“It’s a course about what?” I asked incredulously. “Why would you want to learn how to be grumpier?”
The subject was a sensitive one, as the atmosphere around our house has been rather wobbly this week. For a start — and I know just how petty and trivial this is — we completed what was supposed to be a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle and realized we only had 999. Somehow that last piece of the puzzle had wandered off, hitchhiking, perhaps, to another room on a fold of clothing, or maybe falling onto the floor and getting sucked into the vacuum cleaner bag; if so, it was already en route to the town’s landfill by the time the full horror of the situation dawned on us.
A few days later we had to cut down two venerable trees, a pair of 50-foot Liquid Ambers that had presided over our small garden for half a century. One was dead, the other on life support, and the time had come to make the painful decision to pull the plug. Of the ensuing chaos, noise, and staggering expense I cannot yet bring myself to speak. Afterwards, Rich spent hours stomping around the chip-strewn garden fingering plants and muttering, “See that? Used to be a gorgeous hydrangea… Oh my God, the Lamb’s Ears… And the succulents! They weren’t anywhere near those trees. How the hell did they get overturned?” As the final insult, our car — moved onto a village street to make room for the tree fellers’ vehicles — stayed fifteen minutes past the legal time limit and received a $40 parking ticket.
“And now you want to learn how to get into a worse mood?” I asked Rich. “Boy, this week just keeps getting better and better.”
I probably shouldn’t speak disparagingly of grumpiness, which enjoys a long and distinguished history in other countries, most notably Great Britain, which embraces it with almost unseemly fervor. Hugh Grant, for instance, was dubbed “Grumpelstiltskin” by friends of an ex-girlfriend. Winston Churchill was famous for his putdowns, such as the time Nancy Astor snapped at him, "If I were married to you, I'd put poison in your coffee." To which he replied, “If I were married to you, I’d drink it!” As author Kingsley Amis summed it up, “If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.”
According to the BBC article “Why it pays to be grumpy and bad-tempered,” we need to remember that “our feelings are adaptive: anger, sadness, and pessimism aren’t divine cruelty or sheer random bad luck — they evolved to serve useful functions and help us thrive.” Pessimism keeps us from being blindsided by unwelcome events. Anger fuels our flight-or-fight response and gives us an edge in problem solving. Venting our emotions can be cathartic.
Imagine how D.H. Lawrence felt after unburdening himself of these sentiments: “Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable soddingrotters, the flaming sods, the sniveling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulse-less lot that make up England today. They've got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is so watery it's a marvel they can breed.”
Hey, don’t sugar-coat it, D.H., give it to ‘em straight!
Was Rich hoping to learn how to craft rip-roaring diatribes and rapier-like zingers during the grumpiness course? Just what was this seminar about anyway?
“My name is Rabih Alameddine and I’m a novelist,” says the presenter in a short video describing the May 19 course. “I’m excited to be able to share my seminar ‘Five Things I've Learned About Being Grumpy.’” Short pause. “Hmmm. ‘Excited’ may be a little too much. I’m mildly interested in telling you about my seminar. It covers a couple of things about being grumpy. Five things is way too much.”
Alameddine explains that the true subject of the course is the elasticity of identity and imagination. “Identifying as a man makes me see the world a certain way. However, being male isn’t my only identity. My work has been described as immigrant literature. Yes, I am one. I’m an Arab, I’m American, I’m Lebanese, I’m an atheist. I’m a soccer player. I am gay. So many identities, so little time. These days, grumpy is the identity that I feel defines me more fully... Drawing on years of experience of being an outsider—and on sixty-some years of being an oddball—I will share a little about what I think works about claiming a certain identity or having one assigned to you by society, and what is limiting about it.”
Rabih Alameddine has lectured at M.I.T, the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, and other universities. He received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 2002. In the past he divided his time between San Francisco and Beirut; now he divides his time between his bedroom and living room. Photo: Oliver Wasow
The upheavals of this past year have taught us all something about our various identities — the ones assigned to us by society, the ones we choose for ourselves, and the ones that are thrust upon us by circumstances beyond our control. Since I began this blog in 2011, I’ve identified as an expat and a travel writer. And yet I’ve spent the last year in one place, adventuring no further than the supermarket or hardware store, writing about how to cope with the tsunami of domestic change brought about by the pandemic. I consider myself a die-hard optimist, yet I’ve had a lot of days when the world situation left me feeling blue, a state of mind the French describe so eloquently as avoir le cafard, literally "having a cockroach."
I doubt I’ll ever embrace a consistently grumpy attitude toward life, but I can learn much from those who do — about honesty, realism, and connecting with others more deeply on the common ground of truth. A touch of grumpiness may help me face up squarely to my responsibilities as a concerned citizen dealing with the pandemic, the economy, racial justice, and gender equality — to say nothing of climate change. If we don’t get that one right, soon none of the rest of it will matter so much. But hey, no pressure!
The optimist in me says we’ll find ways to make progress. How can I be so positive? Because Rich just walked into the shed that serves as his man cave, stooped down, and picked this up from the floor. And if that isn’t a good omen for better times ahead, I don’t know what is.
Ready to get in touch with your inner curmudgeon? If you decide to take the course ‘Five Things I've Learned About Being Grumpy" offered on May 19, please let me know. I'll be writing a post on the course and Rich's reactions, and it would be fun to include your comments as well. Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only write about things I find interesting and/or useful.
I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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