Rambling Thoughts from a Wandering Mind


I quit drinking for a year

Somewhere near the end of 2019, I decided that I would participate in Dry January. I didn’t anticipate that I would end up abstaining from alcohol for a full year. 2020 was my dry year. Despite all the jokes about needing a multitude of stiff drinks to get through this past year, 2020 was probably a good year to experiment with going dry. It’d have been far too easy to drink far too excessively given the year we’ve all had and that is not a road I want to go down, especially with a new baby in the house.

Technically, I can’t say I didn’t have any alcohol. I had a sip or two of a friend’s homemade wine (but literally just a sip or two, from my wife’s glass – no having a glass of my own and calling it a “sip”). But other than that I went a full year without a drink.

This led me to explore the world of alcohol-free beer, wine and spirits. The wine is god awful and the spirits are lacking (more on this in a bit), but there is a lot of fantastic alcohol-free beer on the market these days. It’s not just O’Douls anymore! Going forward, I will continue to drink primarily non-alcoholic beer. It’s so good and I don’t miss the alcohol at all. I will have the occasional full-strength beer, but that will likely be rare.

What I do miss is a good whisky or other spirit. It turns out, when you remove 40 per cent or more of the thing that makes a spirit a spirit, you fundamentally change it’s character. Most non-alcoholic spirits are like the homeopathic version of the thing they’re meant to replace. Beer doesn’t suffer from removing the alcohol because it’s a relatively low portion of the overall beverage. Spirits, alas, aren’t even remotely the same without the alcohol. So I will continue to have the occasional glass of whisky but, again, this will be rarer than in the past – likely just for special occasions.

On the whole, I don’t miss alcohol and generally prefer not drinking it. I’ve really rethought my relationship with alcohol, which I don’t think was ever unhealthy, but was still worthy of rethinking. So even though I’ll be drinking again in 2021, it’ll be much less than ever before. Beer will be mostly non-alcoholic, but spirits are something that can’t be properly had without alcohol (in my opinion). Maybe, one day, when my liquor cabinet goes dry, I won’t bother to restock it. But, for now, this is the “happy medium” I’ve decided upon.

Update – Jan. 01, 2021: I neglected to mention in the original version of this post that I will continue to take regular breaks from alcohol, such as Sober October and future years of Dry January (just not this January).

One year later…

A magpie fledgling on my front stoop.

Today is my eldest son’s birthday. I need to specify, because I have another child on the way, who is assumed to be a boy. My son Henry was stillborn one year ago. I miss him deeply. I feel his absence every day.

Putting the feelings around his birth and our loss into words is difficult. It’s a nearly impossible task. I can say it’s sad. I can say it was, and continues to be, deeply traumatic. But none of those words do it justice. Writing about it is very hard. Normally, writing comes much easier than speech for me. When talking about Henry, neither comes easily.

I feel a deep, physical aching in my arms when I write about it. The emotions are embodied. They cannot be properly put into words.

So why write about it? And why share it publicly?

Writing is therapeutic for me, among other things. Despite what I’ve just written, I can usually express myself and my feelings far better in writing than in speech. But with Henry, there is something more to it than that. Writing about him, writing his name and his story, is the only way he gets to go out into the world. And so, every so often, I must write about him and name him and share it with the world. He needs to be known. In this small way, he gets to have life.

What does all of this have to do with a picture of a magpie fledgling? About a year ago, sometime after learning Henry would not be born alive – possibly even after he had been born – I was opening the front door to let in my mother and daughter. They were still getting out of the van and when I opened the door a fledgling was on the front steps.

One of our cats started out the door, hungry for magpie. I scooped up the cat and threw it back in the house. When I turned back, the magpie was gone. It had jumped off the stairs and either hopped or flew to safety. Saving the bird’s life after losing my own child seemed very important to me and it has stuck with me.

Yesterday, which was a year to the day that we went to the hospital to induce labour (it was also Father’s Day, last year), my wife and daughter were sitting on the front step. I was standing in the doorway. We saw a magpie fledgling in the front garden. After a moment, the bird hopped up our walkway and up each stair until it was on the deck with us.

It walked around for a bit, before jumping off and going about its day (all the while, its parents were screaming down from the trees).

At the time, it just seemed like a neat experience with nature. Later that afternoon, I remembered the bird from last year and the two experiences came together and felt significant.

I know a magpie is just a magpie, but there is something a bit mysterious and mythological about them. They’re a powerful symbol and it felt a little like Henry had stopped by to say hello.

Happy birthday, Henry. I miss you.

Spain to bring in permanent UBI

Spain is set to become the first European nation to bring in a universal basic income in response to COVID-19, with a statement that the plan is for it to be a permanent thing that remains in place after the pandemic has ended.

According to the Independent:

Minister for economic affairs Nadia Calvino told Spanish broadcaster La Sexta on Sunday night that the move was intended to help families during the pandemic.

But Ms Calvino, who is also deputy prime minister, said the government’s ambition was that UBI could become something that “stays forever, that becomes a structural instrument, a permanent instrument.”

Coronavirus: Spain to become first country in Europe to roll out universal basic income

This is an exciting development and it will be very interesting to see if other countries follow suit and whether or not the Spanish government lives up to their stated commitment to making UBI a permanent institution even after the pandemic.

We must change our society after COVID-19

Writing in the Guardian, Owen Jones says:

It is not macabre opportunism to debate what society looks like after the gravest crisis since the war: it is a necessity secondary only to overcoming the pandemic itself. This is a social and economic crisis, so who will pay is a question that must inevitably be asked and answered.

The column is focused on the United Kingdom, but the broad strokes apply to the rest of the world. We must change our society in the wake of this pandemic, which has highlighted and exacerbated the social and economic issues facing much of the world after decades of dismantling the post-WWII welfare state.

Whether the change will be for the better depends on who is willing to stand up and fight for what they believe in.

Working from home during a pandemic

It’s day one of my employer’s work-from-home protocol. Everyone who can do their work from home, outside of certain “essential staff” is to do so.

My spouse started working from home on Monday and our daughter has been home since then, as well, as all the schools and daycares in the province are closed for the foreseeable future (schools will be operating remotely starting sometime after spring break, so the official word is that classes are cancelled for now; the daycares are simply closed, though).

Trying to work from home in an uncertain time, and also keep our child busy with an ad hoc “home school” is certainly an interesting challenge. My wife has been doing it for two days already. Our dining room walls are quickly becoming covered in D’s paintings. We’ll soon run out of space for new art!

Tricks or tips for working remotely while also caring for a child would be much appreciated!

Count me among the “sober curious”

This year, I decided to participate in Dry January. For those unfamiliar, this means abstaining from alcohol for the month of January.

People do this for a lot of reasons: to get “back on track” in terms of health and wellness after the holiday season’s excesses, to re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol, or even just for the sake of a personal challenge.

When I decided to do it, I figured it would be good for my health after the heavier-than-normal drinking that came with the Christmas holidays. But I was also starting to think about my relationship with alcohol in light of the death of my son.

I don’t think I had a drinking problem in any traditional sense, but I was drinking more than usual. I think it was becoming a coping mechanism and that didn’t feel good, so I decided to go dry for a month.

There might have been a few moments near the beginning of the month when it was hard, because pouring a drink after a long day had become sort of a ritual. But it was ultimately pretty easy (which is definitely a privilege that people who struggle with alcohol addiction don’t have; “sober curious” and “sober out of necessity” are very different things).

I haven’t really missed alcohol. In fact, I feel great without it. I sleep better. I’ve lost weight. My mental health has greatly improved. And I think my family dynamic has benefited quite a bit, as well.

What I do miss, is the flavour. There are some great alcohol-free drinks available that aren’t sugar-laden soda and juice. There are non-alcoholic spirits, and both craft and big brand brewers have started to embrace non-alcoholic beer, so “near beer” is no longer the foul-tasting stuff of old. But the availability of these drinks in Canada is still somewhat limited.

We have Seedlip, but not the aperitifs of their sister brand Æcorn (though I’m told they’re coming). Many of the best non-alcoholic beers are only available in Europe or the United Kingdom and, to a lesser degree, the United States. Hopefully, that will soon change. But right now, getting the particular flavours that come with alcoholic beverages in an alcohol-free format can be tough — there’s no replacement for whiskey, for example, although I’m sure someone is working on it.

In light of the unexpected benefits I’ve received from not drinking for a month (the improved mental health being the most notable), I’ve been thinking about becoming a teetotaler — though not a joyless one, I hope. But, for now, I won’t go so far as to say that I’m giving up alcohol. I’m not giving away all the bottles in my liquor cabinet or dumping the contents of my beer fridge down the sink. But I’ll be drinking booze far less often. And when I do partake, it will probably be in smaller amounts and I’ll be much more conscious about when and why I’m making the decision to drink alcohol.

I will be drinking non-alcoholic beer more often than the standard variety. And I’ll reach for Seedlip or Sobrii before I reach for hard liquor. Alcohol will probably continue to be a part of my life. But the role it plays will be much smaller.

I’m not “sober,” but I am “sober adjacent.” I hope you’ll raise a glass to that, regardless of what you decide to fill it with.

Sobrii 0-Gin (non-alcoholic gin) Review

A 750 mL bottle of Sobrii 0-Gin

I’ve been becoming more and more “sober curious” over the course of Dry January, so I’ve started following a lot of alcohol-free accounts on Instagram. At first, this was mostly limited to beer accounts (it turns out, there is a lot of really great non-alcoholic beer being produced; unfortunately, most of it is in Europe or the USA, but I’ve had some good luck with some Canadian craft options – notably Partake Brewing (Calgary, by way of Toronto) and One for the Road Brewing (Calgary) – and a few European imports).

After a while, I started wondering about non-alcoholic spirits. Right now, the main player in this market is Seedlip out of the UK. They’re the market leader simply because they were among the first and the market is very much in its infancy right now. I enjoy all of Seedlip’s offerings, but they’re all very unique and don’t seek to replicate existing alcoholic beverages.

This is probably a wise move on their part, because it means customers don’t have a point of comparison and can’t say, “This tastes like watered down gin/whiskey/rum.”

Some brands, however, have attempted to replicate existing alcoholic spirits. I’ve read about two products: Ginish and Rumish. I think you can guess what each is trying to do. Currently, neither is available in Alberta.

What is available is Sobrii, a non-alcoholic gin from DistillX Beverages in Toronto. Late last week, it became available nationwide through Well.ca. Impulsively, I almost immediately ordered a bottle. It arrived this afternoon and I opened it shortly after getting home from work.

I believe Sobrii is primarily intended to be used in cocktails and highballs, but I wanted to see what it tastes like neat. The answer is: disappointing. It tastes reasonably similar to gin, with a lot of botanicals and a little pepperiness that hit you right away. Unfortunately, the lack of alcohol means it doesn’t quite land. Removing the booze really alters the flavour profile when you’re drinking it straight up.

I’m happy to report that it’s much better in a gin and tonic. It’s still not quite the same as gin with alcohol, but I think replacing that warming sensation of alcohol is hard to do (Ginish, mentioned earlier, apparently does it by adding capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili peppers their heat).

Overall, Sobrii makes a passable gin and tonic. I’m currently mixing it with a pretty cheap, store-brand diet tonic water. I’ll try it again later with something a bit nicer, like Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water, and see if that makes a difference. I imagine quality tonic makes a bigger difference when alcohol is taken out of the equation. I’ll update this post after I’ve tried Sobrii with a better quality tonic water.

I bought a 750 mL bottle, rather than the smaller size that was also available, so it’ll likely last me several months. By that time, who knows what other options might be available. The market for alcohol-free spirits is new but seems to be growing rapidly. Only time will tell if Sobrii becomes a stable in my liquor cabinet.

Update (Jan. 31, 2020): I still haven’t tried mixing Sobrii with a higher quality tonic, but I made a highball with this last night, that was quite good. The recipe follows:

  • 2 oz. (60 mL) Sobrii 0-Gin
  • 4 oz. (120 mL) ginger beer (I used Zevia Ginger Beer Mixer)
  • Squeeze of lime juice (fresh and garnished with a lime wedge would be best, but I used ReaLime since it’s what I had on hand)

Note: An earlier version of this post identified Partake Brewing as being based in Toronto. In fact, the brewery is located in Calgary but the company originated in Toronto and has offices in both cities.

I lost a child…

My son’s urn and box of keepsakes. The teddy bear was donated by another family who lost a child. We will do the same at some point.

Today was the day my son was supposed to be born. Instead, he was stillborn on June 17 – the day after Father’s Day. We found out a little over four days earlier that he’d died. We have ideas about exactly when his heart stopped, but don’t know precisely. Whatever the exact moment he died, his mother1 – my wife – was admitted to the labour and delivery ward at the Lois Hole Hospital for Women on Father’s Day, June 16, 2019. Our son, Henry John Kelly-Snider was born, still, in the very early hours of June 17.

Today is the day he was supposed to be born, alive, and the fact that it’s Thanksgiving is something we only realized a few weeks ago. What a thing that would have been to be thankful for – a beautiful, health baby boy. Instead, I’m writing this the day before you’ll read it, with tears in my eyes.

I have never shared this so publicly before. Most of the people in my life know, although there is an outer circle of colleagues and acquaintances who may never know that “how many kids do you have?” is a very complicated question.

We thought about going away this weekend, to try and distract ourselves from the sorrow we’re going to be feeling. We ended up staying home on Sunday, but allowed our family to think we were out of town (uh, sorry about that, everyone). It seemed easier to just keep things low-key at home, rather than making a big thing out of Thanksgiving this year. Subsequent years will probably be hard, too, but Thanksgiving won’t always fall on the 14th, so maybe we’ll be able to separate the date from the holiday. I’m hoping I can do that for Father’s Day next year, if only for my daughter’s sake.

Right now, though, things are tough. We had a little mini version of Thanksgiving dinner with just the three of us – chicken (with compound herb butter made from stuff my wife and daughter grew in the garden this summer), duck fat baby potatoes and roasted vegetables. It was good, and we had pumpkin pie (because I love it but only eat it around Thanksgiving to make sure it remains a special food), but it didn’t really feel like Thanksgiving. There was no turkey or stuffing and no extended family. But maybe that’s OK just this once. It’s hard to know for sure anymore.

This is one of the last “firsts” since Henry’s death. There’s still Christmas, but most of the big milestones have come and gone, so maybe tomorrow will be a better day. Maybe each day will be a little easier than the last. More likely, it’ll be like it’s been since the day we learned he died. Some days are better than others. Sometimes it feels like a million years ago and that everything is OK again, and then the next day it feels like there’s no way things could possibly get worse. Grief is a funny beast and it doesn’t follow a linear path.

That’s part of why I’m writing this and putting it out into the world. It helps with the grief. Putting the emotions into words is healthy and I’m far better at communicating through writing than speech. Some people talk things through; I work through things by writing them down and, often, by sharing them even if I’m not necessarily seeking feedback.

I’m also writing this down to help other grieving fathers. Stillbirth and pregnancy loss is already something that’s not talked about enough (though that seems to be changing; we’ve heard many stories from people in our lives since this happened to us – but they’d probably never have shared them if we hadn’t gone through something similar). When it is talked about, fathers are sometimes overlooked. But this experience touches us, too. The father loses a child too and, with that, a part of himself. I don’t have any words of wisdom, because I’m still in the midst of it, but I want other fathers who’ve lost a child to know they’re not alone.

Finally, these words are to honour the memory of my son. Mere words can hardly do him justice, especially not ones written in the depths of grief, but they’re all I have left to give him. Together with his mother, I gave him a name. And I can give him words and a place in my heart. I don’t get to give him anything else. So I’ll give him what I can and hope it’s enough.

1. The fact that my wife is mostly absent from this story is not an oversight. It’s not my place to tell her story, so I won’t be doing so. This will focus on my own thoughts and experiences, which are understandably quite different from those of the person who carried our son in her body for five months.

Utopia for Realists: a review

I recently finished reading Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists. It was quite good and a surprisingly compelling read, given that it’s full of charts and graphs.

Rather than attempting to write my own review, I’ll just send you to a review Neil Howard wrote for openDemocracy. It points out the highlights and covers many of my own criticisms of the book, and does so much succinctly than I’m able to.

Read the review. If it sounds interesting, read the book.

There’s no magic bullet diet

Even the much touted keto doesn’t work for everyone. As Neil Swidey writes in the Boston Globe:

In the low-carb group, some participants lost 40 to 60 pounds while others gained 10 to 20. And in the low-fat group? Just about the same wide variation. Neither diet was better, and researchers had no success in predicting who would do better on one versus the other.

All of this suggests that your co-worker who won’t stop yapping about how keto will change your life might be completely right. Or he could be entirely wrong.

This much we know: No diet will work for everyone.

Diet advice changes by the minute. How are we supposed to figure out what to eat? – Neil Swidey, Boston Globe Magazine

The few things that do seem to work for everyone are to reduce or eliminate added sugar, reduce processed and refined carbs, and eat healthy fats. Everything else seems to be a toss up and depends on personal metabolic traits.

Trial and error will probably be necessary, but by avoiding processed foods (itself a vague term — do bread or pasta count, if we’re being careful to make sure they’re made from whole grains?) you’ll probably be off to a decent start.