Monthly Archives: June 2012

What a Trip

Lake scene
The dismissal bell has barely stopped vibrating, but many of us are in full vacation mode already. Not me – I have a few more deadlines to meet before I can hit the power-off switch on my ’puter. But lots of folks are leaving this weekend for cottage country, beach bonanzas or farm fiestas.

Last summer, a friend of mine wrote to let me know that she’d developed a new good-deed habit on her frequent travels through the Canadian Rockies. It began because she often stops at lookout points to take photos. “I started to offer to take pictures of families (with their cameras), so they have an impromptu family picture of their trip,” she said. In return, the response was pretty appreciative: “Their delight in having a group shot has got me to keep offering the picture taking.”

In August I wrote about the handsome young Jones boys, who collected toys and gifts leading up to their holiday to Jamaica, and then donated the whole whack of goods to a children’s home there.

Summer-vacation acts of sweetness can be small, like slathering a pal with sunscreen on those hard-to-reach shoulders, or helping a child find a beach shell. Or they can be big-time, like volunteering at a camp for underprivileged kids.

What are your ideas for good deeds you can do on vacation? I’d love to hear them. (And then, can you do my shoulders?)

Google Earth

A colleague on Facebook posted a graphic the other day. As we all know, graphics on Facebook fall into one of several categories: they’re funny, they’re sappy, or they’re of cats in peculiar poses with pigeon-English captions (“kitteh can has cheezburger”).

The fourth category is thought-provoking. The graphic my friend posted belongs here, sort of. It’s titled “Grammar Matters,” and it displays the most popular searches that start with “how can u” (“how can u get herpes” tops the list, followed by numerous other diseases transmitted by the most intimate of contact). This is compared to the most common searches starting with “how can an individual.” Results include “how can an individual impact the course of history,” “how can an individual make a difference” and “how can an individual affect society.”

The inference is that those who use the grammatically proper “an individual” in place of the shorthand non-word “u” have higher aspirations. Or at the very least, their worldly learning is not limited to safe bedroom practices.

Since I don’t believe anything I read online, I tried out this experiment on my own. I got similar results. Then I tried something else. I began a search with “how can we.”

Want to guess the top four results? I got “how can we stop global warming,” “how can we help the environment,” “how can we save water” and “how can we stop bullying.”

I’m not dismissing the importance of grammar. Of course grammar matters. I make a living based on this credo, so you won’t get any argument from me. (Case in point: I hate that many, many question marks are missing in the aforementioned Google searches.)

However, I think this little demonstration proves that inclusiveness also matters. Just by substituting the word “we” in place of “I,” by thinking of us all as a single force working together, our focus changes from personal hygiene to saving the world.

The two are not mutually exclusive. I recommend you strive for both wherever possible.

“Let’s eat, Grandma.” “Let’s eat Grandma.” Grammar may matter, but punctuation saves lives.

Happy Blogday

Know what’s special about today’s message? Hint: It involves cake… at least it will if you send me some. Welcome to the 200th post of the 50 Good Deeds blog! It’s hard to believe, but this blog has been alive for just about two years.

As my celebratory gift to you, I’ve got security camera footage and photographs that will make you smile, and remind you that we’re all driven to do good. Enjoy the links, and don’t believe the critics. We are an unselfish species. Our survival depends on it.

Even if we don’t have cake, there’s no shortage of good wishes from me to all of you. Thank you for your visits, your comments (both online and off), your warm reception! I couldn’t have made it to 200 posts without knowing you were along for the ride.

Flower bouquet

If you don’t have access to a kitchen, I’ll accept flowers too…

Mountain Do

My friend Sven is making a career of good. He’s part of a United Nations mission in Iraq, protecting citizens in a place where he himself is not always stress-free or safe.

But it’s the children he thinks of, the small kids in struggling countries who are stuck with a mountain of trials.

Maybe that’s why Sven willingly took on a quest last month that would threaten him body and soul, but would also help the children of Iraq and other nations ravaged by war.

Sven was determined to try to conquer Canada’s highest peak and raise funds for UNICEF. He joined a small team of mountaineers and guides, flew to a Yukon glacier near the foot of Mount Logan and began a hard 17-day journey. Destination: 19,551 feet.

It was mid-May. I don’t know what you were doing while Sven was lugging a backpack and sled up a frozen mountain, roped to his teammates and trembling with cold. Me, I think I may have been near some garden flowers. There would have been sunshine. Possibly, I had a cocktail at hand.

Hundreds of people do it around the world, but let’s not forget that mountain climbing is a serious business. At one point, a snow bridge broke under Sven’s boot, exposing the deep and dangerous crevasse below. My stomach gets butterflies just reading his travel notes.

The team’s turning point came near the summit. Note “near.” They had made their final camp, and after 12 gruelling days, the group was only a few hours’ climb from the highest photo opp in the country. But a violent storm was on the way, and the leader of this expedition determined it was too risky to complete the climb.

He decided they would turn back.

There’s been a lot of dire news lately about mountain casualties. So I think even those of us with feet firmly stationed near sea level are aware that when your guide says go, you go. On May 28, Sven began the long trek downwards, frostbitten and struggling to secure footing in the fierce blizzard that now circled him.

I imagine Sven was sorely disappointed. But not-quite-conquering Canada’s tallest mountain turned out to be a sort of personal epiphany. In turning his back on a chance at death, Sven felt he understood just a bit better all the kids he was trying to help – kids, he says, who are “perpetually on the edge of survival.” And he felt connected to his cause. “UNICEF is all about providing opportunities for children… providing them with the means of pursuing their aspirations and dreams,” he notes. “Setting goals, embarking on a path, falling short, learning lessons – these are fundamental elements of human growth.”

So Sven’s climb may have fallen short, but it was long in lessons. “Had this been a ‘bluebird’ trip, with clear skies and a straight march up to the summit, it would have been a much less valuable experience,” he says now.

Did I mentioned my pal raised over $7,500 for UNICEF? How can that be anything but a win? Check out his fundraising page here (top up his total if you’re so inclined). Send him a message of support.

Then enjoy the flowers and sunshine – don’t forget the cocktail, and be glad it’s June at a mere 347 feet.

Beautiful view from mountain

Sven inside a tent at high camp, holding a UNICEF sign

He may look cold and miserable, but he’s actually pretty warm and friendly once you get to know him.

Do Do that Voodoo that You Do So Well…

For me, when it comes to doing good deeds, there are certain supreme acts that don’t even come under consideration. Like digging a freshwater well in a third-world country. Or running an orphanage. Or raising a barn. Sure, these are worthy deeds if you can swing ’em. But me, well, I probably couldn’t even lift the hammer.

Life gets busy and hectic and frantic and sticky. It’s not easy to devote hours and energy to a good cause when you’ve also got Mount Washmore (as my friend calls it) piling up beside the laundry machine. And you’ve got meetings and deadlines and correspondence and grocery lists. And a sorry skill at carpentry.

That’s why I’m a big fan of doing good deeds by applying the powers you already have. It’s not cheating. It’s just easier… and everyone benefits. You may be lousy at cooking meals in a soup kitchen, but maybe you’d be great at designing their website. You may not know how to tag endangered sea turtles, but maybe you can fundraise for the wildlife foundation. You might be a failure at providing free haircuts for the homeless, but, heck, if you’re competent at growing hair, you can donate your locks for wigs.

In my case, I’m pretty proficient at the English language. In the past couple of weeks I’ve written a press release for a school, edited a few book chapters for a relative, and started reading a YA novel for a colleague seeking feedback. Now these are things I can do not too shabbily.

Where do your particular talents lie? There are oodles of ideas out there. Do you like reading aloud to dogs? Well then, the Humane Society of Regina wants you. If you can think of it, there’s probably a need for it.

I’m not saying you should never ask me to knit scarves for an out-of-the-cold program, or rebuild a deck for a non-profit daycare.

I’m just saying you will probably wish you hadn’t.

Flugelhorn Flash Mob

What’s worse than sitting on the tarmac for twenty minutes? How about the crushing boredom of a flight delay? Next time I’m stuck waiting for take-off, I hope I’m sharing my flight with the fourteen members of Lemon Bucket Orkestra. ‘Cause then I know there’ll be a party.

Don’t know this group? You mean to say you’ve never heard of the biggest Balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk band in Toronto? Well, I hadn’t either. At least not until the video of their impromptu performance on a delayed plane made national news. Lemon Bucket Orkestra pulled out their sopilkas and darbukas and treated passengers to a free concert while everyone waited to take to the air.

Nice! The group has since returned from a tour in Romania and has upcoming concert dates in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. Check out LBO’s website for details.

And next time you’re boarding a flight, keep your eyes peeled. You never know when a fellow passenger might break out a flugelhorn!

Group photo of the band

Group shot: Where’s the fourteenth member? Unless that mega-sized sousaphone counts as a person…

Don’t Stop Me Now

Yarnbombing? Sounds violent, but it’s completely the opposite. It’s a sweet, whimsical way to beautify your community and let your neighbours know you care.

At least, that’s how Knitting Guy sees it in Clairemont, California. This dad of a girl learned to knit and purl so he could teach the skill to his daughter. Now he “yarnbombs” the streets where he lives by outfitting stop-sign poles with knitted stems and leaves, turning a traffic control sign into… well, a pretty flower.

“This project has brought smiles across my community,” Knitting Guy told me. “I think it resonated with people because of its ubiquity, density and accessibility.”

Yes, his neighbours seem to like the skinny green sweaters. As he points out on his blog, it wouldn’t be difficult for any owner of sharp scissors to remove his work, yet no one has.

“After they were installed,” he recalls, “people in the neighborhood quickly adopted them and treated them as their own, sending sending e-mails defending ‘their’ flowers once they were threatened by the city.”

He hopes the blooms serve to brighten people’s day. (Knitting Guy also points out that although it’s rare for males to knit, gifting the ladies in your life with handmade scarves and dishtowels is not a bad way to impress them. Take note, men.)

Incidentally, KG is not the founder of the yarnbombing movement. At this moment, all over the world, people are outfitting phone booths, tree trunks, statues and parking meters with multi-hued handiwork.

Sure, technically it’s vandalism, and I wouldn’t go on record as a promoter of unlawful activity. But it’s hard to argue when the result is colourful… and kind of cozy.

A stop sign with green knitted stem and leaves

Thanks to Knitting Guy for this pic of his craft. Doesn’t the stop sign look toasty?

If Music be the Food of Love

You know journo school is doing something right when its documentary film students are churning out videos like this one. My friend passed me this link, which features the brother of a buddy of his (follow that?). The specifics don’t matter, anyway – we’re all connected, and the subject of this film seems to know that, intuitively.

Stephen Gates survived a car accident with an injured brain and a body in pain. He retained his ability to play violin, and play he does – it’s all he wants to do. Stephen will seek meals at a soup kitchen so he can use his grocery money to maintain his instrument (barely, as the bridge is badly warped and the bow is held together with duct tape). He doesn’t care. He doesn’t want fame and fortune, he says. He wants only enough cash to live, and to practise the violin.

In the video, Stephen admires the people he’s met who work not for pay, but to make a difference. Clearly, this ideology resonates with him as well. “My life after [the accident],” he says, “because I had no job, my job was to be a nice person. It was to think about how to do nice things without money.”

You can’t beat a career path like that. Check out “The People’s Violinist,” here.

Weed ’Em and Reap

Gardeners know the best dirt. When gardeners get excited, they wet their plants. Yes, we perennial plant-tenders are a witty bunch.

We’re also a fairly nice bunch. Put it this way: You generally have to have patience, positivism and passion to grow a garden. Those qualities often make for a pleasant personality. I’ve learned, over years of toiling in my own yard, that other gardeners are generous with advice, generous with praise, even generous with cuttings of that exotic double-blossom biennial you’ve been admiring in their front flowerbed.

It was a beautiful day Wednesday and a real treat for me to ogle other people’s gardens on my morning walk – I only had to dodge four sprinklers along my route. There’s one garden I pass regularly that’s absolutely stunning, crammed from stem to stern (get it?) with flowering plants. In particular, the lavender here grows up so healthy, full and aromatic that, later in the summer, my friend will make a point of burying her face in it every time we walk by.

On Wednesday the homeowner happened to be out front with her hose when I approached her garden. Naturally, I took the opportunity to ask her for lavender tips. Does she cut the dead foliage right back in early spring? Does it depend on the kind of winter we’ve had? Like most gardeners I’ve met, this one didn’t hesitate to share what she knew. She was kind, and outgoing. She even knew my garden immediately, when I described it. (Hm, I think I foresee a friendly exchange of divided perennials in our future.)

Have I mentioned how much I love this time of year? Let me leave you with these wise words: Old gardeners never die, of course. They just go to seed / go to pot / spade away (pick your favourite).

Any excuse to post a picture of my plants.