Who Do You Think You Are?

Genetics And The Search For Ourselves

“It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.”
William Ernest Henley

“It’s just the fickle finger of fate!”
Shirley McLaine, in Sweet Charity

“I yam what I yam.”
Popeye

Granted, we could stop right here and move on to something more interesting, like old cars, new pets, old loves, new movies. After all, we’re right in the middle of Covid 20/20… shouldn’t we be trying to read something more light-hearted? Who really cares about genetics anyway? Can’t do a damn thing about it, right? Let’s let a sleeping dog lie, don’t fix it if it ain’t broke, it is what it is. Sorry. Those lame excuses don’t fly with this boy. I’m on a search for the truth about genetics and the self, and by god I’m going to pursue it. And why not? It’s a fairly short ride, I’m not a geneticist. Hope you’ll come along.

Pre-teen Anxiety attacks??

My 5th grade teacher, Rena McDonald, told us one afternoon that time, and the universe were endless. I almost fell out of my desk… the concept at the moment, and that thought, was so overwhelming. I had nightmares for 2-3 years after that, my tiny mind trying to conceive of a thing so vast, and failing. Several times a year I would run down to the bar from our upstairs apartment after an “eternity dream,” hollering for Mom and needing to know that I was still in Virginia City, that everything was normal, that I hadn’t drifted off into eternity, all alone.

Our motley fith grade class, Wilma Bennetts our teacher then

My mom and I talked about it, partly because I was embarrassed by the people staring at me in the bar, and partly because I was afraid those episodes might not ever stop. She told me that she’d also had scary moments like that when she was growing up. Then she told me that as she got older, and into high school, they went away, and never happened again. Sometime in the middle of 8th grade, my “episodes” went away as well.

Mrs. McDonald also told us, in the 7th grade, that we’d best understand this about life… that most of it was going to be filled with sadness, difficulty, and regret… that happy times would not be the norm. I didn’t like that thought either, but it didn’t bother me the way the “eternity” idea did.

I sat down for a few minutes with Rena much later, when I was in college, and realized she was a pretty good teacher after all, but that she had had a hard, sad life herself and perhaps simply wanted to warn her young charges what might lie ahead for us! Heart in the right place, but bad message.

Hi! I’m Steve (I think…) Who Are You?

Now, I know nothing about genetics. I mean nothing! Matter of fact, I know nothing about hardly anything. All I have to offer to this world is an opinion born of experience. Other, wiser ones have, from time to time, offered me tidbits of true wisdom that I have tried to embrace and include in my daily life. One of my observations of others have led me to begin to understand a few of the most basic genetic components of the human being, simply by observing grandparents, parents and their children. Probably we have all done that to one degree or another. I imagine many of you have had the same experience. “Oh, she looks just like you!” “Funny, you cough just like your granddad.” “Ha, you’re going bald, just like your mom’s side of the family! Hahaha!” Asshole.

But you get my point. There are obvious things about our genetic makeup that aren’t hard to understand. Most likely many of us, if we think about it for a moment, can come up with several similarities that can easily connect us with our recent ancestors. Looks, actions, voices, even idiosyncrasies, can give us clues to the power of genetics.

Am I Really “The Master Of My Fate, The Captain Of My Soul?”

Which leads me to my question – how much of us is really “us?” I bet you’ve thought all along that you’re one of a kind, (which you are) unique, and that who you are is who you decided to become while growing up and grappling with the outside world. That’s normal, that’s what I also thought for the first 70+ years of my life. But finally I got to thinking about it, and the fog began to ever-so-slowly lift. Questions began to arise, like “why am I the way I am?” And answers slowly began to roll in. For example, as I’ve grown old, I eat much slower. So did my dad. My mom used to say about my dad, “He has three speeds – slow, stop and reverse!” Most of my mom’s brothers, and her dad, were bald. So am I. Mom was always something of a worry-wart… Dad never was, and neither am I. When in a bad spot, Dad was always calm, had a plan, or “a good bluff,” as he called it. Mom, on the other hand, fired back immediately, without thinking of the consequences. I do that, too.

Dad & Mom in the old Bale Of Hay Saloon, 1964

 

Mom’s side of the family, the Swedes, always contended that i got my musical talent from their side of the family. I’d heard it so often I believed it as well. But life, aging and experience finally led me to realize that my dad always sang these beautiful harmonies to Mom’s melodies on those wonderful nights when we were driving home from Butte, with a carload of food, produce and booze, for our bar. After at least two stops along the 75 mile drive for a drink, they’d start singing some of the good old songs together. Dad would usually start, “With Someone like you, a pal, so good and true…” Mom would pick up the melody and Dad would switch to the harmony part in his beautiful, low and rich voice. I can remember the exact harmony that he would sing on those songs, because I got my musical ear mostly from him! Yes, Mom could play a little piano, all from sight reading and memory. The piece that she could always play when she’d had a few was “ A Shanty In Old Shanty Town.” I always loved hearing her play it, but finally figured out my musicality mostly came from Dad’s side of the family. You see, I can’t sight read at all.

Mom At The Piano, ’64

 

Adapt And Survive

But figuring out “how much of me is really me” has not been so easy. And how much of me is responsible for who I am today? Also not so easy, as life today is so much different than it was for my ancestors… hell, it’s different for me today than it was 5-10 years ago, for that matter. But I realized that some of our personality traits don’t change, necessarily. We can change with the times and adapt… sure! But that doesn’t release us from our genetic makeup. There are elements of each of our personalities that are hard-wired, that we won’t change, don’t want to change, don’t know why they would need to be changed. And that’s usually okay. Those elements make up a significant part of who we are, how we are. The point here is, many of those elements of our personality are not ours! We didn’t create them, didn’t develop them, we got them from our ancestors. And, GASP, that means our ancestors are a significant part of who we are! Along with that, everyday life changes us, to one degree or another, over time, whether we want it to or not. Simply a fact of life.

“We Are The World, We Are The Children”

We kind of know who we are, each of us, separately, personally. If we survived the first 40 years of our lives, we’ve probably figured out who we think we are, how we respond in certain situations…. what excites us, what worries us, what angers us. And most of us come to think that those qualities and weaknesses we have are our own… all our own. But that simply isn’t true, can’t be true. For instance, I didn’t choose to be bald. But my acceptance of it shot a huge hole in my vanity, shrinking a needless arm of my ego while leveling my personal playing field. My genetic realizations have led me to observe my own tendencies and responses to life’s sometimes dramatic ups and downs. Actions and reactions that we usually refer to as “instincts” can now often be traced to our genetic makeup. This doesn’t mean that I no longer feel like “me,” it simply means that I now have a better understanding of not only why I am the way I am, but also why others might be the way they are. The more we know of our families’ history, the clearer we can understand why we all are the way we are. And I like that! Guess Popeye had it figured out all along!

If we can be open enough to the idea of changing the parts of ourselves that are still changeable, we have a fair shot at becoming better human beings… for ourselves and others. I think that is an honorable goal to strive for, as we seem to be getting into deep trouble when we think we know it all, when we refuse alternative ideas simply because they don’t align with ours. I hope that, in time, we will learn to open our minds and hearts to possibilities that benefit all, rather than just ourselves. If we can suspend our belief systems for a time, and consider how we, and the world in general might improve, we might become more loving, trusting and sharing, And that’s the world I want to be a part of.

Steve Hulse