7/16/2017

On being … underlying assumptions

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying “a picture is worth a 1,000 words”. It’s a catchy adage that many embrace. I imagine there are a number of reasons it’s so popular. First off, the saying kind of paints a picture itself, albeit with words!

I also think it resonates with folks because most people probably have a catalogue of images they can bring into their mind’s eye quite quickly. Images of beloved persons, memorable events and sometimes even horrible incidents (think of the collapsing World Trade Center towers). Many memories are easier to conjure an image of than to describe.

Anyway, the idea of using pictures to explain things comes up a lot in business communications – my line of work. I’m all for using graphs, diagrams, and art work to help express ideas in a document because many folks are visual learners. I urge people to use both pictures and words in their business communications – that way you’ve covered most people you may be trying to reach.

Mind you, I’d never recommend just a diagram without a written explanation. Why? Because some people aren’t visual learners. I know because I’m in that category. I get so little out of most diagrams, I usually just skip them. I’ve taught lots of business writing classes and when I say that, there’s almost always an audible gasp from somewhere in the room. But it’s true – and I’m sure I’m not the only one who ignores them.

I had an interesting exchange with a work colleague this week. We were discussing how a process worked. Neither of us were experts in it, but we both had some experience with it. I started to explain my understanding. Mid-explanation he interrupted me. He reached for a piece of paper and with a bit of a patronizing tone said, “You’ve heard the saying 'A picture’s worth a 1000 words'?” I nodded. “Here, so let me show you”, he then said. He proceeded to make a diagram explaining the process to me – or at least his understanding of it.

I watched him as he made his sketch. I understood what he was getting at – not because the diagram made great sense to me – but because I followed what he was saying. I disagreed with his interpretation, but I waited till he was done. I then explained I thought his underlying assumption wasn’t necessarily valid and I pointed to the general area in the diagram that was based on the faulty assumption.

He sat and thought about it a moment and said, “Oh, I see…I see…” (Clearly a visual learner – even his word choice related to the visual.) A couple seconds later he somewhat grudgingly added, “Actually, you’re right!” Actually? I decried. Gosh, glad I could persuade you … now, can you seem a little less surprised that I understand the process? I didn’t say that last part, but I wanted to because he was clearly taken aback by my calling him out on his seeming surprise that my analysis could be correct.

The look on his face said he got that I didn’t appreciate the “actually” part. To his credit, he hesitatingly said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way”. I accepted his apology, but before we parted company, I pointed to the diagram. I told him that, despite the old adage, for some of us a picture isn’t worth a thousand words – it’s just a picture. So, I suggested that next time he decides to “show” someone what he means using a diagram, he shouldn’t assume they’ll get it by seeing it.


© 2017 Ingrid Sapona

6/30/2017

On being… a noteworthy number

By Ingrid Sapona

Tomorrow Canada turns 150, so a column about anniversaries has been on my mind for a while. But, a few milestone anniversaries in the news this week got me thinking about the topic in somewhat more personal terms.

The 10th anniversary of the iPhone and the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter were two of the anniversaries that gave me pause, but kind of in opposite ways. On the one hand, I can’t believe Harry Potter has been around for 20 years already. I distinctly remember the first time I came across references to muggles, quidditch, and dementors, I wondered where they came from. When my oldest sister – a voracious reader – said it was from a children’s book that she had just read, I was intrigued. She lent me her copy and, like so many others, I got caught up in the magic (no pun intended) created by JK Rowling.

I’m not like other Potter fans – I didn’t rush out to get the books as they were published – I relied on my sister to lend me her copies when she was done. I can’t tell you the names of the different books, nor can I remember the names of all the instructors at Hogwarts. But I’ll never forget feeling in awe of Rowling’s talent (not to mention more than a bit jealous) and her insights into human nature. Having read the entire series, of course I knew that Harry, Ron, and Hermione grew up, but I can’t imagine them as 30-somethings!

As for the iPhone, I was honestly surprised it’s only been around for 10 years. I was a late convert to “smart phones”. Though I had two cell phones before I got my iPhone, I thought of them as a mere convenience – and safety feature – in case my car broke down. I didn’t really have much reason for a smart phone, let alone an expensive one. 

But about five years ago, I had the opportunity to create an iPod app and then I got an iPad for some other work. After that little taste – like Adam and millions of others who have eaten the forbidden fruit – I was hooked on Apple products. So, when it was time to get a new cell phone, switching to the iPhone was a no-brainer. At this point, I can’t imagine having any other phone. I’m not wedded to it – I still have a “land line” – but I find my iPhone so handy, I barely remember what my life was like before it. And yet, if the iPhone is only 10, that means it’s not even been a part of my life for that long … Amazing.

Another invention that marked a major anniversary this week is the ATM – the automated teller machine – it turned 50. Since I was in law school in the early 1980s, they’ve been my main way of banking. I have always preferred cash over credit (I find I pay attention to my spending a bit better), so I make good use of ATMs. It’s the rare occasion – like when I was seeking a mortgage to buy my condo – that I actually go into the bank and speak with someone. And, just when I thought the ATM couldn’t be made better, my bank’s new ATMs let you deposit multiple cheques at once and it prints a photo of the cheque on the receipt. And to think – 51 years ago the technology probably seemed like something out of the Jetsons!

And then there’s tomorrow’s big day – the 150th anniversary of confederation. Unlike in the US, where every event becomes commercialized, there really hasn’t been much cashing in on the anniversary. A couple years ago there was a competition to create a logo for the event. A 19-year-old art student’s stylized, multi-coloured maple leaf was chosen. There was a flurry of criticism of it (mostly by design professionals who seemed offended that the winning design was created by someone who wasn’t a registered graphic designer), and then the logo kind of disappeared.

Monochromatic versions of the logo appeared a couple months ago on t-shirts, but they weren’t widely available. As for shirts with the multi-coloured logo, when my sister wanted one (she saw it on Live with Kelly and Ryan), the only place I could find one was on-line. When I ordered it, I found out it was screen-printed in California! In contrast, here in multi-cultural Toronto, during the World Cup there are folks on every other corner selling flags and regalia from all the countries competing. It hasn’t been that way for Canada 150 regalia.

Instead, in lead up to the anniversary the focus has been more on what it means to be Canadian. The CBC and our national newspapers have done features about the people that make up Canada – from the indigenous to the immigrant. I love the introspection…

And one last example of how the anniversary is being observed. The City of Toronto sent out a notice about local street closures for tomorrow celebration. The notice was on letterhead that had clearly been created for the event – it read:

TO Canada
with Love
Honouring 150 Years

(TO stands for Toronto, Ontario, in case you’re wondering.)

At first I thought it was odd that it says “honouring” instead of “celebrating”. But then I realized that’s probably in deference to the indigenous people who have been here lots longer and who don’t necessarily feel that Canada’s 150th is anything to celebrate. I know – maybe a minor gesture – but still a sign of respect and acknowledgement.

Anyway, quite a few meaningful anniversaries for one week, don’t you think? Lucky for me it’s a long holiday weekend – there’ll be plenty of time for reflection AND celebration.


© 2017 Ingrid Sapona

6/15/2017

On being …a teacher’s hope

By Ingrid Sapona

When I was going through stuff at my mother’s house, I came across my high school yearbooks. I don’t feel particularly nostalgic about high school, so there was no question that they’d be going into the recycle bin. Before I tossed them though, I leafed through them.

Unlike some, high school wasn’t the highlight of my education, much less my life. But, I did enjoy a few activities – like marching band and I was in the orchestra for the school musical my third year (I think that’s when it was). I looked for photos of those activities, but there really weren’t any. 

I was surprised to find some things clubs I was in – like the yearbook – that I don’t remember participating in. I also thought it was interesting that I had completely blocked out the trauma of being subjected to the “Solomon Stare” – the evil eye Mr. Solomon, the concert band director – routinely shot my way. Truth be told: I didn’t remember the Solomon Stare until I was reminded of it reading a comments (jealous) bandmates wrote about it my yearbook the year I quit concert band.

The obvious highlights of any yearbook are the comments written by friends and teachers. There were surprises there too. One thing I’m actually embarrassed to admit is that there were a couple inscriptions written by people – friends? – I don’t remember. That makes me wonder whether there are many folks whose yearbook I signed that don’t remember me either. I’m sure there must be – after all, there were 600 in my graduating class.

It was the comments by teachers that really gave me pause. I was a good student and I have fond memories of many of them. So, I was especially interested in seeing which teachers I asked to sign my yearbook, and what they said. In reading them, I was struck by how ordinary they seem all these years later. I got the sense that each of them probably had a few stock platitudes they wrote year in, year out.

In reflecting on it some 40 years out, I realize that over the course of their careers, they influenced hundreds of students and were probably asked to sign thousands of yearbooks. Indeed, despite the banality of some of the comments, they deserve a lot of credit for making me feel special and worthy of individual attention when they were my teachers.

The thing that struck me the funniest was that one teacher’s wish for me actually came true. It was a wish written in my yearbook by a teacher whose name I didn’t even remember: Mrs. Florence Wagner, my typing teacher. I definitely remember taking typing, and I remember why. The main reason is that it fit in my schedule. You see, most of our courses ran the full-year, but New York State required students to take a half-year health course, so I had to fill in the other semester with something. Typing was not just a sensible choice, it was the one course my mother insisted I take. Her theory was that typing was a skill I could always use as a secretary. (I guess she was worried that my academic career might be short-lived.)

Mrs. Wagner’s wish for me was this: “I hope you get to type ever day of your life”. I’m sure when I first read that I figured that’s just what a typing teacher would say. But, honestly, looking back on it, maybe Mrs. Wagner was more of a visionary than she got credit for. Who knows, maybe she foresaw the role computers and keyboards would have in all our lives. I know, probably not. Good old Mrs. Wagner probably just understood that mastering basic skills always stands you in good stead.

So, though I’ll always wonder what might have happened if she’d have phrased her hopes for me a bit differently – maybe something along the lines of: “I hope your typing skills pay off for you as a famous writer”, I hope Mrs. Wagner lived long enough to realize that her hopes for me – and likely thousands of others – came true.

What about you? What hopes do you think your high school teachers had for you? Did they come to pass?  


© 2017 Ingrid Sapona

5/30/2017

On being … hocus-pocus?

By Ingrid Sapona

One of the ways I describe my consulting services is that I translate complex, often technical, information into plain language. So, in my work, I deal with subject matter experts – “SMEs”, as they are often referred to – a lot. I talk with them about what they do, always trying to understand it enough to write intelligently about it. It’s a challenge on a variety of levels. Often, when experts write about what they do, they either provide no detail or way too much detail for non-expert audiences. As you can imagine, neither of those options is ideal, which is why I’m hired to do the writing.  

One of the biggest hurdles is gaining SMEs’ trust and confidence. I basically need to convince them that I’m intelligent enough to “get” what they do, even though I couldn’t do what they do. I find that the best way to win them over is by demonstrating my curiosity and interest, and not being afraid to ask basic questions.

The trickiest part of my job often involves figuring out how much detail to include for my audience, typically folks with little background on the topic. But, to get to the point where I can explain things in plain language, I need to have a pretty solid understanding of the stuff. Before I meet with an SME, I usually do a fair bit of background reading on the topic.

By the time I meet with the expert, I want to at least have the big picture. I think one of the reasons I’m good at working with SMEs is because I don’t mind displaying my ignorance. The way I see it, the expert is there to educate me and I’ve always been an eager student. Many of my questions are focused on understanding the jargon associated with the field. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking them to define terms and then explaining my understanding back to them in my own words to make sure I have it right.

Usually what I feel I need to understand is how they got from point A to point C. In other words, I want to understand what happens at point B. Sometimes the expert is openly unwilling to tell me. In those cases, I think of point B as the secret sauce, and I can understand that they don’t want to share all their secrets. When that’s the case, I don’t mind simply explaining to readers that something involves a trade secret or proprietary information.

Lately I’ve worked with experts that seem happy to tell me, but their ultimate explanation boils down to them saying “we apply an algorithm” – as though that says it all. The first few times I got that response, I wished I had taken more math. But, just because I may not be able to interpret a complex mathematical equation, it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the factors that underpin the algorithm, so that’s what I try to get at.

Unfortunately, as often as not, the experts never seem to be able to explain much about the algorithm they’re relying on in their work. So, I’ve pretty much given up trying to get further insights. To be honest, that’s pretty freeing. Now, instead of feeling stupid when I can’t understand some outcome that relies on an algorithm, I just sit back and accept that the algorithm is like a magician’s hocus-pocus – no point in asking what it means – it’s enough to know that if all goes well, it’ll yield some magic result.


© 2017 Ingrid Sapona

5/15/2017

On being … suspicious

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ve been a member of my sail club for over 15 years. Though the bulk of the boats are over 30 feet long, as clubs go, we’re not a particularly fancy one. To keep fees down we’re a “self-help” club, which means we have to put in 30 volunteer hours per year. We don’t have a restaurant – but during sailing season, we have a bar run by hired staff.

During the summer I’m at the club pretty regularly, but I don’t spend nearly as much time there as others. Some members use their boat like a cottage, staying overnight most weekends. And, since I’m not a regular at the bar, I miss a lot of the gossip and politics that’s typical in a club our size.

A couple Saturdays ago, we launched the boats. The days immediately before launch are busy at the club. The boats spend the winter “on the hard”, which means up on their cradles on the club grounds. Fitting 350 boats and their unwieldy steel cradles means that there are boats everywhere.

There’s a lot to do to prepare a sailboat for launching. The two-or-so weeks before launch, the club is a beehive of activity. Pretty much everyone washes the winter grime off their hull and then they wax it. Many owners apply a special paint on the keel so that underwater things – like zebra mussels and algae – don’t cling. Folks with inboard motors winterize have to flush the anti-freeze out before launch. Folks with outboard motors – like me -- usually take them off for the winter, so they need to be reattached before launch.

On launch day we bring in two cranes – with professional crane operators – but all the other work is done by teams of club members. For safety reasons, members aren’t allowed to go to their boats that day until the boat is launched. Every member is assigned a check-in time, but there’s a lot of waiting. Members are usually excited and they understand the timing isn’t exact, so they patiently wait their turn.

I was working on one of the crews near a crane and I had the chance to chat with folks as they waited.  At one point, a member standing next to me pointed to a boat that had just been launched and he said, “Where’s his motor?” I didn’t recognize the boat but the place where the outboard should have been was empty. Then he said, “I helped him put a brand new motor on yesterday!”

A couple minutes later word came round that the guy’s brand new motor was gone. I really felt for him. What a pain in the you-know-what! Most likely his insurance will pay for it – but still, a hell of a way to start the season.

Over the years, we’ve had other things stolen off boats. It often happens in the fall, right after boats are hauled and before owners have a chance to take things – like electronics and outboards – home. But, theft happens at other times too. When my Dad owned the boat, one summer our outboard was stolen off the back of the boat while it was in our slip! The police said it’s likely the thieves motored into the yacht basin at night and took the motor right off the back.

A couple days after launch I was doing some work on my mast and a few long-time members were nearby. We got to talking about how smoothly launch went and I said yes, except for the member whose motor was stolen. These members hadn’t heard about it and so I told them the story. When I finished, one quickly chimed in, “Doesn’t surprise me … we’re as much a ‘help-yourself’ club as a self-help club!”

I was shocked when he said that, and even more surprised when the others agreed. I immediately offered up an alternative explanation. Professional thieves can surely figure out when launch is, given the sudden surge in activity at the club. And, with the boats sitting on their cradles, it’s easy to scope out the new engines. Though we have a fenced-in yard, there’s open access from the waterside. It’s not hard for thieves to get in and grab one. But beyond that, if a club member were to take someone’s brand new motor and put it on their boat, it would be pretty noticeable. The group mumbled their agreement with my theory and then everyone quietly went back to what they were doing.

All the way home I thought about the fact that members would suspect that a fellow club member would steal a motor. Is that indicative of morale at the club? I’ve been around long enough to know that there are cliques and factions who complain about this, that, and the other thing, but surely most members don’t harbour such suspicions. Maybe I’m naïve, but I prefer to think that club members are looking out for each other, rather than looking to steal others’ stuff. After all, would you be a member of a club where you suspected fellow members are thieves?


© 2017 Ingrid Sapona

4/30/2017

On being … well mannered

By Ingrid Sapona

I saw chefs Jeremiah Towers and Anthony Bourdain on a morning news show a couple weeks ago. They were promoting Towers’ new autobiography and a documentary about him that Bourdain executive produced. I knew of Bourdain, but not Towers.

After the interview, I looked up Towers on my public library’s website. When I typed in his name, up came two titles. I added my name to the waiting list for his autobiography. The other book, Table Manners, was immediately available in an audio version. I love audio books, so I downloaded it.

The next day at the gym, I started listening. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I was surprised that the book’s about – well – table manners. I realized this when Towers, who narrates the audio edition, said the full title: Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother. When I checked out the book, the title on the thumbnail picture was hard to read.

Once I realized the subject, my next thought was: “I wonder how old the book is?” In an age where disruption is a virtue and in a culture where rights of the individual trump the collective good, who writes about manners these days? As unbelievable as it seems, the book was published in 2016.

Well, Towers had me hooked from the dedication: “… to anyone else who is interested in how to behave to everyone’s advantage.” In the Introduction he makes it clear that manners are not a rigid set of rules. He says manners are continually – and should be – adapted. He also addresses the claim that paying attention to manners is mere pretention. To this he says, “The whole point of manners, especially table manners, is the opposite of pretension … when any behavior makes other people feel uncomfortable, it’s the behaviour that needs to change, not the people.”  Too true, I think.

I love that the book focuses on the purpose of manners. I always find that if I understand the purpose or rationale for something, it’s much easier for me to accept it and remember it. Clearly, Towers subscribes to this belief too. The book is replete with amusing anecdotes that illustrate how to handle various awkward situations so as to forward what he terms “The Platinum Rule”, which is: “do unto others as they would have you do.”

For example, he notes that often the first question someone asks the stranger sitting next to them at a dinner party is: “What do you do?” While that’s a perfectly normal question, Towers points out that it often invites a monolog and can kill conversation. But, that’s clearly not the worst of it. He learned his lesson the hard way when he asked this of a forensic pathologist he was seated next to at a dinner. Just as guests were about to dig into red, bloody roast beef, the pathologist relayed a story about a case involving a serial killer with a fascination for crucifixions. Towers concluded the story with the understatement: “some were quite put off the meal”.  On the topic of conversation starters, Towers’ imminently practical advice is to pick a topic that will allow both of you to contribute.

On things like cell phones at the dining table, Towers believes that technological changes shouldn’t be used as an excuse for bad manners. Stressing that good manners are about making others feel welcome and valued, he explains, “It’s not so much checking your e-mail that’s rude; it’s the fact that you’ve ceased paying attention to those with whom you are breaking bread.” Hear- hear, I say!

Everything Towers’ wrote about hit home with me (though I don’t know if I’d ever eat asparagus with my fingers in front of others, which he thinks is fine). So, from Chapter 1 I knew I’d make manners the topic for a column. But, as I always do, I worried about whether my readers would find the topic relevant today.

Then on Wednesday, an announcement by Uber about a change it’s made caught my eye. Uber has always “invited” riders and drivers to rate the ride experience, but there’s been more stress on riders rating drivers. Wednesday’s announcement was that Uber has modified its app so that now the rider’s rating is automatically displayed, under the rider’s name on the app’s menu. A less-than-subtle reminder to riders that both rider and driver play a role in the ride experience.

Uber explained that the reason for the change was to “encourage better rider behaviour” because, “… Uber is better for all when both drivers and riders do their part”. Interesting, eh? Sounds like a variation on Towers’ theme that, “… manners are a two-way street – it’s up to everyone to keep things running smoothly.”

So, maybe there’s hope. Maybe the pendulum is swinging back and folks are once again realizing the societal value of manners. Maybe we’ll see more books and articles on the topic and maybe technology can be harnessed to encourage better manners – just the way it has been used to encourage fitness.

Just think how much nicer daily life would be if everyone took Towers’ Platinum Rule to heart. I say: Here’s to better manners – at the table, in the taxi, in the check-out line at the grocery store, and every other place where people interact.   


© 2017 Ingrid Sapona

4/15/2017

On being … more like Doris Day

By Ingrid Sapona

Are you the type who tends to live by the motto: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Or are you more inclined to replace things before they brake? I used to think that everyone fit into one of these two camps. Now I realize, however, that there’s a third camp: the “it doesn’t really matter, you can’t win” camp.

My natural inclination is to replace things before they brake. This position is rational on a number of levels, I think. First off, things wear out. So, if you accept that something will need replacing within a given timeframe – why not replace it before it breaks?

The main reason for replacing things on a schedule is to avoid inconvenience. Isn’t there some variation on Murphy’s Law that says things always break at the most inopportune times? So if you can avoid the inconvenience, why not? Actually, sometimes inconvenience is the least of the problem – some breakdowns can be dangerous. (Like an alternator belt that snaps while you’re in the fast lane on the highway!) And of course, if you plan when you’ll repair or replace things, you can budget for them.

As I get older, I’ve become more of a “don’t fix it till it’s broke” type. Again, there are a couple reasons this approach makes more sense to me now. For starters, there have been a number of times when I’ve had something – a car, computer, t.v., and so on – misbehave but when I’ve taken it to be “fixed”, the problem, squeak, or glitch doesn’t seem evident. So, the repairperson is left guessing – and that can be time consuming and costly.  I’m sure you’ve had a service person (whether through honesty or laziness) tell you, “Your best bet is to bring it back when it’s broke”.

Because the desire to avoid inconvenience coupled with underlying insecurity still looms large in my life, I’ve not adopted the wait till it’s broke mantra in every instance. So, for some things, I do seek routine testing that others might not bother with. My boat batteries are a prime example. Over the winter I trickle charge them. Every spring, as Dad used to, before installing them I take them to be tested to see if they are holding a charge.

So, on Sunday I dutifully brought them to Canadian Tire, the store where I bought them. The technician put the first one on the testing machine, hooked it up, and keyed in the battery type. He said the test can take from a couple minutes to about 90, depending on the shape the battery is in. The machine does its thing and within a couple minutes, out comes a receipt-size printout. Given that I had charged it all winter, I figured the test was quick because the battery must be in good shape.

The technician then read the results aloud: Replace Battery. He tears off the receipt and hands it to me. According to the report, the 650 amp battery is only measuring 74 amps. So, do I take a chance that it’ll last the summer, or do I replace it this year? One battery was getting up there in years, so I kind of figured I’d be buying one this year. Maybe it’s time I replace that one.

Meanwhile, he hooks up the second one. A few short minutes later, out comes the report: Replace Battery. Given that the second one tested was the newer one, I assumed it would at least read higher than 74 amps. I was speechless when it read 0 amps!

My initial thought was that maybe I fried that battery. In my trunk was the Canadian Tire charger I used. I brought it in to show him. He reassured me that I used the right charger settings. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, I told him I needed to think about it and so I loaded them back in my trunk. Replacing both would cost just under $300.

As I headed home, I still couldn’t believe the one registered a 0. So, I decided to take them to another place to be re-tested. Since Canadian Tire is the only place I know that does this, I went to another Canadian Tire across town.

The guy there was only too happy to help. He hooked up the first one and in minutes, out came the report. He smiled and said, “Good Battery”, handing me the printout. That was the battery that previously showed 74 amps. On his machine it showed 634 amps. He hooked up the second battery and same result: “Good Battery”, with 630 amps. I couldn’t believe it.

I showed him the previous test results. He shrugged and said he was confident the tester he used is fast and accurate. He also said that maybe the other guy keyed in something wrong but, in any event, he wouldn’t worry about the batteries. I told him he made my day and I thanked him for saving me a whack of money.

In the end, I decided to believe the results of the second set of tests, but should I? Is it any more logical to assume – based on those tests – that both batteries will see me through the sailing season with no problems? Or, should I just bite the bullet and get a new one to replace the older of the two? Or, might the first guy have keyed in something a bit wonky thinking a woman might take failing results at face value, rather than question them? Stuff like this doesn’t make decision-making easier, that’s for sure.

If anything, incidents like this just push me into that third camp and they remind me that Doris Day had it right when she sang Que Sera, Sera.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona

3/31/2017

On being … worth exploring

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m interested in a lot of things. But, like most folks, there are also many things I’m not particularly interested in. One topic that’s never interested me is paleoanthropology. But, when a friend invited me to a National Geographic Live lecture by Lee Berger, a prominent paleoanthropologist and explorer, I said sure. To be honest, my main reason for saying yes was because I hadn’t seen this friend in some time and it would be a chance for us to catch up.

As we walked into the lecture, I confessed to my friend that I didn’t know a thing about the topic. (What I didn’t tell her was that, given my general lack of interest, I was more than a bit concerned I’d embarrass her by nodding off.) Anyway, I was relieved when she said she didn’t know anything about paleoanthropology either. She explained that she and her late husband had subscribed to the National Geographic Live series and had found past lectures interesting.

Pretty early on in the lecture, it was clear that staying awake wasn’t going to be a problem. Berger was enthusiastic about his work and he was a great storyteller. He started by explaining the different areas in Africa where major discoveries in his field had been made. He said he returned to one particular area in South Africa after some recreational cavers showed him photos of what might have been bones in a cave they explored. Based on what these cavers showed him, he headed out, taking his 9-year-old son for the ride. Shortly after they got to the area the cavers told him about, his son called him over to look at something he found attached to a rock.

Berger immediately identified the bits as a clavicle and part of a jaw. Yes, Berger has a PhD in paleoanthropology, but still, how could he identify that bit as a clavicle right there on the spot, I thought. Well, turns out his doctoral dissertation was on clavicle fossils. Coincidence doesn’t begin to describe the odds – Berger said he felt like he had won the lottery.

Since the fossils his son found were near the cave, not in it, they continued looking around. They soon found the narrow cave entrance. Getting in was going to be a non-starter for Berger – he was too big. To get to the chamber where the fossils were found (about 30 metres in) you had to pass through a small opening. And, once in, you came upon an even narrower passage – one that was only 18 centimeters wide (a bit more than seven inches). The only way through that part – which they named “Superman’s Crawl” – was to push one arm through, followed by that shoulder, then your head, the next shoulder, and so on. After making it through that, you had to climb a 15 metre stone ledge they named Dragon’s back, and then descend further into the cave to the chamber.

Once he had an idea of what he was dealing with, he organized an expedition. He began by putting out a call to find paleoanthropologists who were interested in helping look for fossils AND were small enough to fit through Superman’s Crawl. The parts of the job description I thought he left off was that you also had to be crazy AND adventurous beyond belief. Lots of young, eager paleoanthropologists applied and he ended up with a team of six women. Over the course of two expeditions, they uncovered over 1500 pieces of hominid bones belonging to at least 15 different individuals.

I left the lecture feeling inspired, but I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t that the lecture had sparked in me an interest in the origins of the human species. Nor was it one of those things that made me think, “Gosh, if I’d have heard this as a kid, maybe I’d have considered paleoanthropology as a career”. Undoubtedly, part of the positive feeling I had was appreciation for a story well told – after all, I’m a writer. But there was something more.

On the way home that night something made me think about an email exchange I had earlier that week with another friend. We had been talking about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical Hamilton. After our initial conversation, she found a video of him and his family. The video was of them recreating a scene from the Sound of Music while on vacation in Salzburg, Austria.

In her email sending me the link to Miranda’s video, she commented, “His exuberance is very cool.” But then she added, “Perhaps, his family and my family could not be more different!” Given that she and her husband are both physicians and her son and husband are both avid hockey players, I think I understood what she meant.

After that little conversation flashed through my head, I realized I had the same feeling about Berger and those young women paleoanthropologists. The adventure and desire to explore things like that is completely foreign to me, and yet, I couldn’t help admire their exuberance.

Just as I made that connection, I understood why I felt uplifted by Berger’s lecture. What I realized is that observing the exuberance that fuels people on to exploring their dreams and passions – regardless of what they are – reminds us of the limitless possibilities within ourselves.


© 2017 Ingrid Sapona