Monday, September 26, 2016

My friend Jeff

I've tried to word-smith this post in several ways, with different introductions and pathways. I think the subject of the post, a graphic designer and games developer/publisher, would have appreciated the attention to detail.

This is a photo of my friend Jeff, taken on Saturday, September 17, 2016. In this shot, Jeff is wearing what was supposed to be a finger-knitted Kleenex bag to attach underneath his walker that I made but ended up to be something entirely different. We're not sure what it was. Over-sized bandanna? Extra-small infinity scarf? Jeff was going to name it and brand it. Unfortunately, Jeff didn't get the chance to tell us about his ingenious moniker for the odd creation because he died on Saturday, September 24, 2016 - just a week after our visit.

This is what Jeff wrote on Facebook shortly after our visit.

So. Freakin'. Awesome.
Not me. My friends. My friends are so freakin' awesome. I love 'em beyond imagination.
Kevin Brennan with Jeff Mackintosh and Diana Maliszewski at St. Mary's of the Lake.
I had a great time visiting Jeff Mackintosh today along with my friends Chris, James, and Di, although obviously we all wish the circumstances were different. Here he is looking...piratical(?)...with his hat(?) knitted during the visit by Diana Maliszewski.
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Facebook is full of tributes for Jeff, and rightfully so. Seriously, click his name above and you will see some eloquent testimonies that had me in tears. Jeff was diagnosed with Gliobastoma Multiforme in 2014, the same type of nasty brain cancer that Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip has. Usually patients with this type of cancer survive a year. Jeff was part of a clinical research trial but that damn cancer decided to be extra vicious and it did something it rarely does to others - it spread. It's almost easier to say what organs and systems weren't affected.

I didn't want to learn how to say metastasize or palliative care, never mind apply those words to Jeff. We knew that Jeff's remaining time was limited, but we thought it'd be months, not weeks. We were planning to go see him again this week, but now I'm just grateful that we made it up to Kingston when we did.

Too soon. Too damn soon.

I first met Jeff in the early 2000s. At that time, Jeff lived in Guelph and he was part of our gaming group. Our house was the headquarters and Jeff with his friend Adam would make the drive out to Toronto to join Kevin, Chris, Ian, Dave and my husband James for some role playing game action. I wouldn't play much because my children were young and needed attention but we'd talk a lot before and after the game. One of my favourite role playing "one-off" adventures I ever participated in was a zombie game involving infected simians: my character was an animal rights protester and Jeff's was a local redneck. The phrases "Chimpanzees wanna be free!" "Sir, please get this flaming monkey off my back" and "It's just over that tree line" were immortalized due to that game. Eventually the gaming group disbanded, and Jeff moved to Montreal. We lost touch. We reconnected after learning about his cancer diagnosis and when we reunited, it was as if time hadn't passed. Jeff was still Jeff - full of opinions (he was pretty passionate in his admiration for the Quebec educational system and their publicly funded pre-university college known as CEGEP), his quick sense of humour and his gift of the gab. In his final days, we also saw how considerate, generous, appreciative and caring Jeff was. He'd get tired because of his illness but he didn't want to spend the rest of his days napping - he wanted to spend it with his friends. From what I saw, his friends loved and admired him just as much, flocking to Kingston when possible to visit him.

While our group of friends was visiting Jeff, a trio from Montreal arrived. We all gathered together and there was a lot of joking, stories, and general goodwill. Alex, Steve, and Marie made some entertaining suggestions about the next finger-knitting gift Jeff should receive and we agreed that a colourful strapless tank top with fringe and two strategically-placed tassels would be ideal. I never got to start making that bizarre outfit for Jeff. However, there are a lot of other Jeff-related projects that will see completion, ensuring that he's not forgotten. Check out Dork Tower, for example. Then there's "Operation Jeff"(quoted by Lisa Prince but written by another):

More than 20 of us (and more all the time) working in tabletop, video games, fiction, comics and other media have come together to demonstrate that as far as we’re concerned, you’ll always be a part of games for us. Over the coming months and years, characters named “Jeff Mackintosh” are going to start showing up in the work of those of us who know, love, and admire you
This doesn't count the Fan Expo Canada #staystrongJeff tribute video that made me a basket case the first time I saw it.

And then there's this. the gesture is much smaller, but just as significant ... when Jeff saw us December 8, 2015 and stayed for dinner, he became reacquainted with our daughter, who was just a little kid when he had last seen her but was now a teenager who loves art. Jeff looked through her comic book cover pages and gave plenty of good advice. He also gave her some "voluntary homework": practice drawing hands in various poses. Jeff told her that illustrators often struggled with drawing hands realistically and offered to critique her hand drawings for her when she was done sketching. She was in the process of making these drawings when he died. It's ironic that the first hand pose she sketched was of the ASL sign for "I love you". Love you Jeff. Rest in peace.

P.S. This blog is related to my professional reflections, often intertwined with my personal life. What "school connections" can I make here? I know that on Thursday, September 29, during our school's Terry Fox run, I'll be thinking about Jeff and wearing his name on my chest on our "I'm running for ..." badges. I've talked to my students as we've prepared for the Terry Fox fundraiser about my friend Jeff. I'll probably cry a bit when I mention him - but that's okay. Causes need to be real rather than abstract to students, and fighting cancer (a disease that's hit both my parents as well as Jeff) is very real for me. Jeff's battle with terminal illness also taught me a few lessons to remind myself in school and life.

1) Be appreciative. - We take for granted our health. Don't. Even when you don't have it, be grateful for the things you do have. Jeff was so appreciative of any and all visits, notes, phone calls, and gestures. In school, we complain when we don't have enough technology that works well. Before we gripe, we should remember that we are fortunate to have a roof over our heads.
2) Prioritize. - Jeff knew what he wanted to do with the limited time he had: spend it with family and friends. Don't put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today. If we had postponed our visit with Jeff for another week, we wouldn't have seen him at all. What's more important in my library - that it's tidy or that I helped some students with a project or a problem? (Note: this doesn't mean I can ignore cleaning the library forever, as much as I might like to do so!)
3) Relationships matter. - Jeff was very considerate about his interactions with others, and fostering positive ones among other people. For instance, he was very upset that his illness interfered with his parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Like a "people gardener", Jeff nurtured and fed and encouraged growth. At times when I think I'm spending too much time "just chatting" with other teachers, I have to remember that I'm growing that relationship.
4) Laugh when you can. - In the palliative care hospital, a quote was on the wall that said something like "laughter is like a windshield wiper; it won't stop the rain from coming but it allows us to keep going". Despite it all, Jeff joked with his friends. Brain cancer isn't all fun and games, but injecting some levity into a serious situation makes it a bit more tolerable.

Thanks Jeff, for teaching me about how to learn and live well.

Monday, September 19, 2016


September is my time for "new (school) year resolutions" and I have a couple of big goals. Thankfully, I've found a pair of people who will help me achieve those goals. I needed someone to "kick me in the butt", so to speak, to make some progress and break me out of the ruts I've been in.

1) My Goal: Research / My Support Person: Eleftherios Soleas

As regular readers of this blog may recall, I wanted to work on a major research project involving readers choice award programs. This was way back in 2010 when I graduated from the University of Alberta with my M.Ed. degree. I've taken baby steps, thanks to fabulous people like Bozena White, Elizabeth Lee, Beckie Macdonald and Francis Ngo who have volunteered their time to help me understand the process. The Ontario School Library Association gave me a grant from the Margaret Scott Research Fund and now I have a fabulous research assistant who will help me get further faster. Terry is at Queens University. After our first Skype call outlining the work to complete, I had a list of jobs to accomplish - and a person to remind me to do them. I have some scanning and sending still to do this month but it feels so good to be doing something about it instead of just talking about it.

2) My Goal: Health and Fitness / My Support Person: Angela Olah

Last year, I noticed that I needed to improve my eating and exercising practices. My husband and I both committed to change. He lost 30 pounds. I lost 5 and gained it all back and then some over the summer. A couple of weeks ago, I investigated various personal trainers, emailed six, heard from four, and narrowed it down to two. One will do a detailed assessment for me (because I like getting multiple opinions). The other is the one I've decided to connect with regularly. Angela Olah runs a Boot Camp close to where I live. I don't think it's coincidence that on the first day I was scheduled to meet Angela and try a class, not one, not two, but THREE students patted my stomach and either asked if I was having a baby or commented on my big belly! Hello inspiration! I am keeping a nutrition journal to discover why the changes I made last year didn't alter things the way I hoped. I'll attend Boot Camp at least three times a week. I've already had three classes; I'm super-sore, but I can feel things tightening and moving in positive ways.

Terry, Angela and I have "clicked" and I'm looking forward to working with them. I'm looking forward to them pushing me, even when I'm feeling overwhelmed or discouraged. Everyone (in school and beyond) needs a butt-kicker in their life.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Initiating Inquiry on the Walls

Arianna Lambert (@MsALambert) and Larissa Aradj (@MrsGeekChic) run a bi-monthly Twitter chat called #tdsbEd. In the September 8, 2016 edition, the chat focused on Back to School and Building the Classroom Community. The archive for this chat can be found here. I participated and posted this near the end of the session:

This meant I had to follow through on my promise!

For some reason, I always volunteer to decorate the front hall display case in September. Often, the topic is our staff and a method of introducing the adults in the school to the community. Parents have indicated that they really like connecting names with faces.

Here are some of the past September displays.

September 2015 - "Back to School, Ready to Grow"
September 2014 - "The Brains Behind the Books"

September 2013 - just before fancy display

September 2013 - part of "Meet the Creature" display

This year, I wanted to make the display part of our learning, in addition to a way to build community and get to know people. Therefore, I asked every staff member to provide a small item that was significant to their summer. I recommended to people that we keep objects simple and downplay the consumerist potential, so that we considered economic differences in our school community. (Not every family can afford to travel to exotic destinations during the summer holiday and I did not want the display to promote that message at all.) I typed cards with the staff member's name and a couple of sentences explaining the relation of the object to their summer experiences. This is the result.

September 2016 - "Staff Summer Momentos"

During my first library lessons with the Grade 1-5 students, we visit the display and I encourage students to wonder which teacher brought in which item, and why. I notice that even the other adults in the building stop by the display cabinet to look at the objects and predict the owner. Starting today, the second week of school, and continuing throughout the month of September, a white card will be turned around each day so that students, teachers, and visitors can see who brought in which item.

There are so many great teaching moments emerging from this display. I heard one Grade 3 student remark that she thought the principal selected the baseball or golf club because "men like those kinds of sports". (Spoiler: the principal was responsible for neither of those items.) It will be a good opportunity to promote inquiry thinking, consider presumptions we make based on age and gender, and discover the passions that our staff may share with students.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Sew It's Time to Learn Something New

Labour Day - and for the past week and a half, I've been labouring on a new skill set: sewing.

My mother purchased an old sewing machine at a church bazaar for $3 and during the summer, I decided it was finally time to learn how to sew. My mother offered me the machine to keep; we took it to a sewing machine shop for repair. The lady told me that the machine is actually worth more now than when it was originally made (between 1947-1953). It's a Singer 99K sewing machine.

I had a couple of short- and long-term projects I wanted to accomplish with sewing. The first was actually time-sensitive - not necessarily the best idea when just starting to learn a skill. I needed to make a 1920s flapper dress to wear to a themed birthday party. The party was scheduled for Saturday, September 3, 2016.

Rather than wait for my machine to return from the shop, I decided to use my last week before school started to make my dress from start to finish. This project was also important to me because, as I mentioned in this earlier blog post, I had a bad experience in Grade 7 with my first sewing project and I wanted to put that "ghost" to rest.

Like with my finger knitting project, I took copious amounts of photographs to record the process. I also tweeted my daily lessons and received a lot of encouragement from fellow Twitter users. Here's a summary of the project - complete with a twist ending!

Day 1 - Thursday, August 25, 2016

I really appreciated the presence of my brother during this first lesson. I was really worried that my mother, the expert seamstress, would go too fast. I even hedged my bets by scouting out the TDSB Continuing Education classes and mentally bookmarking the Sewing for Beginners session. However, my brother peeked in on us while we worked, gently advising my mother to go slow.

I learned about the parts of her machine and how to thread the machine. I practiced stitching on a single piece of fabric with thread that was visible, so I could get used to how it feels. I learned how to sew forwards and backwards. Then I stitched together two pieces of fabric and even did a hem to make a little pouch. I worried hemming was too advanced a skill to learn on the first day, but I did it.

Sewing selfie!
Checking out the foot & cleaning underneath

Day 2 - Friday, August 26, 2016

On the second day of sewing lessons, my mom declared that it was time to actually start working on the dress itself. I wasn't sure if I was ready, but my teacher assured me that everything would be okay. We measured a lot to ensure we were accurate. I'm a bit fearful of getting stuck with the pins (or to use an older Caribbean term, 'jukked'). Thankfully, I wasn't pricked by any pins that day.

Pinning straight isn't easy

Hemming? Already? It's only 1/4" wide!

Day 3 - Saturday August 27, 2016

I think I miscounted this day as Day 4, but this Saturday evening session involved some more pinning, cutting, and hemming. We began to attach the fringe to the dress, which was tricky because we didn't want to accidentally attach the part that's supposed to hang when stitching the top part, and it had to be straight. My daughter kindly took a few shots of me "in action".

Sewing the (wider, thank goodness!) bottom hem

Pinned the first fringe on the dress!

Day 4 - Sunday, August 28, 2016

Before I came on Sunday, I had to make a pit stop at the local Fabricland to purchase more fringe. My original cost of materials made it less pricey than the 1920s dress I bought my daughter. (It was originally for me, but "one size fits most" meant that it fit most of me, but not all [since it was too tight around the hips] but the purchased dress fit and suit my daughter much better.) Buying more fringe made it more expensive but now my confidence was growing. My mother supervised but let me pin, measure, check, and re-pin on my own. I was doing it!

Once again, I think I miscounted my sewing class days, because I claimed on Twitter that this was Day 5 but it was actually Day 4.

Day 5 - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I skipped Monday, August 29, because on that day, we visited our friends (with newborn twins!) On Tuesday, I was excited to see how quickly the dress was progressing. Once the seam that led from under the arm to the knee was sewn, it really felt like a dress, like something that could be worn. Mom and I reviewed the final steps that were needed - attach the straps and tack in the sides near the arms so they wouldn't gap as much.

Day 6 - Wednesday, August 31, 2016

When I phoned my mother to let her know that I was on my way to work, she had a surprise: she completed the dress herself without me. 

I felt annoyed and really disappointed. I was really looking forward to making that final stitch, snipping the last threads and wearing the fruits of my labour right after removing it from the sewing machine. It was my Grade 7 shorts disaster over again, except that this time, I actually had the skills needed to make it through. It was as if I had been running a marathon and then I was grabbed and carried across the finish line when I was finally capable of completing the entire race myself. Believe it or not, I handled it in a very mature fashion - I actually told my parents how I felt about the situation without getting overly emotional. My mother said that it was only just attaching the straps, but I replied that if it was such a minor job, I would have stayed later on the previous day to finish. My father suggested that we rip out one of the straps so I could have the chance to do it independently and I considered it briefly but decided against it. I suspect that my mother herself became excited with the project and couldn't wait until I arrived that day before making the finishing touches.

The finished product!

The dress looks beautiful and I'm able now, thanks to some time and venting, to celebrate the 95% of the job that I completed on my own and not dwell on the final 5% I didn't get to do. I have some other projects I have planned (e.g. sleep pants and a project that involves following a paper pattern). Once I have my own sewing machine, I can try the projects myself (and call Mom over to my house if I get stuck).

ETA: At the birthday party gala, my outfit was selected as "most authentic" and I received a prize. Also, my dear friend and colleague had a never-used sewing machine that she kindly donated to me. My mother (who it turns out secretly coveted the old Singer 99K) will keep the now-fixed older portable machine but will "lend" it to me for the students at school.