Kristmas with the Krouses

Christmas with the Kranks

It is the day after Black Friday, and I am still pondering if I want to celebrate Christmas this year.

The day after many of you have racked up hundreds of dollars on credit, got washed along in that torrent of Thanksgiving Day-pre-Black Friday-spending-buy-it-now-or-you-will-be-a-holiday-has-been retail gimmickry, I have spent zilch. Well I did buy a book for my Kindle. But it was not a Christmas gift. (I hate delayed gratification which is why I have trouble keeping Christmas gifts a secret until December 25.)

The rationale is this: my daughter is 21 and has her own place and goes full tilt holiday. Happy for her. Keep it over there.  I have three cats at home that, from what I can gather, only enjoy the tree aspect of Christmas so they can lap water from its base. They don’t care about their stockings or how well you can see the lit up house from Route 35.  My husband starts grumbling as soon as I start hauling the bags of wreaths and lights from the garage attic.

The first year I quit Christmas cold turkey was in 2010. I had good intentions.  I had a Sunday planned to get my fresh evergreen. That day it snowed. Then I got busy. Then I just said why bother.  I don’t even think I bought my daughter gifts per se that year. I paid her $700 tuition balance and called that Christmas. Yes hate on me.

The irony was I ended up hosting Christmas dinner for our families. My sister-in-law brought a tinsel tree (see pic below) to add a festive flair to my house. Otherwise it looked like January 25.

Last year I put up a tree and even some outside lights. A bit more festive. And I bought gifts.

I see it now as an annual toss-up. “What are we thinking this year, Shawn?”  “How about you, cats? What are we feeling?”

I am not being anti-Christian. Notice I am opposed to the retail-ization of Christmas. And amazed, considering the precarious economy teetering on this allegorical fiscal cliff with the threat of lower paychecks come January, that more people aren’t reining in their holiday spend. Yet yesterday, Wal-Mart posted its most lucrative Black Friday ever.

Here are more truths. My extended family used to have big Christmases where we bought gifts for everyone. But we started scaling back. And no one seems to miss the gifts.

I have lived through December 24 without a sack of gifts to give the next day. And I survived.

Sorry, the warm fuzzy takeaway from watching “Christmas with the Kranks”’ escaped me. Why not go on a cruise for Christmas? The Kranks had it right. Like my friend Holger. If you want to live vicariously, Holger is your guy. Last Christmas Day he left for a holiday to steamy Colombia. This year he is toying with the Caribbean.

That is my dream Christmas: a tropical getaway. I don’t even think hearing the Lexus jingle outside my window could incite equal excitement. (I’m just not a Lexus kind of girl…)

In 1994 my husband gave me a set of knives for Christmas.  I don’t think I need to expound upon that statement for you to see my point.  It’s a stretch to go from Farberware to Barbados, I know.

I just ask for acceptance. For example, I love 100 degree humid weather, love to bask in it, and can’t get enough. I know a lot of people don’t share my enthusiasm for subtropical temps. That’s okay, I get it. We accept each other. Society should treat Christmas the same way. Either you love it or hate it but it’s all okay. Don’t shove Santa down my throat.  Don’t make us out to be Christmas pariahs.

Or atheists or Scrooges, or Grinches, although Scrooge and the Grinch may have been atheists. If they were they are still giving atheists a bad rap because a lot of people seem to assume that is how all atheists look, should you happen to stumble upon one.  (Psst… I know several and they are not scary. Put you more in mind of what you might imagine a Quaker to look like.)

I think I have made up my mind. This year I will celebrate like the Kranks Krouses.

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My Unsweet Year

I started Lent on January 1. Why wait eight weeks to give up sweets, when I can start fresh for 2012. And why just 40 days- why not give up desserts, candy, cookies, cake, ice cream, cheesecake and all other sugar packed snacks for the entire year.

So I did and have, save for last week’s chocolate cake fiasco when I had to sample my unleavened cake. I don’t even count that as cheating, because that cake was as bland as it smelled.

With my sense of taste castrated, I am rendered to sample vicariously through my nose. That is leading to some awkward moments. Like at Mimi’s in January, when we had a semi-formal family dinner where we unveiled Lauren’s boyfriend to my aunt and uncle who questioned his existence.  The table ordered Mimi’s exquisite, sinful desserts: peanut butter meltaway pie, Xiango, wild berry pie parfait, and hot fudge cake.  I had coffee. Then I ordered each person to pass me their plate so I could inhale the decadence, salivate, and feel… okay as I pushed each plate back to its owner and ogled them devouring 1000 calories.

My mother has taken my sweet sabbatical to mean I am now anorexic. Sugar anorexic, I guess because I still eat a full plate at her Sunday dinners but stop short of the final course. My mom tends to be irrational at times. Like when I was young she told us kids to never drink milk with fish. Doing so would make us deathly sick. Then it occurred to me that at school, the cafeteria served milk with our fish sticks.  I went home and shared this revelation. “It’s because they are breaded, that probably makes them safe,” she said.  She also made me eat a teaspoon of sugar when I got hiccups. This too seemed pulled from the lair of scary housewife tales and did nothing but predispose me to diabetes.  (Did you know Americans eat 22 teaspoons of sugar a day already!) Maybe that’s why Huntingdon County, PA has such an alarmingly high rate of the disease – nearly 10% of the population!

I am surprised that I don’t miss it much. Except for my co-worker’s jar of Goetz caramels that tempt each time I pass her desk en route to the communal coffee pot.  And cinnamon hearts. I am a sucker for cinnamon hearts during Valentine season.


The tantalizing temptress!!

My sugar restriction has added pause to my life. When hunger strikes midday or at night, I purposefully think about what I am going to eat. The cookies on the counter are off limits. Instead I grab a tangerine or hummus on high bran crackers.  

This pause is what I am striving for throughout my life this year. I have a relatively stressful job – of my own choosing because I have sadomasochistic tendencies. By nature I am an overachiever at work and that has tended to off-center my sense of self. I drift into making impulse decisions to quash the hourly fires and find the day’s precious hours nipped away by rote, mind-numbing tasks. 

Distilling away the superfluous “sugar” from my life gives me a cleaner mind and forces me to center on what is important. And I might trim a few pounds along the way….

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I always have Plan B.  Just in case. I like knowing that I have another option that I can whip out of my back pocket should my preferred method fail.

Plan B pills

You thought I was talking about emergency birth control? No, and yes. I am generalizing my approach to life situations, as should every responsible adult. Disturbingly, this kind of common sense is coming under fire at Shippensburg University, where an on-campus Plan B vending machine could be revoked from the Etter Health Center following a review by the school and the FDA.

A local journalist/blogger broke the Plan B dispensary “discovery” in early February, which was quickly picked up by mainstream media outlets. This news is actually three year old news. But the story surely cranked up her Klout score.

Who would have pegged Shippensburg University- whose signature claims to fame are churning out teachers and Dean Koontz – would be a sleeper progressive hotbed of social controversy! SU is appoint on the trifecta of women’s rights issues that have cornered the nation’s attention this month, alongside the Susan G. Komen for the Cure/Planned Parenthood funding debacle and the Catholic Church’s resistance to full contraceptive coverage for employer-provided health plans offered by its hospitals and universities.

Props to SU’s president, Bill Ruud, who has so far held firm, supporting the vehement wishes of his student body, but recent comments show cracks in his resolve. Like the Komen Foundation and President Obama, he too may bow to “public consensus” or private benefactors who threaten to slap shut their purses and wallets.  

Catch the sardonic stroke with which I typed “public consensus?” As with many polarizing issues, the real people impacted are often a muted group – in these three instances, women. Their views are smothered by the tin of the squeaky wheels who seek political or financial gain. (Although with Komen there is a bright spot- the backlash triggered a groundswell support flowing Planned Parenthood’s direction.) The folks who lobby against women’s issues know how to appeal to the fleeting interests and shallow intellectual appetites of most Americans. Digging deeper into the topic raises broader, heftier questions, with unsettling answers:

Who is trying to control women’s rights and why?

The nation’s myopic influencers – predominantly men – control the contraception conversation. Politicians want votes and pander to the groups that are most vociferous about conveying their opinions (read: Conservatives). The Santorum-Duggar faction appears to support full bore spawning, with a fetus in every uterus. And notice how Republicans are increasingly equating birth control with abortion? Meanwhile institutions and organizations want to continue receiving government and private dollars, and officials inside those groups want to retain their positions. More constituents in need mean more votes, more social programs, more tax dollars needed. You see where this is going.

Why isn’t contraception – including emergency contraception – universally covered by insurance plans?

Plan B at Shippensburg costs $25. BC pills are $10 for generics, up to $40 for the name brand variety. I am on an IUD payment plan because my health coverage did not cover such a “controversial” method, even though it is 99% effective and stays put for five years.  However, if I became pregnant they would cover all costs 100%. Go figure- $1,500 for an IUD versus $3,000-$7,000 for an uncomplicated pregnancy – not counting 18 years of well child care.  Any actuary can see the logic. Yet Viagra clearly cures a necessary medical need… Here’s hoping Obama’s universal coverage mandate sees the light of day.

Birth control is a health issue. It only becomes a social issue when unintended pregnancies produce children whose parents are not financially or emotionally able to adequately provide for them, and subsequently turn to subsidized government support.

If the United States was truly concerned with advancing the best interests of society they would look to Europe. My French, German, and Swedish colleagues are fascinated by the limits of US family leave policies. They are accustomed to 1-3 years of partial or fully paid time off, including leave for fathers. In France, Wednesdays are “family day,” where a working parent has the option be relieved from work to shuttle the kids to sports, music, or dance lessons. We get FMLA, which protects your job for twelve weeks (if your employer qualifies) but not always with full pay or full benefits.

I have several vested interests in this particular topic. I am a woman and a tuition payer; my daughter is a junior at Shippensburg University. A college education is giving her entrance into a future flush with options. I hope Plan B remains one of them.

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Why You Need a Red Wall

I painted my bedroom walls red last week. Gypsy Red.  Actually I didn’t do the painting. I hired a painter, because my husband forbids me to lift a paint brush after the fiasco in 2001 when I spilt a gallon of trim paint on the carpet. (At least it was latex, and white, unlike the prior trim that was cotton candy pink. What was I thinking? But that was in 1996 and the era of mauve and teal.)

red wallI caught a slight gasp when I told my painter what he needed to do to the walls. The next day this very polite yet very quiet sort of man timidly asked me, “What did your husband think?”

(I say “the husband” because they have never crossed paths. This multiday house painting project has been between Bill and me. And the three cats who skulk around the house while he works.) His tone hinted of fear that my husband might have had a negative reaction and considered the painter and I in cahoots to coat my most private walls crimson. I also got the impression my painter didn’t paint many bedrooms red.)

“He never says much but if he hated it I’d know,” I said – the truth, for anyone who knows my husband. “But I think it gives the room great character. I think it is perfect.” For those wondering the red is growing on Shawn.

Everyone needs their own red wall. My red wall speaks to my Id- for those who didn’t study psychology, the instinctive, brash essence of your persona where passion dwells.  The part that is unconventional. The part that the superego and ego do their darnedest to tamp down.

Everything is a system and we live exist in every one. Political, church, workplace, family, each with its own structure, accepted behaviors, processes, and connectivity. “Get” the system and you will get by. There is scant demand for Gypsy Red walls in most systems. Accessible Beige (the color of my living room) is more apropos. We clamor for individualism but gravitate toward conformity and uniformity. It is safer. It pays the bills. It makes people like us. But do we end up still liking ourselves?

I struggle with exhibiting my personal propensities and keep them deftly concealed, popping out in metered dosages to gauge their reception. Right now that is subtly displayed with daily choice quotes or infographics on my office whiteboard that express my distinct self – and a means to spark conversation.

Years ago I spent a few weeks reading Atlas Shrugged over my lunch hour, posing the dense book on the corner of my desk as a potential dialogue starter. Those who “got it” would often give me a conniving smile. I am an ardent advocate of free ideas and free speech. I am foremost a free agent, a Creative (or in Ayn Rand’s world, a producer). And what and whom I create for is my own choosing. That is a powerful concept and a potential threat, a kink if you will, to an organized system.  Call it Creative Kink.

One of my favorite songs that always grounds me is Dave Matthews’  “Ants Marching.” It is a song devious deejays tend to play during rush hour:

When all the little ants are marching
Red and black antennas waving
we all do it the same
we all do it the same way …

 If I am ever to be on par with an insect, please let it be a red beetle...

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Mind your thinking

In a recent professional development exercise (hope I didn’t lose anyone yet), my class was told to close our eyes, clear our heads, and silently count to 50, restarting from zero the instant a stray thought – other than the current digit – darts into our minds. Then raise your hand when you hit 50. Minutes passed. And passed.  I wondered if this band of overachievers was trying to farm out the exercise until the 2:45 p.m. break (which I was not unopposed to doing; it would just be unusual to have that type of group-think from this particular group).

Stop and try it – well not now, do it after you read this post, and do it honestly. Then reflect how you felt while you counting and in the moments after you were done. Where did the creeping anxiousness, crushing weight of “to dos,” maybe even that gnawing headache go? They didn’t vanish, but were held at bay outside of this perimeter you drew for yourself.

Mindful thinking, mindfulness-based stress reduction, it goes by several names but it means being in control of your thoughts. It also means savoring whatever you are doing and feeling in that moment – even if it is physical or emotional pain – and moving beyond pure existence to living, the former being where far too many of us reside.

I dabble in yoga – meaning I DVR Veria programming since there are no yoga classes in Shade Gap , Pennsylvania – and the mantra as you move through the poses is to focus on breathing  and clear your mind.  That is what gets you through revolving half-moon. That philosophy takes me back to Lamaze- which when I last tried it at age 18 in natural childbirth did get me through 14 hours of labor.  The nurse coach even came to my room the next day to congratulate me. But in lieu of an epidural (which I adamantly rejected along with a circumcision when I submitted the ‘birthing plan’) – breathing and counting were all I had at my disposal. Turns out I had a girl so I also made the right choice going with no circumcision. (That was a joke for those who are new to how I am.)

I am committing myself to more mindful thinking. I have taken pride in always living ten minutes ahead, the mistress of lists, blocking my Outlook calendar in 15 minute chunks of project work (always time under-budgeted). Yet I am not in control of my thoughts or my actions.  Because I am always trying to beat the clock, my mind is racing on to the Next Big Thing. And the current work becomes drudgery, a dry rote task to complete before The Next Task. Even work I typically should enjoy, like designing a newsletter or playing around with Photoshop filters on employee poster concepts, feels exhausting when I am juggling being creative with answering emails or IMs pokes.

So, last week I started with this new way.  When I am at home cleaning, instead of thinking about how to write an intranet post for work I slow down and take interest in what I am doing- not merely spraying and wiping so I can cross it off my list. At work I block my Calendar and IM status as “Busy” or even more restrictive, “Do Not Disturb.” I keep my two smart phones tucked in my bag for most of my two hour daily commute.  I think about keeping my car out of the cinders and how nice it feels to drive and how it handles, especially on the switchbacks in Cowan’s Gap. When I make dinner, I focus on doing a better job of chopping ingredients, of whisking the sauce so it doesn’t burn again and make the smoke detector go off. Which used to be the universal signal for “dinner’s done.”

I even focus on counting to 50.

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It’s Worth Your 60 Seconds to Read This Post

If I had a price tag around my neck listing what my work is worth, it would be placarded with mark down stickers and topped with the stigmatic red dot – 80% off right here. I am a bargain. A  steal. Take me. Someone. Please.

I have been flirting with the freelance thing for several years, doing small marketing communication gigs for family and FOFs (friends of family). Because I am so uncomfortable with naming my price I work in-kind. It seems safer for me. But that’s no way to run a business, which is what it is all about in the bitter end. I am a product. A brand.

When your work is subjective and when you are your harshest critic it can feed into devaluing your worth. I have to push through the self-mutilation of my writing and designs to reach a point of satisfaction. This is good. This is what it took to make it. This is what it is worth.

Women seem particularly afflicted with the flaw of discounting and settling, especially in the non-freelance workplace. This is evident in every job offer I have negotiated. Only “negotiate” is not the right word to describe the salary skirting I do, afraid if I raise the “s” word before the offer is extended it will be a deal-killer. An extra week’s paid vacation and 3% bump in annual bonus? She’s not worth it.

Even worse is that I am like most professionals who are not actively job hunting when the current career is lush with satisfaction and growth opps. Typically I prowl when the workload has beaten me down and my self-confidence flat-lined. Any offer is a good offer when you are weighing the alternative- 30 years in purgatory. Which is how it seems when you are not in a happy place with your work.

Writing, designing, event planning, marketing promotion is work that comes naturally to me and that I enjoy. That signals I am in my right groove and should not be embarrassed to be compensated for it. Truth is if you have an iota of creativity and work ethic someone wants to tap into what you got and make it part of what they are. That’s why branding- and personal branding – is so strong. I buy a BMW because of its engineering precision, performance, and clean design and I want some essence of that to rub off on me.

Value what you do, do good work, and don’t be ashamed to give it a cost. And have confidence to back it up when the other party starts to hedge.  A friend recently told me that if you price yourself higher, others will take your work seriously, and I think she nailed it. Price yourself for what you believe you are worth. Stop underselling yourself. Nobody wants a knock-off brand.

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‘Tis the season of the irrelevant man

This is the sign I posted in my yard for the start of deer season 2010.

It lasted until my husband saw it the next day. And took it down. And burned  it, I am pretty certain. He said I was just antagonizing and it would bring us trouble – in the form of disemboweled deer entrails from the hunters who regularly carouse the road in front of our house in their pickup trucks of US origin with chrome pipes and Cummins stickers.

I said the deer need a cheerleader. An advocate. He didn’t get it. He was clearly on the side of the hunter.

So what if I did want to get my digs in at hunters – more specifically a certain subset of hunter. The type that considers “the hunt” one of the last dying vestiges of true manhood, posted land be damned. Who come August start framing my house in the beaming crosshairs of their spotlights. Who plot their drives like some military operation, usually crossing over a few highways and my Civic- and snag their deer in multiples. Who pose on back of said pickup truck with their bleeding kill, the one with the biggest rack and widest spread (hmm terms that are also used in describing women it would seem)… . And who carve up the meat behind garage doors with cardboard-plastered windows.

I call them “irrelevant men.” And I have a few in my family. Because I think these men desperately want to feel important, be some sort of provider, and are clawing at a way to remain viable in a world that with each generation sees less sociological differences between the Xs and the Ys.  For these men “the hunt” becomes symbolic. Few are going hungry enough to rely on venison to get them through the winter. But it takes so little to trip their trigger; even a little plywood sign will do it.  And the more they feel their essential manhood vaporizing the more they morph into Cro-Magnon man. But give me Cerebral man any day- the guy who makes me laugh, who uses dry wit to spice up conversation, and makes me think and work up a strong comeback.

My husband also likes to say that I stomp on men’s balls . Even though I don’t realize I am doing it mid-squash. Because I am fiercely independent and tend to figure things out for myself. Or pay someone to do it. And my husband has on occasion admitted to feeling slighted, even though when I am pureeing other guys’ gonads it is usually when I am talking him up, which in turn makes me feel better about myself and my choices. Because in the end it really is all about me, a woman.  So sometimes I try to pretend to be needy. I say things like, “What kind of car do you think I should buy?” But my husband tells me to knock it off, that it is not working. “You know you want a freaking BMW. Just go get it.” He knows I can fend for myself.

But the deer can’t, I remind him.

And then I start scouting the garage for another spare piece of plywood and red spray paint.

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The Fallacies of Working at Home

Today is Thursday. Thursdays are the day I work at home. Last thing I do when I leave work Wednesday is write on the whiteboard outside our office “Amy- working at home Thursday” – and do so with a guilty hand. Because I invariably get remarks on Friday such as, “how was your day off” or “did you have a good day off?” not in a sarcastic bent, but because the concept of telecommuting, even in 2011, is still so foreign. Even though “telecommuting” sounds so 1995, like bag phones. Remember those and how proud we were to tote them around?

Truth is I sit down at my laptop well before 7, log onto the network and IM so everyone knows I am available, and churn out work until close to 5, with few breaks. I get much more accomplished with a day at home, in terms of productive writing and designing, than I do when I am in the office. That is why it works, and why companies such as mine offer it.

I have friends who also do the “day at home” stint. When we discuss this aspect of our jobs, we all admit to having to overcompensate and deal with the guilt complex thrown on us by colleagues who strictly pull their hours on site. Probably similar to the stigma projected at stay-at-home moms, which at one time I was. So we inundate coworkers with the sheer volume work we churn out,with warp-speed responsiveness to emails and IMs, and answer our desk phones – now forwarded to our work mobile- on the first ring,  just to validate that we are working and not watching The Young and The Restless.

Truth is over the years I have known many office mates who simply take up cubicle space, minimizing their browser  or alt-tabbing whenever I walk by, people whose purpose I have yet to ascertain, yet THEY ARE THERE… IN THE FLESH.

Well, today, HERE I AM, 50 miles from work but just wrapped up a 10 hour day. And I admit without any shame I love Thursdays. I love not having to dress or put on a bra, not having a one hour drive, and actually getting a LOT DONE! For those who know me, and know what a stickler I about not going out in public without my hair pin straight and “face” on, in true work-at-home fashion I am posting a photo of me today, at 4:30, in work at home mode- a once in a lifetime public pic:

(okay I am not comfortable enough yet to show my face, but you get the picture!)

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Art Every Day 16- 句 (That is Japanese for haiku!)

The most wanted thing

Success, fame, money, love, life

Is ephemeral


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Beware the Ides of November

If you are or have been my employer, beware the Ides of November. I am likely to come on board or jump ship. This just occurred to me today, as it is my one year anniversary with the company I now work with, the one with five letters that starts with a V and in Latin means “I roll.” (There, I didn’t overstep the work me/personal me boundary).

In fact I forgot today had any career significance until I saw the congratulatory note from my manager, subject was “One year” – and I thought she was talking about the book I just read but then remembered that one was One Day . (To digress, you simply must read One Day, particularly if you graduated anywhere near the mid to late 80s early 90s). This is how my mind works. I get slightly sidetracked but then bring it all back around.

So, reverting back to that last thought, I realized that I have started new jobs in mid November, twice in fact on November 15- the last time being November 15, 1999 when I started as a reporter at a daily newspaper owned by Gannett (don’t get me started on the trappings of media conglomerates and how they skewer what you read..) Then in November 2000 I jumped to working for an insurance company, then in November 2006 I accepted a job with a major crane manufacturer whose name starts with M and is red. Again I have not divulged any identifying information.

There is probably some hidden meaning here that I can’t figure. Other than I hate winter and dark long days so maybe when the days get shorter, say around September/Octoberish, I get antsy and in need of a change.

I think I am average, in that I have had an average number  of “real” jobs – 6 in 15 years, and each is within the same trajectory – the communications/marketing arc that I guess I am on. Well I decided today that 15 years in a general field qualifies me as experienced and perhaps even an expert. But not a SME, because I am trying to rid my writing and my life of jargon.

On a somewhat related note I have also had more cars than jobs in the past 15 years. But just one husband. Which may be why I switch jobs, it is easier than swapping husbands and still gives me some degree of newness and excitement. So I guess it can be implied that the day I stay at a job longer than say 6 years, which is my historic max, may be the day I start scouting for a second spouse…..

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