point? At least with Menudo they kicked you out when you turned 18, sparing you any such embarrassment later in life. Oh well, I guess it is just the year of the manboy (did it again).

Of course, I am a cinephile at heart, and it is the best- and worst-of movie lists that always get my attention. Now to say that 2011 was not a good movie year, is sort of like saying Donald Trump has issues with his hair. But The Artist as the #1 best film? Really? In case you missed it- and you were not alone - this film is black-and-white and silent. That's right, the actors speak their lines, which then appear on screen using inter-titles just like back in the '20s. Maybe I'll hold onto that BetaMax after all. Of course the only problem with the worst-of list is that you only get ten places. But to have any other film besides Adam Sandler's Jack and Jill as the worst would be a travesty. This movie is so bad it will actually stink up your house if you bring it in on DVD. If you must watch it, stream it to one of those Roku thingys and have a clothespin handy for your nose.

But if you want a really great list to ponder, check out RedWeek's Top 25 Timeshare Rental Resorts. No boy-bands, winning, or doomsday predictions here. Just honest results from real travelers, just like you and me. Well, I am off to hit the pool at my Maui timeshare rental. I wonder if I'm supposed to step into this mankini, or pull it over my head?