Monthly Archives: February 2011

The light at the end of the tunnel?

I’m three days away from finishing my month of voluntary abstinence.  About 4 days into February I was already imagining the glass of wine I would have with dinner on Monday the 1st of March.  On about day 10 I was considering abandoning my resolution altogether.  At day 25 I find myself surprised by my complete lack of caring about it one way or another.

I’m not saying that I didn’t crave a glass of red wine tonight while I ate my Beef Bourguignon, because I did.
I’m also not saying that I won’t bother to have a glass of wine on March 1st.  I just might.  What’s strange to me is that I also might not.

So far, I’ve been fascinated by the reactions of others to my resolution, curious about when my cravings come and what triggers them, and underwhelmed by the alternative beverages I can choose from when out with friends.  I haven’t, however, made any deeply insightful observations about myself, or even our culture.  I suppose I was expecting something, well, just something more.

This resolution turned out to be a very easy one for me to keep.  Could I keep it for a year?  I don’t know.  For now, I don’t intend to try.  I think what will be more interesting than this month of abstinence will be to observe and consider how my relationship with alcohol will or will not change once this month is over.  Will I drink less often?  Will I abstain when I’m out on occasion, even when I am not the designated driver?  Will I return to my old ways (responsible, not particularly indulgent, but fairly routine) within a few weeks?

What do you think?



Filed under Alcohol, Resolutions

Veering Off Course

No, I haven’t had a drink.  And I’m still eating five (actually 4-6) vegetables a day.  But my life, or more importantly the life of a very dear friend, has veered way off course.  As a result, today, so has my post.

One of my friends has breast cancer.  She’s had one successful surgery and is now waiting for test results which will determine what comes next.  Definitely radiation.  Maybe chemotherapy.

Those are the facts.

As it turns out, this friend has been living abroad for the year with her husband and children.  So now they are moving back home, a good five months earlier than planned.   They will move back into their house and their kids will go back to their old school in the middle of the year.

Those are the logistics.

But the truth?

The truth is that I have witnessed an amazing thing.  Something I knew about my community and my life, but which was acted out live and right in front of me.  Something that makes it hard for me to imagine ever leaving this place.

People I know well and people I barely know – we RALLIED.

We needed someone to coordinate messages to the group of friends at home, waiting and ready to help.  DONE

We needed a way to get my friend and her family and their luggage from NJ to PA.  DONE

We needed a house for the renters who are in my friend’s home to move into (that’s a place for 2 adults, 3 children, and 2 large dogs!) in less than a week.  Furnished.  Preferably for two months.  And preferably for free.  DONE

And don’t even think about the food.  What do we do when we want to help and don’t know what to do?  We bake.  We cook.  We stock refrigerators.  I don’t think my friends will need to cook for the next six months if they don’t want to.  Dinner for five?  DONE AND DONE (and repeat).

In less than 24 hours, it all happened.  What’s even more amazing, is that I know that this group will be rallying for the next HOWEVER long it takes to help this family through what I hope with all of my heart will be “just” a rough patch.

In 24 hours, we have gone from being the people on their annual holiday party invitation list to being TEAM Z/C.

Friends who are religious often ask me (the Atheist) what I do for community without a church?  Where do I get my strength and my solace?  Who helps me when I’m in crisis?  Who guides me when I am lost?

Well, little hometown of mine, old friends and new friends who have rallied this week – IT’S YOU.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m still pissed off about the cancer.  Majorly pissed off.

But for today, right now, I am also grateful.

Thank You.


Filed under Community

Hold the Hurricane

Until this weekend, my alcohol free month has been fairly simple.  I have been in a terrific mood.  Work, school, and life have been running smoothly.  While January brought some real sadness (the sudden death of a colleague) I was grieving by becoming more involved in LGBT causes which were her life’s mission.  I felt good about how I was honoring her memory so even the sadness was ok.

And then came Friday.

Enter one terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

For those who are confused, here is a visual for you.

Quality of Day Bar Chart

After my work responsibilities were done on Friday, around 7:30 PM, I made dinner with a friend and desperately tried to relax. Usually cooking is a soothing activity for me, but I was completely out of sorts.  My craving for a cocktail was loud and strong.  I didn’t want to Drink-with-a-Capital-D, but I DEFINITELY wanted to take the edge off.  The conference room inside my brain was working overtime and I wanted to shut them up.

Saturday arrived and I had a full work day plus a memorial service to attend.  The service was incredible, possibly the most moving tribute to a person’s life I have ever witnessed.  It was hard, though, and not just because I was sad about this loss.  Sitting in that church and listening to my friend’s partner talk about their love triggered some grief of my own.  I thought I had a partner like that and it turns out I didn’t.   Well fuck.

Enter terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day number two.

Saturday night I was to attend a Mardi Gras charity event at my local non-profit theater.  Music!  Dancing!  Masks!  Beads!  Hurricanes!


It was one thing to go out and about last weekend, in a great mood, enjoying my friends and family while I sipped at my seltzer with lime.  But I was in NO MOOD for a party.

I had less than two hours to get ready.  I had to change my mood and quick.

Step 1: Initiate Party Hair.
For those of you who haven’t witnessed it, I have awesome party hair.  Curly and fabulous, it takes about an hour to make it happen but it’s totally worth it.

Step 2: Cocktail
Oh wait.  I can’t do that.

What could alcohol do for me that I couldn’t do for myself?  Is it terribly unhealthy that I wanted to prepare for my night out with a pre-event drink?  What does this say about who I am and how I use alcohol?

As I debated the possibility of breaking my resolution – and believe me the pro-side of this debate team was very strong – I remembered a line from a movie I saw recently.

“Don’t drink to feel better, drink to feel even better.”

I can’t remember the movie, but I think this line is a perfect motto for me.  I don’t want to use alcohol to self-medicate, to cope with a stressful situation, or to ignore a problem in my life.   I want to use it to enhance an already fun evening, to bring out the flavor of a perfect Beef Bourguignon, or to celebrate a friend’s achievement.

And so, out I went.

I recovered nicely, though not completely, and if I do say so myself, my hair was fantastic.


Filed under Alcohol, Parties, Resolutions

But What About the Fruits & Vegetables?

Common wisdom says that it takes 30 days to create a new habit.

Self-help books and websites consistently state that this is the time frame humans need for a new behavior to take hold but they never cite a source.  Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find any research to support the 30-day-to-habit hypothesis (ok, I didn’t look too hard, but I did look).

Recent research by folks at the College of London, in fact, found that the average time to for a new behavior to feel automatic was 66 days.  In addition, there was significant variation in how long it took for a habit to take hold, from 18 days up to 254 days.

Before you get any grand ideas, let me make it clear right now that I’m talking about eating five servings of fruit and vegetables a day – my January resolution. I have no plans of becoming a teetotaler, I promise.

So how did I do in January? And what side of this curve am I on?

As it turns out, I ate at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day in January and I did not find it difficult to do.  It was almost as if I turned a switch and it just happened.  Now that it’s February though, am I still doing it?

Mostly, YES.  It’s February 10th and I’ve eaten at least five servings of fruits and vegetables for eight out of nine days. My one day ‘off’ was  yesterday, and I still ate four servings of fruits and vegetables.  (I also had a hot dog and a pretzel at market and some pizza for dinner.  Hey, I’m not perfect!)

I would not say my fruit and veggie behavior is yet automatic.  I’m still relying on some of the tools I implemented in January to make it happen.  If I were to rate how automatic my chosen behavior feels right now on a scale of 1 to ten (where 1 is not at all, and ten is I do it without thinking), I would say I’m at about 6 or 7.  This is definite progress, and I plan to continue this resolution indefinitely – it just doesn’t seem like a behavior worth giving up.

For the curious…

How did I create this new habit?

  • Early in the month I did research into what constitutes a ‘serving’ and identified the fruits and vegetables I was most likely to enjoy at this time of year.  Knowing that a variety of colors is also important, I also identified a few dark greens to add to my otherwise colorful vegetable diet (kale, spinach, and broccoli, in particular).  There are tons of resources on the web about incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet.  In particular, I liked the tools on the Cooking Light site, part of their 12-month Health Habits program.
  • Since I am a recovering J, I couldn’t help myself from using the Cooking Light chart to track my daily fruit and vegetable intake.   The visual reminder on my refrigerator helped me to make good choices every time I made a meal or went for a snack.
  • I told everyone I knew about my goal – especially the people I share meals with on a regular basis.  It wasn’t that I expected them to correct my behavior or scold me for making bad choices.  But the pressure of knowing that I had made my goal public helped me to make better choices when out with friends, my most vulnerable situation when it comes to eating healthy.
  • I did not try to start any other food (or drink) related habits or implement any other restrictions on myself during January.  As it turned out, eating five servings of fruits and vegetables (or more) is eating a lot of food.  I did eat other things, and some of them were colossally unhealthy, but the portions were always very small because I ate the healthy stuff first and I got full.  Who knew?
  • Again, I didn’t try to change too much.  I stuck with fruits and vegetables I like and those that are either (a) in season locally or (b) easy to get in high quality form (i.e. no January tomatoes for me).  I am lucky that I actually LIKE fruits and vegetables.
  • I did not give myself a hard time about buying produce that had been trucked from Florida or California.  While I try VERY HARD to eat locally/regionally, part of my problem was that the fruits and vegetables available in PA are so limited this time of year.  I have no trouble eating five servings in July and August.  I had to allow one part of my conscience (the part that wants me to avoid diabetes and heart disease, etc.) to win the argument with the other part of my conscience (the fossil fuels, Shelby!  the earth is crying Shelby!) or I would be frozen in the grocery store debating with myself every time I tried to by an orange.



Filed under Food, Fruits and Vegetables, Resolutions

And Not a Drop to Drink

This weekend was the first real test of my Abstinence Month.  Full of social evenings from Thursday through Sunday, I had four days in a row where having a cocktail or a beer would be typical behavior for me.  From ‘drinks’ out with a grad school friend, to live music in a bar, to a wine-tasting art school fund raiser, to Super Bowl Sunday, I had many opportunities to explain my 2011 approach to resolutions in general and my February plan in particular.

I’m happy to report that I did not have a drink all weekend, nor did I have any difficulty abstaining.  I admit that there were a few moments when I thought “gee, it’d be nice to have a drink right now” but they passed quickly.  Of course I think I was as charming and entertaining as usual, but you’ll have to ask around to hear if others agree.

Here are some observations I made this weekend:

* People react much differently to “I’m not drinking this month” than they do to “I’m driving.”
When I decline a drink because I am a designated driver, everyone I know consistently says “good for you” and that is that.  As I declined drinks this weekend, however, people initially wanted more explanation, and then consistently tried to convince me to abandon my resolution or pick a different month. It was all in good fun, of course, but it was fascinating to experience ‘peer pressure’ since (a) I’m over 40 and (b) so were they.

* I made much more responsible food choices, sort of.
There were no late-night nachos this weekend.  Also, no late-night hot-dogs with cheese, no latenight Twix bars, and no late-night chocolate cake.  In fact, there was no late-night food.  That being said, the lack of beer during the Super Bowl party did not keep me from being responsible for the demolition of at least 1/4 of a party-serving of awesome chili/nacho/cheese dip.  Thanks  a lot Leslie.

* There needs to be better alcohol-free choices at bars and restaurants.
I have had more water and seltzer with lime over the past three days than I care to discuss.  For fun, sometimes I asked for a splash of cranberry juice!  CRAZY!  I would definitely like to think of some better non-alcohol options, for variety if nothing else.

Did my abstinence change much about my weekend?  Not really.

I still went out and about – quite a lot actually.  I still got up at about the same time, did about the same amount of chores and school-work that I would normally do, and went to the gym once (sadly, typical) over the two days.  I did notice that I woke up with headaches on the mornings when I’d been up past midnight the night before.  

Apparently, part of the reason I might wind up with a headache on a Saturday morning is because I haven’t gotten enough sleep. Oh right, and I’m 41.   (It certainly wasn’t because I was dehydrated.)

If I’m honest about it, I admit that I also went home a bit earlier than I might have otherwise, but leaving a college-bar at 11:45 is a good idea anyway.  Between 11 and midnight the average age in a college  bar goes from 30 to 21 and the average length of a skirt goes from 24 inches to, oh, seven.   Drinks or not, it was time to leave.

The highlight of my weekend might have been meeting up again with George, the friend who inspired my February resolution to begin with.   Alas, he was rooting for the Packers, but we toasted each other throughout the evening with our Pelligrinos anyway.


Filed under Alcohol, Food, Football, Resolutions

Pound for Pound

When I decided to take the month of February off from alcohol, I knew there would be some days or events where I’d miss it more than others.  Super Bowl Sunday.  My favorite local band, Reverend Blue Jeans, playing on a Saturday night.  Seriously.  Football and Beer.  Rock  Music and Beer.  These things were made for each other.

I don’t think I was prepared for how much I might miss a nice glass of wine on a Tuesday night.

It’s true that I enjoy a glass of wine while cooking, or perhaps while I am relaxing after the meal as I linger at the table with a good friend in deep (or not so deep) conversation.  And so it was, two nights ago, I was sitting at the table after a lovely dinner.  I missed my glass of red wine.

What did I do instead of lingering over that glass of wine?

I made a pound cake.

(Note, the reason that pound cakes are called pound cakes is because the original recipe calls for a pound of sugar, a pound of butter, and a pound of flour.   This is not a low-calorie dessert).

While I didn’t embark on this resolution with losing weight in mind, I admit I have been curious about what the elimination of empty alcohol calories would do to my body.  Would I lose weight?

