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

 

 

 

 

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.

Poultry vs. Prada

As per­haps you’ve heard—because, really, I won’t shut up about it—I have a new purse.  It’s made of rub­ber and looks pretty much exactly like a chicken. It cost $34.99 on Amazon.com.

The last time I was this excited about a purse was more than a decade ago. I was liv­ing in Man­hat­tan, and the purse was Prada. It cost some­thing in the range of $500, and I did not buy it on Amazon.com.

This real­iza­tion got me think­ing once again about the ways my life has evolved since mov­ing back to west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts a year and a half ago. In par­tic­u­lar, I’ve been reflect­ing on the key role of “ref­er­ence groups” in shap­ing con­sump­tion patterns.

I first came across this term in soci­ol­o­gist Juliet B. Schor’s The Over­spent Amer­i­can: Why We Want What We Don’t Need while research­ing an essay for Sec­on­dAct on The Secret to Liv­ing Well on Less. As Schor explains it, we tend to com­pare our own lifestyles and pos­ses­sions “to those of a select group of peo­ple we respect and want to be like, peo­ple whose sense of what’s impor­tant in life seems close to our own.” This is our ref­er­ence group, and it’s mal­leable. It shifts over time and depend­ing on life circumstances.

Not sur­pris­ingly, my Man­hat­tan ref­er­ence group was way dif­fer­ent from my ref­er­ence group in a col­lege town smack in the heart of what’s often dryly referred to as The Happy Val­ley.  And if that’s not a clear enough expla­na­tion, con­sider this socio-cultural map of Mass­a­chu­setts. (N.B. We are the bright pink sector.)

Image credit: The AwesomeBoston.com

As I wrote in my living-well-on-less essay, the fact that I’m spend­ing far less money these days isn’t because I’m now a “bet­ter” or less mate­ri­al­is­tic per­son. What’s changed isn’t the core of who I am. What’s changed is who I hang out with.

But while I may not be a bet­ter per­son, I do have a bet­ter life. And by “bet­ter” I mean more in sync with things that really matter—the things that really make me happy.  By way of illus­tra­tion, I offer the fol­low­ing comparison:

What I Got out of My Prada Handbag

I do not love shop­ping, and for this rea­son, it was great to have a sin­gle item that, by dint of sim­ply car­ry­ing it, would take me pretty much any­where. In 1990s New York, the uni­form of black Prada purse, black dress, black boots saved me count­less hours of bore­dom in our finer retail estab­lish­ments and, despite the hefty price tag The Purse car­ried, it likely ended up sav­ing me money given the alternatives.

Plus, it was, in some strange way, like being part of a club—or at least putting in an appli­ca­tion.  As I recall—and it’s get­ting a bit hazy now—such acces­sories were pop­u­lar at the time in the NYC pub­lish­ing world, and while I was still prac­tic­ing law, I wanted to be writer. I can’t say that the purse helped me write, but it sym­bol­ized the inten­tion, and in this way, it may have helped just a bit in keep­ing the dream alive.

What I Get out of My (Non-Prada) Henbag

I make peo­ple smile. And laugh! They stop me on the street and say: I LOVE YOUR PURSE! WHERE DID YOU GET IT? Then we chat for a bit. They tell me why they love the purse—about their friend who has chick­ens or their own chick­ens or how much bet­ter fresh eggs are than the ones you buy at the super­mar­ket (true), and then we smile and move on, but it’s sort of like I have a new friend somewhere.

When I meet some­one who loves the chicken purse, I also know I’ve met some­one with whom I’ll likely share other com­mon ground. Car­ry­ing the chicken purse is like walk­ing a puppy. Like it or not (and I do), I’m going to end up more con­nected than I was when I left my house that morning.

As go my purses, so goes my life.

The other day I bumped into a friend on Main Street, and after show­ing off the new hen­bag, I launched into a dis­qui­si­tion on my Poul­try vs. Prada mus­ings. I could tell he couldn’t fathom the notion of spend­ing hun­dreds of dol­lars on a pock­et­book. But rather than say­ing so, he sim­ply observed, “I think you’re head­ing in the right direction.”

The neigh­bors

 

Travels in Plan B Nation: 3 years, 5 lessons

[Bint.3♥♪♫]

Last month—April 10, to be exact—marked the third anniver­sary of my exit from the salaried work­force and my entry into what I’ve taken to call­ing Plan B Nation. After four-plus years at Har­vard Law School, where I’d han­dled speeches and other behind-the-scenes writ­ing for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice) Elena Kagan, she decamped for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and I decamped for parts unknown at the peak of the Great Recession.

It was, to put it diplo­mat­i­cally, not an easy time. The econ­omy was in free fall, plus I had no idea what to do next. Which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing because, had I known what I wanted to do, I likely couldn’t have done it. (Did I men­tion the Great Reces­sion?) Floun­der­ing in spring 2009 put me in excel­lent com­pany. Yes, I was freaked out and unem­ployed, but I cer­tainly wasn’t alone.

In recent weeks, I’ve been think­ing a lot about the road I’ve trav­eled since those anxiety-ridden days and feel­ing a lot of com­pas­sion for the me who so stolidly trudged through them. I’ve also been think­ing about what I’ve learned and what might be worth shar­ing. Here are five of the biggest lessons that I still carry with me.

1.  Tran­si­tions take a long time.  

I’ve writ­ten about this before, and it’s a really impor­tant point.  In New Pas­sages, best­selling author Gail Sheehy ball­parks two years as the min­i­mum time needed to sta­bi­lize fol­low­ing a lay­off or other “life acci­dent.”  Five to seven years is com­mon.  A related point: Tran­si­tions tend to meander—to be less like lad­ders and more like the clas­sic labyrinth, where you wind your way slowly towards the cen­ter, almost arrive, and then sud­denly find your­self on the outer rim, and then, just as unpre­dictably, back at the cen­ter again. I often find it help­ful to remind myself that this is just the nature of the beast.     

2.  Some­times the grass is greener because it’s greener.  

I put off leav­ing the Boston area for more than a year on the the­ory that wher­ever you go, there you are. Could mov­ing to another place really make me hap­pier? I’m happy to say that the answer is an unequiv­o­cal Yes. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that mov­ing to an area that I love is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant step I’ve taken to move my life for­ward.  In par­tic­u­lar, mov­ing to a place where I have a strong net­work of friends has made every­thing far easier—as well as a lot more fun.

3.  If you don’t know what to do for sure, start mov­ing anyway.

Tran­si­tions, by their nature, gen­er­ally involve a tem­po­rary loss of clear inner direc­tion.  That was cer­tainly the case for me: I was search­ing with­out really know­ing what I was look­ing for (which, not sur­pris­ingly, made it really hard to find).

Look­ing back, one of the most use­ful things I did dur­ing this time was to take action even if noth­ing felt quite right—to exper­i­ment, try things out. That’s how I came (lack­adaisi­cally, glumly) to write my very first per­sonal essay—which led to a blog on Huff­in­g­ton Post, which led to writ­ing for Salon, which led to this blog, which led to writ­ing for Sec­on­dAct (includ­ing Notes from Plan B Nation, my new monthly col­umn), Psy­chol­ogy Today, and a bunch of other stuff, which, remark­ably enough, actu­ally does feel right and for which I feel really grateful.

And you don’t need to take my word for it: I’ve since come across sim­i­lar advice in books by career guru Bar­bara Sher and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoff­man. “You won’t encounter acci­den­tal good fortune—you won’t stum­ble on oppor­tu­ni­ties that rocket your career forward—if you’re lying in bed,” Hoff­man writes in The Start-Up of You. “When you do some­thing you stir the pot and intro­duce the pos­si­bil­ity that seem­ingly ran­dom ideas, peo­ple, and places will col­lide and form new com­bi­na­tions and oppor­tu­ni­ties.” I couldn’t agree more.

4.  Be kind to yourself.

We’ve all heard a lot about mind­ful­ness by now, but this qual­ity doesn’t really get you very far unless it’s paired with self-compassion. Psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Kristin Neff is a pio­neer­ing researcher on this topic, and her book Self Com­pas­sion: Stop Beat­ing Your­self Up and Leave Inse­cu­rity Behind is geared to a pop­u­lar audi­ence and pro­vides an excel­lent roadmap for fur­ther exploration.

5.  Let your­self be surprised.

The biggest dif­fer­ence between lucky and unlucky peo­ple may be that lucky peo­ple are open to see­ing the unex­pected. (For more on this, check out this reported research.)  Expand­ing your periph­eral vision can do a lot to expand your oppor­tu­ni­ties.  I’ve found it to be useful—as well as fun—to con­sciously expect the unex­pected. (Most recent exam­ple: I’m about to go off to look at a poten­tial new home that I dis­cov­ered last night on Facebook.)

Strangely enough, my Plan B Nation life has turned out to suit me far bet­ter than the life I had before. I’m finally doing work that feels both mean­ing­ful and cre­ative. I have a great com­mu­nity in a place where I love liv­ing. The road I’ve trav­eled to get here was pretty remark­ably hard, but that doesn’t tell me I did some­thing wrong. It sim­ply tells me that I’m human.

In praise of erring

Guiding Light

I was hang­ing out at Sip yes­ter­day, doing my usual thing: Get­ting a lit­tle writ­ing done, drink­ing a lot of coffee.

But as I worked (and sipped) I found myself dis­tracted by two young women a few tables away. It’s not that they were loud, it’s that they were inter­est­ing.  At first, I just thought (as I often do) what a great town this is!  From there, it was a quick leap to “You know what? I’d like to meet them.”

A quick leap in my mind, but an awk­ward one to enact. This is what I thought as I fin­gered two busi­ness cards I’d pulled from my bag and con­tem­plated next steps. For a few min­utes more, I went back and forth. And then: I just did it.

I approached their table, smil­ing. Cau­tious smiles in response. I blath­ered some­thing about how I couldn’t help but overhear—and I knew that this must seem sort of strange—but that they just sounded so inter­est­ing that I’d decided to say Hi!

And you know what? They were lovely. Exactly like they’d sounded.

Not sur­pris­ingly, this being the town that it is, we already shared friends. Kate co-owns the vibrant Imp­ish, a “mis­chie­vously play­ful” Northamp­ton children’s store that I’ve vis­ited with my friend Sarah, whom Kate also knows.  Fran is a for­mer busi­ness law stu­dent of my pro­fes­sor friend Jen­nifer and about to begin a new job on Maine’s  same-sex mar­riage cam­paign. (I knew they were interesting!)

My friend Naomi quotes her mother as say­ing “Always err on the side of gen­eros­ity.” This encounter got me to think­ing how the same could just as well be said about human connection.

There are many times when the “right” course of action isn’t totally clear. If we’re going to over-steer, in which direc­tion should we risk erring?

Always steer­ing towards human con­nec­tion strikes me as a good default rule.  And I say this not just because it sounds good but for very prac­ti­cal reasons.

Look­ing back, I see that, time and again, the choice to con­nect has enriched my life in many and var­i­ous ways. No, not each and every time but more often than you might think.

A cou­ple of recent exam­ples relat­ing to this blog:

After writ­ing about celebrity blog­ger Pene­lope Trunk, I tweeted the post to her on a lark. To my sur­prise (and delight) she read it and left a lovely com­ment, which lifted my spir­its on a day that my spir­its needed lifting.

More recently, I wrote the (tongue-in-cheek) post “I Should Be You” about The Flu­ent Self’s mag­i­cal Havi Brooks, and once again, sent it on with no real expec­ta­tion of response. When she linked to the post, it resulted in my blog’s high­est traffic-ever day—and, in the process, con­nected me with a bunch of really won­der­ful people.

I’ve also gained a lot from being on the other side of the equation–the per­son being con­nected to rather than the con­nec­tor. The fact that I’m liv­ing in this town at all is largely due to the fact that the afore­men­tioned Jen­nifer (my law school class­mate) wrote me a warm con­grat­u­la­tory note after my first novel came out. We’d been friendly but not really “friends” before—and out of touch for years. Today, much of the good in my life can be traced to that out-of-the-blue email.

Another reminder came this week via writer Car­olyn Nash (a pen name), who’d read that I work with fos­ter kids and left a com­ment on my blog offer­ing to send a copy of Rais­ing Abel, her fos­ter care mem­oir. As it hap­pened, I’d already heard about the book on Work­stew and been mean­ing to find it. (“A woman of remark­able resource­ful­ness single-handedly raises a trou­bled child all the way to man­hood in this inti­mate and inspir­ing blog-to-book mem­oir,” is how Kirkus Reviews describes it.)  I told her I was eager to read it. And I’m already writ­ing about it.

Of course, not all attempts to con­nect will yield the hoped-for con­nec­tions. In another life, when I was writ­ing thrillers, I mus­tered up my courage, and placed a call to some­one I’d been friendly with in col­lege, who some­times reviewed books. I caught her at a bad time. She was icy. The call ended quickly. I felt terrible.

Think­ing about this phone call now—still clear in my mind after all this years—it occurs to me that it’s an excel­lent exam­ple of the human “neg­a­tiv­ity bias.”  As described by Buddha’s Brain author Rick Han­son, our brains are “Vel­cro for neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences but Teflon for pos­i­tive ones.” This is because our brains evolved to keep us from get­ting eaten, not with the goal of assur­ing that we live happy and pleas­ant lives. As Han­son sees it, we need to do what we can to push back this tendency.

For me, choos­ing con­nec­tion is one way to do this. Life is full of risks, and the choices we make on any given day won’t always leave us delighted. But by erring on the side of human con­nec­tion, I’m pretty sure we raise our odds.

Why Newt Gingrich is my new role model

Newt Gingrich  For President 2012

While I’d never in a zil­lion years vote for Newt Gin­grich, I’m awestruck—and more than a lit­tle inspired—by his seem­ingly lim­it­less capac­ity to bounce back from defeat.

I mean, think about it: This is a guy who not-so-long-ago was dubbed the most hated man in Amer­ica, the only house speaker ever to be sanc­tioned by its mem­bers.  As recently as last month, his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign was floun­der­ing, polling in the sin­gle dig­its fol­low­ing his cam­paign staff’s mass exo­dus the pre­vi­ous June. Pun­dits pro­nounced game over.

And yet today, on the eve of the Iowa cau­cuses, he is widely viewed as a fron­trun­ner, play­ing hare to Mitt Romney’s tor­toise as they vie for the lead in the Repub­li­can field.

Mulling over the lat­est Gin­grich come­back, I couldn’t help com­par­ing his Wile E. Coyote-esque resur­gence to my own ten­dency to give up—sometimes even before I start.

One recent case in point: I almost didn’t start this blog. For one thing, I was con­vinced I’d start, and wouldn’t find any read­ers. This would be depress­ing and a lit­tle embar­rass­ing.  I recalled the words of a col­lege class­mate now a famously suc­cess­ful (if cur­mud­geonly) writer: “You know the aver­age num­ber of read­ers of a blog? One!”  Who was I to think that I could add to the conversation?

This is not, to put it mildly, how Newt Gin­grich thinks. Newt Gin­grich is con­vinced that he has some­thing to offer the world. And if you don’t agree with him, it’s your prob­lem not his.

In fair­ness, this sort of against-the-odds con­fi­dence is far eas­ier to come by if you’re a nar­cis­sist or a sociopath or trend towards bipo­lar mania. There’s a bril­liant scene in Gary Trudeau’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign mock­u­men­tary Tan­ner ’88 where a sea­soned polit­i­cal reporter edu­cates a younger col­league on this point. “We’re talk­ing about some­one who wants to be the most pow­er­ful per­son on the planet,” he says. “We’re not talk­ing well bal­anced.”  (I’m para­phras­ing from mem­ory here, but you get the idea.)

That being said, those of us liv­ing in Plan B Nation have a spe­cial need for the sort of chutz­pah demon­strated by Gin­grich and his ilk. We live in an era where pos­i­tive rein­force­ments are in increas­ingly short sup­ply.  Per­haps for the first time ever, we’re fac­ing repeated rejec­tions and set­backs in our pro­fes­sional lives. We have to find ways to keep going when it feels more sen­si­ble to give up.

A pri­mary goal of this blog is to iden­tify con­crete strate­gies that help us do just that. For me, a sup­port­ive com­mu­nity has been a big piece of this. I’ve also found it helps to make an effort to keep an open mind, to remind myself that I really don’t know where the events in my life are lead­ing.

And now I have another strat­egy to add to my arse­nal. The next time, I’m feel­ing like a fail­ure, strug­gling to move on, I’m going to sit down and ask myself: “What would Newt Gin­grich do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then every­thing went black.

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

This did not happen.

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

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

And then I remem­bered the bread.

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

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

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

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

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

So far so good.

But not so fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wherever you go there you are? Not necessarily

kitchen1

A year ago today, I was pack­ing up my Cam­bridge apart­ment a stone’s throw from Har­vard Square and prepar­ing to return to Northamp­ton, the bucolic west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts col­lege town where I’d pre­vi­ously lived for two years in the early aughts.

I’d been in Cam­bridge for six years, and a hard six years it was. I’m still not quite sure why. It was the third time I’d lived in the sto­ried edu­ca­tional mecca, home to Har­vard, MIT, and count­less bril­liant minds. I’d been there twice as a stu­dent. This time I was back for a job at Har­vard Law School, where I ulti­mately wound up writ­ing speeches for then-Dean (now U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice) Elena Kagan.

It was a pretty great job in a pretty great city, but for some rea­son my life never really came together there.  Most difficult—and puzzling—of all was the fact that I couldn’t seem to make friends. Being sin­gle, my friends have always been espe­cially impor­tant to me, and not hav­ing any good friends close at hand—well, it was quite a challenge.

In fair­ness, by the time I moved, I’d man­age to col­lect a hand­ful of inti­mates, but given the time and effort I put in, the results were pretty pal­try.  Was it me? I won­dered. It had to be me. After all, who wouldn’t like Cambridge?

This was pretty much the way my thoughts were going when my boss decamped for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and my Har­vard job abruptly ended in the spring of 2009. At the time, it seemed to make sense to just stay put. I had a strong pro­fes­sional net­work in the Boston area, and even with the Great Reces­sion upon us, the region’s job mar­ket was still rel­a­tively robust (at least com­pared to other places).

Over the next year-plus, I picked up free­lance projects and other short-term work, but more and more, I found myself pin­ing to return to west­ern Mass. While I’d last lived in Northamp­ton a decade before, I’d made fre­quent trips back to see friends, and I loved my week­end vis­its. Still, I sternly reminded myself, mini-vacations are not real life. Mak­ing a move wouldn’t change any of the very real dif­fi­cul­ties fac­ing me. I’d still be job­less, look­ing for work, still finan­cially strained. I’d still be sin­gle (which is great if you choose it, but the fact is, I had not).

Also: I already knew from expe­ri­ence that just because I thought a change would make my life bet­ter didn’t mean that it would. Psy­chol­o­gists have a fancy name for this—affec­tive fore­cast­ing error—the idea being that we humans are noto­ri­ously poor pre­dic­tors of what will make us happy.

Wher­ever you go there you are. The say­ing stuck in my mind. Every­one knows that you can’t change your life by sim­ply chang­ing your surroundings–and lest you have any lin­ger­ing doubt, research bears this out.  In one often-cited study, researchers found that peo­ple who believed they would be hap­pier liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia actu­ally would not be. I couldn’t help but sus­pect that Northamp­ton might be my per­sonal Cal­i­for­nia (albeit a far chill­ier and less sunny one).

And so it went until my unhap­pi­ness reached the point that even an unlikely option seemed worth the risk. I didn’t know what else to do. Plus, I couldn’t help thinking—or at least hoping—that a move might serve as a jump start.

I was encour­aged to find some sup­port for this notion in jour­nal­ist Mal­colm Gladwell’s Out­liers: The Story of Suc­cess. There, Glad­well recounts the story of Roseto, Penn­syl­va­nia, a bustling self-sufficient town estab­lished in the nine­teenth cen­tury by immi­grants from a sin­gle Ital­ian vil­lage. In the 1950s, a physi­cian dis­cov­ered that the town’s res­i­dents enjoyed aston­ish­ingly good health, with men over 65 dying from heart dis­ease at half the rate of the United States as a whole, and with death rates from all causes 30% to 35% lower than expected. After sig­nif­i­cant research aimed at con­trol­ling for variables–diet, genet­ics, exercise–researchers con­cluded that, remark­ably enough, res­i­dents’ health could be traced to noth­ing more than the fab­ric of town life, with its rich social bonds and traditions.

Maybe I was grasp­ing at straws, but this seemed promis­ing. It seemed to sug­gest that while “mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia” might not in itself boost hap­pi­ness, the sense of belong­ing to a vibrant com­mu­nity could have a pro­found impact. The more I thought about it, the more con­vinced I became that this made total sense. After all, wasn’t it likely that I’d be hap­pier in a place that I knew and loved, sur­rounded by peo­ple I cared about and who cared about me?

More­over, I was able to gar­ner research to back me up. Again and again, close rela­tion­ships with fam­ily and friends have been shown to be one of the strongest proven pre­dic­tors of happiness.

Reader, I moved.

And as I approach my one-year anniver­sary in Northamp­ton, I’m delighted to tell you that I am indeed far, far hap­pier than I was before. While the move cer­tainly hasn’t fixed everything—I’m still look­ing for work, still look­ing for love—I’m deeply grate­ful for my life here. Along with the wel­come infu­sion of human warmth and con­nec­tion, I cher­ish the tex­ture of daily life: stop­ping by the farm down the street to pick up eggs, play­ing board games with my friends’ kids, work­ing with Friends of Chil­dren and Tree­house, local orga­ni­za­tions doing cutting-edge work aimed at trans­form­ing the nation’s fos­ter care sys­tem. The list goes on.

The moral of the story? Chang­ing your sur­round­ings won’t nec­es­sar­ily change your life. But then again: It might.