Whitney’s Electronic Christmas Party

19 12 2013

And a happy new year.

electronic christmas copy

‘Don’t Be Afraid’ by Redshirt Theory.

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A Little Bit Country

19 04 2013

It was Easter and I needed little travel-size bottles of Shampoo and toothpaste. The only store open on this particular Sunday was Walmart, a place I like to avoid most of the time due to crowded parking lots and the wild abundance of spandex. With my basket full of useless but adorable toiletries, I unloaded the loot to checkout.

“You must be going on a trip somewhere,” said Jodi, the pleasant Walmart associate. “Where are you going?” she asked politely.

Just as soon as Texas escaped from my lips, the gal behind me pipes up with, “I’m sorry!”

Confused, I look around to make sure she hasn’t offended anyone before I reply. I didn’t feel like starting any Walmart turf wars over something so stupid.

“You don’t like Texas?” I queried.

“Never been there. But who the heck would want to go anyways?” she asked rhetorically.

“Where are you vacationing in Texas?” asked Jodi.

“Fredericksburg. And it’s not a vacation. I’m working.”

I had never been to Texas, or anywhere particularly close to the South—though Texas is arguably large enough to occupy both northern and southern proclivities while still holding the same gun. I’ll also admit that growing up in California there does exist an unexamined prejudice towards Texas. It’s probably the same prejudice the woman in Walmart was expressing—the kind of chitchat that people use to relate to each other based on lack of experience and not any particular evidence. People do this all the time, but in my travels I’ve learned to curb my pubic opinions on culture, especially when that culture could beat the s*** out of me.

blue-bonnet-flower-whitney-butler-blog-Texas-wild-flowers

In the spring, these Blue Bonnet wild flowers cover the hill country.

Fredericksburg has a population of just fewer than 13,000 people. “The Hill Country” is what the locals call it, because it rises significantly in elevation about an hour north of San Antonio and 70 miles west of Austin. To me it looked flat, but one woman’s rolling hillside is another woman’s steep mountain terrain and I had come to Fredericksburg to figure it out.

Germany and Texas are an unlikely pair, but in Fredericksburg a heritage of German immigration is proudly displayed on windows, street signs and a determined effort to protect this history from being swallowed-up by American homogeneity.

In the early 1900’s German was the most common language spoken in Fredericksburg. Originally a Spanish territory, Mexico controlled the territory until a majority sought emancipation for slaves circa 1824. This pissed off a bunch of crazy slave owners but to no avail. The result was a new republic and Sam Houston became the first president of the Republic of Texas. He favored the idea of annexation to the United States, which didn’t actually happen until 1845, when Texas became the 28th state incorporated into the Union. While all of this crazy s*** was going on, there was a mass movement of Germans to the south and central regions of Texas. Many of these Germans came thinking they would take root in the Republic of Texas, but leave it to a bunch of crazy white people to mess that up.

 “Sorry German farmers. You’re all Americans now!”

Moreover, safe passage, farm land and the dream of a better life were all promises that some German quasi-company sold to these down-trodden German families in the late 1920’s—families that paid about $300 to board a boat for 2 months, get smallpox, and head for the new world.

Luckenbach-Texas

Bad-ass Texans in Luckenbach Texas, a famous dance hall and debauchery destination.

Bottom line, these German immigrants were total bada** motherf******. They were fighting off crazy Comanche indian attacks, disease, unpredictable weather and several unfulfilled promises—the amount of land they had been promised was dramatically exaggerated, and what land they did receive, they had no idea how to use. Thanks to some Mormon folks living around the corner, they learned enough to get through some really bad storms and survive through enough seasons to start developing a little town that would later become home to just under 13,000 people. Incredible.

History is so boring when it’s laid out like this. I hate linear paths and I think most people do too, which is exactly why people have to go to Fredericksburg to understand why—especially if you’re from California—you should learn to hold your tongue inside a Walmart.

Here are some things I would recommend in the “The Hill Country”:

Wine Tasting

wine

Prepare to make a day of the 290 Wine Road, and prepare to have someone else drive your ass home.

If you’re a lover of the grapes, Texas is boasting one of the fastest growing wine industries in the county. Today there are over 300 wineries producing Texas wine, which reflect many of the same complex flavors found in the Mediterranean or other vines that grow at this longitude. Fredericksburg is home to dozens of unique tasting rooms and several very large wineries off the famous 290 Wine Road, including Becker, Grape Creek, Rancho Ponte and too many others to list.

Napa Valley draws all kinds of attention for its prestige and sophisticated pallet, but Texas Tuscany is a more relaxed and comfortable experience. The growers, owners and families within these vineyards can be seen walking about the facilities, talking with customers—sharing stories about last year’s harvest. And while each winery offers a unique tasting experience you can bet that you’ll leave having learned something new from knowledgeable and the most hospitable wine pourers you’ve ever met.

My personal favorite was the Becker Vineyard, which had an amazing farmhouses and special event venues that would be perfect for weddings, corporate meetings or my 27th birthday party. Try a bottle of the Raven, for about $40 this concentration with essences of chocolate, toffee, dates, and espresso is a blend of malbec and petit verdot. I have no idea what that means but I’m planning an entire meal around the bottle I brought home with me—grilled pork chops with a raspberry and chipotle compote I scored from Fischer & Wieser, a famous canner of all things worth pickling, saucing or jamming. Sown and reaped in Fredericksburg, the Fischer & Wieser brand is so successful that you can find some of their products at CostCo—not so small town, is it?

I met the owner of the jelly company, who was a crackled old German man who told me nobody in town liked him. I liked him instantly for being so honest and wanted to know more. We talked mostly politics and infrastructure and how annoying it is when society doesn’t listen to you even when you have ideas that will change the course of the world. He had just returned from Germany and said he was jet-lagged and apologized for his political speech. I told him I would vote for him if her ever went out for County Judge again—a position he held many years ago.

 Museums and History 

Johnson

Command central during the Vietnam War.

The National Museum of the Pacific War is incredible. The only Japanese midget submarine still intact from Pearl Harbor lives under this roof. There are audio histories that can only be heard at the museum as well and letters from troops to their mothers that can be read clearly from beautiful and well-lit cases. The tickets are good for 48 hours and that’s a huge benefit to guests—one could easily spend days looking at all of the information, artifacts and priceless treasures from WWII. The Nimitz Museum is also one-of- a-kind in Fredericksburg. The late Navy Admiral was born and raised in “The Hill Country” and the town is damn proud of it.

Another major attraction is Lyndon B. Johnson’s Ranch in the LBJ National Historic Park and the Texas White House. When Ladybird Johnson died a few years ago in 2007, the Ranch home and its hundreds of acres were donated to the National Park Services. Only recently has the public been allowed to tour the former home of President Johnson and experience the incredible life story that is woven into the earth there. The president’s entire life cycle can be traced in this single experience. The foundation of his birth home is still present along with the original schoolhouse he walked to as a young boy. The home he raised his family in and commanded the American Armed forces is completely persevered as it was in the 1970’s. The original beds, chairs, televisions, phones, family photos—everything eerily stands still in time and guests are now allowed to tour this home and experience the still country mist of this presidential history. My personal favorite was the Johnson’s dual closet, which had not been moved or touched by anyone, including the first lady, after Johnson’s death in 1973.

whitney-butler-pasific-war

Original artifacts from the war make way for silence and strange reflections of a past that I never lived.

When I’m in San Diego, around my people, my places, my things, nothing surprises me. Everything is predictable, comfortable, and easier to generalize than people who shop at Walmart. It’s so predictable that perhaps sometimes—myself included—we pretend to understand things outside of this common sphere, and it’s the things we think we know—the people or places we like to pretend to understand from afar, that often are the most surprising, the most beautiful, the most unexpectedly fun.

So please, the next time you’re in Walmart, buy your useless toiletries and shut the hell up. Because we’re all a little bit country whether we know it or not. Texas is enormous, and at some point all of our histories cross. You don’t have to believe in the right to bear arms to appreciate the great things happening in the Lone Star State, but you do have to leave California.





Don’t Stop and Never Run

21 09 2011

Part VI: The gypsy

I like to shower twice a day. And I’m okay with that.

I woke up to sunlight and rice patty fields. It was morning. We were alive and as far as I could tell I didn’t have lice. Somehow I had fallen asleep with my head in my lap. My butt was asleep and my back hurt. Are we close? We stopped to go to the bathroom and stretch our legs. It was 8:00 a.m. and from  near-by conversation I gathered only about an hour or so away from Nha Trang. Anxious, time passed quickly as the scenery unfolded. Slowly, we crept down the side of a mountain covered in green jungle. To the east, an unobstructed horizon of ocean, gray with mist. A black water buffalo pulled a man driving a broken wagon; following the road down into a marina of torn and  faded fishing boats. We had arrived.

Mike and I were exhausted. It was plain to see on both our faces. I had been extra weight the whole night, and we were both getting sick of this tedious pace. The sleeper bus catastrophe mixed with the final bits of medicated delirium still working its way out of my system, were pushing us towards a schism.

We were sitting across from each other, bowls of pho steaming up my sunglasses. It was breakfast time and I was in the mood for a fight. Before our trip, Mike had gone through an emotional break up. But while adventuring through Vietnam, he had expressed some revelations about his feelings, and was determined to confide in her face-to-face today at the airport in Nha Trang; a meeting that seemed romantic and coincidental, but wasn’t. Shut up Mike. He had been practicing his lines over and over. I’m really over hearing about this Mike. Justifying his mistakes and calculating his comeback. Mike, I’m not sure this is a good idea. Like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, there would be Italian opera, and doves would fly. His mind painted pictures of grandeur that made me want to vomit. SHUT THE FUCK UP MIKE! I lost it. I need some space. I needed some time to myself. I told Mike I would find him in two days, and we would go from there. What are you going to do? At that point I had no idea, but I looked out at the crystal blue water and had a good feeling that I would be fine.

Alone in a bed, I slept the most glorious sleep of all sleeps. I splurged a bit on the room, but I didn’t care sprawled out on the king bed of cool cotton sheets. I turned the air-conditioning down so low I asked for more blankets. Yes. This is vacation. It was night when I woke up. The streets looked less crowded from the 14th floor window. I wandered through the neighborhood lit up in neon lights, cracking and buzzing, flickering on and off. It was raining, but it was so hot that nothing was wet. I had no idea what day it was or what time of evening, I just walked until I got hungry, sat down at a cafe and ordered an espresso. The hot sting of caffeine felt good. I listened to some French men on the patio speak the romance language, as the rain kept coming down. I wrote in my journal, listened to some music and paid my bill. I bought some ice cream around the corner and tried to eat it before it melted all over my hand. This was my pace.

Sometime the next day, after sunning too much on the beach and shopping, the phone rang in my room. Come have coffee with us. Feeling fixed for company, I was all for it and bounced down to the lobby ready for the beach. Romeo and Juliet were downstairs with someone I didn’t know. A young Vietnamese/American man who spoke natively, and had been gypsie-ing around Vietnam for almost a year, pausing the last few months to call Nha Trang home; Juliet apparently had a friend in Vietnam. I enjoyed him right away. He was well-traveled and educated, on the edge of being a hipster, but without the Rayban sunglasses and meaningless tattoos. He’s so pretentious. Mike didn’t care for him, but I was sure that had more to do with Mike’s romantic rendezvous including another set of balls.  Or maybe the doves didn’t show up. I don’t know. Over coffee and cigarettes the four of us exchanged funny tales of travel, taking in the beautiful scene from a garden table.

The gypsy promised us an authentic Vietnamese dining experience, so again we braved from sidewalk to sidewalk. Don’t stop, and never run. Huh? That’s how you should cross the street. He said it so matter-of-fact that I was almost insulted. But the gypsy is an experienced backpacker and knows what he was talking about. It worked. All of a sudden the stream of motor bikes didn’t seem so intimidating. I watched him and pretended to have the same confidence in my flip-flops. He was right. I thought this trick was spectacular. Mike was rolling his eyes.

We moved up a tight alley and stopped at a busy corner. An old washing drum had been transformed into a fire pit under a chicken-wire  grill. Now we’re talking. Rocky shell-fish was poured onto the flames peaking up thought the wire, snapping and cracking the sand and weeds from the clams, muscles, and snails. Dry and wet seasoning buckets were scattered about the sidewalk while a quick-handed old man artfully pinched out just the right amount onto the steaming meat. The smell of smoke mixed with salts, garlic and fresh-cut lemon grass meant one thing: this was going to be good. We sat around a small platsic-tea-party-table, Mike’s legs almost to his chest, and waited for our first course while we enjoyed a cool, sweet beverage made from seaweed. Intimidating in dark green, the gypsy said it was a health staple for locals and a popular dinner drink. It definitely tasted healthy, I’ll give him that. An old woman placed a bucket under our table and dinner was served. Small plastic plates covered in newspaper soaked up the runny juices and flavored oils spilling out the shell beds. Grilled muscles and oysters on the half shell, delicately dusted with crushed cashew and green onion. I burnt my lip a little as I sucked one down. Fantastic. It had the simple taste of ocean that all shell-fish possess, but rarely keep after freezing, or over-saucing. The lemon grass, oil, and garlic covering the clams and mussels was amazing, clearly from the hand of a cook who had been doing this a very long time. Next, sea snails served in a bowl of warm coconut milk. The trick is to suck it out really fast, and really hard. The sun was going down behind the buildings. Our bucket was getting full.  We ate and laughed,  savoring a truly unforgettable meal.

Nha Trang is gorgeous through and through; it penetrates with a gritty vibe of  lazy beach living. Time is lost under warm waves of ocean, the sun and tide a useful reminder to put on more sunscreen. It’s a beauty that teaches you to tell time with your body and not through the electronic extensions that define our modern time. Sleep when you’re tired. Eat when you’re hungry. Get wet when you’re hot. After the first night I thought: I could stay here forever. But I knew that wasn’t true. I could never be like the gypsy. As romantic as the idea sounded, I could never go long periods of time without work, without order or routine. I’m a creature of habit, not one of vicarious adventures on sleeper busses. I don’t need designer hand bags, but I like to shower twice a day, and I’m okay with that. Our adventure in Vietnam was coming to a close. Mike and I had seen some amazing places, faced relative uncertainty, and met wonderful people in the mix of disaster. The hectic race down the coast of Vietnam finally silenced by the stillness of Nha Trang; the timeless experience of sharing a slow meal, watching the sunset, smiling with strangers, and in the most simple way of expressing: just being alive. We run because it feels safer than looking around to consider where we are. We miss moments between the places or things we run to. Miss it all because we were so sure the grass would be greener in Nha Trang. And sometimes it is. Sometimes when we get there it’s everything you thought it would be. But likely, we soon find ourselves running off again, looking for something that keeps us moving all the time. And we can’t stop.

The gypsy had one more trick up his sleeve. We are going to a party. Where? On the beach. The night was cool in breeze, stars out in purple sky. Tall palms swayed in a seductive motion towards the shore. A huge white canopy had been erected like a circus tent over a large circle of beach, connecting a bar from the street down a dark path to a crowd of people dancing barefoot in the sand. It was like zion had moved off the hill and taken three hits of ecstasy; if God is a DJ, He was throwing this party. The tent glowed purple in black lights while colored beams of all kinds shot across the night air, arms reaching up, down tempo to an electro/house beat. There was only one problem. Mike and I had to catch a train to Ho Chi Mihn city at 7:00 a.m.. We both knew there was only one thing to do, and it started with a bucket of Long Island Ice Tea. Romeo and Juliet grabbed at each other playfully, while I toasted the gypsy to a wonderful evening. The four of us danced on the beach flipping up fans of sand. Mike put his arm around me and we smiled, laughing about our argument the day before. We raised our glasses. Well, at least we can sleep on the train. I laughed and pushed him to dance. Tomorrow could wait, right now all I could think about was how awesome it was that they were playing Daft Punk.

 

 

 

Dedicated to Michael Peterson. Thank you.





Don’t Stop and Never Run

29 08 2011

Part V: Sleeper Bus

I kept telling myself that this would be really funny someday.

The day we left Da Nang, all of my nervous hallucinations came to fruition. The road to Nha Trang was through the countryside, a dirt road with green jungle on both sides; uneven, steep, dark and, scary. Besides the rusty train tracks that connect the north and south, Vietnam lacks a comprehensive system of direct roadways into dozens of cities. But I had done a great bit of reading about traveling down the coast of Vietnam and was confident that an overnight sleeping bus would be perfect for getting us to Nha Trang. We could spend all day in Da Nang, sleep on the bus for 12 hours and wake up refreshed and ready to explore. How easy this sounded in my head.

The woman at the station was apathetic to our appointment, and didn’t see any problem with us waiting until the following day to travel to Nha Trang. But Mike was determined. He had been pining all week over his ex-girlfriend who was due to arrive in Nha Trang the same day, so the plan was to be there when she arrived and sweep her off her feet. I supported his effort, but his romantic idealism made me want to kill myself. Fortunately I was still high as a kite from taking excessive amounts of  my perception, so I wasn’t in any position to attempt and achieve a successful suicide. A few phone calls later the woman smiled, satisfied with a solution to what Mike was now regarding a problem of national importance. She said a van was on its way, and that the van would take us to the neighboring city of Hoi An, where we could catch a sleeper bus headed for Nha  Trang. Fine. Mike was restless, pacing back and forth, anxious to get to his princess. I was sitting in a chair sweating, staring at a wall, fading in and out of consciousness. I don’t remember the drive into Hoi An.

As soon as I fell out of the van I knew something was horribly wrong. About 30 foreigners speaking in languages from all over the world were spilling out of the booking office. They looked exhausted, falling over their bags, sitting and sleeping on each other. A family with two young children sat close to the desk of the operator, the mother fanning herself and son with a magazine. How long had they been here? By now it was well into the evening, and it was clear we were going to be late. The people in the office offered little consolation. When is the bus coming? Soon, very soon. But when? Soon. I didn’t know where we were, or how long we would be there, so Mike decided-for both of us-to get some dinner. The cafe food was boring and over-priced. The appeal might have been the free WiFi or western nuance, but as I fidgeted over my rice and vegetables, I couldn’t help but wish he had eaten across the street, on the little-plastic-tea-party-tables, lined in front of an outdoor kitchen where I knew the pho was being prepared by a women who didn’t care at all about presumptuous smears of sauce across a plate. Is this ketchup? Probably no WiFi, but I’m easy to please.

As the night wore on, we were making friends with people who like us, had been duped by this travel agency. But unlike us, most of these backpackers had been in Vietnam for sometime and were planning on staying. Two icy girls from France were taking a month-long holiday through the country, which put into perspective-yet again, how absurdly ambitions our itinerary was. But we had come this far, and I wasn’t about to give up just because some French girl in floral cotton pants and Keds was making me feel like a jerk for trying to keep a schedule. But our schedule was beginning to feel pointless, so at about 9:00 p.m. and after a handful of  blue and white pills,  I resolved to be content with the evening, however it went down. We would eventually leave, eventually arrive, and I would be fine; I was already starting to feel better. The medicine was working. From the booking office we boarded two small buses with our new friends and headed to yet another location where supposedly the large sleeper bus was waiting. To my surprise there it was, a double-decker, parked and waiting like an oasis in the desert. My backpack suddenly felt less heavy. After 7 hours of waiting around, we were finally on our way.

The sleeper bus is a unique experience; one I hope to never have again. It smells like hot vinyl and plastic, the ball pit at a Mc Donalds more specifically, and probably just as unsanitary. Down the length of the bus were two very slim isles that separated three rows of bunk beds. The beds are shorter than an adults average height and slant up so that the legs of one person fit under another persons back and head. They are padded like examination tables at a hospital and have the same cold quality. Each bed is set with a blanket and a pillow. Instantly I started telling myself that someday this would be really funny; that someday I would tell my children that I had been a badass in my youth and traveled via slave bus through Vietcong jungles and lived despite a brush with pubic lice and ring worm. But in this moment, I was terrified. I sat down on the bed and looked to my right where an old Vietnamese man was nestled tightly beside me. Hello. Behind me the French girl was wrapping herself in a lightweight sleeping bag, something I’m sure experienced backpackers carry with them. This French girl was really starting to piss me off. I was exhausted, so  instead of  freaking out, I decided to try to relax and make the most of a weird situation. The old man next to me was breathing hard and I could feel it on my neck. Yes. This will be hilarious. Televisions flipped down and played Vietnamese music videos. How do people sleep with these on? I looked at the French girl now reading a book with a light clipped to the hard cover. I really don’t like her. Sometime in the middle of the night I fell asleep.

What’s going on? I had no idea what time it was. It was still pitch black which meant that we hadn’t gone far and that I was still tired. We were on the side of the road somewhere down a straight dirt path with no lights. They were dumping our bags out from under the bus. What time is it? It was 3:00 a.m. and the bus driver was informing us that we needed to wait at this location for another bus that would be coming through to take us the rest of the way. I was so tired and beyond frustration that nothing could surprise or upset me at this point. Whatever. The bus pulled away, and me and about 28 other people were on the side of the road waiting, again. Waiting to live, waiting to die, I had no idea.

And then things got worse. Twenty minutes later, instead of a sleeper bus, two vans rolled up. No fucking way. We still had 8 hours of road to lay down. The men were explaining to us that there wasn’t going to be a sleeper bus to Nha Trang. This was our bus, two small vans that probably could fit 12 people comfortably if they weren’t also carrying backpacks and other luggage. We were 28 people and 28 bags. No way. Even if we could all fit, how were we supposed to endure 8 hours of rough terrain. I shouldn’t have asked that question. I was in the very back between Mike and a girl from western Europe. My knees were almost to my chest, I scrunched up on bags and held my breath when they tried to slid the van door closed. No way. But they just kept shoving people in, forcing us to double up on seats and share our personal space in ways I never dreamed possible with strangers. Mike was visibly in pain. This is going to be really funny someday.








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