Sometimes, when your crazy friends invite you along, you just gotta go. Don’t ask too many questions. Just enjoy the process, make some memories, and think of the stories you’ll tell. #Questival
Sometimes, when your crazy friends invite you along, you just gotta go. Don’t ask too many questions. Just enjoy the process, make some memories, and think of the stories you’ll tell. #Questival
On This Day. Facebook memories is perhaps the most brilliantly wicked customer retention tactic in the history of social media to date, I swear. January 23, 2016 “Mark your calendar! Pet World is reopening 1-23!”
Do I remember this date? Um, yeah… you could say that. It was the day I learned once and for all the importance of listening to your community and letting them guide you.
Our business was completely destroyed by fire and our local community made it very clear that they felt the loss and wanted it back. At first, we weren’t sure if we would rebuild. We were devastated. Lost. Another corporate pet store had just opened right before the fire. Anything we sell can be purchased somewhere else or online. It took over 25 years to build that business the first time. There are other exotic animal rescues. How many pet stores does one small town need, anyway, right? But the outpouring of letters and support, explaining what the Pet World experience has meant to so many people…the message was loud and clear. Our community needed PW back. We needed it back. They were right. So we promised to rebuild.
But I said no to a vigil thinking it would be too painful.
The PW community, however, had other thoughts. They said, “We want a vigil. We need a vigil. You need a vigil. We’re having a vigil, one way or another.” So we held a vigil. And hundreds of people came. All walks of life, filling the parking lot – some silent, some weeping, some laughing, some chatting – all sharing in the crazy, bittersweet moments created when people come together after loss. 27 minutes. 27 candles. One for each year PW had been a part of the community. It was beautiful. They were right. We all needed that vigil to let go and move on.
Next the fundraising issue arose. Well intentioned hats were passed. Both honest and not so honest GoFundMe accounts popped up. I said, “Please, no fundraising. We’re fine. We have insurance.” But it didn’t matter. The PW community knew better. Deductibles would have to be met. Uninsured expenses would show up. And then there was the cost of that new sprinkler system. Everyone knew it was a deal breaker and we refused to reopen without one. Plus, people wanted to help but there was nothing yet to do. So we set up the relief fund account at our local bank and the money started coming in.
$300.00 $75.00 $31.00 $12.30 Lemonade stands. Benefit concerts. Fundraiser nights at local restaurants. Fundraiser drinks named for us! We had never seen anything like it. They were right. When people want to help we need to let them help.
But then we had to figure out the best use of these funds. This wasn’t our money; it belonged to our community. Grief clouds our minds and knock us off course but sometimes moments arise that bring us back to our core. We are entrepreneurs, after all. So we asked our tee shirt designer to create a fundraising shirt for us. Having never let us down over the years, he came up with a new design that was perfect so we ordered a hundred of them with the relief fund money.
“If you rebuild it, they will come,” on the front. Inspirational. “Rebuilding Team” on the back. Perfect. After most of the first hundred shirts sold, we used that money to order more, and continued that pattern until we had sold nearly 1000 shirts at about $15.00 each. Want to know how much money we needed for the new fire sprinkler system? About $15,000.00.
I don’t believe in coincidences. Never have. I think we often call something a coincidence when we can’t or won’t acknowledge there is something much bigger happening than what we can comprehend.
The night before our grand reopening to the public, we invited everyone who owned one of those Rebuilding Team shirts to wear it to a private, sneak peek party. People shivered outside in the freezing cold to watch a 28 minute lighting ceremony, where my son turned on 24 red light bulbs, one at a time, followed by three yellow lights, and finally one green light. Closed to the public, we opened a secret side door and let in all of our invited guests. Hundreds of people filled the building – mingling, hugging, laughing, crying – wearing the same, matching shirts while they took it all in for the first time. No purchases. No money. The registers were closed. Free drinks and snacks from local places were enjoyed as stories were told and animals were held and children smiled.
I’ve seen a lot of beauty in my life but, to this day, I can’t think of a more beautiful scene than what I witnessed that night. The people of the Pet World community were right. I will always remember to trust them.
Sometimes I see that notification, “You’ve got memories from this day…” and I roll my eyes. I think, Way to go, Zuckerberg. Now I’ll never be able to delete my Facebook account. But then a memory like this pops up and I kinda want to send that dude a thank you card.
Recently, I was talking to my husband, Tim, about our teenage son and his reckless driving. I explained how much I worry about him. He’s a sassy kid but for all the right reasons. He constantly pushes the boundaries because he’s a free spirited, adventurous, independent thinker who is frequently misunderstood. He questions everything, including authority, but he’s not disrespectful and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He just has issues with bureaucracy, red tape, traditional brick and mortar classrooms, and unnecessary rules that seem to serve no purpose.
My son has had his share of heartbreak and trauma and growing up in a small business family is not easy. But, for the most part, he lives a fairly charmed life. Like most moms, I simply adore my son. He is brilliant, witty, tall, handsome, physically fit, and as charismatic as he could be, possessing all the traits our society deems important. But when he starts that arguing he sometimes comes off like the worst possible version of a privileged, white, fraternity brat. Not only is he good looking and articulate, he drives his Jeep too fast, gets As on all the assignments he actually deems worthy of completing, and could not care less about the Fs from the work he considers to be a waste of time. He’s almost finished with high school so I don’t worry too much but I constantly struggle to balance my efforts reeling in his overzealousness while not squashing his initiative and inquisitive nature. I admire how he speaks his mind and thinks for himself and I don’t want to stifle his independence. One of my biggest fears regarding my amazing son is that he’ll be misjudged when in reality, even with his faults, he is a truly wonderful human being with endless potential.
While my husband and I were chatting about our son getting pulled over for speeding, I mentioned a couple of other boys who got pulled over recently. Just the other day two different young black men we know both got pulled over within days of each other. One texted me, “I just got pulled over,” and the other one posted it on his Snap story. In both cases I immediately dropped to my knees and prayed that they were stopped by legitimate good cops and not a poser-bully-with-a-badge.
We then talked about how much we hate crappy competitors because they make our entire industry look bad and I said how hard it must be for young black men every time a black criminal is on the news. I said I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to work as a police officer right now. As if the on-the-job risk isn’t bad enough, a bad cop makes daily life total hell for the all the good cops. I talked about how I cringe when I hear of a mass shooting, assuming it will be a white kid with his parent’s gun, and how I sometimes let the pain from that association overshadow the real tragedy at hand. I think our conversation even detoured so far as to discuss how incorrectly trained pit bulls give all bully breeds a bad name. I clearly take issue with blanket assumptions.
After getting back on course I continued with my story, sharing how I prayed that the boys who got pulled over would be respectful and compliant and live to fight the bigger fight. I knew these boys were fine, young men and prayed they were not perceived as dangerous threats in any way. These boys were like family and I couldn’t bear the thought of their young lives – both so full of endless potential – being cut short. I hastily texted back, both hands on the wheel. Polite. Compliant. Exactly what I tell my own son but with much deeper meaning. I even scolded one of them for not posting a follow up showing he was okay, to which he replied, “Sorry Mama Emerson,” then updated his story. In both cases – as in most cases – everything went fine. Uneventful. In fact, both of them drove away with nothing more than a polite warning. But that fear… the fear of thinking, my God, is one of their names going to be the next hash tag on Twitter… that fear was debilitating. I still choke and tear up thinking about it. And these boys are not even my sons.
I went on to say how when our son gets pulled over the most we worry about is that his smart mouth will get him a ticket. Then suddenly our conversation stopped.
My eyes opened wide and I said, “Oh my God. All this time I thought I understood the concept of white privilege.”
I swallowed hard. More silence.
“I think, maybe, I didn’t truly get it until this exact moment.” Not only did I suddenly understand it, I actually felt it.
My words: I admire how my son speaks his mind and thinks for himself and I don’t want to stifle his independence.
That’s what this white mother worries about. Yet we must tell young black men to be compliant because they have more to worry about than just a ticket. We stifle their independence to avoid them getting wrongfully accused or worse. As a white mother, my concern is that my son speaks respectfully so he doesn’t seem arrogant. Black mothers are worried their sons won’t come home. I knew this before but I had never felt the pain.
My words: My biggest fear regarding my amazing son is that he’ll be misjudged.
That’s my biggest fear. He’ll be misjudged. Misjudged and then what? Given a ticket? Even if he is misjudged, he’s not likely going to be killed for it. Black mothers worry their sons will be misjudged, too, but the consequences they could face are much different.
As the words nonchalantly fell out of my mouth about how I felt when my white son got pulled over verses how the fear I felt when these two young black men got pulled over I could not breathe. Ironic, I know. It was like for one brief moment I could finally appreciate the anger that fuels movements and inspires protests. For one brief moment I could feel what I told my staff two years ago during the Ferguson riots about being careful not to fall into the blanket assumption trap or make this crisis something it’s not. Too many times I’ve explained to whites, as well as non-whites, that when you see #BlackLivesMatter it means what it says because they do. Black lives do matter. That doesn’t mean other lives don’t. It’s a reminder that black lives do. If I say #cancersucks it doesn’t mean diabetes doesn’t. When people of color are free from systematic oppression, we all shall be free. Until all are free, none are free. I’ve understood all this for a long, long time but until this moment I had never actually felt it and I was feeling it to my core. I’m talkin’ a nose-tingling-goose-bumps-raising-nausea-inducing kind of moment here.
As a successful business woman in a male dominated field, I’ve felt oppression, judgement, and discrimination. I’ve had the usual issues like customers calling me “little lady” and asking to speak with “the man,” salesmen asking to meet my boss, or bankers wanting me to come back with my husband but that’s about it. Sure, growing up in the poor part of East Topeka may have given me a little insight but I’ve spent the past 30 years in Lawrence, Kansas which is unlike any other Kansas town. We have an abundance of female entrepreneurs. What I’ve experienced here has been nothing compared to what other businesswomen face elsewhere. We also don’t have racial tension here anywhere near the levels other communities experience. My daughter’s boyfriend is a black college athlete from the Detroit area. When he moved to Kansas after high school his family worried for his safety dating a young, white girl in Kansas – the daughter of a camo-wearing hunter, no less. But we explained to them that the majority of Lawrence folks are just like us. We have good public schools, Haskell University (a Native American college) as well as the University of Kansas. Most of us stand in solidarity, teaching tolerance, supporting all people equally regardless of color, gender, or sexual orientation. Bi-racial couples and gay couples can walk downtown holding hands with no fear. Piercings, tattoos, non-traditional hair – no one cares. Many homosexual kids “come out” in middle school here.
It’s not perfect, but our community is so accepting and accommodating that our kids grow up somewhat sheltered from the extreme prejudice seen in other towns — so much so that they are often not prepared to accept the harsh realities of systematic oppression or that they could unwittingly play a role in it. And that sheltering is in some ways a privilege – much like the privilege of being white – but it’s also a curse because we assume we can understand things that we can’t possibly comprehend. When “townies” leave Lawrence they are always faced with a rude awakening that the rest of the world is still asleep. We hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and use social media to shame others into compliance then sit back as if we are actually accomplishing something great when, in reality, we’ve done nothing more than raise a little more awareness and preach an extra sermon to the choir. Not many folks around here can even begin to relate to the struggle.
So am I awake now? Maybe a little more than before. But I still won’t pretend to understand the struggle. Even after my epiphany, I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I do know a few things. I know that blanket judgement of people is wrong. Making assumptions based on appearance is a mistake. Fighting hate and unjustified violence with hate and unjustified violence won’t solve anything. All groups have an inherent culture that is to be embraced and accepted as equal, not same. We’re all different and that is a good thing. And all groups have what I call posers who don’t deserve to be in the group. Don’t be fooled. Posting a politically correct or socially popular banner doesn’t stop a company from secretly denying employment based on race or ignoring their own gender bias. Folks need to dig deeper than that. It’s better to judge by the way people live their lives, the way they conduct their business, and the way they interact with their community, or better yet, don’t judge at all. As for me, my family, and our business, we’ll let our record be the judge because ultimately we only answer to One and His judgement reigns Supreme.
I’ve been told to watch what I say but I refuse to submit to labeling by the meme of the day or be told what to say or how to act according to a trend, a group, or business advice from a corporate suit. We were advised to post signs in our business in support of the second amendment and advised to post no-guns allowed signs, both in the same week. We posted neither. We think for ourselves. I will still stand during the national anthem but I will not condemn those who kneel. I won’t condone bullying, oppression, or the judgment of all based on the actions of a relative few. I won’t deny my faith in a group of non-believers. I will stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed as I always have regardless of whether or not it’s the popular thing to do. I will continue to stand in solidarity long after it is socially required. I will teach my kids, my employees, and everyone under my influence to hold each other up and never get sucked into mediocrity and shallow, blanket judgment. Maybe my beliefs mean I’m more awake than some but I’m comfortable admitting that even at 50 years old I still have much to learn.
As we teach in everything we do, I’ll remind anyone who’ll listen that it’s never about WHO is right; it’s about WHAT is right. Systematic racism and oppression is a problem in every culture that must be addressed. Our culture is no exception. We need to do better and denying our shortcomings won’t make them go away. Admitting failure takes courage. Exposing weakness shows strength. No, not all white people get a pass or an easy life but white privilege is real and acknowledging it is not choosing a side; it’s merely facing a truth that allows for further enlightenment. We must all work to be part of the solution or, if we can’t make things better, be supportive of those who can. People of all races must try harder to feel each other’s pain, put ourselves in others’ shoes, and do everything in our power to be better, more understanding, more supportive, and share any insight that comes our way the minute we’re enlightened.
My blog has, what, 12 readers or something? Who actually reads 2000 word blog posts? So this post may shed a little light but it won’t change the world and make things better. Although, at least, if nothing else, it won’t make things worse. I can relate to women but I can’t ever comprehend the oppression felt by Native Americans and people of color and, unlike some well-intentioned white folks, I won’t pretend to act like I can ever relate. But I will continue to listen and ask and do whatever I can to not be a part of the problem in hopes that on some level I can be part of the solution.
Last night I was watching my daughter, Rhiannon, share her day with me and I started video taping her because the moment, albeit simple and typical, nothing special at all, was especially meaningful to me.
I was looking at her lovely face, realizing her exterior beauty is exceeded by her inner beauty. She just gives off this wonderful energy. The conversation was not particularly special – just discussing a class activity at school – but that’s when I realized what’s truly special is the fact that we were able to have this conversation at all. I kept smiling and giggling but inside I was almost in a panic, not wanting to miss one word or ever forget that moment.
I don’t think I talked to my mom like that. Pretty sure I didn’t share. I don’t know why. Probably thought I was too cool or something. And even though we do this often, how many nights have I not talked like this with my kids? How many conversations like this have I forgotten? I know not all parents get these opportunities for a myriad of reasons. Some are too busy, too estranged, too ill, too disconnected… just not lucky enough for some reason. I’m a good mom but nothing special, and yet, I get this opportunity more frequently than I deserve.
As I replayed the video today I thought about how it wouldn’t mean much to anyone else. It’s not particularly funny or sweet or sad or triumphant. It’s not something folks would replay on YouTube. It’s not me bragging on my kid’s accomplishments or complaining about teenage antics. It’s just a mom chatting with her daughter at the end of a day. Nothing special.
Yet while writing this through my streaming tears it somehow seems the most special thing in the world.
I had wanted to share another post-fire update at work but there hadn’t been much to say in the past couple months. Seems like everything in the rebuilding process moves in slow motion. Or perhaps since I haven’t worked a 9-5 for someone else in over 25 years I have forgotten how things work in the real, non-entrepreneurial world.
Since the fire we’ve been reminded that many 9-5 folks mentally check out Thursday afternoon, completely clock out Friday at 5, physically clock back in Monday morning, but don’t actually get back in full swing until Tuesday. Endless meetings crowd the work week and slow progress so much I don’t know how anyone can take it!
Life is nothing like that for established entrepreneurs. We are rarely completely at work, able to handle personal things almost any time, and never completely off work, able to keep things moving with a quick text from two states away while on vacation. Our work weeks have flexibility so we don’t miss our kids’ events or family dinner but we work 24/7, even while we sleep, because we’re always on call. We keep an easy but never-ending pace. We stop when we finish the job, not when the whistle blows. I don’t know that it’s better or worse, harder or easier, but it’s certainly different because small business owners never clock out and always get paid last with whatever is left. Since we work on our own time every minute counts. Perhaps that explains why we are not very patient when others, especially those who get paid every week no matter what, don’t feel the same sense of urgency.
This past September, four months after the fire, I kinda lost it. I admit it. I even stopped blogging. All summer we saw no progress on the building for weeks at a time. One day of work, two weeks of nothing. Insurance investigators took six weeks to agree on cause but only actually worked three days. The other 39 days nothing happened. Nothing. The property owners never contacted us and it seemed as if nobody was doing anything to move forward. Our questions remained unanswered. We found ourselves not wanting to nag and basically just surrendering, going with the flow, losing the battle with developing a defeatist attitude. Then one day we had yet another meeting that accomplished nothing and I just flipped out.
Up until then I was holding it together surprisingly well, always very kind and understanding, so I feel sorry for those who were totally caught off guard with my make-this-happen-now-or-find-someone-who-can moment. Let me just say that I could never be a general contractor – ever. I could not be an insurance adjuster, an investigator, a city official, a government employee, and no way could I work a regular desk job. I thought managing employees and pleasing customers was challenging. Nah. Helping people is rewarding. But being at the mercy of others to make deadlines and get things done? Now that’s torture. I don’t know how people deal with it. The bureaucracy I have witnessed since the fire has assured me that it’s a good thing I’m self employed. I would not last a week on someone else’s clock. I’ve tried my best to stay kind and patient but we all have our breaking points.
My advice? Don’t ever confuse kindness with weakness, in yourself or others. And always remember the ones who write the checks make the rules.
So I was watching a part of the cleaning process one day called soda blasting and I had an epiphany. The soda blasting was fascinating, actually. It’s a non-destructive, environmentally friendly process in which sodium bicarbonate is applied against a surface using compressed air. Much like sand blasting, it’s actually more effective for fire and smoke damage cleanup as it removes the soot and deodorizes the surface, also destroying the mold that generally forms after fires are extinguished, while not harming the environment with unnatural chemicals. But it makes a terrible mess. I wondered what inspired the invention of this cleaning process since everything starts with a problem needing a solution. I was captivated by how it took such a huge, messy, excavation process to expose the simple core surface beneath. I remembered that story of the little boy watching an artist sculpt a woman and him asking, “How did you know she was in there?” Suddenly, I found myself transported back in time to how we got here in the first place.
It started with a dream – Tim’s dream to make a living, somehow, working with animals. He had all this intelligence, business savvy, passion, and animal knowledge but needed someone to handle the human and retail elements, so he asked me. After I fell in love with his mission – to foster an affinity for animals and nature in children – I realized my people and retail skills would help, but help him do what, exactly? The world didn’t need yet another ordinary pet shop. What did it need? I didn’t know so I asked the community and the community responded by loving or hating what we were doing which, in turn, guided our actions. The mission never changed but we realized that we’d need to find a way to fill a void in people’s lives, a need that can be satisfied by returning to nature. We recognized we had to listen to what customers wanted to figure out how to give it to them. The customers were financing this mission, after all, so basically they were in charge. After we embraced that concept everything began to fall in place.
During my blast to the past I remembered one of my former employers, Gladys Bachmann, who would always tell me to “kill ‘em with kindness” during tense situations. We called her Glady. I actually used red, silk gladiolas in my wedding to symbolize her teaching. “Be kind,” Glady would say, “no matter how someone else acts. Rise above and be kind.” She and her husband owned a jewelry store and even when customers were snobby she would remind us that without customers writing the checks there were no businesses. Another thing she used to ask was, “Who’s robbing this train?” to lighten the mood anytime things were not going smoothly at work. My coworkers and I would then realize we had lost sight of who was in charge, or failed to put anyone in charge, and that was why we were spinning our wheels.
During this uneventful meeting, I noticed some sand on the concrete, remembered all my previous reflection, and with Glady’s voice in my head I walked myself through the steps.
Who is robbing this train (who’s in charge)? Customers.
What do they need? Tim to reopen his store.
How can he do that? By having me handle the people.
Right now “the people” are the ones in charge of the rebuild but, wait, who writes the checks?
Several years ago a very rude, arrogant sales executive (who had never been self employed or worked retail) was in our store trying to tell my staff what to do. We were his company’s oldest and best independent account yet he felt the need to badger and boss my employees. When I shut him down, explaining that my employees knew their jobs better than he could ever understand, he asked, “Do you realize who I am? Do you know who I work for?” His business card said he was the executive director of marketing for the European division of a pet food manufacturer.
“Yeah, I know who you work for,” I said, kindly. “Me. You work for me.” Oh, the look on his face. “I sell your product to customers and use their money to buy more of your product. I cash their checks to write your company a check then they cash my check to pay you. So I work for our customers and you? You work for me.” And then I politely showed him and his Armani suit the door. That was an interesting day.
So I kicked a little sand with my shoe and prepared to unleash. With renewed clarity I kindly reminded all parties involved exactly who writes that five digit rent check every month, who has been a tenant for 27 years, what it’s costing us every day we’re not back in that building, how the loss of Pet World is affecting this community, what the lost traffic of 1000 people a day is costing the shopping center, and how many other properties were available for rent in Lawrence who would love to sign our next 10 year, million dollar lease. This fire rocked our community and nearly destroyed Tim. He is better with business than me but I’ve been watching him negotiate for more than half my life so I knew how he would handle it if he were at his best. He needed me to call up my inner banshee and, boy, was she ready to surface. We are entrepreneurs whose lives revolve around reciprocity. This one way street had reached its end. Since then we’ve had get-on-board-or-get-out-of-the-way kind of days. And whaddaya know? Things actually started moving forward without weeks of inactive gaps in progress. Now we’re finally getting somewhere and the end is in sight.
In my next fire update I’ll explain the timeline for the final stages and announce the official date when we will reopen in our old location. In the meantime, I’ve got to remind myself every day to never confuse kindness with weakness, identify who is robbing the train, and always remember the person writing the checks makes the rules. It might get messy, but I think sometimes you simply gotta blast your way back down to your core and reflect on the past in order to navigate the future.
Fear is a strange beast. And irrational fear is the worst. A freak accident happens that will probably never happen again yet somehow fear convinces us it will. We worry and “what if” ourselves to the point of obscurity where apprehension replaces logic. Eventually we are left with no choice but to surrender or fight. Sometimes surrender is easier. Fear wears us down, exhausts our resources, and strains our souls. Survivor guilt prevents us from feeling joy. During surrender, fear is so overwhelmingly present it grows familiar and I think we unconsciously embrace it, perhaps even feed off of it. But at some point enough is enough.
I’ll never forget how my Drivers Ed teacher told me that road rage is relinquishing control to strangers who don’t deserve to be in charge. He would ask us questions like, “Why, when people upset you in traffic, do they get to go on about their day like nothing happened yet you lose hours of your life stressed about something you can’t change?”
We know that victims are encouraged to stop hiding, stop giving perceived power to abusers who are not actually still abusing them because that merely enlarges the extent of the abuse. Instead, victims learn to identify as survivors. Surrendering control to something in the past keeps it alive and in command – especially something irrational.
Our pet store is no longer on fire. It’s over. The flames were extinguished that very afternoon. The aftermath is a mess and we have learned valuable lessons in fire safety but the fire is not actually burning anywhere except inside our minds. We might need daily reminders that it’s over – maybe hourly – but the fire, in fact, is out. Accepting that fact does not lessen the grief but it certainly releases its death grip.
At Pet World, we begin and end our summers with our staff trail run. Memorial Day and Labor Day are two holidays we are closed while most of the staff is in town so they are perfect days for staff events. The tortoise farm at our private nature preserve is sacred ground to most of us since few are granted access. On those two holidays, our staff, family, and friends all get together to enjoy a fun event with no pressure or distraction from the outside world. This past Memorial Day, our happy occasion ended prematurely and unexpectedly because of a tragic fire, calling us back to the smoke filled nightmare that replaced what had been a vibrant, compassionate, family place full of life just hours before. All summer we mourned and grieved, struggling to find our way while trying to help the community deal with this devastating loss. Then, just when we were starting to feel normal again, Labor Day approached and it all came rushing back.
Now what? Could we do the event again? Is it appropriate? Would it bring back too many memories? Would running past the burial sites be too upsetting? Is three months long enough to mourn before celebrating life again? As always, when I don’t know what to do, I asked the people closest to us.
A few staff members asked, “Why wouldn’t we have it?” They reminded me it’s a voluntary event that people can skip if they’re not ready. But if we don’t have it, then those of us who need it will miss an opportunity to heal. Tim reminded me how much I love this event and what it means to a lot of folks.
So the staff memo read as follows:
Staff: We WILL be doing the staff 5K trail run on Labor Day while PWX is closed. You’re all invited. We cannot let one, freak accident prevent us from moving forward and embracing life. Facing irrational fears takes away their power.
We will celebrate the chance to be together on this holiday and dedicate the event to the animals we lost. Hope to see you there.
Many employees signed up for the event but I wondered who would actually show up. How could they be ready for this? Stormy weather that morning added unwanted tension as the rain threatened to make it muddy. On Memorial Day, some exits were delayed while drivers struggled with the mud, adding to the helpless feeling, so Labor Day’s rain was a cruel reminder. I spent days full of mixed emotion preparing the course with mostly love and reverence for the opportunity coupled with a small feeling of anxiety. For Tim, it’s Halloween, but my obsession of choice is the trail run. (Even if no one showed up, I enjoy every minute of preparation as much as the event itself. No regrets. I truly love everything about those trails.)
Here is a glimpse of the day unfolding:
We arrive early and set up in the rain, soaked to the skin in mere minutes. I had forgotten to set out one of the rewards so I run them out to the Yellow segment on Mile Two of the course and then, as I return, I hear the voice of Tim’s brother. He was so helpful during the fire. He stayed close to us and when we couldn’t speak for ourselves he took charge while his wife immediately handled the perimeter crowd. You really see people’s true colors during a crisis.
Next, a friend arrives and as he puts his phone in the back of my SUV I vividly remember when everyone’s phones started ringing that dreadful day. Pure joy replaced by sheer terror.
“Honey, it’s mom. I’m sorry to tell you, but the pet store is on fire.”
My God. So tragic. How will we ever get past this? My eyes well up with tears.
Next, another dear friend arrives with her daughter, a hard core PW kid who goes to all the camps and knows and loves that property and all things Pet World, and the creator of the Betta Birthday Party. This friend is there as a volunteer medic, just in case, as always. I smile when I see her but all I really think about is her voice that day saying, “Go! Just go! I’ll take care of everything here, I promise.” My kids were nowhere in sight at that moment, there were people still on the course, completely out of reach, and I was scared to death, at a total loss. She stayed until everyone returned safely, gathering volunteers and handling everything. What an angel.
And then I see our first employee walking up and my tears start flowing but not for long. Another walks up, then another, and another, and then a group of them. Here comes a former employee followed by my son and his friends. My heart begins to swell and I am as proud as I can be. This loss has been so hard on their young lives yet there they were, needing to push through the pain to “reclaim their event without fear,” as one would later say. As they cross the finish line – wet, tired, and dirty – each person is all smiles, glowing with accomplishment and relief. Ian, who has been with us the longest, even sets a new course record, beating Tim by one minute.
After the race, several of us eat lunch together at Jefferson’s, who just recently reopened after their January fire. We all had dollar bills on those walls before their fire and, for reasons I can’t explain, it seemed perfectly fitting to gather there.
We have a great time but it isn’t until the next morning that the text messages begin. Employees tell me how odd it felt to leave the race with no sense of urgency, no panic, and experience a basically uneventful day. Many are pleased with their progress and one says she really needed the reality check that life goes on and so must she. We all learned that disaster robs us and surrendering to irrational fear only extends its reach.
Tragedy strikes fear in all of us and moving on is easier said than done. There’s no such thing as just “getting over it” with the flip of a mental switch. But each time we can reclaim a part of our lives that irrational fear tries to steal, we lessen that fear’s power. On Labor Day, I had the privilege to witness courage in a way we rarely get to see. Determined young adults, striving, pushing past fear, traversing treacherous new territory, reclaiming what was rightfully theirs, and – most importantly – healing. Fear and joy cannot occupy the same space. At some point we must choose to do whatever it takes to replace fear with the joy that comes from rising above the ashes and moving on.
Last week we shared some social media posts about this fabulous, local festival called Confabularryum! The event founder, Ben Smith, messaged me to thank me for sharing and he mentioned his desire to include Pet World in the event but his hesitance to reach out because of the tragic fire. Understandable. We actually have an interesting history with Ben and Callahan Creek, the marketing agency he works for. We had been following Ben on twitter but ended up going all the way to Orlando before meeting him in person, at a pet industry trade show, of all places. He gave presentations that really motivated pet business folks, especially those who can’t resist his British accent. Crazy we all live in Lawrence but had never met. Who knew our paths would cross again just down the street at South Middle School?! I told him I would like to run it past my staff just in case someone could bring over a critter or two.
In our employee group thread I asked if anyone was free Saturday and would be interested in sharing animals at Confabularryum. Most of our employees have been laid off since the fire and not all of them have replaced their PW jobs so I had no idea what response I’d get. Amazingly, not only did several of them offer to help, one in particular even offered to bring Goliath to the festival and then to our temporary location for a visit!
Goliath is our large, rescued Burmese python who instantly became famous on social media when rescued by fire fighters. Folks love to tell us the story of how they saw a firefighter cross himself before entering the building then emerge a few moments later with this 13 foot snake. The funny question was whether his crossing was because of the fire risk or the snake risk. Locals know and love Goliath from his travels to schools to teach kids about Rain Forest animals. He also helps us teach customers what not to buy when it comes to appropriate pets.
The visit was fun for everyone even though many of us got emotional, customers included. At the festival, many children and adults shared how Goliath was the first snake they had ever touched. That concept of touching a snake for the first time is one I had completely taken for granted. At Pet World, we have shared that moment with folks every day for the last 27 years. Literally. Every single day. Human-animal interaction is a critical part of our mission.
Until the fire, I had forgotten how many people would never have that opportunity without PW. We joked about it with Ben, in fact, teasing him until he, too, touched his first snake. We even laughed as we took his picture. But after he walked away, I thought about how his unique, first experience is something we do every day. I observed all the other first timers and marveled at their faces. It’s always the same reaction. “It’s not cold and slimy!” Nope. Smooth and shiny, like a basketball. We’ve said that more times than we could possibly count. What interesting jobs we have.
We weren’t even old enough to legally drink when Tim announced he wanted to buy a pet store. I thought, oh no. I’m going to be poor the rest of my life. But it was his dream — and he was my dream — so I was all in. And when I think about all the smiling faces who have passed through those doors, I’m incredibly grateful Tim had such vision and I’ve been blessed to help him see it through.
Watching Goliath at the festival was fun and felt normal but seeing him at Pet World brought back a lot of memories and stirred up powerful emotions. I thought about when Luke Welton, our reptile manager at the time, assured me that rescuing Goliath was a good idea and me standing there with a kid on each hip, wondering what in the world we were going to do with that big ol’ snake (and wondering if he could actually eat my twins). I laughed about the day we convinced Kansas University basketball players, Jamari Traylor and Wayne Selden, to pose with Goliath. I remembered a fire fighter asking us how they could tell if Goliath was still alive, the best way to get him out of his enclosure, if he would bite as they rescued him, Tim asking if he could just go in himself, and then Tim lying, offering assurance that, no, Goliath wouldn’t bite. Several of us looked at each other and actually smiled, knowing that our scripted, trained response is always, “Any animal with a mouth can bite.” But who could blame him. They were wearing heavy gear, they’d be fine, right?
Man, those firefighters were awesome. I mean, seriously, firefighters are truly amazing people.
Also last Saturday I watched my employees, closely, and felt so much pride. Morgan, graduated from KU, supposed to have “launched” from PW a success story this summer, yet there he was, still around, helping with Goliath. Then Navid, who volunteered to transport Goliath to and from his visits, laid off from PW, yet there he was, helping again like he has done so many times this summer. Then Mariah, our reptile department manager, helping out on her day off, holding Goliath.
I could still picture Mariah on that dreadful day, in her nice, clean sundress after completing that muddy 5K, just weeping as she held on to Goliath in the parking lot, gently bathing him, washing away the soot. For hours she cared for him that day and kept him safe and here she was again, caring for him, keeping him safe. At one point, I realized Goliath appeared to be snuggling Mariah. Never in my life would I believe a snake could exhibit emotions like that but I watched him curl up on Mariah’s lap and frequently look up at her then rest his head back against her. The longer I watched, the more I was convinced he felt genuinely at peace in her lap. It had been three months but I swear, I think he recognized her touch. Neither Mariah nor I are ones for anthropomorphism but we reached a point where we couldn’t even maintain eye contact without crying. What an ordeal this has been.
Those close to me know I don’t believe in coincidences. The paths we cross, the lives we touch, and those who touch us — I don’t necessarily believe it’s all part of some master plan but I do believe there is higher meaning in every interaction if we just take time to look. I would give anything for this Godforsaken fire to never have happened but it did. And I must admit we have since encountered some beautiful situations and learned to truly appreciate every human-animal interaction we experience and the life lessons we are fortunate to teach. What a truly amazing journey this has become.
Today I wore makeup for the first time since before the fire. Not a lot, but mascara and some powder foundation. That might not mean much to some people but for women like me it reveals everything you need to know about where I am in the grieving process and life in general.
Nearly three months have passed.
Sometimes it feels more like three days; other times more like three years. The pain is often as fresh as three hours while the fog occasionally mimics the safe illusion of three lifetimes.
May was busy, as usual, with finals, proms, high school and college graduations, schedule changes, employee launches, and summer camp preparation. Excitement about our Memorial Day trail run and five upcoming summer camps filled my days. The Kitten Pit proved a huge success with seven adoptions the very first weekend of the new program. Business was great, continuing its steady, record setting growth and our staffing was as good as it’s ever been. 27 years of hard work was paying off and many, many of us from the Lawrence area were enjoying Pet World’s success.
And then my phone rang. Two hours into the event, I was getting more PW5K tee shirts out of the back of our car when I heard Tim’s phone ring first, reverberating in the cup holder. I remember thinking, “Who would be calling right now?” It seemed like all the folks who call us had either just left or were at the tortoise farm with us and most were on the trails running or drinking post race PBRs. Service is terrible at the property, too, but I had parked in a high spot to avoid the mud, a spot that apparently has decent reception – not that I had any intention of using my phone. Nor did anyone else since many of them were tossed in my car for safekeeping. No sooner had Tim’s phone stopped ringing than my phone started, and then other phones started ringing. At that point I decided I better answer.
The rest, of course, is history.
They say everything comes in threes. Three hours to get the fire out and determine cause. Three more hours to deem the place a total loss. Three hours for fire to destroy someone’s entire life’s work in the worst possible way. Three weeks to open a temporary location. Three days to clean out the contents of the building. Three weeks to schedule the big investigative meeting with representatives from three parties only to decide they needed three more weeks to meet again and take three days to agree the initial cause was exactly what the local experts said three hours after the fire. Three weeks of delays for nothing. Three months I aged at least three times faster with not enough optimism to even throw on a little mascara. I’ve had plenty of threes. I’m done with threes.
So after cancelling and altering three different summer travel plans we decided to take our kids on a much needed family vacation to Cozumel, one of my favorite places on Earth. We enjoyed spending time with aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and every day made a conscious decision to embrace life (while we thanked God we had already paid for this all inclusive stay last spring).
At one point I remember lounging by the pool, feeling hopeful, yet fearing that perhaps I was just going through the motions and not as okay as I wanted to believe. I sucked down my third Caipirinha, looked to the sky for some sign of hope, and I swear to all things holy a rainbow appeared. I snapped a photo and started giggling uncontrollably, knowing everyone around me assumed intoxication – which may or may not have been a contributing factor. If nothing else, at least I knew in that moment I was definitely not numb and perhaps the hope was real after all. I think I actually felt happy.
On the way home, Tim and I stayed an extra day in Dallas to meet with the designer/manufacturer who helped us remodel our live fish department just one year ago. Fully rested, I popped right out of bed and grabbed that familiar, pink mascara tube. We toured the facility, shared ideas, drew sketches, made plans, and revered time spent on conception and creation as opposed to destruction and devastation, surrounded by like minded people who understand our mission and share our vision to bring the Pet World experience back to Lawrence even better than before. No insurance adjusters, no cleanup crew, no accountants, no stench from electrical smoke – just good ol’ Texas hospitality from a creative, Dutch family who runs an impressive American business.
Our temporary location has offered reprieve for many of us but it’s just not the same. Finally moving forward toward this next chapter, though… Hallelujah. As for the rebuild, all I can say is that if folks liked the Pet World experience before the fire, they’re going to love it even more when we reopen – our staff as much as our customers.
Our employees are like our kids and laying them off ripped my heart out. My God, what they’ve been through. Customers miss seeing them and they are all still feeling lost. On the plane ride home, Tim slept while I imagined my employees’ faces as they help rebuild, knowing once again their jobs will be secure and meaningful. I pictured the smiles and hugs from our customer family and tried to inhale the inspiration that only children can provide. No matter how crazy things get, happy children always make our efforts worthwhile. Pet World kids give me hope for humanity. I accepted that rebuilding will be exhausting and we’ll have days we question everything and want to quit, but, we won’t quit. We can’t quit. And as I closed my eyes to imagine the joy and relief we’ll all feel when we reopen those doors for the first time I felt my mascara run down my cheeks, carried by tears – happy tears. For the past three months I hadn’t worried about ruining my makeup because I had been too heartbroken, too busy, too stressed, and too numb to even bother with makeup. But tonight’s streaked face served as proof that I was, in fact, feeling hopeful, and that I finally felt good enough to care at all.
Who knew enlightenment could be found in a pink tube?
God puts rainbows in the clouds so that each of us
— in the dreariest and most dreaded moments —
can see a possibility of hope.
My knees don’t buckle easily. But a recent gift from artist and former employee, Erin Bratzler, touched my soul and genuinely facilitated my grieving process.
The first original piece of artwork I ever purchased was one of Erin’s pieces at her first big art show. I simply loved it and hung it proudly near the education room at Pet World. Sadly, smoke and water damaged it during the fire. When I saw Erin at the vigil I immediately started crying as I disclosed that her beautiful creation might have been ruined. She worked so hard on it and she knew how much I loved it. Also, the mural she and Megan poured so much time and effort into was ruined. In fact, all of Erin’s artwork, in various places inside Pet World, was ruined. So sad. Irreplaceable and now gone. I said, “Oh, Erin, all your work…I’m so, so sorry.” But she just hugged me and assured me everything would be okay.
Immediately after the vigil Erin reached out to everyone she knew, secretly requesting images of Fletcher, my bird, the store bird of 20 years, who died in the fire.
Using markers, my favorite medium, Erin began to recreate Fletcher’s image. She captured Fletcher’s face, transformed her into a phoenix, and embodied her ascent to the Rainbow Bridge in her feathers. She added rays of light reflecting our faith and a banner over us stating our mission. Truly incredible. When I saw it, I immediately felt weak and slowly sank to the floor. “Erin,” I said, “you turned Fletcher into a phoenix.” And then the tears started flowing as I finally let myself remember so I could let go.
I removed Fletch from her cage that dreadful day. I opened her door, looked inside, saw her lying there, and whispered, “Oh, Fletcher. Look at you.” The firefighter patiently waited while I cried in frozen silence then he offered to get her out for me but I needed to do it myself. She felt soft, sopping wet, like a hundred other times after taking her bath. Fire. It provides light and warmth yet its black smoke shrouds victims in darkness, blinding them and stealing their breath. Fascinating yet terrifying, especially since the actual fire was 25 yards away. One of the vets reminded me how sensitive birds are to smoke and assured me Fletch passed very quickly.
Tim buried Fletcher for me at the tortoise farm. He dug her grave himself, in a beautiful place surrounded by life breathing trees, facing south to always have sunshine.
In my mind I find peace in that, imagining that now she can once again see clearly and breathe freely in the fresh breeze.
This wasn’t our first pet loss so I knew it wouldn’t be easy but I also knew I’d be able to handle it. Did you know we had a Double Yellow Amazon parrot before Fletcher? Corky, who died in 1994 from a contagious illness he got from a boarding playmate, was our home pet in 1986 before becoming Pet World’s first store bird in 1988. He sparked my initial interest in Amazon parrots. Corky sat on the counter near the front door and greeted guests as they arrived. His “helllllllo” was distinctly recognizable because he only emphasized the first syllable so it sounded more like shouting an expletive than saying hello. One night, while I was working late and not paying Corky enough attention, two patrol officers summoned me to the door, one with gun drawn. “Ma’am, are you okay? We noticed the lights on after hours and heard you screaming for help.” I stared blankly, utterly confused. They asked, again, if that was me shouting, “Help! Help!” and didn’t seem to believe I was fine. Then Corky shouted from beside me his shrill “HELLLLLLLo.” The look of realization on their faces was priceless. Amazon parrots are so entertaining.
Fletcher was actually a surprise gift from Tim for Mother’s Day, 1995, before we had any children. She was tiny and all down, only the beginnings of pinfeathers – the ugliest looking gray chicken I had ever seen with the one digit band number 7 – but I loved that stinkin’ bird.
She slept with me while I fed her every two hours. I still remember the heartfelt warnings from another pet store owner about the risks of letting baby parrots sleep with humans. But she was so tiny and pathetically precious, I couldn’t resist. I always thought Fletcher was male, too, until Jackie, the Bird Department manager at the time, observed very feminine behavior and ran a blood test maybe 12 years ago. To this day I still say “he” sometimes. We never told him he was a she. We figured she wouldn’t care either way. 😉
Truth be told, Fletcher was a chubby little brat, completely spoiled rotten. She would chase down and bite the ankles of a few while showing nothing but affection to others. Her first words were Hola and Mama and she would scream at us every morning if we didn’t give her enough attention. She ate baby bird food whenever offered no matter how old she got. Fletcher would nuzzle Maria and sit on her shoulder then bite her when I walked by. What a stinker. Some found her annoying but Fletcher was loved by many and had a large following. When I was on bed rest in 1999, pregnant with the twins, we took her home but only for a week because her fans missed her too much and wanted her back at Pet World. Her cage door was usually open but she rarely bothered to wander. Typically too lazy to fly, one time, during a presentation at the Boys and Girls Club, she suddenly took off during her locally famous Stevie Wonder dance and flew right smack into a huge window. She landed hard on the floor and I thought for sure she had broken her neck. The kids were silent. Then the next thing we heard was, “Heeeeere kitty kitty kitty,” followed by an eruption of laughter.
What a bird. She was 20 years old.
Thank you, our customer family and staff, for giving Fletcher your love and attention. Thank you, Erin, for visualizing her passing in a poignantly appropriate way, something only you could do. What a beautiful tribute to a beautiful bird.
Fletcher will be missed.
Do you have your own memories of Fletcher or thoughts on pet loss? Please share in the comments.
MANAGEMENT MEMOS. We can’t avoid them.
But, I assure you, we can reduce them tremendously if we simply take a moment to think. When something goes so wrong that a manager feels the need to address it with one reprimanding, blanket, team memo that’s usually the very time a memo should not be sent. Corrective blanket memos are rarely, if ever, needed. In our company they are not even allowed because they do more harm than good. Our managers have to work harder than that.
Public praise? Sure. Education and training? Absolutely. But keep criticism private and accurately directed. If you’re a manager, always consider the math.
Is this an isolated issue? Are only a few people involved? Then why should the entire group be addressed? A blanket memo addressing an entire group is about as immature as a subtweet and will garner about the same level of respect. Passive aggressive anonymity appears weak and transparent, even snarky. Savvy readers know who you’re talking about and get irritated with you wasting their time, requiring them to read a memo that has nothing to do with them. Even using “we” won’t hide that you’re addressing others, not yourself. Plus the offending party will likely think it’s about someone else anyway. Or worse, they’ll resent you for calling them out in front of the team while the other team members learn to distrust you for that practice. Corrective group memos either cause bad energy or get ignored. Good leaders get to the source of the problem and deal with it directly.
Is this a total team fail that you think warrants a group memo since everyone was involved? Think again. When everyone on the team makes the same mistake, including managers and trainers, you need to look for a system flaw. And who is in charge of the system? You, the manager. Take a little time to go over the routine and consider the possibility of some systematic failure – a gap somewhere, a missed step maybe, distraction perhaps – some reason why something bad would go unnoticed or be mishandled by an entire team for so long. Good leaders get to the source of the problem, remember? The source of a total team fail is always the system put in place by leadership.
My husband, who is also a coach, once told me he never understood coaches who publicly reprimand players after the fact for not doing something they didn’t know to do. He said that just exposes what the coaches failed to teach. A good coach teaches before the play, recognizing that a player’s mistakes reveal what still needs to be taught.
When addressing problems, remember, people support what they help create. So rather than cracking whips and breaking employees down, try collaborating. Maybe start with something surprisingly vulnerable, like, “Hey guys, I need your help.”
If you push something on me I will push back in reaction. Shove someone and they’ll shove back. So pull instead. Pull the blame on yourself. Be honest. Say, “My system has failed,” and offer supporting details. Their natural tendency will then be to pull the blame back on themselves. Hmm, that might not be the manager’s fault. Surely we knew better. Tell your team what happened on your watch and invite suggestions for improvement because the responsibility is yours, not theirs. If they could do everything right without you, they wouldn’t need you. Or, more likely, you’d be working for them. Ultimately, it’s the manager’s job to ensure the success of the team. If they all screw up, it’s the fault of the leader. So set the example and take responsibility yourself.
Deal directly with the source and spare everyone else the stress. When you discover the source of the problem is you, own it and be honest. Your team will realize (without you telling them) that as part of your team they are collectively to blame. What’s more, they won’t get defensive or resist correction because you didn’t heave the blame on them. They’ll respect that you were strong enough to hold yourself accountable and follow your lead. In the end, you still get what you need – they know where they failed and the correction happens anyway – but it’s handled as a team with a leader who is confident enough to accept responsibility. Rise above the corrective group memo and go straight to the source of the problem, even if the problem is you. Correction: especially if the problem is you.