Essays

Dumbass, or Words We Learned from Our Fathers

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When we were in college, my brother and I were driving down a main street in the town where our parents lived and we went to school. We both lived on campus. He told me about forgetting to turn in a paper for a class, and that the professor wouldn’t accept it late. Without thinking, I said, Dumbass, in a tone very similar to the one our dad used when he called us that name, his favorite way to express contempt for and anger at our stupidity.

There was a second or two of silence, and then we laughed. We laughed as the car became a time machine and showed us the past colored by our father’s anger, a future just coming into view that we could shade however we wanted. We laughed the colors of grief and helplessness and our own anger, and we breathed in the colors of hope and confidence, and then we laughed all of it out again.

Ever since that moment, I have loved the word ass. Who was the ass that day, braying donkey, loud fool, part of the anatomy from which shit emerged? Not us.

We didn’t instantly throw off the traumas of our childhood. We knew we wouldn’t ever call him that word to his face. We spent the next twenty years navigating our lives around his anger, his love, his eventual dementia. Plenty of times we were asses ourselves, to each other, to our lovers and family and friends.

I love that ass is also a suffix (that lame-ass show, old-ass car, ugly-ass painting) and a euphemism for sex (gonna get me some ass) and, as my British boyfriend uses it, even a verb (fart-assing around, which sounds even funnier with the a in ass taking on the same sound as the a in faht). Once, on social media, I even used it in that wonderfully succinct compliment/comment assonant phrase of the past few years, Dat ass. The young people I’m friends with online—former students, many of them—laughed and laughed at that, the word a bridge, again, between past and present, between old and young, between people often too far apart.

 

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