On being ... a life-long learner?

By Ingrid Sapona

Last year I joined the volunteer board of a small, international professional organization. When the position of treasurer was becoming vacant, I was asked if I’d take on the role because the treasurer must be Canadian. After speaking with the current treasurer (I’ll call her Angie – not her real name), I agreed to take on the role. The organization has a modest budget and, though I’ve never been a treasurer, I figured it wouldn’t be that hard and it might be good experience.

The first part of the handoff involved what should have been straightforward banking stuff: getting signing authority, getting a bank card, getting the credit card switched to my name, and so on. Given that you can bank by smart phone, it was surprising how much paperwork had to be done in person.

While we were sorting the banking stuff out, though I had officially been appointed treasurer, Angie continued doing the treasurer stuff (she was still on the board). One of the things the treasurer “looked after” was membership applications and renewals. This seemed to make sense since our main source of revenue is membership dues. Though I wasn’t sure what “looking after membership” entailed, I knew there was some system in place and I figured I’d be able to learn it.

Meanwhile, the organization’s website was being re-designed. The membership database, which runs on software the old website was designed on, was not being changed. The new website was simply going to link to the database. Angie had given me access to the database and explained why the system generates three e-mails that are sent to the treasurer (for each renewal) and why she sorted and kept track of each trio of e-mails. It was overwhelming, to say the least.

By the beginning of September, the banking was all in my name and Angie’s term on the board was coming to an end. At the same time, the new website was launched. Soon after, we started getting reports of members having trouble renewing. One of the odd things is that not every renewal is problematic – only some. While the tech people were trying to figure out what’s going on, Angie took care of the problem renewals by going into the database and manually renewing each separately. 

My first official act as treasurer was to pay the web designer’s invoice. I wrote the cheque and mailed it. I also sent him a quick e-mail saying the cheque was in the mail. Three weeks later the designer e-mailed me, saying he hadn’t received the cheque. I checked the bank account and confirmed the cheque hadn’t been cashed. I felt bad that the designer (a small business) hadn’t been paid, and I wondered whether I screwed up. Had I forgotten to send it? Or maybe I sent it to the wrong address? I didn’t think so, but… Talk about feeling you’ve started off on the wrong foot!  (The cheque arrived 30 days, to the day, after the date I mailed it! Unreal, I know.)

The next issue I had to deal with was the web renewal problems. Because many thought part of the problem is the instructions in the e-mail inviting people to renew, I figured I’d start by making that clearer. I logged in to the membership database software determined to find the message and make it clearer. Only problem was, I couldn’t find the message text in the database. I played around in the system for over two hours and simply couldn’t find it. It has to be there, but where, I don’t know. Talk about frustrating!

A few days later, I went to log in to the database and couldn’t. I tried all sorts of things – I changed passwords, changed browsers, re-booted – you name it! Nothing worked. When I contacted Angie, she came back with things I had already tried. By then I was ready to quit as treasurer. Indeed, one night I wrote an e-mail to the board resigning. The last line summed up my feelings pretty well: no sane person takes on a position to feel lost, helpless, and useless. I did send the e-mail, but to a good friend, not the board.

I wish I could say that writing that e-mail and sending it to my friend instead of the board was cathartic and that after that, things magically turned around, but they didn’t. But, writing it helped me realize something I didn’t know – that it’s very important to me to feel competent. And, if I don’t, I’m extraordinarily irritable and angry. I never knew that!

I don’t know about you, but I thought that when you get to a certain age, you pretty much know yourself. Guess not…  Mind you, that’s probably not such a bad thing. After all, don’t we all aspire to be life-long learners?

Oh, in case you’re wondering, I didn’t resign – that’s not my style. But, I’m not a masochist – or martyr – either. I mentioned my frustration to the president and the solution we came up with is that I’ll stay on and look after the traditional treasurer activities, but they’ve got to find someone else to look after the membership stuff!

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being … over it?

By Ingrid Sapona

It’s that time of year – time to begin preparing boats for hauling out. Of all the chores associated with owning a boat, putting up and taking down (de-stepping) the mast is my least favourite. I find it stressful and nerve-wracking.  

The club has a small crane that’s used for masts and on a couple of fall weekends, a volunteer crew is on hand to help members de-step their masts. The mast crew is efficient, but they expect members to sign up in advance and to show up on time and ready.

My anxiety around de-stepping goes back to the very first year I had the boat. Because the boat was rigged when I got it, I had no idea what was involved in de-stepping the mast. Turns out that besides taking the sails off, before you head over to the mast crane you have to take the boom off, tie off all the mast lines, and loosen the wires (shrouds) that laterally support the mast.

Each step is comprised of a series of steps, many of which have to be done in a certain order. Take the sails, for example. There are lines and various pieces of hardware that have to be removed in order to get the sails off. Over time I realized that labelling the different bits carefully as you take them off in the fall makes rigging the boat in the spring that much easier.

Tying down the mast lines (ropes) is easy, once you figure out a good system for doing it. If you’re sloppy about it, as I was that first year, the lines can get in the mast crew’s way and slow them down. And, complications the crew runs into translates into guff they heap on the skipper. Needless to say, the second year I got the help of a seasoned sailor who taught me his method, which I’ve used ever since.

Loosening off the shrouds involves removing many split rings and untwisting the turnbuckles that connect the shrouds to the boat. I hate working with split rings. If you’ve ever taken a key off a key ring, you know what a split ring is and you know they’re not fingernail friendly. A surprising number of things are kept in place on a sailboat with good old split rings. Fingernail sacrifices aside, the difficulty with the split rings used for rigging is that they’re positioned in ways that make opening them and turning them to remove them nearly impossible.

Turnbuckles present their own challenges. First, you have to figure out which direction loosens them. Then, if they’re tight (which they generally are, since the shrouds are meant to hold the mast in place), you need a plier to hold the stay while you use a screwdriver to leverage turning the buckle. Two hands – and determination – are usually enough, but not if your frustration level is still high from fiddling with the damned split rings.

Another mistake I made that first year I had the boat was thinking that my job was done when the mast was off the boat. A month later, however, I got a curt message from the club telling me I had to “strip” my mast. I had no idea what that meant – much less how to do it. Naturally, I went to the club office to beg forgiveness and to ask for help. Lucky for me, a member was there – with tools – and he helped me do it. (FYI, stripping a mast means disassembling parts to make it easier to store.)

With haul out just a couple weeks away, mast de-stepping has begun. So, on Saturday I decided to stop putting the mast preparation work off. I calmed my churning stomach by telling myself that I’d take each step as it came and if (when?) I got too frustrated or tired, I could stop for the day, as I still had a few days before the mast would be taken off.

Well, Saturday the weather was perfect – sunny but cool and no wind. As I completed each step, I took a breath and took stock before starting the next step. Before I knew it, three hours had passed, but I was done. I couldn’t believe how smoothly it had gone. My initial thought on completion was that I must have done something wrong, or forgotten something! I went back through my mental checklist and soon it was clear I hadn’t forgotten anything and all truly was well.

On the way home I was thinking about all the dread and anxiety I had about it. I know it goes back to the mistakes I made that first year or two. But, I’ve learned from those mistakes and, to my surprise, every year it truly seems to get easier. The other thing I realized on my way home is that maybe it’s time for me to get over my negative outlook toward the whole process. After all, the rational part of me knows that until I do, I’ll continue to be stricken with anxiety about it.

Well, if admitting a self-defeating attitude (not to mention the sound in my head of all of you impatiently muttering, “Oh, for heaven sake – get over it!”) is the first step toward changing ones behavior – then I guess I’m on my way to a future of an anxiety-free mast preparation. Gosh, I hope that’s the case. (But, I’m not putting money on it just yet. After all, I won’t know until this time next year whether my change of outlook has stuck. Here’s hoping, though…)

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona