Sunday, August 26, 2018

Staying alcohol free - challenge and reflection

Yesterday I wrote in celebration of being alcohol free for twelve months.

Today, more soberly, I'm going to share some of the challenges in doing so, at least as I experienced them. This can't be definitive, for everyone will take a different path - but I hope it's a thoughtful reflection that will resonate with others, whether they've 'taken the pledge' themselves, or are supporting someone who's giving it a go.

For me, there were four key challenges - roughly speaking they were experienced sequentially, but not entirely so, and one year on, all of them remain prescient in some form or other.

Sun's over the yardarm...

The first challenge is simply to overcome the habit of drinking.

Anyone committing to a 'dry january' or 'sober october' will know what I mean. You don't have to be an alcoholic to know that lip puckering feeling as the evening draws in and you settle down for a TV drama, or return from a stressful day at the office and head straight to the fridge.

It took me a good few weeks to lessen the habitual pangs, and even now the urge to have a drink can be triggered by association.  It's often linked to time and place, so finding alternatives activities at peak times (I often went swimming) and avoiding obvious temptations like a big night out at the pub, will help to get you through.

For me, the 'yardarm' urges came in waves - and especially so in the first three months.  At around about 100 days, there was a significant easing, and the other challenges were more likely to derail progress.

Couldn't you just...

I'd suggest that nowadays, for almost anyone who gave up smoking, very few of their friends would tempt them to ' have a puff...'  There's a universal acceptance that smoking's a habit worth kicking - if you succeed, then expect congratulations to flow and your advice to be sought by others.

Not so with alcohol.

One of the most sustained challenges all abstainers will face, is the tacit resistance it engenders. By the far the majority of those around me - be they friends, colleagues or even family - would rather I'd had the odd glass, joined in the fun, just drank at the weekend...  almost anything but giving up for good.

Unlike with not smoking, it seems our not drinking, mildly threatens the fact that they do. Those questioning might not see it that way  - indeed some may genuinely worry you'll miss out, or perhaps fear the loss of friendship based on shared experience - but deep down I think it's true.

I realise that I too have been guilty of  similar behaviour - one of my closest colleagues is vegetarian and it recently struck me that for years I'd badgered him to defend the logic of his decision. Why did I feel the need to do that I wonder?

I've read of people who try to deflect the constant questioning by falsely declaring they've signed up to a charity 'stay dry' challenge. I can understand why they might do so, but it all feels a bit temporary - for the day they say otherwise, I'd bet all the Bacardi in Barbados that the questioning and suggestions would start again.

Eventually, close friends are likely to give you some slack; but the collective impact of what amounts to a widespread reluctance, verging on resistance, is real and substantial. I liken it to a gravitational pull - never beyond my strength, but always, inescapably, tugging away.

Those you care about most...

In counter-point to the resistance of others, is the need to maintain the relationships with those closest to you.  With so much of our leisure centred on - or at least associated with - alcohol, it's naive to think there's no impact or effort to be made.

The single biggest thing I miss as a non-drinker is not the nights out, the rush of spirits in my bloodstream, or even the taste of Chablis with oysters... it's sitting down with Jane and sharing a bottle of plonk with a plate of nibbles and an episode of Poirot on the television.  In fact, of all the challenges, this is the one that almost broke me - for these little impromptus are central to the pattern of our lives and relationships.

Similarly, my best and oldest friend used to love opening a few beers when I came round on a Sunday night. While I wouldn't describe it as the highlight of his week, the truth is, my sipping tea doesn't quite make for the same atmosphere. I get that, and it's taken time - and real friendship - to come through.

Luckily, the people who pressured me the least, turned out to be those I hold most dear. But I still invested time in talking to them, acknowledging the downsides and lamenting the loss of some shared experiences - while explaining that overall I was so much happier and healthier as a non drinker. And you know what... once you put it that way, almost everybody smiles.

Beyond a year...

I read somewhere, that in making a lifestyle change, twelve months is a seminal milestone.  Maintain a diet for that long and you're more likely to keep the weight off - the same principle applies to ingraining the habit of regular exercise or taking up a hobby.

So if you go a year without booze, it's no coincidence that one of the first the questions you'll be asked (and indeed, you may ask it of yourself) is, what next?

The view I hear most - largely from those who say 'couldn't you just..' - is that I should start again, taking confidence that I could moderate my intake in future.  It's a sort of 'hard reset' hypothesis - by abstaining for so long, staying within recommended guidelines would be a breeze.

The diametric position, as expressed by a friend who's also stopped drinking this year, is to query why on earth you'd go back?  If you're demonstrably happier, healthier and wealthier, then why restart behaviours that threaten all you've worked so hard to achieve?

It's not a simple choice.

I'm not so 'born again' that I can't see there are many joys in drinking moderately - nor do do I fear a gradual slippage back to some imaginary nadir. On the other hand, I feel better than I have for years, and (perhaps perversely for someone who never suffered too badly from hangovers) have come to dread the thought of ever again waking up with a thumping head and dry mouth.

So at least for now, I'm staying off the booze.

In many ways that decision is driven by the simplicity of what's required - total abstinence is a 'bright line' that's easy to see and you just don't cross it!

Anything else - moderating to limits; high days and holidays; only drinking in France - even if I were confident of success, would require a level of self-discipline that's grinding to maintain.

But in truth, there's more to it than that - and it's something to do with 'who' I've become.

After a year without booze I've started to think of myself not as someone who's 'giving up', but as someone who simply doesn't drink!  Being a non-drinker has become part of my identity, and the fact is, I like that more than the one I had before.

I know that's a touch didactic - and maybe at some point I'll be up for a fuzzier path.

But for now I've had enough of challenges.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Going alcohol free - a celebration

Taking the pledge - old style

One year ago yesterday I raised some eyebrows when writing on this blog that I was giving up the booze until Christmas.  Even then, I knew I wanted to go further, but was concerned at becoming a hostage to fortune. By the time January came along I tentatively told friends and family that I was aiming for a full twelve months...

The reticence to declare is indicative of the pressures and challenges of going alcohol free. I've more to say on that subject shortly, but today it's time for an impromptu celebration - not least because I'd miscalculated and thought I'd given up the booze a week later than I did!

Some people I know might ask, apart from the milestone, what's to celebrate? Isn't a day without wine, like a day without sunshine?  Surely my year's been unremittingly grey; the joie de vivre dulled by the absence of  aqua vita and all that comes with it?

To suggest there are no issue here would be disingenuous - of course there are downsides; the ubiquity of  alcohol in our culture is not because it's all bad.

But for every high there's a corresponding low, and it's the sum total (together with its trajectory) which matters most.  Perhaps that, above all, is what I've confirmed this year - by giving up one big thing in favour of many apparently smaller gains, life can be better, rather than diminished.

Accepting it's not all been a breeze, here are some of the things I'm smiling at this morning:
  • The support of Jane who's been brilliant throughout
  • Losing twenty pounds in weight
  • Saving a thousand pounds in cash - quite possibly double
  • A massive reduction in anxiety - and what little I have passes more quickly
  • Improved sleep
  • No hangovers, fuzzy head, dry mouth or that sense of 'what was I thinking... - indeed, I now fear that these would ever come back.
  • A material improvement in my eczema
  • A lowering of just about every health risk score going 
  • Knowing better who your real friends are 
  • A new (and truer) sense of self and identity
That's not even a complete list, but you'll get the point.

Ironically for a wordsmith, something I've struggled with most, is how best to describe what I was setting out to do - or perhaps more accurately, what I'd become.  Describing myself as teetotal seemed over the top, and yet going through the 'one year no beer' spiel wasn't accurate any more either.  Jane, who's a master at these things, suggested that my habit of announcing  'I don't drink alcohol,' sounded like I was preaching, and more troubled by booze than I am. 

In truth, I was never an alcoholic -  just an average middle class bloke, in typical denial over how much and how regularly I drank.  Nor have I become a zealot; I don't look down on those who enjoy a few beers - the last thing I want is to get into discussion on the rights and wrongs of  my decision.

And so, last night, when offered some wine at a neighbour's party I simply said, thanks, but I don't drink...    

And you know what? 

Nobody batted an eye. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Heretical thoughts

 'The price of being misunderstood...  They call you devil or they call you god.'
Richard Bach - Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

As I start typing it has dawned on me that I'm about to write a post in praise of heresy - on of all days, Easter Sunday. The gentle irony appeals, for in its original usage, 'heresy' meant to hold a belief or opinion contrary to the orthodox Christian faith. My views would certainly fit that description - though less so than some might assume - but, opening paragraphs aside, it's not religious dissent which interest me.

Heresy, in a secular context, means to question the established order of beliefs. My dictionary describes it as 'views profoundly at odds with accepted opinion', and that's as relevant to politics, the pub or the workplace, as it is to the chapel or cathedral.  More to the point - in a world as resistant as ever to those who venture outside the stockade - I think we need a little more heresy in our lives.

For as long as I can remember I've been interested in why we think as we do - and troubled by how flimsily many of our beliefs seem to be built. As a child I struggled with the platitudes that were offered as rules of behaviour; the supposedly right and wrong ways of seeing and being in the world. 'You'll understand when you're older,' my maternal grandmother would say...   Well, I'm fifty-six now, and at times I still don't get it!

To be fair, my father didn't tow the establishment line. One of my earliest memories is being allowed a day off school rather than wave flags at the queen when she visited our town. On the other hand he held some ridiculous views - everything in the universe is made with carbon - to which he would allow no counter, because he'd heard (and misunderstood) something of the sort on a BBC2 documentary.

Which is not untypical, because chief among our opinion formers is the media. The press and broadcast channels curate which issues we consider important, and more subtly, they promote how we should think about them. Social media makes a dent and occasionally gives voice - not least in blogging - but mainstream opinions and tastes, remain, almost by definition, as orthodox as ever.

The workplace too is awash with conformity - from the quasi-religious faith in 'colleague engagement', to the economists' disconnected pursuit of 'rational man', corporate orthodoxy is founded on the flimsiest of evidence. But to challenge risks ridicule or exposing the folly of those in charge.... no wonder most keep quiet.

And much the same is true of the pub, the golf club, our schoolyards.. even the writing and creative community of which I'm a part. In all walks of life we find opinions so embedded or popularised they resist any counter. I've heard it said that a non believer in the USA could never be elected president; in the UK, I'd suggest the same goes for any politician questioning the efficacy of the national health service. These are not good things.

But for all this, little corners of hope exist.

My long time colleague at work has one of  the best 'antennas' I've ever encountered. On sensing any hint of management bullshit, no matter how eloquent the soundbite I've crafted, she'll raise her eyes to say, 'Really, Mark...?'  -  and invariably I change the sentence and smile.

For this is exactly the sort of heresy we need more of. Not flat earth theorists or holocaust deniers - but the gentle probing of what's taken for granted, and which, with a little reflection, doesn't stand scrutiny, or need to be so dogmatic.

The kind of everyday heretics I like are those who might say, Excuse me for asking, but...

-  you know these local libraries which I keep hearing are essential bastions of learning... could you tell me where I'd find one.

of course, we all love Rugby... but isn't something awry when the England Captain has been banned for a total of 60 weeks... 

-  leave the skin on my kiwi fruit please; they really do taste better that way!

These statements are not meant too seriously, however, they illustrate a point. The value in heretical thoughts is not that they need be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing ...  but that in asking them at all, we become open to different, and sometimes better possibilities.

Conformity is the scourge of reasoning - and no more so than in the stories we tell ourselves to bolster our prejudices and intuitions. Over the last forty years psychologists have revolutionised our understanding of why we do this, and how difficult all of us find it to deconstruct our embedded modes of thinking.

I recently read the Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahnemen's, brilliant Thinking Fast and Slow -  a sort of psychology equivalent to Hawking's Brief History of Time - and realised I fell into almost all the traps his work exposes. Orthodoxy exploits these failings, promoting only evidence which shores up the norm; heresy confronts it - and is open to change in the light of its discoveries.

