On being … better than Barbie

By Ingrid Sapona

Like most girls, growing up I played with dolls. And of course, I had a Barbie. I don’t think they had themed Barbies back then, as they do now (no Lifeguard Barbie, Surgeon Barbie, Surfer Barbie, and so on). I guess I’d call mine the standard issue Barbie. 

Though I’m sure I enjoyed endless hours with Barbie and her friends, they weren’t my all-time favourite toys. That honour goes to a Mattel toy called Tog’ls, which were building blocks that were kind of a variation on Legos. I loved creating things with Tog’ls. Because I liked them so much, over time my parents bought me additional sets, which greatly expanded the scope of things I could build. I remembered feeling that the possibilities were endless…

Flash forward to a recent news report about Hello Barbie – a new doll that’s set to debut later this year. According to the news story, what’s new about this Barbie is she’ll be “interactive”. That description struck me as odd, since I kind of figure all toys interactive. Well, at least those that children actually play with are…  But, turns out, the 21st century definition of an interactive toy is a little more finely honed than the type of interactive toy I played with.

According to the news story in the Toronto Star, Hello Barbie uses WiFi and voice recognition technology, which means she can record conversation and talk back. Because of the technology, she can mimic a conversation between friends. The CEO of the company that created the technology used in the doll describes Hello Barbie as a “highly controlled experience”.

Though Hello Barbie isn’t yet available, the reason she’s been in the news already is because more than 5,000 folks have signed a petition asking the toymaker to “yank the toy”.  Their concern – like the technology that is Hello Barbie’s DNA – is very 21st century. It’s about privacy, basically. These folks (presumably parents) are concerned about the fact that the doll records, stores, and relays things said to the doll.

As the clever opening line of the article implied – this Barbie’s abilities could make her – well, basically – a spy. How might the children’s intimate conversations with the doll be used? And what about things parents and others say around the doll? Might those conversations also be transmitted? And to whom?

To reassure parents, the toymaker has pointed out that the dolls will not have a GPS chip (whew – one less worry – theoretically they won’t be able to find your kid), and the doll won’t ask personal questions or collect personal information. Also, the toymaker promises not to use the info they collect for advertising, marketing, or publicity. How will parents know this? Well, it’ll all be in the consent e-mail that parents will have to send. That’s right – parents will have to consent to kids playing with the Barbie! Jeesh… now the company will have the parents’ e-mail addresses too...

And, if all these “features” don’t make you wonder whether Hello Barbie is a spy – here’s one other feature that I think lends credibility to that notion: like any spy, she can be turned – made into a double agent, if you will. Seems that parents will be able to access (and delete) the comments their children make to Barbie. They’ll need a password do so, but still – an interesting possibility, for those who wonder what their children are telling Barbie.

I’m sure the toymaker realized that Hello Barbie would cause a stir. So, other than the fact that a bunch of tech folks must have thought it would be cool to make such a doll, why would the company bother, I wondered. Well, according to a company, the number one request they get from girls is that they want to have a conversation with Barbie.

In thinking back to playing with my dolls, I probably did want to have conversations with them. But the thing is, I am sure I had conversations with Barbie. How else would I have known what to serve her during tea parties, or what she wanted to wear to the prom? So what that Barbie couldn’t really tell me these things – I didn’t need to actually hear her answers to know! Mind you, growing up I also had an imaginary friend named Rosie. Well, strictly speaking, Rosie wasn’t a friend – she was my (imaginary) maid. And oh did I have some intimate conversations with Rosie! She was both someone I could complain to about the injustices of having to make my bed or clean my room and someone I could blame for getting me in trouble when she didn’t do such chores for me.

So, I guess my issues with Hello Barbie aren’t so much related to what the doll can do – it’s more a concern about whether playing with such clever toys might stifle children’s imaginations.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being … about time

By Ingrid Sapona
I periodically cull through things. I don’t really like doing it, but I generally feel good when I’m done. What I find most frustrating about it is that even when I know I’ve gotten rid of lots of stuff, someone walking in afterward might not notice much of a difference.

This time around was a more thorough de-clutter than usual. I went through the freezer (yup – got rid of that year-old chopped red pepper and a freezer-burned hamburger bun, among other things), a “junk drawer” that had old maps and an unusual assortment of telephone cords (I find it hard to believe I ever owned that many phones), a drawer that was full of VHS tapes, my wardrobe accessories drawer, and my office.

De-clutter gurus all have rules of thumb they suggest applying. For example, when it comes to clothing, a common one seems to be that you should get rid of things more than two years old (or maybe it’s two seasons – I’m not sure). Personally, I’ve never found such suggestions helpful – if I’ve hung on to something for any length of time, it’s because I’ve got some sentimental attachment to it. And, when that’s the case, no arbitrary rule really matters.

Of course, some things are easier to get rid of than other things. Getting rid of the phone cords was a no-brainer. Old maps – well, they carry memories of past trips. This time I let myself linger over the memories for a few minutes and then put the maps into the recycle pile. VHS tapes – another easy call, since I don’t even have a tape player any more.

There were two categories of things I had trepidation about even going through: jewelry and the books. These were things I’ve given myself a pass on culling through for a LONG time. And, given my history of hanging on to these items, I knew I was going to have to come up with some pretty good self-rationalization for parting with them.

Since the jewelry was in my accessories drawer, which was on my must tackle list, it came before the books. I wouldn’t characterize the jewelry as “costume” (which I tend to think of as big and glitzy). It was the kind of thing you wear to work. Some of it was mass produced, but most of it was handmade stuff from craft shows. The idea of the pieces being sold for 50¢/each at the local charity thrift shop just didn’t feel right.

As I was looking through the jewelry, the perfect place to donate it came to mind: Dress for Success. It’s a charity that provides “gently used” suits and professional clothing for disadvantaged people who need them for job hunting. A quick check of their website confirmed that they take jewelry. Perfect! As soon as I realized the jewelry would be put to good use, sorting through it and carefully pairing all the earrings was actually fun. After dropping the jewelry off, I was energized and so I started contemplating the bookshelf.

Over the years I’ve gotten rid of many books, but I still had three full shelves – in fact, a couple of them have books hidden behind books. Of the remaining volumes, the most troublesome tomes, fell into two categories: philosophy and classics from university; and cookbooks.

There were a number of reasons I still had these particular books from university. It was no accident that the ones I kept were attractively bound and impressive – a reminder of a rich, rigorous liberal arts education. But who am I trying to impress, I finally asked myself. Good point, but, on its own, not a compelling enough reason to get rid of them – after all, I reminded myself, these are important reference sources. (You never know when you’ll need to cite Plato’s discussion of shadows, right?) So what if I haven’t opened any of them in over 30 years – reference books are like that – until you need them, they just sit there.

Then, just as I muttered that last sentence, the big Ah-ha hit me. I do a fair bit of research for work, but these days it’s all on-line. “Looking things up” no longer involves opening up a book – it involves the Internet. In fact, that rationale applied to the cookbooks too. If there’s something I want to make and I don’t have a recipe for it, I’m way more likely to look on-line than I am to leaf through the cookbooks on my shelf. (The cookbooks in the kitchen are a whole other story – those I do look through for inspiration.) 

As I was driving over to the thrift shop with the four bags of books, I was thinking about my decision to finally get rid of them. I chuckled at the idea that I had held them prisoner for so long. Indeed, I felt by donating them, I was sort of doing them a service – now they can be read, enjoyed, and perhaps kept as a reference by someone else.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being … model behaviour

By Ingrid Sapona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being … credible

By Ingrid Sapona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... what you're looking for

By Ingrid Sapona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona