On being … a rhetorical question

By Ingrid Sapona

Talk about a no brainer. I mean, really. Trick or treat? Who chooses trick?

Though Halloween isn’t until tomorrow -- Halloween candy has been in the stores since Labour Day, so I’m sure you have yours by now. I’m told we don’t get kids coming to the door here, so I didn’t buy any. The fact that I “helped” my mother pick out what she’d be handing out -- you know, just in case there are leftovers that I might have to “help” her get rid of the next time I’m home -- doesn’t really count.

Every year there are two things that surprise me about Halloween candy: how early it appears on the store shelves, and the tremendous variety produced. I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit this, but over the last month I’ve spent more than a few minutes perusing the Halloween candy aisles. I love checking out what variations of the old standards they’ve come up with. This year, for example, I noticed Mint 3 Musketeers and Dark Chocolate Rocky Road Snickers. What will they think of next?

The process of choosing what Halloween treats to hand out is interesting. I couldn’t believe my mother was indifferent to what she gave out. She grew up in Europe so she never developed a taste for Snickers bars, Reese cups, M&Ms, or any of the other North American favourites. But even so, I couldn’t believe she didn’t care what she handed out.

My approach to choosing Halloween candy is very much like my approach to gift giving: if you know the recipient really well, by all means, give them something that is to their liking. But, if you don’t know the recipient well (and of course, anonymous ghouls and goblins knocking on your door generally fit in this category), I’ve always believed you should give something you’d like to receive.

I’m not sure when or how I developed that philosophy, but it’s been the rationale behind my giving for some time. (As I write this, I can’t help wonder how many of you have just mumbled, “well, that explains why she gave me -- (fill in the blank)!”) Anyway, regardless of what you think of that philosophy, vis-à-vis Halloween candy there’s little down side to it applying it – and a potential up side if there’s any left over.

My recent forays into Halloween candy land got me thinking about what I consider a treat. Like many, for me there are certain foods that always constitute a treat. As odd as it may sound, the first thing that comes to mind in this category is fresh figs. To me, there’s something divine about them. I often wonder whether part of the reason they’re such a treat for me is because I don’t live in a fig-growing climate, which means they’re relatively rare here… In any event, without a doubt, if I’m somewhere and figs are available (whether for sale, or on a menu, or whatever), I’m a happy woman.

But treats aren’t limited to food items. There are many non-food things that qualify as treats to me. Something as simple as a shower after a weekend on the boat, or a mid-afternoon nap, can also be wonderful treats. Interestingly, the extent to which I appreciate something as a treat has nothing to do with the cost -- it’s about how it makes me feel.

I don’t remember when I realized this, but once I did -- it didn’t take long for me to figure out that -- unlike when we you are a child -- as an adult, you don’t have to rely on anyone else to provide you with treats. Indeed, one of the great things about growing up is the fact that raising your spirits is often as easy as treating yourself to a little something. Doing so is empowering on many levels.

Of course, there’s no denying that there’s something extra special about being treated to something by someone else. But even in this regard, my appreciation of what constitutes a treat has evolved. As I get older, the types of treats I appreciate most from others usually don’t involve an object or anything that costs money. Instead, the best treats have to do with the person spending time with me, or doing something for me that I may not like doing.

Well, there you have it -- my two cents on treats. Not only do treats can come in all shapes, sizes, and flavours, they can take the form of an act or action. The key is that their effect is as a little pick-me-up that helps reminds us of how sweet life can be. So clearly, as between a trick or a treat -- the choice is obvious.

That said, I have one last word of advice on the topic. On Halloween, if someone dressed kind of funny asks you: “Trick or treat?” don’t bother with a lengthy answer -- they’re asking it in a strictly rhetorical sense. Instead, give them some candy and they’ll be gone. Trust me.

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... attached

By Ingrid Sapona

I get attached to things and I have a hard time parting with things I’m attached to. I’m not talking about pack rat things, like magazine clippings or old love letters (as if…), or even things that normally folks are sentimental about, like photos. I’m talking about things I use regularly and that still serve their purpose, but that are not quite as good as new or that might even be described by some (one sister in particular) as worn out.

My couch is a prime example. I love my couch. I inherited it from my parents in 1989. Yes, that’s almost 20 years ago – and, if you must know, the couch was about 15 years old when I got it. It’s long (a grand 90 inches) with three cushions on the bottom and three along the back. One of the things I like best about it is how well it doubles as a bed: just remove the back cushions and tuck a sheet over the bottom cushions – and voila – it’s more comfortable than a pull out couch any day!

Recently, when I was rotating the couch cushions, I noticed a hole developing on the corner of one of them. My heart sank, knowing that was a telltale sign of the inevitable: the need to get a new couch. (Reupholstering it is not in the cards. Four or five years ago I looked into having it done and it was going to cost from $2,000 to $2,500! Friends and family persuaded me a new couch would be a better investment.)

My desk (actually a computer armoire) is another item that has seen better days. I bought it in 1996, when I started my business. Given that my dining room doubled as my office, it was important that I have an armoire, and it took me a long while to find. Though I still love the functionality of it, the veneer is peeling (badly) and now that I have a proper office, the need to hide everything behind armoire doors is less urgent.

So, I’ve started thinking about replacing the armoire. But, the prospect leaves me weak – not just because it’ll be difficult to duplicate all the features I love (there’s space for a printer, shelves for books and supplies, a drawer for pens and such, and a keyboard platform that’s at the perfect height) – but also because it’s seen me through so much, it’s really been like a partner in my business.

My realization that it’s time to replace my couch and desk is forcing me to face the fact that I get inordinately attached to things. I’ve thought a lot about why it is so hard for me to replace things and I don’t think there’s a single explanation. First off, it’s not the money. I wouldn’t even consider replacing these items if I didn’t think I could afford to.

Though it may sound odd, part of my anxiety relates to the fact that I don’t enjoy shopping. I tend to find shopping frustrating because I rarely find a particular item with all the features I’m looking for. So then you have to compromise, trying to visualize how different items might fit, and thinking about whether the differences will matter, etc. If you combine this with the fact that I’m not the type to grow tired of things, you can understand why most times what I’d really like to find is just an unworn version of what I already have!

I also think part of my trepidation comes from feeling a bit self-conscious buying big ticket items. Replacing something that’s old and worn out may not qualify as conspicuous consumption (at least not by North American standards), but the fact that many others make do with much less does cross my mind. So does the old adage: waste not, want not.

Of course, over the years I’ve come up with coping mechanisms that have helped me let go of stuff. For example, there are the tried-and-true bromides, like the idea that these items don’t owe me anything. They’ve served me long and well, so replacing them isn’t wasteful or frivolous. I should note, however, that not all such platitudes work for me. One of my sisters often blithely justifies her getting rid of things that still seem perfectly useful to me by saying she’s simply “setting them free”. Despite my attachment to inanimate objects – given that we’re not talking about Elsa, the lion cub – I find the idea of “setting things free” simply ludicrous.

If the item isn’t embarrassingly worn, another way I cope is by trying to find it a new home, for example, by donating it. Of course, there’s always the issue of, “if it’s not good enough for me, why would anyone else want it?” Well, beside the fact that you never know who else might want, or need, it – there’s always the fact that charities can sometimes sell things for scrap, making a bit of money on it even if it isn’t put to its original use. (Clothing is a prime example: it’s often sold by the pound and it can end up as stuffing in futons, etc.)

I suppose you may be thinking the real way I come to grips with things like overcoming attachments is by writing about them. But that’s not the case. The truth is, by the time something ends up in On being …, I’ve pretty much worked through it. Proof of this is the fact that last month I took the plunge and ordered a new couch – it should be here a few weeks. Mind you, I’ve cleared space in my office for the old couch. But, there’s method to my madness. You see, I’m sure that, before long, the clutter in my office will get to me, which will accelerate my desire to find a new desk and redesign the office and, no doubt, a huge (old) couch won’t fit in with the new look.

All the same… did I mention it’s a great couch???

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... urgent

By Ingrid Sapona

It’s just after 10 a.m. on September 30, 2008. That means the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) has been open for a little over half an hour. At this moment, according to the NYSE’s web site, the Dow is up 195. It’s anybody’s guess what the markets will be when I finish writing this, but I’ll let you know.

Oh, before I forget – Happy New Year! Yes, it’s the Jewish New Year. A time for celebration, for reflecting on the past year, for making resolutions, etc. It’s also an opportunity for the U.S. Congress to take a few days to chill out, regroup, or whatever, after defeating the financial bailout package yesterday.

Now, I know this will shock you, but I’m kind of relieved that Congress defeated the bill. It’s not that I’m against the bailout – it really isn’t. The simple truth is, I don’t know enough about the whole financial mess – or the proposal that was defeated – to be in favour or against it at this point. (Sadly, I don’t have much faith that even a handful of the 433 members of the House or Representatives do either, but that’s another story.)

The reason I’m relieved about the outcome of the vote is because I’m not in favour of rushing into things (especially things with price tags with an extraordinary number of zeros on them!). This fiscal crisis – and I do believe it is a crisis – is (fill in your descriptor(s) of choice) worrisome, troubling, and frightening – but panicking won’t help, nor will non-stop warning of dire consequences, or artificial deadlines for negotiating deals or passing legislation.

All the news the past few weeks about the pending collapse of this or that institution and the need for the government to act swiftly have gotten me thinking about the nature of “urgency”. Before I go on (no, I’m not going to update you on the stock market again!), I have to tell you that I’m a firm believer that there are some things in life that are urgent. I think it’s important to say this up front because my belief in the idea of immediate action has informed various important actions I’ve taken in my life.

Put another way, I believe that swift action can be the difference between life and death. The best examples I can give relate to getting my father to the hospital on a number of occasions in the last few years of his life. Unlike my father, who didn’t seem to believe it mattered whether someone got medical help within the first few hours of an apparent heart attack or stroke, I have always believed that, in certain circumstances, every second counts. So, there were a handful of times those last few years where I took the “do not pass Go” route directly to emerg with Dad.

I can also think of urgent situations that humans can prepare for, but not really control. Giving birth is a good example. When those contractions start you’ll want to try to get to the hospital as quickly as possible (or at least get the midwife over), but it’s going to pretty much happen when it happens. The same thing is true with certain natural disasters, like hurricanes. We might know they’re coming and so swift action (whether it’s boarding up the windows or getting out of town) can help, but the storm will come regardless.

It seems to me that man-made crises – like the financial turmoil we’re in – are different, and so is the nature of the “urgency”. In this case, while complete inaction might prove fatal, taking a few extra days (or maybe even weeks) will not result in irreparable harm. The fact that someone set a deadline and that deadline has come and gone with no solution is not the end of the world. Indeed, given the complexity of the problem, maybe we should all be thanking our lucky stars for the defeat, as it gives people time to analyze the problem and try to come up with a well-reasoned, appropriate, workable solution – one that we won’t have to spend years trying to unravel!

It’s just after 3 p.m. – less than an hour before the market closes. FYI, the Dow is up 365. Does that make you feel better? Me either, because I know it can swing back and forth so many times before the close of the day, I get dizzy just thinking about it.

And finally, for those who are swept up in the idea that the most urgent problem facing the world right now is the financial crisis, I say look around at all those suffering through war, famine, and disease. Kind of makes our financial woes seem less urgent, doesn’t it?

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona