Category Archives: Books

Getting It Write

I was drawn to a recent interview in The Guardian featuring American novelist Ann Patchett – and not just because I like her books (three for three, so far). It was because, according to the article, Ann Patchett dwells on doing good. As you all know, ideas like these get my antenna up. Apparently, when Ann is writing, she cogitates on the fundamental human drive to be nice to others, and incorporates that into her captivating plots.

“I have been shown so much kindness in my life, so for me to write books about good, kind people seems completely natural,” she told the journalist. She added: “When people say, ‘Oh it’s too nice, it’s naive,’ I just think: who killed your mother?”

So then, last week, when the local school offered up two tickets to hear Ann speak at our downtown library and read from her newest book… well, they had me at hello. I wasn’t disappointed. Of course, every event seems worthwhile when it includes a cash bar. But Ann’s presentation was also engaging and interesting, and surprisingly hilarious.

I particularly enjoyed her comments about passing the age of 50. She’d felt as though a giant switch had been flipped overnight, she told us joyously. Suddenly, you no longer care. What she meant was that you stop worrying about what others think of you. “I know I’m a good person,” she assured us. It sounds liberating, doesn’t it?

There weren’t many males in our audience of 500-plus. During the Q-and-A session, though, the first person to approach the mike was an earnest young man who attempted to clarify the point Ann had just raised. “My question for you is about aging,” he said. “I’m almost 30. Do you recommend I stop caring now?”

Like I said, it was entertaining.

Thank you, Ann, for reminding us that most of us are fundamentally good, and that that’s good enough.


Photo by Heidi Ross / courtesy of HarperCollins

The Fine Print

It’s not National Literacy Day or Reading Week or even Tree Awareness Tuesday (at least not as far as I know). But I’m in a bookish state of mind. So today, for your reading pleasure, I share a few shining quotations on the theme of good deeds… all found in literary classics. Some are thought-provoking, some are witty, and all are sure to resonate with you.

“How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
The Merchant of Venice (William Shakespeare)

“Be happy, noble heart, be blessed for all the good thou hast done and wilt do hereafter, and let my gratitude remain in obscurity like your good deeds.”
The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)

“Goodness is the only value that seems in this world of appearances to have any claim to be an end in itself. Virtue is its own reward.”
The Summing Up (W. Somerset Maugham)

“To be good is noble, but to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble.”
Following the Equator (Mark Twain)

“We cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefits we receive must be rendered again line for line deed for deed to somebody.”
Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson

“If you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.”
The Horse and His Boy (C.S. Lewis)

“If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
Walden (Henry David Thoreau)

How about you? What’s your favourite quotation, story or book about kindness? Inspire us!

That cheeky Mark Twain also wrote, “Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”

That cheeky Mark Twain also wrote, “Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”

The Right Kind of Global Warming

When I heard about the Global Chorus project, I was impressed right off the bat. A guy from Prince Edward Island by the name of Todd MacLean – journalist, musician and champion of the environment – had come up with a winning idea. Step one: Collect a very large batch of inspirational, poetic, one-page perspectives on our planet’s future – 365, to be exact, or one for every day of the year. (Pick from famous authors, well-known politicians, celebrity environmentalists, musicians and TV personalities, world-renowned leaders and scientists. Cajole every one of them into writing an essay.)

Stop to mop brow.

Step two: Organize these hundreds of contributions into a thought-provoking, game-changing literary compilation.

Step three: Publish, and donate all proceeds of book sales to environmental and humanitarian charities.

Step four: Make a difference to the world.

Sound ambitious? Todd pulled it off. Global Chorus: 365 Voices on the Future of the Planet, published by Rocky Mountain Books, will be in stores across the country at the end of the month. You can pre-order your copies online.

The theme was hope. The responses were optimistic. Notable contributors – and I’m only naming a few here – include Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Mikhail Gorbachev, Justin Trudeau, Desmond Tutu, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, Rick Hansen, Farley Mowat, Temple Grandin and the Dalai Lama.

Every single one of these individuals donated their work and time to this project. Including me. Yep, I’m jammed in there on October 28, rubbing elbows with none other than October 29’s Stephen Hawking.

I’m humbled to be included. Floored, in fact. But proud. It’s a worthy project. And it will matter.


Why We Say Please

One of the simplest and easiest ways to be kind is to remember your Ps and Qs… specifically, your “P(leases)” and “(thank) Qs.” But it depends where in the world you are. According to Delancey Place, my go-to website for all facts fascinating, some societies don’t have words for please and thank you. In fact, these niceties are a fairly recent – and Western – custom, invented within the last 500 years as this society became more equality-minded and less of a kowtowing people. Up until then, we said please (if it pleases you) and thank you (I’ll think of you, and what you’ve done for me) as “a way to show deference to a lord or master,” according to the well-read Delancey Place folks.

This gem comes from David Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, in which he writes: “Like so many of our everyday courtesies, it is a kind of democratization of what was once a habit of feudal deference: the insistence on treating absolutely everyone the way that one used only to have to treat a lord or similar hierarchical superior.”

What fun. When you thank the guy at the newsstand for handing you your change, you’re really telling him that your heart will forever remember he showed you a kindness. And when you ask your sullen teenager to “please” turn off her cellphone at the dinner table, you’re basically saying she doesn’t have to do it unless she feels like it.

I love learning, don’t you? But forgive me (please, thank you) if I don’t share this particular tidbit with my teenager.

Books for a Parent’s Bucket List

Cute! Cute! Cute! Pictures books for do-gooder kids. Not that children need to be taught generosity, mind you; in fact they come by it naturally. But it’s nevertheless a great idea to have conversations about kindness, because it teaches kids that it’s important and appreciated, and it helps them identify different ways and means to be kind.

To that end, the Fill a Bucket series has caught my eye. Various titles range across all the age groups and have won several awards. According to the authors’ website, just get your hands on these books, and your children are sure to “discover how they can experience the joy of helping, sharing, and giving.”

There are other ways to talk to your kids about kindness, of course. But I’m a sucker for full-colour illustrations.

A heartfelt shout-out to my sis-in-law Elaine for introducing me to these books! Waving at you right now, Elaine!

A heartfelt shout-out to my sis-in-law Elaine for introducing me to these books! Waving at you right now, Elaine!

Polar Opposite

I frequently write about common courtesy, particularly those magical words “thank you.” But according to Peter Freuchen, a Danish explorer, anthropologist and writer who lived for a time with the Inuit people in Greenland, there are those who actually think it’s nicer not to say thanks.

As Freuchen explained it in Book of the Eskimos (1961), expressing gratitude was a no-no in his Greenland community because it would show you’re indebted to the do-gooder. If instead a generous transaction takes place without a thank you, then no one is overtly calculating who owes what. Neighbours simply step in as needed without expecting the favour to be returned.

It was seen as an immensely human way of doing someone a solid.

This was Freuchen’s lesson learned after his walrus-hunting trip failed miserably, his stomach was grumbling to beat the band, and another hunter shared with him his successful haul. When Freuchen tried to say thank you, the hunter stopped him in his tracks with this tirade:

“Up in our country we are human! And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.”

According to David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, this anecdote is often bandied about in anthropology circles. When folks downplay a favour, when they don’t treat it as anything special, it means they aren’t keeping score. There’s no tit for tat. And according to Freuchen’s Inuit friends in Greenland, that’s how it is to be a generous, evolved species.

Call me primitive. But personally, I still like a good old-fashioned gracias.

Book cover

It was a politically incorrect book title. But he couldn’t have been such a bad lad if his hunting buddies were willing to share their walrus.

Hard-Wired to Heart Each Other

Archeologists studying Neanderthal remains have discovered many clues that suggest these primitive people were pretty darn nice. It makes sense that our ancient cousins cared about each other. How would an über-social species get along otherwise? Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist in Germany, believes that cooperation helped early humans hunt and gather together, and so survive.

Here in the twenty-first century, humans are still born with an urge to help. In his book Why We Cooperate, Dr. Tomasello says that children are naturally inclined to help others. It’s a behaviour seen in every culture, regardless of how early or late parents encourage sharing and other social rules. Even one-year-olds in experiments will help adults by pointing to a lost object.

Right now I’m re-reading Clan of the Cave Bear, that popular eighties novel (that was eventually made into a really bad movie starring Daryl Hannah), and totally absorbed by the author’s rendering of Neanderthal culture and all of its incumbent kindness. I’m not saying I’d want to sleep on furs and eat woolly mammoth fricasee. But it’s neat to know that even the most prehistoric of people had each other’s backs.

Toddler washing a baby in a bathtub.

Benevolent babies: You wash my back, I’ll wash yours.

Values Told in Verse

It’s fitting that today, as my young daughter tours a faraway country with her choir (and her mommy misses her dearly), I’m thinking about a special song she performed earlier in the season.

I was drawn to the lyrics when I first heard her at practice. Now, bear in mind that practically every week she’s assigned about ninety thousand news songs to learn by heart, so a lot of lyrics come and go in our living room. But these words particularly grabbed me.

They’re taken from a hundred-year-old poem, “Barter,” by American poet Sara Teasdale. Someone set the words to choral music (it sounds beautiful, by the way; here’s a choir in California to prove it).

From what I can tell, “Barter” is about the value of life’s loveliness: those small but oh-so-important bits like the beauty of nature, the wonder of a child, the embrace of a friend. And I think (but I’m not sure, having forgotten to get a Ph.D. in literature studies) that the poet is saying it’s worth giving up everything you have – your riches, your time, your sweat – for even a moment of life’s loveliness.

Do you agree? This explains in part why people can make such sacrifices to help others, to make even a brief human connection, to gain a momentary sense of reward. Life’s loveliness is worth everything. Here’s the full poem:


Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children’s faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

(Sara Teasdale, 1884-1933)

A Little Less Lonely Planet

Jeff Ragsdale was one disconsolate dude. He was in New York, had survived a bitter breakup, and felt completely isolated in a city of eight million.

Some folks, feeling thus forlorn, might hide away in their flat and flip channels all day. Not Jeff. Last October, he put up fliers telling the world around him how lonely he was. He included a phone number. His real one. “If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me,” he wrote in his solicitation.

It worked. He received calls and texts – thousands of them. Many originated within New York City limits but they also came from far-flung places like Japan, Saudi Arabia, and that country of the far north called Canada.

One woman, describing herself as “incredibly lonely, too,” invited Jeff to go for a walk. A total stranger spontaneously told Jeff he’s “deeply loved.” Another kindhearted woman confessed she once went out with a stranger she met on Craigslist – simply because he had no one else with whom to celebrate his birthday.

Some people had advice: write gratitude lists, consider buying a co-op. Some wanted advice – a few were desperate. Every single person who contacted him had one thing in common: They wanted to make a connection. They wanted Jeff to feel surrounded by people who care. Perhaps it was their way of making the world that much less hostile.

My favourite comes from Jermaine, who sent Jeff a simple ten-word message: “I saw Adam Sandler in a supermarket. He looked sad.”

See, I think Jermaine is saying, you’re not suffering alone. Even superstars, even the funny ones, they all can feel empty and alone from time to time.

To date Jeff has received a staggering 65,000 calls and texts, and counting. He’s collected them into a book, freshly available on Amazon. Author Bret Easton Ellis calls it “a healing work of art.” (Ellis, if you don’t know, wrote American Psycho. I’m just saying.)

Check it out here. Or if you just want Jeff to know you’re thinking of him, give the no-longer-so-lonely guy a shout at 347-469-3173.

Three Medium-Sized Words

“Only through service to others can anyone have genuine happiness.” I was interviewing an expert on virtues recently, and she made this magnificent claim oh-so-casually, it was as if she were telling me the weather forecast. I was intrigued. So the meaning of life has been all figgered out? Did I miss the front-page news? If it’s that simple, why don’t more of us know this stuff?

With the release of a new book by John Hallward, maybe more of us will. His book is called The Happiness Equation: The Human Nature of Happy People. The author, who’s a research executive with Ipsos, surveyed over 1000 Canadians about what makes us happy and found, well, pretty much what she said.

In an interview with The Toronto Star, Hallward shares his golden key to utter happiness. In fact, he reiterates it three separate times: “Compassion over consumption.” That’s the secret. Three little – well, three medium-sized words.

Hallward means we should do what we feel passionate about, forge connections with other people, be charitable, do volunteer work.

That sure sounds like “service to others” to me.

And in case you’re wondering, according to Hallward’s research, you can forget fame and riches. They won’t do it for you. Just stay out of debt. Then open your heart, and you’re set.

Book cover for The Happiness Equation

If you're happy and you know it, you're probably too busy serving others to clap your hands...