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Sunday
Oct052008

In Which I Utterly Destroy Any and All Presidental Aspirations

Eons and eons ago, during the primary, I emailed a couple of Bennington MFA classmates with the subject line "Two Degrees From Barack Obama."  It seemed that someone we used to know was in the news, if only the conservative blogosphere news.

"We know someone who knows the potential Democratic nominee," I typed.

"Aw!"  one wrote back.  "I miss Bill!"

By "Bill," she meant Bill Ayers.  You may have heard of him:  He's connected to Obama.  I'm not going to get into the shouty-shout as to how closely ("They're BFF's!" "They barely knew each other!") or whether or not it should matter.  That little Easter basket of nitroglycerin is for... well, the rest of the Internet.  Besides, anything I'd have to say on the matter has already been screeched four times over by now.

But I do have something different to contribute:  Like I said in last week's broadcast, I ain't seen nothin' like this cycle of Presidential politics.  Especially since I totally have pictures of me and one of the major players:



That's right, America!  By dint of knowing a famous person, I'm Important!

Bill Ayers and I were workshop classmates at Bennington College in January of 2002. I knew, in a general way, that he'd been a member of the Weather Underground:  Behold the mighty power of a history minor focusing on Post WWII America.  I wasn't down with great gobs of the details, however-- as far as the riots and upheaval of the '60's go, I tend to classify most of it as "Stuff Going On During the Translunar Injection of Apollo 8."  For all the quoting of his pre-9/11 "we didn't do enough" comment in regards to his bombing activities, I just assumed at the time that his position on the matter, like that of a lot of other Americans, changed after the terrorist attacks.  This was the first Writing Seminars residency after 9/11, and the topic was, in one way or another, on everyone's minds; I couldn't imagine that he hadn't repented, and my faith instructed me to treat him with kindness.

Bill had just released a memoir, currently under the quote-scope throughout the media--one journalist, by comparing Fugitive Days to Obama's Dreams From My Father, posits that he was the author of both.  I don't remember the nature of Bill's workshopping material, so I can't pretend to have super-duper inside knowledge as to his process and writing style.

I did converse with Bill about the book publishing process, with which I was largely unfamiliar at the moment, and he spoke in kindly, encouraging terms about my own writing, despite his full knowledge that the essay I submitted to that particular workshop was largely about, if I recall correctly, the fact that my cardio kickboxing instructor wore lime-green Spandex pants.

One night Bill gave me the contact information for his literary agent, and told me to use it when I was ready to publish my senior thesis.  He also autographed a copy of Fugitive Days:

 

I dug it out of storage today.  Here's what he wrote:

 

In case you can't read it (if the mark of a domestic terrorist is semi-illegible handwriting, I will likely be clapped in Guantanamo within the hour), the inscription says:  "January 2002-- To Mary Beth--With deep admiration and awe for a woman of humor and grace, for a spirit unbound, and with hope--wounded but alive--for a world of peace and in balance.  XX Bill Ayers"

 

So we can see that Bill Ayers, at least in this particular case, is an excellent judge of character.

 

You will likely notice the cartoon at the top of the page.  As Bill (I called him "Bill") drew the little circle extending from the stick figure's hand, he said, "It looks like he's holding a bomb.  But he's not. It's a... peace symbol!"

 

And when I read that Bill had drawn a cartoon addressing the growing controversy, I thought about the stick guy and his peace symbol and had an Ultimate Butters reaction, complete with twisting hands:  "Oh hamburgers, this is going to be A Thing, isn't it?"

 

As colleges go, Bennington is extra-crunchy granola, and those of us in the Writing Seminars had a big heaping helping of poetry slams, antidepressants, and artistic temperaments ladled on top of that.  See, this is me delivering my big-girl, extremely formal, all-on-the-line senior thesis lecture:

 

 

That's pretty much all you need to know about how we rolled at Bennington.

 

We'd spend all day talking voice and thematic exposition, and then go drink.  In this way, it was an excellent preparation for every single academic conference I'd ever attend.

 

Bill Ayers, in the midst of the drinking, tried, unsuccessfully, to teach me how to waltz.  One of our classmates brought a guitar to the bar (again... Bennington) and began playing "Good Night Irene."  There are pictures of this, too, but as they are of my butt, you are not going to see them.  This was how a Tridentine Mass Catholic and a Bill Ayers could heal the world.

 

My take on Bill at the time was that he functioned as a post-60's radical who still adhered to deeply impressed ideological patterns as he entered the academy.  To be honest, my history minor led me to approach him as a living museum piece, not unlike a still-flying B17-- repainted, disarmed, and tucked away from the mainstream.  I didn't think of myself in physical danger from him; if anyone was going to wreak havoc, it was going to be me, who was woefully weary of a cafeteria offering little other than tofu, sprouts, tofu in peanut sauce, and, on a big night, baked potato bar.

 

I took Bill Ayers as he treated me, there in the snow of 2002.

 

I remember Bill as a friendly, charismatic guy, one who told a story about a kindergarten kid he taught; from what I remember, Bill was leading the kids in an art project, and one of the children expressed thrilled surprise that he was given purple fingerpaint in place of one of the usual primary colors.  I think an easel was somewhere in there too.  Anyway, the point was about expectations, and surprising people, and The System, and... and... paint.

 

Politics is all about self-presentation, which is why I would suck at it so utterly; put me in a debate and it would take maybe four seconds to my first "My opponent thinks otherwise, because he is a poophead."

 

There was one moment when I saw Bill be way, way better at this than I am.  At a cocktail party (you cannot have two or more gathered in the name of Writing and not have a cocktail party) he mentioned to me that he and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, were raising a friend's son.  "His mother was taken away from him," he said.

 

My reaction to this was the Official Southwest Ohio Expression of Sympathy:  A raised hand to the chest, a soft, "Oh, how terrible.  The poor little guy-- that must have been so rough on him."  And the Official Southwest Ohio Expression of Sympathy forbids digging on the dirty details, so I assumed that Bill was using creative-speak for a death, or maybe a messy custody battle, so I immediately resumed cocktailing.

 

Since then, I've formed the assurance that he was referring to Chesa Boudin.  And here's why his mother, Kathy, was "taken away from him."

 

That doesn't change, of course, the fact that this whole chain of events must have been hugely upsetting for young Chesa. But I've thought a lot about how Bill worded that statement, ever since I began seeing the face of my classmate on cable-- the man who with the sweep of a pen turned a bomb into a peace symbol.

 

Maybe Bill Ayers was trying to suavely simplify a cocktail party conversation.  (I do this every time I introduce myself as "a writer," because "sentence-former, one unhirable in every other aspect" doesn't sound so nice.)  Maybe he wasn't dissembling, in the sense that he honestly believed that Chesa's mother was "taken away" from him, and he was doing what he thought was right in the wake of something truly horrible; after all, the child shouldn't have had to suffer for the choices of his mother.  Or maybe he was handing me a well-polished line, wanting me to believe something that had been first bounced and bent through an ideological prism.  And maybe the real story is somewhere in between, and all this requires thought and reading and fact-based, non-shoe focused discussion.

 

The only part of any of this I know for sure is that it took a good 45 minutes of searching before I could find a link about Chesa Boudin that had even the semblance of non-biased information dispersal.

 

But that doesn't make for a very good headline.

 

headache at:  mbe@drinktothelasses.com

 

tip the bartender

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Reader Comments (10)

Oh, gee... and me thinking I was the most radical person you were in contact with :-(

Seriously, though: What a GREAT story!

October 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterred pill junkie

This is awesome, so crazy, especially given what is going on in the world of talk radio right now! Wow!

October 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHunter House Mom

Geez, talk about that 'six degrees of separation' thing. I wonder if all The Readers' presidential aspirations are also destroyed by association with one MB who has associated with Bill Ayers?

October 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterj.s.

Which just goes to show how easy it is paint complicated issues as "good" v. "evil" and "us" v. "them". Great story- and it sounds like you had some real respect for him- not for his politics and certainly not for his methods- but respect for him. And obviously his insight into you was tremendous! Do not rewrite your memories of him- remember him as you knew him and it can remind us all how complicated people and the world really are... Thank you for sharing and not screeching- as so many are wont to do these days...

October 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter2xgtld

That is really fascinating.

I got nothin'.

Oh! Wait! I went to high school with the star of CBS's new sitcom "Worst Week."

So, er, small world, I guess.

What, no debate liveblog tonight? :(

[...] Filed under: Non-Shrieky Politics « In Which I Utterly Destroy Any and All Presidental Aspirations [...]

Oh, you won't belieeeeeeeeeeeeve the liveblogging going down on this one!

October 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMB

[...] have as much red meat as you might expect or want, but you should read it anyway: One of my friends attended a literary workshop with one William Charles Ayers almost seven years [...]

[...] one ray of hope for us all:  This is all pending my background check.  Maybe a big ol’ bit of domestic terrorist association will do the trick.  LOOK AT ME, FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, HANGING AROUND WITH PEOPLE WHO WEAR CHE [...]

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