The Blog

When people notice how well Katie and I get along -- it’s eerie, really -- I wonder if they think it’s because we agree on everything.

We don’t. Our views are sometimes wildly different. That’s one reason people want in on our conversations. They’re interesting! And fun. We operate with what a friend calls absolute mutual respect. Sometimes we change the other’s mind. More likely we crack it open a little wider, even, than it was before.

We have, as Rob Fazio talked about on the show recently, psychological swagger. We’re secure enough in our convictions not to be threatened by the other’s. We know the louder the sentiment the more likely it is to be wrong. Perhaps most importantly, and with a tip of the hat to a suggestion Rob’s wife often gives him, we tread carefully in sensitive areas so as not to ruin our story.

I’ll never forget what happened when someone was unhappy with Katie about something -- and accused me of being the reason, accused me of coaching her.

Nothing happened.

I wanted to say, “But of course. Someone as brilliant as Katie would naturally have to be told how to feel.”

I didn’t, though.

That, to me, is psychological swagger. Knowing when to speak your mind, and when it’s better to save your breath.

When Katie was little we used to love running errands together. The grocery store, the bank, it didn’t matter. Everything was an adventure. It still is!

When she was three we had a meeting with a banker, and Katie noticed he was wearing a tie. “Just like Dad did,” she told him. “Once.”

A few days later that banker asked me to give him a copy of our most recent tax return. I invoked the same question Katie had been asking us when we’d tell her to do something: “What will happen if I don’t?”

The banker said, “Nothing.”

Well, then. No tax return for you!

One thing I’ve loved hearing from people -- usually guests on my show -- is how often an aspect of my character that might be considered cranky is actually smart. Like when I bristle at a request for my name, address, phone number, eMail address, and bra size when I make a purchase. What? Is my payment not enough? Use other people’s data as a secondary -- or primary! -- revenue stream. I’m not interested.

Steve Weisman’s an attorney and the author of Identity Theft Alert. “If you think identity theft only happens to the other guy,” he says, “you are so wrong. It’s the biggest consumer crime in America.” And while it’s difficult if not impossible to avoid, there are things you might be doing that make it easier for the bad guys to ruin your good name and make you pay for the privilege. Why leave that proverbial door unlocked?

“Do not give out your social security number,” Steve says. “Period. Do not.” That number’s the most important piece of the identity puzzle. Medical providers don’t need it. Banks don’t need it. When your doctor -- whom you’ve been seeing for years -- suddenly tells you she needs a copy of your driver’s license for their records, politely decline. She doesn’t need it. You’re only as safe as the organizations you share this information with, those with the weakest security.

I love the reaction Derek Sivers has when someone tells him he has to do something: “Will I be arrested and thrown in jail if I do not?”

No? Goodbye!

If you’re careless with your personal information you could be arrested, though -- temporarily, wrongly, whatever -- for a crime someone committed in your name. Hello!

It’s a cliché. Someone dies, and people descend on the house with pans of lasagna. Or they circle the people who are grieving, telling them “he’s in a better place” or “everything happens for a reason.”

I interviewed a woman who’s grieving her two-month-old baby daughter, the one who died in her arms more than twenty years ago. “There’s no closure in death,” she says.

There’s no closure in death, but the people you love might want it for you anyway -- so in addition to your sadness, you have a new project. Letting them want it. Letting them tell you how long it’s okay to feel bad, even though it isn’t their call.

That’s why you cherish the people who know better, right? Who give you the feeling they’d just sit with you for the next several lifetimes if that’s what you needed. They hug you when you cry, nod in rapt attention while you try to understand the unfathomable, and never assume they know better than you what would feel good to you.

Mary Norris bookMaybe you’ve heard the joke about prepositions. Someone wants directions to the library at Harvard. “Can you tell me where the library is at?” he asks. At which point he’s scolded for ending a sentence in a preposition. So he amends his request: “Can you tell me where the library is at, asshole?”

Between You & Me author Mary Norris has heard the joke. No surprise.

I’ve done a lot of writing over the years. I’ve saved most of it -- partly on the advice of a favorite uncle, who promised me I’ll be glad I did -- but the more I learn about grammar the more depressed I get. Because I have so many thousands of pages to revise! You don’t even want to know, for example, how many sentences I’ve ended with prepositions.

It’s a lot of work to find a way around that. And according to Mary, it’s unnecessary. It isn’t worth it, she says. It doesn’t improve anything.


Does she have any idea how happy she just made me?

It’s an old rule, she says. She thinks the poet John Dryden is the source. He thought it was weak to end a sentence with a preposition. “And it can kind of trail off,” Mary says. “The preposition is not the strongest element in a sentence.” But she adds a lot of things that look like prepositions are actually adverbs. Let’s say, for example, you end a sentence with “throw it away.” Away is an adverb, not a preposition, so you aren’t ending the sentence with a preposition. You’re ending it with an adverb. No problem. Unless your head’s blowing up trying to keep this straight!
If you have to do grammatical gymnastics -- my term, not Mary’s -- to keep your sentence from ending in a preposition? It isn’t worth it. “That’s not a good thing,” Mary says.

Mary singlehandedly cleaned out so much clutter in my brain. Maybe I don’t need therapy. I just needed someone whose expertise is grammar, who could take a few hundred things off my to-do list.

What’s left to worry about now?

One of my college pals used to go back and “stick the commas in” after he wrote a letter. Isn’t that funny? But good for him. He didn’t let punctuation distract him. Commas give me fits, too. I’d been blogging for a long time when something -- I forget what -- made me agree with Katie, that there needs to be a comma after “fits” in the sentence before this one.

And yes, I realize “there needs to be a comma” is subjective. So much of grammar is subjective. That’s why it’s confusing.

I can’t decide how I feel about commas. It depends on the project, on the copyeditor I’m working with, even my mood. That’s why I’m a fan of dashes to set off phrases. They save me a pair of commas. They appear as one long dash in my books, which feels a bit dramatic. I like two hyphens in quick succession. It feels softer. It also reminds me of writing on an IBM Selectric -- I loved that typewriter! -- before word processing programs automatically converted a double hyphen to a longer dash, an “em dash.”

Those em dashes, in my books, butt up against the text. They aren’t bookended with spaces, and that feels crowded. That’s why I’ve adopted the style you see here. I’m not beholden to a professional copywriter, and I can do whatever I want. My version of the em dash, as you see, is a pair of hyphens -- cushioned by a space on both sides.

I expected Between You & Me author Mary Norris to be horrified by the practice, but she wasn’t. I’d sent her a link to a post that was peppered with dashes, and asked if the way I used them distracted her from the writing. I loved her answer: “No.”

Well, cool.

Also cool? Mary had never heard the term I used on the show, decorative apostrophes. She liked it! Neither of us likes what it represents, apostrophes that are just wrong. When you sign a holiday card “Love, The Anderson’s” it’s a sign, all right. It’s a sign you don’t know what you’re doing. Mary goes further -- not farther, further -- than that: “It’s a cry for help.”

I wanted help with not ending sentences in prepositions, and Mary obliged. I can’t wait to share that story tomorrow!

Where do you feel the most relaxed, the most yourself?

For me it’s Manhattan, and it has nothing to do with Katie being there.

No one appears to care what you’re up to in Manhattan. In the small town where we still -- temporarily, at least -- have an address, the opposite appears to be true.

When Darrell burns a few sticks out back -- in our grill, for crying out loud -- a neighbor appears to voice his objections. There’s a woman who walks by our house a lot and peers in our windows every time, hoping to catch a glimpse of I can’t imagine what. When I’m waiting in line in the lobby of the post office I let the people behind me take my place at the counter to avoid dealing with a clerk who makes no secret of how interesting he finds our mail.

Couldn’t we at least pretend to mind our own business? Wouldn’t even the most well-adjusted goldfish feel twitchy if people milling about the living room surrounded the bowl and made notes on clipboards?

I’m a fish out of water, that’s all. I used to beat myself up about that. People kept telling me the endless, unrelenting interest -- and the endless, unrelenting small talk -- was their way of being friendly. Which is fine. It just doesn’t happen to be my way of feeling befriended. It makes me feel studied, judged.

The other day I thought to ask myself why. Why do I feel so twitchy here? Why does the constant surveillance drive me out of my skin? It took me about two seconds to figure it out.

I’ll save that story for never. It’s personal. I’m sharing as much as I did to reassure you that beyond a certain point it doesn’t really matter why something bothers you, only that it does. Treat yourself with the same compassion you’d afford anyone you love, and find a way to work around the trouble spots.

“I heard you got some tapes at Kmart yesterday.” That’s what the receptionist at the local radio station told me many years ago. I was news director, and I hadn’t been at the job long enough to realize that constituted celebrity in this small town.

So I said, “Huh?”

Someone she knows had seen me there, she explained. Word got around.

I probably had it coming. It was part of my job to report on the comings and goings of other people, after all. Car accidents, bicycle accidents, even a request to put up a fence if it veered too close to public property -- it was all fodder for the next newscast.

I hated that! I hated that part of the job. But I loved hosting the talk show, and I considered it a fair deal. I especially loved hearing how much people had enjoyed the latest installment of that show. Of course it came with a price.

I’m still paying it, though.

It’s still a small town. If we don’t time our grocery runs just so, we can spend hours listening to people -- lovely people -- tell us they saw us out running the other day.

Which is…not news.

You saw us running. That’s nice. Are you waiting for a response? I don’t have one. For twenty-three years I’ve been listening to people tell me they saw me out running, and I’ve…run out of responses. You’re a lovely person, but I’m bored. Is that okay to admit? I think it is, and I’ll explain why in the next post.

First I have to go (you guessed it) running.

SiriIn almost eight years of hosting my talk show I’ve never had people get as excited about a guest as they did when it was Susan Bennett from Atlanta. You probably know her as Siri, the voice in your iPhone. We caught up with her last fall, and she couldn’t have been more gracious.