“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. This is a promotion-free zone! I only write about things that interest me and that I believe might be useful for you all to know about.
5/4/2021 05:25:09 pm
Great read as always! I too have lost a puzzle piece and only to find it in the most unusal spot! Looking forward to hearing about Rich and the "grumpy" course.
5/4/2021 06:07:27 pm
Glad you liked the post, Colleen. It's amazing how these puzzle pieces contrive to travel far and wide. My sister's dog likes to chew on pieces from her puzzles, which adds yet more opportunities for the darn things to go astray. What's really amazing is finding them again! Congrats on being reunited with yours. Always cause for rejoicing.
5/4/2021 05:58:58 pm
Given Rich is the least grumpy person I ever met, he has a lot to learn!
5/4/2021 06:08:46 pm
Rich is throwing himself into the subject of grumpiness, and will soon be an expert. He says it's never too late to start!
5/4/2021 06:44:06 pm
5/5/2021 01:18:53 am
Rich just read aloud your comment to me, and I got the distinct impression he's delighted to think of himself as a co-protagonist in our epic novelogue (wonderful word!) with a rich and storied history. And he's really looking forward to sitting at Alameddine's feet (metaphorically, of course; the seminar is online) and learning wisdom, grumpiness, and how to adopt a languid, Odalisque-style pose. He's over his fret about the garden, realizing that the decimation was a great excuse to go out and buy a whole lot more plants. So it's now looking better than ever. The force is indeed with us.
5/4/2021 08:12:03 pm
I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters is a book I read by Rabih that was very clever and not grumpy. For 10 years I have been Olive Kitteridge anytime my nasty/grumpy side comes out. For Rich, Happiness and Grumpiness so I hope to hear the comparison. Languishing is my new Covid word. Not sure where it started but I read it in The Rising. Glad you found the puzzle piece!
5/5/2021 01:40:30 am
Kitty you have inspired me! I've never tackled Olive Kitteridge or Rabih Alameddine, and I can see that I have a lot of good reading ahead of me. I'm sure both have plenty to say about happiness, grumpiness, and the meaning of life; can't wait to learn more. As for languishing, it's a wonderful word, but I can't quite picture a woman with your boundless energy doing any serious languishing, even during a pandemic. Say it ain't so!
5/4/2021 08:54:32 pm
I enjoy your writing, so it is difficult to say this, but I believe this is my favorite of all your essays. Being a little grumpy about all the junk on the Internet, it is a treasure to read something as well structured and well researched as this. You found some real gems!!
5/5/2021 01:45:34 am
Vera, I'm delighted this one resinated so well with you! We all have plenty of cause for grumpiness these days — junk on the Internet being a particular pet peeve of mine, to say nothing of the pandemic and all its works. Sometimes our mental and spiritual health requires us to give rein to our inner curmudgeon. I can't wait to discover what Rich will learn in the seminar, and of course I will pass along all the juiciest parts here on the blog. Stay tuned!
5/4/2021 09:55:54 pm
Yet another great essay. Thanks so much for improving my mood!!!
5/5/2021 01:46:27 am
Happy to do it, Jean! This was a fun one to write, as you can imagine, and I'm so looking forward to watching my husband tap into his inner grumpiness in new ways. Watch this space for updates!
5/4/2021 09:59:40 pm
I agree with Vera! And what makes this read extra special is that I was grumpy before I started reading it and thus just letting the words lead me into a trance with no anticipation as to how it would end. Getting a surprise at this age made me lol and subdued my former state. Many thanks!
5/5/2021 01:49:57 am
I'm so delighted this piece appealed to you, Nancy. I was absolutely tickled when Rich discovered this course; I just knew it would give us all plenty to talk about. Thanks for writing and letting me know that it worked for you. I'll be writing more on this topic soon!
5/5/2021 02:26:04 am
LOL I wasn’t expecting that ending to your blog! I’m so glad Rich found the missing puzzle piece. Doesn’t take much to put things into perspective sometimes! I like that photo of Rich. We can pretty much tell what he is feeling in that moment.
5/5/2021 04:38:55 pm
I wasn't expecting that ending either, Faye. I was astounded when that piece — lost for days — suddenly showed up on the floor of the shed. As for your struggles with technology, I hear you and feel your pain! Seems like the tech in my life gets more complicated every day, and while I love the miracles (Zoom! Streaming movies!) it makes me insane all too often. Maybe Rich's grumpiness course will teach us all something about coping with those moments. I'll let you know what I find out.
5/5/2021 06:13:42 am
My partner of the past quarter century is a black belt level cynic, and I am a fashion victim to the positive thinking fad.
5/5/2021 04:42:09 pm
That's brilliant, Allicia! I'm picturing the two of you staring at each other's eyes with fully inflated cheeks, and I'll bet it doesn't take long for the laughter to burst out. A lovely image and great idea for getting past rough moments. Thanks for sharing!
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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This blog is a promotion-free zone.
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 that interest me and that I believe might prove useful for you all to know about. Whew! I wanted to clear that up before we went any further. Thanks for listening.
TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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