Forty Dry Days and Forty Sober Nights

An extended break from alcohol isn’t necessarily easy when you write about it.

I’m a workaholic, in that I drink a lot of workahol. A weekly restaurant review and regular bar columns mean a fair amount of professional boozing, but after a particularly party-filled Thanksgiving-to-Christmas phase, I decided I needed a little breather.

I couldn’t manage a pure, 31-day Sober January, and not only because I was guzzling Champagne with the rest of you at 12:00:10 a.m. on Jan. 1. I also went to Fresh Start, a New Year’s Day rave at the Midway. Even with that out of my system, I needed a couple extra nights for meals for the various stories I would have to write. But on Sunday, Jan. 6, I had a single cocktail for dinner at the magnificent Bardo Lounge and Supper Club in Oakland, and then it was on: 40 days without alcohol, coffee, or anything stronger or less legal. Plus I was hoping to reduce my sugar and meat consumption to the bare minimum. Tacking on an extra week of abstinence for starting almost a full week into what otherwise would have been a 31-day Sober January felt right, in a Biblically penitent, wandering-in-the-wilderness way. Moderation is just not in my temperament. All I can do is excess or abstinence. So 40 days it was.

Overall, it wasn’t hugely difficult, and it opened up time for elements of human culture that don’t pertain to fermentation. Noir City, which remains my favorite film festival, was particularly excellent this year, and I managed to see 21 of the 24 films, including 1953’s Pickup on South Street, which combines petty thievery with a Communist plot and Thelma Ritter’s best death scene. Running to the Castro Theatre every night for a week — and twice on weekends — provided good structure, even if there were cocktails from Duboce Triangle tiki bar Last Rites on the mezzanine during intermission.

As much as I love my idiot friends, taking a five-weekend break from partying in order to read my ever-accumulating piles of print media and watch Ozark and Big Mouth was nice. Moreover, I went to two meetings of my longstanding book club — the members of which have in the past asked me not to write about it, so I’ll keep this point brief — thinking it would be a vast change from our usual wine-soaked confabs. We’ve had meetings where I walk out remembering relatively little of the discussion, which I attributed to my own intoxicated state, but having had the same thing happen twice when I’m sober, I realize it’s actually because we’re all arguing and talking over one another.

Still, when I showed up sober at the Hard French Winter Ball to see CeCe Peniston, the sheer quantity of gorgeous people was more intimidating than it would have been had I been throwing back Manhattans and listening to the new Chaka Khan single as I got ready. (I still listened to the new Chaka Khan, though.) Apparently, many people who attempt a Drynuary report that their friends tend to tear them down a little or plead with them to take a cheat day. That didn’t really happen to me. I didn’t put everyone on notice ahead of time or get frustrated with texts asking me to go to the Beer Bust; I either tagged along and teetotaled or declined the invitation outright. It was almost strangely simple.

I did allow myself a single glass of Champagne, at the home of the French consul in San Francisco. Chef Dominique Crenn received the Ordre national du Mérite for becoming the first woman in America to have a restaurant win three Michelin stars, and that is simply not an invitation one declines because of some dumb thing about not drinking. As Consul-General Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens spoke about why a country that beheaded its king in the 18th century grants knightships in the 21st century, I caved and joined in a celebratory toast. Perhaps as punishment, I bit into a tarte that I thought contained ganache only to get liquid chocolate all over my shirt — and right in front of former Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer and his husband, too. You know better than to mix Champagne with chocolate, I scolded myself, as a helpful server offered Pellegrino and a rag.

The disavowal of coffee wasn’t hard, either. I managed to stick to green tea (even though the tannins stain my teeth worse than coffee does) almost until the very end, when, while visiting friends in Chico on a rainy weekend in early February, I allowed myself a cup and then another and then another, only to wind up in a Twitter spat with a drag queen. Coffee sends me moving in six directions at once, so I might actually curb that habit on weekdays — barring exceptional circumstances such as “I’m an adult and I want some.”

Although I roasted lots of vegetables, ate dozens of apples, and drank liter after liter of water, the no-meat component lasted barely two weeks, which I do feel guilty about in light of the undeniable destruction of the planet. Sugar-avoidance fared even worse, because the cravings in the absence of alcohol were incredibly intense. One night at the Castro, I got a large popcorn before The Scarlet Hour and ran to Hot Cookie for some pure junk before A Kiss Before Dying. Although I saved money in the end, I bought a number of 72-percent cacao chocolate bars. Consequently, I lost barely 10 pounds, so the shirts whose buttons have begun spontaneously unbuttoning themselves still do that.

If nothing else, this bout of discipline gave me a sharper appreciation for the core functions of alcohol, which are making irritating people’s company bearable and allowing you an hour or two at night without freaking out about the things you forgot to do at work. Ultimately, I’ve come to realize that I physically belong on a planet with a 30-hour day, because my body wants to be awake for 20 hours and then sleep for 10, so conforming to the terrestrial day-and-night cycle is always going to be hard without the option of a nightcap. A field trip to Moe Greens, the new dispensary-and-smoking-lounge on Market Street, yielded some hybrid, low-potency gummies that give me exactly what I want from cannabis. They’re pear-prosecco-flavored, though, which is tragically basic — and evidence that some vices are inescapable.

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