Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Men and Their Pens

I'm sorry - I didn't mean to abandon my readers!  Retirement has been a big adjustment.  I left MIT after 38 years, and  Noam Chomsky's office after 24 years, just before he left MIT and moved to Arizona to teach and lecture.  A new start for him at 89 years old.  I take off my hat to him (if I wore hats, but those of you who read my blog might remember that I don't look good in hats).

I have been writing - my hope is to make my writings about many of my experiences - some traveling with Noam, but mostly sitting in the office outside Noam's and Morris's offices - into a book.

I thought it might be fun to post a part of something that I wrote this week, just to let you know what I'm up to.  In fact, I think I'll be posting a bit of my writing every couple of weeks.  Feel free to write me at with any comments. Your comments can help me shape my book!

Big hug,

If someone were to come to my office and listen while I answer the phone, or follow me on a short walk to our headquarters office for a pack of sticky notes, or sit next to me as I endlessly work my way through four hundred emails, they might wonder where the excitement is – where is all of the stuff I get my stories from.  It’s not like something happens and I say, omg I have to write about this.  Ok, sometimes it really is like that.  But only sometimes, and this story is not one of those exceptions.  Seriously, where is the excitement in writing about pens?
More than once in my life, I've asked myself, ‘What is it with men and their pens?’ Sometime during my last year with Noam, he asked me for another box of retractable pens.  I searched in all of the obvious places and found none, then remembered that we had a filing cabinet out in the hallway with a few drawers designated to the holding of old office equipment. In it I found mostly retired supplies we couldn’t quite let go of, forgot we had, or that had simply outlived their purpose, like rolodex cards, with the double notches at the bottom where the rolodex holds onto them, legal-sized copy paper, and business-sized envelopes with MIT’s address, whose purpose diminished rapidly since email’s instantaneous takeoff. Also in that cabinet were loose packs of wet and dry screen cleaner. I opened a ‘wet’ one and it was dry. The dry one was crispy, and on it's way to disintegration.  I threw them all out, which felt good, because I always imagined that if I died unexpectedly, someone would open the drawers to those cabinets and say, “How could Bev have held onto these?  Why didn’t she use them up or throw them away? How could we have entrusted someone like this to be Noam’s assistant?  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 dry, so 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 made out of a tree branch, from his 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 preparing to go over the next week’s schedule.  I was holding a sheet of paper with the words “Check with me” written by Noam on the top, 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 the people in 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?  They’re high quality pens,” I said, suppressing the urge to mimic my mother’s voice, proclaiming whenever we opened a nice gift from her, “That wasn’t cheap, ya know!," lest we neglect 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, planning also to take a peek in his briefcase. In the meantime, I ordered him another box of cheap retractable pens, medium point, blue ink, knowing their shelf life, and their very existence, was totally dependent upon their user.
I flashed back to 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 weekly, 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 down 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, and even swore the good old-fashioned Catholic swears, because he had “a temper.” That’s just the way it was. I remember thinking they were called “Cross” pens because our father became cross when he couldn’t find his. We didn’t have a lot of money, and I know his pens must have cost a good percentage of his pay, although I remember that my mother bought a couple of them for him at Christmas and on his birthday.  It was probable that none of his search party had borrowed his pen, although we had all experienced the appeal of writing with it. 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, every year, 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. In the end, the pen always turned up, and although I can’t prove it, 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.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Why it's hard to leave

It's been the best of times, and it's been the worst of times. I have abandoned my readers for close to nine months.  Many of you have asked me to get back to my writing, and I appreciate that.

When I began working for Professor Chomsky almost 24 years ago, I was 39 years old, and he was 65. Retirement seemed to be on his radar then, but I quickly realized that even if he stopped officially teaching his MIT class, he would always teach and lecture. He retired from MIT (meaning he wouldn't be teaching an ongoing class) about ten years ago, but as I predicted, to this day he continues to work as tirelessly as ever.

So it's ironic that I, at 63 years old - only two years younger than the white haired guy was when I started assisting him in 1994 - will walk out of the office for good later this summer. I am retiring.  Or in the words of Morris Halle when I told him this a few weeks ago, "You're quitting?" And Noam - and Morris - will still be there.

It's hard to leave, especially as I look back at the past week, which has been a microcosm of my life in our suite over all of these years.  Sylvain Bromberger, one of our 90-plus-yr-old professors, brought me a block of real Parisian butter he carried back from France in his suitcase.  I had a good talk with an ex-student, now a visiting professor. I grabbed a quick lunch with Andrea Moro, the amazing linguist and neuroscientist from Pavia who welcomed Laura and me to Italy to help with logistics when Noam had a speaking tour there. There was a trip to Google with another ex-student, my friend Ann Farmer, as the delightful, enthusiastic Hasan lead Noam in a Q&A, addressing the current political climate, Noam's early activism, and corporate responsibility.  It was a comfort to hear Morris Halle, the man who interviewed me for this position, now approaching his mid 90's, cackling in the background at a few of Noam's comments. And most recently, I had an unexpected interview with Christopher Lydon, asking me how I've viewed my boss and his work over the past almost two dozen years.

I've learned from a lot of you out there - activists of all types - that learning about Noam Chomsky as not a super-hero, but as a person, helps energize you to do your own work. Having said that, there are many instances that I recall when I would say that Noam is indeed a super hero.

I hope to develop a book based on my blog posts about my experiences and insights working as Professor Chomsky's gate keeper.  Thanks to all of you who have provided me with useful feedback and encouragement, even expressing the joy and personal nourishment you have gained as my readers.

Listen to this podcast, for the Open Source radio show, to hear Chris Lydon and Noam Chomsky in conversation as Lydon questions him on his views of current world affairs.  You will hear Lydon interview me about 3/4 of the way through about how I see Noam Chomsky as a person, after spending so much time at his side.

And I just found this - more of my personal interview with Lydon on what Lydon calls "The Soul of Noam Chomsky." I probably would not have approved that title, had they asked me...

More of my interview about Noam

I'll be back...

Friday, January 20, 2017

Forward March

I’m trying to remain calm.

Laura and I are marching in Boston tomorrow with my son’s partner Lisa and her young daughter, Annika. In fact, almost every woman I know will march tomorrow, as will millions of other women and men in the US and around the world.  What began as a march for women’s reproductive rights has become a march for human rights, and racial, economic, and reproductive justice. As one announcement said so well, “Together, we will send a message to our leaders and the world that the United States of America stands for values of human decency, equal rights and freedom from discrimination.”

Two days ago, when Noam stopped by our office, I told him about my fear of terrorist attacks on any number of the assemblies on Saturday.  He said that was unlikely, but “There will be provocateurs. I just hope they (those of us protesting) don’t fall for it. That’s what Trump wants.”

Provocateur:  An [undercover] agent who incites suspected persons to partake in or commit criminal acts. 

So be prepared, my fellow marchers.  Don’t fall for bait set by any provocateurs. Don’t let them incite you into some incriminating action.

Near noon today, as the reality that Trump is to be inaugurated (and in fact, as I prepare to post this, he is now our President), I decided to stave off a panic attack - I’m not prone to them, but recent political events have shaken me - by doing something mindless -- cleaning up and deleting some old personal emails.

I found a few from last November which I had somehow overlooked. Filmmaker Michel Gondry’s note, below, offered a welcome respite from my dark mood. Gondry's many visits over a few years while interviewing Noam for his animated film, “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy” gave us much pleasure. Gondry is all creativity, personality, and playfulness, with a small bit of self-deprecating humor. Through his film-making talent, he brought joy and fun to the sometimes heavy atmosphere of our office. Two years after the release of that film, following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, I wrote Michel to check on him. In the course of our conversation, I asked him to write about how it was for him to visit us through the years while creating the film. One of the emails I found from November was from Michel, describing his feelings of anticipation as he prepared to meet Noam for the first time. (I took the liberty of correcting a few minor typos.) He calls me by my full name - Beverly.  My mother would approve.

E-mail from Michel Gondry to me:

I started to write about my experience with noam.
This is just the beginning. It should be 3 times this length
let me know what you think

“April 30 2010 - I was walking towards a giant ball of creased tinfoil [MIT’s Stata Center], wondering how the structured brain (not structuralist) of the most intelligent man of the planet could function in this architectural mess. The foil was frank Gehry and the brain was noam chomsky. Michèle Oshima, director of Student & Artist-in-Residence in MiT, was holding my hand but it was my knees that were shaking. The tinfoil ball looks more friendly from the inside. We swiftly reached the 8th floor. Beverly welcomed us warmly.

Here I have to make a pause to give you the tour of the whole Chomsky operation. Expectations can be misleading. There is Noam, Beverly and Roxy, Beverly's dog. That's it. In addition, few times a day, an enigmatic old man comes out of an invisible office, speaks two words to Noam as if he was asking to go for a beer, then disappears again. (Gondry is referring here to our friend, Noam’s long-time colleague and suite mate, 93-year-old Prof. Morris Halle – my other boss.)

Years after I can make fun of the situation but at the time my knees had gone from shaking to wobbling. Beverly noticed them and nicely said "don't worry, he is very nice. He will be here in a few minutes." Then Noam came out of his office. He walked towards me. Maybe I was walking towards [him], I'm not sure anymore. He looked big and small at once. Not small when he was far and big when he was close but big and small at the same time. I don't know why, but that is the closest image i can find to illustrate my feeling at the time: it's as if the Rushmore mount was moving towards me. This sensation dissipated when we shaked hands.”

As MIT Professor Bob Berwick said to me today as he left my office following a discussion of the need for and benefits of humor as President Trump takes office, “Well, I suppose it’s better to die laughing.”

I wish us all safety, sanity, well-being, and positive forward movement on all vital issues this year. May this be the year that people go out into the streets, many for the first time, and let the powers-that-be know that we are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore. Once more, as has increasingly been the case during my 23 years with Prof. Chomsky, I have a mounting respect for him, and for other activists in a multitude of arenas who have spent much of their lives speaking out. May they find themselves with a lot more company and support from now on. And may we all somehow come together over these next four years.  It would be a welcome outcome of this election.

During Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign, Noam worried that, after the campaign, if Sanders happened not to win, the movement would fizzle out. “We need to continue trying to bring about the changes that we think are important. Most importantly, we need to remain organized after the election[s], and continue pushing for these ideas,” said Noam. Hear, hear.

Tomorrow, there will be no fizzling out.

Below is a tiny, representative sampling of announcements that have been posted re the women’s marches.

From Facebook:

BOSTON, MA — If a planned "Boston Women's March" on the Common sees even a fraction of its anticipated attendance, it stands to be the city's largest protest yet in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump.

The Boston rally is planned in parallel with a larger women's march already scheduled to hit the streets of Washington, D.C., the day following Trump's inauguration. Several thousand Bay Staters will be traveling to that national event, according to a Massachusetts-specific event page convening women and supporters who will be traveling to Washington, D.C., for the main national march.

Of those staying behind but still hoping to take a stand, some 36,000 have indicated on Facebook they are going to attend the Boston sister rally, while another 41,000 have marked "interested" as of Jan. 19.

Here's how one organizer describes the planned march in Boston:

Mission: On January 21, 2017, we will unite in Boston on Boston Common to march in solidarity with communities most affected by the hate, intolerance and acts of violence being perpetrated throughout the nation -- among many are communities of women, immigrants, people of color, and people who identify as LGBTQIA and people with disabilities. ALL ARE WELCOME. This is a march for all of us. 

Most human rights groups are sending out their own announcements, like this one from International Labor Rights Forum, and the one below from HRW.

At ILRF we are very excited about the Women’s March on Washington this weekend. Please join me in the streets tomorrow, whether you are in Washington or at one of the over 600 sister marches! 

Women's Rights are Human Rights

In just a few hours, Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States.
As women's basic freedoms are threatened in the US and around the world, we are joining hands with activists to send a loud and clear message to all those in power: women's rights are human rights.

Tomorrow, Human Rights Watch will join thousands of diverse voices from across the country at the Women's March on Washington. Join us as we march for our equality, our health, our inclusion, our families,our dignity, and our future.

This simple email from a colleague in Germany says a lot:

“We learn that Millions of Americans will not stay calm, and shall object to what is coming into the White House.”

You said it, Gerhard.

Let’s not let Saturday’s actions fizzle.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Real Shakeup

Last night I railed at my television set.  This morning I cried. Now I'm trying to gather myself and look at what's next.  Laura reminds me that there are checks and balances, and she will go to her office today and try to calm her clients, who have been worried and anxious for months over the campaign, the debates, and a possible Trump presidency, now a shocking and grim reality. My friend Deb reminds me that we can't control this and we can only look forward. My friend Cindy assures me that we do not live in a dictatorship. My son calms my fears of losing a good part of my 401K in a market crash. My thoughts fly all over the place, as I wonder how the voices of Independents will ever be heard without millions of dollars to back them. How can they rise up within this system?

I know a shakeup was needed in our government. Maybe the democrats shot themselves in the foot by nominating Hillary,  I don't know.  Bernie Sanders would have been a much better choice. I could have trusted Bernie.

There are a lot of fears about a Trump presidency.  Noam has expressed his, many of which I share. Will Trump eliminate environmental regulations - what about fossil fuels? Will he eliminate Obama's health care plan and leave many millions without insurance?  What about the supreme court appointments - will his choices set the country back countless years? What will happen to immigrants, legal and illegal? What about Trump's relationship with Russia, and foreign policy in general? Can we trust this man with nuclear arms?  The questions are endless.

My older brother, Ron, one of the very few Trump supporters I am close with, called me this morning, knowing how horrified I have been by the prospect of a Trump presidency. He suggests that Trump was posturing during the campaign. Tears ran down my face as he proclaimed, "I told you he would get in!  People are sick and tired of the status quo!"  

I found some voice through my tears and said,"Yes, but this is not the man to change it. Ron, you love nature - do you know that Republicans for the most part don't believe there is a climate issue?"

This past summer, for the first time in 62 years, my brother stopped talking to me for more than a month when I told him he needed to stop watching Fox News. This morning he said something I do agree with.  "Family is most important, Bev.  You have to work together with the people in your life. We will help each other get through this. You watch, it won't be as bad as you think."

"Is that really the best we can hope for?" I ask. "That it won't be as bad as we think? This is a man who cheated in business, and stiffed employees." 

He says, "You're worrying too much about Trump. Look at his kids.  They're good, solid people.  You will see Trump's softer side, and he will do his best. We needed this change, and we will hold him responsible to bring about the right changes."

"Or what?" I ask him. "How will we stop Trump if he is the monster many of us fear he is, judging by the bigotry, bullying, and disrespect he shows women, employees, and human beings in general? What about his multiple bankruptcies, his failure to pay taxes?"

As much as I want to find comfort in my big brother's words, I don't have a lot of faith.

I hope I'm wrong, for the sake of the kids in my life, like Annika and Declan, Lily, Wes, Violet, and soon-to-be-born Owen.  And for the rest of us.

The most awesome Van Jones sums it up for me, below. Click the link and scroll down a bit to see the video.

New addition - Prof Chomsky predicted this 6 years ago.  Good article:

Monday, October 31, 2016

Fighting Crime!

Since it's Halloween, I thought I would post one of my favorite photos - this one is of my two favorite crime fighters.  Roxy, on the left, is dressed as Wonder Woman.

That's Noam on the right, dressed as himself.  They both signed the photo in the upper left-hand corner.  Thanks to Katharine W. for the idea, and the photo.  And thanks to Noam for being a good sport.

Happy Halloween, and stay tuned for my next about a week.

xo Bev

Thursday, October 20, 2016


On a recent evening, Roxy and I headed toward the elevator to travel down to the basement parking garage so I could go home and shake off my day.  I have to admit that when I’m in a cranky mood, my pet peeves erupt, and this was one of those days. Even knowing that sugar is not my friend, I had eaten, in all, three leftover cookies in the department’s front lounge throughout the day. I approached the elevator thinking about the many times people join me there, wearing ear buds and scrolling madly on their phones, completely tuned out to fellow travelers in this tiny space.  To be fair, they may also be overworked employees, or overwhelmed students looking forward to a break, a walk outside, some time away from MIT, from people.
Nonetheless, I like to engage them – I prefer not to think I’m provoking - by striking up a conversation.  I get some perverse satisfaction from the look on their faces as they force a smile, or more of a grimace (this lady has the nerve to interrupt my quiet time), and with all but an audible sigh unplug their ears to the sound of my voice saying something like, “What’s going to happen to all of us when we can’t communicate without technology?” Sometimes their eyes fly to the wall panel to see how close they are to their exit floor, but sometimes – and this gives me a little hope for the future of humanity – they smile and say, “I don’t know,” or even, “That’s a good question.”
Roxy often ambles over and sniffs the ankles of fellow passengers, I assume to check out whether they have a dog or cat at home. They usually stoop down to pet her, and getting a closer look, many ask how old she is.  I try not to hear that as, “How the heck old is that dog, anyway?” She was born with the large sad eyes of an old man – the kind of eyes that, in my mind, beg, “Please buy a sectional sofa from me.  I haven’t made one sale all week!” And her grayish muzzle has stood out against her curly brown hair since she was two. Roxy’s warmth toward people helps me in my crusade toward creating more personal interactions between strangers.
I was prepared for more of the same, but was pleasantly surprised when the door opened, revealing an empty elevator. I got in singing, trying to purge the sugar high from my body. My pleasure turned quickly to irritation, though, when the elevator stopped only one floor below.
A tall and handsome youngish man got in. Just in case he had heard me through the door, I laughingly confessed to him, “I was singing a song before the door opened.”  He smiled down at Roxy, who was sniffing his shoes. Without giving it much thought, I asked him, “What kind of world do you think it would be if we could keep singing on an elevator even after a stranger got in?”  
He nodded, and said “Right.” Was he just humoring me, I wondered? 
So I said to him, “Ok, so…sing something for me.” Sugar has been known to blur my social filter.
The man cleared his throat. “Oh, my, well…” And then he sang with a surprisingly sturdy baritone voice, “…uhm: Do-na, no-bis, pa-a-cem pacem” and I joined him in adequate mezzo-soprano harmony, “Do naaa, no-bis, paaa-cem. Do – na – no-o-bis pacem. Do naaa, no-o-bis, pa-a-a-a-cem.” The elevator landed on the first floor and dinged in perfect counterpoint as we sang the last note. 
The stranger glanced my way and stepped out. I called out to the man of few words with a  pleasing voice, “Well, I feel better!” and he nodded and waved.
The elevator opened to the basement, and Roxy and I got out. I thought about the many special weekends Laura and I have spent with one particular group of friends, Jan, Shelley, and Susan, singing more than a few rounds of Dona Nobis Pacem while hiking through the woods, building a fire, or making breakfast together, and I felt grateful for old friends, and grateful for willing strangers singing about peace in an elevator at the end of a long day.
The double set of stairs leading down to the parking garage made a dent in my sugar high, but I rode the wave of another high as I sang all the way to my car.
I chose the link below despite its spooky nature.  After all, this is the month of Halloween.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Grace Under Fire

One of the ways I clear my mind is by reading biographies and autobiographies. I follow up my readings by watching movies, YouTube videos, and articles about the individual, supplementing further with documentaries, concerts, and PBS specials. Over the years I found out everything I wanted to know about Janis Joplin, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Collins, James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Steve Martin, Bob Dylan, Diane Keaton, Jerry Seinfeld, Carol Burnett, and countless other musicians, comedians, and actors.
Jane Fonda was a notorious protester of the Vietnam War, and her political style angered Vietnam veterans, who were hearing from many activists that their fighting in Vietnam was senseless at a time when they needed desperately to find some meaning in their experiences. During a tour of North Vietnam, Jane was photographed sitting on an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) anti-aircraft gun, which I don’t think was intentional.  Fonda, referred to from then on as “Hanoi Jane,” expressed regret for having that picture taken, and for the pain that her action caused many American veterans, but it was hard for her to shake the negative impact that her political style had on her public image. I suppose that’s one reason people write biographies – to be understood, especially when they believe they have been mis-understood.
I had personally been touched by that war, as my uncle Mike returned home with PTSD in his mid twenties, followed by a stroke around the age of 30. In an appeal process I undertook a few years after Mike was denied Agent Orange benefits, I proved that Mike had indeed been exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, which allowed him to receive additional governmental compensation. For the remainder of his life, Mike spoke only one word at a time, and walked with a cane. His politics were very different than mine, but he lived his life as a gentle man and a proud veteran, passing away at the age of 71.
I finished Fonda’s autobiography, My Life So Far, on a Sunday in 2006, and had it fresh in my mind when Noam arrived at work the next Tuesday.  I wanted to know what he felt about her.  Part of me was hoping that he would insist that the media had beefed up this and other stories about Fonda to distract from the real issue - the war.
I followed Noam into his office and waited for him to put down his briefcases. “Noam,” I said, trying to search for the right words, finally just getting my thought out, “I read Jane Fonda’s autobiography, and I was wondering about her unpopularity, which I thought might be based on false assumptions. Wasn’t she well-intended, if not misguided?”
I was tickled, but not surprised when Noam turned toward the doorway where I was standing, and said, “I’ll tell you about my experience with Jane Fonda.”   
There have been literally hundreds of times when I wanted to point a magical pause button at Noam and stop time for long enough to pull out a microphone, grab a bag of very lightly salted (high blood pressure) popcorn, prop my feet up on a chair, press the button, and give him the go ahead wave.
But having neither a pause button nor popcorn, I perked up my ears and prayed to the Gods of Good Memory that I would be worthy of what I was about to receive.  I wanted to take in and remember every word.
He told me that during the Vietnam War Jane invited him to a rally she was organizing in New York City.  Although Noam was heavily involved in Vietnam War protests, he initially refused, since he planned to be out of town until the night before, but Fonda managed to talk him into flying into New York on his way home.  
He said that she was impatient with the paparazzi at the airport.  I imagined she was already burned out by the bad press she had received, and by strong criticism from the public.
Later, I asked him to fill in the blanks from his story – and this time I took notes.
He said it was a fundraiser for the antiwar movement.  She insisted that he fly out first-class. “I flew back on my own, economy -- I was more spry in those days.” It was held in some extremely elegant ballroom, filled with people he was told were very famous.  “I actually recognized one face: an actor in some children's show that we watched with the kids, maybe ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’ or something like that.  Comical to see the face there in the crowd.”  There was a panel, and each of them talked for about ten minutes while the audience waited for the main show.  Then the real affair started, he said. “People standing up and announcing: ‘I'm Phil Ochs’ [or whomever], huge applause.  And so on.  And yes, I couldn't stand it so left in the middle without telling anyone.  I suppose they thought I was going to the men's room.”
Noam never was one for what he perceives as self-promotion. In the end, he never really answered my question about Jane, and I decided to put it all on hold for a while.  Plus, my obsession with Jane was ebbing, and I was moving onto another biography.
But lately the question started nagging at me again, when I finished watching two seasons of a Netflix show called Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, about two women in their mid seventies whose law partner husbands fell in love with one another and summarily dumped them.  Now Frankie and Grace are forced to live together in their joint summer home, bringing into the open some real issues faced by aging women. I’ve loved Jane Fonda since On Golden Pond, and before that, I loved her when her workout video helped whip me into shape.  I can still see my friend Linda and me in her basement workout room, sweating as Jane commanded: “Make it burn!”  I’ve been a fan of Lily Tomlin’s since she introduced Edith Ann on Laugh-In, and I’ve watched my video of her brilliant one-woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which opened in Broadway more than thirty years ago, at least a dozen times.
So I asked him again, because I wanted to know - wasn’t Jane Fonda a well-intended person who had just gotten some bad press in a particularly sensitive political climate? And finally, I got my answer.
“She was hated for being an activist, but we all were,” he said. “She resisted the Vietnam War, and nobody was liked for that. We were all hated at the beginning.”
He talked a little more about Jane and her husband Tom (Hayden) going off on a few political tangents, ending with, “She did a lot of good things.”
His answer seemed somehow obvious in retrospect.They were all hated at the beginning for opposing the war.  Of course they were, because to think that way was deemed unpatriotic, particularly then. I may have figured this out for myself a long time ago, but the big picture escaped me when I was too busy trying to keep track of the small details of my job.  I suppose it is possible that Noam had tried to explain something like this to me years before, but I heard it differently this time because I’ve learned so much more about the world of activism in the past ten years.
Much like Fonda’s character, Grace, who as of the last episode of Grace and Frankie is planning to change some things for aging women in, let’s just say, a more personal way.

If you're interested in Jane Fonda's version of what happened wrt the Vietnam War, read this:

The Truth About My Trip to Hanoi