Category Archives: Fresh Ideas

Mid-October, the Perfect Time to Start Your Christmas Shopping

When I was a much younger man, a kid actually, I used to poke fun at my mother for beginning her Christmas plans around this time of year.  She would (and still does) make a list of all the people she planned to purchase or make gifts for and then agonize over what to get them.  She would also plan out her Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and develop her guest list for each family gathering.  And there I was, the prince of procrastination, telling her to begin planning for the Fourth of July while she was at it in the most sarcastic voice I could muster.

Well, it turns out she was correct (as EVERY mother is about everything) in her October planning for a late December event.  She was always the “Why put off till tomorrow what you can do today?” type of mom and it’s a shame that if that philosophy came in apple form it fell very far from the tree in my instance.  Anyway, it wasn’t until I was a fully (ahem)mature adult that it dawned on me why mom was fully justified in her autumnal holiday planning and the reasons why she was correct are as follows:

She was the master of the spacing out of holiday spending.  For mom, the worst part of Christmas was when the credit card bills arrived in January.  To avoid that single, massively depressing January credit card bill that took damn near the rest of the year to pay off, she spread those bills out over November and December as well.  Needless to say, mom didn’t need to read last week’s blog about financial planning.  She was, and still is, the princess of pecuniary policies.

When she went shopping (the physical form of shopping which involved a car, walking from store to store in the mall, hauling the presents home, etc.) in October there was always a wide selection of “stuff” to choose from.  No matter who she was buying for, kids, dad, grandkids, co-workers, friends, relatives back in Ireland, she shopped from fully stocked shelves.

She always managed to find great deals prior to December in the form of Colombus Day, Halloween, Election Day, Veteran’s Day, and Thanksgiving Day or “just for the hell of it” day sales.  She would scour the newspaper inserts in search of sales and deals that would keep her gift buying budget as low as possible and she was amazingly successful at it.  Now, you can just scour the internet machine looking for great October and November deals.

She would spend a great deal of time planning for Christmas dinner and the earlier she started this process, the smoother it would go on December 25th (unless my drunken uncle caused “issues”).  Of course, today MagicKitchen.com can eliminate a lot of that planning, prep work, and actual cooking by delivering a savory holiday dinner right to your door.  Our prepared foods also make a great gift for not just yourself, but for any busy family or senior during the holiday season.  Why not give someone the gift of time in the form of a pre-cooked Christmas dinner delivered right to their door?

Finally, and most importantly to mom, she always said that the more Christmas chores she could take care of prior to December, the more time she could spend with family and friends once the holidays arrived.  To that end, having all her shopping done prior to the start of December gave her many advantages, but the most significant to her was the time it granted her which she used to spend with the people most important to her, her family.

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October: National Financial Planning Month…Who Knew?

Yes, the designation of October as National Financial Planning Month could be a contrived creation foisted upon us by certified financial planners (to a cynic like myself).  Regardless, it’s still a good time to make or review financial plans for your future.  After all, it was created to, “Promote financial literacy and raise awareness among the general public of the value of financial planning.”  And who among us doesn’t need to improve our “financial literacy” and be made aware of the “value of financial planning?”

As someone quite a bit more intelligent than myself once said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”  These words to live by apply to many situations, especially to setting financial goals like being secure in your retirement, or purchasing a new home, or saving for your child’s college education.  Sure, they’re noble goals, but how are you going to get there?  That’s where financial planning comes in.  Look, most of us do not plan to travel somewhere we’ve never been before without mapping out the route, whether the old school way, utilizing a paper map, or with a GPS.  We still know how we’re getting to our destination and getting to, or achieving our financial goals is no different.

Full disclosure, I am NOT, in any way, shape, or form, a certified financial planner, but I play one on TV…I jest, of course.  However, I don’t need to be one in order to remind people to get their financial house in order and to plan for their, and their family’s future.  And this doesn’t need to be rocket science.  All we’re talking about here is the “b” word (budget) and using it to plan for your financial future and goals.  It does, however, include more than just placing your extra money under your mattress or in a simple savings account…they’re essentially the same thing since the interest earned in a savings account and under your mattress are just about equal…oh yeah, there is that big shiny vault.

First step towards creating a budget: a list of your assets (car, savings, investments, home equity), and liabilities or debts (mortgage, student loans, car payment, credit card debt).  The difference between the two is your net worth…it can be positive (hooray!) or negative (crap!).

Step two: list of your monthly expenses (utilities, groceries, fuel, insurance) and monthly income, from all sources.  Hopefully, your monthly income exceeds your monthly expenses.  If not, you’ll sink deeper into debt and use more and more of your income to pay off interest rather than your actual loans.  You might also want to track your spending habits for a month or so to see exactly where your money goes, from your smallest impulse purchase (Starbucks) to your largest unplanned indulgence (picking up the bar tab after guys/ladies night out).  Most are quite surprised at the money “wasted” on non-essentials, aka disposable income that’s actually thrown in a disposal.

Once that’s all done, you should now be able to determine how much money you can set aside to reach your financial goals, whatever they may be.  Just remember, it’s never too late or early to start planning for retirement or your kid’s college expenses.  One of the most popular and safest investments to help save for retirement is a Roth IRA (individual retirement account).  A Roth IRA is simply a special retirement account funded with post-tax income and there is no up-front tax deduction for Roth IRA contributions as with a traditional IRA.  Also, access to your contributions, but NOT the earnings from those contributions, are tax and penalty free.  Roth IRA’s make the most sense for those who expect to be in a higher tax bracket during retirement than your current bracket.  This is usually just about everyone, but they make the most sense to young, lower-income workers.

As for college financial planning, most state’s offer what’s known as a 529 plan, so named from section 529 of the IRS code.  They differ from state-to-state, but they essentially allow you to pay all or part of in-state tuition for a public college education well before the potential student enters his/her college years.  In other words, they permit you to pay tuition costs for a specific year, before tuition increases in future years.  For example, you can pay 2017 tuition costs even though your child won’t enter college until 2030.

As previously stated, I am NOT a certified financial planner, so if you’re interested in learning more about listing your assets, liabilities, and monthly expenses or about a Roth IRA or a 529 Plan, please seek the assistance of a reputable certified financial planner…and that ain’t me.

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The Joys of the Autumnal Season

Before we begin, a bit of disclosure: perhaps my all-time favorite word in the English language is “autumnal.”  Definition: of, characteristic of, or occurring in autumn.  Rather than the vibrant colors, or pumpkins, or cooler temperatures, or football, or comfy sweaters, or Halloween, I enjoy autumn because I get to work “autumnal” into my everyday conversations and writings more often.  I’m weird like that.

However, I realize that other people enjoy fall for the traditional reasons listed above.  Therefore, this post will focus on them, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude me from using my favorite adjective in this post as often as humanly possible.

Look, there’s only one real way to enjoy the joys of autumn and that is to get outside if at all possible.  And with the cool autumnal weather, you won’t have to worry about sweating your ___fill-in-the-blank___ off.  There’s just so many things to do out there this time of year.  So, from Friday, September 22 at 4:02 PM eastern daylight time until December 21, at 11:28 AM, get out there and try a few of the following autumnal activities.

  • After enjoying nature’s colorful canvas of leaves, rake those same autumnal leaves into a ginormous pile and jump into or run through it like you were eight again. Or, better yet, hide in that pile and have a co-conspirator lure a friend by the leaf pile you’re lurking in and then pop out and scare the ___fill-in-the-blank__ out of said friend, who may then become a former friend.  This little trick, rather than treat, works well around Halloween.
  • Perhaps the best way to enjoy the autumnal reds, browns, oranges and yellows once the leaves lose their chlorophyll is to view them from a unique perspective, and two methods to do so are in a hot air balloon and/or from the center of a tree-lined lake. Use that internet machine to see if any fall festivals are offering hot air balloon rides. Or rent or borrow a canoe or kayak and then paddle around that tree-lined lake on a calm, cool, sunny autumn morning when the mist is rolling across the water.
  • Find a picturesque spot that accentuates the autumnal foliage and then take a photograph everyday from the same spot at the same time of day throughout autumn. Then, line up all 91 photos and you’ll be amazed how the colors build gradually, then brighten, fade and eventually disappear as the season progresses.
  • Have your family design and create autumnal scarecrow twins of themselves and then place them in your front yard. Make them the same size and use actual clothes that family members would wear to dress them and perhaps include things that represent hobbies, such as a soccer ball, coffee mug, baseball bat, or cycling helmet.  You could then have a contest by asking autumnal visitors to pick their favorite.  Winner gets all the autumnal food they can eat.
  • Find the largest autumnal corn maze in the area and then have a race with family/friends to see who can complete it first. Just be sure to provide all participants with food, water and a flare gun should they become lost for an extended period of time.
  • Use that internet machine and learn how to build a medieval pumpkin-launching catapult or trebuchet, find a large field, one which you obtained permission to use, then let those pumpkins fly and explode upon impact. Or find an autumnal festival that demonstrates what I just described.  It’s actually quite awesome to see how far a well-built trebuchet can make a 15-pound pumpkin soar.  The resulting orange explosion is quite awesome also.

Yes, you could also go for an autumnal hike through the woods, or attend a bonfire, or pick apples, or bake some autumnal desserts, or tailgate at your local college football game, but why be boring?

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A Message from My Sons Regarding Climate Change

Hello devoted MagicKitchen.com blog readers.  As the title implies, this week’s topic deals with a rather controversial issue for some, climate change, although I don’t fully understand this controversy.  The fact that the Earth’s climate is changing is not disputed except by a small group of flat-Earthers.

What most people, at least in America, argue about is the CAUSE of this climate change and it essentially boils down to the role of humanity in this phenomenon.  Is human activity responsible for climate change or is it just a cyclical occurrence that happens every few thousand years or so?  In seeking how to answer this difficult question, I decided to ask my two sons, one eleven and the other thirteen, what they thought about this whole human-caused climate change controversy and here’s a rough summary of what they had to say.

“Dad, we really don’t care if climate change is caused by people or not.  Pollution, whether it causes climate change or not is never a good thing.  It can make us sick, the air stink and force people to wear surgical masks all the time like they do in China and we don’t want to wear those masks because they look stupid.  It would also be nice to breath…duh! (from the 13-year old).  I don’t think anyone thinks pollution is a good thing and even if it causes a little bit of climate change, shouldn’t we try to stop it?”

“Why do we have to burn so much coal?  Why are all the forests being cut down?  What the heck is palm oil and why do we need it? (after I explained one reason the forests in South Asia are being removed).  Can’t we produce energy with solar and wind power?  I don’t think they make an SPF 5 zillion sun screen, do they?  Why does it rain, like, every day around here?”

“All we know is that we’ve got 80 more years on this planet and it would be nice if the adults don’t destroy it before we get a chance to enjoy it like they did, and yes, Dad, you’re one of those adults.  It’s like the whole world is hooked on burning coal and wood and oil and gas and all that other stuff like it’s some kinda drug.  Well, how about all those countries that signed up for that Paris thing (after I explained the recent Paris Climate Accords that 192 countries signed on to, except, of course, the United States…oh yeah, and Venezuela and Syria) get hooked on some other drugs like wind and solar?”

“Wasn’t it like 120 degrees in Arizona a few months ago?  And doesn’t every year set a record for being the warmest ever?  (actually, 2016, the hottest year on record, was warmer than 2015 which was warmer than 2014 and then the string gets broken by 2010 which holds fourth place).  And aren’t sea levels rising?  And aren’t the coral reefs all dying?  And didn’t we have, like, no snow days last year?  I think the Earth’s broken and needs fixed, but the problem is, either no one knows how to fix it or they don’t want to fix it or they just don’t care.  And it’s us and our friends and our kids that are gonna get screwed and that’s just not fair especially when we didn’t cause this mess.  Why can’t Trump and all the other world leaders fix this before it’s too late?”  That last bit came mostly from my 8th grader who is obviously, and fortunately, learning about all this in school.

There you have it, the musing of a 13 and 11-year old regarding climate change.  I must admit, they asked some questions that were very difficult to answer (try defining “bureaucracy” and “vested interests” to an 11-year old).  Despite their limited base of knowledge, they kept coming back to the fact that they’re afraid that things are only going to get worse for them and their futures after all the people who caused or failed to fix this problem are long gone and I’m afraid my response was not that reassuring to them.

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Summer Fun WITHOUT the Kids

If you remember, valued readers, last week we discussed some ideas for summer fun WITH the kids, which goes a long way to explain the topic of this week’s post.  As a father of two tween boys (yes, “tween” is a new, 21st century life stage), I’ll be the first to admit that my wife and I look for “adult only” things to do on a regular basis.  And by “adult only” all I’m implying is fun things free from the “complications” of having our sons watching our every move.  Now, what you do with your kids while you indulge yourselves is up to you…babysitter, pawn them off on family, drop them at a friend’s place, wrap them in duct tape (I jest, of course), is entirely up to you.  So here you go, a random list of “adult” fun ideas for summer, in no particular order.

  • Find an “adults only” night at a usual kid’s place in your area. Many establishments that cater almost exclusively to children have begun to offer “adults only” nights, complete with “adult beverages.”  My wife and I have been to adult nights at our local zoo, pool, water park, and science center and a wonderful time was had by all.
  • Eat outdoors at an unusual location. By “unusual location” (I seem to be using “quotes” a lot in this post…not sure why) I mean like the roof of a building, your backyard rather than your back porch, a dewy meadow by a babbling brook, a shaded forest glen, an out-of-the-way pavilion at a local county or state park, the beach.  You know the deal, get creative.  And to make this even easier, allow MagicKitchen.com to help you out by having us prepare and ship your meal to you…such as our hickory-smoked sliced beef brisket that’s basted in Kansas City style BBQ sauce, or how about sandwiches made from our delicious corned beef, or some chicken cordon bleu that can be eaten like a sandwich.  And don’t forget about our wide selection of side dishes.  Oh, I almost forgot, August 31st is National Eat Outside Day, so you have plenty of time to prepare.
  • Host a themed party. Yes, it could be a Game of Thrones, or Star Wars, or Walking Dead, or superheroes themed party, but there are other ways to go.  Such as having all your guests perform a little stand-up comedy routine, or a Jimmy Fallon inspired lip synch battle, or a good-natured Dean Martin inspired roast of a friend.  I guess now that I think about it, this could be conducted during any season.
  • Purchase, set up, and USE a hammock. And I use the term “use” (more quotes) loosely due to the fact that it will be “used” for reading, napping and general relaxing.
  • Take out-of-town friends on a walking tour of your town. Especially if your town has a centralized downtown area.  And you’re not required to take them to the local tourist traps.  Take them to an outdoor market, or a great breakfast joint, or sites of historical significance (theclio.com can help you here).
  • Take a hot air balloon ride. There’s got to be one offered within driving distance of your location and they are awesome…the views, the peaceful feeling of floating in space, the anticipation, not wanting to come down.  It really is a great, all-around experience.

These last two are for the more daring and, shall we say, young-at-heart among my readers:

  • Go skinny dipping. Just try not to get arrested, especially if you climb a fence to get into a public pool…not that I’ve ever done anything like that.  You’re better off finding a secluded lake or section of a large lake, preferably one with a dock, and then take it from there.  Just beware the full moon.
  • Crash a wedding. Not in the manner from that horrible movie “Wedding Crashers” of course, but in a more subdued manner.  Just ensure you know the names of the bride and groom and you SHOULD be fine.  The number one rule of crashing a wedding is: if you’re talking to a friend of the bride, you’re a friend of the groom and vice versa.  Also, don’t push your luck by staying too long.  Get in, eat, drink and get out.  You’ll be amazed how the feeling of possibly being found out can be scary and exhilarating at the same time.

OK kids…oops, I mean adults, before you look back in September and wonder where the summer went, get out there and do a few fun things without the encumbrance of children…just be careful out and if you do get caught in the water sans clothes or doing shooters at a stranger’s wedding reception, run like hell and laugh the whole way home!  Have fun this summer!

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Summer Fun with the Kids

That’s correct, summer fun WITH the kids.  It is possible.  Although, the topic of my next post will be summer fun WITHOUT the kids (boy, that was a hell of a teaser, wasn’t it?).  Anyway, if left to their own devices, most kids will spend the summer on their devices, whether its video games, social media, or a combination of both.

With that in mind, here are a few summer ideas to get the kids out of the house and some rainy-day ideas to keep the kids occupied and, who knows, you might even find yourself having some fun as well.

  • Backyard camp out. Obviously, you aren’t required to spend the night sleeping on the ground with roots in the middle of your back (unless that’s your thing), but it is up to you to create some fun activities to go with the camp out.  This works especially well if you have a fire pit to cook s’mores and mountain pies…a mountain pie maker is required to make these hot, fruit filled, mini-pies of delicious goodness.  Find or borrow an old telescope for some star/moon gazing.  Just remember to leave the backdoor open.
  • Just about anything that involves water. Yes, oceans, lakes, and pools work well here, but I’ve found that kids can spend hours exploring small creeks and streams.  Simply strap some water shoes (or old sneakers) on their feet and off they go, turning over rocks to find crayfish and nymphs (no, not THAT kind of nymph, the larval dragonfly, damselfly or mayfly type of nymph), chasing various kinds of water bugs, minnows and other small fish.  Yes, they’ll come back to you a wet, muddy mess, but that’s the whole point.
  • Take them to a demolition derby. There’s nothing better than watching cars, trucks, vans, and sometimes buses, crash headlong into each other.  Kids are so conditioned that vehicle accidents are bad things (and they generally are), that it’s quite exciting to watch them crash into to each other, intentionally, until only one vehicle is left moving.  Yes, monster truck shows are also cool, but there’s something about being at an outdoor kinda-stadium on a summer evening, usually at a county fair, that promotes family bonding…OK, maybe not.
  • Outdoor art. Find an old, white bedsheet, spread it out in an area you don’t mind getting paint on, provide the kids with some brushes and paint and watch them become little Jackson Pollocks.  If you’re feeling bold, permit them to use application methods other than brushes, such as shoes, hands, balls, or any item other than a brush…let them get creative, within reason, of course.
  • Create a scavenger hunt. Team the kids up or just have teams of one, depending on how many kids (yours and the neighbor kids) are participating.  Give them a complete list or a list of clues to make it a bit more difficult, have a non-lame prize for the winner, and send them off.  You might have a theme for your hunt, such as a nature theme, or an A-Z hunt, or a photo hunt if they’re old enough to operate a smart phone (so age 2 and above).  If it’s a rainy day, conduct the hunt indoors or, better yet, in a local museum.  I’ve found museums of natural history work best as they’re usually quite large and have a wide variety of things to find.  And remember, no running.
  • Indoor science experiments. First rule: safety first.  Here’s one to get you started…”soap clouds.”  Ingredients: a bar of Ivory soap and a microwave.  Simply place the bar of soap on a paper towel and nuke it for a few minutes.  The bar will eventually begin to expand and usually the newer the bar, the larger the cloud.  Once it stops expanding, turn off the microwave as you don’t want cooked soap.  The “soap cloud” is kinda hard to describe.  While it looks wet and slimy, it’s actually not.  It’s dry and when crumbled, it creates soap snow flakes.  And if you’re having trouble getting your kids in the bath this summer, it’s been my experience that they can’t wait to jump in the tub with their newly created “soap cloud.”  Next, hit up Google for some other examples of in-home, safe science experiments.

Yes, some of these ideas require a bit of work on your part, but no one ever said parenting was easy.  And yes, most of these ideas require a bit of supervision, depending upon the age of the kids involved, but you can supervise AND participate at the same time.  From personal experience, I’ve found the participatory supervisor role to be the most fun, but my wife has always said that I still have a lot of kid left in me.  I’m not sure if she means that as a compliment or not.

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Parental Summer Survival Tips

Well, by now, if you have school-aged children, your family should be well into its summer vacation and all the chaos and boredom that comes with it.  The “get up, get ready for school, go to school, attend after-school activities, then eat dinner routine”, as Alice Cooper so eloquently put it, “has been blown to pieces.”  Now, your kids can stay up till 3:00 AM playing video games and getting into God knows what on social media, sleep in till noon and then start the whole process all over again.  It’s enough to drive a parent to turn to, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, “Mother’s Little Helper.”

I’m guessing, by now, you’re more than ready to re-assert your parental authority before the inmates are running the asylum.  If that’s the case, then here are a few tips to restore that God-given parental authority (without constantly screaming “Respect my au-thor-e-tie!” ala Cartman from South Park) that has disappeared from your household during June and a few to simply make your and your children’s lives, less stressful.

  • Re-establish some sort of routine – with reasonable bed and wake up times. A household chore list can really help here, preferably on a white board where the kids can check off each chore as it’s completed.  You know, stuff like putting on a new roof, adding walk-in closets, and/or landscaping of the front and back yards…I jest, of course.  How about sweeping (with or without a vacuum), loading/unloading the dishwasher, tending to pets, folding clothes, dusting, taking out the garbage, etc.  In order to ensure these chores get completed you might want to incorporate a combination of the carrot and the stick…obviously I do not condone rewarding your kids with carrots, unless they place a great deal of value on them, or punishing them with a stick.  After all, the saying has to do with the best way to get a mule to haul a plow.  How about an allowance and the threat of losing devices for a period of time?  Yeah, those sound better than carrots and sticks.
  • Don’t over-schedule yourself or your kids – We all have limits, and running from clarinet lessons, to gymnastics, to the pool, to girl scouts, to a sleep over can wear out parent and child alike. In your and your kid’s busy schedules, be sure to schedule in some downtime on a daily basis.  Sit on the couch and eat Bon Bons while watching Judge Judy for a half hour every day while your kids play Minecraft if you have to. Play board games, or watch the kids playing outside with friends.
  • Day camps of any kind – Baseball, parkour (Google it), Webelos/Camp Fire Girls, swimming, Barbie/G.I. Joe, math…whatever. Any camp that gets the kids out of the house and doing something constructive is, well, constructive.  Consult with your children or simply drive to the camp location, get the kids out of the car, and then drive away at an unreasonable speed…it’s up to you.  You’ll be amazed how they’ll enjoy getting out of the house and how much you’ll enjoy having them out of the same house while you remain.
  • Have a freezer well-stocked with delicious, easy to prepare meals – from MagicKitchen.com, of course! It’s so nice, during those over-scheduled days, to pop a nutritious and great tasting meal from MagicKitchen.com into the microwave, serving it to your kids, and then laying the guilt trip on them about how you worked for hours preparing and cooking said meal.  Seriously, having frozen meals on-hand lessen stress levels by 76%…Ok, I just made that stat up, but even if it only reduces your stress level by 1.7%, isn’t that enough?
  • Have them create an “I’m bored” jar – with your assistance, if required. If you had a dollar for every time one of your kids whined, “I’m booooooored” you’d have several parental stand-ins to care for your kids.  Solution:  flush Swimmy McSwim the goldfish and use his former home to place slips of paper that have “I’m bored” ideas written on them and then have the kids pull one every time they utter that noxious phrase.

    Some ideas: various games (20 questions, board games for when they’re bored), compose your own comic strip, write a song that expresses your love for your siblings and parents (tongue-in-cheek, obviously), card games, make a time capsule and bury in the backyard, build a fort, bake cookies, have an OUTDOOR water fight, build a puzzle, plan your ideal (and realistic) vacation…the ideas are endless.

Summer can be, at times, even more stressful than the school year, but it doesn’t have to be if you do a bit of pre-planning…you know, just like your kids do.  Just remember to get creative and include them in developing the ideas that have such an impact on their lives.  Do this and you’ll find, as The Who so eloquently put it, “The Kids are Alright.”

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Often Overlooked Vacation Spots

When it comes to vacation spots within America, sure, you can look at Orlando, the beaches of Southern California, Washington D.C., various amusement parks like Six Flags and Cedar Point, or just about any major city, but those places can be overcrowded, expensive tourist traps.  What most of us desire (OK, maybe it’s just me) in a vacation is a place where there is plenty to do, but also plenty of opportunities to relax and recharge.  I’m a big believer in not needing a vacation after returning from a vacation and having some money left in my wallet as well.  With that in mind, I present 10 often overlooked, relatively inexpensive vaca spots you might want to check out this summer in no particular order.

  • Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Tennessee & North Carolina – Established in 1934 and encompassing over 500,000 acres, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park is an ideal location for anyone with even a passing interest in getting back to nature. Its numerous accommodation options include camping, cabins, and various low-cost hotels located along its fringes.  As for activities, take your pick: hiking, biking, fishing, bird and wildlife watching, horseback riding, ranger-led tours and other activities, and auto and train tours.  Visit nps.gov/grsm for more details.
  • Key West, Florida — “But isn’t all of Florida a tourist trap?” you ask. The answer is usually a resounding yes.  However, Key West has such a laid-back atmosphere and hidden gems in terms of small hotels and rental properties, that it made the list.  The secret to avoiding the tourist crush is to simply avoid Duval Street, but why would you want to do that?  It offers some of the best bars in the country.  Key West also offers beaches and numerous water-based activities.  Finally, if you get the chance to grab a seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park, take it.  Its pristine beaches support some great snorkeling and the massive Ft. Jefferson is also worth the trip.
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico – Founded in 1706 and occupied by Native Americans for centuries prior, this city of over half a million has plenty of history to offer visitors, such as the Petroglyph National Park and Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. It also has a variety of museums (to include the American International Rattlesnake Museum), a zoo, aquarium, Old Town Albuquerque, and the Sandia Peak Tramway which is the longest in the U.S., takes riders to a height of over 10,000-feet and offers panoramic views of the high desert.  As for accommodations, it offers everything from quaint B & Bs to trendy downtown hotels.
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – No longer the Steel City, Pittsburgh has transformed itself into a hip, technologically-based city. Its downtown is home to both swanky and economical hotels, a vibrant cultural district that features top-end shows, and nightspots that range from dive to chic.  Its New World history dates back to the French and Indian War of the 1750s.  Thus, history-buffs will find plenty of museums and historical sites to visit.  And after all that, there’s always the city’s sports venues.  The Penguins just secured another Stanley Cup, the Steelers seem to truly be “America’s team” and PNC Park, home to the Pirates, is consistently ranked as one of MLB’s best parks to visit.
  • Salt Lake City, Utah – Yes, there is plenty of Mormon based history in Salt Lake City, but there’s also so much more. This highest of state capitals offers numerous year-round outdoor activities centered around its mountains, state and national parks and the Great Salt Lake.  It also gives tourists the option of visiting its various museums, an aviary, planetarium, water parks, amphitheaters, and concerts at the Salt Lake Tabernacle.  As for accommodations, the city has quaint bed & breakfasts, lodges, resorts and traditional hotels from which to choose.
  • Coeur d’Alene, Idaho – Yep, you read that correctly…Idaho! Coeur d’Alene is located in western Idaho, not too far from Spokane, Washington and it offers something for everyone, except an ocean view.  There are over 50 lakes within a few hours of this mid-sized town of about 50,000, but by far the most popular is the massive Lake Coeur d’Alene.  As one would expect, the town is known for its outdoor activities to include fishing, boating, golfing, hiking, biking and anything else you can think of to do out-of-doors.  The town also puts on numerous festivals and fairs throughout the year and has a surprising number of “artsy” venues and dining establishments.
  • Portland, Maine – The water’s a bit chilly on the shores of this southern Maine town, but the ocean views more than make up for the chill in the water. The surrounding area of Portland offers a myriad of inexpensive places to stay, such as cabins, rental homes, small resorts and traditional hotels.  And while Maine is best known for its rocky coast, the area offers plenty of sandy beaches to choose from.  Did I mention the seafood?  Its fresh, relatively inexpensive and abundant.  Portland is also large enough to offer a vibrant nightlife…if you’re into that kind of thing.
  • La Push, Washington – Ok, if you really want to get away from it all, La Push is the place for you. Located about as far west as you can get in the continental U.S., La Push is home to and managed by the Quileute Tribe which has occupied the area for centuries.  Known for its picturesque beaches and ocean fishing, La Push doesn’t push one to do much at all, except relax and unwind.  However, should you feel the need, the nearby Olympic National Park offers plenty of outdoor activities.  The surfing is purported to be quite good along the coast as is the whale watching too!
  • Mackinac Island, Michigan – If La Push is the get away place for the west coast, then Mackinac Island serves that purpose for the central part of the country. Located between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, Mackinac Island sits close to where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet.  Firstly, there are no cars permitted on the island…yes, you read that correctly, no cars!  Next, there are no franchise hotels on the island.  It offers over 1,500 unique room options from small, family owned accommodations to resorts to a Grand Hotel.  Simply relax along a lake-front beach, visit Mackinac State Park, or rent a water craft and hit the lake.  It’s all up to you.
  • Kansas City, Missouri – Those who live in the center of the nation…so-called “fly-over” country, would do well to spend a few days in Kansas City. This mid-sized city is more cosmopolitan than mid-western and presents a myriad of tourist options.  It has some world-class museums devoted to World War I, American Jazz, and the negro baseball leagues…almost forgot, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library is in nearby Independence.  Its city center contains numerous street cafés and if barbeque is your thing, then KC is the place for you.  And depending on when you visit, you might want to check out a Chiefs football or Royals baseball game.

Now it’s up to you to get out there and check out one of these hidden vaca gems.  What the heck are you waiting for?  Live a little already!

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The Obscure Origins of April Fool’s Day

You’ve all heard the stories, right?  From the fooler or foolee that executed or was victimized by the ultimate April Fool’s joke.  Hell, it was only a year ago that I regaled readers of this blog about my wife and her mother “fooling” me into believing that we were on the verge of birthing triplets, to include ancestral proof and an ultrasound video of the trio.

Another classic April Fool’s story was applied on a national scale when sportswriter, George Plimpton, wrote of New York Mets fireball pitcher, Sidd Finch, in the April 1, 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated.

Plimpton claimed that Finch was raised in an English orphanage, studied Buddhism, and could throw a baseball an astounding 168 miles-per-hour.  Mets fans were ecstatic, networks and newspapers rushed to interview the yoga-practicing phenomenon, and batters feared for their lives.  And it was all a hoax conceived by Plimpton, Sports Illustrated and (gasp!) even the Mets were in on it.  All involved came clean in the April 15th issue.  But where and how did this tradition of fooling people begin?  And why on April 1st?

Let’s answer the second question first.  The month of April is named after the Greek goddess of wit, mirth and laughter, Aprilis.  Aprilis was the daughter of Aphrodite (goddess of love and pleasure, among other things) and Dionysus (god of wine, parties and ecstasy among other things).  With a lineage like that, it’s easy to understand why Aprilis was fond of a god-awful good time.

Zeus eventually tasked Aprilis with making him laugh at other’s expense.  In other words, he had Aprilis use her significant humorous wit to develop and initiate practical jokes on the other gods and goddesses.

Aprilis once famously replaced Hades’ fearsome, three-headed dog, Cerberus, with a fluffy, three-headed bunny named Mazeménos, which roughly translates to “cuddly.”  Simultaneously, she convinced her father to replace the deadly waters of the River Styx with wine which the damned promptly used throw a massive party during which they all became thoroughly inebriated.  Hades failed to see the humor in all this.  However, Zeus laughed his ass off.  Now that we know the answer to the first query, let’s tackle the second.

During the Renaissance, when the artists, authors and royalty of Europe re-discovered the works of ancient Greece, some came across the stories of the heretofore obscure minor goddess, Aprilis.  One future king who reveled in the exploits of Aprilis was Henry VIII of England.

Before Henry wed six different women and had two of them beheaded, he was an impetuous youth with too much time on his hands, which could probably be said of many princes.  After all, he had an older brother, Arthur, who would ascend to the English throne rather than Henry.  Therefore, as the second born male heir, Henry was pretty much left to do as he pleased.

Young Henry quickly fell in with his father’s court jester, Stephen.  A quick word about Renaissance court jesters, or “fools” as they were sometimes called.  They certainly were not vacuous, dim-witted men prancing around in tights and a four-cornered hat complete with bells, juggling beer steins while telling crude jokes.  A Jester was, in fact, a highly intelligent individual chosen for his rapier-like wit and ability to challenge all at court with his biting sarcasm and humorous insults.  Sounds a bit like the goddess of wit, mirth and laughter, does it not?

Anyway, young Henry and Stephen had a grand time “punking” any and all members of Henry VII’s court.  And Stephen, with the protection of the young prince, was able to get away with murder, so-to-speak.  Even after Henry’s older brother, Arthur, died in 1502, making Henry next in line to the throne, he kept Stephen close and used him as an unofficial adviser.

However, this relationship displeased many at court, including Henry’s father who considered Stephen a nuisance at best and a corrupting influence on Henry at worst.  Eventually, Henry VIII’s father had the Duke of Leister accuse Stephen of treasonous activities.  A show trial ensued and Stephen was locked away in the Tower of London in 1508, never to be seen again.  His fate, to this day, remains unknown.

After Henry VIII ascended to the throne in 1509 and throughout his reign, he never forgot his childhood friend who could so easily make him laugh.  As Henry wrestled with the affairs of church and state, he often remembered those carefree days spent with Stephen as they roamed the halls and rooms at Windsor Castle and Hampton Court.  It is believed that largely due to these memories, Henry desired to set aside a special day in which practical jokes were not only accepted, but encouraged, in honor of his first and only true friend, Stephen.

And what better day to celebrate the memory of Stephen, than on the first day of the month named after the goddess of wit, mirth and laughter, Aprilis?  So there you have it, the long, convoluted and somewhat touching story of the origins of April Fool’s Day.  And yes, this entire story is a total work of fiction in the tradition of the tale of Sidd Finch.  I have no idea of the true origins of April Fool’s Day as I feared if I did know the true facts, they would seep into this fictionalized version.  Happy April Fool’s Day.

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February 17th is Random Acts of Kindness Day

When I was in college, I worked at a dry cleaner. I was there long enough to get to know several of the regular customers. Quite often some would linger and strike up some great conversations and some would share wonderful stories. One elderly gentleman did this most times he came in. He knew enough about me to know I was a Freshman in college and that my family was overseas.

One day he walked in, handed my boss an envelope and left. That envelope contained a check and a note. My boss read the note out loud and my jaw hit the floor. The check that was included in the envelope covered my tuition for the next semester, paid in full.

I couldn’t figure out why he would want to pay for a stranger’s college tuition and not expect anything in return. My boss told me that the man had been doing it for years. He would select a student he felt would appreciate it and help them out. This random act of kindness, made 26 years ago still brings tears to my eyes.

People have been committing random acts of kindness for hundreds of years. We may not know exactly what they have all been, nor have we always given them the title of “Random Acts of Kindness”.  It has its very own day assigned to it. This year’s Random Acts of Kindness Day is February 17, 2017.

The first Random Acts day was created in Colorado in 1995. The concept is designed to make the world a little bit better by each of us doing a kind deed. Participating does not mean you have to spend money to be kind.

In case you might be having a difficult time figuring out something nice to do that you may not do on a regular basis, I have compiled two lists. One list is of kind deeds that will only cost you a little bit of time. The second list is for those of you who would like to show kindness via money.

Random Acts of Kindness that Won’t Cost You a Thing

  • Open the door for someone, complete with a smile
  • Volunteer time at an animal shelter or rescue
  • Simply smile at people
  • Do a favor for someone without expecting anything in return
  • Babysit for free
  • Sweep your neighbors porch/shovel their sidewalks
  • Walk a friend’s or neighbor’s dog
  • Volunteer at a food bank or homeless shelter
  • Read to the elderly at a retirement home
  • Send an encouraging card or email
  • Thank a veteran, police officer, or firefighter
  • Give a hug, it’s not just a kind act but a stress reducer as well
  • Donate blood (Perfect for American Heart Month)
  • Be tolerant
  • Compliment a stranger

Random Acts of Kindness for Those Who Can Spare Some Change

  • Pay for the food of the people behind you in the drive through
  • Take flowers to a retirement home
  • Leave a zip bag of quarters on a washer at the laundromat
  • Donate food to an animal shelter
  • Leave a bag of cookies with a note in the mailbox for the postal carrier
  • Take coffee and donuts to your local fire station
  • Donate cat litter to a cat rescue
  • Donate a new toy to a children’s hospital
  • Take muffins and coffee to work
  • Donate money to your electric company to be used for someone who is struggling to pay their bill
  • Plant a tree
  • Hire a house cleaner for an ill friend or one with children
  • Buy a gift card from a car wash and leave it in an envelope on a dirty car at the grocery store
  • Grab a few cases of water and take them to the Red Cross
  • Donate canned goods to your local food bank

Even though Random Acts of Kindness Day is recognized on February 18th this year, you don’t have to limit yourself. Imagine how much nicer the world would be if we could all do just one random act once a week…imagine twice a week. Maybe some of the nice things could begin to draw some of the attention away from all the bad things that happen. Wouldn’t it be nice to shift that focus? How do you plan to take part this year?

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