I distinctly remember the first time I heard the “F” word. We were driving from Texas City to Longview on the dreaded U.S. 59 in my mom’s white, two-door Oldsmobile Cutlass. I was 9, maybe 10. My dad, his head on the 90-degree turn thanks to dysplasia/spasmodic tordicollis, was in the passenger seat and mom was driving. These were the days when the speed limit had just been lowered and mom, never wanting to break the law, kept the needle neatly positioned between the 5 and the 5.
As frequently happens on long trips on divided four-lane highways, we played a slight game of tag with another car. We passed it, it passed us, and so on. I’m sure the driver in the other car had to be a little freaked out by the fact that, every time we passed, my dad was staring at him — involuntarily — through the passenger side window.
Suddenly and without warning, I heard my dad explode with a resounding “F-U too, buddy!”
I asked my mom what the “f” word meant, and she said it was a word that only adults use, and even then only infrequently. (Little did she know...) Giving my dad the stare down while somehow simultaneously looking at the road and in the rearview mirror, she proceeded to explain that it was a word I shouldn’t ever choose, especially in anger.
“We’ve taught you to have a better vocabulary than that.”
The lesson I took from this experience was that the word itself is not what’s important, but the tone of your voice is what really matters. What I didn’t understand at the time, but do today, was that my dad was hurt and lashed out. The other driver had no idea the kind of pain that he was in, no idea how embarrassed/emasculated he might have felt thanks to an insidious disease that would affect him for the rest of his life.
Over the years, since becoming a writer/editor in my own right, I’ve learned to love and respect the power words have. But more important, I’ve tried to dissect and learned to appreciate the tone my voice has when I choose to use words in a certain way.
Now, if I’m truly angry, I don’t use profanity. I don’t want people to get hung up on a particular word choice and use that as an excuse to not listen to what I have to say. Deep in my heart, I wish that others would choose words as carefully and listen when others with dissenting opinions are talking. My fear is that listening is becoming a lost art.