Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Update on "An Offer I Could Have Refused" - On the occasion of Morris Halle's passing

Fall, 2015. 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.
Morris had been telling me for months that he was forgetting things, but I refused to believe him, and told him he still knew more than most human beings.
 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 pulled 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.
 My two-left-feet having dashed all hopes of becoming a ballerina, I held several positions at MIT, working my way up to a coveted staff position. But one day in early 1993, I looked around and wondered how I got where I was – fourteen years older and twenty pounds heavier, making more money but feeling less connected to my personal goals. I loved working with the students, but lately 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 my degree in counseling psychology.  At least then, I thought, I could pursue a career that centered on my own agenda, rather than 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 colleague Jamie Young called to tell me that she had offered the job to someone else minutes before opening my application.  She had another position open as assistant to a professor named Noam Chomsky.  In the MIT hierarchy, this 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 MIT, 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.  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 later told me, had become too stressed trying to handle the demanding work load, and quit. “She tried too hard to be perfect,” Jamie told me.  After meeting with me, Jamie walked me through the entrance to the Chomsky-Halle suite for the first time, and 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 potential boss, I wanted to click my heels together and go back to what I knew – overseeing the general requirements of graduate students, offering them ginger ale and a hug 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 Morris Halle, the person who would interview me next – telling me to call him Morris. He was my height, around 5’8”, and balding in a newly-hatched bird kind of way. 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.
            “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, spending an extra moment hovering around the “r” and pronouncing my name with an accent I couldn’t place, made it seem like something I could live with for a while.  He continued, “I’ll give you a little background on this office.  It’s 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 yet said more than 'hello.' “Managing his office and coordinating his lecture and travel schedules is not a warm and fuzzy position.”  Morris laughed as he said this, and added, “Do you know what I’m getting at?”  I did not understand what he was getting at, but nodded my head to show that I was listening.  I knew only the basics of the scope and depth of Professor Chomsky’s work, as Google was not a thing yet.  Plus, I didn’t expect to stay more than a few years, just long enough to finish my part-time studies toward a psychology degree.
As the interview progressed, two things became clear. First, the job would probably be offered to me, and second, Morris was concerned about my empathic nature. He said in his clear and concise English, “Beverly, I want to be sure that your psychology background doesn’t make you too gentle in handling the more difficult personalities and situations you will encounter here,” he warned. 
With an unsettling flutter in the pit of my stomach, I pictured myself being spun around on a dusty old leather office chair by a pushy stranger insisting I make time for him on Professor Chomsky’s packed schedule. Although it seemed like an outrageous thought at the time, as I look back, I can recall a number of incidents in that office that would fall into a “did that really happen to me?” category, because things did happen.
 “Some of Professor Chomsky’s secretaries, for instance, had problems asserting themselves with journalists, who refused to leave his office at the end time,” he told me.  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 glass pane of the wonky second floor window at the far end of the 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 secretary, one professor 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, pointing his index finger upward in triumphant emphasis.  It seemed this was a good thing, though steely was about as far from my personality as one could get.  I could be assertive when I had to be, but I also liked to joke with people.  I liked to hug. “Do you see where I am going with this, Beverly?” he asked, spitting on me just a little bit in his enthusiasm. Professor Halle’s habit of laughing and talking at the same time was endearing.
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.  
His second use of the term “secretary” hit a nerve. I had held higher staff positions at MIT, and hired and fired employees as Acting AO. I had been around the MIT block.
Morris either hadn’t gotten the memo that this search was for an “administrative assistant,” or, more likely, at nearly seventy years old he was not going to change his vocabulary. Flashing inside my head in bright red lights were the words “fight or flight,” but 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.”
            Morris 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, your normal mode, is for planning Chomsky’s local lectures, office meetings and interviews, and his extended travel,” he explained. But the on position should be activated for those who want to take advantage of the good nature of our office, those 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 funny, I could heed his warnings with a grain of salt.
           Apparently Jamie had told him about my past work experience, since he didn't ask me anything about myself.  When the interview ended I remained in Morris’s office while he chatted with Jamie, thinking that despite my questions and reservations about the inner workings of World Chomsky, and maybe to some extent because of them, I was prepared to accept the position, if they offered it to me. In a few minutes Morris returned, and instructed me to go and talk with Jamie again.
There were plenty of groupies interested in the job, 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 celebrity. They were convinced that would be me. I wasn’t sure, but at the very least, I was intrigued, so I accepted the position. After all, I would be moving on in a few years. Or so I thought...
Late 2016. More than twenty-three years after he and Jamie hired me, I went into Morris’s office to check on him, and found him gathering up a few things – two books, a bound paper – sliding them neatly into his ever-present worn red back pack.  Noam had driven him here less than two hours before, but he was ready to go home.  We hugged good-bye – something that had become the norm for us in our later years – and he headed out for his ten-minute walk to the “T” where he would make his way toward the building near Harvard Square that he called home since his wife Ros, who since passed away, became ill. I called to him as he walked out the door, as I did every time he left, that I would be here when he returned, guessing that reminding him of our long-held office routines brought him comfort. Standing there thinking about the distance the three of us had come together overwhelmed me with tenderness for both Morris and Noam.

Recalling memories of and quotes by Morris on the day of his passing, April 2, 2018

“The only thing I jump to are conclusions.”

“Beverly, WHY do you live all the way in Framingham? Kick out your tenant and move back into your house in Watertown.  I once dated a girl who lived so far away that it took a bus and two subways to get home.  This is why I only dated her once.” I moved back to Watertown.

Before he left for a trip to Paris with his wife Ros, he said, “I don’t particularly like to travel, but I do it because Ros likes to, and she’s my wife.”  Then laughing, “I mean, what choice do I have? She wants to travel, so I travel!”

The only time I heard him yell was when he found that Roxy had sneaked into his office and pulled his tuna sandwich out of his red backpack, which he had propped against the back of his fifty-year-old recliner chair. 

“I’ve had this rash on my face for weeks – my doctor couldn’t figure out what it was, and told me to ignore it.” I happened to have in my desk a tube of what I considered a magic potion –Vaseline Creamy lotion.  I handed it to Morris and told him it cured everything.  He looked skeptical, but three days later, he came to me, hands in pockets, and said “I don’t know how it happened, but the rash is now gone! How did you do it?”

 After leaving the office one day: “I came back to call Ros – my car is frozen and I can’t get the key into the lock.“ By coincidence, although my car lock had never frozen, the weekend before I happened to buy a tiny spray canister of lock deicer, which I had in my bag. I put on my coat and Morris and I walked to his car. He sprayed it into the keyhole, the ice melted away, and he thanked me and drove off.

I think the universe passed magic through me when it came to Morris and Noam, because I don’t know how I often had in my possession exactly what they needed, in my mind exactly what they needed to hear, but somehow I did. 

A few years later he witnessed a serious car accident on his way to work. He came into the office and announced, “I’m not driving any more,” and the next time he came in, he rode the T.  “I hung up my keys,” he said.  “That’s enough.” Just like that.

He was practical, to the end. He and Noam shared that way of looking at life – ‘Here is a difficult problem, here are the ways it can be solved, I choose this one and will go forward with it and get on with things.’ I know little about how they approached issues of linguistics, but I have to guess that practicality had to figure into the way they worked.

Chatting with Noam near my desk, Morris turned to me and said, “Every conversation we old guys have now is an organ recital.”

When I asked him how it felt to turn 90, he said, “I’m old. But I thought about death once, and it depressed me so much that I never thought about it again.”

“Look, I’m forgetting things,” he told me sometime around his 91st birthday. “I missed another doc appointment. I need you to start keeping a calendar for me. Can you help me with this?” And of course I did. For this, there was no magical cure, just support. 

Morris came into the office less and less. When he did come in, I sent an email to his friends and colleagues in the department to encourage them to come and visit if they had open time.  If he was alone for a stretch of time, I would sit with him and ask him to share some of his MIT memories.

 Morris taught me a lot of things, and he learned to accept and even appreciate my brand of management – one that did not incorporate ‘steely impersonality.’ He shared countless stories with me, and I accepted these gifts each time. When I told him I was retiring in August of 2017, he told me he and Noam would most likely close up shop when I “quit.”

On April 2 of 2018, after being absent from our office for the good part of a year, Morris hung up his keys and said, “that’s enough,” and with great practicality and little fanfare, he left us all behind to ponder his life, and the considerable influence he had on ours. 

Below, Morris at my home in August, 2014


  1. Thanks Bev for such wonderful recollections. Bill

  2. I'm sorry for your loss too, Bill. You had a long history with Morris. I'm glad he had you...

  3. So beautiful and many laugh out loud moments. Bev you are a treasure! Thea

  4. For me who knew and was very fond of Morris, this is just a wonderful memoir, preserving the character and personality of this marvelous man, and maintaining humor even while mourning his loss.

  5. Beverly. all I can say is I hope I have given great memories such as you had with Morris to write in their blogs. Beautiful sentiment from the soul of a beautiful woman...

  6. Thanks, all of you, for your touching remarks. Morris was an amazing character and a great soul - a lot to lose, and a lot to miss.

  7. Steady people are a rare treasure in life. Do we discover them or do they discover us?

    Thanks for the entry. Reminds me of the best folks I know or knew.

    I'm sorry to hear about your friend.

  8. A beautiful reminiscence, but a tiny typo: Professor Halle passed away this year, 2018, not 2108.

    1. Thank you! I changed it - I guess it was just wishful thinking :-)

  9. Bev, that's beautiful. Thank you so much.