gillis and her big mouth

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Month: March, 2012

What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been…

I hope you didn’t come here expecting a tribute to Jerry Garcia. I know the title to today’s slice is a bit misleading but I wanted to reflect on the month-long challenge and frankly, I don’t think I have an original, creative thought left in my head so I stole that line from The Grateful Dead. If you see me wearing my tie dye shirt, batik skirt, and fringed moccasins later today, please administer CDR therapy to me right away = Current Day Reality therapy. One of two photos of Lady Gaga, along with the text from Rick Santorum’s latest blather, waved briskly under my nose should snap me right back into present day.

As challenging as it has been for me to find time to write this month, I am so glad that I’ve made it through March having written each and every day. While a lot of what I’ve written is, upon reflection, a bit “cringe worthy,” it’s still feels good to have completed the challenge. I now know that I can carve out time to write despite my glamorous, demanding schedule. And apparently I can write without having anything to say on a regular basis as well. Writing these posts each day has made me feel like much less of a fraud in front of my students because I am forever telling them that they don’t need to have huge events or big ideas in order to write, they just have to start and see where the work takes them. Now that I’ve walked the walk, I don’t feel so fraudulent talking the talk.

I will be participating in the Tuesday SOLC work from here on out. I also plan on going back and reading lots of posts that I didn’t have time to delve into during March so I can start to follow some of the bloggers who have been writing all month. I want to thank any and all slicers who have read and commented on these posts. Your words of support, encouragement, and reflection were like sweet, little treasures that I devoured each day. Please know how your comments enriched my month and helped me to grow as a writer and a teacher. I’ll look for you each Tuesday and again next March.


You Gotta Play to Win

Yesterday I gave five dollars to the 7th grade science teacher for the school’s pool in the Megapowermillionbigmoneyball Lottery drawing taking place tonight. Now I’m just hoping there will be enough time to get a proper haircut before the group photo with the table-sized check is taken for the local newspaper. It’s hard to know exactly how much money I am going to get because I understand there may be other winners besides our group. This makes it a bit more challenging to plan how I will spend my share of the money, but I’m willing to outline a few things.

The first order of business is to get out of debt, pay off the house, the cars, and get that albatross Amazon account unlaced from neck once and for all. Next order of business? Perhaps buy Amazon and cut out the middleman. If there’s money still left, I’d like to travel. I’ll start with the places in the US I’ve never seen – Pacific Northwest, San Francisco area, Hawaii- I’m coming your way. Be forewarned Barbecue Belt, I will be taking a U-Haul down to the World’s Largest Tag Sale this summer. I’ll hit all the major music festivals taking place during the next 12 months – SXSW, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and whatever tour Bruce Springsteen is doing.

I’ll sign up to spend a month or so at a writers’ colony. They will ask me to leave after 6 days because of my poor attitude, but I will know it’s just underlying professional jealousy. That’s okay, I will buy the writer’s colony so that the following summer I can control the guest list.

Until then, I’ll lick my wounds with a family trip to Europe starting in Wales to listen to large men sing loudly. Portugal is also a must so we can eat lots of fish and buy matching pottery. We’ll continent hop after that because I’ve always wanted to see the sun set in Nepal. I have no idea why. After that, we will go where the wind, and my millions, blow us.

When we are ready to return to the United States, we’ll buy a beach house as well as spacious apartment in Manhattan. I will need a place in the city because my talk show will be filmed from there. Did I forget to mention that I would be buying a production company so that I could have my own talk show? With a house band? It will feature all of the people and things I think are absolutely fabulous, and I won’t need to worry about ratings because I will buy up all of my own advertising. That way I can have an episode featuring Tina Fey, Lyle Lovett, Savion Glover and David Sedaris at the same time.  I predict the show will be a big hit with insomniacs and incarcerated populations as well as those people sitting at Jiffy Lube waiting for an oil change. When the networks decide not to pick up it after the first year, I will choose to walk away rather purchase my own network at that point, not because I can’t, but because I yearn for a simpler life.

I will then move my family to a sheep farm in Vermont where we will spin our own wool and make felted craft items which we sell on etsy.  Beyond that, I don’t dare to dream.

You know what they say, you gotta play to win.



Spandex is Satan’s Tool

The swimsuit catalog arrived, uninvited, in the mailbox yesterday. In an attempt to avoid my school work, I opened the catalog and began flipping through it. The inside cover shows something they are calling, adorably enough, the 4 piece bikini. I don’t currently teach math, but the last time I checked, bikinis came with only 2 pieces to cover the girl parts from the harsh glare of the sun and keep them safe from shark attack. Somehow this company has cleverly added 2 pieces to the equation. If I had known that bikinis could have up to 4 pieces to them, perhaps I would have been buying them all along. Especially if one of the pieces was a superhero cape.

A further peek into the catalog shows an almost limitless combination of tops and bottoms in colors, patterns, shapes, and styles to please any female who wants to wear some form of the tradtional swimsuit. I find that I am not that female. There is nothing appealing to me about wiggling into some spandexy piece, or pieces, of material that expose so much of my flesh that I have to come up with a plan to deal with hair that was never meant to be seen publicly. I am the first to admit that I am not in peak physical shape at this point in my life, but even if I were, I think I might still walk away from the straps, ruffles, bandeaus, mid-rise bottoms, halters, and tankinis that all seem to be variations on one another. Nothing in this mix looks remotely funky or dignified. And for an item of clothing that weighs less than a pound, I can pay over $100 and still feel hideous in it? No thanks.

I think it’s time for women to rise up. Sure we need to fight for equal pay, better reproductive health options, and more representation in government among other things, but I think we also need to have equal freedom under the sun. We need to tell the manufacturers that these bathing suit options are unacceptable. No grown woman should be wearing a ruffled swim skirt in the hopes that it makes her look young, thin, or girlish. And who decided that a flimsy strip of fabric encircling the breasts – the bandeau top- should be a viable option for anyone over the age of 16? No more I say! It’s unfair that men are able to  wear the same swim trunks year after year without a thought to their cellulite or bikini line. We need to figure out a way for women to have timeless, functional, fun swimwear that makes us feel powerful, not insecure. I have no idea what that would look like, but I know it would be fantastic to stop feeling like my physical shortcomings are on display every time I want to go to the beach. And I’m pretty sure it would involve a cape.


Blame the Shoes

Between saying and doing, many a pair of shoes is worn out. – Iris Murdoch

I have loved shoes since my tiny Nana Billie gave me a cast-off pair of her shoes. The shoes in question happened to be kitten heeled, gold lame, boudoir sandals trimmed in maribou that had grown too tight for her. I wore those chicas up and down the tar-striped street during the summer between second and third grade. Did I mention they were trimmed with maribou? I played kickball in them, climbed trees in them, rode my bike in them and didn’t take them off until one of the heels snapped off and all the tape in my Dad’s basement workshop could not hold it back on. Part of the reason I loved those shoes is that we never got gifts of any kind from our grandparents, although they did give us money on birthdays and holidays, but buying gifts for all seven of their granddaughters was too much for them to take on. These shoes were as close as I would get to a real, picked-out-for-me gift from Little Nana, so they were special. Not to mention that they were trimmed in maribou.

These shoes turned out to be a powerful gateway drug leading to life of ever more dangerous podiatric longing. While I was still in junior high, I became acquainted with platform shoes. I could gain 2-4 inches with little effort wearing them and they were everywhere after the disco craze had peaked in previous years. During high school, I collected Candie’s brand high heel sandals that wrapped around my ankle in every color of the rainbow. This trend was followed the preppy look where I was torn between wearing Pappagallo knockoffs with grosgrain ribbon or my spiky heeled pumps modeled after the Robert Palmer video-dancers. My wardrobe was particularly schizophrenic in high school. Thankfully, I went to college in Vermont where there were practical matters like months of snow followed by months of mud to consider. I took foot fashion cues from LL Bean almost exclusively, but because I was a drama major, I did get my share of fantastic footwear to wear on stage, so I never felt deprived.

When I hit the workforce, I was one of those creepy commuters who wore her sneakers with white socks on the subway and changed into my stylish, but sedate pumps at the office. On the weekends, I wore Frye boots, bowling shoes, and Converse sneakers. I was leading a double life from the ankle down and it was starting to take a toll on me. I knew I was in trouble the day I realized I had taken to work one brown Bandolino pump and one navy blue Franco Sarto pump to wear. Something had to change.

Luckily, I went back to school to get my master’s degree and become a teacher. It was during this time that I realized I would need to find some common ground in my footwear if I was going to survive my semester of student teaching. I wouldn’t make it through the grueling days and weeks ahead standing for six hours a day in pumps, and I didn’t think I’d be taken seriously if I wore my Chuck Taylors. It was about this time that I discovered clogs. Not just any clogs, but the real things. Dansko. I scrounged up enough money to buy a pair of black, leather, full-shoe, stapled Danskos. They were an exorbitant amount of money for a grad student. And I couldn’t even wear them with a dress, unless I wanted to pass for a Catholic nun or someone with extreme bunion issues, but they probably kept me going in the MEd program when I was really questioning my commitment to the world of education. I knew I had to at least get my degree because I had spent so much damn money on those teacher shoes.

