On being ... private

By Ingrid Sapona

The news of Aretha Franklin’s death this week was sad and interesting to me. When a friend asked if I was a fan, I said yes. I quickly prefaced my answer, however, with the admission that I don’t have any of her albums (or CDs, if we’re being specific). When it comes to musicians, I think that whether you have any of their albums is a sort of litmus test of fandom. But, I also added that one of the most memorable concert-going events I had was when friends and I waited two+ hours to hear her when she played a free concert here in Toronto in 2011. 

Of course, her passing was newsworthy and every news organization published or aired obits about her. I loved seeing the pictures of her through the years and the clips of her belting out various hits. Though I’d never really thought about it, when that friend asked, “But what was with the minks?” I smiled and said I thought it was kind of her signature. Actually, thanks to the endless playing of the clip of her singing Natural Woman when the Kennedy Center Honored writer Carol King, I realized it was really her way of letting the furs fall off her shoulder that was her signature.

Like most fans, I knew a bit about her background. I knew she was the daughter of a well-known preacher and that she grew up in Detroit, which she also called home for the second half of her life. I also knew that because of her father’s fame, she met many African Americans who were prominent in politics and in the music industry. I also knew that she toured via bus because she didn’t like flying. I don’t follow the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions, but I assumed she was in there. But, until her death, I didn’t realize she was the first woman inductee. As is often the case when someone dies, through eulogies and other tributes, you learn things about them that you never knew.

In the case of Aretha, on her death, I was surprised to learn that she had four sons. But that surprising revelation was nothing compared to how blown away I was to learn that she had her first child at 12 years, and two by the time she was 14. I can’t even imagine that…

After hearing that, I realized how little I knew about her life beyond her hits. So, I watched various shows about her with renewed interest. One that I found particularly noteworthy had a video snippet of Barbara Walters asking her what the hardest time of her life was. Good question, I thought. Well, Ms. Franklin clearly didn’t appreciate the question. Stone faced, her response was something like, “I think we all know the answer to that, and so it’s not something we need to talk about…” They didn’t show any more of that interview, but I’m guessing Ms. Walters took that as her cue to move on.

Though I’d have loved to have heard Aretha talk about her personal life, I admired her for drawing a line between her private life and her public life. In this era where oversharing seems the norm, it’s nice to be reminded that true R-E-S-P-E-C-T is based on talent and achievement, not simply notoriety.

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona


On being … an ambassador

By Ingrid Sapona

Last week a friend emailed me a link to a story from the Buffalo News. From my quick peak at it, I guessed the link was to a travel piece about Buffalo. There had been a travel article on Buffalo in the Toronto Star that week, so I figured some syndicated story was making the rounds. Good for Buffalo, I thought.

Because I was in a hurry when the email came in, I didn’t read the story. But, I didn’t delete it either. Later, when I came across the email again, I clicked on the link and read the story. Turns out, the Buffalo News article wasn’t a travel piece at all. It was a feature about why the Times of London’s newly appointed assistant travel editor chose Buffalo as her first place to write about.

Yes, there was something odd about that angle, I thought. You mean, even the Buffalo News couldn’t imagine that a London newspaper would do a travel piece on Buffalo? Well, it was the most delightful story. Indeed, after reading the Buffalo News piece, I went on-line to find the actual Sunday Times travel article about Buffalo and it was good – but not nearly as interesting as the story behind the travel story.

Apparently, in 2010, Julia Buckley, the Sunday Times writer/editor, lived in Las Vegas. During her year-and-a-half there, JetBlue was running a deal where you could fly to any of the airline’s destinations. Curious about Buffalo wings and knowing that Buffalo was the stepping off point to visit Niagara Falls, Buckley thought it would be fun to fly to Buffalo.

On her first flight to Buffalo, Buckley ended up chatting with a flight attendant who was from the Buffalo area. The two hit it off so well, the flight attendant invited Buckley to stay at her home. They have remained friends and, since then, Buckley has made other Buffalo friends. So, when asked where she wanted to write about, she chose Buffalo because what really stood out to her during past visits was the friendly, genuine nature of the people.

As it happens, a couple weeks ago I was in Western New York for the wedding of the daughter of friends from Buffalo. It was a surprisingly international affair. I knew there’d be some folks from the UK because the groom’s a Brit. But there were also folks from further afield, including people my friends got to know through AFS, an international youth exchange program.

In high school, my friend (the bride’s father) had done a summer abroad through AFS. It made a real impression on him and so, when his kids started high school, they got involved with AFS as a host family. As well, their daughter (the bride) went overseas as an AFS student – I’m sure that experience had something to do with the fact that since graduating from university she’s lived abroad.

I always admired how generous my friends were with their AFS kids. In addition to providing food and shelter to the students for the entire academic year, my friends went out of their way to make sure the kids had an unforgettable experience. Every year my friends would even bring their AFS son or daughter here to Toronto to visit, making sure to take them to a restaurant that serves food from their home country. My friends ended up becoming quite close to some of the families of their AFS kids, and my friends have visited many of them overseas.

Because AFS is primarily for high schoolers, since my friends’ kids are all grown, I figured they were no longer involved with AFS. But, last week my friend mentioned they had just run the orientation program for the new crop of AFS students who’ll be calling Buffalo home for the next 9 months. When I expressed my surprise that they’re still involved with AFS, my friend had a very thoughtful explanation. “As we tell the kids during orientation, it’s all about reaching out and making change, one person at a time. I really believe that,” he said.

These anecdotes share more than just a Buffalo connection, I think. We’ve all had an experience where we’ve “clicked” with a stranger – as that flight attendant no doubt did with the travel writer. But that flight attendant took a leap of faith and went further than most of us would. She opened her heart – and her home – to a virtual stranger. In doing so, she made an indelible impression – one that ended up reflecting well on all of Buffalo. Similarly, the graciousness my friends have extended to the exchange students has helped change the way they – and my friends’ family and friends – relate to others in the world.

I think the main thing these stories have in common is that they both are about the influence each of us can have on how others see and experience things. They helped me realize that in every interaction we have with strangers, there’s an opportunity to be an ambassador – to show – and share with – others the things we value in our lives.

© 2018 Ingrid Sapona