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.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Close, but no SNL

Shigeru Miyagawa, a Japanese linguistics professor who recently moved into our office suite, was leaving for the day.

“I have to meet my friend, George Takei for dinner.  He’s in town for a show at the Somerville Theatre,” he said. I had no clue who George Takei was, but from Shigeru’s expectant look I knew that I was once again exposing my total lack of pop culture coolness.

“He’s Mr. Sulu on Star Trek." Pause.  "Didn’t you watch Star Trek?” he asked.

“Oh, sure, a few times,” I said, trying in vain to conjure up a Japanese character. I didn’t tell him that I can’t watch shows like that because I always irritate the person I’m watching it with by asking, “Can you put it on hold for  minute?  Ok, who are these people, and why are they on this spaceship?”

“Laura and Jay will know who George Takei is,” I said lamely.

“He’s very well known in popular culture,” he said, “He hosted Saturday Night Live!”

“Really?  Noam was asked to host Saturday Night Live once!  This is interesting – I think I’ll write about it in my blog.”

“Oh, wait then. Maybe I should check and make sure he really did end up hosting.  I know a lot of people suggested the possibility,” Shigeru said, throwing down his brief case and pulling a chair up to his computer. While he searched, he told me “George played me in a documentary about my return to Japan for the first time since I was ten years old.” He showed be the first minutes of the documentary and forwarded the link to me so I could watch it at home.  Takei’s voice was slightly familiar, but I couldn’t place him based on the dozen or so (no doubt partial) Star Trek episodes I had watched in my life.

Shigeru and I discovered in his search that George Takei had in fact not hosted Saturday Night Live, though the campaign to have him on is still being waged.
I told Shigeru the story of the time Noam was asked to host Saturday Night Live.

One day in the late 90’s, one of the producers of SNL called our office.  Some of the show’s writers had written a loose script for Noam.  The only thing he needed to do was show up on the set and play it straight, answering the questions that were put to him.  Sort of like, “I’m Noam Chomsky, and I play myself on TV.”  I was excited about this for many reasons, but mostly I liked the idea of Noam appearing in mainstream media, something that was just beginning to happen in small ways in the 1990’s.

Noam wasn’t at the office when they called, so I called his home, and he picked up. I tried to keep myself calm, but I had a personal interest in wanting him to agree. I wanted my friends, family, and the rest of the country to see my boss appear on, and possibly host – had they said he would host? - this brilliantly funny iconic show.

“Hi, Noam, it’s Bev.” Breathe…breathe…slow…down" I said to myself.  “I just got a call from a producer of Saturday Night Live.  The writers have prepared a script specifically for you, and they’re hoping you’ll travel to New York next weekend to play yourself on the program.”  Noam was quiet on the other end, and I had a fleeting image of him reading a book while listening in for key words.  He had confessed to me that he sometimes does this during boring phone interviews.  This, to me, was far from boring, and I finished my shpiel, trying to be convincing. “I think this would be a great opportunity to get your word out to people who don’t know who you are.”  I felt he did enough preaching to the converted.  “Saturday Night Live is a very popular show.”

“Saturday Night Live?” he asked.  “I think I’ve heard of it.  I might have watched it with the kids when they were younger. Uh, just a minute, let me talk to Carol.”

Noam yelled downstairs to his wife. "Caroooool!  It's Bev....  Bev!  She's asking if I can be on Sat Night Live.” Pause. “It’s in New York.  I said New York!  What?  What?” Pause. “Ok, just a minute."

"Bev, what would I have to do on the show?  Would I have to prepare anything?"

"No, you would just have to show up and play yourself - play it straight.  Their script will play around you.  I believe they will also have you on the news section."

"Ok, just a minute, let me talk with Carol.  Caarroooool!..."

Noam returned to the phone.

“Uh, Bev, Can it be taped somewhere closer? And if not, would I have to be there at a specific time?” he asked, and I realized I had my work cut out for me.

“It would take place at the Saturday Night Live studios in New York”, I replied.  “In New York City. And, um, no, it's actually a live show.”

Saturday – night – live, I’m thinking to myself, wondering if he actually was reading a book. Wasn’t everyone familiar with Saturday Night Live?  Didn’t everyone know how the show began, every single Saturday night, after a brief initial skit: “Live, from New York, It’s Saturday Night!” ??

“When would they want me to be there?” he asked.

“Uhm, next Saturday," I said, trying to cover all bases, as I thought he might have meant 'what time'. "You would have to get to them around 9 pm, and you would be finished at 12:30 am. Let me look at the calendar and give you the exact…”

But he was already yelling back down the stairs to Carol, who was most likely in the living room at her own computer, across the hall and down a half stairway from Noam’s office in their split-level home, or perhaps in the kitchen around the corner from that.

By now I was convinced that Noam had probably never watched Saturday Night Live, or if he did sit with the kids to watch, he was probably writing a lecture in his head at the same time. He had to be very careful when the kids wanted his attention, because if they saw him moving his hands, as he always did when writing a lecture in his head, they would ask indignantly, “Are you writing something, or listening to me?”

I heard Noam repeating, very loudly, to his wife, "It would be next weekend...I said, next weekend!
I could hear Carol’s voice in the background, though I couldn’t tell what she was saying, and Noam spoke one last time into the phone.

“Uh, Bev,” he said.  “Carol says no.”      
Maybe someday George Takei will host Saturday Night Live.  At least I’ll know who he is, especially since Jay, my pop culture expert, and Laura, a long-time Trekkie, filled me in.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Irish Eyes: Our trip to Ireland with Noam Chomsky - Part I, Dublin

Part I - Dublin

Late March, 2013

Sitting at her Yamaha keyboard during my late afternoon visit, my mother, Charlotte, played the last notes of Danny Boy slowly, hitting the keys with surprising firmness.  Laying her delicate hands in her lap, she looked over her shoulder and asked me to wheel her into her bedroom. I helped her stand and move to the bed, and I sat on the edge next to her. “What would you like me to bring you from Cork, Ma?”

“A ring, she said, and pronouncing each word clearly and eyeballing me sideways so there would be no mistake, she added, “You know how I love my rings.”

“Do you want a Claddagh ring, or a stone?”

“I don’t know – I don’t really like Claddagh rings.  You can pick one out for me.  Get something that you think is nice.”

In less than two weeks, Laura and I would meet Noam Chomsky, my boss, in Dublin, Ireland, where we would help manage his events, making sure he had adequate rest, and that his hosts kept to our schedule.  I was looking forward to his Dublin talks, and curious about the “pub crawl” that Maria Baghramian, our host and Noam’s long-time friend and colleague, added to our itinerary when Noam told her I had never heard of a pub crawl. But I was personally excited about the Cork leg of our trip, since that’s where my mother’s grandmother, Ellen Walsh, whom we all called Meme, was born.  My mother shared stories of Meme and her family dancing, laughing, and talking about the days back home in Ireland. “Everyone was crying when they told my grandmother how much fun they’d had!” she would always say, shaking her head. I’m not sure what I would be looking for in Cork, but I thought just setting foot in my ancestral country would be a powerful experience.

I hated the thought of leaving my mother for five days. Her most recent chemo infusion knocked her out, and I envisioned the near future: holding her hand while coaxing more childhood stories from her about her summers on her grandmother’s farm, for safekeeping. I imagined that in her weakening state she might break through the hard crust of vulnerable discomfort she held close for the first eighty-three years of her life. At the same time, the idea of witnessing her slow death was unthinkable.

On the Friday after she asked me to bring her a ring from Cork, my mother learned from her pulmonologist that she would remain oxygen-tank dependent.  On Saturday night, after a week of fortuitous visits and phone calls from each member of our family, my mother left us, quickly and painlessly, with a blood clot to her heart.  Her friend Al was by her side.

My sister and brothers and I put together a slide show of her life, choosing “Danny Boy” as the background song at her wake. Five days after her funeral, still carrying the raw ache of losing her, Laura and I got on a plane to meet Noam in Ireland.

Early April

 Looking out above the plane’s wing, the bright half-moon calmed me, and for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t afraid of dying. For that moment, at least, I felt with surety as I stared at the moon hanging in the center of my window that my mother would be waiting for me, wherever we go after we die, when it was my turn.

The feeling I got when she left us, as with our friend Sylvia and my son’s father Danny a year before, was that she suddenly disappeared. For days after she died, I cried out, “Where are you?” It was disorienting to go from monitoring her nutrition, fluid intake, and well-being, to a stunning and empty silence. During the four years of her illness, I called her on my way home from MIT at the light where JFK Street intersects with Memorial Drive in front of Harvard University, just to hear her voice. Now I felt her loss more sharply every time I stopped at that light, but taking another route felt like running away. My mother had been brave enough to face her own death, and I had to let myself feel the pain of losing my most loyal cheerleader.

Every once in a while the moon listed toward the left side of my window, and I imagined our trajectory toward Dublin.

Noam had arrived the day before, on Easter Sunday, spending time with Maria and her husband. I figured he would be sleeping when we landed at the Dublin Airport, so we went to the home of my friend Sami, a journalist-musician-philosopher I knew through Noam, to rest and share a delicious spread of local wine, cheeses, and breads before he drove us to the B&B.

When we entered, we were greeted by the sight of Noam seated in the parlor, lifting a dainty porcelain cup from a silver tray.  We were definitely in Ireland.  He wore a thick gray sweater with a rolled neck, and I knew at once where he got it. He has been hooked on Irish knit sweaters since Maria supplied him with his first one, a simple blue cable knit, in early 2000. They’ve been his staple dress item ever since.

He spotted us, and I felt like a teenager who had broken curfew.  “Where were you?” he said. “Weren’t you due to land a few hours ago?” The three of us exchanged hugs, and he added, “I was getting worried.”  I felt guilty for our brief detour, and wished we had let him know of our delay, but I found his worry touching.

“Do you like the sweater Maria gave to me last night?” he said, standing and holding both of his arms out as if helping us to judge. I was happy for the change in subject.

“It’s great!” I said, picking a small crust of bread off of his chest. “Now you have another to rotate, and people might stop wondering why you wear that same two sweaters in all of your pictures.”  I repaired a few sweaters for him in the past, but a blue-green pullover he asked me to fix had a hole in it the size of a baby’s head, and it will remain in my basement until he stops asking about it.

“Listen, tonight’s talk will be boring for you – you’ve heard it all before,” he warned.  “Since you’ve already set the schedule, why don’t you relax here, or go out with Sami to a pub, and get a taste of Dublin?” I’m sure he did want us to have fun, but I knew another truth behind his suggestion. Noam knew I would keep an eagle eye on the timing of events, but he also trusted that Maria would watch his back.  The crux of the matter was this - he wanted to be able to stop and drop when he was too tired to stand.  This is what I always tried to keep him from doing, and this is what he always managed to do whether or not someone was monitoring him.  He had to live his life his own way.  I understood that.

I had read his lecture abstract, titled, “Can civilization survive really existing capitalism?” and I was familiar with some of the content. We were tired, and eating locally and relaxing at the B&B sounded enticing, so we acquiesced. Laura couldn’t hide her disappointment at skipping one of Noam’s talks, but she agreed to hang back when I assured her we wouldn’t miss anything else on this trip. Sami came to take us out and show us around.

The next morning Laura and I ate breakfast with Noam, and Laura mentioned that she had never been to the UK. “Around the 1950’s, Carol and I took a trip to Liverpool on a tilted ship. Liverpool had flooded, and the ship we were supposed to take had sunk a few days earlier.  You could tell as you walked around town which people had been on the tilted ship,” he said, still amused. “In fact, a lot of the world is already under water,” he added.  I looked down at my breakfast and wondered why I should care about my perfectly poached eggs since we’re all going to die anyway.

When I was little, I gave up sweets for Lent, and to lighten the mood, I told Noam and Laura this as I picked up a sugar-laden fruit confection. “Do you know what Lent is?” I asked Noam, although I was sure he knew – in fact, he often cites facts about the church that I have long since forgotten.

His reply was truly Noam-esque.  “Isn’t Lent when you have to return all of your over-due books to the library?”

Laura and I spent the morning hours with Sami, visiting the amazing Book of Kells exhibit on Trinity College’s Campus. We had attended Noam’s classroom Q&A on thought and the mind in Italy months before, and were looking forward to his master class at the Royal Academy, titled "Language Use and Design: conflicts and their significance." After the class, I arranged for Sami’s friend Gary Daly, a local solicitor and boxer, to say hello to Noam and have his program signed, which put Gary over the moon.  Once Noam was on his way back to the B&B to rest and prepare for the evening’s event, Gary suggested the four of us – Laura, Sami, Gary, and myself, have Irish stew at Gogarty’s pub, where we could hear some authentic Irish music and I could drink my first authentic Guinness.

The duet up front was finishing “The Foggy Dew” as we stepped over the threshold. Those few notes sent something primordial coursing through my body, the emotion of it touching me so deeply that my legs wobbled, and I literally burst into tears. I was surprised by my own reaction, feeling like I was watching myself from afar.

“You’ve come home, have ya?” the lead singer of the duet called out to me.  “Would you like to hear something?” he asked, as I shook my head and wordlessly rounded the corner, moving anywhere but toward the music. I heard Gary call out from behind me, “Could you play Danny Boy for her, in memory of her Mam?”

No, no.  I couldn’t handle Danny Boy. But they were already strumming, picking, and singing, and I disappeared into another realm as their deep voices pulled me to involuntary attention. “Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are caw-aw-ling…from glen to glen, and down the mountainside…”  By now Sami, Gary and Laura were ushering me to a table in the back of the pub, and all eyes were on me when the lead called out, “Will you come and sing with us?”  Was he kidding?  I could hardly stand, as all of the emotion of the past two weeks threatened to drop me in a heap onto the worn, dark wood floor.

“I’m sorry, I can’t…” I tried to yell above the tune.  I struggled to my feet and waved, holding Gary’s arm for support, then sat again, sinking into my own silent fog while Laura ordered my lunch.
After a few innocuously beautiful songs soothed the atmosphere, and buoyed by half of a perfect Guinness, I walked to the front of the pub to thank the two musicians. The lead singer/guitarist kissed and hugged me, and having seen my ongoing reaction, cautioned me: "Stay away from Danny Boy for a while."

We planned to go straight to the B&B for the afternoon, but it dawned on me that my son’s childhood friend, Lorcan, and his family lived in Dublin!  I texted him, and he insisted we come for a visit. Minutes later, Laura and I found ourselves in a cab on our way to Lorcan’s home just 20 minutes from the city, where we had tea with his lovely Irish wife, Sorcha, and I finally met his three children. After our sweetly serendipitous visit, we taxied back to the B&B to shower and rest before Noam’s Front Line talk at the Royal Dublin Society Concert Hall in Ballsbridge.

Maria planned to pick Noam up for the pre-talk reception with an invited group of friends and activists, and Sami would drive us to the event soon after so that we could grab something to eat at the reception as well. Noam, Laura and I sat together in the parlor, sipping tea while we awaited our rides.

“So how was the pub visit?” he asked us, his eyes beaming with curiosity.

“It was fabulous, but I burst into tears as soon as I heard the music.  I told him the story, admitting that I was a mess almost the whole time, especially when they played Danny Boy.”

“I can attest to that first hand,” Laura said.  “We pretty much carried her around for the first twenty minutes.”

Noam asked, “Did you cry when you went to Africa?”

“Yes, I did.”

“From the destitution?”

“No,” I said.  “From the beauty of it.”

My trip to Africa for an animal-viewing safari in the 80’s wouldn't be Noam’s trip to Africa - or India, or Laos, where he looked suffering in the face, as he has repeatedly done, across the globe.  I told him I probably couldn’t handle seeing the things he has seen. He was wearing a look of silent contemplation when Maria announced her arrival.

After the reception we all filed into reserved seating in the concert hall.  Noam’s talk drew an overflow crowd, and ended with a standing ovation.  His inaugural lecture for Front Line Defenders of Human Rights, “Solidarity and the Responsibility to Protect” opened my eyes more to the promised topic: existing support for human rights defenders and activists trying to be heard despite the agendas of others, including mainstream media. By the end of the Q&A my head was spinning, and we still had a pub crawl ahead of us. Noam was engrossed in a post-talk RTV interview that had gotten way out of hand – we promised the journalist ten minutes, but she didn’t budge after twenty-five, despite my hand gestures and verbal pleas. This type of behavior at our office is the bain of my existence. Finally, Noam made eye contact with me and ended it, and ten of us, chatting away, strolled to three waiting cars. Maria and her husband took us to the first bar on our long-awaited virgin pub crawl.

Sometimes alcohol makes my heart race, so I decided to hold off on drinking as we all settled into a big circle.  The women who ran the Front Line program, Mary and Katrina, joined us.  When Mary saw me without a drink, she said, “Christ, Beverly, can’t you have one drink for your mother’s sake?”  I ordered a half pint of Guinness in Charlotte’s honor, partly because Mary’s words eerily echoed my own mother’s – the only mother I knew who tried to encourage her adult children to drink. “For Christ’s sake, Beverly, can’t you have one drink?” she would say, as I am basically a teetotaler.

Sitting there, I wondered if my mother picked up that phrase from her Irish grandmother, Meme, and another of my mother’s stories popped into my head.  She and her best friend traveled with Meme by boat to Provincetown in the mid 1930’s.  I have an old photo-booth picture of the three of them, taken on that trip. Meme must have been in her late forties, but she looks twenty-five years older by present-day standards.

“On the boat, my grandmother ordered a beer at the bar, and I was shocked!” my mother had told me.  “I had never seen her drinking a beer!” My mother didn't often see me with a drink in my hand, though I did share a glass of wine with her on occasion, mostly during one of our scrabble games with Laura and Al, and I was grateful for those memories.

The bar conversation was casual – is the Guinness made locally, is the Irish whiskey better in Ireland than at home, etc.  A few recalled the Front Line lecture and Q&A. Noam was addressed specifically two or three times by folks more than a seat or two away, having noticed he was having trouble hearing, despite hearing aids, above the buzz of bar chatter and the clinking of glasses. They also seemed a little shy sitting in a bar with Noam Chomsky - for sure an usual scenario. When Gary showed up, I introduced him again to Noam.

“It’s a good thing you agreed to have your picture taken with Gary after your master class” I yelled into his right ear, leaning over Laura,“because he is not only a solicitor, but a boxer!” Noam took a deep sip from his whiskey glass, feigning fear.

When Mary, Katrina, and Sami offered to take us across the street to another bar, we had to say yes, although it was likely that I wouldn’t drink much more than the half of a half pint I had just drunk.

“I'm going back to rest up, but you have to go,” Noam said to Laura and me.  “Otherwise you won’t be able to say you’ve been on a pub crawl!”

Maria and her husband took Noam to his hotel, and Laura and I walked across the street to the second bar with our gang of three, calling it a night after an hour, since we had to leave for Cork on the late morning train.