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. This should go without saying, but a kind word, a handshake and a little direct eye contact wouldn’t hurt, either. We’re all just humans doing the best we know how, after all.

A bonus idea for the fall: 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.

Update, April 2015: actually, maybe don’t do this before you’ve done a ton of research. While ‘voluntourism’ sounds lovely on the surface, it can sometimes hurt more than it helps. Here, a few resources to help parse what’s what: an NPR piece from July 2014, an article in The Independent from last fall, a 2013 post on CNN, and a trailer for the documentary film H.O.P.E. Was Here that compelled me to add this cautionary blurb in the first place.

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. While buying stuff just for the sake of buying it won’t help anything (i.e., a spoiler alert: crass consumption isn’t going to save the world), when faced with a choice between buying two similarly priced, equally useful and essential 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 — often, both. Whether it’s a gift for a friend or daily basics like toothbrushes and tee shirts, 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? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXe8PFKsOIc

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Slow your roll

robin's egg blue bicycle

Image: Paper Social

Maybe it’s all the advertising or the lull of Bing Crosby’s voice, but doesn’t this time of year just beg us to slow down? Somewhere amid the sugar crashes and extra blankets, sleeping in seems more delicious than it does in any other season, and quiet nights at home feel like utter luxury.  When it’s cold outside, I just want to curl up and do nothing and enjoy every delectable second.  Don’t you?

I heard a phrase used in a radio ad not long ago that gave me pause, and then alarm.  It had something to do with a traffic app, and the announcer used the term “up-to-the-second,” as if “up-to-the-minute” wasn’t current enough.  Hey, 9-to-5ers, remember when “cutting edge” was too old-school, so it became “leading edge” and then what I think started out as a joke somehow turned into an actual thing — namely, “bleeding edge”?  Yeah.  That.  This reminded me of that, and I had to roll my eyes.  I realize I’m about to sound like I’m a hundred, and that’s okay, because I mean it: when did we all get into such a big damn hurry?

Last month, I caught a nasty cold and lost my voice completely.  It was one of those I’m-so-weak-and-tired-I-have-to-plan-trips-to-the-refrigerator-in-advance-and-gear-myself-up-to-change-the-channel kinds of bugs, and I ended up in bed for a solid 72 hours.  Even looking at my computer screen made me dizzy.  So, I took an uninterrupted break from the world outside and let the television distract me from my coughing in the scant hours I was actually awake.  Aside from developing what I thought was going to be a minor addiction to American Horror Story (I’ve since kicked the habit… but maybe I’ll pick it back up in a marathon over the holidays?), a weird thing happened: I actually had time to think.

Just think.

Not frantically try to mentally file ideas from links flickering before my eyes at a million miles an hour; just enjoy some good old-fashioned thoughts, floating gently through the air and taking root in my brain instead of shooting right through it 140 characters at a time and dissipating into nothing.  I ended up spending a good deal of my Nyquil-flavored haze evaluating how this first year of freelancing has gone… how insane I was to have jumped into it the way I did (i.e., without a cushion or much of a real plan other than “Hit it hard, don’t give in and do not f*ck up because failure is not an option; coincidentally, neither are rent and electricity”)… and how fortunate I am to do something I love, even though it scares the tar out of me sometimes (read: all the time).

For what I believe to be the first time in my life, I handed back a chunk of work to a client recently and politely explained I couldn’t do it justice.  I’m not used to saying “no” to the people who sign my paychecks, or in this case, respond to my invoices.  I’ve made a career out of being the boss’s right hand, taking on whatever might be needed to get the job done, and anyone who’s ever worked in public relations (my old gig) understands that negativity is not allowed; “no” is the ultimate negative, even when it’s not.  But I was depleting myself of creative ideas, working myself to the bone.  So, when I realized over the summer that I had to lighten my load to stop phoning some of it in, it felt foreign.  I’m a people-pleaser; it’s in my DNA to nod and smile even if I think something’s terrifically stupid and feel like punching someone in the face.  “On it,” I chirp, just like we’ve all been trained to do.  Push through.  Make it work.  Get it done.

But this time, I was literally running out of words and sounding like a broken record in half of the work I was churning out.  I’d hit a point where I’d taken on so many responsibilities, there wasn’t as much joy anymore in something that had started out as fun.  Now, listen — I know life isn’t a big bowl of Jelly Bellys.  Work’s called work for a reason.  But I’d bitten off more than I could handle and my flame was starting to go out.  For anyone who works in a creative field, it’s like an athlete’s muscles refusing to cooperate or a surgeon’s hands losing sensation — in a word: terrifying.  For a freelancer, having too full a plate is just about the best problem in the world to have — far preferable to its alternative — and the idea of turning away work is counterintuitive to survival.  But still, I had to ask: if we only get one shot at being human, isn’t it important to actually let ourselves be human sometimes?  And if I only get one shot at being an honest-to-god writer, shouldn’t I be a good one?

Slow your roll, I told myself.  (Yes, indeed, I’m southern.)

Breathe.  In and out.  Again.  

There’s no need to go on an anti-internet rant; I can’t hate on something that allows me to have this life.  I know I wouldn’t have the job I do if it weren’t for the advent of blogs and social media and, quite frankly, the recession itself; it forced companies to slim down their marketing teams, edged entrepreneurs into action and created this odd and amazing little space in which freelance writers can actually do what we love for a living while playing by our own rules. On top of that, I get to keep in touch with the people I love who are in an entirely different time zone; political rants aside (and thank GOD that’s over and done with), I actually love seeing what they’re eating for lunch… the art their kids brought home from school today… the random little observations they make about the world around them.  I’ll never get tired of that stuff… it keeps us connected in some small but significant way, and although some may pretend to be too cool to care, I’m onto you.  You’re not.  

I love that I got to virtually walk around downtown Austin with Google Maps’ street view before I ever set foot in it, just to get a sense of what it would be like to live here.  I’d handpicked coffee shops and restaurants and bookstores and gyms to check out before I even bought a plane ticket, and when I got here, poof: there they were in the flesh for me to explore.  The web makes the unfamiliar familiar, and for that I couldn’t be more thankful.  I was talking with someone not long ago about how our parents never really cared to travel all that much, yet one generation later, the two of us have an insatiable need to get on every plane, devour every dish, and conquer every continent — it probably has something to do with the immediate availablility of everything, all the time, we reasoned.  I’ll always be a proponent of libraries, but back in the day, if you were curious about Barcelona, for example, you had to go to the travel section on the third floor and stand on a step stool and select enormous tomes to lug around with you.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, but today if I decide I’m curious about Barcelona, I hit “save” on this blog post and I’m exactly two clicks away from up-to-the-minute… oh, excuse me: up-to-the-second… bloggers’ reviews, tourists’ Instagrams, daily deals, and satellite images.  If I’m feeling super ambitious, I can keep typing this sentence with one hand while using my iPhone to log onto Fodor’s in the other.  It’s insane.

You know that Louis C.K. bit, “Everything Is So Amazing and Nobody Is Happy“?  That completely sums up the way I feel about life.  I’m that person sitting on the plane going “OH MY GOD WE”RE FLYINGGGGGGGGGG” and I hope I always will be.  But sometimes — sometimes — we forget ourselves and act like brats.  I’m ashamed of that, really.  Who cares if the TSA line takes a while?  YOU’RE FLYING LIKE A BIRD WHILE DRINKING GINGER ALE.

In all honesty, who do we think we are?  We’re itsy little specs on a fairly tiny planet, yet my god, there’s so much to discover.  It makes sense that we’re always in a hurry, but are we in a hurry about the right things, or do we rush around in circles just because?  I like the sound of taking a breath.  I believe in quality over quantity.  I think I’ll take a minute — a whole one — to ruminate on where this is all taking me and why, without letting the buzz of my phone or the flicker of my laptop get in the way.  I love technology and the conveniences it affords us, but it’s time to start using it on my own terms and unplug when I just need to think.  To paraphrase Prince or Aristotle or some such crazy scribe:

Tonight I’m gonna focus like it’s 1999.

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You are what you eat

It's probably healthier to be a tea...

image: Tiddle E. Winks Vintage Five & Dime

(Oh god, I’m a doughnut.)

I started working with a nutritionist this week.  Well, let me clarify: I started doing a bit of editing for a nutritionist this week.  (Truth?  I need to work with a nutritionist to help me hang up all my caffeine and carb nonsense and get myself in gear, but we’ll save that mess for later.)  In particular, this nutritionist is a mom of three named Margaret who, upon receiving a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and earning her master’s from UT, wound up having to use her nutritional science training on herself when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease a week before she completed her postgrad degree.

As she spent the following years building a career in public health, she made it her mission to separate fact from fiction and educate people about the difference between the two when it comes to what we bring home from the grocery store. We’re under a constant barrage of mixed messages from the world around us about what’s healthy and what’s not — what’s been approved and what hasn’t — what’s a legit quick fix and what’s just a bunch of hooey — but the only thing that tells us what’s real is science, and even that’s an ever-evolving discipline.

Ah, advertising.

image: Tiddle E. Winks Vintage Five & Dime

Taking in Margaret’s background and weaving it through her website got me thinking: we really are what we eat.  She focuses primarily on helping moms adopt healthier habits and translate them into family routines (i.e., you try taking that ice cream and mac & cheese away from your kid indefinitely, sans aftermath, without talking to someone like Margaret first and see where it gets you), and she’s armed with information about how processed foods affect behavior, concentration and, of course, overall health and well-being.  Apply it to adults and it still rings true: when I’m hopped up on my beloved and beautiful joe, I’m jumpy, anxious and slightly unhinged, even though I love love love my vanilla lattes and don’t want to give them up.  There’s an odd satisfaction in finishing off a package of Sour Patch Kids or diving through a fresh, hot vat of chips and queso, but when we make these things the norm instead of the exceptional treat, weird stuff starts to happen to our personalities, our energy levels… and let’s not even talk about our waistlines.  I’m enemy number one of my own wellness and I know it.  And the same thing applies to my brain.

Aw Jess, you weren't supposed to take that John Mayer "personal ad" seriously.

image: Rolling Stone

I have this oddly endless depth of knowledge about random pop culture.  I attribute it to being a child of the original MTV generation (back when it played music) combined with an insatiable need for knowledge of any sort — any sort — when I was a little kid.  I was a reading machine.  I fell asleep with the light on every night and couldn’t be woken up in the morning without an epic battle (sorry, Dad).  In high school, I went through a celebrity biography phase that was weirdly specific to stars of the 1950s and 60s.  I glued my face to the screen every time Pop-Up Video came on and devoured those digital bubbles like chocolate.  And when E! came to power in the 90s, holy cow… off I Macarena’d into a ten-year absorption phase of the most vapid crap you can think of, and now I’ve got a solid career option pursuing bar trivia championships if I ever need a backup plan.  I can draw you infographics about B-list celebrities’ dating histories.  I can tell you what happened to Winnie Cooper as a grown-up (she’s a published mathematician who empowers little girls).  I know FAR too many details of the life of one Jessica Simpson.  I can tell you with great accuracy what the inside of Hugh Jackman’s New York apartment looks like, and not because I’ve been there… which, come to think of it, is seriously creepy of me.

I mean, I get it — celebrity obsession is the ultimate decompression.  It’s thrown at us all the time anyway, so we lose ourselves in glossy, beautiful strangers’ lives and project all our fantasies and weirdnesses onto them without repercussion.  We judge, we pick, we snort, we sigh… oh, Britney shaved her head.  Poor thing.  Her life must be worse than mine.  Wow, Kate and Wills are grand together — let’s want that for ourselves.

hello my pretties...

image: Sadie Olive

At some point, I kind of hung up my hat, and now my entertainment industry knowledge sort of stops around 2005.  I wonder if that makes me even more tragic, since now I’m not only full of useless trivia — I’m full of outdated useless trivia. The older I get, the more wholeheartedly I throw myself into work — each job has thankfully been more challenging than the last, so each one takes up more space in my head.  But still, I haven’t paid nearly as much attention to real current events as I should.  And by “real,” I mean the ones The Atlantic covers… not the ones involving any given Kardashian — whom, by the way, I hate that I used to love.

Only in the last few months have I started listening to NPR like I’ve always intended, and only now am I finally getting around to reading actual books again.  Oh, they’ve been stacking up all over the place, but me looking at their insides with my eyeballs has been another story altogether.  And I hate that, so I’m changing it.  It’s now become my job to write about whatever I please, and I suppose I’d better have something awesome to say.  So farewell, candy; hello, fruit. I might keep a stash of nonsense in the pantry just for fun, but I’m keeping the smart stuff on the counter from now on.

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Small is the new big

Photo by Smitten Kitchen (via Pinterest, of course)

Pop the champagne!  I landed two new clients this week. One involves contributing daily posts to a home design and decor blog — the second project of its kind for me at the moment — and the other involves writing about green living.  Seriously, I’m a damn lucky girl for being able to sit around in my PJs, writing about things that interest me and getting paid for it.  Okay, sure, there’s plenty more to it than that — there are other clients, topics, pitches, meetings, stress and fear and all that jazz.  I’m not sitting pretty just yet, and there’s not much time for standing still.  But all the same, this symbolism junkie needs to pause for a minute and take a drag.

I think my favorite thing about the moment we’re all living in right now is the fact that a DIY vase made from a Quaker oatmeal canister stands a fighting chance to be as popular on Pinterest as a piece of Waterford crystal might.  And I get to cover that.  There’s this leveling effect taking place.  It’s more about worth than cachet.  I love that.  It makes the hippie inside my heart* smile THIS BIG.

God bless Pinterest.  Even though all I do there is… well,  look at stuff… and maybe click on it and stick it into a category named something like “Yum,” it still has an odd effect on a person.  After I’ve spent 30 minutes falling down rabbit holes of dresses and photography and font porn, I feel all inspired and artsy, like I’ve painted the Sistine Chapel or something, when… really?  I’m pretty sure all I just did for the past 30 minutes was stare at pictures of kale chips.

That’s the thing.  There’s something comforting in little details.  There’s something comforting in small spaces, too.  In fact, I think the smaller our surroundings, the easier it is to focus on the intricacy of everything around us.  There’s something centering about that.  The devil’s in the details, apparently, but so is something divine.

When I first moved to Austin three years ago, I lucked out and found the most amazing space I’d ever lived in.  31 stories up, smack in the middle of the bustling warehouse district, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Texas State Capitol and countless miles of hill country.  Everything glistened and gleamed. For the first three weeks, thanks to a mega-snafu with the movers, I essentially lived in a transparent box in the sky with no furniture, no television… nothing but my laptop, my pirated wireless, my suitcase and my dog.  It was incredible.  I had no idea what Hulu was — in fact, it probably didn’t exist yet — and I spent my time outside of work either reading, staring out the window or wandering.  I didn’t know a soul in my new city, and I’d never lived more than a couple hours away from my hometown, yet there I was in the middle of nowhere, pretty much devoid of earthly possessions.  I should have been paralyzed with fear.  But I wasn’t.  I felt lighter than I’d ever been in my life.  I remember using the term “urban camping” around that time to describe what my nights and weekends felt like.  The air mattress I was sleeping on sprung a leak on the first or second night.  I didn’t even care.  I was free.

My stuff eventually arrived, of course, and I decorated the crap out of that condo like it was my job.  I took joy in hanging every butterfly on the wall and arranging every item on each shelf.  I lived pretty large for a minute there, scampering around all the newest cafes and watering holes, using words like “mixology” and “urban core,” calling myself an “Austinista” and feeling pretty fancy.  It was a far cry from where I’d started out in life, and the view was amazing.  But after two years, it was time to leave.  Even though it was a tiny little space, it was tucked into a gorgeous high rise in one of the trendiest parts of America’s latest boomtown, which meant it was more of a commitment than I needed to be saddled with during the professional (and inadvertently personal) adventure I was about to go on.  It was time, again, to simplify.

Fast forward to today.  I’m in a teensy little smidge of an apartment that, even with all its flaws, I couldn’t adore more.  There’s nothing inherently special about it by any means… but that’s kind of what makes it special.  The creature comforts I’ve filled it with are expressions of who I am and what I value.  It’s cozy. It’s sure as hell not the sprawling suburban house I was expecting to have by now back when I was in elementary school, playing that game where you choose sides of an origami contraption your best friend made to help you predict whether you’re going end up being Mrs. Haim or Mrs. Feldman, drive a Fiero or a conversion van, and have three kids or twelve.

So, why again am I here instead of that awesome glass box in the clouds, or in the middle of all that suburban sprawl like the fold-up fortune said I’d be?  Well, shit.  I just spent two years working for a startup in the middle of a recession after leaving a perfectly stable PR career behind, and now I’ve gone straight-up freelance with no net underneath me.  It’s possible I’m the stupidest** person alive.

But actually, I don’t think I am.

Remember all those studies that came out a year or two ago, talking about the fact that too many choices stress us out way more than a small handful of options do?  Look, I’m no psychologist or statistician, but I wasn’t shocked by that at all.  I don’t mean to sound like a defeatist, and I certainly don’t want to come off as some apathetic lazybones who doesn’t appreciate the concept of  infinite opportunity… but there’s something to be said for simplicity.  My favorite song in the whole world has long been Carmen McRae’s rendition of “Give Me the Simple Life.”   That probably sounds naive… but hey, I like what I like.  A little bit of stress may be all well and good, but I think I prefer the clarity that comes when all the bullshit falls away and you find yourself practically naked, asking yourself what you’re made of and what you really want.

That’s when the good stuff happens.  And oddly, it doesn’t involve much stuff at all.

~

*the one hiding behind the pearl stud earrings and the Starbucks cup… no, for real, she’s in there, and she’s barefoot all the time like she thinks she’s Joss Stone or something.

**yup, we’re gonna pretend stupidest is a word.  And also yup, gonna, meep, eep, eeee!, squeee!, eleventy, a bajillion, and OHAI.  Hope you’re okay with that.  If you’re not, it’s cool.  There are tons of crazy good writers over at Thought Catalog and I’d like to count myself among them someday… but in the meantime, I won’t be offended if you go play over there instead.

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