Life Experiment #2: Creating Order

Order is every­thing,” my friend Melissa once remarked, more than two decades ago.

When an off­hand com­ment sticks in your mind, there’s likely a very good rea­son why, and in this case, that rea­son is read­ily appar­ent every­where I look.

I am liv­ing in chaos.

It is a fer­tile, vibrant chaos, to be sure—fascinating books, scrib­bled notes, Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions, piles of col­or­ful clothes, fliers for events I’d like to attend, bowls of local apples and onions, recipes I’d like to make. At times, I view the mess as akin to compost—materials that make my days both richer and more nourishing.

But mostly it’s a way bet­ter metaphor than it is a way of life. It’s frus­trat­ing, and it’s time-consuming, and some­times it’s even expen­sive. (This morn­ing, I searched for some books about orga­ni­za­tion that I’d picked up years ago. Tellingly, I couldn’t find them.)

Which is why February’s Life Exper­i­ment will be about Cre­at­ing Order.

As some of you may recall, I’ve dubbed 2012 my Year of Exper­i­ments. Each month, I’m embark­ing on a new set of activ­i­ties around a par­tic­u­lar theme. At the end of each month, I’ll give some thought to how my life has shifted and share the results.

In par­tic­u­lar, I’m inter­ested in how activ­i­ties that are appar­ently unre­lated affect and inform each other. Here, I think of the old say­ing “Trust in God and clean house.” (Not to be con­fused with another old say­ing: “Trust in God and keep your pow­der dry.”) How will bring­ing order to my liv­ing space change my life in other ways? Stay tuned for the answer.

Or bet­ter yet, join me! Make Feb­ru­ary your month of cre­at­ing order—or pick a Life Exper­i­ment of your own and watch to see how things change.

As a reminder, here are my sug­gested guide­lines for Life Exper­i­ments. (I described these in more detail in a pre­vi­ous post.):

1.  Select process goals, not out­come goals

2. Select activ­i­ties that are directly related to your larger goals

3. Pick activ­i­ties that are sat­is­fy­ing (and even fun) in themselves.

And now, here it is, my per­sonal Life Exper­i­ment #2: Every day I will take one or more spe­cific and quan­tifi­able actions aimed at cre­at­ing order at home. (Exam­ples: I will take 10 arti­cles of cloth­ing to Good­will. I will spend an hour sort­ing through office papers.)

I’ll keep myself account­able by track­ing the actions I take each day. (In case you’re won­der­ing, an update on January’s Life Exper­i­ment is shortly forthcoming.)

 ♦

Order, orga­ni­za­tion, neatness—these are not qual­i­ties that come nat­u­rally to me. I will never be that per­son who, as hap­pi­ness maven Gretchen Rubin once did, explains my com­pat­i­bil­ity with a mate in terms of a shared affin­ity for order, (“He’ll  say ‘Let’s take 20 min­utes and tidy up,’” Rubin told the New York Times, in describ­ing her husband.)

I do, how­ever, think that I can do bet­ter.  Maybe a lot bet­ter.  I plan to give it a shot.

Plan B Nation bookshelf: Aging as a Spiritual Practice (+ book giveaway)

Aging is depress­ing,” a friend announced, after see­ing Iron Lady, the new Mar­garet Thatcher biopic star­ring Meryl Streep.

This is no doubt true, at least for some of us, some of the time. But even more to the point is this salient fact: It hap­pens to all of us.

Given the inevitabil­ity of grow­ing older, it seems sen­si­ble to give some thought to how we can mine this expe­ri­ence for what­ever good it con­tains. In this spirit, I was drawn to read Bud­dhist teacher Lewis Richmond’s new book Aging as a Spir­i­tual Prac­tice: A Con­tem­pla­tive Guide to Grow­ing Older and Wiser (Gotham Books 2012).

Richmond’s mes­sage is twofold: On the one hand, every­thing we love is des­tined to change, age, and pass away. On the other, “every moment brings with it new oppor­tu­ni­ties” if we can only stay open to them.  In writ­ing this book, he set out to help us do just that.

As Rich­mond sees it, our goal should be flexibility—physical, men­tal, and emotional—qualities that research has linked to longer and health­ier lives. With this end in mind, he offers an array of Buddhist-infused med­i­ta­tions and tools along with shar­ing his own life story and those of oth­ers, includ­ing sev­eral inspir­ing exam­ples of “the extra­or­di­nary elderly.”

Rich­mond stresses that the chal­lenges of aging aren’t lim­ited to those on the far side of mid­dle age—and may not even cor­re­late with chrono­log­i­cal age. “I’m twenty-seven, and I’ve sud­denly real­ized that I’m grow­ing old,” wrote one cor­re­spon­dent.  “I’m seventy-three, and I’ve never felt younger,” wrote another.

But while our inner expe­ri­ences may dif­fer, there are com­mon denom­i­na­tors. “Aging is not just change, but irre­versible change—for bet­ter or worse,” Rich­mond observes. Some may find this insight depress­ing, but I found it strangely lib­er­at­ing. If you’re any­thing like me, you spent a lot of your young adult­hood lean­ing into the future, striv­ing to cre­ate the con­di­tions for what­ever life you thought would make you happy. For me, an upside of reach­ing mid­dle age has been an enhanced capac­ity to live in the present moment (which, as the Bud­dhists have told us for mil­len­nia, is all that we ever really have).

I was also struck by the extent to which the skills Rich­mond says we need to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate aging have much in com­mon with those needed to suc­cess­fully nav­i­gate Plan B Nation, regard­less of age. For exam­ple, Rich­mond talks about the impor­tance of cre­at­ing new iden­ti­ties to replace those we have lost—as true for a newly unem­ployed as it is for an aging retiree.

In par­tic­u­lar, I liked this exer­cise. I plan to try it. You might want to try it too:

Make three lists. In the first, include what has been lost in the last three or five or 10 years (you pick the time frame).  In the sec­ond, include what has been gained. In the third, include new pos­si­bil­i­ties for replen­ish­ing your iden­tity.  And with this last list, Rich­mond urges, “Reach as high and as far as you can.”

