Category Archives: Ideas

Cash ’n’ Carry

I’m mellowing out to lovely, folky, Atlantic-inspired electro-acoustic music while I write this. That’s because today’s story is about Joshua Van Tassel, a composer/producer from Nova Scotia whom I’d never heard of before this week. And to get in a proper frame of mind, I’m helping myself to a few sample tunes on his website.

Last Friday, Joshua made the news after setting out to make a music video for one of his songs, called “I Think You’re a Salesman.” Josh travelled around Toronto with his film crew, their equipment… oh, and a grey wool coat pinned with 200 ten-dollar bills for giving away to strangers.

How does this fit “salesman”? I guess Joshua was flogging the concept of good deeds. For a really, really good price. He encouraged everyone he met to take a bill from his coat – and then do something nice for another person. (Of the varied responses that ensued, many will be portrayed in the final video.)

Director Hiep Vu pointed out to The Toronto Star that this good-deed theme is a departure from the “dancing girls and fast cars” in typical music videos. Yeah, I wouldn’t really miss the girls and the cars.

“If there was one thing I’d hope the video could do, it would be to inspire other people to make just a little bit of random kindness every day,” Joshua told me. “It doesn’t have to monetarily focused. Just holding a door for the next person behind you would be great.”

Their experiment worked – sort of. It actually took five hours to get through all 200 giveaways. That’s a little longer than you might expect for free money, especially when a brisk March wind has it flapping tantalizingly. “We had no idea what kind of reactions we’d get, and believe me, I got them all! Happiness, distrust, anger, gratitude,” Joshua says.

But some results were promising. A few folks vowed to give the money to charity, or to people in need. Oddly, others planned to spend the cash on victuals for themselves – hot dogs and beer were both mentioned. One guy outlined a creative compromise that involved a coffee for himself and a kind word for someone else (I hope he wasn’t just referring to a “thank you” for the barista).

Paying people to pay it forward? It’s an innovative idea. And if it pushes a few men and women out of their comfort zones, where they can zone in on someone else’s needs instead, isn’t it worth it?

“If even 10 percent of Toronto’s population thought a little more about the other humans surrounding them throughout the day, I feel like the city vibe as a whole would drastically improve,” Josh says.

Of course, his music helps, too.

Not just talent and empathy, but also a strong fashion sensibility: Notice how the purple hues of the currency bring out the plum tones in the tie.

Not just talent and empathy, but also a strong fashion sensibility: Notice how the purple hues of the currency bring out the plum tones in the tie.

Feed This

Ever hear of Neknominate, or the Chug Challenge? It’s an online drinking game. You’re supposed to down a pint of beer and post the video on social media, then nominate a couple of buddies to do the same within 24 hours.

Sometimes this is done in combination with an outlandish stunt. People have imbibed from toilets, or mixed their drinks with insects or engine oil. In a Canadian spin, they’ve filmed themselves walking the dog or pumping gas semi-naked, outdoors, in winter, and then drinking the beer. (I wonder how many people opt for the alcoholic fortification first, and then perform the outdoor stunt?)

Neknominate has led to at least five known fatalities. That’s not cool. So a separate batch of young people have turned the viral video challenge into a different trend, called Feed the Deed. You perform an act of kindness and post it as a video. Then you nominate two or three friends to keep it going.

I heard about the Chug Challenge from a particularly sociable nephew. Enough said there. I heard about Feed the Deed from my teenage daughter, who was excited to be nominated and put considerable thought into her good deed. Eventually, she decided to make a card for Colin, the little Michigan boy I wrote about last week. His mom is collecting birthday wishes to prove to him he has friends. My daughter circulated her card at school and asked a whole bunch of other students to sign it.

Listen, if you’re ever losing faith in humanity, just read the sorts of things teenagers write when they want to lift someone’s spirits.

Other friends involved in the Feed the Deed challenge have bought coffees for bus drivers and garbage collectors, donated to charity, and given out pet treats at an animal shelter.

It’s thirsty work, but I doubt these kids are chugging beers at the end of it. Instead, they’re drinking in the gratification of helping those in need.

And not a frosted stein in sight.

And not a frosted stein in sight.

It’s Not Rocket Science

Wouldn’t you love to donate your time to a good cause, while at the same time getting the opportunity to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations?

Well, if by “exploring strange new worlds” you mean writing down the shapes of faraway galaxies, and if by “seeking out new life” you mean scrutinizing deep-sea video footage for evidence of marine animals, and if by “new civilizations” you mean counting the cluster of birds hanging out at your backyard feeder… then there are non-profit agencies that could certainly use your help.

It’s called citizen science, and there are lots of ways you can be a part of it. It’s especially easy for amateurs to get involved these days, thanks to online videos, apps and websites that provide everything you need to make a difference from home. No need for laboratories, telescopes or hip-waders. Or science degrees, for that matter.

You won’t be paid, but you may be singlehandedly responsible for discovering the next black hole or spotted jellyfish. And if that isn’t a shining example of the final frontier, I don’t know what is.

Distant galaxy, or deep-sea species? Yes, folks, and THAT’S why they call it “amateur.”  (PHOTO COURTESY OF SARAH STROTHAM/MARINE PHOTOBANK)

Distant galaxy, or deep-sea species? Yes, folks, THAT’S why they call it “amateur.” (PHOTO COURTESY OF SARAH STROTHAM / MARINE PHOTOBANK)

Knit Picks

We’re long-time fans of yarnbombing, simply because this kind of street art gives us a lift. Now, thanks to a few mysterious gangs who know how to wield a pair of knitting needles in wintry weather, yarnbombing is literally giving people a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Last week, someone wrapped more than a dozen hand-knitted scarves around the necks of historical statues in downtown Ottawa, along with notes that offered the free scarves to anyone who needs them to keep warm.

The temperatures in the Ottawa region dropped to minus 28 degrees Celsius last week. For you people in the southern U.S., that’s the official freezing temperature of… well, just about everything.

It’s not the only place where yarnbombers are fighting the cold. A “Chase the Chill” campaign has been going on in Winnipeg for several years now. And knitters in Easton, Pennsylvania, introduced the idea back in 2010.

So don’t be alarmed if you see that a bronze World War hero in your community is suddenly sporting a multi-hued muffler. Hopefully, it will make someone smile. And maybe even toasty-warm.

Yes, okay, I admit this scarf is store-bought. I can’t knit worth a darn… (get it?)

Yes, okay, I admit this scarf is store-bought. I can’t knit worth a darn… (get it?)

An Ounce of Prevention, A Pound of Care

A town in Ontario’s Renfrew County has hit on a way to cut in half the number of 911 calls and hospital visits from seniors. It’s pretty simple: From time to time, knock on their doors.

The lone nursing home in Deep River, Ontario, is full. That isn’t much help to aging residents here who need special care and medical advice – there are 32 of them. But through Deep River’s community paramedics program, these men and women are visited once a week by paramedics who proactively check them over, and answer their questions about nutrition or physiotherapy or diabetes control.

After five years, this program has had such success that some of these seniors aren’t even on the nursing home’s waiting list anymore. And did I mention the reduction in 911 calls and trips to the hospital? A little care and attention is making the difference between being able to live at home or not, and reducing medical emergencies. The county’s chief paramedic estimates that the program has already saved the health-care system over a million and a half dollars.

What’s nice – and maybe not accounted for in the program’s policy manual – is the strong bond that has developed between some of the paramedics and seniors. One of the workers, Chris Day, told a reporter that he gets such a kick out of visiting 82-year-old Wilt McCarthy, he often drops by on his own dime. That solid-gold friendship is worth even more than a million-and-a-half dollars, don’t you think?

Other communities have picked up on this program’s awesomeness, and are now planning to put something into place in their own jurisdictions.

Music Marathon

I don’t know if Frank Horvat quite knew what to expect when he volunteered to hold a 20-hour piano-thon. The event would coincide with the 20th anniversary of Lakeshore Arts, a community arts organization in Toronto, and raise money to support its programming. But I’ll say this for him: He was dedicated. “I wanted something unique to help feature Lakeshore Arts,” says this acclaimed pianist and composer. Plus, he admits, “I’ve always been fascinated by endurance events.”

Endurance this certainly called for. Starting at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, Frank played piano nonstop with but a single five-minute break each hour. (We can only imagine he found ways to fill those five minutes.) Every note he played was improvised. The piano-thon was broadcast live on the Lakeshore Arts website, while the donations poured in.

By the time I learned about Frank’s creative quest and tuned in to the live video feed, it was already the next morning. Frank had surpassed the 20-hour mark and raised almost $6,000. But he was still playing, having decided to keep reaching for more. Either that, or in his sleep-deprived state it was just easier to keep the hands moving across the keys in a kind of inertia.

“I think I’m still sane, so that’s a good thing,” he dictated in an email to his fans, after the first 20 hours had passed. But he also urged more donors to step up. At this point Frank’s music was a little less, um, lively compared to the first hour. Don’t get me wrong, his playing still sounded great – but my own back and shoulders were cringing in sympathy just watching him. He claims he was tired but not at all sore. (He’s younger than me, the punk.)

Also by mid-morning he had donned a pair of sunglasses. Apparently the shades were necessary because of the morning sun and camera lights. But Frank confesses to dozing off on purpose during the piano-thon. “I often dream of music in my head while I sleep, so it didn’t seem that big a deal… instinctive, I guess.” He says. “Every time I did one of those little snooze episodes as I played, I woke up feeling much better.” Uh, wow?

Frank ended up playing for 24 hours. Total raised: over $7,100. (A lesser man would have spent almost that much on Advil in the days since.) He’s received a ton of emails since, and his story is making the social-media rounds. “I even went to a music store this morning and got the ‘Hey, you’re the piano-thon guy!’” Frank says.

He adds: “I’m humbled by all this attention I’ve received. But I’m also very happy to raise attention and funds for a great community arts organization like Lakeshore Arts. There are so many small organizations like this in our city – and other cities – that do so much.”

If you like music and happen to have 24 hours open, you can listen to the entire piano-thon on YouTube.

Frank isn’t patting himself on the back in this picture. But he probably should be.

Frank isn’t patting himself on the back in this picture. But he probably should be.

Tiny Little Free Libraries

Guaranteed, I’ll continue to get confused and call these “free little libraries.” But they’re actually called Little Free Libraries, founded three years ago by a guy in Wisconsin, and they’re gathering momentum all across North America and beyond. Toronto is in the midst of getting set up.

Why are these small-scale projects so appealing? Maybe it’s because these wooden boxes of books, which sit perched on posts and wear little painted gable roofs, are adorable. Or maybe it’s because the volunteer stewards pack these boxes with some of their favourite reads, just so their neighbours can borrow them, and maybe even return them for someone else to have a go. (As the website points out, you can’t steal a book if it’s already free.)

Check the map to see if there’s a Little Free Library in your area. Want to start your own? Like the idea of sharing books? Or perhaps you’re just keen on calling yourself a steward (I agree, it’s a pretty cool moniker). Helpful instructions are posted here.

You had me at “free books.”

You had me at “free books.”

Fun is More Than Just a Theory

Can self-improvement be fun? Sure it can – especially if you take low-carb diets and aerobic exercise out of the equation. The Fun Theory website posits that “fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better.” Through the ideas on this website, people can apparently learn to litter less, recycle more, drive safely, and take more stairs. Especially when a garbage bin gives you awesome sound effects every time you use it, a speed camera enters your name into a lottery whenever you obey traffic laws, and a staircase is transformed into a hugely amusing piano keyboard that plays tunes as you step.

To check out the Fun Theory website (corporately overseen by Volkswagen, whose vehicles may or may not have a connection to fun), visit


Telling someone “thank you” is most definitely a good deed. Whether they lend you a hand, hold the door for you or let you bump them in line, responding with thanks is a lovely way to acknowledge the person, show your appreciation and make them feel pretty darned worthwhile.

But how about expressing your gratitude on a global level? There needs to be a word for mass-thanking everyone in your life at once. Such was my thought when I read this Facebook note a short while ago, posted by an old friend of mine:

“I want to wish family, friends and those crazy people I know, a great night’s sleep and a wonderful day tomorrow. I know I haven’t told you all enough that I am grateful for knowing you all and that without you I wouldn’t have so many wonderful memories. Mwah!”

In one sweeping status update, my friend managed to cover off on all the fortune in her life, complete with a cyberkiss finish. And I like it, I think it’s a trend that could easily catch on, I just wish I knew what to call it.

So, folks, what’s the word? Batchpraising? Thankbombing? Bulknowledgement? I’m listening…

Circle of Trust

Given that three friends I care about are struggling with loss this month, it was timely to discover an op-ed piece about supporting someone who is terminally ill or bereaved. The author, a sort of Miss Manners with a clinical psychology degree, has developed a simple method of making sure you never, ever say the wrong thing to a friend in serious crisis. Because we want to show kindness, of course, at such a time. And we may fret deeply about putting our foot in our mouth, instead of our arms around our friend’s shoulders.

Susan Silk calls her method the “Ring Theory.” And it really is very simple. You draw a bull’s-eye pattern. In the centre circle you put the person who’s got cancer or just lost her sister or has been badly injured in an accident. You place yourself in one of the surrounding rings according to how close you are to her inner circle. Maybe your position is just one step away from her spouse; maybe you float like a satellite in the distant periphery.

From there you follow a simple formula. You direct only words of comfort towards the centre – that is, towards the person in the middle and all those who are in circles more interior than yours. And then all your emotional baggage – your terror, your self-pity, your sense of loss, your deep-seated ickiness over the sight of blood and mutilation – is allowed to flow only in the other direction, towards the outer rings, the hangouts of people less close.

I love Susan’s invention (which, incidentally, was spurred at least in part by a colleague who said “this isn’t about you” when she was banned from visiting after Susan’s breast cancer surgery). “Comfort in, dump out” is Susan’s motto. The Ring Theory helps address an age-old awkwardness, and will most certainly soothe the people most in need of support.

That’s all we want to do, after all, is soothe. We love our friends. And besides, who enjoys the taste of shoelaces? Blerg.