Am I unemployed…or retired?

I got back from vacation in Hawaii to learn I was losing my job. The company whose corporate technical magazine I had edited for the past eight years abruptly decided to stop publishing. The issue we had just put to bed would be the last.

The job—which was part time and freelance—came to me shortly after I was downsized out of my last staff position. It was a perfect fit. I worked out of a home office, on my own schedule, editing articles and managing the page flow. I loved canoodling with the writers—engineers and other smart people from many countries—and I loved our small but mighty art-and-editorial staff.

The magazine was a quarterly, so there was downtime between issues. And because this was a corporate gig, it paid better than standard editorial work. Deflation has collapsed pay scales in the publishing industry to the point where friends with decades of experience are offered a pittance for freelance editing.

Because my magazine had been in existence for 30 years, I assumed it would stay afloat pretty much forever. I imagined I would have the luxury of staying or leaving as I saw fit, and figured I might quit—officially retire—some day.

Now that day has come, and in the aftermath I’m unsure whether I’m unemployed or emeritus. I’m guessing I’m not the first Boomer to be ushered into retirement by a pink slip instead of a gold watch.

Should I chase new opportunities, wait for something to drop in my lap or hang up my hat and declare myself done? If the latter, can I afford it?

I suppose I’m of retirement age, though it’s hard to say just what that is anymore. People older than I am still work, and plenty who are younger have left the work force. Then there are all those friends in their 50s who wish they could retire early. I guess it depends.

My magazine’s publishing schedule gave me plenty of time off between issues, and I always looked forward to those interludes. It was great to have free time before the next cycle started.

But time feels different now. With no future issue to gear up for, time seems formless, shapeless and vast.

One thing I liked about my job was the way it kept me engaged with the world, exposed to new ideas and interesting people. It got me out of my bubble. Perhaps the key to a successful retirement will be finding a fresh way to engage, a new sense of purpose and a new source of intellectual stimulation.

Last week I met someone whose main retirement activity is trekking—or tramping, as it’s called in some places. He’s just back from Spain, where he walked more than 600 miles from Malaga on the Mediterranean coast to Santiago de Compostela on the Atlantic. The year before, he hiked New Zealand.

I’m probably not ready for roughing it. But the conversation made me realize that if I can think big, not small, retirement might hold some interesting surprises for me, too.

 

 

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For the kittens, grass is always greener outdoors

Every so often you’ll see an old movie on TV—usually a comedy from the 1930s-’50s—that shows the family cat being shooed outdoors at night. Bring in the dog and put out the cat, as The Coasters say in “Yakety Yak.”

Oh, how times have changed. Nowadays, most people keep their cats inside. Not only do cats not go out at night. They don’t go out at all.

The issue of indoor vs. outdoor cats is a subject of intense debate in our household. We had decided when we adopted the kittens last fall that Moe and Sassy would be indoor-only cats. But it’s hard to enforce that rule when the big cats they live with get to go outside.

Now nine months old, the kittens are desperate to go out too. It’s a big, exciting world out there. One or the other of them—sometimes both—will rush the door every time it opens, often slipping out before we can see, much less stop, them.

Moe, the tuxedo, is big and bold. He wails at the door to go out. Moe has a modicum of common sense and I trust him—to a point. He usually stays close to the house and comes when I call.

But the other day he scaled the fence to drop into the neighbor’s yard, and made a game out of running away from me on the other side of it. Then he leaped onto a big oak between the two properties and began climbing. I managed to grab his ankle and then the rest of him, or he might be up there still.

Sassy, meanwhile, is something of a fraidy cat. She darted out the door on Sunday morning and dove under the back porch, and there she stayed. I could lure her out but she wouldn’t let me get hold of her. It took an hour, a supply of cat treats and her favorite blue feather toy, but I finally got her. Once inside she slept for hours, exhausted from the adventure.

Except when I lived in city apartments, I’ve always let my cats outdoors. I figured they appreciated the fresh air and exercise as much as I did. It seems sad to think of a cat who has never felt grass under his feet.

But it’s a dangerous world out there, full of cars, rabies and other diseases, fleas and ticks, other cats to fight with and dogs to give chase. I know people who have lost cats to coyotes, while a friend in Dingmans Ferry once saw a hawk swoop down and lift her cat off the ground. In the end kitty proved too big, and the raptor had to drop him. But the encounter resulted in a visit to the vet for the poor cat, injured by the hawk’s claws.

Is there a middle ground—a way to let the kittens outdoors but keep them safe? I’m considering the idea of a “catio”—a patio for cats. Screen houses and mesh tunnels are available online, but my handy husband might be able to custom-build something.

But is another enclosed space, even one that’s outside, really the answer? Isn’t the lure of the outdoors all about freedom? Isn’t the ability to roam free, like Kipling’s Cat Who Walked by Himself, part of the definition of what it means to be a cat?

Like Moe, I’m still on the fence about this issue.

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Betwixt and between: redefining ‘old’

In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was campaigning for president, I remember telling my mother that I thought he was too old to run. Reagan was 69 at the time—Donald Trump’s age, as it happens.

Mom, who was then in her early 50s, disagreed and so, apparently, did the electorate. Reagan went on to inhabit the White House for the next eight years.

A candidate’s age might have been an issue 36 years ago, but Reagan would be in good company today. This election cycle, only one candidate—Ted Cruz—is under the age of 60. Hillary Clinton is 68, John Kasich is 63 and Bernie Sanders manages to nail the youth vote at 74. Compared with the rest of the front-runners Cruz, at 45, is a mere pup.

The graying of the candidates underscores a new reality among an aging populace. With U.S. life expectancy hovering around 80, the definition of one’s productive years has changed. People in my grandmother’s cohort—born around the turn of the last century—considered themselves old at 50. That’s barely middle aged for us Boomers.

Here in our 60s, we’re at an awkward, intermediate stage of life: no longer young, not yet old. As a result, many of us are experiencing a delicate tension between expansion and contraction, a kind of generational push-me, pull-you.

We might be fulfilling lifelong dreams of travel and adventure—hiking the Appalachian Trail, obtaining an advanced degree or, I don’t know, sky-diving. It’s now or never, right?

At the same time, we are looking ahead to the point when we won’t be able to do such things. Indeed, suddenly it seems as if everyone I talk to is contemplating plans for extreme old age.

A friend in California has downsized and moved to a 55-plus community, while a couple I know in Dingmans Ferry are moving from their two-story home to a ranch house in the same community. They are in their 60s, fit and active—but they foresee a time when it will make sense to be on one level.

Another friend talks about one day moving back to the city fulltime. She’ll know it’s time when she can no longer easily manage the commute back and forth to her country place.

Under the surface resides a low-level anxiety about outliving one’s money. It doesn’t help to hear news reports about old people getting bilked out of their savings by opportunistic caregivers. You need to think about who to put in charge of your finances if you’re no longer able to manage them yourself.

This is a particular problem if you don’t have kids. But of course, even children can be unscrupulous when money is at stake. It’s not unheard of for offspring to insinuate themselves onto an elderly parent’s bank account and start using the money for themselves while the parent is still alive.

It’s a strange life task, making these kinds of plans. But better to tackle them now than to leave things undone and take your chances later.

 

 

 

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So you want to live in Hawaii?

You know you’ve had a successful vacation when all you can think about when you get home is how cool it would be to live there. We recently returned from Kauai, the northernmost island in the Hawaiian chain, with killer head colds and daydreams of moving.

It was our first trip to Hawaii and we didn’t want to leave. We loved the wonderfully weird vibe of the place, even the ubiquitous chickens, and we could imagine ourselves as residents—assuming we could afford it. That’s a big if in a place where a small ranch house might cost $2 million and the median condo price is half a million dollars.

They call Kauai the Garden Isle, and despite the wall-to-wall tourists and luxury resorts, it’s still essentially rural. Feral chickens are everywhere, the result of their ancestors’ escape into the wild 24 years ago during Hurricane Iniki, a Cat-4 that devastated the island.

The main thoroughfare is a two-lane ring road that tracks the coastline but stops abruptly at both ends, above and below the rugged western Napali coast, which is inaccessible by car.

The island’s interior—all canyons, waterfalls and tropical rainforest—is likewise impassable except by experienced hikers. Remember the scene in “Jurassic Park” when Laura Dern, Sam Neill and company helicopter onto the rich guy’s island? It’s supposed to be near Costa Rica but is actually Kauai. You can picture dinosaurs here.

We met a couple of people—an antiques dealer from Maine, the docent at a botanical garden we visited—who live on Kauai for part of the year. That’s great if you can afford it. A woman who moved to Kauai from Reading, Pa., and works at a touristy boutique painted a more-realistic picture.

Everyone works two or three jobs, she told us, to afford their rent or mortgage. The beach and hiking are the main leisure activities, since they’re free. There’s one movie theater, in Lihue, and you might treat yourself to a film after your monthly trip to Costco to stock up on staples, which are crazy expensive at local supermarkets.

On the plus side, farmer’s markets and roadside fruit stands abound, selling amazing homegrown produce. The local beef is grass-fed. Fresh-fish markets flourish too, though they’re not cheap.

So, how do Hawaiians afford it? One day we took a tour with a Hawaiian named Domi who gave us a peek at the Kauai tourists don’t usually see, beginning with his own house. Domi brought us there after lunch at a barbecue place so that we could give our leftovers to his pet wild boar (isn’t that an oxymoron?), the 600-pound Omar.

He also drove us past his daughter’s home in a neighborhood set aside for ethnic Hawaiians. Qualified people lease the properties for very little for 99 years. The house once belonged to Domi’s mother, so I guess the leases are transferable.

Since we are neither Hawaiian nor rich, retiring to Kauai is not a likely prospect. But with luck, we will visit again one day. Aloha.

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Of ravioli and rice pies

In the kids’ calendar of holidays, subtitled “What’s in it for Me?”, Easter and Christmas ran neck-and-neck. Christmas brought piles of presents, while Easter delivered mounds of candy in a colorful, handled basket, courtesy of the Easter Bunny.

Somehow this rabbit was also associated with eggs, even though we knew this was an anatomical impossibility in real life. Stevie Gendron up the block had bunnies and all they produced were little pellets that looked enough like raisins to dupe the occasional kid into eating one.

But when it came to the family’s holiday meal, there was no contest. Easter won hands-down. Christmas was all about turkey, whereas Easter meant Grandma’s homemade ravioli.

My grandmother and aunt would begin laboring the day before at their floury assembly line. The big kitchen table was cleared for rolling dough, while twine was strung all around for draping the resulting bands of pasta. It looked like a noodle laundry.

After the pasta had dried enough to be handled, Grandma and Auntie would cut it into little squares and spoon on a filling— ricotta and parmesan cheeses, with egg, parsley, salt and pepper. Then they added a topping square and crimped all the edges so that the diminutive doughy pillow would hold together when boiled.

Add Grandma’s sauce and some meatballs on the side—delicious! This was a far, far tastier meal than the ham or (gasp) lamb that my non-Italian friends got for Easter dinner.

For dessert we had my grandmother’s rice pies, an Italian Easter tradition. Essentially, she poured a thick, custardy rice pudding studded with raisins and citron into a pie crust, added a latticework top and baked it. Grandma always made her rice pies in oblong Pyrex baking dishes, not pie pans. But she called them pies nonetheless.

Unlike my aunt, my mother had little interest in Grandma’s traditional cuisine. Mom didn’t much like to cook. Moreover, she had mysterious digestive issues that turned out to be food allergies. Ironically, she was allergic to the nightshade family, which includes the staples of the Italian-American table: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers.

One Easter when I was about 10, a friend of my mother’s who did a show on the local radio station recruited her to talk about Italian Easter food. Given her culinary background, or lack thereof, Mom might not have been the wisest choice for this gig.

I was in school and didn’t hear the broadcast, but it became family lore afterward. Mom mentioned the rice pies and her friend the commentator asked for the recipe. Mom began describing the general way her mother assembled the pies… upon which, the switchboard lit up. Women all over town, it seems, were asking her to slow down. They wanted to write down the ingredients list so they could make rice pies for Easter too.

Mom winged it as best she could, but the proportions of sugar, eggs and milk she gave were guesstimates at best. Mom was mortified, and we all hoped no one’s Easter meal was ruined on her account.

Surely they would have other sweets around in case the pies failed? Anyway, who really needs dessert? As Peg Bracken said in the desserts chapter of her “I Hate to Cook Book,” which was published right around this time, people are too fat anyway.

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Comparative Dylanology

Somewhere around 20 years ago, maybe more, a friend described an article he had read in an intellectual magazine about a Bob Dylan theme party—a sort of masquerade ball where everyone dressed up as a character in a Dylan song.

Think of the possibilities. You could go as “Mr. Tambourine Man” or Rubin (Hurricane) Carter. Be a gunslinger or gambler (“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”) or one of the pop culture figures (Cinderella, Einstein, T.S. Eliot) who crowd “Desolation Row” to the point where, if you put them all together in a collage, you’d have a nifty spin-off of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper cover.

You could be Quinn the Eskimo or put on a “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” John Wesley Harding or Girl from the North Country. Indeed, Dylan has given us so many songs—so many characters—over so many years that the possibilities abound.

For my money, I’d don a red wig and homemade dress to go as the unnamed heroine at the center of my favorite (if I had to pick just one) Dylan song: “Tangled Up in Blue.”

The fact that this great American road song is lyrically ambiguous in no way detracts from its appeal. Instead, the chameleon lyrics invite us in, to inhabit the song for ourselves.

Dylan switches from first person to third person and back again until you’re not completely sure who’s doing what to whom. Just who is it that’s in love with the redhead in the homemade dress? The narrator (“I”) or the guy (“he”) with whom the narrator used to live on Montague Street—not far, as it happens, from my own former apartment in Brooklyn Heights?

Different recordings supply different answers. The official version (“Blood on the Tracks” album, 1975) starts, “Early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed, wondering if she’d changed at all and if her hair was still red.”

But in an earlier recording, released in “The Bootleg Series,” we hear that “he [not I] was lyin’ in bed,” as if Dylan were singing about a third party. The “doctors’ wives” in this rendition become “carpenters’ wives” on the album.

Likewise, does the hero find a job in “an airplane plant” in L.A. or “on a fishing boat right outside of Delacroix”? Is there “music in the cafes at night” on Montague Street, or “snow all winter and no heat”? Rather than solving the puzzle, a concert album (“Real Live,” 1984) introduces further anomalies.

I’ve seen Dylan perform several times, most recently in 2003 at the former Mountain Laurel venue in Bushkill. He sang “Tangled Up in Blue” that night but I can’t for the life of me remember which way the narration tracked.

It doesn’t matter—not really. “I” and “he” come together at the end, since “we always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view. Tangled up in blue.”

If I’m ever called to do a master’s thesis, this may be my topic.

 

 

 

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Lessons from Judge Judy

One day last week I was backing out of an angled parking space at the health food store in Port Jervis. I’m cautious in reverse because, even with the rear camera my small van is equipped with, I don’t see behind me as well as I did in the little Mazda I used to drive. There’s just a lot more car to wrangle.

Suddenly someone’s head appeared in the rear-view mirror and I slammed on the brakes. The woman wasn’t actually close and there was no occasion to panic. This was not a near-accident.

Nevertheless, I was startled—and a little peeved. Why, I thought, did she walk right behind me when she could plainly see I was backing up?

Had anything happened, God forbid, maybe “Judge Judy” could have assigned the blame. It was sobering to admit that my initial reaction (it’s their fault!) resembled the self-justifications I see on the show, where perpetrators rarely own up.

Take the woman whose dogs mauled a smaller dog that was being walked on a leash. It was July 4, a nervous time for canines, said the attackers’ owner. The couple that owned the victim, she said, had no business walking their dog on a day when firecrackers would send neighboring dogs (like her own) into freak-out mode.

In other words, they brought it on themselves.

These are the kinds of rationalizations Judge Judith Sheindlin punctures handily. She informs people when they are wrong, won’t let them weasel out of dilemmas of their own making. She hammers home responsibility, often with a pithy remark. Did you, for example, stop paying rent because of problems in the dwelling but kept living there nonetheless? Judy will remind you that, as in a restaurant, “If you eat the steak, you pay for it.”

Judy’s courtroom is a microcosm of the larger society. There are schemers aplenty; people who feel entitled; fighting families. It’s the Divine Comedy, in modern garb.

Roommate and landlord situations are prominent problems. So are loans (or are they gifts?) between relatives or ex-lovers; accidents involving borrowed vehicles and uninsured drivers; and, yes, a surprising number of dog attacks. Canine victims sometimes appear in court with their owners, eliciting the sympathy vote.

OK, so the first thing to admit is that yes (cue the red face), I watch “Judge Judy.” Not every day, but maybe a couple of times a week. I wouldn’t have thought I was the type, but I caught a few shows and got hooked.

Once in a while I disagree with a ruling. But for the most part, Judy gets it right. She insists on good deportment, too, and is not above correcting someone’s grammar. (“Um is not an answer,” is a favorite line.)

The poll purportedly showing that 10 percent of college students thought Judge Judy sat on the Supreme Court turned out to be badly flawed. Nevertheless, with a high court seat now vacant, Judy might be a choice that both Republicans and Democrats could get behind. We’ve seen worse.

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Remembering Mom in the oddest places

For the longest time, I couldn’t enter Walmart. My inability to step through those wide automatic doors wasn’t a protest against big-box shopping. It was strictly personal.

My mother liked shopping at Walmart and she got her prescriptions there. Often I had to pick them up for her, since I was the one who organized her pill box, filling the little plastic tubs with a week’s worth of colorful capsules.

There were many scrips, and they were issued out of sync. Therefore, it was all but guaranteed that every time I did the box, refills would be needed. That meant a trip to Walmart—usually at an inconvenient time in my own schedule.

Every so often a problem would crop up that Walmart couldn’t solve. I would go home to call doctors and insurance companies, then head back to Walmart for the meds. I got to know the clerks at the pharmacy counter very well.

Pharmaceuticals were one aspect of the hardest job I’ve ever had: taking care of my mother in the period before she moved into assisted living. True, she didn’t live with us—she occupied the house next door. She had Meals on Wheels and home health aides who did light housekeeping and personal care, took her shopping and to appointments (though I generally went on doctor visits).

Thus, in my mother’s opinion, she was living her own life independently. She couldn’t understand why I felt stressed, since as far as she could see, I “didn’t do anything” for her.

I would experience a vague vertigo and a bout of mild nausea every time I walked into Walmart for prescriptions, my heart sinking or rising depending on how many people were in line ahead of me. My reluctance became so pronounced that after a while, I could no longer enter Walmart for regular shopping. Later, when Mom left Pennsylvania to move into assisted living, I couldn’t enter Walmart at all. Too much history.

Gradually the aversion has eased, and last week I found myself there to shop. My first stop was customer service, where the woman ahead of me had been charged $125 for an avocado the prior day. I don’t know the whole story or why she didn’t say something to the cashier when it happened, but the customer service reps figured it out and gave her a refund.

I picked up a couple of things I needed and a couple of things I didn’t. And the only time I thought about my mother was when I stopped in small kitchen appliances looking for a one-cup coffee maker.

I happened to spy an electric tea kettle much like the one Mom had bought for my husband and me, I think for an anniversary. We still use it every day. Suddenly tears sprang to my eyes. I knew she had picked out the gift in this very aisle. So there I was yet again, with those Walmart mama blues.

On the plus side—at least I didn’t need a prescription.

 

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Death in the digital age

Facebook giveth and Facebook taketh away. It brings you back in touch with friends and colleagues from earlier parts of your life—people you might never have reconnected with otherwise. And then—shockingly—it tells you they are gone.

Last week I learned that an old, dear friend of mine—a photographer I worked with decades ago, in my first newspaper job—had died in Bangkok in the middle of an extended backpacking trip in Southeast Asia. It was natural causes, probably asthma, according to the obituary (which appeared days after his daughter posted the news on Facebook).

Andy was an adventurer. He had backpacked through Mexico and Guatemala many times, including a three-month excursion upon his retirement in 2014. No fancy resorts or beach clubs for him. Instead, he went where the locals were, frequently traveling by bus, camera in hand.

Early this year, he set off on an even more exotic journey—six months in Asia. I eagerly followed this adventure via his frequent Facebook posts.

Andy veered from cosmopolitan cities like Singapore to literal backwaters (a trip in a ramshackle boat up the Irawaddy River in Myanmar, to areas only recently opened to Westerners), posting National Geographic-worthy photos and wry commentary along the way.

He sometimes paired up with other travelers—most of them younger—that he met in the hostels where he usually stayed. Other times he traveled alone. He liked dining on street vendor fare.

“Local food is very much part of the travel experience and I’m willing to take the risk to join local people for my meals,” he wrote from Mandalay. “Sitting on a hard, tiny, wooden stool in the dirt to drink tea out of a poorly washed cup while talking to local residents is my idea of fun and is much more enjoyable than a super antiseptic Starbucks.”

The last time I saw Andy in person was probably 20 years ago. I was visiting my mother in Rhode Island and we happened to bump into him at an arts fair Andy was covering for the paper. But through the strange intimacy of Facebook, I felt as if he were part of my life again, even at a distance. Thus, I felt his death more keenly than I might have otherwise.

I suppose there’s no “good” way to find out that someone is gone. But seeing this awful information scroll by in your newsfeed, between a photo of somebody’s lunch and the latest Internet cat video, produces cognitive dissonance. The medium does not fit the message. Where is the gravitas?

And yet, how else to broadcast such news? I myself posted my mother’s obituary on Facebook.

Andy’s death was not the first one I learned about online and it probably won’t be the last. In the aftermath, I’m balancing trade-offs—the pleasure of watching Andy’s travels unfold via his posts vs. the pain of learning that this was to be his final journey.

It’s just the way it is, I guess, in our hyperlinked world.

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Where everybody knows your name

A friend of mine has an expression she uses for the comfy, cozy garb you only wear around the house—you know, the sweats and stained T-shirts that you’ve vowed to throw away at the end of the season but are still good enough for gardening, or for lying around watching a “Twilight Zone” marathon.

“Oldies and smellies,” she calls them, and I think of the term any time I put on a pair of pants without a zipper.

Like all good boomers I mostly wear jeans, all day, every day. But every once in a while, a nice toasty pair of sweats sure feels good. The peril comes in wearing them outside my own four walls. I can almost guarantee that if I dare to make a quick run to the drugstore or supermarket dressed in my oldies and smellies, I will run into someone I know.

I grew up in a small town and I’ve lived in different ones for the past 30 or so years, with sojourns in various big cities—including New York—in between. Although I am happy with my life choices and wouldn’t live in a metropolitan area again, I can appreciate that there’s a strange comfort in the anonymity you find there. Sometimes it’s nice not to have to interact with anyone.

In my Brooklyn apartment, I barely knew the people across the hall except to say hi to in the elevator. When I moved to Pennsylvania, suddenly I knew everybody—and everybody knew me.

My first house was in a tiny rural community with the politically incorrect name of Squaw Hollow, and you would have had to work hard to be anonymous there, assuming it was even possible. Everybody was pretty much in everybody’s business, and while it could get wearing, most of the time I found a huge comfort in it.

Although I was single, I never felt alone. There was always somebody to talk to. In Brooklyn, if I had dropped dead in my apartment, no one would have known. In Squaw Hollow, when a widower didn’t appear as usual one morning, neighbors went right over to find he had passed away in his sleep.

Milford seemed like the bigtime after that, but now that I’ve been here almost 19 years, I know a lot of people. It’s rare to go out on an errand and not run into someone. If it’s privacy you want, you have to go elsewhere, like my friend Greg on Long Island, who, when he wants some alone time to read the paper, drives miles out of his way to a Starbucks in another town. Too many interruptions at the Starbucks in his neighborhood.

This is why I need to burn those oldies and smellies—or at the very least, maintain a strict “house only” rule about wearing them.

Note to self: Always put on lipstick before going out the door. You never know who you’re going to run into when you live in a small town.

 

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines, book publishing and technology journalism. Read Full
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