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Saturday, Dec. 9, 2006

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Painting the air baby blue


The world used to be more beautiful. The sky was bluer, the grass was greener, and good always triumphed over evil.

Also, a person could rear back and paint the air with raw profanity and feel just grand about it. Not any more.

Oh I can. I do. I am the most profane person I know, the patient result of years of daily practice. But time and place have diluted this simple joy of life.

Specifically, it's hard to swear when you're torn between two cultures. More specifically, nothing gets more lost in translation than a four-letter word.

I learned to swear as a boy. It was the only thing my father ever taught me. Yet, he compensated for his lack of attention in other matters by instructing me well in this.

And if you think that there is nothing therapeutic, nothing enriching, nothing self-purging about a decent five-second binge of bile, then I can only advise that you try it.

Why, sometimes I can't wait for some car or bicyclist to wantonly cut me off, just so I can share my appraisal skills with the world. I also believe the prime reason Bill Gates developed Microsoft Word was not to aid writers in their craft, but rather to promote cursing. As an aficionado, I can say only this, "Thank you, Bill."

A volcanic eruption is an awe-inspiring event. It fills creation with humility and wonder. A well-delivered swear can do the same.

To sit back after a hot bath, sip upon a frosty beer and then blunderbuss the air with some inventive doodling can produce Obiwan Kenobi-type bliss. For at that moment the force is with me. And life cannot get any better.

But much of this pleasure gets swallowed in Japan. For here the English words don't bear the same resonance. Unless, that is, you encircle yourself with only other foreigners. In which case you are not really "here."

A string of choice invectives may fail to draw even an eye blink from a Japanese listener. Worse, it may make them respond with, "Excuse me, can you repeat that?" The effect is perhaps similar to irrigating a rice field with bourbon. What a waste.

The frustration is not to be made light of. A friend of old used to explode upon Japanese clerks at the cash register. They would present the bill and he would tell them how they could rearrange their anatomy. But he would offer these suggestions with both a smile and bow and would receive fair like in return, along with a "Domo arigato gozaimasu."

The aggravation of noncommunication ultimately upset his psychological balance. He ended up in seminary and is now a minister.

The key valve in releasing this profanity pressure is simply this: One must learn to curse in Japanese.

Yet, this requires a level of language acquisition far beyond the capabilities of most learners.

I realize this anew each time I hear a Japanese exercising a few English swear words. It sounds soul-shatteringly amiss.

At best, I am reminded of Mark Twain's admonishment of his clean-cut wife Olivia, after she tried to mock his sulfurous speech by throwing the same words back in his face. He told her she had the lyrics down, but she was frightfully lost on the tune.

My attempts at profane Nihongo must grade out at the same tone-deaf pitch. Beyond problems with delivery, I know but few terms of indelicate Japanese, all of which, to me, seem fluffy and benign.

I have attempted to paint the air with these words on numerous occasions, but the color always bleeds. Even when I exert myself the air ends up but a thin baby blue. To which Japanese speakers only grin, an expression reading . . . "My, aren't you cute?"

As for direct translation . . . Forget it. The terms can cross cultures, but their spirits are locked in the lands of their origins.

"Fool. Hippo. Noisemaker. Your mother has an outee." This well-known put-down from the discourse of Japanese children provides an excellent example.

Perhaps a Japanese tyke, hearing this in his native tongue, would take offense. Yet, meeting it in translation can only make one smile. Or wonder about the speaker's mental health.

My Japanese wife has been of no help in my endeavor to swear in Japanese. In either language, she makes Olivia Clemens look debauched.

When reading to our sons when they were small, she would even gasp when the three little pigs would swear on the hair of their chinny-chin-chins.

She also lacks timing. Back when we were engaged, I once showed her a congratulatory letter from a fraternity friend, who digressed from our engagement to a heated comment on his favorite football team. She asked about his choice of adjectives.

"Well, that word simply means 'bad.' You shouldn't say it though. Yet, if you feel compelled, it might be better to spell it out instead."

Two nights later at a dinner with the American missionary who was to marry us, she brightened when the man described his coffee as tasting "bad."

"Oh, you mean it is F . . . U . . . " At that moment, I stuffed a napkin in her mouth.

But this brings me to my final point, the other end to the diminishing joy of swearing, the end dealing with "time" rather than "place."

For these days a fusillade of vitriol doesn't have the same punch that it used to. It used to be that a ripe round of description could make sidewalks crack, dogs blush and stars in the sky shimmer with shock.

Those times are past. The words are too common now, dispatched almost everywhere by everyone. Why, the basic requirement for modern film-writers seems to be how much boiled verbiage they can pile together at once. Such dialog doesn't crackle anymore. It sags. It rots.

The good old days of cursing are gone.

I suppose I should give it up. A better-scrubbed vocabulary might lighten the air around me and, at the same time, reduce global warming.

Old habits die hard, people say. Yet, I disagree and believe I can succeed.

In fact, I will swear upon it. What a way to start.



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