Monthly Archives: September 2012

Photo Opp

What happens when a candid and, according to some, unflattering snapshot of a stranger is posted online and goes viral? Much of what you’d expect… taunts, ridiculing, insults. But when Balpreet Kaur, a young Sikh woman who happens to have facial hair, stood her ground publicly and oh-so-eloquently, what followed was surprising. And infinitely heartening.

Balpreet, a student at Ohio State University, found out the photo was making the cyber-rounds after a Facebook friend wrote about it. The fact that she gave a dignified defence on Reddit, where the picture was circulating, was impressive in itself. Balpreet touched on the importance of her Sikh faith and why she won’t alter the body she was born with: “My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body… By not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can,” reads her statement in part. “To me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are.” Balpreet even added a colon-hyphen-parenthesis happy face as a friendly touch.

And here’s what happened next. The creep who took the picture apologized. Loudly. He humbly reached out to Balpreet, to all Sikhs, and to anyone else who had taken offense. “Put simply it was stupid,” he wrote, according to a CBC news story. “Making fun of people is funny to some but incredibly degrading to the people you’re making fun of. It was an incredibly rude, judgmental, and ignorant thing to post.”

Astounding. And just as the original post was followed by cruel comments from all kinds of people, Balpreet’s response and this man’s genuine apology were followed by statements of support and admiration.

As Tanya Edwards of New York City tweeted: “Person says something ignorant on Reddit, gets educated and then apologizes. Internet, you’re not so bad.” Today, I think Tanya speaks for all of us.

Act Now, Pay Later

Why do people rush into burning buildings, dive into dangerous river rapids and confront violent criminals in a bid to save a fellow human being? We often hear stories about would-be rescuers who put their own safety at risk without hesitation.

A couple of years ago, while writing a Reader’s Digest story on the science of niceness, I interviewed a B.C. woman who almost got herself killed when she ran to save a mugging victim. (The thugs beat her viciously with a shopping bag full of soup cans.) Benita told me: “I didn’t think at all about what danger I was putting myself in. It was an automatic reaction. You just do it, and you don’t think about what the outcome could be to yourself.” The woman added, “Maybe that’s human nature.”

She may have been on to something. A group of researchers at Harvard University recently collected fresh evidence that when people make a quick decision to act, they tend to be altruistic. Only when they stop and think carefully about their choice are they less likely to behave unselfishly.

We have a natural instinct to cooperate because it has served our species well. So what’s the point of taking time over decisions, if it may make us meaner? The Harvard scientists point out that slow deliberation can be a good thing when we don’t all happen to have the same political or moral views. “When intuitions clash – when it’s the values of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – reasoning and reflection may be our best hope for reconciling our differences,” says social sciences professor Joshua Greene in a statement.

So there’s a place for careful thought, and there’s a place for knee-jerk reaction. If I’m ever trapped in quicksand, though, I hope the people within earshot don’t spend too much time dithering.

Shoe Therapy

A certain bus driver in Winnipeg is the kind of guy who’ll give you the clothes off his back – or, at least, the shoes off his feet. That’s exactly what Kris Doubledee did on Tuesday morning, in front of a busload of witnesses. The passengers on his route watched, drop-jawed, as the driver stopped his bus and removed his footwear, calling out to a shoeless man in need. The temperature was around 6 degrees Celsius. Plenty cold enough to freeze your footsies.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this,” passenger Denise Campbell told reporters. According to Campbell, another woman on the bus exclaimed to the driver: “That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen! Why did you do that?” Kris responded, “Because I couldn’t stand seeing somebody walking barefoot in this temperature.”

Quite the act of charity. I don’t know if I could sacrifice my shoes – maybe if I drove a heated vehicle, instead of relying on my feet as my primary mode of transportation. But I did try to give my socks to a homeless woman once. She was in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk and, disturbingly, her bare toes stuck out the end. I regret to say I woke her from a sweet deep slumber. As she blinked to awareness, I asked her if she’d like to have my socks. By way of a response, she lifted the top flap of her sleeping bag, pointing out the thick pair she’d tucked inside for safekeeping. (Presumably, sock theft while sleeping is just one of many hazards of street living.)

Kudos to the transit driver for his kindness. Strangely, no one knew his name at first, and it took some effort by media to track him down. (Kris, apparently, tends not to seek the spotlight.) But in an update to the story yesterday, he referred to his amazing act as “automatic.” He added that he’d seen the same man walking barefoot just the day before. “It was something that come to me and I could do something about it.”

Love this part: in a CBC online poll, over 80% of respondents agreed that Kris’s story inspired them to do something generous for another person. From one pair of used shoes to hundreds more good deeds… fantastic on a Friday.

A pair of Jimmy Choo high-heeled sandals

Maybe I’d keep my Jimmy Choos… (Kidding! The combined cost of all the shoes I own would be less than the precious price tag on these puppies.)

Out of Work but in the Zone

I received a phonecall from a friend of mine this weekend. Her husband lost his job. He had no warning. The family of four is devastated, not knowing how they’ll meet their monthly expenses, wondering how they can cut back.

A day later, I saw what she’d posted on her Facebook page. Was she pity-partying (“Need a hug, we’re unemployed now“) or, worse, vaguebooking (“My world is crumbling…”)?

Nope. My open-hearted friend was posting instead about the charity event she and her family had participated in over the weekend. She used the adjective “amazing” liberally. She sounded exhuberant.

And why shouldn’t she be? Contributing to a cause can help you cope with those events that smack you across the face. It can distract you, remind you that while you’re dealing with a job loss – or an aging parent or a bully boss or a diet fail – you’re not the only one who’s struggling. And, of course, there’s that kindness kickback, that feeling a few notches better just because you know you’re making a difference.

So, today’s advice to the job seekers: File away your ROE, sure. Update your resume, naturally. Submit your applications where appropriate, of course.

Then go get high on helping.

Small Act, Big Tears

If you happen to live in or near Toronto, don’t miss your chance to see a powerful film – for free. Chris Mburu was a bright but poor boy in Kenya who couldn’t afford to pay for an education. Hilde Back, living in Sweden, was a Holocaust survivor who thought she ought to address some of the need in the world. It “felt natural,” she said, to donate money to a child – in this case, $15 per school term through a Kenyan aid organization – but she wondered what became of the boy she sponsored. Had her help made any difference? And then some. Chris, a Harvard Law School graduate, works today as a human rights lawyer for the United Nations, advocating for a better life for people around the world. As a tribute to Hilde, Chris founded his own scholarship fund in his Kenyan village, now educating a cascade of new kids.

“You cannot change the entire world,” Chris says in A Small Act, the documentary that traces the giant, global impact of Hilde’s single act of kindness. “So, sometimes it’s just as good to help one child.”

Any film whose trailer makes you choke up is worth checking out, don’t you think? A Small Act is showing at 6:30 next Wednesday, September 19, at the Isabel Bader Theatre. And did I mention admission is free?

Bombshellie Kellie

A true friend lends you her favourite sweater. A true friend doesn’t laugh when you belt out your best rendition of “Rolling in the Deep.” A true friend hugs you when you need it.

And a true friend shaves her head. Even though she’s famous, even though she has nice hair, even though she’ll invariably be compared to Britney Spears.

I’m not a country music listener. But I’m fond of Kellie Pickler, who made her adorable debut on American Idol. She stole my family’s hearts when she described eating salmon for the first time on her climb to fame, in front of millions of live-TV viewers. Now she’s a well-known recording artist in her own right.

You’re probably old enough to know that a life of celebrity doesn’t mean the living is always easy. Kellie’s bestie, Summer Holt Miller, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36. She recently endured a double mastectomy and, this month, began chemotherapy. Like so many other cancer patients facing down side effects, Summer decided to preemptively shave her head.

To support her friend – and to remind the world that mammograms are important even when you’re still in your tender young 30s – Kellie Pickler stood by Summer, and they both got buzzed into baldness together.

Incidentally, the two women have also teamed up with Athena Water, a U.S. company that’s donating a portion of profits to the American Cancer Society in honour of Summer’s battle. (Note: I’m not getting free water to write this.)

I’m always impressed when folks use their rank to spread awareness about worthy causes. In this case, Kellie’s radical haircut serves double duty. I’m sure Summer appreciates having her friend by her side on this hard journey. But the two women are also passionate about helping other women at risk. “If this compels even one person to change their mentality toward waiting until the age of 40 for their mammogram, then it will be worth it,” Miller said in a television interview.

Booked your mammy yet? Go get ’em, tigress.

Kellie Pickler and her friend Summer with shaved heads.

Friends don’t let friends face cancer alone.

That’s How We Roll

In my family, sushi is important enough to be considered its own food group. It’s a rare week when I don’t partake in tuna nigiri or a spicy salmon hand roll (no, I don’t want to know the calorie count). And my child has been naming sushi as her favourite meal since the age of five.

So there we were the other night, having our fix at our regular place. The bill was dropped off at our table after the meal, along with the usual handful of little fruity candies.

Let it be known that at this particular restaurant, little fruity candies always come with every bill. And furthermore, let the records show that although we usually unwrap one or two on the spot, there are always extras and those I slip into the front pocket of my bag for “later.” Later means when we’re out somewhere and craving a sweet, or my husband needs a quick sugar lift, or I’m about to enter a meeting with a sudden conviction that my breath needs freshening.

But my purse pocket is roomy, these candies collect, and recently they had amassed to the point where I was able to dig out no fewer than twenty-six bon-bons. Not knowing their age or general quality, I did a minor purse-purge and resolved to start again from scratch.

That’s why, when the bill and the fruity candies came to our table yesterday, I put down my hand to claim them just as my daughter tried to snatch them up. There were six or seven, and she wanted more than one. “These are for my purse,” I insisted. “We need them for later.”

My 13-year-old firmly expressed her belief that this was patently unfair. Of course I didn’t want to begrudge her a couple of tiny sweets. But I explained to her again that there would be a time when she or her dad or I would want one, and it was better for everybody if I had a stockpile again.

That’s when the smiling (and acutely hearing) waitress came over and dropped eight more candies on our table.

Kind of embarrassing, of course. Did the whole world hear our silly table talk? But that didn’t stop me from laughing hard and thanking the server more than once. It was a nice thing for her to do.

And now, if I bump into you somewhere and you decide you really could benefit in that moment from a tiny fruit-flavoured sugar treat, all you need to do is ask. You’ll know I’m well supplied.

Assortment of tiny fruit candies

Yep, I’ve got all the essentials: dental floss, Purell, lip gloss, subway tokens and a truckload of teeny tiny fruit drops.

High on Fives

For most of the kids in my community, today is the first day back to school. High five.

For those moms and dads who spent all summer entertaining the offspring, you made it through. High five.

Doesn’t that feel pretty great? Maybe that’s why Steve Gillon of Hamilton, Ontario, is passing out free palm-slaps. It’s a way of drawing attention to his pet causes, heart disease and cancer – both leading removers of beloved people, including his Nana Franny, his Poppa Fred and his Uncle Mike. Our sympathies, Steve.

Steve has already raised several thousand dollars for medical and other charities, and is determined to keep it up. He’s filmed a video, launched a website (appointing himself the Founder-slash-Dude), and is set to sell T-shirts with such catchy slogans as “Heart Disease is a Dick.” (If you agree, you can place your pre-order here.)

Thanks to determined founder-dudes like Steve, we can continue the fight against heart disease and cancer.

High five to that. Now don’t leave me hanging.