Mum's the F-Word

Profanity is a vice, but is it also an addiction?

I think I might have a problem.

Every once in a while, somebody feels compelled to let me know that I can be pretty loose with the "adult" language. (And isn't it weird how people call it that, seeing as how it's mostly 15-year-olds who get the biggest kick out of using it?) I've received numerous letters over the years from readers criticizing my "obscene" verbiage — the funniest one, to my underdeveloped sense of humor, came from a former Planet board member whose first name happens to be Dick — and even close friends, friends whose facility with four-letter words I find awe-inspiring, have occasionally been taken aback by my use of expletives in casual conversation.

For the longest time, I just considered myself a champion of free expression. "Oh, what, the word 'fuck' makes you uncomfortable? Well, it's my right to make you fucking uncomfortable, you fucking repressed motherfucker. Grow the fuck up." I'd looked into the history of profanity; I knew that Victorian English society purposely vilified some words to widen the gap between the upper classes and the lower ones. I was one of those people who firmly believed that words were just words, who never considered themselves vulgar but who maintained that every word had its right to exist, and that sometimes nothing but an attention-grabbing, provocative curse word would do, if only for emphasis' sake.

It's a wonderful rationalization.

But apparently, I'm just a potty mouth.

Apparently, I swear with the indifferent frequency of a Merchant Marine from the '40s, but also with the zealotry of a Hare Krishna pushing pamphlets at the airport.

Apparently, I'm addicted to profanity.

Don't laugh. According to online encyclopedia Wikipedia, studies have shown that hearing taboo words can result in physical reactions, such as an elevated heart rate. It stands to reason that using them might produce a similar physiological effect — galvanizing, exhilarating, maybe even habit-forming.

You know, like a drug.

Like most dependencies, I discovered this one by being placed in a situation where what I needed wasn't available for an extended period of time: I stayed with my parents.

My folks live out in Austin, Texas, and they don't cotton to foul language. At all. It isn't stretching the truth one iota to say that I have never, ever heard my father utter anything even remotely resembling profanity. My mother has loosened the reins on her tongue slightly in recent years — she once drove home her worry about my staying at a friend's place by pointing out that "there's dog ... shit ... on the floor over there, Scott," and this past Saturday she helpfully informed my father and me that aging singer Tom Jones was able to sport such tight pants because he wore underneath them "a harness for balls." But she likewise abhors cussing.

Now I know several dedicated cigarette smokers who are in their 30s, and still deluded enough to believe that their parents don't know they smoke. The thought process, I guess, is that since their parents don't actually ever witness them smoking, the fact that they always smell like the rancid haze that hangs over Winston-Salem, North Carolina doesn't count; out of sight, out of mind. It's ridiculous. My parents know I smoke. I don't hide it. They also presumably know that I can curse a blue streak. But maybe they don't, because I am very, very, obsessively conscious about my word choice when I'm around them, both out of respect and to spare myself that heart-crushing look of disappointment that only parents can muster.

Earlier in my adult life, refraining from using profanity when around the folks was relatively easy. Addictions get harder to manage as time goes by, however, and I've found it more and more difficult to suppress the blue language, even for a measly couple of weeks a year.

At those times when I find myself inadvertently releasing a string of foul words in the company of Mom or Dad — always earning that expression that says, how did we ever raise such a colossal failure of a son? — I make a note of the situation, and resolve never to find myself in said situation in the future. (Naturally, the concept of simply swearing less in general never crosses my mind.) Over the years, I've found that all of these unfortunate situations fit neatly into one or two categories. The first category is Talking to My Parents About Anything after Drinking More than Five Beers, and it's a pretty easy trap to avoid; after three beers, I leave the house and don't come back until they're asleep.

The second category, Doing Anything Potentially Frustrating, is much more difficult to get around, because, well, everything I do with my parents is potentially frustrating. We play golf (I once humiliated my father by hitting an impatient foursome's ball back at them, then approaching them while calling them the most colorful names I could conjure). We play cards (sometimes it gets pretty heated, and regrettable things are uttered). We go fishing (c'mon, what are you supposed to say after you lose your fourth bass in a row?). We go shopping (by the third time, the phrase "No, Mother, I don't need to try on the boxers, I know my size" always morphs into something considerably less polite). We work on the car, and do fix-it jobs around the house (I'm about as handy with a spark-plug puller or level as a monkey would be with an electron microscope or a bazooka). We talk about my personal and professional life and aspirations (just fucking kill me now, OK?).

But this year's Thanksgiving trip home was different. Despite the fact that we played golf and went bass fishing, and despite the presence of my brother-in-law's mother, who apparently sees casually shocking language as a means of bonding with younger generations — somebody swears around me, and I immediately want to swear myself, it's just like cigarettes — I managed to go the whole weekend without cursing. It's a miracle. I deserve a fuc- ... I deserve a plaque.

I can't help but feel like I've reached the first milestone on the road to recovery. Maybe I don't need profanity in my life. Maybe this dependency can be licked. Maybe I can still make my parents proud. Heck, with a little willpower and some positive thinking, maybe I can be completely clean, totally profanity-free, by the time I return to Austin for Christmas.

If I can only get through half a day and two airports for a scant three hours of flying time without verbally assaulting some goddamned ignorant douche-bag jackass, that is.

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