Thanks, Teach…here’s $10,000

Gratitude - This Dawn #8; photo and art by Julie Jordan Scott, via Flickr Creative Commons

Gratitude – This Dawn #8; photo and art by Julie Jordan Scott, via Flickr Creative Commons

 

An apple maybe. A card or a letter…even better. But a cheque for $10,000? That is an exceptional way of thanking a teacher whose guidance influenced a young person’s trajectory.

Kevin Perz never forgot the teachers whose belief in him set him on a path of success. Their encouragement can be seen in his success as an entrepreneur. His company, Dynamic Fastener, has given him and his family a comfortable life. Looking back, he recognizes the role some of his teachers played in that.

He began sending cheques to former teachers in 1992, when he sent $5000 to his calculus teacher. Years later he tracked down Marilyn Mecham and sent her a cheque for $10,000, with the stipulation the generous woman spend the money on herself. The money arrived just as Mecham was honouring the memory of her beloved husband, who died of a heart attack in 2006.

What is beautiful in each case of Perz’s generosity is his unfettered gratitude. He has done well in life. As he looks back, he identifies those who made a difference. He does more than send them unspoken gratitude. He tracks them down and sends them a concrete measure of what they did to put him on the success path.

Perz’s gifts are a reminder that none of us makes something out of our life solely on our own merit. We all have angels looking after us. For Perz, teachers were among the best possible angels. They saw something in him at a time he was not sure anything special was there. Their encouragement fostered his ambition. His success is his own, but the path to it was cleared by people who believed in him.

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Ireland shows change is possible

The work of supporters, like these at the 2009 gay pride parade in Dublin, has paid off; photo by Charles Hutchins, via Flickr Creative Commons

The work of supporters, like these at the 2009 gay pride parade in Dublin, has paid off; photo by Charles Hutchins, via Flickr Creative Commons

Irish voters have spoken, and 62.1% of them have made clear their support for same-sex marriage. The first country to ask voters to decide on the issue has opted for equity by a comfortable majority. Doing so made them the 20th country to legalize marriage for gays and lesbians.

Reacting to the vote, Prime Minister Enda Kenny gave a short, moving speech, in which he said, “With today’s vote we have disclosed who we are — a generous, passionate, bold and joyful people. Yes to inclusion, yes to generosity, yes to love, yes to equal marriage.”

The joy was palpable as supporters gathered to watch the results come in from around Ireland. High numbers of young people turned out to vote, some traveling from overseas to be part of the historic moment.

Since the 1990s, when child sex abuse scandals rocked the Catholic Church, the religious body’s hold over the population has been waning. RTE News spoke to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who said the referendum represents significant social change among young people and that “the church needs to do a reality check across the board.”

Ireland’s majority vote gives encouragement to supporters in countries still wrestling with the question of whether or not to recognize same-sex couples as having the same rights as those in heterosexual relationships. We are moving ever closer to the day we will look back and wonder why on earth there was ever such a fuss over a simple matter of human rights. Thank you, Irish supporters, for putting the pressure on democracies still dragging their feet.

Read more about the historic vote:

 

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The company where everyone, even the CEO, will earn $70,000

Photo by kconnors, via morgueFile

Photo by kconnors, via morgueFile

Dan Price, CEO of Seattle’s Gravity Payments (a payment processing company) gave up a million-dollar salary to try an outrageous experiment. He cut his salary to $70,000 and increased every employee’s salary to exactly the same level.

He told CNN News he paid his first employee $24,000 and no health benefits. That troubled him so as the company became successful enough to pay higher salaries, he wanted to reward his employees. He chose $70,000 because of a 2010 Princeton study that pegged the happiness turning point at $75,000. Up to that level, every additional dollar increased happiness. Beyond that, more money has no impact on happiness.

Price looked at the company’s financial position and decided he could pay everyone $70,000, starting at $50,000 and working up to the full amount by $70,000. That is a big jump from the company’s current average of $48,000. He figured that would allow his employees could focus on their work rather than on money worries.

The gamble brought a flood of new business as well as interest in working for the company. At the time he spoke with CNN, he had two openings and had received over 3,500 applicants.

Price made the announcement in April 2015 and has received all kinds of media attention for it. He told CBS News he made the decision because, “I want to be part of the solution to inequality in this country, and so if corporate America also wants to be a part of that solution, that would make me really happy.”

A salary of $70,000 does not guarantee the recipients will live within their means or be happy. However, it sets an atmosphere of equality that is rare in the corporate world. Price’s experiment is worth watching.

 

 

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Pedicab driver turned philanthropist

Pedicab drivers

Pedicab drivers in Shanghai; photo by Barbara Torris, via Flickr Creative Commons

 

By the time Bai Fang Li died in 2005, he had donated 350,000 yuan to enable more than 300 young people to receive an education. He did it all with the small amount of money he made as a pedicab driver.

When Bai retired the first time, he was 74 years old. He left Tianjin to visit his hometown, a visit that was to send him back to work for nearly 20 more years.

His plan to retire in 1987 stumbled over the reality he saw in the fields of his hometown. School-age children were toiling in the fields. Bai asked his daughter why they were not in school. When he learned their families could not afford school fees, he donated his last 5,000 yuan for them.

The plight of children from poor families haunted him. He wanted them to have the education his family could never afford.

Bai returned to Tianjin and went back to work. Each day he saved his earnings in a safe place, keeping it for the children. Eventually he moved into a small room near the railway station so he could work longer hours. He wore castoff clothing and ate simply, saving every possible yuan.

In 2001 he delivered his last donation to Tianjin YaoHua Middle School. He could work no more.

Lung cancer took Bai’s life in 2005, at the age of 93, but it did not take his legacy. It lives on in the young people whose lives he changed. Thanks to CCTV’S Unsung Heroes series, we can all learn about him.

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Transgender widow wins victory for civil rights

Robina Asti

Robina Asti tells her story in the Lambda Legal video below

During World War II Robert Asti flew combat missions for the U.S. Navy. After the war he married and raised three children. He flew commercial aircraft, was a flight instructor, and became vice president of a mutual fund.

Inside the male pilot and businessman was a woman increasingly uncomfortable as a man. She knew her transition to a woman would be anathema in the business world so she ended up leaving her position. In 1976, at the age of 55, she became legally female and took the name Robina.

In 1980 she met Norwood Patton. Early in their dating she told him of her transition. He was startled, but a week later he assured her he had fallen in love with her as a woman and saw her that way. He was keen to marry her, but she put him off until 2004, when they formalized their relationship.

Patton died in 2012, and Asti applied to the Social Security Administration (SSA) survivor benefits. Although she had lived as a woman for nearly forty years, the SSA turned down her application. Their basis? She did not “meet the marriage requirement” because, according to them, she was not legally a woman.

Asti was devastated. With the help of Lambda Legal, a firm that has worked since 1973 to help lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people achieve their civil rights, she challenged the SSA and won.

Robina Asti is a quiet, unassuming woman. She has endured a lot of prejudice and misunderstanding in her life. She knows the thorny path young transgender people walk in their efforts to be recognized as the people they know themselves to be. Her fight for justice was not only about the money to which she was entitled. It was also about social change. Thanks to her and to the work of Lambda Legal, transgender individuals are now entitled to survivor benefits through their spouses. Asti tells her story in themoving documentary below.

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Holocaust survivor forgives Nazi guard

Eva Mozes Kor shaking the hand of Oskar Groening; photo from Kor's Facebook page

Eva Mozes Kor has good reason to despise Oskar Gröning. When she and her twin sister, Miriam, arrived in the Auschwitz death camp, they were met by Josef Mengele and became part of the ruthless scientist’s genetic experiments. Gröning was a junior squad leader at the camp.

While he could argue he was not directly responsible for the painful and debilitating procedures carried out on twins, nor for the mass murder of so many others, he played a critical role in the effort to exterminate Jews. He was one of the many petty functionaries who carefully logged all the money and belongings taken from prisoners. The Nazi war machine would have ground to a halt without the aid of those who kept records, supplied the death camps, guarded the ghettos, and ran the railways transporting detainees.

After the war he led an ordinary, quiet life until he became alarmed by the rise of Holocaust deniers. He went public with his role and in September 2014 was charged as an accessory to murder.

When Gröning went on trial in April 2015, Eva Mozes Kor was called as a witness. After her session, she walked straight up to the 93-year-old former Nazi and shook his hand. As she wrote on her Facebook page:

I know many people will criticize me for this photo, but so be it. It was two human beings seventy years after it happened. For the life of me I will never understand why anger is preferable to a goodwill gesture. Nothing good ever comes from anger. Any goodwill gesture in my book will win over anger any time. The energy that anger creates is a violent energy.

Eva Mozes Kor will never forget nor excuse what the Nazis did. Her two books make that clear: Surviving the Angel of Death and the earlier Echoes from Auschwitz. She has also spent her post-war years drawing attention to the Holocaust, in the hope of preventing a repeat of its horrors.

At the same time, she is dedicated to healing rather than revenge. As she wrote in another Facebook post:

Forgiving does not mean forgetting – we all want to prevent these things from ever happening again. Forgiveness is about self-healing, self-liberation, and self-empowerment….Let’s all work together to teach the world how to heal.

Survivor of one of the most horrendous experiences anyone can endure, Eva Mozes Kor is a role model for the kind of forgiveness that mends souls, a forgiveness that carries with it the responsibility to work for a world in which such horrors no longer happen.

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Straight high school student and his gay prom date

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 3.31.22 PM

How can anyone believe the world is getting inexorably worse all the time when something like this happens?

Jacob Lescenski, a student in a Las Vegas high school, stumbled over some youthful glitch for the upcoming prom. With no date, he was planning to go alone until he saw a Tweet.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 3.43.57 PM

That Tweet was from his best friend, Anthony, who was sad not to have a date. That is when Lescenski hit on the idea that has made him an online hero.  He had his friend Mia create the poster you see here and made a splash of inviting Anthony to be his date.

That would never have happened when I was in high school way back in the 1960s. Even a few years ago the Internet trolls would have thoroughly trashed these two good friends. This year the response has been overwhelming positive. Check out Anthony‘s and Jacob‘s Twitter feeds to see some of the comments.

Whatever pushback might come from the homophobes, these two young men and all the friends and supporters who are cheering them on show that times are changing for the better. Oh, I know climate change, religious extremism and political corruption are slashing away at our safety and well being. I also know people and their societies can and do change.

 

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Share your love of books

"Before cell phones - a quieter life"; photo by Jackie, via Flickr Creative Commons

“Before cell phones – a quieter life”; photo by Jackie, via Flickr Creative Commons

 

If you missed World Book Night on April 23rd, you missed a treat. But you never have to miss it again.

The UK’s Reading Agency launched the initiative on March 5, 2011. The next year they changed the date to coincide with World Book Day. By 2015 Germany and the US had joined the UK and Ireland in passing out books to people “who, for whatever reason, may not read for pleasure or own books.”

That is a lot of people. According to Suzanne Russo, who wrote an article for GOOD about her experience passing out books in New York City, “35 percent of people in the United Kingdom don’t regularly read, and only half of Americans read more than five books a year.”

As a certified book addict, I find those statistics staggering. I always have at least three books on the go at all times, both print and digital. My love affair with reading began when I was four and finally cracked the code. From that point on I was an voracious reader, always surprised when Mother could see a glow from the flashlight under the blankets I piled up to hide it.

I want everyone to know the unutterable pleasure of stumbling across a book that sets our inner tuning forks humming. For some that may be science fiction or a mystery. Others might prefer to dig into a book about gardening, cooking, politics, self-help or carpentry. Whatever it is, the exquisite pleasure of reading should be granted to every human on the planet.

Oh, I know reading may not seduce every last person in the same way it does me, but I dream of a time when everyone has the chance to acquire good reading skills and the privilege of owning books.

You can find more information and resources on the World Book Night website, but you don’t have to wait until April 23rd to share books with people who might like to own them.

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Eccentricity is good for us

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. ~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Dee Dee Rainbow, at Bumbershoot 2008 in Seattle; photo by Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite Seattle characters during my years there was a woman who called herself Dee Dee Rainbow. Everything about her was a rainbow, from her eyelashes to her colourful costumes. I am quite sure David Weeks would have labeled her eccentric.

Edinburgh psychiatrist David Weeks has studied eccentrics for decades. What he has learned should give you hope if you step to the beat of a different drummer.

While others carefully adhere to cultural norms, eccentrics play in the margins. Henry David Thoreau’s famous quote from Walden aptly describes those who choose to ignore the rules of appropriate behavior  imposed by society.

Eccentrics are actually happier and healthier than their “normal” counterparts. Weeks discovered although they differed wildly from each other, they shared many characteristics. He developed twenty-five descriptors, with the top three being non-conformity, creativity and curiosity.

