The ubiquitous gray of U.S. history’s early writers.

My favorite American.

My favorite American.

Lying beside a swimming pool, trying for a case of skin cancer while I sip over-priced, watered-down fancy drinks has never appealed to me. 

When I go on vacation, I want to learn about the areas I visit; how long they’ve been there, who started it up and what went on long before my feet touched this earth. 

I’ve just come from such a vacation; a 9-day bus tour of our nation’s capitol where we toured elegant national treasures like the Library of Congress, The Supreme Court, the Capitol, the splendid National Cathedral, Arlington National Cemetery and all of the symbolic war memorials. My head and heart are full of memories and thoughts that affected me bone deep. 

In the gift shops and bookstores I couldn’t resist browsing through and buying a few interesting little books like The Slave Narratives of Virginia, and George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, The Quotations of Abraham Lincoln, Narratives of Sojourner Truth, and a magnet that lists Thomas Jefferson’s Ten Rules. 

As I perused these at night in my hotel room, it was interesting to envision what I was reading against some of what I’d heard tour guides share throughout the day. Some of it was fun, and some of it was simply incredible for the inconsistencies in what some of our great early leaders wrote, as compared to how they lived. 

We’re only human, all of us, I realize, but the phrase “Do as I say and not as I do,” kept invading my thoughts. 

I have to admit I laughed out loud when I read Washington’s 2nd Rule of Civility: 

“When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered.” 

I mean—how in blazes could the rap singers function if they couldn’t touch themselves “down there,” while performing these days? (Admit it; you are laughing right now.) Robin Williams’ comedy routines would have encountered their share of issues with this one as well. 

Or, how about this gem, his 7th Rule of Civility: 

 “Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out your chamber half dressed.” 

What a hoot! Ninety-seven percent of our high school and college students—and the majority of Hollywood would die if they tried to obey this one. You see more skin at the mall or in a movie, than you do in a hospital ward these days. 

35th Rule of Civility: “Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.”       

        Ohhhhh, Congress? Are you listening? Do you understand the meaning of this one? 

38th Rule of Civility: “In visiting the sick, do not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein.” 

        Hmmm . . . Something tells me George wouldn’t approve of WebMD.com. 

I refuse to pick on Abe Lincoln. He’s my main man and always will be. 

But allow me to weigh in on Thomas Jefferson for a bit, since I’m feeling analytically ornery this week. 

I acquired this fridge magnet with Jefferson’s Ten Rules, which he compiled in 1811 as instructions in conduct to his twelve-year old granddaughter, Cornelia. 

  • Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.
  • Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
  • Never spend money before you have earned it.
  • Never buy what you don’t want because it is cheap.
  • Pride costs more than hunger, thirst and cold.
  • We seldom repent of having eaten too little.
  • Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
  • How much pain the evils cost us that never happened.
  • Take things always by the smooth handle.
  • When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, count a hundred. 

Pretty good rules for self-governing, I’d say. 

But—but!—did you know that Jefferson employed 130 slaves on his farm to do the work. So, to my way of thinking, that kinda’ negates the ol’ ‘Never trouble another for what you can do yourself,’ mantra, wouldn’t you agree? 

And that ‘Never spend money before you have earned it,’—wellll . . . allow me to inform you. Even though Thomas Jefferson was a marvelous book and record keeper, the man liked to spend the pesos the way our current government likes to print greenbacks. He left his family in debt by an estimated $100,000. They had to sell off holdings to make good on said debt after his death. 

All snarky joking aside, there was one aspect that I could not escape upon learning of the numbers of slaves that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did keep, and the question I would pose to both of them, were I given the chance would be this: 

How could you possibly justify your slave ownership against the following words? 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 

This thought bugged me the whole of this vacation, and always will.

 

For female slaves on the estate of George Washington.

For female slaves on the estate of George Washington.

 

Are you EXCLAIMING!! yourself to death?

I realize that most people, when they think of Washington, DC, probably wrinkle their nose, or at least scrunch some fold in the memory area of their brain.

Granted, we all can’t be consistently happy with what does, or doesn’t get handled by the U.S. Government in Wash DC, but if you’ve ever read any history, you’ll know that the people have never been–nor do I believe will they ever be–really happy with their governments–U.S. or not.

