Category Archives: Guest Stories

Strait from the Heart

Fundraising gimmicks? Trust me, I’ve seen them all. Racing around in underwear to collect donated clothing? Yes. Playing piano for 20 hours straight, to support the arts? Yep. Posing semi-naked in a calendar, along with your fellow buff – uh, I mean brave – firefighters, to raise funds for cancer research? Oh my, yes.

Here’s what I had not seen, until now: A young magician who’s willing to spend two weeks inside the (increasingly rank, we assume) confines of a straitjacket, in the middle of a hot Canadian summer.

But that’s what’s happening this July. His name is Mark Correia, and he’s doing it to raise money for Parkinson’s disease. Mark, who is also an actor, is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts and currently enrolled at The National Theatre School of Canada. Mark is a longtime admirer of Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991 and currently supports research through his non-profit foundation.

“Michael J. Fox has been my personal hero for as long as I can remember,” Mark says. “When I first saw him in Back to the Future, I knew I wanted to act for the rest of my life.” And the way Fox now copes with Parkinson’s has made quite an impression on Mark. “When he was diagnosed with a life-altering disease, he was able to turn it around and become an activist and inspiration for those like him… He didn’t let something he couldn’t control get in the way of something he loves.”

Mark adds: “That’s what life is, taking what is thrown at us and and using it to move forward.”

Speaking of moving forward, just how do you take public transit – or, for that matter, get through airport security – in a straitjacket? How about bathing, dressing and, um, relieving yourself? “I’ll leave that to your imagination,” he says coyly. Let the fun begin. Mark will accept “task ideas” via email or YouTube comments, so if you’re feeling particularly creative, why not challenge him to weed his mother’s garden, or, say, make a pasta sauce from scratch?

Mark anticipates that the biggest trial may actually be sleeping in the jacket. He says he’s done it before, and it’s truly miserable. “That is one of the worst parts. When you wake up, your limbs are sore and blood isn’t really circulating.” Good thing he’s young.

Besides, it will be worth it in the end. Mark hopes to raise at least $25,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation – and even, if the stars align, make an appearance on The Ellen Degeneres Show.

Want to help Mark reach his goal, and potentially see your own name on television? Donate $100 to the cause, and your name will be permanently written on the outside of the jacket. Or give a smaller amount. If you can’t afford to donate, you can still get your helper’s high by liking him on Facebook, or sharing his YouTube video to spread the word.

Besides raising funds and increasing general awareness of Parkinson’s disease, Mark has high hopes for his upcoming summer stunt. “Hopefully I’ll inspire people to use the work they love to effect positive change in the world,” he says. “We can all do our part.”

Here’s how the straitjacket will look at the start of the stunt. Methinks, after a fortnight, this fresh snowy whiteness will be but a distant memory.

Here’s how the straitjacket will look at the start of the stunt. Methinks, after a fortnight, this fresh snowy whiteness will be but a distant memory.

Spice of Life

My sister runs a country general store in a tiny village outside of Ottawa. Because the population of this place is about a hundred, give or take, the general store is also the community centre, the local coffee shop and the seniors’ hub. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know that every face is familiar, you know every family’s address, and you’ve heard every person’s story about a hundred times (give or take).

The other thing about a small town is when you unexpectedly need something, be it a cup of sugar or a chainsaw, you have only two options. You can buy it at the only retailer for miles. Which is bit of a crapshoot. A country general store might sell coffee and canned soup and locally made maple sugar candy and “hug a farmer” mugs, but it probably won’t have that 10-mm ratchet spanner you simply cannot finish your project without.

The second and only other option, of course, is to borrow from your neighbour. If you’ve exhausted both options, you’re sunk.

So my mom happened to be staffing the store on Sunday when a woman phoned in desperate need of two teaspoons of paprika. She was up to her elbows in mid-recipe, and had just realized she had none in the house. Did the store sell it, by any chance? A quick scan of the shelves revealed nothing more exotic than seasoning salt. Even when the woman asked all her neighbours, she came up empty. (Presumably, in this tiny community in the countryside, paprika is considered a rare and precious substance, like myrrh.)

But my mom is a quick thinker and has a kind heart. “I’ve got some at home. Come into the store later and you can come pick it up,” she promised.

My mom called my sister to retrieve the paprika, which she had instructed my dad to fish from the kitchen spice rack and hang on the front door. Then it gets better. What’s the name of the person who needs it? My sis asked. When my mom told her, she replied: “Oh, I know where she lives. I’ll just bring it right to her house!”

And that, my friends, is how it works in a small town. When you have no paprika, when your next-door neighbour has no paprika and when your local retailer doesn’t sell paprika… the store owner hand-delivers her mother’s paprika to your home.

Just another regular day in a close-knit village.

You can always call on me. I make it a personal policy never to run out of paprika.

You can always call on me. I make it a personal policy never to run out of paprika.

The Twenty-Five-Thousand-Dollar Question

There’s this mom in Portland, Maine, who does what many moms the world over do in 2013: She blogs. Kari Wagner-Peck blogs about her son’s birthday party, his art class, his brand-new motorcycle-themed backpack. And because her little boy also has Down syndrome, Kari blogs about disability rights.

Like many of us who know and love people with disabilities, Kari has a particular distaste for the word “retard,” a word that is only ever used hurtfully. As Elvis would say, “Don’t Be Cruel.” Why would anyone want to use a word that causes deep pain every time?

And why, Kari asked in an open letter two weeks ago, would the ethics columnist for The New York Times Magazine, of all people, want to use it?

On her blog, Kari cited several examples from Chuck Klosterman’s oeuvre in which he sprinkles the word “retard” for cheap laughs. (So not worth it, folks.) “Please enlighten me,” Kari wrote to him. “What are the ethics of using the R-word?”

A rhetorical question? Apparently not. Chuck Klosterman saw the letter, read it, then responded swiftly. Was he defensive? Dismissive? Nasty? None of the above. He was profoundly apologetic.

“I have spent the last two days trying to figure out a way to properly address the issue you have raised on your web site,” his message reads. “I’ve slowly concluded the best way is to just be as straightforward as possible: I was wrong. You are right.”

Next, Chuck Klosterman was generous. “I would also like to donate $25,000 to whatever charity… you recommend,” he writes. Uh…. how much?

We’re blown away. Where “sorry” might have been enough, this guy is putting his money where his shut-my-mouth is. “I have done something bad, so help me do something good,” he says. Chuck, you have proven that it’s never too late for redemption. As for me, I took the pledge several years ago. I don’t use the R word, and I try to spread the word. But now, in honour of Mr. Klosterman, I vow never to use “upchuck” in a sentence… ever again.

Kari’s son in costume: I’m trying to guess his superpower… a smile warm enough to melt icebergs, maybe?

Kari’s son in costume: I’m trying to guess his superpower… a smile warm enough to melt icebergs, maybe?

Feline Groovy

It’s not every day – thankfully – that you hear voices crying out to you from the trash bins. (Well, maybe you do, but that’s perhaps another story for another time.) In the case of my friend Tina, she was startled by teeny-tiny mewling sounds while taking out the garbage one swelteringly hot night. And she got concerned. She donned mask and gloves, tipped over the bin, and began sifting through the trash, piece by piece, until she uncovered (warning: disturbing content) a family of five newborn kittens, tied up in garbage bags. Sadly, Tina was too late for two of them.

But my friend brought the surviving three babies indoors, cleaned them, fed them and made sure they were safe. Then our fearless Tina went back outside – at almost midnight, now – to comb the streets in search of cat mom. Unbelievably, she found her. “Not sure it’s theirs, but I coax her back to my place with food,” she wrote later in a reflection. Happily, Tina had zeroed in on the right baby mama, as became clear once they were reunited – and cuddling.

That was three months ago. Tina, who lives on the island of Cyprus, has cared for these baby kittens so well that they’re now healthy, frisky and ready for adoption. Thanks to Tina’s kindness and quick thinking, all three seem to have recovered fully from their very close call.

And speaking of close, another homeless litter of kittens (I started to write kitty litter but decided to rephrase that) made its debut right on my driveway a few weeks ago. My husband spotted them one evening as we returned home. I alerted my friend and neighbour, Natalie, who won’t tell you this herself but actually moonlights as a cat whisperer. What that means is that she and her family spent many hours and evenings at the back of my driveway, patiently enticing the five tiny felines out of the bushes with kitty num-nums, until she’d managed to take four of them into custody. A cat rescue agency has accepted them for neutering, vaccinations and adoption. These are, apparently, essential steps to combatting our community’s cat overpopulation problem. (We’re still on the hunt, by the way, for the renegade fifth kitty. Our children have distributed flyers door-to-door in the hopes that someone has spotted him – somewhat, akin, I think, to old-timey wanted posters.)

Not everyone would have the patience or the expertise to lure cats to safety and nurse them to health. (It doesn’t take much patience or expertise to donate a couple of dollars online, mind you, so if you’re inclined that way, you could always support your local animal rescue group.) Kudos to both Tina and Natalie for helping these itty-bitty kitties.

Four days after rescue: Tina’s tiny trio is lucky to be alive.

Four days after rescue: Tina’s tiny trio is lucky to be alive.

Two and a half months after rescue: Better look out for this posse of preciousness…

Two and a half months after rescue: Better look out for this posse of preciousness…

Every Dog Has Its Day

There’s something about dogs – the way they want to be your new best friend in about four seconds, the way they grin with their tongues lolling, the way they’d do anything for cheese – that captures your heart. Don’t you think? That’s why it’s unfathomable that an adorable young Irish wolfhound not far from my west-Toronto neighbourhood was let loose, without collar, tags or any other form of ID, by owners who no longer wanted him.

This little guy may have had a rough start, but it didn’t take long for his luck to turn around. First he was found by Alice Woods, a dog lover. She and her husband Nick have a pup of their own – plus a sense of humour. The couple immediately went to work plastering posters around his community that said in part: “Mom or Dad, if you’re reading this please call Nick at 416-xxx-xxxx because I am crashing at his place.” Nick and Alice included their own helpful notes: “This sweet boy looks like a young James Franco, if James Franco was an Irish wolfhound mix.” The poster was shared on social media and seen by thousands of people while Nick cared for furry JF II – quickly dubbed Seamus – at home.

Finally, the owner was located. But in an unexpected and heart-rending twist, they didn’t actually want the dog back.

Still, all this advertising led to a happy ending for Seamus. “The good news is that we were contacted by an awesome family in our neighbourhood – fenced yard, two kids, one of the parents is at home, previous dog owners – who have adopted him,” Nick told me yesterday. “So the posters did work after all.”

I’m particularly attached to this story because my own family just adopted a dog. Our daughter has been lobbying for this pretty much her whole life. Her dream finally came true when a five-year-old sweetie, beleaguered by a recent series of changes and in need of a new home, came to live with us forever.

Taking in a pet is life-changing, but as a colleague told me of her own dog: “He has made our house a home.” I congratulate Alice and Nick on their loving, patient care of an abandoned and frightened dog. And I wish a lifetime of happiness for Seamus with his new family.

I have to admit our new pup looks a little like my husband, if my husband was a salt-and-pepper miniature schnauzer. I suspect it’s the grey beard.

I have to admit our new pup looks a little like my husband, if my husband was a salt-and-pepper miniature schnauzer. I suspect it’s the grey beard.

Dear Kijiji Lady…

Yes, that’s right – I’m talking to the dear woman who posted this Kijiji ad in Saint John, New Brunswick.

What a wonderful tribute you’ve shared to the person who offered you help you last week.

You turned down her favour. True, you were struggling with a load of groceries and a fussy preschooler after an exhaustingly long day. But by this point you were a block from home, so you didn’t need the lift in her car.

Yet, still, you gave her a grateful shout-out on this mother-of-all-message-boards. You took the time to point out that even though you didn’t actually get into her red station wagon, you witnessed the ripple effect of her kindness. You confessed that her good intentions melted your heart. You observed that the two young boys with her are learning from her example.

And when you went home and wept because you can no longer afford a car and feel you’re letting down your son – and then your little four-year-old angel embraced you and cheered you on and told you how much he loved you – you honestly felt that this incredibly special moment might never have happened if the woman in the red station wagon had not offered you both a ride.

No wonder you felt compelled to post this, in the hopes that station-wagon-mom will find and read it and know much her generosity meant to you.

You don’t mind if other people read your message, too. “If you aren’t the Mom from the red station wagon,” you have written, “please take a moment when you see someone in need and offer to help, offer a kind word or even just a smile. You never know what an impact you can have on someone’s day or how that moment of kindness can be the catalyst for something greater.”

Lovely, Kijiji lady. Wishing you all the best.


Don’t Judge a Book (or a Biker)

Last week I wrote about a tough-looking guy who spoke really sweetly to me. On this same theme, I’d like to talk about a friend of mine we’ll call Rocky. His real name doesn’t actually sound all that hardened, but I’ve picked Rocky (other contenders were Conan and Thor) to go with the image he believes he projects to the world.

I say “believes,” because personally I’ve never known this guy to be intimidating. Let’s be clear: This is a soft-hearted, middle-aged man who has fixed a leaking water pipe in our basement, helped us with a broken table and gone out of his way to give me a ride to the train station. Rocky is one of those guys who’s constantly on-call for any friend who needs a hand, ever.

But he does ride a motorcycle. He has tattoos. He is neither short in stature, nor a beanpole in build. His email handle is “Blue Harley” (and he uses said email account to circulate some rather racy jokes). Sometimes, he is judged harshly.

Still, he writes eloquently. So when, last Friday, he had a disappointing encounter with a woman and her daughter in the coffee-shop parking lot, Rocky was moved to share the story with his friends. It’s touching, and with Rocky’s permission, I reproduce it here:

“To the family in the red SUV at Tim Horton’s today. Yes, I am a big, 230-pound guy with motorcycles and full of tattoos. I am loud, I drink Coke … and I look like I would eat your soul if you stare at me wrong.

“What you don’t know is that I have been happily married and my 30-year-old kids call me Dad. I am a college graduate, my mother is proud of me and tells everyone how lucky she is to have such a wonderful son.

“My nieces and nephews are always happy to see their Uncle Rocky. When my boys broke their bones, I cried more than they did.

“I read books, I help people, I go out of my way to thank war veterans and I even cried at Armageddon and Schindler’s List.

“So next time I smile and say hi to your little girl and you grab her and tell her ‘No, no, dear, we don’t talk to dirty bikers,’ remember that even though you hurt my feelings, this ‘dirty biker’ would be the first person to run into your burning house to save your little girl – and her goldfish, so she wouldn’t be sad!!!!”

Rocky adds at the end:

“By the way, I’m a plumber… and the fellow I was riding with was a police officer.”

Tats? Yes. Tough? Not on your life.

Tats? Yes. Tough? Not on your life.