Discoveries on the Interwebs that make my life better:

All the words in the world. PronouncedFor those of us who love languages, there’s this: Forvo. It’s a great user-submitted site that lets you listen to pronunciations of words and phrases in many languages, and the variations in different geographical locations.

You can even create an account, look up the list of words that need to be pronounced, and record your own pronunciation. Now we can finally hear if “about” differs for a person in Canada and people elsewhere.

I discovered the usefulness of this site on two recent occasions: 1) while answering The Girl’s question about how to pronounce “Budapest” (as in the recent frequent discussions about “The Grand Budapest Hotel”); and 2) discussing with a friend how to properly pronounce a Lunar New Year greeting that her mother had taught her.


Discoveries on the Interwebs that make my life better:

So, I was clicking around the interwebs tonight, really meaning to do one thing, but ending up doing 19 different other things. And I somehow, fortunately, found by Gina Trapani (had never heard of her before today, but she’s a VIP in tech, according to her Wikipedia page). I love the wide range, and yet simplicity, of her topics and blog format. I’m glad especially to read her October 16, 2014 post called “Short-form blogging.” I have to admit, I can count on one hand the number of  blogs that I still follow, and I’ve stopped reading some blogs just because of the sheer length of some posts.

Trying to get back into my blogging habit and not beat up myself too much over not writing as much as I should have over the past couple of years, I realise that Gina’s post spoke to me. So many friends (and family) have asked me when I was going to post again; they missed my writing. Life just got in the way, and I didn’t have time to document it all. But now I realise that it was better to have posted something short than nothing at all. So I’m going to blog more frequently, and not fret too much over the length, photos, minor details, etc. (though I may still go a bit long, from time to time, out of necessity).

Starting off this new abbreviated version of blogging, here’s my contribution for today: a story from the day’s news that made me happy.

#830: Embracing the obsolete

Landlines. Watches. Fax machines. The Yellow PagesTM.

The concept of things that will become obsolete in my lifetime is fascinating and at the same time, a bit sad. I remember reading one such list not too long ago, and thinking, “It really is too bad that my children won’t know these things as they grow up in this world.” It’s not that I’m overly sentimental; I just find that there’s a real usefulness to a lot of these things (with the exception of the fax machine*) that experts and pundits have declared we no longer need.

Add to this list of tangible things, a number of skills that are considered no longer necessary to today’s students, and the idea becomes that much more lamentable. Apparently, long division and handwriting are no longer taught in many schools now. I still teach both to my children, and I think that beyond the skills themselves, these processes are invaluable in teaching problem-solving, a sense of patience, and an appreciation of the learning process itself.

So I don’t remember exactly which one of us brought up the topic (more likely it was she, when she’d read about it somewhere), but imagine my delight when the Girl recently asked me, “What is calligraphy?” and “Do you know how to do it? Can you teach me?” So out came my old calligraphy set, with the pen nibs and ink cartridges dried out, and the practice pad of paper that had sat idly for almost ten years.

Calligraphy. Imagine that. Slowly-formed, not-entirely-consistent, sometimes wobbly, entirely decorative, squiggles. And on paper, at that. In a world where you can open up 3,000 fancy fonts at a time, and download another 2,000 for free, who needs calligraphy? Apparently, some of us still do.  The ones who still appreciate the slow pace and beauty of life, holding on to our handwritten letters and fountain pens, even as we watch those around us shaking their thumbs sore from texting.

And we don’t mind it one bit that the rest of the world races on past us, deleting a few things from its memory, on its way to faster and more perfect.

. . .

* Okay, I have to admit, the most perfect use of the fax machine was this:

I once worked for a man who was very intelligent, tech-savvy, and very easy-going with a good sense of humour. He was a generally fun person to be around, so it wasn’t too hard to imagine this scene when he told me about a prank that he pulled on a co-worker, back in the early days when the fax machine was not yet known to everybody. “I hid a paper shredder behind that fax machine,” he related, “and told my friend, ‘Watch this. I feed the paper into this machine here, punch a code, it gets destroyed into a thousand pieces . . . but then the second part of this miracle machine reconstitutes the paper . . . in the next room!'” And off he trotted to fetch the “teleported” document to show to his open-mouthed friend. Hilarious.

Maybe in a hundred years’ time, when everyone forgets what the fax machine was, someone can pull that trick on our great-granchildren.

When the smiles are free

Not Milton, but a volunteer who I'm sure is equally helpful and cheerful

I’d noticed them vaguely before, of course, as we probably all do. They subtly blend into the background, popping up when we need them, but never getting in our face. But only recently, starting at the Vancouver airport, and more noticeably at the hospital last week, did I really appreciate them. They are the white-haired (although some are spectacularly dyed) volunteers who help us navigate our way, and generally make life easier for us in large public spaces.

While I had found the smiling, elderly volunteer at the Vancouver airport to be helpful to me last November, it was my visit to a Toronto hospital last week that showed me just how much I appreciated these volunteers. Several times, while getting lost in the labyrinth that most hospitals are, I was put on to the right path by a helpful grandparent-like guide. (Once, when I stepped off the blue line on the floor that was designed to assist me to the correct department, my guide even gently scolded me, just like a helpful grandma.) I interacted with cheerful seniors who flipped through their hospital guidebooks with authority and confidence, and who spoke to confused hospital visitors in slow, soothing voices.

But it was Milton, a lovely white-haired man in my department, who really impressed me. He shuffled back and forth between doctors and administrators, pulling folders and files, then calling out and guiding patients. He joked with the staff, and mildly flirted with the ladies, and if we had entered the waiting room glum or bored, within 10 minutes, I could tell that there was a general air of contentment and good humour that had settled upon us. Milton really impressed me because he showed a volunteer quality that so often seems missing in paid workers: He genuinely enjoyed what he was doing, and looked like he wanted to be there.

Our daughter, then 3, with our former cat, Zip

A couple of recent things came to mind, other than my hospital visit, to re-awaken in me an appreciation of volunteers. First, National Volunteer Week is coming up April 18-24, a campaign that is little known. This event is designed to support and thank often underappreciated volunteers, and awaken in citizens the desire to volunteer for their community. Second, our daughter has decided that as soon as she turns nine, in one month, she will start volunteer work. I’ve encouraged her for the past few years to start thinking about something that she will enjoy doing, and she has decided that her field of volunteer work will involve helping an animal shelter (a cause dear to her heart since we’ve had to give up our cats because of her allergies, and something for which she has fundraised, since the age of six).

Since she was about the age of five, I’ve emphasised to her the importance of volunteerism. Partly, I want my children to volunteer because I want to instill in them the sense that it is good to help others, and not because you feel obligated. (The Ontario school system apparently requires all high school students to have completed a minimum of 40 hours of community service by the time they graduate. And while it is admirable that the Board of Education wants to have students help their community as part of their schooling, the sense that it is required seems to defeat the purpose, as I’ve at times found myself in the presence of teenagers who are obviously not enthusiastic about their role.) But just as important for me to share with my kids is the knowledge that a volunteer benefits personally as much from the experience, as he or she gives to it.

I had volunteered for UNICEF in high school, but it wasn’t until my first year at university that I truly enjoyed my volunteer experiences. As a student away from home, making new friends and immersing myself in a different culture, I was still feeling at times lonely. So I decided that what I needed was to be helping other people. At the beginning of the school year, the university student association organises an Activities Night, where various campus groups, teams, and organisations jostle for the attention of students who are looking for extra-curricular activities to fill in the space between classes. One of the tables which seemed rather empty most of the time was the one recruiting volunteers for local not-for-profit groups. (Really, how could volunteerism compete with co-ed sports, choirs, and newspapers and journals?) It was there that I would find two of my most satisfying experiences during my uni years.

My first volunteer role was as an afterschool homework and activities helper in Little Burgundy, a then-disadvantaged neighbourhood in Montreal (although I’m sure that it, like many Montreal neighbourhoods, has been greatly gentrified by now). I loved that community centre, I really did. Sure, it would look great on a resumé to say that I had experience working with kids, but I enjoyed being there just because it was fun. I loved entering that centre twice a week, wondering what kind of fourth-grade math problems would face me this week, or what crafts I would be doing with little fingers, or what games and sports we would be playing in the gym. I believe that for many of us volunteers from the university, it was our way to forget about term papers, grades, and the social pressures at school, and just be a kid.

My other, longer-lasting volunteer experience was with an on-campus organisation that helped seniors who lived by themselves in the downtown area. (While I tried to juggle both volunteer positions concurrently, I was getting too busy, and by my third year, I had to make the tough decision to drop one.) In this volunteer role, I would be on-call, as my class schedule permitted, to help seniors to their appointments or on shopping trips. Sometimes, they just wanted to go for a walk or on a lunch outing, because they had no one else to go with them. Sometimes we were even asked to walk their dog for them. Eventually, I was matched up as a “friendly visitor” to one senior, whom I visited two hours a week. Of course, the two hours often lasted six or eight, and involved making meals from scratch and watching hockey games late into the evening. I truly loved the volunteer work that I did in that capacity because it made me feel needed, but just as importantly, it gave me a grandparent-figure, whom I had been missing in my life. I know that for quite a few of us student friendly-visitors, these “grandparents” gave just as much to us emotionally as we did to them, and those relationships affected us well beyond graduation. The volunteer work that I did for that organisation eventually led to a paid one-year contract as coordinator of their programme, with an offer to stay on permanently. If I had chosen a different career path and gone into social work, I’m sure that I’d still be with them today.

All this is to say that I truly miss volunteer work, and I would encourage anybody with a few free hours a week to contact their nearest volunteer centre. Currently, I find my life too busy with kids, work, and personal duties. But one day soon, I will get back into volunteerism, and hopefully find myself again in a great role. My former volunteer work made me enjoy being around seniors, and maybe that’s why I appreciate so many of them now. Well, that and the fact that if they’re all as friendly and helpful as Milton was, and with such freely-offered smiles on their faces, they make the day so much brighter. National Volunteer Week may take place next week, but for me, I enjoy my interactions with volunteers any day of the year.

Trade show wrap-up: The business side of thing

Okay, once we put aside the social aspect of trade shows, there’s business to be done. And being in this kind of trade show means that for several days of the year, hundreds of creative people are all of a sudden having to be jacks-of-all-trades. We who are used to spending our days sewing, painting, drawing, moulding, and generally working with our hands to create something beautiful, now have to be all things at once: savvy entrenpreneurs, persuasive salespeople, lighting technicians, booth designers, trailer drivers, and economists. Yes, economists.

This spring’s show was slower than last year’s, for many of us. We noticed that attendance seemed down on many days (due to the unusually warm weather, or something else?). While most of us can still make a profit after expenses, some don’t do so well, which is heartbreaking, considering all the long hours and the energy that have to go into these shows. After talking to many of my fellow exhibitors, we’ve determined what we believe to be the main reason behind this year’s lower sales, compared to 2009, when we were supposedly still in a recession.

By late spring of last year, some people were saying to themselves, “Well, the recession is still on, but we’re not doing too badly, not as badly as we thought we would. Maybe we can reward ourselves with a few gifts.” But by spring of this year, with the recession having passed and the economy not necessarily that much brighter, some people may be saying to themselves, “The recession is over, but this is how we ended up? We didn’t squeak through with as much as we had hoped. Maybe now is not the time to reward ourselves.” Good theory? Good enough for a bunch of sewing, drawing, painting, pottery-making non-economists.

Trade show wrap-up: together, and alone

“But what about socialisation?” This is one of the questions most often asked of homeschooling families. Don’t worry—my kids get plenty of socialisation. Me, I’m a different story. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy going to the Show for five days straight: I get to meet people and be with people.

Don’t get me wrong—selling products and making money is the main reason for exhibiting at a trade show. But for someone like me, the other main benefit is to just be out there and talk to people. By “someone like me”, I mean that close friends who know me well will already know that I’m not that much of a social butterfly. Of course, I get along tremendously well with people, I’m not shy, and I know that I’m an easy enough person to be friends with. But much of the time, I have a very small, close circle of people in my life, and I don’t really want to be out there socialising all that much. I’m the one who’s begging off party invitations half the time, while my husband has to explain my absence with something other than, “She just didn’t want to be here.”

In every couple, it’s a known fact that one person is the more outgoing, bolder personality. In our case, that person isn’t me. Even this past week, that fact was quickly noticed, when after a Friday night dinner with some newfound friends, the first thing I was told by those friends the next morning was, “Your husband is hilarious.” Indeed, he is. He grabs the spotlight and shines, and I really don’t mind. I like being more background-filler, until the time is right.

And the time is right for me only every once in a while, one of those times being during trade shows when I’m “forced” to be together with people. While I may gripe and complain about the amount of work and stress in the weeks leading up to each show, in the end, I do truly enjoy myself. (Because I know that it doesn’t take place that often, and I can afterwards go back to being my mostly-introverted self.) But I do enjoy meeting my customers, and talking to them not only about baby products, but about parenting in general. I like chatting with random strangers, and exchanging smiles, compliments, and lighthearted banter. I love the fact that there are so many exhibitors here from Québec, so it gives me a chance to strike up conversations in French, which I haven’t done often in the past six years here. Most of all, I really do like spending 11 hours a day talking with fellow exhibitors. As long as I’m placed near people who are interesting, with fun and intelligent things to say, I can really get into the whole “socialisation” thing. Whether it’s from casual, friendly chatter to serious, profound conversations, I do relish the idea of meeting people who could turn out to be long-term friends.

Fortunately, the show this past week turned out to be one that yielded some great friends, both new and past. New friends allowed me to learn all kinds of things, from the politics of South Africa to unusual photographic techniques, and even told me that I was “fun” and “sassy”. And old friends touched me with their kindness: I was especially moved when at one point, one of my friends from last spring’s show, came up to me, put an arm around my shoulders, and said, “Darling, are you okay? You looked stressed out yesterday.” I wasn’t really all that stressed out, but it was truly lovely to be thought of with such concern. (And those who really know me well will know that I’m usually not a “darling” and touchy-feely kind of person unless it’s with someone really close, so that gives you an idea of how strong a relationship you can forge at these types of events.)

So a trade show can be a truly enriching experiencing, in more ways than one.

. . .

Something interesting to note, one which will seem in direct contrast to what I just expressed here, is that being away from home at a trade show is lovely in all the alone time that it yields. Yes, after 11 hours straight of being with people, chatting until my throat is dry and smiling until my cheeks seem sore, it’s heavenly to just be by myself and do nothing but stew in my own thoughts. For a short period of time during the year, I can be just me, and not have mom and wife duties. I can watch anything I want on tv, turn the heat on in the hotel room as high as I want (which is almost uncomfortably high), and leave my clothes and shoes and bath towels anywhere I please. I can decide at a moment’s notice to stroll the downtown streets of Toronto, shopping like a single girl, and taking in the sights and sounds of late evening (and I never appreciated before how lovely Toronto can be on a warm spring evening). After so many years of being at home with husband and kids, almost 24 hours a day, it took a trade show to make me realise that I deserved days of just “me” time.

The Fall

It had to happen sooner or later. Last Friday, I experienced a notebook computer owner’s worst nightmare: I dropped it. With so many peripherals hanging off it—graphics tablet, cooling pad, web cam, printer—it was only a matter of time before things came crashing down, literally. (You know you have too many accessories when your four USB ports, which once caused you to say to yourself, “Who in the world would need all those?”, are now all engaged.)

I can still picture it happening in slow motion, and it’s one of those things that you know is going to happen, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I had been printing something, and when finished, moved my notebook away from the printer. However, I had forgotten to unplug the cable from the printer. In my moment of panic, thinking that I was going to tangle myself up, or jerk the computer back, my brain made the decision to just let everything go. It’s one of those moments when you have too many balls in your hands, and instead of trying to save a few, you panic and throw them all up in the air.

So, the thing fell flat on its face, with the screen hitting the hardwood floor. The funny thing is, the screen is still perfect, with nary a scratch. All the peripherals survived unscathed as well. The real damage, however, is in one of the hinges. It’s cracked, broken, and little pieces have been falling off it in the past week. The notebook now does not close properly.

I’m guessing that it’ll only be a matter of time before this computer dies from the nasty concussion that it suffered. The wire running through the back is now no longer protected by a rigid hinged back. So I’m frantically backing up files every day, guessing that one day when I open up the screen, nothing will work.

But The Fall has taught me a valuable lesson: I’m not going to be lazy next time, and I will unplug all peripherals before moving about. And I will move with slow and deliberate steps.

(By the way, if anyone knows of any place in the GTA which heals broken notebook computers for a reasonable price, please send me a message and let me know.)