A friend’s highly discriminating child wrote home from camp: “The swimming here is not the best.”
That’s pretty much the review I’d give this entire summer—not that it’s the summer’s fault. We’ve been slammed with deadlines at work, and my one week out of the office in June feels like a lifetime ago. I’m still up in the air about whether I’m going to move apartments. (On the pro side, this building is sort of a wreck. On the con side, I’m living here now.) A sultry two-week heat wave practically did me in.
At such times of feeling not the best, I often find myself casting about for new perspectives—ways of thinking about my life that inspire and recharge me. Here are four that have recently captured my imagination. I’m planning to spend more time with them. Perhaps some of you will join me.
1. Clarify your values, don’t focus on goals.
Reading these words I had a bit of an ah hah moment. I am really really good at meeting goals, but more and more, I’m finding that the reward often doesn’t match the effort. What would happen if I shifted the focus to my values? This suggestion comes via George Mason psychology professor Todd B. Kashdan, whose “Your First Step Down a Purposeful Path” graphic is now making the Internet rounds.“Make up a declarative list of what’s important to you” is what Kashdan counsels. In any case, it’s bound to be interesting. I’ll let you know.
2. What part of your life is unlived?
This is the question at the heart of Living Your Unlived Life, by Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson, who views living out the answer as “the most important task of our mature years.” In particular, he asks us to consider “What is unlived yet still has some urgency within you?” I’m intrigued by this question, by what amounts to an invitation to evaluate existing goals in a new and larger context.
“We all carry with us a vast inventory of abandoned, unrealized and underdeveloped talents and potentials,” Johnson writes. “Even if you have achieved your major goals and seemingly have few regrets, there still are significant life experiences that have been closed to you. . . . Of course no one can live out all of life’s possibilities, but there are key aspects of your being that must be brought into your life or you will never realize your fulfillment.”
3. Move towards pleasure. Now.
This is the message my life coach friend Max Daniels gives her clients. Instead of waiting until we “deserve” the trip to Portland or Amsterdam or whatever that thing is we yearn for—or until the perfect conditions fall miraculously into place—she encourages us to take action now. What especially intrigues me is her idea that, in taking these steps in the present moment, we in essence move closer to being the person we want to be. Do I believe this? I’m not entirely sure. But she doesn’t ask me to. She suggests that I collect my own evidence—which is what I’m planning to do.
4. What are you looking forward to?
From my busy summer, I am moving into an even more busy fall, and at times I can feel like my friend’s three-year-old who, informed that she couldn’t wear her sundress in January, hurled herself onto her bed with the cry: “I’ll never be happy again!” That’s when this question comes in handy. Because right at this very moment, I can think of a number of things coming up to which I’m looking forward. Yoga and brunch with fellow western Mass ex-pat Molly tomorrow. Dinner next week with Meta and (maybe) Delia. Meeting virtual writer friends Trish and Dorie in real life (that’s irl, to the cyber-centric) early next month. And those are just the things that come to mind in 30 seconds. Taking time to regularly ask myself this question is a way of balancing out my tendency to focus on the hard stuff. It doesn’t make it go away, but it puts things into perspective.
5. Take stock of how you rocked
Take my advice—I’m not using it! This quip came to mind yesterday as I read Trish’s post inspired by one of mine about taking stock of all we’ve accomplished in the previous year at times when it feels like that list is mighty paltry. You know what? It never is, as I was (once again) happily reminded. Next month will mark a year since I moved back to Boston, which seems like a perfect moment to give this little exercise another whirl.
* * *
And now: Your turn. Do you have a question or strategy that helps move you forward ? If so, I’d love to hear it.
He loved dried apricots, rotisserie chicken, and sleeping in the sink. He detested other members of his species. He cost $70, shots included, and I acquired him back in 1996 while still working in Manhattan as a lawyer.
It wasn’t my idea to get a cat. The directive came from two separate friends, both exasperated by my failure to get over a not-so-recent breakup. They thought that a cat would be good for me. I suspect they hoped it would shut me up—or at least shift the conversation.
He came home with me in a taxi cradled in my blue Coach purse, having won release from a cardboard box through piteous kitten mews. An antic feather-light ball of fluff, he developed a disconcerting habit of racing through my Upper West Side apartment and hurtling off the bed, legs splayed in all directions, nothing to break his fall. I named him Clarence—not for Clarence Darrow, the most frequent of all first guesses, but for Clarence, the disheveled Angel Second Class who struggles to rescue George Bailey from despair in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In time he grew regal and immense (“large-boned,” my father called him). “Such a small tongue—and so much kitty,” a boyfriend once observed, watching the cat’s prolonged and painstaking grooming process. “Clarence is a ceremonial cat–not for everyday use.”
Seventeen – almost 18 – years is a very long time, and we went through a lot together Mr. C and I. We moved from New York to western Massachusetts to Cambridge then back to western Mass and finally to Brookline. I quit law, published two novels, cycled through jobs and unemployment. Through every challenge, every disappointment, the cat was there beside me—splendidly furry and impervious, purring and reassuring.
He’d been losing weight for more than a year, and it was clear something was wrong. Kidney failure was one possibility. Cancer was another. Diagnostic tests were inconclusive. I began giving him subcutaneous fluids to help with hydration, pills to stimulate his appetite. (“You . . . you are like a nurse for your cat!” sputtered a courtly Latin gentleman on hearing of my ministrations.) Then, six weeks ago, with his appetite flagging, came another round of tests. The verdict: Late-stage cancer, in both his abdomen and lungs. When I brought him home, groggy and weak, from the hated animal hospital, I whispered to him a promise that he’d never have to go back.
I knew that I wanted him to die at home, but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know what that would entail, or what I should do or when. Not surprisingly, it was one of those times when the Internet proves a godsend. With a bit of searching, I discovered Harbor Veterinary House Calls, which not only does home visits but also offers pet hospice care. As the lovely and kind Dr. Maija Mikkola Curtis explained on her first home visit, hospice care for animals—as for humans—is about quality of life. She told me to think of her as a partner, to email her if I had any questions at all about ongoing treatment or next steps.
The next weeks were pretty good ones for Clarence—lots and lots of rotisserie chicken, tuna, and attention—but by the end of last week, he began a precipitous decline. He stopped eating and took to retreating to the darkest reaches of a closet. Already frail, having dropped more than half of his weight in the course of the past 18 months, he grew even weaker and frailer. With a heavy heart, I contacted Maija, and she came out the next evening.
We watched Clarence for a while, Maija and I, as I reached a final decision. “The spark has gone,” she said quietly. I had to agree. The process of euthanasia was simple and very peaceful. I’d already been saying good-bye for a very long time, and I petted and whispered my love to him as his life ebbed away.
Early last month—shortly after learning how very sick Clarence was—I happened on an advice column about a guy who was spending thousands of dollars to keep his cat alive despite living on a disability pension and, from the perspective of his best friend (the letter writer), having “no extra cash for luxuries.” I loved the columnist’s response:
It may be that your friend’s relationship with his cat is something he truly cannot live without; it may be that he feels something toward this cat that is beyond the understanding of outsiders and without the protection of social sanction or naming. . . . [P]erhaps eventually we will come to see that a man’s relationship with a cat is not simply that of a person to a luxury item, but something else, something sacred.
I’m down with that.
The house is very quiet when I get home these days. “Where’s the boy?” I call. Not because I’ve forgotten but because it’s what I do. I’ve also taken to scrolling through Petfinder, gazing at the pictures of the countless cats waiting to find homes. There’s Glad who reminds me oh-so-much of Clarence. (Would that be strange or good?) There’s sweet-faced Herman with his gorgeous coat and playful goofball Mr. Then I look at a photo of Clarence that Monica took in April. So present, so very there. He was—is—a beloved being. You are a beloved being.
When Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin renounced his U.S. citizenship last year, with the apparent goal of saving hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes after the company’s IPO, the Brazilian native had no shortage of outraged critics.
“He has made himself the poster child for the callous class of 1 percenters who are all too happy to use national resources to enrich themselves, and then skate, or cry foul, when asked to pay their fair share,” Ilyse Hogue wrote in the Nation, to cite one example. “The story evokes the image of the marauding aliens from the movie Independence Day, who come to Earth to take what they can get before moving on to another planet.”
But for all the furious accusations, Saverin seems to have been on the cutting edge of a growing trend. “U.S. citizens ditch passports in record numbers” was the headline on a May 8, 2013 Fortune/CNN piece reporting that more than 670 U.S. passport holders gave up their citizenship (and U.S. tax bills) in the first three months of this year—more than any quarter since the IRS began publishing figures in 1998 and nearly three-quarters of the total number for all of 2012. The newly ex-patriated include Isabel Getty, daughter of jet-setting socialite Pia Getty and Getty oil heir Christopher Getty, and—last year—wealthy songwriter-socialite Denise Rich.
This got me to thinking. While I totally get the anger at Saverin and his ilk, I’m also intrigued by a larger question, implicit yet unaddressed. How much money is sufficient for any single person? Does someone like Saverin ever say “Now I have enough!” Or do you keep on pushing until you have all the money in the world?
As I turn over these questions, I also find myself thinking about another man—one who could not be more different from Eduardo Saverin. His name is Daniel Suelo, and in 2000, at the age of 39, he left his life savings ($30) in a phone booth and walked away. For more than a decade since, he has not earned, received, or spent a single dollar.
“Unlike the average American—wallowing in credit-card debt, clinging to a mortgage, terrified of the next downsizing at the office—he isn’t worried about the economic crisis. That’s because he figured out that the best way to stay solvent is to never be solvent in the first place,” is how a piece in Details magazine summed up Suelo’s financial non-plan.
Born into an evangelical Christian family whose beliefs he’s long since discarded, Suelo’s personal philosophy eludes easy definitions. He lives in the caves and wilderness of Utah. He forages, dumpster dives, and eats with friends (as well as strangers). He doesn’t panhandle, collect food stamps, or accept other government support—not that he sees anything wrong with those who do, he’s quick to say—and he often works, just not for pay. He does make use of public libraries—borrowing books, checking email, and keeping his website and blog. “He wants to have the smallest ecological footprint and the largest possible impact at improving the world. His life goal since I met him is to take as little and give as much as possible,” his best friend told writer Mark Sundeen, whose compelling book about Suelo is called The Man Who Quit Money (Riverhead, 2012).
As I think about Saverin and Suelo, a study in opposites, I marvel over the vast elasticity of our concept of need. Saverin thinks he needs billions of dollars. Suelo needs to have none. Needs are not objective facts. They reflect values and choices.
I hope it goes without saying that I’m not suggesting we stop doing all we can to make the world a more just and more equitable place. What I am suggesting is that, in the meantime, we give ourselves a chance to thrive, that we have the courage of our convictions (which starts with knowing what they are).
For me, this perspective is liberating. Early retirement, single-family homes, college educations – these accoutrements of the American Dream are increasingly hard to come by. Do we simply redouble our efforts to achieve such established socially sanctioned goals? Or do we explore new paths, expand our repertoire of options? (Another terrific example of someone doing just that is Ken Ilgunas, a Duke graduate student who lived in a van to avoid going back into debt and turned his experience into the wonderful memoir Walden on Wheels (New Harvest, 2013)
Few of us are likely to follow Suelo’s example—I, for one, am not inclined to fill my dental cavities with pine pitch. What I take from his story isn’t the specifics of his journey. Rather it’s his capacity to find fulfillment while lacking things that most of us reflexively assume to be essential. If Suelo doesn’t need any money, I sometimes muse, perhaps I don’t really need [fill in the blank].
There are those who attack Suelo for failing to contribute to some larger social good. (One exasperated fan finally got his detractors to shut up when she told them that she pays taxes, doesn’t use the library, and is donating her share to Suelo.) But to my mind, his provocative life is contribution enough. His choices push us to think harder about the nature of our own. His life expands our sense of possibility. And that, to me, is priceless.
On Monday, the bombs exploded. On Friday, the city was put on lockdown, and on Sunday I boarded a plane to fly across the country to a place I’d never been.
It was a trip I’d planned for a long time to a place – Portland, Oregon – that I’d long wanted to visit. At the same time, as I finished up my packing and managed a last few errands, I found myself wishing that I wasn’t going anywhere at all. What I wanted was normality – a return to the usual routines of writing, work, and friends. It was then that I realized, with some surprise, that this place I’ve been living since September has come to feel like home.
For my friend Jan, the Boston/Cambridge area has felt, from the very beginning, like where she was meant to be. “Cambridge is the first and only place I’ve felt like I belong and where I’m entirely comfortable in my own skin,” she wrote last week, in the dizzying days after law enforcement staked out the Cambridge residence of the alleged marathon bombers.
My own relationship with the area has been both slightly longer and far more fraught. It began back in 1978, when I arrived on the Harvard campus at the age of 18, a serious, shy Midwesterner abruptly catapulted into a foreign land. In the 20th-century intellectual history class I took freshman year, our professor lectured on the 1897 novel Les Déracinés, about seven young provincials who lose their way after arriving in Paris, the price of having been torn away from their native traditions. That word stayed with me— déraciné, unrooted. I certainly wasn’t living in France at the turn of the century. Still, I knew what it felt like to be alone and unmoored.
I did not cope especially well. I went to a lot of parties, and I began a drinking career that would last through my mid-30s. I recall a couple of half-hearted visits to Harvard University health services with no notable results. Some two decades later, Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven would chronicle a murder-suicide in one of Harvard’s undergraduate houses. An Ethiopian student, lonely and unstable, stabbed her Vietnamese-born roommate to death then hung herself. Reading Thernstrom’s account of the systemic failings of Harvard’s psychological services, I would nod my head thinking, yes, this is what it was like.
Being young, confused, and far from home, bereft of support structures—it’s never been a recipe for happiness. Yet why do some triumph against all odds, while others self-destruct, while still others lash out violently with tragically horrific results?
By all accounts, the ethnic Chechen Tsarnaev brothers were considered friendly and well-liked. What series of events led to them to mutate from seemingly assimilated immigrants to murderous bombers? While the answers may never be fully known, a history of uncertainty and dislocation is unlikely to have helped.
Wherever you go there you are. The more I reflect on that neat aphorism, the less true it seems. For many of us, and for many different reasons, home is not a place to which we return, it is something we create, and that act of creation takes energy, resources, and support, along with that undefinable and elusive thing called luck. When I moved back to Boston this last time, I had all of these. I know what it’s like not to: It’s really, really hard.
Perhaps the most iconic photo to emerge from the marathon bombings is the image of a man in a cowboy hat leaping to the aid of a critically injured victim, having beaten down flames and tied a tourniquet to one of his partially severed legs. We now know that the rescuer is Carlos Arredondo, a 52-year-old peace activist who’d already faced more than his share of personal tragedy. Nine years ago, on learning that his 20-year-old son had been killed by Iraqi snipers, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. Two years, ago a second son committed suicide, having never recovered from his brother’s death and father’s resulting meltdown.
How do we account for this sort of gorgeous alchemy? If Arredondo had become a terrorist, we would have no shortage of ready explanations. But instead his anguish fueled a passion to save and rescue. “Cities are not resilient, people are. And, sometimes, they are not,” wrote Boston journalist Elaine McNamara. The journey from despair and loss is both profoundly personal and unpredictable. Wrong turns happen. Not everyone makes it back.
Having already read the book and heard the interviews, only two things caught me by surprise last Thursday when Sheryl Sanderg brought her Lean In roadshow to a theater in my neighborhood.
First was The Dress, a form-fitting little black number, at first glance unremarkable in this era of Corporate Alpha Female 2.0, where sexuality is proudly featured rather than downplayed—unremarkable, that is, until she turned her back and disclosed a gold-toned zipper running from top to bottom. (And before you get all “You-Wouldn’t-Be-Talking-About-What-She-Was-Wearing-If-She-Were-A-Man” on me, let me be clear: If Barack Obama showed up in a traditional suit with a contrasting zipper running down its back, I would remark upon it.) For me, this took the outfit from Seen This Before, to WTF. It seemed to be demanding some sort of response, though I’ve yet to figure out just what.
Second, and far more significant, was Sandberg’s pointed reference to how companies are quickly moving to adopt the Lean In model—which, depending on your perspective, could be either a great thing or a very ominous sign.
I’m of the second view. Let me explain why.
Women’s workplace initiatives of the sort that began to take root during the booming 90s—the period during which I practiced law in a large New York firm—focused on helping women balance motherhood and career. Being single with no kids, I always had my issues with this exclusive focus (I want to write a novel! What about flex-time for that?), but all in all, it was a big step in the right direction. There is more to life than work. We need to recognize that.
Enter Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In phenomenon.
While purportedly respecting – even celebrating – the diverse choices women make as they balance family and career, Lean In’s core message is something very different. “Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster,” writes former Facebook employee Kate Losse in her terrifically trenchant and insightful piece in Dissent “The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands.”
You may think this is a great way to live or a terrible way to live (and research suggests that most women with young kids will go with the latter), but that’s not what primarily concerns me here. Rather, my concern is that Sandberg’s prescription purports to be something that it is not – and in this guise is drawing support from women whose lives it’s just going to make harder.
The following exchange is instructive on this point.
Responding to an audience question about navigating both motherhood and overwhelming work demands, Sandberg essentially said that women need to do a better job setting expectations and boundaries, noting that she herself manages to make it home for dinner with her kids.
What she didn’t mention was this (from page 133):
“Facebook is available around the world 24/7, and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone. And unlike my job at Google, which was based almost exclusively in California, my Facebook role requires a lot of travel.”
The Lean In website currently lists dozens of business partners including financial institutions (American Express, Bank of America), big law firms (Skadden, Sidley Austin), consultants (McKinsey & Company), and other large businesses (Pfizer, AT&T). These institutions doubtless already have women’s and other diversity initiatives. What will the Lean In movement contribute – and what will it take away?
Women with full-time jobs and outside lives have very limited bandwidth. Here’s my, admittedly pessimistic, prognostication: The conversation about leaning in will slowly but surely supplant talk about on-site child care, work/life balance, and other “family friendly” policies. (As for the would-be novelists among us: As you were.)
I can’t help but think that Lean In offers a feminism tailor-made for our New Economy—one where the primary beneficiaries are companies, not women. Through the magic of Lean In, women’s initiative costs – poof! – transform into corporate profits. The Greeks left their model horse outside the gates of Troy and pretended to sail away. As for us, we have more clues than the Trojans did. We know who’s still hanging around.
There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon where a guy is standing in his high-rise office talking on the phone: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?”
I was reminded of this last week when veteran journalist Nate Thayer used his blog to publish an email exchange with an Atlantic editor interested in “repurposing” a piece Thayer had previously written if he would first revise it. For this, she offered the princely sum of . . . nothing. (By these standards, humorist Calvin Trillin’s editor–the “wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky,” with his offers “in the high two figures”–was positively profligate.) Thayer lost no time in registering his outrage.
“I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children,” wrote Thayer, later noting the irony of having once been offered an Atlantic retainer of $125,000 a year for six articles.
The post quickly went viral, with both supporters and detractors flocking to weigh in. To his fans, Thayer was a hero, finally saying “enough is enough” to ever-more exploitive journalistic overlords. To his critics, Thayer seemed both entitled and unrealistic, foolish in his alienation of the very people who might hire him.
A follow-up piece on Gawker.com—itself an acknowledged user of writers who work for free—used the flap as an object lesson in the ongoing devolution of journalism into a profession largely populated by those with ample resources. “Becoming a successful writer—or journalist or actor or wigmaker—is an ambition that, like pretty much everything else in society, is rigged in numerous ways to favor people who start off with money,” Cord Jefferson trenchantly observed.
Not much disagreement on that score. However, there was plenty about what the ultimate takeaway should be.
“When Thayer was being offered $125k/year I was being offered $140k,” noted my friend Anne, an expat American lawyer, now living in England. “I’d love to be on 2002 rates again—who wouldn’t? But the reality is much different.”
A Gawker.com commenter had this to say:
“Maybe they expect people to write for free, because plenty of people are ready and willing to write for free. If you want to make a lot of money, go be an investment banker or start a business or whatever. If you want to write, then do that, but don’t whine about how you’re getting paid squat for doing it. You made your choice.
My friend spends hours upon hours working on his model trains which he displays and are enjoyed by many people who see them. He never once asked to be paid for his efforts. Don’t act like your calling is so much more noble and worthy than his.”
Law—one of my several previous professions (and another that, incidentally, is fast heading towards meltdown)—works by analogy: Is X more like Y or like Z? In that spirit, I found myself musing over whether a freelance writer is, in fact, similar to a guy who plays with trains. As usual with analogies, I could see the facts both ways. In the pro column: Thayer enjoys writing. He, like the fanatic hobbyist, is doing it because he chooses. In the con: Writing is also Thayer’s profession, one he settled on with an eye to making a living at a time when such a plan didn’t seem wildly risky. No, he would likely never be rich. But he’d be paid more than . . . zero.
My favorite legal doctrine–and yes, as a matter of fact, I do know how geeky that sounds–goes by the name of reliance. (I also wrote about it here.) Simply put, if you induce me to “change my position” based on your claim or promise, you can’t later change your mind and just tell me to go away. For example, if you sell me a product to wash my car, I’m entitled to rely on the fact that it will do just that—and without stripping the paint.
Law school exams are called issue spotters. They consist of “fact patterns”—stories of sorts—packed with legal issues that the test taker must first identify then analyze. The world after the Great Recession is filled with tales like Thayer’s, with people whose lives have been upended by new technologies and seismic global changes. They (we) relied on what we knew, on what we were told. If life were an issue spotter exam, it might pose the following questions: Was this reliance justified? Is there a remedy?
Note: Thanks to my writer friend Amy Rogers who helped me pull that New Yorker cartoon from the recesses of memory.
A million years ago, back in 1978, I showed up at the Harvard Crimson in the fall of my freshman year to try out for a slot on our storied school paper. Joining me for the first Crimson “comp” of our college lives were maybe a dozen other eager young would-be reporters. Among their names: Bill McKibben, Jeff Toobin, Nick Kristof, and David Sanger.
I recall only two other women—though there may well have been more—and none of us would scale the journalistic heights attained by what is, in retrospect, a remarkable percentage of our male peers.
In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means—or doesn’t. After election to the Crimson‘s News Board, I rarely ventured back. I recall feeling generally disaffected. One of my few clear memories is of a football whizzing over my head as I typed toward deadline. I don’t recall any intentional or explicit sexism.
So what happened?
Were the women of my Crimson era victims of discrimination, of a non-congenial (if not hostile) work environment? Or were we simply less focused and ambitious or maybe less talented? Or is the whole thing a statistical fluke that means exactly nothing?
My answer: I really can’t say for sure. There are, however, clues.
As recently as 1977—the year before I entered college—two-thirds of Americans believed that “it was much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family,” Stephanie Coontz wrote earlier this month in a New York Times piece on why, fifty years after publication of The Feminine Mystique, women aren’t showing more zeal about moving into the full-time workforce. It’s a cultural attitude that feels deeply familiar from my Indiana childhood and which, along with the ongoing absence of structural supports for women seeking to balance work and family that Coontz describes, likely accounts for much of the under-representation of women throughout the workforce.
That said, I’ve always been deeply skeptical about the notion that numbers tell the whole story, a skepticism honed over several years as Harvard Law School’s de facto point person on women’s issues. (I graduated from HLS in 1993 and practiced law for a few years before gravitating back towards writing, eventually winding up as then-Dean Elena Kagan’s special assistant for communications.) A 2005 speech I drafted for the dean acknowledged the undeniable fact that “women are not assuming leadership roles in proportion to their numbers” but also noted some possible non-discriminatory explanations.
Most intriguing to me was a tantalizing finding by a Harvard Law School student working group that women’s reasons for choosing law as a career differed from those of men. “Compared with men, women were more likely to choose ‘helping others’ (41% v. 26%) and ‘advancing ideological goals’ (24% v. 15%) and less likely to choose ‘high salary’ (32% v. 44%),” the group concluded in its February 2004 report.
So what are we to make of this? Well, I don’t have a comprehensive answer, but I can tell you what I made of it. My main takeaway wasn’t (and isn’t) that the world needs more female corporate law partners (though I certainly have no quarrel with you if that’s what you’re after) but that we need to place a far higher value on work where the primary goal is to make the world a better place. We need to value teachers, social workers—and public service lawyers—more, not to find new and better ways to steer them towards corporate work if that’s not where they want to go.
None of this, however, really speaks to the world of writing and journalism, which regardless of your gender, has never been a route to riches. While fewer women of my era may have made it to the New York Times, I think we can safely rule out avarice as the reason.
I should also be clear that I’m not saying Crimson women of my era did not go on to be highly successful in highly demanding jobs–investment banking and corporate law being two examples. And a handful of women of my college era did go on to successful writing careers–though with once exception, more on this below, none achieved the brand-name presence of those guys I comped with in the fall of 1978.
If I were to take a stab at guessing why women of this time and place–Harvard, the late 1970s–may have struggled to gain purchase on the writer’s path, I would probably start with the unconscious belief that our concerns—and our stories—didn’t really matter, a belief no less powerful for being unrecognized. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most well-known female journalist of my Crimson generation—Susan Faludi, one year ahead of me—made her name with a book that focused on the hitherto unrecognized “backlash” against women. And just yesterday, I was struck by how Crimson classmate Nick Kristof (and his wife Sheryl WuDunn) make a related point in the introduction to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide:
“[W]hen we began reporting about international affairs in the 1980s, we couldn’t have imagined writing this book. We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear nonproliferation . . . . Back then the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for.”
That they did write the book—and that it’s become a national bestseller—is one of many heartening signs that things have, and continue to, change. The fact that I’m writing this piece is another. When I look around, I’m struck by the number of women writers with whom I’ve crossed paths, most of whom are seven to ten years younger than I, who have managed in remarkable ways to tie their personal experience to larger concerns and trends. My law school classmate Susan Cain, author of the bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is a wonderful Exhibit A. There’s also former law firm colleague KJ Dell’Antonia, who now heads up the New York Times wildly popular Motherlode blog; cyber pal Marci Alboher, who draws on her own life experience in the just-published Encore Career Handbook; occasional New York dinner party companions Pamela Paul (a New York Times writer and editor whose first book, The Starter Marriage, grew out of her own failed first marriage), Annie Murphy Paul (whose books include Origins, which delves into the cellular beginnings of life through the lens of motherhood), and Deborah Siegel, memoirist and co-founder of She Writes, an online community for women writers. There are likely many more whose names escape me at the moment.
Years before I turned to blogging and writing essays like this one, I had a reasonably successful, if short-lived, career as a suspense novelist. Getting a book deal was a huge thrill and yet, when I was honest, I had to admit that the actual writing of these books wasn’t all that thrilling. For years, I took this to mean that I wasn’t really cut out for writing. And then a chance remark turned everything around. I’d just described my “ideal day” as part of a small group exercise at a Harvard Business School program for women. This vision involved waking up in the country, having coffee, then turning to my writing.
“But I had that day, and you know what? I wasn’t all that happy,” I concluded.
One of my listeners gave me a reflective look: “Maybe you were writing the wrong thing.”
Note: This piece was revised on March 8, 2013 with the addition of paragraph 12, intended as clarification.
Last summer, I came across another of those darkly hilarious post-recession job search stories. In this particular installment, one Taylor Grey Meyer lost it on a sales manager from the San Diego Padres, an organization to which she’d applied for a job no less than 30 times. After the standard radio silence response to her applications, she received an out-of-the-blue email alert to an “opportunity” to attend a job fair hosted by the Padres for the bargain price of $495.
And that’s when Grey–whose previous experience reportedly included an internship with Major League Soccer–went a wee bit berserk, firing off an email described by the sports website Deadspin as “one of the great emails of our time.”
“After careful review, I must decline. I realize I may be burning bridges here, but in the spirit of reciprocity, I would like to extend you a counter-offer to suck my dick. Clearly, I don’t have one of these, so my offer makes about as much sense as yours. But for the price you’re charging to attend the event, I’m sure I would have no trouble borrowing one.”
Not surprisingly, her response proceeded to go viral, and—as Deadspin wrote—“perhaps, on balance, it wasn’t the worst move in the world. Meyer has already received one note from a sales office, asking her if she’d like to come in for an interview.”
All of which got me thinking about the job search process in the wilds of the Brave New Normal – and how the best strategies sometimes emerge only after you’ve given up.
My own experience—though far less jaw-dropping—provides a case in point. One of the standard pieces of advice to anyone who’s gone through a layoff is to downplay the layoff part and up-play what you’ve accomplished. That’s pretty much how I rolled in the beginning. I kept busy! Volunteered! Updated my resume! Then, after a year or so, I ran out of steam. I started to feel a bit defeated. And also a bit defiant. Which explains my decision to write publicly about being unemployed.
The first piece I wrote for Salon on the topic of unemployment was published with the provocative headline “Even Harvard Couldn’t Protect Me”—capitalizing on the irony of my educational pedigree—though my real point was something quite different: That navigating unemployment requires tremendous inner resources, far more, in my experience, than what’s needed to navigate success.
Like Grey’s, my writing elicited a range of responses—from withering accusations of self-indulgence to heartfelt words of support. (I still cherish one defense: “Does Salon have no standards at all?” my supporter rhetorically asks, quoting an especially virulent attacker. And then goes on to answer: “Obviously not. If they did — most of the first few letters in response to a Gutman piece would be moderated into oblivion. The fact that they allow their excellent authors to be harassed by the nation’s under-medicated tells us all we need to know (and more) . . . .”)
While my Salon essays on unemployment didn’t lead to a job right away, in retrospect they were a first step on the path that got me there. The essays led to Plan B Nation, and this blog—along with being hugely gratifying—kept me visible to people in a position to hire me. One of these was a former Harvard colleague who reached out last summer when an opening came up in her department. (A side benefit: When I interviewed, there was no need to explain my time out of the workforce. They already knew my story. It’s how I had come to be there. ) I was hired and started work last September. Things are going well.
Let me be clear: When I talk about the benefits of hopelessness, I don’t mean despair, which is never ever helpful. What I’m talking about is being open, a topic I’ve explored many times before. The danger of hope is that it can tie us to a very specific iteration of a very specific story at a time when we’re far better served by staying alert to opportunities in whatever form they take. The more wedded we are to a specific outcome—the more we narrow our sights—the harder it may be to craft a fulfilling life with the materials at hand.
I don’t know what’s happened to Meyer since last summer—I shot off an email to her via LinkedIn this morning but haven’t yet heard back. The best clue I found was a “Public Figure” Facebook page where her photo (she’s a lovely blonde) tops the following tagline: “Taylor Grey Meyer had already been rejected by the Padres over 30 times before she got an email from the baseball team that was the last straw.” No sign of regret. No apologies. What began as an F U moment seems to have become a personal brand.
In honor of the impending blizzard, I’m re-posting these memories from the October 2011 Snowpocalypse, when I was living in Northampton, MA. This essay first appeared in the Hampshire Gazette (and later on this blog).
When the snow started to fall, I was playing a card game with the Baskinettes. Which isn’t really surprising, since this is how I’ve spent a good bit of the past year, something between an honorary aunt and slow-on-the-uptake peer. (“I’m going to deal the cards instead of you. That way, it will be faster,” a seven-year-old Remy once airily informed me.)
“Do you think I should head home now?” I asked the Baskinettes’ father, aka my friend Hosie. The snow was coming down faster, in huge wet clumped flakes.
Hosie looked out the window and shrugged. “I don’t think you have to rush.”
And indeed, he was right. Back home a few hours later, safe and warm, I decided to do some baking. For weeks, I’d been meaning to make New York Times food guru Mark Bittman’s magical no-knead bread. With 10 minutes or so of hands-on time for an artisan-quality loaf, it’s a recipe easy to love. The only challenge is finding the 14-hour window needed for the dough to rest. But I had plenty of time now. I expected a quiet weekend.
The dough was just starting to rise, when I got my first inkling my night might not go entirely according to plan. My cell (only) phone rang (cricket chirped). It was the eldest of the Baskinettes, 16-year-old Ezekiel.
“We don’t have power.” The voice was aggrieved “I’m. So. Bored.”
Still, freakish as this seemed—and by “this” I mean the weather, not teen protestations of boredom—I wasn’t all that worried. I live in a neighborhood where utility lines are safely lodged underground. We rarely lose power out here. Also: It’s October! I glanced at a clock: almost time for bed.
Then everything went black.
No big deal, I thought philosophically. I’ll get a good night’s sleep. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have power back.
This did not happen.
When I got up the next day, it was really cold. I flicked the light switch. No response. No electricity meant no coffee. Something had to be done.
A Facebook friend once asked if the Happy Valley’s vaunted fashion laissez-faire extended to PJs as street wear. “Yes!” came the resounding response. “Totally! Absolutely!” It seemed that today was as good a day as any to put this to the test. I yanked on a fleece in the frigid air, grabbed my parka, slipped on boots. Keys. Purse. Money.
And then I remembered the bread.
There it was on the kitchen counter, waiting so patiently. Heading out the door, I picked up the bowl and cradled it in my arms.
I never pick up hitchhikers, but this once, I made an exception for the bundled twenty-something figure trudging tiredly down Route 9. He slid into the seat behind me, taking the bread in his lap, glad for the ride and seemingly unphased by his pajama-wearing dough-toting driver. He was bound for the Unitarian Church in town in hopes the service was still on. We talked about The Great Gatsby, Faulkner and Willa Cather. Then I dropped him at the church and parked my car, my mind once again on coffee.
But while the mood on Main Street was strangely festive, not a store or café was open. A flannel-clad me paused dejectedly. I was out of luck. (On the upside, those Facebook friends were right. No one gave me a second glance.)
I love my town for lots of reasons, and one of them is this: When you show up unannounced on your friends’ doorstep, wearing pajamas and bearing dough, you’re likely to be greeted as if you’re paying a totally normal visit. Once settled in at the breakfast table and fortified with black tea (no electricity meant no coffee grinder, no coffee grinder, no coffee), I explained to my friends Jen and Michael the purpose of my mission. “I knew you had a gas stove,” I concluded. “So I thought I could bake it here.” But a gas stove, yes. Gas oven, no. Again, I was back to square one.
Happily, here in the Happy Valley, hope springs eternal. A few hours later, up the street, back at the Baskinettes, I had the choice of two gas stoves—and yes, one of them even appeared to have a functioning gas-fueled oven. We set out on a rescue operation, the four Baskinettes and I, trekking back down the snowy hill to collect the dough from Jen and Michael’s.
So far so good.
But not so fast.
There comes a time in every endeavor when by far the most sensible option is simply to give up. Our Bread Odyssey reached this point when we found, upon arriving home, that the oven on which we’d pinned our hopes was also out of commission. Is it possible to fry yeast bread? To rig up a stove top oven? We gave some half-hearted thought to these questions, but clearly we were losing steam. And then, like some culinary deus ex machina, Hosie’s sister appeared. Yes, Lucretia had a functioning oven, and yes she would take our bread.
That night, after a largely housebound day trending towards cabin fever, the Baskinettes and I set out on foot for the nearby college campus center, lured by the prospect of heat and light and maybe even vending machines. It was just around 7:30, but it felt pretty much like midnight. Beneath a sharp white sliver of moon, our shoes crunched through snow. Still, it was good to be outside, to breathe in the fresh night air.
Then, for a strange frozen moment, I saw us as if from a distance, characters in the opening scenes of a movie that wouldn’t end well. Isn’t this how they always start, those blockbuster disaster films? An almost ordinary lovely day in an ordinary lovely town. Kids, families, plans, friends—and then The Thing appears. (Aliens, terrorists, viral pandemic—you can take your pick.) At first, no one understands what it is they’re up against. It’s just a slight cough, or a faint shadow. Or a snow storm in October.
We got power back the next day, two days earlier than predicted. All in all, we’d gotten off easy. Even the shrimp and ice cream in my freezer appeared to have survived the thaw. Within hours, you could almost feel like everything was back to normal. Almost but not quite. Not if you surveyed the piles of tangled tree limbs, leaves green against improbable snow. Not if you took some time to think about the next logical plot point.
I finally caught up with my bread again the following afternoon, now transmuted into a golden cornmeal-encrusted round. “Was easy enough to bake but seems a little, uh, dense, which is likely because of the lack of warm rise,” Lucretia wrote me on Facebook. And to sure, when I picked up the loaf, it did seem rather stone-like. But when I cut off a slice and took a hesitant bite, it was amazingly not-too-bad—especially if accompanied by a bit of homemade peach jam.
In the past few months, our little part of the world has endured its share of hardships: a tornado, a hurricane, and now a blizzard, not to mention the all-engulfing global economic maelstrom. We live in strange and unsettling times. I know this is true. I also know that, whatever dangers we face, there is hope in our human connections. Together, we can grapple with climate change—or make a loaf of bread. And if you’re going to face the apocalypse, it’s best to do it with friends.
And if you need a soundtrack: