Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving. Thank YOU for not giving me a present.

Thanksgiving at my grandparents' circa 1970. I probably was not appreciating the lack of presents as much as I appreciate it now.

I love holidays. Give me a holiday, any holiday (except Columbus Day -- still don't really know why we get excited about that one) and I'm happy. I love the build-up, the planning, and the festivities themselves.

But Thanksgiving is my favorite, hands-down. Here are just a few reasons why.

1. NO PRESENTS. Don't get me wrong; I love buying presents for my family and friends. But I hate what seems to be a universal tendency to buy MORE and buy BIGGER and max the credit cards and not think about any of it till January. I'm certainly guilty of behaving that way, and it comes back to bite me every time. So Thanksgiving is perfect -- time with family, but no gift-related stress. People come empty-handed and leave with leftovers. Perfection.

2. Time to reflect. To me, Thanksgiving is the official beginning to the Christmas season; I don't know why, but as the sun sets on Thanksgiving night, the atmosphere changes. And because there are no presents and no mess and no "where's the receipt because I need to take this back," I really can just sit and think about, as they say, "the reason for the season." I keep my faith pretty private, but when it comes to God, I'm a believer and a big fan. And the fact that we're getting ready to commemorate the birth of God's son is a big deal to me, as it was, in my opinion, kind of a game-changer.

3. The food choices -- and not just because there are a lot of them. For someone like me, who's trying to keep a whole bunch of weight off, Thanksgiving can be all about some pretty healthy choices. Lean protein and fruits and vegetables are everywhere. If I want to eat healthily, I can -- unlike on Christmas, when I seem to succumb to every green- or red-wrapped Hershey kiss within a mile of my house.

4. A month-long universal good mood is just beginning. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, most folks seem pretty happy to be alive; people who don't usually speak to you manage a "happy holidays" when you walk by. And everything is pretty. Yes, it's cold out in most places, but snow is floaty and gentle and beautiful, especially when it's falling at night and you catch it just-so in the glow of a front-porch light.

5. Family, of course. Even if you don't always get along with your extended family, there's something about Thanksgiving that shines a light on the memories you all share and allows you to focus on the things you like and appreciate about all those people. (Come on; you know you love them.) And with any luck, they're able to focus on the things they can stand about you, because you're no party, either.

6. The opportunity to just be quiet and be grateful. Most of us experience moments of gratitude all year long, but Thanksgiving seems to make us want to take stock of all the things we appreciate.  And gratitude can't be overrated; as the late Maya Angelou said, Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.

I'm grateful for many things, including those who happen upon this blog every so often and find a smile or a laugh somewhere inside. I appreciate you, whoever you might be, and I wish you the opportunity to love Thanksgiving in your own way today.

Monday, November 24, 2014

By all means, check the blow dryer .. and don't forget your pants

Between September and now, I've traveled almost as much as I've been home. This is relatively new to me; I've traveled in previous jobs, but not as much, and certainly not in as condensed an amount of time.

One of the good things to come out of all this travel is the realization that I've come up with some helpful hints that could possibly help others who are embarking on travel-heavy phases of life. They're not Heloise-type hints; they're kind of random, and they're all borne from wishing I had done some things differently the last few months. Hope you find one or two of them useful.

  • First, check the blow dryer. If you don't travel with your own and rely on hotel-room dryers, this is a must: Turn on the dryer as soon as you enter your room, make sure it works, and if it doesn't, call the front desk. Sure, you can choose to wait till morning, but trust me on this: You don't want to be dealing with it at 7 a.m. when everyone in your group is waiting for you in the lobby.
  • Put your smartphone to work. Download your airlines' apps, and use a trip-aggregating site, such as TripIt, to keep your travels straight. Check in to your flights using the app, and sign up for text-message notifications that will let you know if your flight is delayed or changed. 
  • Sure, most hotels provide you with little soaps and shampoos. But if you have any type of fragrance sensitivity, pack your own. It's sort of a crap shoot; even if you're allergic, some of the hotel fragrances might work out just fine. But if not -- again, trust me on this -- you don't want to spend the day with a stuffed-up nose and a headache because your shampoo and lotion are making you sick.
  • Climate control can't be trusted; wear layers on the plane. This may sound like a no-brainer, but there's nothing more miserable than throwing on a comfy sweatshirt for a long flight only to find your plane waiting on the tarmac for a really long time without a functional ventilation system. (Special bonus points if you're going through menopause and are hot-flashing while this scenario is unfolding.) Ditto having to stand on the jetway to retrieve your gate-checked bag (more on that later) in a thin shirt as the Midwestern wind is blowing through the cracks. My rule: Cami, shirt, other shirt/sweater, jacket. 
  • If you're watching your weight, don't accept the key to the minibar. Under all circumstances, simply refuse it. Not only are its contents ridiculously expensive, but you don't need them. If I'm going to be somewhere for a few days, I call ahead and make sure my room will have a fridge; if not, I request one. (Every hotel I've stayed in has happily accommodated this request.) Once I arrive, I take a cab to the nearest grocery store and stock up on healthy snacks for my room: fruit, cheese, yogurt. If you're holed up at your desk working after dinner, you're going to want to snack, and those minibar calories can add up fast.
  • Even if you have an expense-account credit card, stop at the ATM on your way out of town and grab some cash, then exchange it for dollar bills at the airport. From the person who puts your bags in the cab to the hotel's bell captain, people will be expecting tips, and you won't want to spend time fumbling around for money.
  • Another no-brainer that really isn't: Flat shoes aren't necessarily comfortable shoes. Last week, I had meetings and wore some cute ankle boots -- but the boots, while having a nice low heel, were a little too big, and my feet slid around in them. Two airports later, I had blisters. Even the cutest shoes aren't worth the pain.
  • Keep in mind that forgetting your pants is really easy. Lay out your outfits before you pack them; if, like me, you're required to dress in business attire, that means not only the clothes themselves, but jewelry, shoes, socks, and other accessories. Last week, I arrived in Austin with a perfectly pressed blouse and jacket and all the trimmings -- but no pants. Write down everything you're going to need, and check it off the list as you pack it.
  • Speaking of packing ... don't check a bag unless you have to. (You don't want to be the one who holds up everyone else in your group by having to go to baggage claim!) Keep in mind that carry-ons come in various sizes; unbeknownst to me, the one I had been using was 3 inches shy of the allowed size. I bought an expandable 22-inch-tall bag, and I can easily pack three days' worth of stuff in it.
  • And speaking of checking bags ... there's really no such thing as a carry-on anymore. If you're flying on a smallish plane -- say, on a flight from Des Moines to Minneapolis -- the plane won't be large enough to have normal-sized overhead compartments, so you'll be asked to gate-check your bag. That means just before you get on the plane, you'll hand it over to an airline employee who will send it down a short chute into the plane's innards. This works well in theory -- but it always takes at least 10 minutes after you get off the plane for the gate-checked bags to be delivered to the jetway. So, gate-checking and actually checking bags are kind of the same thing these days; you'll just pick them up in different places.
  • If you get to the airport early or have a long layover, move. Think about it: All you'll be doing on the plane is sitting, so who needs to spend time doing the same thing at the gate? Grab that roller bag, strap on your comfy shoes, and walk a couple of miles before boarding time. You'll be less bored, and you'll also be more energized once you reach your destination.
  • Use social media for good rather than evil. It's not difficult to take to social media to slam the airline that lost your bag or caused you to miss your connecting flight; we've all done that. How about tweeting when an airline, TSA employee, hotel bell captain or someone else you encounter does something great? Ask for the person's name so you can be specific; it will make his or her day, and it will make you feel good, too. (A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted about a Delta pilot who had done a great job of keeping us updated during a delay; I not only got a response from the airline, but a heartfelt one from the pilot as well.)
  • If you're required to keep receipts to reconcile your expense account, use your smartphone to take a picture of each piece of paper before you file it away in your portfolio, purse, wallet, or wherever. That way, if you lose the receipt, you'll have a record of it come report time.
  • Above all ... relax. That's easier said than done, but suffering from road rage -- or any other kind of rage -- when you're traveling for business does nothing but make the whole experience worse. Keep in mind that for the most part, people do their best; if someone screws up, quietly ask that person to make things right, and move on.
Do you have a helpful travel tip? Add it to the comments section. I'd love to hear your ideas.