July 9, 2001
Feeding the Swear Jar
"You're not enjoying this, are you?" David asked.
We'd been riding our bikes around the dumpy, depressing streets of West Pittsburg for nearly an hour, looking for the entrance to the canal trail without success. I was tired and cranky and exasperated.
"I hate this," I replied sourly. "It's been nothing but one fucking dead-end after another."
Even *I* was shocked by how ugly that sounded.
I immediately tried to soften my response a little. "I'm sure that once we find the trail, it'll be more fun," I backpedalled. "This neighborhood is just sorta creeping me out." West Pittsburg -- a.k.a "The Broken-Glass-and-'Beware-of-Dog'-Sign Capital of Northern California -- reminded me a little too uncomfortably of neighborhoods I've known (and clawed my way out of) in previous lifetimes. I'm sure that David understood my unease, and that he wasn't offended by my crude honesty. But I still felt bad about snapping at him, and for using the *F-Word* in the process. (The real *F-Word,* I mean, as opposed to the inoffensive, cartoony "fudk" I use on this website for comic relief, every paragraph or three.
As we rounded the next corner we rode past a dour, heavy-set woman, hauling her recycling dumpster from the curb to her front porch. She was squeezed into a pair of skin-tight leggings and a precariously-buttoned pajama top. A burning cigarette dangled out of the side of her mouth. As she dragged the dumpster up the driveway, she maintained an ear-splitting argument with somebody inside the house.
"I don't fucking CARE!!" she shrieked at the open window. "I don't want to fucking hear it!! You get your fucking LARD-ASS off that fucking SOFA!" And she slammed the lid of the recycling dumpster down, for emphasis.
"Nice," I muttered under my breath. Some people obviously don't care what they look like -- or sound like -- in public.
And that's when it hit me: That's probably what you sound like, Secra.
It was a shocking -- and unwelcome -- revelation. But the instant the thought popped into my head, I knew it was true. You probably sound just that crude and stoopid and ugly when YOU swear. I decided, right then and there, that I was going to eliminate profanity from my vocabulary ... starting with the *F-Word.*
"I'm going to cut back on swearing," I announced to David a little while later, as we rode side by side. We had successfully managed to maneuver our way out of West Pittsburg, and now we were enjoying a brisk and pleasant bike ride over the hills of the Juan Bautista De Anza National Historic Trail. While we rode, I had time to think. How had profanity become such a staple of my lexicon, anyway? I'm a smart girl. I've got a decent vocabulary. I know how to use a thesaurus. How did I get stuck using the same tiny handful of expletives, over and over? And the answer, of course, is that it is a habit ... acquired early in life and allowed to go unchecked. Like a lot of other dumb stuff we experiment with when we're young -- smoking, wearing blue eyeshadow, dating angry dysfunctional young men with arrest records and substance-abuse problems -- it had stuck around longer than it should have. I'd begun incorporating the occasional "fuck" and "shit" and "Jesus H. Christ on an Offset Barrier Type-Y Crossing With A Signalized Crosswalk Indicator!" into my speech somewhere around age fifteen or so ... mainly because I thought it made me look cool. I felt it lent me a sort of "bawdy allure," like the tough girls who hung out in front of the abandoned newspaper shack after school.
Later, especially during the Bohemian Mom years, liberally seasoning my conversation with profanity reinforced my belief that I existed outside the boundaries of "regular" society. None of the other PTA Moms swore like truck drivers, did they? This made me unique, I felt, and interestingly edgy.
Plus my children -- and their friends -- thought I was funny.
Lately, though, I was beginning to hear profanity in a different light (so to speak). Words that had once sounded dangerous and edgy and sophisticated, coming out of my mouth, now made me sound inelegant ... unpleasant ... not-quite-bright ... and, maybe the one thing an aspiring writer fears most, inarticulate. For a woman who prides herself on her skill with wordswordswords, "fuck this" and "fuck that" and "fuck you, fuckhead" are pretty limp and unoriginal sentiments.
"So what prompted this decision?" David asked, and I told him about my little moment of epiphany.
"I don't want to sound like that woman at the curb," I said simply.
David was glad to hear it, of course. He rarely uses profanity himself -- he's far more likely to say something inoffensively dorky like "Gosh!" or "Jeepers!" or "Well, paint me with polka dots and call me 'Dotty'!" -- and although he's quietly tolerant of my occasional outbursts, it's clear that he doesn't like them. This would be a lifestyle change we both approved of.
I lasted four hours.
When we got home, late in the afternoon, there was a message from my ex-husband waiting on the answering machine. He was using 'that' tone of voice -- that weary, downtrodden tone that says *I'm* up here doing all of the serious parenting, while you're down there partying in sunny California. Hearing his message, I came momentarily unglued.
"I've been TRYING to call you all weekend!" I snapped at the machine ... as though the ex could hear me from a thousand miles away. "Maybe you should ANSWER your fucking PHONE once in a while!"
As it turns out David hadn't heard my little transgression -- he was in the bedroom, changing out of Spandex into denim -- but I copped to it right away, anyway. I didn't want to live with the guilt hanging over my conscience. "I can't believe I blew it already," I said mournfully.
Maybe this was going to be harder than I thought.
"Just start over," David said encouragingly. "We'll consider this afternoon a 'dress rehearsal.' Start all over again, beginning right now." Grateful for the reprieve -- and the absolution -- I resolved to try harder.
This time I lasted fifteen hours.
"Maybe you should take a break," David said gently. It was early Sunday afternoon, and I had been parked in front of the computer since 10 a.m., trying to resolve our ongoing AOL/ISP conflict problems. (AOL 5.0 keeps pooping its proprietary dial-up adaptors into our computer without permission, rendering our $40-a-month ISP useless.) I was growing increasingly frustrated and agitated.
"I hate our fucking computer!" I said.
Whoops redux. This IS going to be harder than I thought.
"I think what we need," I said, chagrined, "is a Swear Jar." An old mayonnaise jar or a margarine container or a plastic piggy bank, something convenient and obvious and handy, sitting on the kitchen counter in plain sight, that I would be required to *feed* every time I broke my No-Swearing Rule. One dollar per violation. Not enough to break a person ... but enough to hurt a little, if it were to start adding up. A visible reminder, in other words, that I'm trying to clean up my act ... and my vocabulary. David said that sounded like a good idea, and we agreed that tonight after work we would look around the apartment and find something suitable. In the meantime, I would just have to keep track of my "account."
So far, I owed two bucks.
As we drove to work, David and I chit-chatted about the usual stuff: the work week ahead ("I predict that this will be the longest week of my life," I said) ... last-minute wedding stuff (David still needs shoes, I still need "bridal undies," we both still need to finish writing our vows) ... and -- especially -- our bike-riding accomplishments over the weekend. In addition to the seventeen-mile Pittsburg ride on Saturday (which, once we'd managed to escape the "creepy" neighborhoods, was a lot more fun and challenging than I'd expected), we also did our usual thirteen-mile tour of Bay Farm Island on Sunday morning, for a total of 30 miles in two days.
We were congratulating ourselves on our vast reserves of athleticism and grooviness and stuff, when a squatty little sports car suddenly came veering out of nowhere and cut directly in front of David. The teenager driving the car was too busy talking on his cell phone to signal ... or to look over his shoulder. We missed him by an inch, maybe.
"They've just gotta fuck around, don't they?" David sighed. And then he immediately clapped his hand over his mouth.
Well ... what do you know? I guess that maybe there will be two of us feeding the Swear Jar tonight.