Thursday, September 8, 2011

With an itch comes a scratch

Is this what desperation looks like? The car idling beside a Dumpster at the Shell station at 6 a.m.? The dome light on? Me in the driver's seat, hunched, head down and concentrating, striking the universal pose of one who scratches a scratch ticket?

Here I am, chasing the worm on the way to work as the sun rises and wipes out the stars with its pupil-shrinking interrogation lamp.

You know what would really be helpful? Twenty grand, dropped onto my lap, right now. I said that to my wife a couple weeks ago as we discussed the American Dream's second cousin twice removed who goes by the name of Hard Work and Little Return.


Why not a million? she had suggested.

That would be too confusing. How about $400,000? We pay off the mortgage, get a couple reliable cars, buy the boy a life supply of Swedish fish and stuff some money into a college fund.

The world is awakening around the Shell station. A woman is power walking. A guy with a Caterpillar hat blowing at his coffee.

I've seen lottery ticket scratchers my whole life. I worked the day shift at a liquor store in my early 20s. "Give me three 'Money Manias' and a pack of Marlboros." This is the way some souls start their day. Then they go back to their cars and scratch, and then they're gone, presumably still independently unwealthy.

This is probably why I had steered clear of scratch tickets. I feared I'd be bearing my heart to a stranger behind a counter. "Yes, I'll take a scratch ticket because I'm miserable." Granted, some lottery regulars can pull it off with aplomb: "Give me a scratch ticket because wouldn't it be so hilarious if I became a millionaire right now?"

I enter the store. It smells of coffee and mop water. At the counter I squint at the bulwark of scratch tickets, 20 or so lurid-looking tongues sticking out from their dispensers. I slap a five on the counter. The clerk is a middle-age woman with bags under her eyes. Her nametag indicates she is a Lillian.

"What have you got for $5 tickets?" I say.

"'Cool Millions,' 'Price is Right,' 'Wild Millions. … '"

"You pick," I say.

"Two million would be really perfect," my wife had decided.

"Can you imagine?" I said.

I step back out to my car with my scratch ticket. Getting rich this way lacks the dignity of, say, discovering a cure for muscular dystrophy. It lacks the heroics of sacking the Mongol Empire and bringing home gold in great store. Anyway, if I win, I'll take it. Jeez, how do you turn on the dome light in this car anyway?

"You know, they say money doesn't buy happiness," I had said to my wife, "but I'd like to give it a shot. I'd love to hire a fleet of dump trucks to dump beautiful earthen fill to take the edge off of our idiotic-looking septic tank mound that continually reminds us of poop and pee rather than flowers and trees. Also, we could buy our mothers houses of their own."

The dome light is now on. Lillian chose a "Wild Millions" for me. It has a zebra and an elephant and a series of safari hats. I scratch the four little moneybags and then begin to scratch at the safari hats. That weird grey scratch paper gets lodged under my thumbnail like soap scum.

Dear Lord above, please: I promise that if you see to it that I win anything with five, six, or seven digits, I'll head to the rough side of town. I'll look for a woman pushing a baby carriage, maybe with a toddler tagging behind keeping hold of her pant leg. She'd probably be a single mother. I'd walk up to her and say, "Hi. Here's a chunk of money. Just don't tell the father of these children. OK?" Then I'd walk away and head to the nearest bar and drink eight Guinnesses in celebration of how pleased I'd be with myself.

I scratch one, two, then three safari hats. Nope, nope, nope.

Even just 250 grand would be really helpful right now, dear Lord.

Another safari hat. Nope.

Tell you what: Five grand would pay off the credit cards.

Another safari hat. Nope

Lord, three grand would get us a trip to San Diego.

Another safari hat. Nope.

Lord, a thousand dollars would help pay the propane man.

Another safari hat. Nope.

I'll be completely honest with you, Lord. I really want the $2 million that my wife had mentioned. I'll give half to that mother with the two kids. I'll pay off the mortgage and see what we have left for our mothers.

Another safari hat. Nope.

Dear Lord and the entire communion of saints, please — just $500, and I'll give $50 to Lillian.

On the tenth and final safari hat I win — $10.

Lord, thanks, I guess.

I have a new plan. I'm going to invest the winnings in two more scratch tickets. You know, expand my portfolio. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The final say

Ten years ago, after terrorists intent on mass murder cut through the clear, blue skies of Sept. 11, like most Americans my wife and I spent evenings hunkered down at home, two silhouettes in the blue glow of the television seeking clues of what this all meant for our nation and ourselves.

Probably it goes without saying that one thing can lead to another when a husband and wife hunker down together during the cold months. In what would seem mutually exclusive activities, we shuddered at a frightening future and conceived a child. Go figure. One moment we're discussing how we wouldn't want to raise a child in a world like this. The next, a ticker-tape parade in a fallopian tube. ...

Friday, September 2, 2011

I didn't teach him that, I swear

We share a little dream, my wife and I. It's that we'll someday have the time and resources to hire a baby sitter every Friday night so we can hop in the car, drive down a country lane, pull over in a discreet location, kick our feet up on the dash, and spend a couple hours fogging up the windows by means of the carefree discharge of swear words.

You know, just take turns letting them fly — all those marvelous words we put into storage on the day our child was born. In our natural states, she and I swear like sailors on shore leave. But we are no longer in our natural states. 
We are parents.

And while my wife at times definitely looks at me in a way that tells me in no uncertain terms that I'm a complete (word beginning with A that denotes the south end of an animal's digestive tract); and while I have been known to look at her like she's a complete (word beginning with B that sometimes describes a female canine), we pretty much have remained faithful to our pact to raise our child in a swear-free home.

But let's be friggin' honest. We're a cursing culture. Always have been.

Which means the day will likely come when, for the first time, our beloved child (whose birth made us weep with the sweet wonder of life itself) will make remarkably efficient use of a swear word (thereby making us weep with dark wonder at what the world is coming to).

Because children learn language like fire trucks handle water  — they suck it in and spit it out -- unless we raised our boy on a strict regimen of 24/7 sensory deprivation (I lobbied for that and lost), for reasons etymologists and psychologists surely can explain, he will discover that the words "doggoneit," "tottering tadpoles" and "pickle sauce" just won't cut it in all situations.

Still, even if most cultural indicators show we are going to (heck) in a handbag, no one will think us square for disallowing our child to swear. Indeed, society still believes we are duty-bound to stop it, curtail it or contain it. And I'm a big fan of society.

But can we? Even the father of our country, George Washington himself, once had to beseech his troops to refrain from "the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing." Consider that he was dealing with a starved army with frost-bitten feet. You'd think fathers and mothers of mere children have it easier today. Yet while a country's freedom has since been secured, the war on swear words has decidedly become a centuries-long slog.

A mother I know shared some news from the front line of how her 5-year-old daughter last year made a bold sortie into the hitherto unfamiliar airspace of vibrant verbalization. Let's roll the tape:

They were on a Disney Halloween cruise. Her daughter was dressed as Tinkerbell. "She looked lovely, pretty and dainty," her mother recalls.

It was dinner time. The lobby was packed. They were waiting for an elevator. The elevator bell dinged. The doors opened. The elevator was packed. No space left for even a pixie. That's when this child — this sprite from a loving home — said out loud for all to hear, "What the hell?" The mother was mortified.

Of course, her experience feeds the taproot that has kept the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil standing upright throughout the ages. Taboo language  — swearing to be insulting, swearing to be cool, swearing to express frustration, fear or surprise — casts its root system deeply in the home, the playground, movies, film, music, the entire culture. It will not be uprooted. But don't take my word for it.

"All children learn that some words are different than others — that this word is worse than this word," says Timothy Jay, a professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and author of Cursing in America and What To Do When Your Kids Talk Dirty. "These words are the only words that, once you learn them, you're not allowed to use them."

These words are the apple on the tree. They will be bitten, swallowed, regurgitated and thereby sown for future generations of wise apples.

Since the dawn of whenever, swearing, says Jay, has been a "human universal," from small tribes to the most civilized societies, from the kickball game to the floor of the U.S. Senate where, you may recall, Vice President Dick Cheney once famously told Sen. Patrick Leahy to "Go (perform a sexual act upon himself that's got to be anatomically impossible)!"

Though music and movies have undoubtedly become more liberal in their use of swearing, says Jay, and though "we might use a little more of it that we did 20 or 30 years ago, we certainly haven't become immune to it."

Key point right there. Swearing is still unacceptable within most places and spaces where civilization has demarcated its property lines.

Which explains why, like Gen. George Washington himself, when I finally hear my son swear, I will calmly tell him to cease "the foolish and wicked practice."

And like Washington, I may or may not be speaking from my high horse.