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)

To Escalate or De-escalate, That is the Question

August 23, 2022

Fifty-four years ago this week, the dramatic violence outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago (August 23 to 28, 1968) defined an era of protest. It is now generally viewed as a “police riot.” The Chicago Police violently assaulted peaceful demonstrators, leading to numerous arrests and injuries, escalating the bloody street clashes. The mayhem was mostly broadcast on live TV, with the young protestors chanting, “The whole world is watching!”

In 2011, 43 years later those who studied the carnage from Chicago ’68 put those lessons to work. As the Occupy Wallstreet protests spread across the country, especially here in Portland, police utilized a new tactic – de-escalation. The old method of police knocking hippie heads tended to backfire and bring more civilians into the battle (and spurred increasingly costly lawsuits against police departments). In 2011, I spent many long nights in the three downtown squares claimed by Occupy protestors. The police kept their distance and let the people air their grievances. Eventually the protest ran its course and everyone went home. No teargas. No violence. The opposite was the case in 2020 when federal law enforcement arrived to quash the Black Lives Matter protests and turned downtown Portland into a war zone. I will never forget hiding behind concrete columns as feds, in heavily militarized gear, shot their weapons randomly down 5th Avenue.

Following the January 6th riot, we’ve re-entered the debate about de-escalating the violence. A 2022 University of California, Davis survey found that 1 in 4 Americans think violence against the government is sometimes OK and 1 in 10 feel political violence is justified right now. (Not surprisingly, these numbers are much higher among Republicans.) This call to violence has only escalated in the wake of the FBI’s warranted search (it wasn’t a “raid”) of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound to retrieve stolen classified documents. America suddenly seems close to falling into the tarpit of another civil war. Maybe the country needs to take a massive chill pill.

I’m privileged to be a part of a federally funded project to look at ways to interrupt extremist violence in America called Cure-PDX. The basic idea is that if there are individuals at risk of committing acts of political violence, whether they’re coming from the right or left or somewhere off the charts, there should be a way to get them to “de-escalate” and find a non-violent way to express their, perhaps legitimate, grievances. It’s not about de-radicalization. (As a sociology professor, I like to joke that I’m the radicalization field.) It’s about moving individuals back from the ledge of violence, before they go on a shooting spree, blow something up, or commit a hate crime.

The logic of de-escalation makes sense. Fewer victims of extremist violence seems like an easy sell. But our team ran to some push-back from some activists on both the right and left who argued, given the current state of affairs, this is the exact time TO escalate violence, before things tip over. Political scientists will tell you that extremists movements tend to have an apocalyptic element. The sky is always falling. But these days it’s hard not to share that sentiment. The left thinks democracy is one election away from disappearing and the right thinks the “Biden FBI” is coming to throw patriots into concentration camps. I will admit one thing, a part of me has considered arming up to protect my family from Proud Boys and the unorganized militias of the right.

I reflected on my time this spring in Ukraine. I was not involved in de-escalation. I was helping the Ukrainian army escalate the you-know-what out of things. The stuff I brought in from Poland in the back of a van ended up in the hands of soldiers in Irpin and very likely helped them kill many Russian conscripts as they valiantly reclaimed the city. I may have Russian blood on my hands. How do I sleep at night? Like a baby. I wish there was a non-violent solution but if you had seen what I had, you wouldn’t want de-escalation in that moment either. While there, I kept remembering a Bruce Cockburn song that went, “If I had a rocket launcher…Some son of a bitch would die.”

So who am I to tell other people to de-escalate?

Well, we’re not Ukraine, occupied by a civilian-slaughtering invader. We still have a Constitution and free elections. Despite Trump’s attempt to dismantle our democracy, the house still stands. Everything the left and right want can be addressed without violence. There are political strategies that can build the middle while giving voice to those who feel marginalized, including 70-something straight white cis men who are scared shitless by “woke politics” (whatever that is).

I just watched Netflix’s three-part documentary on Woodstock ’99. (I was briefly a Limp Bizkit fan, shhh.) The violent destruction at the 3-day festival, including the numerous sexual assaults, is a perfect example of the contagious nature of violence. Kids were suddenly burning down buildings. The madness of the moment consumed them. If I had been there (as I had planned to), I could have been one of them. America is at risk of “Woodstock ’22” becoming our descent into political violence as the mob mentality of us versus them sweeps the nation. Libtards versus Nazis. But, there is no us versus them, just us. And we have a brief window in history to de-escalate. If we miss it, it’s gonna make Woodstock ’99 look like Woodstock ’69. 

Recent data shows that 80 percent of domestic terrorist plots that have been prevented were stopped because someone known to the potential offender came forward. We all can play the role of “credible messenger” to those at risk of escalating to violence. “Hey Frank, I now you want to storm the capitol, but can we just hang out and watch some cat videos?” Frank just got saved from a world of regret. It is worth pursuing this approach first and save the insanity (and body count) of escalation for another day. Non-violence is still the preferred path.

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.

Seriously, What’s Wrong with Men? Lighting Fires in Post-Roe America

May 12, 2022

In the 1990s, I assigned a book entitled Men Are Not Cost Effective to my criminology students. June Stephen’s 1991 book makes the case that men commit the overwhelming majority of crimes and each of those crimes carries a financial burden represented in the costs of policing, courts, incarceration, parole, probation, rehabilitation, and crime prevention programs. Since half of the tax bill for funding all this falls on women who are not committing these crimes, Stephenson argues men should pay a “man tax” to pay for their bad behavior.

How little things have changed in 30 years. From shootings on New York subway trains to the genocidal violence being levied by Russians against the people of Ukraine, men’s bad behavior seems completely unrestrained and even facilitated by some women. After I returned from Ukraine, a story broke about a Russian soldier whose wife gave him permission to rape Ukrainian women. This was reported before and after numerous stories of Russian soldiers raping the victims of their invasion. What is wrong with men?

It should be of no surprise to anyone that Donald Trump’s Supreme Court is doing exactly what he said it would in snuffing out women’s bodily autonomy by reversing Roe v. Wade. In Trump’s misogynistic world, women’s and girl’s bodies belong to men. Their “pussies” are there to be grabbed by MAGA men and raped by Russian soldiers. Their duty is to look good to male eyes and not challenge male authority. And they will be rewarded for maintaining that status quo whether it’s the small college scholarships from Trump’s uber-creepy Miss Teen USA contest, or being handed “careers” while towing the big lies of the Trump administration (I’m looking at you, Kayleigh McEnany). When women play their “be a good girl” role, the rewards follow. Women and girls are to be looked at, not to offer opinions about their ownership of their bodies. A similar case was made a hundred years ago against “giving” women the right to vote. Why did they need to vote when they had husbands to do that for them? Seriously, what’s wrong with men?

The traditional way of defending the radical idea that female human beings are human beings ain’t working. The ballot box has failed us. Post-reproductive women in the Senate,  like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowksi (64) and Maine’s Susan Collins (69) just voted against codifying women’s reproductive rights into federal laws. And batshit crazy Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert are chomping at the bit to force American women and teenage rape victims to give birth. They are only one or two degrees away from the Russian wives encouraging their husbands to rape Ukrainian women. So if putting our faith in Election Day and singing, “We shall overcome, someday” is playing out as moving us backwards in women’s rights, what’s the better strategy?

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 woke up a lot of white people. Folks of all races took to the streets. Shit got fucked up. There were fires this time. And even though 93 percent of Black Lives Matter protests were completely peaceful, the riots captured the news cycle. We now know that President Trump wanted federal troops to shoot BLM protestors in front of the White House. But like how the riots following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. pushed Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act, the turmoil of 2020 worked. Research shows that cities that had BLM protests saw a reduction in police killings. There were countless policy reforms and, while some were merely cosmetic, they reflected the shift in America’s opinions on institutional racism in the justice process. Deep conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) became normalized in private and the public sectors. (I can’t count how many workshops on implicit bias I conducted after the tear gas cleared.)

There are a lot more women and girls in America than black people. The summer of 2022 could make the summer of 2020 look like the summer of 1020. (I’m assuming the summer of 1020 was pretty chill, but Wikipedia just told be that Italy was on fire.) The patriarchal line is that women are more relational and less action oriented than men, but those people weren’t here in Portland to see women (and many teenage girls) on the front lines. The Wall of Moms, anarchists, high schoolers, and the founders of Black Lives Matters; everywhere in 2020 women were up in The Man’s face demanding change.

According to every Republican running for governor in Oregon, “violent protestors” were burning down cities in 2020. I live in Portland and was at the protests numerous nights. There were a couple of brief bonfires set in the middle of the street and a handful of trashcans set on fire. Portland was not “burned to the ground” or even burned. But those images sure got a lot attention because the fire next time was potentially real. In 2022, there may be a value in a few well placed dumpster fires, particularly from Alabama to Texas (what we can call the Gilead Belt), but there’s a larger question that needs to be addressed first, what’s wrong with men?

What is it in men’s psyche that keeps them thinking the oppression of others is in their long term interest? Whether it’s old white men, like Mitch McConnell and his boss Vladimir Putin, or younger sex-traffickers like Matt Gaetz, or just the average Joe Blow on the street, it seems like men as a whole are hell bent on doing jack shit to end their oppression of women and girls. From unequal pay to sexual assault to endless public commentary on Hilary Duff’s (airbrushed) body after birthing three kids (gasp!), patriarchy remains firmly in place, and no amount of elderly white ladies in Congress, or their younger white counterparts who are backed by the fanatics of MAGA (Make America Guys Again), will change that.

We need spies inside the halls of patriarchy to find answers. In 1963, feminist writer Gloria Steinem went undercover as a “bunny” at the Playboy Club in New York City. Her exposé, “A Bunny’s Tale,” revealed how adult women were treated and harassed in Hefner’s clubs that were the symbol of modern masculinity 60 years ago. Maybe a new generation of women can attach themselves to the arms of the captains of industry, hang out at gun shows, or get jobs at whatever strip club Samual Alito sneaks into, and find out why these men are so fragile. Why does the oppression of women, immigrants, the poor, and minorities make them feel powerful? Why does using young men to be rapist soldiers in their wars of choice make them feel like their penises still work?

Speaking of penises, we might get a little help from Freud here. Psychoanalytic feminists look to Freud’s idea that early childhood experiences subconsciously shape our adult personality. Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), argues that children are all initially intimately connected to their mothers as the primary sources of sustenance and nurturing. But then boy children are pulled away from their mothers and expected to attach to their fathers. This separation anxiety becomes a psychosis in which the mother is framed as the source of rejection and that anger is levied at all women. In addition, since the separation was not boys’ choice, the desire to control others choice becomes a subconscious mandate.

It’s not a stretch to guess that Trump has serious issues with regard to his Scottish mother, Mary Anne, as Putin likely does with his factory worker mom, Maria. On the other side, Joe Biden seems to have a long and loving relationship with his mother until her death in 2010 at 92. Is understanding why so many men are invested in patriarchal control (and why others seem less so) as simple as understanding the separation anxieties they feel toward their mothers? It would explain why the so many men take a dim view of therapy. If therapy can repair early childhood trauma, what’s left for the misogynist? Being a god is much more affirming than just being a human being.

Pyscho-babble aside, the old strategy of politely asking men not to oppress women and girls in every single aspect of society and phase of life, from the devaluing of female babies to the invisibility of older women, is not working. Until we can fix men’s fragile minds, there might have to be some shit that gets set on fire. It’s worked in the past.

The Rescue of the Girl in the Red Coat: Gratitude for One Ukrainian Dad

April 17, 2022

It wasn’t until my tenth day home from my Poland-Ukraine trip that I really had a chance to process what the experience meant and why I felt so different upon my return. I knew I was different but I wasn’t sure why or how. I could write it off, as I had been describing it to friends, as a “thimble full of PTSD,” but it was something else. My therapist asked me for the one resonating image of time in the conflict zone. There was no hesitation in my answer.

Before crossing into Ukraine we went to a town on the Poland-Ukraine border called Korzowa. The Polish government had taken a massive abandoned shopping mall called Centrum Handlu and turned it into a refugee resettlement center. We were there to retrieve a mother and her kids and get them to a safe house. When we arrived in our passenger van, I immediately recognized the building from the news reports I had watched in Portland. I saw the chef from World Central Kitchen, José Andrés, preparing meals outside the building and the trucks bringing in supplies from across Europe.

Sally, our fearless leader, reminded me not to take pictures inside, as these severely traumatized people needed compassion and not to be treated like zoo animals. That was fine because the memories of the sea of displaced humanity inside the mall will forever travel with me.

It was midday so the thousands of cots were mostly stacked up but there were still many parents and children trying to sleep in the bright industrial lights. We found our family in an arrangement of couches they had made their “room” for a few days, a mother, six girls, and a Pekingese, who peed on the floor while we waited for their shelter discharge papers. It was clear that many of the Ukrainian children were afraid of strange men because of what they witnessed from the Russian soldiers who drove them from their homes, so I did my best to be cheerful, always sharing pictures of my daughter, Cozy.

While we waited to be released, I scanned the countless people who were trying to figure out the next steps in this insane disruption. My eyes stopped on a father sitting in the middle of the floor with a few bags and his daughter, who was wearing a red coat. The look on his face was of complete loss. His country was suddenly at war, his life as he knew it had evaporated, and he had no idea what was going to happen next. He had his hand on his daughter and occasionally stroked her hair, but he kept his face from her eyes. I held my phone at my waist and took one picture. I didn’t want to forget his face. That could be Cozy and I so easily.

Reflecting on the moment with my therapist, my first feeling was of sadness. While I was there, I saw so many families turned into “refugees” overnight as the Russian rockets crashed into their homes. But the more I thought about it, I started to see him as a hero. He was Atticus Finch, making the tough choices to protect his child. The refrain across the border was “Heroyam slava!” (“Glory to the heroes!” In Ukrainian.) This father wasn’t shooting at Russians, but he was still doing something heroic.

And his daughter was wearing a red coat. The girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List had haunted me during my day at Auschwitz the following month. But unlike that girl, who would end up in a pile of corpses headed for the crematorium, this girl in a red coat would escape to safety. Because of her father.

While in Poland and Ukraine, I routinely reflected on how lucky I was. A home, a family, safety. There was a moment when we were heading west, across the Ukrainian countryside with another displaced family in the van, that I noticed the color of the sky was the same color blue as on the Ukrainian flag. I thought about how that same sky was over my daughter who was safe with her mother, over 5000 miles away. The endless pain caused by stupid anger was evident on the faces of the Ukrainian children I met. What could I do to reduce the pain from anger in my own home?

When the momentum of the global travel began to subside (my sleep schedule is still on Poland time), those images and lessons began to settle in the front of my brain. Andi and I had an honest discussion about our relationship, her relationship, and the likely direction of things. The anger that had been there just lifted. I’d seen too many families ripped apart by pointless anger. I’d seen the trauma on the faces of kids whose parents were pulled in opposite directions and unable to be fully present. Things immediately improved between us. Yesterday we took Cozy to an Easter egg hunt and Andi put her head on my shoulder as we watched our child race across the grass. And today we are going to a Thorns game as family. It feels like a spring rebirth. All it took was me seeing that Ukrainian father and his girl in the red coat.

I don’t know how the war in Ukraine will play out. The same is true with events in my life. We both have some rough months ahead. In Krakow, I started the process of getting “лава Україні” (Glory to Ukraine) tattooed on my arm and finished it in Portland. The blue of the Ukrainian flag inked into my skin will serve to remind me that the love that connects us across the planet will always win out over the anger. This Easter Sunday, that suddenly means enough. Upon returning home I learned that Oliwia Dabrowska, who played the girl in the red coat on a Krakow street in Schindler’s List is now 32-years-old and has been doing refugee work in Poland at Centrum Handlu. We probably crossed paths. She’s a hero, and, OK, maybe I’m a thimble full of hero to my daughter and to those little girls I helped get to safety. Heróyam sláva!

Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Seen, Who I Am: A Brief Reflection of My Time in Ukraine/Poland

April 5, 2022

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.

Panic in Auschwitz: Putting the Present Moment in Context

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

April 2, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first chapter of Ellie Wiesel’s Night is a cautionary tale. The Jews who lived in his Hungarian village thought they were far enough from the war 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.

One Night in Lviv (Makes a Hard Man Humble)

March 28, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 26, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 25, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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