Thursday, March 4, 2010

The curmudgeon dungeon: a nice place to visit, but...

Andy Rooney: poster child for being curmudgeonly.

Every time a bell rings, a curmudgeon gets his wings. Ding!

Quick quiz - answer yes or no:

  • Do you feel ill-tempered much of the time?
  • Are you full of resentment?
  • Are you stubborn?
  • Do you disagree with others - a lot?
  • Do you think that you're being funny and honest when suddenly others accuse you of being negative?
  • Does it feel like fingernails on a blackboard when you hear someone say, "It's all good!" or "I'm having a yes year!"?
Well, welcome to the world of being a college student and instructor, my child, and the larger world of being a curmudgeon.

Loosely put, a curmudgeon is a more endearing version of being an arsehole, though the line is admittedly fine.

I first started questioning my curmudgeonly ways - and the number of young curmudgeons in my classroom - when I saw Alan Zweig's great documentary, I Curmudgeon. It's a crime that this film and his first and even better film, Vinyl, are next to impossible to find anywhere in any form.

In the film, Zweig confronts his negativity - literally in the mirror, like the Green Goblin in Spider-Man! - and tries to get at the heart of why some people feel (or are) socially outcast. They sit at the back of the arena at a Bon Jovi concert thinking, "This is shit" while others around them dance, clap, and love every moment of it.

Take Seymour in the great film, Ghost World, as he confronts mainstream culture and doesn't like what he sees or hears:

Ding! Maybe it says something about my friends and I that we screamed with laughter at this scene in an otherwise very silent theatre.

Just being "funny"

One of the things I love and hate about myself is that everything I say sounds sarcastic.

When I do stand-up, I like to use the example of saying, "I love you." For most people, you say these words, and doors open around you, like you're the Maxwell Smart of the romantic set. When I say them, it sounds like a challenge and thinly veiled attempt at getting something, and I usually have to follow them with, "No, really."

If it means anything, at least my sarcasm comes from a good place. When I was a kid, I used to be sarcastic to make people - my parents, friends, and family - laugh. It was also a defense in grade school against the larger people who wanted to punch me or shake me down for my lunch money.

Old joke:
"I'm not known for my boxing skills. In school we used to have to take it in phys ed, and the boxing teacher said, "Remember: whoever controls the breathing controls the fight." And he was right, because before every match I'd pass out."
So, like those terrible rap-offs in the Eminem movie, I'd give my would-be schoolyard opponents a verbal dressing down and - surprise - it always worked! It was almost as though they couldn't bear to punch a little guy with a big mouth any more than they could a baby seal with a cute face. It would just be cruel.

How to be a socially accepted curmudgeon

Of course, there's a fine line between "sarcasm," "honesty," and "cruelty," right? Right! So, you've gotta be careful. You don't want to spend your whole life hurting feelings wherever you go. Or maybe you do, but you'd better get comfortable with being a pariah.

That's sometimes the problem with my beloved bloggers: the person who is so self-satisfied with his or her rightness and truth-telling that "just telling it like it is" becomes "being mean," all justified under the banner of "self-imposed ostracism."

"I'm alone because no one can handle the truth!" is a depressing place in which to live to say the least.

So, how do you become a socially accepted curmudgeon? Mostly by holding it in, being successful, and then letting it out later after people have grown to like you and appreciate your hard and creative work.

My sarcasm was rewarded - dangerous! - as my ad campaigns and stand-up got better; it was like people were willing to wade through your crap most of the time in order to get to the gold once in awhile.

A key sign that you're in this boat is that after a crazy rant, people are still smiling or say something like, "He's creative!"

Red River Curmudgeonly College

In a 2004 interview with the Projector, Zweig says that it's becoming more common to find young curmudgeons:
"(Students) start to realize the huge gap between their idealism and the realities of the world. You know, I think that when I was younger and reading books about civil rights and the peace movement and all that, I sort of thought that there were these evil people in the world perpetrating evil things."

"I thought it was limited to those people. If we can defeat those people, we can change the world. As you get older, there are examples of "the evil" everywhere you look: there's complacency, crowd mentality. There are people working for selfish motivations."
And maybe that's why the profession that usually gets smeared as having more curmudgeons than any other is "journalism."

Imagine the depression that must take hold when your vision of becoming your generation's Woodward and Bernstein becomes writing a story about how much it snowed and someone else's headline - on your story - includes the phrase "the white stuff."



  1. All hail the curmudgeon. Where's H.L. Mencken when you need him?

    Probably enduring an insufferable poltroon...

  2. I highly enjoyed "I, Curmudgeon."

    Although I find these days the lines are blurring between miserablists, misanthropes, and dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeons.


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