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 in, 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 notes in the margins of the journal. I walked out of the office, pulled the door closed, and stood outside. Seconds later he let out a string of coughs he had surely held in from the time he walked through the door. 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 well over 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 for over fifty years, 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 found myself taking 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 both 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 toward making positive changes in 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. 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 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. I didn't ask, but assumed 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 eat 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 offset 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 that 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 suddenly dawned on me that Roxy must have sneaked off earlier to sit next to Noam, having smelled his food. A quick check under my desk confirmed this. 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. I returned to my work, and Noam retreated into his office.
David returned, and was reloading his camera, and 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!" he said, this pronouncement causing a brief coughing fit. "I just haven't gotten enough sleep lately." "Right, they call that jet lag," I said half to myself, handing him his mug and adding, "Would you like me to get you in with Dr. Kettyle today?"
He turned his back on me and shook both hands 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," he said laughing, "is that this is the on and off switch." 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.
We 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 8th 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 run, 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 moment of 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.
Bev Stohl, Personal Assistant to Noam Chomsky
January 28, 2013