Saturday, May 31, 2014

An Offer I Could Have Refused: Interview with Morris Halle for position as Noam Chomsky's assistant

Morris Halle called across the suite to me, “Bev, can you come and show me how to get my phone messages?” I walked down the short hallway to his office, where I found him looking at his phone as if it were a foreign object, and saw that his password was still taped to the top of his phone, above the rectangular digital window. 
“There it is Morris,” I said.  “Just press the buttons in sequence where I’ve taped the numbers one, two and three, and the phone will prompt you for your password.” Then I thought for a second, and stayed with him so we could do it together.
“Oh, yes, that should work,” he said, after we pressed the last button.

           My childhood dream was to be a pink-tutu’ed ballerina.  As a seven-year-old girl in 1961 I wasn’t aware of many other career choices besides teaching, which I seriously considered until my teacher shocked me by marking my first X ever on a vocabulary test when I proposed that the word tongue contained two syllables.  So teaching was out.  But every Saturday I looked forward to pulling tiny black tights and leotards over my rail-thin body for my morning ballet classes, where a dozen girls stretched at the dark wood barre and pirouetted across the tired oak studio floor. So it was settled in my little girl mind that when I grew up, I would dance the ballet.

          And this is what I wrote in my requisite “What I want to be when I grow up” essay in Mrs. Burke’s second grade class at the Plympton School in Waltham, Massachusetts. One thing I know for sure is that I did not mention in that essay, not even in passing, that my dream was to work at MIT as right-hand person for left wing activist, scholar, linguist, dissident humanitarian liberal philosopher, author, and media and US foreign policy critic, Professor Noam Chomsky.  In fact, I had just learned my left from my right.  And though my vocabulary was excellent for my age, ton-gue be damned, these terms were far beyond the scope of my knowledge.
 Thirty-two years after announcing my future plans, the incontrovertible evidence of my two-left-feet having dashed all hopes of becoming a ballerina, I was still trying to figure out my special purpose in the world. 
   In 1979, my younger brother Paul, a new MIT graduate about to continue his studies there toward a doctorate in physics, took me to the HR department to check out job listings.  I wanted to be home in the afternoons for my seven-year-old son, so I took a part-time position working for a Department of Energy project headed by Fred Salvucci, previous Secretary of Transportation in Massachusetts under Michael Dukakis.  I loved the team of people I was working for, but more importantly I found it appealing to work in a university atmosphere rather than a corporate setting.  The dress code was casual, and I felt at ease spending my days with and around grad students, who, on average, were just a year or two younger than I.  Feeling the pressure to grow and move on, in a few years I took a full time administrative position at the Transportation Department’s headquarters office, moving onto Civil Engineering’s headquarters office, where I worked as assistant to the graduate program administrator.  I soon moved up to MIT’s now defunct Ocean Engineering Department as their graduate program administrator, finally landing in a salaried position as program administrator in the cutting-edge Department of Economics. 
Then one day in early 1993, I looked around and wondered how I got where I was – sixteen years older and twenty pounds heavier, making more money and feeling less personally connected to my own goals. I loved working with the students, and the administrators and most of the professors were good people, but I was feeling a lot of stress and little joy in my job, so I began looking for a less challenging job that would allow me time and space to finish a degree in counseling psychology.  At least then, I thought, I could eventually pursue a career that centered on my personal agenda, and not on the agenda of an institution.  I applied for a position at MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy that I thought I could handle while finishing my studies, but my friend and colleague Jamie Young called to tell me she had offered the job to someone else literally minutes before opening my application.  She did have another position open, she said, as assistant to a professor named Noam Chomsky.  In the MIT hierarchy, this job was one level down from the job I had applied for, so I presumed it would be an easier job. I had heard Chomsky’s name around the Institute, but I knew little about his work, though I did learn that he was so tightly scheduled that the process of finding a new assistant was put in the hands of two other people.
  First I met with Jamie Young.  She had held the position as Chomsky’s assistant before accepting a promotion as the departmental Administrative Officer, or AO, and in fact was still handling most of his travel arrangements.  His last assistant, she would later tell me, had become too stressed trying to handle the demanding work load, and quit. “She tried too hard to be perfect,” Jamie told me.
   “Oh, good,” I thought, “I tend to worry over small details, but I’m not a perfectionist, so the job might suit me well.”  Jamie had some knowledge of my work style since we held more or less the same job as grad program administrators in different departments, and she agreed that I could be a good fit for the position. 
   My main interview would be with Morris Halle, Chomsky’s trusted long-time colleague, suite mate, and personal friend, and a professor of phonology, morphology, poetics, and Slavic languages. Jamie referred to him as the godfather of the suite.  I preferred to understand that to mean he watched over his little group, and I squelched the image of having my legs broken for filing his papers out of order.  Professor Chomsky was working from home on the day of my interview, something he did two days a week.  
  When Jamie walked me through the entrance to the Chomsky-Halle suite for the first time, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.  The large posters of Palestine, East Timor, and Bertrand Russell, and political drawings beyond my range of understanding and world view at that time told me this was a much different milieu than that of the MIT I had become familiar with over the past fifteen years. That had been a world of classes, exams, grade sheets, and stressed-out students handing me their theses after pulling a string of all-nighters.  Even before meeting my new boss,  I wanted to click my heels together and go back to what I knew – offering students ginger ale and a pat on the back when they were sick or overwhelmed, reminding them that I had seen students in this state of anxiety many times, and they had all graduated in the end. I was a therapist to the core, for God’s sake!
   Jamie introduced me to Professor Halle – assuring me it was ok to call him Morris.  He was about my height, around 5’8”.  He was balding in a newly-hatched bird kind of way—more accurately, I know now, he was in a perpetual state of thinning.  Large square wire-rimmed glasses framed his roundish face, and he wore a light weight gray vest over a striped blue and white dress shirt. When we shook hands, the playfulness in his smile surprised me. Jamie left us, and Morris began the interview. 
   “So, Beverly…” I made a mental note to tell him I preferred to be called Bev, although the way he had said my name, Be-ver-ly, one clear syllable at a time, pronouncing the “r” in my name with a slight accent I couldn’t place, made it seem like something I could live with, if I got the job.  He continued, “Let me give you a little background about this office.  It is a very busy place.  You will not be here to develop a friendly relationship with Professor Chomsky.” His choice of words made it sound like my working there was a done deal, but I hadn’t said a word yet. “Managing his office and coordinating his lectures and travel schedule is not a warm and fuzzy job.”   Morris laughed as he said this, and added, still laughing, “Do you know what I’m getting at?”  I did not understand what he was getting at, but nodded my head to show I was listening.  I still had no clue of the scope and depth of Professor Chomsky’s work, as Google wasn't a thing yet.
 As the interview progressed, two things became clear to me. First, that the job was mine if I wanted it, and second, that Morris was concerned about my empathic nature.  “Beverly,” – there it was again - “I want to be sure that your psychology background doesn’t make you too gentle in handling the more difficult personalities and situations you might encounter here,” he warned. 
 The flutter in the pit of my stomach was unsettling as I pictured myself being spun around on a dusty old leather office chair by a crazy person insisting I make time for him on Professor Chomsky’s packed schedule.
“Some of Professor Chomsky’s secretaries, for instance, had problems asserting themselves with journalists, who quite often try to extend appointments far beyond the end time,” he told me.  “And there have been some issues where questions have been answered to the press, erroneously, on Professor Chomsky’s behalf.  These things have caused some problems, which I won’t go into now.”  I  nodded my head in reply, but I was thinking, “Did he just call me a secretary?” And what the hell goes on here, anyway?  What could I be stepping into?  My mind’s eye held a cartoon image of Chomsky’s last assistant running down the hallway screeching, arms waving madly, clasping her palms together and diving through the cracked single glass pane of the wonky second floor window at the end of the long and bleak creaky wood-floored hallway.
I shook my head to clear the image, and reminded myself that I didn’t have to accept this position if it was offered to me.
“When Jamie worked as Noam’s assistant, one journalist who couldn’t get his way accused her of having ‘steely impersonality.’”  Professor Halle emphasized each of the last two words with an upward stress, in his deepest voice, raising a fist in triumphant emphasis.  Steely was about as far from my personality as one could get.  I could be assertive when needed, but I also liked to joke with people.  I liked to hug people.  “As Professor Chomsky’s secretary, that’s what I want you to demonstrate!”  Professor Halle’s habit of laughing and talking at the same time was endearing. “Do you see where I am going with this, Beverly?” he asked, spitting on me just a little bit in his enthusiasm. 
 I forced a smile despite my growing fears, and told Morris “I think I’m getting it,” though whatever I was getting, I wasn’t necessarily liking. The second use of the term “secretary” hit a nerve.  I had held higher positions at MIT, including interim acting Administrative Officer, and I realized Morris either hadn’t gotten the memo that this search was for an “administrative assistant,” or, more likely, at nearly seventy years old (yes, he’s ninety now!) he was not going to change his vocabulary.  Flashing inside my head in bright red lights were the words “fight or flight,” and for some reason, I stayed put.
   “Are you familiar with ‘Manufacturing Consent?’ he asked me, and since I didn’t know whether it was a book or a video, or if he just meant the term itself, I answered simply, “No, I’m not.”
  Professor Halle looked pleased with my reply, as if by not knowing, I had passed his test.  He said he had one last thing to tell me. Over the years I would come to see that this way of looking at things was true to his wonderfully straight-shooting and lively personality.  “I would like you to pretend that you have an on-off switch,” he said. “The off position is appropriate when acting as Chomsky’s representative, planning his local lectures, office meetings and interviews, and his extended travel,” he explained.  “This will be your normal mode.  But the on position should be activated for those who want to take advantage of the good nature of our office. (On, as in “the reverse of n-o.” This was the note I made to myself to remember which represented the “be tough” mode.) You reserve this attitude for the people who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  The ones who don’t respect our limits.”  Again he lifted his fist and laughed. “For those situations, I want to see you turn on your steely impersonality!”  This time I laughed along with him.  I was beginning to like Morris, and I figured if he thought this was somewhat funny, then I could maybe heed his warnings with a grain of salt.  
 At the end of the interview, despite my reservations and endless internal questions about the inner workings of World Chomsky, and maybe to some extent because of them, I walked back into Jamie’s office prepared to accept the position as Noam Chomsky’s assistant. There were plenty of groupies interested in the position, she told me, but she and Morris preferred to hire someone who was not a Chomsky fanatic – someone who would not be distracted by his notoriety.  They were both convinced that would be me.
 The plan was for me to meet Professor Chomsky in about ten days, on my second day of work.  This felt strangely like an arranged marriage.  What if we didn’t like one another?  Would they ship me back to my home in Watertown, Massachusetts, or would we try to stick it out for a while to see if we could learn to get along?  I figured I would find out soon enough.
On my first day, Jamie let me in before Morris arrived, and sat me at an old gray metal desk circa 1940.  I scanned the place more closely, a very strange suite of offices that seemed to have slipped back in time into the bowels of MIT. To a collector, the place was a goldmine. Even shoddy replicas of the ancient metal desks and large wood and leather swivel desk chairs would sell at a high price at a store like Restoration Hardware.  The coat racks were sturdy metal.  My father would have looked around at everything and said, “They don’t make them like this anymore, ya know.”  And they don’t. While the furniture and accessories lacked the glitter and gleam sold by the retro stores, if you looked beyond the dust and a bit of white powder covering the original furniture, lamps, large area rugs, barrister bookcases, and even a few of the framed pictures, the look was there.  All it needed was Fred Flintstone’s bird-beak-needled record player.
 I looked down to review the notes I had taken in an earlier meeting with Jamie, trying to familiarize myself with Professor Chomsky’s DOS-based e-mail system.  Most of his correspondence came by mail in those days (you remember mail – envelopes, stamps, etc.) but he was receiving an increasing amount of e-mails, up to forty a day, which was a lot then, considering each one required a five-step transitional procedure before he could read it on his home computer.  It took at least an hour to transfer thirty to forty e-mails.  Noam has always written his correspondence, lectures and books from home, and even now, almost twenty years later, he doesn’t have a personal computer in his MIT office, although once in a while he’ll lug in his laptop to check e-mail when he has a break between office meetings and a local evening lecture.  
  Professor Chomsky was at that time still using an antiquated word processing program called Final Word, which his son Harry had set up for him as a young teenager in the late 70’s.  One of my favorite of Noam’s stories is this:  About once a week, when he had a problem with Final Word, he or his wife Carol called the school under the guise of a ‘family emergency’ and asked that Harry be taken out of class to come home for a few hours.  Harry never worried when the principal called him out of his classroom.  He knew that his father had probably hit the wrong series of keys again.
Building Twenty, which housed our department, was old and crumbling.  Fragments of wood shingles cracked off in summer heat and the ice of winters and dropped to the ground.  The building was originally designed as a temporary structure for radiation research during World War II, and the whitewashed walls of the long wide hallways had faded with time and dust into a dull gray.  Each time the large wooden door to our suite flew open, a knob-sized hole in the wall poured another layer of white dust onto the floor.  Asbestos, I later learned. 
So this was to be my new home.  Sweet.
Now, twenty years later, I go back into Morris’s office to check on him, and I find him gathering up a few things – a book, a paper – sliding them neatly into his ever-present worn red back pack.  He has been here less than two hours, but he is ready to go home.  We hug good-bye – something that has become the norm for us in these later years – and he heads out toward the door for his ten-minute walk to the “T” where he will make his way toward the building near Harvard Square that he has called home since his wife, who has since passed away, became ill. I call to him on his way out, as I do every time he leaves, that I will be here when he comes in again in a day or two.  I am guessing that reminding him of our long-held office routines brings him comfort. These days, thinking about the distance the three of us have come together overwhelms me with tenderness for both Morris and Noam.

Morris at my home in August, 2014
Bev and Noam - 2014



  1. Since you write on this blog so infrequently I'm not sure if you check the comments, I am also surprised your posts get so few comments I really enjoy your writing style, to me it seems personal, warm and entertaining. I've found your posts about your life and your life with Noam very interesting, so thanks for the enjoyable posts!

    1. Thank you, Anonymous! I am hoping to write more regularly - rule #1 of blogging...I get a lot of comments on Facebook, and Anthony Arnove posted Kindled Spirits on last September. He asked me to suggest another piece for posting, but I have not yet done that. I should sell myself better, since I got over 1200 views in one day from site. Comments like yours keep me going - ty ty

  2. This was a great read, Bev. I worked with you during this transition period - Jamie was on her way out and you were taking over as Noam's assistant.

  3. So glad you've accepted the offer, Bev!
    From a selfish point of view, if you were not at Noam's office in 2012, I don't think I could have made my short-film "99%" with Noam in it. And, what a pity that would have been....So, THANK YOU, once again!
    Please stay there with Noam, shall we say...errrr...FOREVER? Thanks!

  4. I would like to echo the sentiments of Anonymous. Your writing is, by turns, funny, warm, perceptive, and humane. More please!

  5. Morris was mistaken, it wasn't a journalist who labeled me with the "steely impersonality", it was most definitely a linguistics professor. I can't remember any journalists ever being anything but kind to me; meeting and talking to them was one of the highlights of the job. I think they maybe understood the gatekeepers role and knew how to deal with it.

    I recall clearly being interviewed by Morris to work for him and Noam. Same people, same office, same job, but different interviewee so a very different experience. A good one though, and the best job ever.

  6. Hi Jamie - and you were the best boss ever. If asked who taught me the most during my (now) twenty years at MIT, I would say you. You had kindness, patience, humor, and DEFINITELY not steely impersonality. UNLESS it was warranted. I'm sure a few people see me that way at times. There's no way to get through some days without a measure of sternness, if the players are difficult, Truth is, I've met some very amazing people in that office, and it continues. What a gift we've both had. I do wish you lived closer.

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