Thursday, November 30, 2023

On being ... "curious"

By Ingrid Sapona 

David Brooks is a New York Times columnist I read regularly. Over the years the topics he has chosen to write about have become more people-focused. For example, one of his best columns was about a friend who suffered from depression. He wrote about how when his friend’s depression first emerged, he made the mistake of suggesting things he thought might help lift the depression. He eventually realized, however, that his job as a friend in that circumstance was simply to acknowledge how awful it must feel to suffer from depression and to assure his friend that he’d be there. Unfortunately, his friend ended up committing suicide. 

Brooks recently published a book titled: “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.” Given his years of journalism experience and the shift I’ve noticed in him, I thought he’d have some interesting insights on this topic. So, I got the audio book from the library and I listened to it on my daily walks. 

He starts by telling a number of funny stories about himself. The stories drive home the idea that growing up, Brooks was more cerebral than emotional. One anecdote sets the stage best, I think: when he was four, a pre-school teacher told his parents that he doesn’t play with other kids – he just observes them. Of course, though that might not be great behaviour for a four-year-old, it isn’t necessarily bad for a journalist. 

Over the years, Brooks came to realize that if he was more connected to his emotions, he’d experience more joy in life. So, he set out to becoming more emotional and – as he put it – “fully human”. As he was working on becoming more connected to others, he couldn’t help notice an epidemic of anger and meanness. He believes much of the anger is attributable to people feeling unseen or unheard and therefore insulted, which then causes them to lash out. 

Brooks believes treating people with the consideration everyone deserves isn’t just a matter of being more open hearted. He thinks there are some basic social skills that can be learned. Things like being a good listener; learning how to reveal vulnerability appropriately; learning how to offer criticism in a way that’s caring; learning how to sit with someone who is suffering; and so on. He wrote the book to walk us through the skills it takes to know another human being and to make them feel known, seen, and heard. 

I think he’s onto something in terms of teaching social skills that help people connect. But, I almost stopped listening to the book when Brooks advised approaching conversations with others by “being curious”. Curious? Oh… that word is like nails on a chalkboard to me. “Being curious” has become such a pop culture buzzword, it’s almost become meaningless. 

Don’t know what I mean? Here’s are a few examples: the instructor in a mindful meditation class I was in told us that if we notice our mind drifting to some thought, rather than feel like a meditation failure, we should just “be curious” about it and then we should re-focus our attention on our breath. And surely you’ve heard “being curious” invoked as a rationalization for trying something or as an excuse for doing something. 

Giving yourself permission to “be curious” comes up a lot in self-help books and programs. And, when it does, there’s often an unspoken implication that we’ve all repressed the curiosity that comes so naturally to children. But, don’t worry – the self-help expert is giving you permission to reconnect with your curiosity. Seriously, if you’ve not noticed how much talk there is about “being curious”, now that I’ve pointed it out, I’m sure you’ll see how common it is. 

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against curiosity. Heck, I’ve always felt I have a healthy curiosity and I indulge it routinely (as I suspect you do, too). For example, at a recent get together with some new friends, the conversation turned to memorable vacations. A woman from Zimbabwe regaled us with a story about coming across a pangolin while on a safari. As she spoke, I was curious about what a pangolin looks like so I Wikipediaed it on my phone. I shared the picture with others – as they too were curious about what it looked like. No one told me – or the others who wanted to see the picture – to be curious. We just were – and none of us needed anyone’s permission to satisfy our curiosity! 

Approaching people with curiosity, as Brooks suggests, doesn’t seem to me to be a great way of connecting with them. If someone approached me with curiosity, I’d be more likely to clam up than open up. Where’s the compassion in curiosity? Being curious doesn’t really call for a give-and-take, which is the hallmark of a good conversation. I think people are more likely to engage with you if you show interest in them and in what they have to say. 

Though I disagree with Brooks’ suggestion you should approach others with curiosity, I do think taking an interest in others in a way that makes them feel seen and heard is important. Furthermore, I agree with him that attention to others is a moral act that has the potential to make a profound change in ourselves and society. 

Brooks’ book is an interesting and timely read (or listen), as the holidays will surely present many opportunities to practice the important skills Brooks talks about. In fact, I’d say that doing so may be the best gift you can give to others.


© 2023 Ingrid Sapona

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

On being … the return of the Christmas letter

By Ingrid Sapona                

I know the date on the calendar is November 15th and so you’re probably scratching your head thinking it’s a bit EARLY for a Christmas letter. Yes, it is. And, as you continue reading, you’ll probably really wonder about the title, as you might have thought that today’s column is a Christmas letter. It is not. 

I’m writing today to encourage folks to send out a Christmas letter. At first I was just going to encourage those who stopped writing them to revive the tradition. But, truth is, I’d welcome receiving a holiday catch-up letter from any friend. And, as importantly, I think those who make the effort may find it surprisingly fulfilling.  

I don’t remember exactly when I got my first Christmas letter – or even which friends used to send them. My best guess is that many friends initiated them when they started having kids. Though their lives and schedules were hectic, I think the sheer variety of events that filled their year seemed worth reporting on. I loved hearing about all the goings on. The letters always brought a smile and huge admiration for the energy it took to manage it all, I’m not really sure when different friends stopped writing them. I do know that I first realized it recently, after a call with a college friend who used to send one. The conversation was a general catch-up – you know the kind: each person runs through how work is going, how parents and siblings are and, of course, what children are up to. (Interestingly, these days catch-up calls often touch on a few new topics: retirement plans and inquiries about grandchildren – actual or planned.)   

When my friend mentioned they were headed off to Europe soon for one daughter’s wedding, I wasn’t surprised. I knew she worked abroad and it wasn’t unexpected that she’d marry a local. But I WAS surprised to learn that with this wedding, all three of their daughters would be married. Somehow, I had lost track of one daughter’s nuptials. I’m pretty good with such details and I was mad with myself for not knowing this. After we hung up, however, I felt a bit less guilting because I realized that’s just the sort of detail they’d have mentioned in their Christmas letter – but they stopped doing one a few years ago. 

Admittedly, I’ve never written a Christmas letter, so I don’t know how difficult – or time consuming it is. I imagine it’s challenging to look back over the year and assess what might be the “highlights” you think others might be interested in. And I think maybe folks who are active on social media (Facebook or whatever) think that friends who are interested in keeping up with them will do so on social media. But such posts seem mostly about quick pictures, quips, and comments. An annual letter is very different. Random social media posts don’t provide a narrative thread. The way you weave different events together in a letter helps friends understand the impact they had on you. The letter helps me feel connected to how your life is unfolding, even if we’re far apart and don’t chat much during the year. 

Most of my friends who sent Christmas letters while their kids were growing up have stopped sending them. It’s almost as though when their kids moved out, they thought their friends outgrew hearing about them or their family. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, one Christmas letter I especially look forward to is from a couple I became acquainted with through an association I used to belong to. This couple got married later in life and they were very active in a civic group that sponsors community projects throughout the world. Their letters were always interesting and inspirational – filled with news about their travels and their volunteer activities. The husband died last year and I’m sure that knocked the wind out of his wife’s sails a bit, but I’ll bet she has carried on the volunteer work. I’m sure hoping she has it in her to continue the Christmas letter too. 

A friend who normally sends out a Christmas letter mentioned the other day that she wasn’t sure if she’s going to write one this year. When I asked her why should wouldn’t, she basically said she’s just feeling too pooped to make the effort. Ok, I get that … (believe me, the 15th and 30th of each month come around pretty quickly). But I think her friends would enjoy hearing about her year and I’m hoping this column might help convince her to make the effort. 

If I haven’t yet convinced you to write a Christmas letter for your friends’ sake, I say do it for yourself. Writing one is the opportunity to take stock of the past year. It’s similar to what you might do when thinking about New Year’s resolutions – but it’s certainly not as onerous. And who knows – it may help you think about what you’d like out of 2024. Bonus! (And don’t use the holiday rush as an excuse for not doing one. No one will mind receiving it a week or two after the holidays – if anything, they’ll have more time to enjoy it.) 

So, there you have my pitch. Your friends will understand if they don’t get a Christmas letter from you. They are your friends, after all. But think of all the interesting conversations a Christmas letter would prompt. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona

Monday, October 30, 2023

On being ... another piece of the puzzle

By Ingrid Sapona 

Have you ever heard of a horseshoe crab? I’m tempted to say, “me either”, but there probably are a few readers more knowledgeable than me about all sorts of things – including crustaceans.  

Anyway, it was this title from an article in The Conversation that got me curious about these crabs: “Horseshoe crab blood is vital for testing intravenous drugs, but new synthetic alternatives could mean pharma won’t bleed this unique species dry”. It wasn’t so much the idea of there being a species called the horseshoe crab that caught my attention – it was fact that they have blood that surprised me. 

Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit this, but initially I wondered if the part about not bleeding the species dry was just a hook meant to lure non-science-y readers (like me). So, before deciding whether to take the time to read the article, I googled horseshoe crabs. I was curious about what they look like and whether they have blood. (Yes, they do have blood.) 

Armed with a visual image of the horseshoe crab, I read the article. It was fascinating on many levels. I learned that their blood is used to produce a substance (LAL is the acronym) that’s used to test for toxic substances (endotoxins) in vaccines and intravenous drugs. Apparently testing drugs using LAL was an accidental discovery in the 1950s and 1960s. A pathobiologist and medical researcher at Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory noticed the crabs’ blood coagulated in a curious manner. Think about that statement a minute. It means they knew what normal coagulation of crab blood looks like! Anyway, after observing this they did experiments and found that endotoxin was the coagulant. From there they devised a method of extracting LAL from the crab blood. By the 1990s LAL became the normal method for testing medicines for endotoxin. (In case you’re wondering, they take up to 30% of the crab’s blood for this purpose. The crabs are returned to the ocean, but it’s unclear how many die due to this process.) 

The article authors, academics at Rochester Institute of Technology, published a paper examining the social, political, and economic issues associated with using these crabs to produce LAL. Hundreds of thousands of the crabs are harvested every year for this purpose and conservationists are worried. Besides the welfare of the crabs, millions of shorebirds rely on horseshoe crab eggs for food as they migrate. (Yet another example of the interconnectedness of all of us on planet earth.) 

Before use of LAL, the medical standard for testing drugs involved injecting rabbits. The article included a photo of bunnies in a lab that was simply shocking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful that scientists came up with the idea of first testing drugs on animals, as I would be loath to volunteer in their place. But I imagine a similar process is used to test cosmetics, so that photo was enough to make me vow to only buy cosmetics from manufacturers that certify they don’t use animals for testing. 

I read a lot of mainstream news. But I also love articles like the one about the crab blood and it’s not because I’m harbouring some desire to be on Jeopardy. Articles like that drive home the complexity of the world. They also help me appreciate how diverse peoples’ interests are. More importantly, they make vivid the interconnectedness of the world, providing examples of the myriad consequences of every action, many of which are beyond most of our imaginations. 

The more I learn, the more I see life as a jigsaw puzzle. Each tidbit of news or knowledge is a puzzle piece. And, while each puzzle piece is interesting on its own, when it’s combined with a few other odd-shaped pieces you get a view of at least a section of the puzzle. Of course, the jigsaw puzzle of life will never be complete. But, discovering how different pieces you come across fit together helps you see more of the puzzle, which, in turn, makes you hungry for more puzzle pieces. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona  

Sunday, October 15, 2023

On being ... galling

by Ingrid Sapona

At the very last minute, on Oct. 1st the U.S. Congress avoided a federal shutdown by agreeing to a short-term funding deal. Whew, right? That means the thousands of federal workers – including the military – will continue getting paid until Nov. 17th. Of course, all bets are off after that, as a new deal will have to be worked out to keep the government going thereafter. 

It certainly seems Americans have become inured to Congress’ brinksmanship. Many folks just roll their eyes or say they’ve come to expect such debates to go down to the wire. It seems folks don’t care if their representatives think a federal shutdown is no big deal. Personally, I think it’s pathetic – and likely dangerous, given the state of the world – that members of Congress would rather fight than govern. 

All that is bothersome enough, but what really galled me about the whole escapade was watching members of Congress clapping and congratulating themselves when they finally did make a deal. Yay you – job done! For six weeks, that is. Honestly, they were so pleased with themselves, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they’d have decided to then vote themselves a raise. Well, I guess they had more important business to turn to: ousting the speaker for…? Hmmm… what do you call it – compromising? Personally, I would just say it’s him doing his job. 

But such temerity doesn’t just happen in the U.S. Torontonians were treated to a shocking display of effrontery recently at a press conference given by the head of Metrolinx, the agency in charge of the construction of transit. In 2011 construction began on a new, 19 kilometre (about 12 miles) cross-town light rail transit line (LRT). It was supposed to be finished in 2020 at a projected cost of $5.5 billion. 

Well, it’s still not done. Metrolinx delayed the opening from 2020 to 2021 and then to 2022. Yes, the pandemic might have set the opening back a bit, but had the project been on schedule, the pandemic really should only have impacted ridership. (By way of depressing comparison, the Chunnel, which is 50 kms long, took about six years to complete.) 

In May, Metrolinx confirmed the LRT would not open this year, but they did not say when they expected it would open. As part of that announcement, a spokesperson for the agency did say they would not open it “until it is fully operational and safe for transit workers and riders.” How very reassuring. I wonder if there was clapping and self-congratulations at Metrolinx HQ when they made that clear to the taxpayers who have so far spent about $12.8 billion on the unfinished project. 

As if all that weren’t frustrating enough, in late September the CEO of Metrolinx called a press conference. Now, I didn’t see the announcement of the press conference, so I don’t know exactly what it said about what the CEO might reveal. But, many people – not just those poor folks and businesses near the line who have had to put up with the destruction, congestion, and upheaval from the construction for over 12 years – thought he’d tell us when it would be ready. Given the history of Metrolinx, I don’t think anyone was really expecting to learn the exact date riders could hop on. But, it didn’t seem unreasonable to expect we might be told a month and year. 

So what did the CEO, who, by the way, is the fifth highest paid public servant in Ontario, say? He stood at the microphone and said he came to the press conference (which he called, remember) intending “to predict an opening date, or series, or range of possible opening dates” but he “decided against doing so.” Can you imagine the nerve? After that, he blathered on for a few minutes, saying he’s uncomfortable saying when it might open, but assuring us he would announce an opening date sometime. He closed by say “it won’t give anyone any certainty if we gave you a date today”. Say what?  

After that press conference, I have no idea whether the CEO or Metrolinx staff celebrated their public relations prowess, or their work at getting the LRT to the point that they are confident that it will someday open. But the very next day the Premier’s office made an announcement that certainly gave the CEO something to celebrate: the province confirmed it had extended the Metrolinx CEO’s contract.  

I don’t know why these two examples bothered me so much, but they did. Clapping as though you had achieved something special when all you really did was the job you were sent to Washington to do is unreal to me. And an Ontario official with the temerity to address taxpayers’ concerns with disrespect that borders on contempt (oh dear, we wouldn’t want him to feel uncomfortable) and still collect a salary of nearly $900,000 is obscene to me. 

Early on in my professional life I worked for someone whose mantra was: under promise, over deliver. I thought that was a good practice. These days, that saying seems laughably dated. Instead, leaders have conditioned us to have such low expectations that it seems we’re willing to accept whatever they deliver. I find this very sad and troublesome. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona

Saturday, September 30, 2023

On being ... useful incantations

By Ingrid Sapona 

I think most of us have developed coping mechanisms we turn to for different things. (Indeed, based on feedback regarding my last column, I now understand that not answering the door or phone is a coping mechanism for some folks.) One coping mechanism-cum-behaviour modification technique I rely on a lot involves little phrases – incantations, if you will – that I invoke to help make better decisions. 

The easiest way to explain this is by way of example. Here are a few favourites from my repertoire:

  • Girl Math
  • lips and assholes (crude, but effective)
  • Oompa Loompa

Girl Math is a fairly new incantation for me. I read about it after the phrase went viral on TikTok earlier this year. As I understand it, it started when some radio hosts in New Zealand used the expression “to justify one host’s mother’s expensive dress purchase as basically free because the dress was going to be worn at least four times.” A Washington Post article picked up on the trend, referring to various TikTok posts as young women explaining money habits or spending choices that make no mathematical sense. For example, you’re losing money if you don’t buy something when it’s on sale or if you don’t spend enough to qualify for free shipping. 

My initial reaction when I heard the phrase was irritation at the gender stereotyping. But, that aside, I’ve adopted it as useful shorthand for trying to avoid retail ploys aimed at making us think we’re getting a deal. By invoking Girl Math, I stop to think about whether a particular purchase truly makes financial sense for me. When I told one of my sisters about Girl Math, we had a laugh about it, thinking of the times we’ve spent on something to allegedly save on something else. Shortly after that, my sister phoned to ask if I needed anything from this one store because they sent her a coupon for $25 off her next purchase. She said she didn’t need anything, but it seemed a shame to let the coupon go to waste. My response: Girl Math! Though I don’t think of myself as an extravagant buyer, I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve invoked the phrase. 

I’m kind of relieved to say that the second phrase I don’t end up having to invoke too often, as it has a fairly narrow application. I don’t know exactly where I heard it, but once someone said it, it made an indelible impression on me. It has to do with hot dogs and what they’re made of. I think of the phrase any time the smell of a hot dog tempts me – even a delicious Sahlen’s dog, a Buffalo culinary specialty. I’m sorry if learning about this phrase ruins hot dogs for you, as it has for me. On the plus side, the phrase can help make choosing the healthier option more palatable. I also find it pops into my head when I’m tempted by some high fat, high sodium grocery store prepared meal that’s less than healthy. 

Oompa Loompa comes from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. The phrase stuck in my brain when I saw the 1971 musical version of the story starring Gene Wilder. It was part of the lyrics to a song sung by workers (Oompa Loompas) as children toured the chocolate factory. Though the tune was catchy and the words were fun, the song was a cautionary tale about eating too much candy. The lyrics were: Oompa loompa doompety doo … Oompa loompa doompety dee, If you are wise you’ll listen to me, What do you get when you guzzle down sweets, Eating as much as an elephant eats, What are you at, getting terribly fat, What do you think will come of that, I don’t like the look of it, Oompa loompa doompety da…  A playful – if pointed – tune that plays through my head every time I contemplate just one more cookie, scoop of ice cream, or other dessert. Oompa Loompa… I better not. 

I suspect a behavioural psychologist might call my use of these phrases decision-making shortcuts. That they may be – but they’re powerful enough motivators that I think there’s also a bit of magic to them. What about you? Any shortcuts – or abracadabras – you find especially useful? 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona 

Friday, September 15, 2023

On being ... a thing

By Ingrid Sapona

I have a favourite household broom – well, actually, it’s a bench brush. (For those unfamiliar with different types of brooms, it’s the kind that’s often is sold along with a small dust pan.) Growing up, we had a couple of these brushes around the house. Dad kept one on the boat and so when I inherited the boat, I inherited the brush. 

It’s made of horse hair and has a wooden handle that’s got a comfortable, contoured grip. The horse hair bristles are exceptionally good at sweeping fine particles of dust and stuff. In a word, the brush is exquisite. Because these brushes were unlike others we had – or really any others that I had seen – I once asked Mom where they came from. Her answer surprised me. “Oh, I bought them from a Fuller Brush man,” she said. 

I don’t know if I thought the Fuller Brush man was a Hollywood-created character or something, but I pressed her for details. “You mean, you bought it from someone who came to the door?” I asked. “Oh yes – and the Electrolux too,” she said, adding, “they were good quality and we could pay for them in instalments.” The Electrolux vacuum cleaner was another favourite – a workhorse we had for 50+ years. 

The reason I’ve been thinking about the Fuller Brush man isn’t because of the novelty of door-to-door sales. It’s because I’ve had a number of conversations with folks who tell me they don’t answer the door unless the person contacts them in advance to say they’re coming. Most of these people also tell me they never answer the phone if they don’t know who’s calling. 

When someone tells me they don’t ever answer the door, I always ask why. The response I typically get is a shrug and the affirmation: “I just don’t.” I then follow up by asking if they’re afraid to answer. No one has ever admitted they are. Still struggling to understand, I usually then ask if they at least look to see who it might be. Of course, in asking this, I’m kind of testing whether they’re afraid of what they might see – or afraid that they might be seen. More often than not they say they won’t even look to see who it is. 

So then I circle back with, “Well what if it’s your neighbor?” To that I often hear, “Well, if it’s my neighbor… I guess then I’d answer.” “But how would you know if it’s your neighbor if you won’t even look?” I ask. As you can imagine, at this point in the conversation heels are being dug in. “Well, if it’s my neighbor, they should call before coming over!” is a common retort. “But what if they don’t have your number? Or what if you don’t recognize their number – you won’t answer.” “Well, er… um…,” often follows. 

The phenomenon of not answering the phone has been around a long time – at least as far back as caller ID, which debuted in the 1990s.  Funny enough, when caller ID came out there was a hubbub about the privacy rights of the CALLER! Obviously sometime in the last 30 years the mood has shifted to the rights of the receiver to know who’s calling. The proliferation of telephone solicitations and scams do provide some justification for choosing to not answer one’s phone. But why not just answer and hanging up if you don’t know the caller or have no need for what the caller is saying? I think answering your cell phone makes especially good sense because once you’ve established that you don’t want to hear from that caller, you can then permanently block the number. How many times have you been chatting with someone and their phone rings and the conversation stops while they look to see if they know who’s calling. At that point your conversation has already been interrupted and if they refuse to answer because they don’t know who’s calling, the interruption continues until the ringing stops. 

I truly am puzzled by this business of not answering one’s door or one’s phone. Was answering the door to strangers – even those who might try to sell you a brush, or vacuum cleaner, or set of encyclopedias – a sign of a more innocent time? Perhaps… Or maybe it’s that today people feel empowered by not answering. Maybe it’s a control thing: play by my rules – phone or text before knocking – or I won’t respond. Or maybe people feel they have no time for what they assume will be a trivial or annoying interruption. But what if it isn’t an annoyance? What if it’s a friendly face stopping to say hello or to bring good news? Or what if it’s a neighbor in need? 

I really don’t know what’s behind this attitude about not answering doors and phones but I do know that it seems to have become “a thing”. As it happens, Fuller Brush switched to on-line sales in the 1990s – perhaps they anticipated peoples’ refusal to respond to knocks and rings. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona 

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

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