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Monday, May 31, 2010

In the Great War

For Memorial Day I’d like to talk about my grandfather. I’ve taken all day to put this together. I had to do some research, and naturally, it made me get sidetracked into reading a lot more things than were relevant to this subject, but all of them were interesting!

Grandpa served in the infant United States Air Service, the World War I forerunner of the Air Force. Before 1914, my grandfather and some associates had formed a company to produce the first commercial dirigibles (blimps) in the U.S., and when the country entered the War, they sold their company to the government and received officer training in return. Grandpa and his brother Roger went to France as lieutenants in the Air Service in the spring of 1918. I don’t know what exactly he and Roger did, but Grandpa was based at Issoudun, right in the center of France, and left us a large stack of photographs, among which are definitely some examples of reconnaissance reporting.

Because he was a machinist for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad company in the decade before the war, I always thought he was part of the large maintenance crew for the aeroplanes, but one photo shows him in a group of pilots, so perhaps he flew on reconnaissance missions. Besides, were maintenance men ever officers? These reconnaissance pilots were incredibly brave, sneaking through the lines and either trying to keep the sun behind them as they approached their target areas, or trying to fly so low that nobody saw them until too late to do anything about it. The US Expeditionary Forces depended on them and their photographers to supply visuals of everything the enemy was doing and all the terrain they would need to cover. I saw a picture of one photographer leaning over the side of the plane behind the pilot, with a long, silver colored box pointed at the ground. It looked nothing like a camera that I recognized, but that’s what it was.

Grandpa became very sick during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic and was sent to Monte Carlo, Monaco, to recover. I had a photograph that he took of Prince Albert’s yacht, but I cannot find the photograph today to scan and post it.

After the war was over and the brothers’ terms of service completed, they returned to the States. They vowed to each other that they would never fly in an airplane again for the rest of their lives. Roger got over whatever horror inspired the pact, but Grandpa never set foot in an airplane again.

I wonder who has the records of the 2nd Corps, Air Service today? I would like to know more about what Grandpa and Uncle Roger did to defend the free world from the tyranny that started the Great War.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Blow to Genealogists

A friend of mine called me to ask about how to set up a database to store all her current family’s information for their upcoming family reunion. Lots of red flags popped up as she was describing the book her cousin was putting together on the extended family. They were collecting all the names and birthdates and birth places, the marriage dates and places, and the latest death information as well. And not only this kind of usual genealogical information, but also details of people’s awards and achievements, schools, jobs, hobbies, interests, military service, pets, and the list went on and on. It was a great idea—for a pure-minded genealogist, that is.

Unfortunately, nowadays we no longer live in a world where people can publish these detailed records without a terrible risk. There are identity thieves, sexual predators, people enslaved by drugs, people caught by pornography, people entangled in every other criminal activity, and they may be in any family anywhere. Your aunt or cousins may be hiding one from the knowledge of the rest of the family because of shame. And you are going to give them a detailed bio of your whole family? No, that’s not a good idea.

I advised my friend that if she participated in the book at all, supply only names—give no dates, no places, no other information about the family at all, not of any kind. It is a serious blow to genealogists that families have to protect themselves and especially their children, but who could seriously do anything else, given the realities of this world?

There are ways to get around this problem for the genealogist. Mostly they involve doing a lot of research on and talking with the person with whom you think you’ll share genealogy. Then you have to develop a sixth sense for when to exercise caution.

My basic cautions are these: never post anything about living persons online, unless you can be absolutely sure your website is secure and memberships are invitation-only, and you personally know all the members. Never share more than names online when you are reasonably certain of the security, and you know how those names are going to be used. Exchange a lot of emails with a newly-discovered “cousin” who shares your interest in a common ancestor before exchanging current family information, and then only names. Ask your relatives to keep your family out of online genealogies and published collections of descendants of a common ancestor.

These tips will not stop a determined person from obtaining information about you and your family, but they will help you keep your family safe from casual, easy access.

Don’t stop doing genealogy, but do be safe out there!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Flower Show

Every year we decorate the graves of our kin for Memorial Day. Because we have to visit several cemeteries that are miles and miles apart, this usually takes two days, the Saturday and the Monday of the Memorial Day weekend. First we go decorate my husband’s son’s grave. We always put something on his ex-wife’s grave too, ostensibly on behalf of his daughter. It’s a good exercise in forgiveness every year, a tiny gesture that says, Let’s not hold onto the bitterness of the past; let’s enjoy flowers and beauty together.

Then we hike across the hill one row over to decorate his grandparents’ graves. The grandfather used to grow prize-winning flowers. I wonder if any of ours would be near his standard. Probably not! Another row over from them lie the grandmother’s parents’ graves. Then starts the conversation where we revisit the controversies. The grandmother always denied that her father was a polygamist. But his gravestone is engraved with not only his information, but that of his first wife too, and her death date is four years after his second marriage. Nearby is the big gravestone for his second wife, who happened to have been married to a man who died before she married this great-grandfather of my husband. So both of his grandmother’s parents had first spouses, and we always discuss how disgruntled she was because of that fact.

Now we hike over another steeper hill to the final row where the great-great grandmother’s grave lies. She was a member of the infamous Willie Handcart Company of 1856. She was 53 years old at the time, and she was apparently something of a rebel. She had been born not far from Stonehenge in England and had played among the stones as a child. She had grown up, borne an illegitimate child and kept him herself to raise, against all the custom of the time, and she had married instead of being “ruined” as they used to say in those days. When the Mormon missionaries appeared in her town (Bath, we think), she and her son joined the Church. Her son emigrated while she got married and adopted a little girl who was, according to the family lore, the illegitimate daughter of a servant. Her husband died in 1854, so she began to arrange for herself and the little daughter to join her son in America. She joined the ill-fated company and under her breath complained about the conditions. When things got really, really bad and people were dying by the dozens, she is reputed to have sung to herself the refrain from “Come, Come Ye Saints,” only she changed it from “All is well, all is well,” to “Egad, all is bad.” But she and the daughter made it safely, and she lived another thirty years in feisty independence.

From this cemetery (which is 90 miles from our home) we drive to another one 45 miles away. Here we have my husband’s parents, his father’s first wife who died young, and two of his older half brothers. They are all in a row, so I bend and drop our cut flowers, usually irises, but some years also peonies and roses, in each metal vase as we walk down the row, and my husband fixes pots of chrysanthemums on the verge of each stone. My sister-in-law plunks down her little jelly glasses full of pansies that she has plucked that morning. We stand back and admire the flowers. We exclaim in consternation when we realize that the two brothers, both veterans of World War II and the Korean War, do not have flags on their graves as my father-in-law, a veteran of World War I, does. Why were they missed? They have military stones with their ranks and everything on them. The cemetery changed hands from a local family to a national company two years ago. We lament the lower quality of care this cemetery is getting now.

Our last stop is another hour away, a cemetery on the outskirts of a small mountain town. It is always decorated so densely that my mother calls it the Flower Show. Here we have my husband’s other grandparents, and the maiden aunt who helped to raise him and who helped bring the two of us together. There is also her little sister, who died at the age of two weeks back in the early years of the twentieth century when there was nothing that could be done for babies with certain defects. Further down the row on the other side lie this grandmother’s parents, emigrants from Scotland in the early 1850s.

The Scottish grandfather was a successful miner as well as a sheep man, and his headstone is very ornate to reflect his prosperity, I suppose. It is a source of frustration to me that the way it faces makes it possible to take a beautifully clear photograph of his side, but the other side with his wife’s information is always shadowed and I never have been successful in getting a clear picture of that side. I have tried the strategic use of flash, but I haven’t gotten it to work right yet. Either it washes out all definition, or if I aim to the side to make shadows, too much of the wording goes blurry. One of these years I’ll be lucky or maybe I’ll learn how to take pictures in more difficult conditions. Maybe someone will tell me what I’m doing wrong.

It’s a very long day when we do all three cemeteries. Usually we break them up, as I said. This year we did only the first two because of our unusually long cold spell this spring: Monday has to be dedicated to putting the plants in our garden because it’s supposed to be good weather. I think the kindred dead will not mind. They were attuned to the weather in their day too.

Friday, May 28, 2010

In the Garden

We were digging up the garden today, turning over the soil to get ready to plant some vegetables. My husband was out there wielding the spading fork, sinking it deep, using his foot to push it deeper, lifting the clumps of clay and the finer soil we have added every year, mixing it with the steer manure spread out over the surface, breaking up the clods, stirring and churning the soil.

