On being … a sign of the times

By Ingrid Sapona

Earlier this month one of my sisters attended an “active shooter” seminar at her place of employment. She works at a university and while her school hasn’t had an “active shooter” situation, U.S. campuses certainly seem to be magnets for them.

I was caught by surprise when she casually mentioned attending, then talked about the things she learned. Apparently the recommended procedure is: run, hide, fight. I said I can understand the run and hide part, but the fight idea reminded me of the nonsense Ben Carson said after the Umpqua Community College shooting in early October. (For those who missed the story, in the wake of 11 dead and 7 injured, Carson said he thinks people should have rushed the shooter – after all, “the shooter can only shoot one person at a time”.)

My sister went on to explain a bit more about the things they learned. For example, when you’re running away, run with your hands up so that law enforcement officers don’t shoot you. Jeesh, I thought. While I’m glad she went to the seminar, I can’t believe the university felt there’s a need for it.

Perhaps sensing my disquiet, she mentioned that the run, hide, fight mantra reminds her of stop, drop, roll. When I said I’d never heard that trio, she explained that it’s it’s something they teach school kids if their clothes catch fire. I guess that was after my time, as all we had were fire drills.

We then “reminisced” about air raid drills from when we were growing up. I vividly remember hearing the simulated siren sound over the PA system and then all of us crawling under our desk and covering our heads with our arms. She too remembered that, and the fact that the motion was referred to as “duck and cover”. 

Back then, I knew the air raid drills were meant to protect us in case of a nuclear attack. But, I also remember doubting how ducking and covering my head would offer much protection from the plume of a mushroom cloud. Indeed, my most vivid recollection about those drills was the fear it instilled in me about how dangerous the world must be.

After my sister and I got off the phone, I couldn’t help feeling despair that everyday folks are being trained about what to do in an active shooter situation. I wondered if soon elementary school kids in the U.S. will start learning the run, hide, fight mantra. Wouldn’t surprise me, really. After all, maybe such training isn’t really any more traumatizing than duck and cover drills.

Though that thought may not be welcome, I find it comforting in a way. I guess because looking at it that way gives me a bit of perspective. It reminds me that people wanting to cause others harm is nothing new – just the ways they can go about it change. Maybe learning mantras like “duck and cover”, “stop, drop, roll”, or “run, hide, fight” is just a coping mechanism that people use – a way of feeling empowered in the face of fear.

The conversation my sister and I had about the active shooter training happened a couple weeks before the attack in Paris. In the days that followed that event, I watched with admiration how people did their best to take back their city and the café society they cherish. I’m sure many Parisians have adopted their own coping mechanisms, perhaps they make a point of noting the closest exit when they are in a restaurant, the Metro, and so on. But, they clearly also realize that if they surrender their lifestyle, terrorists win.

And, as the city of Brussels went into near lock down in the aftermath of the Paris attack, another coping mechanism surfaced: social media. Apparently, as Belgian authorities were moving about, conducting raids and what have you, some folks took to social media with news about what was going on in their neighborhoods. The police then publicly asked people to stop commenting on what was going on because such information could be used by the suspects.

Soon after the police request, on the hashtag people had been using to report the police activities they were observing, people startedposting humorous pictures of cats. According to the Associated Press, people posted photos of cats in all kinds of situations, including holding their hands up, posing as police snipers, and even blatantly ignoring police warnings to stay away from windows. The next day, after completing 22 raids, the police acknowledged the cooperation by posting a picture on social media of cat food with the message: “For cats who helped us last night … Help Yourself!”

Though it certainly seems to me that the world is a scarier place than it used to be, I realize there has always been – and there likely always will be – things to fear. In this light, I guess active shooter training is just a sign of the times.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... green eyed

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ll admit right off the top, today’s column isn’t really about eye colour. My inspiration for the column was a story in the Toronto Star last week. Its headline read: Taming the green-eyed monster, a matter of maturity, study finds. I wasn’t familiar with the expression, “green-eyed monster” so my curiosity was piqued.

Well, as you may have guessed, the story was about envy. (I was familiar with the expression “green with envy”, but I have no idea where it comes from. Maybe it’s from some green-eyed monster of myth or fairy tale.) Anyway, the article reported on a study into how the experience of envying differs with age and gender.

I know what you’re thinking: it sounds like some lightweight “research” sponsored by some internet dating site or something. It wasn’t. The research, which was published in the November issue of Basic and Applied Social Psychology, was conducted by Prof. Christine Harris and graduate student Nicole Henniger of the University of California at San Diego. Their conclusions were based on survey responses of 925 participants from 18 to 80 years old.

In the article, Harris talked about envy as a “social emotion”. She pointed out that, as one of the seven deadly sins, envy’s been seen as motivating everything from evil stepmothers in folk stories to Occupy Wall Street protesters. I never thought of envy in those terms, did you?

For the study, participants were asked to recall a time in the last year when they envied some they knew personally. Those who did were then asked a series of questions designed to find out the nature of the envy and the gender and age of the person they remember feeling envy about. The categories of envy participants were asked to consider were: scholastic success, social success (which the reporter interpreted as status), looks, romantic success (hmmm… not sure what that means), monetary success, and occupational achievement.

Turns out, envy of other people’s education, looks, romance, and status all diminish with age. In fact, of those four areas, the only one that still even registers for those over 30 is romantic success. And, by the half century mark (those 50 and over), envy over romance is pretty much gone. Harris’ theory is that as we get older we become less concerned with things like our appearance and we come to accept our social status.

Envy of monetary success, however, moderately increases with age. Envy of occupational achievements, on the other hand, apparently peaks in your 40s, and then declines in your 50s. The authors mention that one reason occupational envy may decline is because people in their 50s may be looking ahead to retirement.

In thinking about the study, I was struck by the fact that the findings certainly seem to reflect my life. Though I honestly don’t recall feeling envious in each of those areas, I’m sure at different points in my life I felt each of those to some degree. But the really good news is that from the vantage point of my mid-50s, I’m happy to say that like the bulk of the survey participants, the green-eyed monster doesn’t have much of a hold on me.

Mind you, I have my own theories about why envy subsides as we age. The way I see it, in our youth we’re on pretty much the same path as our peers, all trying to achieve similar things. So, comparisons are inevitable and if you perceive someone is ahead of you or has some advantage over you, envy might bubble up.

But, as we get older, our focus widens and we realize that a fulfilling life involves making the most of our own qualities and experiences. We also come to appreciate just what we have. And, we come to realize that even if someone has things we don’t, they also have their share of trials, tribulations, and heartache.

So, by now I’m sure you see what I mean – this column isn’t about eye colour at all. But you know, it’s not really even about envy. It’s about one of the really cool things about growing old…

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a life-long learner?

By Ingrid Sapona

Last year I joined the volunteer board of a small, international professional organization. When the position of treasurer was becoming vacant, I was asked if I’d take on the role because the treasurer must be Canadian. After speaking with the current treasurer (I’ll call her Angie – not her real name), I agreed to take on the role. The organization has a modest budget and, though I’ve never been a treasurer, I figured it wouldn’t be that hard and it might be good experience.

The first part of the handoff involved what should have been straightforward banking stuff: getting signing authority, getting a bank card, getting the credit card switched to my name, and so on. Given that you can bank by smart phone, it was surprising how much paperwork had to be done in person.

While we were sorting the banking stuff out, though I had officially been appointed treasurer, Angie continued doing the treasurer stuff (she was still on the board). One of the things the treasurer “looked after” was membership applications and renewals. This seemed to make sense since our main source of revenue is membership dues. Though I wasn’t sure what “looking after membership” entailed, I knew there was some system in place and I figured I’d be able to learn it.

Meanwhile, the organization’s website was being re-designed. The membership database, which runs on software the old website was designed on, was not being changed. The new website was simply going to link to the database. Angie had given me access to the database and explained why the system generates three e-mails that are sent to the treasurer (for each renewal) and why she sorted and kept track of each trio of e-mails. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

By the beginning of September, the banking was all in my name and Angie’s term on the board was coming to an end. At the same time, the new website was launched. Soon after, we started getting reports of members having trouble renewing. One of the odd things is that not every renewal is problematic – only some. While the tech people were trying to figure out what’s going on, Angie took care of the problem renewals by going into the database and manually renewing each separately. 

My first official act as treasurer was to pay the web designer’s invoice. I wrote the cheque and mailed it. I also sent him a quick e-mail saying the cheque was in the mail. Three weeks later the designer e-mailed me, saying he hadn’t received the cheque. I checked the bank account and confirmed the cheque hadn’t been cashed. I felt bad that the designer (a small business) hadn’t been paid, and I wondered whether I screwed up. Had I forgotten to send it? Or maybe I sent it to the wrong address? I didn’t think so, but… Talk about feeling you’ve started off on the wrong foot!  (The cheque arrived 30 days, to the day, after the date I mailed it! Unreal, I know.)

The next issue I had to deal with was the web renewal problems. Because many thought part of the problem is the instructions in the e-mail inviting people to renew, I figured I’d start by making that clearer. I logged in to the membership database software determined to find the message and make it clearer. Only problem was, I couldn’t find the message text in the database. I played around in the system for over two hours and simply couldn’t find it. It has to be there, but where, I don’t know. Talk about frustrating!

A few days later, I went to log in to the database and couldn’t. I tried all sorts of things – I changed passwords, changed browsers, re-booted – you name it! Nothing worked. When I contacted Angie, she came back with things I had already tried. By then I was ready to quit as treasurer. Indeed, one night I wrote an e-mail to the board resigning. The last line summed up my feelings pretty well: no sane person takes on a position to feel lost, helpless, and useless. I did send the e-mail, but to a good friend, not the board.

I wish I could say that writing that e-mail and sending it to my friend instead of the board was cathartic and that after that, things magically turned around, but they didn’t. But, writing it helped me realize something I didn’t know – that it’s very important to me to feel competent. And, if I don’t, I’m extraordinarily irritable and angry. I never knew that!

I don’t know about you, but I thought that when you get to a certain age, you pretty much know yourself. Guess not…  Mind you, that’s probably not such a bad thing. After all, don’t we all aspire to be life-long learners?

Oh, in case you’re wondering, I didn’t resign – that’s not my style. But, I’m not a masochist – or martyr – either. I mentioned my frustration to the president and the solution we came up with is that I’ll stay on and look after the traditional treasurer activities, but they’ve got to find someone else to look after the membership stuff!

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being … over it?

By Ingrid Sapona

It’s that time of year – time to begin preparing boats for hauling out. Of all the chores associated with owning a boat, putting up and taking down (de-stepping) the mast is my least favourite. I find it stressful and nerve-wracking.  

The club has a small crane that’s used for masts and on a couple of fall weekends, a volunteer crew is on hand to help members de-step their masts. The mast crew is efficient, but they expect members to sign up in advance and to show up on time and ready.

My anxiety around de-stepping goes back to the very first year I had the boat. Because the boat was rigged when I got it, I had no idea what was involved in de-stepping the mast. Turns out that besides taking the sails off, before you head over to the mast crane you have to take the boom off, tie off all the mast lines, and loosen the wires (shrouds) that laterally support the mast.

Each step is comprised of a series of steps, many of which have to be done in a certain order. Take the sails, for example. There are lines and various pieces of hardware that have to be removed in order to get the sails off. Over time I realized that labelling the different bits carefully as you take them off in the fall makes rigging the boat in the spring that much easier.

Tying down the mast lines (ropes) is easy, once you figure out a good system for doing it. If you’re sloppy about it, as I was that first year, the lines can get in the mast crew’s way and slow them down. And, complications the crew runs into translates into guff they heap on the skipper. Needless to say, the second year I got the help of a seasoned sailor who taught me his method, which I’ve used ever since.

Loosening off the shrouds involves removing many split rings and untwisting the turnbuckles that connect the shrouds to the boat. I hate working with split rings. If you’ve ever taken a key off a key ring, you know what a split ring is and you know they’re not fingernail friendly. A surprising number of things are kept in place on a sailboat with good old split rings. Fingernail sacrifices aside, the difficulty with the split rings used for rigging is that they’re positioned in ways that make opening them and turning them to remove them nearly impossible.

Turnbuckles present their own challenges. First, you have to figure out which direction loosens them. Then, if they’re tight (which they generally are, since the shrouds are meant to hold the mast in place), you need a plier to hold the stay while you use a screwdriver to leverage turning the buckle. Two hands – and determination – are usually enough, but not if your frustration level is still high from fiddling with the damned split rings.

Another mistake I made that first year I had the boat was thinking that my job was done when the mast was off the boat. A month later, however, I got a curt message from the club telling me I had to “strip” my mast. I had no idea what that meant – much less how to do it. Naturally, I went to the club office to beg forgiveness and to ask for help. Lucky for me, a member was there – with tools – and he helped me do it. (FYI, stripping a mast means disassembling parts to make it easier to store.)

With haul out just a couple weeks away, mast de-stepping has begun. So, on Saturday I decided to stop putting the mast preparation work off. I calmed my churning stomach by telling myself that I’d take each step as it came and if (when?) I got too frustrated or tired, I could stop for the day, as I still had a few days before the mast would be taken off.

Well, Saturday the weather was perfect – sunny but cool and no wind. As I completed each step, I took a breath and took stock before starting the next step. Before I knew it, three hours had passed, but I was done. I couldn’t believe how smoothly it had gone. My initial thought on completion was that I must have done something wrong, or forgotten something! I went back through my mental checklist and soon it was clear I hadn’t forgotten anything and all truly was well.

On the way home I was thinking about all the dread and anxiety I had about it. I know it goes back to the mistakes I made that first year or two. But, I’ve learned from those mistakes and, to my surprise, every year it truly seems to get easier. The other thing I realized on my way home is that maybe it’s time for me to get over my negative outlook toward the whole process. After all, the rational part of me knows that until I do, I’ll continue to be stricken with anxiety about it.

Well, if admitting a self-defeating attitude (not to mention the sound in my head of all of you impatiently muttering, “Oh, for heaven sake – get over it!”) is the first step toward changing ones behavior – then I guess I’m on my way to a future of an anxiety-free mast preparation. Gosh, I hope that’s the case. (But, I’m not putting money on it just yet. After all, I won’t know until this time next year whether my change of outlook has stuck. Here’s hoping, though…)

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being … a celebration of home

By Ingrid Sapona

I was visiting some friends who live in the wine region along the north shore of Lake Erie, south of the Windsor/Detroit area. It’s the kind of place where people often give the name of the county, rather than the town where they live, because they figure more people have at least heard of the county. It’s primarily an agricultural area, but it’s got more of a small town feel than a rural feel, if you know what I mean.

One of the highlights of the weekend was a special dinner at Oxley Estate Winery. The formal title was: Oxley Celebrates Home. If you guessed they were doing the locavore thing, you’d be right – but with a few added twists.  It so happens their young chef (Aaron Lynn) is a local kid who went away for culinary training and, after honing his craft working in some fancy restos, he returned to the area last year. Lucky for Oxley Estate and for those who have a chance to eat at the winery.

Not only did each of the five courses feature local ingredients, the chef named the dishes after the local purveyors – a nice touch, I thought. So, for example, we dined on Todd’s Perch (named after Todd, the local commercial fisherman the restaurant buys from), Rick’s Lamb, and Farmer Doug’s apples. But that wasn’t all. Before the meal, the chef introduced all of the local suppliers and asked them to stand so we could honour and recognize them as the people responsible for all the good things we were about to enjoy.

And, the celebration of things local didn’t end with the food. Ann, one of the owners of the winery, introduced the musicians who would be entertaining us. Turns out they too were from the area and when they’re not in town, they’re in Nashville working as backup musicians to some well-known country music stars.

During the dinner I was chatting with a woman sitting next to me. She was a local and so I was asking her a bit about the area. We talked about one of the bigger towns in the county and about how much it’s growing. The town’s population is up to about 21,000, which is pretty big, as towns go. And, like many Ontario towns, there’s a definite centre with some small shops, a few restaurants, a couple banks, and a library. But, the pickings were pretty limited in town. I wondered aloud where people go if they have any kind of serious shopping to do. She laughed and said that these days, she can get pretty much anything on-line. But, if there’s something she can’t order, it’s probably available in Windsor, which is “only about 25 miles away”.

Then I asked about grocery shopping. I had noticed that there are two well-known supermarkets, but I’m used to checking the weekly fliers of at least four major chains before I go grocery shopping. She said she didn’t care that other major grocers weren’t around. “I love shopping at those supermarkets. The people that work there are my neighbors and friends – why would I go anywhere else?” I was really struck by her response.

Later in the conversation, the topic of the refugee crisis came up. She mentioned she’s catholic and she said that in the next few weeks her church would be deciding on whether they will take in a refugee family, as the Pope has suggested. She said she’s going to push hard for them to do so.

I hadn’t heard about the Pope’s suggestion that every parish should sponsor one family, but it struck me as being in line with something else I read the Pope said about the current wave of refugees. He urged people to not see the crisis as involving hundreds of thousands because it’s just too overwhelming. Instead, we should respond to them as individual people – just one at a time. Though it’s such a simple idea, it’s about the most concrete, constructive idea I’ve heard from any leader about how to deal with the situation. I smiled at the idea of some refugee family settling down there and eventually calling themselves locals.

After dinner, I was thinking about how the theme of the evening could just as easily have been “the joy of human interaction”. Living in the city has its conveniences, opportunities, and even independence. But, if you’re not careful, city life can also bring with it a loss of connectedness. Fortunately, the condition isn’t irreversible. My weekend in the country reminded me that the best way to feel connected again is to celebrate what each individual brings to your life. If you do that, I think you’ll feel at home wherever you are.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being … truly majestic

By Ingrid Sapona

Every now and then, this column is about a milestone of some sort. Usually the milestone involves me or someone in my immediate family. Today, however, I’m writing about one that has nothing to do with me or my family – and yet it has captured my attention to a degree that, frankly, I can’t help but write about it. The milestone I’m talking about is the fact that Queen Elizabeth is now Britain’s oldest serving monarch. This past week she surpassed Queen Victoria who reigned for 63 years and 216 days.

I’m not what you’d call a monarchist. (I realize that’s not a term that comes up much in the States. Trust me, here in Canada it does.) I don’t really care one way or the other whether the queen is officially Canada’s head of state or not. To me it’s just a fact – much like the fact that Toronto is on the shore of Lake Ontario. Indeed, most of what has me so in awe doesn’t really have much to do with her as queen – it’s more about the qualities of her as an individual.

First of all, I can’t imagine doing any job for 63 years, much less one you didn’t choose. Of course, I understand she’s got the ultimate job security – but it’s not about her ability to hold on to a job. It’s about her being willing to do it for so long. I suppose, like any job, some aspects of it have evolved a bit over time, but probably not as much as most jobs. And, there’s absolutely no room for her to reinvent herself, as so many of us want to do – if not at mid-life, then in retirement.

It seems that whenever people talk about the fact that she’s been on the throne so long they simply chalk it up to her sense of duty. But where does that sense of duty come from? And, how remarkable that she would put duty above all else – from a very young age and for so very long. Her uncle Edward, after all, wasn’t willing to put duty first. I’m not sure many of us would. In a world where we’re taught we can have it all, to the extent we have a sense of duty, it usually is just one among many factors influencing our actions.

The other thing that I find particularly remarkable is how she keeps her thoughts, opinions, and moods to herself. Despite her title, she is human and so she must have opinions about people and events. She also must have days when she’s irritated or grumpy about something. You’d think that in more than 60 years of being in the public eye, someone would have reported seeing her in a bad mood or heard her say something disparaging about someone or something. Hell, in the digital era, it’s even more surprising that there’s no photo or tape of her saying or doing anything that might raise an eyebrow. (The same cannot be said of her children and grandchildren, that’s for sure!)

Mind you, not everyone finds it admirable that the queen keeps her opinions to herself. One commentator I heard this week criticised the queen as being a bad role model for girls because the behaviour she models is simply to show up and keep your mouth shut. Hmmm… I don’t really see it that way. I see her as behaving with dignity and aplomb in whatever situation she’s in. Those are qualities I think are worth emulating, regardless of gender.

It’s so easy to see the queen as being some figure from a fairy tale, rather than as a real person. And, though as a little girl I may have fantasized about being a princess – and maybe even a queen – somewhere along the way I got over that. Now I see her title, and even her wealth and status, more as a burden than benefit and I wouldn’t change places with her for anything.

Just think about how much the world has changed in the 63 years she’s been on the throne. She has had to strike a balance between the need to uphold traditions of the monarchy with the need to ensure it evolves to fit the times. If you think you have a hard time coping with the pace of change in today’s world, imagine how much harder it would be if you bore the weight of hundreds of years of history on your shoulder. 

Though I have nothing in common with the queen in terms of her lifestyle or stature, I admire her immensely. To me she exemplifies equanimity, graciousness, and steadfastness – qualities that I think we could all use more of.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona