Our family’s 2005 attempt to celebrate our father’s birthday led to the organisation of a Curmudgeon Conference, backed up by solid market research and pricked by a porcupine …
1) Do you consider yourself a curmudgeon? Please explain why or why not.
If you want simple answers, go ask simpletons. I must say that I do object to the motto – “Prickly Don’t Mean Ornery” – yes it does! At the end of the day, it all has to start somewhere. Besides, who’s asking? And what business is it of yours?
As for mankind’s excesses, well starting with anti-terrorism and the dot.bomb bubble, it’s going to take too long to explain why I see it as one of our prime goals on earth to puncture, preferably with a sharpened umbrella tip, all of our fellow humans’ pretensions, or fellow humans for that matter.
As another old proverb avers, “A man with one watch knows the time. A man with two watches is never sure.” I see myself as that watch. My modest task is to make curmudgeonliness the dominant body of thought on the planet. I have assumed this task with the humility expected of me.
2) Do you consider yourself a cynic? If you answer differently from #1 – why is that?
Certainly not. A reasonable Webster definition is – a fault-finding captious critic; especially : one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest – clearly does not apply. For instance, I believe that human conduct is also motivated by stupidity, lust, misapprehensions, delusions and a small smattering of illicit substances. There is only one law, the law of unintended consequences. In the spirit of Diogenes, I would prefer to be regarded as a kynic. To quote at length from a learned article:
“Obviously the lacuna here is the absence of guidance on how to generate alternatives.” [Checkland in Open Systems Group, 1972, page 292] “Traditional scientific method, unfortunately, has never quite gotten around to saying exactly where to pick up more of these hypotheses.” [Pirsig, 1974, page 251] At a broader level, cynical reasoning comes in for much criticism directed at the promotion of change through contention. “In its cheekiness [ancient kynicism] lies a method worthy of discovery. This first really ‘dialectical materialism’, which was also an existentialism, is viewed unjustly . . . that . . . respectable thinking does not know how to deal with.” [Sloterdijk, 1988, page 101]. Overall, the difficulty is that to have a system is to have constraints, but constraints restrict change.”
The article continues much later:
“One point of view worth exploring is the “kynical”. The kynic is a person who holds that by being what you are, you achieve what you seek. To the kynic the act of analysis, a cynical task, is destructive whereas the act of existence is creative. The kynical/cynical dichotomy is an old one. While the kynic rebels against analysis, the cynic is committed to analytical approaches. One of the most famous, long-running kynical/cynical disputations was between Diogenes and Plato. The kynical view is not confined to Western philosophy, in fact it might even be said to be more Eastern than Western. The precepts of many Eastern philosophies recognise the limitations of analytical thought and the need to compensate for the destructive effects of the analytical by seeking holistic views. These holistic views, it is frequently maintained, cannot be taught. The apotheosis of this view can be seen in philosophies such as Zen, where enlightenment is sought by denying analytical thought. A holistic view is achieved by transcending the limits of analytical thought processes, e.g. by contemplating and realising the implications of a question such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping” or a paradox which forces one to go beyond verbal reasoning such as “to win is to lose” [Humphreys, 1984, page 15]. A flash of insight purportedly leads to enlightenment, as illustrated in many Zen stories where analytical techniques beloved by a student are repeatedly frustrated by his or her mentor to the point that the student achieves enlightenment. These are not solely Eastern ideas. There are echoes of kynicism among current Western philosophy, e.g. “our supreme insights must – and should! – sound like follies, in certain cases like crimes…” [Nietzsche, 1990].
The kynical view is, on its own terms, perhaps best-examined by example rather than analysis. In attempting to analyse and classify species, Plato maintained that man was a featherless bi-ped, thus distinguishing man from the birds and from mammals who walked on four legs. Diogenes, the kynic, refuted the classification with a plucked chicken…”
As I never fail to point out, “somebody else always said it first, better and more succinctly” (Somebody 1958).
3) Is the curmudgeon a reformer or a self centered egotist?
Well naturally the curmudgeon is a reformer. In fact, the high tragedy of curmudgeonliness is that the reformer continues to work realising the futility of the task, but drawn to it by an inner nobility. A bit like Sisyphus with morals. In fact it has led to my profession – I’m a consultant; I can’t see anything I don’t want to change. A lifetime in business has taught me that people are reluctant to admit that their original choices and opinions might be in error – of that I’m sure. As I like to point out – it’s easy to confuse simple and easy – it’s simple to confuse easy and simple.
