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You Can't Go Home Again -- IV

However, I can spot a few trends that help to understand my actions, and by extension, provide some insight into the motivations of the unenlightened majority of the population, for whom the arguments I'm setting forth here are no more relevant than the theological abstractions of the medieval academics who transformed Augustine's earnestness into dogma to undergird the Inquisition.

You can't know what you're missing if you haven't been exposed to it, and when you have, familiar habits and conveniences don't change easily. It takes an act of calculated volition to escape the subtle noose of conformity that American consumer culture imperceptibly tightens with every ubiquitous ploy in its considerable arsenal, with every billboard, television advertisement and sponsorship agreement that assaults our senses in a typical day. To begin escaping it, you have to be willing to question beliefs that seem all the more sacrosanct owing to the almost religious conviction with which they are advanced. You must try to cease thinking in terms of packaging and presentation, and begin thinking in terms of essences and ultimates, to abandon the orthodoxy that more for less is always better, and to recognize that enlightenment is far preferable to ignorance even when broader understanding brings with it "unpatriotic" and "antisocial" perceptions and connotations on the part of your peers.

This last part is the hardest part. It comes when you've been able to do these things, and by doing so, you find yourself utterly and irrevocably at odds with the culture of your upbringing. The past and the people who populated it retain a pull on you, but you know that you can never go back to it. It, and they, will have to come to you -- or be damned.

It is unlikely that Augustine drank beer. If he did, it wasn't beer as we know it today, but human nature is a constant that pulses throughout the long, intervening centuries. He lived in an age when certainties were being methodically stripped away as the Roman empire disintegrated into chaos, and numerous other forces competed to occupy the resulting vacuum. In the midst of societal disarray, he looked at himself and saw obvious parallels with his past, with his own aimlessness, lewdness, and overall lack of thought and misdirection, and although his memories of earlier times were in many respects remarkably balanced, seemingly to the point of nostalgia in some instances, they symbolized a life and a mode of thinking that were no longer options for him. They comprised a life he could no longer live. His mature Christian beliefs were a framework for self-interpretation, as well as providing the foundation for his advocacy of Christian belief as the balm for troubled days in the present, and as a means of transcending the old ways collapsing all around his world.

For my money, the sociology of human beings making alcoholic beverages and drinking them, both privately and publicly, is the most complex, intimate and fascinating of all such systems that seek to explain our behavior in the context of interaction with others. All the elements are there: Religiosity, education, science, individual and group psychology -- on and on, with all aspects of the human experience, the bodies and the blood, capable of being poured into a glass and consumed. The power and intensity of the metaphor is enhanced by knowledge, and this alters your relationship with the people who are taking part, and with the elixir in the glass.

Of course, one tinkers with these fragile relationships at his own peril; once released, the genie might be reluctant to crawl meekly back into the bottle, and so it has been with me. It takes a certain hardness of heart to realize that your beliefs are beyond compromise, even if the result is a schism with the past.

I've come a long way toward achieving my goal of being a better beer drinker than all the rest of them -- not in terms of volume, but in terms of understanding. If celebrating this accomplishment means sharing with them the detestable liquid that started us all down this path, and partaking of the liquid they still venerate, as though nothing has changed in twenty years of incessant, clamorous change, then I'll have to regrettably pass, and urge them to come to me on my terms -- or not at all.

© 1998 by Roger A. Baylor, "The Potable Curmudgeon"

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