On being … bucket list-less

By Ingrid Sapona

There was a sad/uplifting story in the paper the other day about a 64-year-old woman who last fall received the heart of a 21-year-old nursing student who was killed in an accident. After her parents donated her organs, among her things they found a bucket list she had written. It seems it was a fairly long list (especially for a 21-year-old) and, unbelievably, one of the items on it was that she wanted to save a life. Well, her organs ended up saving more than one life.

As I mentioned, the article was really about the woman who received the heart. It turns out she’s a retired nurse and she’s had a bucket list of her own that she’s been working on over the years. Before receiving the heart she had already accomplished many of the things on her list and, with the strength of the new heart, she’s been able to continue crossing items off her list. 

But the story doesn’t end there. Somehow the donor’s parents met the retired nurse and learned she too has a bucket list. Ironically, when they compared lists, they realized many of the items were on both lists. As a tribute to the donor, the retired nurse has decided to tackle the donor’s list, as well as her own.

The story was very moving, for sure. But, when I finished reading it, I had the same unsettled feeling I always do when the topic of bucket lists comes up. Though you always hear wonderful stories of adventures people have had ticking things off their list, having one has never appealed to me. I’m sure part of what puts me off about bucket lists is the idea of death as a motivator. I know that’s a pretty negative way of looking at it, but that’s how I see it.

In wrestling with my discomfort at the thought of having a bucket list, I wondered whether by not having one, I’m missing out on. To analyze this, I started reflecting on adventures and experiences I’ve enjoyed that some might figure would be on a bucket list, if I were to have one. A number of different experiences came to mind, but I’ll only mention a few.

The first I thought of was an experience I had just a couple weeks ago at a glassblowing workshop a friend and I went to. The whole thing came about when my friend came across a coupon for the workshop and asked if I’d be interested in going with her. I think she knew that glasswork is one of my favourite types of art and so I don’t think she was surprised when I immediately said sure!

The seminar was really neat – unlike any other craft I’ve ever tried. I’m really glad she heard about it and asked me to join her. But, in thinking about whether the seminar’s the type of thing I’d put on a bucket list (if I had one), the short answer is no. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it gave me an even greater appreciation for something I already love (glasswork), but it’s not an experience I would have ever thought to look for. It was, however, an opportunity I recognized as worth taking when it came up.

The second example came to mind thanks to a novel I’m reading about a lighthouse keeper in Australia in the early 1900s. I’ve always been fascinated by lighthouses. I find them majestic and oddly romantic. The story immediately reminded me of a unique experience I had in Australia years ago when I visited a friend who was on sabbatical there. She and her husband had travelled around a fair bit before I visited them and they found a B&B in a former lighthouse keeper’s cottage. She asked me if it was the type of thing I’d be interested in. With no hesitation, I said yes! It was fantastic. The cottage was quaint and the setting – a remote ledge where earth meets ocean – was spectacular.

In thinking about that experience, I again considered whether it would be on my bucket list. Objectively, I could see how you’d think it would be. But the thing is, it wasn’t an experience I sought out, which seems to me to be a hallmark of a bucket list item. In contrast, the girlfriend who found the lighthouse B&B recently mentioned that she was doing some research on-line trying to find architecturally interesting or unusual places to stay – like treehouses and caves. I’m guessing she and her husband have a bucket list!

Another example of a once-in-a-lifetime experience I had that one would certainly think is bucket list-worthy was a three-day winter adventure near Algonquin Park. A friend of mine had been on the trip and it sounded so fun, I got the name of the outfitter and booked myself in for the following winter. It was a truly memorable trip, the highlights of which were guiding a sled pulled by six excited huskies and our mountain-man tour leader showing us how to build a fire in the snow and then setting up a reflector oven on which he baked us chocolate chip cookies! 

Each of these experiences have enriched my life and left me with wonderful memories, but I didn’t really seek any of them out. Instead, they kind of came to me. The way I see it, as long as you keep your eyes and ears out for interesting things and you’re game to say yes when opportunities arise, no bucket list is required…

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … the lyrics of your life?

By Ingrid Sapona

The late Dick Clark is credited with coining the saying “music is the soundtrack of our lives”. That has always – if you’ll pardon the pun – resonated with me. Like a contestant on Name That Tune, as soon as I hear the opening notes of certain songs, I can tell you where I was and what was happening in my life at the time. Few other things can do that for me. (Actually, the only other sensory trigger I can think of is the smell of Coppertone – it takes me to the beach immediately, but there’s no timeframe associated with it like there is for me with music.)

But beyond their magic carpet-like ability to transport me to some other time in my life, I’ve known for a long time that certain lyrics have imprinted on my soul in a way I thought was unusual – but that I recently realized might happen to others too. This revelation came to me recently in a comment Jane Pauley made (in her new book) about how she explains her career trajectory. She said that in struggling to explain her tremendous good fortune, she often thinks of the lyric Maria sings in the Sound of Music – somewhere in her childhood, “she must have done something good”.

Actually, that particular lyric happens to be one that made an impression on me long ago too – but not in quite the same way it did for Ms. Pauley. Truth is, sometimes, when things aren’t going well, I think of that lyric and worry. For those of you who don’t remember the song that well, before Maria revels in the fact that she must have done something good, she admits that: “Perhaps I had a wicked childhood, perhaps I had a miserable youth.” Yes, with a healthy dose of Christian guilt (perhaps courtesy of all the nuns in the movie, which I saw at the tender age of five), the fear that I never had that moment of truth haunts me.

Some lyrics taught me lessons that I subconsciously adopted. Smile (the song by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, to a melody composed by Charlie Chaplin) is the perfect example. You know: “Smile though your heart is aching, smile, even though it’s breaking… Light up your face with gladness, hide every trace of sadness … Smile, what's the use of crying, you'll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile.”

Long before I ever experienced heartache, those lyrics made their way into my head. I think the fact that the song doesn’t identify a particular type of hurt is what helped me relate to it. And at some point fairly early in my life I realized that a smile can be a wonderful mask – I’m sure I got the idea from the song. And then there’s the coping mechanism aspect of the song that I have also relied on for years – the notion that smiling actually helps turn my mood around. (You
know, I’ve always wondered whether T.V.’s Dr. Phil had the lyrics of Smile in mind when he came up with his “fake it till you make it” mantra.)

Then there are some lyrics that have percolated into my subconscious that, when they bubble up, suddenly fill me with gratitude. There’s a refrain from a James Taylor song that hits me every time I walk into my front hall after a trip or a particularly long day: “
Isn’t it nice to be home a-gain…” The simple truth of that lyric reminds me of how lucky I am to have a home I love coming back to. And I have Irving Berlin to thank for another lyric that happily springs to mind often after chatting with, or visiting, one of my sisters: “there were never such devoted sisters”.

There are even some lyrics that miraculously pop into my head to calm me when I’m distracted or worried by “what ifs”. No, I’m not talking about Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy” (though that lyric would clearly help at such times). The lyric that hits me is a bit more obscure: “Perpetual anticipation is good for the soul but it’s bad for the heart” (it’s from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music). Odd, I know, but it does help remind me to focus on the present.

Anyway, you get the picture. But my reason for writing this isn’t to share anecdotes about the impact of lyrics on my life. It’s because I’m wondering whether – like me and Jane Pauley – there are lyrics that have imprinted on your soul or psyche…

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … a paradigm shift?

By Ingrid Sapona

Before I begin, let me say that the decision to write about today’s topic came to me as I was watching the morning news, so I’m sure there are angles I’ve not considered (hence the question mark). But the theme – the issue, really – has been on my mind for quite some time, so I thought I’d put it forward for your consideration.

Many years ago I remember being incensed – INCENSED – when I heard that a titan of technology told an audience at some tech conference that we have no privacy and we should all “just get over it”. (To give you an idea of how long ago that was, I just Googled it and it was Scott McNealy, chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems, who said that in 1999.) I was irritated by his cavalier attitude about privacy and bothered by the idea that folks in the tech sector think they know better than the rest of us.

McNealy’s comments ignited a minor firestorm at the time – a flurry of outrage that, I thought, died down too quickly. But, though the spotlight faded from McNealy, over time the topic of privacy started making its way into the mainstream news. And of course, last year Edward Snowden, who publicized lots of information that some would argue was private, has (ironically) become the bellwether of privacy.

Though most people seem to focus on matters of government surveillance and the impact of that on our right to privacy, not as many seem troubled about the information private companies and organizations openly and surreptitiously collect about us (and often sell to others). Though I’m used to it, it still surprises me – and creeps me out a bit – when ads pop up on my computer screen with offers from hotels I’ve recently stayed at or for goods or services I recently searched for. But, what can you do? Or, you may think, what harm can come of it? Ahhh… that’s the more interesting question, isn’t it?
And then there’s today’s news story about the missing Malaysian jet. As the story’s unfolding we’re hearing about all the different avenues investigators are pursuing. We’re all relieved to know that it’s not just a function of people in helicopters or on ships scanning the ocean’s surface for clues. It’s way more sophisticated than that, so we’re learning. For example, though we’ve all heard of the flight data recorder – the black box – I’ll bet few people realized that modern jets are equipped with devices that send signals back to the manufacturer. Hmm… sounds a bit like the GPS system insurance companies would like to see in cars to track drivers’ whereabouts and behaviour – an idea many oppose as an intrusion into their privacy.

In the old days – I mean the early days of the internet – folks believed they could protect their privacy by taking the proper steps. So, as long as you were careful and paid attention to the public and private settings on things like YouTube and Facebook, your privacy was protected. Now, that seems as naïve a belief as the notion that if you delete an e-mail, the information is gone. Of course, I wonder how many readers who may have just chuckled at those examples weren’t quite so amused when they heard just how smart their smart phone is and how much it can tell others about them.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … what we’re used to

By Ingrid Sapona

I took an extended vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in January. It was one of those vacations that wasn’t about seeing anything or doing anything in particular. It was just about spending time in a warm, sunny city on the ocean. And yet, it did get me thinking …

Puerto Vallarta is a lovely city of about 250,000. There’s a large expatriate community (Canadian and American). Many expats own places there and many more rent for three or four months during the winter. Besides finding all the fast food places you’d expect (McDonald's, Subway, KFC, and so on), there’s even a Walmart, Costco, and a Sam’s Club. You get the picture.

But, for as much as it caters to gringos and to our lifestyle, there are little things that are just done differently from how we do them. I’m not talking about things that can be attributed to different views on what the government should regulate – like being able to walk around pretty much anywhere with a beer or drink, or being able to buy over-the-counter lots of medications that we need prescriptions for. I’m talking about little, everyday things.

For example, one day I wanted eggs so I went to my local convenience store. I saw some behind the counter on an oversize cardboard egg tray like the kind you might see in the kitchen at a restaurant or diner. When I asked for some eggs, the sales clerk asked how many I wanted. Not sure whether they had containers for a half-dozen eggs – actually, not seeing any egg containers at all – I hesitated. Then, just to see what would happen, I said five.

She counted out five and put them in a plastic bag and put the bag on the counter with my other items. After paying, she bagged my stuff, putting the eggs in with everything else. It was up to me to get them home without breaking them. I did, of course, but I was always aware of the fragile goods in my bag. By the end of my stay, however, I was not only accustomed to buying eggs that way, I came to like the idea of being able to buy just the number of eggs I wanted, rather than having to buy them in multiples of six.

Then there are the city buses. They’re privately owned but municipally regulated. In other words, each driver owns his own bus but they’re assigned (or maybe leased) a particular route. There are no printed bus schedules or maps showing the stops. But, in the downtown area, most buses go along only a few of the major streets. So, once you figure out the key streets, it’s kind of straightforward. All you have to do is find a bus stop (not all of them are marked, but a crowd on a corner is as good as a sign) and hop on a bus that goes to, or near, where you want to go.

On the front of each bus – I mean, hand painted right on the front windshield! – is a list of major landmarks the bus goes to. So, for example, the list might include various hotels and other important destinations, like Walmart, Costco, the Airport, the Marina. Sometimes the list is so long, it continues on a side window. You learn to scan the list pretty quickly and decide whether to signal the bus that you want to get on. But, if you’re in doubt, you can always ask the bus driver if he’s going to X.

And then there are the buses themselves. They look like old school buses that have been re-purposed as city buses. As soon as you get on, however, you realize they probably weren’t school buses. For one thing, the seats are rock hard, molded plastic (not the cushy padded benches that most school buses have). Also, there don’t seem to be any kind of shock absorbers. Given that the streets are mostly cobblestone and there are big speed bumps everywhere to slow traffic, they really make you thankful for whatever natural padding you have on your derriere.

Despite cracked windshields, the occasional hole in the floor through which you can see the street below, and doors that don’t seem to close quite right, I’ve never seen one in an accident or broken down on the side of the road. The buses are a very popular way of getting around and the system is widely used – by young, old, local, and expat. The buses may lack in comfort, but they are frequent, reliable, and quite an adventure.

Though the examples I’ve described are admittedly mundane, the point isn’t these particular things. The point is that it was refreshing to notice some of the routine tasks that we do one way – often tacitly assuming it’s the best way – and coming to realize that other ways aren’t necessarily worse, they’re just not what we’re used to.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... without passion

By Ingrid Sapona

No, this column isn’t about the fact that the only reason I had a candlelight dinner last night was because we had a power outage, or the fact that the only thing in my mailbox yesterday was a bunch of bills. Honestly, today’s topic has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day.

The passion I’m referring to is that elusive thing that so many career and life coaches advise that, if pursued, will lead to true happiness, fulfillment, and – of course – maximum earning. You know what I’m talking about – the pop mantra about following your passion…

The topic came up the other day in a webinar I tuned into that featured an interview with Jane Pauley – the one-time anchor of NBC’s Today Show. She has a new book out called "YourLife Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life". To promote the book Pauley is doing some public speaking and one of the alumni associations I belong to put together a webinar hosted by Carol Ross, a career coach and fellow alum.

For this webinar, folks who tuned in could participate by typing questions and comments that were passed on to the speakers, as appropriate. After signing in I began doing a few other things as I sort of half-listened. My ears pricked up when Pauley uttered the phrase “… just follow your passion”. Actually, it wasn’t just my ears that reacted – I’m sure my eyes rolled as I congratulated myself on the accuracy of my prediction that that phrase would come up during the webinar.

Because her book is a series of stories about other peoples’ experiences, she began relaying a story of a guy who thought his passion was X but one day, in almost a flash, he realized his passion was Y and – you guessed it – he dropped X in pursuit of Y. It was kind of the classic story of the wonders of someone following their passion.

But, as she was relaying the story she casually mentioned (and yes, this is a direct quote – I’ve gone back and listened to the archived audio of the webinar), “I don’t personally have a passion that I could fill in the blank.    I think the wisdom of ‘just follow your passion’ is a little overrated and I have to say that because I didn’t have one.” 

I was so shocked when I heard her say that, I honestly thought I mis-heard her. Luckily I noticed that one of my fellow listeners had typed: “What an astonishing comment about not having a passion! I thought everyone but me had one.” And just as I finished reading that comment, someone else typed: “I thought the same!” At which point I too confessed to my fellow participants that I felt the same way.

I always squirm when the discussion turns to peoples’ passion. And, I’ve always known that the topic makes me uncomfortable because I’ve always felt like there must be something seriously wrong with me because I’ve never found anything I’m comfortable calling “my passion”. It’s a huge understatement to say it was refreshing to hear Jane Pauley admit she was never able to name her passion. And of course, it got me thinking more about my embarrassment about admitting the same thing.

In defense of myself – and others who’ve silently sat by, hoping no one will discover that they have nothing they can point to as their passion – I think there are a couple of reasons it’s done a number on us. First is the fact that it’s been touted by so many, so often, and for so long that it’s treated like conventional wisdom. Indeed, the idea that if you find your passion, success will follow has gained such common currency, people make it sound like a career/life syllogism (think: A=B, B=C, so A=C). Of course, I realize the intention behind the idea is good – it’s meant to motivate people to find meaning in their life – but unfortunately, the effect isn’t as universally good as the intent.

Another reason I think some of us have never felt comfortable labelling something as our passion is because of the enormity of the word itself. Surely it should be reserved for something truly special. And does not being able to name something as your passion mean there’s no passion in your life? Perish the thought…  So you can see how, for some of us, “What’s your passion?” is a loaded question.

It’s funny, long ago I realized that one-size-fits-all clothes aren’t necessarily a good thing. Sure, they may fit every figure, but they certainly don’t flatter every figure without a heck of a lot of individual tailoring. I guess it wasn’t until this week that I realized that the same goes for advice that’s essentially one-size-fits all: it might apply to our life in some general sense, but it’s up to each of us to tailor it, or better yet, go for custom made.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona