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Automattic Personal Travel

Sabbatical, Part I

The last month has been an unusual time. I’m on sabbatical from my job at Automattic, an amazing benefit offered once you’ve worked there for at least five years. The sabbatical is no-strings-attached, so in these three months I can do whatever I want. What it’s allowed me to do is start to discover who I am without work, a state I’m getting more used to, more quickly, than I thought I would.

And who is this non-working person? Someone who’s restored by being in nature – particularly mountains and forests. Who values long conversations with old and new friends, beyond the superficial. Who thrives on art of all kinds – both the appreciation and creation of it. And who can even remember how to use the manual settings on a camera with enough repetition.

I’ve given up hope of doing anywhere close to even half the things I had optimistically put on my “sabbatical projects” list. Between two major trips – highlights from the first below – and regular heat waves that inspire nothing more than hibernation in cool air, it certainly won’t be a time of massive productivity, but you know what? I think I’m OK with that.

Saskatoon

I’d never been to this smaller Canadian city before, but I can see the appeal of everything on a smaller scale, while still having access to good restaurants and some arts and culture. Loved catching up with my good friends Jeff & Rachel and their kids here.

Edmonton

Edmonton, you impressed me with your vibrancy and funkiness! My friends Sarah & Elliott kindly hosted me, and introduced me to some of their favourite spots for brunching, shopping, and hiking. We also explored a few new attractions together, like riding on a restored Japanese car on the adorable and quirky High Level Bridge Streetcar line. I think their sweet doggo Munroe even remembered me from when they lived in Montreal. (At least that’s what I like to tell myself.) I also had dinner with three of my Edmonton-based colleagues – an enjoyable perk of travelling while working for a distributed company is that I have people to potentially meet up with all over the world.

Hinton

On the drive from Edmonton to Jasper lies a small mountain town called Hinton. And that’s where I stopped to meet up with Paul, a friend from elementary school, who now happens to live there! It’s a strange series of events that led us to reconnect, but we had a good time reminiscing over Mexican food and walking along one of the town’s claims to fame: the Beaver Boardwalk, where we abided by the signs like obedient Canadians and did not break the dams. (Who would do this?)

Jasper & Banff

I explored gorgeous Jasper and Banff National Parks for a couple of days, getting my fill of beautiful mountain landscapes. Wildlife abounds, and I saw plenty of bears, elk, mountain goats, and big-horned sheep, with the elusive coyote, osprey, and bald eagles also making appearances.

Let’s start with the big-horned sheep because they’re adorable and fascinating and grotesque in their moulting:

And a cross-section of other creatures:

Everywhere I went, the surroundings were breathtaking:

I went on an unforgettable adventure on the Columbia Icefield at the Athabasca Glacier:

And I even got a quick taste of Calgary before heading to the airport – including its spectacular new downtown library – thanks to my friend Sarah’s lovely father David:

I would return to any of these places in a heartbeat. Thanks to everyone who helped make my time out west so memorable.

 

Categories
Personal

Letters

When was the last time you wrote someone a letter, by hand, using pen and paper?

I’ve recently been going through some old documents, and unearthed two specimens I had to share.

That Time I Installed Family Mailboxes

I had forgotten all about the incident when, as a 12 year-old, I was inspired to set up mailboxes outside my mother and brother’s rooms, as well as my own – for important inter-bedroom deliveries, I guess? I wish I could remember the details, because really, I can’t imagine what I was thinking.

mailboxes (see text below)

June 11, 1980.

Dear Mom,

As you see, you have a new mailbox made personally by Kathy Presner, (me). I am going to tell you how to use it. It’s very easy:

1. First you take what it is that you are sending.
2. If it’s a letter or anything flat, put it in the person’s mail folder.
3. If it’s something that won’t fit in the folder, leave the parcel at the bottom of their door.

p.s. If you have any questions, feel free to ask me!

Truly yours,

Kathy Presner (signature)
Kathy Presner

That Time We Were Obsessed With Stationery

Here’s a letter – circa grade five, I’m guessing – from an era when we were obsessed with a limited set of things, including stationery (this letter was written on a frolicking-kitten-adorned notecard), who-liked-who, Shaun Cassidy, and each other’s handwriting.

Dear Kathyn (see text below)

Dear Kathy,

Thank you for the stationnary!!! I hope you get stationnary for my birthday. About that barbie camper Debbie got for her birthday, when everyone left, we started on it and we finally finished it. When we went swimming, the garde said the pool wasn’t open. Then we phoned pools, and more pools, but all of them were either closed or you needed a membership card. (Which we didn’t have. Do you really love [boy’s name]? And if he asked you to go out with him would you? Have Stephanie and you ever had a big fight?

Who’s your favorite groupe and single singer? My favorite groupe is kiss, and the B. Gees. My favorite singer is Shawn Cassidy, and Andy Gibb. Have you read “Iggie’s House?” I’m only on the 2nd chapter. What are your hobbies? Right now my hobbies are collecting stationnary. I think your mother is very pretty. And your dog is very cute. Do you like [another boy’s name]? Well, I don’t. I love your hand writing. And I hate mine.

Your friend,
[Girl’s name]
xoxo!!!

p.e. Please answer all my questions on your next stationnary

Categories
Personal

Armour

I tend to walk through the city with my guard up. Wearing my city armour.

When people approach, I make an instantaneous assessment – what do they want? Money? A cigarette? Do I slow my pace? Look away? Meet their gaze and shake my head? “Sorry, I don’t smoke.” Smile briefly, tight-lipped, try to acknowledge their humanity, but not encourage further communication?

The tourists are usually easy to spot – they often clutch a map, guidebook, or these days, a phone – and have that wide-eyed look. Sometimes I address them before they ask. “Do you need any help?” I guide them to the nearest metro stop, grocery store, bagel shop.

This night isn’t like any of those.

The forty-ish man is on the road, holding a German Shepherd on a leash. He sits in a modified wheelchair, a set of smaller wheels attached to its front. I forget exactly what he says to get my attention, but when I catch his eye, it’s clear he’s in some distress. He tells me he has very low vision, and has been wandering around the area for quite some time, lost. “Is that rue Gilbeau,” he says, pointing south? I tell him that it isn’t – the street he’s looking for is in the other direction. His face falls. “Just before, a man told me it was that way, and started laughing. Now I know why.” My heart breaks. “I just moved to this area recently, and I’m trying to get home. It’s so dark and I can’t tell where I am. I’m so embarrassed.”

“Would you like me to walk with you for a bit in that direction? I’d be glad to,” I offer.

“Oh, that’s so nice. I hate asking. Are you sure?”

“Would you like to come up onto the sidewalk first?” I ask. “It might be a bit safer.”

There’s no sidewalk dip, but he says he can make it up. He tries to push his chair over the lip of the sidewalk, but it isn’t easily going over. “I should be able to do it,” he says.

“Can I do anything?” I say.

“Could you hold onto the dog?”

I take the leash and hold the wagging German Shepherd while he maneuvers the step with the chair.

“What’s his name?”

“Patch.”

“Bonjour, Patch!”

The chair finally makes it onto the sidewalk.

We walk and roll along the dark side street. There’s a short awkward silence before I make some small talk about the weather.

“That’s a very interesting wheelchair you have, I don’t think I’ve seen one like that,” I say, pointing to the smaller front wheel.

He tells me how the extra wheel makes the chair so much easier to use. “It’s a part from a kid’s stroller. It lets me go much farther, faster. I rode all the way to Canadian Tire yesterday and it only took me 15 minutes.”

Patch trots quickly alongside his owner.

“For sure Patch is going to recognize my place more easily than I will.”

We reach the intersection. “This is Gilbeau, we’re facing north. We’re on the east side of the street.”

“That’s my building! I recognize it.” A look of relief washes over his face.

“Hopefully after a bit more time you’ll get used to the area,” I say.

“Oh, I’m only going out by myself during the day from now on,” he says.

He takes off the glove on the hand he’d been using to roll his chair, and I’m not sure at first what he’s doing. Then he stretches out his arm to shake my hand. “Merci,” he says. “Maybe I’ll see you around the neighbourhood again.”

Then we turn and go our separate ways.

Flickr photo by quiddle. Creative Commons 2.0

Categories
Food Personal

Meeting Anthony Bourdain

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.

Categories
Personal WordPress

Librarians and Happiness Engineers

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