Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Feet to the Fire - Meeting ee cummings

Summer, 2021

I had forgotten the story behind our friend Anita’s family’s summer home on the pristine Silver Lake in Madison, New Hampshire until she mentioned it at dinner our first night there. The rustic all-wood home, named Shawmut when it was built more than a century before, had a surprise history. You had to climb onto the roof – we would take her word for it – to see the initials of one of its builders etched into the cement at the top of the chimney: EEC - poet e.e. cummings. 

As a writer now going through the merciless process of preparing the materials needed to query agents for my book - including the endless book edits - I felt comfort in Shawmut’s rustic simplicity from the time its screen door reverberated behind me with the loud slap of my own childhood screen door. I felt reassurance in the woody smells of pine and cedar ceilings and walls, and quarter sawn oak floors. Original windows opening to views of the woods and lake still slid perfectly across their wood frames.

After dinner I lay my hands on the large stones, all in shades of gold and gray, of the vertical outside wall of the Inglenook, a partially enclosed rectangular fireplace with a benched nook for sitting. This put your body inside the hearth area, six or seven feet from the fire. I imagined e.e.’s hands touching those same stones, and asked him for clarity on how to improve my memoir manuscript. It couldn’t hurt. Could he visit me in a dream and throw me some good publishing karma? A dozen London agents and publishers had written that they’d loved my book. They’d even loved what they referred to as its idiosyncratic nature, which was fine with me, since I’d agreed with others’ portrayals of me as a “wonderfully quirky storyteller.” I wasn’t sure what they thought was specifically idiosyncratic, nor would they say. Were they referring to my writing style and voice? Did they consider irreverent my attempts at lightening up an atmosphere where serious and even catastrophic world issues were at the core? At any rate, the fact that my writing strayed from “conventional” books about my MIT boss, linguist, activist, author Noam Chomsky, rendered them unable to gamble on publishing in the UK. Best to begin in the US, they’d suggested. I didn’t want my memoir to fit into a box with most other books about Chomsky. My writing was meant to shed light on the reluctant icon as a human being, on my twenty-four year relationship with the man beyond the pedestaled deity.

That night Anita pulled two books from her bookshelves – “When I was a little Girl,” by e.e.’s sister, Elizabeth, about their childhood on the lake, and another about the history of the lake’s houses. Shawmut, I learned, was one of a triplet of houses designed by Edward Cummings, e.e.’s professor-reverend father. The two of them had helped an experienced and well-known local builder and mason build the houses. 

In the morning I walked the short path down to Silver Lake, where at least three members of the Cummings family had found solace, and inspiration for their writing. This is exactly the kind of place that inspires a writer – the beauty of the clear water slapping at the shore, the mountainous backdrop, and the mournful calls of the loons. Halfway there, I noticed a short trail leading to a gray-shingled pump house partly hidden by pines. I thought of the times I’d wished for a writing space of my own, free of my much-loved pets asking for attention, of a neighbor’s knock, an urgent text, my partner Laura’s Zoom patients’ muffled lamenting tones coming from her office next to mine. Maybe I would charge my laptop and grab the key to the pump house the next day and write in there, balanced in the quiet on a folding beach chair. A few cobwebs for the price of an hour or two alone to free write, delete, edit my manuscript for the next round of agent queries. The whole soul-sucking process generates doubt about one’s writing in the face of the financial bottom line of the publishing industry. A bottom line that fears a book about the man behind a world-renowned activist adored and hero-worshipped by 1.6 million Facebook followers might not generate enough revenue. Is this how it was for cummings when he wrote his poems, or for his sister, Elizabeth?

The Cummings family had eventually moved into Abenaki, one of the houses – large cottages, really – that they’d built along the shore next to Shawmut. Curious to see the place up close, the four of us – Anita, Laura, our friend Sharon, and I, took off on foot down Shawmut’s dirt driveway, swinging left up a steep, undulating drive toward Abenaki. The family who had bought the house from the Cummings’ had driven Anita off their land decades before when she tried to introduce herself. We noticed fresh tire tracks right away, but soldiered on, fingers crossed that they weren’t home. I surreptitiously imagined asking e.e. cummings for great writing insights while the energy of his childhood home hovered. As we neared the penultimate crest, we heard someone approaching and called out, asking if we were trespassing, knowing full well we were. The body of a pre-teen boy appeared like an apparition above us. Hoping he hadn’t been warned never to talk to strangers, even an innocuous gaggle of four older women, Anita explained that she was his next-door neighbor, albeit a quarter mile away.  He – we would soon learn his fittingly old-time nickname, Hap – shrugged noncommittally and turned to lead us back toward his new home, answering our barrage of questions with just a word or two. When did you move in? Are you related to the Cummings family? Do you mind if we come closer to have a better look? He worried something with his fingers as we walked, and I imagined a young e.e. cummings using his finger or a stick to etch his initials into the wet cement at the top of Shawmut’s chimney. At the house, he fetched his mother, Chelsea, who emerged from inside with a toddler. Hungry for adult conversation - Hap turned out to be the oldest of four boys – and eager to know more about the history of her home and others on the lake, she welcomed us in, where the two middle boys were lying on mattresses, reading. She told us she and her husband had bought the property weeks before and pulled up the “No Trespassing” signs, to Anita’s great relief. 

The first two floors were mostly void of furniture except for Revered Cummings’s enormous writing desk, purchased from the previous owners. I felt a detective's thrill riffling through the notepaper, maps, and watercolor nature drawings tucked into the desk’s drawers and the hutch’s upper cubbyholes. With fireplaces on every floor, the scent of wood and ash permeated this cottage as well. Sadly, their first floor inglenook had blocked the kitchen and had been partially dismantled, but they planned to respect and honor the home’s original architecture. The third floor’s sleeping porch had the feel of a tree house with its long span of sliding windows overlooking the lake. I could almost see canvas bedrolls, cots, and wool blankets lining the outside walls.

Back at Shawmut, while the others headed for the dock to read and swim, I took the pump house key from its hook. When I opened the wood door, I let out a gasp at what I saw: a beautiful room with pine post and beam walls and exposed ceiling, with a large quilted bed, a smaller one for pondering, a blue leather sofa for more pondering, and a simple rectangular desk with chair and lamp. A total of fourteen windows looked out at nothing but trees, lake, and distant mountains, and there was plenty of light. My own writing retreat! I locked up and ran down to the water to take a quick kayak ride followed by a swim before the predicted rain. Afterwards, I changed into dry clothing, grabbed my laptop and notes, and returned to my private retreat to write a little, and to read more of Elizabeth Cummings’ book to the sound of a light rain tapping, on the roof. I imagined e.e. cummings’s fingers drumming to the same rhythm on his own desk as he searched for just the right word to fit the meter of his newest poem.

The elder Edward had written his sermons in a nearby cabin overlooking the lake. As I was closing up the book to prepare to hike up the ridge to see it, an article from 1985 fell out. Sitting on the floor, I read that e.e. cummings’s unorthodox, unstructured style had put him out of favor with many other writers and poets of his time. Although initially largely self-published for this reason – his writings had been published in Harvard’s newsletters, where he’d studied – he was eventually published professionally with almost three thousand poems. He is still remembered for the eccentricity of his punctuation and untraditional word usage. With this in mind after dinner, my own idiosyncratic writing now a badge of honor, I took a seat inside the Inglenook and put my feet to the fire to create a list for updating materials – synopsis, intended audience, chapter summaries, a list of folks to ask to write a book jacket blurb, marketing plan, and the rest – to query more agents. I slept in my dream retreat overlooking Silver Lake that night, and woke to work at my laptop for another hour, with e.e. cummings drifting about, cheering me on in some wonderfully idiosyncratic and unconventional way. Now that we’d met, to borrow a phrase from a personal favorite of his poems, I’d carry him in my heart.

By the way, e.e. cummings was a pacifist who’d spent time in jail for his political actions. Chomsky would have approved. In fact, they would probably have been friends.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

A story about morphine's effect on my mother, a character in the book I'm shopping for publication, Chomsky and Me

Published in Stethoscopes & Pencils as:  Mama’s gonna buy you a Mockingbird (November, 2020)

My original title: "Health sCare"

On my fortieth birthday I made a personal pledge to connect more emotionally with my mother, Charlotte. I didn’t know what that would look like, but I promised myself I wouldn’t end up at her grave with irreversible regrets. So when she called me at work a few days before a scheduled kidney stone removal to tell me that a pre-op chest ex-ray had revealed a spot on her lung, I decided to go through it all at her side. We met with a surgeon who said that since she had been a smoker, there was a 70% chance that the spot was malignant, and surgery was the only way to find out.

