This week’s This American Life offers us three physics lessons—or, rather, three stories that each reflect some scientific principle. In the prologue Ira Glass muses on the risks of ignorantly appropriating scientific concepts. But physics is mentioned so rarely in the episode that he needn’t have worried; the theme is no more than a framing conceit. The most entertaining physics demonstrations display the ineluctability and power of the laws acting upon matter. A ball rolls down a slide; a pencil shoots into the air. These stories, by contrast, click into motion because of human choices that are arbitrary or downright bizarre.
Act one, “Occam’s Razor”, tells the story of David Paladino. He was raised in an Italian family in an Italian neighborhood. He was, he believed, a “Paladino” through and through—albeit curiously dark-skinned, a trait his parents attributed to his great-grandfather’s olive complexion.
These explanations about recessive traits and Sicilian heritage eventually fail to satisfy David and his friends. In the spirit of Occam’s Razor, a simpler hypothesis emerges. “I don’t know if my mom screwed some black guy”, he blurts out one night when drunk.
Many families have certain myths to which they commit themselves in order to maintain harmony, benevolent lies they tell themselves and each other even when contradictory evidence stares them in the face. The listener doesn’t get the sense from the story that David’s mother erred, necessarily, by lying about his true paternity. The cover-up doesn’t do lasting damage to his sense of identity. He already had begun to think of himself as somehow “colored” even before he found out he was truly biracial. His mother’s eventual admission that his biological father was black strikes David not as revelatory but as a confirmation of something he already knew.
The writer Jon Ronson (author of the recent kinetic page-turner So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) animates the second act with his cheerful British self-deprecation. Ronson’s parents run a hotel in Wales. They are especially fond of their occasional celebrity guests. So they decide to get a family portrait of the Ronsons—with celebrity guests painted in. They hire a “brilliant but troubled” local artist for the job.
Each Ronson will choose three celebrities to appear alongside them in the painting. Ronson’s mother, modestly, chooses John F. Kennedy, Churchhill, and Gandhi.
When the painting is unveiled, we see that the painter has depicted the celebrities with tender accuracy and has painted the Ronsons as grotesque caricatures. One could say, however, that the painter has portrayed the celebrity-fixated family as they really are, in a Dorian Gray-esque comeuppance.
Ronson has a knack for capturing the nub of a character with a telling detail. For example, he shares that the brilliant but troubled local artist also paints hotels—not images of hotels, but hotel walls. His jibes directed at the other people in the story—especially his parents and the artist they hire—never come off as mean-spirited, because he reserves the sharpest jabs for himself.
David Sedaris closes the episode with a story that has him saying the words “external catheter” within 15 seconds of speaking. That might be all I need to say. His story is, yes, about his misadventures with an external catheter. Sedaris’s salty segment (no pun intended) does not lend itself to analysis or critique; it is all premise and no depth. But what a premise it is. If listening to Sedaris talk about clandestinely urinating in public places is your idea of a fun time, you already know who you are.
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