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MonroeComp1.inddA date gone this awry might turn out fine if, for example, we could have gone back to my apartment and slipped off my shiny dress and made love like James Stillman and I used to do in Wisconsin, like Max and I used to do in Kansas, where you get into tried and true positions that take you to brief ecstasy. Then we’d relax, agree that the joke-telling had turned awkward. If the sense of intimacy lasted, in time I’d even be able to tell my date he needed to dry clean his sports coats. But the sex was polite, muted. Because he was polite, muted? Because his feelings were? I’ll never know. He left afterward because he had to teach folklore at a community college fifty miles away in the morning—by which time I was packing up my laundry to take to a laundromat a block away.

author photo 2015, chair, b&wThe blurbs say your book is funny, and yet it explores that era just after the feminist movement. Feminism is serious, necessary. How did this turn out to be funny?

It’s not a slapstick book, no. But the gap between what you expect and what you get instead—the ludicrously unexpected—is the definition of a punchline. If readers find the book funny, that’s probably because it’s about a life in which incompatible values coincide. I straddled social classes. I straddled opposed definitions of womanhood. This made for predicaments: the wrong words and behaviors in the right setting; the right words and behaviors in the wrong setting. And I prefer being amused, not stricken.

R.I.P. MPW

By Aram Saroyan

Nonfiction

university-of-southern-california-15

In an email during Thanksgiving week 2013, I learned that USC’s Master of Professional Writing program (MPW) would no longer accept new students and would suspend operations entirely by spring 2016.  I was a teacher in the program for 15 years, and in the fall of 1996, when I began there, it was exhilarating.  My wife Gailyn and I had moved to Santa Monica over the past summer and I’d met with the director of the program, the poet James Ragan, who offered me a job teaching that fall.

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1.

On the day we call the cops on him, L. tells me he’s always been a fighter.

No guns, though.  He looks up at me from where he’s hunched, a skinny kid sitting on a rickety chair.  Not before what happened.

What happened before was L. was riding his bike and some bad boys shot him in the spine.  He wasn’t supposed to walk again.  He walks fine now.  He swaggers.  His khaki pants are too big and he cinches up his belt higher than the other boys.  I don’t think he can handle wrestling with the constant creep of a sagging waistline.

My sons play in the rain. Not just a few sprinkles, either, but the hearty, soak-your-clothes kind: they continue building forts and swinging pop flies even as their clothes hang heavy with rain water. Just a year ago, this would have bothered them—most likely because they were unused to it—but since we have moved to Nashville and enrolled them in our local Waldorf school, they are required to spend large amounts of their school time outside, no matter what the weather holds. Now they downright enjoy soaking rain. I look out the kitchen window and watch them, at nine and six years old, running, falling, throwing, jumping fearlessly, befriending the pouring rain.

Folks have been predictably misty-eyed lately over the outpouring of support for Karen Klein, the 68-year old bus monitor who was taunted by 7th grade boys in Greece, New York. Within a week, more than half a million dollars was raised from outraged and sympathetic well-wishers who wanted to “send this woman on a vacation,” and the total money amount continues to climb. Anderson Cooper reports that Southwest Airlines will foot the bill for Klein and nine of her friends and/or family members to enjoy a 3-day trip to Disneyland. Klein is also talking about finally being able to consider retirement.

On St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday significant to engineers in the USA, I wrote about the prominence of that profession within my family. It so happens that I’ve had occasion to expand upon that on another holiday. I’ve never really been big on Father’s Day, despite having four children of my own, but on the usual phone call to my father we got to talking about his background in electron microscopy.  He was not only a pioneer applying it to materials engineering, but also involved in education, looking to produce the next generation in his field, particularly from Nigeria.

Academics are easy to caricature. Sketch a figure in a rumpled suit jacket with messy hair and a pair of glasses clinging doggedly to the tip of his nose and you’ll win that round of Pictionary. Dr James Pennebaker, though, defies expectations. A renowned researcher, author, and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, he blends down-to-earth bonhomie with a taste for Lanesborough Hotel martinis, and hones his brilliant mind with long-distance running.

As a writer with a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing, I make most of my living teaching composition, argument and rhetoric to college students. This means I have the often-unenviable job of pointing out to students when their thinking is flawed, which in this era of anti-intellectualism is a dangerous and radical idea.

Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.
~ Mark Twain

 

The debate regarding a MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry is getting really old. Those of us who care about the art of poetry are quite aware of each side’s stance—on the one hand poetry is treated as a calling (Anti-MFA; the romanticism of outsiders who lead reckless lifestyles and who place the judgment of a “successful career” as a poet into the hands of posterity), on the other hand poetry is treated as a career (Pro-MFA; careerism, wherein schooled poets explicitly strategize with other schooled poets, publishing each other’s poems and books in order to stay on track to tenure and/or to maintain a recognizable status of “success”). Without a doubt, the Pro-MFA side is the sovereign of literary publications and the publishing system. It is for this reason that the Anti-MFA side comes off as the aggressor in this debate; the Pro-MFA side deflecting its opponents’ jabs with an aloof air of boredom, or at times with an agitated sense of exasperation. The bottom line is that this debate, this nonsense, must be brought to closure. And so, please bear with me as I rehash a few issues here in a swift attempt to finally, and thankfully, put an end to the MFA debate.

Congress is the 1 percent.

If I’m off here, I’m not off by much. Two-thirds of our senators, and over 40 percent of our congressional representatives are millionaires. The family of the average member of the House of (Non-) Representatives has about five-and-a-half times the wealth of the average American family. 

It is from that exalted perch that laws are handed down which tend to benefit. . . the 1 percent.

Surprise? Not really.

Politics has always been a rich man’s game. And I’m not being gender-neutral here, because for the most part what I’m writing about isn’t gender-neutral. Money as an access point to politics—and wealth as a consequence of wielding power—is nothing new or different: see Washington, George; real estate deals.

Nor should we reflexively smear anyone and everyone simply on the basis of income or origin:

Roosevelt in 2012!

But this severe economic skew in the makeup of our leadership class has serious consequences in terms of what our representatives think of as baseline normal. I am less concerned about the pernicious effects of “the Washington Bubble” and more concerned about the effects of “the Money Bubble.”

Congress decidedly does not feel our pain.

And they need to, if they are to properly diagnose and understand what ails us as a society.

We tinker with the Constitution at our peril. It has long been true that the Bill of Rights could not survive a popular vote: Americans are strongly in favor of free speech and freedom of religion, for example. . . except when people say things we don’t like, and excluding—you know—those weird UnAmerican religions. The Founders couldn’t possibly have really meant to permit them.

Having acknowledged the dangers, I would still propose three constitutional amendments to put the U.S. House and Senate back in touch with the day-to-day realities of “we the people.”

1. The mandatory medical plan for members of Congress and their families shall be Medicaid.

They think funding for Medicaid is adequate? Then they should get perfectly good care there.

2. Anyone serving in any public office—national, state, or local—shall have their children enrolled in public school.

We’re defunding kids? Fine. We’re defunding your kids, too.

3. There shall be created a Congressional Battalion, made up of the sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters of every person elected to Congress (no substitutions please; spouses or exes not accepted). In any American military action, the Congressional Battalion shall be the first unit put into service.

Congress seems indifferent to its constitutional responsibilities regarding declarations of war; presidents more or less get to do what they want.  One suspects that substituting their own for the children of other people would make them a little less blithe about the exercise of U.S. power abroad.

I don’t believe that everyone is entitled to a Cadillac and a vacation condo; I do believe everyone is entitled to healthcare and education. That’s not just soft altruism: you build a strong society, a strong economy, on the foundation of a healthy and well educated population.

While I am often skeptical about military action, I’m not a pacifist. But I am disturbed by how freely our politicians spend the lives of other people’s children on causes to which they would be loathe to sacrifice their own.

We get the word “society” from the Latin word socius, meaning “companion.” We get “companion” from the Latin com and panis, “with bread,” meaning people with whom we break bread.

And when our leaders eat cake and the people get crusts. . . ?

That bodes well neither for the fate of our society nor for the fate of our leaders. 

 

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

Today is a big day. It’s the halfway point! I’ve written 15 stories in 15 days and I can see a light at the end of a very long 15-more-days tunnel! Thanks for coming along with me this far. Please do not leave me now, because I am afraid of tunnels–even metaphorical ones.

Today’s story is all about teen angst and high school hijinx and how intelligent discussions about s-e-x are avoided at all costs.

It is, as always, absolutely true.

 

Reformed Schoolgirl

Did you know that the press is not allowed on public school property without permission from school administrators?

That’s what I learned my senior year of high school, after alerting the local Channel 12 news team about a newsworthy predicament I thought needed some attention. I called on behalf of a group of students who felt abandoned, unfairly punished and unnecessarily censored. And I had no idea how much trouble I would cause with one tiny little phone call to one tiny little local news station.

Okay. I had some idea.

It all started in rural Texas, of course. I lived in a lakeside community out in the country, and attended a nearby school in a town with a population just under 200. I had moved from the bustling-metropolis-by-comparison Palm Springs, California, to what seemed like the middle of nowhere–a town with a gas station, a feed store, a couple of Baptist churches and not much else. There were 38 other kids in my class; the entire student body was barely enough kids to earn a Swarm badge on FourSquare.

Not that there was a FourSquare. It was 1989–before the internet, before cell phones–Hell, it was even before Super NES. Our Nintendo was decidedly un-super!

Back then, in Texas schools, your football-coach-to-kids ratio was pretty high. I’d guess a third of the faculty spent part of its time coaching some athletic team or another. But they also had to clock time as teachers, which is why my Geometry, Chemistry, Journalism, US History, and Health teachers were all referred to as “Coach.”

The coach who taught my Health class was a first-year teacher, really young and good looking and generally regarded as “cool” by the kids in his class. For example, I once bet him he couldn’t stop drinking Dr. Pepper for a week, and when I caught him with a can in hand, he lived up to his end of the bargain and removed 10 tardies from my permanent record. (Ok, haha, I know. Remember when having a “tardy” on your “permanent record” was a big deal? But it was a big deal then, which is why it was cool of him to remove mine in bulk, as the result of some silly bet.)

He didn’t stay cool for long.

Coach had assigned us a project for health class–something vague and wide open with possibilities. We were supposed to create some sort of presentation that incorporated what we had learned throughout the year. I was a drama nerd and an overachiever, so I came up with the idea that I would put on a play–a play about sex. And the more I thought about it, the more excited I got. I thought about how I could take a shot at directing, and how we could perform it in front of the whole school, not just the other kids in Health class, and how it was going to be so much fun and slightly scandalous and that this was going to look so good on my college applications!

The play I found was called “Dolls” and is described as “a face-to-face telling of young people’s stories to young people by young people.” Honestly, it’s a little pro-lifey for my tastes, but I knew it was a safe bet for school administrators who may be afraid of parental outrage. It was frank without being graphic; safe, while still addressing sexual consequences in a meaningful way.

And there was no denying that the kids in my high school could use a little extra sex ed. A couple of pregnant teenagers in a big city school represent a tiny fraction of the student body. A couple of pregnant teenagers in a class of 39 represents half the Student Council. And you can pump your kids full of all the small town family values you want, but after all the cows have been tipped, there’s not a lot to do in the country, which makes drinking and fucking the top two ways for kids to spend time together.

I made my pitch to Coach and he thought putting on a play was a fantastic idea–he even offered to be in it. He became our official faculty advisor and attended the first few rehearsals as I put the cast and crew together. He also let me bring in my drama teacher–also a young, first-year teacher–as an additional faculty advisor who could help me learn to direct. Both teachers were still under the impression that enthusiasm and creativity should be encouraged among enterprising students. Both were about to find out otherwise.

I developed a short presentation for the principal, with hopes that I could convince her to let us perform the play for the entire school. She dismissed the idea, arguing that without parents’ permission, we wouldn’t be able to expose the students to any kind of sex education outside the approved curriculum, regardless of how reserved, how timid or how compelling. The next day I returned to her office with a stack of permission slips I had typed up myself and asked how she would like me to distribute these to the parents. Unprepared to respond, she sent me to the school superintendent to solicit his permission, knowing he would never give it and I would subsequently leave her alone.

The superintendent seemed overwhelmingly disinterested in anything I had to say, but didn’t say “no,” which gave me hope. He mumbled that he would take a look at the play and get back to me.

Two days later, I had gathered the cast after school for a rehearsal. This thing was finally coming together! Then Coach showed up with a look of concern on his face. He told me that he would no longer be able to be in the play, so I would have to recast his role. He went on to say that while I could go ahead and continue my rehearsal, the “powers that be” had decided no one would ever see us perform. End of story.

He seemed pretty sympathetic when he saw the dejected look on my face. He offered solace in the form of good grades–telling me that my work up to this point had earned me an “A” on this assignment.

“Big fucking deal,” is what I wanted to say. “This play is important. It’s crucial. It’s a really great opportunity to make an impact–to actually teach kids something that could save their lives,” is what I wanted to argue. And I really believed it. All the work I had done trying to sell the idea to our principal and superintendent had convinced one person (me) that performing this play was vital to our very survival.

Keep in mind this was the late 80s. AIDS was a very real threat, and yet most of my classmates felt immune–partly because we were seventeen and immune to everything, and party because (in rural Texas, at least) AIDS was still widely-believed to be a disease that only gay people could contract, like being a good dresser or listening to Erasure.

Coach said he’d work on changing the superintendent’s mind– at least to let us perform the play for the other students in Health class. Then he left me to deliver the bad news to the rest of the cast. After discussing the possibility that all our hard work would most likely be wasted on an audience of one, we decided to power through. Who knows what support we might find over the next couple of weeks? Maybe we could address the school board at its next meeting! Maybe a petition would change the superintendent’s mind! We had not at first succeeded, but we were damn sure going to try, try again!

About an hour later my Drama teacher arrived to crush whatever hopes remained. She told us that not only would we be performing the play to no one, but also that she and Coach had been “asked” to resign as our faculty advisors and remove themselves wholly from any further involvement. Without any faculty support, we’d no longer be able to use school facilities for rehearsal or anything else.

In short, it was all over. As a small consolation, she allowed us to have the rest of the evening to figure out how to proceed and left us to our own devices, alone at the school.

We were angry–really angry. We felt oppressed, misunderstood, belittled, and disregarded. We became even angrier at the thought of our cool, favorite teachers being threatened or bullied by the administration. We were sure that Coach and Miss Drama had fought for us–would fight for us–had they been able to do so without losing their jobs.

We talked about how important this play was–how much our school needed it. Our homecoming queen was married and several months pregnant, and she wasn’t alone. Girls got pregnant all the time. And one of the most popular guys on the football team had been accused of date rape by more than ten girls. How could they say we didn’t need to talk about sex in our school? How could they dismiss us out of hand like that?

We decided we had a pretty powerful story on our hands: Small Town School Takes Small-Minded Approach to Sex Ed. We decided to call the press.

I guess our thought was that after they saw it on the news, parents and other members of the community might support us in our cause. And if other adults brought enough attention to the matter, the superintendent would be forced to rethink his decision.

We also decided to stick together–no matter what. I would make the call, but we’d all be party to the decision. The blame would not fall on my shoulders alone, and we would not back down, no matter what the consequences. Our only hesitation was in creating trouble for our “cool” teachers who we believed had been on our side all along. We wanted to distance them–shield them from any of the repercussions.

So we did two things. First, we used a pay phone at the school to call the local TV news. I unloaded the whole story to an interested reporter.

Second, I went home and called our teachers. I told each of them that the cast and I had decided to take action, to fight for our right to sexually educate our peers. I wouldn’t give them any details, but assured them no laws would be broken. I felt that for their own protection they should know nothing more–it was important for them to have plausible deniability.

I don’t know exactly how long it took the “cool” teachers to sell us out, but I’m guessing it was a matter of minutes. They both called the principal at home to inform her that we had some devious tricks up our sleeves.

The next day I was called into the principal’s office just after the first bell. Coach and Miss Drama were waiting with her, and I spent the better part of first period being yelled at by the three of them.

They wanted to know what we had planned. I wouldn’t tell them anything.

They threatened to suspend me, expel me. I wouldn’t tell them anything.

I tried to defend myself. They didn’t want to hear it.

They told me that my actions would likely result in getting good teachers fired–ruining their lives forever. I cried. I believed them. I felt guilty. But I wouldn’t tell them anything.

They finally dismissed me and I went back to class, teary-eyed, red-faced and already exhausted. Ten minutes later they called me back into the office and asked me why the Channel 12 news team was calling for an interview. What did they know? What had I told them? Was I an idiot or just determined to get everyone fired?

I was told to “call off the dogs” or face a stiff punishment–one that would make detention seem like Spring Break. My principal watched as I dialed the Channel 12 newsroom again. I was openly bawling at this point–I had become an emotional basket case, and the basket was full of guilt and humiliation. The reporter was unavailable because, as I found out later, she was waiting with a camera crew just outside school grounds to try to get this story. So, after some more yelling, I was sent back to class.

At lunch, the cast and I gathered in the auditorium. They had heard my name called over the loudspeaker all morning, and seen me walking around the halls like a crying zombie. Some of them were pissed at me for crying. They thought it was a sign of weakness–that I had buckled after promising we wouldn’t back down. Others defended me, saying that even though we were all supposed to stick together, I was the only one being screamed at in the principal’s office all morning.

That changed when Coach found us and marched us into a classroom. Miss Drama stood in the corner of the room as Coach sat us down and gave us the talking-to of our lives. He marched back and forth, yelling at the top of his lungs. His face turned red, then purple, then red again. He treated us as if we had set the school on fire. There was no sympathy for our cause. There was no “thanks for the heads up last night.” He just paraded around the room, screaming and calling our actions stupid and reckless and irresponsible and indefensible.

Man, I hope he never finds out about Columbine.

I stopped crying and I got angry again. But this time it was a quiet anger. A Clint Eastwood anger. You know? It’s a cold, detached anger, with a calmness that terrifies. It’s the anger that comes with understanding. I was finally realizing that the people in charge were not on our side, and never had been. The adults who we had been so concerned about and whose jobs we had been so prepared to fight for–had turned on us at the first sign of trouble. They had probably never been our advocates–never pushed back in any way for our benefit. They weren’t being bullied by the administration. They were the bullies. And Coach’s red-faced rage-filled ranting was proof.

It’s not like we got caught drinking or doing drugs or cheating or ditching class. It’s not like we had vandalized the school or started a food fight in the cafeteria. It’s not like we had allegedly date-raped more than ten teenage girls.

We just wanted to put on a play. We wanted to be heard. We wanted to make a positive impact on the people in our community.

I sat perfectly still, unmoved, until Coach finished his rant and dismissed us. And then I was called into the principal’s office one last time.

That’s when she informed me that the press is not allowed on public school grounds without permission. The Channel 12 news reporter I had called would not be allowed on campus. There would be no big story on the news that night.

We had failed.

But it felt more like she had failed me. The school had failed me. And the “cool” teachers had failed me most of all.

I put it all behind me when I graduated. I left town and never really looked back. There are certainly teachers from high school that I remember; ones I admired, who inspired me and pushed me to achieve. But the rest of them are just an unpleasant smudge on my permanent record.

In a class full of oversexed boys, Willie was one of the most bizarre incarnations. He was on the smaller side, like me, scrawny, and usually clad in ill-fitting sweaters and corduroy pants. He wore his hair in a small, unkempt Afro, a stark contrast to the other black kids’ tight box cuts and fades. Willie talked and joked about sex even more than most of the other boys, but his role was more court jester and class clown than king and confident braggart.

His main act was “juggling [his] titties.” He’d cup his dark, spindly fingers under his chest and bounce them up and down slowly, as if each contained a huge overflowing breast that he could barely contain in his hand. Laughing uncontrollably, he’d cry out: “I’m juggling my titties, I’m juggling titties! Watch out, I’m juggling my titties!” Then he’d pantomime one of his “titties” coming off in his hand and pretend to throw it at the nearest kid. “Watch out, I’m going to hit you with my titties!” he’d yell as people screamed and dived away from him in every direction.

This joke never seemed to get old, to him or his victims. At lunchtime and recess, kids were often heard dashing down the hallway, their feet sliding as they careened around the corner, calling out desperate and giddy warnings to the others up ahead: “Watch out! Watch out! Willie’s juggling his titties again!”

Today, however, Willie’s titties were dormant under his lumpy gray sweater, at least for the moment. He sidled up to me where I sat, alone, at the lunch table. “Hey,” he said, “I got a question for you.” His eyes were hungry, his mouth a wide white grin.

“Yeah?” I said. I didn’t trust Willie. He had two other boys with him, who were both already on the verge of laughter.

“You ever had pussy around your neck?”

I squirmed on my stool—a sickly pale-green disk connected by a metal arm to the lunch table—and picked at a small piece of crud next to my tray. These kinds of questions always made me feel terribly small and uncomfortable. Around us was utter chaos, as usual, boys whooping and burping and punching each other, food flying, screaming, laughter. A combination of burnt pizza and cleaning solution hung in the air. My eyes rested on a large cherry pie stain on the lunchroom wall, and I thought about the question.

Pussy. The word offended me, and certainly made me nervous. Things I don’t understand often make me uncomfortable, especially if I sense they are important. At 11 years old, I didn’t understand “pussy” at all, although I could already tell it was tremendously important. I barely even knew what it was, and I was deeply aware and ashamed of my ignorance. All I knew was that it was a crude term for a woman’s private parts, but I had never seen one, let alone had one around my neck!

It didn’t sound possible. I had the impression that tightness was a virtue in a pussy, at least that’s what all the other boys were always saying. But all things sexual were very mysterious to me. My parents were both shy types who apparently thought sex was something magical, certainly not to be discussed. I gleaned what little understanding I could from the conversations I overheard at school, while trying desperately not to reveal my own ignorance, which I usually ended up doing anyway.

Where pussy was concerned, I knew you could stick fingers in it, or a penis, and probably a lot of other things too. But your whole head? That sounded absurd. And yet … I had also heard that you could “eat” a pussy, though there was fierce debate among the boys about whether one ought to or not. Some boys decried pussy-eating as disgusting or even “gay,” while others claimed it was a source of great pleasure and delight. I struggled with the terminology—surely they didn’t literally mean eating, did they? But at the very least I knew that “eating” a pussy involved the mouth. Perhaps then, I thought, as I wrestled with Willie’s question, if a person were to “eat” a pussy that was too “loose” (as I’d heard many, if not most, of the ones belonging to the girls in our class were), one’s whole head could somehow become lodged in there and one would actually have “pussy around [his] neck.” Still, it seemed unlikely.

“Well …” I said slowly, not wanting to commit myself either way. A small group of onlookers had formed around us. This was agony. What was the answer Willie was looking for? How I hated to be wrong! “No,” I said, “I never have.” It seemed to me that to say I’d ever had pussy around my neck would have been to admit being involved in some bizarre sexual act that I couldn’t even fathom. Since I had no idea what that might be, I couldn’t risk it.

“You haven’t?” Willie said theatrically, with mock surprise. For the benefit of his delighted audience, he repeated the question: “You’ve never had pussy around your neck? Are you sure?”

“No, I never have,” I asserted again, trying to sound more confident about my answer this time. “That’s nasty,” I added, as if to bolster my claim.

“Then how were you born?” Willie said. “What are you an alien or something?”

I still didn’t understand.

“Dummy, you came out of a pussy. Everybody has had pussy around their neck.” He looked smug. His two cohorts snickered at my stupidity. I was flabbergasted. He was right. I hadn’t even thought of that. Then he broke into a smile, cupped his hands under his chest and started bouncing them up and down impishly.

“Watch out!” he yelled, suddenly whirling around and charging toward the group of onlookers that had assembled to hear the answer to his strange and unsettling riddle. “I’m juggling my titties! I’m juggling my titties!”

And then, at last, I was alone again.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized that wasn’t the whole story. When I was born, before I could be delivered, my umbilical cord had become twisted around my neck, and I’d actually been born by emergency C-section. I hate to think of my mother being sliced open like that, and part of me wishes Willie had been right, but he was wrong: In fact, I never have had pussy around my neck.

Young men in purple bandannas stare at us, younger mothers with toddlers draped like minks over their necks glare while pumping their worn fists into the air. Who the fuck are we, indeed. In the stomping of countless feet, caught somewhere in the middle of this river of people, our hearts are clobbering our chests, hearts that have seen Chicago, and are now seeing this. An old man so clean-shaven his cheeks bear the sheen of a newborn puts his arms around us, we novelty gringos, and tries to shout something into our ears above the roars of the mob and the megaphones. He fails. His voice reaches us all creaky basement door, wordless and unoiled. His arm feels damp like snakeskin on my neck.

We can’t quite see beyond the crowd now, walled in by scarred bare shoulders and flailing bronze forearms. The sky flashes its body above us, indecent, pleading for beads. Behind us, a strange commotion, panic, defiance, and I pray no one has died. Louisa pulls her blonde hair into a ponytail with her right hand, holds it a moment as if a life-raft, then lets it go. The crowd behind us begins to part, fissured as if by a series of barges with flashing red lights, sirens calling like wounded crows. The police cars charge into the belly of the protest, and a family of twelve, each in straw hats of varying sizes rushes toward the curb to make room for them. Others, behind the squad cars, kick at the slow-going tires, spit onto the rear windshields.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

At set intervals, the cop cars discharge teams of officers in riot gear, machine guns raised in their hands. They begin to line the sidewalks, facing us, trapping us, their guns at us, black-gloved fingers on the triggers. Their heavy boots, jangling belts, underscore our chanting with some evil bass note, dissonant, threatening to kill the song.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“This is not good,” Louisa says.

She’s seen her share of death in South Africa, narrowly escaped two attempted carjackings, guns held to her head both times. The cops’ faces are hidden behind plastic facemasks, pulled down from their helmets. The sun, still above the rooftops, reflects from them. They are faceless, balls of light atop torsos. Their machine guns remain dormant but poised, and I feel nauseas. I burp a quiet breath of pig brain into the wet rear hairline of a middle-aged man in a denim button-down, his cardboard sign bowing forward in the stench, his hands wrapped tightly around the tree branch upon which it’s mounted. I can see the black hairs on his thumbs dance. Alive.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

Miraculously, the crowd ignores the police presence, the machine guns merely baleful par for the murderous course. Tonight, these people—protestors and police alike—will be sopping beans with corn tortilla, sipping bottled beer and fresh watermelon juice and life will go on. This is what I tell myself, but I have to be honest with Louisa.

“No,” I say, it is not.

“We should get out of this,” she says.

But how? The cops have boxed us in, human velvet ropes with bullets inside. This is terrible potential energy, and I try to take momentary refuge in a memory more benign—my junior high penchant for flinging rubber bands against the back of Amanda Berman’s head in Social Studies; the sweet joy of the band stretched back, held, ready, not yet released. Strange how these things amplify. Today, in the emancipation of this potential, we will be machine-gunned. I am not ready to be Amanda Berman, watch people fall like trees; hear shouts morph into screaming. There’s no one here to report these guys to the principal’s office, to call their mothers at work to tell on them, to punish them with a grounding, a ban on T.V. and chewing gum for a full week.

“I know,” I answer, but panic about the how.

The protest takes a right turn and we are obliged to turn with it, part of something larger now.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“And I’ve got to take a shit,” Louisa says, and in an instant, all perspective seems to shift away from the probable danger, and toward the celebration of all human things. We are still alive in Mexico City, young, stupid, bidding some—albeit misguided and overzealous—goodbye to the shell-selves we became in Chicago. We are being filled up again, injected with lead. Yes: Public education should be defended without military-lead recompense. An old woman waves her colorful sign in our faces and, as she pulls it back, holds it over her head like some digesting pelican, whistles what sounds like the Beatles’ “Let it Be,” barely audible over the crowd’s incantations.

And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree,

there will be an answer…

As she passes, disappears into the sea, I see, plastered to the stone of streetside building, the blue sign depicting our location. Avenida Cinco de Mayo. And up the street, perhaps a mere 50 feet away, the shabby black and white beacon: Hotel Rioja. The river has led us home.

Taking Louisa’s hand, slick with marching sweat, we jump the line, push through the protesters, fragments of hair-bun, orange shirt sleeve, bedsheet corner, sandal, hat brim, moustache, young breath, wrinkled hand, and make for the curbs, lined with the police, and the promised land of sidewalk beyond, now larded with onlookers.

Por favor, por favor, por favor, por favor, lo siento, lo siento, gracias, con permeso, por favor…

When we approach the police blockade, we don’t think, just move.

Hola, hola, por favor… Gringos coming through…muster your dumbest smile, wave, even… Hola, hola, gracias, por favor…

We push between two flashlight-faced officers, the ample butts of their machine guns tapping our triceps. They are heavy and cold, but we are through, into the realm of the sidewalk spectators, one of whom is Juan Pérez. He sees us, and waves both hands over his head. He is in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. Louisa and I rush to him. He is today, our grandfather. While Louisa runs into the sepulchral lobby for the stairwell and our tiny room, her steps resonant and yawning, I stand with the man watching the crowd pound past, on and on and on, all of the earth collected into this one street now, oozily deist, and, perhaps it’s only because we’re in front of a hotel, and because we’re leaving, but something invisible that once surrounded us, warm, but suffocating, lifts, evaporates, checks-out.

In Mexico City, something’s clotting in the streets—clotting with banners and drums and megaphones, people ripping the clothes from their own bodies, waving them overhead like pirate flags. This is angry unrest, scabs picked, coming to a boil, salt added, running over onto the sidewalks. We have caught up to the protest and it has gained in momentum. Hundreds of thousands are marching, the parade backed up for over a mile. Blood seems likely to spill.

The bedsheet banners, splattered with red and black paint letters and stenciled guns blotted with Xs tell part of the story. Peligroso! Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización! I lean toward Louisa, speak into her ear so she can hear me over the melee.

“Defend public education! No to militarization!” I translate.

She raises her eyebrows. This seems like something we can agree with.

While we were in Chicago, taking care of my sick mother, much happened in the Mexican educational system. The government, passed into law an edict demanding 10.6% of the teachers’ pension fund, raised from 3.5%. President Felipe Calderon apparently sealed this deal with Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), the National Education Workers Union, promising to use that money to increase retirement benefits and repair a broken health care system. Instead, the protesters allege the money went to pay off Mexico’s debts to the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund. In fact, according to a July 19, 2007 article in The Economist, Gordillo may have used some of these funds (perhaps as much as $70 million) for personal reasons, like, say, satisfying her desire for a $5 million mansion in San Diego, California.

Later, after we have safely returned to the Hotel Rioja for our very, very tardy checkout, which concierge Juan Pérez in his infinite graciousness will forgive, he will fill us in on these sociopolitical details, declaring how this pension fiasco is merely the newest offense perpetuated by the government against teachers. He will nod solemnly, almost spitting when uttering Gordillo’s name, clasping his hands in flat prayer when discussing his sister’s involvement in such protests. Luckily she has yet to be injured, or killed.

“Mi hermana es una maestra,” he will say. His sister is a teacher, so she knows, he knows…

When we will tell him we are headed to Oaxaca, he confirms some of what we already know. That the educational protesting and striking situation was much worse there—more violent. The “No to militarization!” portion of the bedsheets refer the fact that police officials in Oaxaca City opened fire on what began as non-violent protests of the local teachers’ union. Certain reports indicate that the police were also instructed (allegedly by Oaxaca’s governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz) to open fire on paramedics who attempted to remove or administer treatment to wounded protesters.

What began as a plea for a raise in funding for the rural schools of Oaxaca, and, as Juan Pérez speculates, a voice of dissent against the seeds of Mexico’s Alliance for Educational Quality (somewhat akin to the controversial U.S. No Child Left Behind Act, about which Gordillo, via a PR flunky, philosophized, “Education is an opportunity, not a right…”), became, after the police intervention, a demand for the ousting of Governor Ortiz.

Here, Juan Pérez will cough into his hand as if catching some terrible regret like a dove in his palm. Or terrible confusion. He will proceed to tell us of the escalation. How the dissent became blanket. How, after Ortiz laughed off the call for his resignation, various members of Oaxaca’s small towns and unions, families and small businesses coalesced and called themselves Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca. Juan Pérez will flash his fat fingers into the air twice—first all ten digits, then seven. This is his representation of June 17th, 2006, his thumbs sizzling in the polluted air like breakfast sausages simmered in smog. On this date, three days after the police intervention, the APPO set up camp in Oaxaca City’s Zócalo—fathers, mothers, children, grandsons, granddaughters, pubescent nephews, drunken uncles, estranged nieces, spinster aunts, the horrible lines for the public bathrooms, the little spoiling food and no sleep, the wrapping of howling babies in thin yellow blankets, the dust, the megaphones pounding, the closed stores—and called themselves the new government of Oaxaca. Civil revolution ensued, much of the city choked with barricades, some erected by the APPO, some by the police. Word got out, and other states and cities in Mexico began to express their empathy in protests such as this one in Mexico City. For the people here, this is not after-the-fact. The facts, as to the residents of everywhere, always continue, evolve, devolve. Here, history is present, and the present.

On July 2nd, Ruiz Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party was voted out of power for the first time in Oaxaca in over 70 years. In morbid celebration, the APPO prevented certain festivals from taking place, barring entrance to buildings with heaps of garbage and upended flaming buses. Graffiti declared intolerance for tourists, demanding they return home, packing their ugly capitalism into their already bloated suitcases. The souvenir as Molotov cocktail…

Fleeing Oaxaca, Ruiz Ortiz hid-out in Mexico City for a handful of months before fleeing once again. Though the battles with the state police continued, the APPO declared themselves in control and began to make new laws, commanding radio and television stations, which anti-APPO outfits, along with police in civilian clothes, would blitz deep into the night, spilling blood, smashing broadcast machinery. The casualties escalated, included Brad Will, a visiting journalist from New York, and Emilio Alonso Fabián a professor from Los Loxicha, gut-shot twice by plainclothes policemen.

The Mexican government claims that each was killed by the protestors and not the police, in spite of Will’s recovered photographs, taken moments before his death, depicting the protestors armed merely with rocks against the policemen’s guns. Later, Will’s recovered video footage, according to local news, revealed his killer—Pedro Carmona, member of Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party, mayor of the Oaxacan town Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and newly-crowned soldier in this urban paramilitary.

Boys and girls lay in the streets nursing broken arms, leaking skulls, bullet wounds in their thighs. Old Zapotec women prayed upward, blood pools browning on the stones where they once spread their blankets, sold their weavings to the occasional tourist, before being trampled. It took Will’s death for President Vincente Fox Quesada (who turned over the office to Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa on December 1st of that year) to dispatch the Federal Police to Oaxaca. Nearly 10,000 Federalies and military police forcibly dragged protesters from the Zócalo, backed-up by additional army troops. The still-functional APPO radio stations warned of the raids. As a result, helicopters clogged the sky over Oaxaca City, dropping tear gas grenades. Reports of military police kidnappings ensued. Rumors of body-snatching and cover-up cremations crackled over the pirated airwaves, inflaming the protests. The Catholic Church of Mexico came out in support of the Federal Police. Protestors, academics, and students took refuge Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, an “autonomous” university that barred police entry. Though the police surrounded the University, they were, in turn, surrounded by a larger group of protestors (who were alerted to the location via APPO broadcasts over the University radio station), and forced, if only for the moment, to retreat.

Here, in Mexico City, numerous bombings ensued, one of which destroyed the amphitheater that served as Partido Revolucionario Institucional headquarters, others blowing up portions of banks and restaurants. On my birthday, November 25, 2006, while Louisa and I listened through the bathroom door to my mother vomiting nothing but tapwater, a Saturday (my father still working, their three large dogs dozing in the sun, waning earlier and earlier…), a renewed attempt at a peaceful protest in Oaxaca’s Zócalo was thwarted when the police unleashed a sprinkler of tear gas, rubber bullets, water-cannons, and bulldozers, tear-gassing, rubber-bulleting, water-cannoning, bulldozing people. Protestors answered with rocks, bottles, water balloons, and pipe bombs. Cars and trucks were toppled and set ablaze, buildings were attacked and set on fire, frenzied crowds looted businesses and hotels. On this day, my birthday—my mother sick in the bathroom, Louisa and I rubbing each others necks at the kitchen table, my father stuck in rush hour traffic listening to sports radio, the sleeping dogs, my pregnant sister— the Federal Police succeeded in subduing the APPO, making arrests, forcing numerous leaders into hiding, castrating the Sagittarius, stapling the gargantuan sack to the city gates in governmental warning. The University radio station was once again returned the headmaster, and the conflict, for better or for worse, was once again shoved beneath the surface of everyday life, for the moment contained in its churning. The problem lidded. Unsolved.

Juan Pérez will shrug his shoulders, as Louisa and I flank him in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. He will say something I don’t quite understand about plight. But for now, watching this Mexico City protest escalate, our stomachs digesting the pumpkin flowers of breakfast, we don’t know all of this, haven’t yet spoken about it with Juan Pérez; we merely recall some vague news report about the Oaxacan unrest, stirring worry about our travels in my exhausted mother, ignorant beyond what we can read on bedsheets. “Defend public education! No to militarization!”

Up the street, a great cracking sound. The earth opening up, or a car being tipped over.

“Should we join them?” Louisa asks, “I mean, you’re a teacher…”

I love my wife. I look at my shoes. They are filthy, broken-laced, perfect for marching. As if empathy can reside in simple career choice and dress. Louisa is wearing her blue Israeli clogs. I meditate a few moments on her footwear—how clog-fighting was a traditional method for settling disputes in Europe, drawing such a mass of onlookers, that bets were laid; how they served as foot armor in mines and mills; how, in 18th century France, poor factory workers would protest corporate mistreatment by throwing their protective work gear—especially their clogs (sabot, in French)—into the assembly line engines, damaging the equipment and, via this protest, inventing the word sabotage. Inadvertently, she is well prepared for this. Inadvertently, we are ignorant fucking tourists. Idiots filled with food who, via footwear analysis and the intoxication of overseas, think they can empathize with some real kind of plight. Who the fuck do we think we are?

The thing is: we don’t. We don’t think we are. We don’t think we are anything. We are all dumb impulse and young traveling lover. We join arms. If we had talked to Juan Pérez in that doorway before this, learned of the nature of things, we probably would not have done this. But, you know, we may have anyway. Sometimes dumb impulse, especially when traveling, is a conscious choice. The sky is a drowning blue. The river of protestors continues. We lift our feet, hold, as if on the edge of a high-dive board, our breaths. We look for a way in, and leap. We splash into the center of elbows and noise, wild shards of banner, bare-chests, laser light, bottle, balloon, fists, spit, and the static of mad human chorus. We sink into this pool of cause, try to swallow any reservations about effect, however chlorinated, however Peligroso!