Saturday, April 11, 2015

Run, Pray, Live


 
My version of Italy, based on my first cab ride from Rome’s Termini Station to our hotel, would be very different from Elizabeth Gilbert’s in Eat, Pray, Love.  My version of Italy, or at least of Rome, would be called Run, Pray, Live.  I figured out pretty quickly during that ride why there are so many churches in Italy – they need them for pedestrian burial services.  Every time someone crossed a street in our path, I expected our taxi driver to clip them cartoon style, flinging them carelessly left and right across the stone streets and sidewalks.   Our driver’s methods were on par with those of the residents’ in their private cars and Vespas.  As we neared our destination, the Hotel Portoghesi (featured in the movie Pretty Woman, we later figured out!) located in the district of Campo Marzio, I looked back through the rear taxi window in stunned awe.  I had watched countless vehicles squeeze through openings narrower than a Boston sidewalk, yet none of the pedestrians panicked by diving into the bushes or ducking into the doorway of a gelateria or church, and nobody was lying unconscious in the street with black tire marks across their foreheads.

In Italy, although you can drink alcohol from the time you are weaned from your mother’s breast, you can’t legally drive a car until your eighteenth birthday.  I say “legally” loosely, because in Boston, driving like they do here in Rome would buy you a trip to the courthouse in the back seat of a police cruiser. I’m guessing that in Italy you earn a violation only when a body has to be pried, shoeless, from your car’s front grille.

My business in Italy would begin in the Northern part of the country four days later, but in order to acclimate ourselves to the culture, language, and time difference, Laura and I decided to spend a few fun days in Rome and Siena before traveling by train to Pavia, just below Milan.  In Pavia I would help oversee the events of my long-time boss, Noam Chomsky: two full days of talks, meetings, dinners, and a concert in his honor had been organized on the Italian side of the ocean by Noam’s colleague and friend, and by now our dear friend, Professor Andrea Moro, Director of the Center for Neurolinguistics and Theoretical Syntax at IUSS in Pavia.

Before that unforgettable cab ride to our hotel, in an Alitalia shuttle bus from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to Termini Station, we passed imposing ancient ruins standing like dignified sentries keeping silent watch over the city below while it determinedly reinvented itself century after century.  The scattered assemblies of these crumbling buildings and forums were imposing and awe-inspiring.  As we neared one large structure, I thought to myself: ‘That looks like the Colosseum, but it can’t be; surely such a worldly wonder wouldn’t be found in plain sight, to view in passing, for free.’  I all but rubbed my eyes for a clearer view, when a fellow passenger called to her friend, “Look, there’s the Colosseum!”  It felt surreal to be sitting in a bus on a Roman street and to be able to throw a stone at the side of it.  Ok, let’s be real – my son could throw a stone at the side of the Colosseum, while I could throw one in its general direction.  We would come for a tour the next day, after a night’s sleep, as we hadn’t slept on the red eye coach flight from Boston.

When we finally arrived at our hotel it was nine-thirty a.m., and I fought the constant urge to torture myself by backing up six hours in my mind to the ‘real’ time back home.  Although I love being in a new place, I don’t like the traveling part – the actual time in an airport and on a plane.  I don’t like waiting in a long line to use a bathroom that’s barely one size larger than my outfit, to attempt to pee into a moving target and then wash my airplane-bacteria-infested hands in a Lilliputian sink.  To add to my charm, I’m a horrible sleeper in any situation, and I was so tired at this point that I was talking ragtime.

“Laura, it’s nine-thirty a.m. here, but it’s really three-thirty in the morning.  Three-thirty!  If we take a nap now, what will happen to us?”

She said something like, “I know what will happen to you if you don’t take a nap, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to count backwards anymore,” then she ordered me to lie down.

We woke just past eleven a.m. and felt rested enough to tend to simple acts of arrival, like unpacking, making a plan to find an outdoor café that served anything with fresh mozzarella, and eating at least two servings of gelato, or gelati. No guilt here - we planned to do a lot of walking.

As we set out on foot to explore the city, my mind kept returning to the relationship between driver and pedestrian.  I noticed that most everyone was crossing the traffic-filled streets at a normal pace, seemingly unaware of the cars at their hips. The Italian driver-pedestrian relationship looked to be symbiotic – a swaying dance, each moving in reciprocity, weaving together the way sidewalk and street intertwine at the seams in variations of gray stones and pavers so that one can’t see where sidewalks end and streets begin.  Laura and I stood out sorely as the out-of-step visitors clinging to the buildings’ edges, trying to stay safe.  I wanted to know what the Italian pedestrian knew that I didn’t know.

After our late lunch (or was it an early breakfast?  Back in Boston it was only nine am!!) the front desk clerk promised us that the Pantheon was less than a mile from our hotel, but we were again frustrated by our inability to follow directions, and we walked in circles for an hour.
Finally, Laura ducked into a little convenience store (she loves them and will find any excuse to go in, apparently in any country) for a map.  I sat outside grumbling that the Pantheon was in no way ‘less than one mile’ away, convincing myself that the clerk was playing with our minds as punishment for not speaking his language.

Since our bus had all but run into the Colosseum, we were at a loss as to why it was so difficult for us to find other popular attractions, so it was a surprise when, just a minute’s walk from where we bought the map, we spied a small street sign with beige letters in a brown background, no larger or more magnificent than my street sign at home, with the word “Pantheon,” written on it, and an arrow pointing left.  We turned skeptically down a bustling alley way, and one hundred or so feet beyond, the street opened up to the Piazza della Rotonda, with the Pantheon as its grand old centerpiece.  All of our doubt and frustration dissipated as we stood before this astounding temple honoring all of the ancient Roman gods.  The Pantheon is an awe-inspiring building of dome, portico, rotunda, and oculus dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs. Inside, Laura was transformed by the architecture, while I found myself at the altar, praying for the safety and good health of the people I love, particularly for my mother, who was enduring rounds of chemotherapy for lung cancer, throwing in a general shout-out for the well-being of the rest of the world.

On our way out, I dipped my right hand into the small well of holy water, and felt relief when my fingertips emerged unscathed.  Despite my having moved far away from the Catholic church, I felt an odd presence of my seven-year-old self, dressed in a miniature, white wedding dress and veil, hands folded in prayer as I walked with the other girls and boys up the wide gray church stairway toward my First Holy Communion.

At the end of our first night in Rome, we made a last-minute decision to take a cab to visit Cristina, a close childhood friend of Andrea’s at the American Academy.  Cristina is an architectural historian who had restored the buildings of the Academy, and is also one of the directors of a fellowship program providing living quarters and food for about thirty American Fellows every year, which allows them to focus solely on their art without external distraction. What a dream.

 Christina showed us the building where Galileo Galilei was invited by a group of progressive scientists to discuss his innovative work on the telescope.  Looking up at the great cottage we tried to grasp that Galileo had gazed at the stars, systematically recording his discoveries, through those very windows almost exactly 400 years before.

Sitting on the rooftop of the Academy sipping Prosecco champagne, Cristina shed some light on the mystery of what’s going on between the Italian driver and pedestrian.

“The drivers actually have a plan,” she told us.  “They do see you.  The trick on both sides is hesitation.  Just don’t.  And never look afraid, as that confuses them.”  I leaned in toward her, taking a sip of my wine.  “The thing is the timing itself.  The drivers are judging where the walker will be in a few seconds, and the walker understands this, and keeps going – without hesitation.”

We thanked Cristina for solving one of Rome’s greatest mysteries.  Now that we understood that the Italian drivers might see hesitation in our body language and the wide-open roundness of fear in our eyes and mouths, we felt a little more confident about walking the city.

We did our best to test out Cristina’s theory the next morning, but the ever-present pedestrian-driver issue was still inescapable.  Layered over that enigma was the pervasiveness of Catholicism – strolling priests holding thin, black briefcases, and nuns of all ages grouped together on street corners in their flowing off-white gowns, long rosary beads hanging to their waists.  These scenes were part of the art for Laura, but they threw me back to my early religious upbringing of church bells, prayer, and catechism class.

I remember walking toward Saint Mary’s Parish in my hometown of Waltham, Massachusetts, one freezing cold Sunday with my older brother Ron and my younger brother Paul, each of us trying to keep warm in our matching hooded and zippered maroon bench warmer coats, while our parents stayed at home: my mother preparing a hot Sunday meal and my father reading the paper and watching football on TV.  We each sat through a forty-five minute mass with children of our age group followed by an hour of Sunday school.  The only saving grace to a long morning spent in church would come afterwards, when my brothers and I each spent a nickel on a small circular loaf of a delicious steaming white bread smelling of yeast and sourdough, baked by a local Italian family working a few small ovens in their garage just a block from Saint Mary’s.  The bread, crusty on the outside, warm and pliable on the inside, warmed our bodies for the mile-long walk home. It helped obliterate the lingering metallic taste of the thin, papery host, bits of which still clung to the roof of my mouth.

Every once in a while a similar aroma outside an Italian restaurant caught me off guard, and I turned in automatically.  Even in Rome, a city that exudes the smells of pizza crusts and yeast, the exact smell and taste of that bread, that Sunday treat, like the ability to return to the full authenticity of our childhoods, remained elusive.  Walking the streets of Rome, there were times when I almost expected to look down and see my yellow patent leather Mary Jane shoes and matching clutch purse.  But since looking down might have been interpreted as hesitation, I practiced keeping my chin up and walking confidently ahead.


End of excerpt...

Monday, March 23, 2015

Funny, but...


Everyone knows that Boston was swallowed by a frigid seven-foot snow serpent last month.  After five long weeks the sun came out, and the following day, some cruel unknowing stranger passed onto me the world’s most horrific virus. Sometime during my feverish delirium Laura felt the need to remind me that we are all colonized by zillions of microbes. Laying there defenseless, I was sure the ringing in my ears was from a band of miniscule microbe-powered covered wagons circling my sinus cavity.  

I figure if I need a laugh, probably other people need a laugh.  The sun is beating down the weekend’s lousy inch of slushy snow, and I just found a folder of funny e-mails sent to our office over the past twenty years.  Some are from people whose second or fifth language is English, and some are from people whose first language is supposed to be English. Some speak for themselves, and a couple include my wise remarks.  And I couldn’t stay at my job without sharing some humorous exchanges with Noam. They appear below, indented, word for word, typos and all.  My comments and notes are in bold.

**
     Dear Noam Chomsky,
Thank you for reply.  I think you are public property. We are getting inspiration and manure from your thoughts. In this regard we should cover all aspects of you. But if you want to prefer intellectual issues than it is ok.

**
      Dear Professor Chomsky,
Thank you for your prompt reply. We are of course very sorry that you cannot come but be sure that we understand. Being scheduled 'To the hilt and beyond' sounds bad though I do not know what "hilt" means.

**
       Dear Bev and Noam,
The principal subject of my research is the process of domination of the mainly normalization and quality assurance organizations, around the world.  In second place, understand the communication process of this kind of organizations with the UN and other relevants institutions, especially the power fluids into the structural chart and the members of its respective boards.

Noam asked me to write a response, which really meant that this was one we could make a pass on. Although his challenge was made in jest, I wrote, and of course only sent it to Noam:

       Dear…You may not know this, but we do not respond to messages in which more than fifty percent of the words are longer than nine letters, and more than ten percent of the words end in ‘tion.’
     
Please cut each word in half, take two aspirin, and write us again next year.  Professor Chomsky will have returned from Mars by then, although he does have a tentative trip to Jupiter planned immediately following, depending upon the domination of the mainly normalization and quality assurance organizations around the world and in space.

Noam wrote me back:
“If I copy and paste it, will you sue me for plagiarism?”

**
       Yo Gnome,
       Yoor smardt I likke yoo. Yuo be jeenyus.

**
       Hello Noam,
       Sorry to be impolite with the last e-mail asking if you were alive or not…Sorry. You see, I am doing a Cognitive Schedule degree and was doing research for a presentation on you and could not find any dates of death because being stupid I thought all famous psychologist were dead.
        Again, so very sorry if I offened you by asking you were alive or not.

Let me just say something here.   The researcher above wrote that note in 2004. Maybe he was confused by the announcement, below, made by Noam’s colleague and our friend, Laura Ann Petitto, a few years prior.

       Dear Colleagues,
       Nim Chimpsky died on Friday, March 10, 2000, at the age of 26, from a heart attack at the Black Beauty Reserve in Tyler, Texas. Many of you will recall that he was the subject of the Columbia University Language experiment in the mid-1970’s. [I]t is th…[I]t is the passing of a life, albeit a chimpanzee’s life, and one that - whether or not he  ever intended it - contributed greatly to our knowledge of how human children learn.  Good bye Nimbo.

Noam, Nimbo, Noam Chomsky, Nim Chimpsky.  Let’s call the whole thing off.

**
       Dear Professor,
        I feel that it behooves to me to apologize, for I was being inconvenient.

**
I had to take a picture of this next one. Someone wrote using a Yahoo e-mail address requesting we sign a copy of a book. At the bottom of his letter was the standard Yahoo closing:  Do you Yahoo!? 

Noam drew a crooked circle around the phrase, with a note to me:



(Noam's note says: Tell him I don’t know what he’s talking about.) 

**
Last winter Noam had one of his famous bad colds and lost his voice, and I gathered the used mugs and the bowl that held his throat lozenges from his white table, to clean them.  Before I could return them, I walked into his office to meet with him and noticed something funny near his mail pile.

“Noam, what’s that?” I asked.

He had taken the last packet from a box of tea bags, and poured the loose throat lozenges into the rectangular cardboard box, which now sat neatly on the edge of his desk.
“Oh, do you like it?” he asked. “I was pretty proud of myself when I found a container for the lozenges.  It was almost like cooking!”

Yes, almost.
**

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Blind Faith


Several years ago, Noam’s first question to me when he arrived at the office was, “Did I tell you how my nephew David fixed the printer at my house?”

I have some experience with this type of questioning from Noam, so I offered my most obvious answer. “He plugged it in?”

Noam: “Nope, easier.”

Me: “Pressed the power button?”

Noam: “Nope, even easier than that.”

Me: “He touched the printer?”

Noam: “You’re not even trying.”

Me: “Ok, Uncle! I give up”

Noam: “He walked into the room and looked at it, and it started printing.”

He grinned, and I shook my head, fishing for a comeback.

“I’m going to do something even more amazing the next time your printer isn’t working,” I said, taking his bags from him so he could remove his coat.

“What will you do, just think about it?” he said, hanging his coat on the rack.

I had been outsmarted.  That was my plan.  To add a creative twist, I yelled after him as he walked toward his office, “But I will think about it from MIT, thirteen miles away from your house!”
**

A year later Noam pulled from his briefcase a piece of paper he had printed out on his home printer, and every ninth or tenth line was highlighted in gray.

“I’m afraid my printer is no good.  I’ll need a replacement,” he sighed, showing me what he considered hard proof of his printer’s proposed demise.

 I asked him some questions. “Did you try printing out anything else? Was this the only document that printed out this way?  Is your toner light flashing? (And the most probable:) Is there a chance you unintentionally pressed some keys and highlighted those lines?”

“I think there were a few other documents that printed out with gray lines.  I’ll double check when I get home.”

Most of the time when he says his computer or printer are beyond repair, his fingers have hit a combination of touch pad and keys until an arbitrary command has affected his document view, his printing, and his sanity. He often sends me panicked e-mails claiming things like, “My computer has crashed. The font keeps changing from large to small. My screen has become tiny. I can’t get online anymore. I know I didn't touch anything to make this happen!”

A few days after showing me the gray-highlighted paper, Noam wrote me from home:  “Someday you will have to come and look at this printer. It’s hopeless.”

“OK, I’ll come by on Monday, and I’ll fix that broken blind on your bedroom window while I’m there,” I said.

I arrived at his house on Monday morning with a small tool box filled with dry wall screws and some new brackets fished from my own collection. I removed the broken brackets of the blind he had accidentally torn down the week before, securing the replacement brackets with drywall screws. Screws that are included with curtain rods and most other things to be hung are usually too short, or cheap and easily stripped.  Or worse, they have a straight bayonet-type screw head rather than the much-preferred Phillips head.  If there were a book of secrets for a happier – or at least less frustrating - life, using Phillips head dry wall screws would be rule number five, or six at the least.

I secured the new brackets and slid face plates on so that the blinds wouldn’t fall forward.  I found the wand on the floor under the window, and noticed that the silver piece that connects the wand to the turning mechanism was missing, and unless I secured the wand, Noam would have no way to open or close the blinds.  I made a mental note to demonstrate for Noam how the blinds work once I repaired the wand, since it was possible that he had no idea that they opened and closed by twisting the wand. Seriously.

I walked around the corner from Noam's bedroom to his office, where he was working.

“Noam, as soon as I finish repairing the blind, we can move on to the printer. I’ll be just another minute.”

“The printer is hopeless,” he said. I ignored his pessimistic response and reached behind him to grab a pen I had spotted with a large paper clip stuck through the pen clip. Probably something he played with during a phone interview.

I pulled the paper clip from the pen as I walked back into the bedroom, and opened it enough to poke it through the hole in the wand, connecting that to the mechanism at the top of the blind.  I twisted it a few times for extra strength, worked the blinds a few times, and gave the wand a good tug.  When it didn’t budge, I got Noam to come back into the bedroom so I could show him how the repaired blind worked.

“Wow, another miracle.  How did you do it?” he asked, looking up as he turned the wand as I had demonstrated, totally missing the opening/closing feature, as far as I could tell. “Oh, I see, you used a paper clip, just what I would have used!” he said.

“Noam, did I ever tell you about the time my father tried to put up a new pole lamp in our living room when I was little?”

He smiled and made eye contact, so I went on. I don’t need much encouragement to tell a story.

“The lamp was too high for the ceiling, so my father cut a few inches off the bottom. But since he never bothered using a measuring tape, the lamp was now too short, so he took a brown wooden bowl from the kitchen cabinet and stuck it under the lamp. The lamp rested on the base of that inverted bowl for the remainder of my childhood.  My father was proud of what he called his “invention.” It wasn’t bad, really, since the brown wood of the bowl matched the wood ornamentation on the brass pole lamp.”

Noam laughed, although I wasn’t sure whether he had been listening to my story, or writing a lecture in his head. It’s possible he had been doing both, since he has made several self-amused confessions about reading a book during a phone interview, listening in for key words and a pause, after which he makes a comment, and goes back to his reading.

“Ok, now onto the printer,” I said, causing him to heave another sigh of despair.


 “See if you can wend your way over to the printer without killing yourself,” he said.

Sure, now, with my life at stake, he admits that his home office is a death trap, though he won’t let me move anything until he has a chance to go through the books, until he moves his set-up to another room, until he boxes books up for the library (which he won't let me help with until...), until the summer, until hell freezes over.  I truly think his office is an extension of his over-loaded brain, and moving anything would wreak havoc on his thinking process. Piles of books balance precariously on a narrow table sitting perpendicular to his desk, and boxes bulging with papers and drafts to be culled and archived are shoved into rows against the wall under shelves overflowing with more papers, books, journals, and awards in an alternating vertical/horizontal checkerboard pattern.


There is foot-wide pathway to the printer, and I walk it the way I learned in ballet school as a little girl – one foot in front of the other, wondering as I walked in this tight-rope manner how Noam manages to get to the printer without tripping. My guess is that he trips.

I travel from behind his desk to the perimeter of his office to the area in front of his desk, where the printer sits on a tiny table. The printer is plugged in and has power, it is turned on, there is no paper jam, the paper tray is full, and it’s not asking for toner.  I turn it off, wait thirty seconds, and turn it on again to clear commands.

“Ok, print something out.  Print out the document you showed me with the gray lines, if you have it queued up,” I tell him,  A few pages print out, and the copy is perfect, with black ink on every line. “This is like asking your baby to say a word when your friends are there to witness it,” I say, and he looks at me blankly. I look to see if he’s wearing his hearing aids, and he is, but I raise my voice anyway, “Ok, print something else, something that’s at least a few pages long.”  The document prints without issue, and I laugh.

“What, what’s wrong?” he asks, always imagining the worst.

“Nothing is wrong.  That’s the problem.  The printer is working perfectly,” I say, still laughing.

“Oh, good, you’ve fixed it!” he says.

The idea that one of the smartest people on the planet thinks that I have once again fixed something that was never broken begs not to be argued with, so I nod in agreement.

“It’s not as miraculous as the way your nephew fixed your printer, but this is a close second, right?” I ask, and he raises his hand in victory, showering me with thanks as we exchange a firm good-bye hug.

At my MIT office an hour later, I open an e-mail from Noam telling me that the blind and the printer are now both working perfectly, thanks to my brilliant repair skills. I shake my slightly swollen head back to normal size and get to work, making another mental note to add a few large paper clips to my tool box. And maybe some fairy dust.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Part II of our Ireland trip with Noam Chomsky - Cork (An excerpt)


Tis you, tis you, must go, and I must bide.

On her birthday in the early 1990’s, my brother Paul announced his gift to our mother.  “You have six months to take a trip anywhere in the world. Wherever you choose.  I’ll pay for everything for you and one other person.”

After thinking for a minute, my mother said, “Maybe I’ll go to Las Vegas. Or maybe Florida!”
            
Paul cocked his head to one side and scrunched his brow, looking pained, and repeated himself.  “Florida?  Ma, you can go anywhere in the world, not just the US.  How about Europe?  Would you like to see Paris, or London, or Rome?”

I interrupted before she could answer, “Or Ireland! Go to Cork, where your grandmother was born. Wouldn’t that be a dream?”  Our great-grandmother, Ellen Walsh - everyone called her Memé - was the first person at our house when my mother came home with each of her four babies, a box of donuts squeezed under her ample arm and the smell of talcum powder trailing behind her until our entire apartment smelled of it.  Memé was buxom in her blue and white size-18 polka dot dress, her chunky-heeled black tie shoes of the kind the nuns wore at my mother’s childhood parochial school clunking up the stairs so she could get a good look at my new baby sister, Denise.  Memé arrived by bus from what I imagined as a child was a faraway place, though years later I learned she lived in the next door town of Watertown, where I live now.  Memé died when my mother was in her late-thirties, and I was twelve.
            
“Why would I want to go to Ireland?” she said. “Most of those people are dead.”
            
I was constantly amazed – no, stunned – by these proclamations that were part of my mother’s unique, sparkling, and sometimes sardonic personality.

“What do you mean by those people,” I asked. “Your grandmother’s family?”

“Yes, Beverly!  Why would I travel all that way to visit someone who’s dead?”

Despite my mother’s disinterest, Cork remained at the top of my bucket list, so when Noam invited Laura and me to take the trip with him, to help keep the schedule intact and also enjoy a little of the Irish country, we had accepted without hesitation.  First we visited Dublin, and a few days later we arrived by train in County Cork.
**

Just an hour or so after our arrival in Cork, Laura and I unpacked a few things and threw on clean clothes for Noam’s meeting with a group of people who had worked at the Vita Cortex factory. During their sit-in a year before, while at risk of being laid off without pay, Noam wrote letters of encouragement and a statement of support via striker Darren O’Keefee, the spokesperson and organizer of his group.
            
We met Noam in the lobby, and after brief introductions, the three of us followed Darren to a conference room. When we entered, close to a dozen men and women stood quietly in unison. Laura and I took seats in the back, where we could observe unobtrusively, but to be honest, the wordless greeting had moved me, and I felt the need for some distance. Noam approached the strikers, who introduced themselves to him one at a time, speaking softly – a little out of our range.

I was pulling a pad of paper and pen from my bag when Noam called out to me from their midst, 
“Bev, this man is a Walsh!'  I rushed over and took his hand and introduced myself, asking whether he had an ancestor named Ellen Walsh. He said there are so many all over Cork, and in Waterford, that he couldn’t be sure. The magic of my long-awaited dream of meeting my Irish relatives mingled with the reality that I hadn't done my homework, but standing here in a conference room in Cork, firmly clasping the hand of a man named Alan Walsh, was enough for the moment.
            
The strikers looked out of place seated in the chrome and black swivel chairs surrounding the large polished maple conference table.  Someone had placed two pitchers of water at even intervals on the rectangular tabletop, and an inverted drinking glass at each seat.  We knew that the group had reached a settlement since Noam's involvement, but he wanted to learn the details of the sit in, and see how they were faring with the settlement behind them. I was fixed on their faces, their gestures, and the way they held themselves. Some had gaps in their mouths where teeth used to be, and I wondered about their medical and dental care, assuming they lived below the standards enjoyed by many of us back home. Otherwise, this scene appeared much the same as a meeting of professors back at our Linguistics and Philosophy Department at MIT.

“Mary over there,” Darren said, pointing to her, “was one of the two female strikers.  She slept at the plant for 130 nights, right next to her machine, the one she worked on during her shifts.” 
           
“Why were you sleeping at the plant?” Noam asked, looking over at Mary.

Darren answered. “To make sure Jack Ronan’s people didn’t come in overnight and remove the equipment and empty the place out before paying us our redundancy," he said.

Ronan was the company’s owner who had laid them off from their jobs making textiles for bus and plane seats.  I had not heard the word “redundancy” in this way before – they were referring to what we would call severance pay.  I turned the pronunciation over and over in my head.  Re-doon-den-cee. I tried to remember Memé’s voice. Did she share this accent? I remembered only that she talked in a “different” way, but to my five-year-old mind, that was how old ladies (in their late sixties) spoke. I couldn’t remember whether she had a similar accent, and I could no longer ask my mother.

“And what was Jack Ronan’s response to your sleeping at the plant?” Noam asked.
            
I was again focused on the solemn faces around the table, and by their strong working hands folded on the table tops, and I missed Darren’s reply.  I eyeballed the untouched clear glass pitchers of water on the table, trying to figure out a way to move away from my own welling emotions.  Jack Ronan had been messing with these people, my people. 
           
“How did the people in the town react?  Did they support you?” Noam asked. The room was quiet – all eyes were on Noam, and they, in turn, had his full attention.
            
“Friends and neighbors supported us, even strangers. We got food from the local grocers, pizza shops brought pizza, and a local sporting goods store brought warm jackets, as there was no heat at night.”  Noam listened intently, nodding now and then. “People brought food and money to support our families, as we weren’t bringing home any pay.  Support came from all around, not just from the people in our town. Some people even sent lottery tickets. The woman at the bakery had a dying husband, so she closed the doors to her shop a month or two before the strike. When she found out my birthday was coming, she opened the bakery just to make me a special cake to share with the other strikers.
            
That was it for me - I had to get up. I handed Laura my note pad and whispered, “Write down the main points,” and I moved to the table and reached for one of the water pitchers, and began filling glasses. Each person looked up at me in turn with grateful eyes, just for the pouring, and I was out of the frying pan and into the fire. One set of blue eyes the exact color of my mother’s, a sparkling light gray-blue, looked up at me in gratitude, and I had to look away.

Afterwards, outside the conference room, Laura and I hugged Noam, and I told him, "You made me cry again."  He looked amused. I offered to hold his papers while he took off his jacket.

“I’m giving them to Laura,” he said, handing them to her. “I don’t want you to get tear stains all over them.”

I never fail to be comforted by Noam’s ability to witness hardship with complete attention and compassion, to listen and take action without letting the pain of it seep into him. At least that’s how it seems to me.  As a therapist, Laura is also able to listen to people’s stories without feeling drained by the end of her day. She had cried in the conference room, too, but I decided to let her disclose that if she chose.  Plus, we were in a hurry. We had exactly one hour to shop for rings.

**
To be continued

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Unbroken - for Barry in Portland, who lives outside (An excerpt)

Barry called one winter evening, months after our first conversation, and although I was literally closing up the office for the day, I felt compelled to ask him a question that had been on my mind since our early chats, when he first called to ask me to convey a message to "the good Professor Chomsky." “Barry, since it's so hard to outside when the weather is unbearable, have you ever thought of trying to find funding for a subsidized apartment?  You never mention going into a shelter for the night.”

Barry said, “I don’t like to spend time in a shelter,but sometimes I do if it’s one of those really cold nights.”  I heard a note of panic in his otherwise calm voice. “It makes me feel penned in and jailed.  I would rather stay outside.”

“But isn’t it impossible to keep warm outside in winter?”

“Oh,” he said, sounding pleased with himself, “remember that I have this very warm coat.  A couple of weeks ago someone in my church asked me if I wanted it, but I said no, as I thought someone else might have left it by mistake and might come back for it. Well, I was down in the basement later on that day, sweeping the floor, and there it was! Someone had thrown it in the trash!  So I figured it was just meant to be mine!”

“But I have to admit I was pretty cold without that coat. Why, sometime, I don’t know, I think last month, or maybe three weeks ago, let’s see, well, anyway, I was so cold, I was shivering and shivering, and I shivered so hard that a piece of my tooth came off right in my mouth.  I spit it out and wrapped it in some paper and put it in my backpack, and thought I would take it to the nice dentist down the street who sometimes works on my teeth for free.  Once I got a cleaning, and the next time a root canal and a crown.  Can you believe it?”

I said I really thought that was amazing, and I meant it.

“I don’t have a lot of teeth, having not brushed, being homeless and all,” he said, “so it isn’t going to add up to all that much. Can you believe it Bev, she knows I can’t pay her, but she works on my teeth anyhow!”  Barry giggled like a girl to think of his good fortune.

I teetered forward and realized I was holding my breath again.  I took off my coat, gave Roxy a pat with the promise of "just another minute," and sat down at my work table to give Barry a little more of my time. I imagined that when our phone call ended, he might have to leave the warmth of the building he was calling from, though it's hard to say which of us is most uncomfortable about his living outside.

**
I talked with Barry today.  He's sleeping inside this week, and I'm grateful for that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

That Sinking Feeling


I was sadly mistaken when I assumed the worst part of my day was the discovery of hairline splits in the bottom of my leather boots while walking Roxy on the drenched grounds of MIT yesterday. The previous night’s brief bout of snow flurries had given way to heavy rain by the morning, and it was still coming down when I left work just after 4 pm, after my socks had dried.

Let me back up to 2:30 pm.  I had just returned from my walk with Roxy, who had refused to poop because she was uncomfortable in the rain without a jacket. Laura and I adopted her eleven years ago, and we know that she is very particular about many things, and getting wet is one of them.  

Matt from our headquarters office came into our suite, and said, “Sorry to bother you, Bev, but I come bearing some, ah, strange news.  About a half hour on the 7th floor of the Gates Tower (of our building) a middle-aged bearded was walking around ranting about internet security, digital security, and conspiracy theories, and he referenced Noam Chomsky at least once. The police were called, but he was gone before they arrived.  He was wearing a dark blue Carhartt work jacket.”

“So, where is he?” I asked.

“Well, they think he left the building.”

“They think? They're not sure? I’m locking our office door,” I said.

I e-mailed Noam at 4 pm to tell him what had happened, and he suggested that Glenn and I leave right away, which we did, without incident.  Rather than walking Roxy at MIT again, I would let her do her thing at the cemetery near our house when we got to Watertown.  Dogs aren’t allowed in cemeteries, but it was dark and rainy, and I decided an exception could be made in this case. When she finished up, I walked toward her with my plastic bag, to guide her toward the car (she’s mostly deaf, so I can’t call her, and the rain was coming down hard). I could see that she was sniffing something long and black, and when I reached her, I leaned over to see what it was – a dead animal? A dropped scarf?  Then my right leg fell into it – the black thing – up to my knee.  I tried to step away with my left leg, but the ground around me was like quicksand, and my left foot sank in to my knee as I fought to pull my right leg out. I took several “steps” this way, feeling my ankle boots filling with mud with each pull.  After a minute my mild amusement began to edge toward panic. What if I got stuck out here in the rain for hours? Or worse, what if the Earth swallowed me up? My mind raced. I was thinking, "If I sink any lower, please, please let me land on top of the casket, or I guess there would be a casket liner.  If I miss it, I'm in over my head." I knew for sure that something was at least six feet under ground. 

I took a deep breath and thought about the familiarity of this – what was it?  Then I remembered what I did when I found myself hip-deep in crust-topped snow during a walk with Roxy the winter before, and it was something every New England child understands. “I have to crawl!” I thought, laying my chest down on the ground. I spread my arms out to my sides and pulled my legs out slowly, one at a time, hearing great sucking noises as each foot emerged. Roxy, who weighs all of 28 pounds, continued to sniff around, oblivious to my situation. I crawled gingerly on my belly to the next row of gravestones ten feet away, feeling the soft grassy ground give way a full half foot or more with each effort as I inched toward what I hoped would be more stable ground.  When I had crawled to just beyond the adjacent gravestones, I was relieved to be able to stand, though my mud-soaked boots continued to sink a few inches with every squishy step I made toward the asphalt driveway.  Never before had a solid driveway looked like my long-lost sweetheart. I dared to look down the road toward my car, half expecting to see a bearded man in a Carhartt jacket leaning against it.

Roxy stayed next to me, and when we reached the car (nobody was next to it), I looked down to see that not only my boots, but my hands and the entire front and arms of my down-filled brown coat were caked with black muck. No surprise there. Aside from small patches of mud on her paws, Roxy looked like her usual brown self. Had she spent the last five minutes in an alternate universe? I picked her up and put her in the car, and drove the two blocks home, imagining how funny this story might sound when retold. 

When I got home and told my son what had happened, he was alarmed. “So an angry bearded man was in your building ranting about conspiracy theories and yelling out your boss’s name, and then you fell into a sink hole in the dark, rainy cemetery? Do you know how lucky you are?” he said.

I don’t know about lucky, but I was never so happy to take a shower. Laura would be home soon, and I was hoping she would find more humor in my story than Jay had, at least until she saw the pile of muddy laundry I had left on the floor near the washer in the basement.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

His Mug Runneth Over

Two years ago, I offered Noam a fresh mug of coffee at work, and he told me, “It looks better than the coffee I make at home!”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, around the third or fourth time I run the water through the filter, I end up drinking beige hot water with a few coffee grounds floating on top.”

That weekend, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Laura and I went to Bed, Bath & Beyond and bought a mini Keurig coffee maker for Noam.  One pod per cup. Simple. We called and told him we had a surprise, and asked if we could drop by.

“Only if you share a healthy drink with me,” he said.

“Single malt scotch?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said.  “Doctor’s orders. I have to drink more fluids.”

“He’s talking about water,” I said.

“I add ice,” he said.

At his house, we set up the coffee maker and gave him a quick lesson: insert a disposable pod into the receptacle, fill the machine with a mug of water, position the mug under the spout, and press the button.  When your coffee is ready, you throw away the pod.  (Although they are biodegradable, I wish the pods were recyclable.)

A few Saturdays later, we returned to Noam's house to replenish his coffee supply and drop off some holiday food gifts that had been sent to him at the office. I needed to get away from my writing for a while. It was not flowing, and I had recurring feelings of self-doubt, asking myself once again whether I should be in a formal writing program. I felt I had a lot to learn.

In his kitchen, Laura grabbed two highball glasses from the cabinet to the right of the sink and prepared a couple of single-malt scotches for the two of them.  Opening the door where the coffee was stored, I found only one open box, and it still held a few pods out of the original eighteen.  I know he drinks at least two or three coffees every morning, so this didn’t make sense.

“Noam, what’s this?  Why do you still have so much coffee in here?”  “In here,”  referred to the inside of his forty-year old, oversized and outdated Hotpoint microwave oven, which was permanently affixed to the top of a brown electric cooktop and oven. This was surely a fancy, modern appliance way back in the early 70’s, but while the stove and oven still worked, the microwave on top did not, and Noam was pretty pretty pleased with himself for reassigning the dead space as a coffee pod storage area.

Noam put down the New York Times and turned to me from his seat at the white Formica kitchen table, where a spot of glue still protruded from the horizontal strip I had recently glued back in place around the table’s lip.

“What did you say?” he asked.

“Why is there so much coffee left over?  It looks like you’ve used barely a dozen pods.

“I’ve been reusing them” he confessed, turning back to his newspaper.

“How many times?” I asked him.

“What?” he said, turning toward me again, squinting in a way that always reminds me of Henry Fonda.

I moved around the table to face him, and spoke a little louder.  “How many times do you use each pod?” When he laughed just slightly and refused to offer a number, I made a face like I’d just eaten something sour, and lifted my fist in the air, shaking it until he returned the gesture, now part of our personal sign language.  This was one of our many disagreements revolving around his unnecessary and extreme frugality.

“One problem you might be able to fix,” he told me, his face turning serious again, “is how to keep the water from spilling all over the counter top.”

“Are you filling it twice?” I asked, as Laura handed him his glass of whiskey, lifting her glass in a toast, to which they each took a good slug. I reached for her glass and took a token sip, just enough to clear my sinuses.

“I followed your directions to the letter.  I’ve been doing exactly what you told me.  I think there’s something wrong with the machine.  Maybe we should just set up the old Mr. Coffee.” He shook his head and sighed at the consistent failure of technology.

“Show me how you do it,” I said.  Laura looked on, sipping at her drink.

Noam Chomsky was voted the world’s top public intellectual in 2005 by Great Britain, and he’s been compared to Aristotle and Socrates. I tried to keep this in mind while I watched what he did next.

He lifted a large mug that sat next to the coffee maker, filled it with water, and poured it into the top of the Keurig. Then he popped the pod into its slot, waited for the water to disappear, and closed the lid.  Next, he walked over to the open kitchen cabinet and pulled out a small mug and set it under the spout.

Laura put her glass down and brought what we saw as an obvious faux-pas to his attention.

“Noam, stop! I know what’s happening here,” she said.

Noam looked puzzled. “What?  What did I do wrong,” he asked.  He was all ears, as he loves to watch other people problem-solve, particularly when he is convinced that a technical problem has absolutely no logical solution.

“You added water from a larger mug, so that amount of water is going to be dumped into the smaller mug, and the excess will overflow into the reservoir underneath the cup.  Also, if you fill the top more than once by mistake, the excess water will remain in the internal heating chamber.  Over time, the chamber will overflow into the reservoir as well, and eventually all of that water will overflow onto your counter. That’s your problem,” she said, lifting her highball glass from the counter to close her argument.

“So the mug I use to pour the water in and the mug I drink from should be the same?” he asked.

“Simply put, yes, that would solve your problem,” Laura said.

He looked at Laura as if she were Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining the concept of multiple universes, and joined her by lifting his own glass to his lips.

I emptied out the reservoir and chamber, opened a new box of decaf pods, and made myself a fresh cup of decaf coffee, throwing away the pod.  It was refreshing to remember that even one of the world’s top public intellectuals still had some things to learn.