Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Who do they think we are?

One of my sons is reticent to tell people what he does or studies because when he does so, the conversation inevitably ends. He is an astro-physicist. Being over involved in genealogy as I have a tendency to be, I find the same conversation stopper. Just mention genealogy to a non-genealogist and you will get a look like you just admitted you were out on parole. One of the most satisfying parts of attending a convention, especially a genealogical convention is the ability to talk to someone who tolerates genealogy.

Many years ago, I retired from the practice of law (for the first time) to run a computer retail store and a software company. One of the most satisfying parts of retiring from law was the fact that I didn't have to tell anyone I was a lawyer. For years, when asked what I did for a living, I could truthfully answer that I was involved in computer businesses. Over the years people began to forget that I was an attorney. New friends and acquaintances didn't know. When I went back to practicing law, I was once again forced to admit that I was an attorney. Some of my newer friends were perplexed and would always ask, "When did you find time to go to law school?" assuming I had just begun the practice.

Another fall out of returning to law was the common retort, "Since you are a lawyer, can I ask you a question?" This would always be followed with a detailed account of some legal mess with an expectation that I would solve the problem for them in 30 seconds for free! I was asked that question today, for an example of the almost automatic reaction to my disclosure that I am an attorney.

Guess what? When I tell people I am a genealogist I don't get any questions. I don't think that the blank stare and shudder is really a question, it is more of a reaction. Part of the reason, I am sure for the reaction to genealogy stems from the common viewpoint that the whole subject is the purview of slightly (or more than slightly) balmy older people who have failed at shuffleboard. In the greater Mormon or LDS community of which I am a part (that is members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) genealogy has a basic religious foundation. Members of the Church are frequently exhorted to "do their genealogy." Conversations with other members of the Church which turn to genealogy generally end with a guilty explanation of why the other person doesn't (fill in the blank, i.e. have time, have the ability) do genealogy. One good thing, however, they seldom ask for a free answer to a difficult question.

I could go on with the reaction of family members to my avocation. Those who are still talking to me, will sometimes listen politely but often suddenly decide to change a baby's diaper or something else a lot more appealing than genealogy. 

How do I view myself as a genealogist? Who am I? I am first and foremost a researcher. Some people enjoy sports, dancing, music, whatever, I enjoy research. (I also like music and a lot of other things just for the record). I enjoy accumulating facts, evidence and following a line of proof. I love libraries. I could spend the rest of my life doing research. Now down to reality. One of the few things I like about law is the research and writing. Second, I love to teach. I like to see people light up when they finally understand a difficult concept. There are many parts of professional teaching that I find onerous and distasteful. Mostly I don't like teaching people who don't want to learn. I like to teach genealogy because no one comes to a genealogy class because they have to. One of the worst parts of teaching, was teaching continuing education classes to attorneys. None of them had the slightest interest in being in the class, they were there because they were forced to be there. When I taught Spanish, I taught at 6:00 am because I knew that only people who wanted to be there would come to a Spanish class at 6:00 am.

I like to find out new things. If I had lived in the distant past, I would have been an explorer. I always want to go over the next hill just to see what is there, even it what is there is just the same as what is here. I found that sense of discovery and wonder in libraries and I continually find it in genealogical research. People and families are infinitely different and each has a story to tell. Discovering new facts and new stories is fascinating and inspiring.

I am a compulsive writer and talker. Sitting down in front of a blank computer screen is an invitation to write. Unless I am too sick or so tired I cannot function, ideas come to me in waves. I wake up with ideas. If I wake in the middle of the night sometimes I cannot sleep until I have written down my ideas.

Like all genealogists, I am a collector. I have collected stamps, coins, matchbook covers, animal figures, cameras, and most of all, pervasively documents, photos, and information of all kinds. I also have a hard time throwing away anything that appears even remotely useful.

I am also blessed (or cursed) with a encyclopedic memory. I often become embarrassed when I start to explain something to someone and must remember to stop before their eyes glaze over and they pass out from information overload.

You may wonder who you think you are, I wonder who they think I am.


  1. Very interesting and some great insights. I am always curious to learn "what makes genealogy people tick." And I love the description: "the common viewpoint that the whole subject is the [purview] of slightly (or more than slightly) balmy older people who have failed at shuffleboard." Yup, that's what I used to think and I'm sure most people still think.

  2. I completely understand! Honestly, when I casually mention that I do genealogy to people my age (I'm 34) they often don't even know what it is. And then when I explain it, their eyes immediately glaze over. :)
    I have really enjoyed the past 11 years of research I have done. It has made the sometimes mundane days of motherhood a bit more exciting. (I love my kids, but 10 years of diapers can make you a bit crazy!)
    I'm looking forward to attending the NGS conference this May, so that I can hang out with people who understand me.

  3. Well, finally a bit of the real you LOL. I too am a collector of "things" and more than 3 of a kind can officially become your "collection."

    I also am a puzzler - I can entertain myself for hours with word logic puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, math puzzles, etc.

    Did you know that it is a scientific fact that those who do any type of puzzling have more neuro-pathways than those who do not puzzle . . .

    See, it's real easy to get real geeky real fast LOL

  4. Ah, yes, the glazed over eyes. I've seen that. Recently, when I made a deposit for my Genealogical Society, of which I am the treasurer, I heard, "You collect rocks?!" from the young clerk. I guess old ladies should collect ancestors, not rocks. And I know they aren't sure who I am. Oh well, I am, and I like me.

  5. You're also very entertaining, James. I loved your post. I must suggest it to my husband! Thanks so much.

  6. Thanks James, I too love research, jigsaw puzzles, research, old documents, old courthouses, and so much more! Genealogy is my passion. It's so much fun to be part of this tribe!

  7. I'll listen to you (or read your posts) instead of changing a diaper. :)

    I also wanted to mention that in your list of collections you forgot to mention rocks. Then, I read the comment about rocks. :) How convenient to be both a geologist and a genealogist!

  8. Great post and right on the money! I started a beginner's genealogy class in my county - just to have some people with like interests to speak to! They didn't find me odd, or feel trapped in the corner (as others often do when I start to talk about my research). It was a great feeling, not to mention very rewarding! We may finally have the beginnings of a society in my local area. True what you say about collecting - lots of folks have an aversion to "pack-ratting", whereas we are just sure that we may need that item (or collection of items) someday. True also that we seem to like puzzles - after all we're putting together the pieces of our family. The logic that goes behing doing the research and then the "aha!" of the find is what makes it so addicting. Thanks for the great post!

  9. James great post! I can certainly relate to this topic and have been dealing with. When I was a young stay at home mother in NJ, my husband put down my occupation on our tax returns as "Domestic Goddess". Maybe we should just state our profession as something more grandiose like research oracle or archive miner.