Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#12, August 26, 1998


by Marylaine Block

Change is often such a gradual thing you hardly even notice it happening. One day your kid is 3 feet tall, and the next, it seems, he’s towering over you; one day you look in the mirror and your hair isn’t brown anymore. When did it happen? How did it happen?

There’s a way we can trace how those changes crept up on us, though. It’s reflected in the checks we write, as I discovered recently when I looked through all my check registers for the past 15 years. In addition to finding out when I added various improvements to my home, I got a history lesson on how my life and my town have changed.

Checks for property taxes can remind us of big changes in our communities, both good and bad. Taxes that went up may have financed a brand new library or stadium, or a jail. Taxes that went down may recall widespread unemployment after local factories closed down.

One of the gradual changes we hardly notice is the businesses that come and go. Maybe in any one or two year period only one of our favorite stores closes down, but over time, our entire shopping patterns will have changed because of all the shops that went out of business, and all the new ones that opened up.

While my son was growing up, I wrote a lot of checks for clothes and toys to K-Mart and Venture outlets that have long since closed. Month after month, I wrote about a hundred dollars worth of checks to our favorite local independent bookstore, checks which stopped abruptly when it was driven out of business last year.

Our check registers mark the rise of entirely new ways to spend money — they may tell of organic food shops, coffee shops where you now routinely buy latte, electronics dealers who sell everything from sound systems to computers.

When, you may wonder, did you become an internet junkie? I can tell from the regular monthly checks to my internet service provider when it happened to me. I can even tell from the money going IN to my check register when it was that people actually started paying me for my writing.

In our check registers, we can see our children growing up, one check at a time. There are checks for youth soccer league, for school pictures year after year. And, God knows, for clothes -- countless checks to shoestores record my son’s inexorable progress toward size 13D. His final passage to adulthood was marked by checks for college expenses, and the check for the really good “interview suit.”

Checks to airlines and hotels remind us of vacations and honeymoons, while checks to car dealers and mechanics and insurance companies tell us when we bought our cars and when we despaired of them or totaled them. (My checkbook records my brief experiences as car owner, once for six months, once for two, after which I concluded that when God drops a hint that big, you should pick it up.)

Some checks have stories to tell. I have several checks to hospitals that remind me of the time my son broke his collarbone when we were tossing the football around (I said, “Loft it higher”; he did, then fell to the ground writhing in agony, saying “Actually, Mom, I liked it my way better.”) The check for my new windows conceals a story about cats, accustomed to broad windowsills, jumping up into the new windows, which have no sills at all, and going fwoomp.

So if you see yourself in an unfamiliar mirror and don’t recognize that balding man, or if you wonder when it was you suddenly stopped wearing jeans and started wearing high heels and pantyhose, take a look at your checkbook.

Our checks aren’t just a record of how we spend our money, because the way we spend our money is the way we spend our lives. Our checkbooks, properly viewed, have stories to tell. You might want to check them out.

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