Sunday, December 30, 2012

Don't Mind Me

“Can you count your thoughts?”  Noam asked me last summer as I sat down with him for a travel meeting.  His question took me by surprise.  I loved it because it’s fun when the man who’s been lauded as “the world’s leading intellectual” throws me a mind teaser.  I also hated it, because it put me on the spot.  He was simply inviting creative banter, but I wanted to come up with something impressive because jousting with Noam Chomsky in a game of wit, maybe making him laugh, or better, making him think about my reply gives me a little high.  And I have to admit that underneath the play, I felt tremendous pressure to get the answer right - if there was a right answer.

 “Can you count your thoughts?” I repeated slowly, stalling for time, hoping that, if not a great rejoinder, then at least the beginnings of a brilliant repartee would sprout from my mind.  Seconds passed.  One, one-thousand, two, one-thousand, three, one-thousand...  Nothing was coming to me – nothing witty, nothing insightful, nothing amazing.  But that didn’t stop me from answering him.  It never does; I might be in awe of him, but I'm not intimidated. Let's just say our strengths differ.

“No, you can’t,” I said, “because even trying to count your thoughts is thinking, and you would have to count that thought about how counting your thoughts is thinking, and then counting that thought is another thought.  It’s endless.” 

He smiled and gave a slight nod to his head, which was pretty much a kiss of death.   What could I say?  I know what I could have done – I could have asked Noam whether he ever tried to count his thoughts.   Maybe he kept a running tally, which by now had to be at a number larger than the national debt.  

About a year ago, before an interview for a short documentary, Noam glanced down at the day’s schedule in my hand.  “Hmm, these guys want my definition of ‘courage.’ What should I tell them?”  He cocked his head to the side and asked me, “Bev, how would you define courage?”  We both remember that my reply was so awesome that he pumped his fist in the air and said, “Perfect!  I’m going to use that in the interview!”  More ironic would have been the question, “what is memory,” because Noam and I have failed to remember my remarkable definition of ‘courage' ever since.

 I recently suggested it was something like, “Courage is an unfortunate necessity in the face of suffering,” but Noam shook his head and said, “Nope.  It was better than that.” Every few months since that interview, I suggest a newer variation of this, sometimes including words and phrases like “evil necessity” and “strength."  As with many things that are discussed in this office, I wish I had written it down.   And p.s., if the person who organized this interview ever reads this, can you please put us out of our misery and let us know Noam's definition of courage?

These are the games we play, and while some of them make me crazy in a fun way, others literally drive me toward the nut house.  Maybe this is the price I have to pay for working in a department where not only my immediate boss and his colleague Morris Halle, but almost everyone is thinking about language, thinking about the brain, and thinking about thinking, though I doubt other people are trying to count their thoughts. But then again, this is MIT.

              My complex relationship with the art of thinking may have begun about twenty years ago when a grad student named Knut stood in my office doorway and said, “I haven’t been the same since I thought too much about the concept of Time; I can’t get the idea of the constant passing of time out of my mind.  There is never a now," he said, "because even when you try to think of now, it’s not here anymore.  Even this conversation becomes something of the past as soon as our words are out.”

              I will forever be visited by Knut's angst around the passing of time.  I call it angst, but maybe Knut thought this was the coolest concept since sliced bread.

                As is probably true for most people, the concepts of time, and even space, biology, and the brain began haunting me long before my conversation with Knut. When I was eight years old, the idea of eternity was introduced to me by my little brother Paul, who would later go to MIT and become a physicist.  Trust me, I saw that coming.  “Time never, never, never, never, ever, ever ends,” he said.  Before he said that, I was pumping hard on my sturdy silver apartment complex swing, minding my own business and enjoying a sunny Sunday morning.  Looking down at my new bright white sneakers I thought about the night before when Karen and Kylie McCluskey and Paul and I put on our whitest shoes and rushed back outside after dinner, just before the sun set, taking turns running in a big circle in front of the others until all you could make out was a pair of disembodied white shoes racing all by themselves around the edges of our playground. Trick of the eye, trick of the mind.

What is the mind anyway?  I was reminded twice today that nobody knows.  First when I found a copy of Noam's Q&A session with a group of Italian students in Pavia, Italy on my desk, and second when my older brother, Ron called to tell me that he and his partner, Lynne, each had a copy of Deepak Chopra’s new book, Super Brain, which he signed for them after a 50-minute lecture.  Lucky ducks – I would have loved to be there. Ron told me, “Dr. Chopra asked us to recall our childhood homes in our minds.  Chopra told us, ‘Nobody knows how we do this.  Nobody knows how you can form an image of your childhood home in your head. Nobody understands how thought, or the mind, works.’”  

The great thinkers of the world love this stuff - it’s fodder for fascinating research.  And until recently, I thought they - someone - knew the answers. Noam had talked about this very thing during that student Q&A in Pavia in the fall. I read my brother the following excerpt from that class, which Laura and I had been lucky enough to attend. 

“What is thought?” Noam asked the audience of graduate students. “You can say a couple of things about those aspects of thought that are expressed in language, but then we are talking about language.  What about those aspects of thought that aren’t expressed in language?” he asked, going on to say that nobody knows what thought actually is, and concluding that “there are a lot of things going on beyond the level of consciousness that we try to move to consciousness and even to the external world, often failing, which means that there is a lot of thought going on, and we have no grasp of it…In other words, I know what I’m trying to say, but I can’t find the words.”

Ron continued, as if he hadn’t heard me.  “I said to Deepak Chopra, ‘Dr. Chopra, when I want to stop thinking about something, I just yell out to my brain the command, ‘Stop!’ and I stop thinking about it.  Then he shook my hand and smiled.”  Ron always takes the noisier route.

I put my conversation with my brother out of my - and there's that word again - mind, but I couldn’t get Noam’s fascinating Q&A with the Italian grad students out of my head. I returned to the concrete and relatively tangible routine of my busy life, but that class session in Pavia kept sneaking back in, like the idea of your tongue sitting there in your mouth. It’s best to just forget about that tongue if you want to remain on this side of sanity.  Let it do its work and pay it no mind.  Whatever the mind is.  As my nephew Bobby likes to say, “I know, right?”

After re-reading the transcript of that Q&A, something fuzzy began to take shape in my - mind.  Noam was due in the next day, and I couldn’t wait to talk with him.  The next morning, when he stood near my desk to refill his coffee mug, I cornered him.

“Noam, remember when you asked me ‘Can we count our thoughts’?”  He did.  “Well, it took me a trip to Italy and an hour in your class and a few months of processing to figure it out.  It's a simple concept, but here's what I think:  We can’t count our thoughts because nobody knows what thought is.”  He looked at me.  I waited. 

“That’s right,” he said, pumping his fist like at my small triumph.  I liked that he liked my answer, even if it had taken me a year to come up with it, and even if it had holes in it.  I was quite pleased with myself, because some of what I overhear in our offices, or what Noam and I discuss, stays inside my head for a minute and then dissipates in a vaporous cloud as new ideas in my head vie for space alongside urgent e-mails, upcoming trip details, and endless crews and interviews and meetings.

Who needs mind-altering drugs when these types of questions are in the air?  I recently learned that the cells of the human body regenerate every three months.  So the skin, the lungs, the heart I have in May are not the same ones I have in August?  That can’t be right – somebody got their facts wrong.   If that were really the case, then we wouldn’t grow old. Now I’m curious - I’ll have to go and look that up.  As soon as I stop thinking about my tongue.

I know, right?
This is a quote by Noam that I love - it was included in the transcript of that student Q&A:  
It is important to learn to be surprised by simple things - for example, by the fact that bodies fall down, not up, and that they fall at a certain rate; that if pushed, they move on a flat surface in a straight line, not a circle; and so on. The beginning of science is the recognition that the simplest phenomena of life raise quite serious problems: Why are they as they are, instead of some different way?" (Chomsky 1988)

And by the way, look at the comic strip below, which Laura found on the web after I wrote this piece.  She remembered it from her childhood, although for some reason, it never drove her crazy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Boat Slip

        I don’t have any good memories of boating.  It’s not that I have bad memories necessarily - well, actually, I can conjure up a couple of bad memories pretty easily.  Years ago when my son, Jay, was about eight, we were on a friend’s large cabin boat, and after just a few minutes, I felt myself going down fast.  Jay, perhaps by the power of suggestion, followed suit immediately. The nausea was spreading from the back of my head and between my ears to my face rather than from my stomach.  I felt as if someone was using my brain to sop up a mess on deck, then wringing it out and shoving it sloppily back inside my skull.  My eyelids closed in protest after witnessing the whole deal, and it was all I could do to crawl down to the lower deck to die.  As Jay and I lay motionless for a full hour and a half, I promised myself never to set foot on a boat again.  Never, never. 
        I had apparently forgotten that vow a half dozen years later, as a woman forgets the agony of childbirth, when I agreed to join some friends for a 40th birthday celebration which included a 3-hour gambling excursion out at sea.  A three hour tour.  I should have been very afraid. 
Each of the birthday girl’s eight friends were handed twenty dollars in quarters to start.  When we got far enough out to sea, I put four quarters into a slot machine, and was preparing to pull the lever when the boat swayed slightly.  I left the machine, money and all, and crawled to the front deck, lying down in the proximity of a few other green people.  All I remember of that part of the trip is the inside of my eyelids, concentrating on my breathing, and my ex-partner (this might explain why) coming over to me every twenty minutes or so to whisper in my ear, “Can I have another $5 in quarters?  It doesn’t look like you’ll be spending them.” As she fished the quarters out of my pocket, I tried to form two words: ginger…ale.  But I couldn’t speak, and was left alone again, praying that it might eventually occur to my partner, or to anyone, to bring me a carbonated drink.
         Nine months ago, Noam asked me at the office, “What do you know about zippers?”  He often asks trick questions like this, and I’m usually disinclined to answer without first getting more information. Undeterred by my silence, he said, “I have a large boat cover, and I can’t get the zippers to work.  I’m sure they need to be replaced.”
        “Let me take a look at it. I might get the zippers to work,” I said.  Noam sighed and said, “No, it’s hopeless.  I’m pretty sure they’ll have to be replaced.  Do you know anybody who can do this?”  When he says this, he means me.  I took the cover home, wondering if I consistently led him to believe I was capable of anything, and at the same time wanting to prove to him, the person who had recently been voted "The world's number one intellectual" by Great Britain, that I was capable of anything.  So now I’ve answered my own question. It’s true: I want him to think he can ask me to do anything.  I want him to brag about me. So I took home an oversized green plastic bin with a large blue boat cover tucked inside it.  I didn’t even know how the cover fit the boat, so I wasn’t sure which zipper connected to another.  I won’t admit what I did at first, but let's just say that one would assume, watching me, that I knew nothing about zippers.  What I did second was to spray the zippers, which were white with salt water corrosion, with wd-40 lubricant.  That seemed to do the trick.  I checked the stitching on each zipper and then made sure all the zippers slid up and down without a lot of effort, and returned the cover to Noam, who, as usual, proclaimed that I was brilliant, and I forgot about it over the winter. 
        So it was a surprise to me when we picked Noam up to take him to his boat, and he emerged from his cottage carrying in both arms the bulky boat cover.  Now a new wave of anxiety spread through me. What if it didn’t work?  Then again, what if it did and he took us out on the boat and I felt motion sick or my dog panted herself anxiously into an early grave or I stuck my hand in the bubbling water of the boat’s wake and lost a finger to a rogue shark and tried to keep it to myself so as not to spoil the ride? These are the things I think.
        “When we get there, we can put the cover back on the boat every wrong way until we get it on the right way,” Noam announced.  Sounded good to me, since I still couldn’t fathom what the heck we were covering with this brilliant blue expanse of canvas with its odd configuration of zippers and flaps.
        Meanwhile, I was revving myself up worrying about whether Roxy would tolerate the noise of the motor, and what I imagined would be a bumpy ride. She was out of her element, and was already stressed with the near-100-degree weather. I admit now that I was probably projecting my own fears onto my dog.  I pulled myself together and started driving toward the boat, until Noam interrupted me.

        "Uh, Bev, can we make a stop at the post office first?" he asked.
         I don’t know what it is, but it seems to me that nobody over 70 can begin their day without a trip to the post office.  Noam got out of the car and walked toward the post office door, his upper torso leaning slightly forward as he made his way around the other people going about their business at the nearby grocery and hardware stores.  As I watched him, I thought to an outsider he could look like anyone’s frugal grandfather, or perhaps a simple man of few resources, as the elbow of his shirt was torn.  I wondered why he didn’t wear some of the new summer shirts I had ordered him from an LL Bean catalog, but then again, it's possible I just wasn’t up to date on Cape Cod summer chic.  When I reminded him of his new shirts later in the day, Noam explained his logic. "My granddaughter Ema paid extra for the tears in her jeans, so I'm sure my shirt is in style."  If you know anything about Noam Chomsky, you know that it's senseless to argue with him.
        “Ok, now we have to make a stop at the pharmacy,” he said, getting back into the car in the post office parking lot. We drove a couple of blocks, and he disappeared into the pharmacy, returning a minute later holding up a jar of Vaseline petroleum jelly. In the split second of time between Noam holding up the jar of Vaseline and his explanation, random scenes of my early childhood shot disturbingly through my head; all were of my mother taking our temperatures when we were sick. Not orally, nor under our armpits.  I'll leave it at that.  Noam started to speak, and I was jolted into the present moment in the front seat of my car, fifty-five years later, trying to separate my memories of Vaseline from the picture of my boss holding up the jar between index finger and thumb, as if promoting it in a TV commercial.
        "I buy this every year, and then I lose it.  I have to put it…” and then everything became surreal, and went into slow motion as he continued...on…I was aware of the dissipating boundaries…my...please god...and in the brief moment between words I looked down at his toes, which were a little dry and cracked.  His toes? His feet?  I can deal with that! And then he finished the longest sentence in history…boat.  Fantastic!  He has to put the petroleum jelly on his boat!  I can deal with that!  I would gladly help put Vaseline on his boat.
        Whatever that meant.

To be continued...

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Sufi - A Lesson in Breathing

I wasn’t breathing deeply enough today.  Off and on since my morning shower I did that thing where you remind yourself to breathe, which makes you aware of the necessity of breathing, which you have to admit, is creepy.  We had about a dozen visitors on our schedule, including a young professor discussing her linguistics research, a journalist writing a piece on the outcome of the US elections, a documentarian concerned with the expanding carbon bubble, a teacher from Illinois planning an audio-conference for his high school class, and others.  It might have looked like an ordinary afternoon, but there is never an ordinary day in our office, and this unpredictability causes me to hold my breath.  Planning details of Noam’s upcoming travel kept me from thinking about my breathing for small bursts of time, but still, every once in a while I was acutely aware of a physical need to deepen my in breath, extend the out. 

Near day's end, our final visitor arrived a half hour earlier than scheduled.  I looked up to see him enter the office to hang up his jacket before Glenn, our office assistant, ushered him back out the door to our small waiting area.  In retrospect, the scene reminded me of the Saturday Night Live skit where God comes into the waiting room, and the receptionist asks, “And you would be…?”  “God,” he says.  “And you would be here to talk about…?” “Well, I’m here to talk about eternity.” And the receptionist says, “Ok, have a seat with the others. He's running a little late.”  I worry that asking visitors, especially those who travel long distances, to turn around and wait outside is disrespectful, but our tiny inside hallway is at the center of activity just outside Noam’s office.

I tried to ignore my breathing issue and glanced at our schedule – our last visitor’s name was listed as, “Sufi L…”  I opened the door to welcome him inside, and noticed he had brought along a young female companion.   Noam exited the doorway as they entered, creating a log jam, nodding and promising to return in just a few minutes, after a brief walk.   Roxy remained under her desk during this briefly chaotic moment, which was unusual, because she greets all of our visitors.

Standing just inside the doorway, Sufi first introduced the woman - his assistant.  I greeted her and turned back to him.  When I took his hand, or he took mine, something coursed through me so unexpectedly that I almost lost my footing.  I felt suddenly at ease, like all of my tension had surged from my body.  I took a good look at Sufi’s thick, closely cropped curly hair, clear and ageless face, and into his dark, almost black, eyes, and I realized my error – he was a Sufi, as in the practice of Sufism, which is, to my limited knowledge, a spiritual journey toward truth.    Holding onto his hand, I felt what I’ve heard people describe as a peaceful quiet, or “nothingness.”  Well, nothingness except that I noticed he was very clean shaven.  I would have expected a Sufi to have a beard.  I do need to breathe more.  In fact, this was the first thing my Sufi told me. 

Sure, he had come to talk with Noam about a crucial issue, but he had me at the handshake.  Noam has met with presidents, prime ministers, and ambassadors.  He’s had discussions with physicists and mathematicians, authors, activists and mill workers, academics and artists.  Popular actors, prisoners and pirates, and circus performers fill his schedule.  I e-mail back and forth with everyone requesting to meet with Noam, and sometimes we go off on a personal tangent, but it had been a while since I had the luxury of more than a cursory face-to-face with one of Noam's visitors.

“My” people are wonderful, bright and well-meaning souls on the fringe.  I correspond with homeless people with brilliant and creative ideas, megalomaniacs who want to save the world but can’t productively organize themselves, and others, like the desperate, sweet bipolar man who has lived for years in mental facilities, and is convinced that only Noam Chomsky can release him from his current hellhole.  These are the people I intercept at the front line, managing their numerous and lengthy pleas, to keep Noam from drowning in their loquaciousness.
I said to the Sufi, “The energy around you is startlingly calm.”  His assistant nodded.  “I’ve been working with him for only a week, and I have felt this too,” she said, and I realized then that she was also his student.  Sufi’s smile had the pureness of a newborn baby.  I’m a lousy meditator, a busy, thinking meditator, but for him, I would have listened to the silence.  “Can you feel my frenetic energy?” I asked him, finally letting go of his hand. 

“Yes,” he said.  He wasn’t mincing his words

“You need to breathe more,” he said.  So there it was – or there it was again.  I hadn’t yet mastered the art of breathing and doing my job at the same time.  “Breathe, and be aware.  Stay awake.  Be aware of what happens between the breaths,” he said.  “That is where the ____ is” and I nodded, astonished that we were discussing my breathing, which had been on my mind all day.  As I recalled this moment later, I couldn’t remember what he said was there, between the breaths.  Peace?  Deeper meaning?  The correct spelling of hors d’oeuvres? This was one of the many times I wanted to replay a conversation from a magical, omnipresent tape recorder. I knew that Noam would return any minute, so I walked them both into his office and offered them water, which they accepted, and I left them briefly to fill two cups from the water cooler.

I returned, and handing the Sufi his water, he said to me, “We feel it in here, too.”

“What do you feel?” I asked, giving the other cup to his assistant, and turning again toward him.

“Truth,” he said.  “Truth and goodness.”

 I felt like I had fallen into a pot of pure spiritual gold. The Sufi’s face softened as he looked right at me and said gently, “This is your bliss.  You were born to do this work.”  

His sureness was so stunning that I felt disconnected from the world for a moment. I needed to hear him say it again, but feared that I might pierce his spiritual aura with my unwitting questioning. “Do you mean I was born to work with Professor Chomsky, to work here in this office?”  “Yes,” he said, smiling over at his student, while I wondered what they knew that I didn’t.  I love my job, but to say I was born to do it was a whole other thing.

“You will have no regrets about being here.  When you look back on your time here, there will be no regrets,” he said.  I wanted to believe him; don’t we all need reassurance that we’re spending our days in a meaningful way?

I was fascinated by this Sufi, but the more responsible part of me was becoming concerned at the length of Noam’s absence.  It crossed my mind to go and see if he’d been captured in the hallway, but the selfish part of me decided to stay put for just a few minutes more, as the discussion shifted to one of hopelessness, compassion, and kindness.

Sufi told me he had shown up unannounced at our door several years ago and asked if he could just come in and shake Noam’s hand.  “You let me do it,” he said, “And it was wonderful.  I just ran in and shook his hand and thanked him for all of the good work he does, and I left.” 

“So I was kind to you?” I asked.  “I always try to be kind, but some days it’s difficult to be kind every moment, to every person.”

“Don’t try to be kind,” he said.  “When you try to be kind, then it isn’t real.  You are kind,” he told me.  I was going to assume he meant me, personally, that I was kind, and not just everyone, although I like to believe that we are all basically kind.  I need to remind myself of this some days, when kindness has trouble surfacing from the bottom of a long to-do list. Around this point in the conversation, it hit me that I had stolen one of Noam’s people.  I suppose it wasn’t stealing, exactly.  It was more like borrowing.  A fringe benefit of my employment. This said, I couldn’t shake the feeling that  I was breaking one of the Ten Commandments, translated as:  Thou shalt not covet thy boss’s Sufi.  But I spend a lot of time keeping difficult and demanding people away from Noam, and it had been a while since I spent any significant time with one of his visitors. I needed this Sufi.  I earned him. 

My Sufi was beginning to tell me about his breathing meditation when Noam walked in and broke the spell.  I suppose for the Sufi, the spell was just beginning in earnest. I introduced Noam to the Sufi and his assistant, who were still standing, taking in the books, pictures, posters, and atmosphere of the office.  Noam apologized for his lateness, though I wanted to thank him for it.  As I turned to close the door, I saw the Sufi offering Noam a long, low bow, his hands clasped in front of his chest, his body bent as in supplication.  I felt I was witnessing something deeply personal, and heard Noam ask them to be seated just before the door latch clicked softly into the strike plate.

An hour passed.  I hated to end their session, but since it is part of my job, I knocked on Noam’s office door, opening it to give him a nod. He knows the routine.  Noam wore a new hat and shawl, gifts from the Sufi, and the Sufi’s assistant was taking pictures of the two of them, their hands on one another’s shoulders. I stood and watched from the doorway while everyone said their goodbyes. Outside Noam’s office the Sufi asked me, “May I also have my picture taken with you?” Standing next to the Sufi, our arms around each other like old friends, I noticed that he was shorter than my five feet eight inches. This pleased me, as it somehow made him more accessible, and I felt more grounded.

By now Roxy had surfaced from underneath my desk and walked over to the doorway, where I was standing with the Sufi and his assistant.  Roxy stood at my feet, and it crossed my mind that the Sufi might not like dogs, or may even fear dogs.  As I was thinking this, Roxy looked up at the Sufi and scratched at his pant leg with her front paw.  I was mortified – my dog was scratching a Sufi. I apologized, but the Sufi told me not to worry.  “They are our brothers and sisters,” he said, referring I assumed to the entire animal kingdom. I held Roxy up, mostly so she would stop pawing his leg, and both the Sufi and his assistant marveled at her eyes, which I always thought had the look of an old soul.  I took in a deep, automatic breath when the Sufi bent his head down and kissed the soft, curly fur on the back of Roxy's neck.  My dog had been blessed.  And I was no longer feeling dizzy.  I had begun to breathe again.

To be continued…

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On the Button - Chomsky and Zinn

            When the MIT version of the Gangnam Style video here went viral, I was thinking, wouldn’t it have been great if Noam, one of the world’s major pacifists, had said something more significant than “Oppan Chomsky Style.”  Over five million people would have heard and thought about his words less than two weeks before the election.  What ran through my head were some Beatles’ song lyrics popular during the peace movement of the 60’s and 70’s, at the height of the Vietnam War, when a country of peace activists wanted American’s political leaders to withdraw all troops from Vietnam.  I was about to write the lyrics: All we are saying, is give peace a chance, in an e-mail to Noam when Glenn dumped a box on my desk from our friend Roger Leisner, a photographer, videographer, and very vocal supporter of the legalization of marijuana and hemp. Roger is a great character, and one hell of a dedicated activist.
            Roger has sent us hundreds of photos - hard copies and dvd's - of Noam lecturing or talking with other activists, including politically astute filmmakers, academics, and authors, as well as peace, hunger, and human rights action groups. We have in our archives photos of labor organizers, doctors, and playwrights - people like Howard Zinn, Mel King, Edward Said, Michael Moore, Daniel Berrigan, Paul Farmer, Dorie Ladner, and scores of other local and global activists.  Though some are deceased, most are still with us and continue to correspond with Noam, and many of them have become his personal friends.  I have several framed pictures of Noam and Howard Zinn in our office, taken by Leisner at various events over the years.  The peace movement lost one of its long-time leaders when Zinn, political historian and author of A People's History of the US, died in 2010. 
        Noam and his wife Carol were close friends with Howard and his wife, Roz.  In the fledgling years of the movement, when they got together and talked politics, there was another conversation going on between Carol, a Harvard professor, and Roz, a talented artist, as they commiserated on the possibility that their husbands could end up doing significant jail time for their political actions.  Noam and Howard fought on the front lines of the antiwar rallies from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan and conflicts in between. Things changed for Noam and Howard when both Carol and  Roz were diagnosed with cancer, each making her own personal decision about the way she would live out her life. Roz Zinn died early in 2008, followed by Carol Chomsky in late 2008.  Carol’s death was of course devastating to Noam, and Howard’s death in 2010 brought for him another layer of sadness. Noam was now the only one left standing of the vibrant and dedicated foursome of friends who had shared the early days of political activism, making hefty personal sacrifices along the way.  I think of Noam and Howard as two of the original peace activists.  
            I don’t know what’s in here, Glenn said, rattling the box. 
            “It sounds like more buttons,” I said.  Roger had included political buttons in past mailings, the largest package coming during the beginning of the Occupy Movement. Most of the buttons in that mailing said simply “Occupy,” some bearing the name of a city, and still others the faces of Noam and Howard.  I opened the box and spilled its contents onto my desk – about thirty more political buttons .  The first one I picked up depicted a single black fist, which stood for black power in the sixties, and now more generally for solidarity, support, resistance, defiance, and strength.  Another caught my eye: “I was never aware of any other option but to question everything - Noam Chomsky.”  That spoke to me, and I started to pin it to my jacket while reading another: “Dissent is the highest form of Patriotism – Howard Zinn.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop.  I decided that wearing Noam’s politics on my clothing might not be as effective as hanging the button on an office poster, so I pinned it to a wall hanging hand-delivered to us by a Colombian artisan, and fastened the Zinn button onto my jacket. 
            I added another to my desk lamp, and was sweeping the rest back into the box when I noticed a button that had been hidden under the others.  It was striking – red, orange and yellow colors inside the spaces of a thick, black peace sign.  I took my glasses off to take a better look.  Really?  The top half read, “All we are saying is,” and the bottom, “Give Peace a Chance.”  I had serious goose bumps.
            This sort of thing happens to me a lot.  Call it déjà vu, call it coincidence, call it Kismet.  It's what the Sufi calls “The Truth”.  This one I had no problem pinning on, and I wore it for the rest of the day, and during the weekend at a dinner with my activist friends in Maine, and the next morning, when I voted.
            We have been mercilessly bombarded by muckraking multimedia ads which will be thankfully put to rest soon.  Why can’t these candidates and their speech writers just say this simple, positive truth:  The most important thing is to give peace a chance.  It would save a lot of lives.  And there are plenty of places where that money could be spent.  One of Noam’s quotes – to me the most salient - is printed on a small black and red poster sent to us by a high school student, who made it for a class project. It is taped to our glass library door near my desk. It says:  “We can be fairly confident that either there will be a world without war, or there won’t be a world."
This November, I voted for the one who looks like he cares even a little bit more than the other that there will be a world to which we can bring peace.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Staple Gun Control - A scary moment

Turning the corner toward my office one morning, I was caught off guard by a disheveled middle-aged man glowering at me from a chair in our waiting area.  Each of his white-knuckled hands gripped an opposite end of a thick, white three-ring binder with a multitude of colored tabs sticking out at odd angles from dog-eared pages.  He was of medium stature and build, but his eyes were dark. I checked my mental calendar - it was Wednesday, one of the days Noam works at home, and Morris Halle was on vacation with his wife, Roz.  It was also Glenn’s day off, so I wasn't expecting anyone else to be in the office today.

“Can I help you?” I asked, trying to conceal a rising feeling of discomfort, as a lesson I learned in the late ‘80’s from an African safari flashed through my head -- never turn and run from a predator, because it will smell your fear and chase you down. 

“I’ve been sitting here for two hours,” he hissed. 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, “but our office doesn’t open until 10 am on Wednesdays.”  I was wondering how he had managed to navigate MIT's maze of building to find our office, which is tucked away down the side passageway at the end of a long corridor on the 8th floor of the Stata Center.  I figured I shouldn't underestimate this guy.  If nothing else, he was resourceful.

“I used my disability check to travel over fifteen hundred miles to have a talk with Professor Chomsky about my situation, which has become extremely urgent.”

I nodded my head while I tried to decide whether to open the office door and let myself in – which would mean letting him in – or to stand there holding my backpack, a bag of books for the library, and my keys.  I was simultaneously wondering why this building wasn’t more secure.  
 “I slept outside for a few hours last night, and I’m hoping that your boss will be able to help me,” he said, looking almost through me with unblinking eyes.  “I have proof of my dire situation.  It’s all here in my notebook.  I’ve been writing it all down for years.”
“I’m so sorry,” I repeated.  I really did feel sad for this poor soul, but I was equally afraid of pissing him off. “But Professor Chomsky won’t be in for the rest of the week.”

“Are you his secretary?” he asked me in an eerily even tone. 

“I’m his assistant.  We have a part time assistant, but he’s not in today.”  I knew immediately that I had said too much. I do that when I'm nervous.  It would have been wiser to tell this guy that my assistant would be right back.  My big, tall, muscular assistant.  It didn’t matter that Glenn, though very athletic, and certainly tall, is neither big nor visually muscular, because he wasn’t going to show up.  That was my second mistake.  My first mistake had been to ignore my gut instinct to flee – after all, my office is not the African Serengeti. My third mistake was unlocking the door and letting him in. I pocketed my keys and laid everything down on the floor next to my work table. I wanted to get this visit over with. Despite everything, and this is probably my downfall, there was something gentle and soft in his manner, and I felt the kind thing to do before showing him the door was to let him inside and listen to him for a minute, and promise to get his message to Noam.  I felt it was in my best interest not to get on this guy’s bad side, though looking back with a clear mind, it would have been best to ask for help right away, and have him escorted out of the building.

For the next six or seven minutes we sat side by side at my table as he showed me his notebook filled with colored lines, words, and arrows, with smudged notations of varied sizes in pen, pencil and marker.  As he opened it to one page and then another, he said things like, “This proves that a government agency is following me and using mind control to get me to aid in their criminal acts.  This group of criminals – and they themselves are the criminals - are inflicting relentless pain and torture on me.” 

When he said, “There are children outside my apartment who stare at me with their strange eyes, sucking on lollipops, taunting me and teasing me,”  I stood up, trying not to be too abrupt, and said I was sorry he had to endure all of this, but it was time for him to go.  He pushed his chair back from the table and stood a foot from me, eye to eye, and asked, “Do you think I’m a dangerous person, Bev?  I have never in my life committed a crime.”  I hated the way he said my name.

Working all these years as Chomsky’s gatekeeper, I am not a stranger to strange behavior or mental illness.  We had questionable mail sent to us during the reign of the Unabomber, and in fact were questioned by the FBI when Ted Kaczynski was arrested, because he had cut out some of Noam’s statements and pasted them on the walls of his cabin.  Another guy taped large anti-government thought bubbles on our Bertrand Russell poster when nobody was in the outer office, and then went next door to Au Bon Pain and heaved himself through a plate glass window.  One woman harassed me for years saying, “If the good Professor Chomsky is such a humanitarian, why won’t he let a homeless woman sleep on his couch until she finds a place to live?” I usually feel relatively safe at my office, but once in a while, despite my efforts at self-protection, the shiny scales of an uninvited visitor with a dark agenda slithers under my door and settles at my feet.  I had handled these folks, many of whom seem more dangerous than they are in reality, so I thought I could handle this guy.  But part of me knew I might  be dealing with something darker here.  

He was standing between me and the door. “So, Bev, I asked you a question.  Do you or do you not think I am a dangerous person?” This might have been a trick question, but I took my best guess.
“No, of course not,” I lied.  “But I have a lot of work to catch up on, and I have to...”

He cut me off and reached down and picked up a heavy-duty gray metal stapler from the work table and waved it in the air. “If I were a dangerous person, Bev, I would take this staple gun and smash it over your head.  And that would be a crime.”

I had officially escalated from ‘very concerned’ to ‘scared shitless.’  I suppressed the urge to scream, and I must have stopped breathing because the room began to sway.  I took in a deep breath to steady myself so that he wouldn't smell my fear. The possibility that I could be hurt made my mind both sharper and more disconnected. “And I assume you are not going to do that," I heard myself say.

“Of course not,” he said, looking at me sarcastically, as if I were some kind of idiot to suggest it.  “In fact, I feel that I’ve wasted my time and what little money I had coming here.” 

My throat was dry. I was too stressed to deliver more than a standard line. “I’m sorry to hear that, but most people call months ahead for an appointment with Professor Chomsky.”  What was I expecting him to do? Did I expect him to stand back and apologize for inconveniencing me, promise to contact me through the proper channels, and then waltz out the door with his multi-colored notebook and my now-it-looks-like-a-weapon-to-me heavy gray stapler in hand?

“Lady, this is a matter of extreme urgency," he said, shedding all pretense of politeness.  I don’t have time to listen to you talk down to me. There are things going on in the world that are not right, and Professor Chomsky, I thought…”  His voice cracked, and he paused for a few seconds, and then his speech slowed, “…I thought was someone who could help me figure this out. But obviously this office is no different than any other useless place,” he said.  He was crying.

“I’ll get you some water,” I said, feeling a weakness in my legs as I sidled over to the cooler, which was conveniently stationed next to my exit.  I filled a plastic cup with water from the cooler, putting my back to the door, pressing the lever handle with my left hand while offering him the water with my right.  If I learned anything that morning, it was that I should under no circumstances hand this guy a big ceramic mug.

“It hurts so much,” he said.  “The voices are constant, and they won’t stop haunting me.”
I pulled a tissue from a box on the shelf next to the cooler and handed it to him, keeping silent as he blew his nose. “The pain is unbearable.  I can’t find a way to stop it.”

When he took his last sip of water, I said, “I’ll walk you to the elevator.”  By some miracle, he followed me out, and as I glanced in his direction, I could see the lifeless, impenetrable darkness still clouding his eyes.  I watched with great relief as he entered the elevator and disappeared behind the large silver sliding doors.

I had been shaken, but felt more in control as I walked back toward my office. I pulled on the door, and found it was locked.  Since I had never unlocked it from the inside a half hour before, even if I had screamed for help, nobody would have gotten in without a key. I looked behind me down the hallway. The coast was clear.  I unlocked the door again and took a deep breath as I sat down at my desk and called Noam to tell him what had just happened.

“You can’t take this sort of thing lightly,” he told me.  “I’m totally serious, Bev.  I want you to arrange for an escort out of the building tonight.  You can’t take any chances.  Get someone, maybe the MIT police, to walk you to your car at the end of the day.”

I never saw the man again that day, although I did end up getting an escort from one of our strong tall male faculty.  

I don't fully understand how the paranoid people I’ve come in contact with share the idea that the government is listening in on their lives, whether via covert spies or through devices implanted in their fillings by agents posing as dentists. I think they see Noam as a strong and humane individual with a lot of knowledge about how the system works, who can save them by confronting their evil torturers.

My partner Laura, a nurse psychotherapist, later explained to me that this delusion is a common experience for people who hear voices in their heads.  She suggested that they have to find a way to reconcile these voices, so through their paranoia they come to believe that thoughts are being forced on them.  The man with the colored notebook was a perfect example of this.  Poor guy.  I hope he has found some peace.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Disarmed - Catherine Keener's surprise visit

            On a hectic Friday in late 2008, Amy Berg was scheduled to interview Noam for her production company, the aptly named Disarming Films.  Amy is known for her interviews with priests for a documentary on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, called “Deliver Us From Evil”.  Her crew arrived at our office at MIT’s Stata Center almost an hour earlier and asked for extra interview time from the minute they arrived - joking, hinting, practically insisting on more time, and showering extra attention on my dog.
  I held fast to our agreement of forty- minutes for the interview, which would follow a thirty-minute set-up, and they finally gave up and focused on arranging lights and cameras in Noam’soffice.  Amy and I had e-mailed to coordinate the shoot, but had never met. I liked her right away when she blew in the door minutes before the interview and introduced herself, offering first her hand, then a genuine smile as she laughed about the impossibility of her overly-scheduled day.
Amy Berg had personality and obviously the smarts and clear focus required for the task at hand, and she left me with a good feeling when she disappeared around the corner to check on the progress of her crew.  I figured they were almost set to begin filming when her production assistant emerged and asked one last time for a fifteen-minute interview.
   I felt my mother, Charlotte, bubbling up inside me. “If… I… have… to...tell… you…… more… time...” My mother’s threat had no actual ending, aside from an occasional"I will send you straight to the moon,” or she would simply pump her small fist in the air, her thumbtucked neatly inside curled fingers. (My father liked to point out that if she actually landed a punch,she would break her thumb.)  I looked up at the production assistant and held myself back from screaming out Charlotte’s famous follow-up threat:  “Now don’t make me say it again!” I asked my inner Charlotte to quiet down so I could deal with this as the full grown adult I like to think I am.
   I am not patient by nature, so it was an effort to hide my frustration as I looked her in the eye with as much sadness and regret as I could gather and said, once again, that there was nothing –nothing - I could offer them beyond the forty minutes of filming we agreed to.  I turned back to the pile of travel folders on my desk as a she retreated once again into Noam’s office, though I guessed from experience that this situation wouldn’t end on a pleasant note.
  Noam returned from a short break and sat next to me to sip some coffee, check out who was next on the roster, and chat a little about what Barack Obama, our first black president, would face as he prepared to take office in another month.  The crew finally gave us the signal that they were ready, and I ushered Noam into his office to be mic’ed.  I returned to my desk, certain that in forty minutes, when I poked my head in the door to say time was up, the crew would point to Noam and shrug their shoulders while mouthing something like, “Sorry!  This is not our fault – look! - he’s still talking!” I decided to worry about that when the time came.  My work was piling up.
  I had barely touched my keyboard when I heard a brand new, somewhat raspy, woman’s voice coming from behind me.  I felt my mother re-emerging, and checked my expression before bracing myself to turn my chair around one…last…time.
  “I’ve been told to try to get a little more interview time,” she said, her voice slightly familiar. When my chair finished its full swing, I recognized her face, but I couldn’t place her.
            “Do I know you?” I asked. ‘Brilliant,” I thought to myself, and I was surprised to find I was coming a little undone.  As if I wouldn’t have remembered this woman – she was beautiful, with thick, dark wavy hair. 
            Her smile was enchanting, and her presence conveyed freckle-faced innocence and a sort of classy worldliness.  She was both Maryann and Ginger.  I suddenly felt less like the grown woman in charge of Noam Chomsky’s well being, and more like Gilligan, the Skipper’s little buddy.  And in her slightly gravelly voice she said to me, “Some people think I’m either their cousin or a famous actress.”
            “I know you’re not my cousin,” I said, 
            She extended her hand.  “Hi, I’m Catherine Keener.”
            “Hi,” was all I could muster as I mentally listed the movies I had seen her in:  Capote, Being John Malkovich, Forty Year Old Virgin.  
            We chatted for a few minutes about how she had come to be here with Amy Berg.   "We're close friends, and when I found out that Amy was coming to MIT to interview Noam, I begged her to let me tag along.  I had to meet The Professor.” 
            It’s a double-sided surprise when someone who wants so much to meet Noam is a person I’m excited to meet – like Keener.  I hadn’t recognized her at first because I hadn’t expected to look up and see an actress in my office.  This had happened before with other people, like Peter Coyote, Wallace Shawn, and Yareli Arizmendi, another dark-haired beauty who had shown up with her hair tied back, looking more like a childhood friends than a movie star. Yareli had a lead role in the movie, Like Water for Chocolate, which I loved and had watched a few times. Her husband, Sergio Arau, had come to present Noam with a piece of his original artwork, which bore an inscription voiced by a lot of people who come to talk with him: “Thank you for helping us tell the real story.”  In fact, that’s why Berg was meeting with Noam.  To get the real story on several different issues for two future documentaries she was planning.
 I would lose my integrity if I suddenly changed my time-honored protocol.  Word travels fast about these things. What would happen to my credibility if people learned through the grapevine that I was a soft touch.  Visitors work hard to expose my Achilles heel with offerings of dark chocolate, dog treats for Roxy, t-shirts, flowers, and goodies from Dean and Deluca.  Some try to disarm me in writing: “I've heard that the schedule is very tight, and that you are a tough gatekeeper, but we promise not to go over time…" "We promise to be respectful…" "We will bring sandwiches for Prof. Chomsky…" "We have nice wine from Spain…"  "We own a vineyard in Italy..."   
             “Why don’t we see how it goes?” I told Catherine, and then she disappeared into the office to listen in on the interview.
            I never said I could grant them ten or fifteen more minutes, but my suddenly-compromised brain was scrambling to find extra time for the crew.  No bribe had changed hands – but a small request from an awesome actress had just shaken the ordinary out of my day, and I had to respond.  I had to give her something.
            In the end, they got an extra twenty minutes, but only because the next appointment was late.  That’s what I like to tell myself. While the crew packed up and prepared to clear out of Noam’s office, Noam again sat next to me to see what was up for the last hour of our day, and to collect and review the next week's schedule.  Catherine strolled over to thank Noam for the interview, and knelt to rub Roxy’s belly while Noam and I finished our conversation and turned our attention to her.  “I think you should take Roxy to a vet and have her checked out.  Her belly fells a little hard,” she told me.  I had no worries about Roxy’s health, and put her advice aside as the three of us chatted. It was interesting to sit back and watch what was happening – we were talking in an easy manner about Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the Stata Center, about Noam’s work, and Catherine’s acting.  When will I learn to carry around my pocket voice recorder?  Such a circle – I was excited to be talking with her, she was excited to be talking with Noam, and Noam was just being himself, looking down every once in a while in the middle of serious conversation to remark on the forlorn look on Roxy’s face.  I keep telling him not to worry – that is just her look.
“I’ll send you dvd’s of a few of my movies,” Catherine said on her way out, adding that she doesn't really like to promote herself in this way.      
           An hour after she left, I was wrapping up the day when the phone rang.  “Hi, Bev, it’s Catherine.”  OMG, Catherine Keener and I were in a first-name-chat-by-phone relationship.  I was definitely star-struck, though part of me felt oddly at ease, as if she were a long-time friend, I think because she was so unaffected.  “I called to thank you for letting me sit with Noam and you.  That short visit at the back of your office was one of the most exciting of my life.”
           As my friend Deb likes to say, “Are you even kidding me?”  But really, why not? 
A few days later Roxy was acting lethargic, and had an obvious belly ache.  I’ll save you the details, but I took her to the vet, and was shocked when they suggested running some tests.  It turned out she is allergic to people food, even very small quantities.  The cure was relatively simple, though more expensive than the first used car I bought in 1972.  We gave her antibiotics and put her on prescription dog food to keep her intestines from becoming inflamed again.
  I wrote Catherine and suggested that she add “Dog Whisperer” to her long resume.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cross Words

In memory of my mother, Charlotte L. Boisseau

Cross Words

My mother, Charlotte, loves crossword puzzles, so we always seek out a couple of newspapers when we arrive at Dana Farber for her chemotherapy infusion every third Monday morning.  I have never warmed to these puzzles, but find myself leaning toward her, and away from my own reading, to see if I can help her fill in some of the spaces.  Yesterday's puzzle was unusually difficult - maybe because neither of us slept well the night before, afraid we might miss our morning alarms.

Most of the patients looked particularly sick during this visit, so to make it more bearable, I focused on the young, bald-headed young woman in her mid twenties sitting across from us, her ears plugged with earbuds, her eyes closed as she swayed slightly and mouthed the words to the music on her ipod.  "Cancer is a big business," I said to my mother. "Years ago, people died with cancer cells in their bodies, and they never knew it, they never felt sick. Now people have to go through all of this."  It's true that radiation and chemotherapy also save lives, but when such a high percentage of people end up with some form of cancer?  You have to wonder what's going on. I thought about a book an author sent to Noam years ago called "The Celling of America,"   That title always stayed with me.

While my mother was having her chemo port inserted, I snatched the crossword puzzle from the seat of her wheelchair.  One clue was "Something you do before going to bed."  The answer was one of those long ones the length of the puzzle, and I knew it began with an "s" and had a "the" in the middle, ending with an "f".  My mother was gone quite a while, and I was starting to worry - a normal reaction for me - so I concentrated on that one line, filling in what I could around it.  Then I got it.  "Shutthelightsoff."

This took me back in time to when my parents put my younger brother and sister and me to bed, and sometimes left the hall light on by mistake.  Just as I was thinking this, my mother returned, and I threw down the newspaper like a thief caught in the act.  "I found the phrase for you, here," I said, holding the paper up again, and pointing.  She looked at the puzzle as I wheeled her to our next stop, where we would wait to meet with her oncologist.  Sitting there, I asked her, "Do you remember when we were little, what we would do when you and Dad left the light on after putting us to bed?"

"Yes, you would all sing from your beds, 'Shut... the light off'' until we heard you and shut the light off."

"Why do you suppose we said it that way, singing it, with a pause after 'shut?' I asked, but she didn't know.

It was a silly thing to ask her, but I suppose I asked simply because she was next to me, and I could.  A while later, as we waited for the preparation of the chemo cocktail, we worked again on the crossword puzzle.  "Oh, 26 down is 'aria' I said, and she nodded and wrote it in.  When we sat together with a puzzle, there was no edge, just mother and daughter working together.  Just this, as my Sufi would say.

Sometimes over the years she has raised her voice for no apparent reason, and when one of us asked her why she was yelling, she would yell, "When I die, I want you kids to put this on my gravestone: 'I was never yelling.  That was just my voice.'"  This of course always made us laugh - all of us except my mother, who failed each time to get the joke.

Noam Chomsky, my boss, and the person I spend two full days with each week, is just the opposite of this. He speaks softly, and in almost twenty years, I've heard him yell only once, during the time when his wife Carol was ill, and he wasn't getting much sleep.  He was on a phone interview, and I could hear his voice rising through his closed door.

"If you're going to ask me a question, then you need to let me answer!"  Then he started to answer, and repeated, "I said, if you're going to ask....You asked me a question, and I would like to answer...ARE YOU GOING TO LET ME ANSWER?  YOU ARE?  THEN  STOP TALKING AND LET ME..I'M GOING TO HANG UP THE PHONE IF YOU DON'T LET ME ANSWER YOUR...."

And for the first, and last time in my presence, he slammed down the receiver.  I wasn't sure what to do, so I just sat there for a while in the ensuing quiet, then got up and made him some tea.

"Charlotte B," the nurse called out, and I wheeled her toward the doorway to begin her chemo - our last stop before we entered a twilight zone until the relief of watching the nurse remove her IV.  Our routine was always the same, and our favorite part was taking the elevator to the first floor of Dana Farber where we paid for parking and waited for the valet service to retrieve my mother's car from the garage for our drive home.  My mother would experience two wonderful, energetic days followed by almost a week of utter exhaustion, which left her with barely two weeks to enjoy a different kind of normalcy before our next round of chemotherapy and crossword puzzles.

This business of cancer is something to talk with Noam about when he returns from his latest trip, this time to Gaza and Cairo, where he is, as usual, offering up the truth and trying to bring some peace to the world, one word at a time.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Chilly Reception

Noam has many times benefited from my household skills and handy work, which can be impressive to people who don't try to fix anything on their own - like Noam.

So when Laura and I visited him on the Cape in early June to help him open up his family's summer home for the season, the three of us were surprised by Noam's new-found problem-solving skills.

This is an excerpt from an essay (another work in progress) called "Cape Crusaders" -- 


          ... Our plan was to put the items we had bought for Noam's summer home in place and then run down the path to check out the infamous pond that I had heard about since back when Noam and Carol were enjoying their very first grandchildren.  Noam wasn't due to show up for an hour or two.
            I opened the refrigerator to put away the food. It was warm.  I looked at the dial just inside the door - it was set to “D” – I figured that meant “Defrost” so I moved it to a number – I chose 3 to start, then 2, then 1.  Nothing happened.  Laura was on the deck admiring the view, the smells, the sounds of the Cape that were so dear to her.  As a child growing up in California, she made some of her happiest memories visiting her grandparents in Harwich every summer; she particularly loved rowing their small boat on the bay, where the river met the ocean. I was reluctant to pull her away, but at the moment practicality trumped sentimentality, so I called out to her.
        “I need help moving the fridge.  I want to see if it’s plugged in.”  Laura turned slowly from the deck railing, and her face had a soft look on it; like she had come home, but there was also a hint of sadness. I made a mental note to talk with her about it later. Back in the kitchen, we moved the brooms, folded grocery bags and other items from either side of the fridge and nudged it forward, rocking and pulling, careful not to hurt our backs or to send the batteries, paper towels and paper plates perched on top flying.  We pulled it out far enough to look behind and see that the plug, beneath a fuzzy layer of dust, was where it was supposed to be - in the socket.  So that wasn’t it.
       “I’d better call Noam. He may know where the fuse box is.  They probably flip it off in the summer,” I told Laura after scouring the house, inside and out, looking for it.  I take pride in my home repair skills, and often help Noam out with small things at his home.  Truth be told, the things I fix for him are often not broken in the first place.  Like the time his garage door was ‘broken’ and I figured out that the lock button was depressed on the mechanism near the inside door to his house.  I unlocked it, and it worked again, and now Noam likes to talk about the time I miraculously fixed his garage door, which he hadn't been able to open for weeks that winter.
            With Roxy at my heels, I crossed the small dining area, walked through the large sliding door to the side deck, and started down the wide wood stairway to my car to get my cell phone.  Someone was pulling up in a sand-colored sedan, and I figured it must be David Rowell, Noam's next door neighbor and handyman, who told me earlier that he might pop over.  I approached the car with my friendliest face, wiping at the sweat, and saw that it was Noam.  He was early. His hair was cut short in preparation for his three-day Scotland trip, and he was wearing large black sunglasses of the sort people wear after cataract surgery.  Although I had accompanied him to and from the hospital for his second surgery, I had never seen him wearing the plastic glasses.       
          I gave Noam a welcoming wave, and he got out of the car beaming at us, looking relaxed in his well-worn sandals, beige shorts, and a t-shirt, an outfit I imagine had become his regular Cape attire through almost forty years of summers, rather than the blue Oxford button-down shirts, jeans, and black sneakers he always wore at the office.  I felt fortunate to experience an intimate part of Noam’s life that I had previously witnessed only through stories and photos.
            “I’m glad you’re here,” I said, giving him a quick, firm hug.  “I was just coming out to get my cell phone to call you.” I really was happy to see him, but I have to admit that I was also disappointed at not being able to surprise him, and I was kicking myself for not running down to the pond when we first got there, because now it would have to wait.
             “And I was just wondering where my cell phone was so I could call and let you know I was here!” he said, looking pleased at this small, sweet coincidence which in my mind confirmed our growing bond.
            “I see you’ve brought the cat!  She looks hot, poor thing.”  He was referring to Roxy, who was panting in the heat. She had plenty to drink, but the air quality was poor and the temperature was nearing 95. Laura and I would have panted if we could.
          “So, Noam, I was going to ask you how to turn on the refrigerator.  It seems to be off,” I said before I could stop myself, wishing I had given him time to fully arrive before handing him a problem.
            “Oh, it’s off?” he asked.  “I thought David was going to turn everything on.  I hope it’s not broken.”  When faced with a mechanical or technical problem, Noam always assumes the worst.  Noam and Laura exchanged hugs and together we climbed the stairway to the roomy wrap-around deck, sliding open the heavy glass door to the main level of the cottage, walking in single file the few yards to the small kitchen area to figure out what was wrong with the refrigerator. 
            Noam made his Norman Thayer impersonation, squinting his eyes at the inside of the fridge, touching a dial inside the door.  “I saw that it was set on ‘D,’ I assume for defrost, so I moved it to number three,” I said, so that he would know I had been thinking this through.  “Laura and I pulled it out from the wall, and it is plugged in,” I added, trying to convey my thoroughness.  “We can go and get some ice and fill the small cooler,” I began, as Noam’s head disappeared farther inside the fridge, near the left hinge. 
            “What’s this On button?” he called out, pushing it, and causing the refrigerator to shake, hum and whirr in response.
            Noam’s head emerged and lifted in disbelief and joy as he turned to me and pumped his fist in the air like an Olympian who had just scored a perfect ten.  “I did something that you couldn’t do!  I fixed something you couldn’t fix!” Lewis Carroll might have said Noam was chortling in his joy.
            “What?! There was an On button?” I yelled?  “I would have found it!  I would have figured it out if I had another minute!  I would have looked there!  I was distracted by the defrost button!”  Now I was beginning to sound like a Dr. Seuss poem - Not fair – it was where?  I did not find the button there!
            He was gloating. “Are you going to write about how I showed you how to operate the refrigerator?  You’d better write about how I showed you for once how to do something technical,” he said.  I wanted to  stand there and pout, but I needed some air -- it was getting hotter in the kitchen than it was outside.