Monday, March 12, 2018
My mother's righteous bargain
1981--maybe 82. Right there somewhere, right there before the computer changed everything and shoved typewriters right out the door into obsolescence. I had a Sherman tank of a machine, a huge thing that printed beautifully but took up half an office desk and simply wasn't getting any younger. Got it cheap. Used. My dad found it. I don't remember the particulars.
But I was coveting something new. I was doing my dissertation, typing every day, every last day, all day, and I couldn't help but think my life would be greatly improved if I had a new Selectric. You know--one of those with the jumpy little circular print heads. Something 20th century at least.
That's when my mother made me an offer I couldn't win. A IBM Selectric was not something our limited budget could handle. I was a graduate student, and Barbara was working part-time at the bank downtown. My assistantship was nothing to sneeze at in those days, but we weren't swimming in cash.
We were already a family, two kids, and I was far too proud to ask my parents for a typewriter; but my mother must have picked up on my covetousness because she made a legitimate offer. She said she'd buy me the very best typewriter I could find if I would promise that no "naughty words" would ever emerge on paper from that little rotating ball. It was a righteous offer; but then, my mother was a righteous woman.
Now had I known what was about to happen, had I known I'd get my first Apple (Magic Window software) just a year later, I suppose I could have been sleazy about it, taken her up on the offer, then sold that grand Selectric a year later for peanuts probably, and picked up a IIe. Could have done that. If I would have, I'd have been freed from the legacy she wanted desperately to leave me.
But I wasn't keeping up with what was coming down the pike technologically. I didn't see what was coming, so I was left only with my mother's saintly proposition, which really didn't offer alternatives because taking her up on her offer meant promising something I simply couldn't promise. So I typed all 300 pages of that dissertation--a novel, by the way--on that old Sherman tank (did a little cussing in the process). And, if you're wondering--yes, there were a few naughty words in that dissertation.
My mother died several years ago now, but she still sits here over my shoulder; and right now she's shaking her head and trying once again to determine exactly where she went wrong on her only son, because there's some significant cussing in Looking for Dawn, my latest. The truth is, I never used naughty words as wholesale as I did in that novel.
She knows it, and, what's worse, I know she knows it.
A new book, Swearing is Good for You, by Emma Byrne, claims, well, that it is. Swearing manages stress, after all--ask anyone who sorts hogs or once upon a time typed dissertations; it can be safety valve, restraining us from letting things get really out of hand, more violent, she says. As our President knows, a few choice words in a few choice places makes an impact, adds exclamation points, and, for better and for worse, demonstrates power. Cussing remains a dynamic signifier. For a writer like me, a realist, it's the vulgate. It's what we say and what we do.
So there, Mom.
I don't think she'll read that book. Once she sees the title, she'll never pull it off the shelf.
In case you're wondering, my dissertation--a novel--passed through my committee with fine reviews. The only moment I remember vividly was when one of the writers on the committee, a novelist himself, looked up at me and smiled. "You know," he said, "the cussing seemed almost out of place, a little awkward." I wasn't worried. He'd already indicated his appreciation. "You probably need to keep in mind that you're not that good at it."
I never told my mother that story, but I'm saying it now because, honestly, she is still here, right over my shoulder. And smiling.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:44 AM