On being ... a pest

By Ingrid Sapona

I realize I may lack objectivity about this, but I think my parents did a pretty good job raising me and my sisters. They were strict, but not overly so. To be honest, I’m not even sure strict is the right word because none of us were particularly prone to trouble or even particularly difficult, as kids go. If anything, I’d say the rules Mom and Dad required us to live by had more to do with manners and politeness. Things like saying please and thank you, saying hello when people came over, being on time, and so on. Indeed, I think all those behaviours they insisted on have helped me in my personal and professional life.

There was one thing my mother used to nag me about, however, that didn’t serve me particularly well. The admonition that I internalized and that subtly hampered me into adulthood was her warnings against being a pest. Actually, most of the time her exact words were “don’t pester me about …” or “quit pestering me”, which is not the same thing as warning against being a pest. And, I suspect she used those phrases rather than saying “shut up”, which was an expression that was strictly VERBOTEN in our house. (To this day I never say “shut up” – and to the best of my knowledge, neither of my sisters do either. Not just that – whenever I hear that expression it’s like fingernails on a chalk board! I simply can’t stand it.)

So, back to the p word and how my deep-seated (some might say, irrational) concern about whether my behaviour amounts to pestering plays out in my life. It came up just the other day, in fact. Here’s what happened: I offered to help on a project for an organization I belong to. By the time I heard about the project, it was pretty far along, but it was something I had experience with and I had some ideas. In my e-mail offering to help I made it clear that I would completely understand if they turned down my offer, given the advanced stage of the project. At the same time, I wanted to convey my sincerity in offering to help and I promised that I’d attend to the matter promptly, if they were interested. I closed the e-mail assuring them I would respect whatever decision they made.

A couple of weeks passed and, though I wondered what was going on, I let it go. Then one morning I got an e-mail from someone on the committee saying they needed my comments as soon as possible, given the tight deadline they were under. Unfortunately, I was tied up that day, but I responded to let them know I’d attend to it by the close of business the following day. The person I responded to then wrote back and was a bit defensive. She mentioned earlier e-mails she and someone else on the committee allegedly sent responding to my initial offer and when she realized I hadn’t started working on it, she wondered whether I could actually do it in such a short period.

The miscommunication put a bit of pressure on me, as I felt it important to deliver as promised. (It also made me wonder whether I had somehow missed the e-mails. Naturally I went back and checked and, in fact, I never received the ones referred to.) After I submitted the project, I thought about the way it unfolded and I was angry with myself for not following up after making my initial offer. I know it sounds silly, but I didn’t because I was afraid I’d be seen as pestering the committee. They had my offer and I didn’t want to seem pushy, so I intentionally hung back.

The fact is, I do that a lot. When I’m aware I’m hanging back, I try to objectively assess whether taking action would be considered being pushy or pestering. The thing is, it’s hard for me to remember that the invisible threshold that constituted pestering as far as my mother was concerned vis-à-vis her children, isn’t necessarily the one that I should apply in a business context or with friends.

I’ve finally come to realize that though I used to blame my mother for my obsession with being a pest, that’s not fair. If anything, I owe her a debt of gratitude because no one likes a pest – and thanks to how she raised me, I know I’m not one. That said, I also know that for years I’ve used it as an excuse for inaction, particularly when I’m feeling insecure. That, unfortunately, is a much bigger problem to wrestle with and something I’m still working on…

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a sad legacy

By Ingrid Sapona

I was watching a newscast this past week and just before they went to a commercial there was a “tease” of a story that they’d cover later in the broadcast. The tease was something like, “we’ll look back at a historic anniversary marked this week”.  I was sure that the historic event they were going to talk about was Nixon’s resignation, as August 9th was the 40th anniversary of that event.

Nixon’s resignation happened to be front-and-centre for me because I was reading a book about the impact that Watergate had on subsequent generations and on journalism in particular. Though I was only 12 when the Watergate break-in happened, and 14 when Nixon resigned, like many in the country, I was swept up by the story. I vividly remember coming home from school every day and watching the Senate Watergate hearings, chaired by bushy eyebrowed Senator Sam Ervin. To this day I can picture Maureen Dean sitting stoically behind John Dean as he testified.

I have no doubt that the criminal behaviour by those in the Oval Office helped fuel a distrust for government that started with the anti-war protests of the 1960s. Even for those of us who had no real, personal connection to the Vietnam war – for example, no one in my family served – nightly news coverage of things like protesting students being fired on (and killed) by National Guardsmen at Kent State couldn’t help but leave a mark on the national psyche.

Anyway, it turns out the historic event the newscast tease was referring to was the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, I felt stupid because I should have guessed that that was the anniversary they were referring to, as the centenary’s been in the news for weeks here in Canada. The Toronto Star, for example, sent a couple of young reporters to walk the western front through Belgium and France. For two months they wrote articles as they traced the footsteps of Canadian soldiers through towns and key battlefields. As well, there have been many documentaries about the war – everything from the evolution of the fighting and weaponry over the four years to the Treaty of Versailles and the newly drawn maps of Europe and the Middle East that resulted.   

Before the recent spate of stories and documentaries about WWI, my knowledge of WWI came mainly from literature, movies, and theatre. And my only emotional connection to WWI came from the poem In Flanders Fields, which I hadn’t really even heard until I moved to Canada 25 years ago.

The more I’ve read and watched about WWI, the more I realize how woefully little I really I knew about it. I couldn’t help wonder if my lack of knowledge was just because I had tuned out when the topic came up in school, or whether it wasn’t as central to our curriculum in the U.S. as it seems to be here in Canada. When I mentioned to a few Canadian friends that I didn’t remember learning much about WWI, they suggested this was because – unlike Canada, which was in it from the start – the U.S. didn’t enter the war until the last year. While that difference might have something to do with it, I couldn’t help think there must be something more to the reason for the differences in historical perspective.

Then, a few weeks ago, in an article about WWI a Toronto historian said, “The world had been fairly peaceable since the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic wars, so no one was prepared psychologically for such devastation.”  Hold on, I thought. What about the 1860s and the Civil War, which left over 700,000 dead. Not exactly my definition of a peaceable period.

That’s when it dawned on me that it was the U.S. Civil War – Canadian soldiers weren’t involved. In other words, it wasn’t part of his history – much the way the early battles of WWI aren’t part of American history. Indeed, the fact that this Canadian historian had pretty much completely ignored the Civil War helped me understand why Canadians don’t really seem to appreciate the role race has historically played in the U.S., or the significance of an African American president, for example. The simple fact is: Canada didn’t fight a war over slavery.

Though these stories about differences in historic experiences I’ve observed between Canadians and Americans may seem trivial, I think they explain a lot. They also make me even more worried about the influence the conflicts and killing happening throughout the Middle East will have on the psyche of future generations. A frightening legacy indeed …

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona