Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Men and Their Pens

I'm sorry - I didn't mean to abandon my readers!  Retirement has been a big adjustment.  I left MIT after 38 years, and  Noam Chomsky's office after 24 years, just before he left MIT and moved to Arizona to teach and lecture.  A new start for him at 89 years old.  I take off my hat to him (if I wore hats, but those of you who read my blog might remember that I don't look good in hats).

I have been writing - my hope is to make my writings about many of my experiences - some traveling with Noam, but mostly sitting in the office outside Noam's and Morris's offices - into a book.

I thought it might be fun to post a part of something that I wrote this week, just to let you know what I'm up to.  In fact, I think I'll be posting a bit of my writing every couple of weeks.  Feel free to write me at bevstohl@gmail.com with any comments. Your comments can help me shape my book!

Big hug,
Bev
**

If someone were to come to my office and listen while I answer the phone, or follow me on a short walk to our headquarters office for a pack of sticky notes, or sit next to me as I endlessly work my way through four hundred emails, they might wonder where the excitement is – where is all of the stuff I get my stories from.  It’s not like something happens and I say, omg I have to write about this.  Ok, sometimes it really is like that.  But only sometimes, and this story is not one of those exceptions.  Seriously, where is the excitement in writing about pens?
More than once in my life, I've asked myself, ‘What is it with men and their pens?’ Sometime during my last year with Noam, he asked me for another box of retractable pens.  I searched in all of the obvious places and found none, then remembered that we had a filing cabinet out in the hallway with a few drawers designated to the holding of old office equipment. In it I found mostly retired supplies we couldn’t quite let go of, forgot we had, or that had simply outlived their purpose, like rolodex cards, with the double notches at the bottom where the rolodex holds onto them, legal-sized copy paper, and business-sized envelopes with MIT’s address, whose purpose diminished rapidly since email’s instantaneous takeoff. Also in that cabinet were loose packs of wet and dry screen cleaner. I opened a ‘wet’ one and it was dry. The dry one was crispy, and on it's way to disintegration.  I threw them all out, which felt good, because I always imagined that if I died unexpectedly, someone would open the drawers to those cabinets and say, “How could Bev have held onto these?  Why didn’t she use them up or throw them away? How could we have entrusted someone like this to be Noam’s assistant?  Why did she live at all?” Then I would be embarrassed, (except I would be dead), as if I had failed at my job or gone to work in my underwear, because people – whomever they are - would have assumed my overarching lack of organizational skills as evidenced in that one cabinet. 
That is, however, where I found an old box of blue inked medium point pens, circa 1995, exactly like the ones Noam preferred. Sadly, like the screen cleaner, they were completely dry, so I ordered new pens and gave him a box of twelve, keeping another box in my drawer, because I knew Noam.  In one single visit to his home office a couple of years before, I had excavated dozens of pens, and a large crooked pencil made out of a tree branch, from his pen graveyard, buried beneath an accumulation of papers and folders piled to the left of his desk. That was not the first time I had rescued a plethora of pens from his home office.  It was a recurring event, though that visit was to be, it turned out - and please forgive me for this - my penultimate visit.
Not long afterwards, Noam and I were sitting together preparing to go over the next week’s schedule.  I was holding a sheet of paper with the words “Check with me” written by Noam on the top, and when I asked what he wanted me to check with him about, he asked, “Can you order me another box of pens?” I asked him what happened to the box I gave him. “I lost them.  I put them somewhere and I don’t know where,” he said. By now he had moved out of his home and into a condo in Cambridge, so there was no way of knowing where his pens might be. I took the box from my desk and handed it to him, pulling out one pen for the day he came to me again, asking for a pen.
“Noam, last month the people in Norway sent you a beautiful Cross pen and pencil set.  Where is that?” I asked, thinking that Noam Chomsky should have a decent – even classy – pen set.  When he returned my gaze with a blank stare, I asked a slightly different question: “Do you remember the Cross pen set you received in the mail last month?  They’re high quality pens,” I said, suppressing the urge to mimic my mother’s voice, proclaiming whenever we opened a nice gift from her, “That wasn’t cheap, ya know!," lest we neglect to appreciate its value.  Instead, I said, “My father always used a nice silver Cross pen for his crossword puzzles and to pay the bills.”  He nodded and told me he did not remember receiving a gift of a Cross pen set, and I scribbled a note to look for it in the crevices of his office desk, planning also to take a peek in his briefcase. In the meantime, I ordered him another box of cheap retractable pens, medium point, blue ink, knowing their shelf life, and their very existence, was totally dependent upon their user.
I flashed back to my father, yelling from downstairs one Saturday afternoon in our brown-sided, green-shuttered 6-room Cape style house. “Where is my Cross pen? Who borrowed my pen and didn’t put it back?” Put it back to where, I now wonder, since he didn’t have an office. He spent a lot of time in our den, which boasted a black and white TV on a rolling brown laminated cart with aluminum legs, a brown and white plaid sofa, a dark wood side table, and a lamp. My mother groomed the den's orange and yellow shag carpeting weekly, with a rake. There wasn’t room for a desk, so he may have kept his pen on the top of his tall mahogany bureau, along with his watch, cufflinks, cigarettes, lighter, matchbooks (the corners were used as dental floss after meals - and you could call the 800 number on the cover to earn $10,000 a year, which was a lot in the mid-sixties), a comb, a pile of change that overflowed from his bulging, jingling change pocket, and his reading glasses.
Then, the inevitable.  “Everyone come down here and help me look for my pen!" he would bellow. We knew to run to him quickly - usually me, my younger brother Paul, and our little sister Denise were home. We kids reasoned to one another that my father sometimes yelled, and even swore the good old-fashioned Catholic swears, because he had “a temper.” That’s just the way it was. I remember thinking they were called “Cross” pens because our father became cross when he couldn’t find his. We didn’t have a lot of money, and I know his pens must have cost a good percentage of his pay, although I remember that my mother bought a couple of them for him at Christmas and on his birthday.  It was probable that none of his search party had borrowed his pen, although we had all experienced the appeal of writing with it. My handwriting was flawless, even elegant, when my father let me use that pen, a sleek, silver, fine-point classic model that opened with a ritzy little twist.  Its smooth and confident glide, and the sureness of sweep and flow of ink on paper was addictive. I wondered if Noam felt the same way about his cheap retractable pen as he scribbled his tiny, barely legible notes in margins, or crowded them on a single legal-sized sheet of unlined yellow paper as he prepared for a class lecture.
My father's Cross pen was so much a part of him that he asked me for a new one with extra refills for Christmas some years after I grew out of giving him, every year, a bottle of Old Spice after shave or monogrammed handkerchiefs, which my mother ironed before folding them into small squares and depositing them back into the top drawer of his bureau.  The bureau upon which he presumably kept his pen. In the end, the pen always turned up, and although I can’t prove it, I’m willing to bet it was somewhere he had left it.

When Noam left that day, I noticed the multiple vertical stripes of ink just above his pen-holding shirt pocket, the result of forgetting to click his pen closed, and I asked him if he wanted me to order a pocket protector, but he declined.  He said he had one somewhere, and would look for it.  Good luck with that, I thought.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Why it's hard to leave

It's been the best of times, and it's been the worst of times. I have abandoned my readers for close to nine months.  Many of you have asked me to get back to my writing, and I appreciate that.

When I began working for Professor Chomsky almost 24 years ago, I was 39 years old, and he was 65. Retirement seemed to be on his radar then, but I quickly realized that even if he stopped officially teaching his MIT class, he would always teach and lecture. He retired from MIT (meaning he wouldn't be teaching an ongoing class) about ten years ago, but as I predicted, to this day he continues to work as tirelessly as ever.

So it's ironic that I, at 63 years old - only two years younger than the white haired guy was when I started assisting him in 1994 - will walk out of the office for good later this summer. I am retiring.  Or in the words of Morris Halle when I told him this a few weeks ago, "You're quitting?" And Noam - and Morris - will still be there.

It's hard to leave, especially as I look back at the past week, which has been a microcosm of my life in our suite over all of these years.  Sylvain Bromberger, one of our 90-plus-yr-old professors, brought me a block of real Parisian butter he carried back from France in his suitcase.  I had a good talk with an ex-student, now a visiting professor. I grabbed a quick lunch with Andrea Moro, the amazing linguist and neuroscientist from Pavia who welcomed Laura and me to Italy to help with logistics when Noam had a speaking tour there. There was a trip to Google with another ex-student, my friend Ann Farmer, as the delightful, enthusiastic Hasan lead Noam in a Q&A, addressing the current political climate, Noam's early activism, and corporate responsibility.  It was a comfort to hear Morris Halle, the man who interviewed me for this position, now approaching his mid 90's, cackling in the background at a few of Noam's comments. And most recently, I had an unexpected interview with Christopher Lydon, asking me how I've viewed my boss and his work over the past almost two dozen years.

I've learned from a lot of you out there - activists of all types - that learning about Noam Chomsky as not a super-hero, but as a person, helps energize you to do your own work. Having said that, there are many instances that I recall when I would say that Noam is indeed a super hero.

I hope to develop a book based on my blog posts about my experiences and insights working as Professor Chomsky's gate keeper.  Thanks to all of you who have provided me with useful feedback and encouragement, even expressing the joy and personal nourishment you have gained as my readers.

Listen to this podcast, for the Open Source radio show, to hear Chris Lydon and Noam Chomsky in conversation as Lydon questions him on his views of current world affairs.  You will hear Lydon interview me about 3/4 of the way through about how I see Noam Chomsky as a person, after spending so much time at his side.

http://radioopensource.org/#

And I just found this - more of my personal interview with Lydon on what Lydon calls "The Soul of Noam Chomsky." I probably would not have approved that title, had they asked me...

More of my interview about Noam

I'll be back...




Friday, January 20, 2017

Forward March

I’m trying to remain calm.

Laura and I are marching in Boston tomorrow with my son’s partner Lisa and her young daughter, Annika. In fact, almost every woman I know will march tomorrow, as will millions of other women and men in the US and around the world.  What began as a march for women’s reproductive rights has become a march for human rights, and racial, economic, and reproductive justice. As one announcement said so well, “Together, we will send a message to our leaders and the world that the United States of America stands for values of human decency, equal rights and freedom from discrimination.”

Two days ago, when Noam stopped by our office, I told him about my fear of terrorist attacks on any number of the assemblies on Saturday.  He said that was unlikely, but “There will be provocateurs. I just hope they (those of us protesting) don’t fall for it. That’s what Trump wants.”

Provocateur:  An [undercover] agent who incites suspected persons to partake in or commit criminal acts. 

So be prepared, my fellow marchers.  Don’t fall for bait set by any provocateurs. Don’t let them incite you into some incriminating action.

Near noon today, as the reality that Trump is to be inaugurated (and in fact, as I prepare to post this, he is now our President), I decided to stave off a panic attack - I’m not prone to them, but recent political events have shaken me - by doing something mindless -- cleaning up and deleting some old personal emails.

I found a few from last November which I had somehow overlooked. Filmmaker Michel Gondry’s note, below, offered a welcome respite from my dark mood. Gondry's many visits over a few years while interviewing Noam for his animated film, “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy” gave us much pleasure. Gondry is all creativity, personality, and playfulness, with a small bit of self-deprecating humor. Through his film-making talent, he brought joy and fun to the sometimes heavy atmosphere of our office. Two years after the release of that film, following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, I wrote Michel to check on him. In the course of our conversation, I asked him to write about how it was for him to visit us through the years while creating the film. One of the emails I found from November was from Michel, describing his feelings of anticipation as he prepared to meet Noam for the first time. (I took the liberty of correcting a few minor typos.) He calls me by my full name - Beverly.  My mother would approve.

E-mail from Michel Gondry to me:

I started to write about my experience with noam.
This is just the beginning. It should be 3 times this length
let me know what you think
kisses
michel

“April 30 2010 - I was walking towards a giant ball of creased tinfoil [MIT’s Stata Center], wondering how the structured brain (not structuralist) of the most intelligent man of the planet could function in this architectural mess. The foil was frank Gehry and the brain was noam chomsky. Michèle Oshima, director of Student & Artist-in-Residence in MiT, was holding my hand but it was my knees that were shaking. The tinfoil ball looks more friendly from the inside. We swiftly reached the 8th floor. Beverly welcomed us warmly.

Here I have to make a pause to give you the tour of the whole Chomsky operation. Expectations can be misleading. There is Noam, Beverly and Roxy, Beverly's dog. That's it. In addition, few times a day, an enigmatic old man comes out of an invisible office, speaks two words to Noam as if he was asking to go for a beer, then disappears again. (Gondry is referring here to our friend, Noam’s long-time colleague and suite mate, 93-year-old Prof. Morris Halle – my other boss.)

Years after I can make fun of the situation but at the time my knees had gone from shaking to wobbling. Beverly noticed them and nicely said "don't worry, he is very nice. He will be here in a few minutes." Then Noam came out of his office. He walked towards me. Maybe I was walking towards [him], I'm not sure anymore. He looked big and small at once. Not small when he was far and big when he was close but big and small at the same time. I don't know why, but that is the closest image i can find to illustrate my feeling at the time: it's as if the Rushmore mount was moving towards me. This sensation dissipated when we shaked hands.”

**
As MIT Professor Bob Berwick said to me today as he left my office following a discussion of the need for and benefits of humor as President Trump takes office, “Well, I suppose it’s better to die laughing.”

I wish us all safety, sanity, well-being, and positive forward movement on all vital issues this year. May this be the year that people go out into the streets, many for the first time, and let the powers-that-be know that we are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore. Once more, as has increasingly been the case during my 23 years with Prof. Chomsky, I have a mounting respect for him, and for other activists in a multitude of arenas who have spent much of their lives speaking out. May they find themselves with a lot more company and support from now on. And may we all somehow come together over these next four years.  It would be a welcome outcome of this election.

During Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign, Noam worried that, after the campaign, if Sanders happened not to win, the movement would fizzle out. “We need to continue trying to bring about the changes that we think are important. Most importantly, we need to remain organized after the election[s], and continue pushing for these ideas,” said Noam. Hear, hear.

Tomorrow, there will be no fizzling out.

Below is a tiny, representative sampling of announcements that have been posted re the women’s marches.

**
From Facebook:

BOSTON, MA — If a planned "Boston Women's March" on the Common sees even a fraction of its anticipated attendance, it stands to be the city's largest protest yet in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump.

The Boston rally is planned in parallel with a larger women's march already scheduled to hit the streets of Washington, D.C., the day following Trump's inauguration. Several thousand Bay Staters will be traveling to that national event, according to a Massachusetts-specific event page convening women and supporters who will be traveling to Washington, D.C., for the main national march.

Of those staying behind but still hoping to take a stand, some 36,000 have indicated on Facebook they are going to attend the Boston sister rally, while another 41,000 have marked "interested" as of Jan. 19.

Here's how one organizer describes the planned march in Boston:

Mission: On January 21, 2017, we will unite in Boston on Boston Common to march in solidarity with communities most affected by the hate, intolerance and acts of violence being perpetrated throughout the nation -- among many are communities of women, immigrants, people of color, and people who identify as LGBTQIA and people with disabilities. ALL ARE WELCOME. This is a march for all of us. 

**
Most human rights groups are sending out their own announcements, like this one from International Labor Rights Forum, and the one below from HRW.

At ILRF we are very excited about the Women’s March on Washington this weekend. Please join me in the streets tomorrow, whether you are in Washington or at one of the over 600 sister marches! 

**
Women's Rights are Human Rights
FIND YOUR MARCH - HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH

In just a few hours, Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States.
As women's basic freedoms are threatened in the US and around the world, we are joining hands with activists to send a loud and clear message to all those in power: women's rights are human rights.

Tomorrow, Human Rights Watch will join thousands of diverse voices from across the country at the Women's March on Washington. Join us as we march for our equality, our health, our inclusion, our families,our dignity, and our future.

**
This simple email from a colleague in Germany says a lot:

“We learn that Millions of Americans will not stay calm, and shall object to what is coming into the White House.”

You said it, Gerhard.

Let’s not let Saturday’s actions fizzle.