On being … avoidance behavior

By Ingrid Sapona

Baby it’s cold out side…

So, rather than burrowing under the covers and risk Vitamin D deficiency, I decided to avoid the cold and head south. Way south… (Mexico, to be exact.)

I’ll be back at the at the end of the month, so stay tuned.

And by all means – stay warm!

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona


On being … 2017’s year-end retrospective

By Ingrid Sapona

Normally my year-end list is a potpourri of observations about things I found interesting throughout the year. (And it’s usually fairly long, as a result.) This year’s list is thematic, instead. (And because of that – surprisingly short.)

I’m betting most of you won’t have to read too far down the list to pick up on the theme…

A is for alternative facts.
B is for “believe me” and its new synonym: b.s.
C is for Comey.
D is for dangerous.
E is for echo chamber – perfect for someone who loves their own voice – bad for democracy.
F is for feckless.
G is for all the toady generals (Flynn, Kelly, Mattis, McMaster).
H is for hatemongering.
I is for indictment(s) – or maybe this should be under W – for wishful thinking.
J is for Jarred, or jail (but see P below).
K is for Kelly Ann – see A above.
L is for liar.
M2 is for meanspirited misogynist.
N is for nasty.
O is for obsessed.
P is for post truth – and pardons (but that depends on I above).
Q is for quixotic – “in the name of winning”.
R is for reckless.
S is for Spicer, Scaramucci, self-serving, and scary.
T is for twit who twitters.
U is for unpredictable.
V is for vindictive.
W is for wanton disregard for the truth and for reality.
X is for xenophobic (normally X is the hardest letter… not for 2017!).
Y is for year – hard to believe it’s not even been a full year since we were told it was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”.
Z is for zealot.

Whew – what a year, eh? Sad thing is, I fear 2017 was just a prelude – foreshadowing of things to come. Hope we make it through 2018, 2019, 2020 and beyond…

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … a recipe for happiness

By Ingrid Sapona

If you’re thinking of buying me an Ancestry DNA kit for Christmas, thanks, but there’s no need. I recently found out I’m Danish. Not 100% Danish – I’ve got a some Greek from Dad’s side and some German from Mom’s side – but deep down, I’m predominantly Danish.

I got my first inkling I might be at least part Dane earlier this year from a BBC series called Coast. The series focuses on countries whose geography is dominated by their coast. It was during an episode on Denmark that I first heard about “hygge” (roughly pronounced: whoog-eh).

Besides being a funny sounding word (especially as pronounced by series host Neil Oliver, who has a heavy Scottish accent) I had a visceral connection to the word. As Oliver described it, to Danes, hygge represents a kind of cozy, contented happiness. It reminded me of the German notion of gemütlich – a term my mother often used – and gezellig, a Dutch word. (Funny that all these hard-to-pronounce words – hygge, gemütlich, and gezellig, feature hard g sounds.) But, the way Danes used the word in sentences, hygge clearly looms larger in the Danish culture than the analogous words to for Germans and Dutch.

After learning the word, I tried introducing it to friends one afternoon as we relaxed with a drink and some nibbles after a great day on the lake. My friends listened politely as I explained how the coziness of the cabin, the sharing of food and drink, the camaraderie of the sail, and the relaxed conversation all made for hygge. Despite my efforts, they didn’t embrace the concept the way I did.

Anyway, after that I started hearing references to hygge here and there in the news. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve heard it too, as it’s gotten a fair bit of press this year. One of the reasons non-Danes have been talking about hygge is because of the possible (actually, I’d say likely) connection between hygge and the fact that Denmark consistently ranks among the happiest countries in the world.

So, when I read about The Little Book of Hygge – The Danish Way to Live Well, I immediately ordered if from the library. Meik Wiking, the author, is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. (Believe it or not, it’s a think tank.) Anyway, the audio book came in last week and – besides enjoying Wiking’s accent – I came to the inescapable conclusion I’ve got Danish blood flowing through me.

Wiking has been looking at whether hygge is “an overlooked ingredient in the Danish recipe for happiness”. It’s fascinating stuff. He compares the meaning and use of hygge to Germans’ use of gemütlich, Dutch use of gezellig, and even to the way Canadian’s use “homey”. One of the most interesting differences is how hygge can be both a noun and a verb. Here’s an example he gives of it used as a verb: “Why don’t you come over and hygge with us tonight?” (Gemutlich, gezellig, homey, and cozy aren’t used as verbs.)

Another thing that really sets hygge apart from similar words is how much Danes talk about – and focus on – hygge. Indeed, they even rate social events in terms of how hyggelige (pronounced: whoo-ge-ly) they are. Wiking’s conclusion is that hygge is a defining feature of Denmark’s cultural identity, much the way having a stiff upper lip is part of British cultural identity, and the way freedom is central to Americans’ identity.

Wiking distilled down the things Danes do to cultivate hygge and they are all things I’ve always tried to pay attention to. Wiking says it’s about creating intimacy and taking pleasure from soothing things. It’s also about being together with loved ones, shielded from the world and able to let your guard down. And, it can also be about being alone and enjoying some of life’s simple pleasures, like a cup of tea and some sweets.

The good news is that there’s an art of hygge, which means that with a little effort, you can bring hygge into your life. Wiking suggests starting by creating a soothing atmosphere with some candles in a space that’s a comfortable, cozy refuge from the storms of daily life. Then, invite some friends and family over to make memories. Be sure to take in the moment and focus on gratitude and equality. All these things sound simple, straightforward – perhaps even obvious. But, they’re also things we often let slip from our daily lives as we rush about.

So, my dear friends, as someone who is reconnecting with the Dane inside her, my wish for you this holiday season – and all through the coming year – is that you create some hygge for yourself and for those you care about. Happy Holidays!

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona 


On being … severe cognitive dissonance

By Ingrid Sapona

I never took psychology in school and I remember that when I first heard the term “cognitive dissonance”, I didn’t know what it meant, so I looked it up. (It might well have been before Google and certainly before Wikipedia.) Even after doing so, I didn’t understand it. I knew it had something to do with holding contradictory ideas in your mind at one time. I found that puzzling because we all hold dozens of ideas in our minds at the same time, and many of them are contradictory.

But, the past couple weeks I’ve come to understand what cognitive dissonance means because I’ve started experiencing it. Sadly, my understanding came because of the news related to someone I had long-revered: Charlie Rose.

Before I go on, for those of you who need a Psych 101 refresher, here’s a brief description of the term from Wikipedia:

In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is a consequence of a person performing an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values; and also occurs when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.

For years I’ve been a huge fan of Charlie Rose. I found him to be the best interviewer, bar none, on t.v. His breadth of knowledge was remarkable. Even more amazing, however, was his curiosity. His interest in all sorts of things served as a model for anyone who aspired to try to understand the wider world. I had no doubt that his manner and style played a big role in getting all sorts of guests to open up in ways few other interviewers can. His technique was disarmingly simple: engage guests in wide-ranging, meaningful conversation. He did this by showing interest in them – which always felt very genuine – and what they had to say.

And yes, I was enamoured with his mild southern accent and charm. And, having watched him interview – and flirt – with many, Catherine Deneuve and Diane von Fürstenberg are two examples that come to mind, I’m sure I wasn’t the only woman who found his manner attractive.

So, when CBS suspended him (and shortly thereafter fired him) for alleged sexual harassment, I was stunned, shocked, and saddened. Clearly, I wasn’t alone. If you need any proof that others – some of whom knew him professionally and socially – felt the same way, watch the video of Gayle King on CBS This Morning on the day after the announcement. Indeed, it was King’s clear inability to reconcile how Rose behaved toward the women who made the claims with her own experience with him that first brought the notion of cognitive dissonance to my mind.

How could Rose, a man who seemed so supportive of women in general and respectful of them when he interviewed them, be the same person who traipsed around naked in front of women who worked for him? Or who called women staffers to describe his fantasies about watching them swim naked in his pool?

But, when there are multiple reports by different women who all have similar stories, it’s hard not to believe them. Couple that with Rose’s apology for inappropriate behavior (albeit he said he didn’t believe all the allegations were accurate), it’s no wonder I’m experiencing a severe case of cognitive dissonance. (I imagine there are many who feel the same about the news of Matt Lauer – or … well, fill in the blank – there are certainly a lot to choose from these days.)

