Fighting words 

As I drag the canoe out of its storage space, in preparation for a summer cool-down paddle on the Detroit River, I hear something rustle behind me. I turn and read, in bright green letters on shiny paper, "Warning: Parental Advisory. May contain offensive language, inflammatory ideas and bad puns. Also drinks too much coffee."

The Lizard of Fun has scrawled a large sign on the reverse side of a poster from the canceled Coolio concert and is duct-taping it to my backside.

"Hey!" I protest. "Not so tight."

"C’mon," says the Lizard. "The only way you’re going to get away with the next few hundred words is if you’ve got some kind of warning label. And since it’s practically the law in Michigan now, let’s not take any chances."

"What, there’s a law that I have to wear an expired Coolio poster over my butt?"

"No, there’s almost a law that wusses who can’t cope with the more colorful expletives of the English language should be warned that their tender ears might possibly, potentially, if they listen hard enough, be exposed to such troublesome words and phrases. Such as, oh, possibly, ‘butt.’"

"But – "

"What did I just say? Language like that got Timothy Boomer up Shit Creek, so to speak, and don’t think you’re immune just because there are no children present."

Now, the really damn impressive thing about the case of Timothy Boomer, the Roseville guy who’s getting his 15 minutes (and up to 90 days) for cussing up a storm when he fell out of a canoe last summer on the Rifle River, is not that he said the F-word a few times.

("That’d be ‘fun,’ right?" asks the Lizard. "What’s wrong with that?")

And it’s not that he managed to keep up an apparent stream of variations on the theme for – depending on which account you believe – anywhere from several to seven minutes, which is a truly astounding repertoire of obscenities. ("Wow, that’s more than three times as long as the average television news item about his case," says the Lizard.

I nod. "That’s only because they’re not allowed to quote him verbatim on TV.")

"All right, get to the point, freak girl," says the Lizard impatiently. "What’s the big incredulity of the moment?"

The most amazing part, I explain as the Lizard polishes its Souvenir of Niagara Falls canoe paddles, is not that Boomer was saying anything off-color after he fell in the river – hell, I’d say some pretty choice things too – but that above the sound of the splashing river and presumably the hysterical laughter of his boat-mates, ol’ Boomer’s voice must have boomed right into the ears of someone who’d actually take offense enough to invoke a 102-year-old law.

"Oh, yeah," says the Lizard sarcastically. "Don’t you know? They’re reviving that law. Nobody’s allowed to swear in front of women or children anymore. To enforce it, there’s a whole bunch of new river patrols – flotillas of goody-goody family-values nerds who float around and wait for annoyed boaters to utter something untoward."


"Oh, yeah," the Lizard continues. "They wanted to start with similar patrols on the freeways, but they realized they’d tie up unprecedented amounts of traffic, especially in construction season."

"Damn, that sucks," I say.

"No shit," says the Lizard. "I was gonna apply to be one of the patrols. They would’ve been riding Suzuki Hayabusa motorbikes."

"And you’d give out tickets to anyone who cursed on the freeway?"

"Hell, no. I’d just accept bribes."

Apart from a few racist, sexist or homophobic words which have grown ugly with the history of hate they invoke, there’s not much to be scared of when it comes to the sticks and stones of the English language.

"You’re forgetting the scariest word of all," says the Lizard. "Republican."

Naturally, it’d be a Republican who takes the whole question of obscenity and turns it into a question of free speech versus stupidity.

If state Sen. Dale Shugars gets his way, language such as Marilyn Manson’s "the beautiful people, the beautiful people/ it’s all relative to the size of your steeple" (and other, perhaps less rhyming, phrases) will soon come under similar rules as other stuff that’s bad for you, such as cigarettes, alcohol and automobile air bags: They’ll have to have warning labels.

Shugars, after seeing a Marilyn Manson concert ("Hey, give him points for actually attending!" says the Lizard. "Any idea what he wore?"), sponsored a bill that would require Michigan concert promoters to put parental advisory labels on concert tickets and/or advertising if the artist they’re promoting has put out a parental-advisoried recording in the past five years. It’s not law yet, but it could become one for the record books.

"So that means this warning label on you would have to have a warning label on it too" says the Lizard, pulling the Coolio poster off my back.

"Ouch! Fuck, that hurts!" I exclaim, as the duct tape rips my skin.

"Right, then," says the Lizard. "Shall I tape it onto the canoe?"

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