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


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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Dec 312013

27151_10151576054439532_725188865_nPardon the silence. Lately I’ve come down with a case of omnisciencia.

It’s the debilitating state that develops when you try to keep up with everything that’s going on.

That’s my name for it. I invented it by combining the word omniscience, which is the state of knowing everything, with the suffix -ia, to do with afflictions.

My affliction has gone viral, but I know my word for it never will on because omniscience has too many letters in it for most people and Snapchat is easier to use than a dictionary.

But not caring if it goes viral happens to be the first step toward recovery.

Omnisciencia is a condition that leaves sufferers feeling like they’re always falling behind because they’re always being bombarded by things that are outside themselves. Twitter, Instagram, news, status updates, Buzzfeed listicles, Vines—they come tumbling (or Tumblring) in an incessant avalanche. It’s the gnawing anxiety you’re always missing something.

You opt in to an unattainable quest to keep tabs on everything the second you get online. Everyone else is constantly posting breaking news, having such fine meals, decrying bad service, snuggling in contented humblebrag with their new boyfriends, gushing bulletins about the things they’re doing and seeing and learning and the washboard abs that you don’t have—and everyone posts these things as an implied boast. They post partly to reassure themselves they have a handle on things, partly to feed their own omnisciencia, and partly to tell you that you ought to know about their universe, too.

It could be argued that it’s a form of weakness to feel the impulse to post every event and beautiful vision, to keep nothing just for yourself.

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Dec 172013

There I am: blond, thoughtfully labelled, and clamoring for fantasy at Walt Disney World

This year, I was honored to be asked by Arthur Frommer to write two new flagship guidebooks for his guidebook series. The first one, for London, was released two months ago, and is selling well on Amazon (that’s here). Now, my guide to Walt Disney World and Orlando comes out.

Walt Disney World is tied to me as few other things in my life are. We grew up together. We were born the same year, two and a half months apart. Through the mid-1970s, I was a Florida kid, so we went all the time. Some of my first memories as a toddler were being pushed on a stroller through the Magic Kingdom when it was brand new, collecting tickets to ride more rides, staying up late to see the Electrical Water Pageant, excitedly looking down on everything I dreamed about from the Skyway buckets. In those days, the trees were newly planted, so some of my most powerful childhood memories are of sweating in the searing, shadeless Disney sunshine, smeared with chocolate-covered frozen bananas, impatient for the faraway day I would finally be tall enough to ride Space Mountain.

I grew with it, visiting it the way you’d see a beloved aunt or a grandma, until the trees were tall and full. You could fairly say that although I have moved, changed jobs, and transformed many times over the years, Disney World has always waited. My family never kept houses or property, so Orlando is one of the only constants I have known. I understand what it means to children, and I understand what it wants to be.

Although it was a formative place for me as a child, and I will always appreciate how to interpret it on that level, I am now invited as a professional. Each time I return to cover it, I remember how lucky I am to have kept it as a place of continuity in my life. Now, it’s like getting paid to visit grandma. Continue reading »

Dec 042013

Theda Bara go boom: This woman would be a lot more famous today if they hadn’t blown up her movies in New Jersey

Early film was stored on nitrate stock that was ridiculously flammable. Seriously—just writing that sentence caused four more movies to go up in flames in 1924.

What that means is we will always be missing a huge portion of our history. Not just Hollywood history, either. We no longer have a copy of President McKinley’s ambulance leaving the Pan-American Exposition after he was shot in 1901. We don’t have the film version of The Great Gatsby made during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime.

Gone are newsreels, short subjects—anything that illuminates daily life from 1900 to 1930 and reminds us that people in the past were just as real as we are.

The studios didn’t care. Their concern was for future profits, not heritage, and there was no perceived commercial value in keeping movies around. America! We’ve lost a lot of our identity because our identiy couldn’t make us a buck.

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Nov 132013
World Trade Center under Construction

The new World Trade Center under construction in July 2013, taken from the deck of the Queen Mary 2

The designers of the new World Trade Center just won the right, assigned by an architects association, to call their building the tallest one in America.

They have built their antenna to a height of 1,776 feet, symbolizing the year the United States declared independence from Britain.

This is one of the most regrettable new facts about my city.

First, it’s like honoring World War Two by invoking Pearl Harbor. 1776 is when war was more or less declared and the slaughter commenced, not when the war started (that’s 1775) or when it ended and independence was truly asserted (that was in 1783). Celebrating the dawn of a bloody war, especially in a place like where something so dreadful happened, seems historically wrongheaded and blithely jingoistic. The victims deserve something a lot more pure and unpoliticized.

Second, rubbing your country’s heritage in the face of other nations is the kind of nationalistic hubris that helped make the original World Trade Center such a tempting target.

Last, and most important: The architects are fools. They say they chose a height of 1,776 to send a message to other countries about American freedom and resilience.

Except America, in its bristling exceptionalism, was one of the only nations to refuse to cooperate and assimilate with the rest of the planet and use the metric system. That 1,776 figure will nearly never be seen.

To the vast majority of the world, the new World Trade Center is simply 541 meters tall.

It gets worse: 541 AD marked the beginning of the Justinian Plague, one of the worst pandemics in history, a plague that wiped out as much as a quarter of Europe’s population and many historians agree doomed the Roman, Persian, and Byzantine Empires and ushered in the Dark Ages.

Way to go, Freedom Tower. Love that symbolism.

Oct 242013

blackfish-thumb-630xauto-36453As a travel writer, I have to cover SeaWorld from time to time. I wrote this in the New York Post in January 2009, 13 months before Dawn Brancheau was eaten by Tilikum at SeaWorld:

“At SeaWorld, daily shows by Shamu the killer whale titillate you with the dangerous possibility that the star will suddenly remember its place on the food chain and gulp down a trainer.”

And I just posted this on Twitter:

This about sums up what is left unsaid—loudly unsaid—in Blackfish.

Let’s not be disingenuous about this. Orcas are wild, seagoing carnivores. They do not belong in tanks. People go to watch a creature the size of a school bus submit to a puny human. Yet the movie includes clips of trainers registering shock that their bosses never warned them that, gee, killer whales were so dangerous.

There’s a lot of armchair psychology going on, a whole lot of anthropomorphization, and some justified excoriation of amusement practices (albeit for its first hour, ones that haven’t been employed in decades by the respected parks).

It is human nature to gawp at power and, perhaps in further worship of power, to make animals dance. It is also human nature to be cruel.

And it’s the nature of animals to act like animals.

It’s not SeaWorld. It’s us.

I like this tweet, too, although it wasn’t mine:

Blackfish leaves out the fact that we go to SeaWorld, to circuses, and to many zoos because the animals are dangerous, and it teases our latent anxieties to wonder if our power over them is about to crumble.

Not to justify or excuse any of it—but Blackfish lets all tourists off the hook.

(Also, shouldn’t it be called Blackmammal?)

Oct 132013
Re-introducing Orelia Key Bell

Re-introducing Orelia Key Bell

I wandered alone down a shady side lane at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, a staple tourist stop where some 70,000 of the city’s favorite sons and daughters have been buried for more than 150 years. Margaret Mitchell went there after giving the South some currency with Gone with the Wind. So did former mayor Maynard Jackson, who was permitted to be buried in the white section a a few scant years after desegregation.

Often at these cemeteries, you see lots of grand graves that belong to people who are of no permanent distinction, although their elaborate carved vaults try in vain to argue the opposite. Maybe a Southerner from 100 years ago would have known the names around me, but most of them meant nothing to me. The march of stones intended to memorialize actually absorbed the identities of the thousands of their occupants. Browsing the names registered nothing, like scanning a box of yellowed and pointless used books in the final desperate moments of a picked-over garage sale.

Just as the monotony of reading non-famous names was diminishing the intrigue of a visit, a plot caught my eye. Continue reading »

Sep 292013

Shark Tank is far from fake. Up to now, if an entrepreneur appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank, they also had to agree to the following clause, which appeared in the end credits of seasons 1 through 4:


This requirement, which I talked about in a popular post here earlier, has solicited derision from many, including from the entrepreneurs themselves.

Scott Jordan, the owner of Scottevest (Season 3) explained on a post on his site, “merely appearing on the show, whether a deal is made or not, I have to give 5% of my “business” or 2% of the profits forever to the producers. So, my appearance was not free. … Free? They make money out of every deal I make from here forward.” Losing that much of your business is something that kept many entrepreneurs from signing up to appear on the show.

Apparently no more. The following screen shot was posted in a Facebook group for people who have pitched the sharks on Shark Tank. It purports to be from a post by Mark Cuban, who says his continued association with the show depended on the equity or percentage clause. The typos possibly hint that it was composed and posted on the fly:

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Aug 142013

My next book: Frommer's London 2014

My next book: Frommer’s London 2014

I have turned in the last chapter of Frommer’s EasyGuide to London 2014, the first guidebook to be edited and published by Arthur Frommer since the 1970s. He created the brand in 1957, and he asked me to be the first author of a flagship book when he retook publication. Of course I said yes.

Reinventing a guidebook under the supervision of the man who defines them has had me thinking about what makes a worthy one. I found myself dipping into the archive to look at what Arthur himself did in the 1950s.

Here’s a nugget from the very first guide he wrote, 1955′s The G.I.’s Guide to Travelling in Europe:

“In most of your encounters with British food, you’ll feel that you’re shoveling hay into your mouth.”

Times have changed and that is no longer an appraisal I can agree with, but I instantly loved his pointedness in telling it like it was. One might call it refreshing honesty. But in the framework of writing a guide, it’s what I call telling people what they really want to know.

When he reported from Berlin’s Revi telephone bar, he essentially told male readers if they stood a chance of getting laid: Continue reading »