A toast to … Scott Joplin

The Scott Joplin memorial near his grave at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens, NY.

Today marks the anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death, who left us on this date in 1917. Although he himself is dead, his music etc. etc. You know how it goes.

This may be a good time to remind you that Marilyn Nonken‘s fine album of music by Joplin and his collaborators, Syncopated Musings, is now available on CD and on your better music streaming services everywhere. Marilyn will also be celebrating the careers of Joplin and his friends at this year’s Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, to be held in Sedalia, MO, this June. At the festival, she’ll be urging the ragtime form into the future, performing new rags by women composers commissioned especially for performance at the festival. I understand that the theme of this year’s festival is “Women in Ragtime,” so it’s right in keeping with the times.

To brighten up your Friday morning, I offer Marilyn’s performance of “Sensation,” an ebullient Charles Lamb rag “arranged by” Joplin. Marilyn and I will be raising a glass to Scott and his pals at Cafe Katja later today. Cheers!

 

 

A toast to …

Cafe Katja.

My post earlier this week, “What sixty years have taught me,” has resulted in a surprising success, pushing my readership to the mid-two-figures, so I figured I’d celebrate this newfound popularity with a drink or two at my favorite watering hole later today. I’ll raise a glass to lugubrious nostalgia, and offer below an additional example of same, first published here in January 2021 under the title “Mineshaft, my brief radio career, and disillusionment.” Here’s to love, peace, and all that.


Later this spring, Mineshaft #40 will appear on the streets of Durham, NC, and in your mailbox; as the cover above attests, you’ll find friends new and old, including more than a few veterans of the old humor and comix magazine circuits. It’s a coterie publication, perhaps, but it’s a coterie that includes the likes of R. Crumb, Drew Friedman, Bill Griffiths, Mary Fleener, and others of a unique generation of American artists. More information about the issue here, including ordering information. Get it while it’s hot!

Speaking of old humor and comix magazines, I’ve been spending the past few months paging nostalgically through old issues (well, anthologies, anyway) of the magazines and publications I enjoyed when I was a kid, in those long-ago days of the 1970s. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been viewing them through rose-colored glasses; rather gray they are, but certainly much more dark than light.

When I was 14 years old I went to high school in Hazleton, PA (pop. 28,000 or so in 1976), and at the time the local AM radio station hosted a “High School Hour” once a week, inviting teens from the local schools to host their own radio show, read some school news and play some popular music. I loved radio back then — I still do — so I was among the first to sign up for my school’s Radio Club. There weren’t many of us, but together we put the hour together, and I was responsible for writing up the school news, submitting it to the vice-principal for approval, then reading it on the air to the enraptured listening audience.

About three or four months into the year, I decided to mix it up a little. So instead of writing up news about debate club competitions and the math team, I wrote parody news items about teachers, classes, clubs, and sports competitions. That Friday afternoon during Club Hour in the typing classroom, I giggled, I confess, at my weak digs at favorite and not-so-favorite teachers, at the sports teams, and whatever else might have sparked my fancy. I have no doubt that few of these passed the smell or, for that matter, the humor test, but they were innocent enough; and what the hell, I had fun writing them up. And, as usual, I passed my script along to the vice-principal a few days before without warning him that this month’s news would be a little … well, different.

It wasn’t long before I was summoned to the vice principal’s office. I took my seat in front of him as he looked down at my script, shaking his head. “I don’t know what this is supposed to be,” he said.

“I just thought it would be nice to tell a few jokes and make the show a little different this time,” I responded.

He tsk-tsked, looking at one typed page, then another. “This is just inappropriate, George,” Mr. Rudewick said. “It’s inappropriate, it’s …” and here he searched for the right word, eventually finding it: “It’s uncalled-for.” He put me on notice that I’d have to re-write the news items, and write them straight-up, unless I wanted to be an ex-Radio Club member. So a few nights later I sat in the WAZL-AM radio booth, 1490 on your dial, enlightening Hazletonians with properly humorless renditions of recent accomplishments by the MMI Debate Club, the MMI Math Team, and the MMI basketball team (then, I believe, enjoying a 0-14 season).

None dare call it censorship, I guess — I don’t know why I expected to get away with it, especially with the pre-approval process in place, and though I suppose I could have slipped my original parodies in there at air time, I was far too cowardly for that. Rebelliousness was not in my nature, then or now, though I admit I’ve never forgotten that “It’s uncalled-for,” which sets the hair on my neck on end even now. But I do know precisely what to blame for my uncalled-for-ness.

The mid-1970s were halcyon years for American satire magazines and American satire generally. When I was in my teens, I subscribed to both MAD Magazine (which I’d started reading when I was eight) and National Lampoon, eagerly digesting each issue as they arrived in my mailbox; once in a while I’d even pick up the MAD ripoffs Cracked and Sick at my local newsstand, which also carried the occasional NatLamp specials like the high school yearbook and Sunday newspaper parodies. MAD and National Lampoon were enjoying their highest circulation then, and in the mid 1970s Saturday Night Live debuted and Monty Python’s Flying Circus appeared on American television for the first time. On my own, I was discovering Lenny Bruce’s Carnegie Hall and Curran Theater concerts, then being issued on LP, along with Richard Pryor’s early albums. A few years later, too, there was Weirdo.

I suppose I was in a way a perfect audience for all of it. What all of these cultural artifacts aimed at — from MAD parodies to Lenny Bruce’s sex and race talk — was disillusionment. All of them encouraged skepticism about the ideals peddled by teachers, parents, religion, authority, and especially the media, in advertising and drama and news, rendering blind obedience absurd. They even rendered blind obedience to their own perspectives absurd; instead, the message was that each individual had to think for themselves. It was not hard for me to get the message. In my junior high school social studies class in the spring of 1973, I and my classmates were taught about the three branches of government, the Constitution, and democracy (learning about how politics was supposed to work); that same spring and summer, I sat transfixed in front of the televised Watergate hearings (learning about how politics really worked). I’d been raised on The Brady Bunch, The Waltons, and The Partridge Family as examples of domestic life; my own parents separated acrimoniously when I was eight, after an acrimonious marriage. So every month, when these magazines arrived, they confirmed what experience had already taught me. To come across the below at the age of eight or nine, from “The MAD Primer” in the September 1958 issue (and reprinted in MAD anthologies in the 1970s, when I read it), generated a frisson in me that was very hard to shake:

I can’t say really that I knew what a “klepto,” a “bookie,” or an “auditor” was back when I was 10 or so, but I think I got the picture.

And, as a result, these artifacts, these magazines and comedy routines, told me that I wasn’t alone. I’m sure that I’m far from the only member of my generation who had this experience (as the circulation numbers I mentioned above attest, the magazines sold quite well even without me). What me and my peers shared was laughter: laughter at our predicament, laughter at our own tendency to buy in to the corruptions of culture, but especially, though parody, laughter at these corruptions themselves. What’s more, these magazines insisted that they, too, were corrupt, like all human endeavors and for that matter all human beings. Art Spiegelman said of MAD: “The message Mad had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically … ‘Think for yourselves, kids.'” As MAD publisher William M. Gaines insisted, “We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!” And finally, as Eric Stratton cheerfully told his fellow Delta House fraternity brother Flounder in National Lampoon’s Animal House, “You fucked up! You trusted us!”

This insistence that individuals had to think for themselves echoed in other satiric magazines of the period as well. In 1958, in the first issue of his magazine The Realist, Paul Krassner wrote: “I am neither for conformity nor for non-conformity. I am for individuality. If one’s individuality is in effect non-conformity, then so be it. But basically, one’s individuality consists of conformity — to oneself.”

That such pretenses to individuality could be, in some situations, uncalled-for remains true, even though it’s been years since MAD or the National Lampoon appeared on newsstands. For that matter, newsstands themselves are becoming rare sights. But a larger question may be: What happens after disillusionment? What happens after all of this trust in media, institutions, and the human capacity for the amelioration of human ills is broken?

Well, for most of us, it’s re-illusionment. As we pass from the hallowed halls of this kind of often-sophomoric satire (“Any good humor is sophomoric. ‘Sophomoric’ is the liberal word for ‘funny,'” Michael O’Donoghue once said), we grow up, we get jobs, and we begin to believe and trust again. Especially today, when thanks to the internet all of us are members of the media, our tendency is to believe in our own press releases, web sites, and Facebook feeds. After MAD‘s parodies of superheroes more than sixty years ago — which insisted that sometimes strength was weakness, good was evil, and patriotic ideals meshugginah — Marvel Comics is now one of the most successful and influential media companies on the face of the earth. Moronic celebrity we still have with us, more than ever, thanks to that same internet. And Donald Trump made Richard Nixon look like Lincoln.

But re-illusionment wasn’t the result for all of us. In some cases that disillusionment, and the uncalled-for urge to express that disillusionment in humor and satire, stuck with us. (Somehow I never got around to writing satire or parody myself; I don’t know why; perhaps I was never in the right place at the right time, or knew the right people, a lifelong trait of mine; perhaps it was that same cowardice I demonstrated in the WAZL-AM radio booth. Perhaps I was distracted. Perhaps I can still aim at it; I may be no longer young, but I’m still disillusioned. A matter for my therapist, I suppose.) So, after disillusionment, there’s also solitude. But not entirely. There are remnants of that commitment to individuality in small communities of what used to be called free thinkers, even in the print media. Mineshaft (not a humor magazine, but certainly for individual free-thinkers) is one of those communities, and there are others, here and there. And so long as society is careless enough to permit people like myself to raise children, I can pass it along to the next generation. In the meantime, I page through those old issues of MAD, National Lampoon, The Realist, Weirdo, and Mineshaft … biding my time.

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.

Reason to celebrate

A few days ago the fine ladies and gentlemen of the United States Postal Service knocked at the door to deliver a large box filled with CDs of Syncopated Musings, the new Scott Joplin album from my lovely wife, Marilyn Nonken. The Divine Art release is scheduled to “drop,” as the kids say, on February 11, but just this morning BBC Radio 3 couldn’t help itself and played “Kismet Rag” from this CD on its morning music program. So they jumped the gun just a bit; that’s fine.

I must say it sounds great. On Tuesday night Marilyn and I lifted our glasses to Marilyn’s esteemed and talented producers Manuel Laufer and Jeffrey Means; recording engineer Paul Geluso; designer Denise Avayou of Avayou Design and photographers Paul Cava and ventiko for the lovely visual presentation (more reason to purchase the CD); and, of course, Stephen Sutton and the gang at Divine Art Recordings.

You can pre-order and purchase the CD or its digital equivalent from Divine Art or Amazon; no doubt it’ll be streaming on one or more of those newfangled internet music doohickeys as well come February 11. And no doubt some domestic radio play will follow.

You can read my liner notes for Syncopated Musings here.

 

 

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.