Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A workable solution...

This will be brief, as I'm writing from my iPod, but a workable solution to some (admittedly very few) of the problems plaguing our stressed and rushing societies might well exist; it would need absolutely zero government money, would require very little private money and it might just make all forms of shopping/consumption/business a little more enjoyable:

What if everywhere, every single business sold inexpensive (1$) coffee? From behind the cash (not from a machine). Imagine walking into a tailor's (or a clothing shop), looking for a last minute suit to wear to some social function and, instead of killing yourself with worry about how late you are in undertaking the task and kicking yourself in the ass over your procrastination, you're calmly perusing the selection, steaming paper thimble of coffee in hand and calm in your heart.

I think it'd help.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Barroom Philosopher

This is a narrative I put together a few weeks ago, and I've been considering using the character of Sender Jameson to explore political and philosophical questions in the context of this blog, now and again. I just figured a bit of background was necessary before I started.

--It was 1996 when I met him; he called himself Sender, though I would call him my barroom philosopher in the end. He was tall, thin and his face had the weathered look of old leather (as the cliché goes). His left hand held a cigarette and his right a chilled glass of beer.

I won’t say he was right about much, as far as the philosophy is concerned, but he always made me think and rarely spoke unless he had something to say. That or he was joking.

The tobacco and alcohol were fixtures, too; I knew him a full decade and often spent entire evenings in his company. I swear to you, dear reader, that in that time I never once saw his hands empty of those two little vices (though the qualifier seems inapt, in this case).

So it was with mild surprise and amusement that our first meeting carried us into conversation; “Do you always greet new faces with a cloud of smoke and the stale smell of cheap beer?”

The question followed our introduction and carried more than a hint of disdain – probably more than I’d intended. He reacted by taking a long drag from his king-size and blowing smoke into my face with a grin, “Old faces, too. Sometimes I even do it to the face in the mirror. You’re responsible for your own exposure, so why are you berating me?” His smile told me he meant to continue, so I obliged him, “Admittedly, I’m not entirely innocent in the matter, but the question of responsibility is an interesting one.”

His pause gave me leave to talk; that was how our conversations would continue, over the course of our friendship – with him leading, “How do you mean?” I asked, “You’re responsible for your own actions. How is that complicated?”

It was the opening he wanted, “The question of consequence complicates matters,” he cut off my knee-jerk response with a gesture and continued, “You are, of course – in a perfectly ideal world – responsible for the consequences of your actions and decisions as well, but in the web of consequence, responsibility becomes a little,” he smiled and drained his glass, letting the last two golden droplets explode against the polished-wood surface of the table, “Fluid. It becomes a little more ambiguous.”

I signalled a waitress, then raised an eyebrow at my interlocutor, “Explain,” I said, genuinely interested.

He stopped and accepted his new beer from the waitress and tipped her generously before turning to face me again, “Take our situation, for example,” he blew more smoke, for emphasis, “It is obviously my responsibility that I’m addicted to tobacco and unwilling to quit – and the consequences of that, i.e. second hand smoke, the smell, the cost this incurs to myself and too the health system, etc. Those are, all of them, my fault and ideally I would be able to assume the burden and cost on my own – but here comes the first complication,” I caught myself nodding agreement, urging him on. His voice was excited, passionate; he wasn’t lecturing – following the Socratic, dialectical method of reasoning he was talking it out, teasing out the meanings and implications.

So I held out his lighter to start his next smoke going and, once again, let him continue, “The owner of this pub, here, has made a decision to allow smoking on the premises – why? Because he wants my custom and that of people like me; we’re his bread and butter. Whatever. To this conversation it is immaterial. Reasons are great for satisfying curiosity, but pure shit as far as getting to the truth is concerned,” the glowing ember on the end of his cigarette waved back and forth more frantically; it reminded me of an eager physics student’s frantic pen-scratching, getting faster and ever more frantic as the answer drew near.

“So what is useful, then? For getting to the truth, I mean.” It was more of a challenge than a query.

He ordered another beer and told me not to bother with trivial details; he told me that method in philosophy was contingent on the question being asked and picked up where he left off.

“So the bar owner’s decision to allow smoking inside exposes his clientele to smoking – people like me, who understand that his decision is just as important as our own, take him up on it – the responsibility is now shared two ways. If only it ended there!”

