Out of helplessness

give

I started this blog late last year to explore what I’ve taken to calling the Inside of the Downturn – the psychological impact of the Great Recession and its aftermath. Lots was being written about practical strategies for regrouping – how to retool your resume, develop a brand, do an effective job search – but very little on the issue of how to hold steady in these turbulent times.

Or rather, much was being written, but little of it seemed useful. Stay optimistic! Be resilient!  Uh, sure. But how?

For answers, I turned to personal stories. That’s how I became a regular reader of writer Brett Paesel’s Last of the Bohemians. Both profoundly funny and profoundly wise, Paesel offers an object lesson in what it means to do the best you can at a time when the path ahead is anything but clear. One of the most valuable qualities for Plan B Nation is equanimity. Here, Paesel talks about finding this balance, its challenges – and its gifts.   

by Brett Paesel

I have always been drawn to philosophies and spiritual teachings that emphasize the importance of balance in our lives. Striving for personal equanimity makes perfect sense to me. We should be industrious, but also know when to relax. We should exercise our bodies as well as our minds. We should seek balance between art and science, giving and taking, our heads and our hearts. The Aristotelian ideal of finding the golden mean – the desirable middle between two extremes – is enormously compelling to me.

Because I’m lousy at it.

I can swing between moments of euphoria and total despondency within seconds. Just like my eight-year-old, Murphy. One minute he’s declaring that his new light-up YoYo is “the best invention ever” and the next he’s crumpled on the floor, the broken toy in his hand, howling, “Why? Why? Why?”

Yes, apparently I have the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old. A couple of Christmases ago, my father asked the whole family to close our eyes and hold hands around the table while we listened to a gorgeous aria that he loved. After a minute or two of reverent, head bowing around the pot roast, I got antsy and felt trapped. I started to giggle and then to sputter and cough when I tried to rein it in. Afterwards, in the kitchen, my mother said through a clenched jaw that she wasn’t surprised at my behavior: “We all know what you’re like Brett.” And she was right. Everyone who knows me knows how hopeless I am at marshalling my emotions.

So how is it that someone like me has made it through the last couple of years?

After the economic crash, my husband’s and my income has dwindled down to a quarter of what it was. Which meant that we had to drain all of our accounts. We are in the process of declaring bankruptcy, losing our health insurance, and struggling daily to create a sense of normalcy for our two sons. Last summer when the IRS put a lien on our checking account, freezing any remaining money we had, I screamed at my husband that I hated him and I wanted a divorce.

Our economic woes, by the way, are not solely his fault. We both have under-earned and mismanaged our money. But I don’t want to talk about economic foolishness right now. Even though I can. I’m an expert. What I want to talk about is helplessness – that feeling that we cannot control anything, not even the basics, and that we cannot prevent a catastrophe from slamming us into oblivion. How do you prevail over the debilitating feeling of helplessness? And if you’re someone like me, who gets knocked around by their own emotions on a regular day, how do you uncurl yourself from the metaphoric ball you have pulled yourself into under the covers?

First, you start at the bottom. Since you are there anyway. You remind yourself of what actually DOES work in your life. You’re not going to divorce your husband because despite the stress of the past few years, he still makes you laugh, is a good kisser, and loves you even though he, like your mother, “knows what you’re like.” Your kids are healthy and happy. You enjoy your work (in this case, you’re a writer) and your friends still like you even though they, too, know what you’re like.

Once you’ve remembered that some of your life has worked out pretty damned nicely, you start to make choices. Because I have come to believe that the road from feeling helpless to resourceful, even happy, is made one choice at a time.

When I found myself at my lowest point, I first had to choose to choose. You see, feeling helpless can be very comforting, even luxurious. After all, no one requires anything from someone who is truly helpless. No one asks a newborn to make dinner. There is an abdication of responsibility in adult helplessness that I found deeply attractive and kind of sexy. At times, I had felt like the French Lieutenant’s woman, staring out to sea – the wind flapping my long cape around — waiting patiently, sexily, for someone to save me.  Most of the time, however, feeling helpless was simply boring.

So, for me, there was a point when it became untenable. Unsustainable. And I didn’t have a long cape. What I did have were children who needed me and a marriage that required tending. So the first choice I made was to actually start making choices – which lead to choosing to eat better, exercise, and get more sleep. That made me feel a little more capable, but not that much more. Because nothing had fundamentally shifted. My financial situation certainly hadn’t. The only difference I could point to was being able to fit back into my skinny jeans.

It was clear that what needed to change was my mindset. Surely, if I were a happier, I would be more adept at handling life’s challenges. So I started small and simply. I decided to consciously fill my life with things that I enjoyed and I endeavored to let go of things that made me miserable. Knowing that on a pragmatic level, I couldn’t just let go of paying bills, for example. Which definitely made me miserable. But you get the point.

When I thought about what made me happy, the list was quite long and very doable. “Breathing” was at the top. I really like to breathe and so I decided to do a lot of breathing in pretty places. In fact, I decided to slow down in a number of ways. Which may sound like helplessness, but is quite the opposite. This was not inertia, but focus. It was attention.

What, I wonder, are the little joys that you could double up on? Or triple up on?

As long as it’s not vodka. It might be worth considering.

During this period of time, I also thought about joyful activities that had somehow dropped away when I was pulled into the tide of helplessness. One of those had been reading novels. Somewhere along the line, I had forgotten to read.

I also reclaimed the joy of crying. In my darkest days, I started to believe that if I cried, I might never stop. But you do stop. In fact, in my experience, you stop much faster if you fully invest. Once I started crying again, I felt better. More connected and, strangely enough, more able to feel joy. Sounds a lot like balance. (If you need more crying in your life, I highly recommend seeing bad romantic comedies in the middle of the day. Almost no one is in the theater and you can bawl your eyes out. Anything starring Drew Barrymore or Sarah Jessica Parker will do the trick.)

And while you’re in the business of choosing to fill up on activities that make you happy, you might choose to let go of some stuff too. I let go of a couple of unsupportive friendships, which was painful but necessary. But I also tried to let go of complaining and blaming. That was even harder. Because complaining can be fun and it’s a group sport.

And blaming had to go because blaming is the battle song of helplessness.

Let me pause here to say that there were days when I was more successful at making these choices than others. But on the days when I slipped up, choosing to forgive myself was awfully powerful.

And here is an almost counterintuitive choice that I made in the midst of making all kinds of choices: When I felt at my worst. When I was spent and felt that I had nothing left to give. I decided to give more.

A friend of mine is a runner and he once told me that when he feels tired and is convinced that he can’t go on, he runs harder. He runs faster. And it gives him more energy to finish his run.

I believe that it’s the same with giving. When you’ve got nothing, give more. It feels good. It connects you to the world. And you find that you have more than you thought you did. Call a friend who is having a hard time. Volunteer. Help someone carry their groceries up the steps. Giving made me feel resourceful. Which is the opposite of helpless.

Your choices might be very different than mine. I know that mine don’t tend to be pragmatic in a worldly sense. And, to that end, my outward circumstances haven’t shifted that dramatically. But I don’t feel helpless anymore. In fact, I feel quite capable. And I certainly feel more balanced than I have in the past – either in good times or in bad. Because making active choices means consciousness. It means refusing to wait passively for fate or an intemperate god to put up a roadblock or toss you a bone.

And what I have discovered is that all of my choices fall under the umbrella of the big question I ask myself every morning when I wake up.

Which is, “Am I going to keep lying here or am I going to get up and participate?”

Mary Oliver ends one of her famous poems like this:

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life something particular, and real

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened

Or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

So for me, the choice – the big choice – is always whether to continue lying on that bed or to get up and walk out the door. To be a part of the world and not just a visitor.

So far, the decision has been easy. Easier than I would have thought.

Brett Paesel is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller Mommies Who Drink and the blog Last of the Bohemians. Her work has appeared in numerous national publications including the New York Times and Salon. She also writes for television.

Note: This post first appeared on Last of the Bohemians and is republished with permission.

Turkish delight

What qualities are most helpful in navigating Plan B Nation?

Having given this question a lot of thought, I’ve concluded that one of the most important is a capacity for openness. By this I mean, an ability to drop ideas of how life should be — to be open to the unexpected gifts in unexpected detours and derailments.

It wasn’t until Plan B Nation guest blogger Ellen Rabiner asked me to reciprocate that I realized how much this insight owes to my time in Turkey. In a new guest post for Ellen in Turkey, I explain how this came to be.

Stuck in a moment

Shortly after discovering the wonderful Work Stew site, I read an essay by Tasha Huebner that completely wowed me. It was funny and smart and brave, as well as beautifully written, and at the time I remember thinking: “I’d like to know that girl.”

Flash forward another six months or so. Last week I saw that Tasha was among the winners of Work Stew’s essay contest. No surprise there. Reading her new piece, I had the same reaction I did to the first, but this time, I acted on it. I sent her a Facebook message saying how much I admired her work and introducing myself. What followed was a rapid-fire exchange, ranging from movies (Melancholia, The Pianist) to thoughts about resilience (Is it or not the same as adaptability? My kind of question.) 

The connection was yet another reminder of why I love blogging – because of the people it brings into my life and how it expands my horizons. In this spirit, I also love to share my favorite discoveries. I asked Tasha if she’d consider letting me post her original Work Stew piece here. Happily for all of us, her answer was “absolutely.”  

Tasha Huebner

by Tasha Huebner

Damn, I was arrogant.

“Hmph,” I smirked, even with a bit of an eye roll thrown in for good measure. “I’ll never be one of those people trying to sell more cornflakes, or—god forbid—figuring out what color hats the Keebler Elves should wear. I’m going to do something a little more important than that.”

So, with Wharton MBA in hand, I set out to conquer the world, self-styled Master of the Universe that I was. And what kind of important things am I doing now? Let’s see. Today I was out at my garden plot fussing over the tomato plants, because I’m hoping that later in the summer I’ll have enough to sell and make at least a few hundred dollars. Had lunch with my mom, which she paid for. Sent an email to a person I write blog articles for on various topics, for a miserly amount of money, telling her that sure, I’d be happy to write articles for a stripper recruiting blog—why the hell not?

Stripper articles.

When you graduate from business school, you are led to believe that striking out on your own—because you’re so damn brilliant and all—is a great idea, just wonderful. You may not expect to hit it big, as in hawking-schlock-sold-expensively-on-QVC-big, but you do feel confident that you’ll at least get by.

But then something like, say, The Cancer comes knocking at your door. No, forget knocking—the rude bastard comes barreling in guns a’blazing, taking no prisoners, leaving you shell-shocked and stunned, because seriously, WTF is this? You have no family history of cancer, you’ve always been healthy to a fault, you’re training for your second IRONMAN, for chrissake, so really, WTH? Then if you have the really shitty luck, like some of us (ahem), a month later you’ll still be training for said Ironman, and will get into a bad bike crash going downhill at 40 mph that will leave you with a severely broken collarbone, bleeding on the brain, no memory of the crash or the three days in the hospital, and oh yeah, that pesky cancer that still needs to be taken care of.

And meanwhile, back at the ranch, because you’re single and self-employed, you have no income anymore because you’re in a cancer-treatment and brain-injury fog, and while you do have health insurance (whew!), you discover that insurance companies are evil bastards who MSU (=Make Shit Up) in order to get out of paying your bills. So you come home one day, exhausted in your 6th week of daily radiation treatment, and burst into tears when you get yet another bill from BlueCrossBlueShield saying that they’re not going to pay $5K of your surgery because there was “an extra nurse in the room.”

Even I don’t have the creative cojones to make this stuff up.

And at the same time that your life is being totally derailed by The Cancer, you have people helpfully telling you about all the lessons you should be learning from this “journey.” Life is short! Seize the day! Live every day as if it were your last!

First of all, if I lived every day as if it were my last, well, let’s just say that there’s a level of rapacious bonbon-eating there that even I don’t care to contemplate. Second, and more importantly, I would love to “seize the day” and do all the things I’ve ever dreamed of. Visit Mongolia! White water rafting again in Costa Rica! Visiting my CancerChick friends, the group of women who live across the U.S. that I’ve come to know and love as we together deal with the shitcan that is cancer at a young age!

There’s one problem with this, and forgive me for stating the obvious here, but: this costs money. I know, shocking! But true. And to a person, my CancerChicks and I, we’re po.’ The married ones have a bit more leeway, but if you’re single? Forget it. Single and self-employed? Doubly forget it. Do we want to work? Hell yes. I’d like to be able to pay my bills without contemplating how much I could get if I gave blood on a regular basis. Yet for some reason, in spite of my Wharton MBA, my fan-fucking-tastic resume (everyone tells me this) (though okay, I admit I’ve paraphrased slightly), the fact that I’m really good at what I do (shameless plug: marketing, communications/writing), I have yet to find work, even project work.

So while I’d like to report that as someone with The Cancer who realizes full well the importance of embracing all that life has to offer, that I’m doing so every single day—the truth is that I can’t quite figure out how to spend every day in some whirlwind of fandango fun and excitement, because reality kind of gets in the way. Those pesky bills. The minutiae that make it hard for me to move boldly forward into my post-Cancer life. This is true for everyone I know who has this disease that’s determined to kill us.

The other bit of advice that people like to share with you, whether you have The Cancer or not, is this: do what you love to do—the money will follow.

This, my friends, is a bold bit of complete and utter horseshit.

Me, what I love to do is write. I have a blog that’s sweeping the nation (You’ll laugh! Cry! Rally to laugh again!), that I make absolutely no money from. (Note to IRS: no money whatsoever.) I’ve been working on a book, but in the meantime I need to be able to pay my bills, so the book often has to go by the wayside. Such is life. Working as a strategy consultant post-Wharton, that brought in a decent amount of money. The writing, the acerbic wit, the pandering to the eighteens of blog readers who hang onto my every word? Not so much.

So what are our key takeaways here? I think they’d be along these lines:

  1. Don’t get The Cancer. If it offers to latch onto your life, just say hey, no thanks, I’m kinda busy now
  2. But if you do, make sure you’re part of a two-income household, or independently wealthy, because…
  3. (to paraphrase George Bailey)…money comes in pretty handy down here, bub.
  4. If you’re the quintessential Schleprock like I am, don’t follow your dreams. Stick with the well-paying corporate gig; do what you love to do in your spare time. Trust me on this.
  5. Realize that if you have the aforementioned crap luck, it makes for some fantastic writing on the blog. Hey, lemons, lemonade, margaritas, go with it.
  6. And if you look at the shell casings surrounding the destruction of your formerly orderly and logical life and are completely baffled as to how you wound up here, it’s important to realize that it’s not all bad, that there are always patches of sunshine hidden among the shadows.

And if I at times sound a bit bitter, well, that’s only partially true. I’m not bitter about The Cancer, because quite frankly, shit happens. Not bitter about the bike crash/brain injury, because that elevated things to an almost sublime level of absurdity that holds up well in the retelling.

What I AM bitter about—or perhaps dumbfounded is a better word—is the fact that I have a Wharton MBA, for god’s sake, yet am willing to write stripper stories for a tiny bit of cash, as I lay awake at night wondering how I’ll pay my bills. Wharton! MBA! Amazing resume and experience! Brilliance all in one neat little package! The mind reels.

I’m bitter that tomorrow when I go for my 6-month checkup with my oncologist, the one whose mantra is “no scans without symptoms,” I’m not going to try to convince her that I should be scanned at least once. Because if they do find a recurrence or advancement, I can’t afford to treat it. “Thanks, doc, but I’ll pass on more of The Cancer today—it’s just not in my budget right now.”

I’m bitter about the fact that I’m being audited by the IRS, because the brain trust over there flagged my returns when I had a sudden drop in income and, oh, huge medical bills! Lawsy me, what ever could be the connection?

I’m slightly bitter about the fact that The Cancer will be back at some point, because the stats for young women with stage II breast cancer basically suck. I wish I could be earning money so that I could in fact be doing the carpe diem-ing I’d like to do in whatever time I have left. But I can’t.

I’m very bitter about the fact that my fellow CancerChicks, who I love dearly and would do anything for, are all dealing with this same shit. And the bitterness becomes black indeed when I think about the lie perpetuated on us all: that breast cancer is so curable, which is total hogwash, especially for young women. Hell, it’s barely treatable, based on the fact that seven or eight of my friends in just the last week have either found out that they’re now stage 4, or have taken a turn for the worse because their treatments are no longer working.

Curable, my ass.

And yet, in spite of the fact that my life is a total shambles, I have amazing women in my life because of The Cancer, and I wouldn’t give up those friendships for anything in the world. Not for all the tea in China, not all the pots of gold in existence.

So to sum up: Money = good. Jobs = good. Cancer = bad. If you measure success by the amount of money one has accrued, then clearly I’m the least successful person from my graduating class at Wharton. A wash-up. A failure.

If you measure it in friendship—I’m the richest woman in the world.

Note: This piece first appeared on Work Stew, and I’m grateful to Kate Gace Walton for her willingness to share it. 

Failure is the new success

For me, one of the very best things about blogging has been the opportunity to connect with people I’ve long admired from afar. One of these is writer Laura Zigman, author of several books including the darkly hilarious bestseller Animal Husbandry.

Like practically every writer I know, Laura has been riding out the ups and downs of a publishing world changing so fast that it seems in perpetual free fall. But unlike most writers, she’s managed to turn setbacks into material, most recently in a series of brilliantly witty Xtranormal videos, including “Failure Is the New Success,” which she graciously agreed to share here. (She has a lot more to say about the Xtranormal series — and the creative process — in this terrific interview.)

The ability to make creative use of setbacks — to incorporate them into our larger story — is perhaps the most useful of all Plan B Nation talents (with added points for black humor). No one does this better than Laura. I’ve never admired her more.

Laura Zigman

by Laura Zigman

Five or six years ago, I wrote 100 pages of a non-fiction book about failure.

And guess what?

It failed to sell to a publisher!

I love that punch-line — now — but at the time, the failure of my failure book made me feel like a total loser. No one was buying failure at the time as a general topic — even all tarted up with a “positive” title like “Failure: A Love Story,” since failure, especially financial, wasn’t as widespread as it is now. The fact that my own personal economic recession started long before everyone else’s — before the actual and legitimate economic recession — was embarrassing, and alienating. Back then, failure was failure, plain and simple: a shameful little secret you confessed to as few people as possible, not only to preserve your own dignity but also to spare others the discomfort of dealing with your lack of success.

It’s different now!

Failure is cool! Failure is hip!

Failure has had a complete make-over and rebranding!

Failure has become a competitive sport everyone wants to win at!

If I were pitching my failure story now, I’d boast that I was a failure long before everyone else was. That I was at the “forefront in the trend of downhill-career-trajectories.” A “trail-blazer in metabolizing professional and artistic disappointment.”

Failure has become something to brag about and these days; everyone’s out there bragging about what a huge failure they were.That little word — were — is crucial, because it’s past tense. It means recovery from failure, triumph over failure. Failure is the ball and chain of success and there isn’t anything more brag-worthy than shedding the ball and chain and living to tell the tale. Or, living to boast about the tale. Nothing’s more American than a great comeback story — a story of redemption and reinvention, a story of survival, and self-reliance, resilience, and will to claw your way back from failure to the shores of success, even if you’re down on all fours combat-crawling upon your arrival.

This Xtranormal video is about this new kind of failure: “shame-free failure.” And about the new phenomenon of bragging about failure: the idea that if you succeed at failure long enough you will ultimately win at it. I’m not sure that winning at failure is the same thing as winning in general — as true success — but for those of us who are tired of losing, we’ll take it!

Note: Guest post revised by the author on 6/22/2012

 

Wubby’s (sort of) mea culpa: I may not always be an Angel, but I have my reasons.

Angel M Kellogg

I first met Angel M. “Wubby” Kellogg when I was living in Cambridge some years back and began spending a lot of time with her family. While our conversations were few and far between—she is, after all, a dog—we seemed to enjoy a deep unspoken bond. Which is why I was all the more shocked last week when she turned suddenly hostile, refusing to let me into her house despite extensive sweet talk and offerings of Boar’s Head cold cuts.

As some of you may recall, Wubby’s behavior on this unfortunate day became the subject of a recent essay that appeared on this blog. In fairness, I should have sought Wubby’s approval before going public with the incident and apologize for having failed to do so. (It’s the dog thing that put me off—not an excuse, just an explanation.)

For all these reasons, I’m delighted that Wubby has agreed to share her perspective in the following guest post. I’m also grateful to my friend Betsy for assisting Wubby in its preparation (especially given the fact that she doesn’t come off so well).

by Angel M. Kellogg (as transcribed by Betsy Munnell)

Dear Amy (and I do mean “Dear,” despite my unfor­tu­nate behav­ior of the other day),

I too have been hav­ing some somatic com­plaints [See “40 ways to appreciate a kidney stone“], and have found my moods dis­torted by same. When last we met I was a tad hos­tile (mea max­ima culpa), as a direct func­tion of a deeply alarm­ing week spent fre­quent­ing the neigh­bor­hood vet. (So you get the pic­ture, this guy has a photo-portrait of him­self exam­in­ing a mis­er­ably fat cat hung on the wall of the recep­tion area. AND, two cats live at the office all the time. Really?)

So the first time, I had 15 teeth removed and parts of me shaved, because I have “bad saliva” and lousy own­ers, who are too lazy to brush my teeth. I came home feel­ing rot­ten, with antibi­otics and pain killers. And the sec­ond time, the day of our mis­ad­ven­ture, my older sis­ter Cather­ine dragged me in so the vet could look at a sus­pi­cious some­thing on my back. Despite all his expe­ri­ence the guy found it nec­es­sary to shave me, again, within an inch of my life so he could see it. Then he sent me home with antibi­otics and pocket Gree­nies (of which you speak above) and the dubi­ous rec­om­men­da­tion that my fam­ily apply hot com­presses three times a day for 15 min­utes at a stretch (REALLY?).

So I was not a happy puppy when you came in the door that day.

And by the way, I went back on Tues­day (even though I started to shake vio­lently when we turned up Mass. Ave en route past Simon’s to the cat-man’s lair) because I pulled a mus­cle and blamed Betsy for it and wouldn’t sleep with her any­more and she’s depressed. Now, thank God, I have the pain killers again and they’re back to feed­ing me human food and I’m feel­ing more frisky and smil­ing more. I am try­ing to let Betsy come around on her own, because she got way into my space over the pulled mus­cle thing—she hates when I cry. So I’ve been cau­tious about drag­ging my butt along the floor and hump­ing ran­dom legs when I have an urge to dominate—to reduce her stress level.

So you think you’ve had a tough week. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I wrote up my own Forty (well, 12) Ways to Appre­ci­ate Going to the Vet

1. It wasn’t some­thing worse

2. I wasn’t out of town—the vets on the Vine­yard are too crunchy, and obsessed with irri­tat­ingly serene black dogs

3. Led me to appre­ci­ate chicken, salmon and steak all the more

4. 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 hav­ing eaten some bad chicken, salmon or steak.…. In fact, it was some­thing different

5. I told the doc­tor to stop say­ing “Good Girl” and get a life, which was satisfying

6. I know I should be eat­ing more chicken, salmon and steak

7. Another way to remind my fam­ily how much they can’t live with­out me

8. Gave my own­ers a chance to see that when life doesn’t go accord­ing to plans their first pri­or­ity should be me

9. I got those pain pills and had dreams about hav­ing not been spayed

10. Got Betsy to get off freak­ing Face­book and Twit­ter long enough to address more mean­ing­ful concerns

11. Got Betsy to spend more time with me and less at that over-rated Simon’s Cof­fee Shop, where every­one knows her name and she wastes money on WiFi with her over-educated Cam­bridge friends all of whom wear head­phones (Really? who pays for WiFi anymore?)

12. Made me appre­ci­ate Mass­a­chu­setts, where health insur­ance is affordable—leaving more cash left over for chicken, salmon and steak

12. Writ­ing about this gives me a chance to apol­o­gize for my poor behav­ior, and to offer a believ­able excuse, thereby increas­ing the like­li­hood that when you come again you will still have Evergood’s cheese on hand.

Love and licks from me, Wubby

Author’s Note: In the event you still have doubts about my trials and tribulations, consider that the above photo first appeared on Facebook with the following commentary: “Why am I blue? Well, I trotted through a freshly poured sidewalk on Avon Hill Street. My master is an idiot. Note the remains of my cement shoes.” Very diplomatic of me not to have used my master’s name, don’t you think? (By the way, it’s Betsy.)

Editor’s note:  This guest post first appeared as a comment on the original post, where it elicited the following response from Canine Canine’s Eddie:

“Wubby, my most sin­cere com­mis­er­a­tions for your vet­eri­nary ordeal. Some­thing else to be grate­ful for (#13): you did not have to wear the cone of shame like my pal Remy, who came home with a deep gash on his paw and had to get stitches because some jerk left bro­ken glass on the path at Fresh Pond.”

Finally, big thanks to Eddie’s owner Jan for suggesting this guest post’s clever title.

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 Offensive.com'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.

A Valentine’s date with Leonardo da Vinci

Every now and then you have a chance encounter that turns into something far more. That’s what happened to me with Allegra Jordan, whom I first met back in 2006 at a women’s program at Harvard Business School.

Somehow we got to talking. One thing led to another, and we made plans to meet for dinner that evening at a restaurant in Harvard Square. Over upscale New England home cooking, we traded life stories, finding many overlapping interests. Along with our Harvard professional degrees (mine a J.D., hers an M.B.A.), we shared ties to the southern United States (she’d grown up in Alabama, while I’d spent years working in Tennessee and Mississippi). But most important of all was our shared concern with finding ways to bridge our secular and spiritual lives, whether they be devoutly Christian (hers) or Buddhist eclectic (mine).

Flash forward five-plus years, and both of us have been through seismic changes—jobs, relationships, geographic moves.  At the same time, the commitments that brought us together remain very much the same, and what began as a single meal is now a solid friendship.

In this guest post, Allegra describes how her own Plan B Nation story led her to launch Innovation Abbey, a social justice-oriented consulting firm with projects around the world (and with which I’m now honored to be affiliated). 

By Allegra Jordan

February 13, 2010. Snow is falling as my dog Belvedere and I pull out of my Chapel Hill driveway and begin the drive to Atlanta. By the time we reach the North Carolina border, traffic is at a standstill. Eighteen wheelers slide precariously close to us along the rolling hills. The six-hour trip ends up taking three times that long.

If this had been an ordinary trip, I would have turned around and waited for the roads to clear. But it was Valentine’s weekend, a brutal anniversary. One year before, I’d received a pink slip from my then-husband, followed by the same at work. The descent was so stunning it became introductory material for a forthcoming book with the tongue-in-cheek working title Is Feminism in Bad Shape? Check out Allegra. The story: our plucky honors Harvard Business School graduate marries, pursues a career in innovation, sacrifices, and ultimately becomes a cautionary tale for others.

Stick around for the weekend anniversary? No way.

Instead, I got tickets to the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. My goal: To rest my eyes on consequential, centuries-old beauty. I hoped this experience would soothe and heal my heart. I was going to show up to life, show up to beauty, and show up to excellence. If I had to drive 18 hours, I would gladly do so.

But there was no “a-ha” moment for me on that bleak winter day. Tense from the drive, protecting a badly wounded heart, I searched in vain for what I was seeking. I saw nothing that moved me, nothing that seemed to justify the long and exhausting trip.

Valentine’s Day dawned in Atlanta to below-freezing temperatures. The sun had yet to rise when I embarked on my return trip over black-ice slicked roads. As I carefully started the long drive back, my spirits were low. It would have made sense to wait a while, but I didn’t have that luxury: I needed to make it back in time to pick up my sons at their father’s.

And then, just a few hours later, everything suddenly shifted.

As I crossed the border into South Carolina around 10 a.m., the sun peeked into view. As if on cue, the air seemed to warm. My tension and anxiety drained away, leaving a feeling of calm. For the first time in three days, I finally relaxed. It was then the blessing came.

I can only describe it as an epiphany. And epiphanies or daydreams are funny, inexplicable things. Neurologically, I can speculate that after I finally relaxed the executive center of my brain, I opened the door to a series of neuro-tonal images. It was a bit like being awake and dreaming at the same time.

I saw Leonardo sitting on a ladder. I drew closer.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“I can help you,” he said.

“How? There’s no place for me.”

“There was no place for me either—I did so many different things and few of them fit with each other. Even Michelangelo made fun of me for that big horse I tried. But if I could make it in the 1500s, then perhaps you can too.”

“But my work situation, my home life—I’ve been so betrayed.”

“Have you ever worked for a Sforza?”

I laughed. The Sforza coat of arms includes a viper eating a child. It’s hard to think of a more threatening boss than that.

“If I could do it, perhaps you can too,” the master said. “I’ll help.”

That was it. The epiphany was over.

Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison writes that a true and good friend is someone who takes the pieces of “who I am” and gives them “back to me in all the right order.” In that sense, this epiphany helped me see the path forward. In those moments, I found my tribe.

One year later I started Innovation Abbey, recruiting a first-class team that shares my dedication to evidence-based innovation steeped in deep wisdom about how people really work. Since our launch, we’ve worked in 10 countries in Asia and two in Africa, as well as in the United States. Our projects are starting to bear fruit, though the work of innovation— innovare or renewal in Latin—is the work of a lifetime.

Our competitive edge? We believe that human beings, not data or processes, are the root cause of innovation. Yes, people of faith need people of spreadsheets, and I have been a person of spreadsheets. But it also works the other way: data and processes need the human spirit.

Our name hearkens back to the ancient abbey system of Europe and Asia, which managed to combine operations and deep knowledge of people to show a better way forward. While far from perfect, the 1,400 Cluny abbeys nevertheless helped bring Europe out of chaos, war, and disease 1,100 years ago­—and without a single mobile phone.

I’ll close with a humble—but telling—story from a project we completed in Laos late last year.

In the Lao culture, there isn’t a word for innovation. But there is a word for love.

We were invited to work with a public health administrator working to teach her team about innovation.

She gathered her whole team—including her driver—to talk about innovation, using the materials we had provided as a jumping off point. The first discussion caused confusion. But the team did not give up. “We don’t know what this is but we love our regional manager who tells us this is important. We will do it for this manager whom we respect,” was the general consensus.

The tide finally began to turn when the Lao team connected in Thai with another group studying innovation with us. After this, the Lao team began to feel more comfortable with the innovation process and related concepts, the team leader told us. How did she know? Here’s what she said:

“I got in my car. Usually you tell the driver where to go street by street and they drive you that way. But this time the driver turned to me and said, ‘I’ve been thinking. For two years we’ve driven that way. I know a shorter route. May we try it?’”

When I heard this, my heart lifted. Think of the time value in money! How much time had two years of the directive mindset cost the team? And how much time might be saved going forward? Not to mention the larger changes likely to follow as the innovation mindset begins to take root and flourish.  And significantly, the breakthrough stemmed from love—from the feelings of respect and connection that bound team members to their regional manager.

I see innovation as the response of humanity struggling to renew in the midst of a competitive and dysfunctional world where there are amazing things yet to be discovered. I’ve had to give up almost everything to gain this wisdom. It’s becoming slowly apparent to me that it is worth it.

It’s our challenge to build a beautiful future together on the cold embers of a past that did not work. We have the spirit of a genius engineer, painter, draftsman, sculptor, and inventor that can meet us, even today. As I walk into this unknown, and potentially beautiful, unbounded future, I do so with a new confidence that I’m not alone. I’m searching for—and starting to find—the members of my lost tribe, the brilliant, visionary, heart-centered tribe of Leonardo da Vinci.

Note: To learn more about Innovation Abbey and its projects, email Allegra with questions or to request an inaugural set of white papers: “The Devil in Innovation,” “Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom about Modern Innovation,” and “What We Learn about Innovation with the Bottom Billion.” Readers are also warmly invited to attend a Tedx event on the theme “Beloved Community” in Chapel Hill on March 3, 2012.

Plan B Nation: The Podcast (now on Work Stew)

Perhaps the best thing about starting this blog has been the opportunity to meet really cool people who are thinking and writing about the very things that most interest me.

This fact hit home again earlier this week, when Work Stew founding editor Kate Gace Walton contacted me about doing a podcast for her site.

Like me, Kate is something of a culture straddler—a Harvard grad who spent time in the corporate world (she has an MBA from Wharton)—before engineering a life more in line with her values and interests, a transition she eloquently describes in the essay Random Acts of Business.  A mother of two, she now works in recruiting near her Bainbridge Island, Washington home.

In the year since launching Work Stew, Kate has gathered dozens of stories reflecting a vast assortment of work experiences, with the goal of creating a forum that both informs and inspires. The essays and podcasts are as fascinating as they are diverse. Hollywood screenwriter, particle physicist, minister, ex-spy, restaurant cook, and flight-attendant-turned-gorilla-caretaker are just a sampling of the paths represented.

My own recent conversation with Kate about life in Plan B Nation covered a lot of ground, ranging from what my career has in common with a traditional marriage plot to what comes next for all of us in the New Economy. Want to listen in? Click here.

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.

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.