Is There a Gene For That?

Emerging hyacinth

I spend a lot of time running around. The weather is getting spring-like, so I’m out looking for my plants which will hopefully return, or simply show up for the first time after going in the ground last fall. But I was also running around in the winter except for the absolute worst weather days. And even then, in my house of many doors with glass windows, I’d be zooming from place to place, checking to see which birds were at which feeder, if there were any interesting cloud formations, fantastic sunsets or unusually-colored skies. During this past sad and wearing year, my connection to nature has deepened. I honestly have no sense of where I’d be psychologically without the ability to immerse myself in what’s accessible just a few steps away from my homey cave. When I was still working, I was parked in a chair. For decades. After retirement, I was a caregiver of one sort or another for almost seven years. As soon as I was recovered enough from Michael’s death to get going, I did, traveling as often as I could afford the expense. I grew up in a household where there was a lot of sitting around. I’m missing whatever gene allowed for being plopped in a chair day in, day out.

I spend a lot of time running around inside my head too. After losing all the normal structures in my daily life because of social distancing, I became a Zoom junkie. I watched livestream concerts. I attended classes through my local lifelong learners’ institute. I took Latin and am still taking Spanish lessons. I experienced virtual geology and was exposed to cutting edge neuroscience. I wound up in a fascinating webinar series on the brain which came out of the University of Texas. Featuring geniuses from places like MIT, who are studying mind-bending processes that may influence what I think is the final frontier, that space between our ears, I constantly ponder how much I don’t know. Unlike the constellations which seem to be fixed in the night sky, I feel like nothing that I thought was a given actually is – rather mutability, as with the virus, is more likely than we can fathom. Too uncomfortable and unnerving on a daily basis. In addition to locating where specific skills and recognitions are stored, the use of functional MRIs is allowing insight into watching brains in action in real time. Observing what areas light up depending on the stimuli. I guess it’s the science version of windows into the soul. I wish I could see what they can see – is there a gene for that?

Professor Nancy Kanwisher – MIT professor and lecturer – presenter at Center for Brain Health series.

I seem to be managing all these interests pretty well, although sleep is sparse. I listen to a few hours of music every day but virtually no podcasts or audio books. I have so much language and emotion blitzing my mind that I’m sticking with reading books, old school, although I also use the kindle app. That’s mostly for environmental reasons. Mostly I wonder about all kinds of weird things every day. I’ve got my endless lists. Why is it important to rank my favorite Rolling Stones songs? Or my top ten solo artists and top ten guitarists and lyricists? I’ve been carrying around lists of my favorite movies and books for years. Occasionally I add a new item to those. I wonder about whether anyone out there in the world with whom I’m no longer close, thinks of me instantly, the second the first note of a song we shared pops up on the radio or on whatever device plays their music. I have songs attached to a lot of people. Do they think of me as I still do of them? In my family we sang a lot. I started making a list of all the songs we shared. I know the songs which were special to my mom and dad. I asked my kids what they remembered about me and their dad and our shared music. I told them what I associated with them and asked for those gaps I didn’t have about theirs. Recently I sang all the lullabies my mom and dad sang to me when I was little, just to see if I could remember them, especially the ones not in English. On and on it goes. Is there a gene for this endless questioning?

I’ve actually always been like this, but Michael absorbed a lot of my intense mental acrobatics. He had an almost sedating effect on me. After a time leaning against him and spewing forth my vast amount of verbiage, I would essentially melt into a heap, kind of like the way you feel after a massage. Now I’m more like a runaway train. Unchecked except when I intervene with myself. I’m coming up on the fourth anniversary of his death. I’m still mad that he’s not wholly here. I recognize that there’s been no diminishing of my desire for him. By practicing for a long time, I’ve found that by continuing to write him letters, which are now approaching a thousand in number, writing my blog and somehow internalizing our bond so that it’s now essentially somatic, I can function well daily, despite isolation and that massive loss of intimate physical contact. Alone in my room late at night, his presence is heavy in our space. With the pushing of boundaries in science, in which what is mystical and inexplicable suddenly seems to be much more than flights of imagination, do I feel less alone because I’m not? And is there a gene for that? How about a neural network?

Roger Federer

I woke early yesterday because after a 14 month layoff, two knee surgeries, lots of rehab, and Covid restrictions, Roger Federer, aged 39, 40th birthday in August, made his unlikely return to competitive tennis today. I adore Roger Federer. I was worried about him because at his age, playing at a high level after such a long time away is a huge challenge. He pulled off another recovery from a bad knee, after just six months off in 2016, to return in 2017 to win the Australian Open. Until he reinjured himself he played well. He won his match today. He said he was tired, was still improving and is hoping to be 100% fit in time for Wimbledon, his favorite tournament, later this year. So what’s up with Roger and me? The woman who’s anti-hero-worship?

I really can’t explain why for most of my life, I’ve had my favorites. Mostly I’m skeptical about people. I’m always thinking about the darker side, the selfish side, the deeply human complexity that makes me believe that often what you see is not what you get. No rose-colored glasses for me. But I get these inexplicable feelings about people I don’t know out there in the virtual world and suddenly I’m a loyal supporter. Just as I am a fierce hater. I started watching Roger when he was a young phenom, just a talented punk like lots of other tennis players. When he was 21, following the accidental death of his young coach, he transformed himself into something else, more serious and self-contained. Watching his balletic, graceful moves, his evenness of temperament, the way he always has his parents nearby, touched me. Years later his wife and two sets of twins came along with a long-time team of coaches and trainers who are part of his entourage. He is self-effacing, humorous and emotionally expressive, a person who cries unashamedly in front of millions. So he became the intermittent oasis for me for just shy of twenty years. Always around throughout the year to provide comfort, often coupled with nail-biting anxiety because I love him so much, I always wanted him to win. Unrealistic but I don’t care. Novak Djokovic, who’s just passed Roger as the longest player to stay at number one in the tennis rankings is as detestable to me as Roger is inviting. An ill-tempered racket thrower who I’m told has a positive side but is, and always has been, viscerally repellent to me. Why do I operate like this? Once you’re really in with me, you’re there forever but if you’re out, you’re gone forever too. Is there a gene for that? Of course it’s much easier to do this kind of thing with people you’ll never meet. In real life, relationships are more complicated. Although during the past year, when I’ve attended all the Pete Yorn concerts he’s performed for free on Instagram, and on a platform where he’s shared ticket revenues with Covid relief organizations, I’ve liked him so much I sent him several personal thank you notes, along with a few observations. To my amazement, he’s replied, giving me little tokens I can wave in my kids’ faces when they mock me for being a groupie or whatever. Sometimes worlds do indeed collide.

Pete Yorn – Facebook

This whole intense emotional deal goes deeper than recreational pleasures and is in keeping with how I feel about Michael, my children, my garden, my yard birds, my multitudinous topics of interest. Generally I operate in a pretty even-keeled manner, my behavior not being known for its extremes. Still, these almost visceral sensations on the positive-negative spectrum are undeniable, no matter how balanced I appear to be operating in my daily life. My son-in-law has told me more than once that he knew I’d grown to love him enough so that if he crossed over to my dark side by hurting my daughter, I’d only run over him once with my car instead of a hundred times to make sure he was flat as a pancake. I had to laugh at his insight. I have big passion. I don’t understand surface feelings – I think they’re a waste of time. When I was a little girl, my parents let me have a chameleon, actually an anole. I adored it. In fact, I loved it so much I squeezed it to death. I remember being utterly puzzled and bereft. A lesson I never forgot about needing to find that magical space between suffocating emotions and ones that breathed freely.

So here I sit, after year one of the pandemic. Generally, I am bursting with energy, fortunate enough to have the minor aches and pains inevitable as part of the aging process, negligible in terms of my ability to pursue what I choose in my daily life. My son says I’m hardcore. I’m sure there’s a gene for that. I suspect I’m a lot like my maternal grandmother who survived her troubles with a minimum of physical issues. She loved gardening, too and did lots of manual labor well into her later years. My mom lived a long time with lots of problems, many of which were self-induced. Still these women clearly passed along positive genetic material to me. Of course I am a woman of my time, more confident, confrontational and courageous. Maybe just more assertive and intolerant of the kinds of pigeonholes they squirmed in for significant parts of their lives. I know that the great comfort of my powerful relationship, coupled with this irrepressible curiosity has helped me to squeeze a lot of self-actualizing out of this dark time. I still have energy to burn. On those days when I’m ambushed by the always unpredictable assertion of my grief companion, I go with those heaves until I’m done. The next thing I know there’s something else I have to chase around. Last week it was an unexpected sighting of a belted kingfisher sitting on a tree alongside a busy arterial street in my town.

Belted kingfisher – Wikipedia

I know that until something that I can’t predict, whether physical or mental, slows me down or stops me altogether, I’m going to squeeze as much as I can out of what is accessible to me. Although mostly for myself, it’s also for Michael who left behind so many unfinished goals, written in lists in his red notebook. Yes, we shared the list thing, historians to the bone. He would be, or is, glad to know that I’m maxing out my time as he too would have done, given the opportunity. I won’t have long enough to get the answers to my endless questions. But this intensity thing I’ve got going? I’ve promised my kids that if I find out anything unexpectedly interesting after I’m gone, I’ll find a way to let them know. I do think there’s a gene for that.

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