Aug 212014
 
Think we have it bad? In times past, a lady risked getting felt up by skeletons on the street.

Think we have it bad? In times past, ladies sometimes got felt up by skeletons on the street.

I’ve heard a lot of despair lately. Gaza, Ferguson, Ukraine, Ebola, beheadings, Robin Williams, racists, rapists, riots, killer cops, white supremacists. Everyone seems to think things could barely get worse.

The world has its troubles. There are many reasons to try to help. But don’t be tricked. The world always had troubles.

Social media pushes the negativity in our faces. It makes distant misery seem as immediate as if it happened next door. Things have been much, much worse. Remember the ritual of life.

The Year 541 saw the outbreak of the Justinian Plague. Half the world population died. Imagine that: Half the people you know, suddenly gone, and you left convinced you would die next. It’s inconceivable. They thought the world was ending. Understandably, civilization trudged through the years that followed.

In 1347, the Black Plague, or the Bubonic Plague, began its reign. Depending on where you lived, one-third to 75% of your town died. Imagine that. Some people rushed to God, convinced it was His wrath. Many more rushed to hedonism, convinced morality was folly.  The Crusades. The Inquisitions.

The Great War: 16 million dead—16 million; just think of that—the loss of an entire generation, and for what? And on its heels, the airborne influenza epidemic of 1918, which it’s now thought grabbed another 100 million people, or 5% of the world’s population. Predominantly, the dead were the young.  So some 116 million didn’t make it out of the 1910s, many of them never to marry or start a new generation.

Then World War Two. 65 million dead. 65 million, and that’s only a guess. Only a fraction of that was the Holocaust. Major ancient cities were laid to waste, heritage wiped from existence.

Numbers are one thing. To get my point, simply imagine how people must have felt when they were living through those cataclysms. When you abruptly bury half the people you know, when your town and the farms that feed you are laid to waste, when the only constants are decay, chaos, and hunger—in comparison, it makes tangling with a terrorist group seem like a day at the country club.

Whenever you get stressed, think of the bad times in history—and imagine how hopeless people must have felt then. It’s strangely uplifting. Mental health through schadenfreude.

Perspective tells us that ours is not the only fight, and ours is not the worst one—not by a million miles. Turn around and look at history instead of nurturing the anxiety on your Facebook feed.

We can deal with some rockets and roadside bombs. We can get through suicides and executions and the rigged American system. In context, Ebola is a blip.

We must take care of each other. We have lived through worse. If we lose perspective on the big picture, then our chaos really can get out of hand and become a disaster. We must remember how bad it can be if we’re going to keep a lid on things.

This summer has seen some terrible losses. There will be more. But you can do it. Take the long view. You’re all right. Let’s keep this ship afloat.

A little reminder about what "bad" really is. (Detail: The Triumph of Death (1562)  by Pieter Breugel the Elder)

What “rough times” can really be. (Detail: The Triumph of Death (1562) by Pieter Breugel the Elder)

Aug 112014
 

My mother recently uncovered a treasure trove of family snapshots from our visits to the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World in the early 1970s. What my parents lacked in photographic ability, they made up for in a knack for capturing what would one day be incredibly rare views. There’s some real gold in here—much of what you’re about to see is forgotten, extinct, or covered up forever, from the built-upon West Center Street to views of Tomorrowland before Space Mountain.

It’s bizarre and inspiring. How were they to know that one day, I would grow up to write the Frommer’s guide to Walt Disney World?

This slideshow is reddened and bleached by the years, but is a miraculous time machine nonetheless:

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Aug 072014
 

If you clicked on this because of that dumb teaser headline, that’s why I’m leaving Facebook.

It’s not totally because the privacy concerns. Yes, they are annoying, particularly when the company keeps nibbling away at both its promises and your ability to choose what to make public. When we signed up for social media, we all agreed to sell ourselves a little in the bargain, but Facebook keeps rewriting the contracts to steal a few more ounces of flesh. I expected the company to get greedy. That’s what companies tend to do. That’s not why I’m leaving.

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Aug 032014
 

The award-winning travel podcast Amateur Traveler invited me to talk about Orlando’s past, present, and future and to share some of my best tips for visiting the theme parks.

As usual, I have a lot to say about the place, some of which may ruffle some feathers. It made for an interesting episode.

My next Orlando book is just now going to the publisher and will be published on November 4.

Although it’s a podcast, you can watch it—there are images matched to the things I talk about.

Amateur Traveler Episode 431 – Travel to Orlando, Florida

Frommer's 2014 EasyGuide to Walt Disney World & Orlando, by Jason Cochran

Frommer’s 2014 EasyGuide to Walt Disney World & Orlando, by Jason Cochran (click to buy)

Jun 242014
 

Gorgeous Art Deco lobby ceiling, right? The 28-story building was built in 1928 at Seventh Avenue and 25th Street as the Lefcourt Clothing Center to serve the garment industry. Its builder was Abraham E Lefcourt, who rose from newspaper boy on the Lower East Side to become the Donald Trump of Roaring ’20s Manhattan. He owned 24 buildings, and he grandly affixed his own name to many of them to secure his own reputation.

In 1928, when he was worth $100 million, he made his first foray into construction. The Garment Center was designed by Eli Jacques Kahn (the Costas Kondylis of his day—workmanlike, prolific, essentially uncool) and its touches were designed to impress—Deco became a Lefcourt hallmark—and it mostly served men’s and boys’ clothing manufacturers.

It was such a success he ended up building six more skyscrapers—never allowing people to forget that he used to sell papers on the corner. He even founded his own bank.

LEfourtBefore

And then he lost it all. First, the Depression ruined him. Then, in 1930, his son Alan died of anemia, aged just 17.  Brokenhearted, Lefcourt named his latest building the Lefcourt-Alan Building in his honor. Located north of Times Square on Broadway, it was sanctified with a bronze of his lost boy looking out from a position above its entrance. Continue reading »

May 102014
 

Highclere

So I went to Downton Abbey. The people who run it seem to want to call it Highclere Castle. I didn’t see any cannon or dragons or battlements, but if they want to call it a castle, I won’t argue, because they’re rich.

Highclere Castle, which is outside of Newbury, Berkshire, about 90 minutes by train west of London, isn’t open very often. But I get the impression the ancestral owners see some financial advantage to permitting the hoi polloi to traipse through their Secret Garden and grand Gallery in small doses, so they hire out for weddings and set a few open weekends throughout the warmer months. It’s £20 to get in and £10 for a guidebook, which probably wouldn’t pay for a screw in a light plate there, let alone fix a leaky roof from the Georgian period. There are also 1,000 acres of lush rolling English countryside to tend to, which I presume the 8th Earl of Carnarvon mows on a John Deere after the tourists stop smearing their fingers on his carved banisters and go home.

Highclere’s owners, who own it because they were born in the right family, won’t allow any photographs inside, which is odd because they allow TV crews to film for months a year and eat craft services in a tent in the yard and anyone can purchase the Blu-ray of Downton Abbey to see what they’re missing. Continue reading »

Apr 292014
 

The sculptor Hendrik Andersen: “During one of Henry James’ visits to my studio [in Rome], he noticed a terracotta bust which greatly attracted him. It represented a boy of about twelve, not handsome, but with a look of eager intelligence and underlying melancholy which appealed to him. It was the bust of the young Count Alberto Bevilacqua, a boy of remarkable intelligence and character who used to spend every Saturday—his weekly holiday from school—in my studio, making little boats or reading to me while I worked. I was very strongly drawn to him and, in spite of the difference in our ages, a great attachment sprang up between us. Berto had lost his father and I felt he needed care and guidance. I used to take him with me to the many churches and picture-galleries in Rome and interest him in the great masterpieces of art, noting with delight how quickly he learned to appreciate their beauty and detect the weakness of inferior artists.

Being deeply attached to the boy and understanding him so well, it was a great pleasure to me to model a bust of him and, in Henry James’ opinion, I succeeded in conveying a vivid impression of the ager, enquiring mind and ardent spirit.

Not only did Henry James admire this work, however, but he offered to purchase it at a sum [US$250 in 1899] that enabled me to carry out plans for other work I had in my mind. I shall never forget how grateful I felt for his kindness in buying this little terracotta bust. I was delighted to think that the first purchaser of my work should be a man of such taste and discrimination and at the same time one whose good opinion I valued for personal reasons.”

The young Count Alberto Bevilacqua, a muse of scultor Hendrik Christian Andersen, the special friend of writer Henry James. The bust remains in the home of Henry James, Lamb House, in Rye, England.

The young Count Alberto Bevilacqua, a muse of sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen, the special friend of writer Henry James. The bust remains in the home of Henry James, Lamb House, in Rye, England.

Henry James to Henrik Andersen, three years later, upon the death of Andersen’s brother: “The sense that I can’t help you, see you, talk to you, touch you, hold you close & long, or do anything to make you rest on my, & feel my deep participation – this torments me, dearest boy, makes my ache for you, & for myself; makes me gnash my teeth & groan at the bitterness of things. . . . This is the one thought that relieves me about you a little – & I wish you might fix your eyes on it for the idea, just, of the possibility. I am in town for a few weeks, but return to Rye April 1st, & sooner or later to have you there & do for you, to put my arm round you & make you lean on me as on a brother & a lover, & keep you on & on, slowly comforted or at least relieved of the bitterness of pain – this I try to imagine as thinkable, attainable, not wholly out of the question.”

Hendrik Christian Andersen and Henry James

Hendrik Christian Andersen and Henry James

The legendarily good-looking poet Rupert Brooke was a guest at Lamb House and a beneficiary of James’ mentorship. He never married. His portrait now hangs in the hall.

Rupert Brooke's breathtaking beauty would never age. He died at age 27 of an infected mosquito bite.

Rupert Brooke’s breathtaking beauty would never age. He died at age 27 of an infected mosquito bite.

Burgess Noakes came to Lamb House as a houseboy in 1902. Soon, he was Henry James’ personal valet, and during the Great War, he was recalled from service so he could nurse James in his final days.

Burgess Noakes was first Henry James' houseboy, then his valet and butler, and finally his deathbed nurse.

Burgess Noakes was first Henry James’ houseboy, then his valet and butler, and finally his deathbed nurse.

The writer E. F. Benson, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, first visited Henry James at Lamb House in July 1900 when he looked like this:

E. F Benson followed in James' footsteps to the end

E. F Benson followed in James’ footsteps to the end

After James’ death, “Fred” Benson moved into Lamb House himself and became the second prolific writer to make it his working home. He even became mayor of Rye while living in his mentor’s former home. Benson also never married, but one of his special friends, pianist John Ellingham Brooks, moved to Capri after the Wilde trial and never came back.

I couldn’t help but notice all these images of young handsome men around Lamb House. The National Trust docent guide said that Henry James kept to himself, that there wasn’t much proof of anything, that there were reports of people coming to visit him and he’d just sit there quietly without saying much.

I think that’s hogwash. This is clearly a case of a legacy being passed down between men who only had each other for mentorship and support.

Apr 182014
 

This is the cupboard under the stairs in Down House where Charles Darwin stored the evidence of his explosive theory for nearly two decades. This is the cupboard under the stairs where he hid his true genius until, one day in June 1858, a young scientist with a similar idea scared him into finally going public. This is the cupboard under the stairs where his world-changing gift might have been forgotten if he’d let himself continue to fear it.

Cupboard at Down House

He studied barnacles. He dissected pigeons. He planted seeds. Anything to avoid unleashing his true gift to the world.

His papers were hidden in an evelope marked “Only to be opened in the enent of my death.”

The cupboard was also filled with croquet equipment, parasols, and other lawn toys. In 1896, after the death of his widow Emma, the original manuscripts of his seminal On the Origin of Species were discovered in this cupboard. They had his children’s doodles on them. They had used the papers as scrap.

Jan 072014
 

As of today, both of my two current Frommer’s guides are officially released! One came out in November, and one was just released.

For your health’s sake, I do not recommend writing two entire 256-page books at once.

But I do recommend getting one or both. Also for your health’s sake. They’re hyper-cheap ($8 to $9—less than a movie!), smarter than they have to be, and besides, I love you and I support you in all you do, my sweet angel.

#fabulous #unusual #dreamstuff. Click ‘em to buy ‘em.

Frommer's EasyGuide to Walt Disney World & Orlando 2014, by Jason Cochran

Frommer’s 2014 EasyGuide to Walt Disney World & Orlando, by Jason Cochran

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Frommer's EasyGuide to London 2014, by Jason Cochran

Frommer’s EasyGuide 2014 to London, by Jason Cochran

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Jan 042014
 
Leaflet at James Buchanan's home takes pains to cast him as a family man and uniter

Leaflet at James Buchanan’s home takes pains to cast him as a family man and uniter

Let it never be forgotten that James Buchanan was demonstratively one of the worst presidents the United States has ever had. We fell apart on his watch. He was number fifteen, which would also be his score out of a hundred.

You can debate certain things about Buchanan, but some things are incontrovertible. Fort Sumter was seized while he was in charge, and with plenty of warning, before Lincoln was inaugurated. Prior to that, he had permitted the arming of the South using federal arsenals; he allowed his Secretary of War to ship muskets and ordnance to the South even as the region rattled the sabers of secession. When the war broke out, that guy became a Confederate general. 

Other members of Buchanan’s cabinet also sided with the secessionists. In fact, his Secretary of Treasury headed up the body that created the Confederacy. He was pretty much its first president.

The Dred Scott decision came down upon his inauguration in 1857, and all hope for political compromise tumbled down with it. The country went on suicide watch but Buchanan all but shrugged as it pushed in the blade. He vetoed westward expansion if that expansion meant the new lands would ban slaves. Even as Kansans killed each other over whether their state should have slavery, he asked Congress to approve Kansas’ pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, fracturing his own party. John Brown responded to all this by launching his raid on Harpers Ferry during the Buchanan presidency, and the resulting show trial and rapid execution gave national acrimony its most potent martyr.

America was a freight train rushing toward calamity, and Buchanan pretty much just waved an embroidered hanky at it as it roared down the tracks. Let’s not forget any of that.

We could. I mean, we forget a lot about James Buchanan.

We forget that he lived with another man for 13 years.

Yes, James Buchanan was very probably the first gay president, or the closest thing to it that the 19th century would allow. James Buchanan’s home, Wheatland, was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Today, it’s preserved as a museum dedicated to a president to whom very few people prefer to be dedicated. I paid a visit to see what they had to say about all this.

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