In Re: Cussing
There’s just no time, girls, no time for anything. And I’m afraid there’s going to be a lot of work to do in the coming years.
Yesterday, Ruby, you flung the bathroom door open and caught me peeing. You were horrified. You said, “Dad! Why are you holding your penis?!” These types of questions are why I write you these informative memos. So much to learn!
You were dressed up like Laura Ingalls Wilder, with the sun bonnet and the apron and all that, which made the situation somewhat more awkward for me. But anyway.
I said, “Why don’t you get outta here.”
You said, “It’s disgusting, daddy!” You’re 4 right now, Ruby, but you’ll be five in a month. Zuzu is 2. I said, “I have to aim or else I’ll pee on the seat and everywhere.”
You said, “Why don’t you just squat down over the toilet and hang your penis in there, and then you don’t have to touch it?” You demonstrated by doing a deep squat and placing your hands on your hips.
I said, “Can you just get out of here?”
You walked away. From the kitchen, you yelled, “Your penis is VERY embarrassing.” But it sounded like this: “Yo penis is VAYWEE embawassing!” because you can’t say your Rs.
Cussing is what people like me – from Kansas – call swearing, or using foul language. Laura Ingalls Wilder would know what I’m talking about. Pa didn’t cuss so much around the house, but I bet you when he was out all day on the prairie, doing whatever it was he did out there, he cussed like crazy. “Hurry the fuck up, Patty. These fucking wolves are about to eat my goddamned leg off!” He had a whole house full of girls, probably asking him questions about his embarrassing penis.
I don’t have a prairie, girls, that I can traipse around in. I work from home at my computer. I make breakfast and lunch and dinner for you and your mom.
Cuss words are words like shit, damn, hell. That kind of thing. There’s nothing inherently bad about these words. They’re just words. And words are just sounds we use to represent other things. Language probably feels inherent, though, because it feels so innate to us, and because language is the way we experience and explain the world.
Inherent means existing in something as a permanent or essential attribute. Feet are gross, but they are not inherently gross. That they are gross is my own truth. Feet are feet and some people love them. Some people might love getting hit in the face, I suppose. Not my truth.
I do love your feet, both of you. They’re very small and sweet and wiggly at this very moment. I love your mom’s feet. But I wouldn’t want to go for a hike and then pal around with them on the couch.
We’re not supposed to cuss at or around kids. The idea is that shit, damn, and hell, and so on, are bad for you to hear. I was listening to the neighbor over the fence the other day. She was telling her friend (I couldn’t see either of them) about her fucking lunch. She said, “Then I had my fucking lunch. I got a hamburger and shit, and some fries. I was fucking hungry. Where the fuck is Steve?”
Guys, I don’t know who Steve is, and it was a lot of cussing, but it was really just a lazy way to make a boring story a little more interesting. Adding cuss words can add a little zing to a sentence. That was her intention with that language. It was pretty harmless.
When I heard about her fucking lunch and that sonofabitch, Steve, I was sitting in a faded plastic Adirondack chair in the backyard of your childhood home. I was writing up a TV show for this media organization that wants to make a TV show. They produce presentations. People stand on a stage wearing a Janet Jackson microphone and try to explain to an audience how what they’ve been doing is surprisingly wrong, and how robots will help them do it better.
They put these presentations online and I’m addicted to them. So are other people. They’ve been viewed well over a billion times. People like to be told how surprisingly wrong they are, I guess. And now they want to make a TV show about it, so they asked me to write it.
Janet Jackson was the sister of Michael Jackson, who was one of the world’s biggest pop stars. Janet, however, had quite an amazing life. When she was a little girl, she played the role of Penny on the sitcom Good Times, about a family struggling to survive in a rough housing project in Chicago. Hilarious, I know. Then Janet, or Ms. Jackson, if you will, began a very successful musical career. Then, in a strange twist, everyone watching one of the Superbowls, which was a football game they did every year, saw one of her boobs at halftime.
It was part of something they called a “wardrobe malfunction,” and people were simply horrified, just like you were when you saw me holding my penis. Conservative groups wrote strongly worded editorials complaining that Janet Jackson’s boob was evidence of our declining morals, and the FCC received 540,000 complaints. People were simply appalled. It was vulgar, they said. I imagine Laura Ingalls’ Ma would have agreed. Maybe she would have fainted. America was coming apart by the seams, like Janet Jackson’s shirt.
By the time you read this, when you’re 20 and 18, respectively, the Superbowl boob thing will have no relevance to anything. It really isn’t relevant right now.
Anyway. In one of her music videos, Janet Jackson used a microphone that was also a headband. Now, everyone calls microphones like that Janet Jackson Microphones.
Not everyone calls them that.
I call them that.
Nobody calls them that.
I have deadlines, girls. I’m almost 40 as I write this. Someone wants me to do something and I have to just do it. I work in the yard or at the table or in the attic or at this coffee shop called Outdated in Upstate New York where you girls mostly grew up and where everyone knows you. I work from home and that’s lucky, but I’m always just barely behind. Still, I lay on Ruby’s floor at night while you go to sleep, and I listen to your breathing and to the sound you make when you suck your thumb as you, Ruby, drift off to dream about life on the prairie and as you, Hazel, try to will yourself to sleep so you can dream about elephants.
The neighbor who was talking about her fucking lunch and that idiot Steve paused after her exhilarating story, and I heard a child’s voice. He said, “Can I color, mommy?” He’d been there the whole time, I guess. It was a little jarring to think about the kid sitting there while his mom was cussing so much, even if her cussing is harmless and has no inherent meaning.
I guess what bothered me about it was the intention. I think Ma, and probably Pa, America’s original heartland conservative, would agree with me. It’s the human intention behind the words that make them either bad or good.
We were driving to Target and we got behind a truck with this bumper sticker that said, “Want my guns? Come and get them.” And there was a silhouette of a guy pointing a gun at us. His intention was to show us that he was willing to shoot us. That language is dangerous and lazy.
In Kansas where me and Laura Ingalls grew up, there were a lot of guns. No one wanted to take them from anyone else, and I’m dubious of claims that there is an organized movement to take anyone’s guns now. A kid named Donny (not his real name) tried to sell me one in English class sophomore year. He had it in his pants. I almost bought it, but I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t. I sometimes went to the shooting range to shoot guns. Not so often. But sometimes.
So the bumper sticker on that truck has no inherent meaning, but the intention is to shut down discussion and to threaten those who oppose him with a violent death. My sense is that if the guy driving the truck met you girls, or if he and I met at the store, shooting us wouldn’t even cross his mind, and he’d probably be embarrassed if he knew we were afraid that he was going to shoot us. Maybe not. But the bigger point is that his bumper sticker is a lazy, stupid way to make a point.
The words are meaningless, guys. But the intention, for both Donald Trump and the man who will shoot you, is to exert power through violence.
It’s embarrassing to imagine it. But Pa would never say it. The only inherent danger in language is intention. Either your intention is to do harm, or you’re just being lazy or stupid.
Pa would never have said something like that, even as he was out alone on the prairie, doing whatever it was he did out there, because he never intended to do harm, and he wasn’t lazy or stupid. He used reason to sort out his problems, and that made him stronger.
I don’t write these memos to give you advice or to tell you what to do. These are informative, not persuasive. But the truth is, even if I wanted to give you advice on this, I just don’t know what it would be. Cussing is fine, but you need to understand your intentions. Don’t be stupid. Don’t be lazy. Be very careful around careless people. Take care of each other. I don’t know.
I wonder what’s happened in the time since I wrote this. You’re both getting ready to make your own way into the world as you read this. I wonder how you’ll remember me as I am now, almost 40.
There’s so much work to do. I have deadlines, you know, and while the weather is still nice I’ll sit out in this plastic Adirondack chair in my own little prairie and work, and then I’ll go in and make you a nice little lunch. I’m no Pa. I cuss with some frequency, and I am often stupid and lazy, and the world is such these days that it’s difficult to always speak with intention, but I try. If I have an extra ten minutes, I’ll do puzzles with you guys or chase you around the house. I’ll go pee and hold my embarrassing penis. I’m sorry, Ruby. And then I’ll go back to work. And I’ll work and work and work, and I’ll keep working until you open this memo when you’re 18 and 20, and then I’ll keep working. This work is suddenly very important.
Maybe as you read this, you’ll remember your dad sitting out in the back yard with his computer, or standing at the stove, or chasing you around the house, or doing puzzles. Maybe if you think really hard, you’ll remember me lying on your floor in the dark, listening to you breathe as you drifted off to sleep.
This is how the world should be. This is what we want.