Show me the way to the next whiskey bar (or not)

 

Well, here we are, one week into Lent.  For the past several years my Lenten fast has been alcohol related. I have alternatively abstained from beer and from alcohol altogether.  As I considered my options I started taking stock of my life.  What habits were starting to trouble me?  What might God be calling me to change?

The answer didn’t take long.  Whiskey (usually bourbon or rye) had become a nightly ritual.  Just a few years ago it was a very occasional indulgence.  Beer was my undisputed drink of choice.  But since our trip down the Bourbon Trail in 2015 that after-dinner whiskey cemented its place in my nightly routine.

Unfortunately, along with that habit came a gradual increase in my consumption of alcohol. Especially when the whiskey isn’t getting measured out by the bartender it became all too easy to pour a double. Add high-proof varieties into the mix (one of my favorites, Old Weller Antique clocks in at 107 proof on up into barrel-strength whiskeys which tip the scales in the 130’s), and suddenly that “one” glass has the alcohol equivalent of one and half all the way up to three regular 80 proof drinks.

Just to keep things simple, I extended the fast to include all hard liquor, otherwise I’d be tempted to start substituting G&T’s or Armagnac which would defeat the whole purpose.

One week into Lent, I pleased to report that I’m doing OK. It’s been interesting to notice that when I am heading into the living room after cleaning up from dinner, my eyes are drawn inexorably upwards towards the liquor cabinet. While I miss it, the absence of whiskey isn’t causing me any existential crisis. And, as I hoped, it has cut down on my alcohol consumption. While I might choose to have a nice quad or Imperial Stout after dinner, I am certainly not temped to go back for seconds.

Of course I still have five more weeks to go and a lot can happen in that time. But I’m not losing any sleep over it. What will be really interesting is how I re-integrate whiskey back into my life once Christ is Risen. But for now, that’s a question for another day and another post.

What about you?  Do you fast for Lent?  If so, what do you give up?  Have you ever fasted from alcohol?  How did it go for you?

It’s the Final Countdown!

Cue music.  Doo do do dooo, doo do do do doo…  

As I write this it’s less than 11 hours till I get to Europefinally break my Lenten fast. (Point of information:  Lent is officially over at the conclusion of the Great Vigil of Easter later tonight!)  It’s been a journey, that’s for sure.  There has been temptation and craving cropping up all along the way.  But as I approach the end of this forty days of exploration and discovery, I wanted to share with you the most unusual experience of this soon to be concluded fast.

Several weeks ago I was faced with a dilemma.  Our parish beer club had a meeting scheduled and none of the other members who might otherwise lead it in my stead was available.  The question before me was simple: cancel the meeting or try to lead a beer tasting without actually being able to drink any beer….

Since the whole point of this experiment was to push myself, I chose the latter.  And so I set out to lead a discussion on beers that might be considered “Misfit Toys.”  IOW when you think of Sierra or Stone you tend to think of very hop-forward beers.  Heck, SN even hops the heck out of their Bigfoot Barleywine.  But they also make some lagered beers that tend to fly under our collective radar.  And so that’s the kind of thing we drank… session beers from Southern Tier and Weyerbacher, American influenced Pale Ales from Belgium and the like.  Sometimes our conclusion was simply that the brewery ought to stick with what they got famous for and quit trying to branch out… Guinness Blond Lager??? Simply awful.  On the other hand we found a hidden gem… Weyerbacher’s Last Chance IPA was the winner of the night being not only an excellent beer, but a surprisingly sessionable one too from a brewery that is best known for beers ranging in the 9% plus ABV range.

But what was it like to pour and pass out round after round without actually being able to indulge?  Not as hard as you might think.  I even smelled each round to try to be able to participate in the discussion.  In some ways being in public made it easier….  I didn’t want to slip up n front of my friends and parishioners.   I don’t know if I could have restrained myself as easily had I been pouring and sniffing them alone at home.

The whole experience helped reinforce my confidence that I could be around beer and not be so tempted as to become uncomfortable.  But it was just one of many memorable and occasionally forgettable moments of this Lenten journey.  I look forward to sharing more about it with you next week.  But for now…. I mostly just look forward to ending it because “It’s the final countdown!”

I’ll have a G&T, hold the G

top_invisibleOne of my favorite things about Friday afternoon is sitting in my chair and watching a little TV while our dinner cooks in the oven.  More often than not, a Gin and Tonic helps complete the picture.  I’ve liked them since college and when I’m out and can’t find good beer, a nice G&T is my default drink.

This past Friday however I knew that this custom was not an option.  That’s because last week saw the start of Lent and once again I have chosen to give up alcohol. And so as it drew past five o’clock I found myself wishing I could head to the cupboard where we keep the booze.  Since I couldn’t I decided to try the next best thing.  I filled a glass with ice and cut a nice thick slice of lime which I squeezed in.  I cracked open a fresh bottle of Seagram’s  tonic and slowly filled the glass.

It tasted, well, like tonic and lime.  But there was something else beyond just the tartness on my tongue or the effervescence that tickled my upper lip as I drank it.  Even though there wasn’t a drop of alcohol in it I could still feel myself relax.  Satisfied, I took my drink into the living room and kicked back in front of the TV.  And suddenly all was right with the world.

This phenomenon got me to wondering about the complex nature of our habits and B.F._Skinner_at_Harvard_circa_1950dependencies.  I’ve studied enough psychology to know something of operant conditioning.  In fact, BF Skinner is a fellow alum of Hamilton College. Therefore I understand that we can become almost as addicted to the stimuli associated with the high as to the high itself.  For example people who are trying to quit smoking can find it comforting to hold an unlit cigarette.  But it was something else altogether to experience it for myself.

All this got me to thinking about our habits and how much power they can have over our lives.  What happened in my case was not so much about the alcohol as it was that I was accustomed to having a specific kind of drink on a specific day at a specific time.  Such insight can be valuable if you are also following some kind of Lenten fast or otherwise trying to change your life.

It’s hard enough to make real changes in our lives.  It gets even harder if we are trying to not only forego a vice but also habits that are so often associated with them.  Learning to recognize if there are any particular circumstances associated with the problem is the best place to start.

Sometimes it is as simple as changing those circumstances.  If you are trying to stop eating candy but you are in the habit of grabbing some every time you walk by the cabinet where it is always kept, the first thing you should do is move the candy to somewhere less accessible.  Or you can do what I did and find something to substitute for the problem substance but that will allow you continue to observe the ritual associated with it.

That’s all for now… I think I hear that bottle of Tonic calling my name.  Five days down, thirty five to go.

No Bourbon, No Scotch, No Beeeeeer- The Redux

Lent is almost upon us. Now Lent is a 40 day long season during which many Christians no beergive up pleasurable things like junk food or sweets. I usually observe Lent in this way too often by giving up something like deep fried food.  Two years ago, I pushed myself and gave up alcohol.

After reflecting on all the questions raised about clergy and addiction raised by the Heather Cook/Tom Palermo tragedy, I have again decided to take a break from booze.  Starting Wednesday its no booze till Easter.  Thankfully, I will get a break on Sundays which are not counted as part of Lent.  Even so, I know it won’t always be easy.

As you probably have guessed by now, I love beer.  It’s a regular part of my life.  By giving it up I want to make sure the role it plays is not unhealthy or out of balance.  This is important because although I do not believe I have a problem with alcohol I do realize that I am more likely to want a drink in times of stress.   By going without it, I hope to gain insight into this drive and at the same time, develop other and healthier methods of coping that don’t require a bottle opener.

Now those of you who know their Bible  might be wondering if I am acting like those religious leaders that Jesus condemned in Matthew 6:1 when he said,  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  It’s a legitimate question.  Believe me when I say that I am not sharing this so you will think I am holy.  Just ask my wife, I’m anything but.

Instead, I am sharing this with you so that Christians, and in particular, Episcopalians, will keep talking about the role alcohol plays in our lives and in our church.  This is especially important for the clergy.  Our vocation is not easy.  And all too often we wind up choosing unhealthy ways of coping with the stress.  Yet because we feel pressure to live up to the impossible standards that are set for us (or that set for ourselves), we usually try to hide our inevitable failures.  The result is that far too many deacons, priests and bishops don’t actually know the freedom in Jesus that we proclaim to others but instead live as prisoners of our addictions and denial.  This is incredibly destructive not only for our own lives and families but for our parishes and for the Church as a whole.

And so now as we continue to sift through the very public and heartbreakingly tragic consequences of one such failure, I want to share the next forty days of questions and challenge with you.  It may not make much difference to anyone but me.  But maybe, just maybe, if we commit to sharing honestly with one another about the place alcohol plays in our lives we might be able to prevent the next tragedy from happening.

More  than ever I welcome your questions, experiences and support.

So was it worth it?

So my fast ended more than a week ago, giving me plenty of time to reflect.  And, as I have been able to ease back into my norm of being able to have a beer with dinner or on a sunny weekend afternoon, I have also been able to observe the very real contrast in my life with beer and without it.

Let’s start with the easy stuff.  I lost about 5 pounds.  While this is a nice benefit, in fact it is not as much weight as I thought I might drop.  Why?  Well, this leads into some of the psychological observations.  Because unfortunately for me, I sublimated my cravings for beer into cravings for food, smoking my pipe and, on the plus side, into exercise.  Obviously the fact that I found myself constantly snacking is what got in the way of my more ambitious weight loss goals.  I also started smoking my pipe much more often.  Before my fast I would smoke perhaps only once a week.  During Lent this increased four or five fold.

On the  healthy side, I also added to my exercise routine, adding daily sets of pushups and sit ups.  In the case of food and smoking I was trying to fill a void that I would often try to fill with a drink.  In the case of the exercise, at least I found a positive way of finding a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

I discovered something else when it came to power of association.  Often on Friday nights I would have a gin and tonic.  During Lent I found that a simple tonic and lime would often bring the same sense of relaxation and enjoyment.  Indeed, I found that many things in my life that I thought might have been affected by alcohol were in fact, not.  For example, I tend to fall asleep in my living room chair between 9:30 and 9:45.  I had assumed that having a beer or two was the culprit behind my dozing off.  But as I found out during my fast, apparently, I am just getting old since I still would doze off when dead sober.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the fact that by the last week I actually was not missing it at all.  Whereas in the first couple of weeks every time I walked by my beer fridge or liquor cabinet I would find my eyes and mind drawn into thinking about a drink, by the end, I barely missed it or thought about it at all.  I was even in the habit of getting a glass of wine for my wife without having the slightest desire to have some myself.

Now that life is back to normal, I find that my fast is still having a beneficial effect.  I no longer have the same impulse to go and get a beer as my first action at the end of the work day.  Moreover, I find that I am satisfied with few beers and am better able to listen to my body when it comes time to stop.

So was it fun?  Hardly.  There were times, especially on weekends or at times of stress when I really struggled.  But was it worth it?   Most definitely.  If you are ever wondering if you are drinking too much or are coming to rely on alcohol to meet other emotional or spiritual needs, then I highly recommend an extended period of fasting.  It may well help you get some clarity when it comes to your favorite beverage.

Deliverance!

Easter Beer_007I made it.  40 days of Lent without booze.  I know that this “achievement” hardly equates to summiting Everest, but I am proud anyway.  I have a lot of thoughts, insights and reflections to share with you, but these will come in next week’s post.   What I wanted to share with you now was how I broke my fast.

After the Great Vigil of Easter, after which it is officially Easter, I walked into my house about 9:30 on Saturday evening.  Once I carefully hung my work clothes back up, the first order of business was breaking my beer fast.  I actually had been thinking about this for a while now…. with well over a hundred different beers in my cellar to choose from, the task was challenging.  How would I like to celebrate?  Since I had to be up and on my game at 6 the next morning I knew I had to limit my choice to just a few.

I ended up starting with an Orval from 2011, a Trappist ale from Belgium.  Dry, hoppy and just plain wonderful, this was a great way to start.  I forced myself to take my time and savor it, which, even though Orval is hardly a beer for chugging, still wasn’t all that easy.

For the next choice I opted for something much closer to home, a fresh Nugget Nectar from Troegs.  One of the all time greats this “Imperial Amber” is a bit bigger than most IPA’s and the hops just sing.

My final beer of the evening was chosen as much for its name as for its style.  Deliverance from Lost Abbey is super dark and malty and carries lots of flavor notes from both bourbon and brandy barrels.Easter Beer_001

When paired with my Easter Eve tradition of watching the Ten Commandments (Oh Moses, Moses!) the evening was relaxing, satisfying and joyful.

I thank you for your thoughtful comments, well wishes and prayers.

Whoah oh. We’re halfway there!

halfway-218 fast days left and counting.  That’s more than halfway through my forty day long fast.  I suppose that actually counting the days could be construed as a sign of desperation.  It’s true that at times (like last Wednesday night when my computer completely crashed requiring a full system restore) I have really had to struggle not to go and pour a double bourbon.  Or this past Saturday, at a wonderful Irish Dinner and Concert at church, I really wanted to celebrate a great night by cracking one open and drinking with the parishioners who worked so hard to make it possible.

Of course these are not the only occasions when I have faced temptation.  I have even once or twice really found myself thinking “Well what’s the big deal? You could break the fast and have a beer or two and no one would have to be the wiser.”  I have even thought that if I stumbled it would make for something more colorful to write about.  But I knew as soon as I thought it that this was a pretty desperate and pathetic justification to reach for.  And so I have held on.  I have walked away from the beer fridge or the liquor cabinet and I have made it through.

I realize that there is still a while to go.  But I am gaining confidence and it is getting easier.  More often than not I get through the night without even thinking about grabbing a beer.  It’s been interesting, that’s for sure.  I’ve had to find alternative beverages besides water- seltzer or tonic with lime seems to be my new drink of choice.  Beyond that, I am still processing my experience to see what more meaningful insights this forty days in the desert of temperance may yield.

But for me the good news is that the end is definitely in sight.  In less than three weeks it will all be over and I will be able to have a drink whenever I like once again.  No doubt that reentry period will pose challenges of its own, but I’ll deal with that in April.  Until then, I find hope in knowing that I am more than halfway there.