Thursday, December 7, 2017

On Swearing

Last week I started a post about the best Mac-n-Cheese you'll ever make. I ended up like Alice in the rabbit hole, and realized I needed to cut it short and continue my commentary over here. I appreciate a well timed swear - a girlfriend of mine can whip them out and make grown men shudder with her filthy mouth - I've seen it multiple times over.

All this to say? I've got some stories to share about swearing.

One day when I was five years old, I walked home from my Grandma Kahling's house, which was about 100 yards up the hill in our neighborhood. As I ambled along, I heard a neighbor call out in frustration as his wrench clattered to the garage floor while he worked on his car. "God Damnit!" he shouted.

A connection took root in my mind. A few days later I tried it out myself when my Radio Flyer wouldn't budge through the garage service door. I yanked at that wagon, knowing full well if I aligned it perfectly it would slide right out onto the sidewalk. But the temptation to use my newfound words of aggression were too overwhelming. "God Damnit!" I growled.

Little did I know, my mother had the windows open and before I could adjust the wagon and tighten my pigtails for another futile tug, she had me by my ear in the bathroom.

I avoided eye contact with her, because while I didn't really know, I had an inkling.
"Um, something bad?"

She didn't just plop a bar of soap in my mouth. Nope - I wasn't as lucky as Ralphie. She soaped that bar of Irish Spring to a sudsy lather and jabbed it in and out of my mouth ten times before stopping - just shy of the moment I puked.

It was a really long time before I ever swore again.

My brother didn't learn from my mishap. A few weeks later, he got caught uttering the f-bomb.
Our dad snarled at him, "How many letters are in that word, son?"
"F-f-f-f-four," he stuttered.
"And that's how many cracks you're getting on your backside from this belt."
Four resounding slaps of leather on baby butt skin later, and my brother humbly limped back to his bedroom to consider his atonement.

Needless to say, we had some serious rules growing up about appropriate and inappropriate language.

So I've got a question for all you moms out there. The first time you heard your kid swear, did you lather their mouth with lye? Whip them with a leather belt? Drop some Tabasco sauce on their tongue? Did you cringe?

I cringed. A little bit.

But I refrained from punishing too harshly, because I was that mom. The one who when they were little, would not allow them to say butt, stupid and yes, even fart. Instead we used bottom, uninformed, and toot.

Until one day, my kids hollered at me for being so strict. Aghast, I retaliated. "I'm not strict. I allow you one popsicle a day and let you stay up until 8:00. You can even have a snack after school before you start your homework! Nope - you've got it wrong, kids. I'm not strict at all."

"But we can't say butt!"
"You don't need to say butt."
"Yes we do! All the other kids make fun of us because we can't say butt, stupid, or fart!"

I smiled. How was it that my kids willingly obeyed me, without a gullet full of toxic soap or corporal punishment? Reluctantly I saw their point, and decided they were old enough to dabble in the liberating world of cussing, especially when it came to harmless descriptions of the derriere. Unwilling to acquiesce on stupid because I still think it's unkind when referring to other people, I caved on the other two. "Fine. From here on out, say butt and fart as much as you want."

Utter disbelief passed from their eyes down to their tiny, upturned smiles.

"For real? We can say it? And you won't ground us?"

Still unconvinced, I demonstrated. "Stick out that healthy butt and FART!" I shouted as I demonstrated in the foyer.

Those kids acted like it was a notch below Christmas Day. They ran around the house and talked about each other's bungholes and gas emissions for days.

Fast forward a few years, and we found ourselves at the cabin on a dreaded Sunday, late in the morning, the witching hour in full gear as we tried to clean up, close up, and get out of there so we could arrive home at a decent hour. Both kids were highly unresponsive despite multiple requests to put their clothes away. Finally, I lost it. "YOU TWO ARE ACTING LIKE SELFISH LITTLE ASSHOLES! GET OFF YOUR BUTTS NOW AND PUT THESE CLOTHES AWAY BEFORE I TOTALLY LOSE MY SHIT!"

Not one of my shining moments as Mother. I never swore directly at them until that point, but they were old enough to hear it and the edge of insanity that rode shotgun.

It reminded me of a leader I had the privilege of working with at both MCI and ATT. Always two levels above me in the pecking order, I had the utmost respect for him as both a person and as a consummate sales professional.

Mr. Even-Keeled never swore. Ever. But when WorldCom bought MCI unexpectedly, leaving us all in a state of shock and uncertainty, he delivered one of the most professional, heartfelt speeches I've ever heard. He ended the speech with something like, "This is such fucking bullshit I can hardly get my head around it," immediately gaining even more respect from every person in that room. He said exactly what we all were feeling, and it resonated deeply. The other time an internal group wouldn't deliver on a promise to a client, so he joined me on a conference call to help push the request through. I remember sitting on my friend Michele's bed in her first house just before her wedding to take the call. He hollered to the uncooperative people on the phone: "You are going to make this work. Let me repeat: Make this fucking happen for Jen."

They completed my request less than a week later, ahead of schedule. Those two instances combined with my parents' no-nonsense approach taught me much: When someone who normally keeps their cool loses their shit, it's impactful. People listen. They try to do better. And it's a philosophy that stuck with me forever.

So back to my kids. Sobbing, and surely feeling like their mother stabbed their souls right out of them, they snapped to attention and put their stinking clothes away. We left the cabin, and I apologized to them for calling them assholes on the way home. But I didn't apologize for screaming in anger. Because sometimes you need to show extreme emotion in order to gain attention - from both children and adults.

Fast forward a few years, and we were all sitting at the campfire. Again, my kids complained because we didn't allow them to swear. I told them they don't have to - there are far more intelligent ways to express themselves than with swear words, it's really not nice, cussing makes a person seem uglier as soon as they open their mouths, and some adults form poor opinions of kids who swear. They harped and complained so much that suddenly an idea popped into my head.

"As we sit around this campfire, I will allow you both to use as many swear words as you want. However, they must be used in a single sentence, correctly. Don't just say five swear words together if it doesn't make sense. So think long and hard about that sentence you want to share."

Those little faces with the cogs spinning while they dreamed up compound sentences to cram 50 swear words into? Freaking priceless.

I can't remember what they said, but I do recall their words being grammatically correct, making us all laugh hysterically. They spoke in tiny, unconfident voices, thinking they'd still get in trouble for using words like "fuck" and "bitch." At that point I realized something. Someday, I would  have to allow these kids to say whatever they want, uncensored, and with confidence. They needed to understand my philosophy on swearing, one that I tried to employ for years myself. I may have even allowed them to come up with a few more sentences, with the understanding that it was campfire talk only, and was not allowed to leave that circle.

Now as a teenager and twenty-year-old, I only occasionally cringe when my kids swear. I did plenty when they started swearing at about 15 or 16 - the age when I allowed them to say nearly anything. I reminded them often that the less you cuss, the more intelligent you seem, and when you reserve it for the most critical / emotional / passionate times in your life, people will snap-to with attention, and your words will be more impactful.

My close friends out there? Yeah, I know you're rolling your eyes and calling bullshit. Because you hang with me when we have a couple of cocktails and we never judge one another when the f-bombs fly.

Here's a funny - when I started working out, I swore all the time, but mostly under my breath so nobody heard and judged me. Do a plank? Fuck you. Run up that hill? Bullshit. Drop and give you 20 pushups? Suck a bag of dicks. Run to the tree? You're an asshole. Run to the tree with my bell? I hate you, you fucking asshole.

Those were extreme times, and fully warranted the foul language, otherwise I'm really not sure I would have made it through. And now? I reserve the bad language for the planking pandemonium he puts us through. Sometimes I declare "This is really mean," but that's as nasty as I get.

Normally I just say, "I love you, Tim," and laugh. Or slip up and swear a bit when I get the movement wrong or we're on the 75th burpee. Again, extremes call for some questionable language.

So now that my soul's laid bare on swearing, I'm curious. Do you swear? How do you or have you handled it with your kids? Does anyone have any great swearing stories? Do tell!