My favorite lesson was Plato’s allegory of the cave. Imagine, me and a room full of thirty freshmen who are just learning to think abstractly, hypothetically, metacognitively, self-reflectively, and with perspective. Their identities derive mostly from the distance they've established from their parents and the acceptance they garner from their peer group. Conformity, overreaction, sensitivity to criticism, and a vulnerable self image are hallmarks of the adolescent psyche.
We would start with this video.
I would leave the lights off when the video ended, allowing the silence to surround the kids and isolate them with their own thoughts for a few minutes. Then they would write. Then we would talk.
At school I felt like I was asleep in a pod in the Matrix. Three dreams deep in Inception, living a fake life in order to bring about something desirable in my real one.
“What is the cave?” I would ask. Who is in the cave? Why are they in the cave? What’s outside? The default student response is a mental scramble for the ‘right’ answer. They want the affirmation and recognition of getting there first, but, just as much, they don’t want to shout out something wrong. Not when they’re this far out of their element. So, silence.
What does the cave represent? Who do the people in the cave symbolize? What does it mean that there are people in the cave? As they started to open up, they would throw out some interesting ideas. Prisoners or slaves are ‘in the cave.’ Well, what does it mean to be in bondage? To not have freedom? Are imprisonment and slavery the only states like that? They struggled to move away from the literal concept of chains. Generalizing out from there frustrated them and they turned to a raw, emotional response. Time for some context.
We would shift and talk about some movies they could connect to, like The Matrix and Inception. Inevitably someone would bring up The Village, then The Truman Show. Well what is it that ties these together? What are the themes that show up again and again and why? Most importantly, did any of the characters living in a false reality have a clue?
What is the cave? It’s our limited perspective on reality. It’s the boundaries of our consciousness. It’s the limits of our imagination, of reason. What’s keeping you there? Your teachers, parents, friends, and your boss; institutions like school, church, the law, and the media; social patterns such as rituals, norms, and group membership; the human instinct for order and obedience; and your own material desires, willful ignorance, and lack of conviction. Bam.
What’s outside the cave? Enlightenment, fulfillment, righteousness, and truth. What are the implications of the existence of the cave? The impossibility of comprehension, the inescapability of ignorance, and the simultaneous unlikeliness and necessity of pure free will.
What my students didn’t realize was that, as we talked about these ideas, I was planning my escape from my own cave: teaching. At school I felt like I was asleep in a pod in the Matrix. Three dreams deep in Inception, living a fake life in order to bring about something desirable in my real one. Grasping at shadows, watching a projection of the world pass by as I sat, inert. I had learned an important lesson at school: non-tenured teachers have a choice. They can choose to stand for what they believe in, or they can keep quiet until tenure, keep their jobs, then dig in their heels. For me, this was a problem. I’m admittedly a Marxist, existentialist, and humanist. I cut my teaching teeth on the Freirean sensibility that teachers have a moral imperative to help their students understand and confront the ways in which they are oppressed. Try wearing that hat in a wealthy, conservative suburb as a public employee. I pity the fool.
I got into teaching because of the teachers who profoundly affected my life for the better, but, as a teacher, I found myself fighting battles of conscience on a daily basis. I came to understand the school as an a rigid institution, wantonly pursuing data for data's sake, like an addict incapable of rationalizing his behavior. The school was using research-based methods to drive teaching practice in the name of using research-based methods in the context of a a don't-ruffle-any-feathers-around-here institutional culture, and ultimately ignoring what should have been the fundamental question: what do these kids need to be more fulfilled human beings, thoughtful enough to be able to appreciate nuance and difference, confident and capable enough to leave a mark on the world? Sure, the pay was nice, the summers off priceless, and the job security comforting. But I never expected nice, priceless, and comforting to be fulfilling. These were small treasures compared to the heaping piles of bullshit. Happiness bought in those currencies was a false reality that required more self-deception than I had on hand.
I cut my teaching teeth on the Freirean sensibility that teachers have a moral imperative to help their students understand and confront the ways in which they are oppressed. Try wearing that hat in a wealthy, conservative suburb as a public employee. I pity the fool.
Soon enough I found what I thought might be my own red pill, one that I discovered many years ago with a sip of Matilda at Goose Island in Wrigleyville. I had been making beer at home for a few years and loved trying new beers as often as I could get my hands on them. I realized that if I didn’t want to teach for much longer, I should really try do something I had a passion for.
I didn’t know exactly how to get started, nor exactly where I wanted to end up, but I needed to get moving somehow. I had some faith in my writing and ability to build relationships, so I decided I would get a local craft beer blog off the ground. I figured the work involved would help me learn more about the industry and get me involved with the right people to eventually make the career equivalent of the Puerto Rican shuffle. I set a three-to-five year goal to make it happen. Game on.
At first, I talked to people who would talk to me--brewery start-ups and beer directors looking to get the word out. Soon, I was rolling my eyes at press releases from Heineken, sitting down with the owners of Chicago’s--and America’s--largest craft breweries, crossing my fingers that nobody at school caught wind of my side gig, and getting calls from national mainstream publications interested in Chicago’s beer scene.
I combined my teaching experience and homebrewing hobby and offered brewing classes at local breweries. These relationships led to a few false starts, but I did learn that I wanted nothing to do with a packaging line and that not every brewery-in-planning grows up to be a brewery. In the meantime, I hounded Chuck Sudo, Editor-in-Chief of Chicagoist, for a gig writing beer coverage for his mainstream audience. They were already doing great work covering Chicago beer, but after pounding the pavement for a year, I felt like I had something to add--as well as something to gain. When Chuck brought me on, I linked up with my friend Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting. He told stories with his camera, I told them with copy. Together, I like to think, we elevated the discourse about craft beer in Chicago for awhile. Michael continues to do so through his photography and storytelling, and I try my damnedest through the voice of Solemn Oath.
So how did I end up here?
So, are you still in a cave? Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get your ass out.
One of my first gigs for Chicagoist was interviewing a wild card, a new brewery taking shape in the suburbs that defied the prevailing logic that all-out marketing efforts, made cheap and easy by web 2.0, should precede actually having a business. Imagine that! I liked what I heard from them. They would focus on barrel-aging and Belgian styles with a hopped up, aggressive take on brewing traditions. They would break with the groupthink on ‘core brands’ and ‘seasonals’ and brew at least a few dozen styles in their first year. They would brew for food and focus on getting into the best craft beer bars and restaurants in Chicago.
Luckily, my interview with Solemn Oath turned into them interviewing me. We got together again after that initial meeting. John had a few imperial beers and tried to get me to break journo-diplomatic protocol and tell him which breweries I thought sucked and why. I thought he was a jerk, but I liked Tim and Joe enough to accept future invitations for beers, and I ended up there on the first brewday. I’ve been with them ever since. At first, I was moonlighting after school, then I agreed to work for the brewery during the summer. But before I ever went back to school this past fall, I was calling to say I wouldn't be coming back. I was taking a full-time job with Solemn Oath, making and making a name for our beer. Eighteen months after I set my three-to-five-year goal, I had accomplished it.
Now I spend my days brewing, monitoring fermentation, racking, cleaning tanks, making one-off specialty kegs, tweeting from @solemnoathbeer, managing special projects, editing Sob Stories, making fun of Erin, and putting in the odd shift in the taproom. I’m even starting to cope with the realization that I'm much more of an asshole than John will ever be. How did that happen?
This is the third in a series of posts by full-time SOBs about how and why they ended up where they are. Read owner John Barley’s post here and head brewer Tim Marshall's post there. Next up: Joe Barley complains about Chicago weather.