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...

I wrote this today in a very small and new writing group.

**
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.

So now you're confused about whether you should write about this or that, and you try again, and 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, and caught off guard, it blinks and attempts 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, though 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.

So...I'm still here, working on my book.


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





Monday, February 5, 2018

As I spend my first day alone, without her...

I wrote this one week ago, exactly.  It took me a week to be able to look at it again, and since Roxy was so much a part of my life at MIT, with Noam, Morris, and Glenn, I thought it appropriate to post it here. Good bye, my friend.
**

Laura takes Roxy out early every morning for a walk, and when they return, before her breakfast, Roxy runs to the bedroom to make sure I’m still there, to tell me what a good girl she is to have done all of her usual morning stuff outside. ‘Where have you been?’ she wants to know, though it’s only been a half hour since she left my side.

But this morning, for the first time since we adopted her as a puppy, the quiet cuts and confuses me. For brief seconds throughout the day, I search for her – she will want to finish the egg bits on my plate.  She will want to sit on the couch next to me, and I will lift her there - she hasn't been able to jump up on her own for almost two years - and we will both settle. I will write, and she will lay there dozing, one eye open, to be sure I’ll take her with me if I grab my keys for a ride in the car. Her soft and familiar breathing, my typing, the cat sleeping on the red chair, will remind us both that all is well in our world.

But this morning, as I face my first day without her, without my best friend Roxy, my world feels empty.

Love is love, a friend writes to me.  No matter if they have two legs or four.  Most of my friends and family understand our heartbreak, but even they will expect me to move on before I’m ready. I’m careful when I talk to a few who aren’t animal lovers. How can they understand the depth of our grief? I think it’s the lost routine that cuts me so deeply, as it does Laura, making our loss more unbearable.  I miss her paw on my arm, her head resting on my shoulder, her smile at the beach as she was lost in the seaweed clumps she so resembled, or pouncing on snowballs in the snow. Her afternoon walk, the offer of the last good crust of my toast.

We had brought her back to a semblance of life over ten days with subcutaneous fluids, a small pill for nausea, and steak tips and chicken. We gave her, a notorious cat food thief, tiny cans of cat food when she turned her nose up at the fresh meat. For two long weeks, she vacillated between greeting us with a romp, and falling over when she stood.  Our good friend Mary, a mid-wife, came with roast beef, which Roxy gobbled up after not eating for a while, and then performed Reiki on her. How lucky were we? But finally, we were out of options, and Roxy was out of enthusiasm. We lifted her up from her upscale memory foam bed on the floor to our bed those last few early mornings, and we stroked and petted her and told her we loved her, and recalled our favorite adventures with her.  We whispered that it was ok to go. We were cowards, not wanting to make that call, but she didn’t seem to be in pain.  When Roxy was in pain, she panted.  These days she was serene, happy to be with us, but slowly, slowly, leaving. Sleeping more. Forgetting sometimes how to drink, refusing her favorite foods. We waited for the certainty of helping her go, for the moment when we wouldn’t have a trace of doubt.

After she lived for a year with someone else, we took home this matted up year-old puppy at the end of a rope, no collar or leash, a plaintive look in her eyes that would have you buying a dinette set from her, were she human, even if you didn’t need one. We had her groomed and de-ticked, and our beautiful and relieved little chocolate Cocker Spaniel with a newly-exposed sweet white spot on her soft belly spent fourteen and a half years with us.  For more than thirteen of those years she joined me at work at MIT.  She had treats from a glass jar, a water bowl near the water cooler, and a bed under my large desk. Roxy met photographers, professors, researchers, activists, journalists, circus clowns, writers, and artists.  She received numerous gifts from visitors. My boss, linguist Noam Chomsky, dubbed her ‘the cat.’ She brought comfort to countless students who missed their dogs back home.  More than a few times during the winter months, she startled someone when she popped out of the elevator or walked around a corner, in need of a grooming and looking more like a small brown bear than a dog.  She greeted people on the elevators, in the halls of MIT, outside Stata, the Student Center, and Kresge.  “Can I pet your dog?” Yes, please. “Is she a student here?,” some would joke, and I would say, “Of course not. She’s a professor.”

I insisted Roxy’s hair had grown curlier over her years at MIT.  I figured she must have licked someone’s overflowing science experiment off the floor, perhaps a bit of sheep cloning DNA.  She was not a floor snob – she would lick anything. But at home, if the dog treat in her mouth did not match the smell of chicken in the oven, she might spit it out.  She couldn’t be fooled.

What a life she had – for eight years we owned a cottage in Searsport, Maine, where she kayaked, swam (but only when necessary to stay near us), and waded with us through tidal pools in the Penobscot Bay looking for pieces of sea glass and pottery.  On the beach was a rock, about four feet by 18" which looked like our Roxy, laying on her side covered in a blanket with her face and front paws sticking out. We called it the The Roxy Rock, and we visited it each time we walked down to the beach. She loved going to our cottage, where our attention was on her, on relaxing and visiting with new friends.  She even marched with us in a parade with the SAFE animal foundation we supported.

On a rainy Sunday we paid a stranger to come to our home to fill our Roxy’s failing body with a sort of Valium mixture, then an anesthetic, and then the needle to her vein that would take her life.  Would I ever stop wondering whether the time was right? Laura tells me once again that it was her time. She had untreatable anemia.  She had liver and kidney problems. She was failing.

After the deed was done, we wrapped her in a small red blanket and carried her to the back of the Vet’s car. I kissed her gray muzzle and her two furry paws. When I stood back, I saw through my blurry eyes exactly what I had always envisioned when I looked at The Roxy Rock back in Maine. I had never wanted to admit it or even think about it, but I saw that rock as what I would have chosen as her grave marker. Some day we will visit The Roxy Rock again, but not yet.

We walked slowly up the stairs to our house and collected all that we could so there would be no shocking reminders, no blankets, no bed, no small toy behind the sofa or under my car seat, no leash on the hook, but it didn’t matter.  I stepped around her bed, on the floor next to ours, early the next morning, despite its absence. I was thankfully exhausted enough to fall back to sleep, but my dreams were cruel reminders of this loss, and a lifetime of others.  In the morning I tore off a crust of my toast and then, almost simultaneously, remembered.

I've been through this before, and I know I will eventually read the haiku Laura wrote this morning, or the poems my yoga friends sent, or sing, without crying, the songs whose words we rearranged just for her, but not yet.  Today I will think about her and write about her and cry, and walk outside without a leash in my hand, eat dinner without handing her a green bean or calling her over to lick my plate. I could never be trained not to feed her from the table.  My heart is too big, to a fault. As was Roxy’s.  Who else would look forward to going to work almost every day for more than thirteen years, without a paycheck, without complaint, making people, especially me, happy just by being herself.  Maybe she looked forward to the car dancing on the way in, the long walks on campus, or the stop at the forbidden cemetery at dusk (careful to stay on the walkways) on the way home, where she chased tennis balls in good weather, and snow balls in winter.  Whatever it was, we were together.

I’m told she will always be a part of me. I hope so. Hundreds of letters, texts, cards, and Facebook notes have helped us to remember with gratefulness and joy the scope of her life, and the love she gave and received during her time with us. I’m going to try and heal a bit before we go looking for a new pal or two. I’ll be taking home the first one who spits out the treat I offer.

But not yet.

Below are photos of Roxy at a beach in Rhode Island just a week after we had her groomed for the first time, and another taken in Wellfleet last summer. Both photos are a part of a Tribute to Roxy that our dear 10-year old Annika put together for us.







Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Men and Their Pens

If someone were to come to my office and listen while I answer the phone, or sit next to me as I endlessly work my way through four hundred emails, they might wonder where the excitement is – where do I get my stories from.  It’s not like something happens and I say, omg I have to write about this.  Ok, sometimes it is like that, but this story is not one of those exceptions.  Seriously, where is the excitement in writing about pens?
**
Once again, Noam has asked me for another box of retractable pens - medium-point, blue ink.  I searched in all of the obvious places and found none, then remembered a few drawers of the oft-forgotten filing cabinet in the hallway were designated to the holding of old office equipment, like rolodex cards, legal-sized copy paper, rubber bands that had long since lost their flexibility. At the bottom of the first drawer I found, business-sized envelopes with MIT’s address in the corner, whose purpose diminished rapidly since email’s takeover. Moving the envelopes revealed loose two-packs of wet and dry screen cleaner. I opened a ‘wet’ one and it was dry. The dry one was crispy, and on its way to disintegration.  I threw them all out, because I always imagined that if I died unexpectedly, someone would open the drawers to those cabinets and say, “How could we have entrusted someone like this to be Noam’s assistant?  Why didn't Bev throw this stuff away? Why did she live at all?” Then I would be embarrassed, (except I would be dead), as if I had failed at my job or gone to work in my underwear, because people – whomever they are - would have assumed my overarching lack of organizational skills as evidenced in that one cabinet.
That is, however, where I found an old box of blue-inked medium-point pens, circa 1995, exactly like the ones Noam preferred. Sadly, like the screen cleaner, they were completely dried out, so after I finished ruminating about where, exactly, the ink had disappeared to, I ordered new pens and gave him a box of twelve, keeping another box in my drawer, because I knew Noam.  In one single visit to his home office a couple of years before, I had excavated dozens of pens, and a large crooked pencil carved from a tree branch, from a pen graveyard buried beneath an accumulation of papers and folders piled to the left of his desk. That was not the first time I had rescued a plethora of pens from his home office.  It was a recurring event, though that visit was to be, it turned out - and please forgive me for this - my penultimate visit.
Not long afterwards, Noam and I were sitting together looking at the next week’s schedule.  I held a group of papers he also wanted to talk about. The one at the top had the words “Check with me” written by him in the margin, and when I asked what he wanted me to check with him about, he asked, “Can you order me another box of pens?” I asked him what happened to the box I gave him. “I lost them. I put them somewhere and I don’t know where,” he said. By now he had moved out of his home and into a condo in Cambridge, so there was no way of knowing where his pens might be. I took the box from my desk and handed it to him, pulling out one pen for the day he came to me again, asking for a pen.
“Noam, last month some people from Norway sent you a beautiful Cross pen and pencil set.  Where is that?” I asked, thinking that Noam Chomsky should have a decent – even classy – pen set.  When he returned my gaze with a blank stare, I asked a slightly different question: “Do you remember the Cross pen set you received in the mail last month?" I suppressed the urge to mimic my mother’s remark whenever we opened a nice gift from her, “That wasn’t cheap, ya know!," lest we fail to appreciate its value.  Instead, I said, “My father always used a nice silver Cross pen for his crossword puzzles and to pay the bills.”  He nodded and told me he did not remember receiving a gift of a Cross pen set, and I scribbled a note to look for it in the crevices of his office desk and between book piles, planning also to take a peek in his briefcase. In the meantime, I ordered him another box of cheap retractable pens, knowing their shelf life was totally dependent upon their user.
I remember my father yelling from downstairs one Saturday afternoon in our brown-sided, green-shuttered 6-room Cape-style house. “Where is my Cross pen? Who borrowed my pen and didn’t put it back?” Put it back to where, I now wonder, since he didn’t have an office. He spent a lot of time in our den, which boasted a black and white TV on a rolling brown laminated cart with aluminum legs, a brown and white plaid sofa, a dark wood side table, and a lamp. My mother groomed the den's orange and yellow shag carpeting with a rake. There wasn’t room for a desk, so he may have kept his pen on the top of his tall mahogany bureau, along with his watch, cufflinks, cigarettes, lighter, matchbooks (the corners were used as dental floss after meals - and you could call the 800 number on the cover to earn $10,000 a year, which was a lot in the mid-sixties), a comb, a pile of change that overflowed from his bulging, jingling change pocket, and his reading glasses.
Then, the inevitable.  “Everyone come here and help me look for my pen!" he would bellow. We knew to run to him quickly - usually me, my younger brother Paul, and our little sister Denise were home. We kids reasoned to one another that my father sometimes yelled, using the big Catholic swears, because he had “a temper.” That’s just the way it was. I remember that my mother bought a couple of them for him at Christmas and on his birthday, which seemed an extravagance, as they didn't have a lot of money.  My handwriting was flawless, even elegant, when my father let me use that pen, a sleek, silver, fine-point classic model that opened with a ritzy little twist.  Its smooth and confident glide, and the sureness of sweep and flow of ink on paper was addictive. I wondered if Noam felt the same way about his cheap retractable pen as he scribbled his tiny, barely legible notes in margins, or crowded them on a single legal-sized sheet of unlined yellow paper as he prepared for a class lecture.
My father's Cross pen was so much a part of him that he asked me for a new one with extra refills for Christmas some years after I grew out of giving him my childhood usual: a bottle of Old Spice after shave, or monogrammed handkerchiefs, which my mother ironed before folding them into small squares and depositing them back into the top drawer of his bureau.  The bureau upon which he presumably kept his pen. It was probable that none of his search party had borrowed his pen, and in the end, the pen always turned up. I can’t prove it, but I’m willing to bet it was somewhere he had left it.

When Noam left that day, I noticed the multiple vertical stripes of ink just above his pen-holding shirt pocket, the result of forgetting to click his pen closed, and I asked him if he wanted me to order a pocket protector, but he declined.  He said he had one somewhere, and would look for it.  Good luck with that, I thought.