Hobby Roulette: Genealogy

OK I admit it, I’m obsessed with ancestry. I got the bug a few years ago when I found a new service called Geni that helps you build your family tree and collaborate with your relatives who are also doing ancestry work. It’s essentially social genealogy and it is addicting. More on Geni in a sec.

The real question to ask is why am I so interested in genealogy these days. Yes, there is a Renaissance of sorts going on thanks in large part to the wealth of online information now available at sites like Ancestry.com and Ellis Island online, not to mention several great ancestry television shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are? I am all in on these shows — it’s like watching a mystery unfold right before your eyes. But for me the impetus is more personal. For one thing, having a kid has made me want to give him a better sense of where he comes from and knowing your roots is a large part of that. Additionally, nearly dying a few years ago has left me thinking a lot about my legacy and that in turn has led me to want to know more about what my predecessors left behind.

I have never felt much of an affiliation with my heritage. Most people know where they’re from in general terms — they are Irish or Italian or Polish. But I was always told my heritage is Jewish, which makes no sense at all to me since Jewish is a religion not a culture or nationality (I know some of my Jewish friends will argue this point but you are wrong!). On top of that, I do not practice Judaism so I can’t be Jewish. Now this might all be a moot point for a science-based person like myself because I understand through science that all human roots can be traced back to northeastern Africa making me (ahem) African-American. Regardless, my more recent ancestors came from somewhere and I want to know where.

Back to Geni. It’s a free service (with pro options that cost a bit) that allows you to build your tree. You simply add your name and details and then add in your family members. As you add people to your tree it identifies other people on Geni who may be connected to you and then you can combine forces to grow your tree together. You can also invite your relatives by email to join your efforts and add their information and whatever they know about the family. Pretty soon you have a huge interactive family tree. It’s not a place to do in-depth research on your ancestry like Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com, but it’s free and fun and ultimately its goal is to build a tree that includes everyone on the planet. In fact, it will tell you how you are connected to people, so you can see how you are connected to famous people. But that’s just a side-show. The real power is connecting you to existing relatives and growing your tree.

Using Geni I found Lois Gutman, my second cousin once removed’s wife, whom I did not know. Lois was working on a different branch of our family tree, and what we discovered together was quite remarkable. Her husband Michael’s grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. Michael has a sister named Sheila Mae Gutman who lives in Staten Island New York — just a few miles from my aunt who is also named Sheila Mae Gutman. They’ve never met. On top of that, Lois and Michael have a daughter named Jodi Beth Gutman — my sister is also named Jodi Beth Gutman. Crazy. Together Lois and I have been adding to our tree and we recently discovered my second great grandparents, Benjamin & Mollie Gutman, I then sent away for Mollie’s death certificate from the state of New York and found out that her parents were named Benjamin and Charna Sherman — another generation added to the tree.

So what have I learned about my ancestry so far? Well, it turns out the paternal side of my family is Eastern European, primarily Russian and Ukrainian with some Polish thrown in. Basically I am from an area known as the Pale of Settlement  created by Catherine the Great in 1791 to remove the Jews from the heart of Russia. Jews were forced to live in this region, which covers areas that today include Ukraine, Western Russia, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. Jews lived in villages called shtetls that were made famous in Fiddler on the Roof. Basically a rural slum. On the maternal side it’s more of the same, though I still need to do more work on that side.

Ancestry is a really interesting hobby, especially if like me you have a little journalist or historian in you. I’m really enjoying putting the pieces together to uncover my roots, but more than that I’m discovering and meeting new relatives. Another of Lois and Michael’s daughters lives here in the Phoenix area and I’m hoping to meet her soon. On my mom’s side I discovered my cousin Paul Fleischman, a Newbery Medal Winning author.

Another great thing about ancestry is that you can do most of the work from home thanks to the wealth of information available on the Internet. There are lots of free resources including FamilySearch.org, and for a small fee you can use more advanced tools like Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com. If you don’t want to pay the membership fees you can get free access at the public library or at one of 4,500 LDS local family history centers worldwide. The Mormons are very serious about their ancestry for some reason and say what you will I found a very nice quote on their website that brings it home: “A life not documented is a life that within a generation or two will largely be lost to memory.”

I want to bring the memory of my ancestors to life, and I don’t want to be lost to memory.

Scenes From a Sold Out U.S. Airways Center

Last night I had the opportunity to catch Billy Joel in concert at the U.S. Airways Center here in Phoenix. I’d seen Billy Joel three previous times in concert, but not since the 90s and frankly I didn’t buy tickets to last night’s show because I have already spent a ton of money on other live shows this summer. As it turned out, I got lucky and someone backed out at the very last-minute and I ended up with a ticket. All I can say is that I would not have been disappointed had I spent the $125.

Growing up in San Diego I had very few connections to my hometown of New York, so perhaps that’s why I was such a huge Billy Joel fan. I wore out records like The Stranger, 52nd St., Glass Houses and Songs in the Attic and considered Billy Joel my favorite artist. I saw him live for the first time at the San Diego Sports Arena in 1984, and my pal Zac and I wore sports coats with jeans and sneakers to the show in honor of the piano man’s look at the time. I knew pretty much every song by heart and I stayed with him as a fan even through his lean years of albums like Storm Front and The Bridge. Let’s just say I am a huge Billy Joel fan.

I have to admit I was not expecting much last night, which is another reason I didn’t buy tickets. I mean the man is 65 years old and hasn’t put out a rock album since 1993. But the moment the lights went down and I started to hear that piano play I was all in. While I was hoping he’d open with Angry Young Man, which is sort of his signature opening, he instead opened with Miami 2017 from the 1976 album Turnstiles and a song I fell in love with listening to Songs in the Attic in the early 80s. And while he then launched into a great rendition of Pressure, he then went back to his roots to play Vienna from The Stranger album followed by a deep track from 52nd St, the wonderful Zanzibar. I’m not sure Zanzibar has ever been played on the radio, but it is one of my favorite tracks off 52nd St. and it sounded great. 15 minutes into the show and I was transported back to my middle school and high school times.

The rest of the night was like a time warp as Billy worked his way through song after song from the 70s and 80s. He played The Legend of Billy The Kid and then explained how he had no idea what he was writing and basically made up most of the facts about the title character. He played Movin’ Out, New York State of Mind, She’s Always a Woman, My Life, Big Shot, Don’t Ask Me Why, It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me, Allentown, We Didn’t Start the Fire and So It Goes. He closed with Piano Man, then returned for an encore and played You May Be Right and Only the Good Die Young. I think at age 65 he knows he can play whatever he wants and his older songs make him happy. They make me happy too. The highlight of the night for me though was Scenes From an Italian Restaurant from The Stranger. The ballad of Brenda and Eddie has always been not only my favorite Billy Joel song but also one of my all-time favorite songs period.

He also has a great sense of whimsy and humor. A few times he launched into cover songs only to segue into his hits. He played some Led Zeppelin and did a great version of Take it Easy by The Eagles. He let one of his roadies, who is from Arizona, take the stage to perform a raucous version of ACDCs Highway to Hell which he backed on guitar. Halfway through The River of Dreams he launched into Hard Day’s Night and then returned to finish the song. And while he didn’t run around the stage or jump up on his piano like he did when he wore a younger man’s clothes he sounded great and played with great energy. He was, simply, spectacular.

As I begin to explore new hobbies, last night I was reminded that one of the cool hobbies I actually do have is attending concerts. 2014 is shaping up to be a banner year on that front. I already saw Broken Bells, and now Billy Joel. Later this year I have tickets to see Wye Oak at the Crescent Ballroom, Arcade Fire in Los Angeles, an 80s Retro tour featuring Howard Jones, Thompson Twins, Midge Ure and China Crisis, the Tempe Beach Festival with Fitz & The Tantrums, Foster The People and more, and The Black Keys in November. Not too shabby!

Bird Watching Anyone?

For a while now I’ve complained to my lovely wife that I am bored and need a hobby. I have a few, but they mostly involve staring at a screen — watching movies, watching sports, reading (on my tablet), etc. For the last few years I have been dabbling with genealogy, but that too is passive and entails sitting at a computer. Well, it’s time to stop complaining, get up off the sofa and get out from behind my Chromebook and tablet. I’m going to get a hobby!

Of course, the next question is what the hell do I want to do? I recently read the new Ted Williams biography by Ben Bradlee, Jr. and Ted was passionate about two things in his life — hitting a baseball and fishing. Baseball was his profession, and he was better at it than pretty much anyone who ever played the game. But fishing was his true passion. He fished whenever he had the chance. On days off during the baseball season, all winter long, and even during the birth of his kids (by choice by the way). And when he wasn’t fishing he was talking about fishing, teaching others to fish, and sitting in his basement tying fly fishing ties. Dude was obsessed, but he was happy.

I’m not saying I want to go fishing, although frankly it sounds relaxing and fun. But I’d like to find something that I love to do. Over the past few years I used this blog to explore the world of movies and many of you followed along as I watched and blogged about the American Film Institute’s top 100 American films of all time. I think that quest inspired my wife to suggest we explore a whole bunch of hobbies together to see what we might like and then I can blog about the experience along the way. I thought that was a great idea. Not only does it expose us to a bunch of things we might not ordinarily do, but it also gives us something to do together. Plus I love to blog, so there you go.

There will be some basic rules for this exercise. The first is that we will try to find some things that we’ve always wanted to try but haven’t gotten around to. Secondly, we each have veto power if something the other suggests just sounds absolutely terrible — so we will not be hang gliding, sky diving or taking any hot air balloons up into the atmosphere because I am terrified of heights. And I’ll probably forgive Leslie for not wanting to try baseball fantasy camp. But beyond that we’re willing to try just about anything.

We’ve started a short list that so far includes such things as archery, martial arts, kayaking and yes, even bird watching. We’ll be keeping an eye out on Groupon and LivingSocial for deals on things we’d like to try, and we’d love to hear ideas from our friends (yes Bill Roberts, I’m trying to convince Leslie to go camping but we may have to settle for off-roading). And if you want to try anything with us just let us know!

We’re going to kick this project off by taking a wine class at a new bistro in Gilbert called MWC (because they had a great deal on LivingSocial). We got four, 90-minute wine classes for $38 per person. Our first class is Wednesday evening, July 9, from 6-7:30 p.m. Feel free to join us if there are still openings.

So be on the lookout for my posts about our hobby odyssey and maybe we’ll see you out on the river, or at the range, or on the course, or in the dojo!