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


On being … worth the wait?

By Ingrid Sapona

It was haul out this past weekend at my sail club. Since we’re a self-help club, members have to put in a certain number of work hours each year. For haul out we hire cranes and crane operators, but members do all the other work. Over the weekend we hauled over 300 boats, but there’s always down time between them. So, there’s lots of opportunity for chit-chat. Indeed, one of the conversations from the weekend has had me thinking.

One of the guys that used to be on my crew (I’ll call him Jon) wasn’t working with us this year. When he brought his boat over to be hauled, someone teased him about abandoning us. He explained that he didn’t need any more work hours and that this likely will be his last haul out at our club because they’ve applied for membership at a club on the Toronto Islands.

The club they want to move to is one of the oldest in the area and is a favourite destination for many of us. That said, there are trade-offs with being at that club, not the least of which is that you have to take the ferry to get there. The thought of schlepping all your stuff by ferry – especially in the spring and fall – is not appealing for many.

As we were waiting for the crane, Jon told us the rest of his news: they’re moving to the island. My initial thought was that he must mean an island in the Caribbean, as I know more-and-more sailors who are choosing to summer on their boat in Toronto and head to the Caribbean for the winter. Curious if that was their plan, I asked what island. With an even bigger smile, he said: Algonquin Island.

It took me a couple minutes to make the connection – Algonquin Island is one of the Toronto Islands. There are only 262 homes on the islands and they aren’t bought and sold through the open market. Because the islands are public, the government created a trust to manage the land and buildings on the islands. Residents have title to their homes, but they lease the property from the government and sales are carried out through the trust under strict rules.

Getting one of the homes pretty much requires a harmonic convergence. First you have to submit an application to get on the waiting list, which is capped at 500 names. From time-to-time people take themselves off the waiting list and when the list is down to about 475 names, they hold a public lottery to bring the number back up to 500.

Then, when a house becomes available, it basically goes to the person highest on the list who wants it. According to the trust’s website, only 54 island homes have been sold since 1994.
I had read an article about it years ago when they were having one of the rare lotteries for the waiting list and I toyed with entering the lottery, but I never did. So, I was excited for Jon, if a bit jealous.

Someone then asked Jon how long they’ve been on the waiting list and he said 20 years. He was clearly excited, but anxious too, as he said that once a house becomes available and you’re high enough on the list – it all happens very quickly, which must be especially nerve-wracking after waiting so long.

Afterward, a few of us were talking about Jon’s news. One of the guys on the crew said, “Think about it – 20 years. I don’t know that there’s anything I wanted 20 years ago that I still want today.” The part of me that always romanticized the idea of living on the islands quickly (albeit silently) responded, “I’d still want that after 20 years”.

But beyond the fantasy of a home on the Toronto Islands, I have been thinking about the things I wanted 20 years ago. It’s kind of an interesting exercise. Looking back at the dreams, hopes, and aspirations I had 20 years ago, I guess I’ve accomplished those that I could and I suppose I’ve let some of them go. For the life of me, I can’t think of any that were so important that 20 years later I’m still thinking of them or wishing they’d happen. That’s kind of reassuring…

What about you? Any items from 20 years ago that you’re still waiting for? What about items you want now – how many of those would you wait 20 years for?

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … comparable

By Ingrid Sapona

If you’ve ever worked with a realtor, you’re familiar with the concept of comparables. For example, if you’re trying to set the asking price for your 60 year-old, 1200 square foot bungalow, you’d begin by looking at the price of recent sales of similar homes in your neighborhood. You wouldn’t look at the sales price of a 3200 square foot McMansion down the street that someone built five years ago after tearing down a bungalow, or the duplex across the street. They just aren’t comparable. The point of a comparable is that it’s an objective measure – a comparison of apples to apples.

My mind turned to thoughts of comparables after comments I heard at two different get-togethers I was at on the weekend. The first event was a small party to celebrate the 93rd birthday of a family friend. Of the five of us at the lunch, I was the only person under 75. All the others were remarkable seniors who live on their own in their own homes. In fact, the lunch was at the home of the birthday girl! Though each has had ups and downs (they’ve all outlived their spouses and each has had some medical issues over the years), they all have their mental facilities and a joie de vivre.

But, as is often the case when friends get together, there was some complaining and commiserating. I noticed there seemed a common thread to their frustrations: they complained about not being able to do some of the things they used to. For example, one of them complained that she can no longer get up on a chair to reach things or to clean. Another complained that she can’t move heavy furniture around like she used to. 

They didn’t complain about loneliness, or sickness, which are the kinds of things you’d think a senior might complain about. Instead, their complaints focused on not being able to do what they did when they were younger. While I can understand feeling nostalgic about what they used to be able to do, I couldn’t help think that the comparison was ridiculous.  They should be comparing their skills and abilities to other octogenarians or 93-year olds – not to themselves at 40, or 50, or even 60!

A remark a friend made at a dinner the next day also brought the notion of comparables to mind. My friend made the comment as she was putting the finishing touches on a lovely feast she had single-handedly prepared for Canadian Thanksgiving. For the dinner party she made a turkey and gravy, stuffing, potatoes, green beans, squash, cranberry relish, and kale salad. By my count, that’s seven dishes – and each of them was fancy: the mashed potatoes were laced with homemade pesto, the kale salad had roasted turnips, hazelnuts, and pomegranates with a tasty maple dressing… You get the picture. 

Anyway, as she was cooking she lamented that because of a back problem she’s had for some time, she “no longer entertains”. I pointed out that she was making a meal fit for a king and that to most people, that would certainly count as entertaining! She quickly dismissed my comment and changed topics.

I know her pain is real and it has forced her to modify many of the things she does, which I’m sure is frustrating. But I also think that she’s not being fair to herself by comparing what she was able to do when she didn’t have the chronic pain she now has. Indeed, my comment was intended to encourage her to take stock of all the work she put in to that meal for the five of us.

I can understand the temptation of looking back at things we used to be able to do but that we no longer can do or that now require more effort than they used to. After all, there is an obvious common denominator between our old selves and our current self. But it’s a flawed comparable. We aren’t the same person we were X years ago.

Think about it – in your youth you were probably thrilled to earn $2/hour to baby sit, or felt rich if you got $5 to cut the lawn. Can you imagine offering to baby sit the neighbor’s kids for a couple of hours or cut their lawn for the cost of a Starbucks venti-size latte? Sure, you might do it, but chances are your motivation for doing so would be different than it would have been at 14. Now you’re likely to do so out of kindness, not to earn pocket money!

I know it’s hard to apply an objective measure like a comparable when it comes to personal things, but I can’t help think that doing so can be reassuring, if not downright empowering! After all, I don’t know many 93-year-olds who are still hosting friends for lunch in their own home, or how many others with chronic back pain are making seven-course meals for friends.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona