Monthly Archives: March 2011

You Voted Yes!

My home office is a happy place today! I’m delighted to announce that this blog is the first-ever winner of a 2011 Best Health Blog Award in the “Embrace Life” category. The inaugural national award recognizes 50 Good Deeds for its messages of charitable living, humour and personal growth – and isn’t that exactly what this website is meant to be about? I know many of you voted – some of you many times over – so I certainly have you to thank.

The complete list of winners and finalists is available on the Best Health website, here. The summer issue of Best Health magazine will also carry details about the contest results.

As for me, I get to keep this fancy badge on my blog permanently. I’ll wear it with pride, knowing that I’m making some small difference in my own way.

Big Round of Applause

My friends know I’m a sucker for flash mobs. I yearn to participate in one. It belongs on my bucket list. So whenever I hear about the latest flash-mob video, I’m checking it out on YouTube.

This one, produced by Quebec-based media corporation Groupe TVA, puts a new twist on the flash-mob concept. When a shopper in a mall stoops to retrieve an abandoned drink bottle – after other passersby have blithely ignored it – and pops it into a nearby recycle bin, the crowd literally goes wild. They’re clapping and hooting. Have a look at the grin on the startled shopper’s face: You’d smile, too, if you got a standing ovation every time you performed a random act of kindness.

(Semi-disturbing piece of trivia: In French, the expression is still “flash mob.” But, properly pronounced, it sounds more like “flesh mop.”)

Funny, but a few hours after I watched this exhilarating video for the first time, I happened to be at the mall. And the two or three times that I bent to pick up an article of clothing that had fallen from a rack, or a piece of litter, I heard a suddenly cheering crowd. I’m reasonably sure that was entirely in my imagination. But it felt kind of nice anyway.

Whether or not your small kindnesses set off a flesh mop, be assured they make a difference. If you have access to TVA’s television channel, you can tune in for a special show about the making of this project next Monday, April 4, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

A Spoonful of Sugar

I don’t know anyone who looks forward to medical tests, especially the kind that involve needles and tubes and drugs. But what’s impressive is how much easier it is to endure the poking, prodding and relative indignity of these things (can you ever look respectable in a garment that’s completely open at the back?) when the professionals you’re dealing with make an effort to be kind.

That’s what I concluded this week after accompanying my husband to a medical appointment. If you work in the health-care sector, I hope you know that a friendly smile, a lighthearted joke, a respectful tone of voice and the offer of a warm blanket may seem like small potatoes, but they make a real difference to the guy in the hospital gown.

And if, in fact, you just happen to be the sweet, gentle nurse who chatted about people we knew in common, or if you’re the slightly hyper one who was no end of cheerful… if you’re the equipment technician who was patient and gracious, or the doc who was willing to try doing a procedure differently so my husband would be safer and more comfortable… if you’re the medical secretary who always makes us feel special, trading titles of hot-pick fiction and guiding us through a staff-only shortcut to the cafeteria… if you had a sense of humour while you helped us… thank you, thank you, thank you. I hope you know you made the day a whole lot easier.

Our healthcare system isn’t perfect. But when the people working in it behave just about perfectly, it goes one heck of a long way.

Garbage Day

That’s what every Tuesday morning’s all about in my neighbourhood. So today, as I look out at the recycle bins and compost buckets lining the streets, I’m thinking about the time I purged my basement. We had been living in this house about five years. The contents of our generous-sized downstairs storage room had become an eclectic mix generally comprising three categories: unusable junk that was here when we moved in; outdated items that we no longer wanted; and forgotten boxes that we hadn’t touched since they’d been shoved into a corner on moving day.

That spring, I started clearing things out. When garbage day came around, I fed the first couple of rejects – a broken plastic toddler’s picnic table and an old wooden bifold door – to the curb. It was a promising start to a seemingly straightforward business.

The thing is, I work from home. So I’m here when the big smelly truck comes collecting. And since my office window faces the street, that day I got a front-row view of my bulky trash getting loaded and compacted, destined for the dump.

That’s when I felt my first pangs of landfiller’s remorse.

