Sunday, June 26, 2011

Deep Cuts Vs. Scratching the Surface

It appears that our household is due for another Summer of Uncertainty; due to budget cuts, Audrey was one of 85 school support staff laid off last week.  It's touted as sixty-some positions, but since none of them are full-time, it works out to be significantly more carbon units that actually end up unemployed.

The same thing happened last year and it was far more upsetting to her then.  She did end up back at the same school in September by the start of the school year, as a number of people had assured her she would.  This year she is more annoyed than anything else.

Part of her annoyance stems from how arbitrary the whole thing feels.  Beyond the fact that the Alberta Government is cutting school budgets hither and yon, but are still building new schools like there is no tomorrow (watch for a press release announcing the development of robotic teachers!), there is the issue that who gets laid off is simply a matter of seniority; the longest in are the last to get cut.

Obviously a line needs to be drawn somewhere, and seniority is no less fair than having some biased or ignorant individual decide who is worthy and who is not, and it is certainly more fair than drawing lots for the available positions.  That being said, Audrey has wondered aloud why she tries so hard, when there is no reflection of her additional efforts in terms of when she might get called back to work.

It's a moot point, really; she is no more able to 'phone it in' or do a lowest common denominator job than I am able to move items through psychokinesis, and don't think I haven't tried.  Her compassion, her honesty, and her work ethic all make it impossible for her to do anything but her best, especially where children are involved.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

Last week, a sixth grade girl that Audrey talks with fairly often said to her casually, "Wouldn't it be funny if me and (a classmate) were both 16 and got pregnant at the same time?"

They were in the computer lab sitting back to side, so Audrey turned Josie (not her real name) around so they could talk face to face.  "No, it would not be funny," she told her.  "Why did your mom have to give you up?"

Josie scrunched up her face.  "'Cause she was on drugs."

"And a person on drugs is not ready to look after a baby, right?"  Audrey replied.  Josie nodded, and Audrey continued  "A girl who is 16 isn't finished growing up yet herself, she isn't nearly ready to raise a baby."

"I guess you're right," said Josie, and the two of then went back to what they were doing.

This was on Friday, and the conversation played itself over and over again in Audrey's mind all weekend.  She simply couldn't be sure if she'd gotten through to Josie or not.

The following week, Audrey asked the office for permission to address the class, and after getting it, she told them her own personal story.

How when she was 20, before the two of us had met, she had gotten pregnant.  How shocked and surprised and embarrassed and confused and afraid she was, all at once.  How she'd had to tell her family, and then her friends about what had happened, and how difficult that was.  How she'd had to make her own choice about what to do, and decided it wasn't this helpless creature in her tummy's fault that he or she had arrived unexpectedly, and that since she wasn't ready to raise a child, the only other option would be to give the baby up for adoption.

She told them how difficult the pregnancy was, knowing that in the end, the life within her would be have to go elsewhere in order to be with a family who could love him and raise him up right.  How saying goodbye to that baby boy was one of the hardest things she'd ever done, even with the security of knowing it was the right decision.

Audrey's story at least has a happy ending.  We ended up making contact with the adoptive parents years later, after moving back to Alberta from Ontario with our own daughter, and eventually got to the point where we felt it was time for our two families to meet.  That was five years ago.

Bryce's family are wonderful people, and we are better for knowing them.  His parents are smart, professional, hard working people with a very strong faith, and they have raised a simply excellent young man, and a wonderful daughter as well.  The picture above shows us visiting him at Fort Edmonton last summer, where he has used his mixed ethnicity as a springboard to create a  pseudo-historical persona named Kona.  Kona is a Sandwich Islander, who, like many others, followed Captain Cook back to British North America and took a jobs with the Hudson's Bay Company.  Bryce loves history and hopes one day to teach, and the fact that there is no blood connection between us does not stop me from thinking of him as family.

The fact that Bryce's story turned out so well almost undermines the point of Audrey's tale, but it does not take away the fact that there are so many places where it could have gone horribly wrong, and this point was not missed by the class.  Afterwards, Josie came up to Audrey and said, "I'm the one who made you tell that story, aren't I?"

"Yes, you are," said Audrey.  "Do you understand now what I meant when I talked about being ready to have a baby?"

Josie nodded, and gave Audrey a huge hug, and has been reluctant to let go of her ever since, as the school year draws to a close.

There was no incentive for Audrey to share such a personal story, and it certainly isn't a part of her job description, but she saw a need and a means to fill it, and that was that.  It's not like this is an exceptional circumstance.

She has spent the past year assisting a sixth grade boy with autism.  He has very severe behavioral issues and difficulty with language as well, so to say it has been a trying year would be a real understatement.  The most discouraging aspect is being unable to know if you are getting through, to know that you are making contact and having some sort of positive effect.

This year, on her birthday, this boy traded in a bunch of the credits he'd earned for reading and good behavior in order to pull some items from the trinket box as a gift for Audrey.

I'm no expert, but this would appear to corroborate some sort of connection at least, and all the royalty themed accessories would seem to indicate relatively high esteem, too!

Audrey also wrote a card for every child in her class, and finding something positive to say in each one can be extremely challenging.  In one card she wrote how she was hoping that the recipient would learn how to choose the right thing to do, and how she was praying that the leg issue that recently hospitalized this girl would get better quickly.  Shortly after giving the card, the girl passed her a piece of tightly folded paper:

When Audrey showed me the letter, I pointed to it and said, "This is why you work so hard and go that extra step, and worry and fret.  It's not about what you do, it is about who you are."

And this is why, despite all the frustration and unpleasantness that comes with The Summer of Uncertainty, we are certain that before too long, Audrey will be right back where she belongs: helping children.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

What Would Kermit Do?

Muppet Thor may be the sweetest thing I've read in years.

It takes a deft hand to mix two completely different properties and end up with something that is entertaining but which doesn't disrespect either universe. I remember how surprised I was that 'Archie Meets The Punisher' ended up being that way, and Muppet Thor is very similar. It is primarily a Muppet story with bits (snicker) of Thor in it, but seeing what Kermit does once he has the power of Marvel's thunder god reminded me of what a quality individual that felt amphibian really is. I was also pleased to see some of the newer Muppet characters, like Pepe the king prawn, make an appearance.

Please find some time to read this 24 page gem (most of which was completed in 24 hours!)and throw some traffic to a very talented comic creator,Caanan Grall.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Padding It Out

Two weeks ago, at my workplace's recognition luncheon, I was very surprised and flattered to find out I'd been nominated for an employee engagement award.  Ballots were placed at each 8-person table for them to vote between the six nominees, and when the results were announced, I was stunned to discover I had tied with an awesome lady in Facilities Management who has been with the corporation for quite a while.

We went up to the podium to shake hands with our CEO, and because Rhea got there first, Monica said she would get to take home the trophy and prize, and since they hadn't expected a tie, they would order another for me.  However, since Rhea would be the one doing the ordering anyhow, she figured it made more sense for me to take them, saving her a delivery trip.  I had no idea the prize was an iPad; I honestly thought it was a digital photo frame or a plaque or something.

I have a lot of admiration for a lot of Apple products; it's hard to believe that prior to the release of the first iMacs I thought they were destined for oblivion, like Commodore before them.  That said, I couldn't imagine ever purchasing something like an iPad, but having had one for a couple weeks now, I would need a 12 step and a burly interventionist to give it up.

The particular version I have is the 16Gb wifi iPad 2.  This means I have 'only' 16 gigabytes to store my apps, books, music, videos and photos.  I also have decreased functionality if I am not within range of a wifi network; there is a 3G version that will let you access the internet like a smartphone, but obviously there is a monthly fee for that sort of access I have no interest in.  At least, you know, not currently.  Still, since free wifi is as close as the nearest Starbucks, Safeway, Edmonton Public Library or a host of other locations, it has not been that big of a deal so far, and even disconnected, the iPad is a remarkable tool.

Around the house, I can use it as a handheld web browser, which is great for looking things up on Wikipedia or iMDB.  Some apps, like those from the Edmonton Journal, YouTube or The Weather Network let me see versions optimized for the iPad.  I can also check my e-mail or post a comment to a blog.

A program called AirVideo lets me set up a server on my PC which allows me stream video direct to the iPad, converting formats on the fly with no noticeable slowdown.  Being able to watch an episode of Archer while I peel potatoes in the kitchen is a real treat.

There are also several apps that allow you to read comics on the iPad, and this is a dangerous proposition.  For example, I recently hauled out my Walt Simonson 'Thor' run, and greatly enjoyed going through this quarter-century old dead-tree collection before going to sleep each night.  I have these comics stored 5 or 6 to a bag, and after finishing a bag, I have a natural opportunity to remind myself that I really should get to sleep, and after finishing a complete run, it is pretty unlikely that I will leave the warmth of my bed to go an excavate the longboxes full of comics in the basement.  With the iPad, however, it is all to easy to stay up far too late reading, say, 60 issues of 'Y: The Last Man'; it's like eating peanuts.

Since the comics are stored on the iPad itself, I can read them on the go.  I can also download a number of e-books and magazine subscriptions, but I haven't looked into that very much yet.

I took the iPad to the Arts Festival at the girls' school, and I have to say, it is an ideal thing to have with you in your travels.  I took pictures and videos with the integrated camera, and played boardgames with Audrey and the girls between sessions.  There are a surprising number of decent multiplayer games (like Multipong or Marble Mixer) that allowed all 4 of us to play at once, and even traditional boardgames like Risk, Settlers of Catan and Monopoly.  Imagine playing Risk in a car or plane and not having to worry about losing pieces!  The iPad version of Scrabble even lets you use an iPhone as a tray for your letter tiles.

I've been so busy having fun with the iPad that I have barely begun to scratch the surface in terms of productivity, but I took all my notes from our last team meeting at work with it, and I have also started to become more familiar with the calendar app.

Apple is kind of a mixed bag for me though; despite its popularity, I still feel that iTunes makes Windows Media Player look as though it was designed by gifted psychics from the future.  However, after having purchased the wrong case for my iPad (not realizing that it was an iPad 2, since this is not written anywhere on the box or the device itself), Charlie at the Apple store in West Edmonton Mall had no problem exchanging it for a proper cover, even though I had lost the receipt.

The cover itself attached magnetically, doubles as a stand , has a microfibre interior that serves as a cleaning tool, and automatically turns the device on or off when it is opened or closed.  It is one anti-grav unit away from being Star Trek technology, at least in my eyes.

A friend at work in IT asked me how I was enjoying the iPad, and I told him I would have a hard time giving it up just a week in, and that I was well on my way to becoming a fully robed and vested Macolyte.  He nodded and said, "Yes, the iPad is definitely a gateway drug."

Sigh.  Hooked like a fish.  I should feel manipulated or something, but I'm just too busy enjoying myself with it to care.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Saving Smile

Lilly's service was this past Wednesday, at a chapel in Fort Saskatchewan. A lot of her blood relatives are out Montreal way, but her family of choice, her friends and co-workers, made up the difference, so the little building ended up packed to capacity with those wishing to pay their respects.

A number of my colleagues were in the parking lot when I pulled up, and as I emerged from my station wagon, one of them was saying that Lilly's daughter, Madison, wasn't taking things very well.  This is not entirely unexpected; after all, how well can a ten-year-old be expected to take the loss of her mother?

"Better to know that now than be surprised by it inside," I suggested to mute nods of agreement.

With the service not starting for another hour, some of us wandered off for lunch.  Ellen, Leanne and I arrived back at about quarter-to and proceeded into the chapel.  An attendant quietly explained that the viewing was in the room directly ahead of us, and that the service would be in the chapel to our left.  I proceeded ahead while I still had a little nerve and momentum up; I've no idea if anyone followed me.

Lilly looked like herself, mostly.  Her complexion was a little off, but that may have been the lighting.  The biggest difference was the serenity in her expression; I'd never seen her look that way in life.  Happy, yes; joyful, sure; concerned, discerning, relaxed?  Yes, yes, yes.  But never content.  Not so long as something was left unexplored or unresolved; some improvement, some insight, some discovery, whether professional or personal.  Her peaceful expression seemed almost unnatural, but still comforting, suggesting a person at peace, a woman at rest.

She was not alone in the coffin; her daughter had tucked a floppy, long eared toy rabbit alongside her, as well as a picture she had drawn.  I can't recall it precisely, but I think it was a recollection of happier times; the only detail I can remember with surety was the word "Mommy" in bright red crayon.  Things got a little blurry after that.

The service would not be for another 15 minutes, but not knowing where else to go, I made my way into the chapel, where a number of my colleagues already sat.  Usually I fidget terribly in quiet situations like this, reading anything within reach: brochures, hymnals, what have you, but I simply sat and reflected, and watched Lilly's husband thank other friends and Lilly's brother for coming, while Madison clung to his side.  Looking at her, I thought she was doing as well as any of the rest of us, and tried to think how I would have been if I'd been confronted with a similar tragedy at the same age.  I abandoned that line of thought fairly quickly.

The service was brief and somewhat impersonal; there was no eulogy and very little said about Lilly specifically.  Instead, the priest (at least, I believe it was a priest, he my have been a minister) spoke about the soul being ageless, and that Lilly's would be as unsullied and eternal as that of a baby.  There was a responsive 23rd Psalm ("The Lord is my shepherd..."), a couple of ecumenical prayers, and it was over.

In truth, I was kind of glad the service was not more personal; I'd wept a fair bit already on Monday, but not as much as I could have.  They were tears like the water trickling between the fingers of a man holding very wet clay, and who can't help but let some moisture escape.  I had no desire to see those hands open wide, for fear they might not close again the same way afterwards.  The all-encompassing service let me maintain a level of detachment, so a part of me was actually grateful

Afterwards, we lined up to pay our respects to Clifton and Madison in the little lounge.  I shook Clifton's hand and told him I was very sorry for his troubles, and how much his wife would be missed in our lives, both professionally and personally.  At least, that is what I tried to say; my words came out in heap, but Clifton smiled, and I think he understood.

Madison sat on a chair beside him, and as I stepped away to allow the next mourner better access to Cliff, I reached down and shook Madison's hand.  What can you possibly tell a child that age who has lost her mother?  The only thing more fearful than saying the wrong thing was saying nothing at all.

"You are going to hear some awesome things about your mom from an awful lot of people," I said to her, "and it is important that you believe every one of them.  Lilly was a very special lady, and she is really going to be missed."

She lifted her head to look at me, and I immediately wished I had instead mouthed a condolence and moved on; if I made her cry, how long would her reddened eyes haunt my dreams?

But she looked at me, and smiled, and said, "Thank you so much."

She smiled, and it felt like a little miracle.

How does someone in that situation have any smiles left?  How do they have one that they can spare for a weeping stranger?

What power in the universe gives a ten-year-old, grief-stricken girl who has had something so important yanked away from her the kind of grace to give something back?  To give anything back?

I squeezed her hand again and pushed the corners of my mouth upwards; my face didn't cramp or fall apart.  "I've written a letter that you will get, along with some other stuff from the people your mom worked with," I told her.  "I hope you take a moment to read it, when you're ready."  She nodded, still smiling, and I let her hand go, and went to sign the registry.

Some former co-workers had come to pay their respects, and I embraced them in turn.  Wiping my eyes, I talked about how we had first heard of Lilly's passing, our disbelief, our sorrow, and how good it had been that we were all together.  I told them how glad I was they had come.

Some of us gathered outside the chapel before departing; we talked about the service, and an Ismaili colleague said she felt it was very inclusive, which I was grateful for.  We chatted, and sighed, and even laughed a little before heading home.

I decided not to take the Yellowhead home, opting instead for Highway 37, driving through dry farmlands  with little traffic and seeing hawks soaring above the fields. My thoughts kept turning back to Madison's smile, and how grief is this terrible awkward period between 'everything is fine' and 'well, life goes on'.  It knows no other duration or boundaries, and there is no way of predicting how long it will stay in your life, but there are waypoints, signposts that tell you that you're heading in the right direction, and that life does go on, and the hurt will diminish, even if you can't believe that right now.  That smile, a shy, quiet smile that would not turn your head if you saw it in a picture, was that kind of sign, and best of all, I could see her mom behind it.

 * * * * * * *

Here is the letter I wrote to Madison:

Dear Madison,

You don’t know me, but my name is Stephen, and I worked with your mom.  I am writing this on the day that we heard about how she passed away on the weekend.   I wanted to let you know that everyone who worked with your mom is very sorry and very sad to hear about it.  Lilly was a very special lady and we are all going to miss her very much.

This is probably a much harder letter for you to read than it is for me to write (and it is very hard for me to write), but I hope you hang on to it, even if you don’t feel like reading it right now.  Maybe you can pull it out later on, if you want to see how your mom affected the people she worked with.

Your mom was an awesome lady; you’re going to hear that from a lot of people, and you should believe it.  She was a ball of energy that swept through a place like a smiling windstorm and even if you didn’t get swept up and dragged along behind her, you probably wouldn’t be the same afterwards.  When she sawsomething that could be done better, she didn’t rest until it was improved, or she had checked every possible option.

The most important thing in your mom’s life was people.  Not just the people she loved, like you and your dad, but also the people she worked with, like me.  She would always ask how my own little girls were doing (they are 9 and 12), and what sort of things we did together on the weekend.  And not just me, but everyone she worked with.  Your mom was one of the most caring people I have ever known.

We could always count on your mom to stand up for us if someone was not nice to us; she reminded me of a mother grizzly defending her cubs.  I bet she was the same way with you.

The thing I liked the most about your mom (and there was a lot to like!) was the way she balanced things.  For instance, she took her work seriously, but it was also important to her that we all enjoy ourselves at work too.  I’ve heard it said that it is important to take your work seriously, but just as important to not take yourself seriously, and your mom did that really well.

Your mom cared about other people so much, she even cared about people she didn’t know or hadn’t met yet; like the people who call our offices every day looking for help or advice.  She felt very strongly that they should be treated with kindness and respect, and not made to wait too long to get what they needed.

I know you loved your mom a lot, and you are going to miss her, and I hope you understand that all of us here loved her and are going to miss her too.  We are thinking a lot about you and your dad dealing with this terrible loss, and hope you will reach out to us if there is ever anything we can do to help.


Stephen Fitzpatrick