Monday, April 30, 2012

The ways we adapt...

Charlie (aka Charles the Last) inspecting our VT screens for more holes.
For thirteen (or so) years, I've been making subtle adaptations in my life to account for the presence of another being. Today I said goodbye to him and wandered through the rest of the day tearfully realizing how our life changed in one day.

I adopted a cat for my dog, Jericho, from The Little Guild of St. Francis years ago. I was working full-time during the day and in fire school most nights and Jericho was lonely. I wasn't ready for a second dog so when the photo of an adorable black and white cat with a Charlie Chaplin mustache came across my desk in the adoption column of the newspaper, I called. I was not, am not, never was, and never will be a cat person. Unfortunately I didn't realize what it meant to be a cat owner back then and I somewhat blindly visited him, found him to be stand-offish enough to not crowd me but cute enough to make me want him. I adopted him. Charlie came into my life.

I can't try to pretend that our life together was full of playful bouts with yarn balls or cuddling under the covers. It was more like hair balls and fleeting glimpses with the occasional 10 second petting. By the time I got him, he had been traumatized (I think) into believing that if he kept his distance, life would be good. So, for 13 years, he pretty much kept his distance. Occasionally he would surprise me by walking right up to me while I was sitting or lying down (never while I was standing) and plowing his head into me for some rubbing but he made it clear that affection was only to be displayed on his terms. That was okay - we figured each other out.

He moved with me from Connecticut to Maryland to Vermont to Massachusetts and adapted (sometimes not so readily) to every situation and housing arrangement. His favorite layover in our life together was in a mountainside house with an 89 year old woman who, as luck would have it, ADORED him and could actually pet him for longer than a few seconds. I think he knew she couldn't/wouldn't chase him.

When Charlie first came home with me, he and Jericho took a few weeks to get used to each other. It might have taken less time but I was nervous about taking down the divide between them - I wasn't sure if Jericho would eat him. It took me about an hour to realize that adding a cat to a dog-occupied house meant making adjustments. The first adjustment came when I realized that in every house that I would EVER live in with him, I would have to create a space for Charlie's food to be kept out of reach from my ever-ravenous lab mix, Jericho. Shortly thereafter I realized that labs also confuse litter box deposits with tasty treats and I would have to cordon off access to that snack bar as well. The second adjustment was that I realized that I didn't need to purchase a cat bed, I just needed to leave a favorite sweater or blanket flat (ish) somewhere and Charlie would make it into a nest... and Jericho would join him. They quickly became dear friends. The third adjustment came when Charlie began ambushing me every morning as I went to let Jericho out. He would hide somewhere between the bedroom door and the back door and when I passed by he would bolt out and jump up and tag me on the rear end with both front paws and then bolt away. I adjusted by wearing a bathrobe to protect my naked tush.

Over the years I have made other logistical adjustments that I didn't really spend much time thinking about because they just subtly became a way of life. Today, after saying goodbye for the last time to Charles the Last (as my husband dubbed him many years ago), I was faced with the first wave of realizing that I will now begin unraveling all of those cat habits I've developed been taught over the years.

Here is the list of things that come to mind that are no longer necessary:

  • Turning on lights before walking through the house in the dark in order to avoid finding hair balls with bare feet.
  • Locating the dog food bowl 8+ feet from the water bowl to avoid the weird habit of the cat dropping kibble into the water bowl to soak.
  • Rushing to the cat treat bag first thing in the morning before feeding or letting the dog out so that the yowls don't wake up everyone else in the house. Delivery of "Shut up pills", as we dubbed them in recent years, was an essential task of the first riser. We even got to the point of keeping them upstairs!
  • Brushing bits of cat litter off of places like the couch (something I NEVER got used to).
  • Providing sole access for him to the sun room which in recent years has become "The cat's room" - yep, he dominated over 10% of the square footage of our house by controlling that room.
  • Explaining to people that yes, we do have a cat but no, it's not likely that you'll ever see him.
  • Closing doors to specific parts of the house that he has used as a litter box at one point or another.
  • Opening doors to specific parts of the house so that his access to his actual litter box is completely unrestricted.
  • Never leaving laundry baskets (Full or empty. Clean or dirty.), boxes, drawers or other items that resemble a litter box available when his actual box might not be close enough for his liking.
  • Displaying fresh flowers in places so high that I forget they are there just so Charlie can't jump up and eat and/or knock over the display.
  • Avoiding buying indoor plants for same reasons as above.
  • Closing all exterior access points like doors and windows because he's an indoor cat. (There was the one time that he fell out of a window in Maryland the night before I moved to Vermont but after skulking in the shadows for an hour, he pressed himself against the door and begged to be let back in.)
  • Putting all uncovered but not-yet-cool-enough-to-refrigerate food into the microwave so that counter top snacking wasn't available... and hoping you remember it's there before it goes bad.
  • Declining visits from people with small, uncontrollable, loud children, or dogs because they stressed Charlie to the point that he would hide in his litter box until they were long gone.
It's hard losing a four legged member of the family but he quite suddenly had reached a point where it was inevitable. I was so upset with him for suddenly habitually pooping everywhere but his litter box that we took him to the vet last week and she tried some antibiotics which seemed to help. Then suddenly he stopped eating, walking, or really doing much and after another visit to the vet, we learned that he either had a bowel disease or intestinal cancer - either way it meant lots of medications and vet visits - both of which stressed him to the point of panic. We couldn't do that to him.

So I took him in my arms and confessed my sins as an ignorant cat owner, accepted the fact that I had had no idea what I was doing and that he had taught me everything about owning a cat (which I realize probably doesn't come in handy with ANY other cat), reminded him over and over that although we didn't like some of his feline habits, we love him and will miss him, and told him that his long-lost buddy Jericho was waiting for him. I was a mess but it was the right thing to do.

And so begins the subtle adjustments to life after "Charles the Last"... because he always was and always will be... my one and only cat. Ever.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


One of the most influential pieces of advice ever given to me that has stuck with me through the years came from a supervisor many, many years ago. He was a little Irish guy who, had he been about 40 years younger, un-married, and without a pack of grand-kids, I'd probably have married for his delivery of good, bad or indifferent news alone. Each day, regardless of what was happening in the office, he popped into my office to check in with me and always treated me to a joke or funny story. He taught me everything I needed to know about my job with patience and good humor. He even took me seriously when I expressed interest in taking over the duties of an ineffective person in a role that I only had a feeling I could fill... no actual experience. I don't know for sure but I think that part of the reason I ended up with that promotion was because of how I accepted the conversation described below.

During my tenure with this organization, I had broken my ankle and had multiple surgeries resulting in several months in and out of the office, occasionally working from home when possible, but more than a bit disconnected from the daily happenings for quite some time. When I returned to work full-time, it took me a while to get back in the groove. One day he took me aside and asked me if I still enjoyed my job. I said, "Yes." (I didn't love it but I did enjoy it - particularly because of his leadership.) He then told me that I no longer was giving the impression that I enjoyed my job. Before I could formulate a response, he told me that regardless of what was really going on, it IS important to understand the impression that you are given people whether it is in a professional or personal setting.

That advice was too profound to respond to at the moment and I gracefully let him close the conversation with a few words about be given this feedback so that I could have the opportunity to change the impression that I was giving.

I understood exactly what he meant and carefully considered everything about myself that might be giving that impression. A few weeks later he pulled me aside again and told me that his impression had changed and he was very happy with how I had received and implemented his feedback.

Since then I have often considered the impression that I am giving people in a variety of situations. I realize that life is full of impressions - First impressions. Good impressions. Bad impressions. Only impressions. Lasting impressions. False impressions. Last impressions.

Recently I have been having the "Impression Discussion" (something that I've worked on with several of my supervisees over the years) with someone that desperately needs to understand the impressions he is giving in a variety of situations. Well, in this case it's really turned into more of a monologue than a discussion. I have reached the point where I can only hope that at some point he will realize that every action, inaction, decision, and indecision gives the people in his life an impression about him and right now, they aren't good.

I've received plenty of feedback - some good, some helpful, some not-so-good, some not helpful whatsoever - over the years and have found that receiving, sorting through, and implementing relevant feedback is essential to growth. It's certainly helped me to develop in many ways and I am grateful for it - even the tough stuff that was hard to swallow at the time.