Tuesday, September 26, 2006

... and I'm the sap

Here's the designated story of my life over the past two weeks. I've been telling it to plenty of people, so it's time to present it here.

Someone at work wondered why someone who just died didn't have any references on Google. I tried to explain that some, especially older people, just don't pop up easily. As a foreinstance, I plugged in my father and mother.

After a little work, my father came up with four relevant references. Two were to a scholarship, one was a letter he wrote while in business back in 1988. The fourth, though, made me stop. It was on a geneology forum. Someone was looking for him, and knew where he/we lived in 1965 and who his parents were. The message was dated 2001.

Whew. I wrote the person, saying that I was five years late but that the subject of her search was my father. She wrote back with a story about how someone in England had decided to search his mother's family tree. He worked up the ladder for a few generations, then veered off and came back down ... to me, in a sense. My new cousin had written a series of articles about the family, which were sent off to me.

It's pretty amazing to read a family history like that. There are no rich relatives who are going to leave me millions in the future. But there's the tale of the person who had a family and left them without any warning or reason, never to return. No one knows what happened. There's the orphan who was hired as a "barn boy," and became known as "Barnaby." There are a couple of Civil War veterans. It turns out a main branch of the family came over as servants to William Penn. The husband and wife worked for seven years in order to pay for the trip over, and then headed to Quaker country when they were done. An ancestor was the first person to married in a meeting hall that still stands today.

Thus impressed, I did a search for my mother. I found a reference to a cookbook given my her family to a relative in 1941. After a flurry of e-mails, I discovered that the author of the blog was my second cousin. Her mother, cousin of my mother, is still alive.

With that sort of head start, it was easy to track down other pieces of information. I've found an ancestor that goes back to 1491 or so. I found out there is a little Irish in my blood, as they escaped to England and then America in search of religious freedom.

I don't think I'm ready to write my version of "Roots" yet. But I always wondered where the family tree went. It was lucky to find out someone had pretty much done it for me.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

P.S.: Infomercial

Some time ago I wrote about some of the late-night infomercials. Here's an update on one of them:

One of the highlights was the ad for the world's greatest vitamin. Apparently people are invited to set up Web sites to sell the vitamins and percentage of the proceeds. It is said to be under investigation from the authorities, perhaps because it's something of a pyramid scheme.

So the good folks running the business apparently have a new plan. They have the same spokeswoman (Tylene Megley, who must be one of the few Tylenes out there) with a similar low-cut dress. They have the same sales pitch in terms of how this is the easiest way ever to make money and how the plan has gotten 50 times better lately through a bonus program.

Here's the fun part: The product is never mentioned in the advertisement.

So the pitch essentially is, give us a call and we'll tell you how to do, um, something.

And since there are no details on the actual product, the spokeswoman is forced to resort to repeating the sales pitch about six times in a 30-minute program. I got the idea about six minutes into the program.

Even by infomercial standards, this is less than entertaining.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five years ago

Everyone has a story to tell about Sept. 11, 2001. Here's mine.

I worked late the night before, as usual. My clock-radio went off at the usual 10 a.m. It was set to the alternative music station in town. I guess the station had a news department, but it didn't exactly specialize in world events.

This particular morning, though, the station was broadcasting nothing but news from some sort of national outlet. Most people are disoriented when they wake up as it is, but this was something different. After a minute of listening and determining that something terrible had happened in New York, I turned off the radio and turned on the television.

There on NBC, Tom Brokaw was discussing the fall of one of the towers of the World Trade Center, which had taken place a few moments before. The other was still standing, but was clearly smoking badly. You know how the rest of the day's story went, as details eventually came out.

I had only been in the WTC once, and that was to see a high school friend who had worked in the building. That friend had moved to a different location years ago, and when I talked to him a couple of weeks later he said he didn't even know anyone who still worked in the building.

Fast forward, then, to the Syracuse University alumni magazine's arrival in my mailbox some months later. The publication did an article on those who died in the terrorist attack with SU connections.

The second name on the list was Bill Bernstein. Bill worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, and I believe the story mentioned he had a wife and children.

It hit me surprisingly hard. Suddenly my thoughts were transported back to 1976, where I took a pair of speech classes. Bill was in both of them. I got to know him a little bit in that time, exchanging a couple of laughs and acknowledging him around the campus or in the dining hall with a wave. I remember he made a speech on the value of isometrics, which I'd kid him about. I can't say we were close friends or anything, but he certainly was a nice person.

After reading that, the entire arc of his life came into focus. He had graduated from college, went into business, married and had a family, commuted to work every day ... and was killed when some fanatics decided America needed to be punished for, well, something. Bill was just an innocent bystander, words that seem inadequate in this context.

On this day, and other September 11ths, I'll be thinking of Bill ... and all the other Bills and their families who lost their lives that day.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Card shark

Time for a little tip for your next vacation:

Send someone a post card.

Mailing a post card is something of a lost art. Not too many people even know how many cents a post-card stamp costs these days. Yet what's better than receiving a post card in the mail? I guess a letter might qualify, but relatively no one (especially of those used to sending e-mails) sends letters any more. A post card, though, takes about as long as an e-mail to send, provided you have a stamp (plan ahead on that one, potential mailers).

I mail out post cards to friends and family with stunning regularity. I've been doing it for years, and I have accumulated a few tips:

1. There's no cheaper way to score points. Some places will sell them for something 25 to 30 cents each. And then there's Las Vegas, which does things like sell them at 7 for a dollar. No better bargain.

2. Don't buy a boring card if you can avoid it. If you find yourself in Albany, for example, don't get a card that has a picture of downtown Albany. Get the card that has a picture of Uncle Sam, who lived in nearby Troy and is buried there. (I have visited the grave, but that's another topic.) Of course, if you are in a national park, you certainly should send a picture of some breathtaking site that you have visited. A little jealousy never hurt.

2a. On the other hand, if you can find a REALLY boring post card, get it. I'm particularly fond of photos of airports and roads, but that's just me.

3. Don't mention the weather in the note on the back. No one wants to hear about the sun shining five days ago in another location. (Exception: talking about warm weather when writing to a cold-weather location is almost required once in a while.)

4. Be funny, or at least clever. It takes a little practice, but after a while you too can crack one-liners on a post card with the best of them. If you have a post card of an alligator, write on the back that the animal in question is always hungry and is particularly fond of (insert recipient's job here).

5. Be prepared to be surprised at how many places sell post cards. You may not get many of them, but somebody is buying them apparently. Just look around a little.

6. Be prepared to be delighted when you visit the house of a friend on your mailing list. Odds are good that your cards might turn up on their refrigerator. One friend of mine does that. When I called her one time when she had company, she explained that the guy on the phone was "the post card guy." High praise indeed.

Head for those racks, boys and girls. Admiration awaits.