“Attention Must Be Paid”

I will write about Lucy from time to time, continuing to chronicle my genealogy story, but I also want to intersperse those posts with others. Today it is to tout the book pictured above Stolen Focus:Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari. (His previous books on addiction incuding Chasing the Scream are also worth reading.)

If you have ever wondered why there has been so much focus on “mindfulness” lately, Hari will help you understand it is in reaction to how scattered many of us are under the constant barrage of information coming at us from many directions. Rather than treat it as a problem faced by the individual, Hari places it in the context of our currrent society.

Basically Hari contends that under the guise of informing us, large corporations have stolen our focus. Previously they had to pay for our attention. Now they gather our thoughts, purchasing habits, preferences, concerns and associations for free as we move from tweet to breaking news. As individuals we continue to think that it is our own problem, that somehow we have lost the ability to focus. But doing that ignores the larger changes that have taken place for many of us. As Hari delineates them he makes suggestions on ways to combat them on both the personal and societal level. On a personal level he suggests such ideas as restricting email checking to once a day. On a social level he has a wide range of ideas from getting kids outdoors to increasing privacy on the internet.

If you have ever wondered who gains from keeping your mind flitting from one source of entertainment to another, wonder no longer. It isn’t us! (On the other hand it has been a boon for the “mindfulness” industry.)

“Beginner’s Luck”

Multnomah County Library

In 1948 my parents packed up and moved across the country from New York City to Portland, Oregon. They intentionally moved far away from any family members so that they could reinvent themselves. Genealogy and family stories didn’t interest them when I was growing up. They were part of the post-War West Coast immigrants making a break from the ethnic enclaves of the East.

However, my grandfather in Buffalo, New York was very intrigued with the history of his family. He had known both his father and his grandfather very well and undoubtedly knew many family tales. Sadly, by the time I inherited what little research he had done, he was no longer alive. I had caught the bug from his rough notes and decided to take up where he had left off.

Before the internet, research could only be done in person or in the library. I went to the local library to its genealogy section and grabbed a bound volume of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society Journal off the shelf. I looked in the index for his name “Carpenter” and for my grandmother’s maiden name “Durham.” To my astonishment there was a lengthy article tracing the descendants of Major Benjamin Woodward. And at the end of the article was my grandmother. There I learned for the first time of her Aunt Lucy who had gone as a Presbyterian missionary to Canton, China.

I was hooked. But that was the last time that such a wealth of information came with so little effort!

“Looking For Lucy”

A while back I mentioned that I wanted to learn more about my grandmother’s Aunt Lucy Durham. While I had never heard anything about her, I was intrigued as I began my genealogical research to see that Lucy had taught at a school for the blind in China. Beyond that I knew only that Lucy, born in 1853, was the 12th of 14 children, my great grandfather, born in 1855, being the 13th.

I have spent the last couple of weeks building the story of her life as best I can from sources available on line and in the published stories I already own. In future posts I will chronicle my search and some of its results. I hope that her story will engage you and that delineating some of my research steps might inform any who are trying to dig deeper into family history of their own.

There are two types of genealogists. One genealogist tries to trace her ancestry back to the Middle Ages. The other genealogist tries to find as much as possible about a couple of ancestors including their family relationships, vocations, education and migration patterns. I am the latter, intrigued by some specific women forebears.

Enjoy the picture of Lucy taken when she was 48 newly arrived in what was then Canton, China in 1901.

“Hedging Their Bets”

Out walking we saw this warning sign next to the former ice rink. I appreciate the knowledge the park workers possess. No point having to put the sign back up if we get a final winter storm!

Robert Frost knew New England best when he wrote in ”Two Tramps In Mud Time:”

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

“Sight For Sore Eyes”

The news has been an unending source of pain as we are reminded of the horrors of war. Human beings seem capable of doing grievous harm to one another. Meanwhile, many onlookers seem to be astonished at the cruelty of war. There is sadly nothing new about depraved behavior in conflict, and Americans have taken part in it ourselves. We can claim no moral high ground, but merely weep with those who weep. Beyond that, pontificating about atrocities by the light of the television screen helps no one.

This week we took a break to be reminded of the enduring beauty of the natural world as painted during the nineteenth century. Called “The Hudson River School,” these artists, tired of the ugliness of so much of the recently industrialized Northeast(particularly New York and Connecticut,)left their portrait studios and went “plein air”, carrying their tools into the forests.

Our local New Britain Museum of American Art already displays a sizable collection of these works on a permanent basis. But this spring they are hosting many additional works from the New York Historical Society’s collection. We went to soak up these new works, a true feast for the eyes. In a text from my faith we are told to focus on “whatsoever things are lovely.” This week we were able to do just that. Humans are capable of astonishing works of beauty. We aren’t only a murderous race.

“Thoughtful Fiction”

I have grumbled in previous posts about fiction I don’t enjoy. I put those books into two categories: experimentation for its own sake and “nothing new under the sun” plots. I assume many the first category are the result of expensive M.F.A. programs and writers trying to prove the money they spent was worth it. I am probably more forgiving of books in the second group. After all, readers many years younger than I am might be encountering the “woman in peril,” “the unreliable narrator,” “the normal looking psychopath,” and “it isn’t who your first expect” plots for the first time.

But occasionally I find a book, such as The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka(2022) that is a little experimental, covers somewhat familiar ground, but is very worthwhile to read. While it presents as one novel, it actually consists of two related parts. The first will delight anyone who has ever swum laps in a public pool. Even without that experience, the metaphor of a crack forming at the pool’s bottom and the range of opinions on its cause and repair will resound with anyone who has experienced the pandemic.

The second part focuses on Alice, a swimmer no longer able to use the now closed pool, and her deepening Alzheimer’s. Told from several points of view, it movingly, but not over dramatically, takes us along with her and her adult daughter. No surprises really, but a gentle and convincing account of the widening gap between Alice and reality.

I am considering a list called “Books You Shouldn’t Waste Your Time On If You Are Over 70 Despite The Rave Reviews.” But The Swimmers joins a very short list of “Books Worth Reading, No Matter Your Age.”