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Say You, Say Me: My Thoughts on Ukraine

We’re been watching the news around the clock. We’re astonished by what we’re seeing. We’re in constant communication with family and friends over in Ukraine, and the situation is grim indeed. A week and a half ago—before the Russians began perpetrating their war crimes—we were able to get my sister-in-law and my two nephews, 11 and 8, out of Kyiv. They’re staying with us now.



That’s Sanya and Misha in the helmets, ice skating at our local YMCA. They’re safe. They’re having fun, as kids should. Meanwhile, half a world away, their home is being destroyed by savages. We have extended family and dear friends who remain in Ukraine, desperate for shelter, fighting for their lives. Men, ages 18-60, are not permitted to leave the country. They must stay and fight. Families are being separated. The elderly, the disabled, are being left without caregivers. It’s a catastrophe.


I’m going to talk about my connection to Ukraine. Before I do that, I will state my view on the current situation. The EU should declare war on Russia. America should follow suit and join the conflict in support of our allies. Our European friends told Russia not to invade. Russia replied, “F-off, we’re doing it.” Imagine if a hostile power pulled the same thing in Canada. The US would be there, day one. NATO was designed not just as a security blanket for member nations but to stop this exact kind of human rights disaster from happening in Europe ever again. Today, our allies hide behind the coalition, using it as an alibi for cowardice. “Okay, we told you not to do that, but you did it, and we’re not really going to do anything to stop you, but if you step one foot on our soil, you’ll be in real trouble!” It’s pathetic. The inevitable outcome of Western impotence is a world that we don’t want to live in. People get to elect their leaders. The strong cannot be allowed to prey on the weak. Innocent people shouldn’t be shot in the street, run over by tanks, or shelled in their homes. We all believe these things. There are dictators in the world—monsters in the world—who do not. The EU should declare war on Russia, then request our support, which we should immediately grant.


Now, on to why I care.


My wife, Maria (Masha), was born in Ukraine. We’ve been married for fourteen years and together for nineteen. We have two children, 9 and 8. We met in the classic way that boys from Averill Park, NY meet beautiful foreign girls—at a karaoke bar in downtown Albany. I was on stage, singing “Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Richie. The door opened. In she walked. She looks so intelligent, I thought. I bet she has a wonderful mind! Then, I noticed how gorgeous she was. Growing up, while other boys were doing macho things in mesh jerseys, I was treading the boards in pancake makeup. C’mon, Nicky, I thought to myself as I eyed my future bride. Let’s hit her with a little bit of the ol’ theater arts. I sang. I danced. I aimed my “Say You, Say Me” directly at her. The song concluded, generous applause was offered, and there was Masha at the bar, cheering the loudest. I made my way over and we spoke for the first time.


“I like your shoes,” I said.


“I like your shoes,” she replied.


“You’re foreign!” I squealed.


She was from Ukraine. Studying for her master’s at SUNY. I was… what was I doing? “Finding myself, I guess.”


Here are two photos from that evening, taken from a friend’s camera that was a camera, not a phone.



There are no photos of us together from that night. We’d just met. Why would we pose together? We flirted, mingled apart, flirted again, mingled apart, and just as I was working up my nerve to ask for her number, she was gone! She left! HOW WAS I GOING TO FIND HER!? What a loser I was! I kicked a trash can, was threatened with suspension, and apologized to the barkeep.


Two weeks went by. I went camping with the boys and prepared this chicken.



When men take to the forest, they consume nothing but meat and malt, so when I got back to Albany, I was dying for some fiber. I showered up, walked from my apartment to Bomber’s Burrito Bar, and ordered a veggie burrito.


THERE. SHE. WAS! The beautiful Ukrainian woman from karaoke! She was having margaritas with friends (an activity she enjoys to this day). I approached. “She’s been looking for you,” one of her friends teased. “I’ve been looking for her,” I assured. We got a table of our own; talked for a bit. I asked her for her number. “If you don’t call within two days, don’t bother,” she told me. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” I said, then stood and marched out of the restaurant. I was dazed. It was all so crazy! I needed to get back to headquarters, assess the situation, and plan for our next encounter.


We dated. We fell in love. Then we broke up. These things happen. She moved to Manhattan. I remained Upstate, and we were no longer in communication.


What follows will sound like BS, but there are witnesses, and I assure you, it’s all true.


Six months after the split, a business opportunity presented itself down in NYC. Three weeks, web design stuff. I subletted a room from a couple of pals and dragged a dirty old memory foam down to Manhattan. My first night there, we went out for drinks. “How have you been?” my pals asked me. “Okay,” I said. “But I miss Masha. I think she might have been the one—and I let her go.” My wise friend, Dennis, was compassionate and understanding. My mischievous friend, Liam, offered a different form of therapy. “Let’s go sing Karaoke.”


They escorted me to an upscale lounge on the Lower East Side. This was not the raucous, drunken, displaced-community-theater crowd I was used to. If I were going to sing, it would be to a room of chic urban professionals. I filled out a slip and picked my best: “Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Richie. My time came. I sang. The room was cold and disinterested. At some point, I noticed my friends over toward the bar, looking at me with awed expressions. What!? I demanded via gesture. My performance is lackluster! This room sucks! I turned back toward the crowd. There was Masha, standing at the foot of the stage.


She’d been on her way home from work, walking with some colleagues. “Let’s go in there!” one of them said, pointing to the lounge I was in. Masha saw a bald man outside. That man was not me. “I don’t like balds,” she said, very much referring to me. They went to a bar across the street. Eventually, her co-workers convinced her to get over her bald prejudice and join them for karaoke. She walked in as I was taking the stage.


I’ve got a thick head. One shot from a hammer, I can take, and a second, I can shrug off, but hit me in the cabbage a third time and my cranial density begins to break down. We started dating again. This and that, this and that, and then, it was decided. We’d go to Ukraine, I’d meet her family, and I’d ask her to marry me.


I landed in Kyiv. I was greeted by dancing Ukrainians in American flag underwear.



The men pictured are named Yura and Sergi. I love them. They’re currently sheltered in Lviv, fifty miles from the Polish border, unable to leave, scared for their lives.


I was treated to some of the most delicious meals I’ve had in my life.



That’s Vita at the head. A fantastic person, exceptional cook, mother, grandmother, and an administrator at the Ukrainian (currency) mint. Her husband, Konstantin, took the photo. He’s a tireless worker—former head of the Ukrainian National Archive, now retired. A few summers ago, Vita and Konstantin stayed at our home, and Konstantin built a trellis for the concord grapes in our backyard. You see Sergi again on the left, next to his wife Vera, with his daughter Luba on his lap.


We toured Kyiv.



Left to right: Lesia, Sasha, and their daughter Anna. Old friends of Masha’s. In recent years, Lesia has become a YouTube cooking star, creating recipe videos that garner millions of views.


Sasha is a quiet, poetic fellow—the kind of “tortured soul” you find in that part of the world, betrayed by a dry whit that can leave you rolling. He’s also a corporate lawyer. Anna just entered college, studying international relations. She’s getting quite a lesson in that discipline right now. The family attempted to cross into Poland two days ago. They were told that Lesia and Anna could go, but Sasha would have to stay and fight. They decided that the family would remain together in Ukraine, come what may.


We played badminton.



I introduced my new Ukrainian family to (American) (flag) football.



The man with the ball is named Kashik. If you have any questions about Ukrainian national identity, please note the colors he showed up in. The man going for the tackle is named Koka. The photo above marks the start of an electrifying pursuit, but in the end, the linebacker prevailed.



Koka is a close friend. He manufactures and sells fine wood objects—décor, furniture, kitchen implements—and I’m a sucker for fine wood objects. He lives in Kyiv with his beautiful wife Oxana and their two children, Daria (9) and Sophia (6). Kashik is a respected financial journalist. His lovely wife is also named Oxana, and they’ve got three kids, Andriy (14), Alexander (11), and Alexi (3).


The two men pictured above, so happy on the day this photo was taken, remain in Ukraine with their families, knowing that they’ll likely have to defend everything they love, everything they have, with guns they’re not trained in, with Molotov cocktails they just made in the sink, against trained killers with jets, tanks, and fully automatic weapons.


After about a week in Kyiv, we took a train down to the Crimean Peninsula to meet Masha’s parents.



Who could have known that years later, in 2014, Masha’s hometown would be illegally annexed by Russia; that we’d never be able to return; that my children would never get to see where their mom grew up? My mother- and father-in-law are now “Russian”—though that “fact” is only recognized by nations like Cuba, North Korea, and Syria. At the time, Crimea was a contented place, and the people, though proud of their Russian heritage, did not loathe their status as Ukrainian citizens.



Masha’s parents procured those flags before our arrival and placed them in our hands when they greeted us at the train station. I was not handed a Russian flag. They gave me a Ukrainian one. Times have changed.


Also, please note: the captain’s hat was given to me. I didn’t go to Ukraine and think how cool would it be for me to walk around in a captain’s hat?



My first dinner with my in-laws. That night, after mom and daughters were off to bed, my father-in-law, Yuri, produced a massive bottle of vodka, and we engaged in the old Slavic tradition of “officially ask for daughter’s hand, proceed with interview, discuss poetry, music, literature, present your prospects in life, all while showing utmost respect for your future father-in-law while he drinks you under the table.” I aced in all categories but one. I do not allow others to “drink me.” Not anywhere, and certainly, not under a table. We went shot-for-shot and finished the bottle. I don’t regret it, though I did for the following three days.


It’s easy to see why Russia would covet Crimea. Beyond the “only warm water naval port” business, the place is beautiful.



We rented that boat for the day. The captain—at the till, and not me in that silly hat!—was free to fly whatever banner he wanted.



Great beaches. And they’ve got ancient Greek stuff!



Masha’s grandmothers, Vala and Eda—sadly, both passed since then—welcomed our engagement with the Bread and Salt ceremony.



And so it was. And so it was. Visits back, visits here, on through the years ensuing, and other friends and family who I don’t have photos of.


Here in the states, we don’t know much about Eastern Europe. Why would we? We have our own stuff going on. When I mention Ukraine, people seem to think “they all want to come to the US”—that the country is like something out of Borat. This is not the case. Ukraine is vibrant, distinctive, dynamic, and full of things you’d like to do. The people are warm and curious. They work hard and care deeply about their families and neighbors.


“But Russia has nuclear weapons!”


So do we. So does France. So does England. So does Germany. So does China, and North Korea, and so does, so does, so does. Once you have one, does that mean you get to kill innocent children? If America didn’t have nuclear weapons (most nations don’t) would it be okay for a nuclear-armed country to kill your children? We’re not the ones threatening to use nuclear weapons. Russia is. They’re making that threat because they want the civilized world to stand back, like slack-jawed imbeciles, while they rape a nation and a people who are just like us. Ukraine is one of ours, after all. A western-style democracy. America isn’t perfect, or even near it, but we have never, in our history, gone to war against another democracy. It begs the question—if all the people of the world were permitted to pick their leaders freely, would we ever go to war? I think not, and we’ll never know.


America should not be the head of this spear. The EU should lead. This is happening on their continent. The violence threatens their borders. But if they act—if they have the guts to do what’s not just right, but obvious—we should back them up.


Russia has made a calculus. “If not now, when?” The western world must ask itself the same question. When it comes to a world that our children can live in, can thrive in; a world that can deal with the extinction-level problems we face as a planet; well, there are choices that must be made NOW. If we don’t make those choices—if we keep stuffing our faces and chugging our lattes—then we’re exactly what the world’s dictators say we are. Weak. Decadent. In decline. I, for one, am sick of fearing that they may be right.


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