On being ... on vacation

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m on vacation so I’m giving you a break from my musings…

I’ll return with a column February 15th.


© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a year-end tradition?

As I’ve done the past few years, here’s an alphabetical look back at things that were on my mind in one way or another this past year. Many of them relate to news stories that didn’t directly impact me or my family – but that I find troubling and worth focusing attention on.

So, here’s my list:

A is for Achilles heel – talk about a metaphor coming to life! I’ve had a problem with one of my Achilles tendons and now I understand how such a simple thing could easily have downed poor Achilles.

B is for bye-bye – thankfully, in the October election, Toronto finally waived bye-bye to Rob Ford, our (in)famous mayor.

C is for conducting and chance – what a thrill I had when I got the chance to conduct the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in September.

D is for damning – I don’t think there’s any other way to describe the recently released Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation report prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee. While many argued against its release for fear of reprisals, failure to release it would only have compounded all the wrongs committed. Instead, perhaps it can be the first step toward returning to what America used to stand for.

E is for ebola – hard to imagine the devastation ebola has brought to so many and equally hard to imagine the devotion of those helping on the front lines of the crisis.

F is for fracking – just because the technology exists doesn’t mean we should do it, or that it’s environmentally sound. Minor tremors are just the canary in the proverbial coal mine. It’s the dangers posed to potable water that I think people should be concerned about.

G is for Ghomeshi – Jian Ghomeshi was a popular, high profile radio/television host who was let go by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) this fall after allegations of physical abuse of women he had dated. Apparently, to help his bosses at the CBC understand what he claims was consensual rough sex, he showed them a video. Guess it wasn’t as reassuring a video as Mr. Ghomeshi thought and he was let go after that. Since then he has been charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcome resistance – choking.

H is for hashtag – for those who don’t tweet or pay attention to pop phenomenon, a hashtag is a number sign (#) placed before a title or phrase that makes it easy to search for that topic on Twitter. Shortly after the Ghomeshi story broke, two Toronto journalists decided to share their experience with assault and they created the hashtag: #BeenRapedNeverReported. Within no time, tens of millions of people around the world commented on it and it has prompted women from all walks of life to tell their stories. It’s astounding on many levels.

I is for innocents – sadly, we live in a war-torn world and every day we hear about the perpetration of acts of violence and savagery against so many innocents.

J is for justice – of all the founding principles the U.S. was built on, “justice for all” has always seemed to me to be the cornerstone of democracy. Over the past year, in particular, it’s become sadly apparent that that principle is no longer cherished by all.

K is for killing – I really had a difficult time with this letter because I didn’t want to write about killing. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be wrong not to write about it because the reality is that every day this year brought news of killings. While some of the killings may stand out as more horrific than others, the truth is they are all tragic and if we don’t acknowledge each and every one, then there’s no hope for humanity.

L is for lawless – I fear the world is becoming a lawless place.

M is for museum – the Aga Khan Museum opened in Toronto this fall. It was built by the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, and it features his family’s extensive collection of Islamic art. When the Aga Khan dedicated the museum, he said his hope is that the museum will act as a catalyst for mutual understanding and tolerance. All I can say is let’s hope the museum achieves its goal.

N is for nostalgic – it’s funny the way nostalgia sneaks up on you, isn’t it? Last week I had a flood of nostalgia when I was seeding a pomegranate. Growing up we always had pomegranates and it was my father’s job to open them. I have very fond memories of him sitting at the kitchen table carefully, skillfully, patiently seeding pomegranates for us.

O is for oil – like most folks who have to fill up their car, it’s hard not to be relieved about the lower prices at the pump.

P is for poppies – with 2014 marking the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI, I have to say the most moving tribute was the sea of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London. It was a simple idea that really brought home the number of Commonwealth soldiers who were killed (not to mention the hundreds of thousands of other soldiers from other countries who were killed).

Q is for quick to pull the trigger – though many of the senseless killings in the U.S. seem attributable to police and others being too quick to pull the trigger, I think that assessment ignores more fundamental issues lurking below the surface.

R is for race relations – hard to believe that race relations is still an issue in 2014, but it is.

S is for Skype – I come from a technology-resistant family, but I think my sisters and mother would all agree that the best thing to happen to us this year was my techie cousin (bless his heart) setting my mother up on Skype. Now, though we’re still all miles apart, we’re much closer.

T is for torn-up – this year Torontonians have had to deal with a record number of road closures and traffic disruption and there’s no end in sight. It’s frustrating beyond belief and I work from home – I can’t imagine what it’s like to face a daily commute anywhere in the Toronto area!

U is for unspoken – it’s hard for me to understand why gun control is not even on people’s lips in the U.S.

V is for violence – I have only passing familiarity with the Bible, but it seems to me that the world would be a better place if everyone took to heart Matthew 26:52, which Martin Luther King paraphrased as: violence begets violence.

W is for winter – don’t bother looking for a 2014 vintage for many Ontario wines – the winter was so harsh, many buds died. One entire Ontario wine region didn’t have any grapes to harvest and other areas had much smaller harvests.

X is for xenophobic – handy to have one word that captures 21st century international race relations.

Y is for Yule log-like – I love Christmas baking and this year I made a bunch of different cookies from recipes I had clipped years ago but never got around to trying. On about the third batch, I had to laugh when I realized that many of the cookies were log shaped. Oh well, I guess I was just drawn to Yule log-like things this year.

Z is for zester – I’m a believer in using the right tools for the job. A few years ago rasp-type zesters hit the culinary world and they were the “in” tool. When my sister visited I wanted her to zest some lemons and when I handed her my old fashioned grater, she was shocked I didn’t have a proper zester. I assured her I did, but it was useless. She tried it and agreed. Two weeks later I got a package from her – the brand of rasp she has. With much trepidation, I tried it and it is amazing! Thanks to my sister, you could say I have a new zest for cooking!

Post Script: As I was working on this, I was struck by the fact that violence underscores so many of the topics. Given this sad realization, I have a New Year’s resolution I invite all of you to join me in for 2015: taking a stand to stop violence in all its forms. I’m convinced that until we all see it as a personal responsibility, the world will only become more violent.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … a status symbol?

By Ingrid Sapona

I was flipping through the TV listings the other day and I noticed a show on TVO (Ontario’s public broadcasting station) called If Walls Could Talk. I tuned in to find it’s a 2011 BBC series hosted by Lucy Worsley. The first episode I saw was about the history of bedrooms. It was absolutely fascinating. Worsley is an adorable, quirky Brit with a bit of a lisp and an amazing knowledge and way of making history come to life.  (Turns out she’s not just a BBC personality – she’s a historian and in her day job she’s Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces in the U.K.) If you ever come across this series – I highly recommend it!

Anyway, the next episode was on the history of the kitchen. It was even more interesting. To say we’ve come a long way from the medieval peasant’s cooking setup – basically a single iron pot hanging over an open flame – to the modern conveniences we cook with is a drastic understatement. Indeed, toward the end of the episode Worsley commented on the fact that kitchens have become a status symbol – they’re a place where people show off their wealth and power and, sometimes, their culinary skill. I was quite taken aback by the notion, as I’ve never thought of kitchens as status symbols.

One of the people Worsley spoke with about this phenomenon said kitchens are similar to cars as status symbols. That might explain why the idea never occurred to me – cars as status symbols typically doesn’t register with me either. I used to sail with a guy who drove a Viper. The car meant nothing to me, but it clearly meant something to him, as it seemed to come up in conversation a fair bit. So, I nicknamed him Viper-guy. Though I was sort of mocking him, he seemed kind of proud of the moniker.

It wasn’t until long after he left the club that I found out that a Viper costs well over $80,000 and is considered a status symbol to many (if not me). That’s the thing about status symbols – their value really depends on others “appreciating” (read: being impressed by) their cost or their inherent value. If others don’t fully appreciate them, their cachet as a status symbol is kind of lost.

In general, I don’t feel I’m particularly “susceptible” to status symbols. I think part of the reason is that I associate status symbols with the notion of being covetous, which, as the 10 Commandments tells us, is something to avoid. Another reason I try to avoid falling into the status symbol trap is because so much of it’s based on manipulation and marketing. Proof of the role that marketing must be playing in transforming kitchens into status symbols is the fact that since the 1990s, according to Ms. Worsley, over 1 billion pounds (£) per year is spent on kitchens in the U.K.

That said, I’ve been giving some thought as to how I reconcile not falling into the status symbol trap with wanting a well-appointed kitchen. Well, I think there’s a distinction between wanting something because it’s a status symbol and wanting it because of its features or specific qualities that are valuable to you. In other words, I tend to take a functional view of things. So, when I see a kitchen, though I certainly notice the number and types of appliances and gadgets it’s outfitted with, and its overall aesthetic appearance, my mind pretty quickly turns to utilitarian aspects. I think about whether it would make my cooking and baking easier or let me do more than what I might be able to do without them. For example, I see significant counter space as a plus because it would be useful to me – I’d have more space for elaborate preparation. Others, I suspect, see counter space as a sign of a bigger kitchen and therefore, most likely, a larger home and, I guess, higher status.

It seems to me that there’s also a difference to be made between something acquired as a status symbol and something acquired as a luxury. I think a status symbol is intended to tell others something about the owner, whereas a luxury is just meant to provide the owner with comfort or pleasure.

As we head into the holiday season, I think this distinction is useful to keep in mind when you give gifts. I say there’s nothing wrong with giving someone something that’s a luxury, so long as your reason for giving it is to please the person, not to impress them or others.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … disruptive

By Ingrid Sapona

At the risk of sounding like I’m setting up a joke, I can’t help but begin this column with: I remember when… In this case, I remember when being called disruptive was a bad thing. When I was young, the worst thing a teacher could tell your parents was that you were disruptive.

Well – in case you haven’t noticed – being disruptive has apparently become a virtue. If you need proof, just listen to the admiration in the voices of silicon valley-types who busy themselves coming up with what they see as the next best piece of technology. Chances are they’ll proudly describe it as disruptive – like that’s a good thing. Uber, the “ride sharing app”, is a prime example.

Uber lets folks who have cars (like you and me) become, in effect, taxi drivers. The fact that riders pay a fare for rides kind of undercuts the friendly “sharing” idea, but never mind. Potential riders download the free app. When potential riders sign up to use Uber they provide a credit card that’s charged when they use the service. When they want a lift, the app shows them the location of nearby drivers and they order a ride. The app lets riders know what the rates are for that city, and it will provide a quote if the rider specifies a definite pick up and drop off point. At the end of the ride, the fare is automatically charged to their credit card, so no cash is needed.

Folks interested in providing rides sign up as drivers and, as the Uber website touts, they can then earn money with the tap of a button.  Once they’ve successfully registered under Uberx (which is the version aimed at individuals – there’s also an Uber version for licenced cab drivers), all the driver has to do is turn on the app and start accepting ride requests. Uber even provides drivers with a smartphone if they don’t have one. Drivers have total freedom regarding when they provide rides.

The fare is set by Uber and it can vary based on a number of variables, including distance and time, which makes it pretty darned similar to regular cabs. Uber is touted as cheaper and friendlier than taking a traditional cab. Apparently, however, it isn’t always cheaper. Unlike cab fares, which are regulated, Uber changes its fare structure as it sees fit. There have been reports of Uber implementing “surge pricing”, with rates going up when the weather is bad, or during high-volume times, like Halloween and New Years’ Eve.

Uber earns the mantle of disruptive technology because it has impacted the livery industry on many levels. Uber was in the news here in Toronto last week because the City has gone to court seeking an injunction to stop it from operating in Toronto on the basis that Uber is in violation of a municipal bylaw by operating without a taxi license. Other cities have also taken steps to ban Uber.

After the City filed the injunction, John Tory, our mayor elect who takes office on Monday, went on record as saying he’s opposed to trying to shut it down. As he put it, Uber and services like it are “here to stay”. Tory went on to say, “It is time our regulatory system got in line with evolving consumer demands in the 21st century. As Mayor, I intend to see that it does, while being fair to all parties, respecting the law and public safety.”

On one level, I think Tory’s approach is right – after all, the genie is out of the bottle. But the problem is, the disruptive tech folks don’t buy into Tory’s idea about being fair to all parties and about respecting law and public safety. Uber’s response to the two-year old battle with City Hall (and many other cities that have taken similar steps) has been that it won’t change its operations. It sees the matter as simply the livery industry successfully lobbying to protect its profit margins. Uber doesn’t see any public safety issues and so, as they see it, case closed.  

The folks behind Uber don’t see their intransigence as being an attempt to protect their profit. Though Uber users – riders and drivers – may see the free app as just a cool service that’s making their life easier, let’s not forget that Uber is a business – and a lucrative one at that. Venture capitalists have sunk U.S. $49.5 million into it and a recent Bloomberg story pegs the value of Uber at between $35 and $40 billion. So clearly the owners of Uber have a lot they’re interested in protecting – they’re not in it just to “share” their smarts with us all.

To a large extent, I think my inherent irritation with things like Uber is that the folks who create them are so proud of being “disruptors” that they then adopt an in-your-face attitude of: we’re here – get used to it! That kind of thing just gets peoples’ backs up. Maybe if everyone – including the self-proclaimed disruptors – would just think of what they’re doing as inventing things and innovating processes that are mutually beneficial, we’d all be more inclined to find ways of working together, rather than resisting each other.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … below average

By Ingrid Sapona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona