Small Business Saturday, Business Owners and Red Tape: Let’s Have a Ribbon-Cutting

people-vs-govt-fishing

With small business Saturday upon us, support of small businesses in our neighborhoods and communities is a beautiful thing. Small businesses are the heart of our community. Small businesses are the informal beautification committees of our communities. They are the key ingredient in the growth of this country.  Small businesses have a profound impact upon families and I’ve shared my thoughts on my nj.com Parental Guidance blog (click here).

Small Business Saturday lead me to think about a greater, darker problem than the overshadows that large, international corporations cast upon our family-owned shops and stores. I started thinking about red tape; not in the gift wrap, holiday sense but in the regulatory, wrist-tying, throat-choking sense.

The real crisis facing small business is the crushing weight of government regulation. Recently, the government made it their job to pursue small children and the little lemonade stands that were unregulated. Fines were issued. Summons were wrote. Cardboard stands were shut down. Georgia, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maryland and Texas have all taken part in the shutdown of the American Dream unregulated fruit juice stands.

The ridiculous lengthy list of government regulation goes on and on. In Philadelphia, the price of ‘free speech’ is $300 and up. In the city of ‘Brotherly Love’, bloggers must now spend $300 for a tax to blog or face prosecution. In 2011, Amish farmers were raided by the FBI to investigate the sale of unauthorized milk. It’s about time the government went after the Amish because we don’t have larger issues like domestic terrorism, financial reform, radical international terroristic cells,  or a war with tremendous casualties to address.

I wonder what Henry David Thoreau would now write in his Civil Disobedience. Perhaps he would write much of the same, as it most all still applies. Perhaps it would be longer. Today everything is longer. Obamacare is so long that not even lawmakers no one know what it says. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is so verbally profuse that even Wikipedia can’t even write a brief account of what its all about.

A few weeks ago, I sat in a courtroom: not as a council person or board member but as a lawbreaking citizen. The girl who never had detention and always had low-grade anxiety whenever scolded, plead guilty. My crime: parking too many vehicles in our own parking lot. An ordinance was violated. I sat in a packed court room next to the lawyer for a national furniture conglomerate, also making a court appearance for similar regulatory offenses in town. As ma -and-pa business after business made their appearance before the judge, I began to wonder why the town has made it their job to drive business, small and big alike, out.

If our own towns are against us, who are for us? Soon, the only jobs left will be those of the government regulators themselves.

As a small business owner, I am no stranger to our friends at the IRS, the DOT,  and the Department of Labor State audits not to be confused with the Department of Labor Federal Audits. As a small business owner, I  also wear the ‘HR hat’ and often interview potential employees for hire. In the last year alone, I have heard from at least half a dozen candidates that they weren’t really interested in the job but needed to let unemployment know they were interviewing. One candidate was so kind as to explain to me that she just couldn’t afford to work. It would ruin her unemployment.

Now, I know there are a lot of good people out of work. There are many good people who want to work. Such abuses are a disgrace. A friend even asked me why I hadn’t taken the time to report these people who had inferred they were abusing the system to the authorities case-by-case. Right. As a mom of three children ages four and under and as full-time small business owner, I have the time to sit on hold for twenty minutes and be passed back and forth from phone extension to voicemail to do my ‘civic duty’ that is the job responsibility of someone employed by the government.

Idea: perhaps they should regulate the system abusers before the business owners.

Last winter, The Today Show asked me about my stance on sick pay for part-time employees. I will comply with red-tape regulations but i won’t be happy about it. The problem with all of these good ideas in theory is that someone has to pay for them in actuality. I am all for supporting our employees. I am also for the government bolstering its finances but not on the backs of the tireless small business owners.

If we continue to weigh business owners down with unemployment tax, workman’s compensation, town fees, city fines, and so much more, someday and sometime there will be a law that breaks the business owners back. Although I am no business scholar, I can see that if you cripple the source then all that flows will eventually cease to trickle down.

When I asked an auditor about the seeming scrutiny, the auditor candidly confessed that if they don’t find something wrong then they will seem like they aren’t doing their job. I guess its as much about generating income for them as it is for us. At least someone is making revenue, too bad that someone is always Uncle Sam.

Starting a business in this country is an uphill climb. Maintaining a small business is even more miraculous a feat. It is the stuff of tight-rope walkers, Hail Mary passes, and midnight novenas. Small businesses don’t close their doors at 5pm. Small business owners don’t see “sick days”. Small businesses most often work 7 days a week into the wee hours of the night. We, as small business owners, are not the enemy. We suffer too. We are a part of the solution and are sadly becoming an endangered species.

The rules have swung out of balance. As common sense continues to erode and we are knee deep in the muck of The Great Jobless Recovery, it seems that it would be an opportune time for someone to speak up. It is not going to take a someone though, it is going to many of us.

I don’t usually talk politics but here is the caveat. The political here is personal. The political here is the future of my family and the ability to earn a living. The motivation is there. The drive and determination are present. The ethics are there too. We are good people looking for the freedom to pursue the American Dream.

This isn’t about being on one side of the political spectrum. As a former social worker, I have a deep earnest compassion for all. As a former government worker, I also believe that as Thoreau so elegantly paraphrased, “the best government is that which governs the least.” It is time for a common sense infusion in this country. For it to get better, it is going to have to get simpler.

Happy Small Business Saturday. Let’s hope at this Saturday next year, we have even more small business to be thankful for!


RWEI have always loved Halloween. It is the holiday with an edge to it. October carries with it that kind of crisp coldness where you start to see your own breath in front of your face. You are reminded of your own electric humanity. You’re alive. Trees shed their leaves. Nature is unveiled and yet there is  a looming sense of mystery. We know we cannot see all that is or all that is about to be.

Halloween is about making statements with confidence, with exaggeration. and with art. Statements are not made with words but with fabric, with expression, with attitude, and concealment.

My love of Halloween could be because I love candy too. Ah, the rush of sugar. There is something to be said for the rush of a good scare too.  I don’t mean the tragic type but rather that adrenaline boost that surges after you exit the roller coaster ramp frazzled and shaking and wanting to do it all over again. These are the things I miss.

This Halloween I will try to remember the value behind trying the things that scare me. Perhaps the days of roller coasters and zip-lining are behind me but there is something to be said for stepping outside of our comfort zone. Maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best, “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.”

When I left my work as a clinical social worker to help my husband build his company, I came to his business with what I believed to be a varied skill set. Undoubtedly, that was true yet in so many areas I found myself knee-deep in uncharted territory. As a life-long, gold star people pleaser, I have always dreaded confrontation. I dreaded it even when I knew I was right. For most of my childhood and well into my thirties, I had gone to great lengths to avoid confrontation even when I had a valid point to make. ‘Flight over fight’ made sense to the peacekeeper in me.

In my new work, I found myself in daily confrontation. It was an integral part of my job description. Building a business is about building bridges and relationships but it is just as much about the fight. There is a struggle to build something. It is not easy. Perhaps that it why it so challenging and rewarding. I found myself having to stand my ground and push forth with vendors and professionals, the general public, the media, and unprofessional professionals of the most unscrupulous, calculated sort.

I found that the daily struggle was a boot camp for my sensitivity. These tiring confrontations and uncomfortable arguments often fought with a trembling voice proved to be so valuable. At the days end, I felt spent. My soul would even sometimes feel bruised but over time I became stronger. I became smarter and more accurate. There was something new and brilliant in my wheelhouse. I knew myself better in a new way. I learned how much I didn’t know about myself when I thought I knew almost everything there was to know about me.

I learned that I was often hiding behind the guise of peacekeeping because the fight for what was right seemed too steep and scary to climb. The truth was that I was too scared too act. I was scared of weakness and terrified of failure.

I also learned that I am a better person for pushing myself. I am a better business owner. I am a better boss to those we employ and whose families depend upon our success. I am a better life partner. I am a better mama bear to my children, and I am without question a stronger soul. I am a contender and I am formidable.

Taking risks is about unwrapping all of those God-given presents that you didn’t even know were given to you. For some, they may be about unwrapping the ability to own their own thoughts and words and about gifts of confidence. Other may be discovering the gifts of forgiveness, humility, humor, or kindness. For all of us, there are so many different gifts to be revealed and developed. There are limits to be overcome. There are always walls to be pushed out, and ceiling to be broken through. As MLK suggested, sometimes we just need to see the first stair of the grand staircase to take the initial step. We get one life to do it right for ourselves, to honor the memory of those who have gone before us, and for our children who will go beyond us.

In recent years, the trembling voice has faded but I find there is always a new risk to be taken and uncharted territory to be covered in most all directions. And there ALWAYS will be.

Happy Halloween, Happy All Saints Day, and Happy All Souls Day!

Halloween, Risk, and Conquering Fear: Tales of a Peacekeeper


The Dog Trainer & The Fax Machine: Teaching Our Children What is Right

ImageWhen I started to think of Mother’s Day this year, I immediately though of my dog trainer. It may seem like a strange correlation at first. I can explain. Half a decade ago, Jamie Casale came recommended to us to train our second dog. I was told that she is called the ‘Dog Whisperer of Basking Ridge’, a name she has earned, as she works miracles with dogs that have been abused, and dogs that have been deemed impossible to train.

Over the years, Jamie worked with our 3 shelter dogs. She was there on the very days that I brought each of my three daughters home from the hospital. She helped introduce our dogs to our newborns. She helped with setting boundaries, consistency in setting limits, and developing behavioral strategies. Her techniques were as applicable to pet owners as they were to parents. Over time, I discovered she was not only a gifted trainer but an amazing mom and an incredible soul.

One day while we were at the park, she shared the following story with me to illustrate a lesson. Over the years, I have often thought back to the story and the lessons within it. I asked Jamie to recount the story to me once again (at my request, she typed it and emailed it to me), and I am sharing it with you below. I left it in her words; the way I heard it a few years back.

ImageI believe there is not a more fitting tribute as Mother’s Day approaches than to honor mothers who embody what great parenting is. Jamie is one of these moms. Here is her story of her son and her fax machine:

When my son was five or six, he and I were living together in a house I had rented after my separation from his dad.  Financially, things were very tough, and there had been times when I had to choose between paying the phone bill or the electric bill, knowing that whichever I didn’t pay that day would likely be shut off before my next paycheck.  Through all the difficulties, Dan and I knew that we would get through it all, and that we would be just fine as long as we were together.

During that time, I needed to buy a fax machine to have at home for my job.  Although I couldn’t really afford it, I had to have it, so Dan and I went off to the electronics store.  I looked at all the machines they had, and chose the least expensive one.  Back then, even a cheap fax machine was around $400.  I didn’t have the cash, of course, so I put it on my already strained credit card.

When we got home, I hooked up the fax and discovered that it didn’t work.  So I packed it up and off we went back to the store.  I brought the fax machine back to the customer service counter, where they refunded the money to my credit card.  I picked out a slightly more expensive machine and took it to the register to pay for it.  I handed the clerk all my paperwork from the return, along with my credit card.  After she finished ringing everything up, she said, “Your total is $11.45. Sign here.”  I looked at the receipt and saw that she had given me credit for the return that had already been refunded to my credit card and had charged me only for the difference in price.  I was, in effect, getting the new fax machine for free.

I paused for a minute, thinking about how much I could use that $400 to pay a daycare or electric bill.  Then I looked down at my son, and said to him, “Danny, pay attention to what I’m about to do.  I want you to remember this.”  I then told the young woman that she had made an error and had given me the second refund.  She thanked me profusely and re-rang my purchase, and I signed for the $400+ total on my credit card.  I took my package and took my son by the hand and walked outside.  I knelt down in front of him. “Did you see what just happened, Danny?” I asked.   “Sort of,”  he said.

“I’ll tell you what happened.  When I gave back the broken fax machine, the man gave me back my money on my credit card. But when we went to pay for the new machine, the girl got confused and didn’t know that I already got my money back, so she gave me my money back a second time by mistake.  I could have just not said anything about it, and I would have gotten the fax machine for free. That sounds pretty good, right? A free fax machine?”

“You got it for free?” he asked.

“No,” I said.  “If I didn’t say anything and took the fax machine, it would have been stealing, even though the girl made a mistake.  It would be the same as reaching into the cash register and taking money out because she accidentally left the drawer open.  If you take something you should pay for, without paying for it, it’s stealing, no matter how it happens.  And know what, Danny? We don’t steal. Not ever. Because it’s wrong, even when no one knows about it and we’d never get caught. ”

 I tapped him on his chest over his heart. “You know right here inside whether it’s right or wrong, because I’ve always taught you to know. Just always do what you know is right, even when it’s hard to do the right thing and easy to do the wrong thing.  That’s when you really know you’re a good person. And I know you’re a GREAT person.”

We started walking to the car, and as my son took my hand, he looked up at me and said, “You’re a great person, too, Mom. That’s why I’m like you.”

In the course of the 20 years since that day I have seen countless examples of my son making choices to do what’s right – from chasing after a woman to hand her money that she had dropped on the ground to becoming a volunteer EMT at the age of 17 and a volunteer firefighter at the age of 18.  He has developed into a fine young adult who is dedicated to public service, graduating Summa Cum Laude with a BS degree in Fire Science for a career as a professional firefighter.  He is working as a professional EMT as he works toward a firefighter position, and he continues to serve as a volunteer EMT/Firefighter in our community.

There have been many times over the 25 years we have lived in this community when I have encountered someone who knows my son but has never met me.  Invariably, the conversation goes something like this…

”You’re Dan’s mom?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Oh my God, we just LOVE Dan! He is such a great guy. You did a great job raising him – he helps us so much with…. (fill in the blank).”

“Thank you. I kind of love him a lot, too.”  I could not be prouder of the man he has become.

Jamie Casale resides in Basking Ridge and continues to train pups of all ages. She can be contacted at 908-672-0473.


Stolen Cars, Sinking Ships, and Anger

Life is too short to hold a grudge, also too long.  ~Robert Brault

sinkingThey say you should never go to bed angry. I am not exactly sure of who the “they” are but its apparently ancient wisdom from generations of Zen grandmothers or from other civilizations that predicted calamity and walked amongst alien visitors. I even saw this saying spelled out on an Etsy macramé wall hanging a few weeks back. I agree. You should always stay up and plot your revenge. At least that’s what my stubborn German-side tells me. Okay, not really. I wholeheartedly believe in letting go of your anger yet from time to time I am guilty of disobeying this. Monday night was one of those disobedient exceptions.

I aim for calm and collected but every so often I miss and land somewhere between sarcasm and the valley of the bitches. Fueled by lack of sleep and the demands of tending to our bus company and writing and raising children, I find that my husband and I can argue over the strangest things. A small quarrel about how to handle an issue at work metamorphosed into an argument about what the talking plastic lizard that sits atop our infant daughter’s bouncy seat was singing. I was certain it was repeatedly saying “red, yellow, and blue”. My husband, Joe, asserted with certainty that it was singing “red, yellow, I’m blue.” Maybe he thought the lizard was depressed. He said it was because parts of his Fisher Price plastic lizard-self are blue.

It was insane talk between adults at 11:05 at night. He retreated to bed. I stayed downstairs and started to wipe down the counters and put toys and other junk away.  I then thought just leave it. I can clean it in the morning. Who will see my kitchen before sunrise anyway? Little did I know I would have detectives and police at my kitchen countertop in the next few hours.

I went upstairs. I began to fall asleep. It was the earliest I had been to bed in months. Fast-forward twenty-five minutes. We awoke to a noise outside our window. One of our dogs was growling at the window. We own a transportation company and it’s not unusual for drivers to be picking cars up at our home. It is unusual though when all assigned cars have already been picked up to hear someone in your driveway. My husband started down the stairs. I had the most suddenly horrid feeling deep in my stomach. I called to him to wait. We heard the screech of tires as our Escalade furiously sped away. He turned to me and said what we both already knew. Our truck was stolen.

We contacted the police. They found our other Escalade ransacked in the driveway. We soon learned that they had taken financial items and car keys. We wondered if they’d return. After dusting for fingerprints and collecting evidence and even tracking the car into Newark, we got an answer to our question. They did return.

Ever since this has happened I have been processing it. There’s a lot to take away. I’m not the overly optimistic type but I do acknowledge that within this chaotic tempest, there were some silver linings. There was the silver lining of kindness and accountability. There were people doing their jobs and doing them well. The West Caldwell Police Department went above and beyond to protect our family and stationed police in our driveway. Mayor Cory Booker reached out to us personally and interceded in getting our vehicle returned to us.

Most importantly, there was that thought of going to bed at night. I keep thinking back to when I went to wipe down the counter and that strong, clear thought that no one would see the kitchen before 6 am. I made a similar assumption in holding onto my anger at my husband as I went to bed. I assumed he’d be there in the morning to be angry at.

The truth is that we never know what can happen in the night or from one hour to the next. At that very moment that I pleaded with my husband not to go outside into our driveway, I thought of our fight from less than an hour ago. My anger seemed trivial and meaningless, and it was.

seasSometimes seemingly bad things happen because there is peril in this world. Sometimes seemingly bad things happen and they put the good and important things in perspective. Cars and trucks are all replaceable but our spouses and are family are not. Anger and so many of our emotions and what we become fixated on is unimportant and so temporary. We know this and yet it’s so easy to lose this truth in our hurried lives.

So many of life’s answers remain within us but remain as disorganized as my kitchen at eleven o’clock at night and they become buried under the mundane and complexities of everyday life. Life has a curious way of re-organizing these truths and putting them back where you can find them.

Don’t go to bed angry. They say anger is one letter short of danger. There is truth in this. Anger is fear topped with madness. It remains corrosive to our souls. The small, miniscule things are the very things we need to take the time to repair keeping in mind that the smallest of leaks have sunk the greatest of ships.


Easter Gratitude: Putting My Blessings In One Basket

eggsAs a young girl, every Easter I was sick. I would eat too much chocolate or catch the flu or suffer from a combination of both ailments. Easter was more about pastel marshmallow treats and my love-hate relationship with them. As I grew older, Easter presented an opportunity to visit with my West-Coast cousins in Seattle. I traveled cross-country on a plane with my maternal grandparents to celebrate family tradition, to embrace the true sense of holiness, and to celebrate our blessings. I soon learned that a rainy Easter spent with family out West was better than most anything. I learned to make sticky-buns and even more importantly, we made memories that will shine in my heart forever.

As I now prepare for this season of rebirth, I think about sacrifice and I think about my many blessings. It’s a powerful and important thing to reflect upon after a week full of such ups and downs.

As I feel the impulse to complain about what is trivial, I more fervently feel compelled to be thankful. I am blessed that my husband’s business is busy enough that he works from 7 am until 8 or 9pm each night. I am blessed that I have three daughters who turn my house upside down in a matter of moments. I am glad that have each other to be in cahoots with, and I’m grateful that we have a home. I try to earnestly appreciate the sour with the sweet, to find the lesson in what is difficult, and to take each obstacle as a lesson for what lies ahead. Sometimes it is easier said than done. Sometimes I am able to focus on the journey better than the destination.

I am thankful for family, even when we are fighting and when we agree to disagree. I am thankful that they are there and for their love that remains unconditional.

I am thankful for the half-dozen pills that we have to give to our twelve-year old dog, Sweetie. I am glad that she made it through a medical scare this week. In Easter irony, she ate a rabbit (not a chocolate one, rather a furry one) and didn’t fare well after the fact. My heart is full of gratitude that she is there to squeeze between my husband and I in our bed tonight, and evil-eye us when we invade her space. We have been granted the gift of time with her for now. Dogs have a way of reminding us of all that is good and wonderful in this world without saying a word. Just their presence can sum up joy, lightheartedness, and loyalty all at once. Sweetie and our two other rescue pups suffered abuse before they came into our lives. Sweetie, Finn, and Jake, continue to teach us so much about life through their daily example of simplicity. Their ability to forgive, reconcile, trust, and care for one another and us is amazing in itself.

I am thankful for my husband and the many differences we have between us. They are reminders of why we got together to begin with, of why we get along, of what we have to offer each other, and of how far we have come. There are truths in our disagreements, these small little bits of honesty filled with light, that seem to rise up to the surface. Sometimes things need to be said in order to move forward.

I am thankful for humor. It is a saving grace and God-sent. When I stand in our kitchen and watch our eight-month-old daughter laugh hysterically at the funny sounds and faces her two sisters make at her, I am instantly reminded that God is present in her laughter. It serves as such a poignant reminder of the importance of keeping a sense of humor and perspective in this whirlwind life. My children remind both my husband and I of how necessary it is to take life seriously and not to take life too seriously all at the same time.

I am thankful for friends. People travel in and out of your existence. Life always seems to surprise me though. It is such a beautiful, startling shock to have someone in your life gift you with the most generous gift of time, the most enthusiastic present of their presence in your life, and the reward of their honest feedback. These are the sweetest gifts and I am thankful for true friends. You are the many reflections of the face of God in my life.

I feel those who are no longer with us, who have departed this earth still walking beside us. I feel them with us on the other side, guiding us and rooting us on. Every now and then they whisper into our hearts. I miss them and hope as this new spiritual year commences to make them proud.

Blessings to you and your loved ones this Easter!


That’ll Be Extra: Rage Against the Surcharge

dollarGrowing up, my father would always tell my sister and I how he walked five miles from his home to school and back again each day in the sun, snow, sleet, and rain. He’d go on to tell us of how he had just one good pair of shoes, how he never had an allowance,  and of the cost of things. “When I was your age, bread was twelve cents a loaf, and stamps were just a mere three pennies each.” When we returned to his hometown of Glen Cove, Long Island many years later we tracked his old route with our Oldsmobile and its odometer. His walk to school was a mere mile and a half, as we had suspected. Perhaps I should have had an inkling that his story was a bit exaggerated when he told us that it was an uphill trek both ways. For as much as his daily journey to grammar school was proudly inflated, his recollection of prices was spot on. In 1948, the minimum wage was a mere forty cents an hour, and the average salary was $3500 a year, and milk was eighty cents a gallon (and 2% milk hadn’t even made its debut).

Costs rise over time. This is something we expect. By all logical standards, you would think that as the world grew simpler and more advanced, costs could be cut but it seems that we must pay the price for high-tech development. Progress is expensive. All in all, I don’t mind paying more as the world revolves and costs rise. I would mind even much less, if money was put to good use. I can say with a clear conscience that I don’t mind paying thirteen dollars every time I cross over the The Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge to pay for its ill-repair, lest it becomes even worse and we all plunge into the Hudson. Wavering yet rising costs are a certainty of our changing future. I would be lying if I denied that, from time to time, I get a nervous patter in my chest over a future with three daughters’ college tuitions, weddings and so forth, but this seems to be a part of life.

That said, if you are going to raise a cost, then please raise it. I’ll take a wallop to the face rather than a stab in the back or a hidden charge on a receipt. Don’t, however, sneak these surcharges onto my receipt or insult my intelligence. Case in point: the hotel internet charge. It all started at this very time two years ago. My husband and I had the misfortune of scheduling a connecting flight out of Aspen, CO back to New Jersey with an infant and a sick toddler during Spring break week. Due to high winds, we missed our connection by a literal two minutes and were stranded in Los Angeles for three days in a torrential storm without luggage or diapers (another blog entirely).

To make matters worse for the wear, there was a porn convention in town. All the hotels were sold-out. Waiting in the check-in line at the Four Points Sheraton at 3am with two small daughters sobbing with the beginnings of ear infections amidst this motley group was quite the experience. It was like I entered a black hole. The lobby was like an X-rated version of the Star-Wars bar. People with the strangest mix of exaggerated parts were having drinks, strutting around, and speaking in tongues. Our infant daughter was still nursing, and even with my swollen breasts I assure you I had the smallest rack of anyone there. The worst part was that the guy with the red pleather chaps got the last available room and we had to finally settle for a hotel out on Long Beach. After a 45 minute cab-ride from hell, we paid the $379.00 a night (supply and demand – the Dirk Digglers and weiner-jockies of the world all assembled together for a meeting of the minds drive prices up). I could accept that. What I cannot accept is paying an additional $10.99 a night for Internet access after paying $379.00 a night. Isn’t Internet access like air at this point? Shouldn’t it be worked into the price of everything else? I don’t expect to be surcharged for a hairdryer in my hotel room or hand towels. I don’t think I should have to pay to check my email on my iPad. If I can go into a Starbucks and use the wi-fi for free (or perhaps its calculated into my $7.99 cup of coffee), than why can’t the same rule apply to my hotel internet access. I guess it can’t and while they’re at it, they decided to charge us a fee for printing boarding passes on their computer.

A few months back, while staying at a luxury resort in Florida, I asked if I could ship my diapers down to the hotel prior to getting there to save room in the luggage (lest I be surcharged for a fee by the airlines…$35.00 each way). The hotel agreed and gladly added that their clients do it daily. What they didn’t tell me is that it would be a $20.00 package-acceptance surcharge. I have since learned that many premiere hotels sneak in surcharges. There are surcharges to use the safe, for extra glasses in the room, and even a fee for turndown service in some $400 a night hotel rooms.

The sneaky culprits aren’t all hotels though. Sometimes you’re not just charged for add-ons but for taking them away! Now some NYC bars are charging patrons $2.00 for the absence of ice in their drinks. Am I joking? I don’t joke about my drinks. If you want a bourbon straight up sans ice, you may be levied a straight-up surcharge. As if a $16 bourbon was not already pricey enough?

I guess I have been paying surcharges for some time now. As a fan of anything avocado, I’ve always been surcharged for adding avocado to anything. I’m always surcharged for Blue Cheese too. I’m not exactly sure why I pay a U.S. Agriculture Fee when I fly from Newark to Orlando yet I have been paying this fee for many different flights in recent years. Surcharges are the new charges, I guess.

It isn’t just surcharges themselves but the nature of surcharges have become more ridiculous. I’m paying $1.50 delivery charge to the pizzeria to bring a pie to my home. It used to be called a tip. Now I pay both.  If I go a restaurant, the surcharges could be ridiculous. Before I even get to the restaurant for a birthday dinner, I pay a fee for using an ATM and four cents more per gallon in gas  for paying with a credit card. Good thing I didn’t bring my own wine or cake lest I pay a corkage fee and a cake cutting fee.

Maybe the very worst surcharge came this week. It may come as no surprise that it came from my gym. I know gyms can be some of the worst offenders. There is this underlying feeling of doom when you sign that dreaded one-year contract, that you are signing away your freedom. It’s like Faust and the Devil except with gym mats on the floor and club music piping through the speakers.

This is how it all started with my gym: so about seven weeks ago my bank suddenly cancelled my debit card because the numbers had been compromised. They reissued a new card and I had to update all my automatic bills. It is funny how these attempts at making our life simpler, with automatic bill-pays and online banking, sometimes make life so much more complicated. I forgot to update my gym automatic debit. I go to the gym. Everyone says hello and most everyone is nice. No one says, “hey you owe us money.” Two months later, I get a call from gym-guy that I owe two months of membership for non-payment. When I realize what has happened, I explain about the cancelled card and give the gym-guy my new card information. He tells me that there will be a $40 additional service fee for re-running the card. $40. Really???

Gym-Guy says that the contract’s fine print says they are entitled to charge the fee. I get it. The mistake is mine. Like a dutiful gym-goer, I should have called to update the card. I ask if he could waive the fee this one time. He snickered then says no. I suggest we split the fee. He said no. He even insinuates I am lying about the cancelled credit card stating he hears that excuse several times a day. Now according to him, I’m a liar on top of being forgetful. We get nowhere. I ask to speak with the owner. The same conversation ensues. I have no problem paying what I owe. I just can’t stand the excess $40. He says it is in the contract. I mention that there’s a difference between what a business can legally charge and what is good business. He said I’d have to pay it. I was stuck. I need their treadmill and their babysitting service. I paid the $40 but not without saying my piece.  Lucky for him, he caught me at a mid-fat weight and mid-contract otherwise I would leave. If individual customer service means absolutely nothing to them then that’s fine but I mentioned that I will remember that next year when it comes time to renew my contract. Last time I checked, there is a gym every quarter mile around here. Gym-guy and his boss could care less but it is that very mentality that will make that renovated warehouse gym an empty, rundown warehouse again a year or so from now.

We have to check our bills and speak up against the surcharges. And if we own businesses or work for one, we must not undervalue the importance of individualized attention. I don’t expect something for free but I do want people to remember I am still a person. Individualized service is one of those lost things of yesteryear, like door-holding and derby hats. In the meanwhile, I’ll me at my overpriced, rude gym.


Lessons Learned While Deep-Sea Fishing With My Dad

This past week my husband and I took our children down to Kiawah Island in South Carolina for a vacation. It was a nice breather. Spending time under the sun and breathing in the fresh, salty air served as a reminder of how much I truly love the ocean. I am at my happiest when I am at the shore with my family. In my own youth, I was fortunate enough to have had dozens of blissful moments of time with my family at the shore. One of my very favorite things is, and remains, deep sea fishing. Some women get an adrenaline rush from shopping for shoes. I get a thrill out of casting my line into the big-blue about fifteen miles off-shore.

My father, Thomas Patrick Michael O’Rourke, started taking me fluke fishing off fishingthe Atlantic Highlands in New Jersey when I was only six or seven years old. We spent many a sunny day on three-quarter-day party fishing boats and on my Uncle Jack’s boat. Of course, at the time I would fight him on having to wake up at 4am and about what sneakers I should wear and what bait I should use. After a long day, I’d return home with my dad at sunset, sunburned with a cooler of fish and smelling like saltwater never realizing that these would be some of the sweetest memories of my youth.

Looking back on those times, there was a lot of arguing, a lot of laughter, and many life lessons mixed in-between. I thought I would share a dozen of these lessons I learned from him with you:

1) Wake up early. There is something irreplaceably satisfying about starting your day as the sun is rising and being one of the first boats on the horizon. Of course, you can take your boat out onto the waters to cast your lines at any time of the day, but there is nothing like early morning fishing. There is promise and hope in the waters at dawn.

2) Go to where the fish are. Be proactive. If the computerized fish-finder says there is no fish there, move. There is a fine line between fishing and hovering over empty waters like an idiot. Be prepared to proactively move yourself around a lot. You’ll never catch anything in life fishing where the waters are empty.

3) Be prepared.  You’ll never know where the fish are or where the shallow waters are without the right tools. Have the right tools so when the catch of your life comes along, you will be ready. Have a rod that can withstand great weight. Have a strong line. Buy the biggest net. Fish as if you are about to  catch the big one at any moment.

4) Be patient. With practice, comes knowledge and skill. Even Jesus and his apostles practiced patience in fishing. Patience truly is a virtue. Patience is a minimizer of disappointment, a kin to joy,  and a friend of success.

5) Use a sinker. In my youth, it seemed against all reason to weigh the line down in order to catch something. My dad argued with me and even let me try it my way. Through trial and error, I quickly learned though that if you don’t weigh the line down to catch something, you’ll get caught up in everything. Everyone needs a sinker whether that sinker is your faith, your job, or your partner in life. As an adult with a growing business and a parent with a growing family, I have set many sinkers in place from estate planning to business interruption insurance to running on a treadmill 45 minutes a day. As a mother, I find that my own mother’s words of wisdom are a verbal sinker for my soul. They often serve as a weighty reminder that the “right choices in life are so often the more difficult options”.

6) Keep quiet. You will scare the fish if you’re too loud. It is a matter of timing and a matter of control. There is a time to be loud and a time to listen and it seems the ratio of loud to listening is 1:10. Most of fishing and most of life is about listening and timing. If you reel it in too soon, you’ll lose it. If you wait too long to start reeling the line in, you’ll end up with half-eaten bait and no catch. Listen well so you can read all the signs and know when to reel.

7) Bait your own hook. Cast out your own line. From an early age, my dad made me bait my own hook. Reaching into that bucket of stinky eels and then into the bucket of swimming guppies was gross. I squirmed as the guppies squirmed through my skinny fingers around the tin silver bucket. On occasion, I’d even nick my finger on the hook. Now as a parent myself, I can appreciate the lesson learned. Sometimes neatly baiting your childrens’ hooks and preparing their lines can lead to trouble. Rather than doing it for them, teach them how to do it for themselves. Former Navy officer and respected author, Robert A. Heinlein, wisely wrote,  “Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easier.” As certain as the ever-changing tide, there is truth in Heinlein’s words.

8) They’re not all keepers. This lesson is one I have been able to apply in my own business and in my own relationships. I remember being so excited after fishing for four straight hours and catching nothing that I finally had a bite on the line. I struggled. I artfully reeled in my line. It was a sea-robin. For those who do not fish, I can readily tell you that they are a strong fish but not the fish you want to reel in, and they are ugly bastards. They aren’t good for anything. My dad was right. Don’t settle in fishing and don’t settle in life. If it’s the wrong fish, throw it back. On that long day, I threw the sea-robin back into the sea. I continued to fish again for another ninety minutes without one nibble on the line. I waited. I sat. I daydreamed. To my surprise, the end of my fishing rod started to bend. I slowly and steadily reeled it in. This time, it was the right fish. This muddy-colored fluke was looking me right in the eyes as I brought him on deck. Then we measured him. He was an inch too short. I couldn’t keep him. It was against the Coast Guard’s fishing regulations. My Dad convinced me to throw him back. Lesson learned. Sometimes a fish needs a little bit more time in the water before he is ready to be reeled in.

9) Go out after the storm. Storms are difficult yet are a part of life. It isn’t a question of if they will come but when they will strike. They cause havoc and destruction yet it is after these tempests, that all is stirred about and the best seems to come forward. Weather the storm, then go out and cast your lines. Get back in the boat quickly to make the best catch.

10) You will hit a snag. Even the best fishermen of the world get tangled up every now and then. Sometimes you may even have to cut the line.  It is never easy to let go but sometimes this is the very best choice to be able to recast and catch something again.

11) Be a good sport. No one likes a poor sport.  If you didn’t catch the biggest fish, give kudos to the fisherman who did. Remember its not all skill, its also a matter of chance. If you did catch the biggest fish, show a little humility. Once again remember its not all skill, its also a matter of chance. No one like a complainer or a boaster. Offer to help clean the boat, offer to help clean the fish. Share part of your sandwich with others. No one likes a free-loader. Fishing is about good karma as much its about good sportsmanship.

12) The big one is still out there. Its a vast, deep ocean. Don’t give up. Stay positive. Don’t lose your footing. Don’t drink the night before. Trust your intuition always.Hold onto hope. Besides, as my dad always pointed out, it’s not about catching the biggest fish but about trying your best and having the best time.