I went out to see if I could help. He did not want help, but I stayed out there anyway until I persuaded him to let me go down the rows ahead of him with the long, slender shovel with the short handle that just fits me, loosening the ground so that it would be easier for him to break up the clods. I sank the blade up to the hilt in the soil, levering the shovel to bring up the dirt in great chunks. Then I chopped the chunks, slicing them with the shovel blade held perpendicular to the earth.

Before tilling, I had been out there weeding. The ground is rather dry, so I used the long, thin weeding tool, stabbing the dirt next to the weed and trying to get underneath the roots. Most of the time the clay clung in solid clumps to the root, so that I would have to take it in my hand and carefully break it apart without breaking the roots and leaving them in the clay to regrow after the rain.

When we were just about too tired to finish, it started to rain. We took our tools under our new awning on the back patio and sat there with our feet up on the picnic table bench, listening to the patter of raindrops on the metal roof and talking of this and that, planning what to do if the nectarine tree really does die, how to remove the dead apricot tree trunk, and deciding we should rent a chain saw to get rid of the rest of the huge old cottonwood tree stumps. I thought if I have the energy next fall, I would like to dig up all of the flower garden on the west and the north and replant all the bulbs. My husband protested that I had better not disturb the peonies and the chrysanthemums, but then we thought the mums really would look better differently spaced. The rain was really only a sprinkle, enough to dampen the pavement but not to soak anything.

My husband went back into the garden to finish the spading. I went into the house to cook us something for dinner.

I love working with soil. Something in my soul loves to dig and to weed and to grow things. I have plenty of farmers in my ancestry. Is it their genes? I am happily anticipating shopping for the seeds and plants we will put in the garden. Because tomorrow is supposed to be rainy and Monday is supposed to be fine, we will visit the cemeteries and decorate the graves of our kin tomorrow in the rain, and then we will plant on Monday.

Grow, garden, grow!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Books and More Books

Yesterday I said I probably wouldn’t be rereading the next several books in the Tarzan series, but today I’ve changed my mind. In spite of the things that are “incorrect” today, I want to have a rip-roaring proxy adventure, and Tarzan is certainly that. It’s somewhat mindless sheer energetic fun, without me having to get too tired having it either. What a gift, huh? It’s off to Fantasy-Africa I go.

I just finished reading another in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. I really like that series. It makes me want to go to Botswana, where the books suggest things seem simpler and people more honorable—although if they were all that honorable, where would the business for the detective agency come from? I would not actually want to go see the world of these books though, because I would just be another tourist from the USA and it is only in the books that I can be part of the society around such a woman as Mma Ramotswe. If I ever actually went to Africa, my reasons for going have to be better than to see the places where novels were set. Africa somehow commands more.

Another book I’m currently reading is Jacques Cousteau’s The Living Sea, a follow-up to his first autobiographical book, The Silent World. He’s a talented writer, turning science into entertainment and keeping everything extremely interesting. The books make me want to scuba dive. As if! Since realistically that’s not in my future, I’m happy to have these books.

My book group decided to read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. I can’t remember if I’ve ever read it or not. I know enough about the book that I think maybe I have, but I just am not sure. I sort of think I read an excerpt in Reader’s Digest long, long ago. It will be fun to reconnect with Steinbeck’s character and the dog on their cross-country travels.

A friend of mine got me started on the Goodreads website ( and I have way too many books on my “to be read” list already. I sometimes wish I could get the list down to a manageable size, but then I get panicky that I’m running out of interesting new books. Not that that will ever happen in the real world. It’s time to end on an apt cliché:

So many books, so little time.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tarzan of the Apes

I have finished rereading Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I first read it about 30 years ago and liked it so well that I read the next three books in the series and had thought I would enjoy rereading them. I don’t think I will go on with the series though. There are good things about the books, and there are lots of flaws. You have to read it for the good things.

The book takes lots of suspension of disbelief. When you count up all the things that are unbelievable in the book, you realize that you should be treating it like a fantasy, and then you’ll be all right. Otherwise, there’s rain forest in a part of Africa where it doesn’t belong; animals that don’t exist in real life; animals living where the real animals wouldn’t be found; a man learning to read but not speak, and to write down unique names but not be able to say them (how would he know which letters to use?)—and the list could go on and on.

You have to ignore the plot holes and the marvelous coincidence that lands three separate mutinies on the same beach in Africa. You have to ignore the character inconsistencies and stereotypes.

You have to wince at and mentally rewrite the appallingly racist attitudes toward native Africans. Same goes for the idea that British aristocratic bloodlines are superior to rest of the world.

Then at last you can enjoy the story of Tarzan, a self-made superman who has amazing adventures and saves the day every time Jane Porter gets into trouble of any kind. The only other drawback is that terrible cliff-hanger ending that ensured in its day that every reader would be back to buy the second book. I did!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Documents You Don't Want to Need

The brain scan turned up a rare condition. I’m a rarity, how do you like that? I am to see a neurosurgeon to discuss things sometime in the next few weeks, and I expect that I’ll find out it isn’t a very severe case, because I don’t have the severe and rather alarming symptoms that I read up on today after I got the phone call about it. Still, it makes me think I should try to organize my papers and things.

I’m always seeming to have these kinds of medical alarms that turn out not to be so bad after all, and they always make me pay attention to whether my will is current, whether my finances are in order, and whether anything could be done about the piles of papers on my desk. Well, you can forget the last of those items! The desk will forever remain an unfinished project.

Last time I was in the hospital, though, they brought me some forms for a living will and durable power of attorney and medical power of attorney. I had never thought much about those kinds of things, but when my sister-in-law was seriously ill for months, she was able to tell me and my husband where to look to get out and activate those documents on her behalf. It was a good thing she was prepared with those things, too! Her illness came on extremely suddenly and she was unable to take care of her own affairs for a couple of months, even to give directives regarding her own care at one point. We were very, very thankful she had been prodded to create those documents by her financial advisor. I think I should get prepared with those documents too. I should have all my legal and financial affairs in order. After all, you just never know when those things will be needed.

I have decided to write down everything I need to put in these things tomorrow morning. For the living will, I need to decide what sort of treatment I would want if my life were definitely ending, or what sort if machines could prolong my life indefinitely. For the power of attorney, I need to name someone to make my decisions if I become incompetent (ok, more so than now, you smart alecks). I used to think I would not want to live if I needed any interventions to keep me alive. But after seeing close family members undergo various kinds of life support, I have different ideas now. I have to think and plan carefully how to explain that it depends on how much cognitive function I have, how old I am, how my care is being paid for, who it impacts, and whether those impacted are the types who welcome caring for someone or who find it a great burden.

Personally, I like caring for people. I didn’t mind one bit caring for my dad until he died. Of course, I hardly got any experience there since he needed outside care only for about a month before he passed away. (He wanted to go, so I am glad he didn’t linger longer.) However, I have cared for a number of relatives who have been in varying states of less-than-stellar health. We joked earlier this year that I am running a nursing home where I am one of the patients. I wouldn’t want any of my relatives to think they should opt to end their lives just because otherwise they might be a burden on somebody (I have heard that idea suggested in my extended family). Sometimes being a so-called “burden” is one of the greatest blessings you can give to a loved one. I cannot imagine how shallow my life would be without caring for people who need help. It’s enriching. (I shoulda been a nurse, huh?)

Sigh. I won’t worry about getting started tonight. There’s genealogy to do. A novel to finish. My doggie needs to be petted. And we want to watch a travel show about Paris.

C’est la vie.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Grammy’s Poem

I was thinking about my Grammy the other day and the poems I memorized for her one summer. The one I remember best is Ralph Cushman’s “I Met God in the Morning”:

I met God in the morning
When my day was at its best,
And His Presence came like sunrise
Like a glory in my breast.

All day long the Presence lingered,
All day long He stayed with me,
And we sailed in perfect calmness
O’er a very troubled sea.

Other ships were blown and battered,
Other ships were sore distressed,
But the winds that seemed to drive them
Brought to us a peace and rest.

Then I thought of other mornings,
With a keen remorse of mind,
When I, too, had loosed the moorings
With the Presence left behind.

So I think I know the secret,
Learned from many a troubled way;
You must seek Him in the morning
If you want Him through the day.

It was when I was sixteen that I spent part of the summer with my grandparents, and they in turn took me to help them house-sit for a niece of theirs. The niece and her husband had gone on vacation and needed people in their house. I had just joined the Mormon church a few months before and my grandmother was worried about my eternal soul. She gave me lots of little pep talks to ensure that I would not forget that Jesus Christ should be the one I worshipped and not Joseph Smith as the rest of the Mormons did. I assured Grammy that the name of the church should indicate that I was safe on that score: it is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not the Church of Joseph Smith. She said that was all very well, but she knew people of my church who knew very little about Jesus Christ, in her opinion. She asked me to memorize that poem, which I was very happy to learn, as a safeguard.

I love that poem. I find that obeying the poem’s advice starts the day out right. I find that I can be my most natural, “real” self when I do. I can be perfectly honest, my mind can open more fully and clearly, and I get impressions that improve my days if I am paying close enough attention.

I had a close relationship with my Grammy, and she gave me many, many gifts, but that poem is one of the most valuable things she left me.

For further stories about my grandmother and her adventures, see the lists on my Munro and Read genealogy pages.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Searchable Indexes in the Making

I started indexing a couple of weeks ago, and I love it! Indexing, for those who don’t know, is the process of transcribing the genealogical data that appears on old records that have been filmed and turned into digital images, so that the images are fully searchable on the Internet. I download a batch to index, and I get the images of these old records appearing on my computer. A little form pops up, and a highlighter automatically shows me where on the old record to look for each piece of information it wants me to copy into the fields on the form. It’s actually a fast and easy process.

Back in the Dark Ages of genealogy, I used to read through reel after reel of microfilm, squinting at the faded old writing and hoping I wouldn’t blink or somehow miss the one name I was looking for in page after page. How I longed for an index then! There were all too few, they were in print, and I didn't have access to the books much of the time.

To help me in reading the old records, I took a course on old handwriting to help with deciphering all the different styles of penmanship of clerks and priests and doctors and census takers. That handwriting course is proving the most valuable thing from my past these days.

When you see a word that looks like it has a double f or fs in the middle, lots of times it turns out to be the “long s” of older script writing. When the letter f just doesn’t make sense, I try substituting s and often find that works instead. The lowercase r is a problem too, because there were several forms for making it, and you have to try to find a word that you know contains an r in order to find out which way the scribe was writing. Vowels are always a problem. A scribe might just be sloppy so that it’s hard to tell whether the letter is a or o or u, or e or i. It’s only when you decipher all the consonants that you can guess at the vowels sometimes.

The finished batches get sent back to whomever is in charge of the project, whether the LDS Church or a civic group or private club or governmental agency that is partnering with the LDS Church to do this work. When a project is finished, it is put on the web and offered for free to all researchers. What better use of my spare time can I make? My Facebook farm has been suffering neglect now that I have this other thing that is even more addicting (at least to me). But let the cyber crops suffer neglect. On with indexing!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Crazy Monument

Yesterday I found and downloaded a program to let me convert all my old word-processing documents that were created in a now-obsolete program into rich text format so that I can keep reading my files forever. I found a description of a trip we took to South Dakota several years back, and I want to comment further on what happened there.

We had stopped at the Crazy Horse monument on the way to Mount Rushmore. It's a big ripoff, my husband and I decided, not dedicated to nor honoring the Indians so much as a promotion of the late sculptor and a way of supporting his large family. He had ten children, and seven of them supposedly are finishing the mountain sculpture after his death more than 25 years ago. But in 60 years since the beginning of this project (started in 1948), only Crazy Horse's face and part of an arm has been done. "On principle" they say they refuse all government money offered, because the sculptor felt the monument should not be paid for by taxpayers, but by "the people." I wonder what the difference is in his mind? My husband commented that the monument and accompanying visitor's center constitute nothing more than a meal ticket for the sculptor's family, and they postpone things indefinitely due to "lack of funds." They definitely do not want governmental regulations and accountability.

They've built a lot of really beautiful, large, knotty-pine buildings up there in which to live and work and raise their large families. They also display artifacts and crafts of Indian tribes from all across America, so that is where they try to dupe the public into thinking they're philanthropic and sympathetic toward the Indians. They charge $20 to park your car, another $15 if you want to ride a bus to get near to the monument, and a mere $120 if you want to get in a helicopter to fly around it for 15 minutes.

You can see everything about the monument from the highway without going in and spending a dime, but you don't know that unless someone else tells you or you try it and find out the hard way. They never tell you anything about the life of Crazy Horse or help anyone understand why he was chosen as the model for this monument over all the other North American Indian chiefs; they don't even give you his original Indian name which I would have liked to learn; their little film is all biography of the sculptor and his family and what they've done, which amounts to very little when all's said and done.

In my mind, it was just another vast exploitation of the American Indian by the white immigrants, and in the sculptor we had an actual immigrant himself to complete the irony. I bought a mug because they said gift item purchases went toward supporting the tribes that create the gifts. I wonder how many cents the Indian tribe that made the mug got out of the $11 that the mug cost me?

Long after my trip was over, I looked up the monument on the web and found that there is even some opposition by leading Lakota people who point out that carving up a beautiful wild mountain into an image of a chief who never allowed himself to even be photographed or drawn in life is completely opposite the spirit of Crazy Horse himself.

The ironies in almost every aspect of this monument are rich, but they leave a bad taste in the mouth. For me they tainted a part of an-otherwise wonderful trip with a sense of shame at the way selfish people take advantage of others.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What's in a name?

An elderly lady once said to me that she missed the fact that nobody called her by her first name anymore. Everyone who could call her by her first name was dead. I did not fill the gap, it not being polite on my part to assume she would want me to call her by her first name. She didn't suggest it either.

I was watching an I Love Lucy episode not long ago that featured Lucy modeling a dress in a fashion show where all the models were wives of movie stars. None of the women were given their own names except, of course, Lucy. The rest were "Mrs. William Holden," "Mrs. Dean Martin," "Mrs. Van Heflin," "Mrs. Richard Carlson," "Mrs. Forrest Tucker," and "Mrs. Gordon McRae." It was a little annoying to have to get online and research who these women really were: Brenda Marshall, Jeanne Martin, Frances E. Neal, Mona Carlson, Marilyn Johnson, and Sheila Stephens. Even when I found them, I couldn't find information on the maiden names of Jeanne Martin or Mona Carlson.

It's the same problem with genealogy. Women get hidden, and it takes major detective work to trace their lines when they are identified in life as only "Mrs. So-and-So." If you can find her marriage record, you can find her name, or sometimes maybe one of her children's death records lists her real name. But if you're looking for a woman before 1840, it gets a lot harder. She becomes nearly invisible.

However, I don't want to pursue the subject of women being hidden by their husband's names. I want to talk about what we think of ourselves, no matter what we're called. I have had quite a few names in my lifetime, and I think my case is true of a lot of people, both men and women.

First, there's my full name. That was the name that was connected with Mom being stern and me being in trouble.

Then there's my nickname. That's the name that most people call me on most occasions in my life so far and is the name I most closely associate with "me."

But I can't forget that there were other nicknames, not so flattering, that my brothers and sister would think up and call me. They were usually something to do with my personality flaws or my appearance, and they certainly were closely identified with who I was as a child and teenager. I am not going to reveal what they were. My siblings probably could tell you more of them than I even remember.

Then there are the nicknames my co-workers and friends called me. They would take my last name and make it into a nickname, or they would further shorten my first name.

When I got married, I changed my last name to my husband's, and then I changed it back again for complicated reasons. Mainly, I think, I didn't like the idea that I was now "someone else." I felt identified with my name and I didn't like changing it. For ten years I had two different names, depending on where I was. At work and for insurance purposes, I kept my maiden name. At home and at church, I used my husband's name. Finally, when our ten-year anniversary rolled around, I changed my name in all my spheres to my husband's name.

One of my brothers has changed his name a couple of times. He created a new legal name for himself and then had us all learn to call him by his new middle name. He was making a lot of changes in his life and the new name signified some of those changes. Some years later he decided to have us all use his first name, so we had to change our habits again. It isn't as usual for a man to change his name in mid-life as it is for a woman, and she changes her last name, not her given names, so my brother's name change was very hard to get used to. It is easier when someone is around you all the time and you use the new name often, to get used to it. When you don't use the person's name except infrequently, it is much harder to change it in your mind.

When we become a parent, we acquire new names, in my case, "Mother" (which is very helpful now that my mother lives with us and I call her "Mom"). Then we acquire a grandparent name, which in my case is "Grammy." Spouses often drop each other's given names for nicknames of endearment--"Honey" or "Dear" or something more syrupy.

When we get online, we have a variety of usernames and contact names and display names, depending on the website.

You can entirely lose the name you grew up hearing. You can lose the name your mother called you when she was mad. You can lose the name on your driver's license through nicknames. When you are old, nicknames are all you might ever hear.

Doesn't matter, I think. Juliet was right: "What's in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet" I'm still the same person no matter what my current label is. That's my identity.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Olden Days

In a sort of book report blog, I must tell you I've finished reading Anne Perry's latest, The Sheen on the Silk, and I am currently reading Deirdre LeFaye's The World of Jane Austen. I think the Byzantine mystery novel and the lit crit are related by my love of time travel. I do wish someone would invent a real time machine, but science fiction aside, books will do!

Anne Perry is a master at putting you into the historical setting of her novels. I've rarely read a modern author who is so good at making the characters seem as if a product of their time and not ours. In this one I especially like that the female characters are extremely strong and yet fit perfectly into the society and restrictions of the time, 13th century Byzantium.

(Small digression: I can't finish novels that try to superimpose political correctness and modern sensibilities on the past; one of my main objections to Caleb Carr's first two otherwise well-written historical mysteries is the overuse of profanity, especially by his female characters who are otherwise supposed to be in the New York upper classes--I just don't buy it when there was, at the time he's writing about, a fine for public use of profanity. Sue Grafton's heroine can swear all she likes; it fits with her character and time, but authors setting their stories in the past need to pay attention to how things usually were back then.)

One thing I especially like about this latest novel of Anne Perry's is the perfect and complete contrast between the two leading female characters. I hate to spoil the novel for anybody interested in reading it, but watching the two play off each other is a pure delight, while the tension gets pretty high when you start realizing how dangerous the one character really is. Another thing is that I love the politics and the encompassing side stories taking in what was happening all around the Mediterranean in those days. I love that all the details checked out accurately with my son's history text that we just finished, in which we had to study this period and place. The intertwining stories, the complexity of the good and bad characters--not one of whom are all good nor all bad--the symbolism of the sheen on silken cloth all create a novel that isn't easy to sum up and that lives up to its Byzantine setting by being elaborately complicated and many sided, like the society of that time according to historical documentation.

Deirdre LeFaye is one of my favorite Jane Austen critics because, similarly to Anne Perry, she has the ability to lead you far into the late Georgian and Regency settings of the world of Jane Austen's novels. This book, The World of Jane Austen, is encyclopedic in its coverage of everything there is to know about living in the world of southern England at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. She has hundreds and hundreds, maybe a thousand, details explaining the background tied to quote after quote from the novels. It's like reading the ultimate annotated versions, but instead of interrupting your perusal of the story, you read all the background and then pick up the novels with all this extra knowledge in your head to help you appreciate even more the fine tuned wit of your favorite author and to live in her world for a time.

For example, after a detailed explanation of courtship customs of the time, she explains why the reader should start laughing at Emma's behavior toward Mr. Elton at the very outset of Emma's attempts to match him with her friend Harriet Smith. Jane Austen's contemporary readers would have instantly seen that Emma was setting herself up for the hilarious misunderstanding and would have enjoyed the building tension of that theme.

The book also explained something I wondered about: why in Pride and Prejudice and in Sense and Sensibility the heroes were always addressed by their last names alone and it seems normal to all the characters, while in Emma, when Mrs. Elton says "Knightly," Emma's offended reaction indicates the vulgarity of her abbreviating his name. This book explains the change in mode of address from the late 1790s when the first books were written to 1815 when the later books were written, and I have another of those "Oh, why didn't I think of that?" moments with the satisfaction of understanding it all now.

It makes me appreciate all the more Shannon Hales' excellent Austenland for evoking period and place while remaining firmly and amusingly in the present. There's nothing like going to the older authors for entering the past, but I am looking for more modern books that evoke period and place as well as Anne Perry. Anybody have suggestions?

Monday, May 3, 2010


I had all these ideas to develop into little essays, and they all went out the window. Or out somewhere. I fell down and went BOOM on my driveway, without there being any snow to blame or anything, and I'm hobbling. What a dumb accident. Back when I was in college and getting used to the snow in the winter, I really felt I had developed into quite a graceful faller. I mean, I could fall in the snow or on the ice and look totally like I had just done a deep curtsey or something. My friends were all jealous, sort of, except that they didn't fall. Graceful or graceless, I don't recommend this. I guess tomorrow if these legs look even worse than today I had better go get them x-rayed. Would it be just my luck if there's a break? Aaaaargh!