The Liars’ Club

When I was three or four years old, roughly the time I realized adults couldn’t see out of the back of their heads or read my mind, I took a brief foray into lying.  I say brief because kids have a horrible poker face and my Mom, after deducing that my new lucky rabbit’s foot (not so lucky it turned out) was pinched from a neighbour, sat me down and with a particular look of concern told me that if I started lying I’d stop being able to tell the difference between truth and lies.  The deep furrow in her forehead told me this was a serious matter.  My Mom was a fairly laid back parent and she only interceded if it merited strong parental guidance.   The only other significant memory I have under the age of five was when she suggested smiling might be a good idea – apparently I was a serial scowler until the age of three.  It unnerved adults when I would give them a squinty eyed stare of death after they felt the liberty to tousle my hair.  Both times I heeded her advice and my family grew up with a fairly amiable and honest kid.

Childhood is great because most things are laid out in black and white.  Bad: stealing, punching, lying, cheating, picking your nose and eating the booger.  Good: smiling, sharing, taking turns, putting on clean underwear.  It hits a snag somewhere in your teenage years when your girlfriend shows up with the high and mighty front bang held a foot above her hairline by a full can of aerosol hairspray.  When she asks you if you like it you say Yes.  When she asks if you want help styling your hair the same way you say Yes.  And Yes, you stop being able to discern if you truly like it or you’re living a lie. Welcome to social pressure.

Marriage becomes the new frontline.  The black and white is now entirely grey.  Should I tell him I ate a free promotional piece of pizza on the way home while he was preparing dinner?  I did.  Don’t.  Should I tell him his black fedora looks super dorky?  I didn’t.  Thank God, because he wore it for five more years.   I had to school my husband on the good ‘white’ lies in our first year of cohabitation.   One day, he walked in just as I had finished dressing myself in a blouse in which I felt fairly confident I looked good.  My new husband informed me that I could do better and I should probably change before we headed out for the evening.  In his pragmatic man head he was doing me a favour.  In my head I was about to do him a favour.  I proceeded to explain that our marriage would survive much better odds if he incorporated the infrequent, but awfully useful, white lie in situations where I was happy and content in my self-delusion.  He balked at any kind of lying in a marriage, believing it would set a bad precedent.  Then, I pointed out how ugly his shirt was.  He was an easy convert.

The funny thing about getting older as your parents sidle into retirement is Mom and Dad turn up to old age with selective memory loss.  The lovely folks that told you to be yourself, never steal and never lie suddenly draw forth memories that don’t look familiar.  Don’t mistake this with dementia, the memories are intact, they are just more titillating.  Minor characters are introduced born several years after the event occurred and when time travel is not used as a plot device, they rely on an illegitimate child raised by a distant relative.  Sometimes, when I’ve had a few beers, I can listen and fuss not that reality has been abandoned for the sake of a good story.  On other days I can’t resolve the contradiction of the parents from my childhood from the shysters sleeping in my guest bed.

I recently read that every time a memory is recalled it is altered, albeit in a small way.  Over time, memories that are recalled frequently are the most indistinguishable from the original.  The person doing the recollecting is unaware they are forever altering the past.  It seems it is human to err and we are all doomed to join the Liars’ Club.  It gives one pause when remembering your Mom’s furrowed brow when she was setting you straight at four years old.  Or was it a twinkle in her eye?

I descend from a tall family tree of gifted storytellers.  I can remember my Grandfather making his coffee pals chuckle over some saucy story or guffawing at the outlandishness of his own tales.  My Mom has a story of me just hours old being encased within the hospital plastic bassinet by tensor bandages because I had nearly escaped.  I’m not sure how a swaddled baby is able to climb out of a bassinet but then again, my memory from hour 3:16:05 is a bit sketchy.  In any case, my entrance into the world seemed a bit more interesting than the average baby.

A few months ago,  after having a sit down with our son about lying, using the same delivery my Mom gave me years ago, my son asked if I had ever lied.  I lied and told him no.  As he walked away with his chirpy confidence in all that is good in the world, including his Mom, I paused to think about Santa Claus.  This is a humdinger of a lie perpetuated by parents the world over.  As I see it, the old geezer is setting us all up for a major fall from grace.   A quintessential moment in childhood is when you realize your parents are fallible and may have questionable moral character.  You know the cardboard box of kittens left by the side of the road?  Yep, that was my Mom.  Remember when the peanut butter and jam packets were easily accessible by the straws and napkins?  My Dad is the reason they are now behind the counter.   My day of reckoning is coming.  Even if my son forgives the fallacy of St. Nick, his world will come crashing down with the truth about the Tooth Fairy, the Leprechaun, the Easter Bunny, the Candy Fairy (she visits the night of Halloween to take some of the candy loot in return for cash), trolls, fairies, gnomes and the time I told him girls don’t fart thereby resting blame on his father for the next five years of methane outbursts. I guess if I’m in the thick of it, I might as well take a tip from the older set and develop a few indispensable plot devices.  I’m sure I have an identical twin somewhere…..