Note: Gotham Books has kindly pro­vided an extra copy of Aging as a Spir­i­tual Prac­tice for me to give away. For a chance to win the book, leave a com­ment below.  At the bot­tom of your com­ment, please indi­cate you’d like to be entered in the draw­ing by typ­ing the word “give­away.” The draw­ing is next weekend.

What price an iPhone?

In The Twenty-One Bal­loons—one of my all-time favorite child­hood books—a kindly pro­fes­sor attempts to fly across the Pacific by bal­loon but instead crash lands onto the diamond-rich island of Kraka­toa. There, he dis­cov­ers a fan­tas­ti­cal com­mu­nity where, apart from the few oblig­a­tions imposed by a “Restau­rant Gov­ern­ment,” the lucky inhab­i­tants spend their days “try­ing to make life more pleas­ant for our­selves and each other.”

There was a time when this happy vision had much in com­mon with how we imag­ined The Future. With­out giv­ing it too much thought, those of us who grew up watch­ing The Jet­sons and dream­ing of mag­i­cal robots assumed that labor-saving devices would mean more free time for every­one, as we all shared in the ben­e­fits of new technologies.

But that’s not how it’s turned out. Almost with­out notic­ing, we’ve traded our egal­i­tar­ian Jetsons-era paradigm—which inci­den­tally coin­cided with a thriv­ing Amer­i­can mid­dle class—for one that requires ever-more from the world’s poor­est and most vul­ner­a­ble while pil­ing up riches for an ultra-rich and every smaller global elite.

Not con­vinced?

Take a look at the New York Times’ exhaus­tive piece on How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work. The story goes like this:  Apple has moved almost all of its man­u­fac­tur­ing over­seas because this was its “only option.” The “flex­i­bil­ity, dili­gence and indus­trial skills” that Apple requires are in far greater sup­ply over­seas than among U.S. work­ers. “The speed and flex­i­bil­ity is breath­tak­ing,” one Apple exec­u­tive told the Times.

Who can argue with “speed and flex­i­bil­ity”? Such goals sound rea­son­able enough, right?

But drill down beneath the abstrac­tions, and the facts tell a dif­fer­ent story. What does all this talk of “speed and flex­i­bil­ity” actu­ally mean in prac­tice?  The real­ity is this:

One for­mer exec­u­tive described how the com­pany relied upon a Chi­nese fac­tory to revamp iPhone man­u­fac­tur­ing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forc­ing an assem­bly line over­haul. New screens began arriv­ing at the plant near midnight.

A fore­man imme­di­ately roused 8,000 work­ers inside the company’s dor­mi­to­ries, accord­ing to the exec­u­tive. Each employee was given a bis­cuit and a cup of tea, guided to a work­sta­tion and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fit­ting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was pro­duc­ing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

Mean­while,  Apple’s prof­its con­tinue to soar to stratos­pheric lev­els, with the com­pany earn­ing more than $400,000 in profit per employee, more than Gold­man Sachs, Exxon Mobil, or Google, accord­ing to the Times. “Apple shares are up $24.3 bil­lion today. Maybe now they can afford to pay their Chi­nese work­ers more than $1 an hour,” humorist Andy Borowitz tweeted.

But what truly mystifies—and sad­dens me—isn’t the fact that inter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions (even Apple!) tend to focus on short-term profit at almost any cost (though even this assump­tion is of fairly recent vin­tage, as New York Times eco­nom­ics reporter Louis Uchitelle explained in The Dis­pos­able Amer­i­can) but rather that so many of us seem to accept this as a mat­ter of course. That so few of us are say­ing: “Are you fuck­ing kid­ding me?”

How has this come to pass? It seems to me that, in our anx­i­ety over U.S. com­pet­i­tive­ness, we’ve come to unthink­ingly con­flate two quite dif­fer­ent things:  First, the ques­tion of edu­ca­tion and skills, a legit­i­mate con­cern. Sec­ond, the ques­tion of “dili­gence and flexibility”—words that are all-too-often code for a will­ing­ness to tol­er­ate the sort of work­ing con­di­tions that decades of labor activism and leg­is­la­tion have sought to con­sign to his­tory.  (Thomas L. Friedman’s “Aver­age is Over” col­umn in yesterday’s Times illus­trates this quite nicely.)

You don’t have to look far for evi­dence that Apple’s busi­ness model is toxic.  (While I’m not sug­gest­ing that Apple is alone here, the company’s epic cool fac­tor does make it an espe­cially galling tar­get.) Just today, the Times fol­lowed up its report on Apple’s out­sourc­ing with a piece chill­ingly titled: “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad,” rife with sto­ries of fatal fac­tory explo­sions, sui­cides, rou­tinely dan­ger­ous work­ing con­di­tions, and work-related injuries. The “dor­mi­to­ries” where work­ers live? Reporters found up to 20 peo­ple stuffed into a three-room apart­ment.  An audit of Apple’s sup­pli­ers last year found at least half the work­ers at 93 facil­i­ties exceeded the 60-hours-a-week limit estab­lished in Apple’s own sup­plier code of conduct.

And the ratio­nale for this fren­zied activ­ity and human suf­fer­ing? Push­ing iPhones into the world more quickly and in larger num­bers, respond­ing to our rapa­cious cries for more Angry Birds and Siri. “What U.S. plant can find 3,000 peo­ple overnight and con­vince them to live in dorms?” Apple’s Jen­nifer Rigoni rhetor­i­cally asked the Times.

As an iPhone owner I have this to say: I would have been will­ing to wait.

Preschool wisdom (or what a 3-year-old could teach Joan Didion)

By Day 2 of the Snow­to­ber power out­age, we were all feel­ing a lit­tle ragged, and appar­ently the three-year-old Bask­inette had taken note.

Amy Gut­man, lis­ten to me” she said author­i­ta­tively. “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

It was close to the most bril­liant thing I’d ever heard, and I was a lit­tle bit stunned. Who are you and where did you come from? I remem­ber thinking.

As I later discovered—and if you have kids or teach them, you prob­a­bly already know this—the say­ing is a stan­dard part of the preschool reper­toire. But I instantly knew that it needed to be a stan­dard part of mine. (The 16-year-old Bask­inette kindly tran­scribed it, and it now has a promi­nent place on my refrigerator.)

Of course, there’s noth­ing new in the basic idea—we’ve all heard it zil­lions of times in zil­lions of dif­fer­ent forms: Want what you have. It is what it is. Take life on life’s terms. And my all-time favorite for­mu­la­tion from Bud­dhist teacher Cheri Huber “[T]he alter­nate real­ity in which every­thing is exactly as you think it should be exists only in your mind, and it exists pri­mar­ily to tor­ture you.”

More­over, such insights are backed up by hard data. Research sug­gests that peo­ple who want what they have are actu­ally hap­pier than oth­ers.

And yet—like so many obvi­ous truths—it’s one many of us seem to have a hard time grasp­ing. This crossed my mind the other day as I lis­tened to a friend angst­ing over a sin­gle less-than-perfect devel­op­ment in a pretty ter­rific life. I found myself thinking—in the nicest pos­si­ble way—“You really need to grow up.”

Now it’s just pos­si­ble there was a tiny bit of envy and resent­ment there. From where I sat—more than two years into a job search with its atten­dant finan­cial pressures—my friend’s wor­ries seemed pretty minor.

But I also think my reac­tion spoke to a larger point. Some­thing hap­pened to us here in the United States over the past few decades—at least to those of us who began with win­ning num­bers in life’s lot­tery: We started to believe that we were enti­tled to per­fect lives.

This thought came back to me again while read­ing Joan Didion’s mem­oir Blue Nights, which deals with the stun­ning after­math of her daugh­ter Quin­tana Roo’s death. There’s no doubt about it: Did­ion endured an unimag­in­ably painful stretch of loss, with her daughter’s death com­ing shortly after the death of her beloved hus­band, writer John Gre­gory Dunne (itself the sub­ject of her best-selling The Year of Mag­i­cal Think­ing). Still, for all the very real tragedy, I was jarred by her recur­ring refrain that this was never sup­posed to hap­pen.

Make no mis­take, Didion’s baf­fled out­rage isn’t lim­ited to the deaths of her hus­band and daughter—it’s pretty uni­ver­sal, extend­ing to the fact of her own aging, includ­ing a frus­trat­ing inabil­ity to con­tinue wear­ing (at age 75) her favorite red suede san­dals with four-inch heels. In Didion’s world­view, these things were (appar­ently) not sup­posed to hap­pen to some­one who could look back and write: “There had been cars, a swim­ming pool, a gar­den … There had been Eng­lish chintzes, chi­nois­erie toile. There had been a Bou­vier des Flan­dres motion­less on the stair.…”

In sum, Did­ion devotes her con­sid­er­able gifts to mar­veling over the shock­ing fact that she, like the rest of us, is vul­ner­a­ble to life.

What struck me as odd wasn’t the aware­ness itself but rather how it seemed to come as an unex­pected blow. It seemed so, well, child­like—this notion of a per­sonal exemp­tion, cou­pled with the implicit expec­ta­tion that we read­ers would share her aston­ish­ment and cha­grin. (Which may go to a sep­a­rate, if related, point. In her mes­mer­iz­ing piece on Did­ion in the cur­rent issue of “The Atlantic,” Caitlin Flana­gan quotes one critic describ­ing Did­ion and Dunne as hav­ing pos­sessed “a per­fectly com­ple­men­tary nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­ity dis­or­der that was shared beau­ti­fully between two people.”)

Tellingly, it’s a per­spec­tive that has long been mined for dark humor. “You know, funer­als always make me think about my own mor­tal­ity and how I’m actu­ally going to die some­day. Me, dead. Imag­ine that,” Elaine Benes mar­vels in one of my favorite “Sein­feld” episodes. More recently, Sarah Miller made the same point in her witty and insight­ful send-up of the New York Times’ much-ballyhooed mag­a­zine story about the dan­gers of yoga. “You can’t expect the Sort of Peo­ple Who Tend to Read The Times to freak out about Amber Alerts and Child Moles­ters,” she writes in “The Awl.” “About the only thing that will get upper-middle-class coast dwellers into a frenzy is the idea—the word ‘fact’ is so black and white, n’est-ce pas?—that Some Day They Are Going To Fuck­ing Die.”

Indeed.

At sev­eral points in Blue Nights, Did­ion seems to rec­og­nize she’s at risk of los­ing her read­ers. Her response is defi­ant. She resists the notion that she (with her 13 home tele­phones, none within reach when she took a fall) and her daugh­ter (with her 60 baby dresses) lived lives encased in priv­i­lege. “‘Priv­i­lege’ is a judg­ment. ‘Priv­i­lege’ is an opin­ion. ‘Priv­i­lege’ is an accu­sa­tion,” she writes.

But priv­i­lege is also some­thing else: An obser­va­tion, a state­ment of fact. And because we are all human and mor­tal, it is also always temporary.

The magic of cause & effect

low gravity

Years back, when I first found my way to AA, I used to roll my eyes at old-timers’ earnest promises that “things will get bet­ter.” Don’t get me wrong. I loved AA from the start and didn’t ever think seri­ously about going back to drink­ing. (I was lucky that way.) Still, it struck me as absurd that peo­ple I’d never spo­ken to thought they could pre­dict my future. What made them so cer­tain? How could they pos­si­bly know?

It took a long time—months, in fact—before it finally hit me: “Hey! Maybe if you stop pour­ing gal­lons of a toxic depres­sant into your sys­tem things are likely to look up! Maybe, if you stop ingest­ing a sub­stance that wreaks havoc on your rela­tion­ships, life will (as a gen­eral rule) tend to run more smoothly!” Amaz­ing. Who knew?

These thoughts came back to me the other day when a Very Nice Thing hap­pened. Brazen Careerist founder Pene­lope Trunk—who, of all the blog­gers on the planet, is prob­a­bly the one I most admire—commented on the post I’d writ­ten about the ben­e­fits of blog­ging (or more specif­i­cally, about how research sug­gest­ing that blog­ging may help new moms could well also per­tain to the newly unemployed).

Here’s what she wrote:

Amy, I really like this post. I started blog­ging when I had my first baby. I didn’t do it inten­tion­ally as a way to con­nect. I did it as a way to make sure my career didn’t tank while my emo­tions were tank­ing. But I totally under­stand how blog­ging could help new moms.

The other thing I love about blog­ging is that blog­ging gives me a way to share all the inter­est­ing research I come across. I’m with kids most of the day, and believe me, they really don’t care what I’m read­ing about. The blog is a way to keep my life intel­lec­tu­ally stimulating.

And, I love the research you have in this post. It makes me feel con­nected to read it and talk about it :)

Pene­lope

I was so excited! Not just a pro forma “thanks for link­ing to me” but a real live gen­uine com­ment reflect­ing on what I’d talked about and how she liked what I’d said.

And what had I done to spark this happy devel­op­ment?  Okay hold on to your seats. After link­ing to her blog on mine, I told her that I had done this.

Could any­thing be sim­pler or more obvi­ous? And yet, I almost didn’t do it. Here’s why: In the world in which I blog, Pene­lope Trunk is a celebrity. I thought about the zil­lions of emails she likely gets each day. I didn’t want to be tedious. I didn’t want to push. I didn’t want to annoy her. (And she can be annoyed.)

But in my delib­er­a­tions, I’d some­how over­looked two cru­cial facts: First, if you don’t tell some­one you wrote a post about them, they most likely won’t find out.* Sec­ond, if you do tell them, there’s a chance they will actu­ally read what you wrote and turn out to like it.

Give how uni­ver­sal this cause-and-effect stuff seems to be, it’s remark­able how often I have to remind myself to pay atten­tion to it. True, if you make an effort to con­nect with some­one it’s pos­si­ble you’ll annoy them. But if you don’t make the effort, chances are good you won’t con­nect at all. Yes, you’ll avoid the down­side risk, but you’ll also miss the upside. Cause and effect, it turns out, tends to cut both ways.

* Unless you’re Pene­lope Trunk, and then they most likely will.

Feasting in Plan B Nation: How to feed body (and soul) on $40 a week

 

Peach “sec­onds” from Apex Orchards of Shel­burne, Mass. (now in my freezer)

You think you’re hav­ing a bad week? Con­sider this: Within a sin­gle week in 2009, food jour­nal­ist Robin Mather was laid off from her job at the Chicago Tri­bune and found her­self on the brink of divorce.

Faced with this dou­ble whammy, she retreated to a 650-square-foot cot­tage on a small lake in south­west Michi­gan, where she was—to put things into perspective—eight miles from the near­est street light. There, she embarked on the life now chron­i­cled in her memoir-with-recipes The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a mar­riage, and found my way by keep­ing chick­ens, for­ag­ing, pre­serv­ing, bar­ter­ing, and eat­ing locally (all on forty dol­lars a week)—a book that envi­ron­men­tal­ist Bill McK­ibben calls “charm­ingly subversive—a lovely reminder of, and guide to, the things that really count.”

Mather now serves as Senior Asso­ciate Edi­tor at Mother Earth News—and her per­sonal turn­around  earned her hon­or­able men­tion for Best Sec­ond Act Come­back from the pop­u­lar Sec­ond Act site.

In the guest post that fol­lows, Mather shares what she learned dur­ing the year she com­mit­ted to eat­ing three local homes-cooked meals a day on $40 a week—and describes how eat­ing well in Plan B Nation can be a first step towards bounc­ing back.

photo: Bob Fila

By Robin Mather

I get lots of lovely mail from read­ers of The Feast Nearby. “You’re so brave!” they say. “I wish I had your strength!” they write.

But I am not brave—in the book’s first chap­ter, I write about how fright­ened and fear­ful I was—and I am not espe­cially strong. What I am blessed with, though, is resilience.

When life slugged me, as poet John Cia­rdi describes it in “In Place of a Curse”—one of my favorite poems— you can bet I fin­gered my jaw in painful admi­ra­tion. And then I got up. Because really, what other choice is there?

Resilience isn’t strength. It cre­ates strength. Resilience isn’t courage. It cre­ates courage. Resilience doesn’t change your luck. It makes your luck. Resilience is why some peo­ple sur­vive pain with­out bit­ter­ness, and its lack is why oth­ers become bent and twisted by what’s hap­pened to them. Resilience helps you see that a hard punch isn’t per­sonal, and that the punch doesn’t define you; it’s just some­thing that hap­pened to you.

Resilience is what you need to weather life’s hard­ships, and to come out bet­ter on the other side. So how do you cul­ti­vate it?

Well, I think resilience has to be fed—literally, as well as metaphor­i­cally. I think that cook­ing for your­self, really cook­ing good food, the kind that nour­ishes your spirit as well as your body, builds resilience.

This spirit-building kind of food will never come out of a box, or be passed to you out of a drive-through win­dow in a paper bag. It requires ingre­di­ents as near their nat­ural state as pos­si­ble. These ingre­di­ents remind you of your con­nec­tion to the wide, wide world every time you lay hands on them to cook. And if those ingre­di­ents con­nect you to the per­son who grew them, then they will really nour­ish you, because you have begun to build a community.

A plain bowl of stew-y beans can be a spir­i­tu­ally nour­ish­ing dish, as well as being good eat­ing that costs pen­nies. A roast chicken is the dish I pre­pare for myself when I’m most fright­ened, because a roast chicken pro­vides tan­gi­ble evi­dence that I went to some trou­ble to care for myself. The dishes you pre­pare don’t have to be expen­sive or com­pli­cated. There are nearly 100 recipes in my book for hon­est, sim­ple food.

That I could set about rebuild­ing my resilience—gaining the abil­ity to get up after those hard punches—while spend­ing just $40 a week on food should demon­strate to you that you can do so, too. It’s not about the dol­lars, you see. It’s about the kinds of foods you choose to pre­pare for your­self (and for what­ever lucky fam­ily and friends hap­pen to come your way).

So whether you have $40 a week to spend on food, or $80 or $200, spend­ing it wisely will help you feel stronger and more con­fi­dent. In my expe­ri­ence, cook­ing what you buy—transforming it into truly nour­ish­ing food—gives you a dou­ble return on your food dollars.

As I see it, when we allow other peo­ple to pre­pare our food, we sur­ren­der our resilience—starve it, if you will. Even if you pride your­self on not eat­ing processed food, you have still sur­ren­dered a lot of your con­fi­dence in your abil­ity to feed your­self to strangers’ hands. Just think of all the processed or man­u­fac­tured foods in your kitchen right now, includ­ing things like the peanut but­ter and canned broth in your pantry, the plas­tic tub of yogurt in the fridge, and even the ice cream in your freezer.

Psy­chol­o­gists say that we humans’ most pri­mal needs are food and shel­ter, in that order. Only after those two are met do we begin to think about that other pri­mal need: sex. Food is so impor­tant to our sense of well-being that, until and unless we feel well-fed, we won’t meet our most fun­da­men­tal need.

There’s a fair amount of hub­bub that eat­ing locally is just for the foodie elite. I am liv­ing proof that this isn’t true, and the meth­ods I used to keep good, local food on my table all year ‘round will work for you too. Buy­ing local food in sea­son at a farmer’s mar­ket or farm stand remains the least expen­sive way to pro­vi­sion your­self. Expect to pay more (some­times much more) for locally and sus­tain­ably raised meat; use the sav­ings from your pro­duce pur­chases to buy it. And while you’re at it, if you eat meat or fish, cut back to two or three days a week. Even a very tight bud­get can afford a weekly pound or two.

Here are a few more con­crete tips to help you in your journey:

  • Stop shop­ping on auto-pilot at the gro­cery store. Take a minute to con­sider where each item you’re pur­chas­ing comes from, and whether its sources match up with your values.
  •  If you don’t know how to do can­ning, learn. Know­ing myr­iad ways to pre­serve food, as well as the pros and cons of each method, sus­tains your spirit twice: once in the work of doing, and again in the eat­ing later.
  • Think up 10 dishes you know you love and can pre­pare almost with­out think­ing. Many of us eat the same 10 or 20 dishes in an uncon­scious rota­tion, so it shouldn’t be hard. Then fig­ure out how you can make them with hon­est, whole food—ideally fresh from someone’s nearby gar­den or farm.
  • Know that, like all humans, you’re going to get hun­gry at least 21 times a week, and plan for that. Once you’ve thought that through, you will have break­fast, lunch and din­ner under con­trol, and you won’t be tempted by less nour­ish­ing choices—including those “healthy” organic potato chips you picked up at Whole Foods for a spe­cial treat.
  • Expand your knowl­edge of herbs and spices. Cer­tain herb­snd sea­son­ings “make” a dish French, or Mex­i­can, or Moroc­can, and once you know the fla­vor pro­files of dif­fer­ent cuisines, you can pull an inter­est­ing meal together quickly and eas­ily. There’s tar­ragon, thyme and rose­mary for French; cumin, cilantro and cit­rus juices for Mex­i­can; cin­na­mon, cumin and saf­fron for Moroc­can, and so on.
  • Enjoy the process. Cook­ing is sen­sual, and sen­sual plea­sures also feed your self-reliance and resilience. They remind you that you are indeed human, and that, like all other humans, you are cre­ated to survive.

Because you will. You will sur­vive, no mat­ter how hard you’ve been punched. But you’ll heal faster and more thor­oughly if you have some well-fed resilience on your side.

Note: Robin is kindly pro­vid­ing one copy of The Feast Nearby for us to give away. To enter the draw­ing, leave a com­ment below. The win­ner will be selected next weekend.

In the mean­time, here’s a recipe—one that’s high on my per­sonal list of the many I can’t wait to try.   

Pep­pery Cherry Spoon Bread
from The Feast Nearby, by Robin Mather (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish

2 cups whole milk
2/3 cup corn­meal
2 table­spoons salted but­ter
2 table­spoons dry sherry
3/4 tea­spoon coarse salt, such as kosher salt
1/4 tea­spoon ground red pep­per (cayenne)
2 tea­spoons dried oregano, crum­bled
1/2 cup shred­ded pep­per jack cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped dried cher­ries
4 large eggs, separated

Pre­heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square bak­ing dish.

Com­bine the milk, corn­meal, but­ter, sherry, salt, red pep­per, and oregano in a saucepan and mix well. Bring just to a boil over medium heat. Decrease the heat to medium-low and sim­mer for 2 min­utes, or until slightly thick­ened, stir­ring fre­quently. Remove from the heat. Stir in the cheese and cher­ries. Let stand for 10 to 15 min­utes, until slightly cooled.

Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl. Stir them into the corn­meal mix­ture. Beat the egg whites is a bowl with an elec­tric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form. Stir one-third of the egg whites into the corn­meal mix­ture until well mixed. Gen­tly fold in the remain­ing egg whites with a few quick strokes; some white streaks will remain. Pour into the pre­pared bak­ing dish.

Bake for 25 to 30 min­utes, until the top is browned and the cen­ter is slightly loose (a knife inserted into the cen­ter should come out clean). Let stand for 5 min­utes before serving.

How blogging changed my life–and how it can change yours

I´m blogging this.

Ear­lier this month, the New York Times Moth­er­lode blog fea­tured new research sug­gest­ing that blog­ging may make new moth­ers hap­pier.

It got me to think­ing about how this is also true for us denizens of Plan B Nation—and for much the same reasons.

The cited research—a small research study by Penn State Ph.D. can­di­date Bran­don T. McDaniel—suggests that blog­ging coun­ter­acts new moth­ers’ feel­ings of iso­la­tion. It found a pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tion between “blog­ging and feel­ings of con­nect­ed­ness to fam­ily and friends—which in turn cor­re­lates … with mater­nal well-being and health,” writes Moth­er­lode blog­ger KJ Dell’Antonia (who, in another life­time, prac­ticed law with me, but I digress .…)

Feel­ings of iso­la­tion are also a hall­mark of life in Plan B Nation—and one of its most dan­ger­ous poten­tial side effects. Long-term unem­ploy­ment, in par­tic­u­lar, has been repeat­edly linked to a down­ward spi­ral in per­sonal rela­tion­ships. Gallup Chair­man and CEO Jim Clifton sums this up suc­cinctly in his new book The Com­ing Jobs War: “Peo­ple who have been out of work for 18 months or longer lose engage­ment in their net­work of friends, com­mu­nity, and fam­i­lies. The worst things in life start show­ing up when peo­ple expe­ri­ence extended unemployment.”

Speak­ing from per­sonal expe­ri­ence (hello read­ers!), blog­ging can go a long way to help with such feel­ings. Two months ago, when I started Plan B Nation, I was in a pretty demor­al­ized place. I’d been un– and under-employed for more than two years and was hav­ing a hard time imag­in­ing a light at the end of the tun­nel. I didn’t really think blog­ging would help, but I’d been think­ing about doing it for a while and finally took the leap. If noth­ing else, I fig­ured, I’d at least learn some new skills.

Flash for­ward to today, and my whole out­look has changed—and largely because of this blog. Sim­ply put, blog­ging about my story has trans­formed my rela­tion­ship to it. It’s gone from being a source of suf­fer­ing to being my sub­ject. When I step back to mine it for mate­r­ial, I start to find it inter­est­ing. I start to see what it has to teach me (and how, in shar­ing it, I can maybe even help others).

And there’s a huge addi­tional poten­tial bonus to blog­ging in Plan B Nation: It can be a ter­rific source of pay­ing work. That’s cer­tainly been the case for me and—a quick Google search reveals—for many oth­ers as well.

Iconic blog­ger Pene­lope Trunk—if you haven’t read her, you should; you’ll either love her or hate her—is a big pro­po­nent of blog­ging as a career strat­egy. For doubters, she lists the fol­low­ing five rea­sons to embark.

1. Blog­ging makes career change easier.

2. Blog­ging lets you skip entry-level jobs.

3. Blog­ging opens up the world of part-time work.

4. Blog­ging makes it eas­ier to re-enter the workforce.

5. Blog­ging builds a net­work super fast.

I can’t say every­thing in this post will be true for every­one, but for me, it’s come pretty close. (For more evi­dence in sup­port, check out blog­ger Jen Gresham’s post on blog­ging as a career tool—part of BlogHer’s ongo­ing series on career rein­ven­tion.)

Will it be true for you? You’ll never know if you don’t try. (Pene­lope Trunk also offers tips on how to get started.)  You might con­sider, as I did, that even if your blog doesn’t fly, you’ll still have learned a lot.

Need more inspi­ra­tion? Try check­ing out other blogs that explore life in Plan B Nation. A few examples:

  • Brett Paesel’s darkly hilar­i­ous Last of the Bohemi­ans (about a fam­ily vaca­tion to India in the shadow of bankruptcy)
  • Whar­ton M.B.A. Sharon O’Day’s blog about women and money (which evolved from her own expe­ri­ence of start­ing over at age 53)
  • From Prada to Pay­less (“The life and times of a once glam­orous NYC fash­ion indus­try insider, to a mother of three girls, liv­ing pay­check to pay­check , fac­ing fore­clo­sure, and try­ing to find humor, and san­ity in it all, while look­ing (try­ing!) deli­ciously chic in her Pay­less shoes”)

Plan B Nation takes lots of things away from us, but it also fills our life with amaz­ing (if painful), strange, intrigu­ing, and unfor­get­table sto­ries. The trick is to see them, to lean into them. Blog­ging can help with that.

Do you have a favorite Plan B Nation blog? Please share it in the com­ment section.                                                  

Should you write for free? One author says yes. Here’s why.

Tapping a Pencil

Years back, when I had a full-time job within the not-so-hilarity-filled walls of Har­vard Law School, there was one thing I could always count on to brighten my day: 3L Jeremy Blachman’s humor col­umn in the law school’s stu­dent paper. (Here’s one of my favorites.)

As it turned out, I was far from the only reader eagerly await­ing Jeremy’s next offer­ing. Unbe­knownst to us all, even as he schlepped from class to class in Cam­bridge, he was (fic­tion­ally) thou­sands of miles away, spew­ing with­er­ing, oper­atic rants as a West Coast law firm partner—and draw­ing in thou­sands of read­ers with his “Anony­mous Lawyer” blog. (One law pro­fes­sor, who used the blog in his class, called it a “cul­tural phenomenon.”)

“I was just writ­ing satire,” Jeremy said, when he finally revealed him­self to the New York Times in late 2004 (and shortly there­after gar­nered a major book deal). “In a way I’ve been dis­ap­pointed that I’ve been able to pull it off. I’ve painted a pic­ture based on a few months of obser­va­tion and the worst things I saw, heard about, or could imag­ine about law firms, and expe­ri­enced lawyers are chim­ing in, say­ing: ‘This is exactly what it feels like.’”

Some seven years later, Jeremy con­tin­ues to write, now from his home in Man­hat­tan. He’s at work on a sec­ond novel, as well as a film adap­ta­tion of the first, and has writ­ten for McSweeney’s and the Wall Street Jour­nal, among other venues.  (And lest there be any doubt, he hasn’t lost his tal­ent for skew­er­ing the world of law firms, wit­ness this fic­tional partner’s memo dat­ing from the eco­nomic down­turn.) Here, he shares some thoughts about writ­ing, both on and off the clock.

By Jeremy Blachman

Amy e-mailed me last week to ask if I’d write a guest post for Plan B Nation. In her e-mail, she said she felt bad ask­ing me to write for free. She linked to this musician’s post in an online forum:

And, indeed, a quick Google search leads to an end­less num­ber of online posts telling peo­ple not to give away the milk if you want some­one to buy the cow. (Of course, many of these posts seem to either be about actual cows or the raw milk debate, but still, the point is clear.)

I would like to offer hope. In the Plan B Nation econ­omy, a lot of things that might sound silly are not in fact all that silly. In the Plan B Nation econ­omy, I believe writ­ing for free is an actual, legit­i­mate thing to do, even if you have actual, legit­i­mate bills to pay. And I don’t think it’s just about writ­ing. I think the more things you can do for free—the more proof of work you can throw out into the universe—the bet­ter off you’ll be. After years of writ­ing things—for free and not for free—I still can’t pre­dict what’s going to bring atten­tion, fol­low­ers, and poten­tial oppor­tu­ni­ties, and what isn’t. You don’t know what is going to turn into some­thing real. (And by “real,” I mean use­ful in pay­ing for actual food.)

Almost a decade ago, I was about to start law school. I was mostly going to law school to buy myself three years—albeit at an aston­ish­ingly high cost—to fig­ure out how to be a writer. I had writ­ten sketches and songs for the Prince­ton Tri­an­gle Club while an undergrad—and then, hav­ing no clue how to turn that into a job as an actual writer, I spent a year and a half work­ing in mar­ket­ing for a soft­ware com­pany. I con­tin­ued to write on the side—some tele­vi­sion scripts, a musi­cal, and some very long e-mails about work­ing in mar­ket­ing for a soft­ware company—and  con­tin­ued to have no idea what to actu­ally do with my life. To a great extent, I was too risk-averse to move to Los Ange­les, be someone’s assis­tant, and hope that devel­oped into an oppor­tu­nity to be a writer. Partly because I would be ter­ri­ble at answer­ing someone’s phones, and partly because I had no idea how the enter­tain­ment indus­try worked.

Hav­ing deluded myself into believ­ing that going to law school would open all sorts of doors, I decided, hey, at least I’ll have a degree at the end of three years, and if I can’t fig­ure out how to be a writer, I can be a lawyer. Any­one with any knowl­edge about any­thing would have tried to con­vince me this was a ter­ri­ble idea, but for­tu­nately I didn’t know any lawyers, had no idea what a law firm was, and didn’t want to spend $25 for the Vault Guide to Cor­po­rate Law Careers.

Before start­ing law school, I hap­pened to read an arti­cle about blog­ging. I decided that start­ing a blog would be a neat exper­i­ment to force me to write every day, and the blog would give me a place to try and turn the law school expe­ri­ence into some sort of com­edy. I had never read any blogs, and I knew noth­ing of the blog world. On August 8, 2002, hav­ing received my 1L course sched­ule in the mail, I began writ­ing.

Cut to a year and a half later. The first e-mail I’d sent with my Har­vard Law account was to the Crim­son to see if I could write for them. Grad stu­dents, they quickly informed me, were not allowed to write for the sto­ried col­lege paper. Instead, I pitched a humor col­umn to the law school paper, and started writ­ing there weekly. My blog had about 700 read­ers a day, which seemed like a nice num­ber. But it hadn’t got­ten me any closer to being a writer for real. My room­mate had no idea why I was wast­ing my time writ­ing for free on the Inter­net. I could pre­tend I had a plan, but I didn’t.

I had spent my 1L sum­mer work­ing for eight weeks for a small pub­lish­ing com­pany and six weeks for a polit­i­cal media firm—both jobs I had found entirely out­side the law school career ser­vices system—but I fig­ured that over my 2L sum­mer I would try out a law firm, so that at least I would be mak­ing an informed deci­sion about what to do post-law school. I inter­viewed, I got an offer, I accepted the offer. I hadn’t blogged much about the inter­view expe­ri­ence, for the (sen­si­ble) fear that it would hurt my chances. On a whim, 2L spring, think­ing maybe there could be some funny blog posts to write in the voices of some of the part­ners who had inter­viewed me, I started a sec­ond blog, an anony­mous blog about an over-the-top, evil lawyer, play­ing on all the stereo­types I’d heard, and exag­ger­at­ing the details I’d seen in the inter­view process.

Now my room­mate had no idea why I wast­ing my time writ­ing two blogs for free on the Internet.

I was not entirely sure either.

The first blog ended up being a year and a half of prac­tice for the anony­mous one, which, thanks to some ben­e­fi­cial links early on, quickly grew a larger audi­ence than the blog with my name on it. For a brief moment, I found this irri­tat­ing. “Why are more peo­ple read­ing my anony­mous blog than my real one?” Eight months later, after hav­ing used my sum­mer asso­ciate expe­ri­ence to obtain more details I could grossly and unfairly exag­ger­ate, the New York Times wrote a story about “Anony­mous Lawyer,” reveal­ing that I was the writer behind it. I got over 500 e-mails that week­end, includ­ing a bunch from agents and pub­lish­ers, and I ended up with a book deal to turn the blog into the Anony­mous Lawyer novel.

I was, of course, very lucky—I am cer­tain that I ben­e­fited a great deal from the acci­den­tal tim­ing of my blog. It hit just as blogs were becom­ing main­stream enough for pub­lish­ers to start get­ting inter­ested, but not so far along the curve that book­stores were filled with books built off blogs. I sold a tele­vi­sion pitch based on the book to Sony and NBC and worked with them for two years on a sit­com adap­ta­tion. I’m cur­rently work­ing on a film ver­sion and have other scripts I’ve been writ­ing, along with a sec­ond novel. All of this emerged from writ­ing I was doing for free, with­out any idea about where it would lead.

That’s what’s great about this Plan B Nation econ­omy. Sure, per­haps no one is going to pay you up front. But the Inter­net makes the world where peo­ple do get paid acces­si­ble to any­one, and you never know if—or when, or how—you’re going to be found, and what your free work might lead to.

I still write for free because I don’t know what might next hit. (I also write for pay, if any­one out there is open to pitches; feel free to e-mail me.) As it hap­pens, the most e-mails I’ve got­ten recently have been after pieces I’ve writ­ten for the humor site McSweeney’s, for free. There is no shame in writ­ing for free. Amy had noth­ing to feel bad about.

Jeremy Blach­man is a free­lance writer and the author of Anony­mous Lawyer, a comic novel about cor­po­rate law. He wel­comes e-mail.

What I’ve learned from following my bliss (straight into the wall)

I Dream of Empty Chairs

I arrived home last night to a great sur­prise via Google alerts: Plan B Nation—described as “a smart blog by writer and lawyer Amy Gut­man on ‘Iiv­ing cre­atively in chal­leng­ing times’”—had been dubbed Web­site of the Week on the Sec­on­dAct blog.

Woo hoo!

There’s some­thing espe­cially sweet about recog­ni­tion that comes out-of-the-blue, and I quickly shared the news with my won­der­ful friends, who were duly delighted for me.

That is fabulous—congratulations,” exclaimed one lovely Face­book pal. “As says Joseph Camp­bell, Fol­low your bliss and the uni­verse will open doors where there were only walls.”

On the one hand, I loved the sen­ti­ment. On the other, I had to laugh. I can’t count the num­ber of times when no such thing has hap­pened. I’m liv­ing proof that you can fol­low your bliss head­long into a wall.

It’s true that in recent months, my life has been on the upswing—I’ve been pick­ing up pay­ing work and this blog (which I love writ­ing) has been fea­tured on New Eng­land NPR and oth­er­wise gath­er­ing steam. But it’s also true that I’m just emerg­ing from two quite dif­fi­cult years. And I got there (just as I got here) by try­ing to fol­low my heart, my bliss, or what­ever you want to call it.

I use the word try­ing for a rea­son. We often talk as if it’s easy to know the right thing to do, you just need the courage to do it. I don’t quite see it that way. To me, the whole process of chart­ing next steps is end­lessly mys­te­ri­ous (as well as end­lessly fascinating).

For exam­ple:  How do we know that we’re lis­ten­ing to some true, higher, authen­tic self (assum­ing that such a thing even exists, which, as I’ve writ­ten before, is sub­ject to debate) as opposed to inter­nal­ized parental tapes or other conditioning?

The best answer I’ve ever got­ten to this ques­tion (which I’ve asked more times than I care to count) came from Stephen Cope, author of the ter­rific Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. What he proposed—and this was a long time ago, so I may not have it exactly right—is to focus on two questions:

1. Is this desire one that has stayed with you over time?

2. How does your body—your phys­i­cal self—respond to this desire?

Over the years, I’ve referred to these ques­tions a lot, and I’m pretty sure they’ve helped.

Still, as I think back over decades of deci­sion mak­ing, it strikes me that my more prob­lem­atic choices have stemmed not from a fail­ure to con­sult my heart but rather from careen­ing between extremes.  

Not happy being a news­pa­per reporter in rural Mis­sis­sippi? Fine! Why don’t you go to Har­vard Law School and then prac­tice cor­po­rate law in Manhattan?

Not happy prac­tic­ing cor­po­rate law in Man­hat­tan? Fine! Why don’t you quit your job and study yoga and write mys­tery novels?

And so on.

It’s not that any of these choices were inher­ently bad ones—I liked law school. I had fun writ­ing thrillers. I was for­tu­nate to have the oppor­tu­nity to do any and all of these things—just  that they prob­a­bly weren’t the short­est or sim­plest path to a sta­ble and sus­tain­ing life.

Those who fol­low a mac­ro­bi­otic diet believe that when we eat extreme Yin foods (sugar, alco­hol) we crave extreme Yang foods (red meat, eggs).  It’s best to avoid such foods, they say, as we are health­i­est when we mainly eat foods at the mid­dle of the Yin/Yang spectrum.

Sim­i­larly, I’ve come to think that I make bet­ter deci­sions when I’m oper­at­ing from a base­line of equa­nim­ity, not when I’m attempt­ing to race from one peak expe­ri­ence to the next. You might say I’ve adopted a mac­ro­bi­otic the­ory of life.

In the end, though, I don’t really see any way around the fact that life is essen­tially messy and unpre­dictable, regard­less of what we do. It gets bad, then it gets bet­ter, then it gets worse, then it gets really really great, and then it sucks, then it’s okay for a while. You can fol­low your bliss to … well, bliss, or fol­low it into a wall. If you live a long and full life, you’ll likely do both more than once.

The “P” word in Plan B Nation

While I’m not really a reli­gious per­son, I’ve always been fas­ci­nated by reli­gious beliefs. As a child, I once spent a good part of a slum­ber party por­ing over Time-Life’s The Worlds Great Reli­gions with a like-minded peer. (Hello Katie Plimp­ton!) At dif­fer­ent points, I yearned to be both a Roman Catholic and a Mor­mon, faiths that fired my imag­i­na­tion far more than my family’s easy ecumenicism.

When my mother refused to buy me a rosary, I was not to be dis­suaded: I made one for myself out of a stash of Camp­fire Girl beads and set up an altar on a foot­stool posi­tioned in front of my bed­room window.

A flir­ta­tion with evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian­ity was intense if short-lived. Aside from the late-night revival that I barely made it through, what I most remem­ber is the fact that the neigh­bors who took me had a dad who sold snack foods. I was thrilled to be the recip­i­ent of one of his cor­po­rate give-aways: A pressed felt hat topped with a tin inset filled with dirt and seed. You watered your hat and waited for grass to sprout from the crown.

All of which is a round­about way of explain­ing how I’ve come to be at a Catholic retreat house some­time in 1990s. It was there that I acquired a small unpre­pos­sess­ing pam­phlet of prayers that I’ve had ever since.

In my con­tin­ued jour­ney as a spir­i­tual eclec­tic, I’ve thought a lot about prayer. In par­tic­u­lar, I’ve pon­dered how I can take com­fort (as I do) in words that I don’t tech­ni­cally “believe.” My all-time favorite answer came from an Epis­co­pal priest at a church I fre­quented some years back, when I asked her how I could in good con­science repeat the (gor­geous, sooth­ing, mes­mer­iz­ing) Nicene Creed.

Her response: When we say “We believe”—which is how the Creed begins—it sim­ply means that this belief is held some­where within the body of the Church. Maybe I don’t believe this. But some­one does.

Some—perhaps you, dear reader—will find this disin­gen­u­ous. I, on the other hand, found it deeply sat­is­fy­ing. It appealed to the parts of me that had stud­ied lit­er­a­ture in col­lege and later learned to parse the Fed­eral Rules of Civil Procedure.

Which brings me back to the pam­phlet. Among its con­tents is a prose poem of a prayer that has meant a lot to me over the years. Penned by Pierre Teil­hard de Chardin, a French philoso­pher and Jesuit priest, it speaks to the cul­ti­va­tion of patience dur­ing times of dark­ness and uncer­tainty. In that way, it strikes me as pretty much the per­fect Plan B Nation com­pan­ion. Over the years, I’ve shared it with many friends, and now (in the spirit of all the above) I’d like to share it with you.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are all, quite nat­u­rally,
impa­tient in every­thing to reach the end
with­out delay.

We should like to skip
the inter­me­di­ate stages;
we are impa­tient of being
on the way to some­thing unknown,
some­thing new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that is made by pass­ing through
some stages of insta­bil­ity…
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature grad­u­ally –
let them grow.
Let them shape them­selves,
with­out undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
cir­cum­stances act­ing on your own good will)
will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
grad­u­ally form­ing within you will be.
Give our Lord the ben­e­fit of believ­ing
that his hand is lead­ing you
and accept the anx­i­ety of
feel­ing your­self in sus­pense and incomplete.