Panic in Auschwitz: Putting the Present Moment in Context

“The present moment began with fire. And still, it burns.” – Ben Okri, Nigerian poet

April 2, 2022

Once again, I find myself in a white van, crossing the, now snow-covered, fields of southern Poland. My very first record, Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” is playing on the radio. The lyrics hit at an odd angle, “I just might turn to smoke.” Because we are headed to Auschwitz. Seeing the upside down world of April Fools Day, I try to make a joke with my fellow passengers, but my wartime dark humor is not received well. I was scolded earlier in the week for posting that the guy who was snoring in the bomb shelter we were sharing in Lviv, Ukraine made me pray for a bomb. I get it. But humor is also a way to cope with the endless trauma of this world. The DJ, sharing my skewed take on the day, next spins Ella Fitzgerald singing, “Let it Snow,” a Christmas classic in April.

Maybe the awkwardness was to prepare my brain for what was to come. How does one plan a day-trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camps? How do you transition from this moment to that one? I’ve been a student of the Holocaust for as long as I can remember and lectured about the camps for 30 years. In my recent Research Methods class at the University of Oregon, I presented gut wrenching evidence of how Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele perverted the values of science in a sadistic attempt to demonstrate Aryan superiority. My life’s work revolves around studying neo-Nazis who both pretend to believe the Holocaust never happened and fantasize about perpetuating similar acts of genocide. The previous day, I had wandered around Krakow’s old Jewish district that had been emptied of Jews by the Nazis, except for the lucky few who were rescued by Oskar Schindler. It was important for me to do this.

The van carried a varied lot, an English couple from Birmingham, a Norwegian couple, a young German woman who must have been filled with dread and her English friend who puked, on and off, during the hour drive from Krakow because she had had too many shots of vodka the night before. Our driver, who went by Mike, was wise enough to ease us into the arrival into hell. He took us to his “secret location,” which was an abandoned box car on a track between the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps that had been used to carry the doomed to their final destination. There, in the snow, I began to slip through time.

Auschwitz is where it is because Oświęcim, Poland was a railroad hub, and industrial town that could manage the importation of countless slave laborers and then the millions who were to be exterminated. It still feels like such a town, ringed with McDonalds and KFCs when you arrive. For better or worst, the area around the camps has been preserved in amber. When we arrived at the Auschwitz tour center, with the crematorium chimneys visible behind it, snow fell gently down, smelling cleaner than the ash that fell 80 years earlier. In the gift shop, I bought a copy of Ellie Wiesel’s Night and watched the other tourists. Some stared somberly, some teenagers laughed, as teenagers do, and a group of Israeli students, draped in their flag, did both. I held my breath.

My group got their headsets so we could better hear our tour guide, a Polish woman in her late sixties who had lost two uncles in the camp. We stepped back into the snow and walked under the “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) gate as she began to describe the buildings. For the first time, I had a 360 degree view of this thing. I could see the grey clouds above and the mud below my boots. This was not a fantasy, a conspiracy, or a scene from a film. This was real.

The tour had just started and I began to hyperventilate. Then I began to sob. I got light-headed and thought I was going to pass out. I had to lean against one of the barracks that had housed 500 prisoners at a time. Nothing like this had happened to me before. I think I was having a panic attack.

It was the realization that this was a real place and that horror had actually happened. Holocaust deniers be damned, the systematic annihilation of millions of men, women, children, and babies was carried out with methodical precision here from 1940 to 1945. I could feel the terror and it was too much to bear. All those books and lectures and movies and documentaries and sitting listening to Holocaust survivors, choking on the pain in my throat. It all happened in this spot and my body convulsed at the realization. The weight of what humanity was capable of in its darkest moment.

I sat down for a bit, half listening to our presenter, half trying to get my bearings. I flashed to a scene in Schindler’s List. The black and white film had one moment of color. A little Jewish girl in a red coat, her body later appears in a pile of corpses. It was 1993 and she reminded my of my then 5-year-old friend in Prague, Suzanka, who was living too close to the genocide in Yugoslavia. I burst out sobbing in the Phipps Plaza movie theater. The memory, as I sat on barrack steps in Auschwitz, caused be to burst out sobbing again.

Gradually, I wiped my eyes and rejoined the tour as we entered the slightly warmer barracks and viewed their displays. Our guide returned to the refrain, “You must remember,” and how the total count of those exterminated may never be known, because the Nazis burned the paperwork along with the bodies. Each display was more devastating than the last; children’s shoes, human hair removed from the gassed to make into fabric, luggage waiting to be claimed. The one that put me back in my panic was the massive collection of crutches, canes, and prosthetic limbs of the “invalids,” deemed too defective to work and put to immediate death. That specter of ablism did not fade with the Third Reich.

