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From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. And, of course, every week here we try to describe and understand the world by listening to all kinds of people that we interview and to reporters and writers. And it's occurred to us lately that maybe this is wrongheaded. Maybe 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. He thought the only place worth living was New York City. This is a man, by the way, who had grown up in a town of a few thousand in Indiana.
You know, he loves the symphony and opera and, you know, art movies. And he never felt like he fit. He thought that there are people in New York, where all loved classical music and loved 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.
And so they moved to New York, the whole family, when Dennis was 12.
It was awful. I mean, it was a disaster from the moment we touched down. None of the elements that he had fantasize about were there. I think we went to the symphony once. It's expensive. I mean, just the pace of the city and the competitiveness of it, he just couldn't-- he couldn't handle 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.
Now, science can help us understand this story. 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 are at the center of the universe. The sun and stars revolved around us. Mediocrity principle says, no, no, that's wrong. No place is special. And there's nothing special about us.
Dennis says, by the way, that all this was obvious to him even when he was 12, back when his stepdad was itching to move to New York.
When I first heard about the mediocrity principle, it made me really happy. It almost felt like I had discovered a law of science as a 12-year-old, all by myself.
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 should be more than just roommates. By August 3, Lars had told Kitty that he wanted to marry her. They've been together for years now. They're incredibly happy.
And they both say that if they hadn't actually lived together, as roommates, if they'd only dated, it never would've worked out.
No-- yeah, probably not. We wouldn't have spent that much time with each other. I mean, the weekends we would spend pretty much the entire days with each other. And we're pretty different people.
And I'm not your type. I mean, I think you're a little bit more my type, but you've always said that I was never your type.
[LAUGHS] 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.
What can science tell us about this? OK, well, in physics, there's something called the Casimir Effect. It says that there's an attractive force between objects that are in proximity to each other. Henry Casimir was talking about two uncharged plates close to each other in a vacuum. It's a very faint sort of force. And a very faint sort of force was all that Lars and Kitty felt for each other at first.
I mean, it kind of just crept up on me. I mean, we were spending lots of time together, and towards the end we're flirting and whatnot. But it really didn't quite dawn on me until, you know, we're on the couch kissing.
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. And yeah, it's the most, you know, violent, misogynistic movie ever made. And yet we still-- we fall in love over it. It's our movie.
Yeah, that is a strong feeling of romance to overcome that barrier.
Well, it still kind of creeps me out a little bit.
I'm a little embarrassed about that part.
Right, but that proves how inevitable. I mean, if you can make lovey eyes at each other during that movie, there's no stopping us.
Now, I need to acknowledge that physicists hate it-- they hate it, they 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 David Kestenbaum, PhD. He used to be a high energy experimental particle physicist on the team that discovered the top quark at Fermilab. He's now one of our colleagues on the radio. He works as a correspondent for NPR's show Planet Money.
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 Schrodinger'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.
OK, I have to say, that seems entirely reasonable. But we at This American Life, we just do not care. Our feeling is once physicists name something the mediocrity principle or the uncertainty principle or the grandfather paradox, basically they're asking for it. The mediocrity principle prances into the lives of us non-scientists all provocative with that all provocative name. And what? We're not supposed to give that a second glance? We're supposed to stop our brains from instantly seeing that and all these other rules as metaphors to apply hither and thither wherever we will?
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 this moment 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 coats, my friends, and stay with us.
Act One. Occam's Razor.
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 gonna 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.
This kid was there playing. He was a young black kid. And he starts talking to me. And, you know, he was much more outgoing than I was. He's asking me questions. And he's like, oh, do you curse? I'm like, no, I don't swear. My mom would kill me. And he's like, yeah, I do. I don't care.
So we're like having a good time, and I was like, yeah, do you want to see my place? He's like, yeah. So we walk. It's like a minute away. So we're walking around the backyard area. There's these tall hedges, and there's the sliding glass door.
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 doin' 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 like right behind her. She's like, "Oh, Davy, who's your friend?" And he's like, "Who's that?" I said, "Oh, that's my mom." He's like, "Your mom?" And then my dad is right there. 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, it was like, there was probably something there to be discussed and that put me in more mystery, I guess, about I guess I am different.
Carol and I met in high school. She was in Provenzano and I was Paladino, so we were two seats, three seats apart in homeroom.
This is Dave Paladino's father, David Paladino, Sr.
Big snow fall 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.
And then after that, we were boyfriend and girlfriend for the end of sophomore year, junior year, senior year.
Dave and Dave's mom Carol went to high school in a neighborhood on 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.
We were trying to mix the 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 into 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 stuff at that time. So I remember dancing the boogaloo. [LAUGHS]
Actually, the role that I played at the high school, I was on, in quotes, "Cross-Section Committee."
This is Dave's mom, Carol.
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 kind of 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, this all felt right.
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.
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 of 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. 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 make sure that there were other white girls there.
At this point, Carol began seeing one basketball player in particular, Keith Rash, a black student one year behind her in school.
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.
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.
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 had no idea.
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.
OK, so then Dave says-- you know, 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?" And there was a pound on the table too. 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, it 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, [GASP], 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 of it was probably when-- he was born in March. It 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.
At the married student apartments, we had a little swimming pool out front. And Davie was out, and he was out in the full sun. And he got [SNAP] 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. We had him in the cart. And we were wheeling him into a store. And this woman came out and 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. Hold on." 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. This is our baby." She says, "I know it's your baby. But we're thinking of adopting an 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. You know, "No, this is my wife and I's child. He's just dark."
That was an odd situation.
What did that do in your mind? Did you think about it? Did you interrogate it?
No, you see, I've had a lot of time to think about it since that. And I think what's interesting is that your mind-- if they have a belief system that they put together, and they build their life on their belief system, that it's very hard for that belief systems 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.
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. You know, 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."
You know I was a science teacher so I wasn't like really stupid, OK? But I do know that our genetic makeup is 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 like three generations ago they look like someone.
So it's like we're Italian, Paladino.
As David junior got older, he was told the same stories inquisitive strangers were told.
You know, and my aunt was kind of dark skinned over there. And they had 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 a dark-skinned Italian. I'm from the southern part of Italy, so there's also Sicilian. Sicily is right there, and the Moors, and blah, blah, blah. And it is what it is.
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.
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.
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 girlfriend's 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 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 additions. 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 till 4:00 in the morning, they finally pulled up to their hotel.
We get out of the cab, and there's a homeless guy there. And he's a black man, and he's probably in his 40s or something. And he's like asking for some money. 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 he kind of launches into this thing about as 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. You know, the guy, I could just see the guy. His 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, "If you give the guy a dollar, give the guy a dollar. Don't give him your viewpoint."
He's like, "Well, if I'm gonna give a guy a dollar, I'm gonna say something." I said, "You're, what, a 27-year-old white guy who grew up in a predominately white area." I said, "I don't know his life. But you haven't lived his life. You know, he's a 40-year-old black guy who's living on the street now. Who knows what the heck he's done. But-- "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 [BLEEP] some black guy or some Mexican guy." I said, "But this is me. I have a different reality."
And when that came out of your mouth, what did you--
When that came out of my mouth, like, 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?
So David had to talk to his mom, but 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."
In that moment, I don't know, it's like a lifetime happened. And then it was just like, OK. She said, "Dave Paladino is not your biological father." The next thing, please. And she said then, "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."
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, Sr. would do. Turns out, Carol said, David, Sr. had known for nine years. She had told him before the divorce and begged him not to tell his son. David, Sr. 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, Sr. 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 our husband's anyway, that maybe there was something to that recessive gene idea.
David, Sr. 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, crave 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.
That's what people may not understand. Well, yeah, Dave. Well, I could tell you, he's black or he's dark or he's this, and those things are obvious. Or hey, I knew the whole time. 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.
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.
So I went to the front door. [KNOCKING NOISE]. I knock on the front door. And I hear around the corner, the side door open. "Can I help you?" Oh, man. 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, I said, "I'm looking for Keith Rash." And he says, "You got him. Who are you?" And I said, "Well, my name's David Paladino." And he looks at me. He has the strangest look on his face. And he said, "Didn't I go to high school with you?" And I'm like, "Um, 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 of a sudden, I was looking at my legs.
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.
Now, this guy here, you see the resemblance?
But yeah, I think that him and Dave look a lot alike.
Yeah, this is Henry Rash. He's from--
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.
I got a couple here when I was just a little, little man.
Oo-ee. Yep. Yeah, I tell you, you do look a little Afro-American on there, doesn't he? Compared to-- yeah.
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.
So that means you're going to be busy later. See, the reason I ask, let me just cut to the chase, OK?
That's right. Get to the point.
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 and keep this going here.
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.
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?
No, because it's got to go back to the family. If you got something that's been that deep-rooted for so long, why uproot it?
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.
Because 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 or in bigger groups, that I'm not like I'm crawling in my skin, but that I'm just not as solid as I am sitting here right now.
So you're nervous.
It's not like I'm sitting there the whole time kvetching, like, 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 known all their life that they're half this and half that probably has that more of an identity, maybe.
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, Sr. 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 seems 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.
Cris Beam. Her latest book, To the End of June, takes a look at the lives of foster children in America.
Coming up, David Sedaris conducts an experiment with fluids and heat and a two and a half foot tube. And that's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.
This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Family Physics, Stories of Everyday Life, which we come to understand better by applying the laws and principles of science.
Act Two. The Trajectory And Force Of Bodies In Orbit.
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 it 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 problems 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," uttered 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 subspecialty 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 end 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, statesmen, actors, anything."
"Let me clarify this in my head," I said. "There'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 Beverley 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 Beverley 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 Beverley 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 might 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 will 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. And 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, and 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.
"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 is 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 at 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."
Jon Ronson. His latest book is So You've Been Publicly Shamed.
[MUSIC - "STARS IN MY LIFE" BY THE FLATLANDERS]
Act Three. Conservation Of Energy And Matter.
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, 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. And what could be manlier?
Was it discreet? According to the brochure, unless you wore it with shorts 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. The window seat on an overbooked cross-country flight? Don't mind if I do.
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. But not so in a stuffy airplane or a small, crowded bookstore. An hour after christening it, mine smelled like a nursing home.
On top of that, I found that it was hard to pee and do other things at the same time. Reading out loud, 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.
I think it was my face that gave me away. That and my oddly swollen calf.
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.
Wear it once and you'll need a solid month in order to fully recover. It will 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.
David Sedaris. He was recorded by Seattle Arts & Lectures. He's the author of many fine books, and he's going out on tour. To find when he's coming to your town, visit DavidSedarisBooks.com.
Well, the program was produced today by Jonathan Goldstein and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, and Starlee Kine. Senior producer for today's show was Julie Snyder. Contributing editors for today's show, Susan Burton, Rebecca Carroll, Jack Hitt, Margie Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, Paul Tough, Nancy Updike, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Our technical director is Matt Tierney.
Production help today from Michael Garofalo, Willie Sullivan, and Lyra Smith. Music help today by Jamie Hodge and Sarah Vowell. Our website ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who explains some of his recent decisions at work this way.
I think you ought to know that I'm going through a creative stage which some people find difficult to connect to.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.