I nodded, “And people like me? Or his employees? Will he take responsibility for poisoning them? Us? Will you?” I admit that I am slightly ashamed of my arrogant self-righteousness, in retrospect.

“So we divide it some more. You knew who I was when you sat down,” it came across as a statement, not a question, “So you’ve been here before; you know that Jerry allows smoking here and you know that people smoke here; blaming me for the collateral damage, in this case – or at least, heaping all the blame on me – makes about as much sense as blaming a bear for eating a salmon that has jumped straight into its jaws.”

“Likewise, blaming me,” I poked my chest with a stuck-out thumb, “At least blaming it all on me, is just as illogical.”

He conceded the point, taking a thoughtful drag on his smoke, “Of course,” he said, exhaling, “But it got us talking, didn’t it?”

I had to smile.

It has been two years since I lost my friend - he disappeared from my life a few weeks after the provincial law banning smoking in public places came into effect. Ironically, the healthier, happier Sender Jameson, having finally quit his favourite vice and out for a walk in a bid to get back into shape, was killed by a driver berating his passenger for smoking in the car. --

Monday, June 2, 2008

Beerfest Narrative

The weather upon my return to the Mondial de la Bière de Montreal on Saturday was foul; the festival’s patrons, in such conditions, were far fewer and as my friend and I ascended the stair coming from the street below we felt we were becoming part of some high-powered elite, composed of an asymmetrical blend of hardened alcoholics and “beer enthusiasts.” The most highly fought point of contention, on this day – besides which beer to try first – would surely be the question of which of these two groups we actually belonged to, and even as I defended my corner I felt it would be another decade of beer festivals before we would arrive at a definitive conclusion.

What a pity.

My friend and associate on this fine occasion was Mr. A., and he produced Thursday’s beer list as soon as we had crossed the threshold into the festival’s inner sanctum – he did so without a moment’s hesitation and, in my opinion, not a moment too soon. He rattled off a list of beers we had to stay away from, as we’d already tasted them, and offered a few suggestions as to where to begin.

Saint-Sylvestre, French, their Gavroche was delicious enough last year... Nah, pass.

Unibroue, popular in this province... Too popular, too obvious. Pass.

McAuslan, makers of Saint-Ambroise and their famous McAuslan Cream Ale... I smiled at my associate; of course, what a perfect place to start, their seasonal beers are to die for, anyway and I would be remiss if I didn’t pay them a visit!

They were also the first kiosk in view through the thick, wooden station doors.

The pair of us sauntered to where a bored looking man stood contemplating the crowd and the taps line up before him; the weather was sparing him the rush of the days before and he almost seemed to resent it. Peeling a pair of drink tickets from the sheaf in my pocket, I placed my festival glass on the counter before him, “I’m reviewing beers for a website,” I told him, “Beer Utopia, they’re called. Pay them a visit when you have the time. Meanwhile, I’d like your best brew, your recommendation,” I leaned in, lowering my voice so it was just audible over the din of the crowd, “In short, I want your favourite.”

He nodded knowingly and took my tickets, “St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout,” he said, and slid my glass back across the table’s plastic, faux-wood finish, “Let it breathe before you take your first sip.”

So I listened to him, bringing the lip of the glass to my nose and inhaling an aroma which, I knew than and there, would be the very best of this festival; in a single whiff, I was treated to the scents of chocolate, espresso, caramel and smoke – not a single of these overpowered the others. It was such a pleasure to smell, such a pleasure to drink in the beer’s bouquet, that I nearly felt bad about drinking the beer itself, for fear of losing that delightful aroma.

But the taste did not disappoint; the texture was rich, the taste divine.

“If this is how our day is starting off, I have to say, I’m excited to see where it’s going!” I exclaimed, drinking half the beer, greedily, before allowing Mr. A a single taste. He sneered with derision, ready to berate me, until he, too, tasted McAuslan’s heavenly offering.

The oatmeal stout proved, however, not to be the omen we had believed it to be. After thanking the kiosk attendant, washing out our glasses at the nearest washing station and grabbing a stick of elk-jerky from one of the game-meat kiosks dotting the festival, we stopped in front of a booth which we simply could not ignore.

“That’s a bold statement,” my colleague said, the sound of scepticism in his voice, “We need to test that.”

I glanced at the booth’s posted sign and nodded, “Maître Brasseur?” I asked, “What makes them the Master Brewers, do you think?”

