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Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Graveyard Shift. Literary Biopic

I used to worship Umberto Eco until Foucault's Pendulum gave me a headache. But then, I got proper warning from my mentor, a noted scholar, economist, inventor of economic semiotics, colleague of Eco and of the late Thomas Sebeok.

Silvia Harnau, or Madameas I used to call my dear late friend and teacher, had warned me that the Pendulum was for my forties, "if you really want to understand it". It was probably a mistake to read it at 23 against all the odds. It's O.K., though. I love rereading, and I'll only be forty in 2020.

You, dear reader, may think this is some story about me, but it is not.

This is the true story of The Madame and of her quest for the "do something useful in your short life" Grail.

She, for her turn, was the common apprentice project and mutual friend of the two aforementioned titans of semiotics. A student of Ancient cultures and languages, a cover girl turned scientist, a sharer of knowledge and an inventor of signs. Thrice a wife and never a happy one, because she was wed to her work, and men back then did not tolerate that kind of competition. A childless orphan divorcee.... in her life, the lack of childish glee was compensated by her students.

She taught me many of the things I know, but behaviorist psychology in her head was pure theory, I guess. She never knew a certain layer of the true me - the natural pride of a child who is full of ambition when climbing step after step and managing not to fall.

I still do not know whose fault was that glorious October day. As I was happily trying my hand at new software, I forgot my father's first rule: never show half-finished work to your boss. But I could not master my impatience and showed Madame the intermediate project for our web site. Note: it was 2001.

Madame Harnau was in a bad mood. She looked for a minute at the fruit of my transition from HTML editor to Dreamweaver Suite, and asked "what the hell of a wanker business is this?", excuse me. Then she went out for a smoke without me. Cue silent tears and hysterics by Anastasia.

An hour later, I put the keys to my new huge office on her desk and left her Center of Economic Semiotics without a word. I was 20 and thin-skinned.

Later, a former colleague told me she had gathered her other mentees in her office, served candy and coffee, set the deadline for midnight, after which she would stop waiting for me, and they spent the entire evening talking. About me and other, more interesting stuff.

But I was too deeply offended to even consider forgiving her so soon. Plus, that evening, I was at the airport meeting my new Internet flame. He was flying in from Moscow, so I had been busy choosing a dress. I spent that night doing... well, something else.  

I ran into Madame months later, by the fountain in front of Building B. It was May. I was on the verge of graduation, and she looked very tired. So my last close encounter of the star kind was brief. 

We were certainly glad enough to see each other in order to spend some time talking. Silvia congratulated me on a brilliant license paper and warned me that my scientific leader Mrs. "Curare", her own nemesis from the Management Department, was a thief. I said, "Oh, now I understand why she asked for a floppy disk with my paper!" We chatted a little more and parted warmly. 

Seven years later and a week before I went to her new HQ to rekindle the friendship, Silvia had passed away.

It was August. I put on new jeans, took a cab downtown, bought flowers, and called her cell phone. It was her uncle who answered the phone and gave me the news. If I had called four days earlier, I would have made it to her funeral.

Years later, I still know the number by heart. 079400012. The mobile operator is long consumed by a megacorp... the area code probably changed... sir Leo is probably gone, too - he was over 90 when he buried his niece and only relative. I remember.

Google barely knows her. She is just a name lost in between high profiles like Sebeok and Posner. Her accolades are merely a couple of bytes on old academic resources. Her smile on a black-and-white photo and her modest obituary are a tiny island in the blogosphere.

http://colegi.md/ViewBlog/9375/

I remember.

Thus, Silvia gave me her last lesson in the field she probably knew the least from all the sciences in the world. Love.

The importance of forgiveness I learned in due time from my dealings with parents, men, and the human race in general. But the importance of timeliness is something one never learns, I guess.

As a child once said, "forgiveness is the scent of a flower after someone treads on its petals".

That scent does not linger. 

She was one funny lady too. When in a bad mood, she swore so inventively, she could teach seamen a course on expletives. Usually, you never knew whether it was safe to continue laughing your ass off or seek shelter before you were killed mid-guffaw.

She never yelled at me personally, though - she was aware of my sensitive nature. The jibe about Dreamweaver was her first and last mistake to that account. It also must have tipped her off that she had never managed to tutor me properly on the importance of a thick hide.

Today, she would have been proud of me. Thirteen years later, I myself mentor rookies on swimming with sharks. And feel how deep are the roots of another lesson in my heart. Regret.

Yeah... if she had started picking at my graphic design today, I would just have told her she forgot to shave her legs again, so it's not her place to talk about beauty.

She would probably tell me to sod off and go make some coffee because it's 6 AM and we haven't closed an eye working and playing "Who's the smartest ass?" Then she'd reveal a stashed pack of Luckies with the air of Santa taking an extra large toy out of his sack.

When in a good mood, she used to tell jokes and share delicious gossip about our world's celebrities, like Thomas being pissed with Umberto since the latter published something titled Sebeotics. I wanted to shoot myself when she told me Eco had paid an unofficial visit to her before I joined the team!

In 2008, Silvia Harnau died at 47, after six months of teaching her patented course of economic semiotics at the University of Bologna... and a burnout that resulted in quick cancer. I don't know if her last party was a state funeral, but she rests at the Armenian Necropolis, which is my homeland's equivalent of the Congressional Cemetery.

I could probably hire a medium and summon her spirit to prove all these namedroppings are true, but I remember how touchy she was about sleep...

Years later, the day I learned about her death remains a source of laughter and tears to me. I was recovering after a burnout of my own, and just got out for the first time a week after she had died.

That August day, I was walking in the park and thinking about my old mentor because she was probably the only one who would understand what a great fall after a great success meant to a person like me. Due to health problems, I had to leave Moscow after a vertiginous career rise culminating in several weeks of translating for an investigative team of the Federal Security Service.

So I took out my cell phone and dialed.

"Silvia died a week ago", said sir Leo.

After a short exchange of information, I jumped into a cab and told the driver to take me to Armenian street. I bawled and told the driver stories about her all the way to the cemetery, clutching at a bunch of asters and roses.

Finally, we made it through traffic. As I was getting out of the cab, I looked up and realized I saw... stars.

No, I did not see them because I hit my head, although I acted like I was a brain-damaged monkey. The stars were in the sky, and the locked gates of the graveyard were my cue to look at my watch and see... it was 11 PM.

What the driver thought, I cannot imagine to this day. Although my renewed bawling and more stories probably gave him a clue as he drove me home.

(This proves once again that taxi drivers are the best psychologists and businessmen ev-er. He could have told me from the start, "hey lady, are you nuts? I ain't going to no cemetery at this time of night!' But he not only let me spew it all out and caterwaul and tell stories about something named semiotics until I calmed down. He also earned more money.)

I returned the next day with the same bunch of flowers, scattered them all over her grave and said, "Here, you loved creative mess, so no vase and pretty arrangements for you, Madame. Just a mess of asters and roses, pretty much like your life."

I should probably write to Mr. Eco and share some true Silvia stories. If she never told him about me, I will just drop a couple more names and mention the "Barcelona Fifth International Conference on Translation", at which I participated with a paper on semiotics in the interpreting of negotiations. I remember that paper... I was probably the first who discussed smileys scientifically. Sorry. Emoticons.

I would never dream of being so brazen as to ask him to help me get published. I prefer blazing my own new trails, anyway. It's just... Umberto Eco is probably one person who, just like me, remembers Silvia for what she really was.

Not the unkempt harpy with mood swings to beat seven pregnant women, as most of her students probably saw her. Why, in class, some of my fellow ladies used to find the runs in her stockings highly amusing... and yawned when she made some pun about her recent ad campaign on the side. Well, chacun à son goût.

She actually was one brilliant, vibrant, hilarious piece of work... so intelligent she'd probably outwit Aristotle and beat the devil at poker. She did love roses and champagne, but a life like hers is more like shit and heartache.

She once showed me a picture of her cover girl years, and I was surprised out of my boots. She definitely could pull it off with a little grooming. Married three times, once to an Israeli millionaire... she was in Tel Aviv when she was first diagnosed with cancer.

She told me she almost had said goodbye to life in 1990, as she was lying on the operating table before the anesthesia kicked in. Yet she was saved... by a Moldovan surgeon.

Afterwards, she told the woman who brought her back to life: "I am a talented person, you know. So I will give my talents to the country that gives the world people like you."

Well... this is the story I remember. I am not sure Umberto Eco does; after all, he must be very busy. I will share this with him, though, some day, when I will be just as busy.

I am sure she wouldn't mind me pulling the strings she had woven, though. I was her favorite both as semiotics apprentice and Marketing student, although she had a funny way to say "I love you".

Like, in the summer of 2001, right before my equivalent of sophomore year, she gradually got rid of the entire staff of the Center, under the "pretext" they were all lazies or idiots or freeloaders.

That was a big mistake, I think, because they were good hardworking people - the paid receptionist and the students who used to swarm like bees in the Center, doing pro bono work in exchange for freebies, cool talk with Madame, and discounted Xeroxing.

Well, no wonder. It was summer... and nerds like me who would spend it inside, living on takeout and being the job instead of doing it were rare. But I was happy. I was learning stuff by the bucketful, and Madame put me on my alma mater's payroll as graphic designer, so at 20, I was making more than my mother.

That summer, the two of us were left to do a huge graphic/text four-language project for our employer. The ensuing snafu was memorable, and I am totally unable to fit it into this story. My mother, who saw me two or three times from June to September, started calling my occupation "that goddamned semiotics", no matter how hard I tried to explain it was not mere semiotics I was learning... but the world.

Yes... Dickens probably wrote "It was the best of time and the worst of time" after he had spent a summer with his crazy-ass genius of a mentor learning Photoshop and QuarkXPress, tinkering with a huge-screen Mac at the publishing house after shameless flirting with the page-maker, playing "Who's the smartest pants" with Sylvia during coffee-and-talk break, and sleeping on office chairs.

That summer also marked my first bout of chronic fatigue and "yuppie flu", and was normal life for her, I guess.

I remember, in February, soon after I joined the team, we were preparing our "Communication Is What We Need" presentation for the Small Business Fair, and we had a buttload of work. Note: that was a time when not even science fiction writers could imagine today's social media. 

So she went through a week with two-three hours of sleep every night by sheer inhuman willpower. It wasn't really necessary. But tell that to a megamind control freak, and all you'll get is cursing in five languages, including Hebrew and Ancient Greek.

The woman taught me well re: time management, being a dummy about it herself. And yet she ruined me - I love working at night when it's quiet and no one is calling.

Yet my nightly toil is marked by laughter, self-irony, and money-making. I do what I do for myself, for my nearest and dearest, and rarely work for free - after all, Silvia was an Ancient Greek and Latin major, and I am an International Business denizen. Her course of Marketing was one of the many I had taken.

Unlike her, I enjoy not only my work, but also the rewards I get, and I always get good sleep after the next major deadline is met. She jumped from project to project as if she was sure she would live forever. By the 15th year of my language services career I could afford expensive novel-writing sabbaticals in the Greek islands' paradise... she was poor like a church mouse because all she did was for the cause of economic semiotics and of her Center.

Yeah. When she had to choose between buying pantyhose or paper for the ever-hungry printer at the Center, what do you think she chose?

If you, dear reader, are now at this point of my true story, you probably have heard about me. But have you ever heard of Harnau's economic semiotics?

She was no Scrooge, though. When it was salary day at the Academy... uh-la-la! One could tell she'd once been a trophy wife. Boutique raid, best make-up, cab to restaurant, champagne, most expensive coffee, chocolate, and cigarettes... by the time the party was really getting started, we usually realized we both had spent half our money. Cue home-made mayonnaise sandwiches, buses, Nescafe and Luckies till next payday or ad gig. Fun.

Her life was marked by a dark destructive note and the drive to manage to do as much as possible, because she knew her days were numbered. Smoking like a chimney didn't help. Long before Silvia would hit fifty, cancer came calling again.

She did not even make enough money for an apartment. Since 1997, when President Luchinsky made her citizen of honor by Special Presidential Decree, and to her dying day, she lived in a dingy hotel room. Her homeland was Iasi, Romania.

I only hope her Barcelona gig brought enough money for her funeral, because her uncle - her only living relative and a noted scientist himself - was no moneybags. I would have been glad to help, but I was a week too late...

So, by the time I managed to hand her the roses and asters I had bought for her, it was a fresh mound of earth that received them. Not my sensei, who would probably have given me a rare hug and treated me to her version of the fattened calf: beef liver fried with onions and mushrooms, and home-style roast potatoes at the Green Hills restaurant.

Madame was a sucker for fried beef liver, although a) I personally found it disgusting, and b) it always gave her stomach ache. She also had a mean recipe for home-made mayonnaise with olives. A sweet tooth, too.

Well, I'm glad I didn't buy her candy that day. With flowers and a tear-streaked face, I still looked more or less normal at the graveyard gates at 11 PM. I would have looked a total nut if I had gone there clutching a bag of Snickers.

Well, Madame, you lived at her post, you died at her post, and now you watch is ended. RIP, and I hope you finally get to get some good sleep, smoke all the Dunhills, and drink all the Blue Mountain coffee you fancy in your particular corner of Dreamdwell.