Awesome!

At 40 years old, I have become the thing I use to fear and loathe the most. I have become the kind of person who uses the word “awesome”. After years of meticulous aversion, I have become a person who says “awesome” as part of an otherwise complete sentence. Worse, I have become a person who uses the word “awesome” as a complete sentence entirely unto itself. Lately, I find myself casually tossing the word around as in “Thanks. That would be awesome.” Or, “Wow! You are so awesome.” Or, “Nice work. Awesome job!”

The trouble with awesome is it often travels with an exclamation point which is the lowest, most debased form of punctuation. As a child of the ’80’s, awesome began as a mongrel, flabby adjective. I didn’t grow up in the Valley where everything was sweet, fresh and occasionally bitchin’. Awesomeness was everywhere. It was a way of showing vague appreciation or enthusiasm at arms length, without any commitment or ownership.

And then, sometime in the mid ’90’s church people adopted the awesomeness and spoke of God and God’s love and fellowship in the same tone they used to describe grandma’s mashed potatoes. All of it was awesome.

And this, I think, is the problem I have developed with awesomeness. We throw it around casually. We use the word sometimes ironically, sometimes with great sincerity and it is impossible to tell which is which. The word has become nondescript. It says and means exactly nothing. Everything we like or enjoy or approve of gets swallowed up by awesomeness and we no longer draw meaningful lines of comparison between an awesome book, an awesome piece of cake and an awesome haircut.

And here’s the problem. Awesome actually means “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear;causing or inducing awe”. (See for yourself.) True awesomeness involves sublimation of the self into a greater experience of being that negates one’s own distinction between self and other. I have never eaten mashed potatoes that were that kind of awesome. Have you?

For 40 years, I protected myself with a rigorous, grammatical hygiene. I sneered at the Awesomers. I mocked them behind their backs. I allowed myself to believe myself superior, impervious to their awesome banter, their overwhelming enthusiasm, reverence, admiration and fear. And then I became a father and then my daughter became a 7 year old in second grade and she brought the word into my house. She carried it under the firewall and propagated it in our conversation. For her and her friends, everything was awesome. I tried to explain to them that My Little Pony’s Princess Celestia was truly an inspiring and admirable character. That the story was well-told and the animation quite accomplished, but that none of them, having watched an episode of My Little Pony, had found themselves sublimated with terrible reverence and personality crippling appreciation. It was no matter to them.

It was, I can see now, only a matter of time. A simple feat of repetition. It would only take a hundred, maybe a thousand, perhaps ten thousand awesomes before I began to adopt this world view. And now, I find awesomeness salting my daily conversations. It is a thing I say when I agree with someone. It is a thing I say when a conversation comes to a close. It is a thing I say when there is nothing left to say.

I tell myself I am using the word ironically but I’m not that kind of hipster. I adopt the words I use with my entire heart. And if, the word awesome is too grandiose to apply to a bag of kettle-baked jalapeno potato chips, I no longer fault the word or the people like me who use it. I merely adjust my estimation of how well-baked and salted those chips are. How terrifyingly delicious and personality-smashing those potato chips can be.

It is, I find, at 40, much easier to adjust my perceptions and experiences of the world than to bother reaching for the right word that says precisely what is needed. Much better not to persist in the fight against bloviation and rhetorical sclerosis.

And I am so much happier now that everything and everyone is awesome all the time. I no longer trouble myself remembering all those other pesky adjectives that once intimated lesser shades of goodness.

Everything is awesome now, and I am grateful it only took me 40 years to figure it out and embrace the language of absolute perfection.

The truth about profanity

I got stung by a yellow-jacket about an hour ago. It hurt. I cursed. I used a few of those words you want people to believe you only keep for really awful special occasions. I used them loudly. I used them repeatedly.

This is not a new thing for my neighbors to hear. I curse when I build things. I curse when I get impatient. I curse when I lose things.

I don’t curse a lot but when I curse, I curse with gusto.

I was raised to believe in the forbidden power of Bad Words. I grew up carrying around the vague notion that Bad Words had magic powers and could send you directly to heck. I had a terrible time keeping up with which words were Bad. All the usual culprits were on the list (for the complete list see George Carlin). Words like crap, dang and hell occupied an undefined status. They could get me in trouble but definitely weren’t as bad as the baddest Bad Words. I once got in trouble with my Sunday School teacher for saying “holy cow”. She asked if I had ever actually seen a cow that was holy. At the time, I wasn’t versed enough in world religions to offer the Hindu perspective.

As a lover of words, the idea that some words are forbidden for no specific reason was frustrating. I was baffled by the general confusion surrounding which specific words I was being protected from.

Shit and crap is bad. Doo-doo, poop and feces are fine. I don’t know about you, but, to me, the later are more embarrassing than the former.

I’m thinking about this because I have a five year old daughter who listens to everything I say and likes to try out novel expressions in various situations. My wife and I are intentionally raising a child who loves language. We rarely use the same adjective twice. We play rhyming games. Emersey invents elaborate song lyrics with complex internal rhyme schemes. She starts kindergarten in August and already routinely uses words like “extraordinary”, “magnificent” and “inconvenient”. We talk about feelings a lot. She knows the difference between sad, irritated, agitated and gloomy.

All of this is to say I hate the idea of forbidden Bad Words. I can’t bring myself to chastise her for an occasional dammit or hell in the appropriate context. This is going to be a major problem for me because we are not just raising a kid to value the wonder of language. We are raising a kid who has to function well in polite society. I don’t want to raise a vulgar potty mouth. Not because I believe Those Words are bad but because I believe that the indiscrete overuse of Those Words reflects poor command of language and shows an inability to reach for richer, more effective words when the situation requires.

In short, I hope to raise a daughter who understands that there are no Bad Words but there are certainly Bad Uses. A word in itself cannot be bad, but it can be unwisely used and carry unintended side effects along with it. The purpose of words is to be understood. People judge us by the words we use. If they are well-impressed with our verbal toolkit, they are more willing to believe we are intelligent and treat us accordingly. If they find our toolkit lacking, they expect the opposite.

I’m not yet sure how I will handle this explanation when a kindergarten teacher wants to have a conversation about my daughter’s occasional use of the word “damn”. Did she use it appropriately? Did the word suite the context in which it was used? Would another word have more effectively conveyed her intended message? These are questions I suspect most kindergarten teachers will not enjoy. After a year of this, I may find myself resorting to the Bad Words list out of a sense of convenience more than anything else.

Until then, I feel completely justified polluting the neighborhood a bit with a few expletives when stung by a yellow-jacket, building a swing set or looking for my car keys. But I really must remember to be more creative and precise in my cursing. Good parenting is modeling desired behaviors. I want my daughter to invent new swear words that dig at the meat of the moment and get underneath the skin of the situation in a way that the typical everyday Bad Words just can’t.