A disturbing thing happened to me this past weekend.

My parents and I were watching college football. We were having a blast watching Navy outplay Notre Dame. There was shouting and taunting and pizza. It was a great day.

At least, it was a great day until I tried to read something to my dad during a commercial. As I held the paper up, I said to him, “I guess I should go to the eye doctor. Lately, when I try to read my eyes jiggle.”

“Jiggle?” he asked with a smirk. “What does that mean?”

“You know, they go like this.” I held my finger up and waved it back and forth, which is the universal sign for eye-jiggling.

He instructed me to remove my eyeglasses and try again. I did so and the jiggling stopped. “Well,” he said, “you need progressive lenses.”

“What?”

“You know, they have different prescriptions depending on the distance.”

“BIFOCALS?!” I shrieked.

Ugh. I am 40 and a half (as of October 24, and yes, I still track my half-birthdays). Why is it so hard for me to believe that I am that old? All of the signs are there: over 50% of my hair is gray (although I’ll never let you see it), I get tired at 8:00pm, and if I sit on the floor for more than a couple of minutes it takes me twice as long to get up. Even so, I am completely surprised when I am faced with hard evidence that I am, in fact, middle-aged.

I always joke with people that the key to staying young is to act really immature, and I stand by that. In fact, a couple of seconds ago, while I was writing the last paragraph, my husband interrupted me to ask what we should do with the gigantic turnip that was sitting in our fridge going bad. I said, “Oh, I don’t know…maybe we should….stick it up your butt?” then went back to writing. (See Mom, you aren’t the only one who is subjected to my immaturity.) I believe that to think young is to be young, and I extend the idea to acting like a seventh grader so I can feel really, really young. I am totally fine with that.

But even if I feel young in my head, every once in a while something happens to snap me back to reality. Below are a few examples. I know that a bulleted list is a sign of lazy writing, but in this case it’s a sign of me trying to hurry and finish this before the baby wakes up. Here are some of the incidents that have made me feel old, in chronological order:

  • The first time I noticed that a weatherman was probably younger than I was, I was dismayed. These are authority figures! They use science to guess what the weather will be in two days! That was the first time I remember feeling old and it was a weird, sad moment.
  • When I was teaching seventh grade, I once heard myself say, “Trust me, someday you will thank me for making you do (such and such)” I don’t remember what important task I was making the student do, but do I remember that I sounded like a caricature of an adult. I might as well have been going “Waa waa. Waa waa, waa.” like the teacher in the Peanuts cartoons.
  • Then there was the time I first noticed how much younger the players in college sports were. I mean, I was out of college already so of course they were younger, but I guess I never thought about it. Then one day I saw a quarterback being interviewed after a game and I was like…Whoa. He’s a baby.
  • Then there was the time I made a comment like, “I swear, kids these days tailgate so much!” The woman I was referring to was on her way to work during rush hour, so she was definitely older than the college quarterback. It was getting worse…
  • Then there was the time that the kid (again with the kid!) working the register at a convenience store said “Have a nice day. Ma’am.” I froze. Excuse me?!  Fortunately, I resisted the urge to bite his head off. Instead, I just said, “Oh, calling me ‘Ma’am’ makes me feel old.” He smiled and said “Sorry, Miss.” But while his mouth said ‘Miss’ the rest of his face said “Oh, you are sooo pathetic.”
  • Then there was the time I was dating a younger guy and found out that he had never seen Caddyshack. I wasn’t even sure he knew what I was talking about until I explained that it was movie. Yikes. That relationship ended a few weeks later, when I realized he was born the same year that the movie came out.
  • When my future sister-in-law started dating her fiancé, she mentioned where he grew up and I realized he went to my high school, Shore Regional. I was so excited, and the next time I saw him I was like, “Do you know the so-and-so family?” After a couple of seconds of that I asked, “Wait, what year did you graduate?” only to find out that it was TWELVE years after I did! My husband is five years younger than I am, and his sister is two years younger than he is, and her fiancé is five years younger than she is. That makes twelve. Needless to say, when we all socialize together I have a lot of similar conversations with their friends. I suppose that’s what I get for robbing the cradle.
  • I became pregnant with my first child at 39. During the first doctor’s visit, I had a quick conversation with the office manager about insurance: what would be covered, what wouldn’t. She said, “Well, due to your advanced maternal age, we will probably have to give you more tests.” I gave her the stare down – I couldn’t help it, I was really hormonal – and said, “Advanced maternal age is just a euphemism for old.” She looked startled, and I didn’t even feel bad. Did I mention that I was hormonal?
  • A few months later, I was sitting on the beach with my younger brother, who made some crack about me being old. I shot back, “It’s not like I‘m 40 or something!” Then I paused and remembered that I was 39 and was like, Oh…scratch that.

There’s more, but those are the highlights – or the lowlights, depending on your perspective. People often tell me I look young for my age which is feeling less and less like a compliment. I used to always say that I looked young because I had no kids to stress me out and age me, but that’s all changed. Nothing makes someone hit the wall like having an infant at age 40. I am pretty sure I have aged at least five years in the last ten months.

Whatever. You can’t fool Mother Nature and you can’t stop Father Time. But I still make a big deal about my birthdays and I am still honest about my age. And, I only have nine and a half years before I qualify for AARP insurance – so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

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My mother has been visiting once per week to “help” me in my efforts to juggle my business with my new role as a mother. My sarcasm is due to the fact that she and I both know these visits are actually about being able to spend time with my son, Max – not about making my life easier.  The truth of the matter is that my perpetual to-do list is always at least 20% longer after one of my mother’s visits. So if she assists me in knocking two things off my list but adds five onto it, is that helping?

There are a lot of ways in which my mom actually does make my life easier: she brings new clothes for Max to replace those he outgrew, she cleans the dirty dishes piled in the sink, and she attends to Max so I can work. In return for her kindness, I am subjected to an endless list of recommendations, suggestions, and improvements that should be made, all of which can be supported by articles she clipped from Good Housekeeping magazine or the Star-Ledger. Some of these contributions are useful and some are, in fact, critical. The issue is the magnitude; there is only so much a person can digest in terms of things he or she “should” be doing at a given moment.

If I get frustrated with my mother, then I feel guilty and unappreciative because I know she means well and she cares.  On the other hand, sometimes she crosses the line into the territory of being controlling. Over the last nine months, she and I have discussed – okay, argued about – how to balance her need to tell me all of these things with my need to be left alone. I’m happy to report that we finally seem to have a process, a coping mechanism if you will, that seems to work.

Every time my mother gives me a suggestion or direction that I don’t have the energy or desire to deal with, I simply restate it with the words “…your face.” For example, when she grabs me between client meetings to tell me that I should clean the baseboard heaters, my response is “Maybe you should clean your face.” Or when she asks me if we have debt, I simply ask “I don’t know, does your face have debt?” Depending on how stressed or irritated I am at the moment when my mother gives me the unsolicited advice, I might choose to replace the word “face” with the word “butt,” as in “Maybe you should clean your butt” or “Does your butt have debt?”

It’s completely immature, but it makes me snicker (yes, I laugh at my own jokes) and it confuses her long enough for me to escape back into my office. I am not sure how many more times I’ll be able to get away with this approach for deflecting my mom’s endless suggestions, but I will definitely milk it for all it’s worth.

The following is an actual conversation I had with my husband when I was eight months pregnant:

ME:   I want to go to the city on Friday to visit the energy healer, but I’m nervous. (Author’s Note: File “I want to…visit the energy healer” under things I never thought I would hear myself say.)

MATT:   Why would you be nervous?

ME:   Because. What if someone sees me and realizes how pregnant I am? Then they might kidnap and kill me and cut the baby out and sell him on the black market.

MATT:   (Pause.) What? Why would you think that would happen?

ME:   That sort of thing happens all the time. It’s not uncommon. I heard it happening recently in the news!

Matt’s incredulous, wide-eyed stare indicates that he is weighing the pros and cons of making his next statement….

MATT:   Ummm…Baby? I believe that was actually a Law and Order episode.

I was speechless for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that I had been completely serious in my concern that someone might steal my baby. I was also stunned when it hit me that I had been watching so much TV that the lines between reality and my fantasy-TV-world had become so blurred. I was impressed at how brave Matt had been to break the news to me, because it was entirely possible that in my anger at myself for being such a big loser, I might have shot the messenger.

Reality-check in Aisle 5, please.

In fairness, Law and Order episodes are “ripped from the headlines.” If I was honest with myself, though, the true cause of any confusion was the fact that I had been watching about four hours of Law and Order a day for the previous month. I blame TNT for allowing this to happen – damn them and their beautiful syndication!

Yes, I know there is research that television is bad for you: it’s linked to obesity, depression, homicide, suicide, acne and excessive spending.  So I made some of that up. Nonetheless, most people agree that doing things is much preferable to watching imaginary people do things. But when I am stressed and tired and life is getting me down nothing makes me feel better than snuggling up to my flat-screen high-definition television and some wonderfully cheesy Lifetime movie.

Am I the only one who gets so invested in the television I watch that I sometimes start to think about these people as real? What is it about watching a series regularly that makes you feel as if you know the characters personally? Cheers and Seinfeld, two comedy classics, were hilarious partly because the characters were so well-developed that you could actually predict how they might act or what they might say in a certain situation. This familiarity created anticipation that heightened the comedy, and it also made the characters become friends-in-your-head.

Then there is the consideration that these characters come into your home. They visit you weekly or nightly or even four hours a night like my friends Briscoe and Curtis. They can be in your life for years, especially if you’re willing to mindlessly sit through reruns. In fact, some of my TV friendships have lasted longer than my friendships with real people. As life gets busier, it’s just easier to stay in touch with the friends you can record on your DVR.

Five years ago, when I was going through a divorce and I was feeling very low, I had no energy to do anything other than go to work and pretend that everything was fine. By the time I got home I was completed drained; as a result my evening ritual consisted of sitting on the couch eating Mexican food and watching reruns of the Gilmore Girls. If you need to escape a sad reality, why wouldn’t you go to a place filled with eccentric characters who say witty things while hanging out in a diner? Why wouldn’t you want to visit with people to whom bad things don’t happen, where the worst thing that ever happens is that the main character gets into a fender bender with the car her boyfriend gave her? I can think of worse places to visit than Stars Hollow, and my spending time in that imaginary town went on for months.

So it should come as no surprise that, as I was walking through town with a friend last Friday, I had another mix-up. I started to wave at someone before quickly retracting my hand.

“Do you know her?” my friend asked.

“I thought I did, but it was someone else,” I replied. I had thought it was Lane Kim…one of my friends from the Gilmore Girls.

How pathetic.

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.

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.

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.!

Following are the ways in which my son reminds me of my dog:

  • Whines when hungry.
  • Constantly drools.
  • Requires the use of sitting services.
  • Loves chew toys.
  • Gets taken for walks.
  • Has been featured on Christmas cards.
  • Tries to eat everything.
  • Requires me to spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with excrement.
  • Plays with stuffed animals.
  • Performs tricks, especially the High Five.
  • Gets excited when we say “Good boy” after said tricks.
  • Is highly flexible.  In my son’s case, he can put his foot in his mouth.  In my dog’s case, she can lick herself in certain hard-to-reach places.

Admit it…at this point they’re pretty similar, aren’t they?

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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.