The Dark Side of Love

I’ve decided to write about love.  February 14th is just around the corner and I thought, hey what a great topic.  Except, right now my husband and I are having an argument and I’m having a daydream about renting a fabulous apartment where I can entertain handsome suitors on the weekends I don’t have the kids.   I also fantasize my husband finally realizes my profound wisdom and disavows his inner voice in favour of blind servitude.  Too bad reality gets in the way of most fantasies.

Both my husband and I come from broken marriages.  I think our parents’ generation really took to the novelty of it.  These are people who grew up in the normalcy of domestic abuse, racism, paternalism and sexual oppression.  They were in their twenties when the 60’s liberation begun and by the time they hit their thirties, their world view had been drastically altered.   In your thirties, you stop eagerly engaging new playground friends in favour of a  nuanced selection of personalities that best accommodate your beliefs.  More tellingly, you start shedding people that piss you off.  Today, this means unfriending on Facebook; in our parent’s time it meant not returning phone calls or answering the front door or getting a divorce.  With women working, it wasn’t a bad idea anymore.  To hell with Mr. Simpson, Mrs. Simpson can buy her own milk and give it away for free if she damn well feels like it.  Of course, the kids grew up a bit smarter – or so we thought.  We realized getting divorced meant no more fancy cereal or vacations for several years while the lawyers got paid and new furniture was bought.  It also meant new adults showed up who smelled different and took up room on the couch.  Sometimes it was okay. Sometimes it really sucked.

When I decided to get married, I was 26.  I had a pretty good idea of what I liked and what I didn’t like.  I didn’t like drug addicts or alcoholics.  I liked good kissers.  I didn’t like physically or verbally abusive assholes.  I liked good food and anyone who could cook it for me.  When my husband asked me to marry him in a bar in an anxiety ridden moment of drunken hope, I said yes.  Since we had only been dating 8 short months and living together for 4, I stipulated an opt out clause of one year.  For one year, my husband was on pins and needles waiting for me to disembark.  We’ve now been married 11 years and have two really cute kids.  He is a great cook, a great kisser and a great friend.   During our arguments when I have those secret movies in my head along the plotlines of Sex In The City,  my imaginations never go as far as elopement.  My reality is much better than Carrie Bradshaw’s frustrations with Mr. Big and the trappings of existential urbanity.

I don’t pretend to understand what a good marriage looks like.  My mother remarried an alcoholic who thought domestic violence was normal until my mother beat it out of him.  I was angry for a long time because she worked and he stayed home and watched a lot of television. But, I realized in my twenties that whatever they had seemed to work in a really, really strange way.  My step-dad is incredibly quiet and my mother likes to talk a lot.  She sometimes forgets to filter important things out like anything inflammatory to her coworkers or her students so we moved every couple of years.  My step-dad does two great things: he always listens to her and he always agrees with her.   For my Mom with an insatiable need to be heard and to be accepted, these are gifts he gives her in abundance.  He simply accepts her for who she is and has never asked her to change.  In return, my mother has loved and provided for a man with a Gr. 8 education who would have likely died on the streets in an alcoholic stupor.  My Mom is really smart but she thinks her husband is brilliant.  He says a lot without saying anything at all.

Love is not always shiny and white.  It can be dark and subjective.  I have a friend who has been divorced twice from abusive men and is now dating a much younger man from her church and schooling him in everything but coitus.  He can’t imagine marrying a divorcee with two kids and she can’t imagine getting ensnared in another marriage but they scramble to share every spare moment together.  I have another friend who has had two beautiful children with a man currently relegated to roommate-with-benefits; he looks after the kids but sleeps in the basement bedroom until invited.  The fulcrum of their power balance was decidedly shifted when he returned after 6 months in absentia after the birth of their first child.  The guilt of desertion was a sentence of submission.  Another friend, extremely adept at everything, married a man plagued my ineptitude. The only thing he did really well was fall madly in love with her.  Disillusioned by her inability to transform him into a prince, and stifled by his growing insecurity and jealousy, she divorced him.  Their divorce was finalized at the same time he entered into a hospice for Lou Gehrig’s disease, the stress of the divorce having brought on the acute symptoms of a disease that in retrospect may have attributed to some of his prior failings.  She takes their 5 year old son for weekly visits to the hospice, her angry disappointment now softened to compassion as she watches her ex husband’s slow demise.  These are love stories unlike those told in movies and fairy tales; there is no satiety at the ending.  Like anything sticky and sweet, gorging on empty calories can be its own satisfaction.  Having an emaciated heart is no fun.

If love does not liberate us from ourselves then why bother?  Perhaps it shouldn’t.  Perhaps the benefit is found in the sharing of our pathologies.  Entwining ourselves is implicit in our desire to love though fraught with an infinity of opportunities to inflict pain.  Everyone has to decide for themselves what is bearable.   My measure are the good moments far outweigh the bad.  So far, so good.



What Monopoly Taught Me About Credit Default Swaps

I’m going to admit to a serious character flaw right now.  I am a giant asshole when I play Monopoly.  This devilish alter ego has been the bane of my family, friends and of my husband.   Anyone who has ever played with me has refused to ever play with me again.  Nice people, people who never fly off into dangerous rages, will fly off into dangerous rages while they are playing Monopoly with me.  I have had my hand gouged by fingernails.  My husband has warned people away to whom I have casually suggested a friendly game.   My mother has barely withheld hateful contempt, just short of filicide when she played with me as a tween.

What happens during these delightful games that should draw out the ire of normal, well-adjusted people?  It can only be explained by incomprehensible twists in fortune that foment frustration and unpalatable bitterness in those foolhardy enough to believe real estate, finance, or Monopoly is played by fixed rules.  I do not play by the rules.  The rules are boring.  But, the board with all its lovely little placeholders like Marvin Gardens, St. James Place and the coveted Boardwalk, is an intoxicating tribute to possibilities.  When player A holds the most lucrative triads of colour coded neighbourhoods, and that player is not me, one gets creative to turn the tides in one’s favour.  I go about this in many different ways, but essentially it comes down to wheeling and dealing.  I seek out the weakest player, the poor schmuck that thought utilities and railroads were the best payoff.   And they usually are, for the first 30 minutes in the game, and then the railroad baron realizes he has to mortgage off his railroads to pay his exorbitant lease on Park Avenue that just keeps riding higher with the development boom.  He’s at his wits end, forking over the cash to player A, watching his newly accrued wealth dwindle away.  Then I step in, offer favourable terms to relinquish him of his languishing properties and voila, I suddenly have some very valuable properties onto which I build my real estate empire.  This is all happening under the extreme protestations of player A and there is usually some emphatic gesturing towards the rules written on the back of the box but never underestimate desperation.   Desperation causes the weak to forgo common sense and reasoning.  Desperation is the commodity in which all schemes trade.

Two years ago, my sister and her son were visiting us from Australia.   At the time my son was 6 years old and his cousin was 8 years old.  I had been out, enjoying a walk while my sister was spending quality time with the kids.  Unbeknownst to me, they had started a game of Monopoly.  Upon my return, I walked into the midst of their game.  Immediately, my hackles went up.  A quick scan of the board immediately told me that my son has been ‘helped’ into purchasing the ill fated utilities and railroads.  My nephew was holding a considerable stake in several high end properties and my sister had a respectable holding of mid range properties.  My immediate response was, “NO SON OF MINE LOSES AT MONOPOLY!!!”  Notice the exclamation marks.  This is serious stuff.  I proceeded to sit down, explain the inner mechanisms of mergers to my son and nephew.  Player A protested loudly and mentioned something about teaching children to cheat.  I calmly explained to the children that they could play by the rules OR learn how the real world works by forming an uber powerful real estate/utilities/railroad conglomerate, crush their competition (my sister) and live out the rest of their board game in relative luxury.  My sister was broke and despondent within half an hour of my arrival.  That is how you play Monopoly.

Now, if you spoke with my sister or any of the other people who ever played Monopoly against me, they would argue Monopoly and my creative solutions to winning are not reflected in reality.  I would disagree in three words: credit default swaps.  I won’t go into too much detail here because most of it is elegantly explained in the recent movie release of The Big Short.  And, if you have back issues of Vanity Fair, they covered off most of the characters and concepts for approximately three years following the financial meltdown in 2008.  But, I will break it down to this:  banks were offering mortgages to people who did not understand they were only paying the interest + teeny tiny amounts on the principal (or none at all on the principal) on mortgages with teaser rates that would go up, up, up once the initial contracts came up for renewal. This meant lots of people who didn’t understand percentile math defaulted on mortgages.  The shit mortgages were bundled up, given triple A ratings, i.e. these are great investments! and sold to other banks.  Which meant one day, when all the frenzy in real estate died down and the first wave of mortgage defaults arrived, the value of the bundles would dive.  Some smart people wanted to short the value of the bundles.  Shorting is when you bet the value of something will go down.  But, there wasn’t a mechanism in place to short the shitty bundles of mortgages.  So someone who played a lot of Monopoly as a child decided to create credit default swaps.  They conceived it and made it and the world came to their knees.  That is how you play.