A lot of what I learned in college I learned from the New York Times. I was completely incapable of managing the college application process on my own. In hindsight, it strikes me as similar to my experience with the DMV. The application process is way too complicated for someone with Asperger Syndrome. But I didn’t know I had Asperger’s then, so I assumed that if the process was impossible for me it was impossible for everyone, and no one was really doing it.
My parents only realized in April of my senior year, when my friends were getting early admissions to Stanford and Brown, that I had not applied anywhere but Vassar.
I got rejected. So my parents pulled strings and gave a big donation, and I got into their alma mater, Brandeis. During the McCarthy era, Brandeis was a haven for left-wing professors who scared everyone else. By the time I got there, in the ’80s, Brandeis was a haven for smart, Jewish New Yorkers who did not quite make it into the Ivy League, and wanted a haven from the semi-adult world that did not function like Jewish summer camp.
I did not fit in well, but of course, all the kids that did not fit in well somehow ended up hanging out with each other. My freshman year roommate, for example, had Asperger’s. (What luck!) My junior year roommate was just realizing that he was gay, and he thought he was being taken over by the devil. I told him being gay is fine, and that if anything, the devil is working though his dad, whose job was to ensure that Camel sold ten billion gazillion cigarettes to kids by using their icon properly.
All normal kids are the same, and all kids who are weird are weird in different ways, but the common thread through the weird kids at Brandeis was that they all read the New York Times. I had never seen that newspaper until I went to Brandeis. I’m not sure it was worth $40,000 a year, but to learn to read the New York Times when you are young is, actually, a great step toward being successful in adult life.
One of the most eye-opening parts of the paper was William Safire’s column, On Language. I grew up in a family of doctors and lawyers, so I never considered that writing was something an adult did with any seriousness, but I found myself doing writerly things in secret, and reading William Safire was a part of that.
His column was mostly about how dynamic language is. He knew tons about language, but he never snubbed his nose when people did not use language in a conventional way. I learned from him that it’s just not that interesting to be the language police; it’s more interesting to be the language philosopher. I also learned from his column that it’s interesting to watch language evolve, because language is the visible result of underlying changes in our society.
Which leads me to the word fuck. I use it very infrequently in this blog, because I think makes for uninteresting writing—there’s always a more precise way to express dismay, and precision is interesting to read. But in real life, I say fuck all the time.
I did not have any trouble with this before I had kids. In general, though, I tell the kids that fuck is an adult word, and they can’t use it. (My son asked if he could use fuck when he is old enough to quit violin lessons. I said yes, although tentatively because I hate to have the day he can quit violin lessons be the marker of when the world gets great.)
No one had ever told me that my using the word fuck was offensive, so I never thought about it much. Until I met the farmer.
The farmer had never heard anyone use fuck in everyday conversation. I thought he was sheltered, so I basically ignored his request to stop saying fuck. But then, I was talking with the contractors who were working on our house, and I said fuck, and they nearly fell off their chairs.
“See,” the farmer said later, “I told you. People never say that word around here. They couldn’t believe you said it. Right there. In your very own kitchen.”
The thing is, I think fuck is like dick. And I never say the word dick. I mean, I can write it, but really, I can’t say it. And the farmer actually said to my kids, “Try peeing out of the hole in the barn. It’s fun. Just point your dick in the middle so the pee doesn’t bounce back at you.”
I said, “What? You cannot use the word dick with the kids!”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“It’s crass. And kids should learn the proper names for talking about their bodies.”
“Hold it. You are telling me that I’m crass?”
I knew he was talking about fuck. He just can’t say it. I thought about it. I said, “I think it’s just cultural, because, really, fuck is slang for something that is perfectly fine to say, and dick is the same way.”
So we agreed that he will use language that I think is crass, because I think it’s fun. And I will refrain from using fuck.
Then I came across some other information about swearing. There is research from Yehuda Baruch, professor of management at University of East Anglia that swearing at work helps build teamwork. And Timothy Jay, professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, finds that using taboo words is a good stress reliever. In his paper, Ubiquity and Utility of Taboo Words, surveys show that when we are upset, instead of restraining our language to vent, we actually do feel better when we swear.
(I told this to the farmer, and he made me realize that since I say fuck every day, I’d have to say something like god fucking dammit in order to release tension.)
William Safire helps me to understand that the farmer’s intolerance for fuck is not provincial. Well, maybe provincial, but also interesting.
The farmer also says things like “Whaddyou got goin?” as opposed to “What are you doing today?” And he uses double negatives like, “I’m not doin nothin about that,” which he did not start using until we had been dating a while, so clearly he knows when to shut it off. But I don’t like him shutting down his dialect.
It’s dialect, right? Or vernacular. I am not sure I know how to use either of these words, but I’m sure that it’s interesting to hear people use my language in new ways.
There is vernacular for photos, as well. My friends come to the farm and take pictures of cuteness, like this one, from Caitlin:
But when the farmer takes pictures of pigs, he shows clinical details, that non-farmers don’t necessarily see.
I did not notice the difference in visual language until I started looking closely at photos for posting on my blog. But it was a pleasant surprise.
I told the farmer I was going to write this post. Mostly to give him warning that he was going to go nuts that I wrote a post with ten fucks in it. But I said, “I’m a little nervous about writing about William Safire,” which was also true.
The farmer said, “Why?”
I said, “He’s so old. I mean, he’s not old. He’s dead. And he’s really from an older era. I want people to think I’m young and fun.”
“What do you mean, young and fun?”
“I guess I mean fuckable.”
“What? Why do you have to use that word?”
“Because sometimes fuck is just the right word. Think about it. Tell me when you think of a word you can use to replace fuckable.”
And I think he’s still thinking.