Monthly Archives: December 2011

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Kindness

Holiday shopping – urgh. We all have our horror stories. But very often we also have touching stories, and today I’m going to share my friend Leisa’s tale.

It started brutally early on Monday morning. At least it felt early to my pal and her husband Jim, both of whom, for a host of conspiring reasons, are sleep-starved and bleary-eyed these days. The couple had already hit several specialty stores before reaching their local shopping mall. Then there was a brief delay in the parking lot, where they stopped to help push a stranger’s car closer to the set of jumper cables that would revive it. “It was no big deal – our good deed for the day,” Leisa told me.

This particular shopping mall covers 1.6 million square feet, and Leisa and Jim probably ended up treading across every single one of them. Five hours and many, many stores later, the worn-out pair suddenly noticed that one of their shopping bags was missing.

“It was a bag containing $103 worth of clothes for the kids, which was our largest purchase of the day,” said Leisa. “Jim only then realized he’d set it down somewhere. But the question was… where?”

Already physically drained (and perhaps financially too), the couple began the painful process of retracing their steps. In the Christmas section at Zellers they hit gold. A store clerk had stashed the bag safely behind the customer service desk. “What a huge relief,” Leisa said. Sure, they were relieved, but they were also near comatose with exhaustion, and the long lineup at customer service did nothing to pick them up. Happy times again – the same saintly store staffer noticed them waiting and jumped the line to retrieve their shopping bag.

“With our fatigue and then the stress over our almost-loss, I was almost in tears when he brought the bag out to us, and I think he was really touched by that,” Leisa said. The group of three promptly traded heaping amounts of good cheer, each not to be outdone by the others: “We offered ‘Merry Christmases’ back and forth about four times before we left!”

Now it’s my turn to offer you heaping amounts of holiday cheer. Whatever you celebrate, whether it’s Christmas or Festivus or just the fact that you’ve got Three Days Off Workivus, I hope it’s done with good company, good food and something jolly in your glass. All the best!

Paper bird ornament with Peace written on it

Lisa is making merry and will be back in 2012.

Hello Kitty

Better than a teddy bear: It’s Stewie the comfort cat, a beautiful black-haired, hazel-eyed feline who apparently doubles as a babysitter for his household’s latest – and tiny – addition.

Ever wonder if animals are capable of performing acts of kindness? Practically any pet owner will tell you there’s no doubt about it. If you need proof, Stewie’s family caught it on video. In this YouTube moment, new baby Connar fusses grumpily in his seat and Stewie reaches out a paw in response – not to scratch his teary infant eyes out, but rather to stroke his cheek and pat the baby’s head. Really. A cat.

It seems to work magic. Connar – who knows? Maybe by now he’s used to kitty care – settles down, closing his eyes and calmly slurping his lower lip in preparation for, well, a catnap.

Keep watching. Stewie leans over to kiss Connar’s bald spot – I kid you not – and even licks his chops afterwards, because we all know babies smell and taste good. Stewie’s proprietary paw stays on Connar’s head until he’s fully asleep, at which point the cat finally looks up at the camera: “Did I do good?” he’s clearly asking in petspeak.

Stewie, you did great. You are obviously a beast of great benevolence, not to mention an expert baby handler. Although one can’t help but wonder if things will go as smoothly through the potty training stage.

Cat patting baby's head

Hush little baby, don’t you cry, Stewie’s gonna purr you a lullaby…

Write By Your Side

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the bigheartedness of writers, and it likely won’t be the last. In a field where you’d expect cutthroat competitiveness, all of us vying for the same freelance jobs, you get instead a special brand of camaraderie. We pass around work leads, we share industry news, we praise one’s magazine feature or another’s book release.

Oh, and in special cases we feed each other.

Carey Rutherford, in Calgary, is a self-employed single dad dealing with rent and grocery bills while establishing himself as a writer. These are lean times and, like almost 900,000 other Canadians, he relates more than one visit to the local food bank to keep the pantry filled.

Carey also likes visiting with other writers, so he recently hosted a meeting of a local group in the modest apartment he shares with his daughter. (Yes, it was an important opportunity to network with colleagues. It also meant potluck leftovers.)

Carey was astounded when the group president arrived early carrying not just potluck dishes for the meeting, but also a large box of non-perishable food items for the host. Her own family of four knew Carey was struggling and had decided to help.

“I was so touched!” Carey says, adding that this particular donor of digestibles has already demonstrated her generosity by supporting and encouraging his writing business.

Furthermore, the benefactor in question just happens to be Andrea Tombrowski, co-author (along with husband Peter) of Urban Camping: A Testament to Living Without a Vehicle. Which means, you guessed it, she doesn’t own a car. The food hamper for Carey involved a one-hour round-trip to the grocery store, on foot, pushing a jogging stroller. And that was just the start. Says Carey: “The care package for me, the foods purchased for the meeting, and herself, were all transported from one side of Calgary’s newly descended winter landscape to the other on public transit!”

Andrea calls her act a “humble little deed” and told me, “When someone says they’re using the food bank, you listen – and hopefully respond in a meaningful way.” She was relieved that Carey was gracious, not offended.

Far from it. He virtually shouted out his grocery gratitude on a writers’ message board where many would see it: “I would like to suggest loud, enthusiastic applause for our thoughtful member,” he wrote. “You rule!”

“Our family is not financially well off, by any means,” says Andrea. “We rent a small apartment and maintain a small footprint. The point is to give from what you have, and not wait until you are ‘better off’… Use the opportunities to be of service to your fellow man now.”

You know they say nice guys finish last? Maybe that’s because they carried a food hamper on foot. Carey’s right. Do-gooders do rule.

Carey Rutherford working at his desk

Carey Rutherford hard at work: There’s no Plants vs. Zombies going on here. All the more reason to hire this guy.

Light Show

I admit my outdoor lights aren’t yet hung for the holidays (or rather – as is my style of late – tossed over a low evergreen bush, since the ladder is just another hassle I can’t deal with). But while I have no excuse, Madeline Oag had a tragic one. Her 40-year-old son Doug, who traditionally put up the lights every year for his elderly mom, passed away unexpectedly. It happened exactly two months before Christmas.

Doug was on vacation in Jamaica when he died. He had already started the task of hanging over 100,000 lights at the family home in Essex County, Ontario, before he left.

Thanks to the Oag family’s longtime property manager, Ryan Bondy, the job was finally completed last week. First Ryan recruited volunteers from his company. Then friends and neighbours heard about the initiative and jumped on board to help. Even people who never knew Doug joined in, including a local student who was so filled with seasonal generosity that he was willing to skip school to pitch in.

The group effort was clearly a comfort to Doug’s grieving best friend, who said in a news story: “It feels great being here, having everyone come together as a community.”

By the end of the day, the lights were on. “Hopefully we can give Mrs. Oag and her family a little Christmas spirit,” Ryan told a reporter.

A Cigarette Butt, a Boy and a Bus Driver

For someone who ostensibly works from home, I use a lot of public transit. And those cold vinyl benches are often a front-row seat for watching warm acts of kindness.

Three days ago I was on a city bus waiting to leave the subway station when I heard an exchange between the bus driver and a kid. The younger of the two was standing around outside – waiting for his ride, I suppose.

It wasn’t a small kid by any means. He was old enough to puff a cigarette. He was old enough to read the no-smoking-on-transit-property sign. And he was old enough to scramble over the low metal rail bordering the station’s front entrance, squeezing himself onto a very narrow curb beside the roadway where all buses exited the station.

See, he was still young enough to worry that he’d get in heaps of trouble with his cig. Technically, or so he thought, by balancing on that small curb the kid was not in the station and was therefore abiding by any and all tobacco restrictions.

My bus driver tooted his horn and waved him over. Did he give him heck for having a puff so close to the station? Did he bawl him out for tarring his lungs? Naw. “I’m going to hit you if you’re there,” he admonished him instead.

The driver advised the boy to climb back over to the other side of the metal railing and smoke where he’d at least be safe from traffic. “We won’t bite, honest,” he promised him, then added under his breath: “Everyone else does it.” The boy obediently clambered back over the barrier with his cigarette. And as our heroic bus driver pulled out of the station, he muttered – again, to no one in particular: “It’s better than getting hit.”

The driver knew the kid was going to smoke no matter what. He just wanted him to be safe. I’m sure that if that young man’s mom had been there, she would have been grateful. (Well, first she might have bawled out her boy for tarring his lungs. Then she would have been grateful.)

It was yet another act of benevolence witnessed on the city transit system. Maybe we need a name for this category: “Transit”-ory good deeds? Somehow that doesn’t quite cut it. Suggestions?

A no-smoking sign that has been converted into a no-pie sign with one strategically placed line

This is the kind of thing that graffiti artists in my neighbourhood do at subway stations. I think no-pie zones are cruel.

StatsCan: We’re Getting Kinder

It’s official – we’re generous. Statistics Canada has just released the charitable donations data from our most recent tax returns. In 2010, Canadians reported over eight billion dollars in donations to charity, an increase of 6.5% in just a year.

Nunavut citizens are especially big-hearted. For 11 years in a row, they’ve given more cash to good causes than folks in any other province or territory. And the most generous urban areas in Canada? They’re Abbotsford-Mission (B.C.), Calgary and Victoria. Recognize any of your neighbours?

Statistics Canada notes that the numbers on our income-tax statements don’t necessarily reflect all the giving that goes on in Canada. That’s partly because some non-profits don’t issue official tax receipts, and even some registered charities will only send you one if your donation is above a specified figure. And how about all those loonies in the send-a-kid-to-camp pots at the cash register, and the toonies we give to the fellow ringing the bell at Christmas time? There are a lot of extra coins changing hands for charity, even if they aren’t recorded on our tax returns.

Of course, there are other ways to do good besides with dough. Generosity of spirit doesn’t have to involve legal tender. Sometimes it just involves tender. But it’s nice to know that even during challenging economic times, our hearts never get stingy.

It Gets Gaga

When Jacques St. Pierre, student council prez, was planning an anti-bullying assembly at his arts-academic high school, he decided to try to grab his classmates’ attention in a big way: by getting a celeb to speak out. So when a sweet native New Yorker called Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta – known to the masses as Lady Gaga – answered Jacques’ request with a one-minute video message for his school, he was over the moon.

“When I showed it to the student council, they all cheered and screamed and freaked out,” Jacques told a reporter. “She’s talking directly to [students].”

Jacques is a blissed-out fan of the pop singer and admits he watched the video more than 300 times before unveiling it last week in front of the student body.

Jacques also admits he was bullied in a previous school. After his school took a group pledge against bullying during last week’s assembly, Jacques and the student council launched a campaign called The “I Will Make It Better” Project. Presumably, the name of this campaign was inspired by the It Gets Better Movement. But I like this take on it, kicking it up a notch from a passive just-you-wait-until-you-sprout-hairs message to a hands-on, I’m-gonna-kick-some-bully-butt attitude (not literally, of course – this is a campaign for peace, after all).

Canadian comedian and anti-bullying activist Rick Mercer also made a video visit. But it was Lady Gaga’s parting words to the kids that made me teary (I’m often teary on Fridays): “Have a wonderful day at school,” she told the kids, “and love each other, treat each other with kindness, because we’re all we’ve got.”

And then she blew a kiss. Steffie, where did you learn to be so compassionate – or were you, in fact, Born This Way?

A video still of Lady Gaga giving a message to the school.

That’s no Poker Face: Gaga does a good deed.