Monthly Archives: November 2011

The pros and cons of Black Friday madness

We’re all guilty of it. Wanting to find that perfect holiday gift for friends and family. Or maybe just finding a great deal for ourselves. Either way, our society is one heavily built on the idea of gift-giving, and we consider shopping something that isn’t necessarily needed for survival, but one that is required to find some pleasure in life. We are a society that feeds off of the latest, greatest gadget or the newest wave of trendy clothes. Everyone has to be one step above their friends. Everyone has to have the best of the best, even if it means spending rent money on the newest iPhone when you already have the one that came out right before it. Most importantly, we like to find good deals. Most of us will feel a tiny pang of guilt when buying something we want, rather than need- except those few who don’t even know the balance of their checking account it’s so high. We contemplate putting it back on the shelf, and we even think about turning it over to the cashier once we get in the check-out line. But in the end, we always swallow our guilt and self-indulge anyway. When there are guaranteed good deals on a variety of material things, it’s hard to turn your back and say “no thanks.” But is the madness and chaos, and the staying up shopping until 8:30 a.m., really worth it in the end? Here are some pros and cons I’ve found over the years of Black Friday shopping.

Most of the insane deals are limited. Stores like Best Buy and Radio Shack usually offer incredible deals on TVs and gaming

"No way." The 12 a.m. insanity at Target was too much for me.

systems for those who arrive right when the store opens, and who are lucky enough to get one of the few available. All I could do was laugh at the line of people waiting to get into Target at midnight. I wanted a really good deal on Weeds season 6- a boxed TV on DVD set for $8? yes please- but there was no way I was stepping foot in that line. By the time I got in, they’d probably be gone anyway, and it just wasn’t worth it. ‘While supplies lasts’ is an issue to begin with, but when combined with the added insanity of shoppers camping out in line, there’s virtually no guarantee you will ever get your hands on those unheard of deals. Unless you commit to popping a tent and sleeping on the ground for a few nights, you won’t find a spot in line nearly close enough to the front door to promise any sort of doorbuster deal.

Found a 2-piece ottoman set for half-off. Score!

There’s a sense of satisfaction involved. Most stores only offer a low percentage off of their inventory, and more times than not it doesn’t help- Express had a measly seven-hour, 40% off deal that hardly reduced the prices of their expensive picks. But buying anything on sale, no matter what it is, leaves us with a “job well done” outlook, a sort of figurative pat on the back. Black Friday shopping may make us want to pull our hair out- or may make us actually pull our hair out- but the excitement and the rush of finding a good deal is enough to make all the chaos worth it.

It’s a lot of work. Especially for those who don’t nap before heading out for the late-night/early-morning shopping- my first mistake this year- forcing your body to function at such a weird hour has its consequences. Instead of giving our bodies the good night’s rest it so desperately craves, we force them to operate above normal levels. After all, plowing down little old ladies and clawing some guy’s face off to get that last, free Xbox is no easy feat. And don’t forget the standing in line part. Even if you make it through the store’s front doors without hassle, finding a register that doesn’t have a line out the door is impossible. Most likely, you’ll crowd together in one giant line with half the people in your town, all of you waiting to pay and get to the next store. With wait times up to, and over, an hour, be prepared for stiff knees and a sore back.

Black Friday may mean great deals, and could be the way you cross everyone off your Christmas list. But with all the chaos, and the notion that most sales will last through the weekend, it just doesn’t seem worth it. In the end, go to bed after Thanksgiving is over. Get a good night’s sleep and wake up at a reasonable hour and go out and spend your day shopping. If you don’t get there right at midnight, the world will not end. There will still be plenty of great sales when you show up the next day, at a normal hour, well-rested and ready for the long-haul.

Although I doubt I’ll follow my own advice come next year…


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Filed under bargains, Black Friday, community, Couponing, Entertainment, family fun, Money, Pro/con, Savings, shopping

6 things to do in the Caribbean

When you finally arrive at your Caribbean destination, you might feel overwhelmed by all there is to do and see. But there are just some things that are better done in the Caribbean, and if you’re looking for fun and adventure, while still enjoying the beauty of the islands, pencil these six exploits into your mental planner.

One of my first dives with my dad.

Snorkel/Scuba diving. The ocean is the most intriguing place on the planet. The place we know the least about, the place that has the most diverse assortment of living creatures. Get a glimpse of some of the Caribbean’s beautiful reefs, and the sea life that live there. Bob at the surface and watch the fish swimming below you. Or, if you’re scuba certified, dive deeper and see what creatures hide at depth. Either way, brilliant colors and exotic sea life awaits you.

Jet Skiing. Anyone with a need for speed will have already found a rental place and booked a day before you can even say ‘jet ski.’ But for those more timid, less thrill-seeking people who fear crashing or, worse, being flung from the watercraft, renting a Jet Ski might not fall high on the priority list. But Jet Skis aren’t just for the adventurous. With their safety precautions and ability to putter along, a slow, relaxing ride can be enjoyed by all. It’s a great way to see what lies just beyond a jetty or to explore what might be just past the reach of swimming depths.

Horseback riding on the beach. Horseback riding might not be your thing. You might be too uncoordinated or too scared of falling off or just unable to swing your leg high enough over to get situated in the saddle. But when it comes to riding on the beach, none of these things matter. The horses you see on ads, galloping down the beach, splashing their way through the water, are not the kind you actually ride. Horses trained for tourism are typically older, or at the very least a lot calmer than most horses. They’ve become so used to people that they are simply unconcerned with anything that might be happening around them. They are slow and gentle, and with your guide always at your side, horseback riding on the beach is something anyone, any age, can enjoy. Go at sunset, and enjoy a beautiful ride down the pristine beaches of the Caribbean.

Taking an excursion. It could be four-wheeling up the side of a volcano. Or hiking through the rainforest. Or visiting a local sugar cane field to see how sucrose is made. No matter what you choose, get out and about on the island you’re visiting and have some fun outside the walls of your resort.

Though I'd been parasailing a million times, this was my first time with my cousin. What a blast!

Parasailing. Floating high above the sparkling ocean, parasailing gives you a bird’s-eye view of some of the island’s landscape you might not normally get to see. Though the boat moves at a high speed, you’ll feel like you’re sitting still, dangling high in the same spot, without fear of falling. It may seem very scary to some, but it’s really very calm and peaceful. If you go up alone- they offer tandem rides as well- it’s a great place to clear your mind and just enjoy the beauty around you. Or, rather, below you.

Learning the local culture. What better place to learn about another country and its citizens than in that country? There is a big emphasis on culture and heritage in the Caribbean, and its people are friendly and excited to share it with visitors. Find a local festival or go on a heritage tour. You will be surprised at how much you will learn and how much fun you’ll have along the way.

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Filed under Advice, Caribbean, divers, Entertainment, family fun, St. Lucia, Travel, Turks and Caicos

9 island vacation must-haves

In all the hustle and bustle of packing and making pre-vacation arrangements- like who will feed your cat, Fluffy, or who will make sure your spider plant doesn’t wilt over and die- it’s easy to forget the essential vacation must-haves that every island traveler needs.

Sunblock. The most essential- and most important- travel item to take when heading to the islands, make sure you grab the block and not the screen. Users beware, because sunscreen allows certain rays to penetrate the skin, and its ingredients break down faster than sunblock, requiring more-frequent application. Sunblock protects against both UVA and UVB rays, the guys responsible for sunburn and skin cancer, and requires less-frequent application. Either way, make sure you load up before you leave home- that stuff can get pricey, especially if you’re staying at a chain resort- and slather it on religiously. Don’t worry; you’ll still return home golden brown, making all of your friends and co-workers jealous. You’ll just avoid the painful sunburn and slightly snake-like peeling stages.

Swim-suit. You would think this would be the most obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people get to their destination only to find they forgot to pack a bathing suit. Which never ends well. Momentarily panic-stricken, those swim-suit-forgetting holidaymakers will soon find themselves in a conundrum, stuck between not having a suit and buying one of those dreadfully-tacky, ill-fitting and over-priced bathing suits from the hotel gift shop. So don’t be one of those ninnies; check and double-check that you’ve packed at least one swim-suit. Although I recommend bringing at least two. You never know what could happen to the first one. If you lose it or it rips, you’ll find yourself back to square one, staring at the limited selection of tacky suits in your hotel’s gift shop…

Sunglasses. You might be one of those people who reject the idea of sunglasses, opting to squint and suffer through the blinding glare, for whatever reason. But unless you want to welcome premature wrinkles and eye damage, sunglasses should go with you everywhere you travel on the island. Sunglasses can be a fashion statement, so get fun with it if you’re concerned about wearing something unstylish or ugly. And just remember, while you’re busy looking good, you’ll also be protecting yourself against unnecessary damage. Your eyes will thank you.

Flip-flops. The epitome of laid-back and easygoing. Going to the Caribbean means leaving the office drama behind, and trading in the stuffy business shirts and ties for sunglasses and shorts. And, of course, flip-flops. There is nothing like the feel of grainy, white sand on your bare skin. The tiny crystals that get stuck between your toes and, no matter how hard you wipe at them with a towel, won’t come off until you shower. The sand gets in your hair and sticks to your skin and clings to your clothes and it’s the most sensational feeling because it reminds you of where you are: the Caribbean. Kick these babies off frequently and enjoy being barefoot on the beach. But make sure you keep them around for the times you’ll need them.

Hat. The sun is a lot brighter and a lot hotter in the Caribbean. Because the islands are so close to the equator, the sun is a lot more powerful- one of the main appeals of going there. But the big ball of fire can be very unforgiving when it comes to your delicate, little head, and scalp sunburns are one of the most painful- runner-up only to armpit burns, back-of-the-knee burns and bottom-of-the-feet burns. Especially necessary if you’re bald (picture your head as one giant, red ball, kind of like a tomato or cherry), hats can make or break your vacation by keeping your head nice and cool and sunburn-free. It’s understandable that you’ll want to leave it off to give your face some color, but throw it back on when you take a walk on the beach or find yourself out enjoying one of the many activities of the islands.

Camera. Who can go on any vacation without a camera? Memories last a lifetime, but pictures last even longer. These days, everyone has a phone with a built-in camera. But leave the cell at home, and invest in a nicer, digital camera. You’ll want to frame those pictures of your kids swimming with dolphins or the pictures of you and your significant other looking deliriously happy one evening at sunset. Whether the pictures become forever trapped in the cyber world of your desktop, having pictures of your vacation, print or digital, allows you to reminisce and feel inclined to visit again. And don’t forget the throw-away underwater camera, too. Especially if you like to snorkel or dive, because you’re going to see some beautiful sea life that’s definitely picture-worthy. And just think, the more pictures you take, the more you can show off to your friends when you get back home.

A good book. With the fast pace of everyday life, it’s often hard to find time to sit down and enjoy a good book. Usually leisure reading gets pushed to the bottom of the list of things to do, coming in last after more important things, like work, childcare and sleep. But when you travel to the islands and find yourself basking in the warm glow of the Caribbean sun, there’s nothing more relaxing than enjoying a good read under a palm tree or curling up on a cozy couch in the hotel’s lobby with your favorite book. Though there’s plenty to do in the Caribbean, there’s always a moment for some downtime. And if you get too busy having a great time, there’s always time to read on the next vacation. Or the one after that. Or the one after that. Or…

Money. This is a no-brainer. Credit cards are handy, and will serve their biggest purpose for those pricey excursions you just have to go on. But unless you book everything through your hotel, or decide to eat nowhere but the resort’s café, you’re going to need some paper money to get you through your trip. Some local shops and eateries will be able to process plastic, but you will likely stumble across the coolest souvenir or the tastiest sandwich and not have the cash to get it. The best adventure tours are usually the ones least likely to have a handy-dandy credit card machine, so you’re also going to need some cash to book certain things. Not to mention having cash helps you spend only a designated amount of money. This is handy if you’re on a budget, in which case, leave the plastic at home.

One fancy outfit. You’ll most likely never wear it while you’re on vacation, because who wants to make the effort to get all dolled up when you don’t have to? But you definitely want to make sure you bring along one stunning ensemble, just in case the mood strikes you to hit the fanciest restaurant or have a more formal outing. The one time you don’t is the one time your husband is going to surprise you with dinner reservations or your girlfriend is going to beg you to take her to the comedy show on your cruise ship. Either way, it’s better to be prepared. Don’t worry about carefully packing it. It’s going to get wrinkled no matter how hard you try to keep it from doing so. But as soon as you check in to your luxury-suite or eco-cabin, get that thing out of the suitcase and onto a hanger. You’d be better off in cut-offs than wrinkly dress clothes. Depending on your personal style, go business casual or all-out glam-star, but either way, have an option in case the need arises.

You might be one of those people who make a mental checklist of items to pack, or you might be someone who literally writes out a checklist. Or you might just throw a bunch of stuff into a suitcase minutes before you leave and call it a done deal. But despite how overly-obsessive or completely indifferent you might be when it comes to packing for a trip, try and drill these essentials into your brain, and double-check your luggage before you set off to your destination. You’ll be glad you did.

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Filed under Advice, Caribbean, divers, Entertainment, family fun, Packing, St. Lucia, Travel, Turks and Caicos

How to tackle the GREs without losing your mind

For any college graduate considering grad school, the thought of taking the Graduate Record Exams probably brings on thoughts of utter dread. Or thoughts of putting your head through a wall. After studying your ass off years ago for the SATs- only to find out most schools put little emphasis on the scores anymore- and bullshitting your way through 4 (or 5, ehem) years of undergrad courses, taking another standardized test is about the last thing you want to be doing. And when I say you, I mean me. The idea of continuing my education was enticing. But satisfying the GRE requirement was not going to be fun. As the test date approached, and the study book I bought taunted me from some shady corner of my desk, I became less anxious to do well and more anxious to get it over with. I treated it with a certain amount of respect, but I also reminded myself that it really wasn’t a big deal. For most test-takers, anxiety, doubt and sheer terror fester right up until the minute the scores are submitted. But the point isn’t to do the best; it’s about doing your best.

Don’t over-prepare. It’s important to study. It’s probably been a little while since you’ve written analytically -and even longer since you’ve solved or graphed linear equations- so it’d serve you well to do a little brushing up on your test-taking abilities. But don’t be one of those overachieving brown-nosers who bury their faces in their study books night after night, cracking out on espresso at the local Starbucks while they overanalyze every word the Princeton Review has to say about the GREs. Sure, you should buy a study guide- or at the very least, download and print practice tests- but review them sparingly. Don’t read every page in the book. Flip through and scan, selecting random sections to practice and complete. Spend a decent amount of time preparing, but at some point, get on with your life.

Anticipate a long day. The test itself is long, yes, but the pre-test registration and waiting period are annoyingly long by themselves. When you arrive, you’ll probably sit in a big, empty room with stark walls and eerie stillness, wondering what you should be doing or if you’ve come to the right place. Eventually, you’ll be acknowledged by a receptionist of sorts, who will make you fill out and sign a statement of confidentiality. If you’ve brought a drink or snacks, don’t expect to take them in with you. You’ll get a locker for your things, so pray you don’t need them until your allotted break period- usually between sections 3 and 4. These guys mean business, and you can expect a hands-free search, complete with handheld metal detector.

Trust yourself. There will be questions that stump you. You will try to come to the correction conclusion, but no matter how hard you try, you always seem to get an answer that isn’t there- particularly in the quantitative reasoning section. But don’t sweat it. You don’t have enough time to worry about one or two questions, and if you’ve already answered a sufficient amount correctly, a few wrong answers won’t kill you. But what they say about instincts is true, and if you have a strong inclination for one answer over another, go with it. Check the box, but then move on. Don’t linger and second guess yourself, because 9 times out of 10 you change your answer at the last second only to find you had it right in the first place.

Don’t freak out. Sure, you may find yourself frequently panicking, especially the more you come across questions you can’t answer. But don’t fret. Even if you don’t do as well as you’d hoped, this test is not going to make or break your chances at grad school; it just isn’t possible. Remember when you took the SATs, and how stressed you were about being accepted to college with only mediocre scores? Well the SATs didn’t matter much then, and the GREs don’t matter much now. Standardized testing is on its way out anyway. Schools are realizing more and more that one test does not fit all, and that judging a student’s academic capabilities based on this is no longer cutting it.

Just remember: do your personal best, and the rest will take care of itself. And if you still start to hyperventilate, close your eyes and think happy thoughts. Like Charlie the Unicorn. Or laughing penguins. Or double rainbows. Or felines in footwear. Or scary, candy-pushing, grandma-impersonating boys. Or…

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Filed under GREs, how-to, Standardized Testing

Jolley Trolley gets cool addition

One ride on the Jolley Trolley is all it takes to understand its appeal.

When Cathy Frain and Chuck Shaw come to visit relatives every year, the Jolley Trolley is always on their to-do list. They like to ride the trolley and use it as a means of getting around to sightsee, shop and dine along its route.

“We love the trolley,” Frain said.

Residents and tourists alike enjoy trolley rides up and down Clearwater Beach, and even as far as Tarpon Springs on the weekend routes. Riders soon can ride in air-conditioned comfort, as the Clearwater Jolley Trolley recently purchased a specially designed tram.

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Filed under community, Entertainment, family fun, Florida, Transportation