What sixty years have taught me

Children’s programming, according to my parents

Like others of their generation, my mother and father took the “benign neglect” approach to parenting, so every evening my brother and I found ourselves propped in front of the television set, TV trays and dinners before us, and we watched the reports about the Vietnam War as we made our way through our Swanson fried chicken and mashed potato entrees. This was the late 1960s, so there really wasn’t much else to watch as we ate, and though the war was never discussed either in school or at home, we knew about it well enough.

My own kids are 13 and 12 now, and I guess my parenting style — as it is for many of my generation, especially those who live in New York — can be called “grave concern” instead. Over the past three years, their mother and I have had to assuage their fears about COVID (we’re all going to die next week), climate change (we’re all going to be burned alive next week), Donald Trump (our country is going to be run by an idiot for four more years), and now Ukraine. This makes the 1960s look almost quaint. Therapists never had it so good. Neither have bartenders, especially mine.

I’ll be turning 60 in a few days, one of those taking-stock milestones that come around every ten years, so as my body and my mind edge into decrepitude (well, edge further into decrepitude, anyway), I made a little list of a few cultural and political disasters to which I’ve been privy during my past six decades to see if there’s any general conclusion I can get out of it. Join me, won’t you, with a glass of your favorite adult beverage to hand as I tick them off:

  • The Vietnam War (and the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Africa generally, South America generally, not to mention my parents’ marriage)
  • Watergate (in my social studies class I learned how government was supposed to work; watching the Watergate hearings I learned how government actually worked)
  • Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, another more maladroit Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden, and that’s just the executive branch (the most admirable and courageous politicians of my lifetime have been an absurdist playwright and a TV comedian from Central Europe, which tells you something, though God knows what that is)
  • SARS and the swine flu (fondly remembered, these)
  • Chernobyl (the gift that keeps on giving, apparently)
  • 9/11
  • Air travel (never particularly attractive, especially after 9/11)
  • 1/6
  • Television comedy
  • Higher education (for that matter, K-12 education too)
  • The Internet (not since Gutenberg has so much stupidity been shared so rapidly by so many; at least a printing press costs something)
  • Contemporary American fiction
  • Canned wine

I could go on, but neither you nor I want that.

I know there are those of you who cavil that I’m leaning a bit into the negative side of things. Fine. Let’s look at a few of the most commonly cited achievements of mankind over the same period:

  • The polio vaccine (sure, try that now)
  • The Internet (see earlier list)
  • The end of apartheid in South Africa (good idea; we should end it in America sometime)
  • Wider selection of good beers in the supermarket (I’ll give you that one, and you’ll have to take it, because beer just makes me bloat these days)
  • The legalization of marijuana (it just makes me want to urinate)
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall (peace in Europe had a bit of a run there for a while, true, but there are new walls going up all the time, apparently)

And now, to wrap it all up, Ukraine. Top off that drink for you?

With age, they say, comes wisdom. Not for this sixty-year-old; any chance my kids will be the benefit of parental wisdom will have to come from my wife, who’s got it all over me in the wisdom department. I’m not sure what kind of wisdom is going to emerge from Ukraine anyway, let alone all the rest of it.

Maybe the best I can do is a trite observation. These days the word “evil” is bandied about quite a bit. Ask ten people and you’ll get ten different definitions of it, though, which if nothing else is proof positive that they’d all be wrong. In Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray, apparently a pessimist himself in the end, posited “an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America,” which comes closest to the way I look at it, but that doesn’t really tell us what evil is.

I don’t know what evil is either. I can’t even get my DVR to work. One thing I am pretty sure of, though, is something that the late, great P.J. O’Rourke suggested about “trouble” in the introduction to his book Holidays in Hell, a collection of essays about his travels to the Gaza Strip, Belfast, Managua, and other trouble spots in the 1980s. “Trouble” serves as well as “evil,” but given the current social climate and O’Rourke’s tendency to colorful and occasionally offensive language I should probably just paraphrase.

His point was basically this: That evil does not spring from any particular group of people. Evil does not spring from Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, Hutus, Tutsis, the Japanese, the Chinese, Canadians, or Americans. Evil does not spring from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or atheism. Evil does not spring from Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Communists, Capitalists, Conservatives, or, God bless ’em, liberals. Evil does not spring from adults or children. Evil does not spring from men or women or any given gender variations thereof. Evil does not spring from people of a particular skin color, a particular age, or a particular height or weight.

Evil springs from the human heart.

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.

The genealogical butterfly effect

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

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 houses 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.