It’s All Relative

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I’m currently watching a fascinating show on the National Geographic channel entitled Genius, a biography of the great physicist Albert Einstein. Never having had a particularly scientific type of mind, I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy learning about Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries. For instance, I enjoyed seeing how Einstein’s brain starts forming ideas about relativity while watching his time piece in a tedious math class.

Einstein proved that time is not absolute and that our perception of time moving forward is an illusion. I’m not sure I completely understand his ideas, but I do enjoy thinking about relativity in the simple terms in which he famously explained it. An hour spent with a pretty girl, he said, seems but a minute while a minute spent sitting on a hot stove would seem like an hour.

I was reminded of that idea on a recent walk in my neighborhood. Up ahead of me was a young woman pushing a stroller with a baby inside. The scene looked idyllic: a young mother with all the time in the world to care for and enjoy her child. But I know better. I was that young mother once. When my first child was born, I was beside myself with stress and worry. Every single task seemed difficult and new and challenging, and I was not sure I was doing any of it right. Had she had enough poops that day? Did she have a slight fever? Was she too warm, too cold, hungry, tired? And why would she not stop crying?

From my vantage point as the mother of four grown children, it seems so easy just to have one child, a child who can’t go anywhere or do much of anything without my say so, a child who can’t stay out past curfew or sass back or ask to do things I’m not ready to let her do. When my children were young, the days would crawl by at a snail’s pace. Even though they were perfectly clean, I would still give my kids a daily bath just to pass the time. Nowadays, I blink, and months have gone by while my teens and twenty somethings move ahead at the speed of light.

The one constant for me as a parent is how much I worry about my kids. I think that’s what makes grandparents so much more relaxed around their grandchildren. They have a slight distance that allows them to be calmer, more playful, and less stressed.

This idea was borne out for me recently when I listened to a fascinating NPR podcast called Invisibilia. The episode “The Problem With the Solution” describes the way mental illness is managed in a small Belgian town called Geel (pronounced “hail”). In Geel, people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia live with ordinary families and are considered “boarders.” While there is a hospital nearby and doctors help people manage their medications, no one in Geel tries to fix the mentally ill. They are simply allowed to be the way they are.

The reporters from Invisibilia discovered an important fact through learning about the town of Geel. These same victims of mental illness faired much worse when living with their own families. Indeed, one of Geel’s residents had a mentally ill son herself, and she described how hard it was to live with his behavior. What psychologists have discovered is that when people care too much, they are determined to fix the problems their loved ones have. On the other hand, non-related hosts or neighbors of the mentally ill have a detachment that allows them to accept these people the way the are. In this way, “it’s all relative” takes on a different meaning.

The great Albert Einstein certainly had his fair share of family drama, including a wife who suffered from depression and a son who attempted suicide. As a Jew, he was endangered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He also objected to the use of scientific discovery to create weapons of mass destruction. But he looked at the world in such an endlessly fascinated way. He was convinced that observing nature was the way to solve all the mysteries of the universe. And he had a great determination to be the one to do so.

As the summer days go by, I will remind myself about the deceptive nature of time and do my best to slow it down and enjoy its passing.

 

 

 

Call Me Martha

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The gospel story of Mary and Martha always used to make me angry. In the story, Jesus visits his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Martha is busy running around making a meal for them all while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him. At one point Martha, exasperated, asks Jesus to tell Mary to get off her tush and help her. Jesus defends Mary, claiming, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42)

I always felt frustrated for poor Martha when this story was read at Sunday Mass. Here she was working her fingers to the bone while Mary was sitting around being a kind of Jesus groupie. Who wouldn’t be resentful? After all, Jesus’ dinner wasn’t going to make itself!

You see, my name may be “Mary,” but I am a “Martha” at heart: always busy, always overburdened by responsibilities and to-do lists. There have been many times in my 27-year marriage that I have resented my husband’s sitting on the couch watching TV while I cooked, did dishes, and attended to the kids. The everyday chores of life sometimes make me tired and cranky.

But I was missing the point of that gospel story of Mary and Martha. Jesus’ point was that although we may have cares and responsibilities, the most important thing in life is really to stop and listen. So many times I have been too busy to pay full attention to my kids, for instance. What mother hasn’t answered the absent-minded, “Mm hmm,” to her children as she only pays half attention to their verbal ramblings?

And it’s not just chores that keep us from the truly important things in life. We fill up our minutes and hours with television, Facebook, the news etc. and don’t nurture our relationships or our inner life. We don’t take the time to meditate or pray.

The story of Mary and Martha urges us to take that time, to stop and breathe and focus on what is truly important in our lives: God, our families, goodness and love. It’s a worthwhile endeavor to try becoming more of a “Mary,” and it’s one I am making the effort on in my daily life. I plan on “choosing the better part” and becoming more closely the person I am meant to be.

The A-B-Cs of Comedy

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Disclaimer: I have no personal, professional or financial connection with ABC-TV.

Every week I look forward to the comedic television lineup of The Middle, Modern Family, and Blackish. Somehow ABC has produced a trifecta of engaging, side-splitting half-hour sitcoms, all of which center on family dynamics and dysfunctions.

The Middle is the unsung sibling of the mega-hit Modern Family. While both shows depict the ups and downs of family life, The Middle focuses on the vicissitudes of one family trying to make ends meet in Middle America. The Heck family is so easy to relate to because they are far from perfect. For instance, mom Frankie yells, “I made dinner!” and plops bags of fast food on the kitchen table. In another episode, I found myself completely relating to the parents, who decide to “take back the house” and do nothing special for their children. They inevitably cave, and things go back to normal, which is to say that the kids rule. Yes, that’s my family life. Yet the Hecks have a connection that makes each episode heartwarming. As much as I am laughing at the Hecks, I am also smiling at their obvious affection for each other.

Modern Family is bigger and brasher than The Middle. The extended Pritchett family have unique family makeups, such as the gay couple raising an adopted Vietnamese daughter and the patriarch and his much younger, voluptuous Colombian wife and her son. The dialogue and timing in Modern Family make it a comic masterpiece. In one scene, Jay Pritchett feels underdressed when his gorgeous wife Gloria comes down the stairs dressed to the nines for a parent-teacher conference. He asks her, “Why do you look like that when I look like this?” Without missing a beat, her son Manny responds, “My friends say it’s because of your money.”

There are tears-inducing moments in Modern Family too, but overall the show is just one giant laugh fest. I think what makes these sitcoms so effective is the strength of their casts. The Middle boasts comedy veterans Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond fame and Neil Flynn from ScrubsModern Family, on the other hand, took a cast of virtual unknowns (with the exception of Married: With Children’s Ed O’Neill) and turned them into stars.

The excellent cast is also one of the factors that makes ABC’s new sitcom Blackish so enjoyable. I was leery of a show whose premise rests with humor centered primarily on race. Yet the show avoids the cringe-worthy offensiveness I found in the ill-fated Michael J. Fox Show, which took cheap shots at Parkinson’s disease without any real sense of humor in evidence.

In Blackish, Andre Johnson, a black ad exec, presides over his upper middle class family, including doctor-wife Rainbow (played by Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of the singer Diana Ross) and four precocious kids. The kids really elevate the show to something special. Although they are wise beyond their years in the style common to sitcoms, they are not obnoxious, but extremely likable.

What really impresses me about Blackish is that race is addressed in a very open way without being trite or offensive – rather, hilarious. In a recent episode, Andre wants to be his office’s first black Santa, but when the role is given to a Hispanic woman, he protests, “There’s supposed to be a Black Santa before a Mexican Santa.” His mom agrees, “Mexicans can’t be jumping the line. It’s bad enough they started taking Black people’s jobs with sneaky tricks like working hard for less pay.”

What could come off as offensive simply comes off with a laugh. Blackish, with its sharp, humorous focus on a racial minority, gives me hope for another ABC sitcom set to air in 2015 – an Asian-American comedy titled Fresh Off the Boat.

There’s something about humor that helps expand our horizons in a non-threatening way. A lovable gay couple on Modern Family helps normalize the idea of gays for its audience. Likewise, Blackish gives us a glimpse of how blacks see racial stereotypes without making us feel defensive.

As I get older, I have noticed the inevitable lines that are starting to appear on my face. And since I’d rather live with laugh lines than frown lines, I plan to enjoy my favorite comedies as much as possible.