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

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.

SnowBGone

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Say what you want about Montréal’s flaws — and it certainly has many — I think we do a couple of things quite well: festivals and snow removal.

Now, some might argue we have too many festivals, while others are annoyed when the snow doesn’t get cleared fast enough, but when folks from other cities look at our city’s snow-removal process, they are usually quite impressed. Heck, after living here all my life, I’m still impressed at the whole process.

Streets are spread with abrasive/salt and plowed while the storm is happening, and once a minimum amount of snow has fallen — 2.5 cm or about an inch, in case you’re interested — the clearing operation begins, one side of a street at a time. When the special temporary orange no-parking signs go up after a snowstorm, I eagerly await the telltale sound of tow trucks coming around to tell drivers to move their cars out of the way of the incoming onslaught. (This part is definitely no fun if you don’t have a garage or a driveway.) An app, INFO-Neige (“Info Snow”), also helps us keep track of what streets are being cleared, when. If your car is parked on the street, you can enter its location in the app and get notifications to remind you to move it before the plows come by, to avoid getting towed.

Sidewalk plow

Sidewalk plow

Little sidewalk plows come by and push the snow onto the street, where giant plows three or four times the size come by and scoop it all up, blowing the collected piles into massive trucks. Multiple convoys lumber across the city, like rows of ants on an unstoppable mission.

But wait — there’s more! The plows often come by a second time, picking up any remaining small bits of snow that the first convoy didn’t grab. This round is particularly satisfying to watch, as the plows scrape the edge of the sidewalk, in attempt to have a thorough cleanup.

The trucks take all the amassed snow and either dump it down sewer chutes, or unload it at various surface snow dumps around the city. The piles are so massive that if you happen to go by one in May or June, the snow still might not be melted!

Apparently I’m not the only person fascinated by snow clearing in Montréal. If you do a search on YouTube, there are plenty of videos showing the operation in detail. Enjoy, if this sort of thing is your cup of tea. 🙂

Street plow

Street plow

 

SB20

Cast & crew photo - can you spot me?
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It has come to my attention that this year is the 20th anniversary of a TV show called Student Bodies.

This makes me feel really old. You see, Student Bodies is one of the last projects I worked on back when I made my living in film & TV production. I served as production coordinator on its first season, a few years before I entered the tech world and left behind everything I hated about the entertainment business.

Working on the show was… an interesting experience. I wasn’t bad at being a production coordinator — my detail-oriented brain was well suited to it — but I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t enjoy it. The role was stressful. I worked ridiculously long hours. There was always too much work, or someone demanding something of me. (For some reason, that didn’t stop me from being a production coordinator again on another show the following year — what was I thinking?) Thankfully, within a few years I made the permanent switch to Web-related work and never looked back.

I never really watched the show, but apparently it has somewhat of a cult following of people who remember seeing it as a kid, which is kind of cool. Some of the cast will be reuniting at a convention in Toronto this fall.

In a fit of nostalgia, I went back to take a dip in my files from that era. Being a bit of a packrat, there was lots to choose from. Here are just a few I’d like to share. Paperwork, mostly. Once a production coordinator, always a production coordinator, maybe.

Cast & crew photo - can you spot me?

Cast & crew photo at The Station – the show’s student hangout spot. Can you find me?

memo about garbage

I’m not sure what bothers me more about this memo. Its crookedness, the fact that we wastefully printed out thousands of pieces of paper, or THE FACT THAT’S ENTIRELY IN COMIC SANS, WTF? This was our official production font, apparently.

memo about Student Bodies website

It’s a fax – also sent via E-mail (sic). We’re going on the Interwebs! Note the username for the password-protected site.

congrats for 65 episodes from the producers

The late Robin Spry – one of the show’s producers – was such a class act.

call sheet

My first “call sheet”: shooting day 1. It was my job to put these together: a zillion small pieces of information to get exactly right, every day. We filmed at a real school.

Microburst

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Microburst: a word I’d never heard before this week — but now that I’ve seen what one can do, a word I’ll remember. The Montreal Gazette calls it “an intense, rain-fuelled downdraft of air from a severe thunderstorm that slams hammer-like into the ground.” Within minutes on Tuesday, its 120 km/hour winds brought down trees and power poles across my neighbourhood, leaving us without electricity. We were very fortunate not to suffer any damage; some of our neighbours weren’t as lucky. Nothing like a reminder from Mother Nature to put things in perspective.

Five

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Five years ago today, I started working full-time at Automattic. It’s the longest I’ve ever worked for someone besides myself.

Thanks to Automattic, I’ve eaten pastéis de nata in Lisbon, tucked into tapas in Barcelona, devoured croissants in Paris, and savoured street art in London. I’ve travelled all over the US and Canada, developing a burrito fixation that haunts me.

I have colleagues and friends spread out on six continents.

I’ve answered more questions about WordPress than I could have ever imagined – and (amazingly?) I’m still not tired of it.

I have skills I didn’t when I started – responsive design, child theming – and got comfortable enough to teach them to others.

My imposter syndrome is still a part of me, but it doesn’t consume me like it once did, and I share tips with others on how to tame it.

Thank you, Automattic, for giving me opportunities to learn, stretch, and share over the last five years. You’re still my people.

Trapped: A Story

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I find myself trapped a lot. Too often for my liking, really.

And I’m not talking metaphorically.

There was that time I unexpectedly rode an elevator up and down nonstop for 45 minutes at a hotel in San Francisco. (Did I mention I’m very susceptible to motion sickness? You do the math.)

There was the memorable experience of getting locked in a housing project in London, England, after being given the wrong address where I was to meet people. That one was really interesting, since I didn’t have a local SIM card, so no way to reach anyone to let them know I was trapped. How the heck would I get out of the locked gate — who locks an exit gate, anyway? — and how the heck would I find the people I was supposed to meet? (Thankfully, my colleagues sent out a search party to find me, and when I finally escaped the compound, they miraculously ran into me wandering the streets.)

This afternoon I was trying to exit an underground parking lot, but could not get the garage door to open. A note on my receipt said the exit code was 1245, but there was nowhere to enter said code. With my car parked at the exit booth and hazard lights flashing, I meandered (well, lurched, semi panic-stricken, is probably more accurate) around the lot, looking for an attendant, to no avail. I picked up several serious-looking red “emergency” phones and waited for a security guard to answer, but got no response.

The lot was eerily quiet. Not a soul was around. I called the toll-free number near the booth. “You’ve reached ParkSafe. We’re not available, but please call back in 10 minutes.”

When these things happen to me, I sometimes have a brief flash that this will later make for an amusing story.

You’re reading this now, so it means I finally made it out of the garage. While I was having dinner with my friend, I got this brief text from Mark at ParkSafe:

Hi it's Mark from ParkSafe I just missed your call you can reach me on my cell at [redacted] - Ha thanks! I was trapped in a lot but made it out, whew!

It was cool that Mark got back to me. He seemed nice.