Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Research in the Midst of Change

With a number of genealogy talks on the calendar, I am dusting off past talks and updating for changes. Genealogy is not a static pursuit as access frequently improves, except of course when it worsens due to privacy constraints. New York recently restricted access to probate records which had helped me crack the code on a family mystery. A document on my grandmother's aunt, the person for whom I was named, listed her surviving children's married names and addresses. Since most were female, I had hit a dead-end until that breakthrough. Now that source will no longer be available unless one has a direct interest in the estate. I don't think my relationship to my great-grand aunt would qualify.

Despite such limitations, it does continue to get easier to obtain many records digitally. Most researchers start with Ancestry.com, but familysearch.org offers a surprising number of digital records all for free. Coupled with that is the ability to contact the Family History Library and request copies of specific records that are listed, but not available digitally on line. I frequently do research for others and have often been able to obtain records in this manner where I would once have had to order the film, a more time consuming and costly method.

I recently was doing some work for a client who was trying to verify a great-great grandmother's name and the town they came from in Bohemia. I always begin my search with census records and build a database, then I use that information to calculate the year of birth, marriage and immigration. Often these vary in different census years, but it begins to define a range and some data points against which to cross-check potential records. Census records are also useful when they have in-laws living with them. A mother-in-law listing can reveal an unknown maiden name or conversely the married name of a daughter.

After building this database, I began to search on individuals. I don't just search on one name. I search on all of them as some may offer little information while other may be more generous. In this case the mother's name was only listed on one child's death record. I ordered it and several other vital records from the Family History Library and had digital copies within a few weeks.
Referencing the dates provided in the census, I limit the immigration period and begin to search immigration records, usually making use of the enhanced search functionality offered by stevemorse.org. In this case I had several records that were close, but one which matched on birth and immigration dates. It also listed the town of origin.

If you know how to leapfrog from one source to another you can often solve the puzzle fairly quickly.
And speaking of changes....Anyone involved with genealogy has had to consider the fact that borders are often quite fluid, far more so than we often think. Poland in particular, the early home to many Jews, had extremely flexible boundaries which was also reflected in the changing language of civil documents. Russia's current day grab of the Crimea echoes Germany's grab of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia which was populated by ethnic Germans. Now of course Czechoslovakia is yet another change as it became the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

A link is floating around that covers 1000 years of European border changes and is quite fascinating. I was particularly shocked to see the amount of territory held by Germany during WWII. There is something about watching the map change that is particularly jarring.

Note: I've since learned that the time lapse map is from Centennia Historical Atlas software. The software tells you what historical events were occurring as borders changed.
And the word is that NY probate records are just restricted after 2009 although death certificates in earlier files may no longer be available.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Passing the Test

A recent article in the Huffington Post examines the characteristics of creative people and offers some interesting insights. When I read such articles, I am always curious as to whether I possess the traits they identify. Am I really creative? Do I pass the test? It was somewhat reassuring that my experience seems consistent with their descriptors.

Daydreaming or mind wandering is one of the traits they note as involving the same brain processes as imagination and creativity. Apparently daydreaming is connected to our ability to recall information when distracted. That might explain why ideas often come to me while driving or doing yoga. That's when my mind relaxes and begins to free associate, making connections that don't always follow a linear path. Sitting down to try to come up with a creative idea is guaranteed failure. You have to sneak up on your quarry when it least expects it. In this case our quarry is our own subconscious.

I especially like the trait, "they work the hours that work for them". I actually do my best creative work very early in the morning, usually when I can't sleep. Now my studio is 20 minutes away and I've never tried driving there pajama-clad and half-asleep, but the ideas that fuel my painting often arise in that semi-somnolent state. My brain is in a different form, more fluid, not yet sharpened into the tighter analytic shape it assumes by day. Poetry and writing flow best early in the morning and I often write in bed for an hour before rising.

Conversely I work best late at night when the challenge is some complex spreadsheet puzzle or even word games. Often this is creative work as well, albeit of a different nature-numbers and patterns. I am beginning to understand why I found traditional work hours so frustrating. The times I work best fall outside of the normal workday!

Many of the traits they identified exist in a constellation. Creative people are curious, they observe everything, take risks and seek out new experiences. Those characteristics go together with intellectual curiosity as the bedrock. When you are curious you pay attention, looking for new inputs to feed your curiosity. If not enough is going on in your immediate environment you seek out new experience which is a form of risk-taking, interjecting something unfamiliar. For me travel, learning new skills and volunteering have often proved important in generating new experiences. I've referred to them as elements in my process of setting the table, laying the groundwork for the unexpected and serendipitous moment that often proves important in the creative process.

I was especially interested in the trait of "getting out of one's head". Here they discussed the process of stepping into someone else's shoes and in doing so, out of one's own. When I paint someone else's stories, I find myself trying on their experience, not just what they were thinking, but what they were feeling. I have found that sometimes it helps to write poetry on their experience as a way to distill it. Its imagery often gives me a door to find my way into a painting.

Creative people view all of life as an opportunity for self expression. I am in an artist's lab. Of the 24 artists who participate, most engage in a variety of media, all vehicles for self-expression. An artistic presentation may also be incorporated into clothing. In my own experience, I have found that painting and writing essays complement each other. Poetry plays a different role, serving as a gateway to other forms of creativity, a tool as well as a complement.

Interestingly, the research reports that a creative person is both introverted and extroverted, a combination which is unusual. We've all heard of the shy actor who loses that shyness on stage. As the "artist formerly known as introverted", you will find that with a microphone in my hand, a whole other side emerges. People who have seen me in my performance mode just don't perceive me as introverted, a subject of considerable bemusement to my shy inner self.

And happily, creative people are intrinsically motivated to follow their passions, not for external rewards, but for the sheer pleasure of bringing their skills to a challenge that intrigues them. This is an engine that I know well as it has led me to the path I now pursue.