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 with any comments. Your comments can help me shape my book!

Big hug,

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.

1 comment:

  1. Great post indeed. I certainly could use your help tracking down the myriad pens I misplace.

    The TV tray description brings back so many memories of my grandmother's many televisions in her house: she ran an in-house nursing home, so six TV's could be blaring in the house at any given moment. She had at least three of those trays.

    And old spice certainly takes me back; it seems to be a southern staple.

    I'm sure Noam is very grateful for the immense help you've given him. Are you sure you don't want to brave the cacti, summer heat, and margaritas of the Southwest?