Keep Going!

Golden Rule #15: Realize That Sometimes the Work You Love Will Actually Feel Like Work. Keep Going.

For some time now, I have told people I have absolutely the best job in the world. I’ve also told them that in almost 16 years now, I have not had a single bad day at work. Tough ones, challenging ones, days that make me think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, yes I’ve had those. But not one single time have I thought, even fleetingly, “There must be something more, or different, or better, out there for me.” I am doing what I was made to do.

Has it always been this way? Absolutely not. I imagine if you sit down with pretty much anyone and talk with them one on one, candidly, without any pretty elevator speeches or sales presentations, you would hear most people say, sometimes this work? It just feels like work. It’s not glorious, or glamorous, or grand. It’s just plain old hard work that nobody notices and I don’t feel like it matters whether I do it or not.

But you know what? It does matter. It absolutely does. Even if no one ever sees or knows what you do, or when, or how, or how long, or why, it still matters. Why? Because you’re seeing it through. You’re doing what you said you would do, even when you don’t feel much like doing it any more, if you ever did. I recall my mother, echoing her mother, telling me, Do it anyway, it builds character.

I never liked hearing that, and I didn’t really care about character anyway. Then I learned, character is who you are, and even more, it’s who you are in the dark. It’s who you are when things are uncertain and unsteady and unpredictable and unpleasant and all those other “un” words. Let me see you when things don’t go the way you expect, or hope, or plan, or intend, and I will get a much better sense of your character than when things are unfolding like a dream come true.

Copper dreaming on the fluff

We were told all through Copper’s training that learning should be fun, for him and for us. Most of the time, it was. Some of the time, his homework felt more like work at home than anything else. It took time, and discipline, and energy, and patience, and some days, it just didn’t happen. Some days when it did happen, it felt like nothing was happening. He wasn’t grasping whatever he was supposed to grasp. We probably weren’t teaching it exactly the way we’d seen and practiced in class. But overall, on the other side of many weeks of patient schooling, we discovered we had a dog who would listen, and loved to learn, and knew how to focus and persist and see things through. It paid off!

Next Foot Forward!

Golden Rule #14: Don’t Measure Today With Yesterday’s Yardstick.

For me, this has been the summer of the great purge. I’ve been sorting, and cleaning, and letting go of things that I once needed and enjoyed but are now ready for someone else to need and enjoy. It’s been a massive undertaking. I haven’t done it in far too long. It’s exhausting and exhilarating all at once. Like lots of other things in life, it’s one of those impossibly hard, seemingly endless tasks that brings satisfaction when it’s complete.

I found, among hundreds of other things, a growth chart that used to hang on the wall when my brother and I were little. It was nicely drawn with those early paint pens — you know, the 1960s era ones — and it looks like I traced over my mother’s neat penmanship with chunky childhood attempts at imitating her script.

That funny little chart might have documented my early physical growth, but it would never work to use it to measure the person I’ve become all these decades later. When it comes right down to it, it’s interesting to track things like first teeth and first steps and first words, but those aren’t the ones that matter most in the long run.

Turns out the ones that matter most are the next steps, the next words, the next milestones. They’re the ones that keep you moving forward.

waiting for dixie head shot

When Copper was a puppy, we were delighted as he learned to come, sit, stay, lay down, shake hands, and dozens of other behaviors. He took, and passed, an exam that earned him status as a Canine Good Citizen, a necessary milestone on his journey to become a therapy dog. Is he always what we would describe as a “good citizen?” Well…no. There are times when he is anything but. Do we throw up our hands in despair and give up? No. Not at all. Usually, we find a way to give Copper something he is good at, something that challenges his mind, and something that we can praise him for doing. It’s great fun to watch him master new concepts, and he loves it too. We know that he is capable of understanding and obeying much more complex commands than the very first ones he learned in his puppy classes. It wouldn’t be very satisfying for either of us to keep measuring his progress by those early milestones.

Likewise, in our own lives, we need to make sure the yardsticks or rules we’re using to measure our growth are up-to-date. The skills, behaviors, relationships, and achievements we’re measuring thrive when they’re challenged, not when they’re stagnant.

Remembering Margaret

Golden Rule #13: Don’t Give Up.


A different kind of day today. Our family just learned of the passing of a beloved cousin/aunt, Margaret Reiber. You know how you have some aunts and uncles that aren’t all that much older than you are so they’re more like cousins? That was Margaret. Margaret Fern, in fact, named for her mother.

Margaret had spunk, and sparkle, and she loved a good joke better than almost anyone else. Her giggle was distinctive and contagious.

She adored her family, and they sustained her. Randy, her husband, was her chief cheerleader and companion. Jeffrey, her son and oldest child, was long-anticipated and greatly cherished. Kelly, her daughter and youngest, was the joy of her heart.

There is no grief quite like that of losing someone you’re just not done needing yet, and that is where we find ourselves this day. We had hoped and prayed that Margaret would recover from this illness and live well into old age to see her children married and grandchildren born, but that chapter was not in her story. Instead, we know that Margaret’s life is complete just as it is, with the conclusion written in a glorious stretch of fall that she would have loved so much. She is perfectly well and at peace now, with no more suffering or treatments or uncertainty.

We will celebrate her life, and cherish her memory, and listen for her laughter…and in time, we will be together again. I love this passage from C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle: “And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

The Wisdom of Ears

Golden Rule #12: Learn From the Wisdom Around You.

I often tell people, I really don’t know how to do so terribly many things. I do, however, know lots of people who DO know how to do many things very well. I don’t have to know what they know. I just have to know how to find them.

This makes all the difference when approaching a project that can feel rather daunting. The unknowns creep in and threaten to overwhelm me before things even get off the ground. When that happens, it’s so reassuring to talk to someone who has the wisdom and experience I lack. They understand the process that has to happen in order to get something from the very nebulous talking and planning stage to the very satisfying point of completion.

How do we learn from the wisdom around us? One very simple trick I’ve learned along the way: listen more than you talk. We reveal how much we don’t know by how much we say. Wisdom shows up in unexpected places: at the grocery store, at the auto repair shop, and while walking Copper around the neighborhood. I’ve met computer experts, military service members, university department heads, middle school students, and people from other countries while holding the other end of the leash. All of them can share some wisdom — you just have to know how to perceive it. And, even more important, you have to be open to it.

waiting for dixie head shot

The Lesson of the Forks

Golden Rule #11: Approach Big Projects With a Big Fork. Save the Small Fork for Later.

In our exhibit design partnership, through the last 15 or so years, we’ve tackled projects of all shapes and sizes. Some of our projects have been fairly small — a storyboard, a case for a single artifact, a shadowbox, or a backdrop. Others have been rather large — theming a four-story building to look, feel, sound, and smell like a modern U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. That one included a mile and a half of wall space to decorate. Work days became workouts, for sure.

Along the way, I’ve learned to pay attention to the big picture and to the smallest of details. If you approach a big, somewhat nebulous project with the tiniest imaginable fork, you’ll probably get very discouraged before you see much progress. And if you get to the end of a project where all that’s required is fine tuning and a bit of tweaking, it’s not the best time to tackle things with a giant meat fork or even a pitchfork. Make sure your fork matches your project. Or your spoon, or whatever. You get the metaphor.

Copper towel thief 6 months

Napkin, anyone? Copper, age 6 months

Copper has learned the difference between retrieving a tennis ball, and playing with bubbles drifting on the breeze. One toy takes all he can give it. The other…not quite so much. He knows the lesson of the forks very well. Also, apparently, the lesson of the dinner napkin, which is, “What’s it worth to you?”

Bringing Order to Chaos

Golden Rule #10: Realize Sometimes the Question is More Important Than the Answer.

Ever spent time with someone who seems to have all the answers, no matter what the question is? You push a button and out pops an answer? That’s kind of a fortune-cookie approach to life. The answers you find in fortune cookies are usually generic enough to fit any number of life’s questions or dilemmas. Every once in a while, though, an answer seems tailored to your specific situation. Almost like the person fitting the fortune into the cookie knew… Or did the fortune exist first, and the cookie got formed and baked around it?

In life, it seems like most of the time we have the information or the answers we need, but we don’t necessarily know it. Maybe it’s not in a place where we would expect it to be. It’s all jumbled together in a drawer and there’s no good way to make sense of it. When that happens, and that’s not an if, that’s a when, rather than sifting endlessly through the random bits and pieces of facts and information, perhaps it’s better to ask the question, or questions, that begin to bring order out of that chaos.

I’ve been called the last of the great listmakers. I do love lists. Talk about a great way to bring order out of chaos! From my earliest years, I learned to make a list of pros and cons when facing a decision. Every time a thought or idea came to mind, it landed on the list in one of those two columns. The act of putting those down on paper somehow freed up space in my mind, and my thoughts could move forward instead of orbiting endlessly in the same tired rut. It may not be everyone’s choice as far as how to make decisions, but it has worked well for me.

Copper on tile age 3 months

By now, Copper probably has hundreds of different words and commands in his repertoire. It’s fun to watch him respond when we ask him questions. I can tell when he’s ready for some specific thing or activity, and he’s taught me to use the words, “Show me.” And he does! He takes me to the place most closely connected to his chosen activity — the back door, or the front door, or the laundry room where his leash hangs, or the freezer where his nightly doggy ice cream resides, or the bathroom for a drink from the tub, or the bag hanging on my closet door where his toothbrush treats are kept. He knows he can communicate with us when we ask him to show us what he wants, and that helps bring order to his world.

It’s Not All About Thinking Big

Golden Rule #9: Think Small.

I read a book a while ago entitled, “The Power of Small.” Little book with a really big message. “Small, seemingly insignificant acts are powerful agents of change and growth—if we pay attention to them,” write co-authors Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval. “Unfortunately, we live in a world where we are constantly told to concentrate on the big things, to not sweat the small stuff.  Because of that, we often feel that incremental change doesn’t count for much—it doesn’t pay off.  We celebrate milestones, and ignore the daily victories that herald persistent substantial change over time.  As Canadian explorer Jaime Clarke, who reached the summit of Mount Everest step by careful step, puts it: ‘There’s not only power in small, but magic too.'”

Pensive Copper in Kitchen

Copper is a big dog. A really big dog, in fact, weighing over 100 pounds. Not much is small about him. But I love how he notices the smallest details. A flicker of an eyelash in the morning and he is up, tail waving gently, ready to start the day. He senses stress or tension in someone’s voice or demeanor and instantly he is leaning against them, yawning, doing his best to calm the atmosphere. Nothing escapes his focus.

The Vehicle of Change

Golden Rule #8: Be Open to Unexpected Opportunities.

Jen & Copper - wave jumping

One of my favorites, learned so well and so often! Plans are great, even highly detailed plans. Especially highly detailed plans. There is such value in envisioning where you’re heading and charting a course for actually achieving even your wildest dreams. Everything becomes do-able that way. Everything.

But there are some times when you are presented with an opportunity that doesn’t fit neatly into your “plan” box. What do you do with those? A chance to attend an event, meet a favorite author, visit a long-coveted place, spend time with someone you haven’t seen in far too long. All good things, right? But sometimes opportunities come cloaked in change. And change, for those of us who really, really like things to go according to plan, can be threatening. Unsettling. Scary. Something to be avoided.

But sometimes those opportunities wrapped in change are just what we need to move us closer to where we really need to be. It can be incredibly hard to embrace change when what we really want to cling to is familiarity. But sometimes change is the vehicle that shakes up our thinking and planning and introduces new opportunities to us, things that we would otherwise miss because our gigantic and very complete plans would be in the way.

I love how Dave Robbins puts it:

The end of one chapter in your life only means one thing: The beginning of another chapter. Is the next chapter better or worse than the chapter before it? Only YOU can make that determination, since it is your life and YOU are writing your own life book.

So. When an unexpected opportunity presents itself, and it will, don’t immediately reject it just because you weren’t looking for that thing, or that time, or that place, or that person. Be open to the unexpected!

Attitude — and Effort — is Everything!

Golden Rule #7: Don’t Settle for Less Than Your Best Effort.

You know when you’ve given your best effort, and when you’ve just done the minimum. Maybe you think nobody else knows. Maybe they don’t. But perhaps they do.

We hear the adage “attitude is everything” so much that it’s worn a groove between our ears. But in any task that has the potential to touch someone else’s life, attitude truly is everything. I love going to a local restaurant where a busboy speed-clears an empty table. It’s not work, it’s choreography, and he is a joy to watch. His hands are a blur as he works his way around the table, clearing dishes, spraying, wiping, resetting. He adjusts the standard table items with the precision of a micrometer. Really. Zero interaction with anyone around him. He seems unaware of the eyes, the smiles, the marvel-filled headshakes and murmurs. He just does his job to the best of his ability.

But if attitude is everything, effort gives it feet. Legs. Hands. Arms. Backbone. There it is. Effort brings attitude to life. I can have a great attitude and be sitting perfectly still. But if I have a great attitude and give my best effort, I am, in a word, unstoppable.

Sometimes, in the exhibit projects I work on, I’m given a working party of young sailors to assist with whatever needs doing. (One of the perks of working on an active duty Navy base.) Let me tell you, there is nothing I cannot accomplish with about a dozen energetic 18 year olds who know how to put forth an effort and work as a team. I mention what needs to be done, and they figure out how to make it happen. They have great attitudes and take pride in giving their best effort.

snowy boy

Copper traveled to Michigan with us for Christmas during his first year. He had never seen snow before in his life, and there was tons of it up there. It looked like we’d stepped out into Narnia. In most places, his feet didn’t touch the ground before the snow reached his belly, but that didn’t stop him from snow-swimming! There was no question of half-hearted effort where Copper was concerned. He adored the snow and plunged into it even though it packed in between his toes and under his belly. He took advantage of every opportunity to be out in it. He took to snow and winter weather like he was born to it — although Mississippi-bred Copper had never in his life seen much of either one.

Failure Isn’t Final

Golden Rule #6: Give Yourself Permission to Fail…And Try Again.

Copper Caught 3 1:2 months

Failure. It just feels so…final. Especially when we’re attempting something that matters, even if it only really matters to us. And first attempts are such fragile things anyway, aren’t they? You don’t really have a good sense of what you’re doing, or what to expect, or what the possible outcomes might be. It’s like making a complicated recipe for the first time. I learned a long time ago, don’t attempt a new recipe when it matters. You’re just setting yourself up for failure. Give yourself a chance to learn what to expect along the way.

If that’s true in the kitchen, how much more true is it in life? Your first attempt probably won’t look anything like later ones. There is a certain confidence that comes with repeated attempts. You’re either going to master something, or you’re not, but if you don’t, it shouldn’t be because you didn’t try.

Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, and failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” Think about people you know who have failed — and this, I can assure you, is everyone. How interesting would it be to hear stories and experiences from someone who had never failed, not ever? We are not defined by our failures, but we are certainly refined by them, and by what happens next. Our failures don’t make us. But they make us real. They make us authentic. They make our story uniquely our own.

I spent years in jobs that ran parallel to the job I dreamed of having. My whole life I dreamed of being a writer, a real writer, getting paid to write. Along the way, I worked as a legal secretary for more than five years, and as a customer service representative for about the same amount of time. Both those fields were fine fields with plenty of work and they were decent fits for my skills and experience. I could have continued in either position indefinitely. But they didn’t nudge me forward in ways that made me stretch, and grow, and learn, and yes, fail along the way. I knew I was made for different, and more, and better. (And if my colleagues from those past lives are reading this, I’m sorry, because these particular private things I wrestled with never were about you, so please don’t be offended.)

Failure is just another part of the journey. No more, no less. It’s true in my life, and in Copper’s as well. I’ve been through countless classes with him, and the learning curve is very apparent. There have been lots of times when I’ve asked Copper to do something, and waited, and corrected him, and tried again, and sometimes even when he knows what I want him to do, he still can’t get it quite right. But this dog, he is persistent. He is motivated. He wants to master whatever it is he’s being asked to do. I love that in him. His gaze is unwavering, his ears are up, and his whole body language says, I’m listening! Let me figure this out and I’ll get it done! He doesn’t beat himself up over failures. He just keeps trying until he gets it.