Erika’s Big Think #6: The Story I Never Told my Grandmother

By Erika Grumet

My grandmother was known for entertaining guests; in fact, the stone at her grave makes note of her skill as a hostess. I recall standing in the kitchen with my mother, while we were preparing the house to sit shiva* for her. I was busy getting the table organized, setting up coffee, and making sure the house would be ready to receive guests after the funeral. My mother was standing there, frustrated, trying to arrange a vase of flowers (something my grandmother seemed to do effortlessly,) and Mom looked up and said she needed her mother’s expertise. This was an unusual moment of vulnerability for my mom, but it was in keeping with such moments: she wasn’t allowing herself to express grief for her mother’s death, just commenting on how she wished she could arrange the flowers as well as her mother had been able to. I felt the weight of that moment, the smothering of grief and loss beneath the weight of social obligation, the same way I felt the weight of the moment when I’d covered up the mirror in the front hallway and set up the hand washing station at the front door.

Grandma used those amazing hostessing skills to support my grandfather’s business endeavors. She used them when they owned Timber Point Country Club in the 1960s. And they were often on display when I was a small child. Grandma and Grandpa had a wonderful house for children to ramble through, situated on the south shore of Long Island, with plenty of space for us to be outdoors and out of the way. But even amid the labyrinth of corridors, the lush backyard, the house was not without its shadows.

The imaginary monsters of childhood lurk in closets and under the bed, and everywhere else. Mine hid in public restrooms, the boiler room of our home and in my grandparents house. In their living room, where no one ever sat, hanging near the fireplace, were two pencil sketches: one of a cat, and the other of a man. I always found the sketches creepy. Another monster was a rabbi, whose portrait haunted the long hallway between the front and back of the house. He had a long brown beard, you could see a kippah on his head, and over him was draped a tallis (prayer shawl). There was no way for me to avoid those places in the house. Seeing the fireplace pictures could be limited– we only had to walk towards the fireplace and see those pictures when we were leaving.. And the air always felt colder near the attic, and the eyes in the painting followed me as I rushed past it, keeping my eyes pointed at the floor, and feeling the nerves in my stomach every time. That rabbi knew what a terrible person I was, all my dark secrets, he was watching, and reporting it all back to the one who sits in judgement. 

In spite of those things, the house is a place I remember fondly, with good memories of love and celebrations. My grandparents’ friends were frequent visitors.Some of them they had known since my mother was a child, and some of them were more recent acquaintances. And I was expected to find the sweet spot between being a charming grandchild and being out of the way. I think all of the girls were (there were three of us, close in age, with 22 months between my older cousin and my younger sister,) an expectation we lived up to with varying levels of success… Woe betide the shy child, though–the scolding that she would endure for being frightened of strange, loud people who had usually been drinking quite a bit could be a lasting bruise on even the most self-possessed and secure sensibility. 

Another monster was Mr. Gilbert. My grandparents’ friendship with the Gilberts went back at least as far as my mother’s childhood. The story my mother has told most frequently is that when she developed osteomyelitis (at age 8 while at summer camp) Mrs. Gilbert would come and sit with them daily through the treatments and uncertain diagnosis, and she would bring popsicles. I remember Mrs. Gilbert as the person who gave me a giant soft rag doll, taller than I was, in a bonnet and calico dress, and who had given me the small quilt and matching pillow that sat across the foot of my bed throughout my childhood, and even beyond. I remember her because people seemed to expect we would have some kind of special connection because we shared the same birthday. Mr. Gilbert was never my favorite… never as kind or as interested as any of the others, always distant. According to my mother, Mr. Gilbert was a wonderful, sweet man. I don’t remember him that way.

I was probably three or four when Mr. Gilbert became a monster. It was a normal sort of day at Grandma and Grandpa’s with women in the kitchen, men somewhere else, and kids wherever we were supposed to be. I was in the kitchen, perched on the island. I had carrot sticks, fancy ones, cut with a crinkle cutter, and I was happily crunching away while a game of Scrabble took place at the table nearby. Mr. Gilbert smiled and began to chat with me. Most children, we know, are curious about bodies, so Mr. Gilbert naturally asked:. “Would you like to see me take my ear off?”

I have no idea if I answered, or he just did it without waiting for consent. I just know that what came next caused me to fear him for the rest of his life.

He took off his ear.

I watched him as he reached back, put his thumb behind his ear, and, with a firm tug, detached it from his head. He placed it on his open palm and displayed it for me. Then he put it back on. I didn’t scream. I didn’t cry. If I had, this story would have become part of family lore, told and retold for maximum embarrassment, again and again, or I’d recall the castigation from my grandmother, or possibly both. There would undoubtedly be some kind of shame involved. I can only assume I sat there, silently, not sure what to do next, as he “reattached” his “ear.” I can remember, though, that after that day, I tried to avoid him whenever he was present… and Mrs. Gilbert as well. And I kept the story to myself until I was in my mid twenties.

I don’t know why it took me so long to tell this story to anyone. Did I already know that the fear of something totally imaginary, like removing an ear, would make my mother think less of me? Or that expressing the fear of someone important to my grandparents would lead to an intense repreprimand from Grandma? Did I know somehow that it would be dismissed as overreacting? It wasn’t overreacting for a preschooler who was still discovering so many things about the way the world works. Those instincts–fear, distrust–keep us safe. We train ourselves out of trusting our instincts though–not because of good old American boldness, but more likely just in the name of politeness, in the interest of avoiding conflict. Sometimes we allow “no” to be the beginning of a negotiation, instead of remembering that “no” is a complete sentence.

I’m not very good at saying no to other people. I don’t listen to my own instincts, and I get in my own way far too often. Just like fear can be a thrill or a warning, “no” can be both weapon and armor. I’ve let my own fear of hearing “no” from other people be a barrier to taking chances. It joins forces with the other negative voices inside my head to gain so much power that instead of protecting me sometimes, I let it take me down. And as I’m sitting here acknowledging the power of fear and the power of “no,” I wonder… why is it so hard for me to find my own power in there and to defeat the “no” voice?

When I started to write this story, I was thinking about childhood fears and body parts falling off. I thought about Mr. Gilbert’s ears and about my sister, who feared her belly button becoming unknotted and who was convinced that if that happened that she would go flying around the room and deflate like a balloon. I thought I was writing about the power of childhood fears… how the world remains frightening and mysterious when you’re not ready to puzzle some things out completely. Things like how, after I read the book Helter Skelter, which I read way before I was really ready to read it, I refused for years to sleep with my bedroom windows open from the bottom, because there was something in the book about breaking into homes to commit murders that way. I didn’t know that telling this story would lead me down a road I hadn’t traveled in a long time… or how scary that road would still be. Mr Gilbert took his ear off for me more than four decades ago, and I was afraid to say “no” then. I’m still afraid to say “no” now. Saying “no” feels dangerous, and so does not saying no. It’s a little like a puppy chasing its tail. At some point, something has to stop the cycle of fear and consequences, or something has to grow bigger than the fear of the consequences. When I finally told the story about Mr. Gilbert’s ear, I had grown–grown beyond the fear of detached body parts being a real thing, beyond fear of retribution from adults about being afraid, and beyond fear of the story being told by my parents as a tale of childhood embarrassment mislabeled as cuteness. And although I thought I had stopped being afraid of childhood monsters many years ago, I’ve discovered that childhood is filled with real monsters. Not the kind that loses body parts or drinks your blood or turns you into a werewolf. The monsters do something much worse. They take your inner “no” voice away. And the silence can cripple you for life. 

I’m a grown up. I’m a parent. I still remember the feelings about embarrassing childhood stories, and so I’m careful when I pick and choose stories to tell about my own children, especially online: asking permission, blurring details and keeping things as anonymous as I can. Because I’m afraid that if I tell embarrassing stories about my children without asking, they’ll lose the word ‘no’ the way I did.

And that zombie ear that scared me so much when I was a kid? It was just a hearing aid. Not so scary after all. Not nearly as scary as feeling trapped, not nearly as scary as being unable to say no.

*


*Sitting shiva means sitting on a low stool for seven days, in company with your friends and relatives. It’s a Jewish mourning ritual.

It’s Caturday and We have Questions

A cheerful orange tabby cat in the foreground looks down on his grey tabby friend and says “I don’t see why we can’t just watch the movie I want to watch.” The grey tabby responds “Because if I have to hear you say ‘Here comes the good part’again, there will be bodies.”

Clearly, these two have their rituals. They’re cats–creatures of habit, after all. In fact, with the change of seasons, the rituals change a little, too The changing angle of the sun means a change in sleeping spots and sleeping patterns. One thing doesn’t change, however, and that is the insistence that one or more of them sit in a way that will make their presence known any time Erika sits down for a long writing session. Her writing rituals, therefore, include some cat related tasks. She actually described her process to Adam recently, and it included a few intereting steps. She’ll post about it on Twitter-you can look there or comment here to find out more. What are your writing rituals? A favorite spot? A favorite beverage? A chat with a mentor? Tell us about it here in the comments or on social media and tag it with #IvoryBoilerRoomAsks. If you’re on Twitter, don’t forget to tag @IvoryBoilerRoom along with @DrWhippersnap and @WhatTheMamaSaw

Watch, Listen and Read with Us

Another weekend has arrived, and we’re here with highlights from what we’ve been watching, reading and listening to. Mary’s had to sit this week out due to illness, but we know she’ll be back soon. Meanwhile we all wish her a speedy recovery (and you can leave your well wishes for her, too.) In the meantime, enjoy our recommendations, and if you see that one of us has been checking out something that you too love, let us know…and share your own suggestions with us in the comments or on any of our social media pages.

This week Andrew has been reading Dustin Friedman’s Before Queer Theory which he has been obsessively poring over (at local cafes and at the university). He is so excited to interview the author, Dustin Friedman today, and you all can listen to the podcast episode in a few weeks. For his teaching preparation, he has been rereading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and, as always, loves the Gilded Age soap opera narrative that truly takes a turn for the worse (but he won’t spoil it for all of you).


Andrew finished a motivational audiobook, The 4 Word Answer and recommends it to all, since it really has helped him stay grounded and in control of his authenticity. The quest is to focus on 4 words everyday that you can turn to for maintaining peace and happiness in your life. Andrew’s words are authenticity, empowerment, creativity, and kindness. What are your 4 words?

This week Andrew hasn’t been watching a lot of new shows due to a busy schedule, but he did start to watch the new season of The Morning Show (and enjoying it, so far). He does want to start watching the new season of Sex Education when he gets a chance (maybe as he starts Fall Break for Stony Brook University). 


Erika has been working with some difficult writing this week, and has had family visiting, so it’s been a week for some less serious media, in fact, mostly a return to old favorites. She escaped to the homophobia-free world of Schitt’s Creek a lot this week. Listening to Dan Levy’s David Rose explain that he likes “the wine not the label,” has helped her organize some thoughts

One of those difficult pieces may appear this week on the blog, and another later this month, so keep reading. Meanwhile, as Erika has done some reading and writing about LGBTQ history month and Orlando has gotten ready to celebrate Pride, this TEDx Talk by Misty Gedlinske has also helped Erika with some of the stumbles her writing has taken.

Hannah Gadsby’s stand up special Douglas and a lot of documentaries have also been on screen. And while the film itself isn’t an old favorite, the characters of Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan are, and Erika finally made time to watch the third installment of the Bill and Ted movie franchise, “Bill and Ted Face the Music” which was probably her favorite of the trilogy.   She also watched Baking Impossible, which gives The Great British Baking Show a nerdy upgrade by combining baking and engineering for some amazing outcomes.   This weekend will definitely feature the new episode of The Great British Baking Show, and possibly also the new season of Sex Education if she’s feeling up to it.

Not much on the classical end of Erika’s playlist this week–a little Mozart, a little Handel, a little Corelli here and there. Instead, Liz Phair made an appearance, along with Tori Amos, Sarah Maclachlan and Stella Donnelly’s Boys will be Boys ”Like a mower in the morning, I will never let you rest,” was a good phrase to hear this week. There’s been some space for Ani DiFranco and 10,000 Maniacs, too. 

The only new (to her, not newly published,) book on Erika’s list this week is by friend of the Ivory Tower Boiler Room, Lev Raphael. His collection Book Lust! Essays for Book Lovers has been a nice vacation for Erika, a space to read about other people’s writing instead of reading, revising and re-reading her own. Erika knew this one was for her when she opened the book, and saw the title of the very first essay, “Bad Sex Blues.” If you haven’t listened to the three part interview that she and Andrew did with Lev earlier this summer, in part 2, they talk about writing sex scenes, which Erika was struggling with (and may have finally begun to make some progress on in the last few weeks.) She’s still reading from Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Shout and The Great Gatsby and several other things she’s picked up and put down in the last few weeks. 

Adam finally finished The Powerbroker by Robert Caro. Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ, what a long book! It is really beautifully written. Anyone who can make budget-meetings feel as immediate and exciting as tabloid romance is someone to learn from. Adam is also reading Roisin Campbell by J. P. Garland, a historical novel about 19th century Irish immigrants in New York. Stay tuned for news of collaboration between The Ivory Tower Boiler Room and author J. P. Garland.

And, with Adam being reunited at long last with his most dependable binge-watching partner, the new season of Sex Education was easily dispensed with, and Squid Games is well underway.

Adam has not been listening to much music this week, leastwise not on speakers, but a few pieces have been playing on repeat in his head:
Trumpet Concerto by Franz Josef Haydn (Thank you Squid Games)
“Time” by Tom Waits
Various songs by Tom Lehrer, including “Be Prepared” and “The Old Dope-Peddler”

Anyway, have a great week, everyone. Remember to come back tomorrow for some more Big Cat Little Cat and Monday for the new Big Think and the new episode of the podcast!

Cheers,

Andrew,
Erika,
Mary,
and Adam

Featured Writer: Tyler Albertario

Octobert is LGBT History Month in Australia, Canada, and the United States. It is particularly appropriate, then, that we are finishing our first Creative Writers’ Showcase with Tyler Albertario.

You may remember we featured Tyler’s work “‘Pride’ and Prejudice: The Craig Schoonmaker Story” when we were psyching all you lovely readers up for this series.

Tyler is one of those people–between the writing style and the interesting things he has to say–we just want to read more of his work. So now that’s finally what we get to do.

London Letters #1: I’m Having a Great Trip

By Adam Katz

    It is strange being in the city that, for over three hundred years, was the political and economic center of the world… and not really caring. I arrived in London on October 1. The reason I’m here has nothing to do with the Globe Theater or the tailors on Savile Row or the scones.

Boats on a London canal being raised by letting water into the lock

My fiancee had been in India for some eighteen months; I had been in New York during the same interval, and, because of the vagaries of international travel, England was the only place we could legally meet. And yes, the other day I did go to the British Library to see the stolen books, and tomorrow I’ll be going to the British Museum to see the stolen artifacts. And a few days from now (this I’m a bit less ambivalent about) I’ll be watching Twelfth Night at the Globe theater. Really quick because I am, in fact, nerding the fuck out about this performance: I insisted on standing in the pit for authenticity. Also, the showing will be at 2 PM; a lot of Globe productions nowadays start at 7, whereas in Shakespeare’s era, the theater would have started at three when the sun was overhead. But the production I’ll be watching will, at least, be authentic in its starting-time. Another point of similarity is that, then as now, the theater is constantly at risk of closure due to plague.

Another irony, on top of being in London and not particularly caring, is being in London and not particularly feeling like I’m in London. Yeah, the accents are there and the thermostat is in centigrade, but I can’t help thinking that I have traveled a quarter of the way around the world just to land in Brooklyn. The area I am staying in is called Camden Town, which is made up of a combination of residences and converted factories, planted athwart the beautiful Regent’s Canal. The buildings tend to be about four storeys tall, there are parks and splashes of local color and hipster eateries (sooo many hipster eateries… How many pastries  do you have to order from bakeries that are operating out of converted factories before you might as well be in Brooklyn? Whatever the number, I am way past it).

A page from the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest manuscript of the Hebrew Bible plus the New Testament. A cornerstone of Middle Eastern culture, faith, and archaeology. So what, pray tell, is it doing in London?

But of course even a place that is the same will nevertheless have its differences. The canals in Brooklyn are essentially open sewers (follow this link, and please don’t think too long about the phrase ‘black mayonnaise’); in Camden Town, the canal is home to dozens of houseboats that travel up and down its stream at will. Boats can even go up and down in elevation using these controlled waterfalls called locks, which are amazing things to learn about. One of the houseboats is home to a bookstore. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The inside is warm and cozy and filled with books and chairs. Anuja and I spent long precious minutes just standing among the shelves. The selection is amazing, too—the only books on that boat I don’t want to read… are the ones I want to reread. And the fellow who runs it is–how even to describe him? He sits there next to his houseboat-bookshop wearing a top-hat and green suit, sporting a long but carefully combed white beard that looks like it might once have been red. I thought it would be rude to snap his picture, but I fell in love with him a little bit. I wish I had stayed to talk a little while longer, at least long enough to ask what it is that happens in a person’s life that makes them decide: “I’m going to be a character out of a storybook and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to stop me.” I bought from him a volume entitled The Prophet and Other Tales by Khalil Gibran, partly because I have always wanted a physical copy of The Prophet, but partly because I felt I needed to buy something; needed to contribute in some way to the livelihood of this person who is himself a dream come to life. Dreams are so fragile.

Speaking of joy, the reader will no doubt be wondering what a reunion looks like after 18 months. At least part of the answer is: lots of crying. I feel lucky that I, as a cisgendered, heterosexual man, am capable of tears. I wonder what this reunion would have been like without tears. I don’t think it would have been possible. Or at the very least, it would have required far more antacids and analgesics than I brought (the stomach and lower back are not the only places to carry such types of emotional distress but they appear to be my body’s preferences). The first time I cried was standing outside the London flat she had arranged—a few sniffles; nothing major. The second time was that very night. We were relaxing on the couch watching Together, a movie about the Coronavirus Pandemic starring Sharon Horgan and James MacAvoy. I started bawling like a newborn for a friend I lost to the Coronavirus a bit less than a year ago. Moments like this have come at intervals. While we’re watching TV, while we’re in bed. One of us will just say something and then… that becomes the activity. One person crying, the other person comforting. All I can say is that I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, this is, on some level, what I signed up for. 

You might think it’s the inverse: that we are getting together to finally enjoy each other’s company and share some good times. And… yes. Of course. But that’s far from the main reason. The good times are already good. Yes, having your best friend there helps make good times even better, but not having them there isn’t a dealbreaker. It’s every miserable thing that’s happened to us this year—a friend dying of COVID, a health-scare in the family, then another, a particularly bad attack of lower back cramps or carpal tunnel syndrome… And what do you do when the person you most want to share your grief with just isn’t there? Obviously, you do the best you can. You manage.

If I’ve learned anything this year it’s that there is a kind of hierarchy to living. It’s really hard to experience life fully when there is nobody to talk to. So of course when we are isolated in our respective homes, we try to reach out using Zoom and other forms of social media. But that is merely another level of the hierarchy. Using Zoom for social interaction is exhausting, and anyway, it represents an incomplete social interaction. No smell, no touch, very little body-language, no sense of the other person being in the same setting and context. It’s the most sterile interaction. So occasionally (or more often depending on preference, level of vaccination, and level of risk-tolerance) we try to visit each other in person. Many of those interactions take place at a distance of six feet, sometimes with a fist-bump or elbow-bump at the beginning and end; some with a furtive handshake or even hug. So much is added to that interaction that is absent from the Zoom-calls. But again, it’s a partially sterile interaction. The body-language is there, but you don’t even have to take off your coat. So some of us (again, depending on risk-tolerance and level of vaccination) have full in-person interactions with hugs and kisses and hand-holding and sitting next to each other and so on. That is a real interaction. And I’ve been privileged to have such interactions this year. But once you get in that door, there is another hierarchy. Even the physically-closest interaction with a person you are not as close with emotionally is going to be unsatisfying in some vague way.

But what does the body do in the absence of those fulfilling social interactions; in the absence of being fully physically present with one of the scant few people with whom you can be fully emotionally present? What did I do for eighteen months, talking to Anuja on the phone or on some video-call platform, but never getting closer than that? The answer, as I realized about a week before I was to get on the plane to London, is that I began to shut down some of the parts of myself I wasn’t using. Yes, just like an old mansion in a 19th century novel. After a few months, I just wasn’t experiencing the highs and lows. And as I realized this, I realized simultaneously that when I saw Anuja in person for the first time, I was going to get emotional pins-and-needles, like when your foot goes numb because you’ve been sitting on it, and then when you stand up, the blood rushes back.

And that’s what has been happening. It is awful. But it is also marvelous. A useful analog is Theoden in The Two Towers when he, too, returns to full use of his emotional faculties after a long period of lying prostrate beneath layers of grief and depression. His first words are: “Dark have been my dreams of late.” But what is the first thing he does when he finally stands up; when he finally stretches his limbs; when he finally breathes the free air as an emotionally engaged human? Does he run and jump? Drink and carouse? Sing and dance? No. He mourns his dead. And that’s exactly what I did, too, right there on the couch, crying for my friend who died, with Anuja’s arms finally, firmly, wrapped around me. I feel lucky, in an odd way: so many of us have experienced grief and loss this year and last. It’s an embarrassment of riches to be able to fully express that grief in a healthy manner, and no longer to have to bottle it up in the name of survival.

So many people travel, as tourists, with a similar purpose, if you think about it. We visit castles  that are now in ruins; or we visit castles that remain active as residences but were made famous by figures long dead. We visit the Globe theater, despite the fact that the man who wrote the plays for which it is most famous is 405 years dead; despite the fact that the Bear Garden and the Swan and the Rose and the Red Lion and the Blackfriars are gone, and the Globe is gone too, technically, done in by a fire in the early 1600s and rebuilt as well as it could be. We are all of us here to mourn. So as odd as it may seem to have travelled 18 months and three thousand miles to see Anuja, only to end up crying my eyes out for my dead friend, it does make sense. Everyone travels to get in touch with history. If I am given my preference, why should I not come here to get in touch with someone who likewise is no longer with us; who likewise was a scholar and an artist, but whom at least I knew personally?

I usually answer questions honestly rather than conventionally. And I expect this is going to be a trip for those kinds of answers. Ok, someone will say: ‘Did you have fun on your trip?’ And I’ll probably just say ‘yes,’ because that question doesn’t invite a fuller answer any more than ‘hey, what’s up?,’ and I respect that. But if someone says: ‘Did you have a good trip?’ I will be tempted to say: ‘Yes, but maybe not for the reasons you would expect.’ If someone says: ‘What was the best part of the trip?’ I may have more than one answer. But the real answer—the deep-down answer—is that the best part of my trip is: this time if Anuja is upset about something, I can wrap my arms around her. It’s just that simple. People get upset about things. And for eighteen months, I have had to use my words as the poor substitute they are. Not being able to hold her when she is suffering, not a single time in the past eighteen months, is among the worst pain, in my admittedly sheltered existence, I have ever felt. And now that pain is just… gone. 

Just gone. Just like that. 

So yeah. I’m having a fabulous trip. I’m experiencing happiness and contentment on a level I didn’t know possible. I’m also experiencing grief and ambivalence on a level I didn’t know possible. But the grief is what makes the positivity possible, which means that, if the grief were less, the joy would also be less. And, perhaps more importantly, the grief and joy both feel as though they are expanding my consciousness from within. Every time I experience a new low, it feels as though I have grown to accommodate it. And then every time I experience a new high, even if it is nothing more epiphanic than a walk along the bank of the canal, it again feels as though I have grown to accommodate it, and, like a balloon, I was not able to contain emotions this large, until I did contain them, and then suddenly I was able to contain them. And what emotions wait for me tomorrow? I could not even tell you, because they are too enormous for me to imagine. So yeah. I’m having a great trip. I couldn’t imagine a better.

Thank you for asking.

Read London Letters #2: “O for a Muse of Fire”

Read London Letters #3: “The Rain it Raineth Everyday”

*

As usual, right after sending this piece live, I encountered a suitable quotation whose source should not have surprised me:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked…
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain…
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
-“On Joy and Sorrow” (p131) from The Prophet and Other Tales by Khalil Gibran (Word Cloud Classics, San Diego)

Big Cat, Little Cat!

Mary’s True Crime Tuesday is off this week. But we’ll be receiving dispatches from Adam’s trip to England starting tomorrow. Apropos of which…

Script by Adam Katz, cinematography by Erika Grumet. The roles of Big Cat and Little Cat are played by Frob and Widget, respectively.

*

*

Description: Two felines, both alike in dignity, but not in size or color, in fair London where we lay our scene.
The small grey asks the large orange: “So what do you think of London so far?”
The large orange answers in Cockney: “I’m chuffed, innit?”
Second Panel.
The small grey says, as patiently as he can (which isn’t much): “Big Cat, you’re from Florida and you’ve been here for three days. Can you please just”
But the large orange interrupts: “Cheerio, Guvna!”

Adam’s Big Think #6: Wrong Tent

By Adam Katz

For this month’s Big Think, the theme is “Things that go Bump in the Night.” Enjoy!

courtesy of pixabay.com

It was a weekend camping trip with the Boy Scouts. Yes, I was a Boy Scout for a couple of years. The autumn leaves were fresh and crisp—mostly oak with some maple and ash and some other shapes besides. Sitting on the ground, we were all staring intently at some curious bit of nature while the guide stood behind us and explained. I always loved these moments. I grew up in the era in which the Boy Scouts collectively boasted: “No to the three G’s: Gays, Girls, and the Godless.” And yes, my growing awareness concerning homophobia was among the reasons I left the scouts early on. But in that moment I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was looking at this beautiful patch of nature, listening to this guide lecture on about it, and there was nowhere else on earth I would rather have been sitting at that moment. Nothing else on earth I would rather have been doing.

But then I woke up.

Sometimes when you have that vivid a dream, it takes a moment to distinguish what is real from what is not. I found myself looking around trying to see what matched up with   what. I looked down. I was kneeling on dry autumn leaves. Check. Maybe I just dozed off for a moment? I looked around to see if my friends were still listening—wait. Where were they? Piles of leaves. The odd lichen-covered stone. A tree-stump, grown grey with age. Was all that was left of them. Now I really started to panic. My breathing got short and hard. I turned with pleading eyes to the guide who just a moment ago had been saying—what had he been saying?

Nothing. He hadn’t said anything. A rake for keeping the fire-pit tidy was leaning in the crook between two tree-branches. For a moment, my eyes, desperate to grasp hold of some version of reality that made sense, saw a man holding the rake. Perhaps idly toying with it as we discussed the wonders of the surrounding woods. But as hard as I tried, any human form standing behind me, leaning against that tree, holding that rake, just… drifted away. Like dropping a handful of sand or pebbles in a swift-flowing stream.

The campsite consisted of identical high-roofed tents that had been set up on wooden platforms. Each tent had two entrances and two cots, burlap sleeping surfaces stretched across wooden frames; except for one tent. Artie’s tent had a hard cot—like a low table—and a soft cot. I knew now I had been stumbling around the campsite in my sleep. Crap! What if I had tripped? I hadn’t, but what if I had? But I was sure I hadn’t wandered far. So I dashed into the nearest tent.
    “Joe!” I cried. “Joe!” That was my tent-mate for the weekend.

He didn’t wake up at first. I called again

“It’s Artie,” he said. But it was Joe’s voice, wasn’t it?
    “Very funny, Joe,” I retorted, and then moved to sink back into my cot—but was met with the hard surface of that low table. I had almost enough presence of mind to realize how much worse that would have been if I had blundered into a different cot and sat down on a living, sleeping person. I might have hurt him. I might have woken everyone up.

“I. Um. I’m sorry, Artie. Sorry I woke you.”

“That’s ok.”

I stumbled back out. There was a real mist on the ground. Which tent was mine? The problem with these platform-tents was that they all looked the same. My sense of direction has never been great. But I thought I remembered where we were in relation to the fire-pit, and so I plunged ahead.

“Joe?” I cried when I got there. “Joe?”

I woke him up but I wasn’t taking any chances. There he was. There I was. There was the feel of my sleeping bag (though I guess a lot of sleeping bags felt like mine did, more or less. There was my backpack wedged under the cot, just visible in the predawn gloaming.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been so relieved.

In a work of fiction, we could go through at least one more cycle. In the first cycle, I didn’t recognize the dream. In the second cycle, I didn’t recognize Artie. The story begs for a third reversal in which Joe says: “come a little closer” in a voice that isn’t quite Joe’s and then reaches out to me with a clawed hand that isn’t quite Joe’s and says—.

Well, but isn’t it just like life to let you down?

And yet, what had I dreamed? I had essentially dreamed that I was in the wrong place. That where I thought I was… I wasn’t. And that proved true. A few months later, I wanted to try oil-painting, and my mom said I could take on that activity if I dropped another. Karate went. But a few months after that, I found that Boy Scouts just weren’t as fulfilling anymore. I couldn’t make myself care about the merit badges. I knew how to tie a bowline and a sheep-shank (still do, in fact). So the only thing I was going there to do was hang out with my friends. But I could do that anyway. So Boy Scouting went. The only time I looked back, it was when I learned that Jay, one of the assistant Scoutmasters, had been forced out of my troop on a bogus charge because he was gay. It wasn’t any of my scoutmasters who did it. Someone from outside of the troop must have known and must have made it their business to take him down. Jay, with whom even at the age of 13 or 14 I shared a love of opera and winter sports and intense discussion about life’s mysteries. What kind of monster would take him from us?

It occurs to me this is why we keep coming back to the horror genre; why we’ve collectively watched so many freakish and fantastical movies, during the pandemic in particular. Jump scares can be downright comforting next to the real problems we face. If you went through the Boy Scouts and that experience made you a better person, a more capable person, and above all a more inclusive and empathetic person, it is not my place to take that away from you. To each their own. 

But as for me, despite no longer being a Boy Scout, I have continued to follow their news with interest. And I have seen the real horror. The National Council has spent my whole life trying to shame queer Boy Scouts and scoutmasters out of existence, to the irreparable harm of of the queer people in question, but also of the young men who have learned that kind of hate from their supposed mentors. And meanwhile, they have swept case after case of child molestation under the rug in order not to tarnish the good name of the organization. And yet those those cases have come out of the woodwork one by one, along with the tired (and factually indefensible) attempts to lump the child-molesters the organization protected in with the decent and law abiding queer people the organization shunted out onto the street. 

I am reliably informed that, now that the Mormon church is no longer involved with the organization, the horrors I have just described are receding into history. I wish them well on their new path, if they truly are on a new path, which I hope they are.

But next to such cruelty, such uncertainty, my little somnambulatory freak-out seems almost quaint, doesn’t it?

September Wrap Up/October Preview

Lights begin to illuminate the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial as the sun sets in Arlington, Va., Sept. 10, 2014. The Pentagon Memorial was created to remember and honor those lost at the Pentagon Sept. 11, 2001. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley)



September has just flown by. It’s a month filled with so many holidays for some people, the unofficial end to summer (and the beginning of the Rabbit Season/Duck Season style debate between the pumpkin crowd and the apple crowd.)

We spent the month in the Boiler Room observing holidays and heading Back to the Books, starting with a chance to revisit a podcast episode from last year, an interview with Renee Chambers Liciaga about the performing arts during a pandemic. Renee fascinated us with stories about how she and her crew were able to adapt to the needs of a performance in a pandemic, and tempted us with tales of Andrew as a younger student. His diligence was notable even then, and we all see how he’s absorbed her lessons about the secret of success. Our focus remains on teaching and books as Andrew sits down with the editors of a special edition of the journal Nineteenth Century Gender Studies to talk about collaboration and the effects of the pandemic. There’s a little bonus content to–this journal featured Andrew’s first peer reviewed publication and you can hear him read it for you, too. This month also brought us a meeting between The Professor is In and The Ivory Tower Boiler Room for a conversation about gaslighting, social change, #MeTooPhD and the cult of academia. The episode is so full of information that’s valuable whether you’re actually in academia or not, though, and with such serious issues at the core of the discussion, you also wouldn’t expect as much laughing… and yet that laughter perhaps helps make the information all that much easier to really take in. We closed out the month with a sort of case study of some of the issues discussed during the previous episode when Adam and Andrew spoke to Dr. Michael Nevradakis about finding a fulfilling academic path when everything seems to be stacked against you.

We introduced you to our Featured Writers series this month, too, beginning with poetry from Judy Russ. Our featured writing took on a longer form with an excerpt from Wendy Zuccarello’s novel Chasing Freedom, a tale of suspense, romance and the connections we can make with written words. We returned to poetry with longtime friend of the Ivory Tower Boiler Room, Shi Huiwen, who had previously been an early guest on the podcast. Our final featured writer for September, Dr. Steven Voris, brought us a parable about demanding change versus inspiring change, and showed us how literary artistry can be an important educational pathway.

Our Big Think took a little twist this month when we headed back into our own “books.” A visit to the archives had us taking a second look at what we’ve written about and shared a favorite book-related post. Mary’s recalled her thoughts on writing and humanities, Andrew reflected again on how queer literature helped him to come out, Adam reminisced about discovering his love for editing and the similarities between editing and teaching, and Erika revisited, this time from the perspective of a reader, the Pulse massacre in her adopted hometown of Orlando. As a team of book lovers, I think we all found something that resonated with us when we read about Adam finding companionship with, not just in books.

True Crime Tuesday explored the massive topic of the Virginia Tech Shooting this month. Through Mary’s prose, we explored how racism and inadequate mental health services may have influenced these events. Those weren’t the only considerations, though. Bullying, censorship, and other kinds of violence also come up in the discussion. The Virginia Tech series concluded by turning a lens on some of the mistakes made in responding to the shooting, too

We took the time to recognize some of the important events of this month, too. In addition to both Andrew’s birthday and Adam’s birthday, we observed the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, and for that, Erika took us through a little bit of her experience on that day but more importantly, how to talk about it with someone whose entire life has happened in a post-9/11 world. We closed out the month with some thoughts for Banned Books Week. Adam and Erika both explored the topic, with Adam exploring questions about whether to ban problematic books or to teach them with proper scaffolding, and Erika pondered questions about who or what we’re really protecting when we ban books.

Perhaps the biggest news this month though, was the launch of our redesigned homepage, which will allow you to more easily navigate to your favorite features like The Big Think and the podcast. You’ll still be able to find our usual slate of compelling stories and fascinating writing on the blog, but you’ll also now be able to find additional writing. You can expect things like Andrew’s exploration of pedagogy and all things Whitman, or Mary’s tales of true crime and other topics, Adam discovering new passions like editing and nurturing writers, and Erika may supplement usual her takes on education and motherhood with a bit of her poetry once in a while

You’re in for some tricks and treats in October like our first book club meeting, too. We’ll bring bringing you new featured writers, stories and interviews for LGBTQ history month and we can’t forget that this month we’ll also talk about things that go bump in the night. Keep following us here and on social media and tell us about what scares you in the dark…

Speak Up, It’s Saturday

A cheerful orange tabby cat gazes down at a grey tabby cat who is very much over the whole situation. The orange at asks to borrow a squeaky mouse toy from his grey friend who quickly reminds the orange cat that he is, in fact designed to be a fierce hunter…and that if the toy is not returned, there will be consequences.



Adam (who created the Big Cat, Little Cat series,)  is doing a little traveling right now, which means Erika gets to talk to you about our new schedule and start our new Saturday series.

We’ve done a little renovating here in the Boiler Room, and so here’s a quick schedule update  to help you find your favorite features. 

Sundays will still be special features like monthly wrap ups.  Look for our September wrap up and for us to unveil our October theme tomorrow. 

Monday:  Look for new podcast episodes on Mondays now.  We’ll continue to bring you The Big Think on Mondays as well.  

Tuesday:  Most of the time, we’ll feature a True Crime Tuesday piece from Mary as we have been.  You’ll just have to wait and see what we’ve got tucked away for Mary’s days off.

Wednesday:  Wednesdays you’ll see new topical content from team members or guest writers.  Whether it’s current events or something related to the theme for the month,  we hope that you’ll find whatever you read on Wednesdays will be thought provoking and compelling.   This week, in honor of Banned Books Week, we brought you an essay from Erika about book banning, and who we’re really protecting when books are banned.

Thursdays:  Our featured writers series will run on Thursdays.  This week Allie Lynn shared some things about Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Fridays: We’ll feature what the team is watching, listening and reading as we have been, along with first person editorials and human interest stories from team members. 

Which brings us to Saturday….

We know that many of you who enjoy reading the blog are not just readers, but are writers yourselves.  We want to hear more from you and we want you to share with each other. Look for short writing prompts, questions and other tidbits for you to respond to here in the comments on the blog, in our Facebook group or on Twitter.  We’ll share a hashtag when we announce our first prompt next week, and remind you to tag @IvoryBoilerRoom,@WhatTheMamaSaw and @DrWhippersnap when you respond. For this week, we just want to hear from you-share with us your future ideas for questions and anything else on your minds.

Watch, Listen, Read with Us

If you haven’t already realized, there’s been some renovation here in the Boiler Room. We’ve launched a new design for our homepage. We hope it will make finding what you’re looking for easier. You’ll now find the podcast on its own page. Of course you’ll still find the usual selections like The Big Think, our Featured Writers and True Crime Tuesday on our blog, you’ll also be able to find special pieces from each of the team members on their own blogs. These pieces won’t necessarily appear on the main blog, so be sure you’re following your favorite writers. You’ll find Adam at Love the Questions, Andrew at Song of Myself, Mary at True Crime and Other Thoughts, and Erika at Pretty Words about Ugly Things.

And with all of that, we’ve also got some schedule changes. Podcasts will now be released on Mondays, as well as new editions of The Big Think. We’ll continue to share True Crime Tuesdays on Tuesday of course. Wednesdays will be a featured essay-look for upcoming topics to include things like travel stories, essays about the power of language, and other great writing that keeps you coming back to read more. We’ll keep bringing you featured writing on Thursdays from Ivory Tower Boiler Room visitors. Fridays will continue to feature the team’s Watch/Listen/Read recommendations along with some first person commentary from one of our team members on something they’ve been thinking about.. Saturdays are all about hearing from you. We’re inviting your commentary, creativity, and community with things like survey questions and writing prompts…but that’s only half of it. You’ll have to check back on Saturday to see what else we’ve got planned. The best way of course, to make sure you don’t miss anything is to make sure you’re subscribed to the blog or following us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram..

With all these new features, it seems like a good time to remind you that we’re always looking for writers! Whether you’re a new or experienced writer, whether you know what you want to write about or have no idea where to start, we’ve got a place for you. All you need to bring is a desire to write and a willingness to collaborate with our editor. 

Don’t forget that we’ve got a book club happening this weekend, too. Join us for a discussion about PJ Vernon’s thriller Bath Haus this Sunday. We hope we’ll see you there.

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And now, a peek at what each of us has been paying attention to this week.

Andrew is consuming all things “Bath Haus” related, reading P.J. Vernon’s book and listening to his audiobook featuring performances by Michael Crouch and Daniel Henning.



This week he has also just finished teaching “Hagar’s Daughter” by Pauline Hopkins, and his students really enjoyed the hybrid genre nature of Hopkins’ book (romance, suspense, historical fiction, thriller and so much more). Next week, he will dig deep into “The House of Mirth” with his students. Check out his social media pages, @andrewdavidrimby (Instagram) and @andrewdrimby (Twitter) to see his pedagogy! With his own blog space now, Andrew plans to write a short pedagogy blurb to describe his Poetry Labyrinth exercise (look for it in October)!

Andrew is planning on going to the cinema to see “Dear Evan Hansen” and may even treat himself to the new release of “Everyone’s Talking About Jamie” (He notes that Erika is so excited for this film as well-she can’t stop listening to the soundtrack for the film and the original cast recording of the West End production, too.)

He’s been listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire (the live album). He’s also started a new audiobook, “The 4 Word Answer” by Rob Shuter, and he’s finishing E.L. Doctorow reading his novel Ragtime”. (One of Erika’s favorite songs from a musical comes from the adaptation of the novel, too. If you do check out the link, the performance of the song from Ragtime starts at about 2:30.)

Mary is also getting ready for the book club this weekend. She’s also reading Know My Name by Chanel Miller. This memoir is extremely powerful and eye opening about how society still treats sexual assault survivors today. (Sexual assault seems to be a comon theme this week; one of Erika’s suggestions also is about being a sexual assault survivor.) 

She’s been watching Only Murders in the Building. This crime comedy starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez is just as hilarious as it is riveting! Mary has been binge watching it for the past two days and is already caught up.

Mary has been jamming out to some classic rock. “Nothing specific” she says, just listening to whatever sounds good. 

Erika is relieved to have gotten the new homepage launched this week. While she was working on it, she spent a lot of time listening to The Academy of Ancient Music. If you’re unfamiliar with Baroque and Classical music and want to learn more, they have some excellent videos about the pieces they play. There’s also been some Scissor Sisters and Mika, but the highlight was probably listening to Queen and David Bowie last night. Something about Under Pressure gave her chills and major feelings of love.

It’s Banned Books Week, and both Adam and Erika spent some time writing about book banning. In honor of that, Erika finally curled up with her copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Shout. She also enjoyed her new copy of The Great Gatsby, which arrived last week. She’s been reading stories about Island Trees v Pico, too. There always seems to be technical reading to do as well, and this week’s topic has been search engine optimization.


On the screen, there has of course been at least one viewing of Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, which she’s been waiting and waiting and waiting to see. She watched a documentary about movie posters called “24×36” which was interesting. There have been some silly Two Set Violin videos as well, along with new Library and Dictionary videos from DotGay including an excellent one about queer people accessing health care. The weekend will definitely include the new episode of The Great British Baking Show and while she’s watching Netflix she’ll also probably watch “Attack of the Hollywood Cliches” again.”


Adam has been listening to markedly less music this week. Less TV, too, though Norm MacDonald, and all his imperfect glory, has figured prominently. And reading has stepped up to fill the gap: Adam is most of the way done with Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. It reads surprisingly fast for a buck a bit size, and it’s just so interesting. Maybe less so to residence of other parts of the world, but Adam finds himself getting frustrated and angry every time he sees some thing that Moses built, that isn’t working the way it was intended: giant roads that were meant to move people faster through the city, but are now hopelessly clogged with traffic, for example. A good book is like that. If you don’t get frustrated or excited or joyful or sad while reading it, then what holds does it have on you that is making you continue to read it?



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The Rhythm of Writing
by Erika Grumet


As we approach the relaunched homepage and the new schedule, I’ve been thinking about rituals a lot. Over the last month, as the homepage design stuff really shifted gears, I ended up spending a lot of time–more time than we had before, on the phone with Adam. The kind of time that would have gotten me into major trouble on the day the phone bill arrived when I was growing up, Adam’s been working diligently to get the featured writer things all ready to go, and it was nice to have company, and not work in such solitary conditions sometimes. I’ve talked to Adam at least once or twice a week for almost an entire year–our collaboration initially began as a teacher/student thing, the goal I approached it with was “to become a better writer.”   We’d meet on Zoom, do some writing exercises and workshop something I’d written. We’ve evolved beyond that student-teacher dynamic; writing, (at least the kind of writing I do,) can be such an intimate activity that it would be impossible to keep someone completely at arm’s length, and still grow the way I have as a writer, or collaborate on some of the projects we have worked on. Our once or twice a week phone calls, mixed with Facebook and text messages throughout the week have become much more involved. We’ve settled into a sort of pattern, our own ritual of sorts, and a surprisingly positive influence from it.

It’s not the only phone call ritual I have; I’ve had an (almost) weekly phone call with someone for the last sixteen and a half years. With rare exceptions, we have our phone call unless one of us is sick or traveling, and it’s been my Wednesday night ritual for a long time. If we don’t talk on a Wednesday because life happens, we reschedule our call. It’s a predictable part of my life, and I rely on that predictability for comfort, but that predictability also means that there’s safety and in that safety I am able to grow.


The comfortable predictability sometimes helps me relax, and focus on growing, and on dealing with the parts that are challenging.  There have been times I’ve got into the synagogue for services only because I needed to be able to sink into the ritual, the predictable and familiar pattern of songs, words, stand up, sit down, stand up, sing.   Wrapped in a tallis and then blanketed by the ritual, I could free up space in my head to deal with some difficult thing I was trying to work out for myself. I’d often slip out and avoid the oneg (the after services coffee and chatting) because all I wanted was the ritual.

I enjoy spontaneity, too. Unpredictable but joyful things can be fantastic, and really make me feel good. They bring on an endorphin rush…and as a dopamine-craving person (thanks neurodivergence) it’s good to have that sometimes.  There’s a lot to be said for symbolism, too. Getting to do Tashlich, and symbolically shed things from the past year is one of my favorite parts of Rosh Hashanah. I love the feeling of standing by the water, in a community of people thinking about similar things, and physically feeling the emptying of things I’d been carrying or hanging on to. Sometimes I wonder about how I can love both the comfort of the ritual and new adventures, but here in the Boiler Room, one of the things I’m known for is my love of reminding people to “embrace the and.” Sometimes we aren’t either/or people, sometimes we’re “give me all the things,” people. 

So we’ve just launched all these new changes to the homepage…and I’ve gotten used to the ritual of nearly nightly phone calls. Only right now, just as we’ve launched something that I’m still watching out for, working the details out for, checking up on and making sure things are working well, I’m temporarily losing the major support I’ve had through the process and probably my biggest and most frequent cheerleader when I’m writing, too. I know I’m prepared to handle the possible crises (and I don’t anticipate any, but I do like to be ready with a plan just in case.) I wouldn’t have that confidence if it hadn’t been for the comfort of rituals in getting to this point. Still, suddenly changing or losing a ritual at a time when disruption or chaos seems to be lurking behind every door, waiting to pounce is frightening, but having spent all the time engaging in it, I’ve grown more confident, and can see being able to handle it.

Over the last year, writing has become part of my ritual too. I couldn’t have imagined that a year ago. I’d just started writing again and was having trouble setting and sticking to a schedule for writing, even for getting homework done for a class I was taking. And then along came Adam, and suddenly I was engaged in writing again. After that, there was an invitation to the writing group…having that as a ritual meant daily accountability at a time when no matter how much of a priority I made things, I still had trouble sticking to it. Suddenly I was writing every day. And now, it feels strange if I don’t have something that I’m working on, even just a little bit every day, even without a daily writing group. I don’t think I’d be able to (hesitantly) call myself a writer now if it weren’t for having been able to participate in that ritual when I needed it. Because I participated in that, I’ve been changed. I’ve gone from automatically hating everything to not always hating everything I write and sometimes even liking it! I’ve been able to give better feedback when asked to review things. I’m able to do the thing I set out to do when I first became involved in writing with Adam: to write better. I see it in the work I turn out. I see it in the way that my fear of writer’s block has changed. I know it’s there because on days when I’ve got pain flare ups, one of the first things I want to be able to do is write, and I often can’t. (Today is one of those days; I’m pushing through significant fibromyalgia pain to get things done.) I see it because I have a vision of the future that continues to include writing. Not only am I a better writer, but writing has made my life better.

My nightly phone call ritual may be suspended (temporarily, I hope–even if it doesn’t go back to what we were doing, I do hope to get a variation of it back,) but I made a calendar today with dates and deadlines for writing projects for the next month and it was abundantly full and I was excited. I get to write. I get to pour words onto the page, swirl them around and make something beautiful out of things. The ritual that writing has given me has made me a better version of myself and I’m so glad for that. An entire month of not getting to celebrate that in phone calls is going to be rough. I’m going to keep writing this month. We’ll see what I come up with as we go, but I’m going to keep my writing ritual. It’s no more complicated than picking out a couple of things that I want to make progress on, checking my calendar for deadlines and dumping words out, but it’s something I am making time for every day. A month from now, I’ll celebrate a year since I returned to writing and I’m going to honor the ritual that’s come from taking a chance and trying it again and that includes the people who are part of it.. And I’ll celebrate finding a little more of me in the process. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, one day my ritual will result in a more tangible reward than the joy and pride I feel, the satisfaction as I see my work grow and evolve, and other positive things. I’m not sure it matters too much though. I’m starting to see joy in the process, and starting to believe that somewhere in there is the key to my becoming “a better writer,” and to be the kind of writer I want to be.



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