• Mike Matson

No Gray Area

This column was published March 5, 2022 in the Manhattan Mercury.


Somewhere in Ukraine, there’s a white collar professional, a member in good standing of the trailing end of the baby boomer generation. His wife has a management-level professional job. They divvy up the household duty. She cooks, he cleans up.

He’s active in his community, has a mortgage, and sometimes forgets to take out the trash.

Like every morning, today, he is up early, feeds his dogs, and brews a pot of coffee. “Let the Russians drink tea,” he mumbles, realizing he is running low on coffee filters, pondering options if it gets worse. Punctuated by the sound of faraway explosions and artillery, he thinks about freedom, independence and what he’ll do when the sounds draw nearer.

He takes a shower and shaves. As he buttons his pants, he ponders the hard truth that he can no longer enjoy cake and pizza with impunity and that he should take more walks.

His son and daughter-in-law are physicians, or lawyers or accountants or social workers. They have a couple of little boys. The baby will celebrate his first birthday this summer. His son’s family lives a couple of hours away. He dotes on his grandsons and harbors retirement aspirations, but his pesky work ethic and responsibility gene hold sway. Their time is often not their own and he’s learned patience in attempting to get the whole family in one space at the same time.

This man’s mother is in her 80s, with a chronic heart condition. She has survived a pandemic. It can’t get any worse, he used to think.

Uzhhorod, Ukraine. A man says goodbye to his wife who is fleeing Russian aggression. (c. Yanosh Nemesh)

He is a child of the Cold War and remembers as a young man thinking Communism never lived up to its early billing. The wealth was never shared and life was hard. Back then, he didn’t think of Ukraine in terms of it being its own country, just another garden variety Soviet Socialist Republic.

He knows sanctions are the long game, and best case, involve the Russian people hoisting Putin on his own petard. That’s problematic when the man has raised propaganda to an art form.

He admires his own president, a generation younger. He smiled and offered up a silent “attaboy” when Volodymyr Zelensky shucked his suit, donned battle fatigues and told Americans who offered to transport him closer to the border, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

In hindsight, he wishes, now desperately, that his country would have done more than just tilt and lean in the direction of the European Union and NATO.

If only.

He can wrap his head around the 21st century global dynamics that prevent the Americans and the Europeans from sending troops. America’s divided, because Putin divided them with disinformation. America just bugged out of Afghanistan. He understands these geopolitics intellectually, but it does nothing to lighten his heavy heart.

He feels like he’s back in the 20th century and that he’s backed up against another iron curtain. Except there’s no fig leaf of Communism this time. Just a brutal, revanchist autocrat with delusions of 19th century Russian empire grandeur.

There’s not much gray area left in this man’s life. Because Ukraine is right and Russia is wrong, he is facing life or death decisions. Can he get his son, daughter-in-law and their two little boys in the same space? Can they travel, somehow, safely as a family to Poland or Moldova? What about Mom? What about the dogs?

He’s angry. He’s a patriot. And he is fearful.

We’re a lot alike, this man and me.

It’s not hard to imagine what he’s going through.