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


On being ... alarming

By Ingrid Sapona

The past few years there have more than enough things in the news to feel anxious about. Natural disasters have always been around, but their severity seems to be escalating – the Tsunami, magnitude 7+ earthquakes, mudslides that wipe away multiple villages, and floods that cover entire states and territories, just to name a few. Though they make me sad for those affected, natural disasters don’t strike fear in me because they can’t be predicted or prevented.

News of war, of which there is plenty, is always anxiety-provoking, however. For the past decade, the war on terror has loomed large – not just because of the actual physical harm inflicted by terrorists, but because of the fear mongering leaders and the media have engaged in. Sometimes I wonder who’s more intent on keeping us on edge, the terrorists, our leaders, or the media?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for vigilance and caution, so I understand the rationale behind threat level warnings, but some of the actions urged in the name of preparedness and safety are ridiculous. So, for example, when the anthrax-laced letters were in the news in 2001, I wasn’t one who stocked up on duct tape and plastic cover for the windows.

One recent story I’ve found more worrisome than news of natural disaster and war is the report of the 3,000+ red-winged blackbirds falling out of the sky in Beebe, Arkansas. I’ll grant you, when the story first broke it sounded like a joke. But images of the ground littered with dead birds was positively surreal, and the fact that the incident hasn’t been taken particularly seriously is quite troubling.

Given that the incident happened on a holiday weekend, it’s not surprising the first few news stories were sketchy. But, I’ve not seen much since the initial stories, most of which only quoted a few local officials. The most quoted person seems to be the bird conservation program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). On January 4th the New York Times reported this woman, an ornithologist, said the prevailing theory was that the birds were startled by New Year’s Eve fireworks, which caused them to suddenly disperse, flying low enough to run into chimneys, houses, and trees.

Interesting theory, but there were lots of reports of birds just falling from the sky – far from chimneys, houses, and trees. And it’s not clear whether anyone has bothered checking what time the fireworks in Beebe started that night. Calls flowed into the AGFC at least a half hour before midnight. Where I’m from, New Year’s fireworks usually go off at midnight, not a half hour before. (Who knows, maybe they start early in Beebe.)

In what I assume was an effort to add perspective and perhaps reassurance, the same ornithologist pointed out that this was not an unprecedented phenomenon. She noted that about 20 mallards were killed by lightning in Hot Springs in 2001. Hmmm, I guess a comparison of 20 dead ducks and 3000 dead blackbirds is “close enough for jazz” in Arkansas.

On January 3rd MSNBC reported that Arkansas’ top veterinarian said preliminary autopsies indicated the birds died of blunt trauma to their organs. Noting that their stomachs were empty, the veterinarian also said this fact ruled out poison. (It’s not clear to me whether that means poison from any source, or just from food.) He also indicated that they died in midair, not on impact with the ground. Then he went on to say the evidence of blunt trauma to their organs, coupled with the fact that such birds fly in close flocks, suggests they suffered some massive midair collision. This, he says, lends weight to theories that the birds were startled by something. I’m still trying to picture a collision that takes place over 1.5 square miles.

An Associated Press story out January 5th quoted Arkansas’ wildlife services director as saying, “There was probably some physical reason, but I doubt anyone will ever know what it was.” You don’t say – some physical reason? Gravity, perhaps? (Maybe the gravitational pull in Beebe is stronger than in other places.) In any event, he doesn’t sound too worried about the cause – and why should he be? According to Beebe’s mayor, the workers in their haz-mat suits had all the birds picked up by 11 a.m. the next day. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying this is a sign of the apocalypse, nor do I mean to imply there’s some “Area 51” alien invasion cover-up-type of thing going on. But, I am concerned with the dismissive way this has be treated. I guess to some folks it amounts to nothing more than a natural culling of an out-of-control population of red-winged blackbirds (apparently there are several hundred thousand in that area). I can’t help think maybe we should look at this as a warning of some danger that may soon befall other species, just the way canaries keeling over used to signal danger to coal miners.

Maybe new facts will surface soon, or there’ll be a clear indication that this event is being taken seriously and that experts from far-and-wide are trying to figure out what happened. I sure hope so, as I found that story pretty alarming.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona