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.