Thursday, April 8, 2010


“Stiff,” a most interesting, informative and funny book written by Mary Roach, is subtitled “The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” First, let me assure you that she does, in fact, treat the subjects with dignity, but some of the ramifications in her story can’t help but make the reader laugh – ranging from a quiet giggle to a loud guffaw. I’ve used her book once before in my blog, but as it is apropos to today’s subject (and may not have been read by the newer readers) I’m going to share it again.

Several chapters in her book deal with the quest to understand where the soul resides. In Mary’s words, “Thomas Edison came up with another variation on the all-through-the-body concept of the soul. Edison believed that living beings were animated and controlled by “life units,” smaller-than-microscopic entities that inhabited each and every cell and upon death evacuated the premises, floated around a while, and eventually reassembled to animate a new personality – possibly another man, possibly an ocelot or a sea cucumbers. Like other scientifically trained but mildly loopy* soul speculators, Edison strove to prove his theory through experimentation.”

At the bottom of the page on which this appears she adds, “People have trouble believing Thomas Edison to be a loopy individual. I offer as evidence the following passage…taken from his diaries: “We do not remember. A certain group of our little people do this for us. They live in that part of the brain which has become known as the ‘fold of Broca’ .. There may be twelve or fifteen shifts that change about and are on duty at different times like men in a factory….
Therefore it seems likely that remembering a thing is all a matter of getting in touch with the shift that was on duty when the recording was done.”

Now ever since Jerry and I read this we have used the “shift” theory to explain why we can’t remember something. We understand forgetfulness isn’t because of aging. Rather, the wrong shift is working. We’ve had many a good laugh over this.

Forgetting where you put things is just awful! Keys is one of the first thing that comes to mind. But surely second to keys is for a genealologist not to be able to find a piece of paper that should easily be found in the proper file. When it isn’t there, we check the files nearest the correct one. We check all the piles of papers on our desk. We look in boxes where we might have stuck a pile of paper when we see company coming up our front walkway. If we can’t find the paper, we know it is our fault, and we pay the price in aggravation.

On April 2 of 2006 I received a very important e-mail from a man in Chico who had agreed to look at the probate inventory list of my great-grandpa’s older brother who died in 1852 at the age of 23. I couldn’t understand why this young man, son of a farmer in Illinois, had in his inventory such things as yard goods, silk vests, fur hats, unbrellas, a “letter writer,” and a “Missouri Harmony.” Furthermore he was holding lots of “notes” for various amounts. Over the years my friend Dr. Carl Peterson, a historian and educator at one of our Cal State Universities, has been very generous with his help to me and since his wife is also a Dobbins, we have swapped information, although I must admit the swapping always benefited me far more than him. I knew he could take a look at the probate inventory and give me a sense of this young man, something I couldn’t do. I wasn’t mistaken. His analysis, sent to me via several e-mails over week’s time, was absolutely amazing. It was exactly what I needed and proved exceptionally helpful.

Recently I have prepared a “booklet” on my Dobbins families to give to my children. I took out my various Dobbins files and in reviewing all the papers in them I noted that Carl’s e-mail notes on Robert Gaston Dobbins were missing. For two weeks I tore through my files, my office and then my whole apartment looking for those notes. I knew I wouldn’t have thrown them away, but after going through each file at least three times, shuffling stacks of papers more times than I’m willing to admit, and kicking myself around the apartment for my bad filing habits, I had to go ahead and do the booklet with only my memory to help me out when it came to this young Dobbins fellow. I sent the booklets out last week to my kids.

Last night after I crawled into bed I was trying to decompress from my busy day and my mind was still churning away. All of a sudden I said to myself, “Self, the Carl Peterson memos on Robert Gaston’s inventory are in the packet of material you put together for your genealogy talk last May.” This morning I went directly to that file, found the manila envelope and pulled out the e-mails.
So all this is to say that Thomas Edison may have been more right than I thought he was. When the proper crew is working, things happen!

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