From the Mailbag 2

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How’s It Going? And, By the Way, What’s a Blog?
The other day, my neighbor asked me: “How’s it going, now that you’re a quarter of the way through?” He was, of course, asking about my resolution not to drink alcohol this year. “Aren’t you following my blog?” I asked in return. “What’s a blog?” he replied.

If you knew my neighbor, you wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that he didn’t know what a blog was.  After all, his pickup truck is vintage 1980s.  What was surprising, however, was that I had trouble coherently and succinctly summing up how I feel about my resolution thus far. What stumped me is that I didn’t have any expectations going into this. I had made the decision to do it on extremely short notice and just jumped in head first with the resolution and the blog, all at once.

After not making sense for a few seconds, I went into the details about my weight loss so far, my running goals, and so on.  My neighbor interrupted and offered: “So, it’s been positive?” I had no hesitation, saying: “Yes. Yes. Absolutely. It’s very positive. I’m at the point where I’m not sure I will drink again when 2015 rolls around.”

Wow. I didn’t see that coming. Did you?  So, for the curious who’ve asked, here are some other Q’s and A’s related to this project:

How Much Was the Weight Loss From Not Drinking vs. Other Reasons?
The first 8 pounds I lost was solely from not drinking. In the beginning, I purposefully did not want to change anything else, including my diet or exercise routine. Without a purposeful diet, I would not have lost any additional weight.

I lost another 8 pounds (and counting) by sticking maniacally to a daily calorie goal that I track in an app called MyFitnessPal. My daily goal of 1,200 calories allows me to lose 1-1.5 pounds per week.  I input everything I eat into the app. When I exercise, I also input that into that app and earn more calories for that day. If I eat too much, I exercise more.  It’s that simple.  Despite the simplicity, it can be very difficult to be completely honest with yourself about how much you have eaten. But if you honestly use the app every day, it will work.

Not drinking is the single-most important factor in my weight loss, for several reasons. Taking those empty calories off the table has made a tremendous difference. In the past, one glass of wine could lead to another glass and that could lead to eating things I didn’t need to eat. Also, I am now able to exercise at night, something I never could have done after drinking wine at dinner.

What Are the Unexpected Benefits From Not Drinking?
This is a great question.  From a general health standpoint, what I noticed within days is that I was getting better quality sleep and was sleeping through the night much more often than before.  Over time, I also started to feel more mentally alert and more confident. Because not drinking has led to losing weight and allowed more time for reading and writing, I also feel happier and more balanced.

Have You Experienced Clearer Thinking?
Yes. Definitely. It is particularly acute when I am around other people who are drinking. It’s a strange sensation of being very present and keenly aware of what is going on.

What’s Up With that Ideal Weight Calculator?
In my last post, I talked about so-called “ideal weight” and used this calculator to confirm that my weight loss goal was realistic. I received feedback from several guys, all of whom felt the calculator was off for them and seem to be reporting unrealistically low weights. One of them even said it reported his weight from 8th grade as ideal! A few of these guys are very muscular. Therefore, I’d like to recommend that they focus on percentage of body fat, rather than weight. Here’s info from Livestrong about that and here’s a body fat calculator.

Also, I want to caution that research indicates women tend to under-estimate their ideal weight, while men tend to over-estimate it.

Regular followers of my blog may recall that my first “From the Mailbag” post answered several other questions back in late February, including “why did you really start this blog?” Check it out if you haven’t already.

And, please keep the questions coming. I promise to answer each and every one.

Quarterly Report

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This is the first quarter status report on my dry year.  Believe it or not, three months have come and gone since I quit drinking as my New Year’s resolution, and started this blog to share my thoughts about that and other things. To be perfectly honest, I’m completely over the whole not drinking thing. By that, I don’t mean that I want to start drinking again. What I mean is that not drinking alcohol has become so ingrained in me that I just don’t think about it very much. And that’s making it difficult to find things to write about.

At the end of my first month, I reported that I had lost six pounds simply by not drinking, and that I was dismayed that forming a new habit was going to take a lot longer than I had expected. Then, at the end of my second month, I realized that my old habit of drinking wine every night had disappeared unnoticed, and I was 11 pounds lighter. In between those two posts, I revealed that a big motivator for embarking on my “dry year” was my belief that alcohol was preventing me from losing the 20+ pounds I had gained over the past several years, as well as from being a more competitive runner.

In chunking out my planning and goals into more manageable bits, I decided not to change anything else about my eating or fitness routine in January. And, in February and March, to focus on my diet first, mainly by using MyFitnessPal to track everything I eat, as well as my exercise. I hoped to lose 15 of my goal of 20 pounds by that time. My plan was to then pivot from my diet to my running and race training in April, and to try for my personal best marathon time on my 46th birthday in late July. Assuming all goes accordingly, I would still have five months to complete my diet goal before the end of the year.

Even though there’s still snow on the ground here in Vermont, March is over. The inevitable question is: How am I doing? Drum roll please…..

I lost 15 pounds! I’m particularly proud of that, because I was on vacation the first two weeks of March. In just 90 days, my Body Mass Index dropped from 24.7 to 22.4. According to the U.S. Navy body fat calculator, my percentage of body fat dropped from 27% in mid-February to 24% today. I’m not quite in the “fit” category yet, so there’s more work to do. However, I’m really getting close to my ideal weight and fitness level, and feel very happy with my results.

So far, my theory that losing weight will make me run faster appears to be correct. I took part in the Run for the Border Half Marathon on the New Hampshire coast this past Sunday.  It was raining, windy and cold – I got hit by foam and sea water from waves that crashed against the seawall and sprayed onto the race route! Because of the crazy weather and coastal flood warnings, the race was shortened to 10.19 miles. I surprised myself by racing at a 9:02 per-mile pace, much faster than expected. Last year’s half marathon results were all slower than this, ranging from a 10:27 per-mile pace in Middlebury in May, to a 9:20 pace down in Manchester, Vermont, in early September. I felt very comfortable the whole race and definitely had more in the tank when I crossed the finish line.

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(My vantage point running the Run for the Border Half Marathon in coastal New Hampshire on March 30, 2014.)

Over the past three months, the most important thing is that I had decided to reward myself early with a trip to Laos. Since I was saving well over $4,000 this year by not drinking, and it was burning a hole in my pocket, I deserved a big reward for all of my efforts. My 10-day trip was unforgettable and under budget — around $2,500. Later this year, when I reach all of the other goals I’ve outlined, maybe Bruce and I will take another trip together to celebrate.

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. 

From the Mailbag

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Since the idea of my New Year’s resolution and this blog came to me rather suddenly over the holidays, I didn’t have time to develop any expectations. It took me completely by surprise that 100 people would actually “follow” me and that dozens would take time to comment here or privately. These messages range from support for my journey, to thanks for offering an inspiring example, to challenges to my assumptions and opinions. Increasingly, folks are asking thoughtful questions about me and this experiment. This “From the Mailbag” post addresses three of the most thought-provoking responses from this past month.

Why did you really start this blog?

My sister-in-law, Martha, asked me to expound upon the other reasons, besides losing weight and running faster, that led to my decision to start this blog.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about how saving money was my #9 of 9 reasons for this project. In fact, I have journal entry in my “Dry Year” diary that was written on January 7th titled “Top 5 reasons why I’m not drinking.” The list ran longer than 5, but didn’t quite reach 10. The order below is exactly as written, and may or may not reflect the order of priority.

1. I fear becoming an alcohol abuser, because of family history.
2. I’ve recently done a lot of personal research for my memoir and the theme of alcohol over-consumption is one that is difficult to ignore.
3. I want to see if I can do it.
4. I’ve tried with moderate effort and no success to cut back consumption in the past.
5. I thought it would help me lose weight.
6. I thought I would free up time for more important things.
7. I thought it would be a very interesting topic for a blog and I need one to promote my upcoming memoir.
8. I thought it might make me a faster runner.
9. To save money.

Is it common for someone to quit drinking for just a year?

This question comes from fellow blogger, Terry McCarthy. As he put it: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody quitting for a year. As they say in AA, take one DAY at a time.”

Many more people have written about quitting drinking for a month or even 100 days. And, although I didn’t know this when I started this project, I have found a few people who also tried this for a year and wrote about it, including this guy and this woman. My true goal regarding alcohol is moderation, so I didn’t go into this thinking that I would quit drinking forever. I felt alcohol was preventing some of my other goals, so I wanted to take alcohol out of my life for a significant length of time. On one level, this resolution is a social experiment.

If you achieve your goals during your “dry year,” why bother drinking again?

This comes from my friend Rose, who is a teetotaler herself: “I love reading about your journey and I’m rooting for you! Are you thinking of quitting for good? I mean, after you succeed in losing the weight, and you will, and running so hard that you get your PR, why go back to it? Just a thought.”

This is similar to Terry’s question, but is more direct. Of all the comments I have received, I have thought about this one the most. It is much easier for me to think about this as a one year “project.” Once I’m further down the road, I will have a better idea of what the ideal future should be. No one knows what the end of this year will bring. As I get deeper into this journey, I may come back to this question several more times.

I hope that you’ll keep the comments and questions coming. If so, I’ll do a “From the Mailbag” post every month.