Sunday, October 7, 2007

The End of Something - January 2005

One evening this week I am standing at the check-out counter at the Rite Aid in Damariscotta, Maine, buying two kinds of wart remover.

One of our sons has a big wart on his pinkie toe that’s starting to tick me off. I’m tired of sitting in my car and watching him limp dramatically through the front entrance of his school each morning. The staff must think, “What do the Shotts do to their children that they appear so woe-be-gone?”

So far we have about $70 invested in this wart: $20.00 for a futile over-the-counter wart-freezing system; two $15 co-pays for our pediatrician to freeze it off; and now, at his suggestion, $10 each for wart-removing gel (17% salicylic acid) and wart-removing medicated pads (40% salicylic acid), to help the process along.

The clerk is a young fellow with a horseshoe pierced across the bridge of his nose. I want to ask, “Man, did that hurt or what?” But I don’t. I look down at the counter and see a candy bar called the “Five-in-1!” It’s a pretzel base with caramel, peanuts, peanut butter and milk chocolate. I think to myself, only in America do we need such overkill. What’s wrong with a simple chocolate bar?

Recently I read the manuscript of a novel where the main character is trying to talk his Russian girlfriend into going to Moscow to get her visa so she can visit him in America.1 She has a bad back and doesn’t want to stand in line for ten hours at the American Embassy. He tells her to take a folding chair. “What is folding chair?” she asks. He explains it to her and, as narrator, laments what 70 years of Soviet rule has done to the Russian people. They don’t even know what a folding chair is.

But we do in America. We’ve moved past folding chairs. Now at soccer games we parents use these inexpensive canvas chairs that come with their own carrying bags. The fancier models have arms and cup holders. Don’t get me going on Americans and cup holders.

I feel like we’re at the end of something.

Late this afternoon Colin, the wart boy, and I were riding along when he said from the back seat, out of the blue, “Walmart is bad for America, isn’t it, Mom?”

“Yes, I believe it is, Son.” I thought of my conversation several years ago when the owner of a small fabric shop in our town told me she could buy some common fabrics cheaper at Walmart than she could buy them wholesale. How can a small business compete with that kind of purchasing power?

Our appetites are insatiable…our expectations are insatiable. If you haven’t seen it already, rent the film Supersize Me. Whoa! And it’s not just candy bars and big coffees and French fries.

The principal of our local school recently sent a letter home with students that cited the following stats: Seventy percent of sixth graders in the U.S. have a television in their bedrooms. Since when does a 12 year-old need a TV in her bedroom. A slightly lower percentage of sixth graders have a television, computer AND phone in their bedrooms.

I feel like we’re at the end of something that can’t be sustained much longer. Are vandals lying in wait at the edge of our Rome? Are “voyeurs licking moistened lips” as we slip into some dark age?

I think about the Patriot Act and wonder how we got to a place in America where a U.S. citizen can be held on charges, any charges, without access to counsel.
Two days after Pearl Harbor, E.B. White wrote an essay called “Intimations” from his farm in North Brooklin, Maine. It reads in small part,
“To hold America in one’s thoughts is like holding a love letter in one’s hand – it has so special a meaning. Since I started writing this column snow has begun falling again; I sit in my room watching the re-enactment of this stagy old phenomenon outside the window. For this picture, for this privilege, this cameo of New England with snow falling, I would give everything. Yet all the time I know that this very loyalty, this feeling of being part of a special place, this respect for one’s native scene – I know that such emotions have had a big part in the world’s wars. Who is there big enough to love the whole planet? We must find such people for the next society.”
I was born 21 years after he wrote that essay. I suppose I must be a part of his next society; I suppose that he is depending on me for some measure of big-heartedness. But daily life in this society is so unwieldy and unmanageable that our senses are dulled and our sensibilities are numb.
I mean, after all, you’re reading something written by a woman who has spent $70 on one kid’s wart.
With the same money I could have provided 35 children in Lomahasha, Swaziland, with insecticide-treated mosquito netting and medication through the Anglican Malaria Project. (Malaria remains the number one killer of children under five in Sub-Saharan Africa.)
Right now, with that in mind, I think I’ll go upstairs and ask the wart kid what he thinks I should do with the next $70 that comes my way. I know deep in my heart that he, a child of the next-next society, will not hesitate to do the right thing. I, however, stand for a moment, unsure of how to finish this, and gaze out the window of our porch where the snow has begun falling again. I love it and I hate it: this cameo of New England is powerful indeed.

1 Yes, Bill. I have finished it. And, no, I don’t want to be released from my promise to read it and comment on it. But to do the kind of reading I want to do, please give me a little more time. All I can say now, since I’m in the middle of writing this other thing, is that you need to move the memory when he recalls lying in bed at his grandparents’ house in Missouri and watching the headlights move from the wall to the ceiling to the far wall much further up in the narrative because that’s what the book is all about, nyet? Also, the girlfriend’s name in “The End of Something” is Marjorie, not Trudy. Trudy is the girlfriend from “Fathers and Sons” though he calls her Prudie in “Ten Indians” which ends with one of Hemingway’s best ever sentences: “In the morning there was a big wind blowing and the waves were running high up on the beach and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken.”

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