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Think Big: Overcoming Obstacles with Optimism Hardcover – April 12, 2016
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About the Author
Jennifer Arnold, MD, graduated from the University of Miami with dual degrees in Biology and Psychology before going on to complete her medical degree at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD in 2000. She is currently an attending neonatologist at Baylor College of Medicine and Medical Director of the Simulation Center at Texas Children’s Hospital. Dr. Arnold is married to her best friend Bill Klein. They live in Houston, TX and have adopted two wonderful children. Jennifer and Bill are the stars of TLC’s The Little Couple.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
“Just try to be the best you can be; never cease trying to be the best you can be. That’s in your power.”
PULL YOURSELF UP
The merry-go-round looked like a brightly lit castle with a parade of sparkling animals running around it. We had been exploring the grounds of the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, all day, but nothing captivated me like this particular ride. I spotted a massive white horse, looking gallant with its golden bridle and glittering saddle, and just knew I had to ride it.
There was just one little catch: the cast on my leg that weighed twenty pounds and went from my hip to my toes.
As an eight-year-old, I didn’t see how I could even get up on any of the horses on the carousel, much less hold on to it as it went round and round. But I desperately wanted to ride it. I don’t think I’d ever wanted to climb on top of anything more in my life than this fixed creature on the merry-go-round.
“I never get to ride anything fun,” I said in my best attempt at playing the sympathy card. Dad simply smiled, refusing to listen to any of my complaining.
“Why don’t we just try it out?” he suggested.
Of course, it’s natural for parents to encourage their child by helping to push them along and give them confidence. But both of us knew I wasn’t an ordinary child. Typical children don’t have ten surgeries by the time they reach eight years old. Many things looked different from my vantage point. Especially since I had to look up at the rest of the world most of the time. We never viewed my stature as a disability. Sometimes, however, as in moments like this, I had to carry a little extra baggage.
I was coming off my tenth surgery. When school had finished that May, I had been admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital and went through a procedure called an osteotomy. Even though I was only eight, I knew the drill.
The surgery would attempt to correct the abnormal curvature of my left leg and normally took between four and six hours to perform. An incision was made on the outer side of my leg, and soft tissue and muscle were moved to the side to expose the bone. The surgeon would use a saw to cut the bone in half, remove a small angular piece of bone, and then rejoin the two halves. Normally, a plate and screws or large stainless-steel staples would fix the bone in place. At the end of the procedure, my leg was wrapped in a plaster cast to immobilize the limb for a period of up to three months while it healed.
Since I’d started visiting hospitals and having surgeries at the ripe old age of two, our family had the whole process down by this point. My mom would pack our suitcase and make the fifteen-hour trek to Baltimore. After arriving at the hospital, we would try to find the doctor’s office. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Hopkins was a huge place. They had used color-coding to help people find their way, but I’m pretty sure it was just more confusing. We would meet the doctor, review the plan of action, and then try to relax until the surgery the following day.
I would be one of the fortunate souls to have Dr. Steven Kopits as my surgeon. He would go on to become my lifelong orthopedist and friend. Of course, as a child, all I knew was that surgery always ended up putting my life on pause. That’s why our visits to the hospital were always planned out well in advance.
Bones heal over time, not overnight. And so my mom and dad often thought it best to have my surgeries in the summer whenever possible in order to avoid any negative impact to my scholastic progress. At the time I wondered why I wasn’t free to roam the beach, playing with friends and collecting seashells in the sand during the summers. Of course, looking back now, I see my parents were definitely looking out for my best interests.
At the time, though, I still longed to simply be like any other kid. To be able to sprint into the warm waters of the ocean or to spring up onto an elegantly decorated horse ready to begin its steady march on the merry-go-round. And when I couldn’t, it made me ask the question:
Why can’t I just do what everyone else does?
This was the case at that World’s Fair in 1982. I stood staring at the gleaming carousel in front of me, knowing I couldn’t spring up onto anything. I would have to watch the ride, just like I had been doing all day.
“Come on, let’s give it a try,” my father said.
My parents always tried to encourage me to try different things, even when it seemed like the road ahead was impossible. Their encouragement gave me the courage to try new things. Sports, for instance. I tried playing baseball and soccer, and I discovered I was terrible at both. But I also began to play the piano and ended up loving it. Without my parents’ encouragement, I know I would have missed out on a lot of things. This was just one of the many times I needed to be pushed a bit.
My parents had known that visiting the World’s Fair that summer would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, something this scholastic overachiever would appreciate, even if I was only eight. As Mom pushed my brother, David, in a stroller, I sat on a rented wheelchair, since I had the cast and would have been too cumbersome to carry around for too long.
We had walked around the fairgrounds, taking in the attractions gathered around a man-made lake. One of them had been a giant gold sunsphere tower. Some of the other highlights of the fair included new inventions, such as Cherry Coke and the touchscreen display. Of course, the most popular items at the fair were the arcade games such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, and the brand-new Rubik’s Cube. We had an Atari at our house, but I was more into schoolwork than video games, and I was more interested in the amusement park rides.
Eventually we wound up in front of that glorious merry-go-round. All I could see was how impossible it would be for me, yet my dad assured me I could do it.
“How do you know if you can’t do it unless you try?” he said, sizing up the ride. “We can do this. We just need to do it a little creatively.”
He wasn’t going to force me to do anything. Hearing his encouragement, however, was enough for me. I would go ahead and try to ride it. As we joined the line, my fears began to heighten, yet I knew my dad was at my side and wouldn’t let anything happen. I continued to look for the pretty white-and-gold horse as it circled by me.
Once it was our turn to go on the ride, my dad lifted me out of the wheelchair and carried me onto the merry-go-round. We found my perfect horse and he sat me down in the saddle to assess the situation.
“You’re going to need something to secure your leg,” he told me.
“I don’t want to get off,” I said.
Dad has always been a quick thinker, and this time he didn’t disappoint. He took off his belt and wrapped it around my leg, and then around the pole in front of the horse’s saddle. With my leg suspended on the side of the horse, my dad stepped back and gave me a chance to go for a ride. Of course, he wasn’t too far away in case something went wrong. The carousel began to move and so did my horse. I held on to the pole and turned around to see my father standing there with a grin on his face.
Yes, it was just a simple ride at an amusement park. But for me, it stood for something far greater than that. It was another time my parents urged me to go ahead and give something a shot. To give it a try even if it seemed too difficult and scary. They could have understood my reluctance and held me back, or they could have stood there holding both of my arms. Yet they said it was possible, and then they gave me the courage to go ahead and try it out.
I would eventually have to get off that ride and climb back in that wheelchair, yet the encouragement my parents gave me that day still stands out to me as one time they helped me understand that I could give anything a shot, no matter how daunting it appeared to be.
GET BACK UP AFTER YOU FALL DOWN
But it’s not enough to just try something out for the first time. Sometimes—many times, in fact—you have to be tenacious. You have to decide that you’re really going to do this thing and go for it, regardless of the outcome. You have to tell yourself that no matter what happens today, there will be a tomorrow and you will try even harder. This can apply to a forty-year-old in his career, or it can apply to a five-year-old learning how to ride a bike.
Let me tell you about that first bike of mine.
On my fifth Christmas, I got my first set of wheels. She was metallic blue with spoke rims and white tires. She was gorgeous, and it was truly love at first sight for me. It was a unique little bicycle, to boot. It had a very comfortable tan leather seat, a single hand brake for the front wheel, reflectors galore, and it even came with an air pump for the impromptu roadside repair. And best of all, in the middle of the frame was a large white wing nut that, when removed, would allow the bicycle to fold completely in half for easy storage and transport.
The bike cost over $100, which was a lot of money to spend on a kid’s bicycle back then. But it was worth every penny in my opinion.
She was custom made, just for me. A one-off that my grandfather (on my mom’s side) and my father had had made for me. It was no small task, getting a bike for a kid that stood about twenty-eight inches tall with an eight-and-a-half-inch inseam. Toys R Us didn’t stock them, nor did any of the bike shops close to my house, and anything anywhere close to my size was for babies anyway. And for a kid who stood just less than three feet tall, I had the mouth of someone three times my size. My parents knew a “baby bike” wouldn’t do. I needed something similar (or better) than what everyone else was riding. It took them a long time to find one, but they would have one made in Italy and shipped to New York City the summer of ’78. I would discover it months later sitting beside the Christmas tree.
That morning, I ran down the stairs as quickly as my little feet could carry me. I peered around the corner at the tree. My eyes grew huge as the package too big to fit under the tree came into view. The wrapping paper was draped over it in such a way that I couldn’t quite tell what it was. Of course, back in the old days, we had rules about opening gifts before our parents woke up. It was a big no-no, so of course I immediately ran back upstairs and woke my parents. They slowly stumbled down the stairs, wrangled my little two-year-old brother Tom, and sat on the good couch in the living room next to the tree. Permission granted, I dove into the paper. I clawed and tore like some sort of monster or large house cat, and the gift began to appear.
Santa had done it again. I couldn’t wait to ride my two-wheeler down the block. Thankfully, this two-wheeler had training wheels so I could learn how to balance on this beast before cruising into the sunset. Of course, winters in New York were rather unforgiving. Snow and ice were piled up along the sidewalks. I imagined zooming up and down the street, showing everyone on the block how fast I could go. But as soon as I led my bike out to the garage to try it out, I saw that icy sidewalks and puddles of unforgiving slush meant that my days of practicing would have to wait until spring.
When springtime eventually came, Dad helped me to the edge of the driveway. This would be my launch pad, and where I would often crash in a feeble, sometimes miraculous, and always breathtaking (for Mom) attempt to arrive home. He held the bike steady while I climbed onto the crossbar and finally lowered my butt onto the seat. Grasping the little white handlebar grips as tight as could be, Dad instructed me to take my feet off the crossbar.
“Okay, now put your feet on the pedals,” Dad said.
I tried, and realized I couldn’t reach them.
When I had done this sitting in the living room, I could reach both pedals, since the crank had been parallel to the floor. But in the real world, your foot needs to be on the pedal the whole time to make revolutions, and my legs fell a bit short. As luck would have it, even this custom-made bicycle was too big for me.
Day one on my bike was a failure.
A complete failure.
With a pouting face and a head hung low, I climbed down from my bicycle and went back into the house.
Sure, I could have given up, but come on. I just had to ride that bike. Nothing was going to stop me from doing it. The following weekend, Dad rolled the bike out into the driveway. This time around, there was a new addition to my new bicycle—pedal extensions. These were the first of what would be a lifelong companion for me in any vehicle I would drive. These extensions weren’t much more than a piece of wood strapped to each side of the pedal, held together by a rather large rubber band.
“Let’s try this again,” Dad said as I climbed onto the bicycle seat again. I placed my feet on each of the pedals, and Dad continued to firmly hold the bicycle in place. I began to start pedaling and couldn’t believe when the wheels began to turn. My feet actually stayed on the pedals. I’d finally done it.
For a moment, I thought I had overcome the hardest part. How naïve a five-year-old can be.
For a few weeks we’d repeat the same routine of Dad holding the bicycle upright while I pedaled along. Sometimes Dad would get distracted, but the training wheels were there to back both of us up. We’d go up and down the sidewalk and eventually head back up the driveway with my dad pushing me faster by gripping the handlebars. But both of us eventually grew bored with this routine. I wanted to be able to ride a two-wheeler, and my dad wanted to go back inside.
It turns out that learning to ride a bike for the first time is quite a lot harder than it looks. I was pedaling on my own, but I hadn’t figured out how to balance the bicycle. The training wheels were great at keeping me from landing on my face, but they weren’t instilling any confidence in my ability to ride without them. So my father and I continued to practice with the training wheels on, seemingly with no end in sight. There was no sign of when they would be replaced by balance and skill.
Summer arrived, and school was out. Most of my friends were also still learning how to ride bicycles. But the friend closest to me, geographically and socially, was my best friend and neighbor, Andria. She was ten months older than I was (and still is today). That meant she was a grade above me, and better than me in nearly everything we did together. But Andria was definitely one of my very best friends and still is to this day.
Andria lived two houses down from me and had an older brother, Chris. She had long brown hair, brown eyes, and a medium complexion. She was a cutie for sure. But because she was also the younger sibling, and most of her friends were boys, she tended to be more of a tomboy than a girly girl. That was all right by me. We used to get into trouble together, raid each other’s fridges together. In fact, if we were not at school it was more than likely that we were together.
One of the things she and I had discussed at length was our dream of freedom. That is, freedom to ride our bicycles around the neighborhood without our parents and away from our siblings. But this dream would only be recognized on two wheels, and neither of us had mastered that skill as yet. But we knew the summer was long, and we were both determined to learn how to ride.
One day in July, either due to the heat, humidity, or plain frustration, my dad did the unthinkable. We walked to the curb as we had done every weekend for the past few months, but this time my dad had a ratchet in his hand. It wasn’t the size ratchet you needed for tightening brakes or adjusting the seat. This was a bigger ratchet. This was a ratchet used to take off training wheels.
Sometimes mother birds push their young out of the nest as encouragement to fly. As they hurl toward the ground, many of them spread their wings and soar up into the clouds. A few simply crash. Let’s just say I was one of the latter.
My parents were always very encouraging. They knew it was important for me to try to do new things and to occasionally fail. Their attitude on raising a child with a disability was that my disability would curtail my activity only to the degree they protected me from experiencing success and failure when trying to do something new. So that meant sometimes they let me crash.
My dad removed the pedals, stood the bike up, and held it for me as I climbed on. The sensation of sitting on a two-wheeler was completely new and awkward. I no longer had the stability and confidence of the training wheels to prevent me from falling. Dad held the handlebar steady and allowed me some time to acclimate to this new reality. I was so nervous that my first day without training wheels ended before it began. After just a minute or two of sitting on the bike I loved so much, I climbed down, sulking, and returned to the house.
The toughest part about trying was learning to appreciate failure and understanding how to use it as encouragement to try again.
In the few weeks that followed, I showed little sign of improvement. I would climb on the bicycle, Dad would firmly hold the bike in place, and I would slowly pedal down the sidewalk, constantly reminding him not to let go.
In August, we finally had a breakthrough, but I didn’t know it. I did the same as before. I climbed on the bike, sat down, and began pedaling with Dad in tow. Or so I thought. By the midway point, my dad shouted to me from what sounded like a mile away.
“You’re doing it,” he called out.
At which point I promptly crashed into a bush. There were no cuts, no bruises—it should have been a successful first two-wheeled experience. However, I didn’t see it that way. Because I hadn’t given the directive that it was okay to let go, I got angry with Dad and stormed back into the house. I left the bicycle on the lawn near the “crash site” and went up to my room.
The way I saw it that day, my dad letting go of the seat and letting me ride until I crashed was a betrayal of trust. I could not believe he would let me go.
What I could not appreciate at the time was that the risk my father took in letting go of the seat was necessary. Moreover, as a dad to two children just about to learn how to ride bicycles themselves, I am absolutely sure it was more painful for him to let go than it was for me to crash into the bush.
The next weekend, I skipped our weekend ride. For a five-year-old, I was pretty good at making a statement. Dad took notice, but didn’t push me. Moreover, football season had begun once more, and he wasn’t about to miss a chance to see an entire game, so I don’t think he was too heartbroken.
Several weeks passed without any more attempts at riding that bike. But then the day came when Andria knocked on my front door. She bounced around at my stoop with incredible enthusiasm. It was at that moment she announced that she had finally learned how to ride a bike without training wheels. She was proud to show off her newly learned feat and seemingly ride off into the sunset.
Now I was on a mission. I stumbled through the dark garage, unlocked the door from the inside, and opened it up just enough for me and my bicycle to escape underneath it. I dragged Dad outside for one more attempt. Yet this time, I was the one who told him to let me go. I pedaled as fast as I could down the sidewalk. Dad let go of the seat and I continued on. The first big bump was coming up. My apprehension was tossed aside as I accelerated over the bump. Pushing each pedal toward the ground took all my might. I practically threw my body into each revolution. Much to his surprise, I didn’t stop at the end of the sidewalk. Instead, I made a right turn at the neighbors’ driveway and accelerated into the street. Now I had some momentum.
The wind against my face, my hands tightly grasping the handlebars, I glanced out of the corner of my eye, as if to give the nod to my dad to say “thanks” and “I am doing it” all at once. I kept pedaling all the way down to Andria’s house. I rode up onto her driveway, ditched the bike on her lawn, and ran to the door. I knocked furiously on the screen door, and when she opened the door, I simply stated, “I can ride, too,” and walked back to my bike.
Trying something can be scary, and it can also be hard work. You can try and fail and try and fail again. Failing in this case literally meant crashing (but thankfully not burning). Sure, you might walk away with some scrapes or a bruised ego. But unless you’re naturally gifted, you’ll have to practice over and over until you have the skills you need to do what you imagine.
The worst thing isn’t going for something and making a fool of yourself. It’s sitting on the sidelines safe and sound while you have to watch others soar on by. It’s sitting and knowing that you didn’t even take a chance; that you stopped bothering to try.
BE OPEN TO NEW IDEAS
There are many things Bill and I might have thought we’d be willing to try in our lives, but starting a reality show was certainly not one of them. In fact, even after being asked numerous times to do one, we turned down the opportunity. Sometimes the timing just has to be right in order to go ahead and give something a shot. This was exactly the case for The Little Couple.
In the fall of 2007, someone from Good Morning America called me to say they were interested in having me on an upcoming show they were going to do about Little People. They wanted to show the juxtaposition between the stereotypes that were out there and examples of women who had successful careers despite their diminutive statures. After contacting Little People of America, a support group for people who are short in stature, my name was mentioned, and suddenly I was given an invitation to be on television.
At the time, we were living in Port Jefferson Station, Long Island, and I was working in the NICU—the neonatal intensive care unit—at Stony Brook University Medical Center (now called Stony Brook University Hospital). I thought the interview would be a great opportunity to shed some light on skeletal dysplasia and educate some viewers about living a prosperous life as a Little Person. So the first thing the crew from ABC did was to come to the hospital in Long Island and shoot some B-roll of me working. Next they asked to do the interview with Bill and me at our home.
Bill had just come from a business trip, taking a red-eye flight home. And even though he was exhausted from the long trip, he was nice enough to clean up the house before I arrived home with the camera crew. He even bought some flowers for the room in which we would conduct the interview. Our interview would take place around the kitchen table. Since Bill and I both love our coffee—we normally have two cups in the morning—we naturally shared it with the reporter interviewing us. Bill poured us all cups, and then we sat for the next hour talking about people with disabilities.
The segment would air on November 30, 2007. After all the filming and discussion, the segment would only be a couple minutes long. The other woman being interviewed was in the entertainment industry so she shared her story, and then it focused on me talking about what it took to get through medical school and what it was like working in a hospital. They showed thirty seconds of me at the table in our house talking. The only glimpse of Bill that got shown was him serving us coffee. That still makes us laugh to this day.
When the segment was finished and the hosts of Good Morning America began to talk, they mentioned that the man serving the coffee just so happened to be my fiancé, and we were planning on getting married the following April. This would be the single piece of information that would work its way to a production company and would plant a seed of an idea.
A month later, we received a call from LMNO Productions, Inc. They were a leading producer of network and cable reality shows. The executive producer had seen my interview and was interested in following the preparation and events leading up to and including our wedding.
Bill and I talked about the idea for maybe a few seconds before deciding to pass. It wasn’t out of fear, but more because of where we were both at with our careers. Sure, maybe we’d end up getting some money that would help pay for some of our wedding costs, but we didn’t necessarily want to show our lives on television. We were concerned about how it might impact our jobs and our reputations. There wasn’t much to talk about before saying no. So, after breaking the news to them that we had decided to say thanks but no thanks, they asked if we could stay in touch. Moreover, if they came up with a better idea, would we be willing to hear them out. We assumed that would be the last of it.
They were certainly interested, and for the next six months they would periodically call us. Even after we got married and I ended up pursuing a new job, the offer to do a reality show kept being tossed at us.
“We have a new idea,” the producer told us. “We’d like to chronicle your lives, to show both your personal and professional lives. We’d film you at your work and then at home.”
Once again, Bill and I told them no. We had already been in the “Try” mode, as I considered a new job opportunity in a very different setting. Moving to Texas would already change our lives in many ways, so adding a reality television show on top of this seemed out of the question.
I had grown up seeing the power of physicians and hospitals and medical staff, and how they helped people on a daily basis. This was why I went into medicine—I knew what this field was like since I’d grown up in it, and I wanted to build a career caring for others just like I’d been taken care of. What I didn’t realize, though, was the power that existed to help people through the world of entertainment.
That changed when I was stopped at the supermarket by a young girl who walked right up to me as if she had known me her whole life.
“You’re a Little Person, like Little People, Big World.”
For a moment, I couldn’t believe what she had just said. It was the first time I had been in public and heard a stranger use the term “Little Person.”
She didn’t use the M-word.
She was referring to another reality television show on TLC that had been out for more than a year called Little People, Big World. It featured two short-statured parents and their four children. This girl didn’t seem apprehensive, and she wasn’t making fun of me. Instead, she appeared delighted to see me, as if I was some type of celebrity. The show had taught this girl not only the right terminology, but also that it was no big deal to be a Little Person. This brief interaction suddenly opened up a world of possibilities.
She got it. And if someone this young got it, what about someone older? Could a reality show really help educate viewers about life as a Little Person?
After working so hard in school and with my medical training, I knew I couldn’t do anything that would detract from my career or my reputation. But I suddenly saw the idea of a reality show in a whole new light. Maybe we could show a different angle to life as Little People.
Bill was on the same page immediately. He understood my newfound respect for what a show like Little People, Big World was doing. We took a look at the other reality shows out there, and most of them offered these unique stories in very specific environments, whether they were on a farm or in a family business. Most of the people shown were in very contained environments, while Bill and I were in busy jobs, living in a regular apartment in an urban environment. Our lives would truly represent two young professionals starting to build a life together. The only difference would be our short stature and the perception others had of us.
When we spoke again to the producer, we agreed to try it. They’d film a pilot. We knew the probability of the show being successful was very slim. All we wanted was to make sure we didn’t make complete fools of ourselves.
Sometimes in the world of trying, it’s not about mustering up the courage to go for it; it’s about managing to find absolute certainty in the decision to move ahead. Sometimes you have to say no a few times before you know it’s the right time to say yes. The little girl showed me a reason to give it a shot. So this Little Couple would try doing a reality show to see where it might take us. And the rest is hist— Well, more on that below.
CHANGE CAN BE GOOD
There’s nothing more exciting on reality television than watching someone working for a consulting firm. Five conference calls and checking email and going through a contract—now that is absolutely riveting stuff.
I used to joke about this with our producers anytime they were looking for new angles and ideas of what to feature on our show. I was all for any new sort of ideas, but I also made it clear I had a full-time job I needed to attend to. For the longest time, our reality show never really covered what I did for a living. I’m sure there were probably people who watched our show and wondered what my career was.
“So what’s this grifter doing with our sweet Dr. Arnold? When’s he going to get a job and get a life?”
The truth was that I was running a successful consulting company with twenty employees. I was proud of what my partner and I had done with our company, but I also knew nobody wanted to watch me in action.
I had always been one of the hardest workers around. My lousy love life had probably helped this in immeasurable ways. Like on New Year’s Eve before the world was supposed to end on January 1, 2000—also known as the dreaded Y2K. I was the only guy in the company who volunteered to stay and watch all the computers in our office as the clock struck midnight. So there I was, very single and very hardworking, watching the computers do nothing. Just me and my four-pack of Guinness (Draught cans, not the Extra Stout bottles), ready for the apocalypse.
I had started the consulting firm with my partner back in 2005, a year before I would officially meet and fall for Jen. Moving had never been factored into the equation when we first spoke about our business. Getting married and moving to Texas? That was something I couldn’t have imagined, but that’s exactly what happened in 2008. Still, we decided that I’d stick with my partner and see how things would work out long distance.
Things went fine for a while. That first year I commuted back and forth every week, first staying at my old house in Long Island until I sold it, then living in hotel rooms or staying with my mother. I would discover that with love, distance did make the heart grow fonder. As far as work was concerned, though, the distance simply made life more tedious.
Honestly, I really just wanted someplace to hang my hat locally.
For two and a half years I did my best to make it work, but I knew that I needed to make a change. So in 2011 I sold the equity I had in the partnership and decided to try something completely new. I knew I didn’t want to replicate what I’d been doing in New York. I’ve realized something about myself over the years—I’m more of a creator than a manager. I love to build something and then hand it over to someone to run with. That’s why as I began to look for a new venture, I knew I didn’t want to get into sales or operational management. I also knew I didn’t want to go back into the workforce and work for someone else. I had had a taste of being an entrepreneur and didn’t want that to end.
So what could I do down here in Houston?
An idea kept coming to me in different forms. First off, I began to wonder what it would be like to go into retail. To have an actual brick-and-mortar business. To work with consumers one-on-one. I hadn’t ever been on this side of the fence in the business world, so the idea felt exciting and fresh. It would be a new and different experience.
If there was ever a time to go ahead and try something out like this, it was now. Jen supported the idea.
“I’ll support you as you build a new business,” she told me.
Jen was working. I had sold my house in New York and had money in the bank. And we were also generating some income from our show. I figured I might enjoy working retail. Plus, I would be able to include it from time to time on the show. We didn’t have any illusions that our business would grow exponentially because of occasionally being featured on the show, but we figured, why not try the retail world out?
And a wild idea came to mind.
How about opening a pet business?
It wasn’t such a crazy thought, to be honest. I had grown up around cats and dogs. I’d probably owned around ten cats and dogs in my life. The following is a (likely incomplete) list of the pets we had over the years:
Lassie—This was a calico cat that ended up having eight kittens. We gave them to all of our relatives and friends.
Coffee—An adopted dog from a friend. He was a mix that looked like a miniature golden retriever.
Rascal—A schnauzer that loved to have someone scratch his back. He also was notorious for tunneling under our fence and running away. Once he ran eight miles away to another town. Thankfully, his tag was still on and he was reunited with us after just a few days of gallivanting around.
There was another dog my parents had when I was just one year old. It was a big dog and quite nutty. I guess after my parents brought me home, it put this dog over the edge because one day it literally jumped through an open window and ran away. For the sake of this story, let’s call him Dutch.
Midnight and Teddy Bear—Midnight was a Yorkie Maltese and the other a poodle Maltese. They were related by their Maltese ancestor, so we referred to them as cousins. They looked very different—one was a teddy bear and the other black and brown and funky-looking. We had them for a long time. Midnight used to sleep on me when I was in a body cast. I’d never notice until I woke up the following morning. Teddy’s white face would become red since she had an affinity for pizza and pasta.
Belle—We got Belle from a local rescue just before Jen and I got married. We had put our name on the list at the local shelter in Port Jefferson, looking for a dog that would not grow to be a monster. We received a call and I went to pick up Belle the evening before I left for Florida to catch up with Jen and her family. What I didn’t know was that Belle, while cute and playful, was destined to grow . . . a lot. So much so that when I went for surgery to have my hips replaced, Jen couldn’t walk Belle, as she was just too darn strong. So, as we migrated to Texas, Belle stayed behind with her short-term dog sitter, soon to be long-term owner, my mom. Belle still resides at my mom’s house with her and Chuck. Belle has an awesome home there.
I also had countless gerbils, newts, fish, and a turtle. My brother Tom had a few birds (Tweety I, II, and III).
Having pets wasn’t just something I loved growing up—it was still a very important part of my life. Jen and I loved our two dogs—Rocky and Maggie—and truly considered them our first two children. We had been customers shopping for our pets for quite some time. We knew that world well.
I realized something about a pet shop. Nobody ever entered a pet store in a bad mood. You could be having the worst day in the world, then go to pick up some dog food and be reminded of your loving animal waiting for you at home. I liked the idea of building a business around consumers who were happy at the very thought of purchasing something in our store. Why not surround myself with customers who were animal-lovers like Jen and me?
Of course, I didn’t go into this just on a whim. I did a lot of research and even went to a couple of trade shows to take a look around. I spoke to vendors and retailers. I would discover that a pet shop is really quite recession resistant. People were always going to own pets and they always had to feed them and take care of them.
So February 3, 2012, Rocky & Maggie’s Pet Shop opened at 2535 Times in Rice Village, a shopping district in Houston. Our shop would feature food, treats, beds, leashes, carriers, clothing, grooming services, and other dog and cat paraphernalia. And almost four years later, the store has grown and we’re continuing to try out lots of fun and different things with it.
Some decisions in life can be simple and others can be life-and-death. Then there are those that remain somewhere in the middle, moments and opportunities where a door might close and a window might open. Many times we just stand and look out the window studying the scene outside.
But occasionally, you need to go ahead and be like Dutch, the first pet I ever knew. You have to just take a leap and go for it, to try something new. And, well, in that crazy dog’s case, to start a whole new life, whatever it might be.
THERE’S NO HARM IN TRYING
Before even starting a family, Bill and I became aware of a girl’s sad situation through the Little People of America organization. A very cute girl from Russia had been adopted by a family in the U.S., but the family hadn’t known this girl was a Little Person. After they realized it, they decided not to adopt her. So there she was, the precious young girl now living in the States in need of a family to care for her. LPA was trying to help her find a home.
Bill and I had followed the LPA message boards and continued to follow her story. What could we do, and how could we help? The whole situation felt so tragic, and we couldn’t believe how awful she must have felt and how imperative it was that she found a family to love and care for her.
That’s when we first began to wonder: What if we adopted? It was just an idea. One that really came out of nowhere.
There was never that one moment when I woke up with a grand epiphany that this was how we would start a family. It was always something I thought about, and I wondered whether it would happen. Bill and I talked a lot about the idea since we both wanted children. There were obviously many questions that came to mind, though. Everybody has questions about timing and finances and careers and all of that when factoring in becoming parents. But as a Little Person, there were a lot more questions I had to consider.
The questions brought quite a bit of uncertainty. I wasn’t doubtful that I could realistically get pregnant, but to carry a biological child could be risky. Even as we dated, Bill and I discussed the idea of whether I could have a child. There were different ways to have children, though. What about adoption?
A part of me had always wanted to adopt a Little Person. Even before I met Bill, while I wasn’t sure about having a child myself, I had always told myself that one day I’d adopt a Little Person. So when those dark eyes and round cheeks were brought to our attention, we suddenly asked whether that dream could become a reality.
I knew someone at LPA involved with the adoption process, so I emailed her to ask some questions. I asked Colleen if there was any way we could be considered for the girl’s parents. Colleen told us that there was actually a waiting list, and if we were serious about adopting, we would need to fill out a lot of paperwork first. There would be home studies and approvals needed before we could be considered a proper home. Needless to say, we had little idea of what was involved, but we would soon learn.
“If you guys are serious, I can put your names on the list,” she told us.
So even before we married, Bill and I put our names on it. Why not? It seemed scary, almost overwhelming, but we figured, what harm could it do to simply give them our names? We didn’t really think about it for a long time. There was nothing wrong with trying to pursue that path if it indeed opened up.
Neither of us had any idea what our path toward parenthood would look like. Nobody does. We were hopeful and simply exploring options and willing to give something a try.
We didn’t end up adopting that little girl from Russia. At that point we hadn’t even started any of the necessary steps to become approved for adoption. She deserved to find a loving home immediately, and thankfully, she found one with a family in the LPA community. So we continued down our path and tried to have a baby using a surrogate. But because we put our names on the list, it was only a matter of time before our names reached the top. Looking back, if we hadn’t tried to open our home for that girl, we may never have pursued adoption as the way we would create a family. We may never have realized the joy we would get from a boy named Will from China and a girl named Zoey from India. I can’t imagine what our lives would have been like without them. And we would never have gotten them if we hadn’t been willing to try something that at the time seemed crazy.
Sometimes you start down one path and find yourself in a completely different place from where you started. Usually, you learn that this was the path you were always intended to travel down. But starting the journey, trying to take that very first step, is often the most important part.
SET YOURSELF FREE
Bill and Jen
Life is all about trying. It’s easy to wake up wanting something, wondering if it will happen. But it takes a lot of courage to go ahead and actually try to make it happen. It’s safe to settle for less by sitting on the sideline. But stepping up to achieve your goal—that’s worth any amount of risk in our opinions.
Yes, you might fall off your horse. Literally. You might even fall off the entire merry-go-round.
Sure, you will probably crash your bike while learning to ride on two wheels.
Maybe the chances are high you’ll end up looking silly sometimes if you say yes to a reality television show.
There’s always the possibility your new store—no matter how creative and clever a concept it happens to be—will fail.
And yes, you might end up hoping and planning and praying for a family, but it might not happen.
The worst might indeed happen. But it probably won’t. Usually, it will be just the opposite. More often than not, you’ll feel the thrill of a ride for the first time in your life, and feel safe knowing that someone has your back. You’ll end up racing for the first time in your life and discover that you love speeding. You’ll step onto that platform and share a little more of your life in a unique way in order to help others lean in and learn. You’ll plunge into a new venture and discover new challenges and creations you never imagined.
You might just even discover the world is no longer just about you trying out new things. You might discover that it’s about helping two other precious souls learn to try new things for themselves.
Is there something you’ve been thinking about, something you want to do or some job you want to pursue or some dream you’ve always thought you might chase someday? What’s holding you back from trying today?
Trying anything new can be scary. But when you stop listening to those worries, about the labels you’ve imposed on yourself, you’ll realize that YOU have the power to take that scary first step. You might have to do it differently, but you can do it.
And just like on that first merry-go-round or that first bike ride, you’ll often discover that once you get going, nothing can stop you.
TRY THIS OUT
1. Make a little list of big dreams. Think about things you had always wanted to achieve but maybe were afraid to. Write them in an email to yourself or on a note in your phone or simply on a sheet of paper.
2. Write one corresponding thing you can do to try to help make that dream happen.
3. Set a crazy deadline for your dreams to happen. Write down a very specific date to shoot for.
4. Keep this list on hand so you can see it daily. Keep it there to remind yourself to keep trying. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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adorable kids, Will and Zoey. A must read for any Little Couple fan.
Thank you Jen and Bill.