On being … cryptic

By Ingrid Sapona

A friend and I had planned on getting together for dinner the other day. Both of us have been really busy so other than choose the date, we left the plans open in terms of time and place. The day before our get together he e-mailed to ask if we were still on. I e-mailed back saying sure, and asking where he’d like to go and what time.

He wrote back saying he wasn’t sure about the timing because he was going to be doing something that day with his brother and he would need to work around his brother’s family’s schedule because right now they were having some “challenges” at home. (Yes, he used quotation marks in the e-mail.) After I wrote him back to say any time was fine for me and that he could let me know when he figures out what works for him, I re-read his message and his use of the word “challenges” set my mind in motion.

To be honest, my first thought was that he was being a bit dramatic. I know his brother has a couple kids and I know that sometimes he finds their get togethers a bit chaotic. Maybe “challenges” was his code word for the stress that comes with the hubbub of two children under four years old running around underfoot.

My next thought was more a realization of my own feeling of irritation at his choice of words. Challenge? Why is it that nowadays no one ever says they have a problem? Instead, everything is a challenge. Or “issue”. Please…

Then I started to wonder if something really was up. I thought back on recent conversations we’ve had, trying to remember if he’d mentioned anything going on with his brother. Had he said something in passing that I didn’t pick up on? Nothing came to mind…

Then I started worrying that maybe something really bad has happened. Maybe his brother is sick. Maybe he lost his job. Maybe he and his wife are splitting. Maybe something’s happened with one of their kids. Maybe it’s too disturbing for my friend to talk about. Or maybe it’s so terrible he’s still processing it and doesn’t have the words to explain it. Jeez… I hope it’s nothing serious…

And yes, eventually (inevitably?), I thought maybe it’s about me… Did he not trust me enough to tell me what the problem (I mean “challenge”) was? Did he think I wouldn’t understand? Did he think I’d criticize his brother? Did he worry I’d think less of him -- or his brother -- because of whatever it is?

Fortunately, I was brought back into the present when I heard the whistle of the tea kettle I had set to boil right after our e-mail exchange. (Yes -- all these thoughts flew through my head in about the time it took to boil water.) As I was waiting for the tea to steep I started feeling guilty, chiding myself for reading anything into the comment. Surely he didn’t mean anything by it, I told myself. Besides, whatever it is that’s going on, it’s none of my business and that’s probably why he didn’t say more. I then promised myself I wouldn’t even ask…

Before settling back into my work, my mind lingered on a topic I’ve thought a fair bit about: the question of why so many people don’t seem to realize that when they use veiled language or mention something but don’t elaborate on it -- they’re fuelling speculation. I suspect they hold back details or explanation out of some sense that they’re being discrete. But don’t they “get” that all they’re doing is creating a vacuum that’s ripe for filling and that the conclusions people jump to are often more negative or unseemly than the truth.

Anyway, later that afternoon my friend called and we finalize our plans. Happy that the arrangements had been made -- and anxious to get back to the project I was working on -- I began to wrap up the conversation. Before I could say goodbye, however, in a rather hushed tone my friend said, “So … It turns out they have bed bugs”.

It took me a second to figure out he was referring to his brother. Then it took me a few minutes to get beyond ewwww, yuckkkkkk, and grossssss before I was composed enough to ask how it happened. Turns out it was kind of a long story, which is why -- at least in part -- he didn’t tell me the news in his e-mail. After we hung up, I had to laugh. Despite all the dark places my mind went – bed bugs never even crossed my mind!

Over dinner the next day I confessed to my friend that his vague reference to “challenges” set my mind wandering and my imagination working overtime. I then asked him if I could write about it for On being… because I think there are a couple lessons in it. He laughed and graciously said sure -- remarking that one never knows where inspiration will come from.

So now, to sum up what I think are the take-aways from this little interlude. The first has to do with how sometimes trying to be discrete leads to more questions and speculation than simply filling in some details -- and that when you leave blanks people will fill them in with whatever their own imagination brings forth. The second is kind of the flip side of that coin: no matter how intuitive you might think you are, or how right you think you might be when it comes to figuring out what someone’s getting at when they don’t actually tell you what they mean -- chances are very good that you’re wrong. Completely wrong. I mean bed bug wrong.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a business

By Ingrid Sapona

When did everything become a business? I mean, honestly…

Take dog walkers, for example. I know they’ve been around for so long that no one bats an eyelash at them any more. But the idea of making a living at it -- and a good one (in Toronto $15-$18 an hour is not unusual) bugs me. A number of friends use them and I admit the business model makes perfect sense: they provide a service that fulfills a need (both for the dogs and their owners). But is it so hard to find someone who’d look after a furry friend out of the kindness of their heart, or their love of animals, or just to help someone out?

House sitting is another activity -- or should I say, “service” -- that I’ve heard more-and-more people pay for. What’s with that? I understand that an empty house can be an invitation to trouble -- but do we really have to pay someone to be there when we aren’t? Over Christmas friends paid something like $80/day to have someone house/dog sit for them while they were on vacation. Of course, such costs can be rationalized -- they have two dogs and I’m sure boarding them at a kennel would not be inexpensive.

But, the woman they hired worked another job during the day so for the week they were away my friends paid for “doggy day care” on top of the house sitting fee. And, they have a large fenced-in back yard, which means the house/dog sitter didn’t even have to walk them every time they needed to go (much less worry about poop and scoop) -- all she had to do was let them out. I know, at least the dogs were in their own home…

I remember being in college and house sitting for my god parents -- for free. We looked at it as a win-win: they appreciated having someone look after things and it was fun for me to have a place to myself. I’m pleased to report that I know some similar, non-monetary, mutually beneficial arrangements still exist. I have friends, for example, whose neighbors gladly park in their driveway during the winter months my friends go south. My friends benefit because cars coming and going (and fresh tire tracks in the snow) make the house look lived-in and their neighbors benefit because they don’t have to jockey cars in their driveway (which they’d have to do since overnight street parking is prohibited in their neighborhood in winter).

Looking after pets and houses aren’t the only services I find it hard to believe people shell out for. Just the other day there was a front page story in the Toronto Star about a business where, for $5 per call, this woman will phone someone on your behalf to deliver “custom-ordered praise”. The examples given in the article were things like: “You make the best grilled cheese ever”, “You have the perfect bald head”, and “You fit neatly into small spaces”. (Honest -- I’m not making this up!) In case you’re wondering if this is a flash in the pan -- according to the article, the woman has been in business since the fall and she even has an employee (someone who delivers flattery in French -- after all, Canada is a bi-lingual country).

The article quoted a customer who used the service to call her husband to cheer him up when he was having a bad week at work. The customer, who said it was the best five bucks she’s ever spent, was quoted as saying, “Nice things aren’t so easy to believe when they’re coming from someone who knows you so well”. Though that may be true, if I got such a call, I can’t imagine I’d be more inclined to believe the compliment from some stranger than if it came directly from the person who paid someone to compliment me. I would, however, think that if someone who ordered such a call for me had $5 burning a hole in their pocket, they could have put the money to better use -- whether on a latte, a lottery ticket, or better still, a donation to a food bank.

Growing up, if neighbors were going away, they’d ask us to take in their mail, water their plants or their lawn, and if they had a pet, we’d feed it, play with it, walk it, or whatever. And they’d do the same for us. It was never a big deal and no money ever changed hands. (Mind you, I’m sure my mother dropped off a loaf of her homemade bread or some cookies as a special thank you, but that was the extent of it.)

Don’t get me wrong -- I’m all for entrepreneurship. But besides feeling that some of these “businesses” are started just to try to prove the old adage that a sucker is born every minute is true, I worry that paying for such things might actually be eroding our social fabric. I know -- seems like a big leap -- like I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill. But honestly, I can’t help think the more activities we become accustomed to paying for, the less we’ll come to rely on each other as neighbors and friends, which can’t be good for society as a whole.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona