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Thursday, December 03, 2009

World-transforming Jamie news

When I got home from teaching and doing stuff late Tuesday afternoon, I received a piece of strange and surprising news: the people who run the LifeLink apartment had called to find out if Jamie could move in this week.

I realize this information requires some unpacking.  Here in State College, there is an apartment for teenagers and young adults with disabilities; it’s part of the larger (and very amazing) LifeLink program (you can get some details on the high school / college part of it here, and there’s a wonderful documentary available for viewing here).  People put in applications for short-term stays, and the whole thing is supervised by various coaches and teachers.  We’ve gone to two of the Open Houses (one last year, one this year), and we’ve been talking for the past 16 months or so, off and on, with Jamie’s teachers and aides about when he might be ready to try to move to The Next Level of independent living.  Last month, Janet and I actually filled out the reams upon reams of paperwork necessary for an application (specifying, for example, what kinds of things Jamie can and can’t do independently or with minimal prompting, and what kinds of activity outside the apartment—from going to the apartment-complex gym to traveling around town on his own—we would and would not permit).  And we had just started to think about the initial stages of maybe commencing the process of beginning to think about when we might want to contemplate maybe putting in an application for a four-day stay.

Now, let me back up a moment and put this in a larger context.  Seven or eight years ago, I began to talk to Jamie about what he might want to do when he becomes a man.  I mentioned a variety of living arrangements—with us, in a group home, in an apartment with one or two other people.  His first answer, no doubt inflected by his fascination with a local restaurant that adjoins a hotel with a pool (so that you can see the pool area on your way to Mad Mex), was that he wanted to live in an apartment with a pool.  (He meant apartment building; even at 10, he knew that individual apartments usually don’t have pools.) Within a couple of years, however, he had decisively backed away from this option; the next time we talked about it, sometime in 2003, he said, ashen-faced, “I want to live with you.” His tone suggested that he feared that I was threatening to boot him out of the house someday, so I assured him, “Jamie, of course you can always live here.  We will always love you and you can always stay with us.  I’m just saying that when you’re bigger, and you might want more privacy...” “No,” he insisted.  “I want to stay with you and mom.”

That’s where things stayed for the next four or five years.  Whenever the subject came up, I told Jamie that he could always live with us in his own room, but that if he ever wanted more privacy, he could think about some other arrangement.  (Perhaps an adjoining cottage!  Though someone would have to build it, I suppose.) And he always said that he would stay with us.

Well, then came late adolescence, and with it, the knowledge that other kids were living in the LifeLink apartment, learning how to cook and clean and spend their own money, etc., and slowly Jamie’s attitude began to change.  I like to think that all my travels with him helped in their way as well, giving Jamie more confidence and savoir faire in his movings-around in the world.  Anyway, over the past few months, as Janet and I have tried to get Jamie to—what is the term of art?—do more around the house (make his bed, tidy up his Underground Lair in the basement, clean up after dinner), he has often responded like a teenage boy.  And whenever that happened, Janet or I would say, “you know, you’ll have to do this kind of thing at LifeLink,” and lo!  it would get done.  Clearly, this apartment-living thing was a serious motivational tool.  We just weren’t sure when Jamie would be ready for the real thing—or (as you have no doubt surmised by now) when we would be.

So when the call came on Tuesday afternoon, it came as a shock.  To us, that is.  Apparently, one of the residents of the apartment had gotten sick and gone home, and there would be only one kid in the place through Sunday.  Not wanting to leave that one child alone (albeit with the usual coaches’ supervision) all that time, the LifeLink people called to offer Jamie a six-day stay.  Jamie was like, “cool!  goin’ to LifeLink.” We were like, “ZOMG HOW DO WE PACK WHAT DO WE DO ZOMG.” But we calmed down (a little), made arrangements to drop him off at 8 (after dinner and a shower and a change of clothes), and began to put together his clothes and toiletries and necessary electronics, even programming into his (recently-purchased and rarely-used) cell phone the numbers of his family members and afterschool companions.  We met his roommate, a delightful young man Jamie has known for some time, but not well enough to know that they share a love of the Discovery channel, Animal Planet, and The Dark Knight.  And after the meet-and-greet and the bed-making and the general moving-in were done, we left Jamie to his own devices at precisely 8:45 pm, Eastern time, December 1, 2009.

A historic moment, far more important, in the grand scheme of things, than Barack Obama’s speech or even Tiger Woods’s crash.

I was sorry that I did not have the chance to perform the traditional father-son knife fight, but I did note with wry amusement that Jamie’s first home-away-from-home was much nicer and ten times roomier than Nick’s had been.

We’ll be checking in on him now and then—he’s only a few miles away.  But still.  Our hearts are in our throats, and an ox stands huge upon our tongues.  Fortunately, my hands are still free for typing.

As we were leaving our house for the fateful ride over to the apartment, Jamie, starting down the back stairs with his iPod, stopped and said, “I have to get my suitcase.” “That’s OK, sweetie,” I replied.  “I’ll get it—it’s quite heavy.”

“OK, sure,” Jamie shrugged, and then added in a singsong voice, to no one in particular, “what are parents for?”

What are parents for, indeed.

Posted by Michael on 12/03 at 07:03 AM
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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Left at War

I have more important news that I’ll have to save for tomorrow (no, really—truly world-transforming Jamie news), but for now, I just want to note that the Manichean left has begun to respond to my critique of the Manichean left, and they completely agree with my critique.  No, wait, that’s not exactly true.  A certain person has taken me to task for my “badmouthing" of Naomi Klein and “Women in Pink” [sic]—and hard as it may be to believe, there are some people who take this guy at his word.  So before I get to the more important news, I thought I’d post the passage in The Left at War that mentions Klein and Code Pink.  Consider it a free sample!  From chapter 3, “The Hard Road to Debacle”:


The international outrage and dismay at the failure of the U.N. to act in Rwanda—a failure whose domestic American version involved the refusal of any government official to utter the word “genocide”—has been well documented, and helped to set in motion a new form of left internationalism.  There were two curious features of this new left internationalism, however:  one was that, as we have seen, not every faction on the left was on board with it, because some saw it simply as a stalking horse for American imperialism; and the second was that, unlike the left internationalisms over the previous 150 years, this one did not depend on the existence (real or hypothetical) of an international proletariat.  It was not a Marxist internationalism—or, for that matter, a socioeconomic internationalism of any kind.  Rather, it was a moral and legal internationalism, seeking change not in the base but in various superstructures: the United Nations, international criminal tribunals (in Rwanda and the Balkans), truth and reconciliation commissions (in South Africa), and an International Criminal Court.  The intervention in Sierra Leone was one of the high-water marks of this internationalism; another was a Spanish court’s indictment of Augusto Pinochet in 1996, followed by Pinochet’s arrest in Britain in 1998 and his Chilean indictment in late 2004; still another, of course, was the liberation of East Timor.  Though the new internationalism has occasioned much debate on the left, the vast majority of its most vocal and dedicated opponents are on the right.  The United States’ opposition to the International Criminal Court is one of the many shameful blots on our recent record, but it makes sense if you realize that a good part of the Republican electorate in the U.S. loathes even the U.N. with unbridled passion and hates and fears anything that threatens U.S. domination of world affairs.  (Hard as it may be to imagine, their complaint is that the United Nations has not been beholden enough to U.S. interests.) A political party whose major figures routinely sneer at the U.N. can hardly be expected to countenance something so radical as an International Criminal Court in which Henry Kissinger, among other U.S. policymakers, would take his rightful place in the dock alongside Pinochet and Milosevic.  And it should have been no surprise that the far-right fanatic known as Osama bin Laden targeted Bali in part out of his sense of outrage at the Australian-led U.N. intervention in East Timor:  “Australia was warned about its participation in Afghanistan,” bin Laden said in his late 2002 audiotape taking responsibility for the Bali bombing, “and its ignoble contribution to the separation of East Timor.”

“Moral internationalism” is the cause, one might say, of a “human rights left”; and I imagine that it is not well understood, in popular discussions of left internationalism in the U.S., partly because it has so few points of contact with more salient lefts such as the environmentalist left or the antiglobalization left.  For most young American activists, certainly, being “on the left” in a global sense more commonly means being familiar with Naomi Klein’s No Logo and The Shock Doctrine or Medea Benjamin’s Global Exchange and Code Pink than with Human Rights Watch, more drawn to G8 protests than to the plight of Iranian dissidents.  I do not mean to disparage other forms of left internationalism; climate change and the workings of multinational capital are both, in their separate ways, truly global issues, and anyone who calls attention to carbon emissions and sweatshops is working on the side of the angels.  But I am not sure that human rights issues always get the attention they deserve from left internationalists in the U.S.; I am not sure that the defense of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights inspires quite so many activists as do street demonstrations against the World Trade Organization.  And I am quite sure that American “leftists” who defame Samantha Power as a mouthpiece for war and imperialism and who denounce Salman Rushdie for his response to the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini are effectively working to undermine the human-rights internationalism that should be the foundation of any global left with regard to genocide and freedom of expression.

In an obvious sense, of course, the human-rights left is working at a severe disadvantage.  The idea of enforcing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or supporting the causes of political dissidents living under tyrannical regimes seems all too thin and abstract, a matter of checkbook altruism, a paltry thing when compared with the immediately and dramatically pressing crises of global poverty, brutal inequality, ecological devastation and climate change.  What is the life of a single dissident, let alone the status of a piece of paper, when one contemplates the possibility of permanent, irreversible damage to the planet and the reality of billions of human beings living in utter abjection?  What is the value of an opposition newspaper in a distant country when one realizes that one’s sneakers have been manufactured by child laborers earning pennies a day?  It is no wonder that the global left tends to emphasize equality over freedom—for freedom seems like an ephemeral, epiphenomenal thing compared to the bare facts of bare life, to the wretchedness of the wretched of the earth, to the essential requirements for life’s sustenance and sustainability; and to some young left activists, liberal advocates of political freedom sound like earnest, misguided wonks working to craft ever finer versions of laws that forbid rich and poor alike from sleeping under the world’s bridges.  Pledging allegiance to international norms and standards in the political realm must seem, to some people on the environmentalist and anti-globalization left, like pledging allegiance to an international system of weights and measures.

Then, too, there is the profound insult to moral internationalism in having “human rights” championed by a United States that practices torture and indefinite detention—and that, in violation of the Universal Declaration, fails to consider food and health care as basic human entitlements.  And yet, and yet:  the case must be made that political freedom and international institutions are more important to economic sustenance and ecological sustainability than most people (and most nations) have realized to date.  It is quite true, for example, that some international conflicts are conflicts over resources—not excepting oil—and it follows that stronger international institutions stand a better chance of resolving such conflicts peacefully than weak international institutions trying vainly to referee a war of all against all.  Likewise, tyrannies have proven to be exceptionally poor stewards of the earth and only moderately successful, at their very best, at combating immiseration; indeed, at their worst, as in Saddam’s Iraq, Karimov’s Uzbekistan, and Pinochet’s Chile, they have opened new frontiers in human immiseration.  Though the human-rights left is working at a disadvantage when competing for the hearts and minds of young activists, and though its commitments may seem to some too thin a gruel for human consumption, it nevertheless works on the crucial assumption that the best chances for human flourishing, in every sense of the term, are to be found in democracies with a high degree of political transparency and accountability.  The fact that the United States can be weighed in those scales and found wanting is obvious, and merely underscores the point that the U.S. should be more democratic and more transparent than it is; moreover, as I will argue in the following chapter, there is a virtue to the “thinness” of international norms and standards, insofar as they may be able to dilute “thicker” commitments to blood and soil and nation.


See you tomorrow with more important news!

Posted by Michael on 12/02 at 11:22 AM
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Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Is there some extra extra Random Angry Guy aggression going around the Internets lately?  Because Moloch knows I’m aware that I piss off lots of people on a regular basis, sometimes by being a rude, snarky, cheeky fellow and sometimes just by waking up in the morning.  And being a blogger has taught me that there are plenty of people out there who will type up all kinds of things about What I Am Really Like Up Close, even though they’ve never met me or exchanged so much as a single email with me.  No, I’m not talking about Dean Dad.  I have no animus toward the man, and he seems to be doing good work on everything except tenure, and his insults were pretty weak sauce compared to the random angry guy who took to the keyboard last month to write, “Berube is smarmy, juvenile, pretentious, and narcissistic. Not to mention a compulsive liar who rewrites history in his own favor.” This, in response to a blog post written by someone I know IRL and with whom I had just had a very lovely (and very delicious) dinner.  As if he’s going to tell my dinner companion what I’m really like.

The weirdest recent Random Angry Guy effusion, though, has to be that of Professor Jim Holstun, who recently chimed in on some liberal blog to say,

Berube is first, last, and always, a professional—and by that, I mean “a careerist hack.”

Richly compensated to serve as part of a team evaluating my department (English, SUNY Buffalo), he proceeded to recommend the destruction of a forty-year-old tradition of (limited) workplace democracy, whereby graduate students were empowered to participate in department governance. You don’t keep getting lucrative gigs like this if you don’t give administrations what they want. Feh!

Where does one start with a remark so profoundly full of fail?  I can’t even begin to know what to think of a full professor so resentful and/or clueless as to believe that people who conduct external reviews of English departments are “richly compensated.” If I were to calculate my compensation from Buffalo for that review on a per-hour basis, it would come out to about $12-15/hour.  Remember, once again with feeling,

But Holstun’s claim about how I destroyed “a forty-year-old tradition of (limited) workplace democracy” is even more addled than his estimation of my extravagant hourly service wages.  It’s not every day I get to have a public argument about an aspect of a departmental review, but just for the record, here’s what actually happened.  When we conducted our review in late January 2006, Cary Nelson, William Chace and I came across a provision in Buffalo’s bylaws that gave every member of the department a vote with regard to job searches.  Cool!—except that the phrase “every member” included every single graduate student, and most sane people realize that graduate students who have just entered a program really shouldn’t have a vote on job candidates that is equivalent to that of people with years of experience in a field.  There was more in this vein: graduate students were appointed to serve on search committees and on the graduate admissions committee—by other graduate students.  Our review committee was not unanimous about whether graduate students should serve on searches and admissions (I think advanced graduate students are usually competent to do either job), but we did agree that it was a mistake to have graduate students appointed to such committees by other graduate students rather than by the faculty, because Buffalo’s system didn’t look like a form of workplace democracy; it looked like a device for creating graduate-student cliques and rivalries.

There’s another issue at stake here, as well.  On the one hand, graduate programs should train students to do the kind of work they will eventually do as professors (should they get jobs as professors), so it makes sense to introduce them to committee work.  On the other hand, graduate students are already serving the department as very-low-cost teaching labor, and giving them sundry committee tasks on top of their teaching assignments might only impede their progress toward the degree.  This is no trivial matter in a discipline whose average time-to-degree is about a decade.

Sigh.  Sometimes you undertake mundane disciplinary service like departmental reviews, even though they don’t really involve rich compensation, because you want to try to do some good.  In Buffalo’s case, we filed a report to the Dean that called for the English department to be replenished: we recommended that the department be authorized to hire four senior faculty and three junior faculty for the next five years (that’s a call for 19 new positions, folks—just what our corporate masters in administration wanted us to say); we recommended that the university administration create a program that would funnel Indirect Cost Recovery funds (from research grants) from the sciences and social sciences to the humanities; and we asked the administration to remedy the fact that the department’s most richly endowed chair was being badly abused by someone who was basically a no-show (with a nod to Dean Dad, yes, sometimes bad people abuse tenure.  One might even call them careerist hacks).  For all this, I get called mean names on a blog.  Feh!

So I understand that I have a talent for making enemies in this business.  Sometimes I pick fights, sometimes (as in the curious cases of KC Johnson and The Notorious Riley) I merely answer the bell.  And sometimes I come in for bizarre forms of personal abuse just by showing up to do a departmental report.  C’est la vie.  The Internet has taught me how to brush off (most) personal attacks from random angry strangers.  But aggressively clue-free attacks from people like Holstun are just depressing.

But I can’t be too too depressed right now, because I have just had the most fun holiday ever.  People started showing up at our house last Tuesday night; most of our sixteen house guests arrived on Wednesday and left on Saturday.  The last crew—Nick and his gang—departed on Sunday night.  It’s a good thing my ordinary-sized house is expandable!  And a good thing that everyone is OK with sleeping on air mattresses, futons, and couches.  We’ll always remember the guy (I’m looking at you, Hayward) who decided that the best names-game clue for “Alfred Hitchcock” would be “Schmalbert Hook-Penis.” We’ll treasure the fact that every single guest under the age of 80 joined in to play Beatles Rockband at one point or another. (Many thanks to my sister Jeannie for sending us the best intrafamily present ever—for Jamie’s birthday, no less!) I thought I would impress These Kids Today by showing them that I had mastered “Medium” level on guitar in only three weeks, only to learn that all of them play the game at Expert level, even when it involves drumming to “I Feel Fine” and “I Me Mine” (I’m looking at you, Nick) or playing guitar to “Here Comes the Sun.” (“Can you read those notes?” a friend asked me as the dizzying array of colors for Expert Here Comes the Sun flew by on the screen and Shash hit every note.  “Hell no,” I replied, “it just looks like the closing sequence of 2001 to me.” And when I announced to Nick that I had played “Come Together” without a mistake, a 254-note streak, he congratulated me and informed me that he had played it without a mistake on expert drums, a 2100-note streak.  So I hit him.) And then there was the moment when we had to prepare for the arrival of Yet More Guests by Saturday at noon, and we looked around at the piles of suitcases and electronics and bottles and cans and leftovers and overcoats and air mattresses and lost clothing and bedding, and I said, “my friends, if we clean up now, then the ‘guests’ will have already won.” Then eight of us went out Saturday night to see Fantastic Mr. Fox, which may be one of the ten most fun movies ever.

Happy sigh.  The antidote to random angry guys on the Internet, surely, is having lots of holiday fun in real life.  Now I just have to lose twenty pounds by tomorrow.  It does kind of suck to be overweight at this time of year. Fortunately, I hear that John Holbo has a new miracle diet plan, for which he no doubt expects to be richly compensated.

Posted by Michael on 12/01 at 08:28 AM
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