According to the USDA Calorie Counter, five ounces of red table wine has 125 calories in it and one slice of pound cake has 163 calories.   In the interest of full disclosure I should say that this recipe was from my favorite dessert book: Rosie’s Bakery: All Butter, Fresh Cream, Suger Packed, No-Holds-Barred Baking Book.  One slice of Rosie’s pound cake probably has more calories than your average pound cake recipe.

Even if I assume that the USDA estimation of pound cake calories is correct, I am already better off drinking the wine calorie-wise.  Then we add in the fact that red wine, in moderation, is supposed to be good for my heart while butter and cream cheese (yes, gilding the lily a bit, but hey, I do what Rosie tells me to do) are most certainly not good for my heart.  It’s possible we should also consider the fact that even though I give most servings of my late-night baking treats away after I make them, it is possible I ate pound cake for breakfast the next morning.

So, either I should abandon all thoughts about losing weight during my period of self-inflicted abstinence or I should amend my resolution to no-alcohol and no-late-night-baking.

This is a tough decision.  I think I’ll take some time to ponder this over a cup of tea.

And perhaps a slice of pound cake.


Filed under Food, Football, Resolutions

Ask a Mormon

Since I’m planning to spend the month of February in a state of abstinence from alcohol, I thought I’d do some research into groups, religions, and cultures that also abstain from alcohol use. Naturally, I started with the Mormons.

Did you know there is a website called “Ask a Mormon?

Here you can ask questions like “Can you define ‘hot drinks?”, “Can a Mormon date an Atheist?”, and of course “Why don’t Mormons drink alcohol?” Unfortunately, despite its awesome name, it appears that this site is very unofficial and that the answers provided are only opinions submitted by members of the church. There’s very little useful information about my question on this site, sadly, so I went next to http://www.Mormon.Org.

Official responses to the question seem to go along a continuum from one end (“We try not to put things into our bodies that could harm them.”) to the other (“God told us not to drink so we don’t.”).  Somewhere in between is the explanation I have heard from Mormons I know, that they believe the body is a temple and that it should be treated with the same respect that such a place deserves.

Whether it’s a Mormon thing or not, I think that taking care of our bodies is a GREAT idea. While I certainly understand that alcohol can be very, very bad for some, I also understand that moderate consumption of alcohol, especially red wine, can be good for one’s health.

In his book Food Rules, Michael Pollan attempts to distill all of the current scientific and nutritional wisdom on healthy diets into 64 simple, easy-to-remember rules. (My personal favorite is that you shouldn’t eat cereal that changes the color of the milk). Rule #43 is, in fact, to have a glass of wine with dinner. The fine scientists at the Mayo Clinic do a great job of summing up the research on this topic and attempting to separate fact from myth. Their advice in the end is to drink red wine in moderation or not at all.

“Red wine’s potential heart-health benefits look promising. Those who drink moderate amounts of alcohol, including red wine, seem to have a lower risk of heart disease. However, more research is needed before we know whether red wine is better for your heart than are other forms of alcohol, such as beer or spirits.”

So here’s what I want to know. Where do I sign up to be a participant in THAT study?


Filed under Food, Research

February is Short for a Reason

A few years ago, I was at my brother’s house for the weekly Sunday Dinner he and his wife share with a group of close friends.  Don’t get confused by the “Sunday” part of this activity – it’s a cocktail party that moves from house to house every week with a full bar and fabulous food (we grew up as Episcopalians, after all).  Anyway, I was talking with one of his friends who wasn’t having a cocktail.  Because that’s unusual among the Sunday Dinner crowd, I asked about it.  And he said, “It’s February.”

He went on to explain that every year he stops drinking for one month, and February is it.

Why February?

“It’s the shortest one.”

Of course.

When pressed for details he explained that the month off was helpful for getting on a healthy track after the indulgent holidays.  Also that he figured if he couldn’t stop drinking for one month a year, he shouldn’t be drinking at all.   Smart idea all around, I thought.  But I’ve never done it.

Why not?

Well, I learned about this in my post-divorce phase of ‘wow, I can have a life and make new friends’ which came after the ‘holy crap I don’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone or go anywhere’ phase.  I was still nervous about being single for the first time in eighteen years and I wasn’t about to give up my courage-juice.    But it’s been years since my divorce.  I’m happily single, enjoying my life, and feel totally comfortable going out with or without a drink to start my evening.

So there it is.  Welcome to the No-Drink-February!

Those who know I am a Steelers fan may be skeptical about my ability to abstain while watching my favorite team in the SUPER BOWL.  But I’m determined.  Plus, I figure this can’t hurt with the whole ‘finish your thesis’ part of my life right? (that’s for you Joe).

Can I do it?  What do you think?


Filed under Family, Food, Football, Resolutions