ON THE AVENUES: Until philosophers become kings, beer and food work just fine.

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Forever grateful to those readers who examine this column on a weekly basis, allow me to offer an update about the columnist’s life.

Since 2005 I’ve been writing beer columns (and lately the occasional restaurant feature) for Food & Dining Magazine. A few weeks back came the opportunity to provide several short web site posts each week in addition to the quarterly contributions. To be succinct, this suits me. Naturally there is a learning curve, and each day I’m exposed to something new and useful.

Pints&union will be one year old on August 1, and as the beer programmer I’ve settled into a routine. My expanded responsibilities at Food & Dining constitute a second layering of duties, suggesting closer attention to time management than I’ve generally been able to muster during my life as an adult. These days I’m wagering that old dogs can learn new tricks.

Departing the New Albanian Brewing Company in 2015 wasn’t merely stepping away from a job. It brought to a close almost three decades of this business defining my life. I had no way of knowing that the legal settlement would take two and a half years to facilitate, and little notion of the length of time required to cobble together a post-brewery career.

At this precise moment four years later, it’s coming into view. Retrospection is the process of thinking about past events. There is a necessary condition to wax retrospectively, namely sufficient time to gain perspective, and consequently it seems as if I now possess a four-year degree in adaptive reuse — of myself.

But the reason why today’s column is from April 30, 2015 and not July 25, 2019 is because I’m on deadline to complete two pieces for Food & Dining’s forthcoming issue, a beer column about Saisons and a feature on Bourbons Bistro. 

As always, thanks for reading and your thoughts are appreciated.

ON THE AVENUES: Until philosophers become kings.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Last Thursday I had the great pleasure to take a break from New Albany’s trials and tribulations and spend the day and night in Lexington, Kentucky, as the guest of Transylvania University’s philosophy department.

To be sure, there have been times in the past when Lexington wouldn’t have seemed such a savory destination for an overnight pleasure trip.

After all, I was raised in Southern Indiana, and college basketball naturally prefigured the rural moral (and genetic) code: Indiana University in Bloomington was the beneficent locale of the grail, while the University of Kentucky represented a snarling, lowdown devil. I imagine it wasn’t easy for my mother, who was a UK graduate living in a small Hoosier burg, and subject to commensurate suspicion.

Of course, it’s all bunk, and the whole point of the exercise is to show the many possibilities for mankind’s advancement, from primitive sporting totems and rituals all the way through reading actual books.

I’d been warming to Lexington for a long time, even before February of 2014, when the University of Kentucky hosted a symposium on craft beer writing. I was fortunate to be numbered among the speakers, and the experience was very rewarding.

One of the symposium’s perquisites was a pub crawl with a van and designated driver, and that’s when it became clear to me that Lexington is a fine beer and food city, with cultural enclaves, shops and historic neighborhoods for wandering, even if the prevailing one-way street grid is maddeningly archaic and begs for immediate jettisoning.

Anyway, when Professor of Philosophy Peter Fosl suggested I come visit, it was just a matter of coordinating calendars.

Transylvania University is among the nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning. For those like me who persist in associating the name with Count Dracula’s purported home base in Romania, the Latin roots are precisely the same: “Across the woods,” which in this specifically American sense means west of the Alleghenies. Prior to Kentucky’s statehood, it was called the Transylvania Colony, and belonged to Virginia.

My wife Diana accompanied me, and we arrived before noon, parking the car at the Gratz Park Inn. It was a short, pleasant walk to Peter’s office. His typically small and book-filled work space reminded me that there had been a time in my life when I assumed teaching would be my ultimate career choice, once I got around to making one.

It never happened. So it goes. There’s always professional drinking.

My eyes immediately were drawn to a framed event poster of Christopher Hitchens’s speaking appearance at Transylvania University in 2004. It was Peter’s doing, and he said that Hitchens, who remains one of my personal heroes of writing, was a model among high-profile visitors to the campus, accepting a lower than usual fee and volunteering his whole day to various activities rather than merely speaking and running.

Hitchens also stayed in the Gratz Park Inn. Granted, I’m a bush leaguer compared with Hitchens, and yet the symmetry was appreciated, and a degree of separation now has been shaved.

Peter had arranged for me to meet with philosophy majors over lunch at Transylvania’s cafeteria, the overall excellence of which conjured unsettling thoughts of the available “food service” during my own college days at IU Southeast. I certainly hope it’s better there now.

Later in the day, there was a faculty reception at the home of the humanities division chair. I concocted an impromptu beer tasting from selections they’d thoughtfully provided, including NABC and local Lexington breweries (West Sixth, Country Boy and Alltech). There was ample time to explore on foot the Lexington neighborhood around Transylvania, including the West Sixth and Blue Stallion breweries.

Getting back to my real reason for being there, Peter wanted me to share my experiences as a philosophy major in the real world, and honestly, it probably helped me as much as it did the students I met at lunch.

As the years roll past, it’s easy to forget the epiphanies and milestones that helped make us what we are today. For me, one of these was IU Southeast and my path to a Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in philosophy.

My father’s goal for my post-high school career was for me to be awarded an athletic scholarship. This idea was a laughable non-starter, as I possessed considerably more skill as a clubhouse lawyer than an athlete. Eventually, out of sheer inertia, it was concluded that a semester or two at IU Southeast might lead me in a direction — and boy, did it, though my parents probably regarded it as the proverbial wrong turn at Albuquerque.

My life in academia began with miserable failure, and I’d have flunked out entirely after a semester if not for my advisor’s suggestion of Introduction to Philosophy, a discipline he was unable to describe or explain, but recommended because after all, I’d be compelled to gather a few humanities credits for the core no matter what major eventually was to be declared – or branch of the military joined.

The instructor was an adjunct faculty member by the name of McCarthy, who by the standards of New Albany, circa 1978, was a veritable space alien who excelled in computer programming, of all things. In fact, before the semester was over, he’d gotten a job working with computers in New York State, and was given special dispensation to commute to New Albany for improvised weekend class sessions. One of them took place at the long defunct Leno’s restaurant.

But before all of that, we gathered at a classroom in Hillside Hall, and Prof. McCarthy greeted us with a warning, which I now paraphrase:

“Welcome to Philosophy 101. If you’ve chosen the university experience as a means of compiling a perfect 4.0 GPA, then I recommend you drop this class and choose another, because I do not award perfect scores. There is no such thing as perfection, and if you disagree with me, be prepared to argue your case logically. It won’t matter, because you’ll still not receive an A for this class. Would anyone like to discuss the nature of perfection?”

I was hooked. After all, it might prove to be my only class where a B was possible, much less perfection, and I was all too acutely aware of my own imperfections.

Coincidentally, a push was underway to begin a full-fledged philosophy program at IU Southeast, and soon I met Dr. Curtis Peters, a Minnesotan-turned-New Albanian who sold me on the idea of majoring in philosophy.

In 1982, I became the first IU Southeast philosophy graduate to amass all the necessary course credits while attending the New Albany campus, compiling a cumulative GPA in the vicinity of 3.0, thus handily proving the McCarthy axiom’s innate wisdom. I promptly set about answering the question, “What does a philosophy degree get you?”

For me, it was the opportunity to be a bartender, work in a package store, substitute teach and work numerous other less enriching part-time jobs in route to my eventual way station in the restaurant and brewing business.

However, as should be obvious by now, a philosophy degree has not ever been about specific vocational training. Rather, it is about learning how to think, and yet even this standard falls short in explaining the impact on me.

Philosophy reveals the primacy of knowledge itself, something not unexpectedly absent from high school, where I skated through, almost entirely unchallenged save by a handful of teachers who saw something in me that I didn’t, or couldn’t, grasp. Bookish and introspective by nature, there wasn’t much added reinforcement to high school for me.

Beginning with McCarthy’s introductory philosophy class at IU Southeast, it was like the clichéd light bulb’s illumination: Ideas really existed, and they actually mattered. Ideas had systems, and mankind would be living in metaphorical mud without them. Philosophy taught me how to think, and moreover – perhaps most importantly of all – that it was okay to think. Only then did I realize that high school choir and a brief foray into theater taught me more about life than playing competitive team sports. Muscle tone pertains to the brain, too.

These many years later, have I always live up to the promise of these youthful intellectual ideals?

Of course not. I’m human, and sometimes metaphorical mud wrestling in the marketplace of venom, if not ideas, is a great deal more fun. It remains that the study of philosophy opened my mind and changed me for the better. It cannot and probably should not be the primary course of study for all university students, but it wouldn’t hurt to be an elective for most.

Thanks to Peter, Jack and everyone at Transylvania University for a timely opportunity to re-examine my premises.

Recent columns:

July 18: ON THE AVENUES: I’m a citizen of the universe, but I can’t take a photo to save my life.

July 11: ON THE AVENUES: Trieste, New Albany and the meaning of nowhere.

July 4: ON THE AVENUES: The 2019 remix, “You want some fries with your redevelopment?”

June 27: ON THE AVENUES: Mourning (and alcohol) in America, circa 1984.

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