Monday, August 1, 2016

Dirty Words

The first play I ever wrote, at the age of 21, was about a woman who drank and smoked too much. (Write what you know.) The opening scene found our sauced heroine returning to her hotel room and trying in vain to light a cigarette with a childproof lighter, scourge of the mid-’90s. For drunks, igniting those tricky plastic contraptions could be like cross-stitching while wearing oven mitts, so her efforts were nothing but a series of flinty scratches. “Fuck the children!” she finally says, flinging the lighter against the wall, which always got a laugh, especially among the smokers.

It was my friend Bryan’s idea to produce a double bill of one-acts in our senior year of college. Normally I preferred locking up my artistic efforts in the file folders of my clunky old Mac, but I was trying to take more risks in those days, even if it kept me up at night, even if I had to chug a beer every time I thought about the curtain opening on an audience of strangers.

Strangers, it turned out, were not the problem. One night, my older brother came to the show. Afterward, we stood across from each other in the auditorium, two empty rows between us.

“There was a lot of cussing in that show,” he said.

“That’s true,” I said, stung by his sole assessment and trying not to let it show.

Technically, my brother was correct. The 45-minute play contained probably a dozen f-bombs, and at least one reference to the sucking of a hard male body part. But come on. This was 1996, the golden age of Tarantino and Goodfellas. Cussing was a badge of authenticity, a sign that your work was raw and vital. So many aspects of that play rattled around in my brain: Was it any good? Did it reveal too much about my own private sadness? Would the sound cues work? I had never once worried about the language.

“Have mom and dad seen this?” my brother asked.

“They came last week.”

He let out an exaggerated cry of despair, meant to make me laugh. Instead I carried this moment around for years, like a jagged stone of anger I could rub with my fingers whenever I felt the need to inflame my own sense of being misunderstood. Too much cussing. What the fuck did that mean, anyway? (...)

I was in fifth grade when I learned the thrill of teaching cuss words to my classmates. I loved scandalizing those innocents with a new and dangerous vocabulary. The discovery of dirty words was a bit like the discovery of sex itself, an induction to the shadow side. Simple children’s book words like “cock” and “pussy” were leading double lives. Vulgarity turned out to be a matter of tone, context, and tiny spelling changes. “Come” versus “cum.” “Dam” versus “damn.” Language was a spin toy I never grew tired of twirling across a wooden floor.

The dirty words arrived from various sources. My older cousins were a reliable supplier of R-rated comedies starring Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Steve Martin. The Breakfast Club came out my fifth-grade year and beefed up my playbook. I prided myself on reading beyond my age range: Stephen King, John Irving, V.C. Andrews. And of course there was Top 40 radio. I was 11 when Tipper Gore, wife of then-Sen. Al Gore, launched a nationwide campaign against filth in pop songs, which was pretty much a checklist of my favorite artists: Prince, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Mötley Crüe. It seemed to me, even then, the only art that mattered was the art that contained questionable language, double entendre, “adult situations.” Was something in poor taste? Then you could find my name in bubbly letters on the waiting list.

Cussing was also an adult privilege. I was the youngest in a large brood of cousins, and some of my earliest memories involve being teased for my softness, my clinginess. I was a sensitive kid, who over-identified with her stuffed animals. By the time I’d reached double digits, I was ready to leave the vulnerability of childhood behind. Dirty words were a way to brine the tender pink baby skin so that it became thicker, coarser, calloused. Cussing made you tough.

Fifth grade happens to be the year I got busted for cussing. A group of us had a habit of passing notes behind the teacher’s back and hiding them in our desks, a stash eventually discovered, although mine were the standouts: I called the teacher a bitch. I used words like “bullshit.” After class, I slouched in my plastic seat as the teacher chided us, and each of us was sent home with an uncomfortable letter for our parents.

“Help me understand why you’re so angry,” my mom said when she came into my room that night. My mother was training to be a therapist. She saw in my notes a simmering rage I had masked in our polite interactions, and I told her I wasn’t angry, because I longed to be a good kid, a sweetheart, a straight-A student. I did not understand that sweethearts still felt anger, too, and that “anger” was exactly the word to describe the burning I felt.

I was angry I had been born into a family of earthy, middle-class eggheads, then drop-kicked into a rich school district where tony labels and status cars determined your value. I was angry that my underwear clotted with blood each month, even though, to my knowledge, no other girl had gotten her period and I was the youngest kid in the class. I was angry that my mother spent all her time with other children instead of her own, that my father was silent and unknowable, that my brother preferred football practice and computer games to the company of his younger sister, and that for years I had been forced to stay with the librarian after school, watching the same boring filmstrips over and over until one of the older neighbor kids got out of class and could walk me home. I was angry because I was weird and wrong-sized and alone, but in fifth grade, you can’t get your hands around those feelings. You just have “shit,” “bitch,” “motherfucker,” “goddammit.”

By middle school, my mother was fighting me on so many fronts. The amount of television I watched. The kind of food I ate. My commitment to Sun-In, electric blue mascara, and Clinique foundation in unnatural shades of tan. However, she did not fight me on cussing, and I am grateful for this. It was a soft sin, so much superior to fists and punched walls. She understood the pressure-valve release of those bleep-able words. Cussing may be objectionable to some, but it is also one of the greatest mental health regimens ever invented. The gratification of a dramatically drawn-out “f,” the grand, percussive “k” at the end. Use in case of emergency.

by Sarah Hepola, TMN |  Read more:
Image: Marbella, Spain, 2014. Chris Goldberg