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

February 27, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Envisioning Our Renaissance at Home: Life After the Pandemic

March 8, 2021

A year ago, we were in a panic. I remember walking into the grocery store on February 29th, and seeing every roll of toilet paper gone. (I bought a 6-pack of Corona and went home.) Now, after over half a million deaths in America, the light is at the end of the tunnel. Things are beginning to open, like a late-winter purple crocus. Thirty million Americans have already been vaccinated. (I’m scheduled for my Pfizer vaccine on Saturday!) Schools are making plans to reopen and restaurants are starting to seat diners. The insanity of March 2020 is being answered by the hopefulness of March 2021. There are still incredibly high rates of infection (Don’t you dare take off that mask!), but the future looks bright.

I’ve done several trainings on racial and ethnic inequities related to the COVID-19 infection and death rates (and now immunization access) over the past year. I always try to balance all the doom and gloom with a “silver lining” ending about the power of resistance and resilience. Looking back at history, the explosion of cultural creation that began in the Renaissance of the 15th century was a life-affirming response to the “black death” of the 14th century’s bubonic plague pandemic. The “Roaring Twenties” were a celebratory pivot from World War 1 and the influenza pandemic that wiped out nearly 100 million people a century ago. Maybe this pandemic will give us a new Renaissance, I would offer my bummed-out audiences.

So let me throw an idea into our grand re-opening.

We’ve survived this year-long pandemic in various ways. Mainly retreating from bars, clubs, restaurants, block parties, and family celebrations, as we socially distanced from each other. We’ve retreated into our phones (Tik-Tok as therapy?) and endless binges on the small screen. (I’ve seen every iteration of 90 Day Fiancé and am now bingeing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.) We’ve become anti-social. The majority of my college students mute their videos during our Zoom classes. I’m not sure if they are human beings or Russian bots. Can I get a human interaction??? So the response to this year of isolation is to become SUPER SOCIAL.

People of America, let me reintroduce the once popular pastime known as home entertainment.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my parents were always going to parties. My brother and I were either stuck with a babysitter, or peaking under the bedroom door wondering who all the laughing people in our house were. My mom hosted bridge parties, my dad hosted poker parties. My parents belonged to a gourmet dinner club and, when it was their turn, cooked and decorated the house for disco-era foodies. I grew up thinking every weekend was a house party. Complete with a wet bar. To this day when I hear Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass my mouth waters for leftover hors d’oeuvres.

What did the swinging parents of the Seventies have that we don’t?

Well, for starters, they didn’t have social media sucking their eyeballs in an endless doom scroll. They also had better wages that allowed them to keep the wet bar stocked. But post-pandemic, we have a greater desire to be in a living room together, reading faces sans masks. (Did Ms. McGillicuddy just lick her lips while she handed me that Gin Rickey?) If there ever was a generation that was desperate to sit on a sectional couch and complain about kids and parents and government, it’s Generation Zoom.

So let’s bring it all back. Card games, Monopoly, charades, dinner parties, album listening sessions, jigsaw puzzles, Twister, fancy cocktails, inappropriate party games. All of it. Except the misogyny. We can leave that in the Seventies. (No key parties!) If the women want to smoke cigars in the backyard and complain about how their men are crappy at laundry while the men clean up the spilled Chex Mix, let ‘em. The kids can be locked in the bedrooms, watching the Wizard of Oz (or Ozark), while the parents crack open another bottle of pinot in the kitchen.

We’ll be back in the clubs and bars, seeing bands and getting Ubers home soon enough. But let’s not go back to normal. Normal sucked, too, if you remember. I don’t want 2019. Nobody wants 2019. If it’s Saturday evening, either you are going to somebody’s home for dinner, or you’re having somebody over for dinner. And then maybe an apéritif (Look up that word, loser) and a nice game of Parcheesi or even Cards Against Humanity. We need this! We need to sit across from each other, at a card table, and reconnect.

Great things can come from this. During the Enlightenment, salons became all the rage in Paris. People turned their living spaces into community meeting places, called salons. In apartments and front rooms, people would gather to discuss art, politics, and the meaning of existence in a post-Dark Ages Europe. German sociologist Georg Simmel invented the field of small group dynamics by observing interactions of salon participants. The next generation of grand ideas is not going to come from hunched-over trolls, sliding though endless posts on Instagram. It’s going to come from the collision of ideas that occur during a game of rummy, fueled by Whiskey Sours.

During the quarantine, we decided to take on a kitchen remodel in our 1909 Portland Craftsman home (with a very out-of-date 1960s kitchen). We want to turn our home into a welcoming place where people can bring a bottle of wine and stay as late as they want. No TV, we’re adding another couch to the living room for relaxed conversations. I’m going to re-learn how to play poker. (Seventh grade was a long time ago.) We want to start a circle of friends who feel comfortable inviting each over to their homes, even if it’s for a cocktail before heading out to the movies.  (Remember going to the movies? And friends?) Enough take out. Let’s cook in! And invite the neighbors! Home entertaining could be the great salve we’ve secretly craved. You’ve spent a year cleaning your place, for godssake.

Our culture is so divided right now. Let’s get to know each other again. Let our homes become safe spaces to argue and discuss and figure out what our Roaring Twenties should look like. I want you to dress for the occasion. I’ll bring the deviled eggs. Cheers!