Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Falling leafs

I missed the October deadline to submit this to Boston Globe's 50 Words section.  I'll submit on November 1.

**

I sweep autumn leaves from stone steps during breaks between hours of writing and editing. My book, about my twenty-four year wild ride as Noam Chomsky's assistant at MIT, swells to three hundred thirty pages. At night, I dream of leafs of paper falling from the sky onto the stones.

**









Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Pleading Computer Insanity


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

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



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

Thursday, March 7, 2019

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

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

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

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


to be continued...

Friday, September 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, July 16, 2018

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

I'm still here!

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

Here are three examples.

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



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



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




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





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

Love, Bev

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Update on "An Offer I Could Have Refused" - On the occasion of Morris Halle's passing



Fall, 2015. Morris Halle called across the suite to me, “Bev, can you come and show me how to get my phone messages?” I walked down the short hallway to his office, where I found him looking at his phone as if it were a foreign object, and saw that his password was still taped to the top of his phone, above the rectangular digital window. 
“There it is Morris,” I said.  “Just press the buttons in sequence where I’ve taped the numbers one, two and three, and the phone will prompt you for your password.” Then I thought for a second, and stayed with him so we could do it together.
“Oh, yes, that should work,” he said, after we pressed the last button.
Morris had been telling me for months that he was forgetting things, but I refused to believe him, and told him he still knew more than most human beings.
**
 My childhood dream was to be a pink-tutu’ed ballerina.  As a seven-year-old girl in 1961 I wasn’t aware of many other career choices besides teaching, which I seriously considered until my teacher shocked me by marking my first X ever on a vocabulary test when I proposed that the word tongue contained two syllables.  So teaching was out.  But every Saturday I pulled tiny black tights and leotards over my rail-thin body for my morning ballet classes, where a dozen girls stretched at the dark wood barre and pirouetted across the tired oak studio floor. So it was settled in my little girl mind that when I grew up, I would dance the ballet.
And this is what I wrote in my requisite “What I want to be when I grow up” essay in Mrs. Burke’s second grade class at the Plympton School in Waltham, Massachusetts. One thing I know for sure is that I did not mention in that essay, not even in passing, that my dream was to work at MIT as right-hand person for left wing activist, scholar, linguist, dissident humanitarian liberal philosopher, author, and media and US foreign policy critic, Professor Noam Chomsky.  In fact, I had just learned my left from my right.  And though my vocabulary was excellent for my age, ton-gue be damned, these terms were far beyond the scope of my knowledge.
 My two-left-feet having dashed all hopes of becoming a ballerina, I held several positions at MIT, working my way up to a coveted staff position. But one day in early 1993, I looked around and wondered how I got where I was – fourteen years older and twenty pounds heavier, making more money but feeling less connected to my personal goals. I loved working with the students, but lately I was feeling a lot of stress and little joy in my job, so I began looking for a less challenging job that would allow me time and space to finish my degree in counseling psychology.  At least then, I thought, I could pursue a career that centered on my own agenda, rather than the agenda of an institution. 
I applied for a position at MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy that I thought I could handle while finishing my studies, but my colleague Jamie Young called to tell me that she had offered the job to someone else minutes before opening my application.  She had another position open as assistant to a professor named Noam Chomsky.  In the MIT hierarchy, this was one level down from the job I had applied for, so I presumed it would be an easier job. I had heard Chomsky’s name around MIT, but I knew little about his work, though I did learn that he was so tightly scheduled that the process of finding a new assistant was put in the hands of two other people.
 First I met with Jamie.  She had held the position as Chomsky’s assistant before accepting a promotion as the departmental Administrative Officer, or AO, and in fact was still handling most of his travel arrangements.  His last assistant, she later told me, had become too stressed trying to handle the demanding work load, and quit. “She tried too hard to be perfect,” Jamie told me.  After meeting with me, Jamie walked me through the entrance to the Chomsky-Halle suite for the first time, and I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.  The large posters of Palestine, East Timor, and Bertrand Russell, and political drawings beyond my range of understanding and world view at that time told me this was a much different milieu than that of the MIT I had become familiar with over the past fifteen years. That had been a world of classes, exams, grade sheets, and stressed-out students handing me their theses after pulling a string of all-nighters.  Even before meeting my potential boss, I wanted to click my heels together and go back to what I knew – overseeing the general requirements of graduate students, offering them ginger ale and a hug when they were sick or overwhelmed, reminding them that I had seen students in this state of anxiety many times, and they had all graduated in the end. I was a therapist to the core, for God’s sake!
Jamie introduced me to Professor Morris Halle, the person who would interview me next – telling me to call him Morris. He was my height, around 5’8”, and balding in a newly-hatched bird kind of way. Large square wire-rimmed glasses framed his roundish face, and he wore a light-weight gray vest over a striped blue and white dress shirt. When we shook hands, the playfulness in his smile surprised me.  Jamie left us.
            “So, Beverly…” I made a mental note to tell him I preferred to be called Bev, although the way he had said my name, Be-ver-ly, one clear syllable at a time, spending an extra moment hovering around the “r” and pronouncing my name with an accent I couldn’t place, made it seem like something I could live with for a while.  He continued, “I’ll give you a little background on this office.  It’s a very busy place.  You will not be here to develop a friendly relationship with Professor Chomsky.” His choice of words made it sound like my working there was a done deal, but I hadn’t yet said more than 'hello.' “Managing his office and coordinating his lecture and travel schedules is not a warm and fuzzy position.”  Morris laughed as he said this, and added, “Do you know what I’m getting at?”  I did not understand what he was getting at, but nodded my head to show that I was listening.  I knew only the basics of the scope and depth of Professor Chomsky’s work, as Google was not a thing yet.  Plus, I didn’t expect to stay more than a few years, just long enough to finish my part-time studies toward a psychology degree.
As the interview progressed, two things became clear. First, the job would probably be offered to me, and second, Morris was concerned about my empathic nature. He said in his clear and concise English, “Beverly, I want to be sure that your psychology background doesn’t make you too gentle in handling the more difficult personalities and situations you will encounter here,” he warned. 
With an unsettling flutter in the pit of my stomach, I pictured myself being spun around on a dusty old leather office chair by a pushy stranger insisting I make time for him on Professor Chomsky’s packed schedule. Although it seemed like an outrageous thought at the time, as I look back, I can recall a number of incidents in that office that would fall into a “did that really happen to me?” category, because things did happen.
 “Some of Professor Chomsky’s secretaries, for instance, had problems asserting themselves with journalists, who refused to leave his office at the end time,” he told me.  I nodded my head in reply, but I was thinking, “Did he just call me a secretary?” And what the hell goes on here, anyway?  What could I be stepping into?  My mind’s eye held a cartoon image of Chomsky’s last assistant running down the hallway screeching, arms waving madly, clasping her palms together and diving through the cracked glass pane of the wonky second floor window at the far end of the wood-floored hallway.
             I shook my head to clear the image, and reminded myself that I didn’t have to accept this position if it was offered to me.
 “When Jamie worked as Noam’s secretary, one professor who couldn’t get his way accused her of having ‘steely impersonality.’” Professor Halle emphasized each of the last two words with an upward stress, in his deepest voice, pointing his index finger upward in triumphant emphasis.  It seemed this was a good thing, though steely was about as far from my personality as one could get.  I could be assertive when I had to be, but I also liked to joke with people.  I liked to hug. “Do you see where I am going with this, Beverly?” he asked, spitting on me just a little bit in his enthusiasm. Professor Halle’s habit of laughing and talking at the same time was endearing.
I forced a smile despite my growing fears, and told Morris “I think I’m getting it,” though whatever I was getting, I wasn’t necessarily liking.  
His second use of the term “secretary” hit a nerve. I had held higher staff positions at MIT, and hired and fired employees as Acting AO. I had been around the MIT block.
Morris either hadn’t gotten the memo that this search was for an “administrative assistant,” or, more likely, at nearly seventy years old he was not going to change his vocabulary. Flashing inside my head in bright red lights were the words “fight or flight,” but for some reason, I stayed put.
           “Are you familiar with ‘Manufacturing Consent?’ he asked me, and since I didn’t know whether it was a book or a video, or if he just meant the term itself, I answered simply, “No, I’m not.”
            Morris looked pleased with my reply, as if by not knowing, I had passed his test.  He said he had one last thing to tell me. Over the years I would come to see that this way of looking at things was true to his wonderfully straight-shooting and lively personality.  “I would like you to pretend that you have an on-off switch,” he said. “The off position, your normal mode, is for planning Chomsky’s local lectures, office meetings and interviews, and his extended travel,” he explained. But the on position should be activated for those who want to take advantage of the good nature of our office, those who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  The ones who don’t respect our limits.”  Again he lifted his fist and laughed. “For those situations, I want to see you turn on your steely impersonality!”  This time I laughed along with him.  I was beginning to like Morris, and I figured if he thought this was funny, I could heed his warnings with a grain of salt.
           Apparently Jamie had told him about my past work experience, since he didn't ask me anything about myself.  When the interview ended I remained in Morris’s office while he chatted with Jamie, thinking that despite my questions and reservations about the inner workings of World Chomsky, and maybe to some extent because of them, I was prepared to accept the position, if they offered it to me. In a few minutes Morris returned, and instructed me to go and talk with Jamie again.
There were plenty of groupies interested in the job, she told me, but she and Morris preferred to hire someone who was not a Chomsky fanatic – someone who would not be distracted by his celebrity. They were convinced that would be me. I wasn’t sure, but at the very least, I was intrigued, so I accepted the position. After all, I would be moving on in a few years. Or so I thought...
**
Late 2016. More than twenty-three years after he and Jamie hired me, I went into Morris’s office to check on him, and found him gathering up a few things – two books, a bound paper – sliding them neatly into his ever-present worn red back pack.  Noam had driven him here less than two hours before, but he was ready to go home.  We hugged good-bye – something that had become the norm for us in our later years – and he headed out for his ten-minute walk to the “T” where he would make his way toward the building near Harvard Square that he called home since his wife Ros, who since passed away, became ill. I called to him as he walked out the door, as I did every time he left, that I would be here when he returned, guessing that reminding him of our long-held office routines brought him comfort. Standing there thinking about the distance the three of us had come together overwhelmed me with tenderness for both Morris and Noam.

Recalling memories of and quotes by Morris on the day of his passing, April 2, 2018

“The only thing I jump to are conclusions.”

“Beverly, WHY do you live all the way in Framingham? Kick out your tenant and move back into your house in Watertown.  I once dated a girl who lived so far away that it took a bus and two subways to get home.  This is why I only dated her once.” I moved back to Watertown.

Before he left for a trip to Paris with his wife Ros, he said, “I don’t particularly like to travel, but I do it because Ros likes to, and she’s my wife.”  Then laughing, “I mean, what choice do I have? She wants to travel, so I travel!”

The only time I heard him yell was when he found that Roxy had sneaked into his office and pulled his tuna sandwich out of his red backpack, which he had propped against the back of his fifty-year-old recliner chair. 

“I’ve had this rash on my face for weeks – my doctor couldn’t figure out what it was, and told me to ignore it.” I happened to have in my desk a tube of what I considered a magic potion –Vaseline Creamy lotion.  I handed it to Morris and told him it cured everything.  He looked skeptical, but three days later, he came to me, hands in pockets, and said “I don’t know how it happened, but the rash is now gone! How did you do it?”

 After leaving the office one day: “I came back to call Ros – my car is frozen and I can’t get the key into the lock.“ By coincidence, although my car lock had never frozen, the weekend before I happened to buy a tiny spray canister of lock deicer, which I had in my bag. I put on my coat and Morris and I walked to his car. He sprayed it into the keyhole, the ice melted away, and he thanked me and drove off.

I think the universe passed magic through me when it came to Morris and Noam, because I don’t know how I often had in my possession exactly what they needed, in my mind exactly what they needed to hear, but somehow I did. 

A few years later he witnessed a serious car accident on his way to work. He came into the office and announced, “I’m not driving any more,” and the next time he came in, he rode the T.  “I hung up my keys,” he said.  “That’s enough.” Just like that.

He was practical, to the end. He and Noam shared that way of looking at life – ‘Here is a difficult problem, here are the ways it can be solved, I choose this one and will go forward with it and get on with things.’ I know little about how they approached issues of linguistics, but I have to guess that practicality had to figure into the way they worked.

Chatting with Noam near my desk, Morris turned to me and said, “Every conversation we old guys have now is an organ recital.”

When I asked him how it felt to turn 90, he said, “I’m old. But I thought about death once, and it depressed me so much that I never thought about it again.”

“Look, I’m forgetting things,” he told me sometime around his 91st birthday. “I missed another doc appointment. I need you to start keeping a calendar for me. Can you help me with this?” And of course I did. For this, there was no magical cure, just support. 

Morris came into the office less and less. When he did come in, I sent an email to his friends and colleagues in the department to encourage them to come and visit if they had open time.  If he was alone for a stretch of time, I would sit with him and ask him to share some of his MIT memories.

 Morris taught me a lot of things, and he learned to accept and even appreciate my brand of management – one that did not incorporate ‘steely impersonality.’ He shared countless stories with me, and I accepted these gifts each time. When I told him I was retiring in August of 2017, he told me he and Noam would most likely close up shop when I “quit.”

On April 2 of 2018, after being absent from our office for the good part of a year, Morris hung up his keys and said, “that’s enough,” and with great practicality and little fanfare, he left us all behind to ponder his life, and the considerable influence he had on ours. 

Below, Morris at my home in August, 2014