4) What has been bugging you recently as you go through your daily routine?
Why is it that you can put shaving cream safely on your toothbrush in the morning, but not safely put toothpaste on your razor? I’m also bugged by the current craze of stalkers. Originally, stalkers were praised for their ability to sneak up on game. So if the press goes on about some extreme stalker, you have to ask, “if they’re so good, why can people see them?”. I’ve got a great, beautiful stalker who’s so good I’ve never seen her – Liv Tyler. Finally, I can’t get over these annoying assertiveness training programmes. All these guys come back saying “I’m an Alpha male.” They ought to ask for their money back ’cause they’re not saying “I’m THE Alpha male.”
5) What annoys you about people in the supermarket?
I wouldn’t ride Sunday’s pig to Saturday’s market to buy the applesauce. If I can spend a euphemism – low hanging fruits is a phrase I find over-ripe in describing shoppers, store assistants, cashiers, bag boys, managers, parking lot attendants… As the Greek intellectuals pointed out, there are three stages of man, the curmudgeon, the philosopher and the sophisticate. These are exemplified by the three key statements:
- whine me?
- why me?
- wine, why not?
There are three types of people in the world – those who need help, those who don’t, and those who believe in triage. Sometimes I think that everything’s fine. Sometimes I think that the supermarket would be improved with an Uzi. Who is to say? Remember I told you so. Also, remember to forget about this.
6) What product have you bought (at any time) that you will never buy again, and what is the reason?
A piece of the Greenland icecap. Obviously for ethical reasons. Curmudgeon = WYNGER = why you never get everything required when you buy things.
7) What do you think of Christmas?
Still waiting for the Second Coming, along with the rest of us. If Christ had been Noah, cockroaches would rule the earth. Bet three of them come along at once! Christmas could get really gruesome if it turns out God is an atheist. Anyway, if you want to stop Christmas, just remove the batteries.
8) What do you think of children?
W C Fields was a Somebody [see answer to question 2]. Michael Jackson was even more of a somebody. While I recognise that “it all begins with babies” (from a conversation I had a couple of years ago on nursery demographics), I think that children take the joys of parenthood and turn them into overheads. One of the things I love about nanny-cams is that they beat them too.
How about parents. My father and mother are now over 70 and refuse to act their age. They travel around seemingly imagining they’re in their 40’s. How preposterous! They’re at least 50 years older than me!
9) Do you like living in your town? How would you describe your town? What is your assessment of the character of the people who live in your town?
Some things you can appreciate now; others you have to wait till they appreciate. Basically, can’t afford to move. London? As they say, when a man tires of London, he’s tired of looking for a parking space. According to the School of Instant Appreciation – “nothing created by man can’t be appreciated in 10 minutes.” Take it while it lasts. There was a news article saying the Greenland ice cap might entirely melt by the end of the century (couldn’t have used that headline in 1999!). This place will have a great view when it’s all built up.
With the dearth of real crime we now have a permanent morgue on our television with cop shows of all forms. I’m beginning to hope CSI find my body in front of the TV so my wife can serve her time. I intend to get a CSI “living will” card – “Don’t touch this body. Let a professional do their work.”
10) Tell us about a hypochondriac tendency that you have?
Mark Twain’s contrarian, anti-portfolio saying (from Pudd’nhead Wilson): “Behold, the fool saith, ‘Put not all thine eggs in the one basket’ – which is but a manner of saying, ‘Scatter your money and your attention’, but the wise man saith, ‘Put all your eggs in the one basket and – watch that basket.’” Naturally, that’s how I feel about my health and I would encourage you to feel likewise, or else.
There is an old Groucho Marx joke that Woody Allen recycled to explain the inevitability of amorous relationships. A guy goes to a psychiatrist: “Doctor, Doctor, my brother thinks he’s a chicken. Can you help?” “Why don’t you stop him?” “We need the eggs!”
Obviously, any profession that is incapable of running a hen coop is rather low in my pecking order. My father always said to use the right tool for the job. I just wonder why that tool was always a hammer. Besides, I have no empathy with empathy.
[End of Questionnaire – one joke short of a punchline]
It’s at times like these I get a feeling of deja nu. I’ve seen a questionnaire like this before and I’m answering it in the nude.