Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Genetics Of Me

For most of your upbringing, if they display typical discretion, your parents will likely only show you only one part of who they are. This, at least for me, caused some confusion. As I was discovering myself I was realizing how different I was from my parents, and how different I wanted to be. I think this is what most teenagers go through, this sort of disconnect where they throw everything their parents teach them into question. For me it led to a feeling of being marginalized and misunderstood, as if they seemed characteristically different and unable to relate to who I was becoming. I often wondered why am I like this? As I was discovering my own shortcomings and gifts, it was hard to see that they came from my mother and father. The older I get the more I learn about my parents, and the more I believe genetics play a huge part in why I am the way I am. 

My father recently told me this story: While living on his own in his early-twenties he glanced in the mirror one morning only to be met with a shocking revelation. To his surprise and dismay the realization suddenly came to him that he was "nothing more than the genetic extension of my parents." To some, the idea of that realization isn't very frightful, to him, it might have been terrifying. I however have been blessed enough to embrace the characteristics of my lineage, and I can say with some gratitude that I am not completely ashamed of what I see in the mirror.

The rest of this post might read a bit like a eulogy. Both of my parents are living, so don't mourn them yet. I simply want to point out the characteristics built in each of them, innate and environmental (at least from my perspective, and from what they've shared with me), in an attempt to paint a self portrait. It'd odd to think, but I am truly the sum of these two parts. Every characteristic you read from here on in, every flaw and every strength, is very much a part of me. 

After a certain age your parents stop filtering what they tell you. 

My mom told me once that she ran away from home when she was twelve. She successfully hitchhiked from her home in Virginia to somewhere in Florida. After using a pay phone to call her mother, my granny pinpointed her location and had the police pick her up. I think she ran away again at fourteen, and for one final time at sixteen after she graduated high school. She is still, to some extent, that same person, which might be why to this day her favorite activity is running. She can seem perpetually restless, and can be described as erring on the side of "flighty" at times. She is socially flexible, quick to make friends and able to make a situation work with very little. She can be a chameleon, blending into different groups with ease. She's been known to be extremely resourceful (which may be a required trait for raising eight children), and usually has a larger than life attitude (which may be why she took on the challenge of raising eight children in the first place). 

This larger than life attitude has taken my mother on many conquests and adventures throughout her life. Subsequently, it has caused her to live pretty steadily beyond her means, which is probably why it has been suggested by my father that she prefers to live in "Fantasyland." She rarely heeds warnings or bothers to read caution signs, which might speak to the fact that she has over fifty speeding tickets in her lifetime. Just like the little girl who ran away when she was twelve, she is pretty stubborn when it comes to obedience. She displays a tenacious distrust for authority, and is generally bluntly unapologetic when scrutinized by anyone, which is probably why in her mind the police are still at fault for every one of those speeding tickets. She can be quick to retaliate when feeling threatened, and she's known to lack compliance (back talk) with officers of the law or other figures of authority. To those who she perceives disrespectful, she has a knack for finding their buttons and pushing them repeatedly. 

Her problem with authority probably started with her father, who was an alcoholic and consumed by his work as a bio-chemist. She also couldn't relate to her mother (my granny), whose parenting was rigid and ineffective, so I suppose it was natural that she took such a liking to her grandmother (my great grandmother). Nam, which is what they called her, was something of a renaissance woman. She was educated, modern, talented and easy-going, and my mother looked up to her. She was an exceptional athlete, and even in her later years she would often get the better of her grandchildren at tennis. She wrote children's books, worked with pottery and painted. I think she played a big part in how my mother is turned out, and how she chose to shape her own children. 

Perhaps she raised us how Nam would have, involving us in every sport, recreational club and class available. Whether it was Judo, Ice Skating, or Comic Strip Drawing, I did it as a kid. We were forced into piano lessons and music groups (in one we wore cowboy hats and played xylophones in the mall, I'm still not sure why), and when I showed interest in guitar, she quickly bought an old classical acoustic. To my surprise she could play it pretty well. She taught me some old Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, one of which was "Proud Mary," ironically, because my mothers name is Mary, and it could be said that pride is one of her characteristics. Music came natural to my mother, who could also play piano and sing quite well. She would capitalize on any suggestion we had, paying close attention to our interests and helping to develop them, teaching us when she could and employing the help of others when she couldn't. As kids we often resented mom for making us do so many activities (perhaps it was cheaper than daycare?), but I think now we all look back and are thankful for those experiences. She would read classic novels to three or four of us at time on a nightly basis, and I can remember her voice quivering and her eyes tearing up during Where The Red Fern Grows and other sad stories. She would sing us songs and nursery rhymes from her childhood, some of which I can still remember. 

All in all my mother was, and is, a loving and hard working mother. Because of her hard work in making life interesting for us, none of us chose to run away at twelve, although I must admit I had given it some serious thought.

My father is for the most part a logical-minded person and a deep thinker. He enjoys finding profound truth, and then regurgitating it with dramatic pause for those in ear shot. Usually, if you're in ear shot, he's about two inches from your face. To his credit, a phrase spoken from his mouth in the heat of the moment will almost never hold as much meaning if heard again from somebody else's. He is well known for his command of words and flowery rhetoric, and he enjoys delivering stifling blows to intellectual egos that unwittingly cross his path. As a preacher, it was not uncommon for the congregation to be moved to tears, especially when he told the testimony of how he came to faith. 

He is a man of drastic mood swings, and when feeling out of place can tend to overwhelm strangers with waves of excitedly spoken words and outlandish behavior. Other times he can remain solemn and withdrawn, as if deep in thought, aloof and introspective. When I was growing up he could be very impatient and have a short fuse, and then at times speak very calmly and directly. If the case is that we all have a war within us, between what we aspire to be and what we hate about ourselves, it could be said that my fathers war is exceedingly worse than anyone else's I've ever met. To this day I'm not sure which side is winning. 

In social situations his delivery can be so enticing and unrelenting, that one might assume he finds equal if not more pleasure in his own comments than those of others. His words of wisdom and even rarer words of kindness ring powerful and true, but the inverse is also true; He can very cunningly dismantle someone's confidence with words of anger, his talent for articulation used for foul play. 

His own authority is generally the only one he adheres to, which probably speaks to the fact that his own father was unavailable much of his life. I never met my fathers father, because he died in his mid-forties long before I was born, a victim of alcohol abuse. His mother was caring but ineffectual, so in a sense my dad became a self-made man. He was ill-equipped from the start with the tools needed to succeed, especially as a father. It's a surprising credit to him that he did as good a job as he did. 

Looking back, it must have been incredibly awkward for my dad to show fatherly kindness to us. I can remember him taking me out for lunch on Saturdays by myself, showing a specific interest in fathering me, which was a rare thing as I had five other hungry siblings at home to pick from. This is not to say he played favorites with me, because sometimes in an attempt justify his cravings for fast food, he would pick two or three of the older kids to go to McDonald's with him (this was on rare occasions when my mother was gone). I can recall sitting at home after missing that boat a few times. I can also remember him taking us on vacation and teaching me little things, like how to fish. Those little things, in retrospect, must have been such unfamiliar territory for him. For a man of such pride, its worth noticing his attempts at being someone he had no idea how to be. 

Before fatherhood, my dad was a hippy and a vagabond, a man of little obligations other than those he set before him. He travelled back and forth across Canada seven times in the seventies, jumping trains and hitching rides, living life one day at a time. Being born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada, it was of some surprise that he met my mother(who is from Virginia) in Vancouver, British Columbia (the west coast of Canada). They both gave their lives over to Christ at some outreach gospel meetings, got married, and got to work on making babies and providing a stable life for them.  Well, it was probably more complicated than that, but I wasn't there so who cares. 

My father had no formal schooling in any trade, so he took night classes to get his CPA. In the early 80's he started working for the government as an accountant. He grew tired of this quickly, and eventually started a small business producing removable "hard tops" for Suzuki Sidekicks and Chevy Trackers. The company took off, and he was able to provide quite well for the lot of us. Back in 2000, at age fifty, my father decided he wanted to be a stock broker. So he studied and took the exam, passing with the highest scores in the group and beating out much younger minds with fresh bachelor degrees. If my father has taught me anything, its that tenacious self-confidence is the only thing a man needs to succeed, hence why the men in our family, including myself, tend to err on the side of arrogance. But just you try telling us we can't do something... 

Through practice my father showed us what my mother taught us through her constant nudging; That anything is possible if you set your mind to it.

It's almost laughable reading back on those characteristics. Whether I want to admit it or not, I am every single one of those flaws, and every single one of those strengths. In most cases, the strengths become flaws when used with ill intentions, which is the sad irony of human nature.

This has been an eye opening exercise for me. I've probably made incredible errors on the historical facts, and if my parents read this I'm sure they'll have corrections to make (I would imagine especially in the way of their shortcomings). If you've made it this far, I want to thank you for reading this round about way of writing a self-portrait. I'm not sure if it is a technique used in any academic circles, nor do I know if there are any psychological benefits to writing a self portrait this way. All I can say is that it is time consuming work that requires you to think, and that can't be a bad thing. 

I'll leave you with a few quotes that agree with me:

No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. ~Voltaire

What luck for rulers, that men do not think. ~Adolph Hitler

Few minds wear out; more rust out. ~Christian N. Bovee

Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience. 

~ Henry David Thoreau


  1. Those were really intersting stories. Throughout my early teen years I've always wanted to be different than my mom. I would always pick out the worst traits I saw in her, and always remind myself to NOT be those, or to not do the things she did. But as I got older, I realized at how foolish this was. Looking back, I had no idea why I was so against being like my mom. My dad was never around too much, and when I was around him it was always sort of awkward...just me telling him how school was going and the basics. But my mom has raised me pretty (well I like to think) and I'm now at the age where there are still things that my mom does that annoy the crap out of me, but I'm not as judgemental. I'm accepting that I am like my mom in more ways than I had previously known. And that still sometimes bugs me, but other times I am greatful.

    Thanks for posting!

  2. I always like hearing about peoples stories of where they came from and how they grew up. Your story of your dad reminds me of my own dad like how his dad died and he didn't have the right tools to start with and how he's a self made man, but he done the best he could and he was only doing what he thought a parent would do in certain situations. And I always see how my dad treats me and often remind myself that if/when I have kids not to do the same things he done to me or treat them how he treated me but with everyday I realise how alike my dad I am. Which makes me more determined not to be like him in certain qualities of his life. I only hope and pray with the help of God I can change his faults that I see in myself to better qualities!

  3. I enjoyed reading this.

    I too, get traits from both my parents, good and bad. I'm a total geek like my father, and a procrastinator like my mother. I tend to avoid confrontation like my father(which can be good and bad) and I'm caring like my mother.

    Yet, my brother got different characteristics from each. I find it interesting that the two of us can be so different, yet almost all of our traits can be traced back to our parents.

    I think the reason for this is that I have Christ in my life, and my brother does not. I've been radically transformed to the point that I don't live for myself any more, and my brother just looks out for himself, and his family.

    Thanks for writing this, I really did enjoy it.

  4. I really enjoyed reading that. just something about what you write makes me just want to read and want more and more.

    its weird though bc i dont know much at my mom or my dad. i know my mom went to school, and somehow found a job and met my dad and got married and had my brother and i. the things i know about my dad is that he dropped out of high school, starting smoking at age 10 or something like that, was a horse trainer and thats it. my dad died when i was 9 years old so i never got to talk to him about his life and what he did bc of my young age. but somehow i want to know more about them, and how like you said we are the traits of our parents.

    for some reason i liked this
    "If the case is that we all have a war within us, between what we aspire to be and what we hate about ourselves"
    maybe its bc i have a war inside of me constantly trying to figure out who i am and what i wants to be

    also the last comment by Thoreau is amazing and true. especially since i am a song writer and its hard to get an idea u had a minute ago if you didnt write it down

    ok i think i wasted enough of your time haha

    thanks so much Matt for what you write!!

    ~Peace 'n' Love~

  5. wow. there's a lot of info there! I love hearing other people's stories and about their family etc, and then comparing with my own and seeing the simalarities. Thanks for sharing that matt.

    BTW, sketch, i'd like to pray for your brother if your cool with it.

  6. yeah, the Thoreau quote is sheer brilliance!

  7. Hey Matt!

    This is really eye-opening, actually, to realize how much of our personalities/lives parents are responsible for. I don't know if my parents will ever truly open up to me, but I'm blessed to say that, when I think about the little that I do know of them, I can say that they have definitely contributed to my outlook on life today.

    Also, I like how you said.. "quotes that agree with me" rather than "I agree with these quotes" :)

    By the way, the way you describe your dad makes me want to meet him and experience his empowering words firsthand. :P

    Anyway, thanks for the ever thought-provoking posts.

  8. I really thought this post was rather ironic (towards me) because I have recently been thinking about that; how much of me is from my parents. Really, I'm 2/3 my father's daughter (even appearance-wise, I look like a female version of him) with the rest being my mom. Like my father, I'm a hard, efficient worker, but prone to habits (which, if broken, have a drastic effect). I also inherited his stoic nature, yet I have my mom's ability to handle stress when it comes my way. However, I have my mom's flip-flopping opinions and can easily be blown from one obsession to the next (yoga, biking, etc.).
    What you talked about, seeing both the faults and virtues of your parents, I experienced something like that on New Years' Eve, while listening to them telling stories of their youth to their friends. As you said-- I thought that I knew my parents well; I guess I didn't!
    Again, Matt, you remind me that I have so much to learn... Thanks!

  9. Matt-
    I'll just start off that i love reading your blog. It's always a highlight of my day when i check it and there's a new post!

    This particular post made me want to comment more than any other post thus far. I, being a good 16 and a half years old, don't know my parents very well. I was almost in the mindset that the relationship that i have with my parents now would stay the same throughout my whole life. It's not just my parents, either, it's my whole family. Your parents sound like great people, i would definitely enjoy meeting them if the chance fell upon me. There's something that you wrote about your mother that sparked my desire to comment, "when I showed interest in guitar, she quickly bought an old classical acoustic..." Because you see, this is exactly the opposite of what my mother did. She almost discouraged me from playing guitar. If it wasn't for my dad who used to play guitar, i probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground with it. :P
    Anyway, i just thought that particular thing was really cool about your mother.

    Thanks again for writing such a great blog, it's always a pleasantly thought provoking experience to read :)


  10. mhmm, as a kid, or teen, you're always trying to find ways to be as little as your parents as possible but lately i've been starting to realize that, even though they do make mistakes, that's not always the best thing either... i've always had a somewhat defiant spirit, most of my family is rather goody-goody... :)

    haha, the thoreau quote WAS genius :D

    thanks so much for writing. i'm always happy to find a new blog waiting to be read.