When $1 billion isn’t enough, and one dollar is too much.

Eduardo Saverin

Eduardo Saverin

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.

Daniel Suelo

Daniel Suelo

“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).

Ken Ilgunas

Ken Ilgunas

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.

Everything’s a (funny) story

Standoff with bad dog and cheese

Well, not everything. But this is: Back in Cambridge for a quick overnight visit, I’m heading down Mass Ave towards Harvard Square. As it happens, my trip coincided with Harvard graduation, and throngs of well-dressed celebrants are heading off to parties and dinners. But I have a different agenda: I’m on my way to a toney little grocery in hopes that some Boar’s Head turkey and Swiss will entice my friend Betsy’s bad dog to let me back in the house.

Wubby growls when I return. I toss her a slice of (fancy, expensive) cheese. She growls again. I back off. She gobbles up the cheese. We repeat this futile exercise another two times. Well futile for me, not for her. I beat a hasty retreat to my car to contemplate next steps.

Betsy’s at a meeting at a Boston law firm and won’t be home for another few hours. Her husband is out of town. I need to get back home to western Mass, but first I need to collect my stuff from the third-floor guest room.

I call our friend Jan, whose Eddie is the dog behind Cambridge Canine.

“Betsy’s dog won’t let me in the house,” I say. I explain the situation.

“I’d be scared too,” she says. “I wouldn’t try again.”

Not the answer I was hoping to hear. I try to look on the bright side. “Maybe I can get a blog post out of it,” I say reflectively. “Though I can’t really get any writing done. My computer is in the house.”

“That’s good for the blog post,” observes pragmatic Jan. She’s a blogger too.

So here’s the thing, the point behind this story: Even as I schlepped down Mass Ave, even as I brandished cold cuts to an inexplicably hostile dog—usually Wubby loves me!—I found myself framing the events as an amusing story. First as a Facebook status update, then as a little essay. And, as I see it, this is a very good thing.

In the pre-social media world, this would not have been my default mode. I would have been seething and stressing, not taking mental notes with an eye to writing a blog post. I would have been focused on the fact that I needed to get home and this shouldn’t be happening. There would have been no upside. There would have been lots of down.

In the wake of Facebook’s IPO, the debate over life online—pro and con—shows no sign of abating. The cover story in this month’s AtlanticIs Facebook Making Us Lonely?—has 18,000 Facebook recommends as of this writing. I, however, just don’t buy it. Take my trip to Cambridge: I was able to meet my California-based friend Marcia for coffee only because I knew—through Facebook!—that our visits would coincide.That Jan and I enjoyed a fantastic southern feast at Tupelo can be traced to the fact that my friend Jen’s husband is the chef there. I first met Jen (I know, it’s confusing Jan and Jen: two different people) on Twitter and often connect with her now via Facebook. And come to think of it, I actually first “met” Jan online as well—the strength of our real-life friendship is such that I can easily forget that.

As I once wrote on Huffington Post, there is no monolithic Facebook. Facebook is what we make it. One of the major critiques often levied at the social media giant is that it encourages a focus on self-presentation at the expense of authenticity. But I see it very differently. Is the funny story about me attempting to placate Wubby less real, less true to my experience than a narrative that would have had me frustrated, anxious, and on-edge? Absolutely not—because as I created the funny story, it became my experience. And, I would add, I am far the happier for that.

As for my story’s coda, I did finally get into the house. Betsy raced home to corral Wubby. I grabbed my stuff and got on the road. The whole episode delayed my travels for maybe 90 minutes. And now I have written this. And you are reading it.

Why the Internet is like snow

It’s not a Mac. It’s a Lesnowvo ThinkPad.

Saturday was really busy though I got almost nothing done. I did, however, spend a lot of time lost in cyberspace.  If the day passed in a blur, my take-away was clear: The time has come for me to reclaim my so-called (online) life.

But how to go about it?

In the social media culture wars—Facebook, force for good or evil?—I come down unabashedly on the positive side. Thanks to the Internet, I’ve reconnected with childhood friends and made many new ones. I’ve found jobs, kept up with the news, learned where to get my bike repaired, and heard about new novels.  Simply put, I can’t imagine my time in Plan B Nation without the support, good cheer, and humor that I’ve found online.

That being said, there are limits. I hit mine last weekend and went looking for strategies.

I started with one of my favorite bloggers, Havi Brooks, who thinks of the Internet as a river and has a comprehensive technique for managing her time there. I liked the idea in theory, but it didn’t really speak to me. Then I came upon an image conjured by R. Taylor, who said he finds it useful to think of the Internet as a mall.

The Internet as Mall. Bingo! I felt a click.

It’s said that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow. In fact, this turns out to be the Inuit equivalent of an urban myth, but nonetheless it got me thinking.

There isn’t a single Internet. Rather our Internets are legion.

There’s the information kiosk-Internet, the water cooler-Internet, the research-library Internet, the employment office-Internet, and the linen-and-housewares-store Internet, to name just a few that I frequent.

There’s also the Giant Gabfest Party Internet, and that, too, has its place.

It hit me that the problem wasn’t inherent to any one of these. The problem was in my not being clear on which one I planned to visit. Ditto for what I wanted to accomplish there and how long I planned to stay.

Over the past two days, I’ve been working on this. Here’s what I’ve been doing (most of the time, anyway): Before I sign on, I ask three questions: Which Internet? For what? How long? I jot down the answers. For example: “Information kiosk. Find out how to delete track changes comments on a Word doc. 5 minutes.” Or: Water cooler.  Check FB & email. 15 minutes.”

And you know what? Once I have this sort of plan in place, I’m pretty good at sticking to it. I don’t drift mindlessly from email to Facebook to web surfing. Instead, I do what I came for, and then I leave.

Building on this, it occurred to me that, if I were planning a trip to the mall, I could use a shopping list. In life offline, I don’t drive to the mall to buy printer paper, get home, and then five minutes later, drive right back to buy cat food. No. I keep a list of what I need to do at the mall, and when I get there, I do all it at once.

So that’s what I’ve started doing for my trips to the Internet mall. When I think of an email I need to send or something non-urgent I want to look up (as in: What movie is playing this Friday at Popcorn Noir?), it goes on the Internet shopping list. It can wait for the next scheduled trip.

Not surprisingly, planning my Internet trips and using my shopping list has made me increasingly aware of my tendency to reflexively jump online for no real reason except that my mind is wandering and the Internet is there.

When that Go-There-Now impulse kicks up—and I’ve never seen a better depiction of its siren call than this essay in Orion—I’ve found it’s useful to have a list of Things To Do Instead.  For example: Make tea, pick up 10 things, read the newspaper and put it out for recycling.  Or, to take another tip from Havi: What little thing can I take care of right now that would make life better for Slightly-Future-Me?

It’s always struck me as silly to say that the Internet is LIKE THIS or Facebook is LIKE THAT—akin to saying that the telephone is LIKE THIS or handwritten letters (if you remember those) are LIKE THAT.  All of them are just means, ways to connect. As it happens, Eskimos don’t have hundreds of words for snow. I, however, could use at least that many for my Internet.

Note:  Have you found helpful strategies for managing your time online? If so, please share them below.

6 things that cracked me up in 2011

The Happiest Place On Earth

Who needs positive thinking when you have a dark sense of humor?

This was my Facebook status update on Tuesday, billed as my “Insight of the Day.” (Actually, it was my first and only insight likely to be so labeled, but Facebook  is forgiving that way.)

In any case, I’ve been thinking a lot about humor lately—and the critical role it’s played during my past year in Plan B Nation. Of all the qualities that serve us well in this place of uncertainty—optimism, gratitude, and perseverance, being just a few—humor is perhaps the only one that comes naturally to me.

People often tell me that I am funny, and it’s true that sometimes I can be, but where I really excel is in recalling funny things I’ve read and heard. In that spirit, here are six things that cracked me up this year—and helped make my roller coaster search for work both bearable and (at times) entertaining.

1. I’m sorry I bit you during my job interview: For most of us in Plan B Nation, job interviews are serious stuff.  In any case, rest assured that whatever happened at your last interview, it was nowhere near as bad as this guy’s.

2.  And that’s why you should learn to pick your battles: But perhaps you are totally sick of thinking about jobs, work, the economy, or anything remotely related to any of these. If so, perhaps the time has come to spend some time reflecting on BIG METAL CHICKENS.  Seriously, I recommend it. You’ll be glad that you did.

3. Adventures in depression: Still, no doubt about it, life in Plan B Nation can really suck, and you may find yourself becoming just a teensy bit clinically depressed. In which case, I’d like to introduce you to this darkly hilarious little cartoon about how even the saddest among us can still find a way through.

4.  Why yoga can be so irritating (although you should go anyway!): Of course, one of the best ways to avoid depression is regular exercise. Yoga has the added benefit of fostering a deep sense of connection to the world around us—except when it doesn’t.

5.  An honest Facebook political argument: Just because you are home alone on your computer looking for work doesn’t mean you can’t take part in discussions of the major issues of the day.  And where better to do this than Facebook?

6. Need a role model? If so, look no further than bestselling author Laura Zigman, whose Xtranormal video series has quickly been gaining a cult following and offers textbook examples of Plan B Nation humor.

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I hope you enjoyed these. Please help add to my collection! Share your personal 2011 favorites in the comment section below.