A Close Shave

When our kids get into accidents, it feels as though our hearts have been ripped from our bodies, turned inside out, stuffed full of nails and used in a game of tackle football.

Actually, it feels a lot worse than that.

So you can imagine the agony my Canadian-Dutch friend Ella experienced last month, as she waited for her son to get through emergency brain surgery in Groningen, Netherlands.

Ten-year-old Reuben had been happily playing with his friends when he suddenly fell eight feet from a ladder, receiving a very hard knock to the head and bleeding around his brain. (Doctors said later that had his operation been delayed by just five minutes, he wouldn’t have survived.) It was a horror show – but one with an extremely happy ending. In the days after the surgery, as Reuben was gradually weaned from an array of tubes, bandages and monitors, it became clear that the little boy was recovering.

Naturally his parents were overjoyed and relieved at the outcome. But Reuben wasn’t so happy with his less-than-stylish new look. The left side of his face was bruised and swollen, an entire hemisphere of his head had been shaved, and an enormous incision, laced with dark stitches, curled around his scalp.

After he got home, Reuben opted to have the rest of his head shaved – what choice did he have, really? – but was still distressed over his reflection in the mirror. So, naturally, his mom stepped up. She told her son he could cut off her hair, too. All two-feet-plus of it.

It worked. “When I told him he could shave my hair off, his face lit up completely. One of his first moments of genuine happiness since his accident,” Ella told me. As Reuben operated the electric shaver on his mom’s head, he “was all smiles,” she said. “Afterwards, he sat by me for the longest time, resting his head on my shoulder.”

“I would do anything for my children and people I love,” this devoted mother reported. “Doing this for my son was the ultimate ‘I love you, support you and will do anything for you’ gesture I could think of to show Reuben.”

Ella is no stranger to radical haircuts – she has been growing and donating her hair, over and over, almost her whole adult life – but this was different. “This was the first time in over twenty years of cutting my hair that I didn’t donate it,” she noted. “This was just for my son.”

Today, Reuben is still recuperating. His mom is staying by his side, helping him with jigsaw puzzles, and baking chocolate cookies upon request.

I don’t know whether they’ve spent any of their together time online-shopping for matching scarves or hats (possibly toques, with a nod to Ella’s Canadian heritage) to cover up their buzz cuts. But it doesn’t matter.

We know their hearts already match perfectly.


Let’s Just Plow Through

Winter’s still on, so I’m sharing another snow story. Please bear with me (or invite me to Florida – either way).

So, what would you do if you were fed up with complaints about snowplows versus driveways? For those of you who don’t live northward enough to understand, here’s how it works in Canadian cities. A winter storm dumps a whole lot of snow on us. We shovel out our driveways. And then, because we pay our taxes, a snowplow drives around and clears our roads for us for free.

The problem? Well, the snow pushed by the plow has to go somewhere, so you often end up with a driveway-ful. Your cars get blocked in all over again. You’re forced to go outside for what some folks are dubbing the dreaded “second shovel.” And because by this point you’re exhausted, your temper is short… and you’re more likely to grumble about those annoying (did I mention free?) snowplows that have caused you a whole lot of aggro.

If your compulsion to complain happens to take you to the City of Regina’s Facebook page for a venting, be warned. There’s a guy called Neil McDonald who also lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, and he has very little patience for such bellyaching.

In fact, just last week, Neil tracked down one of the complainants – “Internet-creeped their address [and] drove halfway across town,” as he phrases it – and actually cleared the snow away from their car for them. He wrote that he did it “to prove that it wasn’t anything more than a minor inconvenience.” Of course, once he reported all this in a follow-up comment on Facebook, the whole thing quickly and predictably went viral.

You could call Neil a good Samaritan – just not to his face. In an interview for CBC, he insists that although people are calling him a “yeti messiah” and “Batman with a shovel,” he’s not like that at all. He’s flattered, but says he’s no “winter-loving, goodwill ambassador.” He’s just tired of all the griping about snowplows. Neil hates everything about winter, but believes we should be helping each other get through it, not fixating on minor inconveniences like a snowed-in car.

Just keep in mind it’s not about liking winter, ever. Neil is a champion on that point. “By me suggesting online that people just get out there and dig each other out after a snowfall, the last thing that I wanted to suggest is that we enjoy it,” he says. “Winter sucks without a doubt, but just do it.”

Neil, you have nothing to worry about from me. I will never stop despising winter, no matter how many wintry good deeds are done.

But I will always love those wintry good deeds.

The view from my front door. I can’t even talk about it.

The view from my front door. I can’t even talk about it.

No Business Like Snow Business

When I first glanced at the name of Canadian Tire’s winter-themed kindness campaign, I honestly thought it was called “Shove It Forward.” This made a strange kind of sense to me: It could have been an emphatic message about assertively, maybe even quite forcefully, paying the good deed forward.

Of course, the campaign is really about shoveling snow, not shoving kindness down people’s throats.

Here in Canada, snow shoveling is one of our official winter sports (I think). We wear uniforms (usually wool toques, deeply treaded boots and 2010 Winter Olympics mittens, slightly pilly with wear). We use specialized equipment – preferably ergonomic shovels with easy-grip handles, although any old aluminum thing will do in a pinch. And with practice, we improve and refine our technique.

Snow shoveling is not a team sport per se. But you do often see interplay, in the form of jovial comments exchanged between two adjacent driveways (“What a winter!” “You said it!”). The language rarely gets out of hand, although you may hear one or two curses aimed at a particular groundhog of note.

There are no national championships, no trophies, no medals. Snow shovelers, no matter how accomplished, never get celebrated. They don’t stand on a podium or receive flower bouquets or get asked to appear in a Nike commercial. What they do is work diligently and thoroughly to clean the white stuff away from their driveways and walkways.

And then, because this is Canadian society we’re talking about, more often than not they go next door, and similarly clear out a path for their neighbour.

The “Shovel It Forward” campaign is all about warming people’s hearts when the weather is unbearably cold. Canadians who shovel driveways for others are encouraged to report the good deed on the campaign website, or talk about it on Twitter. Canadian Tire is even supplying a number of limited-edition shovels to do the job (true to the name, you’re supposed to leave the tool with the neighbour so they can help someone else and pass it on).

With or without this campaign, Canadians everywhere are constantly shoveling it forward. On a blizzardy day, there’s no sound I love more than the distinctive rumble of a generous neighbour’s snow blower in my driveway, coming to the rescue. And my daughter and I, in turn, often wield our shovels on other people’s properties.

(These days, we do skip helping the cranky elderly neighbour I reported on here. Funny story: The winter after that episode, when I offered to help him after yet another heavy snowfall, he growled, “I don’t need help! I told you that last year!” At least his memory’s not failing.)

The shovel is almost bigger than she is. But that’s not stopping her. (Photo courtesy of Andrew McCartney / Tribal Worldwide)

The shovel is almost bigger than she is. But that’s not stopping her. (Photo courtesy of Andrew McCartney / Tribal Worldwide)

How to Make Your Mark

Mark Henick was a young teen in Nova Scotia when he came within an inch of death.

It was late at night. Mark was depressed and had run out of hope. He was on the wrong side of an overpass railing, barely holding on. Worse, in fact – he was ready to jump.

Then a miracle happened. A man pulled his car over, got out, and began to speak gently. Not to talk Mark out of it. Just to listen.

His name was Mike Richey. This may have nothing to do with anything, or everything to do with everything: Mike had recently started working in youth care. In fact, he was on his way to a shift at a residential centre.

Police and paramedics arrived, bystanders gathered. All kept their distance. But Mike asked Mark if he might move a little closer, just so they could talk more easily. He took a peek over the edge – and felt sick to his stomach as he shared Mark’s view of the asphalt 50 feet below.

And then the boy let go. But just as his body began to topple off the bridge, Mike reached out and gripped him around the chest. Mike and a police officer hauled him away from the edge. An ambulance swiftly took Mark away.

Neither man saw each other again, but neither man ever forgot. It’s been 12 years.

Today, Mark is a professional advocate with the Canadian Mental Health Association in Toronto. Mike works for a province-wide youth crisis centre.

Their brief meeting haunted both of them for years. Mike yearned to know if Mark had found peace, even thrived. Mark constantly wondered about the man who had saved his life.

Both men talked about the life-altering experience to their family and friends. Actually, Mark went one step further than that, sharing it as part of a TED talk about suicide. And then, though social media, he finally expressed his wish to find the man who’d saved his life.

A couple of Mike’s friends recognized the story when they heard it. (Mike admitted later that he cried when he learned that Mark Henick in 2015 is a confident, successful young man, ardently using his personal experience to help others.) And when he found out Mark was ready to hear from him, Mike wrote a very long, heartfelt email. He shared his detailed memories of that pivotal night, and revealed that the experience has never, ever left him. (Mike reads the email for the first time here, in an emotional YouTube video.)

Mike was gratified to know that the young boy he saved had gone on to make a giant-sized difference to others. “I never knew you could feel so proud of someone you spent such a brief moment of time with,” he wrote to Mark.

As for Mark, he felt happy – perhaps closure – after reading the letter, and has now expressed an interest in meeting Mike in person.

And he continues to share his story publicly for those who are struggling. “If this story can help somebody and show them that in fact people do care about them, like this stranger seemed to care about me – a kid on the edge of a bridge – then I hope that makes it worth it.”

Mark writes on YouTube: “I’ve always modelled myself on the idea that any stranger can save a life.”

Mark writes on YouTube: “I’ve always modelled myself on the idea that any stranger can save a life.”

Together Through Thick and Thinner

I’m going to take it on faith that you love the one you’re with. So I’m fairly confident that, if you could, you’d extend your partner’s life. That’s a pretty radical sort of good deed, isn’t it? If you’re thinking kidney donation or four-alarm-fire rescue, you’ll be possibly relieved to know that there’s an even easier way to do add years to your beloved one’s life. And you’ll end up helping yourself in the process.

Here’s how: Quit a bad habit – or develop a healthy one – the same time your partner does.

Researchers at University College London recently investigated the lifestyle behaviours of men and women in long-term relationships, and reported some positive findings. They found that if one partner tried to quit smoking, get more exercise or shed a few pounds, they were much more likely to succeed if their mate made the attempt right along with them.

And I mean much more likely. For instance: Women who tried to quit smoking had a low success rate (8%) if their cig-addicted partners kept on smoking. If, on the other hand, their men quit with them, their success shot up to 50%. Compare that to a 17% percent success rate in relationships where the partners never smoked to begin with. That suggests it’s the actual joint effort to break this habit that makes the biggest difference.

Similarly, men and women were more likely to get fit or shed weight if their partner tried to do it with them.

Why does it help? Encouragement and moral support can do wonders, say the researchers. (And maybe a little healthy competition doesn’t hurt, says I.) This CBC report suggests it’s simply a lot more fun to run laps or swim lengths when you’re with a loved one.

If you’re single, don’t despair. Anyone can be your workout buddy, even a neighbour or a co-worker. The point is to have a cheering section.

As for all you supportive partners who are exercising, dieting or slapping on a nicotine patch for your significant other, give yourself a pat on the back. You’re performing an act of kindness that will ensure your better half has a long, healthy future ahead of them. And there’s kickback for you, ’cause you’ll end up improving your own physical condition. Plus, you know that by doing a good deed, you get an emotional lift. It’s not just a win-win situation, it’s a win-win-win-win-win-win…

Photo courtesy of gameanna / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Photo courtesy of gameanna / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Say Hello to Eye Phone

On January 15, a new app called Be My Eyes launched around the world. This is an app whose success depends entirely upon the goodwill of total strangers.

According to Forbes, for an app to do well, it’s got to be a great product. (Well, duh.) You also need a solid marketing plan. It shouldn’t overlook niche markets. And ideally, the app should work best when users rope in their entire social networks (which explains those endless streams of requests I get to play Candy Crush Saga). For the most part, I found this Forbes article illuminating (although ultimately not worth the seeping wound I sustained on my brain after learning there are apps called Zit Picker, Yo Mama and iFart).

The article failed to mention the bit about goodwill and strangers.

Thelle Kristensen, co-founder and CEO of Be My Eyes in Denmark, is not at all worried.

Be My Eyes is an innovative way for sighted people to loan their vision to blind people –anywhere in the world. It works like this: If you happens to be blind and want to know the expiry date on a yogurt container, or the contents of a soup can – small tasks if you can see, impossible tasks if you can’t – you can use the app to signal thousands of sighted volunteers. When someone responds, the two of you are connected by live video. Now all you have to do is show the volunteer what you want to see, and the volunteer answers your questions. Thank you and goodbye. (Both helper and user can rate each other afterwards, for everyone’s protection.)

It’s brilliant. Obviously, a lot of other people agree. Over 7,800 blind users and close to 100,000 sighted helpers have joined the Be My Eyes community, and those numbers are rising steadily. More than 20,000 acts of kindness have been performed in the twelve days since the app launched.

In other words, goodwill not a problem. “When we started Be My Eyes, our immediate response was that people were willing to help,” Thelle told me, “especially when they experienced how easy it was, and how big a difference they could make in a short period of time.” Bingo. I’m a huge fan of lazy good deeds. Making an impact without much effort? It only means you’re more likely to go out and do it, again and again. Thelle is surely onto something.

And it is making an impact. “We knew that the relief of not being a ‘burden’ to a specific person was a great value proposition to the blind users,” Thelle added. In other words, most blind people would really like to not have to knock on their neighbour’s door for the fifth time today just to ask for help. (Hear more about this from inventor and co-founder Hans Jørgen Wiberg, who himself has a vision disability, at this TED Talk presentation in Copenhagen.)

Thelle noted: “The feedback has been tremendous since the launch, and people are pitching in with ideas and developing further on the app from all around the world.”

So it’s not much of a gamble after all, is it? If you want to be part of this world community, you can download the app here. (If, like me, you’re not part of the iPhone tribe, you can sign up to wait for the Android version, here.)

Now there’s really no excuse for ignoring those calorie counts on the product labels. (Photo courtesy of Be My Eyes)

Now there’s really no excuse for ignoring those calorie counts on the product labels. (Photo courtesy of Be My Eyes)

KISS Principle: Keep It Simple, Sweetheart

I was super happy to be a part of Craig and Marc Kielburger’s “Brain Storm” column for The Globe and Mail a few weeks ago. The co-founders of Me to We and Free the Children canvassed a few kindness experts – including me – about injecting more common courtesies into our day-to-day routines. I talked about the importance of keeping your eyes and ears open, since it’s my belief that there are countless opportunities to do good deeds, just as long as you’re on the lookout for them. (And, yes, I did refer to doggie-doo in a national newspaper!)

Then the Kielburgers asked readers to weigh in online, and some of their ideas were published in the newspaper’s January 2 edition. Inspiring? I’d say. A common theme here was simplicity: Smile at strangers. Hold the door. Give compliments. A schoolteacher suggested a stronger focus on kindness in the classroom. Another reader talked about the value of warm, active listening (without glancing distractedly at your smartphone!). Someone suggested reminding people close to you how much they’re loved.

One woman shared this thought: “I believe we should speak our minds in a positive way more freely to strangers we meet in our everyday life. Comment when you feel they have said or done something that you respect or just let people know that you appreciate their positive energy.”

That’s what I had in mind when I thanked a bus driver, last week, for waiting a few extra seconds after he dropped off a frail lady on a snowy sidewalk. He wanted to make sure she was walking safely before he sped off. As for me, I wanted him to know I wasn’t impatient about getting to my own stop – and, in fact, appreciated his compassion.

How about you, smart and lovely people? What ideas do you have for adding more acts of kindness to an ordinary day? We’d love to hear them.

A dog waste receptacle in Germany. My question is, how do you keep your dog from wriggling while you hold his hind end over the bin? (Photo courtesy of Mister GC / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

A dog waste receptacle in Germany. My question is, how do you keep your dog from wriggling while you hold his hind end over the bin? (Photo courtesy of Mister GC / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)