Saturday, 31 March 2012


“Your worth as a person does not come from what you are paid. It comes from who you are and what you give.” –Joe Dominguez

Too often, I think we measure success by external measures. We look at who has the biggest house, the largest paycheck, and the newest car. We choose these objects because they are easy to see and clearly measurable. Jason earns more than Sue, therefore Jason is more successful. Sue has a nicer yard than you, therefore she wins.

It’s not always this obvious. Still, if I stop and really listen to my thoughts, I find that I am subtly comparing myself to those around me. I might be jealous that my coworker gets to leave early, or I’ll find myself judging someone else’s lack of computer skills. When we create a competition between ourselves and others we will end up with a winner, but we’ll also always end up with a loser. Either way, we’re creating unnecessary emotional turmoil for ourselves, as the truth doesn’t lie in the black and white comparisons we see. The truth is in the nuances of life.

Jason may earn twice as much, but he also puts in 60 hour weeks and is caring for his extended family. Sue has to spend money on a gardener or invest a large portion of her free time maintaining that yard. We can never truly know the extent of another person’s experiences. We may think our boss is a complete ass, but we don’t know what aspect of his personal life causes him to be miserable. Thanks to an irritable morning of dealing with our boss’s mood swings, we rush past the gas station clerk without noticing that he’s sporting the biggest smile we’ll see all day.

I carry an index card in my purse with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh written on it:

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.”

I use this to remind myself not to be reactive. Yes, that comment from my colleague may be completely out of line, but I don’t know what happened this morning to put him in such a nasty mindset, or if the tone of my voice reminded him of someone else. If I am reactive, I only serve to further the conflict and ruin my good mood.

The emotions we feel towards someone else, whether or positive or negative, are simply a reflection of ourselves. If my friend feels jealously towards me and chooses to react negatively, that is a reflection of him. By using external measures to compare ourselves to others we’re engaging in a pointless endeavor, because they will never tell the whole story. If we can accept that each person goes through life with their own burdens and is doing the best they can with the options they were given, we can let go of our jealousy and appreciate the things we already have.

Without looking at those around you, you already know your own self-worth and it has nothing to do with the size of your waist or your wallet. The sum total of our worth is immeasurable, because the things that matter can’t be measured. Your self-worth is in your experiences and your relationships with others. The faster we can stop contaminating those relationships with petty comparisons, the better we’ll feel about our own lot in life.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Let's ROWE!

1:15. Skim an article about productivity. 1:17. Space out for awhile. 1:32. Refill coffee cup. 1:34. Check for new emails. Still 1:34. This is my typical afternoon as a clock-watcher. I don’t plan to watch the clock, I just can’t help myself. There’s nothing like being bored out of your mind and knowing that you can’t leave yet to drag time to a standstill.

Perhaps it’s because of my clock-watching habit that I’m so intrigued by the idea of a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). ROWE is a concept created by two Best Buy Human Resource managers, Judy Thompson and Cali Ressler. Instead of working a set number of hours per week, work is based on results. You are free to do your work whenever and wherever you want, as long as you get your work done. It’s such a simple concept on the surface, but it has the power to revolutionize the way we look at business.

Clock-watching aside, consider how a ROWE would impact your personal life. There would be no need to flex your hours in order to pick up your kid from school. You wouldn’t have to waste a precious vacation day waiting for the repairman. If you friend was visiting, you could meet her for lunch and not have to rush. Just imagine not having to set your alarm, sit in traffic, and slip in late through the side door.

But wait, if your boss can’t see you how will he know you’re working? Wouldn’t productivity plummet as these irresponsible slackers spend their days sleeping in and shopping? As it turns out, the truth was quite the opposite. Productivity sky-rocketed 35% under Thompson and Ressler’s scheme, while employee turnovers dropped 90% (Lee 34).

As impressive as they are, these results are hardly surprising to me. As my afternoon demonstrates, the fact that I’m physically at work does not mean that I’m doing work. Instead, I’m finding ways to alleviate my boredom and pass the time. However, even if I was swamped with work I would be more focused on the task at hand if I wasn’t worrying about personal errands. With a ROWE, I would have the flexibility to get my work done and get the cat to vet on time.

Requiring employees to sit under the watchful eye of the boss does nothing to foster trust and cooperation. If anything, it creates a passive-aggressive environment of presenteeism and guilt, where each employee rebels in his or her own way. Some feel a twinge of happy revenge after sneaking out early, while others maintain that the first one in and the last one out is the winner, regardless of the impact on their personal lives. Generationally, the stereotypes persist. “Some boomers felt they’d been forced to choose between work and life during their careers. So everyone else should, too” (Conlin 65).

ROWE isn’t just an extension of flextime, which Thompson and Ressler refer to as a “con game” and a “total joke.” They feel that the problem with flextime is that it heaps “needless bureaucracy on managers instead of addressing the real issue: how to work more efficiently in an era of transcontinental teams and multiple time zones” (Conlin 63).

With flextime, you’re expected to make up your hours to ensure you still get a full 40 hours each week. Flextime results in the same amount of clock-watching, with the added bonus of feeling stigmatized because you were “lucky” enough to work a modified schedule. No matter how you slice it, 40 hours is 40 hours. In the spirit of complete honesty, I think Kelley Butler, the Editor-in-Chief of Benefit News, said it best:

“Traditional work hours benefit companies more than they do the employees…if employers really want to keep valued workers, it is time to make a change” (7).

Thompson and Ressler found a way to make that change and in fact, their plan worked so well that they have since branched out as private consultants and created CultureRX, a Best Buy subsidiary designed to help other companies set up a ROWE. They also published the book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It to further explain their idea (Westcott 31).

A ROWE might not work for everyone, but then again, isn’t that the point? We don’t all have to follow the same path, and work in the same way. As employees reexamine their priorities and the millennial generation takes to the work place, I can clearly see the benefits of this alternative. It’s time to change the way we look at work and finally stop watching that clock.

Butler, Kelley M. “Time to ROWE with the Flow.” Employee Benefit News Mar. 2007: 7. Web.

Conlin, Michelle. “Smashing the Clock.” BusinessWeek 4013 (2006): 60-68. Web.

Lee, James H. “Hard at Work in the Jobless Future.” The Futurist 46.2 (2012): 32-35. Web.

Westcott, Scott. “Beyond Flextime: Trashing the Workweek.” Inc 30.8 (2008): 30-31. Web.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Knowing When to Quit

“Winners never quit and quitters never win.”

I hated that quote when I was a kid. I could never understand the point of forcing myself to excel at activities where I clearly lacked the aptitude and interest. The activities I excelled at were the ones I was passionate about, and unlike a smug platitude, passion will give you the courage and dedication you need to work through the rough spots.

I was more driven to succeed when I was a kid because I was much better at distinguishing between passion and futility. I knew when to move on, and when to stick it out. As adults, I think we have a tendency to get wrapped up in the details of how to succeed, which results in an inability to see the forest for the trees.

We also have a lot more pride to contend with as adults. It’s difficult to say, “I’m not good at this,” and walk away. We worry about what our friends, family, and colleagues will think of us. We forget that it’s not their life; it’s ours. It’s our responsibility to recognize our skills and our shortcomings. Walking away from something may be difficult, but the freedom is worth it.

One of the easiest ways to spend too much time on a futile project is the “sunk cost” fallacy. Stephen Dubner, from the popular Freakonomics series, defined the sunk cost fallacy as “the time, or money, or sweat equity that you’ve put into something, which makes it hard to abandon.” The sunk cost fallacy makes us cling to a sinking ship far longer than we should. We end up doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, just as the old misattributed definition of insanity assures us we will.

Together with co-author Steve Levitt, Dubner discussed the Upside of Quitting in an episode of Freakonomics Radio. One of their points that resonated with me was the idea of failing quickly. Levitt explained it beautifully:

“One of my great skills as an economist has been to recognize the need to fail quickly and the willingness to jettison a project as soon as I realize it’s likely to fail.”

Instead of dragging a hopeless endeavor around, drop it and move onto something you can successfully finish. Moving onto something else is really the most important part of quitting. Every hour (or day, or year) you spend on something that’s not worth the effort is time that you could be spending on a successful project. This is called the “opportunity cost.”

We all have those projects in the back of our mind that we’d love to try out “if only we had the time.” This is your time. If you can recognize and let go of the failures, you will free yourself to go after the things you’re passionate about. Where would you invest your time if you weren’t busy proving you’re not a quitter?

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Laundry on the Road

I prefer to travel as light as possible, and the easiest way for me to do this is to wear my clothing more than once. There’s a fine line between smart packing and being disheveled, but you should be able to wear a shirt or jeans a few times in between washings. For minor stains, the Tide stick is my best friend. It fits in my pocket and I’m convinced it’s infused with some kind of magic.

I err on the side of caution but as a general rule, if you think your shirt might need to be washed, it probably does. Welcome to doing laundry on the road!

The most expensive (but also most convenient way) to get your laundry done is to drop it off with the hotel’s laundry service. This works much like Mom’s house except they add the fee onto your tab. Just put your clothes in the bag provided, follow your hotel’s instructions on when and where to drop it off, and your clothes will usually be returned to you, fresh-scented and folded, the same day.

If your hotel doesn’t offer a laundry service or you want to save some cash, you can use a Laundromat or stay in hostels that have laundry rooms. For situations where I’m washing my clothes myself, I prefer to bring my own 3-in-1 laundry sheets. They’re convenient, I know they won’t irritate my skin, and they take up practically no space in my bag. There’s a variety of brands and scents to choose from and you don’t have to worry about the mini detergent machine at the Laundromat being broken or empty.

For long term trips, you may end up having to wash a few articles of clothing in a sink (or tub if you’re staying in a hotel). Bear in mind that this is not the ideal way to wash clothing, and this only works for thin articles of clothing, such as underwear, tank tops, and thin T-shirts. Do not attempt to wash your jeans, towels, or other heavy materials in the sink because they never dry properly and they look terrible. Also, trying to cram an entire pair of jeans in a hostel sink is fairly self-critiquing.

To make this method work for you, use liquid detergent (or whatever liquid soap you have available), and add a reasonable amount into a sink about half full of warm water. If you don’t have a sink stopper, a sock will work in a pinch. Use a bit of muscle and scrub each article of clothing one at a time. If you have two sinks available, use the other sink to rinse your clothing. Proper rinsing is crucial. Rinse until the water runs clear through your clothing, and then rinse it a little bit more to be sure.

Wringing out your clothes will help them dry the fastest, but will also result in the most wrinkles. For the best of both worlds, lightly wring your clothes out as best you can, lay your clothes flat on a towel, and roll the towel up to absorb the remaining water. Then hang your clothes on the line, or lay flat to dry. With a little practice, you’ll be the freshest smelling person on the subway and you won’t have to lug around a massive suitcase.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Weekend Getaways

It’s Monday morning, which comes with the inevitable, “So, what did you do over the weekend?” Did you straighten up the house? Do some laundry? Maybe do some yard work and pick up groceries? Allow me to introduce the weekend getaway.

Weekend getaways are a great way to get out there and try something new without using your limited vacation days or spending a fortune, which means you can take more of them. This easy change of pace will break up your normal routine and get you out of the daily grind mindset. There’s no trudging through a list of chores and watching the hours tick by on your Sunday afternoon. You can use your leisure time to the fullest, and have some fun instead of worrying about Monday.

This is a good way to interject some positivity into your social life as well. If you remove yourself from your normal environment with its inevitable distractions and obligations, you can focus more fully on your friends and family. Additionally, a weekend getaway will provide you with a fun, interesting conversation topic for that dreary return to the office. There’s nothing like recalling a great trip and sharing your experiences with your coworkers to keep you on that weekend high for longer.

A shorter trip gives you all the benefits of a vacation without the stress of planning, packing, or catching your flight. You won’t have time to get bored with your vacation, and you’ll be more likely seek out memorable activities if you know you’re working with a limited amount of time. You can also give yourself a pat on the back for having some fun without adding undue stress on the environment.

There are lots of options for a quick trip away. Recently, my adventure partner and I spent the night at a local bed and breakfast that’s attached to a supposedly haunted pub. We didn’t end up seeing any ghosts, but we had a great time eating at the pub and hanging out on the river. When taking local trips like this, pretend that you’re a tourist in your own region. Do a little research for parks or attractions within a few hours’ drive of your house. It’s a cheap, easy, and fun way to learn more about your local area.

Camping is another cost-effective way to spend time with your friends and family and get some fresh air. Cooking over a campfire makes for a delicious, cheap dinner and you can easily go hiking, fishing, and swimming now that summer’s on its way.

If camping and splashing around in a lake isn’t your cup of tea, maybe try a hotel with a pool and sauna. Another option is a spa getaway with the girls. Look for hotels that offer discounts on spa packages for guests to save money while pampering yourself.

Your weekend can be easily tailored to match your interests. My adventure partner and I love trying out new foods and local beverages. We make a habit out of looking for new restaurants, beer festivals, and local wineries and breweries. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try something completely new. Perhaps a hot air balloon ride, rafting down the river, or taking a photography class? The sky’s the limit, so feel free to get creative!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Wasting our Vacation Days

When was the last time you took a vacation? Not that day you called in sick to run errands, but a real vacation; one that lasted a week or more. If you’re like many Americans, it’s been far too long.

According to activist groups such as Take Back Your Time, Americans typically receive 3-4 weeks less vacation time each year than Western Europeans. We average a slim two weeks (Bronson) and a quarter of American workers don’t get any vacation time at all (Ewers). What’s worse is that even if we do have paid vacation, we choose not to use it. In 2006, we collectively left 574 million days of vacation untaken, or an average of 4 days each (Bronson).

The current recession has left many feeling lucky to have a job at all, and the pressure is on to prove ourselves on the job. Additionally, thanks to layoffs and downsizing the workload is being spread across a smaller pool of employees. With so much to do and so little time, who can afford to be out of the office for a week?

The sad fact is that we can’t afford to not take that week of vacation. The physical and psychological benefits of leisure time have been consistently demonstrated. Overworked employees are fatigued, stressed, and unhealthy. Less time for ourselves means less time to engage in physical activity, bond with our friends and family, and to shop for healthy meal options. It’s hard to turn down the ease and convenience of the drive-thru when we’re exhausted and short on time.

Whether it’s a short break or a longer trip, one recent study clearly explained the link between leisure time and maintaining healthy stress levels:

Some leisure activities (e.g., vacations, siestas, coffee breaks) may serve as “breathers” that provide a chance to take a break, engage in a pleasurable diversionary activity, and consequently induce positive emotions and reduce stress. Enjoyable activities may also act as “restorers” that facilitate the individual's recovery from stress by replenishing damaged or depleted resources (Pressman and Matthews, et al.)

When we think of a great employee, we think of someone who is creative, productive, and attentive, none of which are attributes of someone who is stressed out. We need time off to relax and recharge in order to be that stellar worker. Thanks to advances in technology, it’s easy to get away and while staying connected, but it’s important not to take our work with us on vacation. We need time to remove ourselves from the daily grind and approach our work from a fresh, new perspective.

For our health and for our productivity, let’s stop leaving those vacation days on the table and start to live a little.

Bronson, Po. “Just Sit Back and Relax!” Time 167.26 (2006): 78. Web.

Ewers, Justin. “All Work And No Play Makes A Company... Unproductive.” U.S. News & World Report 143.5 (2007): 42. Web.

Pressman, Sarah D., Karen A. Matthews, et al. “Association of Enjoyable Leisure Activities with Psychological and Physical Well-Being.” Psychosomatic Medicine. 71.7 (2009): 725-732. Web.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Traveling on the Cheap

The key to traveling on the cheap is scoring as many discounts as possible. This may seem obvious, as some discounts are familiar, such as using your frequent flier miles or joining a hotel loyalty program. With a little finesse, you can even use your credit card to rack up bonus points or miles. Other common discounts are for senior citizens, children, military, or students. If any of these apply to you, carry your ID everywhere and don’t be afraid to ask about a discount even if it’s not posted. You’d be surprised how many places will give you 10-15% off without a second glance. Be on the lookout for special “student nights” and similar promotions at restaurants where you can get a deeply discounted meal, simply for flashing your ID and a courteous smile.

When calculating your expenses, know that tourist attractions add up quickly and for good reason. Yes, you could swear off all attractions and hang out in your hotel room but let’s be honest, it’s not like you’re going to fly all the way to Dublin just to skip the Jameson Distillery and the Guinness Brewery. What’s a mid-30’s, non student to do?

Your first stop should always be the tourist office. Not only will they have free maps and great recommendations, they usually offer promotional discounts. This might be a free day of public transportation or a bundle deal where you and your adventure partner can get two tickets for a show for the price of one.

The tourist office may also have city passes for you to purchase, which is an excellent deal if you know you’re going to be visiting several attractions. For a great example of this, check out the Edinburgh City Pass. I’ve personally used this pass and cannot emphasize enough how happy I was with it. Google your destination before you go to see if you can purchase a pass online and possibly score yourself free or discounted travel from the airport. A little research can save you a decent amount, and planning ahead is key: don’t waste your money on a 3-day pass if you’re going to see everything in one day and spend the next two on the beach.

Similar to the city pass is the themed pass. If you know you’re going to be visiting several attractions of a similar nature (i.e. castles in England), do a little research and see if you can’t find a discount card for your particular genre of attractions. I used to think that planning ahead ruined the spontaneity of the travel experience. Who wants to follow an itinerary when they’re on vacation? Luckily, there are bundled discount packages for people just like me. Road tripping Ireland should be an open-ended adventure, and I’ve done it on the cheap a few times by using Visit Ireland’s self-drive packages. If you want spontaneity without the hassle of driving, why not try a train pass? Whatever your style, there’s a discount for you!

Some discounts will be less obvious than others. On my first long term trip to England, I was purchasing train tickets at the window when I had the following exchange with the clerk:

Clerk:  “You know, you’d save a lot of money if you had a youth rail card.”

Me:      “Thanks, but I’m an adult.”

Clerk:   “How old are you?”

Me:      “23.”

Clerk:   “You qualify for a youth rail card until you’re 26.”

Me:      “Wait. So you’re telling me that I can drink at 18 but I’m still a child until I’m 26?”

Clerk:   “Well if you want to look at it that way, then yes.”

Me:      “This just might be the greatest country in the world!”

Five minutes later, I returned with the completed application in hand and a passport sized photo. That rail card paid for itself in the first week of use. By taking my bicycle on the train with me, I was able to see most of my destinations without ever paying for a taxi or gas for my car. In cities such as London that have user-friendly public transportation, I would purchase my underground pass as a combination package with my train ticket and save even more.

In short, traveling doesn’t have to be expensive! With a little research and planning, you can see far more of the world than you ever expected and still have some cash left over for an “I Love Nessie!” T-shirt and an Eiffel Tower shot glass.

Friday, 16 March 2012

I'll have the Tarantino

No trip to Lyon could be complete for us without experiencing the French nightlife, as we love to sample local beers and wine. After a few hours of wandering from bar to bar, I uttered the phrase that is universally accepted to mean that I am toeing the line of intoxication: “I could really go for some Taco Bell!”
We found a place appropriately named “El Tex Mex” which promised to bring us “flavors from afar.” The price and selection looked acceptable, so we decided to hang out in the unassuming bar next door while we waited for the restaurant to open. After a cursory glance at the cocktail menu I offered a word of warning to my travel companion. “Tomorrow, when we look back on the carnage of the evening and ask ourselves where things went wrong, know that this is the moment.”
He looked at me quizzically as I turned to the bartender and said, “I’ll have the Tarantino.”
The bartender nodded solemnly as we entered into a silent contract, both of us acknowledging that nothing good would come of this decision. He then proceeded to stir together a concoction consisting primarily of absinthe and rum, with a splash of sparkling water and grenadine.
Halfway through my massive drink that tasted of black licorice and regret, I noticed that there were quite a few bottles of absinthe along the wall, far more than I would’ve expected. Looking back at the menu, I quickly realized that we had stumbled upon a French absinthe bar. The “contemporary” art, blaring electronica, and the lack of door on the toilet probably should’ve tipped me off sooner, but sobriety had eluded me after that last glass of Côtes du Rhône.
I already had the taste of sweet, sweet absinthe on my tongue and my excitement was apparent. My adventure partner agreed that it would be a shame to let this opportunity pass us by. Glass after glass, we began to work our way through the extensive list. I have no idea how far we made it but with a bar tab that exceeded 100 euro, I’d say we made a pretty honorable run at it. I do remember one called the Edouard that hovered at 72% alcohol.
The fine selection of margaritas at El Tex Mex called our name. One hazy combo platter of quesadillas, nachos, chicken strips, and onion rings with a side of pecan pie and cheesecake later, we were well and truly proud of our multicultural evening. The following morning I lay in bed, sipping water and clutching my head in my hands. I reaffirmed my resolve that I am never, ever drinking absinthe again, but the green fairy knows that I’ll take her up on her offer the next time she asks me to dance.
**Update: When googling “El Tex Mex” to find the restaurant link for this post, I decided to use Google Street View to see the name of the bar we were at that night. It’s called La Fee Verte, which if you don’t know means “The Green Fairy” in French. To summarize, I was so oblivious that I didn’t realize that a bar named The Green Fairy was an absinthe bar. You win this round, France.

Lyonnaise Attractions

Lyon is split into sections by the Rhône and the Saône rivers, with the Old City (or Vieux Lyon) and the Fourvière Hill to the west of the Saône. There is an extensive shopping area in the city center between the rivers (called the Presqu’île for “peninsula”), and a further commercial district to the east of the Rhône. Our hotel was in the center, which offered the perfect location for exploring all areas of the city by foot. We had beautiful, sunny weather for the entire four days and only needed a light jacket.

The first must-see attraction we checked out was the Museum of Fine Arts, or Musée des Beaux-Arts. It’s reasonably priced and housed in a 17th century Benedictine abbey that’s a work of art in itself. The works of Rodin were my personal favorite but there is truly something for everyone, as their massive collection spans from antiquity through modern art. French is the only language on the placards, so be sure pick up an English audio guide at the reception if French isn’t your forte.

We entered through the courtyard sculpture gardens and started by going downstairs into the chapel which contains all of the 19th and 20th century sculpture. We then came back upstairs to the first floor and worked our way around, starting with the Egyptian artifacts and continuing through the coin room and finishing with Madame Guimard’s bedroom exhibit, which was far nicer than our hotel room. The carved ivory and Islamic art was a highlight on this floor for us. We finished our tour by visiting the second floor to see the paintings from the 15th through the 20th century.

This museum set the perfect theme for the start of our Lyon adventure. We only spent a few hours here, but you could easily spend an entire day and not see everything. There is also a café and bookstore, and the courtyard is great place to visit if you need some fresh air.

Next up we visited the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, or Cathédrale de Saint-Jean-Baptiste, located in the Old City. We wandered through the archaeological garden north of the cathedral, taking pictures of the ruins including the arch and baptismal font. The front of the cathedral is striking, a fantastic example of Gothic architecture with intricately carved entrances. The gargoyles watch your every move as if they know your sins before you even step foot in the cathedral. Inside the mood deepens. The sounds of the pipe organ fill the cavernous space, and the light shining through the stained glass dances on the stone pillars. It is truly a sight to behold.

We slowly made our way through each of the chapels, stopping to admire the art and stained glass as we went. Towards the front of the cathedral on the left hand side stands the astronomical clock. This was by far my favorite part of the experience. The clock dates to 1383 and can only be described as a masterpiece. The elaborate gold discs create the perfect meld of astrology, religion, and scientific precision.

Crossing the front of the cathedral we arrived at the statue of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, beautifully clutching her rosary in one hand and her bouquet of roses in the other. I paused to give an offering and lit my yellow candle. From this spot, if you look across the cathedral and above the astronomical clock, there is a perfect view of the round stained glass depicting the good and evil angels. For reference, the good angels are framed in red and the evil ones in blue.

This is an active cathedral that is used on a daily basis, so appropriate dress is expected and it’s closed to the public during services. However, don’t let that discourage you from visiting as you don’t have to be Catholic or even religious to appreciate this cathedral. It is an awesome structure housing beautiful stained glass and artwork. Stop in and stay for awhile; you won’t be disappointed.

After leaving the cathedral, we continued onto the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière, which dates to the late 19th century. There’s a Metro link directly from the cathedral to the basilica, or if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can climb the winding cobble stone street to the top as we did. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of space on the walk to stop and pretend to be tying your shoe/admiring the staircase as you try not to have a stroke. There may also be a bicyclist who travels up and down the hill no less than three times as you struggle on. Once you arrive at the top of the hill, you are rewarded with a breathtaking (no pun intended) view of the city. To the left of the basilica is a viewing area with a guide to each of the buildings. If you need to quench your thirst or grab some lunch, to the right of the basilica is the Restaurant de Fourvière which has a great patio area overlooking the city. In comparison to the cathedral, I found the basilica itself to be a bit underwhelming. However, the intricate mosaics that line every surface of the interior were very impressive and I don’t regret my visit in the slightest!

There’s plenty more to see and do in Lyon; these are just the three attractions we decided to visit. As France’s third largest city (after Paris and Marseille), this city is small enough to feel comfortable, but large enough to keep you occupied.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Tastes of Lyon

An important part of any trip to Lyon is experiencing their local cuisine. One of the first things we had to have was a Salad Lyonnaise, which consists of frisee lettuce, croutons, bacon, Dijon vinaigrette, and topped with a poached egg. Delicious!
The other requirement of any gastronomical tour through this urban destination is to eat at one of the famed bouchons. We settled on Le Mercière, which offered a comprehensive set menu for 29 euro. It took us approximately 2.5 to 3 hours to make it through the entire meal, so budget your time accordingly.
We started with a selection of traditional Lyonnaise appetizers, followed by a further appetizer of our own selection. I chose the mussel soup, which had a garlic cream base, mussels, and topped with a puff pastry. I loved every last drop! My adventure partner went into far more adventurous territory by ordering the ox head and tongue. The flavor was amazing, but I don’t enjoy the texture of tongue, so it wasn’t for me.
Next up, I chose the bacon wrapped salmon main course, with a side of creamed pumpkin and honey. The dish melted in my mouth; the bacon and soft, buttery flavor of the salmon pairing perfectly with the sweetened, fluffy pumpkin. My adventure partner selected the coq au vin, which smelled heavily of red wine, as the name would imply. By then we were both quite full, and neither could finish our mains.
The meal continued on with our cheese course, followed by dessert. I chose the lemon sorbet, which came with a bottle of vodka to apply liberally as needed to the dessert.
All in all, it was an amazing dinner and an experience in itself, but I recommend waiting until you’re quite hungry before attempting it.
We also had sushi a few times during our stay, as Lyon has a surprising number of Japanese restaurants. They feature salmon prominently in their menus, which was perfectly fine by me. Every place we looked at offered a set menu of 8 to 10 pieces of salmon sushi paired with soup and a salad, or a variety platter of salmon rolls and sashimi. The yakitori at both Chez Fyfy and Planet Sushi was also quite good.
With such a wide selection of restaurants, there is absolutely no reason to go hungry in Lyon. I prefer to eat a few of my meals from grocery stores while traveling as a way to keep our finances in check. I can recommend Carrefour as a great choice, offering the normal grocery selection as well as beer and wine. Their store brand line of meats and cheeses was delicious on petit toasts.

Rhone Express

We chose to spend four days in Lyon, France, this week and I would like to provide a practical tip for getting from the airport to city center. We took a taxi upon arrival, which will cost you between 140 and 150 euro round trip. If you're looking to travel on the cheap, the Rhone Express is the way to go. For 23 euro each, we could have traveled round trip between the airport and city center in under 30 minutes. It departs every 15 minutes during the day, and every 30 minutes at night. It doesn't run between midnight and 5:00 am, however. I tried it out on the way back to the airport and can personally say it was comfortable, fast, and dropped off right under Terminals 1 and 2. I would compare it to the Heathrow Express in terms of ease and convenience. Enjoy!

Friday, 9 March 2012

More than a Logo

In my last post, I discussed purchasing products based on other people’s opinions instead of my own. One example would be my handbag. In all reality, a purse is something that holds all of the things I don’t feel like shoving in my pocket and will, at some point, end up on a bar bathroom floor. By dropping a week’s paycheck to sport a sexy logo, I’m only fulfilling my need for acceptance while providing a company with free advertising wherever I go. When in doubt, never carry a bag that’s worth more than the sum total of your checking account. That goes for both sexes; I don’t judge.

We buy products as a way to assert our individuality. My clothes, as a part of my personal appearance, say something about me. However, even as we attempt to demonstrate our individuality we buy popular brands in an effort to blend in with the crowd. Advertisers know this and as a result we have been conditioned to believe that the right clothes, the latest electronics, and the sexiest car will make us happy and successful, and why shouldn’t we be happy?

We live in an age of endless possibility with access to an almost unimaginable variety of products. We can satisfy our every desire without even leaving the house in most cases, thanks to Internet shopping and overnight delivery. Luckily, we’ll have plenty of space to store our new purchases as NPR reported in 2006 that the average square footage of an American home had more than doubled since the 1950’s. In this land of plenty and opportunity, it would be natural to assume that we have achieved a level of happiness unparalleled in human history. Frustratingly, we instead find that “in countries which boast the highest levels of material comfort, suffering is everywhere” (Heaversedge and Halliwell 2).

Thanks to a barrage of advertisements we have become convinced that these products hold the key not only to our happiness, but to our self-actualization. “By setting up idealized stereotypes, advertisements foster greed, status envy, anxiety, health fears, and at root, a sense of dissatisfaction and inadequacy” (Kaza 28). The more we despair, the more we hear the whispering assurances: Don’t worry! For the low, low price of $29.95, those negative feelings can disappear and you can even put it on your credit card.

Once we buy these products we may feel an initial rush of pleasure, but the positive emotions are quickly abated. The law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head while we rationalize that if one designer bag will not bring us happiness, perhaps two will. Newer, bigger, and more become the most common adjectives in our quest for happiness. However, the simple truth is that we will never find happiness in products because these products can never be enough.

Instead of looking for more materials to fulfill that void, we need to turn inward. As simple as examining our own motivations and desires may sound, this can be a profoundly difficult experience. No one wants to acknowledge that a piece of their self worth may be based on material possessions and outside opinions. However, until we recognize that we have value beyond our possessions, we will never achieve the peace we deserve.

Adler, Margot. "Behind the Ever-Expanding American Dream Home." Your Money. National Public Radio, 04 Jul 2006.

Heaversedge, Jonty, and Ed Halliwell. The Mindful Manifesto. London, UK: Hay House Ltd., 2010. Print.

Kaza, Stephanie. "Overcoming the Grip of Consumerism." Buddhist - Christian Studies 20 (2000): 23-42.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Why We Buy

“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.” Will Rogers

If you ask a person why they work, the short answer will normally be, “So I can get paid.” Why else would we volunteer to spend such a large portion of our lives engaged in activities that we don’t necessarily want to do? Granted, there are those souls who have found their passion in life and love what they do, as well as those who feel a genuine need to work, but the rest of us show up because we are providing an exchange of services for wealth. We require our paycheck for the necessities in life (food, water, shelter) but more so than that, wealth provides comfort. Money may not be able to buy us happiness, but it can ensure we have plenty of distractions from our displeasure. It’s much nicer to cry on a yacht than a sidewalk.

But how much is enough? Do we “need” the yacht or is it just a distraction? Even harder is the question of whether or not we even want the yacht. How much of your time are you spending to earn a paycheck to buy things you don’t want, but feel you “have” to have? Is your desire fueled by your values or your need to belong and blend in with everyone else?

To clarify, I’m not an advocate of throwing out everything you have in favor of the simple life and I’m not saying that consumerism is evil. I don’t personally want to imagine a world where I don’t have an iTouch, but I bought it because I knew it would bring me years of pleasure. It’s a product that has far surpassed the investment I put in to earn it, and I bought it because I knew it was the product I wanted. I literally wear my electronics out, and I love every minute of them. Through excessive trial and error, I have learned which products I like and I know that when I’m buying an iTouch, I’m buying it because it is the best product I have found, not because of loyalty to Apple or what people think of me for owning it.

On the flip side, I also own a Dooney and Bourke purse. I purchased this bag because of the brand. I wanted to look successful and grown up, and thought a name brand bag would add a bit of polish to my style. It has not brought me the level of happiness I thought it would, because I know I bought it for the sake of outside opinion. As an overall investment, it ended up being a great choice. It is of superior quality to other purses I have owned, and it is still in perfect condition after years of wear and tear. Had I researched and come to this conclusion before I bought it, I have no doubt that I would be happier with my decision. Instead, I will always know that I carry my insecurities in my hand with this purse.

My desire to show off with a name brand handbag demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding between intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Intrinsic goals are the objects in our lives that result in nurturing relationships, taking care of our health, and engaging in worthwhile pursuits: things that make us happy that come from within the self. Extrinsic goals are built on our desire to pull our happiness from outside of ourselves, or to fill a void with external materials. We feel a fleeting sense of happiness and relief when we purchase something we desire, but as Samuel Franklin wrote in The Psychology of Happiness, “momentary pleasures do not add up to happiness. A good life comes from growing, actualizing, and fulfilling possibilities” (54).

The theme of today is to spend a few moments thinking about the good life and what my own personal possibilities are, and then to reprioritize my time to focus on my intrinsic goals.

Franklin, Samuel S. The Psychology of Happiness: A Good Human Life. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Owning My Decisions

I didn’t have to go to work today. I didn’t have to get up, shower, drive in, and sit at my computer. I didn’t have to fake a smile and make small talk about how summer sure is taking its time getting here this year. I could have packed up a picnic, drove out to the beach, and watched the waves all day, but I chose to be here instead. There were several reasons for this decision. There’s freezing rain, my boss would probably leave angry messages on my phone, and I’d have to answer for it tomorrow.

No matter what my rationale for why I made my decision, it was my decision to make. No one is forcing me to be here in the office. No one forced me to be in this career. These are all choices I made at various points in my life. My decisions were influenced by a slew of variables such as my upbringing, society, financial compensation, and education levels, but the simple fact remains that it is my decision and I own that.

So what's the problem? My priorities have changed but my reality hasn’t. I’m still doing what I thought I wanted to do when I was younger and more naïve. Where I am is safe, and change is scary. I may not like it, but it’s familiar, and what if my next choice turns out even worse? This line of thought results in a kind of career paralysis, where you would rather stagnate in something you know than take the risk of trying something new.

I believe in taking responsibility for my life’s decisions and my personal happiness level, but I’m a bit too cynical to launch into a tirade of inspirational quotes about following your heart. I will say that if you do decide to follow your heart, you should also trust your gut. That ball in your stomach tells you what you already know, and no amount of effort or distraction will change that. I know that I am not a good fit for this office, but I have decided to stick with it long after I recognized this simple truth, and I decided to be here today.

Day after day I choose to sit under these fluorescent lights in this dark building with its gray walls and dirty blue carpet stained with coffee. In the winter, I go days without ever seeing the sun because I’m afraid to jump out the corporate window. It would be easier to sit here and whine about my situation than to actually take a chance and do something about it. These upcoming travel adventures are my jump. I’ve spent enough time half-assing my life to know that I want to go all in on this hand. And that’s a decision I’m proud to own.

What do you want to do next?

This is the question that pops up on my screen whenever I open a new tab in Internet Explorer. Luckily, I only have to see this question on my work computer because I have standards at home and those standards told me to ditch Explorer in 2005. But for eight long hours I'm taunted by the pale blue text: What do you want to do next?

It's the same question that floats softly through my mind on long commutes, whispered by that little voice in the back of my mind. I turn up the radio so I don’t have to listen to those nagging questions, much like drowning out that weird sound my engine makes. I sing along to whatever autotuned bullshit England has managed to turn into a dance remix, unless it's Maroon 5. My dignity won't let me enjoy “Moves like Jagger.”

I do this because I fear the silence. I can hear that voice in the silence, and she knows too much. She asks the pertinent questions. Not just, "What do you want to do next?" but the big questions. “Why are you wasting 50 hours a week on a job you're not passionate about?” “What IS your passion?” “Is this what you thought you'd be doing with your life?” “What will make you happy?”

I think of my teenage self, gathering up old copies of National Geographic so she could cut out pictures of exotic locations and paste them onto a poster board. I see her rocking out to REO Speedwagon and Tom Petty and dreaming of how her life would be. It's true that I have traveled far more than most, but I've stopped enjoying it. Even when I’m on vacation, my mind is at work. I gave up figuring out what I wanted to do with my life and sold out for the closest option. Now everything just seems like another hassle I have to get through, another box I need to tick.

My job, or rather my preoccupation with my job, consumes my free time, but I've invested so many years that I'm afraid to try something new.

In this frame of mind, I ended up in my car after another long day of being asked what I wanted to do next. An old familiar song came on the radio: “Time for Me to Fly” by REO. By the time I got to the lyric "I do believe I've had enough," I had my answer. Instead of clinging to the past and daydreaming of the future, I'm going to travel mindfully with my adventure partner/husband. I'm going to record our travels so that I can create lasting memories of the life we're creating, and it is my hope that by sharing my experiences, I can help others on their journey. I finally know what I want to do next.
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