A Tiny Tribute To Two Very Big Hearts

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school experience. For the next little while, I’ll be posting a purely self-indulgent* series of essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Hello! Yes, it’s been a mighty long time since you heard my voice on this blog. But today, I’m back with a travel hacking tip and a tiny story.

Let’s Begin at the Beginning
We’ll start with the story. My educational path has been fairly checkered, but I did manage to finish a diploma in Fine Arts way back in 1984. I was a student at the Abbotsford campus of what is now the University of the Fraser Valley, under the tutelage of two amazing teachers: Janina and Mircho Jakobow. I don’t know a lot about their history. They were both very talented artists, classically trained, and they’d come to Canada from Romania.

Can’t Draw
I first met this dynamic duo in my portfolio interview, after I applied for entry into the design program at Fraser Valley. This was also my first encounter with Janina’s customary bluntness. “Well” she said, looking at my sketches. “I can see that you have some design talent, but your drawing is not so hot.” She was right, of course. I spent the next two years learning (among many other things) how to draw.

Looking back on it now, I wonder what it was that possessed them to try and build a fine arts program in what was – truthfully – a pretty backwater town in rural British Columbia. But they took on this task with a great deal of devotion and optimism. Day after day, they worked to expand our minds as well as train our hands.

Hitting the Road
One of their great mind expansion techniques was a semi-annual field trip to New York City. They would shuttle twenty-odd students across the continent from Vancouver, and pack in as much art, fashion and culture as we could handle in a week. I joined this trip in my first year of school, the spring of 1983.

Somehow, Janina and Mircho let me talk them into allowing my two best friends from Edmonton to come as well. We unpacked ourselves into a budget hotel in Times Square and had a week that we still talk about, some thirty years later. Museums! Broadway plays! Shopping! I remember flying home and wondering how I would ever again be satisfied with the cultural offerings of Canada.

One of the places Janina and Mircho insisted we visit was Pearl Paint, on Canal Street at the edge of Manhattan. It was a mecca for art students looking for cheap materials. Of course I went, and bought everything I would need for the rest of my time in college. And then some. And then some more. It was like visiting Aladdin’s Cave of Art Supplies, and I left no pencil or paint tube behind.

Hitting the Road Again
Several years later, well after I’d graduated, I got word that both Mircho and Janina had both passed away. Mircho had suffered a sudden heart attack. He and Janina were very deeply bonded, so it was terribly sad but not surprising to hear that she followed him soon after.

Thirty-one years have gone by since that trip to New York. I’m still in a creative profession, although I don’t draw as much as I’d like. And I’m headed out on another field trip experience, this time for four weeks, in Austria and Italy.

But my first stop on this odyssey is New York. It seemed only fitting that I should plan a trip to Pearl Paint, still in the same location. I thought I could make it a tiny personal tribute to Janina and Mircho, who — bless them — had taken a yappy, temperamental 20-year-old named Sally and done their patient best to turn her into a designer.

And Now, a Detour for Some Travel Hacking
Way back at the beginning of this post, I promised you a travel hacking tip. Here it is. If you’re flying into La Guardia Airport in New York, skip the various shuttle services (which tend to get tied up in traffic) and hop onto the Q70 bus at Terminal B. It’ll take you to two subway hubs where you can catch a train to pretty much anywhere. I was able to get from La Guardia Airport to Times Square in an hour, for the princely sum of $2.50.

In a big city, this is a good way to experience life at street level. And you’ll find this kind of transportation solution in many of the big cities in the United States, as well as those of Europe. Besides New York, I’ve taken the MAX train to Portland’s airport, an MTS bus to San Diego’s airport, and the Tube from Heathrow to downtown London. None of these cost more than $10, and got me to my destination quickly and efficiently.

Returning to Our Story…
After I booked tickets and hotels, I printed subway schedules and maps from Google, and figured out how to make my tiny tribute work.

And then … Pearl Paint closed.

Without warning, at the end of April. Apparently not even the employees knew it was coming. A New York icon since 1933, it was shuttered almost overnight. I decided to go anyways. I bought a pair of china markers before I left Edmonton, and guessed that I’d be able to find a place to leave a little bit of heartfelt graffiti.

Getting to Pearl Paint was easy, but the store looked sad, permanently locked up behind big steel gates. I located a spot to leave my mark, on the ancient ironwork steps leading into the store, where my feet had last touched down in March of 1983.

I pulled out my china markers and looked around, a little apprehensive. I mean, what happens when a random person starts drawing on the steps of an abandoned store in a working-class New York neighbourhood? I didn’t know.

As it turns out, nothing happens. People went about their business and ignored me. Still, I worked quickly and as soon as I finished, stood up to admire my handiwork. Then I kissed my fingertips and quietly said “thanks, guys.”

Thanks indeed. For so much more than you probably ever realized.



Mais Oui! A Guide to Learning French Online

Meet Jessica, who writes on behalf of french-resources.org. This is a website with all kinds of tips and tools for beginners, intermediate and advanced learners, as well as French teaching resources, ideas and activities for primary and secondary teachers.
Take it away, Jessica!

I didn’t require much convincing to decide to learn French online. Indeed, this has proven to be an effective, inexpensive, and convenient way to learn the language. There are, however, several challenges that I’ve faced and I’d like to share them with you — and tell you how I overcame them.

First, I had a real problem with pronunciation. Like all native English speakers, I found this difficult because some French sounds have no English counterparts. I had an especially tough time with the letters U and R, which take on modulated pronunciations and which are difficult to describe in text. It’s challenging because you don’t have a tutor to guide you on the correct accents. I overcame this by watching French movies and listening to French music, all of which can be accessed through your local library. I also recently visited France, which allowed me to get firsthand experience in French pronunciation.

And then there’s the French H. The French H comes as either muet or aspiré. Both sound the same (they are both silent), but there’s a huge difference in that mute H (H muet) requires liaisons and contractions whereas aspirated H (H aspiré) acts as a consonant. Remembering which H word is which is tricky, but I’ve overcome this by making a vocabulary list that has definite articles such as l’homme (H muet) and le homard (H aspiré). English movies with French subtitles also helped. (Additional helpful hint: I’ve discovered that the longer you make spelling mistakes, the more difficult it will be for you to fix them!)

Listening to French recorded lessons, watching French movies and my interactions with other French learners in discussion forums and other online communities has been a great resource. As an example, I now automatically pronounce B, C, F, K, L, Q, and R whenever I find them at the end of a word.

When I was starting out, I had a problem concentrating in my lessons and following my personal schedule. I’ve discovered that — for me — learning French in a structured manner was the path to learning effectively and efficiently. I enrolled in an online class and set a specific time early in the morning for my French lessons. (I also talked to my family and asked them to give me sufficient space and support.)

Finally, French is unique in that French words are assigned gender (they are either masculine or feminine). This, as I’m sure is the case with most native English learners, has been very confusing to me. The only answer seems to be memorization. There is no other way around it. I have read countless books to get proper usage of French words and to determine their gender.

And in the end, has it been a worthwhile endeavour? I can confidently say: mais oui! It certainly has.

Let’s Get This Party Started … Again

Having wrapped up a very interesting 2013, it’s time to let you know what I’m thinking about for 2014.

Instead of focusing strictly on life hacking, I set a number of goals that I’m going to be turning to my library for assistance with. And … I have some interesting adventures coming up.

Let’s start with adventure — it’s more fun. From June 29 until July 23, I’m going to be in summer school in Austria and Italy. I got the acceptance letter two weeks ago and now that I’ve stopped dancing about in joy, I’m realizing there’s actually a lot of pre-planning required for something like this. However, there’s also loads of opportunity for some good-quality life hacking. I’m looking forward to sharing all my sneaky travel tricks. (That is, when I learn what they are.)

Plenty ‘O Goals
Now, about those goals:

  • Lose 20 pounds.
  • Start running again — and keep running.
  • Learn to speak passable German and Italian.
  • Pull together a wardrobe that will work for Europe in the summer, make me look sophisticated and wordly, and yet fit into a backpack.
  • Get my job under control so that leaving for a month doesn’t create mountains of chaos for my beloved co-workers.
  • Buy a condo.
  • Get successfully through eight university-level courses.
  • Be creative.
  • Learn how to be content.

I know that’s a pretty tall order, but I figure that if I at least put in some effort, at the end of the year I’m still ahead of where I was at the beginning of the year.

I’ve already started working on some of them. The good folks at Weight Watchers are helping me with the 20 pounds, and I’ve used Jeff Galloway’s “Running Until You’re 100″ (which we first talked about early last year) to build a training plan.

Ciao Bello!
I’m also quite jazzed to be trying out the Mango Languages software, which is available FREE through my home library. This is language learning that’s completely online, so I can chirp “Buongiorno, Signore!” and “Guten Tag!” in the privacy of my own home, whenever I want. You can even access Mango on your phone. It’s just so cool. (You can check at their website to see if your own library has access to Mango.)

More Crazy Experiments
As well as my ridiculously ambitious list of goals, I still have a whole pile of life hacking experiments left over from 2013 to be tried out. Here’s a quick sample list:

  • Making port
  • Fixing a car (I thought an oil change might be a good place to start)
  • Making candy canes
  • Building a guest bed
  • Learning how to paint watercolors
  • Learning to cooking Thai food
  • Figuring out how to make my own lunch instead of buying it every single day
  • Growing herbs indoors
  • Writing a Harlequin romance
  • Learning how to win at blackjack
  • Making good-looking pottery without a potter’s wheel
  • Basket-weaving (and that’s not a joke)

Even though I haven’t quite figured out how to make it all happen, I think we’re in for a fun 2014. I hope you’ll come back and visit now and again, and I’ll endeavour to have something new and interesting to show you.

Next week, we have a guest post from Jessica, on some unconventional ways to learn French. Until then, I hope the sun is shining in your part of the world!


A Look Back At 2013


Before we get too far along in this brand new year, I thought it was a good idea to wrap up what we did in 2013.

The initial goal of Library Life Hack was to determine the dollars-and-cents value of a library card in the life of a (more or less) ordinary person. At the close of 2013, the life hacks I had tried out had saved $3971.86.

As well as life hacking, I borrowed entertainment resources that would have cost me $424.26 to buy, and I also borrowed $124.32 worth of books and DVDs for my academic pursuits. That’s a grand total of $4520.44.

My library card weighs 3 grams, so pound for pound, that makes the card much more valuable than platinum.

A library card is worth more than $4500. Who would have thought?

And … what did I learn?
Quite a lot. My favourites:

All these little enrichments added up to a life that felt very much enriched by the end of the year. I also got exposed to a lot of terrific, insightful and inventive authors and filmmakers. I felt like my brain expanded into all kinds of new territory, and there were several nights I would lay awake, too excited by all these unexplored frontiers to go off to sleep.

I learned a few other things along the way. To my surprise, a rolling pin is nothing to be afraid of. And not so much to my surprise, food that you make yourself tastes way better than anything you buy in a typical grocery store.

And I had so much fun
Oh my gosh, I had fun. I loved doing the experiments and I loved writing the goofy stories about the results. I still play my Butter-Making Dance Mix when I’m cooking and cleaning, and laugh as I’m shaking my 50-something derriere to Katrina and The Waves.

Thank you, Thank You, Thank You
We’re now two weeks into 2014, so let’s close off 2013 with a few words of thanks.

  • First to Chris Guillebeau, who provided $100 and the instructions that inspired Library Life Hack. (You can read the whole story here.)
  • Second, to the brilliant staff of Strathcona County Library, who offered help and suggestions at every turn. (This is a gorgeous library. If you’re ever in Sherwood Park, stop in for a visit. You won’t be sorry.)
  • Third, to everyone single person who has ever sat down and read through the posts, offered their comments and even trusted me far enough to subscribe. You’re a giant part of what makes this blog so much fun and so worthwhile. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And now … it’s 2014. Let’s go!

Happy New Year!

Hello and Happy New Year!

Exactly one year ago today, I released the first post on this blog, full of the enthusiasm and optimism that accompanies new ventures. And exactly two months and three days ago, I released the most recent post.

For this, I apologize. My intention, on January 1st of 2013, was that this be a weekly blog.

“Life is what happens” said the great John Lennon, “when you’re busy making other plans.”

In my life, the happenstance is that I work full-time and go to school part-time. At least until this past September. I decided to try taking three courses per semester, which meant that — legally, anyways — I was now a full-time student. Juggling a three-course load with a demanding full-time job was … well … a little hairy. And Library Life Hack became a casualty of my academic pursuits.

I survived. I even got good marks. And I signed up to start three more courses on January 8. Having tackled it once, I’m gambling that I could manage a little better on Round Two.

Library Life Hack’s domain registration came up for renewal four days ago. And I had a decision to make. Do I continue? Can I do it? Do I want to do it?

The answer to the last question is easy. Of course I do. Library Life Hack was one of the brightest spots of my 2013. Despite my embarrassment at falling off the wagon for two months, I’m quietly proud of my blogging adventures. I’ve even gotten to speak live about it to other library folks.

And there are still things — lots of things — I want to try. So, I’m back for another year of kooky life experiments, engineered with library materials. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do it. It would be foolish for me to promise weekly posts because that’s unlikely to happen. But I will tell you that I’m taking a page from “The 4-Hour Workweek” and looking at the possibility of outsourcing.

There are fresh adventures yet to come. And I’m really glad you’re here.

Happy New Year.


Stock Market Check-Back for September

So, we’re now into the final quarter of the year. The imaginary stock portfolio we set up on Jan 1, using Jason Kelly’s “The Neatest Little Guide to Stock Market Investing” is still making some very positive gains. Sparton Corp unseated the reigning champ Magna International with an amazing spike up to an 84% gain over its Dec 31 price. Sparton makes electronics, and they’ve been awarded a number of big military contracts this year. Their stock price has been growing steadily for the last few months, and it looks like they’ll have a outstanding 2013.

On the negative end of things, AEterna Zentaris and BlackBerry have both lost more than 30% of their share prices since the beginning of the year. BlackBerry is now being actively considered by a number of buyers — the most interesting of which is John Sculley, former CEO of Apple.

Overall, however, our little portfolio is going into its fourth quarter very strong. The US stocks have gained 17% over their Dec 31 value, and the Canadian stocks are up by 47%. If this was real life, I’d be a pretty happy investor right about now. We’ll check in again in November!

Company Name Closing Price
Dec 31
Closing Price
Sept 30
% Change
AEterna Zentaris Inc. 2.38 CDN 1.55 CDN -35%
Bombardier Inc. 3.76 CDN 4.79 CDN +27%
Callaway Golf Co. 6.50 US 7.12 US +10%
Cameron International Corp. 56.46 US 58.37 US +3%
Canadian Tire Corp. 81.00 CDN 128.00 CDN +58%
Cott Corp. 8.03 US 7.69 US -4%
Indigo Books & Music 10.68 CDN 10.50 CDN -2%
Koninlijke Philips Electronics 26.54 US 32.25 US +22%
Magna International Inc. 49.68 CDN 84.95 CDN +71%
BlackBerry 11.80 CDN 8.10 CDN -31%
Ryder Systems Inc. 49.93 US 59.70 US +20%
Sherwin-Williams Co. 153.82 US 182.18 US +18%
Sparton Corp. 13.87 US 25.50 US +84%
USG Corp. 28.07 US 28.58 US +2%
Westjet Airlines Ltd. 19.81 CDN 24.77 CDN +25%
Total Value $CDN $179.11 $262.66 +47%
Total Value $US $343.22 $401.39 +17%

It’s all Spanish to me — language learning with guest blogger Stephanie Medford

Happy Thanksgiving to you Canadian readers! Everyone else, I hope you had a great weekend. Today, I’m delighted to be bringing you a guest post with Stephanie Medford. She’s going to be talking all about learning another language with library resources.

Stephanie is an artist and blogger and has been in love with Edmonton for as long as she can remember. Check out her hand-printed postcards and read about her adventures in Edmonton at iheartedmonton.ca.

Take it away, Stephanie!

StephanieHello! I’m super excited to be a guest on Library Life Hack.

I’m the type of person who never pays for something she can get for free. When I decided to learn Spanish before traveling to South America, it never crossed my mind to pay for a class. I’m an independent learner and I knew the Edmonton public library had all the resources I needed. Having been in French Immersion as a child, it’s possible that my bilingual brain already had a leg up on language learning but I think that anyone who’s willing to put in the time can teach themselves a new language.

I knew that I would need a mix of resources to learn the different components of the language: speaking, listening, and reading/writing. While learning to understand and speak was my main priority, I was committed to getting a good grasp on the grammar as well, partly because I’m not one to do things halfway, and partly because I find that an understanding of small details makes the whole that much stronger. While there’s plenty of material out there, many of the resources I found were not terribly useful. Finally I stumbled on three items and used them almost exclusively during the 7 months of my self-instruction,, borrowing items for the longest period allowed, then returning them and putting them on hold again if I needed to.

The Pimsleur Language Program by Recorded Books received high reviews on the library site. It consists of a series of sequential CDs that immerse you in the language right from the start. I got the Latin American version, which was really helpful since the language is quite different in Spain (I soon learned that it varies quite a bit from country to country as well!). I listened to it in my car almost every day. The lessons repeat material over and over again, without it ever feeling redundant, so you don’t have to work to memorize anything. It’s designed so that you really know the material before it introduces anything new, and you are constantly reviewing old material. This was probably the most effective resource that I tried.

Ultimate Spanish by Living Language uses a great combination of listening, reading, and grammar and is a comprehensive introduction to the language. Lessons advanced very quickly and I found that I needed a firm grasp of the material before moving to each new chapter, which required a lot of extra study after each lesson. I liked how thorough it was but I struggled to remember things from one lesson to the next.

Complete Spanish Grammar by Gilda Nissenberg is a good guide to grammar, with plenty of exercises to practice the concepts. Because there are grammatical structures and variations in Spanish that we don’t have in English, I slowly worked through the exercises to get a handle on how the language is put together. Once I started trying to communicate I was really glad I had put in the extra time to learn the complicated verb tenses: trying to tell stories in only the present tense was no fun at all.

The final part of my self education project involved watching stacks of movies. I found an organization that has released independent movies from many Latin American countries – just search Film Movement in the library catalogue. It also pays to look through the Spanish section of the DVDs in any branch. All these helped me practice my listening skills, gave me a good understanding of how the accents vary from country to country. I watched Maria Full of Grace without subtitles and while I missed a lot of details and nuance, I was pleased that I was able to follow the story.

As obsessed as I was with learning the language, I didn’t work very hard. Outside of driving I put in maybe 3 hours a week. When I arrived in Peru I felt completely lost at first, but because I had built a solid foundation, my comprehension increased dramatically after only a couple weeks. 3 weeks in, I was already translating for others. The only thing missing from this self-study program was the opportunity for conversations. But listening to endless CDs meant I understood pronunciation and basic sentence structure, and once I was immersed in the language my speaking skills grew quite quickly!

Language learning is expensive. A 2-month “Spanish for Travellers” class costs $229 at Metro College. Rosetta Stone level One costs $199. I couldn’t find the exact Pimsleur program on Amazon but a similar Pimsleur course levels 1-4 costs from $210 – $305. Ultimate Spanish can set you back between $80 and $200 and Complete Spanish Grammar goes for around $13. Needless to say, teaching myself using library materials was definitely the cheapest option.

Thanks again for having me, and good luck in any language-learning adventures!