I heard a voice on the radio last week that sounded like a folk singer who used to work for me when I was at MIT. It was an odd match – she was this tremendously talented woman in her 30s trying to pay the bills so she could pursue her art and music and I was an ambitious twenty something newly ensconced in a senior position in the President’s Office. I was advised by one of my superiors that I was expected to prove myself with the subtle warning “not to let my slip show.” So I hired Suzanne because she was bright and funny and seemed to understand teamwork, and I needed all the help I could get.
We both had a lot to learn, it turns out, and in the years since we parted ways I often think of her as I pursue organic gardening and alternative therapies because she was on the leading edge of these things way back in the 90s. Me, I was on the leading edge of a nervous breakdown, and loving every minute of it. I loved the meetings (it’s true, I love meetings), the policy discussions, the intellectual give and take of some of the most interesting and fascinating minds of our time – Lester Thurow, Paul Krugman, Bob Solow, John Deutch (pre-CIA), Francis Low, Philip Sharp – I only took notes on the discussions but I relished the immersion in ideas, and I gloried in taking it all down and getting it just right.
Suzanne was helpful in her wry way but clearly less enamored of the process than I. Part of our job was to prepare for meetings, sending out agendas and prep materials and copies of the meetings notes. To keep all of our groups straight (for us and for the members, who often sat on several committees), we coded the notes and agendas, assigning each committee their own color – yellow, green, blue, pink, goldenrod. There were long hours in the windowless copy closet down the hall, and we had to lug our own colored paper with us each time we traversed the infinite corridor between our office and that room. It was a pain.
Late one winter afternoon I dispatched Suzanne down the hall with a ream of pink paper to copy agenda and notes. She returned with the notes, and each set had the first two pages in pink paper and the subsequent three in white. There it was, my slip showing, a bit of white peeking from under the pink. I didn’t handle it well.
“What’s with the white paper?”
“I ran out of pink and so I just finished them in white.”
“Are we out of pink?”
“No, I just didn’t want to walk all the way back to get more.”
“Well, we have to redo them so they are all pink.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“No, we really have to. We cannot send out two-tone notes. It’s sloppy work. We just can’t.”
“You’re just going to throw away all this paper because it’s the wrong color.”
“No, we’ll recycle it. The notes absolutely must be all in pink.”
“You’re going to WASTE all of that paper and time and work just so they can be all pink?”
“If you were worried about wasting paper and time you should have come back down the hall for more pink paper.”
We were both furious. I made her stay late and redo it herself. I didn’t even help. It was then that I realized that I did not like being a supervisor and that I was not very good at it, either. Eventually, Suzanne went on to work for a brilliant music professor and we parted on good terms. After hearing what I thought was her voice last week (it wasn’t) I learned that she left New England to pursue her art and music and, from what I can see on her website, she looks well and happy, and I am glad. She taught me a lot, and I drove her crazy. Okay, maybe we drove each other crazy.
I still have pink paper moments all the time. Moments where I would rather do things myself instead of harangue my kids, where I insist on things being done a certain way, and I still find myself wondering if my slip is showing. I reconsider that exchange where I demanded the recopying often, at those moments in which attention to detail may seem over the top but that the urge to do something – anything – precisely right is overwhelming. On some days, doing the little things right is all I am able to get done at all.