The first time I ever saw the word fuck in print I was twelve, bespectacled and awkward and uncomfortably stuffed into the window seat on a flight to see my grandparents.
This was right around when that movie Stardust was coming out. Remember that? I’d seen the trailers on TV and really wanted to see it. It had a sort of whimsy about it that reminded me of The Princess Bride, which is and was my favorite movie of all time. Anyways, there we were in the Newark Airport, having freshly fought our way past security and the indigenous pigeon population, and right outside a Hudson Books was this big sign for Stardust! Recently adapted to film from the novel by Neil Gaiman.
I didn’t know it was a book! After a barrage of wheedling and whining I dragged my mom into the bookstore. Except that when we got inside we found out that they were all sold-out of Stardust. I had to settle for a copy of Gaiman’s Smoke & Mirrors instead.
I was so disappointed I didn’t even look at it for the first hour. And that was when I realized we’d made a mistake. Somehow I had ended up with a grown-up book, one that was filled with swearing and sex and violence — and I hunched a little lower in my seat and wondered how exactly I’d made off so good.
(It would be years before I ever did see Stardust, by the way, on a laptop in some college dorm room.)
The point is that swearing was pretty taboo in my twelve-year-old mind. I’d tried it on at school during recess, maybe, but the words always felt awkward coming out of my mouth and I never really got into the habit. I remember my dad telling me that “swearing was something people did when they were too lazy to say how they really felt” when I was a kid — which I still find wise whenever I’m angry or disappointed — and I’ve still never heard my mom swear. I would never want to disappoint my parents or set a bad example for my younger siblings.
And then I was writing this song. “In My Head”, the one you’re here reading about. A big part of this song is wishing for a future that looks like the past. There’s something very sad about that to me — to be so unexcited about your current circumstances that you’re looking to move backward. All I could think was how fucked up that is. Ugly feelings, ugly words.
Except. What would my mom think?
For days I bit my nails anxiously and searched fruitlessly for a way around this. I mean, sometimes swearing can really pull you out of a song, I’ve found, and also do we really want to be a band that uses strong language? Especially the strongest language. But I couldn’t find another way to say it. It wasn’t messed up or wrong, it was just fucked up. God, I’m sweating just revisiting this memory. I could imagine my mother’s disappointment, hear her embarrassedly trying to explain to my grandparents and my little cousins why shouldn’t listen to my band’s newest song…
Finally I resigned myself to it. I was on the way home from work. I called my mom and said — and in retrospect, I probably should have started this conversation a little less dramatically, I can only imagine what my poor mother thought was going to come next —, “Well, Mom, I’m not super jazzed about the conversation we’re about to have but there’s no way around it.” And she said, “What? What is it, honey?”
I explained it to her.
My mom was incredibly understanding, of course. My parents have only ever been supportive and encouraging so I’m not sure what I expected. Not like the dam has broken and we’re all going to start swearing at the dinner table, now, but I can finally say fuck in public with my mother’s approval.
Smoke & Mirrors has one of my favorite short stories ever, by the way, a piece called “Murder Mysteries”. Highly recommended.