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Pint-sized philosophy

As published in the Tampa Tribune March 17, 2008.

The Irish have been known to knock out a poem or two (think Seamus, Oscar, Van). Poetry, which for me is just another form of philosophy, is in their blood it seems, and while I’ve been known to wax poetic, I’m neither Irish nor poet.

But I know poetry when I see it – a flock of geese flying over my head at dawn; feel it – rain on my skin when everyone else has run for cover; hear it – anything Beethoven; and smell it – a kitchen full of cooking.

But it wasn’t until recently that I learned you can even taste poetry – in a pint of beer, no less. Irish beer. Guinness beer to be exact.

A few months ago I decided to take myself out to commemorate (celebrate, really) the anniversary of my divorce. A bit o’ (Irish?) luck landed me at The Irish Rover pub in Gulf Gate Village where I had my first pint of Guinness ever.

I took a seat at the bar and explained, sheepishly, to the young, ridiculously good-looking bartender — an Irishman named Alan — that I wanted a beer but my Bud Light taste buds didn’t know what to order in a real, honest-to-Irish pub.

“A Guinness,” Alan said, and started pouring. “You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it.” (Ah, the Irish – no in between for them.)

Of course, for me, even getting a pint of beer is never about just a pint of beer. I always want to know the hows, whys, and wherefores of everything. (A supremely irritating habit of mine that must drive even my dearest friends nuts, though they’re too kind to say so.) As I watched Alan pour, I pummeled him with questions: Why is Guinness the best? Where’s it made? Why does it have to be poured a special way? Why is it known as “a meal in a glass?” Why do I have to wait until it turns all black to drink it? Why, why, why.

A man of few words, Alan was polite enough to come up with answers for as long as it took him to pour the beer, but as soon as he set the full-to-the-brim murky glass down on the bar in front of me, he laid down a bit of bar-side philosophy: “All you need to know about Guinness is how to drink it,” he said.

I lifted the glass to my lips and drank. I didn’t taste beer, not as I’d known it. This was no beer to be tossed back. This wasn’t even beer really; it was poetry of the earth. It was liquid life.

The Guinness had heft and humor and it rumbled through my body like an army tank on a mission, ferreting out any lingering questions and blasting them out of my bloodstream.

Now, months after that initial quaff, St. Patrick’s Day is nigh, and Alan the bartender’s words keep replaying in my head: “All you need to know about Guinness is how to drink it.”

It occurs to me that maybe I made the same mistake preparing to drink my first Guinness that I’ve made my whole life. I’ve spent too much time asking too many questions, demanding too many answers, toward too little end.

In his “Letters to a Young Poet,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote “Do not now seek the answers.” Instead, he said, we must learn to “live the questions.”

I read the German poet years ago while working briefly in Paris – a bastion of poetry and philosophy if there ever was one — but it took an Irish beer served by an Irish man in an Irish pub in decidedly non-Irish Sarasota for me to finally “get it.”

That is, the only two things we can ever know for certain are that we’re alive today and one day we no longer will be. No amount of questioning is going to give an answer that changes that.

So live. Carpe diem. Laissez les bons temps roulez. Believe you’re lucky even if you’re not Irish.

Live the questions — with grace, good humor, and maybe the occasional pint of Guinness — until life itself becomes the answer.

I have more than a few years on the Irish lad behind the bar, but I’ve still got time to put my own twist on his pint-sized philosophy. Time to learn to say these words and mean them:

“The only thing I need to know about life is how to live it.”

Posted on March 17th, 2008Comments RSS Feed
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