Book Review: Eat and Run by Scott Jurek (with Steve Friedman)

What can I say about this book? I’ve been waiting months to read Eat and Run, ever since I saw it profiled at Runner’s World. After ripping through the 272 page book (well, e-book in my case) in just over 24 hours, I have to say my only complaint is that I wish there was more!

Jurek is one of America’s ultrarunning greats. He has won the Western States 100 numerous times, was the first American winner of the Spartathalon, and the list goes on. What makes him even more noteworthy, though, is that he is also a dedicated vegan. Born and raised in Minnesota by a rough, at times unaffectionate father and a mother whose MS would eventually confine her to a nursing home, Scott discovered running as a way to train for ski races and to bond with his best friend, Dusty, a renegade who kind of steals the show in this book. His move toward veganism is a gradual progression, motivated in part by concerns for his health and performance, in part by ethical concerns, and in part from the influence of the many friends he makes along his life’s journey. The book is structured as a collection of race reports, which in and of themselves are awe-inspiring. I’m sure that, as a distance runner, these stories appealed to me more than they might to some others… but anyone who loves adventure will be rapt by his tales of running over mountains, through snowfields, encountering locals, dealing with injuries, and even a hilarious/freaky encounter with a rattlesnake. The narrative of his life, though, is also woven into his story. While Jurek clearly has an innate talent that helps him, his diet and training are also the result of hard work and running through pain.

In addition to the story, which is readable and moves quickly, each chapter also concludes with a running tip and recipes. The recipes are what pushed me over from liking this book to loving it. I’ve made two already and they are great! Unlike the Weekday Vegetarian recipes that I commented on earlier in the week, these recipes are approachable. Many are easy in preparation (which makes sense, since he makes so many of them on the road), and even if you haven’t heard of every ingredient, the overall impact is to make a healthier version of foods you already eat: dips, chili, burgers, etc. I made a batch of Jurek’s tofu “cheese” spread and the lentil burgers (a recipe available for free on the Runner’s World page above). The cheese spread is only kind of cheese-ish, but it has a nice tangy flavor and is good with chips or veggies. The burgers are delicious, which is a good thing since I now have a month’s supply!

Wanting more was honestly my only complaint with this book. I actually gasped when I “turned” a page on my e-book and saw I was already at the epilogue. The story, and maybe Jurek’s real-life story, ends on a hopeful but very unfinished note. I would have liked to hear more about his coaching, what he’s doing now, where he sees himself going. He also seems hesitant to delve too much into his present-day relationships with ex-wife Leah, friend Dusty, and Jenny. I understand his reticence about doing so… It probably makes life easier for him, but artistically it makes the book seems less full. His affection for Dusty, his mother, and even his father is clear though, and it’s genuine and moving.

Pick this one up if you’re a runner. Cook as many of the recipes as you can. Then turn on the Olympics tomorrow for the start of the running events and totally geek out, as I plan to do!

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Mini Book Review: Weekday Vegetarian by Graham Hill (With Alex Estes)

Weekday Vegetarian is one of the first series of TED Books, based on the very popular series of TED talks (inspiring lectures from notables in technology, entertainment, and design). These books are meant to be based on the lectures that inspired them, short reads, and inexpensive–this one was $2.99 as an e-book from Amazon.

Hill’s idea, to convince people to give up meat only during the week, is simple. Much of the short e-book is aimed at presenting the good points of giving up meat: health benefits, ethics, resource management, etc. Unlike some other books on the topic, however, Hill is compromising. He recognizes that for some (like him), giving up meat completely is not an option. The book reads like a persuasive essay: persuade the meat-eaters that they can comfortably give up animals five days per week, and (to a lesser extent) convince the hard-core vegetarian that you can be a weekday vegetarian without being a fraud.

Obviously, I’m completely sympathetic with the book’s aims. However, this one was a bit of a let down for me. If you’ve done any research at all on vegetarian diets, a lot of what Hill has to say about the health risks of meat and the industrialized meat industry will not be news. On other subjects, I was disappointed by the lack of information presented. The “Doesn’t My Body Need Meat?” chapter deserved much more than 2.5 pages. There’s no mention of how vegetarians should handle hard-to-get vitamins like D and B12. Also, Hill concludes the chapter with a discussion of athleticism and diet, but he devotes more space to telling us what an Ironman Triathlon is than he does explaining the mechanics of how these athletes do what they do. Finally, I was also disappointed by the book’s recipes (which had been a main selling point to me). The recipe portion made it obvious that this is not really a book for the everyman. I have a feeling the average U.S. meat eater would look at a selection of recipes like “Asparagus and Morels,” “Inari Sushi Bento,” and “Dandelion Quiche” and immediately place an order for the meat lover’s pizza at Domino’s. Given that the book is so premised on “anyone can do this,” it seemed odd that the recipes weren’t more tailored to ingredients and dishes that would be familiar to carnivores or available on a budget. (I am 100% sure that “dandelion greens” are not available at my corner Albertsons.)

If you don’t know much about being a vegetarian or you really want to convince a meat-lover in your life to make changes, this book might be for you. It’s a really quick read, though: About half of the book’s 51 pages are recipes and resources and the whole thing almost has a rushed feel. I had high expectations for this one because it was advertised as a TED book, but the quality just seemed lacking. There are a few more in the TED series I’d like to read… but if they’re all as light on content as Weekday Vegetarian I might just save my three dollars.

Being a Running Nerd

It’s been a somewhat boring couple of days here in Chavalina-land, and I haven’t really been in the mood to do work all week. On Tuesday, I had a surprisingly good run managing a 9:50 pace doing 3.5 miles on a somewhat hilly route. I even banged out a 9:25 on a net-uphill first mile. That’s the good news. The bad news: My Garmin Forerunner 210 was flashing “low battery” most of the way. When I downloaded my run info and went to stick it on the charger, it made a bizarre beep and flicked off, never again to turn on. Say what??? Since the device is a whopping four and a half months old, it is still well within the warranty period. The nice guys at Garmin customer service have promised me a new (read: refurbished) Garmin in 10-14 days, but in the meantime that means some untimed miles and $7.00 out of my pocket in shipping costs. Amazing how attached to this thing I’ve become in a relatively short time, but I will say that wearing it does help me with my pacing and motivates me to run faster than I would otherwise.

In the meantime, I’ve been amusing myself by reading Hal Higdon’s Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide. I’ve had an older edition of this book that was given to me as a gift for a long time and only read bits and pieces of it. Reading it cover to cover, I give it high marks though I’m only about halfway through. I’ve followed Higdon’s 10K and Half Marathon training programs in the past with much success, and it’s nice to hear him elaborate in detail on how his training plans are developed. My old version of the book focuses exclusively on the marathon, but I see the new edition covers half marathons as well (and boasts 25% new material!). Higdon’s writing is very readable and structured so that it can be read all the way through or in isolated chapters as runners move up in skill or want to cover topics like long runs, nutrition, etc. If you’re like me and have spent years trolling the Internet for training tips and reading Runner’s World there may not be a whole lot here that is new to you… but at least it’s all in one place and it really gets me in the mood to run. So is there a full marathon in my future? Maybe someday. Never say never!

Book Review Duo: The White Queen and The Red Queen

[Spoilers may follow about the first two books in The Cousins’ War series, The White Queen and The Red Queen.]

Philippa Gregory is wildly popular as a writer of historical fiction. Aside from her credentials (she has a doctorate in history), she is the author of numerous best sellers. One of her books, The Other Boleyn Girl, was turned into a movie. With the fourth book of her series The Cousins’ War coming out this summer, it seemed like a good time to discover her works for myself. The first two books of the series, The White Queen and The Red Queen feature two powerful women who are rivals to the throne of England in the 15th century.

To give some historical background, these novels are set during England’s War of the Roses, in which two rival branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty battled for supremacy. The House of Lancaster is the senior branch of the family and therefore has the stronger claim to the throne, but they face some major hindrances. A war with France is not going well, the Lancastrian King Henry VI suffers from bouts of mental illness, his queen Margaret of Anjou is French and therefore wildly unpopular, and it’s rumored that she’s raising her son to be a tyrant who will make England a puppet of France. After Henry and his son Edward, his faithful cousin Margaret Beaufort is the next closest thing in the Lancaster line. She is The Red Queen and the subject of book two in the series.

On the other side of the war is The House of York. Descended from a younger son of Edward III (who, by the way, had roughly a zillion children), their claim to the throne is substantially weaker but bolstered by some important advantages. They are supported by some of the most powerful lords in England including Richard Neville, the legendary kingmaker. They also have a young, confident, and charismatic candidate for the throne in Edward of York. His wife, the controversial Elizabeth Woodville is The White Queen and the subject of book one of the series. Everyone clear on this? OK.

Overall, The White Queen is a much richer book than The Red Queen. Character development is one of the major reasons for that, but historical reality may also play a role. Queen Elizabeth is a woman from a large family, and her relationships with her beloved brother, her protective mother, and her loving husband are well developed. Her role as queen for much of the book also places her close to the action as intrigue unfolds and kings rise and fall. In short, she has much more of a story to tell. Margaret Beaufort, however, spends much of her life away from the drama of the wars. Valued only for her ability to produce a Lancaster “spare,” Margaret is treated as a commodity. From before the age of nine (when the story opens) she is shuffled from one husband to the next as her fortunes rise and fall. Ironically, Margaret herself is a religious fanatic who would prefer celibacy and who, after the traumatic birth of son Henry Tudor when she is just 13, is left unable to produce further children in her two subsequent marriages.

One gets the feeling that Margaret’s life was truly lonely until she reached middle age. Her mother is a distant, crudely drawn figure, and her husbands are all ill-suited to her personality and ambitions. Edmund Tudor is dead by the time his son is born, Henry Stafford is kind but his unwillingness to fight for her son drives a wedge between them, and Thomas Stanley is a schemer who marries Margaret out of convenience and ambition. Margaret has no friends or confidantes of her own except brother-in-law Jasper Tudor, who spends much of the book away looking after her exiled son in France. Because of this, we spend most of the first half of the book “treated” to long and repetitive internal monologues from Margaret about her special destiny. She knows she has been chosen, she knows God favors her house, she knows her son will be king… but she can do very little about it as she watches three other kings enter and leave the stage. To give you a sense of her distance from the events of the day, when the book’s climax finally comes Gregory is forced to break Margaret’s first-person narrative to actually tell us what’s happening away at battle. For all her scheming, Margaret ultimately has less to do with her son’s fortunes than do the powerful men in her life. In my experience, the first-person to third-person narrative switch never goes smoothly, and this book is no exception.

Aside from the uneven character development, the books also don’t match up in their use of magic realism. In Gregory’s fictionalized England, the women of both houses have a higher power on their side. The Woodville women are allegedly descended from the ancient river god Melusenia and practice witchcraft when threatened. The “witchcraft” legends were most likely started by jealous rivals who couldn’t understand how a common woman like Elizabeth Woodville snared the love of a king, but Gregory runs with it. In The White Queen the gifts of Elizabeth, her mother Jacquetta, and her daughter Elizabeth of York become clear in times of crisis. The supernatural device is often referred to but not overused, employed just enough to convince readers that some power exists.

Margaret, on the other hand, claims the holy power of God. We start with her having mystical visions at the age of nine and she never drops the thread of asserting her special connection to God—no matter how much we are led to question whether she and her son are really favored. Her assertions of signs and visions and special messages become less convincing as the story wears on, and there’s a grain of truth when Thomas Stanley, frustrated with his wife’s ineffective scheming, points out that God only seems to speak to her when he’s saying what she wants to hear. At some point, her fanaticism becomes almost comical: she obsesses about her hatred for Queen Elizabeth, a woman she doesn’t even lay eyes on until halfway through the book, then she enters her service for a decade—even becoming one of her closest confidantes—while all the while harboring various unholy thoughts. When the two enter into a conspiracy together, Margaret is ultimately quick to blame its failure on Elizabeth’s sinful nature. Evidently, no one has made Margaret aware of the sins of pride and envy.

Overall, The White Queen is a richer and more satisfying tale. It’s clear that Gregory’s affections lie more with the women of the House of York, and their tale is better because of it. Gregory herself acknowledges that Margaret Beaufort is a challenging character, and The Red Queen never quite seems to get to her heart. However, I will say that Gregory still succeeds in making this an engaging (though light) story. Something about Margaret draws you in as she repels you, like the evil queen in a classic fairy tale. I tore through The Red Queen in two days. Gregory certainly takes license with history in creating a good story, but I recommend The White Queen for any aficionado of historical fiction. The Red Queen makes a good weekend read, and is a must if you want to continue the series, but expect to be left a little less satisfied by this second story. I hope an upcoming book in the series presents the third act of Margaret’s life in a more engaging fashion. Such a woman deserves a more complete tale than what we have seen so far.

Book Review: Out of Oz

[Note: Spoilers about Out of Oz and the Wicked Years series may follow.]

Ah, my first book review of the summer. Out of Oz is the fourth and—allegedly—final book in the Wicked Years series by Gregory Maguire. While I have read the previous three books and was a fan of the original Oz books in my youth, I don’t consider myself a rabid fan of this series. In my opinion, Maguire’s subsequent works have never quite lived up to Wicked, and this is no exception—although it does have some redeeming qualities and will probably please the dedicated fans.

The book picks up several years after where Son of a Witch left off, and an undetermined time after the closing of A Lion Among Men. In Oz, Shell, the brother of Elphaba the Wicked Witch, has installed himself as a holy emperor, Munchkinland is fighting for independence, and Elphaba’s most valuable legacies—her granddaughter Rain and the magic Grimmerie—are sought by all sides.

The story here suffers from two major shortcomings, the first of which is that it is bloated. The print version runs nearly 600 pages, and could have been told more convincingly in about 400. A reviewer from the AV Club rightly notes that this book builds upon an unfortunate and unnecessary trend in fantasy novels—the extended walkabout. Wandering can be done well if it advances the plot and produces engaging encounters and character growth. Here, the third of the book devoted to aimless wandering accomplishes little aside from alienating less dedicated readers. Sure, danger awaits the ragged cast of characters on all sides, but the extended flight from capture just didn’t work for me. I moved through this section slowly because I was so annoyed with the characters, a point I’ll return to momentarily.

Had this been a standalone book by a less-established author, I suspect an editor would have advised this section be condensed or jettisoned. Instead, it appeared to be a bit of an ego trip for Maguire, allowing him to present one last round-trip tour of Oz and to bring back many characters from the previous books for cameos. These cameos also contributed to the book’s bloat; some of the appearances made little sense, others dragged on way too long. Frankly, I couldn’t even remember who some of the characters were or what role they played in the earlier books, a sure sign that their curtain calls were not needed. Certainly, after muddling through A Lion Among Men (the weakest book in the series and one devoted to depicting the endless humiliations of Brr the Cowardly Lion), I did not need to see the parade of minor characters that pop up to taunt him again. No wonder the guy is so miserable.

This leads me to my second problem with the book, which is the lack of engaging characters. I realized a bit more than halfway through the book that it was not only overly long, it was crammed with characters who are utterly unlikable and miserable all the time. The story here clearly belongs to Rain, but it’s hard to build an engaging plot around a child character who spends the first half of the book so withdrawn and unsociable that characters repeatedly speculate that she might be mentally deficient. However, the rest of the ensemble cast around which the book resolves is equally unlikable. The three married couples—Nor and Brr, Mr. Boss and Daffy nee Sister Apothocarie, and Liir and Candle—seem to exhibit little in the way of genuine affection, and in fact they border on disdain for their partners and the rest of the group at times. The fellowship is also more or less mirthless throughout, with the exception of Dorothy (yes, that Dorothy) who seems to have had her optimism ground out of her by the end of the story. I understand a war is going on, but even Harry Potter got to stop and play quidditch once in a while instead of just moving from one damp, miserable living situation to the next.

Oz, which readers get a round-trip tour of in this final book.

Also on the character notes, a few of the book’s main characters seemed totally unnecessary and two-dimensional to me. I didn’t understand the point of Iskinaary or Candle (who, granted, is Rain’s mother but who does almost nothing of substance here), and I found Mr. Boss the most hateful character in the entire book. He does nothing but complain, inexplicably hangs around long past his usefulness, and when the death of another main character close to him finally seems to provide an opportunity to explore his depth or give him some animus, we get nothing at all. Nothing. (In fairness, other reviewers seem to enjoy Mr. Boss and Little Daffy and think they provide “comic relief.” I found their banter absolutely stale and unamusing. The fact that they just seem to vanish in the book’s final act only left me wishing they’d vanished long before.)

All that being said, the book is not without its redeeming qualities. Once Rain reaches adolescence and is forced into discovering society and romance, the story picks up steam quickly. The crucial decisions faced by Rain, her friend Tip, and Liir at the book’s climax create true tension and flesh out these characters in a satisfying way. As a writer, Maguire also deserves credit for weaving together so many loose threads and story lines from not only his own novels but also from L. Frank Baum’s Ozish lore, and doing so in a way that concludes the series nicely. The conclusion and the book’s main twist will not come as a surprise to readers of Baum’s earlier series, but as a fan of the original books I approved of the way in which this plot point was integrated. Like the best moments of the series, it took classic Oz and put a modern, unsentimental twist on it. The end for these characters are not necessarily happy—as Glinda alludes to, there are no “happy” endings in life—but they represent a path toward a well-deserved retirement. Readers who have not followed the Wicked Years series devotedly and those who prefer their fantasy a bit upbeat may wish to skip this book, but for lovers of Oz who are willing to do the work there is some reward.

The Adventures of Chavalina in the Desert, Pt. 1

Well, it’s Spring Break and I had about zero fun and exciting plans leading up to this week. To boot, I also pulled a muscle in my thigh last week, so I’ve run a total of about four miles in the last seven days. Time to find other ways to amuse myself.

1. Tucson Festival of Books

Yesterday, I went to the Tucson Festival of Books. Hard to believe this event is only in its fourth year and is already one of the country’s biggest book fairs, but then again what artsy person wouldn’t want to come to Tucson in March? The highlight of the event for me was seeing one of my favorite authors, Luis Alberto Urrea. In addition to being a great writer, a big supporter of education, and a one-time Tucsonan, he is also a lot of fun to hear speak. Most of his Saturday morning talk centered on his new book, Queen of America, which I finally purchased. I waited months to buy it at the festival especially so I could have him sign it. He told me I have a rock star’s name and I giggled like a little girl. Wooo. I also toured the tents a little, had a nice lunch, and saw the Kinetic King from America’s Got Talent. Overall, I give the book festival high marks, but potential attendees should be warned: It does get crowded, and some of the panel rooms are awfully small for the number of folks who come to hear the talks. Get there early if you want to see a popular author!

2. San Xavier del Bac

Yeah, it only took me 3.5 years to see this attraction, but at least I picked a good day. The mission is located on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Reservation, and today there was a mass and a powwow going on, so it was extra crowded. The mission is showing its age a bit, and there are ongoing restoration projects, but it is well worth a visit. There are few places in the U.S. where you can stand inside an 18th century building and appreciate the history. The mission’s altarpiece features over 50 statues of religious figures that were crafted in Mexico and brought to the mission. The building itself was mostly constructed by Native American laborers, but the architecture shows Spanish and Moorish themes.

San Xavier del Bac

The chapel beside the mission.

I hope that folks will keep up the good work of restoring this place. Visitors can also take a short walk up the hill beside the mission, where there is a shrine and some great views of Tucson.

3. Tubac

I’ve never had much interest in visiting Tubac, so I’m not sure why it sounded to magical to me today, but it did. Truth be told, I wanted to go to Nogales but I didn’t want to go by myself. Tubac sounded like a place where I could find a lot of the same types of Mexican crafts, some art galleries, and even a Mexican restaurant that used to be in Nogales. Sort of like being in Mexico, in a sanitized white-person non-authentic way… Maybe?

I had a great lunch at Elvira’s, delicious chiles rellenos. I also noted that they had a great selection of tequilas and offer a $.50 tequila shot as a “welcome.” I’m guessing that this is a throwback to their days in Nogales, where many shops/booths/restaurants offer you free tequila shots to loosen you (and your wallet) up a little. Sadly, though, since I’m still on my personal prohibition, I passed on the low-cost alcohol. Food here is a bit on the expensive side ($18.00 for chile rellenos, rice and beans, and a side of chips and salsa), but it is delicious and filling. Bonus points for the stylish decor.

Tubac Galleries

I also liked the various galleries more than I thought I would. Many of the stores feature a similar selection of Mexican imports. Look in a few different places to find the best price on a particular item. Other stores are more high-end galleries with lots of Western and Mexican-inspired art including furniture, photos, jewelry, mixed-media, painting… anything you could imagine. Prices range quite a bit. I saw some lovely paintings that were close to $2000, but there was also more reasonably priced work. As an unabashed feminist I particularly loved the Feminine Mystique gallery, which featured work by many different female artists. Some paintings were priced as low as $30, making it one of the more affordable places I visited. My only purchase today was a cute baby outfit that will be a gift for a friend, but I hope someday to return. Maybe when I have money and can afford an $1800 painting of baby quails. Baby quails! Cutest things ever!

Plans for tomorrow: WIll be hiking in Sabino Canyon. Expect more pics.

When Things Fall Apart: A Review

It may seem a bit hyperbolic to say that I am writing a review of one of the best books ever, but… yeah, this is a review of one of the best books ever.

Book coverI recently finished re-reading Pema Chödrön’s 2000 work, When Things Fall Apart. Chödrön is an American-born Buddhist nun, and this book is meant to be a collection of advice and guidance for Westerners on how to deal with suffering and times of challenge. Notice I don’t say it is a book for Buddhists, because I don’t think it is. Chödrön’s advice and teachings are relevant for individuals of all faiths, though there is some discussion of religion that might ruffle feathers, and some of the book’s chapters rely heavily on Buddhist teachings and principles. The central themes of this work, developed from notes and talks that Chödrön gave in the years leading up to its publication, are about how to use adversity as a catalyst for introspection and growth (“poison as medicine,” she calls it in one chapter), cultivating mindfulness, and developing acceptance and compassion. All of these skills that I, and many of us in today’s society, are in dire need of.

The good news, according to Chödrön, is that we already have all the tools we need to cultivate these desirable qualities: our minds, and the world around us. Buddhists believe that life is suffering, and that suffering is caused by attachment (two of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths). But there are two sides to every coin: We develop attachments to the good things, too. Praise, love, wealth, and the positive things in life are also addictive, and our attachment to the good things causes suffering as well when those good things disappear. All things are impermanent. Bummer. So, we have to eliminate all of our attachments if we are ultimately going to see the world for what it is and transcend suffering. Sounds easy, right?

Chödrön recognizes we are no saints, and this is where mindfulness and compassion come into play. The meditation techniques outlined in the book are aimed at helping us to better understand ourselves (and our emotions), and to accept ourselves as we are in the moment. “In practicing meditation,” she says, “we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal—quite the opposite. We’re just being with our experience, whatever it is.” (17) Understanding where we are and living in the moment is key: She often tells us to stop running from what scares us, stop trying to escape “feeling,” stop seeking solace in drinking or drugs or whatever makes you feel better. The moment is the perfect teacher, and she tells us that by sitting in the bad places, feeling what we feel, we become more keenly aware of our attachments and the habitual emotional patterns that keep us stuck. At the same time, we can also use these teaching moments to develop empathy. Realize that these negative emotions are part of the human experience. If we feel fear, sadness, loneliness, or anger, imagine the other millions of people in the world that are going through the same emotions. Couldn’t we enrich everyone if we stepped a little outside ourselves? Here’s one of my favorite passages:

“All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever. Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?’ Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?’” (11)

This was my third time reading this book, and it’s been through some difficult times with me. This time, though, it spoke to me on a deeper level than it has before. For me, at least, it seemed like every time I picked up the book I turned to a page with exactly the advice I needed to hear. Want a drink? Here’s why it’s a bad idea. Angry about that guy who broke my heart? Here’s how to deal with it. Thinking about sending him a nasty e-mail? Here’s why I shouldn’t. This book just works for me. It is short, written in plain language, but carries a powerful message. It all sounds lofty, sure, but part of what makes this book special is that Chödrön herself seems to “get” it. She gets the “first world problems” that hook us in. She had a cheating spouse. She went through a divorce. She struggles with colleagues. She sometimes thinks her way is the only right way. She is open about these experiences, and that makes her relatable in a way that some authors aren’t. By sharing her challenges along the path, she gives us a subtle message: You can do this too. And you know what? After a few weeks of daily meditation practice and nearly a month without drinking, I’m starting to believe it.