6 things that cracked me up in 2011

The Happiest Place On Earth

Who needs positive thinking when you have a dark sense of humor?

This was my Facebook status update on Tuesday, billed as my “Insight of the Day.” (Actually, it was my first and only insight likely to be so labeled, but Facebook  is forgiving that way.)

In any case, I’ve been thinking a lot about humor lately—and the critical role it’s played during my past year in Plan B Nation. Of all the qualities that serve us well in this place of uncertainty—optimism, gratitude, and perseverance, being just a few—humor is perhaps the only one that comes naturally to me.

People often tell me that I am funny, and it’s true that sometimes I can be, but where I really excel is in recalling funny things I’ve read and heard. In that spirit, here are six things that cracked me up this year—and helped make my roller coaster search for work both bearable and (at times) entertaining.

1. I’m sorry I bit you during my job interview: For most of us in Plan B Nation, job interviews are serious stuff.  In any case, rest assured that whatever happened at your last interview, it was nowhere near as bad as this guy’s.

2.  And that’s why you should learn to pick your battles: But perhaps you are totally sick of thinking about jobs, work, the economy, or anything remotely related to any of these. If so, perhaps the time has come to spend some time reflecting on BIG METAL CHICKENS.  Seriously, I recommend it. You’ll be glad that you did.

3. Adventures in depression: Still, no doubt about it, life in Plan B Nation can really suck, and you may find yourself becoming just a teensy bit clinically depressed. In which case, I’d like to introduce you to this darkly hilarious little cartoon about how even the saddest among us can still find a way through.

4.  Why yoga can be so irritating (although you should go anyway!): Of course, one of the best ways to avoid depression is regular exercise. Yoga has the added benefit of fostering a deep sense of connection to the world around us—except when it doesn’t.

5.  An honest Facebook political argument: Just because you are home alone on your computer looking for work doesn’t mean you can’t take part in discussions of the major issues of the day.  And where better to do this than Facebook?

6. Need a role model? If so, look no further than bestselling author Laura Zigman, whose Xtranormal video series has quickly been gaining a cult following and offers textbook examples of Plan B Nation humor.

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I hope you enjoyed these. Please help add to my collection! Share your personal 2011 favorites in the comment section below.

When is it time to change course? (HT legal realism)

Kayak sobre las nubes / Sailing in the sky

Whether you’re reading a self-help book, a leadership guide, or any number of blogs, you’re likely to hear a lot about the importance of keeping commitments.

Indeed, the ability to follow through—to exercise self-control—is critical to success and happiness, according to the new book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by research psychologist Roy Baumeister and New York Times writer John Tierney.

As I recently wrote in Huffington Post, there are a number of proven strategies helpful in keeping us on course, including tracking our progress, limiting our priorities, and keeping our bodies fueled with the glucose that facilitates self-control. One of the more innovative (and amusing) solutions is StickK.com, the brainchild of two Yale professors and one of their students. It works like this: Pick a goal. Report your progress. Fail to do what you promised? You are hit with an automatic penalty, such as making a payment to an “anti-charity”—a group with views you detest.

Such strategies can be especially helpful in Plan B Nation, where continued movement towards important goals can be especially hard to keep up. It’s one thing to finish a project on time when a boss is breathing down your neck. Quite another to plug away day after day alone on a seemingly unending job hunt. Over time, I’ve adopted a number of the strategies the Willpower authors describe—along with some of my own. They’ve helped me to move forward on numerous fronts, including launching this blog.

At the same time, as with pretty much everything, there are limits to willpower. Yes, thriving in Plan B requires a more-than-usual infusion of determination. But it also requires more-than-usual flexibility—a willingness to improvise, to take our opportunities where we find them. If we become too fixated on our goals, we may fail to recognize (and take advantage of) unexpected strokes of luck. Focus is good. Blinders are bad.

These thoughts have been on my mind as I wind up my first seven days of NaPerProMo. This is my personal (and intentionally silly-sounding) answer to National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, wherein more than 200,000 would-be novelists commit to penning 50,000 words in the course of 30 days. Taking this model as a jumping off point, I announced that on December 1, I would embark on NaPerProMo—National Personal Project Month—with the goal of writing a blog post a day.

It sounded like a good idea—indeed, such a good idea that I recently learned that the BlogHer network of women bloggers just concluded NaBloPoMo (National Blog Post Month).  At the same time, as I’ve found in the past week, it isn’t quite feasible, at least not if I want to write the sort of posts that you’ll likely want to read.  In large part this is because I’ve suddenly (and happily) been getting some paying freelance work, and for me, it was a no-brainer that this had to take precedence.

I remember remarkably little of what I learned in law school, but one thing that sticks with me is an arresting list of conflicting “canons of construction”—rules for how we go about figuring out what a law means.  Legal realist Karl Llewellyn famously listed 28 examples of such conflicting rules. (For example, the rule that “A statute cannot go beyond its text” exists alongside “To effect its purpose, a statute may be implemented beyond its text.”)  When judges go about interpreting laws, there are “correct, unchallengeable rules of ‘how to read’ which lead in happily variant directions,” Llewellyn concluded with dry humor in a 1950 law review piece.

Here, it seems to me, that life is very much like law. Stick to your commitments. Be open and flexible. These are both great pieces of advice so far as they go, but at times they will conflict. And at such points we, like Llewellyn’s judge, will have to find our own “right” answer. For me, right now, this means keeping in mind the spirit of my goal (writing more, building community, connecting with My People) but being flexible in how I go about it. And while I may not write a blog post each and every day, I can still keep moving forward.

Do the wrong thing

BSOD 0x07B

I spent last Friday working (for pay), and this week I have phone calls with two more prospective clients.

As you likely know if you read this blog, this is an excellent development, as I’ve been in search of employment for, well, a while now.  Being an analytical sort, I’ve been giving some thought to how this came about (the theory being that, whatever it is, I should do more of it).  My conclusion: I should stop doing things right and keep doing things wrong.

If I were to offer a work-search road map based on my recent success, it would look something like this:

1.  Make a big deal about the fact that you are among the long-term unemployed. Tell everyone you know. Better yet: Find a national platform where you can broadcast this news to the world. No one will hire me! This sucks! You get the idea.

2.  Once you have succeeded in spreading word of your unemployability, do something to up the stakes. For example, you might consider telling everyone you know about your struggle with alcohol and how going public with unemployment reminds you of the first time you attended an AA meeting. Again, this is best done in the most public way possible—ideally on a national platform.

3.  Start slacking off a bit on your job search. Spend a lot of time in coffee shops. Go to the movies. Again, do your best to tell everyone you know that no one will hire you and that this has been the case for a long time.  Actually, don’t limit yourself to people you know—go up to strangers, introduce yourself, and try to work this into conversation.

4.  When the publicity around your unemployment starts to die down—if you’ve done things right, hundreds if not thousands of people will have been informed of your futile search for work—find a way to keep it in the spotlight. You might consider starting a blog about how no one will hire you. Update it regularly and post links to Facebook and Twitter so that strangers as well as friends become aware of your dilemma.

5.  Repeat the above as often as possible.

Okay, this is partly tongue in cheek, but really, only partly. The fact is, both my recent freelance project and one of my new work leads came from people who read this blog and the two much-discussed essays I previously published in Salon. The second lead came from a former neighbor I bumped into at the movies.  (This same friend has also become a terrific source of support and guidance for this blog.)

Before going public with my unemployment—you might even say I’ve made it my “brand”—I spent a good number of months following traditional job search guidelines:  Recognize that if you’re unemployed you’re at a disadvantage, so do your best to obscure this fact. Write enticing cover letters. Hone your interview skills.

Now, this is fine advice, great so far as it goes. At the same time, it clearly has its limits.  As for me, I’ve concluded that the time has come to diversify my strategies. There’s a place for doing everything right. And there’s a place for doing things wrong.

On life in a small town (plus a gratitude update)

“It’s like you took a big city, raptured up all the fun and interesting people, and then plopped them down in western Massachusetts.”

That’s how I recently described Northampton to a friend. It seemed an especially apt analogy, given that local boosters of my new hometown sometimes call it Paradise City.

Just before Thanksgiving I wrote about cultivating gratitude and that, while it’s never been my natural default mode, I planned to give it a shot. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve made a daily practice of listing at least three things that lifted my spirits that day, and while I’ve missed a day or two here and there, I’ve pretty much stuck with it.

While I can’t say the practice has changed my life, it does strike me as having had a subtle yet pervasive impact.  Buddhists often talk about the way we “incline” our minds: Are we training our minds to move towards happiness or towards suffering?  The daily gratitude practice seems to help with this.  Rather than scanning the day’s landscape for things likely to go wrong, I now tend to keep a mental eye out for things that are going right.

And of all the things going right in my life, I’m repeatedly reminded that this little town and its people are high on the list. The essay below explains way. It’s about a freak October snowstorm, a loaf of bread, and how friends make all the difference.  (A slightly abridged version previously appeared in our local paper, the Hampshire Gazette.)

It Takes a Village to Make a Loaf of Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread in the Happy Valley during a Time of Climate Change.

When the snow started to fall, I was playing a card game with the Baskinettes. Which isn’t really surprising, since this is how I’ve spent a good bit of the past year, something between an honorary aunt and slow-on-the-uptake peer.  (“I’m going to deal the cards instead of you. That way, it will be faster,” a seven-year-old Remy once airily informed me.)

“Do you think I should head home now?” I asked the Baskinettes’ father, aka my friend Hosie.  The snow was coming down faster, in huge wet clumped flakes.

Hosie looked out the window and shrugged. “I don’t think you have to rush.”

And indeed, he was right.  Back home a few hours later, safe and warm, I decided to do some baking. For weeks, I’d been meaning to make New York Times food guru Mark Bittman’s magical no-knead bread.  With 10 minutes or so of hands-on time for an artisan-quality loaf, it’s a recipe easy to love. The only challenge is finding the 14-hour window needed for the dough to rest. But I had plenty of time now. I expected a quiet weekend.

The dough was just starting to rise, when I got my first inkling my night might not go entirely according to plan.  My cell (only) phone rang (cricket chirped). It was the eldest of the Baskinettes, 16-year-old Ezekiel.

“We don’t have power.” The voice was aggrieved  “I’m. So. Bored.”

Still, freakish as this seemed—and by “this” I mean the weather, not teen protestations of boredom—I wasn’t all that worried. I live in a neighborhood where utility lines are safely lodged underground. We rarely lose power out here. Also: It’s October!  I glanced at a clock: almost time for bed.

Then everything went black.

No big deal, I thought philosophically. I’ll get a good night’s sleep.  Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have power back.

This did not happen.

When I got up the next day, it was really cold.  I flicked the light switch. No response.  No electricity meant no coffee. Something had to be done.

A Facebook friend once asked if the Happy Valley’s vaunted fashion laissez-faire extended to PJs as street wear. “Yes!” came the resounding response. “Totally!  Absolutely!”  It seemed that today was as good a day as any to put this to the test. I yanked on a fleece in the frigid air, grabbed my parka, slipped on boots. Keys. Purse. Money.

And then I remembered the bread.

There it was on the kitchen counter, waiting so patiently.  Heading out the door, I picked up the bowl and cradled it in my arms.

I never pick up hitchhikers, but this once, I made an exception for the bundled twenty-something figure trudging tiredly down Route 9.  He slid into the seat behind me, taking the bread in his lap, glad for the ride and seemingly unphased by his pajama-wearing dough-toting driver. He was bound for the Unitarian Church in town in hopes the service was still on.  We talked about The Great Gatsby, Faulkner and Willa Cather. Then I dropped him at the church and parked my car, my mind once again on coffee.

But while the mood on Main Street was strangely festive, not a store or café was open.  A flannel-clad me paused dejectedly. I was out of luck.  (On the upside, those Facebook friends were right. No one gave me a second glance.)

I love my town for lots of reasons, and one of them is this: When you show up unannounced on your friends’ doorstep, wearing pajamas and bearing dough, you’re likely to be greeted as if you’re paying a totally normal visit.  Once settled in at the breakfast table and fortified with black tea (no electricity meant no coffee grinder, no coffee grinder, no coffee), I explained to my friends Jen and Michael the purpose of my mission.  “I knew you had a gas stove,” I concluded. “So I thought I could bake it here.”  But a gas stove, yes. Gas oven, no.  Again, I was back to square one.

Happily, here in the Happy Valley, hope springs eternal.  A few hours later, up the street, back at the Baskinettes, I had the choice of two gas stoves—and yes, one of them even appeared to have a functioning gas-fueled oven. We set out on a rescue operation, the four Baskinettes and I, trekking back down the snowy hill to collect the dough from Jen and Michael’s.

So far so good.

But not so fast.

There comes a time in every endeavor when by far the most sensible option is simply to give up.  Our Bread Odyssey reached this point when we found, upon arriving home, that the oven on which we’d pinned our hopes was also out of commission.  Is it possible to fry yeast bread? To rig up a stove top oven?  We gave some half-hearted thought to these questions, but clearly we were losing steam.  And then, like some culinary deus ex machina, Hosie’s sister appeared.  Yes, Lucretia had a functioning oven, and yes she would take our bread.

That night, after a largely housebound day trending towards cabin fever, the Baskinettes and I set out on foot for the nearby college campus center, lured by the prospect of heat and light and maybe even vending machines.  It was just around 7:30, but it felt pretty much like midnight. Beneath a sharp white sliver of moon, our shoes crunched through snow.  Still, it was good to be outside, to breathe in the fresh night air.

Then, for a strange frozen moment, I saw us as if from a distance, characters in the opening scenes of a movie that wouldn’t end well. Isn’t this how they always start, those blockbuster disaster films?   An almost ordinary lovely day in an ordinary lovely town.   Kids, families, plans, friends—and then The Thing appears.  (Aliens, terrorists, viral pandemic—you can take your pick.)  At first, no one understands what it is they’re up against.  It’s just a slight cough, or a faint shadow. Or a snow storm in October.

We got power back the next day, two days earlier than predicted. All in all, we’d gotten off easy. Even the shrimp and ice cream in my freezer appeared to have survived the thaw.  Within hours, you could almost feel like everything was back to normal.  Almost but not quite.  Not if you surveyed the piles of tangled tree limbs, leaves green against improbable snow.  Not if you took some time to think about the next logical plot point.

I finally caught up with my bread again the following afternoon, now transmuted into a golden cornmeal-encrusted round.  “Was easy enough to bake but seems a little, uh, dense, which is likely because of the lack of warm rise,” Lucretia wrote me on Facebook.  And to sure, when I picked up the loaf, it did seem rather stone-like. But when I cut off a slice and took a hesitant bite, it was amazingly not-too-bad—especially if accompanied by a bit of homemade peach jam.

In the past few months, our little part of the world has endured its share of hardships: a tornado, a hurricane, and now a blizzard, not to mention the all-engulfing global economic maelstrom.  We live in strange and unsettling times. I know this is true. I also know that, whatever dangers we face, there is hope in our human connections. Together, we can grapple with climate change—or make a loaf of bread.  And if you’re going to face the apocalypse, it’s best to do it with friends.