Meeting Anthony Bourdain

We miss Anthony Bourdain - all of Anthony Bourdain's Books are presently sold out
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It took me a couple of weeks after the sad news of Anthony Bourdain’s death to remember that I’d met him once. After it hit me, the details started coming back slowly. He was in Montreal to do a Q&A for his latest book at the time, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach. The event took place at the gorgeous old Corona Theatre in Little Burgundy, and I went with a foodie friend I’ve since lost touch with. Bourdain started the evening by recounting a misadventure he’d had on arrival at the airport, where the car that was sent to fetch him wasn’t properly licensed for airport pickups, and the driver got a ticket while he was in the back seat. From what I recall, he didn’t seem angry, rather just a little annoyed by the delay caused by our arcane permit regulations.

While I don’t tend to fawn over celebrities and can be quite shy in these sorts of situations, I’d brought my copy of No Reservations and forced myself to stand in line for him to sign it, thinking that – as a huge fan of his work – I’d regret it later if I didn’t. When I got to the front of the line I empathized with his airport snafu. “That doesn’t sound like a nice welcome to Montreal,” I said. “Sorry about that.” (As a Canadian it was my duty to apologize, even though it wasn’t my fault.) He chatted with me a bit in a friendly, down-to-earth way, scrawled his name in my book, and that was that.

Last month when I was at the cavernous Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, I roamed the food-writing section out of habit, looking at what was new. There was a gap where Bourdain’s books used to be. “All of Anthony Bourdain’s books are presently sold out,” the handwritten note read. “We miss Anthony Bourdain.” Indeed.

Librarians and Happiness Engineers

Students of St. Francis School in Richmond lining up at McGill's McLennan Travelling Library
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I don’t often get out to author readings, but my friend Sarah had an extra ticket to see venerable Canadian Broadcasting Corporation host Eleanor Wachtel interview Michael Ondaatje (of The English Patient fame) for her long-running radio show Writers & Company. While I’d never read any of his work, Wachtel is a compelling interviewer no matter who’s in the hot seat, so I figured why not.

I arrived early (as usual) and Sarah was running a bit late, so I scored great seats for us near the front and took out my phone to catch up on emails while killing time. An older woman asked if another seat next to me was available, and joined me at our table. As I age, my definition of “older woman” morphs upwards, but I would later find out she was in her late seventies.

When Sarah arrived, we somehow ended up in a conversation about Montreal’s BIXI bike-sharing program, and the woman next to us casually joined in our chat, opining about the best BIXI subscription formula, and whether the bikes were suitable for shorties like the three of us. (Apparently they are.)

In the course of our conversation, Sarah revealed that she’s a librarian at McGill University, and I instantly thought, “Oh, the lady is going to be so tickled to meet a librarian – she’s obviously very into books and reading.” But the woman barely reacted. She turned to me next, “And what do you do?”

“Well, I’m a Happiness Engineer, which means I do tech support.” A smile spread across her face. “Yeah, I help people with their WordPress websites, it’s a software for content management and blogging.”

The lady’s face lit up – I mean beamed. “WordPress? I know what that is, in fact I just took over managing a WordPress site for an association I belong to, I’m in the process of figuring it all out!”

In that moment I realized exactly what I’d done. My brain’s unconscious bias had taken over, and I’d totally stereotyped her interests and knowledge, based on her age and gender.

Although I’d disappointed myself, there was still time before the reading started to perhaps make amends a little bit. I pulled up her website on my phone and proceeded to try to engineer some happiness…

Flickr photo by Mac Juster. Canada. Department of Manpower and Immigration. Library and Archives Canada. Creative Commons 2.0

Incredible Inle

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Tucked away in Myanmar’s Shan State, Inle Lake is a whole world on water. From houses to restaurants to monasteries, buildings are constructed on stilts, directly over the freshwater lake. Produce grows hydroponically on “floating gardens.” A market rotates among five communities situated around the 116 square-kilometre (44.9 square-mile) lake, bringing with it necessities like produce and dry goods, a barber shop, and even dental services, complete with a foot-powered drill. (Check out photos from the market in my earlier post.)

Boats transport everything and everyone; I never got used to their noisy diesel engines, and wondered if the residents of this area ever did. It was a contrast of old and new: satellite dishes proliferated and cell-phone reception was great, yet I saw laundry being done by hand and few windows seemed to have any panes. Men with traditional fishing foot oars and wooden baskets were apparently strategically stationed especially for tourist photo-ops, although “real” fishing is still done, with slightly more modern gear.

I took a couple of videos to make sure I remembered the sound and feel of moving along Inle’s waterways.

Pindaya Cave

Before hopping a boat to Inle Lake, we explored the huge nearby limestone cave at Pindaya. Packed with thousands of images of the Buddha, we were told it’s one of the few places in Myanmar where women are allowed to add squares of gold leaf to the Buddha figures.

Making Things

We watched demonstrations of lotus-fibre weaving, along with the making of cheroots (a type of open-ended cigar), mulberry paper, parasols, and silver jewellery. Touristy? Absolutely. But the crafts were gorgeous and made great gifts – and who am I kidding, I have a weakness for beautiful scarves.

(Mostly) Monastery Cats and Dogs

I never got used to seeing so many stray cats and dogs everywhere I went in Myanmar. At least the ones we saw at some of the monasteries appeared to be cared for.

I was seriously tempted to come home with a number of these furry cuties. I settled for photos instead.

This is the third and final post about my fall 2017 trip to Myanmar. Missed the others? Here’s one focussing on food and markets, and another about my adventures in Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon.

More Myanmar Memories

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I never would have thought of visiting Myanmar (Burma) if my friend Alex hadn’t raved about her first trip there. The place really made an impression on her, and her photos were stunning. So when we were planning a trip to Thailand last fall and she suggested tacking on some time in Myanmar, I said “Why not?”

Myanmar is the first place I’ve experienced legit culture shock, but after a few days I adjusted, more or less. Though its sights and sounds were so utterly unfamiliar, I never once felt unwelcome or uncomfortable. I arrived in the country expecting to find little Internet, cell phone connectivity, or acceptance of credit cards – but was proven wrong on all counts. (Things had changed quite a bit on the technology front since Alex had been there.) My tourist SIM card was a better deal than I have here in Canada!

While my last post about the trip focussed on its markets and food, this one collects some of my other images from Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon. Our time on Inle Lake was an experience unto itself, and with 600 photos to go through, it’ll get its own post.

Mandalay

We didn’t spend much time in Mandalay, and it poured rain. Our hotel was an entirely analogue world replete with 1970s decor, and felt like stepping back in time – not necessarily in a bad way. We watched gold leaf being made by hand and visited Kuthodaw Pagoda, home to “the world’s largest book,” consisting of 729 marble slabs inscribed with text, each housed in its own kyauksa gu (stone-inscription caves). It was a marvel to see, even in the rain.

Bagan

From Mandalay, we had a very leisurely boat ride up the Irrawaddy River to Bagan, which took all day. The route of this boat ride is also the main reason I opted to take the recommended anti-malaria meds – fortunately, no side effects.

The ancient city of Bagan boasts a unique landscape, dotted with the remains of 2,200 Buddhist temples and pagodas. We explored many of them, and I will confess I started to feel a certain pagoda fatigue after a while. But boy, did they make for some gorgeous vistas.

 

Yangon

You may be more familiar with the old colonial name for this city, Rangoon. Myanmar’s largest city and former capital, Yangon is a bustling metropolis – a complete contrast to Bagan, where horse and carriage was a common mode of transport, and cars went about 20 km/hr due to poor road conditions. Crossing the street in Yangon was terrifying, so I would grab my petite guide’s hand without hesitation and fully put my trust in her ability to get us safely and expertly to the other side. I have no idea how she did it.

Myanmar Markets and Meals

tea leaf salad
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I’ve finally dived back into the photos from my trip to Myanmar and Thailand last fall. In this post, I’ll be focussing on the food and markets of Myanmar.

Mandalay

We arrived in Mandalay via Bangkok, and the second-largest city in Myanmar gave me my first taste of Burmese food. It was here that I first noticed a beautiful quality to the light, and here that I first tried Myanmar’s famous tea-leaf salad. Verdict: unique.

Bagan

On the boat from Mandalay to Bagan, we happened to run into another Canadian. I asked what she’d be doing in Bagan, and she told me about a cooking class she’d arranged via Facebook. It was called Pennywort Cooking Class, and May, the owner/chef/teacher puts part of the proceeds toward a community library run out of her house. I was intrigued. Since my travelling companion Alex and I had some upcoming free time, we decided to look into the cooking class.

Am I ever glad we ended up doing this. Accompanying May to her local (tourist-free) market and then walking over to her home to cook up a feast with all the fresh ingredients we’d just bought was a highlight of the entire trip. The meal was full of herbs and vegetables I’d never tried before, including tamarind leaves, wing beans, pennywort, and custard apples.

The Market

The Class

The Library at May’s House

When I asked if the library had opening hours, May said that technically it did, but she’s never turned anyone away no matter when they showed up.

Inle Lake

A unique set of communities live on this lake in Myanmar’s Shan State, in stilted houses only accessible by boat. We had the opportunity to take another cooking class here, but this time in very different, more formal context: a resort chef guided us through making some local dishes, including delicious chunks of shan tofu – made from split-pea and chickpea flours, instead of soy.

Later on during our stay, we visited Thaung To market, part of Inle Lake’s rotating five-day market system. We arrived early since it closed at 9am, and I spotted no other tourists. What an incredible experience. Apart from all the cellphones, I felt like I’d gone back in time. I forced myself to take photos of people — which I’m usually too shy to do — and I’m glad I did.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with two more things I ate in Myanmar: one I’d love to have again, and one that I did not enjoy. I’ll let you guess which is which.

Meet the Automatticians

Meet Our Colleagues (aka Automatticians)! - YouTube
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In fall 2015, we held the first diversity and inclusion workshop at Automattic’s annual Grand Meetup. As part of a breakout session, we brainstormed around what we could do to give people a good sense of what it’s like to work here. And more specifically, how could we better attract diverse candidates to join us and thrive?

An idea that came up was to collect written testimonials from Automatticians — what we call people who work at Automattic — to use in recruitment efforts, and I volunteered to spearhead that effort. A couple of my colleagues immediately offered to help. Later during the session, our CEO, Matt Mullenweg, suggested that video interviews could be even more effective than written testimonials, and I agreed. Before I knew it, the Meet Our Colleagues video series was born.

Since then, we’ve conducted over 30 interviews, from developers, data scientists and designers, to HR wranglers and business folks. Colleagues volunteered to edit the interviews, and I’m especially grateful to Nancy Thanki, Tish Briseno, Ryan Ray, and our current editor, Glenn Pearson, for their work. Special thanks to my fellow Happiness Engineer Sarah Blackstock, who’s been been my right-hand woman on the project from the start.

Speaking of engineering happiness, many people ask me what being a Happiness Engineer (HE) at Automattic is like, along with advice on what it takes to be a good one — which I’ve written about briefly before. Over the last couple of years, we’ve chatted with many HEs as part of the video series: check out the interviews with Hari Shanker, Carina Pilar, David Cole, Cécile Rainon, Darnell Dibbles, Yuvraj Vaghela, David WatkisMarjorie Asturias, Doug Aitken, Luminus Alabi, and Praveen Selvasekaran. They help folks get the most out of WordPress.com, WooCommerce, WordPress.com VIP, and other Automattic products, working from around the world: from France to India; Brazil to Scotland; the United States to Ireland.

Stay tuned for more interviews throughout the year!

Meet our colleagues - YouTube screenshot

Body-Butter Adventure

body butter in jars
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Over the last few years I’ve been more conscious of what’s in the products I put on my body and face. I recently started using an app called Think Dirty (tagline: Shop Clean) that’s made it easier to research the ingredients in cosmetics.

Armed with this new tool, I set about looking for face powder and mascara (which I wear rarely anyway) and in the process, somehow managed to block out of my mind the fact that – especially with my dry skin and winter’s dry climate – I liberally use a certain mass-market moisturizer after every shower.

With some trepidation, I looked it up in the app. A solid 10/10 on the toxicity scale. An ingredient called DMDM hydantoin – a “formaldehyde releaser preservative” was the worst culprit. Ooops.

Think Dirty rating for Vaseline Problem Skin Therapy

I began to search for a replacement moisturizer – something not too strongly scented, not too expensive, and easy to get in Canada. Apparently this was asking for a lot.

After spending far too long looking for the elusive product, I started to peek more closely at the ingredients in the expensive, natural moisturizers I was finding in the app. Shea butter, “a fat extracted from the nut of the African shea tree,according to Wikipedia, was in a lot of them.

With that, my adventure in making body butter began. I found a recipe that looked doable and had good reviews. I ordered a kilo of unrefined shea butter (it was cheaper in bulk) and some sweet almond oil. I already had a jar of raw, virgin, coconut oil on hand. I researched essential oils and consulted my friend Victoria who knows a ton about this stuff, and talked with a clerk at my local natural-foods store. I settled on bergamot essential oil – who wouldn’t want to smell like a cup of Earl Grey tea, I thought?

And on a Saturday morning, post blizzard, I got down to work: melting, whipping, jarring. Before I knew it, it was done.

I guess time will tell how much I like my homemade body butter, but I certainly had fun making it. And now I have a hankering for some Earl Grey.