Cool to be kind

image: Native Vermont Studios

Henry James once said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” In honor of that sentiment, November 13 has been declared World Kindness Day – an occasion that hopefully inspires us to practice random acts of kindness when and where they’re least expected, and not just for a single day, but rather, as a typical mode of operation.

Here, five ideas to spark your imagination. Careful, though: these gestures may be habit-forming.

Buy the world a coke (or a coffee)

Event planner Robyn Bomar had the right idea on her 38th birthday a few years ago: instead of making the day all about her, she thought, why not make it about other people? With help from her family, she consciously committed 38 random acts of kindness, from feeding rows of parking meters and donating clothes to a homeless shelter to delivering homemade Valentines to an assisted living facility and giving gift cards to families in line behind them at the grocery store. Her blog post about the day created a stir, and then a movement; from it, The Birthday Project was born, encouraging others to use their birthdays for good as well.

Those same ideas are applicable any day of the year, and everything from leaving a huge tip on a small meal to putting a few dollars’ worth of change into a vending machine and attaching a note can bring a smile to someone’s face. Another act of kindness to consider: over-paying your barista on behalf of folks behind you, or using Starbucks’ new feature, @tweetacoffee, where you can sync a credit card and Starbucks account to twitter and buy a cup of joe for someone with a simple tweet.

Create a care package

A recent piece by The Atlantic posited that one in four Americans will have lived under the poverty line at some point before age 35. That sobering statistic serves to put a face on the problems of poverty, hunger and homelessness, and hopefully hits home for those of us in a position to help others.

While some may not be comfortable simply giving money to those asking for it on the street, a simple, practical gesture can go a long way: consider creating small personal care packages by loading up freezer bags with a bottle of water, a pair of clean socks and piece or two of fresh fruit and delivering them to folks who could desperately use them. Maybe go a step further and donate non-perishables to a food bank or soup kitchen, many of which could benefit from extra foodstuffs for the holiday season.

Spend some time

Even if you don’t have a dime to spare, chances are, you have at least an hour. Time is one of our most precious resources, and it can be easily wasted on social networks, in long commutes and on all sorts of mindless diversions. Consider getting outside of your comfort zone and volunteering your time, even if you start with one commitment that lasts, say, an hour or two on a Saturday. Check out VolunteerMatch to find a local opportunity that suits your interests, whether it’s helping pets at a shelter, kids in a hospital or elders at the local library. (Intimidated? Don’t be. Pair up with a friend and do something worthwhile in lieu of brunch this Sunday.)

Rather go big? Start making plans to book a volunteer trip through Cross Cultural Solutions or Me to We. Your memories will last a lifetime, and so will those of the people you help.

Make your money talk

We live in crazy times. Think about it: any material object we could ever hope to own is likely a few clicks away. When it’s a choice between buying two similarly priced, equally cute and useful objects, one of which is ethically made and benefits a great cause and one of which isn’t and doesn’t, the decision should be an easy one to make. Sometimes, though, we don’t have all the information we need.

Sites like SHFT, Ethical Ocean, Uncommon Goods, Sevenly and TOMS’ new multi-vendor marketplace make those decisions easier; they only carry products that are ethically produced and environmentally conscious and/or have a proven social mission. Whether it’s a gift for a friend, a fun indulgence for yourself or daily basics like toothbrushes and chewing gum, you can impact the world in a positive way simply by making a more informed choice and putting your money where your heart is.

Put pen to paper

Pop quiz: When was the last time you sent an old-fashioned thank you note or a handwritten letter to someone you care about? In this era of tweets, texts and divided attention, it’s too easy to forget that a well-placed, self-penned word of encouragement or gratitude can brighten someone’s day or even boost them through a rough patch. It only costs the price of a postage stamp and a few minutes of your time, but it can make someone else feel like a million bucks, even if only for a day. That’s a return on investment that can’t be argued with.

However you choose to celebrate the day, any act of kindness is better than none at all. For more ideas on making a positive impact, check out the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. (Yes, there’s actually a non-profit org called the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. There just might be hope for us after all, people.) Obviously, we’re not going to solve all the world’s problems simply by being kinder to each other for a day (or even all the time), but for those of us willing to take the first swipe at making things the tiniest bit better, we could stand to heed the words of legendary Grand Slammer Arthur Ashe:

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

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ps… In case this post seems a little formal compared to what’s usually found here, it was actually pitched to and written for the website of a print magazine, but they ended up not running it. So, blah, I thought I’d share it with you kind folks instead. 

pps… hey, ‘member this?

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How rude

What would Stephanie Tanner do?

image: Mark Shoberg

Lonesome George is dead, you guys.  I wish I’d known that sooner.

It’s funny how the world works.  I got not one, but two, nastygrams from strangers this week, taking me to task for something I’d written for a blog I contribute to on a regular basis.  But it wasn’t because the piece I’d published was mean, or acerbic, or controversial or crude; it was because smack dab in the middle of it was a big giant mistake about a tortoise who is no more.

Quick backgrounder: I write daily stories for a website focusing on companies, organizations and people doing good in the world in some way.  The concept is broad but narrow; we cover brands that give back a considerable portion of their proceeds to charities — no small feat in today’s economy — or who are built on a buy-one-give-one-model.  We cover individuals, too — regular joes who are paying it forward and doing cool things in the face of adversity.  We write about the good stuff, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before.  It’s gratifying.  It’s really fun.  And it’s a lot of work.

This week, I posted a piece on a company that gives back 10 percent of its proceeds (which, again, may not sound like much to the unindoctrinated, but for a startup, it’s insane) to a charity working to cure the ills that we as a society have dumped on the environment.  (Now, bear with me: I’m not about to get into a political debate about global warming or saving the oceans.  Just suffice it to say here’s a guy who saw what he considered to be a big problem and is doing what he can with his small business to help solve it.)  The brand is predicated on the concept of Lonesome George, the very last tortoise (a pinta, to be exact) of his species, who died earlier this year.  To paraphrase the company’s founder, “It’s not about cloning him or finding him a mate; it’s too late for that.  It’s about learning a lesson and making sure we don’t let this happen again.”  Fair enough, right?  So I wrote a story about it, focusing on the tortoise as the central character, ran it on Monday, and by Wednesday, I had two ugly emails sitting in my inbox from people I’d never met.

You need better fact checkers, the first one said, and informed me that Lonesome George, to whom I’d referred as the last living member of his species, had died over the summer.  At which point I sucked in my breath, Googled it faster than anyone has ever Googled anything, and began emotionally flogging myself for being such an idiot and not catching that small but clearly significant fact.  I wrote her back, thanked her for the catch and made the correction in our content management system as fast as my wee little fingers could type.  Rarely do I freak out over someone else doing something wrong, but when I’m the one at fault, it’s like the sky is caving in.  My PR training and merciless sense of perfectionism kicked in immediately as I set about considering all the possible reasons I could have missed something like that, and how to never ever let it happen again.  Add another oops to the oops pile, I thought to myself with more than an ounce of utter humiliation.

The second email, which came in the next day, was more… pointed. This is appalling.  Is this a joke, or just shockingly vapid? it began. How much research do you actually do prior to promoting a particular cause or product? Are the causes themselves important or [are you] nothing more than a flimsy attempt to justify hipster consumerism with a whitewash of social consciousness?  I noticed that you changed the text… to correct the egregious errors. Clearly you owe [the company founder] an apology unless his true aim is to exploit an extinct species to sell t-shirts, then I guess all you did was pull back the curtain.

I read this on my phone while I was still in bed.  It was literally the first thing I saw in the morning after responding to the buzz on my nightstand.  I found myself composing a response — one as elegant and humble as I could muster — before my feet had even hit the floor.  And after I sent it, and stood up, and poured myself a glass of water, and patted the dog on the head, a new thought finally occured to me.

What a dick.

Both emails actually came from women.  I hate the connotation behind the word “bitch,” though, so it’s less of a preset for me than “dick,” which somehow sounds funnier when you apply it to a woman, like calling a pet or a child an asshole (behind its back, of course, and oh hello, now I feel like a terrible person for even typing that out loud).   The fact that it doesn’t exactly fit in terms of logic makes it greater somehow.  Anyway, I thought to myself, where does this dick get off writing such a nasty jumble of words to someone who was just trying to do something nice?  The next day’s story, for instance, was about an online community of craftsmen and women who are custom-designing holiday presents for underprivileged kids in the Bronx.  The individual gifts are based on designs drawn by each kid; it takes the idea of a toy drive and makes it personal, introducing elementary schoolers to the creative process and letting them know they actually matter in the world.  The project’s fueled by donations from sponsors who contribute online — regular people like you and me.  That’s the kind of stuff we cover, up and down, every day, without fail.  We’re not out to make a zillion bucks here, lady, I fumed, and the Lonesome George guy probably isn’t, either.  We’re trying to do something decent.  If you want to talk about materialism or people who are vapid, go send some of your anger to Fab or Gilt or one of the Kardashians.  I’m really sorry I made a mistake, but your bile is misdirected.

After a flurry of texts with my boyfriend, who kindly offered to do something I won’t go into detail about (but in a nutshell, it involved vengeance and a chainsaw), it occurred to me that, rather than going about my morning having brushed off the fact that just one person was jumping to rash — mean! — conclusions about little old me and my pristine — noble! — intentions, I was instead spending the entire morning freaking the hell out about the fact that just one person was jumping to rash conclusions about little saintly old me and my impeccable intentions, and between waves of self-pity, I was sending texts about chainsaws and trying to figure out exactly what was so broken in this person’s life that she felt the need to spend her morning sending nasty emails about…

Stop.

Right into the cyclone I’d jumped, like a fool.  Immediately, all those pithy little platitudes that make us roll our eyes came flashing before my eyes: “Don’t bring yourself down to their level.” “Kill them with kindness.” “Bad begets bad, but good begets good.”  And I decided to sit down, write something out of it, and be done.  Lesson learned, moving on… back to the business of being a grown-up.  Right?

But then that feeling started creeping back in again.  That insidious sense of (flawed) self-righteousness that had me wondering things like Seriously? Has this woman not seen all the vitriol that’s out there?  The bitchy celebrity gossip sites, the abject snark with which everything everywhere is written anymore, that show on E! where Joan Rivers sits around and talks about how fat that girl’s ass looks in that dress?  Listen lady, I’m not part of some conspiracy to end the world through my posts about doing nice things.  I don’t know if the guy who makes the tee shirts is a nice man or not; I don’t know how genuine he is or if he’s kind to puppies he passes on the street.  But at least he’s doing something.  What about you?  How many mean emails have you sat on your tush sending out today from the comfort of your couch instead of doing something worth something?  And then I thought: Crap. For all I know, maybe she was sending that email from the women’s shelter where she volunteers, or from the place where the Dalai Lama lives, because maybe she’s him in real life and he just likes to send out mean emails as a girl with a yahoo address in his spare time for kicks.

We’re all imperfect, I concluded.  Not exactly a revelation, I know, but sometimes I forget how full of holes we all are — me included.  And then, I really got put in my place.

Feeling sorry for yourself is all fun and games until you get an email from your best friend’s grandma.

I’ve met Joan maybe four times, and let me tell you, she’s magnificent.  This lady has a spirit about her that’s unlike anything you’ll ever see, and she’s raised a family we probably all ought to pay attention to and maybe do a study on, because these people know what they’re doing.  So when Joan talks (or emails, for that matter), you drop your BS and you listen.

amy, i have just read your blog and as always do enjoy reading your “thoughts”!  however , when i read this one, i was reflecting back to jan. of this year when i had experienced the “coughing, sneezing etc.” for about three full weeks and just assumed i was going to die!   thank God i did not.   but i do remember having the time as you stated to just think.   and during this “crisis”, i  thought how profoundly grateful i was to be at this stage   –   and age  –   in my life and to have experienced such wonderful blessings.   needless to say, with these blessings have come many adversities.  what we make of these or how we let these consume our life i believe is up to us   –   with a lot of prayer time for me personally.   but my goodness, there are so many beautiful memories in my memory bank  and still more to come i hope.  i guess we all need this “thinking” time at some point and just wanted to share this with you.  thank you for sharing your comments with me.   i look forward to receiving them .   i hope to see you at some point and visit with you.  and i wish for you and yours a thankful Thanksgiving.  your friend,  joan

After I read her note, I burst into tears, missing my mom.  She always had a way of zooming things back out into perspective.  I try to do that, too, but shit, it’s not as easy as it looks. (Joan, if you’re reading this: sorry for all the cursing.)

I should clarify the fact that I referred to Joan’s grandson as my best friend a few lines back.  I actually have a cadre of them, each one as important to me as the next.  And I’m stupid lucky to have them in my corner.  Even though I don’t see them or even talk to them nearly as much as I’d like, each is as much family to me as my actual family is, and in some cases, then some.

That’s sort of a thing we do when we lose people, isn’t it?  When someone dies and we can’t get them back, we unknowingly seek out people who embody some of their best qualities so we can still enjoy them even after the source is gone.  That’s how I choose to deal with pain.  Look it in the face and fix it.  Not turn it outward and smack other people around with it so they can feel it too.  It’s tempting sometimes to be rude and cut people down to size, sure.  But that’s the thing about temptation.  Give into it too much and someone almost always gets hurt.

