Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Incredible Acts of Kindness

I know this group of people who love to play and talk about guitars. There are some incredibly talented people there, but that’s only part of what make this online hangout out special. These people pull off some of the greatest acts of kindness I have ever witnessed.

One member died last July. When his wife posted this devastating news on the web site forum, the outpouring of sympathy for a man that none of us had ever met in person or even spoken to, was astonishing. It was followed by an act of kindness that normally would only happen between people who really know each other – not between ‘virtual’ friends.

A month or so later, another member – one of the moderators – lost his home to a wildfire in Texas. Instantly, the forum erupted with offers of help – again, from people that have never laid eyes on each other. What followed was once again, something that had to be seen to be believed.

One recent day, another member decided that he needed to do something nice for another member. This man called Rich commissioned two guitar-building members to construct a special guitar for this friend that he only knew through the web site. Members of this online community only found out who the recipient and the man behind this act of kindness were when the video of the delivery of the guitar was posted on the site.

Where does this happen?

These fine people belong to a website called . This great website was founded by a man named John, from Dallas, Texas, for the purpose of providing free online guitar lessons. What began as a place to show video lessons has evolved into a rich, diversified (in terms of members and musical tastes), site that includes a very active forum. It is the members of that forum that have turned Vanderbilly (aka VB) into one of the most amazing online communities ever assembled.

What makes VB so attractive, apart from the exceptionally high quality guitar lesson videos, are the lively conversations that take place on the forum. What sets the VB forum apart from most online sites is the astonishingly high level of respect that members show each other. The members maintain this level of mutual respect because - one and all, they feel it is the only way to operate. Strong moderators sustain it by gently advising occasional offenders of what is expected. The prevailing attitude at is making friends, rather than proving superiority.

Many forums exist on the Internet, and too many allow all manner of rude, disrespectful, and downright mean people. Unlike those forums where one’s opinion is more likely to be the target of a flood of vulgar comments, members at make a concerted effort to maintain a respectful tone. There are occasionally disagreements, but more often than not, the mutual respect felt for other members overcomes the need for any one person to be ‘right’. Most of the regulars at VB are exceptionally talented guitarists, but the beauty of the environment is that none of these people looks down their nose at less talented players. New, inexperienced guitar players are encouraged, not beaten down. It is an amazing atmosphere of support, friendliness, and kindness.

The spirit of true human kindness has shown itself on VB several times this year.

A man known on the forums as ‘DShep’ was highly respected for his online demeanor. DShep was funny, insightful, and his comments on the forums were always unfailingly cheerful and helpful. Members knew from his first forum post in October 2009 that he was going to fit right in:

“I just wanted to say thanks so much for giving me some motivation to continue playing guitar,” was his first message.

The regulars immediately embraced DShep and he continued to make friends with his easygoing style of posting. He became a valued member of the forum – a friend to all. Until, that is, that sad day in July 2011 when his wife Kelley told us the news no one expects to hear – that a good friend is gone. She told us that he had suffered a massive heart attack while at his second job.

“He posted here a LOT, and loved coming on here at the end of his EMT work shifts to chat, laugh, and hang out and talk about all things music,” she said in her post under her husband’s name.

Within a few days, some of the guitar-builders on the site, Chris from Massachusetts, Gary from Virginia, and Mike from New York came up with a plan to raise money to help Kelley in this difficult time. These three men – who have never met in person – built a guitar to raffle off. Chris made the stunning body, and Mike made custom, hand-wound pickups. They shipped their parts to Gary, who put the whole instrument together, including a new hard shell case with a stunning array of ‘case candy’ – extras that every guitar player needs.

Chris announced the raffle on the forum, and hundreds of dollars were raised. People from all over bought raffle tickets. The guys who built the guitar took no compensation for it. All funds were sent to Kelley in her time of need. All of the money came from people who have never met Kelley, and for the most part, each other.

At how many places on the Internet can something like this happen? How many people who actually know each other do something like this?

A few weeks later, David Ostrander, one of the moderators on the site, reported that wildfires in the Bastrop, Texas area were threatening his home. This was one of the worst years in history for Texas wildfires, and before it was over, David’s home was gone. The family had little warning – until firefighters showed up and told them they had minutes to get what they could and get out. Hours later, their home burned to the ground – the family had managed to grab some belongings, but for the most part, everything was gone.

Almost immediately, a forum thread was started and a Pay Pal account was set up to offer financial assistance for David and his family. David insisted on the forum that he didn’t want people to contribute money to him. He did that because David is usually the first guy in line to offer help when someone else is in need. Being on the receiving end put him in a position that he is not used to being in – he is the kind of guy who will give you – sorry for the cliché – the shirt off his back. Yes, there are people like that – David Ostrander from Bastrop, Texas is one of the few.

His guitar loving friends at couldn’t pass up an opportunity to help someone in need. Hundreds of dollars were donated to David – he ended up being able to buy a guitar that until now, he had only dreamed of owning – a Gibson ES 335. When I watch David’s guitar videos and I see that exceptional guitar, it reminds me that I am surrounded, in a virtual sense, by an incredible community of like-minded friends.

Just a few weeks ago, one of the forum regulars – a man named Don Lambe from Ottawa, Canada, met another VB member - Mike Demers, also from Ottawa. Don’s guitar, a Fender Telecaster known as ‘Spidey’ was suffering from disrepair. It was unplayable; much to the chagrin of Don who owns only one electric guitar and one beat up old acoustic.

Don Lambe is an incredibly talented singer/songwriter – a modern day Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson wrapped up in the person of the man who records in the ‘Fluff and Fold Studio’ – his laundry room. We have all enjoyed his music – original songs written with feeling and imagination, and played artfully on his beat up guitars and amplifier.

Mike Demers is a guitar expert – a man who appreciates the talent he sees in Don – and he offered his services. Mike fixed Spidey, and Don immediately went home, wrote and recorded a song commemorating the event, and posted it in the Vanderbilly ‘Video Vault’. Mike was blown away by the fact that Don had written this song to thank him for his fine work. Don was blown away by the fact that Mike so graciously offered to fix Spidey. Little did Don know that Mike was not yet finished.

A week or so later, Don opened his door to see his new friend Mike standing there holding a spectacular Marshall amplifier. Don was virtually speechless as Mike told him the amp was a gift.

Where do these kinds of things happen?

We then turn to the curious case of the Christmas ‘Mystery Guitar’. In November 2011, guitar builder Gary from Virginia announced on the forum that a member had asked him to build a guitar for a virtual friend. For the next month or so, forum members tried to guess who the guitar was for and who the benefactor was.

A number of people were involved in this project: Chris from Massachusetts again built a masterpiece of a guitar body. He shipped this beautiful piece to Gary in Virginia, who put the rest of the parts together in this special, one of a kind, ‘Mystery Telecaster’. The guitar was then shipped to a mule – a virtual friend who was deemed trustworthy enough to help to deliver the guitar. (Apparently there were others involved in this extraordinary event, but they have yet to come forward.)

Finally, on the night of December 20, 2011, we were treated to a video of the delivery of the guitar to the unsuspecting recipient. We watched as Rich, the benefactor, and Mike, the amplifier Santa, stood at Don’s door on a cold Canadian winter night, waiting for Don to open it.

The door opens, and Don immediately recognizes Mike. He is clearly confused:

“What’ch you guys doing here?” he says in surprise. Rich and Mike follow Don inside the house, and they present this special guitar to the astonished, nearly speechless, Don. We watch as they talk briefly, and as Don takes the beautiful guitar from the case and begins to play. As I watch this, I am thinking how privileged I am to witness such an incredible act of kindness.

I asked Rich (via private message), why he did this. This was his response:

“I was in a sporting goods store looking for basketball shoes for my daughter, and it just came to me. Don is a pillar at VB, a monster player, incredible songwriter, and he's playing very run down gear. Wouldn't it be nice if...”

Does it get any better than that – anywhere on the planet?

I know there are good people in this world, but the way the world is, we rarely see the good things. More often, we see the negative aspects of the human condition.

At though, kindness and civility are the norm. It is a place where the true spirit of human kindness is practiced. It’s a bunch of guitar loving people who, for whatever reason, have soft spots in their hearts for their fellow human beings.

And unlike the majority of the human race – Vanderbilly people act on that spirit of human kindness.

© 2011 LTM

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