My partner, David, and I had dinner recently at Nick and Toni’s. We eat at bars; the drinks seem to come more quickly and you get the check faster and you can dine alone at a bar if you like with a magazine or a book and not be bothered by other solo diners looking to meet, or converse, or just feel less lonely.
For better or worse, with or without reading material, you often wind up talking to people to the left and right of you, whether you’re attracted to them or not. It’s kind of like airplane seating when you fly alone, without the turbulence. Or the meals.
The other night, at the redone Nick and Toni’s, an acquaintance from East Hampton came in and sat down to my right.
“Nina,” I said, “how nice to see you. You look amazing!” I say these things to acquaintances whether they do or not, but she happened to. “Are you here alone?”
She said she was meeting a girlfriend and quickly threw in that she was hoping that this woman’s boyfriend wouldn’t show up with her. “I don’t particularly care for him,” she added.
She ordered a glass of pinot noir and kept repeating, “I really hope he doesn’t show.” But, some minutes later, he did. And her night turned disappointing to her, I could tell through my zucchini chips and lamb chops, all the while devoting my conversation to David. But you could just feel her disappointment.
As I ended my meal, I discreetly turned back to Nina and said, sotto voce, upon leaving, “So the boyfriend wound up joining — how was that?”
“It is what it is,” she said.
How do expressions come to be? “It is what it is” seems to be what so many people now say. (Along with “at the end of the day” and “having said that” and, among younger people, sprinkling “like” and “you know” liberally across every sentence.)
My friend Jonathan says “it is what it is” about his father’s Alzheimer’s.
David’s boss, laid off after 30 years at the firm, told him when he asked how she was holding up: It is what it is.
What is it about words and phrases that come and go? How do they start? Why do they retreat? Can one Google and get those answers?
“Chillax” is rather a new word, a hybrid of chill and relax, when one or the other is not expressive enough, and again used by young people. It is a brand-new version of “cool it.”
“Cool” is interesting. Since the 1950s it has been something that comes and goes, but mostly stays. “Cool,” all by itself, with a nod, perhaps, is used to express approval. “That’s so cool!”: an even more intense declaration of approval, at a louder volume with its exclamation point. “Crazy cool,” from “West Side Story.” “I’m cool,” with a palm turned up to a bartender when you don’t care for a second pinot noir.
“Groovy,” from the era of cool, has yet to make a comeback.
“That’s awesome, dude,” is a bit of a perennial, and, frankly, bothersome in its overuse and now even more annoying as women seem to refer to women as dudes. (Men never own anything for too long.)
Equally annoying: LOL, which has been getting a lot of play for quite a while, but maybe that doesn’t count in a piece like this. I don’t hear many people actually saying it out loud; it’s just used in e-mails and texts. And don’t get me started on :-) or its inverse.
I am 65 years old. I like to refer to my age in this column because it helps for readers to have a frame of reference as to “where I’m coming from” or “where I’m at,” both of those phrases phased out.
But where I am coming from, nonetheless, is at the tail end of a long advertising career as a writer. And, as a writer, I strive to veer away from the clichés, from the lazy phrases, from the shortcuts to express oneself. And I believe I have succeeded, only in that when I hear those familiar phrases I think: Try harder. I try to try harder, like that famous Avis tagline from half a century ago. (I didn’t write it.)
Being at the tail end of a career, I face an uncertain future in my beach house in Amagansett, for sale after 31 years living here, thinking it’s time for a change — “change is good,” an expression that survives, but barely, as so many people are forced into change, are not choosing to change, so it becomes bittersweet or complicated or difficult. Not necessarily good.
It is what it is.
Finally, and clearly, there is something defeated about that expression. It is often accompanied by a sigh, as if to signify: I wish it were different from the way it is, but it isn’t. It is, simply, sadly, and what can one do about it, what it is.
It has none of the cheeriness of “have a nice day,” sometimes accompanied in writing by that cloying yellow smiley face, or the newly coined, but somehow tinged with a tad of doubt, “it’s all good.”
It doesn’t even reflect the also downbeat but somehow more devil-may-care aspect, because of its chic accent, of “c’est la vie,” a French cousin to I.I.W.I.I.
Maybe it’s the times. Business is tough; once scrappy baby boomers are now requiring hip replacements. College graduates can’t get jobs. Love is negotiated. Sex is protected. Life is hard.
“That’s Life,” a favorite song of mine by the phenomenal Mr. Sinatra, has the same resigned element as “it is what it is” — you’re riding high in April, shot down in May. Or, as I recently heard it spoofed: You buy a house in April, foreclose in May.
It is what it is, life.
And, if you live long enough, you get to experience the highs and lows. The joys. The loss. The good times. The bum times. (I’m still here.)
If I live long enough, I will be waiting for a new expression to take shape. A new, heartfelt, enthusiastic, and optimistic word or phrase when people feel it is no longer what it is, but it is something better than it is. And, being a writer, I may have the good fortune to pen it.
So keep your eyes peeled to this column for the day when I will be happy to report: It is better than it is. It is what we hoped it would be. It is what we hoped it would always be.
But, for now, alas, it is what it is.
Hy Abady is the author of “Back in The Star Again: True Stories From the East End.”