Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Watering My Family Tree

Since I am an amateur genealogist by choice and a perfectionist by nature, my life is full of complex ambiguities. Genealogy is as much an art as it is a science. In art, there is rarely a definitive resolution. And that drives the perfectionist in me crazy.

I was recently reminded of this when I was browsing some Internet genealogy sites and discovered a record for my late father. The birth date listed for him was several years off. This site’s policy (as is the case with most such sites) is that records cannot be corrected. The best you can do when you discover incorrect data is to post the correct data and then let succeeding generations sort it all out.

One such site reminded me to include my sources when posting such correctional data. My sources? He’s my dad, for crying out loud! Don’t you think I’d know when his birth date was? (The scientist within me calmed the nerves of the artist within me and cooler heads ultimately prevailed.)

Bad data isn’t the worst part of genealogical research. The hardest part is determining your limits. Thus, I have constructed the three most agonizing dilemmas that face me in my pursuit of ancestry:

How deep should I go?

Fortunately, there’s an easy answer to this: as deep as possible. My ultimate goal as a genealogist is to find the oldest possible ancestors. As long as they’re in my blood line, I’ll go backwards as far as I can to find my great-great-great-great-great whatever.

Unfortunately, the farther you go back, the messier it gets. Spellings are not always consistent, the handwriting in family Bibles is almost impossible to decipher, and census takers were generally undereducated and poorly paid.

In addition, a couple of hundred years ago, it seems like every male was named either William, or Henry, or Harry. (Including President William Henry Harrison, but I digress.) Just because you find a person with the same name as a great ancestor of yours, that doesn’t mean you’re related. Challenges like that keep the work interesting.

How wide should I go?

No clear answer on this one. I finally had to draw the line one time when I had the names of my third cousin’s ex-wife’s parents. Fully knowing that I might regret it some day, I decided not to include them in my family tree database. It’s not likely that I’m going to run into them or their descendants in the mall. Let their family build their own tree.

I could be wrong about that one, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

When should I stop?

That’s easy. When people stop being born. And when people stop dying. When history stops living. And when the lion lays down with the lamb.

That’s the beauty of genealogy: It’s a living history. It keeps going and going. And its blessing keep giving and giving.

There are times when I’m working on a particular part of my family’s history when I’ll stop, take a breath, and step back to see what I’ve done. It puts things in perspective. It lets you know where you’re going by seeing where you’ve been. It makes you realize that everybody deserves a legacy, even if it’s just a birth date and a death date in a database.

Then, I get a phone call or an email. Somebody in my family has died. Or somebody has been born. Two people have been joined in marriage or split by a divorce. A new tombstone has been discovered in an old cemetery or a new obituary has been discovered in a yellow, tattered newspaper.

So I open up my database and enter the new information. Another legacy has been preserved. And my great-grandchildren will thank me for it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

That’s a Lotta Zeros

I have always loved studying really big numbers. I mean really big. Like the number of grains of sand on a beach. Or on all the beaches in the word. Or the number of hydrogen molecules in the sun.

Or the price of a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe.

This third-world African nation is in the midst of some truly world-class hyper-inflation. The rate is somewhere between 2.2 million percent and 12.5 million percent, give or take a few million percent. When it gets that high, it’s hard to imagine.

Currently, the country with the next highest rate of inflation is Myanmar/Burma (I don’t want to start any arguments here about the official name of that country), with a rate of 39.5%. Not much of a challenge for the inflation gold medal, huh.

A loaf of bread costs around a hundred billion dollars. (When Zimbabwe achieved independence and renamed itself from Rhodesia, they adopted the “dollar” as the name of their currency. Any resemblance to the American dollar is strictly comical.) Next month, it could cost a lot more. Or a lot less, depending on whose math you choose to believe.

The Zimbabwe government, in typical federal government fashion, attempted to stop inflation by making it illegal. Such price controls didn’t work for Richard Nixon in the 1970s and they didn’t work in Zimbabwe, either. It’s funny how the free market demands that it remain free — however rowdy and insane that may be.

So a couple of years ago, they attempted to control inflation by ignoring it. They just lobbed three zeros off the currency and declared the problem fixed. That didn’t work, either.

Last week, they took more drastic action. Gone are ten zeros. Ten. What used to be ten billion dollars is now just one.

Yeah, like that exudes confidence in the federal government.

To understand how they got into this mess would require a study of a complicated history of civil wars, border wars, and generally lousy government. Add to that some over-zealous printing presses in the government capital turning out worthless paper currency with zeros that multiply like rabbits and you have a recipe for disaster.

Through it all, President and resident idiot-for-life Robert Mugabe is clinging to power. He got the job in 1987 by simply abolishing the position of Prime Minister and assuming power. Pretty convenient. He managed to get himself re-elected in 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008. Apparently, there are more dead voters in Zimbabwe than in Chicago.

Now there is some debate over whether it’s Mugabe or the military who is currently running the county. Whoever is in control has a lot of explaining to do.

It is said that the Illinois Republican Senator Everett Dirksen invented the quote, “A billion here, a billion there; pretty soon, you’re talking real money.” Obviously, Dirksen never went shopping for a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe. He was off by about a dozen zeros.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Obama’s Confused Lingual Policy

Barack Obama recently sent the conservative blogosphere into a tizzy by suggesting that our children should learn how to speak Spanish. It was touted as another nail in the coffin of our Anglo/Christian heritage that so many Americans hold dearly.

Actually, I’m going to give him a little bit of a break. I think our children should learn another language. But I sincerely doubt his motivation and certainly his implication.

To be fair, here’s the quote — in proper context — from Obama as he spoke at a recent campaign event in Georgia:

I don’t understand when people are going around worrying about “We need to have English only.” They want to pass a law: “We want English only”. Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But, understand this: Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they'll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how your child can become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language. You know, it’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is “merci beaucoup”.

At first, Obama appears to chide us into pandering to Hispanic immigrants — telling us we should accommodate their language rather than forcing our own language on them. Then he turns that into a plea for our children to be bilingual. It’s an effective ploy — he is a master of such turn-arounds while stumping on the campaign trail.

But he is missing the point when he compares our language skills to the language skills of Europeans. And I can prove it by asking and answering three simple questions:

Why did I learn Spanish?

To know English better.
I took two years of Spanish while in high school — and a year of French in college. They were some of the most rewarding educational endeavors I have ever done. I learned more about how to conjugate English verbs by conjugating Spanish verbs. I learned more about irregular English words by studying French irregular words. I had a greater understanding, a greater appreciation, and a greater respect for my own language because I learned another language. Sometimes you have to get away from a subject to actually study it.

Why do the Europeans learn English?

Because they have to.
English is the language of law, the language of science, and the language of business. English has become what every French speaker and every Esperantist hoped for their respective languages. It’s the language of the un. It’s the language of the Olympics. It’s the language of nasa. In Europe, every country is the size of one of our Midwestern states. Language barriers abound. Many countries have multiple official languages and dozens of indigenous ones. They need one communicative glue to hold everything together. It may not be the best or most efficient language in the world, but English has become that de facto glue.

Why don’t all Hispanic immigrants learn English?

Because they don’t have to.
I knew we lost the battle the first time I had to press “1” for English at my local atm. I’m reminded of it every time I read the signs in the aisles at Home Depot. (Long ago, I learned that the Spanish word for “exit” is “salida”. How long does it take Hispanics to learn that the English word for “salida” is “exit”?) With bilingual customer service, bilingual menus, and even bilingual ballots, we have accommodated the Spanish-speaking world so much that their incentive to learn English has completely disappeared.

Obama is right, our students should learn a foreign language. They should do it to make themselves better students.

Immigrants to America should also learn a foreign language: English. It’s the glue that holds America together. And it’s the glue that will keep us together unless we choose to dissolve it by accommodating foreigners who refuse to learn it.