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My posts of late have been somewhat reflective and introspective, so you may be expecting this post to be about the signs the universe is sending me to direct me to my purpose…blah blah blah. No, I wanted to write about plain ordinary signs – the boards with words and pictures that tell you where to go – or not.

I stick up for New Jersey all of the time. Armpit of the United States? How dare you! Have you been to Baltimore? Or Central Florida? That place may not have state income tax, but it also has no soul. New Jersey is a cool place. We let people across the country think bad things about New Jersey. We invite visitors to come to New Jersey and be greeted by the industrial sludge surrounding Newark Airport. We do this because New Jersey is already too damned crowded –we don’t need people up and moving here from out of state and making it worse. In actuality, New Jersey is a great place to live: we have beautiful beaches, amazing state parks where you can hike in seclusion for hours, local farms with fresh-picked produce, and all of this only a short distance from the best city in the world (I am referring to New York City, not Philly, lest there be any confusion). So what if virtually every municipal government in our state is corrupt? That just adds to the local flavor. There are a lot of things to love about New Jersey (pork roll, the Giants, Bruce) and the majority of people I know who grew up here want to stay.

So as a big fan of New Jersey, I feel that I have a right to point this out: What in the hell is up with the signage in this state?! If you don’t know where you are going, then you are shit out of luck because there are no signs that will help you. Most road signs in New Jersey are too small, too sparse, unclear (such as an arrow that points to the wrong place), or just plain confusing. 

For example, last week I had a business meeting in West Orange on Prospect Ave, just off Route 280. As I was leaving the meeting and heading south on Prospect, I was trying to remember if the entrance for 280 East was on the left or the right. Unlike some states, there is no standard for the location of highway entrances – sometimes they are on the left and sometimes they are on the right. I will give the benefit of the doubt and assume that a lot of the on-ramps were built after the houses and businesses, thus leading to a certain degree of randomness. Nonetheless, if there is no consistency to how the entrances to highways are designed, at least we should make sure they are clearly marked, right? Wrong. This is how it went:

About 200 feet before the highway, there was a small sign (about the size of a stop sign) for 280 East with an arrow pointing up to indicate that the highway was straight ahead. There was no indication as to whether the entrance for 280 East would be on the right or the left. This is problematic because Prospect has two lanes going each way and everyone in this area drives at least 50 miles per hour on these types of roads, so there isn’t a lot of time to change lanes once you realize you are in the wrong one for the highway entrance. Perhaps a bit of suspense and excitement is a good thing. The photo below from Google Maps shows the sign for Route 280 with a Garden State Parkway sign directly below it. It is a bit hard to see in the sun (a lot like when you are driving at certain times of the day), but it is directly to the right of the car. Please note how small the sign is, keeping in mind that this is a pretty major highway.

Signage 1 

Now, the entrance for 280 East ended up being on the left, which fortunately I remembered from when I lived in the area. Directly above the left entrance was a large sign indicating that 280 East was “this way”  as you can see in the photo below. That would typically be a good thing, even though it would still require a quick lane-change if you were on the right. However, the other day when I was on that road the entire sign for 280 East was covered by tree branches. Sigh.

 Signage 2

Overgrown foliage covering signs on or to major highways is not an isolated incident – I see it all of the time. Who is in charge here? How can no one notice that a sign is completely covered by trees?! How could someone notice and not feel compelled to trim them back?! I have seen signs completely covered by trees and tall grasses on highways like Route 287 where the average speed is 80 miles per hour in the right lane. The message: If you want to drive on our highways, you better already know where you need to go, dammit. It’s every man, woman and child for themselves.

Then there are the Garden State Parkway signs. The Parkway is pretty much the major thoroughfare for intra-state travel. Yet, on several occasions I have been in a New Jersey town that I know is near a Parkway entrance, like Springfield, but I can’t find the Parkway because the signs point you in the direction but never actually lead you there. You see a small Parkway sign on the side of the road that points to the right. You make the next available right even though there isn’t another sign confirming that this is the right turn that the other sign referred to. Then you drive for two miles without seeing another sign. Are you supposed to take it on faith as you tour some suburb in Northern New Jersey that if you continue going in the approximate direction suggested by the last Parkway sign you will eventually hit the highway? From my experience, a safer bet to play the 22 to 1 long-shot at Monmouth Park Racetrack.

This all became obvious to me for the first time a few years ago following a move out of state. Being new to Texas, I depended on the clear and prominent signs on the roads to find my way around. Upon my move back to New Jersey, the lack of signage became very apparent. No wonder people hate New Jersey: not only are the signs useless, but when out-of-state drivers slow down to try to figure out where they’re going, the typical New Jersey driver reacts by riding their tail and flashing the high-beams. Welcome to the Garden State.

On second thought, maybe the poor signage isn’t due to a lack of attention to detail or someone dropping the ball. Maybe it’s a conspiracy to prevent more people from moving to our already-crowded state. It’s just a thought. No matter how hard I try, I can’t stop defending New Jersey.

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The anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001 sneaks up on me almost every year. As I am going about my normal routine, doing what needs to get done, I get on my computer or turn on the television and…there it is. In one second of recognition, I recalled the strangest and most frightening day of my life.

It’s the aftermath of that day on which I choose to reflect. The time immediately following September 11th was one characterized by uncertainty and vulnerability. I had concerns about the likelihood of a repeat attack and wondered what would it take to make me feel safe again. I was reminded that life is short and I noted that some of the people who died that day were just getting started before their future was erased, specifically my friend’s son Bradley who was only 24 years old when he died. I yearned to be with my loved ones (I was in Texas at the time), especially my Aunt Pat who had survived the bombing in 1993 and the Towers falling in 2001. I appreciated the blessing of having such special people in my life.

In the next year it seemed like a change had taken place, as if everyone had rethought their priorities. I observed more parents leaving work early to participate in their children’s activities. I watched my corporate coworkers resign for more fulfilling careers or to work in non-profit organizations. I witnessed friends and acquaintances volunteering in their spare time, resolving long-standing grudges, making time to be with family. At one point I thought to myself that if we had to face such a tragedy and lose so many wonderful people from our lives at least some good had come of it. Our collective conscious had shifted away from money, status, and the acquisition of property to relationships, service, and the enjoyment of life.

For me, the realization was instant even if the course correction took time. I had spent the seven years prior to 2001 working until 9:00pm on most nights. I had lost touch with many people whose friendship I enjoyed. I had let my weight and health condition fluctuate with stress. I loved my job, but I had let it become who I was. After the shock and grief of that day, I felt resolve: something had to change. I made some initial adjustments but, like so many experiences in life, it has been a journey. At one point in 2005, I saw myself falling into the same trap where I was letting my sense of responsibility for my job overshadow my responsibility to my family and myself. I wasn’t the only one; within only a few years it was apparent that many of us, flawed humans that we are, were living our pre-2001 lives; the current financial crisis we are in is clear evidence of that.

Therefore, on each anniversary of September 11th, I first remember the people we lost – the ones who didn’t have the opportunity to finish their lives. Then I reflect on what I have done to keep my priorities straight in honor of them. Have I lived each day fully, like the gift it is? Are my family and friends a top priority and have I taken the time to connect with them regularly? Have I crafted a career for myself that I enjoy while also serving others? Am I donating time or money to those who are less fortunate than I am? Have I taken time for creative pursuits, for the sake of creativity itself? These are the promises I made to myself and every September 11th I take stock to see how I am doing with them. I am happy to report that this year I feel that I am living my promises more than ever, although I always strive to do better.

What promises did you make to yourself in the weeks and months and years following September 11, 2001? Are you following through on them? Today – in fact, every day – is a good time to think about those promises and how you can honor the victims of that tragedy by making the most of the life you have.

Above I mentioned a friend, Frank, whose son died on September 11th. He and his wife, Mary, founded and run a nonprofit organization called Voices of September 11th. This organization provides services and support to those affected by September 11th and has initiated the 9/11 Living Memorial Project to commemorate those who were lost. If you have a minute, please visit their website.

I have felt completely stunted, creatively speaking, since the passing of my dear friend, Norman the Cat. I have been writing in a journal but I haven’t felt like composing, and by that I mean putting together a cohesive essay that has a point. I suppose that blogging is really less about composing essays and more about sharing a thought or two, so I think this entry may have to be a stream of consciousness of sorts as a way to get me back in the saddle. As I said in my first blog entry, Operation Peace and Serenity is primarily about my need to express myself and secondarily about making the readers happy – no offense – because I am a recovering people-pleaser trying to kick the habit once and for all. It is hard though; the more that people respond positively to my writing, the more I want to write entries to which they will respond positively. I suppose that is a common problem with art and creative expression, that if you let the audience influence the art it loses its authenticity, although I never thought of myself as an artist until just this second. That’s kind of cool, actually.

Since I lost Norman, it has rekindled strong feelings of previous losses, including people who died, friends who moved away, and expectations or hopes that went unfulfilled. I am not sure if this is an experience unique to me or something that others experience, but I feel like I have lost so many things all over again.

The night we put Norman down, I was lying in bed unable to sleep. My mind meandered, starting with remembering how it felt to hold Norman as he died, to reflecting on my reluctance to adopt him all those years ago, to how much I enjoyed my life back then, to the way my life turned upside down for a long time after that, to missing so many family members who died in the last ten years, to being sad that some of my best friends live so far away and I don’t see them much anymore, to thinking about mentors and coworkers I lost touch with, to wishing my Aunt Pat could have met my son and that my husband could have known my grandparents, to feeling like I lost part of my identity by not having certain people in my life any longer, to missing my old life but feeling guilty because of all of the blessings in my life now, to wishing Norman was lying on me in bed right now because the feelings of loss washing over me were making me feel so desperately melancholy and when I felt this way he was the one who comforted me by just being there.

As an aside, I once met a woman who, within a half hour of meeting me, said, “I would be scared to live inside your head,” and my response was simply, “Tell me about it.”

I have always had the attitude that I needed to tough it out. I grew up on a street with all boys and if you want to play with the boys you can’t cry when you fall out of a tree and twist your ankle. I played sports and when you get hurt playing sports you walk it off, at least you did in the 70s. Somewhere along the line, I decided that being tough was critical to my identity. As an adult, that translated to acting like I didn’t care if a relationship didn’t work out or I had a disappointment at work. It manifested in catching myself if I started to weep at my grandmother’s wake because there were people around and I didn’t want them to see me crying. It made me seem easygoing and undeterred when someone did something mean to me, even though I secretly harbored a grudge. It essentially turned me into someone who couldn’t express a negative emotion; as a friend of mine once said, I had become a Stepford Daughter/Employee/Girlfriend/Fill-in-the-Blank.

This is where having a life-changing crisis comes in handy. Going through an extremely rough personal experience forced me to become vulnerable because I was too drained to keep up the facade that everything was just fine, thank you very much. I finally realized that there is a huge difference between letting things roll off my back and burying them deep inside. I also have to credit my husband, who is a very accepting person, because early in our relationship I realized that if everything was not just fine Matt loved me anyway. If I felt grumpy or tired or sad I could express it and he would not leave the room, withdraw, or be angry with me. So in the days following Norman’s last, I didn’t revert to my old habit of putting on a happy face and acting like I was handling it. Instead, I let myself feel the overwhleming sadness that came with losing my little buddy; I would sob, my shoulders heaving and strange sounds coming from deep inside my chest. In the past I wouldn’t have even let myself act like that when I was alone, much less in front of a man I loved. But Matt has created for me an environment for me in which I feel safe to express what I am feeling, no apologies necessary. And I have also stopped judging myself for working through these kinds of feelings – this time, instead of telling myself to stop being a baby, I let myself feel heartbroken.

Although I miss Norman terribly and still have moments of extreme sadness, I am in a much better place than I expected to be after only three weeks. I firmly believe that allowing myself the latitude to experience my feelings of loss has quickened my healing, even if it is still in process. This has been an important lesson for me and something I need to continue to explore.

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.