Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 12/14/2008

Nuts, Cracked

I’ve spent big parts of my life alternately making bad decisions, and then recovering from the damage caused by those bad decisions, which is why I enjoyed reading this brief interview in today’s New York Times Magazine.

The upshot: Our brains make decisions in the prefrontal cortex, which is bigger in humans than in other animals. It’s also the last part of the brain to develop, which is why we don’t want children making important decisions, for themselves or for others.

If you read my post last week about the Christmas-tree fiasco, you know how it worked out the last time I ignored my adult brain and listened to someone with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. That decision was actually worse than I described, thanks to a few minor and entirely self-inflicted calamities.

In the comments, I left the subject on an upbeat note: We’d gotten a better tree stand than we had before, and all seemed right with the world.

Except for one thing: A few weeks ago, I hired a contractor to put in new windows throughout my house. We’ve lived here almost 11 years, and knew before we moved in that we’d need to replace every window and almost every door. I don’t want to think about the thousands of dollars’ worth of electricity we’ve wasted because we put off the project for more than a decade. And that’s not even considering the aesthetics of rotting window frames and the functional inconvenience of having windows that fought back when we tried to keep them open or wrestle them closed.

One of the windows to be replaced — by far the biggest and most important part of the project — was the picture window in our living room. That would be the window in front of which I’d just set up that damned tree.

The contractors managed to move the tree into the middle of the room without incident, giving them room to work. And, for a while, we thought the move back to its original location had gone equally well. We learned otherwise on Saturday morning, as I was getting the house ready for a group of relatives we’d invited over for dinner.

The tree’s tumble to our living room floor wasn’t particularly dramatic or entertaining. I’d feel better about the whole thing if I could tell a hilarious story about our cats chasing a squirrel into the house and up the tree, or if I’d had a Clark Griswold moment and tried to hang one too many ornaments.

It was standing, and then it wasn’t. Was, wasn’t. That’s it.

When it went down, it crushed more ornaments than any of us tried to count, and spilled more water than a closet’s worth of old towels could soak up.

You’d think that a fallen pine tree in the middle of our suddenly waterlogged living room would be the morning’s most pressing problem, but at best it was tied for third. At the top of the priority list was Annie’s annual Nutcracker performance. (In the photo, she’s in the front row, last angel on the right.) Kimberly had to get her ready and stay with her at the auditorium. Next was Meredith’s Girl Scout event — I had to drive her and a neighbor there and then pick them up. Then there was Harrison’s karate class. (I confess I was late picking him up. Bad dad, I know.)

To make it all worse, we didn’t have a working vacuum cleaner to hoover up the shattered glass and scattered pine needles. That had broken down three weeks ago, and the company that promised to fix it within a week is now suggesting I’m daft for thinking I’d have it back in less than a month.

So here’s my Saturday, in bullet points:

* fallen tree

* huge mess

* no way to clean it up

* no time to buy a new tree, new vacuum cleaner, or new house (trust me, the thought ran through my head) before we had to leave to see Annie in The Nutcracker, after which we’d be hosting a post-ballet party for our local relatives.

Fortunately, one of the relatives is a craftsman who does high-end custom woodwork. He figured out how to get the tree back up straight (no small feat, given the tree’s established preference for horizontality). Kimberly prepared a terrific dinner, and we all had a lot to drink, especially the host.

But the real highlight of the day was seeing my daughter dance. She doesn’t dance any better than anyone else’s daughter, but every time I see her do it the pleasure centers in my brain light up like a Christmas tree.

The problem with my prefontal cortex remains unresolved, but at least The Nutcracker helped me forget about it for a while.