thank you to my subway superheroes

Have you ever seen someone faint on the subway before? Well last week that someone was me. I unexpectedly had blood drawn during a trip to the doctor’s office. It was one of the hottest days of the summer, and the 5 express train barely made it one stop before a man turned to me and asked, “Are you okay?” Instead of answering, I passed out.

I awoke to discover that three men carried me off of the train and over to the steps of the Wall Street station. A young man in a suit. A man with a physical handicap. And, the only man who’s name I got, a sweet, middle-aged Italian guy named Vito. Vito was the one who asked if I was okay. He said I turned the color of my crisp white button down work shirt just before giving in to gravity.

All three of the men were kind enough to stay with me until the police came. Since we were in downtown Manhattan, Homeland Security responded. It felt a little funny to have two guys from Homeland Security as babysitters until the paramedics arrived, but they didn’t seem to mind. I guess the 96 degree heat was more of a terror threat that day.

I’ve been feeling guilty about not having time to post this, and even more guilty because I don’t know the names of the other two gentleman who came to my rescue. It was extraordinary that not one, but three people, went out of their way to assist me on a horribly hot day. It was scary, but also very affirming to know that there are so many kind people willing to help a stranger in need. I’m pretty sure I tried to say thank you to each of them before they left, but much of the incident is fuzzy so I’m not sure if those thank yous were real or imagined. I hope they know that I’m extremely grateful to my subway superheroes.

Thank you, and be kind.

i’m with phil

Absurd and absolutely heartwarming. I’m not sure how else to describe this story which appeared in the New York Times about a bunch of guys named Phil Campbell who have raised nearly $35,000 to help a town with which they share a name: Phil Campbell, Alabama.

I appreciate their sense of humor and solidarity, but above all I love that these Phil Campbells, who don’t actually have any real ties to Alabama or each other except for the coincidence of their shared name, committed their time to rebuilding this small town after it was devastated by a tornado. Sometimes a little silliness goes a long way.

Thank you, and be kind.

justice

It’s 2:19 a.m. Osama bin Laden is dead. A few hours ago President Obama declared that, “Justice has been done.” Americans are chanting in the streets.

The death of the world’s most wanted man is a symbolically enormous victory for the United States and for President Obama. I am sure that this is a very joyous occasion for the men and women serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, perhaps the first real spark of hope that they finally will be able to go home and stay home with their families. It may also bring comfort to people who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 and those who suffer from health problems related to the events of that day. But I am not an “eye for an eye” kind of person and somehow celebrating death – even that of the world’s most infamous terrorist – seems a bit strange to me, and so my outlook on this may be different from many Americans.

I am happy for people who find consolation by today’s news, however I will hold off on celebrating until a different kind of justice has been done. A moral justice. An ethical justice. To my mind, justice will be done when we bring our troops home and put people back to work serving our country in peace. Justice will be done when we stop treating Muslims and anyone with a “funny sounding” last name like criminals. Justice will be done when we stop looking at people of a different skin color, religion and language than our own with skepticism, hate and contempt. Justice will be done when we make reparations for the thousands of lives that have been lost, harmed and interrupted by the 10-year war on terror. Justice will be done when we start spending more money on education than we do on the military. Justice will be done when we stop debating what level of torture is acceptable. Justice will be done when tear gas used on Egyptian protestors is no longer the only thing I see in the media that’s “Made in the USA.” Justice will be done when the fear and anger in America is reduced. Justice will be done when we stop pointing fingers and start taking responsibility for our actions. Justice will be done when we react with empathy instead of antipathy. I mean no disrespect to the people who are celebrating tonight, but for me, that’s when justice will be done.

All things considered, I still thought Obama gave a really great speech tonight. He said all the right things, including noting that Islam is separate from terrorism , that bin Laden was not a Muslim leader and that bin Laden was a mass murderer of Muslims as well as Americans, all while noting that Pakistan assisted in the effort. The only thing more I could have asked from Obama was for some reiteration of the speech he gave following the massacre in Tucson, when he talked about personal responsibility.

“We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

Today was a good day, but it’s up to all of us to take the next steps to ensure that justice has been done.

Thank you, and be kind.

in memory of

photo by SCOUT TUFANKJIAN

Chris Hondros died this week while shooting photographs of the conflict in Libya. Although I only knew him briefly, Chris was one of the most compassionate and generous souls of the highest integrity that I’ve ever met. It didn’t matter that he was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist or whether Chris knew you for 20 years or if he only knew you for 20 minutes, he treated everyone like a brother or a sister. A couple nights ago, as I walked home from a gathering of his friends – all of which knew Chris far better than I did – I got to thinking about how blessed I am to know so many people who make helping others their life’s work. They write stories or take photographs to provide voices for the voiceless. They fight for better labor standards. They stand up for the homeless, the poor and the unemployed. They work in hospitals. They teach and mentor children. They work for peace, equality and justice.

There is a video online in which Chris says that we’re all suited for different sorts of things in terms of what we’re able to handle. Not everyone is cut out for such dangerous work, but it was truly his calling. I am so thankful for people like Chris and my many friends who  not only care, but who move others to care and work so hard to improve the lives of others.

Thank you, and be kind.

The smell of nostalgia: chocolate fudge and horse manure

It’s funny to look at a photograph from your childhood and your first thought is of chocolate fudge and horse manure. It’s an odd, but nostalgic combination of smells.

I was digging through some old family photos recently when I ran across this picture of my brother and I as kids. Our family was on vacation on Mackinac Island, the site of an American Revolutionary War-era fort, which is best known for two things: its ban on motor vehicles and fudge. The small island’s population includes an estimated 600 horses and only 492 year-round human residents. It is less than 4 square miles in area yet has at least 15 or so fudge shops. The smell is unforgettable.

The photograph evokes two strikingly contrasting emotions. The first is joy. My brother, Jeffrey, looks around 8 years old, which means I am 9. It’s the 80s and I’m wearing coolots. Jeffrey’s arms are wrapped around me, hugging me tightly. We are so close.

Simultaneously my heart aches with the pang of sadness. My brother died in 2003. Years later, I can’t help but wonder, were we as close as I remember or do I remember us being as close as I wish we were? It’s a question I often ruminate. I’m not sure I’ll ever settle on an answer.

Then I look at the photograph and study his little boy hands, grasping my waist, and our faces, grinning with unfettered joy. In that photograph, we are the happiest kids on earth. And in that moment, I have no doubt that we were inseparable. It comforts me and I feel overwhelmed with gratitude that of all the photos from the trip – of us eating fudge, of us riding horses – that my parents took that one.

Thank you, and be kind.

A foot in the door

It’s amazing how much power a toe can hold! People always talk about the importance of getting your foot in the door. Recently, I’ve been lucky to benefit from this both figuratively and literally.

In the figurative sense, a much-anticipated first meeting with my boyfriend’s parents went shockingly well. We were anxious that it would be difficult because of our cultural and racial differences and so our main goal was simply for me to get my foot in the door, with the hope that this would open up future opportunities for conversation. Much to our surprise, his parents were nothing but receptive and gracious to me. While they had their concerns, it was clear they also wanted to find common ground. If I were to have made a list of best case scenarios, our experience would have topped anything I could have imagined.

Next, someone else literally put their foot in the door for me.  I was running late for school and trying to catch the F train. I could hear it screeching its familiar high-pitched squeal as it came to a stop at Carroll Street. I ran to catch it, but the doors closed when I was just inches away.  Then, as if by magic, the doors popped back open because a guy in the last car saw me running and stuck his foot in the door, activating the sensor.  I don’t recommend people do this because it’s probably dangerous, but I was so thankful to have made it on the train and to my class on time.

Over the weekend, I tried to use this new found foot phenomenon to pay it forward and give something back to everyone who either allowed me to get my foot in the door or put their own foot in the door for me.  As I was running on Sunday morning, a dog ran out of the front door of a brownstone with its leash dragging behind him. A man holding a baby stroller quickly followed.  Despite my fear of dogs while I’m in running gear (a dog bite incident has lead me to believe they see me as a gigantic steak in technical clothing), I tried to stop the dog by stepping on its leash. The dog’s owner ended up being more successful in this tactic than I, but still I gave it my best shot.

As it turns out, getting your foot in the door can make a big difference. Just remember, a foot in the door is better than a foot in your mouth – the two can have quite dichotomous results.

Thank you, and be kind.

will

Every now and then I read something in the New York Times and get obsessed with it. I mean OBSESSED.

One such article that immediately comes to mind is a 2007 travel piece about a real life wonder land, a Yemeni island named Socotra, which is home to the world’s most unusual collections of organisms, including many species of plants and animals that can be found nowhere else on earth. I still look at the slideshow once every 3-4 months. But I digress…

My latest infatuation is with something I read just a couple of days ago. It was a profile chronicling a Sunday with Al Sharpton. Say what you will about the Rev. (I know people have plenty of reasons to love him and hate him) but I was really touched and inspired by it. He’s a fellow optimist who views every morning that he wakes as a “victory.” Also, according to the article, the Rev. recites two poems every day. Both of the poems are very powerful, but I was really moved by one called “Will” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

There is no chance, no destiny, no fate,
Can circumvent or hinder or control
The firm resolve of a determined soul.
Gifts count for nothing; will alone is great;
All things give way before it, soon or late.
What obstacle can stay the mighty force
Of the sea-seeking river in its course,
Or cause the ascending orb of day to wait?
Each well-born soul must win what it deserves.
Let the fool prate of luck. The fortunate
Is he whose earnest purpose never swerves,
Whose slightest action or inaction serves
The one great aim. Why, even Death stands still,
And waits an hour sometimes for such a will.

After reading this poem, I felt energized with great optimism and hope. It’s no wonder Rev. Sharpton has committed it to memory. I later read elsewhere that the “art of being kind” was Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “religion,” and she lived it every day of her life. A woman after my own heart. Thank you and be kind.

what adults can learn from kids about being adults

I knew I’d been away from this blog for too long when my boyfriend asked me if I’d given up on small acts of kindness. No! Of course not.

The past month has been a whirlwind. I started a new job as well as my last semester of graduate school, and I’ve been trying to make good on my New Year’s resolution to be a better friend to my friends. What’s more, I’ve been preoccupied with trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Graduate school has been an incredible experience, including providing a second adolescence, time away from work to think about how to contribute to the world in a way that will do the most good. Now, with the clock ticking toward graduation, I’ve found myself in a panic. I officially reenter adulthood on May 23 and I don’t have all the answers like I thought I would.

Then yesterday, while sick in bed, I stumbled upon a TED talk by child prodigy Adora Svitak. Only 13 years old, Adora is a self-described “educator, poet and humanitarian.” In her talk, she argues that the world needs more “childish” thinking, ideas that are bold, creative and optimistic.

Adora’s presentation helped me realize that I have been taking myself way too seriously. Instead of looking for that next brilliant career move, I need to come up with not one idea, but dozens. Some will be good, some will be average and some will be complete rubbish. But it’s important to sort through the wrong stuff to get to the right stuff. Then it hit me. I’ve been doing this all along. Sometimes it takes inspiration from a child to find clarity as an adult.

You’ve likely heard the saying, it doesn’t take a genius to figure (fill in the blank) out. Well, in this case it did. And a very small one at that.

Thank you, and be kind.

What would you do if you had nothing left to lose?

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty tired of listening to people complain about the economy. It’s not that I don’t empathize with the millions of people who are struggling to find work and keep work. My friends and family members are among them. It’s just that I don’t find complaining to be very productive. That said, you may notice, like my friend Matthew did, that I am complaining about other people complaining – something he then complained about. Enough already!

The point is I’m more interested in hearing what people are doing about it. Which is why I loved “The Economics of Pursuing Your Dreams,” a recent NPR story on how a horrible economy can make it easier for people to take employment or lifestyle risks that they wouldn’t take under normal or better economic conditions. Like running a farm or starting a swing dance studio.

It’s an inverse approach to the classic question asked by high school guidance counselors to help find your dream career. Instead of asking “What would you do if you had a million dollars and didn’t have to work?” the question is “What would you do if you had nothing left to lose?” It’s not that the people interviewed in the story are naively blind to the difficulties of the economy, it’s just that they decided to use this time as an opportunity for new possibilities and potential. While it’s true that the couples interviewed had financial support that is not available to many people, I still thought it was inspiring and hope you do too.

Thanks, and be kind.

Chicago, where nice people call home

Apparently Chicago is the city where nice people go to live. I spent a couple of weeks there this winter, by far the most time I’ve ever spent in Chicago. Over and over again I heard about how “nice” the people are there. From friends. From strangers. In fact, the word “nice” is arguably the most widely used adjective to describe Chicago following the words “cold” and “windy.”

It seemed true enough. When I went running pedestrians would courteously step aside to let me pass, something I have not experienced in any other city. Usually people just expect you to go around them. Restaurant staff were also abundantly friendly, even those at the three Michelin star-rated restaurant L20 where the elegance and splendor of the cuisine could easily  allow for a great deal of pretentiousness.

Yes, Chicago is a place with a lot of extraordinarily nice people. But after hearing so many good things about the nice people of Chicago I feel compelled to say that New Yorkers aren’t as nasty and unpleasant as they’re often characterized. This is especially evident when it snows. Last night was the 8th biggest snowstorm in New York City history. In just the first couple hours of my day today, I saw a man help a blind woman find a seat on the subway. I saw a teenager help a woman carry her stroller up the stairs. I saw dozens of neighbors shoveling snow from cars and walkways. It was a record snow, made even more spectacular by the solidarity I observed afterward.

I don’t want to engage in the whole Chicago vs. New York debate, but I do feel like New Yorkers get a bad rap. Not long ago a stranger asked me for directions. I didn’t know where the place was so I looked it up on my phone in order to help him. The guy seemed shocked. “Do you live here?” he asked, followed by, “Have you always been this nice?” I don’t think New York is a place that is inherently rude or a place where perfectly nice people turn bad.  Sure, people can be pushy, but New York is a very fast-paced and crowded city. Don’t forget, we’re constantly surrounded by people. In fact, we live on top of each other in very small and very expensive apartments.  However, just as New York is remarkably diverse in race, culture, and religion it’s also heterogeneous in personality.

Are New Yorkers nicer than Chicagoans? I’m not gonna go there. All I’m saying is we’re not so bad, and I was surrounded by plenty of supporting evidence this morning. Thank you, and be kind.