In 1995 Weeks and co-author Jamie James published Eccentrics—A Study of Sanity and Strangeness. They introduced such eccentrics as Davy Crockett, Albert Einstein and a Chippewa Indian who always walked backwards. In 2014 Weeks and Academy Award winning director John Zaritsky brought some engagingly odd characters to the screen with their documentary, A Different Drummer: Celebrating Eccentrics. Vancouver’s Duck Lady and Western Connecticut University’s oddball professor Darla Shaw are featured. So are British inventor John Ward and cave dweller John Slater.

Weeks clearly admires the eccentrics he studies. So does Zaritsky. Weeks insist only about one in 10,000 people truly fits the eccentricity bill, but it is likely we all know someone sufficiently outside the norm to qualify. If you want to find where you fall on the spectrum, test yourself on his Fun Five Quiz.

Long live eccentrics. They are free in ways most people can never even dream of being.

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The first investigative journalist

By H. J. Myers, photographer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By H. J. Myers, photographer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Before the gutsy journalist Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Jane Cochran) came onto the scene, no one had done the kind of investigative journalism we have become accustomed to today. She might never have become a journalist had Erasmus Wilson not rankled her so badly she had to respond.

She began life in 1864, as daughter of Judge Michael Cochran of Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. Their comfortable life dissolved when the judge died without leaving a will. By the time he died he had 10 children by his first wife, 5 by his second.

To support the family, Mary Jane Cochran was forced to sell the family mansion. When the money ran out, she married a man who proved to be abusive. Young Elizabeth, who had always been an independent, rebellious sort, testified at the divorce proceedings and helped her mother free the family of his violent behaviour.

She dreamed of being a writer but started teacher training in order to help support the family. When tuition money ran out, she dropped out and helped her mother run a boarding school.

She was only 18 when Erasmus Wilson, writer of “Quiet Observer”, a popular column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, got under her skin. He wrote a column condemning working women and saying they belonged in the home.

Elizabeth knew firsthand, and from the experience of others around her, that such a choice was a luxury for many women. She penned a scathing response and signed it, “Little Orphan Girl”. The newspaper’s editor was so impressed he ran an ad, wanting to know the identity of the letter’s author.

That snagged Elizabeth her first paid article, a rebuttal to Wilson’s piece. She did so well on that she was offered a full-time writing job and chose the pen name, Nellie Bly, after a popular Stephen Foster song.

From the beginning, Nellie Bly refused to be sidelined as a writer of fluff pieces. Instead, she insisted on writing about the issues of society’s marginalized people. She tackled divorce, poverty and the complicity of the business community. Readers loved her. Businesses did not and threatened to pull their advertising.

Rather than back down or resign, she persuaded the newspaper to send her to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. Her stories about everyday life were popular, but when she criticized the Mexican government, she found herself unwelcome and had to leave the country.

Back in Pittsburgh, she could see her only future at the Dispatch was writing about fashion or gardening or “acceptable” women’s issues. Rather than do that she moved to New York and talked The New York World into hiring her. That is when she began some of the work for which she is most well known. Faking mental illness, she was locked up in one of the most notorious institutions, Blackwell’s Island. In just 10 days undercover, she emerged with hair-raising stories of abuse, filth and degradation.

She went on to write about wretched factory conditions, corrupt lobbyists, and the plight of the poor. In 1889 she set out from New York to travel around the world faster than Jules Verne’s character in Around the World in Eighty Days. With only one dress, a coat, and a couple of small cases, she set off by ship, train and donkey. In 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, she was met by cheering crowds in New York.

She married industrialist Robert Seaman. When he died ten years later, the clever and creative woman became the world’s leading female industrialist. Workers in her factories had more benefits and better pay than was common at the time.

Eventually the businesses went bankrupt, and she returned to reporting, becoming the world’s first female war correspondent. At the age of 57 she died of pneumonia.

Before Elizabeth Cochran, aka Nellie Bly, died she had influenced a generation of journalists and instigated social reforms because of her writing. She was a whirlwind of social change in an era when women were expected to be quiet and submissive. She was one of those indomitable spirits intent on making the world a better place and is still a remarkable role model.

When I wrote this I didn’t know Google would be celebrating her birthday, which falls on May 5th. They commissioned Karen O of the indie trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs to write a special, and absolutely delightful, song, which you can hear in the video below.

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