WTF: A Personal History of Swearing

June 27, 2017

At the age of sixteen, as I was about to leave for college, my mother and stepfather gave me a lecture about swearing. I was the daughter of professionals, swearing was low-class, they said. Plus, I was a girl. What would the young men I met at mixers think of me?

Until then, my parents had never paid attention to my shits and fucks. I was still very young, had skipped two grades and I knew, even if they didn’t, that the swearing was bravado. I felt taller, older, safer, and more transgressive when I swore, ready to leave home with an arsenal of curses. I didn’t have a Teddy Bear, or a Snoopy, or any other transitional object to sneak under the pillow in my dorm room; swearing was it.

My parents weren’t native English speakers so I deluded myself that there was a chance they didn’t understand these delicious words. I don’t know if my mother ever swore in German or French, her two languages before arriving in America, and it was only years later, when I had acquired some French—merde merde merde—and taken a beginner’s class in German at NYU’s Deutsches Haus, that I figured out something about German I’d never realized: every imperative sounded like a swear word to me—achtung, achtung achtung. Oddly, my teacher was from Salzburg where the German is “soft,” similar to my parents’ cultivated, Viennese German. But that made no difference. The death camps surfaced in my over-active imagination and I couldn’t concentrate. And that is one reason I was there. I wanted to transcend my visceral hatred—and fear—of the German language, my parents’ mother tongue. No wonder they only ever talked to their children in English, I thought, as though the German language itself, its intrinsic, percussive evil-ness, had led to the Holocaust.

I remember the first day of class and the“why are you here?” interrogation. One person was an opera singer—lots of librettos in German—another was a business woman—lots of travel to Germany, another had a new German girlfriend, and so on. Then it was my turn: “How is that most of our English curse words derive from German words and not French words though English has also descended from French ?,” I asked. “Is there an explanation?” I had been working on etymologies for a textbook company and had tinkered with swear words in several languages. I knew I was right, I did not want to be challenged, I lied about why I had registered for the class. Luckily, I was not there to make friends.

At the break, I went out into the hallway and ate a peach to calm myself. There was the teacher right behind me, her hand on my shoulder, gently asking if I was okay. I was not okay. I wish I had been able to use WTF in that moment, but it hadn’t appeared yet in our swearing lexicon. And it’s really very tame, isn’t it, compared to What The Fuck with its implied, rhetorical question mark?

My American Passport: Chapter 2

June 18, 2017

One of the interior "visa" pages in my new passport. Words by Martin Luther King, Jr.
My new passport arrived last week. It looks and feels different than my old passport, which I had to surrender to the State Department. A passport is not a souvenir, it does not belong to us personally, it belongs to the government. And it is now a traceable, electronic document; it has a chip. No wonder it feels different. We all do.

I had never studied the interior (visa) pages of my passport, never read the text from cover to cover, never appreciated its design, or the etchings and quotations. If I were stuck in an elevator with nothing else to read but my passport, there would be plenty to read until the fire department arrived to rescue me. And plenty to think about, too. What has happened to the so-called American dream? Does our Constitution still make sense? What about Lincoln’s words, quoted on the opening page: “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Memorized in junior high, I can still easily imagine that great man reciting those incisive words. His words, and all the words in the passport, are not platitudes; they carry weight.

The first American passports were issued during the American Revolution to Benjamin Franklin and his aides as they embarked on their mission to France to raise money and military assistance for the Patriots. Ben Franklin had a printing press, he printed them. They were just a sheet of paper with a description—words only—of the bearer on one side; the description was in French, the diplomatic language. I don’t remember if any women traveled with Franklin—he established a new “family” in London, I recall—but American women were not allowed to carry their own passports until they/we “got” the vote in 1920. I cherish that piece of American history, and I cherish my new passport and what it implies and confers: citizenship and responsibility.

A Writer's Mandate in a Pixelated World

June 8, 2017

Tags: Graphic novels, Maus, Persopolis, Common Core, Classic Comics, Tobias Tak

Graham Greene wrote “The Third Man,” as a long narrative prose story before he crafted the screenplay for the film, now considered a noir masterpiece. I watched it last night for the umpteenth time and still found it riveting, the interaction between text and image, image and text is pitch perfect. Greene wrote about his narrative process: “Even a film depends on more than a plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to be almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script.”

The “dull shorthand of a script.” I thought of that phrase as I “read” the “New York Stories” published in the The New York Times Magazine last weekend, each one adapted from a published news feature story. I clicked on all the links to the original stories, went back to the graphic rendering, went back to the narrative prose. And I asked myself questions: Which one works better? Does one amplify the other? And, finally, why has the newspaper of record done this?

Let’s tackle the two first questions first: Without exception, the narrative prose worked better: richer, deeper, more nuanced. Therefore, no amplification, none at all. As for the last question, that is more problematic, as my answer might seem cynical. But I do believe that the shifting demographics of the newspaper of record, and its digitalization, has hastened an effort to reach its younger, visually-oriented audience with yet more embedded videos and graphics. I enjoy some of them, of course, but only as an addendum to the reporter’s investigative struggle transposed to words.

Graphic novels are now a $35 million dollar industry. It began in the late 1970’s and then solidified with the publication of two graphic non-fiction memoirs, “Maus” by Art Spiegelman and “Persopolis,” by Marjane Satrapi which has also been adapted as an animated film, easy to do as the frames of graphic novels read like storyboards. Beyond that, both of these books are narrative and graphic masterpieces, both have entered the literary canon, and deservedly so. But they are the exception. So much of what is published these days is mediocre, diluted and eviscerated narrative. The educational establishment, eager to reach “reluctant learners,” uses graphic literature in the hope that students will eventually become real readers. There is no evidence I can find to suggest that this happens in any significant, measurable way, despite the efforts of Common Core pundits to test the life out of our children.

This writer worries, worries that our language is being attenuated, that words are falling out of use, that our children and college students cannot express themselves in writing or speech, that they are becoming semi-literate and ill informed, that they cannot solve complex problems, or identify fake news when they hear or see it. I have devised my own antidotes: I encourage the use of long captions on Facebook as writing practice, analysis of the news media, and oral story-telling at dinner parties and the beginning of every workshop session. I have a mantra I recite often: It’s a writer’s mandate to use language artfully, and to preserve it.

When I was in high school, and a classic such as “Great Expectations” was assigned, we cheated and bought the Classic Comics version. We came to class ill-prepared but confident, as only a young person can be, that we’d be able to talk about the book when called upon. We were not. We understood nothing about this great novel, or its writer, or its message. On the day the last chapter of “Great Expectations” was due, the teacher’s disappointment turned to anger and punishment: 100 lines of the first line of every chapter. If we weren’t finished by the end of class, detention. Suddenly, we were living the book, we were inside it. I began to read it that night. And, so, inadvertently, because of a teacher’s imbecilic cruelty, I entered the world of the book and its rich language.