The Brains of the Mushy

Have you ever wondered why you’re more likely than your neighbour to feed a stray cat, help a little old lady cross the street or weep inconsolably all through the final scenes of Beaches? Stony Brook University has fresh evidence that some people’s brains actually respond more strongly to emotional stimuli.

This brand-new – and I do mean spanking, since it just came out yesterday – paper says that the 20 percent of our population who are classified as “highly sensitive people,” or HSPs (yes, that’s an official scientific term; BLT is not) actually have different brains. When this group of people looked at photos of sad or smiley faces, functional MRIs showed extra blood flow to parts of the brain linked to awareness, empathy and emotion.

Does this mean the other 80 percent of us has lumps of coal for hearts? Definitely not. Virtually all humans are hard-wired for compassion. But a few people are more highly tuned in to the environment around them – and the stuff they see happens to tug at their emotions.

My belief: Anyone can improve their awareness and focus, as long as they work at it. You don’t have to bawl at the movies to prove you’re kind. A dish of tuna at the back door will do just fine.

Stony Brook University supplied this photo as proof they know what they’re talking about. Uh, we’ll take their word for it.

Stony Brook University supplied this photo as proof they know what they’re talking about. Uh, we’ll take their word for it.

Currying Favour

Books are full of surprises, aren’t they? Sometimes, it’s not what you’d expect. There was that time I opened a book from my grandmother, four years after she’d died, and found a note along with a delicate pressed rose. Another time, inside a library book, I discovered a handwritten recipe for curried ackees (which I kept, of course. You never know when ackees might go on sale at the local veggie stand).

More recently, I was browsing for bargains in the books section of a secondhand shop. When I flipped through one particular volume, I discovered a small envelope with “To Mark” written on it. Curious, I opened the envelope and pulled out a small notecard. It read: “Dear Mark, we love you very much. It’s such a delight to have us sharing this day together. Oooo mushy. Anyhow, Happy Birthday!” It was signed. And so was an as-yet-uncashed cheque for $60.

Oh, the inhumanity. A gesture of kindness, almost lost forever in an old book. Lost since July 2010, anyway.

Luckily, there was a phone number printed on the cheque. Feeling rather pleased with myself, I pocketed the card and made up my mind that when I got home, I would call the kind couple who loved Mark so dearly. Maybe they could issue him a new cheque, since he never cashed the one they gave him. Maybe they could send the card back to him, or replace it with another, since he took the one they’d lovingly written for him and carelessly stuck it in a…

Oh.

I chickened out. What if it hurts their feelings, I pondered, to know that Mark misplaced the card, and never bothered to spend the money? Sure, it may have been an honest accident. And maybe he really did turn his house upside down afterwards looking for the gift, before calling his doting friends in anguish, and maybe they have long since replaced the cheque for him.

Yet on the off chance it turned out Mark just didn’t care as much as they did, I didn’t want to take that risk.

Anyhow, I’ve since Googled our friend Mark. He was easy to find. He’s got a respectable job, and he looks happy, if a little scruffy (Mark, if you’re reading this, consider giving that weird beard a trim). So he’s doing okay, really.

I think I’ll let well enough alone. Would you?

P.S. As my replacement good deed (and because I’m sure you’re dying to ask anyway), here’s the recipe for curried ackees:

Red or yellow pepper and onion, diced small
Sauté until soft in butter
Scotch Bonnet to taste
Add half can coconut milk
Add 1 tbsp curry powder
If too thin, thicken with a little flour paste
Add ackees, warm and serve warm

Sixty bucks: More than enough to pay a barber.

Sixty bucks: More than enough to pay a barber.

Deviants, or Do-Gooders?

For the record, I’m not a fan of the defacement of public property. But some vandals appear to have a bit more vision than others. There’s no limit to the swear-words, slang and slander that could be scrawled onto a wall or a guardrail. And that’s why I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the letters “L-O-V-E” pasted onto a roadside hazard sign in my neighbourhood (you can relive the moment here). Two years later, I can report that the letters still haven’t been removed.

So when a person with a spray-paint can in hand chooses to write a few words of enlightenment instead of obscenity, you have to admit: It could be a whole lot worse.

Naturally, I captured it on proverbial film for you, dear readers. What do you think… contemptible, or commendable?

Don’t be confused, as I was momentarily, by the inadvertent placement of the shadowy line in the concrete. The sign is NOT telling you to “Drop your Lego.”

Don’t be confused, as I was momentarily, by the inadvertent placement of the shadowy line in the concrete. The sign is NOT telling you to “Drop your Lego.”

Floating on Air

Imagine boarding a connecting flight to a destination 5,000 miles away, only to discover that you lost something extremely precious during your last stopover.

No, I’m not talking about a two-year-old child who’s blithely wandered off (although I’m sure that’s happened, too). Rather, it was a very special, engraved wedding ring that somehow slipped off Julie McManus’s finger, somewhere inside Toronto’s international airport.

By the time Julie reached her next layover, which happened to be in Zurich, she had no hope of retracing her steps. And husband Mike was back home in Calgary. But when Julie called him, distraught, Mike told her he’d do what he could while she caught her next plane.

Which meant, basically, plowing through the phone book and calling anything with the word “air” in it, including both the airline itself and airport personnel. But everyone Mike called said the same thing: He only had a hope of getting the ring back if somebody turned it in.

Everyone, that is, except Susie. This particular airport worker, whose surname is unknown and whose exact job title remains mysterious, decided to take a less passive approach. She checked with the airport restaurants, and sent crews of employees to search the public washrooms.

No one found anything. That wasn’t good enough for Susie (whom we’re starting to suspect is maybe a guardian angel, and perhaps not an airport employee after all). She sent more people out to the same washrooms to check all over again.

And it’s a good thing she did, since this time, miraculously, the ring was found – in a garbage can.

“So often, airport staffs are viewed as not that helpful, and they were able to pull that together,” Mike (who apparently still believes Susie is a mere mortal) said in a recent news story. “She went above and beyond the call of duty to make that happen.”

Photo courtesy of Criminalatt / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Photo courtesy of Criminalatt / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“If There’s Anything I Can Do…”

First I want to apologize. This is to those readers who – whether or not it’s actually true – claim they can’t get through their Tuesdays without a new 50 Good Deeds post. I’m sorry for the silence.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been focused on my husband’s unexpected health crisis, 10-day hospitalization and subsequent recovery. Pretty much everything else – writing, working, socializing, exercising, lawn-mowing, vaccuuming, sleeping and at times even basic nutrition and personal hygiene – fell to the wayside.

It was a challenging period. But we’re richer for the experience, of course, because even hard times have bright spots. For us, it was the love, support and practical hands-on assistance we received throughout my husband’s illness.

There were wonderful doctors, nurses and health care assistants, naturally. But there were also steadfast family members who took shifts at my husband’s bedside and did our errands. There were a great many friends, neighbours and colleagues who took in the dog, ran out for groceries, picked our daughter up from lessons, made soup, offered to cut our grass, called and texted to check in, and drove me from home to hospital and back again so many times that I truly believe I’m singlehandedly responsible for a fresh pair of ruts in the road.

I didn’t ask for most of these favours.

When we’re hit with hurdles, the folks who care about us often entreat us to “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” The fact is, there’s usually lots they can do. But for those of us in crisis, it’s not always so easy to tell people, “I need soup,” or “can you take my daughter to dance class?”

It’s hard to ask for help at the best of times. We worry that we’re imposing, that it’s out of your way. We honestly don’t expect you to put your life on hold just because ours is. (And it seems irrelevant that we’d do (or have done) the same for you.)

Don’t get the wrong idea. Even the “let-me-know” sentiment is deeply appreciated, because it demonstrates that you are thinking of us, and sincerely yearning to help us. But please know that if I never got back to you with a specific assignment, it may have been because I was distracted or sleep-deprived, I was worried about asking too much, or I had a kadzillion other details to keep track of.

In the aftermath of all of this, I feel fortunate. I am incredibly thankful for every single expression of love and support.

But I have to say… I’m even more indebted to those who just went ahead and made the damn soup.

Everyone needs a cheeky kid to cheer up their hospital room. This one helped me brighten her dad’s bulletin board, then photobombed my attempt to capture it for posterity.

Everyone needs a cheeky kid to cheer up their hospital room. This one helped me brighten her dad’s bulletin board, then photobombed my attempt to capture it for posterity.

Along for the Ride

A few weeks ago, my super-talented friend and colleague Karin Melberg Schwier gave 50 Good Deeds a lovely shout-out on her blog. She called it “a completely happy place you should go to from time to time to restore your faith in humanity.” Did I mention Karin is really pretty?

Karin went on to share that she and I had been corresponding lately about some of her recent good deed experiences. Yes, friends do send me their tales of kindness. They do this well and often. It’s usually the highlight of my day.

Apparently, positivity happens frequently in Saskatoon, where Karin lives. On her blog she told a new story, this one about giving a ride to a total stranger on a violently windy day. It happened after the stranger helped Karin’s stepson sort out a jammed newspaper box. When Karin offered a lift and the stranger explained where she lived, she graciously added: “I hope that’s not out of your way?” And they were off.

Here’s the part I particularly enjoy. It was out of Karin’s way. As in, 180-degrees, wrong-way, totally-opposite-direction out of Karin’s way. But Karin never let on. She happily drove the woman home. On her blog she reflected, “We had time.”

From this completely happy place, I’m signing off…

Karin and stepson Jim sharing a laugh, perhaps over the audacity of their plucky good deed. PHOTO BY HEATHER FRITZ

Karin and stepson Jim sharing a laugh, perhaps over the audacity of their plucky good deed. (PHOTO BY HEATHER FRITZ)

Strait from the Heart

Fundraising gimmicks? Trust me, I’ve seen them all. Racing around in underwear to collect donated clothing? Yes. Playing piano for 20 hours straight, to support the arts? Yep. Posing semi-naked in a calendar, along with your fellow buff – uh, I mean brave – firefighters, to raise funds for cancer research? Oh my, yes.

Here’s what I had not seen, until now: A young magician who’s willing to spend two weeks inside the (increasingly rank, we assume) confines of a straitjacket, in the middle of a hot Canadian summer.

But that’s what’s happening this July. His name is Mark Correia, and he’s doing it to raise money for Parkinson’s disease. Mark, who is also an actor, is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts and currently enrolled at The National Theatre School of Canada. Mark is a longtime admirer of Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991 and currently supports research through his non-profit foundation.

“Michael J. Fox has been my personal hero for as long as I can remember,” Mark says. “When I first saw him in Back to the Future, I knew I wanted to act for the rest of my life.” And the way Fox now copes with Parkinson’s has made quite an impression on Mark. “When he was diagnosed with a life-altering disease, he was able to turn it around and become an activist and inspiration for those like him… He didn’t let something he couldn’t control get in the way of something he loves.”

Mark adds: “That’s what life is, taking what is thrown at us and and using it to move forward.”

Speaking of moving forward, just how do you take public transit – or, for that matter, get through airport security – in a straitjacket? How about bathing, dressing and, um, relieving yourself? “I’ll leave that to your imagination,” he says coyly. Let the fun begin. Mark will accept “task ideas” via email or YouTube comments, so if you’re feeling particularly creative, why not challenge him to weed his mother’s garden, or, say, make a pasta sauce from scratch?

Mark anticipates that the biggest trial may actually be sleeping in the jacket. He says he’s done it before, and it’s truly miserable. “That is one of the worst parts. When you wake up, your limbs are sore and blood isn’t really circulating.” Good thing he’s young.

Besides, it will be worth it in the end. Mark hopes to raise at least $25,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation – and even, if the stars align, make an appearance on The Ellen Degeneres Show.

Want to help Mark reach his goal, and potentially see your own name on television? Donate $100 to the cause, and your name will be permanently written on the outside of the jacket. Or give a smaller amount. If you can’t afford to donate, you can still get your helper’s high by liking him on Facebook, or sharing his YouTube video to spread the word.

Besides raising funds and increasing general awareness of Parkinson’s disease, Mark has high hopes for his upcoming summer stunt. “Hopefully I’ll inspire people to use the work they love to effect positive change in the world,” he says. “We can all do our part.”

Here’s how the straitjacket will look at the start of the stunt. Methinks, after a fortnight, this fresh snowy whiteness will be but a distant memory.

Here’s how the straitjacket will look at the start of the stunt. Methinks, after a fortnight, this fresh snowy whiteness will be but a distant memory.