We have a blog! And it is our distinct pleasure to introduce it to all of you! There has been a real atmosphere of excitement at the Ivory Tower Boiler Room surrounding the creation of this website in general, and this blog in particular. Andrew, who is usually so reserved, has been positively giddy, and Adam, who spent many years being snooty about both podcasts and blogs, is now eating crow. Meanwhile, Erika is grimly determined to share her process as she rediscovers herself as a writer.
And Mary is going to write her blog posts only after making sure the rest of us are in bed by 9 (but if we take out flashlights to read, she’ll pretend not to notice).
The gist here is simple. We have four regulars on the Ivory Tower Boiler Room—Erika, Mary, Andrew and Adam. There are four (-ish) weeks in a month. Tiffany Sowa has already agreed to sign on as a weekly columnist, and we hope to have more besides. In addition, we will have other members of our writing group joining in whenever they have something to boast or gush or rant about. These are all people whose writing we love, and so we are excited as both readers and writers.
The main reason we are starting this blog–and this is not an exaggeration–is the comments section. We want to hear from you.
-Adam, Andrew, Erika, and Mary
P.S. Any unsigned pieces you see in this space, or on this website in general, are a product of the hive mind that unites the four of us.
Daylight hours are noticeably fewer here in Orlando, lately anyway. The cooler, longer nights mean frogs on my windows sometimes, which excites the cats (especially Big Cat who would probably be the worst hunter around if he had to actually catch something, because his excitement is audible.) It also means more hours for quiet pursuits. I’d love to pick up my knitting needles, but my hands haven’t been feeling up to it lately. I did invest in some new, ergonomic crochet hooks, but I’ve yet to try them out. And just like in June, when I wrote some really intense pieces about things like reflections on forty years of HIV and the fifth anniversary of the Pulse Massacre here in Orlando, October is another month of truly intense writing…my first piece this month was about the ways children can be unintentionally silenced by adults and the second was about the power of the words I choose as a rape survivor. Stay tuned for what’s coming next week, right? All that intense writing means that I really need to find solace in other spaces in my life, and that often means in my media.
I’ve had reasons to revisit Howard Gardiner and multiple intelligences, which I first learned about as an undergrad. It didn’t seem like a widely known theory when I first encountered it years ago, but it truly excited me and it’s nice to see the ideas embraced by so many people now. It finally made sense how I could struggle so much with some things like math and excel at others. I also liked the way it included the idea that intelligence is not necessarily academic–that kinesthetic skills, interpersonal skills and other things are their own unique kinds of intelligence, too. I’m also glad to see that there are some new editions of the books, which I may add to my never ending wish list. We’ll see–if my missing library card turns up, I think I’ll see what the public library has first and discover what, if anything, has been updated. I’ve also been eyeballs-deep in articles about andragogy, which autocomplete wants to fill in as “androgyny,” as do my brain and fingers when they’re on autopilot. I use the latter word much more frequently, but the former is the sometimes very important (and distinct from pedagogy) art and science of how adults learn.
It hasn’t been all work though. I opened up Leah Raeder’s Black Iris this week, which has been sitting around for a long time. I’ve heard some people express that the protagonist has some similarities to Amazing Amy in Gone Girl, although I’m not far enough into the book to determine the accuracy of that claim yet. This isn’t the usual genre I reach for, but we all need a little adventure once in a while. I’ve also been reading Amanda Lovelace’s The Princess Saves Herself in This One. The Instagrammable poetry thing is a modern take on William Carlos Williams and the prescription pad, I guess. There are some poems and poets whose work I really love in this style, but it’s just not something I seem to write. I will have to figure out how to make my style work on Instagram eventually–for now I look for nice photos and pull favorite quotes, but with so few followers, I don’t think it does much for promotion.
One of the highlights this week has to be Zachary Zane’s most recent Boyslut entry “Language Has Failed to Describe the Complexities of Sexuality. I’ve also pulled out a copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, which I was first given by a friend as a graduation/leaving for college gift when I was 18. (I gave her a copy of The Little Prince. It’s been about thirty years since I’ve seen her, and this is one of the memories that stands out–the intensity of adolescent friendships, the desperation to cling to the space between childhood and adulthood, knowing you still need time to be the one, while outwardly voicing the desire to be the other. We felt so grown up exchanging those books, and we had so much to learn.)
It’s not just books that have taken me on a nostalgia trip this week either. I listened this morning to Crash Test Dummies “Afternoons and Coffeespoons” after pulling it up on YouTube to post as a comment to someone’s Facebook post.
Tears for Fears released a new song recently, ahead of their new album and I finally had time to listen to that. Not my favorite, but I’m still looking forward to new music from them.
I’ve talked about my love for the Brandeburg Concertos and in particular the Netherlands Bach Society’s performances of them. Last week they posted a new video of Brandenburg Concerto 2 in F Major, along with a video of group members talking about playing the piece. I’d listened to the piece, but had not had a chance to watch the discussion yet. I’m so glad I did. Here’s the video; I especially enjoyed the part at about 6 minutes in when Shunsuke Sato, the director and violinist breaks down the different layers of instrumentation.
As for what I’m watching? It’s Friday, so there will be a new episode of The Great British Baking Show of course. Adam has been encouraging me to watch Taare Zameen Par (the English title is “Like Stars on Earth” I think,) and that might be tonight’s selection. This week I also watched Soleil Moon-Frye’s documentary Kid 90, full of her videos about growing up in the 90s. It looked and sounded familiar. It’s been a lot of repeats of favorites this week though-Schitt’s Creek, Hannah Gadsby, all of the comforting stuff. YouTube has been offering a lot of videos about life in Alaska, and the podcast Understanding Train Station.
I guess it’s not particularly surprising I’ve been on a bit of a Bollywood kick lately. Last night I saw Thappad (“The Slap”) starring Taapsee Pannu as a woman whose husband slaps her and she realizes as if by epiphany, that she no longer loves him and is no longer content in the relationship. Tonight I watched “Pink,” another movie starring Taapsee Pannu, this one about a scion of privilege who sexually assaults a woman; she defends herself by taking a bottle up the backside of his head and so he sues her for attempted murder. They’re both really good. The next movie I see is going to be a comedy, though.
It’s interesting that I haven’t seen a Bollywood movie for a while. This was something Anuja and I liked to do together, and that I found too painful to do during our separation. Watching the movie is easy; but researching, picking a good one, pairing it with the appropriate snack… I never got a taste for the broad-bold-bright school of movies (Kabhi Kushi Kahbi Gam, et al.) but I’ll still watch those and find pleasure in them. I like the issue-films, a lot–English Vinglish, Dor, Lunchbox…
I also find i have an ear for the old English ballads lately. Here are some of my favorites:
All of the foregoing makes sense. I’m watching Indian movies and listening to British music. So here’s something out of left field. The other night I was flipping through my eReader and I found Vladimir Nabokov’s book-length tribute to Nikolai Gogol. What was this doing on my Kobo? Who cares? I started reading it and instantly remembered how much i love reading Nabokov’s prose when he gets exercised about a topic. He’s kind of the Seinfeld of literary criticism–leaves no stone unturned; leaves you asking: why didn’t I think of that? Except that with Nabokov, the answer is frequently: because you don’t speak Russian.
The hottest new term this year (besides “critical race theory”) is “social emotional learning.” They want us to teach children to connect to their emotions, listen to their bodies, and voice their needs. To face social and emotional challenges with an open mind. There are websites and videos and sample lessons that are supposed to help us teach these things, but here are some situations that I still don’t feel like I was trained to handle:
Brynn crawled under her desk the other day because I asked her to sit at the carpet with the rest of the class, and she didn’t want to. No one had been mean to her (I asked) and nothing else was wrong; she was just tired and didn’t want to do anything else for the rest of the day.
Miley broke down and cried after I asked her to stop approaching me with questions when I was speaking to the class and giving directions. I had just blown the whistle for the girls to line up after recess, and it’s always moments like that where several students will suddenly need to ask what we’re doing next, or whether we have PE today, or tell me they have to use the bathroom.
Anna couldn’t handle it when another girl didn’t want to jump rope with her at recess.
Laura fell apart when she wanted to watch YouTube during the school day and I didn’t let her.
Those behaviors are normal in kindergarteners; kids who are not yet used to being one of twenty two in a room with one adult. Those behaviors are less normal for seven and eight year olds. And none of my college classes prepared me for these situations. The class on classroom management doesn’t warn you that kids think bathroom time is fun-time, and that touch-free paper towel dispensers are magic toys. My contract didn’t specify that I need to develop a mind-reading technique to determine who needs to go to the restroom the most urgently, because everyone has to go at once, and when asked, “is this an emergency,” the answer is always “yes” accompanied by the pee dance.
A few times a week, students run to me during a lesson to tell me “so-and-so is stuck in the bathroom stall!” Their tone always makes it sound like this is a life-or-death situation. I give the students a quick activity to do for the next 5 minutes, I ask the teacher in the adjoining room to monitor my class for a moment, and walk over to the girls’ restroom.
“So-and-so, are you okay? Can I come in?” I ask, in a slightly annoyed, but patient tone. She says she is stuck and confirms that she is dressed. She gives me permission to crawl under the stall door so I can finally get to the bottom of this- like I said, this happens a few times a week.
Upon inspection, I see that the latch is open. Only friction is holding the door shut. So, I tell her to hold the door by the bottom, and pull it open. Voila! She’s free.
This is a child who can look up Ariana Grande music videos on YouTube, by herself. She can read at a third grade level. She can tell you all the rules to play “Red Light Green Light,” and discuss, in detail, the difference between “cheating on purpose to win” and “breaking the rules because you don’t understand them.”
But she can’t figure out how to get out of a bathroom stall?
Getting “trapped,” and having someone go get the teacher to “save” you became the most exciting thing that happened to that student that day. I overheard her retelling the story at recess time. We changed the class rule so that only one student could go to the bathroom at a time after that. Magically, the number of kids getting “trapped” decreased by almost one hundred percent.
It is my job to make sure situations like this don’t eat up too much learning time. It is my job to have a classroom management system, and I’m sure you have seen all the creative objects teachers on facebook use as hall passes: water jugs, paint brushes, magnets, little hand sanitizer bottles.
(None of these are meant to “shame” students for going during class, for the record; the rest of the class just needs a signal that someone is already using the restroom, and only one student is allowed to go at a time. So bathroom time does not become fun-time.)
I accept that these children are young, and still learning how to use the bathroom during the breaks so that they don’t keep missing class time. It is a social emotional skill. I have patience, and confidence, that they will be better by the end of the year.
But seriously, someone’s stuck in the stall again?
I decided to call this one “London Letters,” even though I’m not in London anymore, because “Shropshire Letters” doesn’t alliterate.
We had to give up Anuja’s apartment in Camden Town on Sunday, and, rather than move to a different part of the city, we decided to go elsewhere for a while. Good decision. We are in a literal village, surrounded by farmland, and that’s it. I am also of two minds going into this essay, as you will see. The first part is a bit dour. But I recognize that nobody reads a travelogue to be bummed out. So the second part picks up a bit.
The first part has to start on a note of discomfort, simply because the alternative would be taking for granted how lucky I am to be where I am. Even 2 months ago, before this trip was planned or even envisioned, when I hadn’t seen Anuja in 16 months and had no realistic sense of when I’d see her again, I may not have been happy, but I was at least comfortable and safe. But there are a lot of people who’ve been in more straitened circumstances these past 18 months. And my story, at least, has gotten better. So, yes, I do feel uncomfortable doing this. There are people in this world who sorely need a vacation and are not going to get one because they don’t have the family connections I have. They have not been saving money, for example, by spending the COVID epidemic living in a parent’s spare room. They don’t have extra money to buy a plane ticket to England, etc., etc.
It’s difficult to have my consciousness divided this way. Anuja does this, too. I actually think I am learning it from her. We were walking the other day, taking in the amazing scenery, and she said: “Why is this village so amazing? It’s in the middle of nowhere, but they have electricity, internet, plumbing, every convenience.” Then after a moment, she answered her own question: “Oh, right. It’s because they took money from our villages [meaning India] and brought it here.” We often have conversations like that, and I’ve learned to keep up both sides of the conversation when I’m on my own.
There’s a third strand, too. The first strand, as I said, is the natural beauty of my surroundings; the joy and relief I take in just looking out the window or out from the balcony. The second strand is the sad, frustrating, above-all inconvenient knowledge that the beauty of this countryside was paid for by slavery and worse. But the third strand is the synthesis of the other two, the voice telling me that, yes, I can acknowledge the misery that is, by implication, all around me, while not letting it dishearten me. I can relax here, perhaps five-sixths of the way, and prepare myself to return to the fray, to some kind of work on the side of justice. It sounds grandiose when I try to articulate it; but I don’t mean to be grandiose. When I look at this beautiful countryside, I see the beauty of the natural world and the injustice of the manmade world and I want the balance of my life to lean towards the one rather than the other. That’s all.
Part of what is difficult about trying to layer on this sense of post-colonial awareness is that the other types of ambivalence don’t go away. Being here, I miss my grandmother more than I have since she passed in 2016. She took such wonderful photographs. And she and I have such happy memories (well… I have the memories now for both of us) of tramping around in the wilds of New York and Florida, when I was young and she was still active. And looming over all of this is the date of my departure, when I don’t know exactly how long it’ll be before I see Anuja again. But I stand by my decision to embrace my post-colonial ambivalence about the English countryside, with the caveat that it’s not enough by itself. Feeling others’ pain needs to be the impetus to some action.
Thinking about being of two minds regarding the beauty of the English countryside actually puts me back in the Globe Theater, watching Twelfth Night. It was a production that felt like it had two different ideas and never made any particular effort to reconcile the two. It was such a weird production, but so amazing. The morning of the play, Anuja said: “Help me get excited, too.” Which is a fair request. Here I was on a cloud and not making an effort to help her join me up there. So we talked about all the fun and beautiful things that go with 16th-17th century London theater scene—cross-dressing, political satire, music, slapstick. I won’t say that we were both floating on a cloud by the time we got to the theater, but I will say I still was, and her feet had left the ground by at least a centimeter or two. And afterwards, she said: “I think I enjoyed that more than you.” Not possible, but I’ll take it.
Anyway. So we got to the theater. To that beautiful round building. We got close enough to see the grain of the wooden beams; the stamp of the Carpenters’ Guild and the Plaisterers’ (sic) Guild. We went inside and saw the amazing colors of the stage and the seats. And the gaudy chaos of the set-design:
-A bunch of old tires, piled haphazardly on and around the stage.
-A deer hanging head down from a rope suspended from the roof of the stage, as if it had just been hunted (for those of you not familiar, yes, the Globe and its siblings were open-air theaters, but the stage was always covered by a roof, not least because their costumes were very expensive and they could not afford to have them rained on. Beneath the roof was a balcony for… balcony scenes, but also for musicians, gods, special effects, etc. So the convincing-looking facsimile of a dead deer was hung from the roof, in front of the balcony).
-A sign that said: “Welcome to Illyria” but in a style that seemed deliberately to suggest “Welcome to Las Vegas.”
-The interior of the Globe itself. It was something I’d notice and then let fall into the background, and then suddenly notice again. Anuja said: “It’s smaller than I pictured it,” which is often true of places that loom large in our imaginations. And there were beautiful paintings on the walls. The roof of the stage was painted with the zodiac; there were colors and banners… It was really amazing. The people who reconstructed the decorations around the seating-area had done their homework quite as well as the more straightforward success by the architects and carpenters and plaisterers (sic) and thatchers who had labored to recreate the building itself. Standing there, I could well imagine the 17th century playgoers wearing their brightly colored coats and, resources permitting, their starched ruffles at throat and wrist, taking their seats in the three balconies as the more plainly but no less colorfully appareled groundlings took their places in between the seats and the stage.
-As we entered the theater, they were selling meat pies and nuts, just like 400 years ago. I didn’t buy any because back then they would have cost a penny, whereas today they cost a pretty penny (Ugh. I’m sorry. Wait–no I’m not. It’s Shakespeare. Bad puns rule the day).
-The two obvious historical inaccuracies were the presence of spotlights and the concrete floor of the pit, both, alas, inevitable.
When the play started, Duke Orsino was dressed like a wealthy cowboy, or rather, like a casino owner who wanted to affect a cowboy aesthetic. But then when Viola entered the stage, she was dressed like an Elizabethan lady. And when she changed into a man’s attire, her new outfit, likewise Elizabethan, consisted of a short jacket above the iconic doublet and hose. You may be itching to know: did they introduce this asymmetry between the cowboy-aesthetic and the Elizabethan aesthetic in order to explain it later? Reader, they did not. Feste, one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated jesters, came on stage wearing a cocktail dress and then changed into a baseball uniform. Why? I found I had stopped asking. For one thing, I was laughing too hard.
When I think about how dependent most jokes are on context, and yet how funny Shakespeare remains, I am humbled. Yes, Shakespeare’s comedies tend to be about relationships, not politics, and thus to at least stay a bit relatable through the centuries. But still, I would not be the first to point out that most of the jokes in Twelfth Night lose some of their punch in a society that has at least been flirting with recognizing queer people as full citizens. In a modernized Twelfth Night, Viola shacks up with Olivia and Orsino with Sebastian. Viola doesn’t even necessarily need to cross-dress, or, if she does, she does it because she’s into that shit, not that it’s any of your goddamn business. The possibilities of a modern Twelfth Night may be endless, but the central tension of the play evaporates. And without tension, there’s no comedy. Or is there?
Part of the reason this play stands up and remains funny is that we are not there yet. Viola can be seen as the type for the modern queer person still living a closeted double-life, for example. While easy-going Sebastian thinks nothing of marrying a woman on first acquaintance just because he likes the cut of her jib, Viola/Cesario pines in the corner for the person she loves, little knowing until the play’s last five minutes if they could love her back. I can imagine a queer person relating to Viola’s turmoil. I can also say that I, as someone who was spared all of that, but nevertheless had an awkward adolescence, could emphatically relate.
One of the biggest changes they made was to the music. Shakespeare’s plays are replete with song-and-dance numbers, most of which are cut from modern productions. Or just chanted as if they were poems without musical accompaniment. This version of Twelfth Night might as well have been a musical, complete with a small band (violin, piano, saxophone, drums) sitting up in the balcony. But the interesting thing is that most all of the songs were replaced with modern ones. I had literally never seen NOR heard a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays depart so radically from Shakespeare’s text. Previous productions I’ve seen take his text as a challenge, much like a poet does with a rhyme scheme. Directors will cut lines, but never add.
It would be hard to argue that the literal Globe Theater is failing to give due respect to their patron saint. And the use of modern songs in place of old ones does give the correct feel to the audience. The play is supposed to be fun and silly and the moments of song-and-dance are meant to be the same. It would have been odd had these characters begun singing a madrigal or badinerie. The one song they kept was the last one, sung by Feste: “When that and I was but a little tiny boy…” with its cheerful refrain: “For the rain it raineth every day.” I always thought that refrain was silly, but seeing the play in England reminded me that, for some people, it’s kind of true.
Anyway, I had a phenomenal time.
Why do I continue to come back to Shakespeare? One of the things I told Anuja to pep her up before the play is that Shakespeare just did not give a fuck. My two favorite plays of his are King Lear and Troilus and Cressida and I don’t think it’s an accident that both are supposedly historical plays in which Shakespeare changes the ending. King Lear comes to us from the History of the Kings of Britain, a semi-historical work written by Geoffrey of Monmouth during the 12th century (it’s also one of our earliest sources for the legend of King Arthur). Old Geoffrey gives Lear a happy ending, with Cordelia and the French swooping in to save the day and returning the 80-year-old Lear to the throne, where he lives a few more years in relative peace. So how scandalized must theatergoers have felt when the old man walks onstage bearing the body of his favorite daughter? We don’t feel that gut-punch because we know that King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies and we know how those end. But the sense of outrage in the theaters in the early 1600s must have been delicious. Likewise, Troilus and Cressida, which ends with a ‘duel’ between Achilles and Hector—this is perhaps the most famous duel in literary history and what does Shakespeare do with it? He has Achilles’ soldiers gang up on Hector and then, when their enemy is dead, they lie: “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.”
And then there’s Romeo and Juliet, which supposedly sophisticated Shakespeare-buffs look down upon as juvenilia, but which I persist in loving. In any other hands, that play would be about two stupid kids who get their just comeuppance. But in Shakespeare’s hands, we see an insoluble political standoff put into remission, not by the prince, not by the politicians, not by the magnificoes and grandees who supposedly run the city, but by two teenagers with a crush.
At every turn, Shakespeare seems to be telling us: don’t put your faith in gods and heroes and happy endings.
Editor’s Note(s): 1. You may be wondering why Erika is writing another Big Think in October. Andrew and Mary have been stepping back from the Big Think this month because of other duties, and Erika has been especially prolific lately, so we decided to just make the switch. 2. The “writing mentor” mentioned in this piece is, in fact, me. I thought a ‘full disclosure was in order, given that I was editing my own story and that’s an obvious conflict of interest. -Adam
By Erika Grumet
On an October night, twenty seven years ago, I was attacked. On an October night, twenty seven years ago, I was victimized. On an October night, twenty seven years ago, I was sexually assaulted. On an October night, twenty seven years ago, I was raped.
It’s all the same night. It’s all the same thing, isn’t it? Even those last two sentences, they mean the same thing, don’t they?
Except they don’t, really.
I’ve told my story a lot in the last nearly-thirty years. It’s not an uncommon one. I was in college, hanging out with a friend and my roommate–he’d invited us over to hang out and watch a movie and play some video games–Mortal Kombat 2, actually. We ate pizza, we drank a little bit of beer (I had two beers over the course of 8 hours), my roommate left, and he and I were still playing video games.
The exact details aren’t important to this part. I wasn’t dressed provocatively. I had on jeans, a mock turtleneck, and an oversized, baggy men’s sweater that I’d bought at Structure (if you remember the Limited brands, it was their men’s store in the 90s, and was eventually rebranded as Express Men before it closed.) It was one of my favorite sweaters, a sort of variegated or marled combination of navy, hunter green, maroon and beige with navy trim at the neck, hem and cuffs.
I hadn’t been drinking excessively–two beers, eight hours. I followed the rules–and I shouldn’t have to explain any of this when telling my story. I do have to explain it… because when I don’t, things become mired in the victim blaming narrative. People play the keep-this-at-a-safe-distance-because-it-can’t-happen-to-me game. It did happen to me… even though I followed rules and made right choices.
I get it… the desire to shield oneself from the idea that this terrible thing is a possibility in your orbit, let alone in your own life. We don’t want to imagine the possibility of bad things happening to us or to the people we love. It’s why my mother had so many questions about the blue light system on campus when I was looking at colleges. Seeing those blue lights on every campus meant someone might need them. It meant that I might need them. It wasn’t the scenario I imagined for myself, either, when I thought about what college would be like.
It didn’t matter. What I imagined didn’t matter. Because it did happen to me. And after it happened, I had to learn to talk about it. From another survivor, I heard: “Victims are dead. You’re alive. You survived. You’re a survivor, not a victim.” I know that that line of thinking may not work for everyone; but when I claimed that language, it gave me power that had been taken away from me and helped me keep going.
I was fine with using language that way for a long time. I was empowered, I was a survivor. My life was moving on. It was fine.
I thought it was fine anyway. I was going on with life, with all the things that I had planned. School, work, relationships, kids, friends. It was all the way I thought it should be. Expectations. I was living up to expectations.
I even got used to having The Conversation. The one where I tell someone what happened. It takes different forms with different people, navigating a delicate space, deciding how much detail to share, at least at first. I want to appear responsible and self reliant, while avoiding the opportunity for someone to have even the slightest chance of victim blaming. I’m reluctant, for example, to share the fact that I drank beer the night I was raped. Two beers over about eight hours shouldn’t raise any eyebrows, but when you talk about beer and sexual assault in the same story, the eyebrow-raising seems to just happen. Being honest about the beer automatically leads some people to think that either I was drinking too much and out of control (no) and therefore being irresponsible (no), or that someone had to drug me and I was only half as irresponsible (also no).
Having The Conversation affects different people differently, and I find there’s a different The Conversation for different circumstances.There’s a certain solidarity sometimes with other survivors. When talking with friends, particularly if those friends are, or present as, women, there’s palpable relief when they naively try to reason that if it happened to me, it’s statistically less likely to happen to them–they can count off five women they know, including themselves, and check the box next to my name as the one that’s been raped. There’s the clinical part, talking to doctors about it, just the barest of details, dates, medical procedures.Talking to a mental health professional means a slightly different conversation. And there’s the experience of telling the people I have dated. Fear, grief, pity, some combination of things. It’s the pity that hurts. But it’s The Conversation. And it has to happen. I never know when things might come up.
What happens when friends want to watch a movie? I enjoy movies, and there are lots of options. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. A good romantic comedy? No problem. What happens though, when friends want to see something like Boys Don’t Cry? If I decline too many invitations without explanation, things get awkward. But if I explain what happened when I went to see that in the theater in 1999? Things also get awkward. I was a graduate student, doing research on the campus community response to sexual assault. I had a full on, PTSD flashback in the theater. Racing breath, flailing, crying. The whole thing. I ran out of the theater and hid in some corner. Being with other social work grad students, they were prepared (sort of) to deal with my breakdown. I was embarrassed, scared, angry and frustrated. What would have happened if I’d been with people who weren’t prepared for the situation? Would I have been left a shaking heap on the theater floor? Would I have ended up on a psych hold in an emergency room? The possibilities are mostly terrible. And people I date, that should be obvious. That can be the most awkward to navigate of all sometimes. Are they afraid they’re going to hurt me? That they might say or do the wrong thing and set something off?
It’s happened in medical settings, it’s happened with friends, with lovers, and it’s even happened in classroom and learning environments. It seems like there’s nothing in common among the different times and places. No, there is one thing. Each time, I feel unprepared. No one ever taught me how to have The Conversation. No one ever prepared me for sharing such a terrifying and vulnerable piece of me with other people.
Different people, different environments, while the details of my story are the same, the specific details I share each time might vary. Until recently, I almost always talked about being “sexually assaulted.” The R word, that’s something I’ve really started saying in the last year.
Some people talk about writing or other kinds of art as part of healing their trauma. I didn’t do that. For me, for a long time, the writing was trauma, and I couldn’t do it. So why the shift? How did I start writing again? How did I start writing about my trauma? And why did I start reclaiming the word ‘rape’?
With all the changes and the chaos in the last year and a half, something drew me back into writing. Perhaps, like so many people, I needed a safe space to work some things out. Once I started, I found, although it was difficult, I enjoyed it. An opportunity for mentoring fell into my lap, and I grabbed a hold of it, and energetically dove into weekly sessions of writing exercises, as well as analyzing and workshopping things I had written in between classes. It was all bearing fruit. I was writing again, relearning the joy of putting the words on the page, finding a voice for the things I was thinking about, doing something challenging and creative. It felt like long-atrophied parts of my brain were coming alive again. I felt cracks in the old armor appearing; as if my brain was coming out of its cocoon. It felt like my thoughts had value again. In spite of a world of chaos and gloom, as we all stayed far apart, I felt light and warmth again. Then, one night, when nothing unusual was going on, it all collapsed. Something completely unexpected, something I never would have guessed or predicted set off a flashback, and suddenly, there I am, on a Zoom meeting with someone I don’t know well, someone I’ve never had The Conversation with, and I’m totally losing control. My heart is racing, I can’t see clearly, there are pictures flashing in my head. It’s terrifying for me, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be on the other side, especially when you can’t do anything but watch.
And then after it was finished, I was angry at myself, and upset, and ashamed. I was sad. I was scared. I was also absolutely certain I had ruined everything about this very fragile, new, mentoring relationship that was just beginning.
I was wrong about that. I hadn’t ruined everything. Someone was intent on showing me a new picture of the compassion, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness that could be shared between two people who were still nearly strangers. The teacher/student dynamic that we had was altered–how could it not be? Good teachers, great teachers, they meet students where they’re at, and that’s exactly what mine did. Two days after I broke down, I picked up the phone (something I’m reluctant to do under the best of circumstances) to make sure that things would be okay. I apologized for my breakdown, and for what having to witness it might have done to the relationship and to him. I apologized for his having to be on the receiving end of such a violent episode. I apologized. The Conversation has gone badly before, but I went in thinking that this was one of the worst.
And yet, fundamentally,I thought It was another variation on the same conversation I’d had more times than I could count. This time, there was something different. Not on my end; the difference was how it was received. This time I was told to take up space and to make it about me, and about what I was feeling. I’m terrible at taking up space under the best of circumstances. Being told to do it takes it into the realm of nearly impossible.
Being invited to take up space in that moment meant that I started thinking about what it means to take up space. I started thinking about taking up space in conversation as a function of taking up space in my own head. And both are difficult for me to do. My difficulty taking up space in my own head must mean that other things are in that space. In order to survive, I had to squish the conscious part of dealing with this thing down to the tiniest pebble I could, but I wasn’t seeing the shadows it still cast on so many other things. After someone else told me not to apologize for having feelings about it, the space it took up began to grow and change shape. Like erosion in reverse, I started thinking about it more. I began to write about it for the first time… and I thought about the space it took up. How much space does this one night in my life, this thing that happened to me, this one person I haven’t seen nor talked to in a quarter of a century, get to take up? I realized that in my need to not make it the overwhelming focus on things, I’d gone too far the other way. When I crushed it into a pebble, and tried to make it take up no space, I also stopped actually dealing with it. And the less space I was allowing it to take up in my conscious mind, the more it was taking up in my unconscious mind.
So much of “surviving” is really learning to live with what’s different. but learning to live with what’s different means keeping up with how things change when I tell someone that I’ve been raped. I’d spent years focusing on how those conversations changed for everyone else and not for me. This time someone wasn’t just telling me to turn the lens on myself, but insisting that I do. I’d never done that, I didn’t know how to do it, and I was afraid to do it. The only way I knew how to start was to write about it, and so I did. I started writing and revising and writing and revising an even-now-unfinished poem, the first piece of art I’ve ever created about being raped. That first draft became a sort of permission slip where I told myself it was okay to take up space. So much of the energy I’d given to surviving had been about the barriers I could create to hold back the fear and the feelings (and about holding on to a sense of control). When I gave myself permission to focus on the art I was creating, I was able to take back a piece of myself that I’d never been able to hold onto before. I let go of worrying about how people judged my worthiness as a victim and found a voice I hadn’t heard before, which let me talk about what happened that night with authenticity. Instead of being worried about being raped, I’d worried about the reactions from other people when I told them about it. That [new] voice let me talk about things like the knife, or about my experience right after the rape, standing in the bright light of the bathroom, trying to clean up. I could do this now because I was focused on art and not about the practical part of surviving where you learn things like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique for anxiety. I talked, probably for the first time, about how he walked me home after. When that disclosure was met with the idea that walking someone home is something you do to keep them safe, specifically from things like sexual assault, I felt anger that I’d never felt before. I took that anger and I put it into words on pages.
Words are powerful. They were powerful when I first started speaking up and claiming the label “survivor” for myself. Words are still powerful now. In the last year, though, as I’ve allowed creative writing to become a piece of the trauma and healing, I’ve also learned a lot more about words. Some of that is just a function of talking about choices I make as an artist, about the process of learning to write the kinds of powerful poetry I want to write. A little piece of it is that so much of this work has taken place over Zoom, where I seem to focus much more on the person I’m speaking to than in other settings, where there may be so many other things to draw my attention away even the slightest bit. And some of it is me, unmasking things.
So I’ve started unmasking the real meanings behind these words I’ve used, and heard people use, nearly interchangeably, for 27 years.
“Attacked” isn’t strong enough. Attacks can be verbal, they can be physical, they can be financial. There’s just not enough to it.
“Victimized” feels a little too passive to me. I wasn’t passive… I was overpowered by someone bigger, taller and stronger than I am, who had some martial arts training, who was in a setting he was familiar with and who had access to a weapon. Even if he didn’t use it, I knew where it was and could see it. But I wasn’t passive. The blood that was shed that night wasn’t only mine.
“Sexual assault.” We’re closer now. Closer, but not quite there. “Sexual assault” is kind of a big, giant umbrella-term. And there are times when I definitely stand under it, especially when I want to stand in solidarity with all survivors. But that big giant umbrella also means that I could be talking about everything from someone exposing themself to me or touching me without consent, or it could include what happened to me, or even more violence than that. When I say to you that I was sexually assaulted, you don’t get a clear or full picture of what happened. You can take some of the violence out, and sort of view it through a cloudy lens.
And you can also put distance between you and the idea that it really could happen to anyone. If it happened to me and I’m telling you about it, it might even be uncomfortably close to you… perhaps you might even think about it happening to you, not in the vague sort of way that means that you keep your keys in your hand walking to the car, or unconsciously remember a certain detail about the person who didn’t really seem to be menacing but was just a little too close when you went into the store. It gives people a protective little bubble, where no one has to actually say the words, and where we can keep the illusion that it only happens to other people, to bad people, to people who make easily preventable mistakes, to the wrong kind of people.
I’ve started saying the word rape. Because that’s what it was. It doesn’t matter that it was a friend, someone I trusted. It doesn’t matter that the knife was on the table, where I could see it, and not in his hand, or that he walked me home after it happened. It was still rape. When I call it by that name, I feel all the power–the power he took that night and the power I have in claiming back all that I lost for so long. I feel all the anger that I hid when I tried to show the image of a “good victim.” It gives me a spark that I can pour into creative work and into healing work. Claiming the word gives me the fuel to fight another day. I’m embracing the power that I sacrificed for so long… because not only was I disempowered and helpless when it happened, but for a long time, I gave up power that is rightfully mine in order to conform to the image of “the right kind of victim.” But there is no “right” kind of victim, and although I had claimed the title of “survivor” for myself, I came through that night alive but changed. Some of me survived, but a great deal of me walked out my front door that night and never returned home. I lived through it–my physical form survived, and the rest of me underwent metamorphosis.
It’s like I’ve woken up after hibernating. The world in front of me looks different, but I can’t tell you whether I’ve changed or the world has. Certainly it’s scary because it’s different, it also feels wonderful. I feel renewed. I’ve shed a shell that’s been just a little too small, but not really small enough for me to notice, and now that I’ve released it, I have space to stretch out and do so much more. I claimed that four letter word, and in doing so, I have become stronger and braver and discovered that I can breathe fire.
This week we’re asking, “Who is the first person you show your writing to and why?” Answer here in the comments or on Twitter. Don’t forget to tag @IvoryBoilerRoom, @WhatTheMamaSaw and @DrWhippersnap and include the hashtag #IvoryBoilerRoomAsks.
Erika has still been wrestling with a difficult piece of writing, and getting ready for the new Thursday Night Writes group. Cats, visitors and her media choices have definitely provided some solace from writing this week. Working on such a difficult piece has shown Erika some new things about her own writing process and about what it feels like to release some precious pieces onto the world.
The new season, season 3 of The Movies That Made Us premiered this week. The stories behind the movies are sometimes better than the movies themselves. There was some binging of season 3 of Sex Education, too. It’s impressive the way that the show has addressed some things that people really don’t know how to talk about. There are some interesting storylines featuring nonbinary characters, about gender presentation and about sex and disability–while there are people who are both asexual and disabled, disabled doesn’t mean asexual. Dot Gay featured an episode about intersectionaity recently as part of their “The Library” series. The whole series is worth viewing, but here’s the intersectionality segment.
Bunheads also captured Erika’s attention this week. The first episode was interesting, but when she heard the line, “I promise you I won’t flee. I’ll be the scientist that understands you. The one who knows that you’re not burning the city down because you’re evil, you’re burning the city down because you’re protecting the giant lizard eggs you just laid in a cave by the ocean. The cave that no one knows is there, but me,” she decided she had to watch more. Considering how much she didn’t care for Gilmore Girls, she’s really enjoying this show, with writing like that and dance scenes like the one below set to the Tom Waits song “Picture in a Frame,” It’s been a good choice this week.
It’s Friday too, which means that the next day or two will definitely include the new episode of The Great British Baking Show. Rumor is that charoset is somehow involved this week…and while charoset is delicious, and definitely has flavors that are baked, Erika has never had, nor thought of baking charoset before, although the components have all been included in things she’s baked.
It’s been a guitar themed week, too. There’s some incredible Bach guitar performances on YouTube…if you’re not familiar, either with Bach, or with the incredible performances of Andres Segovia, here’s a sample to get you started.
There’s also been Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Peter Gabriel, and definitely a lot of Playing for Change, who put out great music, and have an admirable mission.
Erika has just started reading Greedy:Notes from a Bisexual Who Wants Too Much by Jen Winston. It seemed like a good choice for LGBTQ History Month, especially having just observed National Coming Out Day at the beginning of the week. So far, it’s been an enjoyable and entertaining read, and Erika is looking forward to reading more of it.
Florida is just getting to the part of the year where the weather is tolerable, and that, combined with seeking out some really calming things, led Erika to a book she had purchased months ago and not opened, Nowik Gray’s New World Haiku. Haiku is not a format Erika typically would voluntarily try to write in, and this book definitely reminds her why. “First Comes Breathing,” was particularly captivating. Writers’ gossip also provided some entertainment… Erika’s been hooked on the Bad Art Friend saga, too. Do people who aren’t writers realize just how much drama can happen in writing circles?
Adam has been having some amazing reading-days lately. It seemed like The Powerbroker would be a difficult book to follow, but it turned out not to be. There’s an adorable little bookshop in Camden Market that turned out to be selling a second-hand copy of the Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll, translated by Leila Vennewitz. This has been one of Adam’s favorite books since college, but until now he’s never owned a copy.
There hasn’t been much time for listening lately, with every day consisting either of working from home or exploring the parks and other tourist attractions, but Bach is never far away, and a lot of great music has been playing in Adam’s head. Also, with Adam and Anuja together for the first time in 18 months, the nonsense-songs they’ve improvised to make each other laugh have been on repeat like Top-40 pop-songs.
As for watching? Well, Adam is a human being who is alive at this moment so of course he succumbed to peer pressure and watched Squid Games. It was really good! But what happens when TV studios have the inevitable bad take: “people want ultraviolence” instead of “people want well-realized characters”? And Little Things came out with a new season, so that’s on the docket, too. The new season feels more expensive than previous ones. There are a lot more panoramic camera angles, more ambitious locations. The show, in its first season, seemed to be arguing, as the title of the show and its theme song suggest: “nothing really matters but the little things.” But if the two characters are steadily becoming more successful and the production values of the show are becoming more costly, what does that do to the thesis of the show? Stay tuned for the answer.|
Oh, and this weekend Adam is seeing Twelfth Night at the Globe Motherfucking Theater. Stay tuned on that as well.
Last week concluded the first installment of our Creative Writer’s Showcase. We are so thankful to all of our participants! This week, we are embarking on a one-of-a-kind view into the life of a classroom teacher during the Coronavirus pandemic. We are lucky to have these dispatches from Josi’s classroom, which we will be printing on Thursdays for the rest of the month of October.
On the first week of my first year of teaching, I learned how important birthdays are to young children. It was one of Tina’s first birthdays since being adopted, and her mom, who worked at my school, kindly asked if I could do a little something to make the day special for her. I remember her excitement at handing out cupcakes, and I remember her asking when we were going to sing.
Personally, I never want to sing happy birthday. I think it’s a cheesy, awkward song. But to children, it isn’t cheesy. It’s a moment where you’re showered with attention and allowed to enjoy it. A birthday is a day where everyone is supposed to be nice to you, and for young humans, it means a lot.
The software we used to take attendance would show a little candle next to someone’s name if their birthday was within a week. Whenever I saw the candle, I’d panic just a little, worrying again that I’d forget to stock the prize box with cool toys, or let them down by failing to set aside enough time in the day for a mini-celebration.
Eventually, I started making “birthday bags,” little gift bags with trinkets and candy that I could give to a student on their birthday as we sang before dismissal. I made a little tradition where the birthday kid could pick any game to play in class (usually Seven Up, or Simon Says) and even pick a Kidz Bop song to play on YouTube and dance with the class. I got that birthday thing down.
Then, last Friday, the first Friday of the 2021-2022 school year, happened.
As the class and I sat down to review the calendar and today’s schedule, I noticed that Casey’s birthday was this weekend, but she was absent today. She came in later, but her birthday totally slipped my mind. And surprisingly, she didn’t mention it.
Around 2:00, the school secretary came by with an envelope for me and didn’t say what it was. I assumed it was something related to the staff meeting we would have later, that I could look at after dismissal, and continued teaching and monitoring the students in their small groups. After all, It was a particularly hectic afternoon.
Several girls were crying for an unknown reason. One was on YouTube, instead of the math site we were supposed to be on. The school custodian came in to let me know he caught two girls throwing paper towels all over the restroom. On top of all that, dismissal time was forty-five minutes away.
Masterfully, I calmed the crying girls and helped them talk through their feelings. I directed the girls in the restroom to clean up their mess, and affirmed to the class that that kind of behavior is not acceptable. I clarified that avoiding your work by using unapproved websites like YouTube would result in a call home to your parents, and you would have to make up the work during one of our break times. I coordinated the last part of our school day, which involved picking new class jobs for the next week, celebrating the wonderful writing work we completed, and cleaning our desks.
The students were dismissed, and I walked them outside to wait to be picked up. That’s when Casey walked back over to me with her mom, who asked, “Did you get to hand out those birthday invitations?”
My stomach dropped. Of course. The envelope. But why didn’t Casey mention it was her birthday this morning, when we looked at the calendar, I wondered. Oh right. She came in late today. And it slipped my mind.
I did the only thing I could do: I apologized, ran back to get them, and helped Casey hand out the invitations to all the girls still waiting to be picked up. I promised Casey and her mom that we would sing Happy Birthday and give her the birthday bag on Monday.
But I felt like a failure. Even though we finished our writing projects for the week, had a wonderfully successful math lesson that morning, and lined up quickly after all of our outdoor break times, I had failed that day because I didn’t pass out those invitations. I let Casey down, on her special day.
It was a non-teacher friend who reassured me that the situation wasn’t my fault.
The parent didn’t send me an email. The student didn’t know she was supposed to hand them out. The invitations landed on my desk at 2:00 on a Friday afternoon. And, birthdays are not academic. It’s not my job to celebrate your child’s birthday.
I’m still conflicted on this point. And I’d like to mention that the parents did not blame me (at least, not to my face). The student didn’t seem all that bothered. And, on Monday, when I was supposed to make it up to her, Casey was absent. When she finally came to school on Wednesday, she remembered to remind me to sing happy birthday for her several times throughout the school day. Even when I was teaching. Especially when she was supposed to be working on something.
What is a teacher’s job? Obviously, it is to teach Math, Reading, and Writing to young minds. By extension, it is to promote good learning habits and behavior, including taking turns, teamwork, organization, etc.
But where do we draw the line between teaching and parenting? I have several students who can’t tie their shoes. Should I set time aside to teach them?
Yesterday I walked past the Globe Theater. It was intense. Just walking past it.
I’ve been in London now for over a week. I’ve seen a bunch of the tourist things you’re supposed to see, and not seen others. I saw the treasures of the Sutton Hoo excavation at the British Museum. I saw all the old manuscripts on display at the British Library. I’ve had fish and chips 3 times. And yes there have been things that made me stop and stare. Most of those moments occurred in Kew Gardens.
But to understand why just seeing the outside of the Globe was such a moment, I think we need to establish something. London is not cute, and it’s not quaint. If you’ve ever been to the center of London, you know this. There’s a street called “London Wall.” It’s a street, not a wall. It follows the path of the old Roman Wall (built around the year 200; torn down around the year 1800) but the two sides of the street are lined by modern office buildings. South of the Thames, particularly in the Southwark and Elephant-and-Castle neighborhoods, I get a similar vibe to certain parts of Queens: cute, little, old buildings with apartments on the top floors and immigrant-run restaurants and shops on the bottom floors. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling at home since I got here. Ok fine. That part feels homey and comfortable—the part where the immigrants live. But most of the rest of central London that I’ve seen is aggressively angular. The old world charm that suffuses other European cities is so conspicuously absent from even the tiniest corner of most parts of the city that even the occasional Tudor-style beam-and-stucco pub comes off as the Disney-ish fakery it so obviously is.
The only thing cute or quaint about London is the naming. When I was a kid, I used to say things like “Massachussetts? More like ASSachussets!” And it seems to me that the “more like” guy got to name all the things in London. Because when you try to play that game in London, you find the work has already been done. “Cockfosters? More like…” nope, that one’s good already. “Newington Butts? More like…” Nope, there’s nowhere to go. And you need that kind of amusement, just like you need parks, because the physical experience of the city is mostly hard edges.
Now. I’m not faulting a city for modernizing. Nor am I faulting a city that was literally leveled by fire for taking the opportunity to Build Back Better (something American cities could use some advice on how to do). But I won’t pretend something of the charm and beauty of an older city, of an older pattern of architecture, isn’t lost. What would be the point of pretending? And so, across the Thames from St. Paul’s Cathedral, accessible by way of the spare, modern Millennium Bridge (a footbridge, to be specific) and right next to the Tate Modern, which looks like an abandoned factory, is this round building of plaster panels framed by wooden beams and covered by a thatched roof. A thatched frigging roof.
That roof… I bet they put some sort of fire-resistant resin on it. They have to, right? The great fire of London was in 1666, but the Globe burned down in 1613, a victim of the sparks from its own stage-magic. It was rebuilt a few years later and then torn down again in the 1640s, a casualty of the Civil War.
But from when it was built in the 1590s until the day it was torn down, a Londoner with a free afternoon and a penny (a bit more than the price of a loaf of bread—about ten dollars in modern American currency) could go there (or to the Curtain, the Swan, the Rose, the Bear Garden…) and see a play by William Goddamn Shakespeare. I don’t believe in magic… but that’s magic, isn’t it? And it’s still there. It’s been there for about thirty years now, and the price for groundlings is, in constant dollars, or rather pounds, the same as it was in the 1590s. The idea of that much beauty and grace and artistry; of that many dirty jokes and human-spirit-affirming speeches being nearly free for nearly everyone in the city. And that’s to say nothing of the beautiful affirmations of queer and interracial love that many of those playwrights crafted… The feeling I experienced standing on that bridge looking at that theater was nearly religious.
Just seeing it, it was like a door opened. I was walking with Anuja at the time and stories just started pouring out of me. About how before there was the Globe, there was the Theater, founded by James Burbage (his son, Richard Burbage, originated the roles of Hamlet and Richard III and a bunch of others). There was a dispute over the ownership of the Theater, though, and so James and his cronies literally dismantled the Theater, timber by timber, and used the disputed materiel to build a new one on a plot of land they were more secure in their ownership of. Stories poured out about how people, when they visited the theater, cracked nuts and ate the meat as they watched the plays, and how that cracking sound must have echoed off the wooden interior. About how, then as now, the theater-folk were constantly living under the threat of closing down due to plague. About how even though the 16th century Christian divines were ignorant of modern germ theory (as opposed to wilfully ignorant but that’s a rant for another o’clock) they somehow knew that closing down the place where people went to congregate was a good idea. About how the first permanent, purpose-built theater in England, the Red Lion, was built in Whitechapel, which was a tannery district outside the walls of London. How it must have smelled when the Londoners walked or rode the distance outside the walls to see the plays! The Red Lion went out of business in about fifteen years.
It all just came pouring out. I wonder if I would have felt the same way had I not had pieces by Shakespeare memorized. It felt as though they were inside me, clamoring to come out:
Alas! Poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio A fellow of infinite jest…
Nay, I can smile and murder whiles I smile…
Thou, Nature, art my goddess…
The places in my body where those memorized lines and speeches are lodged were buzzing with the same mixture of anticipation and contentment that all of me felt when I was getting off the plane in London-Heathrow, on the cusp of seeing Anuja for the first time in 18 months. Every muscle alternated between tense and relaxed, except the ones I was smiling with, and my whole being was suffused with one thought: I’m almost home.