Keeping my mouth shut

Why I can't talk dirty, and other people get away with murder.

I got started writing this later than I meant to today because my friend's four-year-old daughter was in my room and, even though she was keeping my infant foster son from sleeping, I couldn't bring myself to risk hurting her feelings by asking her to leave.

There's a lot I can't say. Each day I walk through a veritable minefield of things I can't say.

For three-and-a-half years I've communicated with the woman who helps take care of my house and run my errands almost solely through notes like this:

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Sarah,

Please wipe off counters.

Please buy more cat food.

Please pick up package at the post office.

Thanks.

She's very well-paid and doesn't seem to mind doing these kinds of things. I've cleaned houses for a living, too, so it's not a question of any of this being beneath me. So I don't know why it's so hard to tell her stuff. A while ago she was watching the Menendez trial on my big screen in the living room and I stuck my head in and mumbled, "When you get a chance, could you please dust in here?" I still haven't recovered.

In junior high, I volunteered to lead ponies around for the pony rides at the church fair, and a pony stepped on my foot. The grass must have had some give, because it seemed less painful to bear it than to ask the pony to move.

When I was thirteen I needed a physical for basketball camp. My mother drove me to the doctor's and, mercifully, waited in the car while I went in. I sat in the waiting room for quite a while--without complaint. Finally the nurse did that trick where they call your name and put you in an exam room, as if it's really gonna be your turn soon. She even had me strip down to my underwear. I perched on the edge of the crinkly paper in cotton and lace--the perfect mark--for a long time more. I noticed the building had gotten quiet. Finally I heard footsteps, and the door opened. It was my mother and a very apologetic-looking nurse, who my mother had stopped as she was locking up to go home. The doctor had left hours ago.

I went to a doctor recently and was well on my way to repeating the same experience when, finally, all of these years of self-censorship got to me. Figuring I'd flag down a nurse and even tearfully tell her the pony story, I threw the door open and looked down the hall. There, sticking out the door of the examination room beside me was a woman nearly twice my age, doing the exact same thing. I wondered how long she had waited for her physical for basketball camp, but I couldn't possibly ask.

When I did my Saturday-night television show, I had to deal with censors, people telling me that I couldn't say things. Now, that was quite different. I was not allowed to mention brand names. One night I did something using Oreos, but I wasn't permitted to say "Oreos." I had to call them "chocolate-wafer cookies with cream filling." When we broke for commercials I needed to say "Oreos" really loud over and over again just to get it out of my system.

On another show I was told I couldn't say something to a dog that included, "There's nothing low maintenance about following you around with a plastic bag and a paper towel." I wanted to interview the censor for this article, but I thought my questions might hurt her feelings.

I was flipping channels in a hotel room once and saw a few minutes of The Godfather on TV. When they got to the part, just before the horse-head scene, where Robert Duvall is arguing with the movie producer guy, they changed the dialogue for the sake of television. Instead of saying, "She was the best piece of ass I ever had and I've had it all over the world," the producer had "piece of stuff" dubbed in. His lips clearly said "ass." A few scenes later, James Caan was blown to bits at the tollbooth, and it appeared that not a single frame was altered. Even the staunchest born-again Christian would have to agree, I think, that from an assailant in a dark alley the words, "Give me your wallet before I say 'ass,'" would be a welcome relief compared to "Give me your wallet before I blow your brains out."

Doesn't it seem odd to you that we are protected from curse words but not from the violent images that do us real harm? You know that eventually they'll show Clint Eastwood's stupid Unforgiven on TV. I'd rather see Unfucking Forgiven, which is about a guy who decides not to say "fuck" anymore, but gets sucked back into the use of foul language by a group of vigilantes and eventually says "fuck" repeatedly to Gene Hackman, who thinks it's unfair because he's building a house.

I dream of a televisionland where it will be as hard for a network to expose us to violence as it is for me to tell someone they have spinach on their teeth.

Letters to Paula

Bill Clinton, Washington, D.C.: . . . there's something to be said for just getting up and going to work every day, committed to an agenda, listening to your critics but not being overwhelmed by them . . .

A: I was so glad to get your letter that I made an enlarged photocopy, framed it, and put it on the set of my television show, where I sought solace in your advice more than once. I was getting up and going to work every day, and it was working, just like you said. Then my show got canceled. I think I need new advice now. If I get up and go to work I find someone else at my desk working on a show about a single woman with kids and guts, who may not have a lot of money, but has a lot of love and brings us a lot of laughs.

I pride myself in following your advice about not being "overwhelmed" by my critics, and I know that you're right. Still, they're showing "Matlock" reruns in my time slot. Sir, I wish you well, because only one of us need know the pain of being replaced by old "Matlocks."

Charlie Fletcher, Astoria, Oregon: I enjoyed your column on Paul Simon in the November/December issue, especially the image of Simon astride a merry-go-round zebra. What an appropriately kooky place to discuss politics. One question, though: what is funnelcake?

A: Funnelcake is fried dough sprinkled with confectioners' sugar, but not as well organized as a doughnut.

Max Heffler, Houston, Texas: I assume you are a Jewish liberal, like myself. Do you have any opinions about why Jews tend to be more liberal as a whole?

A: I am quite flattered that you view me as a liberal Jew like yourself. Although raised a conservative Methodist, I am, in fact, a liberal atheist. Many people mistake me for Irish.

Don Bain, e-mail: Why isn't there more press about the missing Soviet nuclear warheads ("fallout" from the breakup of our old nemesis)? Specifically, what is the U.S. doing to prevent them from landing in the wrong hands?

A: Arms-control experts say there is no firm evidence that weapons are missing from the former Soviet Union. But someone at my office told me she read that they sell materials from dismantled nuclear bombs here and that they are used for jewelry and barbecue covers. That's nice, huh? Try not to worry.

Dave Clark, e-mail: Whatever became of the Green Party?

A: They're still around, in more than fifty countries. Whatever happened to your band?

Rich D'Ambrosio, Denver, Colorado: Despite years of trying, my friends and I have never found the answer to this question, which is the subject of many wagers: who sings the opening theme song on the original "WKRP in Cincinnati"?

I think it's the Les Nessman character, but others disagree. Can you help?

A: In its June 6, 1992, issue, the Toronto Star says the show's producers deny that Richard Sanders (Les) sings their theme song. I think he does, because you think he does and I think whatever you think. The question is: what's in it for these producers to destroy the guy who played Les's singing career? I know I heard him doing background vocals on Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves," but I'll bet they deny it. Damn them.