Streetview Story – Randolph, Vermont

1 Comment

randolph

Off and on I’ve been sharing on Facebook what I’ve termed “Streetview Stories” on my personal profile. I take a screenshot of a google streetview photo of where something happened in my past and share the story of it. I want to share this one with more than just my Facebook friends, though.

In early 1982 I was about 11 years old and we were living in central Vermont. One nearby town where we did our shopping was Randolph where there were a couple of grocery stores, a Ben Franklin department store and then in the field of vision we see here were a few things. Down that little street on the right is where the pizza place used t obe where I saw my last soda bottle vending machine – the kind where you pulled the glass bottle straight out after your coins released it. Across the street from that place is where I demonstrated that I could parallel park on my driver’s test in 1986. It’s funny how much comes to me in this one photo.

In the centre of the field of view is a newish building. The old one that was there burned down some time ago in a pretty big fire. That one had what I remember as a set of pretty tall concrete stairs at the top of which was a thrift store where you could still get shirts and pants for a quarter or two. Next door to that for a short time was a bookstore. In the days before big box bookstores or even amazon.com ordering, and before I figured out interlibrary loans, there was going to the bookstore and asking them to order a book for you.

My mom took me in one day because I wanted Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan. They didn’t have it on the shelf so we ordered that. They also had a copy of Isaac Asimov’s “Asimov on Chemistry”. I was nuts for chemistry at the time and when I asked my mom if I could get that too. “Sorry, it’s too expensive to get two books. We’ll just get one.” And so we ordered my book and went home.

A couple of weeks later (instant gratification was still under development back in those days) we got a call to go pick up the book and made the half hour trip back to Randolph to get my book. When I got there, she rang my mom up and then just as we were about to leave the owner said. “Oh wait a minute.” and reached under the counter. “This is for you.” She handed me this and made an eleven year old very happy and likely planted one of the seeds for this project.

asim

Wolf Feeding and World Creation Pt. 1 – Cycling

1 Comment

I have to admit, I was a bit worried upon retiring this project a few weeks back, how it would be to not have a big project to work on. After all, since late 2009 when I signed up for my first Friends for Life Bike Rally I’ve had some sort of big project going, always with a large “culminating event” at the end. And at the end of each of my projects, there would be a wave of sadness that would hit me. “The project is over and I have nothing else to work for.” And then, for several weeks I would be in a funk, waiting for inspiration to hit, wondering if that last project would be the Last Good Idea I would have until I was rescued by a new idea that I would get even more excited about. So imagine my nervousness as I went forth, not into the welcoming arms of a new project, but into the unknown. So what have I been doing? Well, feeding wolves, of course:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil – It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good – It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

My thought going into the summer has been that this is not just true for our emotions but for our perceptions as well. If 500 Kindnesses taught me anything it is this: We create the world we live in. I don’t mean this in the sense that some do: that somehow our imagination can be manifested in physical form if we just believe hard enough. What I found is that, our impression of the world we live in is built based on what we choose to focus on. What we’re feeding ourselves as it were.

I thought, when starting this project, that the purpose was to encourage people to perform acts kindness. And there’s no doubt that it did that. But what it also did was make a focal point for me to see on a daily basis just how many kind human beings there were. Pledges of all sorts came in regularly, friends who would see articles and videos about kindness would share them with me, and I met dozens of new people all of whom were doing acts of kindness on such a regular basis that they didn’t even think of it as kindness anymore but “being human.” And so, kindness became something that was constantly there in the background of everything I was doing. Outrageous political news would come and go, but kindness was a constant. Personal challenges would come up and pass, and kindness kept happening. Disasters and tragedies would occur, and still behind it there was the constant pulse of kindness like a reassuring heartbeat beneath it all. By the time I got to the end of the project my outlook had changed. There are people and sometimes organizations who do horrific things, but humanity is kind.

And so, after this project my next experiment has been to focus my energy on things that I want to see my perceptions about change. The projects range from subtle changes that take no time at all to work that takes a few hours a week.

Cycling: While I’m not doing a long bike ride this summer, I’m still using my bike for transportation around the city. What I have found is that in Toronto cycling has a pretty wide spectrum of enjoyment. The high points are pretty good: There’s nothing like riding across town on a nice summer night, seeing people out walking, hearing the occasional street musician, smelling the foods of a hundred different cultures cooking as you pass from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. On the other end, though, it can be pretty unpleasant. Some drivers can be inattentive and not notice you’re there as they make a turn, other drivers can be dangerously aggressive. I remember being passed dangerously close by a man in a minivan on a busy street who chose to get as close as he could to me rather than change lanes. I caught up to him a block or two later and he told me that he did it because I was supposed to be in the bike lane. Never mind that there were no bike lanes for miles around. I’d say for every couple of weeks of good riding there would be some driver interaction that would be upsetting enough to stick with me for hours later.

The change I made here was subtle. Normally as a cyclist I tend to ride pretty quickly – in many cases downtown I am able to keep up with automobile traffic and I would take main roads because they would get me to where I was going quickly. So in this case the change I made was to take the advice I’d often wish I could give to impatient drivers behind me: Don’t worry about getting there quite so fast.

And so the first obvious change was to change my routes. Now a city, being a city – at least a North American one, sometimes requires riding on a busy street to get where you’re going. But surprisingly often, there are alternatives that will, admittedly, take longer. In my neighbourhood I’m extremely lucky in that we have a number of quiet residential streets and even laneways that barely see any traffic. And so I started taking those when I could instead of main roads. I even made a map of some of my favourites. The results were really great. I made several trips to the spin studio I work out at about a mile from home and there were times I wouldn’t see another car until I got on the main road that the studio was on. And of course many of my trips are filled with artwork, some with lovely messages like this:
Love and be Loved

The second thing I did was to care a little less about exactly how I get somewhere. Riding down a laneway is fantastic, but what happens, for example, when you get to a busy street? It’s not as if most laneways or even many residential streets have traffic lights to help you continue across safely. The only option that is visible at first to be is to watch the bike, pedestrian, car, truck, and streetcar traffic and hope for a break long enough to scoot across and dash across. Depending on traffic levels, this can be pretty stressful, and in some cases downright dangerous. But there’s a second option that presents itself when you worry a little less about saving a minute. A similar minute, I might mention, to the minute I wish many drivers would worry less about when interacting with me on the road. At that point a new option is presented: Turn right, ride down to the next traffic light (rarely more than a 30 second ride), walk across in the crosswalk, and head back to where you were and pick up the street and continue. And the stress level (as long as you don’t get into a mental rant about cycling infrastructure and the imagined attitudes of all drivers) is comparatively negligible.

So has this worked? In my case, absolutely. Riding is much more of a pleasure than it was, and I have yet to have a bad interaction with another road user. And who knows? Maybe the rate (per car) of bad interactions will be the same, but given the tiny fraction of cars that I now see in my travels, it could be quite some time before I have one on the side roads.

Will it work for you? Who knows? Where are your pain points when it comes to your mode of transportation? What assumptions do you have that you could let go? What can you do to bring more enjoyment in to your travel? What bad experiences can you let go? What good experiences can you focus on to the same degree that we seem naturally inclined to give bad experiences?

Starting Off a Year of No Dithering

2 Comments
A Day at the Beach

A Day at the Beach

I remember years ago watching That’s Incredible! on television. On this particular episode they showed a group of people that they portrayed as completely insane: a Polar Bear club who would start off their New Year with a swim in icy water. I remember being simultaneously horrified at the thought and fascinated by it. What would possess people to do such a thing? Why were they having a good time doing something that sounded like misery?

Now, just a few weeks ago, I found myself about 30 years older. In the intervening time I somehow learned to dislike the cold much more than I had as a kid. I try to minimize the amount of time I spend outside in the winter and when I am outside I try to get my work done as quickly as I can so I can get back indoors where I grumpily wish for the day I see the first signs of spring. In other words, while I am a tremendously positive person most of the time, if you catch me outdoors when the temperature is below freezing you’re likely to find yourself with a misanthropic old Archie Bunker caught in the body of a 42 year old.

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine sent me an invitation to join her in the 2013 Polar Bear Dip in Lake Ontario on New Year’s Day. The name immediately woke up 9 year old Todd. “I remember that! That’s where the crazy people jump in the water and scream and laugh and have an amazing time. I want to find out what that’s all about!!” But you bet old Archie Bunker had his say. “Awwww Jeeez! Do you know how cold it’s going to be!? If you don’t actually freeze to death, you’ll probably spend the rest of the winter colder than you already are.” He was already calling in reinforcements in the form of “The voice of my dad,” “My Grade 10 Health Science Teacher,” and just in case I might still listen to him, Father Paul from St. Anthony’s Church where I hadn’t attended a service since 1981. But it was too late, before he could bring any of them in, I had clicked “Join”

Sure, I had lots of reservations, but part of me clearly thought it was a good idea, and if last summer’s ride didn’t teach me that doing something many people, including part of yourself, thinks is crazy was a great way to do something amazing, everyone participating in this project certainly did. If you had listened to your internal pessimist, the one who thinks you might have a bad idea or something better to do, someone wouldn’t have visited residents in a long-term care facility, a Grade 8 English teacher wouldn’t have found out what a difference they made in someone’s life, and nobody would have sent hundreds of cards to residents of The Moorings in Illinois. There would be no dithering as to whether this was a good idea or not. I had the impulse to do it for a reason and it was time to follow through.

