This Is Us

In My Fifties, I’m Finally Learning to Say ‘F*ck You’

How midlife loosened my tongue

Middle finger up in the middle of a field.
Middle finger up in the middle of a field.
Photo: Gwendal Cottin/Unsplash

When I flipped off the speeding truck, I knew things had changed. Sending a hearty “fuck you” to a stranger was a thing I had almost never considered before, but in the moment, it seemed oddly, perfectly natural. I briefly reconsidered the wisdom of this change when he doubled back. And then I did it again.

Walking on my quiet country road in upstate New York, as I do every day, a jumped-up pickup with a tiny red-hat boy at the wheel came roaring down the road at an unreasonable speed. Frightening, aggressive speed. When he rounded the corner and saw me on the side of the road, he floored it. It scared me, but it also enraged me beyond caring for the fear. Just as he passed, the massive and menacing truck feet from my body, I shot my middle finger high up in the air, thrusting it in his direction with my best angry face and what felt like power. I was shaking, but it felt fabulous, like triumph. Reclaiming my space.

I heard his loud engine slow and stop at the far end of the road. Then it started up again, hurtling back in my direction. He was rounding on me, in his dirty, muscled gray truck. He looked to be younger than any of my kids and smaller than all of us. But he was armored in his noisy vehicle, empowered to terrorize a middle-aged woman out for a walk on her quiet country road. I actually thought, “What would his mother think? Would he treat her this way?” Then I realized, of course he would. He’s mentored by a culture that tells him he is in charge because of his gender and his race, and he can behave any ugly way he’d like. Swagger and bluster, slash and burn. Such a tired, old story.

As he came screaming back in my direction, pumping up his speed at regular intervals in a menacing display of power, I felt a new wave of fear. Terror, even. What was I playing at; who did I think I was? Me, on foot, without weapons save a stream of words and a finger against a rage boy in a big, loud machine. He had the advantage, for sure, though it wasn’t right. It wasn’t respectful or neighborly, and it laid bare the ugly core of our national shame. I felt my anger rising again as this incident felt like a metaphor for so much. He was bearing down on me fast. I was shaking.

As he swept past me again, gunning his engine even more, just feet away, I threw both of my middle fingers in the air, holding them high above my head as he receded in the distance. I wanted to be sure he saw that I had also doubled down. I would not be bullied. The little asshole.

Again, the engine slowed and stopped. I could hear its idling threat at the end of my short road. My righteous indignation vanished and was replaced by pure quaking fear with a healthy side of regret. What exactly was I doing? This was not a game. I turned and started walking quickly for home, which was not far. “Maybe I can make it,” I foolishly thought. “Maybe I’ll beat him. But then he’ll know where I live! He probably already knows; everyone knows everything out here. Shit, Lisa, now you decide to be a tough chick?” Still, the thunderous idle a quarter-mile away, me race-walking home. Then, a tiny red car appeared, heading my way. My husband, home from the grocery. Home to save me from my folly, the public debut of my midlife rage. He escorted me back, and the truck, thankfully, didn’t return. The change was complete, and no one was more surprised than me. I’m leaning hard into it.

I have rarely unfurled the “fuck you” finger in a long life. Once or twice at road ragers from the safety of my car. And probably a few times at my husband. I regret that second bit; he probably deserved it, but it wasn’t nice, and I’m sure it made nothing better. I’ve never been particularly mouthy, and though it didn’t often feel right on the inside, I have been pretty measured on the outside. My grandmother’s favorite expletive was “sugar,” and “hell’s bells” was the extent of my mother’s swearing. There wasn’t much profanity in my life until I married a New Yorker, who will say things like, “These are some good fucking potatoes.” I also once heard him say, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck.” It was directed at a particularly nasty guy in a Lower East Side parking lot and was jarring, but I learned to live with it. He calls it “dialect” and “colloquial,” and it comes easy and natural to him. Sometimes it’s funny (and sometimes it works).

My fifties — headlined by a perimenopausal chapter straight from the bowels of hell — have coincided with ramped-up misogyny in the halls of power, the #MeToo campaign, and a global lockdown. Night sweats, madness, and dizzy spells with a backdrop of Brett Kavanaugh, Harvey Weinstein, and the big orange mistake. Midlife panic with a side of protests and pandemic. It’s been a wild ride, with rage and sadness and confusion mingling with hormones to create a new me. Or, more accurately, to reveal a distilled version of me with all the old shit swept away. I truly have no fucks left to give. Or perhaps I have a whole new crop of fresh fucks to give, and I’m passing them out like Santa with candy on a fire truck.

The world has been particularly ugly these last few years, and I’ve walked through a midlife hell with nothing but a hand fan and a seltzer.

The older I get, the mouthier I get. It’s a delicious development (for me). I’m not just comfortable with my new foul mouth, I’m positively transformed by the therapeutic properties of language. There is real release in telling it like it is with all the color and bite. The world has been particularly ugly these last few years, and I’ve walked through a midlife hell with nothing but a hand fan and a seltzer. A few well-placed “fuck you”s can be a balm for the burn. I’m sorry — or, rather, I’m not a bit fucking sorry anymore because that’s what this is all about — but the world is burning, and at my age, the patience and the politesse are gone. I’m fresh out of any performed tolerance.

Here in the rough middle, I care much less what anyone thinks. I suffer fools less gladly, if at all. I am getting in touch with my rage at a particularly ragey moment for women, and a lot of it is coming out of my mouth. I keep it all pretty close to home — I haven’t, for instance, told my leering neighbor exactly what I think of him — and the family is entertained. My profane husband is happy for the company, though at times he seems more than a little worried about where this new trend might lead, wincing as my anger rises and the obscenities fly. Recently, I spent a lot of time assisting my aging and injured father, and he was astonished at my colorful blue streaks. We commiserate regularly about politics and difficult family members, and I feel finally liberated by my ability to speak candidly about these things that make me so angry. “Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth!” he said of my young, demure self. “What’s happened to my daughter?”

I’d like to think that all those years of measured, profanity-free communication were an exercise in restraint. An attempt at control. An example of polite, respectful behavior that I was setting for my kids. When they were young, my husband and I argued about his fondness for expletives; me taking the side of language and power, him the side of “just words.” I maintained — and still believe — that there is great power in language and that we must use it carefully. But I’m surprised and delighted to find myself a convert. The power in cursing may be in its therapy, its catharsis. Get it all up and out.

Besides, when my quarantined-at-home college-student daughter lets fly a “fuck” over a dropped spoon, it’s clear I’ve lost any earlier battles, no matter how ill-conceived. When in Rome.

I’m blessed to have come to my salty mouth in these angry times. Bad words seem to be having a moment, and I’m in great company. Emma Byrne’s recent Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language and Benjamin K. Bergen’s What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves both support the sport of swearing. Scientists and linguists seem to agree that there is therapy and humor, history and humanity in the art of profanity. Sarah Knight has built a thriving career on the sturdy back of the four-letter word with her No F*cks Given Guides. Saying the unsayable, breaking down a few tiny barriers of “polite” society, gives one a sense of agency. Plus, it’s fun.

I was eight years old in 1972 when George Carlin performed his infamous “seven dirty words” bit. It probably took a few years, given my age and the lack of internet, to become part of my consciousness, but it did.

Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.

These were the dirty words, the dirtiest according to Carlin, and it was clear to my child self that I must never say them. My father said a few of them, sometimes, and I idolized him. I heard some of them in the music I loved. But my mother never, ever uttered any of them, and it was an unspoken expectation that this was my future. She was my example of womanhood, and we did not speak filth. It wasn’t “ladylike.”

The times, as they do, have changed.

I now use almost all of those words and am comfortably conversant in most filth in my middle age. It has broadened my vocabulary and my ability to express myself with appropriate emotion. The first three come up almost daily now, but I trip on the fourth. It’s why I’m referring to it as “the fourth” and why I will not write it again here. The “c” word. My best friend charged her college roommates a quarter for every time it was used, and we still call it the “25-cent word.” I can’t make friends with this word; there’s something violent and gendered about it that seems loaded with menace. It’s a word that wants to be spat out, a weapon thrown at another. My British friends assure me that it’s not nearly as loaded in the U.K., but my understanding is that it’s used there almost exclusively to refer to men. It causes an internal wince when I hear it. I know it’s just a word, but its power is like poison in the mouth.

We must rage at a raging world sometimes, or we feel powerless.

I find “dick” to be a much more effective word, and it didn’t even make Carlin’s list. I’ve known a few guys named Dick, and they seemed fine, but I felt bad for them. Using the word “dick” to describe someone is clear and incisive. No one likes a dick, and everyone knows to avoid them, but I’m sure plenty of people love guys named Dick.

“Motherfucker” is also a word that causes me some discomfort. I think it’s because of the mother part. I’m a mother, I love my mother — why must name-calling implicate the mother? I’m all for naming the fuckers, but let’s leave the mother out of it. “Fucker” does the job nicely, and I don’t hesitate to use it when appropriate. For instance, my meddlesome neighbor is a stupid fucker. I prefer “fucking asshole” for him, though. It captures his essence more effectively.

I am finally discovering the joy in bad words. I love saying, and writing, things like “fuckall” and “fuckery.” “What the actual fuck?” is an odd thing I find myself saying. The fuck sandwich is satisfying, as in “absofuckinglutely” or “fanfuckingtastic.” And, of course, “fuck” and “dick” can be combined with many words to put a finer point on your message: “fuckface,” “dickhead,” “clusterfuck,” etc. I’m a babe in the woods of creative cursing but am taking to it with gusto. The possibilities are endless and delightful, and I have new ways of saying almost everything. Just this morning, I said, “There’s a panfuckingdemic!” in response to a question about socializing. In the midst of a recent political rant, I said, “They’re just kissing the asses of the assholes.” I need practice. I’m sure I sound ridiculous, like a tween posturing at summer camp, but I don’t care. Caution has been thrown, and I’m a new, mouthy woman. The bad words are so very good.

It must be noted that I don’t generally hurl filth at others. I’m not a name-caller and have maintained a modicum of my learned social graces. My neighbor may be a fucking asshole, but I’ve never told him that and am not likely to. I smile and wave or thank him for whatever weaponized kindness he’s peddling. But standing on my porch watching him toss another wild animal corpse into the woods, I will tell anyone in the room exactly what I think with color and verve. It’s not pretty, but neither is he.

Somehow, those social graces fell by the wayside when my fingers flew up over my head at the reckless driver. I can’t imagine actually saying “fuck you” to that boy’s face, but that’s just what I did with my fingers. “Fuck you. He deserved it. It felt great in the moment; it felt like the correct and righteous thing. I hope I’d do it again if in the same terrorized position. I have new, albeit small, weapons in my arsenal. It’s like imaginary armor. Obviously, a word won’t protect me from anything, but my ability to wield it with conviction may give pause to the bullies. And, at the very least, it’s cathartic.

We must rage at a raging world sometimes, or we feel powerless. The brutes don’t always get the last word, I hope. Perhaps if the quiet among us rise up and say, “Enough,” with uncharacteristic vulgarity, the reckless will pay attention. After my triumphant gesture, I half expected to find my mailbox smashed or some dog shit on my front porch. So far, there’s been no trouble. That stupid fucking truck still roars up and down my road every day, an obnoxious local, but nothing seems worse for my display. And I’m decidedly better.

Don’t tell my mother.

Write it down.

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