7/15/2015

On being … Bastille Day already!



By Ingrid Sapona

No, I don’t generally celebrate Bastille Day (though I’m open to it, as it seems a good excuse to indulge in a chocolate croissant or two, but I digress…). What’s really on my mind is the need to focus on things that remind me of summer – before it’s gone.

When we’re school-age, it’s impossible not to notice it’s summer because, if nothing else, it means a break in the daily routine. But as an adult, I’ve found that summer has a way of sneaking up on me. And, if the weather isn’t what you expect summer to bring (here that would be hot and humid), then it’s easy to feel that summer hasn’t yet arrived when, in fact, it’s mid-July already!

So, in hopes that I’ll catch that summer vibe (regardless of the weather), the past few days I’ve been thinking about all the things that represent summer to me. There are two main categories “summer things” fall into. The first category is what I think of as summer triggers – things that automatically make me think of summer, no matter when or where they come up.

The best example of a summer trigger for me is the smell of Coppertone. (Well, Coppertone Tanning Lotion, as it used to be called. I think some Coppertone Sunscreens smell like the Coppertone of my youth but, sadly, not all do any more.) Another instant “summer” trigger for me is the word boondoggle. You see, when I was in a kid, my elementary school put up a craft hut next to the playground every summer. One of my favourite crafts was weaving with boondoggle cord. You know, it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I even heard of that other, rather negative, definition of boondoggle! I’m not embarrassed to admit that I whiled away hundreds of contented hours in my youth “boondoggling”. (It’s been over 40 years since I’ve even seen boondoggle cord. I sure hope it’s not gone the way of vinyl records.)

The second category is things that, though enjoyable any time of year, summer wouldn’t be same without. (Mind you, road construction – though a staple of summer – isn’t in this category. Remember, I’m talking about enjoyable things.) Ice cream is the most obvious thing in this category. Whether it’s soft serve or regular ice cream, on a hot summer day, there’s nothing better. Laying back on a blanket and watching fireworks blossoming above and feeling the boom echo through your rib cage is another special summer sensation.

Then there are the songs of summer. The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” undeniably represents summer for most folks of my generation. But it’s certainly not the only song that conjures summer for me. Don’t ask me why but Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” is another one that sings out “summer” to me. In fact, I love the idea of a song of summer so much that the past dozen or so years I’ve enjoyed picking out a toe tapper that I dub my song of summer. This year I can’t decide between Andy Grammer’s “Honey I’m Good” and Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance”. (No matter what you think of these songs – or how sick and tired of them you might be – I’ll bet you can’t stop yourself from bopping when you hear either of them.)

Wow, I have to say, writing about all these special “summer things” has put a smile on my face and has made me want to revel in the season (regardless of the weather). I’m sure you have a list of your own things that mean summer to you. I hope this has helped you focus on them for at least a few minutes. And, if you’re like me and you haven’t really started enjoying summer just yet, all I can say is Bastille Day has come and gone! You better make the most of these long days now – it’s gonna be Labour Day before you know it.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona

6/30/2015

On being … squirrel-like?



By Ingrid Sapona

A couple months ago cheddar was on sale. I like having cheese on hand and so I bought some. The block was about 12 inches x 4 inches and about one-half inch thick. When I got home I cut off about one-third and wrapped it for storage in the fridge. I put the remaining chunk in the freezer. Freezing cheddar makes it a bit more crumbly than normal, but it doesn’t impact the flavour at all.

A few weeks later I went to the freezer to get out some cheddar, but I couldn’t find it. My freezer is on the bottom of the fridge. My initial search was confined to the freezer’s top drawer because that’s where I usually put things like cheese. After a few minutes of shuffling things here and there to no avail, I noticed I had become agitated.

I was irritated for a number of reasons. The most obvious was that I wanted some cheese and couldn’t find any. I was also angry with myself for not being more organized about the freezer. I’m usually quite good about returning things to the same place, and not just because I’m a creature of habit. I put things back where I got them from because I hate wasting time looking for things, which was exactly what I was doing!

After a few more minutes I realized my only hope of finding it was to empty the whole freezer. As the kitchen floor became littered with frozen food, it soon became obvious there was no cheddar to be found. I couldn’t believe it. After one last, thorough look through the fridge, I came to the conclusion that I had either actually already used all that cheese, or I accidentally threw it out when I was clearing off the counter after unpacking the groceries.

In no time at all I fell into full self-flagellation mode, chiding myself for possibly having mindlessly consumed a whack of cheese, or, if I hadn’t eaten it, then I was angry with myself for basically throwing money out. I also scolded myself for not living up to my own standards of organization when it comes to the freezer. When I finally calmed down, I vowed to be more careful.

So, the next time I was at Costco I picked up a huge, two-pound brick of cheddar. Though that’s a heck of a lot of cheese, at least it would last for a while. It was such a huge block I figured it would be very hard to cut through when frozen, so I cut the brick into pieces before putting it in the freezer.

One day, when I pulled open the freezer, a package of rolls fell back off the top drawer. To retrieve them I had to get down on my hands and knees and use a pair of tongs. As I reached for the rolls, I noticed the package of cheddar was also down there, and so I pulled it out too. As I re-arranged the top drawer making space for the packages I had just retrieved, I cursed the damned design of the freezer and then forgot about the whole thing.

Last week I took out the cheese, wanting to defrost some. I thought it was odd that the block wasn’t cut into chunks, as I was sure I had done that before I froze it. As I cut off a hunk and returned the rest to the freezer, I couldn’t help wonder if I was losing it.

Later, when I went to use the cheese, I was surprised again – this time by how thin the piece seemed. That’s when it dawned on me that the cheese I had gotten out was the package I had retrieved with the tongs and it was the cheese I thought I had thrown out weeks before. This explained why the hunk was so thin (it wasn’t from Costco) and why it was in an un-cut block. (I hadn’t pre-cut the first block – just the oversize Costco brick.) So, mysteries solved and confidence in my sanity restored – at least for the time being.

The next day I happened to notice a squirrel running around. As I watched it, I smiled at the thought of the similarities between my storing cheese and that squirrel storing nuts. In thinking more about it, I wondered whether squirrels get angry with themselves or feel stupid when they can’t immediately find the nuts they’ve stored. I’ll bet they don’t… I suspect that behavior is strictly a human thing.

You know, from now on, I’m taking my cue from squirrels. You can bet I’ll continue socking away stuff for later. But, if I can’t find it right away, I’ll just continue on, figuring it’ll turn up eventually.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona

6/15/2015

On being … bottle-able?


By Ingrid Sapona

The other day on his PBS show, Charlie Rose was talking with Arne Sorenson, President and CEO of Marriott International, and Ian Schrager. I knew what Marriott is so I didn’t bother looking Mr. Sorenson up, but I was curious about Schrager, so I Googled him. Turns out he was one of the co-founders of Studio 54, the famed 1970s nightclub. After that (and a few years in prison for tax evasion), Schrager became a hotelier and he is credited with coming up with the concept of “lifestyle hotels”.

One of the reasons I love Charlie Rose is because he asks really interesting questions. For example, he asked Schrager: “Where is luxury today? What’s the new approach?” Those questions, and Schrager’s response – that luxury doesn’t relate to how much something costs, but rather to how special it makes you feel, which he admitted was hard to define but is what they’re trying to “kind of capture in a bottle” – got me thinking. Once that happened I became engaged and interested in what the guests had to say, even though I don’t care about lifestyle hotels.

A few minutes later the discussion turned to a topic I was genuinely interested in – the idea of “creating experiences”. That expression has always gotten under my skin. It gets thrown around in a lot of contexts these days, but no one ever explains what they mean by it. So, I was especially interested when Charlie said to Schrager, “We talk about an experience. What makes an experience?” Great, I thought – let’s hear the supposed expert on this!

Schrager’s response left a lot to be desired, I thought. He said, “Everybody knows when they’re in a special place. It doesn’t depend upon how much money you have or your level of education. It doesn’t depend on any of those objective criteria. It’s an ethereal thing, a visceral thing and we all know it.” Schrager’s non-response response furthered my belief that the whole experience-creating thing is a bunch of B.S.

The next day I needed one ingredient for a recipe. I decided to stop in at a grocery store that opened about a month ago in a nearby new condo development. When the store first opened, a few of my neighbors mentioned they had stopped in and were very impressed. When I asked what they liked about it, they mentioned different things. One older couple was excited that the store has underground parking. They pointed out that it’ll be especially great in the dead of winter because they’ll be able to get in their car here, drive to the store, and then park in the store’s underground parking, avoiding the cold altogether. Another person mentioned all the prepared food that you can get “to go”.

The store is part of a large, well-known Canadian grocery chain that seems to always be a bit more expensive for everyday items than my normal grocery store. I hadn’t been to the new store yet and I figured that since I was only getting one item, I may as well get it there and check out the new addition to the neighborhood. To my pleasant surprise, the condo development that houses the grocery store was designed with a small main street-like strip between the high rise towers, all of which have shops on the street level. When they’re all leased, I think it’ll be quite a cute little strip.

On the street level there’s parking for about two dozen cars. There was a space right in front of the store so I parked and headed toward the grocery store door. As I did, I couldn’t help but notice through the huge front windows how inviting it was. As soon as you walk in, the first thing you see are bright, beautiful flowers of all sorts – some fresh cut, some in pots. My immediate thought was, “boy, one of those would sure brighten up my place!”

Just beyond the floral department was a steam table full of “to go” food. I don’t go for such stuff, but it did look appealing. The next thing to come into view was produce. This was where I started noticing that the scale of all the displays was, well, perfect. Though it’s a slightly smaller store than most in that chain, it’s clearly more than just an express-type store, which is particularly common downtown.

Though I was only there for one item, I couldn’t help but want to wander around, checking out different sections. As I made my way through the store, I just couldn’t believe how nice it was and, well, how it made me feel happy. Yup… I realized the store actually left me with a feeling. Suddenly Schrager’s vague comments about creating a “special place” made sense.

I’m sure all the things my neighbors mentioned – and the things I noticed, from the size of the displays, to the flow, to the fact that you can see all the beautiful flowers and produce through the huge front windows – were all part of the grocery chain’s effort to create a shopping experience that appeals to condo dwellers like me.

As I left, I had to admit that maybe there is something to that whole “experience” thing … and maybe it is something that can be captured …

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona

5/30/2015

On being … out of your comfort zone



By Ingrid Sapona

Earlier this month my sister Sonia marked a milestone birthday. As part of the celebrations, Sonia, Regina (my other sister), and I took a two day cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America (affectionately referred to as the CIA) in Hyde Park, New York.

Originally the plan was for the three of us to meet in Ottawa and for Sonia and me to take a one-day class at Le Cordon Bleu (Ottawa). Both Sonia and I love to cook. Regina does not. In fact, she often jokes that she was not born with the cooking gene.

When none of the classes at Le Cordon Bleu interested us, I looked into classes at the CIA. When I read about their two day basic skills boot camp, I thought it’d be fun if the three of us took it. Regina said she’d be happy to go to Hyde Park with us, but she didn’t want to take the class.

But, as is often the case with her, after I planted the seed of the idea, she did some research. She read about the CIA and about things to see and do in Hyde Park (FDR’s home and presidential library, for example), and she even found a lovely inn. Within a few days she had come around. Soon after that she booked the inn and, though I knew she had some reservations, she registered all three of us for the boot camp.

Before the trip there were hints that her anxiety level was ratcheting up. For example, when we received the schedule from the CIA, she pointed out that each day ends with a critique, which she was sure was going to involve Chef commenting on her cooking skills. I laughed and said I thought the critique would involve us talking about how we felt working through the different recipes. She didn’t find this idea comforting, however, because she didn’t think she’d have anything to contribute to such a discussion.

Also, she mentioned she told her boss (an avid cook) about the course and he suggested she focus on learning one thing she can teach him. I thought this was a brilliant idea – a great way to keep her mind off her self-described cooking disability. Unfortunately, the way she was taking notes during the initial lecture, it was clear his assignment only added to her stress.

On day one, the first order of business was changing into chef’s uniforms. We laughed in the ladies room as we took pictures of the sister chefs. Then we had a campus tour and a formal lunch. During lunch, Sonia’s and my excitement grew. Regina was markedly quieter. I took a picture of her and we joked that it was the last time for the next two days that she’d look relaxed. Little did I know how true that was.

After lunch Chef briefly lectured us on basic knife skills (for example, the difference between a fine chop, a mince, and a julienne) and terminology, like Mise en Place (basically setting out all the ingredients needed before you start cooking). He then divided us into teams – Regina and I were on Team Three – and assigned us our recipes for the day.

After a quick orientation to the kitchen’s layout, we went to our stations and basically began. We divided the recipes among the team members and each set to work. Next thing I know, Regina put down her knife and I notice a bit of blood on her finger. It wasn’t a particularly bad cut, but I insisted we get her a band aid. (We had been shown where the first aid kit was!) Though she joked about being the first casualty of the day, I could tell she was upset.

A little while later I went to see how she was doing and she was practically in tears. I asked her what was wrong and she just shook her head. When I pressed her further, she said she was so far out of her comfort zone that she hated it and she intimated that she didn’t think she’d return for day two. When she added that she wished Chef had explained things a bit more, I made it my mission to get him to help her and (I hope) reassure her.

I felt terrible that she was having such a horrible time, especially since the course was my idea in the first place. Though I couldn’t relate to why she felt stressed by this particular experience, I certainly know how it feels to be even a wee bit out of your comfort zone – let alone WAY out of it. So, if she had chosen not to go back for day two, I certainly would have understood. In the end, she decided to return the next day, and I think it went better for her. The fact she was all smiles when she received her Certificate of Completion from Chef was nice to see, but I suspect it was more a sign of relief than true happiness.

On our way home the three of us were talking about the experience. It was important to me that Regina know how impressed I was with her willingness to join us in the first place. I also admitted that, going into it, I hadn’t really realized how big a stretch it was for her. She sort of shrugged off the intended compliment and said, “Well, I just figured if there was something I really wanted to try you guys would do it for me, right?”

Well, it turns out Sonia and I aren’t quite as open to the possibilities as Regina! In unison we responded, “What, are you kidding? It totally depends on what it is!”

Hey – what can I say? There are comfort zones and there are comfort zones… Indeed, it seems the older I get, the less willing I am to venture beyond my comfort zone. That said, given what a terrific role model Regina’s been, I’d like to think that for her, I’d try…

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona

5/15/2015

On being … a problem?



By Ingrid Sapona

Recently I was leafing through a catalogue at a friend’s house. It was for an American company I had never heard of. From the cover photo, it looked like it was from a ladies’ clothing company, but the company’s name sounded more like it had to do with home furnishings.

Turns out the company sells women’s clothing, accessories, and home furnishings. Seems an odd combination to me, but apparently there’s a “common denominator” to their products. The underlying theme of the store is softness. Virtually all items in the catalogue had a softness rating of from one (“so soft”) to three (“ultimate softness”). The only items that weren’t rated were the shoes and cosmetics.

As I turned the pages, one heading really caught my eye: Good-bye vertical lip lines! My first thought was, “what the heck are vertical lip lines?” Lucky for me, toward the bottom of the description of the (miracle) product was a before and after close-up of lips.

Well, sure enough, I saw what vertical lip lines are. But wait, I thought… “Wouldn’t a little Botox take care of that?” Clearly I’m pulling your leg… I couldn’t help wonder who is concerned about vertical lip lines – and who is shelling out $49 for 0.5 fl. oz. of cream to combat them?

Then, a few weeks later came word of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of a new drug called Kybella. You probably heard the news about this miracle (or maybe just the angels’ trumpets heralding the news) – it’s a non-surgical way of getting rid of double chins. I know what you’re thinking: FINALLY!

But before you get too excited about this “double chin melter”, as some have described it, the treatment is not (pardon the pun) a one-shot deal. It involves monthly injections over six months. Mind you, it’s not one injection a month for six months – it’s multiple injections each month. One physician on CBS News said it could be as many as 50 injections in a month. And of course, as we all know from having heard the innocuous voice overs on various commercials for different prescription medications, there could be side effects (like difficulty swallowing, but never mind).

Besides the fact that I never considered having a double chin a “condition”, as one physician described it in an article about the treatment, I couldn’t help wonder if the scientific brain power and research (not to mention money) that went into coming up with this drug couldn’t have been better employed. Aren’t there diseases or illnesses those scientists could have been working on curing?

I know, in years to come, researchers will probably apply something learned from how Kybella works to some other treatment that is, shall we say, more medically necessary. But still, at this point, the idea of medical research and dollars going to melting double chins seems unreal to me.

I got quite bothered by the idea of both these products. I find it truly ridiculous that vertical lip lines and double chins are even considered a problem than anyone cares about, much less thinks they need to correct. I just can’t imagine who would pay for a cream to cure or hide lip lines, much less go through an arduous medical procedure to get rid of a double chin.

The more I thought about these products, the angrier I felt because it really seems to come down to the idea of how we define beauty and the lengths people go to fit into that definition. But then I realized it’s not just a societal obsession with beauty – there’s a healthy dose of vanity involved if you’re worried about such things.

Maybe for some readers, vanity’s role in all this was the first thing to come to mind. Honestly, it wasn’t mine because, to me, vertical lip lines and double chins always just seemed a natural part of aging – rather like crow’s-feet and gray hair. Hmm… grey hair… You know, I don’t have any. It’s true… I wash mine away about every six weeks. In fact, I spent some time doing just that this morning before I sat down to work on this column.

Alright, alright… now that I’ve come down off my high horse and thought more about these products, I understand that problems (especially those that fall squarely within the definition of “first world problems”) are – like beauty – in the eye of the beholder.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona