Monday, May 30, 2016

My Passion for Thrift Stores

September 2015
Once I ordered lots of clothing from mail-order catalogues or from on-line stores; now I purchase almost all of my clothing second-hand at thrift stores. My clothing obsession could have ruined me financially. My discovery of the fun of second-hand stores, though, has given me a challenge that gives me much enjoyment and saves me money.
Years ago,as a young mother, I loved looking through catalogues that arrived by the gross in the mailbox. In free moments, I would turn down the corner of every page where I saw some item that I really liked. I liked looking at colors and textures of different clothing in the beautiful photographs. I tried to picture what the clothing would look like on me, but that was difficult. I usually just imagined that I would look as thin and glamorous as the model pictured in the item. Of course that was exactly what market analysts wanted me to do. I fell in line with their expectations by hoping that I would purchase the item and be miraculously twenty pounds lighter just by owning it, let alone wearing it. My mind knew that this was wrong, but still I used my credit card to order boxes and boxes of items for each new season. I would make lists of the items I wanted to buy, adding up costs and changing items occasionally. Boxes arrived, delivered by FedEx or UPS or regular US postal service. Some items didn’t fit -- or didn’t make me look thin and glamorous -- so I made regular trips to the post office for returns. I justified my purchases because I worked as a teacher. My position gave me a salary to afford them, and required me to appear in public daily with an up-to-date wardrobe.
Then one summer I learned, by reading a slim book about budgeting and credit, that I was letting money slip away from me like water. As a newly divorced person, I knew I couldn’t continue that way. At first, I simply bought less clothing. Then I recalled that I had seen a dear friend wearing some wonderful pieces. She had told me they were from the Salvation Army. I recalled that that was the store that hung items of similar colors in the windows visible from Upper Court Street where I drove so often to go into town. I loved the display and the creative approach it suggested.
By the time I actually visited the Family Store, as they called it, the store had moved to another building, so the display was no longer visible on the street. Inside, though, I found clothing massed by type and color. I could wander the aisles filling my eyes with the vibrant colors grouped together. It was a wonderful sensory experience,as I also enjoyed feeling the cloth of each piece, feeling the weave, noting the details of its construction. Now I can identify silk from several feet away. I look especially for silk, linen, 100% cotton, and cashmere items.
My second husband and I made a weekly excursion of it, as he enjoyed saving money, too. I no longer visited retail clothing stores. I now experience sticker shock when I research clothing items on-line. E-bay is the only place I will consider purchasing, and that mainly for shoes. Almost every piece of clothing I own, except for undergarments and shoes, is from a thrift store. I visit them in whatever city I go to. When I visited my son in Brooklyn recently, I made a stop at the Goodwill in the downtown area. I’ve been to several Goodwill stores in Pittsburgh, where my older son lives. I’ve discovered wonderful items at the Salvation Army in San Antonio, Texas. I look forward to investigating the thrift stores of the Emerald Coast of Florida when I visit my niece near Fort Walton Beach this winter.

Sometimes I wish I had discovered thrifting sooner.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Tribute to Angel Mary

May 25, 2016

My older sister, Mary (Angel Mary, in the bosom of the family): what would I do without her? As fragile as she may seem sometimes, she has been a rock for me. She has been a model to prepare me, at every age, for the next era, though no one would see that influence in the outward facts of my life’s path.
Her influence began early. Photographs in family albums show her reading on the sofa; I must have seen that happening often. The year that she was a sixth grader, I was in kindergarten. I didn’t know it then, but I was falling in love with learning. Mary played a role in that love affair. She and I shared a bedroom, much to her chagrin. I was a messy child, given to building nests behind the door or cities of blocks under my bed, cities which then gathered dust and resisted easy cleaning. I did not suffer one block to be moved and defended them strongly. I wet the bed, and didn’t pick up after myself, contrasting sharply with Mary’s neat habits. She, the well-behaved second born, contrasted sharply, in turn, with our older brother, who was a handful. Hence, her nickname - Angel Mary. She endured me because she had no choice.
That forbearance, though, didn’t keep her from the kindness of talking to me in the dark as we were falling asleep. She was excited by subjects she was learning about in her sixth grade classroom, so occasionally she would tell me about her studies. I don’t remember the specifics, except for a vague recollection of basic anatomy, biology, and botany lessons. I do remember the excitement and engagement in her voice that transmitted such passion to me. I’m sure that passion is what carried me through the formidable work of field research, a dissertation, and a doctorate in my fifties. Thanks, Mary!
Mary tutored me, without intending to, in coordination of color, fabric, clothing, and accessories. She sewed match-y match-y clothing for herself, and for me and our little sister, Liz. She made me change my clothes before the school bus came if my choices did not fit her aesthetic. One of her Christmas presents to me was a razor set, when I was old enough (but not motivated) to shave my legs. I resented her guidance fiercely, innate rebel that I was, but she saved me from myself in many instances. I might have been more of a nerdy outcast than I already was if she had not lent me some of her fashion sense by sheer force of big sister insistence. It helped that she was pretty: fine-boned and thin, with tiny wrists, ankles, and fingers that I admired surreptitiously.
Mary the high school student got good grades, wore fashionable carefully-tailored clothing, styled her hair in perfect sixties’ smoothness (think Breck advertisement models - remember them?), and was involved in class politics and activities. I, too, kept up my grades when I entered high school six years after her - it was easy for me, inflicted as I was with unquenchable curiosity. Fashion styles and political winds changed drastically, though, between 1966 and 1970. Wearing my bell-bottom jeans, with long unstyled waves of brown hair and a center part, I became politically involved, though not in school activities the same way Mary had. Instead, I read TIME magazine (cover to cover every week - thank you, dear parents, for the subscriptions you kept up), new ones like Psychology Today and Ms., and then wrote letters to the New York Times about the women’s liberation movement.
Mary, of course, had moved on to college and then marriage to a Vietnam veteran who became like a brother to me. Our paths diverged for a while. Then she, mother of two girls and a boy, joined me the night before I went in the hospital to have my first baby. We were making a bed, I complaining about how uncomfortable I felt at almost the full 9 months. In the other room, our families ignored us and ate pizza in our Friday night routine. It was the calm before the storm, as I became a parent that weekend: the universe shifted, tilted, and turned upside down. Luckily, she was able to spare me a few minutes here and there (by then she was teaching full time) to help me with Caesarian section recovery, breastfeeding issues, and sleep deprivation.
Mary and I were mothers together, and also teachers, she in second grade for most of her long career, I in middle school for most of mine. She switched from social work, a job she got right out of college before babies arrived. We began to have recurring conversations about how to fix some of the more vexing problems of school management, curriculum planning, and instructional design. “When we open our own school, … “ was the refrain we returned to so often. It was no surprise to May when I decided to resign from my classroom and study for a doctorate in education. It was no surprise to me when Mary became the cheerleader of my family support group.
Before that, though, when my first marriage collapsed, Mary helped when she could. Her three children were teens: I knew she was busy; she knew I was depressed. My approach to depression was different from hers, but she provided some needed therapy, taking me to the cheap movie theater for something funny or trucking me way the hell down the Vestal Parkway to Kohl’s to buy outfits she thought looked good on me (she has never given up on my fashion sense - some of them even looked good to me). She was frightened by my involvement in internet dating, but asked me about memorable meetings. When one love affair broke up in a spectacular way after three difficult years, she was the first person I called, the one to come down the hill to my house to console me, the one to insist that he give back a recent gift she’d given to him - one of her beautiful pottery mugs.
Although we experienced menopause in different ways, Mary was also a guide for me as I entered this next phase of womanhood. She nudged me to discuss pre-menopause, hormone replacement therapy, and regular mammograms with my Ob-Gyn. Her hot flashes had become debilitating, while mine were at first horribly annoying but less and less so. I always resisted chemical solutions that helped her, but our conversations about what was new in the field were more important than our differences of opinion.
Her artistry as a potter has become another topic of our conversations, as I have advanced with my music, art, and writing. We discuss her designs, the newest pieces out of the kiln, my song arrangements, a recently published letter to the editor, the latest band, or the draft of a speech I’ll deliver in Albany. I advise her on pricing pieces for annual sales in spring and fall.
When John, my great love, found me in 2008, she rejoiced along with me. They conversed as artists and collaborated on some design ideas. One morning, over coffee at her house, John said, “Mary, I had a dream about some leaves you put on mug handles.” He drew his idea, later sculpting them with clay for Mary to try out. Thus began a series of discussions, as Mary began to know and love John as a friend.
When I had to greet Mary with the news that John’s suffering with a lung ailment led him to choose a dignified death, she fought it, and argued with him as much as she felt she could. It may have been harder for her to accept his end, for she had not had the chance, as I had, to discuss with John his beliefs and approach to the metaphysics of existence. She has mourned him with me: we are sisters in grief.
We are also sisters in caring for our aging mother, Maddy, who in her mid-nineties requires emotional strength and creative problem-solving of her caregivers. We meet each Friday morning to vent, talk out solutions, cry a little, plan, and to take care of each other. We’ve come a long way from the sisters fighting about sharing a bedroom.


May 4, 2016
I recently took up a practice I’ve done before: I use cash for daily expenses, keeping the bills in dedicated envelopes in my purse or desk drawer. At the beginning of each month, I withdraw a set amount from the bank, split among 5, 10, and 20 dollar bills. At home I set out my envelopes. Each one is labelled for a different purpose: groceries, restaurant, gas, hair, and of course, Salvation Army, among others. The monthly amount is also written on the envelope to remind me as I divvy up the cash.
Talking with my mother, I learned that she had used a similar system during her short term as an unmarried working girl in Rochester. I had learned it, though, from an on-line site called Cheapskate. I was newly-divorced in the mid-nineties, slowly getting control of running a household on one income. I did not recall ever creating a budget in the couple of years between grad school and marriage. After the wedding in the late seventies, we were both working and operated as if we had unlimited income. We mistook paying bills for creating and following a budget - a common mistakes of young couples who don’t want to talk about money.
The envelope system works to keep me from spending money that might appear to be discretionary. The process requires, as any budget does, paying close attention to every expense, noting its frequency and adding up a true total for expenditures, whether on a weekly, monthly, semi-annual, annual, or irregular basis. Many finance counselors advise us to keep a log of our spending in order to encourage this sort of careful consideration. As I did so, I realized that much of my spending was with a debit card. Plastic, we all know, hides what we are actually spending, the real value of what is slipping away. Money that will be needed for semi-annual, annual, or seasonal expenses could disappear from a bank account, to be missed when the bill comes due from the fuel oil company or car insurer.
As a widow, similar to my situation as a divorced mother, I know I need to rein in day-to-day spending to match my limited income. Switching to cash makes the limits of my spending power more concrete and visible. I know I will need groceries and gasoline during the week, throughout the month, so I estimate, with evidence, what I will need and put that amount in the appropriate envelope. I also keep limited amounts for restaurants and thrift stores in my purse. In my desk at home, I save up cash for my periodic hair appointments, my seasonal firewood purchase, my dental and vision care. I have no need to continually draw on my bank account using the debit card. My account stays full, with no leaks.
As promised in the Cheapskate documents, the envelope system makes me feel rich, gives me a feeling of abundance. I don’t have to wonder whether I can afford to visit the new thrift shop on Hooper Road: I can see the cash (or lack thereof) in the appropriate envelope. If I don’t have any left for this month, that temporary set-back will only last until the next month - I don’t have to feel forever poor. More importantly, I haven’t cut into the cash I’ll need to fill the furnace with fuel oil in December or to pay the mortgage on the first of the next month and the next and the next.
I also set up many electronic payments to happen automatically, or semi-automatically, if, like the electric bill or cell phone, they vary slightly from month to month. I have greatly reduced my overall monthly expenses by eliminating some of those that used to seem necessary, like cable television or land-line telephone. I have become acutely aware of what comes in and what goes out.

I never want money, love of money, or fear of poverty, to control my life. A simple trick with cash and envelopes empowers me to control money, instead.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Finally, a Poem

I know, I know, it's been a long time since I posted.
A long and snowy winter and then a shorter, milder one.
Enormous life change in between; I'm still recovering.
I try to walk every day now, since the temperatures are rising.
Here's the poem that came to me as I walked on Thursday, the last day of March.
I would describe the style as being like Frost; would you? Frost would, of course, spend a good deal more time on rhyme than I...

I need to feel this wind against my cheek;
I need to press this mud beneath my boot.
This air I breathe brings life to all my cells.
This walk I take is more than just a walk.

This movement of my legs awakens me,
reminds me of what I have left to do.
Great dreams are built on notions less than these.
Thus, I move to re-invent myself.

For there are sonnets still that I must write
and paintings great that I must still produce
and always music filling up the night
And always particles sent out to space.

The universe will bless my every step
and so I must continue to set forth
on paths that may be new or may be old
until, within my heart, the spark grows cold.

Friday, October 03, 2014


Sunlight dropping through fog
from just after dawn
paints each needle of the spruce sentinel
with a brush dipped in future
telling me (even more clearly
than the wall’s funeral home calendar)
that winter’s hoarfrost waits.
Not too long will this late September weekend
hold the roasted colors
and gentle hush of drying leaves.
I will soon look out this window
into a bony swath of naked but patient trees.
This shining fall mist will evanesce, fall anew
as the white time machine of another winter.
The asters’ seeds, soaking in death,
will wait silently for the peepers
and then send out green
that convinces me all is young again,

and new, clad in memories.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The lessons on unethical education policies will continue until you cry out against them. The policies, that is.

I am asking your school board to join more than 120 school boards across the state - to pass a resolution calling on our representatives in Albany and Washington to stop high stakes testing for grades 3 through 8, to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known as No Child Left Behind), and to develop other systems for public school accountability and evaluation.

Concerned citizens want high quality education for all students. We know our state needs policies and spending to solve problems of poverty and equity. That money is instead being spent on tests and supporting materials widely recognized as inadequate and unreliable measures of student learning and educator effectiveness. The intensive focus on achievement, simply defined as test performance, narrows our schools’ curriculum, taking time from a broad range of learning experiences that promote innovation, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking - everything our students need to thrive in a democracy and a global society and economy, let alone in college or careers.

Even more problematic, students leave schools, sometimes dropping out, with no love for learning. Excellent teachers leave schools when policies countermand what they know professionally about teaching and learning. The negative effects of this nationwide wave of high stakes standardized testing are especially bad for low income students, English language learners, those with disabilities, and children of color - the very students we have said we wanted to help! Indeed, we had begun several promising initiatives for these students when NCLB interrupted our progress. In the years since, NCLB and Race to the Top have denied much of what we wanted to accomplish.

We do not have to go along with what we know is wrong. We can ask our state and federal representatives to instead work toward a school culture that matches what research tells us about fostering engaging school experiences that promote joy in learning, depth of thought, and breadth of knowledge for our students.

I am leaving a copy of a possible resolution for discussion by the board. I urge you to adopt it, or some form of it, and send it on, adding your voice to many that are starting to break through the formidable wall of corporate interests. Corporations, which drive this testing movement, do not belong in schools where student well-being, rather than profit, is our motive.

Thank you for taking time for a message that is so important for our children and our future.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Thanks for your service, but please educate yourselves...

This is an open letter to New York State boards of education at local school districts across the state. I am Dr. Carol Mikoda, a lifelong resident of my school district, a former employee, and currently a local community college writing instructor.
I am here to talk to you, the local boards of education, elected representatives of this community whose children benefit from the K12 schools you oversee. I thank you for your voluntary service to our communities.
You are in a position to affect the quality of those schools and schools across the state and nation.
The New York State School Boards Association, at its annual business meeting in October, will discuss a resolution supporting the use of student performance in annual performance reviews of our teachers.
The Board of Regents wants state test scores to count for 40%.
I am asking you to send a message to NYSSBA that you do not support the evaluation of teachers using student scores.
Evaluating teachers in that way will not contribute to the quality of education and can actually produce schools with narrow curricula and students who think only in the most narrow sense, in limited ways, followed test-developed formulae.
Contrary to the justification given for using such tests, equity will suffer when students who do not perform well are shut out of an education.
I know you want all our students to leave Windsor as competent career- and college-ready problem solvers.
The changes that come with over-reliance on these flawed tests and with de-skilling of teaching professionals are far-reaching.
The evaluation plan has been declared flawed by groups such as the American Educational Research Association,  the American Statistical Association and the American Mathematics Society.  
Too many factors affect student performance to hold teachers accountable to that degree.
The tests students take are intended for other purposes, created by non-educators with no direct knowledge of our students and classrooms.
The motive of the companies producing the tests is profit, rather than our children’s potential.
These businesses have not provided evidence to support the effectiveness of these tests for performance review nor even for educational purposes.
I urge you to oppose the NYSSBA resolution number 9 on APPR by voting against it when attending the conference or by sending a letter of opposition by September 19.
We would like, of course, to use numbers and data to make schools more efficient, but education at its best involves human beings working face to face.
Teacher evaluation is difficult. Student assessment is complex.
Only the teamwork of professional educators can help us arrive at better systems of evaluation and assessment.
We should engage in that teamwork while asking politicians and interested philanthropists to solve the major problems affecting student achievement - namely, poverty and inequity.
Please take a look at the letter I’ve left with the clerk and consider sending it as a group or individually to NYSSBA before September 19.
Thank you for your time.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Writing, Teaching, and Vulnerability

As a writing teacher, I often place myself in a vulnerable position. In providing an example, whether it is a sentence or a string of sentences, I often choose to write about something that is in my head at the time; that is, a topic of interest or one I am passionate about. I expose some of my thinking about that topic, and thus I am susceptible to verbal or emotional attack. I must do this, as I am the model for the routines of the class.

I ask my writers, each week, to lay before us, the entire class, their most private and personal ideas in essays written about topics they care about. They read aloud their thoughts (which often have been placed on the paper as raw, absolute-zero drafts, perhaps from a free write during the previous class) as we all listen intently. This is the routine: reading aloud, listening intently, writing down some responses and listening and contributing to a discussion of each essay.

That routine is the core of the class. That kind of listening, applied to each student’s writing, leaves them vulnerable, so I can certainly spare a few sessions that involve my own vulnerability when we are working on sentence construction; that is how we fill any time left after everyone has read their weekly essay. By exposing my own thoughts and being willing to accept their suggestions for improving my sentences, I model what they must be able to do with their own sentences, paragraphs, and essays.

As the second and then the third week of such careful reading and listening go by, the practice takes on a ritualistic feel, so I must train carefully from the very first session. The sacrament of sharing our essays is not easily given up. Indeed, when I have on some few occasions split them into smaller groups to share their essays, it was always less satisfying, both to writers and to listeners. At the end of the semester, students cite the reading aloud and the listening, both from that position of terrific vulnerability (who wants to be the one to say where some cloudiness occurred, where something could be added?) as the single most helpful practice. They like to workshop sentences, too, but the reading and listening and discussing is where they learn best, or so they tell me.

And so I continue to refine the design of my writing class to center on that feature and marginalize all else. They write weekly essays, read and listen, turn them in to get my individualized comments, then revise each one. At the end of the semester, they have written pages and pages, all subjected to revision, especially at the level of sentences. They take three of the essays and revise them further at the end of the semester when they have learned the most. Centering my course on an activity that makes them all vulnerable means I have to acknowledge that and build in supports for it and think carefully about what I will say to each writer and to each listener who comments.

Comments must be observations that any of us might notice. They can not be judgments about the quality of the writing or of the ideas. Listeners must use their observational skills to say what they noticed about the effect of the writer’s words on their own listening mind, not to say what judgment they might pass, if they were the “teacher.” They are not taking on the role of teacher, but rather the role of listener and responder, one who is in dialogue with a writer.

We all feel the vulnerability of putting out our ideas and observations during a discussion of some topic. It is not any easier when we are in a group, a class for which we will receive a grade and some credit toward our next degree. It has become easier for me, but I still experience a twinge when I place some sentence on the board for analysis.

The issue that creates vulnerability is that I do not know what we will all discover. The writer cannot know, before listening carefully to her own and other’s words, where those sentences will take us. Writers bring essays to us which morph into different essays as we discuss them. The authors come to realize, by sharing and listening, where they really want to go with their words, or at least to understand that they did not go where they intended.

When I typed the word, “vulnerability,” at the top of this page, for example, and began to think and write, I did not know that I would end up here. This place, though, is valuable, and I now feel an interest in refining the raw ideas I have generated. The same happens to my younger writers. I must demonstrate that metamorphosis to them again and again if I expect them to realize what revision is about. I must let them see it happen with material they care about. And I must provide for the experience of dialogue about ideas and rhetoric if they are to understand that writing, as a system of communication, is dialogic.