The art - or folly - of pretending

By Duane A. Beyal
Special to the Times

March 28, 2013

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I can die better than that," my buddy said.

We were six or seven years old and sat on the living room floor in front of the black-and-white TV in my parents' house in the old Church Rock Indian Village.

On the tube was a western and a bad guy had just been shot, pitifully grasping his chest, falling to his knees, then slumping over.

In those days, we watched all kinds of action movies in which heroes and villains were dispatched, from westerns to war movies, Romans to cowboys and Indians and Audie Murphy to John Wayne.

So my buddy knew what he was talking about.

We often played in the ditch, a sandy wash 200 yards south of the village. One of our favorite spots was a ledge with a large sand dune below it. We took turns showing our prowess at being shot, employing last movements with finesse and appropriate facial expressions, then leaning slowly over the edge and falling onto the sand dune.

Pretending is, of course, a common human trait.

Many people still genuflect at the myth of President Ronald Reagan. But they forget he was only an actor performing his biggest role ever. For opportunities to pretend, politics is second only to the movies.

Witness the remarks by politicians during the last U.S. presidential election cycle when they spoke with their guard down and were surreptitiously recorded. Instead of the dignified elected leaders they pretended to be, they displayed disdain for anyone below their income level as well as for women in general.

When I covered meetings for the Navajo Times in Washington, D.C., during the 80s, a common refrain was "The press is in the room." Meaning be careful and don't say anything stupid.

Makes you wonder how politicians reveal themselves behind closed doors away from pesky reporters or recorders and videophones.

Closer to home, President Ben Shelly is edging into pretend mode. After several public gaffes, his staff is trying to avoid his infamous utterances by issuing written statements and press releases that quote him using proper English. (His latest public statement, to my knowledge, was the statement, "We are all made of dirt," which may be true depending on the context.)

Also his spokesman, Ernie Zah, is appearing in more and more news articles. When I served as editor, my policy was not to quote paid PR people because we should hear from the elected leaders. However, most news media outlets today embrace the use of a political flunky because it is convenient for reporters as they race to meet deadlines.

I still believe the people lose some credibility in their government when the news media relies on a paid spokesman, especially on matters involving a leader's view, opinions and beliefs.

As for the Navajo Nation Council, the reduced membership removed all pretension since the 88-member group had always been led by a conclave of about 24 delegates. Some of us are familiar with delegates in the larger body who had waited to see whether the most votes were red or green before pressing their button to go with the majority.

On the positive side, the reduced Council makes keeping an eye on the delegates a little easier, although with less rabbits out there it is harder to find a target.

We've all pretended to some extent. It seems a part of being human, just as the trickster coyote is somehow ingrained in our character.

Jackson Browne's 1976 song "The Pretender" told of a man who lost his illusions and fell into routine, "...who started out so young and strong only to surrender."

To me this means accepting the status quo and the realization that you will not reach your dreams or the vision you had of how you would live life.

But pretending also comes in handy with such myriad topics as a new haircut, a new dress, food in a restaurant, state of the nation speeches where the party of the president interrupts him with applause while members of the other party sit glumly, or summations of the work and progress achieved at a meeting - a particular affliction in Window Rock.

But we all know that for politicians a positive spin is the mantra.

As young kids at Church Rock, we often hiked up to the red rocks to "play guns." Again like the movies, we would split in good guys and bad guys and one group would go ahead into the maze of canyons, sculpted rock, trees and bushes.

They hid while the next group tried to find them. Whoever saw the enemy first yelled out, "Bang, I got you."

Then the little boy who was shot was obliged to perform his dying dance, like a soldier or cowboy or one of the six Indians John Wayne shot with one bullet.

Like the ditch by the village, one outcrop of sandstone offered an ideal place to get shot because a sandy wash was just below it. Once I got Bobby, yelling, "Bang, I got you."

He dutifully pirouetted on top of the sandstone, dropped his rifle and did a fine fall onto the deep sand.

Afterward, we quenched our thirst with the clear, cold water at the old well at the foot of the Church Rock then headed back home.

But this type of pretending was honest and fun compared to the willful manipulation at which most politicians aim. If only we could see openness and honesty from the many pretenders among us.

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