Thursday, November 27, 2014

His Mug Runneth Over

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Single malt scotch?” I asked.

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

“He’s talking about water,” I said.

“I add ice,” he said.

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

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

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

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  “In here,”  referred to the inside of his forty-year old, oversized and outdated Hotpoint microwave oven, which was permanently affixed to the top of a brown electric cooktop and oven.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

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

“What did you say?” he asked.

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

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

“How many times?” I asked him.

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

I moved around the table to face him, and spoke a little louder.  “How many times do you use each pod?” When he laughed just slightly and refused to offer a number, I made a face like I’d just eaten something sour, and lifted my fist in the air, shaking it until he returned the gesture, now part of our personal sign language.  This was not our first disagreement about his unnecessary and extreme frugality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Close, but no SNL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noam returned to the phone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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