And that’s why I resolved forthwith (hmm, I can safely say I never thought I’d use the word “forthwith” on this blog) to repurpose as much of our stuff as I could. Over the next few weeks, I posted giveaway ads on Craigslist and the Freecycle Network. I sent e-mails to neighbours, offering them freebies. I had old appliances taken away for scrap metal. I collected smaller items into boxes for donation to charity.

In the end, I saved 100 cubic feet of my junk from landfill. That’s about the equivalent of my entire home office, filled to the ceiling! The discards that found new homes included an old suitcase, an outdated computer, a couple of slab doors. I even got a taker for a battered, broken-down old desk – the thrilled new owner was taking a course on restoring furniture.

If you’re thinking of doing a household cleansing this spring, consider sparing the curb on garbage day. Giveaways definitely count as good deeds. So, I think, does keeping the fill out of landfill.

Will Work For… Nothing

Do you give it away? Almost half our population aged 15-plus is volunteering for a good cause. That means over 12 million Canadians are working for nothing. They’re helping out in schools, community associations, religious groups and sports organizations. They’re coaching soccer, visiting hospitals, joining charitable boards, taking their Little Sisters out for ice cream.

Interestingly, there are certain types of volunteers who do most of the work. These tend to be parents with school-aged children, people with university degrees and folks who go to religious services every week. Although I score two out of three, my own volunteer portfolio looks, I think, rather shabby this year. My family commitments, job and household responsibilities tend to be all-consuming.

But just because I’m not taking on shifts at the hospital gift shop or fundraising for the homeless, that doesn’t mean I never give it away for free. In fact, my line of work, freelance writing, makes it fairly easy to work for nothing: In recent weeks I’ve given advice to new writers, reviewed a website, edited a grant proposal, all at no charge. Next month I’ll be a volunteer judge for an editors’ award. It’s relatively easy because I can do these jobs without moving my butt one inch from my comfy office chair.

That brings me to the next question: When do you say no? How do you know when a cause is worthy? When is it a good deed to work for nothing? When, on the other hand, are you simply being ripped off?

I discovered an entertaining flowchart that helps answer that question. If you’re a writer like me, an illustrator, an editor or a designer you will relate well. Even if you freelance in a different line of work, you might find it fits. (Cussword alert: Some language may offend, so surfer discretion is advised.) Click here to try it out, or just enjoy a chortle. It’s certainly more fun than the magic eight ball I referenced in my last blog post…

P.S. There are only four days left to vote for 50 Good Deeds to win a Best Health blog award. Click here if you’d like to add your vote!

Make the Call, or Not at All?

This week I’ve been mulling. And I’m not talking about cider.

I’m debating whether to deliver a rather unwelcome report. If I go through with it, someone who needs help is more likely to get it, and people who could get hurt are less vulnerable. Yet I won’t be a hero, because it’s not news anyone wants to hear. There’s no advantage to me or my family by making the call. In fact, there could be backlash. But I know what’s the right thing to do.

It’s not the first time I’ve brooded over something like this. I imagine you, too, have found yourself in these sticky situations before. When a good deed involves telling people bad news – but you’re convinced in the long run it will help, or save them a lot of grief – it’s a toughie. But is there really any choice? (My apologies for sounding like a Carrie Bradshaw voiceover.)

Ten years ago I suspected my friend’s bright, handsome young son had a form of autism. I had worked in the disability field for quite some time, and I recognized a handful of signs. But I didn’t tell her for a very long time. True, I didn’t want to cause her pain. If I’m being totally honest, though, I also didn’t want to be the person who delivered the message. What if she hated me for it? It wasn’t until she finally voiced her own concerns that my husband and I shared what we thought. Turned out my friend craved answers, and appreciated the information we sent her.

Since then, I’ve gently spoken to at least three other parents of very young kids who showed signs of disability. It’s such a recurring theme that it’s almost a joke, except it’s not. The parents’ reactions have varied – from total denial to utter openness – but I haven’t regretted these conversations, because I believe each one has helped at least a tiny bit.

A few weeks ago, a colleague on Facebook complained publicly of some unexplained medical symptoms. I don’t know her well, but I knew enough about her history to know what her risks were. I dithered – because how do you tell someone she may have a serious liver disease? But in the end I decided to send her a private message. She was gracious, and agreed with my suspicions. She could easily have told me to soak my head. But it wouldn’t have killed me to hear that, either.

