On being ... inspirational

By Ingrid Sapona

I used to be active in an international law group. One of the most interesting people I met through that group was a Mexican lawyer named Eduardo. To be honest, I don’t remember how or why we got to know each other, in particular. What I do remember, however, is that one day, more than a dozen years ago, I got an invitation from Eduardo’s wife to a surprise party for his 40th birthday. I was quite surprised I was invited, because I didn’t know him that well. But, I was intrigued (the party was in Mexico) and I went.

The three-day event was more like a wedding than a birthday party, with a couple hundred guests. It was easily the most magical celebration I’ve ever attended, with a bull fight, a parade, multiple mariachi bands, and even fireworks. I could go on-and-on about it, but that party is peripheral to this column.

Having had such a wonderful time in Mexico, I was tickled when I got an invitation the next year to a surprise party for Eduardo’s wife’s birthday. The invitation was in Italian and was adorned with a wooden coin featuring the profile of what looked like a Roman goddess. Though my Italian was minimal, I figured out that it was an invitation to a toga party at a villa on the Appian Way. So, a few months later I packed my toga and sandals (I knew Eduardo well enough to know that it was a costume affair) and off I went to Rome. At the party I found out that the profile on the coin was of Eduardo’s wife – yes, he had them specially made!

In the years since, I’ve gotten many other invitations to parties hosted by Eduardo. Every time I see his name in the return address on an envelope, I catch my breath in anticipation. Besides choosing locations that engage one’s sense of adventure, the invitations themselves are creative and inspiring.

The parties always have an underlying theme -- like celebrations of love (that was a trip to India, featuring a visit to the Taj Mahal), friendship, family, and spiritual journeys. The themes are always elaborately addressed in words, poetry, pictures, and even music. The Africa trip, for example, was called a Journey to Neverland. The idea behind that celebration was a reawakening of your soul and the invitation was on a DVD wrapped in a leopard-print fabric.

Though I haven’t been to one of Eduardo’s parties for some time, we’ve stayed in touch. Over the years I’ve realized that Eduardo has a rare talent for connecting with people and once you’ve made a connection -- it’s for life. He has a generous spirit and he shares his life, his zest for living, and his spirituality with everyone he meets.

A couple weeks ago I got an e-mail from Eduardo with a subject line that simply read: Incredible! On first reading, I had a hard time understanding it. He said he felt compelled to share with me an e-mail that someone sent to him because -- given that I’m in Toronto -- the thought somehow I was “partly responsible”. Not having a clue what he was talking about, I scrolled down and read an e-mail from a woman in Toronto.

Apparently, at a garage sale last summer that woman bought a DVD -- Eduardo’s “Journey to Neverland” from 2006. She went on to tell a moving story about how Eduardo’s heart-felt writing inspired her to resurrect her childhood dream of going to Kenya. She also mentioned how the timing of her “finding” the DVD was particularly significant to her, as she had lost her mother recently. She tracked Eduardo down and e-mailed him to thank him for inspiring her and touching her heart.

In reading that e-mail, I was intrigued but I didn’t think it had anything to do with me because, until this year, I had never sold anything at a garage sale. Not only that, I was pretty sure I had saved Eduardo’s DVD, so it couldn’t have been mine she bought. To prove it to myself, I went to find my copy of it.

I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find it. When my search turned up the leopard-print fabric it came wrapped in but no DVD, I realized that in the spring of 2007 I had probably thrown the DVD away when I was packing in anticipation of moving later that year. But, she said she bought the DVD at a garage sale. So, the only explanation is that someone pulled my copy out of the trash and sold it. I know it sounds far-fetched, but given that in my old building we put our trash in a shed at the back of the building, not a dumpster, it’s quite possible someone garbage picked it. So, Eduardo’s assessment of the whole being incredible is not just apt, it’s an understatement.

Clearly, there were a number of things I could have titled this column, starting with On being … unbelievable, because, as Eduardo said, the story certainly is. It could also be On being … interconnected, because it shows how technology is bringing the world together (given that Eduardo’s inspiration to that woman was transmitted via DVD and given that she tracked him down and thanked him via e-mail).

Ultimately, however, I decided on the title I did because I agree with Eduardo’s assessment that this story shows how in everything we do we have the power to change, impact, and move the world -- and I find that thought pretty inspiring!

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... diplomatic

by Ingrid Sapona

As a rule, I don’t tell friends the title of On being … as I work on it -- I like it to be a surprise. The rule isn’t carved in stone, however, so the other day when a friend asked, I told him today’s column would be: On being … diplomatic. Without skipping a beat he said, “but you aren’t”. About all I could muster in response to that was, “Gee, thanks”. (In thinking about it later I took comfort from the fact that, clearly, I’m not the only one sometimes lacking in the diplomacy department.)

Undaunted (as I’m sure all my friend would agree I am -- even if some don’t agree about my diplomatic skills), I’ve stuck with it as my topic because it’s been on my mind as a result of recent of situations where I’ve struggled with the issue of what it takes to be diplomatic.

For a long time I thought that to be diplomatic you have to get along with everyone. It also seemed that an almost dispassionate approach helps, as well as a tremendous amount of tact. Based on these parameters, I’ve sometimes felt I come up a tad short on the diplomatic front. For starters, in terms of likability, I realized long ago that the simple truth is some people like me and some people don’t.

And, because I rarely get involved with things I don’t feel passionate about, I find it hard to even feign dispassion. Worse still, I suspect that my passion and enthusiasm are sometimes misperceived. For example, after a certain amount of discussion and planning on a project, I’m keen to start the ball rolling. I think this sometimes leads people to believe that I’m wedded to a particular method or goal. This often isn’t the case at all -- it’s just that I’m more willing than most to try to do something to break free of the inertia that often weighs a project or group down.

As for tact, it’s not that I completely lack it -- it’s just that my first (private) reaction sometimes isn’t particularly tactful. (I’ve often thought that one of the best things about working alone is that there’s no one to hear me mumble “you’ve got to be kidding”, or “Pa-LEEEEEZ” in response to a particularly stupid or irritating idea.) Fortunately, I’ve learned to count to ten -- or higher -- before even considering how to respond publicly.

Given that I’m not a natural diplomat, I’ve developed a technique that seems to compensate for some of my weaknesses. I’ve tried this in a number of situations where I’ve been annoyed as all get out but where merely showing my annoyance will not do -- both because I’d look like a jerk if I did so and because it’s clear that saner minds (and actions) must prevail.

Perhaps the best way to explain my technique is to give an example of how I use it. Right now I’m involved with a group that’s trying to start a local chapter of a bigger organization. Though I genuinely like all the people, there’ve been a number of times when people have floated ideas that I found so ridiculous I figured no response was required. To my amazement, however, others took the ideas seriously. So, despite my fear of forever being branded the naysayer, I’ve sometimes felt compelled to respond, lest the group go off in a ridiculous direction.

When this happens, I wait until I’ve calmed down and then I figure out all the reasons the idea is dumb or unworkable. (Did you ever notice that most dumb ideas are dumb on many, many levels?) Then I come up with rational-sounding reasons that rebut every aspect of the idea (without ever saying what I’d really like to, which is usually: “It’s just a dumb idea!”).

Though this approach of explaining chapter and verse about why an idea is unworkable is somewhat painstaking (and often overkill), I think it works because – even though you’re refuting the idea -- by offering a very detailed response, you’re giving credence to the idea. (So long as no one perceives any sarcasm in your words – which is why I say hallelujah for e-mail!)

I can’t tell you how many times -- especially with this group -- within minutes of sending out an e-mail outlining my reasons against something, others have responded with simple, straightforward e-mails agreeing with some or all of the points I made. Indeed, my approach even seems appreciated because others who might also have thought the original idea was stupid don’t have to try to craft a polite response, and they sound agreeable and supportive of someone else in the group (yours truly).

Despite my interest in the greater goals of this group, I’ve grown tired of worrying about not offending anyone and of being perceived as a contrarian, so I’ve decided to become less involved. Though I didn’t intend to raise this with anyone, when asked, I did tell one person that I plan on withdrawing for these reasons and I was floored by his response. He sent the most thoughtful e-mail encouraging me to stay because, in his words, “there have been many occasions when you have made a comment that brought us back to reality”.

So, this brings me back to my friend’s comment -- kidding or not -- about my not being diplomatic. After much analysis, I do think that others (perhaps people that don’t know me too well?) find my input useful and presented with enough tact to at least make me seem diplomatic. That said, I do think it’s best that -- early on -- I vetoed the idea of applying for a job in the diplomatic corps, and that I carefully pick and choose the situations I get involved in that may require diplomacy.

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... in a jazz mode

By Ingrid Sapona

A girlfriend who’s a jazz lover invited me to a show at the Toronto Jazz Festival this week. The concert was at the main stage, a huge tent set up on the plaza of City Hall. It was general admission seating, but my friend had been to a performance there earlier in the week so she knew both the lay of the land (or tent, in this case) and “the drill” (when they start letting people in, etc.).

She wanted to get there early for good seats and she knew that once we had seats we could leave to find something to eat. Not being much of a fan of street meat (hot dogs) and other delicacies available from street vendors, I offered to bring a bit of a picnic. Since most concert venues don’t allow you to bring in food (other than whatever they may be selling on site), I packed things we could try smuggling in and that we wouldn’t feel to bad parting with, if confiscated at the door.

I was surprised at how much was going on at City Hall. I hadn’t been to the jazz festival in years and boy has it grown. Besides the main tent there was a huge sound stage with free performances, and lots of kiosks and booths selling everything from CDs and souvenirs, to arts and crafts. There was a decent variety of foods available too. (Oh well, who’d have guessed.) One of the most surprising things was that people were walking around the plaza drinking beer – usually that’s only allowed in cordoned-off, “beer garden” areas. Though the plaza was crowded with people enjoying a warm summer evening, the atmosphere was very relaxed.

While we were waiting in line to get in, festival volunteers came around to tear our tickets and stamp our hands so that we could come and go from the tent. I’ve never been to an event where the ticket-takers come to you in line! This system worked great because when they let us in, the line moved exceptionally quickly since our hands were already stamped. Another noteworthy difference between this and other ticketed events I’ve been to the past few years is that no one was checking purses, knapsacks, etc. Clearly, you could bring in whatever you wanted, so our picnic was safe.

The seats were just plastic bistro chairs, but the rows were nicely spaced and the aisles were wide, so navigating through the tent was easy. Bars were set up at the far ends of the tent and once we found seats, I went to get us something to drink. The selection was decent and the prices were reasonable -- none of the extortionist prices you pay at movies and ball parks. I got us some beverages and headed back to our seats only to notice that I could have saved myself a trip because waitresses were coming around taking orders! How civilized …

During the concert folks sat and enjoyed the music, admiring the skill of the musicians as they took turns riffing off each other. The tent sat 1000, so it wasn’t small, but it felt quite intimate. There were no big screens or fancy light shows to distract you. Looking around it seemed that most everyone was watching the hands of the guitar players, admiring their technique and the speed their fingers moved.

Every now and then a hand would rise above the crowd, periscope-like, as someone took a picture with their cell phone, but they were quick and unobtrusive. A few were braver, scurrying up the aisle to take a quick photo. Unlike at rock concerts where such action might trigger a quick response from a bouncer or security guard -- or at the opera where you aren’t even allowed to take a photo of the inside of the theatre during intermission -- here, no one minded.

Though we were in a tent, the sound was as good as at any stadium or outdoor amphitheatre. And for $30 we sure got a lot of music -- there were three groups that evening and each played for a solid hour and at the end a few of them jammed together for a couple songs.

On the way home I was thinking about how long it’s been since I had such a nice time at an event like this. It’s been a LONG time. I tried to figure out what it was that made it so relaxing and enjoyable. (It wasn’t as simple as having enjoyed the music -- I did, but not all of it. In fact, the last group wasn’t my cup of tea at all, but even that didn’t put a damper on my enjoyment of the evening.)

I think what made the jazz festival so enjoyable was that, for a change, security and commercial concerns didn’t trump the audience’s right to enjoy the evening. I’m sure there was security -- after all, we were at City Hall -- but we didn’t have to suffer through airport-like scrutiny as you usually do at big events. And, though there were a wide variety of corporate sponsors, the festival didn’t have an exclusive food vendor, which meant there was a variety of foods to choose from, not to mention the freedom to bring your own. And there seemed to be a happy medium struck regarding liquor -- it was readily available but not pushed on you (like it is in bars that feature live bands) and if you did imbibe, you weren’t restricted to certain areas.

I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but I think by simply letting folks be, festival organizers put us all in an the easy-going, free-flowing jazz mode. How cool is that?

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona