Where you can find us

@amygutman in @pajamatown, on vacation from @planbnation

@amygutman in @pajamatown, on vacation from @planbnation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plan B Nation on vacation

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

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

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

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

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

dogs in maine

 

 

 

 

“I am Adam Lanza’s mother.” The story is (still) unfolding.

First Advent and first candle is lit

Yesterday, along with hundreds of thousands of others, I clicked “like” on Liza Long’s eloquent, compelling, and now notorious “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” blog post, with its searing depiction of life with a violent mentally ill teen. “I love my son. But he terrifies me,” was her memorable summation.

Today, if not predictably then unsurprisingly, I (along with hundreds of thousands of others) awoke to a vitriolic explosion over this same post. The opening salvos came from blogger Sarah Kendzior, who blasted Long’s piece as both dishonest and exploitative.

“Liza Long, the woman who wrote the viral post ‘I am Adam Lanza’s Mother’ is being held up as a heroic woman warranting sympathy for bring [sic] the plight of her mentally ill son to the public. Her blog tells a different story,” is how Kendzior began her own soon-to-be-viral post.

But does it? Does it really?

To make her case, Kendzior points to what she described as “a series of vindictive and cruel posts about her children” in which Long “fantasizes about beating them, locking them up and giving them away.” She also questioned Long’s grasp on reality: “In most posts, her allegedly insane and violent son is portrayed as a normal boy who incites her wrath by being messy, buy too many Apple products and supporting Obama.”

First of all, let me stipulate that I’m of the view that Long’s public airing of her parental frustrations went well over whatever line is relevant to such things. What starts on the Internet stays on the Internet and Michael (or whatever his real name is) is likely to live with the fallout here for a good long time.

But there’s a second line of attack here that strikes me as far more problematic: The notion that Long’s seeming inconsistencies are tantamount to deception. (Slate’s Hanna Rosin—one of many piling onto the Liza Long backlash—went so far as to call her “an imposter,” pointing to the blog as evidence that she is “not to be trusted.”)

Maybe. Maybe not.  In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we tell our stories – in part because I just taught a college seminar where (as I talk about here) this was a central theme. And this is what I think. Or rather, this is what I know: Finding the storyline in trauma tends to take a lot of time.

I have no trouble – no trouble at all – imagining a mother in Long’s position crafting a story where her troubled son is a normal boy. A difficult boy. A challenging boy. But normal, all the same. And I have no trouble imagining how this story could evolve – how a violent tragedy of epic proportions could abruptly catapult her into a place where everything has changed.

Our stories—like our lives—are works in progress. For those of us who choose to share them publicly, there are gifts and there are dangers. It isn’t always clear which path is the right one. But making an unwise choice here doesn’t mean we’re lying.

At the top of Liza Long’s personal blog there’s now a joint statement from her and Kendzior asking the blogosphere to cease and desist from the cyber free-for-all. It carries this preface from Long: “Many of you have seen Sarah’s excellent blog in the past few days. I think she makes some important points about children’s privacy. We have been in contact, and I am truly impressed with her professionalism and her concern for children.” That strikes me as a response of uncommon grace – and a good reminder that we’re all far more than the stories that define us.

The why is the how

So yes, I am grateful to be so busy: I am grateful for my job (or rather, jobs), grateful for my many friends, grateful for the opportunities of this vibrant and enticing city.

But I am also frustrated.

In recent weeks, I’ve struggled to get back to a regular writing schedule. One or two posts to this blog each week seems like a reasonable goal. But reasonable though it may be, it hasn’t been happening. Two weeks ago, I forced myself to the keyboard in the chilly darkness of Monday at 4 am. (No time for writing over the weekend? See how you like this!)  And, yes, I did get the post done, but I was semi-conscious at work.

The fact is, most writers also have other jobs. It’s the nature of the beast. So how do people do it? Where do they find the time?

For answers, I turned to friends who have impressed me with their balancing acts.

First to come to mind was Carolyn Edgar, a law school classmate who seems to do the impossible on pretty much a daily basis. The 2012 recipient of the Corporate Counsel of the Year Award from New York City’s Black Bar Association, she serves as VP of a Fortune 500 company—not exactly your typical low-key slacker day job. Outside of work, she’s a single mom and also manages to put in regular time on the yoga mat. And then, there’s the writing: Along with her own very active blog, she writes about relationships, politics, and parenting for sites including Huffington Post and CNN.com. Oh, and last month—just for fun—she completed the marathon NaNoWriMo, a challenge that I’d find daunting even with no job at all.

So how do you do it? I asked her. I really wanted to know. She got back to me the following day, bringing to mind the old adage that, if you really want something done, you should ask the busiest person.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to your question. I ask myself all the time, why do I do this—especially when I’ve stayed up until 3 am editing and formatting a blog post, dragging into the office the next day, and seeing only 3 comments on the post or 4 retweets of the link on Twitter. And then I remember—I do this because I love writing. I blog, even though I have two kids and a demanding, full-time career—because I am a writer. I feel more complete when I write than I do when I don’t.The writing fits into the tiny interstitial spaces in my life, between the conference calls and the drafting, between supervising homework and getting the kids off to bed. It often supplants sleep, but seeing people engage with the thoughts and ideas I share energizes me in lieu of sleep (that is, until my body says enough and shuts down, as it has this weekend). 

Interesting, I thought. All of that resonates. But while I understand the why, I still don’t get the how.

Meanwhile, I heard back from Kate Gace Walton, another mother of two. Along with  full-time employment, Kate launched and edits Work Stew, a fascinating blog about the hows and whys of all things work-related. Who better to ask about juggling writing with a demanding job? Here’s what she had to say:

Being an insomniac really helps! I’m at work from about 8 to 5 Monday through Friday and my evenings are spent wrangling the kids, ages 5 and 3. (My husband has a long commute and travels a lot, so unfortunately he’s not around to do much evening wrangling.) But sometime between 8 and 9 the house finally falls quiet, and from then until the wee hours, I focus on Work Stew—writing, posting, reviewing essays from contributors, and editing podcasts. Also, and this is huge for me: every Tuesday night, the kids stay at my parents’ house. That gives me a free evening to record interviews without any shrieking in the background—and to catch up on various other tasks. I do a little bit on Work Stew over the weekends, but for the most part I try to unplug from it—partly so that my family can have a break from seeing me attached to a screen and also so that I can think about where it should go next . . . and by “next” I mean in the next week or so.

And then, like Carolyn, she headed straight for the whys:

Two reasons: 1) I love it and 2) it helps me. To elaborate on point one: the three things I want from life are Connection, Flow, and Wonder. Work Stew allows me to connect with wonderful people in meaningful ways. Writing and editing are very reliable sources of Flow for me. And the chance to learn how all these different people are grappling with arguably the most fundamental and universal of questions—What should I do with my life?—well that’s  this heathen’s version of church! Truly, I’m filled with a deep sense of wonder when I think through the 100+ stories the contributors have told in essays or interviews. 

And on point two: I find other people’s stories not only wondrous, but helpful. On a very practical level, Work Stew has helped me to think more creatively about my own (decades-old) work conundrums. I still stew, of course, but more productively and pleasantly than ever before. 

As I read this, something clicked into place. We can talk about time management and priorities and hours of sleep, but in the end, the bottom line: There isn’t really a “how.” There isn’t enough time, but you do it anyway.  You write because not writing simply isn’t a viable option.

By far, the hardest time during my long stretch of unemployment was early on when there wasn’t a single solitary thing that I really wanted to do. Nothing called to me. I didn’t have a why. In retrospect, I can see that this was just part of my transition, but at the time, I felt myself veering towards hopelessness.

There needs to be a why. There always needs to be a why. And when the why is strong enough, it propels us into the how.

Gratitude for what I have – and also for what I did not

Vintage Thanksgiving Day Postcard

This has been a year of big changes for me, most of them for the good. After three years of under and unemployment, I rejoined the workforce this September in a full-time job that, I’m happy to say, seems to be going quite well. While I miss the daily rural beauty of western Mass, I’m also deriving real (if surprising) pleasure from being back in a city. Plus friends and a weekly UMass Amherst teaching gig still draw me back on a regular basis.

My situation at this time last year was very different – as reflected in the title of last year’s holiday post: Thanksgiving in Plan B Nation (or how to be grateful when you don’t feel grateful). I had just started this blog – that post was its fifth – and was still having a hard time making sense of my life’s trajectory. I’m doing what? I’m living where? All that work, all those credentials, and I’ve ended up here?

This year, I have no trouble tapping into gratitude: Work, friends, writing, home – all of it, right at the moment, feels pretty good, a testament to how suddenly life can turn around.

But along with these obvious reasons, I’m grateful for something more: I’m grateful both for what I have now and for what I didn’t have then.

I’m grateful for how this time in the jobs wilderness forced me to expand my sense of who I am apart from my credentials.

I’m grateful for the ways it led me to become braver as a writer – to take risks that I likely wouldn’t otherwise have taken.

I’m grateful for this blog and other writing opportunities – for the intellectual sustenance, support, and friendships, connections that I am taking with me into this next stage of life.

I’m grateful for having had a chance to move to the country and deepen my ties to a part of the world I love.

I’m grateful for the ways this stretch of life fostered greater compassion for millions of people struggling for reasons that are often largely (or entirely) beyond their control.

And most of all, I’m grateful for the fact that I can feel grateful – for the fact that I had the resources to navigate these challenges without being crushed by them. In that, I was very, very lucky. Many, of course, are not.  As I look to the future in Plan B Nation, gratitude strikes me as an excellent foundation for thinking about how to change this.

My Plan B Nation story — and ours

rock climbing is fun!

There are times you look back and say: “Why was I so freaked out? That wasn’t such a big deal.”

And there are times you look back and say: “I can’t believe I did that.”

The past few months put me squarely in the latter camp. I feel a bit as if I’ve doggedly scaled a steep and treacherous incline. Peering down from the summit, my stomach flips as I gauge the precipitous drop, the jagged rocks below.

Metaphors aside, here are the facts: Over the course of about six weeks – mid-August to late September – I applied for and accepted a full-time job, packed up my two-bedroom-with-basement rental in western Mass, found a new apartment in Boston (and this was in September when, as realtors repeatedly told me, EVERYTHING is gone), moved, and started the aforementioned job. Oh, and I also defended a case in housing court and began teaching a weekly seminar at UMass Amherst, a solid four-hour roundtrip from where I now live. Not surprisingly, I’ve yet to unpack, and my apartment resembles a cross between a pre-renovation Bramford (shout-out to Rosemary’s Baby fans) and a hoarder’s storage unit.

Given the level of ambient chaos, it’s also not surprising that this blog went silent in early September. I was last heard from on September 9, when I wrote about losing 20 pounds on the stress-induced Blow-Up-Your-Life Diet. And as I’ve stumbled through the early stages of life in a new neighborhood – How do I register to vote? Where is the closest dry cleaner? And, perhaps most importantly, where do I get good coffee? – I’ve felt that I simply don’t have the bandwidth to blog as well.

I say “felt” because it recently struck me that there’s more to it than this. It’s not just that I’ve been crazy busy, though that’s certainly true. It’s also that I’ve lost my storyline, the identity that’s defined me.

Hard as unemployment was (and it was plenty hard), it ultimately launched me into a new life – and a new identity. As I chronicled my experience of the Great Recession, first in Salon here and here and later on this blog, I found new sources of meaning and new sources of pride.The person I became was braver and stronger than the person I’d been. She was also a more confident writer and a more compassionate person. “I’m the poster girl for failure!” I quipped to a friend some months back. But by then I didn’t mean failure as failure: I meant failure as a kind of success – failure as the path to a life no less rich for having been unchosen.

Last month, in a piece on the New York Times Motherlode blog, K.J. Dell’Antonia reflected on the challenges of stay-at-home parents seeking to return to the workforce. Not having kids myself, it’s something I likely wouldn’t have read, except for the fact that K.J. kindly pointed readers to this blog, suggesting that they might benefit from thinking about work issues in a broader context. To parents feeling regret for decisions made years earlier, she offered these wise words: “It’s not just that ‘what’s done is done,’ but that the way you really feel about your years and choices is colored by your current discouragement.”

I can think of no more important reminder. Where we are now is not where we’ll be in a week or a month or a year. Even when changes are mostly positive, as mine have been lately, finding the new story takes time. In any big transition – and being on my second in the past four years and my [insert large number here] since college, I feel I can speak with some authority – a critical piece involves making sense of the unfolding plotline. Who am I, now that I’m no longer the Harvard grad-turned-chronicler-of-unemployment? Who am I, now that I’m back in the workforce and transplanted back to Boston? I am the person I was before, plus the person I became during those years, plus the person I’m becoming. What is her story?

That’s what I’m figuring out now.

Job? Check.

Bolso pistacho

I am among the lucky.

After some three years of freelance-punctuated unemployment, next month I’ll be returning to work. And not only will I have a full-time job, I’ll also have the opportunity to work with people I really like on issues that really matter. As a member of the Harvard School of Public Health’s external relations team, I’ll have the privilege of supporting globally significant work in areas ranging from disease prevention to diet and nutrition to health care policy.

I feel both fortunate and grateful – especially given my apparent demographic handicap.

As the New York Times reported in May, “[a] worker between ages 50 and 61 who has been unemployed for 17 months has only about a 9 percent of finding a new job in the next three months.” (While I’m at the low-end of that range, I’m squarely within it.)  And if that’s not enough: The number of unemployed people between the ages of 50 and 65 has more than doubled since the onset of the Great Recession.

“The result is nothing short of a national emergency,” the article continued. “Millions of workers have been disconnected from the work force, and possibly even from society. If they are not reconnected, the costs to them and to society will be grim.”

Given the focus of my new job, it seems fitting to point out that unemployment is a pressing public health issue. To wit, the Times cites studies linking unemployment to cancer, heart disease, and psychiatric problems. One study estimated a 50 to 100 percent increase in death rates for consistently employed older men immediately after a job loss.

While my own story has been less harrowing health-wise, these years have unquestionably been the most challenging of my life. And as I wrote in Salon last fall, “Coping with prolonged joblessness is hugely demanding . . . .Two years of job hunting has required infinitely more of me than any of my lauded past achievements.”

That said, while I wouldn’t have chosen it, I can’t say that I entirely regret the past three years. There’s something to be said for having been swept up in the larger story, for lessons that can come in no other way than living into them. For all my Harvard degrees and impressive resume, I was not immune – nor do I think I should have been. I’m reminded of an interview with the late actor Christopher Reeve after the accident that rendered him quadriplegic. Asked whether he sometimes asked “Why me?” Reeve responded: “Why not me?”

Cut loose from expectations, I also found a new voice as a writer – I stopped worrying about what people would think and started taking bigger risks. This was a tremendous gift and one that I carry with me. As I wrote here, blogging changed my life, and I’m deeply grateful to all of you who’ve shared this space with me over the past nine months. I can’t imagine the past year without Plan B Nation – or without you, its readers.

“Now that you have a job, will you keep writing the blog?” a friend asked curiously.

My answer: Absolutely.

Going back to work feels like reaching home in a storm. I’m grateful for the shelter, grateful for the sustenance. But outside, the gales are still blowing, and many more are homeless. We’re all still living in Plan B Nation, whether we see it or not.

Notice to Quit

Two days ago, I arrived home to find two missives stuck in my front door. The first was a lovely message from neighbors inviting me for drinks before a bookstore reading that night. The second was not so lovely: I’d been served with a 30-day Notice to Quit, the first stage of eviction proceedings.

The legal notice wasn’t altogether unexpected –  for various (good) reasons, I’ve been unwilling to sign a lease for the upcoming year, and I knew that the owners weren’t happy that I’d opted to go month-to-month.

But “not unexpected” isn’t the same as “totally fine.”  I could feel my whole body clenching as I thought about what came next.

By the time we got to the bookstore, I’d calmed down a bit, bolstered by my neighbors’ warmth and concern, as well as their canapés. Still, I was feeling no small distress when I bumped into my writer friend Cathi (on break from her own author tour for her terrific new novel Gone).

“That’s great for your blog!” was her wry response, after my story spilled out.

The words caught me by surprise — and the surprise itself surprised me. She’d reminded me of something I already knew. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the power of writing to transform painful experiences. I’ve written about it here and also here and here. It’s not a goal I set out to achieve but something I’ve simply watched happen. A wonderful and mysterious creative alchemy.

But this time, that go-to strategy had totally eluded me. I couldn’t help being curious about why that was.

We grow through stretch-not-break challenges. That was one of the first thoughts that came to mind, an idea gleaned some years back in an adult psychology class. Too few challenges? We stagnate. Too many? We get overwhelmed.

Legal proceedings are stressful in the best of circumstances, and for me the push to move tops off a number of other stressors. A sick cat. Sick me. An ongoing search for work. The more I thought about this, the more things fell into place. That I’d stall out when confronted with another big challenge makes total sense.

Accepting – making peace with – this fact feels like a first step forward. Stress is hard. Stress takes a toll. That’s a fact of life. Feeling unmoored and being slow on the uptake, is simply cause and effect. So that’s what I’m sitting with, this sense of how things are. I have no idea what comes next, but this is where it starts.

40 ways to appreciate a kidney stone

At the er for a migraine

I wake up a little before seven with a sharp pain in my lower back. Just that old pulled muscle acting up again—but man, this time it really hurts. I gobble a bunch of Advil and hobble back to bed.

A few hours later, I’m up again. While the pain has abated, it’s still there, and I briefly wonder if I should mosey over to the Emergency Room. But no, I’m being a wimp. I pop a couple more Advil, pack up my computer, and head off to a café. It’s Monday—Memorial Day—but I didn’t make any plans, in part because I really need to motor through a bunch of work.

I’m eating my croissant and sipping coffee when the pain washes over me again. I look up from my laptop screen. This really doesn’t feel right. And yes, it seems silly to go to the ER because of back pain, but you know what? I don’t care.

Well, as you’ve likely figured out by now, this wasn’t just my ancient sports injury giving me grief. It was a kidney stone. I’m still not sure exactly what this is—something about a calcified something trying to find its way out—but I do have one salient piece of advice:  Refrain from getting one.

“It’s really good you came in,” said the medical technician, who started the IV drip to administer pain meds and fluids.

I hadn’t brought anything to read, but I did have my iPhone. “Holiday greetings from the Cooley Dick emergency room! Working hypothesis: kidney stones. #tmi,” I typed into Facebook.

Thanks to social media, I had instant company.

“I read a great essay a few days ago about how you can make difficult experiences better by crafting the story that you’ll later tell about them. Or something like that,” my writer friend Megan quipped.  She was talking about this, and in fact, I already was.

At the time the pain struck, I was finishing up a column for SecondAct about doing a Plan B Nation-style Happiness Project. The idea, of course, grew out of lawyer-turned-writer Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. I’ve sometimes jokingly call Plan B Nation  “a Happiness Project for the rest of us”—for those who don’t already have Rubin’s picture perfect life—and I wanted to write about that.

But lying in the ER, my mind wandered to two of Rubin’s previous books—Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK.  And then: Forty Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Stone. The title just popped into my head, and I decided to make a list. (If you’re interested, you can read it below. In fact, I only came up with 25, but in deference to whimsicality, I left the title unchanged.)

Two days later, I was telling my writer friend Lisa about my misadventure. “I was so convinced it was that sports injury that I blocked out any other option.”

As it happened, Lisa had her own such story. Walking down a dark Brooklyn street a number of years back, she caught sight of three suspicious-looking characters ambling towards her. If you see something suspicious, always look at your watch. A friend had described having done just that after seeing a plane fly low over Manhattan’s Twin Towers. Now Lisa did it herself. In an instant, she saw herself on the witness stand, Law and Order style. She alone would have the facts! And then, she was mugged.

“Oh! I’m not a witness! I’m the victim!” was her first astonished thought.

You might say our minds have minds of their own. They assume “facts,” create stories, and often won’t shut up until they get us to act accordingly.  At times, this is a great thing. Our lives depend on it. But helpful as our minds may try to be, they sometimes lead us astray. Their first impulse isn’t always the right one. That’s why we need to keep them open.

Forty Ways to Appreciate a Kidney Stone

1. It wasn’t something worse

2. I got to meet the super nice super kind people in the Cooley Dick emergency room

3. I wasn’t out of town

4. I didn’t have the disappointment of cancelling holiday plans (had been feeling a little glum about not having any. Now I was glad.)

5.  It didn’t happen right before a work deadline

6. I wasn’t screwing up anyone else’s holiday plans

7. It gave me an opportunity to test my story-creating tool—and find it worked again

8. It led me to appreciate health in a way I hadn’t the day before

9. It gave me another way to reflect on the quality of openness that I’ve been mulling; the ability to see outside expectations. In brief, my initial tendency was to attribute this to a flaring of a sports injury. In fact, it was something different.

10. I told a nurse about Greenie pill pockets for her aging cat

11. I appreciated living in a place with easy access to medical care

12. I now know what these symptoms mean in the event they strike again

13. I know I should be drinking more water.

14. Another way to connect with friends

15. It gave me a chance to see that, at least sometimes, I’m getting better than I used to be about life not going according to my plans.

16. It gave me a sense that I’m not as much of a pain wimp as I’ve always thought of myself as being.

17. I didn’t have to take the heavy duty painkillers.

18. I had the heavy duty painkillers in reserve, which was reassuring.

19. Appreciate FB—didn’t have to call any one person but had community support, felt not alone + knew I had someone to call on if it turned out I did need help

20. Friends who offered to help

21. Made me appreciate insurance

22. Made me appreciate Mass, where health insurance is affordable

23. Made me appreciate my apartment—quiet, restful, safe space to recuperate.

24. Appreciate my car—that I was able to drive myself to the ER

25. Writing about this gives me a chance to connect with others—and maybe help someone else who ends up in this place in the future. (Research suggests that helping others makes us happier than doing things for ourselves.)