On being ... home again

 I was in Scotland for a few weeks on holiday. Half way through the vacation I read an essay by Melissa Kirsch in the New York Times about “post-vacation clarity”. The gist of the piece was about how living out of a suitcase for a few weeks helped her notice how cluttered her home – and life – felt on her return. She also talked about how on vacation she managed to shed her daily routine and how she was determined to not slip back into it. 

I found the essay interesting and I bookmarked it, thinking I might riff on it for my first On being… after my trip. So, while in Scotland I began comparing how some things are done there and how they’re done here. Of course, there are plenty of obvious differences that would never be adopted here, like driving on – I know this sounds judgmental, but so be it – the wrong side of the road. (Crossing the street is Toronto has its dangers, but at least I know where to look before stepping off the curb!) 

Another difference that’ll never change is in voltage delivered to wall outlets (220V there vs. 110V here). But, there’s one thing about their electric outlets that I think might be worth adopting: in the UK each socket has its own little on/off switch. Remembering to toggle each plug to “On” took a bit of getting used to, but once I did, I began thinking about the benefits of such outlets. Even when devices plugged into outlets here are turned off, a bit of electricity still flows into them. (And not just for the myriad of things that have LED indicator lights on them, as so many do nowadays.) According to Schneider Electric, sockets without on/off switches keep drawing power and increase the idle load. In other words, those little on/off switches save electricity, which we should all care about. (Granted, it might seem like a negligible amount – but like a dripping faucet, it all adds up.) 

Though I admit I never quite got the hang of tipping in Scotland, I liked the way they tally restaurant bills. Most (though not all) bills included a line that indicated a “10% discretionary service fee” was added. So, for example, on a bill for food/drinks totaling £70 (including VAT), a £7 “discretionary service fee” might be added, bringing the total to £77. Unlike here, where the server passes you the credit card terminal and you must answer questions about how much of a tip you want to add and then you must indicate you accept the total – in Scotland the server just holds the terminal toward you and you tap your card on it. So, in the example above, the terminal would show £77 and that’s the amount you tap for. (Though it was labelled “discretionary” – I’m not sure if that meant you had discretion to just paid the cost (£70) – or if the 10% was at the discretion of the restaurant owner. But, in any event, a 10% tip is certainly more palatable than the tip suggestions available on payment terminals here in Toronto.) And, if you wanted to add a bit more of a gratuity, you could simply ask the server to round up. So, keeping with the example, if I ask the server to “Round that up to £80”, the server would re-key the amount AND say Thank You as I tap!   

As odd as this will sound – the one difference I appreciated the most – and that I’d LOVE to see adopted in North America had to do with bathroom stalls. In Scotland, bathroom stall locks all indicate whether the stall is occupied. It’s the simplest, most straightforward device – when you flip the latch to lock it – on the outside the colour goes from green to red (or some obvious variation, for example, the word “free” or “occupied” appears, or “vacant” or “engaged). That simple mechanism eliminates all guessing – no need to look under the door to see feet (or a shadow) or having to yell out “just a minute”, as someone pushes against the door while you’re in there. Honestly – it’s such a simple device that saves time and everyone’s dignity – why-oh-why can’t it become the standard here?

On my return I did have an unexpected revelation about a vacation-induced change that I’m going to try to maintain. It has to do with focusing a bit less intensely on the news. I wasn’t exactly unplugged while away – I checked email regularly and I skimmed the Toronto Star and NY Times newsletters nearly every day. (That’s how I noticed Kirsch’s piece.) But I didn’t read many of the full articles, editorials, or op-ed pieces. I think that contributed to my overall sense of contentment and relaxation on this holiday. 

When I got home, I was surprised by how many newsletters were still in my inbox. I either hadn’t looked at them at all, or I hadn’t deleted them, thinking I’d go back to them when I had time. So, at home I started going through them. But, I soon reconsidered. What’s the point of reading a 10-day old news story about Prigozhin, or about Trump, or about… well, anything? So, I deleted all of them. I also decided that going forward I’ll do what I did in Scotland: skim the summaries and read full-length articles only occasionally, focusing mainly on topics relevant to things I can exert influence over. Time will tell whether this approach helps me feel less anxious or upset. 

Mind you, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the extra time I’ll have if I manage to stick to this new routine. But, it’s certainly worth a try. (That said, I promise I won’t spend all my newfound time writing longer On being… columns, like this one!) 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona


On being… heard but not seen

 By Ingrid Sapona 

We’ve all seen photos or videos of people on birding treks. Invariably they’ve got binoculars in their hands or hung around their necks and they’re gazing up in hopes of spotting some beloved feathered creature. Birding, as it’s called, has never appealed to me because I am hopeless at spotting birds in trees. I’ve sat on the balcony of many a condo in Mexico and though I enjoy watching the birds flying nearby, once they head into a tree, they disappear to me. 

Given this fact, awhile back when I got an email about a New York Times on-line event called The Joy of Birding, my initial inclination was to hit DELETE. But I was intrigued by the fact that one of the speakers was Amy Tan, the novelist. So, I registered and tuned in. 

Tan explained that she began birding in 2017 when she put out a feeder in her backyard in hopes of attracting hummingbirds. She said that soon the birds acknowledged her, she felt she’d entered their domain. That hooked her on birding, which she described as a guilty pleasure she does every day in her California backyard. (Indeed, her upcoming book, which will be published next year, is called Backyard Bird Chronicles.) 

The program talked about the summer birding project the Times is running with eBird and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Folks participating in the project are using the Merlin Bird ID app, which they described as Shazam for birding. This piqued my interest because Shazam’s an awesome app that can identify all sorts of music based on as little as a 5-or-so- second snippet. It uses your phone’s mic to pick up the song and then it compares it to millions of songs in its database. In seconds, Shazam tells you the song title and artist. The idea of an app that can help you identify birds as easily as Shazam recognizes music was more than intriguing so I downloaded Merlin. To get started, you download a “Bird Pack”, which is a database of birds found in a particular region. I downloaded the Canada East Bird Pack. 

Merlin identifies birds by sound or photo. You can bet which of those features was of interest to me! The app also has an “explore” feature that, when you click on it, brings up a list of birds likely to be seen in your area that day. The list shows pictures of the birds and when you tap on one of the birds, you get and three options: “ID Info”, “Sounds”, “Map”. The ID Info tells you about the bird’s behaviour. For example, according to Merlin, Double-crested Cormorants dive underwater to catch fish and find perches to spread their wings to dry their feathers – behaviours I’ve noticed many times at my sail club. 

When you tap on “Sounds” up comes sample audio clips of sounds made by that species. For example, for the American Robin there are audio clips of their “song”, “calls”, “alarm calls”, and even “juvenile calls”. I don’t know about you, but I had never thought about the different types of sounds birds make. Each audio clip also displays a black and white voice print of that sound. These prints provide a visual representation of the sound and they are what the app uses to identify bird sounds when the app user clicks on Sound ID. 

The next morning when I heard birds chirping, I decided to test Merlin. I stepped onto my balcony and clicked the Sound ID function. As the app recorded the sounds, I watched it create a voice print. Then the app matched it to the sounds in its database and the names of the bird(s) immediately appeared on screen. When you stop recording you compare the sound and the voice print you just made with the database’s recordings/voice prints of the identified bird to see if it matches. In that 10 second recording I made from my urban balcony Merlin told me I was hearing House Sparrows. Imagine that! 

Later that morning, as I passed through a quiet walkway I heard birds. I decided to see what Merlin might identify. The first bird to come up was one I’d never heard of: a Killdeer. Then, as the recording continued, a bunch of other names popped up. In my 48 second recording Merlin identified eight different birds. I was speechless. I looked around and didn’t see a single bird – and yet, clearly there were many different species around me. I replayed the recording to see if I could even distinguish any differences in the sounds and sure enough I could! 

Not only was I hooked on Merlin, I began paying much closer attention to the different sounds around me. I don’t aspire to identify individual species per se. But I do like trying to distinguish patterns and different pitches in different calls. 

Paying attention to the distinct sounds of birds has been a revelation. It’s helped me feel more connected to nature and reminds me there’s much more than just what meets the eye. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona