Your Daily Show: The Liberation of Routines

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

Verissima Productions



Riding the train from Cambridge to Downtown Boston has become a lonely business over the last 5 years. The once lively cars have quieted down as passengers dive ever more deeply into reading their texts and e-mails and zoning out to the music pulsing through their ear pods. Like individual gel capsules, they are insulated from a touch, a question, a random encounter that might lead to a long friendship or an animated discussion.


I see people whose faces interest me and I want to ask them something, or say hello. I want to smile at the person I see regularly, and at least make eye contact so we can acknowledge one another’s presence, but these simple wishes have come to feel like they’d be intrusions that would puncture the gel capsule and disturb the inhabitant, perhaps even anger them. I wonder how many of the riders would be able to describe their surroundings accurately on a witness stand or register that the woman who always sits in the back left hand corner of the train has bright blue hair and wears origami earrings in the shape of frogs. I leave the train feeling kind of blue, and a little scared about the degree of disconnection I’m experiencing.


But after I saw the film “Paterson,” directed by Jim Jarmusch, I felt a small bounce of hope in the wonder and power of connection that can be found in routine. “Paterson” is the story of a bus driver and poet who goes to work every day at the same time via the same route. At night, he returns to the modest house he shares with his artist girlfriend, takes their balky dog out for a walk, stops at the same bar, sees all the same “regulars,” has one drink, and goes home to bed. We follow him for seven days of his life—and two plus hours of ours.


If you check the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll find that 75% of the audience loved it, but the 25% who hated it, REALLY hated it. Examples: “If you like watching paint dry…” “slice of humdrum life…” “I’ve already seen ‘Groundhog Day’…” and “Why should we care about a mediocre poet and his ditzy girlfriend and what they do all day?”


I care as a personal historian because I know that I can only help someone else tell their story if I can see the sparkle in my life. Even in a daily routine things are always changing, but not at the warp speed we are used to seeing in movies and which we have come to expect of our life stories. My clients often compare their stories to the Protean tales on the movie screen, and then think their stories are not worth telling. I feel it is my job to show them how off-base that is.


I loved “Paterson” because it celebrated the creativity in regularity, showed me how most of us are like the people in the movie: we are not geniuses, yet we strive for joy and pursue our creative impulses. That is how humans are constructed: as connectors and creators. — The greatest revelations about ourselves reside in the nuance within patterns that are repeated day after day. Each of us is, like the bus driver and his wife, trying to live joyously with the circumstances we are given, finding liberation in all the small wonders contained in our daily routines.



The next time you are on a train, look around. Take out your pods and listen. Look up. Get a feel for the general mood around you. Observe the character in the faces. Then, as you exit, think about the things you count on in your own routine, and how they sustain you, enrich you, help you grow as a person.


And if you possibly can, please go see this film.  If you adore it, write me and tell me why. If you can’t abide it, please do the same.


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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 11 – Donna Blinn, Genealogist

Genealogy and Personal Histories

Genealogy is becoming something of a national obsession. More and more people want to know the stories of their families. Research genealogist Donna Blinn has been working at it before the field became so popular. She describes what it’s been like “Living in the Past Lane” and the many things she’s learned.


Donna tells the stories behind some of the mysteries that she’s solved. She also talks about the requirements of her craft and the things to look for in hiring a genealogist. Personal Historians can learn about collaborating with a genealogist to verify content, and add texture and nuance to their work. Anyone who likes a good detective story will enjoy hearing her interview.


Show Notes:


If you want to get in touch with Donna Blinn, she can be reached at

For a terrific story about the intersection of genealogy and personal history, check out Bringing Home the Bones by Edward Coletti, published 2006. Forensics, genealogical records and a murder mystery!

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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 10 – Exploring Black History & The Margaret Walker Center


In honor of Black History month, a podcast about famed writer and poet Margaret Walker, oral histories of the civil rights movement, and more…with Dr. Robert Luckett of Jackson State University.


Show Notes:


CLICK HERE to visit the Digital Archives at the Margaret Walker Center: They include a digital archives project, book collections, and oral history collections.


Would you like to read the 50th anniversary edition of Margaret Walker’s Tour de Force, “Jubilee?” CLICK HERE.


Getting Started Exploring Black History Museums, Large and Small:
Dr. Luckett encouraged us to explore small “house” museums for black history. Here is a list from to get you started.

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The Things She Carried: Treasures of the Mundane

By Pam Pacelli Cooper
President, Verissima Productions


She always called it her “old lady bag.” When my mother in law’s purse wore out, after 10 or 15 years of hard use, she asked for another one. It was not easy to find. Black, sturdy, short handles to be gripped with the hand rather than slung over the shoulder.


When my mother in law wore out at 92 years of age, the bag stayed behind. We went through her clothes and her photographs, her safe deposit box, and her furniture. The house was sold, the plants given away, but, the bag was still there, its two gold closures clasped tightly, untouched since the day she went to the beauty parlor, returned home, sat down, and died.


We thought about throwing it away whole—there couldn’t be anything of importance in it—and certainly none of us wanted the purse itself. But we decided to open it. And we gasped, much as Aladdin did when the inconspicuous stone slid aside to reveal the treasures of the cave.


The first thing released was her scent. The tight closures of the purse had kept her rose scented cream protected from the air, and we took in the essence of her, preserved on a handkerchief (how many of us still use those?). So many memories and impressions returned that we sat for some time bringing her to life again.


Then we found the sturdy baggie, filled with Charms, Mentos, and Starlight Mints, the Candy she always carried with her to give to grandchildren, a neighbor or stranger who had a cough and needed relief. We reminisced about how our children had been the beneficiaries of the candy bag’s contents, and how comforted we had been to know she was always prepared.



The package of Kleenex, replenished at regular intervals—something I don’t carry, though my husband wishes I would; a tiny sewing kit to tighten the button in danger of falling off; a compact, gold, with a mirror for touch ups, the middle of the circle wiped clean, with the powder remaining only on the edges.


Lists. A tiny address book containing the contact information for only the most important and most loved people in her life. The last receipt from the grocery store, which revealed her shopping habits: red grapefruit, avocados, crackers, Pepperidge farm cookies, and cans of tomato soup.


By the time we had finished the inventory, there was a microcosm of her life spread in front of us. What had I learned? Those quotidian objects, gathered together by habit, can give us some of the deepest insights and the most vibrant pictures of a life story.


Have you had this experience? What stories do you have to share?


If you haven’t, have you thought about what purses, wallets, budget books, or other mundane objects you might be able to examine for signs of life?


Saved from Extinction: An Adventure in Archiving

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions




Thirty heavy cans of film, each 24 inches in diameter, over 1200 feet of film in each can. Blues musicians captured in their homes, in the basement of a barbecue place in Memphis, Tennessee, and a juke joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi. For 40 years, my partner had been carting them from apartment to apartment, house to studio, knowing they contained precious slices of musical history, but unable to find a way to bring them to light.  


In December, we finally opened them, determined to find a way to rescue the footage. An unmistakable vinegary smell escaped the can on opening, a sure sign that the films were deteriorating. We consulted with our expert media preservation specialist, Paul Adams of Mass Productions (CLICK HERE to listen to our interview with him on our December episode of the podcast), who warned us that we didn’t have long before the films would be beyond repair.


We knew we had to do something about it immediately.  


The machine we needed to screen, edit, and organize the footage was a Steenbeck flatbed editor. Though still in use in some archival settings, they are very difficult to locate, as virtually all editing since the late 90’s has been done on digital systems, and, even if one could be found, renting it would be prohibitive for a self-funded project.


Through a lucky connection, we were able to locate a Steenbeck at an archival house in the Greater Boston area.  The curator told us that the machine hadn’t been used in 30 years, but if we were able to get it up and running, we would be welcome to use it to screen and edit the footage.


Would it work?


We went to the location on a gloomy afternoon, took the elevator up to the 5th floor, and were taken to the back corner of the archives, where the Steenbeck sat under a white sheet.


Watching Rob as he looked at it was like watching two old friends connect after a long absence. He sat down and turned it on.




Could he remember how to operate it?


After a couple of fumbles, his muscle memory returned, he threaded the two separate tracks—one for sound and one for picture—synced them up, and…there we were, looking at Delta blues singer Houston Stackhouse, playing a song that was recorded in the Mississippi Delta in 1978.


Here is that moment:


Aging Treasures – sharing history through older media from Verissima Productions on Vimeo.



Stay tuned as we organize, screen and archive more of this blues footage over the next few months.

Do you have old cans of film or VHS tapes or slides lying around? Please find a way to rescue them and share your stories with us.


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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 9 – An interview about the history, legacy, and struggle for civil rights.



This is Part 1 of a 2 part interview with Dr. Robert Luckett, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University in Jackson, MS. In addition to a book and  several publications and presentations at numerous academic conferences, he has appeared in documentaries, including the Independent Lens film “Spies of Mississippi “as well as “An Ordinary Hero” about the life of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. 


Here are some links to expanded histories of some of the people Dr. Luckett mentions in Part 1 of our interview with him. We hope you will enjoy pursuing some of these avenues to learn more about the struggle for civil rights, both in the past and currently:



Hezekiah Watkins, now 68 years old


Hollis Watkins: Continues to be active in civil rights activities at age 75


Medgar Evers: One of the best-known civil rights activists


Susan Glisson: White civil rights activist, conversations about race


Museums and Organizations


Mississippi Museums: Opening in December, 2017, the MS Museum of Civil Rights and the Museum of the State of Mississippi will be a magnet for citizens who want to discover the complexity behind the accepted narrative:


Architect Phillip Freelon (who also designed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.


Mississippi Center for Justice: “No Hate in My State”




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Life Preservers Podcast – Episode 8: Audio Extras!



Our interview with Paul Adams from Mass Productions in Tewksbury, MA was so informative and fun that we wanted to share a bit more of it with you. Listen in to this quick four minute extra to hear two great stories from the field of audio preservation. One tells the tale of preserving recordings produced by the Yiddish Book Center and another shares his experience collaborating with UMass Boston & Boston Public Library archiving recordings from the first rap/hip-hop radio station. Both of these projects resulted in digital archives that are now available to the public.

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Gabe’s: A Story of Mystery and Possibility

by Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions Incorporated


It was a small haberdashery store in Hyde Park, nestled in the shopping center where everyone in our small community shopped for groceries, went to the Optometrist and filled their prescriptions at the drugstore. I did the same, walking the several blocks from our house to help my grandmother do the weekly shopping at the Coop grocery store.




But I never set foot in Gabe’s, a mere 200 feet away. I knew that my grandfather, my mother’s real father, worked there, but — as if there were some shield or veil around my curiosity, I never asked to go in or to see himand he never asked about me.  It was entirely a mystery to me. I knew my mother visited him occasionally, but all she would ever say is, “I stopped in to see your grandfather the other day.”  The veil would descend, and I would listen, but ask no questions.


When I left home, the veil lifted somewhat, and, pre-computer and pre-internet, I began an exploration to learn more about my blood family, working from the snippets of information my mother had given me. I knew he had a second wife and at least one child, but were there more?  


One source might have been Gabe’s, but, but by the time I began my explorations, it was long closed. I knew his last name, but it was common, and also had alternate spellings, so I would get lost in the white pages, trying to imagine where he might have lived, and who on that long list of Mac’s and Mc’s I might call, hoping that I might strike gold.


Over the years, I was able to discover when he had died, of what and where he had lived — but he was gone. His second wife had also disappeared, and the one child I knew about (only a few months older than I) had disappeared, as well.


Then, when we started our film business, and I became a personal historian sixteen years ago, using the rudimentary skills I had been learning for genealogical exploration and the power of the internet, I began a deeper, more focused search.


About 3 years ago, I found my way to his obituary, which had been placed online when The Chicago Sun Times finally digitized their records. I knew it was Charles, because the obit gave the names of my mother, as well his three other children.




I found out that one of them, an actress in New York, had passed away, but was able to connect with the other two and arrange for a family “union” in Chicago so my mother, who had lived for eighty-eight years as an only child could finally meet her half-brother and half-sister.


Of course, there had been strife and family secrets and family divisions to sort through, but everyone felt somehow more settled, and delighted that our small family had suddenly become larger and better connected.   

Last year, they all came back (from quite a distance) to attend mother’s 90th birthday party in Chicago…and this year, on her 91st birthday, my mother received a beautiful card from her half-brother, now 81, that said, simply, “I’m so glad to have you as my sister.”


Search out your history, and preserve it this holiday season and all year long. It’s worth it.


Life Preservers Podcast Episode 8: Preserving your Audio, Video, and film for the future



Tales of media lost and rescued, plus many ideas for digitizing your files from Paul Adams, archiving engineer, and owner of Mass Productions in Tewksbury, MA.


Show Notes:

Where can you go to get your files digitized?

Digital transfers of media and many rare formats, also archival restoration

Digital transfers of media Eclipse Video Cambridge:


Where can you listen to archived media?

There are many places, but provides thousands of hours of recordings of radio shows, interviews, and library archives.  


Where can you store your media?

Dropbox, GoogleDrive, and others

Here is a recent article comparing different platforms:

If you want a more complete service for curating and storing your family history, here are two services that can help you ( there are others—this is not an endorsement):

Family Arc:


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The Secret of the Silver Cup: Opening the Door to Personal History

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions




The ornate silver cup had been given to my husband at his birth, inscribed with his name and birthdate. When our child was born, the same cup was inscribed again with the name and birthdate of our son. We had always been puzzled by the original inscription on the cup: etched in old-fashioned script, it appeared to say “ELKOI” and the birthdate May 5, 1901. We asked my mother-in-law who that was, and she couldn’t say. “It’s just an old family heirloom. I thought it would make nice birth cup for my son.”


The name “ELKOI” haunted me for years. I would open the china cabinet and look at it, and wonder at the strange name and think about who that person might have been, where they lived, what his or her life was like, and how he/she was related to our family. I had forgotten about the cup as I began to explore my husband’s family history of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Germany, who came to American via Baltimore and New Orleans, and settled in the Deep South. From the raw dates and pages his great great uncles and aunts gradually began to emerge as personalities like a photo in an old darkroom.




I went to historical societies, talked to people online, and incorporated facts from the stories my mother and law had left with us to uncover a family of entrepreneurs and lawyers, farmers and Confederate soldiers. One of them was the owner of a successful confection operation. Uncle Hiram (nee Hyman) had started his confectionery company in one city and then moved to another in the early 1900’s. I wondered why he had moved, as he was so successful in the first location. Had he married? Did he have children? What became of them?


I kept digging. With the help of Family Search and a local historian, I discovered that Hiram had married later in life and had married a much younger woman. They had a baby, in May of 1901 and named her Elka.


So, that was the name on the silver cup! What I had always read as ELKOI, was actually “ELKA 01.”


Now I needed to know what happened to Elka, and Hiram, and Hiram’s wife. My further research revealed that Hiram’s wife had died unexpectedly when Elka was only 9 months old. Hiram left her in care of her aunt, closed his store in that city and moved his operation to another city. 


I’m now looking to fill in other details of Elka’s story: how long she lived, if she had a relationship with her father, what her life was like, and what Hiram’s life was like after he uprooted his comfortable life and moved to another city.


Two months ago, I wrote about the plastic bins I carried back from Chicago to Boston containing all sorts of items and papers that have both answered, and raised, questions about my family. This month, we see how something as small as a name engraved on an old, dented silver cup, can lead to a richer understanding of a whole other chapter of our shared family history.


In this Thanksgiving season, I am especially grateful to be a personal historian. I continue to hone the skills of inquiry, research, recording interviews and writing which combine to help me put together the scattered pieces of the jigsaw puzzle into a coherent, informative and enlightening, picture.

Our clients, and in this case, my husband, are now able to feel more complete knowing where they came from — and who they came from.


As the holidays approach, think what “silver cups” might be in your cabinet.  Are there artifacts that have always intrigued you? Fragments of stories you would like to flesh out? Please share any stories you have in a comment here, and help inspire others to “preserve their lives.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

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