“Who Do You Think You Are?” — No, Really.

Life just gets more and more hectic, doesn’t it? Between classes, thesis, worrying about PhD applications (I’m a finalist at one school – invited for an all expenses paid on-campus visit in 2 weeks!), trying to be a good Dame, and everything else I have to do, it seems there’s no time in the day. Certainly not enough time to take for yourself.

The idea of taking time for yourself, of understanding yourself, is partly where the idea for this post came from…

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Who do you think you are?

I’m not asking this sarcastically, I’m asking this in earnest. Who are you? And why are you who you are? How did you become this person?

Now, the answers to these questions are complicated. In fact, there’s more than one answer. There are many. But, seriously, think about it. Who are you? Is who you actually are different than who you think you are?

I think so. No, scratch that.

I know so.

It’s no secret on here that I’m studying to be a historian, and that I, well, love history. So it should come as no surprise to you when I tell you that your history — your family’s history — is a big part of you and why you are the way you are.

When I was in seventh grade, I had to research my family tree for Social Studies class. At age 13, I knew nothing about my family tree. Talking to my parents and my grandparents yielded some information — enough to present on my poster for class — but not enough to satisfy my interest in my family tree.

This project started a 10+ year odyssey of family tree research that will probably never end.

My interest and, at times, obsession with genealogy (the proper name for researching one’s family history) has largely been a personal venture and not one that I publicized to my friends. I mean, I admit to being a nerd in high school, but I sort of figured that admitting that I had a subscription to Ancestry.com wouldn’t help my popularity any.

I wasn’t always dedicated to genealogy either, in spite of how much it interests me. Researching your family tree isn’t easy. It takes time, patience, hard work, perseverance, luck, and a little faith. Because of this, genealogy isn’t a constant for me. I pick it up, I put it down. I’ll work feverishly for months and then not look at it again for months or a year.

So, imagine my surprise and my envy when genealogy took America by storm.

Two years ago (in the Spring of 2010), Lisa Kudrow, the actress who played Phoebe on Friends, decided to help launch a new show on NBC called Who Do You Think You Are? — a program, already several years old and very popular in the UK, that followed celebrities as professional genealogists helped them trace their family trees.

The first season followed 8 celebrities: Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Lisa Kudrow, Emmit Smith, Brooke Shields, Spike Lee, and Susan Sarandon. The second season followed: Vanessa L. Williams, Tim McGraw, Rosie O’Donnell, Kim Catrall, Lionel Richie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, and Steve Buscemi.

Each celebrity discovered something about their family, and in turn something about themselves, that they previously did not know. But, the message of the series is that it isn’t important who you’re related to. It’s about how we perceive ourselves in reference to where we and our families came from, and how that knowledge changes us.

It’s about the sense of guilt Sarah Jessica Parker felt before she knew whether her ancestor was an accuser or a victim during the Salem witchcraft trials, the sense of amazement of Brooke Shields when she learned she was a direct descendant of the French royal family, Matthew Broderick’s disbelief when he helps solve the mystery of an unmarked Civil War grave, or the sadness and anger of Kim Catrall when she learns the fate of her wayward grandfather.

The third season of Who Do You Think You Are? is currently being broadcast on Fridays at 8pm on NBC. If you’re not home at this time (don’t worry, I’m not usually either), you can catch the episodes on NBC.com or on Hulu. Here’s Lisa Kudrow’s (the show’s executive producer) preview of Season 3:

Of course, everyone’s family tree will not be filled with such “extraordinary” tales. There are many celebrities whose stories don’t make it on the show because they’re not interesting enough. My family tree certainly isn’t this fascinating. But that doesn’t matter, because your family tree doesn’t have to be full of royalty or heroes or famous people to be important and interesting.

You wouldn’t be here without that family tree.

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So, think about it.

Who do you think you are?

I can tell you who I thought I was.

I was Joni. White girl with curly brown hair and freckles from working-class Ohio with college educated parents and working class grandparents who were all born in this country. I was Slovak and Lebanese and Croatian and something called (as my Mum puts it) “Heinz 57”. When my Gram would talk about how one of her ancestor’s married a Native American woman, my cousins and I thought you could quantify that — like we’re 2% Native American somewhere in that Heinz 57 mixture. Now I know that it doesn’t work like that.

Because your ancestry isn’t so simple.

With a lot more digging, a lot more questioning, several hundred dollars worth of subscription fees to Ancestry.com, and a whole lot of luck, I know a whole lot more.

Because who I am is about  a lot more than simply ethnicity percentages. It’s also about more than those ancestors that are long dead. It’s about those still alive.

I am 25% Slovak. I am 25% Lebanese (perhaps originally Syrian). I am 25% Croatian. But I’m not Heinz 57.

I’m English, Welsh, and Irish. My Gram’s ancestors were original Americans. From Jamestown, Virginia circa 1620.

You learn through the genealogy experience that it’s not all about the ethnicity, not all about where you’re from. It’s about how your family got to where you are.

It’s about the journey.

And you learn the strengths and hopes and dreams and character traits and struggles of these people who you wouldn’t be here without.

I learned that it took a lot of bravery for my Grandfather to survive a German POW camp, that it took a lot of bravery for his mother to cross the Atlantic Ocean by herself at 14. I learned that my Gram’s family were some of America’s first settlers, starting in Virginia and New York, moving to Maryland, then to West Virginia and Pennsylvania. I learned there are historical markers at some of the places they lived.

Your ancestors are not simply names and dates on a page. They were live people living in a present that only happens to now be the past. They passed on ideas, traditions, traits, and wisdom that, whether you realize it or not, is somewhere in you and in your family.

So.

Who do you think you are?

Who are you, really?

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If you’re interested in researching your family tree, the internet is your best friend and Ancestry.com is the best website to get started. Although I said that I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on their services, you can use the website for free to access basic information. My suggestion is to use the free services and search some of your grandparents or great-grandparents. If you find a lot of information and want to know more, I suggest trying out a subscription for a month or two. (There’s a 2-week free trial too!)

Happy Hunting! (And don’t forget to watch Who Do You Think You Are? on Fridays at 8pm on NBC! You won’t regret it!)

Welcome to the Real World, Snow White; Or How Fairy Tales Have Taken Over My Sunday Nights

Do you believe in fairy tales?

I do.

But, let me clarify. I don’t believe in fairy tales literally. I mean, we can talk about how the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge live a fairy tale romance and lifestyle all we want, but in the end they’re normal human beings with highs and lows just like everyone else.

So, to say I believe in fairy tales doesn’t mean that I believe they actually exist. I do believe that everyone can have fairy tale moments in their life. But, mostly, I believe in the escapism of fairy tales, the mechanism they provide for children and adults alike to imagine and dream, and I believe in their entertainment value.

The last six months have been big for fairy tales, and it looks like the trend is going to continue.

In particular, it’s been a big year for fairy tales on network television where  two different series focus on them, one on NBC (Grimm) and one on ABC: Once Upon a Time.

While I’ve heard good things about Grimm, I’m not going to talk about it here, because I’m not a viewer.

I am, however, going to talk about Once Upon a Time and how it has filled a void in my Sunday nights that I didn’t know existed, since I (as discussed in a previous post) devote my Sundays nights to PBS’ Masterpiece.

Not only is this a big year for fairy tales, it’s also a big year for Snow White. Not only are there two feature films coming out soon focusing on Snow White (Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror), but Once Upon a Time builds upon Snow White and Prince Charming’s story, allowing for a whole new take on the land of fairy tales, how its characters are all interconnected, and how they’re not all quite what they seem.

I had seen the previews for Once Upon a Time online and on TV early in the Fall and was waiting excitedly for it to premiere — I may claim that I don’t believe in fairy tales, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a sucker for them. 🙂

I knew from the beginning that Once Upon a Time was going to be interesting, not only from what I knew of its basic premise, but also because its two creators were once writers on the JJ Abrams’ series Lost. 

To explain that basic premise of Once Upon a Time , I need to take you back to the beginning of my post. I asked you whether you “believed in fairy tales,” but what I should have asked was “What if fairy tales and all their characters were real?”

This is what Once Upon a Time is all about.

As I said before, Once Upon a Time, at its core, is about Snow White. Most of us know the story. Snow White loves Prince Charming, she makes the Evil Queen mad, the Evil Queen poisons her with an apple, the Seven Dwarfs place her in a glass coffin, Prince Charming finds, kisses, and saves Snow White and they all live happily ever after.

Or do they?

Once Upon a Time begins with a wedding. Prince Charming has rescued Snow White and they’re getting their happy ending — until The Evil Queen shows up and vows to destroy the newly married couple’s happiness.

Ginnifer Goodwin as Snow White and Josh Dallas as Prince Charming

 
Lana Parrilla as the Evil Queen.

Our stay in “fairy tale land” (real name: The Enchanted Forest) doesn’t last long and before we know it, we’re being introduced to Emma Swan, a bad ass bailbonds-woman living in present day, modern Boston.

Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan.

It’s her birthday – her 28th – and she’s alone in her apartment, just having blown out the candle on her cupcake when the doorbell rings. Her unexpected guest is 10 year old Henry, the son she gave up for adoption, who says he’s come to get her and bring her back to his hometown of Storybrooke, Maine. Freaked out by his appearance and willing to do anything to shove this skeleton back in her closet, Emma agrees to take Henry home.

Jared Gilmore as Henry.

Henry doesn’t keep the motive for his visit secret long. He’s brought a book with him, one whose stories, he claims, are true, and in which he says his birth mother is a character.

Henry tells Emma that she is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, and she is meant to save the residents of Storybrook — all fairytale characters from the Enchanted Forest — who were cursed by the Evil Queen. She was born shortly before the curse was enacted and her parents found a way to send her out of the Enchanted Forest in time. Since then, all of the Forest’s residents have been trapped in Storybrook, where time stands still and no one except, it seems, for Henry, can leave. No one knows who they are either, or how they’re related to one another. They are “normal” people who go on with normal lives and don’t notice that no one ages and nothing ever changes.  The Happily Ever Afters are over.

Mary Margaret is drawn to the comatose John Doe.

Snow White is Mary Margaret, a lonely teacher who spends her spare time volunteering at the hospital where she dotes on a comatose “John Doe” (Prince Charming). Rumpelstiltskin is Mr. Gold, the town pawnbroker. Granny and Red Riding Hood are Granny and Ruby, grandmother and granddaughter running an inn and a diner. Jiminy Cricket is the town psychiatrist, Dr. Archie Hopper.

She doesn’t believe Henry and takes him home. He claims his adoptive mother, Storybrooke’s mayor, is evil.

Does the Mayor remember who she really is? Does she know who Emma is?

Turns out she is, because Mayor Regina Mills happens to be The Evil Queen.

Emma drops Henry off and when she tries to leave town, “something bad happens” — just as Henry tells her it will — and she is prevented from leaving.

So, Emma stays, and again, just as Henry predicted, things begin changing in Storybrooke.

Broadcast on Sundays at 8pm on ABC, Once Upon a Time is my new obsession. It perfectly blends fairy tales, with their romance and fantasy qualities, with a great mystery.

Each episode takes place both in Storybrooke and in the Enchanted Forest. The action is Storybrooke drives forward, while the backstory in the Enchanted Forest doesn’t always take place in order.

If you’re interested in watching, I definitely suggest starting from the beginning. This is a show that builds upon its previous episodes, like puzzle pieces being fit together.

If you don’t have access to previous episodes, then you should catch up via recaps on the internet.

Have fun in Storybrooke and the Enchanted Forest. But watch out for The Evil Queen/Regina — her dishes are deadly.