On being … suspicious

By Ingrid Sapona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … well mannered

By Ingrid Sapona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … more like Doris Day

By Ingrid Sapona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … worth exploring

By Ingrid Sapona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... revealing

By Ingrid Sapona

In the last column, I mentioned we’re in the process of downsizing my mother’s household. We’re basically clearing out the family home to sell it. I’m not exaggerating when I say the task at hand seems much larger than the house itself.

I’ve been going at it in spurts. I recently turned my attention to the dreaded basement. Over 45 years ago, Dad built a large bedroom and a living room in the basement that, combined, take up just under half of the area. The rest has the usual household stuff: laundry facilities, a hot water tank, a furnace, and storage shelves and storage nooks.

I started with the “low hanging fruit” – items more-or-less plain sight in the bedroom/living room areas. I was surprised that I recognized about 90% of the stuff. By that I mean that I had a least an idea where it came from – whether it was from, say, a Greek relative, or that it related to some craft project my mother might have done in a ladies group she belonged to for year.

There was one piece that just had me stumped. Honestly, it can only be described as a piece of metal slag. It had no discernible shape – it just looked like molten metal that had cooled into a 10-inch long blob. I think if either of my sisters had come across it, they’d have tossed it without so much as a thought. And yet, I had a strong recollection of having seen this thing laying around for so long that I figured it must have significance, though what that was, I couldn’t guess.

I took it to my mother to ask what it is. She said, “Oh – that’s a piece of copper. If you turn it over, you can see how it’s kind of green.” She was right; it had that green, tarnished copper patina. “But why was this in the basement,” I asked. “It was from my father – he worked in a copper mine, briefly,” she explained. Wow – I never knew that about my grandfather – he died when my mother was very young. No wonder she kept it. I’m sure glad I didn’t unceremoniously toss it. And I’m really glad I asked, given how little I know about my mother’s parents.

Last time I was home, I was feeling brave so I started on the catacombs – the area back by the furnace. I was dreading this because the deep shelves are piled high with dusty boxes and things that haven’t seen the light of day since I don’t know when. I started with the area that was best lit.

The top few layers were pretty easy lifting – old boat cushions and drop cloths and stuff like that. Then I got down to the underlying layer of boxes. I rolled up my sleeves and pulled on the first one. It had a few things that were easy to sort into the requisite group (“ask Mom”, donate, garbage, or recycling).

What I wasn’t prepared for was how many of the boxes contained – well – empty boxes. I had come across empty boxes elsewhere in the house, but I didn’t think much of them – or I understood why we kept them. There was a time, for example, when it was all the rage (at least in our family) to wrap only the top half of a box, so that the recipient could open the gift without ripping the beautiful wrapping paper. That way, the box could be used again. Come on – tell the truth – you used to have a few boxes like that, didn’t you?

By the time I was done with that first set of shelves, I had two big boxes filled with cardboard from empty boxes I had flattened. I had to laugh as I realized that if this pattern keeps up, going through the rest of the catacombs might not be as difficult as I fear. (Mind you, I gotta believe that I won’t be so lucky…)

As I schlepped the soon-to-be recycled cardboard to the garage, I had to smile when I remembered a funny -- if embarrassing – story about some boxes I had kept. Once upon a time – a good 20 years ago – my apartment was broken into. A couple of Toronto police officers came over to record the incident. The thieves had gone through my dresser and closets.

I was surprised when one of the officers said he would try to get fingerprints. He went into the bedroom and when he returned, he said he was sorry, but he didn’t get any good prints. He then kind of smiled and asked if I worked for a jewelry store. I said no, and asked why. He then – very politely – said, “Ma’am, it’s just that I’ve never seen so many little boxes.” After they left, I went into the bedroom and was surprised when I saw dozens of small boxes strewn across the top of the dresser and in the partly opened drawers.

So, it turns out that going through stuff in our family home is revealing in more ways than I imagined it would be. Not only am I learning things about our family’s history, I’m coming to understand the roots of some of my own quirky habits.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … not missed

By Ingrid Sapona

I was at the drive through at a Tim Horton’s the other day. The coffee I ordered cost $2.01. Without a thought, I handed the person at the window a $5. I was kind of surprised at how long it took for her to make change, but when she handed it to me, I realized why. I got $2 in bills and 99¢ in coins. Ugh – all that change.

I was expecting $3 back – but then I realized I was in the US. Here in Canada we no longer use pennies. We did away with them in 2013. To be honest, I didn’t realize it was that long ago, but I just looked it up. In 2012, when the Finance Minister announced we’d be phasing pennies out, I distinctly remember being convinced it was a bad idea.

I thought that doing away with the penny would start prices creeping up. Things that used to cost, say, $2.97 at Walmart (they’re big on prices ending in 7s) would, I figured, immediately increase to $3. Once that happened, I reckoned we’d soon see the demise of other coins and businesses rounding prices up accordingly.

But all that hasn’t happened. My Tim Horton’s coffee that costs $1.81 here in Canada is still $1.81. The only difference is that when you pay – or make change – you simply round the penny amounts up or down. So, when I handed her the $5, I expected to get $3 back – not a handful of coins and a dose of irritation.

As I drove away, I thought about the irrationality of my petty annoyance. I soon figured out that underlying my reaction was the fact that, not only have I adjusted to not using pennies, I’ve moved on to the point of definitely not missing them.

As soon as I realized that, I also understood what emotional trigger was really at play. You see, we’re just starting the process of downsizing my mom’s household. After more than five decades in the house I grew up in, the house is filled with stuff – and memories associated with many items.

Though – or perhaps, because – we’re in the nascent stage of this endeavor, I’ve tried to take a project management approach. I’ve started by breaking it down into different types of tasks. For example, upstairs I thought I’d go closet-by-closet. With the basement – the repository of things that weren’t put to regular use, not to mention a bunch of things that haven’t been touched in 40+ years – I’ve begun by separating out things that are relatively easy to donate, like clothes and books.

I’ve also begun asking friends and others for suggestions about other ways of clearing out things – short of 1-800-Got Junk. I’ve gotten some good ideas (check out The Freecycle Network, for example) and referrals to estate-type agents that will all come in handy.

But, before we get to any of those, we have a lot of sorting to do. There are a few things in the house that I – or my sisters – have a real connection to, for whatever reason. Those things I’m sure Mom will give her blessing to us to take to our own (already full) homes. Beyond those things, however, there are also a bunch of things that, though not cherished, have some sentimental value – in some cases simply because they’ve been in the family for a long time. For me, those items are much harder to deal with…

This is where my epiphany about the penny comes in. As I go through things in the house, I’m going to try to see them like pennies – objects that have value and that served us well but that will not be truly missed once they are gone.
© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … a nostalgic look back?

By Ingrid Sapona

Hard to believe the Trump presidency is less than a month old, isn’t it? From January 1 through the inauguration on the 20th, I made note of some of the terms I read or heard others use to describe him. (Even in Mexico it was impossible to escape the news of the impending inauguration.) It was an interesting exercise then and reflecting on these descriptions is perhaps even more interesting now.

So, here are some of the words. You’ll note that there are some letters missing (Y and Z, for example) – but, there are so many multiples for some letters (see C, for example), the descriptors more than cover the alphabet.

Keep in mind, these are ways others (journalists and public figures, like George Soros) used to describe him or what they thought his presidency will bring:

A is for: angry; autocrat; acrimonious
B is for: bully; bigoted
C is for: combative; contradictory; contempt; crass; circus, conflict of interest
D is for: disparagement, demonization; disorganized
E is for: erratic
F is for: fact-challenged; flippant
G is for: golden rain (if you don’t know what this is a reference to, don’t feel bad… honestly, it’s just as well …)
H is for: humiliation; hostile
I is for: inflammatory, intemperate; imposter; intimidating; insulting
L is for: lacking filters
M is for: menacing; mocking; master showman
N is for: nasty
O is for: ostentatious
P is for: petty; phoney
R is for: ridiculous
S is for: self-aggrandizing; show biz; science denialist; scorched earth
T is for: tyrant; thin-skinned; temper-tantrum
U is for: unpredictable; unhinged; unpresidential
V is for: volatile; vitriol
X is for: xenophobic

I don’t know about you, but these aren’t exactly the words I’d be looking for in the resume of – or terms I’d expect to see in a recommendation letter of – my ideal candidate for President.

Post Script: As I wrote this, I wondered if some of my readers might have found some of these descriptors harsh, or unfair, or merely sentiments of those whose opinions one might expect reported on by the “liberal media”.  Well, now that we’re just over three weeks into Trumps 208 week (first?) term, I have to say that I think these descriptors are definitely on point – and if anything, perhaps even on the polite side.

One last thing: I promise that I’ll return to a traditional essay format – I won’t be turning On being… into a column of alphabetical lists.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... behind the wall?

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m in sunny Mexico, enjoying the surf, sand, sunshine, and the gracious hospitality of the lovely Mexican people until the end of the month. If all-knowing, all-powerful Trump has his way, the wall should be completed by then…

I’m scheduled on a direct flight back to Toronto, so I’ll only be catching a glimpse of Mr. Trump’s fortifications from the air. And, barring unforeseen circumstances, I should be back at my desk in Toronto in time for my mid-February column. Till then, take care …

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona