When Bob Dylan busted onto the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960’s he told people that he hopped a freight train and rode the rails from Minnesota to New York City.   It didn’t matter that he actually drove there in a Chevy Impala, or that he wasn’t really broke, or that his last name wasn’t Dylan.   What mattered was that he created a fiction for himself, and for his eventual fans—it was this fiction that allowed him to be Bob Dylan, folksinger, instead of Bobby Zimmerman, the middle-class kid from Hibbing. 


There’s a difference between a myth and a lie, even if you make it up yourself.   You tell a lie about yourself to pull one over on somebody, to avoid responsibility.   But a myth is an aspiration, and you make a myth of your life story so you can achieve something superhuman.  


When I was younger, there were lots of opportunities for mythmaking—especially when  traveling.  On a Greyhound bus from Ohio to Boston, I told a convict that I was 20 (I was really 19) and that my name was Jordan Lister (it’s not—I found that name on a nametag of a English schoolgirl’s coat I thrifted in London) and that I grew up in England (nope, suburban Chicago).  My myth made me feel powerful.  It made me feel as though I were mature enough to handle the situation, which was that I kissed a 32 year old convict on prison-furlough and now he was trying to convince me to have sex with him on the back of a bus.  The real me wouldn’t have known what to do, but Jordan Lister kissed the convict with willful abandon, and then confidently declared a “cease and desist” when he tried to take it too far.


 I kissed that convict in 1984.  It was easy to pretend I was somebody else back then.   I didn’t have a cellphone or a credit card.  The convict didn’t ask to friend me on Facebook.  My parents didn’t even know I was going to Boston on a Greyhound bus, because I didn’t tell them—and I didn’t have to either, because I was in college and being in college meant you were free, more or less.  It meant I called home once a week from the payphone in the dorm lobby, dropping  extra quarters into the slot if the call went over 3 minutes, which it hardly ever did because what did I have to say anyway that I didn’t already say in my letter?  It meant that if I had a few days off from classes and some money in my pocket I could go somewhere and not tell anybody—and nobody would ever even have to know, anyway.  Nobody texted me to make sure I was safe, and there was no i-pod to distract from the baby crying across the aisle, or the wind that buffeted the bus along the frozen interstate, or from the convict with love on his mind. 


If you are under 35 and reading this, I feel sad for you because you don’t know about making things up, making myths about your own life and believing they could be true, or even about plain lying about yourself, just because.  You can’t do what my friend Diana did at her 10th high school reunion.  She was feeling bad about grinding away as a writer and working as a receptionist at a law firm, so she concocted an elaborate fantasy wherein her best (gay) friend Matthew posed as her husband.  Nevermind that in real life Matthew had been an adult firm actor and male-escort, at the reunion he was a filthy rich Wall Street investment banker.  They lived in New York and Paris and had beautiful twin daughters named Chloe and Coco. 


But you, dear 20-something of today, you can’t say you live in Paris or even make up a pretend town, or say that you grew up in a shack or a castle if you really didn’t because somebody will Google-earth a picture and call you a liar.  You can’t make things up or disappear or know what it is to be untethered.  You have been taught that the world is unsafe and unnavigable without a phone, but generations of people before you went on road trips and camp-outs and semesters in Europe and they all somehow found their way back home relatively unscathed.  And the world was not safer then, no it was not.  There just wasn’t enough time on the evening news, or in the local paper, to recount each tragedy that occurred daily, each brutal rape, each heartbreaking kidnapping, each terrible accident, each senseless murder–and thank God for that, really thank God.


 My friend Sadie is only 24.  She’s had a very adventurous life for someone her age, and she’s lived a lot of places in the last couple of years.  I’m settled down for now, so I like keeping up with her travels through her facebook page.  But about a year ago, she disappeared from Facebook with no warning.  I called her cell phone, but the number wasn’t working.  Eventually I got in touch with her through e-mail, and we arranged to talk when she could use a friend’s phone.  “Why don’t you have a phone?” I asked.  “I don’t even know where you’re living.  I heard maybe Italy or somewhere in Asia. Nobody can find you!”  It seemed absurd to me that in this day and age a person would travel hither and yon and the only way you could reach her was through an e-mail.  It was barbaric!


“I didn’t want everybody to know about me, and what I was doing.” She sounded almost wistful.  “I didn’t like that I would tell somebody about where I was and they’d say they already saw the pictures on Facebook.  I didn’t like that anybody could reach me any time.  I just wanted to be…” she trailed off for a moment and I tried to imagine where she’d been and what she had done.  I pictured her trekking down the Mekong River, or riding a bicycle with a baguette in the basket on a Parisian street.  “…I guess I just wanted to be free.”


The internet is good for fact checking a doctor’s credentials or to make sure your child’s preschool teacher isn’t a sex offender.  But if someone blows a mean harmonica and tells you they hopped a freight train into town, resist the urge to google them. Try for a moment to just believe the myth.