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.
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.
I’m learning! In less than two weeks I’m running a 10K on the trails with my sister, Sharron, who will inevitably kick my butt. So yesterday I listened to my cross country star husband, Tim, and decided I better increase my normal run to start preparing. I thought I was working hard before, and I was, but this is a different kind of hard work. Intervals and bursts require strength, energy, speed, and a little bit of crazy. I’ve got all of those aplenty.
Single track, technical trails are all about balance and coordination while quickly maneuvering uphill and downhill through the rocky and root-filled paths. It’s challenging, intense, a little dangerous, and I absolutely love it. Distance, however, requires patience, control, persistence, and discipline – none of which are natural strengths of mine. Distance running is all new to me and increasingly fascinating – especially since I’m adding distance to technical trail running and learning from road runners who are new to trails.
Running hill sprints and technicals I can do. Actually, I can handle a technical hill with less effort than a long, flat run. During a mud run I fly through the obstacles to get ahead because the rest of the crowd will always catch up and pass me on the long, flat paths. Weights in the gym? Check. And I know how to blow up my calves, quads and hamstrings with inclines, declines, etc. But yesterday was the first time I’ve truly taxed my legs on a run.
When I say I’m not a runner, I mean it.
I’m just not.
The only reason I say trail runner is because it sounds better than the more accurate trail maneuver-er…or something like that.
I kept my Forerunner 620 on the heart rate/training effect screen for most of the run. Normally I don’t pace. I’m 48 and I like what I like. I run fast for fun then when my heart rate exceeds 175 I walk until it recovers to around 140 then I burst again. Yesterday I consistently adjusted my pace to keep my heart rate between 150-160. No 140-150 walking, no 165-175 bursting. Just jogging. I was actually acting my age for a change.
The run was different, to say the least.
The slower pace was not boring, per se, but a little less exciting, to be honest. I’ll admit, though, that this run was more peaceful than normal. I was able to take my eyes off the trail just a little more than usual which is wonderful now that the cold weather has thinned the underbrush and, unlike summertime, it’s easy to see deep into the woods. I was also able to run much, much longer distances between walking breaks. When I did need to walk, the duration was considerably shorter than normal and the quantity of walking breaks was literally half as many as usual. My overall trail mile times – get this – were about the same.
But here’s the best part: my distance doubled.
Usually I only “feel it” in my legs the next morning, if at all. For the first time, my legs were unstable and my feet were tingly toast by the end of the run. I actually had to ask Tim and Sharron if that was normal! This morning I woke up as stiff and sore as I’ve ever been. I always stop between 3 and 4 miles because I am so, so winded but yesterday I didn’t stop until 6.2 miles. And it’s a good thing I did because my legs were wearing out so badly I tripped at 5.2 then again at 6.1 miles. That sixth mile was a killer. Usually I dance up the technicals but by that last mile I could barely lift my feet high enough to clear the rocks and roots.
So now, of course, all I want to do is continue this type of running until I master it (and try to stop wishing I had cared more about my fitness when I was much younger). I will never abandon the trails for the roads; concrete’s just not my style. And I’ll always interval train because I believe in it and, quite frankly, that is my style. But I am surprisingly excited about how much I’m learning from road runners and I can’t wait to see how much I can enhance my trail running experience by adding distance.
“Your time is too slow because you’re running too fast.” What? The first time I heard that I was convinced runners were as crazy as I had suspected. Once I told my road runner niece how I could never run long distances because I get winded too quickly. She told me I just needed to slow down. What kind of advice is that? I live my entire life in overdrive. How am I going to slow down? Why would I want to? And why do they call themselves road runners, anyway? They’re more like road tortoises.
Okay, so, I gotta be honest here. I know nothing about running and, frankly, I don’t care. For me, slow is boring. Jogging on pavement or a track is boring. The idea of anything over 5K has zero appeal to me. I like to sprint, jump, climb, duck, dodge, and weave. I like to lean through quick turns as if I’m riding motocross. I like to occasionally wipe out down a steep hill and blow up my legs climbing back up. I love unpredictable surfaces, landing on the balls of my feet, feeling the earth shift beneath my shoes, engaging my core, crossing creeks, and seeing branches rush past my face. The rest is, well, boring. But here is the problem, I can’t do all the things I like for very long because my cardio frequently fails me. Like, repeatedly, I burst then I walk. Yes, I happen to prefer that, but it’s not often by choice.
I’ve always been a strong gal, especially for my small size. Interval training appeals to me on every level. I like to explode then nearly die, recover, then explode again. The problem is that I carry all my extra weight on my hips and legs and there’s only one way to slim down legs – running. And you can’t run without good cardio. I’ve actually had days I could barely weight train because of my inadequate cardio. The thing is, I see these long distance runners whose heart rates never elevate over 130 and, quite honestly, many of them are shockingly flabby. Skin hanging on bones. They’re running for reasons I can’t comprehend. I’m thinking, dudes, seriously, go lift some weights. You’re too skinny. If my heart rate never elevated while I exercised, I’d never leave the couch. What’s the point? I like intensity, fat burning, and weight lifting. I like muscle density and lean, defined bodies. I like my curves. I don’t want to be skin on bones for the sake of cardio.
But if I can’t build up endurance, I can’t weight train for crap, and my technical trail opportunities are limited, so I really do need to figure this out. My legs are naturally strong and I can rarely give them a good workout unless I sprint up hills because I wind before I even feel a burn. My husband, Tim, says the problem is that I can’t actually max them out since I inadvertently rest my legs too often when I walk between sprints to rest my heart. When he runs trails, he feels it in his legs every time, not his chest. I rarely feel anything in my legs but my chest feels like I am boa constrictor prey. Hmm.
So for today’s run, I took advice from other runners and ran slower. Yawn, I know. I’ve run this one mile section of a 5K trail/obstacle course with Tim, who can do it in under 8 minutes – I can barely finish in 11 – so I have good checkpoint comparisons between his time and mine. He’s much taller with an average stride length of 1.2 meters while mine is .89 and he is a distance runner, yes, but he’s also a very fast sprinter so I suppose it won’t hurt me to actually take his advice. I think he’s wrong and just doesn’t understand me, but I’m willing to try. Three miles of trail running – can’t really go wrong either way so, why not? Besides, if it doesn’t work I get to say I was right.
For my first lap I left the starting line and immediately focused on form and pace – not speed. Normally I take off running to save time before I get too winded. I like to hit checkpoint #1 in about 45 seconds; Tim arrives in about 55 seconds. Too slow. This lap I arrived at just under a minute, which seemed about right for this new, boring pace. When I hit the second technical, which I love to sprint through as fast as I can, I held back and just jogged it. Not quite as much fun but still pretty awesome since it’s a real butt kicker. After that I walked briskly uphill for about 10 seconds but was able to jog again sooner than normal. By the time I get to Poison Ivy Pass I’m always walking but today I was still jogging – albeit, just barely. It honestly felt like I could probably walk faster than that pace. Kinda boring. Resisting the urge to second guess my goal today, I continued the slow jog uphill to the second checkpoint. Tim usually hits it at 2 minutes; it always takes me more than 3. Time check: 2 min, 45 seconds.
Wait, what? No kidding. I must lose more time than I think on those walking rests.
So at this point I’m pretty motivated, right? I jogged the next technical and realized that it actually is just as enjoyable as sprinting it and probably a lot safer. The next section is a long, steady incline. I always walk the first half to rest up then run the second half of this uphill section because it’s the only way I can blow up my legs but this time I bend my knees and basically power walk like a fiend to the top. I notice I can actually get my heart rate to drop just a tad while I handle the hill this way and still feel it in my legs. That’s something new. It’s a long hill but at the top I was able to run again at a decent pace through the technical before needing to briefly walk the next incline. As I approached the ladder obstacle I was tempted to walk a little to rest up then take off but instead I just kept plodding along. Hmm. Not that boring, I guess. Tim reaches the ladder obstacle in 4 minutes while I can rarely get there in less than 6. Time check: 5 min, 4 seconds.
No way. No freakin’ way.
The next section is slightly downhill so I know I’m supposed to increase my pace there but I’m usually too tired from my sprint to the ladder obstacle. This time, however, I was able to enjoy that small decline and experience gravity’s gracious assistance, pulling me down the path. That was nice. After the hairpin turn it’s time to go back uphill. I’m about 6 minutes in and trying to save a little cardio on the uphills and use it on the flats and downhills. Buzz. Recovery Check: GOOD. Thank you, Garmin. When the hill flattened out I jogged again, when my heart rate approached my max, I backed off a little, and continued this pattern that, much to my surprise, seemed to be working.
Now I was that little girl who raced the boys in our neighborhood because I could beat most the girls too easily. On a short distance sprint, I’ve always been fast. So as an adult who enjoys interval training, I tend to sprint at max capacity then walk to lower my heart rate. Tim says that’s fine for interval training but, as far as overall time is concerned, I can’t sprint fast enough and long enough to compensate for walking rests over the course of longer distances. Since my new goal is to add distance training, and with every run I’ll certainly want to improve my time, and what I’d been doing wasn’t working, and this little experiment seemed to be working, at this point I’m now facing the fact that my approach was all wrong. That’s also something new.
For the final section of the course I decided to burst, knowing the end was less than 45 seconds away so I no longer needed to pace myself. Across the finish line I ran. Time Check: 10 min, 30 seconds. My best time to date.
Holy sheep caca.
Usually I run it in 11 min and 15 seconds the first lap and add about 15 seconds each subsequent lap. I ran it once in 10:39 the previous week while racing Tim and nearly puked several times. It was miserable. I could barely breathe. This time I was tired but I never felt like I was going to die. Fascinated, I took four or five minutes to walk, cool down, drink some water then I tried it again. And again.
My USUAL lap times prior to today:
First checkpoint: 45 seconds
Second checkpoint: 3 min, 15 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 50 seconds
Total time: 11 min, 30 seconds
My first lap times today:
First checkpoint: 56 seconds
Second checkpoint: 2 min, 45 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 4 seconds
Total time: 10 min, 30 seconds
My second lap times today:
First checkpoint: 52 seconds
Second checkpoint: 2 min, 50 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 10 seconds
Total time: 10 min, 35 seconds
Blown away with surprise and encouragement, I tried for a third time today.
First checkpoint: 57 seconds
Second checkpoint: 2 min, 58 seconds
Third checkpoint: 5 min, 16 seconds
Total time: 10 min, 36 seconds
No way. Like, just no way.
I was killing myself at 100% to finish this course in 11 minutes and when I ran it at 90% capacity I actually improved my overall time significantly. And I did it consistently three times in a row. I know to distance runners this comes as no surprise but for me, I am blown away. I thought no bent-over-hands-on-hips-about-to-vomit walking rests meant I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Apparently not. Do you know what this means? Tim was right; I was wrong. That just happened. Tim is the tortoise and I am the hare. Perhaps I was mistaken and I can learn a little something from those boring road runners after all.
Trail running is hard to explain to outsiders. Ageless. Timeless. Primal. As tranquil or intense as you want it to be. I can’t say what it is for everyone, but I can tell you what it is for me in one word: necessary. First let me state that I am 48, not athletic, and not a runner. In fact, I really don’t like running at all and you’ll never see me running on pavement. But trail running has crept its way into my blood and I can’t shake it. I promise my experiences won’t inspire you to run ultra-marathons in Australia but if you can virtually walk a mile in my trail running shoes, you may be inspired to get off the couch and get outside.
My trail run today was pretty typical for me. Currently I’m “training” on a one mile loop which is the first mile of our staff 5K trail run. Our company owns a private, 80 acre nature preserve with miles of trails. Last spring I plotted a 5K course as a sort of team-building type activity, mostly for fun, but it is quickly becoming an obsession. So today was one of my M-W-F trail runs. Yes, I hit it 3X weekly now, but don’t tune out yet. I’m no expert.
The first mile of this 5K course is my worst nightmare. It’s about an 18 minute walk with way, way too much mowed grass path and not enough narrow, curvy, obstacle filled technical for me. I hate long distance running in any capacity so, of course, because I suck at the typical-cross-country-endless-running-thing, I’m trying to master this first segment which is mostly about jog-paced distance for the sake of a good warm up before the next two miles which are killers. My goal is to complete this first one mile segment in under 10 minutes. Doesn’t sound like much to a road runner but this is no track. My first attempt was 13 minutes because I stop and walk so much on the flats. Yeah, I’m that bad at distance running. If it weren’t for my sprinting speed and agility on the technical sections, my time would be even worse.
So today I warm up for about half a kilometer then start my Garmin Forerunner and jog away from the starting line. Down the grass path I go, eyes darting all over, steps landing hard, winded in 20 seconds when the self-talk starts. Why am I even doing this? I hate running. Quick right onto the first, introductory, mini-technical trail. Spider webs. Yuck. Always right at face level, too. Back out to the main course. Find your line, focus, stop landing so hard, you’re going to blow out your knees. Next quick right, up along the fallen log, touch the first checkpoint and now we go on the purple segment. One minute in, I’m warm, I’m ready, let’s do this! I jump over the next log and go. Hands up, protect your face from the evergreen branches, duck, watch out for that poison ivy, loop right, break left, back right, one more left, one more right, and bam! There it is: the first wall. Ugh. The trail opens back up to an uphill mowed path.
Jog, jog, jog…okay, at least speed walk. Stride out, pump your arms. C’mon. Heart rate check: 160. Whatever. Move your ass, old lady. My max is 170, target area 140-160. Quick right then a quick left through the trees and there it is: Purple Poison Ivy Pass – a slow, steady incline path past a poison ivy forest with a checkpoint at the end. I hate it. Voices on. Go! Look at all that poison ivy! Did you know poison ivy grows in bushes, on vines, and can even stand free, five feet tall, like a tree? Such a lovely looking plant. I really wish poison ivy wasn’t harmful. It’s so pretty. Slowing down now…twenty feet, maybe thirty. That’s all I’ve got. I’m done. Time check: 2 minutes, 30 seconds. Yeah. Seriously. I’m that done already. I’m a terrible runner.
More self-talk. I hate running. Why do I even do this? What’s the point? This is stupid. OH! Hello, Mr. Grasshopper! Pow! Right in my face. Did I just squeal? I think I squealed. OMG. Now I’m laughing which reminds me how much I love these trails and suddenly I’m able to at least jog again. Up along the pass to checkpoint number two. I know cross country runners love the opportunity to increase their pace on the open, flat paths but, to me, the only good thing about these grass sidewalks is the lack of spider webs. Here we are, the second checkpoint. I’m three minutes in and it feels like thirty. Welcome to the orange segment!
I take a quick right through the sumacs and evergreens, hopping over this branch, ducking under that branch, sharp left, watch out for spiders. Man, I love the technical trails! Then I see it right as I hit it – the underside of a huge garden spider suspended in midair right at chest level. In a split second it’s on my shirt, crawling up toward my throat. I’m not even remotely afraid of spiders yet I scream and flail as I frantically brush it off. That’s why most runners slow down on the technicals. Not me. I freaking love sprinting through those tangled, bumpy messes. Heebie jeebies be damned I press on. The red colors of the Sumac leaves in Autumn are stunningly beautiful. Exit the technical trail and oh…ugh…another mowed path incline. Greeeaaat. Heart rate check: 145. No excuses. Go! Lift those feet, lean into the incline, smile, have some fun. I got this, I can do this, look at me go!
Bam. I can’t breathe. Heart rate check: 165. I hate everything.
Jog, jog, jog…okay, at least speed walk. Stride out, pump your arms. C’mon. You’re almost to the next technical and there it is! Break right, left, hop that fallen tree. Go! Go! I take a hard left, jump the fallen branches, head south along the road to…ugh…the next mowed path, yet another slow incline. I wish for a car to drive by so I’m motivated to run. Walk, walk, walk. This is stupid. And why are there so many grasshoppers out here today? Time check: 4 minutes, 38 seconds. What? Yes! I know if I run hard right now maybe I can make it to the ladder obstacle in less than 5 minutes which will get me back on track. Heart rate check: 138. Run!
Head down, find my line, engage my core, land light on the balls of my feet, kick, kick, go! Go! Ladder obstacle time check: 5 minutes, 40 seconds. Dang it. Not terrible but not good. Next is a mowed path with a slight decline which means it’s time to run while I still can. I catch a new wind. Hair pin turn to the right and back up I go. Pull with your arms, breathe in (step, step, step), breathe out (step, step, step). Snake! Yes, that was a snake, slithering away into the tall grass. Rock on, dude! I am a beast! I am one with nature! This is such a primal experience. Look! Deer poop! I’m tired but I like this part. Duck down, through the trees, break left, I love this! Run, run, jog, jog, slowing down. What?! Heart rate check: 165. *Expletive!* Why can’t I ever exceed 165 anymore?!
Jog, jog, jog…okay, at least speed walk. Stride out, pump your arms. C’mon. Getting old sucks. What the hell, man? This bites. Buzz goes my watch. “Recovery Check: Good.” Thank you, happy helper. Could you maybe buzz my ass and make me move faster, too? Okay, whatever, you know? And then the justification talk creeps in. I’m almost 50. I look and feel great for my age. Compared to most of my peers I’m healthy and happy. This really isn’t even necessary. My husband loves me just the way I am. I’ve got a lot to do. I bet my phone’s exploding with texts. I’m probably done for today. Hello again, Mr. Grasshopper. Right down the front of my shirt. Seriously? Where is it? In my bra? I flap my shirt wildly and shake my head at the nonsense of it all.
Heart rate check: 132. What the…? How long have I been walking? Crap. Snap out of it. Go!
Head down, find my line, engage my core, land light on the balls of my feet, kick, kick, go! Go! Back up near the road, still no cars drive by. Keep running anyway! Our character is who we are when no one’s watching, right? I head south then east then south again, take a sharp right toward the giant brush pile. Optional checkpoint – don’t skip it, cheater. I keep running, landing lightly, feeling the earth beneath my feet, actually imagining that I can feel the grass bending and the dirt shifting. Eight minutes in. Yes, here comes the Zen place. OMG I love this. I keep running. Wait, is that nausea? Ignore it. This is your favorite part. I zoom through the trees, left, right, back left, back right, hard left, lunging and leaning like I’m racing motocross, quads fired up, careful through the mulchy stuff. Look at that. What a truly beautiful sunflower. I love Kansas. Slowing down now. Heart rate check: 168 and still jogging! Yes! I keep running because in two more lefts I know I have to slow down anyway for this technical segment – a single width trail that cuts diagonally through a tangled field of wild everything.
I’ve got this now. I know this section. I made this section. I know I can rest my heart while making up some time by high stepping the fallen stalks and skirting the sticker bushes. My legs are so much stronger than my heart. This is my expertise. I could do this all day. Sweat dripping into my eyes, in no time I’m out of the field and in a full sprint toward the teeter-totter obstacles. Up and over, up and over, without missing a beat, letting them catapult me forward down the path. I’m so good at those. Thank God I’m good at something. Isn’t the human body amazing? Downhill now, cross the road, and here comes the side pain. No. No way. No time for that now. I can see the end. Time check: 10 minutes, 45 seconds. I’m about to vomit. Voices on.
My husband’s voice in my head, “You can do anything for one minute.”
Chris Medlen’s voice, “Finish strong.”
My voice, “You’re so close! Don’t quit now, dumbass!”
Up to the top of the dam I go. Careful with the ankles, it’s really uneven here. Go! Go! I know I must give it everything I’ve got now, leaving nothing in the tank. Wow, how lucky am I that all the parts of my body work? I’m almost 50 and look what my body can do. Thank you, God, for the gift of health. Forgive me, Lord, when I take my health for granted. Around the pond I go, panting now, face on fire, fighting back tears of joy, pain, and gratitude. Blink, ten more steps. Blink, five more steps. Three, two, one, done! I click stop on my watch. 11 minutes, 31 seconds. Oh. Hmm. Not my best time yet not my worst but nowhere near my goal. Most importantly, though, I didn’t quit. After a two or three minute walking rest, I run it again, then a third time, until I meet my personal 5K minimum for that day. Each lap repeats a nearly identical personal experience.
That’s my typical trail run. That’s a mile in my shoes.
Now you’ll never meet anyone other than a trail runner who can actually be happy with an eleven minute mile. But running on the trail has never and will never be about the time in and of itself; it’s about the experience. It’s about engaging the earth and listening to the music of nature. It’s about celebrating the spider webs as confirmation you were the first one on the trail that day and marveling at the thought of what happened there with all the wildlife overnight. It’s about sacrificing your time in order to inspect a praying mantis, study a butterfly, stop and flip a turtle back over, relocate a dangerous locust branch full of thorns, or watch a sunrise. It’s about fresh air, sunshine, dirt, rocks, creeks, rain, mud, and navigating trails without a lead car or crowds or road signs. It’s about building strength, endurance, and having a strong core without ever doing so much as one sit up. And, if you’re competitive, it’s about running the same course over and over, mastering the details, learning how to beat your own time and then, perhaps, competing against others who share your passion for the trails. And most of all, it is anything but mindless. Full mind-body engagement is required.
Maybe your goal is to find new trails and see things you’ve never seen before. For lots of runners, it’s all about the distance and, on the trails, long enough never is. Maybe you’re just tired of getting less healthy sitting in artificial light all day. Whatever the reason, for those of us who dislike exercise, loathe running on indoor treadmills and roads, and could never fathom being a runner, trail running is a way to get out there and move – not only for physical health, but mental health, as well, as we connect with nature and realign our souls with the universe. For me, in the course of the first mile, I can shed all the distractions of modern life and excavate my primitive self. I don’t just enjoy the trails, I need them. I’ll never be a super athlete but at least when I’m maneuvering those trails I can discern my innermost voice and rediscover my authentic self. It’s too noisy everywhere else. In fact, the only time I can truly reconnect with the real world – the world that genuinely matters – is when I’m alone, disconnected from everything else, traversing those trails. That’s what trail running is to me.
My first, real boyfriend experience happened my freshman year of high school. He was a sophomore and about the cutest guy I had ever met. Funny, sweet, adventurous, athletic, and popular. I knew him in middle school but was not confident enough to speak to him beyond the scope of friendship. He had a lot of very pretty, popular girlfriends and I felt inadequate. But then we started spending time together the summer before my freshman year. My friend’s parents owned a small amusement park where we’d all hang out during the summers and guess who started working there? You could say I spent more time at the bumper cars that summer than most. By July, we were officially a couple.
“He’s not white,” she said. “Your dad will not be okay with this.”
I literally remember thinking, seriously? It’s 1980. You’ve got to be kidding. He was half white, half Mexican, with very light skin. But my dad grew up in the South, early 50s, the son of an old school, southern preacher. Probably not wanting to know the truth and trying to find a way to make her daughter happy, my mom said, “He looks about the same color as our neighbors from Greece. He must be Greek.” Then she paused to ponder. “Yes, that’s definitely what he is. Greek. Your dad likes those neighbors. He’ll be fine with that.”
Even my 14 year old self knew that she was telling me to pass my new boyfriend off as Greek instead of Mexican. Wow. I wonder now what might have happened had I revealed the boy I liked before this one was black. I explained the situation to my boyfriend, apologized for my father and the need to lie, and he agreed to play along in order to date me. I dreaded the day it finally came up and hate thinking about it even now. I can still see his face, battling mixed emotions, looking from me to my parents, then nodding his head in agreement when my mom said, “You’re Greek, right?”
Later, when we were alone, his eyes filled with hurt when we talked about it. He looked at me, pained from denying his heritage, and said, “You have no idea how much I wanted to say, ‘No. I’m Mexican.’” That moment, when I witnessed someone I cared about experience racism – for my sake, no less, in my own home – burned into my memory like few others. My mom’s expression, my boyfriend’s wavy, Michael Landon hair, those distressed brown eyes, that golden skin under his yellow tank top, the velvet wallpaper behind him – I can see and feel it all as if it were yesterday. In that moment I knew neither heritage nor race should ever be a factor in assessing a person’s character.
After my “Greek” relationship ended, our previous friendship resumed and he and I remain friends to this day. Even though the romance peaked and passed, I don’t think two people can experience something as powerful as that moment and not be forever connected in some way, even if only through Facebook. Interestingly enough, it was about a year later that I had my own first experience with racism.
Our high school was pretty ghetto and our student body was diverse, to say the least. We had more than our share of poverty and hate but there were plenty of amazing people, as well. I remember a few in particular. Gracing our hallways walked a tall, dark skinned, beautiful, black girl, always so impeccably dressed, it became a daily ritual to find her just to see what she was wearing. Kim carried herself with elegant poise, exuding self confidence, yet she was always kind and polite. Everyone knew she was no nonsense, diplomatic beyond her years, and bound for success – different than most of us who would probably live and die in that same city. She was total package and easily could have acted superior but she never did. Secure in her person, she was probably the first student to wear a rabbit fur coat to school – a hot trend in the early 80s that most of us couldn’t afford. When she walked by in that coat everyone stared in awe. I loved the way she looked in that coat. She just had this presence about her (even without the coat).
One of my friends was an only child and pretty spoiled. Imagine my jealousy when I discovered her mom bought her a rabbit fur coat. Weeks went by yet she never wore it to school. She was too shy. Well, of all the things I’ve been called in my life, shy was never one of them. So I asked to borrow it and wore it the next day. I remember my excitement as my mom dropped me off in front of the school. I climbed out of the car and glided up the steps, through the doors, and slowly modeled that coat for all to see. People turned and stared but the reception was not what I expected. Sneers, pointing, giggles, eye rolling, and whispers by the black students who dominated the entrance. Uncomfortable glances by the white students passing through. I was so confused. Finally, this one, particularly unbearable, black kid said, “Bitch, who do you think you are in that fake fur coat?” We’ll call him Eddie since I truly can’t remember his real name. Pretty sure he’s in prison now. With my chin up, I assured him it wasn’t fake and invited him to touch it and see for himself. He waved me off. I reminded him I was not the first girl to wear a fur coat to school. He stopped and said, “Bitch, please. Kim is black. She can wear a fur coat. You can’t.” People started laughing out loud. This guy was as mean as anyone I had ever met.
Holding my ground, I raised my voice and asked, in the most accusatory tone, “So are you saying I’m not allowed to wear what I want simply because I’m white?!”
Over the silence he said, “That’s right, bitch. Now you get it. So take that shit off and go on about your white girl business.” My face burned red as I remained motionless, careful not to lock my knees, waiting for people to leave, but I was too proud for tears. I stood as tall as my 64 inches could stand, face stoic, slowly shaking my head. I could not believe the color of my skin dictated what clothes I could wear. Thankfully, the bell rang, clearing the main hall.
Needless to say, I never wore that coat again. And, as it turns out, Kim went on to model for Ebony magazine and grace the runways from L.A. to New York to Milan. Perhaps she was, in fact, better suited to wear fur to school. She did have that commanding presence, after all. Nevertheless, not one to walk away from a challenge, the following year I did manage to be the first white girl to perform in our high school’s Black Student Union talent show. So when my black friends started calling me Teena Marie, I managed to feel some sense of accomplishment and acceptance.
Flash forward to January 2014, my daughter’s freshman year of high school. She starts talking about a cute boy at another high school. I hear words like “athlete” and “popular” so I ask about his activities and his friends. She says he hangs out with lots of different people but names several jock-types I know far too much about. He’s one of those kids? Um, no. I know all about those boys . Not my baby girl. Immediately I tell her to not get her hopes up and she appropriately chastises me about judging him without even meeting him. Hmm. This girl was raised well. In 1988 my husband and I moved to Lawrence, Kansas and have never regretted our decision to raise our kids in a progressive, forward thinking community. In this moment, I am proud of her for correcting me. So I tell her to pull up his Twitter and Instagram and let me take a look at his posts.
I hesitate and it all comes rushing back. I’ve lived this moment before. Suddenly, I’m simultaneously 14 years old, thrust back into 1980, as well as a 14 year old girl’s mother in 2014. I can feel both halves of me as if each were whole. Total flashback. I look at her smiling face and realize she has no idea what is happening in my mind at this very moment.
“I know, mom. I know!” she says to me. “He’s really cute, right?” No other thought even crosses her mind, except this one. “And just because he’s an athlete doesn’t mean he’s an arrogant jock. He’s not. He’s smart and really nice.” Well, somebody knows her mother pretty darn well, doesn’t she? I smile back at her and confirm that, yes, indeed, he is very cute, consciously choosing to let her assume his good looks and athleticism caused my hesitation instead of the fact that she had unknowingly recreated an identical defining moment from my past, catapulting me into some crazy, parallel universe.
All good parents want their children to exceed them in every way, right? That’s the goal. In this moment, I know I will exceed my parents. I must. The fact that his color never occurred to her as being a potential issue proved I already had in some ways. Now I just needed to get past my preconceived notions about male athletes. If I couldn’t overcome my own stereotypical prejudice, then I could not exceed my parents in every way. For my daughter, I had to do better.
A few weeks later my son tells me he’s sure this boy is going to ask my daughter to the winter formal. He also tells me he approves of this kid, which never happens. He’s the most protective twin brother I’ve ever seen. I manage to stay out of the whole event. Then one day a car pulls up to our house followed by a knock on the door. My husband answers. “Mr. Emerson? Hello,” followed by a handshake and an introduction, and in walks a tall, well dressed, very attractive black teenager. He confidently walks up to me and introduces himself with a radiant smile that fills the room. I am now completely disarmed. He has quite the presence. Finally, he approaches my daughter and offers her all her favorite candy and a little box with a necklace inside and Formal? written on top. She happily agrees and he politely makes his exit, all smiles, practically floating out the door, leaving a void in his wake.
Charming. Truly charming.
The night of formal, his older brother brings him to our house and comes inside with him. He is tall, dark skinned, obviously very athletic, and every bit as polite as his younger brother. His presence is immense yet his demeanor is humble. My husband immediately recognizes him and they strike up a conversation about sports. I have no idea who he is but I am amazed at the possibility of not just one, but two respectful young men in my living room, both athletes, both filling the room with presence.
I grew up thinking that all the white, male athletes were products of overbearing, former jock dads, trying to live vicariously through their sons and all the black, male athletes were angry young men with something to prove, making their way with overworked single mothers and absent fathers. I believed all male athletes, regardless of color, were womanizing jerks. Unfortunately, after 30 years, my preconceived notions have proven true time and time again so, even though I married an exception to the rule, I still struggle with this stereotypical prejudice against male athletes that has been reinforced by so much reality. Yet here was the proof, right in my living room, that I was wrong to judge based on nothing more than gender and association.
After corsages and pictures the boys settle in for brief conversation. I want to know more about this atypical family. Who are these people? Turns out their parents are married, to each other, and have been together over 20 years. Their father is a medical professional and their mother is an attorney. There is yet another brother between these two and a younger sister. All three boys are athletes. This is one impressive family. Then the real shocker – we discover their mother went to high school with us in the same city. What?! We are stunned, dying to find out who she is. Upon hearing her maiden name my jaw drops, my head nearly spins off my neck, and I wonder how I didn’t already know.
Face palm. No such thing as a coincidence.
Tall. Black. Charmingly polite. Commanding presence. I’ll give you two guesses as to who she is and the first one doesn’t count.
You see, sometimes God taps you on the shoulder, politely reminding you that only He should judge. And other times, He clobbers you right smack in the forehead. Looking beyond heritage and race is only the first step. Looking beyond stereotype is the next. All that framed scripture on my walls doesn’t mean diddly-squat if I don’t apply the principles myself, on every level. As soon as I knew Kim was their mom, I knew any assumptions I made about them were wrong.
Eddie thought Kim could wear fur to high school because she was black. But it was because of who she was inside – her spirit, her confidence, her presence. Kim being Kim is why she could pull off that rabbit fur coat. It had nothing to do with her being black. I thought arrogant jocks were jerks because they were athletes, but it turns out those guys are just jerks who also happen to be athletes. Being a male athlete doesn’t automatically make a guy a jerk. Making assumptions based on stereotype is no better than basing assumptions on race. A person’s spirit, as demonstrated by his actions, is the only part of that person we should allow ourselves to see.
Last night, a month after formal, and a week after our kids have officially declared they are dating, Kim and her family came over for dinner and we got to meet her wonderful husband and other two children. At one point in this delightful evening my husband and I enjoyed watching their middle son clear his place and resist our instruction to just leave his dirty plate on the counter. Like, he seriously was so well mannered he looked a little lost not scraping his plate into the trash and rinsing his dish. He is also a male athlete. Of course he is, right? Of course. This non-athlete, white girl was learning one beautiful life lesson, I tell ya. Kim’s husband told us about how when he met her it was love at first sight for him. He knew exactly what I meant when I described her presence. Now I know where her boys got it. She shared the simplified version but there wasn’t enough time to hear the detailed story of why Kim ended up in Lawrence, Kansas. Although, I’m pretty sure I already know one obvious reason. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll have time to hear all the rest.