So I say lets have more heretics - even at Easter. Apart from anything else I'd have more mates, because the people I like most are invariably those with interesting and different views - some of my best friends have profound faith, nearly all have lifestyles at a tangent to mine. We can't all be Copernicus or Picasso, changing the way the world sees itself  - but in our own little hefts, we can at least make a difference to ourselves. Amen to that.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Six months, no beer and a crossword

The other day I realised it was more than six months’ since I’d drunk any alcohol. The milestone had passed without my noticing, and I might have gone longer unawares had it not been for the morning crossword. 

Its final clue posed: Result of multiplication - 7 letters. 

The answer, for those who can’t wait, is given below.

Quite why the solution should trigger thoughts on sobriety says as much about my lateral mindset as any inherent logic - but it’s instructive nonetheless. For what I've discovered these last six months, is that quitting alcohol is a bit like putting money in the bank - at first there’s not a lot to show, but after a while, the interest compounds.  

And in my experience, I'd say the rates are pretty high.  

For starters I've lost ten kilos. In not drinking I’ve foregone tens of thousands of 'dead calories’; add to that a reduction in associated snacking, and compound the gains by taking more exercise because I have more energy -  and the net result is the easiest diet I've ever been on.

There’s a noticeable financial benefit too. It’s harder to be precise here, but I reckon in my case the saving is around thirty pounds a week after including the odd drink in the pub and wine at restaurants. On that basis if I stay dry for a year, all our utility bills are covered. 

Meanwhile, I’m sleeping better, worrying less, and haven’t had a head ache in months. The icing on the cake - or more accurately, ’off my scalp’ - is that my persistent eczema has almost gone.

None of this should be a surprise.  

We all know that alcohol is a mild poison; that in quantity it induces weight gain, diabetes, cancer.. and in some cases, grips with an addiction that can be life destroying. Second to smoking, giving up alcohol is just about the best thing you can do for your health. 

But let’s face it, that’s not the way most of us view a few beers or a bottle of sauvignon on a night in. 

Rather we see booze as harmless fun; it helps us to relax; it’s part of a good night out - and it tastes great too, doesn’t it?  Even after six months abstinence I’d concur with most of that - so feeling this positive about not drinking is somewhat of a surprise. 

And let’s face it, abstaining is bloody hard - even for people like me who didn’t drink a great deal in the first place. Not only are there habitual cravings to deal with, there are disruptions to our social patterns, and impacts on our partners and friends…  The consequence I found most difficult to deal with was Jane saying how much she missed us not sharing a bottle of wine together.

Alcohol is now so central to our culture that giving it up also invites a surprising amount of resistance. Why not just cut out wine - how about drinking only at weekends - when are you starting again; you’re making us feel bad…  The pressure to justify sobriety is a phenomenon so universal that support websites regularly offer tips on how to ‘come out’ as a non-drinker.  One I read recently  advised telling friends that you’ve taken up a year-long challenge for charity… Really?

But this is a time to celebrate not to analyse.

For despite the challenges, having stuck with it, I’m more motivated than ever to keep going. I guess it’s like any achievement - what at first seemed improbable, gets easier over time. The cravings subside more quickly than you’d imagine (about 60 to 90 days is key); real friends quickly accept your decision (and those few that don’t, well…); there’s even a slight danger of smugness. For in viewing the world unfiltered by booze - especially in the mornings - I've discovered a joy as intoxicating and as achingly more-ish as any good malt whisky.  

And that’s a very fine product* indeed.


*  Result of multiplication (7): Product.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Passing thoughts.

This week I learned of two deaths - they could not have been more different.

On Tuesday I was told that my ex father in law had died.  He must have been ninety or thereabouts; a kind man, gentle, with a wry sense of humour.  I’d not seen him since I separated from my first wife nearly thirty years ago, but I’m grateful still, for the care and support he gave me when starting out on adult life. I hope, that we didn’t speak says as much about distance and life moving on, than any lasting anger on his part.

