She was my friend

There was this girl. She was 14 years old. Skinny as a rake and absolutely beautiful. She smiled and laughed and had an utterly wicked, sharp sense of humour. I met her about 15 years ago. 

I was working in a group home for teens, who had a wide variety of difficulties, but mostly behavioural and familial. She came to us on a Friday night, late, having been picked up by the police in downtown Ottawa. I met her Saturday morning when her social worker came to see her and do all the necessary paperwork. While the worker and the full time staff (I was there part time) did the paper work, she and I went into the living room to do a clothing and belongings inventory. The worker had brought about three big blue containers with all her stuff in them. This girl had been living at another home, but kept running away. So now she was with us, at our house which tended to specialize in short term, stabilization placements. 

So there we were with three large bins filled with clothes. We needed to count and log how many of each type of clothing she had, so that when she eventually moved out, we’d be able to make sure she had all her stuff. I decided that the best way to do it, would be to have her tip everything out onto the floor and separate them by type and the. We could count them together. She was game, and so we began. Pants, tops, socks, bras and underwear, there were many piles. So I set her to counting. She was a little sheepish/shy when it came to the bras and underwear. I assured her that A: I would not be going near them and B: we didn’t need to write what type of underwear or bras there were, we just needed the numbers. At was the first time I heard her laugh. It was awesome. So she counted the bras. As she finished I noticed, in the underwear pile, what I assumed were the straps to a bra she’d put in the wrong pile. I hooked it with the toe of my boot and told her she missed one. As I began to lift it up, she blushed to the roots of her hair, and quickly said “no that’s a thong.” What I’d thought were the little straps on a 14 year old’s bra, were the many, many little straps on a very tiny, 14 year old’s, black thong. I blushed a bit too. I looked at the pile of undies again and noticed, for the first time, that they were all thongs. At 26 I’d seen a couple thongs. Granted, once they were on the floor, I paid them very little mind, but at the time I could safely say that I’d never seen underwear that was designed to cover as little as possible. Until then. She quickly said “That’s all I have.” and then just as quickly counted them. 

Despite being 14, her life to that point, had given her a somewhat adult manner. Mature isn’t the right word for it, but she’s clearly been around older people a lot, and knowing some of her history, she’d been around a lot of adult situations. She ran away from the other homes she’d been placed in and spent a lot of time skipping school. So much so that the local school didn’t even want to register her again; so she spent a lot of time one-on-one with the staff during the day. 

I spent September 1st, 2001 with her. We watched the towers fall, live on tv. I was on the day shift and had managed to get the other residents off to school. She still wasn’t registered for school, so was helping with chores around the house. Needless to say, little work got done that day. We sat in the living room together, in stunned silence, for a long time. We had some lengthy conversations it that afternoon and on several other occasions. She was compassionate and surprisingly insightful about the ramifications of that event. 

She was serious and thoughtful a lot of the time. She’d play peace maker between other kids, and much like the staff, seemed to have a really hard time understanding how they could get so worked up over such stupid and small things. This definitely endeared her to the staff. 

We were the first house that she didn’t run away from. I think we have her a stability that she was lacking and I think the she connected with some of the staff in such a way that she felt safe for the first time in a long time.  She was so very much a child and capable of amazing silliness and fits of giggles and always willing to have fun. 

One evening, my coworker and I were having the kids do after dinner chores. Our girl needed to tidy the bathroom, upstairs. My coworker was leaning against the wall at the bottom of the stairs. When the girl started up the stairs, the staff turned the light in for her. The girl was surprised as the light seemed to go on by itself. When she asked how the light went on, my coworker told her that the motion sensors in the upstairs hall also controlled the lights. She proved it by turning the lights off again when the girl descended. She thought that was amazing and was equally amazed that she’d never noticed it before. She excitedly asked the other kids if they’d know that and excitedly explained to them about the motion sensor on the lights. My coworker shifted a bit so the she was simply covering the switch with her back and could turn the lights on or off with a slight move. No chores were completed that night. We spent a solid hour turning the lights on and off. At times, they needed to not just walk up the stairs, but wave their arms around because sometimes the sensitivity was off on the sensor. Sometimes it stopped working. I showed them that there was a spot halfway up the stairs, where if you tapped the wall just right, it would work again (due to a loose wire). Throughout she led the charge, laughing and smiling the entire time. 

Along those same lines, she helped us convince a couple of the kids that we had a stray cat living in the wood burning stove we had. The stove was never used. She quietly made meow noises while we spin a tale of the poor cat who lived in the stove. 

I think that the most enduring memory/story I have about her, from those days, was the Nair incident. She hated her body hair, what little there was of it. She’d been taught/convinced by some older men and some women, that body hair was no good. She’d never shaved before. So, she asked for some Nair, which we had because many of the kids we dealt with were not allowed to have razors. We thought nothing of it, until we heard her crying. My female coworker went into the washroom to see what was wrong. My friend had applied Nair to her body, from the neck down to her ankles. The only thing I could hear her saying was “it burns!” She looked like she had a full body sun burn for a few days after that. I can’t even begin to describe the smell that was up in the bathroom that day. 

She was moved to long term homes several times over the 4 years that I worked there. As soon as she’d settled into the new house, she’d start running. She’d stay gone long enough to be discharged from the house and would then end up back with us. The boss decided, after the third time, to let her stay with us. We were happy to have her and she was always happier too. I think we made her feel safe. 

Eventually I moved on. Briefly to Cornwall and then back to Ottawa, but I was done working in group homes. A few years later she tracked me down and showed up at my work to visit. I’d had no idea how much I missed her until I saw her again. Over the next year or so, she’d stop by and visit, filling me in a bit on what she’d been up to. During one of these visits she told me that I’d been very much like a father to her. She said it was because we had these childish and fun memories together and that when she thought of some of the childish fun she’d had, I was a part of that. By this point I’d actually become a father and was very much learning how it felt to know that I would be caring for someone for the rest of my life. When she talked about that, I realized that, in a small way, I already felt that way.  I cared for her, very much and knew that I always would. That’s when I realized that she was my friend and that I hoped she always would be. 

We stayed in touch. Mostly through social media and texting, but steadily. She knew of my passion for photography and we would spend time talking about that and about playing beautiful and elaborate shoots where she would be the model. We never actually managed to get around to it, but it was always fun to plan them. She’d ask me for parenting advice and occasionally use me as a sounding board for how to handle difficult men in her life. 

I realize now that for all of what I knew about her, which was a lot, there was so much that I didn’t know. I knew that her emotions were always strong and near the surface. I knew that she could be brought very low. I knew that sometimes she was very much in pain. I didn’t know how much. 

A few days ago, my friend took her own life. 

I am going to miss her terribly. I am going to remember her fondly. 

That time of year again…

The school year is coming to a  close.  And just like last year, I’m waiting to find out what school I’ll be at in September.  I have to tell you, I was a mess last year.  I had been at my current school for three years; it was MY school.  I felt like I’d moulded it to my shape, or maybe I’d been moulded to it’s shape, but it was mine.  The school had two EAs but their allotment of EAs had been cut to 1.5 meaning i had to either take the 0.5 and find another 0.5 somewhere else, or leave entirely.  At the time, it was a no-brainer, I took the 0.5 so that I could stay with what I knew and the people that I cared about.

It’s been a struggle this year.  Being split between two different schools is not easy. But sometimes staying isn’t easy either; not that I’ll have an actual choice in the matter, but it’s helpful to at least pretend that I do.  You work with people long enough and you can really find the amazing groove for how you guys do things.  That’s the same for friendships too I think.   There’s this comfortable familiarity.  This has been my experience at my little school. There’s nothing we can’t handle and the work styles really balance well. It’s been a joy and a privilege. 

My mom used to tell me, often, sometimes familiarity breeds contempt.  I do use this expression and I basically get what it means, but in writing this, I can’t find a way to explain what it, beyond the surface meaning: you spend enough time with people and you’ll find that you don’t want to spend any more time with them.  That sounds so very negative, and the real flavour of that expression isn’t necessarily negative, it could just be that it’s time to move on. 

That’s a bit where I find myself as this year comes to a close.  I desperately want to cling to the familiar things, the comfortable things, the things that I genuinely care about.  At the same time, I want to tell those things to fuck right off.  Even the school building itself sometimes just bothers me.  Instead of seeing the halls and walls as a comfortable safe place, I notice the cracks and the really shitty acoustics and the occasional odour.  I’m noticing the stress levels of the staff and gripes (some petty and some not) and the ‘politics’. These are the things that you can normally look past. Not so much anymore.   Despite loving the place, I can say that the place also sucks ass.  But, then again, most places do. I have great familiarity with the place itself and the people I work with and I do not have contempt for their flaws. Like a marriage or any relationship, these flaws and problems are part of it. You take them, warts and all, and work at maintaining the things that are important. 

This is, honestly, the best part about not having a choice in the matter: 

Even if it is time to move on, I don’t have to break up with where I am. I just have to accept that I’m being moved. 

As I do with as much of my life as I can, I’m just going to roll with what comes my way. I’ve loved working at my school and the people I’ve worked with. If I remain there or move on, it’s been amazing. 

Drunk Blogging!

I swear to god this was the greatest idea I ever had, about an hour ago.

Drink to the point where I have few to none fucks to give, and then write something profound, while my eyes are open and my mind is free.

Here’s the problem… my eyes are kind of itchy and far more interested in closing, than remaining open.  My mind is free, but ready for a nap.

I think more research is necessary.  I need to find the sweet spot; the place where I don’t actually give a fuck, but give enough of a fuck to actually try and write something.  As opposed to right now, where I’ve reached my limit on typing and such.

 

G’night all.

I know how you feel, but you’re wrong

Young kids are hard to work with.  They can’t always tell you what’s going on (neither can older kids, but at least you know that most of them have the ability) or what’s bothering them or simply why they are doing things.  They aren’t there yet.  This can be particularly frustrating when it comes to those young kids who seem like their far ahead of their peers, quicker, more knowing.  When those kids suddenly behave like the young, complicated, frustrating, ridiculous child, that they actually are, you sometimes want to lose your shit on them.  Why the hell were they awesome one minute and then a complete tool the next?  I’m going to go with “It doesn’t matter.”

This applies to so many kids I’ve met and dealt with over the years, but there’s one in particular who’s prompted this entry.  She’s adorable and smart and sometimes really really sweet.  She can be thoughtful and caring.  She can be an utter asshole.  Passively stonewalling her teacher and other professionals, grinding some activities to a halt because she’s decided that it’s not for her or that she’d simply rather be doing something else.  It’s sending some people around the bend.

The fact that she’s cute and obviously intelligent really plays against her in these situations.  Some people see it and, right away, they’re thinking that she’s spoiled.  I get it.  The thought passes through my head as well.  When her refusal to participate in something, takes an entire activity off the rails, however briefly, the first thought is “She’s getting what she wants.  She’s winning!”  Followed very quickly by, “We can’t let her win.”  The implication being, that if she’s winning, we are losing.  It’s a feeling I understand, a feeling I have often shared, It sticks in your craw, it’s a infuriating, to think that some little spoiled five year old has all the power.  You’re wrong.  She’s five.  If you look at it like she’s winning, you’re losing (and wrong).  Seriously, roll with it.  There are some really difficult little kids, and the passive aggressive ones can be the most frustrating; they aren’t putting anyone at risk, and they’re not damaging anything, they are just refusing to do stuff. How do you reason with that?

If you have to see things as win/lose, please remember, for the love of all that is holy, that you are the adult;  in the end you will always win.  Eventually.  She never ruins the class, unless you let her.  She never throws the entire day off, just small moments of it.  Sure, kids like her, can often display a stubbornness that is kind of amazing, but a little extra patience and maybe some ignoring, or the opposite, some extra one on one time, can often be the answer.

But what if it doesn’t work?  What if she just keeps refusing?  Honestly, who cares?  There’s no way to force her to do what you want.  There’s also very little chance that she’ll be able to look beyond her immediate desire to not do what you want, she’s five.  Five year olds are not really wired that way.  In the end, she will come around.  If she doesn’t, then fucking wait longer.  If the end of the day comes, well, then you give her back to her parents.  Let them know how the day went and then rejoice that you aren’t going to see her until the next day.

I really do understand how you feel.  I’ve felt and hated the feeling that some little kid is beating me.  But you’re wrong.  There’s no win or lose her.  It just is.  She (and all the others) are who they are.  We work with kids and they are all different and all infuriating from time to time.  We just need to roll with what we’re given.  If you are getting upset because the behaviour has changed your plan for the day or the moment, well, that’s making it about you and not about them.  The other kids will roll with the changes (sometimes), especially if they see that you’re rolling with it too.

 

Downtown Ottawa – March 2016

It really is one of my favourite places to visit and to take pictures. There is so much going on down there. People, places and things. 
I spent a couple hours there on Saturday morning. I needed up taking far fewer pictures than I had planned. Why? Well, because I met Gilles and Jean. 

   
I was wandering past the Shepherds of Good Hope, and stopped to take a picture of a house. As I was taking the shot (which didn’t turn out) Jean came over to me. He pointed at my camera and asked me what I was taking pictures for. We started chatting, and I told him that it was a hobby and that I liked to take pictures when I found I had the time, or needed to clear my head. 

Jean, was definitely under the influence of something. His eyes were glassy and red and he kind of weaved side to side while standing. He sort of slurred his speech a bit and thought that pretty much everything was kind of funny.

Gilles came over a few minutes later and asked me the same basic questions that Jean had. He then started telling me about all the camera gear he had back at his place. Extolling the virtues of film over digital. Jean kept laughing and told us repeatedly that he had no idea what we were talking about. 

Taking part in a conversation with Gilles and Jean was an exercise in patience and listening. They had a tendency to talk at the same time, and at different volumes. I try to always respond to direct questions and use eye contact to show people that I’m listening. That was not easy. 

Jean suddenly stated “you draw too!” I told him that if love to be able to draw but that I wasn’t very good at it. His reply? “No. You draw.” He then demanded to know what the last thing I drew was. I told him that, the day before, I had done a little cartoon sketch of one of the students I work with. To say that he looked confused would be an understatement. After about a minute of silence, during which Gilles continues to talk, Jean asked, with great seriousness “Why?” I tried to explain to him that I’d been trying to use it as a little bribe to get a student to quickly get ready to go outside. He interrupted me with “Why?! Why? Cuz you’re an artist man. Aww shit. You’re and artist!” Gilles, Jean and I had a pretty good laugh at that. 

Three very, very nice folks who were doing outreach, looking for veterans who had fallen on hard times. Gilles said something about how he’d been in Kosovo, but with the French Foreign Legion, so he was well taken care of and didn’t need their help, unless they had some warm gloves. Turns out they did. Gilles stripped off his thin little gloves and took the new ones. He showed me that his right had was almost completely bandaged because of frostbite. He mentioned that he had it on both feet as well. 

Jean was talking to the outreach workers, intently. Gilles told me about having been in prison for nine years. He explained that it wasn’t all that bad but pretty boring. He then told me that he taught himself to speak Spanish, while in prison. 

With a rather heaving francophone accent, he explained that someone had given him a Spanish bible. He couldn’t ready it, and was mad at the person for giving him something he couldn’t read. He got his hands on an English bible. He said that at the beginning of the bible it said that you could not change the word of God. So he figured that the Spanish bible must be a word for word translation of the English one. So, he tells me, he began to spend time writing down the words that seemed to match each other. Thus, he tells me, “I can speak Spanish.” Throughout, Gilles would occasionally pull out a flask and take a nip of something. He also mentioned, several times, that he smoked “a huge fatty” for breakfast. 

The outreach folks seemed to be wrapping up their conversation with Jean. When I looked over, I saw that he had tears running down his cheeks. The lady outreach worker wiped them away and told him that things could get better. Gilles nudged me and said “Life’s a hard fuckin’ thing man.”  Gilles offered to introduce the outreach folks to some of the other guys. 

I bummed Jean a smoke. He wiped at his eyes a few times. He then asked me “Wow man, did you see the snow cone down? I musta got something in my eye.” I looked up at the crystal clear, cloudless sky and told him that that had been to freakiest, shortest snow storm I’d ever seen. We had a very good laugh about that. 

Another fella approached Jean and I. I didn’t catch his name. Jean, spread his arms and asked “what can I get for you man? How can I help?” The new guy, in a very heavy French accent, told him that he wanted a new pickup truck. I’m pretty sure he was just making a joke. Jean did not think it was funny. He went off on a bit of a rant, angry that the guy would take a sincere offer of help and try to turn it into something stupid, asking for something that he, Jean, clearly didn’t have. Jean then seemed to get angry that he had a hard time understanding the new guy, and told him to stop being French. I should add, at no point did Jean seem to be able to catch his balance, always weaving and swaying a bit. New guy was swearing at Jean, in French. After a couple of minutes, it seemed that Jean’s anger switched off, and he suddenly offered to hug the new guy. New guy accepted the hug. New guy smiled and told Jean “I know what I want!” And then told Jean that he needed an ounce. Jean beamed and told him “that’s what I meant man.”  I left them to their burgeoning bromance. 

I said goodbye to Gilles and thanked him for talking with me and letting me snap a few shots of him. He told me “John, you are a really good guy!”

The Bog (Take Two)

I was in a hurry.  It’d been too long since I’d gone out and taken pictures, and too long since I’d captured many that I really liked.  So yesterday I posted a quick gallery of some of the pictures that I’d done, and only today did I realize that I’d only actually edited about half of them and that I’d forgotten a bunch.  So, here’s that rectified.  The editing is done and I’m reposting.  Thanks for reading and looking at my pictures.

G.

Those shoots…

Good lord I love these shoots.  Something intimate, and carful, and crafted, and beautiful.  I’ve found that they can be so very satisfying for me as the photographer, and very much satisfying and empowering for the subject.

I’ve recently been contacted to set up two boudoir style photo shoots, so I went back into some of my past work, to provide examples of what I’ve done.  These two stood out because for some reason I’de never done anything with them.  I guess that makes them leftovers, so here they are.

I can’t describe the feeling of helping someone see themselves the way that they want to be seen or the way that I see them.  It’s actually hard for me to charge money for this;  I feel like I should be paying for the privilege.  These are a joy.

100 random and unrelated book chapters.

I have no idea if I can pull this off, but, with no deadline and no actual pressure, I’m thinking I can at least make a start.

I don’t remember where or when I thought of doing this, but I love the idea of reading (and actually writing) an utterly random moment from a fictional book, out of order and unrelated to anything.

I’m looking forward to the challenge and the giggles that I’m sure will come a long with it.

Here’s hoping you’ll read them and enjoy them too.

G.