Transcript

214:

Family Physics
Transcript

Originally aired 05.31.2002

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/214

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. And of course, every week here, we try to describe and understand the world by listening to writers and reporters and everyday people. And it has occurred to us lately that perhaps this is wrongheaded. Perhaps if we want real understanding, real explanations, we need to turn to science.

Consider this story, lab partners. When Dennis was a kid, his stepfather always thought that wherever they lived was lousy, and that the only place worth living was New York City. This is a man who had grown up in a town of a few thousand in Indiana.

Dennis

You know, he loves the symphony and opera art movies. And he just never felt like he fit. He thought that there are people in New York, where all love classical music and love to read. And he would just show up and say smart things, and that people would say, oh, well, Mr. Kass, we are so glad you are here.

Ira Glass

And so they moved to New York, the whole family, when Dennis was 12.

Dennis

It was awful. I mean, it was a disaster from the moment we touched down. And it had, none of the elements that he had fantasized about were there.

Ira Glass

None?

Dennis

I think we went to the symphony once. It's expensive. Just the pace of the city, and the competitiveness of it, he just couldn't handle it. During our first year, he started breaking out in hives, covered in hives from head to toe, essentially an allergic reaction to his life in New York.

Ira Glass

Now, science can help us understand this story better than we might otherwise. There's a notion in physics called the mediocrity principle. It declares that no place in the universe is more special than any other place. The ancients, remember, thought that we were at the center of the universe. The sun and the stars revolved around us.

The mediocrity principle says, no, no, no, we are no place special. And in fact, there is no place special. And there's nothing special about us. Dennis says that all of this was obvious to him, even when he was 12, and his stepdad was itching to move to New York.

Dennis

When I first heard about the mediocrity principle, it made me really happy. I almost felt like I had discovered a law of science as a 12-year-old, all by myself.

Ira Glass

How so?

Dennis

Because when you think about the fact that where you are is not really different than anywhere else you could be, you don't have to move.

Ira Glass

What can the laws of physics tell us about our everyday lives? Consider, please, this experiment in human relations. Kitty and Lars each needed a roommate. They got a place together on July 1. By July 28, it was clear to both of them that they should be more than just roommates. By August 3, Lars had told Kitty that he wanted to marry her. They have been together for years now. They are incredibly happy. And they both say if they hadn't actually lived together as roommates, if they'd only dated, it never would have worked out.

Kitty

Probably not.

Lars

Yeah, probably not. We wouldn't have spent that much time with each other. The weekends, we would spend pretty much the entire days with each other. And we're pretty different people.

Kitty

Right.

Lars

And I'm not your type. I think you're a little bit more my type, but you've always said that I was never your type.

Kitty

I also don't think we would have stayed together, necessarily, had we not been living together. I think it definitely helped to just force us to work things out.

Ira Glass

What can science tell us about this? Well, in physics, there's something called the Casimir Effect. It says that there is an attractive force between objects that are in proximity to each other. Hendrik Casimir was talking about two uncharged plates close to each other in a vacuum. It is a very faint sort of force. And a very faint sort of force was all that Lars and Kitty felt at first.

Kitty

I mean, it kind of just crept up on me. We were spending lots of time together. And towards the end, we were flirting and whatnot. But it really didn't quite dawn on me until we were on the couch kissing.

Lars

Even the night that we actually hooked up or whatever, I remember what we were doing. We were watching A Clockwork Orange, which is not the most romantic movie. I wouldn't have been playing that movie had I thought we'd been getting together that night. So yeah, it's the most violence, misogynistic movie ever made. And yet we still fell in love over it. It's our movie.

Kitty

Yup.

Ira Glass

That is a strong feeling of romance, to overcome that barrier.

Kitty

Well, it still kind of creeps me out a little bit. I'm a little embarrassed about that part.

Lars

Right, but that proves how inevitable. I mean, if you can make lovey eyes at each other during that movie, then there's no stopping us.

Ira Glass

Now I have to say that physicists hate it, hate it, when non-scientists do this, when we non-scientists take scientific laws and principles intended for a very different purpose and context, and apply them to ourselves and our petty little relationships with each other. Witness, please, the attitude of Dave Kestenbaum, PhD, who used to be a high-energy experimental particle physicist on the team that discovered the top quark at Fermilab. He now works as a science correspondent for National Public Radio's news programs.

Dave Kestenbaum

It's a bad idea. Every artist, at some point in their lives, goes and reads a little book on quantum mechanics, and they hear about Schroedinger's cat or the uncertainty principle, or something like that. And then they go write a really bad play. And it's inevitably terrible. People who don't know a lot of physics seem to like it. But I get a little bugged by it, I have to say.

Ira Glass

Well, I have to say, this seems entirely reasonable. But we at This American Life simply do not care. Our feeling is once physicists name something the mediocrity principle or the uncertainty principle, or the grandfather paradox, they're asking for it. The mediocrity principle prances into the lives of us non-scientists all provocative without that all-provocative name, and we're not supposed to give it a second glance? We're supposed to stop our brains from instantly seeing it, and all these other rules, as metaphors to apply where we will?

Well, today on our radio program, we ignore the pleas of reasonable people like Dave Kestenbaum, and the silent screams of every physicist listening to our program right now, and bring you several stories, each one about everyday people in everyday situations, each one illuminated by some scientific law. It's Family Physics. Our program today in three acts. Act One, Occam's Razor,

Act Two, The Trajectory and Force of Bodies in Orbit.

Act Three, Conservation of Energy and Matter. In that act, by the way, we have a story by David Sedaris. Put on your safety goggles and white coat, my friends. And stay with us.

Act One. Occam's Razor.

Cris Beam

David Paladino grew up in an Italian family, in an Italian neighborhood west of Chicago. It was the kind of place where in the early '70s, all the kids wore Italian colors, ate Italian beef and sausage from the corner store, and threw money at the Virgin Mary statue at the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. But while David is Italian, too, he has many childhood stories about things people said to him that just didn't make any sense.

In Sunday School, the other kids called Dave "Chocolate Bar" and "Blackie." People asked him who his real father was. When he went into stores, the clerks would sometimes follow him around, as if he was going to steal something. When David was 10, his family moved into a townhouse in a more integrated area. Dave went out to play in a nearby playground.

David Paladino

This kid was there playing, and he was a young black kid. And he starts talking to me. And he was much more outgoing than I was. He was asking me questions.

And he was like, oh, do you curse, and stuff. And I'm like, no, I don't swear. My mom would kill me. So, and he's like, yeah, well I do. I don't care. So we're having a good time. And I was like, yeah, do you want to see my place? And he was like, yeah.

So as we walk around these tall hedges into the backyard, my two sisters are coming out, Lori and Shari. And so we walk around the corner, and he stops dead in his tracks. And he's like, "What them white girls doing in your house?" And I was like, "White girls? Those are my sisters." And he's like, "Your sisters?" And I'm like, "Yeah."

And then all of a sudden, my mom comes out. And my dad's right behind her. It's like, "Oh, Davy, who's your friend?" And he's like, "Who's that?" I said, "Oh, that's my mom." And he's like, "Your mom?"

And then my dad is right there. And I'm like, "Oh, and that's my dad." He's like, "Your dad?" And he looks at me, and then he looks at them. And he's like, "Aw, man." And he left. He left.

Strangely enough, we all had a little laugh about it. And then it was just like, everybody went their own direction. And nobody talked about it. But in retrospect, looking back on it, there was probably something there to be discussed.

David Paladino

Carol and I met in high school. She was a Provenzano and I was Paladino, so we were two seats, three seats apart at homeroom.

Cris Beam

This is Dave Paladino's father, David Paladino, Sr.

David Paladino

Big snowfall, in 1967, we were at a party. And we were at some kid's basement. And there was music playing. And we met down in the basement. We talked for about an hour. And we went out and played in the snow. And then we went back downstairs and made out.

[LAUGHTER]

And then, after that, we were boyfriend and girlfriend for end of sophomore year, junior year, senior year.

Cris Beam

David and Dave's mom, Carol, went to high school in a neighborhood off Chicago's west side called Maywood. In 1968, their junior year, race riots broke out in their school, making national headlines. Kids were pulling guns on each other, and the National Guard was called in.

During this time, David and Carol were dating. They didn't participate in the riots. In fact, Dave was vice president of his senior class, and Carol was a cheerleader. And they were both involved in the student leadership's efforts towards racial harmony.

David Paladino

We were trying to mix races a bit, as far as getting along and meet each other. Where before, it would just be all white people at our parties, and black kids would all have their parties. But we actually had some crossover things going on, where black students were coming in to our parties. And I remember, we had some black kids come to one of our guys' houses one night. And they taught us how to do the boogaloo dance and all this at that time. So I remember dancing the boogaloo.

Carol Provenzano

Actually, the role that I played at the high school, I was on, in quotes, "Cross-Section Committee."

Cris Beam

This is Dave's mom, Carol.

Carol Provenzano

--which were blacks and whites. And we were supposed to come up with new ways to try to bring some semblance of normalcy into the high school, like make it so that there wasn't a problem between blacks and whites. I started hanging out more with the girls that hung out with black people. That's the best way I think I can say it. And so what would happen after basketball games was we wouldn't go hang with the white guys. We'd go find out where the party where the black guys were.

And for me, it was seeing a different culture. I can remember it then. Because these gals grew up differently than I grew up. And so it was just me having a different level of understanding. And of course, being the liberal that I was then, it was like, this all felt right.

David Paladino

The big word was that some of the cheerleaders were sleeping with the basketball team. And then I had several people come up to me and tell me that Carol was kissing some of the players, and other things were going on. But I knew something had happened. But I didn't know what had happened.

Carol Provenzano

It was just dangerous fun for me, OK? And then somebody, and I'm not sure what, or how it happened. But somebody had seen me hanging out with a bunch of black kids after a basketball game. And it was my mother's brother, my Uncle Frankie, that had heard it from one his friends. I think it was Tony Fioravanti or something.

But anyway, he told my Uncle Frankie, and my Uncle Frankie told my mom and dad. And my mom and dad then said, "What are you doing hanging out with black kids? They're going to call you a [BLEEP]-lover, and we can't have that happen." So then I used to sneak around. And the easiest way for me to sneak around was to make sure that there were other white girls there.

Cris Beam

At this point, Carol began seeing one basketball player in particular, Keith Rash, a black student one year behind her in school.

Carol Provenzano

I was hanging out with Keith, but I was also hanging out with Dave. I was living the wild life. And, let's see, I screwed around with both of them. That's about as plainly as I can say it. But the problem was, is that also never really understanding how I could get pregnant, when I could get pregnant, or anything like that. So we used no form of birth control.

Cris Beam

Carol was actually four months along before she knew she was pregnant. She got the news from her family doctor a few weeks before Thanksgiving.

Carol Provenzano

All of a sudden, the room just shut. I don't remember if I heard everything he said past that point, because now my mind was, oh my God. Who's the father? I have no idea.

Cris Beam

No one but Carol knew about Keith. But as Carol started to show, David assumed the baby was his. Now 18 and in the first semester at a nearby college, they decided to get married over the next school break.

Carol called her mom with the news. Mom screamed and immediately ran next door to gather Carol's grandparents, and then across the street to get her aunt and uncle. Within hours, everyone was assembled, and the patriarchs, David's father and Carol's father, had driven to the college to pick up the kids.

Her mother had an announcement. There would be no delaying this marriage. They were to get their blood tests and rings the next day, the wedding dress the following day, and they'd be married by the end of that weekend by the parish priest. Carol says they were both in shock.

Carol Provenzano

OK, so then Dave says-- and God bless him, really. The truth is, to try to stand up to my parents, he said, "But that's not what we planned. We want to wait, and we want to get married over Thanksgiving." My dad, he said, "What do you mean you want to wait?" He said, "What's the matter? Don't you want to marry my daughter?" There was a pound on the table, too. You know, this is the best shotgun wedding I can think of, totally Italian stuff. So if I ever thought that I was going to have a moment to confess anything, I knew right then it was gone, absolutely gone. And from that moment on became a daily prayer.

In my mind, I could see the baby coming out and being black, and then everybody in the room going like this,

[GASPING]

and then me coming out and trying to tell Dave. So I go into labor, and I'm petrified, in pain and petrified. And then he comes out, and they show him to me. And he looked white to me.

He had a whole bunch of black hair, but what baby didn't have black hair? He had dark eyes, but what baby didn't have dark eyes? And we had a lot of darkness in our family. But he didn't look black. So I was like, "Oh, God. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." First inkling it was probably when, he was born in March, was probably toward the end of that summer. Because I was outside a lot with him. And when he was out in the sun, he got darker. And I was like, uh-oh.

David Paladino

At the married student apartments, we had a little swimming pool out front. And Davy was out, and he was out in the full sun. And he got brown like that, and immediately looked like he could have been a black kid. He was dark.

And then I remember, after that, we had gone shopping. And I had him in the cart. And we were wheeling him into a store.

And this woman came out, followed us out into the parking lot after we were leaving the store, and she says, "Oh, wait, wait, wait. I wanted to talk to you." And she said, "I noticed that you and your wife have adopted an interracial baby. And my husband and I are thinking of adopting an interracial baby."

And I took it aback, like, what are you talking about? So I said, "No, no, no, no. No, this is our baby." She said, "I know it's your baby. But we're thinking of adopting this interracial baby."

I said, "No, you don't understand. This is our baby." And she said, "Oh, well--" And then finally she understood what I was saying, that, no, this is my wife and I's child. He's just dark. That was an odd situation.

Cris Beam

What did that do in your mind? Did you think about it? Did you interrogate it?

David Paladino

No. You see, I've had a lot of time to think about since then. And I think what's interesting is that your mind, this is if they have a belief system that they've put together, and they build their life on that belief system, that it's very hard for that belief system to be shook or changed by facts.

So I don't know how to say it, but I had a belief system that he was my son. I saw him born. I was there at the birth. I was there, I was with his mother. And he was my son.

Carol Provenzano

So many times, I can tell you, we'd say the same story to anybody that would say, especially when the two girls came along, and they were so fair, they'd say, "Well, he doesn't look like the two girls." And we'd say, "Well, that's because he's got the olive skin from the family." My grandfather's really olive-skinned, and Dave's mother, she's German, but she's got this dark, black, curly hair. And he's got the same dark, black, curly hair.

David Paladino

I was a science teacher. So I wasn't really stupid, OK? But I do know that in our genetic makeup, it's possible that you can have recessive genes and things that are in your system. They might skip a generation or two, and suddenly somebody looks like somebody that three generations ago, they look like someone.

David Paladino

So it's like, we're Italian, Paladino.

Cris Beam

As David, Jr. got older, he was told the same stories inquisitive strangers were told.

David Paladino

And my aunt was kind of dark-skinned over there, and they had the black hair, and on my dad's side, they had this curly hair. But I started to get these explainable things, like, oh, I'm dark-skinned Italian, from the southern part of Italy, so there's Sicilian. You know, Sicily is right there, and then the Moors, and blah, blah, blah. And it is what it is.

Cris Beam

Until his teens, Dave's family moved a lot. And he says every move was torture. His two sisters would just be asked the regular questions, like where are you from, and what music do you like. But Dave would be asked, who's your real dad, and were you adopted.

So Dave learned to preempt the interrogations. He started wearing t-shirts with slogans like "Proud to be Italian," or "Another Italian masterpiece." And he would announce his heritage to anyone within moments of an introduction. And it wasn't just Dave. The whole family was in denial. Here's his mom.

Carol Provenzano

As David got older, and his face started changing more, et cetera, and I dared to open up my yearbook and saw Keith, and then saw David, I was like, oh, God. And then closed it shut and said, I'll never look at that again.

Cris Beam

When he was 12, Dave and his family moved from Chicago to an upper middle class suburb of Los Angeles. And things went pretty smoothly there. Dave turned out to be a great football player, had a lot of friends and girlfriends. And after the initial surge of questions, issues of race, or ethnicity, or what are you just didn't come up too much.

After high school, things got harder. His college, he says, was extremely white. And he just began to feel different. By now, he looked decidedly biracial. When he met white girlfriends' parents, they would sometimes shift uncomfortably. He learned the phrase "person of color," and thought of himself as both a white person and a person of color, as if there were such a thing.

If you saw David on the street, there's no way you'd think he was white. You'd think biracial, or Puerto Rican, or Dominican. He's very cute, with tight, soft, curly hair and light, mocha-colored skin. By his mid-20s David was starting to become an actor and go out on auditions. And the roles he was up for were almost always black or Latin men.

One weekend, when he was in his late 20s, David took a trip to Chicago with one of his college friends, Aaron. They spent some time visiting David's family. They stayed downtown. They partied. And on their last night in Chicago, after David and Aaron had been drinking until four in the morning, they finally pulled up to their hotel.

David Paladino

We got out of the cab, and there was a homeless guy there. And he's a black man. He's probably in his 40s or something. And he's asking for some money. And I think I give him a dollar or something.

And Aaron gets out money like he's going to give it to him. And then he's like, "Well, I want to give this to you, but I want to tell you something," and launches into this thing about so long as you don't use this to use drugs, or to do something, and starts giving him a little pep talk, he thought, a pep talk. But to me, it was insulting. The guy, I could just see the guy's whole demeanor just like, "Oh man, this guy."

And when we got in the elevator to go upstairs, I'm like, "What are you doing?" He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Give the guy a dollar, give the guy a dollar. Don't give him your viewpoint." He's like, "Well, if I'm going to give a guy a dollar, I'm going to say something." I said, "You're, what, a 27-year-old white guy who grew up in a predominantly white area?" I said, "I don't know his life, but you haven't lived his life."

He's a 40-year-old black guy. He's living on the street now. Who knows what the heck he's done, but-- "Well, look at-- when you see me, what do you see, Aaron?"

And it started to become a very heated and passionate discussion. I said, "Look at me. Dark skin," blah blah blah. "What do you see?" And he started to get to my point. And I just blurted out, I said, "I don't know if my mom screwed some black guy, or some Mexican guy." I said, "But this is me. I have a different reality."

Cris Beam

And when that came out of your mouth, what did you--

David Paladino

When that came out of my mouth, I don't know how to even describe it. It was just one of those things where you just like, "Did I just say that?"

Cris Beam

So David had to talk to his mom. He was terrified, terrified of unraveling a whole family built on the premise of one mom, one dad. Even though they'd gotten divorced years before, this seemed like a cataclysmic rewriting of history. So he waited two whole years and tried not to think about it.

And then one morning, he drove to his mom's house without telling her why. When he got there, David realized he had no prepared script. So he exchanged a few pleasantries, and he plunged. He said simply, "I need to know where I come from." Carol paused, looked at him, and responded, "And you deserve to know."

David Paladino

In that moment, I don't know, it's like a lifetime happened. And then it was just like, OK. And she said, "Dave Paladino is not your biological father." The next thing, please. And she said, "Your father is a man by the name of Keith Rash, who we went to high school with. And he's black." And then my mom said, "No surprise to you."

Cris Beam

With those words, Dave said it was like a symphony surged through his brain. It was a breakthrough and a relief. And contrary to his mom's fears, David wasn't angry with her at all. He felt like he wasn't emotionally ready to know the truth, after struggling personally in college and in the years after, until that very day. He actually felt grateful she waited.

He was, though, worried about what David Senior would do. Turns out, Carol said, David Senior had known for nine years. She had told him before their divorce and begged him not to tell his son. David Senior wasn't surprised. He said he always knew somehow, below the surface of consciousness.

There's a principle in science called Occam's Razor. The idea is, if there are two possible explanations for some phenomenon, the simpler one is the better one to use. This principle goes back to Aristotle, who said, essentially, nature operates in the shortest way possible.

And in our daily lives, this is how we usually explain the world to ourselves. But the simple explanation isn't always the one we want. The Paladinos couldn't accept the plain answer, that Dave had a different father. They had to create something far more complex. What started as Carol's small secret simply grew too big to untangle.

When David was born, she believed he was her husband's son. And when David Senior believed that too, months and even years later, she thought to herself, why shatter that relationship? She was so busy with three kids, she could often forget about David's coloring, sometimes even convincing herself that he might be her husband's anyway, that maybe there was something to that recessive gene idea. David Senior did a similar dance, pushing disturbing questions out of his mind because subconsciously, he wanted his family, his world, to remain intact. And the kids, like all kids, craved security, so they kept their questions buried, too.

It wasn't that love was blind. It was that everyone was blinded by the fear of losing love. No one wants to disturb the fragile bonds that keep us standing. Dave says a lot of people don't get this, don't understand why his family didn't always know he was black.

David Paladino

That's what people may not understand. "Oh yeah, Dave, well, I get Dave. He's black." Or "he's dark," or "he's this, and those things are obvious." Or "Yeah, I knew all the time." I'm like, "Go screw yourself."

Because the fact of the matter is, is when you're in a situation, and all you know is, he's your dad, and he's your son, and I have support, and I have love, you're not looking to try and ruin that. You may have some questions. We may have been in denial. Not may have, we were, or whatever, to a certain degree. But you know what you know.

Cris Beam

As you might expect, David wanted to meet his biological father. He started looking up Keith Rashes in telephone directories and calling them up. After months of reaching confused guys of all races, David finally tracked him down to an address on an Edgware Street in Memphis, Tennessee, no phone number available. David then avoided the issue again for six months, until he found himself in Florida on a job and decided to rent a car and drive 12 hours across five states in the rain. He found Edgware Street a little after 9:00 on a May morning.

Dave Paladino

So I went to the front door. I knock on the front door. And I hear around the corner, the side door open. "Can I help you?" And of course, my heart jumps into my throat.

And I was like, "What am I doing?" And there's a man holding the screen door open. As soon as I come around the corner and I see this man, I'm like, "Oh my God. If that is not my father, I don't know who is."

And I said, "Well, so I'm looking for Keith Rash." And he says, "You got him. Who are you?" And I say, "Well, my name's David Paladino." And he looks at me. He has the strangest look on his face. And he says, "Didn't I go to high school with you?" And I'm like, "No, not exactly." I said, "Maybe you remember my mom, Carol Provenzano."

And I'll never forget it. He's got his one hand keeping the door propped open, and he starts to turn in, to go in. And while he's turning in, he says, "Come on in." When he turned to go in, and I saw his legs, and his shoulders, and just almost the way he walked, because he had a bum knee, all the times that I looked for family members, "Oh, do they look like me? Is that like me, or is that--" All the sudden, I was looking at my legs.

Cris Beam

Keith Rash moved to Memphis about 18 years ago, and now works a security night shift at the FedEx hub. A few months ago, David and I went to Memphis to visit Keith. He's a gregarious, smiley guy, eager to please and excited that he has this brand new son. His apartment is almost entirely bare, save for a dining room table, a bed, and some empty boxes, and framed photographs everywhere. Underneath the bed and in the closet, there are more pictures, boxes and boxes of them, in albums and in bags.

Keith Rash

Now this, this guy here, you see the resemblance?

Cris Beam

Yes. Absolutely.

Keith Rash

I think that him and Dave look a lot alike.

Cris Beam

They do.

Keith Rash

Yeah, that's, this is Henry Rash.

Cris Beam

In the time since his first trip to Memphis, Dave has been welcomed into the Rash family. He's met his half-brother and the rest of the family at a reunion in Chicago. He's making plans to spend some time with his grandmother in the next few months in Los Angeles.

Keith gushes and fawns over Dave, bragging about his acting gigs, and comparing his good looks to his other son, Shelly. He says they're practically identical. Shelly was raised by his mom across the country, though he would visit Keith sometimes.

Keith shows us photos and tells us stories about his past. There are a lot of people who have died, or who he's lost touch with, and he alludes to difficult years and a few run-ins with the law. Now, he says, he lives through his two sons, and he doesn't have many friends or much of a life in Memphis. He's more stable, mostly watches television, has a few drinks after work. Dave also brought pictures to show Keith. He pulls out a baby picture and some kid shots with his sisters.

Dave Paladino

Got a couple here when I was just a little man.

[LAUGHTER]

Keith Rash

Oo-ee. Yep. Yeah, I'll tell you, you do look a little Afro-American on that, compared to, you know.

Cris Beam

We decide to go out for some barbecue. Keith lets Dave borrow his special Year of the Dragon necklace, and keeps clapping him on the back. David is a little shyer, more watchful.

On the way, I get this glimpse of what Keith is like. His personality is huge. He's funny and charming. He won't call me my first name, Cris, or my last name, Beam, but "Beamer." It's hard not to like him.

While we're out, the waitress seems to take a shine to Keith. And he, slowly easing his eyes over the rim of his whiskey glass, tries to pick her up, right in front of his son and a radio reporter with a foot-long microphone.

Keith Rash

So that means we're going to be busy later. See, the reason I ask, let me just cut to the chase.

Woman

That's right. Get to the point.

Keith Rash

We're going back by my house. I'm taking off from FedEx tonight. And I thought it'd be nice if you might come by, keep this going here.

Woman

Why not?

Cris Beam

We go back to Keith's apartment and listen to music, drink some beers, and hang out. Keith raps along with Tupac. Dave, hilariously, practices his trained ballet moves to the beat, in the middle of the living room. The waitress calls and flirts, but never shows up.

Keith's fine with the fact that he didn't raise Dave. He implies that he might not have always been the best influence himself. And if he has a problem with the fact that Dave grew up in a white world, with no strong black figures to guide him, he doesn't let on. He says Carol and David provided Dave with the strength of character to handle it.

Cris Beam

Do you feel weird that they didn't tell him of his racial heritage at all, that he grew up thinking that he was white, and then struggling with that difference?

Keith Rash

No, because, it's got to go back to the family. If you've got something that's been that deep-rooted for so long, why uproot it?

Cris Beam

For his part, Dave has had two years now to adapt to the fact that he's black, and he's still adjusting. It's awkward sometimes. He says there are some things he never learned or got used to.

Dave Paladino

Because of just the mechanics of not ever really being around a whole lot of black people, that when I'm ever around more than probably three or maybe four, like in bigger groups, that I'm, not like I'm crawling in my skin, but I'm just not as solid as I am sitting here right now.

Woman

So you're nervous.

Dave Paladino

It's not like I'm sitting there the whole time kvetching, "Oh my God." But I'm just not as settled all the time. I'm not as present or as centered as I am sitting here talking. I think that somebody who's knows all their life that they're half-this and half-that has probably had that more of an identity, maybe.

Cris Beam

What's amazing about this story is that nobody's mad. Keith's not bitter that he had no access to his son. David's not mad at his mother and never has been. Even Dave Senior isn't angry. He still feels just as much David's father as he ever did.

Which brings us back to Occam's Razor, the principle that the simplest explanation for something is the best one. In a family, the explanation that seem simplest can switch over time. When David was young, the simpler thing to believe was that his parents were his parents, and his family was his family, and that he was a Paladino. As he got older, that story got harder to maintain. And the other explanation, that Keith was his father, became the simplest for everyone.

And when the family shifted from one story to the other, they didn't get caught up in issues of race and paternity and lying and betrayal. When the truth came out, the truth that the whole family was fearing for so long, it didn't spark any great trauma at all. It just put people at peace.

Ira Glass

Cris Beam in Los Angeles. Coming up, David Sedaris conducts an experiment with fluids and heat and a two-and-a-half-foot tube. That's in a minute from Public Radio International and Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two. The Trajectory And Force Of Bodies In Orbit.

Jon Ronson

My family runs a hotel in the Brecon Beacons mountain range of mid-Wales. I go home to the hotel every Christmas. And at some point, I always manage to say, "I treat this place just like a hotel." And this always gets a big laugh.

Sometimes, famous people stay at the hotel, too, which my parents treat as a perk of the job. My mother always calls me up when it happens. When the British TV news reporter, John Cole was there recently, my mother phoned me up and said, "Guess what? John Cole's staying here. Oh, and he hasn't heard of you."

A few years ago, John Birt, the Director General of the BBC, came in to have lunch. My father approached his table. "Are you John Birt?" he asked. "Yes," said John Birt. "I wonder if you can help," said my father. "The TV reception in this area can be all crackly and fuzzy. Is there anything you can do about this?" I think my father wanted John Birt to get onto the roof and fix the aerial.

"We spoke about all sorts," my father told me on the phone afterwards. "The problem I'm having with my car. He couldn't believe it's been in the garage six times." "Oh, and he hasn't heard of you," I did my mother on the extension line.

Recently, my parents won the coveted Welsh Hotel of the Year competition. It was a big honor. And they wanted to do something to commemorate the success. So they decided to commission a portrait painter to immortalize the Ronsons.

"We've decided to have a group family portrait commissioned," said my mother on the phone, "a Ronson family portrait to be hung in the bar. Will you be available for a sitting?" "Certainly," I said. "Who's doing it?"

"He's a brilliant but troubled local artist," she said. "He did the mural for the new Cardiff multiplex. You must have heard of it." "No," I said. "Oh, come on," she said. "It's been in all the papers. Anyway he paints hotels, too. He came up to ask us if we wanted ours painted."

"You mean he depicts hotels on canvas?" I asked. "Oh, no, no," she said. "He actually paints the walls of hotels." "So he's a painter and a decorator?" I asked. "What's your problem," said my mother. "Are you being snooty?"

It turned out that the brilliant but troubled artist's particular sub-specialty is painting celebrities in classical Renaissance settings, like Clint Eastwood ascending to heaven surrounded by angels. His loving re-creations of celebrities set my parents thinking. So many famous people stay at their hotel, what if the Ronson family portrait was extended to include celebrities?

"Listen to this," said my mother on the phone the next day. "We, the family, will be standing in the grounds of the hotel, surrounded by famous people." "Which famous people?" I asked. "You mean the famous people who've stayed at the hotel?" "Oh, no," said my mother, "Any famous people that we choose."

I fell silent on the other hand of the phone, trying to let the incredibleness of this proposed project sink in. My mother carried on. She said, "We're working on a tight deadline. Send a Polaroid of yourself to the artist. You have to come up with your three famous people by Wednesday, living or dead, comedians, statesman, actors, anything."

"Let me clarify this in my head," I said. "Thre's nothing to clarify," said my mother. "Don't you think it may come across as a little self-aggrandizing?" I asked. "I'm choosing President Kennedy, Gandhi, and Churchill," said my mother.

My father came onto the phone. "Who are you choosing?" I asked him. "Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus," he said. "All golfers?" I asked. "Who are you choosing?" asked my father.

My mind drew a blank. In fact, I began to panic. I imagined in hundreds of years time, notable art historians gathered around the painting, making sarcastic comments. Paintings are so permanent. I was to be frozen in time for eternity with three celebrities. And now the question was, which celebrities best represented Jon Ronson's essence?

It was easy for my father. It was as if each of his three golfers portrayed a different subtlety to his personality. There was Arnold Palmer, the kind and thoughtful golfer with the common touch. There was Jack Nicklaus, the fiery, steely golfer, who once said, "Nobody ever remembers who finished second at anything." And there was Gary Player, the philosophical golfer, whose 10 commandments for life, as seen on garyplayer.com, includes "The fox fears not the man who boasts by night, but the man who rises early in the morning."

But who could I choose? I found myself feeling hostile to the whole idea, a hostility that manifested itself in a lazy choice of celebrities. "I'm going for the Beverly sisters," I told my mother on the phone.

I actually have no interest in girl groups of the 1940s, but I did know that the Beverly sisters all looked exactly alike. And my choice was designed to be viewed by art historians of the future as an ironic, silent protest. "You can't have the Beverly sisters," said my mother, knowing me well enough to understand all of this in an instant. "How about Sister Sledge?" I said. "Are you trying to ruin this?" said my mother.

I relented and opted for my real, all-time celebrity hero. "Randy Newman," I said. "Nobody knows what Randy Newman looks like," she snapped. In the end, we compromised. For all time, it would be Jon Ronson, Ike and Tina Turner, and Boris Yeltsin.

The Ronsons were going to be hobnobbing amongst the stars. The laws of physics tells us that one needs to be very careful approaching a star. If your trajectory and speed are just right, you'll go into orbit, safe and sound, glowing in the warm, beautiful starlight. If you mess up in any way, the wrong direction, the wrong speed, you'll hurtle into the face of the star and be vaporized, and only the star will remain. My parents were involving us in a very dangerous game.

A few days later, my mother called to tell me that the concept had slightly changed. Each Ronson, she said, would no longer be just standing and chatting to the celebrities. We were to be serving them drinks. This was, after all, a hotel. So now I was to be frozen in time in an act of subservience to Boris Yeltsin.

A few days later, the concept changed yet again. It was back to standing and chatting, but this time, the Ronsons would be talking, and the celebrities would be listening. "So you'll be talking," I clarified, "and Kennedy, Gandhi, and Churchill will be listening." "What's the problem?" said my mother. "Oh, nothing, nothing," I said. "I'm just worried that people may get the wrong idea, that we consider ourselves as good as Kennedy and--" "What are you saying?" said my mother. "Nothing," I said.

I changed the subject. "What will you be talking to Kennedy, Gandhi, and Churchill about?" "What do you mean, what will I be talking to them about?" said my mother. "Nothing. I'm talking to them about nothing. It's a painting." "Maybe Dad would be talking to the golfers about the amount of times his car's been in the garage," I suggested.

I sent in my Polaroids, and we all waited. Months passed. My father would telephone the artist from time to time to find out how things were going, and when was he going to be finished. Most often, the artist didn't pick up. And when he did, he was a man of few words, words that were spoken gruffly.

"Nearly there," he said. "Are you pleased with it so far?" asked my father. "Don't worry," said the artist. My father began to worry.

The day of the grand unveiling came without warning. The artist just turned up one morning, carrying a large canvas covered in a white sheet. He propped it up against the bar.

The family gathered around it with a sense of great expectation. Everyone looked at the covered painting and at the brilliant but troubled artist, trying to scrutinize his facial expression. It was, well, troubled.

The artist said, "I think you ought to know that I'm going through a creative stage which some people find difficult to connect to." There was a nervous silence. "What I'm saying," he continued, "is there's a possibility you may not like it."

The Ronsons looked anxiously at one another. Then, with a flourish, the artist whipped off the sheet. "There you go," he said.

For a moment, the Ronsons just stared. My mother whispered, "Oh my God." She clutched her chest, yelped quietly, then stormed out of the room. My brother and his wife followed as a show of unity, slamming the door behind them.

The artist was left alone with my father. They didn't make eye contact. They just stared at the painting.

The famous people had all been painted with tender accuracy. There were a few celebrities, like Clint Eastwood, that none of the Ronsons had actually asked for. But that wasn't the problem. The problem was that although the celebrities were lovingly depicted, the Ronsons stood amongst them as human grotesqueries, repulsive caricatures of monsters.

My brother looked like Frankenstein. He had a bolt through his neck. It was disturbing and humiliating. My parents looked like hastily sketched recovering drug addicts. I looked like a gawky, spotty adolescent frozen in a gormless pose.

"I'm sorry," said the painter, looking at the floor. "We're not paying for it," said my father. There was a long silence. My father ordered the artist to paint the Ronsons out. And after much negotiation, he agreed.

He turned my mother into Woody Allen. That's kind of humiliating in itself, that the easiest brush-over would render her as Woody Allen. My father was Jimmy Carter. I like to think the artist chose Jimmy Carter, the famed peacemaker, to replace my dad in an homage to my father's diplomacy, as he was the only Ronson who didn't storm out. My brother was turned into David Rockefeller, and his wife was turned into Henry Kissinger, which I interpret as an act of hostility. The only Ronson left in the portrait is, oddly, me.

The painting now hangs between the cigarette machine and the coat stand of the bar in my family's hotel, and it's the cause of much interest amongst the customers. They crowd around it, trying to guess who everyone is. "That's Kennedy," they say. "Look, Boris Yeltsin." Nobody gets David Rockefeller. I have to say, "It's David Rockefeller." "Ah," they reply. "David Rockefeller."

They stare blankly at the likeness of me, too, for whole minutes at a time, trying to figure out who exactly I am. "I'm famous," I say. "I've been on TV." But they all just squint and shrug. If my mother's there, she'll cheerfully pipe in, "Oh, they've never heard of you."

Ira Glass

Jon Ronson. His latest book is a piece of investigative reporting about US covert operations, entitled The Men Who Stare at Goats.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "STARS IN MY LIFE" BY THE FLATLANDERS]

Act Three. Conservation Of Energy And Matter.

David Sedaris

I've always liked the idea of accessories. It was my search for something discreet, masculine, and practical that led me to the Stadium Pal, an external catheter currently being marketed to sports fans,

[LAUGHTER]

truck drivers, and anyone else who's tired of searching for a bathroom. At first inspection, the device met all my criteria. Was it masculine? Yes, and proudly so. Unlike a regular catheter, which is inserted directly into the penis, the stadium pal connects by way of a self-adhesive condom which is then attached to a flexible rubber tube. Urine flows through the tube and collects in the "Freedom leg bag," conveniently attached to the user's calf. The bag can be emptied and reused up to 12 times, making it both disgusting and cost-effective.

[LAUGHTER]

And what could be manlier? Was it discreet? According to the brochure, unless you wore it with shorts--

[LAUGHTER]

no one needed to know a thing about it. Was it practical? At the time, yes. I don't drive or attend football games, but I did have a book tour coming up. And the possibilities were endless. Five glasses of iced tea, followed by a long public reading? Thanks, Stadium Pal!

[LAUGHTER]

The window seat on an overbooked cross country flight? Don't mind if I do.

[LAUGHTER]

I ordered myself a Stadium Pal and realized that while it might make sense in a hospital, it really wasn't very practical for day-to-day use. In an open-air sporting arena, a piping hot, 32-ounce bag of urine might go unnoticed.

[LAUGHTER]

But not so in a stuffy airplane, or a small, crowded bookstore. An hour after christening it, I smelled like a nursing home.

[LAUGHTER]

On top of that, I'd found that it was hard to pee and do other things at the same time.

[LAUGHTER]

Reading out loud,

[LAUGHTER]

discussing my dinner options with a flight attendant, checking into a fine hotel. Each activity required its own separate form of concentration. And while no one knew exactly what I was up to, it was pretty clear that something was going on.

[LAUGHTER]

I think it was my face that gave me away,

[LAUGHTER]

That and my oddly swollen calf.

[LAUGHTER]

What ultimately did me in was the self-adhesive condom. Putting it on was no problem, but its removal qualified as what, in certain cultures, is known as a bris.

[LAUGHTER]

Wear it once, and you'll need a solid month in order to fully recover. It would likely be a month in which you'll weigh the relative freedom of peeing in your pants against the unsightly discomfort of a scab-covered penis.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

David Sedaris is the author of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and other books. He was recorded by Seattle Arts and Lectures.

Credits.

Jon Ronson

I think you ought to know that I'm going through a creative stage, which some people find difficult to connect to.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.