The Arts of Cursing & Cursive – Part 1

 

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The Arts of Cursing & Cursive – Dam it!

{Goat Note:  Part One is the cursing part; we’ll get to cursive later.  Be forewarned, this section is more a group of notes for the book on homeschooling that I type at occasionally.  I haven’t re-drafted the material to fit the blog, so you have to imagine these words as being contained in a stand-alone book where I’m addressing fathers more than mothers and where The Mackenzie is simply Mackenzie.}

 

“Asshole!”

-Quoth the Conure

 

“Vulgarity is the collapse of eloquence.” So re-phrase yourself.

-The quote may be from, or a twisted misremembering falsely attributed to, Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard; regardless, it is a creative spur I have, metaphorically, kicked into my kids’ ribs when they are ineptly crass.

 

WOD:

Abecedarian

  1. adj. 1. Of or pertaining to the alphabet; marked with the alphabet; arranged in alphabetical order.
  2. [The adj. used elliptically.] 2. One engaged in teaching the alphabet and merest rudiments of instruction.

– The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition

 

Griffonage

  1. Scribble

 

 

Language and communication are everything, the very A-B-C building blocks upon which knowledge is rooted, concepts grown, and understanding harvested and shared.  Without letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books, or without letters, words, and dialogue, upon either the stage or film, or without notes, instruments, and timing, or without paint and paper, we are less than fully human.  Symbols in their myriad sorts have the potential to lift us beyond grunts and snarls, beyond the brute steel talons of our middling march from savagery to the sublime, and into the realms of more advanced everyday ideas & extraordinary ideals.  Without the means to communicate what we know to our children, we are vastly limited because we will fail to share all we might.  We become a wolf nurturing warriors, or a gorilla raising a hairless ape: protective & foundational, yet insufficient.  Romulus and Tarzan, each successful wildlings reared by beasts in myth & fiction, would never have achieved their enduring greatness without words.  Within their tales, it was the humanizing, if adoptive, parents who brought them from the savage to the civilized by adding language to their gamut of skills.  Within our world, it is language that transmits the tales, for our edification and for our pleasure.  Language, in all its forms, is the means by which culture continues and through which we, as creative and momentary vessels, function within the combined cultures of our time.

Whether it’s Disney’s silly and supercilious “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” or the brilliant simplicity of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (st)uttering, “words, words, words,” it is symbolic language, both the basal limitations of our alphabet and the unfathomable breadth of conveyable conceptions, which give us freedom.  This freedom ranges from the mundane to magnificent articulations, from “what’ll you have?” breakfast banter to discussions touching on the differences between man and beast, political freedom, or the existence of God.  If a government wants to limit a person’s concept of the possible, let alone the challenge of the notionally ‘impossible’ which lies ever beyond the possible’s expansive and creeping edge, simply strip the people of their words, strip them of access to historic and contemporary works, monitor everything they write or speak, and punish the dissidents even as this agency, generationally, strangles the ability to conceive of dissent.  Words, if that word is read broadly enough to encompass all the human symbolic arts, are all we have to go on.  Deprive us of our words and we will lose ourselves and, for our descendants, the full range of their: “it might be so.”  We can’t have that.

—-

Reject limitations.  Push to be unlimited – in possibility – and to achieve a certain expertise.  Recognize the prime limitation:  even as a free being you cannot compass the entirety of the known, but you can range across it, delving where your interest lies.  But if the known is erased, or erased for you and your kind, your experience of the world becomes that of rats dropped, by studious overlords, into pre-established mazes rather than rats puzzling out their corner of the wide world, the rocked granaries of a three-century old barn, the nearer village paths, the jute lines ascending from the wharf to the gunwales of a ship about to set sail for incomprehensible new worlds.  Which is the better life for you and yours?  Where do you even start?  Try this: set down your phone and step outside with a net or a book, catch something new and unexpected, trace it down – by research (what is it?) or by art (can I express it, visually or within a thousand words?) – and let this tracery be the thread that leads you, at first accidental and ever branching, then intentionally once you’ve got the knack, from within your maze out into lived experience.

You can enjoy the riper fruits of another labors, but you will never duplicate their feats.  You wouldn’t want to.  It would take a lifetime to accomplish (if you could call it that) another’s life imperfectly when your own life waits upon your efforts and wants for lack of attention.  You cannot duplicate the plays of Shakespeare except in the copying of them.  You cannot be John Malkovich.  Why be a plagiarist or a reenactor when you can be a creator, an actor, constantly pressing through the limits of the fourth wall, stepping out of line and into the space where real life – lived experience – operates.  You can appreciate another’s masterpieces, you can expand upon their efforts as dwarves striding the shoulders of giants to see a little farther, you can veer – Swerve! – and find your own course.  In the case of children, it isn’t your responsibility to teach them everything, but it is your responsibility to teach them how to learn, to be skeptical, to be curious, to know techniques for sussing out information, and to know a certain lay of the land (and, better, to know that there are other interpretations), and to know that beyond their current horizons there may be dragons, but they are prepared, armed in the ways of exploration, and capable as any St. George.

—-

Words are worth knowing and using well.  This has a corollary: unknown words shouldn’t be used until they are known.  The dictionary is your friend.

Consider the phrase, “You’re a douche bag.”   Now, make it an exclamation and imagine it, as it was, hurled indiscreetly by my step-daughter, Mackenzie, upon her father in the heat of a verbal battle which erupted over spring try-outs for the Varsity track team.  The matter of the argument itself is immaterial.  A fifteen year old girl should never call her bio-dad a douche bag.  He was, rightly, upset, and he demanded an apology, which she initially refused, because, as far as she was concerned, he was a douche bag.  Oh teenage misperception!

Before continuing with Mackenzie’s tale, I’d like to discuss the family parrot, Bandit.  As I type, he’s as dead as the Norwegian Blue in the Monty Python skit, though we buried him after his demise, rather than nailing him to his perch.  He was a feisty little Nanday Conure, never shagged out after many a prolonged squawk at every creature invading his backyard: the waddling groundhog, the leaping squirrels, the flitting warblers.

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Forgive us his moniker, Bandit, as he was named by a not-so-creative former owner before we acquired him, our used bird from the rescue facility.  Calling a Nanday Conure “Bandit” is almost as creative as a four-year old naming their faire-won goldfish, “Fishy,” or their new pet rabbits, “Mr. & Mrs. Bunny.”  Nanday Conures are, excepting their red and blue highlights, largely shamrock green, with a contrasting black mask of feathers on the front half of their head, wrapping around from eye to eye.  They look like nothing so much as small-parrot versions of The Lone Ranger, Zorro, or any low-grade thief, and as such their cages typically bear tags indicating that the solitary inhabitants are Ranger, Zorro, or Bandit.

Bandit had a foul tongue, especially considering the paucity of his English-langue utterances – perhaps thirty words in total, at least ten percent of which were not fit for my mother’s ears.  He’d say his name with great pride.  “Bandit, Bandit, Bandit!”  If we stayed up too late and he was ready for lights-out, he’d say, “Goodnight.  Goooodnight.  Goodnight!”  At dawn when I was grinding up the beans for my first shot of espresso, it was “Goodmorning, goodmorning” until I gave him a “Goodmorning, Bandit” in reply.  All tame enough.  But once, shortly after we passed muster as good adoptive parents and brought him home, we bought new dangling cage toys – perches and chews – and this required rearranging some of his old standbys as we played decorator with his confines.  While we worked, he explored our house, marking his path with a trail less edible than breadcrumbs.  Splatter, splatter, splay.  He could have been a Rorschachian illustrator for the popular guide, “What Bird Did That?”

When Bandit was released back into his home territory (doesn’t that sound better than, ‘stuffed back into his cage’?), he sidled around the walls to a protruding branch we’d bolted through the bars, shimmied out along the branch to his favorite rope swing, and hopped aboard.  There had been a plastic ring, baubled with wooden beads, which dangled in front of the rope swing, evidently affording him some measure of privacy, and we had not considered his privacy when we re-arranged his furniture.  No matter, he grabbed at his favorite of the dangling toys and tried to slide it across the bars back to where it had been, relative to his favorite perch.  We learned, birds are very particular.  He clutched the dangling ring in his beak.  He tugged.  The toy, on its rope, slid, but only to a point.  Its motion was now obstructed by a crossbar running across the top of the cage so that it could never slide from the edge-region of the cage, where we had moved it, into the central region, where it had been.

Bandit wanted that ring to dangle where it had dangled the day before.  Right.  In.  Front.  He yanked.  He tugged.  He dropped the ring and yammered in bird-ese.  Squawkity, squawkity, squawk.  He climbed up the cage wall, puttered along upside-down across the ceiling of his cage, and there he inspected the steel ring from which his toy hung plumb.  He yanked & grappled again.  He tried to gnaw through the steel ring that fixed the toy to the cage ceiling.  He fussed and ruffled his feathers.  He moved back down to his perch and stretched his neck so far that all his feathers flared and showed his pink skin, the pincushion to his quills.  At the furthest limit of his extension he grabbed the plastic ring where it dangled near the left wall of his cage and lurched it toward his perch.  Slip – and stop!  There were limits.  Yet again the toy refused to slide back into the proper position on account of that accursed cross-bar.   He glared at me.  He cocked his head to fix one beady little eye on the wire roof-work fretted above him, and he stretched again for his toy.  Violently he jerked it home, but it was trapped and would not move back to where it belonged.  Instead, when he released it, it played the pendulum, swinging tick-tock for a time near the edge of the cage.  He pierced me with his eyes and, clear as any English native, muttered his query, “What the Hell?”

In context, Bandit’s, “What the Hell?” was situationally appropriate.  The idiom fit the circumstances.  His toy, despite his best efforts and understanding, would not slide across his cage so that it settled where he wanted it, in front of his favorite perch.  He had worked on the problem.  He had examined the point of attachment and worked some more.  He was befuddled.  This is exactly the moment when a person in some sort of mechanical conundrum – say, a non-plumber, while retrofitting a garbage disposal – would utter to the air, more than to any particular listener, “What the Hell?”  The human means, more or less, ‘why in tarnation will this blasted device not accommodate itself to the pre-established hanging position?’  The bird, just as sane as the man, nailed the idiomatic use of this phrase, yet the bird never understood the words he verbalized outside their expressive function – voicing frustration – in the immediate context.  This is key.

“What the Hell?” was not Bandit’s only gem acquired either from his former owner or whilst a jailbird in the avian rescue joint.  Just imagine the words & phrases you’d pick up surrounded by dozens of dispossessed and perpetually talkative creatures, some with intelligences that would have classified them, in human mental health terminology from the early twentieth century, as lofty as idiots or even, glory be, up there with the yet-more-functional imbeciles.  These terms are compliments for birds, suggesting a human mental age of roughly three, or four to seven, respectively.  The parrots and their kin are surprisingly intelligent and companionable creatures.  Well, Bandit learned an array of moments when he could utter another disparaging word: asshole.  If I got out the plant mister and moved toward Bandit’s cage to spritz him for his weekly bath, I was, inevitably, an “Asshole!”  If he was sitting on my shoulder while the family was watching a movie, and if a curious dog, typically our sweet, hairy chicken, Huckleberry, came up from behind my chair and nosed Bandit’s fastidiously preened tail with a vacuum sniff, the bird would spin and hurl his word at the nosey dog.  “Asshole!”  The dog wouldn’t understand, but he knew enough to step away from the clattering beak.  If Mackenzie was feeding Bandit sunflower seeds, but came to the end of his daily allotment (too many and your bird will eventually develop fatty liver disease), then he’d rattle his cage and scream at her, “Asshole! Asshole!  Asshole!” with all the seeming intelligence of a demented person denied more ice cream.

Are you seeing a pattern here?  They don’t call kids “parrots” without reason – they learn by mimicking adults.  More dangerously, kids parrot other kids, and often that’s the ignoble inmates in their common asylum: public school.  A little context is a dangerous thing.  As a kid, I learned a Spanish phrase sufficiently vulgar that I won’t repeat it here (suffice to say it conjoined copulation and maternal women).  I could use that phrase perfectly, in context, and I did, for about a year before another Spanish speaker let me in on a little secret: madre means mother, and there was more to it than that.  Lesson learned.  Yikes.  I blushed.  Thank goodness my mother didn’t know a lick of Spanish.

And so it went for Mackenzie, our brilliant parrot.  “So, what did you call your dad?”  “A douche bag.” “And you think that’s appropriate?” “Yes.  He wants me to apologize, but no way.  He deserved it.”  “Really?  Are you aware of what you called him?”  “Yeah, a douche.  Everyone says that when they’re angry at someone who’s being a butt.”  “Okay, other kids might say this, and I’m not denying it, but what I meant to ask is if you’re aware of the meaning of the term ‘douche bag?’”  “Not exactly.”  “You should look it up.”  Hesitation.  “Uh, why, what’s it mean?”  “You should still look it up, but I think you’ll discover the definition will be something like ‘a vaginal cleaning device.’”  Fifteen Year Old Girl Blushing.  That’s the title of the portrait a quick-sketch artist could have set to paper in that moment.  “Really?  Oh…oh, boy…I probably should apologize.”  And I believe she did.

Admittedly, the second definition of Douche Bag, which I found doing a quick internet search, was: 2. “[informal] an obnoxious or contemptible person (typically used of a man).”  Which in no-wise forgives its use as an appellation for one’s well-meaning father.  But the first definition was the one that convinced Mackenzie, even in her anger, she had truly erred, “1. a small syringe for douching the vagina, especially as a contraceptive measure.”  That definition simply doesn’t scream “dad” in any context.

At fifteen, embarrassment of that sort, and the apology that followed, was punishment enough for a well-raised, decent kid.  When the kids were younger, I had a more vile way to rinse foul language from their mouths.  Fish pills.  Shocking.  They thought so, too.  I’ll discuss punishments in a separate chapter, but you’ve been warned.  If you don’t think children should be punished, that each one is a precious snowflake and none need tempering in hotter fires to improve their mettle, then, for goodness sakes, please give this book to a better parent.   And castrate yourself, please, you gutless wonder.  It’s fathers like you who “raise” (a word honored by your sort in the breach more than in the observance) the miscreants currently destroying any hope for public education to be, well, educational, for the kids who really would like to learn something in the absence of parents who care enough to homeschool them.

Is my point that kids are parrots and parrots can be crafty as young kids or daft adults?  Not hardly.  It’s that language is vital, curious, fun, & occasionally dangerous.  Suppose you learned your name was a riddling archaism, rooted in an Old English, itself wrapped up in an even more ancient, proto-Germanic conundrum, drako, meaning, enigmatically, a sea serpent or dragon.  Would that make you want to solve the mystery of breathing fire?  That’s fuel for thought.  Even when not vivified to the extreme of accidental, if only partial, self-immolation, words can be spicy.  We’ll explore the zip and the zing together.

Against my wife’s better judgement – or because she possesses what society deems better judgement and I’ve been self-employed since leaving school in part because I lack a multitude of social graces and any desire for common cause with most members of our society as it currently stands – I decided to teach her daughter, Mackenzie (who was not yet a parrot, though of an age akin to a wise Cockatoo), how to use words which might, at first blush, appear vulgar.  Being self-employed with a flexible schedule, I’ve always been our family’s designated driver to school, and home from school, for those who were not under my academic care; to Scouts; to dance; to practices musical and martial.   I did wander everywhere.  What a perfect bunch of time to spend conversing with the young souls entrusted to me.  We practiced our times tables, listened to books on tape, audited Teaching Company lectures, paused often for discussion, and learned how (not quite) to curse.  Bitch.  Ass.  Hell.  Dam it!

What follows is not a transcription from ‘curse day’ in my truck.  The NSA won’t release that data, and I’ve always avoided Facebook and other like-minded firms with voice-sniffing algos embedded in their apps and devices.  (In fact, I never carry a cell phone, and I rarely wear a watch.)  Instead, this is a reconstruction from a half-remembered conversation that took place several years ago.  It is a day that has become embedded in our family lore, because it was memorable.  Teaching and learning – making those things stick – relies on creating memorable circumstances.  This trip across town ended with a young girl rolling down her window, and screaming, over and over again, “Dam it!  Dam it!  Dam it!”  How could any of us forget that?  The manner of the banter is very much the sort of thing my bio-kids and step-kid have been subject to for years.  Poor things.

 

“Mackenzie, you’re musical.  You know that bit, ‘a doe, a deer, a female deer’?”

“Sure.  Fa so la te da!”

“Doe.”

“Right.  Do Re Mi Fa So La Te and back to Do again.”

“Exactly.  The Sound of Music!  So, what’s a deer, a female deer called?”

“A doe.”

“Good, now what’s a dog, a female dog, called?”

“A girl dog?”

“Fine, but there’s a better word, a more precise and proper single word.”

“Really?  What?”

“I love inquisitive kids.  Cover your ears, and I’ll tell you.”

“OK.” And she covered her ears, clapping a hand over each.

“Bitch,” I whispered.

“Huh?”

Much louder.  “Bitch.  A female dog is a bitch.”

“I’m not allowed to say bitch…ooops.  Sorry.”

“No, you’re good.  As a kid, you’re not allowed to call a person a bitch, because that’s derogatory.  You are welcome and encouraged to refer to any female dog as a bitch.  Try it: Baylee is our bitch.  That’s perfectly good dog lingo.”

{Aside: Dear reader, you’ll note that we didn’t stretch our minds very far in naming our Chesapeake Bay Retriever, especially since we only use her full name in disciplinary moments “Baylee, what did you do to the sheep?” and otherwise she’s known by her shorter handle, Bay.  And, yes, we’ve had a fish named Fishy, too, though on positive side of our pet-naming tally we kept a freshly hatched corn snake named French Fry, which at least was less corny than Corny or Corndog the Snake.}

“Baylee is uh…really?….I’m not going to get in trouble?”

“You’re fine.  No trouble.  My truck is a free speech zone, kind of like the little fenced boxes in our nation’s capital.  Not that you should ever be afraid of words.  In context, most words are safe to use, even if they sound rough.  You know: sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.  It’s true.  I could speak poniards, my words could be daggers, and though I hurl them all at you, you wouldn’t shed one drop of blood – and you know the rule: no blood, no tears.  Admittedly, that rule applies more to skidding down the driveway when you flip your bike or try to jump through downhill hula-hoops with rollerblades.  And, because there are exceptions to every rule, I may as well mention that someday a fellow is going to dash your heart against rocks at the bottom of a pit of despair; he’ll use words, and you will cry.  But that’s the upside-down of love, and this isn’t a lesson about love, so let’s get back to not quite cursing: Baylee is a Bitch.”

“Alright.  Bailey’s a bitch.”

“Great.   Did it bite you?”

“Baylee?”

“No, the word, that word, ‘Bitch.’”

Giggling.  “No, it didn’t bite.”

“Lovely.  Let’s try another word since we’ve got a long ride, another animal word that is only inappropriate when applied to friends, sibs, parents, and other members of polite society: Donkey.”

“Donkey isn’t a bad word.”

“You’re absolute right.  So any word that is the common name of an animal you might bump into in the woods, on a farm, or at the zoo, shouldn’t be an inherently bad word.  Can you imagine cursing by calling someone, even someone you don’t like, a chinchilla, or an ostrich?  Probably not.  If, in a fit of pique, I hollered, “you drunken wombat!” in your direction after your stumbled with a load of groceries and burst a milk jug, you’d be far more upset that I maligned your grace by the suggestion that you were acting drunkenly, than you’d fret about being wombatish.  You’d probably like to be a wombat for a day.  But some folks think that some animal names are less pleasant, which allows us to use these words as an insult.   If they’re willing to take offense, we can sure dish it out.  A clumsy fellow might be a bull in a china shop – apt to break things; an unfortunate uncle, hovering, and waiting to pounce on the family’s inheritance, is a vulture; on any given day, one of your brothers might be a worm, or a toad.  This is a good chance to spot the difference between denotation and connotation.  The word toad denotes a short, lumpy, amphibian that hops around in our woods and leaks poison from its skin when a dog mouths it; the denotation is a primary meaning.  The same word has a secondary meaning, a connotation, when applied to a non-toad, like Angus or Drake.  The connotative toad can indicate that an annoying boy is, ‘a squat, lumpy, bug-munching, slug-slurping, pain in my butt,’ but an actual toad, any denotative toad morphed up from a tadpole in our dog pond to a toadlet, a penny-toad springing in the duff, or a monstrous, warty resident of the toad abode in our garden, is simply magnifying its own existence – and improving our garden – when it hops out and about to munch bugs and slurp slugs.  We love the toads, even the boys.”

“What’s inherently?”

“Oh, good question.  Glad you were listening.  Inherent means inside or part of a thing or concept, but figuratively, not literally.  Think of the word adhesive, which might be glue or the sticky side of tape.  Adhesives stick one thing to the outside of another thing, like a sticky-note to the counter by the phone; adhesives adhere things, one to another.  Adhesives can also stick a thing back together with itself, like when Drake split his head open on the hearth and the doc used super human glue to stitch his head back together.  To inhere means to stick something, usually a quality or a trait, within something.  Thankfully for you, your brain is inhered to your body, though we don’t normally use the word like that.  We normally thing of inherence as sticking concepts or ideas inside another idea or a concept associated with an object.  Your love of birds is one of your defining character traits, it’s inherent to who you are, and can become one of your epithets: Mackenzie, the bird girl.  No one thinks you are a bird, not even in the way Drake might be a toad.  They think you’re associated with birds, that, perhaps, you watch them, or keep them.  And you do both, so it’s accurate.  You’re a birdophile, and that love of all things feathery exists within you, even though you don’t harbor a swallow in your cheek, nor do you have a chicken dinner meandering through your digestive tract.  Some people think that some words are inherently bad, that they have badness stuck inside the letters.  Like H – E – Double Hockey Sticks – we’ll go there later.  I don’t think words are inherently evil or holy, ruinous, or rapturous.  Words need context to make them anything other than a defined jumble of letters or sounds.  Anyhow, because I got sidetracked, I need to bring you back around to this donkey we’re considering.  Picture the donkey in your mind, standing dead center on your memory table, eating something…a peck of provender, dry oats, or bottled hay.  I want you to transform this munching donkey into an ass.”

“But, I can’t.  Doesn’t that mean the same thing as a donkey?”

“Precisely.  It can’t be one without the other since they are two coinages for the same creature.  In a dictionary, they are self-referential.  Donkey: ass.  Ass: donkey.  Scripture & Shakespeare both prefer ass for their beasts of burden, transformative men, and jack-o-napes, so you’re in good company if you swear by using ass whenever you’re confronted with a donkey.  At Christmas, when you pass by the manger scene at your mother’s elbow, I urge you to point out the donkey and, assuming it is healthy and well behaved, nudge her and say under your breath, “Oh, Mom, look at that great ass!”

“Won’t I go to Hell for that?  Oh, gosh, that’s a bad word, too.”

“No, you’ll be fine.  The bible is full of references to asses.  Jesus rode in on one – he could have chosen an ox or his own sandaled feet, but he preferred to ride a little ass.  You will be going to Hell, though.”

Mackenzie looked mortified.  This one I had to fix quick, because if she started crying and took that back to her mom, there’d be Hell to pay, and I was probably underfunded for digging my way out of that hole.

“Relax, kiddo.  There are at least two Hells.  We’re going to one this winter that’s only lukewarm by comparison with the hotter.  Hell is a speck of a town on the island of Grand Cayman.  The Caymaniacs regularly pass through Hell, with no ill effects.  Heck, we can even send ourselves mail from Hell and the cards will be postmarked: Hell.  There’s a great show & tell artifact, since you’re a public school kid.  You can pass the postcard around and tell everyone you survived Hell, that, yes, you’ve been to Hell and back!  And you won’t be lying, so you can’t get in any trouble.”

“Oh, jeez, my teacher won’t like that.”

gw blog hell - crop

“Well, you’re going to Hell with your mom and me regardless.  You’ll have braggin’ rights.”


Mackenzie did, in fact, spend time in Hell.  Here’s a picture:

GW Blog Mack Hell - Crop.jpg


 

“No thanks.  Can we talk about something else?”

“Sure.  How about beavers?”

“OK.”

“You know about beaver butt goo, but what else do you know about beavers?  You’re a nature girl.”

“I don’t know….flat tails.  They have flat tails, and they smack them to warn each other about predators.  They eat trees.  People used to make jackets and blankets out of their fur.”

“Where do they live?”

“I think that’s called a lodge.  It’s like a big nest made out of branches, and they build it in the middle of a pond.”

“Good.  And how do they know where the ponds are, so they can make their lodges?”

“Oh, they just make the ponds.  They cut trees down with their teeth, weave branches together, and block streams to make the ponds.”

“Pretty cool.  What’s that pile of wood called when they block the stream to make the pond?”

“A beaver dam.”

“You got it.  Did you know they’ve spotted some beavers here in Lancaster County?  They’re moving down from up north, more and more of them are here every year, blocking streams, flooding parking lots, and having a grand old time.  Wouldn’t it be cool if they built a dam on one of the streams we pass over on the way to school, or taking Angus to and from Scouts?”

“Oh, yeah, that’d be so awesome.”

“That’s kind of what I thought.  Every time we cross a stream, you should roll down your window and encourage the beavers to set up shop.  Yell as loud as you can, and tell them to dam it.”

And that’s exactly what Mackenzie did.  As we cruised along one lane in a maze of back country roads, she rolled her window down when we approached the bridge that took us over Lititz Run, a bucolic little stream that meanders through fields grazed by cattle and sheep, and which the local Trout Unlimited group has worked to clean up, stabilizing the banks, and stocking fish.  Over most of its length, Lititz Run is a catch and release fishery, haunted by fly fishermen stalking the local Ph.D.  lunkers.  You could almost imagine a tweedy Izsak Walton dapping a shaggy fly from a horse-hair line, taunting a trout to rise to that finely tempered hook masked in dubbin fur, and hackle-wound.

Mackenzie’s beaver-call moment unfurled better than I could ever have imagined it would.  As we crossed over that confounded bridge, I heard her high-pitched voice, screaming out the window as loud as her lungs would allow: Dam it! Dam it! Dam it!  Were she a trip-trapping goat that stamped so loud, she’d have frightened the trolls beneath the bridge.  She kept up her resounding beaver invite, and never noticed the old fly fisherman swing his head toward my truck to see this little blonde apparently screaming curses at him and his silent pass-time.  Poor fellow probably thought she was a PETA freak.  Certainly, he never thought she was simply a little girl in favor of migrant beavers ponding up his favorite stream.  And she wailed, siren to the beavers, until the water was out of sight: Dam it! Dam it! Dam it!

{Aside: Except for Drake, during his long vegetarian phase, which may be discussed later, we are PETA advocates of the other sort: People for Eating Tasty Animals.}

Why on earth did I do this?  Because our kids – as a social cohort, and my kids particularly – are too timid.  They’re trained from the age of five to stand in single file lines, to speak when spoken to, to sit still in their seats, to raise their hands, not to whizz on trees or, like the bear, to shit in the woods.  I’m walking a very fine line here.  My kids, were any of them lurking over my shoulder, would cry out: but you can’t stand noisy, unruly kids.  And they’d be absolutely correct.  I especially can’t stand other people’s noisy and unruly kids, but I’m no fan of my own survivors when they get out of line, either.  I both want my kids to be disciplined, when discipline is called for, and to be rambunctious sometimes.  I want them to earn the respect of their peers and their elders, and I want them to be ready to rouse the rabble, to be defiant, even bellicose, as needed.  One very small first step is teaching kids to discern nuances.  When is bitch a bad word, when is it mere canine terminology, and, later, when might it be properly applied to a female politician set on stripping their rights?

I enjoy teaching my kids new words, and that’s best done in interesting contexts to make the new words memorable.