So my in-laws, Charley and Audrey Armey, who now live in the wonderful state of Arizona, where the rich go to die and tee times are predawn to avoid daily Raiders of the Lost Ark finales on the 13th green, sent me a lovely article from what appears to be the October 10th Sunday edition of The Arizona Republic. They kindly marked an article by Karina Bland titled “Turning red over talking blue: Why I’ve sworn to quit swearing”. Apparently Bland let fly a barrage of expletives toward her slacker 6th grader after a hard day and is now convinced she’ll be the next Lionel Dahmer making the talk show circuit trying to delicately explain why her son was chewing on the neighbors. It was a very well written article Ms. Bland. Good idea, don’t swear at your children.
To my in-laws, whom I adore, this is why I swear. First of all, perhaps, it’s because I can and it often feels divine. I’m an adult human. The calico cat that lives in our house cannot swear, but appears to try when my 6 year old son holds his tiny furry front legs high in the air, names him Ratmonster and marches him across the hardwood toward his action figures. Language makes us human; it is our celestial gift. The God of the Old Testament breathed into Adam’s nostrils and then lined up the animals for Adam to name; Adam mirrored God, speaking things into existence. During their garden strolls before shame mired the whole pumpkin patch, I can imagine God sharing a graceful curse here and there over some of his less spectacular efforts like narcoleptic goats and the inevitability of reality television. With every resounding curse word I reaffirm centuries of humanity, barbaric and terminally flawed. I am the cave dweller who cannot remember the low hanging rock on the cave mouth’s right side; the native hunter who was certain that bear didn’t hear that twig snap; the industrialist who was convinced people would love doing the same thing all day every day without losing fingers; the farmer who knew that cloud was finally full of rain; the nurse who was assured the bed pan was more than ample.
Cursing is my cultural heritage. I was born and raised full fledged working class white trash in America’s belly, the great Midwest. My father was a failed farmer, factory worker and janitor who succeeded only in drinking and dying. He did both for a long, long time. My mother is a 5 foot tall mythic codependent from a long line of Kentucky coal miners and Ohio cab drivers. She would mortgage her house for an interesting flea market and would sell her soul if she could figure out how to space her emphysema inhalers so she could sneak in one more &*#@&%$ cigarette. I am one of 4 sons. My brothers and I delight in swearing. We defile the Cleveland Browns; we fling expletives at bosses, insurance companies, inept physicians and branches that grab fishhooks. It is our defense against a faceless world. It is a bond borne of countless drunken nights, ruptured hopes and seizing truck engines that seem to work just long enough to get you to work. We are men of a certain age and class; well timed curse words convey a love between brothers that will likely never be overtly spoken.
Now my brothers are still factory workers. I am not. I made the proverbial escape and attended college. For a long time actually. Like Bland and her mention of newsroom environments, I too spent my early professional life where swearing was a badge— as a social worker in homeless shelters. We swore to stave off crying and running away screaming. I don’t have the space to explore why the homeless swear. But for the past 14 years I have been a high school English teacher. And like Bland, I now have children, the aforementioned 6 year old and an acutely bright and sensitive 11 year old son. I have never said a swear word in front of my class or in front of the casts of the dramatic productions I direct every year. But I oft discuss language as power, explaining to my students that my dialect and decorum changes dramatically when I step from the classroom and cavort with my brothers. Language identifies us, and definitely brands us with educational aura to most. But like anything, it’s an illusion. Keats never swore and penned odes so thick with beauty and loss while he lay dying of consumption that I cannot read them without tearing up—But here there is no light,/Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown/Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. Shakespeare swore quite profusely for his day and in his language and his creations are timeless—'Sblood, do you think I am/easier to be played on than a pipe?
I have in fact sworn in front of and at my children, much to my father-in-law’s dismay, and my wife’s periodic consternation. I admit to trying to curb it. Periodically. They may nudge each other one day, long after I’ve left my fishing boots permanently by the door, and chuckle or raise an eyebrow at “good grief, remember how that old man could swear…when he said &%$#@ you knew it was never good.” But I also would like to think that they may remember “but he could recite all those sections of Macbeth, and remember when he would carry on about Keats.” My father-in-law is a noble soul—a veteran of the U.S. Navy and 30 plus year employee of the NFL…he has heard some cursing in his time. I have never heard him curse toward his daughter, his grandkids, or his wife. I have heard him shame my swearing while, only in my earshot, and talking of Democrats. There are times even he can find no better definition, no more satisfying exclamation. Language defines us all. It rescues and slays; it is perfect and always inadequate. Language creates. I will continue to swear, hopefully not at my children of course.
On our way home from a rehearsal last week I heard my children talking in the back of the van:
6 year old: Hey Dad, I'd like to call you Ted from now on.
11 year old: You know what I like about school? I find a lot of things on the ground.
6 year old: Hey Teddy, sometimes it will be Teddy. I have homework.
11 year old: I think lumberjacks should be paid by the tree.
6 year old: My homework is a book on the letter "S". That stands for s@*t.
11 year old: Charley, stop it. I didn't utter a swear word until I was in preschool.
I can live with that.