After an exhausting day of removing paneling in the new room to our house, in order to install bats and bats of insulation, we called the Public Service Company of New Mexico for an energy audit.
Back around 1980, PNM reps were happy to visit your home and advise you on whether the energy savings wrought by the new insulation would offset the costs of the materials.
But that’s as far as we got. The PNM representative, I think, felt intimidated by us. Here’s why:
He seemed quite impressed that my teenage sons and I were able to insulate a large room all by ourselves. So naturally, he asked, “Did you put all that insulation on yourselves?”
I answered, “Oh no! We put all of it on the HOUSE.” Stan, 16, the oldest, and at the age in which every dad is deemed idiotic, grimaced at my wise-a__ remark. Irritated, he itched to say something. Clearly, we all understood the PNM person was asking whether we OURSELVES had installed the insulation, or whether we had done it BY ourselves.
The reflexive pronoun, one which ends in “ -self,” does wonders for the language. Pronouns save people the trouble of repeating nouns. If there weren’t pronouns, it would be awkward to render the following: “Joan shaved her legs, washed her face and wrapped herself in a towel.”
Without pronouns: “Joan shaved Joan’s legs, washed Joan’s face and wrapped Joan in a towel.”
As useful as reflexives are, they can be misleading, depending on whether or how they’re emphasized. But back to my grimace-wearing, disapproval-giving, arms akimbo-standing, glare-delivering, proper-seeming, grammar-correcting son:
Because I had grown accustomed to being regarded with opprobrium, I didn’t bring up my playing with the language for a while, at least not in front of Stan.
I didn’t until, until . . . I overheard Stan baiting a classmate, Patrick, with his (Stan’s) mechanical skill. He’d installed a clutch in his car, and kept bragging to Patrick that he performed the job without the help of a trained mechanic. He kept feeding Patrick verbal cues, which he either failed to catch, or ignored.
Finally, Patrick took the bait and asked, “You mean you put the clutch in YOURSELF?” “No,” Stan answered, “I put it in the CAR.” Thereupon, Patrick chased Stan around the car several times hoping to pop him one for his arrogance.
So I learned that a teenage son never approves of parental/paternal humor, at least not in public. But just watch how the derision you get from your own teenage Catcher in the Rye becomes imitation–the sincerest form of flattery–at his convenience.
Notice how the that-joke-is-older-than-the-hills reaction becomes the oft-repeated joke on the playground.
Since I have gradually become accepted, albeit as a callow and fallow humorist among my sons, we try to set up people any time we’re eating out.
I abhor any kind of creamy salad dressing, and I like oily dressing a little, and in small amounts. That’s why I always ask for it “on the side.” Which side? The left, obviously. I’m a southpaw.
During a visit with my sons to the new Dick’s Restaurant, I made my usual request to a brand-new waiter that he bring the Italian Dressing “on the side.”
Remember, he was new on the job. He asked why. I explained I don’t like the dressing slathered on the lettuce. “Oh,” he said, as if getting my drift, “so you want me to bring the dressing so you can pour it on YOURSELF.”
That was perfect! If the waiter and I had rehearsed the lines, it couldn’t have come out better. My second son, Diego, naturally, said, “Dad, you’re gonna look funny with that dressing all over your head.”
We left the young man a nice tip, his having unwittingly played along so well.
In the early days of self-service, when it was un-lady-like to pump gasoline, a friend of mine was startled to see a woman–an actual female-woman of the opposite sex–pumping gas. His statement was, “Look, that lady’s putting gas in HERSELF.”
But you already know what my reply was.
Not only do we obsess about reflexives, we notice other uses of the language.
It’s great to hear NFL sportscasters react to a particularly good play by one of the teams. The reactions have been rare this year because the Cowboys are usually on the tube.
Once we heard an announcer say, “They came to plaaaay.”
Really? I was convinced those steroid-laden 350-pound bruisers had shown up at the stadium to display their needle-point collections and to exchange recipes.
And when a player makes a touchdown and decides to keep the ball, does he hand it over to a ball-boy who saves it in a duffle bag, or does the player put it in HIMSELF?