Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

It is Christmas morning and I am trapped at my mother's house, waiting for the festivities to begin. In a very un-Christmas-like way, I'm teed off at my older sister, for deciding not to rush her kids and choosing to attend family Christmas nearly one hour later than planned. So, I have to wait for family time for one MORE hour.

As I stew, hopped up on crappy coffee and fake sugar, I realize that I desperately want Christmas magic to still extend to me. Even though I am 37 years old. And, it doesn't. With six children in the family - my sisters' kids - the adult magic gets lost - or at least subjugated until the kids' needs are met. And intellectually I understand this is part of Christmas - the joy children experience. And emotionally I feel aggravated and disappointed.

So what's a girl to do?

Right now, I'm contemplating calling my older sister to apologize for snapping. And then emotionally checking out 100% so I don't have to worry about managing angry or sad feelings. However, if I do this, I won't appreciate the giving or the receiving part when it FINALLY gets started. Maybe I could refuse to come home for Christmas ever again, or at least planning on driving home for Christmas on Christmas day - and arriving at my sister's house at approximately 1:00 so I don't have to do this crappy waiting around for things to get started stuff. Or, maybe I could stay home and be with BMG who doesn't restrict his feelings of adventure and curiosity to all things niece and nephew.


I know my sisters and brother (and my mother) appreciate giving and receiving from one another - this is why Christmas is such a big deal. And I've often said it feels like there is no place for me here because I don't have kids. On Chrismas morning, this is particularly acute. On Christmas morning this is particularly acute.


What's a girl going to do? I'm going to finish drying my hair. Then I'll pour another cup of weak coffee and plaster a smile on my face until it is noon. Then I'll pour myself a drink and get planted in a chair and pretend this is all exactly what I asked Santa to bring me on Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Santa is phoning it in

We have Secret Santas at the office (separation of church and state - hah!). My Santa is phoning it in. I got three pairs of ladies' trouser socks, coasters with snowflakes on them, and, today, I got what appears to be a leftover mug from a Hickory Farms gift basket. It has six pieces of that strawberry candy that seems to come in all Hickory Farms gift baskets, with mounds of dust in the bottom of the mug.


I actually love finding treats at work - and really love giving them. In my family tradition (at least as I understand them), gift giving is about letting someone know "I understand you as a person and want you to be happy." I know other people don't ascribe to this philosophy of giving, and I feel bad for being ungrateful. But, I don't want a bunch of random crap that I cannot use. If you don't know me (and there is no reason to believe everyone in my office of 15 KNOWS me) then don't buy me personal items for my home. How about things like edible treats (candy, dried fruit) or a box of tea? Is it possible my Secret Santa is so oblivious that s/he doesn't notice I drink Starbucks, eat cookies, or like to pinch candy from others' candy bowls?

My personality is enormous, and I wonder if I am feeling affronted because people (or at least one person) isn't paying enough attention to me to notice these details.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Top 10 ways tater tots are NOT like french fries

I've been munching tater tots today as a mildly unhealthy reaction to way over the limit stress at work. My delight in these yummy potato treats has led me to create this list of the top ten ways Tater Tots are NOT like French Fries. Let's get started.

10. Professors and teachers alike are buoyed by the fact that there is very little confusion about the plural form of tater tots.
9. Tater tots don't make you feel greasy after you eat them.
8 You CAN eat tater tots for breakfast, in their delicious hash brown form.
7. Their handy cylindrical shape is easier to gobble than those dangerous french fry sticks.
6. Tater tots give off the impression of being healthy.
5. Tater tots can be classed up, with recipes like "Savory Tater Tot Casserole" roaming on the Internet.
4. It is almost impossible to lose a tater tot into the mouth of the ketchup bottle when dunking.
3. No chance of making a controversial political statement when eating tater tots.
2. You can microwave a frozen tater tot and its integrity is not compromised.

And the number one way tater tots are not like french fries....
1. Tater tots are neater to stack and count for those binge eaters with obsessive compulsive disorder.

*Special thanks go to BMG for his help with this list. All other contributions are welcome in the comment section.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I surrender!

I've decided to throw in the dishrag at BMG's little cottage. I will no longer be hand washing dishes there.

This is not a decision born out of the traditional female frustration that her "man" doesn't appreciate her, nor is it an act of defiance in reaction to a mounting pile of dishes that only I appear to wash.

In fact, this is a decision driven by the fact that BMG prefers that I NOT wash dishes by hand. Because, in fact, I stink at it. The poor guy. He is constantly fishing dishes out of the sink drainer only to have to resoak them and sanitize them in the dishwasher because I've left large hunks of food on them.

So, I'm embracing my incompetence, reducing my household work load, and hanging up my holster filled with Dawn today.

Crisis = opportunity

Everyone knows the old management adage that the Chinese character for crisis is the same as the character for opportunity.

My office is handling a crisis right now. I work for a public school system and one of our schools had a devastating fire two days ago, early on Sunday morning. As a member of the senior staff team, I have been pulled from all of my regular duties to assist with the response plan. And it is 100% overwhelming. I am managing the media and donations, working on community relations, and trying to reroute grant management at the school. This is all "non-essential" compared to the momentous task for finding new classrooms for these students and preparing said classrooms for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Through it all, I'm watching my boss as he rises to the leadership challenge, I'm watching the Principal of the school as she falters, and listening closely to the experts who are advising us on the next steps to take - at least with the public. Every chance I get I talk with students, to learn their reaction so that I might respond in customer-centered ways. And above all, I'm watching myself. How am I reacting to this crisis? Am I stressing out? Am I being strong yet kind? How do I make decisions?

I am preparing to start a lengthy process of readying myself professionally for the next step in my career. I'm not trained in education and don't have the desire to get the necessary academic credentials to move up in the hierarchy. My job is fascinating and is a dead end for me. So what's next? Private sector philanthropy? Think tank research and development? Higher education? A higher position within the government? Legislative advisor? I'm not sure yet, but I do know that I need to cultivate my projection of myself as a senior staff member, of someone who can take a crisis and make it an opportunity for growth and change.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Bowling alone

BMG and I were lying in bed this morning, talking about why my friends don't ever have parties. I started going through my list of friends and realize that many of them have circles of friends that I have been excluded from - either because they made these friends long before they knew me, or because their separate friends are married with kids and therefore I either don't fit in (I choose neither marriage nor kids) or the friends fear that I cannot relate. I also realize that a handful of my married gal pals use our friendship as an oasis from their suburban lifestyles. Boobra, for example, often wistfully talks about my crappy illegal basement apartment as if I lived in the Bachelorette Taj Mahal.

I then turned to BMG and said, "Your friends never have parties either!" "Yes they do, we just never go." As we went through HIS list of friends who have parties, we reflected on the fact that his family often has get-togethers that we DO attend. BMG lives 1/2 mile from his parents and maybe six miles from one of his brothers and his sister. "If we lived near my family we'd see them every weekend," I countered. Then I stopped. I would love to see my family every weekend. I would love to make cookies with my sisters, share coffee in the morning with my mother, and play Pet Shop Dolls and Playmobile with my nieces and nephew. But, I don't want to live in Syracuse, NY. I don't want to live in Syracuse because there is not enough to do there for me - this childless by choice, eclectic, and hard-to-pigeonhole adult woman. And, if there is not enough for me to do there, I'll get sucked into being a daughter, a sister, and an aunt all of the time. This I cannot do.

I think this is a classic dilemma of wanting what one knows is not good for them. BMG asked if I was sad about the bind I find myself in. "I'm both sad and happy," I replied. Continuing, "Sad because I love and miss my family. Happy because I'm making the choices that are right for me." "Oh, you are melanhappy" he said cleverly, before turning over and falling into lazy and self-satisfied sleep. "Yeah, melanhappy," I thought, feeling the word on my tongue and absorbing the feelings of wistful contentment. "Melanhappy."

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


I still don't have a kitten, but it is apparently on my mind. "Why?" you inquire with mild curiosity. We got new paper recycling bins in the office today. They are minis, about one-third the size of the standard curbside bin. My reaction? "Oh, this looks like the perfect size for a kitten bed!"


It is fun to recycle at work. I submitted a proposal today and realized my footer had a slight error in it - not one that would make or break the proposal. Rather than tossing the 11 copies (66 pages) into the trash and starting over, I decided to let it go. I can feel myself gearing up for a little internal competition to reduce my paper waste at work. Not at home. But I'll tell you more about that AFTER Christmas.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Best in Food Writing 2007

I recently wrote an ode to my mother's turkey stuffing. I encourage you to read it, and to consider penning your own paean to the foods of the season at jeffcutler.com.
SPOILER ALERT! This post will reveal the truth - as far as I'm concerned - regarding the existence of Santa Claus.


I started to realize that my mom and dad were actually Santa - in fact that Santa did not exist - when I was aged somewhere between four and six. I remember my brother, who I credit with teaching me to snoop, told me had to show me something in the basement. We silently, and without benefit of lights, walked into the dusty and dry cellar. We tip-toed into a corner veiled by shadows, far away from the washer and drier. Todd brought me to a generic and uninteresting white sheet, which he pulled back to reveal an enormous pile of brand new toys. We contemplated the shiny boxes and cellophane, pondering the mystery of all of these toys.

I don't remember saying a word to him then, or anytime afterwards.

What I DO remember is seeing my younger sisters each unwrap Holly Hobbie stuffed baby dolls that Christmas morning. And I remember those toys were labeled as gifts to the girls from Santa.

Sometime later, I remember a conversation that went something like this:
"But, mom, I saw those dolls in our basement?"
"Well, sometimes mommies and daddies store toys to help Santa and his elves out," she replied sensibly.
I didn't buy it. I didn't tell her I didn't buy it, but that was the beginning of the end of the Santa myth for me.


It wasn't the end of Christmas being magical for me. I have vivid recollections of crying when I received a plush version of the Camel with the Wrinkly Knees - a character from the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories by Johnny Gruelle. I cried because I was so happy that someone knew me so well (in this case, my mother) to give me this gift - when I didn't even know that I wanted it. I also cried when I received a doll I named "Angel-y". (By the way, the name I gave the Camel? Camel-y.) Angel-y was a standard pillow-sized, two-dimensional stuffed angel. I cried that time because I had torn through my gifts that Christmas morning as if a tornado were coming to take them away. The Angel, wrapped unceremoniously in a white kitchen garbage bag, had been lost in the melee. When she was found, I was firmly convinced that I had no more presents and no one loved me. Unwrapping Angel provided me with such excitement and joy at a time when I was feeling an unreasonable loss.


What does Christmas mean to me today? Exuberant joy and quiet peace. I find both energies in the lights that illuminate homes, businesses, and the overall landscape during this time of year.


When do you remember realizing there was no Santa? What does the magic of Christmas mean to you? How has this evolved over time?

Are you like a caveman?

While tearing over to the Whole Foods at Alewife at 7:45 tonight - in pursuit of salad bar goodness after a 13-hour day at the office - I was yelled at by a Cambridge cop.

I was on a narrow, two-way street. There was an emergency vehicle blocking 1/2 the incoming lane. I was proceeding slowly in my lane, uncertain if the oncoming traffic was going to go around the ambulance and invade my lane. As I proceeded forward at around 20 miles an hour, I found myself face-to-face with a cop.

It was nearly 8:00 at night. The street was poorly lit. The cop was wearing a cop outfit - navy pants, navy jacket, and even a navy hat with ear flaps and a chin tie.

He screamed at me for "driving into oncoming traffic" while being directed by a cop to stop. I rolled down my window, apologized, and explained that I couldn't see him because it was dark, there were no lights, and he was dressed in navy blue. He continued to scream at me. I apologized again, feeling my heart rate rise and unpleasant and unwise retorts rising in my throat. Aware that I have (a) a broken headlight, (b) two unpaid parking tickets, and (c) a 2009 inspection sticker to put on my license plate, I wisely chose to quickly put my window up and drive away.


What is it about authority figures who yell at us that causes the physiological response characterized by increase heart rate and blood flow - particularly to the extremities? I know this is the "fight or flight" response. Why does it happen?

Researchers at Ohio State University have conducted studies to examine if the fight or flight response was different for anger versus fear. It wasn't in their sample size of ten (10). In fact, it affirmed the symptoms of flight or flight for both situations. I'm intrigued particularly by the increase of blood flow to the limbs. Have you ever felt like you wanted to pound your fists, or run away? Is this because of the increased blood flow to the hands? The legs? Is that the reason for the response?

One online writer trying to explain this reaction writes that "fight or flight" is not rational, but rather hard-wired and primal. Wanting to punch a police officer for yelling at you when in fact he was directing traffic in the dark is not rational. But, should someone find themselves in that type of situation (hypothetically speaking), s/he may want to in fact punch that police officer. There are times when the punching instinct is useful (e.g. defending oneself against an attacker), and others when it is not useful (e.g. punching a police officer who is a poorly lit meglomaniac).

The next time I feel that tingling in my legs or hands or mouth in response to anger or fear, I'll consider what my Neanderthal ancestors are trying to express in me. And then I'll consider what is needed for my own survival in that situation. Shall I take a caveman course of action or the rational/enlightened 21st Century course?


Oh! I'm considering writing a letter to the Cambridge Police Department suggesting reflective gear for officers directing traffic at night on poorly lit streets. This would allow me, in this case, to respond in a righteous and smarty-pants kind of way. This is one of my favorite options when I'm consciously choosing not to punch or curse at cops.