I realize I’m preaching to the choir here since most people reading this are either friends of mine or fellow writers who are equally empathic souls, but let’s all do ourselves a favor and take heart anyway. The next time we’re rude to someone, remember: that person may end up being a person like Joan, which makes us just about two feet tall.  So, sing it, Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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Feet to the fire, hands off the wheel

Light 'er up...

image: Hua Mao

wrote a piece earlier this week about something called The Birthday Project. It’s a little movement — or idea hub, really — started by an event planner in my home state of Florida.  On her 38th birthday, she practiced 38 acts of kindness and turned it into a whole day of mini-adventures for her family.  They taped spare change to soda machines for anyone who needed it.  Bought gift cards at the grocery store and randomly handed them out to people waiting in the checkout line.  Made handwritten Valentines for the residents of a local assisted living facility… and on and on and on… all these wonderful deeds to make people smile and maybe feel inspired to pay it forward too.

See?  Good things DO happen in Florida… occasionally.

Once the day was through, she wrote about it and posted pictures on her company’s blog. The response was so overwhelming, she created an online community around the concept to give people ideas for reverse birthday celebrations of their own — the notion being that birthdays can be a day in which you give instead of receive, and in doing so, bring loved ones together not only for fellowship and fun, but also to expand the do-goodery way farther than you could have accomplished on your own.

Wait… isn’t this all a little Brady Bunchy?  You bet your ass, and I love it. 

A few months ago, I was blabbing on and on about getting up off my tush and volunteering, what with this mega-flexible schedule I supposedly have these days.  Specifically, I challenged myself, IN FRONT OF THE INTERNET AND EVERYTHING, to kick it all off by giving blood for the first time in my life, even though I’m deathly afraid of all things medical and am officially, as my college roommate would say, “a fainter.”

Because I’d put it out there, though, I followed right on through.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I missed my self-declared deadline by about a week, but hey, we’re talking decades, so I’d say it’s negligible.)  Now, while I didn’t technically faint, I did come thisclose a solid three times, and it’s possible but not proven that there might have been some crying in the parking lot beforehand.  Since we’re being honest: I stayed in that chair so long after it was over, I’m pretty sure the med tech thought I was cheesing it up on purpose for all the Gatorade I could handle, like I was pulling some sort of free snack scam.  Sadly, though, I really was close to melting into a puddle from anxiety the whole time, even though it didn’t hurt a bit.  All in all, I gave a pint and, per the big red sticker I wore for the rest of the day like a five-year-old, maybe saved two lives.  Wonders never cease, my friends.  And next, I’ll learn to tie my shoes.

So, back to the first part — about volunteering.  I’ve skipped a few Fridays on this page, and it’s partly because of the too-few hours in a day (which according to the Times is all in our heads, and they’re probably right), but also because I sit here at the end of each week, staring wide-eyed into a WordPress screen, feeling like I’ve run out of words after churning out thousands of others and being deathly afraid that the few I have left will sound dumb.  There’s a doctrine that if you just produce, produce, produce in the beginning, even if you think what you’re doing is crap, the process will strengthen your voice.  I want to believe that.  But I’m also terrified I’m the exception.  So I keep plugging away at the stuff that pays — I write write write, taking on projects that edge me ever closer to my goals, but as a result of my fears I keep neglecting what you’re reading right now… just like I keep neglecting that vow I made to donate my time and give back.

We’re such babies about getting started with stuff like this, aren’t we?  What if it makes us face things?  Ew!  Or shows us our vulnerabilities?  Gross!  Makes us take A WHOLE AFTERNOON to do something nice instead of other, more important things like putzing around online?  Oh, now you had to go and make a point.

That, of course, brings us to a new promise — one I’m spelling out in the sand for everyone to read.  In the next 30 days, I will volunteer with an organization that needs help.  I haven’t decided which one to start with, but VolunteerMatch, as always, has some stellar options.  Maybe I’ll stick with my “do what scares you” mantra and host a brain aerobics hour at a senior center, talking in front of a group without having a panic attack.  Maybe I’ll work at a hospice, face to face with death — something I’m far too familiar with but refuse to go anywhere near for fear of what it might stir up.  Really, it’s not about me.  These things never are.  It’s about shutting up and doing something because it needs to be done.  The logic is simple enough.

So, off we go.  By August 20, I’ll have signed myself up for something concrete, and I won’t back out when I start feeling squeamish or too pressed for time.  My first experience won’t be my last, either — it will be Step One of a big, fat habit change.  You guys are my witnesses.  Feel free to check back and hold my feet to the fire.

Like I’ve said before, I don’t ever want to preach, but if I do anything resembling it, I’d better practice whatever I’m crowing about.  I can write all I want about other people’s good deeds, but I’d better do some of my own while I’m at it.  Maybe I should write about them here and quit skipping so damn many Fridays.

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

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My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard

I could teach you but I'd have to charge

image: Smashingbird Vintage

Where was I last week, you ask? Busy making milkshakes. If you’ll be sweet enough to forgive my absence, I’ll share the recipe with you.

I picked up a killer new writing gig this week. Its subject matter is exactly the direction I’ve been wanting to go in for some time… I just haven’t been sure where to start.

To be clear, I’m crazy fortunate to have the clients I do, and I already write about topics I love. Austin. Travel. Green living. Interior design and architecture, with a cultural essay or two thrown in for fun. I work for cool people who do interesting things, who take risks, and who have unique perspectives on the world. Most days, I pinch myself that this is the space in which I get to play. But there’s still the next step… the one where I get personal and write things just for me — oh, and for the people who’ll hopefully pick it all up at bookstores and order it online someday (assuming I play my cards right and wind up in such places… fingers crossed).  There will come a time when I start spilling my guts 200 pages or more at a time, or craft tall tales, or some balance of both. You’ll see down my ears and up my nose and into the depths of the places I’ve been. That’s some scary business, folks, and I’ve been staring at the ceiling a lot lately, trying to figure out how to put it together.  For years, I’ve been rattling ideas around, but hot holy hell, have I needed a nudge.

This week, I got one, and it made me fall forward.  My new client is a company called Milkshake. It sends out an email a day with a short feature on a business, organization, person or product that’s doing good in the world — or as they like to put it, “good finds that give back.”  You’ve probably heard of TOMS, for instance — the canvas shoe company that operates on a “buy one, give one” model, or Warby Parker, which does something similar with cool and affordable eyewear. Milkshake covers businesses like that, and also things like Bright Endeavors, a Chicago-based non-profit that helps young, at-risk mothers by employing them to produce eco-friendly soy candles in upcycled containers, the proceeds of which go back into their own mentoring and professional development. It covers programs, brands and ideas that give people hope and — go ahead an insert an eyeroll here if you’d like — make the world a better place.  And now, I get to serve as editor of its kids’ edition.

“Sweet god, sign me up,” I thought when I saw the opportunity to write nice things about nice things.  Because truth?  I don’t have much energy for sarcasm; I look at someone like Mindy Kaling or Tina Fey and get tired just watching them spit out one-liners like PEZ dispensers.  I love listening to it, no doubt — but coming up with my own?  I’d spend equal amounts of time apologizing for everything that flew out of my mouth.  Zinger… apology.  Zinger… apology.  And no one wants to read that.  I’ve been told time and time again to check out what Lena Dunham’s up to, and I know when I do I will envy her wit. I have some, sure, but it’s always meted out with equal doses of cheese. Ooey gooey, goshdarn delightful, good old-fashioned cheese. And I’m okay with that. Sweet Andy Griffith passed away last week, and it’ll take quite a few of us to keep all that Mayberry-style do-goodery alive.

There’s an old saying in the media: “If it bleeds, it leads.”  And sadly, it’s true.  We’re conditioned to be compelled by the gore of a drama, the thrill of the bite.  And sure, a charity cookie sale is far less sexy than any given scandal, but it doesn’t make it any less important. Here’s my deal: I can’t bring myself to slam anyone without losing sleep over it. It sometimes drive me nuts. I’m a writer, damn it. We’re supposed to be acerbic, right? Keen and merciless and incisive and hard. Cynics who chew the ends off of pencils — seekers of secrets, tellers of truth. But when truth is so often subjective — when we cut someone off at the knees and later go, “oops!” — well, there’s not much coming back from that. So I think I’d prefer to tell stories that want to be told — stories of things that inspire and build. Stories of people who’ve overcome.  And if anyone listens, kickass. Please enjoy.

We all have the capacity to do good things, even if it’s quiet and done without fuss. Actually, those are my favorite kinds of heroes: the ones we don’t ever hear squawk.  I don’t mind tooting their horns for them; they, more than anyone, ought to be heard.  I’m cool with being the nerd who writes about the bright side.  It is, after all, what makes life sweet.

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