Shredding Documents

Shredding documents is a pleasant, if noisy, pastime, and because the activity has become associated in the media with vaguely sinister intentions, it’s even a little exciting. I wouldn’t normally think to do such a thing, except that a friend of mine had her identity stolen by a county prisoner working at the landfill — she had thrown away old canceled checks, bank statements, purchase invoices, and credit card bills, an expensive and time-consuming mistake to correct. After listening to her anguish, I began to file and save every piece of paper that had my name and address and any kind of numbers on it, against the day that I happened to have either a fireplace or a shredder at hand.

Old financial documents provide a fascinating window into a person’s intimate everyday life, and if they were recorded on clay tablets instead of paper, they might give future archeologists some idea of our times. With that in mind, I read what I’m shredding. Here I see what I paid in life-time and money for the legal "privilege" to marry a wife, educate my children, drive a car, own a dog, and work at my profession. I see the hours wasted sitting in a darkened auditorium, listening to boring salesmen pitch some irrelevant scheme or device in the name of continuing education. I see what I paid in income taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes, property taxes, estate taxes, and I can’t help but add it up over forty-years. That much? It can’t be! The lower middle-class can’t be paying that much in taxes! Ah, but we did, and we are.

Then there are the bad choices, the embarrassing mistakes, the expenses we’d like to forget, like the phony mechanic, the buddy who borrowed and didn’t pay back, the boat we never had time to use. But now and then we find a glimmer of something different, an optimistic expense, like buying important books, and contributing to worthy causes. One of the latter I had completely forgotten, it came and went so fast.

1999 wasn’t long ago. American bombers and missiles were destroying the Twentieth Century infrastructure of the ancient city of Belgrade that year. The water supply was ruined, sewer plants, power plants, television stations were bombed, and the oddest web site I’d seen to date came on-line. It was purported to be the diary of an ordinary girl living in Belgrade, passed on by a third party to the founders of this web site, The first posting was on March 24, 1999; the final posting was on October 5, 2000. It is a story of terror, confusion, and everyday misery, and despite my doubts about its authenticity, I contributed to keep it on-line. I’m glad to see it’s still there.

I still wonder why the Clinton handlers wanted to bash Belgrade? Maybe the expiration date on their WMDs was up, and they needed to use them somewhere. But I also wonder why I had forgotten about this sorry episode of our times? So much has happened since then, it seems like a long time ago. Yet their children still die from the "spent" uranium, the cluster bomblets, and the mines, and we still have American troops permanently stationed there, so it wasn’t so long ago.

Shredding the paper trail from many years of my life was useful in jogging my memory. How many years will pass next time before I forget the events of the last two years? Will I need reminding of the lies and deceit that led us once again into another war? Or will the everyday terror, confusion, and misery of State harassment at home make me forget the dates, the places, and the names of our serial atrocities abroad? I don’t know. I only know that I’ll be shredding my own trail into the future, and maybe that will remind me.