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.

Hobby Roulette: Fishing

This is the scene of the crime for my first fishing adventure in decades.

For whatever reason I equate relaxation with sitting by a lake fishing, something that is quite odd given that the last time I went fishing I was probably 16 years old. Nevertheless, I knew as I ventured out to discover new hobbies I would have to give fishing a shot. So with the weather starting to cool off I decided to grab my fishing gear and headed out. Only one problem — I didn’t have fishing gear and frankly I have no idea how to fish! To the interwebs!

There is a ridiculous amount of information about fishing on the web; in fact, it can be overwhelming. I figured the best thing to do was to buy cheap gear and try some local lake fishing to get my feet wet. Step one was to decide what type of rod and reel to buy, but even this was complicated. Most everything I read said the best way to start was to buy a simple combo spinning rod and reel, and after a few research trips to the store I settled on a Shakespeare Complete Fishing Kit for about $18 at Wal-Mart. It included the rod and reel, plus enough tackle to get me started. No point in spending a lot of money on a hobby that I may hate. Plus, everything I read said this kit was a solid starter set.

Next I had to decide where to fish. I live in a planned community called Lakewood which includes a couple of nice community lakes. I have seen people fishing in the lakes before, but I had no idea if they ever caught anything nor if there were any fish in the lakes. I sent an email to the community manager and found out the lakes were actually stocked each spring with bass, catfish, white amur and tilapia, and that the rules allowed for residents to catch and release anything they caught, which was fine with me because I had no interest in eating anything I pulled out of these lakes plus I have no idea how to clean and prepare a fish to cook anyway. A little more research on the web suggested I could catch tilapia with corn or bread as bait using a small hook about 18 inches below a bobber. I had my rod…I had my bait…and I had my rig. Next stop, the lake.

I woke up at 8 this morning, had a cup of coffee and then walked over to the lake. I carefully tied a hook to the line, placed a bobber about a foot up from the hook, and placed a piece of corn on the hook. Now I should mention here that I had never cast a spinning reel, so I had looked that up on the web as well. Thanks to YouTube there are plenty of tutorials available and, well, it looked pretty darn simple. The only fishing I’d ever done was with one of those rods that have a push button on the reel, which is really made just for kids. But the spinner reel is even more basic so I figured after watching the video I’d just wing it.

Casting turned out to be a breeze — you just hold the line with your finger against the rod, flip up the “bail” and send the line flying into the lake. Once the line lands you flip the bail back down and it locks into place. I cast a few times and reeled the line back in to get the hang of it. On the third or fourth cast I felt something tug on my line, and when I reeled it back in the corn was gone. Either this was going to be easy or these fish were way too smart for me and my corn on a hook. I baited the hook with a fresh piece of corn and cast again into the same general vicinity and a few seconds later my bobber went under and I knew I had a bite. I slowly reeled in and pulled out a fish! Holy shit, now what?

I had hooked a small tilapia, about 5-6 inches long. I pulled him up onto the grass and grabbed him, and that’s when I realized I’d forgotten to bring my needle nose pliers to get the hook out. I also quickly found out that tilapia have sharp barbs along their backs and they hurt when you touched them and I didn’t have a towel or cloth or anything to help me get my grip. Add to that this stupid fish pretty much swallowed the hook and even though I tried to stick my fingers in his mouth to get the hook out I couldn’t reach it. Now I had a dilemma. Either I let the fish die on the grass or toss him back into the lake with a hook in his mouth. I chose the latter and felt like a horrible person.

Rather than let this mistake taint my experience, I put a new hook on my line and cast out another piece of corn. Instantly I saw my bobber go under and knew I had hooked another fish. As I started to reel him in I could tell this was a bigger fish, and sure enough a few moments later I was pulling a foot-long bass out of the lake. He must have been about two pounds and I was giggling with excitement at my fishing fortunes — beginners luck for sure. This time the hook was sitting near the front of the fishes mouth and I easily yanked it out and tossed the fish back into the lake.

It was starting to get hot but I was on a roll so I cast another piece of corn into the lake. A few minutes later I hooked another small tilapia, yanked the hook out of his mouth and tossed him back. I was out at the lake for about 45 minutes and I’d caught three fish. I was thrilled and decided to call it a day and head home. I cleaned up my gear and walked home, laughing at myself for my luck and feeling like the king of the lake.

I have to admit I enjoyed fishing (despite my issues with the first fish) and I am excited to try again soon. I purchased some trout bait at Wal-Mart in case I decided to head over to a nearby stocked lake, so perhaps I’ll give that a try soon. I have done some internet research on trout and think I know how to set up the rig so that the bait floats a foot or so off the bottom of the lake so we’ll see if I can bring in some trout next time out. Trout is by far my favorite fish to eat to I’m going to look for a place I can keep the fish I catch — and of course I’ll have to do some research on how to clean them in case I do manage to catch anything. Tempe Town Lake and Kiwanis Lake are both close by and stocked with trout so I’ll probably try one of those. Hopefully it’ll be cooler out over the next few weeks as well.

Hobby Roulette: Wine 101

This week we finally kicked off our exploration of hobbies after a short vacation and one false start. We tried to do some drinking and painting at a local place called Brush Party, but it got cancelled while we were on our way to the studio (we will reschedule). But on Wednesday evening we had our first wine tasting class at a new restaurant in Gilbert called MWC Bistro. It’s a lovely little place in a mostly empty strip mall on the corner of McQueen and Warner in the spot that used to be Down Under Wines & Bistro. It is owned by the same folks who own My Wine Cellar in Ahwatukee, which is a great place we’ve been going to for years across several ownership changes.

We found MWC via Living Social. We paid $35 per person for four, 90 minute wine tasting classes over four consecutive Wednesdays in July. The deal came with four wines per tasting, plus small food pairing samples. The regular price for the class series is $80 per person so the Living Social deal was a steal. Leslie and I are really novices when it comes to wine so we figured this would be both fun and a learning experience.

We arrived at MWC Bistro a few minutes before 6 p.m. and were led to a large table in the back that was set for 14. There was one other guest there when we arrived — a woman named Jean who was in a wheelchair and whom we later learned was a stroke survivor who took a cab and the light rail on her own all the way from midtown Phoenix just for the class. Soon the table filled up with a wide range of people from a couple of older ladies to a pair of hipsters and their “dates” who may or may not have been beards. We ordered some food because it was dinner time including an order of french fries that were delicious. We both ordered salads for dinner — mine was with shrimp and Leslie’s had chicken and they were great. After a while a woman named Samantha introduced herself as our instructor (er, sommelier) and quickly poured each of us a glass of bubbly and offered a toast.

Samantha turned out to be a wonderful teacher with a great sense of humor and tons of knowledge about wine making, wine tasting and even wine purchasing. Over the course of 90 minutes we learned about how wines are made, the differences in taste due to harvest times, the different kids of yeasts used to ferment grapes, and the types of aging containers. Of course, we also learned the proper way to taste wine, beginning with a visual inspection to look for legs, brightness and color as well as sniffing for fruitiness, intensity, earthiness and more. If I’m being honest I had a hard time smelling all the things she said she smelled, whether it was pears or cherries or oak or stone. The hipster across from us dug his nose into his glass deeply with each tasting and remarked about various smells he sensed, but frankly I think he was full of shit. Most of the wines pretty much smelled like wine to me, but hey I’m new at this so perhaps my nose will mature with time!

After the visual and smell tests we were ready to taste, which began by swirling the wine all around our mouth and over our tongue before swallowing. We discussed things like sweetness, body, acid, tannin, complexity and finish. I’m pretty sure I can figure out dryness and sweetness, but mostly I just knew whether I liked the damn wine or not. For this first class we tasted a sparkling wine, a Chardonnay, a Merlot and a Zinfandel. Samantha hid the labels until after we discussed the wines to keep us from making assumptions, which was really great because it allowed me to taste the wine for what it was without preconceived notions.

Leslie and I are pretty basic when it comes to wine. She only likes dessert wines — VERY sweet wines like Muscat and late harvest Riesling. Although lately she has been obsessed with Sangria. I like sweet wine in moderation, but lately have been trying to open up my palate to explore reds like Merlot and Pinot Noir, partly because I know red wines are good for the heart. So the first four we tasted were not typical of what we’d drink, which I guess was the point of this. I thought the sparkling wine was good (a touch dry for me but not bad), but the Chardonnay was not my cup of tea. I enjoyed the Merlot but wouldn’t order it, and then came the Zinfandel. I gave it the sniff test and figured it’d be too dry for my liking, but the moment it went down my gullet I was pleasantly surprised. I really liked it, and it kept getting better with each sip. I had never tried a Zin, so I was very excited to add a new varietal to my repertoire. I forgot the name of the Zin, but it was from Amador County in Northern California (I’ll get the name next week at class number two).

We have three more classes over the next three weeks and I’m looking forward to it. I’d say wine tasting is a definite yes in terms of hobbies! I am excited to try more varietals and open my mind. I’m not so sure Leslie is going to get as much out of this class as me, but even just trying new things is a step in the right direction. And hey, she likes what she likes so who am I to argue — that’s why they make so many different kinds of wines!

As for MWC Bistro, I’d highly recommend it for dinner and drinks. The food was great, the french fries were amazing and the wine and beer selection was above average. 

 

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!