Gnome Sweet Gnome

Eight months ago, Bev York became a victim of theft. These robbers didn’t drive off with her car. They didn’t steal electronics or take any fancy jewellery. Rather, they made off with Bev’s 12-inch plastic garden gnome. Nipped it right out of her yard in Victoria, British Columbia.

Then they named it Leopold and took it on vacation.

The pranksters were obviously garden gnome liberationists, part of a curious worldwide movement to give garden gnomes a better, um, life. The family (evidence points to the fact that a toddler and two dogs were involved) drove Leopold southward, away from B.C., through Arizona and eventually to a beach in Mexico.

As per tradition, the crooks captured lots of photos of Leopold enjoying his adventures along the way. We can be certain about this because they put together a bound and captioned photo book that documented his time away. Eight months later they delivered this to Bev, along with her long-lost garden figurine.

According to record, Leopold saw the Grand Canyon, got close to a cactus and experienced sunsets on the beach. He also apparently enjoyed his drink; tequila shots and margaritas figure prominently. He took a bath.

Looting and pillaging is not normally considered to be much of a good deed. But Bev isn’t bitter over the temporary loss of her garden gnome. On the contrary, she’s absolutely delighted by the experience. She’s grateful for the photo gift. She acknowledges the hard work and thought that went into it. She even appreciates the higher standard of gnome hygiene (Leopold is cleaner now).

What does Bev think of the thieves? They’re “probably very nice people,” she says in a news story, and in fact hopes that next time, they’ll take her with her.

In this case, gnome news is good news.

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But I will NEVER stop thinking these are creepy. (Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Survival Kit(ty)

You’ve heard those heroic pet stories. I’ve certainly posted my share of them. (Read examples here, and here.)

But what if some pets save lives not by dragging people from burning buildings, or managing to dial 911 without opposable thumbs, but simply by existing?

Researchers at Georgia Southern University recently took a close look at data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They found that in the case of women who’d died over the course of the survey, they were a lot less likely to have died of stroke if they were pet owners – in most cases, keepers of cats.

So, do cats do us good? Does feline companionship somehow protect the heart? Should cardiologists be telling their most critical patients to eat more greens, get more exercise and take in a few more stray kitties?

Unfortunately, the data is too limited to draw any definite conclusions about the benefits of cats to cardiovascular health. In other words, “Our study should not be interpreted to encourage more people to own pets,” senior author Jian Zhang cautioned the Thomson Reuters news agency.

It’s possible, for example, that cats don’t have any impact on cardiovascular health at all. It just may be, says Zhang, that the type of person who tends to own cats also tends to have a strong heart.

Well, that link makes complete sense to me.

So I guess we can’t say for sure, at this point, if cats are indeed cardio-protective. But there’s one takeaway, at least: You ought to stop making fun of cat ladies.

After all, they may outlive you.

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Any excuse to post a kitten photo, right? (Photo by Tina Phillips / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Vive la France

I’m back – or should I say, je suis revenue. This year, I spent my summer vacation in beautiful France. It was an epic journey for me and my daughter, as we don’t have the opportunity to travel nearly as often as we’d like. Plus both of us appreciate gorgeous landscapes, love good food, and can get along in passable French. (My accent is cringeworthy and I sometimes flub my grammar, but my vocabulary isn’t bad at all.)

If you’ve visited Paris, you know that in this international city a great many tourists and citizens alike speak English. We didn’t land in Paris until the last leg of our trip, however. Up to that point, most people we encountered spoke little or no English. Our lack of total fluency in French was a minor barrier when we needed help, but not a significant one. There are no language restrictions on acts of kindness.

And people were lovely. They really were. When we were trying to find an obscure museum building in a Lyon suburb, the middle-aged woman who noticed us wandering went out of her way to put us on the right path. When our train at Aix-en-Provence was en panne and we were forced to change routes and we suddenly weren’t sure just where we’d end up, every fellow passenger we spoke to was generous with their assistance. Every day, shopkeepers greeted us with warm welcomes, took time to describe heritage recipes or discuss their handicrafts. Tour guides patiently answered our questions, happy to explain customs and even talk politics. Hoteliers handed out as many maps and directions as we needed.

When your experience is made better by the courtesy of so many strangers in so many strange places, how do you give back to the community? My daughter easily answered that question by passing coins to homeless people everywhere we went. As for me, I’ve just packaged up a couple of Canadian souvenirs to put in the international mail.

There’s a funny story behind that. We were at a large train station with a few minutes to kill before our bus connection. We’d noticed the SOS Station office, but I’d assumed it was for lost children, or perhaps passengers who’d taken ill. That was until an older French woman came barrelling out of the office towards us. “You speak English,” she said. “Let me guess, you are American?” No, we said. “Oh, then British?” No. “Australian?” Nope. She finally pegged us as Canadians on her fourth try, and then entreated us to stay in her waiting room for a few minutes. Apparently, SOS is set up to save the souls of international travellers, a sort of comfort station for the non-French. There were seats, tourism brochures, a water cooler. We spent a few awkward minutes perched on chairs until it was time for us to go meet our bus. That’s when the French woman got to the point: She’d love it if we would mail her a Canadian pin for her collection. Perhaps two? She scribbled her name and address on a scrap of paper, helpfully adding “lady at SOS Station” in case we couldn’t remember, later, exactly why we were holding onto this stranger’s credentials.

So that’s why I’m now sending a padded envelope to France. It’s my small way of giving back to a country that welcomed us and shared with us its culture, its vast natural beauty and its fascinating history. Not to mention its astonishingly perfect cuisine.

Merci bien!

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Remind me again why I came back home?

Large as Life

Last week I was summoned to a government service office to replace my aging provincial health card with a brand-spanking-new photo ID card. (Funniest moment: When the guy taking my picture told me, in this order, to (1) remove my powerful glasses, and (2) stare at the small yellow dot six feet away.)

In this province at least, we’re getting more streamlined systems in place for making our organ donation wishes easily known. After we cash in our chips, there’s a limited time in which our tissues and organs can be actually put to good use. The new health cards have the information printed right on the back. Has a body recently expired? Flip card over. Read donation wishes. Save other lives.

Thus part of my renewal process last week involved filling out a form. The same government agent who asked me to stare at an impossibly small pale spot without my glasses was also amusingly judgy about the form. He nodded with approval at all the places where I ticked off “use anything,” “take whatever,” “party on.” Why wouldn’t anyone want to donate organs, he wondered aloud? Doesn’t everyone realize you can save seven or eight more lives?

Then he told me what had happened just a few days earlier. A woman walked in to renew her own health card, and when the same topic of conversation came up, she expressed her clear and unequivocal support for organ donation.

“I am here,” she explained to the agent, “because someone I don’t even know gave me their lungs.”

When it’s real and right in front of you, it hits home harder.

I’m on vacation for the next three weeks, lovely people. While I’m gone, please take a break, have some fun, spend time with the folks you adore most. I look forward to reconnecting with you again later in the month.

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Oh, and take time to smell the flowers.

Hold Your Water

Two nights ago, in Toronto where I live, a miracle fell from the sky. I’d almost forgotten what a soft summer rain feels like. We’ve had an uncharacteristically dry month. I know my perennials were desperate for a few precious drops of water. Despite my best efforts with the garden hose, a newly planted hedge was showing signs of distress. Certainly my lawn had retreated into a self-induced catatonia. And then, suddenly, wondrously, we were presented with precipitation. All became right again in the world.

Our part of the world, anyway. I’m fully aware that I belong to a privileged few who can actually count on clean water to fall, fairly often, from the clouds. And if it doesn’t, all we have to do is turn a tap. At our command, clean water conveniently flows inside our house. We can have as much as we want, at whatever temperature we desire. My households enjoys two outdoor faucets and eight indoor ones, in addition to multiple fresh-water hookups for toilets and appliances. The rest of my community is similarly fortunate.

In the rest of the world, there are people going without every day. The World Health Organization estimates that 663 million people are without access to suitable drinking water. That means for every single Canadian, there are 19 people somewhere in the world (and sometimes closer to home than you realize) who need clean water.

Yesterday a crew of four cyclists concluded their five-day, 1,000-km fundraising route from Calgary to Vancouver (that’s 620 miles for you imperialists). In order to raise awareness about Wheels for Wells, a charity that contributes to sustainable water projects around the world, the team completed their endurance event through the Rocky Mountains without drinking any bottled or tap water. The cyclists only drank from natural fresh water sources, like streams and lakes.

It may sound like they ought to have had water aplenty, and of course they did. We are in Canada, after all, where we enjoy a full fifth of all the fresh water in the world. But tell me, when’s the last time you drank from a pond? I mean, personally, I live close to a creek, but I also live close to urban runoff, and you wouldn’t catch me dipping into that murky stuff.

See how water-spoiled I am?

Props to the cycling team for their achievement. It wasn’t an easy road (no, really, there were a ton of hills), but their dedication helped an important cause. To them I raise a glass – of clean, fresh water, of course.

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Cheers. (Photo by khunaspix / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Your Brain Has No-Fault Insurance

Hey, remember that time you cheated, stole, lied or [insert another lapse of ethics here]?

No? If your memory of past transgressions is hazy, there’s a scientific explanation for that. It seems that humans are blessed with “unethical amnesia.” We have trouble recalling our own bad behaviour.

A set of studies at Harvard and Northwestern University shows that when we act dishonourably, we tend to forget the details more quickly compared to other kinds of memories. Apparently, we’re so invested in maintaining a positive self-image that our brains try to avoid any evidence to the contrary. So when people cheat on their taxes or lie to their bosses, they unconsciously refrain from thinking too hard about it – lest it threaten their belief that they are good, kind and pure souls.

What’s the solution? If you start a practice of reflecting back on your day’s deeds, your brain won’t be able to blur out the bad times quite so easily. “A habit of self-reflection helps to keep such memories alive and to learn from them,” co-author Maryam Kouchaki says in a press release.

Sure, it may be painful to relive your more imperfect moments. But perhaps it’s worth it, if it helps you behave better next time.

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Watch out, son, it’s a slippery slope. Today it’s just cheating on a math test, but tomorrow it’s offshore tax evasion… (Photo by stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Ahead of the Pack

There are three ways you can tell that the men behind Saltwater Brewery are salt-of-the-earth good guys.

One: The microbrewery in Delray Beach, Florida, is named after the world’s wide, wondrous oceans. The founders are self-described as “fishermen, surfers and people who love the sea.”

Two: Part of the profits from selling the crafty products – various beers have entertaining names like Screamin’ Reels and Sea Cow – are donated to charities that benefit the oceans.

Three: The team, in collaboration with the WeBelievers ad agency, has developed the world’s first edible six-pack ring. This matters, because no matter where in the world you happen to drink your beer, your plastic six-pack ring tends to end up in the ocean. And even if the rings are designed to break down in sunlight after a few weeks so they don’t entangle aquatic animals… well, all they really do is transmute from big plastic pieces into tiny plastic pieces. Fish mistake these bits for food (totally not their fault – they have fish brains), and end up stuffing their stomachs. Not a very healthy habit. Potentially even fatal.

Saltwater Brewery is trying to help marine life, not destroy it. So its beer cans are now attached to rings made from leftover brewing grain. If these rings do find their way into the sea, they’ll break apart into biodegradable and perfectly edible chunks.

Compared to shards of plastic, this is gourmet fare.

Anyway, who says these will end up in the ocean at all? Maybe this microbrewery has unwittingly kicked off a new foodie trend. Mix in a little chipotle seasoning, and you’ve suddenly got a snack go with your beer.

Hey, why not? I’ve seen what you put in that chip bowl during game time. At least the six-pack ring is low in trans fat.

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It doesn’t even have to be chipotle. I’ll bet nacho cheese would be a hit. (Photo courtesy of Saltwater Brewery)