Archive for July, 2014

What to do when money can’t buy everything

Vacations aren’t supposed to be for learning. They’re for relaxing, getting away, sightseeing, exploring, sleeping, tasting and de-stressing. But if a little learning sneaks its way in, I’m one to see it as a bonus.

On a recent trip to Minneapolis, I learned something about money. I didn’t visit a Federal Reserve branch or a U.S. mint, but I gained some insight about money all the same, specifically about how I want to spend mine.

I remember once hearing this line “Spend your money on experiences, not on things.” But American consumer culture tells us all we always need more stuff. No matter what it is, we need it. So that part about paying to do things instead of just paying to buy things stayed in my mind only as a line I once heard and found intriguing.

Until I saw that mode of spending in action in Minneapolis. I lived it and I loved it, and I saw others who seemed to enjoy it, too.

It was a tale of two scenes, really. The first was the mall. The big mall. The Mall of America mall. It seemed pretty impressive at first. Four floors of stores, five Caribou Coffees, a theme park in the middle and a physical location of a shop I’d only seen online and in catalog form.

And then it got lame. It actually didn’t seem to have a good sandwich shop like Jersey Mike’s or Jimmy John’s and it had too much “mall smell,” an odd blend of all the perfume and cologne from Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie and all the greasy food from the likes of Chipotle and Burger King, recycled over and over through the cooling system. I bought a breathable hat to wear while running and some old baseball cards for my dad. There wasn’t really anything else I wanted because I wasn’t about to bore my boyfriend with the slow process of shopping for clothes.

And that was the first scene. Money spent: $18 on the hat, $2 on the old baseball cards and $13 on a mediocre lunch for two.

On to scene two, which luckily lasted much more of the trip. This scene was the active one, a downtown hub of urban recreation where we biked, walked, kayaked, chugged along on a pedal boat and even swam a bit. I couldn’t get enough pleasant views of the city and people enjoying it by running, walking, roller blading and just being outside. People were sipping beers on patios overlooking the Mississippi River, licking ice cream cones on streetscape benches, lounging on blankets watching a movie in the park – ahhh, it was paradise. And much more so than I expected.

I won’t bother to total all the money I spent on my half of a biking tour, a kayaking tour, ice cream, food and pedalboat rental because that’d be too much math. But I know the cost was well worth it. Because those active experiences were the reasons I enjoyed the trip. They were the fun part.

Seeing how much fun it can be to spend on tours and trips and tastes and things to experience instead of just things to have was in itself an enjoyable and valuable experience.

So next time you vacation, try spending your stash on things to do instead of things to keep and letting memories be your souvenirs. Happy travels!

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A post-college problem: The homework void

The last few weeks, it’s been as if something is missing in my life – something I never completely loved in the first place: Homework.

I’m more than four years (!) out of college and it’s just hitting me now. I don’t miss homework, per se, and I have a job where I’m constantly learning new things. But part of me misses the intellectual pursuit of the newest developments in my chosen field and my personal passion: journalism and gender equality.

Noticing the slight brain drain I’ll call the “homework void” hasn’t been a bad thing, just strange.

“Why am I suddenly not deleting all my emails from professional organizations – the same ones I’ve always discarded as clutter in my inbox?” I would wonder as I almost subconsciously opened the messages and clicked on interesting articles. “And why am I actually reading them, viewing extra links and forwarding the best content to myself at work?”

“Why am I powering through the pile of books on my nightstand lately – the same pile that’s been building for months, if not a year, without doing more than taking up space?”

Why? Because I was solving a problem before I even noticed it. The problem of the homework void.

In school, homework assignments of varying levels of interest, difficulty and frustration placed major demands on our free time and challenged us to make decisions about how well we’d complete the assignments, or if we’d even get them done at all. Homework sucked away a lot of mental energy we could have spent on memorizing song lyrics, dreaming of international travels or working to live more purposefully and rid ourselves of bad habits.

If we wanted to make the grade and get the degree, we had to play the homework game. So until we graduated, we knew no other way of life.

Being done with homework was refreshing. Although the newfound free time wasn’t as plentiful as I imagined, it existed and I could run, chill out with some tunes while writing in my journal, catch up on “House” episodes or spend entire evenings lounging on the couch watching the Bulls. I had a job and I was free and homework was one of the last things on my mind.

Those days, when I was fresh out of college, I was too overwhelmed with the day-to-day challenges of becoming a functioning and successful worker in the career world to even think about spending extra time learning. Heck, I’d been learning for 22 years, and now it was time for actually doing.

So it took about four years to get to this new point – a point where I’ve got my work responsibilities and routines of living on my own down well enough to pursue a bit of learning, just because I want to. This really just means I’m reading more, following national news a little more closely and keeping abreast of business developments in my field.

The homework void isn’t leading me to even consider grad school, but I bet it could have that result for some, pushing them back to university websites, the GRE or LSAT or MCAT and right back into classes.

So, my fellow twenty-somethings, is this happening to you? Do you feel your natural intellectual curiosity – stifled by too much reading and lulled to sleep by long papers – awakening again and inspiring you to learn? What are you doing about it?

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The old news of twenty-something life

I hit a new low on Facebook the other day.

I didn’t waste an entire day playing Farmville or Angry Birds. (Aren’t those are soooo 2012 by now, anyway?) I didn’t stalk the guy I used to obsess about in high school and click “like” on every recent photo. I didn’t go on a binge of X-ing out every ad as “offensive” or try to prank my sister’s boyfriend or my brother’s girlfriend.

It wasn’t anything I did on the world’s favorite social network that made me hit a new low, it was what I saw, and how it made me feel.

I felt old when I scrolled through my newsfeed. Really, really old. It seemed unavoidable. Because when Facebook shows you beautiful wedding photos of a guy who tried to hit on you at Joe’s (the campus bar with a dance floor), a guy whose friend request you accepted for some unknown reason and who you never unfriended for some other unknown reason … when that’s what’s “news” on Facebook, you know you’ve officially reached adulthood.

Most of me wants to think college wasn’t that long ago. Sure, it’s four whole years in the past, so a group of students who spent absolutely no time on campus with me already has graduated. But it still feels so recent, and everyone at work still thinks I’m sooo young. College is fresher for me than it is for them, so it must still be somewhat recent.

But somehow, wedding photos – not just any photos, but wedding photos – of a guy whose advances I clearly remember shooting down what seems like only a couple years ago, have shattered the “college was pretty recent” theory. Because they prove it wasn’t.

This guy, who I must have met in 2008 or 2009 at the latest, has had enough time in his life to date other people, become serious with one of them, get engaged to her, and now, even get married. For some people, that process can happen in a few months or a year. But usually it takes time. And in this case, it did take time. Five or six years, scarily enough. It doesn’t feel that way, but the wedding photos prove it.

College was quite a while ago because enough time has passed for a guy who I wouldn’t go home with after a night at Joe’s to get married.

I don’t feel any specific rush to be married this instant, and I’m happy in my own relationship, not jealously pining for this guy. I barely know him, that’s why it’s a mystery I’ve left him on my Facebook friends list in the first place. But I wasn’t expecting to be made to feel so ancient just by logging in and scanning through the home page. In this age of social media, I guess we’ve always got to be emotionally prepared for the best, the worst and the unexpected of other people’s lives to be thrown at us in photo form – at any moment.

It’s a new low, Facebook, so thanks for that.

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Cake vs cheesecake, or an argument against tradition

My dad and I once got into an argument about cake versus cheesecake at weddings.

On the surface, he was right. Cake is the obvious best choice: It’s the norm at weddings, it’s a crowd-pleaser and it’s what people expect. Plus it just tastes good, and you can easily order several flavors within one wedding cake to please different palettes.

But on a deeper level, philosophically, my argument for cheesecake has merit. In the example of a wedding, cheesecake is a novelty, a rare treat, an unexpected addition to an already great event. Plus, if it’s what the bride and groom want – even if it’s nontraditional – it’s a go, because making the bride and groom happy is what weddings are all about.

My dad and I should have had an argument about the value of tradition, because in siding with cake, he was arguing for tradition, while in choosing cheesecake, I was taking a stand against it.

For me, that stand was intentional. I don’t believe in tradition.

This doesn’t mean I color Easter eggs on Halloween or I turn into Scrooge in December, never decorating with anything that remotely resembles a Christmas tree and answering the phone with a feisty “Bah Humbug!”

It means I don’t believe in tradition solely for tradition’s sake. I won’t do something just because that’s the way it’s always been done. There has to be a better reason – not always something highly intellectual, intricate or fancy – just better, for me to choose to carry on any certain way of doing things.

Holiday activities are a perfect example. I don’t put up a Christmas tree in my apartment just because that’s what Christians across the country always do before Christmas; I do it because it’s festive, I enjoy the change of scenery, and it reminds me of Christmases past and fond moments from my childhood. Those are simple reasons, but they’re good enough for me. The difference is realizing those reasons are why I put up a Christmas tree, not because it’s traditional.

I fear many people don’t make that mental jump, but instead follow unthinkingly into traditional ways of acting, speaking, being – and sometimes for no real reason. So I’m quick to advise friends to shun tradition in favor of personal preference on life decisions large and small.

Have cheesecake at your wedding if you want, because it’s your wedding. It doesn’t matter if people have come to expect normal cake, because their expectations are irrelevant. Do what feels good, what makes you happy, and move on.

Don’t have kids if you don’t want to, because it’s your life. Don’t let societal pressures make the decision for you. Think it through. Don’t enter into parenthood lightly, because it will consume the rest of your life whether you want it to or not. And don’t do it just because it’s expected of you. Again, expectations are irrelevant.

As a society, we’re too quick to hear “tradition” and associate it with all things good. But we forget some traditional ways of relating to each other were anything but good.

Traditionally, women were relegated to the home, sold off as property through marriages as pre-teens and treated as baby-producing machines or mindless eye candy whose thoughts and ideas didn’t matter. There is absolutely no reason that ever should have happened, but it did. And it doubtlessly continued far too long as people looked the other way in the blind pursuit of “tradition.”

Traditionally, restaurants, bathrooms, stadiums, transit bus seating areas, churches, even entire neighborhoods were segregated by race, ethnicity or religion, making millions feel like second-class citizens for no good reason. Similarly, this continued too long as “tradition” reigned until it was dethroned by the civil rights movement.

Once I learned some traditions were responsible for hurting people, causing them undue stress and robbing them of opportunities to reach their full potential, I stopped believing.

And while I don’t believe in tradition, I do believe in the power of thought.

So forget expectations. Chuck the norm out the window. Let old customs die hard, unless they’re worthwhile. And think it through, because the only traditions worth carrying out are the ones that mesh with your beliefs, your values, your priorities. Those select few traditions are the only ones that contribute to a life worth living.

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On freedom, and the responsibility to control our lives

I’m a solid few years into the career world/working person phase of my twenties, but I think I’m still getting used to a lot of things about this life.

Waking up by 6 a.m. pretty much every day. Cooking for myself, or at least assembling easy things that count as meals and then reheating them. Being significantly older than the interns. Keeping the kitchen anywhere near as clean as my mom’s. Dealing with cable companies and trying not to get ripped off.

And one other thing, a big one: Freedom.

An Independence Day-themed ad for Jack Daniels I saw on the Eisenhower last year got me thinking about freedom, and while the ad is long gone, the thoughts haven’t stopped. “Freedom is a right. Independence is a choice,” the billboard said, obviously implying that truly independent people choose to drink Jack.

Well, I drink what I want, think what I want, and I’ve been independent since I could talk – or certainly since I started playing soccer with boys in fourth grade. And of course, freedom is a right – this is America, where freedom is something many of us still are fighting for. We know this.

But freedom feels different in our twenties. I can’t say I knew it would. I didn’t realize the extra weight it would bring, the thought processes it would alter, the changes it would create.

What changes freedom is the realization that we’ve truly attained it by the time we reach our twenties. In hindsight, twenty-something freedom by far trumps the “freedom” we had in our high school years and even college, but freedom isn’t just Fourth of July fireworks, apple pie at barbecues and all things Americana.

Freedom is not something to be taken lightly. It’s the knowledge that we can make our own choices, but if we’re not careful, half of them will be bad. It’s the understanding that no one else controls our lives, even when we might want them to.

For me, twenty-something freedom is the realization that I’ve achieved the career I had gotten so used to striving for. So now, instead of working toward the goal of being a journalist, I can just live my life and be a journalist. Freedom brings big questions about how I want to act in this life I’ve worked so hard to attain – how I want to balance my time, get involved, be fit and active, excel at work, have adventures, keep in touch with friends and live with no regrets.

With freedom, I’ve had to come to a better understanding of my aim in life (to tell stories and make people think), and my top priority (being loyal to the people I care about) – because there are too many distractions out there, and I’m free to fall victim to any one (or dozens) of them if I’m not careful.

Freedom also is something that has to be balanced. With responsibility and control, as I learned in my favorite high school social studies class. Freedom, responsibility, control, or FRC, was the brainchild of an eccentric veteran-turned-teacher who we all just called Mr. P, a man who introduced himself on the first day of class by scaling a student desk and declaring he didn’t need drugs because he was “high on life.”

FRC was Mr. P’s motto, a philosophy he taught throughout the year and distributed on our last day on little laminated index cards showing a triangle held in check by a scale. As applied to twenty-something life, FRC goes like this:

We have the freedom to party all night, sleep as long as we want and then call off sick, but the responsibility to support ourselves financially by controlling our bad habits and keeping our jobs.

We have the freedom to date whoever we want, but the responsibility to show decency and treat them like real human beings by controlling our selfish urges and our desire to take the easy way out.

We have the freedom to eat nothing but pizza and cookies for three days, but we have the responsibility to protect our health by controlling what we eat and making healthy choices.

We also have the freedom to screw it all up a time or two or ten as we work to understand ourselves, our priorities and our true aim in life. We have the freedom to be independent and choose the path the rest of our lives should take.

Freedom needs a guide, so it’s up to us. It’s time to take responsibility, make a roadmap and control our own destiny. Happy Independence Day!

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