I soldiered on for the rest of the tour, through gas chambers, past the gallows, in front of the “wall of death,” where prisoners were shot, and down to the ovens, and finally to the spot where Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss was finally hung on this day (April 2) in 1947. But this was only the first half of the trip. Auschwitz had a sequel, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, ordered built by Heinrich Himmler in 1941 to accelerate the extermination of the Jews. Mike ferried us over to the second, much larger camp, much of which was destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the war in a futile attempt to hide their crimes. Our guide walked us along the train tracks where prisoners were divided between those who would be forced into labor than those who were marched straight to the gas chambers. Babies and small children were thrown into open burning pits. I stood there, as a father, unable to move. Where was goodness? Where was God? Where was the empathy that should have been present among Hitler’s willing executioners?

On the ride home, we were all silent, including puking girl. I thought about what I had seen in Ukraine; the faces of frightened children forced out of their homes by an unprovoked war-monger. I thought about the concerns of my Polish friends, that nuclear weapons would turn them to ash like those who left Auschwitz and Birkenau through the chimneys. I thought about the new rise of authoritarianism in the form of Putin and Trump, that gleefully weaponizes hate and the threat of violence. I thought about the anti-trans laws and voter suppression acts that are slowly eroding democratic freedoms in my “beacon of liberty” home country.

The first chapter of Ellie Wiesel’s Night is a cautionary tale. The Jews who lived in his Hungarian village thought they were far enough from the war nor to worry about the rumors of Nazi anti-Semitism. When they were pushed into a ghetto, many thought it was to protect them from the violence of the Allied invasion, and when they got to the platform at Birkenau, and Wiesel saw his mother and sister forced into the line for the gas chambers, many thought that no such horror would be allowed in the mid-twentieth century. The Holocaust was not a sudden tsunami of death. It was a slowly rising tide that drowned those who never realized they were so far from the shore.

That tide is rising again. I will not sit on my hands and hope things get better. I will use every tool at my disposal. This trip has taught me that I must.

One Night in Lviv (Makes a Hard Man Humble)

March 28, 2022

Yesterday (Sunday, March 27) started out like a fairly normal day here in southeastern Poland and ended in a bomb shelter in Lviv, Ukraine. I started the day, like I had the previous two, working on the safe house in Jaroslaw, Poland. I was planning on a day of manual labor, dressed in camo pants and a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt, digging a garden with some new volunteers from North Carolina. An older Ukrainian woman had told us to dig where the mole hills were because that ground was softer. Then Sally, our fearless leader, came out said, “Randy, if you want to go to Lviv, now is your chance.”

That day’s trip to Lviv, Ukraine had been postponed because the Russians bombed it the day before. But here things change on a dime and the window was open. Sally’s 19-year-old driver, Vitali, hadn’t made the trip yet and she wanted me along as assurance the supplies got to their destination in western Ukraine, most to be sent on to Kyiv. As I’ve written, I have an unhealthy attraction to chaos so without anything other than my work gloves and a light bomber jacket, I hopped in the van with Vitali and we made a b-line for the war zone.

Crossing the border into Ukraine is a bit of a logistical nightmare, with endless roadblocks. More powerful there is the stream of Ukrainian civilians, fleeing on foot, and walked into the EU by Polish soldiers, into a waiting array of social networks to begin their lives as refugees. Once through the final check, Vitali hit the gas and we sped eastward, the smoke from the oil depot the Russians had just bombed rising in the distance. A faster target was harder to hit, he reminded me, Russian hip hop blasting at full volume. Sandbags, anti-tank hedgehogs, Ukrainian national and red and black Ukrainian Insurgent Army flags, and billboards that read, “Слава Україні!” (Glory to Ukraine!) lined the route to Lviv. We were in.

We GPS’ed our asses to the heart of the city, where we were meeting contacts (where, I won’t say). All the supplies we had ferried into the city were quickly distributed, some into waiting cars, some stored to be carried eastward. The suitcase I had bought at a Portland Target, and all the medical supplies inside it, were marked for Kyiv, currently under siege. The plan was to unload everything and get back on the road for Poland before the 10 pm curfew, but the border crossing took longer than planned and, as the sun dipped down, we were stuck. And it was getting Russian winter cold. I was not dressed appropriately.

Our Ukrainian contacts, all in their twenties, invited us to stay in their shelter and have dinner. I was thrilled at the opportunity to break bread with these local heroes who were housing refugees from all over their country. I ate pasta, sausages, and tea cakes from a wedding that had just occurred upstairs. I talked religion, Polish film, and Kevlar vests with sanctuary seekers from Horenka, Irpin, and Donetsk. It was a beehive of energy, mothers with children, men who were prepared to be mobilized into the fight, and plenty coffee, tea, and bonhomie.

As it got late, it was time to turn in. The women (and their children) had one sleeping room and the men (and at least one kid) had another. Vitali, who had been sick, was already sound asleep when I dropped on to my pallet on the floor. The air raid sirens and then the sound of Russian jets had me thinking I might be closer to the chaos than I needed to be, but the strong coffee and a prolific snorer put my mind on other issues, like when would sleep rescue me from this bizarre scene.

This morning, after maybe an hour of dreamtime, I went for a walk around Lviv while Vitali waited for some important documents that had to be delivered by Poland. I was struck by how normal life appeared in a time of war. Workers painted guardrails and mothers pushed baby carriages like it was any other Monday morning. I grabbed a cappuccino from a kava stand and a phone charger at a computer shop. Lviv is a massive city so the odds of a Russian missile hitting the block you were standing on were slim. Not zero, but slim.

Back at the shelter we got word from Sally that there was a Lviv family that had found placement in a home west of Krakow and we were to extract them from the city. Saying goodbye to our hosts, we hopped in the van and found a mother and her three daughters more than ready to get out of the city that had, until that weekend, been safe from attack. Vitali, in Top Gun mode, and me as, sadly, the goofy dad, loaded them in, with the air raid sirens again wailing, and hit the road west out of Lviv. It felt like escaping death, like an Underground Railroad out of hell. On the way, the mother explained the red and black Ukrainian Insurgent Army flags. “It means blood and death,” she said in Ukrainian, “and the Russians hate it. That’s why we fly it.”

We brought the family to Zreszow where another driver waited carry them the rest of the way. They seemed a bit shell-shocked to be so quickly displaced into a new country. I wondered if the three girls would remember their flight out of Lviv (and the cookies we shared) in their later years, or if it would all just be one traumatic blur. It felt good to be back on the safe side of the line but I had to acknowledge the electric thrill of getting that close to the action. I started to see why war veterans dream of returning to the fight.

While this work is “satisfying,” it’s greatly guilt inducing. Guilt in never being able to do enough. Guilt from concern about playing the “white savior” role and “rescuing damsels in distress.” And guilt from getting off on the adrenaline rush of heading into danger. Am I here for the right reasons? I also feel guilty that I probably won’t be here long enough to figure it out. But I know this work is making a tangible difference. And I don’t feel guilty about that.

The First Two Days on the Polish-Ukraine Border, as Bombs Fall on Lviv

March 26, 2022

Note: There is no information in this post about border crossings, NATO troop movement, or Ukrainian military support.

I don’t have much to complain about in life. My child is safe in Portland. I have a cute little hotel room in Rzeszów, Poland. And, as I write this, Russian rockets are slamming into Lviv, Ukraine, just across the border. I’m worn out from the last two days work, fixing up a safe house in Jaroslaw, and ferrying refugees up from the border, but I’m well-fed, wifi-ed, and out of harms way. Unlike so many. Tomorrow, I was to help deliver aid to Kyiv via Lviv. We’re re-thinking that plan.

I arrived Rzeszów Thursday evening to plug into my circle of helpers and went right to work packing up medical supplies (and “gear”) to get across the border. Friday morning we went to the house, ready to work. Our team leader, Sally, who is a human dynamo, got us on the road. There was a film crew from New York documenting her story, so the van ride felt a little like being in a reality TV show. The first stop was a hair salon to pick our Ukrainian contacts, Zenia and his very pregnant wife, Valentina. Then to the “Yellow House” (Żółty Dom) to get to work on the Polish HGTV version of Home Town.

The Yellow House was a wreck. It had been empty of years and smelled like it. So we got to work pulling weeds, hauling trash, storing random office furniture, and removing a ton of broken vodka bottles so the Ukrainian kids could play in the yard. Sally bought $550 worth of gardening and cleaning supplies and we started the transformation. The back-breaking labor was made easier by our amazing hosts. The Ukrainian women, whose husbands are across the border fighting the mighty Russian army, made us snacks, and the owner of the house gave me a bottle of whiskey and called anybody who refused to do shots with us a communist.

As I toiled away, I interacted with the kids, so much like my own daughter, and felt their trauma. They were in an unfamiliar country where they couldn’t read the words or understand the language. They were the new war refugee children. Many would never return home or see their fathers again. The weight was unbearable at times. All I had and all they were losing. But both Ukrainians and Poles kept smiling and remained full of love and hope. When you find yourself in hell, keep going. I bought sunflower seeds so they could turn that hope into a garden in their new home.

By the time we got back to our hotel in Rzeszow, I just passed out. Maybe it was the whiskey. I had time for a video chat with Cozy and wanted to climb through the screen to hug her. My knees shook. Then I drifted off and had a dream about Auschwitz.

This morning, I overslept because I forgot what day it was and set my alarm clock to Friday. After a quick breakfast, it was off the Yellow House to do more work. But after a few minutes of raking, Sally and Zenia let me know there was a family from eastern Ukraine at the border and I should come to help collect them. So we headed in the van down the road towards Lviv, Ukraine. But first we picked up an elderly Ukrainian woman who was staying in a youth hostel that had been converted into a refugee shelter. She missed her home in Lviv, which hadn’t been shelled in two weeks and seemed relatively safe. When we got to the Jaroslaw train station, I walked her to her platform for her train to Lviv, held her hand and wished her luck. I now regret that decision.

We didn’t have to cross the border because the family made it to Korzowa, where there is a massive shopping mall, called Centrum Handlu, that has become a refugee resettlement center. Thousands of lost souls. Some asleep on cots at noon. Others staring into space, wondering what their new reality had in store for them. Our family, one mother and six girls (and one Pekingese) seemed relieved to be going somewhere, anywhere. We loaded them into the van and headed away from the border. One girl, maybe 2, and I made faces and, as is now tradition, I showed her a picture of “moya dochka,” Cozy. Ukrainian children seem very frighted of strange men because of the carnage Russian soldiers have caused, so I try to lessen the trauma if I can.

The family seemed to adjust to their new digs at the Yellow House and I got back to work, aided by four incredible Amish volunteers from Montana. As we worked, word started to come in that Lviv was under attack. My mother, watching CNN back in the States, was texting me info. First a fuel station, then a communication tower, then a school. About 40 miles from where we had been. We headed back to Zreszow to adjust our plans to the news, including for tomorrow.

In time, I will be able to give a full accounting of what happened today. As crazy as it sounds, we got a very real lesson on the presence of Russian spies in our midst. I’m just trying to process the savagery of war on these people and the impact on the children of Ukraine. But I am glad I’m here. We’re about to be joined by a lot of people with no place to go. I can’t imagine I will be the same person after this. I can’t imagine any of us will.

On the Polish Border with Ukraine: Watching the World Change from Up Close

March 25, 2022

We’re speeding down a Poland highway towards the border with Ukraine. The car is driven by a Ukrainian pastor who got his family out of Kyiv to the United States. In the back seat is a 19-year-old American from a Ukrainian family who wanted to join the fight but is now serving as a much-needed driver of supplies into the country. Since Ukrainian men, 16-60, are required to stay and fight the Russians, his US passport allows him easy access back and forth across the border. I’m in the passenger seat, wondering how I went from watching the war on CNN to racing straight towards it.

I’m here in Rzeszow, Poland, close to the border about to get a lot closer. After a few days in Paris and Krakow, it’s time to get my hands dirty on this relief effort. I’m not partnering with any relief agency like Mercy Corp or Medicines San Frontierers. This project is led by a 61-year-old woman from New York with similar experience in other international crises. She jokingly refers to herself as a “bottom feeder,” cutting through the bureaucracy of governments and NGOs to get support to the Ukrainian fighters and relief to the women and children streaming across the border. I just came to help.

The hotel is also hosting a handful of displaced families, including one with a 4-year-old girl named Stephania, who reminds me of Cozy 3 years ago. Her father is fighting the Russians while we live in this common safe space.

There will be plenty to write about this experience, including about “why Ukraine?” Why the need to join the front lines of this conflict and not other, non-European, catastrophes. Right now I am preparing for my first full day on the border, after staying up late to finish scoring final exams and turning in grades for my students back in Portland. Today I will be helping to prepare a safe house for women and children that will include stuffed animals from Cozy’s collection and drawings her second grade class made for kids here. Later this weekend will be the first trip in to deliver medical supplies that will go to Kyiv.

President Biden arrives in Poland today, a safe distance away in Warsaw. I hope he sees the massive human nightmare one man in Moscow has caused. But I also hope he sees the incredible effort and impact a lot of less powerful people have made in responding to Putin’s sociopathy.

Like I said, there will be plenty more to write. But it’s time to get to work.

Psychoanalyzing the Attraction to Chaos, or Why I Want to Go to Ukraine

March 13, 2022

I was born at the right time for punk rock. Fourteen-years-old in 1978, my teenage angst was perfectly positioned to hear the music of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols as a telegraph to my soul. The explosive anarchy was what I needed. I remember desperately wanting to go to the January 5, 1978 Sex Pistols show in Atlanta, but you had to be 18 to get in. Didn’t they know this was “my” music? My introduction to slam dancing gave me a direct route into the chaos. I was slamming at a Lords of the New Church show in London in 1982 and had my arm pulled out of the socket. Another punk, who was also an EMT, grabbed my arm and shoved it back into the socket and we kept moshing. Punk was life.

When Russian troops began their “training” on the eastern Ukrainian border last month, I got the impulse to be there, in the action. It’s not a new impulse. When I was 20, I went to Belfast, Northern Ireland and ended up (purposely) in a riot, where a kid my age was shot in the face by British soldiers. The experience became my senior honor’s thesis at Emory University. At 29, while I was in Eastern Europe working on my dissertation on right-wing extremism, I tried to get to Sarajevo during the siege of the city and couldn’t get past the Yugoslavian border. It was framed as “research,” but there was something the compelled me to be in a place that most people just wanted to escape from. During the summer of 2020, I couldn’t get enough of manning the BLM barricades in Portland, dodging rubber bullets and coming home smelling like tear gas. The chaos and flash bangs were intoxicating.

And now with a European trip less than a week away, I’m debating heading in.

I’m not exactly a wannabe mercenary who is obsessed with war and violence. A lot of the young men I study certainly are. In the timeless words of Michael Jackson, “I’m a lover not a fighter.” Do these conflicts ignite some toxic masculinity inside me? In the 2000’s, I received weapons training from the FBI as part of their Citizen Academy, and now I’m wondering if I remember how to unlock the safety on an MP5 machine gun. Who am I? I mean, it’s entirely possible that you will see me on Instagram two weeks from now, posing with my AK-74 (standard issue with the Ukrainian ground forces).

I discussed this need to dive into the geo-political mosh pit with my therapist. She had a valuable insight that it might be linked to the abuse I experienced as a child. That chaos became a normal state and my desire to fight it became deeply engrained. Putin is the molesting neighbor and I want to go save the children of Ukraine from him. I experienced pain then so I can experience pain now, acting out some masochistic savior complex. Hey, makes as much sense as anything else. I wouldn’t be surprised if the victims of childhood abuse are over-represented in the ranks of the law enforcement and military.

In front of this is my desire to help. I’m watching Russian tanks fire into civilian apartment buildings in Mariupol and I just want to leap through the TV. The kids streaming out of the country look so much like my daughter. I’m slavic and was born in a Cleveland suburb that was heavily Ukrainian (Parma). If I can just go to the border and serve meals with World Central Kitchen, that would be a lot. These people just seem stunned. The fact that Russia is now attacking close to the Polish border means there’s even more help needed with the refugees. I imagined rockets slamming into my neighborhood today and wondered if anyone would come to help us. How can I not go?

I felt so deflated last week I went to donate blood, even though I know that my blood is not going to Ukraine, or Syria, or Congo, or any of the other of Earth’s bloodbaths. But I have the privilege to travel and the freedom of “spring break,” as well as the ability to work remotely. Why not go? Flights from Paris to Warsaw are down to $94 and I have a new credit card. Can I go just help refugee families in Poland and resist the temptation to throw Molotov cocktails at Russian armored vehicles?

The plan now to fly to Paris on Saturday and then catch a flight to Warsaw, where I have one last Zoom class to teach. After grades are turned in, I’ll catch a train down to Przemysl to find opportunities to help with the flow of refugees. Even if it’s just giving hugs to traumatized kids who look like mine, I will feel that I’ve added to the healing in some small way. I’ve been shopping for both combat boots and children’s books to take with me. The only question is whether or not my childhood trauma will pull me across the border.  For the sake of my own child, I will probably stay on the safe side of that line. Or maybe I could do this work from a sunny French café. Stay tuned.

We can all do something. I really want to encourage people to donate to UNICEF’s Ukraine relief. It’s for the kids! https://www.unicefusa.org

In the Toilet Paper Tube of History: Watching the Battle for Ukraine in Real Time

February 27, 2022

We’re all gerbils crawling through an endless toilet paper tube. Most of the time we don’t notice the tube, because we’re focused on our forward motion. But every once in a while, we realize that we’re stuck in a freaking cardboard tube and it’s controlling everything about what we can see and where we can go.

History is that toilet paper tube. I remember how on a Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I realized the events I was watching on my father’s television in Roswell, Georgia would impact every aspect of my world.  There were two realities, pre-9/11 and post-9/11. The tube was tight, preventing me from getting on a flight back to Portland. And it’s touched our reality ever since.

I feel that way again, watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I was focused on the tasks at hand, getting my students through winter quarter, adjusting to life as a single parent, waiting for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to start a new season. And then on Wednesday night all that changed as Putin sent tanks and troops across the border in an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation. I had a similar feeling when I was 15-years-old on New Year’s Eve 1979, watching Soviet tanks roll into Afghanistan. It felt like the whole world shifted on its axis a bit.

Now as Russian troops bomb Kyiv, it seems like the axis shift is massive. Thursday I took time to talk to my University of Oregon students and ask them to be present in this moment. They will likely talk to their grandchildren 50 years from now about the first days of the third world war. Rising gas prices, bread shortages, fear of conscription are surely weighing on their minds. But for these Generation Z students, most born after 9/11, this will all get very real when the Russian cyber hacks shut Instagram down.

Historical parallels aside (Hitler pulled the same stunt in 1939), it’s clear that we have entered a geo-political order where Russia is not our friend. (Sarah Palin must be smirking.) We will divide modern history into before 02/23/2022 and after 02/23/2022. Will this end up in the similar global turmoil that followed Hitler’s invasion of Poland? It seems entirely possible. Vladimir Putin is this generation’s murderous madmen with designs on expanding his empire by any means necessary. Putin’s statement Wednesday that nations that come to Ukraine’s defense will face “consequences you have never seen” is chilling given the fact that Russia holds 45% of the world’s nuclear weapons.

Maybe this will be a limited conflict and, well, sorry freedom-loving Ukrainians. Yeah, it went sideways with Hitler, but Putin is an ethnic nationalist of a different stripe. It will be fine. Let’s get back to the other existential crises, like COVID and global warming. Why should Russian tanks rolling through Chernobyl be an issue in suburban America? It will be OK. Have you seen the price of milk? Let’s riot!

Of course, the good people of Ukraine didn’t think Russian bombs would be falling on their suburban neighborhoods either. A child Cozy’s age was killed today on the westside of Kyiv. Global conflicts have the tendency to spread. Quickly. Watching the children heading for the Polish border makes me wonder where I would send my daughter if the war spreads to this part of the world. Hopefully we can get her to Mexico if things get hot here. The United States is not guaranteed to exist forever. Four years of Trumpism weakened our democracy and greatly inflated Russia. That could create a cascade of crises that puts the USA in the rear view mirror. You may not be safe as you think.

The reason of this concern is rooted what I did in the first 12 hours of the invasion. I spent it on the dark corners of the web in the places where white supremacists, Qanon believers, and Trump nuts dwell. They, to the one, threw their support to Putin, seeing Biden’s policies as part of a liberal Jewish plot to push Putin and Trump’s buttons and cheered Putin’s fascistic ethnic nationalism. They want that wider war to launch their “boogaloo” race war in America. And they are armed. Heavily. Timothy McVeigh is their hero. The ethnic cleansing of Yugoslavia is their game plan. And Putin and Trump are their leaders.

Fortunately, like those Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island who defiantly said, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” the majority of Americans have no tolerance for the anti-American “America First” con artists and their little boy soldiers. Yeah, 4.5 million viewers tune into white supremacist Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show each evening but that means that over 327 million Americans don’t. Hopefully, unlike Ukrainian citizens right now, we won’t all have to take crash courses in how to fire AR-15s. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and thoughtful mobilization. We’ll certainly have the time after Russian hackers take down Instagram. Maybe then we will see the toilet paper tube we are in.

My last hours of 57, when I grew up.

February 19, 2022

When you grow up in the South, age 33 is supposed to be the transformative year. After all, that’s the year that Jesus got his shit together to fulfill the prophecy of getting himself executed. Southern wisdom is that if you’re not married by 33, maybe with a kid but definitely with your economic house in order, you’re are letting Ol’ Jesus down. For me, 17 was the year I got out of the house and figured out I was going become an academic instead of dentist. Thank Jesus. That was a year my sense of self felt like it was really coming together.

This is my last day as a 57-year-old and that brace-faced teenager seems light years away (and so does the 33-year-old). The past 12 months have been more transformative than anything I’ve ever encountered. When I look back at February 2021 me, I barely recognize the guy. Somethings are sadly the same. I’m still lobbying for a job in the Biden Administration and there still isn’t a fully functioning kitchen in this house, but the person in this spot has shed that skin. 2021 me looked like a lost boy, bouncing in the glee of the moment, but taking everything around him for granted.

If there was any year I wish I could have a do-over it would be 57. Previously it was 16 (so I could go to New York and save John Lennon) and then it was 21 (just because it was so incredibly awesome). But 57 was a year of stupid mistakes, like beginner blunders on a chess board. Beside forgetting Andi and my wedding anniversary for the second year in the row, I had fairly spectacular meltdowns in New Orleans and at the final night of Mary’s Club that had her questioning my sanity. In between those, I uncovered my history of child sexual abuse but not before I further sabotaged her trust in me. The new year began with me back on the proverbial cliff, contemplating non-existence. It was a hard year. Hard on my family.

The good news is I got back on the anti-depressants and found a therapist who really helped me get to the root issues, leading to what feels like a complete rebirth from the troubled narcissist I was. My journey in therapy began in 1998 when I was forced to confront some of those issues around depression. It generated a good book on the subject (that I’m proud of and everyone should buy), but it never really got to the starting point of my tendency to shoot myself in the foot over and over again. Thanks to Andi encouraging me to read more on my issues, I picked up a few books on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and then found a somatic therapist who specialized in hypo-therapy. It was time to go deep. This is the year my Saturn is in return, so big change is inevitable.

The time spent in therapy has been revelatory. The first time she put me into a relaxed state where I could actually talk to that 4-year-old boy who had been abused changed my whole way of being. I began to let go of my constant anger (which I visualized as the Incredible Hulk) that I laid on anyone in my radius, including my family and my wife. Developing skills to be mindful of my emotions reminded me that I can center other people and not be dangerously vulnerable. And being safely vulnerable is actually a good thing. (Yeah, I now know all about Brené Brown. She’s a rock star.) I can finally breathe. It’s going to be alright.

Today, our daughter asked if Andi was going to move back home. On the weeks Andi has Cozy, I spend as much time in her apartment as I do in our house, often laying next to her in bed in the early morning minutes before the alarm clock goes off, watching her sleep and thinking about how I used to complain about her snoring. I am in love with that snore. Old Randy might have asked his daughter to play some Jedi mind tricks on Mom, but I just said, “I hope she does, but I don’t really know. It’s up to her but whatever she chooses, we want her to be happy.”

There was a moment in this process where I saw a truth that Andi had long known, that when you truly love someone, you live to serve them, not your ego. I am here to serve her and our daughter, in whatever capacity the universe allows. My journey through the challenge of self-work this year highlighted that our complacency with our selves and our relationships is our biggest threat to our happiness. It’s too easy to be lazy in our culture, scrolling through life. We’re not done. There’s work unfinished. At least there is for me.

I turn 58 tomorrow. That used to seem so old. But I feel like I just grew up.

La Historia de Cómo Encontré mi Corazón (para el Día de San Valentín)

February 13, 2022

Como la Gran Novela Americana, impulsada por la complejidad y el desarrollo de los personajes

Una memoria sin páginas que exige nuestra atención y enfoque.

Me atraiste

Palabra por palabra

Al principio, pensé que era un cuento simple

Me proyecté en la narrativa

Pero no se trataba de mí

Se trataba de cómo podría servir a la historia

Me enamoré de

Sin saber lo que era el amor

Lo leo en mi voz

Y poco a poco borré la tuya

Entonces llegué a una página en blanco

Te habías ido

Y yo estaba solo

Con solo mi voz y la historia que había tratado de escribir

En el vacio

Reinicie desde el primer capitulo

Y vi la verdad

Que ahí, en tu voz, está la desnudez de cada historia

Dejé de existir en la eterna verdad de ti

Desapareciendo en las páginas

Mi amor no era sobre el lector

Fue en estar presente con el autor

No eres un libro

Un volumen en un estante para ser admirado

Una hermosa tapa del libro envuelta alrededor de una historia interesante

Eres el cosmos que lo creó y he tenido el privilegio de tenerlo en mis manos

The Story of How I Found My Heart (For Valentines Day)

Like the Great American Novel, driven by complexity and character development

A page-less memoir demanding our wrapt attention and focus

You drew me in

Word by word

At first, I thought it was a simple tale

I projected myself into the narrative

But it wasn’t about me

It was about how I could serve the story

I fell in love

Without knowing what love was

I read it in my voice

And gradually erased yours

Then I reached a blank page

You were gone

And I was alone

With only my voice and the story I had tried to write

In the emptiness

I restarted from the first chapter

And saw the truth

That there, in your voice, is the bareness of every story

I ceased to exist in the eternal truth of you

Disappearing into the pages

My love was not about the reader

It was in being present with the author

You are not a book

A volume on a shelf to be admired

A beautiful cover wrapped around an interesting tale

You are the cosmos that created it and I have been privileged to hold it in my hands

Represent! Why We Need a Black Woman on the Supreme Court

January 30, 2022

There’s a classic experiment in the 1940s that unmasked the true depth of racism in America. Two psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, gave black children in New York City four baby dolls, two with dark skin and two with light skin. Then the researchers asked the kids to pick the “good” dolls and the “bad” dolls. The black children generally saw the white dolls as good and black dolls as bad. The experiment was later used to convince the Supreme Court to hear the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1951.

The black doll experiment has been repeated numerous times, well into the 21st century, and still results in gut-wrenching displays of the internalized white supremacy in black children. (Just watch a few on YouTube.) The demonstration has an added value as our attention returns to the Supreme Court and the issue of race, and the coming vacancy of Justice Stephen Breyer. President Biden has said he would nominate a black women to the bench. That means something to the little black girls in Harlem that picked the white doll.

Racism takes many forms. We easily associate it with cross-burning Klansmen and “Whites Only” signs from the Jim Crow days. But it can be a slight as a clutched purse when a black man steps on an elevator, or as insidious as predatory lending from banks who prey on black and brown people. We see it in the causal commentary about “Mexican immigrants” and the bloody tally as hate crimes rise.

But it is also present in absence. For every black boy who has never seen a male teacher who looked like him, or for every Asian girl who as never seen an Asian woman in the media portrayed as anything other than “exotic,” representation is a game changer. We white people never notice this because, quite literally, there are people who look like this in every filed we can imagine. A white fish doesn’t know it’s in water until you take it out of the damn water.

That gets coded as “white is normal,” and every other race is the exception. You don’t have to say, “white person.”  You can just say “person,” because their whiteness is assumed (as is their maleness). In the nearly 233 years of the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s pretty much been a nonstop sea of white people. That changed in 1967, when President Johnson swore in Thurgood Marshall, who was on the bench until 1991, when he was succeeded by Clarence Thomas and his Pepsi can. Thomas, hasn’t exactly been a civil rights lion, not even offering an opinion until the 2003 Virginia v. Black cross-burning case.

But race is not gender and blackness is not femaleness. Representation is an intersectional matter. Just like there are no actual afro-Caribbeans in Lin-Manuel’s film, In the Heights, (a musical about an afro-Caribbean neighborhood in New York), there have been no black women on the high court. While you might find plenty of black female judges in local courtrooms, 80% of federal judges are white and black women magistrates make up a tiny sliver of the remaining 20%. The addition of a black woman would not only be meaningful to those little black girls (and the thousands of black female attorneys), but it would make a difference to the non-black people, too.

The subtle prejudice of absence is in the lack of affirmation. People thought blacks could never be faster than whites, until Jesse Owens was. People thought a black man could never win the presidency, until Barak Obama did. People thought that a black person could never become a billionaire, until BET founder Robert L. Johnson made it. The Supreme Court is the brain trust of our democracy. The absence of black women sends a subtle message about they capabilities.

The white supremacists over at Fox News are already having a field day, playing the “reverse racism” card to their elderly white audience. The rhetoric goes like this; If Biden picks a black woman for the court, he’s screwing a capable white man out of a job. I wonder how many capable black women have been screwed out that job so a white person and/or a man could be hired. But the white snowflakes are apoplectic over the thought that a black women might have an informed opinion on constitutional matters more rooted in reality than something they heard spewed by Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, Ted Cruz or any of the other white men who, in the words of James Brown, are talking loud and saying nothing.

As we head into Black History Month we can underestimate the power of firsts. The first black airline pilot (Marlon Green, 1964). The first black pole vaulter to medal at the Olympics (LoJo Johnson, 2000). The first black woman in space (Mae Jamison, 1992). Second and thirds are equally important. Like the court was made up of all white men from 1789 to 1967, there may be a future court where all nine justices are black women. Until then, whoever President Biden picks, will be a reminder to those little black girls to pick the doll that looks like them.

I Became a Teacher Because of Sydney Poitier

January 15, 2022

My first album was a four-record set called, #1 Hits of the ‘60s. I ordered it C.O.D. in 1973 after I saw Mickey Dolenz, of the Monkees, hawking it on our local UHF channel (WTCG). My mom had to pay for it when it arrived, but I immediately chose Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love”  as my favorite track of the 52 songs. So when the 1967 movie of the same name was scheduled to play on the 4 O’clock movie, I knew this latchkey kid would be parked in front of the TV.

What that 9-year-old living in a Georgia Klan town got was his first introduction to Mr. Sydney Poitier. I loved the story of American who tamed the rowdy British kids by breaking the traditional rules of the classroom. He was dignity and respectful control in the face of youthful chaos. Perhaps I craved that.  The fact that that he was black man corralling white kids added to the juxtaposition. But he didn’t treat them as children, and they transitioned into young adulthood under the guidance of “Sir.” There was nothing in my Georgia schools like this. This white boy immediately thought, I want to be like Sydney Poitier.

The film itself, directed and written by James Clavell, is overly sentimental and plagued with real gender problems, but it tackled British racial politics the same season that the Beatles were singing, “All Your Need is Love.” To my young mind, it was all about Pointier’s poise and composure as he deconstructed the politics of the public school, literally throwing out the book (into the classroom trashcan) to take the students to museums and other London adventures. I’d had a taste of Montessori under my belt from the second half of second grade (the first half was wasted in Bible school), and I craved that educational freedom.

So I became a teacher. The first classes I taught were as a young graduate student at Emory University. In one sociology class, taught on the second floor of the Candler Library, I had my own Mark Thackery moment. (Thackery was Poitier’s character in the film.) Instead of working class hoodlums, my students were the privileged children of wealth. It was clear that students weren’t invested in the curriculum I had created for my Youth Subculture class, so I went into a monologue about the corrosive nature of privilege and the opportunity of youth to define itself in its own historical moment. Then I threw the three required texts out of the library window and told them we would never meet in that classroom again. I channeled Sydney as we took the class out into the world. (I later went and retrieved those books from the bushes below the window.)

That dignified grace was a hallmark of so many of Poitier’s roles, including favorites like The Defiant Ones (1958), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), and Guess Who is Coming to Dinner (1967). His seminal role as Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night (1967) was a pretty accurate picture of policing in my rural Georgia town and planted the seed police reform in my young brain. I became obsessed with his films, never missing them on the 4 O’Clock movie or when I’d sneak downstairs into the recroom to watch Paris Blues (1961) on the late movie. When I learned about his civil rights work, I had permission to question the racism of my peer culture. Other kids had their role models, this was mine. Sydney and I had the same birthday (February 20) and I knew that the best thing I could be was to be like Sydney Poitier.

There will never be anyone like him, but I carry his Mark Thackery with me into the classroom every time, with love.