Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Finding Your Passion

I find that many of my conversations with friends focus predominantly on two subjects, aging parents and finding one's passion in life. I don't think that pairing is coincidental. As parents age, we are reminded of our own shortening span. Weren't we supposed to do something that inspired passion along the way?

When I was a kid I used to wish I had an interest that inspired passion, something that fully engaged my energies. My brother had found that at an early age as a photographer. He used to take over our windowless bathroom as a darkroom as we anxiously called,"Are you dooooone yet?" I envied him that passion and I wanted one too, almost as much as I wanted our bathroom back.

But how does one acquire passion? I worried that I was a person of too much equanimity to fully experience it. Is it a temperament thing? Maybe I just didn't have the temperament for it and was doomed to a life of balance and calm. After all passion can tip the boat and my natural instinct was to right it.

In hindsight it seems like an odd thought for a kid to ponder, but I was kind of an odd kid, self contained and inward. I've been thinking of passions because recently I went to the university library archives to begin research for a possible book. As I was talking with the archivist I blurted out, " I can't wait! I love researching!" She quietly responded, "We all do". It dawned on me that I had found that passion I so longed for as a child. I am fortunate to have many passions; writing, painting, telling stories, researching...virtually all the things I devote my energy to are something about which I am passionate. When did that happen? Is passion something you grow into?

I remember that glimmer of passion in my first job. I was starting a new organization from a five page grant description. It was a new concept so I had to figure out how to build it. It drew every ounce of my creativity and I loved it. I still recall looking into my bathroom mirror one morning, that mirrored cabinet that had been scavenged and refinished by my then-husband. Odd the way such details anchor our memories. As I gazed at my image, I wondered if I would always find my work so engaging. I couldn't wait to go to work each morning. While I would love to report a career that paralleled that experience, it didn't remain at that pitch. When passion lulled, my equanimity kicked in and I found satisfaction in my work even if not at a fever pitch. But now I knew what it felt like and that I was capable of feeling it.

After that, passions built quietly before I even named them as such. Thirty years ago I took a life drawing class. Having previously drawn from photos fairly competently, I suddenly felt quite inept, like I was learning to draw anew. I still have my "ahah drawing", the one where I finally got it. For a long time I went to three drawing co-ops a week. When I spoke to people I would mentally draw their face. The way I saw the world had literally changed. It was the beginning of one of my early passions and led to a different kind of passion when I met my husband at a drawing co-op twelve years later.

When I discovered family history, I was quickly drawn in. It was the ultimate puzzle and it all tied back to me. Despite avowals to the contrary we are all still the center of our universe. I was captivated by learning the history of my ancestors and spent hours researching. My vacations became genealogy trips with a sweetener of Prague or Budapest thrown in to mollify my husband who gamely came along on many of these journeys. This certainly qualified as a passion.

People began to describe me in my work as intense. At first I didn't recognize myself in that description, but yes, I was focused and driven, all necessary prerequisites for passion. When I began to do public speaking about my artwork and story, people often commented that I was so passionate about my subject. I realized that indeed I was.

We often start with an interest, but as we devote time and energy it begins to blossom into something greater. The more energy we give to it, the more it begins to give back. You can't be non-committal and passionate, passion requires engagement. And I've seen a bit of a spillover effect. One passion feeds another until we discover we've found that ultimate passion, a passion for living and all the wonderful gifts it affords us.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Telling an Engaging Story

One of the fun aspects of writing a blog is that I have contact with a lot of people who are working on interesting projects. Some months back I was contacted by David Adelman and learned about his business venture ReelGenie. ReelGenie provides software to assist you in writing and creating videos to share family history stories online. Many of us who have been deeply involved with family history, eventually arrive at a point where we want to share our stories with family and friends. Our efforts are not always successful. Too often we attempt to share our excitement only to watch our audience’s eyes glaze as we talk about second cousins once removed.

Crafting a story and making it accessible challenges us to think about our audience. While not everyone shares our enthusiasm, it is a rare person who does not enjoy a well-crafted story. How we tell it matters. In the past many people created books and distributed them to family members. When I attend genealogy conferences there is a lot of discussion about new ways to tell stories to the next generation for whom books are not a particularly effective vehicle. ReelGenie offers a more contemporary means of telling stories using imagery, voice-over and story. Its approach easily integrates with social media and supports a collaborative approach to the creative process.

My experience in working with ReelGenie began with drafting a story. I decided to focus on the immigration of my grandparents as each had a story laden with mystery. I have found that mystery always makes for good stories. I had begun my genealogy research when I stumbled across a few pages of history my grandfather had written. He began by talking about his immigration to the United States in 1911 and his wife’s immigration ten years later. He wrote about her being shot at crossing the border and recovering in a hospital in France, something that seemed quite unusual to me. More surprises were in store as I pursued those threads. When I found my grandfather’s immigration record, it asked about his nearest relative in Europe. His response was none, married or single, single. Hmmm…and yet he gave his destination as his brother-in-law’s and left a wife and child behind in the Ukraine.

I searched for my grandmother’s manifest and finally found her coming from a location in France lending credence to my grandfather’s story. She was heading for Rotterdam and then New York. Supposedly she came with her younger brother, but when I found his manifest he and his wife came from Rotterdam one week later. In an era without cell phones how do you connect? Were they trying to connect and didn’t succeed? Were they unable to secure passage on the same ship? Mysteries abound.

Once at Ellis Island my grandmother was held as a likely public charge. This was typical of a woman traveling alone. She needed a man to show up and take responsibility for her. After waiting a day and a half, her brother showed up to pick her up. But where was her husband?

Part of telling a story is editing. Not everything is included in the video. For example, my grandfather changed his surname, perhaps contributing to my grandmother's difficulty in locating him when she arrived. She was still using his old name. They both Americanized their first names, Sima and Ben-Zion became Sadie and Benjamin. There really wasn’t room to include that. Too much detail makes eyes glaze. It is a delicate line, enough detail to make a story come alive, not so much that you weigh it down.

Once I had a script, I had to come up with photos. I discovered that I had one photo of my grandfather in 1922, but nothing else of him as a young man. I had a photo of my grandmother as a child and as an old woman, nothing in between except a painting I had done. I had to figure out if I had the visual imagery to support the story and in fact there were some gaps we had to paper over.

The voice-over was actually simpler than I expected. I did it within Audacity.com with a small microphone plugged into my computer and I let David suggest the accompanying music. With the ultimate product, the user will assemble the pieces. It will be easy to do everything--including recording the story and adding music--directly on their website. As this was a test, David and his team did the assembly. Along the way they sent me versions for my critique. Once the site is launched, there won't be any assistance given, but they will have tutorial videos, sample movies, and an option to work with a professional storyteller to tell the story.

You can click on this link to see the video to see how it came together. I have had challenges using it in my Firefox browser, although it plays well in Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari.

ReelGenie will be launching its product at RootsTech and is a finalist in the SXSW Accelerator Competition. For more information, sign up at www.ReelGenie.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Cat and Mouse

While I was recently visiting my mother, I decided to test out a new tool that I had acquired, a scanner mouse. If you are unfamiliar with this nifty gadget, it is exactly what its name implies, a computer mouse that also scans. When I visit my mom I bring my computer, but lack most of the accessories of my home office. Until recently she lacked Internet which required me to flip on my 3G on my iPad. Finally in frustration, I installed wireless in her home which will enable me to update websites and more efficiently blog than on an iPad. Of course once I had some baseline functionality, I began to yearn for more and I have often wished I had a scanner handy, especially as I wade through my father's old office. The beauty of the scanner mouse is its size. It is a perfect travel tool and a useful tool for a genealogist.

On this visit I was interested in getting scans of old photos. I have been working with David Adelman in creating a film using software his firm ReelGenie has developed for a soon to be launched business. His product allows family historians to access software to create a film on their personal family history using voice-over and photos. He is currently creating some examples of what can be done and enlisted me to provide a family story, voice-over and pictures (more to come on this in an upcoming blog). I had provided what pictures I had from my personal stash, but hoped to take advantage of my mother's many picture albums while visiting. In the past I have taken photos of old photos, hoping my hand was reasonably steady and sacrificing some edges to Photoshop when I cropped. If I was fortunate I ended up with a useable image.

So first I needed my material which I found in one of my mother's oldest albums, dating back to when she was just 17, almost 70 years ago. There were charming photos of her and my dad in their courting days, my dad teaching her to bicycle in Brooklyn and then recording her fall on film for posterity. She remembered going to school with skinned knees after that less than successful outing. The album showed my dad in his navy uniform among sailors in front of the Arc du Triumph, the one time he made it to Paris. It is always strange to look at these pictures and marvel at the fact that my mother was a quite a looker in her day, then a young mother delighting in her children, stages that I could now witness through adult eyes. Seventy years later I can still see in her the young girl she once was.

While originally planning to do isolated photos, that soon morphed into an intent to scan entire album pages. I took out pages from the album and left the plastic on so I would have a smooth surface. The scanner won't work through glass, but worked fine through plastic, perhaps too well as it picked up the yellowed pages.

The scanner mouse is used much like a roller. It has a button on the side that activates the scanner. It then will scan what is underneath it as you move it back and forth. However, beware of nearby cats. My mother's cat was scanning the mouse as it scanned, attracted to the movement and hoping to engage in a little game of cat and mouse. My first attempt was less than successful as I did not completely cover the image. If you fail to cover it through your movements, it will leave gaps in the unscanned portions.

When you have scanned a page, a frame forms around the page that you can adjust as desired to crop, click OK and save and place it in a file or email it if desired. The scanner works best for smaller documents, but did accommodate a page. I found myself wishing I had had this when I was working with old documents in archives as it would easily scan a document without potentially damaging the binding.

I found my scanner mouse at Brookstone, but it is also available through Amazon.



Sunday, February 3, 2013


It has been one year since my father passed away.  I am spending the anniversary with my mother. Today we did a brief service at the cemetery, unveiling his tombstone.  I arranged for the tombstone, deciding that it must have the Hebrew names and father's name that are typical of Jewish tombstones.  There are many in the Jewish section that no longer do so.  But I am a family historian. I value that tradition that allowed me to trace back from my great-grandfather's tombstone in New York to my great-great grandfather in a Belarus cemetery, finding his children scattered across three cemeteries and two countries.

When the rabbi asked if anyone would like to say something about my father, we weren't quite prepared.  All I could think of was when we used to threaten to put a phrase on his tombstone that echoed one of his frequent and rather profane expressions.  While quintessentially my father, it didn't seem quite appropriate in that setting or at least not for non-family ears.  It is in those inside family jokes that we can be most ourselves and "most ourselves" is seldom the proper side we present to the external world. 

My father was a strong presence and we still feel his presence in many ways.  Sometimes it feels like he is just taking a sabbatical.  My mother is the custodian of my father's memory within our family. Frequently she says, "you are your father's daughter" and the reliance she placed on him is often shifted to me as his proxy.   It makes me wish I had known him better or perhaps differently, more like I might know a friend.  Each relationship between two people is unique to those two people and even then not static.  It changes through time and as both people grow and change, creating many permutations. When I talk about my father with my siblings, I realize how even within a family we take away different perceptions filtered through who we are and our unique relationship.  When I was younger, my father and I used to do battle, but I always felt his respect for me for holding my ground and asserting myself.  My dad admired backbone and knowing him strengthened mine.

It is different with one parent.  We pay closer heed, checking in with regularity.  Aware that time is limited and precious.  The responsibility of children deepens when only one parent is left.  Since my father's death my sister and I call my mother each day, me in the morning, she at night, my brother's calls scatter in between.  My mom is an easy person.  Happy to be alive and grateful for little joys.

We have a woman who comes in for a few hours several days a week to help her with things.  She has become quite fond of Sally and enjoys her company. My mom used to ride an exercise bike in the evening, but that had fallen by the wayside.  One day not long ago my mother announced that she had decided to start to bike again.  She had Sally help her arrange the two exercise bikes downstairs so on her visits they could bike together.  I love that my 86 year old mother does that.  She is preparing for our trip to Israel for which I had cautioned her mobility will be important.  She is highly motivated for this trip of a lifetime.  After that she says any additional time will be gravy or the grave. To which I add, "No hurry".