Friday, May 27, 2022

Misguided Grammarians

        Bear with me here...

I am not proud that I have always been a card-carrying member of the word police. I cringe when I read a text from someone saying they were “to” tired to go for a walk, that “John gave cookies to my friend and I,” that “there” friends don’t care about the news “there” listening to. Even in casual correspondence, I have to hold myself back from wielding a red pen and crossing out misused words, adding letters to misspelled ones. Trying to subtly demonstrate, I have been known to write back, for instance, “I’m sorry you were too tired to go to the bookstore talk. You can watch their recording online...” 

I was almost shaking one day after a friend wrote “I and my friend went to the beach on Saturday.” My hand hovered over the keyboard, wanting to reply, trying not to, valuing the friendship while wondering how I managed to become friends with a person who would write this. I knew why – this was a friend I met when I was nine, not a friend I’d made as an adult. I am not proud of this realization.

Thinking this, I felt like a word snob, or worse, a word bully forcing her agenda onto others, though this was something I came by naturally. My mother was a word snob from childhood, correcting friends’ spelling and pronunciation errors, full of pride at being the best speller in her class. In a grade school spelling bee, squaring off with one last student, her word was “division.” Without taking a breath, she blurted, “Division: d-i-v-i-s-o-n,” followed by her audible wide-eyed gasp as she realized she had left out, in her reckless, overly-confident rush, the third “i.” She knew, as most of us do, that it is against the rules to correct oneself in a spelling bee. I heard this story as many times as I shared my horrible childhood memory of assigning two syllables to the word “tongue,” pronouncing it “tong-goo.” I had been out sick the day my class learned the word, and was humiliated at being corrected. This was the only mistake I recall making in grade school. 

Word misuse, like these stories, can make for fun discussions between like-minded pals, but friends and strangers who use the wrong words and don’t care “to much about there problem” (which probably happened over time, and not "all the sudden"), don’t appreciate being corrected. They blame my working in an elite university for nearly forty years, while reminding me of my humble Waltham roots. (Some old Waltham friends are also word snobs). In fact, most of the women in my writing group have similar reactions to incorrect spellings and word usage. We can’t help ourselves.

While having a good chat with myself, I remembered the flicker of a discussion I’d had with Noam two decades before, and wrote him to check it out. Since I’d just had a conversation with a writing friend about word order, I threw in another question. 

I wrote:

     I was telling a friend yesterday about Gene Searchinger's Language Series, and the fact that a child knows instinctively to say, for instance, "red ball," and not "ball red." But she threw me a curve ball: what about in French, where the syntax switches to "balle rouge?" Does the child instinctively say it correctly in French because of the rules it has picked up and applied even at two? I'm probably not explaining this well, as I'm obviously not a linguist... 

     Also, I recall you telling me why "my friend and me [went to the park]” is not incorrect, since it's the way a child might naturally say it. Am I remembering that correctly? 

Noam replied:

    Children know instinctively that they can construct the unit {red, ball} (a set, with no order).  But whether it’s “ball red” (as in most languages) or “red ball” (as in English) is a choice determined by experience, a parameter in technical terms.  Same with “read books” (English) or “books read” (Japanese).  There’s by now a large and important literature on how parameters are set by the child, quickly and with very little evidence.

     What children naturally say is “me and my friend were here.” That’s because they are speaking English properly and ignoring Victorian social conventions.  Misguided grammarians tried to force children to speak a Latinate form of English that they invented, and to impose the social conventions, so you’re supposed to say “my friend and I were here” in a language that does not exist and with social conventions that you do not follow naturally.  Causes endless confusion.  That’s why you hear people say things like “between you and I,” overgeneralizing the error of misguided grammarians. A lot of it traces back to Bishop Lowth, 18th century prescriptive grammarian.

This was not the first time I was left with more questions than answers as I rode the endless train of lessons at the feet of Noam Chomsky. I did some research. The first article I found mentioning Lowth was in a May 6, 2016 issue of the journal The Conversation. The title: Grammar police belong in the 18th century – let’s not inflict their rules on today’s children. 

I wonder how that’s working out? I could ask Noam, but maybe better to ask my grammar school neighbor. She’s less likely to send me away with homework. 


Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Open-Hearted - Part II

December 6, 2021

“What’s your name…Do you know where you are?” If they didn’t know, I was in trouble. Where was the gratitude I expected to feel when I woke, alive, from open-heart surgery? Bewildered at being asked to engage in a drug-infused conversation, I mumbled confused replies in a pained whisper. I couldn’t take a deep breath. I don’t remember my partner Laura’s afternoon visit. 

In the ICU, not only does time not fly, it does not move. Changing positions my first night was impossible with an IV in my hand, a main port with tubes dangling from my neck for middle of the night blood draws, and I would later learn, a tiny camera monitoring my heart through a neck incision. Other monitors covered my chest and abdomen as a catheter collected urine. I couldn’t roll over to press the call button, since I needed help rolling over. Desperate for sleep between blood labs, electrolyte drips to help the blood thinner reach a required level so I wouldn’t have a stroke, and compression cuffs around my lower legs to keep my blood circulating so I wouldn’t have a stroke, I watched the clock crawl toward midnight. I dreamed in snippets until a nurse shined a light in my eyes, as she had every hour, to make sure I hadn’t had a stroke. When she left, I wondered how long I’d slept. One hour? Two? I looked expectantly up at the clock. I had dozed for ten minutes.

Hours later, the nurse pricked my finger for a blood drop, following up with a shot of insulin. I asked her why. “The sugar water we float your heart in after we stop it is absorbed…” I closed my eyes and tuned the rest out. 

My surgeon likes to see his patients sitting up, and I complied on my first post-surgery morning, my drugged head bobbing forward and back, in retrospect not a bad exercise after being stretched out as if on a crucifix for a good part of the day. After teetering in my vinyl, easy to clean recliner chair for a few hours, a PA helped me to lie back on the bed. “Damn, who tied these so tightly?” she asked, pressing a small pair of scissors into stitches in two sites in my upper abdomen. I told her I had no idea, as I had been unconscious. She finally got me unstitched and pulled out two long drainage tubes. I only know this because she told me, not because I’d asked. Certainly not because I’d watched. I’m not that type – I’m too squeamish. If you’re gonna stop my heart and lungs and replace my heart’s mitral valve with a pig’s valve, I’m better off without a visual, without specific details. 

I used to wonder how it would be to have a near-death experience from a car accident or a slip in the shower. Would I reflect on my life and move forward with renewed appreciation? The day after this surgery, a doctor asked, “Do you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck?” I did, but before I could see the gift in it, I had to survive.

On day two, Laura arrived with Jay, who, in a reversal of long-ago roles, coaxed applesauce into my dry mouth with a plastic spoon. This sweet, fleeting offering, a singular moment in time, was one reason I ate, the other being that I wanted to show my son that I intended to stay alive. When they left, my nurse suggested I order my meals using a phone I hadn’t known I had. Holding it, I had no clue how to call the kitchen. I spent hours – or maybe minutes – staring at a cup of water and a tiny can of ginger ale on a tray six inches beyond my outstretched arm. I'm not sure how long I stayed in that position. I do recall doing some imaginary math to figure out how many thousands of these cans were distributed each day,  hoping the hospital recycled. I had been warned to use my arms minimally, so even if I reached the tray, I wasn’t allowed to pull or push it. “What are the four sternal precautions?” my young OT had asked after reciting them once, loudly, as if I were hard of hearing. I answered hesitantly, because I could barely remember. Also, the breathing tube had scratched my throat, and the tissues around my heart and lungs were still inflamed, so it hurt to talk. 

1. No hands over my head

2. No lifting, pulling, or pushing anything over five pounds - a gallon of milk weighs eight pounds

3. Only one hand behind me at a time 

4. (I couldn’t remember the fourth, except that it suggested putting out of my mind the fact that I had arms)

That afternoon, feeling as stable as Oz’s scarecrow, I took a slow-motion walk with my nurse. I got as far as my hospital room entry and turned back, winded. Was this my real life? That evening I went into AFib, or atrial fibrillation, meaning I developed an irregular heartbeat. My surgeon visited often, and in my oxycodone haze, I argued politics with him. He had been a sniper scout in the Arab-Israeli War in the late 1940’s, and was not, he said, a Noam Chomsky fan. I told him this didn’t surprise me, and pointed out, I suppose as a retort, how curious it was that he – the surgeon – had been liable for a number of deaths, and was now saving lives. He offered good- naturedly that those of us in the U.S. who haven’t lived in a war-torn country and experienced suffering first hand, should do so for a few years, to expand our point of view. I decided it was wise to end the debate, since he hadn’t yet finished saving my life. With a welcome change of subject, he voiced puzzlement at my AFib, since he “had removed a useless heart appendage that should have prevented it.” Uh huh.

Just before dinner, another PA helped my nurse get me back into bed. More stubborn stitch removal, and a long, thick gauge pacer wire emerged from my abdomen. I asked what else was in there, hoping this was the end of that treasure hunt. I’d slept on a soft pillow the first two nights, not knowing that Laura had wrapped her down jacket inside a hospital pillowcase during her first visit. This time she brought my pillow from home, in a case printed with a dog park scene. Both pillows were, as I think back, my security blankets, grounding me when my surroundings – lights and beeps, bed, johnny, my own body, my sense of sanity – felt unfamiliar and elusive.  

Time remained illusory. By day four I was feeling invisible, abandoned, with bouts of paranoia from sleep deprivation. Every once in a while a puff of anesthesia pushed itself from my lungs and out between my lips. Better out than in.

A strong core is vital to muscle control, injury prevention and basic life activities. A strong core is also vital, I quickly learned, to rocking armless-ly back and forth to get your feet to the floor to totter to the bathroom, to the vinyl chair, to walk the ICU with a nurse. Each day I improved slightly. Despite my cardiologist’s forecast of two days in ICU, then three in a regular hospital room, I was released on day nine. 

At my two-week post-op checkup, my surgeon – Dr. B – played for Laura and me a life-sized video of my first echocardiogram. “See here, these two parts of the valve, like parachute wings, were not meeting after each beat. See the blood leaking out at the top? Your leak was severe. Now this is the post-op echo.” Watching my heart beat again on the screen was akin to a horror movie. “See here how the new valve closes nicely after the beat?” Uh huh. “And look here at the wires holding the two halves of your sternum together.” I heard myself say, “Note to self: Faint later.” Dr. B laughed. I gripped my chair’s arms, breathing, trying not to have a stroke.  

As a grand finale, he unscrewed a small jar. I prayed he was about to share left over applesauce from lunch. “Look, this is a pig valve just like your new one.  Go ahead, touch it. That orange plastic piece comes off before we put it in.” The orange part looked much like a Lego my grandson Declan might use to build a structure. It was grounding, something I could imagine as familiar. I touched the valve lightly. Poor pig. Or was it? Apparently it had been living its life with a stronger heart valve than the one I’d been going about my business with. “A pig gave its life for me” is a sentence I never thought I’d utter, but when I did, I sent a mental note of thanks.

Walking our neighborhood block, Laura held two dog leashes, while I cautiously navigated undulating tree roots and asphalt swells. When I imagined tripping, my hand flew up to protect my healing wound and sternum. Bundled up and shuffling forward in a long hooded coat, I must have looked like a drugged up relative on furlough from an institution. After eight nights in ICU, this wasn’t far from the truth.

April 6, 2022

At four weeks post-surgery, a cardioversion (shock to the heart) failed to return my heart to normal sinus rhythm. Now, three months after that, I’m still on AFib meds, curious about whether, and how, I might be weaned off. Will I take blood thinners requiring blood draws for the rest of my life? These questions aside, after spending my energy staying alive, I’m finally feeling surges of that elusive gratitude at simply being alive. 

Now for the big reveal, which isn’t really so big. Before my surgery, as I wrote in Part I, I wrote Noam to ask his blessing for my book project. I wanted a simple quote to share with publishers and agents wanting his approval. His reply was exactly the reply I’d expected. He said it was not up to him to decide whether I should be writing the book, but that it was up to me. He said he trusted Jay Keyser’s good judgment. 

Reflecting on this, I realized that if I hadn’t known for sure he would answer the way he did, I had no business writing this book. It is, after all, about my reading between his lines, about our silent communications, and what he called my “uncanny” intuition and tact handling visitors and crews worldwide. It is about the mutual trust we’d built during our years together. Of course he would trust my rendering. 

As of today, I’m waiting to hear from a NY publisher about whether he will take me on. If he says no, I’ll keep moving forward, because I’m here, and I can.  I just wish Laura would stop making pig jokes. It’s too soon.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Open-hearted - Part I

Facing major, scary surgery last December, I was fighting a decidedly non-Buddhist stare down with fear and the inevitability of death. Even after several pre-op procedures, walking through a hospital door toward open-heart surgery to repair a leaky mitral valve required a level of intestinal fortitude I did not possess. Plus, Christmas was a few weeks away. I took a last look at the pre-surgery notes I'd scribbled down on a pad of paper: wash with a special cleanser, don’t eat after midnight, hold off on meds, and the rest. As I put down my notepad, I noticed that the bottom of each page was inscribed with the name of a funeral home. Not a good sign.

For two years before my surgery, I had tried to summon a different kind of strength, one requiring that I face my doubts about my book project, and so, about my writer self. Would my observations about our quirky, serious, silly, life-altering (for me) twenty-four years together at MIT’s Stata Center be of interest to readers outside of my MIT world? Or to more than the staunchest fans of my long-time boss, Professor Noam Chomsky? Hadn’t I already worked through this question of self-worth? What scared me the most was one vital and inevitable question I had to ask him. Would he reply favorably? 

My fears had me half-heartedly finishing my book proposal, a necessary step toward finding the right agent to put my manuscript into the hands of an enthusiastic publisher. Noam had read a few of my blog essays in the past, and liked them, saying things like, “You have stories to tell about your adventures here, and you write them well. Keep it up.” This was generous of him, considering he was a main character in my stories. Since that initial nod of approval, others followed, usually with a humorous remark like, “Why don’t you put that in your book? Why don’t you write about how you follow two old men around to fix computer problems and find lost things?” But his life circumstances changed. He and his new wife required privacy, and although I had carefully chosen my words and scenarios, writing only from a place of affection, respect, and discretion - not easy when trying to publish a book these days - I worried how I would go forward with my project, should he not give his final blessing. 

I pushed forward and began querying publishers, receiving dozens of remarkably positive and encouraging rejection letters, but when a few asked if they could contact Noam about my manuscript, I discouraged them. A rookie mistake? I thought I was being honest and straightforward by citing freedom of speech and asking why I would need anyone’s approval, just as I had seen Noam do a thousand times. But my response, my doubting mind imagined, may have signaled to them my fear that Noam, in the end, might not approve, and what publisher wanted to face that possibility? For two and a half decades I had watched him recoil from anything shining a light on him, even as he gathered and shared globally the truths of political and human rights matters. He wanted his writing and lectures to be the focus, not himself, but that didn't mean I couldn't write to reveal this world-renowned luminary as a real, mortal human being, a mensch, as the Yiddish would say. I had learned from hundreds of responses to my blog posts that making the person behind this great mind more accessible, showing him enjoying family, boating, friends, gave other activists permission to do this hard work without burning out, as many before them had, some dying by their own hands.

So now, as I was about to endure what would turn out to be a nine-day ICU experience at the Mt. Auburn Hospital on the other side of Cambridge, not far from MIT, I found the courage to ask him that question. What did I have to lose?

I’ll answer this question next week, when I'll also share a peek into the wild world of the cardiac ICU, as viewed from inside my mind, through my own quirky lens.


Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Feet to the Fire - Meeting ee cummings

Summer, 2021

I had forgotten the story behind our friend Anita’s family’s summer home on the pristine Silver Lake in Madison, New Hampshire until she mentioned it at dinner our first night there. The rustic all-wood home, named Shawmut when it was built more than a century before, had a surprise history. You had to climb onto the roof – we would take her word for it – to see the initials of one of its builders etched into the cement at the top of the chimney: EEC - poet e.e. cummings. 

As a writer now going through the merciless process of preparing the materials needed to query agents for my book - including the endless book edits - I felt comfort in Shawmut’s rustic simplicity from the time its screen door reverberated behind me with the loud slap of my own childhood screen door. I felt reassurance in the woody smells of pine and cedar ceilings and walls, and quarter sawn oak floors. Original windows opening to views of the woods and lake still slid perfectly across their wood frames.

After dinner I lay my hands on the large stones, all in shades of gold and gray, of the vertical outside wall of the Inglenook, a partially enclosed rectangular fireplace with a benched nook for sitting. This put your body inside the hearth area, six or seven feet from the fire. I imagined e.e.’s hands touching those same stones, and asked him for clarity on how to improve my memoir manuscript. It couldn’t hurt. Could he visit me in a dream and throw me some good publishing karma? A dozen London agents and publishers had written that they’d loved my book. They’d even loved what they referred to as its idiosyncratic nature, which was fine with me, since I’d agreed with others’ portrayals of me as a “wonderfully quirky storyteller.” I wasn’t sure what they thought was specifically idiosyncratic, nor would they say. Were they referring to my writing style and voice? Did they consider irreverent my attempts at lightening up an atmosphere where serious and even catastrophic world issues were at the core? At any rate, the fact that my writing strayed from “conventional” books about my MIT boss, linguist, activist, author Noam Chomsky, rendered them unable to gamble on publishing in the UK. Best to begin in the US, they’d suggested. I didn’t want my memoir to fit into a box with most other books about Chomsky. My writing was meant to shed light on the reluctant icon as a human being, on my twenty-four year relationship with the man beyond the pedestaled deity.

That night Anita pulled two books from her bookshelves – “When I was a little Girl,” by e.e.’s sister, Elizabeth, about their childhood on the lake, and another about the history of the lake’s houses. Shawmut, I learned, was one of a triplet of houses designed by Edward Cummings, e.e.’s professor-reverend father. The two of them had helped an experienced and well-known local builder and mason build the houses. 

In the morning I walked the short path down to Silver Lake, where at least three members of the Cummings family had found solace, and inspiration for their writing. This is exactly the kind of place that inspires a writer – the beauty of the clear water slapping at the shore, the mountainous backdrop, and the mournful calls of the loons. Halfway there, I noticed a short trail leading to a gray-shingled pump house partly hidden by pines. I thought of the times I’d wished for a writing space of my own, free of my much-loved pets asking for attention, of a neighbor’s knock, an urgent text, my partner Laura’s Zoom patients’ muffled lamenting tones coming from her office next to mine. Maybe I would charge my laptop and grab the key to the pump house the next day and write in there, balanced in the quiet on a folding beach chair. A few cobwebs for the price of an hour or two alone to free write, delete, edit my manuscript for the next round of agent queries. The whole soul-sucking process generates doubt about one’s writing in the face of the financial bottom line of the publishing industry. A bottom line that fears a book about the man behind a world-renowned activist adored and hero-worshipped by 1.6 million Facebook followers might not generate enough revenue. Is this how it was for cummings when he wrote his poems, or for his sister, Elizabeth?

The Cummings family had eventually moved into Abenaki, one of the houses – large cottages, really – that they’d built along the shore next to Shawmut. Curious to see the place up close, the four of us – Anita, Laura, our friend Sharon, and I, took off on foot down Shawmut’s dirt driveway, swinging left up a steep, undulating drive toward Abenaki. The family who had bought the house from the Cummings’ had driven Anita off their land decades before when she tried to introduce herself. We noticed fresh tire tracks right away, but soldiered on, fingers crossed that they weren’t home. I surreptitiously imagined asking e.e. cummings for great writing insights while the energy of his childhood home hovered. As we neared the penultimate crest, we heard someone approaching and called out, asking if we were trespassing, knowing full well we were. The body of a pre-teen boy appeared like an apparition above us. Hoping he hadn’t been warned never to talk to strangers, even an innocuous gaggle of four older women, Anita explained that she was his next-door neighbor, albeit a quarter mile away.  He – we would soon learn his fittingly old-time nickname, Hap – shrugged noncommittally and turned to lead us back toward his new home, answering our barrage of questions with just a word or two. When did you move in? Are you related to the Cummings family? Do you mind if we come closer to have a better look? He worried something with his fingers as we walked, and I imagined a young e.e. cummings using his finger or a stick to etch his initials into the wet cement at the top of Shawmut’s chimney. At the house, he fetched his mother, Chelsea, who emerged from inside with a toddler. Hungry for adult conversation - Hap turned out to be the oldest of four boys – and eager to know more about the history of her home and others on the lake, she welcomed us in, where the two middle boys were lying on mattresses, reading. She told us she and her husband had bought the property weeks before and pulled up the “No Trespassing” signs, to Anita’s great relief. 

The first two floors were mostly void of furniture except for Revered Cummings’s enormous writing desk, purchased from the previous owners. I felt a detective's thrill riffling through the notepaper, maps, and watercolor nature drawings tucked into the desk’s drawers and the hutch’s upper cubbyholes. With fireplaces on every floor, the scent of wood and ash permeated this cottage as well. Sadly, their first floor inglenook had blocked the kitchen and had been partially dismantled, but they planned to respect and honor the home’s original architecture. The third floor’s sleeping porch had the feel of a tree house with its long span of sliding windows overlooking the lake. I could almost see canvas bedrolls, cots, and wool blankets lining the outside walls.

Back at Shawmut, while the others headed for the dock to read and swim, I took the pump house key from its hook. When I opened the wood door, I let out a gasp at what I saw: a beautiful room with pine post and beam walls and exposed ceiling, with a large quilted bed, a smaller one for pondering, a blue leather sofa for more pondering, and a simple rectangular desk with chair and lamp. A total of fourteen windows looked out at nothing but trees, lake, and distant mountains, and there was plenty of light. My own writing retreat! I locked up and ran down to the water to take a quick kayak ride followed by a swim before the predicted rain. Afterwards, I changed into dry clothing, grabbed my laptop and notes, and returned to my private retreat to write a little, and to read more of Elizabeth Cummings’ book to the sound of a light rain tapping, on the roof. I imagined e.e. cummings’s fingers drumming to the same rhythm on his own desk as he searched for just the right word to fit the meter of his newest poem.

The elder Edward had written his sermons in a nearby cabin overlooking the lake. As I was closing up the book to prepare to hike up the ridge to see it, an article from 1985 fell out. Sitting on the floor, I read that e.e. cummings’s unorthodox, unstructured style had put him out of favor with many other writers and poets of his time. Although initially largely self-published for this reason – his writings had been published in Harvard’s newsletters, where he’d studied – he was eventually published professionally with almost three thousand poems. He is still remembered for the eccentricity of his punctuation and untraditional word usage. With this in mind after dinner, my own idiosyncratic writing now a badge of honor, I took a seat inside the Inglenook and put my feet to the fire to create a list for updating materials – synopsis, intended audience, chapter summaries, a list of folks to ask to write a book jacket blurb, marketing plan, and the rest – to query more agents. I slept in my dream retreat overlooking Silver Lake that night, and woke to work at my laptop for another hour, with e.e. cummings drifting about, cheering me on in some wonderfully idiosyncratic and unconventional way. Now that we’d met, to borrow a phrase from a personal favorite of his poems, I’d carry him in my heart.

By the way, e.e. cummings was a pacifist who’d spent time in jail for his political actions. Chomsky would have approved. In fact, they would probably have been friends.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

A story about morphine's effect on my mother, a character in the book I'm shopping for publication, Chomsky and Me

Published in Stethoscopes & Pencils as:  Mama’s gonna buy you a Mockingbird (November, 2020)

My original title: "Health sCare"

On my fortieth birthday I made a personal pledge to connect more emotionally with my mother, Charlotte. I didn’t know what that would look like, but I promised myself I wouldn’t end up at her grave with irreversible regrets. So when she called me at work a few days before a scheduled kidney stone removal to tell me that a pre-op chest ex-ray had revealed a spot on her lung, I decided to go through it all at her side. We met with a surgeon who said that since she had been a smoker, there was a 70% chance that the spot was malignant, and surgery was the only way to find out.

Other tests and visits followed. I decided at the last minute to join her at the hospital the day of her CT scan. When she saw me appear in the waiting room, she smiled, and said, “My body guard!” She didn’t show affection due to a tough upbringing, so her reaction touched me. Health scares could break down personal barriers.

The morning of her surgery when my partner and I showed up at her house, she called out, “Here’s my honor guard.” Her skin was pale and her eyes wide as her friend Bob drove us to the hospital for check-in. Before they wheeled her away, she handed me her raincoat, which bore a stringed nametag resembling a cadaver’s toe tag. I shook the thought away and kept my face down for an extra moment before kissing her goodbye. Bob, hating anything hospital-related went off to work.

My brother Ron drove in from New Jersey to join us, and we waited together, suspended in a sense of dread. Finally, the doctor came out to talk with us. In her ICU room, Ron tried to tell her the surgery’s outcome, but she waved him away. I leaned over and touched her arm. “Ma,” I said, “good news. There’s no cancer. The spot turned out to be a childhood Pleurisy scar.”

“Really? Are you telling me the truth?” she asked, unable to shake off her fear.

“Yup. The surgeon made a small incision, took a look, and sewed you back up,” I said, hoping she could believe the relief on my face in her drugged stupor. We went home, leaving her to rest.


I got a phone call around midnight. It was my mother’s voice, but her speech was thick and slow. “Beverly,” she said, “have I ever lied to you? Have I ever lied to you?” She slurred on in an effort to be heard over the night sounds of beeping equipment and nurses talking in the hallway. “They’ve made a mistake on my medication, and they’re trying to cover it up. Come right away, before it’s too late. They’re planning to kill me.”

My mother had been moved from ICU to a shared room with another woman, and was able to self-medicate with a morphine drip. Added to the anesthesia still in her system, she was quite drugged. I spent that first night trying to convince her that she was safe. “Be careful, ‘Charlie and his gang’ have been in and out of here, making their plans,” she warned. “Watch out for the nurse named Maura,” she whispered. “You can tell her by her face – it moves around like a bowl of jello. Maura can’t be trusted.”

‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘a person with a jello face is always trouble.’

I mentioned my concerns to the nurse, who said many older patients experience sun downing in a hospital, medicated and away from home. My mother was only 66, and looked a decade younger, so this didn’t sit well with my siblings and me. We would wait it out, hoping the anesthesia would wear off soon. Her paranoia persisted through the day.

When Maura came into the room and took a pen out of her pocket, her motor skills shone. She literally popped out of bed like a gymnast, gave me a wink, and pretended to dust a window ledge with the side of her hand, miming and mouthing to me, “Maura is trying to stick me with a poison needle.” Her slow wink told me, “I’m on top of this woman. She won’t get me!” I nodded back with feigned daughterly pride, wondering how long she would remain suspended beyond reality.

Later that day, a nurse’s aide offered her some juice. “Here you are, Charlotte, fresh orange juice to soothe your throat,” she said cheerily. She passed the juice glass under her nose several times, looked at me sideways through squinting eyes, then turned to the nurse with a mock smile, and pretended to take a sip. “Thank you a-ny-way,” she said, as she set the juice down on the table, winking and nodding at me. We were bonding.

The woman in the next bed was thirsty, and said, “I’ll have some orange juice, please.” My mother looked at me, at the woman, then back to me again, and said “Fool!” in a stage whisper. “Don’t turn your back on these people,” she warned, always the protective mother.

The roommate, whom my mother now called, “The fool who drank the orange juice,” was on a respirator. With each series of hisses, my mother insisted I cover my mouth. “Do it, Beverly! The poison is seeping in through the curtain! Or we won’t get out alive!” I covered my mouth, as did she, her eye winking conspiratorially at me from above her sheet. We were a team.

She wasn’t improving mentally, but was physically, so would be discharged in two days. My brother Ron and I were worried about sending her home in this state, and asked to meet with her doctor, who would come by the next morning.

I told my brother to go to my mother’s house and get some sleep while I waited her out. She asked me to hold her hand while she rested, to make sure I didn’t leave. I pulled the hard hospital chair close to the bed, resting my hand on her commode, and took her hand. She was not a hand holder, and the sensation was strange. She napped off and on, my cramped and tingling arm outstretched, my hand holding hers.

How many nights had she stayed up with me as a baby, rocking me to sleep, nursing me through childhood illness. My tears fell onto my sweater in the still darkness. With the self-consciousness of our relationship put aside, I asked myself, who was Charlotte as a little girl? I knew that when she was ten, her parents had a late night fight. In the morning, her mother was gone. Her father, a country musician and paperhanger, instructed her and her sister and brother to never talk about their mother again. A mother who could walk out on her children, I imagined, had probably never held their hands. For a long time, my mother thought her mother was dead. I imagined she had a lot bottled up inside her, and I wondered at the difference between strength and denial.

Around midnight she opened her eyes to check that I was still there, and I whispered that I was going home to change my clothes. At home, I fell asleep in fresh clothing. At 1:30 am, my phone rang.

“I thought you were coming back,” she cried. “You’d better hurry. Charlie and his gang are outside my room again, and they’re making plans. If something happens to me, let the authorities know. I’ve called hospital security, but they won’t come. They’ve moved the other lady out of the room so nobody will witness it,” she said.

I walked into her room a half hour later, unprepared for what I found. She was standing stark still by the bed, holding the compact lung machine like a suitcase, the draining tube in her back still intact. She had tied a large bow at the front of her robe. Bouquets of flowers from my cousins, Bob, and my siblings and me, lay in bunches on their sides across the window sills. The water from the flowers had been carefully poured into a dozen dixie cups, which were lined up on a long ledge, and three glass vases stood empty on a side table. I tried to make sense of the strange scene.

“Beverly, are you strong? Can you fight?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Can you fight?”

“Well, I don’t know…maybe,” I said, not wanting to commit.

“Ok, good. Now, when that nurse with the jello face comes in here, we’ll each grab a vase and hit her over the head, and then we’ll run out of here. Promise me you will do that! Promise me, and I will suffer the consequences. Don’t you worry. Are you with me?”

“So – you want to attack the nurse.”

“It’s the only way to get out of here alive. Do you promise me?”

First I said nothing. Then, “Sure Ma, I’ll do it.” I waited a beat. “But don’t you think we will be suspicious, running out of here at two a.m., you in your robe, carrying a lung machine?” She didn’t think so.

I somehow managed to get her back into bed, where she dozed, her mind quiet. Thinking about how scared my family had been a week before, and how my mother would do anything for us, I sang a song from our childhood softly into the room.

Hush little baby, don’t say a word

Mama’s gonna buy you a Mockingbird.

If that Mockingbird don’t sing,

Momma’s gonna buy you a diamond ring…

The next morning the doctor told her she had been delirious from what they finally recognized as morphine sensitivity. Apparently the surgeon had looked at her young face and prescribed too strong a dose. Her last night, my lucky sister at her side, was uneventful. Bob took her home in the morning.

My mother didn’t seem to remember most of what had gone on those few days. As I tell this story, I’m 66, the same age as she was then. I warn my family that if I’m ever hospitalized, they should limit my morphine. And hide the flower vases.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Irish Knit Sweaters and Ice Cream - A Day in the Life

    A laid-back story about a day in the life, focusing on Noam's Irish Knit sweaters, since it is St. Paddy's Day...   

    On March 6, 2010, I woke feeling sick, but there was no way I would miss work. Noam had agreed, through his agent Anthony Arnove at South End Press, to take part in an afternoon event sponsored by MIT’s Technology and Culture Forum, and the MIT Program in Women’s and Gender Studies. The event, “Democracy’s Endgame” would be moderated by “Democracy Now!” producer Amy Goodman, beginning with a talk by actor, writer, novelist, and revolutionary Arundhati Roy. Noam would give a brief response, and a conversational Q&A between the two would follow. Alternative Radio’s David Barsamian and a few others would be meeting at our office beforehand, and I was planning to lay out some pre-event appetizers. I'd been looking forward to this!

I lay back down on my bed, dizzy and lethargic, hoping fifteen more minutes of rest would do the trick. Laura took a look at me. It was her day off, and she offered to drive me to get the snacks and spend the day with me at MIT to help out. Her offer gave me the energy to shower and dress. We stopped at trader Joe’s to pick up fruit, crackers, cheeses, and drinks, and at MIT I forged ahead with my usual workload while Laura cut cheeses and gathered trays, napkins, small plates, and knives for later. Noam was just beginning an interview with David Barsamian, and after introductions all around, Noam asked, “Who were the two people taping our conversation?” David told him they were from “The DISH Network,” and Noam nodded. He liked to keep track of the media groups interviewing him.

When the interview had ended, Glenn brought in our mail, and I saw a package I had been waiting for, from Dublin. “Noam, your surprise has come!” I called out. The DISH people were still packing up, and turned to see what was happening. Noam walked toward me and stood next to Laura, trying, I think, to figure out if she was in on the scheme, but she wore her best therapist’s poker face.

But first, let me explain. Noam had worn sort of a uniform for the past fifteen years: an Irish knit sweater worn over a light blue shirt, with jeans and black velcroed sneakers. By now he was down to two sweaters, one a medium blue and one a green-blue. I had patched the latter at the elbows, and darned it at the wrists. Clipping and unclipping hundreds of mikes had bitten a gaping mouth-sized hole out of the sweater’s rounded neckline. The blue sweater was now too small in the belly. He blamed it on the (healthy) lunches I brought him, but I blamed it on his laundering skills. We both knew his weight gain was from eating out more since his wife Carol passed away in 2008.

Noam looked down at the mix of browns and beiges poking out from underneath a large padded envelope I was using to conceal the gifts. “What’s this?” he asked, eyebrows raised, and a little smile spread across his face.

“It’s your surprise!” I was pleased with myself for how this gift had transpired, but mostly I was excited that Noam might be wearing a new sweater to today’s event. I removed the envelope to reveal a neat stack of lightweight sweaters, presenting them with a flourish. First, a deep cocoa with subtle striping at the neck, then a medium brown with a slight diamond design in the middle. The bottom sweater was a handsome shade of beige unlike any sweater found at a shopping mall. They were all the right size – large, so would fit him perfectly.

“Where did they come from?” he asked.

“Do you want the long story, or the short?”

“The short story.” No surprise there.

“Sam Epstein asked me what he could present to you after your upcoming Michigan lecture, and I jokingly suggested a new Irish knit sweater. He loved the idea, so I emailed your friend Maria in Dublin and asked the name of the store where she had bought your two original sweaters. She wrote back immediately. “Oh, Bev, I have a very expensive sweater left over from Noam’s trip here.  He said it was too joyful for him to wear! I can take it back and exchange it for a couple of somber ones.” When she got there, she found that the store was going out of business, and she was able to exchange the one for three sweaters! And here they are.”

“Can you take the tags off of this one,” he asked, handing me the cocoa brown sweater. The green-blue patched sweater seemed to gain in shabbiness as it left his body, and he slipped the brown one over his blue shirt. “And keep the old one, I can still wear it.” With Laura acting as stylist, it slid on like butter. He put his hands in his pockets and smiled, happy for three new sweaters after zero minutes of shopping. He looked great.

“Should I put these in mothballs,” he asked. “Avi doesn’t believe in mothballs, but Carol always put our sweaters in mothballs over the summer.” So I would be the mothball deal breaker? No problem – this would be an easy task.

“I don’t think mothballs are necessary, Noam. They’ll be fine folded up in a bedroom drawer. And anyway,” I said, clearing my throat. “Uhm, do you remember what happened last year when you started to wear your sweaters into the office after taking them out of mothballs?” He did not, surprisingly.

I had started this, and I had to come clean. “The suite smelled like mothballs for the entire winter. We opened windows on warmer days to air out the place.” He had forgotten, no doubt because his mind was always on more urgent things.

My phone rang. It was actor Woody Harrelson’s assistant. “Hi. Mr. Harrelson will be sending over five pints of ice cream for Noam, David, staff, and friends to share with Arundhati Roy this afternoon.” This seemed so arbitrary to me, but maybe ‘Woody’ admired Arundhati or Noam? Or David, Anthony, Amy, or all of the above? I was too busy to find out, and asked her to thank Mr. Harrelson for us. I was glad Laura was there, and sent her off to the nearby kitchen to find bowls, spoons, and ice for the drinks. I had the next week’s schedules to finalize, more than fifty new emails in my “Noam” inbox, and two people from a local union were sitting outside waiting to meet with Noam. I asked Glenn to deal with the emails, and I could tie up loose ends on the Michigan/Madison schedule on Monday. Laura and I had appetizers to cut and arrange.

Anthony, Amy, and Arundhati arrived. Anthony had picked up the ice cream, and the atmosphere of our suite turned festive as Laura and I brought out the trays. Noam stood out in his new cocoa brown Irish knit sweater, and received compliments through the afternoon. I took his beat-up Irish knit sweater home, flung it on a chair, and fell into bed, having powered through the day without focusing on how I felt. But first, I hung the sweater in my closet, where's it's been ever since, a reminder of those fun and magical days with Noam, and everyone in our world.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Pleading Computer Insanity

I'm working on getting a draft of my book to three people by the end of the week.  I see that people are still looking at my blog, despite the fact that I have pretty much abandoned it while writing. Mea Culpa. Here's a chapter to whet your appetite, I hope. 

            The fact that Noam is a self-proclaimed technophobe is one of the first things he divulged about himself. Many times since that confession he confirmed his belief that all technology, in all situations, is not fixable, nor is any document retrievable. He also insisted that if something could go wrong with anything mechanical or technical, it would go wrong. He wanted nothing to do with finding solutions, because to find a solution, he had to care, and he didn’t care about technology. Years ago, he'd found a way to redirect a substantial stream of water flowing from the gravelly, rutted road above his Cape Cod cottage so it would bypass the property and flow toward the pond below, so I knew he was capable of solving puzzles if he took the time to focus and think them through. When he found himself in what he categorized as a desperate situation, he took desperate measures, like when he called Theresa Tobin, the MIT librarian, at her home one night because he was having trouble accessing a journal in the MIT library system. Theresa helped him retrieve the journal, but before they hung up she asked him if he knew what time it was. He’d had no idea it was past 1 a.m..
            Noam was convinced computers and printers and anything technical, motorized, or battery-powered, even electric staplers, conspired to torture him. Coffee makers, washing machines and dishwashers, garage doors, cars, subscriptions, his phone, and his GPS were also culprits. When I tried to show him how to change the date on his watch one afternoon, he walked away waving his hands over his head, shouting, “Don’t bother, I don’t want to know!”
            While answering emails in his office, Noam was accidentally kicked off line, and became frustrated trying to figure out the logic behind the new Outlook Express program. “You have to be crazy to understand this new email system,” he groused from his office. “The people they designed this for are insane. The people who do the designing are insane.” I asked him to step away from his laptop for a few minutes and let me look at it in peace to figure out how he had managed to get himself kicked offline, but he kept pacing next to me, and in less than a minute, he was back at it. 
            “It’s hopeless. Just shut it off. Close it. Forget it. I have plenty of other things to do. Assaf will look at it with me tonight, and we’ll get it working. This program is designed for people without any logical sense.”
            Noam and I didn’t know what the red x on the bottom right of his screen indicated, but we assumed it had something to do with his not being able to get online. I did know how the x probably ended up there – an accidental flick of his finger hit a key at the wrong time, sending his computer, and him, into a tailspin. I finally walked away and sat at my own desk, trying to throw myself off line. I did the hokey pokey and I turned myself around, but no matter what arbitrary keys I hit, I was still able to access email and the web. I sat next to him again in the afternoon and tried to toggle him back online, with no luck. Then I noticed that the red x sitting in the lower right hand corner was gone, and I told him he might be back online.             
            “No, I don’t think I am. The fact that the red x disappeared only means one of my accounts is online, maybe my home account. Just forget it. Let’s close up the computer and forget it!” When we tried to close the computer up, the red x appeared again.
            As an aside, Noam once received an email asking to have a book signed. At the bottom was the Yahoo sign-off, 'Do you Yahoo?' Noam printed out the email and drew a circle around 'Do you Yahoo,' with a note to me saying, "Tell him I don't know what he's talking about."

            Assaf took a look at his computer that evening before dinner, and he figured out that when the red x had disappeared, he really had been back online. Noam just hadn’t been able to believe it, so he hadn’t even tried. By his logic, he would have had to be insane to believe it. I should have insisted we just try to open his email, but he was frustrated and insistent, and I doubted myself - I thought maybe I was missing something. Plus, when he was exasperated with computers, I just had to go along with his annoyance until he put the problem back in my – or Glenn’s - hands. Or, if he happened to have dinner plans that night at Irene and Assaf’s.