And so with Archie Bunker tied up in the back of my subconscious with over 1,000 acts of kindness pledged, and gagged with a 1,534 kilometre father/son bike ride, I found myself out at the edge of Lake Ontario with two friends and several hundred other people. The temperature outside was -5C (23F) and the ground was snow-covered. Relative to the air, the water was positively balmy at 5C (41F). I was wearing nothing but a bathing suit and water shoes. In the background Dhol Circle drummed and the January sun tried its best to warm us all. Before we had time to register what was happening or to talk ourselves out of it, it was time to go and everyone entered the water. When the water reached my knees I remember thinking “Wow, this isn’t so bad, really!” We pushed further out until the water was up to my stomach. At this point, any thoughts of “Wow, this isn’t too cold, after all!” had disappeared. The cold was beginning to literally take my breath away and pushing through the water seemed to get harder by the step. I turned around and my two friends were there. We looked at one another, and someone asked if we were going under. Before we could answer or talk ourselves out of it, someone else started counting. “One, Two, Three!” And that was it, we went under. We were now completely submerged in water that was colder than any water I might avoid on the hottest summer day. We ran back toward the snowy beach, trying to find where we’d left our towels and warm clothes. The cold was definitely affecting my brain, giving it the feeling of both incredible focus on one need: “Where are the warm things?!” and being scattered, looking all over trying to find where it might be Finally we found our things among the crowds of people. A few minutes was all it took to towel off and get back into our warm clothes, my only regret being that I didn’t bring a second pair of warm, dry shoes.

And the verdict? 9 year old Todd was right. I had an amazing time. Starting the year off doing something crazy that I’d always been curious about was tremendously rewarding. Doing it with friends was even more fun. And Archie Bunker and all of the friends he tried to call in? Well, they didn’t even bother to show up. I guess he knew the power of just following your instincts and making good on your intentions.

Interview: Ryan Garcia, 366 Acts of Kindness

Ryan Garcia of 366randomacts.org

Ryan Garcia of 366randomacts.org

Working on this project for over a year now I’ve seen more and more people promoting kindness. Friends who know of my project now send me articles and inspiring posts about people who are on a similar journey to my own. To say this has changed my outlook would be an understatement. Knowing that there are so many wonderful people out in the world quietly doing good makes the bad news we receive daily through newspapers and television a little easier to stomach. It also keeps me always on the lookout for good whenever I see it. But I’m only actively working on this project a few hours a week, followed by a pretty intense few weeks of a bike ride during which it is hard not to focus on the kindness of strangers. But imagine if you spent every day of an entire year focusing on that. Well, Ryan Garcia of 366 Random Acts of Kindness has done just that. Ryan was able to answer a few questions for us just a few days before completing a full year of performing acts of kindness.



Outside of your project, what do you do?
I am an outside sales representative for ZocDoc. ZocDoc is an online platform that allows anyone to search for doctors and book appointments with them.

How did you come up with the idea of 366 Acts of Kindness?
On December 31st, 2011, I was sitting on my couch watching my then 3 month old daughter playing on the ground. Something just hit me that I needed to try to make the world around her a better place and set a positive example for her. Then I just told my wife “Ya know, I think I am going to do a different act of kindness every day next year.” She thought it sounded crazy but has supported me the entire way.

What are you hoping to accomplish with your project?
Besides setting a positive example for my daughter, I hope that more and more people see the ease of kindness. The world would be a much better place if each person performed a random act of kindness everyday.

Your project is inspiring so many people. Who inspires you?
Isla is my biggest inspiration, but none of this would be possible without the day to day inspiration of my wife. She is my rock and has been everything to this project. My family and friends also help keep me going by joining along, giving ideas, and supporting me along the way.

You’ve been performing acts of kindness every day for almost a year now. Has this changed you in any way?
100%. I am always on the lookout for opportunities for kindness and notice people doing kind things every day. I have always been sarcastic and kind of a cynic but that has been blown out of the water after doing this project.

Were there any surprises in this project?
I was surprised how it took on a life of its’ own. When I first started I figured that my friends and family would follow on Facebook, etc. I never thought that I would be doing interviews all around the world, meeting celebrities and athletes (all of whom have been so kind), and receiving the most touching letters and emails I could ever imagine.

We’re just a few days away from Day 366, what’s next for you?
It’s something I have been trying to think of a whole lot. I’m not too sure I will be blogging about it everyday, but I have a couple of things in mind. I don’t think I will confine myself to a single year either.

We at 500 Kindnesses talk a lot about *performing* acts of kindness but we spend less time talking about what it’s like to be on the receiving end. What is the most memorable act of kindness that you’ve ever been on the receiving end of?
The aforementioned letters and emails that I have received from people have been the greatest act of kindness that I have received. The stories and kind words that people have shared with me has touched me to the core, and they have made this the most unforgettable year of my life.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Just that there is such an ease to doing kind acts. It doesn’t have to be some grand undertaking, but there are so many different opportunities on a daily basis where you can impact someone’s life in way’s you couldn’t imagine.

What’s With the Bike, Anyway?

From the beginning of this project, many people would say “I think your cause is great but I don’t understand what it has to do with riding a bike.” For a very long time I didn’t have a good answer beyond “Well, people do charity athletic events all the time – there isn’t really a clear connection.”

All of this changed during our ride. There’s a very clear connection to several aspects of cycling.

First off, a long bike trip seems daunting at first, in much the same way that the suffering and sadness in the world seem really overwhelming. Sometimes one’s response to being overwhelmed like that is to just do nothing. Heck, that was almost what I did with this ride. But in both cases, the key to moving forward is to just look as far ahead as you know you can do. During our ride, we knew where we were hoping to end up at the end of the day, but when we left in the morning we didn’t really think about that. We thought about where most likely place we would find our second breakfast would be. That was usually only an hour or less away. And we could always motivate ourselves to do that And often that goal would help energize us further so that the ride actually got easier the further we went rather than harder. The same is true about being kind. There are tons of things we can do, lots of ways we can help others or just make someone’s day a little happier. But if we think of all of those it is easy to get overwhelmed. Pick one. Do that. And when you’re done with that, pick another. And just like we eventually made our way across the George Washington Bridge and pulled our bike into Central Park, you’ll reach your goal. Except here’s where both kindness and bike rides trick you. That’s only the goal you know about. Another goal will likely make itself known to you and then you will go chasing that, just as we’re chasing a new goal of our own.

Bike trips don’t always go the way we expect. We may have an idea of where we’re headed, but instead of ending up where you had planned to you end up somewhere else. You are then presented with a choice: embrace the change or be upset about it. I would suggest the former. After all, the change has already happened. This was made clear to us on the third day of our ride. We had plans for a long ride and a night of couchsurfing. Instead of doing that, though, we ended up getting tired and rained on and so we stopped in an entirely different town. Instead of being upset at the changed plans or berating ourselves for doing 110 km we only managed 80, we chose to embrace the moment. And this moment happened to drop us in a camper trailer on the edge of Lake Consecon. Sure, it required re-plotting our route for the next day but it was worth it for the sunset swim we enjoyed.

Day 3 ends - with a swim and dinner on the porch.

Day 3 ends – with a swim and dinner on the porch.

Performing an act of kindness is the same way. A lot of times it doesn’t go as smoothly as you expect because it is unexpected. The recipient doesn’t know what to make of it. On a few occasions I’ve paid for coffee for strangers behind me when I was buying my own and invariably the clerks are initially confused by it. Other times I’ve just asked the people behind me what they want and they, also can be pretty confused. And then, of course you might do something kind and the gesture is completely misinterpreted. Boy do I understand that one.

Riding bikes is good for you and the more people ride bikes, the better it is for a culture. It improves health, and in cities, heavy cycle use improves air quality and traffic flow. Imagine the additional smog and traffic if all of the cyclists in this video were in cars instead.

Like cycling, kindness improves the culture of a place significantly the more people do it. Kindness alone is great, kindness in numbers is magical.

Finally, people have asked if this year we’ll be going on two bikes instead of a single tandem. The answer to this is no. We really enjoyed talking to one another, telling stories, playing games, and listening to music together – all would be much harder on two bikes. I also like the symbolism of a tandem bike when it comes to this project. Those who haven’t ridden a tandem before often ask if the two riders have to work equally. The answer is no. Both riders have to go through the motions and follow the pedals, but the rider chooses how hard he pedals. The result is that we really began to tune in to each other’s needs. On days when I was feeling more tired than usual, I didn’t have to work as hard because Daegan could push a little harder. Meanwhile, I got to the point where I could tell when we needed to start looking for a restaurant or place to pick up a snack because I would find that Daegan wasn’t able to pedal as hard as he normally would when he got hungry and I could feel the difference. We were both connected. Our actions, moods, and abilities were literally connected to one another. Ignoring his needs affected both of our ability to be successful at doing what we wanted to do. And if we were encouraging and supportive of one another we both had a better time and were more successful. What could be a better metaphor for the value of kindness and human connection within a society?