Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Some odd synchronicities:

Last night, on the daily Simpsons rerun, was the episode where the TV anchor Kent Brockman used an obscenity on-air when Homer dumped hot coffee in his lap.  We never heard the word, only saw the shocked expressions of the TV audience.  I thought it was an interesting coincidence, given my oldest son's use of a word my father found so offensive.

Later I was glancing through this week's programing on The Diane Rehm show--one of my favorite sources of news analysis.  This holiday week is all rebroadcasts, and yesterday's was an interview with the author of "Charlatan":

The bizarre story of "the goat gland man," John Brinkley, a marketing genius and medical fraud who amassed a fabulous fortune in the early twentieth century implanting thousands with goat testicles to restore sexual virility.


Pope Brock, journalist and author

The "goat gland man"???  GOAT BALLS?????  When "balls" was the word from my son's mouth that upset my father so much?

Oh, that's too funny.  I called Connor over to show him and we both howled.

My dad replied to the message I sent him.  He persists in his belief that the word is so inherently bad that its use in his presence constitutes egregious disrespect.  It is such a bad word that everyone should know it's bad, and therefore its use doesn't constitute an innocent mistake.  That language is used in the locker room or with prostitutes not with people who love you and deserve your respect....Should you use that language when interviewing for a job?  It is gutter talk and belongs in the gutter...Perhaps we agree to disagree, but I will continue to object to language like that when used in my presence.  As bad as I am, I think I deserve more respect just because I am old if for no other reason.

My guess is that the nature of my reply dissatisfied him, where I explained it was probably my fault; I don't think it's such a bad word and don't really object to him using it, but Connor has learned something about being sensitive about his audience when he chooses a word.*  The implication is that the word is not inherently evil, but is in the 'ear' of the receiver.  That smacks of a kind of relativism, and I think that's where the real fight was.

I did try again, though.  I said that all he would have had to do is say simply, "Connor, I really don't like that word and would rather you not use it around me."  Connor would have most likely said, "OK, Grandpa.  I'm sorry."  And that would have been the end of it.

Truly, isn't what would warrant agonizing over all night and finally, reluctantly, a bit embarrassedly, approaching a child's parent be a scenario where the child knew the word was offensive, and used it anyway?  To me, that's what would be worth losing sleep over--that would constitute disrespect, and downright meanness.  And that would ignite my concern.

It's curious my dad couldn't seem to tell the difference.

He said he'd not heard the incident when my FIL yelled at Scott, but he said my  mother told him about it and he was surprised.  Dad said he received a message from my FIL apologizing and saying he regretted his behavior. Dad wanted to know if I'd heard from him. 

Well, I had. FIL said he hadn't meant offense.  He denied yelling, said Scott had been close to him, said he'd used the same level of loudness as Scott, and agreed with me that Scott hadn't heard him.  He added he wouldn't be bringing the dog any more.   I suppose this amounted to an apology in his world.

That constituted such an inaccurate minimization that I'd responded to say that Scott had been at the far end of the living room while FIL had been in the kitchen, so they were not in proximity, 'yelling' as a term was debatable, but his voice was certainly raised, and if Scott had not heard it the adults at the table had.  I said I didn't mind the dog coming, but if we were going to treat her kindly than he'd have to do the same with my kids...that I have nothing against setting limits, but it has to be done respectfully:  yelling at someone in the presence of others doesn't qualify as respect.

Interesting that he would make a much more detailed apology to my father than to Gary or myself; he's not responded to that last message of mine and I don't expect him to.

I wasn't asking for an apology anyway.  I'd respect him more if he was to acknowledge the inconsistency between the level of indulgence he expects toward the noise his dog makes and snapping at my kid for having a loud voice, but an apology is beside the point.

Also interesting is the peculiar juxtaposition of dynamics.  In the one case my older son meant no disrespect yet my father persisted in being offended...in the other my FIL did mean disrespect, but it fortunately didn't reach it's intended recipient.  In the case where no harm was intended,  my dad pushed beyond his usual reticence to say something, and in the case where harm was intended the implication was that since it fell short of it's target I should say nothing.

I ponder these things.

*I forgot to attribute the remark I made in my message to my dad yesterday about audience/generational sensitivity to a comment Palemother made in response to my Balls post.  Thanks, Palemother--it really was helpful!


PaleMother said...

You know I'm sure there are lots of words that are okay now that were once considered beyond crude. Just like ladies showing a bit of ankle used to be considered shocking and inappropriate. It's such a moving target. And I guess at some point, for better or for worse, we get to an age where we are unable to -- or we refuse to --move with the tide of the culture. I say that not making any value judgements about right or wrong, though I agree with you ... I am not sensitized to that word like your dad is.

Change: It just is. Love it or hate it. Your dad just refuses to see the offense as subjective -- But all offense is subjective. It's always a choice. (But that's a little too Zen for a lot of people, isn't it?)

"The implication is that the word is not inherently evil, but is in the 'ear' of the receiver. That smacks of a kind of relativism, and I think that's where the real fight was."

Bingo. I agree. I also agree that it seems like an honest mistake on Conor's part. And that if he had been ~trying~ to offend your dad or be super crude, that would have been a whole other ball (no offense intended) of wax.

"It's curious my dad couldn't seem to tell the difference."

Ironic really when you mention that ... a bit of deafness on both sides ... Conor's and your dad's.

It seems your dad equates balls more with what I might consider the "C" word -- a word I'd use very cautiously if at all. I think if my grandsons started throwing around the "C" word, I would probably have some concerns ... about disrespect to women, etc. Whereas balls is more ... in the neighborhood of the toungue-in-cheek Pythonesque "John Thomas" ... it's a euphemism and ... you have to call it ~something~.

Is that hypocritical? "C" word bad vs. "balls" not so big a deal?

My dad has some quaint (read: Dysfunctional) notions about respect. I just have to step away from that wreckage and count to ten if I can. That one really has the potential to go nuclear between us when his version of "respect" is my version of ... a liscense for bad behavior at a another person's expense.

As for apologies, I'm with you. As I tell my kids, Don't tell me you're sorry. Show me.



Ailey said...

Another great post Ex and great insights PaleMother.

I had a thought as I read your post about your Dad. I wondered if this comment that caused him so much offense and which he continues to be find absolutely offensivem might be symbolic of something more generally offensive to him. Did you maybe nail it Ex when you said you thought his real gripe might be with the whole idea of relativism? Maybe for him it represents the change of mindset of so many people in society, and the growing notion that right and wrong are not defined quite so absolutely as they once were; that time is marching on and he's not especially liking how that looks or feels.

I'm just glad you made it through the whole ordeal and did it with more grace in your little finger than I could probably ever muster from my whole body.

excavator said...

Hi, Palemother and Ailey!

Palemother, you nailed it with: "his version of "respect" is my version of ... a liscense for bad behavior at a another person's expense.".

I've been surrounded by people like that all my life. "Respect" means, "you let me run rampant without troubling me with your objections."

I thought, and am still thinking about your point about the C word. I don't know if it's hypocrisy that makes that word seem more objectionable than 'balls'. I don't know how I would have responded had my father used that as an example to illustrate his objection. Somehow, it just seems more luridly red-flagged. Maybe it's another example of being less accustomed: "balls"=sight of lady's ankle, where "C"=hard core pornography. Perhaps with time the C word would have as much shock value as the B word.

I wonder if Connor had used the word 'testicles' if my dad still would have been offended.

But I'm still curious why C has more warning lights than B. And I don't think hypocrisy entirely explains it. I suppose on the red-flashing lights meter, it even is flashier and redder than the infamous F word.

I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that to me strip clubs for women (that is, with male strippers) don't seem like an across-the-board equivalency to strip clubs for men. The connotation of the first seems more light-hearted...there seems to be something ...darker...about the latter.

excavator said...

Ailey, I got so carried away with musing about the apparent contradiction between seeing the B word as harmless and the C word as charged that I forgot to make my comment on your comment!

Odd, the power of a word. It's not lost on me that I'm persisting in calling it the C word and not using it, and I was comfortably using 'balls'. As Palemother said, "all offense is subjective. It's always a choice."

Yes, my father, in one of his responses to me said he 'objected to the coarsening of our language', so I suppose the idea that offense is within HIM and not an absolute quality of any given word threatens his ideas of right and wrong and God in heaven.

An interesting contradiction though is he'll be the first to criticize someone for being 'politically correct' in order to avoid offending someone! He's one of these...people...who will go out of his way to aggressively push "Merry Christmas" at anyone who dares say "Happy Holidays" to him, and will poohpooh the idea that this might be offensive to them.

Obviously, the parallel is lost on him.

To me it seems meanness is the worse crime.

PaleMother said...

Hi again Ex,

I was just reading your comments and I was interested to see this:

"he'll be the first to criticize someone for being 'politically correct' in order to avoid offending someone! He's one of these...people...who will go out of his way to aggressively push "Merry Christmas" at anyone who dares say "Happy Holidays" to him, and will poohpooh the idea that this might be offensive to them."

My dad is also militantly anti-PC when it comes to politics. I have a post in my draft folder on the "Right Speech" theme that started a few weeks ago with the Buddhist quote about the characteristics of right speech. It's about an incident where my uncle forwarded Fox Newish You Tube Propaganda about the evils of health care reform (raging, among other things, that reform was unnecessary and suspect because ER's are legally bound not to turn away the uninsured and his taxes pay for that ... and that the reform bill = euthanizing old people) ... and my dad responded instead of ignoring it.

It wasn't a totally unreasonable response ... and you could argue that it was provoked by indiscriminate spamming -- although I don't believe my uncle was trying to pick a fight, I think he really believes that nonsense and believing it, is alarmed by it -- but my dad was at least ~condescending~. He's pretty passionately Democrat and pretty righteous and tone deaf when he thinks someone is ignorant. The incident got me thinking about ... the futility of arguing about these things sometimes. And what (?) is lost by going at it over these issues (relationships that are already challenged by distance, but that are/were otherwise cordial). And who's right, who's missing the big picture?

It made me think there might be a connection with these guys (our dads) here ... who take offense, but aren't nearly as concerned about giving it. I wonder what the gender and generational connections might be? Hopefully some of it is becoming as outmoded as being offended by the sight of naked ankles.

One of the things I love about my husband is that ... he has patiently worked on getting the message through to me over the years that my passionate temperament is mostly a good thing, but that if I really care about changing minds and communicating ... I have to give more thought to the WAY I express myself ... rather than indulging the desire to express my pure frustration and anger when provoked (esp keeping in mind what I said about offense often being subjective and a choice on the part of the receiver). I have a knack for putting a very sharp point on my words ... I struggle to use that sharp toungue for good and not evil LOL). Mike has finally gotten through to me, but I don't think my dad will ever learn this lesson when it comes to certain topics, especially politics.

When you say that you have a lot of people in your life that define respect as "I get to walk on you and you can't call me on it" ... I completely relate and empathize. When faced with that arbitrary, self-serving nonsense now as an adult (unlike the vulnerable child I used to be) -- nothing makes me go from zero to sixty, nothing will dig my heels in deeper than someone telling me that I'm ~rude~ for ~defending myself.~

I just got a new copy of Miller's The Drama Of The Gifted Child. I was going to send it to Pam, but Christmas has brought up so much junk for me, I think I need to re-read it myself.


Mama Zen said...

I agree with you. Connor used a word that most people view as pretty harmless, and he didn't mean to be disrespectful. I just don't see the big deal.

Yelling at my kid in my house; that's a big deal.

Quiet Dreams said...

Their responses reminded me that everything in life is a Rorschach test. People's responses to us say so much more about them than about us or what they are responding to.

excavator said...

Hi again to you too, Palemother! I like your even-handed treatment of your father's 'speech'--given I'd probably be more sympathetic toward it since it sounds like he may be more in agreement with my political views, lol. But it reminds me of some stuff I've read recently about the "new breed" of atheist, which is epitomized by Christopher Hitchens, and reportedly Richard Dawkins. Supposedly this new breed is actively attacking religion, rather than peacefully co-existing with believers. Even if I'm sympathetic to the atheists, I'm offended by their lack of respect for others--and that's what seems to put them into bed with the very people they despise.

I take your husband's point, about channeling your frustration and anger and using it to make your points more effectively, rather than merely venting pure frustration. You sound like a good team.

I found "Drama of the Gifted Child" to be a revelation. Maybe it's time I read it again too.

Happy new year, Palemother!

Zen Mama, and Quiet Dreams, you're right. I suppose another way of putting it is the classic Jesus used of straining at fleas but swallowing the camel.