On being … below average

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m not a clothes horse. Never have been, never will be. Maybe that’s why a statistic that I heard earlier this fall left me gobsmacked. According to the co-founder of Rent the Runway, the average woman (I’m assuming she’s referring to women in the U.S., but never mind) buys 64 pieces of clothing a year.

CBS Morning News was profiling the company (RTR, as their five million members refer to them) and, because I thought I misheard, I hit rewind on the PVR and re-played it. (I love that my PVR lets me do that with live t.v.!) Sure enough, I heard right: 64 pieces a year. Well, even if you count each sock in a pair of socks separately – I don’t come anywhere close to the average. In fact, I don’t think purchases of clothing by me and my two sisters combined total 64 in a year. (Though our combined total may be close because one sister has a sock fetish. But even so…)

I had forgotten that story until the other day when I was chatting with the wife of a friend at a social function. Somehow the conversation turned to clothes shopping and she enthusiastically mentioned she loves this one outlet mall. Apparently she always finds great bargains there. As an example, she mentioned she recently found a pair of Ralph Lauren winter pants and they were only $22.  

She went on to say that she bought six pairs and now she’s “set for the season”. Though I did my best to expressed approval and admiration for her bargain hunting acumen, the voice inside my head shouted: “Why on earth do you need six pair? You’re retired. It’s not like they’re your work uniform. Besides, what are a washer and dryer for?” Of course, I didn’t say that – I just smiled and nodded as that RTR average came to mind. Afterward I was thinking about it and I realized that clearly, though folks like me and my sisters might be bringing down the average, there are plenty of others bringing it up!

Anyway, this column isn’t about the number of pairs of pants my friend’s wife bought (or needs), it’s about the use of averages. Though I realize deriving averages is a pretty standard exercise in many fields, whenever I hear an average for this or that, my knee jerk reaction is to compare myself to it. I imagine this goes back to my youth, when school performance was graded by comparison to some mythical average that was represented by a C.

Part and parcel of my early conditioning around the notion of “average” was the idea that the goal is to always be above average. Please don’t misunderstand – my striving for above average grades is not something my parents are to be blamed for. Far from it. My mother always assured us that all she ever expected of us was to bring home average grades. Proving mothers can’t win, I used to get so mad when she didn’t understand my frustration at a B. Her telling me that a mere C was enough seemed genuinely insulting.

Obviously I’ve been out of school a long time, but I still find that whenever a news story mentions an average, before I realize I’ve really processed the topic, I feel a twinge if I’m below that average. So, when I heard the Rent the Runway figure, even though shopping and new clothes really don’t matter much to me, my first thought was that there must be something really wrong with me, as I am woefully below that average.

Fortunately, most of the times when this happens, after taking a breath, I manage to regain some objectivity. Usually I find that when I’m nowhere even close to the average, it’s because it’s something that’s irrelevant to me. In those cases, whether I’m above or below doesn’t matter as I don’t really care about the spectrum the average is measuring. Mind you, some days it takes me awhile to come around to that realization.

Gosh, do you suppose this means I have more low self-esteem days than average?

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … worth the wait?

By Ingrid Sapona

It was haul out this past weekend at my sail club. Since we’re a self-help club, members have to put in a certain number of work hours each year. For haul out we hire cranes and crane operators, but members do all the other work. Over the weekend we hauled over 300 boats, but there’s always down time between them. So, there’s lots of opportunity for chit-chat. Indeed, one of the conversations from the weekend has had me thinking.

One of the guys that used to be on my crew (I’ll call him Jon) wasn’t working with us this year. When he brought his boat over to be hauled, someone teased him about abandoning us. He explained that he didn’t need any more work hours and that this likely will be his last haul out at our club because they’ve applied for membership at a club on the Toronto Islands.

The club they want to move to is one of the oldest in the area and is a favourite destination for many of us. That said, there are trade-offs with being at that club, not the least of which is that you have to take the ferry to get there. The thought of schlepping all your stuff by ferry – especially in the spring and fall – is not appealing for many.

As we were waiting for the crane, Jon told us the rest of his news: they’re moving to the island. My initial thought was that he must mean an island in the Caribbean, as I know more-and-more sailors who are choosing to summer on their boat in Toronto and head to the Caribbean for the winter. Curious if that was their plan, I asked what island. With an even bigger smile, he said: Algonquin Island.

It took me a couple minutes to make the connection – Algonquin Island is one of the Toronto Islands. There are only 262 homes on the islands and they aren’t bought and sold through the open market. Because the islands are public, the government created a trust to manage the land and buildings on the islands. Residents have title to their homes, but they lease the property from the government and sales are carried out through the trust under strict rules.

Getting one of the homes pretty much requires a harmonic convergence. First you have to submit an application to get on the waiting list, which is capped at 500 names. From time-to-time people take themselves off the waiting list and when the list is down to about 475 names, they hold a public lottery to bring the number back up to 500.

Then, when a house becomes available, it basically goes to the person highest on the list who wants it. According to the trust’s website, only 54 island homes have been sold since 1994.
I had read an article about it years ago when they were having one of the rare lotteries for the waiting list and I toyed with entering the lottery, but I never did. So, I was excited for Jon, if a bit jealous.

Someone then asked Jon how long they’ve been on the waiting list and he said 20 years. He was clearly excited, but anxious too, as he said that once a house becomes available and you’re high enough on the list – it all happens very quickly, which must be especially nerve-wracking after waiting so long.

Afterward, a few of us were talking about Jon’s news. One of the guys on the crew said, “Think about it – 20 years. I don’t know that there’s anything I wanted 20 years ago that I still want today.” The part of me that always romanticized the idea of living on the islands quickly (albeit silently) responded, “I’d still want that after 20 years”.

But beyond the fantasy of a home on the Toronto Islands, I have been thinking about the things I wanted 20 years ago. It’s kind of an interesting exercise. Looking back at the dreams, hopes, and aspirations I had 20 years ago, I guess I’ve accomplished those that I could and I suppose I’ve let some of them go. For the life of me, I can’t think of any that were so important that 20 years later I’m still thinking of them or wishing they’d happen. That’s kind of reassuring…

What about you? Any items from 20 years ago that you’re still waiting for? What about items you want now – how many of those would you wait 20 years for?

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … comparable

By Ingrid Sapona

If you’ve ever worked with a realtor, you’re familiar with the concept of comparables. For example, if you’re trying to set the asking price for your 60 year-old, 1200 square foot bungalow, you’d begin by looking at the price of recent sales of similar homes in your neighborhood. You wouldn’t look at the sales price of a 3200 square foot McMansion down the street that someone built five years ago after tearing down a bungalow, or the duplex across the street. They just aren’t comparable. The point of a comparable is that it’s an objective measure – a comparison of apples to apples.

My mind turned to thoughts of comparables after comments I heard at two different get-togethers I was at on the weekend. The first event was a small party to celebrate the 93rd birthday of a family friend. Of the five of us at the lunch, I was the only person under 75. All the others were remarkable seniors who live on their own in their own homes. In fact, the lunch was at the home of the birthday girl! Though each has had ups and downs (they’ve all outlived their spouses and each has had some medical issues over the years), they all have their mental facilities and a joie de vivre.

But, as is often the case when friends get together, there was some complaining and commiserating. I noticed there seemed a common thread to their frustrations: they complained about not being able to do some of the things they used to. For example, one of them complained that she can no longer get up on a chair to reach things or to clean. Another complained that she can’t move heavy furniture around like she used to. 

They didn’t complain about loneliness, or sickness, which are the kinds of things you’d think a senior might complain about. Instead, their complaints focused on not being able to do what they did when they were younger. While I can understand feeling nostalgic about what they used to be able to do, I couldn’t help think that the comparison was ridiculous.  They should be comparing their skills and abilities to other octogenarians or 93-year olds – not to themselves at 40, or 50, or even 60!

A remark a friend made at a dinner the next day also brought the notion of comparables to mind. My friend made the comment as she was putting the finishing touches on a lovely feast she had single-handedly prepared for Canadian Thanksgiving. For the dinner party she made a turkey and gravy, stuffing, potatoes, green beans, squash, cranberry relish, and kale salad. By my count, that’s seven dishes – and each of them was fancy: the mashed potatoes were laced with homemade pesto, the kale salad had roasted turnips, hazelnuts, and pomegranates with a tasty maple dressing… You get the picture. 

Anyway, as she was cooking she lamented that because of a back problem she’s had for some time, she “no longer entertains”. I pointed out that she was making a meal fit for a king and that to most people, that would certainly count as entertaining! She quickly dismissed my comment and changed topics.

I know her pain is real and it has forced her to modify many of the things she does, which I’m sure is frustrating. But I also think that she’s not being fair to herself by comparing what she was able to do when she didn’t have the chronic pain she now has. Indeed, my comment was intended to encourage her to take stock of all the work she put in to that meal for the five of us.

I can understand the temptation of looking back at things we used to be able to do but that we no longer can do or that now require more effort than they used to. After all, there is an obvious common denominator between our old selves and our current self. But it’s a flawed comparable. We aren’t the same person we were X years ago.

Think about it – in your youth you were probably thrilled to earn $2/hour to baby sit, or felt rich if you got $5 to cut the lawn. Can you imagine offering to baby sit the neighbor’s kids for a couple of hours or cut their lawn for the cost of a Starbucks venti-size latte? Sure, you might do it, but chances are your motivation for doing so would be different than it would have been at 14. Now you’re likely to do so out of kindness, not to earn pocket money!

I know it’s hard to apply an objective measure like a comparable when it comes to personal things, but I can’t help think that doing so can be reassuring, if not downright empowering! After all, I don’t know many 93-year-olds who are still hosting friends for lunch in their own home, or how many others with chronic back pain are making seven-course meals for friends.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona



On being … surreal

By Ingrid Sapona

It’s rare that a single word sums up an event, but what transpired on Friday really is best described as surreal. For you see, on Friday I got to conduct the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO). Honest. Now, it’s true that amazing, thrilling, and very cool also describe the experience. But the way it transpired was simply surreal. (In case you’re wondering, Merriam-Webster.com defines surreal as: “very strange or unusual: having the quality of a dream.”)

A couple weeks ago I saw an ad in the newspaper with the heading: You’re invited to conduct Us! Presented by: CultureDays and the TSO. I’d never heard of CultureDays so I went on-line to see what it was all about. To my surprise, this year marks the fifth anniversary of CultureDays. Turns out it’s a weekend-long, country-wide participative event.

Eventually I found some details about the “Conduct Us” event. Basically, on the day of the event, people interested in conducting had to show up at the symphony hall between 10 and 11 a.m. to register. Then, at noon the orchestra would come on stage and they’d then draw names. There were three pieces (each about 2 minutes long) that guest conductors could choose from. On line there were short videos with Peter Oundjian, the orchestra’s conductor, describing each piece and demonstrating how to conduct it. There was Alford’s Colonel Bogey March (in 2:4 time), Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto (in 3:4 time), and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9: Finale From The New World Symphony (in 4:4 time).  

I was very excited by the idea of conducting the TSO. I used to play in the band and one of the highlights of junior high was when the band instructor let some of us conduct a piece. But, I figured there’d be hundreds of folks like me, so it was a long shot. Still, I marked the date on my calendar and figured I had time to decide whether I wanted to even bother going.

In the 10 days or so between when I first saw the ad and the actual event, there were many ads for it. Each one added to my belief that the crowd would be huge and the odds long. But, the day before the event I decided I’d go and at least check it out.

I had no intention of waiting hours in a long line, so I timed it to arrive at about 10:15. My plan worked beautifully. The person greeting folks at the door directed me to where you sign in and there were only a few people ahead of me. Folks who registered were given a wrist band and told we’d be seated in a section near the stage, in case our name was called. When I saw that the wristbands were my favourite colour, that seemed like a good sign.

There was about 90 minutes before the auditorium opened, and we were free to leave and come back. So, I went and ran some errands and stopped for a coffee. At the coffee shop I kind of became overwhelmed with the thought that I’d be picked and that, in fact, I’d go first. I pushed the thought out of my mind and proceeded to read the book I brought.

I returned to the concert hall a few minutes before the auditorium was going to open. Before going in, I decided to visit the ladies room. I found the nearest one and when I walked in, the first thing I noticed was a conductor’s baton on the counter by the sinks. That seemed really odd to me. I looked around and there was no one else in the washroom.

Honest to God, my immediate thought was that it was some kind of Candid Camera stunt where they put out a baton to see if people might pick it up and practice conducting in the mirror. Well, I was damned if I was going to be caught so I didn’t dare touch it. I went about my business and by the time I finished, the baton was gone. Now, how weird it that?

The main floor of the concert hall was full. As we waited for the orchestra to file in, I did a quick count and I’d say there were 60-70 of us with wrist bands. When the MC, a local television host, came out and talked bit about the event, she said that no major orchestra has ever invited people from the public to conduct.

After the orchestra tuned up, the MC introduced the orchestra’s conductor and invited him to pull the name of the first public conductor. He did and, just as I had envisioned over coffee, he read out MY NAME. It was truly unbelievable. 

Next thing I know I’m back stage and I’m being asked which piece I’d be conducting. I knew I wanted to do the piece in 3:4 time and when I said that, the conductor said, “Oh, the Tchaikovsky – good choice”. I had to wait a few minutes because some celebrities had also been invited to conduct. When they were through, it was my turn. The MC then introduced me as the first public conductor of the TSO. The conductor walked me to the podium and pointed to the baton. This time I picked it up!

It was all over in a flash, but I made a point of savouring the moment. Though I had to focus on trying to keep the beat, I did my best to look at as many members of the orchestra as I could. And, as different members looked up, they smiled to reassure me. When we were finished, the musicians applauded by tapping their bows against their music stands and stomping on the stage. It was quite overwhelming and I was nearly in tears. 

Indeed, the whole thing felt quite surreal. But, the best part is that it wasn’t a dream – it was a dream come true!

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … the five Ws

By Ingrid Sapona

For months now I’ve tried hard to avoid mentioning Toronto Mayor Rob Ford in this column. The reasons for that are many, including the fact that my mother taught me that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. But, a news story I saw about Ford on Saturday on CBS This Morning inflamed my inner journalist to the point that I realized I’d have to break the promise I made to myself about not mentioning Mayor Ford in On being….

Intrigued by the fact that CBS had assigned a reporter to file an actual story on Mayor Ford’s withdrawal from the race – in other words, it wasn’t just a headline the anchor read – I immediately hit the record function on my PVR. After seeing it, I was glad I recorded it because I knew I’d want to re-run it to see if it really was as incomplete as it seemed on first viewing. Unfortunately, my initial take on it was correct.

I transcribed the report, and here are the facts as CBS reported them: The anchor introduced the 90 second video report by saying: “Rob Ford, Toronto’s mayor, won’t be seeking re-election after all. Ford is being treated for a tumour in his abdomen and announced Friday he is dropping out of the race.” The anchor then threw it over to the reporter. 

After a clever intro referring to Ford as a zeppelin that has fallen to earth, the reporter quoted Mayor Ford’s statement from his hospital bed: “My heart is heavy when I tell you that I’m unable to continue my campaign for re-election.” The report then talked about the mayor’s “well chronicled history of substance abuse” and showed various now infamous clips of him. The reporter concluded with: “But that’s not the end of this story. Ford’s older brother Doug is taking his place on the ballot as a candidate for mayor. And, the mayor himself may now seek a City Council seat in Toronto’s election next month. Oh, Canada.”

Except the very last item, the statements in the report are 100% true. But, the report is very misleading because it doesn’t mention a number of crucial facts: for example, 2 p.m. Friday was the deadline for candidates who wish to be on the ballot in the upcoming election. The mayor’s medical test results, and proposed course of treatment, will not be known until well after that deadline. The deadline, therefore, precipitated the Ford brothers’ actions.

The last statement was inaccurate because there’s no question about whether Rob Ford will run for City Council. Given the Friday deadline, Rob Ford had to make that decision too – and he did. Other facts that CBS made no mention of and that present a clearer picture is that Doug currently holds a seat on City Council – the seat that Rob Ford held before becoming mayor – the seat that Rob Ford is now seeking. Without this additional information, viewers can’t possibly understand that, to Ford and his supporters, brother Doug is a viable candidate, not to mention the likelihood that Rob will return to City Hall one way or another.

After watching the report and realizing how irritated I was by it, I began trying to put my finger on why. A wee bit of it has to do with the fact that I’m tired of the Ford family’s antics drawing attention to my beloved Toronto. (I’m not one of those who subscribe to the theory that any publicity is better than no publicity.) After months of having a mayor whose behaviour has been fodder for all late night comics, it didn’t seem too much to ask that when a truly newsworthy event related to the mayor makes it onto a U.S. newscast, the story would be accurate. I don’t mind that the report ended with a clever play on the title of our national anthem – but how about you try to cover the five Ws (who, what, where, when, and WHY) first.

I’m a fairly skeptical consumer of news and I’m always on the lookout for bias and obvious inaccuracy – and there’s certainly a lot of both of those things in mainstream media. And, I try to get as much context as possible, because it’s so crucial to understanding. But how can you gauge whether the context provided is thorough and accurate? In this case, I knew the missing facts – but in most stories, I don’t know whether important information has been left out. Therein lies what troubles me so much about the story: if a reporter can’t get a story out of Toronto quite right, what are the odds that we’re getting a true and accurate picture of what’s going on in other places in the world?

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona