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Social Impact Authors: How & Why Cheryl Cage of ‘NORMAN THE INTERESTED CAT’ Is Helping To Change…

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Cheryl Cage of ‘NORMAN THE INTERESTED CAT’ Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

On a personal level, I hope Norman’s books will help children to be comfortable being vulnerable with their worries and recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength and growth.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing author Cheryl Cage.

Cheryl Cage is the author of fifteen books and counting, including the children’s book series Norman the Interested Cat.

Her varied career includes founding the aviation consulting firm Cage Marshall Consulting (still going strong after 35 years!) and twenty years as a political consultant and community activist. Her work has provided plenty of inspiration for stories to captivate and inspire the imaginations of people big and small.

Cheryl’s values like equality, inclusiveness and kindness have found a new home on the pages of her popular children’s books as she uses storytelling to teach children important lessons like caring for your neighbor, being true to yourself and solving problems. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with rescue pups, Jake and Bert. She and Norman have been friends since 2015!

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in a military family and loved (almost) every minute of it.

Because we moved every two years, my parents made sure I learned proactive social skills early on. We lived on military bases (a highly secure environment!) until I was a junior in high school. From age six, when we would move into a new base, my Mom would say, “OK, I want you to go around the neighborhood and find two new friends your age.” I would dutifully wander up and down the street knocking on doors and asking, “Do you have any kids my age?” Obviously, everyone else was in the same boat and it never really took me more than a few hours to feel like I was ‘home’.

The downside was the stress that deployments took upon my family. Soon after my 13-year-old sister unexpectedly passed away, my father was deployed to Vietnam for 18 months. It was a terrible time for my mother and deeply impacted my entire family in many ways.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

I can’t say there was ONE book…because I just remember BOOKS. I read everything: chapter books, young adult books, comic books. My parents were very generous when it came to my reading habit (there was no limit on the number of books I could buy through the Scholastic Reading Programs. Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames were the first series I devoured. Even though the roles these women were given were limited, I was drawn to the fact that they made things happen on their own.

My favorite projects in school were book reports. I always illustrated my reports and, even when not required, drew book covers.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

When I opened my aviation career consulting firm, Cage Consulting, in 1988 the aviation industry was still practically all-male (even in 2021 only about 5.5% of the airline pilots are female). I worked very hard to be viewed as an equal.

So, to be asked to speak to a group of retiring military pilots who were looking to land jobs within civilian aviation was a real coup for me. Although this was a free seminar, I knew that if all went well, this would be an amazing introduction into working with retiring military pilots.

My presentation was prepared and I felt confident. The host of the meeting walked to the front of the room to introduce me. When he started talking my heart sank. His entire introduction of me surrounded how my husband was an airline pilot and had helped me start the business. He went on to talk glowingly about my husband and, literally, barely mentioned me at all.

I could feel my opportunity slipping away and I knew I had to do something fast. But, I also didn’t want to embarrass the host.

When the polite applause for me died down I said, “Thank you so much to Jim for that introduction. However, although I give my husband a great deal of credit for a lot of happiness in my life, I will NOT give him credit for starting this business.” There was some nervous laughter and the host, standing in the back of the room, looked like he was going to faint.

I spent a little more time than I had planned describing my professional background and how I had developed the interview preparation program. I am happy to say that of the thirty or so pilots that attended the seminar that afternoon, twenty of them became my clients.

The mistake really began with me. I had not prepared an introduction for the seminar host. We had just talked casually about my background and, of course, the fact that my husband was an airline pilot was something that the host latched on to. I never let that happen again!

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

I read the first draft of my book, SWEET DREAMS (about winding down after a stressful day), to a highly accomplished male friend of mine. When I was finished reading, he looked at me and said, “Wow. No one ever taught me how to wind down.”

On a personal level, I hope Norman’s books will help children to be comfortable being vulnerable with their worries and recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength and growth.

On a wider social level, I think about my work in politics. I’ve become increasingly alarmed at the lack of civility and, in some cases, the trend of literally refusing to listen to anyone’s ideas that might be different than yours. Perhaps Norman’s approach of questioning respectfully, and making it obvious that he is searching for answers will help children become better listeners and expand their critical thinking abilities? The ability to really listen, and use critical thinking to discover answers to tough questions would certainly be a plus for leaders of tomorrow.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I’m drawn to the message in my first book: be yourself, respect what others love, learn to make your own decisions. This message is really where Norman’s personality and values began to emerge.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I really got to know Norman, my muse, in 2015 when he and his family came to live with me for about 8 months while their house was being completed.

It was a time leading up to the 2016 election and in addition to the constant focus of national politics, I was working on a local campaign. My days were filled with people who, at best, were stressed and at worst were angry. It felt like no one wanted to have any type of meaningful conversation, they just wanted to spout their opinions.

Back to Norman. I was doing laundry one day and Norman was sitting in one of my favorite blue-velvet chairs watching me work. Norman’s presence can have a very calming effect. I looked at him and said, “Norman, you are an incredibly interested cat. I wonder what you would think about what’s going on these days.”

As I folded laundry, I began making up poems about what Norman was interested in, what his thoughts about issues might be. It felt so cathartic to give a voice to all my anxieties. I started thinking how great it would be if you reach people through a character that could calm them enough to where they could begin to listen to other people’s opinions.

Almost at the same moment, I realized the adults would be a hard sell, but maybe children would be interested? If you could have an endearing character who modeled how to have calm conversations, how to uncover answers to questions and a character who modeled being kind, patient, BUT strong of character…wouldn’t that serve the child well in their development? And, if children learned early on how to listen, research and make up their own minds, wouldn’t they become better leaders?

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I presented NORMAN THE INTERESTED (In Everything) CAT to an LGBTQ aviation conference. After the reading, a middle-aged father was the first person to buy the book. “My daughter just told me yesterday that she is confused about ‘what kind of people she likes’,” he told me. “NORMAN’S outlook is exactly the kind of message I need to share with her while she works through this part of her life.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Yes, absolutely!

NORMAN’S tagline is ‘Books That Start Conversations’. I chose to focus on the need for conversation because over the course of my political work I have seen a dramatic decline in the ability of community members to debate differences.

Norman’s approach to problem-solving is to talk openly about the problem and actively search for an answer. I work hard to have Norman model behavior that can help children learn how to have conversations with someone with whom they disagree.

In ‘Keeping Friends Healthy’ Norman doesn’t preach about wearing a mask. He uses reason, facts and examples to help Jake understand the importance of community health.

I also have great concern about how differences are becoming something to ‘fear’. This is one reason I call him “The Interested Cat”. He’s not just interesting, he’s interestED.

When Norman sees a new way of dressing or meets someone who has interests other than his … he moves closer. He wants to know more about the person, the food, the clothing. He knows, in his bones, that the more he learns, the richer his life will become. He has no fear of ‘different.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

My definition of leadership begins with having a clear set of values; then striving to live up to those values.

For example, I believe strongly in a living wage. In order to live that value, one small thing I do is to print my books in the United States where it’s easier to be confident the people producing my product are being paid a living wage. Climate change is a top-tier problem and one small way I do my part is to print my books on recycled paper. Both approaches are much more expensive, but they are ways to help me live my values.

I am also selective about the political work that I do and only work for candidates or causes that resonate with me.

It may be an overused example, but as an employer, I never ask my employees to do anything I wouldn’t do. For example, when you run for elected office, one of the biggest tasks is walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors to talk to voters. When I was a candidate, I had a volunteer force that was willing to knock on doors with me for months. I did my best to knock on MORE doors and always stayed to the end of the day to show that I was working as hard as possible (knocking on doors during the Tucson 106-degree summers is NOT easy!).

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Other than increasing your knowledge base, do not waste your time thinking about what other people are doing. My aviation career consulting firm had immediate success when I first launched it in 1988 (I was the first to offer an arena to prepare for coveted airline interviews). Within six months of my start-up, other people began offering the same type of service. I quickly realized how easy it was to waste a LOT of energy being frustrated and, yes, a bit angry at the flood of new competition. To combat that ‘time waster’ every time a new competitor opened their doors, or offered a new ‘product’, I would spend a little time reviewing their ideas. But, once I understood the reasoning behind their plans, I would ask myself, ‘How can I make my product better?’ I used that energy to improve my product. I am confident this approach is one of the reasons that Cage Marshall Consulting is still in business after 35 years.
  2. Be intentional in adjusting your mindset. I had a young friend who, in a moment of extreme angst, said to me, “I just want to reach a time in life when things get easier.” Ah, wouldn’t it be nice if that’s the way it worked? But, life does not get easier as you get older. The trick to an ‘easier’ life is to become better at accepting the struggles and handling setbacks. Once you realize you have tremendous control over your reactions, THAT’S when life can smooth out a bit. Changing your mindset doesn’t happen overnight. It requires you to honestly view your responses to the various tough situations you will face. How do you feel about the way you initially responded to a problem? What would you like to do differently next time? Only you can change your behavior, but once you decide to do that…the sky’s the limit!
  3. Don’t assign value to your activities. My best friend is a woman who can make having a delicious cup of coffee an event. She has an innate ability to NOT place a value on every activity. Guilt seems to be a rampant emotion in today’s society. One of my most valuable practices is learning to shoo the guilt away! I proactively work at allowing myself to celebrate whatever activity is bringing me joy or expanding my brainpower at the moment. Do I want to take a nap at 10 o’clock in the morning? Ok, I just need to close my eyes for a while, no big deal. Do I want to paint my rod iron swing purple, even though I planned to clean out the garage? Garage can wait. I think this might be one of the reasons I love writing children’s books. Children don’t assign a value to an activity; they simply enjoy the activity at face value. The more I spend time with my young friends, the more I realize how valuable it is to give yourself permission to play and rest.
  4. Spend time with people and activities that energize you. As flight attendants, we received our schedule the first day of the month. The schedule would list our trips and the names of our fellow crew members. I would have one of two reactions to crew member lists. Either it was, ‘Oh boy! This is going to be fun!’ or ‘Oh, no. Not him/her.’ Pay attention to your reactions to the people in your life. Gravitate towards the ‘this is going to be fun’ people and rethink your relationship with the ‘Oh no, not him/her’ people. Concurrently, very early in my life, I decided that I would not do activities that didn’t bring me joy. My husband was a dedicated herpetologist (study of reptiles and amphibians). After a few camping trips with him to see what ‘herping’ was all about I told him, “Thanks, but no thanks.” For his part, we came to an agreement that he need not attend political events with me. He would travel with like-minded friends to the Amazon, I would travel with my friends to London! We were both much happier.
  5. There is humor in life, no matter what the circumstances. Don’t be afraid to embrace it! Immediately following the death of my husband, my best friend gathered me up and took me to her vacation home in France. (Yes, I know that sounds pretentious. They purchased half an old hotel for a song and worked hard to refurbish it. And, honestly, I don’t care if it sounds pretentious, I LOVE that my best friend has a home in France). The room I always stay in is on the third floor overlooking the street and a small park. Every room has floor-to-ceiling windows that open up to provide a breeze. It was the first morning after we had arrived. I’m normally an early riser, but, as you can imagine, I was a bit of a mess. It was about 10 am and I was still in bed languishing like a soap opera star when my friend came to check on me. “Come on, get up,” she said, “I’ll make coffee.” I did as I was told. While we were having our coffee, my friend looked at me very seriously. “I have to tell you something.” She looked so serious and I remember thinking, “She better not start crying, that’s my job.” “Ok,” I said. “Last night, I heard a thud outside on the sidewalk. For a brief moment, I thought you had jumped out of the window. I actually got up and checked.” I stared at her for about 15-seconds before I burst out laughing. “Oh my god, Polly,” I said, “You actually think I’d jump out of a third-story window in order to kill myself? The only thing that would happen is I’d break both legs and have to drag myself up the stairs to try it again.” We laughed and laughed and laughed all day about that. In fact, nine years later that conversation can make us laugh just as hard as it did originally. Nothing wrong with a good belly laugh…no matter the circumstances.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I was agonizing over whether to take a management position with a career consulting firm OR start my own career consulting business.

After listening to my list of pros and cons my father said to me, “The people at the corporation have confidence in you, why don’t you have confidence in yourself?” That comment made it so clear and simple and, right then, I decided to strike out on my own.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

That’s easy, I would love to visit again with my Aunt May.

Aunt May was my mother’s aunt who raised her. She was born in 1890 and she was a huge part of my life until she died in 1993 when I was 38 and she was 103.

Aunt May grew up on a dairy farm in Maine. She became a teacher and traveled all around the U.S., which was quite unusual for a woman during that era. A few years after she died I found letters from a young Japanese man who had been her pen-pal in the 1920s (I was SO mad I couldn’t talk to her about that relationship). She married later in life, then founded and ran a clothing manufacturing business with her husband (he was involved in politics so she basically ran it herself).

Although I learned a great deal from Aunt May, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that there are so many things I wish I’d spoken to her about!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can always find new books and our events schedule at:

www.NormanTheInterestedCat.com

Instagram: @normantheinterestedcat

FB: @NormanTheInterestedCat

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


Social Impact Authors: How & Why Cheryl Cage of ‘NORMAN THE INTERESTED CAT’ Is Helping To Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.