That was sixteen years ago and those clogs were finally retired when my son was born, nearly three years ago, because they had become stretched out to instability causing me at 7 months pregnant to lurch when I walked. By then, the staples along the wooden footbed were completely rusted and kept leaving marks on my pant hems.  The utilitarian black clogs have been replaced with red, patent clogs, leopard print horsehair clogs (yes, PETA hates me, but I had no idea it was really horsehair when I found them on clearance until a student told me!), brown, hook-and-eye boot clogs that Holly Hobbie might have worn, various clog sandals, and several other less glamorous or interesting incarnations of the clog. I have other shoes, mostly Converse, Keen, Merrell, and J-41s, that I can teach in as well, but the 10 and counting pairs of Danskos are the ones I rely on to get me (and my back) through the days in my classroom with the concrete floor. I have a lovely shoe rack with the fancy or sublime non-teaching shoes that get to come out and play on occasion. When spring and summer roll around I like to stray and wear flip flops or beautiful, expensive Israeli sandals, but the shoes that have shaped my teaching career are the clunky, clumsy clogs. I think I may still be toiling in the land of the cubicles to this day if I hadn’t discovered the clog. I blame the shoes.

Changes and Chains

The weather here in the Berkshire hills has changed abruptly. Last  week I had to shave my legs ahead of schedule just to be able to wear clothing appropriate for 80 degree heat. This morning I was scrambling to find clean jackets that would keep the 23 degree winds from biting my children too hard. It has been a strange early spring with unexpected weather and transitions all around that, to me, feel tentative.

As my son settles into preschool routines and I learn to watch him try-fail-try to do things just beyond his present skill level (hey, Vygotsky may have had something after all), I see a future where he will be entirely independent of me. Sometimes I’d like to see that process move in hyper speed, on those days when I have no patience left for him and my daily allotment of “nice” has been used up by my students. Other times the idea of a day when I cannot hold him on my lap and place my hands on his springroll of a belly is too sad to contemplate.

My daughter, too, is transitioning into adolescence. With one foot firmly planted in childhood, the other one is poised to squish down into the mud of early adulthood soon. She questions so many things and often dislikes the answers she gets about what is real and what is not, what the world says about who she can and cannot be, and how to navigate through a world that may not always value what she has to say. I hope she’ll be able to channel her righteous anger and disappointment into action on behalf of the things that she feels most strongly about.

On the other side of things are my parents who are now fighting a losing battle to maintain their independence. It is difficult to watch them struggle with the loss of freedom in their lives these days. The ability to drive, to care for themselves and one another, and  to engage with the outside world in meaningful ways are now all conditional and as changeable as the weather. How strange it must be to need help grocery shopping or keeping your home clean after you raised seven daughters and held down demanding jobs for many decades. How unrecognizable the landscape of your life when your greatest goal becomes showing hospital staff that you have the strength to take care of your basic daily needs at home without their support. Bearing witness to these transitions is not easy but there is richness in the symmetry of being there to help those who helped us for so long.

I see how I am firmly linked into the middle of this family chain. I know that, if I’m lucky to be there for it, my link will someday slide over to take the place of my parents’. In turn, my children will move up to take the spot I’m sitting in now.  I hope that these transitions will have some grace to them, and lots of laughter to go along with the inevitable tears.

What is the sound of one blogger blogging?

So it’s Day 26 of the Slice of Life Challenge and I’m wondering -what happens when the challenge ends? Will my blog be a vernal pool that dries up when the month is over? Or will I figure out a way to keep it alive so that I write on a regular basis? And if it stays alive, what is the sound of one blogger blogging? If a blog falls in the blogosphere and there is no one there to comment, does it make a sound?

I can tell you that shortly after successfully completing the Weight Watchers at Work for 12 weeks last year, my midsection blew back up to its customary Superdome shape within 8 weeks of the program ending. I don’t have a great track record for imposing structure on myself once the structure has been removed. I tried to keep a blog a few years ago but I kept forgetting a.) to write in it b.) to let people know that I had written in it c.) that I wanted people to read what I had written and comment on it, and d.) where the blog was, what it was called, and my username and password for it. Clearly I was not ready to commit to a blog. This challenge has helped me to get into the routine of writing regularly but beyond that, I’m not sure I have a lot of focus for a project like a blog. When I hear about people who have several blogs and I know that they write in them daily, I’m amazed. I understand parts of it – a professional space to write about teaching and learning and a personal blog to write the rest of it – but I can’t imagine maintaining and writing more than one blog regularly. It’s like bigamy of the mind, and frankly one marriage is more than I can handle some days.

I think my charge this week is to (and this may call for some courage in a bottle) read through my posts and see if a pattern emerges. I think I’ll find most of the posts have been pretty light-hearted but I wonder if that’s just because the audience is largely unknown to me and I don’t want to offend anyone. Maybe as I look further into things I’ll see what this blog wants to be when it grows up. And if not, maybe it’s okay for the blog to be a Brigadoon of sorts. Lots of things should go away after they serve their purpose (no, I’m not talking to you this time honey). It might be fun to have a March blog to look forward to without the pressure to keep it going all year.

What are your thoughts about this challenge? Was the SOLC challenge your first blog attempt? Will you continue to write in your blog? Are you a bigamist blogger? And if you have one of those attractive blogs with photos and quotes floating around it, do you tend to take better care of it and nurture it? I’d love to hear about how others will go forward in the great blogosphere come April 1st.

Reflecting on Trayvon Martin’s Shooting

For the past several days I’ve been trying to digest the information about the Travyon Martin shooting. I’m not sure I can come to an understanding of it, but it has provoked a wide swinging arc of thought in my mind. Here are the ingredients in my brain stew to date:

The sixth grade ELA teacher in my school uses the theme of courage to connect her reading and writing work throughout the year and is now teaching a unit on the Civil Rights movement. She has a large selection of novels as well as video footage and non-fiction pieces for her students to read and respond to in a variety of ways. One of her students told her he thought the whole unit was irrelevant in the year 2012. He felt these issues were in the past and they didn’t impact our lives today. I snorted when she told me that – partly because the student was in my class last year and he questioned the validity of anything he was asked to – but also because I teach in a rural, regional district in western Massachusetts and it’s about 90% white. Including our “relevance officer”. Unfortunately, just days later, Trayvon Martin brought some present day relevance to the unit.

Trayvon Martin’s shooting has also made me think about gun laws in the United States. Full disclosure here in case you’ve not picked up on it yet, I am politically quite liberal and I make no apology for it. I’m thoughtful and deliberate about my views, but I realize that others may be equally thoughtful and still come up with an entirely different set of beliefs. I don’t want the government controlling how I procreate, worship, or choose to entertain myself, however I do think the government should help us all make sure that the elderly, disabled, and disadvantaged have the resources they need to live in dignity. I also believe that things like guns should be regulated because they are weapons that are built solely for the purpose of killing, or at least hurting, other beings. I do eat meat and have no issue with hunting, but I have never understand the need for some of our citizens to stockpile weapons, especially those that are designed for combat, not hunting. I think guns should be regulated rather strictly. The man who shot Trayvon Martin was a neighborhood watch volunteer. My neighborhood has a sign that reads “This neighborhood patrolled by Neighborhood Watch,” now I’m wondering if any of my neighbors has the means to start their own militia. I pray it’s not the guy who competitively grows the gigantic pumpkins because he seems a little “off,” if you know what I mean. And I sure hope it’s not the house where the kid blares the loud, droning music whenever his parents are out for the night. I would feel better if I knew which house had weapons inside them. Or perhaps I would feel much worse.

Looking at the photographs of Trayvon Martin, I’m reminded of middle school students I taught in Chicago fifteen years ago. I picture the eighth grade boys who wore hoodies to school every day and who had to arm themselves with bravado just to get to school and back home each day. What the world expects of these kids and what we give them to fortify themselves with doesn’t match up very well. It is every parent’s nightmare to think that you can send your child out into the world and they won’t come back. Knowing that the shooter has not been charged with a crime sends some powerful and chilling messages about what, and whom, our society values. I think we may be at a crossroads of some kind and I hope that the road we take will be wide enough to accommodate everyone.

Old Dog, New Tricks?

A reminder email from the local instructor of Guitars in the Classroom (GITC) popped up in my online mailbox yesterday, and with it came all sorts of anxieties. How will I manage to make it to these weekly classes? I hope my husband meant it when he told me to sign up and he’d figure out a way to make it home in time for me attend each week. Will I be able to read the music? I never truly mastered that as a kid. What kind of expectation will there be for using this in my classroom? Please don’t tell me I will have to play the guitar and sing publicly in my classroom for some sort of credit, reimbursement, or action research. I may want to do this eventually, but if there is a short-term expectation that I’ll be ready to do that by, say, June 1st, I may need to retreat.

In short, I’m scared as hell to do this. That means it’s gotta be valuable, right? Like doing anything new –learning to ride a bike, having a baby, hosting a big holiday dinner, buying a house –they were all scary that first time but they were all worthwhile. And I’ve wanted to play the guitar since I was a kid. Sadly, I think it may be too late for me to be the next Bonnie Raitt/Tracy Chapman/Shawn Colvin but I could be the wacky 5th grade ELA teacher who pulls out her guitar from time to time to introduce or emphasize something. I could lead the class in song, accompany students who write their own songs, or play music as a background to writing time. Heck, I could write songs about parts of speech and comma splices!

In the meantime, I’ll be checking out my wardrobe for some rock star accessories to wear to the first class. I may need to go shopping for a strength-giving scarf or pair of earrings this week. That’s worth it right there.

Here Comes the Weekend

Friday. Blank slate of a weekend. Just gotta push through today’s round of standardized testing and dress code violations to get there.

If I could do anything I want to do this weekend I would:

– go on a family hike

– meet galpals for coffee

– go to see The Hunger Games movie, preferably alone so I could absorb it as I wish

– get a pedicure

– read The Borrower, Ashes,Ashes, and that other book sitting on my school desk whose title currently escapes me

– walk for over an hour by myself on both Saturday and Sunday


What I will probably do:

– take some short family walks in the neighborhood

– drive my daughter to no fewer than 5 places for social and/or sports related reasons

– make 7-8 meals and clean up their remains

– watch the DVD of The Land Before Time 3-4 times

– do 7-8 loads of laundry

– visit my father in the VA rehab

– write checks for the things that keep us going

– clean the bathrooms

– plan lessons for next week

– write 2 blog posts

– be very very thankful that I am so blessed


Lifestyle Envy

I’m feeling slightly envious of childfree friends and coworkers who are going to the midnight showing of The Hunger Games movie tonight. I know how ridiculous it is to feel this form of jealousy, and when it rears its ugly head, I have to carve my way through it to whittle it down to size. This is a mild case of lifestyle envy, but I’ve had moderate-to-severe cases in the past. I can recall times when groups of friends have traveled together while I’ve stayed at home with a young child. There have also been a few special parties and concerts I’ve missed because I couldn’t arrange child care, one of my children became sick, or the price of childcare and the event combined turned out to be beyond my budget. Luckily envy is isn’t fatal and I’ve been able to recover from these spells quickly enough.

These pangs of jealousy are ironic because I had roiling bouts of envy toward all of my friends who were mothers before I was able to have a child of my own. I was made queasy at the mention of maternity leave when it seemed I would never have reason to take one. After saying goodbye to our first pregnancy at 20 weeks, an almost-daughter we named Cordelia, and then losing a string of pregnancies, I was unable to wish anyone good luck with their journey into motherhood.  Genetic counseling said we had a 3 in 4 chance of having a healthy baby with each pregnancy, and those odds were enough to keep us going. For awhile anyway. I became depressed and my marriage went on life support for a spell. Eventually we were fortunate enough, or stubborn enough, to stick it out and Greta arrived via emergency c-section. After that we lost two more pregnancies and decided that three was more than enough for our family.

Don’t ask me how it happened that we had a son just after I turned 44 (really, if you don’t know the mechanics of it, I’m not going to be the one to tell you), more than seven years after Greta was born. I am still stunned by August’s arrival. His existence reminds me on a daily basis that sometimes prayers are answered in ways you do not anticipate nor can pretend to understand. And perhaps prayers could use a calendar -or at least a watch to keep track of the time. Not only do both of my children demonstrate to me that there is a Creator somewhere, a benevolent God figure who loves us and wants us to be happy, but that s/he has a great sense of humor. Why else would I be faced with having to crawl around pushing trucks through the sand while my hip twinges in pre-arthritis throes?  Or toilet train him while I’m dealing with my own preimenopausal issues? When I pick my son up from preschool, it’s easy to see that I look more like the other kids’ grandmothers than their mothers. Short of having extensive plastic surgery, investing in tattooing, and keeping a personal trainer on call, I don’t see that improving as Gus enters school in a few years. There are times, more often than I care to admit here, that I truly, deeply resent having to care for an almost three year old, but these moments are few and fleeting. Kinda like my Hunger Games jealousy. Heck, I read the damn book, I know how it turns out. I’d just like to catch that movie while it is in the theaters. If not, there’s always DVD…