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When You Were Young And Your Heart Was An Open Book....
Why have I become strangely attracted to the word curmudgeon?
Is it a sign that my time to be a surly, bad-tempered, cantankerous old man is about to begin?
I must confess that curmudgeon has always been a favourite word. It has such a strange and wonderful timbre, a satisfying flow of syllables that sound as if they should go off and join other words but somehow make wondrous noise together. Along with serendipity it is on my all-time list of satisfying words to utter.
I guess a part of the joy of the word is its very specific meaning. It pleases me to know that being a cantankerous old bastard has been around so long in human existence that they decided to commit a word to its description. When being a bastard isn't enough, when the commitment is to a lifetime of being a crank - well here's the word for you.
One of my closest friends once declared the onset of his curmudgeon-ism would take place on the day he turned thirty. His rationale for this decision was the classic and textbook description of ill-temper. He had decided that at the tender age of twenty-five-ish that he was sick of pretending that he was not enraged by other's stupidity. Therefore, upon his thirtieth birthday he vowed to start telling people what he really thought. Time to give them a piece of his mind - polite society be damned. There was, as you can well imagine, much debate within our gentleman's ensemble as to the merits of this course of action. In fact, we all agreed, without much thought on the matter, that he might be going a bit early on the 'tell them what I really think stakes.' Thirty, it was decided, was simply too young to launch headlong into vitriolic bile being poured upon the folks that annoy and frustrate you. You have made a very large bed in which to lie for the best part of fifty years.
Having said that, if any of my mates were to pull this kind of masterpiece, who could do offensive, unsocial, non-conformity, well, he was the man for the job. Sadly, that is actually a compliment.
As a twenty something it is your right, apparently, to decide who is right and wrong. Surprisingly the list of right-thinking individuals is fairly short. It consists of you…and your mates when they agree with what you just said. I suspect we make a big deal about turning thirty simply so we can milestone our life and disconnect ourselves from the conceit of our twenties.
The thirties feel different. They have the sense of easing up about them, although that tends to bring a existential panic with it. Most men who are touched by mental health issues, panic attacks, depression and anxieties issues are most likely to experience them during their thirties and early forties. I understand that well. There is a tendency to take stock of your life's accomplishments upon your thirtieth birthday and then start to wonder why you aren't more successful. This is assuming, of course, you aren't a self-made billionaire with a Fortune 500 company.
The word career starts to have an impact. In my teens it hardly mattered what I was going to be, all I cared about was how famous it would make me. I was on the edge of the new-fangled celebrity culture Within a decade we weren't talking about why people were celebrities - they just were. I remember Adam Spencer, at the time hosting JJJ breakfast, announcing that he didn't understand why he had to know who Paris Hilton was. He then played a song and came back on air, with frustration in his voice, to 'thank' people for ringing him to explain who Paris was. The decision we have made about celebrity is frankly scary. You don't need to be talented anymore, you just need to be what's happening.
Actually, thinking about it, perhaps that is a talent? To make people look at you for no reason at all is pretty hard to do...
See what's happening to me? Here I was talking about my mate's declaration of independence from polite society and suddenly I start in on a rant about 'kids these days.'
Anyway, as I was saying, before I rudely interrupted myself, your thirties are one hard decision after another - you start a family, you buy a house, you realise that you might need to start looking after yourself. The weight creeps up on you btw. You tend to get fat without realising and then it’s a mad scramble to recover lost ground. I finally stopped eating like a ten year old boy and began to exercise more than once a month and surprisingly I have lost weight. It wasn't anything to do with being virtuous though. I ended up in the emergency ward of Box Hill hospital with a kidney stone and a choice to make. Either go through that pain again or start to get smarter about my diet. That kidney stone is a perfect metaphor. You have to realise, at some point, that you can't be young forever. You can't hold on to what you used to be other wise it tend to get sad, quickly. That bloke with the blonde tips and the Abercrombie & Fitch muscle tee who can't hide the wrinkles and grey regrowth is always going to be ridiculed. Al Pacino's character in Any Given Sunday articulates the angst that makes that guy try perfectly - 'You know, when you get old in life things get taken away from you…..But you only learn that when you start losing stuff.'
(This leads into one of the most inspirational speeches in any sports film ever, btw.)
This is not me moaning about being old though, this is about my concern that I have always been old. I instinctively understood why my mate yearned for an early curmudgeon phase.
While I now know that I am not the smartest person in the world, part of the arrogance of my twenties has carried over. I am incredibly judgemental of complete strangers that have the audacity to be in my way. My frustration about slight injustices, such as people pushing in, or the fat bloke who won't get up on the train and offer his seat to anyone boils away permanently. I stand on the train, even when there are plenty of available seats, just so I feel the pride of righteousness. I am such a gentleman I don't even need to give up my seat. I prefer to stand - the greater sacrifice is to go without so those in need can have their share. In short, I'm a painful zealot of my own twisted code of righteousness. I'm a vigilante for societal mores that must be upheld according to...well, me.
The disturbing truth, which I discovered in my teens, is that I also have a ginge temper. I don't know where it comes from exactly and I am certainly not proud of it, but the temper of the red-head is most assuredly a part of me… and it is not dissipating with age. The close friend who claimed himself prepared to take on the world post-30 is, as it so happens, also of the red-headed persuasion. It is through my teenage friendship with him, in fact, that I discovered my tendency to get what can best be described as rage flashes. I will suddenly lose my cool in an explosion of anger, normally directed at the nearest inanimate object. The anger burns intensely and I have a completely undignified screaming fit…and then it’s over. The side-table I shinned myself on has learnt a valuable lesson about messing with me and I can move on. It is cathartic, sure, but completely stupid on every level. When I snap, I simply lose my grip on reality for those minutes. It is just a vent, a steaming pile of vitriol, with no sense or focus. Once I regain control I am embarrassed and ashamed but still filled with enough of the remnants of righteousness to be certain I was right all along.
The one (barely) positive to this handle-flying routine is that it's very rarely directed at another human being. It is perhaps just as well because when it is, very odd things occur. My father is a mild-mannered gent but his temper is as white-hot as mine when his dander is upped. He very, very rarely gets there but when he does we have screaming matches. I suspect the last time we duelled in this manner was when we were living under the same roof. Dad was annoyed at my inability to put the margarine away in the fridge and shoved the tub at me as I was attempting to storm off. In hindsight it was a poor decision on his behalf. I stopped storming off to turn for the last great volley of abuse towards him and felt my hand moving in a swing up over my head before I was really aware of this development. The marge made a perfect arch across the distance between us and I clearly remember flinching as I realised it was on target to clock him on the head. Dad managed to swerve out of the way at the last second, a splatter of margarine-ricochet smeared the wall behind him.
While my friends are amused by that story, I tend to retell it in the hope that the embarrassment level it brings to the surface will at least make me think twice the next time I lose my cool. The biggest challenge to this theory is the onset of middle age and the coming of the curmudgeon. Only this weekend I yelled at public transport official. It was a series of trigger-points that fuelled my righteous indignation and I still feel strangely justified (as you always do after tangling with officialdom) but the fact remains I yelled at teenager and looked like an arse. I scanned my ticket to go through the designated pram/wheelchair gate with my daughter and the scanner refused me access. I knew that I hadn't been able to scan my ticket entering the station at the other end of my trip and was quite happy to explain my predicament. The problem was that the pimply boy standing at the gate reminded me of the generic, gormless teenager The Simpsons use wherever they want incompetent customer service. This kid just shrugged his shoulders at my problem and told me to go to customer service. I Shall Not Pass. Now, I knew customer service was right in front of me…on the other side of the gate, so I asked him to allow me to go through so I could sort the issue out. He didn't ask me what had happened. He didn't offer any other solution or any degree of sympathy for my plight, he just waved his hand nonchalantly towards customer service while telling me I couldn't go through the gate.
Had he told me that customer service desk had a window just around the corner, this side of the gate, things would have played out differently. If he had at least helped me to understand that I just needed to get the card reset and I could get through. Had he shown any ability to offer the customer service his uniform claimed he was employed to offer, he might have been saved.
What did him in eventually though?
After I had grasped for myself where he wanted me to go and had pushed my daughter around the corner, got the ticket validated and paraded back to use it, he waited until the gate opened for me and reached down to push the ten centimetres that wasn't fully retracting into the slot. That was his job. That was all he cared about.
He was not saved.
I immediately felt like a stupid old man, railing against the perceived injustices that surrounded me. I felt the hot flush of serious humiliation as I realised I was that bloke we used to giggle about - 'Like an old man returning soup to a deli.' It didn't stop me gesticulating wildly at this man-child while yelling something about his inability to offer 'customer service’. Parking Inspectors are trained to avoid conflict, which is sensible given their profession. The one phrase research has suggested will get them physically assaulted is the seemingly innocuous 'Look, just calm down!' I suggest the gesture that is it’s equivalent is the shoulder shrug. I am not a violent person, but the shrug made me storm away very quickly before that was something I used to be able to say.
Sadly, I am on the verge of forty and the ability to finally tell people what I really think just doesn't fill me with the thrill I thought it would. The battle to control my temper is now officially heightened by the thought of me lashing out at young dudes who are simply trying hard not to laugh in my face. My righteous sensibilities must be curbed and my tolerance levels have to increase. I refuse to be the cantankerous old bastard I know I am very capable of becoming. It has become my constant battle.
I want to be one of those spritely old seventy-year-olds with a twinkle in their eyes and a song in their heart. I don't want to be the cranky old fella people avoid, sitting in the corner moaning about kids these days. I have a lot of work to do… But I shall overcome. One step at a time. The margarine tub will not be used in anger. Well it can't be. I have to watch my cholesterol these days.
Happy Birthday to me and many happy un-curmudgeon days to come.