The Dog Days of Plan B Nation

I met Jan on Face­book through our friend Betsy, and the three of us planned a din­ner together, but then Betsy stood us up.

So we sat there in a cozy booth at Casablanca, a Har­vard Square restau­rant, exchang­ing ten­ta­tive smiles and cast­ing about for conversation.

“This is sort of like a blind date!” Jan said, offi­cially break­ing the ice. Soon the words were flow­ing. By the end of the meal, we were friends.

While our lives are quite dif­fer­ent in many ways—I’m sin­gle, she’s mar­ried with three kids, among other things—we also have much in com­mon, includ­ing lit­er­ary tastes, curios­ity, and a dry sense of humor. Dur­ing the past year or so, we’ve also been fel­low trav­el­ers in Plan B Nation. Here, Jan shares some thoughts on her journey—and a furry guy who’s help­ing her through it.  





By Jan Dev­ereux

This Valentine’s Day I sent my 23-year-old son a card with a photo of a young man and his dog sit­ting side-by-side, wear­ing iden­ti­cal frizzy red wigs: “May you never grow to look like the one you love,” the card teased. With nei­ther a sweet­heart nor a pooch, my son is in no immi­nent dan­ger of this roman­tic peril. The joke was on me, as it’s cer­tainly no secret that his old lady has been crush­ing on her puppy lately.

I’ll let you be the judge of whether I’ve yet begun to resem­ble my dog, phys­i­cally, but I have begun to rec­og­nize, and even embrace, a few emo­tional par­al­lels. If you’ve ever lived with a dog, I don’t have to tell you that change stresses them out. Dogs thrive with a pre­dictable rou­tine, well-defined expec­ta­tions and lim­its, and con­sis­tent, pos­i­tive rein­force­ment. As dog train­ers know only too well, many “prob­lem” dogs are merely react­ing to chal­leng­ing cir­cum­stances cre­ated by humans.

Fel­low cit­i­zens of Plan B Nation, is this start­ing to sound familiar?

The chal­lenge of being between jobs in today’s econ­omy is stress­ful enough to make us all behave like this dog:

Photo credit: Taste­fully’s Tumblr

Now, if I actu­ally were a dog, I’d prob­a­bly be a Bor­der col­lie. Bright, hard-working and a quick study, I like to be busy and to get things done. A straight-A stu­dent straight through grad­u­ate school, I was the (admit­tedly annoy­ing) girl who always did all the assigned read­ing before class and fin­ished her term papers before the due date. Laser-focused on my stud­ies and too much of a wor­ry­wart to pro­cras­ti­nate, I man­aged to earn two Ivy League diplo­mas with hon­ors and with­out ever pulling an all-nighter. I’m still punc­tual to a fault, the party guest who habit­u­ally arrives unfash­ion­ably early.

I’ve always worked—being a stay-at-home mother for a few years doesn’t count as “not work­ing” unless you think meet­ing the 24/7 demands of three young chil­dren is a walk in the park. I went back to paid office work when my youngest child, now 17, started preschool. Most nights, I went to bed dog-tired, but I usu­ally awoke excited to tackle what­ever the next day might bring.

When I left my most recent job, as direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at an inde­pen­dent school, I expe­ri­enced an ini­tial rush of exhil­a­ra­tion, like a dog unleashed. There were so many avenues I wanted to explore, both pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally, so many paths beck­oned that it seemed as if it might even be hard to choose among them! After a few months, how­ever, it grad­u­ally dawned on me that, espe­cially in this econ­omy, the choos­ing was not entirely up to me. With­out a job to pro­vide the scaf­fold­ing for my days, a clear pur­pose to guide my actions, and the reward for a job well done, I felt like a dog cut loose from the pack.

Worse, by focus­ing all my energy on find­ing the right job, I’d inad­ver­tently cre­ated a dynamic that was bound to frus­trate a goal-oriented per­son, at least in the short-term. Pic­ture the Bor­der col­lie faced with a field full of plas­tic lawn sheep: I even­tu­ally real­ized I could exhaust myself try­ing to herd inan­i­mate objects, or I could reframe the problem.

I needed an interim project with a more cer­tain pay­off. So, nat­u­rally, get­ting a puppy seemed like the solu­tion! There were plenty of good rea­sons not to add the dis­trac­tion of rais­ing a puppy while I was sup­posed to be fig­ur­ing out my next act, pro­fes­sion­ally. But, the fact is, get­ting Eddie was the one of the smartest deci­sions I’ve could have made.

Train­ing and bond­ing with Eddie these past months, I’ve re-discovered the restora­tive power of friend­ship, canine and human. Now I orga­nize my day around our walks with friends who have dogs. If you’ve read Gail Caldwell’s poignant mem­oir of walk­ing with her best friend, the late Car­o­line Knapp, and their dogs, then you’ll be able to pic­ture us fol­low­ing in their foot­steps at Fresh Pond. Its title, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is what one of my friends always says when we reach the point where the path loops around a wild­flower meadow. Hav­ing a ready excuse to get away from my com­puter and out in the fresh air has been a lifesaver.

Eddie has also been my inspi­ra­tion for a new cre­ative project, a blog called Cam­bridge Canine. I’d been look­ing for a focus for my writ­ing and found plenty of fresh mate­r­ial right at the other end of the leash. They say, “write what you know” –well, dogs are what I know best right now. The blog may never claim a huge fol­low­ing, but the posts are fun to write, and the occa­sional encour­ag­ing com­ment or Face­book “like” is reward enough to keep me in the hunt.

A recent health scare under­scored that we can never be cer­tain what will hap­pen next; like play­ers in a game of Whac-a-Mole, we slap down one stres­sor only to see another pop up. Watch­ing my dog cavort with his friends is a daily reminder that life is lived most fully in the moment. My pro­fes­sional future is still in limbo, but when I’m out walk­ing Eddie, I try to stop wor­ry­ing so much about where I’m head­ing and focus instead on enjoy­ing the jour­ney as much as he does.

Recently, a friend remarked, “My dog is my san­ity.” I couldn’t agree more.

© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “The Dog Days of Plan B Nation

  1. This Plan B story is writ­ten with such a mix of can­dor, humor and self-Awareness (true insight in all senses of the word) that I gob­bled it up like I would a deli­cious and sus­tain­ing stew on a cold night.
    When Ms. Dev­ereux finds her next offi­cial job I hope she con­tin­ues writ­ing these delight­fully observed pieces.

    • ARP: Thank you for your kind words! Hav­ing the time to reflect and write is too impor­tant to give up. I’ll try to cul­ti­vate a Plan B Nation state of mind wher­ever I land. I just hope Eddie will for­give me if I can’t walk him quite as much!

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