Summer 2014

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Purple Prose
Illustration by Eva Vazquez.

Where the Truth Lies

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Stephen Hettleman ’91 teaches English at Redwood High School in Larkspur, Calif. He lives in San Rafael.

Northwestern magazine is looking for Northwestern alumni who would like to write for Purple Prose, the 800-word personal essay that appears in every issue. If you feel strongly about something going on in your life or your work-a-day world and you love to write, then please send your submission to us.

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Ever wonder about those strange designations we use throughout Northwestern to identify alumni of the various schools of the University? See the complete list.

A father learns what a tangled web he weaves when he tells a wee fib.
by Stephen Hettleman

When my daughter, Audrey, was 3, my wife and I decided that she had been sitting in front of the television too much. On any given day she was logging up to three hours. We wanted her to grow up stimulated and active, so I told her to stop watching so much TV.

“Why, Daddy?”

“Because TV makes your brain shrink, and I want you to grow up with a big brain.”

We turned off the television, climbed onto the sofa and read a book.

The next day I returned home from work, and Audrey met me at the door. “I didn’t watch TV today,” she announced. “Can you measure my brain?” I sat down and stood her in front of me. I tugged her ears, tilted her chin, twisted her nose and turned her head. “Much bigger,” I determined. “Your brain feels much heavier.” She smiled and then ran off to her room to play.

This scenario played out every afternoon for the next two weeks. One day I arrived home in time to catch a Northwestern basketball game on ESPN. I called to Audrey, “Come watch the game with me.” She climbed up next to me on the couch and settled in.

At the end of the first half, it happened. “Daddy, won’t watching the basketball game make my brain grow smaller?”

I could have said that she hadn’t watched much TV that day and that this little bit was allowable. I should have turned off the television.

Instead, I said, “No, sweetheart, games don’t count. Games are neutral.” Then she asked me what neutral meant, and I said something about it being neither thumbs up nor thumbs down. She lowered her head again, and we watched the rest of the game. The lie was safe. Life moved on.

That night, in bed, I was stricken by a childhood memory. I was 12 years old and stubborn. My family was on a weekend trip to New York City, and we were to visit the Empire State Building. My mom insisted that we wear long pants; I wanted to wear shorts. My older brothers acquiesced; I did not. When we arrived at the Empire State Building, my mother walked over to the concierge to get information. She came back and said, “We can go right up.”

Then she looked at me. “You have to stay here. You have to wear long pants. It’s the dress code.” I waited in the lobby for an hour while the rest of my family went to the observation deck. They returned, we left, and I hadn’t thought about that day for 25 years.

I wish I had walked over to the concierge to double check. Had my mom instructed the concierge to lie to me? Had she lied to me?

Lying in bed that night, I was overcome with a feeling of sadness. I was in that building, 12 again, and I could hear my mother’s voice saying, “It’s the dress code.”

A few weeks after Audrey and I watched the basketball game on TV, during a short drive to the pool, Audrey said something funny. I looked at her in the rearview mirror and said, “You’re silly.”

“You’re sillier,” she responded.

“You’re a popcorn potato.”

Laughing, she said, “Yeah, well, you’re a LIAR. That’s what Mommy said.”

I pulled the car to the curb and turned around to face Audrey. “Why did Mommy call me a liar?” I asked.

Still smiling, she answered, “She said that games do make your brain grow smaller.”

Just like that, the moment passed. Audrey looked out the window and said, “Let’s go, Daddy. Let’s go to the pool.”

While we were walking through the parking lot, Audrey looked at me and asked, “Can we watch a game later?”

“Sure, maybe for a little bit, but Mommy was right. Games do make your brain grow smaller.”

“Daddy, why did you lie?”

I wanted to say that it had seemed like a good idea at the time. What I did say was, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I was confused.”

Sometimes we dig holes for ourselves in pursuit of a greater good. And sometimes we get stuck in those holes.

I lied to my daughter because I wanted her to spend her time doing other things besides watching TV. I also lied so that we could spend time watching a game together. The reasons don’t make the lies right, but the lies don’t make the reasons wrong. And that’s the honest truth.