On being … accustomed to?

By Ingrid Sapona

Though I think we’re not even at the seventh inning stretch in terms of COVID-19, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned so far during the pandemic. They say it takes something like 12 weeks to develop new habits (or is it 12 weeks to break old habits?). Anyway, I’ve been taking stock of the different things I’ve become (more-or-less) accustomed to and some of the new habits I’ve developed thanks to COVID-19.

The first habit I’ve truly become one with is hand washing. I’m embarrassed to admit that before COVID-19, I didn’t do much more than the obligatory quick rinse in the ladies’ room. Now I intentionally seek out opportunities throughout the day to wash my hands and I approach it as time to lather up and luxuriate. (I wish I could say I’ve learned to not touch my face, but sadly, all I’ve become aware of is just how much I do, in fact, touch my face.)

I’ve definitely changed my grocery shopping habits. I never realized how many different grocery stores I’d pop into in a week to pick up this or that. It’s not that I didn’t have a shopping list – I always did. It’s just that I found it irresistible to hop from store to store to save on this item or that. Now I give myself permission to spend a bit more if I can get all the items I might need for the week at one grocery store, especially if they do a good job sanitizing their carts!

Sadly, I’ve definitely not become more patient about work-related meetings. If anything, I find my meeting frustration has actually increased. Why is it that folks new to the work-from-home world insist on taking meetings from their balcony or porch? How can they be oblivious to the fact that the noise of garbage trucks and other traffic make it nearly impossible to hear them or others? I suppose it’s possible that over time I’ll become accepting of the fact that people who waste time during meetings do so regardless of the meeting format. Ugh…

I didn’t need anything close to 12 weeks to adjust to the shut down of stores, restaurants, libraries, parks, cinemas, and the like. Like others, those first couple of weeks I assumed the changes would be short lived. But when it became clear that the timeframe for sheltering in was indefinite, I made some adjustments to my daily routine and settled in with little upset.

I can’t say the same for how I’m dealing with the re-opening of things, however. In fact, I’ve been surprised at the anxiety I feel having to make various decisions again. The shut down pretty much removed personal choice from many day-to-day activities. (For example, you didn’t have to decide whether to go out for dinner – restaurants were closed.) But, with kind of a phased re-opening as we’ve had here in Ontario, it’s largely up to us to figure out what we’re comfortable doing. For example, though I was a regular in the gym, even when mine re-opens, I can’t see myself comfortable returning to it for some time. (Why take the risk of working out indoors in close proximity to others working up a sweat? So long as the sidewalks and paths are snow-free, I’ll continue with my long daily walks instead.) Another common conundrum is whether to risk a ride on public transit or just drive places in the privacy of your own car, knowing it’s less ecofriendly and lots more expensive to park.

And I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling conflicted, weighing the risks versus benefits of different choices. I’ve had various conversations with friends who’ve admitted they don’t know what to do when someone invites them over, or suggests they do something together. Just yesterday one of my sisters faced a tough decision that she didn’t think she’d have to make. Our other sister was in the hospital for elective surgery and we assumed that a post-surgery visit to her room would be out of the question. When it wasn’t, my sister had to decide whether to visit her in her room. My advice to her was to be guided by my new mantra: WWAFD – What Would Anthony Fauci Do? We laughed at the idea, but I know it was a difficult call. (Compassion ruled: she screwed up her courage, sanitized her hands, adjusted her face mask, and went to the room.)

I think it’s going to take some time for many of us to figure out what’s in our comfort zone and what’s not. Indeed, given how fluid a situation the pandemic is, I imagine stuff I may be ok doing this week I won’t necessarily feel comfortable doing sometime further down the road. But, like so many other things we’ve become accustomed to during this pandemic, I imagine we’ll easily adjust to somethings and fervently resist other things – even if we know they’re good for us or for society…

What about you? Anything you’ve been surprise you’ve become accustomed to as a result of the pandemic? Any pandemic-induced behaviours you plan on continuing post pandemic? Any decisions you wish you didn’t have to make these days?

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … motivated?

By Ingrid Sapona

Being productive has always been important to me. Indeed, it’s kind of a coping strategy I use when I’m feeling bogged down or stressed. I find that if I stop and do some unrelated task, I feel better. The key is the task has to be something discrete and that has a definite ending. Cleaning (or some other household chore) is a great productivity salve. That hit of accomplishment renews my faith in my ability and is usually the motivation I need to resume whatever I was feeling anxious or incompetent about.

Being productive is also a way I hold myself accountable for the passage of time. It might not seem like much, but when I’m feeling tired or worn out at the end of the day, I think about the different things I accomplished. My internal dialog goes something like this: “Hmm… I did this, this, this, and that today… no wonder I’m tired!”

At the start of the pandemic none of us knew how long we’d be relegated to home. (I refuse to call it being “in lock down” – that’s always seemed overly dramatic to me.) But, here in Ontario, at the outset we were told the schools would be shut for three weeks, so that timeframe got me thinking about various projects that I might tackle. You know – the kind of things you put off because they’re going to be a bit messy or maybe emotionally draining.

I didn’t actually write out a list, but a number of things quickly came to mind. I started by doing the Marie Kondo thing with my closet and drawers. (Not physically hard, but deciding what sparks joy can certainly be emotionally draining!) Feeling buoyed by culling and tidying up my bedroom, I moved on to doing touch-up painting in the living room – areas that only I knew needed touching up but that I had been meaning to get to for about a year.

When it became clear that all you could say about the pandemic “sheltering in” timeframe was that it was definitely indefinite, I realized that to get through it, I’d have to ramp up my tried-and-true coping mechanism. I needed to put some thought into real projects that – in a year’s time – I could point to as being something I accomplished during the pandemic.

A couple weeks ago I took on what I saw as the LAST project on my COVID list. It was last on my list for good reason: because it was daunting and something I’d been mulling over for at least a half-dozen years. I decided to re-finish my bedroom furniture.

I got the courage to tackle that project after a friend mentioned she was refinishing her bedroom set. In awe, I picked her brain about the process. And, when I knew they were out, I popped over to see it for myself. (I have a key to their place and I had asked if it would be ok if I let myself in to see it.) It looked terrific and she insisted that it was easy and virtually “smell free”. I did some research (read: watched lots of videos about it) and I decided to try. Besides the fact that almost any treatment would be an improvement in the way the furniture looked, I figured that in the end I’d have something substantive to show for how I spent my time during the pandemic.

As it happened, mid-project, I had a funny email exchange with another friend. When I told him I was working on the last item on my COVID list, he seemed suitably impressed, but couldn’t pass up the chance to tease me by asking, “But what if COVID goes on for some time yet?” Without skipping a beat, I jokingly replied, “Well, there’s always something else on my to do list”.

After I sent that email, the truth of my response hit me. The furniture refinishing was not the last thing I’d been meaning to get to for some time. A project I had started a few months ago but put aside out of frustration immediately came to mind. Then another project I didn’t get to last summer popped into my head. Then another, and yet another. Suddenly my head was spinning with projects I’ve either started but not continued or have been too afraid to even try.

A week or so after that email exchange, my bedroom furniture was dry enough to put back into place and to refill with my clothes and stuff. I’m thrilled to report that not only does it look great, the project gave me a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. I’ll always remember it as one of the productive things that got me through the pandemic. But more importantly, it helped me realize that the only thing standing between me and those other daunting projects is the courage to stop putting them off.

None of us would have chosen to have life turned upside down by a pandemic. But I have to say, I’ve found it oddly motivating. And though not knowing how long it may go on is unsettling, that fact can be liberating too. After all, no reason to limit the items on your to-do list – just finish one and move on to the next…

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … viewed from behind someone else’s mask

By Ingrid Sapona       

The title of today’s column is an admittedly clumsy reference to the old saying about not judging someone until you’ve walked in their shoes. That adage, which is about practicing empathy, has weighed heavily on my mind during this pandemic.

