So this morning I woke up out of a dream in which my father was going to be interviewed on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air about his expertise in boutique wineries. You would have had to know my father to understand just how absurd this would be. Dad was a rural Ohio boy who graduated from high school before 1930 (he was almost fifty when I was born) and made a living by working with his hands in a carpenter shop. The snooty language of wine-speak couldn’t have interested him less—if he had even heard of it. The only radio he listened to was baseball. He wanted his life, like his thinking, to be simple. Not to mention he was a teetotaler.
But the feeling in this dream was too strong to ignore: hearing about this secret life my father got me right in the heart, and suddenly in the dream I missed him terribly. This too is unusual; he died more than fifteen years ago, and because he understood so little of my world he was not a big part of my adult life. I mean, going to college, let alone graduate school, was beyond him, and now that I’m taking up a new job in higher ed, he would understand even less.
That’s when it hit me: my new job. A month ago I became interim chair of my academic department, filling in for someone on sabbatical. And all month I’ve felt like I’m making it up as I go. I mean, who suddenly gets managerial training when they get promoted? Where is that pipeline of wisdom that everyone else must be sucking when they look like they know what they’re doing? How in the world do you become a mediator overnight?
I tend to envy friends who came from professional families. They had role models to watch during their growing-up years, while most of my life I’ve wished, like many working-class academics wish, for relatives who understand what I do. My career models have been my teachers in college and graduate school, and the most recent one was the person I’m replacing—the very person now away on sabbatical.
In this job I’m on my own.
But then I think: that’s not such a bad place to be. If it’s a little lonely, it’s also wide-open territory. The more responsibility you have, the more freedom to do something unprecedented.
Like Obama did this week—giving the first TV interview of his presidency to al-Arabiyah, the cable TV network based in Dubai. (Full text of the interview here.) I was astounded. Like many progressives, before this month I saw Obama as, well, a bit cautious. I mean, even Hillary Clinton’s health plan was to the left of Obama’s, and you could never mistake Clinton for a radical. Sure, Condy Rice did an interview with al-Arabiyah, but the president?
If he added a few details he didn’t dare mention on the campaign trail—like his Muslim relatives and his having lived in Muslim countries—in the rest of the interview he sounded a consistent and familiar theme: respect for all people of goodwill. The Daily Show did a good job on that one:
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No one can teach a new president how to govern. You have to dig deep, believe in your own vision, and go for it.
Next to the loneliness of his job, mine looks like a cakewalk.
I think I’ll cobble together my own team of advisers: one for her wry humor, another for the way he puts people at ease, another for her attention to detail. And then I’ll take a play from the book of a president who emphasizes respect—and takes it where no US president has taken it before.
Unprecedented—like my teetotaler father talking boutique wineries.