Koala park near Brisbane, Aus

Koala park near Brisbane, Aus
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Sunday, April 10, 2016



The guy with the light-brown hair. It's his fault. From a distance, I catch a half-second glimpse of Sean. Fancy meeting my late husband in New Zealand at his ten-year-old's school swimming day.

Not-Sean clambers up the steep bleacher seats at the Mount Maunganui College pool, just feet from where I sit. I steal a glance, and of course, he looks nothing like Sean. Only the color of his hair and maybe the outline of his nose is faintly reminiscent. It's enough to send my fingers digging into my purse like a dog scratching for lost treasure - only I'm looking for a tissue to dab my watery eyes and blow my nose. Sunglasses help.

So it happened, on this sixth year after Sean's death that I'm crying at the pool. It's a little more than a month after the anniversary of his death. For the first time, I forgot about January 23rd, oblivious to its significance as I enjoyed the waning days of the grandparents' visit with us and the end of the kids' school holidays. What could we have been doing that was so important, to make me forget? I check my calendar: I ran in the morning, had lunch with Dad and Kathe at Tay Street, played on my paddle board and hosted Jo and Rob for dinner. 

In other words, nothing catastrophic happened. Has that day become nothing special?

I watch Finley get trounced in his first heat, swimming three lengths of freestyle against classmates he says are nationally-ranked in their age group. The next races happen against regular boys, and Finley wins his heats racing one length of freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke. Each time, he emerges from the pool and climbs onto the bleachers to see me, and after a while, when Pete arrives, to see his stepdad, too. I give Finn thumbs up. "Well done, Sweetie. Proud of you." 

Within the past month, my give-it-a-go guy has lost a consolation round at a tennis tournament to a kid who hyperventilated, then took a 20-minute time out before returning to the court to beat Finn (players are only allowed three minutes for time out before the other player wins by default); he wasn't chosen for a squad to play soccer in Australia; and he narrowly missed getting into his school's fun day sports competition. He needed this victory day.

His dad didn't get to see Finley's wiry, brown body dive too deeply at the start but still comfortably win his breaststroke leg; he didn't see Finn touch the wall or trot over to recount his achievements and ask for snacks. Sean didn't see it. But I did - and that makes me happy. And sad.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Nearly Dry

Nearly Dry
January was wet, wet, wet...

It’s the first of March. This means I can let myself drink alcohol again. I spent the month of February dry. That’s not entirely true – I did, after all, give myself a hall pass Waitangi weekend (Feb 6-8), indulging in a glass of sparkling wine after a 24-kilometer (15 mile) relay run and two glasses of white wine on our wedding anniversary the following night. My big, boozy weekend. 

Over summer, a pattern had crept in – I’d have a drink almost every day. Granted, that drink was often light (2.5% alcohol) beer or a small glass of wine. But I was consistent, and Iooked forward to that drink. While I like to think I'm a Midwestern-born moderate, if I had to categorize my relationship to alcohol on Facebook, I’d say, “It’s complicated.” It’s fun to feel the effects of a couple drinks. It sucks to see the effects of chronic use in people I love– lost dollars, increased weight, accidents, illnesses, break-ups, hours of lost sleep and squandered opportunities at the altar of the Almighty Drop. 

For five years, the New Zealand Drug Foundation ran a campaign called FebFast, where Kiwis took part in a month-long non-drink-a-thon to raise money for organisations working on alcohol and other drug issues. The Foundation has quit doing the campaign (citing ‘limited resources’), but some of us still use the shortest month as an excuse to abstain. https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/febfast

Kiwi culture is bathed in booze. It might slowly be changing, thanks in part to a new law reducing legal blood alcohol limits for driving (from 400 mcg per liter of breath to 250 mcg for those 20 years old and over) more than a year ago. The government late last month reported Kiwis consumed less alcohol last year, but the same number of drinks. We’re still drinking, but knocking back less beer, wine and hard stuff. Gin and whisky are so 2005. 


 We have more choices now – two-thirds more low-strength (2.5%) beer was available in 2014 than in 2013. You’ll find more flavored waters in stores than you can shake a toilet brush at, and ordering a mocktail at a bar is no big deal.

This is fine if we choose to test our mettle, asking: can I celebrate without alcohol? (I failed twice at this task in February, but also succeeded twice). Be angry or down without alcohol? (a definite yes for me, though I cringed when a neighbour reported taking his frustrations out on the fridge, meaning he’d had a bad day at work and felt the need to down something cold and fermented). I’ve done this small abstinence exercise before, and each time I’m reminded of the momentary discomfort of declining a drink. Living with healthy discomfort - like risking rejection, running faster, even disciplining our kids - makes us stronger. Booze can be the pacifier we turn to for solace, for company, for commiseration and celebration. All too often, our ‘mate’ leaves us lonely, fat and broke. Some friend.

The problem with dry months is people most likely to do them are least likely to need them. If you rely on a daily beer, wine, whisky, gin – it’s improbable you’ll stop, even for a single week. “I’m not an alcoholic because I don’t attend meetings; therefore, I don’t have anything to give up” is how I picture the thought bubble above the head of someone who depends on that daily drink. Screw you and your sanctimonious seven dry days. 

Why bother? Limited evidence shows taking part in a dry month challenge could lead to long-term changes in drinking patterns. A study looking at 857 UK adults taking part in Dry January found two-thirds of participants successfully gave up drinking for one month. Successful abstainers and those who did not succeed had increased powers of abstinence and reduced consumption patterns up to six months later. There’s hope for slackers like me.  http://www.nhs.uk/news/2016/01January/Pages/Dry-January-can-lead-to-healthier-drinking-patterns-long-term.aspx

Working on a feature article about craft brewing this week, I got to taste three different kinds of beer on March first, breaking my (almost) fast. The beer had heaps of hops and much malt, so a little went a long way. I can drink to that. Or, choose not to.

Have you ever had a dry month? How was it?