On being … situationally aware?

By Ingrid Sapona

One of the more fun things about writing On being … is finding the right title. Sometimes a couple different titles come to mind. Sometimes the mere addition of a question mark makes all the difference (to me, at least). As you’ll see, this column falls into both those categories.

This past weekend I went on a club cruise to a nearby yacht club. It was a hot day and so before the happy hour festivities, I decided a shower would be nice. Besides the fact that my little boat doesn’t have a shower, it’s environmentally better to use facilities that are connected to the municipal water/sanitation system – in other words, to shower at the club.

So, I with my shampoo, towel, flip-flops, and a change of clothes, I headed to the clubhouse to find the showers. Now, I know that some folks, when they hear “yacht club”, may envision some luxurious, spa-like facility. Well, that’s rarely the case (at least, not with the majority of clubs on Lake Ontario). Instead, what most clubs have is a few shower stalls. In fact, that’s pretty much what this club had. One bonus was that each shower had its own small change area with a couple of hooks for clothes and towels.

As I stepped into the shower, I noticed that the floor was really un-even. As I was lathering up, I looked down and around at the stall itself. It wasn’t a pre-fab stall. It was the kind with the floor and walls all tiled. There was a drain hole in the middle of the stall floor and I thought they probably wanted the floor sloped so the water would flow into the drain. But, it seemed to me that they did a pretty sloppy job and instead, the floor was more un-even than sloping toward the drain.

Anyway, later, as I reached for my conditioner, I looked down and noticed that on my right foot I was wearing one of my dollar store flip-flops that I always wear in public showers. On my left foot, however, I was wearing a sandal. Besides being irritated with myself for showering in one of my favourite sandals, the 1-1/2 inch height difference between the flip-flop and sandal pretty much explained the unevenness!

I had to laugh… There I was – so present to the moment, noticing the contour of the shower stall floor. Not only that, I was so analytical in my assessment of the situation, and so sure of the explanation for it (poor craftsmanship). And yet, I was so wrong!

When I was done showering and doing my best to dry my poor sandal, I thought of other times I’ve had this kind of situational mis-awareness. One of the most memorable happened years ago when I was driving from Buffalo to Cleveland.

It was a trip I had made many times because I went to grad school in Cleveland. About 40 minutes after getting on the NY State Thruway, I saw a sign for a sod farm. As soon as I saw it, I thought, “Gee, isn’t that interesting – there’s a sod farm on the way to Cleveland.” But my thoughts didn’t end there. As it happens, I knew that there’s a sod farm on the way from Buffalo to Rochester. So, when I saw the sign for the sod farm, I reasoned, “Wow, I guess Western New York is pretty fertile – two sod farms. Who knew?”

Ten or so minutes later, I saw a sign for the first Rochester exit. Yup… turns out the sod farm I saw the sign for wasn’t a new one on route west to Cleveland – it was the one that you see when you head east to Rochester. What can I say? I got off at the exit, phoned the friend I was going to see in Cleveland to explain that I’d be late and I made damned sure that when I got back on the Thruway I was headed west!

I wonder, does this kind of acute, albeit not-quite-accurate, situational awareness happen to others? I think it must happen to folks who, like me, want to make sense of things that just don’t seem quite as they should be. Then again, maybe there’s another explanation…

Can’t think of one? Well, here’s a hint: the other title I considered for this column was On being … a dumb blond move.

© 2016 Ingrid Sapona


On being … a blind spot

By Ingrid Sapona

Last week I was reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. Brown’s a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She does qualitative research using something called grounded theory. I liked the book – and, for the most part – I found the ideas she put forth compelling.

Though I know that may sound like less than a stellar review – it’s really not meant to be lukewarm. You see, the reason I hesitate to gush about the book isn’t so much about the topic or Brown’s ideas. It’s got more to do with a metaphor she uses that drives me crazy. In explaining certain behaviours, she often describes humans as being “hard wired” for … [fill in the blank].  

I know, it’s a pretty common figure of speech – and one of the reasons I think people use it is that it invokes a definitive image. (For me it instantly conjures an image of a delicate – but securely soldered – circuit board.) But, it’s precisely the concreteness of the imagery that gives me pause because it seems to foreclose other explanations for a given behaviour.

Indeed, every time I hear the expression “hard wired” used in a social science context, a voice inside my head mumbles a line from Yentl: Where is it written? For those who don’t remember the movie, it’s about a young Jewish woman who wants to study religion but isn’t allowed to. And, when a bookseller tells Yentl she’s not allowed to read sacred books because they’re for men, she protests by asking: “Where is it written?” The bookseller says it doesn’t matter where it’s written, it’s the law. To that, Yentl responds: “Well, if it’s the law, it must be written somewhere. Perhaps [it’s] in here” (pointing to the book she wasn’t allowed to read). I’ve always loved that line and, though I don’t usually say it aloud, I think of it often. I guess to me it’s a kind of the inquiring mind’s way of saying, “Oh yeah, who says?”

In defense of my reaction, I think Brown’s use of the metaphor was so discordant to me because Brown takes a lot of pride in the fact that her thoughts and conclusions are not simply from her own experience. She really emphasized that her conclusions are based on her qualitative research. But, every time she used the expression, I felt she was trying too hard to convince readers of the scientific validity of her conclusions. Though I do think she’s an astute observer and that her research was far-reaching and methodical, to me, the subjective nature of the inquiry doesn’t really lend itself to such concrete conclusions.  

The first few times Brown used the “hard wired” expression I was so distracted by the mental image and Yentl’s voice in my head demanding definitive proof of the assertion, I felt like simply returning the book to the library. But, instead of quitting, each time I wrestled with my irritation and eventually let it go so I could continue reading. I’m glad I persevered because the book truly does offer lots of valuable insights into human nature in general.

Not only that, about half way through the book I realized my little struggle with her choice of metaphor was also helping me in a most unexpected way. It was helping me see – and overcome – one of my blind spots. This particular one relates to my being too literal. I first realized I’m too literal years ago when I noticed my adverse, knee-jerk reaction to use of the word “absolutely”. Like comedians, literalists tend to believe there are really only two certainties in life: death and taxes.

It took some doing, but I eventually managed to get over what I often thought of as a cavalier use of that very powerful word. Now I get that when most people say “absolutely”, what they’re really doing is trying to convey confidence, rather than certainty. I can live with that…

Blind spots are interesting. Like cars, I think we all have them. Often, however, we don’t recognize them and so they can catch us by surprise and cause us to swerve momentarily. But, once we identify them, we can learn to compensate for them.

So, besides learning about what it means to dare greatly, Brown’s book helped me realize I’m absolutely hard wired to get distracted – sometimes to the point of disbelieving someone – when I feel someone’s chosen their words, or used metaphors, carelessly. But, thanks to this realization, I guess you could say I’ve learned to adjust my mirrors and take a second look so that I can continue along the road to learning, growing, and perhaps even daring greatly.

© 2016 Ingrid Sapona