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Friday, December 12, 2008

ABF Friday: Flying Home Edition!

I’m so old that I can remember when Republicans loved the auto-mobile industry.  They loved loved loved it and wanted to marry it.  Seriously: they even held their 1980 national convention in Detroit and drafted a platform that included the following:

Americans enjoy greater personal mobility than any other people on earth, largely as a result of the availability of automobiles and our modern highway system. Republicans reject the elitist notion that Americans must be forced out of their cars. Instead, we vigorously support the right of personal mobility and freedom as exemplified by the automobile and our modern highway system.

Yay to cars!  Yay to Detroit!  Yay to personal mobility and freedom!  But even more yay to the most important thing of all, namely, pissing off the DFHs and sweater-wearing wimps and elitist car-forcer-outers who wanted to cut back on our use of fossil fuels and build SUPERTRAINS.  On, Chrysler!  On, Buick!  On, Chevy and Caddy!  Ah, it was another time.  But you young’uns wouldn’t understand.

Sometimes I think Democrats should come out against gum disease, just to see if Arlen Specter or Jim Bunning will block appointments to the National Gum Disease Task Force and if Grover Norquist will form a Gingivitis Appreciation League to frustrate the efforts of the periodontal elitists and liberal PC oral hygienists who think they know what’s best for everyone.

But that’s not why I’m here today!  Today is Friday, and it is an iron law on this blog that some or most Fridays should be Arbitrary.  And so, without further ado:

On my way back from San Diego last month, I had what might have been my best in-flight experience ever.  I fell asleep the moment the plane started moving, of course, because that is what I do; sometimes I even miss the critical instructions about how to use a seat belt.  But when I awoke, I was 35,000 feet in the air and about six feet away from a screen showing the opening minutes of WALL-E.  “Holy Mother of Moloch,” I exclaimed, just a tad too loudly.  Frantically, I flipped through the airline magazine.  No, there was no indication that WALL-E would be shown on eastbound transcontinental flights in late November.  I do check these things, you see, partly because when I travel with Jamie, he wants to know about them even though he rarely wants to see the movie; and when we went to Omaha, he saw that the in-flight movie for westbound flights in early November was supposed to be WALL-E.  Unfortunately, our flight didn’t get the memo, and we wound up being treated to Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, which made Jamie say “?” and made me say “??” Still, Ms. Kittredge turned out to be preferable to Diminished Capacity, the eastbound in-flight movie.  I can’t give you reliable reviews of either film, since I was merely looking at them intermittently, in mild annoyance and with the sound off.  But it did appear to me that Diminished Capacity, despite being co-produced by Chicago’s famous Steppenwolf Theater and boasting a cast that includes Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, and Virginia Madsen, culminates in a scene in which Matthew Broderick is being strangled to death by an evil sports-memorabilia dealer in a memorabilia show while all his friends look on in horror and do nothing except to keep stadium security away from the struggle.  OK, maybe it made sense with the sound on.  (Best line from a review: “Didn’t we invent film festivals so we could sequester all the star-studded ‘how I spent my summer vacation’ indie film projects and keep them out of our arthouses? Who let Diminished Capacity escape?”)

Now, it’s not as if I board a plane with high expectations of the in-flight movie.  On the contrary: there was a time, and it wasn’t so long ago (not as long ago as the era in which Republicans loved them some auto-mobiles), when it seemed to me that I had been subjected to every single Sandra Bullock movie ever released. Hope Floats, Practical Magic, Forces of Nature, 28 Days, Miss Congeniality—I kid you not, dear readers, I have seen them all.  Intermittently, in mild annoyance and with the sound off, but still.  No, wait, I might have put on the headphones for a bit of Practical Magic.  Self-indulgent aside (but self-indulgent compared to what? this is a blog, after all): my very favorite Long Airplane Trip story dates from 1999, right around the time of Peak Bullock, when I flew from Chicago to Brisbane for the first-ever meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes outside the U.S.  “Brisbane?” people said.  “That’s like going to the Denver of Australia.” But I didn’t care—I’d go to pretty much the anything of Australia.  I’m not picky.  Anyway, the LA-Sydney leg of the trip was fifteen hours, and during the flight they showed three movies, one of which was the aforementioned Forces of Nature.  Bullock!  Affleck!  Romantic comedy!  Your sickness bag is in the pocket of the seat in front of you!  But that wasn’t the worst part of the trip.  The worst part was that I was seated in the leftward three-seat section of the 3-5-3 jumbo-jet configuration next to a thirtyish woman and an uncontrollable squalling brat.  The uncontrollable squalling was bad enough, but what finally made the seating arrangement intolerable were the constant looks of reproach and disgust I was getting from fellow passengers and the entire crew of flight attendants: obviously, I was an impossibly icy father refusing to help his poor struggling wife with their difficult kid—indeed, indifferently reading a book and not so much as looking their way.  For a while I considered ripping a page from the back of the book, writing “NOT ACTUALLY MY FAMILY” with an arrow, and taping it to my chest, but I finally managed to find a place elsewhere in the cabin, where I could watch Forces of Nature intermittently, in mild annoyance and with the sound off unmolested by a squalling toddler and the visceral disapproval of my fellow beings.

Anyway, as many of you probably already know, WALL-E is brilliant.  It is brilliant moment to moment, and brilliant overall, right down to the brilliant final credits (really, the final credits are brilliant).  It is brilliant in minute gestures, and brilliant in great big sweep.  It even has a brilliant dance sequence (no, not the bit from Hello, Dolly!).  And best and weirdest of all, I had been seized, the previous evening, by the idea of watching the first twenty minutes of Silent Running on the YouTubes before turning in for the night, so all the Silent Running—WALL-E intertextuality was already humming in my head.  So I leaned back (not too far! I don’t like crushing the legs of my fellow passengers) and settled in for a truly rare treat—a smart, well-written, delightful in-flight movie.  Of course, the sensation of sitting in front of a screen with a few hundred other people and being ferried briskly through the air while watching humans sitting in front of screens being ferried briskly around a space station in Saturn orbit was a little weird, but what the hell.

So that’s today’s Arbitrary game: best and worst in-flight movies ever!  And may your weekend be one-hundred-percent Forces of Nature-free.

Posted by Michael on 12/12 at 09:45 AM
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Thursday, December 11, 2008

All My Internet Friends

It’s 6:30 am as I’m sitting down to type this, and I’m awake only because I went to bed nice and early after last night’s Tang Soo Do class with Jamie.  And guess what?  The phone rings! It’s the State College Area School District, letting me know that there will be no school today.  Presumably because the roads are sheathed in ice or something.  Apparently some people have a problem with that.

So winter has officially begun in remote central Pennsylvania, and Jamie will be home all day.  Only four more months of this before the thaw!

And that means it’s a good time to hear some Music By My Friends.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for untold years upon years will surely remember the name of Amanda French, one of the wittiest commenters in what has been, since 1985, a most entertaining comment section.  Yes, well, you knew she was smart and quick with a villanelle just when a hundred-comment-thread needs one most.  But you didn’t know she could write songs and sing ‘em, now, did you? 

The song is called “All My Internet Friends,” which is one of the reasons this post is titled “All My Internet Friends.” You can even click on “lyrics” on the “All My Internet Friends” web page and find out what all the lyrics are.  My, this Inter-net is an amazing thing.  And I would be lying—badly, sure, but what did you expect?—if I said that I don’t know exactly what structure of feeling Amanda’s singing about here.  Which is to say, a little less convolutedly, that I am often very grateful for my Internet friends.

So if you have Internet friends and you like them and they’re kind to you in an Internetty kind of way, why don’t you send this song to them?  That way it can go all around the length and breadth of the Internets and Amanda can become deservedly famous as the person who summed up in four minutes and a sinuous, inventive melody just why it is that we treasure our Internet friends.  And don’t worry about Amanda’s royalties!  Like the song says, “all my internet friends give things away/ They just really like to make stuff even when it doesn’t pay.”

And lest we forget our pre-Internet friends on an icy wintry day:  I know I’ve plugged this guy and his music before, but my old friend Larry Gallagher’s “Disappointment Slough” is a lovely little Nick Drake-y tune that sums up in four minutes and a sinuous, inventive melody all of life and longing.  With nice harmonies.  Though if you prefer Teh Funny, there’s always Larry’s magnum (two-minute) opus, “Ode to the Nokia Ringtone,” now available on a YouTube near you.

Posted by Michael on 12/11 at 07:20 AM
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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Popcorn time!

Recently, one of the people I’ve met in my travels this semester wrote to me and asked whether I’ve been reading David Horowitz’s blog lately.  “Uh, no,” I replied, “I don’t read FrontPage voluntarily, because its color scheme makes my eyes bleed.” And then there’s the, you know, actual content, which usually makes me wish that the giant enlightened insects with really good musical taste will hurry up and take over our planet already.

But I took a deep breath and clicked, and lo!  My old friend David, co-author of the groundbreaking The Shadow Party: How George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Sixties Radicals Seized Control of the Democratic Party, the book that finally exposed The Left’s plan to seize control of the government and rewrite the U.S. Constitution, appears to have spent the past couple of weeks dealing with a bunch of nutcases. Yes, He Who is battling the Birth Certificate Obsessives!  The people who believe that B. Hussein al-Obama—born in Kenya, educated in an Indonesian Madrassa, and then schooled in Marxist theory by Frank Marshall Davis—got George Soros to forge his birth certificate so that he could seize control of the government and rewrite the U.S. Constitution!  It’s like a world festival of crazee talk over there in the comment section, I tell you.

And Horowitz is understandably frustrated:

The continuing efforts of a fringe group of conservatives to deny Obama his victory and to lay the basis for the claim that he is not a legitimate president is embarrassing and destructive. The fact that these efforts are being led by Alan Keyes, an unhinged demagogue on the political fringe who lost a senate election to the then unknown Obama by 42 points should be a warning in itself.

All well and good, but I have to say that I find two of Horowitz’s counterarguments kind of weak. The first is this:

Assuming for the sake of the argument that Obama is not a natural citizen of the United States, the question is: what are the consequences of having 9 appointed justices—or more likely 5 of 9 justices—tell 64 million voters that their votes don’t count? Would our constitutional democracy survive such a conflict, and then would our Constitution? Ultimately, the answer to these questions lies with the people. They are the ultimate authority not some abstract Rule of Law because the Rule of Law is in any case ajudicated [sic] and enforced by (highly political) men and women, while the people in its majority have it in their power to destroy the Rule of Law if they so will. The Constitution itself recognizes this fact by giving the people the right to amend it by a two-thirds vote. This is itself a recognition that the Rule of Law is an institution of men and women.

Wow.  Who knew that David Horowitz was such a radical legal constructivist?  Just substitute “the Rule of Law” for “soylent green” in this clip, and you’ll get the full pathos of Horowitz’s argument here:

OK, so let’s just say that political theory isn’t Horowitz’s strong suit.  Neither is spelling.  But what’s really notable here is the premise: assuming for the sake of the argument that Obama is not a natural citizen of the United States.  This is a little like saying, “assuming for the sake of argument that Hillary killed Vince Foster with her own hands,” in the sense that (a) it takes seriously an article of wingnuttery that should be roundly ridiculed and then led out of the room quietly, and (b) thereby constitutes an open invitation to the world festival of crazee talk.

The second counterargument is much tastier, because it involves Horowitz’s efforts to save the unhinged right from behaving like . . . The Left!

Consider the bitterness, the pathological hatred of Bush, the sabotage of America’s war effort by Democrats who believed that his election was illegitimate. Consider the 2 month delay this caused in the transition to the new administration and how that affected our inability to prevent 9/11 (the comprehensive counter-terrorism plan commissioned by Bush arrived on his desk on 9/10).

You know, these are things we really should consider.  I know, in all honesty, that I’ve never really stopped to consider how Democrats’ craven attempts to determine just who won Florida in 2000 affected our inability to prevent 9/11.  But Horowitz has a point: those two months could have been critical.  A look back at George Bush’s to-do list for 2001 strongly suggests that if Democrats had just behaved themselves instead of being a great big pathological bunch of crybabies, the World Trade Center would still be standing today:

February: cut taxes.
April: gut public school system.
June: seekrit energy policy time!  (Dick, Dick’s friends)
July: Crawford—cut back brush
August: more brush.  Congratulate CIA briefer for covering his ass.  Golf.
September-October: craft bold sweeping counterterrorism policy that will prevent attacks on American soil and destroy al-Qaeda forever!!!  Win!!

See?  He was just getting around to it . . . or, more precisely, he would have gotten around to it, if not for Al Gore, David Boies, and the rest of the Defeatocrats who began sabotaging our war effort in November 2000.

Still, credit where credit is due: in taking on the Birth Certificate Truthers, David Horowitz is fighting the good fight.  Badly, sure, but what did you expect?  Praise the lord and pass the popcorn already.

Posted by Michael on 12/09 at 09:10 AM
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Friday, December 05, 2008

Arbitrary but arbitrary Friday

From the Things I Keep Forgetting To Tell You file: when Jamie and I arrived in Colorado in mid-October, Jamie was overwhelmed by the Denver airport.  He marveled at every last feature of it, and exclaimed repeatedly, “Michael, you didn’t tell me that Colorado had all this!” (You should not conclude from this, however, that I don’t tell him stuff.  In Omaha, as we checked into our hotel, he claimed that I had not told him that Nebraska has taxis.  I mean, please.  “Omaha’s a city, Jamie,” I replied.  “You know it has taxis.”) So when we pulled our car out of the rental lot, a mile or two from the airport, I nudged him and said, “check this out.  This is what the airport looks like from the outside.”

It was around 8 pm, so the airport was a good deal harder to see, and we were further away than this photographer was.  But despite the dimness and the distance, the effect was pretty stunning all the same.  “Wow,” Jamie said.  “It looks like a circus.”

I’d never had that thought before.  “Why yes, yes it does,” I replied.  “Or like mountains.”

“Or like sidney,” Jamie added.

“I’m sorry?”

“Sidney,” Jamie said.

“Who’s Sidney?” I asked, because I am thick as a brick.

“No, Michael,” Jamie said, mildly impatient now.  “Sydney in Australia.”

“Oh, holy . . . yes, yes, I understand.  The Sydney Opera House.”

Yes, the Sydney Opera House.”

Jamie has never been to Sydney.  But he is very observant.

But you know, I don’t want to keep harping on how clever the kid is.  It’s gotta be done sometimes, sure, but there are more important things in life than being able to liken the Denver International Airport to the Sydney Opera House.  Like taking care of your sick father!  Yep, ever since I got back to town on Tuesday I’ve been a wheezing, coughing, whingeing wreck, shuffling from couch to bed and back to couch again.  So on Wednesday, after taking aboard the sorry news that I wouldn’t be able to go with him to our weekly tang soo do class, Jamie went with Janet to the supermarket.  Jamie likes heading off on his own when he goes to the store with his parents, and this time, when he met up with Janet he was carrying a quart of hot soup, which he’d thoughtfully ladled all by himself.

It was delicious, thank you.  And Jamie’s a good kid.


But wait!  One last thing for the weekend.  With all my wheezing and whingeing this week, I haven’t forgotten about reading things on the Internets. This essay by Mark Schmitt is one of the smartest things I’ve read since the election, and it reminds me why I’m going to wait and see what the Obama Administration actually, you know, does before deciding that it has betrayed Every.  Progressive.  Principle.  Ever.  On the other hand, I have to admit that it’s been over a month since the election and Obama has still not fixed a single damn thing around here.  And surely, the composition of Obama’s cabinet is more important than the question of whether the U.S. closes Gitmo and withdraws from Iraq.  Moreover, as Paul Lukasiak points out in comments over at the Corrente Center for Advanced Criticism, “had Clinton won, and she’d made the same moves Obama has, the fauxgressive blogosphere would be screaming their heads off.” Quite true!  We fauxgressive Obamabots have horrible double standards when it comes to pointing out that Obama and Clinton have very similar policies on a lot of issues.  But on second thought, it would be kind of wrong if Hillary Clinton appointed herself Secretary of State.

Have a great weekend, everyone.  Me, I’m just going to have some soup.

Posted by Michael on 12/05 at 06:08 AM
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Monday, December 01, 2008

More on Peter Singer and Jamie Bérubé

I started blogging just under five years ago, and for the first few months, I kept marveling at my brand new toy.  The record of this marveling, unfortunately, is still in the blog archives for all to see: there are entire posts that read, Whoa!  Check it out!  Somebody responded to something I wrote! and d00d!  Twenty thousand readers in one month!  Inconceivable! This Inter-net is an amazing thing! Yes, I really did hyphenate “inter-net.” It was supposed to be really funny, you see, like something from the early twentieth-century issues of The Onion in Our Dumb Century.  Because whenever I want to suggest in shorthand that someone my age or older is clueless about new technologies, I refer to the “auto hyphen mobile,” after Our Dumb Century’s “auto-mobile,” and . . . oh, never mind.

The point is that sometimes, the internet really is an amazing thing, in which you write a blog post that takes issue with Peter Singer’s characterization of the capabilities of people with Down syndrome, and then find, a few weeks later, an email from Peter Singer in your inbox.  Last month, Singer wrote to say he’d come across my post about the SUNY - Stony Brook Cognitive Disability conference.  He said he was delighted to hear that my son Jamie has a wide range of abilities, intrigued to learn that Jamie understands a range of theories about why humans eat some animals and not others, but sorry that neither Jamie nor I appreciate Woody Allen movies—though he admitted that the recent ones have been disappointing. 

Surely you’ll recall—my post was only two months ago!—that in the passage at issue, Singer wrote, “To have a child with Down syndrome is to have a very different experience from having a normal child. It can still be a warm and loving experience, but we must have lowered expectations of our child’s ability. We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player.”

Well, Singer wrote to me to say that my reply to this passage suggests that he is wrong about Down syndrome, whereas in fact it takes more than a couple of exceptional children here and there to challenge the general rule.  After all, the passage speaks of expectations, and although people do win the lottery now and again, it would be unreasonable to buy a lottery ticket and expect to win.  Professor Singer then asked me to direct him to some evidence that would indicate that Jamie is not anomalous—and, he said, this is not an idle challenge: if he is mistaken about Down syndrome, he will correct himself in the future.

I wrote back a few days later.  And then, after we’d exchanged another round of emails, I asked Singer if it would be all right with him if I posted my initial reply (but not his initial email) to the Inter-net. Of course, I don’t have to ask permission to post my own words, but I don’t believe in replying to someone’s private email by making a blog post out of it (even if I don’t publish the contents of the email).  Singer said thanks for asking—some people would have simply gone ahead and posted his letter along with the reply.  And I said, oh yes indeed, I’ve dealt with some of those people.  (That’s one reason why I eventually got a blog of my own!) But I think it’s important to go public with arguments about what we can and can’t expect from people with Down syndrome, because those expectations play such a large role in debates over prenatal testing, reproductive rights, and “selective” abortion.

So, then, this was my reply:

Dear Professor Singer,

Many thanks for noticing that blog post, and for taking the time to write.  Thanks also for your kind words about Jamie.  I do, in fact, enjoy a handful of Woody Allen movies here and there; Broadway Danny Rose is a wonderful piece of work, and I’m fond of Bullets Over Broadway as well.  But I do think “we cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen film” instates a distinctly Upper West Side-y performance criterion, and is worth critiquing on those grounds alone.  More seriously, I note that in the 1920s we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning to speak; in the 1970s, we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning how to read.  OK, so now the rationale for seeing these people as somewhat less than human is their likely comprehension of Woody Allen films.  Twenty years from now we’ll be hearing “sure, they get Woody Allen, but only his early comedies—they completely fail to appreciate the breakthrough of Interiors.” Surely you understand my sense that the goalposts are being moved around here in a rather arbitrary fashion.

I do appreciate the fact that you’re not issuing an idle challenge.  I don’t think you would do that.  I have three responses to it.

The first is nitpicky, and has to do with the meaning of “we cannot expect.” You apparently take your phrase to mean “we have no reason to expect” X, any more than we can expect to win the lottery.  I take it to mean—and, unfortunately, all too many people take it to mean—that a child with Down syndrome will not be able to do any of the things you mention.  (This matters, of course, when it comes to the kind of information prospective parents receive after getting a positive result on an amniocentesis.) I think there’s all the difference in the world between saying “we cannot expect” and “we should not expect”; the former suggests absolute certainty, and the latter suggests the kind of probabilism you want to convey.  Accordingly, I take the former to be falsifiable by any person with Down syndrome who demonstrates one of the abilities you say we cannot expect him or her to have.  If you do want to revise the passage ever so slightly, you could always say, “there will no doubt be exceptions that prove the rule, but as a rule, we should not expect etc.”

The second is more substantial.  The larger point of my argument with your claim is that we cannot (I use the term advisedly) know what to expect of children with Down syndrome.  Early-intervention programs have made such dramatic differences in their lives over the past few decades that we simply do not know what the range of functioning looks like, and therefore do not rightly know what to expect. That, Professor Singer, is the real challenge of being a parent of a child with Down syndrome: it’s not just a matter of contesting other people’s low expectations of your child, it’s a matter of recalibrating your own expectations time and time again—and not only for your own child, but for Down syndrome itself.  I’ll never forget the first time I saw a young man with Down syndrome playing the violin—quite competently, at that, with delicacy and a sense of nuance.  I thought I was seeing a griffin.  And who could have imagined, just forty or fifty years ago, that the children we were institutionalizing and leaving to rot could in fact grow up to become actors?  Likewise, this past summer when I remarked to Jamie that time is so strange that nobody really understands it, that we can’t touch it or see it even though we watch the passing of every day, and that it only goes forward like an arrow, and Jamie replied, “except with Hermione’s Time-Turner in Harry Potter,” I was so stunned I nearly crashed the car.  I take issue with your passage, then, not because I’m a sentimental fool or because I believe that one child’s surprising accomplishments suffice to win the argument, but because as we learn more about Down syndrome, we honestly—if paradoxically—don’t know what constitutes a “reasonable expectation” for a person with Down syndrome.

The third goes to the premise of your argument.  You’re looking for things people with Down syndrome can’t do, and I’m looking for things they can.  We each have our reasons, of course.  But I don’t accept the premise that cognitive capacity is a useful criterion for reading some people out of the human community, any more than you would accept the premise that we should grant rights to animals on the basis of whether humans think they do or don’t taste good with barbeque sauce.  I stand by what I said in response to Jeff McMahan’s paper and at the end of that blog post: I hope we have learned enough from our own history to understand why it’s a bad idea to read anyone out of the human community.  (This doesn’t mean, by the way, that we have to extend life support to people like Terri Schiavo against the wishes of their legal guardians.  One point of my remarks about surrogates and guardians, in my response to Martha Nussbaum’s talk, was to challenge people in the disability-rights community who would strip guardians of the right to determine whether their charges would in fact want to be sustained in such fashion.) Better, I think, to add some animals to the category of rights-bearing entities without kicking any humans out.  It needn’t be a zero-sum affair.

Oh yes, evidence that might change your mind if the above paragraphs won’t.  The National Down Syndrome Society is full of useful information about what we can and can’t expect, and online, the Riverbend Down Syndrome Parent Support Group is an amazing resource for everything from research on language and math skills of people with DS.  Finally, there’s the book Count Us In by Jason Kingsley and Mitchell Levitz (1994).  The book includes, among many other things, one of Jason’s high-school essays, written when he was seventeen; the topic is his mother’s obstetrician, who in 1974 had advised the Kingsley family to institutionalize Jason because he would never grow up to have a “meaningful thought.” Of this obstetrician Jason writes:

He never imagined how I could write a book!  I will send him a copy . . . so he’ll know.  I will tell him that I play the violin, that I make relationships with other people, I make oil paintings, I play the piano, I can sing, I am competing in sports, in the drama group, that I have many friends and I have a full life.

So I want the obstetrician will never say that to any parent to have a baby with a disability any more.  If you send a baby with a disability to an institution, the baby will miss all the opportunities to grow and to learn . . . and also to receive a diploma.  The baby will miss relationships and love and independent living skills. . . .

I am glad that we didn’t listen to the obstetrician. . . .  He will never discriminate with people with disabilities again.

And then he will be a better doctor.

Anecdotal evidence, sure.  But good to think with, all the same.  Oh, and Jason’s not the young man I saw playing the violin.

All best wishes,
Michael Bérubé

Posted by Michael on 12/01 at 03:04 PM
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