Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Flippin' Words

I was originally going to write this week about the words we use for sexual organs and activities, but since I owe Gina Chen over at the Syracuse Post-Standard a plug for her Family Life blog in return for the one she gave me this past week, I think I'll delay that discussion a bit. But I do still want to talk about words. In this case it's substitute words.

I've been thinking about this ever since I got in trouble for sending a post card home from Camp Ken-Etiwa-Pec in northwestern New Jersey, complaining about the food there. It wasn't the complaint that was the problem, after all, everyone complains about camp food, it was the way I did it. Thinking I was being witty with the camp's initials, the card I sent home said:
K-E-P stands for Krappy Eating Place.
My mother let me know, when I got home, that she wasn't happy with that, because "krap" (or "crap" as it's usually spelled) meant the "s-word."

This immediately got me to wondering. After all, there were a lot of words that meant the same thing as the "s-word;" from the scientific "feces" to the juvenile "doo-doo." I later found out that the Yiddish "dreck" is another term for that, and "bupkis," which most of us translate as "nothing" or "less than nothing" literally means "goat excrement." I wondered where the line was between which words were acceptable and which ones weren't, but was smart enough not to ask my mother that question. At least not at that particular moment.

But I've wondered about this, and other words, for years. Actually, I've wondered about what I call the substitute words, especially coming from kids. We have no problem when a kid says "darn" or "drat," even though, whether they know it or not, we adults know that those words are "polite" substitutes for the stronger "damn." Same thing with "heck." Even though we know it's a substitute for "hell," we tend not to give kids grief over saying it - especially since you can almost imagine Sheriff Andy Taylor saying "Aw heck, Barney, I told you to keep that bullet in your pocket."

And speaking of Barney and his bullet, I often heard my mother use the word "shoot" when she was frustrated. It was a few years after the postcard incident that I realized that that was another substitute word. Hmm...

But for some reason, despite the fact that we all use substitute words, a lot of us are still uncomfortable with kids saying "crap" as a substitute for the "s-word" and even more uncomfortable with "freaking" or "flipping" as substitutes for the "f-word."

But gosh darn it, "flipping" has a long and respectable history of use from the comic strip Andy Capp, which I read as a kid. So there's no freaking way I'll give any kid grief for saying that.

But shouldn't they be able to express themselves better, without having to resort to these words? I don't know. I think that we all need them at times. We all need words that are escape valves for our frustration. Why shouldn't kids have some too? And sometimes expressing yourself in a "better" way still alludes to the original term that we were all trying to avoid. For example, when I tell someone that I think they need a laxative, a smart person will realize that I'm saying that they're full of...crap.

Well, shoot, I say it's time to cut the crap and let 'em have their freaking substitutes!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Saluting Mr D

I remember, back in 8th grade, the day Mr D sat on his desk and said, "Today we're going to talk about grammar. And speaking of my grandmother..." This launched him into a set of stories about growing up in North Jersey back when there were farms in parts of East Orange and Newark (Incredible, isn't it?), and about how a nice Catholic boy by the name of Louis D'Antonio ended up at Upsala College, which was a Lutheran school.

I can't recall if we diagrammed a single sentence that day, or even that year, but I do know that the 28 of us in his homeroom hung onto every word of his stories.

Yes, I had Mr D for homeroom, as well as 8th grade English, and that meant that my group was doubly blessed, because we got twice as much of him as the other 8th-graders, and more of his stories about just about everything. And as I said, he was a great storyteller.

I have never read Hamlet, and feel no need to, because Mr D told us the story one day in class. He did such a great job of telling it that when I first saw The Lion King, I recognized it for what it was, right down to Timon and Pumbaa playing the parts of Rosencranz and Guildenstern. And that story about the guy who turns into a cockroach - Mr D told us that one too, and had us sitting at the edge of our seats. Four years later when in a Spiderman story arc, Peter Parker sprouts four new arms and says that he feels like a character out of Kafka, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

The gavel. I almost forgot about the gavel. Mr D had a gavel on his desk that he used whenever he wanted us to be quiet and pay attention. One day he hit the gavel so hard that it broke. That got our attention.

He probably didn't know that he introduced a whole group of 8th graders to one of the rising stars of pop music. That was on the class trip he arranged into New York to see the off-Broadway play The Drunkard in Greenwich Village. The orchestra for this 19th century style melodrama was one guy, with curly blond hair, sitting at the piano, reading The Godfather between songs. Years later, I found out that this pianist, who we practically blew off his piano stool with an unscheduled "Oomph" during the sing-along of For Me and My Gal, was the same guy who eventually brought us Mandy, and who didn't write I Write the Songs. Yes, that was Barry Manilow.

It was Mr D who explained to us in class the next day what a gay bar was, when it turned out that one of the groups of students - all guys in this case - who had been set loose to find their own dinner in the Village on that trip, just happened to walk into one; and he even turned that explanation into a great story.

Did I mention the game of Stump Mr D? Once a week we'd get out our dictionaries and try to find a word he didn't know the definition of. We couldn't do it. He knew the definitions of even what we thought were the most obscure words - and then we learned them too.

Well, you probably knew from the start where this was going. I received word the other day that Mr D passed away last month, far too soon, at the age of 72.

I may not have learned how to diagram a sentence in his class, but I hope I learned how to tell a story at least half as well as he did.

And I'm thinking that maybe I should buy a gavel so I can get a little better control of my own classroom.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

When Late Is Right On Time

My wife and I often joke about how many times the Social Skills Fairy let me down when I was in high school and college. But maybe, just maybe, she knew what she was doing all along.

Let's start with my senior prom. I had to go to it. No really. I had to. I was the class president, so I had to go to the prom. The problem here was going to be getting a date. Despite the fact that I was class president, I wasn't one of the popular kids, and girls weren't exactly beating down the doors to go out with me. Quite the contrary, they often ran the other way when they saw me coming.

I did get a date though. I asked "Jean," a girl I had dated on and off earlier in the year. We were now in one of our "off" phases, but I figured that she'd go with me if I asked. I was right.

Then, 15 minutes later, "Bonnie," a girl I'd had a crush on since 9th grade, but figured was unattainable, came up to me and asked if I had a date to the prom yet.

Where was this girl 20 minutes earlier?

I told her that I already had a date, and went to the prom with Jean as planned.

20 years later the Social Skills Fairy came knocking on my door, saying, "Keith, you did the honorable thing by going to the prom with Jean anyway, but you could've asked Bonnie out for some other time."


And this wasn't the only time the Social Skills Fairy failed me by arriving too late to do me any good. I think of the time, in college, that I walked my good friend "Sarah" home in a really bad snowstorm, and she said that I really didn't have to go home in that weather, that I was welcome to stay at her apartment. I assured her that I could make it the 3/4 of a mile to my house, and went on my way.

10 years later there's a knock on my door. It's the Social Skills Fairy again, suggesting that maybe that wasn't just a friendly offer to come in out of the snow.


There have been many other times when the Social Skills Fairy failed me by showing up too late to do me any good. But I'll spare you, and myself, the painful details of romantic opportunities missed because the Social Skills Fairy was busy somewhere else. What might have happened had the fairy been there when I needed her?

Well, for one thing, things might have worked out. With Bonnie, with Sarah, with Emily, and a number of other girls I was too stupid to catch the hint about or know what to do with. And that would've been a bad thing.

A bad thing? How could it possibly have been a bad thing? Well there's a common theme in science fiction about how one little change in the past can have huge implications for the future. Forget science fiction, take a look at It's A Wonderful Life, and how things would've turned out in Bedford Falls had George never been born. Had things worked out for me with any of the girls I just mentioned, even temporarily, it might have changed things drastically for all of us - and the rest of the world.

It's funny. The Social Skills Fairy arrived right about the time that I met my wife, Cheryl. And all those things she told me about Bonnie, Sarah, Emily, and all the others, she told me long after Cheryl and I were married and had kids. Kids that we might not have had, had she arrived with her advice earlier.

I guess that by arriving what I often think of as "late," she arrived right on time.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Thank You McDonald's

A lot of people have a lot of bad things to say about McDonald's, especially after Morgan Spurlock's 2004 movie Supersize Me. I have a few criticisms along those lines too, and plenty for Spurlock, but that's not what this is about.

I've come to praise McDonald's, not to bury it.

Because McDonald's helped to make me what I am today.

It says in the Bible that a prophet has no honor in his hometown, and while I definitely never saw myself as a prophet, I understand what this saying is getting at: the people who think they've known you all of your life will never let you change, and will ask you who you think you're trying to be when you do something different from what they expect of you. This was the case with me in high school. Academically I was near the top, but socially Rodney Dangerfield was getting more respect than me.

That changed when I got a job at McDonald's. You see, while I lived and went to school in East Orange, McDonald's was in West Orange. As a result, this change of venue introduced me to people who didn't know me, and had no preconceived ideas of what I acted like. It was great. I was able to re-invent myself without anyone mocking me for "trying to be something that I wasn't." To them, the West Orange Keith was the real Keith, and I gained a great deal of self-confidence and several life-long friends as a result of working at the Golden Arches.

But the self-confidence wasn't just about the social skills. It was also about learning skills that would help me outside of McDonald's. One of those was the value of a job well done the first time. At home my parents would just yell at me for a poorly done job, but at McDonald's they could fire me, and I didn't want that.

Another was the value of teamwork. I was not an athletic kid, so the only team I was on at East Orange High School was the math team. But at McDonald's I was a valued part of a team because I could "play any position" and play with anyone. I could do fries, work register, make shakes, manage the bin, run the grill; you name it, I could do it. They could put me anywhere someone was needed, and because of that, I got a lot of hours. And, of course, being that valued team member meant that everyone respected me. What a great feeling that was!

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from my time at McDonald's is how to treat service people. Having been the register person who got yelled at by a customer for something that was beyond my control, I am absolutely patient and understanding with waitresses, cashiers, and other front line service people. With that in mind, I think that everyone should have to spend a few weeks running a fast food cash register.

McDonald's was an excellent apprenticeship for all the other things I would do in my life, and that's a very important word to consider. In an age where people are fighting for McDonald's employees to make enough money to support their families, it's important to consider that a fast food job is not supposed to be something you spend the rest of your life doing. It's a low-paid apprenticeship that you're supposed to be able to graduate from to something better.

I served my apprenticeship from 1972 to 1977.

Thanks, Ronald!