Sunday, December 26, 2010

'Tis the season to be jolly

The best part about the holiday season is celebrating it together with the whole family, from across the many cities, states and countries we otherwise normally reside in. Over the past week, I've had the good fortune of playing Aunt to two young and spunky nephews and one adorable niece. And it's interesting to see how their young minds process familial relationships.

"Did you know that I'm your Daddy's daddy?" asked my father-in-law of his eldest grandchild.

The look of utter astonishment on the young boy's face was priceless. We all fitted in the neat tidy labels he had stuck on us from the time that he could talk. Grandpa. Grandma. Uncle. Aunt. Mom. Dad. But how they connected - or that they connected at all - was too much of a revelation!

It made me think of the first time I found out my mother's mother's real name was not Nani. I must have been around eight, and was in the process of writing out her address on an envelope that would carry my first real letter to her. I was just about to address it to 'Nani' when my mother swooped in at the appropriate moment. At first, I thought it was a joke, and I'm not sure exactly what tipped me off that it wasn't (maybe it was my seven-years-older sister cackling loudly at my apparent ignorance), but once the fact sunk in, I remember feeling oddly foolish. That I did not even know this wonderful, loving and always smiling woman's name.

Years later, I had a similar feeling when my father's mother passed away. I was much older then. But what left me feeling foolish this time around was that though I knew her name and a few other personal details, I didn't know much else about her. Like why she had her name tattooed on to her wrist, or what was it like to be a police officer's wife, or what was it like to have her youngest sister be born in the same year that she had had her first child?

My nephew will have his turn in figuring out the essentials. Learning what's important and what's not. I just hope we do a better job of filling in the blanks.

The holiday season sure is a time for family. Past. Present. And new. :)


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Preaching What I Practice

I have always emphasized how meaningful video biographies can be for families after a loved one has passed away. I’m made aware of that all of the time when I receive notes from clients who notify me of the death of someone they had me interview and how the recording is a consolation for them. Recently, with the death of my own mother, I am personally experiencing this kind of significance since over the last few years I conducted several interviews of her sharing stories as well as her personal philosophy.

With the holiday season here, I strongly suggest that you try and record some of your family’s interactions and stories. It probably won’t be until years later that you will fully appreciate that you made the effort to do so.

Bridget Poizner

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Video Biographies: When others tell your story...

At a recent awards ceremony in Austin, I was privileged to find myself in the midst of a remarkable group of people, honoring a gentleman not only for his professional contribution - but also for the valuable lessons they've learned about themselves and about life through their interactions with him. Here's how he began his acceptance speech:

"I feel truly blessed to be alive to watch and participate in this event - and to hear such wonderful people say such wonderful things about me. The only other time everyone comes together for something like this is at a funeral... so I feel truly blessed to be alive!"

And of course, we all laughed. But it also struck a chord. Why is it that we wait till the end to convey to someone just how important they are to us? Though I was there primarily to record the event, the video has evolved into a touching tribute, with the honoree's colleagues taking to the microphone and reminiscing over an association that sometimes spanned a few years and sometimes a few decades... to share their mutual love and respect for someone they admire. Sometimes personal biographies are best told through the words of others.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Power of Video

After I conduct interviews and I start the editing process, I am always struck with how effectively video captures the personality as well as the stories of my client. Along with the family history, the gestures, laugh, twinkle in the eye and sometimes an occasional tear are there to be shared with the viewer. And when the interview is a joint one between a couple or a group of siblings, their interaction deepens the experience even further.

All of my interviews are confidential, but this couple kindly agreed to let this clip be shared. I think it's a great illustration of how meaningful a video interview can be.

--Bridget Poizner

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Video Biographies: The new face of the 3R's?

You know you're getting along in years when they start making movies about events that took place in your lifetime. I got such a reality check during a recent sojourn to a local cinema. There were back-to-back trailers of two different movies about the start of the internet. And well, I realized that while I may still vividly remember a time without the worldwide web, to a lot of youngsters that just might seem ridiculous and unimaginable. Fancy that.

In the course of talking with people about their life stories and experiences, conversation inevitably veers toward technology - and the mammoth changes that each new development has brought with it. Some people speak of a time before central heating and cooling, before automobiles became accessible, and before color television made an appearance. Others talk of outhouses, and pickling and preserving fruit and vegetables in anticipation of a long winter.

This got me thinking about the changes that will take place (or have already taken place) in our own lifetimes. What will be the things that we talk about when we reflect on our lives and try to convey a sense of what used to be to our children and grandchildren?

There are bound to be a zillion different things that future generations will gawk at and consider us antiquated for, but one thing that really stands out for me is the act of reading and writing. Or rather, the mediums through which we do so. I grew up at a time when one took notes in class the old-fashioned way - using a paper and pen / pencil. In fact, when I graduated from using a pencil to a real honest-to-goodness ink pen, it was a rite of passage. I still remember my parents gifted me a beautiful, sleek Neptune-blue Parker pen to mark the occasion - turning me into a forever snob when it comes to pens of the ballpoint variety. But I veer away from my point! I grew up at a time when people still wrote... we knew not the modern ways of typing or touch-screens. It was a time when people still read real books - with paper and binding and hardcovers and paperbacks. Not e-books or electronic readers or computer screens. A recent article I read ( cited people predicting the death of physical books as we know them within the next 5 years. I don't look forward to that prospect and suspect that I shall metamorphose into a grumpy old lady stubbornly refusing to give in to the trend when the time comes, but who knows? Am I not here typing away merrily on my trusty notebook while waxing eloquent about the joys of 'real' reading and writing? What amazes me the most however is the ability of time to replace everything familiar with everything new... and that's why sharing stories and life experiences becomes so important.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Video Biographies: A photographic memory

Even if we're not always aware of the fact, each of us has a rich resource of personal archives. Stripped away of the fancy label, personal archives are things we're all very familiar with - photographs, letters, emails, floppy discs, bulky old computers from the '80s, VHS players from the '90s, unwieldy mobile phones from the beginning of the 2000s etc. They're anything that have stood witness to our lives, and that tell tales of their own... of the worlds in which they were born. And with each new invention and each new interest, some of the old have to make way for the new. Leading often times, to a great big mess. What to keep and what to discard? What could I get a few bucks for and what's totally lived its life? And while other objects may often find their way into Neverland, photographs emerge the most resilient form of personal archives... for who could ever show memories the door?

So they remain. In trunks, under the bed, in the attic, on the computer, in albums and on the wall... passed down from one generation to the other, inherited from one to the next... the legacy continues. But wait, what about the stories imprinted on these photographs? Sure I know who the people surrounding my parents in a photograph are, but will my children? Or theirs after them? Or will they be as clueless as I am when I sometimes have the good fortune of encountering some pictures from my grandparents' days?

It's important to label photographs. Make it a point to jot down these 3 things behind every picture - dates, names of the people and the location... it helps to fill in the blanks. My mother (58) recently called to tell me that she had gone to visit her mother (86) a few days ago and saw a picture of her grandmother for the first time that day. She only knew who it was because her mother told her so. And they smiled together at the resemblance they both shared with her. But what would have happened if this photograph had never made it into their conversation last weekend - and the legend never got passed down? We would have probably stared at the photograph uncomprehendingly years later, and who knows, maybe tossed it into the 'to throw' pile because we had no clue who the woman with the enigmatic smile was.

Yes, a lot of our pictures these days are digital. That shouldn't keep us from labeling them! Better yet, be sure to back up those photographs. A sudden virus attack or a technical failure on the part of the computer could instantly make a lifetime of memories disappear. Make prints. If not of all of them, then the ones closest to your heart. And they could be your backup too.

It's easier said than done. Not that it's an impossible task to do so or that this is something earth-shattering that has just been revealed but because it takes time... and it's always easy to put it off. Which is why we've all, at some point or the other, inherited hoards of pictures of 'strangers' and felt the double-edge of that sword. Which is why we need to organize ours even better. So that the next generation will feel closer to ours. And the cycle will continue.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Video biographies: Letters from the past

My first experience writing letters was in 1990. I must have been 9 and though that may sound like I was old enough to have been in a mature place at the time, I really wasn't. I was still very much a child and my family had just moved from India to a different country. Those were exciting times. For the first time we had a big house, new furniture, a nice car and a whole new world to explore. But it also meant that we had left behind all our friends and relatives whose presence I had hitherto taken for granted. My mother, determined to make sure that those ties remained unbroken, suggested that my sister and I write letters to our cousins back 'home'.

So we went to a store to pick out some writing paper and eventually settled on powder blue onion skin paper (that would weigh less) and white envelopes. The onion skin was so thin and translucent that a separate white sheet with black lines across the width of it was placed underneath - so as to facilitate sentences that flowed in a straight line. This was exciting stuff! A table was cleared, chairs were pulled up (one for my sister and one for me), pens furnished and the whistle was sounded... let the games begin!

That's when I realized I had no idea what should be written in a letter. I certainly hadn't written one before. More pressing was the need to impress my cousins - with what I'm not sure but they needed to be impressed. But what does one write!! Whilst I deliberated on these musings, my sister (older and wiser than me by 7 whole years) not only finished writing her letter but proceeded to read it out aloud to my mother, who nodded fondly at her first child's wonderful accomplishment.

It sounded like a really silly letter, I thought. Something about us going to school on camels (which despite us now living in a desert city we most certainly did not do in reality), and other such untrue statements but my mother laughed and pronounced it perfect. Interesting. This should have prompted me to churn out some original thoughts on paper about my own experience but what did I do instead? I chose to copy those exact lines on to my letter and eventually reproduced the entire contents of my sister's letter in my handwriting onto my sheet of paper. So that my cousins would receive two identical letters... as well as a sense of deja vu.

All this changed of course as I grew up and went to boarding school. By that time, letters were my passion. Small wonder that since they became the only connection we had with our parents, friends, crushes, penpals and the outside world in general! The postman was the most popular male in school and the biggest thrill was to find a letter on your study table or on your bed or handed to you in person by the matron-in-residence.

Then in 1995, when I was home for the holidays, something happened to turn everything I had known on its head. I was writing a letter to my best friend who lived in a different city, and handed it to my father to send out by post on his way to work the following morning. And he muttered something about the worldwide web. That was when I got my first introduction to the internet and the possibility of letters now being able to reach recipients within minutes... and not days or weeks as I had been accustomed to. Well, that seems excessive, I remember thinking! It was too foreign a concept to appreciate just yet.

Then of course, came chat rooms, instant messaging, Skype, Orkut, Facebook, blogs, mobile phones, Iphones, laptops, ebay... yes, life had changed. But it happened so slowly that I hardly noticed. I marveled at each new invention and the change it brought to my personal life, but the process was so gradual, that life without these things now seems incongruous. Primitive even.

And it took a letter to make me pause and take stock of the situation. A letter written by a cousin brother, so philosophical and poetic in his personality that the internet seemed too impersonal for him to use to write about his first trip abroad... about the wonders of the world that he discovered on his journey. A letter that I could hold in my hand, anticipate the length of it by how heavy it seemed in my palm, the stamps on the envelope that reminded me of the country I was born in... the smells of all the places it had traveled on its way to reaching my mailbox in Austin. A letter in the handwriting of someone close to me... I could see how the words started out big and then grew smaller and smaller as if my cousin brother suddenly realized he had a lot more to say than the paper allowed him. A letter that was peppered with dotted i's and marked t's... and scratched out lines... an actual letter! How old fashioned. How personal. How much like my childhood.

One day, when I sit down to document my own life story, letters will be one thing I mourn the loss of.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Video Biography: "You're running out of time!"

I was invited to make a presentation on preserving family history through video biographies at the Lakeway Lions Club recently, and was very impressed by the keen interest exhibited by the members about the need to do so sooner rather than later. During the question-answer session, someone raised an interesting point.

"What if I want to get my parents' video biography created? Won't they take it as a sign that I think their time is running out... as if I were implying that they aren't going to be around much longer?"

A very pertinent observation - and it's definitely one way of looking at it. But it can also be very flattering. In my experience, whenever people have commissioned a video biography for their parents, the usual reaction is of happiness. It's nice to feel acknowledged... to realize that your life experiences were not in vain. That you're important enough to someone that they wish to immortalize you forever in the best way they know how. So that one day their children, and their children's children after them, will know you for who you are. And hear you tell your story in your own voice, in the way you wish to be remembered.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Video Biographies: "What's the point?"

I had a wonderfully stimulating conversation with a wonderfully accomplished lady a few days ago. I have always admired the kind of person who devotes her own time and money to make the lives of others better, and well, this lady was one of those! Overwhelmed by the selflessness of the nature of her work, I spontaneously offered to create a complimentary video biography for her. She seemed to like the idea and her first reaction was to suggest using the video as an informational tool about her organization. Maybe upload it on to the official website and attract more members? I abruptly realized that even though she understood I was a 'video biographer', it didn't quite translate the same way in her mind that it did in mine. So I proceeded to explain.

"The focus of the video biography would be more on you and your life - rather than solely on your professional accomplishments."

"I get it," said she.

"So I'll be asking you questions to help you revisit your life from childhood onwards. What was it like to grow up where you did? What was it like to be young in a world your children would find hard to recognize as the same as theirs? Growing up, going to college, getting married... you know, offering your children the opportunity to hear how you used to be at their age. To learn about the journey your life has taken to arrive at this present day moment."

I could see from the look on her face that these questions were changing her perception of a video biography. She still seemed excited by the thought but it was now for different reasons. We talked through all the doubts in her mind - apprehension of being in front of the camera, doubts about how the conversation may not be interesting, skepticism regarding the wisdom of telling a stranger the story of one's life etc. In the end, she seemed satisfied and we parted ways.

A day later, she told me she had changed her mind. I wasn't going to force someone to document their life experiences or see the merit in doing so, but I was curious. What was holding her back? What downside could there possibly be to creating one's legacy? Had I mentioned it was going to be complimentary?

"I don't see the point in it," she replied. "At least with the video about my organization I know other people will watch it and learn more about what we're trying to achieve through it. But with a video just about my life... what's the point?"

I wished she would go through the experience as there was no doubt in my mind that the point would become amply clear once she did. At the same time, I don't quite think the value of it eluded her grasp. She wasn't ready. And there was nothing I could do to change that. So I nodded my head and hoped fervently that her children have good memories. That they committed to their heart every nuance about her that they loved and cherished... so that they are able to pass it on to their children. And the children after that. So that they will one day know that Grandma was so much more than just that.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Video Biographies: Father's Day

So just around the corner is Father's Day. I would like to be equal opportunity and say that just as my mother got a special early delivery of her video biography DVD for Mother's Day, so will my father get his on June 20th but that would not be quite true. For the simple reason that he refused to sit in front of the camera the last time I visited them.

Don't get me wrong. He's all in favor of the idea of documenting personal histories and is quite generous with suggestions on how one can improve the experience for the people being interviewed, but when it came to be his turn, he suddenly became very busy. Knowing him as long as I have, it shouldn't have come as a big surprise but it was a little one nonetheless. This is a man who has visited 54 countries. Received an award by the prime minister. Earned his MBA by going to night school so that he wouldn't have to quit his day job. And who, 40 years later, left a lucrative international assignment to start a small business at age 60. How could he possibly feel that he had no stories to tell?

The truth hit me when I was taping my mother's interview. She was looking beautiful that day - all dressed up in a new outfit, matching pearl earrings; she had even sprayed her favorite perfume seconds before the interview began. And as soon as I pressed the red button to start, she was charming, smiling, articulate and emotional. I noticed my father slipping in to the room at several times during the interview; presumably looking for odd things but all the time, glancing at my mother from the corner of his eye. Leaning in a little closer to hear what was being said. And that's when I realized he was nervous of the camera. That this man who had given interviews to journalists about the expansion plans of his company and made presentations to investors and decision makers, was a little unsure of what to do when it came to speaking about himself.

Of course once he saw the finished product of the interview, and realized that my mother had quite enjoyed the experience instead of being scarred by it, he was more open to the idea. And I made an effort to point out to him that he wasn't expected to give a speech about his life for two hours during the taping of the video biography... instead, I hoped to gently lead him down memory lane with my questions. To draw his attention to events and memories that he may have forgotten he had. And revisit his life alongside with him. Not to interrogate or question. But to observe and learn. Well, when you put it that way, you're not going to get much opposition, his eyes twinkled at me in response. But it took a while to get him feeling this way. And that's why my Father's Day present to him might end up being made on his birthday or during the holidays which is when I'll see him next... but he got the gift certificate in the mail today and he's got 6 months to choose which suit he's going to wear for the occasion. There's no wiggling out of this one, Dad!


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Video Biographies: The value of personal archives and family documents

For almost a month now, I have been volunteering a few hours of my day on a weekly basis at an archives and research library here at Austin, TX. Personal archives (and not just my own!) have held my attention for a while now, and I'm fortunate that in creating video biographies for others, I inadvertently get to share in their narrative. I get to know their stories and often come in direct contact with the records of their past. Photographs, newspaper clippings, journals, letters etc.

This got me curious.

Would the documents of complete strangers hold an appeal if they were not 'clients'? Is there anything substantial to be gained by the stories of others if they lived a hundred years ago - with nothing common between us except that we have walked the same ground at different points in history? Hence the visits to the archives library.

The answer is yes.

Of course I learned things each time I visited. I had never encountered a fluting iron before. It's what they used back in the day to add frills and pleats to clothes. Or bullet moulds. Rusted and creaky but innovative and efficient nonetheless. One cent coins from the turn of the 20th century... and hidden between them, an official looking brass coin with the words 'Good for one drink' barely legible. Interesting, it would appear people had a sense of humor even then. Medals from wars. Commemorative plates celebrating presidents. Lace hair bands worn by anonymous women. Meat grinding machines and cannon balls.

These archives and documents may belong to people I was never acquainted with but they told countless stories and pieced together a glimpse of my world as it used to be. Of society and community. Of history and world events. Of local news and gossip. Things were different back then. Then again, not as much as I would have thought.

And that's what stands to be gained from documenting each of our personal histories. It is a way of acknowledging a life well lived, yes, but it is also a way of communicating how we live to the people who will come after us. So that they can make sense of our journey. And through that, their own.


Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Lifelong Example

In honor of Mother’s Day, get out that video camera, audio recorder or pen and paper and if your mom is living and nearby, see if you can grab a story or two from her. Maybe ask her about how she used to celebrate Mother's Day when she was a girl or a story about her own mom--or what being a mom has taught her. If your mom has passed away, honor her by recording a story about her which showed something you learned directly by watching her "in action."

I'll share one about my mom who at age 91 is still going strong. One thing I used to observe when I was little is how she would handle returning something to a store. In those days, the customer wasn't always considered right and return policies were often more rigid. If she was not a satisfied customer, she was always polite but always firm in expecting a refund or fair exchange. I remember being no higher than her elbow watching the process and always seeing her succeed in getting what she wanted. She was never rude but always insistent. One time, it involved successfully returning a pair of my shoes that she thought should have lasted longer than they did. As I got older, I found myself recalling her technique before heading out to “do battle.” One funny example happened when I was an adult. She was visiting me and we had gone to the grocery store. When we got home and were putting the groceries away, she noticed that the carton of eggs we had just bought contained a broken one. Her immediate response was that we should go back to the store and exchange the carton. I smiled and told her that I knew I was letting her down but I was not going to drive 15 minutes for the sake of one broken egg. We then both had a good laugh.

Yes, example is one of the best teachers and I am so fortunate to have a mother who serves as such a positive one for me as well as the rest of my family.

--Bridget Poizner

Friday, April 30, 2010

Chicken Soup Isn't Always A Cure

Last week was a busy one for me. I conducted interviews in Kansas City, Louisville and Washington D.C. On my flight back to San Diego, I started feeling a cold coming on and upon my return home I made a large kettle of chicken soup in hopes of warding it off. I was very motivated because I was supposed to fly back to D.C. yesterday to attend a full honors military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. This was for a client I had interviewed 18 months ago. He had been a p.o.w. in a German prisoner of war camp during WWII. I was so honored when he shared his experiences with me during the interview--especially since he told me when I was setting up the camera that he was not going to talk about the war.
When his widow emailed me to tell me of his death and invited me to attend the interment ceremony, I knew I would attend even though my schedule showed that I would be in D.C. the week prior. What I didn't count on was getting sick and in spite of the soup and laying low for several days I am still too ill to travel. As I write this, the ceremony is taking place at this same point in time and though I'm not there in person hearing the bugle play and the echo of the rifle volleys, I salute this gentle and courageous man. The other day, his wife told me they would be playing his interview at the reception held after the interment. It's rather nice to think that I contributed in a small way to the celebration of his life.

--Bridget Poizner

Monday, April 19, 2010

Video Biographies: Four generations of women. One family.

Enthusiasm is contagious. Which is why by the time I concluded my most recent video biography interview with the most amazing 80-something-year-old woman, I felt motivated to seize the day. Have adventures. Wear crazy wigs that flew off when I threw my head back, laughing at a casino in Vegas(!?). With the ultimate goal of turning into a fiesty old woman when my time comes... because really, they're the best kind!

This particular video took a year in the making. Or more accurately, the gift certificate for the package had been acquired a year ago, but it took until last week to convince 'grandma' that she deserved to be in front of the camera, regaling everyone with the crazy stories she had accumulated over a lifetime.

Hearing about the tricks and ambushes involved in rallying grandma to the venue for the interview made me picture a woman who was quiet, kept to herself, and didn't speak much. I couldn't have been more wrong. The minute I stepped through their front door, I could hear her laugh from three rooms away! When I met her, she graciously offered me her hand but by the time I left, she enveloped me in a motherly hug goodbye. Her voice was loud and got your attention. And she was telling me her stories even before the camera was set up. In fact, she even asked me for mine.

Just like I had formed an image of her in my head, she said she had one of me... a 50-year-old, jolly woman of significantly different proportions than those that I displayed... but I think she decided to like me anyway. Because when the interview did begin, she was perfect. Charismatic. Articulate. Candid. And oh so forthcoming. And honest. It takes courage to revisit parts of our lives, and say it how it is - and she was up to that challenge. In fact, when the interview ended and her lovely daughter entered the room, she was surprised by some of the things that came up. And perhaps, more surprised that her mother had called things the way they were.

Present on the day of the interview were four generations of women from the same family. Grandma and her daughter. Grandma's grand-daughter. And great-granddaughter. The oldest being 80+. The youngest 6. And it was obvious to anyone who knew them (even if only for one afternoon), that there existed between them a wonderful bond of love, respect, spontaneity, enthusiasm, and innocent wonder... ingredients perhaps for a good life?


Monday, March 29, 2010

Video Biography: 'I'd like Mom to go first!'

Last week, I had the opportunity of traveling up to Georgetown, TX for an interview. For people who know just how far (or really, how close) Georgetown is to Austin, this might seem like nothing momentous but to me it was. Because well, every interview is momentous. Plus I like checking off names from maps knowing that that's one less place I've left unexplored. So sorry, there's no bursting my bubble!

I had been commissioned by a gentleman who wished to have both his parents interviewed for their individual, customized video biographies.

"I would like for you to begin with my mother please," he said. "She's come second in a lot of things that have happened in our lives and for once, I want her to come first."

I was touched. No doubt so was she.

When I met her, I found her to be a charming, thoughtful lady... and when she spoke on camera about her family, there reflected pride and love on her face. It wasn't always easy for her to talk about her own life or memories from her childhood (in her own words, she was beginning to find it hard to remember details), but when it was time to talk about the family she had raised with her husband, her face lit up and some very interesting stories came tumbling out.

Were some of these stories ones that no one had ever heard before? A few were, I'm sure of that. But what's more important is that ALL of these stories will become ones that no one ever forgets anymore... not even when the 'details' slip from her own mind. Because they're in a safe place now. In her own voice.

In that precious moment when she came first.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Video Biographies: Ah, the good ol' days!

It wasn't until fairly recently in my own life did I start expressing an avid interest in the times and worlds of the past. It might be that I was too busy living my own life or it might be that I was too busy trying to plot for the future... whatever the
reason, the past was inevitably in the past for me.

Then I started creating video biographies for other people; 'ordinary' people like me but also unlike me in their awareness and recognition of the value of the past. And oh, what treasures they revealed. Not just about the world as they knew it, but also facets to my personality that I did not know of.

1). For instance, I am complacent. In thinking that there is only one way of doing things - the given way. When it's cold, I want to switch on the heater. When I need to freshen up, I step into the restroom. When I want to have fruit in the winter, a trip to the grocery store will suffice. And when I want to 'relax', the television comes on.

But oh, what innovative ways other than the ones I just listed exist! Holding hot potatoes in your hands while you walk to school can really help in keeping you warm.

Outhouses were a wonderful invention back in the day, not only to freshen up, but also for entertainment purposes as one lady shared with me. The idea of fun for her 8 odd brothers when they were growing up was to go about at night and shift the locations of their neighbors' outhouses... for instance, instead of waking up to a handy outhouse positioned near the back barn, it could now be found a mile into the fields. Not very funny, I'm sure, for the people who really needed to go, but quite a laugh for a bunch of young boys.

Mothers and grandmothers would pickle, preserve and can fruits and vegetables to last for an entire year. To last through war time rations. To last till the date of the next wedding in the family. And no wonder cable television took such a while in being invented... people were actually happy without it! Walking around the neighborhood on stilts, organizing easter egg hunts around the river, climbing trees, roller skating, board games... there was always so much to do!

2). I would probably never survive the dating game back in the day! I recently interviewed an elderly couple in their 80's and the one lament of the husband was that his wife 'dated a LOT' before they got married. Her justification: "Well, my mother told me that if someone asks you out, you should say yes if you want to go out with them. And no if you don't. But then you can't accept another date for the same time that you already said no to. And whenever he came into town and asked me for a date, well, I always already had one!"

3). I've probably led too sheltered a life to ever be able to live through a war or wars without complaint. To endure blackouts. 'Duck and cover' exercises in school. Live on rationed food. Rationed gas. Rationed cloth. To recycle fat drippings and aluminum foil for the army. To make do with censored letters. To survive an uncle being taken prisoner of war.

There's a lot to be learned from the past. And only people who've lived through it can tell us how it was. How it used to be. Inject life into history books and legal documents... all one has to do is ask. And listen. And learn.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Video Biographies: Put your best face forward

I know, in a project such as a video biography where the main emphasis is on sharing and revealing stories from the past, who really gives much thought to what to wear? But oh, let me tell you, that's important and the phone call by one of the ladies I will be interviewing next month just confirmed it. We were trying hard to juggle our schedules around and come up with something that works for both of us. We had just decided on a date towards the end of March... when suddenly she remembered her appointment with her hair stylist is every Thursday and well, that did it! Friday would be the day to put her best face forward on camera!

If that sounds superficial, well, let me put it this way. The image on the video biography is going to be how generations forever in the future will remember Grandma. Or great-grandma by then. Or even great-great-grandma. More than the photographs in albums and dusty old trunks, more than words on the family tree, more than verbal stories passed down as folklore, the video biography will the definitive source to form a feel of Grandma's personality and in that case, shouldn't she look the best she can?

So give a thought to what you're wearing. Avoid busy patterns and loud stripes... go in for a nice solid color that doesn't compete with the stories for attention. Spend some time on your appearance. And yes, let's not forget that hair appointment. And let's not feel guilty about it either!


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Video Biographies: How to make sure they last

An interesting question came up at a recent video biography workshop here in Austin. One of the members of the 'audience' shared her experience recording her mother's stories on video many years ago. She never got a chance to look at the video much since then, and two days before the workshop, she decided that the time was finally right to play the tape that it was stored on. Imagine her shock then when all she saw on the TV screen when she pushed the 'play' button was static-y snow... no image, no sound, no memories.

So what happened?

The lady mentioned lending the tape to someone else who wished to make a copy of it for their own use... and while it's hard to guess what really happened, I'm going to hark back to my TV news channel days to give my take on it. A news channel can use a LOT of tapes (at least the one where I used to work did!) and once they had been stored for the necessary amount of time, they were ready to be reused. At which point they were 'scrubbed' i.e. wiped clean of all existing footage on them and made 'new' again. If I were to guess, I think somewhere along the way, instead of hitting 'copy', the button 'delete' or 'scrub' was accidentally pushed, resulting in the current state of the tape. Of course I'm simplifying the situation a lot here (!) but the point is to provide an idea of how easy it can be to lose valuable information... in this case, precious memories of a very important person in the lady's life.

If you are planning to record the stories of your loved ones, then try and make a copy of the original tape wherever possible. Store the original, and use the duplicate for your editing purposes. Once you're done editing the video to your satisfaction, burn a few DVDs for your records. Yes, there will always be a file stored on your computer and this may seem like an unnecessary precaution, but computers have been known to crash without prior notice... and why risk the loss of all that valuable information?

Now if the lady's video had been a digital file on her computer, there could still be a hope of retrieving the data she lost... of course, you would need to go to someone who is a technical expert in these sorts of things and in no way am I that person. But there is a larger possibility of retrieving files once they've been digitized. And I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that in my experience, DVDs have proved to be good for storing my audio/video files. They are durable, sturdy, last long, and can be duplicated without much trouble. All this provided you handle and store them right!

Happy interviewing!


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Video Biographies: 'Stories from the Heart' conference in Austin

What are you doing this weekend? Yes, I'm talking about February 5,6 and 7.

Well, Story Circle is hosting their 5th annual conference here in Austin - "Stories From the Heart" and I'm very excited by it. So far, more than a 100 women from across the country have registered, and apart from the conference program, it sounds like there will be ample opportunity for fun, games and forging new friendships. But before I get distracted by that, let me tell you a little bit about the conference.

The focus of the 3-day conference is, quite simply, stories. Stories from our day-to-day lives. Stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. Stories of lessons learned. Mistakes made. Stories of heartbreak and overcoming heartbreak. In short, the stories of a lifetime.

Over the course of several workshops, one learns to give voice to these stories - either through memoir writing, blogging, poetry or... you guessed it, video biographies.

I will be accompanied by two very accomplished writers / editors - Jane Ross and Pat Flathouse - in giving an informational talk on how to effectively use video as a medium to document individual histories, without getting intimidated by the technology involved. Needless to say, the three of us are very excited to be presenting this 'new' resource in storytelling!

Moreover, there is an opportunity for individual consultations on Friday - so that if anyone has very specific questions, they can get one-on-one talk time with professionals and experts from the field. And there's a silent auction. Open mike. a sinful sounding dessert reception (!). Informal interactions. Slumber parties - okay, so I made that one up but only to test if you were still paying attention! Rest assured, it will be an experience. And if that appeals to you in any way, come on over to the Wyndham Hotel. Online registration may have closed at the moment but there's still the opportunity to register at the door... and I know we're glad to have you there!


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Video Biographies: What to do with inidividual accounts of history?

Last week, I gave a talk on 'Using Video to Preserve Our Family History' to a very warm and lively branch of the Rotary Club. And one of the questions that I was asked towards the end was how to make individual accounts of personal history count on a larger scale. More precisely, how to make the story of one's life accessible to the community at large.

A wonderfully insightful question, I thought. After all, there is a lot to be learned from life, and not just one's own.

There are a number of ways to make your story count. Below are just a few that I know of or have heard of... but don't just take my word for it! The idea is to get you thinking - I'd strongly recommend reading up more about them on their websites or speaking with a representative to know the true behind-the-scene workings.

Within Austin, there is the wonderful Austin History Center (AHC - where community archives are greatly valued, appreciated and preserved. Whether it is a written memoir, a collection of photographs, newspaper clippings, oral recordings or whatever other ingenious means of recording one's story one comes up with, the AHC is a great place to make a contribution to... and as far as I can understand, they are happy to receive originals or make copies of them.

There is also the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in Austin - with a handy link on their website ( to more information about why one should consider donating personal records and what to keep in mind etc.

Oh and I've heard good things about the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University, though it sounds like at the moment they only accept recordings that meet certain guidelines they've set for themselves. Their website has information about an upcoming online introductory workshop - 'Getting Started with Oral History' (

The Veterans History Project ( is an initiative to collect and preserve records of war from people actively involved in it in order to create a better understanding of the realities of war for future generations. They offer a variety of ways in which people can contribution their stories.

Other organizations to look into include The American Folklife Center ( and StoryCorps ( This list is very preliminary - and are just a few organizations that come immediately to mind. There are many more! But the idea is to get those wheels turning... and if anyone has any other places that they know of, please write in to me and I'll be happy to add them.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Video Biographies: From Austin to India

So where have I been this whole past month? India. Chicago. A little town called Shelbyville. And now safely and happily back home in Austin.

Most of the trip was to visit family and to feel like a little girl once again, sleeping in 'my room' back in my parents' home. But a little part of the vacation was reserved for work.

I had been approached by a gentleman right here in Austin whose father lived in India, and well more specifically, right in the city where I grew up - New Delhi. When you ponder about the size of America and India, and then the number of people who live in each of these countries, and then the number of cities in both of these places... it felt like karma that I just happened to be visiting the very city his father would be visiting at the exact same time of the year when he's always there! So obviously, I was very excited to create his own, unique Video Biography.

And even though the worlds we inhabited were so extremely different from each other, even though we had grown up in different times in history... even though he was 50 odd years older than I am... there is something so wonderfully universal about life that the 2 hours interview session flew by without us running out of conversation. The main focus of the Video Biography was to be his career in the police service - and indeed the stories of run-ins with criminals, corrupt officials, and so on were fascinating. But more so were his memories of his childhood. His parents. The story behind his marriage. And a special message to his grandchildren.

There is something wonderfully universal about life... be it family, love or an inherent desire to do what is right. And it's stories like this one that make you pause and remember that. And be thankful for it.