A Kindness, Unpledged

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A week before last Friday, an idea came together about this project. Though I loved my my trip to Quebec City, I regretted not bringing my son on a tandem bicycle as I’d hoped because we couldn’t afford to buy the bicycle in time for the ride. However, that week I was about to be reimbursed for some expenses I’d already paid for out of my pocket and so a little extra money was coming in. There was no time like the present to get a tandem and so Dae and I headed down to Urbane Cyclist on Saturday to take one out on a test drive. They had one model in stock and they got it down for us and let us know that there was a special deal with this one. If we wanted, we could have a bag with the bike. At the time, it sounded like a pannier for carrying gear and I thought, sure, it might come in handy but was far more focused on the bike itself.

We took the bike out for about a kilometre through the city streets, in stop and go traffic and up and down hills. While we had a very heavy and old single-speed tandem that was good for riding around the neighbourhood, riding this was another experience entirely. Going up hills was effortless, and we could build up a good head of steam on flat stretches. This was definitely going to do the trick for us. And so we made our way back to the store to make our purchase.

The person then asked if I wanted the bag as well. She remarked that to use the bag I’d have to take the wheels off but they were quick release. It then clicked for me: She was offering me a free travel bag for the bike so that I could check it as baggage on a bus or plane. I’d figured out a lot of the details about this trip, but to be honest, getting the bike back home was still something of a grey area. The best I could come up with was to find a bike shop and see if they could ship the bike – likely a costly prospect. But now we’ll only need to ship the bag to wherever we plan to land in the city a few days before we leave and then when we’re ready to go we just pack it on the bus with us on the return trip. This made things much simpler. She said that it didn’t actually come with the bike – it wasn’t some promotion from KHS. She then told me that Jack Layton and Olivia Chow had brought it by and told them to give it to someone who needed it when they bought a tandem bike.

For those who aren’t aware, Jack Layton was the leader of the New Democratic Party and official opposition party in the current Canadian government. He married Olivia Chow in 1988 and she went on to also become a member of parliament. They often rode their tandem bicycle, a wedding gift to each other, around the city.

Pride Parade

Though I didn’t know it when initially moved here from the states, it was the values that Jack and Olivia fought for that were the values that attracted us to Canada in the first place. Social justice, environmental consciousness, the rights of the homeless, the safety of cyclists, and the list just goes on and on.

On August 22nd, 2011, two days after we bought the tandem bicycle officially kicking off this project, Jack Layton died of cancer. I have never felt the loss of someone I didn’t know so acutely. And I wasn’t alone. One look at these pictures of memorial messages written in chalk outside Toronto City Hall where he served for many years as a city councillor will tell you that. As you look at those photos, keep in mind also that it rained three times last week, and three times after the rain had washed all of the inscriptions away, they were all put back.

Though I couldn’t make his memorial service last Saturday, I did make it to Critical Mass, a monthly group bike ride, on Friday. As a group we payed tribute to him at his office on the east end of Toronto, outside City Hall, and finally at his home. Thanks to Tino for taking photos of this moving experience.

So thanks, Jack, for the act of kindness you and Olivia performed to help this project out as well as the inspiration you provided me with to do good things for others. And most of all, thanks for all of the things you’ve done to help my community – whether that community is my neighbourhood, city, country or planet.

What is an act of kindness, anyway?

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This project has been interesting for me as I’m spending much more of my time thinking of kindness. How can I be more kind, how can I encourage others to participate by pledging kindnesses of their own? Lately, though, I have also been asking myself: what constitutes an act of kindness and what is just something that we as members of a society should be doing.

Take holding doors open for someone – not even opening doors for them and letting them walk through first, but just the simple act of waiting a couple seconds for the person behind you to catch up to you and holding the door so they can grab it. In a more dramatic way, I’d say stopping to help someone who has collapsed on the sidewalk is also in this realm. I’d say most people consider these just something that nice people (and I think most people like to think of themselves as nice) do. Some might even go so far as to say that that’s the human thing to do On the other extreme you might find people like Mother Teresa whose entire lives were about making sacrifices in order to help others. In between, though, there’s a whole lot of grey. I’d say if you asked people on the street, for example, what to do if they’re sitting on a bus and an elderly, pregnant, or disabled person gets on most would say that of course you’d get up and offer your seat to them. However, from what I’ve seen, this isn’t always the case.

What this makes me think is that everyone has an internal ‘kindness border’ that marks the difference between doing something without even thinking because they view it as the right thing to do, and “going above and beyond”. Whether done by them or by others around them, things that fall in the “above and beyond” region are considered acts of kindness.

State Farm insurance has done an interesting study on the State of American Neighbours which looks at what people are willing to do to help their neighbours and also how well they know them in the first place. It’s an interesting browse – it makes me aware that though I live in what many consider a very friendly neighbourhood, I don’t really know people here. While not really an act of kindness in and of itself, it’s definitely something I’d like to change. What surprised me about the study, though, was how few people felt they would do anything for their neighbours. In all cases it’s less than 50%. Really? Only 37% of people would be willing to walk to their neighbours’ house and put some food in the cat’s dish? Definitely something we could improve on.

Which brings me back to the point of this post. What is an act of kindness? Who defines it? Well, you do, of course. What makes a good pledge? Anything, really, as long as it pushes you to do something on the other side of your ‘kindness border’. And hopefully as we all work on this project together, all our borders may end up moving to include more acts of kindness into the realm of what we all consider part of our daily life.

A Sketch of the Route

Last night I spoke to Daegan and he agreed that the longer route sounded like tons of fun. And so we sat down together with the map and tried to guess at where good stopping points might be along the way. What we came up with was something like this:

Part One:

Day 1 – Toronto, ON to Thorold, ON – 120 KM
Day 2 – Thorold, ON to Holley, NY – 111 KM
Day 3 – Holley, NY to Lyons, NY – 105 KM
Day 4 – Lyons, NY to Oneida, NY – 126 KM
Day 5 – Oneida, NY to – Fort Plain, NY – 108 KM
Day 6 – Fort Plain, NY to Troy, NY – 108 KM
Day 7 – Troy, NY to Northampton, MA – 124 KM
Day 8 – Northampton, MA to Sterling, MA – 98 KM
Day 9 – Sterling, MA to Boston, MA – 69 KM
Day 10 – Rest Day

Part Two:

Day 11 – Ferry to Provincetown and then another Rest Day
Day 12 – Provincetown to Buzzard’s Bay – 112 KM
Day 13 – Buzzard’s Bay to Providence, RI – 81 KM
Day 14 – Providence, RI to Willimantic, CT – 90 KM
Day 15 – Willimantic, CT to New Haven, CT – 93 KM
Day 16 – New Haven, CT to Port Chester, NY – 94 KM
Day 17 – Port Chester, NY to Times Square – New York City – 52 KM
Day 18 – Rest
Day 19 – Pack and return – most likely by overnight bus.

My trip from Toronto to Quebec City taught me one thing, though. This sort of timeline is really only a guideline. Weather may make us stop early, or we may decide that we really like a particular town we’re in and want to stay an extra day (I suspect that might happen in Northampton, MA – Sage and I used to go there often when we lived in Massachusetts). And of course, depending on where we end up staying, the end points could vary a bit. But generally, at least, we have a good idea now of what we’ll be doing, where we’ll need lodging. As we get closer (as in a month or so from departure) we’ll start sending out couchsurfing requests (unless, of course you’re in one of those areas and don’t mind having a guest in which case, contact us.) At about that point we’ll also end up looking at what our lodging prospects are and see if we need, for example, to find a way to bring a tent along or if the number of nights we’ll be staying in hotels/motels will be short enough that we can leave the tent at home.

I’ve put in the vacation request at work now and given the amount of notice and how flexible my company has been when it comes to things like this, I should have the entire month of July off in which to do this.

Over the upcoming weeks, Daegan and I will be looking at our stopping points and learning a bit about the areas we’re passing through – in all cases to see what the lodging and food options might be, but also to learn a little bit about the towns we’ll be passing through. We’ll be sharing what we find here – so watch out soon for a bit of info about Thorold, ON.

Departure Day!

There’s one more bit of great news today. I’ve set an official departure date for the ride. We leave on July 1st 2012. With the current route I expect that’ll take 3-4 weeks depending on how leisurely our pace is and how many rest/exploration days we take along the way.