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It’s Like, the Most Important Word Ever

The cluster of freckles lightly powdering her cheeks made me hyper-aware of the gaggle of zits spattered across mine. So, subscribing to the theory that Amanda couldn’t see my face if I couldn’t see hers, I spent the majority of our conversation speaking to my shoelaces. Dirty and frayed and Nike, they were as loosely tied as the awkward connection of sentences spilling from my mouth. I knew what I wanted to say to my 12-year-old crush, but actually getting there was a major pain in the ass.

I knew that Amanda liked me; that much I surmised after my super stealth mission on AOL the week before. Employing a trick I had used on girls in the past, I IM’d Amanda using my alternative screen name. She THOUGHT she was talking to Kevin, a mysterious new boy who just moved to town from Idaho, but she was REALLY talking to Eric A. Kester, that sneaky genius!

NewKevOnTheBlock: ya, i like it here so far. still trying 2 find some awesome new friends who are wicked good at sports and also hilarious…i’ve heard some good things about this Eric dude. what do you think of him? on a scale of 1-10 plz.

Manders85: eric kester? ya, he’s great.

NewKevOnTheBlock: 1-10 plz.

NewKevOnTheBlock: ???

Manders85: oh jeez…i dunno. 8 I guess?

NewKevOnTheBlock: k thx bye

NewKevOnTheBlock has signed off.

It was some real Encyclopedia Brown type shit. Unfortunately, my bravado abandoned me now that I was sitting on the park bench next to Manders85, our legs almost touching but not quite. We were in the final moments of what I was pretty sure was an actual date, which in the 6th-grade meant getting ice cream and talking about Third Eye Blind. I wasn’t thrilled with how things had been going to this point –I promised myself not to brag about my baseball cards, and here I was now demonstrating the way Ken Griffey Jr. wore his hat in his rookie card. I began to move on to Cal Ripken’s rookie card when suddenly Amanda grabbed my ice cream cone, and with her gaze locked upon my disbelieving eyes, she took a lick of my mint chocolate chip. Though I was only twelve, I had a decent understanding of how sex worked, and I was pretty sure we just had it.

“Amanda…you’re cool.” Not the most eloquent comment, I realize, but I needed a topic sentence before diving into my thesis. “I…I like you.”

“I know.” This was said with the same indifference as when I told her “I like baseball cards” a couple minutes prior, but that was okay. I wasn’t expecting a big reaction yet. At this point I was merely plucking at her heartstrings lightly, a maestro of romance delicately crafting a crescendo leading up to my grand finale. “That’s not all…” I leaned forward in my seat, elbows resting on knees, and tilted my head up, my gaze and words now hanging onto the horizon, summoning the dramatic power of Beyond.

Silence. A drip of melted ice cream. A deep breath.

“Amanda, I like like you.”

It was the #1 news story of the week, even ahead of Timmy Thompson, who had accidently whipped off his bathing suit doing a front flip at Heritage Pool. That was awesome, my friends uniformly agreed, but this was even awesomer. Eric had dropped the double-L bomb on Amanda Howard, a real live girl.

Like like.” This little alliteration, or consonance, or anaphora, or whatever rhetorical device you want use to impress hair-bunned English majors, was what the middle school dating scene was built around. You could simply “like” a girl, of course, but that affection was prosaic, no different than “liking” your mom’s lasagna. But if you like liked a girl…well then, that shit was real. Like liking a girl was a huge deal, an overt admission that maybe your childhood declaration of “girls = jerkheads” was a bit premature. Like liking was Step One of your metamorphoses from child to adolescent to sexually aware teenager, and it meant that soon getting “cooties” would involve a trip to the urologist. Most importantly, it meant that you were more relevant and interesting than Timmy Thompson’s wiener. Of course, we didn’t understand that this little phrase contained a double dose of a magical word whose multifaceted meaning would carry more weight than any other letter combination of our young lives. We had no idea that “Like” would become the one word that most singularly defines our generation.

****

My 4th-grade teacher, Mrs. Finney, hated the word “like.” Along with “stuff,” and “kind of,” “like” fell under the genus of “fuzzy words.” I recall my panic when she first told us this, because up to that point whenever my parents’ friends asked me about myself, my go-to move was to tell my shoelaces that “I kind of like stuff.” But I wasn’t the only person who latched onto this word. For kids and adolescents, “Like” was the most popular word in school. He was the first word picked at recess, he gave wedgies to Thus, and he hung out with Cool, smoking cigarettes under the bleachers. The thing is, we only loved “Like” because we didn’t really have a choice. When attempting to express affection for something, we would reach deep into our lexicon, and “Like” was all we found.

Despite our laconic expressions, there were complex feelings stirring behind our various affections. These emotions were blurry and distorted, but still slightly perceptible, like those adult cable channels we didn’t subscribe to. Frustratingly, these ineffable feelings degenerated on their trip from mind to lips, before ultimately excreted as a single, four-letter word. We desperately wanted to express these underlying emotions –somehow they seemed so crucial to our identity, to really understanding us –but “I like ______” was our only way of communicating elaborate feelings that were still fuzzy in our developing minds. A profound endearment, for instance, like the joy of collecting cardboard memories of summer soaked moments with Dad, was simply converted into “I like baseball cards.” And how can a kid possibly sum up the overwhelming joy of a roller-coastered, cotton-candied, mind-blowing carnival? This poor kid didn’t stand a chance:

And if we really liked something (or someone, in most cases) all we could do was double that magic word, like popping in a second piece of gum for an extra blast of flavor. I was aware of “love” when I was twelve, of course, but Third Eye Blind told me that love is “feeling like I could die, and that would be alright.” Dying wasn’t high on my list of things that were “alright,” so I knew I didn’t love Amanda. But I did know that thinking about her freckles, about her cute lady bug rain boots, about the way she giggled at my unfunny jokes, twisted my stomach into knots –a strangely wonderful feeling in my belly that couldn’t be replicated even by my mom’s famous lasagna. But I didn’t have the eloquence, confidence, or introspection to express these advanced feelings to Amanda. So like thousands of smitten middle schoolers, I turned to Old Reliable and asked him to work a double shift.

****

Like trans fat and birthday parties, the word “like” will always be something that kids love and adults hate. Parents everywhere would cringe when we somehow used the word “like” five times in a single sentence about passing the milk. It was like, we couldn’t like, speak expressively or something. In these instances we used our favorite word entirely differently than the “I like baseball cards” sense, but ultimately its purpose was the same: to substitute for the indescribable. Here we used “like” as a placeholder for where we knew more descriptive thoughts should be. But this wasn’t just a matter of limited vocabulary. It was a matter of not having the ability to truly know ourselves, recognize deeper feelings, process them into words, and then communicate our essence. It was like, so annoying.

Though adults couldn’t grasp our vague, like-centric language, our peers certainly could, and Amanda sat in stunned silence as the second “like” fluttered from my lips and through the park. It was a bold move, I knew, but thanks to my Internet espionage, it was a move I was confident would pay off. It better pay off…her mom was supposed to drive me home later.

Amanda was taking her time to respond, probably deciding whether we should make out now or later. Finally, she spoke.

“Eric, I like…

……..

……..

don’t like like you.”

In this case the vagueness of “like” was probably a good thing. My fragile heart was spared the probable explanations behind the rejection: that my cracking voice was sometimes higher than hers, that my black and orange Halloween braces weren’t the “chick magnet” my orthodontist claimed they’d be, that it was a bad move making Amanda pay for her own ice cream cone.

As my generation moved onto high school and college, our dependence on that fuzzy word “like” waned. Many of us found Love. Most of us discovered ourselves. We found new words and phrases to reflect who we are more precisely. But this past year “like” has made a major resurgence, returning to our vernacular with quite a splash. “Like” is a little different now –he’s got a new haircut to go along with a fancy new job –but we’ve embraced our old friend like we never abandoned him to begin with. I’m talking about, of course, the Facebook “Like” button.

When the “Like” button first appeared on Facebook, users employed it exclusively as a way to support and congratulate their friends. I saw a picture of my buddy Gary crushing a two-story beer funnel, so I clicked “Like.” Gary, here’s the fist pound you would’ve gotten had I actually been there. When I saw that Timmy Thompson had changed his status to “In a Relationship,” I and 24 others immediately click “Like,” because it’s a borderline miracle that Timmy “Small Johnson” Thompson got a girl to date him.

Soon the Like button spread outside of Facebook, nestling itself into exactly 3.2 kajillion websites. You can “Like” pretty much anything now. Over 200,000 people “Like” “I Like Turtles.” 469 (presumably lonely) guys “Like” YouPorn.com. Zero people “Like” this article, but that will change once my parents learn how to use Facebook. Profiles and newsfeeds are now inundated with things that you and your friends “Like.” We’re obsessed with labeling anything and everything with our personal stamp of approval. When I logged onto Facebook after Osama Bin Laden was killed, the “Top News” in my newsfeed was “Alex Merchant likes Rocky Road Ice Cream.” So why do we feel so compelled to “Like” things on Facebook, compulsively clicking that little button like we’re thumbs up junkies? Why does Alex want 600 people to know that he’s a fan of Rocky Road? It’s because, once again, we have no choice but to have “Like” portray the ineffable and lend some definition to our identity.

In the age of social media, we are increasingly defined by our Facebook profile. The average young adult will have hundreds of Facebook “friends,” but most people consistently hang out with only a few dozen friends. So while you build actual relationships with these friends, the remainder (and vast majority) of your Facebook community is left to analyze and “know” you through nothing but your profile. It’s a scary thought, knowing you’re being judged and “understood” by such bite-sized nuggets of media –a few picture albums, a relationship status, maybe some 140 character tweets. We know that there’s so much more depth to us than can be seen through a two-dimensional profile picture, but how can we possibly show it? You’re not going to go online and type out 2,000 word essays about your thoughts and opinions. Only freaks do that. Instead, you tell us what you Like, because everything you Like is a small reflection of who you are. Alex “Liking” Rocky Road isn’t exactly a window into his soul, but it’s a puzzle piece that gives me a slightly better understanding of his whole. It’s by no means a perfect system (Facebook won’t let me click “Like” twice on Amanda’s profile picture), but it’s an effective way to add some scraps of identity to people who do, in fact, exist outside their Facebook page.

So too all my nebulous Facebook friends: please keep Liking. I’ll take any piece of information that may give me a sense of what you’re really like.

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