Friday, February 22, 2013

Watch Your Language.

I loved Red Skelton – even had the privilege to meet him once – and I completely understand his choice to eschew the use of profanity. For Mr. Skelton, it was an absolute rule: “If you can’t be funny without profanity,” he told me (me, and about 10,000 others in attendance that evening),  “Chances are you aren't very funny to begin with.”
He could be right, but I sure do laugh at a colorful turn of phrase every now and then. Naughty is naughty, whether it’s George Carlin’s list of The Words You Can't Say on TV, or Red’s Mean Widdle Kid - and in the hands of gifted performers, the entire spectrum of naughty can be darned funny indeed.

Clem Kadiddlehopper’s gentle tenet notwithstanding, I confess to my own occasional indulgence in expletive expression, and confirm my unwillingness to remove an entire phalanx of communication from my creative armamentarium, either visually or verbally.

I may choose to limit what I lift from my personal lexicon, just as my wife chooses colors from her palette of paints – but I do so to enhance my work, not because I feel like I'm getting away with anything.

Not everything people do is clean and pretty. Redd Foxx used to say, "There's a reason why I use words like $%*#, and %^@&. . . People do." Such functional activities can certainly be described in non-profane terms, appropriately and to great effect. I applaud anyone creative enough, talented enough, or even virtuous enough to do that. I also applaud those who are creative enough, talented enough, and virtuous enough use scatological terms effectively, unvarnished and (sic) un-adulterated.

There's a reason why I use such language, and occasionally such imagery. These words reside in their own area of the brain, apart from our regular vocabulary. (I find that special anatomical treatment noteworthy, and endlessly intriguing.) Employed thoughtfully, they add to the content, the depth, the meaning, the clarity, and the humor of my work, as well as my daily conversation.

Children understand profanity and its appropriate use before they're two years old. They even know to modify their language among differing social groups, absorbing cues from their social environment, and directly the admonitions of parents and teachers.

After a half century of such training, even I am beginning to catch on. When I speak to church groups, elementary students, a barroom full of Marines, or even a motley group of writers or artists, I find I am quite capable of adjusting the content of my presentation accordingly. 

By the time they could speak in sentences, both of my sons understood that the word ‘dam’ meant a wall of rocks and mud that held back water in the creek, and something people say sometimes when they are upset. Their preschool teacher once pulled me aside to report that one of the boys said ‘dammit’ out loud in her class that day. She assured me that it wasn’t something he had learned in daycare, since none of her teachers spoke that way to the children, and she hoped the incident wouldn't reflect poorly on the school.

“Don't worry,” I told her. “He learned it from me.”

Her relief melted into shocked amusement. “I’ve been teaching little ones for 16 years, and you're the first parent who has ever admitted that!”

Why wouldn't I? I want my kids to be functionally literate as they navigate their way through life. Profanity, from the vulgar to the refined, will permeate their experience in society, in popular media, in literature, in their business and personal interactions.

Ignorance is seldom an asset in the real world.

When my kids were a little older, around 6 or 7, they wanted to see a Jackie Chan movie (which I was assured would be ‘family friendly’), to celebrate their advancement to yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do.  Chan was as jovial and entertaining as ever, though his partner relied more on verbal assaults to subdue bad guys than his martial arts skills.

On the way back to the car, my seven year old asked the obvious question: “Dad, why do grown-ups say ‘bullshit’ so much?” – a query that instantly brought back the taste of the ivory soap that my grandmother used to wash out my mouth, the first and only time I uttered that word in her presence. Must’ve been just about his age…


“What, son?”

“Why do grown-ups say ‘bullshit’ so much? That guy sure said it a lot in the movie.”

I tried not to laugh at his innocent question, or his earnest sincerity - grateful that his great-grandmother was nowhere within earshot. Couldn't help smiling, though.

“Well, that’s kind of an adult word for nonsense, son. Grown-ups say that whenever they think of something that it worthless. I guess they could say ‘Big piles of marshmallow crème!’, but that stuff is too tasty. See what I mean?”

His little brother giggled and mimicked: “Big piles of marshmallow creeeme!”

The older boy thought for a minute, furrowing his brow as he climbed into the car, and buckled his seatbelt.
“That’s silly,” he said, finally. “That stuff is not either worthless. People could put it in their compost pile. Then it would grow yummy vegetables.”

That it would, my boy. 
That it would.

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