travel

Getting Weird in Austin

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Austin, Texas

December 2018

The Broken Spoke is an Austin dance hall tradition dating back 1964 and has played host to a passel of Texas country music legends. Karen and I found ourselves at the venerated dance hall on a rainy Friday night in December.

We arrived around 7:30, just as the Texas Two-step lessons were being concluded. The area around the dance floor smelled like Aqua Velva and partially digested beef brisket, just as you would expect. The class is catered to tourists and recommended if you want to efficiently cut a rug on the crowded floor.

The small stage stands at the end of a long narrow dance floor which is lined on both sides with tables. In Texas, dance floors are for dancing. If you want to watch the action, you’ll need to find a spot at one of the side tables.

At 8 o’clock, Jason Roberts (former fiddler for Asleep at the Wheel) made the announcement that he and his band would be playing both kinds of music…country and western. The locals danced with the tourists in a loose amalgamation that could be described as something between order and chaos. Most songs were played in 4/4 time, which meant the two-step would be the proper dance method. Couples shuffled and twirled counter clockwise on the edges of the hardwood floor, while the more skillful swing dancers exercised their advanced moves in the middle.

Songs played in 3/4 time require the waltz and can really trip up the novice who just barely learned the two-step.

Occasionally, a song will be played in time signatures and tempos similar to polkas. This gives the tourists from the lake states the opportunity to show off their dancing prowess and University of Wisconsin sweatshirts. In what shouldn’t be a surprise, many C&W songs are compatible with the polka.

Unfortunately for Karen, I only have two dances in my repertoire. There is the Junior Prom dance, where points of contact are limited to hands, shoulders, and waist. Then there is the Sokol Shuffle so named because apparently it only comes naturally to the male line of my family. It has influences rooted in Myrtle Beach Shag, too much gin, the Disco Bump, and the tap dance that Yosemite Sam does below. I usually just tell my dance partner to loosen up and hold on.

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Books of 2018

I often get asked what I’m reading. So, I thought I’d write down my list of books that I read in 2018 and ask you what you’ve been reading.

This year, I really dove into Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror more than usual. There was also a quite a few classics, contemporary fiction, and some non-fiction. My favorites were To Kill a Mockingbird, Lincoln in the Bardo, Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, The Sellout, and Fortune Smiles.

Below are the books I read in order (and includes Amazon links). Let me know if you’ve read any of these and what you thought of them.

And if you have any recommendations for me to read next year, shout them out.

Daughter of My People by James Kilgo

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark

The Flame Bearer by Bernard Cornwell

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Modern Library Writer’s Workshop by Stephen Koch

On Writing by Stephen King

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Night by Elie Wiesel

Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington

The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Carrie by Stephen King

How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C Foster

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

A Game of Thrones (Book One) by George R. R. Martin

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

World War Z by Max Brooks

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Fortune Smiles (Stories) by Adam Johnson

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

The Black Knight Chronicles by John G. Hartness

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (currently reading)

This post was inspired by Jerry Dale, keyboardist for The Mavericks. Every year about this time, he posts the list of books he’s read throughout the year. I always enjoy going over his list to see if I’ve read any of the same books. I also usually add a few of his books to next year’s reading list. By the way, if you haven’t seen The Mavericks live, you’re really missing out.

 

travel

Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit

Munich, Germany

September, 2018

This past Fall, Karen and I were invited to celebrate the birthdays of some friends in Munich for the famous Oktoberfest. This annual beer drinking festival takes place at the Theresienwiese (the fairgrounds in Munich) and is locally know as the Wiesn. It dates back to 1810 when the crown price and future king of Bavaria, Ludwig I, married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. As its name suggests, Oktoberfest begins in…yep, late September and runs for 16 or 17 days or until the locals get tired of plastered tourists. According to a USA Today article from 2007, it is considered the largest folk festival (Volksfest) in the world.

Oktoberfest in Munich is a pilgrimage for beer drinkers and lovers of Bavarian tradition. If you go, I recommend that you go with some friends and reserve a table at one of the beer tents. There are thirty-some-odd large and small”tents” built just for the festival, then removed afterwards. Many of these structures are quite elaborate seating anywhere from just under 100 to well over 8,000 merry-makers.

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Official Oktoberfest beer must be brewed in Munich and conform to the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law of 1516, which states that the only products that can be used in the production of beer are water, barley, and hops. Yeast was also added to the list later after its discovery. The beer served in the tents are from six breweries: Augustiner-Brau, Hacker-Pschorr-Brau, Lowenbrau, Paulaner, Spatenbrau, and Hofbrau-Munchen. Please add umlauts as you see fit.

Most of the attendees are from the Bavarian region of Germany, but we met people from all over the world. Traditional dress is very common both at the festival as well as around town. Dirndls and lederhosen of varying quality are worn by locals and tourists alike.

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While in Munich, we stayed in a hotel near the English Garden, which deserves a mention as well. The 910-acre park was created in 1789 and is one of the largest urban parks in the world. Popular attractions include the Monopteros Greek-style temple, the Chinese Tower, a 21-acre pond known as Kleinhesseloher See, a Japanese teahouse, and an artificial stream frequented by surfers (seriously).

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But perhaps most famous area of the English Garden is the expansive meadow know as the Schonfeldwiese, where nude sunbathing is allowed. Here’s a pro tip. If you decide to go sunbathing in the raw, you’ll want to remember two things. One, you are not likely to see Scarlett Johansson or Chris Hemsworth. You are more likely to see olden folk with much more surface area. Two, and this one is very important, use sunscreen with a high SPF rating. Imagine the embarrassment of having to explain sunburnt naughty bits to a German doctor.

We’re looking forward to getting back to Munich soon to see more of the outlying area.

Thanks for reading,

Üncle Jön

Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @UncleJonSokol and peruse my articles and stories on http://www.myunclejon.com.

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travel

Living the Wild Life

San Diego, California

July, 2018

Karen and I do not have kids.  It was a decision we made before we were married.  It is not one that we took lightly.  We certainly have nothing against children.  Parenting is just something neither of us found interesting.  We do, however, enjoy spending time with our various nieces and nephews.

A late bloomer when it came to travel, I was in my early 20s when I went on my first flight.  I was well into my 30s when I made my first flight across the Atlantic to visit another continent.  Since then, Karen and I have become very fond of traveling, and we’ve made it a big part of our lives.

In an effort to pass on travel skills, and as a way to justify more journeys, we decided to take each niece and nephew to a US city of their choice the summer after their thirteenth birthday.  We figured this would be a good age to learn how to negotiate airports, hotels, public transportation, etc.

Our oldest nephew, Noah, chose San Francisco as his travel city a few years ago and we had a blast experiencing the city through his eyes.  His brother, Luke, turned thirteen late last year, so this year was his turn.

Like his brother, Luke is an experienced traveler having flown to Chicago a couple of times to visit family.  When we asked him where he wanted to go for the “Aunt and Uncle Weekend” he never hesitated. “I want to go to the San Diego Zoo.”

There are three things that Luke enjoys most: video games, professional wrestling, and zoology.  In fact, he is quite an expert in all three.  All you have to do is ask him.

We arrived at the Atlanta airport on a busy Friday afternoon. After scarfing down hamburgers at the airport’s version of The Varsity, we boarded our plane for San Diego. We arrived around 4 PM Pacific and took a taxi to our hotel in the Little Italy neighborhood near the waterfront, and walked along the harbor where tall ships like the Star of India and the HMS Surprise are docked near the USS Midway, the famous WWII-era aircraft carrier.  For dinner, we ate some great pizza at Filippi’s Pizza Grotto.  Get there early.  It can get crowded. The pizza is really good, especially if you like it extra cheesy.  And who doesn’t, right.luke pizza

The next day, we set out early for the zoo located a few minutes away in Balboa Park.  We bought our tickets ahead of time to skip the lines, but they really weren’t that bad. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the zoo handles busy summer Saturdays.

This zoo is amazing.  It is, of course, world famous, so our expectations were high and it did not disappoint.  One of the many things that sets this zoo apart from others is that it is more than just an animal display.  Education is a major focus here and they do it well.  Additionally, it is very helpful to have your own thirteen-year-old zoologist while visiting. Here’s an example.

As we approached the cheetah exhibit, I was shocked to see a yellow Labrador retriever wearing a collar lapping up water from a small water feature. Inside with the cheetah.  I remember thinking, “This is going to turn out bad. We don’t need to see what’s getting ready to happen to that dog.”

I put my arm around Luke and told Karen, “We need to get away from this. This is going to be ugly.”

Luke rolled his eyes and took me by the hand. “It’s okay, Uncle Jon. They’re buddies.”

Apparently, my expression warranted further explanation.

“When cheetahs are born, they’re paired up with a puppy to keep them calm. Otherwise, cheetahs are too nervous to live in captivity.”

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This turned out to be the first of several lessons I received from Luke that day. It’s interesting how Karen and I learn as much as our young travel companions do on these trips.

If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend becoming a travel mentor. It can be very rewarding.

Thanks for reading,

Uncle Jon

@sandiegozoo
@filippis

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New York City Weekend

New York City

February 2018

My first trip to New York City was on December 31st, 1998.  After spending the Christmas holidays in New Jersey, I took a train with my future ex-wife – things were still somewhat rosy at that time – to Penn Station in Manhattan.  I took my first NYC cab ride to a friend’s very small apartment in the Upper East Side.  We were only able to spend a few hours in the city since we had a flight back to Jacksonville the next morning.  I remember walking around Times Square in the afternoon as crowds began to gather early for the legendary party of all New Year’s Eve parties that was to take place that night.

Later that evening, after spending time in the cramped one-bedroom apartment with a festive gathering of twenty or so friends of friends, the claustrophobia that frequently floods my nervous system began rushing in.  Noticing the tell-tell signs, my wife and I stepped outside for some city air.  I remember looking at my watch.  It was 11:30 PM.  How long would it take us to walk down to Times Square for the ball drop – 30 minutes?  I figured that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for a small-town South Carolina kid, so we set off down the cavernous streets until we could walk no further.  We were at least six blocks away from Times Square when the human sea stopped our progress.  I could see the laser lights in the distance and before I could check my watch again, the chant of 5-4-3-2-1 told us it was now the opening seconds of 1999.

            People were hugging strangers and singing Auld Lang Syne.  The crowd surged to the rhythmic thump of music. A fight broke out between two guys with girls perched on their shoulders. As we pushed through the crowd toward a side street trying to reclaim our personal space, a yellow cab pulled up and discharged five tardy, tipsy revelers.  As soon as the last girl stumbled out of the backseat wobbling on high heels, we quickly dove into the cab and gave the driver the address to our temporary home where we slept on the kitchen floor. Ah, youth.

A couple of years later, I found myself back in the City for a couple of days after attending a conference in Connecticut.  It was September 2002, and the City and I both had large holes that were in need of repair.  One hole was caused by a divorce (although amicable), the other by a senseless terror attack that, at least for a while, turned us all into New Yorkers. I visited what was then referred to as “Ground Zero,” staring at the huge construction site through a cyclone fence that still had dead flowers laced through the galvanized links.

I’m happy to say that after fifteen years, both holes have been filled in glorious fashion.

Last month, Karen and I flew from Atlanta to LaGuardia airport on a Friday morning. We’ve both found that cabin fever sets in for us around February. We arrived late morning and caught a cab to Times Square. After checking into the Hilton Garden Inn on 8th Avenue and 49th Street, we walked a block or so to the Playwright, an Irish pub, and had lunch.

This was Karen’s first visit to Gotham (and my first in 15 years), so we braved the cold, misty rain and took a long walk along Broadway, 5th Avenue, and 42nd Street. This gave us a good opportunity to see the Times Square neighborhood, Broadway, the New York Library, Grand Central Station, Nat Sherman’s tobacco shop, Radio City Music Hall. After a rest, we walked back down to 42nd Street and had dinner at The View, a revolving rooftop restaurant that gave us great, though cloudy, views of the city. After dinner, we went to the Music Box Theater where we saw the multiple award-winning musical, Dear Evan Hanson.

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Time Square

I’ll have to say that I’ve spent 40 plus years saying that I’m not very fond of musicals, but if you get the chance to see one on Broadway, you’ll come away with an appreciation.

On Saturday, we got a reprieve from the wet weather and spent the morning exploring more of the city. We took the subway down to Battery Park where we could view the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We then walked up to Wall Street where we saw the New York Stock Exchange and the old Custom House. We then walked up to see the new Freedom Tower and the World Trade Center area. This is a monument to perseverance more than defiance. Walking over the remains of thousands and looking up to see the new gleaming tower, the World Trade Center neighborhood gives you the sense that we are all part of something bigger than national pride or religious fervor.  You feel like you are a part of a worldwide community.

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Freedom Tower

We then walked up through Tribeca and SoHo and ate pizza in NoLita (North of Little Italy) at Lombardi’s. After lunch, we took a taxi back to the hotel where we freshened up. We then walked down to the Shubert Theater where we saw Bernadette Peters star in the amazing Hello, Dolly. After the show, we went to another Irish pub for a couple of drinks.  I’m convinced that in every city, whether it’s in Brazil, Continental Europe, South Africa, or South Carolina, you will find an Irish pub.  In NYC, there seems to be one on every block.

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We then walked over to Patsy’s where we had a terrific Italian dinner. Frequented by both celebrities and tourists, Patsy’s may not be the hole-in-the-wall local joint that we typically look for, but it is certainly worth a visit if you want some authentic New York/Italian cuisine. Also, don’t be surprised if the white-clad chef and owner, Sal Scognamillo, pays you a visit a time or two during your meal.  After seeing him interact with several other tables, we were convinced that this was where all the locals dine.  But when he came to our table, we realized that he just treats everyone as a close friend.

After all of the changes over the years, the City was still familiar to me.  Change can be painful but it can also give you more strength than you ever thought you could have. Things will continue to change; I just hope it’s less dramatic the next time I visit.

Karen was thrilled with NYC, and I’m sure we’ll be back soon to see Central Park, the Yankees and Mets, the Metropolitan Museum, and countless other sites. This quick trip was the perfect remedy for the wintertime blues.

Key spots to visit – too many to list. Seriously, it’s NYC. We enjoyed dinner at Patsy’s on 56th Street, the Times Square Diner for breakfast, Lombardi’s pizzeria at the corner of Spring and Mott, Battery Park, the Freedom Tower, Grand Central Station, the New York Library, and the Theater District/Broadway.

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The Last Passenger

The flight to Seattle was expected to be full. Chuck still held out hope that the seat next to him would be unclaimed leaving the short row to himself. As passengers continued to file past him to their seats, he took out a Clorox wipe from his backpack and began disinfecting his arm rests and the TV screen mounted on the seat in front of him. Just as the flight attendant announced that the cabin door was being closed, he looked up to see the last passenger to board was standing over him. 

“Looks like you’re the lucky one. I’ve got the window seat,” said the plump, red-faced man with disheveled hair. Chuck unbuckled his safety belt and stepped into the aisle so his new neighbor could squeeze into his seat. He cringed as the stranger launched a violent sneeze which made a flight attendant jump. 

After they were both settled in, the stranger turned to Chuck and introduced himself. “Name’s Dwight.  Sorry I’m a little addled, I almost missed the flight. I think I’ll be okay once I take my medication,” Dwight grunted as he bent down to dig around in his brief case.

“Let me guess, Tamiflu?” Chuck was already wishing he had one of his disposable surgical face masks that he accidently left in his checked luggage.

“No, it’s for my kidney that used to belong to someone else,” Dwight sighed clutching a brown pill bottle in one hand and half-filled bottle of water in the other. “I had a transplant a couple of years ago.”

“Is the donor a friend of yours?” Chuck asked absently.

“Not really…it was my ex-wife.”

“Really!” Chuck was suddenly intrigued with the stranger. “Before you were divorced, I assume?”

“Oh yeah, but only about a year before. Things went south not long after the surgery. Can you believe that bitch asked the judge if she could have it back?” Dwight shook his head and frowned. “I think it was just a trick to get full custody of the dogs.”

“Good thing you got it when you did.” Chuck noticed that a passenger across the aisle was also listening in to the conversation with wide eyes.

“No doubt. I knew I was lucky before they even closed me up.” Dwight tossed a tiny white pill into his mouth and made loud gurgling noises as he drained his water bottle. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “The hell of it is though, every time I take one of these pills, I think of that mean-ass woman.”

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Gonzo the Great – A Vignette

The sun was only two fingers away from sinking into the light grey waters of Pamlico Sound, which separated Ocracoke Island from the rest of North Carolina.  Leon sat on the weather ravaged dock made of creosote timbers and cracked concrete, sharing an 18-pack of Old Milwaukee with his only friend, Gonzo.

It had taken an hour for Leon to convince the ferry boat captain in Morehead City that Gonzo was a tame bear.  Still, several passengers refused to board and chose to wait another six hours for the next crossing. The bear had snored like a passed out drunk on the ride across the sound often drowning out the steady drone of the belching diesel engines of the ferry boat.  He finally woke as the pungent odor of raw shrimp and fried clams drifted from the landing dock to his leathery, piggish nose.

The afternoon spent on the dock was just the latest misery in Leon’s middle-aged years.  He ran his calloused fingers through his greasy unwashed hair then rubbed his sunburned neck.  He was supposed to have checked in with the traveling carnival three hours ago, but the local authorities would not let him leave the dock with his “dancing bear” until a veterinarian could be brought out look over the stinking, flea covered animal.

Occasionally the two vagabonds would catch a whiff of the carnival smells as the gentle sea breeze blew cross the island from the fairgrounds.  Leon’s stomach gurgled as he thought of the fried dough, sausages, and smoked pork.  The thought of funnel cakes caused him look down at his feet.  On his left was a dirty red sneaker, on his right was a walking cast.  The doctor in Asheville who had asked him if he knew he was diabetic told him that he had to wear the ridiculously large ugly boot or risk losing his foot.  It didn’t really matter anymore to Leon.  He had lost his right sneaker somewhere near Rockingham anyway.