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Life in the clouds

Youngsters parade around unironically in bowler hats and suspenders. A third wave coffee shop only serves its drip coffee as a pour-over. Mullets, reinvented for the year 2022, are popping up like spring flowers. This is Portland. An old woman with her hair dyed green. A teenager looking fashionable in her mother's old jeans. A yuppie with a Mac book struggling to get out of a rut while a bum with a cardboard sign tries something wildly new. Oversize beanies with pointy tops that look like gnome hats. Why are gnome hat beanies a trend? What is so cool about having a pointed head? I don't know. This is Portland.

Moving here, I feel like I'm fifteen years late to the party. Most of my college friends came here a long time ago. This is Portland, the giant magnet that sucks ambitious and talented people out of small Oregon towns. It's not hard to see why. It's got all the music and culture of a big city while still feeling like a bunch of small towns smooshed together. With a robust network of bike paths, it's a commuting cyclist's paradise. Every neighborhood has its own colorful food truck circle. Or two or three. You can taste food of any culture, you can hear touring bands that never stop over in little old Medford, and you're never far from a park. The parks are explosively verdant and filled with families.

A lot of things have been looking up for me since moving to P-town. I've been thrifting so much I turned over my whole wardrobe, and somehow it's a lot darker and more leather than it was pre-2020. I ride public transit so I don't feel like an environmental menace driving my smoke-belching biohazard of a car. And I finally feel comfortable using my headphones to play through different sounds while I taste at work. I've even developed a tasting playlist.

At one point, in another life when I started this blog, I wanted to formalize the whole process of studying which sounds do what to wine and spirits. I was looking for sounds that could give me new insight while tasting, but I didn't want to let any personal biases come in the way of objectivity. I designed a blinded, randomized trial for myself to work through. But that was setting the bar too high. I never had the energy to sit down and do it. Not with the distress and drama of 2020. So I decided to trust myself and improvise. I add interesting sounds to a personal archive, put it on shuffle, sit back, relax, and taste through the boss's whiskey collection after hours. Life is full of surprises. I figure I'll go after the good kind.

Yours Truly with her nose in a glass of single barrel Westward Whiskey.

Portland smells like exhaust, frying fat, roasting coffee, trash and rain. The parks smell like muddy grass and the humid breath of old trees. The neighborhoods smell like every kind of scented dryer sheet, someone's BBQ, and heady ornamental flowers. Each morning the city awakens to the smokey vapor of someone's illegal campfire and the wild yell of a hobo trying to get his shopping cart onto the light rail. Bits of trash, liberated in the dead of night by the raccoons that invade homeless camps for scraps of food, drift through the streets with the aimless ambition of tumbleweeds. People talk about how it used to be, when this city was voted one of the most live-able in the United States, before the the alleys were filled with tents from the housing crisis, before the shop windows were broken in protests, and before coronavirus shut down countless small businesses across the city. There's some painful nostalgia in their eyes, but I honestly don't share it. Maybe it's because I see a lot of beautiful regrowth happening. Maybe it's just because my bar is low. I'm happy for every night I can lie in bed with the smell of rain and sleep without the fear that everything could catch on fire while I'm unconscious.

New neighbors have set up tents on the bike path that I walk to my morning bus stop.

I landed in Portland after a rough spring of fire nightmares and thrashing in the night. You might say I'm still affected by the 2020 wildfire that demolished one third of the town I lived in at the time. In the spring of 2021, as winter yielded to the sun, as Talent's fire-blackened trees put out new leaves and the rain dried up, it was a little harder to ignore the inevitability of summer fires returning sunny Southern Oregon, and a lot harder to convince PTSD brain to cool it. Then I landed the job at Westward Whiskey, and Portland became my rainy refuge. The first time it rained after I moved, I felt such relief that I spent most of the day lying around in a dumb stupor.

That was just the beginning of a weird and wending transition to what just might qualify as sound mental health. Between the move and the progress I was making in therapy, I was finally managing to chill out for real this time. But life is full of trade offs, and it came with a price. As the night panics subsided, all the fire in my belly went out. Somewhere in the scuffle between hell and high water, my brain had adapted to a constant sense of emergency. It wasn't easy when all those fears, my nightly companions for almost a year, ditched me with the tab. I slept twelve hours a night and felt like the walking dead.

This too eased with time, but some days I still feel like something is missing from my life. I'm reminded of this fact whenever something really scares the hell out of me. Like when I'm on my way to the grocer for lunch and there's a slow-moving train in the way, so I run alongside it and climb over the big hulking thing, and gee there's another one coming up fast on the next set of tracks. It's that oh-shit rush that wakes me up from my dreamy resting state. Don't look at me like that. I'm not going after it on purpose. But the rush, my God. It feels like somebody just turned a light on in a dim room. I want that light all the time, but I know better than to chase it and burn out all my remaining synapses. So instead I bury my nose in a glass and draw those honey scented fumes up into my wrecked mind, where they mingle with the angst and the loss and the wistful nostalgic hope that scratches around in the walls at midnight.

Standing on an overpass, looking down the tracks in the direction of the distillery. You can't see it. It's a little too short to stand out.

I work in the Southeast Industrial District on the river, an old brick and concrete neighborhood filled craft brewers, distillers, producers of fancy foods, spray painted murals, and bum camps. Olympia Provisions, producer of artisan charcuterie, sits just across the train tracks from us, opposite Smith Teamaker. It's a multi-sensory buffet packed into dense industrial blocks shadowed by freeway overpasses where the hobos drone in the background and the traffic mumbles its confused thoughts to nobody. And you can't throw a can of spray paint without hitting graffiti.

The graffiti is a visual nuisance to some. But you know what? Blank towering walls are a visual nuisance to me. I think the graffiti looks like life, ejected from the dirty orifice of a pressurized canister. It's unpredictable, it's hardly civilized, and it has something to say, but nobody can be sure what the message is. It's a hell of a lot more raw and unprocessed than the religious tomes most people look to for meaning. Most of it is just names. Names of people who want to be known and anonymous at the same time. I mean, in a city, who doesn't relate?

When I'm waiting for a train to pass, I get to watch all the graffiti glide past, a long collection of lawless art from all over the west coast. Some of it is so good I want to find the artist and ask them their secrets. Some of it is complete trash. Either way it brings a smile to my face.

My favorite wall of street art features a mystical being covered in eyes, something that looks like a volcano face, Science Fiction Kid With A Halo, and the word DIVINE.

Why? Hell if I know.

Eating anything outside the distillery takes me straight back to my childhood. It's the sound of the traffic, just similar enough to the background rush of the river I grew up on. It shapes flavors in the same fashion as the sound of rapids. I tried eating an English muffin with peanut butter on the walk to the bus, and it took me straight back to the peanut butter pretzel snacks we ate on hot summer days at the swimming hole. The sound cuts out all the rich oiliness and leaves the taste of old dry peanuts and something dusty. I used to complain to my mother that the peanut butter pretzel snacks were stale and she would insist that they were fine. Another one of those moments when you realize decades later that your mother had a point.

Just a short walk down the railroad tracks from Westward, a judgy tiger.

I'm still visited by a sense of urgency in quiet moments when I least expect it. It's the ghost of a feeling I had each time we suffered a major loss in 2020. I feel in those moments that entropy is stealing this time from me, that I am sitting with the presence of my future self who longs to have the good times back, and as I grip the present moment harder so as not to let it slip away, I wonder how much it will be worth to her, this small scrap of my life, standing here, waiting for the bus in the rain. But that's okay. I've figured out how to stop time. I just put on my headphones and stick my nose in a glass. When I power up my headphones on the distiller's deck, the first thing I notice is a change in the air. The smell of the air changes as soon as the noise canceller kicks in. Many of these changes are subtle, like cloud shadows passing over a meadow. Like the shifting colorscape of windswept grass cast in sun and shade. Some are big and impressive, like the yellow light of an incoming thunderstorm, the way it paints a meadow the colors of electric gloom. Juniper appears where before I could not smell it through the gray rush of ventilation fans, a woody pine scent drifting to the distillers deck from the spice bins across the facility. When I hit the play button, a growling base sound fills the headset with its rubber washboard ripple, and the juniper flees the scene. Now the muggy sweet aromas of cooked beer emanating from the spent wash tank sneak forward in its absence, recognizable for their sweetness but warped by the noise, twisted into something saccharine and hollow. But these things do not arrive like storm light sweeping over the valley. These things are shadows in the meadow. The storm hits when I put fresh distillate together with a rotation of noises, one lithe and weedy and bright like lightning, another deep and heavy like thunderheads. Each sounds puts its own spin on the spirit. One of my go-to sounds is a cool harmonic hum. It has a texture like passing your hand through the ghost of cold metal. It brings the aroma of sweet artichoke hearts swimming out of the depths, as well as the smell of wet dog that appears in tails. These scents are important for making tails cuts, so I use the sound to tune into them. I've started wearing the headphones when I go out to eat. In the past this idea was off-putting. I'm tired of strangers asking what I'm up to, and then acting like I'm either seeking attention or just deluded when I try to explain. It might be easier if the sound/taste interaction were a standard form of synesthesia, a variant with a name and a long track record in research. But mine is odd even for synesthesia, and it's not always easy to describe. When you struggle to put it into words, you lose people pretty fast. Most of the time I'd rather settle for disappointing food over the looks and the questions and the skeptical comments. But the more I benefit from the headphones at work, the more I have to admit I'm missing out on a lot of potentially mind blowing restaurant experiences. So, on the day I got a raise, I grabbed my bestie and went to Laurelhurst Market, where I spent a lot of money enjoying the way a whining transistor made Brussels sprouts taste indescribably good. This is Portland, after all, where the cute young hipsters don't sacrifice happiness for the sake of appearing normal.

This is my bestie, Allison. She was once my brother's girlfriend and I got to keep her after the break-up. Have you ever seen a happier I'm-eating-a-hamburger-face in your life? I think the goofy smile is partly in response to my headphones but it's at least 95% hamburger happiness.

I like to keep the headphones on for a few minutes after I'm done eating. For the aftertaste. This is in fact one of those times that makes the biggest difference in enjoyment, the aftertaste. When flavors are fading fast, replaced by the creeping bitterness of clingy tannin unsupported by sugar or aromatic sweetness. If I turn off the sound too soon, some of those lingering flavors vanish without so much as a see you later. So I hold onto them as long as I can by keeping the sound going.

It's that sense of urgency again, that desperation to hang onto what you've got. It's in the leaves that crumble in the corner where curb meets pavement. It's in the small glaciers of dust that swirl across the floor where nobody has swept. It's in the ashes that still fill the cracks of sidewalks in Talent a year after the fire. It was in the dark eyes of the man with a gun who asked me for a picture the morning after everything burned. It rang in his laughter when I froze the way a field mouse freezes in the shadow of a bird. It's knowing that your shadow, though it moves with you, is not alive, that most things in this universe are not alive, and that if all living things disintegrate eventually, then our working hands are covered in the dust of what those who came before us lost.

This is my favorite tagger. Every time they tag, the face has a different expression.

Westward Whiskey, industrious pioneer of American Single Malt, is setting the bar for an emerging category of whiskey. It's brewed like a beer with brewer's yeast to create a fruity, flavorful wash for the still. It's distilled twice in pot stills like a single malt Scotch, producing a rich and complex spirit. And it's aged like a bourbon in virgin American oak barrels, where it picks up robust oak sweetness and spice without losing its balance. The aromas that pop up most often in my tasting notes are dried fruit, citrus peel, fields of dry summer grass, dark honey, and baking spices.

I was lucky to join the production crew just as Westward hit a thrilling period of growth. Production is increasing, the team is getting bigger, new people are training, and there's novelty, excitement, and chaos in the air. I've carved out my own professional niche where I get to be all over the facility, pulling samples from fermenters, helping with cuts on the high wines, running lab analyses, cutting single barrel batches to bottling strength, counting yeast, tasting finished product before it's bottled. It's exciting to be here right now, in the hot heart of a small premium whiskey company going supernova.

Westward's Master Blender looks like a viking who got stuck on layover between Valhalla and Earth and spent it all in a tattoo parlor. His name is Miles and, considering how much air travel he logs, his mother was an oracle. The rest of us merely aspire to look so cool while working, except for the lead distiller in production Liam Glad, who settled for cutoff overalls years ago and hasn't looked back since. After I confided to Miles that 2020 inspired an interest in heavy metal, he gave me with a hand blended heavy metal Spotify playlist. It's everything I hoped for.

This came in handy when I noticed Christian music playing in the coffee shop I visit before boarding a bus to work. I get along just fine with Christians as long as they don't try to convert me. But I can't handle the music, all full of love and praise for a deity who, if it exists, is totally fine with my sister getting progressive multiple sclerosis in her thirties. And I know what the devout would say if I challenged them on this fact. I remember from Catholic school. They'd say God has a plan for everyone. Her suffering has a purpose. And the thought of it kills me. So I avoid eye contact, put on the headphones, and drown out the praise and hallelujahs with metal. This is my consolation, my comfort in the eye of an emotional hurricane. The taste of coffee turned to dirt by the sound of guitar distortions and screaming.

A family of cyclists dressed in matching outfits from REI. A line of campers parked under the overpass. A miniature goat sunning itself in someone's front yard.

A strip club with karaoke night on Sundays. A boutique specializing in salt. A topless woman standing next to a stop sign with a heroin needle hanging out of her arm. An LGBT bar with glittery Drag Queen Bingo.

A pink and blue cloud-studded evening sky. The smell of wet pavement and young leaves. The sound of rain.


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