To explain what we do from day to day, people in jobs like mine search for metaphors from realms of work that are comparatively much more hands-on. That’s because we’ve realized that our friends and families, who don’t often see us on the job, might understand us better by our offering them a concept that’s far more visible or concrete. Secretly, we also harbor a desire to show that we, in fact, just may be making some kind of palpable contribution to the world, that what we do has heft. I suppose that a lot of us, in describing our jobs, call up images like “nurses” or “chefs” or “carpenters”—those of us, that is, who aren’t already nurses or chefs or carpenters—to provide color to our lives and to dignify our work.
For years I’ve tried to measure myself against the excellent standard of a Fellow in 2002–2003, Pedro Medina, who had been CEO of McDonald’s in Colombia before coming to the Center. He once told me that, back home, he was a little incredulous to be asked why, when eating in his restaurants, he always picked up errant French fries from the floor. Pedro simply felt that he was the most suitable person in the entire corporation to do such a thing (indeed, the very opposite of the least appropriate). Before that, but with redoubled commitment from that moment on, I’ve tried to be an equally good custodian. But I’m not a business entrepreneur.
Then there are members of our faculty like James Robinson, whose insatiable appetite for knowledge (and the experiences in the world that lead him toward it) makes him positively gleeful: gleeful running down the corridor, gleeful lecturing in the classroom, gleeful, well, in this e-mail message he sent me just a few weeks ago: “I’m in Lagos giving talks at the moment (which is fantastic fun) and going to the Philippines May 18.” But I’m not a kid in a candy store (with scholarly purpose 24,901 miles wide and unfathomably deep).
Nor am I like Tom Murphy (the Center’s beloved mayor-for-life) or Jeff Frieden (our interpretive wilderness guide) or Michelle Eureka (croupier? casting director? crossing guard?).
My chosen metaphor is air traffic controller. Here I am at the Center, generously perched at a strategic height, with a privileged view of almost everything that’s going on, in constant communication with constant travelers fueled and ready for engagement somewhere in the world… or getting ready to land. Complexities and risks abound, and every flight path needs to be respected, but the rhythms of dispersal and regrouping are a lovely sort of dance that, when viewed from between ground and air, make sense (and need assiduous regulation) among the curiosities and ambitions and desires of an especially purposeful and capable (and cherished) gathering of human beings.
Around a year and a half ago, I had a chance to test my metaphor. It was upon the sad occasion of the death of the Center’s founding director, Robert Bowie, in November 2013. I’d been in touch with Bob’s son, Bob, Jr., about transportation out to the Eastern Shore of Maryland where his dad was to be laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Luke’s Chapel in Wye Mills. Bob, Jr., told me that if I could get down to Baltimore Washington International (BWI) he’d have his friend, Neil Ruther, pick me up and take me in his plane out to Easton Airport.
I reached Baltimore by air from Boston in the morning of a cold early-December day, Neil came by the private-plane terminal as planned, and there I soon was, by his side, strapped in and headphones on, ready to take the short leap over the frigid Chesapeake.
There was zero drama. The weather was clear, the plane in perfect condition, and Neil, the pilot, full of reassuring words and heartfelt stories about the Bowie family, but at the same time he was in constantly vigilant communication with air traffic controllers, and they with him, within BWI’s responsibility and then within Easton’s. These were people seriously at work, absolutely focused on the trust that years of professionalism and propulsion had put in their hands. Aloft, I came to feel that a metaphor is a metaphor and the work of an air traffic controller—and, indeed, of a pilot—is life-or-death earnest, and something I’d never take for granted. And I told Neil so.
Twenty-two years of labor in one place is a very long time, no matter how privileged or potent the perch. And I confess that there’s something about being fixed in one place, watching and, ultimately, being centrally responsible for a lot of movement, that might just make a person think about getting in the cockpit oneself, after so long in the tower.
That is, all at once, when the wind changes direction, it may well be time to decide to go.
To have lived in the midst of the world of ideas, and to have been in various positions to encourage their growth, is nothing short of a privilege. If to learn and to grow and to nurture is the optimal human condition, then what better job could there be than mine? The horizons have been so vast, the duties so noble.
It’s impossible for me to begin to reckon with the thousands of friendships that life at the Center has enabled me to ignite and to hold, with undergraduates, graduate students, visiting scholars, countless affiliates of all manner of purpose and nomenclature, Fellows, faculty, and my colleagues of the Center staff and in the University at large. Together, we’ve taken care of each other, we’ve cooked up new schemes, sometimes ingeniously, and we’ve built many strong, sturdy things.
Back in August 1993, when Bob Putnam hired me and when Anne Emerson walked me into my office and when the most freshly arrived Fellow, Renée Haferkamp, wondered, almost visibly, what on earth that wind had just blown in, I couldn’t have begun to imagine the opportunities that I’d enjoy and the consequences of finding my true vocation, for which I’ll forever be grateful.
Steven B. Bloomfield