gall and gumption

Monday, March 26, 2007

What is Vulgarity?

After all the good wishes I changed jobs again. A chance to escape opened up and I took it. I hated the commute. If I'm going to spend an hour and a half on the Beltway I should like to do it for about twice the money at least. And it felt like I had fallen off the edge of the world when I got there. There were also internal reasons that I won't go into, problems that I didn't create, that weren't my responsibility or even within my power to solve. And that's what finally did it for me. We parted friends with a goodbye breakfast. They were lovely people.

Except one of them was one of the few people I have ever met whose vulgarity of language made me wince.

She didn't swear, at least not in front of me. But she would point to, for example, a document she was working on, and say, "This part's completely hosed." Or she'd wave her hand at a computer screen showing a directory full of files and say, "When we go over to the new system we'll be able to get rid of all this crud." Talking about her plans for a new content management system, she'd say, "Then whenever we need to make changes it'll just suck it in from over there." The woman who spoke this way was a white-haired grandmother, by the way. And here I thought you weren't allowed to use the word "hosed" if you were more than 13 years old.

There was a woman in the same cube cluster who was a serious Roman Catholic. The fourth person was an excitable and droll Indian man, a Hindu who had lived in the U.S. many years. The Catholic woman advised him that he was not to call Wednesday "hump day" because it was an improperly suggestive expression. And she also told him that when he said "Oh my Gad!" which was his all-purpose exclamation covering every emotion, that he was taking the Lord's name in vain. Which Lord, I wondered. His expressions didn't bother me at all. But the other woman's expressions did, for some reason.

Those of my small and select readers who know me personally know that I swear a lot. My swearing vocabulary, other than the old Jamaican street words that don't really travel so I don't use them, I got mostly from 1) my grandmother, 2) American kids; and 3) an English girls' boarding school. There were a few additions, probably from Richard Pryor movies, boyfriends, and the Earl of Rochester's poetry.

I have a strong stomach for reading and hearing strong language. And yet, here it happens that this woman's tame little vulgaritiies really got to me. It would seem that if I am growing less tolerant of vulgarity I would be more bothered by obscenity, no? Well, no. I doubt that it would bother me had she not shown such utter carelessness of language, it was as if she didn't know you could use words to communicate with other people. I looked into that and imagined these slumbering bigotries, there were generations of unthinking self-conceit, that never said no to any of its appetites, under this slovenliness. It gave me the creeps.

The other type of vulgarity that annoys me: One of the old bf's complaints about me was that I put things in the bluntest terms -- he said I was harsh. What he tended to do was say the most shocking things in the soft squishy language of pop psychotherapy, and he sincerely believed that because he used these "nice" words he could only be saying something nice. And because I used blunt, harsh words, I could not possibly be saying anything nice or deep. This was the point at which I began to take pride in being a deeply shallow person.

I think when you get in a relationship with someone the two of you sort of create a shared reality for a while that sort of has its own language. And then, for one reason or another, if the relationship starts to fail, one of the signs is withdrawal from that shared reality and shared language. I had a brief romance a few years ago and I knew it was over when one day the guy bought himself this huge bag of candy. But there's also good and necessary withdrawal: everybody needs to check in with their own private selves from time to time, I suspect. Oh okay let me put it this way I do. I have to read, I have to have the use of my own mind, I have my relationship with my dog, I have to keep in touch with my inner voices, to feel the continuity of me. I can remember being so emotionally needy at one point in my life that this sort of solitude just frightened me. Now it seems essential to any kind of sanity for me, and I'm disposed to feel that anybody who doesn't need that thinking space is not partner material. Go work! Go play! Go have some man time! Go gaze out the window and pick your nose! Come back more interesting. I withdrew into books and he withdrew into the Food Channel.

At one point we went to see a therapist, who turned out to be a very nice guy. The bf and I went to this meeting and the bf explained in his own words how he had decided to "invest in a relationship" with your friend. For about 10 minutes he spoke like this, self-serving and self-deceived and intent on deceit, marketing himself in this storyline in which he had made this magnanimous emotional investment and I was not coming up to scratch and giving him the kind of return that he ought to be able to expect and he had been very patient with this etc., all woven through with psychobabble. And I sat there and marveled at the idea that anybody thought they could talk about me this way, while great bolts of indignant revulsion lit me up. The words themselves weren't vulgar: the feeling was vulgar, which is whole orders of magnitude worse. Well, when you get to the point in a relationship when you find yourself having to explain things like this to someone it's time to go. In fact, that's a piece of advice that my mother has given me. "If you keep having to explain and explain yourself, leave." Where did she learn this? I don't know. For some people, that sort of endless palaver is really living. But for me, a sojourn in hell begins with the words, "We need to talk about our relationship..."

I reacted so strongly against the old bf because I really do have a horror of meanness that packages itself in pretentious language, of the misuse of psychotherapy to bolster a narcissistic sense of entitlement. I'm with Laurence Sterne on this one: solemnity of manner is a cloak for villainy. When I come across these things I feel like I'm not defending myself, I'm defending truth from a misrepresentation of its nature. It's not that I want to hurt anyone, but I am resisting being imposed on. And I like to see how much truth I can get away with speaking. Not belligerently, just plain.

Like a few weeks ago when my dad had his hernia surgery I had to pick my dad up at the hospital and then go back and get his car. My wonderful neighbor Mrs. G., the former Mrs. Santa Claus, Ha ha ha heheh ha hahaha haaaaa! Hoooowee! That Mrs. G., was headed that way and gave me a ride. She was helping some other friends out with an errand and they were in her van too. In fact the friend, another older church lady, was driving. Mrs. Graham likes to be driven about in her own car. Anyway I was so tired and anxious that I was talking and talking a mile a minute. I told Mrs. G., a story that made her weep with laughter. I had gotten lost looking for the hospital where I was to pick up my dad, and I drove around and around, late and frantic, looking for someone to ask directions. but it's all a car universe around here. I finally found an old man in overalls who I took to be one of the rare natives (not Native American, just from the pre-gentrification era). He was having a smoke on a break outside a grocery store where he evidently worked. I asked him for directions, and I couldn't understand a word he said. So I sat there nodding and then I drove off confidently in the direction he pointed me in, and immediately got lost again. I didn't want the man to feel that he hadn't been helpful. Mrs. G., thought this was hysterically funny.

I was talking to keep myself awake, and in the middle of it I told her that too" "I know I should shut up but I think I'm just talking to keep awake -- you can just ignore me." She said, "it's all right, baby."

Mrs. G. is a retired school custodian. She keeps her Christmas decorations up all year. When she gets really annoyed she can cuss. She likes to dress well, and most of the time she looks very elegant except when she comes out of her apartment without her teeth and stops to chat. When my dad started working again I got him a pair of these wool/capilene long johns. But then he noticed a day or two later that they were the wrong size. I dashed to the store and got the right ones, but the first pair, that was too big, I had bought at a different branch of the same store further away. So I gave the spare pair to Mrs. G., who always knows people in need of things. A few days later I saw her come home from the store all dressed up nicely except that she was wearing, under her dress, these army-green woolly long johns. She said they were wonderful. W had a good laugh about how they looked.

Mrs. G. operates by keeping in good credit in a sort of running general account of kindness. She has a whole theory of this. She spends a lot of time doing things for other people -- driving them on errands, making quilts for their new babies, cooking a big batch of potato salad for some church fundraiser. She is sure that if she is kind the Lord will look after her too. And if she gets a kindness it's something to be thankful for and pass on to someone else. In her complete confidence of this she will, herself, ask her favors which it is impossible to refuse. One, because she is so funny, and two, because she is so good. So from time to time she catches me in the hall and asks me to help her move some stuff out of her van, or she says, "Where your Daidy at?" Because she wants him to assemble a knicknack shelf for more of the Santa Claus divorce assets of miniature angels, Infant Jesuses, etc.

Mrs. Graham could stand in the hallway in those green long johns, without her teeth, and tell a story with cuss words in it and she would not be vulgar.


At 11:09 AM, Blogger L7 said...

Your mother is brilliant and I love Mrs. G.

At 1:10 PM, Blogger Jon said...

What we could all aspire to ... wholeness

At 4:24 PM, Anonymous Max said...

I just read what I think is a good essay, "Being Vulgar," by John Mortimer. It's in his book "Where There's A Will".
He comes at the word from a different angle, but I like to think the two of you would like what each other say.

At 10:13 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Max! Thanks for the John Mortimer tip. I like almost everything he writes. Oh and yes the email address works fine. My ability to manage all the volumes of junk, not so much. I was thinking about you too!

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