On being … illusion-shattering

By Ingrid Sapona

Do you remember feeling crushed when you found out there’s no Santa Claus? Or maybe it was learning the truth about the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy that started you on the road to cynicism.

To be honest, I don’t remember how I felt when I lost those innocent beliefs. But, given how crushed I was recently when I read an article about big name literary prizes, I can only imagine my reaction on learning the truth about Santa.

Here’s what happened. A couple weeks ago I was leisurely reading the Saturday Toronto Star when I came across this headline in the book section: Burning Book Prize Questions. I immediately thought “Oh, this’ll be interesting. I’ll bet they’re going to talk about the odds of different books winning the Man Booker Prize (a £50,000 international award), or maybe the Scotiabank Giller Prize (a C$100,000 prize for fiction) or maybe the Governor General’s Award (another big Canadian literary prize).

Turns out, that’s not what the article was about at all! The burning question for discussion was whether all the jurors – those people who decide who wins the award – really read all the books. That question NEVER entered my mind. Ever. In fact, I thought it was a downright stupid question. Of course the jurors read all the books. How else could they decide who gets the prize?

Now, I know that when a writer submits a manuscript to a publishing house, the manuscript’s first stop – and maybe its last – is the desk of some young personal assistant. Yes, a nameless, low-paid worker is the writer’s first hurdle on the road to fame and fortune or the rejection pile. But, if a book beats the odds and actually makes it onto the long – or better yet the short – list for a particular literary prize, surely the author gets treated with more respect. The way I see it, those charged with bestowing the prize owe the authors – and the reading public who pay attention to such prizes – the courtesy of reading the chosen books. So, as I said, what a silly question! Nonetheless, I continued reading…

I didn’t have to wade too far into the article before I was speechless. One of the Giller prize jurors who had actually won the award himself, apparently also found the question silly – but for very different reasons. Pointing out that there are a lot of books, he seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would think that the jurors would read them all!

Mind you, that’s not the only reason he gave for not reading all of them. His main justification was that there are books by people that he finds “problematic in their sensibility”. I’m sure that’s true, but then why agree to be on the jury? (The cynic in me suspects that being a juror is a good way of keeping your name in circulation in the literary world. But I digress…) Apparently he reads the first 50 pages but only continues if he feels compelled to. Besides, he reckoned that the four other jurors – each with their own sensibilities – could have caught something he might have missed. He went on to also note that he knows that some of his peers on the jury did, in fact, read all the books.

Thankfully, one of the other jurors interviewed for the story – a writer that has been short-listed for a major literary prize – said he believes in giving each book a fair shot and so he read each one in good faith and with an open heart. Now that’s more like it, I thought…

I was really quite stunned by the idea that someone who is helping decide which book will win an award would do so without having actually read all the books from cover-to-cover. It’s not even that it’s illusion shattering -- it seems downright wrong to me. Why should anyone ever put any stock in the quality of the books that are short-listed or even that win?  

I guess this just means that from now on, when a critic recommends a book or when someone recommends one because it’s an award winner, I’ll take the advice with a pound of salt instead of just a grain. Or, better still, maybe I’ll just stick with the tried and true – reliance on recommendations from friends.

So, read any good books lately?

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … insulting

By Ingrid Sapona

I went to the Bulk Barn the other day to buy a few things. They didn’t have what I was looking for, but one of my favourite candies was on sale, so I scooped a few into a small baggie. As I put the twist tie on the bag, I made a mental note of the candy’s four-digit product code.

When it was my turn to be rung up, I put the baggie on the scale and told the cashier the code. She looked at me and kind of scowled as she typed it into the cash register. As she did so, she grumbled, “I’ve worked here many years”. I politely explained that I was just trying to be helpful. She scowled again and put the item in a bag as she told me the cost. Her obvious irritation took me by surprise and caused me to think about insults – about being insulting and feeling insulted.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been guilty of leveling an intentional insult or two. Of course, at the time of doing so, I always felt it was justified. But, the older I get, the more I realize that my momentary feelings of self-righteousness aren’t always well founded. And, as important, I’ve come to realize that insulting someone usually doesn’t change them or improve the situation. If anything, an insult often makes a bad situation worse, as people feeling belittled or insulted seek to even the score in whatever way they can.

When I realized the cashier felt insulted, I immediately checked in with myself to see whether – on some level – I intended to insult her. I concluded that I really didn’t intend to insult her in any way. I had only made note of the product code because I know cashiers must enter them to determine the cost. I even considered whether I might have made a sub-conscious assessment of her age or mental ability to remember all the different product codes. Since I hadn’t even looked at her after announcing the product code because I was busy fishing through my purse to find change, I really hadn’t paid any attention to her age or seniority.

On my way home, as I nibbled through the 60¢ worth of candy I bought, I couldn’t stop thinking about our brief conversation. I shuddered at how easy it is to misconstrue what someone says and why it is we sometimes feel insulted, even when absolutely no insult is intended. I felt bad knowing that she felt insulted, even though I knew I bore no real responsibility for her feeling that way. Indeed, I came away thinking that her interpretation was more a reflection of her self-esteem than of what was really said.

This little episode helped me see the difference between being insulting and feeling insulted – and it helped me see that a person can feel insulted even when no one was actually being insulting. It’s also a good reminder of how easy it is to misinterpret words! So, in the end, this incident has made me think that next time I feel the sting of an insult, instead of trying to feel better by trying to decipher what the person was getting at, I should be looking inward to see why the comment triggered the feelings it did.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … heard

By Ingrid Sapona

In the weeks between columns, the question of what to write about next kicks around in the back of my head. Then, invariably I notice my attention focuses on something a bit longer, or a bit sharper, than that thing might seem to warrant. Next thing I know, I’m considering whether there’s an On being… there. That’s what happened this week.

I’ve got about a 30-minute commute and I’ve taken to tuning into a few different podcasts to liven up the drive. One is Presidential, a podcast recorded in 2016 by a Washington Post journalist. Another is The Room Where It’s Happening, which is an homage to Hamilton (the musical). And when I know I’ll be in the car for a bit longer, I sometimes mix in an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History.

The format for each podcast is very different. In Presidential, the host (Lillian Cunningham) interviews biographers and historians about the featured President. But, she doesn’t just talk about his boyhood or his presidential achievements. Instead, she chooses a theme and then examines the particular President through that lens. For example, for Benjamin Harrison she focused on his conservation work.

The Room Where It’s Happening is more like a radio talk show. The hosts (Travon Free and Mike Drucker) basically sit around and talk about Hamilton with other millennials from the entertainment or arts community. Besides being fun to listen to them wax poetic about the musical (“geek out”, as they describe it), their insights into the creative process and to American culture (particularly the hip hop culture), is very interesting.

Gladwell’s Revisionist History is the most scripted of the three. Though some episodes of the podcast include snippets of interviews or conversations Gladwell might have had in researching the topic at hand, each episode is basically a finely crafted essay. 

Podcasts aren’t the only audio treat I indulge in on my commute. I also listen to the occasional audio book. I discovered them a couple years ago when I was browsing my public library’s digital catalogue. I like them so much, even if the digital version is currently available, I willingly add my name to the waiting list for the library’s lone audio copy.

As it happens, this week my hold for the audio book “A Gentleman in Moscow” came in. I downloaded it to my phone and began listening. The combination of the reader’s charming British accent and author Amor Towles’ lyrical descriptions captivated me from the start. 

It was in switching to the audio book that I started contemplating the different experiences I was having with each. I also began thinking about how hearing and listening are related, but they aren’t the same thing. Indeed, though the podcasts and audio books are based on the same types of auditory stimuli – words as opposed to music, for example – each engages my mind in different ways and on different levels. How cool is that?

The experience of listening to the spoken word on my commute to/from work was definitely the initial inspiration for today’s column. When I sat down to begin writing, I planned on a title that had to do with the sensory experience of listening. And yet, no title felt quite right because all I could focus on was the notion of being heard, which didn’t seem related to what I planned on writing about the podcasts and audio books.

As I played around with different titles, I realized that, in fact, what’s consumed so much of my subconscious energy lately is the feeling that I’m not being heard. This feeling isn’t new – it’s happened before, but right now it seems to be happening at work and at home.

As soon as I owned up to the title of this column, I realized the reason the podcasts and audio books have been making such an impression on me lately. It’s precisely because I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make my own voice heard.

Funny how the mind works, eh? It’s always looking for inspiration and ways to help you with your personal struggles. The trick is figuring out what it’s telling you…

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … eclipsed

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ve always liked analogies. I think they’re a useful tool for analyzing things. To craft a good analogy you need to carefully think about different aspects of the things you’re ultimately comparing. The clearer you see it, the better you’ll be able to draw a comparison to something else. I also find analogies can be a useful way of helping others see what you see. A thought-provoking or clever analogy can bridge the gap between different sides because it can help both sides see the underling commonalities.

The August solar eclipse was a big story for many here in North America. It wasn’t a big deal for me personally, in part because here in Toronto, the coverage was about 70%. I did find a number of things about it interesting though. For example, the fact that power grid operators in North America did quite a lot of planning leading up to the event to make sure that there were enough energy resources to compensate for the drop in solar power.

I’ve also found stories friends relayed in the wake of the eclipse interesting. Sailor friends of mine who weren’t particularly excited about the idea of the eclipse decided, nevertheless, to head out for a sail that afternoon to experience the eclipse. Afterward they both commented on how surprising – almost eerie – the change was. Part of it, they agreed, was due to the temperature change – but it was also about the change in the colour of the sky. 

Another friend, who lives on the west coast, made a day of it with her family. They travelled to someplace in Oregon where the coverage was 100%. When she returned, she said it was hard to explain how profoundly moving she found it. 

It’s been nearly six weeks since the eclipse, so I thought it odd when I saw the word in a headline last week. Curious, I began reading. Turns out the article was about Trump’s vitriol aimed at NFL players who “take the knee*”. I wasn’t interested in the story of Colin Kaepernick’s actions last season, nor do I care about the lingering impact of it on him or the game. So, like many folks, I found it ridiculous that Trump weighed in on the matter at all. 

Of course I get that there are elements of news to the story. There are freedom of speech issues and race issues intertwined in the story – both incredibly important topics. But, Trump’s bombastic claim during a political rally that NFL owners should fire the players is not an attempt to raise those issues, much less to start serious dialog about them.

To be honest, I don’t even think his bombast is intended to insight or inflame people – though I think it does both. There’s been lots of discussion about why he behaves as he does. Some think it’s impulse control (a lack thereof, that is), others think it’s because of psychological issues. Personally, I think a huge element of it is intentional subterfuge – keeping people focused on a ridiculous comment so no one pays attention to what others in his administration and family are doing.

The article described Trump’s tirades and twitter storms as eclipsing all other news. That, I think, is the sad truth. Indeed, on the day North Korea’s foreign minister said his country considers Trump’s tweet that North Korea’s regime “won’t be around much longer” a declaration of war, the lead story on two US television networks was Trump’s attack on NFL players – a story that was already two days old, not to mention trivial by comparison.

Just as we have no control over a solar eclipse, Trump’s behaviour is out of our control. Given that we’re all mere bystanders to the Trump eclipse, there are steps we can take to help us get through it. The first is to not let your gaze wander into the light, as doing so will blind you to what’s really going on. Indeed, we must not forget that much is still going on behind the shadow Trump is casting and that we won’t know what it all is until he moves on. We must also be prepared to deal with the changes in atmosphere and our surroundings while Trump’s shadow looms because – god willing – eventually his shadow will recede and the sun will return.

*Is it just me or do you find that expression odd? It sounds like something you’d say if you’re describing some guy getting hit in the groin – not someone down on one knee. Anyway…

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … the deciding feature

By Ingrid Sapona

There are a lot of useful household appliances. If I were ranking them, I’d say the refrigerator is the most important. (After all, without one, I couldn’t possibly have cheese on hand!) For me, the washing machine is a close second. I’ve never been keen on hand washing even my most expensive delicates – I can’t imagine washing bedsheets, towels, and what have you, by hand.

The other day I threw a load of laundry in. I was barefoot as I headed toward the washer to unload it. I felt something wet on the floor. When I looked down, I saw that I had stepped into a huge puddle. My heart sank, as I figured it had to be from the washing machine. I quickly got a bath towel to wipe up the water. That’s when I noticed the puddle was about two feet away from the washer. The area next to – and under – the washer was bone dry. Strange…     

I decided to try another load, this time watching for water. Not so much as a drop. Very strange… Since then I’ve done a few more loads and so far, so good. But, the puddle seemed a warning sign, so I began shopping for a new washer.

When I started looking, the only thing I knew for sure was that I want a top loading machine. (Besides the cost differential, I’ve heard some negative things about front loaders and I’ve never had a problem with my top loader.) Beyond that, I really didn’t know what “features” to look for. 

I started by looking on-line because I knew I’d be able to see the specs for each model. Also, I like the comparison feature on different websites. You can choose a half dozen different models and the program produces a list that lets you tell, at a glance, how they compare. The websites also have reviews, which I thought might be helpful.

I started my search in earnest. I selected a few models that looked similar to my current machine and I hit “compare”. Up came a list of 65 points of comparison. (65! I counted them!)  About half the items are things you might expect to see when talking about washing machines. For example, a yes or no list of features like: Delicate Cycle? Extra Rinse Cycle? Cycle Status Light? Power Cord Included? Delay Start? And End-of-Cycle Signal? 

But, as I went down the list, I couldn’t believe I was still comparing washers. Who looks for washers that have Bluetooth capability? Or washers that are Wi-Fi compatible? If you consider those things must-haves for a washer, then you’d be appalled to hear that NONE of the washers I looked at work with Apple HomeKit or Nest, nor do they work with Amazon’s Alexa, or Iris. (Who – or what – is Iris? I Googled it and the only thing I found were references to the eye and the flag!) I realize most of these “features” have to do with creating a “smart home” – but honestly, I don’t need a smart washer. Given that I’ll be manually loading the clothes in, I figure I can stand there the couple extra minutes it takes to turn it on.

As for the reviews, there’s really no way to make sense of 5000+ reviews. When someone gives a model 1 star (out of 5) because the machine broke after one wash, I figure they got a lemon – it doesn’t mean every one of that model breaks after one load. And when one review says the machine is very loud, but the very next review says it’s the quietest washer they’ve ever had, what are you to make of it? 

The on-line perusing helped me narrow in on the features I’d like. Then it was time to look at some models in person, so I headed to a big box store. The displays gave the length, width, depth, and height for each. But, none of them gave information about the height with the lid up. That’s a critical measurement for me because my dryer rests on a sturdy, non-adjustable metal frame over the washer. So, I borrowed the salesperson’s tape measure.

I ended up measuring all the top load models on display and – as unbelievable as it seems – only one of them might fit. And, it’ll be a squeaker – it’s within a quarter inch of the height measurement I took. I couldn’t believe it. After all that comparing and thinking about what features I want (not to mention, whether I could live with a “dumb” washer), it all boils down to one thing – whether the damned model fits the space I have for it!

Honestly, I wish appliance makers and builders would get together and set some sizing standards and then stick with them for a few decades. Until they do, I’m sure the deciding factor for many appliance purchases isn’t even on the list of “features” the companies boast about – it’s the age-old question of whether it fits. Kind of crazy, don’t you think?

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … primal?

By Ingrid Sapona

When I’m alone in the car I have the (bad) habit of “playing the buttons”, as my dad used to call it. If I don’t like the song, I flip to another station until I find something I like. The other morning I flipped to a station where the DJs were talking about a recent poll. I had missed the beginning of the discussion – the setup – but what I gathered was that the poll asked people what was the one thing they couldn’t live without.

Normally, I hate questions like that because they seem so contrived AND because I usually can’t come up with an answer. But this time, as soon as I heard the question, I blurted out: cheese. The fact the word popped out of my mouth without any conscious thought truly surprised me. But, I have to admit – I can’t imagine life without cheese.

As I said, I had missed the setup to the discussion about the poll. So, I didn’t know, for example, whether the poll provided a list of things to choose from, or whether people were asked to provide an answer “free-form” – as I had done. When the DJ announced the third most common answer people gave was their pet, I realized respondents must have been asked to choose between pre-set answers. Of course pet owners couldn’t live without their pets. It’d be like a parent saying they couldn’t live without their child – that’s not something you’d expect would even be in the realm of things anyone would choose to do without.

Anyway, after a brief discussion about pets and before revealing the two top answers, the DJ repeated the full question. Turns out the poll was about expenses that people incur for things but that they might be forced to give up if they were in a financial bind and had to really cut back. In that context, the number two answer – their cell phone – made perfect sense. I would have no problem giving up my cell phone. Hell, until about a year ago I had the most basic cell phone – the kind of thing that you could call 911 on, but not much more. Giving up my cell phone to cut costs isn’t much of a sacrifice, as far as I’m concerned – and it would save lots of money.

Given how surprised I was by the third and second most popular responses – and how very different they seem, I couldn’t imagine what the most common response was. Turns out the thing most people said they couldn’t live without is the internet. I will say, that response did give me pause. Having lived through some belt-tightening times, I have a ready list of services that, though I appreciate them, are always subject to cancellation should economic circumstances require it – things like Netflix, cable t.v., and newspaper subscriptions. But I’ve never actually thought about giving up the internet… that WOULD be hard to live without.

As I was weighing the choice of cheese vs. the internet, one of the DJs relieved me of the dilemma of choosing. He noted that if you have to give up the internet at home, there are still lots of places you can use it for free. The comment also helped me realize that my response of cheese actually has something in common with those who said their pet as something they can’t imagine living without – both appeal to more primal needs.

What about you? What couldn’t you give up?  

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … behaviour modified

By Ingrid Sapona

My introduction to the concept of “behaviour modification” came when I was a youngster. I first heard it from my oldest sister, who was studying to be a teacher. My understanding of it back then was that it was something teachers did to try to get students to change some sort of bad behavior to something that the teacher thought was better. Though I was young, I remember being kind of appalled at the idea of teachers learning a technique to manipulate kids’ behavior.

Fast forward 30 years to the early 2000s and the topic came up again when I was doing some work for a client. That client was designing energy conservation programs that relied on behaviour modification. For example, to get people to switch their consumption to off-peak hours, people were offered special meters they could plug different appliances into to find out how much energy each appliance draws. The meter would also automatically calculate the cost of running the appliance at high demand times and at off-peak times. The whole point was to get them to understand the exact cost benefits of changing their behaviour. I have to admit, in that context, I didn’t find behaviour modification the least bit sinister – if anything, I thought it was pretty clever.

Lately I’ve been working on modifying my own behaviour after I realized technology had modified me in a way I wasn’t too pleased about. It started a few years ago when my (then) cable company began offering customers the ability to “pause live t.v.” When it came out, I thought it was the stupidest “feature” I had ever heard of, and I sure as heck wasn’t going to pay for it. But, when they upgraded my digital recorder, it was one of a few new features included at no extra cost.

I soon discovered how handy it was to simply pause the show I was watching when the phone rang. Even better, however, was the ability to rewind live t.v. I can’t tell you how often someone would say something in a news story and I’d think, “Did I hear that right?” No problem, I could just rewind a bit and listen again.

Little did I know, however, that this handy feature was taking a toll on my listening skills. I first realized my ability to listen and synthesize what I’d heard was suffering when I found myself feeling frustrated that I couldn’t rewind when I was listening to the news on the car radio. I’d get so irritated because I couldn’t go back and re-listen, as I could with my t.v.

I’ve since changed television providers and so I no longer have the ability to pause or rewind live t.v. I don’t mind admitting I do miss it. But, giving them up is for the best, as it’s forced me to pay better attention and focus more on what I hear.

Having realized how a seemingly minor technological change can subtly – and negatively – cause changes to my behavior, I can’t help wonder if there are other ways my behaviour is being modified that I’m not even aware of. What about you? Has someone – or something – modified your behaviour? If so, is it for the best, or is it something you might want to (re)modify?

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … disconnected

By Ingrid Sapona

I wrote earlier this year that we’re in the process of selling the home I grew up in. As I noted earlier, sorting through over 50 years of family stuff and the accompanying memories was a challenge. As my way of coping with the emotion of it all, we tried to give things to people we thought might use, or enjoy, them.

We also donated lots of things. But, no matter how many trips I made to Goodwill, it barely seemed to make a dent. We ended up having an “estate” sale in hopes of getting rid of the rest.
The estate agent came through the house and assured us we were a good candidate for a sale. He insisted he’d be able to sell nearly everything.

He also discouraged us from being on hand during the sale, which was fine by me. I once put a few things in a garage sale my friend had and I found it awful. I hated it when someone picked up something I had marked $1 and they offered me 25¢ for it. I found it equally uncomfortable to hear people described stuff I once loved as kitschy or odd.

Because the estate agent was so confident that he could get rid of pretty much everything, I stressed to him that we really wanted to get rid of the shelving that was along two walls of the basement. I explained we needed that out because we would be having foundation work done before we sell the house. The estate agent said that if worse came to worse, he’d put a sign up saying the shelving was free for the taking. Great idea, I thought.

After the sale, the agent phoned me to tell me it went very well and that most of the things were gone. As for the rest, he offered the name of a “clean out” guy. Since I hadn’t seen what was left, I said I’d let him know. Before we hung up, he said he thought we could probably handle getting rid of whatever was left ourselves.

When I finally went to the house, I was dismayed by how much was still in the basement. There was a truly odd assortment of things that didn’t sell, as well as ALL the shelving. Though I might have been able to handle getting rid of the miscellaneous stuff, there was no way I could take down the shelves. So, I ended up phoning the clean out guy (I’ll call him John).

John came over to give us a quote to leave the house “broom clean”. He said he’d donate whatever he could and that he’d toss the rest. But, most importantly, his guys could tear down the shelving. He said he could probably cart the wood away with a few trips, though a short-term dumpster rental would be easier. I vetoed the idea of a dumpster. For starters, I didn’t want the world to know we were getting rid of stuff. But the main reason was because I couldn’t stand the thought of our stuff being chucked into a dumpster.

On the appointed day, John and one other fellow (I’ll call him Jim) came to the house. I quickly reminded them of what we needed done, and I left them in the basement. In fairly short order, I could hear hammering-like sounds, and wood falling. About an hour later, John left – apparently to buy garbage bags – but Jim continued. A bit later a small covered pickup backed up to the garage. The driver let himself in the side door and went directly to the basement – I figured he was part of the crew.

Next thing I know, he was filling the truck with stuff that didn’t sell at the estate sale. The truck quickly became full, or so I thought. But, he made at least a dozen more trips. It seemed as though the flat bed was a cover for a bottomless pit. Eventually he closed the back and drove away. Meanwhile, I could hear more lumber crashing to the floor.

Shortly after that, John returned for Jim. They were done for the day and the basement looked as though a tornado had come through. Watching the odd comings and goings of John and his crew, and hearing the thumps and thuds and then seeing the mess was like watching sausage being made. Very disquieting…

On day two, Jim and two others arrived with the kind of trailer lawn guys use for their riding mowers. They backed it up to the garage and Jim went back to work. I heard them talking and they estimated there was about 1000 lbs. of wood. With every plank they brought up, I couldn’t help wonder how – or when – Dad brought it all down there. I know it was over the course of years, but it was an amazing amount.

At one point Jim said that he was almost done, but he wouldn’t be able to finish until the next day because he needed a crowbar to get the rest. Given how much he had already brought out, I was surprised there was anything left. He said the rest was very sturdily attached to the rafters, so a hammer wasn’t enough. You know, I was kind of proud to hear that. I couldn’t help but think of all the hard work – and care – Dad took to build those shelves. He had clearly meant for them to stay put and I was glad it was at least a bit of a struggle to take them down.

I know that for John and Jim the “clean out” was just a job. But for us, their last bit of work was about more than just disconnecting the shelving from the rafters, it was about disconnecting our family from that house.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona