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In 1998, I moved into a one bedroom apartment by myself.  It was a big change and it was the first time I ever lived completely alone, without roommates, friends or family.  It was scary and liberating all at once, and presented the perfect opportunity to do what I had always wanted to – get myself a dog.  All my life I had wanted a dog, and I spent countless hours trying to convince my parents or my roommates to let me get one to no avail.   When I finally got my own place it seemed like a perfect opportunity, but I was responsible enough to realize that my job requirements, which included long days and a lot of travel, wouldn’t allow me to take care of a dog properly.  A dog of my own was something that I constantly pined for just as some women pine for children; it was my own warped version of a biological clock. 

On New Year’s Day, 2000, I was at breakfast with my brother, John, and my friend, Barb, after a night out on the town celebrating New Year’s Eve.  My brother had a cat that he had been trying to pawn off on me for a few weeks; his landlord wouldn’t let him keep it and he didn’t know what else to do with it.  I kept giving him advice about how to unload the cat (advertise, send an email, ask around) because I really didn’t want it.  I don’t like cats, I told him, they aren’t friendly like dogs.  He was adamant that this cat was cool and I would love him.  My friend Barb had a cat, and she helped John wear me down with comments such as:  But you can’t take care of a dog.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little friend?  Cats are the easiest pets, they take care of themselves.  A cat would fit into your lifestyle. 

Their persistence plus my hangover was more than I could take and finally I said, Fine, I’ll take the damn cat!

A few days later, my brother dropped the cat off to me.  I don’t know what I expected, but when I saw this cat I was taken aback.  He was orange, with long soft hair and a fluffy tail.  Isn’t he cute? My brother insisted.  I had to agree – the cat looked like a stuffed animal who had come to life.  His name, Norman, suited him perfectly.  I guess it was something about his whiskers and the white hair in his ears that made him seem like a “Norman.”

I didn’t know much about cats when I got Norman, but I did know some things about myself, specifically that I need attention and that I can be stubborn.  So when Norman took to hiding under the couch, I would have none of it.  Of course, I gave him a chance to get used to his new home, but after a couple of days I would find myself dragging him out from under the couch and picking him up to hug him.  Norman was very floppy, and so – as I would be hugging him around his middle – his head, front and back legs and tail would be hanging over my arms like a ragdoll.  Try to picture a thirty-year-old professional woman walking around her apartment with a miserable cat hanging from her arms.  I would say to him, I gave you a home and you will love me!  Oh, the psychoanalysis that could follow from that statement…

Nonetheless, the first few weeks of our life together consisted of Norman trying to escape from me while I hunted him down and me holding him on my lap whether he liked it or not.  Then one day something very interesting happened.  I was on the couch reading a magazine, taking a break from torturing the cat, when Norman jumped up onto the back of the couch, walked up to where I was sitting, and perched himself just above my head like a pirate’s parrot.  I was exhilarated.  That’s the big difference between cats and dogs:  Dogs come to you when you call them, they crave your attention and give affection freely; cats are a little slower to warm up, but when a cat decides to give you attention you feel special.  So there I sat, reading my magazine and feeling special because Norman decided to come and sit next to me.

And that’s how the love affair began. 

Whenever I came home, Norman would be at the door waiting to greet me by rubbing against my legs.  When I made my dinner, I would give him his food and then we would both eat a bit together.  When I sat down to do work, he would come and sit on the desk, usually right on top of whichever paper I was working on at the moment.  When I sat on the couch to unwind in front of the television, he would sit next to me and eventually he started to sit in my lap.  When I got ready to go out on the town, he would curl up and sleep in the bathroom sink while I did my hair and makeup, and even though that led to the occasional cat hair stuck in my mascara for an entire evening, I thoroughly enjoyed Norman’s company. 

I am sure at this point I sound like a crazy cat lady, and there were times when I was very self-conscious that I was single, over thirty and living with a cat.  In reality, during this time I was busy with my career, having fun with friends, dating and “getting out there,” as they say.  However, when I came home to take a breath, my little buddy Norman was there to hang with me.  Over time, Norman began to feel like a roommate more than anything else, probably because he was so low maintenance and because he had his own individual way of doing things. 

I don’t know if it was because I treated Norman as the dog I never had or if it was just his style, but Norman developed some quirky aspects to his personality.  He would drop to the floor, stretching out and rolling over so I could rub his stomach.  When I was on the couch and I wanted him to sit with me, I would shout Norman! and he would come trotting up and jump on the couch and into my lap.  If I gave him a twist-tie, he would spend half an hour chasing it and pouncing on it all over the apartment while I just watched in amusement.  He always slept with me and a lot of time he slept curled up on my head.  He liked water and when I was getting out of the shower he would jump up on the edge of the tub so the drips from my hair would fall on him.

Norman was with me throughout a very turbulent period of my life.  In the time we were together, we lived in:

Hoboken, NJ
Austin, TX
Baltimore, MD
Montclair, NJ (two different houses)
Jersey City, NJ
Ocean Grove, NJ (two different houses)

If you know anything about cats, you know they don’t like change.  Yet Norman tagged along as I continually moved from place to place, trying to make myself happy.  He was with me on September 11, 2001, when I was stranded in Texas, far from my family and friends in New York and New Jersey.  Shortly after the Twin Towers fell, I was sitting in the living room, hunched over and sobbing with my hands in my head.  I looked up momentarily, and there Norman was, sitting next to me on the couch and just looking at me.  As soon as I sat up, he carefully walked into my lap and curled up there.  I remember feeling floored that he was so deliberately trying to comfort me.

In retrospect, maybe Norman was sent to take care of me in that way.  As someone who was never comfortable showing sadness to other people, I withdrew when I went through a troubled marriage and stressful divorce.  There were too many days like what I described above, when I was desperately sad and purposely isolating myself from the world.  At those times, Norman not only kept me company, but he made me feel better.  It sounds a bit wacky, but trust me that when he licked my face as I cried, it was clear that Norman was attuned to how I was feeling.

I finally got the dog I always wanted, followed by a husband and another dog (package deal), then a baby.  My husband joked that Norman was always Number One, and there is some truth to that.  I suppose spending so much time alone together allowed us to bond in a special way.  For someone who never thought she would like having a pet of the feline persuasion, I became a huge fan of Norman the Cat (his full name).

Unfortunately, at this moment I am terribly, horribly sad and I don’t have Norman here to sit on my lap and make it better.  Two days ago my husband and I made the difficult decision to put him to sleep because he was so sick from kidney failure.  It feels like ten years went by in a blink of an eye – it wasn’t enough time!  Whenever I walk into a room, I glance behind me out of habit to look for Norman following me; for the first time in a decade, he isn’t at my heels and it feels like I lost my shadow.  As I was lying in bed awake the other night, it occurred to me that it is somewhat poetic how Norman came into my life shortly before I entered a very challenging period, when I dealt with some serious personal problems; now, only six months or so since I truly feel like myself again, he has moved on.  Maybe he was a furry guardian angel. 

I only hope I was half as good to him as he was to me.  Norman the Cat will be sorely missed.

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I started my career as a teacher, and the first experience I had in a classroom was as a “student teacher.”  Student teaching is a practice where a college student (duh) studying to be a teacher (again, duh) goes into the classroom of a real teacher and gets to commandeer the class under the hosting teacher’s guidance.  Basically, it’s like teaching with training wheels.

While I can understand the logic and it seems to be a better alternative to just being thrown into a classroom on your own to test out everything you read in books about how kids learns, there are some aspects of the student teaching model that can make it challenging:

  • Because you are not the “real teacher”, there is a risk that the students will perceive you to be some form of substitute teacher.  In their malleable minds, this equates to not necessarily having to follow rules or not needing to do any work in your presence.
  • If there is a large age gap between you and the host teacher, there is a risk that the host teacher will treat you like a student and chastise you in front of the class when you make a mistake.  This does not further your attempts to gain the respect of the students. The last thing you want to hear from your host teacher is, “You’re so young, the students I taught 20 years ago are older than you!”
  • On the other end of the spectrum, there is a risk that the host teacher will let you run with it, and possibly even just disappear, leaving you in charge.  The danger here is that you might freak out without someone around to hold your hand.

The last scenario was the least problematic for me; my many years of waitressing experience taught me a couple of key survival techniques, such as how to stay calm when an irate customer is screaming at you (smile a tiny bit but not too much), and how to massage the truth, also known as lying, with absolutely no hesitation (“Yes, I did remember to tell the chef to use olive oil instead of butter on your veggies.”)   So it ended up being fortunate for me that, when I was a student teacher, my host teacher was very “hands off.”  I liked having some latitude to try things without worrying that, any time something went the least bit awry, the host teacher might jump in and take over.

However, as I walked in to the classroom for the first time, I had no idea what my student teaching situation would be.  Since it was my first day, I hadn’t met the host teacher, she hadn’t yet introduced me to the class, and I didn’t know a single student.  Therefore, walking in to find a teacher-less classroom was a bit awkward.  When you are the only adult in a room full of seventh graders, it’s hard to blend.  So here I was, just sort of standing out, wondering if I should do something or just wait for the teacher, who really should have been showing up any minute because the second bell had rung five minutes before.  As I was looking down the hall for any sign of the teacher, I heard a bit of a commotion behind me…

Ewwww!  A girl screeched.

I quickly turned around and saw a beautiful little boy standing in front of me.  He had blond hair, blue eyes, and long thick eyelashes.  Freckles were sprinkled all over his cheeks.  He was small for a seventh grader, and looked nine or ten instead of twelve years old.  It was a complete Cindy Lou Who moment, because his cuteness was almost disarming.

I looked down at him and said, “What’s going on?”

He replied, “I only asked her a question.”

“OK, what was the question?  Maybe I can help you.”

“What’s a clitoris?” he asks with a straight face.  Suddenly, the class fell silent.

Following is an account of what went through my head in the next few seconds.  I swear on my life that I did not embellish this.

Is he serious, or is he trying to upset me?  If I let him get me riled on Day One, it’s over – I will never regain control of this class.  I am sure he is testing me, trying to see what I am made of.  I can’t answer his question seriously.  But he is so cute – could such a cute boy be so evil?  Maybe if he used his smarts for good instead of…ok, off-topic, back to the issue at hand.  But what if he is serious?  If I act like he did something wrong by saying “clitoris,” as if a it is a bad thing, then somewhere down the line when he gets married his wife could end up miserable because he is afraid of her clitoris or something.  And then she gets stuck in a foreplay-less marriage and it’s all my fault!

After an instantaneous analysis of my two options (chastise him or answer the question), I decided to walk right down the middle:

“That is a really good question for your Health Teacher.”

He stood there for a second and then smiled and said, “OK, thanks,” and walked to his desk.  A few days later, as I got to know this student better, it became very clear to me that this was indeed a test and fortunately, I got a good grade.

And in the process, this experience taught me a new survival technique:  How to pass the buck. 

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  The first commenter to correctly explain the reference in the title of this blog wins.  What you win are bragging rights and the satisfied feeling that you know more useless information than everyone else who read this post.  Someday when I finish my book and I am on Oprah, I will give out better prizes, although I would argue that “bragging rights” are definitely worth something!

About thirteen years ago while I was working at Lucent Technologies, I went to a training class.  At that time, Lucent was a huge company and it wasn’t unusual to attend an internal class and not know a single person there.  At lunch, I joined another classmate I had just met, T. K. Srinivas, a man who happened to be Indian.  During the conversation, in my typical fashion, which is “intellectually curious plus outgoing minus any sense of boundaries,” I asked T.K. if he had had an arranged marriage.  He said he had, and of course my follow up question was even more intrusive:  What was it like to marry someone you had just met?

T.K. was kind enough to continue having lunch and chatting with me, despite the fact that I had just met him and was prying into his personal life.  As he answered my question, he said something very interesting, something upon which I still frequently reflect.  I am going to state it here and hope that I do his words justice…

In the Indian culture with respect to arranged marriages, people recognize that being married is a partnership, much like a business.  You come together because you have the same goals and the same values, and then you work to build a life and family with each other.  You focus on discovering all of the things that make your partner lovable, because everyone is lovable in so many ways.

I immediately saw the contrast between what T.K. described and what I had been living.  In my world, we date by a process of elimination.  We meet someone, get to know them, and, when we find something about them we don’t like, we end it and move on.  A few months prior to my conversation with T.K., I had actually broken up with someone because he said almost everything twice (No really, it was very annoying.  No really, it was very annoying).  But in fairness, it wasn’t just me.  What about Seinfeld?  Remember the woman he dumped because she ate her peas one at a time?  And there were many other examples of people I knew personally who broke up with a potential partner because he or she wasn’t “The One.”  In our culture, we hunt for a perfect person, a soul mate, someone with whom we will live Happily-Ever-After.  The search itself is the challenge – after all, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find that Prince – but once that wonderful and amazing person has been located, all of the problems are solved and the rest is easy.  As Nipsey Russell would say, “Riiiight.”

It was like a light bulb went off in my head.  Of course!  We are all going about this the wrong way!  Focusing on our perfect match makes us miss how many wonderful people are out there.  More importantly, expecting a partner to be perfect likely leads to failed relationships and disappointment in the end, because no one can live up to such unrealistic expectations.  I started to notice examples of an approach to love and marriage that was generally backwards:  romantic comedies (which I rarely watch unless I am pre-menstrual or hung-over) which always end when the two people wind up together; and dating game shows, like The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, where someone searches for a person to pair off with and the resulting relationship is just a footnote in a future issue of US Magazine.  In both cases, the difficult search is the point and, once complete, the story is over.  But in reality, once you commit to someone is when the real work starts.  I realized that a myth had been perpetrated on our society and, to a large degree, I blamed the Brothers Grimm.

The implications for this learning are even broader than romantic relationships.  Imagine what would happen if you focused your attention on the lovable aspects of those with whom you have relationships, instead of what annoys you?  What if you didn’t notice your son’s socks on the floor but instead enjoyed how he always offers to help with the dishes?  What if you let an unsolicited opinion from your mother slide, but appreciated that she brings food for you every time she visits?  What if you spent less time caring that one of your employees always comes in at 9:05am and instead valued that he is self-directed and always completes his work before it’s due?  In other words, what if we stopped expecting people to be perfect because they are already perfect enough?

Maybe I am an idealist, and perhaps what I am describing is an unattainable utopia.  I know from my own experience that it is often easier said than done.  Even so, I believe it to be a worthwhile pursuit to focus my attention on the lovable qualities of the people around me, because everyone is lovable in so many ways.  Thanks T.K.!

About Me

The purpose of this blog is purely self-expression - being creative for the sake of being creative. It has evolved into a collection of non-fiction essays.

All of the anecdotes and incidents you read in this blog are completely true and not exaggerated, no matter how sad, pathetic or unbelievable they may seem.

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© Operation Peace and Serenity, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Operation Peace and Serenity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.