Saturday, September 03, 2005


It is Friday night, and Gas Guy is a bit nervous. Keshia, our newest hire, has called in sick with a stomach virus for her last two shifts. If she doesn’t show for this one, I am looking at a whole world of hurt trying to navigate this evening on my own. I have received no phone call telling me that she isn’t coming in, but sometimes that just means that someone has quit and is afraid of the disapproving voice tone on the telephone that such a choice might elicit.

At 6:00 sharp, Keshia strolls through the door and consequently lowers my stress volume about four decibels. It appears I will be spared the rigors of anarchy tonight.

“Hi Keshia,” I say, “are we feeling better?”

“A little,” she replies, in that mopey sick-person voice that both actually afflicted people and people feigning illness like to employ. I decide to check this out for myself, which, at the end of the day, is really the best way to arrive at any conclusions. My inquiry proceeds thus: observe as many facts from as many senses as possible, and then see if that version of events coincides with the version of events that I’ve been given in language; ponder the motivations of the person speaking to see if they are consistent with actions performed. This is a new game that I like to play, called “jury duty.” I’m getting fairly good at it.

Physically speaking, Keshia is an eighteen-year-old, medium-hued black woman, somewhat overweight, with bright, alert eyes and a sartorial fetish about making sure that her shirt and shoes always match. Today she is a shade lighter than she normally appears, and further seems to have lost between five and ten pounds in the week since I’ve last seen her. Her shirt and shoes do not match.

I then consider circumstances: Keshia has been sharing a one-bedroom apartment with a friend of hers, a situation which, understandably, is driving her batty. She is desperately looking to hoard up some money, so that she can spring forth into that giant, grown-up world in which she has her very own place, and doesn’t have to deal with anybody else’s issues. Missing work frivolously is certainly bound to undermine that quest, and hence her doing so deliberately makes little sense from a pragmatic point of view. Furthermore, Keshia takes instruction well while she works, and comes in early to pick up extra hours when asked. The idea of her blowing off two mid-week shifts in the interest of social pursuits does not gel with my brief, probably arbitrary assessment of her work ethic, especially considering that our job features no paid sick-leave at all

The matter is sent off to the jury, which convenes for about eight seconds, combines the physical and circumstantial evidence, and returns with a “not guilty” verdict. Even though, factually, I know that the most call-offs are fabricated crises, I decide that I believe Keshia. The prescription bottle of anti-nausea medication I spy in her purse essentially seals the deal for me, telling me that her story would be extraordinarily well-crafted as fiction, a tremendous amount of planning and effort to defend a falsehood.

I could be wrong, of course, employing my prejudices and predispositions to confirm an idea that I wanted, deeply, to believe. I am not an upright-walking polygraph; I am a flesh-and-blood human being, who suffers from the same disorder that we all share: I like telling lies, and I like hearing lies. I know, way down deep, that lies contain, nearly always, a manifest artistic superiority over the truth.

Humans like lies, you see. We like stories that are totally and wholly disassociated from the actuality of events, because fiction is more amusing and pleasing to us than the harsh, clinical realities of discernable fact. We like thinking that we were created by sky gods when actually we descend from less intelligent apes; we like reading novels because they are pretty, if utterly untrue; we laugh and cry in cinemas over events that never took place, represented to us by actors who gloss existence to make it appear more palatable and rational than extant reality could ever hope to be. We become, from early infancy, creatures so addicted to lies that when reality, in no-Santa-Claus form, presents itself, we are profoundly disappointed—crestfallen and dismayed that someone or something had the temerity to shatter our silly illusions regarding anthropoid existence on a wet rock in space.

A few simple examples can illustrate this point. Say a person is out for the evening, and has spilled food or drink on the shirt he’s wearing. Does said fellow want people to point that out, at embarrassing expense to his ego, or rather to persist in the illusion that he’s wearing a clean shirt? Does anyone actually want anyone else to tell them when they look like hell? Do we sincerely want to know when we’ve badly screwed something up at our jobs? Of course not. We are addicted to praise and flattery, which are typically pleasant lies, and shrink like frightened children from needles before the incisive and often painful logic of truth. We like truth only so long as its deployment is favorable to us, and despise lies only until they benefit our self-image.

The key to smashing the locks of a lie-based existence is a simple, and yet a seldomly employed one: take nothing on faith, and rigorously examine every bit of information presented before regurgitating it like gospel. Become that smart person that one admires, rather than merely mimicking that person’s words and ideas. Jesus and Shakespeare and Gandhi and Einstein were not a breed apart; they were mere mortals who peered straight into idiocy and illusion and saw what was on the other side. They led unconquered lives because they exhibited the uncanny ability to perceive events for themselves, rather than farming out the task to everyone else and then lazily reporting secondhand news. They were people who saw that the latter path leads to sloth and torpor and ignorance, while the former grants the unparalleled joy of constant discovery, an immersion into the larger world of wisdom and knowledge that defies stereotype, shatters preconception, and enlarges the mind into something beyond what it had been before.

Keshia probably doesn’t know many of the things that I’ve talked about yet. She’s barely old enough to smoke cigarettes (which, to her credit, she does not). But today she has chosen to work through sickness and discomfort, and I am grateful for a decision that functions to my benefit. I am no more altruistic, really, than most people—just a bit more keenly aware of my selfishness.

“Thanks for coming in, sweetheart,” I tell Keshia, admiring her determination, the independence of a young woman who has lived beyond her parents’ shelter since she was a tender seventeen. She has seen a lot more truth than most people her age, and is hence a lot wiser than a typical, psychologically insulated American young person.

“Well, I needed to make up the hours anyway.”

I parse this last sentence in my mind: make…up…the hours. It’s as if we imagine ourselves constructing time rather experiencing it, being creation’s authors rather than its subjects. The abstract edifications of human conceptualization are a source of enduring wonder and delight for me; I love how we take the boundless and endless paths and alleys of the present and carve it up into the nifty rhetorical fiction of words, symbolic aural concepts bravely standing in for the reality that they represent. As most of the great spiritual literatures of the world concluded long ago, truth cannot be told: we may merely invent lies to describe it, paring away useless information until we arrive at something better and closer to the essence of the described thing in question.

If the above is true, then I tell myself another silly lie whenever I spot the lies of others: what I am telling myself is not that I have discerned deception from forthrightness, but that I would make a good juror, that I am smarter and more perceptive than other people. I am as addicted to the crack that is self-approval as anyone else is, but I tell myself prettier lies, so that I can believe that such is not the case. Sometimes I am terribly, terribly, disappointed by the limitations imposed by my own foolishness and vanity. But on other days, I realize that this is just what I am, and to lament it is as sensible as the proverbial butterfly, dreaming it were a Chinese philosopher. I know that it is simply in my nature to deceive and be deceived, a fundamental part of what it means to be human.