Lately I have been thinking about how I tend to separate myself from things that make me uncomfortable by prefacing them with the word “the.” I don’t know why I do it, or when I made the decision to use this three-letter preface, but I did.
One day I’m referring to the puppy by his cute little name, the next I am referring to him as “the dog” that just wet on the rug. The same thing happened with Wayne who lives next door. One day I’m joking around telling everyone how I just saw Wayne getting his morning newspaper in his housecoat, the next I’m saying “the neighbor guy just flashed me again.” When did my in-laws become “the in-laws?” This one really stumps me. Perhaps it was right around the time they both decided to describe their bunion surgery at the dinner table.
Dr. Philips, who gives me my annual physical exam, is now “the doctor.” Rosie, the lady I caught wearing my wife’s slippers, is now “the housekeeper.” Sylvia, who won’t let you into the elementary school without your photo I.D., is “the front desk lady.” And the list goes on. Regardless of timing, I am convinced that utilizing the word “the” as a preface somehow subconsciously distances us from situations or things that we would prefer to avoid. “The” is a little word, but when it is used as a preface, its subtle power speaks volumes. Figuratively speaking, “the” provides a healthy 5 to 6 foot barrier against awkward situations that is actually quite comforting when we need it most.
My impulse to use “the” as a buffer is not something I was trained to do. In fact, my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Johnson went out of her way to avoid using prefaces. Mrs. Johnson would proudly enunciate each child’s name repeatedly as if she was auditioning for a lead role on Sesame Street. “Billy, watch the way Jeffrey and Suzy pick up the blocks. Mrs. Johnson likes the way Jeffrey and Suzy pick up the blocks.” I took Mrs. Johnson’s techniques to heart and vowed to model her behavior. My one and only attempt at modeling her technique happened 22 years later during my first week of marriage. I proudly announced to my wife, “Tammy, watch the way Jeffrey folds his socks. Mrs. Johnson likes Jeffrey’s socks folded this way.” After clarifying who Mrs. Johnson was and agreeing to refrain from discussing Mrs. Johnson ever again, I became “the husband” and realized that sock folding would remain one of my duties despite my marital status.
I have found that I tend to use “the” as a preface when I am under distress, accused of a misdemeanor or caught red handed doing something inappropriate. When I say “inappropriate,” I am talking about removing a mattress tag or refilling a soda without purchasing one of those non-dishwasher safe refillable cups. Distress also causes me to preface mysterious authority figures that no one has ever seen. For example, during a recent visit to the neighborhood burger joint, the manager observed me filling up my 44 ounce soda for the sixth time. In my free hand, I gripped the tag I had just absent-mindedly torn from the restaurants’ booth cushion. “The manager” approached me. In this situation, I can say without hesitation that blaming my behavior on “the man” is an ineffective strategy with the average fast food manager and generally results in a 69 cent refill charge.
One of the big downers about using “the” as a social shield is that it tends to inhibit building strong relationships with those on the other side – especially if it is used right in front of them or within earshot. For example – and I may be going out on a limb here – but announcing that “the dude working out next to me failed to clean the bench with the self-serve sanitary sweat removal wipes” while he is still standing right next to me is not exactly the Arnold Schwarzenegger of strong relationship building techniques. Perhaps using “the dude” instead of the fellow’s actual name generated a negative connotation about whatever I was about to say next. On the other hand, maybe it was just the overall awkwardness of a fifty-year-old man using the word “dude”. Either way, it ended badly.
In actuality, I realize that I am probably a novice when it comes to the art of preface using. I know there are those preface users who “boldly go where no man has gone before,” and I am in awe. Compared to these “deep space” type preface users, I am a mere child waiting in line at the carnival to ride the “lunar launcher,” which everyone knows is really only a modified teacup but still costs eight tickets to ride.
“Preface Cosmonauts” have the ability to unleash the power of “the” by combining it with a witty label, which takes the preface thing to a whole new level. These guys refer to family members as “the old man,” “the ball and chain,” or “the rug rats.” I envision a whole bunch of these guys floating around in the international space station drinking Tang and bouncing preface labels off each other… “Hey, Ivan, how ‘bout this one?”
I have come to terms with the fact that I may never experience “deep space.” I may have to accept that my competency as a preface user may never exceed mediocrity. The realization of this potential achievement cap is unacceptable. Perhaps I should shift my energies to the alternative. Perhaps I should abandon all attempts to preface and instead dig deep and face distressing situations or awkward situations without reaching for that three-letter buffer. Perhaps “my space” will be just “as deep” when I master the personalization that every living thing deserves… perhaps.Three Letter Word