Wednesday, December 10, 2014

That Sinking Feeling


I was sadly mistaken when I assumed the worst part of my day was the discovery of hairline splits in the bottom of my leather boots while walking Roxy on the drenched grounds of MIT yesterday. The previous night’s brief bout of snow flurries had given way to heavy rain by the morning, and it was still coming down when I left work just after 4 pm, after my socks had dried.

Let me back up to 2:30 pm.  I had just returned from my walk with Roxy, who had refused to poop because she was uncomfortable in the rain without a jacket. Laura and I adopted her eleven years ago, and we know that she is very particular about many things, and getting wet is one of them.  

Matt from our headquarters office came into our suite, and said, “Sorry to bother you, Bev, but I come bearing some, ah, strange news.  About a half hour ago a man on the 7th floor of the Gates Tower (of our building) was yelling about internet security, digital security, and conspiracy theories, and he referenced Noam Chomsky at least once in his rantings. The police were called, but he was gone before they arrived.”

“So, where is he?” I asked.

“Well, they think he left the building.”

“They think? I’m locking our office door,” I said.

I e-mailed Noam at 4 pm to tell him what had happened, and he suggested that Glenn and I leave right away, which we did, without incident.  Rather than walking Roxy at MIT again, I would let her do her thing at the cemetery near our house when we got to Watertown.  Dogs aren’t allowed in cemeteries, but it was dark and rainy, and I decided an exception could be made in this case. When she finished up, I walked toward her with my plastic bag, to guide her toward the car (she’s mostly deaf, so I can’t call her, and the rain was coming down hard). I could see that she was sniffing something long and black, and when I reached her, I leaned over to see what it was – a dead animal? A dropped scarf?  Then my right leg fell into it – the black thing – up to my knee.  I tried to step away with my left leg, but the ground around me was like quicksand, and my left foot sank in to my knee as I fought to pull my right leg out. I took several “steps” this way, feeling my ankle boots filling with mud with each pull.  After a minute my mild amusement began to edge toward panic. What if I got stuck out here in the rain for hours? Or worse, what if the Earth swallowed me up? 

I took a deep breath and thought about the familiarity of this – what was it?  Of course, snow!  I remembered what I did when I found myself hip-deep in crust-topped snow while walking Roxy in a field the winter before, something probably every child knows. “I have to crawl!” I thought, laying my chest down on the ground. I spread my arms out to my sides and pulled my legs out slowly, one at a time, hearing great sucking noises as each foot emerged. Roxy, who weighs all of 28 pounds, continued to sniff around, oblivious to my situation. I crawled gingerly on my belly to the next row of gravestones ten feet away.  The soft grassy ground continued to give way and I sank with each effort as I inched toward what I hoped would be more stable ground.  When I had crawled to just beyond the adjacent gravestones, I was relieved to be able to stand, though my mud-soaked boots continued to sink a few inches with every squishy step I made toward the asphalt driveway.  Never before had a solid driveway looked like my long-lost sweetheart.  

Roxy stayed next to me, and when we reached the car, I looked down to see that not only my boots, but my hands and the entire front and arms of my down-filled brown coat were caked with black muck. No surprise there. Aside from small patches of mud on her paws, Roxy looked like her usual brown self. Had she spent the last five minutes in an alternate universe? I picked her up and put her in the car, and drove the two blocks home, imagining how funny this story might sound when retold. 

When I got home and told my son what had happened, he was alarmed. “So an angry bearded man was in your building ranting about conspiracy theories and yelling out your boss’s name, and then you fell into a sink hole in the dark, rainy cemetery? Do you know how lucky you are?” he said.

I don’t know about lucky, but I was never so happy to take a shower. Laura would be home soon, and I was hoping she would find more humor in my story than Jay had, at least until she saw the pile of muddy laundry I had left on the floor near the washer in the basement.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

His Mug Runneth Over

Two years ago, I offered Noam a fresh mug of coffee at work, and he told me, “It looks better than the coffee I make at home!”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, around the third or fourth time I run the water through the filter, I end up drinking beige hot water with a few coffee grounds floating on top.”

That weekend, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Laura and I went to Bed, Bath & Beyond and bought a mini Keurig coffee maker for Noam.  One pod per cup. Simple. We called and told him we had a surprise, and asked if we could drop by.

“Only if you share a healthy drink with me,” he said.

“Single malt scotch?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said.  “Doctor’s orders. I have to drink more fluids.”

“He’s talking about water,” I said.

“I add ice,” he said.

At his house, we set up the coffee maker and gave him a quick lesson: insert a disposable pod into the receptacle, fill the machine with a mug of water, position the mug under the spout, and press the button.  When your coffee is ready, you throw away the pod.  (Although they are biodegradable, I wish the pods were recyclable.)

A few Saturdays later, we returned to Noam's house to replenish his coffee supply and drop off some holiday food gifts that had been sent to him at the office. I needed to get away from my writing for a while. It was not flowing, and I had recurring feelings of self-doubt, asking myself once again whether I should be in a formal writing program. I felt I had a lot to learn.

In his kitchen, Laura grabbed two highball glasses from the cabinet to the right of the sink and prepared a couple of single-malt scotches for the two of them.  Opening the door where the coffee was stored, I found only one open box, and it still held a few pods out of the original eighteen.  I know he drinks at least two or three coffees every morning, so this didn’t make sense.

“Noam, what’s this?  Why do you still have so much coffee in here?”  “In here,”  referred to the inside of his forty-year old, oversized and outdated Hotpoint microwave oven, which was permanently affixed to the top of a brown electric cooktop and oven. This was surely a fancy, modern appliance way back in the early 70’s, but while the stove and oven still worked, the microwave on top did not, and Noam was pretty pretty pleased with himself for reassigning the dead space as a coffee pod storage area.

Noam put down the New York Times and turned to me from his seat at the white Formica kitchen table, where a spot of glue still protruded from the horizontal strip I had recently glued back in place around the table’s lip.

“What did you say?” he asked.

“Why is there so much coffee left over?  It looks like you’ve used barely a dozen pods.

“I’ve been reusing them” he confessed, turning back to his newspaper.

“How many times?” I asked him.

“What?” he said, turning toward me again, squinting in a way that always reminds me of Henry Fonda.

I moved around the table to face him, and spoke a little louder.  “How many times do you use each pod?” When he laughed just slightly and refused to offer a number, I made a face like I’d just eaten something sour, and lifted my fist in the air, shaking it until he returned the gesture, now part of our personal sign language.  This was one of our many disagreements revolving around his unnecessary and extreme frugality.

“One problem you might be able to fix,” he told me, his face turning serious again, “is how to keep the water from spilling all over the counter top.”

“Are you filling it twice?” I asked, as Laura handed him his glass of whiskey, lifting her glass in a toast, to which they each took a good slug. I reached for her glass and took a token sip, just enough to clear my sinuses.

“I followed your directions to the letter.  I’ve been doing exactly what you told me.  I think there’s something wrong with the machine.  Maybe we should just set up the old Mr. Coffee.” He shook his head and sighed at the consistent failure of technology.

“Show me how you do it,” I said.  Laura looked on, sipping at her drink.

Noam Chomsky was voted the world’s top public intellectual in 2005 by Great Britain, and he’s been compared to Aristotle and Socrates. I tried to keep this in mind while I watched what he did next.

He lifted a large mug that sat next to the coffee maker, filled it with water, and poured it into the top of the Keurig. Then he popped the pod into its slot, waited for the water to disappear, and closed the lid.  Next, he walked over to the open kitchen cabinet and pulled out a small mug and set it under the spout.

Laura put her glass down and brought what we saw as an obvious faux-pas to his attention.

“Noam, stop! I know what’s happening here,” she said.

Noam looked puzzled. “What?  What did I do wrong,” he asked.  He was all ears, as he loves to watch other people problem-solve, particularly when he is convinced that a technical problem has absolutely no logical solution.

“You added water from a larger mug, so that amount of water is going to be dumped into the smaller mug, and the excess will overflow into the reservoir underneath the cup.  Also, if you fill the top more than once by mistake, the excess water will remain in the internal heating chamber.  Over time, the chamber will overflow into the reservoir as well, and eventually all of that water will overflow onto your counter. That’s your problem,” she said, lifting her highball glass from the counter to close her argument.

“So the mug I use to pour the water in and the mug I drink from should be the same?” he asked.

“Simply put, yes, that would solve your problem,” Laura said.

He looked at Laura as if she were Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining the concept of multiple universes, and joined her by lifting his own glass to his lips.

I emptied out the reservoir and chamber, opened a new box of decaf pods, and made myself a fresh cup of decaf coffee, throwing away the pod.  It was refreshing to remember that even one of the world’s top public intellectuals still had some things to learn.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Close, but no SNL

I'm sending this live, from New York, in honor of Sarah and Andy's wedding!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noam returned to the phone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Irish Eyes - Our trip to Ireland with Noam Chomsky


Part I - Dublin

Late March, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**
Early April

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I did.”

“From the destitution?”

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

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

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

Sometimes alcohol makes my heart race, so I decided to hold off on drinking as we all settled into a big circle.  The women who ran the Front Line program, Mary and Katrina, joined us.  When Mary saw me without a drink, she said, “Christ, Beverly, can’t you have one drink for your mother’s sake?”  I ordered a half pint of Guinness in Charlotte’s honor. Mary’s words echoed my own mother’s – she was the only mother I knew who tried to encourage her adult children to drink. “For Christ’s sake, Beverly, can’t you have one drink?” she would say, as I am basically a teetotaler. Sitting there, I wondered if my mother picked up that phrase from her Irish grandmother, and another of my mother’s stories popped into my head.  She and her best friend traveled with Meme by boat to Provincetown in the mid 1930’s.  I have an old photo-booth picture of the three of them, taken on that trip. Meme must have been in her late forties, but she looks twenty-five years older by present-day standards.

“On the boat, my grandmother ordered a beer at the bar, and I was shocked!” my mother once told me.  “I had never seen her drinking a beer!”

I did share a glass of wine with my mother on occasion, mostly during one of our scrabble games with Laura and Al, and I was grateful for those memories.

The bar conversation was casual – is the Guinness made locally, is the Irish whiskey better in Ireland than at home, etc..  A few recalled the Front Line lecture and Q&A.  When Gary showed up, I introduced him again to Noam.

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

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

“You have to go,” Noam said.  “Otherwise you won’t be able to say you’ve been on a pub crawl!”

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

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Coincidental Counterpoint

Dedicated with love to my cousin Diane - may the sun come up and dry up all the rain, giving you lots of sunny days ahead.       




            “Bevy, if you were stranded on a desert island…”
            “Oh, no, please don’t ask me that again, I don’t know – ice cream and pizza.  Those are the two foods I would choose to have if stranded on a desert island.  Although I do love arugula.”
            “That wasn’t what I was going to ask you,” Laura finished, her voice flat.
            It was mid-September, and we were on our way to our self-designed retreat on Westport Island in Maine, to heal and reconnect at our friend Shelley’s vacant cottage after a very intense spring and summer.  Actually, over the past two years we had lost my mother, two dear friends, a cousin, two aunts, an uncle, and our sweet cat.  Most recently, Laura’s mother suffered a major stroke the day before she was to fly to Boston to be at our May 3rd wedding.  Her death three weeks later in a Santa Barbara hospital’s neuro ICU unit was almost more than we could bear. We work hard, try to be positive and upbeat, have an abundance of friends and family around us to share meals, interesting discussion, and healthy laughs, but we both became so exhausted from tending to our lives and work that we had little to give each other at the end of the day.
            We rallied to share a flawless early-August wedding day in our flower-filled, tented back yard with many of the people we love. But we returned to our jobs and other responsibilities too soon, stalling a much-needed period of quiet, mourning, and reflection.  By September we realized we had no choice but to take another week off for ourselves, hoping we might even be lucky enough to find time and space for celebration.
            Laura had just taken over as driver after my three-hour stint, and by now I was interested in closing my eyes and listening to a book on tape, but in the spirit of connection, I did my best to sound enthusiastic. “Oh, sorry.  What is the rest of the question?” 
            “If you were stranded on a desert island, what are the two pieces of music you would like to have with you?” 
            “Do you mean on my I-pod?” I asked.  For some reason I felt the need to be clear about how I would be listening to this music. “A desert island is sounding pretty good to me right now, so I’m not sure ‘stranded’ would be my feeling about it.” Laura is one of the most patient people on the planet, so when I saw what appeared to be confused irritation in the set of her profiled jaw, I decided to play along.  Even I was surprised by what came out of my mouth next.
            “First, I would like to have The Incy Wincy Spider,” I said.
            She took her eyes off the road just long enough to stare at me. “You mean ‘Itsy Bitsy’ Spider,” she said, swerving slightly in order to keep between the white lines, making me seriously wonder why she would risk our lives on a busy highway to make that differentiation.
            I said, “I think both are right.”  I resort to this reply when in doubt – it’s easier than debating.
            “I don’t,” she said. “I think it’s definitely ‘itsy bitsy’.”
            “I will look it up the next time we have internet,” I said.  Another benefit of spending time at the cottage was that it lacked internet, so we would have more time to connect to one another in the silence and beauty of tall pines and the Sheepscot River. We had spent time there with Shelley, Susan, and Jan over the years - we call our group the Totem Mamas, so-named for a small piece of black driftwood we picked up on a beach more than a dozen years ago during our first weekend together, so her home and its good, healing energy felt familiar.  One hidden blessing of having to postpone our May wedding was that Shelley had time to become our legal officiant in time for the August date. Shelley is a deeply spiritual woman, and her cottage reflects this with chachkies from around the world – incense, meditation pillows, candles, wall-hangings, drums, flutes, gongs, and that sort of thing.
            “OK, let me explain.  It’s probably one of the first interactive songs you learned as a kid.  Carly Simon’s version is beautiful – she sings along with the seraphic voices of a chorus of young children.”  I could see by the curious look on her face that it was her turn to not be buying what I was selling, but I kept on talking, though I myself was unsure, and even curious, about what I was getting at.  It’s a great old children’s song.  I sang it with Jay when he was little.
             “I think also that the song is on my mind because Jack and Ellen Foley sent me a video this morning of their little granddaughter belting it out in her baby car seat, and her voice screeched with enthusiastic intensity.” I demonstrated Jack’s granddaughter’s performance by singing the entire song, notching it down a bit so I wouldn’t lose my point, or my audience.
            When I finished, Laura said, “Bevy, I am shuddering at the idea of being stranded on a desert island listening endlessly to your personal reenactment of that song.  So..., what would be your second choice?”
            “Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux,” I said.  “I think the one I love is Opus 39.  I would want to count the Etudes Tableaux as one choice.  I hope that’s ok.”  (Was I asking permission from her, or from the omniscient and omnipotent answerer of questions?) “So that, and The Incy Wincy Spider.”
            “Not Joan Baez?  Nothing by Joan Baez?” she asked, looking oddly relieved. 
            “I might have chosen Joan Baez twenty years ago, or maybe a week ago, but I’m staying with these. “Here’s the thing about that piece,” I explained.  “It’s like you’re trying and trying to keep going, and it’s at times an uphill battle, like in Camus’s The Myth of Sysiphus, you’re pushing the boulder up the hill, pushing and pushing, and you think you’re almost there, and you give it another shove, and it’s briefly there, on top, only to roll back down again.  It’s a futile action, and I guess you can look at life that way - we all know it will end, so what keeps us going?  Why bother? 
I stopped talking as we passed through the Maine Turnpike tolls, to be sure I had her full attention.  “So the music begins in the lower range, and travels up and up and circles around the higher range, and the notes keep circling as if to find a foothold.  But quickly they tumble backward, spiraling down into and over themselves until there are a lot of low notes, and the feeling of struggle. Then it starts all over again, and there’s hope that this time we might make it back up and stay there for a while, and if we do, we can convince ourselves that we might never tumble down again. That’s how I felt the first time I heard it, and it still hits me like that.”
“Bevy, are you talking about the Itsy Bitsy Spider, or Rachmaninoff?” she asked.  Because if you’re talking about Rachmaninoff, it occurs to me that you could also be talking about the spider.”
            “Oh, god, I was talking about Rachmaninoff, but yes, both!  I hadn’t noticed the similarity until you pointed it out. Why did I choose those two pieces of the thousands I know?  To me, The Itsy Bitsy Spider and Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux are telling the same story!”
            "Bevy, I have goosebumps," she said, and I think she meant it.
            Just before my thirtieth birthday I realized I could stop feeling sad that my parent's couldn't buy me a used piano when I was young, and that I could buy one myself.  An MIT colleague had already agreed to teach me. Ronnie Schwartz had lived in the US for a while with her Dominican husband, moving there with him a year or so later, where she became a respected concertina. But soon her husband's personality changed, and he became cruel, and she returned to the US with only the clothing she wore, buying her one-way ticket with money smuggled in by her parents. Her experiences came through in her passion for the piano, and she was patient as I struggled through Für Elise, then a Bach Prelude and someone’s funeral march. One day she offered to play Rachmaninoff for me, sitting right next to her on the piano bench.  The music seemed to tell my story word for word, note for note, and I cried. Of course she was playing the piece from the Etudes Tableaux.  
When we arrived at the cottage, we were greeted by long lengths of colored prayer flags, some which I had sewn together years before.  Once inside, we began to unpack, both dreading and looking forward to what we had to face in the quiet solitude of the cottage - a strange admission considering we were married just ten weeks earlier. 
Laura took some things up the wide maple stairs to the bedroom, and I noticed a green striped folder sitting on the edge of the wooden counter, remembering that Shelley was planning to leave it there for us.  I opened it and found that she had printed our wedding ceremony on clear, durable paper, and I sat down right away to read the whole thing, crying through most of it.  Shelley had included a package of copal incense from Colombia, for smudging and cleansing, and when I was finished reading, I got up and lit a stick of it, and started a nice fire in the stone fireplace.  I was ready to get this show on the road.
Laura and I passed one another on my way up the stairs, and when I returned a few minutes later, she was sitting on one of the two beige overstuffed living room sofas, near a large glass singing bowl and some ceremonial instruments, and the green folder was beside her. Her eyes were soft, so I knew she had read our ceremony, too.  Behind her, through a large bank of windows, I could see the lake sparkle through the magnificent pines. I sat next to her and held her hand, and we both talked about how much fun our wedding day had been, and how lucky we were to have so many loving people in our lives. 
The next morning, we decided to get out in the open the things we had been holding in, so with pens in hand, we wrote a note to one another.  Laura tapped the signing bowl at the end of a half hour, and we read aloud, each of us speaking and listening in turn, with considerable emotion and a couple of apologies. As lunchtime approached, we began to feel an opening, and a softness toward one another.
New England was glorying in a week of Indian summer, and we changed the energy up to plan our agenda:  kayaking, reading, more writing and talking, meditations on the decks and cliffs overlooking the river, daily fires in the stone fireplace, and healthy foods to nourish our bodies.  We would use the grill on the back deck to roast vegetables, chicken and fish.
During these meals, and in the two-person kayak in the late mornings, with acres of  pines and birches as our witnesses, we talked more about the spider and Rachmaninoff, outlined some wishes and goals, and wondered about what might come next, after we leave this life, a question we like to think both of our mothers know the answer to. As an aside, during the half hour that we got online in the neighboring town of Bath, Maine during our third day of retreat, I found out that my cousin Diane was diagnosed just days before with stage four melanoma.  Diane was my best friend when we were kids - she's my age, and this feels so close to home.
My friend Deb, a hard-core pragmatist, repeats her mantra to me almost weekly. “Biffy, we’re all going to die some day.  Why not accept it and get on with your life?” Deb purchased three plots in a “green” cemetery in Maine about five years before, when she was taking care of her ill mother’s final details.  I visited the cemetery with her a few years ago, and standing shoulder to shoulder with her at her own grave site freaked the hell out of me.
During our remaining days together at the cottage, Laura and I talked about our losses and our joys, and the realization that it’s futile to try to control any of it – our own lives or the lives of the people we love. Death is a given, and we will obviously experience more or it as we age.  That’s the downside of a full life of friends, family, and pets.  But who’s to say what’s up, and what’s down, and what’s good or bad, anyway.  If I try to put a value on these things, then I’m trying to control something I can’t, and that only causes pain. We remembered the many times a so-called “bad” thing happened to us, only to open another door leading us to something we didn’t know we needed. 
By the end of the week, after spending much-needed time with my new wife and this perfect cottage, I could consider that the spider was, without judgment or value, simply climbing up the water spout, being rained out of it, and climbing up again. Jack’s granddaughter knew all the time that this was all there was to it.  It seems to me that we unlearn the simplicity of things as we grow older.  I would like to have a talk with Rachmaninoff and ask him what he had in mind when he wrote the Etudes Tableaux, and in fact I could look that up on line at any time, but I think it’s best that I just put on my earphones and enjoy the music.
Laura and I have decided to make a yearly trek to strand ourselves on this – or another - island.  Next year, I will bring along all of my Joan Baez and Janis Joplin music.  Laura will bring a couple of her antique books of children’s rhymes and fairy tales, and we’ll really do ourselves in trying to find in those stories the meaning of life.

You can listen to a 30-second sample of my favorite Etudes Tableaux piece.
 
Below is Jack's granddaughter singing itsy bitsy spider - it gets better as it goes along!

video

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Weathering the Storm


I open Noam Chomsky’s e-mails on weekdays and forward on to him those I can’t take care of, at a second e-mail address.  Once in a while I open up a nasty rant from a person who doesn’t like his politics, most likely because they misunderstand his point of view (the beauty of a blog is that I can say what I think, plus, I have been reading these messages for twenty years). 

Putting aside his significant work in linguistics, Noam is a prominent human rights activist, a defender of mistreated and voiceless individuals, groups, and countries, and an exposer of problems with mainstream media and US foreign policy.  He’s concerned about fracking, tsunamis, the so-called drug war, and the survival of the planet. He participates endlessly in debates and discussions, is an inexhaustible lecturer, holds interviews two days a week in his office, and responds to e-mails through the early morning hours.  He does much of this at great personal expense, traveling extensively both within and outside the country until he’s too tired to stand, and the only time he sits is to write, and sometimes eat. 

More than a few times I’ve been tempted to hit “reply” and give an enraged writer hell, telling him how terribly misinformed he is.  I would tell him that Noam doesn’t fabricate numbers, statistics, or facts – you can find almost everything he quotes in a journal or newspaper article, or book.  I would point out to them that sympathizing with Palestinians doesn’t mean he hates Jews.  He’s a pacifist – a guardian of peace, he believes war is unjustifiable.

Many of these ranters suggest he leave the United States and live somewhere else. I would insist that his criticism of the US government’s policies doesn’t mean he hates being an American. I would remind them of the first amendment, which guarantees “the rights of free expression and action that are fundamental to democratic government.” And I would suggest that they become more informed about the real facts – and maybe actually read something Noam has written with an eye toward understanding. 

But it’s my job to pass all messages not directed toward me onto Noam, whether an e-mail from a colleague or a note from one of his grandsons, and thousands of others in between, many from people he’s never met.  So, once I've added any essential piece of backup for clarity, I pass them on, even the few I would prefer to send to the trash with one simple keystroke. 

A few months ago, when I was angered by one of these slanderous e-mails, I jumped out of my chair, gathered up some travel and scheduling items for an impromptu meeting, and stormed into his office.  Ok, I didn’t actually storm.  Noam doesn’t respond to that kind of drama.

I excused myself for interrupting his reading, asking him if I could talk with him for a minute, then I launched right into it. “Noam, don’t you ever get upset with the nasty, antagonistic e-mails from enraged people?  Considering the [immeasurable] sacrifices you’ve made, how do you keep from getting angry?” I asked.

Noam replied, “Do you get angry with a hurricane?”

“No, I don’t get angry with the hurricane, but I am upset when people are hurt by a hurricane.”

Noam repeated, “But do you get angry with the hurricane?”

“No,” I said, becoming frustrated that he wasn’t sharing my outrage.

“Well, people are hurricanes,” he said. 

I thought, what the hell does that mean, ‘people are hurricanes?  Judging by what I know about Noam, he wanted me to think, and to figure it out for myself. I guessed he was reminding me that anger can be a big waste of time unless you harness it into action.  Also, hurricanes are unpredictable, and they erupt, just like people.  And I suppose when you find yourself in the path of a hurricane, it’s prudent to protect yourself, and keep out of harm’s way, as you can’t control it any more than you can control a person.  These are my thoughts. 

As with most things, I went home and talked this over with my partner Laura, a psychotherapist who has witnessed anger and frustration in a multitude of sizes and shapes.  She said, “I think there’s a way in which people carry their own weather systems.  Weather is affected by both internal and external experiences – past and present.  By what they’ve learned, what they’ve eaten, their assumptions, and by what’s going on around them.  There are some people who walk in the door and you can feel the storminess around them, and sometimes you feel something more subtle.” 

I wondered whether that was what Noam intended to convey to me, as well – people have their own unpredictable weather patterns, so it’s best to put on your raincoat and boots and wait it out.  Weather isn't something we can control any more than we can control other people.

I had to check with him again, so I recently asked Noam to give me some insight on how he keeps from reacting to a writer’s fury.  I worded it in a way that wouldn’t hint that he was possibly answering a question I was supposed to have figured out for myself.  He said “People usually have reasons for being angry, however distorted and unpleasant.  And there's always some hope that they can be dealt with. Sometimes it even works, after a lot of effort.  But what's the point in being angry about it?  A three-year old doubtless has a reason for an annoying tantrum, but do we get angry at the kid?” 

I thought, well, yes, we do, but the same is true as about the hurricane - it's useless to get mad at the child.  I also realized two things.  First, something that I keep learning in a circular manner, that even an unpleasant and hostile form of discourse can be a step toward understanding.

And second, not only was he talking about our lack of ability to control some things, but he was also talking about compassion. 


Monday, September 8, 2014

Meeting Noam Chomsky




I heard the knob hit the wall before I saw the man.  I looked up, startled by the sound, and saw a nice looking man of slim to medium build, somewhere around 5’10”, with a healthy head of white hair and large wire-rimmed glasses, standing at the wall of faculty mailboxes which were for some reason located in our suite.  He was wearing a light blue shirt, blue jeans rolled up with a full four-inch cuff, and black sneakers with white socks.  In one hand he held a bulging worn briefcase, and in the other, a dark blue canvas bag.  He looked to be in his early to mid-sixties.  I had read a little more about him over the last week or so, and the more I learned, the more overwhelmed and intimidated I became.  He was a media and US foreign policy critic, he worked alone and side-by-side with Howard Zinn and others as a Vietnam War resister, he was a human rights advocate, and of course a linguistics professor.  He debated experts like Jean Piaget, Michel Foucault, John Silber, and William F. Buckley. I recognized him from his pictures, and it wasn’t until I stood to introduce myself that I realized how nervous I was. 

I extended my hand toward him, and he took it.  “Hi, Professor Chomsky.  I’m Bev Stohl.  It’s nice to meet you.”  So far so good, I thought, as he murmured a preoccupied ‘hello,’ plopped the leather briefcase onto my desk and fished inside for a handful of papers. I noticed the initials NC in faded gold at the top, near the handle, so I knew I had the right guy, but the quiet was unnerving. I needed to fill the void. “It must be strange for you to come in and meet your new assistant for the first time.”  As I said this aloud, it occurred to me that this probably wasn’t at all strange to him.  It was too late to start over, and fainting or quitting would make a bad first impression, so I just stood there, looking at him.
“You can call me Noam,” he said cheerily, his widening smile easing my anxiety, “And I have full confidence in Jamie and Morris’s decision.  If they chose you for the job, then I’m sure we’ll make a great team.”   I noticed that his smile emanated not only from his mouth but also his eyes, which sparkled mischievously behind his thick lenses.
He tilted his head slightly upward when he said this, making him seem playfully delighted – I hoped at the thought of our working together.  Maybe I wouldn’t have to be shipped home after all.  And standing there with him for the first time, I wondered “What’s the big deal about working for Noam Chomsky?”