Ukraine and me

The Stepan Bandera Prospect in Ternopil, Ukraine. Photo: Mykola Vasylechko.

Given recent events, I thought I would republish the below, originally posted here in November 2019.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a few direct-mail scam artists showed up offering to research and produce your family’s very own heraldry for a nominal fee. “Did you know that the [Insert Family Name Here] has its own coat of arms? Think of it — an courageous eagle against a field of blue, a sword-carrying warrior against a field of red,” went some of the bulk-mail letters that accompanied these scams. “Suitable for framing, your coat of arms reflects your family’s proud history in empires around the world.” These occasionally showed up in my father’s mail, too. He’d read these letters and laugh. “You know what’s on the Hunka family coat of arms, George?” he’d say to me, tossing the mail into the trash. “A peasant hut against a field of poverty.”

He was probably not far off. My ancestors on both my mother’s and father’s side were uneducated peasants in Eastern and Central Europe back in 1900 — Ukraine, Slovakia, and Lithuania. Though family tradition had it that my paternal great-grandfather held some kind of position in a local Orthodox church in Ukraine, there is no real evidence to prove it (in any event, my paternal grandfather was a staunch atheist). And when they came to the United States in those unsettled years before the First World War, they found jobs suited to their family backgrounds. My paternal grandmother held a position as a charwoman in a local elementary school in Philadelphia; my paternal grandfather became a freelance electrician after being trained at the Valhalla Dam in New York; my maternal grandparents were coalminers, textile workers, and subsistence farmers in northeast Pennsylvania. While their children went on to earn college and university degrees in the 1950s and beyond, they themselves were the unskilled product of an agrarian land, and none of them was particularly cheerful — not surprising, coming from a region that was damp, cold, and gray every year from October through May. (I’m sure you can partially attribute the generally dour nature of Russian and Eastern European literature, even its humor, to the climate.)

Coat of arms or no, the casual amateur geneology research I’ve done over the past twenty years or so has turned up little in the way of my family’s history before 1900, indicative, perhaps, of their low status on the socioeconomic totem pole. The best I’ve been able to do is trace my grandfather back to the region from which he emigrated — the Ternopil oblast, about 125 km southeast of Lviv, which is listed as his original home on the register of the ship that brought him to Ellis Island in 1914. A little research, mainly through Roman Zakharii’s useful web site, revealed a tranche of Hunkas (or Gunkas) in a small town called Urman. He left behind a sister and brother when he embarked for the shores of New York; perhaps he left them there.

Urman is “a village of 622 people in Berezhany Raion (county) of Ternopil Oblast (province) of western Ukraine. It lies in the historic region of Halychyna (Eastern Galicia) and during 1772-1918 was part of Austrian empire, consequently of Poland in 1920-1939 and of Soviet Union in 1939-1991,” says Wikipedia. This being the internet era (and I having a little time on my hands), I did a quick Facebook search and turned up an English-speaking Hunka who still lived in Urman; we engaged in a brief correspondence that, alas, did not reveal anything except that if there were Hunkas or Gunkas in Urman at the turn of the century, there were still a few left. It may be likely that we share some blood, those Urman Hunkas and those on New York’s Lower East Side; it’s not a common name in either of those places. But farther than that I cannot go with any certainty.

All this, anyway, is mere genealogical bookkeeping. Apart from genetics, though, what interests me is what all this means for one’s temperament — personality traits and philosophical perspectives that we imbibe from our parents with our mother’s milk. We are imitative creatures, and we’re never more imitative than when we’re young; we observe our parents’ ways of speaking, their attitudes towards the world and each other, their moods and their likes and dislikes, and we incorporate them into ourselves unconsciously. Of course, we change — as we get older, we accept or reject the traits that we inherit as we see fit. It’s both a conscious and an unconscious project, and it affects us for both good and ill. And because our parents were imitative creatures too, they receive their temperaments from their parents, and back and back into the distant past.

Nor do these temperaments appear from nowhere. They’re formed by our (and their) reactions not only to family dynamics but also to history. Our attitudes towards money, violence, humility or pride, politics, power, culture, art — we absorb our parents’ responses to these too, perhaps not as intensely as we do those things closer and more intimate to us, but we absorb (and later in life accept or reject) them as well. It is, in a way, a generational butterfly effect; we unconsciously repeat or exhibit a trait that may have originated several generations ago, passed on to us through our grandparents and our parents in some small, protean way. But that trait is still there, whether we recognize it as an internalized characteristic or not.

Alas, short of asking Facebook strangers whether or not they share a penchant for alcohol, cynicism, or an appreciation of bad folk music, there’s only so much we can learn about how the geography and history of our ancestors has affected ourselves. Fortunately, though, there’s one other avenue open to our investigation, and that’s culture. A few days ago I wrote about my enthusiasm for Central and Eastern European culture, literature, and philosophy. These writers and philosophers were similarly affected by the same cultural, political, and historical milieux that affected my potato-digging ancestors — on a more grand intellectual and artistic scale, perhaps, but affected nonetheless. I share some characteristics of my temperament with those of these writers and philosophers, who sprang from the same soil as old Maxsym Hunka back there in Ternopil, who may have received (or lacked) the same early education, were rendered dour by those gray winter skies, or experienced the regional and political disasters as Max and his neighbors. And as far as those left behind — well, there’s the Holodomor for Ukraine, as there were other catastrophes in Central and Eastern Europe in the last century.

Is like necessarily drawn to like? I can’t say. But it is intriguing that, quite without knowing it, I married a woman whose ancestors came from the same region; my two best friends these days also have their family roots in western Ukraine and Lithuania. These days I’m brushing up on my Ukrainian history and my Gogol, both of which appeal to my temperament. And I’m sure that a part of my hostility towards the current President is tied to the despicable way he’s been treating the country I consider my homeland (not to mention the country in which I live now).

I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to knock on a few doors in Urman to see if there’s any physical resemblance between me and their occupants. But perhaps there’s a few, in more ways than one — even if we don’t, in the end, share any blood.

A toast to …

Terry Teachout (1956-2022)

About twenty years ago, at the dawn of the blogosphere, I started my own blog to write about theater, drama, and playwriting efforts. At the time, the only critic with a blog presence was Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, and with the misplaced confidence of youth, I dropped him a short note alerting him to my own web site and suggested that he might find it of interest. Terry did more than that; he responded enthusiastically, both at About Last Night and in personal emails, and so began a friendly relationship. Terry and I did not see eye-to-eye on many aesthetic issues, but his generosity and open-mindedness made our disagreements more on the order of cheerful exchanges of views instead of bitter arguments. And on several occasions it turned out we did surprisingly agree on certain plays, music, and social issues, and this deepened my respect for his perspective.

Terry and I would get together for lunch once in a while, and a few times I was his +1 for press previews; I would also run into him occasionally when I myself was a freelance theater reviewer for the New York Times. (Once I came across him during a press preview for a particularly uninspired Broadway musical comedy. When I approached him to say hello, he looked up at me from his aisle seat, widened his eyes, and said with a smile, “Boy, did somebody put you on the wrong list.”) And when, in 2006, he kindly agreed to accept a press ticket for my own play, he not only attended but gave it a rave review on his web site, a review that brought considerable cheer and happiness to the director and cast of the play, not to mention myself. And, because I was familiar with Terry’s journalistic integrity, which nobody who knew him would deny, it was doubly appreciated; had he not liked the play, a tiny-Greenwich-Village-theater bagatelle rather than a Broadway extravaganza, he would have responded to it with a kind, but silent, smile.

Since then Terry and I remained in only occasional contact, but it was with great sadness that I read of his passing at the age of 65 this morning. In the years since, Terry had written highly-regarded biographies of two of the jazz musicians most important to him, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He began a side career of writing and directing plays himself.  And Terry was particularly admired and beloved for his unstinting devotion to regional theater productions, travelling far and wide (at least, before corona set in) to cover out-of-the-way plays and musicals that otherwise would not have received national attention; indeed, Terry was the only national theater critic to spend any time searching out theater on the highways and byways of this huge country of ours, and for this alone I’m sure he’s at Heaven’s check-in desk.

Terry had his share of sadness over the past few years, becoming a widower two years ago, but had recently found love again, a love he was unashamed of expressing on Twitter, his preferred social medium, where he posted with sometimes alarming frequency. I’ll miss seeing his name and his posts there, so a toast to you today, old friend. We hardly knew ye.

A very Mineshaft new year

The turn of the year brings the Winter 2022 issue of Mineshaft — number #41. For just ten smackeroos you’ll be treated to new work from R. Crumb and Christoph Mueller, Mary Fleener’s memoir of her college days, Max Clotfelter’s “Liz’s Last Birthday Party,” publisher/editor Everett Rand’s early Mineshaft memories, a great interview with old-time-music veteran and surrealist Robert Armstrong, their usual fine letters section, and much, much more. You can buy it here — and don’t forget to subscribe.

I wrote about Mineshaft for the first time a few years ago. You can read that here — but it’s no substitute for the magazine itself.

Back to basics

Yesterday in one fell swoop I wrote a little sketch — a bit over seven pages — for my 11-year-old daughter Billie, who is taking acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute. It’s the first dramatic writing I’ve finished in the past six or seven years. As I wrote earlier, Billie’s stage debut, even in the context of an acting class open rehearsal, engendered some melancholy in the Old Man, but apparently produced a few sparks out of the ashes of my previous ambition. Last night we sat around the living room and read it out loud — a coffee-table read, I suppose — and it met with approval from the cast, all Hunkas.

In part it must have been the challenge of writing for my own 11-year-old daughter that fanned that spark into a tiny flame. The challenges were profoundly unlike writing for adult performers, who have a much broader range of experience and training to draw from. Concision is key, of course: attention must be held, and the attention span of an 11-year-old is already paltry to begin with. It’s good if there are a few jokes in there too; the characters and situation must be immediately identifiable and relevant to their experience.

But primarily I found that, in writing for her, I couldn’t go too far above her head, at the same time acknowledging that 11-year-olds are surprisingly aware and mature, so I couldn’t write down to her either. This is especially the case after the past few years, when pre-teens have had to navigate a particularly treacherous landscape, ridden with frightening pandemics and what appears to be the collapse of American democracy, which undermines everything they might learn in the classroom (and pedagogy is always a few years behind the curve). Socialization, for this reason, has been an ongoing struggle for them, and the struggle doesn’t end there. Two days ago David Leonhardt assembled a depressing list in the New York Times of the pressures facing children these days, and I’m sure most parents and educators would concur and agree, even if this kind of reporting rarely makes it into the newspapers.

Theater and drama may prove to be a saving grace in this case, because theater — in-person, simple, text-based theater — may provide at least one avenue to understanding this world and permit a means of living in it. My play had nothing to do with coronavirus or politics; it was really just a little anecdote, based on my observation of Billie and her friends. (And writing a play like this tested my powers of observation and empathy too.) But if we can still negotiate our relationships on the stage, person-to-person even if we still can’t see the lower halves of our faces through our masks, perhaps we can make up for some of that lost socialization. Somehow writing plays for people this age gets you back to basics. Which is where we all seem to be nowadays.

Oh, the shark bites …

For Christmas, my thoughtful brother, aware that I’d just purchased a new turntable and stereo system, dug his way through the racks of a used record store in upstate New York and came up with one of my prized possessions as a teenager — this 1974 reissue of an early stereo recording of Die Dreigroschenoper in German, produced under the supervision of Kurt Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya. It plays beautifully (dig that Seymour Chwast cover art, too), and I’m looking forward to spending more time with it. (This, along with my daughter, may also be dragging me back to writing more about theatre and drama, as I used to back in the day.)

English-language translations of this Threepenny Opera don’t often catch the sharp, rough inflections of Brecht’s lyrics; Bobby Darin’s suavity doesn’t really approach the gutteral growls of Wolfgang Neuss, say, who sings the “Mortitat von Mackie Messer” on this recording:

But, performed in the right spirit, the English-language “Mack the Knife” can bite. Dave Van Ronk, who once recorded an album of Brecht’s songs, performed “Mack” with his Ragtime Jug Stompers on a 1964 album for Mercury Records; he wrote in the album notes:

“Mack the Knife” is kind of a brainstorm. We think that we do no violence to the spirit of the song in performing it. As a matter of fact, I personally think that if Kurt Weill had been familiar with the form he would have scored the entire “Three Penny Opera” for jug band.

Could be; you can listen and judge below. I’m also waiting on the original cast album of the Richard Foreman/Stanley Silverman Lincoln Center production of 1976, so more then.