Hawaii in February

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Earlier this month I took an extraordinary trip to Hawaii. The entire Automattic theme division met for its annual gathering on the island of Kauai – a meetup locale rather different from last year’s Charleston ice storm. I stayed on in Hawaii a bit longer, getting a few more days to enjoy this beautiful place.

As cliché as it may sound, Hawaii was simply magical. Sea turtles silently crawling up the shoreline on Poipu Beach, scenery as stunning as it gets, and an unforgettable helicopter ride around Kauai – including the waterfalls where the famous arrival scene from Jurassic Park was filmed. It rejuvenated my soul and provided sustenance to carry me through the rest of this vicious winter.

I can’t wait to go back some day.

Growing Garlic Redux

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While we’re contending with frigid temperatures here in Montreal (“feels like” -27C / -17F tonight!), next year’s crop of 101 garlic bulbs happily hibernates beneath the ground in my backyard.

Some of you may remember that my flash talk at last fall’s Automattic all-company Grand Meetup revolved around garlic gardening, and back in September I posted a garlic-growing guide based on the talk. The video of my talk is now available – if you’re intrigued about growing garlic and have four minutes to spare, check it out:

The original slides are here in case you’d like to watch them alongside the video:

Nothing Has Changed

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The gentleman sat back in the bus seat in front of me, put up his feet and took out his phone. He was going through his contacts, making the requisite round of New Year’s calls. I could tell this one was a message he was leaving on someone’s voice mail.

“Hi, happy New Year. Everything is the same as before. Nothing has changed. OK, good-bye.”

And so it is.

I’ve never been one to make resolutions, but today I went to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for a culture injection and realized that is something I’d like to do more of this year: feed my soul through art. I’d also like to eat more fruits and vegetables – to that end I stumbled on a new recipe compendium with an amazing collection of salads. Both happen to be WordPress sites. Coincidence? I’ll let you decide. Happy 2015.

 

 

WordPress for Beginners

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Earlier this month I gave a free, two-hour intro to WordPress workshop at YES Montreal. It was part of their women and technology program, geared to helping folks find technology-related jobs or start their own business.

I love teaching beginners – guiding people to those “lightbulb” moments when they finally understand the difference between posts and pages, tags and categories, or some other WordPress particularity.

While I enjoy watching the participants pick up a ton of knowledge, I’ll admit that I have an ulterior motive for doing these workshops. Once you’ve been using WordPress for a while, it becomes easy to forget what it’s like to learn all this stuff from scratch – the sense of overwhelm, the “why isn’t it simpler” frustration. As someone who does tech support for a living, I find it immensely valuable to have my beginner-memory refreshed once in a while. Being surrounded by people just learning the ins and outs of WordPress reminds me that not much is as obvious as it seems after using a tool for a while and becoming completely comfortable with it. These intro workshops are like getting a WordPress-empathy booster shot.


I’ve brought over two pages devoted to WordPress resources for beginners that had been living on another site: WordPress Resources Online, and WordPress Resources in Person. Feel free to check them out and pass them on.

WordPress workshop at YES Montreal

Photo by Alex Ruaux

 

Superhospital

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I’ve always been fascinated by hospitals and the world of medicine: curious about the secrets of “authorized personnel only” zones, addicted to shows like House and ER, and devouring behind-the-scenes tales like The Night Shift.

Today I had a chance to tour my neighbourhood’s brand new “Superhospital”, before patients and staff move in next spring. The McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) will consolidate several large – and aging – Montreal-area hospitals on one site, including The Montreal Children’s Hospital, Royal Victoria Hospital, and Montreal Chest Institute, as well as the Research Institute and Cedars Cancer Centre. A new Shriners Hospital for Children will also be housed nearby.

The visit was a rare opportunity to explore a huge, pristine, health-care facility before the first blood draw is taken and first baby born. Here’s what it looked like.

 

 

Girls Learning Code Day 2014

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girls learning code resultsOn November 8, nineteen cities across Canada – from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Whitehorse, Yukon – hosted free events for National Girls Learning Code Day, a Ladies Learning Code initiative. I had the pleasure of mentoring at the English HTML and CSS workshop at Google’s Montreal office, while others volunteered at the French workshop a few blocks away.

Twenty girls aged 8-13 – supported by an array of moms, dads, aunts, and other grownups – took over the Googlers’ colourful conference and dining area. Several mothers told me their kids had dragged them here, their husbands usually being the techies in the family. I was glad their daughters persisted since I think the moms learned a lot too!

Throughout the day, the girls used Mozilla Thimble, a free tool that provides a side-by-side real-time preview while building a site. We went over basic HTML tags, using lots of easy-to-understand analogies and interactive questions at each step. Over the course of the morning, we built out a brilliant analogue web page on a big white board, to help visualize HTML page structure. Lead instructor Alex Ruaux kept the day lively, adding CSS to the mix after a kid-friendly lunch of pizza and (yes! guilty pleasure!) Rice Krispie squares. Other treats for the kids included stickers, funky “style your code” tattoos,” silicone wristbands, and even a Google loot bag laden with sunglasses and more goodies.

At the end of the day, each girl – except the shyest ones – got up and presented the web page they’d spent the day creating. From a dog-walking business to a compendium of April Fool’s stunts, to expressing their love for Super Cats, horses, dolphins, and of course, Minecraft, the girls’ passion for both their subject matter and the sites they’d built was clear.

Pineapple Sundae

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Before my great-aunt Leba (Presner) Mayerovitch died a few years ago, she lent me some thick photo albums, in which I found some family pictures I’d never seen before. This is the story behind three of those images.

Shia Presner in front of his drugstore - pineapple sundae 10 cents

Shia Presner in front of his drugstore

My grandfather Samuel “Shia” Presner was a second-generation Canadian whose parents escaped poverty and anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland around the turn of the twentieth century, coming to Canada and settling in Montreal.

Education was the clear route to success in the new world, but despite top marks, when Shia applied to medical school at McGill, the well-regarded university in his hometown, he quickly discovered he wasn’t welcome. A “a strict quota” limited “Jewish enrolment to 10% of all students” in the Faculties of Medicine and Law. (This was not a friendly time for Jews in several parts of Canada. My father remembers being told about a prominent resort in Quebec’s Laurentians with a sign at the entrance proclaiming: “No Dogs / No Jews.”)

So Shia did the next best thing, as did many of his friends: he became a pharmacist. After graduating, and thanks to a loan from his brother-in-law, he opened a drugstore around 1936 on busy Ste-Catherine Street West in downtown Montreal, just a few doors west of Crescent. He dispensed prescriptions at the back of the narrow shop, served up chocolate sodas and malted milks at the “luncheonette” counter, and sold all manner of knick-knacks, or should I say tchotchkes. Evidently the pineapple ice cream sundae was also a big seller.

Crescent Drug Store

Crescent Drug Store, Shia Presner at far right

My grandmother Lillian (Bierbrier) Presner helped customers with cosmetic purchases in a role then called a “beautician,” which didn’t really take advantage of her Bachelor of Commerce degree. (She would put her education to use later in life, starting a mortgage company.) The store stayed open seven days a week – even though some Sundays saw only one or two customers – because Shia felt an obligation to be available, just in case someone needed some toothpaste or Aspirin or an urgent prescription filled.

After acquiring two more pharmacies around Montreal, my grandfather’s three-pack-a-day (unfiltered!) cigarette habit took its toll, and he was hit with a heart attack in 1955. He quit smoking and scaled back his work, selling his stores but still practicing pharmacy until the age of 80. He died three years later when I was 16.

Shia in his pharmacist's overcoat

Shia in his pharmacist’s overcoat

Shia, thank you for persevering in the face of ignorant and prejudiced people. I’m glad you found a profession you were proud of, even though it wasn’t your first choice. I wish I’d gotten to hear your stories directly, but am still grateful to have learned them now.

Shia, my brother Jeremy, and me

Shia, my brother Jeremy, and me

Special thanks to my dad Bob Presner for help piecing together and fact-checking the stories in this post.