A Trip of a Lifetime: How to Take the All-American Family Road Trip on a Budget

A Trip of a Lifetime: How to Take a Great American Family Road Trip on a Budget

Ever since my oldest was a baby, I dreamed of taking her across the country on the All-American Road Trip. For years, we did short trips around the Midwest from our home in Cincinnati (St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville, Louisville, and Traverse City) and spent every Christmas and summer on the East Coast visiting my family in Virginia, D.C., New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Times being what they were, I was always a little short on cash and time. So I could never afford to take more than a week off of work, let alone figure out how to swing a cross-country road trip. So I started saving a little bit over the years and taking “vacay-gigs”—freelance jobs that would add up to the ultimate vacation.

When it hit me that she was going to be leaving for college this year and the likelihood of her having 2 weeks to spare in the busy summers ahead of her college years, I knew it was now or never. This was it. We had to do it. 

My constraints were like those of most families. I had to fit a cross-country road trip for a family of four in 2 weeks (to accommodate my husband’s work schedule) and on a budget—the money I saved for 18 years of planning for this trip (about $5,000). We also had an additional constraint: We had to make to my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary all the way back in Connecticut.

With thousands of potential sites to see and routes to take, I also had to narrow it down to the trip to our family’s “must-see” places.  

Many people who followed along on the journey on my Instagram and Facebook or wanted to know 1) How I did it/planned it 2) The Itinerary 3) The realities and cost of the trip, so I am going to share all of that now: 

Planning

The Sites/Destinations

I started planning a year in advance. I made a list of about 20-25 places the family and I wanted to see. Then as a family, we narrowed it down based on the route. We all agreed Mt. Rushmore, the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Memphis were a must. While we also wanted to see Yosemite and the Sequoias we knew we couldn’t go that far West and make it to my parents’ party. 

With the main attractions set out, I started doing the “map math.” I typed in my first destination (Rushmore) and saw that it would take about 20 hours. I picked a location right in the middle: Albert Lea, Minnesota. Then I typed in Yellowstone and saw that I could get from Rushmore to Yellowstone in a day. I repeated the process over and over again, from Yellowstone to Grand Canyon (the halfway point was Kanab, Utah), and then from the Grand Canyon to Albuquerque, etc.

Booking Hotels

I then used www.booking.com (an App) to compare prices and accommodations of motels, lodges, and hotels. I loved using the app because I could compare prices, see photos (taken by guests), read reviews, and then make all of the reservations in the app itself. All the information was right at my fingertips. I picked the accommodations specifically for my family’s needs and desires. Your family may be different and your comfort levels may vary. Many people love to rent RVs or camp. Awesome! However, I have no illusions about our sturdiness as a family. We all love daily hot showers, access to Wi-Fi, nice sheets, and firm mattresses to sleep on. I wouldn’t say we’re high maintenance (okay, we’re high maintenance), all I know is we would have been miserable if we couldn’t end each day in a clean and quiet spot to rest our heads. I was able to get most of our motels/hotels for under $150.00 a night. The only exception was in the National Parks, which cost $260 a night. The demand is super high in July. (Note: Plan an entire year ahead! If you wait longer than that you will not find a place to stay. Also, you have to book through the National Park ServiceI recommend staying in West Yellowstone, Montana. We just loved it there. While we were in the park, we checked out all the lodges (like Old Faithful Inn, etc.) and they are PACKED with people. It was so overcrowded, as were all the RV parks. However, we stayed in the adorable, quiet Three Bear Lodge with great amenities, a minute from outside the park, and close to all the main Western Park attractions: Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Lake, Geysers, Mammoth Springs, and Yellowstone River.

Physical and Mental Preparation

I did a ton of reading (shocker). Frommer’s Easy Guide to National Parks of the American West has a wealth of information, maps, sites, and insider tips. Lonely Planet’s Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks has the best description of trails and background information. Thanks to their descriptive trail maps, we were able to plan (and train) for an epic 8-mile hike that led us to one of the most spectacular views in the park (Fairy Falls). We would have missed it had I not read about it. I also bought the Yellowstone Magazine, which gave us the “tip of the trip”—an advertisement for the Gypsy App. It was a guided tour app that gave us the history and insider information on every spot we drove by. It also alerted us to “Must See” lookout points. We didn’t miss a site in Yellowstone and we all felt like we made a friend with our “Gypsy Tour Guide.” He was wonderful—even if only an electronic voice app. It only cost $10 and it was so worth it. You can pay up to $1000 to have a private tour guide of the parks. So it was money well spent. I also read a few very helpful blogs about what NOT to do in the National Parks. You’d be AMAZED at how foolish people are. We witnessed people turning their backs to take selfies with wild animals (STUPID), leaning over edges of cliffs to take yet another selfie (REALLY STUPID), and watched as little, unsupervised children wandered behind their parents on trails (food for bears!). Anyway, pack your common sense. 

Vehicle Prep

We didn’t want to put 6,500 miles on the one family car we own, so opted to rent a car. We rented a wonderful, compact fuel efficient SUV (a Nissan Rogue) from Enterprise where they offer FREE UNLIMITED MILES. We were able to rent a car for 16 days for just under $500 ($470 to be exact)! Plan on spending $1000 for gas as well. Make sure you call the rental car agency in advance and let them know your plans so they give you a car with a fresh oil change. Also, use your own insurance (it will save you A LOT of money). The great thing about Enterprise is wherever you are if your car breaks down or there is an issue they provide 24-hour roadside assistance. We also have AAA, which we upgraded, for the free towing up to 100 miles. Seems unnecessary until you’re in the middle of Arizona and hundreds of miles from anything. We, fortunately, didn’t have to use either service, but it was great to know it was there. 

We also packed the car with 5-7 gallons of water (at all times—we kept refilling at every stop), enough granola and nutrition bars for 2 weeks, apples, bread, and peanut butter. We also had a first aid kit, ponchos, flares, tire repair kit, and matches. Seems crazy until you’re actually driving through the desert and haven’t seen anyone for hours, and you think: Man, we’d be S.O.L. if we ever broke down.  

What to Pack

Don’t overdo it. Running shoes, a good pair of hiking boots, a swimsuit, pair of jeans, a couple pair of shorts, hiking pants, several t-shirts, a sweatshirt or a jacket, and plenty of underwear are all you’ll really need. You’re not going to be winning any beauty contests on the trails or in the car, I assure you. We had 3 suitcases for the four of us. I left all the hiking boots as well as the sweatshirts out of the suitcases, so we could grab and go when needed. We also had a bag with all the toiletries—shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and loads of sunscreen. When you’re checking in and out of hotels, you want to be carrying as little as possible. We each had small suitcases with wheels to make the transition from the car to the motel rooms go that much smoother.  It’s also a great idea to pack bug spray and yes, bear spray. To rent or buy bear spray in the parks is very expensive. But, you can buy it at REI in advance. I also recommend reading this National Parks page on how to use it properly.

National Park Annual Pass

My recommendation is to go to www.nationapark.comand purchase an annual pass for $85. It will get you into EVERY park for the entire year. You can pay up to $35 a day in certain parks for entering. This saves a ton of money and pays for itself in 3 days in the parks. 

Create Your Own Itinerary Booklet

I went on Google Maps, and entered every trip and then printed every set of directions. I also printed out every single hotel confirmation page and scheduled event (like White Water Rafting) and put them in order in a 3-hole punch folder. Why? Well, when you drive across country and through National Parks there is NO SERVICE. None. Zip. Zero. You can’t make a call and you can’t access your apps (the Gypsy app is the exception). If something comes up, your battery dies, you lose your phone, or you’re in a National Forest, you won’t be able to access your directions. Not cool.  I was also able to take notes on the pages. Print everything! This booklet saved us several times.

The Itinerary (From Cincinnati)

Day 1—Drive Day

Hotel: Comfort Inn 

Destination: Albert Lea, Minnesota 

(Just a stopover. Wouldn’t recommend this particular motel/hotel. It wasn’t exceptional, but it was a place for us to rest.)

Day 2

Hotel: The Lodge at Palmer Gulch, Rapid City, South Dakota

Destinations: Badlands, Black Hills, Wall Drug, Mt. Rushmore, and Crazy Horse Monument

(We loved this spot and wished we had more days here. They had horse riding, shuttle buses to Mt. Rushmore at night, panning for “gold” for the kids, s’mores at night, and an amazing playground.)

Day 3: 

Hotel: Three Bear Lodge, West Yellowstone, Montana

Destinations: Cody, Wyoming, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake

Day 4: 

Hotel: Three Bear Lodge

Destinations: Southwestern part of the Park, Old Faithful, Old Faithful Inn, Grand Prismatic Lake, Geysers, Fairy Falls Hike

Day 5:

Hotel: Three Bear Lodge

Destination: Northwest Corner, Mammoth Springs, Roosevelt’s Arch, Gardiner, Montana for White Water Rafting at

(Yellowstone was by far our favorite spot. We'd go back in a heartbeat)

Day 6: 

Drive day through the Southern part of Yellowstone and the magnificent Grand Tetons

Hotel: Quail Park Lodge

Destination:  Kanab, Utah

(One of the longest drives of the trip. We didn’t have time to spare, but I would recommend braking this up in 2 days, and I would recommend going through Bryce Canyon) 

Day 7: 

Hotel: Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque

Destinations: Grand Canyon, North Rim in the morning.

(I recommend getting up super early, so you can be at the park before 8 a.m. You will get spectacular views—all to yourself and you’ll be able to enjoy Bright Angel Point trail all on your own. It is a narrow trail (I can’t imagine being out there with a ton of people.) If you’re afraid of heights (which I am) there are plenty of trees to hug along the trailhead. (Not kidding). Then drive out through Vermillion Cliffs—a spectacular drive that leads take you right into the heart of a reservation. You can be in Albuquerque for dinner. We are lucky enough to have dear friends who hosted us and showed us around and made us a wonderful dinner.)

Day 8: 

Hotel: Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque

Destinations: Santa Fe, via the Double Decker train from Albuquerque, where we saw the Sanctuary of the Lady of Guadalupe, the Loretta Chapel with the miraculous staircase, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, had a delicious lunch and shopped in the plaza hacienda, and walked and explored this historic and beautiful city.

Day 9: Drive Day

Hotel: Holiday Inn Express, Oklahoma City

Destinations: Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial

Day 10: 

Hotel: The Guest House at Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

Destinations: Sun Studios, Beale Street (Home of the Blues), B.B. King’s BBQ and Bar, Graceland (our hotel was on the property)

Day 11: 

Hotel: The Guest House at Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

Destinations: Cooper-Young Art/Historic District for Vintage cloth and record shopping, Muddy’s Bakery, Lorraine Hotel/Civil Rights Museum— the location of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and Central BBQ (famous BBQ). 

Day 12: Drive Day

Hotel: Hyatt Place, Roanoke, Virginia

Destinations: Smokey Mountain National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains

Day 13: Drive Day

Staying with my parents in Danbury, CT

Destination: Childhood home for time with family

Day 14: Danbury R & R

Day 15: Danbury R & R and 50th Wedding Celebration

Day 16: Homeward Bound Back to Cincinnati

The Cost of the Trip & Other Realities

All told we spent every bit of the $5,000, plus $225 on extra events (White Water Rafting and Sun Studios). I also gave each kid $50 so they could buy any souvenir they wanted. I knew my kids: They wouldn’t ask me for anything, because they would be worried about us spending any more money. I knew if I gave them their own cash before we left, they would enjoy spending it without guilt and would pick out something they would really enjoy. I usually purchase Christmas Ornaments of every place we visit when we travel, and so that’s what I did. I spent about $200 on souvenir ornaments and gifts for family and friends. As far as food goes, every motel/hotel we stayed at included breakfast (with the exception of the Graceland). We ate picnic lunches when we were on the road—granola, apples, and PB & J sandwiches. Our big splurges were dinners, which could range between $50-$100 a night for a family of four. We were fortunate because our friends in Albuquerque fed us at night and we stayed with my family in Connecticut later in the trip. If you’re going to travel for all 15 days without visits to friends, I would budget about $2,000 for food give or take.

Total Expenses:

Gas: $1,000

Lodging: $1,500

Food: $1,500

Car: $500

Souvenirs: $300

Park Pass: $85

White Water Rafting: $175

Entrance into Sun Studios: $58

Did You Really Have Fun Being in the Car for 108 Hours?

Short answer: YES!

            There is a big movement about being “real” on social media. So in response, people share a bunch of picks of family meltdowns, kid tantrums, and complaints about service, situations, or one’s general discomfort in life. I feel like that is less “real” and more just another reason to complain in our complaint-addicted world. So you won’t be seeing a lot of whining in this post. Yes, we had our moments. But, truthfully, there were very few of them. And the ones we did have were basically my fault. Kids and ADULTS get hungry and tired. If you push anyone too far without food, they’re going to snap. We’ll all do. The one day we waited to eat until 8:30 p.m. put us all over the edge, but by the time our grilled cheeses arrived, we were laughing again and happy. You need to be realistic and pack your patience. And that’s what we all did. We made sure everyone got enough rest and food. My motto in general is: Keep ‘em fed, keep ‘em happy. Never fails.

            Every picture we took on our vacation of smiling, joyful kids, I assure was a 100 percent real. My kids thanked me no less than 1,000 times on this trip. We were all blown away constantly by the changing topography, landscape, and beauty of everything we saw. We were grateful for our time together, knowing that we had worked and waited for a long time to take this trip. Some of my favorite memories actually took place in the car—the anticipation of getting to the next destination was exhilarating. I loved the conversations we had. We listened to books from www.Audible.com and discussed them. We sang along to all of our favorite musicals. We sat quietly in awe of the beauty and majesty of our country. We looked out for each other. We soothed each other, joked with each other, and helped each other out. Greg and I took turns driving. So neither of us had to drive more than 6 hours each day. When I wasn’t driving, I was able to work on the manuscripts I am writing for clients. When I drove, Greg could sleep or entertain the kids. You have to know your own kids and their limits. We are super lucky. For years, we’ve made the 12-14-hour trip to Connecticut two times a year, so my kids are road warriors. They know how to entertain themselves. They’re respectful of each other. They’re kind. They’re artistic and creative. We genuinely enjoy spending time with each other. They are also 12 and 18 years old. I couldn’t imagine doing this trip with younger kids, and I am glad we waited until both were old enough to appreciate the journey. I am not saying younger kids can’t do it, but it would take an incredible amount of patience on their part—and the parents’.

            This is all to say: It’s totally worth the trip. Plan ahead, save up for it, so you do it right and don’t feel stressed about money and can enjoy your time with the family. Then, sit back and enjoy the ride. I promise you it is so worth it!

 

 

 

There is a Crack In Everything: Our Year Learning How to "Shine"

There is a Crack In Everything: Our Year Learning How to "Shine"

Living a life with “shine” as the mantra didn’t mean we were covered in diamonds and dripping with pearls. It didn’t mean we didn’t have some bumps in the roads or hard times. It didn’t mean there weren’t days when a long walk off a short pier seemed like a more comfortable solution than digging in deep and doing the work...

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The True Cost of Being a Woman (Trigger Warning: Unpleasant Truths Discussed)

Photo by Mary Curran Hackett

Photo by Mary Curran Hackett

My definition of a feminist is a man or woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.’ All of us, women and men, must do better.
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

 

There's been a lot of chatter lately about the role of woman and the inequality they face in the workplace, in the political arena, and the world as a whole. Depending on your political proclivities or the news sites you frequent, the statistics vary.  When I have posted articles in the past highlighting the disparities between pay for men and women, I've been called out. I've had peers tell me that it is nothing more than "statistical gymnastics" and that inequality between men and women simply doesn't exist--no, not in our United States of America. Impossible.

Though countless reports show that indeed women pay more for basic hygienic items, hair cuts, dry cleaning, clothing, and even maintenance services--like oil changes, tune-ups, and tire rotations--and so much more, people still deny that men and women are treated unequally. And despite that worldwide studies show that women, more than men, lack access to education, healthcare, and basic human rights, people still want to argue with me and have even gone so far as to gaslight me, saying that the inequality I see is all "in my head.” (Questions to ask in order to doubt if it’s all in my head: What percentage of women have been U.S. Presidents? What percentage of the House and Senate to do women currently represent? What percentage of Fortune 500 companies are run by women? If the answer is not 50%, then I assure you, it is not in my head. We have work to do, people.)

So instead of providing scientific and statistical evidence, to which many people will still refuse to accept, I thought, I would share just a few of the costs I have had to pay as women in the twenty-first century America.  When I ran through these costs with my husband a few days ago, he asked jokingly, "Don't you think this is the cost of being Mary? Not just a woman?" I laughed, but then I said, "No. Absolutely not." If a white, middle-class women, with a good education, and a great family to support her, faces these injustices and is struggling, imagine what it's like for those who haven't had my advantages? And it's crazy to think that this "could only happen to me." If it's happened to me, I assure you, it's happened to someone else. So let’s break it down, shall we?

  1. The Cost of Healthcare: (Nothing like starting with an innocuous topic, right?) OK, buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Since so many people want to discount how unaffordable it is to be a woman in seek of health and wellness, I thought I would share just a couple of stories of just how screwed (literally) women are by the healthcare system. My most profound memory of being screwed by the dear old healthcare system came a month after I was raped. I received a large medical bill from the ER, where I was treated for my injuries and where my rape kit was administered. After haggling with the hospital I was told I signed a paper that said I consented to treatment and therefore agreed to payment. In short: I had to pay or I would be sent to collection. So for the next several months, I dutifully wrote a check out to the ER for the “date of services rendered”—which happened to be the worst night of my life. The rapist did not have to pay for what he did, but, I did. Later, when I was pregnant and single, and receiving no child support, I had to scrape money together to pay for my office copays, my prenatal vitamins, and various uncovered prenatal tests. When my daughter was born, I paid for many expenses related to her birth. Because I was not insured at the time, and still receiving no child support, I had to go back to work right away. There was no maternity leave, no pay, and therefore no way to pay for my child. So off to work I went.
  2. The Cost of Daycare: Perhaps there is nothing more screwed up in America than its current childcare and education situation. I know I am going to catch flack for this, but it’s absolutely without a doubt true. Whether by choice or not to return to work after having a baby, there is no discounting the unbelievable price tag a woman must incur to do so. By the time my daughter was five years old, I had paid over $60,000 in daycare expenses. By the time her brother came along and needed to go to daycare that was another $60,000 for the next six years. All told, by the time my children were of school ages, I had spent nearly $120,000 in daycare. Then in subsequent years I paid on average $6000 a year for after-school care programs and summer camps—totaling $72,000 over the course of the next six years. Yes, that’s $200,000 by the time the children were 12 years old. (And that’s not including their extracurriculars, their clothes, food, housing, or school supplies). Yes, that price tag is just the cost of their care if their mother must (or chooses to) work. The alternatives are few, if none at all—especially for single mothers, who have no choice but to work. Let’s not forget, this disparity effects men too. The price women and families have to pay for women to have a career is at a breaking point. It’s simply not sustainable.
  3. The Cost of Working: OK, lots of women, Sheryl Sandberg, most notably, have spoken quite eloquently on this topic—namely how much less women are paid, how much is expected of them, and how their behavior is evaluated on a different set of criteria. I could write a book. (And just might). After 20 years of working alongside men, I still make not 30% less, not 50% less, but nearly 70% less than my male colleagues who are the same age, have the same level experience (in some cases less education), and who work less hours. (If you’d like to see my pay stubs, I’ll happily supply.) At 40 years old, after working two and sometimes three jobs, and after publishing two books with a major U.S. publisher, I never broke $50,000 a year. (I know, oversharing and impolite in certain circles). I don’t care. I have sat in the same office cubes with men, ran circles around them, producing work at a more efficient rate, receiving higher satisfaction ratings from customers, praise from colleagues and clients alike, and in some cases clandestinely doing the work for my male supervisors, who were incapable of doing the work themselves, meanwhile, grocery shopping for office supplies, stocking and cleaning fridges, taking out garbage, cleaning up after office parties, and running various errands for my supervisors—all before attending presidential level meetings, where my insights, ideas, and problem-solving were also required.  Phew. Additionally, in my over my 20 years of office work, I have witnessed men explode, swear, name call, and carry on (one epic tirade went on for over twenty minutes when a printer did not comply). I have been shouted at and demeaned. As a waitress, I was often groped by fellow workers and customers, and had to turn down physical advances on a nightly basis--from the age of 16! In the office, it didn't get much better. Though there was no groping, I’ve been asked if my bra and panties match the color my dress and what bra size I wore by a male coworker. Soon after I joined the corporate world, one coworker asked me to have sex in his car and locked the doors so I couldn't get out--until I threatened to scream--or call his wife. And, yet—and yet—if a women says damn, shit, fuck—it is unbecoming, an outburst—the standards by which she is judged completely and unequivocally different--in fact she may even be fired or dismissed. If a women speaks, gesticulates, “leans in”—she is either being “threatening” or a "seductress."  There is no in between. If a man does it, he is “commanding the room.” The standards are different, and the let me assure you, the costs are high. Too high. 
  4. The Cost of Stress: I have a pacemaker—one of the perks of having a heart condition. It’s come in handy over the years because, when I go in to appointments to get it checked, my doctor is able to see my heart rates in real time—and even episodes that are timed stamped. One day, my technician alerted me to something disturbing. He asked me: “Are you a doctor or a an EMT or something super stressful?” I said, “No, I work in an office.” He shook his head. “Are you serious?” I said, “Yes.” He pointed to a screen and asked me to look. He said, “See all of these arrhythmias (there were hundreds)—look at their time stamps.” I looked. Every single one of them happened between 9 and 5—Monday through Friday. “That’s bad. That’s really bad.”  Work was literally killing me. “You’re lucky you haven’t had a stroke.”  I shook my head and understood. I broke down and explained how impossible all of it was—-the demands at work, the money, and then running around for hours after work to get the children to and from their various extracurriculars, meetings, and events. And then there was all the cooking, the housekeeping, and the lack of sleep. He nodded. “Sounds like you need help.” Well, DUH! Who doesn’t need help? I have a husband. I have daycare. I have friends, and it’s still not enough. Then he added, “All I am saying is if you don’t change something, you’re body will change it for you.” And, with that I knew he was right. All the headaches, all the joint pain, weight gain, and sleepless nights—all of it—was because my body was telling me what I couldn’t accept: This is too much for one woman. Too damn much. The price was too high. My life or my job? The answer seemed pretty simple. Only it wasn’t. Without the job, how would I feed my family? How would we survive? Most of us don't have the luxury of a choice.

Yes, the cost of being a woman is simply too high. And I don’t know what the answer is. But, I know it starts with me. It starts with me speaking the truth. It starts with me saying enough is enough. It starts with me saying, it’s time we all start doing something about it and talking more candidly about it. It’s time we start holding our institutions, government officials, and policymakers accountable. It’s time we, as women, get behind each other and start sticking up for each other—not just for our own sake, but for the sake of our daughters and our sons—for the world that we will be leaving them someday. 

I also know now this is not the cost of being Mary. I know it’s the cost of being a woman. And, as a woman, I am here to say to all other woman out there: I’m here. I care. I understand. And together we can make this world better. Let’s do this. Let’s command the damn room. 

 

A Bad Day at the Office

For nearly twenty-four years I've worked in offices of some kind or another. As a teenager, I worked in various doctors' offices. As a college student, I was an assistant in my school's law department. During grad school, I was a research assistant to several professors. After grad school, I settled into corporate life as I worked my way through three different organizations over the course of seventeen years.

Each place had different height cubicle walls, different ergonomic swivel chairs, different acronyms for team meetings, but by and large, all came with same basic nonsense. Yes, each came with a their own cocktail mixture of office politics, territory wars, egos, incompetent leaders, competent employees, pointless meetings, stacks of paperwork, bottomless inboxes, and constant change. The one thing you could get used to in all work places was that nothing stayed the same.

Just get used to a software? Guess what, we're upgrading this year! Like your new boss? She's so good, she's being promoted!  Like your office? Super. But, we're gonna need that one for someone else. Yeah, about that job of yours...it no longer exists. Ba-bye. 

Change is something we can all count on in. Being able to roll with it, makes for a good employee. Most of us get that. We know if we smile enough, nod politely, do a great job, and feign excitement every now and then, we're sure to get that gold star. Maybe a raise. (Who we kidding?) Okay, maybe we won't get fired or asked to "step down." 

But, sometimes, yes sometimes, smiling, nodding, doing a good job, and feigning excitement become impossible. Sometimes it's all too much. Sometimes, people can be real jerks. They're human after all. And humans can lie. Humans can steal. Humans can deliberately harm other human beings, and it's time to say: Enough is enough. It's time to call in the top brass and get some help. 

But what if they fail you too? What if they too know that the rules to stay ahead of the game are to smile, nod, feign excitement, and pretend everything is OK?  Maintain the status quo at all possible costs, please. What if their job is on the line? Their reputation? Why would they put their neck out to help you? 

It takes courage. It takes integrity. It takes a person who knows the right thing to do. It takes a supreme sense of justice, and a willingness to stand up and say: The buck stops with me. It takes a leader.

It takes someone like my dad.

Throughout those twenty-four years of work in an office, another thing besides change stayed the same: It was a picture I hung up next to me in every office that I've worked. It's the picture I have posted here of my dad, who was then a father of six (he eventually had eight). I am the one looking at him in awe.

And I still look at him in awe every day. 

The reason I kept that picture by my side is this: Shortly after this picture was taken, two of his best friends died in a fire. That is what defined (for me) what a bad day at work was and always would be. It gave me perspective. It served as a reminder--that whatever I am experiencing at work or in life--it will never ever be as difficult or as intense as my father experienced it.

My dad had monumental bills to pay supporting eight kids--most of whom went not just to college but graduate schools and medical school as well. On top of that, he had days where he was unable to save a toddler from a swimming pool, or several children from a burning house, or a teenager from an engulfed car fire. He had days when he had to call home and tell my mom, my brothers, or my sisters that one of the people he saw die or seriously injured while he was on duty, was one of their friends. 

Nevertheless, my dad went to work every day with a smile. He loved what he did. He always said, "I never went to work a day in my life, when I was a firefighter. It's not work when you love it." 

My dad worked extra shifts. He worked long nights. He fought hard for his union and his men. He was no wilting flower. He earned his nicknames "The Pitbull" and the "Toxic Avenger" honestly. You didn't want to be on the wrong side of the argument that Phil Curran was fighting. He knew what was right, what was just, and he sure as hell wasn't going to back down. (Though as a teenager, I sure as hell gave it a try!)

Every time I thought I was having a bad day at work, I looked at my dad's picture. I looked at him balancing a baby on his lap, smiling, and not knowing that when he walked out of the door that day if it wouldn't be his last time. I thought of the lives he saved and touched. I thought about the battles he was willing to fight to make sure his men had access to health care and pensions. I thought of his inexhaustible sense of duty, his commitment to his family, his belief that work was one of the noblest ways to serve his Creator. And those thoughts centered me. They made me realize there are really no bad days at the office. Though when I saw injustices and things worth fighting for, that picture gave me courage. Granted I didn't need the kind of courage it requires to walk into burning buildings, but we all know that just living life requires courage all the same. 

When I left my office job for the last time on Monday, the last thing I took was the picture of my dad that I had taped to my shelf. I looked at him and smiled. He got me through another day at the office. I thanked him for it. I thanked him for his smile. His compassion. His courage. I thanked him for the work ethic he instilled in me and in everyone of my siblings. I thanked him for giving me the ability to roll with the punches. To hold my head up high. I thanked him for showing me that when you do what you love, it's never work. It's a gift. It's an honor. It's just a another day at the office. Just a day. And the beauty of that is tomorrow is another one too. And if you're one of the lucky ones you get to wake up, and live it. 

So I am happy to announce today, I am moving my Dad's picture to my own office. From now on, I too will never be going to work--because I'll be doing what I love--day and night: Writing and reading, reading and writing.

Thanks, Dad, for your courage, your bravery, your strength, your leadership, your willingness to fight the good fight,  your hard work, but most of all, thank you for showing me how to live a life I can be proud of and spend every day doing what I love. Slainte.

My home office. 

My home office. 

 

 

 

When All Hope Is Lost: Go to the Light

When All Hope Is Lost: Go to the Light

Last night I couldn't sleep. Something pretty awful happened. Something I can't even explain or talk about in a blog yet. (I am not being coy. I am just protecting myself.) Needless to say, I was feeling pretty low. As low and dark as a human being can feel. I think the words despair came out of my mouth. I think I heard the words: hopeless, lost, alone, followed by no one can help me. There isn't one person out there in the world who can help me.

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Holding On: What It's Like to Let Go

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Dear Greg, Last night before watching you, my husband of 11 years, drift off to sleep in front of WWII PBS documentary with an architecture book draped across your chest, I asked you: "So we're good. Right? We're agreed that we're not doing anything tomorrow? Cards? Dinner?" And while mid-yawn, you answered in your usual-man-of-few-words way: "Yep!" And then promptly fell asleep.

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I turned 39 last week. And I have been doing a lot of mid-life-crisis whining lately. Time is running out!I haven’t done a tenth of the things I thought I would do by this age! I thought I would be J.K. Freaking Rowling by now!

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Proof of Angels: You

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Dear Readers, Well, it's finally time.

The book I can't shut up about (and I am sure you're sick of hearing about), Proof of Angels, is finally seeing the light of day. On November 4, 2014--exactly three years from the release of my first novel Proof of Heaven--Proof of Angels will finally be out there in the world.

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The Truth Shall Set You Free: Thank You for Letting Me Share My Story of Suicide

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Dear readers, As a writer, I use the exercise of writing as way to process what I am thinking and feeling. Often, I don't even know what I feel or think until I can see it on the screen or page. 

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For the Love of Books and Other Things (That Didn't Come Out of Your Womb): Owning What You Love

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Reading. Ah. Yes. That moment when you open the book find your place on the page and fall right into the world you left off on before sleep stole it you from you, your lunch break ended, or your kids called up from the basement moaning in hunger. 

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