Parking Meter
Photo: Thinkstock

Paying it Forward in a Post-Parking-Meter World

Recently I was running a particularly soul-sucking round of errands and parked my car in a metered spot. I paid for the meter's maximum amount of two hours, but my errand only took half an hour. Now, usually I would have been happy to leave a meter with time left in it and, particularly on a bothersome day, would even add quarters for the next person. It's largely selfish, really, because then the rest of my soul-sucking errands are cheered a bit by the thought that maybe I made someone else's soul-sucking errands a tiny bit less soul-sucking. But guess what?

My city has made the switch to muni-meters—those robotic-looking machines where you pay on a credit card and receive a receipt that you then place on your dashboard. Good news if you've run out of quarters, but terrible news for the parking meter pay-it-forward phenomenon. I actually hung around for a minute to see if someone else would park there so I could hand them my time-stamped receipt. Alas, no one did, and my extra $1.50 slipped right past would-be parkers and into the pocket of the city council—or whoever it is. This does nothing for my soul-sucking errands. Next stop, drug store. Sigh.

And you know what? It's the same on the freeway: I have a friend who used to always pay for the toll of the car behind her but admits that since she's switched to the automated E-ZPass, she's abandoned the practice, whizzing through as a laser anonymously zeeps her toll-paying pass. Not to get too Andy Rooney here, but these days, even doors open themselves! How's a person supposed to perform a daily act of paying it forward if the world's going to be so darn automated?

Well, here are a few ideas for performing small acts of kindness in today's world of the future: Or you could always do something crazy-analog like, I don't know, help a little old lady crossing the street.

Reason #437 to Love Complete Strangers: Kmart Layaway Angels

In December, in an effort to diversify our holiday-related vegging-out, my husband and I enjoyed that forgotten favorite, A Holiday Affair. In this curious film, an unemployed Robert Mitchum buys a widow's son a toy train, which turns out to be more than just a generous gesture, but indeed a true show of character.

I was reminded of this when I read about anonymous donors who paid off other peoples' Kmart layaway balances all across the country. According to an AP article, a mysterious woman paid off a struggling father's Christmas gifts at an Indianapolis Kmart. And Kmart customers across the Midwest received calls telling them someone had paid off their layaway balances, which meant they were able to take their purchases home before the holidays. "It was like an angel fell out of the sky and appeared in our store," said one 40-year-old Kmart employee. A nurse whose child's Christmas present were anonymously paid for said, "It made me believe in Christmas again."

Best of all, one recipient said she planned to pay it forward by taking care of someone else's layaway balance—keeping the cycle of giving. And that, as Robert Mitchum and Santa alike can attest, is the real spirit of the season.

Next: A 60-person chain of kidneys and kindness

The Life-Lifter: A 60-Person Chain of Kidneys and Kindness

The last time my family moved, I spent about a week wandering around our new apartment building like a confused transfer student. One night, exhausted, overwhelmed, stymied by a mysterious system in the laundry room, I almost really lost it. Then one of my new neighbors lent me his laundry card, and it's embarrassing to admit how overjoyed and relieved I was. I couldn't thank him enough. Such kindness! Such generosity! Funny how a small gesture like this makes you want to do something kind for others. But while I'm sure I would lend a bumbling neighbor my laundry card, I'm not sure I could ever be as generous as Rick Ruzzamenti—or the 30 other people he indirectly inspired to donate their kidneys so that others might live.

I don't think it's just the relocation exhaustion that made me get weepy when I read this New York Times story of Chain 124, "the longest chain of kidney transplants ever constructed, linking 30 people who were willing to give up an organ with 30 who might have died without one." The chain began with a Good Samaritan named Rick Ruzzamenti, who decided rather impulsively that he wanted to donate his kidney to someone in need. As the article reports, the donation chain's "momentum was then fueled by a mix of selflessness and self-interest among donors who gave a kidney to a stranger after learning they could not donate to a loved one because of incompatible blood types or antibodies. Their loved ones, in turn, were offered compatible kidneys as part of the exchange."

In other words, a wife who wanted to donate a kidney to her husband but couldn't because they were incompatible for whatever reason donated a kidney to someone, and in return, her husband eventually would get a compatible kidney from someone else.

I love this story not only for its supercharged pay-it-forward mentality and because it is a reminder that there are people who will be this generous. But I also love it because it’s illustrative of how interconnected our lives are. Aren't we all links in a chain of sorts? Whether it's donating a kidney or something smaller, like sharing a smile or lending a laundry card, we can all do something today to inspire someone else to be kind too.

The last link in the chain of the 30 interconnected transplants, organ recipient Donald C. Terry said to his doctor, "Is it going to continue? I don't want to be the reason to stop anything." "No, no, no," the doctor assured him. "This chain ends, but another one begins."

The Paper Cup of Gratitude

paper cup
Photo: Kari Byron

The other day Kari Byron tweeted this image of her morning-coffee cup, on which someone had written, "If you are who I think you are, thanks for making science cool!" Byron tweeted: "Humbled by the sweetness." By the way, she is who you think she is, coffee-writer-person—the awesome host of the Discovery Channel Mythbusters and Head Rush—and she does make science cool.

What an endearing way to send someone message, right? And it got me thinking—what if we all expressed our gratitude in such heartfelt but sneaky ways? A thank-you to a thoughtful waiter scribbled on a napkin or an anonymous note of appreciation to a coworker sticky-noted to a computer keyboard. An unsigned "thanks" slipped in the pocket of a friendly acquaintance. A chance encounter can lift someone's whole day up, and you can be the writer on the paper cup, as it were.

Next: Choreographed hope

Choreographed Hope, Brought to You by HopeMob

"If Mother Teresa built a platform with the tech base of Groupon, Foursquare and Netflix, with the heart of CNN Heroes, it would look like HopeMob." Intriguing, right? According to Caitlin Crosby, writing for the Huffington Post, HopeMob is an innovative way to reach out to specific people in need, and one that promises to be more satisfying than writing a check to big charity, never knowing exactly what your money is being used for. With HopeMob, individuals can vote on which people to help and pledge as much or as little as they like to the selected cause.

The causes are usually small-scale stories. To me, this is exactly what makes HopeMob so compelling. When I think about big, abstract issues like hunger or deforestation, my mind starts to blank out. But a 13-year-old boy with one tattered pair of shoes who needs help getting more suitable footwear—that I can understand. A mother of four whose car has died. A little girl in Haiti who needs to get to the U.S. for life-saving surgery.

HopeMob may not be as hilarious as, say, a 20,000-person flash mob dancing to the Black Eyed Peas, but it provides that same feeling of "That is the coolest thing ever!"—that sense of being a part of something special. Learn more about HopeMob and how to get involved here at

The Life-Lifter: Cancer Sucks. Laughing Helps.

You know how sometimes you just don't know what to say? It's bad enough on an awkward blind date or nerve-wracking job interview, but what about when you really need to say just exactly the right thing and somehow...really...can't? To wit, my friend's toddler was recently diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Whenever I am around them I find myself avoiding the subject with cheery ferocity, or else saying things like "Wow, that sucks." Or, equally idiotic: "How are things going? What can I do?" I mean, it does suck. And I do wish there were something I could do. But really what they want is for their kid to not have cancer, and although I am quite powerful in many, largely imaginary ways, I can't seem to do anything about that.

Then I happened upon the site Jokes 4 Miles, and it occurred to me that perhaps there is a tiny thing I can do, a small way I can offer a touch of light into the terrible darkness of this illness. Here goes...Knock, knock. That's right, according to the guy in this video, (aka Miles' dad, aka the father of a boy battling brain cancer), telling a joke—or singing a song or sharing a trick—is something we are all able to do to help out.

While most of us can't imagine what this family is going through, or what we could say or do to help, everyone can record a joke. It just might help Miles to smile on a down day, and it definitely reminds all of us how to deal with adversity—with humor, song and puppy tricks.

Visit Jokes4Miles for more information, and to see some of the jokes people have sent in already.

Next: Love letter to your latte maker

Write a Love Letter to your Latte Maker?

Dear Latte Lady,
Those hearts you make in my latte foam? I know it's a little thing, but getting lattes is an extra-special-only-sometimes treat for me, and those wispy hearts make it even nicer. I know you are on your feet all day, I know you go home reeking so much of coffee that you probably don't even like it anymore, and I know people get crabby with you and snap when you mess up an order. And I know that you are a kind soul, and most important, you are YOU, the only you there is, and that means something, even though I totally don't know your name.
The Girl in the Corner with the Laptop

This is my contribution to The World Needs More Love Letters, the endearing ongoing project of Hannah Brencher, who started writing love letters to strangers on her morning commute to work when she looked around the train she was riding one day and realized she wasn't the only one who could use a boost. Since then, she's written more than 400 love letters, leaving them scattered around for people to find, and she has invited many others to join her in various good-will-spreading projects across the world. Last November, the focus was on those wonderful people who make our lattes, sling our coffees, warn us about how hot the tea water is: baristas.

I've been a barista, and ever since a lady yelled, "You ruined my family's Christmas!" at me (the cafe had run out of her favorite cookies), I've made an effort to be nice to people working behind counters. Personally, I just like the idea that by such a small, simple act, I can brighten someone's day. Particularly, my latte lady, since she so often brightens mine.

Everyone is invited to leave love letters for their own baristas, or to send them to the More Love Letters PO Box, from whence they will be dispatched to various cafes. Visit the More Love Letters site to see the love-letter map, read testimonials by people who have found letters and find out how you can participate.

A Social Network for Good

Social networks. We love them for the ways they bring people together, introduce us to new things and provide convenient ways to force cute baby anecdotes onto the world. We don't love them for the ways they can suck us away from the real world and into the virtual one and for that glazed, slightly queasy feeling we get when we've spaced out in front of the screen for too long. Enter Kindify, a new social network that focuses not on posting ill-advised party pics but instead on doing good.

The idea is to set into motion chains of kindness: You do a good deed, you post it on the site, and you ask a friend to do a good deed in return. I admit I found this a little intimidating (my "good deeds tree" would look so...wintry!), but the site assures me that something as small as buying someone a coffee can count. I love the idea of being part of a community of kindness, of making an effort to do good every day. And I have the feeling that time spent on Kindify would leave me feeling uplifted and positive, without that petty "OMG! Everyone's having such amazing vacations but me" kind of hangover other social networks can sometimes cause. Every overladen shopper struggling to open a heavy door better watch out, because I'm coming to help...whether they like it or not!

Next: Random acts of chocolate

Random Acts of Chocolate

The other day I was spending some of my scant time here on Earth moping in an epic line at my local CVS. This store seems to employ about two people, and waiting in line, I could actually feel my life trickling away. Then I saw the display: GET EM. GIVE EM. RANDOM ACTS OF CHOCOLATE scrawled on bins full of candy bars, which were now, suddenly, being equated with acts of kindness. I have to say, as rebranding efforts go, this one seems pretty brilliant. Maybe it was the flickering fluorescent lights, but I was compelled, as if hypnotized, to purchase not one but two chocolate bars. I would get them! I would give them! I would brighten someone's day! After all, I know that performing even the smallest act of kindness can improve my life and, who knows, possibly change the world.

I told myself I was going to gift a scrumptious Snickers to the next downtrodden-looking stranger I saw, but as I walked down the street I started to lose my nerve. Who would accept candy from a stranger? Haven't we all been warned enough not to do that? Then I spotted her—my perfect target. A tired-looking 60-something woman got off the bus in front of me and started shuffling along, hunched against the cold wind. I took a deep breath and handed her the candy bar. A look of classic New Yorker refusal flickered across her face, but then she looked up and realized I wasn't trying to sell her something or grab her purse—or worse of all, ask for money for Greenpeace. "Here," I said, feeling like an idiot. "It's, uh, a random act of chocolate." (Somewhere at the Mars candy company marketing headquarters, copy writers were giving one another high fives.) She looked confused and then smiled very slightly and said, "Okay." I triumphantly watched her walk away with the candy. She had smiled very slightly! She was going to go enjoy a sweet treat and wonder all night about the stranger who brightened her whole day! Or else she was going to throw it away in the next trash bin (no, wait, maybe she isn't as neurotic as I am).

I knew right where the second candy bar was going. When my husband got home, I handed it to him with some flourish (I am often ridiculed for not having any "good food," aka sweets, around the house), and said: "A random act of chocolate to brighten your day!" "Huh," he replied. "Thanks. I'm trying to stick to my diet though, remember?" Oh, right. So was I. Not the point, was an act of kindness! Sweet, chocolately, calorie-filled kindness!

In the end, I realized what had been exciting about my dalliance with "random acts" was actually that moment of reaching out to a stranger, which happens so rarely in a big city (or maybe anywhere)—and that the day that had been brightened was mine. It was so fun in a weird way that I've been trying to keep up the habit, whether it's offering a pound of good coffee to a highly caffeinated friend or a flower to the babysitter. Random acts of tiny (occasionally diet-busting) pleasures.

Reasons to be Kind Today


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