Quit a Job to Go To Italy? A Story about Motivation

In January of 2006, while on a beach in the Florida Keys with two dear friends from my college days, my mother called me. After exchanging pleasantries about my trip, my mother got to her point. “So your grandmother joined a senior citizens group.  And guess what the first thing was on the agenda of their first meeting?”

“No idea.”

“A trip to Italy.”


“Yeah – and she wants to go.” I was hoping this was leading where I wanted it to.  My mother continued, “but her hearing’s not too good, so she doesn’t want to go alone.” Jackpot.

“I’ll go with her,” I said, without hesitation. Grandma’s husband and dedicated travel companion of sixty years had died just six months earlier. Grandpa always called me “The Vagabond” when I arrived for meatballs on Sundays, having just returned from travels to Switzerland or France, or from an internship in Portland or North Carolina, or having come from my new home in Boston or Bethesda. It was only fitting that this vagabond take his wife on such a trip.

“I figured you’d want to go, but what about work?” my mother asked.

“If they won’t let me go, I’ll quit,” I said.


“I’m kidding Mom. I’ll figure it out. Just tell her I’ll go.”

A few weeks later I received an e-mail.  My department was looking for volunteers to help another department catch up on a big project. It was not exactly mindless work, but it was routine. The work would have to be done outside our normal jobs, which meant staying late or coming in early. We would not be paid overtime, but we were offered something I consider much better: comp time.

By now I’m sure you can figure out who added an extra hour or so each day and earned six days of comp time in time to take her 83-year-old Italian grandmother on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the land of her ancestors. (For those of you asking why I couldn’t just use my regular vacation days, it’s because I’m one of the few Americans who uses up all her vacation days. I needed more!)

First, I’ll say that of course this all worked out.  Because I believed it would.

But this story came to mind today for another reason.

I was just reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive.  I heard Mr. Pink interviewed about this book a couple years ago.  I heard enough to get the gist of the book and so didn’t bother to read it. But something sparked my interest in it recently, so off I went to check it out of the library (yes, I’m one of the three people in the U.S. who don’t own an e-reader).

The book is all about what motivates us. I’m currently reading about extrinsic motivation, which he argues is best used only when there’s a routine task that needs to get done.  He cautions that, even then, extrinsic rewards are only good if the person giving them 1) explains why the task is necessary 2) acknowledges the task to be done is boring and 3) let’s workers complete the task in their own way.

That’s exactly what my former company did with the aforementioned project. They explained – in numbers – how many adjustments had to processed, acknowledged it was something none of us would want to do all day (but perhaps for an hour), and they let us do it how we wanted to do it – whether that was to come in before or after work, do it on a lunch hour, etc.

Mr. Pink argues that had they forced us to do it and/or outlined exactly how/when we could do it, we would not have been as motivated.  He’s spot on. Lucky for me, somebody in my company knew a little something about extrinsic motivation. Either that, or they learned about my conversation with my mother and didn’t  want me to quit my job.



In March of 2006,  me, Grandma Gallo, my brother, and two cousins headed to Italy. Grandma still talks about what a great trip that was.

When I took my first writing class in March, 2008, we were asked to bring something that was important to us.  Our first assignment was to write about what we brought – in my case, photos of  that trip. When I read my story aloud to the group I cried as I recalled Grandpa sitting at the kitchen table greeting me, “There she is – my vagabond granddaughter!”


A Lesson in Moonshine

“This place has quite the decor,” my friend told me, as we walked into the restaurant.  “I thought you’d appreciate it.  It covers three things that are most important to the people here: NASCAR, Merlefest, and moonshine.”

My friend filled me in on what Merlefest was – a music festival whose greatness was up for debate since Lowes took it over.  Then he told me an interesting little tidbit about NASCAR: it started with moonshiners who tricked out their cars to get away from the feds.  Then they decided to start racing these cars, and thus the birth of NASCAR.  Wow.  I’m in the South.

My friend pointed to what looked like one of those outdoor chimeas  in the corner of the restaurant. “Know what that is?” he asked.

“That chimney thing? No idea.”

“That’s a still,” he told me.

Despite my  northern upbringing, I have learned what a still is – but had never seen one.  Considering this part of my southern education, I went over to check it out.  Well, I tried, but got distracted first by the pictures on the wall.  Prints of moonshiners packing up a car’s trunk.  Of moonshiners with their stills out in the woods.  Of moonshiners bringing boxes into the back door of a place marked, “Members only.”

But there weren’t just prints.  They actually had a couple old black and white photographs of moonshine operations. My friend joined me and explained a little of what I was seeing.

I made my way over to the still.  “Now the funny thing is,” my friend said to me, “that it’s illegal to have one of those.  But here it is.  In a restaurant.” The still had a sign on it with the NASCAR story and that it was a gift or on loan from some folks.  It was obviously not being used to make moonshine, and that, from what I am told, is the bigger crime.

“Boils down to money.  If you’re making it, they want to tax it.”

I’d had a few tastes of moonshine in my travels in this part of the country over the last year. Not my drink of choice, but I’ve learned to handle a few swigs when it’s offered to me – usually from a mason jar from which everyone sips.

Knowing all the secrecy around moonshine, I was pretty surprised to see it as part of a cocktails competition at the Asheville Wine and Food Festival a few months ago.  Turns out there are some ways now to make it legally – so local distillers Troy and Sons have done just that.  I might have to visit their distillery one day soon, in the name of furthering my moonshine education.

A Random Tuesday Night Conversation

We were the only two patrons.  “We don’t technically open until 9,” the bartender told us. It was 8:45.  We asked if we should come back.  She said she was ready, so we sat down and had a drink.  My friend knew the bartender, and she served our food and drinks in between prepping for the evening.

“I hear this place really picks up after 10,” my friend told me. “Come in here at 11 and you could meet your next boyfriend.”

I conferred with the bartender.  Indeed, the place saw many people my age later in the evening.  But I was usually in bed by the time life picked up here.

The karaoke  guys came in to set up.  Then a mustachio’d man slid up to the bar, casually placed a clear plastic bag down in front of him and sat down.  The bartender greeted him like an old friend and poured him a drink.  I glanced over.  He had a long twist of  a ponytail.  And were those condoms I saw in his bag?

My friend and I continued our conversation and I peeked over again. Now the pony-tailed guy had a second plastic bag in front of him, this one empty.  He pulled long lines of condoms out of his first bag, tore them apart, and placed the singles in the second bag. No way, I thought.  Then I remembered I was in Asheville.  So a man sitting at a bar with a bag full of condoms really shouldn’t be that surprising.

I am who I am, so of course I leaned over to him and said, “Is that a bag full of condoms?”

“Yes, it is,” he said matter-of-factly.  “This is your tax dollars at work.”

“Really?  Um,” I stumbled over what to say next. “So tell me what this is all about?”

He explained the flow of money  that allows the Western North Carolina AIDS project to purchase thousands of condoms to give out for free.  “I go around to the local bars and put them out in bowls,” he explained. “There’s a bowl back there,” he said, pointing to the bathroom. “And Rosetta’s has one.”  He then proceeded to tell me all the places he made his rounds, filling bowls with free condoms for people to take.

“Last year we gave out 185,000 condoms.  But that’s not enough.  Do you know there are 240,000 people in Buncombe County? That’s less than one condom a year per person. One condom for a whole year!”

“But are they all of age to be in need of condoms?” I asked.

“Well…” He concurred that the figure could be a little misleading.  “But that’s just in Buncombe County.  We’re serving all of Western North Carolina – which is another 18 counties.”

He passed a few condoms my way.  “We have them in all sorts of colors and sizes.”

“Colors?” I asked, picking one up.

“And flavors, too,” he said.  “Chocolate, banana, strawberry.”

I’d seen them in sizes and flavors before, but colors?  What on earth did that matter? Apparently it does to some people…

The conversation got a little more descriptive after this, and I’ll refrain from quoting it here. Mustachioed man told me how he does his weekly rounds, sitting at bars like this, striking up conversations just like this one.

I turned to my friend.  “Are you listening to this?” He wasn’t, so I filled him in. “They gave away 185,000 condoms last year.”

“They  make great stocking stuffers,” the mustachioed man told us as he continued to break apart the long strands.

“Need any?” I asked my friend.

“No – do you?”

“No – I have a friend who works at Planned Parenthood.  She gave me a bunch the other day.” This is Asheville after all. Free condoms are seemingly everywhere.


(Apologies to my very-Catholic mother for this post.)

On Aging – or Not

“I have someone you should meet,” she told me.  “She’s your age.”  She stopped and stared at me for a second.  “Well, I don’t know how old you are, but she’s twenty-six and you look about her age.”

“I turn thirty-six tomorrow actually.”

“No!” she said, with a stunned look on her face.  “I thought you were ten years younger!”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.

I was roaming around an art gallery when this conversation took place.  It was my “birthday eve.”  I had never thought to celebrate the eve of my birth, but I’d just had a cup of tea with a wizened elder of the Asheville community who suggested it.  So upon leaving her apartment downtown, I decided to see where life took me.

I wandered down Haywood Street  and saw the display window for the Updraft Gallery around the corner on Walnut.  I’d wandered in there the previous week.  Back then, they were still getting the gallery set up and I talked to one of the owners about how they came to get the space and start the gallery.

I saw from a sign in the window that they’d had their opening the previous night, and I would have attended had I not had twenty-five people at my house to celebrate my aforementioned birthday.

Despite the fact it was 7pm on a Sunday night, the lights were still on and people were looking around.  I walked past, but my intuition told me (more than once) to turn around and go in.  So I did.

Andrew, the glassmaker I’d met the previous week, was demonstrating his technique to four customers.  As he did so, I took my time looking around.  I slowed down and spent long moments taking in each of the works around me.

As usual, I found myself staring at one piece in particular that brought tears to my eyes.  This happens every time I roam galleries alone. I can’t explain what it was about the piece that moved me to tears.  All I can say is that I’m no longer surprised when this happens.  I simply give in, take a deep breath, and keep staring at the image in front of me – in this case a full, bright moon hanging in a dark blue night sky, over ocean waves.

I eventually moved on and watched Minna, another of the owners, working on a piece of jewelry.  “Hello quiet girl,” she said to me. I smiled. Quiet girl? Me? Oh how I loved the feeling that flooded me when she said that.  It brought me back to my childhood when “quiet girl” was exactly who I was.

“Hello,” I responded.

I inquired about the piece she was working on, and then made my way to the back of the gallery.

After the other customers left, I found myself in conversation with Minna and Andrew.  Topics ranged from Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote about the present being a gift, to the difficulties of making a living as an artist, to the trials and tribulations of being a mother of grown children or a father of a toddler.

At some point in the conversation Minna decided I should meet her young friend, and thus the earlier conversation about my age.


Some years ago, I saw on Oprah’s web site that they were looking for people who looked ten years younger than they actually were.  At the time, I thought I could only pass for only 8 years younger, so I didn’t write in.

Ever since then, though, I’ve thought about the questions Oprah would ask me on the topic of aging, and what I’d say in response.

Oprah: So, Rebecca, why do you think it is you look ten years younger than you really are?

Rebecca: Well, I think it has something to do with having done what I want to do for the last thirteen years. Being unhappy with your life doesn’t make you look younger.  But when you live a life completely by your own choice, you have a certain optimism and a certain outlook that makes you happy to be where you are – and people that are happy, I think, usually look younger than they really are.  And feel younger, too.

Oprah: And you also mentioned something to my producers about kids and marriage.

Rebecca: Yes.  I have neither.  I’ve heard both age you.  Not that I’ve chosen to be childless and single to look younger.  But I’m sure it helps on some level.

The married women in the audience, who have children at home, would nod and smile, secretly wanting to kill me for that last remark.

But I do wonder about aging and why it is I’m doing it a little slower than some people.  Maybe it’s because I really don’t care? Would I care if people thought I looked ten years older than I am? Or if the lines that appear when I smile were always present?

I don’t mind telling people I’m 36.  It’s a number.  Some people, at 36, look 45, or 35, or 25.  What causes it? What does it matter?

I was in a friend’s wedding a few weeks ago.  I sat in a chair while the hairdresser talked to me about the style I wanted for the occasion.  “On which side do you part your hair?” she asked.

“On the right usually.”

She did that and then stopped.  “Oh, no, we can’t do that.  You have a gray hair there.”  She proceeded to move my part.

Seriously? I thought.  One gray hair?  You’re going to change a hairstyle over one hair? It’s her profession.  I guess she knows what she’d doing.  Do that many people really care so much about one gray hair?  Life is really too short for such concerns.  At least, my life is too short for such concerns.

I’m the brunette on the right…the one whose single gray hair is conspicuously concealed.


My Back Pocket

I have a piece of paper in my back pocket.  My figurative back pocket, that is.  In reality, the paper sits in a green file folder marked, “PT License.” The paper was issued by the state of New York.  License #020405.  I received it after successfully completing an accredited physical therapy curriculum and passing a board exam.

Lucky for me, a person only needs to pass the board exam once.  Then, should she decide to resign from her first physical therapy job less than three months after she started it, never to look back, she can pay a few hundred dollars every few years and keep that piece of paper – in her back pocket.  In case she ever needs it again.

Ten years after it was first issued, I used that license as it was intended.  I sought out a part-time physical therapy job and was amazed – and a bit shocked – at how easy it was to get a job in a profession I hadn’t practiced in ten years. Five months later I was accepted into a doctorate of Physical Therapy program.  In both cases, I convinced others of something I wasn’t sure was true: that I wanted to go back to physical therapy (or, in the case of the latter, that I wanted to teach future physical therapists).

In December of 2009, I resigned from my second physical therapy position.  I completed my first doctorate course successfully, but didn’t take another.

That same year, New York State implemented a continuing education policy for physical therapists. So when I renewed my license this past summer, they could have asked me to prove that I had completed that requirement.  They didn’t ask.  But I had.  Teaching Anatomy and Physiology to freshman nursing and physical therapy students meets the requirement, and I did that for three years.


“It was easy when I was in PT School,” I told my friend Saturday afternoon.  “I just put on my lab coat, put my stethoscope around my neck, and went as a PT.  Or a doctor.  Or whatever people thought I was.”

I was visiting my friend at work that afternoon and had two Halloween parties on my agenda for that evening.  I’ve always wanted to be a flapper for Halloween, but never think about it early enough to pull it off. And my default Halloween costume? The last time I’d worn that lab coat was in 2009, and I was pretty sure I donated it to Good Will since then.

“I’ve got a lab coat I don’t use,” said my friend.  Conveniently enough, she’s in the medical profession and I was visiting her at work.

“Perfect!” I was all set.

Back at home, I got ready for the party, came downstairs and declared to my housemate David that, for Halloween, I was going as one of my past lives. “Why is it you’re not a physical therapist?” he asked.  I sat down.  This could take a while. Mostly because I didn’t really know myself.

Leaving my first PT job had little do with actually practicing PT.  Lack of confidence played a role.  As did my desire to explore all the world had to offer.  Less than a week after leaving that first job, I found myself in the familiar gray and green uniform of the National Park Service.  Six months later, I was roaming the streets of Paris, Venice, and Rome.  And six months after that, I was living in Boston volunteering for a year with Americorps.  The list goes on and on.

I left that second PT job because I didn’t really want to work in a nursing home.  The only reason I chose to apply there was because the want ad said that I could call to inquire about the position. I wanted to be able to explain my absence from the profession before submitting a resume.

“But you have a license, right?” said the woman on the other end of the line.


“Then it’s not a problem,” she said.

I thought it a fluke.  But as I look back, I’ve had numerous PT’s say they’d hire me in a second – most having no knowledge of my skills as a therapist.

Which reminds me of a corporate job I was once hired for. They didn’t care about your skills – or lack thereof.  Those are teachable, they explained. What isn’t teachable is a good personality. Which, apparently, I have.

So here I sit, contemplating it all again.  Third time’s a charm? Perhaps.  Weeks ago I printed out the forms I’d need to get a license in North Carolina.  They sit on a shelf in my closet. Maybe I’ll pull them out.  Maybe.