In the midst of a typical day waging war on poor quality, a fellow quality engineer and I would often commiserate on our fate in the professional life. We would rehash the days when we were young buck QE’s, all bright eyed, bushy tailed and Ned Flanders-like, ready to save the world and perfect both process and product. We both observed back then that our older mentors – in their 50’s and early 60’s – had a similar disposition to ours now. They seemed at best “grumpy old men”, wise in years but railing out against all things as if there were nothing good left in the world, and we could not, in our inebriated state of youthful exuberance, figure out why.
Now, it seems, after wading deep into the half century mark, we are becoming them.
Hollywood makes much of growing old. You know, the geritol jokes of comedians, and the movies, a classic of which is “Grumpy Old Men”, starring the epitome of grumpiness, Walter Matthau. Burgess Meredith plays an interesting role as John Gustafson’s (Jack Lemmon) “grandpa” and counters all grumpiness with his own spirited comments, to wit…
Grandpa: What the… what the hell is this?
John: That’s lite beer.
Grandpa: Gee, I weigh ninety goddamn pounds, and you bring me this sloppin’ foam?
John: Ariel’s got me on a diet because the doc said my cholestorol’s a little too high.
Grandpa: Well let me tell you something now, Johnny. Last Thursday, I turned 95 years old. And I never exercised a day in my life. Every morning, I wake up, and I smoke a cigarette. And then I eat five strips of bacon. And for lunch, I eat a bacon sandwich. And for a midday snack?
Grandpa: Bacon! A whole damn plate! And I usually drink my dinner. Now according to all of them flat-belly experts, I should’ve took a dirt nap like thirty years ago. But each year comes and goes, and I’m still here. Ha! And they keep dyin’. You know? Sometimes I wonder if God forgot about me. Just goes to show you, huh?
John: Goes to show you what?
Grandpa: Well it just goes… what the hell are you talkin’ about?
John: Well you said you drink beer, you eat bacon and you smoke cigarettes, and you outlive most of the experts.
John: I thought maybe there was a moral.
Grandpa: No, there ain’t no moral. I just like that story. That’s all. Like that story.
I tend to like Meredith’s spunk in the movie, and hope it too will rub off on me some day.
But why-oh-why, do we men get grumpy, anyhow…?
A book, recently reviewed in this blog reveals a good explanation. The book, Younger Next Year (YNY) – profiled here before – is written by an older but very fit 70 year old (Chris) and his 46 year old internal medicine doctor (Harry). The book’s thesis is that by following “Harry’s Rules”, one can live like they’re 50 well into their 80’s. The chapters of the book alternate between patient and doctor – giving a practical viewpoint of the patient and the “why” behind the rules. While much of the book is physiological in nature, sections also tackle the mental and emotional aspects of aging, and it is here where the topic of grumpiness is well-explained…
Doctor Harry Lodge’s theory is that as one ages, emotions get pared back and become more primitive, causing a quicker shift to Fight or Flight mode – a most Darwinian response. Old men, like old wolves or lions, are at mounting risk of being turned out by the pack and eaten by other predators. And as a response to this threat, they have to be quick to protect themselves from the inevitable for as long as possible.
Chris, the patient, opines in YNY; “Can’t you just see the mangey old wolf, snarling furiously at the slightest threat? The kind of threat which could turn fatally real at any time now? Of course they are quick to bare their teeth and snarl. Who wouldn’t be? I had a wonderful old pal in Aspen in the 1990’s who used to leave dinner parties most nights. Walk home, furious, in the snow after an argument about this or that. Great guy, too, but absolutely furious much of the time. People used to wait and speculate what it would be that would set him off tonight. I’m going to get just like him, I can see it. An old boy, snarling at the dinner table, sick with fear that I am going to be turned out into the fatal night. Dragged down on my deaf side by unheard predators. Or not invited back to dinner. Because I am becoming impossible.”
I find myself feeling that way at times – at work and even on the water. And YNY advises that most of us men, in the “Next Third” of life, will indeed become grumpy.
So what is Chris’s advice for us who march towards potential grumpiness? Fight it like a steer. Think about it every time you want to rise up in righteous wrath at someone. Think about the strong possibility that the seething injustice you are about to crush is nothing. Write the letter but don’t send it. Form the angry words in your head and count to ten.
And I will add for all the potentially grumpy fly fishers out there, to FISH MORE. Get out on the water, preferably with other potentially grumpy men. Connection, after all, in keeping with Harry’s rules, is SO important and social interaction pays huge dividends. But even if fellow fly fishers are having a bad day, too grumpy to flail the water, get out anyhow. Talk to people if they are on the water. Channel the energy to rant to proving your piscatorial prowess on the water. Remember that there will be young guns out there happy to flaunt their fish porn. But you, my aged friend, have years more on the water. You’ve seen more, experienced more, fished more. You are, essentially, the “Old Man and the Sea”, and perhaps, if lucky, even Santiago…
Santiago, the main character in Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prize winning novel, The Old Man and the Sea, suffers terribly as an old fisherman of Cuba. In the opening pages of the book, he has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish (talk about feeling the skunk!) and has become the laughingstock of his small village. Can you imagine how grumpy he could have been and had every right to be? But he fought it, and showed up day after long day, to fish. Santiago’s commitment to sailing out farther than any fisherman had before, to where the big fish could certainly be, was testament to his deep pride and showed his determination to change his luck.
And Santiago does go on to hook into the greatest marlin he’s ever had on the line and then endures a long and grueling struggle with the marlin only to see his trophy catch destroyed by sharks.
While Santiago chastises himself for his hubris, claiming that it has ruined both the marlin and himself, his deep pride enables him to earn the deeper respect of the village fishermen and secures him a fishing companion in the boy named Manolin. Santiago knows that he will never have to endure such an epic struggle again and he wrests triumph and renewed life from his seeming defeat. And even though he is growing old and his life is drawing to a close, Santiago will persist through Manolin, who, like a disciple, awaits the old man’s teachings and will make use of those lessons long after his teacher has died. Santiago manages the most miraculous feat of all: he finds a way to prolong his life after death, the ultimate defeat to grumpiness.