Genealogy–Seeking Connections Past and Future

How much do we know about our own parents, let alone grandparents? To one degree or another the lives of our parents remain a mystery.  Some families assign the responsibility of “family historian” to a designated relative to create and maintain a family tree.  Our daughter, Maya,  has just been entered into her husband’s family tree, immediately after her wedding. We are at a loss ourselves about our family trees.  Keith, for a high school project about family history, found faces on the Internet that remotely looked like us and made up first names (and some last names) for great-grandparents and great-great grandparents on a family tree.   Doug’s brother hired a genealogist/historian from a local university to interview their ailing father and write his biography as a Christmas present for all members of the family.  But, for even those who know the names, places of birth, and names of children of past generations of relatives, that does not mean one can claim to know their essential experiences, only external facts.

Genealogy has become a growth industry.  Partly this is due to fundamental shifts in U.S. demographics, increases in Internet social networking,  primetime television shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?”  and documentaries about remote parents and their “hidden” lives. The target user for family history databases is 45- plus, an  age-group that is growing rapidly.   Advancements in scanning technology and indexing operations have facilitated online-record accessibility and searchable indexes available through websites like USGenWeb.org, Archives.com and FamilySearch.org.   Analysts project that blogging about genealogy will double in growth by the end of this year.

In addition, the seasonal spike in online genealogy searches starts around Halloween and continues through January or February (according to Google search analysts) due to pending holiday celebrations with family.  But family history is an interest to many of us in an ongoing process of seeking meaning. The ultimate need is not a fact or date, but to create a larger narrative, connect with others in the past and in the present, and to find continuity in one’s own life with not only the past but the future.

 We conduct genealogical research not only to better understand our roots and to get to know ancestors as people. Connecting through time with our forebears is a means of personalizing the past, carving out a place for one’s family in the larger historical perspective, a sense of responsibility to our children and grandchildren, and preserving collective memories.

For some of us who can no longer ask our parents or grandparents about their stories, there is a poor substitute for learning about our forebears:  genetic genealogy— a person’s DNA. Websites like 123andme.com, decode.com and navigenics.com promises to provide a complete genome of the customer, screen for the likelihood of developing an inherited disease, and describe information passed down relatively unchanged from early ancestors.  Sites like the National Geographic project trace migratory pathways out of Africa, based upon a cheek swab mailed to their headquarters.  While this is no personal connection with the past or future, it is a more universal signature of how the human race is connected in its birthplace Africa.  Or, is all this interest in genealogy just a thinly disguised attempt to leave a mark after death for future generations– that we did in fact exist, if only as a square on a chart of the family tree?

“The Ides of March”–Beware, Beware!

  Is it possible for any political candidate to win and yet remain true to his or her original values?  Movies about dirty politics such as “Wag the Dog”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Primary Colors”, “Bob Roberts” and “The Candidate” (to name a few) has yet another winner in this category–“The Ides Of March”.  Based upon the Beau Willimon play, Farragut North,  “The Ides of March” explores new ground as well as covering familiar territory about media’s role in politics. (Willimon, by the way, worked on Howard Dean’s campaign for president).

With a star-studded cast, “The Ides of March” focuses on a press secretary, Stephen Meyers (the fabulous Ryan Gosling) as an idealistic media wizard who believes in his boss, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) currently running in a pivotal Ohio primary for the Democratic presidential nomination.  As the movie opens, Governor Morris is an uncompromising, idealistic liberal who believes he can make a difference. Meyers has obtained his prestigious job due to his friendship with Morris’ seasoned campaign manager, Paul Zara (underplayed subtly by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The  opposing candidate, Senator Pullman, has an equally experienced campaign advisor, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).  All those who are driving the campaign strategy are pragmatists–cynical and cold-blooded analysts– except for the young Stephen Meyers. Above all, however, Stephen Meyers believes mostly in himself.

Gosling yet again is the touchstone of the film, playing with a ferociousness and intensity we have seen in “Murder by Numbers”, “Lars and the Real Girl”, “Blue Valentine” and “Drive”. In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Ohio primary, Steve is obsessively focused on the governor’s campaign victory.   Others do not register on his radar:  the young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), the New York Times journalist (Marisa Tomei), even his boss Paul Zara except when they  can support his move up the ladder. Personal and political ambitions are inextricably intertwined.  Motives are suspicious.  Mistrust and betrayal are inescapable. Concealment reveals to astonishing effect!

The 2012 US presidential campaign is  a year away, and yet many people seem already discouraged and demoralized.  Which raises the salient question about  political reality in the US today– If you’re too principled to play dirty, can you be a winner or is the game stacked against you?  Paul Zara (Hoffman’s character)–in one of my favorite scenes–complains that Democrats are so worried about being accused of not playing fair that they inevitably lose to Republicans, who are not so scrupulous. It’s why the Democrats perpetually have to play catch-up.  They never figure out how to play the game themselves.  Perhaps a bit polemical, the movie’s theme remains the same:  the winner in the campaign game is the one with the biggest advantage–shaping the media and backroom payoffs for personal gain. Those who do not consider politics a blood sport shouldn’t play.

“The Ides of March” is a thoughtful political drama, which may not result in  box office success.  The story is not a narrative of hope.  However, the last shot of the film is well worth the price of a ticket in itself:  brilliant, chilling, and epitomizing editorial self-control.  No other ending could do so much with so little.  A masterpiece of restraint!

Moss Landing–Cruising around Santa Cruz

Last weekend, driving back from our daughter’s spectacular wedding at Costanoa Lodge, we stopped in Moss Landing to introduce some relatives to a small, going-back-in-time sort of place along the coastline.  Not the typical, tourist-designed site for buying tchotchkes, Moss Landing retains its quaint, historic fishing village vibe!  Located on Monterey Bay at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing is one of our local best-kept secrets.

First we went to La Galeria, where there is a Monterey Peninsula College printmakers’ exhibit.  Not so easy to find.  You turn onto the main street (Moss Landing Road) from Highway  1 at “The Whole Enchilada”.  Don’t be fooled and  stop there.  Keep on going a few 100 feet and hidden behind The Haute Enchilada you can find this little surprise of a gallery– very cozy and wood-paneled–with approximately 100 prints, some priced between $75 (unframed) and $120 (framed).  The public reception will be on Saturday, October 22, from 2:00- 5:00 p.m. with food catered by Haute Enchilada (www.hauteenchilada.com).  We first went into the gallery to look at the exhibit, and then had a very tasty lunch at the restaurant in front of La Galeria –Haute Enchilada.  We shared poblano chile soup, tortilla soup, guacamole and chips, pork and chicken enchiladas, fish tacos, taco salad, and a delicious rosemary chicken panini.  Everyone loved sharing their food and enjoyed the sunshine on the patio with chilled local beers as well as Mexican ones.

After lunch and art viewing, there are also other surprises: antiques, a small Shakespeare museum (including a chair made from the wood from Stratford-on-Avon’s theater and nearby church), the exquisite Stella Page Design handbag boutique (designs include Japanese koi, Buddhas, and exotic floral patterns). Moss Landing is also home to MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium’s research facility), and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, the research arm for the California State University system.

We didn’t have time to walk along the pier and look at the boats and the egrets, pelicans, herons  and cormorants who graze and fish everywhere along the water.  Birders would find nearby Elkhorn Slough impossible to ignore, a favorite with naturalists.  Guided tours on kayaks are available on weekends (http://www.elkhornslough.org/visit.htm) and also through the Monterey Bay Aquarium.   But, if you have time either on your way into Santa Cruz to go to one of the First Friday art walks or to Aptos and neighboring beaches, don’t forget to take a glimpse at California’s past and stop for an hour or two in Moss Landing.

Social Networking–A Mixed Bag of Tricks

I received so many public and private comments from readers about my last post on Internet usage (see “The Current Digital Divide”–Instant Gratification Anyone?), that I started to think some more about how social networks have transformed our lives.  People (yours truly included) are spending more and more time on the computer. I set a timer so I don’t spend all day in one never-ending time-suck glued to the computer either web-surfing or social networking.  For discipline’s sake, I look at Facebook only once every other day or so.

I do agree with social network supporters that Facebook, LinkedIn, and a host of more specialized websites not only promote increased communication with friends and family but open new information resources– lesser-known websites, highly specialized associations, and political forums.  Besides the oft-mentioned dangers of exposing the vulnerable to predators and other criminals, or bemoaning the loss of literacy or longer attention spans, there are benefits to using the social networking tools we have available.

One of the most surprising articles I read this summer (Wall Street Journal, “Could Those Hours Online Be Making Kids Nicer?”, August 16, 2011) is a case in point.   Researchers have found that those who have difficulty communicating in person, especially teenagers, are more comfortable interacting via the Internet.  They are not using digital communication to reach out primarily to strangers, but to interact more frequently with those they already know but may feel shy around in face-to-face situations.

The WSJ article implies that empathy and likability increase among young social networkers, even towards those less self-confident and with low self-esteem.  Perhaps more significantly, Internet users are retaining their offline friendships, not replacing them.  Among social outliers, the Internet can increase a  sense of community and belonging.

This made me reflect on how I personally use social networking and email.  I can communicate at off-times–meaning late at night–since I am a night-owl.  That way the early birds can read my email or Facebook while I am still dreaming.  I can send an announcement–for example, a new blog post–to friends and acquaintances with one message, not hundreds. Digital communication also saves me time –a telephone conversation is more fun, video-chatting even more of a blast–but both take much, much longer.  If I am just too frazzled, an email or Facebook message is “better than nothing” and that is fundamentally the motivation behind the less personal means of saying something I really want to say.  Just like snail-mail, before the invention of email, the telephone call has now graduated way up the “food-chain” to having major impact on the receiver of the call as a very personal effort to talk.

However, what if I had trouble expressing myself in person or on the phone?  Would chatting in a chat room be more relaxing, more of my true feelings and opinions, than face-to-face?

Although social networking sites were created to make money, not to improve peoples’ lives, they have changed the landscape of how people relate to each other and there is no going back. Future political and social movements will undoubtedly use these tools to a significant degree difficult to imagine now.  These powerful new technologies are changing  the way we live, but not always in ways that everyone likes.

I am by nature an optimist, believing that the disadvantages of social networking will be filtered out over time and benefits will emerge for users who apply these tools with common sense. But in the early stages of any new technology, the buyer must beware. World-tilting technologies (think automobile, airplanes, telephone, television, computer) do not have predictable and absolute positive or negative effects. Social networking is just such a mixed bag of tricks.