When I heard of his passing I didn’t shed tears. Death at any age is sad, but there is comfort in the knowledge of a life well lived. We can celebrate what the person gave us, rejoice in shared memory, and - especially if there are descendants - take comfort in a sense of their contribution to the greater life journey.  

For my part, this is as close to faith as I get. 

Yesterday I learned too of the death of one of my son’s best friends. More accurately, I should say ‘had confirmed’, for we knew through the grapevine, and in our hearts, that the skier reported to have fallen 650ft in Oz-en-Oizans, was Jordan.  One slip on the ice and…

As I write these few words, my fingers are tensing at the keyboard; my eyes are wet and it hurts to swallow. I am thinking of the time he came to our house and we played table tennis in the garden -  so vital, so competitive, such fun to be with…  Twenty years of the life force embodied in physical form.

And because of that, and because he was such a good friend to my son, I feel anger as much as grief. Anger at an industry that pretends the mountains are a helter-skelter ride; which revels in putative adventure but diminishes the risks. Its apologists will cry otherwise, but they are wrong… and the litany of deaths every year gives evidence to their self deceit. There’s more to be said on this, much more… but now is not the time.  

Every night this week I have slept badly; troubled in a way by my own distress.  After all, Jordan was my son’s friend not mine; I’d met him only a handful of times. I know that in part, it’s a dread of ‘what might have been'; a parental unease at events that feel too close for comfort - 'but for the grace...' as they say.  But there’s more to my sadness than that. 

For if I’m honest with myself, the first line of this piece isn't strictly true. To a man of no faith, all death is the same - an oblivion, regardless of when and how it occurs. That void is beyond our knowing, and as such, I can just about bear it. What’s harder to reconcile, are the memories cut short, the potential lost - the link to life’s journey, more severed than stitched.

That will take time to pass. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

In North Korea: lives and lies in the state of truth

John Ruskin once wrote that drawing is as much the art of looking as it is of making marks. What he didn't say, was that there is more to seeing than meets the eye.

Anyone sketching a still life will quickly learn that the negative spaces - the gaps between the subjects - are just as vital as the objects in focus.  Something similar goes on in music - listen to any of the great jazz pianist, and you'll 'hear' the pauses between the notes.

Rory Maclean's and Nick Danziger's latest book IN NORTH KOREA: lives and lies in the state of truth is a masterpiece of what writers call 'show not tell'.  Interviewing a carefully selected (not by them) cast of everyday citizens, they chronicle the daily life and hopes of a farmer, fisherman, soccer player, student, subway attendant...  recording the stories, as told by the participants, always in the presence of Government officials, jotting down every phrase, full stop and comma.

A master of sensitivity, Maclean writes without comment  -  transcribing the assertions of love and loyalty to our dear leader, so accurately, and so frequently, that their emptiness echoes with his sorrow. Danziger's photos are a counterpoint to the verbatim: stark, graphical, at times arrestingly banal - they are disconcertingly rich, yet bereft of feeling.

If only those Government observers had been writers too, they'd have understood what's going on here. At face value, the book is a collection of staged photos and stilted interviews; behind this necessary deceit, its truth lies between the lines.  

IN NORTH KOREA (available only on Kindle) is a short work; more of a non-fiction novella. It was made possible with help of the British Council, which facilitated access to the usually closed Democratic Republic. I've no doubt Maclean's easygoing diplomacy was put to regular use too - and the project, of course, is especially prescient given recent events. 

A side of me thinks it's a pity the book is exclusive to Kindle. Another - the one that's a fan of digital media - is pleased, for it demonstrates the format can launch important work from leading authors. The colour photographs are best viewed on a tablet version of Kindle, using the app that can be downloaded free of charge. At £2.99 IN NORTH KOREA shouldn't exclude on the basis of price. 

If there's any weakness, to my mind it's the two-page afterword - the only point at which the authors drop their guard to comment briefly on the rising tensions with the West. Perhaps that's inevitable, but to my mind the stories and pictures are stronger alone - their interpretation best left to the reader, and to time.

In collaborating with such deliberate understatement, Maclean and Danziger have given a subtle and powerful voice to the people they met. For as all writers, photographers - and for that matter, all dictators, know - truth and lies are revealed not so much in what we say, as what is left unsaid.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Giving up and Getting On

Taking part - so much better than watching

One day during last summer’s holiday in France, and much to Jane’s annoyance, our alarm clock went off at 6.00am. I’d set it the night before so as not miss the Olympic diving heats, followed by the flat water kayaking – or was it the modern pentathlon?  It doesn’t really matter – the important thing was the look from Jane as I stole from our bedroom into the lounge…  

Turning on the TV to watch some ‘never-before-heard-of’ backward somersault into a pool (tight tuck; minimal splash), it suddenly dawned on me that I’d lost the plot. As long ago as ancient Rome, the games at the Colosseum were described as opium for the masses. The 2016 Olympics, it seemed, were having much the same effect on me.

And reflecting a little further, it shocked me to realise just how much time and energy I was expending on watching sports. Like many people my age, I was  spending far more time watching and reading, than I was participating.

Modern day spectator sport might not be as toxic as opium but it’s reasonably akin to a soap opera – pulling us in with an ever changing, but never ending, and ultimately arms-length narrative.  Without noticing, I was investing huge amounts of my life sitting on a sofa, vicariously involved in events that have virtually no connection or meaning to me.

So as is my way, I made a resolution to give up watching and reading about any sport for year.

From last September I decided I’d not watch or read about any football, rugby, cycling, athletics… as well as the Olympic disciplines in which I’d recently become such an armchair expert. It would be an interesting experiment; I’d see how long I could hold out, and perhaps reset the balance thereafter.

A year later and I’m still holding true to the vow.

I missed last year’s Premier League, the Six Nations, the Tour de France, and a whole lot more. The hardest of all to give up – I wonder if you can guess? – was the World Snooker Championship; I’ve been glued to it every year since university and Alex Huggins won his second final - more than any other event it reminds me of good times past.

But the truth is, other than the snooker (and maybe a little of the cycling), I’ve not 'missed' watching sport at all. Once I’d deleted a few links from my PC, and stopped turning to the back pages of the Times, it quickly became irrelevant to my daily life. Despite much ribbing and incredulity from family and friends (’re not watching the Six Nations!), I quite enjoyed giving it up.

There's something empowering about leaving behind habits or possessions we don’t need – like a super charged version of the satisfaction we get in sorting the loft and taking our junk to the tip. Perhaps that’s why there are long traditions of self-denial in almost all cultures – they are a means to resetting the balance, reflecting on, and reconnecting to, what’s important. In other words, by ‘giving up’ we allow ourselves ‘get on’ with bigger and better stuff.

So as September approaches, what sports am I going to watch again?   

I suspect very few.

Recently I read that ‘a year’ is a seminal milestone in almost any quest to change our habits. In dieting, for example, the chances of relapse are much lessened if we can sustain our lower weight for twelve months. The same goes for cigarettes, drugs, exercise regimes, and in my case – not following sport!

In fact, so taken am I by the joys of ‘giving up’, that I’ve decided to extend my sporting purdah to other areas.  This year (strange how I still think in academic terms) I plan to write a walking guide to the Haute Savoir – that means finding time for research as well as long hours at the keyboard; I’d like to build a website too, and perhaps learn Welsh.

So instead of starting to watch sport again, I’m going to continue as I am. But to give me even more time and energy, I’m making two further changes.

From today I’m deleting all social media from my PC, phone and Ipad. I’ve realised that despite their many good aspects, Facebook and its like have become one of the biggest consumers of my time and an invidious distractor to getting on with real life. If that sounds a bit snobby, then apologies; but I’m talking of me not you, and being frank, I can’t find a subtler ways to put it.

And secondly, I’ve decided to give up all alcohol until at least Christmas – if it goes well, I might extend the pledge to the full year – but I’m not promising. Giving up the booze is more to do with being healthy but having a clear head won’t hurt with the writing either.

So there you have it – new rules for the Bike Shed: no spectating, no social media and no hooch to console me.  But you know what?  I reckon it’s going to be good here this year – and a lot more productive too.

Who knows, I might even make a splash.