Mr. A shrugged. I aped the gesture and repeated my McAuslan performance for a new kiosk attendant; her unpleasant demeanour and the sparse number of customers plying her for beer should have given me a clue, but it would seem I was too wrapped up in the occasion to notice such things immediately. My glass was filled with an amber ale called la Folichonne, brewed for the occasion of the Montreal Festival’s 15th anniversary and smelling sweet and fruity, my associate treated himself to La Route des Indes, an IPA which smelled skunky and had a darker colour, not usually found in IPAs.

What a mistake.

With desperation, I sought to find flavour in la Folichonne. It had smelled so promising, yet by the time I reached the bottom of my glass, I had yet to taste anything beyond the water that was the wort’s base. I shook my head sullenly and began to walk off, headed for the next kiosk on the list, when I heard my colleague retch, rather loudly.

“Everything okay, man?” I asked, concerned. He shook his head stiffly and shoved his glass into my empty left hand.

“That,” he coughed, “Is the worst IPA I have ever had.”

I brought the glass to my lips and tipped the smallest, most cautious amount of the beer into my mouth.

Poison! My brain tongue shouted to my brain to spit it out! This could not be beer! Beer was good; beer was at the very least drinkable! This had to be something more insidious!

With a monumental effort, I managed to swallow what was the most foul-tasting concoction I’d ever consumed, and shoved the vial of toxic liquid back into Mr. A’s hands, “Throw that out. We can’t drink that.”

But he shook his head, setting himself gravely to the task of finishing the glass, “Even if it’s awful, it’s still beer. It would be a sin to throw it away.”

I nodded. My associate is a better man than I.

Next was La Rouget de L’Isle, a small French microbrewery with a very agreeable owner who poured me a nice smoky amber coloured Bourgonde; my associate got hold of their Fourche du Diable.

Again we smelled and again we tasted, and unlike the vile sewage we were given earlier, Le Rouget’s slate was delicious – the Fourche du Diable even smelled divine. With Thursday taken into account, it didn’t make the top of either of our lists, but it was undoubtedly good and worth a purchase, if it was discovered in the liquor board or the grocery store.

Our dynamic duo bounced around the festival grounds, through intermittent rain and thickening crowds, for another hour – most of the beer we tasted was good, if unremarkable and, eventually, we decided on a beer-break; a chance to rest our tastebuds and sip something without a barley base.

A bottle of McKeown’s Dry Cider provided just the thing we needed, though it took me a bloody left hand and a chipped cobblestone wall for the bottle to yield its cap and prove itself to us. Unlike other ciders, McKeown’s wasn’t overpoweringly sweet and its aftertaste faded almost immediately, it was very good, all in all, and went down unbelievably easily; to quote one of the kiosk attendants from earlier in the day – though he was talking about something else – it wasn’t at all a chore to drink.

I couldn’t help but feel, as we sat behind two tents in the afternoon mist, alternately sipping from glasses and swigging from a green cider bottle, that the hardened alcoholic side of the debate was gaining ground, but I pushed such thoughts out of my mind and focussed instead on discovering, for myself, my friends and my readers what the very best beer of the festival truly was.

It took another four hours to discover Hopfenstark’s Station 10 – a delicious light coloured beer that I had to taste twice, that I might truly grasp its flavour; it was spicy, light, smooth and “easy drinking” as the kids say, but also, as it began to fade away there was a hint of cider tickling my tastebuds. I was stunned, giving my glass to Mr. A, that he might confirm what I had so much difficulty believing.

He nodded, “That, right there, is damned tasty.”

“I know, right,” I peeled off a couple of tickets, but the owner shook his head and poured me another, free of charge. I relished the taste; the blending was flawless, the scent, the texture, the pop of the bubbles on the roof of my mouth... Everything was just right.

So I had a third and set off to spend the rest of my tickets.

The festival had quite a few delicious offerings, but my hat, in the end, had to come off to only three truly amazing brews: Station 10, St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout and L’Alchimiste’s Bock de Joliette. These three fragrant, heavenly beers filled my head as my colleague and I set off into the damp, spitting rain. We were soaked, drunk and thrilled about our terrific day; with our kind of appreciation, we could only have been enthusiasts.

My doctor tells me it’ll take a few weeks before I can get my liver transplant.