Experiences, not things

Nothing beats seeing London for the first time.

Except maybe seeing it the second time.

The first came during a family vacation in 2007. Fresh from my college graduation and still bearing that the-world-is-my-oyster glow, my parents, sister and I hopped on a plane across the Atlantic. It was my first truly international experience. (Sorry, Canada; you’re our lovely northern neighbor, but I don’t count Toronto. Plus, you’re all so nice and I didn’t experience any culture shock. So.)

Arriving at Gatwick Airport around 6 a.m. local time, we immediately experienced the joy of being barked at in a British accent, having to throw ourselves on a busy commuter train and the shock of seeing a woman’s unclothed torso in a city newspaper — but it was no matter. I was too distracted by the “Mary Poppins”-esque buildings sailing past our windows to care much. The sunrise was just beginning to bathe the towns in pinks and golds. I sucked in a breath. I felt . . . away. So far away. From my world, my life, my worries. It was like I’d stepped out of a Megan-shaped skin for a much-needed break.

That joy was a drug.

And it’s why I travel. Why I’d rather empty my checking account on experiences instead of possessions. Why I’ll likely never have a McMansion or a fancy car or a housekeeping staff. (That and, you know, I’m a writer. I’m not exactly bathing in cash.) But that’s not important to me. I don’t need a Coach bag for each arm, don’t need fancy shoes or expensive hair treatments. What I need is my passport, my camera, my man and a plan. I’d rather be out and experiencing life than watching it on my expensive television. I’d rather be elsewhere than wandering my expensive house, trapped and anxious as a caged animal.

When I returned to England to see a friend studying abroad in 2009, I worried London might have lost some of its shiny-slick appeal. But I was as excited to get away then as I had been years before — and that was my first solo trip, the first time I’d gone anywhere alone. When Stacy met me at Heathrow, standing in the international arrivals area, I almost cried. It felt like a turning point: a before and after. I will always remember her face, that hug.

The details of that trip can’t be separated from my emotional responses. I can’t recall the cute British hot-dog vendor in Hyde Park without remembering the thrill of being single for the first time in my young adulthood. When I went home days later with a numb toe, the pinched nerve from too much walking in flip-flops was a bonus souvenir — and I nursed it proudly.

And I still can’t listen to Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” without remembering that terrifying, amazing moment of riding back to Heathrow Airport alone — save my iPod. And giant suitcase stuffed with English candy, London piggy banks and snowglobes. I chose that soundtrack specifically for that moment: the song I wanted to play me home.

I bought my plane ticket to England and the return fare home. But that pure moment? The euphoria of being 24 at that specific time and place? It couldn’t be purchased. It wasn’t for sale.

“Buy experiences, not things,” financial editor and expert Jean Chatzky told USA Weekend. “Spending on experiences makes people happier than spending on things. Things get broken and go out of style. Experiences get better every time you talk about them.”

And that last bit is probably why I write, too.

Book review: ‘The Recessionistas’ by Alexandra Lebenthal

For these New Yorkers, life as they knew it — drowning in wealth, lacking in morals — is about to come to an end.

It’s an unsettling economic time when Grigsby Somerset, a primping socialite, is working tirelessly to get her 4-year-old in just the “right” private school — just as Blake, her investment banker husband, finds himself mired in a cataclysmic mess. He’s gotten himself on the wrong end of a deal with John Cutter, a caustic hedge fund owner, and the consequences could be dire.

Nearby is Sasha Silver, a powerful woman on Wall Street who only learns of serious changes within her company through office whisperings. Worried she’s being kept purposely out of the loop, Sasha has to wise up — and get some answers. Through the encouragement of her friend Renee Parker, John Cutter’s new executive assistant, she must struggle to keep afloat in a great period of financial stress. Like everyone in The Recessionistas.

Alexandra Lebenthal’s debut novel sets the stage beautifully: it’s the day after Labor Day in 2008, just before the U.S. markets seemed to spiral into a complete and utter meltdown. In 2010, hearing newscasters trumpet “The Great Recession” doesn’t seem to faze us too much; after all, we’ve been living in a period of high unemployment, foreclosures and instability for years now. But looking back to the “before,” it’s easy — for some of us — to remember those feelings of prosperity, and the misguided belief that the good times would  never end.

But they did. For many Americans, and for everyone in The Recessionistas.

What worked for me was Lebenthal’s way of dropping us into a story and immediately giving us enough background on each character to understand how and why they were acting as they did. Basically, I didn’t suffer from Too Many Character-itis because the author provided enough information for us to have a clear understanding of each person’s relationship to one another — and yes, they were all connected. Somehow. Though the first 100 pages or so were merely setting the stage for everyone’s inevitable downfall, it didn’t feel taxing to me.

But here’s my beef with this one. While I understood each character, I didn’t feel like I got to know them — on any deeper level. And because I didn’t know them well enough to hate or love them, this ended up being a pretty “meh” read for me. I was all gung-ho in the beginning, you know, waiting to really start to loathe these people — especially the ridiculous Grigsby Somerset — and ended up feeling . . . indifferent, sadly.

I would have enjoyed the novel far more had Lebenthal made Grigsby and her other socialite friends into larger caricatures than they actually were. Because Grigsby came across as human — and, subsequently, boring — it was hard to muster up the enthusiasm to despise or applaud her. I wanted to see her impulses strewn out onto the page, making us cheer with delight when she was forced to sell her expensive jewelry in order to afford her housekeeper (oh, the humanity!).

Of course, when you learn who that housekeeper is — and why she’s central to the story — it changes everything.

It was tough, too, for me to get past the stilted and very unrealistic dialogue, and that’s what soured me most on the book. Of all my reading pet peeves — and Lord knows there are many — the largest sin of all was committed in these here pages. Example, paraphrased for your convenience and mine:

“Grigsby, we’re going to have to cut back on some things.”

“But Blake, I don’t want to cut back. I like being a diamond-dripping trophy wife.”

“Well, Grigsby, I don’t know what to tell you. Life is going to get tougher.”

“I won’t accept it, Blake. I just won’t.”

See? See what I did there? See all those names floating across the page, included in just about every line of dialogue?

People don’t talk like that. I certainly don’t talk like that. And if you’re, um, married to someone and you still feel the need to address them by name every time you speak to them, some larger issues are at work there.

And yes, the whole book felt like that.

I’m not going to tell you The Recessionistas was a bad read — because it wasn’t. Huge paragraphs on intricate financial workings aside, this was a quick read that smacked of truth for me — mostly because it’s dealing with a time in American history that we’re all living in. It’s contemporary fiction at its most pure, because it’s still happening. And that, alone, was interesting enough to keep me reading. And wondering how it all will end.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0738715042 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from The Book Chick

Booking Through Thursday: Windfall

booking_through_thursLet’s go Booking Through Thursday!

“Yesterday, April 15th, was Tax Day here in the U.S., which means lots of lucky people will get refunds of over-paid taxes. Whether you’re one of them or not, what would you spend an unexpected windfall on? Say … $50? How about $500?

Oh, to have a lump sum of money drop in front of me! I remember the first year I worked and actually had to file taxes — my freshman year of college. Because I was only working part-time and well below the “poverty line” if I were living on my own, I basically got back all of the taxes I paid — save some money, of course. But it amounted to $800. And I can tell you exactly what I did with it! Part went to buy my mom a Dooney & Bourke purse for her birthday; some went toward a big dinner out; and the rest went in the bank. I used it all up that summer at a full-time, unpaid internship. But I had a great time!

Now? If someone handed me a $50 bill, I’d probably stick in in the bank! I know — I’m so not helping the economy! And that answer isn’t much fun. But I’m a saver by nature. Still, if you told me I absolutely had to spend it, I’d buy . . . books. I’d raid my wishlist on BookMooch and Amazon and order away! I got a $25 Visa gift card for Christmas and I nearly had a panic attack trying to decide which books to buy with it! (After much internal debate, I wound up with Some Day My Prince Will Come by Jerramy Fine and the first two books in Lisa Kleypas’s Wallflowers series.) That $50 would be put to good use getting some of the hardcovers I can’t bring myself to shell out the dough for, like Karen Harper’s Mistress Shakespeare.

If we’re talking $500 that I really have to spend, that’s pretty serious. I’m sure I would do something totally irresponsible like buy a Dooney & Bourke purse in the most outrageous color I thought I could pull off. I’d take my family out for a really big meal and then pay for all of us to go to the movies and get huge tubs of popcorn and boxes of sugary candy and each of our own individual soda. I’m living on the edge! And I’m sure I would fill up my gas tank, make a trip to Target and buy a bunch of makeup and costume jewelry and then go sit in Starbucks and drink two chai tea lattes. One for each hand. By then, I’d probably be exhausted — and may have depleted a good chunk of my $500. So I would probably just bank the rest for now!

Shopping early for personalized gifts

Rudy wrestles with Katie and his stocking last Christmas

Rudy wrestles with Katie and his stocking last Christmas

Now that Halloween has passed, November is here and Thanksgiving is the next holiday on our horizon, I don’t feel quite so bad talking about Christmas already! And, more importantly, Christmas shopping. I know everyone is worried about money, is watching their money, has no money, etc., but the holidays will arrive regardless of the size of our bank accounts.

Like most people I know, we’re all having to scale back this year — and carefully choose gifts for, perhaps, quality over just making sure we have a massive quantity. I figure I should start investing some time looking for personalized, unique items to present, and these will make a bigger impression (and cost less) than running out to Kohl’s or Target, grabbing a whole mess of stuff and throwing it in a gift bag. Though that can be fun sometimes, too!

That being said, I’m having to actually scour the Internet looking for fun, different things — and this is beginning to make my brain hurt. The constant hunt for better deals, coupon codes, cool ornaments or other gifts and awesome prices on jewelry is getting to be a little stress-inducing. I have my sister largely covered already — and hopefully she’s not reading this post — but I’ve yet to really tackle gift ideas for my boyfriend. And, to top it off, I also need a gift for Palmer to celebrate our two-year anniversary in November! And as he’s preparing to leave for the military, it can’t be something he’ll have to store or really leave behind. I guess, ideally, it should be edible — or a gift card. At least buying for our dog Rudy is simple enough — a bag of bones, a new toy or two and he’s ready to rock and roll. Does he know it’s Christmas? I think he does!

address_labelsSo far, I’m liking the look of . . . address labels! Yes, a little kooky, I know. But my sister requested some after going through her stash and, checking out everything over at Colorful Images, I actually think it’s a pretty cute idea. I ordered some for my friend Christina as a part of her wedding gift — a present with her new family name on it, as well as their new address. I thought that was pretty clever, though I can’t take all the credit — my mom schemed up that one. But they have a million and one options, they’re not very expensive (around $8.99 a set, which is several sheets, and you get an additional discount when you order more than one set). They have other cute stuff, too, but I’m sticking with the labels.

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