One of the Family

Puzzle photoMy friends and family know I’m a genealogy wonk. Some nights I become engrossed in researching one ancestor or another, until I finally look up at a clock and realize I’m famished and exhausted because… I’ve been head down for hours without a break. I promise myself I’ll eat or drink something, just as soon as I finish one last census search…

Like I said, I’m kind of a geek about this stuff.

I also love television series like “Who Do You Think You Are” on TLC, and “Genealogy Roadshow” and “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. These shows often (but not always) focus on celebrities, and zero in on just one or two ancestral lines that reveal Civil or Revolutionary War connections. Occasionally, a celeb will have a ne’er do well, bigamist great-great grandfather or something – but that’s not the norm.

Smiles, everyone. SMILES!

I’m fascinated when celebrities are clueless about their lineage. In other words they’re JUST LIKE THE REST OF US, bless their hearts.

When I dream about how I’d spend a Powerball jackpot, top of my list is hiring baby-faced genealogist D. Joshua Taylor to document my family tree. Knucklehead celebrities would apparently rather blow their loot on tiny dogs that fit in their Prada purses, or gold-plated Cadillac Escalades. Go figure.

Today I read about Ben Affleck’s alleged attempts, during a 2014 guest appearance on Henry Louis Gates’ “Finding Your Roots”, to suppress that he descends from slave owners. (This was exposed by WikiLeaks. I can only assume the group has run out of serious transgressions when it targets PBS.)

According to leaked emails, Gates felt pressured to ignore Affleck’s slavery connections, and worried about his own professional integrity and credibility if he did so. In the end, he chose to focus on a more illustrious Affleck ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, and whose discovery made Ben “very proud”. Maybe the patriot ancestor had a better narrative than the slave-owning ancestor — but now we’ll never know.

Researching your family tree is a crapshoot – emphasis at times on “crap”. Too bad Ben didn’t ask me for pointers:

  • Genealogy is not for the faint of heart: Most of my family discoveries have been fascinating and exciting, but a few make me cringe a little. Each of us has 32 three-times great grandparents. (That’s the Civil War generation, in my case.) Odds are they won’t all be Union war heroes and captains of industry. Get over it.
  • Descending from slave owners or criminals feels crummy: I get it. Even though YOU didn’t own slaves, rob a bank or abandon your family, an ancestor doing so can make you feel guilty. If the prospect of uncovering a black sheep is very upsetting, family research is probably not for you.

Let Ben Affleck have his revisionist history. I see my family tree as a jigsaw puzzle to solve. I didn’t choose it – it belonged to someone before me, and I just found it on a shelf in the attic. Some pieces are missing, and I may NEVER find them. So I complete what I can, and celebrate my ancestors – even the cads and rogues — because without them, I wouldn’t be here.

Cartoon of Darth Vadar in front of a computer screen, researching his family tree. He exclaims "So, Luke has a sister!"

Turn On. Tune In. Hit Play.

I am not a slave to television.  I do not plan my life based on the TV schedule… but having a DVR may have something to do with that.  With it I can extend my multitasking even to television watching, and thereby avoid tough trade offs like which baseball game to watch on a given day.  Line ‘em up; I’ll watch them all!

A friend and I recently compared notes on TV shows that horrify us – but that we surreptitiously watch anyway.  We cannot look away.  Of course, I would never, ever record any of these shows because that would be sad and wrong.  But if I were channel surfing and happened to come across one of these…

Hoarding: Buried Alive.  For a neatnik like me, this show is scarier than any death drop roller coaster out there.  The unfortunate hoarders profiled tend to be lonely and isolated, and many just seem bat-shit crazy.   The presence of cameras is usually precipitated by some catastrophic event, like a child has developed asthma due to conditions in the home, and the authorities are now threatening removal and/or to condemn the property.

It’s always amazing to me that hoarders are so deathly attached to their stuff.  (Queue sound of hand-slapping-forehead here.)  I know I know, hoarders gonna hoard.  But it’s like someone with emphysema, who needs an oxygen tank to breath, but still refuses to give up smoking.  So… your kitchen sink is clogged and filled with filthy stagnant water.  Your fridge is crawling with cockroaches.  And you sleep on a funked-up mattress next to a mountain of QVC Christmas ornaments that will smother you in your sleep if they fall on you.  Yet, you insist that nothing is wrong?

Will Mary Jo let the biohazard team clean out her house, or will she lose her marbles and lock herself in her basement with her collection of newspapers dating back to the Eisenhower administration?  Those are the scenes that really get my adrenaline pumping!

What Not To Wear.  OK, I lied.  I have been known to record this one, because really… what’s not to love, starting with Clinton Kelly?  (Or as his makeovers from New Jersey often refer to him, “Cli-hun”.)  I highly recommend his book Freakin’ Fabulous: How to Dress, Speak, Behave, Eat, Drink, Entertain, Decorate, and Generally Be Better Than Everyone Else.

The show can be inspiring when a hard-working single mom finally sees herself as beautiful.  But the real guilty pleasure part of WNTW is the clothing choices that got these women nominated for the show in the first place.  “You wore THAT to your husband’s boss’s wedding?  Afterwards he was FIRED, right?”

No matter what fashion faux pas is committed, you’ll find a plus-sized woman shopping in the junior’s department at its core.

The make-up segment is almost always benign.  When there’s a professional make-up artist at work, there’s nothing but upside.  But the hairstyle segment?  Yikes, hang on to your extensions people!   A 55 year-old woman with a middle part and no bangs, two-inch roots and only five hairs on her entire head that aren’t split will plop down in the stylist’s chair and say, “You can do whatever you want, but I want to keep it long.”  The stylist will explain that her cut is a bit “dated” and it ages her, so he wants to cut off FOUR INCHES.  This will leave her with hair only down to (gasp!) her shoulders.  The hair segment usually ends in tears, and a mediation team must be called in.

At the end of the show, the makeover unveils her new look at a cocktail party for family and friends.  Her boss announces that she can use the front door when entering the office from now on.  Her husband is speechless and gives her a big, sloppy smooch.  Her kids cry, and say they have never seen her look so pretty.  (That’s the part that always gets to me.)

Decision 2012.  This is the guilty TV pleasure that cracked up my friend Jenni, once I assured her that I wasn’t being sarcastic.  I am a registered Democrat who watches the Republic primary debates (sometimes twice!) and takes notes in case something happens worth blogging about.  I also watched the Super Tuesday results come in with my guy Chuck Todd.  He is adorable and objective, and he doesn’t yell or interrupt. (That’s right, I’m looking at YOU Chris Matthews!)  And he can do math really fast.  IN HIS HEAD!

I do not consider Who Do You Think You Are? a guilty pleasure.  There’s nothing to feel guilty about – it’s educational, damn it!  My devotion to it stems from my love of history, genealogy and Ancestry.com… and my determination to prove that I am related to a really good U.S. President.  Not a Warren G. Harding or William Henry Harrison.   I want a founding father, Honest Abe or some sort of Roosevelt (even Eleanor!).

Once I uncover my link to the White House… consider it blogged!

What are your guilty TV pleasures?