Monday, April 22, 2013

Beanie's Beantown Finale

You can't get a new pet to take the place of one that you've lost any more than you can replace your very first car or your favorite threadbare sweatshirt.  Each one has its own personality, feel, and relationship with you.  But that's what I was trying to do when my much loved black and white tuxedo cat, Sam, died just months before my father, in 1997.

I found Sam during a visit to my parents' house after I moved out, when I heard what sounded like a human baby crying near the shed in the back of the property.  "You tak-a da kitty home," the Italian woman who lived next door yelled over to me.  So I did.  From the beginning, Sam made it a habit to crawl up onto my chest while I was lying on my back, positioning herself to stare into my eyes as I read.  After months of this, I finally put down my book and stared back. "What is it?" I asked her. "Are you my grandmother, Florence?"   She slept draped over my head, with her paw on my hand.  Maybe she was my grandmother.  I don't know how old she was when I got her, but I had her for nineteen years.

My mother could never stand to see any of her family in pain, and was eager to help me find a replacement for my irreplaceable cat.  Just weeks after Sam's death, she learned that her cousin had a new litter of kittens, some of them black and white.  We pulled into the driveway of their house in the Lakeview area of Waltham and I met my mother's cousin and his family for maybe the second time in my life.  In the corner of the living room was a basket full of kittens, snuggled up and piled on top of one another inside an old comfy sweater. I reached down inside this basket full of kitties - black and whites, grays, and multi colored, and pulled up the one at the very bottom, a funny looking black and white fluffball with long whiskers on her tiny face that curled inward and met at her nose like the unopened petals of a black-eyed Susan.  To be honest, she looked like a tiny Gremlin, and her nasty hissing as I lifted her from the comfort of her litter mates made her seem more so.  I glanced sideways at a sleek and gentle gray kitten with an admittedly cuter face, but for some reason I still don't understand, I chose the gremlin.  At home we named her Bean for two reasons - she had brown oval paw pads, and she tended to pop straight up from standing like a Mexican jumping bean.

I won't lie and say she had a friendly personality.  In fact, our dog Roxy, who joined us when Beanie was six,  learned quickly to walk a wide berth around her after just one warning scratch to her nose. Many of our friends and family had other nicknames for her:  Mean Bean, Mean Kitty, and That Nasty Cat.  True, she attacked us and bit down on our hands til they bled if we didn't understand her request, but we saw her sweeter side - the one she liked to hide from the rest of the world.  She was our Beanie girl, Beanie Baby, Bean Head. On the Sunday nights when we returned from a bi-monthly weekend in Maine, our tenants knew to let her out after dinner to wait for us.  Laura and I always joked as we neared our home about what we would see at the end of the driveway - little Beanie's face in our headlights, her wide mouth meowing soundlessly outside our car's closed windows as if we had left her for dead.  We hated leaving her, but she despised car rides and would have foamed at the mouth at the four hour trip to Maine, and the four hours back, so we compromised by not staying at our cottage for more than a long weekend, so that we could get home to her.

Just a month or two ago we noticed a small hard bump at the top of her head, but we didn't think too much about it because we were busy with other things.  My mother, Beanie's "finder," passed away in late March.  Just days after we buried her, I decided to follow through on a five-day work trip to Ireland, and when Laura and I returned home, Beanie was great for a day or two, crying for a drink from the bathroom faucet or waiting outside the shower stall for our game of throwing bowls of water onto the shower floor for her to lick up.

Although she didn't seem interested in chasing her plastic jingling balls down the hallway, she continued her habit of turning down our initial offering of cat food and treats until we spooned and scooped enough that she could pick from the smorgasbord laid out in front of her. But late on the second day we noticed the lump on her head had grown, and she had a reddened abscess on her back.  We treated it with hydrogen peroxide, which my mother always insisted could cure anything.  During the following days as her appetite diminished, I took a good look at her and found a lump on her neck, another under her throat, and several on her stomach.  We took her to our vet on a Thursday morning, and she confirmed that Beanie appeared to have a breast lump and other hard tumors that were most likely cancerous judging by the growth on her back. Laura and I quickly agreed that we would spend a couple good days with her and then let her go before she was in any pain.  She was still purring and grooming her gorgeous long black coat with a white ring around her neck which had earned her the temporary nickname "Ringo" early on. Her black and white rear legs resembled pirate boots, which added to her irascible personality.  She was still able to jump on and off the sofa and beds, but she was no longer crying outside our bedroom door in the middle of the night for a drink and extra attention, and only took water from the faucet when we lifted her onto the sink and held our wet fingers to her mouth. She seemed to have forgotten all of her familiar routines, including eating.  The sight of her treats in an untouched pile pulled at my heart.

Early Friday morning, I woke to purring.  Laura is allergic to cats, but the morning routine is this:  Laura gets out of bed an hour or so before I do, pulling up the sheets and comforter on her side of the bed and throwing decorative bedding over her sleeping pillows.  After Bean's second breakfast and third drink of water, she jumps on the bed to lay next to me, and all was well with the world when I opened my eyes and found her there, knowing Roxy would join us once she and Laura returned from their morning walk.  On this particular morning, Laura lifted her up onto the bed.   As I petted her, I was hit with the realization that this was her last full day with us, and I hated to go to work and leave her.  I whispered to Bean how much I enjoyed our mornings together and told her I would be home as early as possible to spend the night with her.  I was forcing myself to get up when Laura appeared at the side of the bed with a grave look on her face.

"Bevy," she said.  "It's been a nice quiet morning here at home, but I have to tell you something."

"Is someone hurt?"  I could feel blood flushing my face, and my heart was already racing. She had never learned to approach me in a different way, despite knowing how I jump to horrible conclusions with a sentence that begins this way.

She said, "A police officer at MIT was killed last night outside the Stata Center." That's where Noam and I work.  She went on to tell me it was suspected that the guys who shot him were connected to the horrific Boston Marathon bombing on Patriot's Day, the Monday before. And that wasn't all. Watertown, where we live, was under lock down, and we were all being asked to "shelter in place."

"Shelter in place?  What the hell does that mean?" I asked.  I understood what the words meant, but I didn't understand what was going on.  This day was supposed to be about Bean.  Laura told me that she had locked all of our doors, and our tenants had done the same.

"But why?  What's going on?" I asked, probably a little impatiently.

"There was a car chase after the shooting, and one of the two men was killed around the corner, at School and Mt. Auburn Streets. The other one sped off in the car, and then fled by foot, and they haven't been able to find him.  The men were shooting and throwing hand grenades from the car, and the police think the guy who got away might be wearing an explosive vest."

This was a hell of a way to be able to spend my cat's last day with her.  It felt like the world outside our home had fallen apart.  We soon found out that Jay had been up all night watching the news, and he had tried to call me and texted Laura around four in the morning to make sure we knew what was happening, and were safe.  The day had barely begun and it already offered more sorrow than we could contain. I was mourning the ending of our verbal and demanding little pal. I knew it would be difficult to focus on Bean, who had become an integral part of our family, while all of this hell was going on around us, but I was going to do my best to be with her during her last full day. I was also still mourning my mother, and it hit me hard once again that I couldn't commiserate with her about all that was happening, or be grateful with her that my son Jay, who was between the two blasts at the Marathon, had delayed walking to the finish line just before the blast.  Later in the day I thought about how I would have called to convince her that my nephew Erik was safe at the Arsenal Mall, where the police had taken him and others who were too far from home as a safety precaution while the second man - the younger brother of the one who was killed - was at large.

I had a difficult time prying myself away from the endlessly looping news stories, waiting for police officers from Watertown and surrounding cities to find some clues in their door-to-door searches, and tried to block out mental images of the bomber running through back yards to end up hiding in our basement.  I went downstairs and checked all of the locks, sick with dread and sadness.  Beanie was next to me on the sofa, and I followed her to the guest bed when she became restless, and laid next to her, covering her with a soft blanket, and singing the song I made up for her when she was first with us, never making it past the phrase, "Beanie, McQueenie, I'm so in love with you..."  When my tears fell onto the top of her head I smoothed them into her soft fur, and thought of the Catholic ritual of dipping ones fingers into holy water as I gently ran my moist index finger over the growing lump near her left ear.

As if things weren't difficult and stressful enough, Laura finally shared with me that earlier in the morning she had received a text telling her that her close friend in a nearby state was in trouble and needed to go to a hospital. It was all too much.  The universe seemed to be shaking itself up on our doorstep.  And speaking of shake ups, she received a text later in the afternoon that there was a tsunami warning in Hawaii, where her father lives.  Fortunately, we learned through a phone call to her father that the report was an exaggeration, and we found space to be grateful for that one break.

By the end of the day, the second brother was found in a back yard in our town, hiding in a covered boat, where he lay bleeding but alive.  He was taken into police custody, and by some miracle and the good, capable work of the police officers, nobody else was hurt in the process of his capture.

That evening and the next morning, Laura made phone calls on behalf of her sick friend, petting and sitting with Beanie when she could.  I told Beanie stories from her life, and listed her favorite sunny places, and told her what I would miss about her, like her wide-mouthed greetings every time we returned from Maine, and pulling up in the driveway and spotting her through the window on the back of her red living room chair where she waited for us to return from work every day.

My son Jay and his veterinarian friend Pat showed up just before 1 pm the next day, a Saturday.  Pat had his black bag with him, and I hugged him and called him the Grim Reaper.  After a sedative, some time together, and two shots, Beanie, stretched across our thighs, left us.  I cut some fur from her neck, where the white ring mixed with her soft black mane. I lifted her little body and folded her into the carrier and let Patrick take her away for cremation.

As I think about Beanie's last full day with us, I think how fitting it was.  It was mean, biting, and nasty.  But the love that  rose from it, and the community that bonded together in fear, relief and gratefulness, reflected the sweet, soft sides of the Beanie who shared our home for sixteen years.

On Sunday Laura drove for three hours to pick up her friend's dog to stay with us for a while - a beautiful black border collie with a sweet disposition - and a white ring of fur at her collar.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fields of Gold

Today is Sunday, and Laura is still sick with the cold she caught from me after I caught it on the plane on our trip to Ireland less than two weeks before.  I hate when Laura is sick on Sundays because it means I have to get out of bed to walk Roxy at 7 am, which might as well be 4 am.  The Boston Globe was on the front steps when we walked out.  At least it wasn’t raining. I heard loud chirping and looked up at the house from the bottom of the front stairs and saw birds in our gutters – pieces of nesting were poking up in two different spots, near two altogether different birds – one a robin red breast and one a starling, or something like a starling. I would have to clean out my gutters.  It never ends, this upkeep of a house. What I really want to do is separate my two-family house into condos and move to a quiet condo with a pool and a fireplace, where someone else does my landscaping and fence repairs and worries over the siding, the driveway, and birds in the gutters. 

Roxy pulled to the right when we reached the street, which was a bad sign.  She wanted to go to the park, and this meant a longer walk. I thought of Pavlov’s dogs. Laura usually takes her to the park on Sunday mornings, just after the paper has been delivered.  Did the yellow-wrapped over sized newspaper on the front steps signal to Roxy that this is walk-to-the-park day? I walk her there sometimes on my day off, but I didn’t feel like it this morning. I was barely awake, and I’d forgotten my Fitbit, a gift from my son at Christmas.  What a waste – to walk well over a mile and not have it register on my Fitbit.  I am not a morning person, and I wanted credit for this walk.

I made a last-ditch effort to steer Roxy off course and take the shorter route, but she stopped short and wouldn’t budge, staring me down with her plaintive cocker spaniel eyes until I relented and turned right, over the rocky, leafy overgrown lot to a path that slides precariously down to the railroad tracks.  Before crossing the set of double tracks, I looked both ways like my mother taught me more than fifty years before, and leaned into the steep incline of loose rocks, cheating a little by locking Roxy's leash and letting her strength help pull me up.  We turned right at the top onto a sunny footpath toward Beaver Brook.  I was not enjoying this. Blocked sinuses made me dizzy, and I was already planning the apology I would give for my sloppy appearance if I ran into someone I knew.  A bad habit.

We turned left and slid down the slope toward a stream that emptied out from two rusty and corroded half barrels poking up from beneath the ground.  Roxy was hastening my stride at the front end of the leash – what would the Dog Whisperer say about this? - and I found myself taking a deep breath and humming, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.”  It struck me, as it does almost constantly these days, that there is no longer a grandmother for my son or nephews.  We buried my mother, Charlotte, at the end of March, just before Laura and I left for Ireland to meet up with Noam.  After ten nights with little sleep, I hadn’t even dozed on the calm overnight flight to Dublin. I remember looking out the window and finding some peace watching the half moon hold steady in a clear sky, with a soft bed of clouds below.  At that moment I wasn’t afraid of death.  My mother had already passed over, and I felt that she, or her spirit, would be waiting when my turn came. This thought took me by surprise, as I had been too sad and angry after she died to feel spiritual. 

Heading toward the park, the song was still playing in my head, the words “grandmother’s house” echoing over and over, and I realized I was thinking like a writer again.  What’s the story here?  What’s the feeling, the thread, the theme?  My mother is gone, and I have been too numb to write about it, or anything, since my brother and sister and I summarized her life in a neat rectangular one-page obituary.

Roxy pulled me along and I braced myself for the chaos of the park.  She doesn’t play well with other dogs, and we usually take our own, circuitous route, which is fine with me.  The cool air and physical exertion were making my nose run, and I sniffed as I walked, having forgotten to stash tissues in my pocket. The small, familiar bridge appeared just after the crest of the hill, and a few ducks floated underneath us in the still, sparkling water.  Roxy didn’t seem to notice the ducks – she was too busy sniffing the base of a tree.  The park appeared pristine and sun drenched in front of us.  And something else.  There was nobody there.  No barking dogs, no people whistling and throwing sticks and balls.  The quiet, welcoming beauty was so surreal that I kept Roxy on her leash until we rounded the corner and took a good look, but it was truly empty.  I unhooked her collar, put my hands in my pockets for warmth against the damp morning chill, and watched her investigate the low-lying bushes.  Eventually we crossed the open grassy area and took a right up into another part of the woods, then scurried down into a valley, where we were forced to cross the brook again.  It was only four feet at its widest, and we found a muddy two-foot expanse to jump, climbing another small hill to exit the woods again onto another open field.  When did everything turn green, I thought.  Just weeks ago the ground was grey, and it surprised me to look ahead at small undulating patches of green.  I was trying to find the words for an Irish song about the fields of something, the fields of Dover?  Clover? But Eva Cassidy queued herself up in my head instead: “Fields of Gold.” I sang the words to myself, maybe aloud, I wasn't sure.  My first cry of the day.

Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold

You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky
When we walked in fields of gold

Heading toward a welcoming circle of grass at the top of an incline, I recalled a conversation I had with a barrister/boxer/singer named Gary Daly in Dublin during the recent hazy days following my mother’s funeral. Gary impressed me by phoning his “Mummy” after having his picture taken with Noam, whom he had always admired.  We got to talking about music, and he told me that Eva Cassidy was extremely popular in Ireland.  I hadn’t realized Sting's wonderful song about the fields of barley was written about Ireland, but it’s no surprise that it’s running through my head now.  

I recall this version of the story: Eva Cassidy sent her music to a record producer who liked to throw arbitrary tapes into a recorder and listen while he dressed.  One particular morning he chose Cassidy’s tape, and after just a few minutes rushed to his phone in his stocking feet and called his office.  “We have to meet this woman.  Her voice is phenomenal,” he said.  But he was too late – Eva Cassidy had passed away some months earlier from cancer.  Many of her recordings were released posthumously, like one of my favorites, “Somewhere over the rainbow,” which I learned a few years back is often played at funerals.  Geesh.

My mind turns back to Ireland, where my mother’s dear grandmother was born in County Cork.  My mother, terminally ill with cancer and complications from chemotherapy, asked me a few weeks before to buy her a ring in Cork. I never imagined she would die just before the trip. 

At least the sun was out to counter my thoughts of cancer and death. Roxy and I had by now turned back toward the woods where we first entered the park, and I was about to re-leash her when she took off to chase a squirrel.  I heard the train before I saw the top of it just a couple hundred feet in front of us, and I noticed Roxy running ahead.  I pierced my own silence, yelling above the train, “Roxy stay!”  No, that’s not right.  “Roxy stop!”  Laura always warned me to keep her on leash.  Roxy finally heard me and waited for me to catch up to her and reattach her leash.  I was wide awake now.  The train passed and we scrambled back down the rocky path and crossed the tracks once again, on our way back home a few streets away, where the birds and the Sunday paper now welcomed us like a scene from “Our Town.”

My mother always told me to relax more, to take more time to drink a glass of wine, to walk outside and enjoy the sun.  I think I will use some of the money she left me to hire someone to clean out my gutters and replace a leaning fence section while I take more time to walk through fields, and breathe.  And maybe now I’m ready to write about our Ireland trip, where I hoped to find a sign, or proof, that we remain connected to those who leave us. 

I gained something personal on that walk, but I lost at least a mile land a half by not taking my Fitbit with me.  I will slip it into Laura's coat pocket before she takes Roxy out for her last walk of the night, and maybe I'll get back a half mile.  Better than nothing.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Black Ice and The Lady of Spain

January 7, 2011

        Driving home on a dark Friday night after an exhausting work week, I became aware of the thin layer of ice hiding beneath a light carpet of falling snow on Memorial Drive only when a reckless driver cut off a car ahead of me, sending those of us behind into a chain reaction of hitting the brakes and skidding helplessly forward, with the banks of the Charles River just feet to our left.  I somehow managed to slow my car down, barely tapping the car in front of me, then noticed the lights of another car, clearly out of control, skidding toward me from behind. The only thing that would stop him was the back end of my car.

        My dog Roxy, a brown cocker spaniel, was sitting on the seat next to me before the angular hit catapulted her toward the top of the steering wheel.  I grabbed her by the scruff of her neck as she sailed toward the windshield, which now had a crack in it where my head would have - had? - hit it, which was strange, since I was wearing a seat belt.

        The impact from that hit was so sudden and violent that I would testify in a court of law that my eyeballs watched the whole thing suspended in space in front of me - my right arm reflexively snatching Roxy in midflight, my body jolting forward and hitting the windshield, front and back fenders creaking, cracking, and snapping, and my eyeballs springing tightly back into their sockets as my body snapped back forcefully against the seat.  And all of it happened faster than Ashkenazy’s fingers playing Rachmaninoff.

        The only sound piercing the eerie quiet that followed was the hissing of radiators amid the intensifying smell of a mixture of antifreeze, steam, and oil.  Police sirens wailed from a distance.  Roxy kissed my face, her body shaking, and everything began to move in very slow motion.   I heard my own voice coming from somewhere, asking over and over again- where - is - my - phone? - I -have - to -  find - my - phone - 'Lady - of - Spain - I adore - you' - someone - has - hit - my - car - 'Right - from - the – night - I - first - saw - you' - and - now - a - state - trooper - is - yelling – too - loudly - in - my - ear – ‘Lady - of - Spain - can I have your license and - and - you - have - to - get - out - of - the – car.  (I - am – in - heavy - traffic - on - Memorial – Drive.  Do – you – want - me - to - stand - on - black – ice – in – the – middle – of – the – street?)

        The policeman was too busy handing out accident reports to the four drivers to notice my cracked windshield and spacey behavior, but when we were finished trading information and I walked back to my car and got in, the tow truck driver ran over to me.

        “Ma’am,” he said, “your car is not drivable.”

        “What – do – you – mean?” I asked him, truly puzzled.  I needed to get home to Laura, who would check me over and tell me I was fine.

        “Your radiator is leaking fluids, your exhaust pipes are bent and dragging on the ground, and your back door is off its hinges.  Grab your dog and your backpack and I’ll drive you to our body shop.”

        I found my phone in the back seat of the car, and knew something was wrong when I realized I wasn’t quite sure how to call Laura to let her know what had happened.

April, 1962

        I’m eight years old.  I lay paralyzed by fear in my twin bed on the second floor of our apartment.  My small hands are pressed hard over my eyes, which are squeezed closed trying to block out the police lights flashing on my pale green bedroom wall. My fourteen-year-old brother, Ronnie, popular and athletic in our local junior high school, has been jumped from behind and beaten up by some tough kids from up the hill at the apartment complex where my family of six share five rooms. The term  "up the hill" in our apartment complex is synonymous with "tough" because almost all of the trouble makers – the Stantons and the Duffys, to name just two families - live in that same area of the complex, on the hill above the parking lot. Even the girls in those families scare me.  Alice Stanton, who is older than me and a whole lot bigger, grabbed my wrist while I was roller skating in the parking lot, and I can still remember twisting my skinny arm in such a way that she was forced to let go. (There was always lots of room to play in the parking lot because not every family could afford a car. We were one of the lucky families who could.) I took off toward my apartment, frightened much more at the prospect of her catching me than of the impossible black asphalt incline I was barreling down in the flimsy metal skates I had tightened onto my sneakers with a key just a couple of hours earlier.

        From my bedroom I hear one of the adults say that a couple of the Stanton brothers should be sent ‘up the river’ for this, which made me think of the crying baby Moses floating downstream in a basket, all alone and afraid.

        I call for my mother, almost more in pain over her grief, as she is inconsolable in our small living room one floor below me.  I hear instructions being called out as the EMTs lift my big brother into the back of an ambulance.  I can hear Ronnie moaning, and my body is shaking.  Someone’s soft footsteps climb the stairs, and when they stop at the doorway of my bedroom, I see the outline of a woman, though I can still hear my mother crying downstairs.  As the shadow nears my bed I see the face of our neighbor’s daughter, Pat Johnston, our sometimes baby sitter. Although Pat is nice and kind and very pretty, with blond hair and slightly overlapping front teeth, she is not my mother, and my fear returns when she leaves me alone again in my dark room.   At some point afterwards I notice the presence of my baby sister sleeping in her crib a few feet away, unaware.  It hadn’t occurred to me to go next door to my brothers’ room, where my six-year-old brother Paul might be as scared as I was.  Even if I had thought of going to him, I couldn’t move a muscle, and I remained that way for a long time.

        I remember nothing else except that Ronnie came home from the hospital two days later, a Saturday, announcing to Paul and me that he had a concussion, which he said was like a bad headache.  He seemed impressed with himself for having sustained this injury, even proud, although it meant that he had to stay inside for a week.  My mother told us he shouldn’t move around much or get excited. This was hard to imagine, because Ronnie played basketball and baseball almost every day, and danced around our house singing and entertaining everyone, sort of like Bruce Willis’s character in the old show “Moonlighting.”

        I stayed with Ron all weekend, and each day after school the next week, I ran home to sit next to him on our beige living room sofa, and didn’t leave his side until dinner.  Sometimes Mary Garber sat with us, and sometimes Kathy Johnston, one of Pat’s younger sisters, and Ron patiently tried to teach us a couple of guitar chords.  "This is a C," he would say, showing us where to put our fingers.  "And this is G7."  I stayed there, next to my brother with the concussion who had been beaten up but was now back home in our living room playing the guitar.

        I watched with pride and admiration as Ronnie picked at the strings of his rented guitar, carefully placing the middle finger of his left hand between the correct frets, pulling and snapping the corresponding string with the pic in his right hand until the sound was just right, singing along with each note.  He started over again and again after the first few notes, the first six, and back to the beginning again: La-dy - of - Spain - I - a-- La-dy - of - Spain - I - a - dore - you, Right - from - the - night -- right- from - the - night -I - first - saw - you -- Lady - of – Spain – I - a....La-dy - of ...  As a birthday present for him, my parents rented the guitar from Pampalone Music Studios on the other side of Waltham, where he was taking weekly lessons.  In that section of Waltham, kids lived in real houses with back yards, away from the tough guys from up the hill who might be sent up the river.

        Ronnie seemed fine to me - he just had a headache and nobody was allowed to yell at him for a week.  Not so bad, I thought.  By the second weekend, he was looking and acting more like my noisy, funny older brother, and soon after lost his rights to the guitar and music lessons because of a bad report card.  Ronnie was back.

Lawrence Welk show - Lady of Spain

Monday, January 28, 2013

Kindled Spirits

        There are a few things that Noam Chomsky will never admit to.  One is jet lag.  “There’s no such thing as jet lag,” he said to me less than twenty-four hours after returning from Australia, where he was honored with the Sydney Peace Prize.  Peeking at me through slitted eyes, he poked an index finger into his temple and added, “It’s all in the mind,” and I watched him weave toward his office like a half-asleep drunken sailor.

        The other thing Noam will never admit to is illness. I heard the congestion in his lungs during a phone call the night before, and when I asked him if he was sick, he coughed back one word at a time:  “Can’t-you-tell-by-my-voice-I’m-not-sick?”  He thought this was quite funny, but I wouldn’t hang up the phone until he agreed to call Dr. Kettyle at the MIT clinic if he wasn’t feeling better in the morning. 

        When he arrived early the next day, he called out a quick hello and sneaked away into his office.  He obviously didn’t want me to check his health status, which convinced me he hadn’t called his doctor.  I waited for him to settle in, made him his usual hot herbal tea with honey, and picked up a pile of things for discussion from my desk.  When I walked into his office, he was sitting at his work table, immersed in a journal article.  I eyed him surreptitiously while we chatted, and on my way out I hovered long enough to watch him circle a word, drawing a long line out to the margin, where he scribbled a note in tiny, barely legible handwriting.   His face was thoughtful and his eyebrows tightly knit as he sipped his tea and continued making marginal notes.  I left his office, pulled the door closed, and stood outside.  Seconds later he let out a string of deep coughs he had surely held in from the time he arrived.  I would give him an hour to bring it up himself, because one of us was going to call Dr. Kettyle’s office and get him an appointment.

        Noam is what you might call a double major – both a linguist and political activist, with an endless list of minors.  He has written more than a hundred books, and countless articles on both topics.   Morris Halle, the godfather of our suite, occupies the office tucked around the corner at a right angle to Noam’s.  Morris and Noam have been close friends and colleagues since well before the two of them founded MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy in 1962.  Morris is well known for his work in generative phonology and has authored and co-authored many books and articles, some with Noam.  At 89 years old, Morris is Noam’s senior by a good five years.  Morris is very pragmatic, and has reminded me that it’s sometimes best to view life through a less emotional lens. 

        Both of these men prove the theory that living an active and engaged life keeps one’s mind sharp.

        By early afternoon, I took in a deep breath when I realized that after intercepting over 300 e-mails on their way to Noam’s home mailbox, I had not encountered any of the horrors that his e-mail often brings.  There were no video clips of children with missing forearms crawling on their elbows in a war-torn country, no imploring letter from a desperate soul unjustly accused of a criminal act, no photos of distressed people carrying their assassinated leader through the streets. The phone was adding to my momentary bliss by keeping relatively quiet.

        I have been trying over the past twenty years to balance the serious and disturbing information I absorb at my job about human suffering, the earth’s failing environment, and the atrocities of unnecessary wars, in a way that allows me to also, sometimes, feel joy.  On the positive side, the priceless benefits of my job are my discussions with Noam and Morris that stretch my intellect and make me think in new ways.  Many of our visitors are richly complex and interesting people – social reformists and other progressives, all working to bring positive change to our world.  But it is becoming increasingly difficult to find my way through the dark and dreadful truths laid out in the steady stream of correspondence about terrorism, tipping points, and corruption that fly unavoidably up at me every day between the hours of nine and five, or however long it takes me to push through the things that demand my attention on any given day.
        I wanted Noam's first day back at the office after the Australia trip to be relaxed, so aside from planning a late-day meeting with me, the only thing on his schedule today was a two-part interview with David Barsamian.  David has compiled and edited a number of books of interviews with Noam, including Keeping the Rabble in Line and Class Warfare.  The recent Occupy Movement was the main topic of this interview, which would constitute the major part of a new book.  David is a writer, broadcaster and founder of Alternative Radio out of Boulder, Colorado, and is by now Noam’s friend.  He’s also mine, in the way that the people who are an extension of ones job become a part of ones familiar, every-day world.

        David began his interview in the late morning, but less than an hour into it, he emerged from Noam’s office holding a small audio flash card in his hand, a panicked look on his face.  The card in the recorder was full, and he had forgotten to pack an extra.  Glenn made a few calls to narrow down the search, and David ran off to the Cambridge Galleria Mall to hunt down a new card, which left us with some unplanned quiet time.  Noam took this opportunity to look through his mail and accept from me a bowl of hot soup I picked up for him at the Forbes Café on the first floor of our building.  Food is secondary to Noam, and he probably wouldn’t know a café soup from my homemade chili from a plate of Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon. He just eats what I lay down in front of him. When I don't bring in leftovers, he eats one of two things from the café: barely edible sushi or a roasted turkey sandwich on marbled rye bread with lettuce and tomato, hold the mayo.
        I haven’t always brought him food, but after his wife Carol passed away, I noticed him eating a huge sticky pastry.  When I asked him what he was doing, he had said, “Having lunch.”  I decided at that moment that I would bring in leftovers from dinner the two days he comes into the office, to augment the meal his daughter usually shares with him on the weekends. 

        I returned once again to my desk and had settled back down to my growing inbox for just a few minutes when I noticed some movement to my left. I thought it must be a visitor walking in unannounced with hopes of meeting Noam, getting an autograph, or shaking his hand, and I was feeling frustrated when I turned my head toward the intruder.

        It was Noam.  He was staring at me with a mischievous smirk from just beyond the file cabinet that provides an inadequate shield of privacy for my desk.  I was unsure what to make of this, and asked, “Do we need to meet about anything before David returns?” 

        He ignored my question, and continued looking at me with the funny expression.  He finally broke the silence by asking, “What do you do when Roxy looks at you with those sad, plaintive eyes?”  Noam is not exactly an animal lover, but he has grown accustomed to seeing my dog’s face on the days he works at the office, and once told me that she adds some much-needed comic relief to the place.  He has even welcomed her into his home, and affectionately refers to her as "the cat."  I believe it's affection, though it’s possible that he never really took a good look at her.

        “I know that face,” I said to Noam.  “She usually looks like that when she’s begging…” and it dawned on me in an instant that Roxy must have sneaked off earlier to sit next to Noam, having smelled his food.  A quick check under my desk confirmed that she was gone.  “Noam, is she in your office now?  Did she eat your soup?” I was escalating. 

        Noam looked amused as I ran past him into his office, where I found Roxy, paws on the table, looking sadly – or was it guiltily? - at Noam's nearly empty bowl.  “Roxy – get – away – from – there!” I croaked one word at a time, stifling the urge to yell.  Human food has an all-bets-are-off effect on her, and she didn’t budge.  I grabbed the scruff of her neck and pulled her toward the door, her eyes wide and focused on the bowl, her body straining toward it, and her tail, or the stump where her tail once was, wagging wildly.  With some effort I managed to drag her out of the office, lootless. Noam retreated into his office and I got back to work. 

        David returned, and was reloading his camera.  After a minute or two I found Noam standing next to my desk again.  “What now?” I thought.  A quick glance assured me that Roxy was snuggled up on her bed underneath my desk.

        “Can you show me how to use this new coffee maker, Bev?  I can’t seem to wake up, and I need a fresh cup to make it through the rest of the interview.”

        “That’s because you’re jet lagged, Noam.” 

        “Never!” This pronouncement caused a brief coughing fit. “I just haven’t gotten enough sleep lately.”
        “Right, they call that jet lag,” I said half to myself, taking his mug from him and placing it under the spout where a new coffee pod was about to deliver his coffee. Handing his his coffee mug, I asked casually, “Would you like me to get you in with Dr. Kettyle today?”

        He turned his back to me and shook his free hand in the air, a clear "No!" in Noam language, and walked back to his office, still weaving slightly, the coffee sloshing precariously toward the lip of the cup with every step.

        Noam and David finally settled in again, and I had barely begun to deal with the expanded inbox when I noticed Morris standing near Glenn’s desk, holding something in his hand.  “Someone gave me this thing.  It’s called a Kindle, and all I know about it is that this is the on and off switch," he said laughing.  Glenn is the only adult in my universe who doesn’t own a cell phone, and in fact he doesn’t have much use for electronic gadgets.  I had received a Kindle from my son, Jay, the previous Christmas, so I walked over to Glenn’s desk and told Morris that I would be happy to show him how to use it.  In return, Glenn offered to sit at my desk and deal with Noam's inbox for a while.

        Morris and I sat together at my round work table, near Noam’s library.  Morris’s first question was a basic one.  “What do I need this for?” he asked, holding it out and laughing as he spoke, which is so trademark Morris.  

       “Well, let’s say you want to bring half a dozen books with you on a trip. Instead of carrying them all, you can just load them onto your Kindle, and read them from there,” I explained. This seemed to appease him for the time being, but he still didn’t seem to understand why this was better than holding a real paper book, with its bulk and texture and words printed on a page.  I couldn’t answer that one, but I know that somehow I have become hooked on my Kindle, spending over seventy dollars on books the first month I had it - titles that I would normally borrow from a library, or from a friend. 

        In the process of showing Morris how to use his Kindle, I noticed there were a few books already installed – mostly Tolstoy.  I clicked on War and Peace, to show him how to open it.  “I haven’t read that in quite a while," he said.  So I began reading it to him, just for fun, but also to try to prove to him the Kindle’s value.  A few sentences in, he seemed amused, even settled in, so I continued reading aloud, ignoring the occasional earth-shattering sneezes coming from Noam’s office.  

        On the third page, I read two sentences that touched me to the core – that asked the question I haven’t been able to put into words for myself.  I asked Morris if he minded if I read the passage aloud a second time.  Morris nodded his head. “Yes, I know, this is something,” he said.  So I read it again:

        “Can one be well while suffering morally?  Can one be calm in times like these if one has any feeling?” 

        This was what I had been trying for so long to figure out for myself.  As the hard realities of Noam’s political world have bled into me over the past twenty years, this is the question that has made it difficult for me to honestly say “fine” when asked how I am.  There are many days when I want to squeeze my ergonomically-modified keyboard through the narrow opening in my eighth floor window and watch it smash to the ground, sending the keys flying off in all directions.  My computer monitor and telephone would follow.  Then I would grab my dog and my backpack, and my own ass, and make a neater exit through the door, leaving no forwarding address.

        Moments like this one, giving Morris his first lesson on his Kindle, provide a nice reprieve.  Nonetheless, I had to return to my desk to tackle the e-mail inbox, which was again overflowing.  I would think about my War and Peace insight later, when I had some quiet time at home. 

        Noam and David surfaced from their interview, and Noam pulled up a chair next to mine to talk about the schedule for the next week.  His smile was wide, despite his worsening cold, as he made a joke about Roxy looking hungry.  I looked at Roxy and reached down to stroke her head as she sat on her large comfy bed under my desk.  “She always looks hungry – that’s just her face,” I said, adding after a brief pause, “But I have to ask – did she eat your soup?”

        “I’ll never tell,” he said, laughing noiselessly, his head bobbing slightly. 

        Sitting there laughing with him, I wondered how Noam manages to hold onto his center, knowing what he knows about the disorder of the world, and not just wading through the pain of that disorder, but looking it in the eye and talking to it. I know that for myself, action quells anxiety, and holding onto fear and frustration only makes me feel more hopeless.  I guessed that remaining in motion eased his burden.

        I finally asked him, months later.  In reply, he told me a very interesting story that was, oddly, about his curiosity at someone else’s coping skills, and not his own.  Maybe the point is that watching others cope and move forward, knowing that we’re not in this alone, helps us to keep from going under.  Or maybe the trick is not thinking too hard about the things that slow us down, like fear, or jet lag and sickness.

        Meanwhile, I've been reminding myself to find more space for joy.  More than that, I think it's necessary to create joy in order to have hope.