Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
- Leo Buscaglia

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Helping with the Chaos

     Before leaving Williamsburg for home today, I had to make one more stop at a sort of mecca for me - The Cheese Shop.  For those unfamiliar, The Cheese Shop is a Williamsburg institution, primarily known for their fabulous sandwiches.  Whenever I return to town, I always have to go for a Cheese Shop sandwich.  To be candid, it was actually my 2nd time there in the three days I've been here!
     As popular as it is, The Cheese Shop is a pretty chaotic experience.  Even though they've expanded into a larger store since the days I was a student at W&M, they still can't keep up with the demand.  The system is that you go in one line to order you sandwich, and then wait till your name is called to pick up your order and pay for it.  The problem is that as fast as they make the sandwiches, there simply isn't room for all those people to stand as they wait - so it basically looks like a mob scene.  
     Today, as I was waiting for my sandwich, I noticed a tourist (I could tell from his nametag/pass) looking rather confused.  Knowing that it can be overwhelming if you don't know the system, I approached him and explained to him what to do.  He appreciated the guidance and hopefully got to experience one of my favorite parts of Williamsburg.
     This is another one of those simple acts of just noticing someone needing help and reaching out rather than waiting to be approached.  Not a big deal, but I suppose evidence that looking for these opportunities is beginning to become more of a habit.  And that was certainly one of my goals when I began this process 278 days ago!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

One More Letter

     I sent another letter/e-mail to my adopted soldier in Afghanistan this evening.  I try to do this approximately once each week.  I remember when I first signed up for this relationship through Soldiers' Angels.  The organization asks that you commit to writing at least weekly and that you send a care package at least once each month.  To be honest, it sounded kind of daunting to me, but I agreed nevertheless, realizing just how important this is to our troops overseas.  What's been surprising to me is how easy it's actually become.  I think this is mostly because my soldier and I have developed such a great relationship over these many months.  Writing to him is not a chore.  It's a pleasure that I look forward to.
     My soldier will be leaving Afghanistan in just about 2 more weeks.  I can only imagine how excited he is to be coming home.  While my "offficial" commitment will be coming to a close, I have no doubt that we'll continue to keep in touch.  I've mentioned before that I've invited him to visit me for an Eagles' game, which we'll be doing in early November.  I'll be sure to post a story about that as well as some pictures.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Eagles' Fans Everywhere

     I was in Williamsburg today visiting my daughter Hannah for parents weekend at William & Mary.  My parents-in-law also live in Williamsburg so we all went out to dinner at a nice restaurant overlooking the James River.  Our waitress, Shauna, was particularly friendly, asking if it was a special occasion and where we were from.  When we told her, she immediately wanted to know if we were Eagles' fans!  That led to a long conversation in which we learned that she was from Philadelphia and was a huge fan.  We also learned that she is recently married, had been a journalism major, and is now back in school to be a nurse.
     Shauna took great care of us throughout the meal and provided particularly personal and friendly service.  When it came time to pay the bill, I left her a larger than usual tip, and I wrote her a note thanking her for the excellent service.  I also enclosed a Starbucks gift card for good measure, and of course, I wrote "GO EAGLES!" on her copy of the bill.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Little More Pay It Forward

     Today was one of those days that occur from time to time where my original plan had to change.  Here's what happened:
     I was heading over to FedexOffice where I had placed an online order for some printing.  This is something I've done many times throughout the year.  I have a booklet that's about 15 pages that I give to audience members for many of my workshops.  I can easily upload the document, select from a variety of setup options, and then have it printed, copied, and bound and ready for me to pick up.  I've done this enough times that I've gotten to know the guys who work there.  I was thinking that today it might be nice to give a Chick-fil-A gift card to the guy who took care of my order as a small way to say thank you.  However, when I inspected the completed job before bringing it home, I noticed that all of the pages had been printed in reverse order!  Needless to say, they're reprinting everything and it didn't feel appropriate to offer a thank you gesture.  So I moved to Plan B.
     I needed to pick up something at Target so I figured that I would pick a stranger in the parking lot and offer them the gift card, at which point I could also create a nice pay-it-forward opportunity.  Parking lots are great for this type of thing because there are lots of people coming and going.  
     I picked out a woman and her teenage daughter who had just gotten out of their car and were starting to walk toward the store.  Stopping them for a moment, I approached the woman and asked her if she and her daughter liked Chick-fil-A.  She gave me a hesitant, quizzical look and offered a tentative "Yes . . ."  I then asked her if she'd like to have the gift card.  Looking at me warily, she seemed to be trying to figure out what to make of me, or if this was some kind of trick.  That's when I explained that the only "catch" was that they had to do something nice for someone else in return.  That brought a big smile to her face as if now she understood what was going on.  She said "Sure.  That's so nice," as I presented her with the card.  I'd love to know what she and her daughter chose to do.  I'm sure they told their family and friends about the strange thing that happened to them in the Target parking lot today!
     As I've noted many times, the pay-it-forward concept is so wonderfully simple, and yet powerful.  I think of it almost like starting a wave that can build and build and perhaps be felt many miles away.  A simple gesture like a gift card can set in motion a series of kind acts that could number in the hundreds or even thousands if each person pays it forward and requests the next person to do the same.  That's pretty powerful.  And that's why I'm trying to put in that specific pay-it-forward request as often as I can remember (and when appropriate).

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Road to Recovery

     I've written before about the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program.  This is the program through which volunteers drive cancer patients to their doctor or hospital appointments.  Many times, these patients literally have no other way of getting to their necessary treatment.  Occasionally, I'll get a call from the Society's volunteer coordinator asking if I can fulfill a specific ride request.  This evening, she sent an e-mail to all the local drivers with a listing of 31 requests coming up in the next 5 weeks or so, asking for help.  While I have a lot of travel coming up, I was still able to find room in my schedule to volunteer for 5 assignments.
     Among the many things I've done this year, this activity ranks pretty high on my list of favorites.  I suppose it's because it's so real and tangible.  By that I mean that I can very directly see the impact of my action.  I've met lots of interesting people and they're so appreciative.  When you stop and think about it, it's a great example of the genuine kindness of people.  Total strangers are taking a good chunk of their time to help others in need.  These aren't friends, relatives, or loved ones.  They're strangers.  I think that's what makes the program so compelling.  
     I'm looking forward to discovering who I get to meet over the coming weeks.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sharing Knowledge

     I had an email from a friend this evening asking for my assistance.  It seems that someone close to him has written a book and has no idea about the publishing process.  Knowing that I had been through that experience, he asked if I would be willing to meet with her to share what I had learned and give her some direction.  Of course, I quickly responded that I would, and we're coordinating schedules to do so.
     I love these kind of sharing opportunities.  There's no better way to learn than to gain from the experience of others.  I enjoy picking the brains of people who've done things I haven't, and I'm always happy to do the same for others.  It's amazing how many mistakes we can avoid when we can tap into what others have already experienced.  To me, this is also one of the great aspects of "networking."  It's fun to realize that within my network of contacts, there's a way to learn or to accomplish almost anything one can think of.  Of course, this is predicated upon everyone's mutual desire to help each other.  It's kindness magnified many times . . . 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Paying It Forward, Southern Style

     I was in Delray Beach, Florida this afternoon and I had a little time before meeting a client for dinner, so I decided to go for a walk along the main street here called Atlantic Avenue.  Since I was feeling a bit hungry, I popped into a Ben and Jerry's ice cream shop for a pre-dinner "hold-me-over."  Since the shop was fairly quiet in the late afternoon, I figured I might just try out my "pay it forward" routine in the South.
     The man at the counter was a friendly guy with a British accent.  After scooping me out a cup of cookies and cream ice cream, he was about to ring up the bill when I asked him if he'd do me a favor.  I told him that I wanted him to charge me for an additional cup, and that he should choose a customer this evening to receive a free cup of ice cream courtesy of a stranger.  I then  requested that he ask whoever he chose to do something nice for someone else in exchange.  "Ah, a random act of kindness," he said.  "I can definitely do that."
     It occurs to me that skeptical people might suspect the man could just keep my extra money and never offer the gift to a stranger.  I suppose that could certainly happen, but I have much more faith and trust in people than that.  Though I'll never know for sure, I'm confident he'll happily carry out my request.
     I'm getting better and better at remembering to include that "pay it forward" component.  It definitely makes it more interesting, and more importantly, it makes it more likely to spread kindness further.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Useful Book

     One of my favorite things to do is to share a great book with someone who I know will really benefit from it.  Of course, Amazon makes this easier than it's ever been.  Rather than simply recommending a book to someone, I can just have it sent to them as a gift.  Tonight, I did just that.  
     I was thinking about one of my favorite business books, one that I have mentioned a couple of times to a person I know.  I realize that when someone tells me about a book, I don't always get it right away.  I figured that if I sent it to him as a gift, he'd be more likely to read it, and as a result, to get the benefit from it sooner.
     While this might be slightly off topic, it's on my mind so I'll write about it and tie it back to kindness:  One of my shortcomings (along with millions of other people), is that I get too wrapped up in professional teams that I root for.  I say "too wrapped up" because I realize, intellectually, that to allow the performance of some people, who I don't even know, to affect my mood or state of mind is completely inane.  And yet, it still happens far too often.  When my team is playing well, I feel great, and when they're not, I get frustrated and annoyed.  I've learned to manage this process to where I can keep the feeling of annoyance down to a matter of hours instead of days, but it's still pretty silly.
     One of the things that I've also realized is that when we feel bad, whether it's because of something stupid like a sports team or it's for some other reason, one of the best things to do is to focus on helping and being kind to others.  This seems to take the focus away from my own pity party and enables me to put things in perspective.  I suppose it's why being kind to others is always high on the list of actions that the happiest people all seem to do.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Geek Squad

     Yesterday evening I noticed that a friend of mine posted on Facebook that she couldn't get her wireless printer working with her new router at home.  She was asking if anybody might be able to walk her through the appropriate troubleshooting steps to get it working again.  While I'm not a computer expert by training, I've fought with my own computers and network enough to be able to solve most problems like these.  I let her know that I'd be happy to swing by today to see if I could get things working.
     As promised, I stopped in this afternoon to give it a go.  I won't go into all the gory details of the many things I tried, but suffice it to say that in the end I was able to get everything working properly.  We also had a nice chance to catch up since we hadn't seen each other in awhile, so it was a good afternoon all the way around.
     As much as we all sometimes get annoyed at Facebook (and for good reason!), this was one of those great examples of the value of a real social network.  My friend had a need; and she simply had to let her network know what her challenge was so that someone from the network (me, in this case) could respond to help her out.  How would this have been done prior to Facebook?  I suppose she might have started making calls to all her friends to see if anyone might be able to help.  Or I guess she could have sent a group e-mail to lots of people.  Pretty inefficient, either way.
     I had another thought as I considered what took place today:  I was wondering if I would ask for help in that way (or in any way!)?  For some of us, men especially, it's difficult to ask for help.  We've been socialized (not that it's an excuse, just an explanation) to feel like needing to ask for help is a weakness and something to be avoided.  Intellectually I can see how silly that is, and yet, emotionally, there's definitely a strong resistance to asking for help.    How beautifully simple it is when you let go of that reluctance.  My friend needed help.  She asked for it.  I responded.  Problem solved.  Friendship advanced.  Simple, and good.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Men Can Always Talk Sports

     As I sent another e-mail to my soldier in Afghanistan, I was noticing how many of our exchanges involve sports talk.  This isn't to say that we haven't also talked (written, to be exact) about family, career, service, life plans, etc.; but we're both big sports fans and with the baseball season wrapping up and both college and pro football underway, there's lots of news to share.  
     I realize there are women who love sports and guys who don't, but my experience tells me that most guys love to talk about sports.  They love to brag about their teams and trash talk about rival teams.  Sports is often a common denominator that brings strangers together.  When I'm at an Eagles' game, people who don't even know each other are high-fiving after they score a touchdown.  Strangers will gather around a big screen TV at a bar or restaurant and start talking with each other.  Many times I've been in a cab in a distant city and I'll ask the driver a question about the local baseball or football team.  In seconds, we're deep into conversation, and we don't even know each others' names!  I love that.
     When my soldier comes to visit in November, we're going to be seeing the Eagles host the Cowboys. Even though he's from Kentucky, he hates the Cowboys as much as the locals do here, so he can't wait to boo them. He told me that in his barracks he has Eagles, Cowboys, and Giants fan under one roof and there's non-stop trash talking amongst them. How great is that?
     It's an interesting sociological phenomenon - this fascination we have with identifying with our local teams.  As much as it can get out of hand at times, there's still something great about how rooting for a team can bring strangers together.  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Transferring the Act

     I was coming home from Cleveland today and as I got to the Philadelphia airport I was thinking about giving someone a Starbucks gift card, but I couldn't decide who.  To be honest, I wasn't even sure what criteria I would be using, other than finding someone that felt "right."  After considering (and deciding against) a number of people, I settled on a woman who was working the information desk in the F terminal.
     The woman was seated behind a big semicircular counter.  As I approached her, I asked her if she liked Starbucks coffee.  Her first response was, "No, we don't have that here."  She thought I was asking if there was a Starbucks in that terminal.  I tried again, explaining that I wanted to know if she personally enjoyed Starbucks coffee.  To this she responded, "No, I don't drink coffee.  I just never liked it, though I do like coffee ice cream."  
     I shared that I don't like coffee either, but that I had a Starbucks gift card that I had intended to offer her.  "I have a good friend who would love it," she informed me.  So I said that I would make her a deal.  I'd give her the card to give to her friend, as long as she explained that it was from a stranger and that, in return for accepting the card, she had to do something nice for someone else.  The woman promised that she would convey that message, but she let me know that she would have no way of knowing whether or not her friend had complied.  Her friend was a pretty nice person though, she added, and probably would do it.
     It was a rather interesting exchange and was yet another reminder that you  never know precisely what you're going to get in any interaction.  Still, I'm finding it fun to push harder on the "pay it forward" requests.  It gives a whole different flavor to the conversation, and it's a flavor I like.  Most importantly, it has to increase the likelihood that more kindness will spread as a result.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Pleasant Flight

     I was on a flight to Cleveland this afternoon, and as I've mentioned in previous posts, it's not my natural inclination to make conversation with the person I'm sitting next to.  To be honest, that's actually kind of strange when you think about it.  Here we are, humans thrust together in pretty close contact - whether that's an elevator, airplane, bus, or other similar situation - and most people withdraw into themselves and act like the other person doesn't exist.  Pretty weird, and I do it as frequently as everyone else.
     Anyway, I was in the window seat and a woman began to sit next to me.  Before she sat down though, she asked if I would mind switching seats with her as she didn't like the aisle for some reason.  Of course, I said I'd be happy to oblige as it made no difference to me and seemed to be important to her.  As the flight got under way, I asked her about where she was going and we ended up having a delightful conversation the entire trip.  I learned all about her family, her work (she's actually a pastor), her upbringing, etc.  We've exchanged e-mail addresses and I've already promised to send her a copy of my book when I return home.  Opening myself up to a more "human" experience certainly made the trip so much more enjoyable.
     Incidentally, on a topic that I've mentioned repeatedly in recent posts, I once again saw so many nice people today.  Most were courteous and polite, and were easy to engage with a smile.  Sure there were others who appeared to be more self-centered, but they were definitely the minority.  I wonder if the fact that is was so sunny and beautiful out had any impact on this?  I'll have to see if I notice any difference on a nasty day . . . 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Friendly Postal Workers

     Too often, when we think of government or municipal employees, we picture the stereotypical image of complacent people who don't seem to care what kind of job they do and don't seem to understand the concept of customer service.  And yet, as with most stereotypes, this is painting a picture with ridiculously broad strokes that ignore the many contrasting examples.  In our town, we have several (and probably many more, but several that I've come to know) postal workers who are shining examples of great service providers.
     For many years, and in several different houses in which we lived, we were fortunate enough to have the same mail carrier.  His name was Keith and he was always such a pleasure to work with.  He was always friendly, and he took a personal interest in those to whom he delivered daily mail.  It wasn't unusual for him to leave a note in our mailbox for my kids with a little money to buy an ice cream or water ice during the summer.  Or we'd get a piece of mail that may have been incorrectly addressed and he'd personally correct it and deliver it to us.  We felt like we had a personal relationship with him, like I imagine small towns must have been like many years ago.
     Over the past year, I've had occasion to go into the post office itself more times than I probably did in my entire life prior to that.  Most of these visits were to mail my book to people or to send a care package to my adopted soldier.  I've come to know two of the people who are often at the counter, Dave and Ida.  They're always exceptionally friendly, helpful, and cheerful - and not just to me.  Once again, I feel like I have a personal relationship there, rather than dealing with officious automatons.  
     Today, I decided to stop by the post office simply to give Ida a Starbucks gift card as a small way of saying "thanks" for her great service every day.  When I got there, she was waiting on one person and there was another in line in front of me.  While the customer at the counter was busy completing some forms, she saw me and asked me (by name, of course) if I needed anything.  I gave her the card and just said that I wanted to thank her for always being so cheerful and helpful.  Predictably, she was surprised, as if to say that it was unnecessary because being so helpful was just her way of doing things.  Nevertheless, it was my pleasure to acknowledge her.
     It's been a recurring theme this year that I seem to find great people in places where others typically find the opposite.  I'm sure the opposite exists in plentiful numbers.  It's just that I tend to focus on the positive and so that's what I notice most.  While it's possible that I have an "unrealistic" picture of "how things are", it certainly makes life more pleasant to look for, see, acknowledge, and reinforce the positive.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Keeping In Touch

     Most people, it seems, lead fairly busy lives with lots of activities crammed into the 24 hours with which we all have to work. With all that we have on our plates, it's not always easy to stay in touch with people who we care about or who we enjoy being with.  Today, I reached out to two such people.  One I called to catch up, and the other I reached out to schedule a lunch.
     While paradoxically I'm not always great with this when it comes to my family, I'm pretty good about it when it comes to friends.  I'm usually the one making the effort to connect with friends both locally and all over the country.  Through all my contacts over the years, I seem to know someone in nearly every major city, it seems.  And just about every time I travel (which has been a lot this year), I find someone I know to have dinner with or to stay with.  Sometimes it's an old HS or college friend, sometimes a business associate, and sometimes even a person I met on a trip or vacation.  I find that I enjoy the process of connecting and reconnecting with people, and they always seem glad that I called to arrange it.
     Like with most things, we all have excuses for why we haven't stayed in touch with people we care about.  And like most things as well, they really are just that - excuses.  We all seem to find the time for the things that are most important to us.  I find that building (and sometimes, resuming) relationships with a myriad of friends adds an enriching element to my life.  And while it might be nice if I didn't usually have to be the one to initiate the effort, I accept that as the price for creating the kind of life I want to have.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Little Parking Help

     I mentioned the other day that I was running the Rock 'N Roll half-marathon in Philadelphia this morning.  There were more than 15,000 people running, so the logistics for some of these big races can be a bit challenging.  The race info gave some pretty good suggestions for where to find parking reasonably near the starting line.  As I got into town early this morning, I noticed that I could park on the street (as opposed to a lot) and just put money in the parking meter.  Philadelphia has moved to using those parking meters where you pay for a certain amount of time with a credit card and then put the receipt in your windshield.  It's a pretty good system, though I've found that the machines don't always work and they can be a little confusing the first time you use them.
     As I got out of my car to buy time in the meter, a woman pulled up and parked in the spot behind me.  She was running the race as well.  I could see her looking a little confused as she tried to figure out how to use the machine, so I went up and offered to help.  I showed her how to do it and helped her purchase the required amount of time.
     It wasn't a huge deal, but it was a case of seeing a need and responding.  She didn't ask me for help and I could have easily stayed wrapped up in my own race preparation.  Instead, I was aware of her confusion and chose to reach out to assist her.  I do find that many people, perhaps even most, will reach out to help in situations like these.  This is in stark contrast to the popular notion that most people "these days" aren't very friendly.  I suppose, like most things, you get what you're looking for.  I tend to find lots of friendly and helpful people everywhere I go.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Fundamentally Different Gift

     I received an e-mail the other day from a friend with whom I had recently reconnected (thanks to LinkedIn).  In his e-mail, he introduced me to a friend of his who he thought shared many traits in common with me and suggested that it would be good for us to get to know each other.  In addition, he asked if I would send this person a signed copy of my book as a gift that he would gladly pay for.
     I went ahead and got a book in the mail to the friend with a personal inscription; and I have no intention of accepting money from the guy who suggested it.  I love to share my book, Fundamentally Different, with as many people as possible as I know how much they'll enjoy it and get value from it.  While I obviously can't give them all away for free, it's fun to be able to use it as a gift in appropriate situations.  This was definitely one of those situations.
     As I sent the book off, I got to thinking about the investments we make in relationships.  It seems to me that it's kind of like planting seeds in a garden, though with less foreknowledge of the fruit they will bear.  I've tried to be as helpful as I can to as many people as I can in as many ways as I reasonably can, without worrying too much about how, or even if, I'll be repaid.  Instead, I trust in a sort of universal law that the more good you spread, the more good somehow comes back to you.  I think this is as true in business as it is on a personal level.  I always found that the more you focus on helping customers, instead of on making money, the more money tends to show up.
     I think I'll keep on planting seeds . . . 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Water for the Tired

     On Sunday morning, I'm running the Rock 'N Roll 1/2 marathon in Philadelphia.  With thousands of people running, all participants were required to pick up their number and race packet either today or tomorrow, so I went in to take care of that this afternoon.  I was able to park a few blocks away from the Pennsylvania Convention Center and walked over to the race headquarters. On my way, I noticed an old, impoverished looking man leaning against a building, staring somewhat aimlessly out into the world.  To call him a beggar would be incorrect, since he didn't appear to even have the energy to beg.  He was just sitting/standing there and I had the sense he could easily have been there all day.
     When I left the Runners' Expo roughly 45 minutes later and started to walk toward where I had parked my car, I noticed that the man was still there, in the same spot, looking just as tired and aimless.  I checked my wallet to see if I had any McDonald's or other gift cards with me, but I only had a Starbucks one.  Somehow, I didn't see him meandering his way into a Starbucks to order a latte.  He had such a vacant look to him that I honestly wasn't sure I'd be able to explain to him what a gift card was for, and so I continued on.
     I had only gone another 1/2 block or so when I realized what I could easily do for him.  I went across the street to a Wawa and bought a bottle of cold water.  Then I went back to where he was standing and gave it to him.  He looked at me and gave me a nod and said "thanks."  I simply told him to enjoy it and continued on to my car.
     As I headed home to Moorestown I was thinking about how much I enjoy the quiet, anonymous acts of kindness like these.  He doesn't know who I am and almost certainly never will.  He probably won't even tell anybody about it.  There was no fanfare and it didn't change the world - except for maybe his world. Who knows what impact a small, simple act of kindness might have on him?

Follow-up note:  The other day I wrote about going to Rita's and paying for a water ice for the next customer.  I stopped in this afternoon for another water ice and the same guy, Hunter, happened to be working, so I asked him what happened.  He said that he waited for just the right person and it ended up to be a guy who was a parole officer.  He was touched, but said it wouldn't be easy for him to be nice to someone else because he spent most of his day putting people in jail!  Hopefully he was able to find a way to pay it forward.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Appreciating What We Have

     I've written before about some of the research that's been done examining the most common attributes of happy people.  Two of the attributes that consistently make the list are practicing kindness and showing gratitude.  From time to time this year I've tried to remind myself to slow down and feel and express gratitude.  Sometimes this is verbal and other times it takes the form of a thank you note.  Today it was the latter.
     I was enjoying playing golf on yet another spectacular September day and was appreciating the fabulous course conditions we have at my home course, Riverton Country Club.  While most courses ought to be in great shape given the recent good weather, not all, in fact, are.  It seems to me that Riverton is almost always in better than shape than most of the surrounding courses, regardless of the weather.  And this is true despite budget challenges and issues we have with water allocation.  I believe the credit for this goes to our golf course superintendent.
     Being a golf course superintendent is often one of those thankless jobs.  Everyone believes they're an expert on turf management and tree care, and they're not hesitant to whine and complain about why the course isn't one way or another.  In contrast, I just enjoy what's there and appreciate the work that goes into making it so nice.  Tonight, I sent a handwritten letter to our superintendent thanking him for his great work and letting him know how much I appreciate all that he does to keep our course in such great shape.  I'm not sure how often he gets thanked, but I'm guessing not very often.
     My anecdotal observations seem to confirm what the research shows:  happy people spend much less time complaining and much more time being thankful than do unhappy people.  The funny thing to me is that which we you see the world is entirely a personal choice.  Why would you choose to see things in a way that makes you unhappy?  I make happy choices each and every day.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

School Fundraiser

     When our kids were in our local schools, we were always very involved in the school system, especially our Home & School Association (what I knew as the PTA when I was growing up).  In fact, my wife was the H&S chair for each of the 4 different schools that our children attended, and then was the district-wide chair for 2 years as well.  These days, we don't get many opportunities to be involved or to show our continued support.  Today, however, we were able to help out while eating dinner.
     Home & School had arranged one of those restaurant fundraisers where a percentage of all proceeds raised for the day goes back to the organization.  Today happened to be Chick-Fil-A day.  I don't know what the exact percentage was, but the more people who ate there the more money went back to our schools (through H&S).  My wife and I figured we had to eat dinner anyway, at least this way we were supporting the schools as well.  And that's exactly what we did.
     This event got me thinking more about the never-ending passage of time and the continuous cycle of life.  I touched on this topic last week when I wrote about sending someone a baby gift as well as the other day when I talked about the community playground project.  I can remember all those years when our lives revolved around the kids and all their school projects and activities.  While we may be done with that stage, those projects and activities continue to take place every year, with or without us.  There are new children and new parents who are just as wrapped up in this world as we once were.  Their joys, fears, worries, and special moments are exactly like ours were.  And when the current classes of children graduate and move on to whatever is next for them, a new group of students and their parents will replace them.  And on it goes.
     Of course, the mystery of the passage of time has been fascinating (and tormenting) people for thousands of years.  I feel it, and yet I don't quite know how to process it all.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Don't Forget the Pay It Forward

     Today was about as spectacular a day as one could possibly hope for - perfect temperatures, blue sky, slight breeze.  Awesome.  I was on my way home from some errands early this evening and I figured I needed a Rita's Water Ice.  If you've never tried Rita's, you should.  Great stuff.  Anyway, as I pulled into the parking lot, I decided that Rita's would be the scene for today's act of kindness.
     I was the only customer there at the time.  I ordered a large cup of raspberry lemonade water ice (I highly recommend that one) and was served by a smiling young man who wore a badge announcing that his name was Hunter.  When Hunter handed me my water ice, I told him that I needed some help.  I explained that I wanted him to charge me for a second water ice, and that I wanted him to choose a customer tonight to receive a free one courtesy of a stranger.  He smiled excitedly, anticipating the fun he'd have doing that.  "Anyone?", he asked.  "Yes," I said.  "Pick anyone you want and just let them know it was paid for by a stranger."  He assured me that he'd pick someone good.
     I walked back to my car, satisfied that Hunter was going to have some fun with this one; but as I sat there for a moment enjoying my water ice, it occurred to me that I had once again missed out on a potential "pay it forward" opportunity.  So I got out of the car and went back to talk to Hunter again.  I told him that there was one other thing we need to do.  "When you pick the person and give them their free water ice," I explained, "ask them in return to do something nice for someone else."  Hunter seemed to love that idea and he confirmed that he could definitely do that.
     It's such a small extra step, but what a difference it can make.  It's certainly possible that a recipient of an act of kindness might, on their own, choose to pay it forward.  But specifically asking them to do so must surely increase the likelihood manyfold.  And just imagine that they ask the same of the next person and so on and so on.  Of course, that's the whole idea of the "pay it forward" concept.  It's one of the simplest, yet most powerful ideas I've ever heard for spreading kindness in the world.  
     I want to be better about remembering to include this component as often as is reasonably appropriate.  I'm glad that when I thought of it tonight, I got back out of my car and acted upon it, rather than simply figuring I'll do it next time.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

Cleanup Day

     It was a beautiful day in South Jersey today - one of those early fall days (even though it's not officially fall yet!), where the temperature cools off despite the sunny, blue skies.  On such a nice day, I wanted to find an act of kindness that I could do outdoors, so I decided it would be a good day to go back to a playground for some trash pickup.  I chose a great community playground we have in Moorestown called Fullerton Park.
     I grabbed a plastic trash bag and a pair of gloves and headed over to the park.  It was late afternoon/early evening and the park was peaceful with a handful of mostly mothers watching their small children play on the different equipment.  I quietly walked around the entire park picking up small pieces of garbage wherever I saw any.  The park does have lots of garbage cans and recycling containers and they generally seemed to be used so the park was definitely not filled with litter.  And yet, when you go looking for it, you see plenty of it everywhere.  I think the most common thing I found was plastic wrappers from juice boxes and straws.  For some reason, these somehow don't seem to make it into the garbage cans.  I'm not sure what people thought who saw me picking up trash - perhaps they figured I was working off a community service sentence?!  In any event, I didn't mind at all, as it was just a beautiful day to be outside doing something useful.      
     This particular park is one of my favorite sites because it was a park built entirely by volunteers in a sort of Amish barn-building kind of 5-day effort.  It's actually the second time it was built - both times all done by volunteers.  I was a key leader in the process the first time (1992) and it remains the most satisfying community activity in which I've ever been a part.  The park was rebuilt (due to some new safety issues) just last year and I did spend a little time there helping out, though it was mostly a new generation of young parents who played pivotal roles this time.  
     I'll never forget the sense of community I felt when literally hundreds of people worked together day and night, eating their meals together, laughing and sweating together, and enjoying each other's company for the sake of our children.  Being at the park is always a reminder of that feeling for me.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Some Marketing Help

     This evening I decided to check out to see if there were any new challenges posted to which I could respond with some help.  For those not familiar with Sparked, it's a site where non-profit organizations from around the world post "challenges" (things they need help with) and volunteers respond by providing various types of assistance.  You enter your skills and interests and then the site displays challenges that might be appropriate for you.
     When I checked today, I read about an organization in Kenya that provides educational, social, and psychological support for some of the thousands of children who've been displaced as a result of tribal violence over the past few years.  They have a particular focus on helping young girls to break out of the cycle of poverty and despair that is so prevalent there.  The organization is fairly new and they were looking for helping  in developing a catchy tagline as part of their branding effort.  I reviewed their website and related materials and submitted some of my suggestions.  A handful of others from around the world had also already submitted ideas as well.
     I've mentioned it before, but I continue to marvel at how people from different parts of the world can be brought together to help each other through sites like these.  Obviously there is no compensation or reward other than the satisfaction of helping.  These types of sites remind me of how generous most people really are, despite what you read in the papers or see in the news.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Almost Home

     Today it was time to write another letter (actually an e-mail) to my soldier in Afghanistan.  I titled this post "Almost Home" because that's what he is!  The replacements for his unit are due to arrive within 15 days and then he'll be leaving Afghanistan within a couple of weeks thereafter.  I can hardly imagine how excited he is, especially as he's coming home and getting married in December.  
     I continue to marvel at the relationship we've created over these past 8-9 months, given that we've never met each other and were complete strangers prior to our random pairing through Soldiers' Angels.  I feel like we've become good friends and I'm looking forward to continuing and growing that friendship upon his return to the States.  He's going to be coming to join me for an Eagles' game in early November and I'm likely to be going to his home in Kentucky after the new year to catch a UK basketball game.  Men can almost always bond over sports!
     I was thinking tonight about how e-mail (and social media messaging like texting, Facebook, Twitter, et. al.) has mostly replaced letter writing.  While some complain that this has caused communication to become so brief and informal, it does have the advantage of speed and immediacy.  When I was writing letters to my soldier, it took awhile for them to arrive, and I waited for quite awhile wondering whether or not he had received them.  As soon as I gave him my e-mail address, however, I got a quick reply and our relationship began to grow in earnest.  It's amazing to think that I can send him an e-mail, and halfway across the world he's reading it almost instantaneously (depending on his army work schedule, of course), and then responding to me.  In a matter of a days, we can have gone back and forth multiple times, whereas this could never have happened if we relied upon letters and the postal system.                            
     To me, the benefits of this speed of communication far outweigh the disadvantages that we sometimes harp on.  Where would my soldier and I be without it?

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Hot Start to School

     This week, public schools opened in our town, just as it did in many parts of the country.  And lest we think the summer is really over, students and teachers were greeted with high temperatures and even higher humidity.  In fact, the thermometer in my car read 90 degrees today.  Given the heat, I decided that today might be a good day to take care of some of the school crossing guards who help to keep the children in our town safe as they walk or ride their bikes to and from school.
     Around 3:15 this afternoon, when I knew the elementary schools would be letting out, I grabbed 4 bottles of water from our refrigerator and hit the road. I first went to a particular corner where I've seen a crossing guard before and parked across the street.  Taking one of the bottles, I approached a woman as she waited for the children to come, and I offered it to her.  She was predictably surprised, but thankful and she told me she was expecting an onslaught of kids in about 5 minutes.  Off I went to find the next recipient.
     I drove across town to a busy street where I figured there would likely be a crossing guard and, sure enough, I found her.  She had just finished crossing 2 children when I approached her with the water.  She was so thrilled and told me that she had forgotten her water bottle today.  She said it was "so kind" of me.  As I was about to get back into my car, she asked, "What made you think of doing this?"  I replied that I simply wanted to do something nice.
     Back on the road, I went to another corner where I knew there would be a guard.  I approached a smiling older woman and offered her my next bottle of cold water.  She was so thankful as she looked pretty warm.  When I noticed that she had what appeared to be a granddaughter with her, I asked the child if she also would like some water.  She nodded, and I gave her my fourth and final bottle.
     You may remember that, in the winter, I did a similar thing for crossing guards, only that time it was with cups of hot chocolate.  They were just as surprised this time, and just as appreciative.  Who knows what they'll tell their families and friends when they get home tonight about the stranger who showed up to give them cold water!  
     It's fascinating to observe how people try to process an unexpected kindness.  In some respects, it's as if they don't know how to explain it or to understand it.  Like the woman who asked me what made me think of it, they seem to be searching for a way to fit it into their view of how people normally are or how the world usually is.  Things like this don't quite fit their model, and yet they certainly appreciate it.  I'm not sure what to make of all that, but it's interesting to observe nonetheless.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Baby Gifts

     Just over a week ago, an old co-worker of mine gave birth to her first child, a daughter.  Only those of us who are already parents can know the mixture of feelings she and her husband are likely experiencing - excitement, joy, panic, and everything in between.  And undoubtedly, only mothers can truly understand the full spectrum of what motherhood means to her.  
     In any case, I wanted to send her a nice baby gift.  This is one of those times when most men should probably defer to the women in their lives to select the appropriate things.  And that's what I did.  My wife loves to shop for baby gifts and she went out tonight and took care of this part of the job (she gets a BIG assist on this one).  I then packaged the items up and, along with a card, will have them in tomorrow's mail.  
     New babies, and their parents, are a fascinating study on so many different levels.  Without intending to be too corny, it reminds me of the song Circle of Life from The Lion King.  Every time a new baby is born, the parents rejoice and become totally consumed by everything from the care of the child to the amazement at every new milestone and developmental stage.  To them, it's as if this is the first baby that's ever been born to the world.  And yet, of course, the same thing has been happening across hundreds of generations and thousands of years.  There's very little that's new in all this - except to the family to whom this baby was born.  
     Obviously, the same can be said of virtually every other stage of life - from children going to school to learning to drive to leaving the home.  Even the stages we go through as adults all follow pretty predictable patterns that have existed for thousands of years.  And yet to those going through it, they'd swear it's never happened like this before.  And, I suppose, that's as it should be.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Pretzels Say "Thanks"

     From time to time it's nice to show some unsolicited appreciation for those who serve our community.  It's been awhile since I've done that, so I figured it might be just the right act for today.  
     As I was doing a few errands, I swung by the Philadelphia Hot Pretzel store on Main Street in Moorestown this afternoon and picked up 20 pretzels - fresh out of the oven.  They smelled so good in my car that it was hard for me not to sneak at least one of them (I didn't!) for myself.  Instead, I drove them over to the Moorestown police station and brought them inside.  A woman sitting behind a glass window asked if she could help me, and when I explained what I had brought for the officers, she came out to get the pretzels.  She thanked me for my kindness and I was off with little fanfare.  I never told them my name and I didn't leave a card or note of any sort.  This was just a simple, quiet, "thank you."  No attention.  No fuss.
     Surprising people with small tokens of appreciation has become one of my more favorite acts this year.  It doesn't cost much (sometimes it doesn't cost anything), but the impact is big.  Just think of how you'd feel to be the recipient of an unexpected gift or note of thanks.  Yeah, that's why it's worth doing.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Book for a Friend

     This morning, I had breakfast with a friend I hadn't seen in more than a year.  He's a person I admire and respect a great deal, and we see each other far too infrequently.  As is usually the case with him, we had some great conversation.  At one point in the exchange, I mentioned a book that I thought had some real insight pertinent to his situation.  He asked me if I would e-mail him with the name of the book so he could check it out.
     As soon as I got home, I took care of it, but better than that, I went to Amazon and ordered the book sent to his house as a gift.  So often I find that we never quite get around to buying (or borrowing) that book we heard about and intended to read, as we get busy and distracted with life's daily tasks.  However, when it shows up on our doorstep, we're much more likely to pick it up and dive in.  Recognizing this, I particularly enjoy sending books to people that I know they will benefit from.  Today was one of those days.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Writing to a Child

     A month or two ago I wrote a post about beginning to sponsor a child through the organization Compassion International.  This is a truly remarkable organization that is currently sponsoring over 1.2 million children in 25 different countries!  Following that post, I received a number of messages from readers who told me they've been sponsoring one or more children for some time.  How cool is that?  The child I'm sponsoring is an 8 year-old boy in Uganda whose name is Kigonya.  Kigonya is one of five children in his family and he lives in a small farming village.  Today, I wrote my first letter to him.
     Compassion makes it incredibly easy to correspond with your child.  Right on their website, they have a tool that can be used to send a letter.  They have several template designs you can choose from, and then you write the letter and submit it.  They provide the translation and see that it gets to the right person.  You can even upload pictures to be included (which I did!).  
     Now that I've gotten this started, I'm eager to continue to write to Kigonya and see him grow up.  Perhaps I'll even get to meet him one day, just as my son Ben got to meet the child he sponsored in Rwanda (here's a link to a blog Ben wrote about that visit).
     I'm continually amazed at the ways in which the world gets smaller and we can connect with (and help out) people who are literally across the world from us.  

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Remembering Dates

     This morning I sent a note to a very old friend wishing him a happy birthday.  With Facebook making it easier to know and acknowledge people's birthdays, this may not seem like a big deal.  What made this different though, is that I'm fairly certain this person had no idea that I knew it was his birthday. I love surprising people like that.
     In a previous post, I wrote about the important habit of listening for (and recording) personal details that people share in conversation - birthdays, kids' names, colleges attended, special interests or hobbies, etc.  I get so weary of the surface level conversations and small talk that so often dominates our exchanges.  Paying attention to these types of details allows me connect with  people on a more meaningful and personal level.  And sometimes to surprise them as well.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Look Inside

     We got a call the other day from the painting contractor who did all the painting work on our house when it was built 5 years ago.  It seems that he's working with another customer who's considering using some of the same trim paint as we used and they wanted to see what it looked like several years later.  He wanted to know if he could show them our house.  Of course, we said "yes."
     This morning he came over with the couple with whom he's working.  I showed them around and answered their questions.  They also wanted to know about our hardware and where we had gotten it and I promised to research that and e-mail them with the answer.  They spent about 30 minutes here before they were on their way.
     Interestingly, we also got a call the other day from the contractor who did the masonry work on our house.  He, too, wanted to bring a customer by to look at our patio and gazebo, and of course, we also said this would be fine.  We're glad to help both the contractor as well as the homeowner in any way that we can.
     Speaking of helping out, when I was stopped on a street corner today, chatting with a friend I had bumped into, a car pulled up and a woman asked for directions to a particular house number on another street.  I was able to give her clear instructions for how to get there, and when I saw her later in the bank, I was able to confirm that she found it OK.
     As has often been the case this year, these small acts of kindness certainly weren't earth-shattering or life changing for anyone.  But in some ways, that's exactly the point of this exercise.  It's a matter of doing little things every single day to be kind to others and to make this a slightly kinder world.  Incidentally, today is my 249th consecutive day of posting kindness stories!