Janelle caught me off guard. I would even go so far as to say she misled me.
Four years ago, I lost Midnight, my beloved cat of 20 years, and after two weeks of floundering in a cat-free home, I decided to get another one.
When I first saw Janelle curled up in her cage at the Nebraska Humane Society adopt-a-pet drive, she was the picture of serenity. I asked if I could hold her and the attendant placed her into my arms.
Janelle purred and let me scratch her head and belly.
“Is she a lap cat?” I said.
The attendant nodded and handed me an informational sheet. “She is very loving. She loves to snuggle.”
Here’s what the sheet said:
She sounded like she was exactly what I was looking for in a new pet. I thought it over and went back to adopt her the next day. By then, I had chosen a new name for her: Latte – because she had the same coloring as the coffee she was being named after, and because she was as sweet as a latte.
I brought her home, showed her where her litter box was located and allowed her some time to get acclimated. I retired to my recliner and gave her some space. Within minutes, she jumped into my lap, curled up and went to sleep.
How perfect is that?
She finally jumped down a couple of hours later and went exploring in the kitchen. Within minutes, she had jumped on top of the refrigerator and pulled a package of hotdog buns onto the floor. When I walked in, she was biting the package while shredding it with her back paws.
This must be the lively and curious aspects of her personality mentioned on the sheet.
I took the buns away from her, storing them for safe keeping. But it didn’t end there.
In the first couple of weeks, she pulled the dishtowel off its holder – multiple times, hopped inside grocery store bags (and any other bag, including duffle bags, computer bags, suitcases, etc.), snagged pink packets of coffee sweetener from a basket, took a siesta in the kitchen sink, wedged her way inside kitchen cabinets when I opened them, climbed into the refrigerator the second I opened the door, and when I put my recliner back (leaving an opening between the material and the frame), she burrowed her way into the back of the chair.
At this point, I began thinking that the person who wrote the description of Latte at the Humane Society ought to either go into politics, or become a used car salesman. Every word that person wrote was accurate, technically, but it didn’t tell the rest of the story.
Latte’s liveliness really began working itself out at night. She hates being left alone, and if you do it for any length of time, she’ll howl at the walls and freak out when you get home – zooming from the kitchen to the front door in the living room and back again.
She also tends to howl at the walls when she sees shadows – sometimes even her own. And she has all sorts of other idiosyncrasies, including only eating when people are present (so I moved her food and water bowls into the living room, right next to my recliner), covering her food bowl with her toys, sleeping upside down on the floor, and when she crawls into my lap for a nap, she only sleeps on my left leg.
In spite of her naughtiness and odd personality traits, she can also be the most loving animal imaginable. Sometimes, she’ll move from my left leg to my chest – prompting me to put the recliner all the way back. She rests her head against my cheek and purrs so loudly that I can barely hear the television. Seeing it isn’t all that easy either.
I know this cat better than any human probably should, but just because I know what to expect from her doesn’t mean I actually understand why she does the things she does. She’s just wired differently than any cat I’ve ever seen. She’s naughty, odd and sometimes a little crazy.
In other words, she’s a lot like you and me.
But I love her to pieces.
In spite of all her behavioral problems and personality quirks, I believe God views our relationship with him in a similar manner. He looks at our disobedience, self-focus, and personality quirks – all of which keep us from connecting with him and others the way we should, and he loves us to pieces anyway.
I find great comfort in that.
The last time I visited this coffee shop, I was with two friends and we ended up giving the barista quite a scare.
We ordered some coffee and noticed that the coffee shop offered a different sweetener than we were accustomed to, so my friends opened a couple of packets and spread the powdery contents onto their pointer fingers to give it taste.
The barista, who was just beginning to clean tables, glanced over in time to see one of them leaning toward the line of white powder on his finger. She raised her eyebrows. “You guys aren’t doing drugs, are you?”
The thought of three 40-something-year-old Christian dudes doing a line of coke in a coffee shop, combined with her reaction cracked us up.
“No, no,” one of them said. “We are taste testing the sweetener. We’ve never had this one before.”
