Watch, Listen, Read

Erika says:

Shorter, cooler days and bad weather have meant that I’ve been feeling the fibromyalgia symptoms quite a bit this week…especially the fatigue. There hasn’t been much in the way of watching or reading…I can’t concentrate much and I can’t keep my eyes open. I always seem to return to old favorites when I feel like that–the things that I know so well that if I doze off or space out while I’m reading or watching, I can keep going without losing my place. I did pick up The Little Prince this week. There’s something about that book that brings me feelings of calm and of bravery at the same time…and there are some big things up ahead that I need that bravery for. Poetry seems to pop up every week, sometimes a lot, sometimes just one or two poems, but I never know what I might land on–this week, my reading included a few Rainier Maria Rilke poems (and one day I will find a German/English edition of Letters to a Young Poet.) I also read the first chapter of Jay Coles’ YA novel Things We Couldn’t Say which I’ve been looking forward to reading for a while. I did enjoy the first chapter, but I’m going to go back and read it again when I’m feeling like I can do something other than sleep.

Feeling this way also means viewing old favorites and lots of YouTube videos. I do learn interesting things on YouTube though. I’ve learned this week about student overalls in Finland, and about living in Alaska…and I’ve watched a lot of Cookie Run Kingdom related videos because my younger kid is really into the game (which I’ve started playing too–it gives us something else to talk about and bond over.) What else have I been watching? Halloween wouldn’t be complete without a viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sure, there’s problematic stuff, but as with many people, it’s a major piece of developing my queer identity. (There really needs to be a book about that some time.) Fridays right now also mean a new episode of The Great British Baking Show. I’ve already read a spoiler about doughnuts this week, but I’m still looking forward to it.

I do a lot of listening when I’m feeling so sleepy because if I fall asleep listening, I don’t wake up feeling as lost or confused as when I doze off during a movie. Netherlands Bach Society plus (epic) harpsichord plus twenty six unfinished bars of only arpeggios in the Prelude in B minor feel appropriately spooky this week.

A lot of throwback stuff this week, too…I had already been digging deep into my 1990s college days with a bunch of Midnight Oil, Indigo Girls, Depeche Mode, Suzanne Vega…but I had to pull out Billy Bragg’s “Sexuality” yesterday as part of my response to a Twitter thread about an imaginary book discussing the ways that 1990s bands were trying to get us talking about sexuality and gender and no one picked up on it…and it’s still a song I love now. Also, I would totally read that book.

And while it’s not something I’m watching, listening or reading, the cats and I are honoring National Cat Day, so celebrate with us the way Big Cat does and have a good weekend.



Adam writes:

I’m on my last days with Anuja in England so this will be brief. I really have not been listening to music lately. Not sure why. A big part of it is I’ve been spending that time with Anuja–talking instead of listening to music. So nothing new to report on that front. I haven’t really watched any TV or movies this week, for much the same reason. Looking forward to making up for lost time when I’m alone–if nothing else as a coping mechanism for the sadness of leaving.

On the reading front, I just finished Nabokov’s book on Nikolai Gogol. It’s really great. Nabokov is… hard to defend sometimes. But I aspire to give the same measure of attention that he does to any book I read. Reading Nabokov’s notes on Gogol is like reading the most personal and intimate and admiring of love-letters. That same feeling I feel when I’m in love– “I can’t believe you’re real; I can’t believe I get to spend time with you; no wait. I can believe it. I’m just thankful. And it makes me a better person.” That’s the theme of the whole book. May we all read such books more frequently than not. I also like Nabokov’s idea that writing just is. It doesn’t have to be moral or uplifting or conform to certain rules and patterns. In fact it’s better if it doesn’t.

London Letters #4: “That Serene and Blessed Mood”

By Adam Katz

This was to be my final letter; the one in which I told you what it’s like for me, as a scholar of 16th and 17th century English literature, to visit Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare. I hardly mentioned Shakespeare in my dissertation; but my connection with his writing goes back to childhood. Being able to understand works like Macbeth when the rest of my classmates were struggling was one of the early clues that my vocation lay in this direction. And I wrote my graduate school admissions essay about how, every time I’ve needed him, it seems, King Lear has been there with a different version of the same message: don’t trust gods and kings and ceremonies; trust love and show it by showing up.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t make the long-expected pilgrimage to Stratford. Nothing major happened, exactly, to prevent me from doing it. I just didn’t go. This past weekend, I did in fact visit Tintern Abbey, that great romantic ruin on the west bank of the Wye. To get to Tintern Abbey from our place in the Hopton Castle area, just south of the Shropshire Hills, was not an astonishingly long drive; to get to Stratford a day or two later would not have been much farther. But it is hard for me to drive on the wrong side of the road. And it’s hard getting used to the narrower gauge of the lanes, constantly turning the windshield wipers on and off, and so on. Plus, there is always the elephant in the room: time is running out for me and Anuja. When we started our time together in England, we had a month of days and nights and any little daytrip was just a drop in the bucket. But we have less than a week remaining, as of this writing, before we’ll have to go our separate ways. Spending five of our remaining hours in a car, even to see something as precious to me as the birthplace of Shakespeare, seemed like wasted time.

I’m not going to do the sour grapes thing: “what is a birthplace, even?” No. I probably would have loved it. Just not on these terms.

So what have we done instead? We’ve walked around the neighborhood. We’ve taken our Airbnb host’s dogs for a walk. We’ve stepped in sheepshit and goatshit and cowshit and probably pheasantshit. We’ve cried. God, have we cried. And we’ve talked.

And, like I said, we went to Tintern Abbey. That was an unexpected delight. Not that I didn’t expect it to be delightful; I just didn’t expect to go. But there we were looking at a map, planning out our day-trips, and Tintern Abbey was less than two hours from where we were staying. And once we made the decision to go, I realized how excited I was.

Tintern Abbey. Photo by Adam Katz

I had read Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey” literally the first week of my first year of college—half a lifetime ago. It’s hard to say exactly what it meant to me. Obviously I had read complex and thoughtful works of literature before then—Shakespeare, Melville, Adrienne Rich… But this poem changed what a poem could mean for me. The idea that a poem need not be anything else but a window into the poet’s own mind and the ways in which that mind interacts with the world around it was a liberating notion for me. Ten years later, that idea would form the basis for my dissertation. 

If reading “Tintern Abbey” all those years ago was one of the seminal moments in my education, visiting the structure wasn’t too shabby either. Tintern Abbey, it turns out, was founded by Cistercian Monks about 800 years ago. The church we can visit today was constructed later—in the mid-1300s. What happened to this beautiful building? Same thing that happened to most of the Catholic churches in England and Wales. Henry VIII happened. He did not knock it down exactly, but when royal protection was withdrawn from the building, the looters came in; the windows were smashed; eventually the great structure started to collapse on itself, so that by the time the 1700s rolled around, all that was left for the tourists to visit was the shell.

But the shell is just ethereal; it is so grand and gorgeous it makes a mockery of any attempt at description. 

I have been in Great Britain now for more than three weeks and I have largely managed to avoid visiting churches. I don’t really like the aesthetic. Most churches I have ever visited are either too loud and busy in their decorative scheme or too deliberately somber. Or, in some rather confusing cases, a combination of both. And of course there is the uncomfortable history that I, as a Jewish person, can’t help thinking about—the forced conversions, the pogroms, the genocides. You might say that Tintern Abbey was the first church I have set foot inside since I came to England. And it was beautiful. I won’t deny the possibility that its ruined state allowed me to focus on the beauty of the architecture without as many intruding thoughts about the bloody history it represents. But I was bewitched. It was just… It was so… Again. What to say? All the gaudiness of a medieval church is stripped away from Tintern, and we are left with the things that we (that is the original users of the church and I) can agree on—those soaring lines of stone that seem to aspire to reach God, and, in doing so, to teach the parishioners (in this case the monks) to aspire likewise.

Anuja walking along a path through the woods on the east bank of the Wye. Photo by Adam Katz

Apart from the shocking and disarming beauty of the building and its surrounding landscape, being there helped me imagine the poet and the poem a little bit better. Things I had been glossing over suddenly made sense. Even the title of the poem: “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey…” When I first read the poem, I imagined “a few miles above” referred to elevation—that there might be a hill or small mountain behind the abbey and it might be few miles’ hike to the top (not a few miles’ elevation… there is no Mount Denali in South Wales) and from the top of that hill or mountain, Wordsworth could behold the distant abbey in the valley below. But the hills in that neighborhood are relatively small, so Wordsworth must mean “a few miles upriver.” The likelihood is that he could not see the Abbey at all from that distance. Nor does he mention its graceful ruins even once in the poem that bears its name. So the long title of the poem* which usually gets shortened to “Tintern Abbey” would more appropriately be abbreviated as “On Revisiting the Wye.” This may be stuff and nonsense to someone who has been politely following my narrative up until this point but who can’t imagine why I am obsessing over where a poet was sitting 223 years ago when he was conceiving or writing a poem. And to an extent, they’re right. I made no attempt to find, either by research or other means, where Wordsworth might have been sitting when he thought of those lines. Even if I had, “this dark sycamore” is likely not there anymore. But still it mattered to me because loving a poem means having a connection with it; and with the person who wrote it; and wanting to know more. And I suppose that is reason enough.

Another insight I had was into what kinds of hedgerows he is talking about. Early in the poem he makes reference to 

“These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines

Of sportive wood run wild,”

and now that I’ve seen them, I get it. The hedges in this part of England and Wales are formidable. They are technically bushes, but their stems are thick as treetrunks, and their pruned-back branches look like the interlacing arms of a row of massive candelabras. They really do look like miniature forests, and, like forests, they are full of life. You can see pheasants and rabbits threading in and out of them as if they provided real cover; and when the hedges loom close to both sides of the road, cars are forced to grope blind in between, with more than a hundred degrees’ worth of visibility struck away in each direction. All of which is to say that I can see what Wordsworth sees when he observes that not only the uncut forests higher up in the hills, but even the tamed fields of the farms and pastures that stretch out from the banks of the River Wye, look wild and inviting to a “worshiper of nature.”

A pleasing parallel between Wordsworth in his visit and me in mine is that neither of us was alone and our experiences were necessarily filtered through our companion. He was there with his little sister, and I was there with Anuja, whose name means “little sister” in Sanskrit. She was playing the part to a T that day, because she would continuously tap me on the shoulder and say: “This is where the monks dumped their shit.”

One of the first things we saw when we entered the grounds of the abbey was a pie-chart showing the schedule-items in a typical day-in-the-life of a Cistercian monk. One of the items is “Sext” which refers to the sixth-hour prayer. For the rest of the day, Anuja would wait until I felt safe and then would whisper in my ear something like: “If the monks hadn’t been spending all their time sexting, they wouldn’t have had to shit in buckets.” Or: “If the monks hadn’t been spending all their time sexting, maybe their church would still have a roof.” I don’t know if you’ve ever had a socially-unacceptably-loud belly laugh wrung out of you by main force while you were in a place where it felt like you were supposed to be quiet and contemplative, but I now have, and it’s glorious. A place like Tintern Abbey needs more laughter, and, thanks to Anuja, I have done my part.

Even now as I write, I set out at first to achieve a sad, contemplative tone. But continually remembering our pranks and jokes is making that tone difficult to achieve. But that’s probably for the best, isn’t it? One of the real shortcomings of Wordsworth’s artistry is that he doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. A poem (or essay) about Tintern Abbey that’s a bit comic is long past due.

And we, that is Anuja and I, needed a bit of laughter, not just that day but also in the days since. Once the clock struck a certain hour and we realized there was only about a week before I would have to go back to New York, a gloom settled upon our party. We know, as much as we know anything,  that what we have together is real, and that this is not the last time we are going to see each other. But bodies are stupid and simple, and mine has a knot in its stomach at the prospect of not seeing Anuja for even one day, let along for the few months it’ll take to get our affairs sorted. So any opportunity we have to giggle about the bowel movements of 14th century Cistercians? I’ll take it. Any opportunity we have to try to sound out Welsh double-els? I’ll take it. Any opportunity I have for her to tease me about once more ordering the fish-and-chips with a side of mushy peas? Yes please, garçon, I’ll have the cod-and-chips with a side of affectionate namecalling, thank you. Fun fact: my first time (which I’m told you always remember) ordering fish-and-chips was in a dedicated fish-and-chip shop in London. So ignorant was I that I thought the green splodge on the plate was guacamole. It wasn’t until I tasted it for myself that I learned my error.

One of the things I’m particularly conscious of is that, as I’m writing this fourth and probably-not-final essay, I’m experiencing pressure (not from all of you; you’ve been lovely) to make this cycle of essays feel story-shaped. And that means making call-backs to the first essay. But I don’t think I want to do that, because that hasn’t been my experience. Have there been callbacks to some of those moments? Of course. But if Funes the Memorious taught us anything it’s that life is always going to be richer more varied, more detailed than story. So the things my mind is recalling from those first days are not necessarily the things that came up when I was writing my first essay.

For example: The week before I got on the plane to London, Anuja and I had a serious conversation about cancelling the trip. Why? Was there some emergency? No. She raised the concern that when we got together, we would be so reluctant to part that it would be worse than if we had never seen each other at all. I dismissed her concerns (which I should not have done). But when I thought the matter over, I realized that, even though neither of us wanted to cancel the trip, nevertheless, she was more than a little bit correct. I even brought the matter up to my mom: “I’ve survived the past 18 months,” I said, “by putting up walls that I didn’t even necessarily notice I was putting up. And the moment I see her, those walls are going to come down. And it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt when I get there, and it’s going to hurt again when I leave.” If my mom responded verbally at all, she did it was with some quiet expression of sympathy, which is exactly what the moment called for. There was nothing to do about what I was feeling except feel it. As for the pain of leaving, there was nothing to do except live each day and get to that pain when I would get to it. But now that I’m thinking about that conversation; now that I’m on the verge of its fulfillment, I can’t help being a bit afraid.

What do I have to look forward to when I return to New York? Just greyness and sadness, slightly colored by the prospect of seeing Anuja again; at least, with apologies to friends and family, whom I do sincerely miss, that’s what it feels like to me right now as I’m writing this . But that feeling passes, as all feelings pass, and I am able to look forward to seeing the faces of my family and friends; able to look forward to the things I have not been able to do because I’ve been here. But I am also, like Wordsworth, able to see how this trip has allowed me to store up some measure of the positivity that will be sorely needed in the months ahead. I’m not going to go through the whole complicated argument of Wordsworth’s poem here. I may another time. But foremost in my mind right now is one aspect of his argument, that is, his idea that when we visit nature (when Anuja and I visited Shropshire and the Wye and so forth, for instance) we store up these reserves of sylvan calm to temper the disappointment and frustration that the more built-up parts of the world sometimes offers us. An aside: as Anuja and I discuss where we eventually want to live, this subject has come up again and again: where is there some green? A lot of the cities and even suburbs of the world have foolishly, callously wasted away all of their green spaces and given their citizens nowhere to recharge. Do we condemn ourselves to such a city? It is only our privilege that gives us any choice in the matter. 

But even a city that has some green spaces, like New York, doesn’t have anything like this. Despite myself, I’ve felt the calm of this countryside infusing my being. And so if I hold in my head a sensory image of the way her hand feels, fingers interlaced with mine, as we watch a dog playing fetch along a forest path that followed the east banks of the Wye; if I hold in my head the way we looked through the empty skeletons of stained glass windows; the way clouds and sky have replaced the old glazed designs with something far more spectacular; and if I hold in my mind the smell of the freshly-cut hedges, I can embrace the grief of going home, and, just as crucially, can embrace whatever comes after that.

Ludlow, the nearest sizable town to where w are staying. Note the ruin of a medieval castle on the left. Photo by Adam Katz

*Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798

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

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

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

I’m Queer. Please Pass the Peas?

By Erika Grumet


A scarecrow, in a corn field, with his arms crossed over his chest, pointing fingers away from him. There is text superimposed on the photo that says, “Of course some people do go both ways.”

A few weeks ago, a thirteen year old I know showed up at my house wearing a t-shirt that read:“Bisexual Trash Panda.” Even before I was a parent, I knew adolescent sexuality pretty well–years of teaching about HIV and STIs, contraception and LGBTQ101 gave me a lens into that topic long before I was ready to have children of my own. I was still unprepared for what I felt when I saw the shirt.

I saw this kid, full of confidence, standing there in front of me, and I flashed back to my thirteen year old self. I sat there one day, eating lunch with friends. The conversation was all about boys… which boys were cute, who liked who, kissing… Suddenly the questions were flying at me… who did I like, who did I think was cute? There was a boy. I’d thought he was cute for a long time, but I wasn’t thinking about him. I was thinking about her–the girl across the table, a girl I’d thought was cute from the moment I’d met her. A girl, who I was totally ashamed of my crush on. Because girls were not supposed to have crushes on other girls. I hoped no one knew what I really felt or what I was really thinking. Could anyone know? They couldn’t. I had never told anyone. Whenever I thought about it, I rushed it out of my head as fast as I could. No one could find out because it would be horrible.

In 1988, when I was thirteen, I didn’t have a word for what I was feeling. The only thing I knew was that it was wrong to feel that way. In 2021, this thirteen year old has a word for what he feels, and a world of people around him who would accept, matter of factly, how he is feeling–friends, family, community. In 2021, I still struggle with that.

Not too long after the thirteen year old Trash Panda appeared at my house, I came across a Facebook memory about a conversation with my older kid. We had been talking about how the media influences the social and cultural expectations of women’s behavior–my sister had shared with an article from a 1958 issue of McCall’s, 129 Hilarious Ways to Get a Husband. I’d shared it with the kiddo, who was reading it aloud. One of us would comment on the list, sometimes I’d answer a question. Then we got to number 76. I listened to a child’s voice read it aloud: “76. Double-date with a gay, happily married couple — let him see what it’s like!” Then a pause, and a confused but indignant eleven year old asked, “What difference does it make if they’re gay or not? Who cares?”

“Who cares?” The assumptions. Oh the assumptions. The “gay, married couple” necessarily meant two people with matching gender identities who were married to each other. The amazing kid reading this article with me knew, in theory, that homophobia existed–in fact, this was right around the same time that we attended a Pride Parade and had described the location we were standing in while waiting to meet friends as “a block from the homophobes.” And this is the same kid who, at age six, listened to an NPR story about marriage equality with me and responded “but that’s segregation,” when I explained that the law at the time was “only boys can marry girls and girls can only marry boys,” but the court was trying to decide if it should be changed.

My kid only understood “gay” as a word that described sexual orientation. Not “cheerful” or “bright” or “merry.” And even more than that, it was a matter-of-fact thing to talk about. There were no negative associations. No flushed face, no nerves, no anxiety. It was just another variation on things like being left or right handed, or having cats and dogs. My experience with the word was so different; I can remember my elementary school days hearing kids around me saying “That’s so gay” and tossing around the word “fag,” in a terrible, angry, hateful way. I also remember both not knowing exactly what it meant and simultaneously knowing that I felt uncomfortable with it and that it definitely didn’t feel right. It made my insides tie into knots even though I didn’t know why.

It’s just… different now. But isn’t that how time always works?

I came out in the 90s, and, as a college student, I was so lucky to have access to the internet. I found Usenet newsgroups (internet forums before graphic access to the web.) One of the groups I joined was, a group for and about bisexuals and bisexuality. I had taken a long time to get to a place where I was comfortable with any label at all–I grew up in the 80’s, and, while it took far too long for it to even reach national exposure, eventually HIV and AIDS were the topic of frequent and tragic headlines, and “bisexual” was a term fraught with danger. I really only ever heard it applied to men as part of those terrible news stories. And then, I found this community online… at a time when “online” wasn’t well understood, and people assumed that everyone you met online would be up to no good. This was different from the LGBA (the name of our queer student organization) crowd I hung around with because these weren’t only other students, many these were “real” adults, with jobs, families, relationships. It was a place where I could find friends but also queer role models, people who could teach me about queer history, queer culture, queer life–the kinds of things I’d learned about my Jewish identity, for example, just as a natural part of growing up, but had to work hard to learn about my queer identity as I grew into it. just celebrated the 30th anniversary of its founding, normally something that would have been celebrated with an in-person gathering of people from around the globe at a location voted on by members of the group… for obvious reasons, we couldn’t gather like that this year, and instead held a 24 hour Zoom party. At a Zoom party, instead of visiting local attractions, sharing meals, and the other kinds of things that we might do at a gathering, we talked, as one does on Zoom. 

We talked… we decided a group of bisexuals is called “a phase of bisexuals.” We reminisced about past get-togethers and parties, about relationships that have begun and ended. We talked about children… some of us have gone from practically being children to now being parents of children who are not that far from the age we were when we first joined the group. We laughed at the way some of the same conversations are still happening now–thirty-ish years later, about the label bisexual vs pansexual, and whether “bisexual” feeds into the idea that gender is binary, and is not inclusive of the full gender spectrum. We talked about activism, the things that we have fought about and fought for over three decades. 

Three decades. There was gratitude expressed by someone a generation older than me for the teacher who brought gay and lesbian speakers into their Christian school to talk to the class. A couple of us talked about figuring ourselves out in the 80s and early 90s; we talked about the second wave feminism experience where a great deal of emphasis was placed on whether women were AFAB (assigned female at birth) or not, and space was restricted sometimes to “women born women,” and how sex-negative feminism, with its anti-porn and all-penetrative-sex-is-rape rhetoric, conflicted with the sex-positive attitude so many of us were learning at the time.

We talked a lot about how the way we use the word “queer” has changed, shifting from angry and transgressive (the reason I liked it in the first place,) to broader and more inclusive (which is why I like it now–it’s intersectional and can cover gender, sexual orientation, romantic orientation and more.) It’s not a word for everyone; there are people who still bristle at it, who have had it hurled angrily at them, but more and more, there’s room for everyone, and more and more people are finding that they can come out and stand safely under the umbrella. It’s just not as shocking anymore to hear “queer,” and it’s even gained some mainstream acceptance; in 2017, the AP Stylebook still classified queer as a slur and by 2020, they reversed course on that.

I thought a lot about my Trash Panda friend, and about the other queer kids I know, and about the queer parents I know who are raising queer kids. I thought about how when I was these kids’ age, I needed so much that just wasn’t possible in my world, not for me and not for so many of my contemporaries at the time. I thought about how I needed someone to tell me that the confusion and fear I felt at thirteen when asked about my seventh grade crush was totally normal and okay, and that one day I’d figure it out. I needed someone to help me discover words like “bisexual” or “queer” or some of the other labels that people are using now. I needed grown ups who could help me find my footing in the queer community, who could help me figure out how to be all of me, and I didn’t find that until I was in that preciously short time between child and adult. I needed someone to tell me that it was okay if it turned out that “bisexual” was a phase on the way to something else, but it was also okay if it wasn’t, if I stayed in “bisexual” forever. I needed someone to tell me it would be okay.

And my Trash Panda friend, and other kids I know? Their experience isn’t universal, of course, but they, and so many other kids… they’re not sneaking around in the library or trying to find the local queer newspaper without anyone finding out so that they can find some little nugget of hope that they’re “normal” and not evil. They’re finding peer support that isn’t exchanging whispers which they’re trying to hide from parents, teachers or other adults, and they’re finding schools with gay-straight alliances, rainbow clubs and other safe spaces. So many more kids who are coming out at younger and younger ages, and into accepting or affirming arms. I’m a little jealous. 

The green eyed monster is mostly tamed though; that jealousy helps remind me to be the kind of adult I wanted in my world. It helps me figure out how to set up a place where kids won’t grow up remembering how a favorite teacher passed away just weeks before senior year began… a “single” (as far as we knew) man, who died of “pneumonia” in August. Back when people were survived by “companions” and “pneumonia” was code for something else. I want kids to grow up in a world where “marriage” is just “marriage,” with no qualifiers about who is getting married, and I’m grateful that my own kids are among the last who will remember a time when there were prohibitions on marriage; I suspect that mine may only remember because our family was involved in advocating for and celebrating marriage equality. I want to make sure that kids can live in a world where pronouns and bathrooms aren’t controversial, where they see all kinds of happy, healthy people in all kinds of relationships around them, in their books and shows and games. 

When I’ve had kids come out to me, the first thing I say to them is “Thank you for trusting me enough to share that.” I’m in my 40s, and have been out for decades, and I still struggle coming out to new people sometimes. Even the most affirming people–I struggled to come out to a friend a few years ago… a community leader I met after the Pulse Massacre in Orlando, who had told me about their own queer kid. The second thing I say to kids who come out to me is “I’m glad you told me because now I can make sure to choose more correct words when we’re talking, and I can do things to support you and help you.” I talk about how proud I am of them for coming out and their bravery in doing so. I talk about how much I care for them, love them. And I talk about how each of us has a unique coming out story and that their story is their own; no one should out them, no one should demand they come out anywhere, anytime… only they can determine when they feel safe and comfortable coming out. I tell them that they own their coming out story… I can only tell my coming out story, they need to tell their own. I ask if they want my help telling anyone… I ask who it would be okay for me to speak openly with so that I don’t accidentally out them without their consent, and I emphasize even more, I want to know who they definitely don’t want me to tell–whether that’s because they want to tell the person themself or because they feel unsafe telling that person. It’s what I wish someone had done for me when I came out… to take the time to honor the journey to get there, and to help me find some solid footing to get started on the path ahead.

LGBTQ History Month is winding down, just as we begin to prepare for the upcoming holidays, which, this year, many more people will be celebrating in person with families. I’m old enough to recognize how much things have changed in my lifetime–there were queer people around me growing up, but no one was out… at a time when I desperately needed to see positive queer role models, needed someone to help me feel less alone, I had none. I did eventually find “my people,” who could teach me about history and culture, and what it means to be queer, and I’m so glad I did, because unlike many other distinct identities, most queer kids don’t grow up knowing what it all means. It’s never been a conscious choice, but within a few years of my own coming out, as I sought out queer connections and queer community, and wanted to honor the gifts that my own role models had given and were continuing to give, I started to volunteer with organizations that served queer youth. I was 21, still finishing college, not even in grad school yet… in the hazy space, not a child anymore but not quite entirely an adult. It was easy to see sometimes how the work I was doing to provide safe space and support for the kids helped them… but back then I didn’t know how they helped me to discover the kind of queer adult I wanted to be. What dos it mean to be be the queer adult I want to be? There’s a long list of things I end up thinking about, like healthy relationships and love and safe spaces and self-esteem… but I think I might just sum it up as: ”I want to help everyone move towards a world where coming out means someone says, “Hey Mom, Dad, I think I’m queer… Oh, and could you please pass the peas?” It’s family dinner. Someone drops a fork or spills milk or tries to feed the dog under the table. Someone complains about a math test or a history project. Dad reminds everyone to collect their library books so he can drop them off later, and talks about weekend plans perhaps even suggesting that the kids might want to bring a friend along when they go to the beach, the amusement park, the dinosaur museum, and Mom says, “Of course! I had no idea you even liked peas.”

Caturday Questions

Two cats sit on a bed. An orange tabby cat looks down at a wise but grumpy grey tabby and asks, “Little Cat, if our humans feed us everyday, why do we still hunt birds?” The grey tabby cat responds, “they know what they did.”

Another Caturday, another Big Cat, Little Cat. As I write this, Big Cat has decided to take up as much room as he possibly can next to me and rest his paw on my computer. He has opinions about what I write. He did, however provide a lot of emotional support when I wrote The R Word piece about being a sexual assault survivor, which we shared earlier this week.

And because it’s Caturday, we have to ask a question.

Which comes first for you? Plot, setting, or character? This is a question for nonfiction writers no less than fiction; for academic writers as well.

Answer us here in the comments or use #IvoryBoilerRoomAsks and tag @IvoryBoilerRoom, @WhatTheMamaSaw and @DrWhippersnap.

Friday Watch/Listen/Read (Oct 22, 2021)

Erika Writes:

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.

Adam Writes:

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.

Trapped in the Bathroom Stall

By Josiana Lacrete

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.

Photo courtesy of

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?

Read Josi’s Bio

Read “The Birthday Problem”

If you have a piece you’d like to publish, or a perspective you’d like the share, please don’t hesitate to reach out! Writers of all experience-levels are welcome.

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

By Adam Katz

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.

Photo by Anuja Gopalan. It’s raining on me and I’m pretty sure I’m standing in a pile of literal cow-shit.

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.

Photo by Adam Katz. I think these might be marshmallows? Is this where marshmallows come from? Huh. Live and learn…

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.

Photo by Anuja Gopalan


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.

And yet.

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.

The guy who took this picture had a tee-shirt depicting 7 lightsabers arranged like a pride flag. Frigging legendary.

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.

Put your faith in love.

Photo by Adam Katz

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

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

Read London Letters #4: “That Serene and Blessed Mood”

Read London Letters #5: “Somewhere Beyond the Sea”

Big Think: I’m Going to Use the R-Word (and it’s ok if you do, too)

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.

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.

It’s Caturday, We Have Questions

Two cats sit together on a bed. In the foreground Big Cat, an orange tabby looks down at his companion and asks, “Little Cat, I’m working on the acknowledgement section for my book! Any suggestions?” In the background, Little Cat, a grey tabby looks out with ennui and responds, “Thank you to my upbringing for putting a hole in my spirit that I try to fill wtih reading.”
Photo by Erika Grumet, Text by Adam Katz,

And on to our Caturday question:

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.

Watch, Listen and Read with Us

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.|

“The Globe Motherfucking Theater. Photo by Adam Katz”

Oh, and this weekend Adam is seeing Twelfth Night at the Globe Motherfucking Theater. Stay tuned on that as well.

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