I thought this column would be about digitizing VHS tapes. I have a bunch of old tapes in my closet and I figured I’d hook a VCR to my computer and likely discover that 99 percent of old home movie footage is entirely pointless—just like the stuff we’re recording now. And indeed, there was one tape devoted to the entirety of a Babe Ruth baseball game, a game in which my mother apparently didn’t get the memo that you don’t bother taping other kids’ at-bats. And there was the “interesting but embarrassing” genre, like the tape from college where my English class produced a video imagining what would happen if Frankenstein’s monster were a roommate on MTV’s The Real World. I was the monster, with toilet-paper-roll bolts sticking out of my neck, aggravating the roommates by leaving the toilet seat up and drinking milk directly out of the carton. Most of the roommates were annoyed at Dr. Frankenstein for creating me, but I think the real blame lies with all of us for creating that video.
Among the hours of ennui and embarrassment, though, was a treasure: footage of a pitching session with my father. We had a mound in our backyard, and my brother and I would hone our skills by pitching to our dad. I remember doing that, broadly. What I didn’t remember is the particular verbiage our dad used to encourage us. Did he say, “Nice strike there, champ!” or “That was a meatball, buddy”? No, not exactly. When my brother—probably 12 at the time—airs a fastball way high, my father stands up and says, “Throw it over the f—king plate…ya dildo.” It’s the quintessential Norman Rockwell scene—a father playing catch with his son while calling him a dildo. For my part, I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I know this because shortly after that pitch we learn that I am the unseen cameraman, my cracking teenage voice declaring, “These f—king mosquitoes are eating me alive!” We Dyers had a way with words.
Growing up, I don’t really remember a time when we weren’t allowed to swear, but I think my parents probably restrained themselves until maybe fifth grade or so, when they figured I’d be hearing it anyway. But at some point, swearing became a matter of course, no big deal. My father was a lobsterman, and I didn’t even know the other fishermen’s names—only the nicknames he gave them, like Dickface and Baitbag. These weren’t even pejorative terms, necessarily. He might say, “I broke down out there today, but Dickface towed me in.” There was one fisherman he actually liked, a Viking-looking guy named Anabelle. One day we drove past Anabelle in the parking lot and he called out to my dad, “You’re ugly!” To which my father yelled, “F—k you!” and kept driving. That was how they said hello.
Now, I like to think that despite the rough discourse, I turned out OK. But I’m still trying to keep the lid on swearing among my kids, who are going into first and third grades, but it is not always an easy task. They’re always lurking, listening, sponging up anything interesting. And swearing, to kids, is fascinating.
One day when the older one was about 6, he was sitting in the car pretending to drive. He grabbed the rearview mirror to adjust it, but couldn’t get it quite right since he was about three-and-a-half feet tall. “Ahhh shit,” he said, really leaning into it, like a tiny cabbie who just learned that his fare wants to go three blocks down the street. “That was hilarious,” I thought, while also contemplating what a horrible parent I must be. I don’t remember ever saying that in front of him, but I must have. Unless he picked it up from one of those annoying gamers he likes to watch on YouTube. I’d love to blame them, since they make me feel old and confused. Why would anyone watch someone else play video games? My kids want to create their own channels where they can narrate while playing games, but I’m not ready for my children to make more money than me.
Anyway, in an attempt to shelter them just a little longer, we banned YouTube. Then we deleted YouTube Kids. We have Safari on lockdown, and our music apps play only radio-friendly versions. But there’s only so much you can do. I recently took the kids to a mud-racing event, and when they got back from the bathroom one of them said, “Someone wrote ‘eff your mother’ on the wall of the port-a-potty.” That’s not very nice, I replied. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s what someone else wrote right under it.”
Thanks, bard of the port-a-potty, for trying to set a good example. But I fear that I’m learning the same thing that my parents surely did: Once your kids can read and are immersed in the crucible of elementary school, policing profanity becomes increasingly futile. They’re going to hear it. Especially if they play catch with grandpa. ◆
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