She put her hand to her chest. “Oh, thank God. I can’t have people doing drugs in here.”
It’s a funny memory, but this could be the last time I visit. It’s 80 degrees outside and it’s probably 85 in here. I don’ t do 85 degrees. Call me soft if you want, but I prefer not to sweat while I write. I explained myself to the barista, named Taylor, on the way out the door. He apologized and said the manager won’t allow them to turn the thermostat any lower. I’m polite, but tell him they just lost a customer.
I arrive at a nearby cupcake store/coffee shop and while I’m in line, the gentle breeze coming from the AC satisfies me. A mom and her four children are in line behind me, and then in front of me, and then around me, pressing their noses into the glass case. They scream for cake. They scream for something else I can’t understand. And thirty seconds after rolling my eyes, I realize I’m just like them. I wanted AC, so I threw a polite fit and then found a place to accommodate my wants.
I grab a table and fire up my laptop.
A tall man in tan khakis and an untucked long-sleeve light blue dress shirt (apparently he doesn’t share my affinity toward air conditioning) sits down at a table behind me and glances over my shoulder a time or two while waiting for his order. Untucked is the style now, but I don’t get it. Then again, I don’t understand modern day shorts that nearly touch a person’s ankles.
Color me old – peculiar even. I’ll own it.
We’re all peculiar though, aren’t we? Most of us are walking contradictions, which makes us even more peculiar.
We live by codes – some ancient, some modern. Often though, we live by a mixture of the two. Some of us dress to blend in, all the while hoping somebody will notice us. Others dress to standout, wanting nothing more than to be considered normal. Our iPods are full of music from nearly every genre, no matter which one we say we prefer. I heard a comedian confess recently that one of the worst things imaginable would be for someone to find her iPod after she dies.
That reminds me, I need to delete that 98 Degrees song from my iPod. It was part of a song track I downloaded. Honest!
The barista who is cleaning tables across the room from me seems to be a walking contradiction. She has on red tennis shoes that look like Chuck Taylors, and black and white polka-dot socks. That combination screams, “Notice me,” right? But she also has on a pair of rolled up jorts that might say more about her desire for comfort than anything else. But what do I know about fashion?
“Check one, two. Check one, two. Check, check, check.”
What in the world? Live music on a Friday at 6:00 p.m., in a cupcake shop? Why not?
It’s another dude, maybe 40-something, in a long-sleeve shirt. Next to him is a man in his sixties. As the older man begins to tune his guitar and adjust his microphone, I’m already going through song possibilities in my mind.
Please no John Denver, or Puff the Magic Dragon, or Janis Joplin. How about an ‘80s rock ballad? I’d love to hear “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” by Poison, or “Heaven” by Warrant.
That’s not a knock against the older man. But him singing a Warrant song would be like me ripping into an Arcade Fire song. Not going to happen – partially because I haven’t played guitar in at least 20 years and partially because I couldn’t name a single Arcade Fire song.
The older man begins to sing. “Baby, I just can’t understand …”
“Broken Wings,” by Mr. Mister, from 1985 – the same era as “Heaven” by Warrant. I shouldn’t be surprised.
We’re all peculiar, walking contradictions.
And that's a beautiful thing.
Tennis has not only given me much, it has taught me much. It's no accident that tennis uses the language of life, service, advantage, break, fault, love; the lessons of tennis are the lessons of maturity. –Andre Agassi
I thought it was the greatest scam going.
My high school administrators allowed athletes to leave for an athletic study hall during the last hour of the school day to begin practice early. So, by 2:30 pm every afternoon, I was on the familiar concrete tennis court with white lines, and nets that were probably a few inches too low, ready to play the only sport I’ve ever really loved to play.
On the days when nobody else showed up early, I had the coach all to myself. His name was Phil Gradoville. His personality was an odd mixture of snark and stoicism, but you never doubted that he cared about you, or the game. He wasn’t the type of coach who pushed you if you didn’t show the desire to be pushed, but it you wanted to improve, he was there for you.
On the days I showed up before other players, Coach worked with me on my volleys, feeding me one ball after another. My body type wasn’t exactly conducive for tennis, so it made sense for me to try to end points early. He knew that.
“Don’t swing at volleys,” he would say. “Punch them … like this.” He would show me the proper motion – no more than six inches of racquet movement – and when I listened to him, my volleys sprang to life. And since this was before the modern advancements in equipment, the serve-and-volley game was still a winning strategy for those who had the hands for it.
So that’s what we worked on – my serve, and volleys.
Coach Gradoville placed tennis ball canisters in various places of the service boxes and told me to hit them. At first, I couldn’t pull it off, even with a full basket of balls, but eventually I improved to the point that I could hit them several times per basket. Coach was teaching me the importance of hitting my spot on command, so I could charge the net while my opponent was in a defensive position.
“You need to be inside the service line by the time you hit your volley,” he would say. “Don’t get too close to the net though because that makes you susceptible to the lob – especially from a player who is on the defensive, but try to get a couple of feet inside the service line and then meet the ball.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a life lesson. All of life is about proper positioning. If you talk to the right people, and contemplate what they say, then take action, you’ll find you are exactly where you need to be when the right moment comes along. I only wish I had realized this sooner.
When tennis practice began officially, Coach had the team work on other fundamentals. And I benefited from all of them. In fact, playing the serve-and-volley game, as well as sticking to the other fundamentals Coach taught, helped me transition from hack to good player status. I was never great, but I was as good as I could be and that made me feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life.
As the overweight kid who simply wanted to blend in, I rarely did. Instead, I picked up size-related nicknames: Big Guy, Big Man, and later, Slow-Mo (“because you look like you are in slow motion when you run”). Most of the nicknames faded over time, but they did their damage – driving an already shy kid even further inside himself.
I worked hard during the summers leading into my junior and senior years to get into the best shape possible, and as I look back on those photos now, I realize I was in the best shape of my life. But the track and field coach still wasn’t going to come calling. In my mind, I was still the same kid who didn’t want to poke his head into reality – fearful of what new nickname might be waiting for me.
Over time though, tennis, and Coach Gradoville, changed that. As I implemented what he taught, my tennis skills improved. My intuition on the court did, too. I ran down balls I had no business running down because I could anticipate where an opponent was going to hit his shots before he actually did. I made volleys and half volleys that would satisfy the best of players. And to my surprise, and delight, I wasn’t Slow-Mo on the court. I was Normal-Mo – maybe even Fast-Mo.
That’s why this article in the Wall Street Journal nearly ruined me, in the best way possible. It’s a story about a high school tennis coach named Ward Gay from Massachusetts who made a tremendous impact on his kids over the course of 40 years. He passed away recently, but his legacy lives on in those boys.
I know how that feels.
Coach Gradoville passed away twenty plus years ago after health complications set in from a car accident. I took time off work to attend his funeral. The church was packed with former players and students. Many wore green (the color of the school where he was teaching when he died) blazers to show their support. We mourned, and celebrated, en masse.
And every year around this time, during the US Open tennis tournament, I celebrate and mourn all over again.
Five years ago, I created an author/journalist FB page, but I never developed it – partially because I didn’t want to have a page with eight ‘Likes’ that never grew, and partially because I’m more of a Twitter person.
But this old dog is trying to learn new tricks.
So, here’s a link to my new author/journalist page: Lee Warren. I’ll be discussing the publishing industry and the topics I write about (faith, sports, heritage, singleness). I’ll also be sharing my publishing news, links to articles I’ve written, upcoming book signings, etc. And I hope to field questions from new writers.
I would appreciate it if you would stop by to ‘Like’ the page when you get a chance.
When I announced this on my personal Facebook page this weekend, I didn’t know what to expect, but several dozen of you have already stopped by and a few of you have even shared the link with your friends. Thank you!
Lee Warren is a freelance writer and editor who has written twelve non-fiction books, one novella and hundreds of articles for various newspapers and magazines as well as edited more than 50 books that currently appear in print. He's a fan of NASCAR, baseball, tennis, books, movies and coffee shops.