On being ... a laughing matter?

By Ingrid Sapona

It’s a given that children think their parents’ behaviour is sometimes odd. One of my father’s habits I always found particularly strange was that whenever he’d talk about something expensive that had broken, he would laugh. Indeed, the bigger the ticket item, the more sustained his laughter. I could just never understand it...

Another given is that children inherit more from their parents than just their looks. In my case, I’ve come to realize that I’ve inherited Dad’s big ticket item/laughter habit. I honestly don’t know when the transformation happened in me. I used to be very much the type who cried over spilled milk -- much less over the spilling or breaking of anything remotely valuable. But, recent bouts of laughter over a costly incident have proven to me that Dad’s habit lives on in yours truly.

The incident I’m referring to arose out of a fateful decision I made one Saturday. That morning, after a multivariate, mental, cost-benefit-time analysis, I decided to drive downtown instead of taking the subway. I parked in an office building that offers cheap rates on weekends. (Parking was only about 50¢ more than the cost of two subway tokens and the convenience of being able to leave packages in the trunk more than offset the cost of gas and wear-and-tear, not to mention the time I’d save.)

After efficiently completing my errands, I was feeling quite content as I exited the parking garage. Suddenly, however, I heard a loud whack/thud. For reasons not germane to this story, I was (painfully) aware of what that noise probably was. My guess: my (once) fixed-mount passenger side-view mirror had probably become, for lack of a better way of describing it, unmounted.

When I got out of the garage I pulled over to check my hypothesis. I was partly right. The mirror had, in fact, torn off. But what I didn’t anticipate was that the once black, convex panels on both passenger-side doors were now yellow-scuffed, concave panels. Yes, I had completely side-swiped the wall of the garage. Those of you used to parking garages will appreciate what it was that I had come in contact with: a guardrail built about two feet up from the ground and about two feet out from the wall. (Such structures are to prevent side-view mirrors on large delivery trucks from being whacked off if the driver misjudges the space between the truck and the wall. Handily, they are also often painted bright colours -- like school-bus yellow -- to make them even more obvious -- or that’s the theory, at least.) Unfortunately, my little Buick rides a bit lower than delivery trucks…

I’m sure you can imagine the thoughts going through my head on the way home: how could I have not seen it? What was I thinking? Was I distracted? How much will it cost to fix? And, the kicker thought: I clearly didn’t factor in quite enough things when I did my multivariate analysis. (Of course, embarrassment goes without saying.)

At first I told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to friends and strangers who asked. But after awhile, the simple truth got rather tedious. That’s when I started finding the humour in it. The first laugh I had about it was when I described to my sister how liberating it is when you find you’re no longer worried about people carelessly denting your door in store parking lots. After that I found myself chuckling when I noticed people seeming to steer a wee bit wider of me. (Aye, she looks like a bit of a reckless one, she does.)

But the best laugh yet came the other day when I dropped my car off for a routine oil change. When Rocko, the service manager, asked how the car was, I had a split second to decide what to tell him. He picked up on my momentary hesitation and asked what was wrong. I told him the car was running fine, but there’s a bit of a cosmetic problem that he’d no-doubt see.

When I went to pick it up, Rocko asked what had happened. I couldn’t resist, so I responded: “what can I say Rocko? Cute guy; yellow Porsche.” “Yellow Porsche?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, quickly adding, “you must have seen the yellow paint”. A skeptical look came over his face but I didn’t flinch. Then, after a bit of a pause, he said, every so somberly and sadly, “Ohhhhh…. You hit a yellow Porsche… They’re expensive to fix… I can imagine you’re upset.”

Feigning insult, I said, “Now Rocko, how come you think I hit him? I didn’t say that…”. The assistant service manager (who had been standing there listening to our exchange), then jumped in with, “True enough, Rocko!” As I waited for the credit card authorization to go through they both stood there shaking their head and silently wondering, no doubt, what the Porsche must look like, given the state of my car. When the transaction was complete I simply took my keys and headed out the door, hearing “yellow Porsche” muttered in hushed tones.

I tell you, I laughed all the way home…

I know -- laugh fool, laugh -- it’s still going to cost me a pretty penny to get the car fixed. But you know what? I think I finally understand why Dad always ended up laughing at the big ticket items. Laughing doesn’t pay the bill, but it sure makes you feel better.

© 2006 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... an apt analogy

By Ingrid Sapona

If you were a tree, what kind would you be? Barbara Walters once asked that in an interview and boy did she take flack for it. The snickering and ridicule that followed always seemed unfair to me. I imagine Babs was simply trying to get the interviewee (Katherine Hepburn) to reveal something about herself. For starters, the way she responded would reveal the degree to which she was self-reflective. And of course, whatever tree she mentioned might have revealed – by analogy – something about qualities she sees in herself.

I’d have a very hard time coming up with a tree that’s somehow representative of me or my life. (I could probably rule out a few types for obvious reasons – like ebony and bonsai – but my limited knowledge of the characteristics and qualities of different varieties would make the comparison meaningless.) But, there is an object that I think represents me to a tee: a sail boat.

This thought occurred to me on the last sail of the season. It was a lovely fall day: sunny and cool. The winds were light but “cats paws” on the water off in the distance (darkish patches that look kind of like wrinkles on the surface) told me there was some wind out there. I motored a ways out and hoisted the sails. I then cut the motor and pretty much came to a stop. I was in a dead patch. Clearly I should have motored out further – closer to where it looked like there might have been some wind.

I considered putting the motor back on but it would have been quite noisy. I decided, instead, to just sit there and enjoy the sunshine – and practice being patient. So, I sat there in the stillness, trying to avoid looking at the speedometer (it was only mocking me anyway). Sure enough, in a few minutes a gentle breeze started filling the sails.

Tickled that my patience was rewarded, I couldn’t help think that there was a lesson there. As I tend to do in most situations, I started out that afternoon looking ahead – seeing where wind (or opportunity) might be and naturally wanting to head directly toward it. In this case that would mean motoring toward it. But that afternoon, rather than take my usual tack (to borrow a sailing term), I intentionally tried a different way of being and to my pleasant surprise, the approach worked quite well. I couldn’t help wonder whether I might benefit by sometimes taking a wait-and-see approach in other aspects of my life too. Perhaps I should try it…

Once the boat was moving I had to pay attention to steering, which got me thinking about the job of steering one’s life. In sailing, depending on the wind direction, sometimes you can get to your destination by taking a direct route, but many times you have to take a rather indirect course to get there. In looking at the path my life has taken so far, the analogy was quite striking. Realizing the immutable truth about never being able to sail directly into the wind, maybe I should be more accepting in situations when I can’t seem to steer my life in as direct a route as I might like.

Thoughts about steering then led to thoughts about destinations. I usually have a destination (goal) in mind, but sometimes conditions that are out of my control force me to head toward somewhere completely different. Sometimes the revised destination is just a place to ride out a storm and sometimes it’s a place you end up staying for a long time. Either way, once you stop and think about where you are, you realize that the destination was less important than the strength and skills gained en route. So, rather than seeing unfulfilled goals as a failure, maybe I should take more stock in the skills and wisdom I’ve gained and know that it will come in handy somehow on the rest of this voyage called life.

The winds that afternoon were unusually inconsistent. Sometimes I found myself in a patch of dead air (when the boat speed – if you can call it that – fell to zero) and then suddenly there’d be a pocket of air that would propel me forward. This speeding up and slowing down reminded me of the way my business goes. Sometimes things are moving along quickly (or even terrifyingly fast) and other times there’s a lull. Either way, I’ve learned that all I can do is just do my best to try to steer my course and to stay afloat, and remember that the conditions are bound to change. (Of course, having sailed through some pretty nasty weather – and having lived through some downturns in the economy – I also know that sometimes conditions actually get worse before getting better – but eventually things settle down to something manageable.)

I could go on and on about ways I’m like a sail boat or about how sailing is a particularly apt analogy for my life, but that’s not what dawned on me on the boat the other day. Instead, what I realized was that maybe there’s something to be learned by looking for analogies between our actions and characteristics and those of other things (or other people). After all, it’s usually much easier to be objective about things outside our lives and selves. Looking at it that way, maybe Ms. Walters was on to something bigger than most people gave her credit for. So, what kind of tree would you be?

© 2006 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a fait accompli

By Ingrid Sapona

Given that I once dropped out of an Alliance Française introductory French course after a particularly humiliating, if humourous (in retrospect), performance on a test, I really have no business using a French expression in the title of this. But it seems so (forgive me) apropos. The idea of a fait accompli has been swirling through my head all week as I’ve mulled over the outcome of a fundraising event I coordinated for the food bank on whose board I sit.

Last spring a board member suggested we field a team in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon (TWM), with runners getting pledges for the food bank. Unlike other runs dedicated to one cause (like the Run for the Cure, which funds breast cancer research), the TWM is open to any charity willing to pay a small entry fee. As incentive, the TWM sponsors a “charity challenge”, offering $5,000 to the charity with the most runners, and to the charities that raise the most per runner and per team.

I was so impressed with how charity-friendly the TWM is, I volunteered to organize our team. I figured signing up runners shouldn’t be hard -- I know some runners and there are lots of running clubs and gyms in the area that I could contact.

Shortly after entering our team, the TWM organizers “selected” us to host one of 10 cheering sections on the day of the race. (I should say on the morning of the race, as runners were expected to pass our section between 7 and 10 a.m.) The clever marathon organizers pitched the “neighborhood cheering challenge” as a “win-win” way of promoting the marathon among runners (imagine how motivating it is to a weary runner on, say, mile 19, to have people cheering you on) and of benefiting community groups by offering $5,000 to the group with the “best” cheering section. I had no ideas about what would make for a successful cheering section, but the enthusiastic race organizers strongly encouraged us to have a band and to serve refreshments to help draw a crowd of cheerers.

Another “feature” of participating in the cheering challenge was the “opportunity” of having a free booth at the two day wellness expo, which is where the over 10,000 runners would be picking up their race kits. While I realized having a booth would be great exposure, all I could think about at the time was the work it would take to create and man.

So, suddenly I found myself organizing both the charity and cheering challenges, as well as an expo booth. Because we’re a small organization we had to decide where to focus our energy. The consensus was we’d get more return for our efforts by concentrating on signing up runners. As well, the unspoken sentiment was we didn’t think we had much of a shot at the $5,000 cheering prize, given how difficult it would be for spectators to get to the location we had been assigned, and given our limited monetary and volunteer resources.

That said, we couldn’t simply pass on participating in the cheering challenge because a city councilor had nominated us for this “opportunity”. But, other than asking the marathon organizers to help find and book us a band, I didn’t really focus on the cheering challenge until about two weeks before the event. And, when I finally did, given that I didn’t think we had much of a chance of winning, my efforts were aimed pretty much at just making a show of it.

Fortunately, once I focused on it, things began falling into place. A law firm offered law students to help at the expo booth and a board member made a display for it. I also had the idea of trying to get people to stop at our booth by offering them FREE INSPIRATION from an jar filled with slips of paper that had quotes about the nature of happiness. (I can’t tell you how much fun it was to urge people to pick a piece of paper and then watch their puzzled reaction give way to smiles as they read the quote.) The expo booth was fun and we collected a few hundred in donations each day.

So, with a renewed sense of spirit and hope, at 6 a.m. on race day I greeted the band while people working for the marathon put up tents, tables and banners, and distributed cheering kits. A friend helped set out muffins and juices we got from Costco and I silently prayed someone would show up to cheer. Soon a dozen people had gathered and the first runners were coming. The band started and I handed out pompoms and cow bells, encouraging everyone to yell like crazy, especially when cheering challenge judges (who would be on motorcycles) came by.

The sea of runners was impressive and seeing them smile at, or sing along with, a song they recognized or nod appreciatively when they heard our cheers was a reward I hadn’t counted on. Looking around me I got the sense I wasn’t the only one having a good time yelling like a school kid at recess. And, when the judges came by everyone kicked it up a few notches in hopes of demonstrating that we were a small, but enthusiastic crowd.

Two hours later the stream of runners had become a trickle and we started packing up. Most of the cheerleaders came to say goodbye and, with rather hoarse voices, many told me how much fun they had. As I drove home I found myself on a natural, cheer-induced, high. But, I was also thinking about how much better it might have been if we’d have actually tried to win the prize, instead of figuring from the outset that we didn’t have a chance.

Later that afternoon I got an e-mail announcing the winner -- and it wasn’t our section. I was disappointed, but I couldn’t help feeling that the outcome was a fait accompli. I don’t mean to imply that the challenge was rigged or in any way unfair. What I mean is that I realized the outcome of our not winning was preordained because of our failure to believe -- until way too late -- that we could pull it off.

Don’t get me wrong -- I do feel we ended up a net winner from the event. We made about $2,500 and we gained exposure, both in the community and among potential future volunteers (like the law students), and we had fun. But perhaps the most valuable thing to come out of this was the real-life example of a very basic principle about success: you won’t succeed if you have a self-defeating attitude. If only we’d have believed (and acted like) we could have won the cheering challenge, the fait accompli I’d be writing about today might have been a bit different.

But, there’s always next year…

© 2006 Ingrid Sapona