On being … worth exploring

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m interested in a lot of things. But, like most folks, there are also many things I’m not particularly interested in. One topic that’s never interested me is paleoanthropology. But, when a friend invited me to a National Geographic Live lecture by Lee Berger, a prominent paleoanthropologist and explorer, I said sure. To be honest, my main reason for saying yes was because I hadn’t seen this friend in some time and it would be a chance for us to catch up.

As we walked into the lecture, I confessed to my friend that I didn’t know a thing about the topic. (What I didn’t tell her was that, given my general lack of interest, I was more than a bit concerned I’d embarrass her by nodding off.) Anyway, I was relieved when she said she didn’t know anything about paleoanthropology either. She explained that she and her late husband had subscribed to the National Geographic Live series and had found past lectures interesting.

Pretty early on in the lecture, it was clear that staying awake wasn’t going to be a problem. Berger was enthusiastic about his work and he was a great storyteller. He started by explaining the different areas in Africa where major discoveries in his field had been made. He said he returned to one particular area in South Africa after some recreational cavers showed him photos of what might have been bones in a cave they explored. Based on what these cavers showed him, he headed out, taking his 9-year-old son for the ride. Shortly after they got to the area the cavers told him about, his son called him over to look at something he found attached to a rock.

Berger immediately identified the bits as a clavicle and part of a jaw. Yes, Berger has a PhD in paleoanthropology, but still, how could he identify that bit as a clavicle right there on the spot, I thought. Well, turns out his doctoral dissertation was on clavicle fossils. Coincidence doesn’t begin to describe the odds – Berger said he felt like he had won the lottery.

Since the fossils his son found were near the cave, not in it, they continued looking around. They soon found the narrow cave entrance. Getting in was going to be a non-starter for Berger – he was too big. To get to the chamber where the fossils were found (about 30 metres in) you had to pass through a small opening. And, once in, you came upon an even narrower passage – one that was only 18 centimeters wide (a bit more than seven inches). The only way through that part – which they named “Superman’s Crawl” – was to push one arm through, followed by that shoulder, then your head, the next shoulder, and so on. After making it through that, you had to climb a 15 metre stone ledge they named Dragon’s back, and then descend further into the cave to the chamber.

Once he had an idea of what he was dealing with, he organized an expedition. He began by putting out a call to find paleoanthropologists who were interested in helping look for fossils AND were small enough to fit through Superman’s Crawl. The parts of the job description I thought he left off was that you also had to be crazy AND adventurous beyond belief. Lots of young, eager paleoanthropologists applied and he ended up with a team of six women. Over the course of two expeditions, they uncovered over 1500 pieces of hominid bones belonging to at least 15 different individuals.

I left the lecture feeling inspired, but I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t that the lecture had sparked in me an interest in the origins of the human species. Nor was it one of those things that made me think, “Gosh, if I’d have heard this as a kid, maybe I’d have considered paleoanthropology as a career”. Undoubtedly, part of the positive feeling I had was appreciation for a story well told – after all, I’m a writer. But there was something more.

On the way home that night something made me think about an email exchange I had earlier that week with another friend. We had been talking about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical Hamilton. After our initial conversation, she found a video of him and his family. The video was of them recreating a scene from the Sound of Music while on vacation in Salzburg, Austria.

In her email sending me the link to Miranda’s video, she commented, “His exuberance is very cool.” But then she added, “Perhaps, his family and my family could not be more different!” Given that she and her husband are both physicians and her son and husband are both avid hockey players, I think I understood what she meant.

After that little conversation flashed through my head, I realized I had the same feeling about Berger and those young women paleoanthropologists. The adventure and desire to explore things like that is completely foreign to me, and yet, I couldn’t help admire their exuberance.

Just as I made that connection, I understood why I felt uplifted by Berger’s lecture. What I realized is that observing the exuberance that fuels people on to exploring their dreams and passions – regardless of what they are – reminds us of the limitless possibilities within ourselves.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... revealing

By Ingrid Sapona

In the last column, I mentioned we’re in the process of downsizing my mother’s household. We’re basically clearing out the family home to sell it. I’m not exaggerating when I say the task at hand seems much larger than the house itself.

I’ve been going at it in spurts. I recently turned my attention to the dreaded basement. Over 45 years ago, Dad built a large bedroom and a living room in the basement that, combined, take up just under half of the area. The rest has the usual household stuff: laundry facilities, a hot water tank, a furnace, and storage shelves and storage nooks.

I started with the “low hanging fruit” – items more-or-less plain sight in the bedroom/living room areas. I was surprised that I recognized about 90% of the stuff. By that I mean that I had a least an idea where it came from – whether it was from, say, a Greek relative, or that it related to some craft project my mother might have done in a ladies group she belonged to for year.

There was one piece that just had me stumped. Honestly, it can only be described as a piece of metal slag. It had no discernible shape – it just looked like molten metal that had cooled into a 10-inch long blob. I think if either of my sisters had come across it, they’d have tossed it without so much as a thought. And yet, I had a strong recollection of having seen this thing laying around for so long that I figured it must have significance, though what that was, I couldn’t guess.

I took it to my mother to ask what it is. She said, “Oh – that’s a piece of copper. If you turn it over, you can see how it’s kind of green.” She was right; it had that green, tarnished copper patina. “But why was this in the basement,” I asked. “It was from my father – he worked in a copper mine, briefly,” she explained. Wow – I never knew that about my grandfather – he died when my mother was very young. No wonder she kept it. I’m sure glad I didn’t unceremoniously toss it. And I’m really glad I asked, given how little I know about my mother’s parents.

Last time I was home, I was feeling brave so I started on the catacombs – the area back by the furnace. I was dreading this because the deep shelves are piled high with dusty boxes and things that haven’t seen the light of day since I don’t know when. I started with the area that was best lit.

The top few layers were pretty easy lifting – old boat cushions and drop cloths and stuff like that. Then I got down to the underlying layer of boxes. I rolled up my sleeves and pulled on the first one. It had a few things that were easy to sort into the requisite group (“ask Mom”, donate, garbage, or recycling).

What I wasn’t prepared for was how many of the boxes contained – well – empty boxes. I had come across empty boxes elsewhere in the house, but I didn’t think much of them – or I understood why we kept them. There was a time, for example, when it was all the rage (at least in our family) to wrap only the top half of a box, so that the recipient could open the gift without ripping the beautiful wrapping paper. That way, the box could be used again. Come on – tell the truth – you used to have a few boxes like that, didn’t you?

By the time I was done with that first set of shelves, I had two big boxes filled with cardboard from empty boxes I had flattened. I had to laugh as I realized that if this pattern keeps up, going through the rest of the catacombs might not be as difficult as I fear. (Mind you, I gotta believe that I won’t be so lucky…)

As I schlepped the soon-to-be recycled cardboard to the garage, I had to smile when I remembered a funny -- if embarrassing – story about some boxes I had kept. Once upon a time – a good 20 years ago – my apartment was broken into. A couple of Toronto police officers came over to record the incident. The thieves had gone through my dresser and closets.

I was surprised when one of the officers said he would try to get fingerprints. He went into the bedroom and when he returned, he said he was sorry, but he didn’t get any good prints. He then kind of smiled and asked if I worked for a jewelry store. I said no, and asked why. He then – very politely – said, “Ma’am, it’s just that I’ve never seen so many little boxes.” After they left, I went into the bedroom and was surprised when I saw dozens of small boxes strewn across the top of the dresser and in the partly opened drawers.

So, it turns out that going through stuff in our family home is revealing in more ways than I imagined it would be. Not only am I learning things about our family’s history, I’m coming to understand the roots of some of my own quirky habits.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona