Monday, March 14, 2011

The Misuse of Two Important Permissions

I received two important permissions when I was six or so: the first permission was to use the word "heck," and the other permission was for spitting. Significantly, the latter permission was implicit; I assumed, since my parents had probably seen me spit at some point, that they condoned it, provided I didn't spit on other people. Both of these allowances, to say "heck" and to spit, were important to me for being in line with an idea I had of a grown-up tough-guy, which was then a projection of future self-image. I actually asked them specifically, "well, can I say it like, what the heck, or, oh heck, or in other ways too?" They were confused, as anyone would have been, because they didn't have a view of the mental movie playing itself out as I asked, in which a man wearing jeans and a leather jacket strolled down between two rows of RVs, spitting in between puffs on his cigarette and saying "what the heck, oh heck" just before breaking into a full run and disappearing offscreen. Even so, they permitted a whole spectrum of inflections, so long as I did not use the word against another person. I was not yet ready to pick up smoking; however, I figured "heck" and spitting were within the domain of viable action as demarcated by my extra-sensitive conscience, even if "heck" and spitting were pushing the envelope more than any prior choices of personal behavior. 

The implicit aspect of the second permission, to spit, got me into trouble not long after I believed myself to have received it, in an event that produced a crucial explicit modification. We were at a furniture store in a nearby town, and a salesperson was talking to my parents about dresser options. I was in a rebellious mood. I strutted around the store, believing myself to be above the conventions that apparently had my parents and this salesperson by their throats. To demonstrate my sense of superiority, I walked up to where they were talking, looked at both parties, looked at the dresser, and finally, after mumbling something with "heck" in it, I spat on the floor. 

My parents were shocked. "Martyn Wendell! Why did you do that?" "I needed to spit. I had something in my mouth." Wry shrug. "I want you to apologize to this man, and never do that again. Spitting inside is offensive. You should only ever spit outside." "Okay. Sorry sir." Smirk. As I walked away, I'm sure I mumbled something ending emphatically in "heck."

Knowing I was in view of my siblings, I maintained my tough-guy exterior, but inside I was torn up over the possibility of having offended or harmed someone. The shame made my face hot and I kept my arms crossed for the rest of our visit to the store. There was no reason to have acted out in the way that I had, but my pride prevented me from offering an apology that was anything but ironical to the man in whose store I had impertinently spat. And it did my soul no good to think back on all the allusions to eternal judgment that I had casually cast about the place, as though making glib predictions about the ultimate state of the salesperson's soul. 

Because of the relative triviality of the incident, it was not brought up again by my parents. In some ways I wish it had been, because without a chance to talk about it, I was unable to unravel the twisted knot of my motivation; the memory of it became a slimy black stone that weighed down my opinion of myself in moments of real moral reflection. I would think: "I'm not really a good kid, I'm a kid who spits in well-meaning furniture makers' stores while needlessly consigning them to infinite torment, all in the name of a grown-up version of myself I wouldn't feel safe to be around were that character to approach me now."

Where does one go from there? Towards a different future, one would hope, and hope does not disappoint. Seeing as I currently do not smoke, rarely use "heck," categorically avoid leather clothing, and have never visited an RV dealership, I think it's safe to say that my early prophecies did not culminate in self-fulfillment. 


  1. One of my very first memories was my mom holding my head above a toilet shouting, "if you want to spit, spit in here!!!" Apparently, I had been spitting all over the house rather willy-nilly. I was too young to remember any tough-guy motivations, but all I know is I was cured. After spitting on the carpet, spitting in the toilet was no fun at all.

    I think I am going to send this story to the people I babysit for.