But in Washington DC there are wonderful museums and monuments and libraries and things that serve as testaments to the fact that in spite of such statements, we’ve come a good piece and we do continue on, and I cannot wait to take it all in.

This weekend I leave on a muchly-desired guided bus tour vacation headed for such sites. And before the 9-day tour concludes, I will also get to walk the ground at Gettysburg and visit the crash site of all those courageous souls of Flight 93 during the time of 911.

Of course when one is going to be gone there is preparation work to do. Deadline writing had to be turned in, interviews in place for right after I return, yard work/house stuff/errands/arrangements, you name it.

By the time we are done preparing to go on vacation, we r-e-a-l-l-y do need it!

Notice that dang exclamation mark?

Wellllll . . . there’s my real rub today.

It occurred to me—while on my most favorite-ist bike trail the other night—that as of late I seem to be living with a constant exclamation point chasing me.

Exclamation point: n. A punctuation mark (!) used after an exclamation or interjection of sudden, forceful utterance.

Maybe that’s not so good—at least not as much as I appear to do it.

I have high hopes for this bussed vacation. Someone asked me (and they were wrinkling their nose, by the way) why I didn’t just fly out to the sites I wanted to see instead of “taking a bus?” (much wrinkling by now)

Because if I have to deal with air travel and all that that has declined to, I’ll have even more exclamation points chasing me!!

Do Not Want That.

I won’t have to deal with searching for directions, or places to park, or places to stay, or obtaining tour tickets or finding guides, or any of that.

I get to sit back and anticipate the next item on the itinerary. (I had to resist the urge to use an exclamation mark here—twice.)

An old-fashioned lined journal and a notebook will go on the bus with me. The notebook has a picture of famous pirate Jack Sparrow, aka Johnny Depp on the cover. Another traveling buddy of mine gave it to me the summer we took off for a girlfriends’ travel week. And pens. I’ll take pens. The laptop is going, of course, for use at night in my hotel room only.

I get to sit and stare out the windows while someone else does all of the driving and have interesting – if not unique – conversations with people I’ve never met, and journal freehand—just because I can.

In the world of writing, the exclamation point should be treated like it is a fine rare wine. Drink very little—or none at all.

When I receive a piece of communication that is filled with exclamation points I feel like I’m being shouted at. I don’t like being shouted at. I’m going to guess you don’t either—so why do it?

I said I felt like I’m always being chased by an exclamation point?

When I made my list of to-do’s for this week in planning out what all I have to get done, I promised myself I would not put one exclamation point behind anything on my daily clip boarded task list that I keep on our kitchen island.

I have been making daily plans lists on a kitchen counter ever since my high school days, but it’s in these last several years – and it is interesting to note that since I took on my freelancing writing life—that that screaming exclamation point has pushed its way into my life so consistently.

This is not a rant against freelance writing. It is a rant against the way I’ve responded.

Would you believe I had to think consciously to not tag any exclamation points onto this week’s tasks as I wrote: fertilize and water everything, water the church flowers, pay all bills, get Derek’s birthday gift, use up those bananas, finish those last two articles and submit, try to transcribe one more interview, look for a new gold chain, get Lexi’s new food . . .

I am so looking forward to my trip where I won’t be shouting at myself about anything.

My hope is that when I return home, I’ll remember how to continue avoiding too much shouting.

Could your life and your writing use less shouting, too?

The Life Around Pie.

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I am a pie snob, and I admit this with pride.

We had 14 people coming to our house for the annual Groff 4th of July party this past Saturday night and I woke up that morning with a wretched sore throat that was doing its best to spread its wickedness throughout my body.

I had 3 pies to create because homemade pie at our annual function is now a time-honored tradition. It didn’t matter that I was feeling poorly, those pies needed to come together.

Some people believe pie simply comes from the freezer section of their grocery store.

Some people have never made a real pie, and could give a fig whether or not they ever do, but . . .

I’m willing to bet something of value that a respectable majority of the masses adore a really good piece of homemade pie—which, to my means and methods—means the pie crust has to be a lard-based crust. (Groan if you want, but on this I am immovable.)

I was fortunate to watch and learn from the real experts: my mother, my paternal grandmother and a couple of aunts in busy ordinary family kitchens. It had nothing to do with expensive granite counter tops, or designer light fixtures—or even degrees from prestigious culinary schools with familiar-sounding acronyms.

These women learned their pie tricks out of necessity for feeding families and large work crews.

Back to my sore throat and not feeling in the most “pie-baking” mood Saturday morning.

Because I was feeling awful, I worked slower than I normally do.

I took my time with the process. I rinsed and peeled, and washed and diced and sliced and grated and measured. With the fillings mixed up and waiting in their bowls, I turned my attention to rolling out the bottom crusts, and it hit me.

You are in this moment only. Feels good, doesn’t it? 

You are not rushing; thinking about what you’ll do after this. 

You don’t do this nearly enough, but you need to.

I took my time rolling out each crust—testing it for uniform thickness, adjusting it a bit here and there, then ever so gently arranging it in its pie plate before repeating that process two more times.

Stirring and scraping the fillings: fresh blueberry with lemon zest, rhubarb (from my garden) mixed with market strawberries spiked up a bit with freshly grated orange zest and just a touch of fresh ground nutmeg–for the second pie, and of course, apple pie for the third. I like to add fresh lemon zest to my apple pies as well because freshly zested citrus makes anything rock to the next level up.

I dabbed on the butter pieces—real butter, of course—and then rolled out the decorative top crusts, once again laying them in place, taking care not to stretch or tear, trimming excess dough, tucking and rolling the edges, before giving them finger-formed edges.

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There really is nothing better than working with your hands.

Perhaps you won’t believe me, but I swear my throat wasn’t hurting nearly as badly once those pies went into the oven to bake, and I realized I’d enjoyed my creative time at that dusty flour counter to its maximum potential.

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It takes practice at being in the moment, and I have been painfully negligent as of late in my practice of that art.

There are always deadlines to meet, the next interview to locate and set up, the myriad of things that always need doing around the house, the yard, volunteer duties, and so forth. It becomes too easy to live to rush toward that next task or duty or promise—or “always wanted to try that . . .”, and before I know it—I’m not even trying to stand in the moment and enjoy where I am. This simply is not good.

A friend recently asked me some pointers about starting her novel.

I told her to make sure she had a ball writing her first draft, because it may just be the most fun she’ll have with it.

Practicing what we preach can be such hard work, don’t you agree?

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Just for grins—here’s my family’s lard pie crust recipe. Just in case you want to try your hand at one.☺

Grandma Z’s Pie Crust

3 cups white flour

1-1/3 cup of lard

3/4 tsp salt

Mix flour and salt together, cutting in the cold lard with pastry cutter until crumbly, then add the following combined mixture:

1 egg, beaten

1 tsp cider vinegar

5 TBLS ice cold water

Mix, by hand, until smooth, shape into a disk before wrapping and chilling in refrigerator for several hours.

A few pointers:

  • Be sure the lard is cold.
  • I always use a  pastry cutter to work the lard into the dry ingredients.
  • Be sure the   and water mixture, as well, is very cold. (I ice a glass of water  first, then measure out my 5 TBLS of water and add the vinegar.)
  • Do  not overwork the dry ingredients/lard mixture. Just get them worked into a small crumb mixture and then add the wet ingredients.

Readers: Butter crème for writers.

Who doesn't like butter creme?

Who doesn’t like butter creme?

She calls herself the piano lady and she came to my house to inspect the 9-inch scratch I accidentally caused across the lid of our grand piano.

And  before she left, she made my day, and it had nothing to do with a miracle fix for the scratch—which she isn’t sure she can repair. She’ll get back to me about that.

When she asked to take my contact information again, I handed her my business card.

She looked at it. “I know this name –,” she said.

“When I heard your message on my machine, I knew I’d heard that name somewhere before, but just couldn’t remember exactly where . . . ”

This, of course, caught my attention, as being a freelance writer for my city’s  newspaper and area magazines kinda’, sorta’ came to mind.

I explained to her about the weekly column that I and another freelance colleague supply to on an alternating basis.

Her expression lit up at that, but still didn’t hit solid pay dirt.

“Did you by any chance publish a book of short stories . . . about Midwest living or something like that? Something about Walking Beans Wasn’t Something You did with Your Dog, or . . .?”

My head and heart smiled. I’m fairly sure I was smiling on the outside, too.

I told her the book wasn’t  solely mine, but that I was one of the contributors and that my story “Small Town Ghosts” closed out the collection.

Pay dirt.

“Oh, yes!” she said, finally connecting all the dots. “I love that book. I can read a few stories at a time, and one of the writers even has the same last name as mine, so I started checking into it to see if we might be related . . .”

We visited briefly about this possible family connection to another of the contributors to the book, and I filled her in on Shapato Publishing and its founder and how these Midwest anthology books came about.

“I don’t remember where my copy of the book came from,” she said, “but you signed it.”

I loved the concept of all these short stories written by Midwesterners about local history, family tales of hardships as well as good times, remembrances of world wars or The Great Depression, coming together under one title. I did everything I could to bring the book to light in my city, and did so with success, finding venues and outlets for selling copies.

I enjoyed doing small group talks promoting the book and speaking on the importance of getting personal family history and stories down on paper, or on tape—any way possible–before the elder ones in our families are gone, taking their stories and impressions with them.

It was time to conclude this piano-investigative appointment—and what I viewed as a godsend of a conversation about a bit of my writing.

She looked at my card again. “So. You are a writer,” she said. “I like the way you spell your name.”

Another conversation commenced about how I switched life gears when I realized the old way of office-world life appeared to point my creative life to an early death.

She shared how she, too, restarted her life after the death of her husband.

“I was too young to not do anything,” she said. “I knew I could learn something new, so I learned how to tune and repair pianos.” That was 13 years ago.

My freelancing brain is always on the prowl. There might be a story here. Ask her. Which I did. She hesitated, but finally said she’d think about it.

I pointed to my card. “Let me know what you decide.”

I hope she’ll locate her equipment for buffing out that unwelcome scratch across my black lacquered beauty. I also hope she’ll let me write an article about her new career one day soon.

But I have to say, to have someone come into my home for one reason, and make the connection back to something I wrote made for a really fine day—piano scratch be hanged.

Writing is good and therapeutic and all that. And I’ve heard people say they write only for themselves. Well—not all of us want to stop there. We want to write for you. We like writing for you.

And we love it when you take the time, not only to read it, but when you will talk with us about it.

And if we get lucky enough to have someone like what we wrote–well—that’s just pure butter crème on our cake.

Thank you for stopping by to read my blog. I mean that sincerely. You have other things you can, need or have to read today. So—really. Thank you for today.

My Champs Elysées Warrior: For Writing. For Life.

Nope. This is not a plug for Paris perfumer Guerlain and their Champs Elysées Eau De Toilette.

It is a plug for resilience.

Recently I captured a graphic (and I do mean graphic) captioned photo from Facebook. The sentiment grabbed me. The language used to convey the message isn’t a member of my vocabulary, but like I said—the message hit home.

It was the scene of a grizzly bear kill. The grizzly is lunging over the dead body of a wolf it obviously had already taken down, and it’s not pretty. But the wolf’s mate or companion is poised dangerously close to this severe looking grizzly, with its own ears laid back, fangs bared and clearly not going to take this aggressive bear lightly.

The caption?

“A true warrior feels fear, but says f**k it.”

As I said—not my favorite word, but the sentiment of the photo juxtaposed to the quote stuck with me.

Allow me to share another example of such resilience.

The perfume mentioned at the top of this post was my mother’s favorite–and last. She enjoyed wearing it when she dressed up and the scent was quite lovely about her.

When I cleared out her room at the care center after her death I brought her empty bottle home to be sure I’d never forget.

My mother had breast cancer and as the disease progressed and my sister and I could no longer care for her at home, we had to move her where there would be plenty of people around to help lift her and be there at all hours for her. The time does come when a person cannot even turn themselves over in bed.

But before that day arrived, I’d stopped in one morning to visit her in her room. She was standing in front of the mirror studying herself. She had no hair left because of the chemo treatments, and she wore the ubiquitous turban on her bald head. She was finishing up at the sink and I watched as she picked up this lovely bottle of perfume and sprayed some about her neck and shoulders—took another long gander at herself in the mirror and then turned to greet me.

My mother, the fighter, defined herself in that moment and taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. And not one word was uttered or necessary.

Here was a woman who knew she was losing the battle to cancer very fast and yet she still cared enough to spritz a little perfume on herself.

Now—fiction writers know all about “show, don’t tell.” You tell me—is this not a most fully loaded scene of show, don’t tell?

It’s not unlike the abovementioned wolf poised, ready to fight, in spite of knowing the bear had already killed its mate—do you agree?

I read another writer’s comment on Facebook this week. He was most frustrated because he’s sent off queries for this article, and queries for that story, and no one is responding to him. And then he was most skeptical about these ads that come out telling writers “they, too, can make $50K a year copyediting,” and yadayadayada . . . well, it just does get to us sometimes. I felt for him.

I wanted to tell him that he needs to make up his mind about what kind of warrior he is in all of this writing game stuff.

Do you know what kind of warrior you are?

Have you figured out how to be resilient enough to spray on a little perfume when you need it, or open those teeth and prepare to bite into whatever it is you need to in order to survive?

Just keep putting you and your work out into the world, no matter what.

Thanks so much, Mom.

The Weekly Special: A plate of Inviolability.

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How good are you at being inviolable?

I received this small bit in an email from another writing friend this morning:

“Virtually the only way to free ourselves up for effective, dedicated writing is to block out the time and make it inviolable.  The most productive (and prolific) writers churn out several thousand words in three hours each day.”

I’ve read Stephen King’s Memoir on Writing. In there he revealed that he writes for 3 hours every morning—and then he’s done for the day. Just in case you were wondering.

Somewhere in my stack of clippings I read a piece of advice that speaks to our taking a check-in with ourselves by 2:30 every afternoon.

The writer suggested that we do this to determine if we are using our work day hours to our best advantage.

We are to ask ourselves: Am I accomplishing what I wanted to today? And if our answer is ‘no,’—well then—we still have enough time left in the work day to change our course and make something happen. Something that we will be happy with as we close our eyes at bedtime at the end of that day.

Ann Patchett was in Cedar Rapids a couple nights ago and gave a most rousing and entertaining talk on the writing process and being recognized as a writer (even by fathers who still don’t realize writing IS a REAL job).

In pre-talk publicity in an article in the local newspaper she was quoted thus:

“I know a lot of what my next novel is about, but I hate starting. I’m at the point when I’m ready to start and I wake up every morning and think of something else I can do, like cleaning out my sock drawer. I get down to doing every last thing that could be done and then finally when there’s nothing else to do, I start writing.”

I would like to say a special thanks to Ms Patchett for admitting to being human—and reminding me that I am, too. Having said that—the lady has finished and published, oh, say—at least 6 books by now. She obviously gets those ol’ sock drawers done and then slides into the chair to work.

Further suggestions for the daily work-pulse check come from an article written by Jocelyn Glei, “How to Set Smart Daily Goals.”

She suggests we ask ourselves three questions:

Am I intentional?

We should be aligning our actions with what matters to us. Do everything with a purpose. If our action isn’t serving a purpose, we ought to stop wasting our energy.

What am I doing?

Am I spending too much time on unimportant tasks? Do I want to keep frittering away my time like this?

Have I scheduled uninterrupted time today? (I believe this goes back to that inviolable word.)

Will I set time aside to “be still?” I agree with her that it’s more important than the general public wants to accept. Quiet time is the foundation for bringing order into our lives. Taking time to reflect, journal, meditate, strategize, imagine, and so forth will help us work more effectively.

I’ve been trying to find a new work approach lately. I’ve gone a bit helter-skelter this whole past year and it’s been niggling at me waaaay too much which only causes anxiety, so I’ve been trying to develop a solution.

Two questions I pose to myself these mornings are:

  • What do I want to accomplish today?
  • How realistic are they for this day?

 

Admittedly, I have not conquered my time use issues, but I feel I am at least asking myself the right questions.

We had a guest speaker in church this past Sunday. His topic was “Focus.” He quoted an equation taken from the 1997 book: The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to The Mental Side of Peak Performance, by W. Timothy Gallwey.

The equation looks like this:  P = p – i

Translation: Performance = potential – interference.

Simple words; Leviathan results.

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I think Martha Stewart and Maya Angelou were lucky early on.

In a recent interview in Parade Magazine, Ms Stewart said her father was the smartest guy.

“He said, you can do anything you set your mind to,” she told interviewer/writer Dotson Rader.

If there’s any truth to the messages in the words we tell ourselves as far leading us to an outcome, I’d say her father’s words were a fair representation of proof.

Whether or not you are a Martha fan, there is no denying the success she has achieved through creativity, perseverance and continual hard work, in not only one career arena, but in several. The lady has lead an interesting and  successful work life, and at age 71 she isn’t ready to sit and rock the hours away. We could see Martha Stewart storefronts in the not too distant future, according to the article.

Everyone should be so lucky to have someone say that to them in their young years. Heck, even in the older years, people should count themselves among the blessed to hear such words aimed in their direction.

In an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s latest book, Mom&Me&Mom, she recounts the day that her mother told her . . .

“You are the greatest woman I’ve ever met . . . you are very kind and very intelligent and those elements are not always found together. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and my mother—yes, you belong in that category . . .”

Now I thought of what she had said. I thought, “Suppose she is right? She’s very intelligent and often said she didn’t fear anyone enough to lie. Suppose I really am going to become somebody. Imagine . . . “

Maya Angelou was 22 years old at the time, and had the good sense to stop and wonder at those words on her behalf.

These past several weeks I’ve been working with 4th graders on writing instructional stories in which they give their reader instructions how to play kickball, or ride a bike without training wheels, or prepare for a baseball game—and even on how to correct a poor softball throw. They chose their topics and we took it from there.

It became apparent quickly that they’ve had little exposure to composition and most of them had no idea how to begin. I began by asking them questions about their personal experience with their chosen topic. Do you remember the first time you pitched a game, or learned to ride without training wheels? What does the coach have you do before the ball game begins? They had no idea they needed to think to that level before they began writing.

Their first drafts were basic (and boring) step-by-steps because they believed all they had to do was tell someone the steps, in order, and that would suffice. (Yikes.)

When I kept asking them questions and encouraging them to think back to an experience they had with their topic, one girl commented, “I didn’t know writing was going to be so hard.”

I explained to her that it was important for her to remember her experience so she could share from it in order to write a more interesting article with dimension for her potential reader.

We talked about tone of voice in the writing, and using words unique to the topic, or even adding a touch of humor to make it fun, yet informative for the person who might read it. And I explained to them the importance of starting out with that one interesting sentence at the beginning that either hooks a reader, or doesn’t.

The second drafts of the kids’ articles definitely improved—and it took some time on their part and mine, but it was worth it. It gave me a chance to listen and then work in a learning moment as they remembered small tidbits we could weave into their writings. I’m hoping each one took one small tidbit of writing knowledge back to class with them.

When the last boy came for help I read through his initial draft, and I knew he was a better thinker. His instructional piece was about constructing towers using Legos®.

“The most important thing you need when working with Legos®,” he wrote, “is an imagination.”

When I told him his opening sentence was the best one that I’d read, his face lit up. And I meant it, too. Layering on insincere praise is an act of condescension as far as I’m concerned and does no one any good. That kid floated down the hall to his classroom. The light in his face was as good for me as it appeared to be for him.

It’s interesting how small comments come home to roost. When I obtained my first full-time secretarial position, my mother told me what she felt was one of the most important qualities to possess. I can hear her saying it.

“Whatever you are, make sure you are resourceful. Know how to do all kinds of things, where to find stuff–who to ask, when you need to.”

Years back when a critical financial document went missing from my department head’s office, he tagged me with finding it—and fast. Several hours later and beau coup steps around our cement-floored production facility I returned with it in my hands. I tend to like missions–or challenges.

“If anybody could have found it,” he said, “I knew it would be you.”

That’s the kind of little stuff that hangs with you.