On being … model behaviour

By Ingrid Sapona

Last week I was in Buffalo visiting my octogenarian mother. It’s tax time and a library near her hosts an AARP tax clinic two mornings a week. The service is free and they do a terrific job. So, about this time every year I phone the library to find out what days the clinic runs and then make a point of getting to Buffalo to get Mom’s taxes done.

The clinic is popular and they sometimes have to turn people away. But, they’ve got a system that’s pretty fair, if somewhat unusual. It’s basically first-come, first-served, but there’s a bit of a twist.  Though the clinic starts at 10 a.m. (when the library opens for the day), on mornings that the clinic is held, someone puts up a sign-up sheet on the library door at 8 a.m. The trick is to get there early and get your name on that sheet, which has space on it for about 20 names. Then, when the clinic opens, if your name’s on the list they do their best to get to you before they close at 1:30 p.m.

Monday morning was cool – 27°F – but sunny. The roads were dry, but driving was a bit tricky because it was hard to see around all the huge piles of snow along the edges of the roads and at corners. (Buffalo had a rough winter even by Buffalo standards!)  My plan was to get there at about 7:45 a.m. On my way to the library I stopped and bought a coffee, figuring I’d sip it in the warm car while I waited for the sheet to go up.

Well, when I pulled up at 7:50 the parking lot was nearly full. I wasn’t surprised others were there before me, but I couldn’t believe all the seniors were waiting out in the freezing cold! I figured we’d all sit in wait in the warmth of our cars. I parked and went to join the line.

As I zipped my jacket up, the woman in front of me in line smiled and commented about how lovely a day it was. I mentioned that I was surprised there was already quite a lineup and she pointed out that it’s because that morning was the first nice morning they’ve had this winter and folks are probably anxious to get their taxes done. The senior in front of her voiced his agreement. 

As others arrived, I couldn’t help notice how many said good morning and welcomed people to the line. There was a definite social aspect to the whole thing and no one seemed the least bit put out about waiting in the cold. She then told me that last week she was there for her return but when she got home she noticed her address was wrong so she was there just to get it corrected. When I commented that I bet she felt frustrated, she laughed and said it was ok. In fact, she hoped the guy who prepared her return last week was there again because she was going to tease him and say that she figured he made the mistake just so he could see her again! How cute is that? And what a positive way of looking at the inconvenience of standing in line in the cold.

Since I was 13th on the list, I returned to the clinic at about 10:45. There were six volunteers – all seniors – sitting behind laptop computers, each with another senior (the person whose return they were preparing) sitting across from them. As they worked, they focused on what they were doing, but they also cheerfully chatted with the person they were helping and with fellow volunteers.

All of the volunteers were old enough to have grown up with typewriters and carbon paper rather than computers and printers, and they were a bit slow on the data-entry front, but no one seemed to mind. If one of them had a problem printing, or got an error message, another volunteer would help and the two of them would figure it out.

I couldn’t help notice how good humoured everyone was and how patient. No one was in a rush. No one was chatting on a phone. None of them had even brought the newspaper or a book to read while they waited. Instead, they just made small talk about this and that with others who were waiting. As I sat there, watching how calm everyone was, I could actually feel my normal fidgetiness ebb.

The rest of that day I thought about those seniors and their behaviour. They seemed to notice and appreciate so much more than many of us do. It was a cold day, but they saw it as warmer and sunnier than it had been for weeks. And they didn’t mind lining up – they were just grateful that the clinic existed and that they could get to it. And rather than seeing the clinic volunteers as being there to carry out a task, they saw them as folks they might make a connection with and have a conversation with.

As children, we look to our parents and their friends as role models. But, as they become seniors and we start to help them with more things, we often think we don’t have anything more to learn from their behaviour. That morning helped me realize what a mistake that is. Those seniors were wonderful role models. They demonstrated hardiness (getting up early and braving the cold), patience, sociability, and gratitude – qualities many of us should work on.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being … credible

By Ingrid Sapona

A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon touring wine country with Ellen (not her real name), a woman I met at a professional meeting a couple months ago. We both do plain language writing and editing and we both work for ourselves. When I was given a couple tickets to a wine tasting, I asked Ellen if she’d like to join me. She said yes and we ended up making a day of it.

Because we didn’t know each other too well, the conversation was quite freewheeling. We talked about our experiences growing up, our families, and, of course, our work. Indeed, since we’re in the same field, we talked a lot about the business challenges we face and compared notes about how we deal with them.

At some point during the course of the afternoon, I noticed that I used the word “credibility” a lot. I honestly don’t remember all the different contexts in which I used the word that day, but I was surprised at how often I said it. So much so, in fact, I began to feel self-conscious. Am I overly concerned about “establishing credibility”? Is my seeming obsession with credibility a reflection of insecurity, or is it just a skill I’m constantly working on because I think it’s key to building a successful business? If Ellen thought there was anything abnormal about my focus on it, she was kind enough not to let on.

Flash forward a few weeks to a series of meetings I had with the key players on a project team at a client. They were telling me about a crisis they’re in the middle of on an important project that has a variety of pieces that have to fall into place. The folks on the project are all highly skilled, talented, experienced, and hard working.

They shared with me notes about the project timelines and copies of various status reports the team has given to management. The crisis came about because a couple of the sub-groups working on the project are late with their deliverables. So, though the team’s original timelines were generous, due to circumstances beyond their control, the cushion they had built into the project has disappeared. In fact, the most recent reports make it clear that there’s no wiggle room left. From here on, pretty much any delay in any deliverable from any of the sub-groups jeopardizes the whole project.

In reviewing the project team’s reports to management, I was impressed by their open description of the problems they were encountering and their thoroughness in outlining the ramifications to the organization’s future in the event of failure. The team did their best to report what was happening on each piece of the project and they didn’t sugar coat their reports.

But, in reading the various reports, one thing that struck me was that the team didn’t think about the credibility gap they were creating when they repeatedly said, “we should know by next week”, or how bad it looked when weeks passed with no resolution of things they said would be resolved within “a week or two”. To me, that kind of loose talk undermined their credibility.

Indeed, management’s faith in the team has wavered and last week they brought in a consultant to review the team’s work. The team leads were shocked and hurt, especially when they realized that the review isn’t just of this project. It’s clear that their credibility with management has been severely impaired and now all their actions and decisions are under the microscope.

To their credit, despite feeling hurt by management’s actions, the team remains dedicated to seeing the project to completion while also working with the consultant to prove they’ve done nothing wrong. From what I’ve seen and read, I think the project will ultimately be a success and I think the team will be found to have been honest and above board in all their actions. I think the lesson to be learned from the whole situation boils down to credibility. And, even if all goes well (as I hope it does), I think the team will have to work hard to re-establish their credibility with management – and going forward they’ll have to be more diligent about maintaining it.

Reflecting on the situation the project team finds itself in with regard to its relationship with management – and my conversation with Ellen – I realize I really am obsessed with credibility. But you know what? Now I don’t think that’s anything to be embarrassed about…

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... what you're looking for

By Ingrid Sapona

My idea of a good vacation is one that combines relaxation with a soupçon of adventure and a dash of comedy. I’m pleased to say that my recent holiday had all of the above.

A friend and I were at a beach city on the Pacific coast of Mexico. What makes the area particularly picturesque is that the city is surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains. The beaches in town are lovely, and there are a few other beaches and towns a bit further down the coast that you can get to by bus or car. But, the highway runs south along the coast for only about 25 kilometers. After that, the road heads into the mountains.

My friend wanted to go to a beach further south that he and some other friends discovered last year, but the only way to get there is to take the highway up into the mountains to a town we’ve been to before, and then head back down to the coast via a local road. The beach sounded lovely, so we rented a car and one morning and headed out.

You can’t really get lost getting to the mountain-top town – you just follow the highway. Our plan was to stop in the town for a coffee and to stretch our legs, and then continue on to the beach.

When we got to the town, we turned off the highway. The road my friend said we needed to take branched off one corner of the city’s main square. Having been to the town before, we knew the square has a huge church and when we saw the spire in the distance, we turned onto a one-way street that led to the church.

But, as we neared the square, the road was blocked off to traffic. We turned onto a nearby one-way street that took us away from the square. We tried to get to the square via another street, but all the streets near the square were blocked off to traffic because it was market day. No matter what we tried, we couldn’t get to the square. We were completely stymied.

We weren’t opposed to asking for directions, but the reality was that our Spanish is very limited. At first we asked for the city centre, but people pointing to the church spire wasn’t too helpful. We could tell where the square was, but not how to get to it. My friend was very frustrated because he was convinced that if we could just get to a spot across the square, he’d know which direction to head. 

After a few more turns that brought us pretty much back to where we started, my friend stopped someone else and asked in Spanish: “the beach?” Given that we were high in the mountains, I thought the guy would think we were nuts. I was more than a little relieved when he didn’t seem to think it was an odd question and, after asking us something we didn’t understand, he pointed in a direction we hadn’t been before.

With no better idea of which way to go, we headed in the direction the guy pointed. Though things didn’t look familiar to my friend, we continued on. Eventually we saw another car and we stopped the driver and asked the same thing: “the beach?” Though he too asked us something we didn’t understand, from his pointing it seemed we were on the right road.

We continued along the lonely road, asking the few people we saw. At some point it became clear that there was more than one beach in the area, but we didn’t know the name of the beach we were looking for.

Though my friend thought the beach was an hour or so from the town, we continued along for a good few hours. Finally, we spotted a patch of what looked like ocean in the far distance, though it was hard to believe the road we were on would bring us to it. But, encouraged by the mere sight of the ocean, we kept going. Shortly after that, however, the road became pretty much impassible, so we had little choice but to turn around.

By late afternoon, we made it back to the mountain-top town we started from. By then I figured the market was finished and I was game to drive back to the square and start over, since I was sure my friend could find his way from the square. But, we were tired and after a brief discussion, we decided to just get gas and head home. I was bummed that we never did find the beach and I think my friend was embarrassed that we got lost.

That morning I had e-mailed my family telling them our plans for driving to another beach. All the way home I was thinking about how I was going to explain that we spent nearly 8 hours on the road trying to find a beach we thought we knew the way to, but that we never did find. By the time we got home, however, the comical aspect of the whole thing hit me. After all, who drives into the mountains in search of a beach when they have a beach right outside their door! 

In the end, I decided the best – and truest – explanation for the day is that what we really went looking for when we rented the car was an adventure, and that we certainly found!

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... on vacation

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m on vacation so I’m giving you a break from my musings…

I’ll return with a column February 15th.


© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a year-end tradition?

As I’ve done the past few years, here’s an alphabetical look back at things that were on my mind in one way or another this past year. Many of them relate to news stories that didn’t directly impact me or my family – but that I find troubling and worth focusing attention on.

So, here’s my list:

A is for Achilles heel – talk about a metaphor coming to life! I’ve had a problem with one of my Achilles tendons and now I understand how such a simple thing could easily have downed poor Achilles.

B is for bye-bye – thankfully, in the October election, Toronto finally waived bye-bye to Rob Ford, our (in)famous mayor.

C is for conducting and chance – what a thrill I had when I got the chance to conduct the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in September.

D is for damning – I don’t think there’s any other way to describe the recently released Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation report prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee. While many argued against its release for fear of reprisals, failure to release it would only have compounded all the wrongs committed. Instead, perhaps it can be the first step toward returning to what America used to stand for.

E is for ebola – hard to imagine the devastation ebola has brought to so many and equally hard to imagine the devotion of those helping on the front lines of the crisis.

F is for fracking – just because the technology exists doesn’t mean we should do it, or that it’s environmentally sound. Minor tremors are just the canary in the proverbial coal mine. It’s the dangers posed to potable water that I think people should be concerned about.

G is for Ghomeshi – Jian Ghomeshi was a popular, high profile radio/television host who was let go by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) this fall after allegations of physical abuse of women he had dated. Apparently, to help his bosses at the CBC understand what he claims was consensual rough sex, he showed them a video. Guess it wasn’t as reassuring a video as Mr. Ghomeshi thought and he was let go after that. Since then he has been charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcome resistance – choking.

H is for hashtag – for those who don’t tweet or pay attention to pop phenomenon, a hashtag is a number sign (#) placed before a title or phrase that makes it easy to search for that topic on Twitter. Shortly after the Ghomeshi story broke, two Toronto journalists decided to share their experience with assault and they created the hashtag: #BeenRapedNeverReported. Within no time, tens of millions of people around the world commented on it and it has prompted women from all walks of life to tell their stories. It’s astounding on many levels.

I is for innocents – sadly, we live in a war-torn world and every day we hear about the perpetration of acts of violence and savagery against so many innocents.

J is for justice – of all the founding principles the U.S. was built on, “justice for all” has always seemed to me to be the cornerstone of democracy. Over the past year, in particular, it’s become sadly apparent that that principle is no longer cherished by all.

K is for killing – I really had a difficult time with this letter because I didn’t want to write about killing. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be wrong not to write about it because the reality is that every day this year brought news of killings. While some of the killings may stand out as more horrific than others, the truth is they are all tragic and if we don’t acknowledge each and every one, then there’s no hope for humanity.

L is for lawless – I fear the world is becoming a lawless place.

M is for museum – the Aga Khan Museum opened in Toronto this fall. It was built by the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, and it features his family’s extensive collection of Islamic art. When the Aga Khan dedicated the museum, he said his hope is that the museum will act as a catalyst for mutual understanding and tolerance. All I can say is let’s hope the museum achieves its goal.

N is for nostalgic – it’s funny the way nostalgia sneaks up on you, isn’t it? Last week I had a flood of nostalgia when I was seeding a pomegranate. Growing up we always had pomegranates and it was my father’s job to open them. I have very fond memories of him sitting at the kitchen table carefully, skillfully, patiently seeding pomegranates for us.

O is for oil – like most folks who have to fill up their car, it’s hard not to be relieved about the lower prices at the pump.

P is for poppies – with 2014 marking the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI, I have to say the most moving tribute was the sea of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London. It was a simple idea that really brought home the number of Commonwealth soldiers who were killed (not to mention the hundreds of thousands of other soldiers from other countries who were killed).

Q is for quick to pull the trigger – though many of the senseless killings in the U.S. seem attributable to police and others being too quick to pull the trigger, I think that assessment ignores more fundamental issues lurking below the surface.

R is for race relations – hard to believe that race relations is still an issue in 2014, but it is.

S is for Skype – I come from a technology-resistant family, but I think my sisters and mother would all agree that the best thing to happen to us this year was my techie cousin (bless his heart) setting my mother up on Skype. Now, though we’re still all miles apart, we’re much closer.

T is for torn-up – this year Torontonians have had to deal with a record number of road closures and traffic disruption and there’s no end in sight. It’s frustrating beyond belief and I work from home – I can’t imagine what it’s like to face a daily commute anywhere in the Toronto area!

U is for unspoken – it’s hard for me to understand why gun control is not even on people’s lips in the U.S.

V is for violence – I have only passing familiarity with the Bible, but it seems to me that the world would be a better place if everyone took to heart Matthew 26:52, which Martin Luther King paraphrased as: violence begets violence.

W is for winter – don’t bother looking for a 2014 vintage for many Ontario wines – the winter was so harsh, many buds died. One entire Ontario wine region didn’t have any grapes to harvest and other areas had much smaller harvests.

X is for xenophobic – handy to have one word that captures 21st century international race relations.

Y is for Yule log-like – I love Christmas baking and this year I made a bunch of different cookies from recipes I had clipped years ago but never got around to trying. On about the third batch, I had to laugh when I realized that many of the cookies were log shaped. Oh well, I guess I was just drawn to Yule log-like things this year.

Z is for zester – I’m a believer in using the right tools for the job. A few years ago rasp-type zesters hit the culinary world and they were the “in” tool. When my sister visited I wanted her to zest some lemons and when I handed her my old fashioned grater, she was shocked I didn’t have a proper zester. I assured her I did, but it was useless. She tried it and agreed. Two weeks later I got a package from her – the brand of rasp she has. With much trepidation, I tried it and it is amazing! Thanks to my sister, you could say I have a new zest for cooking!

Post Script: As I was working on this, I was struck by the fact that violence underscores so many of the topics. Given this sad realization, I have a New Year’s resolution I invite all of you to join me in for 2015: taking a stand to stop violence in all its forms. I’m convinced that until we all see it as a personal responsibility, the world will only become more violent.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona