The Blog

When I entered the Public Radio Talent Quest eleven years ago, we started getting comments on my audition right away. They were glowing. I hadn’t anticipated that part, the fun of sharing my work and reading what people said about it. I enjoyed that so much! I knew I was on stage at every step, and I was careful with each step. I thanked every person who took the time to comment, and I sweated every word of those replies.

I did my best to stay Zen. I loved how pure the contest was. You posted your best two minutes, then let the chips fall. I knew I’d done my best. If I didn’t make the cut maybe I didn’t belong in public radio.

Until this contest I’d made of fun of people who spent much time online. Now here I was, exploring different parts of the contest site like a newcomer to Disney World. You couldn’t see how the voting was going, which bothered some of the participants. One guy said, “The only people who agree with hiding the results are those who are whiny and talent-impaired.” One reply to that comment amused me: “Hey…I listened to your entry -- and trust me, you don’t want the results showing, pal.”

A panel of judges would decide nine of the ten people who’d advance to the next round, where there would be other challenges. Participants and anyone else, anyone who stumbled on the site for whatever reason, could vote for who got that tenth slot.

I was so happy at having a shot. I didn’t need to win. I just needed the possibility that I might. One thing I wondered, if people had such passion for hosting a talk show the way so many of us had claimed, what else were they doing to get there -- besides this?

That’s what I felt the best about. Throwing myself into the process with abandon. Keeping my hopes high and my expectations low. Using the experience to cement just how badly I wanted what I wanted, but not deciding in advance how that would happen.

The secret to life.

I never fancied a career in public radio. I didn’t think I was sophisticated enough. I’m a journalist who inspires people to do what works -- at least, that’s the goal -- but I do it simply. Over coffee.

When I found out eleven years ago this spring about a nationwide search for the next public radio talk show host, I wanted to audition anyway. Maybe I was good enough, smart enough…

The premise was simple. Put your best two minutes online, and demonstrate “hostiness.” Be engaging, smart, curious, someone you’d like to have dinner with. Darrell was sure I had what it takes. So he interviewed me about interviewing other people, and created my entry with excerpts from the answers.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that,” my audition began. I’m told that by people who get interviewed constantly, and that’s what makes me feel great about my work  -- when I’m told that I ask the questions nobody thinks of asking.

I put everything else aside, I continued, and I focus on what they’re saying. I’m not thinking about what I have to do this afternoon or why my shirt feels so uncomfortable. I immerse myself in people, and I think they feel that -- they feel the attention. It’s very flattering to be listened to. You feel safe, and you want to tell this person more. It’s a dance, and much of how well the dance goes is how plugged in you are to each other.

There was more: Your voice reveals everything. Your soul is in your voice. And I think people sense that they know a lot about me the minute I start talking. You can just tell a lot about somebody from her voice. That’s why I think radio is the most fun medium to work in, because it leaves so much to the imagination -- and yet there’s so much you also know immediately from listening to someone. Do you like him? Is she sincere? Is she fun? Would you like to spend more time with him over dinner or whatever? I think that is revealed immediately.

And: It’s not being a host. It’s just talking to people, really listening, giving them what you want most in all the world. And what do we all want? Someone to listen to our stories.

You get the idea. I’ll tell you more about the contest in my next post. But for now, eleven years later, there isn’t a word of my entry I’d change. Everything I want to say about radio is in those two minutes.

I know that look Darrell’s giving me. It’s the same one I almost always get in the morning, the one that’s quickly followed by a question: “How are you?” On this particular morning I don’t wait for him to ask. I tell him I don’t know yet. The coffee hasn’t hit.

Except I don’t say “coffee,” because I don’t drink coffee anymore. I tell him the hot water hasn’t hit.

I still give myself a few minutes to wake up in the morning -- the same few minutes I afford my computer -- but I sip hot water now. I never would’ve guessed that ritual would be as satisfying minus the caffeine, but it is. There’s just something about a beverage so hot you’re forced to pace yourself. I focus on the warmth of the mug, the quiet, the big plans I have for the day.


So I hold the cream, the sugar, and even the caffeine. And it’s still the sweetest bridge between the land of dreams and another day to make them come true.

One thing I’ve noticed about Katie lately is the same thing I’ve noticed about myself for what feels like forever. We love making people laugh. When it happens, we bask. We mark the moment. And we come back to that moment again and again and again.

You get more of what you focus on, as the saying goes. Where’s your focus? On the colleague who screwed you over yet again, the price of gas, the aches and pains? Do you spend so much talking about what’s going wrong you give people the impression you’re devoted to your unhappiness?

Whatever makes you happy (or unhappy, I guess). But if you’re open to a happiness upgrade, I have a suggestion. Keep a file filled with things you found hilarious. Keep it handy. And the next time you’re tempted to rain on someone’s parade, even your own, substitute that for something silly. It’s the best (mental) health insurance money can’t buy.

You’re on a road trip. You’re driving. You’re in control of the radio. What station do you listen to? One that features political hate talk -- the choices, they are aplenty -- or a music format that features songs you hate?

Neither, right?

Then why do so many people torch precious hours tuned to negative frequencies from the office gossip, the online troll, the supposedly well-meaning family member who was always anything but? Maybe they don’t realize it’s a choice. What they ingest is a choice.

Many years ago, at a workshop, I was challenged to come up with a mission statement for my work. “I want to express myself so precisely,” I decided, “a chord is struck in another soul.” Buoyed by that little gem, I wrote a mission statement for my voice. I wanted people to associate it with “comfort, fun, and a good story.”

It’s difficult to dispense only sunshine. But it’s easier when you’re focused on that!

What sobers you?
May 7, 2018

When Katie was five she boarded a bus to kindergarten for the first time. I’d made the most of her preschool years, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the hole inside where my stomach used to be. I was sick with grief.

“On my watch, no harm comes,” the driver reassured Darrell and me. I knew Katie would be safe. I just wouldn’t be the one keeping her that way.

Not only that, but no one could keep her safe forever. Not her parents, and not the bus driver. Someday, very soon it felt like, she’d be making her own decisions and I’d be no more in charge of those than someone in the audience is in charge of a movie.

Is this what it means to have grown up? My little girl’s safety mattered more than my next breath, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

Life is so sweet and scary.

For a few hours when I was twenty years old I thought I’d never celebrate turning twenty-one. I was staying in an inexpensive motel during a summer in college while I worked construction, and late one night a guy pounded on my door and demanded to be let in. He gave up after a while, but I figured he’d be back -- with a tool that would help him enter my room quietly instead of breaking a window or kicking the door in.

I spent those few hours wondering if whatever the guy had planned would hurt, and I’ll spare you the imaginary details. But I also wondered, sure that night would be my last, if I’d genuinely tried to be a good kid. I thought so. All I wanted out of life, I decided, was to do a good job at it.

“I want to go home,” I thought. “To heck with this job. I want to sleep on the couch in our den with Dad in his bedroom just a few steps away.”

Is this what it meant to be a grownup? Living with my choices?

I questioned my decision to save money on a room so there would be more for tuition that fall. I’d been hell-bent on sampling the life of a construction worker. I didn’t see how I could possibly design bridges and highways without getting a feel for what it was like on the receiving end of an engineering blueprint. In that sense, I’d been mature. By cheaping out on accommodations? Not so much.

Was this what Dad was worried about? Why hadn’t I paid more attention?

highwayFinally it was going on five. Dawn. I grabbed my hard hat and locked the door to my room as quickly as I could. I got in the car and locked that door, too, like I always did -- and sped away toward my generally bright and usually very safe future.

One of the guys on the crew came back to my room that night with me, and helped me get settled in a better hotel. But I slept with a nightlight for the next thirty, thirty-five years -- until my fear of not sleeping well because of that light overtook my fear of the dark.

I’m still wary of strangers. More importantly, I’m wary of anyone who makes fun of people who are wary of strangers. Not everyone has your best interests at heart, after all.

As for the others? The people you love? It’s just so great to have another day on the planet to tell them you do.

In my last post I told you about the guy who tried to break into my motel room one summer. I was in college, working construction, and was renting a room by the week. It was a bargain, I’d thought at the time. And I’d been wrong.

I say the guy “tried” to break into my motel room, but at first that meant just trying to talk me into opening the door. I kept pleading with him to go away, talk to the motel owner, whatever. I told him the owner was in the room next to mine. He apparently wasn’t interested in breaking a window or kicking in the door -- maybe, just maybe, because I’d given him the impression someone would hear him if he did.

After what felt like forever I heard a vehicle drive off. And I was sure that meant one of two things. The guy was trying to fake me out, get me to think he was leaving -- so I’d make a run for it myself, at which point he’d pounce. Either that, or he was leaving to get something that would help him break into my room quietly. It was one or the other. I was sure of it.

So I stayed behind the flimsy door with the cheap locks. I was shaking. Every horror story I’d ever heard came back to me. I knew my luck had run out. Even if my visitor was gone, he’d be back. I was afraid to move. I crouched behind the door, clutching my pepper spray, for five hours.

I was too afraid to think much of anything, but I did try to figure out what I could offer the guy to keep him from hurting me. My typewriter? The TV some friends had loaned me for the summer? I doubted he’d be interested in either. Which meant it was time to make peace with my life being over after twenty years. I’ll tell you how I did that in my last post in this series.