On being ... good advice

By Ingrid Sapona

Unsolicited advice is a funny thing. Maybe it’s because it’s freely given, it’s often easy to ignore – and easy to forget. But it can also end up being profound. That’s certainly how I see the advice I got in 1987 from someone who offered me a job.

I was working overseas and I was applying for jobs to return to North America. Growing up in Buffalo, I thought Toronto, which was only about 100 miles away, would be an exciting place to live. So, I applied for positions in Toronto and in New York and I had an offer in both cities. Both offers were at large, international accounting firms and the positions were very similar.

By coincidence, Bill, the person hiring for the New York job, was a Canadian who was overseeing the NY group I would be working in. He was a dynamic guy and someone I thought would be interesting to work with. Rich, the person offering me a similar job in Toronto, seemed nice but I found him hard to read.

I was quite torn. I had truly hit it off with Bill but I wasn’t particularly interested in being in New York. Hoping Bill might understand my preference for Toronto, I asked him whether there was any way I could work for him there, instead of New York. He explained that wasn’t possible, because the job was with the U.S. firm.

Recognizing my trepidation, Bill offered me the best advice I ever got. He told me he thought I should choose the job in the city I wanted to live in. His rationale was that being where you want to be is more important than following a job. I took his advice and turned down his job offer, accepting Rich’s Toronto position instead. What neither Rich’s firm nor I realized was how tricky it would be for me to get permission to work in Canada. I ended up having to get full immigration status rather than come up on a work permit. The process took more than 18 months.

This past February I celebrated the 30th anniversary of becoming a landed immigrant in Canada. I ended up celebrating the actual day with Shanon – the immigration attorney who facilitated my immigration – we’ve been friends since she worked on my case!

If you’re surprised I didn’t write an On being … about that important anniversary, it’s because this year marks an even more momentous anniversary for me. Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of my becoming a Canadian citizen.

Growing up in the U.S., I always felt that voting is the most important right – and responsibility – conferred on citizens. To me, being able to vote means you have a voice that can shape the direction of your community and country. Without it, you’re not a full member of society. In both Canada and the U.S. only citizens can vote.

Back then, I think the rule was that you had to live in Canada for five years before you could apply for citizenship. On the one hand, taking Canadian citizenship was a no-brainer, given how strongly I feel about being able to vote. But, at the same time, it wasn’t something I did lightly. The main underlying question I asked myself was whether I thought I’d remain in Canada for the foreseeable future. Though I had only been here for five years, I was happy and felt at home here and I saw no reason to think that would change. So, I decided not to delay, and I applied for – and was granted – Canadian citizenship.

Given how significant these two anniversaries are for me, I thought a lot about how I might frame an On being …. I thought about writing about what all immigrants have in common: the conscious act of leaving one’s native country and settling in another country, often leaving friends and family behind. Of course, there’s no question that my immigration experience was charmed by comparison to many. But even so, there’s something humbling about asking a foreign government for status and having to make the case regarding what you have to offer that country.

I also thought that maybe I should write about what it’s like to be both American and Canadian, as that’s a somewhat unusual position to be in. I thought about writing about how, as a dual citizen, you feel you have a vested interest in both countries. Or perhaps I should write about how I relate to – and see – each country now, versus how I did 25 years ago.

But my mood is far too celebratory to delve into such weighty topics. Instead, this week I’ve been reflecting on how it is that anniversaries come about. The truth is, though we tend to celebrate anniversaries as though they’re an event that happens on a particular date, what we’re really celebrating is the choices we made that got us to the happy date.

When I think back on the root of these two anniversaries that mean so much to me, I can’t help think of Bill’s unsolicited advice. What a life changing gift it was, and how glad I am that I followed it.

What about you? Any advice you’ve been given that’s shaped your life, or led to a happy anniversary? Any advice you wish you’d followed?

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


On being … calmer

By Ingrid Sapona

A major Canadian grocery store chain (Sobeys) recently announced it’s introducing “sensory-friendly” shopping hours. The first I heard of this was in a newscast that I had tuned into half way through. So, the only detail I caught was that store lighting would be reduced. When I heard that, I assumed the rationale was energy-saving, which I’m all for.

It turns out, however, there’s a lot more to the initiative than just reduced lighting. The program is designed to accommodate people with autism. According to Autism Ontario, many with autism are hypersensitive to lights and sounds. I had heard about those challenges, but I never really thought about how that might impact something as common as grocery shopping.

News stories about Sobeys’ announcement explained what this means to folks touched by autism – parents with children on the autism spectrum and adults with it. One woman with a daughter with sensory challenges welcomed the news, noting that grocery shopping is the task she dreads most, given her daughter’s issues. Another customer who shopped in one of the stores in Sobeys’ pilot said she was never able to take her daughter shopping. She was thrilled that her daughter could – for the first time ever – pick out her own treat at the grocery store. Ah, the things we take for granted …

The comments by adults with autism were just as moving. One woman explained that she and her partner usually shop together so that if there’s something they need in an aisle that’s “potentially overstimulating”, her partner can go and get it. An example of an aisle she usually finds challenging is one with lots of different smells, like those that emanate from laundry detergent and cleaning supplies. I have some idea of what she meant, since most of the chemical “fresh” scents give me a headache. So, I generally avoid those aisles too, unless I need something. But, while there might be one or two aisles that I skip, that woman said that in a normal grocery store, her partner ends up having to get about 70% of their groceries.

The adjustments Sobeys makes during its sensory-friendly hours are more extensive than I thought would be possible. For example, they dim the lights 50%. They ensure the store is as quiet as possible by not playing any music and not making announcements. They also silence the scanners (all those beeps) and registers. As well, during those hours they don’t gather up shopping carts and they encourage staff to speak more softly.

When they tested the idea in a few stores, they were concerned that with the lights so low, folks might think the store was closed or having a problem. But, when anyone asks about the changes, staff simply explain they’re trying to make the store more inclusive and welcoming to folks with sensory challenges. The feedback they got during the pilot was positive – and not just from folks on the autism spectrum. Some shoppers said they appreciated the quieter experience and others said they liked it because they found it relaxing.

I think the idea is fantastic – and not just because it could help people with autism. Creating quieter, calmer places is a worthy goal in itself. Everywhere we go we’re assaulted with sounds and smells. Only a handful of them are naturally occurring (the sound of birds chirping, dogs barking, food cooking, the smell of fresh cut grass, and so on). On top of that there’s the human-made background noise from traffic and talk and the constant hum of things like refrigerators and air conditioners. As if all that’s not enough of an assault on our senses, there’s “background music” and perfumes and “mountain fresh scents” added – all in hopes of drowning out other noise and masking other smells.

I truly believe most of us are overstimulated. For proof you need look no further than at the phenomenon of noise cancelling headphones or folks turning to people like Marie Kondo, who makes a living promoting techniques for bringing calm and serenity into homes.

I can’t wait to try shopping in a sensory-friendly environment, and I hope others will try it too. I think Sobeys’ efforts will raise awareness in more ways than they anticipated. Indeed, if nothing else, I think the contrast between normal grocery shopping the experience of shopping during these special hours will help folks appreciate just how much stimuli we’re bombarded with every day. I’ll bet this ends up appealing to a far broader spectrum of folks than just those diagnosed with autism and sensory challenges.

What about you? Would you go out of your way to shop in a sensorially calmer store? Do you think such changes would enhance – or detract from – your grocery shopping experience? Are there any other places you’d nominate for a sensory-friendly makeover?

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona