Monthly Archives: October 2010

So Shoot Me

This month I’ve been working on a series of articles about influenza – ’tis the season, after all. And what do all the doctor-experts I speak with keep repeating like a mantra? Get immunized. Get immunized.

There are still lots of Canadians who don’t get a yearly flu vaccination. But I’m not one of them. I was pregnant the last time I had the seasonal flu. I started getting immunized every fall after that, and let’s just say my baby has been out of diapers for a very long time.

My husband is considered at high risk for flu complications, and it’s long been recommended that we family members get the flu shot. I have to admit, though, that’s not the only reason I get a stick in the arm every season. Frankly, the flu sucks. It knocks the stuffing out of you. It sends you straight to bed, aching all over and useless for anything. It sets you back at least a week or two. In my household, of which I am the queen, we simply can’t afford to have me incapable of lifting a finger. Meals wouldn’t be made, laundry wouldn’t be done, bills wouldn’t be paid, quite possibly my daughter would run with a pack of street urchins. Really, who needs the flu?

Gradually the sensibility of immunization has been broadened. The American Medical Association now recommends virtually everybody get it, and Canadian medical authorities are following suit. The fact is, the flu vaccine is pretty effective most of the time. As I reported in another health article earlier this year, it can prevent up to 90% of us from getting sick with the flu and passing it on.

So what does this actually have to do with good deeds? The connection was made for me yesterday. I was chatting on the phone with a doctor in Quebec. He told me that a community’s death rate spikes crazily during flu season, and that gave me chills. Of course we’ve all heard flu can kill people. But did you ever think it knocked out quite so many of our neighbours? If you’re immunized, then, not only are you a lot less likely to get sick, but you’re a lot less likely to make someone else sick.

That’s where the good deed comes in. When you get the flu shot – which is now free in many parts of Canada – you are doing something good for more than just you. You’re protecting all types of at-risk people in your community, including folks over 65, kids under two, people in cancer treatment, people with asthma, people with kidney and liver disorders, people with heart disease and people like my husband.

We all have our own reasons for our choice when it comes to vaccination. I guess I’ve just added another reason for mine.

Creature Comforts

Do acts of kindness to animals count as good deeds?

That’s what I was wondering yesterday evening during Toronto’s so-called weather bomb (wow, it’s reports like this that make me realize how little I know about meteorology). Actually, the storm was pretty halfhearted by the time it reached our city: less like an actual weather bomb and more like, say, a popped tire.

Still, the downpour was enough for a giant-sized earthworm to beach itself on our concrete front walkway. When I was taking out the garbage I bent down, grabbed the slimy thing and tossed it into the flower garden. And that’s when I started wondering. Is a favour bestowed on a non-human creature – a lowly worm, no less – still a good deed?

I used to dread walking to school with my daughter in a drizzle. Not because the rain bothered me so much. But from a very young age, my kid insisted I stop and pick up every single stranded worm along the way. (She herself refused to touch them until she was older.) I wasn’t keen on the slime and the wet and the wriggling, but furthermore we were usually running late. The only way I could get her to hurry past the castaway critters was by promising to rescue every single one of them on the way home. (Did I always fulfill those promises? Well, that’s another story and I’m no saint. Put yourself in my soaked shoes and take a guess.)

But I do think these acts are good deeds. In fact, when you think about it, it’s a pretty pure form of altruism, as you aren’t generally expecting any return of the favour. It’s not like Eddie Earthworm is going to wave and say thank you, or even make eye contact, for that matter. And he’s certainly not going to reciprocate with a bakery cake or a bottle of wine.

Child psychologists tell us that one of the ways kids can learn compassion for other people is by caring for pets. And although I’m not the religious type, I do find it interesting to read that faiths like Bahá’í teach kindness to animals. And of course there are plenty of animal-rights groups, anti-fur campaigners and vegans who have the welfare of animals at top of mind.

You’re probably performing good deeds on non-humans all the time without realizing it. Maybe you haven’t rescued any worms lately, but have you ever patted a smiling dog as you walked past, or filled a bird feeder, or released a spider outside instead of squashing it, or signed a petition against animal cruelty? I like to think that on some level, these creatures appreciate it. And it’s always nice to know you’ve made a difference, even if that difference is to someone weighing only half a gram.

But Wait… It Gets Better

Okay, truth time. Have you been able to watch a single one of the “It Gets Better” video testimonials without getting just a titch teary-eyed?

Not me.

If you haven’t heard of the It Gets Better movement, it was propelled by the recent suicides of several gay North American teenagers. These promising young people chose to take their own lives rather than struggle with the torture of being bullied.

Anyone who has survived this kind of abuse knows exactly how it feels to be targeted when you’re just an adolescent. Not only do these bullies drag you through a special kind of hell just about every single day, but you’re also suffering from age-related hormonal changes that toy with your emotional stability. Plus you have practically zero life experience. You don’t actually know, or believe, that anything could ever change. In the here and now, you’re unhappy and desperate. You might feel like there’s only one way out.

Yet in the wake of this horrific string of deaths, something amazing has happened. Incredibly caring people, led in part by American writer Dan Savage, have stepped forward to save lives. Men and women, gay and straight, are taking the time to share their own stories of being bullied in their youth, of feeling different, of knowing with absolute conviction that they’re entirely alone. And they’re spreading the message to gay teens and other bullied young people everywhere that it gets better. Hang in there, they tell browbeaten youth of today. This is nothing but a temporary setback. A wonderful world is waiting for you.

The long list of video contributors includes a cluster of Google employees, celebrities like Ellen Degeneres, Adam Lambert, Chris Colfer and Neil Patrick Harris, and hordes of ordinary people. U.S. President Barack Obama is there too, saying: “You are not alone… Don’t feel like you’re in this by yourself.”

When I was a teen, I felt like an oddball. Just like so many who came before, and so many who will come after. In the classroom I was brainy, and in the gym I was afraid of the ball. Right there went my bid for prom-queen status. Plus I had the misfortune of spending most of my underage years with a close relative who tormented me mercilessly. And by mercilessly I mean without mercy. In retrospect these experiences were such a tiny miserable fraction of my overall life, in which I’m unbelievably fortunate and gratified and happy. But those years loom huge when you’re mired in the muck of them.

I added my name to the list of supporters on the It Gets Better Project website. Because I wish someone had said those three words to me, back when. Because I want to say those three words to someone else, or a lot of someone elses. And because I want to bear-hug everyone who, by participating in this project with a pledge, with a video, with a painful personal story, is doing the most awesome good deed for a despairing young person somewhere.

And now, because no one should go through their whole day teary-eyed, I invite you to take in some Grover doing his Old Spice bit. Until next time…


I don’t have an official good deeds hotline. Not yet, anyway. But from time to time I do get sent tips on the theme of kindness. Someone will e-mail me about a particular news item, event or program that moves them, that they believe is worth sharing.

One of the most recent leads comes from a colleague in Langley, B.C., who sent this article about a community that pulled together to clean up a yard in their neighbourhood. The property, owned by four siblings with disabilities on fixed incomes, had fallen into disrepair. It took about 50 volunteers, $20,000 worth of donated products and services and 12 hours to beautify the space. This group effort managed to replace garbage, scrap metal, overgrown brambles and collapsing outdoor structures with a new lawn, landscaping and fencing. Kinda sounds like a barn raising – except it was a yard raising.

This type of project is powerful in a community because it creates permanent ties between people who live near each other. Going forward, they’ll be better connected and more likely to provide each other with other forms of help when needed. Given the hectic pace at which most of us are living our lives, a chance to mix with neighbours, especially in a situation where everyone’s pie-eyed with positivity, is priceless.

Another friend wrote to me about the Roots of Empathy program. This Canadian initiative brings infants into classrooms. No, it has nothing to do with creating baby geniuses. But evidence shows that as the schoolchildren watch the parent’s interaction with the baby, get to know the family and learn to interpret the baby’s needs, they are becoming more compassionate little people. And it lasts. Because we all know kids are capable of surprisingly profound tenderness.

Got a good deed tip? You can certainly post a comment below, or e-mail me. It’s always toll-free, and I’d love to hear from you.

Knuckle-Dragging Do-Gooders

U.K. archaeologists at the University of York have discovered a new side of Neanderthals: They were nice. By studying what is known of their skeletal remains, researchers found that hundreds of thousands of years ago, these primitive people were acting with compassion. Several individuals with serious injuries or disabilities who could never have survived on their own actually lived many years past their accidents. That proves that people cared enough to look after them. These ancient folk may have been short and hairy with bad teeth, but they were performing kindnesses every day. Modern-day Good Samaritans needn’t be smug. We’ve been doing this for a very long time.

I first heard about this discovery on CBC’s As It Happens. Lead researcher Dr. Penny Spikins was interviewed; you can listen to the broadcast online.

Speaking of evolved humans, remember Mark, the everyman at home in his underwear? Not long after he reached his 25,000 “Like” milestone on Facebook – a mere seven days into his clothing-free campaign – the sponsor of his fundraiser, Stanfield’s Ltd., raised the stakes. If he hits 50,000 Likes, the Canadian underwear manufacturer will double its original pledge and donate $50,000 for testicular cancer awareness. As of today (Day 13) he’s at about 39,000. So if you haven’t yet shown your support, check out his website to find out what you can do to help.


It’s not every day that I watch a total stranger cook in his underwear.

Nor is it every day that a man installs four cameras in his home to broadcast himself in his skivvies, live, for twenty-five days straight.

This is where charity gets highly entertaining. Mark from Toronto is a testicular cancer survivor. He wants to raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society. So he’s got his own web page, sponsored by male undergarment manufacturer Stanfield’s Ltd. The deal is, he wears a different (we assume fresh) pair of Stanfield’s underwear every day. And for every Facebook “Like” up to 25,000, Stanfield’s donates a dollar to the Canadian Cancer Society, so long as Mark holds out for the full twenty-five days.

Never underestimate the power of a guy in gitch. Mark collected 25,000 “Likes” by day 7. That was yesterday.

You’ve got eighteen more days to hang out on Mark’s web page. In addition to the Likes and the live cams you can watch the video trailer, chat, read about testicular cancer and donate to cancer awareness. There are bonus “donation challenges.” Mark promised to fry bacon in a state of almost-undress if he raised $500 from website visitors. That happened three days ago. If Mark raises another $500, he’ll get a chest wax. Here’s the ultimate commitment: For $1000 he’ll get a tattoo. He’s more than halfway there. He hasn’t specified exactly where this spiffy new tat is going, but regardless it promises to be a lasting memento of his incredibly wacky and incredibly worthy good deed.

Check it all out here, on the official The Guy At Home In His Underwear website.

Thanks Giving

Happy Thanksgiving! Traditionally, this is the day we Canadians are supposed to be thankful for our harvest. So I’m appreciating the abundance of fruit on the tangle of cherry tomato vine outside our patio door, as well as the handful of stunted carrots my daughter managed to raise in her little backyard patch. That’s about the extent of our personal harvest.

Today we’re also supposed to express gratitude in general. So why do we need a designated day to remind us of this? Forgive me for spouting a cliché, but it’s far too easy to take certain things for granted. Instead the disappointments, the downers, the tough stuff often loom larger in our minds than the fact that we have fantastic families, a supportive social network, enough food to eat, a roof to keep off the rain, paying jobs, relative good health. I guess sometimes we have to be reminded that we have a lot to be thankful for.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to my point for today: Maybe feeling thankful is not a good deed exactly, but I do think saying thank you has to be one. It demonstrates to others that they are worthy of courtesy and acknowledgement. And it makes them feel appreciated. Who doesn’t like feeling appreciated? What a gift.

My favourite thank-you story is probably the time I wrote to a former high-school creative writing teacher to let him know what a difference his enthusiasm and upbeat approach to teaching had made for me, almost two decades years before. He wrote back – he remembered me (a bonus!) – and we’ve continued to stay in touch ever since. He sent me his marvelous short stories to read, and I even interviewed him for a magazine article I worked on.

This simple act of saying thank you led to the rekindling of a friendship and enriched me personally and professionally.

Do you have a great thank-you story?

Hearts – and Carts – in the Right Place

My good deed for Tuesday happened at our local Home Depot. While we stopped in for electrical tape and light bulbs, I took a few minutes to impersonate a cart attendant – you know, that guy in the parking lot who wears the bright orange vest and gathers up all the empty shopping carts. Except I wasn’t retrieving them from all over the lot, but rather I was focused on clearing one area in particular: the disability parking spaces.

It’s not the first time I’ve done this. Shoppers often leave their carts in wheelchair parking spots. And I can understand the appeal of that. You’ve got your arms full of packages, you’re looking around for a convenient way to ditch your trolley, and there’s this beautiful, wide, spacious, open square of pavement looking so pristine and ready to be your friend.

Probably you notice the painted wheelchair symbol that designates the space as reserved for people with disabilities. But you’re only going to use up a corner, aren’t you? What difference could that possibly make? Anyway, no one’s using the parking right now, are they? So you roll your cart into the handy space. And then of course when the next shopper comes along looking for cart storage, they spot that first encouraging trolley hanging out in the wheelchair parking area. So they leave another.

Thus by the time an actual driver with a disability comes along, he can’t use the parking space. (But wait, can’t he just move the carts out himself? Oh… yeah. He has a disability.)

I’ve mentioned before that my own husband has disabilities. He’s one of those drivers who needs to park where he’s close to the store entrance and where the space is wide enough to let down the wheelchair ramp out of the side of his van. So of course when it comes to this topic I’m touchy, and this friendly blog post is bordering on lecturey. Whoops. Of course, I didn’t mean to implicate any of you as the transgressors. This is a blog of good-deed ideas, not wrist slapping.

So the good-deed idea for today is: Why not make the environment a little more welcoming for our friends, co-workers and neighbours who have disabilities? It often doesn’t take much.

In fact I was chatting with a friend with MS the other day, and she said that when people hold the door for her, she always makes a point of telling them: “You’ve just done your good deed for the day!” I like this. It reminds people that they’ve been a help and deserve to feel great about it.

Over the decades, my husband has been the recipient of many a kindness from strangers. (Some of his stories would floor you, as he seemed to get himself into quite a few pickles!) I hope that those good-deed doers always walked away knowing that they’d made a real difference.

Even if all they did was roll a shopping cart or two out of a parking spot.

Confessions of a Virtual Do-Gooder

I work by myself in a home office in a suburb that’s so sleepy it’s practically on tranquilizers. This fundamental fact was one of the challenges I faced back when I set out to do a good deed a day for 50 days. When I’m out for meetings or appointments or errands, taking public transit or walking downtown, the opportunities to do a kindness are ridiculously abundant. You just have to be on the lookout for them. But when you’re at home alone the whole day through, you simply don’t come across many lost wallets, homeless people or boy scouts selling apples.

This is where technology shines. It can be an incredible tool when it comes to giving. With no more than a computer and an Internet connection you can touch the world. You can literally lend a helping hand to your colleague across town, a village in need across the ocean… or even (as is frequently the case for me) a husband on his laptop in the next room.

The beauty too of using technology to do a good turn is that it’s not usually time-consuming. And unless you’re making an online donation to charity, the costs are negligible. Yet you can still make a difference.

In a typical week at home, I might: answer a question that pops up on a listserv; help spread the word on behalf of someone in my community who’s selling a sofa or has found a lost dog; respond to a direct inquiry from a new writer who’s looking for advice or information; send a hairdresser referral to a Facebook friend who’s asking; write a note of encouragement to a pal (everyone has their baggage); support a walkathon for charity; and do some online research for someone in need.

(Hmm – no wonder my work days never seem long enough! Note to my editors: I hope you’re not reading this. But if you are, don’t judge me. It all gets done.)

These are informal ways to use technology to do good. You can also sign up for virtual volunteering. This means you’re contributing your computer skills to a local project or even an international one. Imagine designing a curriculum for students in a Kenyan village, writing a grant proposal for an agency in Cameroon or developing a website for a charity in Ghana. Programs like and the United Nations Online Volunteering Service can set you up.

So if you’re semi-isolated like me, don’t assume your acts of kindness have to be isolated, too. Power up your ‘puter… and you’re ready to go.