I Was a Third Grader

November 15, 2022

I guess it’s a normal thing to compare yourself to your kids. “When I was your age I had to walk three miles to school, in the snow, and barefoot, and uphill, and backwards!” I remember when I was in high school we all took our shoes off on a snowy Georgia day and walked to school so we could foist that same flex on our kids.

I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. There seems to be some clear differences between 3rd grade Randy and 3rd grade Cozy. In 1972, I loved to play outside in the woods, she loves to be inside playing Minecraft. I had brain-numbing Saturday morning cartoons, she has brain-numbing YouTube videos on demand. But much of it is the same. Our aversion to any food that is good for us, or to going to sleep, or to getting up. I loved Elvis Presley (“Burning Love” era), and she loves Dua Lipa (“Levitating” era), but other than that, not that dissimilar.

So, as I drop her off at school each day, I’ve been trying to remember what I remember from my 3rd grade experience at Atherton Elementary.

My teacher was Mrs. Weldon and we were supposed to get candy bars for completing our times tables, but I never got mine. I did a presentation on Boston by building a version of the U.S.S. Constitution from a huge cardboard box. The teacher read us James and Giant Peach and we had discussions about the 1972 presidential election. (I supported Nixon because I liked his funny-looking face.) My best friend was Keith Harrison and we focused our arguments on Elvis, Hank Aaron, and how to make the best go-cart. And I definitely thought girls had cooties.

For me, third grade was my introduction to Southern culture. Like many Slavic-rooted Americans, I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. My family fled the rustbelt for the sunbelt after the steel industry crashed, and after year in Boca Raton, Florida, we ended up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (for reasons I still don’t understand). Red clay, black-eyed peas, thick accents, and one classmate who took a dead possum home for “supper” presented me with an alternate reality that was both dreamlike and hostile to a “damn Yankee” 8-year-old. A neighbor named Kenny called me “Polish monkey,” which I later figured out was because of my non-WASP name. Church was king in Stone Mountain, so that was the vehicle of assimilation, although it always felt unwelcoming.

So I wonder what my own 3rd grader is collecting to be reflected upon 50 years from now, in 2072. Will she remember the names of her friends and practicing make-up application, like I remember playing in the creek with Tico and Kip? Will she remember the insanity of MAGA, like I remember the madness of George Wallace and Lester Maddox? Will she remember binging on Takis, like I remember seeing how many Little Debbies I could shove into my mouth? Will she remember her parents living apart and then together again (but still apart), like I remember my father gone on extended sales trips?

Eight seems like such an in-between age. I see my daughter carry herself like she’s 5 minutes from college, but she’s still a child (who wants to set up a spy-cam to catch Santa in action this Christmas). Her peer culture has gained power. She just got her ears pierced and is starting to use slang, like “That’s suss, Dad.” She calls me, “bra” like I’m a bro. How do I tell her to eat her vegetables?  Was I that the age when I started separating myself from my parents? (I staged sit-ins in protest of their demand that I eat canned beets, I do remember that.)

If I could go do 8 again, there are certainly things I would do differently, besides buy stock in IBM. I would be kinder to my little brother, and pay more attention to the marginalized kids in my school. But much of 3rd grade seemed to not be about finding your direction, but finding that you could have a direction, any direction; that, at some point, you’d be able to do your own thing. I see that in Cozy, the potential to do really big things if she wants to.

What I needed from parents at 8 was a message of assurance, that they had my back even if I made mistakes. That they’d keep me safe but allow me to see how far I could walk across the ice. And I need encouragement to match the curiosity I had in myself with a curiosity in others. That’s the least I can do for my 3rd grader.

Ukraine Days: Reflections During a DakhaBrakha concert

October 1, 2022

Last night Andi and I went to see the brilliant Ukrainian band, DakhaBrakha. They were playing a sold out concert at an art center in Beaverton, Oregon before they head back to Europe. (Their November 11 show in Krakow, Poland will be one for the ages.) They’ve chosen to tour the globe while their homeland burns under the continuous assault of Putin’s invasion to share the need for the world to act. Their music is so other-worldly, the best way I can describe it is, imagine Kate Bush joins Radiohead and they are kidnapped by Cossacks and taken to Neptune. They call it “ethno chaos.”

As Andi and I let the exotic sounds wash over us, animations of Russian missiles falling and photos of bombed out apartment buildings in Irpin and Mariupol filled the screen behind the four-piece band from Kyiv. Occasionally slogans, like “Russia is a terrorist state” and “Arm Ukraine” would flash across the screen as the music crescendoed. The one male in the band, Marko Halanevych, implored the audience to do what they could to support “Free Ukraine.” The audience, made up of Ukrainian-Americans, recent refugees, and Portland music fans, responded to his “Slava Ukraini” with “Heroyam slava!” – Glory to the heroes.

The message of the music was magnified that day because Putin had just held a dog & pony show in Moscow to declare the regions of eastern Ukraine as formally annexed into Russia, to be defended as a part of Russia. Adding to the significance of the day, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy submitted Ukraine’s application to NATO. It felt like the last moments before World War 3. Andi clutched my hand as the music and the moment consumed us. Children, like our daughter, were being killed or driven from their homes while we sat in a brand new arts center half a world away.

The concert is certainly in my top ten now, but also helped Andi understand why I had to go to Ukraine this past spring. “When white people are at war with each other, things are really serious,” she said, only half-joking. I bought us DakhaBrakha shirts after the show, proceeds going to Ukraine, and talked with some local Ukrainian residents about the power of the night’s performance.

I will always reflect on my trip into the war zone to provide what little help I could. Portland and Lviv, Ukraine are now “friendship cities,” soon to be sister cities, partially because my experience championing Ukrainian coffeeshops as air raid sirens blared in Lviv. I feel a deep connection to the local Ukrainian population and Andi, Cozy, and I often have our fill on pierogis in the basement of a local Ukrainian church most Saturday afternoons.

I wanted to post the eight blog posts I wrote before, during, and right after my trip to Poland and Ukraine in one place as a chronology. I was briefly a hot topic in the local news when I was there, but now, as we pass the 6 month mark, the war in Ukraine becomes just another story as the world seems to turn upside down. It’s still raging (although Ukraine is advancing and Russians are fleeing their country to avoid conscription) and the lessens I learned there still resonate.

UKRAINE BLOGS

Entry 1: In the Toilet Paper Tube of History: Watching the Battle for Ukraine in Real Time (February 27, 2022)

Entry 2: Psychoanalyzing the Attraction to Chaos, or Why I Want to Go to Ukraine (March 14, 2022)

Entry 3: On the Polish Border with Ukraine: Watching the World Change from Up Close (March 25, 2022)

Entry 4: The First Two Days on the Polish-Ukraine Border, as Bombs Fall on Lviv (March 26, 2022)

Entry 5: One Night in Lviv (Makes a Hard Man Humble) (March 28, 2022)

Entry 6: Panic in Auschwitz: Putting the Present Moment in Context (April 2, 2022)

Entry 7: Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Seen, Who I Am: A Brief Reflection of My Time in Ukraine/Poland (April 5, 2022)

Entry 8: The Rescue of the Girl in the Red Coat: Gratitude for One Ukrainian Dad (April 17, 2022)

Sept. 26, 2012: My 10-year Reconstruction Begins

September 26, 2022

Everything changed on September 26, 2012 at 10:15 AM (maybe 10:17, she was late). But first, the backstory. And it’s messy.

My forties were emotionally confusing. I had successfully risen up the academic ranks to a tenured full professor position but my love life was always in turmoil. I hadn’t yet connected the abuse I experienced as a child to the bad patterns I had perfected in adulthood. And work and romance tended to overlap. Pew research reports that most Americans meet their spouses at work, and I had habit of dating former students (with the emphasis on “former.”) While the university had no policy against relationships among faculty and university students, that line mattered to me. After grades were turned in, two consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want. It never was an issue, nor should it have been. There were several respected professors who were married to former students. Let love rule.

About a dozen years ago, I had a brief relationship with a former student that started off fun but, as new relationships sometimes do, quickly hit a dead end. It was clear that not only were we not a good match, there were red flags popping up all over the place. (The university would later deem this woman “unstable.”) I tried to end it amicably but she was not having any of it and went into full Glenn Close/Fatal Attraction mode. She found allies in the administration to champion her cause. They’d drag me into regular administrative tribunals and lecture me about “power dynamics.” (One of these administrators was having a “romantic, amorous, and/or sexual” relationship the administrator who had appointed her to her six-figure job.) I hired a lawyer who shut it all down and I recorded her confession that she made all her accusations up. Hoping to expedite my return to normalcy, I offered to sign an agreement that I wouldn’t date anyone who was enrolled at the university. Although I did briefly date an administrator after that. Because irony won’t be lost on me.

September 24, 2012 was the first day of the 2012-2013 school year and I had asked to teach a Sociology 101 class that started on Monday mornings. I wanted to be the first professor a fresh batch of college students would encounter. So I put a lot of work into that first class. It was a true performance, a sermon on the salvation of critical thinking. There’s always a few students who blow off the first class because they think nothing important happens on Day 1, and it always annoys me because everything important happens on Day 1. I make note of their absence and develop a grudge. One of those absentees was named Andrea Barrios.

So before she walked in late on Wednesday, I already had a bias against Ms. Barrios. Then she walked through the door. I’m not being overly dramatic when I say it felt like being struck by a bolt of lightning. It was an out-of-body experience. (She has told me of a similar experience.) My first clear thought was, “Oh no, universe, do not put this woman in front of me. I signed a contract!” as she sat in the front row and smiled. I was on the tail end of a two year relationship with a wonderful woman that was sputtering because I didn’t have a basic understanding of how to be in a relationship. But I was a good professor and stayed perfectly professional the entire term (while my teaching assistant routinely hit on Andrea). I stayed focused, as hard as that was.

At the end of the term, I posted on Facebook that I was going to see local singer Storm Large at dark club to celebrate the end of the quarter. It was a rainy December night and I was sitting by myself at the end of the bar when Andrea walked in. Of course I was thrilled to see her. She was probably the smartest person in a class of a hundred students and she radiated. She bought me a shot of tequila and said we should hang out sometime. I told her I didn’t date students. She bought me another shot of tequila and we ended up making out at the bar.

A mature man would have stopped right there. I began building my career as sociology professor at 17 as a freshman in college.  It didn’t make a lot of sense to risk it over a woman in her twenties, as fascinating as she may be. I invited her to dinner the next night so I could explain the situation, that I had signed a contract with the university and if I dated her I could lose my job. “Maybe nobody will find out,” she said. That’s all I heard. I was already head over heals in love. I just wanted to be near her. She tried to get into another school to avoid the conflict but that didn’t happen. We were two adults who just wanted to be together. Two years later we were married with a baby.

But it wasn’t easy for her. I was only just starting to figure my shit out. The first lesson was how I tended to keep old relationships on the back burner in case the current relationship went south (a product of deep abandonment fears). I learned that only burned the person I was with and I almost lost Andrea. Fortunately, it was a surprisingly easy fix. So many of my other issues, wrapped in my narcissistic tendencies, made her feel invisible. But, as a tenured professor, I represented the stability she craved. Then all that changed.

This is the part of the story that involves a psychotic inmate in an Oregon prison. (“Psychotic” isn’t hyperbole. It’s in his medical records.) He was a “former” racist skinhead who I had worked with before his incarceration. He had decided, for some stupid reason, that I had aggrieved him. He made it his personal mission to destroy me and found allies in the university who were endlessly annoyed by my role as a faculty union agitator. I was dragged back in before the administrative mob, with our daughter in her baby carrier, and asked me if my wife was a university student. “Yeah,” I said, “She’s taking an online Women’s Studies class.” That was it. They had me. I was toast.

My long career was successfully destroyed, not by a nazi skinhead, but my failure to make better choices. I could blame Glenn Close girl, psychotic skinhead, or a university administrator who was banging her boss, but it all came down to bad decisions I made over the course of years. I just wasn’t ready to accept that fact.

Who was I without my career? Certainly not the stable provider Andi and our baby needed. My issues began to cascade. I thought I was one of the good guys, but I centered my anger, creating less and less room for her in the relationship. To her credit, she not only finished her undergraduate work but earned a Master’s Degree and began teaching her own classes. All while I tried to pick up the pieces of my life and figure out how the hell to be a good father and husband.

There are numerous details but suffice it to say she told me in very clear terms what she needed but I was so wrapped up in my pain and anger that I repeatedly failed to deliver. It was when things were at their worst, that I started remembering the experiences of early sexual abuse. But it’s not like one has a realization that leads to an immediate change, “Oh, I was abused. Now I can stop being a self-centered prick.” I still had a ways to fall before I hit the bottom. And that happened on last New Year’s Eve when Andi told me she was in love with someone else. The floor opened up and I was ready to cease to exist. I felt beyond repair. Beyond redemption. There was nowhere to go but oblivion.

After that, as I have written much about, I found a wonderful therapist who helped me not only connect the dots from my trauma to my behavior, but who gave me practical tools to start to change the patterns. My trip to Ukraine to resettle refugees this past spring encouraged me to be a source of healing instead of pain. And Andi’s patience helped me to see how childish my behavior tended to be. I’ve learned that love is more than a feeling but behavior in the small moments; a comforting look, a curious question, a snarky text not sent.

I’m marking this ten year point for two reasons. First, that psychotic skinhead is out of prison and still threatening me. I need a public record of my journey. But the main reason is that this ten year effort to deconstruct myself and build a better version of me may not be enough to be Husband 2.0 to Andi, but it’s been worth the attempt. We all can repair harm and fix ourselves to reduce harm to the people we love. I’m proud of who I am becoming.

Gender – Nature vs Nurture 8: The Looking Glass Self

August 7, 2022

There was a clear moment this past year when Dad picking out Cozy’s outfit for the day slammed into “societal expectations.” For the historical record, there is an event in the life of a second grader that sounds like this; “Dad, I don’t like how that makes me look!”

Legendary sociologist George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) often referred to Charles Cooley’s concept of the “looking glass self.” When “I” look in a mirror, I see “Me.” Me is society’s reflection and I evaluate myself by that reflection. It has nothing to do with who I am, only how they see “me.” I love mentioning to my students how they will never see their own face as it is. They will only see photos, videos, and reflections in mirrors, all versions of their face mediated by some external source. You don’t actually look like what you look like on Instagram. Sorry.

Even the most rugged individual’s sense of self is shaped by society. You’re a mountain man? Society says you have to have a beard, jeans, and flannel shirts. “But that’s just what I’m comfortable in,” says the rugged individual. “You know what’s even more comfortable?” asks George Herbert Mead. “Silk pajamas!” “But that will make me look like a cissy!” says the mountain man. Bam, society.

So me picking out my daughter’s clothes is starting to get filtered through the various mirrors of society. That’s not necessarily bad (“Pick out your own damn outfit,” Dad has screamed), but as we know, “society” is kinda messed up, like a funhouse full of distorted mirrors.

The first mirror is gender. This trip hits girls first. The boys in her second grade class seemed oblivious to what they should wear. Cozy has already been playing at wearing make-up with her friends. She has even said, “That outfit makes me look fat.” (Mom and Dad had a big “family time” conversation about that one.) And the way the fifth grade girls dress at her elementary school dress looks more college co-ed fashion than “kidswear.” According to feminist sociologists, like Carol Gilligan, all of this will be put in the service of attracting boys. 

Instead of being evaluated on her brains, her humor, or her ability to build a sustainable fairy house out of a bundle of sticks, society wants to primarily place her value in her “attractiveness.” Gilligan found that the self-esteem of 13-year-old girls plummeted as they began to realize that their worth was not based on what they had to offer the world but what they had to offer boys. The soccer player quits the team to become the cheerleader. Her research was first published in 1982. Forty years later, I fear the creeping insecurities of the 13-year-old girl who is told, “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” will arrive in the gender politics of 3rd grade.

The second mirror is race. Less visible to white girls, BIPOC girls know that white girls set the beauty standards, whether it’s the latest fashion, straight hair, or Instagram make-up tips. My brunette mixed-race daughter has commented, more than once, about wanting an outfit because the “blondies” will like it. Already in second grade, the Aryan girls are the mirror that the other girls are seeing themselves in (and never seeing a blondie looking back at them). This isn’t any critique of Cozy’s blonde classmates. We live in a white supremacists patriarchal culture that puts “blonde girls,” at the peak of the attractiveness scale, but that scale is changing rapidly.

The third mirror is class. Not only are these kids looking up to the wealthy, to keep up with the Kardashians, they (or their parents) are expected to shell out the money so they can “look cool.” The first day of school everyone gets evaluated in their new outfits and the poor kids are always shamed. “Your momma is so poor that when I asked her what’s for dinner tonight she lit her pocket on fire and said, hot pocket.” We can still find Cozy outfits at Goodwill but we are about 60 seconds away from that door closing and it’s gotta be the latest trend OR SHE WILL DIE. We’re trying to give her a bohemian ethic that rejects wealth in favor of a decidedly downwardly mobile artist esthetic. My credit card really needs her to be a beatnik.

All of this is tied to the process of “our baby” becoming her own person. But, as Mead explained, her sense of self is being formed by the culture she lives in and more than once I have been tempted to smash the mirror.

Here comes third grade.

My Jim Crow Marriage: MAGA Co-dependency

July 21, 2022

There’s so much going on in the world. The Earth is literally on fire. It’s a nice distraction from my personal problems. I can doom-scroll through some GoPro footage from the battlefields of Ukraine or watch endless hours of commentary on the January 6th hearings. I used to drink through the rough patches. Now I just mainline the outside world.

As a Pisces, I tend to be overdramatic. Things aren’t that bad. Just the summer doldrums of separation. I’ve been trying to learn more about co-dependent relationships and, man, did I have one. I’m not 100% sure that learning about it makes you any less co-dependent, or will help Andi end up back under the same roof, but it sure shines a light and why we were stuck and not making any progress. She was the fixer and I was he who perpetually needed be fixed.

I’ve been having some pretty good conversations about the topic with my therapist. Knowing I’m a Pisces, she’s liberal with the diagrams. She drew two overlapping equal sized circles on a piece of paper and explained that in a healthy relationship two people take up equal space and they overlap in the space of their relationship but they have a larger part of themselves that’s not defined by the relationship. And they can both bring in things to share in the overlap or keep them as part of themselves.

In a co-dependent relationship, one person is a bigger circle that completely envelopes the other circle. That enveloped person has a) a smaller space, b) has no self outside the relationship and c) is always struggling against the confines of the bigger circle. That was us. Even though I encouraged her life outside of our relationship (she got a master’s degree and was an elected officer in her union without my help), when we were together, I did a pretty good job of swallowing her back into what I was jokingly referred to as “Randyland” (a term she understandably loathed). Just like how a person of color is forced to define themselves in relation to “whiteland,” her existence was shaped by our relationship instead of the other way around.

My therapist asked me to conjure up a romantic image of us and I remembered our first trip to Andi’s home town of Morelia, Mexico in 2013. Instead of me being the tour guide in Portland, she led me through her beautiful city, holding my hand. I imagined myself as a balloon safely in her grasp, seeing the world through her eyes. But it was just a flip of our co-dependent dynamic. Now I was the small circle, encompassed by her. As wonderful as it felt, it still wasn’t balanced.

Then she asked me to remember another romantic moment that seemed more balanced and I immediately flashed to our trip to Oslo, Norway in 2018, a city that was new to both us. I was returning from a day at a conference and Andi was coming to find me because she had discovered the most amazing record store on earth and when we ran into each other on the sidewalk, we were those perfectly equal interlocking circles.

The reality is that we had those moments (our first week in a youth hostel on Isla Mujeres with sand in the bed and Macklemore playing every night), but there was a lot more suffocation in Randyland. I get why she needed to break free.

OK, this is the part where I link it to Trump. Hang with me.

You know the MAGA thing? That “Make America Great Again” implies that America’s not great but it was sometime in the mythical past. Trump picked 1950 when America was last great. 1950, the peak of Jim Crow segregation. 1950, before the modern feminist movement, the gay rights movement, and the disability rights movement. If you were a black transperson in a wheelchair, America was not great in 1950. Or a woman. And TVs sucked. Give me my 2022 Samsung flatscreen TV and my pronouns and leave 1950 to your back & white fantasy. Father knew best, or so we were told. The MAGA crowd wants that bullshit past back. They dream of the by-gone days of Jim Crow. Colin Kaepernick “knew his place” in 1950.

But that’s the thing. We over-nostalgize the past. It was always better back then. Music was better. Fashion was better. It was a “simpler” time, blah, blah, blah. In fact, the past was both great and shitty, just like the present. And it was plenty complex, but we were familiar with the complexity. The future is uncertain and the past is a cozy blanket. No wonder people want to go back to it. And that tendency just gets worse the older you get. The 2010s, ah those were the days. The past is a safe haven for the timid. The future is scary as hell. You saw what happened with Bitcoin. But you’ve really gotta embrace the unknown, as frightening as it is. It might kick you in the crotch, but it’s better than spending your life reminiscing about your baseball card collection.

We do the same damn thing when a relationship is ending. “But it was so great! Look at how happy we are in these pictures.” The reality, like America in 1950, is more complex. It was great and shitty. There were plenty of hard times. But I remember it more fondly because I was the planet she revolved around. I was white Father Knows Best guy. For her it was Jim Crow. She was the “colored girl” who needed to get the hell out of Mississippi.

Coming to terms with co-dependency means acknowledging the imbalance. I don’t know if Andi and I will have any more “Oslo moments.” I hope so. But I understand why she had to escape Randyland. I’m escaping it, too.

It’s All Too Much: You Don’t Want to Arm This Teacher at the Moment

June 1-6, 2022

Note: This piece was written in different sessions, usually while listening to The Monkees, or Death Angel’s “The Ultra-Violence,” and not the usual one-session stream of consciousness that is my usual blog brilliance.

Ms. McSwilly has been teaching 5th Grade math for over 40 years. She is just a few weeks away from retirement. On this day, she is discussing square roots with her students who are more focused on the AR-15 that’s slung over her shoulder. The gun and ammo were given to her to her by the government, who told her it was the best weapon to stop a school shooter. The government also paid for her training. That’s where she learned to keep her rifle on her shoulder at all times, to keep it out of the hands of students. Also, if a shooter burst into the classroom, she might not have time to retrieve it. Ms. McSwilly needed to be ready to shoot and kill in seconds. But on this day her headaches were back and she was losing focus. The classroom door opened as the school janitor entered to empty the trashcan. Ms. McSwilly spun around at the sound and unloaded three rounds into the man, killing him in front of her students.

Somewhere I wrote, “Life is a bedspring.” It was some metaphor for something. Now it feels like it was a bedspring in a mattress that needs to be replaced. Too many heavy dudes have been jumping on it. Too many bad headlines. The Russians are advancing in Ukraine. The Supreme Court wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. A white supremacist goes on a killing spree in New York. Another sociopathic teenager kills scores of grade school kids in Texas. Elon Musk wants to re-platform every hate monger on earth, including Donald Trump. My wife is choosing her boyfriend instead of her husband. And a tank of gas just drained America’s bank account. That bedspring just don’t bounce back like it used to.

When the mass shooting happened to Buffalo, I had to go into my “hate crime expert” mode, giving numerous interviews, including on CNN and Turkish News. Sadly, it was a fairly textbook case but I tried to keep the focus on the black community and the endless trauma people of color endure just being not white in America. When the shooting at Robb Elementary School unfolded, I just wanted to crawl in a hole with my second grader. Watching Ted Cruz suggest arming teachers made me want to throw up. The school drop-off the following morning was just about the hardest thing ever. Parents were in tears, extra hugging their kids, hugging the teacher, hoping that she would be able to protect them from a man-child with AR-15. The weight of the world falling on kids who shouldn’t know they are somebody’s target.

Andi had a great idea the day after the Uvalde shooting because we were both trying to figure out what to do in a nation where there are more guns than people and little will to stand up to the gun lobby. Her idea was to have “a day without children,” and let the country’s classrooms be empty for a day of protest. It was brilliant, but the school calendar was running out. Wanting desperately to please her, I tried the make the day happen two days later but the plan didn’t have time to catch fire and fizzled quickly. I felt impotent in the face of the entrenched status of bad news headlines.

I wondered allowed with my students what it would be like to have a year where nothing happened. You know, like the Obama years. Do we have the resilience to withstand what’s to come this summer? They say the personal is the political and both have been pretty traumatizing over the last few years. And, as we know, trauma can be debilitating, turning us inward into a state of learned helplessness. Getting up to fight seem pointless. Slide into bed and scroll through posts about Johnny and Amber instead.

It seems increasingly overwhelming and carbs (or whatever is your drug of choice) tastes so good. Bitcoin is down but suicide is up, way up. Is there a secret to resilience? A lifeline until happy days are here again? A reason to hunker down between mass shootings and GOP landslides?

Turns out there is; optimism. Not every solider that comes back from the battlefield is plagued by PTSD and not every kid with who is the victim of bullying shoots up his school. Research has shown a key factor in trauma recovery is simple optimism. A positive outlook is your hedge against the plunge into the black hole of despair. You might not know it, but reflecting on how (and that) you got through past shit will help you get through future shit. And there will be future shit. 

Worried that you might implode this summer and be Googling “Can I hold my breath until I die?” by Election Day? Here’s three things that will help keep you from losing it.

1. Get some friends. One thing all these shooters have in common is that they are loners. Most guys who go through job loss and divorce go out with their friends and get shit-faced until they’ve come though it. The guy with no friends (and easy access to guns) is the one shooting up his former office place. Get friends. Church, the bowling alley, adult kickball, even those LARP weirdos. Plug into your tribe. We all need each other right now. And not faceless Zoom or 4chan. Go have a beer, you wuss. We’ll get through this with karaoke.

2. Volunteer. Mr. Rogers famously said, “Life is for service.” Stop whining and do something to help. Not only is your aid desperately needed, it makes you feel damn good. The work I do on hate crime and Ukraine issues is unpaid but if feeds my soul. I just went to a Moms Demand Action gun violence event and those mothers were motivated to be the change they want to see. It was intoxicating. These narcissists who just want to “live their best lives,” taking and never giving, are draining energy and missing out on the magical spring of optimism, service to others.

3. Make a list. Setting simple goals is such an easy thing to do. After a session with my therapist, where I was feeling overwhelmed by my financial situation, I acted instead of wallowed. I bought a whiteboard and started organizing my bills and made lists of things to do to improve my situation and then began erasing said things as I did them. A few days ago I called both my senators to ask them to close the loopholes on gun background checks. It took five minutes and it made me feel like I was moving the ball forward. Just get shit done.

There’s so much happening right now. When we’re all super old, we can read about the history of the 2020s and be like, “How the fuck did we survive that?” But now is the time to be like sharks. Keep moving forward. Forest fires? Timmothy McVeigh wannabes? Custody battles? Trump tweets? It will all be in the rearview mirror at some point and me and all my rowdy friends will have a laugh and say, “Look how bad-ass we are. You kids today suck.”

This was going to be a piece about how if you arm teachers, we might pull a January 6 on all the assholes that have defunded education, like Ted Cruz, but, halfway through, I decided to write about resilience. There’s no flowchart for this moment we are in.

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

I had a feeling ’21 was gonna be a good year: Psych!

December 31, 2021

Like most people who survived the epic disaster film that was 2020, I had high hopes for 2021. I kept singing that Who song from Tommy; “I got a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year.” Trump was defeated, the COVID vaccine was coming, and things seemed to be great on the home front. Man, I was wrong on all counts.

January 6 was the first day of winter classes at PCC, Andi’s 31st birthday, and the day Donald Trump staged a coup to flush American democracy down the toilet. As I Zoomed with my sociology students, we split screened in realtime the assault on the capitol, while my wife realized that the folks who have their birthdays on September 11 now had some fellow travelers.

Then the Delta variant busted through the vaccine barricades destroying any hope of kicking off the new Roaring 20s. It took me down in August, as I spent ten days flat on my back, hoping I wouldn’t cough a lung out. I survived thanks to Andi and Cozy dropping food and medicine into the basement. And that wasn’t even my worst moment of 2021.

Much of this early part of this year, this blog was dedicated to thoughtful policy pieces responding to the January 6th insurrection but then it turned personal. Over the summer my bad habits hit a low point, leading to the realization of the impact of a sexual assault that happened to me when I was just four years old. I tried to make sense of how that explained my narcissistic tendencies but it just made things more unstable in my relationship. In October, Andi moved out to rescue her sense of self. It was exactly what I needed to put the pieces together and leave that 4-year-old boy back in 1968. The time we spend together now is more meaningful than ever. You can’t say you love someone and take them for granted year after year. The personal growth the last third of this year has been so exciting, thanks to good reading, great therapists, and a loving wife who lives just down the street.

There were plenty of great moments this year, including our cross country, Atlanta to Portland, road trip. The meandering journey took us to the Arizona-Mexico border where Andi crossed when she was 8, and leading to one of my favorite blog posts of the year. This year I also joined the faculty at the University of Oregon, returning to the physical classroom to discuss racism twice a week with 150 students in Eugene. I read a lot of self-help books, listened to newly released Beatles songs, watched Cozy turn 7, sweeping into second grade (after over a year in remote), and had a hundred amazing dates with Andi. My meditation and mindfulness practices help me navigate even the hardest of moments.

I also managed to get out 28 blogposts in 2021, the most popular being The Barbarians at the Gate: Confronting MAGA Terrorists Post Trump, followed by Freedom Morons: What am I supposed to think about people who refuse get vaccinated? But it was my piece on my sexual abuse that received the most feedback, including many people sharing their own stories of sexual trauma and psychological fall out. I hope that post helped some folks. It’s never too late to heal.

I’m not going to make any predictions about 2022. It could go either way. Andi and I have tickets for a much-needed trip to Paris in March (as spouses, lovers, or just friends, we’ll see) so I hope the Omicron variant doesn’t lead to a global shutdown this spring. I do know I will continue to work on the hard issues and the hardest issue of all is myself.

2021 WTW Posts

The Barbarians at the Gate: Confronting MAGA Terrorists Post Trump – January 12, 2021

There Is A Way To Interrupt Domestic Extremism – January 23, 2021

Bridging the Great American Divide: Stepping back from the cliff that is Civil War II – February 1, 2021

Preparing for April 19th, 2021: Why We Need an International Approach to Domestic Terrorism – February 7, 2021

Two Robots Meet on Mars – A Valentines Poem for My Wife – February 14, 2021

Talking to Your Kid About Black History Month: First Grade Edition – February 18, 2021

Envisioning Our Renaissance at Home: Life After the Pandemic – March 8, 2021

I’m Vaccinated! Am I proud or am I ashamed of it? – March 24, 2021

Witnessing the Witnesses of the Murder of George Floyd: Trauma at the Trial of Derek Chauvin – March 30, 2021

Standing at the Border: Experiencing Xenophobia Through My Wife’s Skin – April 15, 2021

Cancelling White Fragility: Can Progressives Get an Assist from Madison Avenue? – May 13, 2021

Pandemic Nostalgia: Save a Mask, It’s Coming! – June 4, 2021

If You’re Hiring, Just Be Decent to Applicants, OK? – June 11, 2021

The Black Strawman: In Defense of Critical Race Theory – June 18, 2021

Mindful Meditation: Save me, Ringo! – July 15, 2021

The Delta Variant Got Me: Hubris Amid a Pandemic – August 1, 2021

COVID, Climate Change, and Misinformation: How Shock Doctrine Kills American Democracy – August 9, 2021

Freedom Morons: What am I supposed to think about people who refuse get vaccinated? – August 27, 2021

Death By a Thousand 9/11s – September 11, 2021

2028: A Letter to My 14-year-old Daughter at the Half-way Mark – September 27, 2021

I am the victim of child sexual abuse and it made me toxic. – October 22, 2021

Follow Up: Fixing What’s Broken – November 8, 2021

Confronting Misogyny in Family Feud America – November 13, 2021

Taking You Lumps: Remote Gender Work – November 19, 2021

Learning How to Let it Be from The Beatles’ Get Back Film – November 28, 2021

How to not be an anti-racist asshole: Mindfulness and Racial Progress – December 21, 2021

Dad’s Top 20 Discs of 2021 – December 27, 2021

I had a feeling ’21 was gonna be a good year: Psych! – December 31, 2021

Taking You Lumps: Remote Gender Work

November 19, 2021

Blogs are ultimately about personal journeys. I began this blog on November 24, 2014 as a daily chronicle of my life as stay-at-home dad. I intended it to be me channelling the porto-feminism of pioneering house-husband John Lennon. That lasted exactly one day. By November 25th, I was writing about the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri in what would be the first in a long line of posts about the Black Lives Matter movement. In those seven years, my writing has ranged from family life stories to global gender politics and everything in between.

There have been two pillars in this writing. The first is the firm belief that we are all works in progress, never fully complete. We can’t make the world a better place if we are not willing to make ourselves better people. And mistakes will be made. That’s part of the process. The second pillar has been how I’ve benefitted from the input from my wife, Andrea. Her patience, strength, and wisdom have pushed me to be that better man. And her experience as a member of a few different marginalized populations has allowed me to confront my own privileges head on. If I could only give her as much as she’s given me.

So here’s one of those entries about the need to evolve. 

It’s been clear in this year of revelations that I still have a lot of work to do on myself. Uncovering my abuse story has helped me see the roots of some of my narcissistic personality traits, but that doesn’t automatically cure them. So Andrea has moved out so I could focus on that work. She got a studio apartment nearby and I helped her move in. The three of us had dinner there that first night as I let this separation settle in. We talk constantly and she’s endlessly encouraging. We have dates planned and I bring her coffee in the morning. But this is time set aside for me to make my mindfulness practices my natural way of being and for her to figure out if the woman she’s become fits with the man I’m becoming.

I have a pretty heavy lecture in my criminology class about domestic violence and about how battered women who flee abuse are as likely to be killed by their male partners as they are by staying with them. (Then I tell them to watch Sleeping with the Enemy and listen to “Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks.) Research on wife-killers shows these man can’t handle that “their” women have been rejected and just snap. It’s the ultimate act of patriarchal control.

While the thought of violence has never crossed my mind, I’ve never been very good at break-ups, centering my emotional pain instead of what’s best for my (former) partners. Just ask my first girlfriend who ended our relationship so she could spend a year studying in Paris. I got to Paris a few weeks before her and spray-painted her name all over the city, including on a stature of Moliére at the Sorbonne, where she would be enrolled. I thought I was being wildly romantic, but I was just being wildly creepy, inserting myself into her post-Randy life in the City of Light.

So the evolved version of me has kicked that version of masculinity to the curb. This is about what Andi needs right now and how I can listen and deliver. Certainly 2021 has been filled with examples of me not doing that, including plenty of mad examples of me freaking out as I fell down the rabbit hole of panic and defensiveness that were shaped by a lifetime of acting out the patterns created by my childhood abuse. Putting in the work is under way. I finally feel like an adult and instead of a petulant child and it feels good. I enter this phase with respect, grace, a mountain of admiration for this woman who I will get to know in a completely new way.

My great hope is this process won’t take long. Apartments in Portland are not cheap and it’s coming out of her pocket. We have a trip to Paris planned for this spring and that spray-paint will have long faded away. I’m committed to making that the case for the version of me that took her for granted. Faded away like a lovelorn teenager’s graffiti. 

Follow Up: Fixing What’s Broken

November 7, 2021

I needed to let the dust settle after that one.

When I wrote my little “coming out” piece about my experience with sexual abuse a few weeks ago, I wrote it for an audience of two. I wrote if for myself, because I needed to say these things out loud so I could start the healing. And I wrote it for my wife because I was desperate to mend the damage my behavior had caused in our relationship. I had already discussed it with my parents who were surprisingly tranquil about the news that their four-year-old son had been sexually abused. My mother seemed to separate herself from any of the events and my father thought it was a good explanation for how I treated my little brother. Now, as then, they didn’t seem concerned for my emotional well being.

Who did care about me were many of my friends. When I posted the link to the story on my Facebook page I got so many wonderful messages, including friends coming out about their own victimization stories, some leading to failed marriages and life-long challenges. It meant so much and also let me know how many of us are struggling with the adult effects of childhood trauma. We are a statistic (1 in 7), but we are also pieces of the story of humanity. The narcissist in me could be seen as saying, “Hey, look at me! I’m an abuse victim, too!” I thought about that before I posted it. But I think it just needed to be said and I’m glad I did. It was like taking a breath.

The hard part about this is the realization of brokenness. I was pretty cool before, just bopping along, blaming all my problems on other people. I had a poem called “Psycho Chick Magnet” that I’d perform at readings in the 90s to laughter and a lot of dudes saying, “Me, too!” I now see that I was the psycho. My fucked-up defense mechanisms gas lit them. They were crazy. But they weren’t crazy. I was deeply damaged.

Now that I know this, it’s endlessly frustrating. I know what the problem patterns are. I know what the root cause is. I know the behavioral shift to make everything work like it should. Sounds super simple, right? This pattern is fucking up your life, so just stop doing it. This the part where I tell you that I am so completely broken that I’m not sure I can fix it. These patterns have evolved over a half century and I was a fool to think I could snap my fingers and be a different person. That the wirings of my brain that were the result of trauma in a 4-year old boy could just be switched off and I would forever be in the green zone.

Since I posted my story, I’ve fallen off the “Grown Up Randy” train a dozen times. Here’s just the latest example. I thought it would be fun to spend a rainy Sunday at the movies, so Cozy, Andi, and I went to go see Addam’s Family 2 at the Kennedy School. Cozy had her popcorn and lemonade. Andi and I had our beer and held hands and cuddled during the movie, which meant a lot because there had been some me-caused tension (surprise!) earlier in the day. After the film, Andi commented that it would have been nice if I would have put my arm around her. I should have just listened and said I would next time. But instead the four-year old me, who was stuck defending against endless attacks, popped up and ruined everything. I got defensive and felt like nothing I did was enough. I became the asshole that I swore I wouldn’t.

Our therapist warned against expecting immediate results. That changing patterns was like a snake shedding its skin and that old skin was sticky. That makes sense but tell it to my wife who is past her tolerance level fo sticky snake skin. But the feeling sinks in. That I will never break the patterns that were created in me by an entitled babysitter in 1968. It’s nearly unbearable because I see the harm it causes. I should be smart enough to figure this out.

I’ve been doing some research on Polyvagal Theory and how trauma rewires the nervous system. I now understand the my reactive nature is pretty much baked into my body. More great information but still doesn’t get me out of this loop I’m stuck in. All the enlightenment in the world doesn’t carry you out of the darkness.

The only point to this blogpost is to report on how hard this work is. There’s a good chance I will have to do it on my own, but I do it for that little kid who I was and the man I hope to become. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times.

Afterthought: I was listening to the news of the world leaders in Glasgow trying to kick the can on the global climate crisis. We know what the problem is. We know what the cause is. We know what behavior change is required to fix things. You can only shoot yourself in foot so many times, earth people. (I am the world. I am the inner children.)