Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Compelling Coincidence

I’m not in its target demographic but I binged-streamed the first season or so of Switched at Birth while by coincidence simultaneously reading the new book entitled, Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives and Our Lives Change Our Genes.

Both are impeccably written.  The former, now in its fourth season, was created by Lizzy Weiss who graduated from Duke a few years after I was drawn to Durham, North Carolina.

She also wrote or co-wrote many of its more interesting and deeper early episodes before the series settled into more of a “teen drama,”  undoubtedly with pressure from the network.

One of the joys of only streaming what little television I watch is coming across unexpected gems such as this and either watching as many as I like ad-free or quickly sampling and then skipping those that don’t work for me.

The latter is authored by neurogenetics researcher and physician Dr. Sharon Moalem.   You would expect this one to be deep. The other, however, was accurately depicted in the New Yorker magazine by Emily Nussbaum, when she wrote that “…its undertow is as strong as anything on TV.”

Switched is about two teenagers and their families who learn the girls were switched by the hospital at birth.  One was raised by a single mom, the other in affluence.

One girl is deaf and many of the other actors are deaf.  Most scenes involve signing and subtitles.  There are some scenes and one entire episode where two actors act out a scene with only body language, facial expression and signing.

An underlying story in the television show is the old nurture vs. nature issue.  In part, the book Inheritance explains how our genetic inheritance works and intriguingly how “your behavior can and does dictate your genetic destiny.

Like life itself, our genes are not just binary.  Moalem compares them to a score of music with “plenty of room for improvisation built into our lives” such as “Timing. Timbre. Tone. Volume. Dynamics.”

The book is filled with examples and metaphors such as “appoggiatura,” the “non-chordal or “non-harmonic” tone heard in Adele’s Someone Like You, a dissonance favored by Mozart.

It is further explained here on NPR in an interview with Rob Kapilow a music conductor, composer and author of What Makes It Great and his earlier book, All You Have To Do is Listen: Music from the Inside Out.

My music appreciation genes come from my mom’s side of my inheritance going back to my grandmother’s grandmother.  She was a Lowery who immigrated from Craigmark, a mining town just north of Galloway Forest in Ayrshire county in a hilly part of southwest Scotland lying along the eastern coast of the Firth of Clyde.

But I elected not to pursue them beyond a few years of piano lessons, a stint in glee club and church choirs, settling for an eclectic appreciation of music.  I can hear them in the “pipes” of one of my young grandsons in the clips sent to me by his mother.

Those genes persist and one day they may flourish again in “the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift,” a line slightly modified for lyrical purposes in the poem/song by Leonard Cohen.

Cohen wrote and performed the song Hallelujah in the 1980s, often changing the lyrics because he couldn’t stop improvising.  He felt there were many “Hallelujah’s.”  It didn’t come to my attention until made famous by Jeff Buckley in the early 1990s as a “b-side” recording and now covered by more than 300 artists.

I had heard the song dozens of times dating to Cohen’s version but it didn’t fully resonate with me until resurrected after Buckley’s death in the 2005 Academy-award winning movie Brokeback Mountain.

We all hear music differently.  As depicted In Switched at Birth, many people who are deaf enjoy and perform music, just as many hearing people don’t or choose not to.

As a young composer, Ludwig van Beethoven gradually became deaf.  He began to acknowledge it to friends by 1801, more than twenty years before he composed his famous Ninth Symphony.

At about the same time, he first performed one of my favorites, Missa Solemnis in D major.  Put earplugs in sometime and listen to it at higher volume to get a sense of what he heard or felt as he wrote it.

Part of the reason I enjoy digging back into the archeology of my inheritance is understanding the various manifestations in me.  From somewhere along the line, I inherited a mutation that shows up as “essential” or “familial” tremor.

There is only a 50-50 chance it will manifest.  Among my parents their grandchildren and great-grandchildren and my two sisters, four of us have the condition and so far seven others don’t.

What we inherit is something in which we have absolutely no say or control.  But according to Moalem, genes are not fixed.

They are inputs and influences but they also change in reaction to our thoughts and actions.  I know from experience that our actions, especially when separated by distance, also have a powerful influence on the genes of those who inherit them from us.

This is also a theme that runs through Switched (streamed on Netflix.)  This could also be why some of our worst moments help make use of who we are and help “forge meaning.”

As attributed recently to Mike Rowe, the guy in the Ford commercials who created and hosted many years of “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel (stream on Amazon Prime) and another show coming this fall on CNN called “Somebody’s Gotta Do It”:

"What you do, who you’re with, and how you feel about the world around you, is completely up to you."

No comments: