Monthly Archives: September 2011

School Supplies

Carrie Gelson is one of those schoolteachers they make movies about. I guess we don’t really need any more titles like Dangerous Minds or To Sir with Love or Stand and Deliver or Freedom Writers or Summer School – stop me now, I’m begging you – but, truly, Ms. Gelson shines.

Many of her inner-city East Vancouver pupils live in poverty, without proper socks and shoes on their feet or breakfast in their bellies. Just to try to meet their basic needs, Ms. Gelson keeps a desk drawer full of cracker boxes in the classroom, and stays on the hunt for secondhand footwear that might fit the kids.

Last week, in a flash moment of frustration, Ms. Gelson wrote an open letter about the dire needs of her grade-two students. It was meant only for her friends. But then it went online, and quickly viral.

And a good thing, too. This week, Ms. Gelson has gone from frustrated to floored – by the generosity of the folks in her community, and beyond. Cash donations have been pouring into the school, along with socks, boots and jackets. And, of course, lots and lots of cracker boxes. The story made national news.

We appoint teachers to make a difference for our children. This one is doing it in spades.

You Pays Your Money and You Takes Your Chances

Ka-ching! Do you support charities? Of course you do, if you fit the average Canadian profile. More than eight out of 10 of you have given cash to a good cause within the past year. Ever wonder if your money actually makes it to the people who matter?

MoneySense has the answers – at least some of them – on its personal finance website. Check out its just-released chart that rates 100 well-known charities on their “efficiency.” We all understand you gotta spend money to make money. But which non-profit organization is spending six bucks to raise a hundred, and which is spending almost sixty? How much of the money these agencies raise actually gets poured into programming?

One caution: Some groups may not look so good on paper because they’re saving up funds now to flow into research projects later. The MoneySense editors recommend you use the chart only as a starting point. If you have questions, talk to the charities directly.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I’m off to check on my charities. It feels a little like checking my funds on the stock market. Except a bear market could be a really good thing… if you’re talking about a non-profit nature conservation group.

Euphoria in Utah

They’re being hailed as the Utah Heroes. But when this clip was first circulated, I honestly didn’t want to watch it. I have a low tolerance for video horror, and the words “burning wreckage” in the clip title had me ready to shut down my browser.

Then I found out this group of “let’s-roll” do-gooders have been credited for saving a young man’s life. And putting their own safety on the line to do it.

After a 21-year-old motorcyclist collided with a BMW, he was trapped under the smoking car, unable to move or speak, his own bike violently in flames beside him. Bystanders rushed to help the accident victim, despite admitting later that they honestly thought there was no hope.

But between the eight of them, they managed to lift the edge of the car and drag Brandon Wright to safety. It ended up making the difference between life and death. The whole thing was filmed from the ninth floor of a Utah State University building and posted to YouTube.

In a group interview on Ellen DeGeneres’ TV show, it was clear the crisis had brought out the best in this group. One very young woman confessed: “Usually I’m really not good under pressure.” She surprised herself.

And in typical hero fashion, another guy told a reporter: “I don’t consider myself a hero. It’s just our humanity… Everyone is going to help.”

Wright is badly injured, but recovering. “I should have died several times, but I didn’t… it just makes life that much more precious to me,” he said in a video shown on Ellen. “That car could have blown up at any time, and just how brave they are, is crazy. I’m forever in debt to them.”

Ellen DeGeneres helped Wright start to repay that debt by giving the do-gooders all their very own car jacks with her face on them. Apparently, no vehicle should be without. Oh, and she handed them each tickets for a Caribbean cruise.

Richly deserved. Karma is bigger when a TV star hears about your heroism.

Gimme Gimme Always Gets

My relatively new buddy Larry in B.C. posted something on Facebook yesterday too delicious not to share: “Larry likes to give gifts, and realizes that receiving a gift is as important as giving a gift.”

Now that’s an interesting twist… remember when you were six years old, and getting a new Hot Wheels racer or Cabbage Patch Kid was actually pretty nifty? Is Larry saying that in our devotion to giving, we’ve lost sight of that childish joy of getting?

He went on to write: “And what I like to get from other people the most is a person’s presence, even if it’s a minute of their time, a genuine hello, and honest hug, or a legit high five, to treat me with honour, integrity and to be true… it is the greatest gift I can get from anyone.

“This is what fuels my soul and my spirit.”

Aw now, Larry, that’s just sweet. I have a sudden urge to brush my teeth.

