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.
After my epic journey from Poland to Portland, that included another two missed flights and a night spent in the Newark Airport, I had the brief honeymoon of home. As if written in a screenplay, my Lyft driver at the Portland airport was a Ukrainian named Ruvim. He dropped me off in front of my house and Cozy ran out to great me. After over two weeks away, I fell to my knees and hugged her, thinking of all the dads in Ukraine who long to hold their kids but can’t because they are saving their nation from sociopathic Russians who are raping Ukrainian women in front of their children.
Coming home to Cozy and Andi felt like a dream. They are my sanctuary, my reason for everything. As is tradition, I gave Cozy her snow globes (from Paris and Krakow). I gave Andi a neckless and cross that had belonged to a Ukrainian mother who we got to safety. It felt like I was finally home. But it wasn’t really home. Andi had boxed up her things while I was away and was already entrenched in another relationship, and my silly plan to return home like a badass Rambo and sweep her off her feet with stories of glory was lost in my lack of sleep and the ghosts of what I had seen while I was away, not to mention that I was now only her husband on paper. I just wanted to take hot shower and fall asleep cuddling with my daughter, which I did.
The next morning, I jumped back into the routine and got Cozy to school. I hopped in the car after dropping her off and switched on NPR and that was that. The news was the horror stories coming out of Bucha, where Russian soldiers had tortured and murdered Ukrainian civilians in ways that make ISIS look like kindergartners. My heart raced and my first and only thought was, “ WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING IN PORTLAND? I SHOULD STILL BE THERE GETTING PEOPLE OUT!” The intense guilt of leaving. I knew these kids that they were killing. I knew their mothers. I knew the men who were living lives like me in one moment and thrown into an unexpected and unwanted war the next. How dare I be on my way to grab a latte when Russians are cutting their tongues out?
I don’t know if this is trauma but I do recognize my brain has changed. I have to imagine this is exactly what veterans experience when they return home from combat, the intense compulsion to rejoin the fight. And it’s not like I did 12 months in Afghanistan. I did two weeks in Poland and Ukraine and already I’m all Deer Hunter, ready to go right back. There’s also the adrenaline rush that a former cop recently told me is the attraction for many in law enforcement. If my cognitive patterns were changed in a fortnight, imagine how it must be for career military.
The guilt is intense. While I was there, it seemed like things might be winding down and the Russians would go home with their tails between their legs, having underestimated the strength and courage of the Ukrainian people. Au contraire, mon frère. The Russians just leveled up their savagery. I should have stayed. I should have driven vans full of ammo straight to our contacts in Irpin so they could have taken these monsters’ heads off. I proved that I can do this work, racing around sandbags and hedgehogs in western Ukraine. I mean how old was Pablo in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls?
It’s a race of emotions that is balanced out by the very real fact that I have a beautiful daughter who needs her father here. I know she was proud of the fact that I was helping kids like her on the other side of the planet. She needs to know that she’s my priority. But the reality is, she’s not worried about Russian rockets slamming into her school and the children of Lviv are.
I’m just writing this, processing this, in this, getting it out for my own sake. You’re welcome to continue reading. I’ve had several espressos today, doubled my Zoloft, and am blasting Napalm Death’s “Suffer the Children” on my stereo. Not sure what the real world has to offer, especially after my day at Auschwitz on Friday. Is the world being destroyed or recreated? Will something wonderful emerge from the ashes, or will the illogic of the Putin-Trump cults lead us into a dystopian nightmare?
I’ll be OK. I have a great therapist, a good job, friends, an amazing kid, and a roof over my head. I can find ways to help Ukrainians from Portland and I can loose myself in music and books (although I might have to finish For Whom the Bell Tolls later). One thing I did do is ditch being called “Randy.” I’ve grown up. Call me Randall. I’m not the person I was. It’s time to be better at being better.
These two weeks did a number on me. My heart is in Ukraine. My heart is with all the veterans experiencing PTSD. My heart is with every refugee who wishes they were home. My heart is with my daughter who deserves a better world than the one we currently have. I’ve learned not to expect empathy, but I have a feeling there are countless people who understand what this feels like.
“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 me 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 not 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
They say one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. From the perspective of a lowly stormtrooper inside the Death Star, Luke Skywalker and his band of rebel fighters, guided by an archaic religion, were not heroes, but mass murderers. Was the U.S drone strike that targeted ISIS-K in Kabul on August 29th a part of our righteous war on terror or was it a terrorist attack that killed seven children (and no ISIS fighters)? Remember when Bill Maher said, on his show Politically Incorrect, the 9/11 hijackers were not cowards, but those who launch cruise missiles from 2000 miles away were and ABC canned him? Are we even allowed to ask these questions?
Today is not the day to debate whether or not the attacks twenty years ago were terrorism. They most certainly were. If they weren’t, the word has no meaning. Anyone who was alive and old enough to pay attention on September 11, 2001 (and now a quarter of Americans weren’t), felt the terror. I had just flown to Atlanta on 9/10 for my 20th high school reunion and my dad woke me up in time for me to see the second plane slam into the World Trade Center. I remember saying out loud, “What the hell is happening?” as Peter Jennings attempted to translate the untranslatable. It was about to get worse. Much worse.
The U.S. government defines terrorism as, ““the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85). Much of my work is built around the description of hate crimes as acts of terrorism. Why do we not think of the 9/11 attacks as merely 2,977 murders? Because all Americans were the targets. I had a friend from college who was in Tower 1. Osama bin Laden didn’t know about him, or have anything against him personally. (Three of my former Emory classmates were killed in the New York attacks.) He was a random target, a death meant to intimidate a larger civilian population. And it worked. It was several months after 9/11 before I could enter a tall building or drive over a Portland bridge without thinking of a passenger plane crashing into it.
Hate crimes work the same way. Like the victims of 9/11, targets are randomly selected for their symbolic value, to coerce others like the targets that they aren’t wanted here. Leave. A burning cross, a gay bashing, a swastika on a synagogue, all meant to terrorize large populations. After the 9/11 attacks hate crimes against American Arabs and Muslim (and people perceived to be Arab and/or Muslim) increased 500%. Four days after the attack a Sikh named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot in the head in a gas station in Mesa, Arizona by a white male who claimed he seeking revenge for the 9/11 attacks. Not only were Arab and Muslim-Americans living in fear, but so were Sikhs and others. (Here in Portland, an Italian man was beaten by three teenagers after the attacks because he was perceived to be Middle Eastern.) 2001 wasn’t an anomaly. Just this week, data released but the FBI revealed that hate crimes increased dramatically in 2020. Who is terrorizing whom?
On this sad occasion, I’m reminded of how the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton Administration tried to falsely pin 9/11 on Saddam Hussein, leading to the invasion of the wrong county, a protracted and completely unnecessary war that was responsible for the death in over 4000 U.S. troops, and over half a million Iraqi men, women, and children killed. But we were the ones fighting terrorism. We couldn’t possibly be the terrorists. Could we?
I visited Ground Zero the summer following the attack and I could still smell the dust of all the souls who had been atomized on that Tuesday in September. I’ve been to New York at least a dozen times since then and always notice what’s not there and what is. My recurring 9/11 dreams were central to my 2016 novel, The Dream Police. At the 9/11 memorial when I see the names of the victims who were pregnant women, I can’t help but convulse and every trip I make to Washington DC, I have a moment when I wonder what would have happened if the fourth plane had hit its intended target, the U.S. Capitol building. I carry this as trauma as does every American, to varying degrees, who remembers that day.
But we also carry the trauma of all the other acts of terrorism, many done in our name or done by people who look like us against people who don’t look like us. We’ve become blasé to the trauma and really good at rationalizing the traumatizing of others. We’ve become masters at dehumanizing the “other.” They see us as “infidels” and we see them as “fanatics.” They see us as “libtards” and we see them as “Nazis.” Nobody is just a human being capable of love and redeemable imperfection. If you told members of the radical right or the radical left they could push a button to launch a drone strike to wipe out the other side, the air would be filled robots on their death trips.
Trauma requires healing and there has been a lot of healing in the last 20 years. New Yorkers are resilient. The passengers on Flight 93 showed great courage in the face of their own deaths. And the work of the war machine that launches drone strikes into wherever continues at the Pentagon. But the healing is hampered by all the other terror we inflict on each other. An open wound never truly heals.
I will never forget that day. The confusion of wondering if it was real or a movie. The image of people choosing to jump rather than burn. The realization that the world would never be the same. But I will also never forget a lot of other things, including what happened in a Mesa, Arizona gas station four days after the attack and what happened two weeks ago in Kabul. Never forget any of it.
“Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do.” – John Lennon
I was sitting in a refugee center in Leeds, England yesterday, listening to the story of migrants from many places, including Syria, Slovakia, and Kenya. Most are in a bind as the British nation decides what to do with the disastrous Brexit decision. The United Kingdom had been a part of the European Union, allowing Europeans to move freely about the continent. In 2016, while just enough Americans were voting (motivated, in part, by racist fears) for Donald “Would/wouldn’t” Trump, just enough Brits were voting (motivated, in part, by racist fears) to leave the EU.
Would Polish migrants have to leave friends and family and move back to Poland? Italians? Slovaks? Is the Britain just for the British? And what about the Syrian dentist who now has to work as London cab driver because his dental school credentials were no longer valid after he fled the war zone with his family? Who was “English” in a nation that proclaimed the global empire of Britannia? The black Jamaican? The brown Hindu? Racist groups like the English Defense League chant “Britain first!” (and Trump retweets their Islamaphobic posts), but who is “English” in the land invaded by Romans and Anglo-Saxons?
There was a time when there were no countries. Dinosaurs didn’t live in “Switzerland.” There was no Switzerland (formed in 1291 C.E.). Humans have walked the earth for 100,000 years and countries have barely been around for 2000 of those years. We had “tribes” and “lands,” but nations didn’t begin to appear until Japan was founded in 660 B.C.E., then San Marino (in what is now Italy) was founded in 301 B.C.E., and China was founded in 221 B.C.E.. People didn’t need passports 2000 years ago or even 200 years ago.
When I want to start my classroom discussion of the African slave trade, I draw on the chalkboard a picture of the Earth “upside down,” with Africa and South America on the top. The students are always confused and then I tell them that the little land mass pointing upward is Florida. They get it and laugh. The point is that white people created maps with their countries on top and black and brown people are “below.” North is “up.”
I’m old enough to remember the pictures of Earth from Apollo 8, fifty years ago. I was Cozy’s age and wondered where all the lines were that divided states and countries. My state was the pink one. Where was “Pacific Ocean” imprinted in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Was this a picture of Earth before men built walls and declared the people on the other side to be “murderers and rapists?” Or was this a picture from our future, after nations became obsolete?
In science fiction, aliens live on planets, not in countries. Spock was from Vulcan, not some country on Vulcan. Luke Skywalker was Tatooine, and all Tatooinoids hung together. What do they know that we don’t? If the Klingons can have planetary unity, why can’t we? But there we go planting American flags on the moon. God knows what Trump’s SPACE FORCE is going to do to Uranus.
As I wrote last week, no nation is guaranteed permanence. There will be a time when the United States of America ceases to exist. (It feels like that might be sooner than later.) There is also a time coming when no nations, in general, will exist. The question is – will we be here to enjoy that evolution in human existence, when there is no need for man made borders? Nation states? Meh.
This work I’m doing in Europe has reminded me of the limitation of these political inventions called “nations.” It seems like we should be smarter than this by now. While fascists clamor for a new nationalism so they can push some group out, more people see themselves as global citizens. A 2016 survey of 20,000 people in 18 countries found that half saw themselves as global, instead of national, citizens (30% of Germans and 73% of Nigerians). As Cozy recently told me, “Daddy, we don’t live in America, we live in Portland!”
So many of our problems are caused by the existence of these silly things called countries. That includes wars and economic exploitation. It’s OK that people suffer in factories to make our smart phones and other “can’t live without” items because they’re in other countries. It’s not like they’re real people. It’s us verses them, people (and non-people). Maybe we should go back to a time when there was only the various peoples of the Planet Earth. Would that be such a bad thing? The Vulcans would deem it logical.