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. There’s already plenty of ways to get a reading with an experienced psychic over email, after all. 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.