One of the Most Mind-Boggling and Significant Events

June 28, 2008

( Apologies to m.l.)

One of the most mind-altering and significant events of the last century took place on a makeshift creaking bed in a small cabin in an isolated stretch of a sun-scorched California valley as dawn was breaking many, many years ago. To this day no one has ever revealed to those not present what actually took place.

Clarifying the Facts— a letter to the New York Times, 9-15-2001

April 21, 2008

September 15, 2001

To The Editors—

In July of this year Dinitia Smith asked my publisher if she might interview me for the New York Times on my forthcoming book, Fugitive Days. From the start she questioned me sharply about bombings, and each time I referred her to my memoir where I discussed the culture of violence we all live with in America, my growing anger in the 1960’s about the structures of racism and the escalating war, and the complex, sometimes extreme and despairing choices I made in those terrible times.

Smith’s angle is captured in the Times headline: “No regrets for a love of explosives” (September 11, 2001). She and I spoke a lot about regrets, about loss, about attempts to account for one’s life. I never said I had any love for explosives, and anyone who knows me found that headline sensationalistic nonsense. I said I had a thousand regrets, but no regrets for opposing the war with every ounce of my strength. I told her that in light of the indiscriminate murder of millions of Vietnamese, we showed remarkable restraint, and that while we tried to sound a piercing alarm in those years, in fact we didn’t do enough to stop the war.

Smith writes of me: “Even today, he ‘finds a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance,’ he writes.” This fragment seems to support her “love affair with bombs” thesis, but it is the opposite of what I wrote:

We’ll bomb them into the Stone Age, an unhinged American politician had intoned, echoing a gung-ho, shoot-from-the-hip general… each describing an American policy rarely spoken so plainly. Boom. Boom. Boom. Poor Viet Nam. Almost four times the destructive power Florida… How could we understand it? How could we take it in? Most important, what should we do about it? Bombs away. There is a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance. The rhythm of B-52s dropping bombs over Viet Nam, a deceptive calm at 40,000 feet as the doors ease open and millennial eggs are delivered on the green canopy below, the relentless thud of indiscriminate destruction and death without pause on the ground. Nothing subtle or syncopated. Not a happy rhythm. Three million Vietnamese lives were extinguished. Dig up Florida and throw it into the ocean. Annihilate Chicago or London or Bonn. Three million—each with a mother and a father, a distinct name, a mind and a body and a spirit, someone who knew him well or cared for her or counted on her for something or was annoyed or burdened or irritated by him; each knew something of joy or sadness or beauty or pain. Each was ripped out of this world, a little red dampness staining the earth, drying up, fading, and gone. Bodies torn apart, blown away, smudged out, lost forever.

I wrote about Vietnamese lives as a personal American responsibility, then, and the hypocrisy of claiming an American innocence as we constructed and stoked an intricate and hideous chamber of death in Asia. Clearly I wrote and spoke about the export of violence and the government’s love affair with bombs. Just as clearly Dinitia Smith was interested in her journalistic angle and not the truth. This is not a question of being misunderstood or “taken out of context,” but of deliberate distortion.

Some readers apparently responded to her piece, published on the same day as the vicious terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, by associating my book with them. This is absurd. My memoir is from start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official policy. It begins literally in the shadow of Hiroshima and comes of age in the killing fields of Southeast Asia. My book criticizes the American obsession with a clean and distanced violence, and the culture of thoughtlessness and carelessness that results from it. We are now witnessing crimes against humanity in our own land on an unthinkable scale, and I fear that we might soon see innocent people in other parts of the world as well as in the U.S. dying and suffering in response.

All that we witnessed September 11—the awful carnage and pain, the heroism of ordinary people—may drive us mad with grief and anger, or it may open us to hope in new ways. Perhaps precisely because we have suffered we can embrace the suffering of others and gather the necessary wisdom to resist the impulse to lash out randomly. The lessons of the anti-war movements of the 1960s and 70s may be more urgent now than ever.

Bill Ayers Chicago, IL

What We Want Now–short fiction

March 16, 2008

“You’re hardly trying,” Millie said to me last week on the phone.

Come on, I think – but don’t say out loud. I send her a food package every week — good stuff, Whole Foods, all the things she likes — and I visit whenever I can get away, which is at least once a month, and sometimes more. I leave money, I leave books. It’s not enough. Never enough.

I am, I said. Trying I meant.

“You’re my brother,” she went on, “and if I can’t count on you…”

I’m trying, I said again, but she wasn’t convinced.

I’ve got a job for Christ’s sake, and my last year-end evaluation wasn’t exactly a happy moment for me: “You seem distracted,” Sims had said flatly. “Exhibit more energy with clients. Focus.”

Exhibit more energy? That job has been sucking the life out of me for seven years — 8 years in July — and I’ve burned energy I never knew I had. Physical. Mental. Psychic. Spiritual. Maybe the key word here is “exhibit.” Okay, I’ll be the Energizer Bunny, I’ll be Krazy Kat, I’ll be Clarence the Clown. I’ll exhibit energy.

I’ve learned to address Sims with accurate and demonstrable information — he always wants the facts. How can you quantify that? Or, how could we measure that? That’s his mantra. I’ve learned to speak to him in units; he speaks to me in froth and abstraction. I should have told Sims to go fuck himself, but he’d have automatically ordered me to quantify it — beyond my job description I’m afraid, worse than unpleasant. Unpleasant is my default on the job, so I agree with his evaluation and vow to improve.

The divorce hasn’t helped, and I never wanted it. Okay, yes, the marriage was shitty, a catastrophe almost from the start, and I’m pretty much the problem. It was what they call a loveless marriage, pretty much sexless although Margo is almost 6, so there is that. She’s not taking it well — wetting the bed, sucking her thumb again, things like that. “She’s regressed to a safer place in order to gather strength for what’s to come,” her therapist had said solemnly in an attempt to reassure. At that moment I felt like asking the therapist if I could sit on her lap and hold her bosom, but I simply muttered that I understood.

Kate wants me to man-up and move on. “Stop whining,” she said to me on the phone this morning when I told her I couldn’t pick up Margo from school. I didn’t think I was whining, but I said I would. Stop whining that is.

“And that check for after-school had better be on time this month,” she continued without a breath, without a pretense of hearing me.

It is, I said. It will be, I mean.

Here’s how I see it: Sims needs me to generate more business and more money, get the big cash register singing; Kate needs me to be a cheerful adjunct daddy figure with a steady flow of happy cash; Margo needs Kate and me to be a couple again, to fly back in time and magically annul the divorce and everything that followed; and Millie needs to get out of prison with her sanity intact and a bit of future worth having in hand, and in the meantime — in the 25 years to life meantime I mean — she needs me to be a connection, a fragile thread of hope.

I can see each of them clearly, I can agree with them all. I can even quantify it:

  • Margo wants my love.

  • Kate wants my balls.

  • Sims wants my body and what little is left of my brain.

  • Millie wants my life.

And what do I want? I want everything, and I want nothing at all.

A Viking in Wellfleet–short fiction

March 16, 2008

Tom thinks that every Viking ever born, by design or desire, by chance or by choice, is a complete fuck-up. Complete, he says. No exceptions.

So a picture appears in the papers this morning—a strapping chunk of a man with a broad fierce face, his horned helmet covering a solid block of head, his clothes fashioned from some beast who’s still vaguely recognizable and who appears to be only recently dispatched or perhaps not even entirely dead yet, his muscled body in motion, shimmering and rippling as he swings over the side of his ship with a sword the size of a tree in his left hand, blue eyes flashing, red mouth open in some sort of exuberant cry I imagine—and a positive accompanying story about the fellow’s accomplishments: the extensive plundering along the coast including a meticulous accounting of cities ransacked, homes pillaged, cattle fleeced, graineries emptied, youth kidnapped, woman swagged, virgins despoiled, villages looted and left smoldering. It’s really quite a story: lavish and awed and congratulatory, filled with complex characterization and vivid description, compelling and convincing. And wonderful.

I delicately place the paper, the picture, the story next to Tom’s coffee so he’ll see it as soon as he comes downstairs. A complete fake, he says the moment he picks it up. A piece of contemptible puffery placed in the unsuspecting paper by the puny but aggressive pro-Viking lobby.

There are other incidents and anecdotes I could relate, a steady stream really of instances and examples I could trot out as illustrative, but what’s the point? That dismissive response is typical of Tom—utter antipathy toward all things Viking. Now here’s the really weird and slightly scary part: Tom is pure Viking, all the way through.

I’m not Viking myself—not a drop—but I am open-minded, and, I suppose, sympathetic in my own way—the sea, the ships, the robust vitality. There’s some good there.

You’re romanticizing, Tom says. Barbarians, he adds.

I want Tom to accept certain things, but he won’t. He’s just so damned insistent.

Still, he seems happy enough in his life: he likes his work, he loves me, he functions well in the given world. He doesn’t seem to want more.

I worry. The little termites of self-hatred may be working their insidious paths through his deep structure, undermining his very foundation. One day he could break down—total collapse, catastrophic implosion. I hate thinking that.

So I turn my mind instead to those picaresque ships—like the fragile hand-carved wooden trinkets sold now by the wharf-rat boys by the bay—riding the North Atlantic swells and accepting the crash and crush of cruel or indifferent waves, and I think, too, of the yearning, the impulse to explore, the drunken, dream-soaked journey undertaken with arms outstretched and hopeful. And I feel glad.