Ham on Wry

Girl Playing with Hula Hoop

I am an honest person. Like my father, I’m ethical, considerate, and fair.

Of course I dabbled in dishonesty when I was a kid. But I generally did it to make the story better, rather than to avoid responsibility or bad-mouth another. My best memory of lying is from when I was seven or eight, living on Long Island, totally into my hula hoop. I was good enough at it that I heard Dad remark about my skill to Mom.

There came a day when I asserted that I’d kept the hoop circling me one million times. My friends looked dubious but I insisted, and after a while they stopped arguing with me about it. We turned our attention to other toys. Then I told my parents about my million-hoop accomplishment. Their faces didn’t open up in the admiration I expected. Again I insisted. Finally Dad sat me down and we had a talk.

“Honey,” he said to me. “How long does it take you to count to one hundred?”

I thought about it and figured I could do the job in a few minutes.

“What about one thousand? That’s one hundred ten times.”

I needed help with the answer. I agreed with Dad that I might be able to do it in half an hour.

“Do you know how many a million is? It’s one thousand, a thousand times.”

I couldn’t do the computation.

“Sweetheart, if it takes a half hour to count to one thousand, then you might be able to get to two thousand in one hour. But you still need another 998 thousands to hit your million. That would take – hmmm – 499 more hours. That’s nearly three weeks!”

I got it. No way can anyone do a million hula hoop rotations without stopping. What I didn’t get was why my friends and even my parents hadn’t said, “No way” or “You lie” or something when I made my crazy claim.

I learned a few lessons that day. Like: don’t make the claim stretch credibility. And don’t assume just because the story isn’t challenged that the listeners believe. But mostly I became sensitized about honesty. I seemed to think about it more than my friends. When I grew up, I took seriously questions like, “If you knew your brother’s wife was stepping out on him, would you tell him? If your answer’s ‘no,’ does it change if he asks you?”

I considered lies of omission almost as bad as voiced untruths. I yelled at bad sitcoms and movies, whose plots were driven by people refusing or neglecting to communicate with a loved one. As far as I was concerned, that sort of non-honesty was a weak motive in a thin story. Above all, unnecessary. Wasteful.

I prided myself on my honesty. I thought I took after my father that way. Dad was notorious in the family for once trying, repeatedly and without ultimate success, to return the change he found in a pay phone to the telephone operator. I never heard my dad tell even a social lie.

I mostly spoke the truth. I admitted it when I misbehaved. Yes, I sometimes told Mom or a girlfriend that she looked good when I didn’t really think so, and occasionally avoided a social invitation by making up a story excuse (never inventing illness in a relative, though, because even though I’m not superstitious, why take a chance?).

I think I know something about honesty. I’ve even developed a theory about it and Donald Trump. He really doesn’t get it. The idea has no meaning to him. We have words like “moral-immoral-amoral” and “sexual/non-sexual/asexual,” but we only have two linguistic choices about truth-telling: honest and not. We need “a-honesty” or “an-honesty” to signify the rare individual for whom the concept has zero meaning.

I understand it when a kid tells a lie. I see it as a sign of development in a kindergartner, a testing of limits in elementary school, maybe a beginning of creative thinking in junior high. But when an adult tells a bold-faced lie, I’m astounded. Doping athletes who steadfastly deny, philandering politicians, corporate robber-barons…you know.

But recently I did it myself. Now I’m so self-conscious about it I know it wasn’t worth it. Just like I knew it when I did it. Just like I knew it when I last ventured into the realm of dishonest insistence. It’s enough to make me change my ways.

I live in a creekside cottage. My house is a little below sidewalk level, nestled in a curve of the waterway, so the route to my door slopes down. The path is made of beautiful old clinker bricks; it must have been laid around 1912, when the place was built, because the same sort of bricks were used in its hearth and chimney.

Those old bricks are slick when wet. My gardener and I have tried power-washing and roughing them up, but nothing works during rainy season. Most winters I drape a cord between the laurel trees that flank the beginning of the path, redirecting visitors down the driveway so they don’t have to negotiate the slipperiness. But my utility meter is only reachable from the path, and at the time of this event, we didn’t yet have smartmeters or whatever they’re called; a PG&E employee had to tread the brick path once a month. One time the employee slipped and fell. I ignored her cries for help as long as possible, and then I lied to her. I can excuse ignoring her, a little, but not lying to her. The episode was rooted in a crazy street person, but I’m responsible for what I did.

We call Berkeley the open ward for a reason. Our inhabitants include a large population of crazies. Most of them are harmless. But not bun-woman.

I first encountered her a few months before the event I’m describing. I was in my front yard, talking to the gardener. He came by most Monday mornings, the weekday I worked from home. We were usually in the back yard, near the creek, but that morning he and I and my retriever were out front. The dog wasn’t on a leash and didn’t need one.

All of a sudden I was accosted from the sidewalk. A slim gray-haired woman was walking past my place and she started yelling at me about what she called my uncontrolled dog. My pet was by my side at the time and quiet.

I looked at the stranger like she didn’t make sense. She started screaming at me. She pulled out what appeared to be an old flip-phone and said she was going to call the police. Her thin hair was pulled up in a bun on the top of her head, and it wobbled as she yelled.

“Get out of here,” I enunciated firmly. “Just keep walking.”

Of course that didn’t work. It took several more of her yells before she moved on.

Well, she latched onto my face like an angry crow. Whenever I encountered her after that, she stopped to yell at me. Once I was on a bus, seated near the front, and didn’t know she was a passenger until she walked from the back to the front, to disembark. She paused right in front of me, thrust her middle finger almost in my face, and told everyone on the bus what a goddamned bitch I am.

To say I knew her voice is an understatement. So that morning a few months later, when I heard shouts of “Help! Help me! Somebody help me!” I assumed it was bun-woman. I knew there were others who could hear her, and I thought she was just making noise. I deigned not to respond.

A few minutes later I went to the bathroom. The cries resumed and sounded louder. I stepped into my claw-footed bathtub so I could look out of the casement window. Oh my! There was a young woman, clad in PG&E uniform, asprawl beneath my eyes.

I raced downstairs. The woman had already called her supervisor and said he was on the way. She didn’t want an ambulance. She asked for some body lotion and a glass of water and I fetched those immediately. But then she looked at me with her pain-stricken face and said plaintively, “Didn’t you hear me?”

I blurted “no.” She looked disbelieving (I think). I elaborated. “I was in the back of my house, with the radio on. I didn’t hear you till I went to the bathroom.”

I felt ashamed as I said it. I should have said “Yes, I heard you, but I honestly thought you were this crazy-woman who regularly acts up around me. I’m so sorry.” But I didn’t. The lie leapt into my mouth like an impulse and, once out, I just kept maintaining it, like it was a hula-hoop feat.

That event was years ago, and I’m still ashamed. The woman broke her ankle but as far as I know she healed completely. There was a brief inquiry from my homeowner’s insurance but no claim was paid. I assume her expenses were covered by her employer.

Still ashamed, but not enough to avoid repeating. This time I ignored no plea for help. All I did was avoid what might have amounted to a little embarrassment.

I was smoking pot very early last Saturday morning. My neighbor Anne noticed something billowing from the direction of my study window. She called me because she was concerned I might have a fire. “Or maybe it’s just steam coming off your lower roof as the sun hits it,” she offered.

I acted dumb. I told her I couldn’t see any sign of fire, or smell any. I thanked her and even stepped outside, like I was checking the exterior of that part of my house. She popped her head out and we repeated our conversation. When I showered a little later, I noticed the missed call and voicemail on my cell phone, which Anne apparently tried before my landline. I hadn’t been near my cell at the time, but it emphasized to me how seriously she took what she saw, how earnestly she tried to alert me. That’s when I started to assume she had figured out what the smoke was from, after our exchange if not during it.

I feel self-conscious. I don’t for a moment think there’s a graceful (or even necessary) way to confess to Anne that I lied. I just don’t want to do it again.

There’s no reason to hide my smoking. Cannabis is just about legal now, I can get it medically, and I’m still allowed to smoke, even here, because my home shares no walls with others. Partly I sneak-smoke out of habit – all those years of hiding from my parents and then my kids: that lovely outlaw feeling. Partly I do it because I now have chronic bronchitis, so it’s stupid for me to smoke anything, and I hesitate to appear stupid.

But really. This sort of lie is silly. Silly is worse than stupid. Stupid is worse than wry.

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