Masculinity, Identity and My Grandfather’s Rough Hands

"At some point, I'm going to have to decide when and how I want to stop being angry."

Dorothea Lange, "Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona," 1940.
A pair of rugged hands photographed around the time George Kokines and the author's grandfather were born.

I was at the opening for George Kokines: Layers Revealed at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago three weeks ago. While I do some consulting for the museum, the fact is that I had absolutely nothing to do with the exhibition in question. It was the product of a staff more talented than I. In one room of the exhibition, among work set up to demonstrate the influence of primitive and ancient art on Kokines’ oeuvre, was a video of the artist at work, painting a bold, gestural abstract canvas in his studio. I sat down across from the flat black screen to watch. It was his hands, dirty and well-worked, that brought tears to my eyes. I would like to think they were tears for a great artist, but they were not. They were tears for my grandfather.

George Kokines and his hard-working hands in his studio. Photo: National Hellenic Museum.

George Kokines and my papou, George Kelaidis, were shockingly similar and equally different at the same time. Both Georges were born in 1930, the sons of Greek immigrants to the US. Both died of cancer during the second half of the Obama administration. One became a modern artist, something nearly unheard of among that first generation of Greek Americans. The other spent his life owning and operating the sort of traditional Greek diner that dots the American landscape. Kokines lived at some distance from his Greek heritage and the Orthodox faith, but Kelaidis embraced his: a Christian, a husband, a father and a Greek, in that order. Without attempting to psychoanalyze the dead, it is easy to suggest the difference, in part, was the result of different fathers. Kokines’ cruel father left his son running from him. Kelaidis’ kind father left his son wanting to be as much like him as possible.

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Their hands were similar. If the video I saw in the gallery had any accuracy, both men had the hands of men who work with them. These hands are entirely different from those of all the other men I have known: my lawyer father, my bookkeeping uncle, the academics and writers who have been my friends and lovers. Each one, down to the man, has soft hands, unworn hands. None have the hands of the greatest man I ever knew. All the rugged hands I have seen since my grandfather died five years ago are attached to men so stupid or so cruel that I feel rage that their hands and his look so alike. Contemporary men with rugged hands are tired of being laughed at, tired of the plant closings and the opioids flooding their towns and families: We have been told this ad nauseam for the past two years. That is why they voted for the guy who literally gets laughed at in front of the United Nations while the plants still close and the opiods still flow. And the Deputy Attorney General resigns and then doesn’t resign, or whatever is happening. It is fucking unreal.

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This is the part where I am called classist. Not unfairly, mind you: I am. And I don’t mean it in the self-righteous way that people of my generation like to “own their prejudice” to show how completely and utterly unprejudiced they are. I have deep and abiding ideas about class that I know are not ideal. I have spent the better part of this morning trying to think of a single close friend who is working class. While I have managed to think of two from upwardly mobile working-class backgrounds, the fact is that both men in question are college-educated professionals who grew up essentially middle class. They had working-class grandparents, that is all. I display the kind of discomfort, arrogance and fear of the white working-class for which I regularly shame others when displayed toward immigrants, ethnic and sexual minorities, or basically anyone else. I grew up in an old family that had spent the better part of a century whipped about by political and economic winds. Penniless gentry makes for the biggest snobs. There is little doubt that I am a snob.

I am such a snob, in fact, that part of me (let’s be honest, all of me) cannot bear that my grandfather, my dear grandfather (not a snob, despite my grandmother’s best efforts), with his university education and love of poetry, had the same hands as the thugs I detest. That is why I stopped at the video of Kokines at work. There was a sort of joy that came from seeing rugged hands on a man that was, by all accounts, broad-minded and equally broad-spirited. But also of the “right sort.” For a moment the world seemed less alien that it has been for a long while now. I was safe with my prejudice. Vindicated in some weird, inexplicable way. I felt freed to go on hating the people I already hate, blaming them for our collective misfortune.

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And I know that is wrong. And now I am left wondering what I am supposed to do about it. This article was not supposed to be so raw. I wanted to write about the exhibition, but here you go, a confession. Probably better suited for our confessional age. I am not asking for absolution. I am not asking for penitence, either. Do not suggest sensitivity training or implicit bias exercises. Every objective study of such training has shown it to be nothing more than, at best, a jobs program for gender studies majors and social workers without the stomach for real social work. In fact, it is counterproductive. Chances are I am one sensitivity training away from referring to my Uber drivers as “serf.” Perhaps I will just go walk the dog now (a purebred Maltese who has to wear a sweater). But at some point, I’m going to have to decide when and how I want to stop being angry. I suppose we all will. The whole country, the whole Western world. Maybe my grandfather’s hands will help me.