Other tests and visits followed. I decided at the last minute to join her at the hospital the day of her CT scan. When she saw me appear in the waiting room, she smiled, and said, “My body guard!” She didn’t show affection due to a tough upbringing, so her reaction touched me. Health scares could break down personal barriers.

The morning of her surgery when my partner and I showed up at her house, she called out, “Here’s my honor guard.” Her skin was pale and her eyes wide as her friend Bob drove us to the hospital for check-in. Before they wheeled her away, she handed me her raincoat, which bore a stringed nametag resembling a cadaver’s toe tag. I shook the thought away and kept my face down for an extra moment before kissing her goodbye. Bob, hating anything hospital-related went off to work.

My brother Ron drove in from New Jersey to join us, and we waited together, suspended in a sense of dread. Finally, the doctor came out to talk with us. In her ICU room, Ron tried to tell her the surgery’s outcome, but she waved him away. I leaned over and touched her arm. “Ma,” I said, “good news. There’s no cancer. The spot turned out to be a childhood Pleurisy scar.”

“Really? Are you telling me the truth?” she asked, unable to shake off her fear.

“Yup. The surgeon made a small incision, took a look, and sewed you back up,” I said, hoping she could believe the relief on my face in her drugged stupor. We went home, leaving her to rest.


I got a phone call around midnight. It was my mother’s voice, but her speech was thick and slow. “Beverly,” she said, “have I ever lied to you? Have I ever lied to you?” She slurred on in an effort to be heard over the night sounds of beeping equipment and nurses talking in the hallway. “They’ve made a mistake on my medication, and they’re trying to cover it up. Come right away, before it’s too late. They’re planning to kill me.”

My mother had been moved from ICU to a shared room with another woman, and was able to self-medicate with a morphine drip. Added to the anesthesia still in her system, she was quite drugged. I spent that first night trying to convince her that she was safe. “Be careful, ‘Charlie and his gang’ have been in and out of here, making their plans,” she warned. “Watch out for the nurse named Maura,” she whispered. “You can tell her by her face – it moves around like a bowl of jello. Maura can’t be trusted.”

‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘a person with a jello face is always trouble.’

I mentioned my concerns to the nurse, who said many older patients experience sun downing in a hospital, medicated and away from home. My mother was only 66, and looked a decade younger, so this didn’t sit well with my siblings and me. We would wait it out, hoping the anesthesia would wear off soon. Her paranoia persisted through the day.

When Maura came into the room and took a pen out of her pocket, her motor skills shone. She literally popped out of bed like a gymnast, gave me a wink, and pretended to dust a window ledge with the side of her hand, miming and mouthing to me, “Maura is trying to stick me with a poison needle.” Her slow wink told me, “I’m on top of this woman. She won’t get me!” I nodded back with feigned daughterly pride, wondering how long she would remain suspended beyond reality.

Later that day, a nurse’s aide offered her some juice. “Here you are, Charlotte, fresh orange juice to soothe your throat,” she said cheerily. She passed the juice glass under her nose several times, looked at me sideways through squinting eyes, then turned to the nurse with a mock smile, and pretended to take a sip. “Thank you a-ny-way,” she said, as she set the juice down on the table, winking and nodding at me. We were bonding.

The woman in the next bed was thirsty, and said, “I’ll have some orange juice, please.” My mother looked at me, at the woman, then back to me again, and said “Fool!” in a stage whisper. “Don’t turn your back on these people,” she warned, always the protective mother.

The roommate, whom my mother now called, “The fool who drank the orange juice,” was on a respirator. With each series of hisses, my mother insisted I cover my mouth. “Do it, Beverly! The poison is seeping in through the curtain! Or we won’t get out alive!” I covered my mouth, as did she, her eye winking conspiratorially at me from above her sheet. We were a team.

She wasn’t improving mentally, but was physically, so would be discharged in two days. My brother Ron and I were worried about sending her home in this state, and asked to meet with her doctor, who would come by the next morning.

I told my brother to go to my mother’s house and get some sleep while I waited her out. She asked me to hold her hand while she rested, to make sure I didn’t leave. I pulled the hard hospital chair close to the bed, resting my hand on her commode, and took her hand. She was not a hand holder, and the sensation was strange. She napped off and on, my cramped and tingling arm outstretched, my hand holding hers.

How many nights had she stayed up with me as a baby, rocking me to sleep, nursing me through childhood illness. My tears fell onto my sweater in the still darkness. With the self-consciousness of our relationship put aside, I asked myself, who was Charlotte as a little girl? I knew that when she was ten, her parents had a late night fight. In the morning, her mother was gone. Her father, a country musician and paperhanger, instructed her and her sister and brother to never talk about their mother again. A mother who could walk out on her children, I imagined, had probably never held their hands. For a long time, my mother thought her mother was dead. I imagined she had a lot bottled up inside her, and I wondered at the difference between strength and denial.

Around midnight she opened her eyes to check that I was still there, and I whispered that I was going home to change my clothes. At home, I fell asleep in fresh clothing. At 1:30 am, my phone rang.

“I thought you were coming back,” she cried. “You’d better hurry. Charlie and his gang are outside my room again, and they’re making plans. If something happens to me, let the authorities know. I’ve called hospital security, but they won’t come. They’ve moved the other lady out of the room so nobody will witness it,” she said.

I walked into her room a half hour later, unprepared for what I found. She was standing stark still by the bed, holding the compact lung machine like a suitcase, the draining tube in her back still intact. She had tied a large bow at the front of her robe. Bouquets of flowers from my cousins, Bob, and my siblings and me, lay in bunches on their sides across the window sills. The water from the flowers had been carefully poured into a dozen dixie cups, which were lined up on a long ledge, and three glass vases stood empty on a side table. I tried to make sense of the strange scene.

“Beverly, are you strong? Can you fight?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Can you fight?”

“Well, I don’t know…maybe,” I said, not wanting to commit.

“Ok, good. Now, when that nurse with the jello face comes in here, we’ll each grab a vase and hit her over the head, and then we’ll run out of here. Promise me you will do that! Promise me, and I will suffer the consequences. Don’t you worry. Are you with me?”

“So – you want to attack the nurse.”

“It’s the only way to get out of here alive. Do you promise me?”

First I said nothing. Then, “Sure Ma, I’ll do it.” I waited a beat. “But don’t you think we will be suspicious, running out of here at two a.m., you in your robe, carrying a lung machine?” She didn’t think so.

I somehow managed to get her back into bed, where she dozed, her mind quiet. Thinking about how scared my family had been a week before, and how my mother would do anything for us, I sang a song from our childhood softly into the room.

Hush little baby, don’t say a word

Mama’s gonna buy you a Mockingbird.

If that Mockingbird don’t sing,

Momma’s gonna buy you a diamond ring…

The next morning the doctor told her she had been delirious from what they finally recognized as morphine sensitivity. Apparently the surgeon had looked at her young face and prescribed too strong a dose. Her last night, my lucky sister at her side, was uneventful. Bob took her home in the morning.

My mother didn’t seem to remember most of what had gone on those few days. As I tell this story, I’m 66, the same age as she was then. I warn my family that if I’m ever hospitalized, they should limit my morphine. And hide the flower vases.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Irish Knit Sweaters and Ice Cream - A Day in the Life

    A laid-back story about a day in the life, focusing on Noam's Irish Knit sweaters, since it is St. Paddy's Day...   

    On March 6, 2010, I woke feeling sick, but there was no way I would miss work. Noam had agreed, through his agent Anthony Arnove at South End Press, to take part in an afternoon event sponsored by MIT’s Technology and Culture Forum, and the MIT Program in Women’s and Gender Studies. The event, “Democracy’s Endgame” would be moderated by “Democracy Now!” producer Amy Goodman, beginning with a talk by actor, writer, novelist, and revolutionary Arundhati Roy. Noam would give a brief response, and a conversational Q&A between the two would follow. Alternative Radio’s David Barsamian and a few others would be meeting at our office beforehand, and I was planning to lay out some pre-event appetizers. I'd been looking forward to this!

I lay back down on my bed, dizzy and lethargic, hoping fifteen more minutes of rest would do the trick. Laura took a look at me. It was her day off, and she offered to drive me to get the snacks and spend the day with me at MIT to help out. Her offer gave me the energy to shower and dress. We stopped at trader Joe’s to pick up fruit, crackers, cheeses, and drinks, and at MIT I forged ahead with my usual workload while Laura cut cheeses and gathered trays, napkins, small plates, and knives for later. Noam was just beginning an interview with David Barsamian, and after introductions all around, Noam asked, “Who were the two people taping our conversation?” David told him they were from “The DISH Network,” and Noam nodded. He liked to keep track of the media groups interviewing him.

When the interview had ended, Glenn brought in our mail, and I saw a package I had been waiting for, from Dublin. “Noam, your surprise has come!” I called out. The DISH people were still packing up, and turned to see what was happening. Noam walked toward me and stood next to Laura, trying, I think, to figure out if she was in on the scheme, but she wore her best therapist’s poker face.

But first, let me explain. Noam had worn sort of a uniform for the past fifteen years: an Irish knit sweater worn over a light blue shirt, with jeans and black velcroed sneakers. By now he was down to two sweaters, one a medium blue and one a green-blue. I had patched the latter at the elbows, and darned it at the wrists. Clipping and unclipping hundreds of mikes had bitten a gaping mouth-sized hole out of the sweater’s rounded neckline. The blue sweater was now too small in the belly. He blamed it on the (healthy) lunches I brought him, but I blamed it on his laundering skills. We both knew his weight gain was from eating out more since his wife Carol passed away in 2008.

Noam looked down at the mix of browns and beiges poking out from underneath a large padded envelope I was using to conceal the gifts. “What’s this?” he asked, eyebrows raised, and a little smile spread across his face.

“It’s your surprise!” I was pleased with myself for how this gift had transpired, but mostly I was excited that Noam might be wearing a new sweater to today’s event. I removed the envelope to reveal a neat stack of lightweight sweaters, presenting them with a flourish. First, a deep cocoa with subtle striping at the neck, then a medium brown with a slight diamond design in the middle. The bottom sweater was a handsome shade of beige unlike any sweater found at a shopping mall. They were all the right size – large, so would fit him perfectly.

“Where did they come from?” he asked.

“Do you want the long story, or the short?”

“The short story.” No surprise there.

“Sam Epstein asked me what he could present to you after your upcoming Michigan lecture, and I jokingly suggested a new Irish knit sweater. He loved the idea, so I emailed your friend Maria in Dublin and asked the name of the store where she had bought your two original sweaters. She wrote back immediately. “Oh, Bev, I have a very expensive sweater left over from Noam’s trip here.  He said it was too joyful for him to wear! I can take it back and exchange it for a couple of somber ones.” When she got there, she found that the store was going out of business, and she was able to exchange the one for three sweaters! And here they are.”

“Can you take the tags off of this one,” he asked, handing me the cocoa brown sweater. The green-blue patched sweater seemed to gain in shabbiness as it left his body, and he slipped the brown one over his blue shirt. “And keep the old one, I can still wear it.” With Laura acting as stylist, it slid on like butter. He put his hands in his pockets and smiled, happy for three new sweaters after zero minutes of shopping. He looked great.

“Should I put these in mothballs,” he asked. “Avi doesn’t believe in mothballs, but Carol always put our sweaters in mothballs over the summer.” So I would be the mothball deal breaker? No problem – this would be an easy task.

“I don’t think mothballs are necessary, Noam. They’ll be fine folded up in a bedroom drawer. And anyway,” I said, clearing my throat. “Uhm, do you remember what happened last year when you started to wear your sweaters into the office after taking them out of mothballs?” He did not, surprisingly.

I had started this, and I had to come clean. “The suite smelled like mothballs for the entire winter. We opened windows on warmer days to air out the place.” He had forgotten, no doubt because his mind was always on more urgent things.

My phone rang. It was actor Woody Harrelson’s assistant. “Hi. Mr. Harrelson will be sending over five pints of ice cream for Noam, David, staff, and friends to share with Arundhati Roy this afternoon.” This seemed so arbitrary to me, but maybe ‘Woody’ admired Arundhati or Noam? Or David, Anthony, Amy, or all of the above? I was too busy to find out, and asked her to thank Mr. Harrelson for us. I was glad Laura was there, and sent her off to the nearby kitchen to find bowls, spoons, and ice for the drinks. I had the next week’s schedules to finalize, more than fifty new emails in my “Noam” inbox, and two people from a local union were sitting outside waiting to meet with Noam. I asked Glenn to deal with the emails, and I could tie up loose ends on the Michigan/Madison schedule on Monday. Laura and I had appetizers to cut and arrange.

Anthony, Amy, and Arundhati arrived. Anthony had picked up the ice cream, and the atmosphere of our suite turned festive as Laura and I brought out the trays. Noam stood out in his new cocoa brown Irish knit sweater, and received compliments through the afternoon. I took his beat-up Irish knit sweater home, flung it on a chair, and fell into bed, having powered through the day without focusing on how I felt. But first, I hung the sweater in my closet, where's it's been ever since, a reminder of those fun and magical days with Noam, and everyone in our world.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Pleading Computer Insanity

I'm working on getting a draft of my book to three people by the end of the week.  I see that people are still looking at my blog, despite the fact that I have pretty much abandoned it while writing. Mea Culpa. Here's a chapter to whet your appetite, I hope. 

            The fact that Noam is a self-proclaimed technophobe is one of the first things he divulged about himself. Many times since that confession he confirmed his belief that all technology, in all situations, is not fixable, nor is any document retrievable. He also insisted that if something could go wrong with anything mechanical or technical, it would go wrong. He wanted nothing to do with finding solutions, because to find a solution, he had to care, and he didn’t care about technology. Years ago, he'd found a way to redirect a substantial stream of water flowing from the gravelly, rutted road above his Cape Cod cottage so it would bypass the property and flow toward the pond below, so I knew he was capable of solving puzzles if he took the time to focus and think them through. When he found himself in what he categorized as a desperate situation, he took desperate measures, like when he called Theresa Tobin, the MIT librarian, at her home one night because he was having trouble accessing a journal in the MIT library system. Theresa helped him retrieve the journal, but before they hung up she asked him if he knew what time it was. He’d had no idea it was past 1 a.m..
            Noam was convinced computers and printers and anything technical, motorized, or battery-powered, even electric staplers, conspired to torture him. Coffee makers, washing machines and dishwashers, garage doors, cars, subscriptions, his phone, and his GPS were also culprits. When I tried to show him how to change the date on his watch one afternoon, he walked away waving his hands over his head, shouting, “Don’t bother, I don’t want to know!”
            While answering emails in his office, Noam was accidentally kicked off line, and became frustrated trying to figure out the logic behind the new Outlook Express program. “You have to be crazy to understand this new email system,” he groused from his office. “The people they designed this for are insane. The people who do the designing are insane.” I asked him to step away from his laptop for a few minutes and let me look at it in peace to figure out how he had managed to get himself kicked offline, but he kept pacing next to me, and in less than a minute, he was back at it. 
            “It’s hopeless. Just shut it off. Close it. Forget it. I have plenty of other things to do. Assaf will look at it with me tonight, and we’ll get it working. This program is designed for people without any logical sense.”
            Noam and I didn’t know what the red x on the bottom right of his screen indicated, but we assumed it had something to do with his not being able to get online. I did know how the x probably ended up there – an accidental flick of his finger hit a key at the wrong time, sending his computer, and him, into a tailspin. I finally walked away and sat at my own desk, trying to throw myself off line. I did the hokey pokey and I turned myself around, but no matter what arbitrary keys I hit, I was still able to access email and the web. I sat next to him again in the afternoon and tried to toggle him back online, with no luck. Then I noticed that the red x sitting in the lower right hand corner was gone, and I told him he might be back online.             
            “No, I don’t think I am. The fact that the red x disappeared only means one of my accounts is online, maybe my home account. Just forget it. Let’s close up the computer and forget it!” When we tried to close the computer up, the red x appeared again.
            As an aside, Noam once received an email asking to have a book signed. At the bottom was the Yahoo sign-off, 'Do you Yahoo?' Noam printed out the email and drew a circle around 'Do you Yahoo,' with a note to me saying, "Tell him I don't know what he's talking about."

            Assaf took a look at his computer that evening before dinner, and he figured out that when the red x had disappeared, he really had been back online. Noam just hadn’t been able to believe it, so he hadn’t even tried. By his logic, he would have had to be insane to believe it. I should have insisted we just try to open his email, but he was frustrated and insistent, and I doubted myself - I thought maybe I was missing something. Plus, when he was exasperated with computers, I just had to go along with his annoyance until he put the problem back in my – or Glenn’s - hands. Or, if he happened to have dinner plans that night at Irene and Assaf’s.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Hi-Ho Silver! (Or was it Hi-Yo?)

I'm still writing this book!  I had fun this week looking at a video from the Spring of 2017, when my two step-grandchildren visited our office and met Noam for the first time.  Below is a scene from that day.

            As Noam began a conversation with the kids, explaining to them that he didn’t watch TV at their age, but listened to stories of the Lone Ranger on the radio, I reached quickly for my phone and switched it to videotape just in time to record him saying, “I listened to the Lone Ranger. He was a cowboy. He said, Hi-Ho Silver!” Pause. “He had a Silver horse.” 
            “Was his horse silver? I thought the Lone Ranger called him Silver because his bullets were silver,” I said. I had no idea where I was going with that, and had a chance to take it back when Noam asked me to repeat myself, since he hadn't heard me clearly. I had seen the TV show decades after he listened to the radio version, so knew the horse was white, not silver.  
            I no longer assumed Noam was always right about everything, though I was sure in this case he had simply misspoken, so I repeated myself. The kids were quiet, listening, and I wondered whether our conversation was of any interest to them. I was more than interested - I was excited to hear Noam share childhood memories again, because it had been a while.  
            Noam turned in my direction, smiling. “Sure...a white horse. It was a white horse. Silver, it was called. ‘He called out, 'Hi-Ho Silver!' You don’t remember that?” he asked me, turning back to the kids.         
            “Ok, so it was a white horse, I do remember that, Noam. And did you hear that, guys – there was no TV back then,” I added from behind my phone, reluctantly moving on from what felt like our version of a Who’s on First routine, a favorite skit of Noam's and mine, which our shorthand conversations sometimes resembled.
            “No TV!” Noam repeated, and the fun of playing with him again after a long dry spell left me aching with my own brand of nostalgia.
            “Annika, do you have a question for Professor Chomsky?” I asked, bringing us back to the purpose of our gathering.
            Instead of making eye contact with him, she was looking to her right, at me, her nervous expression saying, “I forget. Do I have a question for the smartest man on the planet?” and I hoped we hadn’t lost her with our "The horse is [named] silver" discussion.
            I reminded her that she wanted to ask Professor Chomsky about the Boston Women’s March.
            “You went to the Women’s March?” Noam asked.
            “Ya,” she said, now looking toward her brother, her hands on her hips.
            “Was it exciting?” he asked her.
            Declan shot Noam a look as he moved over to give his sister the stage.
            “Yes, but it hurt my legs,” Annika said, referring to our 90 minutes of standing and waiting, followed by two or three hours of walking, since we also walked from Boston back to MIT.          

            I reminded her again that she had wondered how, and whether, marches made a difference. She pivoted her head almost mechanically, as if willing herself to do so, and nodded in his direction, finally, as he began to answer.

to be continued...

Friday, September 28, 2018

This and that: thoughts on writing, editing, and voice

The writing struggle/challenge continues.  I think the only other thing I've ever done so consistently in my life is breathing - but even then, there are moments of apnea...

People will tell you what they love about your writing. They will say they love this, but not so much that, and in a weak moment, you will take it in and continue to craft your story with the this at the front of your writing mind, until you read aloud, to a group of writers, your piece focusing on the this, and people will ask about the that. "Where is the that? I loved the that. I miss the that," they will say.

Now you're confused about whether you should write about this or that, and you try again. When you read it back to yourself, you can't find the flow - you can't find your own voice; you've let someone take it away from you.

So you begin again to write - not necessarily about this or that, but about another thing altogether, and in time you may find a different theme or a deeper part of your story emerging as you write about this, that, and the other thing, too.  When it's finished - for the time being - you throw it into a dark closet with only a pencil, an eraser, and a flashlight, and let it live there, sleep there, talk to itself there for weeks, months, maybe years, until you come back and turn on the light. Caught off guard, it blinks and tries to shield itself from the harshness of being pulled back from the quiet. Like a troubled marriage, you hear it wail, "Haven't we already been through this?  Isn't this good enough?" Then you wash its face and give it a fresh set of clothing and invite it to join you on the porch for a cup of tea, where the late morning sun comes in, mottled through the trees. When the small talk is over and you've settled in, you ask it in your gentlest voice what, if anything, has changed in all this time, holding out hope that something might have deepened.

You listen closely, wondering which of your dear children, the incubated and reborn, the new ones whom have opened their eyes for the first time in that closet, will be allowed to remain, and grow, and which of them will be crumpled and thrown into the evening fire. Even then, their sparks will rise to ignite the next thoughts, as no piece of writing is ever lost; it just lives somewhere off the page, in the space where you find your breath.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Thanks for keeping me going - I'm still here, writing my Chomsky book!

I'm still here!

Hi readers - I haven't been posting, but I have been writing, still hoping to finish a book in my lifetime about my experiences and observations during my 24 years with Noam Chomsky.  I do miss the office, but fortunately a lot of people still write me (or an older texts or email comes into view in a timely way), and these  fixes help with my yearnings for the old days at Building Twenty and the Stata Center, and keep me going with my writing. They also spark my memory, filling in gaps in my stories.

Here are three examples.

1. A couple of weeks ago I was on vacation (actually, since I'm retired,  I mean to say that Laura was on vacation, so we were enjoying two summer weeks together), when out of the blue this selfie text from Michel Gondry and Catherine Keener appeared on my phone, two people whose visits to our office I had been writing about over the previous month.  I didn't know they knew one another...but apparently they figured out they had their experiences with Noam (and me) in common. I in fact I had some questions for Keener, the fabulous actor, activist, and human being, (it turns out she and I both put our beloved dogs down earlier this year, sadly), and we are in touch again. 

I love to hear from the very talented, personality-rich Michel. Below is a drawing he did of Roxy and Noam, taken about a half dozen years ago on Halloween. The original is signed by both - Roxy (dressed as Wonder Woman) and Noam (dressed as himself), fighting crime together.

2. Ken and Elaine Hildebrandt - These folks are smart, struggling activists.  I just noticed a message from Elaine a few days ago. Ken wrote a book called INFORMolution, which contains a lot of truths about our world.  He and Elaine stole my heart - along with caring a lot about the plight of mankind, they have rescued and adopted, despite their own financial struggles, more than, I would guess, three dozen dogs, cats, and others, many of whom somehow found their way to their home and surrounding area, as if via a secret animal newsletter floating around in the ether.  They lost Barney (a dog) a little while ago, and almost lost Chumlietta a few weeks ago, and despite the expense, they took her to the vet. Remembering that they named one of their dogs Piper at my suggestion (she was found drinking from a water pipe), I stopped my writing and put together a care package, which I'm about to mail. Salmon from Alaska (our recent trip), dog and cat treats, chewable heart worm tabs, a check for help with whatever is most urgent. By some act of the universe, Elaine had created a colorized photo of Roxy sitting on Noam's home office chair, and she sent it to us, by coincidence in late January, the same day our dear Roxy passed away.

3. My Sufi - Sufi Laghari - The visits to our office of this amazing human being were some of my most memorable, as the Sufi told me I was meant to be where I was - working with Professor Chomsky.  I think most of us ask ourselves that question a couple of times a week - am I doing what I am meant to do?  Is my work making a difference?  I've written about it on my blog, and I've been editing the piece for my book.  Last night Sufi's name popped up as a friend request from a couple of years ago on Fb, and now we're in touch again. Here is the robe he gave to Noam, hanging on the very old coat rack from our Building Twenty days.

Anyway - know that your notes and texts to me DO matter.  I'll never forget my time with Noam, or at MIT in general.  How can I forget when I'm writing about it every day.  How does anyone write a book in under five years?  Now I get why it takes so long.

Love, Bev