Chronic Care

Stephen Wheeler lived with lung cancer for five years before he died. The manufacturing specialist in Rochester, New York, was not known as an extrovert. On the contrary, he was considered shy. But when his family contacted the administrators of his online cancer forum and notified them of Stephen’s death, they got a surprise: 1,000 pages of printouts from his many online discussions, which the administrators prepared for them. As the family learned, Stephen in fact had a lot to say (although he said it as “Ex Rocker,” his forum username).

As Stephen’s wife and two daughters read through the transcripts, they began to realize just what an impact he’d had on other people coping with cancer. His words gave insights, advice and even inspiration. He reached people, and he touched them. He’d had over 100 followers on the forum, plus direct contact from members who sought his guidance – or simply to meet him in person.

One of his fans posted this comment on Stephen’s obituary page: “Some of your words of wisdom will stay with me forever. Sometimes we never know what a difference we make in other people’s lives. I felt moved to write this so that your family and loved ones would know how very far your influence spread, and how you had changed lives.”

Stephen’s daughters are grateful to have this legacy of printouts. They say their dad’s voice shines through. It must feel as though they’ve kept a part of him alive.

“He didn’t feel like he did as much for humanity as he might have liked,” his wife commented in a Stat Magazine article. “If he’d seen the outpouring from people after he died, it’d have bowled him over completely.” Stephen wanted to leave the world a better place. It certainly appears that he did that, in spades.

DCF 1.0

The online follower ended his tribute with: “Rest in peace, Stephen Wheeler, Ex Rocker. And most of all, thank you.” ( / Marcin Farbotko)

Human Touch

Rock stars are probably at the receiving end of good deeds all the time.

Think about it. There’s all the fan art that gets mailed to you, those needlepoint portraits and balloon-sculpture likenesses. You score the most excellent swag at the Grammy Awards after-parties. Maître d’s are always giving you the best table in the house. Devoted groupies are always giving you… well, use your imagination.

Don’t you think an act of kindness is much more meaningful, though, when the do-gooder doesn’t actually realize he’s dealing with a famous singer-songwriter? That’s why I’m impressed with Dan Barkalow’s immediate response when he spotted a fellow motorcyclist stranded at the side of the road. He couldn’t tell who it was. But he didn’t hesitate to pull over and ask if the guy needed help.

It was only then that he realized “the guy” was actually The Boss.

As Dan and his biker buddies were already in rescue mode, they earnestly tried – but unfortunately failed – to repair the motorcycle. Plan B: beer. The buddies packed Bruce Springsteen onto the back of one of their own bikes, and everyone headed off to a nearby restaurant to have a couple of brews in comfort while the rock star waited for his ride. (Billy Joel later admitted during a live concert that he was the one who’d built the unreliable bike for his pal Bruce. Um, just because you can write timeless songs doesn’t mean you can tinker with engines, Billy.)

So how was the hang-out? “We just sat down and he was just one of the guys,” Dan told CBC Radio. Both men had been born and raised in the same town of Freehold, New Jersey. “We talked about some of the old days.”

Eventually, Springsteen’s ride arrived and he left, but not before picking up the tab for the table’s refreshments. “We offered. But he insisted,” Dan said. I agree that Dan deserves a free beer or two, because apparently this considerate man always makes a habit of checking on stranded motorists, famous or not. “We would stop for anybody,” he said.


My friends and I were in grade 10 when The Boss got married. I still remember which of my classmates cried like babies. (You know who you are, girls.)

Kindness on the Canadian Commute

You’re late for a job interview, you’ve got a killer of a headache, and you’re battling nerves and a bad hair day. Could it get any worse?

Of course not. It gets better. A fellow passenger on your subway train expresses concern and asks if you’re all right. Another commuter gives you an Advil for your head pain. Someone else passes you a juice box to help you swallow it. Several subway riders start prepping you for your interview, giving you advice on making a good impression. A teenager hands over a hair elastic so you can tie back your unruly hair.

This short sequence of events epitomizes what it is to be Canadian, at least according to witness Salma Hamidi, who posted a quick-to-go-viral note about it. (She’s the subway passenger who donated the headache pill to the man in need.) According to Salma, the individuals committing the various acts of kindness were a beautiful and benevolent mix of men and women of different ages, colours and religions.

And as far as she’s concerned, that’s typical of this country. “If this isn’t the ultimate Canadian experience, short of a beaver walking into a bar holding a jar of maple syrup, I don’t know what is!” she wrote in her jubilant note on Facebook.

That’s our true north, strong and free. Don’t let anyone tell you different.


With glowing hearts we see thee get the job… here’s hoping, anyway. ( (Kriss) Szkurlatowski)

We Want It Lighter

As if the state of American politics hadn’t already inflicted enough stress on the world, we got the painful news last week that our beloved singer-songwriter and artist Leonard Cohen, poetic and angelic of heart, had died at the age of 82.

This kind of sorrow is unavoidable. We are destined to lose our favourite lyricists and musicians because time inexorably marches forward. Recently we also grieved for David Bowie and Prince. And the losses hurt, sure. It’s the difficult price we pay for the joy of their music.

But this occasion was markedly different. When the Leonard Cohen stories inevitably poured forth – you know the kind, they start out “I once met Mr. Cohen at a laundromat…” and get printed on the editorial page or related on radio call-in shows – we heard a recurring theme of kindness in all its forms: generosity, warmth, humility, grace and love. By all accounts, Leonard Cohen was a benevolent person with an open, unselfish character.

In fact his biographer, Liel Leibovitz, writing in Tablet magazine, went so far as to suggest that, moving forward, we should all make an effort to “do unto others as Leonard Cohen has done unto us and find an appetite for kindness that is only sated when everyone around us is feeling their best.”

It’s a worthy legacy. We are certainly in need of uplift this month.

If that’s not comfort enough for the distressed and the despairing, I’ll share one other quotation. This optimistic reminder was written and sung by the bard himself, in his 1992 song, “Anthem”:

“There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

Leonard Cohen’s final studio album, You Want It Darker, was released a mere 17 days before his death. On it he declares, unabashedly: “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.” Well played, Leonard Cohen, so well played.


News Hound

First we were distressed to hear that an elderly Toronto man with dementia had lost his beloved dog, Kimbo, and that the people who had adopted him through the Humane Society had no interest at all in returning the pet to his rightful owner.

Then, we were overjoyed to learn that a local man, after hearing this story on the news, successfully bribed the adoptive family with lots of money – and got the dog back for 80-year-old Karl Daniels, his daughter and his two grandsons. (If you don’t cry when you see this reunion video, you need to get your tear ducts checked by a medical professional.) “There’s not even a word for such a man. I like to call him my angel,” said Daniels’s daughter, Michelle. Their saviour, Lawrence Dalle Vedov, told reporters he had to do it. Even though it meant spending the $5,000 he’d saved for a vacation to Australia. See, Dalle Vedov had firsthand experience with losing a dog, thinking he was gone forever, and miraculously finding him again. He also remembered how much comfort a dog had brought to his father when he was in declining health.

And finally, we were absolutely stoked to find out that Expedia Canada had donated a free airline ticket for Dalle Vedov to reach his dream destination, and that a crowdfunding campaign had raised over $6,000 to pay him back for his generosity.

Such is the roller-coaster ride of real life as it unfolds, toying with our emotions, pulling us down, only to buoy us up to level 11. Speaking of which, it’s election day in the U.S., and my fingernails, despite their Canadian roots, are going to get bitten tonight…

Love your neighbours. Love your dogs.


( photo)

Zombies for Good, Not Evil

Grawwll arrgghh yeeergggh… That’s zombie-talk for: “We’re not all of us heartless, brain-eating monsters.” Guess what? The undead can do good work. In five Quebec communities yesterday, zombies – or, rather, students enrolled in various healthcare-related programs – doused themselves in fake blood and entrails. (Hey, they’re med students. They’re not squeamish.) They then went door-to-door promoting the importance of organ donation.

And over the weekend in Cambridge, Ontario, zombies marched – or, rather, lurched and staggered – through the local farmer’s market. They didn’t mean to put you off your fresh red tomatoes. They, too, only aspired to raise awareness about donating organs.

Now for the public service announcement you knew was coming. Organ donation saves lives. A single donor can rescue eight people from certain death, and improve the quality of life for 75 others in need.

In Canada, we’re on board with the idea. We’ve been polled; ninety percent of us support organ donation… in theory. We just don’t seem to put our money where our guts are. Only one in five of us has actually made arrangements to donate our organs after we’re done with them, such as signing a donor card or registering online as a donor. The consequence? Many Canadians die waiting for the transplant they critically need.

And since, of course, zombies are the stuff of science fiction, these people don’t actually come back.


If you look real close, you’ll notice that cell phone users can sometimes also be zombies. (Wait, isn’t that the classic definition of a modern-day teenager?)

How to be Jollier on the Job

Do you hate your job? Resent your boss? Are you counting the hours (or shirking your responsibilities and reading blogs like this one) until you can punch the clock and just go home?

Let me share with you a few simple ways to rekindle your work passion. You could invest in a high-grade, fully automatic espresso machine for your cubicle. You could fly around to all your meetings with a jet pack. Or you could be more helpful at work.

I’ll warrant that last idea is, by far, the cheapest.

There’s even a term for this: “office altruism.” It’s when you take time to help your colleague polish her big presentation. You offer to proofread your co-worker’s grant proposal. You wash the communal dishes in the lunchroom. Whichever way you do it, apparently, you’ll end up happier on the job.

That’s what researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison claimed in a paper. They shared evidence that people who put a higher priority on helping others in the workplace were happier decades later.

What does that mean for someone like me, I wonder, who works in an office of one – and a home office, at that? Does it count that I occasionally crouch over my dozing dog and charitably give her a fine belly rub? It certainly lifts my spirits when I do. And she seems to like it.

Hmm, I think I’ve stumbled on an interesting new research direction for the folks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison…


She’s downright euphoric. Must be a mighty helpful person around the call centre. (stockimages /

Building Bonds

Two good-news stories, both involving tall buildings, stood out last week. What has a skyscraper got to do with sweetness, you might ask? For one thing, it might lead to a baby raccoon getting stranded on – and later saved from – a window ledge high above the ground. This happened at the downtown Toronto Star building, so not only was the rescue witnessed by a crowd of newspaper workers, it was also diligently recorded and reported. The baby raccoon had been up there for a couple of days, unable to get down, so firefighters set up a long ladder and basket to try and help the trapped animal.

Although the first reports all referred to the animal as a “he,” it was later found that the raccoon was actually female. (You’d think newspaper staff, of all people, would have their facts straight. Sheesh!) The Toronto Star folks did show their creative side by naming her Scoop. And not, we presume, just because she was safely scooped up in a net.

Eight thousand kilometres south of here, an act of kindness was happening outside another high-rise structure. As Reuters reports, window washers at the Sabara Children’s Hospital in Sao Paolo, Brazil, decided to cheer up sick children by wearing superhero costumes while they worked. Instead of staring at a dull, grey cityscape when they looked out the window, the kids caught glimpses of Batman, The Flash and Spiderman industriously applying their squeegees. A smiling nine-year-old told Reuters: “There is nothing to do in the hospital and, with these activities, a child’s day is happier.” (Truth be told, a smiling nine-year-old hospital patient could say anything and I’d quote her here.)

These buildings may be made of hard concrete, but last week they were the settings for some pretty soft-hearted good deeds. (See what I did, there?)


If you look really closely, you’ll see a cute little sick kid waving from the tenth-floor window… No, not really. (

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

Passing the Smell Test

If a guy pulling a pop can off the face of a skunk with his bare hands doesn’t attract attention, I don’t know what would. Sure enough, Ontario’s Mike MacMillan has been fielding dozens of media interviews since posting his skunk-rescue video, “The Bravest Thing I’ve Ever Done,” on YouTube last week. We all silently root for Mike as we watch him cautiously approach the poor skunk, murmuring, “Please don’t spray me… please don’t be upset,” filming with one hand while he reaches out with the other.

What you don’t know from watching the video is that he was smartly outfitted at the time. “I was on my way to meet the mayor of Barrie for a meeting,” says Mike, whose company makes secular, science-based animations and illustrations. “I was dressed in a suit, and not ready to wrestle a skunk!” But he couldn’t turn away, especially after he saw another car come close to running it over. “That’s not a dignified way to die,” says the animal lover. “I had to deal with it.”

Mike is scared of skunks – tell me, who isn’t? – but he valiantly crept close. Once he was able to grip the can, he and the animal worked together to pry it off. Then came the moment of truth. The skunk pulled free, and for a few seconds, he and Mike stared each other down. Would Mike get anointed for his efforts? When I pointed out that getting sprayed would have made it less of a feel-good story, Mike disagreed: “Actually, I think it would have been better! Either way, it was going to be entertaining.”

Was it awkward to assist a skunk and film a video at the same time? “A few people commented that I could have done a better job with a free hand,” Mike says, but confesses: “If I did have a free hand, I would have been using it to protect my face!”

It’s quite a story. But our stinky little friend is not the first of its kind to get its head caught in a can or a cup, nor is Mike the first person to film a rescue and put it up on YouTube. I found at least six more video clips, including a paramedic who puts on a biohazard suit before approaching the skunk, a man who hilariously plays instant frozen statue while the newly freed skunk sniffs his shoe, and a group of dauntless women who don’t give up even after the skunk sprays a little bit. You all have my deep respect. If you want, you can also have my soap.


This is the face of a brave man. (Photo courtesy of Mike MacMillan)


…And this is the face of a skunk: unobstructed, the way nature intended. ( Roberts)