When the Sun Opens
I was told a lie growing up. It was one of those lies that was, at its very core, entirely harmless, especially when it was fed to the over-imaginative brain of a child. Of course, harm is hardly a dualistic thing. There’s a sliding scale involved, because the world is not a black and white place, and because there’s no reason to deal in absolutes.
As far as this particular childhood untruth goes, it sits in a class entirely alone. It’s certainly nothing as innocuous or harmless as Santa Claus. I might be compelled to argue that Santa Claus does exist – not as a physical man, but as an energy breathed into the cold Northern air as the days get shorter and seasonal depression sets in for up to 20% of North Americans in the US and Canada. The Santa Claus lie is a complex one – one that evolves and grows with each generation of children it’s told to. Christian children, or children of otherwise Christmas inclined families, grow up believing in the magic and wonder of a man who cross the globe with the help of eight Finnish reindeer, delivering presents for the Good and fossil fuels for the Bad. If Santa Claus himself isn’t fit to decide the morality of people under the age of ten, I don’t think anyone on Earth is.
The gossamer myth of Santa Claus then morphs itself into a lesson of disappointment, and then near immediate responsibility. I’ve heard that Jewish kids usually skip right to the responsibility step – so your friends believe a portly guy in a suit is bringing them gifts, and it’s your job to not spoil the surprise. Some kids figure it out themselves. The inquisitive mind realizes how big the Earth really is, and how implausible Santa’s business model is. Sometimes, parents just tell their kids – that it’s something magical and that the older you get, the less magic you’ll have access to. In unfortunate circumstances, a kid might ask why Santa Claus can afford to give all of the rich kids at school new iPhones and Playstations, but can only afford to give his family a few extra dollars to fix up the one nice pair of shoes he owns – the pair of shoes he wears to mass every Sunday.
The last stage in the lie of Christmas is the stage when you sit down to watch a Rankin-Bass special, and as the dark, cold night closes in around the warm space you’ve carved into infinity, you realize that maybe Santa Claus is real, or that maybe believing in him as a symbol might remind you of the last time you truly believed in magic. After all, if Santa Claus can’t teach the evil Winter Warlock how to dance again after melting his heart with a gift, who could? Who would?
The lie that I grew up with was nothing like the nebulous, connective lie of Santa Claus. There was no sense of wonder, and no sense of a light that sliced through the darkness of late December like a heated knife through a slice of unwanted fruitcake to unite all of those who shared that experience. That being said, it was not a lie specifically designed to disguise the hideous faces that men wear. It was not the lie by omission – the verbal redirection – that is telling your children that the screaming and yelling and crashing upstairs was just because marriage is a difficult thing, and mom and dad have a few issues they need to work out. Again, not technically a lie, but because the world isn’t such a silly place as to operate in a black and white fashion, a lie of omission that serves to create no illusion of wellbeing, but to maintain it at all costs, like someone sticking all ten of their fingers in the ten holes of a sinking robot they’re currently operating. There may be no sign of land, no inkling of a dock, or even the idea that a rock big enough to stand on is anywhere in sight, but sometimes when the light of the setting sun reflects just right off of the gentle surf of a lake – in a moment where you can think you might be able to see just the slightest curvature of the Earth – land appears. Land you think you see, and land you’ll never reach.
It is not a lie a father tells his son late one afternoon when the concept of Little League Baseball is brought up. Of course, he can’t just say “play football instead”. Of course, he can’t tell his son that the registration fees are too steep – his (far more athletically gifted) sister just joined the travel hockey team. This lie is born the moment that the young boy – dressed in the costume of someone who swings a bat and hits a ball – takes a few bat-less practice swings in front of his floor length mirror in his bedroom. It is a lie that is told for the first time when that kid pantomimes knocking the dust of the basepaths off of his tennis shoes. It is a lie that is committed to when the costumed child turns to his father – face warped into smile so boundless, hopeful, sincere, and magical – and asks him whether he should play for the Yankees or the Mets.
Instead of telling the truth, the boy’s father asks why anyone would pick the Mets over the Yankees, and when the boy replies that he’d much rather use his talents as a ballplayer to help a historically bad team end their suffering than simply coast to victory on a year-in year-out contender like the Yankees, the father my take just a bit of pride away from that bedroom. The idle tear he wipes from his eye may not because he knows that in ten, twenty, thirty years, his son won’t be a Major League Ballplayer. That tear he tries to hide as he settles in for the night with his paper and gin may be a tear of knowing that, against all odds, in direct competition with what his own father deemed to be helpful lies or harsh truths, he managed to raise his son to stand on his own two feet, and not coast to success on the laurels of other people.
The lie I grew up with was not with a sense of sameness, nor community. It was not a lie of protection, or self-preservation. It was not rushing home the day report cards were due, hoping you could bury your grades underneath enough coupons you could squeeze a few more days of peace out of your life until the other shoe inevitably dropped. It was not spending several weeks drinking the cheapest vodka that coins found left in public washing machines could by, and then telling your therapist that everything is just fine. It was not having to make up and subsequently stick to a story explaining the black eye you mysteriously acquired over a long weekend to prevent people from being just a little “too” concerned. It was not the lie that children of divorced parents spread, in what I can only assume is an attempt to cope with what they go through. There are not “two Christmases” – Unless you happen to be the family who Santa could afford to bring a Playstation. The lie that I grew up believing, questioning, and spending more time than I’d like to admit thinking about was a lie about a dog.
I’m not sure I could go more than a few weeks without hearing a story about the mythical Bob the Airedale Terrier. My dad usually told me the tales of the things this dog allegedly accomplished, although buried deep in the background static of the countless distortions of the truth that buzz beneath my thoughts, I remember certain occasions of my Grandfather talking about Bob, too. Usually, his only memory of the legendary Airedale Terrier didn’t go beyond agreeing with whatever my dad had most recently said. Although he was a dry well as far as new information goes, he was a wonderful corroborator.
Of course, the dog was owned by a family member who dubiously and distantly related to me, and lived its life entirely before I was born. The way it was told to me, Bob the Airedale was part Lassie, part Old Yeller, part mythological folk hero, and part being of pure magic, distilled into the form of a rather ugly breed of dog. So many years have passed since I’ve even though about the heroic exploits of Bob, I can’t name a specific one. I can only say with certainty that most of the stories I was told involved Bob doing something incredible – something a dog wouldn’t and couldn’t ever do. Bob the Airedale was, allegedly, a volunteer firefighter of sorts. Perhaps the only thing more magical than a career 3rd in the line-up for the New York Mets, or a career being Santa Claus, is man’s best friend laying his life on the line to help carry buckets of water to a burning butcher’s shop.
The vague snippets I remember about Bob the Airedale are similar, both in scale and scope. Bob the Airedale, a dog who was apparently so famous every single person in the second largest city of Illinois over the age of 60 had found memories of them. Perhaps I was just unlucky to not meet anyone who Bob’s life has touched outside of my own family. The dog hadn’t managed one of those honorary street signs, where an off-color placard sits above the authentic location. I was told that there used to be plans to make a statue of Bob the Airedale in Moecherville, but the only statues that ever went up in that part of town were memorials to the Vietnam War, carved and pieced together from scrap metal. Among the simple-yet-ominous messages of a vet on the follies of the war, one could not find even a headstone for the Air Bud of Aurora, Illinois.
Decades later, the only story I can remember about Bob the Airedale is the story of his death. It happened on a particularly cold Christmas morning, so I’m told. Bob was out in the yard as my dubious relatives dragged themselves from the warmth of their beds and out into the cold, preparing for a day of celebration. I couldn’t say whether or not Santa Claus had visited their home that night. I’m not sure if they even had children.
The story goes that a next-door neighbor had grown jealous of Bob the Airedale. Not annoyed with, like how one may be annoyed by a dog who ruins flower gardens or shits all over yards that aren’t their own, by genuinely jealous. Jealous enough, in fact, that is unnamed neighbor decided that his own life’s work had been so thoroughly overshadowed by an ugly breed of terrier. The neighbor prepared bacon for his family’s Christmas breakfast, and then used the grease to fry a kitchen sponge. The way the story is told to me, that sponge was tossed out into the shared, unfenced yards. Bob the Airedale, despite approaching the pantheon of Maniac McGee-esque urban legends, was only a dog. No dog can resist the smell of bacon grease. Bob the Airedale ate the sponge. Once it entered his stomach, the moisture caused it expand. Once the sponge expanded, Bob’s stomach ruptured, and he died. Legends say that maybe the year of Bob’s assassination at the hands of a jealous neighbor that the percentage of American’s suffering from season depression rose all the way up to 21%. Maybe if the neighbor’s dreams of throwing relief for the Mets had been realized, Bob the Airedale’s legendary life would be enshrined, and he could stand in the Mount Rushmore of dogs, immortalized with the likes of Balto and Old Yeller.
I was never sure of what purpose such a gruesome lie carried. I was not introduced to the concepts of beauty or magic in the world. I was not spared feelings of inadequacy that would plague me for the rest of my natural life. I certainly was unable to leverage the politically motivated assassination of a terrier to my own gain. What exactly is the lesson here? What exactly is the purpose? That jealous, unstable neighbors may kill you with bacon grease sponge traps? The story of Bob the Airedale made more of an impact on me than other lie I’ve ever been told, from lies about myself to lies about why my own father acted how he did towards me. Maybe it’s because a story about a dog invoking such feelings of jealousy is worthy of a seat amongst Greek mythology. Maybe it’s because it’s nothing so mundane I could forget it, as if it were a dream of achievement that passed in a few moments years ago. Or maybe it was something else to associate with the short days of Winter, so that when Spring arrives and the sun opens up, I’m more focused on deciphering the point of this entire song and dance instead of thinking about why the accomplishments of a plausibly fictional dog are more impressive than my own.