On being ... an experience

On being … an experience

By Ingrid Sapona

It’s funny, the things you remember and what makes an impression on you. I’ll never forget a school trip we took in third grade to the Ontario Science Centre. It was a big deal for a lot of reasons, including the fact that the Science Centre was some new-fangled museum that was getting rave reviews and it was a long trip (about two hours each way) to a foreign country. (I went to school outside Buffalo and the Science Centre was outside Toronto.)

By far the most memorable thing to me about the Science Centre was a demonstration that involved a big silver ball that looked like something from a sci-fi movie. (I now know it was a Van de Graaf generator.) The demonstration was about static electricity. At the end of the presentation the scientist asked a girl to come up and put her hand on the ball. When she did, her long hair stood straight out! Naturally, we all wanted to touch the ball to see if our hair would do the same, which, of course, it did. To this day, every time I get a static electric shock (which happens quite regularly to me, despite my recent addition of a humidifier), I think of that demonstration.

Though it was a wonderful field trip, it had a definite down-side: after that, going to a museum and seeing something sitting in a display case just didn’t cut it. Since then, every time I go to an exhibit, I pay attention to whether they’ve done anything to make it interesting. “Interactive” and “hands on” seem to be the buzz words used to describe what museums are trying to be, but so often that translates into little more than pushing a button or flipping a switch that starts a video or illuminates a display. My experience at the Science Centre was so much richer than that -- yet, for the longest time, I couldn’t explain exactly why.

Well, this week I think I finally realized why that field trip stands out for me for all these years. It has to do with the fact that when I put my hand on that Van de Graaf generator I experienced – first hand – what had just been explained to us about static electricity. In other words, that experience made the information come alive in ways a mere description couldn’t.

This past weekend I participated in something billed: the “Intense Icewine Weekend”, at one of the loveliest wineries in Ontario. I was there to write about it for a magazine. The marketing materials explained that we’d learn about how icewine is made, taste how the winery’s chef (one of the best known in the region) incorporates icewine into various dishes and how it matches with different foods. (Oh, and we’d be drinking lots of icewine!)

During the orientation our host said that in creating the weekend, it was their intention to have us “experience” the winery. Since I was “on assignment”, I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes at what sounded like meaningless marketing speak. But, as the weekend unfolded, I began to understand what they meant by that.

The weekend started with the winemaker explaining the process and science of making icewine – everything from the sugar content required by regulation before the frozen grapes qualify for picking, to the pressing and blending process. Then, to give us a sense of what it’s like to pick in sub-zero temperatures, we were all given a pair of shears and we headed into the vineyard for a lesson on vine pruning. We were then each assigned vines to prune and we went at it, despite the -12C temperature.

Later in the weekend we went to the (unheated) pressing house to get up close and personal with the picking and pressing equipment. While there we got the chance to taste unfermented, recently pressed icewine juice, as well as icewine juice at various stages of fermentation.

The food side of the weekend was equally interesting. During the multi-course lunches and dinners the chef explained what we were eating and the different cooking techniques involved. And, to help reinforce what we were learning, throughout the weekend we engaged in fun competitions (with prizes that included – you guess it – icewine).

The weekend was wonderful -- and so much more than I expected. Driving home I was thinking about why. I had gone expecting to drink some icewine and eat some delicious food -- and I certainly did both. But, the weekend was so special because, in fact, they had succeeded in what they set out to do: have us experience the winery and all that goes into making icewine.

So, though it’s been nearly 40 years since that hair-raisingly memorable experience at the Science Centre, this weekend reminded me that you don’t have to be a kid to experience the wonder of having information come alive.

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... gifted

By Ingrid Sapona

With Christmas safely behind us, I thought I’d risk talking about gift giving. Unfortunately, in our society, gift giving has almost been reduced to an act of social ritual, rather like the “norm” of tipping the hair dresser, doorman, or cab driver. (I hate that. I’d much rather we had laws that ensure people are paid a living wage than to be expected to tip someone for the job they were hired to do in the first place. Tipping someone in recognition of extraordinary service is something altogether different.)

Some of the situations where gift giving is expected I don’t have a problem with. Gifts for weddings and the birth of a baby generally fall into that category. After all, those occasions are such extraordinary events and celebrations that a gift of congratulations seems in order. (I know, not everyone would agree these are extraordinary events -- but to a single woman with no children -- they certainly are!)

In any event, you can always argue that giving gifts to people embarking on marriage and parenthood is at least grounded in practicality, as usually (at least historically) there are lots of things such folks need as they face big changes in their life. Of course, that begs the question when it’s the second, third, fourth, fifth, etc., wedding or child! (Surely I’m not the only one who wanted to gag hearing about the gifts Liza Minnelli got for her last wedding.)

But beyond first weddings and first babies (ok -- and gifts to children -- I have no qualms about gifts to children any time -- it’s worth it just to see their reaction), I do object to gifts given simply because of social expectation. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, think of all the people you “exchange” gifts with and think about why you do so. If your rationale is: because she always gives me one, or because he’s a relative, or because it’s just something we do -- then I’d argue the action is more like a transaction than a gift.

Even if you don’t have a moral objection to such exchanges, there’s a very practical problem inherent in such giving: after awhile you just run out of ideas. I mean -- how else can you explain the fact that my sister – who has been seen in a t-shirt that reads: “No one ever died from my cooking” and who is the first to admit that she has a cooking disability -- got an apron this Christmas from one of her oldest friends, Belinda. (Not her real name, by the way. But in any event, don’t worry, she doesn’t read On being...) Oh, it was a lovely apron -- Belinda made it herself. (She’s a very talented seamstress.) But talk about a waste of time and effort!

When my sister showed it to me, we both had a laugh, especially when she told me that at least it was a nice change of pace. You see, for the past five Christmases, Belinda has given my sister a beret. (Yes, a beret.) I guess Belinda must think my sister just keeps loosing them or something -- after all, what else could explain the fact that she’s never seen my sister wear one!

But, enough grumbling. What I really want to do is celebrate the art of giving gifts. If you’ve ever received a gift that has surprised, delighted, or moved you – I’m sure you’ll agree there’s an art to gift giving. Another thing that I think makes it clear that it’s an art is the fact that the feeling you get from a heart-felt, thoughtful gift has little to do with the cost of it. Looking back, I’m sure you can think of gifts you particularly loved and valued, and I’ll bet few of them would fetch much on e-Bay.

One of my all-time favourite gifts, for example, was a pair of oven mitts a girlfriend gave me. For a time, we regularly ended up chatting the night away at my place over a dinner of quiche and salad. One Christmas, among other things, she gave me oven mitts. I couldn’t believe it. They were something I really needed and had been too lazy to pick up for myself. But how did she know? I was sure I’d never mentioned that I needed new ones. When I asked her about it, she said she had heard me mumble about them as I practically burned myself every time I took a quiche from the oven. So, not only were the mitts useful, they where her way of showing that she truly listened to everything I said. Everything.

There are few things that give me as much joy as thinking of what to give someone. Of course, it can be quite a challenge, especially when you don’t know the person too well. But even then, I find it fun trying to come up with something. Whether it’s figuring out something they might need, or something they wouldn’t get for themselves, or just something they’d enjoy.

I used to think that all there was to coming up with a special gift was putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to the conclusion that the real trick to giving someone the perfect gift is to realize how lucky you are to have that person in your life. Once you see that, giving them a piece of your heart is only natural. And, if you do that, you’ll find that it really doesn’t matter what physical token your love happens to come wrapped with -- they’ll cherish it.

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona