Where Are You Going?

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Tomorrow, I begin a 10-day trip to Asia with my old college pal, Angela Casey.  I have one foot out the door already. Recall that this trip is my insanely generous reward to myself for following through with my unexpected and difficult New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol this year.

About twenty years ago, Ange and I had the time of our lives palling around Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Mainland China.  Now, we’re in our mid-40s and we’re going to try to re-capture some of our glory days on a mission to check-in on my step-daughter who’s in the middle of a 4-month journey of her own. Erin and her friend Abby’s travels are documented in a separate blog here.  It’s not lost on me that Erin and Abby are about the same age now that Angela and I were back then.

In the morning, Ange and I will rendez-vous at the Port Authority in NYC to head over to JFK Airport together. Our first stop is Beijing, my old stomping ground. Thinking about this part of our trip motivated me to quickly thumb through about 1,000 old photos. A few shots of me and Ange together in the 90’s are below:Image

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I also couldn’t resist looking at a few of my old journal entries from the “China Years” and discovered that I had some Beijing anger issues back in 1996. A journal entry from October became a short essay in my Christmas letter that year titled  “Beijing, Bejijing, where are you going?” It’s not exactly a promo from the Beijing Tourist Bureau.  However, it’s how I felt at that moment in time, as an expatriate living and working in Beijing. 

Beijing.  Beijing.  What do I really think of you, you capital city of this huge ‘socialist’ country?  You’re no longer protected from the peasants.  Your economy remains a bubble, but the whole country is moving with you, or against you, or in spite of you.  You have it all, don’t you?  All but clean air.  I mean you have history; you have culture; you have the old and sprouting up around and over the old is the new.  The results of ‘development’.  You have cars and the pollution that accompanies them; pollution which will someday rival even Bangkok.  You also have the coffee shops and the jazz bars and even a bagel shop or two.  You must have known that Dunkin’ Donuts was only a decade behind McDonald’s and Avon.  Or had you bothered to consider this?

And, look at your populace.  Women with their tough-as-nails, calf-length nylons, their penciled eyebrows, and their sequined sweaters.  They’re almost fashionable, at least compared to the Russians who roam your streets in search of bargains to bring home to their starving nation.  And your men with their PVC briefcases and pagers.  They’ll be real businessmen someday.  But you can still see the difference between your own and your Singaporean, Hongkonger, and Taiwanese brothers, can’t you?  Your perms are a little too dry, yet.  And your shoes a little too dirty.  But you’re almost there.

You will arrive soon.  But where is it that you think you’re going?  You are rushing ahead so quickly with unparalleled determination.  But what are your goals?  What is your raison d’être?  Your 9th five-year plan.  What does that say?  What unrealistic jargon does it use to unite and confuse you as you approach the future?  I’m only asking because I want you to care, it’s not that I give a shit.  I’m just an observer here.  But I am thinking deeply as I observe.  I ask questions of your taxi cab drivers, your shop keepers.  And I sympathize with their confusion.

They own property, you know, these socialists you have raised.  You let them buy because you wanted a piece of the wealth that originated in the south and spread to the hinterland – not like wildfire – but like something.  You let them buy, but you’ve made it so difficult for them to sell.  What kind of ownership is that anyway?  You’ve confused them with this Chinese characteristic of capitalism or socialism or whatever it is you call it nowadays.  And your billboards confuse us all – foreigners and Beijingers alike.  You want your children to “seize opportunity”; you want your own reforms to “deepen”; you hail an “expansion of openness” and an “acceleration of development”.  Yet you caution all to “maintain stability.”  You fear another Tiananmen.  Or at least you want your children to fear that.  It’s a tall order, this billboard you’ve erected on Chang’anjie, a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen says it all, doesn’t it?  That gray expanse from the Forbidden City to the Gate itself.  So symmetric it all is, with the Chairman’s mostly synthetic body on view right smack in the center of it all.  But at least you proved that your children can line up like the civilized barbarians.  They do so daily from 8:30-11:30am; I’ve seen them do it.  Quickly and orderly they wait in the queue to glimpse their deceased Chairman.  “Ten thousand years” to the preserved flesh of the man who became more than a man.  The icon of Mao.  The one who fucked you all over in his paranoia.  “Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao.”  Arguably the second most influential Chinaman who ever walked the earth.  Mao, you will fade, though.  You will not live in human memory 10,000 years.  You are not Confucius, didn’t you know?

So, Beijing, where did you say you were going?  Please let the world know when you get there, won’t you?  We are all interested.  And we’re almost as confused as you are.

Ange and I will pause less than 24 hours in Beijing, as we journey toward Laos. As you can imagine, we plan to make the most of our brief return to one of our old stomping grounds. It will be very interesting to see how much (or how little?) things have changed in the past 18 years. 

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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.

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.