Leaving home.


Neena opens

Neena opens for business, January 22, 2011

Dear friends,

Three years ago today, I flipped a sign and unlocked a door and, that simply, Neena was.

Opening the door on January 22, 2011 was a simple act, but the road to Neena was full of adventure and the road since has taught us much. We’ve grown tremendously since those first days, experiencing an exponential learning curve in the world of retail and fashion. But it’s the go-with-your-gut instinct that has set us apart and created a community of loyal and supportive women who love what Neena is about.

That commitment to go-with-your-gut is how it all began. Neena didn’t become a thing because of a lifelong goal or a entrepreneurial dream or even a plan.  It was the space. Neena became a thing because when I saw the vacant space at 1827 Parmenter in downtown Middleton, I felt that something special needed to go here and I wanted to make that happen. Middleton had become special to me; relocating here in 2008, Middleton is where I planted roots in Wisconsin. Knowing not a soul in the state, having a career that was computer and telephone-based and being the single parent of a toddler was isolating to say the least. When I dared to venture out, downtown Middleton was my destination. Villa Dolce, Barriques, Little Gym, the library. These were our outings. Close enough to the house I rented that I didn’t fear getting lost. Faces became familiar as the months passed. In 2009, I opened a dance studio just beyond the Middleton city limits and by 2010, Wisconsin finally felt like home.

After selling my studio in fall of 2010, I was at a crossroads. I found myself sitting at Villa Dolce on an unseasonably warm October day, sipping a glass of wine. The sun was setting and the building across the street had a vacant storefront that looked so warm and welcoming and special that I couldn’t imagine how it wasn’t a thriving business. I remember the exact moment of looking in the window. Not able to wait to investigate, I had crossed the street, wine glass in hand, to have a closer look. Even the pink walls – every one of them – couldn’t detract from the possibility and unique feel of the space. This amazing little town which had become my home deserved to have something great in this space. I will open a business here. Just like that, it was decided.

But what kind of business?

A research biologist by education, a non-profit executive by profession, a dancer and studio owner by experience … what could I possibly open? It was really a process of elimination to decide what would occupy 1827 Parmenter St. It could have just as easily been an independent bookstore as a women’s boutique. But research and my instincts told me that a special little corner shop with comfortable clothes and exceptional service was what this space needed. And so less than two weeks later, Neena the idea became Neena the business.

One thing I want to share is that this wasn’t a frivolous decision. Though it happened quickly – it went from idea to opening in three months – it was not without careful thought, number crunching, market research and serious personal risk assessment. I had lost a great deal of personal funds in the sale of my studio and could hardly consider myself in a good financial position to open a retail store. I would have to take out a loan and, in doing so, sign over everything I owned to the bank to secure the loan. That said, from the time I decided to open Neena, I did not hesitate. I would open a store in this space in this town and would do whatever it would take to make it a success. I slept very little during this time. Fueled by excitement, adrenaline and ambition, it was a very busy time.

And we made it happen. We did. With an incredible friend and my first employee, Ronni Levine, with me every step of the way, we got the keys to 1827 Parmenter on December 1, 2010. That first day, we pulled down ceiling tiles. Then we painted and painted and painted, late into the night. Late into many nights. We researched store fixtures and planned displays. We laid flooring. All by ourselves. We oversaw construction of dressing rooms and created a lighting plan. We installed insulation and a new (gorgeous) tin ceiling. Friends – Dan! – carved time out of own busy their lives to help. We went to market as total rookies with no one to guide us. We learned retail. Fast. I had a loan payment to make in a month which meant we needed to open for business.

We hired staff – and three of our original hires are still with us today. Mary Lou Garnett, Sara Leverson and Catherine Pippitt joined Neena in early 2011 and we’ve been together since. Three holiday seasons, three summer sales, three anniversaries and countless private parties, special events, fashion shows and good times. These women are as much a part of what Neena has become than anything I have done, and probably more. They have shaped in it ways I could not have anticipated and yet now I can’t imagine it without them.

On January 22, 2011, Ronni and I opened the doors to waiting friends and customers and we sold the merchandise we had carefully selected at market. ‘Neena’ went from being a grade school nickname to an up-and-running boutique in Middleton, Wisconsin.

Since then, our neighborhood in downtown Middleton has become home. Fellow business owners have become dear friends and they offer constant support, advice and good humor as we all navigate the unpredictable terrain of small local business operation together. How different Neena would be without the summer evening gelatinis at Villa Dolce, the after workout breakfasts and high tea treats from Sofra, the ‘cupcake-thirty’ visits to Bloom and Friday happy hours at The Freehouse. This is home.

The space inspired Neena. So it goes without saying that leaving 1827 Parmenter St is devastatingly sad. Unfathomable, really, on so many levels. Relocating Neena is not a choice I would have ever made. The space inspired Neena. I couldn’t – and still cannot – imagine Neena anywhere other than 1827 Parmenter St. Unfortunately, it is not my decision to make. The owner of the building has determined that another business is better suited for this space. While I strongly disagree, perhaps I am biased. My life is tied to this space and this place – Middleton – in more ways than just business.

In August of 2012, I joined the recruit class as a volunteer firefighter with Middleton Fire District (MIFD). In December 2013, along with 25 classmates, I graduated as a Wisconsin State Certified II Firefighter. Since joining the department, I have responded to dozens of calls, many times sprinting to the fire station on University Avenue from Neena (it’s faster than taking my car) when my pager sounds at work. Much like the staff at Neena, the 120+ associates at MIFD have become my family and my seven year-old daughter feels as much at home at the station as she does at Neena or at home. Being a firefighter only underscores my appreciation and affection for this city and town. A poetic connection is that the Opera House building, in which Neena is currently located, nearly burned to the ground in 1900. It was this devastating fire that raged through downtown Middleton that led to the formation of Middleton Fire Company 1 in 1901. As a firefighter at Middleton Fire District, I am now a voting member of Middleton Fire Company 1. There is a photo taken just after this fire where you can clearly see the crumbling wall and windows of 1827 Parmenter St. I have often looked at the photo and then, the next day, gone to that exact brick wall in my store, running my hands along the now boarded-up windows that are enclosed in an indoor alleyway, appreciating the history and connection of a building. Full circle, in a way?

I relocated to Middleton from Cross Plains in 2013 to be closer to Neena, to the fire station and so that my daughter can attend Middleton schools. As a single parent, it makes a significant difference to leave work for 15 minutes to pick your child up from her school 3 miles away than to leave for an hour to get her from school 15 miles away.

And so Middleton really is home. I live here, I own a business here, I am a volunteer firefighter here.

With each challenging life experience, I feel like I get better at trusting that the outcome will work out. I don’t mean blindly throwing it to fate, passively letting go. I mean I get better at understanding that you can’t fight ‘unfair.’ You can’t be angry at ‘unfair.’ At least not for long. You look at ‘unfair’ as a thing, recognize it for what it is, push it aside and move forward, stronger and wiser. This is, without question, one of those challenging times. Having to leaving this space and our neighborhood is unfair. Letting go and moving forward will be a daily challenge.

I don’t know yet where we are going, but we are going somewhere. Neena will remain in business as my entire financial, professional and personal life is tied up in it and you don’t just close up shop when things are unfair or challenging, right? That’s not living beautifully! Middleton is home, but options are limited so I am considering a variety of west side locations. As soon as we have something to announce, we will let you know.

I know I speak for Ronni, Mary Lou, Sara and Cat when I say that we are counting on all of you for your support, positive thoughts, encouragement, humor and friendship as we explore new territory – literally and figuratively. You have given us so much already, but we get our energy and enthusiasm from you, our friends and loyal customers. Thank you for getting us to where we are and for following us wherever we go!

Also, do any of you like to paint?

With gratitude and friendship always,

Deneen Carmichael

DC Dec 1RL Dec 1

Above: Deneen and Ronni commemorate the day we received the keys to 1827 Parmenter St. In 2010 (top) and 2013 (bottom).

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Sister With A Gas Can: The Trouble With Body Shaming

If you are a consistent reader of readneena.com, perhaps you will recall that in a previous blog post, I expressed a sadness over the epidemic of negative body image, particularly affecting girls and women, and a hopefulness that we can each work on changing that. However, the way we each view ourselves and speak in reference to our own bodies is only part of the problem.

The inspiration behind this post, or at least its timing, came from a conversation that made smoke come out of my ears and sent me furiously grasping for my megaphone/soapbox/keyboard. It involved a very dear, petite friend, and a woman who refused to let my friend sympathize with her negativity towards her own body because she’s “so skinny.” This woman, and so many others, need to be reminded that shaming someone for their body, regardless of its size in relation to your own, is harmful, and merely spreads your small circle of negativity further out into the world.

How have we developed this notion that it is acceptable to offer commentary on anyone else’s body? Its shape, its color, its BMI, its muscle tone, its lack of anything we think should be present, or presence of anything we think should be lacking. Even when qualified with a “compliment,” unsought opinions are still criticisms. “You look beautiful” is not the same as “You’re so skinny. You’re lucky.” One person’s ideal is another person’s problem area.

Actually, let me repeat that: One person’s ideal is another person’s problem area. Every single person is made up of different genes, of different habits, of different metabolisms, yet there is some arbitrary shape that we are all supposed to strive for. It’s like making a cake with beef instead of sugar; you can mix and mix, but it’s just not going to be the dish you wanted. A little refocus and you might end up with a great meatloaf, though.

There has also been a troublesome side effect of a movement that, at its core, is healthy and positive. Fitness, strength, and healthy eating have been making a stronger presence in places that used to just focus on weight loss. Exercise and healthy food are both things that inarguably benefit every person. But when the information is not presented correctly, or when the same arbitrary body type is shown to everybody as the fit ideal, we are left with the majority of the population feeling badly about themselves for not being able to achieve that same shape. Fitness is not an “all or nothing” concept. Lacking visually defined abs does not mean you should give up and plant on the couch. Allow me to include a real life example. If you have met me, you know that I am neither lean nor lanky. I’m short, I’m curvy, I’m soft, and I’m strong. My sister is built just like me. She is extremely dedicated to her health and fitness. She hits the gym nearly every day, has run multiple 10k races, and prepares food with more vegetables and obscure seeds than I knew existed.  She’s also beautiful and hilarious and smart, but that might be the big sister speaking, and might also be outside the scope of this post. Upon moving to a new neighborhood recently, her membership at a new gym included a free consult with a personal trainer. Instead of asking her what her fitness goals were, based on her individual body type and lifestyle, the trainer asked her what weight she hoped to get down to. Oh, HELL no. This is from a supposed fitness professional, who one would hope has a greater understanding of health than just what a scale says. She left feeling badly about herself, which makes me want to go to that gym and either burn it to the ground (again, sister talking) or at least share a few choice words with that trainer, his boss, and the corporate owners regarding the “healthy” experience that their customers are getting.

Shame is not the way to achieve anything. Shame will not slim your thighs or inflate your breasts. It will not make your free-trial fitness clients refer their friends to your services, and it certainly won’t help end the cycle of self-loathing many women find themselves in.

Some of us are meatloaf, and some of us are cake. We’re all delicious.

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Since we opened the store nearly three years ago, we have been awed and inspired by women of all ages, shapes, sizes and fitness levels who have embarked on and completed challenging training journeys. Last week, we put out a call via Facebook for our friends to send us their stories of training for and completing a marathon. Of the submissions we received, we were particularly moved by the stories of Jen Fiorenza and Angela Genin. We’ve shared them here and hope you enjoy them as much as we do.

Congratulations, ladies. We’re proud of you!

by Jen Fiorenza

I am a runner. I can run a mile for fun. I can run 26.2 miles for fun (with some training, of course). I am a marathoner. I feel accomplished.

I did not always feel this way. I was not athletic as a child. In some ways, I still do not think of myself as “athletic.” I grew up in a single parent household and there wasn’t time or money for sports. I sat on the sidelines wanting to feel that energy. I wanted to know what victory felt like. It would be decades before my dream was realized.

A few years ago, I thought I would try running for exercise. Running alone did not motivate me, so I registered for a race to motivate my running. I started small; my first race was Crazylegs. After I ran Crazylegs, my dear friend Nicole convinced me I could run a half marathon. No way! Not me! That seemed like such a long distance – 13.1 miles? That was crazy talk! But she believed in me when I did not believe in myself. And under the guise of running for fun, she helped me train a summer for my first half marathon. When we crossed the finish line of the Chicago Half Marathon – I cried from disbelief. How could I – who did not possess an athletic bone in my body – accomplish that race? But my journey was just beginning.

Last year, as our milestone birthdays approached, Nicole (again) convinced me I could run a marathon. Easy for her; she had many under her belt. I have asthma. I am not athletic. I am not the fastest or strongest. Is this really my new idea of fun? Yes! Yes it is! We registered for the Chicago Marathon. We would run as Solemates for Girls on the Run. This time, we shared the journey of training with our friend Amie, a fellow GOTR coach and another non-believer of her running ability. As GOTR coaches, we were teaching young girls to believe in themselves and look at themselves positively. How could we teach that but not live it? We had to do it! We spent all summer training religiously. Honestly, I was scared/intimidated/unsure not to follow my training schedule. I remember my friend Chris sending me a motivational quote as I trained. It might not be completely appropriate for everyone but it was exactly what I needed: “Never underestimate the strength of a woman. Never f*ck with one who runs 26.2 miles for fun.” With that quote in my head and good training under my belt, I knew I was ready. I knew I could do it.

Marathon day was amazing! Perfect weather! Perfect preparations! We stood in the corral waiting to start the race and I just felt strong. Our families were all over the course cheering us on! When I crossed the finish line, I was shaking, shaking with joy and disbelief! Actually feelings greater than joy and disbelief! I knew in my heart I had done the best I could. I felt accomplished! I was a marathoner!

And right next to me was Nicole. A friend who helped me achieve crazy dreams. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. She is a friend who completely altered my being and made me a runner. I am a runner. I am a marathoner. One marathon and numerous half marathons later, she still corrects me when I tell people I am not a “runner.” My marathon was as much about personal accomplishment as it was about friendship. Deep in my heart and mind, I hold on to that accomplishment. It gets me through tough times (Jen, you can do it. You ran a marathon!). It gives me a quiet inner strength. I will always be proud of my first marathon. And I know it will not be my last! :)

IMG_0912Photo: Jen Fiorenza (center) with her friends and marathon training partners, Amie and Nicole, at the 2012 Chicago Marathon


My Marathon Story
by Angela Genin

In January 2012 my best friend and only running partner who lives in MN hinted that she was going to doing her first marathon, Grandmas, and that I should consider it.  Of course I had many reasons why this was not a good idea and I would stick to my usual halfs. She made it clear that this was a good idea:

Me: “I don’t have the time.”
Rebecca: “Here is the schedule, it isn’t that bad and you can make the time.”

Me: “I have a lot of horse riding events going on.”
Rebecca: “It will make you a more athletic person and better rider.”

Me: “I don’t know, I may falter during training.”
Rebecca:  “Call me when you need a pick me up, we can support each other.”

Me: “I am not sure I can do this, what if I need to walk?”
Rebecca: “I will walk with you.”

The last thing she had to say was,”It is on your 35th birthday. What a great present to yourself.”

The next thing I knew, two other girlfriends had signed up to do this with us, they also provided me with inspiration and support. See, I doubted myself as about a year earlier I had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).  At that the time of diagnosis I had shooting pains through the bottoms of my feet, lost control of my left leg and went partly blind in my right eye.  It took me about a year to retrain nerves and for some of my nerves to heal and get back to normal.  For the first few months after diagnosis walking a mile was a struggle.  My family became really concerned and they thought the training would stress me out and send me back into a relapse.

I signed up, took on the schedule and made sure to stay in touch with my running partner.  I had some major bad runs. It was a hot spring and with MS I suffer in the heat.  Next was the fatigue issues, but every week we would all check in and I realized we all have issues.

Before I knew it the day had come: June 16, 2012.  Separately we all made our way to Minnesota with plans to meet up for dinner and stay together.  Walking into the expo for Grandmas was when my stomach rolled. This is big, real big!  I kept thinking, “Was my training good enough? I had those few weeks where I was sick – will that hurt me?  What if I am having a bad day?  Will my gear hold up?”  I was so nervous.

We had a wonderful dinner with friends and family and then we headed to the hotel.  We all said good night to our friends and family because in the morning we would not see them, not even at the starting line.  The unique thing about Grandmas is at the starting line there are no spectators, just the runners.  We started charging Garmins and iPods, then she handed me a very cool sign for me to wear on my back, “It’s my birthday follow me to the party.” That morning we woke up, ate the breakfast we planned and hopped on the bus.  The bus ride was full of doubt and listening to people’s Garmins beeping!
Once we got to the starting line we waited for our other friends, though we never found them.  This was okay as our other girlfriends were running for their sister who passed away training for Ironman. They had their sister Mary in their hearts and minds that day.

It was time. Rebecca and I headed to the starting line.  We agreed on a pace to try to keep and gave each other a hug.  Then my favorite part: they played ‘Jump Around!’  So cool! I am a huge UW Badger football fan and this made my morning!

We were off. It seemed like nothing. We gave each other a high five at every mile, kept smiles on our faces and enjoyed other runners’ conversations.  I had more “happy birthdays” than I would have ever imagined.  For a few miles we hung with an ultra-runner, he was on his second 26.2 that morning. He started at the finish line and ran to the start to run the entire thing over again!  At mile 20 we said okay, just a 10K left. We have this.  The weather started to change it got windy and cold, but we welcomed the cold because it had been warm and humid.  Then at about mile 21-22 we hit the well-known lollipop hill and I cramped.  I told Rebecca I needed to walk a minute.  She turned and looked and at me and said “Just a minute, you can do this, we will do this hill.  You have overcome bigger things.”  I listened to her and we took off.  The last four miles were a blur. Every time I thought I was going to slow down she looked back at me and said “You have this. We are almost done.”  The crowd support grew as we got closer, we came around the last corner to the finish line and there were our friends and family, and we both started to cry.  She grabbed my hand and we crossed the finish line and hugged.  Without her, I would have never been able to accomplish a marathon.  At that point I realized it was a journey and the marathon was just the last chapter.  I am so thankful for her support, advice and love!

Grandmas 2012 2Photo: Angela Genin and her friend and training partner, Rebecca, on Angela’s 35th birthday, crossing the finish line of the Grandmas Marathon in 2012.

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Reign of Hair-or

I woke up feeling sassy and spirited today. My hair is a mess because of the humidity, but that’s not going to stop me.

Biplane Hair

Well, it may stop me from fitting through doors, but that’s what hair ties and Sticky Bands are for. Now, the first thing on today’s agenda is– oh frick, my hair tie snapped. I get it, hair. It’s humid. You’re growing. Here, maybe a little more anti-frizz spritz will calm you down. There we go. On to the day! I think I’ll walk to the coffee shop before work and get an iced…what is that sound? Is anyone here? Is that…it is! My hair is laughing at me! The curls are exploding in little fuzzy bursts of amusement. Is this your way of telling me the spritz isn’t going to cut it? Okay. I respect your needs, hair. On to the thicker, goopy, handfuls of “curl taming” gel. Will that do the– aaaaand my curls have ensnared the bottle and thrown in the garbage. Neat.

I’m learning two important lessons this morning. The first is that Disney lied to me. Not in the “you’ll find love with a hot prince if you’re nice to birds” way. Well, okay, Disney lied to me about two things. The other is that there is NO WAY I could safely and accurately ride a horse or attempt archery with my hair down on a humid day. I’m looking at you, Merida from “Brave.” What’s your secret, girl?! Help a curly sister out!Merida Hair

The second lesson is that if I want to embrace my sassy and spirited mood today, I’m going to have to let my hair do the same. I won’t stop you from being you, hair. Do your thing. Somebody bring me my laptop! My hair and I are working from the park today since we can’t fit through Neena’s door.

Phil Spector

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The Lizard and I

Frilled Lizard

What follows is a partially true account of how an unexpected encounter with a frilled lizard literally changed my life – for the better.

I’m not entirely sure how he ended up on my windowsill, but one morning as bacon and eggs sizzled on my stovetop, I looked out the window and there he sat, a frilled lizard with his head cocked quizzically, watching me. This unblinking stranger with a flair for the dramatic (have you seen the frill?) was not an unwelcome visitor. I had been home nursing a twisted and pained back, alone for more than a week and any sign of life – reptilian or otherwise – was encouraging.

So there we sat, the lizard and I, he a silent observer and I an exercise in perpetual slow motion. He flicked his head quickly to the other side, still watching me. This lizard, I thought, is mocking my pain (“Life is pain, Highness; anything who says differently is selling something.”). He can shift and twist and jump and scamper while I slowly shuffle, rotating my entire body like a vertical rotisserie chicken when I need to change direction.

And so the morning progressed. I shuffled, the lizard watched. He became a friendly comfort and as I packed up a small bag for my first outing in a week – to get ibuprofen and wine, among other things – I hesitated at the window. I knew he wouldn’t be there when I returned and I thought for a moment I might just sit awhile longer. Coming up with no rational reason to delay my errand-running any longer, I set off with one last look and a farewell nod to my windowsill companion.

The drive was cautious, shards of pain shooting down my leg and up each side of my back, nearly to my neck, with every stop and go. Ibuprofen and sundries in hand, I made a final stop at the the local wine shop. Perusing the vast selection, a label caught my eye. Sauvignon Blanc, Australia. The Big Frill Winery. And there was my lizard friend, or at least his likeness via an artist’s sketch, staring blankly back at me. I picked up the bottle ($15.99) and headed to the counter. Two steps later, as I am wont to do, I stumbled over my own feet and the bottle slipped from my hands, landing with a dull crack as the glass split neatly apart, the white wine from down under spreading across the hardwood floor.

Sigh. I grabbed a stackful of napkins from the counter and, without thinking, bent over to begin mopping up my clumsy mess. Pop! Hinged at the waist, I froze, not wanting to move. Uh oh. My back. What have I done? I can’t stay bent over forever. They’re going to have to carry me out of here like this. Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, I rose until I was standing straight up. Wait. WAIT. No pain. None at all. I raised my arms, I shifted from side to side, I rotated my torso. I did a little jump-dance thing. No pain. None at all.

I looked down at the broken wine bottle, the label still intact but saturated. I smiled at my scaly friend and walked, effortlessly and pain-free, to the counter.

“Can I get a case of The Big Frill Sauvignon Blanc?”


The Big Frill

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Here Comes the “Sun”

Winter, I can’t miss you if you won’t go away. I think it would be best if we saw other seasons.

Does anyone else have the never-ending, wet sock winter gloomies? Feel like you’re trapped in a cold, dark vacuum where flip flops don’t exist? I’m done with gray. I’m done with turtlenecks. I’m done with white-knuckling the steering wheel as I spin around icy roads. It’s time for spring.

Since the snow is snowin’ and the wind is still f$#&ing blowin’, spring will have to be metaphorical. We unfortunately can’t control the weather. Unless you are a witch, sorcerer, or Storm from X-Men. Wait…are you? If you are any of these things, please call me. If not, let’s be our own springtimes! For me, that means dressing in bright colors, putting sparkles on things (eyelids, shoes, napping friends, etc.), and making a big stinking deal about my birthday, which happens to be today. I have been so childishly tickled about my birthday that I couldn’t care less what the weather is doing. You won’t steal my thunder, winter! Happy attention-hoarding, cake-eating, gift-wrapped spring, everyone!

Even if you’re not the egomaniac that I am, it’s still important to make time to celebrate yourself. It’s easy to get lost in the drudgery of our daily routines, especially when the weather insists on remaining so unsavory. Add a little party to your day! Wear those pants that make your butt look extra good. Take yourself out to lunch because you deserve it. Tell the Starbucks barista that your name is Princess Glitterface so that you can proudly and with great flourish claim your latte when that name is called out. Swish over to the sugar station, knowing that everyone around you is jealous of your awesomeness.

Spring doesn’t always come when we need it to. Sometimes we need to plant some flowers, do a barefoot twirl in the garden, and pretend the desk lamp is really the sun on our face. I’ll give you until the end of March to switch from lion to lamb, weather, and then I’m putting my flip flops on. Literal flip flops, not metaphorical.

We all deserve to be warm. Happy first day of spring!

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It’s Okay to Suck

I have something to tell you. This is pretty heavy stuff for a Monday, so you’d better sit down. Here it is. I am not good at everything. I’m so sorry to shock you like that. Are you ready to move on or do you need a minute to let that sink in?

Ready yet?

Okay, here we go.

Don’t be too upset, I am good at lots of things. For example, I can help you pick out an outfit that flatters your shape. My ability to remember names is top notch. I can beat pretty much any child at arm wrestling. All very impressive and useful skills, and trust me, I appreciate them. However, I also just straight up suck at lots of things. Some I have tried to improve upon, but some just have “Ronni Sucks At This!” written on them in Sharpie. That’s fine though. We can’t all be good at everything, or no one would have anything to learn.

The tricky part comes in accepting the truth. I want to be good at navigating through areas outside my neighborhood! If I keep telling myself it’s just a simple four-sided square, will I stop immediately losing my bearings the minute I am in the vicinity of downtown Madison? If I really think I should be able to, will I be able to easily walk six blocks back to my hotel in an unfamiliar city once I’ve walked six blocks away from it? Nope! Is that frustrating and sometimes embarrassing? Of course. Can I flip a switch in my brain that makes me a human GPS? Of course not.

Some challenges are not worth conquering. This is not to say don’t try new things or stop searching for new challenges, just that one lost battle should not overshadow all of your wins. Use your energy to focus on your strengths. Deneen’s strengths do not include activities involving fine motor skills, but she is excellent at navigating cities. So, I untangle her necklaces for her, and she always drives when we go to a new city for market! In moments like that, I’m not thinking how terrible I am at navigation, I’m thinking how awesome I am at untangling necklaces!

Own your suck, but don’t be defined by it. Our strengths and weaknesses make us interesting and unique. I have a whole pile of things I’m great at, that I’m going to choose to focus my time and energy on. And to make you feel even better about your unslayable dragons, here are some more of mine:

1. I can’t wear that beautiful and very comfy-looking style of wide, flowy tops we sell at Neena because I look like a circus tent.
2. Running up and down lots of stairs (a favorite activity of the Woodall Training instructors). My short little legs will take twice as long as your normal human legs to get up the stairs and will then be so fatigued by the time I reach the top that I will contemplate tucking and rolling back down.
3. I am a terrible multi-tasker. I can hardly type with music on. If you try to talk to me while I’m on the phone with someone else my brain will explode.
4. I just learned that I suck at coming up with an elegant or wise way to end this blog entry, so it’s done now.

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Annie Get Your Gun

* this blog post is an excerpt from the talk that Deneen gave at the DreamBank Madison on February 7, 2013.

So, I was a dramatic child (those of you who know me, I know, shocker!). So that means that I probably should have been an actress. Maybe I will become an actress. Vocational ADD strikes again. One of my favorite Broadway tunes was from the production “Annie Get Your Gun.” You know the one: “Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”

For a long time, I kinda owned that philosophy as a running soundtrack in my head. Not that I was overtly competitive or trying to one-up anyone. It was internal; a challenge to myself. I grew up with a certain innate defiance that comes from … who knows where? Maybe from being the only girl among six kids. Maybe from growing up in a very, very modest (and that’s putting it politely) household. Maybe from being raised in a conservative, upper middle class community by a single mom who worked in the graveyard shift in a factory. Not a typical lifestyle where I grew up. I think it’s safe to say I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder that only I really knew was there. “You’re not better than me,” I seemed to say. “Just watch what I can do. Anything you can do, I can do better …” and the subtext, for me, was, “ and I can do it all on my own.”

Except I can’t do it alone. And, more importantly, why would I want to? The biggest life lesson I have learned in the past three years from opening Neena to joining the fire service is that nothing I do is possible or really matters unless I have people to share it with. That I can tell myself all day that I am completely self-sufficient and I can accomplish anything I want under my own power, but it’s just not true. Connection is really all that matters.

I know it wouldn’t make sense in the Annie Get Your Gun, but the song should be:
“Anything you can do, we can do better.” Because that’s really how it plays out.

Neena is the perfect example of this. My dance studio was a partnership and when I sold it, I vowed that I would never go into a business partnership again. And I probably won’t. Coming off that difficult time, I was all about fierce independence in every way. I was going to build walls so high and so thick that nobody could mess with me. Because that’s super healthy. And effective. Right.

But then I hired my first employee and that kinda changed everything. Actually I got to steal her from the dance studio where she had worked with me since soon after we had opened. So although I’m the sole owner of Neena, from its beginning it has been a team effort. It enjoyed early success right out of the gate for one reason: because it is a shared effort. I simply could not have done it on my own. I mean, I could have. On paper. I could have opened the store on my own. Hired out all of the work it took to open and I couldn’t do on my own. Hired a manager with a perfect retail resume and experienced sales staff. And we’d probably be out of business by now. But we run Neena like a smart, loving and supportive household. We’re a family of sorts and we get through it all because we value the connection and the shared effort. And it’s been that way from the beginning. From Ronni, my store manager, who has been part of Neena since we registered as an LLC to friends like Dan & Anna and others who gave their time and energy to help us build the space out in 45 days. Shared with our neighbors who watched us painting late into the night and brought us food and words of encouragement. How boring and flat would it have been had I kept the defiant chip on my shoulder and had tried to do it all on my own? How rich and meaningful are the memories that I have of the first days of the Neena dream? Beyond measure.

The importance of connection is even more direct with firefighting. There is an actual, physical connection. The buddy system; you call for help unless you can either see, feel or hear someone on your team. The whole brotherhood that people talk about or you see in movies that is part of the fire service – it’s a real thing. From being on the fire ground to playing recreational sports to training to funerals. It’s a family. Being at the station, among the community, the family, of firefighters, is probably the only place in my life where I can be 100% unapologetically myself. It’s a safe zone. The only expectation that anyone has of me when I am there is that when a call comes in, I am focused, I’m efficient, I can be counted on to do my job as a member of a team with 100% effort and that safety is my primary concern. That my team can trust me and that I can trust them. With our lives if we must. That is powerful and rewarding and uncommon connection.

The takeaway? Connect. Relationships mean everything. In business. In family. In friendships. In love. You can be independent and strong and accomplished and still be connected. Actually, you can probably only be these things if you have people in your life who help you become them. Connect. Every opportunity.  Even the tiniest, most fleeting ones. With neighbors, with strangers at the airport or the coffee shop or the bank. Through the noise and the fray and day-to-day, it can be distilled down to thus: Our relationships, our connections, are what bring the greatest meaning and joy into our lives. Put them above all else.

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When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Quinoa.

One week ago, we were busy, nervous, and pre-tired. We were preparing for the sale, and finalizing our plans for the market trip that would occur immediately afterward. You know how life can be sometimes, when activities clump together on your calendar rather than politely spacing themselves apart. I can’t speak for everyone, but when I don’t have a rest, pause, or day off planned for the foreseeable future, I tend to get all dramatic about it. Examples of some of my thoughts from last week:

“How is it even POSSIBLE for anyone to work twelve days in a row with no day off?!?”
“I’m not even going to have time for meals!! I’ll have to survive on handfuls of almonds and brief sips of room temperature coffee!!”
“I’m going to be so tired I won’t even be able to FUNCTION!!”

Obviously, the sailing was a little smoother than that. I ate, slept, hydrated, and lived like a normal human. It was not very dramatic. In fact, I even attempted to thrive instead of just survive! What?? Shocking. I know. To continue with 2013‘s pattern of treating myself right, I managed to avoid going into Oreos-taking-the-place-of-meals mode. Right now you’re probably saying “Ronni! You beautiful healthy genius! Can you please share how you managed to stay on track with healthy habits during a week of being busy at work and traveling??” Yes, friends. I will sprinkle you with some pearls of wisdom.

During some of our past sales, I wrote off exercise as a non-possibility that I just didn’t have time for during a busy week. This time, I made myself go to multiple TRX classes during the week. And shockingly, it improved my energy level for the rest of the day instead of draining it as I used to fear! What??!! Exercising improves the quality of your health and well being?? Brand new information!

I was correct to anticipate a heavy dependence on almonds and coffee this week, but managed to put decent meals and moments of sitting down in between the handfuls and sips. Sometimes it took some major will power to seek out a healthy meal instead of comfort food, but I always felt better about the healthier decision after the fact. Even at market, instead of getting soft pretzels and mini chocolate bundt cakes from the snack vendors, Deneen and I both bought the little pre-made containers of quinoa salad! Unheard of. We were proud.

I won’t try to excuse or qualify the amount of coffee I drank this week. It was a lot. At every opportunity. I REGRET NOTHING.

One of the most rewarding things to come out of this busy week was a renewed appreciation for the nature of this store. I wore all Neena, all week and weekend, and was comfy as can be. Sunday was a fourteen hour day, and in my Red 23 tunic and Sense leggings, I hardly needed to change into pajamas when I eventually crashed face down into my hotel pillow that night.

This week certainly reinforced some important lessons for me. Similar to the way quality gasoline and tune ups make your car run better, good food and movement help your body function better. I hope I remember during the summer sale this July how much better I felt this week than I anticipated I would. More than good rest and squeezed-in workouts, I think the most important lesson to be reinforced this week was that it is always a good idea to wrap up a long weekend of hard work in downtown Chicago with deep dish pizza. Quinoa salad will still be there tomorrow.

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It’s going be one of those weeks where I wonder how it’s all gonna happen. There’s a mental to-do list that keeps changing by the minute, an actual to-do list for the week, a grocery list, a packing checklist, and a big picture to-do list hanging out like a hovercraft above my head.

It seems whenever travel is thrown into the mix, it takes the time management game to a new level. Preparing to go away – mentally and physically – can be stressful even when you have the softest clothes on the planet to keep you comfy while you journey.

So what gets put to the back burner or taken off the stovetop entirely? For me, it’s usually eating and exercising. I pretty much can’t function without six hours of sleep, so I’m committed to avoiding being a sleep-deprived grump during high-pressure weeks. But making good eating choices and getting my workouts in tend to get a little lost in the shuffle. Which is ironic, because both of those things would be helpful in powering through a busy week.

So here’s how it’s gonna go down. It’s day one of nine of crazy town and I’m going to suck it up and keep it together. I can do this, right?

It seems fitting and timely (no pun intended) that a friend randomly sent me an email this morning reminding me that we have 86,400 seconds in each day. We have 86,400 fleeting opportunities. We have just as many on days that are packed full of responsibility as we do on days that are open for leisure. As another friend once reminded me, “Michelangelo had just as many hours in the day as we do.” Well, great, I guess. That can either make me feel inspired or seriously pressured depending on my state of mind. Also I can’t paint or draw, so somehow using Michelangelo adds an undercurrent of failure right off the bat. So I generally substitute Marie Curie or Coco Chanel or even my own mom when I think of that quote. Not that I’m in the running for the Nobel Prize or creating a global couture fashion empire, but I can more readily relate to them.

It’s true, though. We have the same amount of time each day to kick it in as anybody else on the planet. That playing field is undeinably level for us all.

So let’s start with the basics. Just so you know that I don’t want to come across as a condescending time management know-it-all (quite the opposite, actually) I’m writing this more for me than anyone else. If I put it in writing I have no excuses and am instituting the blog accountability tool.

My Crazy Town Kick it In Minimum Operating Standards:

1. Get my required minimum of sleep. Make this non-negotiable.

2. Take 10 minutes – just ten, that’s it – to quiet my brain. Preferably in the morning. Sit comfortably, quietly and breathe. I’m not going to think about all that has to get done. Breathe. After these ten minutes, I’ll flit about like the hummingbird I need to be, but for these 600 seconds, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. It helps. I promise.

3. Decide what I’m going to wear the night before so I’m not standing in my closet staring blankly and getting annoyed and wasting time. Because when that happens, I grab a pair of Tina leggings and some sort of tunic. Not a bad option, but I don’t walk out the door feeling like I’m gonna kick it in. I need to feel confident during crazy town weeks and what I’m wearing helps. Besides, I love my clothes. Taking time to think about what I’m going to wear is a creative outlet and it’s also necessary because it’s 9 degrees out and naked is not an option. Lipstick and mascara also help, so I have them within reach at all times.

4. Think about what I’m going to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Besides giving me energy and keeping my mind focused on the task at hand rather than hunger pangs, it makes me feel like I have some control of my day. I may have a million things on my plate, but what is literally on my plate is something I can determine. If I wait until the last minute, I’m going to grab whatever is edible and closest to my mouth, which is usually almonds, a hunk of chocolate and some sort of semi-stale cracker hanging about past its prime in the Neena kitchen. If I’m traveling it means fast food French fries.

5. Look at my schedule and realistically plan my exercise time. I tend to be overly optimistic, but then cut myself some slack if I can’t make them all happen. This time, however, I’m also going to have a backup plan. That’s right. You’re not gonna outsmart me, crazy town. If I can’t make the 8:40 TRX class on Wednesday morning like I plan, I’m going to do a variety of squats, pushups and planks in my office. I’m going to have some options if crazy town threatens my plans.

6. Drink lots of water. This sounds so stupidly cliche that I almost don’t want to write it. But this list is really for me and my crazy town week and the bottom line is that when I am guzzling water like a desert camel, I feel good. I don’t really care if it’s psychological or real. Hydration works for me.

7. Smile. Smile when nobody is watching. In the midst of the chaos, I’m going to think a super happy thought and just smile. (Side note: I just did that and it was really nice.) Also, a cool song just came on so I’m going to add listen to music that makes me bounce my feet or think better or type faster.

8. Do my best, but at the end of the crazy town day or week or month or, hell, year, remember that I can’t make more time. I just can’t. Time is finite each day and even if I have more to get done than the those 86,400 seconds can accommodate, they are what we get. As my six year-old would remind me, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” Let it go. It’s cool. Big picture it. You’ve done your best. Can you really ask for or expect more than that?

It’s day one of nine. I took my ten minutes this morning. I ate a healthy breakfast. I had to miss my first workout of the week, but I’m in head-to-toe Beyond Yoga so something akin to exercise will be happening in my office this afternoon. Ronni is headed to Willy Street Co-Op as I type to get us a kale salad (yep, we’re still on that kick) for lunch. I’ve already had 32 ounces of water today. I’ve smiled ALOT. I’ve also laughed and done a ridiculous robotic dance when a weird instrumental version of a Top 40 song came on Pandora. I just reapplied my lipstick so I feel fancy.

I’m not going to get it all done today. Not even close. I can already see that. But I’m going to kick it in anyway. And be in bed by midnight so I can get those six hours of sleep I need.

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