The Art of the Semi-Foul Mouth

Last week I was waiting for my husband to pick me up from work, so I stood outside my office in downtown Austin for some people-watching. I try to make a conscious effort to watch people because I’m finding more and more that when I’m alone, I have a tendency to use my gadget to entertain me, when in reality the most entertaining stuff is right before my eyes.

While I watched people pass, two 20-something dudes approached. They were both smoking, and waving their hands around in what appeared to be an extremely animated conversation. As I looked closer, I noticed that one of the guys had on pants with super wide legs.  These weren’t sweatpants or any kind of workout gear, rather, they were really wide-legged dress pants. They were upsetting.

Since I didn’t snap a photo, I searched for a pretty long time to find a visual representation of this guy’s pants. They looked most like the ones in black on the right side.

Unfortunately for this guy, he looked nothing like these fetching little runway boys. He looked more like a casual, schlubby software sales guy with a complete lack of judgment when it came to purchasing pants.

As the guys got closer I was able to properly eavesdrop on their conversation. Typically I delight in little tidbits from conversations like this. I’m constantly writing down random sentences from partial conversations I catch here and there. For example, here are a few little snippets from things I’ve heard in the past few years that I’ve quickly keyed into my phone before they were forgotten:

“STOP with the games! Just STOP IT, dammit!” (A completely frazzled red-faced, bald little father yelling at his Nintendo-wielding son.)

“Get yourself a stylist, darling. I mean Savile ROW, for heaven’s sake!” (An eccentric wiry-haired woman with expensive glasses and yellow teeth throwing back martinis, talking to her colleague about someone that they clearly both hated.)

“And THAT will give you some historical perspective on the shit I’ve been dealing with for DECADES.” (A cute and exasperated old man in the car next to me with his window rolled down, talking loud enough for me to hear that goodness.)

Usually, I write this stuff down because I assume one day I’ll use it for dialogue for a short story or screenplay or whatever, but mainly because things like this can make me laugh for days on end. I like to write down these sentences and sometimes I challenge myself to insert them randomly in unrelated conversations. Did I mention I’m weird?

I gather a lot of this material when I travel for business, because eating alone is a great opportunity to eavesdrop. Often when I’m on work travel, I eat at the bar because sitting at a table alone feels very awkward to me.

Once when I was in in Boston, I was having lunch before a customer meeting and sat down next to a drunk guy and his equally drunk mother who were discussing his recent breakup. I never looked at their faces, but they both had reddish freckled arms and sausage fingers, and the only reason I knew the woman was his mother was that he started every sentence with “Ma.” The conversation came out in thick Boston accents, which made it ten times more awesome. The guy was telling his drunk mother about how he went into a strip bar with his friends, only to discover that his girlfriend worked there as a dancer. There were so many great things about that conversation. The guy being sincerely surprised to find his girlfriend was a stripper. The mom not being surprised in the least. The intermittent belches by both parties. While all of it was hilarious, perhaps what was even funnier was that never once did the drunk son nor the drunk mother figure out that I was feverishly keying in their conversation on my little phone keypad, trying very hard not to get busted or burst out laughing.

Given my habit of listening in on conversations I’m not invited to attend, when the dude with the unfortunate pants and his friend finally made it to eavesdropping territory, I was extremely eager to hear what they had to say. I hoped it would reveal something about his pants, or why he was flinging his arms around with such dramatic flair. It was bound to be good.

I was sorely disappointed when the guys approached and all I could hear from the guy in the bad pants was a string of expletives so strong even I was shocked, and I have a pretty bad potty mouth myself.  If the word didn’t begin with “f,” it was one of the even more foul ones that I can’t even mention. It was so distracting I couldn’t decipher what he was talking about at all.

Something about hitting 40 has given me the confidence to confront these young kids when I feel like they are out of line, especially when little kids are present. There are few things that bug me more than grown-ass adults cussing around little kids. And while I don’t mind what people say to each other in a private setting, this wide-legged pants man was speaking that way in public. It wasn’t cool.

So I followed my snarky gut instinct and looked straight at the guy and said,

“I’m not sure what’s worse, your pants or your mouth.”

He looked up, kept walking and said, “Sorry?”

It was hard to tell if he was apologizing or if he was actually asking me to repeat myself, but by the look on his face, I believe my point was delivered effectively. Now, I am pretty certain that my little comment did not cause this guy to go home and promptly donate his pants (or, for the betterment of society, burn them). I highly doubt my comment caused that guy to immediately clean up his mouth, either, but I said what I needed to say. I felt better, and perhaps in that scenario, that’s all that matters.

While I’m certainly not advocating that we all censor ourselves to a G-rated level, I do think there’s something to say for moderation when it comes to cussing. I’d suggest we all take a page from the lesson book of my 82-year old stepfather, James. James is one of the most polished, gentlemanly men I have ever known. He has impeccable table manners. He taught several of my high school boyfriends the valuable lesson about about discarding your hat at the dinner table when those poor boys seemed to have no idea otherwise. He opens doors. He is incredibly polite. He also avoids confrontation, once telling me that the few times in his life he’s had to have a confrontation in the workplace his voice gets high pitched like a little girl. Despite all of these qualities, he is far from wimpy. He has strong opinions and isn’t afraid to make them. He is just genteel about it all, and these days, that kind of a man is rare.

When it comes to cussing, James really doesn’t do it. Growing up, I learned most of my good cursing from my incredible maternal grandmother Mabel. She was a lady but she had a mouth on her, and I appreciated that. James, on the other hand, never cussed in front of us. In the privacy of his art studio he may have let it rip like a you-know-what, but I never heard it, and that’s important to me. Also, because James is so even-keeled, we rarely saw him angry.

One afternoon, when I was probably in 8th grade or so, James was loading the dishwasher and struggling with the bottom rack. The rack had a tendency to fall of the track, causing you to have to yank it around in all sorts of directions before it would go in properly. James went at it several times and finally jerked it so hard a dish broke, shattering all over the kitchen floor.

SHIT!” he yelled, and as he did, I believe the walls of 2914 Pounds Avenue trembled in fear.

This was ridiculously shocking stuff for us. James cussed? James cussed. James cussed! This meant so much all at one time. James was most definitely angry. James meant business. It was big.

Though we wouldn’t have let him know it at the moment, after we got over the initial shock, James’ outburst was extremely funny. Because it was fresh. When someone who never cusses says a curse word, it has so much more flavor than if they said it every other word. Think about it. What if your priest stubbed his toe and said, “Son of a bitch!” Imagine the Queen of England saying, “I call bullshit!” Wouldn’t that be hilarious and newsworthy?

When I first started this blog, the original idea was that I would provide advice, partly because I’m bossy but partly because people thought it would be funny if I doled out advice. That’s because everyone who knows me knows how ripe with imperfection I am as a mother, a wife, a friend and more, so advice from me would not only be funny, it would also be wildly hypocritical.

After many posts where I didn’t dole out advice, I’ll take this opportunity to offer some now. Consider when and where you choose to cuss. I promise that the less you do it, the more power it will hold. I’m not telling you not to cuss at all; I’m simply suggesting that you cuss sparingly, like you would when thoughtfully spritzing on body spray or slapping wasabi on your sashimi.  And please, do as I say, not as I do, because I drop an f bomb every time I catch my toe on the edge of the bed, which is at least three times a week.

My great grandmother Vera Conrad (the one with the chin whiskers who rode in a wheelchair and talked about idle hands being the devil’s plaything) was a classy Methodist woman who lived in a nursing home when I was little. I never knew her very well, but what I did know of her was that she had great manners, was kind, and spent her latter years making quilts for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. In many ways, she was the picture perfect great grandmother. I certainly never heard the woman cuss.

One fateful day, Great Gran got into a fight with another little old lady at the nursing home. I don’t know what the fight was about, but according to legend, Great Gran got up in the other lady’s face and said,

“If you wash your face, you can kiss my ass.”

And that, my friends, is how cussing should work. Save it for the right moment, and it can pack one hell of a punch.

You’re welcome.

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