Getting Old / Lying to my Children

November 7, 2009

In New York City, there are many manhole covers from which steam billows, because of hot water pipes beneath the street, presumably. When I was little, I once asked my mom where the steam came from, and without missing a beat, she said, “the Chinese laundry.” She was so certain that I never thought to question her answer. In fact, I don’t think I ever reflected on it too long, but around the age of 20, I realized that somewhere in my head there had always existed the idea that every storefront laundry and dry-cleaning operation in New York (and these are largely run my Chinese immigrants, or were in my day) was connected by a tunnel to a large subterranean room, extending under the street in front of the establishment, where destitute recent immigrants washed clothes by hand in very hot water. I discovered this absurd fiction only when a friend who was not from New York asked me where the steam came from, and I reflexively answered, “the Chinese laundry.”

Now that I am married and have children, occasions arise more often when people ask me questions about the little details of life (although my wife is no fool and knows by now that I am seldom the font of useful answers, unless the topic is law, baseball, or hip hop). Still, my children and, now and again, my spouse, sometimes ask me the sort of questions that I once asked my parents. And just like my parents before me, I usually don’t know the answer but am a good bulshitter.

Some examples of the silly non-answers I have lately given:

Q: Why is the sky blue?
A: Because far above the earth, air is very very cold, so it looks blue from a distance.

Q: What is baking soda?
A: Bicarbonate of soda. [True, but not helpful.]

Q: Why do we have to sleep every night?
A: Because your brain can only grow when you are sleeping, and if you didn’t sleep, your brain would start to shrink and you would not get smarter.

The question is, is this bad? On the one hand, it is probably valuable to teach my children that I am just an ordinary person, that I don’t have all the answers, and that it is OK to admit that you don’t know something. But frankly, I know they’ll make me for a fraud eventually, so I’m not sure I need to hasten that day. And on the positive side, I think the lies I was told as a child, especially by my mother, instilled in me a sense of the world that, while more that a little sinister, was imaginative and magical (she once told me not to walk on cellar doors on the sidewalk because I might fall in and no one would ever be able to get me out; she also told me not hop the turnstile when going out of the subway, because a cop might see me, not realizing I was going out, think I was beating the fare, and shoot me on the spot). I’m glad that clothes aren’t washed in dungeons in New York, and hopeful (against historical evidence) that NYC cops don’t (or at least shouldn’t) generally shoot people for no reason. But I think I benefited from having those notions, and many others far more fanciful, firmly in my head during my formative years.

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2 Responses to “Getting Old / Lying to my Children”

  1. kerri said

    When I worked at the preschool, I used to tell the kids that anything remotely dangerous they were doing would result in them getting electrocuted. It was like Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but with electrical sockets. Not a one questioned my authority. Is that bad? Probably.

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