Grandparent Project

Some years ago, I started to formulate a plan to archive stories I had heard my grandparents tell, combining the text as it was told to me with photos of the people who were telling it. More importantly, I knew I wanted to present it as I had heard it, or remembered it—in no particular order, and with no particular attention to completing any one story before another superseded it. Individual words and phrases would carry the reader from the valley of one narrative to the crest of another, an image of a narrator would link to a story about them, told by somebody else whose photo, in turn, would lead to some other story. Whenever I spoke of it, I called it the Grandparent Project, and it was the focus of all my attention for about three months. Those months, spent scribbling in journals in Park Slope, were some of the most optimistic creative months I’ve ever had.

After those three months, with no product to show for all my noble scribbling, I up and walked away, suddenly deciding I was neither skilled enough with the technology nor persuasive enough with the family to pursue it. I had totally thought the project into the ground. After that point in my journals, I basically stopped writing about writing and programming for art, and wandered off for a while to consider something less daunting and more expensive, like being a DJ. For years, though, I would return to the idea of the Grandparent Project, wishing I had set out to do it, and trying to start again.

Of my four grandparents, there are two real talkers: my grandmother on my father’s side and my grandfather on my mother’s side. Together, their stories make up much of my consciousness about my own extended family history. All those stories, told to me in passing whenever I would visit, helped paint a detailed image of my grandparents as people—the kind of people I was going to grow up to be. The more I knew about their lives, the better I knew myself.

The idea for the Grandparent Project had its roots in a long night of conversation with my grandmother on my dad’s side, on the fiftieth anniversary of her marriage to my grandfather. They had pulled out all sorts of boxes and folders full of photos and documents, and we held out each one for adoration—cautiously unfolding the yellowed deed to their house in Cambridge, deciphering the meticulous script on my grandparents’ marriage license—and listened to my grandmother, in Chinese, telling the stories mapped out by all the paper as my aunt and father translated. My grandmother would pause every few minutes while they caught up, and while she contemplated, forgetting where the story ended.

In fact, what stood out to me about the stories that she told was that they didn’t really have a coherent ending. There was no moral, no loose ends tied. A story about my father’s birth would jump to the story of their trip to America, the two narratives dovetailed, cut from the same cloth of “traveling with children, under duress”. It occurred to me only on the train home from Boston that most stories are like that. Every story has an ending, but you’re not always going to reach it in one telling; you’ll be inside a story, then be called to another, and another, until—if you’re lucky—you reach the ending you were hoping for, and forgot about, and are now ready to hear. The river of conversation is only the sum of its tributaries.

My maternal grandfather, though his cultural roots are so distant from those of my ChineseGrandmother, is no less a tangentialist. If anything, I’d say I’ve inherited my tendency to distraction from him, and Tangentialism is very much his great-grandchild. He’s got the format down. He’ll try to put fake endings into stories, using the descending pitch of a well-deserved conclusion as a tool for marking his way, like conversational breadcrumbs. In three hours, he’ll recount the exhaustive history of an experience he’s lived, guided by anecdotes—little stories and trivial facts that build, in the end, a particularly vivid picture of the world. You walk away from listening to his stories wondering what the point was, but knowing him far better than you did when you sat down, even if he’d told you most of the stories before. Somehow, in telling them in a different order, he exposes completely new facets of himself. That’s another beautiful thing about the Grandparent Project and Tangentialism—the story isn’t always in the anecdotes, but in how you approach them.

I eventually stopped thinking about the Grandparent Project, though it nagged me for a long time. When I heard about a site that the Slashdot people had done called Everything2, I immediately knew that they had figured out how to build the engine behind my idea. I would have picked up their code immediately had it not been nearly impossible to figure out. Fortunately, in the process of trying to grasp the Everything Engine, I stumbled on Kwiki, which is the engine I adapted to serve as the foundation of what this Grandparent Project has become. With the technology handled, all that was left was the content.

There are reasons that Tangentialism isn’t the Grandparent Project, most of them having to do with the sense of vulnerability that all family stories carry. In my family, we have a tradition of numbering frequently-told family anecdotes. In part, this is because we all know them well enough and can’t be bothered either to tell them again or to hear them again, and I’d rather suffer a “number eight” than be subjected to yet another telling of the Dirty Butter Story. On another level, though, each telling of a story invokes a certain emotional state, a vulnerability that we aren’t prepared to expose without warning; numbering our stories, as if they had become commodities, helps us to keep the moments precious and safe for later. We keep our stories in little boxes because they are so valuable to us—they are our most important belongings. In the same way, telling my grandmother’s stories in exquisite detail, available for casual reading, diminishes their power, and they are moreover not my own stories for the telling. It’s not my place to tell them, and that’s no small matter.

So the Grandparent Project has become Tangentialism, which is only shorthand for the Me Project, like so many other personal publishing things out there, except that the spirit of the original idea remains. In telling all my stories here, and the stories I can tell that aren’t my own, and opening countless doors between them, I am using my history to build a realistic scale model of my mind, held together by my own distraction. And it’s good practice for later, when I can unfold forgotten papers for some grandchild, farther on, and allow myself to forget just where my story was going.

tangentialism is David Yee!