Saturday, July 05, 2003


I can't remember why I once read Bertrand Russell's The ABC of Relativity , but the only thing I remember from it today was the extended analogy he used to explain the concept: Imagine yourself in an airplane travelling over the United States on the evening of the Fourth of July. You see these random explosions of color at various locations below you, and you can start to judge the distances to each relative to each other and yourself, relative to your speed.

That's what I felt like last night driving home from my sister's house, reckoning my distance from each town along the way against the fireworks in the sky: There's Clifton Heights on my left, Collingdale way over on my right, and Springfield's loud, bright finale in the rearview. I had spent all day at my sister's place in Downingtown having the usual fun that made me wonder as usual why the hell my childhood was such a mess with such good people in my family.

But of course it would take years and years to explain the particular horrific dynamic of the house we grew up in, though my sister and I always try. Suzanne did a very nice job of summing it up: Our older brother Joe had the benefit of growing up around his two highly functional immigrant grandfathers, the alpha male German and the handy, patient Lithuanian, while Suzanne's character and mine were formed in the bizarre crucible of our nuclear family unit alone. Pretty much every ethical lesson we learned in our family was socially disastrous: If You're Not Intimidating, Prepare To Be Intimidated. Cruelty Is Best Addressed Passively. If You're Unhappy, It's The Fault Of Others. The Squeaky Wheel Gets Not Only The Grease, But Also The Right To Run You Over.

Fortunately, she and I were smart enough to figure out how destructive all of this was, so we didn't act like that, or tried our best not to. I think we were both sort of inchoate, unformed people when we left home, and we had to figure things out on our own. Suzanne accomplished this--magnificently, as you would agree if you knew them--with the way she and Tom raised their children.

She told me one story I'd never heard before about her son Matthew and what she said to him after he was humiliated at school in first grade by refusing to hit back when a girl hit him (because she had told him that boys hitting girls was wrong). And she told him how courageous and genuinely Christ-like that act was. And how proud she was that he believed in a principle like that.

All I could think of is what my father would have done in that situation, how he would have made the kid feel like a single-celled organism.

We exist, we hurtle through life with all the wounds of our collective experience. Other people enter our lives like random explosions of light. And we really can't tell where we are unless we make reference to them. They tell us where we are.

We remake and heal ourselves through our influence on others.

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