Change, Passion & Goodwill
Laura in her own words...
It does take courage, but that’s OK because my faith is stronger than my fears. When we live life in fear, we project possible negative outcomes onto things that we might accidentally will into happening. When we live life in faith, we are doing the opposite of that. Embarking on this project, I knew it was something that had fallen in my lap, so already there are the spiritual connotations. Deciding I was willing to give it a shot felt more like answering a call or accepting a mission than choosing a path for myself. So that makes it easier for me to approach each item on the list courageously and filled with faith. As far as how I feel about the exposure—I’ll address this in my upcoming post about swimming the width of a river, but when I swam that river, it mirrored what was happening in my life. The one thing I hadn’t prepared for well was the current. Most of the task meant preventing my body from being washed away, taken wherever the river wanted me to go. There are times in life when relaxing with the current is a good thing. But when it comes to all the press and interviews, I’ve had to be very focused and careful to always stand my ground. When suddenly a bunch of people want to talk to you and want a piece of whatever you’re doing, it’s very flattering, but you have to be very careful to stay true to the reasons you’re doing something. Ultimately I’m the author of what I’m doing here, I’m the captain of my own ship. When I was in that river, I had to focus on getting back up when I was knocked down and have faith that I would make it to the other side, just as I’d intended. So it’s a little like that. You can’t get overwhelmed by attention and lose sight of the shore you swam out from.
2. There are 60 items on "My Father’s List,” and you and your brother started the list with 55 items left. What were the 5 items you were able to check off? As of today, how many items are left?
He'd checked off five, and crossed off one as impossible (it involved my grandfather, who died, so I'm guessing that's why he wrote an X and "Failed" next to it). Then my brother and I realized that collectively we'd done 13. So that then leaves 41. Since we started the project, we've checked off five more: First I did item 12, "give my kids the most love, best education and best example I can give"--I consider that checked off by our wanting to do the project in the first place, and then item 23, "run 10 miles straight," in the Los Angeles Marathon. Next I checked off "get my picture in a national magazine," when I wrote the GH article. Then I checked off "sing at my daughter's wedding" by telling about the wine we drank at my wedding (he'd put it aside for that day when I was a baby). And then I did "swim the width of a river" in Asheville, NC, which I'm in the process of posting about this week. And last week, I checked off “Skydive at least once.” My brother had already done that one, so now it counts as my dad going twice! So now we've got 36 to go. Only one is impossible in the next four years (I gave myself until 2020 because the first item says he thought he'd die by then), and that's "dance at my grandchildren's weddings," number 60.
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3. Which items on the list do you think will be the most challenging? Do any of them have you freaked out?
Talking with the president should be interesting. I’ve already started working on that. So should driving a Corvette and sailing by myself. I’m trying to do that last one in St. Thomas, another list item since he wanted to visit there. I don’t think any will feel as death-defying as skydiving was, so maybe at least the scariest one is behind me. But growing a watermelon seems like it will be difficult, as will planting an apple tree and buying a house with my own land. I also have to be invited to a political convention. And I have to correspond with the pope.
4. How long after your father passed away did you begin your activism? What was the catalyst to your activism?
I became an activist in 2013, when I read an article in Good Housekeeping about distracted driving. A man named Joel Feldman had lost his 21-year-old daughter because of a driver who ran a stop sign--she was walking in the cross walk to her summer job at the beach and the man reached for his phone or GPS, I can't remember, and iced tea at the same time. The article was also about Emily Stein, whose father was killed when a teen driver was fiddling with her GPS. In both of these incidents, the loved one was standing on the road when they were hit.
In the decade since my father's crash, I'd made huge efforts to avoid reading news about car crashes. It would trigger my PTSD about what happened. But by 2013, I realized what happened to him wasn't a fluke occurrence at all. That the aspect of phone use by the teen driver was something that made the crash preventable. So I narrowed in on that and called the man who started End Distracted Driving, Joel Feldman. I told him, "I think I can help. How can I help?"
"I knew that my anger over it, over the "unfairness," would be like a chip on my shoulder forever if I didn't figure out some way to use my experience and knowledge to help others or to prevent it from happening to anyone else's dad."
Within the year I was speaking at a high school with him. I'd coincidentally become a long-distance runner around the same time and I'd been in a few half marathons, so I decided to be brave and run the New York Marathon. Even though I didn't HAVE TO raise money for charity, I chose to raise money for Joel's group, End Distracted Driving. That was a huge leap for me. I was very afraid of having my face or my life be associated with this sad thing, and I didn't want anyone to think I was lecturing them. I didn't want the word "victim" attached to my family. I realized around the time I read the Good Housekeeping article about Joel and Emily, though I'd been successful at becoming "normal, despite the odds," I wasn't really fulfilled...I'd been denying this crucial event that happened in my life and I'd been unsuccessful at finding the meaning behind it. I knew that my anger over it, over the "unfairness," would be like a chip on my shoulder forever if I didn't figure out some way to use my experience and knowledge to help others or to prevent it from happening to anyone else's dad. And I needed to feel like my dad could die with dignity. Doing the list really helps with that.
The other reason I became an activist when I did was because I'd gotten engaged. I was dreading walking down the aisle without my dad. And regardless of how much I felt that dread, I knew it was a story people could relate to. And I knew that just by getting married, my social media accounts were going to be blowing up. So I thought I should take advantage of the attention I'd be getting anyway and use it for something good.
5. How has your activism progressed since partnering with End Distracted Driving?
I’m not really a partner with them, I just help them out once in a while. I mostly work with the National Safety Council now. My work those years, in 2014 and 2015, led Emily Stein to recommend me for the NSC. Which made me an advocate/activist at a national level. Through doing that, I learned the ins and outs of how technology use affects the brain while driving and that what's happening right now is actually a health crisis. And that was what I believe finally got the story into GH.
In the past two months alone, I've been to DC four times. I now work with six different safe-driving awareness groups. And making friends with other people who've suffered a similar loss has only emboldened me to fight even harder. I do my best to write about them in my blog all the time, and some I've tried to help tell their stories, since writing and editing are skills I can offer. They are some of the most inspiring warriors I've ever met.
6. What would you say has been the most surprising element about your "My Father's List" journey?
One is that my relationship with my husband is improved because I now view men totally differently than I had. Because I'm doing things a man wanted to do with his life, and having more sympathy for my dad, I'm less judgmental of him and less afraid of what effect men have on me. In that regard, I can view my husband with fresh eyes and not let gender dynamics get in the way. The other interesting effect is that even though my father was killed, his energy and spirit are now influencing people in my life who love me, because I'm currently channeling it. Which means this tragic story that nobody really wanted to talk about is actually expanding the lives of others by virtue of my willingness to talk about it...and not only talk about it but challenge myself to live the way he wanted to. That's some pretty positive stuff. I'm amazed and so grateful to everyone who's helping me with this...and that includes tons of strangers, too.
One other surprise has been how 100% in favor of my doing this my husband has been. He doesn’t like it much when I do something scary, like jump out of a plane, but the other day, I asked him if it was OK that I was changing, that some of my priorities had shifted lately. I said I was worried I was neglecting him and my usual life. And he said, “Are you kidding? This is the you I’ve been waiting to see for a decade.” We sometimes worry, especially as women, that if we stop taking care of others or our homes or everything else in our lives that we’ll be somehow branded with the scarlet letter or something. But sometimes those people who love us so much are willing to bend a little if it means we’re able to be true to ourselves and happy.
7. It has to be difficult to see people texting and taking pictures while behind the wheel. What nuggets of wisdom would you like to share to people who drive distracted?
I think if you’re a driver who’s using your phone for anything other than listening to your GPS hands-free (that means no touching your phone at all, unless your car is in park) or listening to a podcast, you probably don’t realize you’re making an actual choice. How many times have you blindly grabbed your phone and then completely forgotten why? That’s how much of a habit it is. Imagine if you looked down suddenly and saw a glass of wine in your hand and thought, “How did that get there?” That isn’t likely to happen because we’re usually pretty conscious of how many drinks we have. You’d have to be pretty obliterated for that to happen to you.
So what we are talking about here is an activity that has become second nature for most people. And if you’re talking about not only a habit, but a habit everyone else in the world seems to be participating in, imagine how difficult it is to change that. We often choose things that society sanctions as OK because it takes all the thought out of it.
But we changed it with seat belts. And we changed it with driving drunk. So I believe we will change it with this, too.
In the long run, this is nothing all that new. It’s the American way to have innovation with little to no guidance. We all descended from pioneers and cowboys. We leap first and look after. It just takes enough people dying for us to realize that we have to be a little more disciplined with all this.
"The other reason I became an activist when I did was because I'd gotten engaged. I was dreading walking down the aisle without my dad. And regardless of how much I felt that dread, I knew it was a story people could relate to. And I knew that just by getting married, my social media accounts were going to be blowing up. So I thought I should take advantage of the attention I'd be getting anyway and use it for something good."
Most of the list items I’m conquering are things I never would have chosen to do on my own. I have to get training to do them. They seem like risky tasks a lot of the time, but much of the risk is removed or alleviated when I’m trained to do them. When I’m prepared. Looking at your phone gives you the illusion of being busy and important. It gives you something to do when you’re bored. And guess what—because of our phone’s existence and our near-constant access to the Internet, we now get bored much more easily.
Driving shouldn’t be boring. It should be fun. It’s a privilege. Just like running 10 miles straight, swimming the width of a river or skydiving, it’s something you are trained to do. We should be able to do it with confidence, not arrogance. When I was learning what I had to do to make sure my parachute opened, you’d better believe I was paying attention. But that was also a high-stakes situation.
So is driving. In fact, you are more likely to die while driving a car than you are from skydiving. So why does our adrenaline start pumping when we have to jump out of a plane but not when we run an errand. Why would we never consider texting someone mid-fall but we will at a red light? The girl who killed my father had to learn this the hard way. And then my dad had to miss the rest of his life. I’d love it if I could prevent anyone else from going through the same.
8. Your work is impactful. Necessary. What do you hope people take away from your project and activism?
I hope that what other women take away from my project is that it's so important to find a calling in life and to answer the call when you hear it, to not be afraid.
Whenever something makes you so scared you want to puke, you should do that thing. When we face our fears, we are taking the reins of our lives and learning how to make the best choices for us.
Each of us is here on this planet for a reason. Find your reason. The tragedies we experience in life should not be viewed as impairments or things that make us feel different from everyone else. Tragedies connect you even more to the human condition. When you are able to speak about them, you not only heal yourself but you heal others, too. We are all in this together.
9. I’m curious, what’s next for you?
After I finish this project, I hope to finish my own list and write about that, too.
"In fact, you are more likely to die while driving a car than you are from skydiving. So why does our adrenaline start pumping when we have to jump out of a plane but not when we run an errand. Why would we never consider texting someone mid-fall but we will at a red light? The girl who killed my father had to learn this the hard way."
I admire quiet souls, people who are compassionate about others, people who are able to overcome adversity and beat the odds. I admire people who can see that true courage is compassion, something I read in an article in Elle magazine a little while back. Both compassion and courage come from the heart. I admire people who can live a heart-first existence and help others in the process. It’s never easy to do that, but some people do it very well. They do it because it feels false not to, and they’re not OK with being inauthentic. I also admire a strong work ethic and people who take what they’ve been given and use it. I admire the faithful among us. I admire a reverence for history and the ability to recognize when it’s repeating itself.
I admire my husband, father, mother, brother, stepfather, stepbrothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws and nieces and nephews. I admire my grandparents and my best friend. I admire my coworkers. I have a long list of writers and artists I admire, but I’ll try to make it short and just say Joseph Campbell, Malcolm Gladwell, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jim Henson, Oprah and Jimmy Fallon—these are people who answered the call, tried to inspire and educate others, followed their passions and didn’t give a damn if they seemed different. They’re also people who were persistent as hell to get where they were going, but never gave up their integrity or kind heart along the way.