Sunday, June 19, 2016

Rage, Bad Religion, and LSD

My son Jay tries to keep Laura and me high on the “knowledge of cool music” scale. Since the night the floor manager sneaked my friend and me into the last half of a Beastie Boys concert I had driven Jay and a friend to when he was fourteen, music has been one of the ways we’ve bonded. Jay updates us on the best, newest, and sometimes older and much-loved musicians and their songs.  Otherwise, I may be stuck forever in the 60’s, with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, and James Taylor.  There are worse things.

So when he handed us an envelope on Christmas morning, 2015, we had an idea that it might contain two tickets to see a band. For the two previous Christmases, he had given us tickets to attend a standing room only performance of - I have to admit – a fabulous young band called Lake Street Dive – Laura and I call them LSD for short.  We opened the envelope, and voila.  LSD, again.  “Listen, go in and stand right in front of the sound guy.  The sound is best in that spot, and you can lean against the railing.  Plant yourself there, and don’t move,” he said with his usual in-the-know enthusiasm.  The following March we headed for the show, planning to do what we were told. We navigated the Boston traffic and parked where he instructed us, and walked to the House of Blues where we queued up in a long line with a bunch of twenty-, thirty-, and even some forty-somethings. When we reached the venue, I was asked by a middle-aged security guard to open my purse.  I unzipped the center pocket, exposing a small metal pill case. 

“I assume you have some hard core pills in there,” he joked. 

“Yes, they’re for my blood pressure. Would you like to buy a couple?” I said. He sort of chuckled (or was it a gasp?) and waved me through. Had he asked me for an ID, I would have opened my shirt collar to expose my aging neck. The things I find I can get away with – or just think about getting away with - now that I’ve had my 60th birthday.

Let me back up and take a slight, but related tangent.

I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized that being Noam Chomsky’s gatekeeper could at times feel magical. Recognition of my “people will offer me free things” superpower was concurrent with my sudden awareness of the political savvy of a good number of well-known punk and hard rock musicians who were contacting our office.  I say well-known because I had become familiar with their names through Jay. I remember being impressed by a letter from Noam to Jello Biafra when it landed on my desk in 1995, just over a year after I started working for Noam, thanking him for a packet of tapes he had sent to our office.

Many thanks for the tapes, which I’ll be listening to…though to be honest, I have to say that finding a moment to listen to tapes is a luxury I rarely have, Noam wrote.  (In other words, ‘There's not always room for someone named Jello’.) It would have further confused him to learn that Jello Biafra was founding member of a political punk band called “The Dead Kennedys.”  Never mind.

Once I recognized this superpower, I learned to keep my ears and mind open.  Jay moved to Colorado after college, in May of 1996, and soon after, I intercepted an email from Greg Graffin, co-founder, lead singer and songwriter for the band Bad Religion. In a subsequent phone conversation, I learned it was Greg’s dream to meet Noam, and after a few minutes of investigative correspondence (meaning I stayed on the phone with Greg as long as possible in order to impress my son with details), I mentioned the fact that my son lived in the Denver area. Greg said he would be sure to send him two tickets to the band’s upcoming concert at the Paramount Theater, and back stage passes. I pinched myself to be sure I was awake. I also learned from Greg that Noam’s political commentary had been recorded as a single by Bad Religion in 1991. 

When I talked with Noam later that day, he accepted Greg’s request to have a future “dialogue” (as he called it) when Greg was able to take a break from his doctoral studies. “And I think we have copies of that record around here somewhere,” Noam said.” I got him settled into his next interview and went off to the nearby locked space that we referred to as “Noam’s library” -- a huge, treasure-trove of a room in the old Building 20, filled with a collection of Noam’s favorite books -- many of them now valuable collectors items -- his bibliography, periodicals, reprints, and drafts of political and linguistics book chapters, which spilled from shelves or peeked out from cardboard boxes on the floor.  Walls of file cabinets were filled with correspondence, Noam’s articles and interviews, and other people’s articles, so I started looking in the boxes on the floor, returning briefly once or twice that week, and then the next, when I finally reached into one dusty box and all but danced a jig when I found a half dozen copies of the 7” vinyl record titled, “New World Order: War #1.” Find it here
As Noam signed a few of them for me later that week, he asked, “What are these?” His focus had obviously shifted since our conversation a few weeks before, and I was coming to know the glazed-over look that often followed anything longer than a brief explanation, so I kept it short, and moved on.

Guitarist Tom Morello, former Rage Against the Machine band member, is a surprising cross-over between my son and me.  Tom came into focus for me in 1996 as well, when he emailed me to ask whether I thought Noam would agree to an interview to be aired as a National Radio Broadcast.  (Tom was later prominent on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration cd, which was sent to me by one of Seeger's assistants.  I loved Seeger, but Jay had no interest in his music.)  Of course I pushed the interview, knowing how politically active Tom was, and ahem, also knowing my son would be impressed. And I was determined to get Noam and his politics to be a part of more household conversations.

A few years later, in 2000, I wrote to another Rage Against the Machine member, Zack de la Rocha, the band's former front man, singer, and songwriter, “Professor Chomsky has agreed to an interview with you… and I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to ask you a favor. My son has been following Rage for a long time, and he would love to meet you when you’re here.” Knowing myself, it’s possible that I jokingly told him he could interview Noam only if he agreed to talk with Jay, though I wouldn’t swear to it in a court of law.

It thrilled me when Zack, who was just a few years older than Jay, readily agreed. One more notch on my “Cool mother” belt, on the shoulders of Noam Chomsky. Mea culpa. I was a repeat offender, but ask any mother how far she would go to add a notch to that belt, and you will find forgiveness.

Graphic designer Brad K. approached me in 2003 to ask me to convince Noam to have his likeness printed on the underside of a promotional skateboard deck for a series he was doing for the band Pearl Jam called “American Heroes.” I convinced Noam that his oldest grandson would be impressed, noting of course that my son thought Pearl Jam was an intelligent and increasingly political band.  In fact, Noam had recently written an article for Pearl Jam’s “The Manual For Free Living” newsletter. When I told Brad that Noam was fine with this, he arranged to send me a publicity package including the finished decks for Jay, me, and Noam’s grandson.  Yes, please.

For more than twenty years Jay and I have had the conversation about how to get Noam to realize that popular bands provide an opportunity for him to get his message out in large numbers to younger people.  As I write this, I realize he always has “gotten” it, especially as I stand back and see how many bands he agreed to interview with and write for, even before my enthusiasm helped sway his decisions in the mid 90’s, and for years after that.

Back to the present.

As the venue filled in anticipation of LSD’s performance, the space in front of us grew more crowded with young, tall people threatening our view.  For almost four hours, from the time the doors opened until LSD was winding down, we did as my son advised, leaving our post only once each to use the bathroom. It was a truly great show, but the railing was too flimsy to lean against, and we felt the burn walking back to the car after standing for so long in one spot. Next year I’m going to drop some hints to Jay about surprising us with tickets to an old-fart performance, like Joan Baez or James Taylor.  Actually, I really don’t care who they are, as long as the venue has seats.  Unless I develop another superpower – the ability to turn the clock back a few decades.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Two fun links

Here are two recent links that I found interesting.

Noam talks about his 8th grade teacher, and how she affected his way of looking at life and learning. Interview with Bob Greenberg, March, 2016.

(Mine was Mrs. Czarnowski, writing teacher jr year at Waltham High.  By the time I thought to send her a note, she had passed away.  Is there a teacher somewhere you should write to?)  I dedicate this one to Mrs. Czarnowski, and also to Charles W. Gimby (aka Dad29), who has received lots of letters and calls from old students through the years.

Chomsky on his most-remembered teacher.

And in case you didn't know it already (Thank you, Foy Vance...):

(I just have to say - I still like RAGE and Bad Religion - coming up soon in my next blog post.)

Chomsky is a Soft Revolution...!

I'll be returning with a new post in April!


Wednesday, February 24, 2016


I was startled to hear Noam’s voice over my right shoulder.

“Hey! Look at that!” he said, his eyes intent on my keyboard.

His tone and excitement alarmed me, and I pulled my fingers from the home row keys as if a hairy twenty-six-legged creature with probing antennae was crawling toward my wrist.

“What?” I yelled out, looking down at my hands. “My nail polish? I know, I never wear nail polish,” I said, curling my fingers inward to hide the worn spots on my nails. I heard my mother’s voice telling me, “You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to spruce yourself up once in a while.” I have to admit that I feel better when I wear a new sweater, or spend extra time on my hair, and I always secretly thank her for her well-intended ‘encouragement.’ Having said that, the one and only time I wore a skirt and heels to the office, Noam, who dresses in jeans and sneakers every day, asked with concern, “Are you going on a job interview?”

When I looked up again I saw that Noam was shaking his head. “No, all of your keys are labeled!” he said, pointing his index finger at my keyboard.

“Uhmm, what… what are you saying?” I asked.

“The letters on my keys have all rubbed off!” he said, cocking his head and laughing. 

My mind’s eye lit up with images of Noam’s hunched body, hands hammering away on thesis drafts, letters to the editor, articles, statements of solidarity, petitions, professional correspondence, recommendation letters, arguments, lectures, and email, for decades, on countless keyboards. First manual and electric typewriters, then word processors and progressively streamlined and ergonomically correct wireless keyboards, all the way to the present-time smaller keys of his compact laptop. I imagined tiny white specs of metal, paint and plastic embedding themselves beneath his fingernails, or flying off and landing in his eyebrows and the waves of his graying hair until only hints of letters, like the small upper crescent of the O, and the right most tip of the T, remained. I saw him him striking the S with spectacular speed while writing his earliest drafts of Syntactic Structures. I envisioned each subsequent keyboard wailing and heaving as the refractory R succumbed to his repetitive rage against the machine, leaving this last keyboard black and bleak.

But then again, the letters may have disappeared an entire word at a time: morphophonemics, language, terrorism, thought, mind, media…there are endless possibilities. Or they vanished in long sentences: yawning colorless green ideas tumbling half-awake to his office floor and clinging statically to his slippers, trailing behind him as he navigated his overflowing office. In still another scenario, I could imagine keyboard neighbors “o” and “i” holding hands and jumping ship together, wearing only a diphthong. Or is it possible that his most-quoted phrases, in a show of solidarity, leapt to guide him steadily between rising stacks of journals, photos, old and priceless carbon copies and annotated manuscripts?  Did they level his locomotion as he shuffled through that perpetually narrowing pathway between desk and printer until the floor’s polished sheen gave way to bare, creaky wood?

Noam rolled a chair next to mine to review the week’s schedule, but I was too distracted by the word “censored” floating from behind his square eyeglass lenses up to his creased brow to notice the strange tone of his voice. Then he hiccupped a partly-formed paragraph that jettisoned under my desk, landing on Roxy’s back where she slept, snoring.  No harm done. I reached down and managed to pinch an entire sentence between my index finger and thumb. It struggled erratically, biting at my nails, and finally relaxed and stretched into its gravitational pull. I apologized to Noam for reading his mind, and read it aloud:

The general population doesn’t know what’s happening, and it doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know.

I inhaled deeply, shook myself free from my reverie and said, “I’ll get you a new keyboard tomorrow.”

Noam is losing his letters.  I am losing my mind. And the nail polish.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Observer

Sorry for being a no-show for a few months!  I was busy writing an article for the Observer section of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Though my blog address was linked to the article, how would my blog readers who were not familiar with The Chronicle know I had written the piece? So here’s the link, below, to “What It’s Like to Be Noam Chomsky’s Assistant.”  Not my title choice…and it's called "Chomsky and Me" in the print version.

I will be back soon with more blog posts – I promise!  It took me a while to recover from this one…


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Time Out

Traveling up to my office from the basement parking garage on a rainy early October morning, the elevator stopped on the first floor, and a young man got in.  He looked slightly familiar, but I couldn’t place him. More noteworthy, he was soaking wet and barefoot, and held his rather stylish sneakers in one hand.  He hit the number nine on the elevator control panel, one floor up from my eighth floor office, and I figured he must be one of our students at Linguistics & Philosophy.

I looked over at him and asked, straight faced, “Did you swim here?”

“No, actually, I ran all the way here from my apartment,” he said, an equally serious expression on his face.

“You don’t have an umbrella?” I asked.

“You can’t run with an umbrella,” he said.

Despite his standing in the Stata Center elevator in his bare feet, his manner was sober during our repartee, so the ironic humor of his statement took me by surprise. I studied him briefly, not quite knowing what to make of him. “I like your spirit,” I said.

He was a good looking guy.  In fact, I think our department has a larger number of classically good looking students than most, in my opinion.  I’m not sure why that is.

“I’m definitely going to have to write about you on my blog,” I warned him.

“Then I will have to read your blog,” he said.

“It might take me a couple of months to post this, since I write stories and not just daily stuff.”

“A couple of months?” he asked, sounding appalled.

Once again I heard the voice of my bff Deb, my muse and sometimes editor telling me that I should post more often, at least once a week, even if it’s just a sentence or a paragraph.  I suppose she was right.

“I’ll try to get to it sooner,” I promised him.

The elevator door opened, and I got out, turning around to ask him his name.

“Brad.  Skow,” he said.  I had certainly heard of Brad.  He was a philosophy professor in our department.

I should venture out of my office more often.  But I’m going to give myself a break here, because, to be fair, I had never seen Brad Skow soaking wet.

Back at my office, I looked him up on the department’s web site, and learned that Brad is a philosophy professor who studies Time – he questions whether time actually passes.  When I read this, I couldn’t help thinking, “If time doesn’t really pass, then what’s the big deal about waiting two months for me to post a story on my blog?”

I have spent many mind-twisting hours listening to Noam’s discussions with faculty and students as they tried to answer the questions, “What is thought” and “What is the mind” (“Don’t Mind Me”), and now I also have to be freaked out about time passing? In fact, when Laura and I watched the recent lunar eclipse with our friends Linda and Gary from the comfort of our heated outdoor swim spa, I have to admit to dipping my head under the water a few times during their discussion about the awesomely immense and mind-boggling infinity of the universe.

My second thought about Brad was, “We need more professors like him, to show students that life doesn’t have to be all about academics and seriousness and studies, but that it can also be about fun.”

But then I thought, "Wait a minute, I have seen strange and fun and out of the ordinary things at MIT, at the hands of both students and professors since my brother Paul began his undergrad studies in 1974, so why am I having this reaction?  Why am I so relieved and pleased to see one of our professors wet and barefoot in an elevator?"

To be continued...

Monday, June 8, 2015

Full Circle

It had been an exhausting few days, but there was nothing more we could do for Roxy at the moment, so I forced myself to get back into my car, leaving Laura at home to rest. 

Our friend Gail Rundlett, who performed at our wedding the previous August, was hosting a concert in honor of activist-singer-songwriter Pete Seeger, along with folks from Arlington’s United for Justice with Peace (UJP). Almost half a dozen years earlier, Thea Paneth and other UJP members generously took turns delivering cooked meals to the Chomsky home when Carol was ill.  Noam was beyond grateful, but those visits ended when Carol’s eating became more sporadic, and the family gathered and prepared to quiet the house for Carol’s leaving.

Just a couple of months before her death, when Carol was more engaged and alert, Pete Seeger’s assistant had contacted our office.

“Pete is a big fan of Noam’s, and he would be honored to have a conversation with him,” she said. It always tickles me when well-known people put a meeting with Noam on their wish list – Peter Coyote, Wallace Shawn, and Danny Glover; members of The Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, and Rage Against the Machine; and leaders such as Haiti’s Laurent Lamothe, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Fidel Castro. Some plan for years to meet with him for even fifteen minutes, and yet my dog, Roxy, has been able to wander in and out of his office since I started bringing her to work eleven years ago. To add to the irony, Roxy isn’t the least bit impressed by Noam’s accomplishments – she is interested only in finding scraps of food he might have thrown away or dropped near his desk. 

I arranged for Pete to call our office before ringing Noam’s house, so I could first check that Carol was having a good enough day to talk, and of course my secret agenda in setting it up this way was to be able to say hello to Pete myself.  (Mea culpa.) Once I gave the green light, Pete would call Noam’s home to chat for a few minutes, and then he would sing a couple of songs for Carol.

When Pete called on the arranged day, I told him I was a big fan, and I asked him what it was like to be blacklisted from singing for more than a decade.  He replied that he was at least able to sing on some smaller stages, and for friends. We talked for a minute or two, then, quite unexpectedly, he sang “Circles” to me, a song he was planning to sing to Carol. Pete Seeger was on the other end of the phone, singing to me, just to me.  It took me a while later in the day to figure out what droplets of water had smudged my to-do list.

                All my life’s a circle
                Still I wonder why
                Seasons spinning round again
                Years keep rolling by

                Seems like I’ve been here before
                I can’t remember when
                I got this funny feeling
                We’ll all be together again

I know we can’t turn back time, but what I would give to revisit that moment: Pete Seeger singing to me, and a younger, healthier Roxy snoozing comfortably on her cozy red and sheepskin bed under my desk.

I welcomed the idea of finding temporary peace in Pete Seeger’s songs at the concert, with our sweet pup in the kind hands of professionals, where a high fever, and a nefarious case of pancreatitis affecting her gall bladder and liver required hospitalization.  She hadn’t eaten much in almost a week, and we were staring down the possibility of ending her life.  Since she was otherwise very healthy, and there was a 50% chance she would make it through in a pain-free sleep, we agreed to treatment, though surgery of any kind was out of the question. If her body didn’t make a decision for us, we would seriously revisit her situation after two days.

Once inside the church, the music lulled me into the strange in-between state where one can experience a momentary moving away from heart-felt pain – a mother’s dying, the loss of a friend, the illness of a pet.  I enjoyed this much-needed emotional respite. 

During the break I had a chance to tell Thea how much Noam (and I) had appreciated the kindness of the UJP folks during Carol's illness, and I also thanked her for her unwavering efforts.  “I will never back down from my stand for peace. Not one inch,” she told me.

Gail’s was the last set, and her rendition of “Pack up your Sorrows” grabbed me by the throat and threatened to take my breath from me. Somehow, though, it also allowed me to begin to accept the fact that Roxy might die. I was feeling all of Elizabeth Kubler Ross's stages of grief at once - couldn't I have Roxy for one more year? Could I accept her end as I thought about her cocker spaniel eyes watching us leave, her body panting in discomfort in her cage? What was keeping me from jumping out of my seat and driving to the hospital to take her home?  I was beginning to find acceptance, but I was also angry.  This was supposed to have been a special week spent hiking and playing and enjoying time off for our birthdays – Laura’s, mine, and Roxy’s. 

I settled again and told myself that what was best for her right now was our staying away, to give her a chance to rest and heal. I know animals are different than humans – they live in the moment – food, squirrel, stick, ball - and probably don’t consider death at all. They certainly don’t worry about it.  Roxy would never choose to be hospitalized and on intravenous drips. Laura and I chose that for her. 

Gail’s words mirrored my thoughts:

Well, if somehow you could pack up your sorrows,
And give them all to me.
You would lose them, I know how to use them,
Give them all to me.

If I could have taken on her pain, I would have. This is more or less how Laura and I live our lives, maybe to a fault, and certainly how people like Pete Seeger, Noam Chomsky, Thea Paneth and the UJP group, and so many other revolutionaries choose to live theirs.

As I write this one month later, I’m happy to say that after barely two days in the hospital, Roxy decided to wake up, stand up, and put up a fight with the technician as she tried to take her blood pressure.  We packed her up and took her home, where we have just about nursed her back to her old, cheerful, energetic self. The day after we took her home from the hospital, she turned thirteen.

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 aromatic 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.

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