How to get people to pay attention (because they’re not)

It’s hard to get people to listen, for like, longer than two seconds. It really is. Even when it’s their job to pay attention.

Ever read Oren Klaff’s “Pitch Anything?” He made it so clear to me why we miss the mark:

It’s because we assume that the moment we pitch (what we think is a genius) idea to someone, we imagine we’re transmitting that idea from the smartest part of our brain to the smartest part of theirs.

Nope. Not how it works. At all.

What happens is that this (genius) idea leaves the CEO’s office of your brain…and has to actually go around back and face off with the big dumb bouncer at the base of the other person’s brain stem—the part that’s 5 million years behind and communicates in grunts.

In other words, every time you pitch, you start from scratch.

You can’t start at level 7 or 8 (which is what we tend to do). You have to go back to zero, maybe subzero, to make it really clear. Can’t explain it or don’t want to take the time? You’re done. No one wants to run to play catchup—they need you to slow down so they can get on the bus.

This applies in literally every incident in which you’ll pitch an idea—from getting your boss to give you a promotion to getting your spouse to go with you to see a romcom.

But for people who are trying to get their ideas heard in the media, it’s particular important. Because you know why most people don’t end up getting on TV or being featured in magazines and podcasts? 

Not because they’re not smart or attractive enough.

And not because they have nothing to say. 

Either they don’t know how to ask, or they simply don’t ask, period. 

I spent the better part of a decade as a magazine editor at Martha Stewart. My biz partner Paula Rizzo spent so many years as a TV news producer (Emmy award-winning, mind you), that she backtimes her grocery delivery (it’s a producer thing. She’s ruined for life.) 

And over the course of our media careers, we’ve said no to most pitches that came across our desks, and yes to a fraction of 1%.

And if you’ve ever worked in a newsroom or editorial office, you’d hear all the crosstalk that happens as media gatekeepers of every stripe talking about why they can’t use half the things they get—and why they jump all over the good ones.

But unless you were a fly on the wall, HOW WOULD YOU KNOW? You wouldn’t.

And while yes, you have to cultivate relationships with the media (and there is an art to that), you also have to have something they want. I don’t care how “nice” you are. Without a great idea, you can’t get anywhere. Trust me on that. 

So…what DO they want? What’s the best way to give it to them?

  1. Something that serves them, not you. I know you want to promote your book, your brand, your business. That new mission or revolution or cool tech product you came up with. That’s great! But no one is interested in promoting your stuff. They’re not.It’s like trying to get someone you don’t know to care about your kid’s baby pictures. Cute, but, like, I not only don’t know who this kid is, but I don’t know who YOU are.

    Instead, start where THEY are. What do THEY want? Well. Something valuable to THEIR audience, and which fits what they’re trying to do as a publication or outlet or show. You’ve got to start with where they are, not where you are.

  2. An idea that challenges an old assumption.Cliches are like weeds in a newsroom or editorial office. They persist endlessly and take up space. Editors and producers are ignoring or expunging them to clear the way for the real stuff.

    Since editors and producers have seen and done everything before, their eyerolls are on a hair trigger.

    So even if it’s new to you, assume that an idea you have (for a story, topic, segment) is probably one they’ve come across. So take the assumption—and twist it. How can you come at your approach in a FRESH way? A counterintuitive way? Challenge yourself in the process, and you will come up with something you might not have thought of.

There are so many other “open” secrets about pitching media. And trust me, the media is not trying to keep any of it a secret! They wish everyone knew these things but they simply do not have time to teach you.

But we do. And we’re doing it for free on March 13 and 14, 2018.

Paula and I are running our live free training, 5 Little Known Secrets to Snagging Media Attention, and you can register for it here.

I know everyone says spots are limited, but this is the truth because the Zoom webinar we use caps at 100, and we’re close to full. BUT. If someone who did register doesn’t show up, you could grab their spot. But you have to be on the list. 

So get on it! It’s going to be so fun. And besides. It’s high time more people knew about you. 



3 Life Lessons You Can Learn from Being on TV

If you’re smart, you’ll learn something new from every job. And given that you’ll switch, not just jobs, but careers several times over your life, your unique advantage comes from the wisdom you pick up along the way.

If you worked in customer service, you’ll know how to handle clients when you go into business for yourself.

If you used to work as a reporter, you’ll have a nose for asking the right questions when you start law school.

And if you’ve ever douched your own nasal passages on national TV, you’ll know how to, quite literally, go with the flow.

(True story. More on that in a minute.)

For years I served as a magazine editor at Martha Stewart—and part of my job was doing regular TV segments on hers and other daytime shows. I also hosted my own daily radio show on Sirius XM for years.

Media, I’ve found, is a pretty powerful crucible for learning how to think on your feet when it matters most.

And should you decide to pursue media as part of your career (say as a contributing expert or guest, or perhaps even as an editor or producer), here are some key insights that will serve you on the air—and everywhere else.

Lesson #1: Keep it moving

In TV, you have maybe 3 to 5 minutes tops, so you have to make the best of every single one of them—especially on live TV. There is no editing, and there’s no time to hit the brakes if things go awry.

One time on Martha’s show, I was demonstrating a series of meditation apps. They worked fine during rehearsal. But when we went live? No dice. There we were, and for two long seconds the balloons that were supposed to dance across the screen, didn’t.

Martha started asking, “Why isn’t it working,” and rather than dwell on it, I waved it off (“Who knows?”) and kept things going. I said, “Well, what you would have seen, had it worked, was…” and spent a second or two explaining it, rendering the actual demo unnecessary.

In Real Life (IRL): Don’t dwell on it. Doesn’t matter if your powerpoint slides wouldn’t advance, or why three people canceled on your meeting. We waste far too much time looking backwards, trying to edit the past.

Obviously, understand a problem well enough so that you don’t let it happen again. But there are some times when inexplainable blips occur and at some point, it isn’t worth revisiting.

Instead, think like a host who is on to the following segment: “Next up! Let’s find out how to juice kale at home!” It doesn’t matter why the world didn’t going your way. Just. Keep. Going.

Lesson #2: Make an impression

The people who do well as on-air contributors are not only clear communicators—they aren’t afraid to stake their claim.

The people I booked as experts on my radio show were those who brought their ideas and opinions to the table, not the ones who played it safe all the time.

IRL: The more you waffle and hesitate, the less impressive and less interesting you become. The people who stand out and get tapped for bigger opportunities are the ones who aren’t afraid to own up to what they really think, and stand by it.

Lesson #3: Be game for anything

There’s no room on TV to do anything less than 100 percent. Even if you’re nervous. Better to see it through than fail halfway.

I was about to step onto the set of Martha to discuss a series of natural flu remedies, including the neti pot, an ages-old practice of flushing the nasal passages with warm saline water.

The plan changed five minutes before I went on the air, when the producer said, “Martha wants you to demo the neti pot.”

Um, what?

“Get me a towel and a bowl,” I said. And I walked on stage and douched my nose on national television. It was messy and, yes, I was dying a little inside as I did it. But you can’t fake a neti pot demo. You have to go all in.

(You can watch that clip here—at the 1:50 mark)

The audience laughed, Martha clapped, and a clip of it ended up on some online video called “WTF is going on with daytime TV?”

That was a win.

IRL: Commit. You’ll get real props for trying something, whether it works out or not—especially if you fully commit to doing it.

Realize that you don’t actually learn much from doing things right. You learn from doing it period. Win or lose, the effort teaches you so much more, not only about what you have done—but, more importantly, what you can do.

Want to learn more about how to be a go-to media expert? Register for the FREE online training I’m giving with seasoned TV producer Paula Rizzo, “5 (Little-Known) Ways to Snag Media Attention…That Even PR Pros Get Wrong” on March 13th or 14th.

Knowing things you shouldn’t know

I was on a first date last summer when I decided to play the game again: I asked this man if he had had a dog growing up. All I knew was that he was raised in Missouri, the youngest of three boys.

“Yes, I did, actually.”

I could almost see the dog in my head. “You had a middle sized, reddish brown mutt named … Matty.”

He looked at me curiously. “You’re almost 100 percent right. Not Matty, but…”

“No. Stop. Wait. I know it’s a person’s name. It sounds like ma.” I waited a beat. “The dog’s name was Max.”

He was stunned. “Ok, now I’m a little freaked out.”

So was I. The weirdest part was that it wasn’t the first time that had happened, particularly involving dogs.

A few years prior, I was visiting Florida with my then-boyfriend, and we stopped by the home of an elderly couple his parents knew, but he didn’t, in fact he’d never been there before. We weren’t told anything about this couple. But as we got out of the car, in my mind I saw two bloodhounds race out the front door. It was just the flash of an image.

“Do you know if these guys have dogs?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Really? Because I feel like they have two bloodhounds.”

“What? That’s random. No. I have no idea.”

We walked into the house; no dogs. In fact, we were there 30 minutes before I heard my boyfriend, who was in another conversation in another part of the house, say “What? Tell Terri that. Tell her.”

“Yes, we have dogs. Two of them.”

“Yeah. What kind.”

“Two bloodhounds. They’re outside somewhere.”

Now that’s weird. And if that were it, that’d be weird enough.

I was telling my sisters about all this last summer while drinking frozen margaritas on the patio of a bar in Newport, Rhode Island.

“Why do you know these things? Better yet, why don’t we?”

I waved over a waiter. “Ok this is going to sound weird, but yes or no, did you have a dog growing up.”


“It was a fluffy white little dog, right? Not a poodle, but something like that.”

The waiter, who was sweating, dirty glasses in his hands, smiled and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“Yes. It was a Bijon.”

“What!” my sisters said in unison. My youngest sister shook her head. “Could I have another one of these,” she said, gesturing to her slushy glass.

And if THAT wasn’t weird enough, I was visiting a new friend who lives in the West Village, a Tarot card reader and astrologist—whom you wouldn’t have to be a psychic to imagine had a small fluffy dog at some point. I told him about all of this strange dog-knowledge, and he said, “Well, you might have some psychic ability. You just might.”

Then I said: “Kevin, I would have thought you had a dog.”

“Oh yes, we did,” he said, cranking the cork out of a bottle of pinot grigio. “Jack. He died two years ago.”

Hmm. He walked out of the room a moment to get something, and a name flashed through my head, loud, as if someone had whispered it in my ear.

“Alright, then who’s Teddy?” I called out after him.

Kevin walked into the room slowly with a weird look on his face. “Teddy was my very first dog,” he said.

Now realize that for every time I get it right, there are many I get flat-out wrong. I find it easiest to guess a thing if I’m new to that person, and there’s nothing else to cloud my vision. And yet, I find as soon as I “try” to know a thing, to get it right, to impress them, it’s game over. I’m wrong, wrong, wrong.

I was on a first date last week and I was sure he’d had a black dog, a spaniel of some sort. It was almost like he wanted me to get it right, but the fact was it had been a chocolate lab and I was way off. But then I said, “Ok wait let me guess. You’re the youngest of three. Your sister is the oldest, and your brother is the middle child.”

“Ok that’s weird. Now I’m freaked out.”

I’ve guessed two people’s first names, and one person’s last name. I can do birth order, turns out, but not birthdays.

Understand this is a perfectly useless party trick. And it’s a secret I should probably keep to myself because all of those dates were first dates, and I haven’t seen them since. Of course there were many other factors, and if you think I know what those are, I don’t.

If I have any kind of psychic ability, aside from sheer luck, it’s sporadic and not to be trusted. It’s like having a weird genius friend who, when she shows up, makes you look amazing. Most of the time, she flakes. But when she’s around, it’s magic.

I’m not about to make my fortune as a fortune teller or psychic. Nor would I want to—that pressure is far too great. I don’t even think I “have a gift.” I think the gift borrows me from time to time, a kind of tempermental genie who uses me as a party trick.

Fact is, I don’t know anything that anyone else doesn’t. In fact, I probably know far less. In fact, most people don’t know as much as you think. Not your mother, not your boss, your dentist, your lover.

We are all winging it, in one way or another, and I don’t altogether think that’s a bad thing.

I really don’t. Some people claim it, own it, identify with the spontaneity, bask in the notion of being guided by a big benevolent, unseen hand. Others blame circumstances, or other people, or themselves. I think we’d be shocked if we all realized how little each of us knows. Which is why we enforce a kind of fiction, that we all know precisely what we’re doing, which makes us feel a little bit better.

We have resumes and accolades and milestones to point to, that light the way we’ve come and hopefully shed some of it on where we’re going. But if we say that we know where we’re headed and exactly how we’ll get there, we’re lying.

But no one knows what is or will happen, and you won’t know, and that’s kind of the best part. It’s a secret we’ve all asked each other kindly to keep so that the world starts to make sense, but I don’t know that it achieves that goal, or needs to.

Author and entrepreneur Peter Shankman likes to say, “Every day an entrepreneur gets out of bed and jumps off a cliff, and fashions her parachute on the way down.”

It’s true—and not just for entrepreneurs. This is what all of us do every day. Improv actors will tell you life is improv, and opportunities happen not when you write a script and follow it, but when you say yes to what comes up.

Life may be a box of chocolates. But if we’re being honest, it’s more like a big, lumbering bus, and we’re basically all keeping ourselves busy waiting for it to lumber around the corner, and pause long enough for us to climb on.

The fiction is that we know everything. The fun is that we don’t. The fun is guessing, and guessing it wrong. I’m tickled when I’m flat-out wrong, by anything—my surefooted assumptions, my knee-jerk judgments. When I’m wrong, it often comes as a relief. Because it means I don’t know everything, because if I thought I did, I’d collapse under the burden.  

So how will you know what to do or say today or tomorrow? How will you know how to push your life forward? Getting hurt or burned or let down helps. So does being loved. That’s as good a guide as you’ll get. And most of it, really, is listening for it, hazarding a guess. If you’re lucky, you may land it from time to time. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll have no idea what’s next.

What makes you stand out (and why it’s worth the risk)

I’ve never had a client who didn’t want to help people.

What I say to them (gently, of course) is that while of course I believe them, their good intentions do not constitute a brand. Because everyone in their own way wants to help. It’s truth, but not identity. That we need to get past that to get to what makes them different, not the same, as everyone else.

As a brand advisor, my job is to help people get past the breakers: all the excuses, assumptions, platitudes and cliche, the noise and clatter around what they think they have to say, but not what they mean.

Keep going, is what I say. Past all of that. This isn’t an easy task, because people tend to hang out in the breakers, in the chop and churn; it makes them feel they’ve got a lot going on. You do have a lot going on, I tell them, but the good stuff is further out.

It’s so easy to get caught there, though—as many people do, and some just say, paddling hard against the undertow, trying to figure out who they are and what they mean. When really, just a few hundred yards out, there it all is. My job is to hold them by the hand and urge them out further, to see what depths they can really achieve.

I get the fear.

The real the reason they resist swimming out isn’t just that it gets deep fast, but because they doubt there’s anything really out there at all.

What if there isn’t anything really that different or special about them? They certainly don’t want to find evidence of that truth.

They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s the ego talking, of course. That mini-me fashioned from equal parts need and fear that holds them in thrall, that says, No no, we’re fine right here, where we’re king of the current! They bow to the ego, and pump the brakes around diving in any deeper—it’s an act of self preservation. The ego wants to create fanfare and fear of depth, because it knows that if it doesn’t, the jig is up.


Once you can push past all that, swim out past the splash of daily chaos, small wants, to meaningful struggle and bigger goals, out out into the deeper water, those breakers lose their power.

In fact, from this angle, you realize how inconsequential they are—making a big ruckus, while the rest of the deep, living sea looms, rich and heavy and churning with real life.

The breakers? Please. They like to make a big fuss at the end, all style, no substance—really, nothing’s happening there. Like someone jumping in at the last minute and taking all the credit.

This is all very funny coming from me, since I have a deep fear of the ocean, and I, too, like to stay where it’s busy and shallow. I’m loathe to go past actual breakers to where there’s so much I cannot see. So I understand the fear.

The goal, of course, isn’t to loll around out there forever. You go out so you can come back in. And what each person does as they explore this new depth, and see who they are from a new perspective, is that all those ideas and intentions draw together into a new purpose that swells beneath them like a wave. If you catch it just right, you feel the surge beneath your feet and can stand up in it, let it carry you all the way back in.

I’ll add I’ve never surfed a day. When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a writer first, and as a brand advisor, use words to identify and communicate what one person’s brand and business mean to other people. Everyone’s always caught up in “what they do,” but what’s far more important, I say, is the change they can make in someone else.

I worked with a man, a CEO of a software company, his name is Jyot (pronounced JOTE, like “note”) and he wanted to tell me how great his company was, how stellar his employees, how much he cares about them. That’s all great, I said. It’s a wonderful sentiment, but it’s not what makes you different.

I asked him about one of his most vivid childhood memories, and—this is key—something specific, a scene.

He told me about the time he was given a toy train with a unique feature: When it hit a wall, it would bounce off that wall and continue in the opposite direction. Cool, he thought. Then he wondered: What if I could figure out what makes it do that, take it out of the train, and put it into this toy boat I have over here, so that it could do the same thing?

So seven-year-old Jyot took the train apart to figure out how it worked and attempted to perform a kind of toy organ transplant on his boat at the same time.

He ended up with a broken train, and a broken boat. The struggle was real—he spent days doing this, only to come up emptyhanded and worse, down two toys.

I don’t think Jyot realized how powerful that story was, and why it mattered. He couldn’t; he was too close to it, and worrying about why anyone would care.

“Jyot. This isn’t just a random memory that popped up,” I said. “This is a pivotal moment.”

“It is?”

“Of course! This is the moment you became an engineer. This is the moment you realized you were willling to break a thing you loved to make it better. That’s what an engineer must do.”

Well, that changed everything. Because he went from being half embarrassed of a story to seeing the incredible lesson and value. And it became the opening scene for a talk he gave to his company. He looked out at his employees and said, “There’s a reason you’re here. Because I’m guessing there are more than a few broken toys in your past.”

This is not something I invented and gave him to use. This came from his life, his experience, the essence of who he is—and it came through story and scene, through the fabric of his actual experience. That’s what makes it so true, and so uniquely his.

What bothers me about—call it marketing, branding, how people are attempting to present themselves in the world—is that they’re all trying to be something else, something not aligned with who they are, as people.

They’re trying to create and maintain a “brand” as if it’s some kind of separate entity, a fragile replica of the real thing that requires kid gloves and a finicky diet. The best and worst thing marketers ever did was convince people their brand was a high-strung pedigreed dog that they have to drag around on a leash and clean up after.

When really, the way I see brand is simply this: What you and your work mean to other people. That’s it. And that’s everything. I don’t care whether it’s your website, your sales page, your keynote address or your TEDx talk—if it’s not specific to you it’s not worth doing.

But you can’t get at that thing if you don’t swim out, and dive below the surface. Because unless you’re willing to take a risk and say something of worth, you’‘re just not saying anything worth listening to.

Trust me, the risk isn’t that there’s nothing to say, but that you’re not willing to say it. But if you take a deep breath and swim for it, you will find one of the most precious things under the sun—and then burst up, gasping, to the surface, waving it in your hand so that everyone can see.

Getting what you want

There’s nothing more disappointing than getting exactly what you want: the pink bike with the banana seat; a Cabbage Patch Doll; praline ice cream cake. The equation makes no sense: Ask for thing, get thing should equal pure joy. And there was joy, of course. But then, a kind of ache, after.

It doesn’t change, even when your tastes mature, and you want nicer, better things. Department store perfume. Pegged jeans. The guy your friend is kind of dating. I would never, ever do that now. But I did then: Said yes to meeting him, even though I met him at a friend’s pool party, which he had attended as another girl’s date. I was flattered, who wouldn’t be? He was good looking, a swimmer from the boys’ school (and clearly adept at slipping in and out of tricky situations). I went on a date, just one. I didn’t feel great. The fact that I didn’t feel worse, though, concerned me.

What you want could cost you, yes—money, time, a friend. But that’s not even what it is that’s so disappointing. After all, you paid for it, in whatever currency. It’s that anticipating a thing is so much better than having it. I order something online, and love that it’s on its way, love that there’s something coming, because it tells you so. There’s a delicious retail restlessness that takes hold. You can’t wait, but you can, and you must.

Imagine how things will be different when I have: a new phone, a smart power strip, that green lipstick that adjusts to your natural pH and tells you exactly what color pink you should be.

But the moment it arrives—that’s when the most thrilling part of it ends. You go from focused and intentional (look at you, making your own decisions, paying for it with your own money), to the recipient of a thing you like but probably don’t need, or need but don’t love, not for long. It’s the curse of material things: As soon as you have it in your hand: A new phone, a silk-trimmed cardigan, a can of dry shampoo—you realize that this is it, this is all this really is. A piece of metal, a piece of plastic, an aerosol full of fragrant dust. All of it is both material and immaterial.

I find the stuff I want most is the stuff I enjoy wanting—a day off, a night out, someone to love in a way that surprises and scares me. Who wouldn’t want all of those things? But then why is it that on my day off, I crank through work. And the night I have plans, all I want to do is cancel them.

I honestly don’t know what I would do if love just showed up at my door, fresh from the factory, flawless and shiny. I imagine you’d have to sign for it. You’d lift the lid off slowly, in awe of its smoothness, its intuitive design. You might worry that this might be it, the end of everything; you might yearn for the days you dreamt of it instead.

How to drive defensively

Every time you step out that door some sonofabitch is shootin at ya. That’s what my grandfather always said. He wasn’t paranoid; he was a state policeman in Hazleton, PA.

It’s not a negative worldview, though it may seem that way; it’s realistic, and it doesn’t mean you don’t go out there, but when you do, know the reality. He played poker at Cippys, the garage on 15th St., with members of the mob, where he’d played his whole life. And when he went out to eat, he always sat with his back to the wall.

He didn’t think the world was a bad and violent place. He died 30 years ago, after a lifetime on the squad, and he’d seen a lot of things. What he meant was that no matter what you do, there’s probably someone who doesn’t like it, and may have it in for you. It didn’t mean you were under constant threat, that you should question everyone’s intentions. It did mean however, you should keep your eyes open.

My mother walks through the world like her father; albeit, unarmed, but with an eye for danger. The slightly sketchy guy walking a little too close, an overly friendly sales rep, the odd, stray comment from someone you just met. My mother can see straight through your bullshit like a window. I know when she thinks someone’s on the make because she refers to him as that “fella” (“Listen, fella,” or “I don’t trust that fella”). You earn that moniker, you’re no good.

She taught me how to drive—to be, in her words, a defensive driver. In other words, you you had to assume other people weren’t paying attention, or that they’d grab for whatever they could get, including speed through a yellow light at the last possible second, or hook an aggressive left turn and scare you half to death. She didn’t want me to just be a driver but a defensive driver, with a heightened awareness of not just what was going on but what could go on. Even when you were just backing out of your own driveway.

My grandfather taught my mother how to drive in the snow. When she was 16, they took the Buick to an empty parking lot during a snowstorm, at the protesting of her mother, and he told her to gun it hard and slam on the brakes. He wanted her to feel what the car does, how it responds, how it skitters and slides over the ice. He didn’t want her to be taken by surprise, or panic or lose control of the vehicle; when she knew what it was going to do, she could lean into it and steer.

The day after Christmas, I was in the back seat of my mom’s Subaru; she was driving, my dad was in the passenger seat. We were on our way to the movies, cruising along Rt. 290 West in Marlborough, MA.

“Why do you put your turn signal on two miles before the exit,” my dad asked her, teasingly. She ignored him.

And seconds later, a box truck slammed into the left rear corner of the Subaru, precisely where I was sitting. I didn’t see it coming. A visceral hit quaked through me; I stopped breathing and time stretched out in one long, protracted moment of sheer terror.

My mother kept her eyes on the road, working hard to steady the car. We arced left, then right.I braced for a second hit that didn’t come. She pulled the car at last to a stop beside the off ramp.

The smell of searing metal, the grit of broken glass in the air. What just happened what just happened. The choreography of a car wreck assumed its next steps–a helpful stranger pulled over to see if we were ok, handed us water bottles and called the police. The driver of the box truck, to his credit, came right over to our window and told us of course this was all his fault. “I didn’t see you. I looked away for a moment and there you were.”

My parents were absurdly calm, but I was shaken, literally shaken up, like a cocktail, heady with the shock. It was as if my soul had come this close to slipping right out of me, had come fizzing to the surface in a kind of effervescent panic. I stepped out to take a look and saw the chewed up back end of the car, as if some gigantic beast had reached down and taken a bite out of it. I burst into tears. She put her arms around me and intoned like a prayer, We’re ok, we’re ok, we’re ok.

And in truth, we were. We had not a scratch on us. Nothing, aside from a mild headache and the uneasy sense of having gotten too close to the edge of something. The next day we took Advil and napped. It was in fact the first and only accident my mother had ever been in. The whole time, she says, she could swear she could hear her father in her head, as if he had been holding the wheel. Steady, steady. That sonofabitch.

How to play when you’re not a sports person

I played on the girls softball league in my town in grade school. It’s not something I wanted to do, or asked to do. My mother simply signed me up and I did it. Why was I doing this? A few other kids from school were doing it, and it would be good to go outside and be part of a team. My team t-shirt was too long and my hat was too big, and hung like a big foam lampshade on my head, and if my mitt could talk, it would have expressed regret that it was overqualified for the job.  

I stood far out in left field, praying the ball would stick to its inner orbit and not blast off like a rocket in my direction, where it would skitter through my feet and I’d have to endure those long moments of knowing I was slowing the whole thing down, going from invisible to the frustrated focus of everyone’s attention. Then, later, I’d face the singular fear of being up at bat, standing in a cage with a person winding up to throw something at you.

Most of the time I stared up at the clouds, wishing they’d open up and drop down a golden staircase so I could climb up out of there, rather than be wound around and around like a clock (in field, out field, in field again), a single cog in the great wheel of the game.

I liked dodgeball, kickball—games you could play in shorts and sneakers and just as easily in the school cafeteria as the cul-de-sac at the end of my street, without any other protective equipment. As soon as you introduced some kind of sporting utencil (a bat, a stick), it got complicated and dangerous. I probably would have liked soccer, but never tried it, and my mother forbade me to play field hockey or lacrosse—(“We spent too much on your dental work”)—and I was relieved at that. I took up dance, where everyone was on the same team, unarmed, and facing in one direction.

Not to say I’m not competitive, because I am. I’ll outwalk people on the street, just because I can, dodge and weave and skirt around them in this big human video game of a city. It makes you feel like maybe you’re ahead of the game, with the added value of being efficient.

When my friend Rachel invited me to join the co-ed touch football team a few years ago that she and a bunch of our friends were part of, in an actual touch football league, with t-shirts and everything, I panicked. No, no, no. Not me. But have fun!

I begged off for several seasons. The idea of re-entering the world of formal sports at this age, in a game whose rules I did not know was terrifying, especially when it would require putting myself in the path of people running hard in my direction.

Then one spring she insisted. I was the only friend of the group who wasn’t doing it, and quite frankly, they were down a girl.

Fine. I’ll try it. Except that now I’m over 40 and haven’t ever sat and studied an entire football game, let alone played, and I’m going on whatever pieces I’ve gathered from half-watching the Superbowl in a room full of people, and one lesson over tacos in which my friend Kristina explained the basics of who throws what where and what you’re supposed to do about it.

Want to know what it feels like to take your place on the field at the start of a game you have no idea how to play? Then go backstage at the Bolshoi ballet, throw on some tights, and walk out onto the stage with them and strike a pose just as the curtains open.

I might as well have been a bony-kneed sixth grader in a too-long t-shirt and a big dumb mitt on one hand. But you make it through one play and then another, and sometimes the ball will come in your direction, and if it does, try to catch it. What’s striking, I learned, is how often the game has absolutely nothing to do with you—it arcs and contracts and revolves around you in its own galaxy of activity, and most of the time you just get caught up in it, but have little impact on how it turns out.

To date, I’ve played for six seasons. If this game were a restaurant, I’m the busboy who speaks little English; while I can’t follow all the high-end strategy and jargon, I know my job and when I see an opportunity to perform it, I can do it sufficiently, and sometimes well.

So while I can’t tell you the name of a single play or what down this is (or why it matters) or, sometimes, even the score, I have a pretty good idea of how the whole thing starts, but not how it ends. That’s where the excitement lives—in a game, and in anything: There are rules, there are boundaries, and the rest is simply up in the air. You have at once full control over what you’re about to do, and yet, no clue as to the outcome. It’s a mix of people and agendas and egos and split-second decisions and someone with their eye on the clock.

I’ve found myself in the wrong place at the wrong time, missed a ball by hundredths of an inch. Run headfirst into another player, sending me straight to the ground in a black sea of stars. Been pushed, shoved, and even taunted by a grown woman who, under any other circumstances I’m pretty sure wouldn’t talk to me that way (and I, under other circumstances, wouldn’t have told her she was a “little bitch.”)

I’ve been surprised at how emotionally involved I can be in a game I honestly care nothing about, how my competitive urge can light up like kindling in a single stroke and set my temper ablaze. (“Terri, do you want to sub out for a bit?” “No. No I’m fine.”) I’ve been knocked around pretty hard, and most recently sprained a toe thanks to a big clumsy guy on the other team who didn’t watch where he was going. I missed the playoffs.

But I’ve also been in just the right place at the right time, locked onto the quarterback like a tractor beam, and when the ball soared my way, it felt as if I’d plucked it right out of thin air.

I was laid off from my job at the magazine at the tail end of 2011. A welcome end to a near-decade run as a magazine editor. If I wasn’t asked to leave, I probably would have left anyway. It was a game I already knew the rules to, and I just didn’t want to play anymore.

I’ve been running my own business, a branding consultancy, for more than six years. But if you think I know how any of that works, either, you’re kidding yourself. Running your own business, to my mind is simply this: servicing several clients or customers, instead of serving one boss. And I challenge any entrepreneur or business owner to claim they have a bead on exactly how it will happen. The rules are pretty loose.

That doesn’t mean you don’t find a way to make what you do sustainable, and not willy nilly, and you definitely need to know your boundaries, but you really do learn it as you go—more often from doing it wrong than doing it right.

Whether it’s football or entrepreneurship or making lasagna, you get better with practice. In the beginning, I used to just run aimlessly and then stand there, midfield, wondering where the ball would go—it was a few games before I learned not to wait, but initiate, to run a route, some short sprint of a plan to get somewhere on purpose.

The goal with football or with work is, interestingly, the same: Run hard in a direction, and make yourself open to the right opportunities. You learn that offense scores points, but good defense wins games. And most of it you make up as you go along.

I was surprised at myself for picking up coed touch football at my age, but I guess I’m not that surprised, and I don’t want to be too proud of myself, either—after all, it’s what I’ve been doing all along. Showing up just a little late to a sport and guessing my way through. It’s still scary to step onto that field, but I understand now what my goal really is: Sure we’d all love to win, but even that goal is a little shortsighted.

The real reason, to do or play or work at anything, is to make a habit of facing possibility and risk, in equal measure; to trust a blend of intuition and insight to get you where you need to be. And when you can do that—while depending on your team, and showing up for them regardless, you win more often than not. And if not, you all go for a beer afterwards and it’s all good. There’s always next week.

What a happy person looks like

As a kid, my sister Kim fell into a cactus terrarium we kept on the windowsill (don’t ask why we kept cactus terrarium on the windowsill), and spent hours in the ER where they pulled out one needle at a time. She got a Cocoa Puff up her nose while pretending to eat her cereal like a dog, and it was so far up there she had to, yup, go to the hospital so they could pluck it out of her upper nasal passage, the closest anyone’s breakfast cereal ever got to their brain.

Another time she stepped right through a glass picture frame by accident. Stepping through it wasn’t so bad—the worst of it happened when she pulled it back out. I remember seeing her do it, standing there with glass at her feet, that moment when you’re not sure what just happened.

One summer we were about head to Sesame Place again, a family-themed amusement park in Langhorne, PA, one of our favorite summertime destinations. We were most excited about a huge pit filled with balls that you could flop around in. It smelled like feet. We were piling into the station wagon and Kim ran back inside to retrieve something, tripped, and broke her arm. No ball pit for her. I thought about how fate was a cruel mistress as we lurched onto the highway without her.  

While vacationing in the Poconos, Kim came down with the very worst case of poison ivy anyone I know has ever seen. She doesn’t even recall where she got it—a whisper of a leaf against her ankle, perhaps she then pushed a hair out of her face. It wasn’t the typical biological response (a rash, raised welts). When she woke up that next morning, she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t see, and walked into the bathroom and gasped out loud—her eyes had been swallowed by her swollen face. We took pictures and called her Rocky Dennis for the rest of the week.

Kim coughed her way into a hernia at one point, which was odd because our youngest sister Lori had had one too not long before. They had both crouped so hard that their intestines had punched a hole in their guts. It was a nauseating, terrifying idea, as I was so sure I was next and so I spent every morning that year in the shower fake-coughing with my hand on my groin, just to be sure.

During Christmas break her junior year, Kim’s house burned down. She was already home for the holiday when she got the call: Her roommates had finished their last exam, gone Christmas shopping, and returned home to find the house in flames.

I went there to inspect the damage myself (a faulty surge protector and dried out Christmas tree were to blame), and couldn’t believe how a space could be transfigured like that, blackened and ashen, a negative image of what it had been, dark in all the bright places. It looked like some kind of burned out abandoned crack house, not a cheerful college girls’ home that not a week before had been filled with people and blinking with Christmas lights.

I had Kim on the phone so I wouldn’t have to walk through alone.

“How bad is it,” she said. And I burst into tears.

It helps that Kim has the highest happiness set-point of anyone I know, and floats relentlessly upward like a balloon. The rest of us earthbound family and friends gaze up at her with a mix of admiration, and annoyance.

If you happen to glance at her Facebook feed, you might be tempted to believe she must be hiding something, must be secretly miserable. No one can be that happy that often, look that good, or have that much fun. On a Wednesday. But since I happen to be close enough to the source, I can tell you, it’s all quite real. She’s heavy on the Snapchat filters, but still, I can tell you that even up close, there isn’t a false note to be found.

What you may not know about are the long, sobbing years when her kids were babies, and she was lonely and exhausted and could barely face the day. Or when her son Mason turned two, then three and didn’t speak. And when he wouldn’t eat solid food, or really any food at all, except for milk and a couple dry handfuls of Cheerios, for months on end. Mason was diagnosed on the spectrum, and when the gastroenterologist wanted to insert a feeding tube, her husband Joe said No fucking way. This is not how this will go down. Then, one day, when he was almost four, after 10 weeks of no eating, he pointed to a loaf of bread, and Kim broke down in great, heaving sobs.

Then, just two years ago, Kim texted her old high school boyfriend on his 39th birthday. They were still quite close, and had just spoken days ago, traded barbs, talked about their kids. And instead of his usual snarky reply, she got a text from his wife: Justin had died in his sleep.

“Are you fucking with me?” she wrote back.

“I’m so sorry, Kim. No, this is not a joke.”

It’s like watching a building collapse in slow motion around you—you know it’s falling, you know there’s no stopping it, and there’s no getting out of its way. But you flail anyway, thinking if you move fast enough you can rewind, go back to a place before it happens, when everything was fine and exactly where it should be.

I picked up her call as I was headed down Broadway, eyeing yoga pants in the window of Lululemon. I couldn’t even understand at first what she was saying, and it certainly didn’t sound like her. But it was the sound of my sweet sister’s heart breaking, not in tiny, quiet cracks but in chaos and panic and gushing fury, the way a heart would really break if it could. It was the first and earliest loss, and so it took her breath away. As it does, any time it happens. Every time.

So you know what she does? She throws a huge blowout for her 40th, complete with ballroom and DJ and disco lights and everyone in sequins. Why? Because Kim loves nothing more than a good party and a crowded dance floor, the music lifting us off our feet, the lights bouncing off everyone’s dresses, filling the room with stars. A kind of heaven, right there on earth.

Things you think you can’t do

Freshman year, I joined an after-school writer’s club, and even had a poem published in the school literary magazine. It wasn’t bad. But I told my mother, that year and many to follow, that yes I liked to write, but “I’m not a ‘real’ writer.”

My best friend, on the other hand, now she was a real writer. She wrote short stories and essays and went to Governor’s school for writers in the summer. I worked behind the snack bar at the town pool, perfecting the art of the grilled cheese.

In fact, I spent so many years telling myself this, that for Valentine’s Day one year my mother bought me a t-shirt at the mall that said “Yes, I am a writer” in pink sparkles, which of course I never ever wore. Because I didn’t think a real writer would (and I still stand by that). My sister’s shirt said, “Entering the PMS Zone.”

I started taking dance class late, in high school, and continued on in college, where I performed and choreographed, and senior year, was elected director of the dance ensemble. But I wasn’t a “real” dancer though, because I wasn’t in toe shoes from age 5.

The litany of things I claimed not to do is at once astonishing and boring: I’m not a sports person. Or a numbers person. Or a boat person. I’m not “outdoorsy.” I don’t “camp.” I’m not a runner. Or a risk taker. Can’t do shots or wear skinny jeans or strapless dresses or heels or anything yellow. I don’t drink tequila. Don’t gamble. I could never have a one-night stand.

But then, at some point, I must have run out of things I couldn’t do, and what was left was, well, to do them. And once I got through the thicket of my 20s, I started to do things I didn’t think I would, just because I ran out of reasons not to.

I started running, and even entered a road race or two. I posed in a nude photo shoot for an artsy photographer. Made out with a woman who looked like a young Lindsay Wagner.  Went rock climbing in the Pacific Northwest where I learned to find toe holds and scale a rock face, then belay back down like an action figure. I went white-water rafting.

I was over 35 when I joined a touch football league with some friends, having never played a day in my life and it turns out I’m a pretty good receiver (they now call me Touchdown Terri, not kidding). I went on a camping trip near Lake Hopatcong, in which I not only pitched but and slept in a tent, then spent the whole next day on a pontoon. I date men far too young for me.

Turns out, I like tequila. And black jack. Ideally at the same time.

I was over 40 when I started doing stand-up, and have performed all over the city, made it to the quarter finals in a comedy festival. Even had one of my jokes flat-out stolen by a popular TV show host (not kidding).

And if we’re being honest, I’ve had more one-night stands than I can count on one (maybe two?) hands.

Basically, I’ve proven myself to be either a poor predictor of my own potential or future desires, or I’m a big fat liar. Maybe both.  

My mom gave me a paperweight when I was 22, a big hunk of granite I kept on my desk at work for years. It said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”