Monthly Archives: May 2011

Home Sweet Home

My husband, daughter and I were flying high on Saturday night… and it had nothing to do with the wine at dinner. Rather, it was thanks to a young couple we met for the first time that evening, who did us a rather tremendous good deed.

We’d just left the 80th birthday celebration of a dear friend, so we were already in a buoyant mood. And since we already happened to be in the neighbourhood where we used to live, we decided to take a swing past our first house.

To get you up to speed: You need to know that this little house is special. It’s a sweet, modest-sized farmhouse, well over 100 years old, and filled with character and creaking floorboards. My husband and I got married in the living room of this house. My baby girl was born in the back bedroom. And outside in the yard we poured – if not blood – at least a lot of sweat and tears into making the garden our own.

Last year the house changed hands, and we didn’t know anything about the current occupants. But as we cruised close on Saturday, our first impression of the garden we built, and then left behind, was jubilant. When you’re as passionate about digging in the dirt as we are, it’s sheer joy to see these shrubs and perennials well tended and thriving. Do I sound corny? (Did you catch another horticulture reference?)

Then we spotted the young couple who’d taken over this grand estate. They were puttering around outside. I couldn’t resist jumping out of the car and asking if we could take a closer look at the garden.

These lovely people said yes without hesitation.

My husband, daughter and I roamed the yard with delight. We pointed out the rose-of-sharon bush that had started as a two-foot wedding gift and now towers eight feet high. The pussy willow that travelled from my grandmother in a small pot is now full-grown as well. The homeowners were intrigued to know that the tree-branch garden trellis was handmade by my sister. That the back fence had been built with a secret gate so we could visit the friends who lived behind us. That, for a time, a family of skunks regularly frolicked on the back lawn in the moonlight. We answered their questions about the age of the roof, and how to trim the weeping pea shrub.

To top it off, we were given a tour of the house’s interior, complete with its beautiful new distressed-hardwood floors and dream kitchen (want that!). And our baby girl – who just turned twelve – got to see the room where she slept for the first four years of her life. Memories were jogged. “My bed was there,” she said wonderingly, pointing to the far wall.

This little house has always had good karma. You see it from the sidewalk, you step inside and you know it immediately. And I think it attracts kind people. We came away from our first house so gratified to have reconnected with the garden, peeked in the rooms, lusted over the gorgeous kitchen – and made a lovely acquaintance with the current owners. Home sweet home, indeed.

White house

Admit it: It’s a cutie-pie place to live!

Running in Undies

Kudos to thousands of students across the continent who are streaking around campus this month in their underwear. The Undie Run is an annual awareness event to raise funds and clothing donations for people in need. It seems its three founders have hit on a winning combination, as they express on their website a collective fondness for charity, college and running around in nothing but skivvies.

One post-secondary institution that participated this year for the first time was the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). The school managed to corral a couple of hundred of its students into stripping down for a good cause, and collected 440 pounds of donated clothing in the process. What was one student’s motivation? As he told his local paper, “How often can you run around campus in your underwear without being considered a total weirdo?” Apparently that works for a lot of people.

But being the fickle month of May, it turned out to be rather chilly and drizzly the day of the event. Co-founder Kyle Kuhlmann says they’re thinking about switching the annual skinfest to a warmer time of year, since it might possibly attract more participants. (Ya think?)

In the meantime, pants off – I mean, hats off to all of them for coming up with a fun way to support an important cause. Smells like teen spirit for sure.

Giving and Sharing and Hawking

It was a fantastic long weekend, filled with all things good: beautiful weather, gardening, food and drink, and family. But there turned out to be no rapture. Or at the very least, as someone on one of my listservs helpfully pointed out, none of us was deemed rapture-worthy. (I beg to differ. You’re all kind, affectionate people. I’d rapture you in a second if it were up to me.)

So it seems we’re stuck here on earth. What’s a mere mortal to do? One fellow who spends a lot of time stargazing is renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. His theories about the origins of the universe have made him a bestselling author, with millions of fans reading his science-heavy books – or at least owning them. It stands to reason that a lot of people would be interested in what Stephen Hawking has to say about the meaning of life.

Recently he spoke to a science reporter from The Guardian in an exclusive interview. (As it happens, I too had the pleasure of exclusively interviewing Stephen Hawking, back in the day. To be precise, it was 1993, I was still cutting my teeth as a journalist at Abilities magazine, and the fax machine was the technology of the moment. How exciting it was to hold a thermal-paper printout filled with Hawking’s genius answers to my questions. I don’t know if I was more impressed to be communicating with one of modern science’s most brilliant brains, or because he’d just made a guest appearance on my fave TV show of the time, Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

In The Guardian article, the Q & A with Hawking is necessarily short (mine was longer, she said, gloating), because he answers the reporter not with rambling speech, but by inputting commands one at a time into a computer. I imagine Hawking gives more thoughtful responses than your average interviewee.

Thus it’s meaningful to me that when the reporter refers to the existence of humans and asks: “So here we are. What should we do?”, Hawking proclaims: “We should seek the greatest value of our action.”

Interpret that how you want. But I take it to mean that we should be the kindest, most generous and most productive versions of ourselves that we can be. In other words: Live a fulfilling life by doing good.

You heard it here first. Exclusively.

Stephen Hawking on the cover of Abilities magazine

In 1993 I asked Hawking what it was like to appear in a TV sci-fi. Perhaps channeling Dr. McCoy, he replied: "I am a scientist, not an actor. Appearing on Star Trek was fun but I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it.” Yes, he also answered important questions about sciencey stuff.

You Just Can’t Lose

Here’s a short tale about a little boy, good deeds and… Canadian Tire. Yes indeed, there really is a lot more to this reliable neighbourhood store than tires.

If you grew up in Canada, you’ve likely handled your share of Canadian Tire money. It may even claim a small section of your wallet, where you hoard the brightly coloured bills, only sometimes remembering to pull them out at the cash register along with your purchase of – depending on the season – snow scraper or hornet control spray. These close-to-worthless coupons have been around since forever. So has that jovial white-haired guy who appears on the bills, wearing a jaunty hat and handlebar moustache and looking only too delighted to save you a nickel or two on your next two-hundred-dollar purchase. (Who is that guy, really?)

In fact, one of the easiest good deeds I ever do happens at the Canadian Tire store. It takes about six seconds, starting from when I get handed a few cents’ worth of Canadian Tire bills at the cash counter as a reward for my patronage, and finishing as I stuff the paper into the donation bin by the exit. Have you seen these bins? The money isn’t much, but it all adds up to help kids from low-income families participate in sports and recreation.

My friend Jeff recently shared a lovely story that centers on Canadian Tire money. Well, truthfully it centers on his six-year-old son, who was born in Haiti and became a cherished part of Jeff’s family last year in B.C.

You can imagine how many questions a small child might have after leaving a poverty-stricken land freshly devastated by an earthquake and moving to an entirely new country. Maybe there were questions about snow and school and hockey and big brothers. But at least one question came up when Jeff’s youngest son saw those donation bins in their local Canadian Tire store for the first time. He asked dad about them.

“When I explained what they were for, he was so happy to put his newfound money in there. He didn’t hesitate for a second,” Jeff wrote to me, adding: “He once lived with literally nothing, and now he gives so freely. It was such a great – and humbling – moment.”

It makes me think of a few lines from that old Monty Python standard, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”:

“What have you got to lose? You know, you’ve come from nothing, you’re going back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing!

Jeff’s youngest child may be only six. But he already seems to know that when we give, we’ve got nothing to lose.

Little boy on a bicycle

Is our pint-sized superhero hot on the trail of his next good deed?

Be Kind: Doctor’s Orders

Where would we be without the all-knowing Mayo Clinic? From abdominal pain to Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, this is your go-to medical site. (It’s definitely mine; in my freelance work I write quite a lot of health articles, and good ol’ Mayo rarely lets me down.)

This month the news bureau released a list of “10 Tips for Better Health” in the latest issue of its Mayo Clinic Health Letter. So these top-notch medical experts decided to hand-pick, from the smorgasbord that is online health information, what they figure to be the top 10 things we should all be doing to benefit our bodies and minds.

Yes, there’s the predictable advice on eating fibre and being active. That part is just what you’d expect, and what your mom (who’s also all-knowing, by the way) always told you.

But here’s what’s got me pumped: A full five of the tips – that’s half the list – have to do with kindness, positivity and giving. Look after a pet, the Mayo Clinic suggests. Be a positive thinker. And while you’re at it, forgive your loved ones, do volunteer work and be thankful for what you have.

All of these health strategies are backed by research and will make you feel better, live longer and experience less stress.

Well. If a collection of North America’s most well-regarded docs are pushing it, you know it’s gotta be good. Who was it that said laughter was the best medicine? It seems quite a few other things that make you smile are good for more than just your soul.

Excuse Me, But Your Cans are Uncovered

Two months ago, I wrote about bad news as a good deed. Today it’s a variation on the same theme, except in a less cosmic kind of way.

Some acts of kindness are well meant but kind of mean. Know what I mean? It’s that old spinach-in-the-teeth conundrum. I would always want to be told there’s something green stuck where it shouldn’t be, honestly I would (are you making a mental note of this, in case you and I ever do lunch?). And yet when a friend or family member does occasionally inform me that a wayward leafy shred has sabotaged my smile, I can’t help but feel embarrassed. Almost like I wish they hadn’t said anything. As I slink off to a mirror to deal with it, I’m tabulating all the places I’ve been that day, counting the number of hours it’s been since my last meal and calculating how many people may have spotted the green speck. You do it too, don’t you?

So there I was on the city bus yesterday, ostensibly staring off into general space, yet somehow I came to notice that the bosomy young woman across the aisle from me had missed a shirt button over, well, a fairly critical part of her cleavage.

I ask you: Do you tell a total stranger that her tatas are showing?

Of course you do. The woman was toting luggage and headed for the subway, both signs that she was at the beginning of a potentially long voyage of planes, trains and automobiles. I really don’t think she would have wanted to flash every fellow traveller she happened to encounter along the way. As the bus pulled into the station and we both stood up, I discreetly caught her attention and murmured in her ear. She flashed me a sheepish grin – and that was hopefully the end of her flashing for the day.

It was also my first good deed of the day.

Now, personally I don’t think I’m at much risk of showing too much jug. So you don’t have to worry about that on my account. But do make me a promise regarding that spinach-teeth thing we were talking about earlier. It may be mean, it may be a tad humiliating, but it also makes a difference.

That’s what it’s all about, baby.

Froth and Bubble: We’re Not Talking Beer

A former colleague recently shared a few lines from her favourite poem. It’s by a 19-century Australian (and sometime champion horse jockey) by the name of Adam Lindsay Gordon. The lines are from long ballad he wrote called “Ye Warie Wayfarer,” and they go like this:

Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.

I asked my friend why she finds these lines meaningful. “The poem just immediately resonated with me, and the older I get, the more it does,” she says. “It’s just beautiful in its simplicity, and I think it is a lesson we would all do well to learn.” She told me she first heard these lines from the lips of Diana, Princess of Wales, who was certainly no slouch when it came to acts of charity.

In fact, it reminds me of a speech Diana made in 1993 on the value of community supports. According to reports, she concluded her presentation with these rousing words: “Perhaps we’re too embarrassed to change, too frightened of the consequences of showing that we care. But why not risk it anyway?” She added, “Begin today! Carry out a random act of seemingly senseless kindness – with no expectation of reward or punishment. Safe in the knowledge that one day, someone, somewhere, might do the same for you.”

Lovely, lovely. Since Diana of Wales and Adam of Down Under lived in separate centuries – and the time machine, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t yet invented – I can say with some degree of confidence that Diana and Adam never met. But they had something tragic in common: Both died before reaching their 40s. They also shared something magical. Both left lasting legacies by inspiring kindness and fortitude in those of us who continue to read their words.

Postscript: This week I was invited to be a guest blogger on fellow writer Lisa Tabachnick Hotta’s Kids and Mental Health blog. Of course, I wrote about good deeds. Think there’s a connection? Naturally! Check it out here.

Aren’t these amazing? They’re my favourite tulips out of all those blooming in my garden right now. By the way, this photo has nothing whatsoever to do with today’s post. I just thought I’d add a little extra lift today.

I’d Turn off the TV

Have you seen the television show called “What Would You Do”? The hour-long program airs on ABC on Friday nights. Actors are planted in public settings where they play out some kind of interpersonal conflict: a shopper behaves cruelly towards a grocery bagger with a disability; an interracial couple announces their engagement to racist parents who freak out; a waitress applying at a restaurant is told she can’t wear a Muslim head covering on the job.

The storylines are completely fake. But unwitting bystanders overhear these exchanges, and the question to viewers becomes: Will they intervene? Will they come to a stranger’s aid? Will they stand up for what’s right? Or as host John Quiñones puts it, “When you think no one is watching, do you step in, step up or step away?”

The premise sounds promising. After all, we know people are mostly kindhearted. So wouldn’t this show simply demonstrate the best side of humanity?

It certainly involves a whole lot of hidden cameras, disguises and intrigue. But the only real mystery on this show is how long it will take before a variety of unsuspecting Americans are revealed to be bigots or wimps. They’re the ones who hang back, maybe grimacing in disapproval or whispering to their friends when they see a disturbing altercation, but never really getting involved. And then there’s all the make-you-squirm scenarios that are acted out specially for the show: An over-the-edge mom throws her squabbling young children out of the car and drives away. A badly battered woman walks into a restaurant followed by an abusive boyfriend who berates her. Why do we want to watch people make this stuff up? Sure, maybe some of them were inspired, as the host says, by real-life news. But hello: who really needs to see them re-enacted in all their gory details? Isn’t that a bit like gaping at a car wreck?

Unfortunately this kind of setup not only brings out the best in people, but also the worst in a few folks who take the wrong side, or just hang back in apathy. And that seems to play right into what the producers are going for: The WWYD website promises to “draw outrage” and make you “cringe.” Sure, high drama makes great reality television. If helpful bystanders stepped in every time, there wouldn’t be any show.

But, see, I don’t think we need to fabricate more ugliness. Although I like the idea of a TV show that makes us think about when and how we offer a helping hand to someone in distress, this one doesn’t do it for me.

What Would I Do? Probably turn off the TV.

Check the Expiry Date

My daughter and I were on the bus the other day when an older woman got on and slowly made her way toward the back, obviously looking for a place to sit. As she passed fit-looking riders in seats, no one jumped up. So when she got to us, halfway back, I offered her our spot. She had already spied another empty seat but she gave me a big smile. “Thank you very much for offering,” she said. “No one is ever kind anymore.”

I protested. People want to help, they’re just clued out. I made the same argument at a recent girls’ night out, when one of my friends complained that common courtesy has taken a nose dive because nobody cares. I just had to open my mouth. “I don’t think that’s true,” I said. I expounded my theory: People are fundamentally kind. But when we’re rushing from A to B, modern-day crap gets in the way. I think the combined stresses of hectic lifestyles, job demands, sleep deprivation, text messaging, recessions, crowds, mortgages, gas prices, federal elections and Jacob-versus-Edward controversies all work to distract people from the neediness that’s right in front of our faces.

I know I walk around in a fog sometimes. I know, too, that I used to be worse. The practice of doing a good deed a day taught me to pay a bit more attention to what’s around me. But still I’m certain I’ve missed many opportunities to do good turns, simply because I’ve been preoccupied.

What do you think? Are we as a society really getting more selfish? Or do we just have too much on our minds? Is politeness passé? Is benevolence behind the times? Is altruism obsolete?

Say it isn’t so.