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.

But.

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 willing to break a thing you loved to make it better. That’s what an engineer must do.”

(THIS, by the way is what TEDx talks are made of. You’ve got stories. You’ve got ideas. Why not you?  Join me for Tapped to Speak LIVE June 7 & 8, 2018 in NYC. (To learn more and reserve your seat, visit tappedtospeaklive.com. )

 

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.

 

…Pssst. Is giving a TEDx talk on your bucket list? Join me for Tapped to Speak LIVE, a transformational two-day in-person workshop in New York City on June 7 & 8. Walk in with a bunch of half-formed thoughts, walk out with your TED-worth idea. To learn more and reserve your seat, visit tappedtospeaklive.com. 

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.”   

How to deal with your ex (Day 14)

In just about every episode of The Golden Girls, someone rings the doorbell.

What’s on the other side of the door looks like the opening line of a joke: There may be a priest, a rabbi, a girl scout, a cross-dressing baseball player, a police officer, a stripper dressed as a police officer, someone who’s been lured to the house by an ad in the newspaper, or Rose’s date (who happens to be a little person, except no one mentioned that—and hilarity ensues).

But every fourth or fifth time, it’s Stanley Zbornak, Dorothy’s ex-husband—sometimes wearing a toupee, sometimes not, sometimes down on his luck, sometimes enjoying a short-lived high. He’s there to ask for help, to ask for money, to share a business opportunity. And every time the door swings open and Stan is standing there, the first thing out of his mouth is, “Hi, it’s me, Stan”—and the response ranges from, “Oh no,” to “Who cares,” to “Call the police.”

Stan is a two-timing, unreliable, shallow-minded, overgrown manboy in a leisure suit who sells fake vomit for a living, dates women half his age, and will never, ever get over Dorothy—and she knows it. She has been with him since he got her pregnant in high school. She is his mother figure; he is her cowardly lion. 

In the series’ finale, Dorothy is on her way to the church to marry Lucas when her limo driver takes a detour.

“Driver? Driver! Stop! I said stop! Who the hell do you think you are?” she shouts. The driver stops, turns around, and removes his hat.

It’s Stan.

She worries he’s kidnapping her; he’s not. He says he’s there to say goodbye, and to chauffeur her to the church in style.

He points to a single hair on his forehead. “See this hair, Dorothy? It’s the only one on my forehead. The other cowards retreated years ago, but this proud and loyal sprout clings desperately. It is unrelenting. It is true.”

Dorothy looks at him suspiciously. What about it, she says.

“Don’t you see? I am that hair, and you are my big crazy bald skull.”

“Alright Stanley, the truth,” she says. “As Freud said, our beds are crowded. When I sleep with Lucas I’m not alone. There’s this phantom of you there. I can’t pretend you’re not a part of me.”

“I love you Dorothy. I’ll always love you.”

“And I love you, Stanley.” Then she yanks the hair out of his forehead. “Now drive.”

This is one of my very favorite scenes in all of television.

It’s funny and surprising and heartfelt, and happens, as some of the most meaningful conversations do, at the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.

As I’m writing this, it’s Valentine’s Day, a time when, whether or not you’re in a significant romantic relationship, you’re probably recalling the other people with whom you’ve spent this holiday, for good or ill. It’s a kind of a bookmark, isn’t it, for the loves of your life. The last time I was in a relationship, it ended exactly one day after Valentine’s Day. Because that’s when you know the fanfare is over. Sometimes it’s clear as day.

A few years ago, I gave a TEDx talk at TEDxStLouisWomen about how I believe it’s time to rethink our approach to romantic relationships. Why? Because the way we think about them now is that they either last, or they fail. It either was a good idea, or a bad idea. Talk about a zero sum game. It occurs to me that the only real condition for a truly “successful” relationship in our culture is that you die while you’re still in it. That’s it.

The fact that women can live longer, fuller, more varied and more independent lives now means that as a woman you really can do anything you want—you can decide to partner or not, and you can decide to move on if something really isn’t working. You can survive, even thrive, on your own if you choose.

And there’s a good chance that even if a relationship is fantastic and fulfilling for a while, maybe a long while, you very well might outlive it.

If you decide that anything that doesn’t last was a mistake, well, that means the future is just a disaster waiting to happen. I don’t choose to look at life or love that way. Do you?

Learning to really know and love another person is never a waste; it’s that effort that defines us as people, and shapes the landscape of our lives.

You can choose to live in a world where love is suspect and dangerous and the precursor to regret—or you can decide to spend it all, every time.

Yes, our beds are crowded. We aren’t just who we’re with today, but who we’ve loved along the way. The thing that all your past relationships have in common: They had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And chances are, you learned something about yourself that you couldn’t have learned any other way.

Dorothy doesn’t have to hate her ex in order to move on. She moves on knowing that love persists in surprising ways, and that there’s more life and love ahead of her, too. Same goes for you. Maybe your ex won’t pick you up on a limo on your way to your wedding. But wherever you go, all the love you have shared is along for the ride.  

Watch my TEDx talk on rethinking happily ever after. 

Don’t go cheap on your face (Day 13)

When I turned 13, my mother bought me a set of makeup from Clinique: a bottle of flesh-colored foundation; blush that came in a green marbled compact with a tiny brush; a mirrored box that slid out to reveal a tray of neutral eyeshadows in varying shades of brown; a subtle semi-gloss lipstick in a ribbed silver case called Mauve Crystal.

While most of my friends were buying cheap candy-colored nail polish and Wet ‘N Wild lipstick at CVS, I had the beauty regimen of a 30-year-old.

“You don’t go cheap on your face,” my mother said.

For a while now she had been pulling me into her bathroom to scrub blush onto my cheeks before school (“You look wan,” she said). I was the only one in junior high who had a dermatologist-issued moisturizer, a fragrance-free souffle in a jar that I had to tote with me wherever I went, even to the pool.

The message was clear: Your face is important, and you don’t muck it up with crap you bought for $4. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing well.

I credit this early training with my expensive Sephora habit, my avoidance of drugstore cosmetics, and my unquenchable demand for nothing short of the good stuff. I’ll reuse the same teabag 5 times in a day, but I’ll go all in for a good gloss in just the right shade of coral.

My sisters are aficionados of the face. They know exactly what MAC pencil has the right amount of glide, which mascara provides the most lift and reach. The perfect shimmery base, the most believable bronze. Their cheekbones are pronounced and their lashes are like jazz hands.

I like the stuff, but in my family I’m a chronic underuser. “Are you even wearing makeup?” my sister Kim leans in, peering at me through her ample lashes like two glossy fronds. The day she went into labor with her first child, Kim applied two waterproof coats of “Better Than Sex” mascara before grabbing her overnight bag and heading out the door.

I feel like I am wearing a lot of makeup. But it’s never enough. She sits back. “You could use a touch more.”

My youngest sister Lori applies her face with a professional hand—she can create a dramatic, Asian eye, or a sophisticated daytime glow. She has even done weddings, on occasion. She looks different every time I see her. I look precisely the same. “A little more liner would help,” she says. “You have to really define the eye.”

Every Christmas, Lori picks out one or two new items for me to work into my regimen in the new year. It’s like a long apprenticeship. “This is liquid eyeliner,” “This is a lash curler,” “This is a cool palette. You should really save the warm for summer,” and “I know this looks bright, but you can totally carry this blue. Trust me.”

In their defense, they never once made me feel I wasn’t pretty enough, or that I needed extra help. It really wasn’t about that. Nor did I ever get the impression that they were compensating for something else, or thinking that I should. They have the very best approach to it I’ve seen—your face is a big party, so why not liven up the joint? Why not show off what you’ve got.

And despite my light hand, I have become a bit of a makeup snob myself, fully adopting their cosmetic worldview. We were at a fundraiser and saw a woman around our age, maybe younger, who had showed up in a hot pink dress and not a stitch of makeup. Her face looked as if she’d just scrubbed it clean, thrown on the dress, and walked out. She wasn’t young, exactly, but she also was too old to not make a smidge of effort. Especially when you went to the expense of buying an outfit and putting on heels.

“What is she thinking?” Kim said. “It looks like she’s trying the dress on.” I had to agree. Why bother with any of it if you’re not going to commit to the illusion. My mother would have pulled that girl aside and insisted on just a little blush, for chrissakes.

In truth, I actually really enjoy the ritual, the brushes, the applicators, the wands—a fitting term, after all, when we are working a bit of magic. There’s something to watching your face spring to life. Every stroke or shadow doesn’t hide, but highlights, acknowledges what’s there and says, this is worth seeing. When I’m particularly proud of my handiwork, I’ll send a selfie to my sisters and get a thumbs up emoji in return, perhaps a gif of Beyonce swinging her hips in canary yellow dress, wielding a bat into a windshield.

I’m crushing it, clearly.

 

How to sell yourself on something you don’t like (Day 12)

I always loved a good side hustle—even before it was a thing. Having something on the side always made you feel you had stuff going on, especially when you had nothing else going on.

For a while I took whatever popped up and was happy to: a job with Captain Morgan that involved dressing up like a wench and slinging shots down by the pier; pouring samplers of Sam Adams while dressed as a revolutionary in a tricorne hat (and taking Polaroids with anyone who asked); handing out granola bars at the subway station. Once I had to dress as one of the Charmin bears, in a full bear suit that I could barely see out of, and stumble around Revere Beach in 90-degree weather to promote their new wet wipes. I almost passed out.

I was part of the launch team for Febreze. Before it became a household name, I stood in CVS to demonstrate how it worked: One container with smoke-treated cloth, and another container with a cloth that had been treated with Febreze. It was the 90s, and you could smoke in bars, and so you couldn’t leave one without smelling like a house on fire. I took great pleasure in the theatrics of opening one jar and watching them recoil at the scent, and then their eyes widening at the other, which had been treated with Febreze. Then I’d show them how to spray their clothes in long, sweeping strokes. Just watch how this magical fairy dust spray actually attaches to foul-smelling particles and lifts them off your good blazer on a million tiny chemical wings.

But one of the sweetest gigs I got was during the Christmas season, standing in the meat department of the Stop & Shop, sampling fancy cheese for $30 an hour (which was an unspeakably good rate). The irony was that I hated cheese. I passed on pizza, lasagna, mozzarella sticks. I took no pride in this, by the way. I would have loved nothing more than to pile onto a plate of deep-fried apps or draw a stringy slice from the box with obvious delight. I believed it would have made me more fun and cool and likable. I worried that I might seem like a bore or a weirdo, or just profoundly unAmerican.

Liking cheese was not a job requirement, though; a perky, positive attitude was. You just had to stand there with an apron on over your shirt, khakis and sensible shoes, and offer people little bits of triple creme and herb-infused brie. Turns out, this was the easiest job in the world. I didn’t have to convince anyone; they steered their shopping carts toward me as if drawn by an industrial-size magnet (“free cheese?!”) and daintily picked up the little paper cups as if they’d never seen anything like it.

They all stood there—the toad-like woman in an oversized coat; a bedraggled mother with a kid hanging from her sleeve, a tall, rangy man whose hair looked as if it hadn’t gotten over the shock of waking up. We stood together in a strange collective cheese-eating tableau, as they moaned and rolled their eyes at the sheer pleasure of it—picking up a wedge of it to peruse the label (“What is this stuff?”) as if it had been imported on the backs of virgins straight from Normandy for the very first time. “And one for the road,” snatching another sample as they rolled away toward the chip aisle. Some were sold, tossing a few wedges in their cart—“Perfect for my holiday party”—as if they needed an excuse, or as if I did—while I suspected they would unwrap it alone in front of the TV later that night, without sharing it with anyone at all.

It was hard enough to endure the smell of the stuff wafting up in waves from the table, but what was curious was that I was compelled to agree with them, regardless of what I thought. They complimented it and me, as if I were a cheesemonger who’d gone to great lengths to select it, and not a 24-year-old who watched Friends while eating sardines out of a can.

But something happens when you keep telling other people, and yourself, how good something is, what fine quality, what a perfect complement to your meal. For hours and hours. How creamy and rich—And have you tried the mushroom one? You can’t help but start to believe it must be true. With the right motivation, you could talk yourself into anything.

During a slow period, I put a sample in my mouth—and was surprised at the way it took over your tongue, unfurled its buttery breadth like a picnic blanket. You didn’t just taste cheese; you experienced it, the stunning arrival and the lingering, creamy finish.

It was a successful day. I moved a table’s worth of brie, and I’d learned that in very small doses, I could stomach it at room-temperature. My feet were starting to ache, and I thought about how I liked the job, but only because I knew it would end. I wanted nothing more than to crawl onto my couch and spend the evening watching reruns of Forensic Files, to find out what other girl vanished without a trace, so that I could make certain it wouldn’t happen to me. At 5 o’clock, I removed my apron and picked up a wedge of the mushroom triple creme, and headed toward checkout.

 

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