On being ... out of context

By Ingrid Sapona

Do you remember those standardized tests we used to take in school: things like the SAT, ACT and even ones called “the Iowa Basics”. (I never knew why they were called that, but I just Googled them and apparently they’re for grades K-8 in Iowa. Why my district in Western New York used them is still a mystery.) Those tests were meant to test skills, not knowledge. Though I didn’t understand the distinction at the time, I understand it now.

Indeed, the past few weeks I’ve found myself drawing a lot on one particular skill they used to test: using context to derive meaning. This is a skill I’m especially experienced at (arguably it’s a function of age and of being in many different situations). And, at the risk of being immodest, it’s something I think I’m pretty good at. The past few weeks, however, my skill in this area has been tested in ways that have given me the opportunity to practice another important life skill: the ability to laugh at oneself.

The first challenge came while I was on vacation in Mexico earlier this month. I’ve never studied Spanish, but over the years I’ve picked up some words and phrases because many of my relatives speak it and because I’ve traveled in Spanish-speaking countries before. Because of my love of eating and cooking, my Spanish vocabulary mainly encompasses words for different foods.

The first few days I was in Mexico I kept noticing the word “sabor” on ads for all sorts of things, like ice cream, candy, bread, chewing gum, etc. I had no idea what it meant. Finally, when I saw it on a bag of chips I was eating it dawned on me that it must be the name of a food company -- like Kraft or Danone. Indeed, given the variety of things I saw the word on, I reasoned that Sabor was a highly diversified food company. The next time I saw the word on a billboard I was silently proud of my deductive ability.

A few days later I was in a bookstore and I noticed an English-Spanish/Spanish-English dictionary. As I leafed through it I noticed an entry for sabor. How odd, I thought. I certainly wouldn’t expect to find Nestlé or General Mills in a dictionary. Well, when I read the definition, I laughed so hard tears were flowing. Apparently sabor means flavour -- no wonder it was on so many things having to do with food!

Another challenge to my context analysis skills came at a wine tasting. We were discussing the different scents we were picking up from the nose of a Cabernet Sauvignon. The sommelier had put on a plate a number of items, such as vanilla bean, a cigarette (tobacco), olives, raspberries, and strawberries -- things that represent characteristic smells people detect in the nose of a Cab. After a good swirl and sniff, one man thoughtfully said he smelled green pepper instead of red pepper.

Though I’ve smelled pepper on the nose of some wines, I said to him that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to distinguish between the smell of a green pepper corn and a red pepper corn. He looked at me quizzically and pointed to the slices of red pepper on the plate. Besides feeling stupid for not noticing them (in other words, for ignoring the visual context the sommelier offered us), I couldn’t help but laugh because all these years, whenever anyone spoke of the smell of pepper on the nose of a wine, it never occurred to me they were talking about the vegetable. I’d always assumed they were talking about the kind that completes the phrase: “salt and …”.

And, just so you don’t think my comprehension challenges are all somehow related to food, here’s one last story of an incident from the other day. When my sister and I travel, we e-mail each other our itinerary, in case an emergency arises. Last week, before heading out-of-town on business I emailed her the name of the place I’d be staying.

Occasionally she forwards e-mails to me and simply adds a sentence like: “Do you believe this?”, or “What do you think?” Half the time I can’t make heads or tails of those e-mails because I don’t recognize the name of the person who wrote the message she forwarded, or I have no idea what the underlying issue was that was discussed in the e-mail. She sent me one such e-mail while I was away.

Try as I might, I didn’t understand what was going on in the e-mail exchange she forwarded, so I couldn’t comment. Annoyed, I emailed her back and said I’d call her when I was home the next evening and she could explain it then. In response she sent a one-liner that said that Mom thought I was going to the P & P the day after tomorrow.

To me that seemed a total non sequitur and, tired and irritated, I wrote her back and simply said: “P & P?” Later that morning I laughed when it dawned on me that “P & P” was probably her short-hand reference to “The Pillar and Post”, the name of the inn I was staying at. Ugggghhhh. Or, as a dear friend would say in this kind of situation: Duh!

I guess all this is proof that though our test-taking days may be long behind us, life provides plenty of tests of our skills. And, clearly, some days we score higher on them than other days!

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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