The Blog

TiffanyIn the early days of the talk show I scripted everything. I rarely followed the script, but I had one just in case. I had dozens of questions ready to ask if there was a lull in the conversation, which there never seemed to be.

Then one day I interviewed a regular on the show who’d become a pal. She’d had a stroke, and she was never going to be the same. She’d started working again, though -- and something told me she wouldn’t mind joining me again for another interview. I was right. She jumped at the chance.

This was one of the few conversations that scared me. How do you talk to someone who’s lost so much? Where do you even start?

I started with, “What happened?” But that was the extent of my notes. My next question was going to depend on her answer to my first.

And you know what? What the conversation lacked in flawless execution it more than made up for in meaning. I knew I’d never be the same after this talk, and I haven’t been.

You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to pay attention.

Many years ago I confided in my brother about my then boss. I had a long list of legitimate complaints, and my brother lived up to the reason I’d called him in the first place. He listened.

Then he asked why I wanted to keep working there.

Well, that’s the end of that story! Right? As to why I needed help seeing the obvious, this expression comes to mind: “Advice is what you ask for when you know the answer but wish you didn’t.”

Extracting myself from the situation wouldn’t be easy. But if you can’t change the people around you, as someone else pointed out, change the people around you.

There’s always a new and better friend around the corner. Ever noticed that?

The more words you know, the more precisely you can think. I forget where I heard that, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?

That’s why I look up words I don’t know, and get a daily dose of Latin in my inbox.

In the old days you had to walk over to a dictionary. These days? No excuse.

But one exception.

When I’m reading a “real” book before I go to sleep and come across a word I don’t know, I don’t pull out my phone or walk over to my computer. I keep reading. I have permission from -- of all people -- a high school English teacher.

“When you come to a word you don’t know,” he told us, “skip over it.”

The cleats I wear to keep me from slipping on the ice on winter runs used to pinch my toes. I bought the largest size. I used as directed. But for some reason they hurt so much I wondered which was worse -- not being in shape because I wasn’t running, or trashing my feet because I was?

On a whim last winter when I donned them for the first time I turned them upside down and then attached them to my running shoes. Success! I mean, they looked weird -- not that anyone could see the bottom of my shoes. They felt weird, too. At first. But soon I was congratulating myself on every single run for discovering such an easy, unique solution.

We have a smattering of swing-arm lamps around the house, and I turn them upside down so they point toward the ceiling. Suddenly the room’s cozier, cuter, classier. Try it sometime. They’ll draw raves. “It’s such a simple thing,” Darrell told me once, “but it makes such a difference.”

I don’t think you’re ever too old to hang upside down from the couch cushions. What would it hurt to remember what you knew as a kid, that a change in perspective changes everything?

If you need a gift idea for the person who has everything -- and I mean “everything” more literally than figuratively, here -- I have a suggestion. Introduce her to Brooks Palmer.

Brooks Palmer logoDarrell and I had fun helping Katie move into her first apartment last summer, and we have Brooks to thank for how smooth that transition was. The place is beautiful, but it’s small. It’s very small. Her residence hall life at NYU was expansive compared with this apartment, and she needed to pare down for life to work.

But how? Katie “loved” her clutter. She found it soothing. It’s one way, maybe the biggest way, we were different. But Kate also has an open mind, and I asked if she was open to what Brooks had to say. She was. After reading one of his books she couldn’t wait to give me this report…

I feel enlightened. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to relate to you as much as I do right now. Seriously. I’m sitting around daydreaming about things I can get rid of. Can you believe this? This man is a genius. I am excited to clutter bust. All I can think about is how happy I’ll be. I have a new lease on life and I haven’t even started.

And so it began. The next report was even better…

I started yesterday and I went on another binge just now and I’m almost worried about the euphoria I feel. This isn’t even remotely close to bad. The best part is, the more caught up I get, the easier it is to make cuts. I’m glad I’m not one of those people who worries about turning into her mom, because if I did I’d be screwed. But I am not and I am becoming free.

The most difficult part of being a parent is watching a child suffer. I was sure the move would be painful for Katie because she’d have to pare down. But thanks to Brooks it was not only not painful, it was exhilarating.

Katie travels so much lighter these days. She’s smarter with money because she realizes how quickly most things become clutter. And her rapid-fire and oh-so-sweet transformation reminded me the best present you can give anyone is, as they say at NYU, an education in possible.

Forty-nine percent of people in the United States don’t know what they’re having for dinner tonight.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Dinner comes around every evening. So many decisions!

Oh, sure. It’s fun to try out a new restaurant on the spur of the moment. To walk arm in arm through an outdoor market, deciding what to throw on the grill. To assemble an assortment of treats for movie night.

But in general you might find it easier, as we do, to have a rough outline of how dinners might unfold this week -- or every week. You exponentially increase the odds you’ll make good choices. Grocery shopping’s easier. And you won’t overwhelm your brain cells with routine decisions. They have more important problems to solve.

You might enjoy this experiment. Watch people having conversations with each other. Notice when someone offers an opening line. The subject doesn’t matter. What matters is that the person pauses after the opening to give the other person a chance to respond.

You might notice, as I have, how often the person who speaks first keeps going without any encouragement. She keeps going despite a lack of a followup question or raised eyebrow or even any eye contact at all. It’s as if she’s going to railroad through whatever it is, the lack of interest be damned.

Was the other person rude for not responding? Maybe. It depends on the context. But it’s a good reminder that conversation is a dance. It takes two.

“I’m done!” my pal in the third grade exclaimed, ready to get in line for lunch or recess or whatever the reward was for finishing the assignment.

“You’re not a turkey!” our teacher fired back. “You check a turkey when it’s in the oven to see if it’s done. You’re finished.”

All these years, and the line was delivered with such passion it was impossible to forget. There’s some debate about the egregiousness of this error, but I was all finished using the word “done” in that context.

Sometimes it isn’t so much what you say as the manner in which you say it.