My year without soda

My first new year’s resolution in over a decade might sound ambitious: no soda for an entire year. But it was easier than even I expected.

Drinking a (nonprescribed) soda for the first time in over a year.
Drinking a (nonprescribed) soda for the first time in over a year.

I have resisted making new year’s resolutions for a long time. I even once excoriated them in a talk in sacrament meeting. I used to make them, or try to anyway. But, inevitably, it was difficult for me to narrow it down to just one thing I wanted to improve in my life in the next year. I would come up with a list that, if followed, would make me perfect—meaning it was doomed to failure before “Auld Lang Syne” was even halfway sung (which, for some reason, is all it’s ever sung).

Compounding that is the fact that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I hate messing up shiny new things, even if they’re as intangible as a year. So the first time I messed up on a new year’s resolution—likely by 2 January—the year felt like it was already ruined and there was no reason to continue working on that resolution. And I would quickly revert back to my old ways.

The converse of this is that, in the course of a year, if I realized I needed to improve something, it was easy to excuse myself from making the improvement. I can make that one of my new year’s resolutions, I would think to myself. Besides, this year’s already messed up, so why bother improving things now?

But in 2013 I made an exception. It started one evening in 2012 when I was doing some volunteer work at Transportation Alternatives. TA is a nonprofit advocacy group in New York City working for better infrastructure and policy for bicyclists and… well, they say transit riders and pedestrians, too, but they really just seem to be about biking. The organization conducts mass mailings on a constant basis. I mean, massive mailings. I thought we did mass mailings when I was at The United States Conference of Mayors, but those were nothing compared to the size and frequency of TA’s mailings. Even though in the 21st century we have machinery that can do this sort of mailing automatically, such technology appeared to be out of the reach of a small nonprofit. So once or twice a month, TA held volunteer nights where half a dozen or so volunteers would prepare the mailings by hand. I wanted to contribute to advocacy work for alternative transportation, but TA membership wasn’t a cost I could justify, so I decided to offer my time. They were fun evenings, chatting with other volunteers and eating dinner provided by TA—invariably from a Thai restaurant near their offices on 26th Street between 6th and 7th avenues. (TA has since stopped holding these volunteer nights.)

It was at these volunteer nights that I met Chris. He, too, had come to New York from Washington, D.C. He, too, had lived in the District, near Dupont Circle. (Tangent: It always irks me when people say they’re from D.C. when they really lived in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs, so I was gratified that he actually lived in the District of Columbia.) He, too, had biked to work. Chris had worked in Reston, which, according to Google Maps, is a 21.3-mile (34.3-kilometer) ride, with a total vertical climb of 823 feet (251 meters). That commute would take about 2 hours one way.

I had once been proud to have biked to work, but I no longer was. My ride to work hardly counted as a bike ride: about 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers), mostly totally downhill. It was a little harder in the afternoon going uphill, but a mile and a half hardly even counts as a commute. I believe I accomplished mine in as little as 9 minutes one day, though it typically took 12–15. I didn’t even dare mention it.

Chris also mentioned that he would bike a loop around Central Park before work in the morning—you know, six, seven, or eight times around the park, and then head in to work.

I had considered my few times out on my bike on a Saturday morning to be decent exercise.

Then he mentioned that he hadn’t had a soft drink in something like seven years.

I decided that that was something I could do.

And, for the first time in probably over a decade, I settled on a new year’s resolution.

BEFORE I WENT 365 DAYS WITHOUT A DROP OF SODA, I decided to live it up a little on New Year’s Eve. A visit to a Coca-Cola Freestyle was in order. I had researched Coca-Cola Freestyle locations before, and though many Duane Reade locations across Manhattan have a machine, I thought a drugstore, with no chairs or tables, wasn’t quite the right setting for enjoying my last soda for the year with Susan and Fiona. But I knew there was one at Così on Broadway at 13th Street, just south of Union Square—a quick trip down the L train.

When we arrived at Union Square that evening, the atmosphere was festive. The sidewalks were crowded, and though the evening was cold, crowds filled restaurants and shops, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the new year. It was presided over by the Empire State Building, whose newly installed LED floodlights danced in a rainbow of color.

But when you take a two-and-a-half-year-old into Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, you want to get it over quickly. So, mesmerizing though the lights on the ESB were, Susan quickly ushered me down to Così. I entered, excited to have one last sip of orange Coke before giving it up for a year. I looked to spot the Coca-Cola Freestyle before going to the registers to pay for a drink and possibly a small snack for the three of us. But I didn’t see it. I was pretty certain that it had been there, just inside the door, on the right. Did I miss it somehow? But it’s a pretty big machine; surely I would have noticed it. Was it in a different location? I looked around the restaurant, but no sign.

And I quickly came to the realization: the Coca-Cola Freestyle was no longer there. In its place was a drinking fountain that was so last century. As they say, go big or go home. I’d rather begin my new year’s resolution with no soft drink than with an inferior one. So, crestfallen, we went home.

(Since I hadn’t expected it to be my last before my new year’s resolution, I wasn’t keeping track of the time, place, or contents of my last soft drink of 2012. Sorry.)

GIVING UP SODA FOR A YEAR proved easier than I expected. Actually, for some time I’d been drinking less soda anyway. I’d caught myself one week the summer before we moved to New York needing a Dr. Pepper every afternoon to stay awake—or just because. (I contend that it wasn’t the caffeine that kept me awake, but rather the actual drinking motion. Water would probably have done the trick, too, except I drink it too fast. I think soda’s carbonation slows me down.) I was reminded of a bishop’s youth discussion with Bishop Harry Mahler in the Charlotte 3rd Ward back when I was in middle school or high school. He was teaching us about the Word of Wisdom and mentioned that he didn’t eat chocolate. He had gotten so addicted to it that he needed a Hershey’s bar or some other chocolate every day. For him, it wasn’t the letter of the law—after all, the Word of Wisdom doesn’t forbid chocolate (the Church would probably be considerably smaller if it did). It was about the spirit of the law, controlling our bodies and our appetites rather than allowing them to control us. In that same spirit, I decided to drink less soda.

Besides, the most economical size usually sold in the refrigerated section at CVS or another drugstore is 20 fluid ounces (591 milliliters). No matter how much you like Coke or Dr. Pepper or any other soft drink, you’re usually sick of it by the time you’ve gotten to the bottom of that thing.

The only time I drank soda in all of 2013 was under a medical professional’s orders. On 11 July, I donated blood at a blood drive organized by the missionaries at church. It was the first time since before my mission that I’d donated blood, and though I’d once been a regular blood donor, losing a pint (473 milliliters) of blood at once was a feeling I had grown unaccustomed to. A couple of people mentioned how white my face became, and I did get a bit sick to my stomach. One of the workers said that a soft drink would help me feel better, so Susan went to buy a Coke for me. It turns out that it didn’t help me feel any better—only recovery time (and maybe a few cookies) could do that. So it felt kind of like a waste. And you might have thought that it would make me crave soft drinks anew, but fortunately it didn’t.

The rest of the year abstaining from soft drinks went off without a hitch. In fact, it was so easy that it hardly felt like a new year’s resolution.

NOW 2013 AND MY YEAR WITHOUT SODA have come and gone. As the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, I could feel good about achieving my goal—and I was once again free to drink soda. Why not celebrate? And where else other than at a Coca-Cola Freestyle?

We invited a friend to join us. We made sure to choose a venue that had a Coca-Cola Freestyle: Steak ’n Shake Signature at 1695 Broadway, just north of Times Square. (Steak ’n Shake was a favorite diner and hangout spot with my friends when I was in high school in Charlotte. This is its first and so far only location in New York City.) At 17.29 on Monday, 13 January, I had my first non-prescribed soft drink in over a year. It was, of course, an orange Coke.

While I now feel free to drink soda, I have definitely decreased my appetite for it. And maybe there’s some power in new year’s resolutions after all. This year I decided to devote some time to family history, and I’ve already quickly become engrossed in it. But next year I have my sights set on an even bigger target: chocolate. Think I can do it?

This article appeared on pages 10–11 of Issue 13 | January 2014.

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