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March, 2003

Is It Better Like This... Or Like This?

Anyone who's been to the ophthalmologist knows that question. The doc puts that Delta Force night goggles-looking set of specs on your nose and starts slipping in different lenses. "Is it better like this..." pause while another lens is palmed and deftly slipped in -- never play poker with an ophthalmologist -- "or like this?" And sometimes it's obvious, and sometimes you wonder if he's just checking to make sure you're still paying attention.

That's how I feel about St. Patrick's Day and Guinness and all that. I remember back in the day when St. Patrick's Day was a big deal in New York, and Boston, and Chicago...and that was about it. We'd all wear green (I didn't like to, because I don't really like the color, but my mother had a little shamrock pin she'd make me wear), The Quiet Man would be on TV (remember when you actually had to wait to see it once a year?), and people would go to bars and giggle over mugs of green Schlitz. Pretty awful, actually.

So... is it better like this?

Things got better as we got into the late 1980s, and I credit craft brewers, mainly. People were starting to try different beers, and all of a sudden it wasn't quite so weird to like Guinness. That's about when the quality of draft Guinness in the U.S. started to improve, too: it wasn't just an ornament for the bar-owner anymore, people were actually drinking enough of it to keep it fresh. The whole Irish bar phenomenon was starting -- and I'm not sure why, to tell the truth. But you started seeing Guinness and Jameson's at these things, and the disgusting green beer pretty much disappeared, though beer people still carp about it today. Traditional music would play, there'd be corned beef and cabbage and soda bread, and everything would be real convivial for a while.

Or like this?

Then the number of Guinness drinkers must have reached some critical mass, and Guinness started paying real attention to the U.S. market. We got Irished to within inches of disgust with it, Guinness and Harp became The Official Beers of St. Patrick's Day (is the Pope getting a kickback?) and Guinness floated on top of Bass became The Official Black & Tan. (As if.) Things got watered down to the point where everyone could participate, even the people who couldn't handle Guinness. Irish cream liqueurs made it easy for everyone to "drink Irish" while essentially eating candy, french fries were declared Irish food, and U2 became "traditional music." St. Patrick's Day had become the New Year's Eve of the 21st Century, Amateur Hour for binge drinkers and people who didn't get enough of puking on their shoes on Fat Tuesday. 

Come on, Lew, the doc's asking! Believe it or not, I'm hard-pressed, and I think it might actually be better now. First off, time by God marches on. It's really hard to put the genie -- or imp -- back in the bottle, or the Guinness back in the keg, for that matter. It's better now because, well, because I can't have it the other way anymore, and I want now to be good!

But more to the point, it's the other 364 days a year that I'm talking about. Look, on St. Pat's Day I might -- might -- head out early and grab a pint, maybe a measure of Powers or Redbreast, if I'm lucky, and then head home before it gets sloppy. But the day after, the month after, all that good Irish whiskey and fresh Irish stout is still there, and it's in so many places! I can cruise around Philly and easily find Powers, Black Bush, Midleton Very Rare, and jars of Guinness, Beamish, or Murphy's to go with them. Even better, I don't always have to put up with what fed-up Irish-Americans call "paddywhackery,"  the fakey, out-of-a-box "Irishness" that insists on the same damned songs and the same damned menu and the same damned Guinness advertisements on the wall or it just ain't Irish... Please.

When I want Irish now, I can get it, and it's pretty damned good. So which is better? 

The second one, doc. I can always go find a bar that gets it, and chances are they'll have better beer and whiskey than we used to get. Who said you have to go drink Guinness on St. Patrick's Day, anyway? Maybe I'll go out with a thistle in my buttonhole on St. Andrew's Day and have a couple Scapas with a Skullsplitter chaser, hold the haggis.

As always, anytime you get more choices, real choices, it's better. Don't be one of these sheep the marketing mavens laugh about, paralyzed by having to make a choice. Mix up your life a little, get out of your rut! Try new things. Don't let anything be The Official Stuff of Your Life. Stop paying tribute to an ad campaign and think for yourself. 

It's better like that. 



Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: October 31, 2003