Like many, I find wearing a face mask uncomfortable. I find them hot, they often fog up my glasses, they snag my upper eye lashes (which aren’t particularly long), and even my ears seem to get tired by the minor tugging of the elastic fasteners. Boohoo… right?

When I’m feeling especially annoyed from wearing a mask, I rein in my frustration by reminding myself that no matter how irksome the mask is, I’ll bet being on a respirator in the hospital is way more uncomfortable! I also think about healthcare workers who wear masks all day. Indeed, for them, masks are just the first of many layers they have to wear when dealing with COVID-19 patients. Talk about uncomfortable! And, when I’m tempted to tug the mask down or off, I think about how lucky I am that I barely have to give more than a passing thought to whether the mask is contaminated. Poor healthcare workers have to be as careful about how they take their mask off as they are when they suit up at the start of their shift.

But mask wearing isn’t the only activity that causes me to think about our heroic healthcare workers. As odd as it may sound, I think about them every time someone asks me to sign a waiver of liability before using their facilities or services. (For example, my sail club required members to sign a waiver before being allowed to launch their boat. Similarly, my condo board wants residents to sign a waiver before using the communal barbecue.) I completely understand the rationale for such waivers and I don’t have a problem with them. In fact, I think they’re a useful reminder to folks that the virus is still very real and that certain activities present higher risks. And I don’t blame businesses for wanting to limit their liability.

I wonder, however, if folks would equally willingly sign a waiver that said that if they get COVID-19 from undertaking riskier activities they’d agree to forego medical help. Every time someone quickly, perhaps unthinkingly, signs such a waiver and willingly assumes added risk, they’re also increasing the risk of burdening the healthcare system and healthcare workers, who don’t have a say in the decision that person made when signing the waiver. Maybe such waivers should include a caution that there’s no guarantee the healthcare system will be available if the system becomes overburdened as a result of folks who willingly assumed the risks associated with various activities.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was lots of talk about “flattening the curve”. The rationale behind that was the very real concern that the healthcare system would become overwhelmed if we didn’t slow down the rate of spread of the virus. The initial concerns related largely to insufficient supplies of things like N95 masks, personal protective equipment, and hospital ventilators. Those supply-chain problems have pretty much been sorted out, but the pressure, stress, strain, and danger healthcare workers face is on-going, even if it doesn’t get as much news play these days.

Though I believe that we’d slow the spread of the virus if people routinely wore masks when out and about, I get that it’s a contentious issue. And so, I understand why government authorities – and business owners – prefer to let people decide for themselves. My only wish is that when people weigh the pros and cons of wearing a mask, they think about how their decision might impact two groups: those whose health is precarious and the healthcare workers who’ll be called on to help those who become seriously ill due to COVID-19.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … fearful

By Ingrid Sapona

On the surface, the senseless killing of yet another black man at the hands of police was a match that lit a tinderbox. The fire’s intensity shouldn’t really surprise anyone, as it’s been stoked by years of racism, hatred, contempt, and fear that’s been exposed and amplified by Trump’s actions and behaviours. 

Time and again, Trump has promoted hatred of different races – from his characterization of Mexicans as murderers and rapists, to his description of third-world countries as shitholes. And he has promoted racism – from his failure to condemn torch-baring white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, to his recent use of racially charged phrases like “when the looting starts the shooting starts”.

Time and again, Trump has promoted violence. On the campaign trail in 2016 he told audience members he’d pay their legal fees if they engaged in violence against protesters. At a campaign rally in 2017 he praised a representative who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault of a reporter saying, “Any guy that can do a body slam, he is my type!” When protests erupted in Michigan and Minnesota against pandemic restrictions, he egged people on urging them to “liberate” their states. He even went a step further when he told people to “liberate Virginia, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It’s under siege!” Nothing like the commander-in-chief urging gun owners to storm statehouses locked and loaded.

And if turning citizens on each other doesn’t work, Trump and his administration have proclaimed their willingness to turn the military on citizens. In early June the U.S. Secretary of Defense compared protests in cities across the country to battlespaces, while Trump warned governors that if they don’t take back their streets, he’ll do it for them by sending in the military.

How can this be happening in the U.S.?

I think there are two possible explanations for how the fabric of America has worn so thin: fear or indifference. If someone’s truly indifferent in the face of all the hatred and violence, then I don’t imagine there’s much anyone can say that will motivate them to take notice, much less do something. But I find it hard to believe that so many people in the U.S. can be indifferent to the plight of others. I think that the main thing underlying the U.S.’s self-destruction is fear.

So, I’ve really been thinking about fear. I know fear is deeply personal and it can be debilitating. But I think the time has come for everyone to examine their own fear and to think about the consequences to the country – to the world – if you don’t move past it.

If you’re struggling with the bounds of your own fear, ask yourself a few simple questions: Are you willing to live with the fact that the notion of freedom and justice for all is a lie? Are you willing to persist in turning a blind eye to social injustice? Are you willing to stand by and let the government take up arms against peaceful protesters?

If you answered no to any of these questions, then now’s the time to take a stand. Let your fear motivate you to fight injustice and show that you believe that black lives matter. If we don’t demand accountability and change now, then the world will become much more dangerous for us all.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … gone

By Ingrid Sapona

I grew up in Western New York in a place called the Town of Tonawanda. Our house backed onto an expressway. If you looked straight across the expressway from our back yard, you could see the Town water tank. It wasn’t one of those tall ones that look like a huge bulb on stilts. It was more like the huge tanks that you’d see at an oil refinery. (Out of curiosity, I googled it and it really was big – it held 4 million gallons.)

The water tank fascinated me for a lot of reasons. I remember thinking that if it ever burst (or was bombed) we’d be flooded. But, the most lasting memory I have of it was that it was proudly painted with the Town’s green and blue logo and “population 105,000”. That was in the 1970s.

The Town took down the water tank in 2013, long after I moved away. In fact, it was friends from Virginia who were up visiting my mother who mentioned to me that it was gone. It seems the water tank was their landmark for where to get off the expressway when they were visiting us. When they told me the water tank was gone, my first thought was “Gee, how will people know how many people live in the Town?”

When you see a number day in, day out, it leaves an impression on you when you’re young. (Remember seeing the “Number of burgers sold” on the McDonald’s sign? That made an impression too…) Anyway, to this day, 105,000 is a benchmark for me – a handy reference regarding numbers of people for all sorts of things. For example, when I heard that the University of Michigan’s football stadium holds 107,000, I thought – “Jeez, that’s big enough to seat everyone in my home town!” When I got to Evanston, Illinois for university and I found out the town’s population was only about 80,000, I thought, “Wow, I guess I’ve moved to a small town.”

I find a benchmark like that a useful way to transform an abstract idea like a number into something I can relate to. So, as the number of Americans who have died of COVID-19 rocketed past the 100,000 mark this week, I couldn’t help but think about that number on the water tank. Indeed, by the time you read this, it’s likely that the number of U.S. deaths due to COVID-19 will exceed the population of the town I grew up in. Just think about it – it’s as though everyone in my home town is gone…. I know that for many Americans the Vietnam war’s 58,220 dead is an unthinkable benchmark. As the U.S. approached that number in April, like many, I held my breath. Now the U.S. death rate is closing in on double that!

No country has escaped the pandemic unscathed. But that people in the U.S. seem willing to take the staggering death toll as a given is simply unfathomable. The U.S. used to be the envy of the world. How can they not have the willpower to do what it takes to control the number of deaths when other countries have managed to?

If you’re fortunate, as I am, to not (yet) personally know anyone who has died of COVID-19 – count yourself lucky. But don’t just sigh with relief that you and yours have been untouched. I’m writing this column to urge you to make it personal. Start by thinking about all the deaths in terms that are real and meaningful to you. For me, it’s useful to think of losing all the people in my home town. For you, it might be something like thinking of it in terms of losing everyone in your church, or synagogue, or school district. How would you feel if all those people were no gone? Would you just accept it and carry on?  

Over 100,000 Americans are gone from COVID-19. How many more deaths will it take before Americans realize they all have a role to play and a responsibility to each other.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … curated

By Ingrid Sapona

“Curated Content” was a popular (read: overused) phrase six or seven years ago. Folks used it to describe articles, publications, websites, and on-line postings where someone acted as a “curator” to filter things for readers. I didn’t much care for the phrase because it was often used in a self-aggrandizing fashion. Indeed, I developed a healthy suspicion of folks who were offering me curated content.

The phrase seems to have gone out of fashion, and yet it popped into my head last week as I was reflecting on the variety of things friends and others have sent me during the pandemic. My friends have always been judicious in terms of what they sent out. In other words, they’ve never swamped my inbox with nonsense or rantings and ravings about anything. That’s not to say they don’t forward things they think I’d be interested in – they do.

But the past two months I’ve noticed some changes regarding what’s landed in my email inbox. One change relates to the folks who have been in touch. Many friends and colleagues have made a special effort to reach out to check in and just touch base. I’ve done the same with many people. For the most part, these emails are brief reassurances that they – and their families – are weathering the storm.

Then there are emails I’ve received that have provided unique insight into friends’ personalities and interests I never knew they had. For example, after a discussion with a friend about the naming of COVID-19, she sent me a couple scholarly articles she had read on the Spanish Flu. Shanon’s quite cerebral, so I wasn’t that surprised she’d read in-depth articles. But, I was quite surprised when she later sent a link to a neat video of the last performance of an award-winning equestrian rider and horse (Valegro) explaining she used to ride. Another friend sent a link to a performance she had tuned in to by the American Ballet Theatre. I had no idea Eva – a pathologist – was into ballet. (I had to laugh when she also mentioned that her physician husband apparently didn’t find it as enthralling as she did.)

Poetry has never been something I thought much about until Ann, a lawyer friend, forwarded a newsletter put out by the American Association of Poetry. They’ve been publishing “Shelter In” poems to inspire folks during the pandemic. I enjoyed so many of the poems, I decided to subscribe to their newsletter. Now, every time I get it, I think of Ann and wonder whether we’ve both found the same poem – or poems – moving. Interestingly, Ann wasn’t the only one who has sent me poems lately – a surprising number of folks shared poems that they came across in April (National Poetry Month).

I’ve also gained insights into friends’ hidden talents and skills. I had no idea how many people know how to sew, for example. I’ve been amazed at the number of friends who’ve mentioned they’ve made face masks. Another friend links to YouTube videos of “house sessions” he and his adult kids have had because they’re all home right now. Honestly, I knew they were talented, but I didn’t realize how seriously they took their music – with all the equipment on hand, you’d think they have a staff of roadies standing by! Keith even mentioned they take requests, in case there was anything I might like to hear… How sweet is that?

I’m sure part of the reason friends are sending things that they might not otherwise send is because they have more time and they probably figure others do to. Be that as it may, I’ve loved these glimpses into their interests, knowledge, talents, and senses of humour, not to mention being introduced to some new sources of information and inspiration. They are awesome curators!

To everyone who has reached out during this pandemic and shared a little something about themselves and their interests with their friends, I say bravo. In these days of distant socializing I can think of no greater gift than curating some content for your friends.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … different

By Ingrid Sapona

So much of the news these days is talk focused on the question of when we’ll “return to normal”. Most analysis and discussion of that question is focused on timing and economics is a prime factor motivating the discussions. In this regard, most commentators talk about wanting to reverse the economic devastation.

I think talk about reversing, or reverting, to the way things used to be is naïve. The reality of life is that there’s really no going back. Think about the last time you said, or did something, to someone that you regret. Even if your explanation or apology is accepted and the relationship continues, it’s never be truly the same – it’s different. Or think about something you’ve broken and repaired – it may be close to the way it was, but it’s structurally never the same.

Undoubtedly, the way things were before was great for some. But the pandemic has laid to bare many of the disparities, inequities, and problems with the way things were. You need look no further than the conditions faced by workers in meat processing facilities, or global supply chain issues, especially with respect to healthcare supplies and equipment.  

I don’t think we should be focused on returning to normal, or even the ever-fashionable notion of “the new normal”. I think we’d be better off if we start to focus on – or better yet, start adjusting to – all the ways things will be different. There’s been some public discussion about differences in the way certain things are going to be in the near term. For example, we’ve all heard that restaurant seating is going to have to be more spread out. Or that sports teams may have to play in empty arenas with fans cheering them on from home.  

I understand that right now many people are missing what they had and so talking about making things different is unsettling. But focusing on what we can do differently can be empowering. A business article I read recently suggested that if companies to see the disruption caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to reinvent and reimagine things, they can come back stronger. That seems like a good way for all of us to look at our own lives and livelihoods. The author points out, however, that to do that will require foresight, courage, and action.  

I think the sooner we accept that things are – and will be – different, the more likely we are to find contentment and happiness in the way things are.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


On being … essential

By Ingrid Sapona

I know many of us are in mental overload related to COVID-19 and the last thing you want to read is more commentary related to it. But honestly, there’s little else on my mind, so I’m sorry to say I can’t not write about it. I will, however, do my best to keep this – and any future COVID-related columns, on the shorter side.

One of the first things Ontario did to stem the virus’ spread was put restrictions on non-essential services and businesses. The initial list of things considered essential was interesting and the cause of much conversation. (For example, should cannabis shops, liquor stores, and construction sites remain open?) After about a week the list was modified a bit and since then, most discussions moved on to what each of us should be doing to help flatten the curve.

But, I’ve still been thinking about the essential services. More particularly, I’ve been thinking about the brave people who are performing all the services we now realize are essential to our daily lives. No one ever doubted the essential – indeed, heroic – work performed by medical professionals. That said, until now, I never really thought about the range of work involved in medically managing a health crisis – everything from testing for the virus to providing an array of medical care. As well, I never focused on the critical role personal care workers play in attending to the health and wellbeing of many, particularly the aged. 

I’ve been lucky, so far, because I’ve not needed any medical services during this crisis. But, I’ve certainly benefited from the services of numerous other essential service providers. As a result, I’ve reflected on their work and the precariousness of their position. I’m talking about the countless service providers who do things day in, day out that enable each of us to stay safe. All the people involved in providing groceries, for example, from those who grow or manufacture our food, to those who get it to markets and stores, to those who stock it, and the cashiers. As well, all the people who deliver things – from mail, to packages, to food. And the transportation workers and other drivers. And all the folks who clean and disinfect places so that others can be safe.

Many of those jobs that we all recognize as being essential now were often previously taken for granted and were marginalized by society. The work often pays minimum wage (which doesn’t even come close to a “living wage”) and usually offers no, or minimal, benefits or security. Such workers are often thought of simply as unskilled labour, as though they chose such work over some position that requires special training or education. Such assumptions ignore the role opportunity and circumstance often play in the ability to train for, or learn skills necessary for, other work.

While society may have assigned a pecking order (overtly or covertly) to different types of work, the virus is an equal opportunity phenomenon. It doesn’t discriminate between the levels of education, skill, or income of those doing essential work. So, having recognized that certain work is essential to all of our well being, shouldn’t we make sure all essential workers are treated with dignity and remunerated fairly? To do this, we must ensure their safety now by recognizing their need for – and right to – personal protective equipment that’s appropriate to the conditions of their work and to their chance of exposure. And we must recognize the value their work contributes to the functioning of society each and every day – not just during times of crisis – by ensuring their wages and benefits provide them with economic security.

It’s hard to imagine exactly what life will be like when this crisis is behind us. Some things will change and some things will go back to the way they were, no doubt. One thing I hope doesn’t change is appreciation of how much we rely on each other and how essential it is to value everyone’s service and contribution.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona