Monday, January 19, 2015

distilling and processing in oakland

This morning I woke up with the thought: If not for Martin Luther King, Jr., I wouldn’t be living the great life I’m living. I wouldn’t be able to move through the world easily with my Mexican-American esposa, hoping/planning to adopt a kid, having checked the “any/all ethnicities” box on our adoption preferences.

This was followed immediately by the thought: And if not for white privilege, we probably wouldn’t have been able to finance any of it.

Welcome to the smoothie of gratitude and guilt that is my brain. It’s okay, I’ve come to find it endearing.

We spent the weekend in Oakland*, site of historic and recent civil rights activism. With Pedro and Stephen, we walked the quiet Sunday streets downtown, looking for a place to have a late lunch amid shops with boarded up windows. On the sidewalk, in front of Gold Rush-era storefronts selling artisanal canvas bags or perfectly curated vintage Southwest sweaters, was the repeated stencil: Black lives matter.

Downtown Oakland.
I miss these guys so ridiculously much.
Earlier that morning, Stephen and Pedro visited Safeway and encountered a sudden in-store demonstration where people chanted the same mantra.

I love history so much because it promises me that all lives matter**, that gone does not equal forgotten. Saturday we visited the St. George Spirits distillery, which operates out of an old hangar at the end of a stretch of apocalyptic-looking military housing. The sun blinded us as it reflected off the weed-mapped white cement, and it was easy to believe that zombies had perhaps already invaded.

Zombie patrol.
Inside the hangar, we encountered men with Gold Rush-era beards; steampunk copper distilling machines; old techniques and newly legalized absinthe. Prior to our tour, I’d had a vague idea that vodka came from potatoes and gin came from juniper berries and whiskey tasted good, and that was about it. We learned all kinds of things: Brandy comes from fruit, whiskey comes from grain, bourbon involves corn and has to be aged in new oak barrels, and vodka can come from anything. What makes it vodka (and I suppose what makes it taste toxic and disgusting in my opinion) is that it’s 96% alcohol by volume, with all the tasty parts boiled out of it.

Turns pear mash into brandy that tastes like a pear Jelly Belly. This is a good thing.
We tasted all kinds of things, too. It was a weekend during which I was never quite drunk but seemed to have an IV drip of steady adult beverages.

This shark lives at St. George.

It might turn on you.
Sunday morning my sister and I got into a low-grade phone fight. We are still trying to rebuild our relationship post-cancer, and we’re both making a good faith effort, but it’s like I’m trying to build with wood and she’s building with stone. Or maybe she’s England and I am America: Once we spoke the same language, but now we live on separate continents. There is fallout to the fallout to the fallout, and it can be exhausting.

Sunday afternoon, I met my friend Annette for coffee, and we walked around Lake Merritt in the winter sun. Black ducks with white bills dove for fish. Annette and I went to CalArts together, and for years after we graduated, we processed our experience there every time we convened. Annette is a big processer, which my sister isn’t.

“It’s like I’m being stabbed with a bunch of ballpoint pens,” I told her re: Cathy. “I know it won’t kill me, and I know I probably deserve some of it. But it really hurts to be stabbed over and over with a ballpoint pen.”

Annette had cancer about six years ago; she is still processing it, although she is healthy and full of wild and interesting plans for the future. She described oncology check-ups as “like walking the plank.”

“When I get a call with my test results while I’m at work, I think my coworkers hear me and think I got everyday good news. I’m like, ‘You don’t understand. I just found out I get to live.’”

They're talking about something very important. I'm taking a selfie.


*Apologetic shout-out to the Bay Area friends I didn’t manage to see on this trip. Because NorCal is our home away from home, it’s nearly impossible to see more than a fraction of the friends we’d like to on any given trip. Linda, Patricia, Miah, Jenessa and Chris—we’ll catch you on the next round.

**I say “all lives matter” as a complimentary statement to “black lives matter,” not an oppositional one. We live in a world that needs to be reminded that black lives, specifically, are lives.

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