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… no...one… 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. 


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Zoned Out

It was raining today, so Noam let me borrow his hooded rain jacket.  I zipped up the front and rolled the sleeves on this larger, beige-er version of my yellow jacket, which I had left at home, to walk Roxy between interviews.  While it felt familiar, the scent of it was not mine. Noam's rain jacket smelled like his whole life. Like walking a mile in someone else's shoes, my shoulders felt the heaviness of the loss of his wife, Carol, who most likely ordered the jacket from a catalog for him, taking it out of storage for the season, folding it up and carting it to their summer home where he has worn it with his now-gray sneakers in a drizzling Cape Cod rain to plant daylillies in the dampened, loose earth, and to trim the rose bushes.  On another day he would build up the slope to prevent a small hillside of eroding sand and grass from sliding toward the gray, bedecked clapboard house.  The slight scent of mothballs and coffee evoked visions of home, early morning autumn strolls, and sunset walks down the pond's steep summer path to find the dragons' hiding places with his grandchildren.

Earlier today, a film crew member sat in Noam's chair, preparing his interview for their documentary on The 99%.  She wore Noam's glasses to allow the crew to check and correct for glare before filming. Celik, the producer, chuckled when I said that she was looking at life through Professor Chomsky's lenses. I had worn them before, for other crews on other days, and I have to admit that something about wearing Noam's glasses made me feel smarter, more insightful, even argumentative. Maybe it was all in my mind, but I have to admit to closing my eyes when I wore them, to keep my head from aching, as if his last thoughts clung to them, waiting impatiently to get back to the business of thinking.

Noam was sick with yet another bad cold, most likely as a result of the usual - too much contaminated airplane air and too little sleep.  He sat next to me sipping hot tea while the crew prepared the set. "How's your mother doing today?" he asked, knowing that my mother is being treated for lung cancer - the same demon that took his wife nearly four years before.  I was thinking that, as rich as my time is with him, I wanted to go to my mother's house and make her hot tea, and maybe play a game of scrabble. My mother plays strictly by the rules - something that used to annoy me, but her toughness comforts me now. I'm sure her illness brings back memories for Noam, but he's also a sincerely caring and empathic person who knows what's going on with whom in his family and among his friends.  Like me, Noam has a worry queue.  If someone falls out of that queue, I ask him, "so who will fill that queue now?" And although there's always someone else to worry about, we laugh.  In fact, we laugh a lot in that office, despite the scattered darkness on the subjects of war, terrorism, media manipulation, bad politics, bad policies, climate change, and the rest. If we didn't, I might have left long ago. Credit for my staying goes to the flip side of watching Noam's and others' unwavering focus on the truth of these matters.

There's a richness in working for Noam of a sort I couldn't imagine when I first took the job in the early 90's, as there's richness in sitting through tests and chemotherapy with my mother.  It's all about my comfort zone. Traveling with Noam to Italy took me out of my comfort zone more than once.  I'm not used to functioning on one hour of sleep in a country where I don't understand the language. Nor did I think myself capable of watching chemical cocktails drip into the veins of my own mother.  My mother sits back in her recliner, and like Art Linkletter's five year old kids, says the darndest things, making everyone in the room laugh. Just months before, the woman in the chair just six feet away lost her mother to the same lung cancer for which she, herself, is now being treated.  She laughs along with us, then the room falls silent while she struggles to swallow a dry piece of bread from her complimentary sandwich. There is a collective holding of breath and several offerings of water until she takes a sip from her own water bottle and begins to look more comfortable.  The rest of us resume our quiet chatter in an effort to regain some normalcy, and the tension eases considerably when she chimes in once again.  Life comes in moments. The funny things that come out of my mother's mouth and the humor of the woman's sister raise everyone's spirits once again, and our nurse, hearing us laughing, enters the space we share with this family and slides open every curtain to its end point, exposing our room to the narrow hallway.  "It's wonderful to hear you all laughing," she says.  "It's true you know, laughter really is healing." She thanks us and walks back to her cubicle less than five yards away.  In retrospect, I'm sure the nurses welcome our high spirits on their own behalf, as well. What better gift for such a skilled, and most likely stressed, group of people?

I had a dream the night before that my mother was standing on her own two feet, changing her shirt.  She looked healthy and at ease. She was so afraid she was dying when diagnosed with cervical cancer less than four years ago, which was curable.  Now there are spots on her lungs, and although it's not curable, we were told that treatments will allow her to live longer, with a better quality of life. It's her choice to decide what a better quality of life means to her. There are lots of hidden truths that she prefers not to think about, though she jokes about being on borrowed time.  Aren't we all?

"She's having a rough day," I tell Noam, whose horrible, hacking cough seems to be worsening.  "The second day after chemotherapy is always the most difficult."  He looks pensive, and nods, then sighs. We chat for a little while about personal things, and then get back to the business of our office.

"Is that it for me today?" he asks as he tucks the last schedule into his brown leather briefcase. Noam managed to get through seven interviews in all, drinking mugs of fresh coffee, water, and tea with honey. The last crew was packing up.

"Yes, you can go home and get into bed now," I say.

Noam laughs, and gathers up his second briefcase and his rain jacket.  "I'll be sure to follow your sage advice," he says as we hug good-bye, although we both know he will be up until at least 2 am, writing and answering e-mails, new thoughts circling around his well-worn eyeglasses searching for a place to land.

Update on February, 2015: My mother was 83 when I wrote this in late 2012.  She passed away less than four months later.  Noam was 84, and he turned 86 this past December. I feel lucky for the gifts they have both given me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Stata Confusion - a work in progress

My friend Jannie is afraid I will become a "Seduce and Abandon" blogger, since I haven't posted anything since starting my  blog a couple of weeks ago.  No excuses - it's just that I got sick after our trip to Italy, and now Noam is sick, and things haven't gotten back to normal.  Hmm, that makes two excuses.

Let me put my friend Jan at ease.  First, what am I writing, and what do I plan to do with it?

I started writing about eight years ago, just taking notes about what happens at our MIT office, because some days just beg to be put down on paper.  Noam is at the center of most of my pieces, but each piece is different.  And they are all drafts until I figure out how to put them all together as one unit - maybe a book.  I write, in reality, from my own bird's eye view of the office, of Noam, of the people who come to us and how that affects me, us, them.  It's probably best if I just show you something, instead of trying to write about it...

The first draft essay I worked on is called "Stata Confusion," about Noam's first day in the new Stata Center after working for almost half of his life in the old Building Twenty.  Here are a few short excerpts from that work in progress:


By the spring of 2004, when the construction of MIT’s Stata Center, pronounced stay-tuh, and formally known as the “Ray and Maria Stata Center” was completed, I had been managing Professor Noam Chomsky’s office for almost twelve years, and our relationship had grown into one of trust and rapport.  Maybe our bond was a result of my relaxing more into my position as the assistant to this renowned linguist and human rights activist, who is also one of the world’s leading intellectuals.  Maybe we had worked together long enough for me to feel a genuine part of his passionate and profound world, while at the same time seeing him also as a regular human being.  So when the phone rang the morning he was expected at our new offices for the first time, I knew it was Noam, and I knew he was lost.

Any first-time visitor, or resident, no matter how bright, sharp, or knowledgeable, would become confused in this building.  Noam Chomsky was no different.  I picked up the ringing phone and spoke into the receiver.


“Uh, Bev…” he replied.

“You’re lost, aren’t you?”  I said.  For the past three years, as our dear old contaminated Building Twenty was torn down on this very footprint, and construction began on the Stata Center, we had been temporarily housed in an older brick building above Rebecca’s cafĂ© in Kendall Square.  This was Noam’s first foray into Stata.

Noam liked to claim that MIT had put the renegade, activist professors like Wayne O’Neil and himself in Building Twenty to keep them away from the bustle of activity – and people – in the Institute’s main hallways.  I’m not sure it was an intentional move on the part of those who delegated space, but we enjoyed joking that we were too politically controversial to coexist with the rest of MIT’s population.  I realize in retrospect that this idea is quite a stretch, considering the profile of the “typical” student, as there are lots of student activist groups spread around the Institute, and over the years, most of them have invited Noam to lecture or take part in a Q&A session with them.

One of Noam’s trademark sighs blew through my end of the receiver.  “Yes,” he said. “How did you guess?  I’m hopelessly lost. I’m calling from a library area somewhere on the eighth floor, and I can’t find our office.”

I rushed to the elevator and pressed ‘one.’ Riding down to the first floor to meet Noam, I felt nervously excited as I wondered about his reaction to our new space.   I had spent the past couple of months laying out and organizing our modern, though smaller, office suite, unpacking boxes and refilling his bookshelves with authors like Jacobson, Wittgenstein, Russell, Skinner, Jespersen, and Dostoyevsky.  Because the outer office is blessed with straight walls, Noam’s own books and translations, arranged by date, fill two floor-to-ceiling walls of shelves surrounding the work area of our office assistant, Glenn.

The first book on the uppermost shelf is Noam’s Master’s thesis, a thin green book published in 1979.   This thesis has remained the cornerstone of his collection, and so was the first book I picked up and examined at my new job, as I tried to find out more about the man for whom I would be working.  I would like to say that the first thought that came to my mind when I read the thesis title, “Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew,” was, “I really want to read this,” but in reality I was dying to get it out of my hands.  The small green hardback reminded me of a bound collection of poems I read in Junior High School called “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle.”  Both books are thin, army-green volumes of about six by nine inches, and both have a dry, scratchy cover that raises goose bumps across my arms and legs – my version of fingernails on a blackboard.   I could deal with the pronunciations of his titles, but I prayed that the rest of the books were smooth, since I guessed I would be handling them a lot in the coming years.

I had framed and hung some of Noam’s favorite pictures and posters, including a haunting print of three bronzed faceless men holding shovels and picks, which I had learned from Noam represented a horrendous massacre of miners and their families in Northern Chile in 1907.   I gave the glass and frame of this picture a cursory dusting before hanging it and moving to another project.  While I welcome the more hopeful and upbeat visitors and messages, and even find richness talking with those who are struggling, I have to be careful how much misery I take in on any given day.

Having been moved a few times over twenty years, his larger-than-life black and white poster of Bertrand Russell had become tattered.  Thanks to a tenacious member of the Bertrand Russell Society, a group Noam had recently met with, I was able to replace it with a new one, mounted on foam core for stability.  I placed Noam’s favorite Bertrand Russell quote in front of the poster.  It reads:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. 

Bertrand’s quote and his sober expression have provided the backdrop for hundreds of photo ops in Noam’s office.  Since Noam long ago honored me with the title of expert resident photographer, I’ve gotten a few people to loosen up when posing with him by commenting that no matter how many times I snap Bertrand’s picture, he never cracks a smile. And I’m pretty sure that, regardless of how simple or fancy the camera, most people have left Noam’s office with a nice enough picture or two, as well as a close up of my index finger.
On the front wall, I had tacked up Noam’s oversized poster of a blue mailing envelope, the simple address on the front, Palestine, cancelled out by a row of tiny red Stars of David, and “Return to Sender – No Such Address” stamped in the lower left hand corner. This is the first thing that catches your eye when you walk into Noam's office.  On the other side of the room, a new streamlined wood and aluminum table replaced Noam’s old gray metal desk. Gone was the dented gray hanging file drawer which he had pulled out and rested his feet on during countless phone interviews since the Vietnam War era.  The old gray desk, it ain't where it used to be...

When we were preparing to vacate our old building for demolition, I had removed from that top drawer an accumulation of things collected over forty years.  Business cards from the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean press, the BBC, the CBC, and a slew of others. Boxes of paper clips and staples from the old University Stationery store in Central Square, bearing faded paper price tags and probably also dating back to the 60’s.  I had removed a half-empty box of thick, white chalk, Noam’s favorite sturdy white mug, and a fistful of perforated strips of line printer paper rolled up into tight springs.  Noam had developed a habit of rolling these strips in his fingers during phone interviews.  The more intense the interview, the tighter the spring.

“Hi, Noam!” I called out, giving him an enthusiastic wave, its redundancy making me immediately self-conscious. He still intimidates me at times, even after all of our years together.  My issue – not his.  I tried to shake off my uncertainty, and the feeling that Noam’s approval of the building was on my shoulders – after all, it wasn’t as if I had designed it.  

“So, Bev,” he sighed, looking up at the glass ceiling panels and spiral cement staircase, “this is the new place.”  Though he was smiling, he didn’t look particularly thrilled.  

“What do you think?” I asked, reminding myself to relax and breathe, and allow him to process his own reaction. Growing up, my siblings had learned to talk over one another in order to be heard, but also to cover up distress and sadness, and it took me years to realize that silence between thoughts is natural – and comfortable - for many people. This is particularly true of Noam, and after working with him for so long, I had finally begun to catch on.  

“Pretty impressive,” he said, “but I liked our old building.”  I tolerated the quiet, letting him finish his thought. “It was kind of fun when the loose windows fell out into the parking lot.”  We both laughed at the memory of it.   The inside of the elevator was all stainless steel and recessed lighting, and it was suddenly hard to believe that just three years before, the old rickety stairways, creaking floors, and cracked walls of Building Twenty had stood in this same spot. Noam sighed again as we approached the eighth floor.

Finally, the elevator door opened onto our main lounge, its puffy red upholstered seating looking out to a magnificent mix of MIT structures, and the Cambridge and Boston Skylines beyond.   Noam often comments on my perceptiveness, but even I couldn’t read his poker-faced expression this time.  He was taking it in, and I respected his silence again as we walked together past our headquarters office.  My intuition was telling me he was feeling something – a loss, or maybe the feeling that you can’t go home again.  Maybe I was projecting, but it was clear that something was going on in his head.  I was suddenly struck with the awareness that old buildings fall, and new ones rise up.  New students and professors fill the hallways as the older professors’ faces line with stress, wisdom, and the simple and inevitable passing of time.  

Noam is my boss and my friend, but he is also the closest I have to a father, since my own father had died about seven years before.  I could only guess at what he was thinking, and didn’t want to pry too deeply.  

We turned right onto a short corridor of offices already lined with rows of horizontal gray file cabinets, and took another right to our door. I opened it for Noam, standing to the side so that he could enter first. 
to be continued...