Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

In Praise of the Inappropriate

There’s an art to saying the wrong thing at the right time. And the older I get, the more I think there’s a gene that causes it. If there is, I know this: it’s passed on the mother’s side.

My maternal grandmother, Gert, was a master of the art of the inappropriate comment. With me, a cherished grandson, she was a sweetheart. With my mom, she was … less sweet. She could take her apart with a sentence. A phrase. A word.

I remember when Gert was in the hospital near the end of her life. She flirted shamelessly with the male nurses (she’d survived two husbands by then). One time, when the nurse came around, she asked him, “How’s my … oh, I forget the word … vagina?”

My mom practically leapt out of her skin. “Angina!” she yelled. “Angina!”

Wrong thing. Right time.

My mom has the same gift. She’s always known how to cut right to the heart of things. There was my ninth grade girlfriend who’s name she refused to learn, instead calling her “the slut.”

Thing is, mom was right. She was a slut. That’s why I was dating her. I just couldn’t see it back then. Now, I can’t even remember what her name really was.

Right thing. Wrong time.

Then there’s me. I know I’ve got the same love of social inappropriateness. Just ask anybody I’ve ever worked for.

It’s that love of saying the right thing at the wrong time that led me to write songs as a teenager. It led me into journalism to speak truth to power. It led me to photography to capture the world as I saw it.

I’ve said the wrong thing at the wrong time too many times to count. But I’m glad I’ve got the gene. Because it pushes me to do more. To value honesty. And to get a kick out of ruffling a few feathers now and again.

Gert would have written one hell of a blog.

Thing is, as I’ve gotten older and done things like start companies, found magazines, and lead communities, I’ve had to learn another art, and it’s one I don’t quite have the gene for. It’s the art of the kind lie. The gentle nudge. The calm, pleasing tone of voice.

Because the truth is, occasionally inappropriate people can come up with crazy ideas that just might work. Constantly inappropriate people are just crazy.

I guess, like all things, it’s about balance, moderation, and in my case, lots of smiling to myself as I think about what Gert would have said, what my mom might say, and then making a choice about what I have to say, genes be damned.

Plus, I’ll just save the real zingers for special occasions.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.