Thursday, November 17, 2011

Three Little Words

"Seriously?!" exclaimed my next-door cube neighbor in disgust today. "I think developers just select words at random to use as street names. I just got a literature request from someone on Technology Forest Drive." We all laughed - cubicle walls don't really exist in our office etiquette-free environment - and she added, "Really, it could be anything. Flute Potatoes Avenue."

I didn't laugh as enthusiastically at that one, because frankly, I was kind of jealous I didn't think of it first.

We complain - or at least I do - about words being used without regard to their meaning. Yet I'm rather forcibly reminded, by a recent episode in my nineteen-year-old daughter's dating life, of how certain words have lost a great deal of the impact they used to have for me.

Katie has a new boyfriend she was very excited about a week ago, and is thinking about breaking up with now (assuming she hasn't already). A few days ago she came to me with a furrow in her young brow. "I told Jake I love him," she said, troubled. "We were at a party and I'd had a couple of drinks. But I really don't love him."

I didn't particularly see the problem, but Katie felt the need to call Jake the next day and clarify that she was, in fact, not in love with him. "Are you breaking up with me??" he asked. "Oh, no," she said, "just I don't actually love you, that's all." "Oh," he said.

Personally, I would have just let it go. Saying "I love you" to men you don't actually love, I tried to explain to my innocent young daughter, is just a normal part of the female condition, and probably male as well. You say it. You didn't really, really mean it. Worse yet, you say those tender yet insincere words to someone who responds with something awkward like "Ummmm," or a little more debonair, such as "Awwww" or "That's sweet" or "Thank you." Which is what Jake did (I believe Katie told me he is an "Ummmm" man, and I can respect that; awkwardness is not a quality I disparage in any way).

But it's funny, now that I think about it, because when I was in my teens and twenties, those three little words seemed to matter far, far too much to be uttered in vain. And that's not just a girl thing. My first serious boyfriend, my sophomore year in college, once took me to a Moody Blues concert at Zilker Park. They sang "Nights in White Satin." We clung together throughout the song and he sang along softly in my ear, and it would have been only THE MOST ROMANTIC THING THAT EVER HAPPENED ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH, except that every time the chorus got to "I love you" he switched to humming. Words meant things.

Now that I'm past 40, "I love you" doesn't seem quite so untouchable, so sacrosanct. I don't say it dishonestly, but there are so many kinds of love, aren't there? As in, I care about you - or it would be personally devastating to me to do something that would cause you significant pain - or I hate to see what you are going through right now - or I know you well enough to be truly comfortable with you, and being comfortable feels so good. I remember somewhat the fiery passion of "True Love," but it never really worked out in the end, did it? Maybe it turns out that, like every other expression of human language, "I love you" refers to some unspoken middle ground between what the speaker and the hearer believe it to mean.

So do you spend your life stressing about whether you really mean it when you say "I love you"? Or do you teach yourself contentment, and settle down with your sweetheart and your thirty-seven cats in a cottage with climbing roses and a white picket fence on Flute Potatoes Avenue?

I have no clue. I'll have Katie figure it out and get back to you on it, in about 25 years.

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