Some of you longtime readers may remember Larry as the well-grounded hero from the case of the foiled convenience store robbery. I’ve come to know him as a guy who defends what he believes in and doesn’t hold back.

So if Larry thinks we ought to cherish what we’re given, and not just what we give, he’s probably right. Today, I’m going to appreciate the five minutes of neighbour chitchat I stopped for on my morning walk. I’m going to be glad for the carpool that’s bringing my daughter home from choir rehearsal so I don’t have to. And if somebody happens to drop in unexpected with a sushi lunch… I’m just saying, I won’t turn you away. (Oh, and spicy salmon hand rolls are my fave.)

What are you receiving today that’s important?

A group of Cabbage Patch dolls in a crib

Since I’m not six anymore, I’d really prefer to hold out for a salmon roll.

Might As Well Face It, I’m Addicted to Questions

I’m a survey junkie. There, I’ve said it. I like to fill out questionnaires. Does this make me weird, narcissistic or intellectually curious? Maybe a bit of each. I’m interested in new initiatives and social trends, and sometimes filling out surveys provides that fix. Other times, I experience the satisfaction of sharing my opinion (“NO, I do NOT think that gaucho pants should be making a fashion comeback”).

Here’s the best part: A great many of these questionnaires are opportunities for easy-peasy good deeds… in other words, right up my (lazy) alley! Filling out a hospital form about a recent visit, telling a charity which social platforms I’m most likely to follow them on, giving feedback about the functionality of an NGO’s website… I’ve done it all without putting on my shoes.

Sometimes the difference you can make just by marking a few boxes is more magnificent than you expected. Five months ago, I filled out a few simple questions for the Ontario Health Study, a new population-based research project that could improve the prevention and treatment of major diseases internationally. Yes, that means all over planet Earth. The first message to come on my screen after I hit the “submit” button was: “Thank you for being part of something big!” Didn’t I feel like a hotshot.

I’m also an online panelist for the market research firm Angus Reid. Sure, they’re getting cheap labour from me, not to mention a sizeable markup for their clients who are paying to know what makes people tick. But when the dollar or so that I earn on every survey reaches fifty bucks, it can all be transferred to charity with the click of a mouse. Click, good deed done, pour more coffee.

Isn’t it fine when something you like doing also helps others? Do you have a hobby that makes a difference?

Three Medium-Sized Words

“Only through service to others can anyone have genuine happiness.” I was interviewing an expert on virtues recently, and she made this magnificent claim oh-so-casually, it was as if she were telling me the weather forecast. I was intrigued. So the meaning of life has been all figgered out? Did I miss the front-page news? If it’s that simple, why don’t more of us know this stuff?

With the release of a new book by John Hallward, maybe more of us will. His book is called The Happiness Equation: The Human Nature of Happy People. The author, who’s a research executive with Ipsos, surveyed over 1000 Canadians about what makes us happy and found, well, pretty much what she said.

In an interview with The Toronto Star, Hallward shares his golden key to utter happiness. In fact, he reiterates it three separate times: “Compassion over consumption.” That’s the secret. Three little – well, three medium-sized words.

Hallward means we should do what we feel passionate about, forge connections with other people, be charitable, do volunteer work.

That sure sounds like “service to others” to me.

And in case you’re wondering, according to Hallward’s research, you can forget fame and riches. They won’t do it for you. Just stay out of debt. Then open your heart, and you’re set.

Book cover for The Happiness Equation

If you're happy and you know it, you're probably too busy serving others to clap your hands...

On the Right Track

A train, a writer, a cast, a kid and a wedding planner. They all came together last month in a chain of kindnesses.

My colleague, writer Christine, had just wrapped up a business trip in Toronto and was preparing to leave on the train. Her right arm is temporarily in plaster thanks to a tree-root-versus-radius-bone mishap, so she preboarded ahead of the other passengers. Also preboarding was 12-year-old Natalie, first-time solo traveller, long-time sweetie-pie.

The thing was, the little girl wasn’t quite ready to be launched. Nor to let go of the older cousin who was dropping her off. “Natalie couldn’t seem to stop crying,” Christine says. “So I offered to sit with her.” This sat well with Cousin Katie. Business cards were exchanged, because that’s what we do.

On the train ride, kindly Christine did her best to distract the girl from her distress by chatting her up about school, summer vacation, pop culture and writing. Natalie calmed down, even helped Christine unwrap the parts of her lunch that would have been challenging with only one working arm. When it was time for Christine to disembark, her new friend admitted she was feeling better.

How neat it is when an act of compassion leads to an act of connection. Cousin Katie wrote to thank Christine. Christine noted from the e-mail signature that Katie plans weddings. It so happened that a fellow writer needed help with articles for a bridal magazine. Christine put Katie and Other Writer in touch with each other. (Note to the non-scribes in the crowd: Once again, we freelancers do this kind of thing all the time.)

“I believe that we meet people for a reason,” Christine says, “and now I know why I met Katie – not only to feel good about helping her young cousin, but to maybe help a fellow [writer] and an independent business owner.”

Not to mention, Christine might still be gnawing away at Saran Wrap if little Natalie hadn’t been there to apply nimble fingers to her packed sandwich.

“Who knows, maybe more will come of this,” Christine adds. “What goes around, comes around.”

What I keep saying.

On Occasionally Being a Horrible Human Being

As the author of this blog, there’s one thing I try to emphasize as often as required: Although I may write about good deeds, I’m no girl guide. On the contrary, I’m usually a reasonable distance from saintly. I’m like most of you readers. I get inspired by giving, I feel connected during moments of compassion. And sometimes I screw up badly.

Last week, while in a semi-public building with my daughter and a young friend, nature gave the three of us a call. We sought out the nearest restroom. It was after hours, the custodian was about to close up the place, and our voices echoed off the walls as we entered the quiet-looking ladies’ room. So when I took a stall and was immediately and strongly assaulted in the olfactory sense, I didn’t think anything of making a string of brazen comments. I scooted across to the other row of stalls, loudly laughing to the girls that it wasn’t possible to do my business near such a bomb site. The words “ground zero” were used. A fair amount of hilarity ensued.

It wasn’t until I was washing my hands and glancing into the mirror that my laughter died away. Right behind me was a single occupied stall. It was close to the entrance. Which is why we’d missed it when we first walked in.

In that moment, my big mouth and I understood just how cruel we’d been.

I muttered something about meeting my daughter outside, and slunk out of that restroom fast. If I’d had a tail, it would have been between my legs. I wailed to the friend who was waiting for me: “I am a horrible, horrible human being!” But, of course, I couldn’t take back what I’d done. Not only was the poor woman in the bathroom dealing with bad guts, but I’d just made her feel worse about it.

It doesn’t matter how many good deeds we do, or discuss, or inspire. It doesn’t even begin to take the edge off an act of unkindness. Good and bad acts don’t cancel each other out, it just doesn’t work that way. I left that public washroom feeling like the biggest heel around.

If there’s a lesson in this, it’s that it wouldn’t hurt to watch my words more carefully. (At least while out in public. I can’t promise that my immediate household will be spared my smartmouth.) Something to strive for.

Well, I didn’t mean to bring the house down, so now for a pick-me-up: A woman named Lisa Carter (I don’t know her, although I like her first name) has tapped this website for the Versatile Blog Award. I’m going to duck the rules on this one, since they sound suspiciously similar to the Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award bestowed here several weeks ago. But nevertheless I appreciate the honour, and I’m sending Lisa a genuine thank you and a virtual pot of chrysanthemums. Merci!

DON’T Curb Your Enthusiasm

Dear readers, happy International Enthusiasm Week! According to the cloud, September 1 to 7 is dedicated to demonstrating enthusiasm for every person, project and possibility you happen to meet. So if total strangers beam at you, babble happily to your adorable (but of course he is) baby, or gush over your midcentury-chic skirt, they’re probably just getting into the spirit of the season.

Of course, it could be that they’re in a good mood because today also happens to be a birthday shared by a trio of Hollywood hunks, namely Keanu Reeves, Mark Harmon and Tuc Watkins. (I don’t want to play favourites, but let’s just say that Keanu is the only one whose name appears on my freebie list.) And there’s lots of other celebrations going on right now, too: September is Biscuit Month, Chicken Month, Yoga Month and Head Lice Prevention Month. So very many reasons to smile.

Seriously, though, I don’t think we need to confine our enthusiasm for others to a single week of the year, do we? Just as it’s not a good idea to save nit inspections for only September. But if establishing an International Enthusiasm Week gets more people practising positive vibes in their daily lives, then why not? Right now I’m feeling very enthusiastic about a strong cup of coffee. Does that count?

What, or who, are you enthusiastic about this week?

Child with very enthusiastic expression

How soon do we start?