Where you can find us

@amygutman in @pajamatown, on vacation from @planbnation

@amygutman in @pajamatown, on vaca­tion from @planbnation

As you may (or may not) have noticed, Plan B Nation has been on hia­tus for more than a year.  But!  Start­ing this week, you can now find us (us being me) else­where on The Inter­nets. New online for­ays are:

Pajam­a­town (on Tum­blr) — Dis­patches from a New Eng­land win­ter with music, recipes, books, and (of course) ran­dom mus­ings. That’s @pajamatown on Twitter.

The Ques­tions Project — An exploratorium-cum-blog that I’ve been mean­ing to launch for years. The premise: It’s often wiser to seek the right ques­tion than the right answer.  I’ll be pos­ing ques­tions as they come to me, as well as some that have lin­gered.  I hope you’ll share some of your own along with reflec­tions on mine. Let’s have a con­ver­sa­tion. (No inde­pen­dent Twit­ter account to date–will be tweet­ing from @amygutman)

So that’s it for now. Wish­ing you a peace­ful Thanks­giv­ing in these strange and per­ilous times.

This is your world on Twitter

brain on twitterguardian 8:35pm via Hoot­Suite: Typhoon #Usagi: have you been affected? Share your images and sto­ries here t.gu.com/p3FGV

WIRED 8:11pm via Adobe® Social: “She was aware of their sta­tus only on Face­book, in that sort of promis­cu­ous oh-hi-there-let’s-stay-in-touch way.” bit.ly/1f5dB31

Food52 8:01pm via Hoot­Suite: Isn’t it con­ve­nient that toma­toes are per­fectly shaped for stuff­ing with bread, greens, and pancetta? ow.ly/p4k5d

nytimes 7:59pm via SocialFlow: Even hav­ing 2 jobs is no guar­an­tee against home­less­ness in NYC nyti.ms/15Iom5l

Josh_Bersin 7:58pm via The Wall Street Jour­nal. on iOS: How to get a job. It’s about work ethic and being a con­tin­u­ous learner. Advice from staffing firm CEO. on.wsj.com/1ewiX6i

nytimes 7:45pm via SocialFlow: There’s now lit­tle hope for life on Mars nyti.ms/18g3D9j

ezrak­lein 6:30pm via SocialFlow: Banks are essen­tial to the com­modi­ties mar­ket, say banks wapo.st/1aaGKDC

Richard_Florida 6:29pm via Web: The Per­sis­tent Geog­ra­phy of Poverty — @Brook­ingsMetrobrookings.edu/research/repor…

iamno­tau­ni­corn 5:44pm via Twit­ter for iPhone: Is there any way to turn Siri off, you guys? She’s like a drunk intern.

WSJ 5:35pm via SocialFlow: To lure wealthy investors, more coun­tries now offer mil­lion­aire visas. What it takes to get one: on.wsj.com/15ctefj

Ker­ry­Han­non 5:28pm via Tweet But­ton: 10 Ways To Cut The Cost Of Going Back To Col­lege onforb.es/16IgKjg via @Forbes

TheTweet­Of­God 5:28pm via Twit­ter for iPhone: For the last time, mankind: I don’t need your help killing people.

gogirl­fi­nance 5:15pm via Buffer: Expert @Man­ishaThakor answers one read­ers ques­tion: Should I Go Into Debt for Grad School? bit.ly/16lfG1o

thedai­ly­beast 4:49pm via SocialFlow: Rage against Oba­macare thebea.st/1fjzusW

then­ation 4:46pm via Hoot­Suite : America’s Shame­ful Poverty Stats tnat.in/p4sCQ

Break­ingNews 4:21pm via breakingnews.com:  At least 39 peo­ple dead, 150 injured in Nairobi mall attack, Kenyan Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta says — @SkyNews­Break

TIME 4:00pm via Tweet­Deck: Ash­ton Kutcher earns $750,000 for every episode of ‘Two and a Half Men’ | ti.me/17RCgll (via @TIMECul­ture)

The meaning of a five dollar dress

March 5 outfit 1

The price of the bar­gain dress is not paid by Tilda or Ray who wears it. The real cost is borne by the work­ers in the sweat­shops that are spring­ing up in hard-pressed com­mu­ni­ties.”

In the after­math of the Bangladesh build­ing col­lapse that killed more than 1,000 gar­ment fac­tory work­ers last April, these words have a timely ring. But in fact, they are drawn from U.S. Labor Sec­re­tary Frances Perkins’ 1933 essay “The Cost of a Five-Dollar Dress.”

I couldn’t help but be struck by the many par­al­lels between now and then—including the reluc­tance of us cash-strapped shop­pers to pay more than nec­es­sary. “[I]n hard times it is per­haps ask­ing too much of the con­sumer to hope that he (or she) will refuse to pur­chase spe­cially priced’ cloth­ing as a protest against sweat­shop prod­ucts,” acknowl­edged the prag­matic Perkins (who was, inci­den­tally, the first woman to hold a U.S. cab­i­net post).

Even for con­sumers com­mit­ted to putting their dol­lars where their val­ues are, the sit­u­a­tion is far from sim­ple. “I really want to do the right thing but I don’t know how to do that on my income. I cer­tainly can’t make my own clothes for a host of rea­sons. I do buy many things at thrift shops, but does that solve the prob­lem if they were still made cheaply in the first place?” was one friend’s response to my recent essay on “The Hid­den Costs of Fast Fash­ion.”

There is also con­cern that even expen­sive clothes may have been man­u­fac­tured under bad conditions—so given that we don’t know for sure, why pay more? (For what it’s worth, here’s my take: It’s true that money is no guarantee—that a pricey item may have come from an over­seas sweat­shop. But that $15 skirt or pair of pants? You can be pretty sure of it.)

Moreover—and I hate to tell you this—factory con­di­tions are not the only poten­tial moral haz­ard here. Con­sider the fact, as I learned just this morn­ing from my law pro­fes­sor friend Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, that the tin in the zip­pers and buck­les we wear is often inex­tri­ca­bly linked to bloody armed con­flicts and human rights abuses. (For more on this issue, see Ciara’s dis­turb­ing Slate piece about how “con­flict min­er­als” are inte­gral to our cell phones—and that the com­pa­nies who make these prod­ucts are cur­rently engaged in a legal bat­tle to secure their right not to tell us.)

So what do we do?

For starters, I sug­gest we not sim­ply throw up our hands or turn away–and that we keep look­ing for infor­ma­tion and answers even as we acknowl­edge our own complicity.

In the mean­time, many of us can spend more but buy less—though some no doubt would ques­tion this. To wit, one reader of my pre­vi­ous piece was hor­ri­fied at the sug­ges­tion that eight or ten pairs of shoes are more than a teen girl strictly needs. “Eight or ten pairs of shoes is extrav­a­gant? Where did you grow up? Well-dressed women have, at a min­i­mum, a pair of work­out shoes, san­dals, boots, bad-weather boots, flats, and some dressier heels of vary­ing heights — and then they have some if not all of those in dif­fer­ent col­ors and styles, depend­ing on their lifestyle. I doubt there’s a woman above the poverty line in Amer­ica with two feet and fewer than ten pairs of shoes. The aver­age woman in the US has at least 19 pairs.”

I will also con­tinue to sound the thrift shop drum. Yes, the cloth­ing we buy there—like the $2.00 Gap t-shirt I’m now wearing—may have been man­u­fac­tured under bad con­di­tions, but the fact is, it’s already here. We are talk­ing sunk costs, both envi­ron­men­tal and human, and in buy­ing used cloth­ing, at least we keep it out of land­fills. As I see it, thrift shops are one place we can still feel good about that five dol­lar dress. Or that five dol­lar dress that’s not a dress—just ask this woman here.

Life isn’t always the best. But it can be better.

keep cool on the swimming pool

A friend’s highly dis­crim­i­nat­ing child wrote home from camp: “The swim­ming here is not the best.”

That’s pretty much the review I’d give this entire summer—not that it’s the summer’s fault. We’ve been slammed with dead­lines at work, and my one week out of the office in June feels like a life­time ago. I’m still up in the air about whether I’m going to move apart­ments. (On the pro side, this build­ing is sort of a wreck. On the con side, I’m liv­ing here now.)  A sul­try two-week heat wave prac­ti­cally did me in.

At such times of feel­ing not the best, I often find myself cast­ing about for new perspectives—ways of think­ing about my life that inspire and recharge me. Here are four that have recently cap­tured my imag­i­na­tion. I’m plan­ning to spend more time with them. Per­haps some of you will join me.

1. Clar­ify your val­ues, don’t focus on goals.

Read­ing these words I had a bit of an ah hah moment. I am really really good at meet­ing goals, but more and more, I’m find­ing that the reward often doesn’t match the effort. What would hap­pen if I shifted the focus to my val­ues? This sug­ges­tion comes via George Mason psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Todd B. Kash­dan, whose “Your First Step Down a Pur­pose­ful Path” graphic is now mak­ing the Inter­net rounds.“Make up a declar­a­tive list of what’s impor­tant to you” is what Kash­dan coun­sels. In any case, it’s bound to be inter­est­ing. I’ll let you know.

2.   What part of your life is unlived?

This is the ques­tion at the heart of Liv­ing Your Unlived Life, by Jun­gian ana­lyst Robert A. John­son, who views liv­ing out the answer as “the most impor­tant task of our mature years.” In par­tic­u­lar, he asks us to con­sider “What is unlived yet still has some urgency within you?” I’m intrigued by this ques­tion, by what amounts to an invi­ta­tion to eval­u­ate exist­ing goals in a new and larger context.

We all carry with us a vast inven­tory of aban­doned, unre­al­ized and under­de­vel­oped tal­ents and poten­tials,” John­son writes. “Even if you have achieved your major goals and seem­ingly have few regrets, there still are sig­nif­i­cant life expe­ri­ences that have been closed to you.… Of course no one can live out all of life’s pos­si­bil­i­ties, but there are key aspects of your being that must be brought into your life or you will never real­ize your fulfillment.”

3.  Move towards plea­sure. Now.  

This is the mes­sage my life coach friend Max Daniels gives her clients. Instead of wait­ing until we “deserve” the trip to Port­land or Ams­ter­dam or what­ever that thing is we yearn for—or until the per­fect con­di­tions fall mirac­u­lously into place—she encour­ages us to take action now. What espe­cially intrigues me is her idea that, in tak­ing these steps in the present moment, we in essence move closer to being the per­son we want to be. Do I believe this? I’m not entirely sure. But she doesn’t ask me to. She sug­gests that I col­lect my own evidence—which is what I’m plan­ning to do.

4. What are you look­ing for­ward to?

From my busy sum­mer, I am mov­ing into an even more busy fall, and at times I can feel like my friend’s three-year-old who, informed that she couldn’t wear her sun­dress in Jan­u­ary, hurled her­self onto her bed with the cry: “I’ll never be happy again!” That’s when this ques­tion comes in handy. Because right at this very moment, I can think of a num­ber of things com­ing up to which I’m look­ing for­ward. Yoga and brunch with fel­low west­ern Mass ex-pat Molly tomor­row. Din­ner next week with Meta and (maybe) Delia. Meet­ing vir­tual writer friends Trish and Dorie in real life (that’s irl, to the cyber-centric) early next month. And those are just the things that come to mind in 30 sec­onds. Tak­ing time to reg­u­larly ask myself this ques­tion is a way of bal­anc­ing out my ten­dency to focus on the hard stuff.  It doesn’t make it go away, but it puts things into perspective.

5. Take stock of how you rocked

Take my advice—I’m not using it! This quip came to mind yes­ter­day as I read Trish’s post inspired by one of mine about tak­ing stock of all we’ve accom­plished in the pre­vi­ous year at times when it feels like that list is mighty pal­try. You know what? It never is, as I was (once again) hap­pily reminded. Next month will mark a year since I moved back to Boston, which seems like a per­fect moment to give this lit­tle exer­cise another whirl.

* * *

And now: Your turn. Do you have a ques­tion or strat­egy that helps move you for­ward ? If so, I’d love to hear it.

Me vs. Fear of Rejection (with a happy ending)

crushed paper - writer´s block - crumpled paper with unfocused background

A cou­ple years back, in quick suc­ces­sion, I sub­mit­ted three essays to a well-respected web­site, all of which were snapped up.  My fourth attempt didn’t fare so well—Not for us, my edi­tor said—and I haven’t sent her any­thing since.

I am the first to say that this is patently ridiculous—a fact of which I was reminded this week as I read writer and writ­ing coach Linda Formichelli’s wise and prac­ti­cal reflec­tions on the sub­mis­sion process.  Here is what she said in a Face­book post excerpted from her upcom­ing e-book:

I just did a rough count, and what I have to tell you isn’t pretty: Between 1996 and 2012 I sent out 200 queries—each one to mul­ti­ple publications—and sold 60 ideas. That’s a 30% suc­cess rate—or a 70% rejec­tion rate. If I sent each query to four mag­a­zines, that means I received 480 rejec­tions. (And that’s not even count­ing the untold num­ber of infor­mal ideas I sent to my edi­tors via email once I became more estab­lished that were rejected, or the let­ters of intro­duc­tion I sent to trade mag­a­zine edi­tors that went nowhere.)

So how was it that I’ve been able to write for around 150 mag­a­zines, with most of them giv­ing me mul­ti­ple assign­ments over the years? How was I able to make a living—a good living—mainly writ­ing for magazines?

It’s because I was too stub­born to give up, even when I was fail­ing most of the time. And every time I made a sale, I wowed the edi­tor so she would give me more work.

So how can you get over the idea of rejec­tion? Here’s the thing: Rejec­tion isn’t about you. If your idea or writ­ing are rejected by a prospect or edi­tor, it’s a sim­ple busi­ness deci­sion: Your offer­ing was not right for the prospect at this time.

When you’re approached by a sales­per­son at the super­mar­ket ask­ing if you want to sam­ple a new brand of pita chips and you say No thanks, does that mean the sales­per­son per­son­ally sucks? Is it a judg­ment call on the actual per­son hand­ing out the chips? Or even on the qual­ity of the prod­uct itself?

No. Your rejec­tion of the offer means you’re full because you just had lunch, or you can’t eat gluten, or you’re not in the mood for a snack, or you’re a vegan and the chips have cheese pow­der on them.

The prod­uct doesn’t suck, and nei­ther does the sales­per­son. It has noth­ing to do with them.

It’s the same with writ­ing. If a prospect says no, it can mean any­thing from “We don’t need a free­lance writer right now” to “I had a fight with my spouse this morn­ing and I’m in a foul mood.”

If you let the mere thought of rejec­tion keep you from try­ing, then you’ve already failed. You’ve pre-rejected yourself!

The best thing you can do when you’re start­ing your career as a writer is to develop a thick skin to rejec­tion. Eas­ier said than done, I know. But the ones who get rejected the most are the ones who suc­ceed, because it means they’re putting their work out there.

Yes, eas­ier said than done—and for some of us more so than oth­ers. Over the years, I’ve come to real­ize that I have an absurdly height­ened (and self-defeating) response to per­ceived rejec­tion.  I really can’t say why. Tem­pera­ment? Child­hood expe­ri­ences? Cul­tural mes­sages? For what­ever rea­son, I quail at the prospect of push­ing myself—or my work—forward when I have even the faintest glim­mer that inter­est may be lack­ing.     

But you know what? I’m get­ting bet­ter. The most help­ful thing has sim­ply been being aware that this is a thing I do and that the mere fact that I am think­ing some­thing doesn’t make it true. Some­times it also helps to play with gam­i­fy­ing the process. So what if I send this here? I won­der what will hap­pen?  I also try to focus on actions and mea­sure suc­cess in those terms. Sub­mit­ted the essay to three out­lets? Excel­lent! I win. Whether it’s accepted or not has noth­ing to do with me.

I had a chance to deploy all of these strate­gies a cou­ple weeks ago, when an essay I’d sent to two edi­tors went into a media black hole. One edi­tor never responded at all. The sec­ond, just back from vaca­tion, said she didn’t know when she’d get to it and didn’t want to hold me up. I almost gave up then, but for some rea­son, I decided to first reach out to another writer, some­one I’d met on Twit­ter who I thought (I’m still not quite sure why) might have another idea. And, as it hap­pened, she did. The piece went to her edi­tor at Forbes.com who got back to me super quickly. “I’m blown away. I love this piece, and I’d be happy to pub­lish it as a guest post,” she wrote, before going on to offer me a paid blog­ging contract.

To say this email made my day would be putting it mildly. The piece went up this week. It’s called The Day Job Is Hav­ing Its Moment, and you can read it here.

So in the end, I was lucky that the first two edi­tors passed on this piece. It doesn’t always end this way. But remem­ber: It some­times does.

Plan B Nation on vacation

Main lakeA few weeks back, it hit me that I’m try­ing to do too much—especially given that I’m hap­pi­est with a good bit of down­time. How to rec­on­cile Type A ten­den­cies with my need for a bal­anced life? It came to me, a strat­egy: “Seven things in seven hours.” Rather than cram­ming week­end days with end­less to-do list items, I’d limit myself to one per hour. I’d be selec­tive, strategic.

But when I sat down to make a list, that’s not what I wrote. Instead of typ­ing the word “things,” I typed the word “days.”Seven days in seven hours. I had to laugh. It so exactly cap­tured the absur­dity of what I’ve been try­ing to do.

BananagramsWhich goes to explain why Plan B Nation is on extended vaca­tion. When I took a week off from my Har­vard com­mu­ni­ca­tions jobs last month, I’d planned to spend a lot of it catch­ing up on blog­ging. Luck­ily, I quickly deter­mined that this was a bad idea. Instead, I vis­ited Polly in Maine and pretty much took it easy. Banana­grams, dogs, kids, long walks, books—that’s pretty much what my vaca­tion looked like.

Then last week, with­out quite mean­ing to, I went on a writ­ing ben­der, result­ing in two pieces that went live yes­ter­day. Along with my Atlantic debut—a piece on women and drink­ing (includ­ing my per­sonal take on AA)—I also wrote about so-called “slash careers” on the Cognoscenti blog. Lawyer/writer, minister/physician–you get the idea. It’s a piece I’d had in the pipeline for quite some time, and it felt great to finally get it out of my head and onto the web.

Seven things in seven hours. Clearly, my efforts to pare down are a work in progress. There are so many things I want to write, and far too lit­tle time. But if I’m still tak­ing on too much, I’m also tak­ing breaks. This after­noon, I got a mas­sage. Tomor­row I have yoga. And as soon I get this post up, I’ll be watch­ing House of Cards.

dogs in maine





A girl and her cat say good-bye



He loved dried apri­cots, rotis­serie chicken, and sleep­ing in the sink. He detested other mem­bers of his species. He cost $70, shots included, and I acquired him back in 1996 while still work­ing in Man­hat­tan as a lawyer.

It wasn’t my idea to get a cat. The direc­tive came from two sep­a­rate friends, both exas­per­ated by my fail­ure to get over a not-so-recent breakup. They thought that a cat would be good for me. I sus­pect they hoped it would shut me up—or at least shift the conversation.

He came home with me in a taxi cra­dled in my blue Coach purse, hav­ing won release from a card­board box through piteous kit­ten mews. An antic feather-light ball of fluff, he devel­oped a dis­con­cert­ing habit of rac­ing through my Upper West Side apart­ment and hurtling off the bed, legs splayed in all direc­tions, noth­ing to break his fall. I named him Clarence—not for Clarence Dar­row, the most fre­quent of all first guesses, but for Clarence, the disheveled Angel Sec­ond Class who strug­gles to res­cue George Bai­ley from despair in the movie “It’s a Won­der­ful Life.” In time he grew regal and immense (“large-boned,” my father called him). “Such a small tongue—and so much kitty,” a boyfriend once observed, watch­ing the cat’s pro­longed and painstak­ing groom­ing process. “Clarence is a cer­e­mo­nial cat–not for every­day use.”

Sev­en­teen – almost 18 – years is a very long time, and we went through a lot together Mr. C and I. We moved from New York to west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts to Cam­bridge then back to west­ern Mass and finally to Brook­line. I quit law, pub­lished two nov­els, cycled through jobs and unem­ploy­ment. Through every chal­lenge, every dis­ap­point­ment, the cat was there beside me—splendidly furry and imper­vi­ous, purring and reassuring.

He’d been los­ing weight for more than a year, and it was clear some­thing was wrong.  Kid­ney fail­ure was one pos­si­bil­ity. Can­cer was another. Diag­nos­tic tests were incon­clu­sive. I began giv­ing him sub­cu­ta­neous flu­ids to help with hydra­tion, pills to stim­u­late his appetite. (“You … you are like a nurse for your cat!” sput­tered a courtly Latin gen­tle­man on hear­ing of my min­is­tra­tions.) Then, six weeks ago, with his appetite flag­ging, came another round of tests. The ver­dict: Late-stage can­cer, in both his abdomen and lungs. When I brought him home, groggy and weak, from the hated ani­mal hos­pi­tal, I whis­pered to him a promise that he’d never have to go back.

I knew that I wanted him to die at home, but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know what that would entail, or what I should do or when. Not sur­pris­ingly, it was one of those times when the Inter­net proves a god­send. With a bit of search­ing, I dis­cov­ered Har­bor Vet­eri­nary House Calls, which not only does home vis­its but also offers pet hos­pice care. As the lovely and kind Dr. Maija Mikkola Cur­tis explained on her first home visit, hos­pice care for animals—as for humans—is about qual­ity of life. She told me to think of her as a part­ner, to email her if I had any ques­tions at all about ongo­ing treat­ment or next steps.

The next weeks were pretty good ones for Clarence—lots and lots of rotis­serie chicken, tuna, and attention—but by the end of last week, he began a pre­cip­i­tous decline. He stopped eat­ing and took to retreat­ing to the dark­est reaches of a closet. Already frail, hav­ing dropped more than half of his weight in the course of the past 18 months, he grew even weaker and frailer. With a heavy heart, I con­tacted Maija, and she came out the next evening.

We watched Clarence for a while, Maija and I, as I reached a final deci­sion. “The spark has gone,” she said qui­etly. I had to agree. The process of euthana­sia was sim­ple and very peace­ful. I’d already been say­ing good-bye for a very long time, and I pet­ted and whis­pered my love to him as his life ebbed away.

Early last month—shortly after learn­ing how very sick Clarence was—I  hap­pened on an advice col­umn about a guy who was spend­ing thou­sands of dol­lars to keep his cat alive despite liv­ing on a dis­abil­ity pen­sion and, from the per­spec­tive of his best friend (the let­ter writer), hav­ing “no extra cash for lux­u­ries.” I loved the columnist’s response:

It may be that your friend’s rela­tion­ship with his cat is some­thing he truly can­not live with­out; it may be that he feels some­thing toward this cat that is beyond the under­stand­ing of out­siders and with­out the pro­tec­tion of social sanc­tion or nam­ing.… [P]erhaps even­tu­ally we will come to see that a man’s rela­tion­ship with a cat is not sim­ply that of a per­son to a lux­ury item, but some­thing else, some­thing sacred.  

I’m down with that.

The house is very quiet when I get home these days. “Where’s the boy?” I call. Not because I’ve for­got­ten but because it’s what I do. I’ve also taken to scrolling through Petfinder, gaz­ing at the pic­tures of the count­less cats wait­ing to find homes. There’s Glad who reminds me oh-so-much of Clarence. (Would that be strange or good?) There’s sweet-faced Her­man with his gor­geous coat and play­ful goof­ball Mr. Then I look at a photo of Clarence that Mon­ica took in April.  So present, so very there. He was—is—a beloved being. You are a beloved being.

When $1 billion isn’t enough, and one dollar is too much.

Eduardo Saverin

Eduardo Saverin

When Face­book co-founder Eduardo Saverin renounced his U.S. cit­i­zen­ship last year, with the appar­ent goal of sav­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in taxes after the company’s IPO, the Brazil­ian native had no short­age of out­raged critics.

He has made him­self the poster child for the cal­lous class of 1 per­centers who are all too happy to use national resources to enrich them­selves, and then skate, or cry foul, when asked to pay their fair share,” Ilyse Hogue wrote in the Nation, to cite one exam­ple. “The story evokes the image of the maraud­ing aliens from the movie Inde­pen­dence Day, who come to Earth to take what they can get before mov­ing on to another planet.”

But for all the furi­ous accu­sa­tions, Saverin seems to have been on the cut­ting edge of a grow­ing trend. “U.S. cit­i­zens ditch pass­ports in record num­bers” was the head­line on a May 8, 2013 Fortune/CNN piece report­ing that more than 670 U.S. pass­port hold­ers gave up their cit­i­zen­ship (and U.S. tax bills) in the first three months of this year—more than any quar­ter since the IRS began pub­lish­ing fig­ures in 1998 and nearly three-quarters of the total num­ber for all of 2012. The newly ex-patriated include Isabel Getty, daugh­ter of jet-setting socialite Pia Getty and Getty oil heir Christo­pher Getty, and—last year—wealthy songwriter-socialite Denise Rich.

This got me to think­ing. While I totally get the anger at Saverin and his ilk, I’m also intrigued by a larger ques­tion, implicit yet unad­dressed. How much money is suf­fi­cient for any sin­gle per­son? Does some­one like Saverin ever say “Now I have enough!” Or do you keep on push­ing until you have all the money in the world?

As I turn over these ques­tions, I also find myself think­ing about another man—one who could not be more dif­fer­ent from Eduardo Saverin. His name is Daniel Suelo, and in 2000, at the age of 39, he left his life sav­ings ($30) in a phone booth and walked away. For more than a decade since, he has not earned, received, or spent a sin­gle dollar.

Daniel Suelo

Daniel Suelo

Unlike the aver­age American—wallowing in credit-card debt, cling­ing to a mort­gage, ter­ri­fied of the next down­siz­ing at the office—he isn’t wor­ried about the eco­nomic cri­sis. That’s because he fig­ured out that the best way to stay sol­vent is to never be sol­vent in the first place,” is how a piece in Details mag­a­zine summed up Suelo’s finan­cial non-plan.

Born into an evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian fam­ily whose beliefs he’s long since dis­carded, Suelo’s per­sonal phi­los­o­phy eludes easy def­i­n­i­tions. He lives in the caves and wilder­ness of Utah.  He for­ages, dump­ster dives, and eats with friends (as well as strangers). He doesn’t pan­han­dle, col­lect food stamps, or accept other gov­ern­ment support—not that he sees any­thing wrong with those who do, he’s quick to say—and he often works, just not for pay. He does make use of pub­lic libraries—borrowing books, check­ing email, and keep­ing his web­site and blog. “He wants to have the small­est eco­log­i­cal foot­print and the largest pos­si­ble impact at improv­ing the world. His life goal since I met him is to take as lit­tle and give as much as pos­si­ble,” his best friend told writer Mark Sun­deen, whose com­pelling book about Suelo is called The Man Who Quit Money (River­head, 2012).

As I think about Saverin and Suelo, a study in oppo­sites, I mar­vel over the vast elas­tic­ity of our con­cept of need. Saverin thinks he needs bil­lions of dol­lars. Suelo needs to have none. Needs are not objec­tive facts. They reflect val­ues and choices.

I hope it goes with­out say­ing that I’m not sug­gest­ing we stop doing all we can to make the world a more just and more equi­table place. What I am sug­gest­ing is that, in the mean­time, we give our­selves a chance to thrive, that we have the courage of our con­vic­tions (which starts with know­ing what they are).

Ken Ilgunas

Ken Ilgu­nas

For me, this per­spec­tive is lib­er­at­ing. Early retire­ment, single-family homes, col­lege edu­ca­tions – these accou­trements of the Amer­i­can Dream are increas­ingly hard to come by. Do we sim­ply redou­ble our efforts to achieve such estab­lished socially sanc­tioned goals? Or do we explore new paths, expand our reper­toire of options? (Another ter­rific exam­ple of some­one doing just that is Ken Ilgu­nas, a Duke grad­u­ate stu­dent who lived in a van to avoid going back into debt and turned his expe­ri­ence into the won­der­ful mem­oir Walden on Wheels (New Har­vest, 2013)

Few of us are likely to fol­low Suelo’s example—I, for one, am not inclined to fill my den­tal cav­i­ties with pine pitch. What I take from his story isn’t the specifics of his jour­ney. Rather it’s his capac­ity to find ful­fill­ment while lack­ing things that most of us reflex­ively assume to be essen­tial. If Suelo doesn’t need any money, I some­times muse, per­haps I don’t really need [fill in the blank].

There are those who attack Suelo for fail­ing to con­tribute to some larger social good. (One exas­per­ated fan finally got his detrac­tors to shut up when she told them that she pays taxes, doesn’t use the library, and is donat­ing her share to Suelo.)  But to my mind, his provoca­tive life is con­tri­bu­tion enough. His choices push us to think harder about the nature of our own. His life expands our sense of pos­si­bil­ity. And that, to me, is priceless.

Where is Aretha when you need her?

Aretha-Franklin-9301157-5-402So you go to a spin class in your pro­gres­sive neigh­bor­hood, in your pro­gres­sive city, at your pro­gres­sive women’s gym—one that has as its stated mis­sion to “empower women to be strong, both phys­i­cally and mentally.”

You have never been all that keen on spin class—indeed, truth be told, you’d admit to hav­ing Face­book opined that “there are two kinds of peo­ple: Those who like spin class and those who do not like spin class.” Still, you are there. You get your bike set up, and soon class begins.

You are not crazy about the music (you are some­one who joined this gym in part because it plays clas­si­cal music in the locker room and also for the rea­sons described by Salon’s Mary Eliz­a­beth Williams in a piece that, curi­ously enough, appeared just last month). But hey, it is spin class. You aren’t here for enter­tain­ment. You’re here because you’re feel­ing stressed and aer­o­bic exer­cise improves your mood. That is until you hear the lyrics, when your mood takes a decided nosedive.

Shake that ass for me, shake that ass for me …

Seri­ously? This is the music of choice for empow­ered women? You try to ignore the words. You man­age … for a while.

If good girls get down on the floor

Tell me, how low will a bad girl go?

She’ll prob­a­bly pick it up, drop it down real slow

Either that or she’s upside down on the pole .…

And that’s when you get off your bike, col­lect your things, and leave.

* * * *

My friend Lynne Marie Wana­maker—a fit­ness trainer and anti-violence educator—wasn’t a bit sur­prised by my expe­ri­ence. Here’s what she had to say when I asked her to weigh in:

We live in a rape cul­ture and even the most pro­gres­sive peo­ple don’t see it. I am told all the time that cer­tain things are not a prob­lem or are not a prob­lem here. (i.e, teen dat­ing vio­lence, domes­tic vio­lence, sex­ual abuse, racism, homophobia–I could go on and on.) It’s a QED of denial: We are a pro­gres­sive com­mu­nity of good peo­ple on the side of good, there­fore that isn’t hap­pen­ing. Even if it is. I have decided to call this ‘Pro­gres­sive Self Con­grat­u­la­tory Disorder.’”

It feels impor­tant to say that my own reac­tion was in no way self-consciously political—it was imme­di­ate and vis­ceral.  Any­one who knows me knows that I am far from being a polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness queen. My con­cerns lie in the realm of human expe­ri­ence, not in abstract theory.

I’m also a woman who, in ret­ro­spect, spent way too much of my youth think­ing about what men think of me—a will­ing if clue­less col­lab­o­ra­tor on the larger social project of turn­ing women into objects. Mes­sages like the ones I heard in spin class? For decades, I absorbed them with­out think­ing. The results were not good. (A fas­ci­nat­ing side note: Research has shown that women who see them­selves as objects are less able to count their own heartbeats—a find­ing that fur­ther under­scores how music that objec­ti­fies women is fun­da­men­tally at odds with the goal of empow­er­ing women to inhabit their own bod­ies, “to be strong, both phys­i­cally and men­tally,” in the words of my gym’s pur­ported mission.)

Finally: You know what? I sim­ply couldn’t care less how low a bad girl can go—I’m way more inter­ested in hear­ing about how far a smart one can. In my era, there was music that was ener­giz­ing and enliven­ing with­out turn­ing women into dis­pos­able body parts—think Bruce Spring­steen, the Talk­ing Heads, R-E-S-P-E-C-T Aretha. I assume—at least I pro­foundly hope—it still exists today. Next time I’m in spin class, I’d really like to hear it.

* * * *

Note:  In a sub­se­quent email exchange, a Health­works spokes­woman wrote that instruc­tors, who choose their own music, are expected to play “clean ver­sions” of the songs they select and to “use good judg­ment in choos­ing music that would not be con­sid­ered dis­taste­ful or offen­sive” and that they would fol­low up with the instruc­tor who taught the class I attended. I wrote back: “With all due respect, it doesn’t seem to me that you are pro­vid­ing ade­quate guide­lines here.” I did not receive a response.

Making it home

My neighborhood, on lockdown

My Coolidge Cor­ner neigh­bor­hood, on lockdown

On Mon­day, the bombs exploded. On Fri­day, the city was put on lock­down, and on Sun­day I boarded a plane to fly across the coun­try to a place I’d never been.

It was a trip I’d planned for a long time to a place – Port­land, Ore­gon – that I’d long wanted to visit. At the same time, as I fin­ished up my pack­ing and man­aged a last few errands, I found myself wish­ing that I wasn’t going any­where at all. What I wanted was nor­mal­ity – a return to the usual rou­tines of writ­ing, work, and friends.  It was then that I real­ized, with some sur­prise, that this place I’ve been liv­ing since Sep­tem­ber has come to feel like home.

For my friend Jan, the Boston/Cambridge area has felt, from the very begin­ning, like where she was meant to be. “Cam­bridge is the first and only place I’ve felt like I belong and where I’m entirely com­fort­able in my own skin,” she wrote last week, in the dizzy­ing days after law enforce­ment staked out the Cam­bridge res­i­dence of the alleged marathon bombers.

My own rela­tion­ship with the area has been both slightly longer and far more fraught. It began back in 1978, when I arrived on the Har­vard cam­pus at the age of 18, a seri­ous, shy Mid­west­erner abruptly cat­a­pulted into a for­eign land. In the 20th–cen­tury intel­lec­tual his­tory class I took fresh­man year, our pro­fes­sor lec­tured on the 1897 novel Les Dérac­inés, about seven young provin­cials who lose their way after arriv­ing in Paris, the price of hav­ing been torn away from their native tra­di­tions. That word stayed with me— dérac­iné, unrooted. I cer­tainly wasn’t liv­ing in France at the turn of the cen­tury.  Still, I knew what it felt like to be alone and unmoored.

I did not cope espe­cially well. I went to a lot of par­ties, and I began a drink­ing career that would last through my mid-30s. I recall a cou­ple of half-hearted vis­its to Har­vard Uni­ver­sity health ser­vices with no notable results. Some two decades later, Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven would chron­i­cle a murder-suicide in one of Harvard’s under­grad­u­ate houses. An Ethiopian stu­dent, lonely and unsta­ble, stabbed her Vietnamese-born room­mate to death then hung her­self. Read­ing Thernstrom’s account of the sys­temic fail­ings of Harvard’s psy­cho­log­i­cal ser­vices, I would nod my head think­ing, yes, this is what it was like.

Being young, con­fused, and far from home, bereft of sup­port structures—it’s never been a recipe for hap­pi­ness. Yet why do some tri­umph against all odds, while oth­ers self-destruct, while still oth­ers lash out vio­lently with trag­i­cally hor­rific results?

By all accounts, the eth­nic Chechen Tsar­naev broth­ers were con­sid­ered friendly and well-liked. What series of events led to them to mutate from seem­ingly assim­i­lated immi­grants to mur­der­ous bombers? While the answers may never be fully known, a his­tory of uncer­tainty and dis­lo­ca­tion is unlikely to have helped.

Wher­ever you go there you are. The more I reflect on that neat apho­rism, the less true it seems. For many of us, and for many dif­fer­ent rea­sons, home is not a place to which we return, it is some­thing we cre­ate, and that act of cre­ation takes energy, resources, and sup­port, along with that unde­fin­able and elu­sive thing called luck. When I moved back to Boston this last time, I had all of these. I know what it’s like not to: It’s really, really hard.

Per­haps the most iconic photo to emerge from the marathon bomb­ings is the image of a man in a cow­boy hat leap­ing to the aid of a crit­i­cally injured vic­tim, hav­ing beaten down flames and tied a tourni­quet to one of his par­tially sev­ered legs. We now know that the res­cuer is Car­los Arredondo, a 52-year-old peace activist who’d already faced more than his share of per­sonal tragedy. Nine years ago, on learn­ing that his 20-year-old son had been killed by Iraqi snipers, he doused him­self with gaso­line and set him­self on fire. Two years, ago a sec­ond son com­mit­ted sui­cide, hav­ing never recov­ered from his brother’s death and father’s result­ing meltdown.

How do we account for this sort of gor­geous alchemy? If Arredondo had become a ter­ror­ist, we would have no short­age of ready expla­na­tions. But instead his anguish fueled a pas­sion to save and res­cue. “Cities are not resilient, peo­ple are. And, some­times, they are not,” wrote Boston jour­nal­ist Elaine McNa­mara. The jour­ney from despair and loss is both pro­foundly per­sonal and unpre­dictable. Wrong turns hap­pen. Not every­one makes it back.