The truth is, the Charlie Rose story isn’t the only source of my feelings of cognitive dissonance. Trying to figure out what to make of the flood of allegations that has emerged has also been a source of tremendous mental discomfort. All the different commentaries swirling around is enough to make your head explode. There are those who doubt the veracity of some of the accusers (folks who ask: Why did it take them 10 years to come forward?) and of course, those who blame the victims. Fortunately, there are also a number of folks talking abut the idea that sexual harassment is as much about power as it is about sex.

But the real source of my cognitive dissonance is my wonder if this is, indeed, a turning point – or a “moment”, as CBS This Morning co-host Norah O’Donnell said the day after the Rose suspension. I want so badly to believe that all these stories will make a difference and that things will change, but I don’t see that happening unless we address what’s really at the root of all this: the fundamental inequality that exists between the sexes.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … illusion-shattering

By Ingrid Sapona

Do you remember feeling crushed when you found out there’s no Santa Claus? Or maybe it was learning the truth about the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy that started you on the road to cynicism.

To be honest, I don’t remember how I felt when I lost those innocent beliefs. But, given how crushed I was recently when I read an article about big name literary prizes, I can only imagine my reaction on learning the truth about Santa.

Here’s what happened. A couple weeks ago I was leisurely reading the Saturday Toronto Star when I came across this headline in the book section: Burning Book Prize Questions. I immediately thought “Oh, this’ll be interesting. I’ll bet they’re going to talk about the odds of different books winning the Man Booker Prize (a £50,000 international award), or maybe the Scotiabank Giller Prize (a C$100,000 prize for fiction) or maybe the Governor General’s Award (another big Canadian literary prize).

Turns out, that’s not what the article was about at all! The burning question for discussion was whether all the jurors – those people who decide who wins the award – really read all the books. That question NEVER entered my mind. Ever. In fact, I thought it was a downright stupid question. Of course the jurors read all the books. How else could they decide who gets the prize?

Now, I know that when a writer submits a manuscript to a publishing house, the manuscript’s first stop – and maybe its last – is the desk of some young personal assistant. Yes, a nameless, low-paid worker is the writer’s first hurdle on the road to fame and fortune or the rejection pile. But, if a book beats the odds and actually makes it onto the long – or better yet the short – list for a particular literary prize, surely the author gets treated with more respect. The way I see it, those charged with bestowing the prize owe the authors – and the reading public who pay attention to such prizes – the courtesy of reading the chosen books. So, as I said, what a silly question! Nonetheless, I continued reading…

I didn’t have to wade too far into the article before I was speechless. One of the Giller prize jurors who had actually won the award himself, apparently also found the question silly – but for very different reasons. Pointing out that there are a lot of books, he seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would think that the jurors would read them all!

Mind you, that’s not the only reason he gave for not reading all of them. His main justification was that there are books by people that he finds “problematic in their sensibility”. I’m sure that’s true, but then why agree to be on the jury? (The cynic in me suspects that being a juror is a good way of keeping your name in circulation in the literary world. But I digress…) Apparently he reads the first 50 pages but only continues if he feels compelled to. Besides, he reckoned that the four other jurors – each with their own sensibilities – could have caught something he might have missed. He went on to also note that he knows that some of his peers on the jury did, in fact, read all the books.

Thankfully, one of the other jurors interviewed for the story – a writer that has been short-listed for a major literary prize – said he believes in giving each book a fair shot and so he read each one in good faith and with an open heart. Now that’s more like it, I thought…

I was really quite stunned by the idea that someone who is helping decide which book will win an award would do so without having actually read all the books from cover-to-cover. It’s not even that it’s illusion shattering -- it seems downright wrong to me. Why should anyone ever put any stock in the quality of the books that are short-listed or even that win?  

I guess this just means that from now on, when a critic recommends a book or when someone recommends one because it’s an award winner, I’ll take the advice with a pound of salt instead of just a grain. Or, better still, maybe I’ll just stick with the tried and true – reliance on recommendations from friends.

So, read any good books lately?

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … insulting

By Ingrid Sapona

I went to the Bulk Barn the other day to buy a few things. They didn’t have what I was looking for, but one of my favourite candies was on sale, so I scooped a few into a small baggie. As I put the twist tie on the bag, I made a mental note of the candy’s four-digit product code.

When it was my turn to be rung up, I put the baggie on the scale and told the cashier the code. She looked at me and kind of scowled as she typed it into the cash register. As she did so, she grumbled, “I’ve worked here many years”. I politely explained that I was just trying to be helpful. She scowled again and put the item in a bag as she told me the cost. Her obvious irritation took me by surprise and caused me to think about insults – about being insulting and feeling insulted.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been guilty of leveling an intentional insult or two. Of course, at the time of doing so, I always felt it was justified. But, the older I get, the more I realize that my momentary feelings of self-righteousness aren’t always well founded. And, as important, I’ve come to realize that insulting someone usually doesn’t change them or improve the situation. If anything, an insult often makes a bad situation worse, as people feeling belittled or insulted seek to even the score in whatever way they can.

When I realized the cashier felt insulted, I immediately checked in with myself to see whether – on some level – I intended to insult her. I concluded that I really didn’t intend to insult her in any way. I had only made note of the product code because I know cashiers must enter them to determine the cost. I even considered whether I might have made a sub-conscious assessment of her age or mental ability to remember all the different product codes. Since I hadn’t even looked at her after announcing the product code because I was busy fishing through my purse to find change, I really hadn’t paid any attention to her age or seniority.

On my way home, as I nibbled through the 60¢ worth of candy I bought, I couldn’t stop thinking about our brief conversation. I shuddered at how easy it is to misconstrue what someone says and why it is we sometimes feel insulted, even when absolutely no insult is intended. I felt bad knowing that she felt insulted, even though I knew I bore no real responsibility for her feeling that way. Indeed, I came away thinking that her interpretation was more a reflection of her self-esteem than of what was really said.

This little episode helped me see the difference between being insulting and feeling insulted – and it helped me see that a person can feel insulted even when no one was actually being insulting. It’s also a good reminder of how easy it is to misinterpret words! So, in the end, this incident has made me think that next time I feel the sting of an insult, instead of trying to feel better by trying to decipher what the person was getting at, I should be looking inward to see why the comment triggered the feelings it did.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … heard

By Ingrid Sapona

In the weeks between columns, the question of what to write about next kicks around in the back of my head. Then, invariably I notice my attention focuses on something a bit longer, or a bit sharper, than that thing might seem to warrant. Next thing I know, I’m considering whether there’s an On being… there. That’s what happened this week.

I’ve got about a 30-minute commute and I’ve taken to tuning into a few different podcasts to liven up the drive. One is Presidential, a podcast recorded in 2016 by a Washington Post journalist. Another is The Room Where It’s Happening, which is an homage to Hamilton (the musical). And when I know I’ll be in the car for a bit longer, I sometimes mix in an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History.

The format for each podcast is very different. In Presidential, the host (Lillian Cunningham) interviews biographers and historians about the featured President. But, she doesn’t just talk about his boyhood or his presidential achievements. Instead, she chooses a theme and then examines the particular President through that lens. For example, for Benjamin Harrison she focused on his conservation work.

The Room Where It’s Happening is more like a radio talk show. The hosts (Travon Free and Mike Drucker) basically sit around and talk about Hamilton with other millennials from the entertainment or arts community. Besides being fun to listen to them wax poetic about the musical (“geek out”, as they describe it), their insights into the creative process and to American culture (particularly the hip hop culture), is very interesting.

Gladwell’s Revisionist History is the most scripted of the three. Though some episodes of the podcast include snippets of interviews or conversations Gladwell might have had in researching the topic at hand, each episode is basically a finely crafted essay. 

Podcasts aren’t the only audio treat I indulge in on my commute. I also listen to the occasional audio book. I discovered them a couple years ago when I was browsing my public library’s digital catalogue. I like them so much, even if the digital version is currently available, I willingly add my name to the waiting list for the library’s lone audio copy.

As it happens, this week my hold for the audio book “A Gentleman in Moscow” came in. I downloaded it to my phone and began listening. The combination of the reader’s charming British accent and author Amor Towles’ lyrical descriptions captivated me from the start. 

It was in switching to the audio book that I started contemplating the different experiences I was having with each. I also began thinking about how hearing and listening are related, but they aren’t the same thing. Indeed, though the podcasts and audio books are based on the same types of auditory stimuli – words as opposed to music, for example – each engages my mind in different ways and on different levels. How cool is that?

The experience of listening to the spoken word on my commute to/from work was definitely the initial inspiration for today’s column. When I sat down to begin writing, I planned on a title that had to do with the sensory experience of listening. And yet, no title felt quite right because all I could focus on was the notion of being heard, which didn’t seem related to what I planned on writing about the podcasts and audio books.

As I played around with different titles, I realized that, in fact, what’s consumed so much of my subconscious energy lately is the feeling that I’m not being heard. This feeling isn’t new – it’s happened before, but right now it seems to be happening at work and at home.

As soon as I owned up to the title of this column, I realized the reason the podcasts and audio books have been making such an impression on me lately. It’s precisely because I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make my own voice heard.

Funny how the mind works, eh? It’s always looking for inspiration and ways to help you with your personal struggles. The trick is figuring out what it’s telling you…

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … eclipsed

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ve always liked analogies. I think they’re a useful tool for analyzing things. To craft a good analogy you need to carefully think about different aspects of the things you’re ultimately comparing. The clearer you see it, the better you’ll be able to draw a comparison to something else. I also find analogies can be a useful way of helping others see what you see. A thought-provoking or clever analogy can bridge the gap between different sides because it can help both sides see the underling commonalities.

The August solar eclipse was a big story for many here in North America. It wasn’t a big deal for me personally, in part because here in Toronto, the coverage was about 70%. I did find a number of things about it interesting though. For example, the fact that power grid operators in North America did quite a lot of planning leading up to the event to make sure that there were enough energy resources to compensate for the drop in solar power.

I’ve also found stories friends relayed in the wake of the eclipse interesting. Sailor friends of mine who weren’t particularly excited about the idea of the eclipse decided, nevertheless, to head out for a sail that afternoon to experience the eclipse. Afterward they both commented on how surprising – almost eerie – the change was. Part of it, they agreed, was due to the temperature change – but it was also about the change in the colour of the sky. 

Another friend, who lives on the west coast, made a day of it with her family. They travelled to someplace in Oregon where the coverage was 100%. When she returned, she said it was hard to explain how profoundly moving she found it. 

It’s been nearly six weeks since the eclipse, so I thought it odd when I saw the word in a headline last week. Curious, I began reading. Turns out the article was about Trump’s vitriol aimed at NFL players who “take the knee*”. I wasn’t interested in the story of Colin Kaepernick’s actions last season, nor do I care about the lingering impact of it on him or the game. So, like many folks, I found it ridiculous that Trump weighed in on the matter at all. 

Of course I get that there are elements of news to the story. There are freedom of speech issues and race issues intertwined in the story – both incredibly important topics. But, Trump’s bombastic claim during a political rally that NFL owners should fire the players is not an attempt to raise those issues, much less to start serious dialog about them.

To be honest, I don’t even think his bombast is intended to insight or inflame people – though I think it does both. There’s been lots of discussion about why he behaves as he does. Some think it’s impulse control (a lack thereof, that is), others think it’s because of psychological issues. Personally, I think a huge element of it is intentional subterfuge – keeping people focused on a ridiculous comment so no one pays attention to what others in his administration and family are doing.

The article described Trump’s tirades and twitter storms as eclipsing all other news. That, I think, is the sad truth. Indeed, on the day North Korea’s foreign minister said his country considers Trump’s tweet that North Korea’s regime “won’t be around much longer” a declaration of war, the lead story on two US television networks was Trump’s attack on NFL players – a story that was already two days old, not to mention trivial by comparison.

Just as we have no control over a solar eclipse, Trump’s behaviour is out of our control. Given that we’re all mere bystanders to the Trump eclipse, there are steps we can take to help us get through it. The first is to not let your gaze wander into the light, as doing so will blind you to what’s really going on. Indeed, we must not forget that much is still going on behind the shadow Trump is casting and that we won’t know what it all is until he moves on. We must also be prepared to deal with the changes in atmosphere and our surroundings while Trump’s shadow looms because – god willing – eventually his shadow will recede and the sun will return.

*Is it just me or do you find that expression odd? It sounds like something you’d say if you’re describing some guy getting hit in the groin – not someone down on one knee. Anyway…

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona