The Load We Carry

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On New Year’s Day, one of my friends, after reading on Facebook about my resolution not to drink alcohol for a year , got in her car and drove over to my house to give me a copy of “The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present in the Life You Have.” This is a New York Times bestselling book by a poet and philosopher named Mark Nepo. The book is a collection of brief essays, each of which is followed by a thinking or writing exercise, one for each day of the year. It literally begins on January 1st and ends on December 31st

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I have to admit that I probably would never have bought this book for myself. I was so touched by my friend’s gesture, however, that I pick it up from time to time to do some of the exercises. One of them is so poignant that I have decided to share it here.

All Fall Down” tells of a man who is in the midst of a painting project. He is so hell-bent on completing the work that he refuses to put down any of the materials from either of his hands, when he tries to open the door to get into the house to paint.  Predictably, he drops everything and gets red paint all over himself.

The exercise that follows requires you to reflect on your life by thinking long and hard about where you are, compared to where you want to be — or who you are compared to who you want to be. You have to slow down and breathe deeply in order to focus your thoughts on the change that you desire in some aspect of your life or yourself.  It requires that you be able to visualize the desired change as a place just beyond a threshold through which you must pass.

To complete the exercise, you must continue to breathe even more deeply and ask yourself, “What am I carrying with me that I must put down, in order to open the door?” Of course, the goal is to identify that one thing that is holding you back and, although not explicitly stated in the book, do something about it. If you do not, you won’t realize the change.

Although it took place prior to reading Nepo’s book, the process by which I settled on my New Year’s resolution was very much like this. I had imagined the many things I would like to achieve both personally and professionally over this year, and then thought more deeply about them until I identified the one thing that I could change that could lead to all—or at least many—of the things I want. Only time will tell if keeping this resolution will, in fact, lead to these other changes.

Some of you may think it is mumbo-jumbo, but I strongly recommend this exercise to everyone. We are, all of us, carrying too much. Think about just one aspect of your life, such as your family, your work, or your circle of friends. Consider where you would like to see change and then go here to read this very brief essay and then try the exercises.  If you do this, please let me know how it goes.

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Alcohol is Big Business

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Alcohol is big business in the United States, and I used to be a part of it to the tune of more than $4,000 per year. Exactly how big an industry is it? According to a new report by Ken Research, the U.S. market for alcohol will grow to $252.5 billion in 2017. If this report is accurate, the alcohol market in the U.S. this year will be $218 billion. This is significantly larger than what was estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 2012, $170.5 billion. 

My apologies to those of you whose eyes are already starting to glaze over. As my husband said when he edited this post: “Statistics. Damn statistics!”  I, for one, find this very interesting. One reason is that I’m a closet data geek with a Master’s degree in Applied Economics. Another is that I was curious whether my estimate for the cost of my own annual wine consumption ($4,440) is a reasonable estimate. Hopefully, there are others out there who are also interested to see the numbers.

To evaluate whether I’m in the ballpark, I was going to start by comparing my estimate to the best available figure for the average American’s spending on alcohol. I was thinking something as simple as dividing the total spending in the industry in one year by the number of Americans who drink. For every dozen people that drink PBR or do shots of Jäger, there must be at least a few people who like classier wine than I can afford, or who regularly sip Cosmos in Greenwich Village.  I know I’m in between these two types of drinkers, but where, exactly? I’ll start by comparing myself to the average and go from there.

I’ve decided to use the lower U.S.D.A number, because it’s based on the “total value of all food expenditures by final purchasers.” Perhaps the other report includes wholesale purchases, marketing spending, and other stuff. That U.S.D.A. number was $170.5 billion in 2012. The Census data I found is also for 2012, so that works perfectly. The Census says the total U.S. population then was 312 million, with about 242 million of these people being adults. A recent Gallup Survey estimates that two-thirds of American adults drink alcohol. This is consistent with the estimate I found when researching a previous article. 

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What does all of this mean? It means that the average drinking American spent about $1,068 a year on alcohol in 2012. My estimated spend is four times that figure. Holy crap! Is that possible? An answer to that must be embedded in the Gallup data.

Indeed, the Gallup Survey says that only 44% of Americans “appear to be regular drinkers, consuming at least one alcoholic beverage in a week.” If I divide all spending on alcohol by just those people, the average goes up to $1,602 per person. Further, after playing with the data, I figured out that the average weekly consumption for the folks who drink is 6.4 drinks per person. My weekly consumption used to be at least 14 glasses of wine (2 per day), or 2.2 times more than the average for drinkers in the survey. Since $1,602 multiplied by 2.2 equals $3,504, we’re getting much closer to my estimate.

The survey also reveals that men by far prefer beer to wine and also that men report drinking much more than women did. Since wine is more expensive than beer — this price list shows a 24-pack of PBR is about the cost of a mid-priced bottle of wine, my number is looking pretty darn accurate.

Although it’s nice to know that I still have mad applied economics skills, it’s embarrassing to discover that I was spending this much more than the average American on alcohol. I’m so glad I’m not doing that this year. To those readers who stayed with me to the very end of this piece, I thank you very much!

 

My Husband’s Take

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One of the other things I didn’t put much thought into before I plunged into this really difficult and seemingly all-consuming “Dry Year” project is what impact my not drinking would have on my husband, Bruce.  Of course, it had occurred to me that there would be an adjustment period, because so much of our lives seemed to involve dinner parties and other social engagements where wine and other alcoholic beverages were featured. Like they are for so many others, these occasions were a fixture of our marriage. Surely a change of this magnitude must be affecting my husband.

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(My husband at the launch party for his latest book.)

Since Bruce is a writer, I decided to let him speak for himself, and so I emailed him a few questions. I asked him to write very brief answers and to try to be colloquial to fit the style of my blog.  If you know Bruce, you’ll know why I gave him these instructions.  🙂 The resulting Q & A is below.

What was your first reaction when you heard about my New Year’s resolution?

I was bemused, mainly, because I figured the only reason you would want to do this is if you thought you drank too much, and I didn’t happen to think you did.

Do you think I will stick to it for the whole year? Why or why not?

I absolutely think you will stick to it for a year.  I have no doubt in my mind.  Why?  Because I know you and know how focused and determined you are about whatever you might set out to do.

How has my not drinking affected your drinking, if at all?

Surprisingly, I’ve been drinking somewhat less than I normally do (which really wasn’t that much to begin with).  It reminds me how social drinking is, or what a “team sport” it can be.

Has anything else about this process surprised you? If so, what?

In addition to what I responded to the previous question, what surprised me is how deeply you’ve gone into your blog and how many universal issues you’ve touched on with your research and your articles.  Also, I’m surprised at some of the highly supportive response you’ve gotten from different family members and friends of ours.  Not that they merely support you, which I would expect, but how engaged they’ve become in your commitment to this.

What are your thoughts about this blog?

I’m very impressed with the professionalism and commitment you’re making to it, and the response you’re getting from a wide assortment of people.  I am also surprised at how open you are about your experiences. I would not be able to open myself up the way that you are.

Am I less fun as a non-drinker than I was as a drinker?

I would say it’s less fun to plan a dinner or to simply go out to hear music or some other place where drinking is usually involved.  Knowing that you won’t be partaking lessens the mutual enjoyment, in my opinion.

What other changes have you noticed since I stopped drinking?

As I pointed out to you the other day, I’ve noticed that you’ve lost weight!

When I probed Bruce for more changes either in me or in general since I quit drinking, he said that he couldn’t think of anything.  (I’m so happy he didn’t mention that little meltdown about our Netflix account password that I revealed in my post about my withdrawal symptoms.)

So there you have it. The main impact on Bruce is that he is also drinking less and that it’s less fun to go out and plan dinners. I guess I’ll have to dream up other ways to make it a little more exciting around here.

Nonalcoholic beer?

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It’s no secret that over the past ten days I have been sampling several nonalcoholic beers. I started doing this when I was hanging out with my husband for the second time this year at our favorite local watering hole, DJ’s.  The first time, I drank several glasses of soda water mixed with cranberry juice. Frankly, I just couldn’t do that again. So, I tried a St. Pauli N.A. instead.

I’ve never really been a beer drinker and previously had no reason to try nonalcoholic beer, so the whole beverage category is completely new to me.  It was a surprise when I learned from two separate friends who responded to the Facebook photo of me with my St. Pauli N.A. that “nonalcoholic beer” is not nonalcoholic.  That’s weird, isn’t it?

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(The nonalcoholic beer section in my home town’s “Beer Cave” at Brewfest Beverage Co.)

It turns out that nonalcoholic beer is made the same way as regular beer and then the alcohol is removed afterwards.  Evidently, the more alcohol you remove, the more expensive the process is. Even though brewers set out to take out the alcohol, it isn’t cost effective to do so fully and they do not want to guarantee that all of the alcohol gets removed. If you’re interested in knowing more about this process, take a gander at this article from Chow, my favorite online source for all things culinary, or Wikipedia.

The FDA’s requirements for a beer to get the “nonalcoholic” designation are quite detailed and available here.   The net-net is that the brewer has to guarantee that the alcohol percentage is less than 0.5% by volume.  Since there is some alcohol, you have to be 21 in the U.S. to purchase or to be served nonalcoholic beer. Before you ask the inevitable question…No, I do not think I have broken my New Year’s resolution by sampling these NA beers. I figure that if pregnant women and on-the-wagon alcoholics can drink this stuff, so can I.

Since it’s the football post-season and my team — the New England Patriots — is still in the running, I decided it was a great time for me to figure out which locally available nonalcoholic beers are the most enjoyable. This will allow me to make the most of not drinking all the way through to the Super Bowl.

Only 3 nonalcoholic options were available at the three different local restaurants I visited over the past several days.  These are O’Doul’s Premium, St. Pauli N.A., and O’Doul’s Amber.  The tastiest and most drinkable of these three, by far, was the O’Doul’s Amber.  The worst was St. Pauli. Frankly, once the glass was no longer cold, it was nearly undrinkable. Of the three, I could be very happy drinking O’Doul’s Amber at parties, watching games, and hanging out at bars – no problem.  If all that’s available is O’Doul’s Premium, I would order it, drink part of it and let the glass sit there to look social. If my only option is St. Pauli’s N.A., I’d get the soda water and cran.

Knowing that there are many more NA beers in the beverage category, I did some online searching to see which labels get the highest praise.  This article from 11 Points and this one from Gizmodo were the most complete and helpful. Armed with this information, when I got into my local “beer cave” I knew just what I needed to complete my NA taste-testing: Kaliber by Guinness and the German import Clausthaler.

I wish I knew more about beer so that I could accurately describe why these two beers blew away the others I had tried. There’s a lot in both the art and science of the taste of beer, or mouthfeel, as I discovered it is called, that I don’t understand. All I can say is the Clausthaler had a wonderful flavor with a bit of a citrus tang that makes it a great accompaniment to food, especially Asian or Mexican.  And, the Kaliber has a very substantial body and good overall flavor that make it a great beer to drink on its own.

I don’t expect to drink a lot more NA beer this year.  However, I will definitely find a few occasions to fit Clausthaler, Kaliber, and even O’Doul’s Amber into my busy social schedule.

Hole in My Pocket

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I led you astray in my last post when I titled it “I’m Saving Big Bucks!” Although I am really excited about saving more than $4,000 of our family income by not drinking alcohol this year, all that cash is already starting to burn a hole in my pocket. Sure, saving it would be great. But, in keeping a resolution as difficult as this one, I would really like to reward myself. That’s precisely what all the experts say I need to do, in order to increase my chances of success.

For example, a well-received book by Charles Duhigg is all about New Year’s Resolutions and the power of habit. Of course, at the heart of my resolution is to create a new lifelong habit of reduced alcohol consumption.  Duhigg places “rewards” as the third most important factor out of 5 for creating new habits like mine.

Additionally, there are dozens of online articles that also stress the link between rewards and resolution success. Among these, I find this Top 10 Tips to New Year’s Resolution Success particularly awesome, because I didn’t do steps 1 through 4. One is to “be realistic”; 2 is to “plan ahead”; 3 is to “outline your plan”; and 4 is to “make a pros and cons list.” I just skipped straight to 5, which is to “talk about it.”  That said (no pun intended), the sixth thing on this Top 10 List is to reward yourself. This other article, makes it clear that there are different types of rewards — daily rewards, milestone rewards, and having a large great reward when the resolution is successfully completed.

In terms of daily rewards, I have already found that the routine of herbal tea with my husband in the evening is both very relaxing and enjoyable. And, also that my newfound ability to exercise in the evening (something I couldn’t do when I was drinking wine every night) is a reward both in that it makes me feel healthier and it enables me to sleep later in the morning. 

I have decided to roll all the rest of the rewards that I deserve into one really big one. With my budget of over $4,000, I have an opportunity to make it really meaningful and awesome. No, it’s not paying down the mortgage, increasing contributions to my IRA, or finishing the ceiling for our basement re-model.  These are all important and practical things that deserve consideration. However, the research says that my reward should be personal to me. I have decided to make it a once in a lifetime experience.

What is my reward? I’m planning an amazing 10-day vacation to Laos.

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(photo: courtesy of Phoenix Tours)

There are several great benefits wrapped into this reward.  First and foremost, I’ll have a chance to check-in on my step-daughter, Erin, who recently took a leave of absence from her career as a fashion designer and is traveling in Southeast Asia for the next four months. (You can follow her journey here). Being with Erin on a small part of her personal journey should be something both of us will cherish for the rest of our lives.  Secondly, I’ve enlisted my old college pal, Angela, to make this trip with me. Ange and I both studied Mandarin and, back in the 90’s, traveled together in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mainland China. What a hoot it’s going to be for us to go to Bangkok and Laos on this trip twenty years later!

I’ll be a full two months into the resolution before we start our journey to Laos.  This means that I will be well on my way to creating a new habit. In fact, the experts say that it only takes 28 days. And, I’m sure that the memories and experiences I’ll take back home will continue to reward me for the rest of my resolution journey.

It’s quite a reward, don’t you think?

I’m Saving Big Bucks!

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Saving money was not a deciding factor in choosing not to drink alcohol for my 2014 New Year’s resolution. In fact, the list I jotted down in my journal puts it at number nine in a list of nine. (I couldn’t come up with a 10th reason). Despite this, I amused myself the other night by doing a quick estimate of how much money I expect to save this year by not drinking. Of course, I immediately followed my note-taking by creating an Excel spreadsheet.

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Let me walk you through the table. I mentioned in a previous post that I used to drink at least two glasses of wine every night. So, my estimate assumes that, had I not made this New Year’s resolution, I would drink two glasses of wine every night in 2014. It also assumes that I would eat at home 5 nights a week, eat out twice per week, and that once per month, my husband and I would “splurge” on something that would result in spending more on alcohol. These are the three “line items” represented in the rows in the table.

In the columns, I show a conservative estimate of how much money I would have spent per time on each of these drinking occasions, how many time per month I would have engaged in each, and then I annualize the cost by multiplying the results by 12. Finally, I add up the dollar amounts in the last column to get the total expected annualized cost savings.

For the wine at home, I used a cost of $15 per bottle, and assumed that my husband and I would share it and finish a bottle each night. So, we would have spent $7.50 (or half the cost) per night on me. Sure, we all know that there are times when I would have been drinking a $12 bottle of Pinot Grigio. And also times when we would be sharing a $30 bottle of reserve Pinot Noir. This is an estimate, and I am sure that it is conservative. In fact, Bruce opened a bottle of Bridlewood Reserve Pinot earlier this week. It had cost $30, and it took him three days to finish it. If I had been helping him with it, it would have been a dead soldier in one night – guaranteed.

To estimate the cost of drinking wine out, I simply figured two glasses of wine all in at $10 each, or $20 for each outing. Bruce and I love(d) to go to wine tastings and wine dinners, we like(d) to share a special bottle of wine on special occasions, and we also greatly enjoy going out to listen to local music. I account for this additional spending in the “Splurge” line item. Here, I assumed that it was only once per month, and that the additional spending just for me, above and beyond the typical cost, was $20.

$4,440 is a lot of money! To be honest, this is more than I had guessed. And, let’s face it, this is probably an under-estimate of how much I will save this year by not drinking alcohol. Why wasn’t cost savings higher on my list? In my next post, I’ll reveal what I’m going to do with all that cash…

I Dreamed of Red Wine

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I had a dream about red wine. Literally. Well, actually, it was kind of a nightmare. The important thing is that it forced me to think about two critical aspects of my New Year’s resolution, both while I was still dreaming and after I awoke.

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My dream involved a near empty bottle of Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon. People who know anything about my wine consumption prior to January 1 can guess that Cab Sauv is one of my least favorite reds and also that I think KJ is completely over-rated and over-drunk (if that’s a word). I am not sure if I would feel differently about this dream if it had been a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Bridlewood Reserve Pinot Noir. My guess is that the type of wine probably doesn’t matter.

In the dream, I am sitting on the floor in front of a coffee table in a cozy room that is like a library or large sitting room.  I am among a small group of people who are scattered about the room; the others in the room are a mix of family, friends, and strangers. We are all gathered there to listen to something. I don’t know what. My father is sitting on the couch behind the coffee table. On the coffee table is the aforementioned bottle of wine. At some point, between songs or readings, I decide to take a sip of the wine just to see what it tastes like. A few minutes after trying the wine, I realize what I had done and I quickly glance around the room to see if anyone had seen me take that little sip.  Busted. My dad had, although he didn’t say anything to acknowledge it. I just knew he had and that he was probably the only one.

I start to panic.  What do I do about my blog? Do I confess to my followers that I had already broken my New Year’s resolution, so early in the year and over such a mediocre bottle of wine for no good reason? Both in the dream and thinking about it now, the answer is the same. The goal of the blog is to be honest and accessible.  In my dream, I decided that yes, I would confess this lapse to my blog followers. And, if I am unable to keep my resolution in real life, I will also confess it.

Given that, what of the second and, perhaps, more important question? In the dream, I pondered whether I would continue my resolution after having broken it. However, I awoke before coming up with an answer.  This question requires more thought. But the answer is the same — Yes.

This is a very difficult resolution, because it allows no room for no mistakes. “I resolve to drink no alcohol in 2014” is unequivocal. If I am unable to live up to the full spirit of my resolution, I will still go back to it, again and again if necessary, to see how far I can take it. And, I promise that I won’t be sipping on any KJ, cab or otherwise, anytime soon!