Why are you so grumpy all the time?
My close friend Will is the Fred Astaire of put-down artists. He has a jeweller’s eye for his friends’ pretensions. He’ll single these out and, over dinner, toss light darts that even the person who’s suddenly bleeding from his shirtfront finds disarming and funny. This is his way of saying he likes you. If he dislikes you or thinks you aren’t made of stern enough stuff, he won’t hassle you.
Over the years, my wife and I have picked up a bit of Will’s style. That is to say, we show our love by zinging each other, as if we were a couple of borscht-belt tummlers. (“Nice work on the pasta. Did you pick it up at Sbarro on your way home?”; “I know that shirt—it’s the one you screwed up your last presentation in.”) O
ur kids and our friends have grown used to our rat-a-tat-tat style over dinner. People who don’t know us are horrified. We’ve made this shtick work for us for a long time, because we high-step our way through the entire routine. But we’re starting to back away from it. We’ve come to realize that our aim will never be as perfect or as gentle as Will’s. We’ve come to realize that we’ve left some lasting scars on each other’s hides, like manatees that have been run over by cigarette boats in the Florida Keys.
We’ve been pretending, for entertainment purposes, to be crueller than we are. The fun part has been, as Richard Burton says to Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, “walking what’s left of our wits.”
The no-fun part has been sweeping up the glass the morning after. Now that we’re trying to be kinder to each other, however, I’ve come to an unhappy realization, which is this: In my case, though not in hers, the pretence of grouchiness has too often been a cover for the real thing. I have come to understand what John Cheever confided in his journals about quarrelling with his wife: “I think I am driven to it, I think I am meant to behave contemptibly, and yet I am deeply ashamed. I am deeply ashamed.”
Why are men so goddamn irritable? It’s a question I’ve heard my wife pose to her friends a dozen times. This question is never left hanging, because eight times out of ten the other women’s male partners have been judged short-tempered, too. I find it hard to answer in part because nothing makes me more irritable than to be asked why I am irritated. I’m not even that testy, I cry in my defence. I am generally a friendly human. I just like to brood a bit sometimes.
Who doesn’t like to brood a bit sometimes? There has rarely, in our country’s history, been a better time for it. In this nightmare post-ethical political moment, just glimpsing a newspaper headline about America’s Cheez Whiz Caligula can send anyone into a two-hour spiral.
Then there are the more existential things to brood over—broodables, let’s call them, the way that the fetish community uses the term pervertables to refer to everyday items (kitchen spoons, clothespins) that can be turned into toys. My favourite list of these dark truths comes from the inestimable historian and social critic Paul Fussell.
In his book Thank God for the Atom Bomb, he compiled the following paragraph, one I found so remarkable when I was in college that I Xeroxed it and taped it to my wall for handy doom reference:
Some exemplary unpleasant facts are these: that life is short and almost always ends messily; that if you live in the actual world you can’t have your own way; that if you do get what you want, it turns out to be not the thing you wanted; that no one thinks as well of you as you do yourself; and that one or two generations from now you will be forgotten entirely and that the world will go on as if you had never existed.
Another is that to survive and prosper in this world you have to do so at someone else’s expense or do and undergo things it’s not pleasant to face: like, for example, purchasing your life at the cost of innocents murdered in the aerial bombing of Europe and the final bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And not just the bombings. It’s also an unpleasant fact that you are alive and well because you or your representatives killed someone with bullets, shells, bayonets, or knives, if not in Germany, Italy, or Japan, then Korea or Vietnam. You have connived at murder, and you thrive on it, and that fact is too unpleasant to face except rarely.
Other than that, how were your waffles, Mrs. Jones?
Society has left men, yet rarely women, space to fill when it comes to being broody and irritable. Too often exempt from household chores and certain aspects of child-rearing, we’re left to our armchairs and tumblers upon returning home from work. Decompression, we call it, as if we were Jacques Cousteau in a sweaty wetsuit, having pursued a deadly eel all day through underwater caves. The unfairness continues. When women try to detach, they’re declared bitchy (or worse). Men are viewed as merely grumpy. That’s almost a happy term. Grumpy is one of the Seven Dwarfs.
It’s facile to say men are irritable because of shifting social mores—the #MeToo movement, the declining clout of the white male. Most of the grouchy men I know are actively in favour of these changing tides. And male grouchiness far predates these historical tidings.
One reason I get irritable upon being called irritable is that I know that most of my irritation is based on chickenshit. By this I often mean that I’ve been set off by some tiny particle of grit I’ve hit my teeth upon on social media, and I feel these sorts of irritations should be beneath me. (That guy got a six-figure book deal? My enemy is in Oslo? Hanging out with my best friend?) It was the writer Emily Gould, I think, who pointed out that before social media came along no one really knew how much money anyone else had. Now that it’s more obvious where the trust funds lie, invidious distinctions perfume the air.
There’s another problem with being ruffled by something on social media. When my wife asks me what’s wrong, I’m too ashamed to tell her. Or rather, I can’t explain because that tiny thing has become hopelessly entangled with the fact that I haven’t called my struggling friend in too long, that I’m worried about next month’s mortgage payment, that my trousers are too tight, that I failed to say the right thing to an unhappy person last night. Anyway, aren’t men supposed to be doers and not talkers? So we have a dinner like a Pinter play, filled with ominous pauses.
It’s possible to pivot to science here, though I get restless when non-science writers “turn to science.”
(It’s a chance to go on autopilot for five paragraphs.) There is something called Irritable Male Syndrome. It has to do with a decrease in testosterone as a man ages, a kind of male menopause. It lowers the sex drive and saps your self-confidence, it’s said, and makes it harder to concentrate and sleep. The novelist Jim Harrison put this more succinctly when he said that once men are over fifty, women look over their heads as if they were the janitor.
I want to be better. I need to be better. I’m coping with my slow-burning irritability in three ways, and I can recommend them. One, I not long ago posted a new memo to myself on my office wall. It says, more or less (the actual words are too embarrassing to print here): Take a deep breath.
Things are better than you think. Do not visit your work hassles on the people who love you. Two, I keep a list of the hard things I’ve been meaning to get around to, like writing a long-overdue letter. Crossing one of these off can turn a day completely around. Finally, I try to live up to Thomas Pynchon’s advice in his novel V.: “Love with your mouth shut, help without breaking your ass or publiciing it: keep cool, but care.”