I’m forever telling lies, mostly to myself but also, often enough, to friends and colleagues and students, and especially to my kids, who are seven, five, and five. How else to make it through? At dinner the other night, my companion and I discussed with friends, who’d just returned from a funeral, the 1970 Kent State killings. I saw photos yesterday, I told them, of those troops raising their rifles, rifles with bayonets, for godsakes, one guy out front with a handgun. Listen, said my friend, whose mother had just died, I had an aunt there, she worked there at the time, she says the prevailing sentiment was that they deserved it, the students, that that whole crowd needed to be taught a lesson. I believe my friend’s aunt gauged the sentiment correctly: Two years later, by a staggering majority, the nation reelected Richard Nixon. The Ohio vote wasn’t close, Nixon taking the Buckeye state by a whopping 21 points. And with his law and order platform, he even easily won Portage County, where the killings occurred.
Today, at the opening of an academic conference, a Wellness Leader showed, in a Powerpoint presentation, a photo of fitness club members in workout clothes riding, in order to reach the entrance to their club, an escalator. The humor was in the fact that the members, who were, after all, about to exercise, chose the escalator over an equally accessible set of stairs. The angle and tone of the photograph played up the absurdity. How silly! we thought, and No wonder the obesity epidemic! Over conference folders and light breakfast fare, we chuckled. We do what we’re told, the Wellness Leader explained, and we’ve been told to choose the easiest path. But all is not lost. To change that behavior, the Leader continued, almost breathless now with a genuine earnest eagerness to end all bad behavior entirely, all we’d need to do is tell people to take the stairs! A simple sign would do it, she exclaimed. Volumes of peer reviewed research back her up, research that holds, said the Leader, enormous promise: Post a sign that says to take the stairs, and almost all of us would take the stairs. We do, the research shows, and this is what’s exciting, said the Leader, what we’re told.
The audio, from an unidentified National Guardsman, just before the killings: Right here. Get set. Point. Fire. 13 seconds, 67 bullets later: four dead in O-hi-o.
One lie I tell is that we care, generally—human beings—about each other. We could not, I tell myself in the moments just before the night’s dark hour, create The Odyssey or King Lear or Thomas and Beulah without a profound sense of The Other. Surely, were it true this thing’s a joke, nothing more, and a cruel one at that, we’d have no Dickinson, no Yeats, no freakin’ Rumi, read by Bly, loud on an old tape deck while I shower. But the clock in the darkest part of night ticks, ticks, ticks, and though I hear my children in their sleep, just feet away, breathe, calming me, I know the truest hour always comes, flaunting its parade of stars: Armenia. Germany. Cambodia. El Salvador. Bosnia. Rwanda.
One reason I’m thinking about lying is because I’ve just finished a novel and am a hundred pages or so into a memoir. I believed every word of the novel, even as its action took place in a part of the world I’ve never been to and at a time before I was born. The memoir, on the other hand, although well-enough written, although compelling, is leaving me a little uneasy. I mentioned this to a writer friend who answered with all the usual stuff about verisimilitude, etc. But that’s not it, at least not entirely. The novel is A Personal Matter, by Kenzaburo Oe. The memoir is The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. I’ll write more about this once I finish the memoir.