And I guess that’s how you make this kind of decision. You weigh your own risks against the risks of not telling. Then the right move becomes pretty easy to figure out.

Have you ever found yourself struggling in a situation like this? If so, what did the magic eight ball tell you to do?

The Newest Care Bear

My teacher friend Nadia put me on to a pretty picture book about making the world a better place through good deeds. “It’s so simply written, and the message is huge!” she wrote to me. So of course I had to see a copy for myself, and looked forward to the arrival of Jack the Bear in the mail. It was a sweet read. Vancouver author and illustrator Christina Leist uses her animal characters, with some beautiful drawings made on recycled paper shopping bags, to convey to kids the power of a small act of kindness.

What made her an ambassador for the cause? “When I first came to Vancouver – I am originally from Germany – I was impressed by how nice people were to me,” Christina says. “Cars were stopping for me when I wanted to cross the street, people were apologizing.” (Yep, sounds to me like she found her way to Canada.) How did that motivate her? “I felt respected and cared for as a fellow human being. I wanted to belong to this group of people that made me feel so good, and I started to do the same for other people.”

That’s that chain of kindness we keep obsessing about.

And she decided to write a book for tiny tots. “I want to let the little ones know how simple manifesting positive change can be, that they have an important and powerful tool and never need to feel powerless.”

Christina adds that upcycling used shopping bags for her artwork is another way she sets an example: It doesn’t take much to change the world. Jack the Bear has been shortlisted for the Ontario Blue Spruce Award and the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year award.

So if you’re looking for reading material for the small people in your life, you may make a mighty impression with this little book.

Jack the Bear book cover

Count Your Kindnesses, Live Longer

So it seems you don’t have to give up martinis to add a few years to your life. All you have to do is keep track of your good deeds.

A new report at the University of Illinois shares evidence that happy, positive people have longer and healthier lives than folks who are stressed and depressed. The research team reviewed over 160 different past studies to come up with their conclusion. “Happiness is no magic bullet,” says Ed Diener, psychologist and lead author, in a news release. “But the evidence is clear and compelling that it changes your odds of getting disease or dying young.”

How do you get to happy? Separate research in Japan has found that people can increase their own level of happiness just by adding up their week’s worth of good deeds. Furthermore, they become kinder in the process. I’m no scientist, but even a layperson can draw the obvious connection: Count your own kindnesses, live to a hundred.

So next time you do a good deed, make a mental note to remember it. Give yourself permission to wallow in your kindness. It’s good for your health, and it’s so much more fun than wallowing in your own misery. Or giving up martinis, for that matter.

Heck of a Gift Registry

What does a royal wedding have in common with acts of kindness? According to several news reports, Prince William and his bride-to-be Kate Middleton will ask well-wishers to make donations to charity in lieu of wedding gifts this spring.

It makes good sense. After all, the 1947 union of Elizabeth and Philip inspired over 2,500 wedding gifts from all over the world. Thirty-four years later, more than 6,000 gifts were sent to celebrate the 1981 nuptials of Chuck and Di. See a trend here? By this rate, William and Kate could have expected close to fifteen thousand pieces of jewellery, silverware, china and furniture.

That’s a lot for a feather-duster to handle. No wonder this year’s engaged royals want to stem the tide if they can.

And it’s a win-win situation. Not only does charitable giving make a difference to those in need, but I’ll bet it also takes some of the pressure off the wedding guests. After all, what do you give to the prince who has everything? A jewel-encrusted fondue set? He’d probably get seven of them.

When I celebrated my 40th birthday (very, very recently, if you must know), I asked for party guests to donate cash to a little boy in need, instead of bringing a gift. We collected hundreds of dollars. After researching my fundraiser online, I knew that I definitely hadn’t invented the idea. Neither did Wills and Kate. But by making their request widely known, this high-profile couple may inspire thousands of other charitable celebrations around the world.

It seems His Royal Highness has a highly developed Royal Conscience.

P.S. Warm thanks to everyone who is voting for this blog to win a Best Health blog award! You can continue to vote daily until March 21. Every click counts!