Saturday, June 5, 2021

Of Donuts and Do-Overs


It's Saturday morning. Time to grab a donut and a good cup of coffee, sit back and ponder the work we've done, and what's still ahead to be completed. Problem is, with this month's research goal, I'm realizing there is a lot of messy work yet to accomplish. When it's all said and done, I may have more mess left than month.

I've seen a lot of talk, over the years, about the virtues of a "Genealogy Do-Over." Sometimes, we make messes so big, the only way to deal with them, it seems, is to just explode them—poof!—and start again from scratch.


I have twenty one thousand relatives in a family tree that started its growth cycle as my mother-in-law's tree. With my research strategy adjustments in the last year, I've combined both my in-laws' trees into one, which inflated that count. Still, facing the recently-discovered fact that vast chunks of generational nether reaches have been grossly neglected, scrapping a work of decades which includes that many entries would be disheartening. And yes, that is an understatement.

However, now that I'm working on this month's research goal—to confirm the parents of Elizabeth Ambrose, wife of Joseph Flowers, my mother-in-law's second great-grandfather—I'm realizing it has been a long time since I last passed this way down the Flowers branch of the family tree. I'm working hard to add the missing lines of descent, which we'll review tomorrow in my biweekly count, but the realization of how much work has been lacking puts me in mind of the very reason some people decide to scrap it all in a do-over mode.

Do-overs have their place, but we have to remember that a do-over is a system, just as much as any other system designed to help us get all the facts correct—and included—in assembling a pedigree. I do have other systems in place to ensure a thorough review of work done in the past, a step-by-step system designed to move from one specific ancestor down through each line of children, then grandchildren, then greats and beyond. It's a process that makes sure no descendant gets left out in the review of newly-available digitized documents and associated resources as they become available.

Then, too, there's the constant check of DNA test matches to see whether newly discovered relatives already have a place in the tree, or need to be freshly added. Add to that one more systematic sweep: checking the universal list of profiles for duplicate entries which need to be merged, and that seems to be a triple-check that all descendants have been accounted for.

Except that we're talking about an ever-growing family tree branching out from the twenty one thousand who are already here and accounted for.

Every system, no matter how thorough, eventually groans under its own weight. I have to remind myself that when I encounter such signs of omission, they don't necessarily herald a cause to scrap it all and start again from scratch. The work which is already laid out is salvageable. No matter how it is rectified, all corrections take work and diligence. Declaring a moratorium on taking remedial action on what we have, or seeing the act of scrapping what's done to start afresh as "freeing," is not necessarily the best choice for moving forward.

Sometimes we need to recognize that grunt work is called what it is for exactly that reason: it's roll-up-your-sleeves tedium. But it needs to get done, whether we call it a "do-over" or a "system."

There's a quote about donuts that's been bandied about and blended into various forms over the years, credited to more than one pragmatist. It's about the donut and the hole: the optimist sees the donut, the pessimist the hole, so keep your eye on the donut.

No matter how you first heard that saying, perhaps you'll identify why it reminds me so much of the chasm between the work we do as genealogists and the hypothetical "done" we'll never seem to attain in working on our family trees.

When I think about yielding to the urge to succumb to a "do-over," all I can see is the hole. It's when I keep my eye on the donut that I find the inner fortitude to keep plugging away at the work. I had to realize the "hole" of "not done" can suck a researcher into counter-productive pessimism. And that's not what I'm after in this quest to catalog family history. What I'm really after in this process of research is not that black hole, but the process of enjoying the donut.

Which I hope you'll do as well, both this morning with your cup of coffee and metaphorically as you tackle your next research challenge. 


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