21 January 2013

A Rose by Any Other Name...

It's a brave new world out there and it's always evolving. When my father was a boy, children were expected to be raised by their mother and father in one house. By the time I was going to elementary school, there were books and after school specials talking about the many forms of family that I would encounter. I remember one that told me that being raised by one parent, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or even a foster family was normal. Divorce and blended families were on the rise, so it was becoming more likely for children to be raised with unrelated (or only half-related) siblings. I also remember a show, My Two Dads, that had a girl raised by two men. But because it would still be a few years before television was comfortable openly talking about homosexuals, these two men weren't gay. They were two ex-boyfriends of the girl's mother and one of them was the father. When the mother died (to conveniently remove her so audiences weren't confused or upset at her absence), the men were expected to raise the daughter jointly. Today we have the show Modern Family where two homosexual men raise an adopted daughter. These past few decades, I have watched as we have become more comfortable with talking about single-parent households, couples that never marry yet raise children together, adopted and step children living in blended families, and finally the same-sex couple. Not everyone agrees with or accepts all of these family styles, but the fact is that they do exist. And when dealing with something as traditional as genealogy, there are unique problems that arise.

My Story
My parents divorced when I was 11. My father was given full custody of both my brother and myself. While still a child, I was aware of a few challenges with my new family unit. First, this was the early 90s and most of my friends still had married parents. Granted, I wasn't the first kid on my block with a divorce (and this was my father's second marriage), but I now found myself part of a select group of children. Baseball games, PTA events, even visiting friends' houses meant that I would have to explain to other children why my mother wasn't there. It seemed to catch them off guard that my dad was the one baking cookies and checking for monsters under the bed. Second, other adults didn't know what to make of my parents' divorce. Most of the time, the mother had received custody of the kids. I think for the first year or so after the divorce, my dad was the only single father with custody that we knew. This made it difficult with making play-dates as the mothers had some aversion to letting a man watch the kids. I remember one friend who spent the night on a Friday and was expected to stay until we dropped her off at church on Sunday. Her mother found out that my father was the only parent in the house and picked her up right after lunch Saturday. We were both very upset (partly because we didn't understand her anxiety, mostly because dad promised us a trip to the park). After the word spread, I was invited to my friends' houses, but rarely did they accept invitations to mine. And the number of women that tsk-tsked the "tragedy" that I was a young girl without a woman's influence in the house was overwhelming. I actually made one woman cry when I assured her that my dad had told me he would be "both mommy and daddy". She scared me.

Which leads to my number three "challenge": dad's girlfriends. For those first years, he'd date a woman and eventually she'd leave saying his kids were tearing them apart. I know for a while that dad was convinced we were trying to keep him alone or force him to get back with mom. Neither of these were true. My brother and I were smart enough to 1) see the divorce coming and 2) know that both mom and dad were happier away from each other. The truth was that his girlfriends had it in their heads that they were now "mom". Almost immediately upon introduction, they would tell us what to do, how to act, when to go to bed, what to eat, and how to treat them with the respect they "deserved". I had such an aversion to women authority figures for a while that, when I started to develop, I would talk to no one but my dad. Again, while not that long ago, men weren't commonly in charge of their children (at least, not where I lived). So there's dad trying to look comfortable while sales people act like they are forced to help this poor man understand enough about bras to help his daughter. (I'd like to note that he was extremely helpful and made the experience a lot of fun for me.)

The fourth challenge was my stepmom. She's actually not my stepmother as she and dad never married. On the other hand, she's been his stalwart companion for almost 20 years (and a family friend since they were in high school). So calling her my stepmom only seemed natural and right even if they didn't marry. I remember when they first started dating, she didn't want to be called his girlfriend. She was too old to be a girlfriend or have a boyfriend, she said. So dad called her his "significant other". All well and good for them, but most folks still called her "Lou's girlfriend". And til the day he died, grandpa called her "Louie's wife". It was a near constant struggle to get others to use the "right phrase". At one point I wondered why they bothered and was told that it was the principle of the thing. No matter how they put it, I thought it was much ado about nothing.

"Traditional" vs. Reality

We all know what has been termed the "traditional family unit" by a great many folk. That's one man married to one woman who produce genetically related children. It's the vanilla in our Baskin Robbins. And just like that deliciously ubiquitous ice-cream shop, there are several other flavors to choose from. For the US: In 2011, 69% of children (aged 0-17) lived with two parents, 27% with one, and 4% with neither parent. Of the 4%, half were raised by their grandparents. 7% of children lived in a home of "cohabitation" (either both parents unmarried, or one parent and their unmarried partner). In 2010, 40.8% of births were to unmarried women. Only 48.4% of all U.S. households had married couples and 0.6% were same-sex unmarried couples.

Now, genealogy (from Greek words for "generation knowledge") started in Western Civilization as a way to prove kinship and pedigree for ruling classes. Because royalty used pure blood lines and divine right as a reason to rule, many pedigrees traced themselves back to a god or heroic (yet, mythical) figure. The United States didn't standardise genealogy research until the early 19th century. Even in it's infancy in the states, genealogy was about tracing one's family to a prominent figure in the eyes of other Americans. Eastern Civilizations created pedigrees long before the 16th century in order to avoid incestuous relationships (like the Panji of India) or record the descendants of prominent figures (like the family tree of Confucius which was started over 2,500 years ago and is still updated to track his descendants). In all of these early beginnings of genealogy, the point was to know what man (and occassionally, woman) had created what child and follow that child's decendants to the present time. The timeline of "invention" in genealogy is lost to the ages, but I doubt it took long to note an adopted/step child vs. a natural heir. I have seen histories that mention adopted children taking the seat of power from their "parent" and continue the cultural line even if not the blood line. Even still, royal pedigrees are notorious for leaving off illegitimate (or disowned) children in order to keep the lines of ascension clean. And I have seen many early 20th century documents that leave out or sideline nonblood relations, so there was no hard and fast rule about how to deal with those who didn't carry that genetic connection from the progenitor even 100 years ago. Even my Kemper book published in 1899 leaves out the stepchildren for many of the family groups. I suppose to the authors of that book, the stepkids didn't "count". Considering how young some of them were when their parent married into the Kemper clan, I wonder how they would feel about that.

So while genealogy has tried to keep to the standard of documenting blood connections, the reality of family dynamics has already required exceptions to the rules. 2001 saw the first country to recognise same-sex marriage (the Netherlands). And the 2010 census was the first time that the percentage of married couple households dropped below 50% since they started tracking it in 1940. Single parent and cohabitation households are on the rise and, for the genealogist, they must be recognised. But how?
Let's Not Get Bogged Down in Semantics
For a long time now, I have seen complaints on the Ancestry.com facebook page (or on forums about other websites and software) with the labels given by default to many family ties. A man and woman connection invariably leads to the label of "spouse" regardless of marital status; some systems won't recognise a same-sex union; adopted or step children want to make it clear that their biological parent(s) aren't their "real" parent(s) with a special label; and there are no special labels for pets. The complaints usually start with "How dare you tell me how to live my life" kinds of rants that suggest that the poster assumes Ancestry is trying to force them into a "traditional" lifestyle. Usually the problem is an emotional one. A woman who is no longer with her boyfriend, but has a child with him, doesn't like the thought of him being listed as her spouse. A man celebrates his state's acceptance of his marriage by adding his new husband only to find the system label the other man as his "wife". A man who doesn't recognise his abusive father as his parent resents that there is no "sperm donor" label to make it clear how he feels. A couple that never had biological children wants to show the deep connection and love they have for their dogs by listing them as children, but there is no clear label or page to dedicate to the "fur babies".

Now first, for what you can already do: Ancestry.com already allows you the option of adding "preferred" parents. You can enter biological parents, then adoptive or step parents and chose which ones will be "preferred" and show up on the profile and tree pages. The other parents are still on the tree, but are "hidden" on the relationships tab for the child. The parents' profile pages will still show their relationship. While there is no clear indicator on the website for the relationship, there is a dropdown menu on the relationships tab (found by clicking "Edit the Person" on the profile page) that allows you to chose birth, step, adopted, other for the parents and children. As for same-sex unions: recently I accidentally attached a man to another man as a spouse and the system accepted it. I know it used to change the gender of one of the profiles, but I noticed it didn't do it this time. Either I had a computer glitch, or Ancestry finally coded the site to accept the same-sex option. And while personally I think adding pets as children is silly, I have seen many trees doing just that despite the human-centric system. And all of these are software issues. If you have a paper system, or write a family history book, then you can do as you please in whatever form you please.

What you can't do: The profile page always says spouse. So if you're one of the unmarried masses who don't want your significant other labelled a spouse, you're out of luck. Just like parentage, you can use the dropdown menu on the relationships page to define the union as married, divorced, partner, other.... but for some, just seeing spouse on the profile page is enough to send them off. And then there's the relationship calculator. It labels spouses as husband or wife, so same-sex couples can end up with the wrong gender identifier (and again, unmarried couples are given a marriage identifier). Now, that one I think should be changed, but the problem is how. If we use "spouse", we run into the same problem we face on the profile page. If we use "partner", then there will be those (gay and straight) who disagree with using that word to describe someone they are legally married to and plan to live with for (hopefully) their entire lives. "Significant other" works for my dad, but I don't see that as a solution for genealogy for the same reason that "partner" doesn't work. Not to mention the small group of people who use "significant other" to define people who are of importance to their lives regardless of a sexual or marital relationship (my uncle considers his neighbor a "significant other", because the neighbor often checks in on his well-being and has been a confidante for over a decade). And then there's my personal favorite: "consort". It comes from the Latin word "consors" which meant "sharer". The dictionary defines a "consort" as a marriage partner, particularly of a ruler. Even if we start using it as a common partner, there's still those bitter bitter people who won't agree that it's a good term for ex's since they no longer share their home or responsibilities. Now, the dictionary defines "spouse" as a marriage partner as well. Then it goes on to say it's from a Latin word (spondere) that means "to pledge". I get that. You're pledging yourself to one person. Seems to work for me. If we ignore the more modern assumption of a marital connection, I still like this word the best to define a union between two people. To be honest, even if the union ends, for a brief period of time, you two were pledged (either by word or action) to each other.

When I first started this article, I had planned to just tackle the spouse issue. And it has taken the bulk of my post. On the other hand, I think that all these little nit-picking complaints all come round to the same thing: individual emotional attachment. I understand the need to personalise something as personal as your family history. On the other hand, websites and software can only do so much. Heck, genealogy can only do so much! I'd like to come back now to the pets thing as it illustrates my point quite well. When you find a tree that has pets as children, there are no indications that this is not a human being. Why? Because genealogy has from it's inception been about human beings. Software and websites are all making that same assumption. Is this not fair to pet owners? Um, who cares? I have three cats. I love them to death. My brother even more so. I call them his kids. When I go to pick him up from work, I tell them I'll be home soon with Daddy. I believe they are intelligent creatures capable of love as much as they are deserving of it. Even still, neither of us would put them on our family tree. We don't want to confuse other researchers. I mean, let's be honest here. The majority of trees online are filled with perpetuated errors because one person wasn't smart enough to recognise a mistake and hundreds of others weren't smart enough to read what they were copying to their tree from that idiot. Unless y'all believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Ohio........ So you put your pets on your tree and some idjit puts them on his tree as your blood children. Then several someones copy that "fact". Hundreds of years from now, your great great grand nieces and nephews are saddened that of your 6 children, none lived past 13. Now they're looking for birth and death records to find out if it was a genetic defect! They're looking for burial markers! They're looking for what doesn't exist.

And there is going to be someone that reads that paragraph and tells me I'm mean and terrible and don't understand (the first person to say "bully" gets a black eye!). Now, just like I said about fantasy trees that have gods and people from antiquity on them, if you want to add pets to your tree, that's your business. Please make your tree private so it won't sully the online community with misinformation. Because that's what we're really concerned with here: the community. So you hate your mother and want a label to reflect that; does the community benefit from it? You had a falling out with your boyfriend and are so filled with repulsion that seeing him labelled as your "spouse" turns your stomach; does the community need to be dragged into it? More than that, do website and software developers need to spend extra time (and with it, extra money) to give you those personalised options? How about how much more time the community will need to learn how to use this beyond politically-correct system of "anything goes"? If you spend any time on a forum, you will notice how many people are still confused as to whether or not a woman is listed by her maiden or married name (it's maiden by the way). Now you want them to worry if they are using the correct labels for everyone. And what if other suggestions like specialised fonts and colors, icons for profession and military service, and A FREAKING ANIMATED TREE THAT INDICATES WHAT SEASON IT IS FOR THE PERSON'S PROFILE BASED ON THEIR LOCATION are added? Seriously, people. Some of the specifics that are asked for would clutter profiles and confuse new people. (Hell, people are still complaining about a blue "Is so-n-so on Facebook" link and you want to add all this?) Other requests are for things that are available as fact dropdowns (civil union vs. marriage, professional associations, and "custom events" like the date you started dating your unmarried whatever-you-want-to-call-them) and separate pages (you can make a military page for any relative and add photos and service history).

And so we give you these options on your tree, because it's your tree and you don't care about the community's feelings/needs. Okay. What happens when your relative makes a tree and doesn't use the same phrase you do? Your aunt lists your biological mother as preferred (or omits your adoptive/stepmother entirely). Your ex has his own tree and is comfortable using "spouse" to define you. Your parents don't list your pets as their grandchildren. Your brother is fine with you being homosexual, but doesn't recognise same-sex marriage as part of his personal faith. He doesn't add your spouse to his tree (or if he had the option, he labels your spouse as a "partner" or "other"). Is it their business because it's their tree, or yours because it's your information? If the forums are any indication, you want to have your cake and eat it too. They can't impede your tree, but you want to change theirs. Sorry, but you get one or the other.
Here's my solution, take it how you feel:
  1. We change all coupling identifiers to "spouse" accepting and perpetuating the Latin definition of "one who has pledged".
  2. You already can indicate preferred parents, so no changes needed there.
  3. Pets can be added to a tree, but we need to either do it in a story format or make a separate page option to keep the tree standard for everyone. I also like the idea of a website PetAncestry.com or something to trace pet breeding and the like.
  6. We each grow a little bit thicker on our skin and get over ourselves. Each of us needs to accept that the world doesn't revolve around us.
  7. We must accept that other people have different experiences and that what works for us may not work for others. In a global community like genealogy, there are no wrong ways to compile our history. Even so, we can't impose our needs/beliefs on others.
OR we all get over ourselves and stop trying to reinvent the wheel. I don't know about you, but all this getting lost in the "thick of thin things" is distracting me from what's really important: connecting my family to history and myself to the world as a whole.


07 January 2013

I'm Good, You?

Finally the holidays are over!!!!! After all the rigmarole of the last few months, I'm ready to kick back and find my old groove again. Oh, Dear Reader, how I've missed you...... what shall we talk about today? Well, how are you? Good. Good. And the living family? Oh really? Did you get it on video? Adorable. How's the research going? You did? That sounds fantastic..... what? What's that? Sick? Do you think it was the Flu? We had a terrible outbreak of norovirus in Chicago..... just about everyone I know has been down and out for a few days in the last couple of weeks. Hm? Oh, no. There's no treatment except to rest. Apparently really bad to get that one. Makes you think about how our ancestors handled diseases, doesn't it?

History's Big Epidemics

I got bored typing out a list of epidemics, so here's the wikipedia article that lists the biggest ones. Visually this is the best way to see how disease has circled the globe and travelled with colonists and explorers since the beginning of time. I'm going to present here a clear timeline of first discoveries of some diseases (they may have been around longer, but undocumented) and when the first treatment or vaccine was available for them. It's important to consider epidemics in our genealogy research because it can hold clues as to why a family member is missing or why an entire family group died suddenly. I can point to a cholera outbreak in recent local history that wiped out several family members when my grandparents were young. And there is probably no family that wasn't touched by the 1918 Influenza pandemic.

4000 BC- Skeletal remains of humans from this era have signs of TB
1930 BC- First written account of Rabies
900 BC- Smallpox and Measles differentiated
430 BC- First account of possible Typhoid fever epidemic
ca. 400 BC- Pneumonia described by Hippocrates
541 AD- First account of Bubonic Plague (would ravage the world and kill 1/3 of the European population during the Late Middle Ages)
1489 AD- First reliable account of Typhus
1553 AD- while Scarlet fever may have been around as early as 400 BC, this is the first clear account of the disease
1580 AD- While earlier accounts of Influenza are available, this is the first clear outbreak
ca. 1600-1700 AD- no clear initial Chicken pox description. Several books attribute different doctors with the discovery.
1613 AD- Diphtheria breaks out in Spain
1647 AD- First clear outbreak of Yellow Fever
1740 AD- Rubella first described medically
1764- First description of Lyme disease (some claim this disease is known in prehistoric men, others that it's an engineered disease in it's latest form from the 1960's- I don't know).
1768 AD- Meningitis is described (as "dropsy") although it may have been known as early as 400 BC
1789 AD- This is the first written account of Polio, though there are drawings in Egyptian Hieroglyphs that suggests withered limbs on otherwise healthy individuals
1796 AD- First vaccine, Smallpox
1817 AD- First Cholera pandemic
1876 AD- First account of Anthrax
1879 AD- Vaccine for Cholera
1885 AD- Vaccine for Rabies
1896 AD- Vaccine for Typhoid fever
1897 AD- Vaccine for Bubonic Plague
1921 AD- Vaccines for Diphtheria, Tuberculosis
1924 AD- Vaccine for Scarlet fever
1926 AD- Vaccine for Whooping cough
1932 AD- Vaccine for Yellow fever
1934 AD- Mumps "discovered"
1937 AD- Vaccine for Typhus
1945 AD- Vaccine for Influenza
1950s AD- HPV discovered
1952 AD- Vaccine for Polio
1954 AD- Vaccine for Anthrax
1963 AD- Vaccine for Measles
1967 AD- Vaccine for Mumps
1970 AD- Vaccine for Rubella
1972 AD- HPV linked to increased cancer risks
1974 AD- Vaccine for Chicken pox
1977 AD- Vaccine for Pneumonia
1978 AD- Vaccine for Meningitis
1998 AD- Vaccine for Lyme disease
2006 AD- Vaccine for HPV (Human papillomavirus linked to cervical cancer)

Note how fast vaccines became available once we knew how to do it! And how we've become much more quick in our responses to vaccinating diseases once "discovered". Now imagine not having these vaccines and having to suffer these diseases. Imagine all those relatives in your tree that could've been saved if science had been a little quicker on it's draw. Lucky us, no?

History's Big Medical Advancements

In the beginning of human history, it was seen as a taboo to touch a dead body. This probably arose from the number of diseases that would ferment in a corpse and transfer to a living person. Hey, even a kid knows that if a flame burns you when you touch it, you don't touch it again. So it would take little observation for our primitive ancestors to notice that dead body + close contact = sickness. While some would flaunt the common conceptions (and sometimes laws) to bring us anatomy books as early as 300 BC, there would be many misconceptions and assumptions in these first attempts. Because humans as a whole truly do change slowly and reluctantly, it would take centuries for real advances to be made in early medicine. Here's a brief outline of some important steps that changed the game in human mortality.

500 BC- Alcmaeon of Croton distinguishes veins from arteries
460 BC- Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is born. He will use observation and deductive reasoning to treat illnesses, but will still hold with the popular belief that four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, black bile) must be kept in balance for good health.
1249 AD- Roger Bacon invents spectacles
1590 AD- The microscope is invented
1628 AD- William Harvey publishes his work "An Anatomical Study of Motion of the Heart and of the Blood in Animals" describing how the heart pumps blood through the body.
1656 AD- Sir Christopher Wren invents the first method for intravenous administration of medicine.
1747 AD- The common sailor ailment of scurvy is finally prevented with citrus fruit thanks to the work of James Lind. (It won't become a requirement to provide lemon juice on British naval ships until almost 1800).
1763 AD- First successful appendectomy.
1796 AD- Edward Jenner develops a smallpox vaccine (as well as the method of "vaccination" itself) by exposing people to cowpox.
1816 AD- The stethoscope is invented by Rene Laennec
1818 AD- The first successful human blood transfusion is performed by James Blundell
1842-1846 AD- While anesthetics had been discovered in Sir Humphrey Davy's work with nitrous oxide, it wasn't until now that surgeons and dentists applied his discoveries (and other's work with ether).
1853 AD- The invention of the syringe by Pravaz and Wood.
1867 AD- Joseph Lister publishes "Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery", revolutionising cleanliness in operating rooms. He pioneers cleaning of wounds and equipment to reduce infection.
1870 AD- Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur develop the germ theory of disease.
1887 AD- The first contact lenses.
1899 AD- Aspirin is invented by Felix Hoffman
1901 AD- The ABO blood typing system is made and safe human blood transfusions are finally possible.
1906 AD- Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins "discovers" vitamins and suggests their necessity for healthy living.
1913 AD- Dr. Paul Dudley White pioneers the use of the electrocardiograph as a diagnostic tool.
1921 AD- The Band-Aid is invented.
1922 AD- Insulin is used to treat diabetes.
1928 AD- Penicillin is discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming.
1935 AD- The heart-lung machine that allows for circulation of blood to be performed outside the body (think open-heart surgery) is invented by Dr. John H. Gibbon Jr. It will be 1953 before it's successfully used on a human.
1942 AD- Ultrasound is developed by Dr. Karl Dussik
1954 AD- Gertrude Elion patents drug for fighting leukemia.
1967 AD- First human heart transplant.
1985 AD- First kidney dialysis machine.

It's hard to consider how far we've come in the field of medicine, but it wasn't that long ago (your parents or grandparents can attest) that people died from simple infections at the drop of a hat. I have a book called "The Works of Aristotle" that actually wasn't written by Aristotle. It's attributed to an anonymous author (and sometimes a William Salmon) in the 17th century. The book tries to cover many medical areas in anatomy, disease, treatments and the like. The theories and assertions are insane! My favorite is the chapter on pregnancy. It states that if a woman is thinking of anything but her husband, her child will show the signs of her wandering mind. Really. If she's thinking of the milkman, the kid will look like the milkman. If she's thinking of goats, the child will be born with hair that has a woolen quality. Seriously, did people really believe this??? Well, there was the belief at one time that germs travelled in clouds about the city. Supposedly, the city of New Orleans actually fired cannons into the air to break up the clouds. Even today, I was sent an email from a relative that claims that onions can absorb the germs in the air and keep me from getting sick (it claims a doctor proved this, but doesn't mention his name). It's crazy to think about the "facts" as they were then and as they are now.

I suppose it's no surprise that we're told every day that something will kill us only to hear it saves our life tomorrow.