Window Under the Dome

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This is the view from the second floor over the lobby that stands under the great dome at MIT.  I walked by and often stood at this particular spot nearly every day for a few years back in the 80s and 90s, and there was always something interesting to see either inside or out:   the skyline across the river, tickets and events information at lunchtime, engineering students in a bridge-building competition, or the regal rhododendron in full bloom along the perimeter of Killian Court outside.  After I left the Institute I returned to the Lobby a few times to sell hand painted clothes at the craft fairs.  It was lovely to work in such a busy and imposing structure; it made every task seem useful and important and sometimes I would invent reasons just to take that walk down the Infinite Corridor and feel the buzz.  I miss it sometimes but on recent visits have found that the nostalgia of the architecture is not enough; it was the people and the work that kept me going, and I would almost prefer to look at the photos than walk down the corridors where, now, nobody knows my name.

Pink Paper

Fall 2009 - pink paperI 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.

Nobel Aspirations

If your phone ever rings at 5 a.m. in October, answer it. That’s when they award the Nobel Prize and as this morning’s news proves, you just never know, it might be you. Many Octobers ago my phone rang before dawn with Nobel news about two professors who won the prize in Physics. The call came from the Director of the MIT News Office, and as the Interim Assistant to the President of MIT, it was my job to know help him prepare to recognize and celebrate the awards such.

At a place like MIT, where 63 people have won the prize, people talk about Nobels like the rest of the world talks about a really great promotion – to people accustomed to extraordinary accomplishment, a Nobel is a distinct possibility, and some get to the point where they plan their careers around it. One gentleman declined the presidency of the Institute based on his expectation that he was a contender for the prize and that accepting an administrative position would hurt his chances. (He did win the Prize, eventually.)

So, given that this event was oddly commonplace and extraordinary, we set about honoring the winners while tip toeing among the winners (there are over 60 as of this writing) and losers that roam the Infinite Corridor. The President, intent on doing the right thing, asked me to visit the Dean of Science to invite him to the press conference honoring the winners. He specifically instructed me to walk down to the office and extend the invitation in person, rather than via phone or e-mail. I knew that the Dean of Science, an imposing and square jawed man with a laugh that reminded me of Beavis and Butthead, was still smarting from being passed over for the Presidency and then the Provost’s position. It became quite clear to me how much he was smarting when I asked to see him personally on behalf of the president and he did not only not rise from his desk, but only glanced briefly over his half glasses at me and inquired what I wanted. I felt more like a child in a principal’s office than a presidential envoy, and was both terrified and furious. I extended the invitation as best I could and backed out of the office. When I told the President what happened he realized his mistake in sending a staff memer and, ever gracious, apologized for his colleague’s behavior. The winners themselves were wonderful, one charming and affable, the other more quiet and dignified, but both humbled and delighted by the acclaim. I generally found this to be true; that those with the greatest accolades were the most gracious and rewarding to work with.

All of this came back to me this morning when I learned of the Barack Obama’s own Nobel phone call and his daughter’s reactions that this was a great way to start a long weekend. So many laureates in so many disciplines toil in quiet libraries and busy labs, driven by the pursuit of a single idea or narrative, trying to explain something that has never been seen or told before in quite the same way. The award may or may not come, but they work on, devoted to an ideal often only known to them. Those prizes are awarded for moving us forward in a way we might not have expected; they shine light into corners we did not even know were there, and the prize turns up the wattage for the world to see. But Obama has been awarded the beacon itself, and is asked to make good on his promise to further illuminate the world, to take his message of hope and make it a reality. Whether history with judge this as and enlightened choice or a colossal act of hubris we will soon see for ourselves.

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