Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!!!...

New Year's Eve has always seemed to me (at least once I was old enough to really go out) to be a night when everyone tries desperately to have fun because they're supposed to, but in the end, it isn't really all that great.

Nevertheless, I will be out celebrating with friends in the hope that this is the year NYE is all it's cracked up to be. I wish everyone a happy and safe 2010, and may this be the year you accomplish all your resolutions.

The Wall Street Journal published an article today with six tips to help you keep your resolutions. As is the norm with the WSJ, the suggestions are common sense and illustrated by three examples of real, live resolution-keepers.

As I said above, I will be celebrating the end of 2009 with friends tonight. However, I am old enough to know better than to stay out all night and smart enough to heed my own advice. However, for those who still want to party like they are still 18, the French government has decreed all French nightclubs are now allowed to stay open until 7 a.m.

Prior to this surprise new law, local officials held sway over the clubs' business hours, which meant confusion and a lot of drunk driving as revelers traveled from one club to another in the wee hours of the morning. According to the Boston Globe, this new law is supposed to curb all of that. Bon chance!

A friend of mine is choosing to ring in the new year in Times Square with several million of his newest close friends. Being extremely enoclophobic myself - ie: really hate crowds - that sounds like a level of hell that Dante missed. But I guess there is a certain allure to being in New York City and seeing the ball drop. The New York Times published an article on a tour one of its reporters took through the "vault" - the storage facility 50 feet underground which holds New Years balls from years past. The story is a bit confusing in the middle when it talks about how many balls there actually have been, but it is enlightening in terms of NYE trivia.

I used to be all nostalgic, sitting and remembering all the things that happened to me over the year. But the past two years have not been necessarily something I care to remember, so I think for 2010 my resolution is going to keep going forward (see, Stef, I did make one!). Sucky things are undoubtedly going to happen to me, but I'm going to charge through them.

What about you? What are your resolutions?

Have a happy and hangover-free New Year's Day! I'll be back with a new post on Monday, Jan. 4.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Exponentially cool...

This man to the left is Stephen Wiltshire. Diagnosed with autism at an early age, his teachers at school noticed he communicated to the world through art. One eventually taught their formerly mute pupil to speak - at age nine - by withholding his art supplies to get him to ask for them.

He progressed from animals to motor vehicles to buildings. Wiltshire has been featured in several documentaries on the BBC, including "Fragments of Genius" in which the BBC filmed him flying over London then creating a meticulous, to-scale drawing of the city within three hours.

He has created similar aerial illustrations, including one of Tokyo on a 10-meter long sheet of paper.

Entirely from memory. Again, ENTIRELY FROM MEMORY.

His artwork has been shown all over the world, and he has his own personal gallery in London in addition to multiple published books. The third, "Floating Cities" (1991) made the London Sunday Times Bestseller List.

PS - His birds-eye panorama of Rome may just be my favorite of his aerial skylines. The store section of his website is one that keeps you clicking through. Some pieces appear in color, some are oil paintings and some are simple black and white sketches. But all are amazing. I'm not much for art made after 1750, but I'm now Wiltshire's newest fan.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hand touching hand, reaching out...

Sweet Caroline is my karaoke song. I only sing it, in a group, in Boston since the entire bar jumps in and sings both the words and the bah, bah, bahs. But the line from the chorus which graces my post title really encapsulates my theme for today: people connecting.

The Daily Record in the UK is based out of Scotland and had a story on the power of photographs. It seems there is a cancer center there which aims to connect its patients with reminders of the joy of living. The center has established a scrapbooking program in which participants choose photographs that mark the highlights of their lives. The story features three women - Freda Wilshaw, Elaine Doran and Christine Hague - who share their photos and the stories behind them.

Several of those women's photos are of them men they loved. One San Francisco couple got a second chance at first love, as recently reported in the San Francisco Chronicle. After a separation of 30 years, Darrell Holdaway and Nevin Valentine reunited just before their 30th high school reunion. Holdaway and Valentine each married and had children after breaking up in high school but found themselves single as the reunion approached. They met for coffee, and the rest, as they say, was history.

CNN reported on another reunion, one that has caught the nation's attention and held international trade implications. David Goldman was granted custody of his son after his former wife took the boy to her native Brazil for a two-week vacation that never ended. The little boy has been living with his extended Brazilian family after his mother died in childbirth. Goldman and his nine year-old son were reunited on Christmas Eve and planned to spend Christmast together in Disney World after flying home from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

(Photo courtesy of Stroller Derby)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cheerio, pip, pip...

I'm a little rusty after my week-long holiday break. I'm not sure if it's due to getting in late last night or just the typical holiday hangover, but I'm going to apologize in advance for any choppiness or lack of coherence in today's post. I promise to do better tomorrow. : )

I know I did a post recently on weird, wild and wonderful sea creatures, and this next story from Yahoo! is along the same lines. Australian scientists have recorded an octopus collecting coconut shells for shelter. The little leggy creature emptied out the shells and then carried them up to 65 feet before reassembling them for a hiding spot. The scientists believe this is the first recorded instance of an invertebrate using a tool.

Staying in the British Empire (and Yahoo!) for a moment, the search engine giant's news arm reported Great Britain has started to phase out checks as a monetary conveyance. The British governmental body in charge of such things has chosen 2018 as the target date by which they hope to no longer use checks. While this is not great news for the elderly - some of whom have never used an ATM - I'm a huge fan of this spreading to the US.

A lot of children's stories have spread the world over - including Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Wind in the Willows. All of those stories and several others had their birth in and around the English city of Oxford. An anonymous benefactor has donated 2.5 million British pounds for the building of the real-life home for the Museum of Storytelling. Previously housed online only, this donation allows the collection to find a permanent, brick-and-mortar home. The new museum will allow children to hear stories and to walk through exhibits of their favorite tales, according to the Guardian.

(Photo courtesy of Yahoo!)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is your house on fire, Clark?...

That is one of my favorite lines from the holiday classic "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." Aunt Bethany utters it after Clark Griswold finally gets his 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights going and blazes the neighborhood.

One of my favorite things to do every Christmas is check out the lights and displays along Hampden, Maryland's 34th Street. Every Christmas the whole street gets into the act with traditional and artsy holiday displays. It's not a neighborhood association thing, people just participate because they get into the spirit. The photo on the left is from someone's Flickr account and shows the (in)famous street.

For the past couple of years, people have posted videos online of lighting displays timed to Manheim Steamroller. But this year, as my friend Michelle forwarded to me, someone has timed his lights to Guitar Hero. Featured on Holidash, Ric Turner, a former Disney special effects engineer, found a way to plug his Wii into his Christmas lights. Visitors can try their hand at playing "Cliffs of Dover" by pushing the doorbell. God love this guy's wife...

Visual displays are a common way to spread Christmas cheer. As written about in the New York Times yesterday, a lot of people have turned to picture cards created on any number of online photo-sharing sites. However, a few photographers banded together to share Christmas tidings the old-fashioned way (and do some good in the process). PBS posted a story on the PhotoImaging Manufacturers and Distributors Association - hundreds of photographers - which has volunteered to take free portraits of military families. Deployed soldiers keep photos of their loved ones close to their hearts - often literally - while on missions, so these will be particularly welcome gifts this season. The network will show an actual new story sometime near Christmas.

And finally, Xerox has a promotion online where individuals can send holiday greetings to our fighting men and women overseas. Xerox is taking designs created by children and printing them on postcards. All you have to do is pick a card and then a greeting (or write your own), and Xerox will print the card and mail it for free. It only takes a few minutes and will brighten a soldier's day. If you only click on one link today, I hope it's this one.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas kindness...

So today I'm going to metaphorically kill you with kindness. As if 10 months of good news weren't enough, today I'm piling on the Christmas cheer. I am perhaps using the warm fuzzies from these stories to help me ward off the outside temperatures here. When I turned on my car, the little man in the radio said it was 16 degrees out, on the way to a high of 24F.

So here goes...

Last Friday, Clinique held a Happy Day according to MediaPost Publications. The brand responsible for the perfume "Happy" named Dec. 11 "Happy Day" in order to raise awareness for their partner charity Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Participants in the organization designed holiday cards which were given away free with Happy-to-Go fragrance pencils at Clinique counters all over the country.

As part of its series "Giving in Focus: The 12 Days of Goodness," CNN featured the "Baby Buddies" program in Georgia. Trained volunteers provide the TLC needed for babies in neonatal intensive care units. Nurses rush around taking blood and doing tests, but the volunteers keep the baby company - rocking in a chair, holding, stroking a cheek - when the baby's parents are unable to be at the hospital. The story goes on to profile Cami Walker, who has stemmed the on-rush of her multiple sclerosis (MS) by being generous.

Wrapping up (hee hee) today, I have snippet from Google News about a UPS driver who played Good Samaritan and Santa all in one fell swoop. John Piontkowski saw a bank deposit bag in the middle of the street, which turned out to contain $5200. The deposit slip showed the money belonged to a liquor store. Piontkowski promptly returned the money to the bank.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Tis better to give than to receive...

There are a lot of platitudes that get trotted out each year around this time. The one often used in conjunction with the one in the blog title is "it's the thought that counts." I imagine the person who came up with that one received his or her fair share of wildly inappropriate presents.

But the point is it's better to do something for others than yourself. I'm one of those nerdy people who gets a high off people's reactions to presents. I love seeing the utter delight and pleasure pass over someone's face when s/he open a gift that is exactly what s/he wants or suits him/her to a T.

This holiday season charity has become widespread. Whether it is through fear of looking gauche for spending too much in a recession or actual altruism, I don't know. But I'm a fan. posted a story on the growing trend of companies swapping lavish holiday parties with participating in a charity instead. The story talks about companies who forewent snazzy get-togethers for donating to needy families and children and volunteering their time to help those who are out of work.

Even though Facebook apps and the movie "The House Bunny" still come to mind when I think of Greek life, sororities and fraternities were founded on the principle of good work in the community. CFNews 13 reported on an alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta who returned to those Pan-Hellenic roots when its members rented out a movie theater for a screening of the new Disney movie "The Princess and the Frog." Four hundred and fifty members of the chapter and their family, friends and supporters came out for a free movie and movie-themed activities this past Sunday.

Free passes are also available for residents of the city of Boston to skate at Fenway Park, according to the Boston Globe. Yes, that is a baseball stadium. But this year's NHL Winter Classic will be held in the 97 year-old institution, with a college game pitting Boston University against Boston College a week later, and over 3000 tickets are available gratis for public skating on Jan. 3 and 10 as part of the city's New Year's festivities.

(Image courtesy of Disney)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

All I want for Christmas...

A lot gets made every year about the secularization of Christmas and how children these days are getting too many presents to realize the real meaning of the holiday. Members of religious orders are helping bring back "the reason for the season" in many ways. One of the cutest I've been party to is singing "Happy Birthday" during Christmas Eve Mass. It felt a little silly at first, but looking around and seeing lit-up children's faces, delighted to wish baby Jesus happy birthday, I couldn't help but smile.

I'm sure the Santa Claus/Jesus debate will rage on for years to come, but one thing people all over (mostly) agree on is it is nice to come downstairs on Christmas morning and find you were still on Santa's Nice list. WAFF 48 News reported Operation Grateful Heart and the Hoover Fire Department teamed up once again to collect toys for the children of deployed military personnel who will be gone for Christmas this year. That's 5,000 little boys and girls in the state of Alabama alone. Since the start of the drive in 2004, 19,000 toys have been donated.

A little bit further down the Grinch scale from missing a parent (or two) over the holidays is having your Christmas stolen from you. WESH Channel 2 out of Orlando, Fla., told the story of Anne Bright, who lost the presents she'd bought for her daughter when her brother's girlfriend's car (which she'd borrowed to go shopping) was repossessed. The repo company is not allowed to keep personal property found in the vehicle at time of repossession, but the Jack Frost-ian organization claimed there weren't any presents in the car when they towed it. Bright worked two jobs to be able to give her daughter a good Christmas, so she was delighted when Good Samaritan and local business owner Jeff Emery heard about Bright's situation and offered to purchase new presents for her daughter.

Perhaps the best present an adult can get is a visit from the stork. And when said stork works in conjunction with Santa, it's even better. A story in the Boston Globe today centers on the birth of a rare tapir born in captivity at the Franklin Park Zoo recently. Named Tupelo, after the delicious honey made from tupelo tree flowers, the sweet-hearted female Baird's tapir is one of the few captive females of her species. Tapirs are related to horse and rhinos, but this little girl is actually pretty darn cute.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Santa Claus is coming to town...

Yes, I know there are still 11 days until Christmas (and yes, I am counting), but I'm taking a hiatus from the blog for the week up to Christmas, so I decided to do my holiday-themed posts this week. : )

"Operation Santa" has been in effect since 1912, when businesses, charities and individuals volunteered to answer letters to Santa and sometimes send gifts to the letter writers. Temporarily suspended to set up new rules to block registered sex offenders from participating (they always ruin things for everyone else), the organization is up and running again all over the country. The LA Times has a brief article on "Operation Santa" and how people in southern California are participating.

In a slightly different "Operation Santa," employees of Shaw Enterprises and Infrastructure banded together again this year to play Santa to local children. Plucking 25 children's names off the Angel Tree, the seven-member committee pooled $4000 to buy presents for those little ones, according to the Enterprise News. Employees at the firm get gift cards from Wal-Mart as safety incentives, and the SEI "elves" donated their cards to provide the funding, along with cash donations from managers and gift card donations from other individuals, for the shopping spree.

WTOC 11 out of Savannah, Ga., posted a story on one of Santa's special skills - American Sign Language. Signing St. Nick has been making stops all over the US, including this one to the students of Key and Dimon elementary schools. The hearing impaired children were thrilled with the visit from Santa and the chance to tell him what they wanted for Christmas.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Remembering the less fortunate...

It seems that every year at this time, charities and agencies implore people to remember the needy. This year, more and more individuals are joining those ranks through foreclosure, job loss or myriad other reasons. Luckily, people are still stepping into the void to keep helping those less fortunate than themselves - regardless of the economic climate.

CBS 5 in the East Bay highlighted a woman who has become known as the Lemon Lady for her efforts to distribute excess citrus to poor families in the San Francisco Bay Area. Anna Chan used to drive her colicky baby through her neighborhood to help put the little girl to sleep. Anna noticed all the lemons falling off neighbors' trees and going to waste. So, with permission, she began collecting the fruit and giving it to food banks and pantries in two counties. Later she expanded her reach into farmers' markets, accepting donations of unsold produce.

When cities go through a budget deficit, building infrastructure and making improvements falls by the wayside. Whole city blocks can fall into decay - boarded and broken windows, shadowy figures making "business" transactions on the corner, walls tagged with graffiti. But, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, the denizens of Gordon Street in Philadelphia's Fishtown decided enough was enough. On a shoestring budget (and with a lot of chutzpah), a small band of individuals chased out the drug dealers and prostitutes, painted, wired and improved the empty row homes on the block and turned their street into a place they were proud to live. For their efforts they won the 2009 City's Most Beautiful Block. Going down the street now passersby are unable to tell the empty homes from lived-in ones.

The Coloradoan posted a story on its website about the goodwill of Alpine Cabinet Company in Timnath, Colorado. The company has been affected by the downturn in residential building and had to lay off a quarter of its staff and cut hours. But the Chinn family which owns the company is trying to help the remaining 40-odd employees get through the holiday season by making doll houses for needy children. The employees are sewing curtains and quilts and making furniture for the little homes. An employee's wife is providing the dolls. Suppliers donated lumber and the paint which will cover the outside of the homes. When finished, the 50-70 doll houses will be distributed to local groups to then be passed out to area children.

(Photo courtesy of The Coloradoan)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A home for the holidays...

Today I returned my foster cat Salem to the MSPCA. He lived with me for a month, recuperating from conjunctivitis and limited use of his back legs as well as a possible sore front leg. Yeah, I didn't know cats could get pink eye either...

Personally I think my wily little former stray concocted all those maladies just to get a vacation from the shelter. Once home, he was our little dustbuster, zooming around the room, exposing me for the pathetic housekeeper I am. I adored having the little guy, and I was a little sad giving him back.

So you'll have to indulge me for today's spate of stories on adopted animals. ABC News ran several connected stories on dogs found in Iraq and turned into soldiers' pets as well as working military dogs who've retired to the good life. They tugged at my already soft heart.

In the first story, Major Brian Dennis socialized a former alpha from a pack of desert dogs during daily missions out and about looking for insurgents. After a few months of coddling and reaching out, Dennis' unit was moved away from the area. Nubs, earning the moniker for his cropped ears, wandered 70 miles in below-freezing conditions to find his way to Dennis' new area of operations. That journey spurred the 36 year-old Marine to contact friends and family to raise the money needed to send Nubs to the States. His family stepped up, and once Dennis finishes his current tour, he will return home to his best friend.

The 101st Airborne, 159th Aviation Brigade found a newborn puppy in the midst of an Afghan battlefield, and despite military rules, brought her home to the base with them. Ally did physical training and stood in formation with them. Army Cpl. Michael Lemmons emailed his mom, who brought her home to the US two weeks before Lemmons and his comrades came home.

ABC News' story about retired bomb-sniffing dogs caught my attention because my uncle, a retired state trooper, adopted a former police dog after the dog retired. I hadn't realized the military used dogs in the same way police officers do. Compared to Navy SEALs, "war dogs" sniff for bombs and tackle militants in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are the first line of attack when clearing out houses suspected of harboring terrorists. These are high stress jobs, even for animals, and in the past, war dogs were euthanized after retiring. Now, a new program helps adopt out the dogs which have been tested to be able to fit into civilian life.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A long winter's nap...

As I type, the weather outside my window is disgusting. There is no other word for it. The somewhat-delightful snow of this morning has morphed into a cold, pelting sleety rain that pings off the AC unit which still droops from my office window. The sneaky wind has found it's way through the outer walls to breach my office and leave me with cold feet and fingertips.

Which is why I chose today's stories to bring a (very) brief glimpse of the light at the end of the winter tunnel - spring. It seems in this unforgiving season, scientists around the world have been discovering members of the animal kingdom which were long thought to be extinct. Most are still considered very endangered, but the fact they still exist at all is a point of celebration. seems to have collected a few of these stories. The site has a distinct article on the discovery of a rare giant turtle in Vietnam which narrowly avoided becoming soup. Long prized as an ingredient, Swinhoe's soft-shell is on the brink of extinction in the wild. However, one was spotted in a lake in northern Vietnam. A fisherman had caught it, but researchers convinced the man to eschew the large prices dangled by restaurateurs and instead, return the animal to his home.

MSNBC's John Roach also did a slideshow on eight other species which were considered extinct until recently - the Rabb's fringe-limbed tree frog, the Banggai crow, the Pyant Cheezar turtle, pygmy tarsiers, Beck's petrel, Armoured Mistfrogs, the long-billed reed warbler, and the ivory-billed woodpecker. Some of them have not been seen since the turn of the 20th century, and their reappearance has caused all sorts of excitement in the scientific and environmental communities.

(Image courtesy of

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Alternative medicine...

There's so much debate swirling on the national and state levels about health care. Should it be universal or is that one step down the slippery slope of socialism? What programs are "valuable enough" to survive massive budget cuts?

Since starting in my current field, I've become aware of so many programs available to patients beyond the usual check ups and eye exams. Medicine's pendulum has swung from superstition to hard science, but now it seems to have settled or is approaching settling somewhere in the middle. Not that I want to go back to leeches and animal sacrifice, but I do see the value in treating the spirit as well as the body.

The New York Times profiled an art therapy program called Project Moving On, run by the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service, for mentally ill patients. People with chronic mental illness are either referred by the Brooklyn Mental Health Court or by physicians and hospitals gather daily to draw, paint, sew, and crochet. The skills needed for these tasks - beyond talent - help people focus and deal with the issues that come with their illnesses.

In my hospital system we use both art therapy and animal-assisted therapy in our treatment programs. In our case, the animals help people with emotional issues, but Frankie Two-Paws has made an impact on people with physical challenges. The disabled cavalier spaniel has limited usage of his back legs after being rescued from a puppy mill, according to The Beacon News. He now races around in his doggie wheelchair at the Rush-Copley Medical Center, inspiring the physical therapy patients there.

The New Haven Register reported on a local artist who volunteers at Yale-New Haven Hospital painting watercolors on demand for patients in the outpatient oncology unit. Dennis Gentle, an 80-something Renaissance man, visits with the patients as they receive treatment and paints scenes as per their requests. He does have a list of things he won't paint, but patients and their families treasure these little works of art. Some people use the scenes he creates as their own happy places, places to go to during the draining treatment.

(Photo courtesy of The Beacon News)

Monday, December 7, 2009

A solemn anniversary...

Today is the 68th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor - Dec. 7, 1941. In itself that is certainly not good news. And none of my articles for today are strictly good news. But I think it's important to remember the day and all the good that came from it. Hundreds of thousands of men and women banded together to fight an evil threatening the world. And they did it.

Kinda gives you hope, no?

I found the excerpted part of this on the Boston Globe website, but MSNBC had the full story on Ed Johann, an 86 year-old Pearl Harbor survivor who is returning to the base for the first time since the attacks. Johann enlisted as a teenager to ease the burden on his family and found himself in the middle of the firefight when the Japanese attacked. The sailor ferried injured men from the burning and sinking ships without regard to his own safety. Later he returned for the dead. After the war, he returned to the mainland and became a firefighter because he "wanted to help people."

I imagine few of the men Ed Johann steered to safety came from the USS Arizona. Two direct hits by the Japanese sank the ship and entombed 1100 men. Those men may be gone, but they are not forgotten. The US government allocated $58 million to build a memorial to them and all the rest of the heroes that day. USAToday posted a story today on the vivid memories World War II veterans still carry from that Hawaiian morning. The story also details what the new memorial will look like.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution had a story on a local Marine's memory of Pearl Harbor. Mack Abbott was supposed to learn how to fly that morning, but instead, he spent it shooting at the enemies' planes. Some flew so low over the base, Abbott could see directly into the cockpits. The AJC's story goes on to tell about Abbott's post-war life and family.

A lot of "The Greatest Generation" have refused to talk about their efforts in the war, preferring to forget the horrors or were uncomfortable "promoting" themselves. Unfortunately that has led to members of several generations not having a connection to an important piece of history. I'm one of them. My grandfather fought in the South Pacific, but I know next to nothing about it because he never spoke of it. Even when directly questioned, he gave as little information as possible and changed the subject. That's why I feel it is important to put these stories on my blog; you don't ever want to forget.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Going (red) and green...

Most of the green you will see this month belongs to wreaths, fir trees and the money spent in pursuit of this year's It gift. The trees are bare, grass soon will be covered by snow, and the flowers are asleep until April. But on Monday, all environmental eyes will be on Copenhagen, Denmark, as world leaders gather to debate what to do about our depletion of the planet.

Previous protocols and decrees have not worked, so once again presidents, prime ministers and other leader-type people will show up in Denmark to try again. ABC News in Australia posted an article on a new Google app that might help save the world instead of just shrinking it. Google Innovationist (cool job title, guy) Justin Baird has developed an international ballot box to let the people of the world have a say in the actions taken at the climate summit. Everyday people will be able to see maps of who is doing what in what country, and the votes will be aggregated to show the strength of public support for the initiatives.

If you can ignore the slightly militant tone to the following website, you can get a top 10 list meant to whet your appetite for learning more about those behind the move to stop climate change. It has been said that well-behaved women rarely change the world; whether any of the 10 women on the Pacific Free Press website are/were well-behaved is not for me to say, but they have done their share (and more) to save the planet.

A lot of focus these days in the media is on how everyone can do their part to be kind to the earth. The Christian Science Monitor "green" blog is giving an option for holiday decorating beyond the usual brightly lit reindeer and roof-top Santas. Apparently there are such things as solar-powered LED Christmas lights, which save electricity and the fossil fuels burned to produce it as well as money on your bill. If I had my own house, I'd look into it.

(Photo courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A helping hand...

Walking an elderly person across the street. Picking up a classmate's dropped books. Walking a neighbor's dog when she's on vacation. These are simple kindnesses repeated daily the world over.

I suppose you could argue that kindness is a "nature vs. nurture" thing. Kind begets kind but then how do you explain a person who has been through hell and is still willing to stick out his or her neck for someone else?

In this argument, the New York Times has given the "nature" side a leg up. The Times reported on some studies produced recently which conclude people are "born to help." By studying children young enough to not yet be socialized to how you're "supposed to act," the biologists found babies are innately sociable and willing to help. Children will pick up dropped things and point to things adults pretend to have lost without the stimulation of a reward.

NBC San Diego posted a story illustrating that some adults have not lost that willingness to help a stranger. Virginia Saenz received a desperate voicemail after another woman dialed Saenz's number by mistake. Lucy Crutchfield left the message, telling her daughter she'd send grocery money but would have to miss a mortgage payment to do it. So Saenz called Crutchfield back and told her to pay the mortgage - Saenz would buy the groceries. She took her son along with her and bought a Thanksgiving dinner and enough groceries to last the daughter's family until the end of the month, which was the daughter's next payday. Special thanks to my friend Blair, who helped me find that story. : )

Doing the right thing on a person-to-person level sometimes gets less attention than helping out in the face of larger peril. Daily kindness is no less important, but stories of those who put themselves at risk to aid someone else can loom larger. This morning I got an email my from my old roommate Michelle, a forward telling a story about a woman named Irena Sendler. Being a bit of a cynic still - I'm working on it! - I went to to check on the story. The verdict there was: TRUE.

Called "the female Oskar Schindler," Sendler passed herself off as a nurse and went in and out of the ghetto, sneaking out nearly 2500 Polish Jews, mostly children. She smuggled them out in a tool box and burlap sacks. Sendler recruited 25 others - mostly women - to help her. Before joining an organized resistance, she saved around 500 people on her own. Sendler survived brutal beatings by the Nazis and prison when she was finally caught to help reunite the children she saved with any family left after the Holocaust.

This email reminded me of a story I saw a week or two ago about a British soldier who smuggled himself INTO Auschwitz. The BBC interviewed "Ginger," Denis Avey, who spoke of his actions over 55 years ago for the first time. Avey served in the British army during World War II and was captured by the Germans. His prison camp was attached to the death camp, and he arranged with Ernst Lobethall, a prisoner, to switch places twice. Avey wanted to witness the atrocities first-hand. Now 91 and living in Derbyshire, Avey didn't know Lobethall survived until the BBC recently reunited Avey and Lobethall's sister, Susana.

(Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The final frontier(s)...

If I had my way, I would be a professional student. Regular careers do not much interest me, but finding out things I did not know before absolutely fascinates me. I'm talking "newborn first figuring out she has a hand" or "seven year-old at her first magic show" kind of hooked.

For most of history, people have had the same type of fascination with outer space. To this day, the idea there might be real little green men out there or that we could colonize the moon still holds people in thrall. But for astronaut Randolph Bresnik it was what was on earth that held his attention. On his first-ever space mission, Bresnik floated 220 miles above the earth as his daughter, Abigail Mae, made her first appearance on it. It is just the second time in NASA history an astronaut in space has welcomed a child to his family while in orbit, according to the Boston Globe.

After humans "conquered" space, we have turned our attention to the oceans. Now being called the "real" final frontier, divers/researchers/treasure-hunters/James Cameron have only just begun to plumb the depths of the sea. Just last night I was watching the tail end of a show on the History Channel about ancient cities found on the bottom of the ocean floor, complete with building remnants and cobblestones. MSNBC reported on the over 5500 new species found in the ocean recently. Long thought to be barren, the deep sea (depths of 3,280 feet) now appears to be teeming with creatures straight out of a Salvador Dali painting.

The United Nations women who have reached new frontiers through their own hard work. India has deployed an all-female police unit to serve with the UN security force in Liberia. There they teach the local women self-defense and computer skills. India is the first country to send such a unit to a UN peacekeeping mission.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The kid stays in the picture...

Happy December everyone! I'm excited because (for me) it's the official start to the "most wonderful time of the year." : ) I started my Advent calendar this morning, a common event except mine is filled with chocolate. Yum! Nothing like starting a cold day with a little square of milk chocolate embossed with a fun holiday image. Today was a train, in case anyone was wondering.

This is also the time of the year when a lot of photos are taken - holiday cards, the first snow, opening presents, and all other good kinds of things. I'm a big shutterbug; I love me some photos. For me, it's the feeling I get when I look at a picture and am transported back to how I felt in that moment.

Photos have been around since before the Civil War, but the kinds of images we have these days has changed. The YouTube video above is from a mid-1970s episode of "Sesame Street." Ernie was always my favorite, but Grover was a close second. Here he sings an "echo" song with the late, great Madeline Kahn.

The following photo essay from The New York Times isn't strictly "good news," but it allows locals and non-New Yorkers alike to connect with at least "One in 8 Million." The photos and the accompanying audio recorded by the photos' subject(s) examine a slice of a complete stranger's life, and there is something about the absolute honesty involved that's refreshing to me.

Finally, the Times published a story last week on the virtual opening of the Iraqi National Museum. Opened three times since the 2003 invasion, members of the public are still not allowed inside because of the security situation (or lack thereof). Google has partnered with the museum's directors to photograph the collections, and make the photos available for free, so the antiquities and treasures of one of the world's most ancient civilizations - considered to be the start of modern civilization - can be viewed and enjoyed by anyone with access to the Internet.