Monthly Archives: March 2014

What Goes Around… (Part 2)

If a convenience-store clerk helped someone in need and ended up infuriating her boss and risking her job, you’d forgive her for wondering whether the good deed was worth it.

But I doubt that thought ever crossed Ava Lins’ mind. The 19-year-old woman was working her shift recently at a 7-Eleven in Salem, Massachusetts, when a homeless man came in to escape the freezing cold. Ava felt for him, and poured him a one-dollar cup of coffee.

Her boss caught her in the act of kindness, so to speak. Ava realized he was angry and tried to cover her tracks – first by insisting the homeless man had paid the buck, then ponying up the money herself. (Friends, we at 50 Good Deeds don’t condone fibbing, especially to direct supervisors. But we do condone hearts in the right places.)

In any case, her boss wasn’t buying it. He promptly took Ava off the upcoming work schedule, and openly contemplated sacking her.

But Ava was convinced she’d done the right thing. So she lodged a complaint with 7-Eleven headquarters. At first, she got no response. Then she posted it on the 7-Eleven Facebook page. That’s when the story started to take off, eventually making the mainstream news.

The result? Ava was offered her shifts back at the store, and received reassurance that she wasn’t fired. But she also received something more: hundreds of messages of support. Plus a bunch of better job offers. One came from an organization that assists homeless people. As its spokesperson explained to a reporter for Boston Magazine: “After demonstrating the core values and beliefs of restoring hope and dignity to people who are homeless, we knew Ava would make a perfect fit for our organization.”

Ava took the job. “I’m extremely overwhelmed by the support, and really thankful,” she told the reporter.

Not every story like this gets into the news, mainly because most people don’t get canned from their jobs for being nice (unless you work as, say, a prison guard or a dominatrix). In other words, lots of free coffees go under the radar. So kudos to Ava for her kindness, but also to all you other generous java-gifters out there. You know who you are.

Cash ’n’ Carry

I’m mellowing out to lovely, folky, Atlantic-inspired electro-acoustic music while I write this. That’s because today’s story is about Joshua Van Tassel, a composer/producer from Nova Scotia whom I’d never heard of before this week. And to get in a proper frame of mind, I’m helping myself to a few sample tunes on his website.

Last Friday, Joshua made the news after setting out to make a music video for one of his songs, called “I Think You’re a Salesman.” Josh travelled around Toronto with his film crew, their equipment… oh, and a grey wool coat pinned with 200 ten-dollar bills for giving away to strangers.

How does this fit “salesman”? I guess Joshua was flogging the concept of good deeds. For a really, really good price. He encouraged everyone he met to take a bill from his coat – and then do something nice for another person. (Of the varied responses that ensued, many will be portrayed in the final video.)

Director Hiep Vu pointed out to The Toronto Star that this good-deed theme is a departure from the “dancing girls and fast cars” in typical music videos. Yeah, I wouldn’t really miss the girls and the cars.

“If there was one thing I’d hope the video could do, it would be to inspire other people to make just a little bit of random kindness every day,” Joshua told me. “It doesn’t have to monetarily focused. Just holding a door for the next person behind you would be great.”

Their experiment worked – sort of. It actually took five hours to get through all 200 giveaways. That’s a little longer than you might expect for free money, especially when a brisk March wind has it flapping tantalizingly. “We had no idea what kind of reactions we’d get, and believe me, I got them all! Happiness, distrust, anger, gratitude,” Joshua says.

But some results were promising. A few folks vowed to give the money to charity, or to people in need. Oddly, others planned to spend the cash on victuals for themselves – hot dogs and beer were both mentioned. One guy outlined a creative compromise that involved a coffee for himself and a kind word for someone else (I hope he wasn’t just referring to a “thank you” for the barista).

Paying people to pay it forward? It’s an innovative idea. And if it pushes a few men and women out of their comfort zones, where they can zone in on someone else’s needs instead, isn’t it worth it?

“If even 10 percent of Toronto’s population thought a little more about the other humans surrounding them throughout the day, I feel like the city vibe as a whole would drastically improve,” Josh says.

Of course, his music helps, too.

Not just talent and empathy, but also a strong fashion sensibility: Notice how the purple hues of the currency bring out the plum tones in the tie.

Not just talent and empathy, but also a strong fashion sensibility: Notice how the purple hues of the currency bring out the plum tones in the tie.

Books Make It Better

Maybe the reason you’re inspired to pick up Joseph Boyden’s latest book, The Orenda, is because you heard it recently won the CBC Canada Reads competition. Or maybe you just enjoy a good tale about a feisty, magic Iroquois girl and a Jesuit missionary.

But there’s yet another reason to reach for a literary novel: It may make you a kinder person.

Social psychologists at New York’s New School for Social Research conducted a study in which people were given something to read, and then tested on empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. They found that those who read award-winning literary fiction scored higher than those who read sci-fi bestsellers, trashy romance novels, serious magazine articles, or nothing but the cracks on the wall.

The researchers have speculated that reading literary fiction (and, they guess, arts in general) may make us more sensitive and understanding. That’s because we exercise our insight and imagination to appreciate the rich, complex characters portrayed in these novels.

I, on the other hand, speculate that maybe I’ll now feel a little less guilty when I put off my vacuuming just because I’m engrossed in a book by Rohinton Mistry or Annie Proulx. Hey, I can now say in my defense, it’s making me a more compassionate person (if a rather slack housekeeper). And with my refined powers of empathy, you can be sure that when you do trip over the dust bunnies in my house, I’ll feel truly, deeply sorry for you.

Big volumes, big hearts: Maybe this research explains why all the people who borrow my books keep them in pristine condition and return them on time?

Big volumes, big hearts: Maybe this research explains why all the people who borrow my books keep them in pristine condition and return them on time?

Feed This

Ever hear of Neknominate, or the Chug Challenge? It’s an online drinking game. You’re supposed to down a pint of beer and post the video on social media, then nominate a couple of buddies to do the same within 24 hours.

Sometimes this is done in combination with an outlandish stunt. People have imbibed from toilets, or mixed their drinks with insects or engine oil. In a Canadian spin, they’ve filmed themselves walking the dog or pumping gas semi-naked, outdoors, in winter, and then drinking the beer. (I wonder how many people opt for the alcoholic fortification first, and then perform the outdoor stunt?)

Neknominate has led to at least five known fatalities. That’s not cool. So a separate batch of young people have turned the viral video challenge into a different trend, called Feed the Deed. You perform an act of kindness and post it as a video. Then you nominate two or three friends to keep it going.

I heard about the Chug Challenge from a particularly sociable nephew. Enough said there. I heard about Feed the Deed from my teenage daughter, who was excited to be nominated and put considerable thought into her good deed. Eventually, she decided to make a card for Colin, the little Michigan boy I wrote about last week. His mom is collecting birthday wishes to prove to him he has friends. My daughter circulated her card at school and asked a whole bunch of other students to sign it.

Listen, if you’re ever losing faith in humanity, just read the sorts of things teenagers write when they want to lift someone’s spirits.

Other friends involved in the Feed the Deed challenge have bought coffees for bus drivers and garbage collectors, donated to charity, and given out pet treats at an animal shelter.

It’s thirsty work, but I doubt these kids are chugging beers at the end of it. Instead, they’re drinking in the gratification of helping those in need.

And not a frosted stein in sight.

And not a frosted stein in sight.