Shit, I have to stop swearing. I've been trying to quit since I had my first child a decade ago. But it's so hard. Even before George Carlin got in trouble for his shtick about the seven words you can't say on the air, I started swearing. When I first heard curses on the bus to camp, I knew I was onto something big. I loved their short, sharp crack: fuck, shit, bitch. Still do.
I heard other great words on that bus: ringworm, 69, nickel bag. I had no idea what any of it meant, but I wanted it all. I rubbed my arm against another girl's ringworm until I sported the round fungal tattoo. I tried to learn what the naughty words meant and when to use them. Sixty-nine was obvious --- that's how many minutes sex takes. I didn't need a nickel bag; I kept all my coins in a piggybank.
Over time the ringworm disappeared but the explosive power of curses endured. Swearing became a habit. I'd insert them as adjectives, like Bono's Golden Globes comment, "fucking brilliant," and I'd use them as shortcuts to larger ideas. In high school and college, even as my actual vocabulary increased --- thanks to SAT prep and the canon --- my working vocabulary shrank to a handful of four-letter words.
It's all over now. Since the Janet's-boob debacle in January, I've been under pressure to clean up my act. Howard Stern is not the only one who has to watch his mouth. But I don't have the FCC breathing down my neck, nor do the new indecency fines --- raised recently to $275,000 per infraction per station --- affect me.
I am up against a far greater foe. My kids.
Unlike the younger me, my kids do not dig the staccato music of swears. They tell me they find my foul mouth to be, well, frankly Mummy, a bit embarrassing.
In January, my kids got tough. For years they had made a "ding-dong" sound in the same tones as my car's warning bell whenever I swore. But with the dawning of 2004, they changed their tack. I'd have to put 25 cents into a "beep box" every time I used a naughty word. They posted a list titled "healthy alternatives," which included "fudge" and "shizzle." Never one to suppress initiative in my little go-getters, I supported their idea. Maybe it would even work.
But it's worse than Big Brother. It's nannycam, surveillance bugs, and satellite spy imaging all rolled in one. They eavesdrop from rooms away and have such damn good hearing that the smallest whispered "shit" doesn't go unpunished. They even approached my husband to narc on me after the little bastards go to bed.
It was a coincidence that my kids' crackdown mirrored the increased FCC monitoring. But the parallels are there. It's having the same dampening effect on my creative flow as it is on television and radio programming. CBS chief Les Moonves says that in this oppressive atmosphere TV writers are self-censoring more than ever. Being overly cautious is no way to tell a story. We need a little room to breathe here, people.
It's also hard to operate under vague guidelines. My kids go back and forth on which words are Kosher and which aren't; they don't know the hierarchy of curses. "The 'H' word might be okay," the 8-year-old said once, "because church people use it." But he slapped me with the fine anyway.
The FCC is perpetuating the uncertainty, refusing to further define the "community standards" it supposedly seeks to uphold. Local radio talk-show host Brother Wease says he's become paranoid since the January crackdown. "We've been given many, many directives," he said in these pages recently, "some of which are so vague that I'm second-guessing a million things."
There's one major difference between the broadcasters and me, of course. My audience doesn't have a choice --- they're stuck with their longshoreman mother. Radio and TV fans, however, can switch off offensive programming. It makes sense for me to stop cursing. It doesn't make sense for the FCC to create a McCarthy-era atmosphere on the airwaves all because a woman's breast peeked out during prime time. Why doesn't it go after hate speech? Or depictions of violent acts against women?
The beep box has had mixed results. Some days I'm swear-free, others I have to empty my wallet into the damn thing. As for fudge and shizzle? Please.
The kids, unhappy with my progress, have just unveiled a new system that might prove more effective for me and may even serve as a model for the FCC. It's a periodic table of swears. Like the chart chemists use, each square in the grid has a single letter, for example, "S" for shit. The fine for each word is listed at the top, where the atomic number would normally go.
The beauty part is that the fines are on a sliding scale according to offensiveness (the children have done a little research on this). "F" has a whopping fine of 50 cents and "D" won't set me back a penny. Thus, I have an incentive to tone it down a bit.
If the FCC distributed such a chart instead of vague directives, DJs and TV writers wouldn't be operating in a fog. More importantly, consumers would have a better sense of what kind of control the hypocritical FCC commissioners are exerting. Those shizzleheads.