"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, April 17, 2015

An Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree

“An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, Mandy Birkin’s mother always said when her daughter did something good; and “You’re a chip off the old block” when she did something bad.  Martha Birkin had a very Mendelian view of family, and in her mind no one escaped the pincers of nature and nurture. She could see as clear as day how her daughter inherited her brains, dexterity, and vision; and her father’s stubbornness, bile, and cynicism. She felt she was not being critical of her husband.  It was just that Darwin, Mendel, Skinner, and Freud could not be denied.  By the age of five your hand had been dealt, and there was nothing more you could do about it.

Apple and Tree

Martha Birkin was an uncanny observer of these natural and behavioral laws. There was no way, for example, that Bruce Silverstein, son of Upper West Side socialist intellectuals, could become a banker or corporate lawyer.  Tanya Merritt was as disorganized and scattered as both her mother and father, and it was impossible to imagine her pulling herself together enough to become a librarian let alone a logician or epidemiologist.  Herbie Swanson jock-walked like his father when he was six – a gentle ape-like roll on bandy legs that nine times out of ten meant athlete.   Billy Phelps was just as pursed and particular as his widowed mother and the two of them were like peas in a pod at Sunday services.

Mandy was embarrassed by her mother’s categorical remarks about her friends; and increasingly worried as her predictions began to come true.  She didn’t like the idea that so many strands of DNA from distant but but wayward ancestors had wound themselves around her double helix or that her mother and father’s eccentric behavior could have hammered her genetic structure into final shape.


Even at a very simple level – the choice of career, for example – children of parents almost unerringly chose the path of their parents.

Bob and Carrie Muller were, as Mandy’s mother would have said, two roses from the same bush.  They had both been brought up as Quakers, steeped in the traditions of nonviolence, civil rights, and progressivism.  Their whole lives had been about doing good and making the world a better place.  Although they changed churches – the Bethesda United Church of Christ was far more accommodating to their energetic activism than the more passive Quakers – they never strayed from their compassionate roots.

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Lisa, their daughter, might have emerged from the crucible of the Muller family with far less compulsive zeal if her parents had gone about their social reformism modestly; but neither Bob nor Carrie could keep their passionate beliefs to themselves.  They were born evangelists.  Again in Martha Birkin’s view of things, they had gotten compulsive neuroses from their respective parents as well as their communalist world view.  Lisa Muller, therefore, followed her parents in lockstep.  There wasn’t a social cause that she didn’t espouse, not a meeting or conference missed, nor an opportunity to speak out on issues of global warming, the rights of women, and the plight of the poor.  The die had been cast, and for poor Lisa it meant a rather humorless life in the service of others.

The Goodwin twins became doctors like their parents, the Herschel boys lawyers, and the Fender children entrepreneurs.

There were exceptions, of course.  Some offspring, sensing the predestination of their lives, fought it tooth and nail before succumbing; so one was wise not to jump to conclusions.  “There is only one direction on a circle”, said Mandy’s mother, “and it always comes around.”

Because it was almost impossible to predict which parental traits would be passed on; or which bits of genetic material would make their way down the generations, Mandy thought her mother a genius; and because she both respected and feared her uncanny insights, she thought it would be best to map her own personality.  She would systematically identify each one of her parents’ unique and outstanding traits – quick to anger, impatience, humor, practicality, fatalism, etc. – and try to match it with her own. She also began a genealogical study of both sides of the family to see if there was any consistency in hereditary patterns.  She knew that every family tree had rotten branches and sour fruit, but hoped that hers would be as firm and healthy as possible.

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Her mother inadvertently helped her along. “You remind me of your Uncle Jack”, she said. “Just as niggly as he was as a boy.” Or, “Have you noticed that when you are nervous your left eyebrow jumps just like Grandma’s?  You don’t want to become a twitchy old lady like her, do you?”.

In her own homely way, Martha Birkin was on to something. How was it, wondered Mandy, that what should be a unique individual, a composite of genetic materials from thousands if not hundreds of thousands of ancestral contributors, and subject to the purposeful and random influences of friends, teachers, doctors, and strangers, could end up so predictably?.  Why did Bruce Silverstein have to end up as a low-paid public defender who refused every raise the City offered him and wept over the injustice done to the poor? Where were the strands of Jewish musical genius that had survived the shtetl, pogroms, and the Nazis? Why wasn’t he the Chief of Oncology at Sloan Kettering?

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Was Tanya Merritt so determined by the example of her scatterbrained parents that she could not start a company or design a line of clothes?

In frustration and in bouts of concern about her future, Mandy thought that perhaps children don’t turn out to be such clones after all.  If you factor in subjectivity, then the fact that Bruce Silverstein was doing social work was far less important than the fact that he went to Columbia Law School and was on the Law Review. His parents were little more than community organizers who survived on rent control and funds from obscure municipal earmarks; but he had the brains, talent, and education to make a significant difference.

Billy Phelps was still pursed and particular, but he had become a CPA and not a Methodist minister like his father. True, his abstemiousness and Puritan rectitude stood him in good stead with Armbruster & Makens, LLC, but one couldn’t say that he followed exactly in the footsteps of his parents.  Perhaps there was more genetic and behavioral latitude than it appeared; and that children only act more or less like their parents.

That was a comforting thought to Mandy, but she still wasn’t convinced.  What about all three Sikes children?.  Each and every one had been posted to a poor African country, just like their father and mother had been decades earlier.  Each child was not only employed by an organization with a social mission, but felt deeply about their personal conviction to helping the poor.  True, one was a USAID middle manager at the Embassy in Chad, the other in the trenches of the poor with Children are the World, and the third a Peace Corps administrator in Angola; and a good case could be made that given the very different skills required for each job, these particular apples had fallen in the orchard but not under the same tree.

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Yet Mandy couldn’t shake this persistent sense of determinism. Her cards had been dealt, and there was nothing she could do about it.  Those children who fell way off the grid were anomalies, distractions, and outlying rebuttals to a law.

Mandy’s parents still threw big Christmas parties, and invited all their friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Parents and children, it seemed, worshipped at the same church and sang the same hymns. Both had consistent and unerring understanding of the Trinity and the doctrine of grace, or Papal ex cathedra and the Right of Kings.  Both either believed in social progress or the ineluctability of human nature.  The litanies were the same – unaltered through a generation – and the miracle of procreation turned out to be nothing of the sort. It was dull, predictable, and ordinary.

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It took Mandy a long while to expunge all her depressive thoughts about ordinariness. She finally realized that she was far too ambitious and unrealistic in her appraisal of human nature. “Incremental change”, she concluded, “was all one could hope for.” Her temper tantrums were not as volcanic as her father’s; but had more angry meanness.

She was not proud of this distinction – better Italian-style theatrics than acid and spite – but knew that it was one of the small things that separated her from her parents, and for that she was content.  Yet, for all her sanguinity and cheerier view of life after this mini-epiphany, she never got over the painful similarity of her friends to their parents.  Phil Atkins was barely 35 and had a paunchy overhang just like his father who had never moved from the same desk in Victorian hall of the New Brighton National Bank where he had started forty years before. Incremental change? Sure.  Three notches left in Phil’s belt compared to his father’s two.

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