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

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).

The Little Bread-gine That Could

The Little Bread-gine That Could

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:

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.

Follow Your Heart 2.0

Big Heart of Art - 1000 Visual Mashups

In 1998, I walked away from a six-figure job practicing law to write a novel. I had never written a novel before and had, what is in retrospect, a laughably (or rather frighteningly) small cushion of savings. A year later, I had a lucrative deal with a major publisher.  My first novel was a People magazine Page-Turner of the Week. We sold tons of foreign rights.

Do what you love, and the money will follow. Along with being the title of a popular self-help book, it sums up a distinctive ethos of a distinctive time in American history—an Oprah-fied vision of possibilities where the only limits were the boundaries of our dreams.

Times have changed.

Looking back, the Follow Your Heart love fest was a reflection—you might say a symptom—of an economy in overdrive. The widespread failure to see this link was a significant if not surprising vestige of ways of thinking that have deep roots in western culture. It is the same point made by any number of characters in Jane Austen’s novels and stated with particular clarity in E.M. Forster’s Howards End. “You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands,” Margaret Schlegel tells her aunt. “It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its existence.”

The danger of such forgetfulness is now apparent from any number of cautionary tales, most recently Elizabeth Wurtzel’s meltdown in the pages of New York magazine. “I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years,” writes the bestselling author of Prozac Nation and graduate of Yale Law School, now in her mid-40s. “I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present.”

And should this example not be sufficiently chilling, we also have the object lessons of once high-flying Oprah-endorsed celebrities brought low by financial missteps. Most visible among these is Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of the blockbuster Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, Oprah’s favorite book of the year for 1996. After making a fortune proclaiming the joys of simple living, Breathnach went on a spending spree, with purchases including Sir Isaac Newton’s “chapel” in England and Marilyn Monroe’s furs. She ended up with nothing. (While Simple Abundance spent years on bestseller lists, her December 2010 comeback effort—Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Way to Financial Serenity—is ranked 396,776 on Amazon.com as of this writing.)

My own story lacks both the highs and the lows of either Wurtzel’s or Breathnach’s— after publishing two books and struggling with a third, I ultimately made my way back into the paid workforce—but looking back, I see a similar thread. I too had a tendency to see the present as prelude, to live as if success, once achieved, laid the groundwork for the future. (Which is true to some extent and in some ways but not to the extent or in the ways that some of us seemed to assume.)

All of which goes to explain my interest in a trend that I’ve taken to calling Follow Your Heart 2.0. In this iteration, we no longer have a stark dichotomy between idealism and practicality. Rather, the new model recognizes that contentment generally requires stability as well as passion. It’s Follow Your Heart remixed for the 21st century.

An especially clear formulation of what I’m talking about appears in The Start-up of You, a book by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and co-author Ben Casnocha. The pair urge their readers to consider three interlocking pieces when making work-related decisions: Assets, aspirations and values, and market realities. Assets are the resources we bring to the table—our talents, education, and skills, as well as our bank accounts. The other two categories are pretty much what they sound like.

Significantly, the authors aren’t telling readers to forget about their dreams. Rather, they’re saying that dreams exist within a larger framework. Depending on your goals–and depending on your needs–context, including the market, may be critically important. “Of course, it’s worth mentioning that [her] passion is mobile payment systems,” Work Stew blogger Kate Gace Walton remarked dryly of one successful entrepreneur. All dreams are not created equal.

For those of us with ample stocks of education and social capital, the late 90s economy was forgiving and often fun. Risks were not so risky. You could always get a job. The economy circa 2013 is a very different place. “$100,000 is the new $300,000,” one literary agent remarked to me, shortly after the Great Recession began. Five years later, it seems increasingly unlikely that we’re ever going back.

More and more, I’m seeing Follow Your Heart 2.0 infuse the popular conversation—and I think that’s a very good thing. It’s apparent in Marci Alboher’s excellent new Encore Career Handbook, which acknowledges the critical role that finances play in making a transition to more meaningful work in the second half of life. It’s also central to Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, which makes the case that passion most often follows hard work and success, not the reverse.

As for me, I’m older and wiser (I think), but I still have a strong inner sense of direction, and I struggle when circumstances channel my energies into other things. For many of us, work that feels meaningful is a big part of what makes life worthwhile, and there may be times when pursuing that is worth almost any sacrifice.  But today, the stakes are different, maybe higher, for many of us. Happy endings are harder to come by. Uncertainty is guaranteed.

Purpose. Passion. Paycheck. (Plus a book giveaway.)

Encore Career HandbookI first encountered the remarkable Judy Cockerton when she spoke at Harvard Law School, where I was working at the time. Her topic was Treehouse, the innovative community she founded in Easthampton, Mass., where families adopting kids from foster care live side by side in a neighborhood setting with people over 55 who serve as honorary grandparents.

My first thought: “This is terrific! I want to work with her.” (Which, years later, I did, taking on several small projects as a volunteer. I also wrote this.)

That reaction has been widespread—and this year Judy (now my friend), was one of five people to receive the $100,000 Purpose Prize for 2012, an award for social entrepreneurs over the age of 60. For me, as for so many others, her vision, commitment, and determination to “reinvent foster care” are ongoing inspirations, and I’m thrilled that she’s getting the recognition she so deserves.

But if Judy is unique—and she most certainly is—her broader aspirations are not. Behind the high-profile Purpose Prize is a larger trend, as growing numbers of baby boomers seek work that is both personally meaningful and serves a larger good. Promoting this trend is the goal of Encore.org, the nonprofit that awards the Purpose Prize, and the topic of an endlessly useful new book by Encore.org Vice President (and former New York Times columnist) Marci Alboher.

Marci Alboher

Marci Alboher

Being something of an encore careerist myself—as well as a fan of Marci’s previous book on “slash” careers that combine two vocations—I couldn’t wait to get my hands The Encore Career Handbook: How To Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life, out just this month. I wasn’t disappointed.

First and foremost, the book is jam-packed with excellent practical guidance. Here are three big-picture suggestions that especially resonated with me:

Get comfortable with uncertainty:  Uncertainty is part of any transition—and moving into an Encore career is a transition. The good news is you’ve likely already had some experience, transitions being a hallmark of life in Plan B Nation. I think about this a lot (as you know if you read this blog). I’ve written about transitions here. And here and here and here.

Get connected:  In the end, it’s all about the people you know—and those you meet. If you’re lucky, you (like me) will find this a lot of fun. Marci suggests a number of specific ways to engage your friends and others in the encore career change process. Strategies include using others as a sounding board (akin to the idea of having a personal board of directors), working with career coaches, joining a group or taking a class, volunteering as a way to try on a job or sector, and building vibrant networks (both virtual and real-life). I’ve long been a big believer in always erring in favor of connection, and there are some great ideas here about how to go about that.

Get a handle on your finances: An encore career search means seeking “purpose, passion, and a paycheck,” as Marci puts it. But exactly what that paycheck needs to look like will depend on your situation. Encore careers often—though not always—pay less than the jobs they follow. What kind of trade-offs are you willing to make? What is your risk tolerance? Can you think of creative ways to bring in extra cash or, conversely, to reduce expenses? (The book offers many suggestions.)

There is also lots of excellent nuts-and-bolts stuff: How to go about preparing encore career resumes and cover letters (along with samples), extensive resource and reading lists, basic business planning guidance, and an appendix of promising encore jobs.

Once you start paying attention, encore careers are everywhere. In my own office at Harvard School of Public Health, my colleague Patti came out of the world of hedge funds. “I didn’t want to die having only been a banker,” she said wryly over a recent lunch. My colleague Chris, like me, spent time in corporate law.

That said, encore careers often don’t come easy, even for those with excellent credentials willing to take a pay cut. In his searingly honest Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life, former Time Warner executive James Kunen describes his uncertain path to ultimately fulfilling work teaching English as a second language. “Everyone loves doing something—I love reading at the beach—but not everybody loves doing something that you can get paid for,” he reflects at one point. Closer to home, my friend Kenny—whom I met when I interviewed him for a Psychology Today piece on career choices—had a hard time finding public school teaching work after completing Teach for America training in his 50s.

But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible—or that it’s the wrong thing to do. And thanks to Marci Alboher’s excellent book, it’s now easier than it was.

Want to win a copy of The Encore Career Handbook? Thanks to Workman Publishing, I have two to give away. Tweet a link to this story with the hashtag #encorebookwin. I’ll pick the winners next weekend.

3 themes for 2013

Just because I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions doesn’t mean I let the years come and go unacknowledged. To the contrary, I love this time of taking stock – especially the part where I remind myself of everything I’ve gotten done over the past 12 months. (I’ve always been surprised by just how much there is, especially during these obstacle-strewn Plan B Nation years.)

I also look ahead, but instead of making resolutions, I tend to reflect on themes – points of orientation rather than destinations. This year, over the past few weeks, I’ve settled on three.

The Year of Connecting – and Re-connecting

I can’t imagine having gotten through the past few years without my friends, old and new, virtual and real-life. This year, I look forward to expanding on this richness, reaching out to people I’d love to meet and strengthening existing ties.

For me, this will be what Tara Sophia Mohr refers to as a gift goal – a goal that is also a joy in the doing. I love spinning the web of human connection. People often tell me that I’m a great networker, which always catches me off guard. In reality, I’m good at this only when I enjoy it. No one would have ever described me thus when I was practicing corporate law, ensconced in a world that never really felt like mine. It’s an aptitude that surfaces only in connection with people who strike me as potentially being members of my tribe (or tribes).

And it’s not only about people. The theme of connection (and re-connection) resonates for me in many spheres. It’s also about connecting – and re-connecting – with places, interests, and ideas that have been sidelined if not forgotten. It includes a yet-to-be disclosed law-related project I’ve been mulling over for years now. (Because while practicing law wasn’t my path, there is much in that world that still speaks to me, and with which I’d like to re-connect.) It also includes my recurring thoughts about paying a visit to the place I grew up and getting back to a regular yoga practice (aka re-connecting with my body). In times of confusion, I imagine asking: What do I need to connect with?

The Year of Emptying and Replenishing

I got this one from Havi, who has proclaimed it the theme for her year. Interestingly (at least to me), my first reaction on hearing it was: Not for me. I’m busy, busy, busy. But for some reason the idea lingered. Because, in fact, it is for me. Busy is a symptom.

I see this as being about both prioritizing and refueling – about letting go of things that don’t enhance my life while creating a greater capacity for the things that will. During my years between full-time jobs, I often struggled to fill days and weeks in ways that felt meaningful and likely to me forward. Life as a blank page, that’s often what it felt like. Today, I struggle with what seems like the opposite dilemma: How to carve out time for  work I care about when my days are already more than full.

I have only the faintest glimmerings of how this theme will evolve. Yoga? Time in the country? A more orderly home? I don’t really know. The themes are breadcrumbs, and for now, that’s enough.

The Year of Being with Things As They Are

I find it so endlessly easy to slip into battle mode – Me vs. Things As They Are. My goal: Make Them Different. Life is so much more pleasant when I can remember to let that go, to treat reality as a friend, rather than an adversary.

Do you have New Year’s resolutions, themes, or musings that you care to share? Please leave them in the comments section – and best wishes for 2013!

Why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But if you do, try this.

2013 Yield

Last week, a producer at HuffPost Live emailed me to ask if I’d be willing to talk about New Year’s resolutions for an upcoming segment. In particular, she wanted to ask me about a piece I’d written about willpower and whether I’d been able to accomplish this year’s goals.

It seemed like something that I should do, and so at first I said yes. But I hedged my response by saying that I don’t really make resolutions. We had a bit of back and forth – What exactly did I mean? – and I finally said, you know, I think you should talk to someone else.

Until this conversation, I hadn’t quite realized how deep my resistance runs. Simply put, New Year’s resolutions strike me as a set-up. A set-up for failure. A set-up for staying stuck. Resolutions assume a fixity that, in my experience, simply doesn’t exist. The goals I set last year – or last month – often aren’t the same as those that will move me forward today.

This is especially true in times of transition, when life is inherently unpredictable. This blog – Plan B Nation – began as a personal exploration of strategies to navigate loss and uncertainty after the Great Recession. One of my major ongoing lessons has been the importance of staying open – of not insisting that the future take a certain form.

As I drafted this post, I happened on a print out of writer Virginia Woolf’s New Year Resolutions that I’d totally forgotten about until now but likely had been saving for just this moment. (I’m pretty sure these must have come via my Virginia Woolf scholar friend Anne Fernald.) Dated January 2, 1931, the list begins:

Here are my resolutions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year.

To have none. Not to be tied.

Indeed. (And I especially love the fact that even the resolution of making no resolutions extends only three months forward.)

Speaking for myself, I could never have predicted the events of this past year – that I’d move back to Boston to start a new job in a totally new field. This wasn’t a path I could have envisioned, let alone planned. And yet, it’s turned out to provide much of what I most needed.

This is why I don’t think of goals as endpoints – I think of them as stepping stones and experiments. This means staying curious and open even as I take action. Is this goal still serving me? Or is it time for something else?

Which isn’t to say that goals don’t have their place, just that it’s best to hold them lightly. Actionable goals are the means to an end. They are not the end in themselves. Goals can be great tools, but they are terrible masters.

That said, of course, we do need to get stuff done. Whether your goals are for a year or an hour, here are a few tactics you may want to try.

Be strategic in how you use your limited stock of willpower. (I talk about the specifics of this in my Huffington Post piece, which draws heavily on the book Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.)

If you’re struggling with a goal, reflect on whether you’re contending with a competing goal. This strategy comes from my one-time professor Robert Kegan, who proposes the following four-column exercise. Identify in turn: (1) Your goal (e.g., I want to find fulfilling work), (2) The behaviors that run counter to this goal (e.g., I take jobs that aren’t meaningful to me), (3) Competing commitments (e.g., I need to maintain a certain income and level of savings), (4) Assumptions that underlie and support the third-column commitments (e.g., If I go back to school or take a job that pays less, everyone will think I’m irresponsible.)

The point here isn’t to  promote a particular course of action but rather to gain a better understanding of what drives you – an awareness that can lead to a profound shift in perspective. (The example above is based on an interview I did with Kegan earlier this year for this piece in Psychology Today.)

Keep your eyes on the prize. The true goal isn’t to go to the gym every day or write a novel or organize your office or any of the other zillions of tasks that we set for ourselves. The true goal is to live a happy life – a life infused with value and meaning, whatever that is for you.

I wish that for myself, and I wish that for all of you. Thank you for sharing my 2012. Here’s to the year to come.

Heckuva job, Charlotte Allen! (You too, NRA!)

[Children aiming sticks as guns, lined up against a brick building, Washington, D.C.?] (LOC)

It has been a jaw-dropping couple of days for reasoned minds tracking the national conversation about what lessons we should draw from the Newtown massacre.

First we had conservative ideologue Charlotte Allen’s bizarre claim that the murder of 20 children and six adults can be traced to the “helpless passivity” that permeates such a “feminized setting.” “Congratulations, National Review: You have published the single most brain dead, idiotic and offensive response to a national tragedy,” is how Salon prefaced its report on Allen’s instantly notorious ramblings. “Noted Asshole Says Sandy Hook Massacre Wouldn’t Have Happened If There Had Been Men Around,” read a headline on Jezebel.

And today, of course, we had the spectacle of NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre – the ultimate hired gun – making the case for why there should be a gun in every school. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” was how he put it at this morning’s NRA press conference. (You know another way to stop a guy with a gun? Take away his gun. But I digress.)

LaPierre is not the first to make noises along these lines, and in recent days, I’ve been unable to resist such tantalizing easy pickings. “And I mean, not to over think this or anything, but might it not be a wee bit dangerously confusing to law enforcement when they arrive and see a teacher brandishing a gun? And, oh dear, what about the danger of friendly fire? And — I mean, just because we should consider the possibilities — is there any chance there could be liability issues if a teacher intentionally or inadvertently shoots a student or colleague?” is one typical comment from my Facebook feed.

But you know what? I was wasting my time. Logic isn’t the issue. Not for Charlotte Allen. And not for the NRA. Their goal isn’t to persuade. Their goal is to make money.

On the Internet, provocation pays—just ask, Ann Coulter.  The more outrageous your argument, the better your metrics. (And no, that’s not always true. But very often it is.) Is Charlotte Allen delusional or a clever manipulator? It doesn’t really matter:  Either way, it pays off for the National Review.

For its part, the NRA is about selling guns.  What better way to enhance profits than an arms race in public schools?

There’s one thing that keeps me from slipping into an impotent fury here: A growing sense that such voices are fast becoming victims of their own success.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll gives the Second Amendment-brandishing Republican Party only a 30% favorable rating, down significantly since before the presidential election. (In the meantime, the Democratic Party is on the rise.) When asked to give a word or short phrase to describe the GOP, 65% offered a negative comment, including more than half of Republicans. Among the descriptions: “Bad,” “weak,” “negative,” “uncompromising,” “broken,” and “lost.” “Republicans have gone off the image cliff,” Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart is quoted as saying.

Shortly before the November election, Lizzie Skurnick—my brilliant writer friend I’ve never met—humorously chastised Obama supporters for going to such great lengths to identify Romney campaign missteps. “We should be all ‘Heckuva job, Rove!'” she proclaimed, referring to George W. Bush’s post-Katrina plaudits for soon-to-be-disgraced FEMA director Michael D. (“Brownie”) Brown.

Which got me to thinking. The more provocative, confrontational—and yes, crazier—folks like Allen and LaPierre sound, the clearer the line between sensible regulation and sheer lunacy.

Thanks, Charlotte Allen.

Thanks, NRA.

You’re making my case way better than I possibly could.

“I am Adam Lanza’s mother.” The story is (still) unfolding.

First Advent and first candle is lit

Yesterday, along with hundreds of thousands of others, I clicked “like” on Liza Long’s eloquent, compelling, and now notorious “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” blog post, with its searing depiction of life with a violent mentally ill teen. “I love my son. But he terrifies me,” was her memorable summation.

Today, if not predictably then unsurprisingly, I (along with hundreds of thousands of others) awoke to a vitriolic explosion over this same post. The opening salvos came from blogger Sarah Kendzior, who blasted Long’s piece as both dishonest and exploitative.

“Liza Long, the woman who wrote the viral post ‘I am Adam Lanza’s Mother’ is being held up as a heroic woman warranting sympathy for bring [sic] the plight of her mentally ill son to the public. Her blog tells a different story,” is how Kendzior began her own soon-to-be-viral post.

But does it? Does it really?

To make her case, Kendzior points to what she described as “a series of vindictive and cruel posts about her children” in which Long “fantasizes about beating them, locking them up and giving them away.” She also questioned Long’s grasp on reality: “In most posts, her allegedly insane and violent son is portrayed as a normal boy who incites her wrath by being messy, buy too many Apple products and supporting Obama.”

First of all, let me stipulate that I’m of the view that Long’s public airing of her parental frustrations went well over whatever line is relevant to such things. What starts on the Internet stays on the Internet and Michael (or whatever his real name is) is likely to live with the fallout here for a good long time.

But there’s a second line of attack here that strikes me as far more problematic: The notion that Long’s seeming inconsistencies are tantamount to deception. (Slate’s Hanna Rosin—one of many piling onto the Liza Long backlash—went so far as to call her “an imposter,” pointing to the blog as evidence that she is “not to be trusted.”)

Maybe. Maybe not.  In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we tell our stories – in part because I just taught a college seminar where (as I talk about here) this was a central theme. And this is what I think. Or rather, this is what I know: Finding the storyline in trauma tends to take a lot of time.

I have no trouble – no trouble at all – imagining a mother in Long’s position crafting a story where her troubled son is a normal boy. A difficult boy. A challenging boy. But normal, all the same. And I have no trouble imagining how this story could evolve – how a violent tragedy of epic proportions could abruptly catapult her into a place where everything has changed.

Our stories—like our lives—are works in progress. For those of us who choose to share them publicly, there are gifts and there are dangers. It isn’t always clear which path is the right one. But making an unwise choice here doesn’t mean we’re lying.

At the top of Liza Long’s personal blog there’s now a joint statement from her and Kendzior asking the blogosphere to cease and desist from the cyber free-for-all. It carries this preface from Long: “Many of you have seen Sarah’s excellent blog in the past few days. I think she makes some important points about children’s privacy. We have been in contact, and I am truly impressed with her professionalism and her concern for children.” That strikes me as a response of uncommon grace – and a good reminder that we’re all far more than the stories that define us.

Failure: a love story

015 - A moment of weakness

When I told my students that our final class would focus on the topic of failure, there were winces all around. But in the end, most of them told me that this unit was their favorite. “Next time, why don’t you start the class with this?” one student even asked.

The idea of spending a session on failure came to me after listening to an NPR piece about its prominent place in the lives of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. “This is, like, failure central. We are, like, connoisseurs of failure, experts in both avoiding it and living with it ongoing,” said Paul Graham, founder of the start-up funder Y Combinator.

The nine students in my “Living Strategically” seminar are members of UMass Amherst’s Commonwealth Honors College. They are talented, articulate, and thoughtful, with high aspirations and transcripts filled with As. All of them are preparing to apply for post-graduate fellowships. They have lots of experience with success, not so much with failure.

They reminded me of myself at their age, and I wanted to offer them something that would have been useful to me then: The idea that failure can be a fertile starting place. That it’s a natural part of life — temporary, not defining. It took me a long time to learn this. I’d like to think that my students are well on their way to learning it now.

Our jumping off point was journalist Rick Newman’s Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, which I previously wrote about here. The book had resonated with me when I read it last year – Newman shares my curiosity about the underpinnings of resilience – and happily my students loved it, one describing it as the “punchline” of the semester. In particular, they responded to Newman’s personal story of climbing back from setbacks. The rebounder as role model:  It’s something we could use more of.

Perhaps more than anything, I wanted to drive home the notion that failure doesn’t have to be such a big deal. Like the Wizard of Oz – “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” — failure isn’t really what it claims to be. Behind the curtain is this little guy, madly ginning up the special effects to create a lot of noise. And because there’s nothing like humor to put things into perspective, I had students watch Laura Zigman’s “Failure is the New Success” video, as funny as it is true. Point made.

Finally, we read a piece that I’d serendipitously stumbled across at work the week before – New Yorker writer and surgeon (and Harvard School of Public Health professor) Atul Gawande’s  beautiful meditation on “Failure and Rescue,” delivered as a commencement address at Williams College. Gawande observes that good hospitals have lots of things go wrong – as many as their less successful peers. Research has shown that great hospitals “didn’t fail less. They rescued more.”  (This piece also won student accolades, with one saying that she’d sent it on to a number of friends.)

A major focus of the “Living Strategically” seminar is writing a personal story, and throughout the semester, we spent a lot of time talking about crafting a compelling narrative.  What makes something interesting? What makes it boring? In a fascinating Harvard Business Review piece, Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback reflect on why so many career changers are terrible storytellers. The answer: They rely too much on chronology, failing to craft stories that tap into sources of continuity and coherence. They fail to choose story forms that suit their tales of reinvention.

Stories are powerful. We shape our stories, but our stories then shape us. That has never been clearer to me than it’s been since I started Plan B Nation. Here is what I wish for my students, for all of us: That our success stories are vibrant and expansive enough to incorporate—and honor—our failures.

The why is the how

So yes, I am grateful to be so busy: I am grateful for my job (or rather, jobs), grateful for my many friends, grateful for the opportunities of this vibrant and enticing city.

But I am also frustrated.

In recent weeks, I’ve struggled to get back to a regular writing schedule. One or two posts to this blog each week seems like a reasonable goal. But reasonable though it may be, it hasn’t been happening. Two weeks ago, I forced myself to the keyboard in the chilly darkness of Monday at 4 am. (No time for writing over the weekend? See how you like this!)  And, yes, I did get the post done, but I was semi-conscious at work.

The fact is, most writers also have other jobs. It’s the nature of the beast. So how do people do it? Where do they find the time?

For answers, I turned to friends who have impressed me with their balancing acts.

First to come to mind was Carolyn Edgar, a law school classmate who seems to do the impossible on pretty much a daily basis. The 2012 recipient of the Corporate Counsel of the Year Award from New York City’s Black Bar Association, she serves as VP of a Fortune 500 company—not exactly your typical low-key slacker day job. Outside of work, she’s a single mom and also manages to put in regular time on the yoga mat. And then, there’s the writing: Along with her own very active blog, she writes about relationships, politics, and parenting for sites including Huffington Post and CNN.com. Oh, and last month—just for fun—she completed the marathon NaNoWriMo, a challenge that I’d find daunting even with no job at all.

So how do you do it? I asked her. I really wanted to know. She got back to me the following day, bringing to mind the old adage that, if you really want something done, you should ask the busiest person.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to your question. I ask myself all the time, why do I do this—especially when I’ve stayed up until 3 am editing and formatting a blog post, dragging into the office the next day, and seeing only 3 comments on the post or 4 retweets of the link on Twitter. And then I remember—I do this because I love writing. I blog, even though I have two kids and a demanding, full-time career—because I am a writer. I feel more complete when I write than I do when I don’t.The writing fits into the tiny interstitial spaces in my life, between the conference calls and the drafting, between supervising homework and getting the kids off to bed. It often supplants sleep, but seeing people engage with the thoughts and ideas I share energizes me in lieu of sleep (that is, until my body says enough and shuts down, as it has this weekend). 

Interesting, I thought. All of that resonates. But while I understand the why, I still don’t get the how.

Meanwhile, I heard back from Kate Gace Walton, another mother of two. Along with  full-time employment, Kate launched and edits Work Stew, a fascinating blog about the hows and whys of all things work-related. Who better to ask about juggling writing with a demanding job? Here’s what she had to say:

Being an insomniac really helps! I’m at work from about 8 to 5 Monday through Friday and my evenings are spent wrangling the kids, ages 5 and 3. (My husband has a long commute and travels a lot, so unfortunately he’s not around to do much evening wrangling.) But sometime between 8 and 9 the house finally falls quiet, and from then until the wee hours, I focus on Work Stew—writing, posting, reviewing essays from contributors, and editing podcasts. Also, and this is huge for me: every Tuesday night, the kids stay at my parents’ house. That gives me a free evening to record interviews without any shrieking in the background—and to catch up on various other tasks. I do a little bit on Work Stew over the weekends, but for the most part I try to unplug from it—partly so that my family can have a break from seeing me attached to a screen and also so that I can think about where it should go next . . . and by “next” I mean in the next week or so.

And then, like Carolyn, she headed straight for the whys:

Two reasons: 1) I love it and 2) it helps me. To elaborate on point one: the three things I want from life are Connection, Flow, and Wonder. Work Stew allows me to connect with wonderful people in meaningful ways. Writing and editing are very reliable sources of Flow for me. And the chance to learn how all these different people are grappling with arguably the most fundamental and universal of questions—What should I do with my life?—well that’s  this heathen’s version of church! Truly, I’m filled with a deep sense of wonder when I think through the 100+ stories the contributors have told in essays or interviews. 

And on point two: I find other people’s stories not only wondrous, but helpful. On a very practical level, Work Stew has helped me to think more creatively about my own (decades-old) work conundrums. I still stew, of course, but more productively and pleasantly than ever before. 

As I read this, something clicked into place. We can talk about time management and priorities and hours of sleep, but in the end, the bottom line: There isn’t really a “how.” There isn’t enough time, but you do it anyway.  You write because not writing simply isn’t a viable option.

By far, the hardest time during my long stretch of unemployment was early on when there wasn’t a single solitary thing that I really wanted to do. Nothing called to me. I didn’t have a why. In retrospect, I can see that this was just part of my transition, but at the time, I felt myself veering towards hopelessness.

There needs to be a why. There always needs to be a why. And when the why is strong enough, it propels us into the how.