The Knucklehead is 10.
It’s 2005, and The Knucklehead and I are having dinner in a sports bar in Santa Monica. Specifically, we’re sitting in Sonny McLean’s Irish Pub, which is a Boston-style sports bar/restaurant plopped in sunny southern California. We’d found out about this place a couple years earlier when watching a documentary on the Red Sox 2003 season, told from the point of view of some of the Faithful of Red Sox Nation. The film, Still We Believe: The Boston Red Sox Movie, featured an establishment on the Left Coast, the brainchild of homesick transplanted Bostonians. With chowdah and Irish food on the menu, and the walls plastered with New England sports memorabilia, this was a place where displaced Beantowners could get their Red Sox/Patriots/Celtics/Bruins fix. The place looked like ground zero for Red Sox Nation in the LA area, and Knucks and I decided that when we did our southern California baseball trip, we’d look the place up.
We weren’t disappointed. Sonny McLean’s was a lot of fun, décor of a Green Monster theme. The food was good; I settled into some bangers and mash with a pint of Guinness, and The Knucklehead tore into a plate of clams. But the best part was we had walked into the place in the later innings of a Red Sox game; why had I not anticipated Sonny McLean’s having NESN on the tube? We were cheering on our team among other Sox fans; something very rare for us living in a Yankees-dominated portion of the Northeast. The Red Sox were up 3-0, we were happy, the place was happy. We had traveled 3,000 miles to have dinner with kindred souls.
In the bottom of the ninth, with a 3-run lead, Curt Schilling came on in relief of Mike Timlin. Schilling allowed 2 baserunners that inning, though one was erased with a double play. With two outs and a runner on, the White Sox’ Timo Pérez hit a long fly to Manny Ramirez. Anything hit to Manny was always going to be an adventure, so when he made a spectacular catch to end the game, the bar erupted. Forgetting everything but what I was watching on the tube, I yelled out, “DAAAAAAAAAAAMN!”* And then looked down at my 10-year-old son, looking back straight at me. Crap.
It’s not that I have anything against swearing, not by itself. I never, ever told my kid not to use “bad words” because I really don’t think there is such a thing. George Carlin talked about certain words being “intensifiers” and I firmly believe in what he said. There are times when those words are necessary. There are times when you need to shock someone into viscerally understanding how passionate you feel about an issue. When you are disgusted by something on a scatological level, I believe it is appropriate to honestly express that feeling in scatological terms. There are times, when used judiciously, that harsh language can undeniably be used to comic effect, if that’s what you’re going for. Again, Mr. Carlin: “There are no bad words. Bad thoughts? Yes. Bad words? No.”
But I also believe that adult judgment is required in using these words. One must understand the full effect the use of these words will have on others. One must understand that there are some people who will stop listening once they hear those words, and that is their right. To understand this requires experience. That’s why I believe that childhood should be spent in mastering and expanding vocabulary. I believe that if children get too attached to foul language early on (and let’s admit that the allure is strong), they won’t have appropriate alternatives at the ready when the situation calls for it. They won’t be taken seriously if that’s all they know. And when they really need to use the stronger words, those words will still retain their power.
So while I was careful to avoid calling strong language “dirty words” I made it clear that certain choices were to be avoided while Knucks was still learning to express himself verbally. Since I believe in leadership by example, I had just blown it. And The Knucklehead knew it. And he knew I knew it. And he was very interested in the next words that would come out of my mouth.
“Knucks, I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
A smile is starting to emerge on the kid’s face. “That’s OK, Dad,” he says.
“No,” I replied, “it’s not OK. I’m trying to teach you to be deliberate with your language, especially in emotional situations, and I just blew it. I shouldn’t-”
And here The Knucklehead interrupts me. He gently lays a hand on my arm to stop me. He looks straight into my eyes and says, “Dad. It’s OK. You’re in a bar. You’re supposed to talk like that.”
And just like that, the student has become the master.
*It’s possible I yelled out something else. Memory is fuzzy here.