Monthly Archives: January 2011

29 Gifts that Keep On Giving

I don’t always enjoy stories about triumph over adversity. Not that I have anything against giving adversity a swift kick in the butt when it’s called for. But when the story’s main character has a disability, the adversity is all too often portrayed as a life of sheer hell suffused with suffering. And the triumph is interpreted by the fact of this person’s simply getting on with his or her life. Real life isn’t so monochromatic.

Having said that, here’s a triumph story I can get on board with. American newlywed Cami Walker was diagnosed with rapidly progressing multiple sclerosis. She was in pain and depressed and her marriage was strained, so she use her phone-a-friend lifeline. She was looking for sympathy but her friend, an African medicine woman who’d often counselled Cami, turned the tables on her. “You’re feeding the disease,” she told her bluntly. And then she gave her a sort of prescription: Cami was to give away 29 gifts in 29 days.

Cami was doubtful but did it, and she says it changed her perspective. The gifts weren’t Swarovski crystals or Louie Vuitton bags – one day it was just a tissue as she consoled a weeping friend. But each of these gifts pulled her out of herself. She says it gave her a sense of purpose. And she started to feel good. Now comes the moment any media outlet has gotta love: On day 16, Cami suddenly realized she’d been walking around without her cane for two days.

It may sound like a miracle, but science backs up her story. Good deeds and giving can help our health and extend our lives. Cami’s MS hasn’t disappeared. But these days, she’s feeling better and more energized. Turns out she was given the perfect prescription.

Want to learn more? Her book, 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life, was a New York Times bestseller. And she’s taken the challenge online: Anyone, anywhere, can sign up to give 29 gifts in 29 days. Already, more than 13,000 people around the world have signed up to be givers.

Whether it’s 50 good deeds or 29 gifts, these acts can help each of us walk away from our own metaphorical canes. Plus it’s good for the whole wide world.

Girl Power

One of the many perks of my freelance job is that I’m not normally compelled to take public transit at rush hour. The five-o’clock bell usually finds me puttering about at home, responding to a few last-minute e-mails and starting a pot of rice on the stove. But when my kid asks for my moral support at a choral audition, I’m there. Which is why, this past Friday at five, I was elbow-to-elbow with a whole lot of other subway riders.

Anyone who takes Toronto’s silver bullet knows about the newspapers. They’re free, people grab them at the stations because they provide a light distraction through the subway tunnels, but they’re often abandoned on the trains. Usually they’re tucked neatly beside a seat or left folded on a window ledge. This past Friday, a newspaper sheet was spread open on the floor of the train, continually trampled by the boots of dozens of passengers. A potential hazard for someone not so steady on her feet. I once knew a lady with thrombosis whose cascade of triple amputations (both legs and an arm) were initially set off by injuries sustained just from skidding on a gum wrapper. Papers on floors make me think of her. As the train pulled into my transfer station, I leaned over to scoop up the paper.

An unexpected reaction to my simple deed came from the middle-aged businesswoman who’d been sitting on the seat beside me. “Aren’t you the girl,” she remarked companionably as she saw me pick up the paper. She was smiling, and I responded politely, but the encounter left me to wonder: What does that mean? Is it the feminized version of that affectionate slinger “You the man”? I Googled this odd little catchphrase and came up with the title of an old folk song. And although I ended up learning quite a bit about the tragic life of sixties American folk singer Tim Buckley, cut down before his time, I don’t think that’s quite what Ms. Subway Commuter was referring to.

I’ve decided “Aren’t you the girl” is something akin to praise. And I want to spread it. ’Cause I know you’re all out there doing small deeds. So to you, the reader: Aren’t you the girl. Yes, you. You’re so totally the girl. Good for you!

Unless you’re male. In that case, you still the man.

A Whole Lotta Glove

So you’re Canadian, and you spend at least a fraction of your time outdoors? Chances are there’s a particular good deed you’ll perform at least once before winter is through: You’ll try to reunite a lost glove with its owner.

It’s inevitable. We spot these items lying forgotten in the slush: a slim suede glove, or perhaps a knitted one, or a colourful waterproof mitten. And when we come across these, we take action, don’t we? We try to make a difference. We move them to one side of the sidewalk, wanting to spare them the further indignity of being trod upon (or worse – you see, mine is a doggy neighbourhood). Or we hang them on bushes like ornaments, or lay them on snowbanks, or balance them on stone walls. We have this idea that if we can make these mittens look more inviting, they have a better shot at being reclaimed.

I did my good glove deed this week. While out walking on a local street, I noticed a pair of abandoned black gloves – quite a find, really, as these items are so often left behind as singles. One glove was near the middle of the road. Its mate was lying in an adjacent driveway. I collected them both and displayed them on a nearby mound of snow, where the white/black contrast might catch an eye. To the owner of said pair of lost gloves, I hope what I did mattered. I think it did. The gloves had been scooped up the next time I walked by.

As a society we seem to feel strongly about reconnecting these lost gloves and mittens with their owners. Several years ago, one of our newspapers established a National Mitten Registry to help place homeless woolies. There used to be a New York City website with the same goal, called – wait for it – “One Cold Hand.” Even scroll now through Kijiji or Craigslist and you’ll find listings about found leather gloves, ski mitts, fun-fur mittens.

What’s all this effort really about? I think it means we wish our neighbours warmth… right down to the tips of their fingers.

P.S. While doing my glove research, I enjoyed this zany marriage of lost mitts, photography and poetry by British animator Simon Wallett. It’s Friday… take a minute to visit!

Bloody Convenient

If you’re a Twilight character, you might think of the Bloodmobile as meals on wheels. But for those mere mortals among us, it’s a new way to collect lifesaving blood donations. This spiffy, self-contained blood donor clinic can travel to you, instead of the other way around. Inside the vehicle, up to four people can give blood at once. There’s even a coffee bar. Check out this video of the comfy interior: I could take a road trip to the west coast in this thing!

The first Bloodmobiles in Toronto and Vancouver rolled out last fall. They’re massive, at 45 feet long. Forget the road trip. You could move the contents of your house in a truck this size. An older, smaller model roams the Ottawa streets.

They’re meant to be more convenient than the traditional clinics in malls and office buildings. The word Canadian Blood Services uses for these blood buggies is “donor-centric.” They show up at your home or workplace like a reliable taxicab. And they can be there after hours or on weekends, if that’s what suits you.

And how about this, for those über-organizers who walk the earth (you know you’re out there): you can actually host a Bloodmobile event in your neighbourhood! Imagine bringing the Bloodmobile to your next book club, or parking it beside your street party or yard sale. Fun, fun, fun.

I’ve harped on this before: Canadian Blood Services says there’s a desperate demand for tens of thousands of fresh donors to meet the growing need for blood. Every time you donate, you’re potentially saving up to three lives. That’s three good reasons, right there, to become a blood donor. But only a tiny portion of us – less than two percent – are currently blood donors. We’re more likely to be farmers than blood donors. We’re more likely to have cancer than be blood donors. For Pete’s sake, we’re more likely to be GoodLife Fitness members than blood donors.

If you’ve never given blood before, why not give the Bloodmobile a try? Don’t you want an excuse to use the word donor-centric? And isn’t it worth it just for the cushy seats?

All the Cool Kids are Doing It

It’s mid-January. According to the universal law of calendar science, are we still allowed to share a New Year’s story? My friend Mary sent me a piece of news she knew I’d find interesting: Random acts of kindness have been listed by London-based firm as one of the hottest new trends of 2011. That’s right alongside self-monitoring your health and paying less than retail. Apparently, giving is the new taking. (I guess I’ve been out of the loop – I’d only heard that black is the new black. Or was that last year?)

This trend-reporting website is targeted to corporate types, however, so it also includes tips on capitalizing on these consumer trends for – what else? – the benefit of business. Example: Do an unexpected kindness for a customer, and that’ll show you care. The article goes further, suggesting companies can use social media tools to find out more about their individual customers. This way, they’ll pick up hints about specifically which acts of kindness will go over well.

That’s where it gets a little creepy. When the VP of marketing uses Twitter to find out about a customer who’s had a bum of a day and could use a bouquet… well, that’s almost stalking. (And why does it make me think about those old Impulse Body Spray commercials? “If a complete stranger suddenly gives you flowers, that’s Impulse…”)

Trend or no trend, I’m positive you’re not out there performing good deeds just because the cool kids do it. Compassion isn’t a new invention. And some things just never go out of style.

Ain’t That the Truth

It seems old Winnie still has a lot of fans. I got some interesting responses, both online and privately, after I quoted Winston Churchill on this blog. Actually, I quoted reader Christine quoting Churchill, and it seemed to strike a chord with people. We enjoy pithy sayings from eminent individuals, don’t we? For one thing, these truisms are usually exceedingly well articulated – these folks are poets or leaders or orators or academics, so they know how to turn a phrase. But it’s also stirring when we come across a piece of wisdom that simply rings true, sometimes on a most fundamentally human level.

The other day, a faithful longtime 50 Good Deeds reader – okay, it was my dad – sent me a link to the Power of Kindness Movie. If you can get past the soppy background meditation music (think dental office meets MIDI file), this three-and-a-half-minute video features one-liners about kindness from a run of well-known men and women. Churchill in fact starts us off but we also hear from Mark Twain and Leo Buscaglia and Princess Di and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others. There are some stunning nature scenes for your pleasure.

What’s your favourite inspirational quote about kindness? Here are a few bonus tracks, not included in the video:
Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (Yeah!) And: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Eleanor Roosevelt: “When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.”
Warren Buffett: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Life’s most urgent question is: what are you doing for others?”
Mohandas Gandhi: “Man becomes great exactly in the degree in which he works for the welfare of his fellow-men.” Plus: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Nelson Mandela: “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

If you like these, then have a peek at the Power of Kindness Movie. Call it your mid-week lift: It worked for me. Thanks, Pop.

Light My Fire

There are many ways to make a difference, and Toronto’s firefighters do it in the buff. Well, the semi-buff, anyway, which is good enough for us.

If you haven’t yet hung up a new year’s calendar – or if you just enjoy staring at photographs of bare-chested hunks who routinely put their lives on the line to protect others (is it getting hot in here…?), it’s not too late to order a copy of the 2011 Toronto Fire Fighters Calendar. All net profits from sales go to cancer research.

Firefighter calendars from past years are also on sale through the website. If you’re wondering what anyone could possibly want with an outdated calendar, then clearly you haven’t perused the online sample pics. March 2010 made me gasp out loud. And October 2009… well, no words are necessary.

Purchases can be made through an online order form. And throughout this year, every time you flip to a delicious new month in your calendar, you’ll be able to remind yourself you’re just doing your bit for charity.

P.S. While you’re on the web, stop in at Zoomer magazine’s home page for a newly posted story about this very blog. Thank you, lovely Zoomer people, for helping to spread the word!

Making a Life, the Winston Churchill Way

This is turning out to be one of those weeks. I’m just putting it out there.

We all have our junk to deal with. Mine happens to ebb and flow and this week, it seems to be flowing like Niagara Falls. Caught up in the current are a few onerous family responsibilities.

But I’m clutching close a Winston Churchill quotation that a 50 Good Deeds reader posted in the Comments section last week. Christine reminded us: “We make a living with what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” She noted, “Those are words well worth following.”

I considered this, along with the resale value of giving, and wrote back about what I give to my family. “When I feel cranky because my family’s needs are squeezing me dry,” I said, “I invariably feel better if I remind myself they are living a better life and making a fuller contribution to our communities because of my help. In essence, that is ‘making a life’ – not just mine.” And it’s true, and it actually paraphrases something I’ve said to my husband more than once before. It’s hugely satisfying to know I’m adding something of value to this world without even leaving home.

(What’s also making me feel better this week: Jumbo coffees, and blasting the bejeebers out of pretty gems in online Bejewelled – it’s very Zen, once you get into it. But the family-giving thing, yeah, that’s bigger.)

Of course, the Churchill saying can be applied very widely, because there are so many forms of giving, and so many types of givees. It so happens that it makes me think of my family, but another person may recall the coins they give daily to the down-and-out guy on the corner. Yet another may be prompted to consider the hours of volunteer time they contribute at their community centre.

These are all ways of making a life. And, like I said, not just yours.

Now for this unsponsored message: If you enjoy my blog, you may wish to support it with a nomination for the Best Health Blog Awards (category: Embrace Life). If you have another fave blog you’d rather nominate, it’s still worth checking out. You can with a prize just for submitting your nomination!

New Year, New Start

Can I just start by asking, right now, that we all agree henceforth to use the highly efficient “twenty-eleven” – instead of persisting with two thousand blah-be-di-blah? That’s so last year. Can you imagine the twisted tongues if we’d spent the entire 20th century saying things like nineteen hundred and fourscore?

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I wish all of you a very, very happy New Year and hope that twenty-eleven brings you much peace, joy and love.

If you’re in the mood to set a New Year’s resolution or two, you’re not alone. Folks across the continent are at this very moment resolving to lose weight, quit smoking, exercise more, spend less money. (I have plotted for myself the mundane yet surprisingly effectual goal of brushing for the full two minutes.)

Of course, the vast majority of these good intentions will have gone down the drain by about March. I’ve researched and written a few articles on making resolutions and breaking bad habits (here, here and here), so this I know: Change is most likely to be successful when it’s not overwhelming, but actually doable. Instead of vowing to lose forty pounds, say the experts, tell yourself you’re going to lose five or ten. Then decide how that will fit into your lifestyle. And break it down into small, manageable goals. And remember to celebrate the little milestones along the way.

So maybe your New Year’s plan is to do a bit more good out there. Wonderful! But before you set yourself an impossibly lofty expectation, like raising four million dollars for world hunger or personally adopting every poor creature from the humane society, do a reality check. What’s a reasonable goal? To do a good deed a day? A good deed a week? Or is it just to pay a little more attention on the subway, so you’re ready to give up your seat to a senior or help a parent struggling with a stroller? Is it simply to walk the long route to work, so you can pick up litter in the park along the way? These may seem like small resolutions. But they make a difference. They are good.

And what’s more, by giving up your subway seat or walking that extra six minutes, you’re also well on your way to losing those pesky five pounds. Call it karma.

So what’s your New Year’s resolution? Please share!