Monthly Archives: May 2012

Totally Bagged

You are all too kind.

Last year, we – that’s me, you, and every neighbour we know – started saving milk bags from being trashed. We had learned the colourful plastic bags could be cut into strips and woven into thick, waterproof sleeping mats for refugees or natural-disaster victims in third-world countries. It was an infinitely better solution, we had decided, than sending the bags to the dump.

My mom, who was doing the mat-making, asked me to put the word out and collect what I could for her. You can read the original story here. I talked to my friends and neighbours, a couple of local schools got on board, and our household started receiving scads of bags, bags of bags, bundles of bags, boxes of bags.

Since my mom only comes to town a few times a year, my basement began to overflow with bags, like in that Strega Nona story about the magic pot that produces yards and yards of pasta. Soon we had were more bags than my mom could use. More than her friends could use. More than her friends’ friends could use. All because of your outpouring of thoughtfulness.

A year later, just when it became clear that I’d have to put a stopper in all this sweetness, a friend of mine spied an article in the community newspaper. A lovely local grade-twelve student had taken up a cause. He was collecting milk bags for mat-making.

Brilliant, I thought. I sent notice to all you benevolent people: There’s a new bag depot. Oh, and is someone willing to deliver all the pasta – I mean, milk bags – overtaking my basement? Of course, because you are gracious, someone volunteered.

Here’s the upshot: Yesterday my neighbour delivered a truckload of plastic. Then she left me a voice message: “Just to let you know that the bags have all been dumped and dropped, and we’re done!” she said. “They’re great kids,” she added of the grade-12 student and his friends. And then, with a giggle: “I don’t think they want any more, though. I think he’s done.”

See what I mean? You are too, too kind.

Close up of a milk bag mat.

My mom’s original milk-bag mat. Nighty-night.

Before You Learn to Fly

Sometimes you know you made a difference, but you kind of wish the need hadn’t been there in the first place.

While we were out for an afternoon walk last week, my husband spotted an elderly woman in dire straits across the street. Turns out she’d had a spill on the sidewalk. And now her even-more-elderly husband, plus a passing neighbour we’ll call Helpful Citizen, were together struggling to raise her up and ease her into a lawn chair. It was obvious she was hurt and couldn’t stand. Couldn’t move, in fact, without pain.

I trotted over and asked if an ambulance had been called. “She doesn’t want one,” noted Helpful Citizen. What she wanted, the lady herself explained to me (only half-joking, perhaps?), was a shot or two of whiskey.

I managed to convince the woman that she needed an X-ray, and that she’d be much more comfortable carried by ambulance than struggling to get into the front seat of her husband’s sedan. She relented – but then clammed right up when the 911 operator asked me for her age! Finally the husband piped up: “She’s eighty-five.” As I relayed this to the dispatcher, I heard her mutter: “I should have said twenty-six.” This woman may have been lacking in skeletal stability, but in the wit department there was nothing wrong at all.

Same goes for grace. She appeared chilled, and Helpful Citizen offered to retrieve a blanket from his nearby house. Said the lady: “You’ve done so much already.” (He went after the blanket all the same.)

The woman told us she’d tripped on the unevenness of the sidewalk, a hazard of our aging neighbourhood. “It should be reported,” she proclaimed. As the ambulance arrived, I promised I’d do the reporting. And so I did.

I’ve thought of her every day since the encounter, hoping it was not a hip fracture but a simple bruise, hoping her frail husband isn’t visiting her in a hospital instead of sharing dinner with her at home.

Although the city staffer on the phone assured me the sidewalk would get prompt attention, it hadn’t yet been fixed when I went past the spot on my morning walk yesterday. Hmm, is nagging also considered a good deed? Let’s say yes and go from there.

Sidewalk in disrepair

I’ll bet if Prince Charles and Camilla were visiting our street, things would get shipshape in a hurry.

Darling, Inside and Out

It’s no real surprise that when Gap, Inc., put out a call for new angel faces for its upcoming marketing campaign, the company received hundreds of thousands of photos from parents all over North America. After all, every one of us is raising the most breathtakingly beautiful child on the planet, aren’t we? It must have been quite a task for the panel of judges who winnowed the entries down to a shortlist of twenty tykes.

What’s neat is that two Canadian kids are among the finalists. (And yes, they’re both gorgeous.)

One of them, 11-year-old Liam Hadfield of Waterdown, Ontario, clearly won over the Gap reps with his stunning blue eyes and sweet smile. But beauty is more than skin deep with this lad. When he was shortlisted in the contest, he had grown his hair long for a wig drive organized at his school that would benefit cancer patients.

Turns out the Gap folks must’ve liked the philanthropic look, because they wanted him to keep his long hair for a photo shoot of all the pint-sized finalists. That meant Liam wouldn’t be able to submit his hair in the school collection.

Not a problem for this bighearted bambino. He’s now planning his own fundraiser to help people with cancer, and he’ll donate his hair at the same time.

He sounds like a pretty nifty kid. “Mostly he’s just a treat to be around,” his dad is quoted as saying. If you’re interested in supporting Liam or any of the other cutie-pie contestants, you can vote here.

And So We Talked All Night about the Rest of Our Lives…

What do you remember from your high school prom? The two I attended were a long time ago, but a couple of things stand out: Our theme one year was Billy Joel’s “This is the Time” (which now makes me weep just as surely as Vitamin C’s “Graduation” song). And my prom date was a cute urban musician with a ponytail before there were ponytails. Partway through the sit-down dinner, he leaned over and said to me with a puzzled grin: “Someone just pulled on my hair.” (I went to school in a small town full of mullets.)

I also know that I had a couple of gorgeous prom dresses, thanks to a creative mother who was master of the sewing machine. My gowns shimmered in ruby red and sapphire blue and they both made me feel like a princess. Thanks, Mom.

Wouldn’t you love to make another teenaged girl feel like royalty at her prom?

At this time of year, a number of North American organizations are accepting donated dresses for high school students who can’t afford them. Whether you’ve got a cocktail dress or an evening gown, a Vera Wang original or a Walmart knock-off… if it’s hanging in your closet doing nothing but rubbing shoulders with your work suits, maybe instead it can go to good use. Your gently used gown might make the difference between a girl staying home on prom night, and going out to dance her three-inch heels off.

Here, here and here are a few links to get you started. In the U.S., use this directory to find a drop-off location near you. Or, from anywhere, Google “donate a prom dress” to find oodles of drop-off locations.

I don’t actually know what happened to my hand-stitched dresses. But I do know what happened to the guy with the ponytail – last I heard, he’d become the TV co-host of a home improvement show.

We grow up, and we move on. But our dresses don’t have to stay behind.

Lisa as a teenager in a red prom dress.

Don’t laugh. It was the eighties.

Family Portraits

A schoolteacher friend of mine tipped me off to a movie trailer for a film called That’s a Family! This award-winning documentary comes to us from GroundSpark, a U.S. organization dedicated to social change. That’s a Family! gently reminds the viewer that families are cast in all kinds of shapes and sizes.

My friend has been discussing the film’s theme with her students, as part of the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day curriculum. “The students have loved it, and I love their reactions,” she wrote to me, adding: “I wish adults could be so accepting.”

She thought the film might be suited to 50 Good Deeds. Why, on a blog about acts of kindness? Maybe because striving to accept members of a family unit for who they are, even when their skin colour, disability, sexual orientation or gender happens to be different from ours, is big-hearted behaviour. Especially if that broad acceptance (oops, I could almost make a pun here) doesn’t come easily and naturally.

And it doesn’t, for everyone. Our species evolved to be somewhat xenophobic. In a caveman community where everyone knows everyone else, strangers could mean a threat. And that distrust of diversity can be hard to shake if it’s hard-wired.

So I say, if you’ve made a point of overcoming that fear, if you embrace differences – heck, if you embrace people with differences – then you are committing a supreme act of kindness.

Acceptance is the new black. Tell all your friends.

A Tat that’s All That

Thank you! It’s early for my birthday, but I received a gift anyway. Someone (whoever you are, I adore you) has nominated 50 Good Deeds for a Ninjamatics’ 2012 Canadian Weblog Award. Two, in fact: This blog received nominations for both the “Activism & Social Justice” and the “Life” categories. Ninjamatics will continue to collect nominations until the end of November, and winners will be announced in January.

Speaking of people to adore, have you heard about Basma Hameed? She makes a noble living helping others, and now she’s preparing to do it for free for a week.

It all started with a severe oil burn when Basma was a toddler. In the years since, the Toronto woman underwent over a hundred surgical procedures to repair damage and scarring to her face. But Basma was still insecure with her appearance.

Then she had an eyebrow tattoo – and an epiphany. She enrolled in aesthetician school, learned tattoo artistry, and promptly fixed her own facial scars using skin-tone-coloured inks.

Basma was so thrilled with the results that, in 2007, she opened a clinic and began treating other people with scars and birthmarks.

As you might expect, the ministry of health isn’t exactly falling over itself to pay for folks to get tattoos. But Basma has decided that price shouldn’t be an obstacle. Starting May 21, she’ll offer her cosmetic tattooing services free for the week.

“I’ve been given a second chance to live and I’m grateful for everything, and I feel like this is another life for me,” Basma told a reporter. “I think I was put here for a reason, and I want to give back as much as possible.”

A Tale of Carin’ Karen

About a year ago, I was catching up with an old friend who happened to be in town.

“Old friend” doesn’t actually capture the natural and solid connection that persists between me and most of the kids I grew up with. We lived in a tiny community, so we didn’t just go to school with our neighbours. We were on the same soccer teams, we were in the same choirs and brownie troops and 4H clubs. Their parents were our teachers and our librarians and our coaches. We babysat and we tutored each other.

In the case of Karen, she was my devoted piano student (which means her family is responsible, in part, for funding the university degree I have buried in a file somewhere).

You’d think, living and working so closely together, we’d all have known each other’s histories up and down. And often we did. But throughout those years, Karen was experiencing health challenges I never knew about.

One thing I never forgot about Karen: She was strong. She had to be, as the youngest of four loud siblings. She told, not asked, her mother to hire me at the piano. She personally handed over my weekly fee. She worked harder at this instrument than any other student I ever taught. When she passed her exam with honours, I couldn’t have been prouder.

So last year, when Karen asked me to take a look at a manuscript she’d written, I was happy to help. I was also surprised: It turned out to be a detailed and personal story of her decades-long struggle with epilepsy and seizures, brain surgery and depression.

She calls it the “roller coaster ride” of her life.

Determined as ever, Karen has now turned her experience into a printed book, with two selfless purposes: to inspire others living with epilepsy, and to raise money for awareness and research.

And while she works at promoting and selling her new book – she has already raised over two thousand smackeroos for Epilepsy Ottawa-Carleton because, remember, she’s strong – she continues to point to those who’ve supported her. Here’s a brief rundown: My pal Heather contributed her editing talents for an extremely modest fee. Last weekend, my sister Sylvie hosted a book signing at the local general store. A mess of family and friends have cheered Karen on for years.

If you needed any more proof of how gracious Karen can be, she takes four pages of her new book just to express her gratitude to these people. (Who doesn’t like a thank you?)

Want a copy of My Life Time Roller Coaster Ride with Epilepsy? contact author Karen Fisher at

Tell her hi from me.

Karen and Sylvie stand beside book poster.

Pretty in purple: Karen and my sis Sylvie share a moment at the book signing.

Open Home, Open Arms

If you read this blog last week, you’ll know that my young daughter voyaged quite a distance from home with her choir. Four thousand miles, in fact. She was away from us for 10 whole days, which meant that for 10 whole days I wasn’t hugging her, feeding her, bathing her (well, not that I still bathe her, but I do pay her hefty hot-water bill). For 10 days, my daughter was in someone else’s home – two homes serially, in fact – being fed, laundered and splendidly looked after.

It takes a special family to open their home to strangers. Even ones as sweet and cute as my daughter and her choir friends. These folks gave our children beds, fed them breakfast, chauffeured them around, packed them lunches, showed them the sights, and embraced them – in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. If I couldn’t be at my daughter’s side as she took in the exciting experience of Sweden, these families were definitely the next best thing.

I hope that they felt at least some payback. I hope my daughter gave suitable answers to all the Canada-themed questions that a set of nine-year-old twins peppered her with while their six-year-old brother listened shyly. (My kid makes these boys sound so adorable and delectable, she could almost have made a sandwich out of them.) And I hope my daughter remembered to smile, to pick up her damp towels, to make her bed, to say please and thank you (or, rather, “tack så mycket”).

In short, I hope the families’ experience was a positive one. Because there’s no question they made a difference. Not only for the 12-year-old girl travelling in a foreign country without her parents for the first time… but also for the anxiety-prone mom and dad who waited for her at home.

Our kid had a great time, and she’s got the memories – and the Dala horse souvenir earrings – to prove it.

Street scene in downtown Stockholm

Memories of Stockholm: Has Dave Nichol come up with a meatball sauce yet?

Lost at Sea… Found Again

Out of devastation comes extreme decency. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to survive a large-scale natural disaster with nothing more than your very life. Thousands of people lost everything they owned in the tsunami in Japan. But here it is a year later, with the front edge of Japanese debris beginning to arrive on the western coast of North America. And wouldn’t you know it, acts of kindness are cropping up too.

A week ago, an Alaskan couple discovered a personalized soccer ball with great sentimental value for the 16-year-old who had lost it. They’ve already made direct contact with the young owner – how serendipitous that one of the pair speaks Japanese – and are making plans to return it. They also found a volleyball and, against considerable odds, have managed to track down its rightful home, too.

That’s not all. Earlier in April, a B.C. man found half a moving truck washed up on a remote beach – incredibly, with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, golf clubs and tools still inside.

He has been cooperating with Japanese officials to try to find the owner of the items. He’s also encouraging any other would-be treasure finders to show restraint. “I think the most important thing is that people treat the things they find with respect,” the man said in a news story. “These are parts of people’s lives… I think people have to keep that in mind when they make a find like this.”

Something else to keep in mind: How much it means to return a cherished object to someone who thought they had nothing left. “I’ve lost everything in the tsunami. So I’m delighted,” teen Misaki Murakami told a public broadcaster after he heard he was getting his prized soccer ball back. “I really want to say thank you for finding the ball.”