Out of helplessness


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.