A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story
June 18, 2013
“Did you ever think about how you go about telling a lie?” I said that. I’m pretty sure no one else in the entire world says things like that.
I was talking to The Skatepunk, who is pretty phlegmatic for his age, but that’s the kind of question to bring out the squirminess in anyone.
“What? Am I telling you something you don’t know? Everyone lies, and the best we can hope for is to put some distance between us and our last big whopper. But it’s there, and it will not be forgotten. If life were Liars Anonymous, the only way most people would ever get a ninety-day chip would be by lying about it.”
He chuckled. He was sitting opposite me on a bench at Duffeeland Dog Park. He had come there late in the day on Father’s Day Sunday on his skateboard, carrying his grandfather’s white Scots Terrier in his arms. That dog was now nestled up against mine, the two of them lost together in the comfortable affinity of an afternoon nap.
“But if you think about what you’ve done, in the past, when you told a lie, you can learn a whole lot about the world around you. So your choice is not telling the truth or spinning up a lie. Instead, there is facing the music as one choice, and a whole iPod full of alternative representations of reality as the other. And lying becomes not so much words – the specific choice of which will always leave you plausibly-deniable wiggle room – but deeds, the performance you put on to defend the lie. And the lie itself may only be expressed that way, as a performance, with no words being deployed at all. Am I making this up?”
He smiled and pulled his shaggy hair behind his ears. “If you play things right, the show you put on gets to be the whole justification for your being butthurt in the first place.”
“Check. Part of being a bad guy is talking yourself into a violent rage when the grievance at issue is either self-inflicted or entirely imaginary. But the trouble with bad guys is, we try to make believe there’s something different about them, when in fact it’s just the same dumbass lies, only bigger. When you hear the same words said the same way, over and over again, what you’re hearing is the same lie. And when you see the same huffy, overwrought performance to back up the lie, it’s the same damn lie. Over and over again, the same damn lie…”
He gave me a long, slow smile. “Just as a guess, is there something bothering you?”
“My daughter came to town. My almost-daughter, my never-quite-daughter, my never-daughter-enough. A young woman I’ve known since she was a child, a kid I’ve tried to look out for like she were my own kin. She told me a story, and I’ve been funked up about it for days. It’s nothing, really – mom is done with dad and dad is morose about it. That family’s name is legion.”
My term for the facial expression I saw, far from unique to The Skatepunk, is: “WTF?”
“A lot of couples waddling toward divorce look like that to other people. The reason is that mom holds all the power in the relationship. Her power to punish dad in divorce is effectively all one way, with the result that he can either say as close to nothing as possible, assuring the failure of his marriage eventually, or speak his mind right now, assuring the failure of his marriage right away.”
“Where does all the lying come in?”
“Hah! Try to find a space anywhere that isn’t spit-spattered with one lie or another, with the worst of them being the performance lies each one of them is putting on for each other, for the kids and for all the world all the time. ‘I may be acting like an asshole, but she started it!’ ‘I may be undercutting him with every little sigh and harrumph I issue, but why should I love him if he won’t love me?’ None of this is rare, not the situations and not the words and deeds used to enact the lies.
“Here’s where I get messed up: I suggested a simple idea to Megwyn, my young friend: Have mom relinquish punitive divorce. If she just can’t stay, okay, but dad gets the kids, the house and the assets. Just that one thing, taking away the power imbalance, would cut the number of divorces in half overnight. That much I love, since the entire purpose of marriage is to insure the proper upbringing of children.”
I stopped myself and regrouped. “Why are you interested?”
“I don’t know, I just am. You talk about stuff that makes me think.”
If you’re looking to get on my good side, the path is right that way. I said, “So my question is, what happens when mom comes through? That won’t happen in the family Meg told me about; they’re at the bomb-lobbing stage. But what happens in a happier family if mom takes her guns off the table, if she takes away any fear dad might reasonably have of her? What happens next?”
“And that is…?”
I shrugged. “One truth or every dumbass lie our boy can think of… Is his grievance that he is not free to express his grievances, or is there something more? When he is finally free to say what’s on his mind, what might he say…?
“I just want to yell at that guy, to say the truth. Not that specific dad, but all those fathers giving up their children by default. ‘Hey, dipshit, if you want to lose your house and lose your family, to see your kids a third of the time if you’re lucky, to watch them spin out of control as they learn to pit the two of you against each other, to lose half or more of your income, and to have the happy choice of trolling bars for disease-ridden skanks or spanking the monkey to internet porn for decades on end – all you have to do is nothing. You are right at the threshold of that fate, and it won’t take much of a breeze to push you over the edge.’ But the sad part is, I could say something like that to any one of those guys, and he’d just take the beating and do not one damn thing in response…”
To this he said nothing. Naso was up and sniffling at the air, and the little Scottie was playing along. The Skatepunk looked a question at me and I said, “Barbecue. Blocks away. I can’t smell it, but she can. Weekends are full of the smell of charred beef, but holiday weekends are a steady feast for her nose.” I ruffled at her fur and she settled back down.
“Here’s one for you,” I said. “The things you say make me think, too, and I find there are things I want to talk to you about. Can you indulge me?”
He winced, an elaborate production. “You know I’m not that smart.”
“My impression is that you are very smart, just poorly educated. The taxpayers pissed away a hundred grand sending you to school, and if they had any way of doing math, they’d demand their money back. But your mind is more than adequate to the task of remaining alive, as is evidenced by your having remained alive. Everything after that is refinement. You don’t need to know Chaucer from a tea saucer, so long as you can tell a hawk from a handsaw.”
“It’s Shakespeare – it’s really good at that part, too; how sad for you to have been cheated out of it so far – but the point is, you’re fine. Your mind works well the way it is, and if you want to adorn it with more refinements, stop apologizing and shut up and do it. But the purpose of having a mind is not to express refinements but to distinguish the real from the imaginary, fact from fiction, truth from lies. If you’re getting that part right, I can read Chaucer on my own. Anyway, I keep thinking about the obligations implied by everyday relationships.”
“Somebody’s got to.”
“Ha, ha. But think about this: If a new kid shows up at the skatepark, what obligations do you owe him?”
“Stay out of his way. Help him out if he asks. Pay him the respect he earns.”
“Nobody enforces that.”
He smirked. “Nobody needs to.”
I nodded. “The relationship works. If anyone is going to act up, it’s more likely to be the new kid. And if the group has to do anything even remotely like taking a vote, the results will be effectively unanimous. Shared pursuit of shared objectives by generally-accepted means. Voila! A family.”
He grinned at that idea.
I said, “Suppose I offer you an apple. What obligations on me are implied by that act? You can safely presume that the apple is not poisoned, yes?, and that I believe it to be a fresh and wholesome apple? By offering it to you, I am making these testaments, am I not?”
“People cheat people all the time.”
“Yes, but only by acting deceptively. I can only cheat you by insisting in my words or my actions that I am not cheating you, right? Even if I am actually betraying you with a poisoned apple, the implication in my offer is that I am living up to the obligation implied by the gift, that I seek only your good. I don’t have to give you anything, but, if I do, I should not be giving you your death, don’t you agree?”
“I can go along with that.”
“And I should not be making you ill. And I should not be deliberately causing you emotional pain. And I should not be intentionally hurting you in any way, correct? If I affect to be your friend by offering you a gift, I am doubly treacherous in delivering you to harm instead. This is obvious, isn’t it? Everyone understands it, when we talk about friends. When the subject turns to lovers, we understand it less, and less still when those lovers wed. But when they have kids between them, kids to be pushed away as burdens and yet clung-to desperately as trophies, then it’s lies all the way down, lies all the time, both ways, every way, just one endless dumbshow of lies…”
He just let me stew, which was the right thing to do. “Here’s the one that slays me: What is the moral obligation of the captain of a ship under way?”
“You’re on a boat and the boat has weighed anchor. Your life is effectively in the captain’s hands. If he does his job, you live. If he quits, you die. Under what circumstances can the captain quit, when his ship is under way…? Never, right? In taking you aboard, he took responsibility for your life. Until he delivers you safely to shore, he has no right to quit on you.”
“…You’re still talking about parents, aren’t you?”
“I’m talking about fathers. Does he have a right to check out on his marriage? I don’t think he does. I understand it, but I don’t think it’s right. He has an obligation to his children, regardless of what’s going on with his wife. If she pulls the plug on him and her kids, shame on her. But if he won’t step up to the plate to defend his children as best he can, despite his disadvantages, then he’s full of shit, too.
“So I want to see the guns come off the table, because I want to see what dad does next. If he gets busy setting things right in his marriage, then I’ll be glad to have been wrong about him. But if he just invents a new excuse to sit around with his thumb up his ass, then he deserves every second of the misery he’s living through.”
“Aren’t you the cheerful one…”
“I saw a dad and his kids on the way here. Just dad, no mom, come to visit his parents, their grandparents. Why so late? Mom has kids with her new husband, so they had to do Father’s Day at her house, and then he had to rush off to be with the kids from his first marriage, and who knows who else dad had to cater to. To be a child of divorce is to learn to wait, isn’t it?” He smiled weakly at that. “But it was just so sad, duct tape and bailing wire holding broken relationships together. There are promises no one has the right to break, and that no one has the power to repair, once they’re broken.”
He said nothing for a long time, and I really didn’t have anything to offer. My expectation is that things will get worse for American children before they get better, but I’ve never lived comfortably this proximate to despair. All of this would be easily fixed if there were any men – actual responsible stand-up guys – in American marriages. But women rejiggered the laws to make everyone equal, and the thing that is equal to a woman looks and acts like a woman under marital stress. What a huge surprise…
I stood up and set Naso off on her slow saunter back to the park gates. I can catch up to her easily, these days, plus I knew she would want to stop and visit with each member of her devoted fan club. I said, “Thanks for listening to me.”
“It’ll get better.”
“Probably not. But I’ll start to think about something else, instead.”
“No, I mean it. It’ll get better. Kids my age don’t get married at all. How long can that last?”
And you know… Despite everything, he gives me hope, him and his girlfriend and my young Megwyn and all the young people I know. I can look at modern marriage and imagine the horrors, but those kids have seen those horrors first-hand. It will be interesting to see if they can do a better job…
Continue reading from Sun City at Amazon.com
Volume One of The Naso Diaries