An email to David Gauke

Just wrote to David Gauke, my local MP, following yesterday’s march. This tool makes it easy to do it. Here’s my message to him:

Dear David Gauke MP,

I am writing to you as your constituent to ask you to support a People’s Vote on the outcome of Brexit negotiations.

I am worried that the kind of deal being proposed — or exiting the EU with no deal at all — will damage not only living standards but our national interest too. Will you consider letting the public have a say over it?

My entire family, including my 11- and 9-year-old sons, spent our day in London on Saturday to ask for a People’s Vote. I have only been on one political march before, in 2003, to try to prevent the Iraq War. I feel as passionately about this issue as I did then.

I do not understand the argument that another vote is undemocratic. If we elect an MP, or a government, that turns out not to do their job well, there is another vote at the next election. What happened to the Liberal Democrats in 2015 is a good illustration of this. Brexit is a decision of such magnitude which is unlikely to be overturned before serious, irreparable damage is done.

Your position on a People’s Vote will be the most important factor when I decide who to support at the next General Election.

Please will you do the right thing for our country and put the historic decision as to whether to proceed with any Brexit deal in the hands of your constituents and the people of this great country?

I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Doran

Alcohol and the perception of risk

Having given up alcohol a year and a half ago I was feeling pretty pleased with my choice when I read this story in The Guardian:

Even the occasional drink is harmful to health, according to the largest and most detailed research carried out on the effects of alcohol, which suggests governments should think of advising people to abstain completely.

Moderate drinking has been condoned for years on the assumption that there are some health benefits. A glass of red wine a day has long been said to be good for the heart. But although the researchers did find low levels of drinking offered some protection from heart disease, and possibly from diabetes and stroke, the benefits were far outweighed by alcohol’s harmful effects, they said.

Dr Robyn Burton, of King’s College London, said in a commentary in the Lancet that the conclusions of the study were clear and unambiguous. “Alcohol is a colossal global health issue and small reductions in health-related harms at low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increased risk of other health-related harms, including cancer,” she wrote.

But then you get to the concluding paragraphs which got me thinking about the perception of risk. I gave up drinking for lots of reasons, one of them being to improve my chances of long-term good health. However, unless you are an alcoholic, if you get sick you’ll probably not know how much the drinking contributed to it, if at all. I like David Spiegelhalter’s note to keep things in proportion.

But David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, said the data showed only a very low level of harm in moderate drinkers and suggested UK guidelines were very low risk.

“Given the pleasure presumably associated with moderate drinking, claiming there is no ‘safe’ level does not seem an argument for abstention,” he said. “There is no safe level of driving, but government do not recommend that people avoid driving. Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.”

Rules to live by

Serendipitously, I recently came across two blog posts in quick succession which are both filled with some excellent words of wisdom. I love reading these just as much as I do posts about peoplesworkflows, as they are insights into how others approach doing what they do and being who they want to be.

JP Rangaswami posted a lovely note about John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. His post links to another blog which documents Barlow’s Principles of Adult Behaviour. It’s worth reading this in full, but basically he noted the principles he wanted to abide by as an adult who was turning 30 in 1977. Some of them stand out for me right now:

1. Be patient. No matter what.

10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.

12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Do not endanger it frivolously. And never endanger the life of another.

15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.

17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.

23. Live memorably.

There’s a lot in here. It got me thinking about where I am and how well I am doing aged 41. I recognise a lot of myself in these principles but also see many places where I can do better. It’s a great list to remind me of where to aim. Principles 1 and 17 speak to me as a parent of two young boys who are rapidly heading towards their teenage years, and 15 reminds me that ‘being happy’ isn’t as worthy a life goal as having a full broad range of experiences and having empathy for others.

I’ve been listening to Russ Roberts on his excellent EconTalk podcast for many years. He recently posted his Twelve Rules For Life. This is also well worth your time. I’m an atheist, but I understand where he is coming from with his rule three to “Make Shabbat”:

I have over 500 books that I have queued up to read. I know that I’m unlikely to get through all of them (particularly as for some reason they seem to keep publishing new ones) and Roberts makes a very important point in rule five, “Read Read Read”:

Having left a job recently for what on paper looks like a step down — going from running a programme and project portfolio for a whole company to leading a programme once again — I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment:

Probably the most important rule is the last one: “Be kind — everyone is in a battle”. The coffee shop at my client’s office used to have something similar posted up at the counter. It’s a good reminder that everyone is going through their own thing and it’s always better to give them some latitude; think about what they may have going on in their life that you can’t even begin to imagine:

These principles and rules aren’t always attainable all of the time, but perhaps the point is to aim high and keep trying.

A year of being sober

I turn 41 today. This also marks the end of the first year since I was a teenager where I haven’t had any alcoholic drinks.

Alcohol has always been a big part of family life. The British are well-known for drinking and this has been no different in my family. My lovely mum spent her formative years growing up in a pub and was living there when she met my dad. I remember many a Sunday visit to see my grandparents on my dad’s side where we spent time down the Royal British Legion, clutching my crisps and lemonade whilst being mesmerised by my dad’s pint of lager, watching the bubbles form from their little invisible factories, expand, reach critical mass and rise to the top. My parents both have lots of siblings and everyone has always loved a big family party, so my childhood memories are filled with tables of buffet food and well-stocked drinks tables for everyone to help themselves to. One of my uncles even had a brick-built corner bar in his lounge, Del-Boy style, and I fondly remember one event where I was given the job of manning this bar, serving drinks to everyone all night long. I thought it was brilliant.

When I was a young teenager, I read somewhere that alcohol destroys brain cells so I decided at that point that I was going to abstain. This decision resulted in regular ribbing and ridicule from my aunts every time we got together. Of course, my sobriety didn’t hold out forever. I probably started drinking regularly when I was 17 or so along with a lot of my friends. It felt grown up, it was what everyone was doing and it was fun. Hilarity, hurling and hangovers ensued, with the first outweighing the other two for the most part.

From the start, I was never consistently great at holding my drink. My personality was such that I tended to get louder, more overbearing and sweary the more I drank, sometimes to a point where all the energy I exuded would collapse back in on itself and I would fall asleep.

Over the next couple of years I started drinking with my friends on a regular basis. I love strong tastes and quickly moved from lager to real ale as well as red wine. On my first day at university I instigated an early visit to the Students’ Union, playing pool and taking advantage of the low prices in the Union bar all afternoon.

At first I couldn’t recognise when drinking became a problem. At uni I felt that everyone around me were managing to get all of their work done whilst still going out and partying most evenings and therefore I should be able to as well. I couldn’t recognise that it wasn’t doing me any good. I wasn’t eating well, was in a destructive relationship and was getting paranoid. Drinking was now a big part of my life, but if viewed from the outside the choices I was making wouldn’t have looked any different to that of any other university student and I don’t think anyone was worried about me. Things came to a head in my relationship and I ended up seeking help for depression. Nobody said anything about drinking but in a moment of clarity I realised that even though alcohol wasn’t the root cause, it was another obstacle to getting myself sorted out, so I decided to a break from it completely. Six months of no drinking felt like a long time, but I also knew I was looking after myself and it was a big help to be clear-headed as I slowly found my feet again.

After that, drinking slowly crept back into my life. It wasn’t a problem per se. For the most part I had learned to pace things a little better and was strong-willed enough to say “no” when on a night out someone decided to get in a round of shots even though they might persistently cajole me to join in. For the next 15 years I followed a pattern of drinking a little, then increasing amounts over the next few days/weeks/months until eventually I would be drinking every night or have a big night out where something would happen such as saying the wrong thing to someone, having an argument, vomiting or waking up the next day and forgetting all of the details of an important conversation with a friend etc. I would then ‘put the brakes on’ and the cycle would start all over again.

In December 2014 we were invited to a friends’ house for a Christmas meal along with a number of other families that we hadn’t previously met. Dinner was excellent and the wine was flowing; I spent a lot of time laughing with one of the guests while we worked our way through a bottle of vintage port. At some point later in the evening I remember filling some of the silences (which might not have even been there in the first place) with making jokes at someone else’s expense — someone who wasn’t at the dinner and whom I barely knew. Around 3am I started to get droopy-eyed and was encouraged by the hosts to have a coffee and a walk around their vast garden so that I could come back in and carry on drinking. I got to bed at 4am … and the kids woke up at 6am. As I stood in the kitchen my pounding heart would not stop racing and felt as though it was going to pop out of my chest. Somehow my wife and I had to hold it together and get through to the kids’ bedtime that evening. Later that day I took my five-year-old out to the fields behind our house with a camera on the pretence that he could photograph some wildlife when in actual fact I was trying to get some fresh air and feel a little less horrendous. I kept recalling and wincing at things I had said the day before and was filled with regret; this wasn’t the person that I wanted to be.

At work the following day I could still feel the effects, mainly in finding it very difficult to string together sentences in my speech — not great when you are running an important programme and chairing a workshop with twenty people in the room. I decided there and then that I had to stop drinking for a bit. Again. I told myself that this wasn’t forever, it was just for a while. We were a week or two away from Christmas but I felt that this was as good a time as any; giving up early in December meant that I could avoid all of the stress around deciding which of the zillions of parties and social functions I would drink at whilst trying to still be great at my job, being a good dad, a good school governor etc. Deciding to not drink suddenly untangled the weeks ahead and made everything much more simple. At first, saying no to alcohol at dinners and events felt a bit awkward but I soon found a familiar pattern of getting through the first hour of curiosity and questioning before people started to get tipsy all around me and they became more interested in something else.

2015 — new year, new start. In the first week of January I signed up for both the London Revolution and Ride 999 long-distance cycling events. Training for these gave me the perfect excuse to continue my sobriety. In truth, whenever I went out on my bike I kept recalling the St John Ambulance First Aid at Work course I’d attended the previous month where the trainer had said that heart attacks are statistically much more likely the day after a drinking session. Given that I needed to get fit and had lots of training rides to get up early for I didn’t think that drinking would be a good idea. I felt very happy and content about the lifestyle choice I had made — right up until a few days into Ride 999 in June, where all the riders finished off each day with a lovely cold lager and my alcohol-free alternatives didn’t seem to cut it. I joined the team for the odd beer and by the time July and August rolled around I was back into my old routines.

Throughout 2015 and 2016 I had been feeling more and more as though alcohol was something I would give up eventually. I was just a whole lot happier when I had decided not to drink. I started looking for positive reinforcement and found articles, books and other resources that helped clarify my thinking. (Yes, I know this is confirmation bias!) Friends and relatives had also had time off in the past ranging from a month (the famous ‘dry January’) to six, and every single time they have said to me that they were happier and healthier when they did it. If everyone who has tried it knows it, why do we keep going back? I think that the social norms around alcohol are so strong that even though people realise they are more content when not drinking it is very easy to get pulled back into having one or two. And then, why stop there?

I knew that I wasn’t an alcoholic as I had easily given up or abstained many times in the past. It was more a question of mental commitment to what I wanted to do for the long term. Could I really give it up completely, forever? What about all of the great ‘special’ bottles of champagne, port etc. we had accumulated in the house? Would I miss out on them?

I kept thinking about my children and the interest they were taking in what the adults did, asking me questions about different types of alcohol. I thought back to my school days before I started drinking regularly — wasn’t I happy enough then without it? If so, why is it different when you’re an adult?

Some of my close friends and family had said that the best thing to do would be to live a lifestyle where I ‘just have one or two’. I had tried this many times before and it hadn’t worked out; I had always fallen back into the habit of ramping it up over time. This passage in The Sober Revolution really helped me in knowing that I wasn’t the only one who found moderation difficult:

“for a multitude of reasons people often toy with the notion that they can terminate their problematic drinking behaviour by simply imposing a few rules here and there and without actually committing to full time sobriety. In my experience, these efforts to control or moderate alcohol consumption do not work for people who have persistently displayed an inability to drink within reasonable limits.”

As we headed towards New Year’s Eve 2016, and my 40th birthday, I felt ever more strongly that the best present I could give myself would be to give up drinking completely. My friends hosted a brilliant party, but getting drunk on New Year’s Eve felt a little bit like going through the motions for the final time. It served as a useful reminder of one of the reasons I didn’t want to do it anymore; my seven-year-old boy wasn’t feeling too well and instead of looking after him I had left my wife to it while I selfishly indulged and danced the night away. I knew that even though I barely ever drank to excess anymore it was still taking more away from me than I was getting out of it, and it was time to stop.

“If one embarks on alcohol-free living with the deep-seated belief that they’ve given up something of worth then they are heading for a resounding fall from the wagon. To conquer alcohol-dependency, it is crucial never to consider one’s self to be ‘on the wagon’ in the first place; this expression is loaded with connotations of temporariness, a short-term quiescence from normal life. In order to walk away from booze for good, it is essential that upon reaching this incredibly positive and empowering decision, you recognise that it is a step which will lead you to great things, the beginning of an exciting adventure and a whole new way of life.”

Positive and empowering. This is exactly how it felt on New Year’s Day when I knew in my head that I was done with it completely. This year I have felt a lot like when I decided to stop eating meat nearly 20 years ago. One day I just decided that it wasn’t something that I did anymore. Once I had accepted it, really accepted it, everything else has been unbelievably easy. I am no longer clinging onto the ‘special’ bottles of champagne and other fancy drinks in our house and am happy to give them away to people who will enjoy them. They are of no use and have no value to me.

This year has been brilliant. Through the various nights out, including a weekend away in a big country house with all my close school friends to celebrate us all turning 40, I have realised that any ‘need’ to have a drink is a complete illusion. I have been able to have a laugh as well as being able to read a bit when I get into bed (and remember what I read!), have a good night’s sleep and be hangover-free the next day. Drinking adds nothing to who I am. My two young boys are aware that I don’t drink anymore and talking to them about alcohol and drugs no longer feels hypocritical. I’m more productive, less grumpy and a better dad and husband. There is no hardship or martyrdom, I’m just happier, and won’t be going back this time.

Strange habits

Grim question time – ladies, you should read no further.

Can anyone explain to me the reason why blokes feel the urge to spit into a urinal while they’re using it? This seems to be happening more and more and I can’t think of a reason why. I don’t personally have the habit but it crossed my mind today at work as somebody was having a good spit next to me. I’m genuinely curious – why do these two things go together? What makes a person start to do it? Very strange.

Is there a word for using a metaphor about the thing itself?

Well, is there?

On a business trip this week I caught an episode of The Office on TV and it reminded me of something Ricky Gervais said in his Animals stand-up show. He was reading from Genesis in the Bible and was commenting on how amazing some of the things that happened in the first few days of the Earth were – such as “and he said let there be light, and there was” etc – and suddenly came out with “It’s called the gospel, so it must be true” at which point everybody cracked up. Is there a word for using something that became a metaphor about its original thing?

Another good example is the spoof front cover of The Onion newspaper from 16 April 1912 about the sinking of the Titanic – ‘World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg‘. I love these – I think doing something like this is ingenious as it’s so obvious. Can anyone think of any more examples?

Happy New Year

So, that’s 2005 over with. How was it for you? New Year always gives me mixed emotions – I love New Year’s Eve, especially as it’s my birthday, and the first day in January always gives you a chance to reflect and look forward to doing things a little differently in the year ahead, but it seems to always come around a little faster than the last one did.

I finished what felt like a relatively difficult year, with moving house and a very intense project at work, continuing what seems to have been a bit of a theme for me – drinking too much. I’m not quite sure how it happened – a few close friends of ours got together and we went for a curry at the brilliant Curry Garden in Berkhamsted and I felt as though I was doing pretty good; I wasn’t too drunk and hadn’t over-eaten, which is an easy thing to do there! After the curry we headed back to Mat‘s place and continued the fun with the new Pictionary game (which is fab – I’m expecting Mat to post some photos up soon) and a few more beers. My downfall came when we cracked open the various bottles of champagne and sparkling wine while watching the amazing London fireworks at midnight. All of a sudden I felt as though I was going to be ill and I spent the next 2 hours in the bathroom feeling horrible. Spoiled what was up until that point a fabulous evening with some awesome people. So I know what my first New Year’s resolution is – drink far less than I have been doing.

I’m looking forward to spending more time with my lovely wife. I’m looking forward to our first full year in Berkhamsted – learning to garden, finishing off the inside of our house, having lots of people over for dinner and eating outside in the summer. I’m looking forward to updating this blog more frequently, trying to learn to play the guitar (I’ll have to try and pick it up first) and getting much more proficient with DIY. So much to look forward to. Happy New Year to you all!

8 January 2005 update: Mat’s now put up some photos from New Year’s Eve.

A couple of blog changes

I’ve made a couple of changes to the sidebar. The allconsuming.net details have disappeared as the guy who runs it lost all of his site after a hacker attacked – the method of managing what you are currently reading seemed to disappear when the redesigned site came back online. In it’s place is a Flickr badge which should show some of the photos I’ve uploaded. I’ve just started using Flickr and don’t know what to make of it yet – I’ve been wanting to add a photo section to this website for some time and this may be the best way to do it.

I’ve also added a couple of buttons that link to the three syndication feeds. If you’re looking to read my full postings in whatever feed reader you use, choose the Atom feed (if it’s compatible) – I haven’t worked out how to get anything but excerpts in the others yet.

Hopefully I’ll get time soon to make the category pages etc look a little prettier than they do!

Update

Hello again! We’re halfway through May and this is my first blog posting. Pretty poor form, I’m sure you’ll agree. Lots has happened since my last post…I’ve been on two stag weekends and attended one wedding as well as trying to settle into our new house; when this is coupled with being unbelievably busy at work trying to keep our project on track it’s been hard enough to spend quality time with my wife let alone my blog! Anyway, moan over…on the plus side I’ve been noting down a few items of interest which warrant a post as well as spending a little time looking into setting up a photo blog, so watch this space…

Cakes and biscuits

Wikipedia has done it again! It came to the rescue last night when it solved a classic dinner-party question – what is the difference between a cake and a biscuit? The answer is that it’s all about moisture content.

“The difference between a cake and a biscuit is that a cake has a higher level of moisture than the average moisture content of air, whereas a biscuit has a lower level of moisture than air. Hence, a cake will go hard when left in air and a biscuit will go soft.”

What a nugget!

Left-handed nuggets

In the usual strange way, a random conversation cropped up at work this week about being left-handed. I recalled that I had recently read something about left-handed people having a shorter average life expectancy than those who are right-handed. This is the sort of story that usually appears on the BBC News site, so I typed in my search for "left handed" to try and find the story. I had no luck, but I was fascinated to see a large number of wonderful nuggets of knowledge instead! Did you know that left-handedness was common in the Ice Age? Or that most walruses are right-flippered? Or even that couples turn their heads to the right as they kiss? All good little gems to be recalled at the pub as necessary.