16 August 2014

Who Do You Think You Are? - The Genetic Journey

Lately I've been watching a show on TLC called "Who Do You Think You Are?"  Largely sponsored by Ancestry.com, it follows various celebrities around as they trace bits of their family history.  Given my own history (and frequent lack thereof), I find this show fascinating.

On the one hand, I'm wildly envious of the stars' seemingly endless resources in hiring professional genealogists and researchers and historians to trace their lineage as they travel all over the world to discover where they came from.  Have to jet off to Europe or the Carribbean?  Oh, darn.  On the other hand, I love how much genealogical searching humanizes these celebrities; their reactions, whether of surprise or excitement or distress, appear genuine because in those moments they are just like the rest of us--regular people searching for who they are and where they came from.  And that's something we all want and deserve to know.

So far this season I've seen celebrities who've discovered they are direct descendants of European royalty and I've watched as other celebrities learned that distant relatives were murderers (though in one case it was arguably self-defense).  The common themes seem to be either how various family members persevered against great odds or how some aspect of one's personality carried down through the centuries.  For example, Jim Parsons of Big Bang Theory wanted to see if there were any creative people or artists in his line; apparently there were several.  Another actor, for whom family is paramount, discovered a long line of ancestors who routinely sacrificed for their families.  Just the other night I watched as Brooke Shields learned that her Italian lineage actually originated in France; turns out she majored in French Literature in college and has always been drawn to all things French without ever really knowing why.  Now she does.

Obviously this is a television show and is therefore edited for maximum effect, particularly in presenting the whole "rise above adversity" theme.  After all, the goal is to snag viewers.  Even so, I am drawn to the latter theme of continuity because I get it--I'm seeing it over and over again as I trace my own ancestry.  I find the idea of continuity in one's family extremely compelling, especially after growing up as an adoptee and having pretty much zero continuity or family history for more than four decades.  Certainly a great deal of who I am was instilled by my adoptive family and I'm grateful for that and for them, but those experiences only define a portion of what and who I am.  Perhaps that's why the recent search for my birth parents and my history has been so valuable to me because I am finally getting a glimpse of my unknown origins.  Some aspects of my ancestry, particularly on my birth father's side, will likely remain a mystery forever.  I wish it could be otherwise, regardless of my birth father's apparent lack of character, because his own ancestry still comprises half of my heredity and I'd still like to learn more about it...I want to see if there is a continuity present in his line as there is on my birth mother's side.

The Love of a Birthmother by Susan Scharpf
Even if I never learn anything more about my birth father, the information I've learned thus far about my birth mother's family has been a gift.  It's difficult to describe how meaningful an experience it is to be able to find a part of yourself that you didn't even know was missing...to hear the echoes of relatives long past calling down to you through the ages...to feel just that little bit more whole.  It's an amazing thing, this context, and I've watched it play out over and over in each episode of this show just as I'm now watching it play out in my own life on a much smaller scale.

It's these stories, these connections, that make everything so real for me.  Seeing names on a page is interesting and all, but when those names come to life and become real, breathing people with whom you might share commonalities?  Well, that's another matter entirely, and one which cannot be underestimated.  I've already written about some of the small commonalities I share with my birth mother, the odd idiosyncrasies that mark me as one of her line and no one else's.  Since then, I've learned a little more about her our family, even with my limited resources.  I'm starting to hear the echoes.  I have one great-grand-aunt who did medical research at a time when women were not generally that highly educated; she helped to isolate the typhus bacterium.  Her sister, another great-grand-aunt, was a musician who taught piano in Germany.  I gather my grandmother was also a pianist.  I know virtually nothing about these people, and yet I can still see glimpses of where my interests in education and music might have originated.  My great-great-grandfather himself founded a well-known mission in Indianapolis which is still in operation today.  I find it particularly ironic that it was originally founded as a home for unwed mothers (and initially called the Door of Hope) given the circumstances of my own conception and birth.  I can't help but wonder if that example might not have somehow influenced my birth mother's decision to put me up for adoption as opposed to aborting me.  If so, then I'm doubly thankful.  Regardless, the echoes are still there--I may not have done anything as big as founding a mission, but I have always liked helping people however I can.

Watching this show serves to remind me how we are all tied to our past whether we realize it or not, as well as whether we are trying to improve upon it or to merely live up to it.  Either way, we are still a product of all those who came before.  For me, this is much like the strange feeling I had a few years ago when I was in the UK.  We spent some time exploring London, though we missed many of the sites I would have liked to see such as Glastonbury, Bath, and Stratford-upon-Avon.  There were various complications along the way that made the trip less than it might have been, but when I got on the train to head to Scotland, all the frustrations melted away.  It felt for all the world like I was going home.  The closer I got to Scotland, the more relaxed I became--the more at peace--as if centuries of Gaelic ancestors were welcoming me back to my native land.  It was a surreal experience, particularly since I had no knowledge of my heredity at the time.

Since then I've discovered through DNA testing that most of my ancestors originated in the UK (with a few Swiss and Germans thrown in for seasoning). Apparently Ancestry.com (which provided the testing) filtered their findings more fully because one day I received an email with updated results showing that I am approximately 31% Irish (yeah, like that's a shocker) and 27% British.  I'm even 10% Scandinavian...yay, Vikings!  Research into my birth mother's family suggests that of that UK percentage, a significant portion is Welsh and yes, there are a a few Scots scattered here and there.  So far I've not found any Irish in my birth mother's lineage to speak of (though I'm not done researching), so I can only assume I inherited the majority of it from my birth father.  Either way, I now have a context for my life-long fascination with all things Celtic (and not just their kilts, though admittedly those are pretty fabulous and tend to make me a little weak in the knees).  I've always been intrigued with the history and mythology of the Celtic nations and drawn to Celtic art, particularly knotwork.  I never knew why before--now I do.  Besides, if I'm part Welsh, I can totally claim a legitimate connection to King Arthur and to Torchwood (and possibly Doctor Who by extension).  Bright side, people...bright side.

Learning about oneself and one's geneaology is a journey in every sense of the word.  Most people get to discover their history over decades; my journey has so far been compressed into two short years, making it arguably more impactful since I didn't have the luxury of living and breathing my genetic family history as I grew up.  Suddenly I have a context for things I didn't previously understand; suddenly I can see the beginnings of a continuity connecting me throughout the years.  Suddenly I understand why my time in Scotland felt so natural and grounding, like Scotland was calling me home.

It was.

15 August 2014

Happy Jerseyversary

Two months ago today, I moved to New Jersey.  If someone had told me years ago that I'd one day be living here, I'd never have believed them.  I grew up in a smallish town in the Midwest, middle Indiana to be precise, directly across from one of the ubiquitous cornfields dotting the Midwestern countryside.  My hometown, at least while I was there, boasted maybe 3,000 residents.  Today it's closer to 23,000 and is basically a suburb of Indianapolis.  Personally, I find this grossly unfair.  I mean, they have a movie theater, for crying out loud.  Where was this when I was a teenager??  But I digress.

Two months and counting.

When I was an adolescent, I couldn't have imagined all the different places in which I'd find myself over the years. True, I tended to be "take one day at a time" sort of person and so didn't really think about it one way or the other, but when you grow up in a fairly insulated and conservative town, it's often difficult to think past one's limited experiences anyway.

I stayed in Indiana for college and grad school after which I found myself unexpectedly transported to a whole new universe in Memphis, TN--the South.  I felt like an alien in a strange land and, in many ways, I was.  I spoke too quickly, I moved too fast, and I refused to say "y'all" on general principle.  I was introduced to real-life cotton gins that looked nothing like the little box in my childhood history book.  Eventually I adapted; I spoke a little more slowly, drank sweet tea, and even picked up the odd regional colloquialism, though I still avoided "y'all" as a matter of course; no doubt it will be "you guys" till I die.  Ultimately I came to love Memphis and I still think of it as my home.  Besides, Memphis brought me some of the biggest joys of my life, including the birth of my amazing and brilliant daughter and the opportunity to travel overseas not once but twice, for which I will be eternally grateful and because of which I want to travel even more.

Seriously...I do.
After nearly 20 years in Memphis I moved to Georgia because of the Spousal Unit's job.  Georgia was quite the adjustment considering the girlie went to her first year of college just 3 weeks after we moved and we'd just lost 3 of 4 parents in the previous 4 years--never mind a number of other things complicating the move.  In the process, I soon learned the difference between the South and the Deep South and that I don't really belong in it.  I made some fantastic friends in my short time there, but I never really fit in otherwise.  And that's okay.  It was a good place to discover how much more liberal I am than I'd originally thought and to better understand who I am overall and what I think after years of focusing on other people.

Four years later, just when I was getting used to the place and able to find my way around, we moved again and I ended up on the Jersey side of the Philadelphia metropolitan area.  I find this particularly ironic because when I was a kid, my family used to drive all over the country visiting relatives.  By the time I graduated from high school I'd been in most of the contiguous states at one point or another, with the exception of the northeastern US so naturally that was the region I was most curious to visit. Well, that and Alaska.  Then the girlie unexpectedly chose to go to school in NY, so I got to see a little of the Northeast for the first time--and now I live here.  That's kind of exciting, really.  In fact, I'm even planning a new blog that will focus on my explorations of both Philadelphia and the Northeast in general; hopefully it will be launched in the next month or so.  And what's a new blog without a small preview?

In the process of running around like a crazy person while trying to sort out things like driver's licenses and plates and registrations the first two weeks and after myriad jaunts to home improvement stores,  I've picked up a few things about my new home.  So here, in no particular order, are ten things I've learned about New Jersey so far.

  1.  The people here are surprisingly friendly.  No, I didn't think everyone was going to be a rude, overly-tanned mafioso, but I did expect a certain degree of terseness and directness in speech that is largely absent in the South.  And while everyone does tend to be more straightforward here (which is great, because I always have been too; it's one of the many reasons I don't make a good Southerner), I was still surprised by how just how polite and open everyone seems to be.

  2.  It is illegal to pump your own gas here.  I've been pumping my own gas since I started driving approximately 5 centuries ago, so it's more than a little weird to hand over my credit card to a complete stranger and sit in my car while he hooks up the pump.  I confess I keep eyeballing the card reader in case someone wanders by to try yanking it out of the slot.  On the other hand, I can see the potential advantages of being forced to stay in my car when it's rainy or snowy outside, so there's that.

New Jersey:  Where You Can't Be Trusted To Pump Your Own Petrol

  3.  Speaking of gas, it's cheaper in New Jersey than in Philadelphia which is good because it's pretty much the only thing that's cheaper here.  I knew going in that the cost of living up here was much higher than in the South or the Midwest, but frankly I'm still in sticker shock at just exactly how much more expensive it is.  It's daunting, to say the least, and kind of makes me want to knock over an armored truck just so I can squirrel away some reserves.

  4.  New Jersey has something called "jug handles."  And I'm not talking milk pitchers.  Jug handles (which constantly make me think of "Jug Ears" from the British show "Are You Being Served") are a bizarre means by which one makes a left-handed turn on the road.  I've actually done a couple now (mostly successfully), and they still seem to me to be overcomplicating the streets but then I'm just a misplaced Midwest-Southerner so what do I know?

Just in case traffic wasn't convoluted enough.

  5.  There are no Kroger's or Publix grocery stores here; instead one of the big chains is Acme, which I cannot look at without immediately seeing Wile E. Coyote holding a cardboard box and hearing "Ac-Meeeeeeee" playing on repeat through my head.

  6.  New Jersey is surprisingly green, and I don't just mean all the trees and grass.  (And, can I just say?  Fescue, how I've missed you!  So soooooooft...)  In my township, most of the lampposts have solar panels installed and the recycling program here is rather extensive.  Residents are even provided with a big recycling dumpster, thoughtfully emblazoned with the breast cancer support ribbon...but you have to provide your own trash cans.  Go figure.

  7.  I may not live at the epicenter of US culture, but I can access a significant majority of it within four hours or less.  NYC is maybe 2½ hours away, and Washington D.C. is maybe 3½.  I'm also only about an hour from the shore should I get the inexplicable urge to expose my pasty flesh to the sun's harsh rays.  And it's the shore, not the "beach."  That's one change that's going to take some getting used to.  Meanwhile, I'm a scant 20 minutes from the "Cradle of Liberty" that is Philadelphia, as well as its myriad museums.

  8.  While I'm pleased to be living above the fire ant line once again and can actually do yard work without the imminent threat of my extremities blowing up like inner tubes or burning as though doused in habañero juice, my car and I are both somewhat less than thrilled to be back in the Land of the Eternal Pothole. I may mock native Southerners' aversion to cold weather with the best of them (not that I won't soon be whinging here after 23 years of relatively hot winters), but I have to admit that the roads are much easier to traverse without all the cracking and expansion brought on by frigid temperatures.  Also?  I haven't picked up a snow shovel in nearly a quarter of a century.

It was good while it lasted.

  9. Furthermore, I've learned that summer in New Jersey means rain and lots of it.  I don't know yet if that's typical or if it's just this summer, but either way, I really wish my neighborhood's power lines could handle the strain a little better.  Seriously--you'd think if the electric company knows there's going to be a problem every time it storms they'd spring for proper repairs rather than going through their giant box of magic electricity bandaids to jury-rig the outages.  Still, that seems a small price to pay for significantly more temperate summers than I've had for the last 2 decades.  And while I dread surrendering my beloved flip-flops in favor of grown-up shoes this fall, I am totally down with hot cocoa and tea and cider and sweaters and cozy fires and trees that actually change more than two colors in the approximately 3½ days which constitute "autumn" in the Southern region.  Apparently my Celtic roots are showing.

10.  Lastly, New Jersey has my phone's GPS completely flummoxed.  I've been using the Tomtom app for several years now and, barring the odd exception (and parking lots), Paul's done quite well for me.  No, I didn't name him; the voice options came pre-named.  A few years ago when relatives were visiting, I was demonstrating the different voice and language selections.  I landed on an Australian voice designated as "Paul" ("That's not a knife...THIS is a knife!").  Eventually I got so used to Paul's voice that now all the other voices sound somehow wrong.  At any rate, Paul can't seem to manage New Jersey at all and consistently smokes silicon motherboard crack when plotting out my various destinations.  I've been told that others have similar problems with their GPS when in New Jersey.  I'm not sure why this is, but even Google Maps gives me better directions.  Yet if I cross back over into Philadelphia, Paul is good to go once again.  I can only assume that Australians have some sort of ocean-based enmity against Atlantic dwellers.  Or something.

All I know is that continuing to learn about my new environs should prove to be very interesting and I look forward to blogging more about my adventures starting this fall.  In the meantime, I need to figure out how to become independently wealthy so I can travel all over the rest of the world (especially Europe) because just the small sliver I've seen thus far has not only to whet my appetite for more but has fanned it into a voracious flame; clearly something must be done about this soon because we all know how easily gingers get burned.  That raises an interesting question, though:  who is more formidable?  A Jersey girl, or a ginger girl?  (God forbid one is both, I suppose.)  I'll have to do some research and let you know how it turns out. ;)

14 August 2014

Moving, Part #2: The House that Crack Built

Any time you move into a new home, unless it is legitimately new--as in new construction--you expect to have to make small repairs here and there.  That's just part of the deal.  Even so, there are inevitably little surprises that greet you along the way, whether things you missed during the inspection or things which just don't get discovered till you're actually living in the new home.  For example, I used to call one of my Tennessee homes the "House of Many Doors" because until I was living in it, I did not realize how many superfluous or poorly-placed doors were ready to bang into each other.  That's also the house that decided to blow a water heater about 10 minutes after the homeowner's warranty expired.  I'm convinced that appliances can sense when that's about to happen and just lie in wait, ready to spontaneously combust at the most inopportune and expensive time possible.  My home in Georgia had much fewer issues since it did happen to be new construction, but even there I soon discovered that the dishwasher opened at a 90° angle to the sink; this meant that I spent the last four years crammed into a one-foot space trying to clean dishes at the sink and then awkwardly twisting myself sideways like a giant dishwasher wedgie to load the dishes.  It's always something.

Oh, look...it's my Tennessee house.  (From Pleated-Jeans.com)

This house has proven to be no different.  Sure, there were the things we knew about going in, like some cracks from the house settling and a dripping faucet, never mind the big things like a major stucco repair and installing a radon system and sump pump (who has a sump without a pump?), all of which were provided for in the settlement.  I still have to arrange for everything to get done, but at least I don't have to pay for it...mostly.  Even so, there are plenty of other interesting things we've had to contend with in the last two months, most of which appear to be largely the result of an overly-ambitious first owner (who was also an HVAC contractor) and a builder who clearly cut corners.  I don't know if the builder was inept or just lazy but between him, the HVAC guy with delusions of grandeur, and the previous owners with the questionable home improvement skills, this house has been a veritable rabbit warren of oddities.

My first discovery, after spending hours scrubbing them down (cleaning appears to have been considered largely optional), was that all the kitchen cabinets are not constructed of wood so much as covered with a weird plastic laminate condom, presumably to protect them from KitchenAIDS.  Unfortunately, said laminate condom is far more effective at attracting every dirt particle in the kitchen like a giant schmutz magnet than in protecting the cabinets from kitchen STDs.  Laminate condoms might have been more successful in the oven, which looks not unlike it was used to bake auto parts.  Or Meth.  (Though Meth might also explain why half the cabinets and/or their doors are not lined up properly and why all of the trim corners were professionally hot-glued on, never mind why the back of one drawer had to be cut out to allow space for the stovetop's power cabling.)  But that's still not as good as the elaborate hood vent built in among the upper cabinets that is exactly the correct height on which to wham yourself repeatedly (as evidenced by the permanent dent now in my forehead) and which is not, in fact, functional.  That's right--I have 3 feet of fake ventilation, complete with a transformer that was never fully wired and so just whines in the distance when you flip its switch.

Just sittin' here, waiting to suck up all your steam.

Psych!!  I'm gonna drop decaying paint in your food instead!
Not wiring things up seems to be a theme in this house, really.  The heating and air systems in the basement look like refugees from a 1940s airplane hangar, complete with several inexplicable ducts that are capped off and lead nowhere.  As a result, we have vents that don't actually vent.  In addition to the faux hood in the kitchen, the vent in the master bathroom is likewise not connected; the room turns into a sauna when anyone showers and leaves humid air hovering upstairs for hours.  I wouldn't be surprised if the other bathroom's vent was likewise disconnected.  Furthermore, the master bath's floor is wired for radiant heating--which was also never hooked up--and there are heat lamps over the sink.  All I can figure is that the bathroom was constructed for someone more accustomed to Equator-esque weather and so was built to wildly over-compensate.

As if all the disjointed wiring and ducting weren't enough, it turns out that the previous owners were apparently very bad at home repairs and tended to solve their household problems by either simply turning off the offending item or camouflaging it rather than taking the time to get it repaired.  Because, you know, calling someone is hard.  When we had the house inspected, for example, we found that one faucet upstairs was turned off; we were told that this was because a grandmother didn't like listening to the water drip.  Okaaaaaay.  So it didn't come as much of a surprise when we later realized the dishwasher's water supply was likewise shut off (something our inspector missed).   I tried to run a load of dishes after turning the water back on.  The dishwasher promptly spewed out water, which then snaked across the floor and down a vent leading into the basement.  Whoops.  Turns out the dishwasher was missing a simple hose--that's it.  But I guess it was just easier to turn it off than to actually fix it.

Looks like some of my ductwork.

There are other problems, of course.  A garage door opener is missing.  Someone hacked up the baseboards to install a gas fireplace upstairs.  Whoever put up the ventilated shelves in my closet used approximately 568 hooks to secure them because you can never have enough shelf security, particularly when the pull-down attic stairs--which are inexplicably placed in said closet--had to have an opening gouged into the door to keep it from smacking into the shelves.  The basement has outlet boxes dangling awkwardly from the ceilings, making electricians everywhere cringe without quite knowing why.  There are cheap cabinets randomly hung on the middle of the garage wall, guaranteeing that no one can get into the car without first tightly duct-taping all their wobbly bits or dusting a swath down the side of the car with their posterior.  Most of the window blinds are hung so precariously that they look like they're seconds away from making a prison break.  The molding along the stairwell is strangely mismatched; either that or the builder was trying to interpret the steps "artistically."  Nor is the back patio entirely level, which we discovered when the grill decided to go walkies in a storm and pitch headfirst into the yard.  And, just to keep things interesting, the power goes out in the whole neighborhood nearly every time it rains.

Okay, now you're not even trying.
We have additional repairs to make and will no doubt uncover yet more WTFs as time goes on.  Fortunately, however, we are pretty good at DIY, and many of the issues here are primarily cosmetic.  The house itself has good bones, so once the stucco has been repaired and the place has been given a little TLC things should improve considerably, busybody neighbors dropping by to regale us with all the neighborhood gossip and uttering creepy things like "I've been in your house...I know what you have in there" notwithstanding.

Besides, any time I get discouraged, I can console myself with the fact that at least I have not had pipes stolen nor had poop water pouring into my lighting fixtures as has a friend recently who moved into a rental house.  While I'm not sure I be handling her situation as gracefully or as positively as my friend has, her unfortunate house struggles definitely put things here into perspective.  My plumbing (as well as many other things) may well need an overhaul at some point, but at least it's intact and not currently raining literal crap in my home.  By comparison, everything else seems small potatoes.

(From CollegeHumor.com)