Dec 112014
Data Backup hard drive

Don’t trust all your hard work to a two inch long piece of metal. Find a data backup solution that works for you.

My November was rudely interrupted by a hard drive crash. Luckily, I had backed up my laptop on a regular basis, but not quite regularly enough. Please, learn from my mistakes and luck. Whether you’re writing or researching your family tree, have a data backup plan and follow it religiously.

PC Magazine compares backing up data with flossing. And they’re right. Most of us agree that we should do it, but few of us actually have the discipline to do it like we should. Perhaps it’s because the term data backup doesn’t have the emotional overtones it deserves. Think of data backup as the preservation of your hard work, sweat, tears, proofreading, moments of inspiration, and good advice.

External Hard Drives

External hard drives aren’t the only data back-up solutions, but if you have graphics, photos, or other “big” data, it can be an economical way to go. Most come with software that make using them simple. You just plug them in (yes, you have to do that), and they start to work. However, if you don’t like the way they structure your backup or if you want to be able to search for individual files, you can simply re-format the drive and use it like you would a USB drive.

Before you start shopping—or specifiying what you want on your wish list—you need to know your storage needs. PC Magazine has a nice primer on what you want to back up in the The Beginner’s Guide to PC Backup

Google searches will give you a good idea of what types of hard drives and recovery software are available, as will a visit to your friendly neighborhood Best Buy store. If you feel overwhelmed, the Best Buy floor reps are often great at explaining things to you.

data backup cloud storage

Cloud storage can be your overall data backup plan or you can choose individual files to copy to the cloud.

With cloud storage, it is not an either or option. Even if you have an external hard drive, you can keep backups of works in progress on Google Drive or Dropbox. Jill Duffy at PC Magazine gives a great run-down of your options and when it’s worth paying for a cloud service in The Best Cloud Storage Solutions.

A special note for users:  Syncing my tree to was also helpful.  I lost several days of “what to research next” notes, but not my data or sources.

Don’t overlook your bookmarks and favorites.

This was a hard lesson for me. I’d backed up my documents, pictures and downloads, but not the book marks on my web browser. I can’t tell you how frustrating this is—I use my bookmarks a lot.

Mental Traps preventing data backups

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you don’t need to perform data backups. Here are some of my favorite rationalizations and why they’re wrong.

Macs don’t crash

I hear this a lot. Actually the argument should be whether Mac operating systems are less prone to crashing than Windows. In other words, even if you do believe Mac has superior software, protect yourself against hardware failures and data loss.

If you’re not convinced, here’s a quote from Plontinus Veritas at

Hard drives aren’t prone to failure…hard drives are guaranteed to fail (the very same is true of SSD). Hard drives don’t die when aged, hard drives die at any age, and peak in death when young and slowly increase in risk as they age.”

If you read the article, you’ll be adding a couple of external drives and a firesafe. ‘Nuf said.

I didn’t add much today.

I’m guilty of this one. The time you’ll take looking for info that you’ve lost and reconstructing what you’ve written (and cussing) will take a lot longer than backing up.

I’ll burn it to discs.

You probably won’t. If your data load is small enough for this to work, switch to cloud storage. Having a second copy of my most critical files in Dropbox saved me. While I dealt with the tech guys and getting the new hard drive, I could pick up someone else’s computer and continue working—at least until someone else demanded his laptop back.

My cord isn’t long enough.

The only reason this merits inclusion is that it was my sorry excuse. I use my laptop in my lap. Plugging in means spending a solid minute or two physically plugging things in. To back up to my external hard drive I have to leave my laptop somewhere slightly inconvenient. If this is your excuse—get a longer cord or suck it up.

Your turn:

What are you waiting for? Go back up your data!

Dec 012014
Tethered to the past

Tethered to the past: the ropes can keep us safe or tie us in knots

Tethers or connections? The past is an integral part of our future. When we write memoirs, memories, or histories that create a positive connection with the past, it grounds us. When the past colors our existence to the point that the present and future are drained of reason, it’s a tether to be broken–or at least loosened up a bit.

How are You Tethered to the Past?

There’s an apt German expressions for those times when you are torn about an event: “One eye laughs; the other cries.” When we reminisce and remember the events and stories of the past, we often experience that dichotomy. It’s hard to say whether we’re tethered to the past by fond memories or ghosts of better times.

Even the painful memories can be tough to let go of. Added up, they account for a huge chunk of life.

My dear friend and across-the-street neighbor recently decided to sell her house. She agonized over whether or not to leave her home of 27 years. Her house is full of comforting memories. But, it also has a lot of reminders of happier times.

Let’s face it. Looking back isn’t always a joyful sojourn in yesteryear. There are times when we look back and long for the people who are no longer with us, the innocence we possessed, not to mention rolling back the ravages that time has inflicted on our appearances.

I know. I sometimes look at pictures of my parents and feel a tug in my gut. I still miss them. A lot. I long for their advice and companionship. The past, that Never-Never-Land of What-Could-Have-Been, beckons. The memories that warm me on some days push me into melancholy on others. If I don’t shake myself out of my reverie (or if the dog or the kids don’t do it for me), I find myself tethered to the past—at least in an emotional sense. Sadness creeps in, shrouding my day.

Tethered to the past or anchored

Are you tethered to the past by an anchor that drags you down, or one that keeps you from getting lost at sea?

Anchors and Letting Go

There’s a physical exercise that makes the concept of releasing the past very real. You place one foot firmly on a mark on the floor. That mark is the past, and your foot anchors you there. With the rest of your body, you reach to see how far you can get without moving your foot from that mark. Assuming that there is something tempting out of reach, like a cookie or new job, you quickly realize the importance of letting go of that mark.

As much as I like the exercise, I don’t always.

For one thing, anchors aren’t all bad. Although they can’t still the waters, they keep us from being lost at sea. They remind us where we wanted to stay. They help us from getting lost or unintentionally drifting into danger.

On the other hand, anchors have hoists. They’re not constantly schlepped around. They’re dropped when it’s helpful and raised when you need to move on.

What Lies Ahead Means More if You Know What Lies Behind.

Another German word helps the metaphor. Rücksicht, taken literally, means backward sight. But what it actually means is concern or consideration.

We don’t move forward in a vacuum. We move forward from a starting point. If we completely disconnect ourselves from the past, our journey forward has less meaning. It’s like a silhouette instead of a landscape. It’s missing context.

That’s why, for example, old friends are so comfortable to be around. You don’t have to explain back stories or worry that they’ll misconstrue things. They understand you and your history.

Keeping the Anchor and Losing the Ball and Chain.

It’s a balance isn’t it? We want to be tethered to the past, but not haunted by it. Which will take us to Part 2—When and How to Let Go. Stay tuned….

Nov 172014
Conversations that matter

Family gatherings aren’t just great opportunities for bonding. It’s also a great time to have conversations that matter.

Family gatherings are the perfect time to start conversations that matter —and to collect stories. After the bird or ham has been carved and the casserole dishes scraped empty, we loosen our belts. And, often, we loosen our tongues.

This holiday, as Aunt Ida and Grandpa start to exchange familiar stories, make the most of the time with your loved ones. Jump (calmly and unobtrusively) into action.

Draw out New Information

Instead of simply laughing, nodding, and adding stories of your own, draw out new information by asking questions and listening carefully.

Getting the Details

Often, we know the gist of the stories. What we don’t know is the exactly where and the approximate when. As stories come out, ask follow-up questions. This isn’t just to nail down the story and convert an oral history into a somewhat more accurate written one. Those details often lead to new stories or sub-plots, and greater context.

Collect New Stories

The familiar stories cover a lot of ground, but not everything. Ask questions to ferret out new information and little known stories.’s 30 Family History Questions You Need to Ask Your Older Relatives is a great place to start.

Caveat: It always helps to go in with a plan. Jot yourself some notes so you know the questions you want to ask.

Take Notes

Pull that notepad out of your back pocket—or use the one on your smart phone, and record the details.

Start Conversations that Matter

Having meaningful conversations will allow you write stories that forge bonds. Go beyond the who, what, and where. Ask your loved ones deeper questions and start conversations that matter. Later, when you record their stories and memories, in addition to passing down information about relatives, you’ll be extending connections to those individuals.

For example, you could ask older relatives:

  • When you were a little girl/boy, what did you dream of being when you grew up?
  • When you look at your grandchildren (great-grandchildren), what are your hopes and dreams for them?
  • What worries you about youth in today’s society?
  • What do youth today have that you wish you’d had?
  • When you look back at your life, how do you think your values differed from those of your parents or grandparents?
  • When was the first time you knew you wanted to marry your future spouse?
  • If you had one do-over, what would you redo?
  • What was your proudest moment?

Keep it going:

Help for recording conversations that Matter

Memories of Me: A Complete Guide to Telling and Sharing the Stories of Your Life has further tips and resources for preserving memories and stories that matter

Don’t limit these conversations to the dinner table. They can happen anytime you’re spending time with loved one–cooking, fishing, looking through old photos, or just watching TV.

Give a gift that gives back. Give your loved ones a fill-in book memory book or a guide to collecting memories like Memories of Me: A Complete Guide to Telling and Sharing the Stories of Your Life. (Hint: You can combine the guide book with a journal or inexpensive digital recorder.)

Nov 112014
Telling your family story

How do you tell your family story?

What is your family story? As much as we talk about the importance of  passing down family history, we seldom define what that a family story is. Is your family story a compilation of all the individuals’ on your family tree? Is a story that takes place under one roof? Alternatively, is it a story that took place over generations?

Your family story can be any or all of the above, or it could be something else entirely. Continue reading »

Nov 072014

band-aids Exploring the concept of retouching the past brought an odd memory of my paternal grandmother to mind. At the time, it seemed like a little thing. In retrospect, however, it was the spark that started conversations and led to the telling of less than flattering stories.

My sister and I were sitting on grandma’s front porch, helping her snap beans. Like most little kids, the big topic of conversation on my mind was my most recent boo-boo. I brought it up to her, showing her my finger with the flesh-colored latex badge of courage wrapped around it.

Grandma was nonplused by what she called my “boxed band-aid.” She thought using band-aids was wasteful. “In fact,” she told me “Jane [name has been changed because I can’t remember it] across the street is such a clever, ingenious child. Rather than using store-bought band-aids, when she has a cut, Jane uses a little piece of tissue and some scotch tape. That’s all you need.” Continue reading »

Nov 042014
Retouching the past

Retouching the past: Is it helping you tell your story or is it changing your story?

We’re in an age of retouched photos. We remove blemishes and correct lighting and exposure. We can even remove wrinkles, whiten teeth, and eliminate extra chins. We can… But should we?

Retouching the Past or Telling Who We Are?

When we write our memories and stories, retouching the past is tempting—maybe even necessary. Retouching stories, just like re-touching photos, can be a way of drawing attention to what really matters and eliminating extraneous details. Unless it’s integral to the story, maybe we can leave out that Miss May had three hairs growing out of the mole at the side of her nose and that each hair grew in a different direction. Continue reading »

Oct 162014
man plans god laughs Laura Stay at home mom

I imagine God got quite a giggle from my plans, which didn’t include becoming a stay at home mom.

Recently, I published a post about writing about Things You Didn’t Know, particularly those things that you never dreamed of happening. You know, The Road Less Expected… Following my own advice, here’s my explanation of how I became a stay at home mom instead of a wildly successful female executive.

Up until I had my first child, I thought of myself as a career woman. I wanted to be a mom too, but I scoffed at the idea of becoming a stay at home mom. My dream was to have perfect kids who’d play contentedly while I clambered up the corporate ladder. However, I was unprepared for love and corporate politics. Continue reading »

Oct 022014

forgetful personal historian For someone who is all about preserving stories, my memory sucks.

Just the other week my mother-in-law told me a story about a family ring. Apparently, my husband found the ring in the summer cottage and, assuming it wasn’t valuable, gave it to me to wear. My mother-in-law had to have an awkward conversation with my then boyfriend, telling him that she wanted the ring back.

I was appalled at the fact that this episode rang zero bells of familiarity. However, it never occurred to me to doubt the veracity of her story. She simply wouldn’t make up that type of thing—especially as she was in the process of re-gifting the ring to me. Continue reading »

Sep 302014
Lists are not just for Santa

Lists aren’t just for the big guy with presents. Start making your own.

My scattered brain loves lists. They calm and organize my distractible why-did-I-come-into-this-room brain. When my brain isn’t preoccupied with finding my glasses or coffee cup, lists feed my creativity.

Lists can be the memory-collector’s best friend. To illustrate this point, I found myself making a list about making lists.

Lists help you remember

Lists, if you don’t forget where you put them, are more permanent than memory. They can become an Idea Bank to store your ideas. (Hmmm… That’s a section of Memories of Me: A Complete Guide to Telling and Sharing the Stories of Your Life. ) Continue reading »

Aug 212014
Throw back Thursday

Throw back Thursday: My boys and I

I keep seeing my life—well at least the last eighteen to twenty years of it—flash before my eyes.

It’s probably because my nest is emptying next week, as my youngest heads off to college. Everywhere I go, sweet memories creep into my peripheral vision, denying me focus. Part of me is sad that they’re just memories, that times have changed and the kids are grown. Part of me is grateful for their presence, however ephemeral. I like playing the old filmstrips.

Passing a soccer field reminds me of all the practices and games. As I ride my bike through a park, I remember countless days on the hiking trails, looking at bugs, running from bees, and ending up on the play structures. I remember watching my kids and their playmates swing and slide while talking to the other moms. Continue reading »