Music, Nostalgia, and the Power of Being Present

May 29, 2023

I have a very specific memory from the summer of 1980. I was 16 years old, driving west on North Decatur Road in my 1973 Gran Torino to do some record shopping at the Wuxtry. Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” was blasting on 96 Rock. I had the windows down and the volume all the way up. I stopped at the red light at Church Street. The car to the right of me and the car in the turn lane to the left of me were both playing 96 Rock at full volume. We all looked at each other and screamed, “Check it and see!” – united by technology, generation, and a great chorus.

I can’t imagine anything like that happening today, with everyone locked in their algorithmic streams.

Nostalgia is a dirty drug. There are countless memes that will tell you that music, cars, TV shows, and culture were better “back then.” It’s a lie. There was crappy music that you conveniently forget, death trap cars that were unsafe at any speed, stupid TV shows, and a culture that rewarded the bullies and marginalized everyone else. Donald Trump’s “great” America was 1950 (as he told CNN in 2015), the peak of Jim Crow, before civil rights movements for women, gay and trans people, and Americans with disabilities. And the top song was “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” by Red Foley. No thanks.

The truth is the past was great and super shitty. Just like now.

I love it when Boomers yearn for the days when you could ride in the back of a pick up or ride your bike without a helmet. That’s because they are alive to yearn. A bunch of kids got bounced out of the bed of the pick up and are not yearning because they are in yearn-free graves.

So what is it about music that locks us into these powerful memories of yesteryear? Incredible research with Alzheimer’s Disease patients has demonstrated that music can activate incredibly specific memories in people who can’t even remember their spouses and family members, because music exists in a part of the brain the progressive disease can’t reach. I’m guessing 90-year old me, in 2054, might not remember you, but play “Hot Blooded” and I’ll tell you all about that day on North Decatur Road in the summer of 1980 with great clarity.

The reason for my curiosity is the mindfulness practice of being present. Buddhism warns of being lost in the past (and worrying about the future). We spend scant time being in the present. Being present allows us to see our internal state and manage our emotions. Like Ringo said, sometimes you gotta stop and take time to smell the roses. As I’ve written about in this blog, there is great value in stopping.

So, to all the people of my generation, think about how we would listen to music. I have such clear memories of going over to Doug Warringer’s house to listen to a Kiss album or going over to Ed Overstreet’s house to listen to a Clash album. And we would JUST listen. We were present in the moment of listening to the songs. There was no, “This track reminds me of when,” or “This track makes me think about what I need to do.” There was just that moment. Then, when the album was over, we would do something else. But listening was the activity.

Our songs take us to those moments when we were fully present. It’s a weird nostalgia trick about memories of the present. I write this on Memorial Day, thinking about veterans whose brains are often frozen in those traumatic battlefield experiences. I know the songs that were blasting as we raced through the Ukrainian war zone last year are still in my ears. There is a direct link that connects what was playing during our first dance and our first war, present moments sealed in amber for all time. When I was 16, I didn’t have much of a past to ruminate over and my future was wide open so it was easy to absorb the moment. All these years later, being present is handicapped by memories of what was and what could have been and concerns about the future for me and my child. 

Here’s where music can help.

I’ve been kicked off of numerous “Classic Rock” Facebook pages for arguing with old timers who all think music today sucks. I remind them of what their parents had to say about AC/DC and they sound just like old people. “These kids today!” They point of youth music is that is separates young people from their parent’s generation. Then they’ll go on and on about autotuning and profanity and the “that’s not music” about the Cardi B’s of the world in rants that seem more racist than music purist. And I’ll say, there are countless new rock bands putting albums out and if you love 70s pop, have you tried Harry Styles? And bam, I’m banned again by classic rock old farts who are prisoners of their nostalgia, forever blocked out of being present with a great song.

I have the best moments with my daughter and her friends driving around with the Top 40 station (Z100 in Portland) turned all the way up, listening them sing along. I know the hits of 2023 will resonate with them the way the wonderful/horrible songs of 1973 do for me.

So here’s the assignment. If you were born in the twentieth century, I want you to go straight to the pop charts. Find a hit that speaks to you. My third grade daughter’s favorite song of the moment is “Flowers,” by Miley Cyrus (currently #3 on the charts). Listen to that song while doing nothing but listening to that song. How does that tune make you feel? Try not to get nostalgic or concerned about what’s to come. Just be in the moment. Then put it on a playlist. Make it your song for late spring 2023. Every time you hear it take a deep breath and think, I am here now.

There’s so much amazing music happening right now and so many opportunities to just stop and take in the moment. Be here now.

Curiosity Saved the Cat, or How I Stopped Fighting and Started Asking Questions

May 21, 2023

I spent most of my life in a narcissistic head cloud. I put it off to being a Pisces, but the fact of the matter is that I was habitually more interested in myself than other people. After all, both Mr. Rogers and my mother had told me, “You are special.” When my first wife was on her way out the door, I remember her saying, “You suck all the air out of a room, Randy.” I thought that was meant as a compliment. I would think that. Turns out Mr. Rogers (and Mom) were wrong. I wasn’t special. I was an asshole.

This “COVID-era” life change I’ve been going through has forced me to stop. Stop my awesome rocket ride through “Randyland.” I’d had plenty of clues along the way. As an ethnographer, my job was to skillfully interview subjects without them knowing it. I’d come out of the field after months of hanging out with white supremacists realizing I was missing data because I’d spent more time talking than listening. I realized my biggest grammar mistake was forgetting to end queries with question marks. One student’s review of a sociology class at Portland State was one sentence long: “Nobody loves Randy Blazak more than Randy Blazak.”

This lack of curiosity became an issue between Andi and I. She didn’t need another story. She need someone who was interested in her thoughts and observations. Someone who talked with her not at her. I needed to figure this curiosity thing out.

Even though it might be too late for Andi, I finally cracked this curious nut. I’ve mentioned in this blog how lucky I’ve been to find a somatic therapist who could help be corral my unwieldy lizard brain and help find methods to get my parasympathetic nervous system to help my behavior be in line with my “I’m a feminist!” values. She recently suggested a book by Buddhist Oren Jay Sofer called Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication and it’s been a game changer. I’ve really relied a lot on mindfulness practices to get away from to my bad habits. Ruth King’s Mindful of Race and her emphasis on “Impact not intent” has been vital in deflating some of my patterns of harm. These books are sacred.

I’m currently working on a federally-funded project to interrupt violent extremism so I figured out I could read Sofer’s book for work. Turns it’s more about people like me than the Proud Boys. (Does that sound narcissistic?) While I was focused on the eminent fist fight between Marjorie Taylor Greene and Joe Biden, the conflict here was less domestic terrorism and more just domestic. Our interpersonal conflicts certainly can escalate into some ugly areas, of which, violence is only one stupid scenario, but fighting over someone not doing the kid’s laundry is enough.

The book follows three main strategies to get us out of the combative way we communicate; 1) Being present in the moment, 2) Bringing in curiosity and care, and 3) Focusing on what matters. Sounds simple but there’s a lot of detail in the process. The bottom line is we are really good at reacting and getting pulled into a fight to prove the validity of our position. But more often than not, that just ends in a pointless stalemate. My Facebook page is an endless battle between my blue state Portland friends and my red state Georgia homies and the line of scrimmage hasn’t moved an inch.

A key part of the middle of Say What You Mean is developing empathetic listening skills by practicing curiosity. Let’s be honest – for most of us – when other people are speaking, we’re just listening for a gap to say whatever we were going to say anyway. That’s what we’re listening for, not what that person is saying, but for a chance to hear our own voice. That’s why modern speech is full of  linguistic space holders, like “like,” “um,” “you know,” “well,” “literally,” and my least favorite word on Earth, “actually.” All those linguistic cock blockers serve to keep the stream of sound coming out of our gobs and preventing anyone else from actually getting a word in edgewise. Literally.

I started trying empathetic listening out on my students. I broke my diversity class up into random pairs and gave them five minutes. Student A had to ask Student B, “What’s the most challenging thing about being your primary identity?” (For example, their race or their gender identity.) Then Student A had to SHUT UP AND JUST LISTEN FOR FOUR MINUTES. On the fourth minute Student A was to say, “It sounds like the hardest thing is…. Did I get that right?” At the end of the five minutes they’d switch roles and Student B would ask same question. Afterwards, the students reflected how validating it felt to be actually listened to and how they created a new bond with someone who seemed, at first, very different from them.

Was there something to his power of asking questions? I was soon to put it to the test myself.

My last blog post was about transphobia and the hellnado that was unleashed by Kid Rock going Columbine on a case of Bud Light. Being the king mixer that I am I posted it on the Boycott Bud Light Facebook page. Very quickly I got a DM from some dude named Jamie that read, “Fuck trannies faggit You look like a fucking freak from Portland.” I went into my standard battle mode, trying to convince Jamie that he was in the closet. And the fight was on. Then I stopped and thought, WWOJSD? What would Oren Jay Sofer do?

So I switched gears and started asking Jamie questions. Were transgender people an actual problem in his life? (No.) Did he know any transgender people? (No.) What did he think WAS the biggest problem in America? He went off on a vector about the war on drugs and pharmaceutical companies and I said, “Hey, man, I agree 100%!” All of a sudden we were on the same page and talking about a bunch of stuff we agreed on. Jamie texted, “Sorry for calling you names, that’s pretty immature of me. I shouldn’t be like that. You take care. I’ll be more open minded.” Wow. It was all I could do to not ask Jamie if we could be Facebook friends and maybe go grab a Bud Light. Just being curious changed everything. I talked to him like human being and not a sparing partner and we both benefited from it.

So if this approach worked with transphobe like Jamie could it work with my estranged wife? I started trying the technique out with Andi. “How did that make you feel?” “Can you tell me more about that?” “It sounds like that was really hard. Am I hearing you correctly?” And it wasn’t an act. The more I asked the more I wanted to know. She asked me to stick around so we could continue the conversation. I didn’t tell a single anecdote. Each one of her sentences left me wanting more and we talked for hours.

Curiosity won’t solve all our problems. I still have a lot of work to do to de-program my asshole tendencies. But it’s a start. And what if there’s something bigger at stake here. What if Congressman Jamie Raskin got curious about Lauren Boebert? What if Antifa Annie asked Proud Boy Billy about his childhood? Or what if Road Rage Rob asked Road Rage Roy, “Do you need a hug?” So whether it’s political incivility or fractured marriages there is great value in the advice of Vanilla Ice; stop, collaborate and listen. Let’s get curious. Stop talking and start asking questions. People just want to be heard. And then they’ll listen.

The Lynching of Transgender Americans (or What’s Wrong with Kid Rock’s Brain?)

April 24, 2023

Another day, another story about how much Republicans hate trans people. Opportunistic MAGA bigot Kid Rock aside, how did transgender Americans become the primary target of hate mongers? Did the Ku Klux Klan run out of objects of derision? “It ain’t ‘cool’ to hate black people no more. Let’s go after them non-binary kids!”

We have seen a dramatic spike in hate crimes against transgender people. The numbers of anti-trans attacks jumped 29 percent in 2021 over the numbers in 2020. There has been a corresponding increase in anti-trans murders, with black trans women being the primary target. Fueling this wave of hate is a bizarre obsession from many Republican politicians who delight in finding ways to make the lives of transgender Americans hell, especially if they are kids. According to translegislation.com, 2023 has already seen 499 anti-trans bills in 49 states (thank you, Delaware), and 43 that have passed.

How did transgender people suddenly become the demographic that it was politically expedient to hate?

If I’ve leaned anything in my 30+ years of studying hate groups, hate mongers never miss a passing bandwagon. In the 1920s, the “America First” Ku Klux Klan pivoted from anti-black hate to anti-immigrant hate as immigration patterns shifted to bring waves of Catholics and Jews to our shores. In the 1980’s, the KKK got in on the anti-gay hysteria as the AIDS epidemic gripped the country. A few years ago, hate groups leveled up their anti-Semitism as a means of going after Anthony Fauci and any Jewish doctor who thought it might be a good idea to wear a mask. Now that COVID has subsided, it seems to be transgender folks who are in the crosshairs of those that are perpetually angry about something that doesn’t actually affect them.

Let me put an underline on that point. If you are not transgender, another person being transgender has absolutely no impact on you one way or another. There are probably about 1.6 million trans people in the United States (according to a recent UCLA study). You don’t have to do anything or not do anything. Just let them exist. Just like we do with left-handed people (who right-handed people used to think were evil). Fox News would have you believe there is an army of transgender backstrokers competing on girls swim teams. These are the same people who previously wouldn’t shut up about “black rapists” and “Jewish pedophiles.” There’s not. And if there is one or two trans athletes raising the bar, it doesn’t effect you or Travis Tritt.

So why are rednecks across America pouring Bud Light down the drain and trying to find a “less gay” shitty beer? (Good luck on that one, Cleatus.)

Here’s two explanations.

First is the obvious one. Right-wing politicians, like Florida Nazi-wannabe Ron DeSantis, are using transphobia to gin up their white evangelical base. Let’s not forget the previously mentioned white-evangelical outfit known as the Ku Klux Klan. There’s a grip of white Christians that don’t know that Jesus was a brown-skinned socialist and think the Lord approved on shitting on marginalized people instead of gifting them loaves and fishes. This group is easier to manipulate than a prom full of horny teenagers. All you have to do is mention “sex” and “children” and the pitchfork and torch-carrying villagers are officially triggered. 

Let’s be clear. Kids are more at risk from child molesting preachers than drag queens or anybody in the entire LGBTQ community. The religious right thinks transgender people are “sexualizing” kids. Not anymore than sex crazed cis-gender heterosexual people are. Everywhere I look I see those folks sucking face. I’ve already written about how not-kid friendly TV shows like Family Feud are. Trying to protect my 8-year-old from the nonstop sexuality coming from the non-queer folks is a losing battle. Someone expressing their gender is not “sexuality,” it’s life. And trans kids are dying by not being allowed to do it by an opportunistic political movement that sacrifices them at the alter of MAGA votes.

Second is a cognitive reason and has to do with our less-evolved friends who are firing on their knee jerk lizard brains. Research shows that these limbic brain creatures cannot handle complexity. Everything has to be in a very black or white binary. These are the same folks who feared “mulattos” and “quadroons” a hundred and fifty years ago. You had to fit into a nice racial category so they knew where to put you. Now that over 9 million Americans (including my daughter) are biracial they’ve moved onto to another anal retentive need to put people in a box.

To be fair, the last few decades America has been on a public education project to learn that sex and gender are two completely different concepts. We’ve spent so long conflating biological sex with sociological expressions of gender, you can’t fault folks for having trouble disentangling them. (“Gender reveal parties” are not. Genital reveal but not gender.) But we’re fully past that point now. Anyone who has a brain developed enough to understand the complexity of reality (“One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter”) gets that gender can be extremely fluid and doesn’t exist in a neat either/or binary. So we’re left with troglodytes, like Kid Rock, who flip out when “dude looks like a lady.” Their brains just cannot manage boundary bending. Take the Bud Light banning morons back to 1883 and they would have coming for biracial people with ropes. Have you ever seen Birth of a Nation (1915)? “Those mulattoes are sexualizing our children!!”

The saddest part of this political fad is that there is already a body count. Trans kids who can’t get gender affirming care have an elevated suicided rate. Trans people suffer from all kinds of health problems because of inequities in our health care system (just ask a trans man with ovarian cancer). Physical attacks on trans people has now taken on a sport-like aspect. There was a brutal murder here in suburban Portland in 2001. The killing of a trans woman named Lani Kai became a focal point of my early hate crime work here in Oregon. The good news is her murder would now be classified as a bias crime in Oregon, but the bad news is her murder is still unsolved 22 years later and joins the increasing number of case files that end up with trans women of color (and other queer folks) chilling in the morgue.

There is a historical parallel the maps the current anti-trans hysteria to the hundred and sixteen years of lynching African-Americans after slavery ended in 1865. The thousands of racial lynchings were driven by an irrational fear, that somehow black people were an existential (and sexual) threat to white people. The modern irrational fear, bubbling over in bastions of hate like Texas, Tennessee, and Florida, is that transgender people are a threat to cisgender people. They’re not. They are human beings. The rest is convenient hysteria and it’s fueling the Republican death cult. Where southern Democrats championed the dehumanization of black people a hundred years ago, MAGA Republicans are now dehumanizing transgender people and it has to stop.

Now, I’m all for donating Kid Rock’s brain to science or sending thoughts and prayers into the void that one of Ron DeSantis’s three kids comes out as non-binary, but what I want to do is just beg the MAGA base to chill the fuck out and find a social problem that actually impacts them, like full access to healthcare or full access to lite beer. Whatever. Just leave trans kids alone.

How to Be Less White

April 6, 2023

White supremacy is a real thing. Let me be more specific, white supremacy in 2023 is a very real thing. And it’s not just Klansmen and whoever pays the “Blacks for Trump” guy to stand behind the GOP’s favorite felon at every rally. It’s in all of us who have grown up in a society that brainwashes us to believe “white” is the standard to judge all other races by. If you think Jesus Christ was a white dude, you are a victim of internalized white supremacy. And White Jesus has done more damage than any Klan rally ever could.

I shouldn’t have to convince you of the damage all this white supremacy has done on people of color. From the Mexican-American woman who is considered “fiery” Latina to the black man bleeding in the middle of the street because police assumed he had a gun, and a trillion other examples of micro-aggressions, discrimination, bias crimes, and hate groups dreaming of genocide, I shouldn’t have to convince you. But if you are a white person who thinks racism magically vanished in the 1960s and all this is liberal fantasy, just read any account by a person of color. (I have been reminded that it is not black people’s job to educate white people about reality.) And don’t you dare say, “I was raised to be colorblind,” because you weren’t.

This isn’t about how white supremacy hurts BIPOC folks. It’s about how white supremacy hurts white folks.

As a feminist scholar, much of my work centers around how patriarchy hurts men. Yes, we benefit greatly from it, but it also squeezes us into a small box called “masculinity,” where you better not “cry like a girl,” and solving a problem “like men” means beating the shit out of each other. There’s a reason women live, on average, seven years longer than men. Whether it’s young men popping wheelies in crotch rockets on the interstate or older men not going to the doctor to have that lump looked at, men’s internalized sexism presents them infinite stupid ways to die. We are afraid to be vulnerable and it is killing us in droves.

Similarly, white supremacy puts us white people in a bland box. The monster of American assimilation screams at non-WASPs to do their damndest to look, think, act, pray, and eat as WASPy as possible. But his “melting pot” con also burns people of European origin. It tells them to give up their ethnic identity and morph into this imaginary, but powerful, thing called “white people.” How many times have you heard a white person describe themselves as an ethnic “mutt”? Whites gain entry into an elite county club but the price is their beautiful culture.

The category of white people is a relatively recent invention. There were no white people before the late 17th century. There were European people but there were no white people because there are no people who are the color white. (Ghosts not withstanding.) White people were invented to distinguish themselves from “black” Africans (who are also not the color black) to rationalize the dehumanization of Africans for the purpose of chattel slavery. The invention assured that even the most impoverished white person would perpetually hold power over the masses of earthlings now defined as “non-white.”

So how can we help “white” people escape the yoke of slave master?

There are three parts to this strategy. The first two must be undertaken before the third can even be considered as an option. The first is the need to acknowledge the expansive privilege that goes along with being considered white. Not only are you white folks more likely to get the job and less likely to be profiled by the police, you’re more likely to not have to think about the issue of race. Ever. This extends to the shade bias of colorism. Barack Obama has had it a lot easier than Jesse Jackson. My bi-racial daughter presents as “white,” and will escape much of the hell her Mexican cousins would endure in the same settings.

Second is the importance of taking an active anti-racist life position. Don’t tell me, “I’m not a racist.” That’s crap. Internalized white supremacy makes us all racist to a degree. I am a life-long anti-racist educator. I would never say I’m not racist. The question is, what are you doing to fight the evil of racism? And if you are “white,” what are you doing to dismantle your privilege? If you are a liberal white person and you think listening to Beyoncé and putting a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard is enough, you are part of the problem. Roll up your damn sleeves and get to work, even if is just unpacking your own internalized white supremacy.

OK, here’s the payoff that will make your white lives matter. Stop thinking of yourself as a white person and reclaim your ethnicity!

Even if you are “mutt,” you have an ethnic identity somewhere in your family line. And ethnicity, unlike race, is culture and food and music and history and celebration. My last name, Blazak, is an Americanized Slavic name. My great grandfather came to America in 1891 from Prague (at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and the assimilation started. My mother’s family were English immigrants in the 1770s. According to genetic test 23 and Me, I’m a quarter Czech and a whole bunch of other stuff (including 1% middle eastern!). So I chose Slavic as my primary cultural identity.

Rediscovering my Slavic roots has been liberating, from diving into the rich history of Czechoslovakian literature to helping my daughter make Polish pierogis each Christmas, there is so much to uncover. The de-assimilation includes learning about my family’s buried Catholic history and the heroism of my Slavic cousins in tearing down the Iron Curtain. I first travelled to Prague in 1991 and immediately felt a part of the land of the Velvet Revolution. My connection to that people was a major factor in my decision to head to Ukraine last spring to help people who physically looked like many family members. I learned, while I was there, that there is a small Polish town on the Ukraine border called Błażek, the likely starting place of my great grandfather’s clan. I don’t have to suffer from ethnic envy. I have an ethnicity and it’s wonderful. (Now if I could just perfect the polka.)

White people get a small version of this every St. Patrick’s Day, when they struggle to identify some lone Irish chromosome in their DNA. “My great grandmother’s wet nurse was from Killarney! Give me a beer!” On March 17th each year, white people briefly discover they are “ethnic.” What if we did that everyday?

There’s a good chance that if you are in the white people club, you have more than one ethic history in your family tree. That’s even better. Spend some time shopping from the menu and pick the one that most speaks to you. (Helpful hint: Pick the one with the best food and the fewest slave traders.) “White pride” is racist A.F., but “French pride” is cool as shit! Start finding restaurants, festivals and events that cater to your new ethnicity. You will see me every August at Portland’s Polish Festival drinking pilsners with my fellow Slavs, gorging on plates of latkes.

So stop being white. You have so much to gain by being your chosen ethnicity. And if you are adopted, even better! Just choose a random ethnicity out of a hat! (I might suggest Czech as a good option.) Stop with the self-defeating “mutt” business that forgoes your rich ethnic history for the power mad invention of whiteness.

Racists often ask me, “Why do you hate white people?” Obviously, I don’t. I hate whiteness and what that social construction has levied on the world. Europeans and European-Americans have done many amazing things. The invention of the bidet, for example. White people, as a category, have propped up centuries of violent oppression. That’s not a club I want to be a part of.

So help me destroy it.

Calm the F Down: Mindfulness as a Survival Strategy

March 20, 2023

When I was a young punk, I had this dumb mantra, “Impulse to action!” I believed that any thought that came into my head should be acted on. It seemed “mod” and “vibrant” and “rebellious.” In reality, it was the reflection of how unformed my young brain was. How my prefrontal cortex was not yet able to reign in my limbic system. I was all unchecked impulse and unmoderated action.

What I did that look like when I was 16? Talking my dad’s Monte Carlo and, channelling the Dukes of Hazzard, doing donuts in the fields of rural Georgia and then telling him it got hit in a parking lot (again). By 20, it was less bad behavior and more the belief that I could say whatever thought came into my head without first saying, “Should I say this?” Brain scientists believe the pre-frontal cortex is finally fully developed around age 25, but by that point my “impulse to action” synapses were well worn grooves in my head. My cake was baked.

We live in a culture that over-values the individual (“Me!!!”) and celebrates impulse to action behavior. Carpe diem gets rewritten as permission for road rage and buying stupid crap on credit cards. We can escalate from zero to a hundred in a heartbeat. My own centering of my impulses was a severe case of my white male entitlement. “I’m entitled to everything I want!” When women, BIPOC and queer folks are impulsive, they’re often raked over the coals for being “overly emotional” or “uncivilized.” We all need to calm the fuck down.

So much of this impulsive behavior is linked to our experience of trauma. I know my sexual abuse at age four is wired right into my limbic brain, what we lovingly refer to as our “lizard brain.” Like lizards, our limbic brain works on the fight/flight/freeze option to keep us safe. Lizards don’t ponder their options when an eagle is overhead. They skedaddle. Those of us with trauma histories are often locked into the fight/flight/freeze mode. Much of my life has been some version of looking for a fight, from battles with my little brother to running off to a Ukrainian war zone. I am the master of the knee-jerk reaction and it’s a 4-year-old boy who is doing the kicking.

One of the most important books I’ve ever read on this topic is My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (2017) by Resmaa Menakem. Menakem points out that white bodies carry the historical trauma of the centuries of brutality of medieval Europe and when white people had the opportunity to unleash their unresolved trauma on black bodies, in the form of slavery, they went hog wild. The trauma levied on black people didn’t magically disappear in 1865 and is manifest in black bodies today. The need for African-Americans to make sure white people are OK is one manifestation of that trauma, which ads “fawn” to fight/flight/freeze. Additionally, police carry the unresolved trauma of dealing with traumatized people everyday and act out their trauma on the (mostly black) bodies they are charged to protect. Hurt people hurt people.

Manakem suggests a mindfulness approach to all this drama caused by people acting on their lizard brain impulses. In a fast-paced world, what if we all just slowed down and learn how to soothe ourselves? What if cops, before hitting the streets, practiced meditation and thought about their own thoughts? Maybe instead of cop lizard brains seeing black bodies as a threat and squeezing off a few rounds, they’d calmly assess what was actually needed in that situation. Calming the brain can interrupt micro-aggressions and explosive anger. Think of all those times you fucked up and wished your thinking brain had been in charge instead of your “impulse to action” brain.

This has been a huge issue for me. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Cher singing, “If I could turn back time” after I did or said something stupid. I apologize and swear I’ll never do it again. Then I do it again. The lizard brain doesn’t think. It just reacts. That baked cake has been my trauma response for over 50 years and has not made my life any better. Worse, it’s driven away the people I claim to love.

So finding a space between impulse and action is now my mandate. Daily meditation has become a requirement. Exercise and yoga, too. Breathing exercises, also. Anything to slow myself down and give myself the space to think before I act. I knew this past Saturday was going to be particularly challenging given the sad turns this marital separation has taken and I meditated six times throughout the day, which kept me from sending angry texts or stewing in my juices on a rare sunny Saturday in Portland. I’m having an ongoing conversation with the 4-year-old me. He can’t drive the car anymore, but he’ll be protected and safe.

There’s a quote attributed to David Bowie that says, “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” If I could speak to that younger version of myself, I’d tell him to ditch that “impulse to action” bullshit as soon as possible. Slow your role and calm your soul. Give yourself permission to first see your thoughts and then, the ones that don’t actually serve you, let them go like big red balloons.

And to all the people that are screaming at each other, shooting each other, storming capitols, and hurting each other, please learn soothe yourselves. The lizard brain trauma response that tells you to pop a cap in his ass or street race down Broadway is the same impulse that tells you to text someone that they are a piece of shit or blow off someone’s sincere need to communicate. We can all be better at managing our tendency to cause harm. We have a buffer between our impulsive lizard brain and the mistakes we will later regret. That buffer is our ability to calm ourselves before we choose to act.

F. U. Suicide (and the value of atheism)

March 11, 2023

My discipline, sociology, really begins with an interest in suicide. French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s (1858 – 1917) pioneering 1897 publication, Le Suicide, looked to find macro-level patterns in the very micro-level act of suicide. He conducted what many believed was the first sociological research project to find some evidence of his theory. Looking at the suicide statistics from numerous countries, he formulated the concept of anomie, a sense of normlessness. Durkheim used anomie to explain why Protestants had higher suicide rates than Catholics and I’ve used it a great deal in this blog to explain white supremacy and the rise of Trump.

Durkheim identified four types of suicide that were present in his late nineteenth century world; Anomic suicide – When the moral chaos of a society undermines our social integration. This often is the the case when there is rapid social change. Altruistic suicide – When the individual is overwhelmed by their duty to the group. Think of a soldier throwing their body onto a hand grenade to save others. Egoistic suicide – When the individual is not fully integrated into their social group. This is death by isolation. And fatalistic suicide – the opposite of anomic suicide, when an individual is overly regulated by their group. Think of an inmate hanging themselves because prison life is too structured.

All those types still make sense in the COVID era. We’ve seen an increase in suicide rates in the 2020s.  There was an 8% jump in suicide by males 15-24 from 2020 to 2021. Much of that could be anomic suicide do to the insanity and confusion (and downward mobility) of life in a pandemic. 2020 counted 45,979 suicides and 2021 the number was 47,646 suicide deaths. People are hurting. Young people, veteran people, mom people, BIPOC people, cop people, old people. Pretty much everyone.

But Durkheim’s typology may have left out a growing category, what I will call the F.U. suicide. Literature is littered with Romeos and Juliets whose suicides may be the last act of heartbroken lovers but they are also intended to be a big middle finger to the Montagues and Capulets of the world. A recent study in India found that suicides by jilted young lovers rocketed up 11% in 2021. The angry suicide is a monster and is best seen in mass shooters who want to take their hurt out on as many people as possible. Mass shootings are almost always acts of suicide, with multiple casualties. 

I’ve written much about my struggles with suicide here (typically using it as an opportunity to flog my novel on the subject, The Mission of the Sacred Heart). The first moment was about age 15 when I stood on the edge of a lake in Stone Mountain, Georgia, thinking that hurling myself into the water would be an escape from the chaos of my family. (The lake was really a large pond that probably was only about 3 feet deep.) Then there was me at 23 standing on Pont Neuf in Paris, planning on throwing myself into the Seine after a hard break up with my Danish girlfriend. That wasn’t the last time I would contemplate the big leap.

On reflection, each of those moments was not about anomie or fatalism. It was conceived as an act to hurt someone. “Look what you did to me! Now live with it!” One would hope that those hurt by that kind of action would just think, “God, what a dumbass.” But I’m sure there are those who would cary the pain of that loss with them. I have no doubt Courtney Love is still a wreck from Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994.

But there is a glitch in the F.U. suicide. The idea is that after you’ve blown your brains out, Dead You will be able to see the people you wanted hurt and have the last laugh. “Look at them crying. They should have appreciated me when I was alive!” Like there is some viewing room in Limbo, the same one where you get to see who shows up at your funeral. What if death is, in fact, the end? Lights out. Non-existence.

When I was teaching in grad school I had a community college student ask, “Mr. Randy, don’t you believe in life after death?” As an agnostic, I said, “I don’t know and neither to you.” But another student asked the class, “What do you remember from before you were born?” Silence. “That’s what it’s like when you’re dead,” she said. Boom.

It seems like atheism is a great buffer to suicide. This is it. This life on earth is your one shot at existence. You don’t get to watch life after you from Valhalla or wherever. You won’t have the last laugh because you won’t be. So say F.U. here on earth by living an amazing life in spite of the people who broke your heart.

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

I Was Jimmy Carter’s Most Annoying Student

February 19, 2023

As a Georgia boy, it was a big deal when the peanut farmer from Plains was elected as President of the United States in 1976. I was 12-years-old and remember my mother showing off her drivers license that was signed by “Governor Jimmy Carter.” His election was a rejection of all the Watergate era corruption that had tanked America’s faith in government. It was meant to be a return to normal, with an ethical Southerner who had admitted to Playboy Magazine that he had lusted in his heart. Seemed better than Gerald Ford falling down the stairs again.

I could write pages on how history will kindly remember the 1977-1981 term that Carter had in the White House. Having a human rights advocate who loved Willie Nelson and the Allman Brothers stood in stark contrast to what was to come. Sadly, much of my high school experience was to be marked by the Iranian hostage crisis. One of the 52 Americans held in Teheran was Col. Charles Scott, of Stone Mountain, Georgia and his daughters went to my school. When they were finally released on January 20, 1981, we covered our town in yellow ribbons. 

Fast forward to my 1984-1985 senior year at Emory University, in Atlanta. I had become a sociology major and dedicated a large percentage of my waking hours to protesting whatever Ronald Reagan was doing that week. By my senior year, I had pretty much taken every sociology class Emory offered and added Political Science as a second major. I needed the scholarship to inform my activism. I would wear my Sandinista t-shirt to Professor Juan del Aguila’s Latin American Politics class and spar with him over the CIA’s role in the 1954 overthrow of Guatemala’s democracy for the benefit of the United Fruit Company. Good times.

My favorite classes were Professor Thomas Remington’s Soviet politics class. This was at the peak of the cold war when the U.S. and USSR were positioned, like two tribes, to wipe each other off the face of the map. On the first Wednesday of each month, at noon, the air raid sirens on campus would wail to remind us that Emory’s CDC (and all of us college kids) were the likely target of a nuclear strike. Remington’s classes seemed vital to understanding the Russian bear.

So it was great excitement that Professor Remington told us that President Carter would be doing a series of guest lectures in our Soviet Foreign Policy class. Carter had accepted a professorship in 1982, during my freshman year, and we would occasionally catch sitings of him on campus, but to sit in a classroom listening to a former U.S. president, instead of reading about him, was a privilege beyond belief.

It might not surprise you that I was the kid in the front row with his hand constantly darting up in the air. While Carter had an unrestricted forum at Emory, I was suddenly a 20-year-old with unrestricted access to the President of the United States. I took scrupulous notes and channelled my inner Arnold Horshack to pepper him with endless questions. Like this classic; “President Carter, why did you authorize Presidential Directive 59, authorizing the use of nuclear weapons if the Soviets advanced past Afghanistan?”

At times it seemed like it was just Jimmy and I in the room. He kindly addressed each of my questions with clarity and as much declassified intel as he could share with an overly earnest college kid. I imagined that the eyes of my fellow students were rolling as I continued the one-on-one but I was eternally grateful to Dr. Remington for creating this space that revealed the real world complexity of governing that was dramatically different from my Marxist-wannabe dogmatism.

The pay off was on a spring day in 1985 when I was sitting on the steps of Cox Hall with my gang of misfit Emoroids. We’d have our lunch there to talk about upcoming punk shows and make fun of frat boys. Suddenly, President Carter came out of Cox Hall with a small group, and stopped to say, “Hi Randy! How are your classes going?” As he walked away, my friends were just silent.

The following year Carter hosted a summit with Gerald Ford at Emory on foreign policy. I attended every session (and remember Ford falling asleep at the dais). After that, Carter opened his Carter Presidential Library across the street from my apartment in Little 5 Points. President Reagan came to speak at the opening and Carter (much to Reagan’s chagrin) allowed the event to be open to the public so we arrived to shout rude things at Ronnie. While I was in graduate school at Emory, I would have my Social Problems class work on pressing issues with the Carter Center, submitting my students work to the newly empowered Clinton Administration. Living across the street from his library I would occasionally see Jimmy walking the grounds and picking up trash (can you imagine Donald Trump doing that?) and thank him for those lectures in our Soviet politics classes. “I hope I wasn’t too obnoxious,” I said to him one fall day. “Not at all, Randy. You always asked the questions I wanted to talk about,” he said.

The four-year presidency of James Earl Carter was a tiny fraction of the nearly century long life of this man. Everyone that met him following his tenure in the Oval Office tells a similar version to this little story. A journey of a man guided by intention, service, and humility. It seems like the polar opposite of our current generation of political “leaders.” I was glad to know him and we were lucky to have him.

A Final Valentine

February 14, 2023

There was a beautiful mountain 

I saw it there in the far distance, so small

I wanted to put in my pocket

Add it to my collection

Rocks and minerals to give me strength

And I love you

And I love you like my daughter

And I love you like my mother

And I love you like all the women on my bedroom wall

There was a beautiful mountain

Bigger this time, as I neared its soft slope

I wanted to climb it

See what I could see from the peak

To be closer to the god that must be there

And I love you

And I love you like my daughter

And I love you like my mother

And I love you like all the songs that snuck into my brain

There was a beautiful mountain 

That suddenly seemed so massive, the earth pushing it upward

It was now much bigger than me

Its pathway disappearing into rocky cliffs

I fought to push it back into the earth’s mantle 

And I love you

And I love you like my daughter

And I love you like my mother

And I love you like all those who broke my heart

There was a beautiful mountain 

Who never needed a man, so frail

Who only ever needed the wind and the rain

And the pollen that spread wildflowers across its face

So I returned to the valley below

And I love you

And I love you like my daughter

And I love you like my mother

And I love you like a memory of being loved (by a mountain)

Being Blasé About Gun Violence (and a possible solution)

February 4, 2023

On Groundhog Day, 2023 there were 68 reported gun assaults in America with 30 people killed and another 33 injured. The recent mass shootings in California were quickly replaced in the news cycle by mass shootings in North Carolina, Texas, and Florida. And, hey! Is that a Chinese spy balloon? Are they watching us kill each other, too?

Another day, another two mass shootings. According to the data kept by the Gun Violence Archive (gunviolencearchive.org) there are an average of 1.87 school shootings a day in America. Add that to workplace shootings, gang violence, and domestic terrorists shooting up power stations and it’s just hard to keep up. These shootings have become so common, only the most extreme cases rise to the tired rank of “Breaking News.” And when they do, we are more than likely to see it as another passing headline, unless it occurs in our community. Have we become immune to the carnage? Are we no longer shocked by the body counts? Is this just normal life now?

Pioneering sociologist George Simmel, in 1903, defined the “blasé attitude,” a state of absolute boredom and lack of concern caused by life in the metropolis. For Simmel, this was a defense mechanism, an adaptation of our nervous system to the intense stimulation we experience from the explosion of stimuli in modern society, But in 2023, that defense mechanism may be helping to facilitate the death toll from gun violence. What’s the point of trying to prevent today’s mass shooting when there will be two more tomorrow? In reality, our growing immunity to gun violence all but ensures the trend will continue and spread like a contagion. We certainly have seen this dynamic in other epidemics, including AIDS and COVID.

But when people begin to act together those seemingly unstoppable pandemics begin to slow their rate of infection. They didn’t disappear but death rates dropped. In 1995, the peak year of the HIV pandemic, 45,213 Americans died of AIDS. By 2000, that number fell below 20,000 (16,072 deaths) and has declined every year since (7,053 in 2019). Part of what led to the change in our collective response was seeing the victims as disease as “us” and not “them.” When people began to see friends, neighbors, workmates, and family members contracting coronavirus, for example, the masks went on. It was no longer an abstract news story happening somewhere else. Action was required.

The contagion of mass violence has a similar trajectory. You don’t have to tell the parents of Uvalde or the African-America community in Buffalo or Asian-Americans in Monterey Park that action is required. However, to the rest of us, the urgency of another mass casualty event blends into the background noise with all the other pressing issues, and takes a backseat to our own economic, family, and social struggles. Added to this mental malaise is the hyper-vigilance we also experience as fear of our own potential victimization becomes part of that background static. “I’m not really paying attention to the upward trends but I know that I (or the the people I love) could fall victim to the random nature of gun violence.” Paralysis sets in.

So what’s the solution?

We make it personal. The high school students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School organized the March for Our Lives movement after a gunman killed 17 of their classmates in 2018. They realized the school shootings weren’t just news stories, they were a part of a constellation of gun violence in America, not an isolated incident, requiring thoughts and prayers. They organized to highlight the vulnerability of all Americans to this disease of violence. 

We need to shift to a state of radical empathy. The hedge against the blasé attitude is to see all gun violence victims, including those killed and injured in today’s 1.87 mass shootings, as members of our community. They are all our family members and action is required.

Washington State Considers a Commission on Domestic Terrorism

Testimony in Support of HB 1333

Randall Blazak, Ph.D.

January 24, 2023

Thank you for the opportunity to address this body regarding the great value in the formation of this commission on domestic terrorism.

My name is Dr. Randall Blazak. I am a sociology professor and I serve as the chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes and the vice chair of the Oregon Department of Justice Steering Committee on Bias Crimes and Incidents. I grew up in a Georgia Klan town and earned my PhD from Emory University in Atlanta after completing a study of right-wing extremism that included several years spent undercover in the white supremacist movement. I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1995 because this area, not the deep south, was the growing hotbed of domestic violent extremism.

The Pacific Northwest has a long history of cultivating fringe political movements, especially those in the racist right. The 1980s, saw a wave of terror from a neo-Nazi group called The Order, that fueled their call for a race war in America with a campaign of armed robbery and murder, which ended with a FBI shootout on Whidbey Island in 1984 that made the group’s leader, Robert Matthews, a martyr for many domestic terrorists to come.

More recently, we’ve seen patriot militia groups repopulate the region. Inspired by Timothy McVeigh’s deadly attack on Oklahoma City in 1995, they have rebranded their call for a race war as the Boogaloo. Militia groups like the Oath Keepers and the 3 Percenters were heavily present at the January 6th Capitol insurrection in 2021. Just yesterday three Oath Keepers and one compatriot were convicted of seditious conspiracy because of their role in the January 6th attack.

Beginning in the early 1980s, these groups began formulating a vision they labeled the Northwest Imperative. Since the white supremacist dream of making America “white again,” seemed increasingly unlikely in the face of demographic trends, racists felt they still had a shot at carving out a racial homeland in the Pacific Northwest. They began encouraging fellow racist patriots to move to Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, with the fantasy of driving out racial and religious minorities, LGBTQ people, liberals, and anyone they deemed to be a “race traitor.” This plan included sending members into the military, police, and local government to facilitate the revolution from within.

In 2004 I was interviewing the leader of Volksfront, one of the largest neo-Nazi skinhead groups in the world and I asked him how this racist fantasy was, in anyway, possible in the United States of America. He answered with one word and it still chills me to this day; Yugoslavia. In 2002 Yugoslavia ceased to exist as a nation. Because of racist hatred and fascist political movements, it had been balkanized into several more ethnically homogenous countries. That is the racist right’s dream of the Pacific Northwest in the near future.

The anti-government underground that waged a low grade terror campaign in the 1990s has exploded in the last six years. All the sociological factors have lined up in their favor. Massive demographic shifts that have undermined the long held authority of straight white men, the de-industrialization of the American work force that has replaced the job at the auto factory with a gig driving for Uber and evaporated the American dream, a technological explosion that has injected the most toxic conspiracy theories into everyone’s news feeds, and last, but hardly least, charismatic political leaders that fuel the anger for their own personal gain. This is not your father’s terrorist movement. There is now a massive inflow of everyday Americans who are being sucked into the rabbit hole of extremism and the calls for political violence from formerly mainstream Americans are getting louder by the day. They will use accelerationist tactics, like attacks on infrastructure, including the power grid, to create the chaos they hope to capitalize on.

The good news is we know not only how to break up domestic terrorist plots, but how to prevent people from falling into that rabbit hole in the first place. In the nearly 35 years I have been doing this work, I’ve found that the most effective agents in preventing right-wing extremist violence are former right-wing extremists themselves. Groups like Parallel Networks and Life After Hate have worked tirelessly to prevent Oklahoma City inspired attacks. The collection of real-time data by academics and civil rights groups, like the ADL,  helps us to monitor trends and target hotspots for intervention. And federally funded projects like mine, Cure-PDX, develop tools for community members to become credible messengers to extremists and serve to de-escalate political violence, utilizing a public health approach.

The formation of this state commission on domestic terrorism could serve to pull all these resources together. To the growing chorus of anti-government extremists, the Boogaloo is not just a racist fantasy to re-create Washington, the Pacific Northwest, and the nation. It is a well armed movement, with members in law enforcement and the military, with a very strategic plan to ethnically cleanse this land. This commission is vital to not only preserve the inclusive culture of Washington, but to keep its population safe from traumatizing terror.

Thank you.