Thursday, September 3, 2009

Oh No, Not You Again!

So help me understand this mentality, if you happen to possess it.    

I am reading along in a library book—this has happened to me twice in the last month. The first book was The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste, a fascinating book on what we have done in the past and what is now done to handle the millions of tons of human waste produced everyday across the globe. In the opening chapter, the author, Rose George, is trying to explain her rationale for using the word "shit" for what will be the hero/villain/protagonist of this entire book. She goes through various options, and then settles on "shit" as the term of art for the book, explaining that in most cultures and contexts, particularly those that deal with the substance on a daily basis, the term is not pejorative. Some kind, well-meaning, but, I am inclined to think, egotistical soul had crossed out the word "shit" and asked in the margin, "What about poo?" Roll my eyes in frustration. As if the author is going to answer back, as if the author needs to treat the readers as if they're five-year olds and use code words—poo, peepee, tinkle and willy.

This gentle reader was probably the same one (alarmingly, we must have similar reading preferences) who used permanent marker to erase the first occurrence of f*** that was appropriately used in a scene out of the Battle of Salerno in The Summer Guest. The problem was that that particular passage had more than one such term. Following chapters had a few more. The remaining bombs were left untouched. I wonder at the logical jumble that finds it acceptable to black out one word, but draws the line at erasing every trace of the offense. Is it to let future readers know that at least one of the educated in this university town has a refined sense of language? Or is it to publically register your anonymous disapproval so that everybody knows that somebody disapproved but will persevere in the name of art? Or did you just never get the etiquette lesson on how to treat property that is not yours? Hint: Leave no trace—of your dinner, of your suntan lotion, and definitely, no trace of your opinions.

I don't get it. I know we're supposed to roam across the face of the earth doing good of our own free will and choice, but, in what mentality does the definition of good include defacing something that doesn't belong to you because you happen to disapprove. You would no more think to come into my front garden and rip out the daylilies because they trigger your son's asthma than you could contemplate throwing a brick through the library window. But, somehow, in the privacy of your own bathroom, you think that it is helping the world to black out the word "shit." Would you have the courage to take your trusty pen to the expletive while standing at the desk under the eye of the librarian? Or is it only in private acts of moral rectitude that you excel? Which acts take place in places where you have self-appointed yourself the warden of the jail, monitoring and guarding against any evil influence that might possibly filter through.

I think you—the person who reads library books with a Sharpie in hand—also sit in the carpool lane in your Dodge Caravan/Subaru Forester/late model Crown Victoria/hybrid and put the cruise control at 60 miles per hour. Never mind the speed limit is 65. Never mind that the far right lane, the one with the semi's loaded with sheep and triple containers filled with canola oil, has an average speed of 75, and there is nobody, I repeat nobody, in the middle two lanes. At first, I used to give you the benefit of the doubt and think that perhaps in Montana or Washington or Wyoming, or Pleasant Grove, there has never been a carpool lane. And so, bless your rural little hearts, you think if you have more than one person in your car you have to ride in the car pool. I couldn't fathom that somebody would, of their own free will and obstinate choice, park their fannies (might as well be park when they're going 15 mph slower than the flow of traffic) in the car pool lane. But then, considering this is the land of "I can tote my gun wherever I want to even into church" and "don't tell me I have to wear a helmet," you aforementioned slowriders don't have the cultural DNA to meekly slide into the carpool lane simply because you're carrying passengers.

It has to be some other motivation that causes you to speed up to get into the HOV lane and then slow down, kick back, and crack out the knitting. Is it a power kick? What do you think when you look in the rearview mirror and behind you, stacked up like data packets waiting for transmission over dial up, is a long line of cars stretching back to just past the last access point? Is it a rush of righteous pleasure that you are acting like the moral governor of every car with the misfortune to be on the road the same time you are? Do you congratulate yourself that you are setting an example for the rest of us? Do you quietly purse your lips as we go by you in the middle lanes and pray, if not for our souls, at least for our insurance rates when we get pulled over? Or are you confident that by holding down the speed, you have won one for the good guys by completely eliminating any possibility that any person travelling within your influence on I-15 could possibly get a speeding ticket?

Kaye Gibbons' Ruby, whom I mentioned in the last post, had parents, who shared the same mentality as the self-appointed censor who dogs my reading list and blocks my flow of traffic : They brook no possibility that their children (or anybody else's for that matter) could possibly be exposed to the uglier side of life:

Growing up, I had absolutely no idea anything bad could happen in a life because nothing bad had happened in mine, no catastrophes. My grandmother died but mama and daddy helped me through it, and I'd spent so much time with her, watching her get weaker and weaker that I felt like dying was the next step for her, something that should naturally happen next.

But worse than my ignorance of any bad coming into a life was the fact that I didn't have the imagination, the pure imagination to see that hard things or ugly things might happen farther down the road. I was just whistling along. I can't remember making decision on my own. I might've made a mistake, and that was something my parents were real careful about. . . My parents protected me from bad choices by making choices for me. . . . My mama was the kind of woman who believed girls in girls clothes are less apt to get trouble than girls dressed like boys. I remember begging her for some pants to play outside in, and when she finally made me some she sewed eyelet around the cuffs, just a touch of girl on those pants. And my daddy and brothers were just as bad. If I had a tough piece of meat on my plate, the minute one of them saw me struggling they'd lean over, take my knife and fork from me and cut the meat up for me. I never rebelled against it, snatched my knife back and said, "I'll cut my own meat up, thank you." All the women in my family were calm women. They wouldn't have said a word. It was just the way things were.

    Kaye Gibbons, A Virtuous Woman, page 27-28.

We have a painting of a nude hanging on an interior wall leading to our living room. I think she's beautiful, particularly because she was painted in Czechoslovakia, before the curtain fell. She's an impression of a nude, backed with bright reds and blues. By this I mean, although she is obviously sitting quite primly on her stool, she has no facial features and her breasts are missing their nipples. (Or should I call them nip-nips, or pepperonis?) Still, she's definitely a nude. Every time we have the local youth group over for a meeting, or a party, Kevin takes her down and puts her behind the chair in the office. I was hurt at first. If they are going to descend en masse into my living room, the least I can do for them is to expose them to good, Cold War art. But, he insisted—which is not a posture he often assumes with me. So, down she came. Afterwards, I would rescue her from behind the chair and apologize to her as I put her back up: "I'm sorry. They just wouldn't appreciate you. I think you're lovely."

So, why can we take her down and put her up on a whim, but I bristle at you with your pen in hand hovering over a library book that I might check out after you? Because she's mine, and it's my house, and the parents of some of those boys and girls might, actually would, find it highly inappropriate for their children to be exposed to the female form at all. In order not to offend, Kevin takes her down and I put her back up when they've gone, accompanied by whispered apologies and the loving buffing of her frame. (Once Kevin forgot, and the left side of the room had a disproportionately large number of fourteen- and fifteen-year old boys with a good vantage point. (I hope they know there's parts missing!)).

But, the carpool lane is not yours. The walls of the local elementary school are not yours, and neither is the artwork. The library book is not yours. You probably didn't even contribute to pay for it, because, according to a combination of John Adams/Revelations/The Second Amendment/and Glen Beck, there's a misunderstood subsubclause in the Tax Code that definitively shows that you are not subject to the jurisdiction of the federal government, let alone measly county and city officials. But, I digress. Back to business: The author is not imposing her views on you; neither are you being forced to read her work, nor I to check it out after you. Leave the words alone. Let them stand. They were chosen by someone else, who thought them proper and appropriate. Let their best efforts stand. If you wish to rise up in public protest on the steps of the library, by all means, proceed. Despite my philosophical misalignment with your cause, I'll help you make the signs and even get the permit for your protest from City Hall. That's your First Amendment right to gather in public to effect change. But secret warfare, under cover of anonymity, destroying property and ideas and possible choices that are not yours, merely because you disapprove, well, at best, that's just misguided cowardice. And at worst, it feels like an egotistical, self-centered, overreaching need to control.


Title: Australian Crawl, "Oh No, Not You Again."



  1. Tessa, you are beautiful.


  2. Ha! I don't like the mighty pen in the hands of the offended either. Seen Baptists at Our BBQ? Winona Wingate would have used the marker on any book with bad words in it :)

  3. You start out by saying "help me understand this mentality, if you happen to possess it."

    And I almost do. I do cross out swear words--in books I own. And I do drive very slowly on the freeway, but not in the left lane, only in the right lane, if I can possibly help it.

    I wouldn't cross out swear words in a library book, but ... I have wished I could, lots of times. Because, since swearing stays in my head and doesn't get out easily, I struggle sometimes to remember that not everyone processes it the same way.

    And on the driving thing, if I'm ever driving slow and annoying everyone behind me, it's not that I'm not aware of them, it's that I'm a terrible, petrified driver, easily spooked. I avoid driving when I can, and when I can't avoid it, I do it with clenched teeth and sniping at my children to be quiet while I navigate a left turn onto State Street.

    It's possible that the drivers you refer to are just blind idiots who can't look beyond their own noses. But maybe they are like me, and they hate driving, and are drawn to a lane that seems safer and slower. And in this decision, they are ignoring everyone else, it's true, but perhaps the blindness comes from a place not of preachiness but of fear (which might be where the library censorship comes in too, who knows?).

    Fear blinds. And while it's irritating, it's perhaps worthy of pity as well. At least it would be nice to assume non-sinister motives from others. We are all in a state of some degree of blindness, after all.

  4. Well that makes sense. Thank you. I can understand that motivation.

    Question: Why would swearing make one afraid? What are you afraid of? It's just a word. And if you strip it of its power to offend or shock, then it loses that capacity and fades into the background.

    On a related track: I think there's a difference between cussing and taking the Lord's name in vain. One, taking of the Lord's name in vain, is a moral imperative, from the Ten Commandments.

    The other seems to be cultural. That certain kinds of people use certain kinds of words. Those words then indicate what kind of person they are.

  5. Thanks for responding. It's good to know there is one more person sharing the road with me who might perhaps have some compassion on my granny driving. Although that's not being fair to grannies.

    With swearing, it's not so much fear. It's that in my patriarchal blessing, I was specifically counseled to avoid taking the Lord's name in vain AND even thinking to pronounce any other word that would be offensive in His sight. The message for me personally is clear and unequivocal: God wants me to avoid all bad language. I can't deny the intense Spirit I felt when I received it; that blessing is scripture to me.

    But not scripture to everyone. I have wrapped my head around the reality that not everyone responds to swearing as I do, not everyone has been told by God to avoid it. Saying it's okay for someone else can't really make it okay for me, though. When I read a book with too much bad language, it ricochets around in my brain, and makes it very hard for me to feel the Spirit, till I purge out the words somehow.

    Again, I accept that not everyone responds like this. But in my own books, I read bad language with a nice Sharpie in hand. It's the only way I can allow myself to read what I love and still feel like I am honoring God's personal, powerful counsel.