Discover more from Both Are True
Humor During Wartime
A year and a month into the Ukraine war + Strudels + 'what the hell is fair?'
I was born in Odesa, Ukraine. I spent the first seven years of my life there, and yet, I’m ashamed to admit that days, sometimes weeks, can go by without me thinking about the war at all.
To move freely between thoughts of war and a life of peace is the ultimate luxury, a privilege I did not earn. My parents and I got lucky: we were allowed to leave in 1994. I was seven years old.
Otherwise I’d be there, fighting for Ukraine along with my dad who, at age 59, would be just two years short of the 60-year age cap for mandatory conscription.
I feel shame when I think about it, which is probably why I don’t. But, shame isn’t a useful emotion though. Another luxury of peacetime, shame looks inward, blaming and loathing the self without doing much for anyone else. Add a bit of helplessness and you’ve got a recipe for the exact nihilism that Putin and others want, for us to say, “there’s nothing we can do anyways, so why bother?”
But still, I bother. And I believe sharing a story like this is better than not, so here it is.
I wrote this essay in March 2022, a month after the Ukrainian war began, so when you see mentions of the war in its 2nd month, that’s why. There’s info at the end about how you can help with donations, etc. Thanks for being here.
Humor during wartime
I'm on the phone with my grandpa Alik.
Today is the three year anniversary of his wife, my grandma Emma, passing away. We avoid the topic itself - what is there to say? - and instead discuss the little nothings - weather (cold), how he's feeling (fine. always fine), and a new topic: why the hell are there so many birds chirping in my Los Angeles backyard.
"Tvoyu mat" he says in Russian, which translates literally to "your mom" but more so means "oh my god," and also, upon research, is a key part of one of the four main swear words in our native tongue.
"He's got birds chirping and I'm freezing in Milwaukee," he growls.
I laugh and say "what do you want me to do, ask the birds to stop?"
"No," he says. "It’s pretty."
A second of silence, then he asks, "You gonna go to Odesa today?"
I respond, "No, not today. Tomorrow maybe."
We laugh without laughing.
Maybe Odesa IS the humor capital of the world
This has been Alik's go to joke lately - asking if today's a good day to travel to our homeland of Odesa, Ukraine in the midst war that rages into its second month with no end in sight.
When the war first started a month ago - I wrote about how it felt to watch from afar as my homeland was attacked. Specifically I wrote about Odesa, the city I was born and raised in until we moved to America:
According to my dad, Odesa is the humor capital of the world. This fact hasn’t been corroborated by any sources besides the super unbiased odessareview.com. This proclamation, in and of itself, is a very good joke. A great bit, to call yourselves the humor capital of the world. The comedy of these people, of my people, runs deep. I wonder what jokes one can make right now to deal with the pain, the fear, the uncertainty that you will see tomorrow. If anyone can do it, its the people of Odesa.
Thinking about Alik's joke, I realize that I was wrong.
Maybe being the self proclaimed humor capital of the world (still an incredible joke) has nothing to do with the quality of the jokes themselves, but something deeper, more essential: a proclamation that says “no matter how bad things get, we will still laugh, because when we laugh, we stay alive.”
Because within that joke is everything we cannot say. That we are here, in America, free from the struggle of leaving everything you know, refugees anew. The joy and pain of such a twisted arrangement, the deranged comedy of life on full display.
Ukraine was Alik’s home for sixty plus years. His father, my great grandfather, died in World War II fighting for Russia against the Nazis.
And now Alik sits in Milwaukee watching the president of his former USSR attack his homeland under the false pretense of ‘denazification’.
None of it makes any sense, but hey, we are alive, we might as well enjoy a strudel or two.
My grandma Emma made the best strudels in the Soviet Union. Like, imagine a Toaster Strudel but five times as thick and not frozen and full of the most delicious combo of apples, raisins, nuts, cherry, and/or cottage cheese you’ve ever had. And most importantly you did not need to squeeze out the frosting that looked very much like ***. They were insane. When we’d visit her and Alik, my dad would take home as much strudel as his suitcase allowed to eat in the coming days, weeks, and months. As long as possible.
I wonder what Emma would say about this war. Probably an “Oy” made up of mostly exhale, her head rocking side to side, hand to her cheek, until Alik walked in, grabbed a couple strudels with his meaty paws, and said something like “so when should we head back to Odesa? Tonight or wait till the morning so we can see the sunrise one last time before we all die.”
She would laugh and for a moment her heart would be free.
My dad tells me the worst part of watching the war on the news is the grandmothers. The frail babushkas being scuttled out of their homes. These strong, puckered faces of women who have endured so much - who have seen WWII and the invasion of the Nazis, the fall of the USSR, and of course the general malaise of living in a country that has provided little for its citizens, especially if they are Jewish - are now meant to spend their last few years as refugees?
For this, my dad says, the people of Ukraine will never forgive. They will never forget.
Hell hath no fury like a babushka scorned.
Meanwhile, back in America I spend most of the day reading the news and moping through a cycle of guilt into relief into forgetting that the war even exists right back to guilt. Rinse (with tears) and repeat.
I feel guilty most of the time - its not fair that I can live here, safe, and so many lose everything in Ukraine. And everywhere else across the globe, in countless conflicts that have no purpose.
I imagine what it would be like to share these feelings with Alik. He'd laugh and say "fair? what the hell is fair? Stop thinking so much and go kiss your wife, go watch your son try to stand. The hell is fair?"
And he's right. Because obsessing over my own privilege, I realize again and again even though I cannot stop myself, is ultimately not helpful. A self-hating, navel gazing exercise that focuses the attention inward, on the self, rather than outward, where it could do some good.
Putins come and go
The Odesa born poet Ilya Kaminsky recently published an essay titled “Poems In A Time Of Crisis.” (gifted NYT link - anyone can read for free). Kaminsky ends his piece trying to figure out how to support his people:
I ask how I can help. Finally, an older friend, a lifelong journalist, writes back: ‘Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.’
In the middle of war, he is asking for poems.
To which I believe the people of Odesa would add one thing - jokes.
Let us joke so that we may laugh.
Laugh so that we may not cry.
Laugh so that we may live to see this Putin go.
Till then, will I fly to Odesa today?
No. I’ll walk there and hope the war is over before I arrive.
It’s 6,542 miles from Los Angeles to Odesa. According to this ‘walk time calculator’ I found online, it’d take me 2617 hours to walk there (with a 10 min break to rest built in). That’s 109 days, so if I’d left as soon as I finished that piece, I’d have gotten there late July, early August.
And the war would still be going, and going longer still. Will I publish another piece on the two year anniversary of a war that’s still ongoing? Three-year? Five?
I truly fucking hope not.
How to help
I do have one small favor to ask: if possible, please redirect any feelings of sympathy you have toward the 14 million people displaced in Ukraine right now. They need it, and deserve it. I’ve got it made in the American shade.
Making donations really does help. Last year, we raised over $8,000 for a Polish org helping incoming refugees from Ukraine. It may not be much, but its a whole fuckload more than $0.
So let’s keep going. I’ve just set up a $25 monthly contribution to Voices of Children via Patreon, an organization specifically focused on providing psychological help to the Ukrainian children affected by the war. Here’s a big list of places to donate.
And here’s a great list of ways you can help without giving money.