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Wed, June 19

Column: The lies my parents told me

I was only 15 years old when my father finally told me the truth about Santa Claus. "Son," he said, "Santa's sleigh causes a warp in the space-time continuum, which is why he can visit every child's house in a single night."

Later, of course, I found out that he was wrong, that it wasn't the sleigh at all, it was the tiny black hole created by Rudolph's glowing nose. But was this a deliberate deceit, or was my father merely stating what was then the generally accepted theory? I suspect the former. Parenting is difficult under any circumstances, and in my father's view, to raise a morally upright and honest child you sometimes have to lie to him.

Take, for example, what my father told me about the Labrador and the swing set. The Lab in question was a fairly fat canine who liked to eat inedible objects like balloons and T-shirts and my mother's tuna noodle casserole. The swing set was a rusty monstrosity made of sheet metal gone rogue; sharp edges eagerly waiting for an opportunity to lacerate young flesh. It was there when we moved into the house, probably because the previous owners didn't want to remove it for fear of bleeding out.

"I've got to get rid of that swing set before it cuts somebody," my father would mutter darkly as he stood watching birds avoid landing on it. "You could guard a prison with that thing."

"No!" we children would shriek. We'd run out to the swing set and furiously play on the cheese-grater like slide and the razor-wire swings, somehow managing to avoid being impaled. "It's my favorite place to play!" I'd insist. "Can I have a tourniquet?"

Unless my father was threatening to evict it, we pretty much ignored the swing set, which is why months or maybe even years went by before I noticed it was gone. "Hey!" I shouted, outraged. "What happened to the swing set?"

"Oh. The dog ate it," my dad replied simply.

I was pretty amazed and completely fooled, but then again I was the sort of person who thought Santa's sleigh caused a warp in space-time when any idiot could see that Rudolph's nose was glowing with black-hole intensity! Years later, in college, my fraternity brothers and I were lazily discussing Things Our Pets Have Eaten (we tended to do everything lazily) when I said, "Oh, that's nothing, my dog once ate an entire metal swing set!"

For a while everyone sat there in a stupor, and then someone said, "Oh, come on, a swing set?"

And I realized right then: My father had lied to me.

My mother taught me to drive using the "Detroit Method," where speed limits and traffic lights are taken as cute suggestions. Her aggression carried over to personal interactions, as well: "When someone bothers you in traffic," she advised me, "you shake your fist at them, so they'll know to drive better next time."

When a burly guy in a jacked-up Camaro tailgated me for 5 minutes before pulling up next to me at a stoplight, I shook my fist at him, just like any good momma's boy would do. This inspired him to drive beside me for the next several miles, gesturing to me that I should pull over so he could beat his fists on my face. I pretended that I didn't understand what he meant, making hand signals to let him know that I appreciated his offer, but no thanks.

My mother had lied to me.

Probably the worst lie had to do with my parents' annual trek to do "charity work" for the "indigenous people" of Hawaii. Every February, when it was so cold we'd have trouble walking to school because our pants would freeze, my parents would depart for their 10 days of selfless service to the impoverished people at the Ritz Carlton. "You'd hate it there," my parents told me. "You can't swim because the coral reefs are sharper than our old swing set."

I even believed them when I saw a photo of the indigenous people handing them an umbrella drink.

And then I went to Hawaii. And guess what?

My parents had lied to me.


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