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...