On being ... inured

By Ingrid Sapona

The oil disaster happening in the Gulf of Mexico has been going on for over 10 weeks and for at least the last three columns I’ve considered writing about it. I’ve held back until now because I felt funny writing about a crisis that doesn’t have an immediate, direct impact on me. But, at the same time, since day one I’ve felt it’s something that should concern everyone and so it’s something I’ve wanted to write about.

Had I written a column early on in the crisis, the title would have been: On being … a drop in the bucket. That column would have pretty much been an attack on a theme some oil executives and others made to the effect that the amount of water in the Gulf is so vast that any such “spill” will be diluted to the point that it will have a negligible impact on the environment.

I’ve never much liked “drop in the bucket”-type rationales because I don’t find them compelling. Anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight by watching their caloric intake or who has tried to save for a down payment (or to pay off a credit card debt), knows that every little bit matters. It seems to me that if analogies are called for to describe the situation, a more apt one would be about the straw that breaks the camel’s back. At least that analogy contains the notion of responsibility for a negative consequence.

As the news of the various efforts employed to contain the gushing oil was reported on and different experts were giving their opinions, I was struck time and again by the hubris that underlies the whole endeavour of sub-sea oil drilling. Don’t get me wrong -- I’m genuinely in awe of the amazing things humans have been able to do. (Putting a man on the moon is just one of many examples of outstanding human achievements.) But, whenever someone says an activity is “perfectly safe” or that something “can’t happen” -- the hair on the back of my neck stands up.

I just never understand how people can say such things, much less honestly believe them. (To those who would say I’m either ridiculously superstitious or naïve, I refer you to all the engineers and others who thought -- even after the first plane struck -- that the World Trade Center could “never” come down because it was built to the highest engineering standards, blah, blah blah...)

And then there’s the issue of the news coverage of the Gulf disaster. Of course it’s newsworthy and people want to be informed of the status. But, I think there’s a very real risk the media coverage is actually having a negative impact. For example, starting a broadcast with “Day 72 of the Crisis in the Gulf” makes it seem like there will be an end -- a last day. Though (hopefully) there will be a day when the gushing stops, that certainly won’t be the end of the negative consequences to the area.

And then there are all the stories about how much oil is gushing. Initial reports were in barrels of oil. Then some reporters started converting that to gallons, which meant the number took a staggering leap (given that there are 42 U.S. gallons per barrel). Here in Canada some reporters then converted the gallons to litres, resulting in a number about four times higher still. No matter how you state them, the numbers are eye-popping. But, focusing on the amount (which is, at best, a guesstimate) only diverts people’s attention from the real issues: how to stop the gushing; whether to allow offshore drilling; how to wean ourselves from oil; and how to deal with the oil already there.

As the weeks passed since April 20th (how many even remember that it started in April?), I moved from anger, to frustration, to helplessness. Eventually I found it was easier to just tune the story out. Interestingly, the past few weeks I’ve also noticed that it’s not even a topic that comes up in conversations with my friends, as it did during the first few weeks.

As a news junkie, the fact that I’d taken to simply ignoring stories about the Gulf disaster was disconcerting. The realization that others around me seem to be routinely doing the same got me thinking that maybe there is a common theme worth writing about.

Indeed, I think the phenomenon of people tuning out the disaster isn’t attributable to apathy or disinterest. I think the underlying reason is something far worse: that people have become inured to the whole thing. (I certainly think that’s the slippery slope I was on until recently.) And, the more people become inured to a situation -- willing to accept the undesirable -- the more likely it is that people and companies will take chances that can have such dire consequences.

I don’t have any particularly insightful comments about how you go about avoiding becoming inured to the disaster, much less ideas about positive steps we might take to improve the situation. But, I think encouraging others to guard against becoming inured to it is important. So, how about it? Is it time for a personal reality check? It certainly couldn’t hurt, and I dare say we’d collectively be better off if everyone had their guard up…

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... surprisingly inspiring

By Ingrid Sapona

Growing up I wasn’t particularly physically active. I never participated in organized sports -- team or individual. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized the correlation between calories in and calories burned. Once the weight-control benefits of exercise dawned on me, however, I became dedicated to working out.

My approach to exercise has never been particularly exciting. For the longest time the best I could say of it was that it had risen to the level of habit, much like flossing, brushing, and making the bed in the morning. Indeed, whenever someone at the gym asked me what my fitness goals were, I was a loss. About the best response I could muster was that I just wanted to burn calories and generally strengthen muscles in hopes of preventing osteoporosis.

It wasn’t until Michelle Obama graced the world stage that I gave any thoughts about targeting specific muscles. Like many women, once I took note of her arms and shoulders, I began wondering what she does in the gym that I don’t do. When the First Lady’s personal trainer went public with details about her weight training routine, I don’t mind admitting that I added a few exercises to my own regime.

To my amazement, after some months of diligent, targeted lifting, I started noticing a difference. For the first time in my life, my arms had some definition. (You’ll have to trust me on this, as it’s unlikely you’ll ever catch me in a sleeveless shift – but let’s just chalk that up to living in a cold climate!) Anyway -- looking back at it -- I realize that aiming for arms like Michelle Obama was the first definitive fitness goal I’d ever set for myself.

Last year I developed knee problems and the sports medicine doctor I went to suggested I switch from Stairmaster to biking, as it would be easier on my knees. At about the same time a friend started going to a nearby spinning studio and she suggested I try it. I was reluctant for two reasons: the cost and the fact that I’ve never liked group activities. But, I tried it and found that my knees were much happier, so I decided to stick with it for awhile.

I realized fairly quickly that not all spinning instructors are created equal -- and it’s not just their choice in music that differs. Their personality and approach to the hour-long session make a huge difference to me. For example, I don’t like instructors who take the drill sergeant approach, nor do I like those who just wing it for 60 minutes with no plan.

A few months ago a new instructor (Darryl -- not his real name) joined the roster. Like most of the instructors there, he’s an avid cyclist and is in top shape. He likes to explain things, like what you gain from interval training, or what muscles you use when you climb, etc. Without being overly touchy-feely or too new age, he sometimes talks about using mental images and about bringing your awareness and focus to things like your breathing and heart rate. Another thing he sometimes says as we’re cooling down at the end of class is that we’re role models for people who aren’t as physically active. The first few times he said that, I thought it was pure hokum. More recently, however, I think I get where he’s coming from with that…

A couple Sundays ago I went to his class, fully expecting that someone would be subbing for him because he had mentioned that he was planning in doing a 50 mile charity run on Saturday (in other words, the day before). To my amazement, he was setting up his bike when I got there. As he carefully mounted the bike he apologized to us for the fact that he might not be riding full-out that morning, but he’d try to keep us motivated for the hour.

During the class, in response to questions, he talked a bit about how he pushed himself through the physical and psychological struggle over the course of the run. Given that I’ve never had any desire to run a mile, much less 50, I never imagined that I’d find such a feat inspiring -- but I did. Listening to his descriptions, for the first time in my life, I thought about what it’s like to physically challenge yourself. And, as I thought about it, I found myself pushing harder and harder -- trying to achieve a level of physical activity I hadn’t achieved before. It was quite exhilarating.

The high I had after that class was so heady, I knew I’d have to write about it. But, the fact that I never thought I could be inspired by someone’s physical appearance (in the case of Mrs. Obama) or physical achievement (in the case of Darryl) isn’t a particularly universal (or even common) theme, which is what I aspire to focus on with On being…

Finally, the universal theme behind all this came to me: the idea that inspiration is all around us, but to tap into its power, we have to open ourselves up in ways we haven’t before. I know, sounds hokey. But, if you keep an open mind, I’ll bet you’d be surprised …

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona