July 8, 2012

And You'll Know Me by my Pants on Fire...

The first lie I remember telling was in the second grade, and it saved my soul. I can say with confidence that I told plenty of whoppers prior to that May in 1972 because I possessed all of the requisite outside forces necessary to lead me down the path of righteous fibbing: I had a sister (younger and gullible), I liked candy (more than my meager allowance could supply), I placed homework far behind Gilligan’s Island (a tangled web of tropical survival lies), I loved all things Barbie (a lifestyle of lies: Dream House, Friend Ship airplane, Malibu, Ken), and most importantly, I was a fan of Columbo and his lie-detecting skills, which made me, by keen observation, an expert liar.  I can’t readily recall by name any of the lies I told up until then, and not many of them afterward. Surely there were hundreds of spur-of-the-moment survival quips, uttered and then forgotten, along the lines of, “Did you eat your broccoli?” “Yes!” “Did you brush your teeth?” “Yes!” “Who released the emergency brake?!” “Not me.”  My earliest remembered lie was the first I had to work for, dig deep into my soul and wrestle out, fabricate in just the right way, form just so and present perfectly. And then, oddly enough, for an encore I had to beg forgiveness. Or pretend to. Peter Falk would have been proud.

In second grade, the girls and boys at Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Elementary School prepare to receive their first Holy Communion by receiving another holy sacrament first – the sacrament of confession. For the six or seven of you who are unfamiliar with Catholic rites of passage, this entails a solemn one-on-one with a priest, wherein the sinner (that’s me) confesses a litany of transgressions that the priest, acting at the behest of God, forgives. The sinner (again, me) emerges from the process relatively sin-free, with that new-car smell, and punches the reset button until the following week – same time, same channel, same sins. Unlike those lucky Jews, who atone annually, Catholics are on the weekly plan.

As Catholics grow older the sacrament of confession can take on many reflective meanings. As a second grader (and throughout the remainder of my Catholic career, which lasted roughly until eighth grade), confession was the first step toward my life as a thespian: a memorized dialogue with a priest, with a brief moment of improv right in the middle where I, the sinner, would recount the sins of my week. Those moments of “sin-prov” became so daunting that I dreaded confession, not for the usual God-forsaking or smiting reasons, but because I feared drawing a blank on the really good sins.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I was not a perfect child, but let’s not quibble – I was pretty damned close. As far as seven-year-olds go there were a lot of dirtier spuds in the mash. I pulled straight A’s, loved school, read books for fun, played the guitar in church, enjoyed singing and dancing, and hung out with a gaggle of other dorks. I was destined to maintain my virginity until legal adulthood, remain arrest-free and avoid intravenous recreational drugs as well as unwanted pregnancies. This beige future was written all over my pasty ass-kissing face, and was screwing me up royally at “go time” in the confessional. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession and these are my sins…”

We were prepped at length for this initial outing. In class we studied the Ten Commandments one at a time and reflected on their relevance in our young lives. We were crime-fighters turning over every clue, uncovering any unwitting sin we hadn’t thoroughly considered.  And while the exercise was meant to instruct us how to live our days, build our moral fiber and shape our ethical choices, it was most helpful for me in figuring out my list of sins for Father Cloherty come Friday.

“Have you taken the name of the Lord in vain?” Probably. Like “Oh God!?” Well, sure. I’ll take one of those.

“Have you kept holy the Sabbath?” I might as well forget about that one. I was not allowed to skip church under any circumstances, despite my dad’s apparent lifetime pass on the weekly outing. (“Tell God I said hello,” he’d say as we left for mass. I never did pass on his messages to God.)

“Have you honored your father and your mother?” Usually. Well, publicly. But this one seemed a likely candidate, especially considering the poor secretarial skills I was exhibiting between Dad and God. Sign me up for one dose of disrespect.

“Have you born false witness?” That means lying. Obviously this one fit like a glove. Like a fake-list-of-sins glove. So, yes, I’ll take one lying to go, please. Only I knew how ironic this particular confession was. Like deciphering an Escher drawing, confessing the lie of fake confessions made my young mind reel - with the giddiness I soon came to associate with being criminally insane.

The Ten Commandments became my personal shopping list of things to screw up, rather than rules to live by. “Note to self: Don’t forget to covet your neighbors’ goods before Friday!” That meant lusting heavily after my sister’s Rock Flower doll. Friday mornings, in preparation for my afternoon appearance in the role of penitent ne’er-do-well, were especially harried. “Can’t play – sinning!”

I imagined this whole process must be a piece of cake for the really rotten kids, or even easier for those public school kids who were allowed to sin right and left, willy nilly, in addition to wearing jeans, JEANS, to school. “No fair,” I would grumble to myself. “John D. is sinning right now. I can see him, and so can God. He’s got it soooo easy.”

Unfortunately, no matter how prepared I would be with my pocket full of devil’s deeds, when it came down to the wire, at the moment of truth, as it were, I would panic. From the first confession through many to follow, I would, as they say, “make shit up on the spot” so the priest wouldn’t get bored, would have some real forgiving to do, and wouldn’t feel his Friday afternoon was being wasted on future saints. Sometimes, though not often, I would freeze completely and sputter, “Sorry, I can’t think of anything.” This never elicited the response I hoped for, a casual “Oh, okay, why don’t you go play some tetherball while I handle the real heathens.”  My naturally pink cheeks would deepen to crimson and the accusation would follow. “Well, my child, there’s always Pride. That’s a sin. A deadly one.” So, quickly I might stammer, “Well…I did murder a few guys…and adulterate…someone…on Thursday. Can I go now?” These Fridays never went well, and I spent many afternoons with Sister Jamesina discussing respect. (A side note on respect: As a parent teaching respect to my own children, I often wonder why my teachers, counselors and mom and dad never dropped my effective tactic on me back in the day, since it seems to be working pretty well: Nobody likes a shit-head.)

I have told some doozies since my time as a false confessor. For years my high school alumni directory listed me as an astronaut working at NASA. I have also lied by implication and by omission. “Why be rude,” I think, “and correct somebody about my actual credentials, when they are so happy believing I’m qualified for this high-paying position, this lead role in The Tempest, this monogamous relationship.” I have exaggerated. I have embellished. However, I don’t think I’ve ever again tried to make myself look bad just for the honor of being made good. Those years in and out of the confessional were a distinct spiritually subversive yet creative era in my life, much like Picasso had his Blue Period, or Andy Kaufman had his lady-wrestling period. I had my fake sins period.

Through my teen years my lying skills were enacted like those of any other normal American teenager - for good and not evil, that is, to protect my parents and their notion of me and my friends as law-abiding, morally superior, well-raised young people. I still never murdered anyone or adulterated, much to my dismay, although there was a steady increase in coveting.

As a young adult my tall tales once again returned to the darker side, albeit briefly, and it was not at the behest of a motivated nun, but at the overwhelming peer pressure of a cultural scene that would never understand or accept my life of relative goodness. In the early 1980’s, embroiled in the seedy punk rock scene so accurately depicted on special episodes of Quincy and CHiPs, I relied on my finely honed lying talent to drum up stories hinting at an unhappy childhood, drug experimentation, brushes with death, a checkered past with local law officials, and unresolved tête-à-têtes with minor celebrities. I scuffed up my finish, added some patina and back-story, and went about my counter-culture business. It was a nice change at this point to pull things south after working so hard on making myself angelic for so many years.

Even now, at an age that most would consider fully matured, I’ll tell a lie almost daily. This is primarily because I’m a parent, and I challenge the person who claims he or she can raise a child without lying each and every day, whether it’s about healthy food, glorious war, or the sudden disappearance of a beloved but exceedingly loud and irritating toy. It keeps my chops up, in case I ever decide to rediscover the organized religion of my youth and enter into that theater of the confessional, because even now, although I more fully comprehend the broader umbrella of “sinning,” I also practice a personal policy of “that’s none of your business.”

Recently, my suspicions that this cycle of dogmatic deceit is not mine alone were confirmed during a conversation with my mother and aunt. Both are devout lifelong Catholics, both now in their seventies. When the topic of confession came up, Aunt Carol stated emphatically, “What do we do wrong at our age?” and my mother added  “Well, in those in-between years when you don’t have enough fun to have sins, I always had: I got mad at my husband.”

Armed with this new information that being mad at my husband could possibly be a sin, I stand ready for the eventual return to the rituals, folk masses, and hopefully, coffee and donuts, of the Catholic Church experience. Just in case petty marital annoyance won’t serve me in the confessional, I’ve got some bell-ringers lined up. “Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been thirty-five years since my last confession and these are my sins. I hope your afternoon’s clear.”

You convince me this doesn't look like a very fancy port-a-potty. 
  "I co-mingled my Indiana Jones and Harry Potter accessories."    
(Kim Luke continues to lie, and sometimes to confess, although the confessions generally come during an "I love you man" moment involving Jameson. Forgiveness ensues! kluke@baymoon.com)

No comments: