Dispatch #11: Abstaining
What I'm giving up this month.
It’s January and I want to whisk you away from your daily worries.
(I was going to use the verb “zoom” in that last paragraph, but the word has been stolen from us by Big Tech and the Pandemic (that’s my new band name), so here I am, whisking instead of zooming.)
Patrick and I always start the new year with Sober January. This is more than just Dry January, as we also abstain from smoking (or eating…) marijuana. We’ve been doing this for about a decade, maybe longer, as a way to reform after the hedonism of the holidays and to begin the year with a fresh mind. I have a friend online who recently remarked (on Facebook) that some people might be “white knuckling” through this period of not-drinking. She herself is in recovery, and she often posts about her experience. The idea of “white knuckling” this month of sobriety interested me because I find not-drinking to be nearly effortless, which is why I do it: to check in with myself and confirm that it’s still easy to abstain. It’s the ease that brings me solace; if it were hard that would mean I had to quit for good, right? After Sober January ends, I typically cut down on alcohol considerably until about the summer, when wine on a weekday evening sounds as irresistible as a tomato galette or a slice of cherry pie.
Right now, on the 19th of January, I’m definitely in the I love drinking sparkling water and mint tea in the evenings. And, wow, my eye-bags are much less pouchy! Maybe I’ll never drink again! frame of mind. But this smug “health-conscious” Edan never lasts because sobriety just doesn’t bring me much clarity beyond that…and imbibing doesn’t make anything worse.
You know what I am addicted to? Going out for coffee. By the end of last year I was going out for a fancy espresso-based drink every single day. Let me repeat that: Every. Single. Day. I used to go out for coffee so I could work at a cafe: I’d take my laptop to a nearby bar and order a cappuccino in a porcelain cup and write for two hours. The coffee was a delight and a bribe to get me working.
Once the pandemic hit, I lost that ritual. Eventually, places began to semi-reopen for to-go orders and my daily coffee run became my escape from the house and my family. It brought me such joy and relief—if only for twenty minutes. However, what began as a moment of solo bliss in those stressful, family-all-the-time days ossified into something less intentional, more rote. Even when my kids were in school and I had time alone, I was still shuttling to the coffee bar for my daily to-go cup.
It’s not the caffeine that bothered me, but the expense and the mindless ritual of it, which sucks all the magic and purpose out of said ritual. It’s at least $5 a trip, sometimes even $6 (because I like good coffee and also because I tip), and I was even getting a coffee when my body didn’t want one. That is stupid! So when 2021 slid into 2022 I decided another thing I wanted to try to cut down on were cappuccinos and flat whites (they’re Australian and that’s the extent of my knowledge). So far, I’ve gone out for a coffee once a week. Okay, okay: one week I went twice but that was only because my kids needed a place to eat dumplings; I purchased an iced cappuccino at Go Get ‘Em Tiger so that we could sit at one of their outdoor tables. Their iced cappuccino—with a drop of simple syrup—is usually a sharp little heaven, but I’m pretty sure it was mistakenly made with oat milk so I had three sips before the violation was total and I threw the rest away.
I must admit, this fewer-cappuccino thing is the true white knuckler. Every single day I have to negotiate my way out of getting one. It’s hard. And, alas, I am seeing the benefits, which means I’ll have to keep at it. I’m saving money, as well as gasoline (also, money), and time (which, as we know, is money too), and I feel less dehydrated by 4 pm. I’m sleeping better, too. I never lose weight during Sober January—that’s never my goal—but my pants are baggier right now. Was it the whole milk all along?!
I do miss my coffee bar pals, though, and the excuse to listen to a podcast in ten-minute increments as I drive over to one of my regular places. Oh Little Ripper, do you miss me? Because I miss you.
Yesterday I decided to get what they call “a cap on wheels” (that’s a cappuccino to go) at the aforementioned Go Get ‘Em Tiger. It was a chilly, overcast morning, and I was groggy. It was only Tuesday, though, which means the drink is now in my past and not my future. Oh, but it was worth it! Now that I’m limiting my intake, I’m drinking, in the parlance of the day, more mindfully. Savoring that creamy whole cow’s milk velvet and letting the bitter-ish yet caramel-ish bite of the coffee follow. Feeling the caffeine hit my blood as I drive home.
Woo boy, do I want another cappuccino.
Let’s see, what else?
Patrick and I have been cooking a lot—well, he’s doing most of the cooking and we’re both eating it. (The kids are another matter. They say things like, “This is…just okay,” and eat a single bite, or, “You’re terrible parents! You’re torturing us with [insert gourmet meal here]!” and eat nothing at all. Fuck ‘em.)
At the market the other day, I was laughing because Patrick had written “3 watermelon radishes” on the grocery list. This is a world of supply chain and labor issues, a world of Omicron, a world where store shelves are apocalyptically empty…and he’s requesting three—three!—watermelon radishes? Sorry, baby.
We’ve been trying to eat less meat and we usually plan for two meatless dinners a week. For the last couple of weeks, however, we’ve been eating vegetarian (or nearly vegetarian, where meat is a light garnish) for three or four meals out of the week. It sort of happened by accident.
First, we have continued our love affair with farro. We’ve made the “farrotto” from Jenny Rosenstrach’s cookbook, The Weekday Vegetarians. Basically, it’s cooking farro like risotto (here’s a NYT version) and changing it up based on what’s in season. Farro is so nutty and flavorful; the kids think it’s disgusting and groan when they hear it’s on the menu, but we don’t care. So far, we’ve made the farrotto two ways: once with butternut squash and sage, and once with Brussels sprouts and peas. Yum.
For Christmas I gave Patrick the cookbook That Sounds So Good by Carla Lalli Music. I went to college with Carla’s sister Nina, so I always call her Nina Lalli’s sister, as in “Do you want to make something from Nina Lalli’s sister’s cookbook?” I cannot and will not veer from this habit. One of Nina Lalli’s sister’s vegetarian recipes that we’ve made is Pantry Eggs in Purgatory, which is similar to shakshuka. (Here’s an earlier version of her recipe.) It was super easy, plus warm and comforting.
As for dishes with meat, on Monday night I cooked Nina Lalli’s sister’s spaghetti with clams, which she makes with Swiss chard, garlic, white wine, and pancetta. It was, dare I say, sexy: salty and rich and slurpy. Two thumbs up.
Two days ago I ate the following for lunch and it made me happy: A slice of Bub and Grandma’s seeded sourdough toast, slathered in olive oil; a couple of slices of fresh mozzarella; some cherry tomatoes; a handful of little gems with salad dressing I’d made the day before (shallots, dijon, olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper); some salami I’d scrounged from the cheese and meat drawer; and a leftover carrot slaw (also from The Weekday Vegetarians), made from shredded carrots, thinly sliced red onions, and a dressing that includes yogurt, olive oil, harissa, honey, garlic, and salt and pepper. It’s supposed to have dill as well but I don’t love dill so I omitted it. It’s a nicely spicy slaw. This was such a satisfying lunch. Lunch is usually so lame. I love when lunch is perfect, especially in a world that feels this diminished.
You know what else is bringing me joy? Reading The Lonesome Dove. I’m on page 130 and already I am smitten with the humor, the milieu, the sentences, and the names: Dishwater Boggett, Jake Spoon, a horse named Hell Bitch. The deaths of so many Indians is on every page: a brutal fact of America. I’m noticing how much story Larry McMurtry’s set up: the shit town that is Lonesome Dove, the contrasts between main characters Call and Gus, the younger men who are in love with the town whore Lorena, the dream of going to Montana and the opposition to it, and so on. On page 111 alone there are so many gems. Two of the younger cowboys are laughing and grinning at one another, and Gus says, “Look at ‘em. You’t think they just discovered teeth.” Ha! And later down the page, the youngest of them, sweet, wide-eyed, sincere Newt is on his first night time ride into Mexico to steal some horses, and it reads: “…he hadn’t expected it to be quite so dark and empty. Pea Eye and Mr. Gus were always talking about how thick the bandits were, and yet the seven of them rode for two hours into country that seemed to contain nothing except itself.” Nothing except itself. A simple beauty, that phrase.
This winter, as last winter, I’m teaching a fiction writing class at Caltech. This is a ten-week elective course that fulfills a humanities requirement. It’s a nicely self-selected bunch of students who are not only science and math geniuses, but also human beings who like to read and write. This year, I taught the first class on Zoom, the second class in person (all of us masked, etc.). The third class returned to Zoom because a student had been exposed to COVID. Caltech has a twice-weekly testing system (you spit in a little vial and drop off the sample in these bins they have on campus!) and they provide everyone with medical grade masks. Also, everyone must be vaccinated—and even boosted, when eligible. If someone tests positive or is exposed, the teacher is notified ASAP and the class must be held virtually. I am impressed by Caltech’s response to the virus, which feels appropriately science-based and beautifully efficient. And still there are these disruptions. They aren’t that big of a deal, but they’re also not ideal.
Last night, trying to give my lecture on scene-and-summary, I felt off my game. The lecture, which is supported by a Google slideshow, was expressly designed to be done via Zoom, because my entire class last year was taught virtually. However, after doing one class in person, and feeling energized by sitting in a room together and not having to worry about screen sharing and internet connectivity issues, the online meeting felt unsatisfying, too wonky. I found myself blabbering on, inarticulate. I wondered if people were engaged. I wish I could refer to the lecture slides and see my students properly. I signed off feeling like a bad teacher. Last week in class, I was doing my dorky dances in front of the projector screen, making people laugh with random asides, calling on students who were sharing such keen insights about characterization, and I felt like we were all learning. The thing is, last year, on Zoom, I was confident the course was going well. It’s the back-and-forth that’s the drawback.
Also, my students have never heard of Gene Hackman or Nicole Kidman!
Last, I want to tell you that all week I look forward to watching the Sex and the City reboot “And Just Like That.” Everyone online complains that it’s terrible and pathetically woke, but after the first few clunky scenes I thought it found its groove. I don’t think it’s amazing television, but every episode is pleasurable. We get zippy scenes and SJP’s wardrobe and crises between friends. I’m even interested in the new characters. Okay, so Kristin Davis’s face has gone full Planet of the Apes with all those fillers, and the writers room has totally fucked over Steve by making him clueless and bumbling when he was in fact a hot little short dude who said things like “my ma.” And I wonder why we aren’t getting much sex. Is it only because Samantha is absent? Sure, Carrie is a widow now, and we’re seeing plenty of Miranda with gender-queer Che, but where is my Harry-and-Charlotte romp? Give me some over-fifty married sex and make it hot as hell! I also find Che just too annoying and I wonder why they’d be into a married and (until now) straight woman. What is their motivation? I feel we are missing something in Che’s character. And yet, I cannot wait for the next episode. Now that Pen15 is over and before the final season of Better Things begins, this is the TV I love.
Oof, this is getting far too long considering it’s all frivolities. Anyway, I hope my newsletter perked you up. (And if it pissed you off—I…apologize? I actually annoyed myself writing this newsletter so?!) Write me back and tell me what pleasures you have found lately, and what abstentions are turning you horribly sanctimonious. Paid subscribers, I’ll write you next week about…hmmm…we shall find out.