Should You Get a Travel Rewards Credit Card?

A free trip sounds too good to be true, right? In most cases, the promise of anything free requires a healthy dose of Grownup skepticism. But change “free” to “loyalty rewards”, specifically in terms of travel rewards credit cards, and we’ve got a different story.

Keep that skeptic hat on, though, because all cards are not created equal. And whether you can benefit from them depends entirely on you: specifically, your Grownup values, spending habits, and ability to pay off your balance each month.

If you’re interested in getting a travel rewards credit card, here’s how to get started.

Read the full story over on the Society of Grownups blog.

In Plain Sight

This photo shows a mountain along the Skogafoss river trail in southern Iceland

The soil is loose, and an unfamiliar metallic grey, as I proceed along the hiking trail. Although the sky is cloudless cerulean, the wind whips past, unfettered by trees or other vegetation. The glaciers loom in the distance, their snow-capped tops releasing a steady trail of vapor.

Like all of Iceland, the landscape we’re standing on is relatively young, featuring new mountains that volcanic explosions had formed pell mell. We’ve learned the country grows by two centimeters each year, as a result of the ever-shifting North American and European continental plates far below the country’s surface, and its active volcanoes above. The surrounding jagged skyline shows this tumultuous past, the mountains’ cliffs and peaks shaped by the uneven distribution of lava and ash, their crags further sculpted from the rushing water of glacier melt and glacier-fed rivers.

We continue along the trail. There is no tree line to surpass – no trees at all to speak of, actually. And while we can see for miles in any direction, the landscape, close up, changes as we walk, the terrain moving from gunmetal grey to brown to green to hay-yellow. The density changes, too – the grey soft and powdery, like talc; the brown muddy and suction-like in places, the green and yellow forgiving and firm. It does not occur to me, in the moment, that the grey “soil” is actually volcanic ash.

***

I was drawn to Iceland for its alien landscape, tales of fire and water and ancient explorations, and a sky that regularly put on shows of color and light. Its relative accessibility to my Boston hometown was an added bonus; I could be in Reykjavik faster than if I were to visit the West Coast. So, seeking the unfamiliar, my husband and I booked two tickets for a week in September, knowing that visiting late in the season would mean some compromises, weather-wise. Still, I am an optimist, and just the promise of visiting an entirely new-to-me place already gave me a thrill.

***

I’ve lost count of how many waterfalls we’ve passed along this trail, which follows the Skoga River in southwestern Iceland. Their roars are a constant companion as we proceed. We’re not sure how far we’ll go along the trail today – it’s the end of the hiking season, and while the day is picturesque, we’ve been warned the glaciers (and their effects) can change the atmosphere abruptly.

Planning for a day hike, my husband and I have only taken minor precautions – a few warm layers, a packed lunch with snacks, several liters of water for us to share throughout the afternoon. Our cell phones don’t work out here, or anywhere in Iceland at all, as we chose to forego an international plan in the spirit of a thorough unplugging and detaching while on vacation. As the terrain gets more remote, though, and we find ourselves alone for hour-plus stretches at a time, I wonder if that was the wisest decision.

The wind picks up, and I shiver in my fleece and thin hat. I still want to see more of what’s ahead, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that I’ve prepped for a leisurely afternoon waterfall walk, not for a glacial trek. The fact that both trail options exist, though, as neighbors in the same place, still fosters a deep sense of awe. The contrast is as impressive as the glaciers are worrisome.

***

It is only later, after the hike, that I put two and two together – that I was walking in the direct shadow of Eyjafjallajökull, the notorious spewer of 2010, whose billowing ash cloud shut down Europe for weeks on end. Back in the rental car, I marvel at the view of the glaciers from the road, and ponder aloud over the notorious volcano’s exact location. My husband looks at me incredulously and points to where we had just been.

I’m genuinely stunned. “But that’s right there,” I sputter.

There were no signs at any point indicating this landmark; no danger or warning signs urging caution along the trail. Andy had told me we would be “in the vicinity” of Eyjafjallajökull; I took that to mean within a ten- to twenty-mile radius, and had not asked for clarification. Toward the end of our hike, we had been at most a mile away. Even without truly knowing what I was seeing, I had still been intimidated, even humbled.

I think of the old adage about the differing mindsets contrasting travelers and tourists: “A traveler doesn’t know where she’s going, and a tourist doesn’t know where she is.” I feel both mindsets coexisting in me, on this day, much like the waterfalls and glacial volcanoes, improbably sharing the same space.

An Open Letter to the MBTA

The following is a letter I recently sent to the MBTA in response to their call for public comments regarding the proposed fare increases.
***

Mr. DePaola and the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board:

I had the pleasure of attending the February 2nd public comment meeting in Boston on the proposed MBTA fare hikes. It was a privilege to witness the high turnout and hear the opinions and stories of fellow greater Bostonians in regard to these unwelcome proposed changes at the T. Because I did not have a chance to speak at the meeting, I’m submitting my opposition to the fare increase in writing.

I have lived in the Boston area for nearly 16 years: 6 years in the North End, and nearly 10 in Somerville’s Winter Hill. I have always relied on the T as my primary form of transportation, and it connects me to school, work, and social functions. When I first moved here, the T was a financial necessity; as a limited-income graduate student, I could not afford a car. As my income increased, however, I still preferred to take the T, appreciating its wide network, affordable fares, and environmentally friendly benefits.

I must say, though, that I have become increasingly dissatisfied with my T-riding experience over the past four years in particular. Simply put, as the fares have increased, the quality of service has decreased. Buses are regularly erratic, late, or don’t show up at all; trains are frequently disabled. I often encounter turnstiles and escalators that are out of service, along with crumbling sets of stairs. The service interruptions during the winter of 2015 were deplorable, and need not be rehashed here.

Cumulatively, the T riding experience of late is one that is embarrassing, inefficient, and oftentimes unsafe. And with each passing year, the same ineffective solutions get proposed: more cuts in service, more increases in fares. The political will is, in a word, lacking.

I’d like to see some real, creative, and sustainable solutions to solving the continuing issues plaguing the MBTA.

  • To begin, the Commonwealth needs to forgive the Big Dig debt that the T has inherited, so future revenues can be allocated to much-needed capital and service improvements.
  • Second, an analysis of inefficiencies and dishonest practices should be undertaken with the goal of real accountability and reform, particularly in terms of expensive and egregious offenses (such as the 2,600 hours of overtime claimed by one employee) stopped cold. Such abuses should not be permitted to continue, nor should taxpayers be beholden financially for the T’s mismanagement.
  • Third, an income-to-increase proposal should be seriously considered, so the lowest-income riders (e.g., students, the elderly, and disabled) are not shouldering the bulk of the financial burden with each proposed increase. Those who ride the T and have higher income brackets should pay their proportionate share.
  • Lastly, we need to engage the full wealth of resources at the Commonwealth’s disposal to finally solve this continuing crisis. For example, we have world-class universities with budding engineers, economists, financial experts, and urban planners right in our backyard. Why not take advantage of them? The Commonwealth could kick off a public-private partnership challenge grant program, where groups of students could submit sustainable plans to fix the T, with criteria covering improving services and cutting costs over the coming years. The winning group could receive free tuition/student loan forgiveness and seed funding to kickstart their proposal, in partnership with key stakeholders at the T and branches of state and local governments. This certainly would be more cost effective, and more innovative, than the current same-old same-old proposals.

In closing, I’ll offer an anecdote. I recently was on a flight back to Boston from Tokyo, surrounded by scientists and engineers who were coming here for a conference. When we landed after a 12+ hour flight, the gentleman next to me asked whether he should take a cab or the T to his airport near Hynes Convention Center. I am almost always a T advocate, but I asked this man whether he lived in Tokyo and was used to efficient public transit. He was, and so instead I told him to take a cab. It pained me to do so. But I knew, based on consistent recent experience, that his T ride would be spotty at best, lengthy, and confusing. His first impression of Boston would likely be a very negative one.

I then thought of how many international visitors Boston receives every year, and how poorly our transit system must measure up when compared with other countries, places where public transit is valued, deemed worthy of investment, and recognized as a social good.

We are falling behind, but it is not because of a passive electorate. If anything, the public–if these comments meetings are any indication–is more engaged than ever. It is our leaders who are the real disappointment, for letting the T deteriorate this far.

So in closing, under current conditions, I strongly oppose the fare increase. But start showing some real civic commitment to the T, and the public will invest along with you.

Language Proficiency

This photo shows a page with one term outlined in many different languages

“Bite your tongue,” my friend Beth says. We’re at a bridal shower for a mutual friend, and the topic of in-laws has come up. “Always remember that the way his family does things isn’t right or wrong, it’s just different from how your family does things.”

Different. I like the word, its ambiguity and neutrality. I’ll go one step further and suggest that these differences, so unavoidable in the coming together of families, can institute a type of culture shock. Consider the elements–the people look familiar, the traditions reminiscent of one’s own family rituals, the customs near-replicas of one’s own, yet slight tweaks abound, often in unexpected places. Assimilation is not an instant process, or an easy one.

The first time I had dinner with Andy’s family, years ago, I was stunned by the intimacy of the meal—just six of us around the table, with several pauses in conversation, during which I could hear silverware clink against china, the ice cubes rattle in glasses. Not used to such quiet, I attempted to fill the silences with mindless chatter, playing the fool as everyone else politely listened and enjoyed their meal.

Conversely, when Andy came to have his first dinner with my extended family, fifteen of my loud Irish-Italian-Polish relatives greeted us with a collective roar as we walked in the door. I can only imagine his own sense of culture shock throughout supper as multiple conversations zigged and zagged across the room, from one end of the table to the other, shouts and interruptions being the standard form of discourse. At first, Andy came off as shy, preferring to observe and listen; nowadays he can keep up with the best of us, thought I’d hesitate to claim it comes naturally.

When one enters a lifelong relationship, it seems too that one signs up to learn a new language and culture, one only associated with a small tribe, but essential knowledge nonetheless. Getting to know a new family starts the process of the ongoing education. As the relationship grows and deepens, so too does the understanding of the overall family environment.

Like any expatriate, though, I sense that the culture will never be fully my own. It’s one that will become increasingly comfortable to me, and one I can converse in with ease, yet I comprehend I will never be fully fluent. It’s a welcoming place, don’t get me wrong–but I’m too late in the arrival, a first-generation immigrant and naturalized citizen, rather than a native.

Additionally, I’ve noticed over the years that Andy and I have created a family culture of our own. We communicate in shorthand, based on our shared experiences, and have inside jokes that make sense to us alone. Our weeknight post-work rituals are well established, our cuisine and holiday traditions take their own unique shape. Others outside the relationship (including our extended family) may find adapting to our newer culture has a bit of a learning curve for them, too.

In regard to the in-laws and my husband’s culture, I hope that my assimilation improves each year. During a Christmas visit several years back, we spent the bulk of the holiday with my family, a raucous multi-day gathering of cooking, feasting, music, and gift-giving. We then headed to Andy’s parents’ home for a post-holiday get-together. I sat on the couch with a glass of wine the first evening we were there, basking in the quiet. Nearby, Andy’s mother stretched out in her easy chair, scanning the latest offerings on the DVR. It was a perfect contrast to the chaotic hubbub of my family’s home, and I found an appreciation that hadn’t existed in those first years of initial exposure and rapid learning.

It makes perfect sense, though, this growing contentment as the culture grows ever more familiar. After all, I had fallen in love with the ambassador of the host country, this host family. This place, these people, were an extension of him. They had shaped him into the person he had become, and despite any cultural misunderstandings that lay ahead, knew their influence would be equally positive on us.

Photo courtesy nofrills via Flickr Creative Commons

What to Do When Your Travel Plans Fall Apart

This photo shows the backs of a man and a woman sitting on a curb together.

Jet lagged and weary, I arrived at my hotel in Gdansk, Poland, ready for a shower and a nap. I greeted the clerk and handed over my reservation number and follow-up email confirming my stay. She took my papers, looked at her room ledger, and frowned.

“No rooms,” she replied.

I peered over at her calendar, and saw my name written in for my travel dates, then crossed out with a pencil. Another name was written in over the smudge where my name had once been. The room had been double-booked, and I had arrived too late.

As an exhausted traveler, I wanted to sit down on the floor and cry. As a Grownup, I had to think fast. We grabbed our guidebooks and started making calls. We asked a local friend if she knew of any alternate arrangements. And within an hour, we had found a vacation rental apartment that was available in the same neighborhood, for less money. Crisis averted!

While the situation ultimately worked out, the whole experience was a jolting reminder that, despite best-laid plans, things will go wrong when traveling. Here’s how to plan for travel mishaps, and how to react when they (inevitably) happen.

Read the full story over on the Society of Grownups blog

Losing Brightness

This photo shows a cardiogram

First, I felt the flush run to my face, a heat streaming up my arms that gripped my shoulders, raced up my neck, and finally settled in my cheeks. I looked down at Andy, who lovingly washed my feet, the shower’s steady pulse of water raining over both of us. The shower walls tipped, ever so slightly, to the right, and thin beams of light seemed to dance in between the water droplets. My stomach lurched, and I reached to the wall for support. My hand slipped against the wall’s wet surface; I gasped for breath.

My head seemed to loll a bit, a wilted tulip on a weak stalk. “Andy,” I said, blinking against the light. “I feel a bit faint.” I looked down at him, my head heavy and useless.

“What?” Andy yelled over the water, lifting my toes to lather their underside. “You feel fake?”

I inhaled deeply, trying to restore equilibrium, and got a mouthful of water. Spitting it out, I attempted to speak louder. “I feel faint!”

Andy quickly got to his feet. “What’s wrong?” His eyes were wide and scared.

The water pounded against his shoulders and my hands as I held onto him, tightly so I wouldn’t fall, and closed my eyes for a moment. He turned me so I would be under the water, perhaps to revive me, rejuvenate whatever part of my body was choosing to break down. I sputtered, again inhaling thick, watery air. “I don’t feel so good,” I mumbled.

I opened my eyes to see Andy’s frightened face close to mine. I focused on his eyes, the kind, reassuring ones I love so much; his wavy hairline; his Roman nose. “What is it?” I heard him say.

I heard him first, and realized with fright that I could no longer see him. Starting in my peripheral vision, a cluster of black stars had swarmed forth, dark masses with central pinpoints of light, obscuring anything real. “I can’t see you,” I tried to say matter-of-factly, breathing in to quell my panic, hoping this would be a temporary situation.

“Okay,” I could feel Andy’s grip on my shoulder and the small of my back, heard the shower turn off; I shivered in the cold, and then all senses were gone.

I came to holding on to Andy, my head against his shoulder, arms limp at my sides. I heard him calling my name. I still was in darkness.

“Can you see me?” he asked urgently.

“No,” I croaked in response–but as I formed the word I could see his shape, blurry at first, then distinct and true. I could see some light, and made out his face. “Wait … now I can.”

We sat there a moment. “Maybe we should go to the hospital,” Andy offered.

“No,” I said, trying to shake my drooping head. “I’m fine, I just need to go back to bed for a little while.” I reached my hand to my scalp, feeling the lingering oily sheen of the conditioner I had applied just before fainting. “Let’s just rinse this and I’ll lie down for a bit.”

I remember standing to turn the shower faucet back on, tentatively tilting my head back under the shower stream, and being overcome with a wave of sleepiness. I remember sitting down, and resting my head on Andy’s shoulder to “just take a little nap.” But this memory is false.

Andy, alarmed and teary, greeted me when I opened my eyes.

“What’s the matter? What happened?” I asked him.

He was trembling. “Honey, you just fainted again–twice. The second time, you went completely limp, started coughing convulsively and shaking, and your eyes rolled back,” he exhaled raggedly, wrapping his wet arms around me. “I thought you were having a seizure–you went completely white. I was just about to call 911.”

***

Before that Monday back in 2004, I had only fainted once in my life.

It had been in July 1999, one of the hottest summers on record in Washington, D.C. My apartment building was older, a massive brick multi-family built in the 1920s. Not having air conditioning, my roommates and I attempted to cool down our place by using strategically placed box fans to circulate air from room to room, but they did little damage against the heat and humidity, such formidable adversaries. I wondered daily why our nation’s founders choose to build the capital on swampland…and why I chose to live there.

The fainting day was typically muggy, the dense humidity resting in each room, still and thick. We waded through the pea-soup atmosphere, trying to move as little as possible, sticking to furniture and sweating over such simple tasks as answering the phone.

While I had little appetite from the heat, I languidly walked into the kitchen to snack on something (as I hadn’t eaten in a few hours), anything to hold me over for awhile. Perusing the fridge, I discovered a bag of deli bagels and cream cheese, and located the bread knife drying in the dish rack.

Slicing past the bagel, the blade found my index finger. I felt the sharp pain first, then saw the cut, shallow but bleeding fast. I rushed to the bathroom, the humidity blanketing me, my head swirling in the blood and heat. I leaned over the sink, flushing out the wound. My roommate followed me.

And then–My roommate stood over me, looking down, concerned.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Why am I on the floor?”

“Are you okay?” she asked gently.

“Did I just faint?” I asked, feeling tears prick at my eyes. I was frightened at how my body could shut down like that, how in one moment I could be in a different place and consciousness, the danger of falling without being able to catch myself.

“Let’s get a Band-Aid on your hand,” she soothed me. “We’ll get you to bed in a sec.”

***

To faint, from Webster’s:

  1. archaic: to lose courage or spirit
  2. archaic: to become weak
  3. to lose consciousness because of a temporary decrease in the blood supply to the brain
  4. to lose brightness

To become weak and lose brightness–these certainly applied. I felt the greatest fatigue, even though I had only gotten out of bed not fifteen minutes before stepping in the shower. I fell into a deep sleep again, then rose for tea and toast. The day moved murkily, my head feeling loose and jumbled for a few hours after the fainting spell. Around mid-afternoon, I decided I felt well enough to take a walk.

Andy held my hand, and we moved slowly in the tawny afternoon light. Stopping to rest in Faneuil Hall, we watched the swarms of tourists and shoppers take in the sights of historic downtown Boston. I took them in from my perch on a bench, amazed at how quickly they were moving, how fast they chattered; their conversations rapid fire while they juggled a cell phone, shopping bags, and often a child or two.

I rested my head on Andy’s shoulder. “Do we move that fast?” I asked incredulously.

“Sometimes,” his gaze followed mine as I watched a pack of teenage girls pour out of a clothing store, packages in tow. “Do you want to go home?”

“No, I could walk a bit more, even though I still don’t feel 100 percent normal,” I answered. “I think I should call the doctor and get checked out,” I stated it casually, even though I’ve had a lifelong aversion to going to the doctor. Throughout my young adulthood, I’ve always prided myself on my good health, stamina, and ability to tough out an illness. My fainting, though, had been so sudden, so strange and unexpected, that I wondered what mysterious mechanisms were going on inside my body. I was fearful of waiting and toughing out whatever lay within.

“That could be a good idea,” Andy held out his hand, and helped me up for the second time that day.

***

The waiting room of the doctor’s office was warm. I loosened my coat, flipped through a magazine to distract my thoughts. One week after the fainting spell, I still carried myself gingerly, as if a “fainting time bomb” was ticking inside me, ready to steal my consciousness away at any moment. I walked somewhat slower than my usual pace. I never leapt out of a chair or got out of bed quickly. I took deep breaths, feeling my lungs expand, trying to get as much oxygen to my head as I could.

I was still jolted by the fact that, even though the blackout had only been a few seconds, that I had completely lost my sense of being, alertness, myself. What if I had been alone and had not been caught when I fell? What mystery was my body holding, what mechanism was so powerful it could completely shut me down?

I was surprised to have gotten the doctor’s appointment that week, as I was first informed that a regular check-up had a four-month waiting period. When I told them that I had fainted three times in five minutes the day before, the receptionist’s voice changed from indifference to concern. “Oh, so it’s not just a physical,” she clucked her tongue. “Want to see a resident? He can see you next week.”

“Sure, I’ll see anybody. I just want to make sure this isn’t going to be a recurring thing,” I answered.

And so I sat across from a young doctor just a few years older than myself, a sweet-faced man from India who was in Boston just for his residency. He had thick dark hair and stylish small-rimmed glasses, and a smart blue tie peeked out from the collar of his white lab coat. “What is wrong? You look so young and healthy!” he exclaimed as I settled in. I meekly explained what had happened.

“Hmmm,” he sat at a small computer terminal in the examining room, typing some notes out as I talked. “Have you ever had any problems fainting before?”

“No.”

“Heart disease–you or your family?”

“No for me, yes for family history–extended family.”

“But not immediate?”

I shook my head.

“Good. How about diabetes?”

“Yes, extended family.”

“Ok. How’s your cholesterol?”

“Don’t know, never had it checked,” I replied as he typed furiously.

“We’ll get that checked,” he furrowed his brow. “Now you had said, when you fainted, you had just woken up?”

“Yes, I hadn’t even been up fifteen minutes.”

“Nothing to eat?”

“No.”

“Ok, when was your last period?”

“It had just ended the day before.”

“A-ha!” the young doctor cried out, hitting the keys with jubilant force. “Hormone levels, no food in your stomach, still groggy from sleep… You said you were looking down when you first started feeling ill?”

I nodded.

“You probably were just hypoglycemic for a few minutes and that led to the fainting,” he smiled warmly, and I felt cured. “However.”

I waited.

“I still think we should do some tests on your heart over the next few days.”

“Whatever you think is necessary,” I replied.

“Ok. We’ll order an EKG for today, a blood test tomorrow to check your cholesterol level, also to make sure you’re not diabetic or anemic. We’ll also do an ECHO cardiogram. Have you ever had these tests done before?” He checked several boxes off on a chart, then looked up.

“No, never,” I said meekly. Were these routine procedures I had somehow missed?

“They’re just standard heart tests to make sure everything is normal–circulation, oxygen levels, sugar levels. I think the fainting was a one-time isolated incident, but we just want to make sure, and these tests will verify my hunch. Can you come in over the next few days? We can set up the appointments today.”

I nodded, looking down at my body, wondering if the upcoming tests would make me feel like a pincushion. I smiled. “Sure.”

***

The room was dark, and a bit cold. To lose brightness, I thought as the attending aide prepped her cardiogram machinery. A cardiogram, I had been informed, would be just like an ultrasound–except instead of examining a fetus, the doctors would be scrutinizing my heart. The attending stood in front of a large workstation that held a computer terminal, camera, programming board, and a wide electronic screen that displayed the camera’s recordings in crisp green on a black background. Naked from the neck to the waist, I watched as electrodes were placed across my shoulders and chest, prepping for the camera. I’m ready for my close up, I thought, and felt my heart beat faster in anticipation of its photo shoot.

The doctor held the camera’s lens, a long tube resembling a microphone, and pulled its cord for some extra leeway to reach me on the adjacent hospital bed. After pressing a few buttons on the computer and then positioning me on my side, she lifted the camera and slathered its tip with a thick blue gel. She paused, the camera held in midair, and gestured toward the screen.

“You can watch if you like,” she said. “I might have to ask you to move around a bit, but you’ll get a good view.”

“Okay,” I replied, craning my neck in curiosity against the stiff hospital pillow.

A green blob appeared on the screen when the attending touched the cold, gooey camera to my chest. It jumped in regular intervals, different pieces of tissue mugging for the lens. “There it is,” the doctor explained. She moved the camera around, recording several images, stopping at intervals to plug in data on the programming board. Each movement of the camera left a sheen of goo across my chest, and she reapplied the gel frequently. Soon I’ll be slathered, a blue blob, I thought to myself. A prime candidate for a walk-on part in Ghostbusters, or as a contestant on Double Dare.

“Do you see the different chambers?” She slid her finger over one section of the screen.

“Yes,” I stared at my heart on screen, seeing its beats corresponding visually with the taps I felt in my chest.

“Looks healthy on first glance,” she smiled broadly to reassure me.

I shifted when asked, keeping my eye on my heart when I could. I closed my eyes for a bit, relaxing in the dark room, and was about to drift off to sleep when I heard “Hmmm.”

“Is anything wrong?” I asked, now fully alert.

She reached toward the screen, and pointed to small dark area within the green mass of my heart. “Do you see this dark portion?” she asked, and I nodded. “It looks like you could have a small hole in your heart. It’s nothing to worry about initially,” she consoled, when my eyes widened in alarm. “But it may explain your fainting. It’s more common than people realize, and is developed in the womb–rather than the tissue coming together neatly, sometimes it doesn’t overlap just so,” she gestured with her hands, indicating a small space where her hands once had touched. “And a small gap is left.”

“Why this would lead to your fainting,” she continued, “is that rather than traveling along the path of your veins, some oxygen, nutrients, you name it, could fall through the gap, thus depriving you momentarily of oxygen, and poof–you faint.”

“Is this going to be problematic for the future? And do I definitely have this hole? Can you tell just from the image?” I felt unsettled, as if this hole was metaphorically speaking for my condition, my health.

“No, it’s not really anything to worry about,” she was saying, prepping the camera with yet more gel. My chest felt the odd combination of sticky and cold, and I longed for a hot shower–yet still feared it, as it was the site of my fall. “If you do have it, and we’ll test for it today, you’ll just be informed and aware of what can happen, and how you might be more susceptible to fainting in the future.”

“Another test?” I asked, watching my heart dance faster on the screen.

“We’ll do it right now–it won’t take too long,” she promised gently. “We might as well, since you’re already here.”

Two physicians were called in to administer a saline test; one a strapping man with a patch of strawberry-blond hair and a big booming voice, the other beanpole thin with wire-rimmed glasses, mousy brown hair, and a soft Eastern European accent. The big doctor settled himself down by the monitor, scanning the images already taken that day, while the European examined the veins in my right hand. I was informed a saltwater solution would be injected into a vein there, enabling the fluid to rush to my heart. If the solution, visible on the green screen because of the salt bubbles, rushed the way they were supposed to, there was no hole. If it plummeted to the nether regions of my heart, the existence of the hole would be confirmed.

Andy, who had been waiting patiently in the cardiac unit lounge while I was goo-ed and scanned, was called in. I waved meekly, happy to see him but also worried. I wondered if the doctor’s requesting his presence signaled that my condition might be very serious indeed.

I couldn’t look at my hand as the doctor poked and prodded the syringe into it, and instead turned my gaze to the screen. My heart ticked the seconds away, the green orb patiently doing its job.

“Ready?” the big doctor asked. I nodded.

The European released the saline, and before I could blink, a wave of bubbles, like a stream from a fish tank filter, whizzed across my heart. They sped in from the left of the screen and exited to the right.

“No hole!” Big doctor announced.

“You’re done!” the attending declared.

I looked at my heart, still chugging along on screen, and wondered if the ordeal really was done, just a one-time fluke.

***

The results of the cardiogram and blood tests came back, all status quo. And now, more than a decade later, my heart has been behaving. I’ve stayed vigilant: I’m more cautious when I take super-hot showers, I try to eat healthily (and at regular intervals) so my blood sugar levels stay normal. When I feel taxed or strained, I sit for a moment, outside if I can, to get fresh air. As a result, or perhaps just from luck, I haven’t fainted since.

I don’t know if the “fainting time bomb” is still inside me, waiting to go off when I least expect it. I can only hope that being aware of my body, as well as staying healthy, will stave it off. In the meantime, I keep watch, eternally conscious of my becoming unconscious.

Photo courtesy Kevin Dooley via Flickr Creative Commons

The Lost Art of Gift Giving

This photo shows gift tags for Christmas

The old adage says it’s better to give than receive, but current behaviors suggest otherwise.

A few years back, NPR reported on Amazon innovations in regard to gift returns: In short, you set up a list of parameters (e.g., no T-shirts, books by 18th-century authors, CD, etc.). If someone orders a gift for you that doesn’t match with your preferences, you then get either an Amazon credit for the gift-item amount or an item of equal value off your wish list. The giver gets a pre-generated thank you note for the original (never received/swapped-out) item or a “thanks for the thought, but I exchanged x for y” “gratitude” message.

Both options seemed, to me, appalling.  And yet, I was among the minority of NPR’s listeners in thinking this was hopelessly tacky (most listeners, to the tune of 65 percent, thought it was “awesome.”)

While this practice may have been modified since its launch (Amazon’s return center will take your gift return and exchange it for a gift card, without alerting the giver), the prevailing attitude still exists. In today’s me-centered culture, where the letter “I” adorns phones and computers, I wonder if I shouldn’t be surprised that we can’t handle the uncontrolled nature of truly receiving a gift.

The true definition of a gift has been lost – the generous donation of time and careful thought, made manifest in a purchase or a handmade item. A true gift reveals an element of surprise, shows that someone knows you and has paid attention to you. It can be practical or sentimental, useful or frivolous. But it says, in short, I see you. I know you.

I understand, as well, that wish lists partially exist to stave off the disappointment of an unwanted gift. But to deny ourselves of these presents, to refuse the possibility of the unexpected, is also to deny a great story.

For a recent birthday, an old friend gave me a grab bag of fun trinkets. Among its contents were tweezers, Silly Putty, a book of matches, and an unidentified chain mesh of sparkly beads, held together in a mystifying pattern. It became a game of sorts – a Rorschach test for friends and neighbors as we tried to determine just what exactly it was. My sister suggested it was a lamp shade decoration. Another friend proposed an oversized brooch, missing its pin. At last, one ingenious friend suggested it might be a wine cozy, and indeed it was. It’s sparkly and evokes the burlesque, making every wine bottle look like Gypsy Rose Lee – and we now bring it out for many get-togethers. It always sparks a conversation and shared stories about other off-the-wall gifts. We’ve all gotten them, and we may even have given some ourselves.

And that’s my main concern, my sadness, at the eager embrace of wish lists, covert return options, and similar tools of convenience and pre-selection. At their core, they diminish our community, as well as the knowledge of which relationships may need some more attention. They put the recipient front and center, at a time of year when togetherness and selflessness is celebrated.

In an age where we’re more connected than ever—via social media, email, smartphones, face chat, and more—we’ve somehow lost the means of really listening to each other. For what is a good gift giver but a good listener? We all have demanding jobs and lengthy commutes, and live in a multi-tasking culture with precious little downtime to actually connect. As such, we may find ourselves drawn to these easy, pre-determined gift-giving methods. But with such ease and convenience, and less idle time to spend together, we ultimately know less about each other.

Photo courtesy Sarah Parrott via Flickr Creative Commons

Right Palm

This photo shows the palm of a hand

The itch began on Caroline’s right palm as she changed her bed linens. Stuffing a pillow into its newly laundered case, she felt a tickle swirl around her wrist, then dart up her life line and back. She ran her hand across her jeans, still stiff from the dryer, thinking the taut fabric would take care of the itch, yet it persisted. By mid-morning, it had continued to the point of irritation.

“Isn’t there an old wives’ tale about an itchy palm?” Caroline said to her husband, Joe, the fingernails of her left hand gently raking the flesh of the right. The Sunday paper was just-finished folded, its shuffled-order stack ready for the recycling bin. Joe stood at the sink, still in his rumpled pajamas, and rinsed their coffee mugs. “It’s reminding me of something my mother used to say, but I’m not remembering it correctly. Something about if the left palm itched it meant you were going to come into some money. And if the right palm itched, then …”

“Maybe you’re going to owe someone else money?” Joe shrugged. He shook some kibble into the dog’s food bowl, then filled its companion with fresh water. “That sounds vaguely familiar. Or, you know, it could just mean you have an itchy palm.”

She nudged him aside at the sink and stuck her hand under the cool faucet. Caroline could feel the memory receding even as she tried to recall it, the adage’s details growing fainter as she tried to grip them in her mind’s eye. She dried her hands with a dishtowel. “No matter. Maybe I’ll remember it later.”

She whistled for Tony, then clipped on his leash and headed out toward the park. Outside, on the sunny path, she extended her palm upward to get a closer look. No mosquito bites, no poison ivy, no rash of any kind. She rested the leash’s end in her hand, letting the friction gently tease out whatever was plaguing her, just under the skin’s surface.

While Joe had speculated, the truth was that she did already owe money. And while he knew this in theory, she alone knew the total amount: Three months of student loan bills accumulated in her desk drawer, unopened, unpaid, the fourth anticipated to arrive this week. Three months had been relatively easy to ignore, and easy to justify: no job, no means to pay, she’d pay next month once she had started working. Deferment, though, was no longer an option. Time for a new story, or an actual plan of attack.

Read the full story in the debut issue of Inklette.

Photo courtesy jamelah e. via Flickr Creative Commons

How to Put Together a Realistic Travel Budget

This photo shows a stack of vintage suitcases

Travelers often ask me about how they can save when planning a trip. Like the myth of travel bests, there’s no stock answer I can provide—the best way to budget for a trip is to really consider what you value when you travel.

Think back on your favorite trip. What stands out as particularly memorable? Was it an incredible hotel? A fantastic meal at a gourmet restaurant? Get really specific, zeroing in on what you especially loved. With your favorites in mind, you now know an area to budget—and maybe even splurge—for your upcoming vacation.

Conversely, think about a less-than-pleasant travel experience. Maybe it was a low-end hotel, an overrated pricey restaurant, or a rental car that didn’t suit your needs? Was it an area where, if you had spent a little more money, you would have had an improved experience? If so, you now also know an area where you’ll want to allocate a little more of your travel budget. If not, you’ve got an area to cut back—or something to avoid entirely on your next trip.

Let’s take a look at the major expenses of any vacation. Keeping your values in mind, let’s address where you should splurge or save.

Get the full story on the Society of Grownups blog.

Photo courtesy Natasha Mileshina via Flickr Creative Commons

A Ghost Story

This photo shows the main staircase at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado

Matter is never created or destroyed. That’s what I’ve been told, at least since middle-school biology. Seen through this lens, can we explain the supernatural? What if spirits, specters, ghosts are not all in our heads or a trick of the light or eye – perhaps they are simply matter, or energy, redistributed?

I don’t really believe in the supernatural, except … sometimes a little piece of me does. How to explain otherwise my experience, a few years back, at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, known to ghost chasers around the world as one of the most haunted sites around?

My husband Andy and I had signed up for an evening out during a trip hiking day trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. We heard the hotel restaurant was quite good, and the ghost tour seemed like a fun diversion to fill an otherwise quiet evening.

There were about 20 of us in our group, and our young guide regaled us with stories as we progressed through the historic property. We heard the requisite bits about Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick; the other celebrities and VIPs who requested to stay in the notoriously haunted rooms and lived to tell mind-boggling tales. I was entertained, but highly skeptical, until we got to the fourth floor.

Our guide brought us to a pause in a small vestibule with two couches and a coffee table. “This floor used to be the children’s wing,” he explained. “The [proprietor] Stanleys didn’t like children, you see, so for the most part they would be kept up here for the duration of the summer while their parents vacationed with the Stanleys and other guests at other parts of the hotel. Oftentimes we’ll get calls asking us to ‘tell those kids to stop running around the halls’ – and of course there will be no one there — or teachers or parents who are guests will take notice of odd happenings. Candy or chewing gum will disappear from their rooms or be moved around, or they’ll be relaxing in the lounge and will feel the space suddenly grow very cold, or get the sensation of a child’s hand taking theirs. It’s all very good-natured, but this is definitely one of the more active places in the building.”

At this point, Andy and I had been separated, he on one side of the tour group, I on the other. I waited for most of the others to pass so we could walk to the next point of the tour together.

The crowd shuffled along and Andy took a step toward me. As he did, the oddest expression crossed his face — a widening of his eyes in surprise, a flicker within (of fear? panic?), and then a huge grin. As I saw his smile grow wider, I felt a whoosh of air speed past me, an icy-cold current, as if a window had been opened and an arctic breeze took flight through the hallway. But there was no window, and no vents were in sight, either.

“What just happened to you?” I asked Andy.

The words tumbled out, rapid with excitement. “I took a step forward and the temperature felt like it dropped about 40 degrees,” he said. “It felt like I was standing in front of an air conditioner.”

I told him what I had felt, and we lingered a moment to see if anything would happen again, but were disappointed. Realizing our tour group was well down the hallway, we hastened to join them.

We are both educated, highly skeptical, 30-something agnostics. Yet neither of us can possibly explain what our senses perceived that evening.

“We want to assign patterns and meaning to everything,” my uncle counters, when I tell him this story. “Your mind plays tricks on you, especially with the power of suggestion.” He tells me about an email he received from a long-lost friend, just as he was about to send him a note. “That’s not divine intervention or fate or anything with meaning,” he says. “What that is, is a coincidence.”

Coincidence. I like the word, I like the concept. I like the random nature it implies – the little tweaks to our daily lives, the disruptions in our organized flow, that in their meaningless random occurrences ironically shake us out of our stupors and tune us into meaning. An unexpected email makes one reconsider a neglected relationship. A cold patch, seemingly unexplainable, gives us a great story, a travel anecdote that forever imprints the memories of our Colorado vacation. Are these events random? Probably. Supernatural or divinely guided? Well, if matter is never created or destroyed, who am I to say for certain?

Why do we enjoy a good ghost story? In today’s world of instantly accessible facts and information, often delivered instantaneously through a few taps on a keyboard or mobile device, a ghost story is often one of the last bastions of surprise, or inexplicable wonder. It’s part fantasy, as all good unprovable stories can be, but with definite roots in the physical. Tell me a good ghost story, and I will feel my heart rate start to quicken, my ears will pick up on the slight, white-noise background sounds I had not registered mere minutes before. A good ghost story creates community – we here, gathered in wonder to ponder the unknown, perhaps joined by others, invisible, out in the ether – and roots us inevitably to the past, the place, the possible.

I tend to partake in ghost tours (if they’re available) in new cities I visit. A few years back, I noted to one guide that they’re a really entertaining way to learn about the history of a place.

“Well, that’s the thing,” the guide said, dropping his voice to share a secret. “Ghost tours are really just history tours with a little bit of spook and lore thrown in. If we package them as history tours, no one shows up—we can’t give the tickets away. We call it a ghost tour, though, and with a few slight program modifications, people can’t get enough of it.”

I think back to some of my high school history courses, and struggle to recollect details and minutiae. Ask me to recall a ghost/history tour, however, and the stories come rushing back. Really, what I think we’re all looking for is a good story, whether it’s to tell our friends over coffee (or a campfire), or for the modern age, to distill down to essential characters and broadcast over Facebook and Twitter. We all want to spin a good yarn to those willing to listen.

Did a ghost brush past me that day in Colorado? Maybe, maybe not. Ironically, though, whatever touched me gave me the impetus to reach out to others, and interact via the story, whether it’s in the flesh , a voice over a phone line, or pixels on a screen. Ghosts, spirits, whatever you want to call it – it’s super natural to want to connect.

Photo courtesy Kent Kanouse via Flickr Creative Commons