Saturday, January 31, 2009

VacationsToGo.com -- Why book with anyone else?


When I booked our last Caribbean cruise vacation via the VacationsToGo.com website, we were laughing.

The Canadian dollar was actually worth more than the US dollar, and we just couldn't believe how lucky we were to head into paradise for such an amazingly low price. It practically felt like we were stealing, that's how good the deal was.

But this year, not so much.

I waited and waited, obsessively searching various websites multiple times each day, hoping for even the smallest drop in rates for either the cruise or the many flights we're taking while visiting family in New York and Michigan before the ship sets sail. And then, finally, I pounced and booked everything at what I thought would be the best rate we'd see, given our floundering Canadian currency.

But I was wrong.

I still periodically check the VacationsToGo.com website, and -- naturally -- the military rate for our cruise was recently reduced. While I just accepted this and told myself that everything happens for a reason and that it was meant to be that I booked when I did, my husband instead suggested I e-mail our travel advisor and ask if we could pay this new rate instead.

And guess what? She e-mailed me back this morning and told me our rate was adjusted, and I will soon be seeing the difference refunded onto my MasterCard. Just like that!

VacationsToGo.com really does offer the best rates for cruise ship vacations -- believe me, I've searched EVERYWHERE -- and now they've proven that they're also outstanding in terms of customer service.

No hassle. No questions asked. Just, "Sure, here's your refund." I freakin' love it.

Given the state of today's economy, it's refreshing to know that companies like this -- whose bottom line seems just to please their customers -- still really do exist.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The best revenge is living well

"Ability is what you are capable of doing.
Motivation determines what you do.
Attitude determines how well you do it
."
- Lou Holtz


I first read Jeannette Walls's memoir, The Glass Castle, a couple of years ago and then was lucky enough to have a sister-in-law meet the author and bring back an autographed copy of the book. Since then, I've practically forced this story upon everyone I know: Carla,  Rachel,  Victoria ... and of course everyone in the Golden Girls Book Club.

The GG Book Club was formed last fall among myself and four friends, and at my strong insistance, this is our book du jour.

I think the reason I love it so much is because it's so inspiring. At it's most basic, it's the fascinating story of a brilliant yet dysfunctional family living in extreme poverty.

But the underlying message I take from it is something I've been preaching to others in a tyrrant-like manner adamant about for years: What happened to you growing up is now irrelevant. What really matters is how you've picked yourself up and what you're now doing with the rest of your life.

To be frank, everyone's childhood was miserable. Everyone has a story. Some are tragic, sad, unfortunate.... and they're often seemingly never-ending.

I'm not trying to be cruel; I really am sympathetic to the misfortunes of others.

But as adults we have a choice: We can either wallow in self pity and blame everything that's wrong in our lives on whatever hell we went through as kids... or we can grow up and live better lives in spite of whoever we think wronged us. (Read: Quit using your childhood disappointments as a crutch for your modern-day failures!)

There is an excerpt on pg. 144 of the book's edition I have that states it best. Jeannette was recalling a discussion she had with her mother about Erma, her paternal grandmother:

-----
"I hate Erma,"
I told Mom.

"You have to show compassion for her," Mom said. Erma's parents died when she was young, Mom explained, and she had been shipped off to one relative after another who had treated her like a servant. Scrubbing clothes on a washboard until her knuckles bled -- that was the preeminent memory of Erma's childhood. The best thing Grandpa did for her when they got married was buy her an electric washing machine, but whatever joy it had once given her was long gone.

"Erma can't let go of her misery," Mom said. "It's all she knows."
-----

This, I believe, is what holds too many of us back.

And it's why I find this book so uplifting -- despite everything Jeannette and her siblings endured growing up, they always looked forward and eventually overcame their setbacks. They became productive, contributing members of society. They made it.

As she says at the end of this interview, "The shame is not in falling. The shame is in staying down."

----------------
Jo's Note: To view another uplifting segment on Jeannette Walls and her mother, click here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Confessions of a semi-Alpha Wife

The latest issue of Women’s Health magazine introduced me to a new term being used to encompass an old concept: Alpha Wives.

It describes the over-achieving, do-it-all, head-of-the-household type of woman we all want to be. In a lot of ways, I like to think I’m worthy of this title – even though I don’t exactly go grocery shopping in stilettos and a power-business suit while holding a child on my hip.


 

Reality: I’m usually in sweats, and my husband often has to remind me to put on a bra before I go out. Not exactly the image of an over-achiever, but I digress.

 

Like most things, this lifestyle does come at an expense, and it’s usually to one’s health and/or personal relationships. Lucky for me, I’ve been cutting back the number of hours I work each week and – surprise, surprise – my overall health has actually benefitted.

 

Simply losing the late nights and actually keeping regular hours each day has helped get my sleeping patterns back on track, and this alone has made a world of difference. All of a sudden I’m no longer exhausted and ready for a nap by 2 p.m. Just three months ago there was no way I had the energy to join the Running Room and meet with my group several times a week to go running after work, but now I’m doing it.

 

I’m also eating better, given that I now have the time to not only plan my meals in advance but also to actually prepare them. (See earlier post regarding eating Pringles for breakfast. NOT COOL.)     

 

And most importantly, in terms of my sanity, my husband is happy again. After a year of him telling me that the extra paycheque was nice but really not worth what it was costing us in our relationship, he finally has his wife back. We actually spend time together again. Every day, no less!

 

I’d be lying if I said I don’t cringe each time I examine our bank accounts these days, but my husband was right. I do miss the extra paycheques and the luxuries they brought, but it turns out I missed my life much more. 

Monday, January 19, 2009

Food for thought

Several years ago while visiting New York City, I left my Manhattan hotel room one evening to pick up a sandwich at a nearby deli down the street. The date was July 3, 2002, the eve of the first Independence Day following that city’s 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the streets were beyond crowded with tourists and locals alike.

 

It was obvious to me and everyone else that I wasn’t one of those locals; unlike the majority of New Yorkers, I actually stopped and waited on street corners until the pedestrian crossing light flashed that it was safe for me to venture into the street. And it was during this stop that a local resident pounced on the opportunity to solicit me for money.

 

C’mon, man, look how skinny I am,” he declared as he raised his shirt to show me what he felt were grossly protruding ribs. “All I want is 50 cents to buy a hotdog!”

 

Feeling a little nervous and just wanting to be left alone, I told him I was sorry and that I didn’t have anything to give him. Nonetheless, he followed me all the way to the deli, and I was grateful when he remained outside as I entered to place my order.

But I watched through the window as he attempted to gain handouts from others walking by outside. And in witnessing the repeated rejection he received from people just like me, I began to feel guilty.

 

You see, there’s a back story to this tale.

 

Upon my arrival in NYC, my friend and I were taking the elevator up to our room when we were approached by a couple of girls who were on their way out. They’d been in town the last couple of weeks to register for University in the fall, and, because of their extended stay, they had bought an abundance of groceries that would now go bad unless they donated them to a shelter. Given that they didn’t have any more time left to find such a location, they gave the groceries to us with the hope that we could then pass them on to someone in need.

 

So you see my dilemma here.  

 

How could I, in good conscience, walk away from this man when I knew I had bags of fresh bread and peanut butter and yogurt and clean water that was intended to go to someone just like him? The Bible's words from Matthew 25:35 echoed in my mind, and I knew what I had to do.

 

When I left the deli, this man again approached me and gave me the same spiel as before. Clearly he had forgotten that I had already turned him down. Repeatedly.

But this time, as he walked along with me back towards the hotel, I told him that I did have something for him after all. And for the first and only time during our entire encounter, he was quiet. He moved in closer to me and acted as though he was my new best friend.

 

“So what you got up there?”

 

I told him that if he waited for me on the corner, I’d run up and get him the bags of fresh food we had at our disposal. And that’s when he turned on me.

 

“Food?! I don’t want no f****** food! I just want 50 cents to buy a f****** hotdog! Look at my ribs…!”

 

It was instantly clear to me that he wasn’t going to use whatever money he came across to actually buy a hotdog. And he wasn’t really all that hungry for food.

 

Furious, I told him off and let him know -- in my own special, angry little way -- that he was out of luck and wasn’t going to get anything out of me.

 

I’m sharing this story now because just yesterday my mom and I were approached in a grocery store parking lot here in Edmonton by someone claiming to need money. He was exceedingly polite and referred to us as ladies before explaining that he had something very embarrassing to ask us.

He began his story with, “I just got out of the hospital yesterday…” but before he could continue, I cut him off and politely (yes, politely!) apologized and told him that we couldn’t help him.

 

He looked positively defeated. And shocked that I could be so heartless.  

 

As he silently walked away, my mom felt bad and said to me that we could have given him some spare change. But as horrible as I also felt, I stuck to my guns. I know that there are genuinely needy people in our city who, due to various circumstances – whether it be mental illness or whatever – have next to nothing. And he could very well have been one of them.

 

But I just don’t feel comfortable giving away money without knowing that it will definitely go towards necessities like food, shelter, baby diapers, etc. As much as I wanted to believe this young man’s intentions were good, there was a part of me that wondered if the money he was collecting that afternoon was instead going towards drugs or alcohol. And I refuse to support those habits.

 

There are a number of organizations that do a lot of good work to help our city’s less fortunate, and I feel much more comfortable donating time, money, and supplies to them instead.

 

The Marian Centre downtown, where my husband and cousin are regular volunteers, is especially good about providing food and basic goods (toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, etc) to anyone who comes through their doors.

And of course the City Centre Education Partnership, for whom we held a fundraiser last October, does amazing things for students attending school in the inner city and who would normally not have access to certain advantages that the rest of us take for granted.

 

So I’m not entirely heartless after all. Just a little jaded, thanks to the supposedly-starving homeless man searching for hotdogs in New York City.