Porridge and Clouds #2

Bowl of clouds

Porridge & Clouds is an occa­sional series on things I’m think­ing about + things that make me think.

Those Crimson Women Circa 1978  and the Flavors O’ Success

My musings on the obstacles that may have kept women on the Harvard Crimson in my era from evolving into uber successful journalistic superstars has sparked some lively conversation—especially timely as the Sheryl Sandberg tsunami approaches landfall on this International Women’s Day.

Among the comments: My writer friend Cathi Hanauer (Gone, The Bitch in the House) made a compelling case for the myriad ways motherhood may figure into this equation, while college classmate Arthur Kyriazis pointed out that a number of women of my Crimson era had, in fact, been phenomenally successful. Both of these are excellent points, and I revised the post slightly this morning to clarify what I meant.

To quickly recap: I didn’t mean to say that Crimson women of my era didn’t go on to amazing careers, just that—with one salient exception, not in my college class—none became the superstar journalistic brands that an astounding four of the men from my freshman comp did. Similarly, while I don’t have kids myself, it’s obvious to me that moms face unique challenges—but at the same time, I don’t really see that accounting for what I described. It wasn’t that the women of my era didn’t triumph in careers known for their over-the-top non-family-friendly demands—investment banking and corporate law being two examples—it’s that the paths they followed didn’t involve the public act of claiming their voices.

Also, a coda: A college friend who read the piece emailed me, wondering if I remembered a few Crimson women she’d known: Susan Chira, Suzy Spring, and “Nancy” someone. For Susan Chira my answer was a resounding Yes: She was president of the Crimson a couple years ahead of me and went on to a career at the New York Times. (If she’d been in my Crimson comp, she’d have seriously undercut my lede.) “Nancy” didn’t ring a bell. Suzy Spring sounded familiar. “Did she go on to the Herald?” I emailed back. The answer: “SHE MARRIED JACK WELCH.”

Follow Your Heart 2.0: Notes from the Field

A few weeks back, I wrote about how economic pressures are paving the way for a new understanding of what it means to “follow your heart”—one informed by an awareness that bliss is generally easier to come by when you can pay your bills.

In this context, I was intrigued by popular travel blogger Mariellen Ward’s post about her decision to trade the peripatetic life that informs the BreatheDreamGo blog inspired by her passion for India for life in her native Canada. What I love about this piece is its insight into the realities of finding stable footing on the road less traveled–and how this is always a work in progress. In particular, this:

“On my first night in Goa, when I couldn’t sleep because of fear and hunger, I suddenly realized: I’m done. I’m homesick, I’m tired of trying to make a living as a travel writer and blogger, I’m tired of traveling with limited funds, I’m tired of the struggle, of TRYING so hard for so little in return, and I want to go back to Canada. Just like that. I don’t know if it was the house I was staying in, or the planetary alignment, or maybe just the timing. But that night in Goa everything changed.”

Another wonderful post about the highly personal process of forging a meaningful life comes from my friend Lisa Maguire, now contemplating a career change from investment banking to horse care as the still-contracting finance industry continues to bleed jobs.

“It occurred to me that this was the first meaningful work I had done in years,” she writes with characteristic wry humor, describing the experience of volunteering to muck out stalls. “Work that had tangible results (I could see the clean stall) and a purpose (the rescue relies solely on volunteer labor). It was also work that I was able to do without any politics or controversy. Unlike working in an investment bank, no one disputed who was going to fill up which water bucket; no one stood next to your just-filled bucket and claimed your work as their own; no one emptied your just-filled bucket and then refilled the bucket, saying you had not done it right; no one debated the process controls and regulations around filling up the buckets, taking out measuring sticks to see how far from the lip of the bucket you’d filled.”

Jobless Rate Falls to 7.7%!  Big News—Or Not?

Plenty of excitement about this today—here’s the New York Times piece—but how excited should we really be? I, for one, am putting off judgment until I know more about the quality of the jobs created—specifically, how salaries and benefits stack up against the pre-Recession jobs they replace.

Also: In case you haven’t noticed, jobs are still disappearing. Don’t believe me? Check out the new (and apparently ongoing) series about being laid off after the age of 50 from business journalist Jon Friedman, who is sharing his evolving story in a series of lively posts. Here’s the first.

Managing Stress in Stressful Times

It’s one thing to apply stress-management techniques to the ordinary annoyances of daily life—traffic, noisy neighbors, being put on hold by Comcast—but what if you’re facing far more serious issues shaped by larger economic trends? Think job loss, foreclosure, major investment losses. Last week, Plan B Nation had a chance to put this question to a panel of experts at Harvard School of Public Health, part of a fascinating panel discussion livestreamed from HSPH’s Leadership Studio. Well worth watching (which you can do here).

Recipe: Quinoa Black Bean Burgers     

A recipe! There’s always a recipe here on Porridge and Clouds. Last time it was for red velvet cake. This time, it’s quinoa black bean burgers. They come highly recommended by me (assuming you like such things).

Porridge and Clouds

Bowl of clouds

The first in an occasional series on things I’m thinking about + things that make me think

Back in the 1970s, Radcliffe President Matina Horner made headlines with research suggesting that American women suffered from a “fear of success” that kept them from reaching their potential. While I came of age in that era, I’ve never felt that Horner’s findings spoke to my experience. What I recall isn’t a fear of success but rather a fear of failure.

I was probably around 14 when I decided not to apply for a spot in a highly selective study abroad program for Indianapolis public school students. I didn’t think my French I was up to par. I didn’t think I’d get in. Today, I feel bad for that girl who gave up before she tried. By all accounts, it was a wonderful program. There’s a good chance I would have made the cut. And if not: Who cares?

All of which is prologue to saying that I have since become a fervent proponent of learning how to fail. Being able to cope with failure strikes me as one of life’s most important skills—which is why I devoted a session to the topic in the Living Strategically Seminar I taught this fall at UMass Amherst (and, on a lighter note, why I couldn’t wait to share the very funny Laura Zigman’s “Failure is the New Success!” video some months back).

It’s also why I was so heartened to see teacher Jessica Lahey’s terrific new piece in the Atlantic on why parents need to let their children fail. As Lahey writes, parents who try to guarantee their children’s personal and academic success are doing them no favors. Rather they are robbing them of opportunities to strengthen resilience—to cultivate “the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.” (My friend Jennifer Rosner also reflects on this issue in an excellent piece just published on the New York Times Motherlode blog.)

* * *

The more open we can be about what life should look like, the greater our chance at happiness.

In this spirit, I was captivated by an essay suggesting that the successful marriages of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may include not only the obvious suspects—Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley—but also the pragmatic Charlotte Lucas and pompous Mr. Collins. “Charlotte did the best she could, and if the result is not exactly blinding ecstasy forever after–well, most of us, for the most part, don’t get blinding ecstasy forever after anyway,” Noah Berlatsky writes.

Somehow this got me thinking about the last time I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which I’d always thought of as a poignant tale of missed opportunities. I was surprised to myself concluding that the life Newland Archer got was precisely the life he needed. (The fact that he never realized this didn’t mean it wasn’t true.)

* * *

The Great Recession gave birth to a subgenre that I’ve come to think of as the Plan B Nation memoir—stories about life after job loss. Food plays an outsized role in many of these—which makes a lot of sense to me given the prominent role it played in my own post-layoff life. Favorites include Dominique Browning’s Slow Love (wherein the eating is followed by a serious diet), Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread, Buy the Butter (wherein the former Entertainment Weekly book critic reports, sometimes hilariously, on making the things we normally buy—think marshmallows, cream cheese, Pop-Tarts), and guest poster Robin Mather’s The Feast Nearby (wherein I discovered a recipe for winter squash and sausage drizzled with maple syrup with which I became somewhat obsessed for a time).

While my Plan B Nation life has evolved a lot in recent months, I’m still always on the lookout for a good recipe. Here’s one for red velvet cake that I can’t wait to try—via one of my (and possibly your) favorite novelists, Elinor Lipman.