gillis and her big mouth

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The Prequel

Last Wednesday, or maybe it was Thursday, I began to understand that things were fundamentally shifting around me. I was slated to host my book group Thursday night and we had agreed to meet together since we were all feeling healthy and none of us had compromising medical conditions. No one had been asked to stay home from work – yet – and we didn’t want to cancel the get-together since so many gatherings were being cancelled. As I was prepping to host the group, I was acutely aware of cleaning the place at a higher level than usual. Since “the usual” tends to be a quick vacuum, bathroom scrub, and candle lighting to obscure the cobwebs, I knew I needed to up my game so I pulled out the spray cleaner with bleach and quickly realized I had run out of paper towels. A quick trip to the grocery store was in order.

The scene at Big Y had the same feeling that comes with the announcement of a snow storm, but with a slightly more dystopian edge to it. People were not smiling at one another and carts were piled high. I made a beeline for the paper goods aisle and found the only paper towels available were the Armageddon sized variety, so I picked up a package and went towards the check out.

As I entered the queue, I looked to my right and saw a large man in an orange jacket standing in the next line over, turned not toward the check out, but toward the rest of the store. He did not have a cart and he was asking the people behind him in line to push back. A man wearing a baseball hat with a small shopping cart containing a few essentials waited directly behind him and he did not move when requested to do so. This was before the call for “social distancing” so people were clumped up tightly in line and this shopper seemed reluctant to lose his spot in the long line. The cartless, orange coated man, who had at least 8 inches in height and 70 pounds in weight over the man with the cart behind him, raised his voice and shouted, “Let my son in the line.” This got everyone’s attention and we looked to see his teenaged son, with a very full cart, trying to get past a long line of shoppers who had all been waiting in the line to check out. Several shoppers sighed audibly and moved, but the smaller man in the baseball cap did not move. Mr. Orange Coat then engaged with Mr. Baseball Cap directly, telling him to move. Baseball Cap moved, calling Orange Coat “selfish and entitled,” to which Orange then told Baseball Cap he would, “see him outside.”

At this point, my line had moved up enough so that I could hide behind the rack of candy and try to ignore the exchanges occurring on the other side. Eventually, I put my gargantuan package of paper towels on the conveyor and completely forgot about the drama in lane 8. I exchanged a few pleasantries with the shopper in front of me, whose brother was with the NYFD and had implored her to “get prepared to stay home.” She seemed bemused by this and we sort of chuckled together, until Orange Coat, in the next line over, interrupted us by shouting, “Go ahead! Keep staring at me! Enjoy the view!” at Baseball Cap while he packed his groceries, bag after bulging bag. Baseball Cap said something in return that I could not hear, and then I saw Orange Coat’s arm fly up and over toward Baseball Cap. I swiveled around expecting to see a blow struck, but instead, I saw the two men shake hands. Apologies exchanged all around for selfish behavior, blamed on heightened tensions. As we all paid up and went on our way with our purchases, I bit my tongue, because I really wanted both of them to use some hand sanitizer on their way out…

New England is a State of Mind

We New Englanders are a hearty lot. At least that’s what we want you to think. We are not flashy, or even all that attractive for at least three or four months out of the year when we become either ashy or transparently pale due to cold weather and indoor heating. We don’t “meet cute.” Ever. We reserve judgment. You won’t find us inviting you over to our porch for some sweet tea twenty minutes after we’ve met you, but we might agree to meet you at a bar. Somewhere public. Where we know people, and they don’t overcharge. And twenty years after we’ve known you, we’ll still be there, in the same spot, and we’ll be the ones who quietly bring you meals after surgery, sit with you when your kid is in rehab, and give you a ride home from your divorce lawyer. We prefer to be called flinty, not cheap and not small minded. Never small minded. Except sometimes we are very small minded and the only way we come around to a new way of thinking is when someone we love calls us out on it. Our form of liberalism is not the sunny liberalism of California and the west coast. Our liberalism comes from wanting to be left alone. We might believe in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but we do want to make sure you have decent boots before we lay that on you. And after we profess some tough love, we’ll check on you, repeatedly, to make sure the boots still fit. But don’t ever remark on that because we don’t want attention called.

We earn our spring. It isn’t some cherry blossom fantasy that arrives after a few melancholy weeks of rain. It is the hard-fought spring of a desperate people who have nearly given up any hope of allowing their shoulders to move down from about their ears. It happens just at the moment we have accepted the idea that nature – and any creator anyone wants to believe, or not believe, in-  has completely forsaken us and it’s time to go Mad Max on the world to find a scrap of life to cling to before we start some form of ritual sacrifice to end winter. So when our thoughts turn to spring, we aren’t wandering lonely as a cloud and dancing with daffodils, we’re raking up the mud, firing up the burn pile, and hoping the sky clears. Someday.

Yesterday was a blue sky day. And it was warm. Made me soft. Made me care too much. Today was a correction. No snow, but cold, wet rain and layers of gray were sent down to put me in my place. Don’t get cocky, it’s not even April yet. You’re not new here, what are you thinking, wearing shoes without socks? Settle down and watch a Red Sox game. That will bring you back to reality. They all must have had some fun on break this winter because they’re playing like the B team in the middle school intramural league. Don’t get us started on our sports teams. We are never satisfied with them. They win a trophy or a ring? Twenty minutes of relaxation then we’re stressed out about how they’ll blow it the next time. Same way we parent. Even if our kids do amazing things, we don’t want to brag about it in case they end up in rehab in a few months and we need you to be quietly sitting with us to help us get through it.

This is a special place, with beautiful coastlines, cities and minds both large and small, “local” accents like a tight fist shaking in your face mingling with sunnier accents from all over the globe, and open arms just waiting for a reason to uncross themselves…

I See Dead People

Songs are like bookmarks for the stories in my life and I always have a few songs that seem to highlight what I’m thinking about or experiencing. I can’t be alone in this, I mean, didn’t we all make a thousand mixed tapes for each other back in the day? Or was that just me? The most recent song on my repeat has been the Mumford and Sons song, “Beloved.” It’s a song about saying goodbye to someone who’s dying. At least I think it’s a song about saying goodbye to someone who’s dying. I’ve been known to misinterpret things like song lyrics, allegorical stories, poems, baking recipes, romantic overtures, plans to split bills, driving directions, and financial advice. However, I do truly think this song refers to saying goodbye to someone who is dying though because the speaker says things like, “before you leave, you must know you are beloved.” That sounds pretty straightforward to me. If it means something else, like someone is going off to jail, you can just keep that information to yourself. Don’t wreck this for me.

What is remarkable to me about this song is how beautifully uplifting I find it. I will crank this tune in my car and sing along to it, often with tears streaming down my face, and still, I will want to hear it again and pump my figurative fist to it while the tears, and occasionally the snot, remind me that I’m alive and I still get to feel things about the people I love, alive and dead. I find it incredibly satisfying and moving to listen to, and for some reason, it has become my musical mantra. I always have one going on. I have a real need to lay claim to a song that pumps me up for the work day because teaching is emotionally and spiritually grueling a lot of the time, and I want to be full of life and purpose when I show up to do it. It’s probably a little odd that I’ve latched onto this particular song for the purpose of pumping me up for a workday, but I have. At least for now.

When I listen to the song, I picture those people whom I love and have lost, and also those I know I will lose in the near future. What can I say? I prepare myself for the losing of loved ones. Maybe that makes me strange. I picture these people all so clearly and dearly that it moves me to sing about the need to let them know they are loved. And then I think a little bit about how beautifully sad it is that we are all these fragments of life intersecting with one another for such a brief time. How lines of people can be stretched out, never knowing one another past one or two generations. How we want to share what we know of loved ones gone with those who’ve just arrived in order to pass the stories along. How a part of us dies with each loved one who dies because the people we were when we were with them can’t really exist with anyone else. The stories we shared with them belong to the museums we keep in our hearts, and they aren’t really for sharing with others. We can share the surface parts of those stories, but the real stories, the truth of the truth of them, can’t be shared with other people. Trying to do so will only make us feel more alone.

On a day like today, when spring is in the air, what more could one ask for than an anthem about love and loss?



The Person You Need Is…

“When you need me but do not want me, I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me, I must go.” – Nanny McPhee

I had an interesting conversation with my daughter this week. She was telling me about her decision not to work on her school’s student council next year. She’s been active in student government groups for years. I’m vaguely aware of what they do each week, but I’m acutely aware that they meet each Wednesday before school because I’m always late to my school on the days I drop her off for her meetings. In any case, she has grown weary of the work, so she let the group know that she will not be doing it again next year, her senior year. She said several group members expressed surprise, but she told me she’s lost her interest in it and wants to save her energy for things that mean more than fundraising and dances. She is serving as her class president this year, but she wasn’t elected to the post. I can’t quite remember how she ended up with the job and the title, but I do remember that she didn’t win it in an election. She’ll quickly remind me that she has run for office five times while in high school and she has lost each of those five elections.  Still, she kept stepping up to lead and to do the work when the work wasn’t being done, although she did so with the knowledge that she was not the first choice of the majority of her peers. She rolled up her sleeves and showed up week after week to support a more popular person who had been voted into the role she wanted. Or she was allowed to have the job when someone else didn’t work out in it. Now she’s done with that and she’s ready to move on. She’s figuring out what is worth her time, and a little bit about her own worth. I hope she keeps working on that.

A Girl Can Dream

Just when it seems like winter is hanging on like a child who doesn’t want to go to sleep, we get two nice days in a row. Bam! It’s time to pick my head up off of the table and it’s safe to look around and hope again. Spring is settling in, it’s really happening. The sky is clear and the temperature is above freezing. The mud is only ankle high.

It’s darn near paradise so I will drag out my dream list of perennials because this is the year I am going to plant something in front of the house. I’ll be pulling out all of the overgrown hostas and I’ll deal with the invasive monsters that have taken over. I will stay on top of them this year. The yard will be full of color and texture. I’ll consider the bees and butterflies. I’ll remember to put the taller blooms closer to the house and the shorter ones further away. I’ll fill in the holes with tasteful annuals. Nothing garish or tacky. The whole thing will be an understated floating painting in our yard.

Or I’ll just let the hostas grow all over the place again. We’ll see…

I Fart in Your General Direction

What does it say about us as a nation if we allow our department of education to cut the funding for Special Olympics and we, once again, ask this group to rely on philanthropy to support a small moment of glory for our special needs students? Is this what is meant by American “greatness?” Sweeping the special needs kids back into a corner as if it were 1950 again? This bit of governmental sewage has been roiling around in my head all day. “Difficult decisions” needed to be made so the line item for Special Olympics was the place where it made sense to cut? Instead of cutting the funding for huge standardized testing corporations like Pearson, this is what our DoE decides to cut? This is who we are now. This is us.

This is, of course, total bullshit. If the economy is doing so well, and this administration keeps wetting itself with joy with over how well it is going, why aren’t we finding ways to expand what we can offer to public schools? Come to think of it, why aren’t we building structures that would actually help people like roads, bridges, and railroads instead of a medieval wall meant to keep our southern neighbors out? It reminds me of the Insulting Frenchman from Monty Python behind the castle wall, hurling insults (your mother is a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries) at King Arthur. This largely symbolic wall will destroy the habitat of many organisms and also keep our courts tied up in litigation over eminent domain laws for decades, and for what? A wall that will do very little to deter desperate people from trying to gain entry into a country that they believe might give them a better chance to live up to their potential. But the country they seek doesn’t exist right now and may, instead, separate them from their children and send them back home, somehow, “losing” their children in the process. This is who we are now.

There are just too many gutless, greedy moves by this administration to catalog here. I have struggled to understand the mendacity and mental gymnastics of those who support them. I can say, definitively, that when our school celebrated World Down’s Syndrome Day last week by wearing “crazy socks,” it was incredibly moving to have one of our students with Down’s Syndrome thank the school over the P.A. system for our show of support. And just today, I saw the posters on the wall letting us know that our next Spirit Day comes on April 2nd, when we will wear blue for Autism Awareness to support our learners with autism. The things that unite us look a lot more like crazy socks than hats with divisive slogans on them.

I don’t want to go back to a world where people with special needs are not integrated into society, and the only way to make that happen is to make sure that our kids grow up alongside one another. They typical next to the exceptional. It enriches everyone’s life to see the full range of humanity. I will not stop speaking out and standing up. This budget does not reflect our values. The time to speak up is now.

You Can’t Go Back to the 80s, So Don’t Even Try

Today I felt like McGyver for a moment when I realized I did not pack a hairbrush on my overnight work trip. I realized it only after I had both showered, and moussed my hair.  I found the jokey little hotel blowdryer and went into a mini-panic. Where was my brush? My round brush? The one styling tool I use to create a suitable helmet of hair around my face each day? As anyone knows, you cannot just put mousse in your hair and then not do something to it. The mousse will harden and your hair will crust up into strange ripples and bends not found in nature. Yes, I know, it’s ironic to be concerned that hair is going to look unnatural in a way that is different from the other unnatural way that I style it daily, but please, set that aside for now.

As my anxiety was mounting, I realized I didn’t want to wake up my roommate/colleague and I needed to handle this hair situation quickly. I didn’t even have a comb with me. To add to the problem, I have baby fine hair. And only about four strands of it in total. Just this past Sunday morning my seventeen year old daughter was, inexplicably and unexpectedly, touching my hair and remarking on how soft it is, and how “like a baby’s” my hair feels. Concurring with her I said, “yes, it’s very fine and thin, now take your gawddamn hands out of it before you pull half of it out accidentally.” I’m very, very protective of my tiny collection of hair.

Back at the hotel, the hair episode was reaching crisis mode and the mousse was starting to feel crunchy…and then suddenly I remembered…Jose Eber! Circa 1988! In case you need a refresher, he was the French-born hairstylist with long, blond long hair worn in a braid under a cowboy hat. He was on tv every other week giving makeovers to women and used only his hands to style their hair. The ladies from Knots Landing were among his clients if I recall correctly, and I may not be recalling correctly, but it sounds plausible so I’m going with it. On the morning shows, he would mousse up the hair, have the women flip their heads upside down, and he would dry their hair and crunch and fluff it as he dried it. They ended up with wavy volume. I was feeling hopeful, or at least cautiously optimistic. I forged ahead with the Eber method, turning my inverted head, moving my hands, hoping for the best. in the end, all the nostalgia in the world couldn’t save this hairstyle. Potentially defying some physics laws, my hair was both flat and wavy. Stuck to my head and veering off of it in places I could not have predicted.

It turns out that even Jose Eber is using styling tools these days. When I googled him to make sure I had spelled his name correctly, I noticed that he had an extensive line of curling wands and flat irons for sale with his name on them. Some things should just stay in the past I guess.


A collective of teachers

I have always enjoyed collective nouns for creatures. A brace of ducks. A murder of crows. A congress of baboons. A muster of peacocks. I don’t remember too many more of them off of the top of my head, but when I am reminded about them, I feel a pleasant little chuckle bubble up, even if I keep it to myself.

Presently I find myself in a room crowded with educational professionals. That isn’t just a euphemism by the way, because I think there are equal amounts of teachers and administrators here, and the administrators don’t want to be mistaken for mere teachers.

It begs the question, what should a group of teachers be called? A school of teachers, like a school of fish? Too obvious. An institution of educators? Too clinical. Maybe a gibberish of teachers. Too messy – and unkind. I’m not able to come up with an accurate collective noun for this group of people. We’ve traveled many miles to attend workshops from 8 am until 5:30 pm and we’ll be back at it in the morning for day 2. Most of had to prepare two days’ worth of work for someone else to deliver in our absence. When we return, we will have a load of work to grade. Maybe a collective  of teachers should be called a dedication of teachers?

Be Prepared

I’ve spent the better part of the afternoon packing for an overnight trip. This sounds mundane, and to be sure, it is, but also, it is not. I’m heading off to an educational conference in the morning. I will be rooming with someone who works in my school, although we do not work directly together. I received my roommate assignment, as well as information about the conference itself, on Friday while I was busy teaching. The information from the conference organizers included a dress code for “business casual” attire. For whatever reason, this has me working overtime.

I haven’t had a lot of time to become anxious, but if one were to look at my bag, it would be clear that I’ve taken full advantage of every spare moment to do so. I have stuffed all sorts of things in this bag. And I’m bringing a separate bag of books to read as well as  papers to grade (so cute) in case I have time to read or work on things unrelated to the topics we are delving into at the conference. I have approximately 23 different shirt and sweater/wrap/jacket combinations to wear with the one pair of black (of course) pants I’m bringing. I have workout gear, loungewear, and pajama choices. I’ve packed several pairs of shoes. I have put in all the beauty samples that have been amassing in my cabinet. Apparently I am going to be playing the part of Sandy in Grease and Frenchie and Rizzo will be giving me a makeover with this stockpile. Can’t wait!

I need to juxtapose this episode with the trip to New York City that I took with my family last month. The four of us shared one, very small bag for our overnight trip. We traveled by train and it was snowing, so we needed a lot of cold weather gear. We each wore layers and rolled things tightly into the bag because I couldn’t handle the thought of monitoring more than one bag, and of course, I had to be the control freak to handle the bag. This time, I’m driving my own car and I can load it up as much as I want. This means I want to bring half my wardrobe in order to make up for the fact that I cannot wear jeans, blue, black, or otherwise, at this conference. I’m reacting to that restriction by bringing everything else.

I’m sure it will be fine once I get there, it always is, but for now, I’m measuring the back of my car to see if I can fit just one more gallon of water, one more sweater, or one more book, in there.

A Decent Hotel for a Change

We took an overnight trip to Boston recently and booked a room at a decent city hotel for a change. Usually we cheap out and stay at a chain hotel outside the city, so this was a small splurge.

My husband drove into town, leaving me to navigate. GPS is a modern miracle, but like all miracles they come with a price. My husband did not have his glasses on while driving, so I needed to look at the phone for directions and read all of the street signs. He was struggling to hear me over both our kids, so I was essentially shouting at him towards the end at the point when all of the turns on one way streets begin piling up. This led to a bit of circling around.

When we finally mastered the route, we agreed to valet the car at the hotel so we could end the circling madness. We had become cranky and needed to end our time in the car. We trooped into the lobby, with its sleek bar, tasteful music, bits of scented air, and high ceilings. I checked us in and collected our room keys. Our kids figured out the elevator system and we took it up to the seventh floor. We read the signs and followed the multiple hallway turns to our room, keyed ourselves in, and discovered it hadn’t been cleaned. This was a first. Collectively or individually, we had never checked into a hotel and been given a dirty room before. It felt like a slap in the face. We all recoiled in horror at the unmade bed, the glass of water left on the night table, and the hand towels, piled on top of another without thought on the bathroom counter.

What to do when faced with such sights? We actually had a moment when we looked at each other the way documentaries show bonobos looking at video cameras they’ve discovered in their habitat. Perplexed, curious, amazed. What was this new information our brains were being asked to assimilate? Could someone still be residing in this white space with the neutral prints on the walls? My god, is their stuff still here? Who were they, and why didn’t someone come in and wipe all traces of their presence away? Isn’t that the point of a hotel? The anonymity and the blankness?

One does not expect to be confronted with thoughts of the previous room dweller when checking into a hotel. It’s unsettling at best in a modern hotel to feel that things are not pristine and waiting for your arrival. It’s perhaps a bit like when you are reminded that your spouse or partner was previously someone else’s partner and did partner-like things with them. We imagine ourselves to be the rightful occupant, of the hotel room or the heart, and evidence of another is disturbing on some level. In this case, after our too-long beat of confusion, we wound our way back down to the lobby where we exchanged our keys for those to another room. When we went back up, this time to the eighth floor, we found our room ready and waiting for us. Unoccupied, clean, blank, standing at attention, and waiting for us to bring it to life.