A Few Grumpy Rhetorics
This is a photograph of my daughter and me. We are in a Mexican grocery store called Aguascalientes. There is a taqueria inside the store. We are waiting for our tacos. I love tacos. They make me happy. I drag my kids to taqueria after taqueria, trying tacos whenever I can. To mark this moment, we took a grumpy photograph.
I have many photographs like it. I’ve decided to collect some of them here as an exigence for something I want to say. They offer me a moment to reflect, to think, to write. They reflect our grumpy rhetorics: our tiny moments of communicating to the world where we are and what we may be doing.
I want to write about these photographs. I want to write about them in small bits and pieces. Scattered thoughts. Photos. A couple of ideas. Not a narrative. Not anything but a few bits of thought.
Every so often my daughter and I take a grumpy selfie. I don’t know why we do it. At home. In a taqueria. At a brewery. Outside. Inside. I don’t know why we started doing it or when we started doing it. We hold the phone up and do not smile. We have never told each other not to smile. Don’t most people smile when they take a selfie? I Google: how to take a selfie. Almost every list requires the smile. What’s wrong with us? Why don’t we follow the rules? These photos are like small vignettes, to me. Little stories. Tiny moments of insight. But of what? Being grumpy? Is that all to the story we may be telling in these images?
Children’s literature sometimes reflects on the grumpy: Eeyeore in Winnie the Pooh. The Snow White dwarf by that name. The Little Miss Grumpy and Mr. Grumpy books by Roger Hargreaves. Children, though, should be the least grumpy among humans. They do not have bills, heartache, obligations, disappointment. In theory, at least, they do not. Maybe the grumpy character in children’s literature is a foreshadow of what some of us become when childhood ends. There is a secret progression in life from joyful baby to grumpy adult. Maybe we all desire grumpy but are unwilling to admit as such. Maybe the grumpy character is a secret desire, a wish-fulfillment of sorts, the ability to one day put the semblance of joy on hold for the pleasure of being grumpy. Maybe grumpy is simply a series of aggregated moments, vignettes stuck in memory, projected into a photographic moment with one’s self or with one you love. Maybe grumpy is its own joy.
“You don’t smile.” “Smile.” “Why don’t you smile?” “You almost smiled in this picture.” “What’s wrong with you?” “You look better when you smile.” “Are you ok?”
A photograph is a thing. It was once and still can be: printed, framed, held, looked at, altered, thrown out, deleted, posted, shared. The photograph is simultaneously then and now. I mostly take photographs of what I’m eating and of my kids. Or what my kids are eating. I am not grumpy when I eat. Food is one of the main pleasures of life. Kids are likely on that list as well.
Grumpy Gus. Grumpy cat. Grumpy old man. Woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Get off my lawn. Go away. Leave me alone. I’m not a morning person. So many sayings encapsulate the grumpy experience. We do not lack a vernacular of grumpy. Why do we blame lack of coffee for grumpiness? Or which side of the bed we emerge from? In the Snickers commercial, grumpy people are magically transformed into pleasantry by eating crappy, mass produced, chocolate with nuts.
I Google the word “grumpy.” Google says: Is grumpy even a word? It is. Then Google says: easily annoyed and complaining. In none of our pictures, though, were we annoyed nor were we complaining. We were simply taking a selfie.
The photograph is either constructed, based on the meaning we bring to it, a pose, a representation, a piece of a larger image, a networked idea, or any other theory some of us may have come up with or repeated in our various academic writings. For most people who are not academics, however, the photograph simply is. Hold camera. Push button. Photograph appears. Photograph is shared on social media. That’s me. That’s her. That’s us. A father and a daughter take a selfie. They look grumpy. They love each other. Which item on the list of the photograph’s attributes does the grumpy selfie fulfill? Maybe none.
Stanley Hudson in The Office. April Ludgate in Parks and Recreation.
Maybe grumpy is my version of mindfulness.
I have a desire to write, but not to be judged for what I wrote. As much as there is a social media culture of sharing emotions, there is also one that pathologizes emotions. I could tell an anecdote or two in this short writing about emotion, emotions deep within, emotions that come out from time to time (as in “A Case of You”), emotions that construct my identity, emotions that stick inside of me, emotions that scar me, emotions my daughter and I encounter or reflect upon. But if I write these emotions down in a public shareable space, when the anecdotes are read, how am I judged: weak, stupid, stuck, vulnerable, loser? Grumpy is a way to write emotion in as safe a manner as possible. We never can tell exactly what the emotion is behind the façade of grumpy. We just know it is there. I can’t pathologize grumpy any more than I would pathologize any emotions. Emotions are normal. We are born with them deep within our being. Be angry. Be sad. Be happy. Be anxious. Be grumpy. They all came with the package.
Imagine waking up on the wrong side of the bed and being flooded with memories and thoughts that don’t settle out. Or is this simply how we mostly live?
Sometimes, in various narratives, the grumpy character discovers the true meaning of happiness and sheds the grumpiness that has made up his/her character all along (rebirth!). Sometimes, in various narratives, the grumpy character will always be grumpy, but he/she will reveal a touch of humanity every once and awhile, as if being grumpy means really caring (the good person deep down!). Sometimes the grumpy character is jaded: divorced, burdened by loss, haunted by a death, has had ambitions destroyed by others’ greed, is out of work, is deeply misunderstood, is distraught. In many narratives, the grumpy state provides a shield or wall of defense until another character, one who can see through the gruff, breaks through and finds the grump’s true inner self. Think of Bill Murray’s character in St. Vincent. He’s so grumpy that only the innocent and caring boy next door can love him.
I like stories about broken hearts. But I don’t like my heart broken. I use baking soda when I make flour tortillas, but I don’t drink soda. I enjoy father’s day as a father but not as a son.
“Why, Grumpy,” Snow White says to the dwarf when he warns her not to let anyone into the house, “you do care!”
I have a lot of cookbooks, and I almost never cook from them. I read them as if they were memoirs. I read 23 horoscopes each morning. I rewrite the same things from time to time, short essay to short essay, book to book. I tell anecdotes to people and then think: haven’t I told this story before? I live in my own repetition, in words and in images. I wake my kids up in the morning with rap songs and pretend heavy metal riffs, the time of day that they are at peak grumpy. I tell the dog to stop pulling on the leash. I sit outside in the evening, looking over beds of wildflowers I’ve planted, looking at a new bird nesting within my porch’s roof, listening to a Bluetooth, skimming Tik Toks, getting sweaty, wondering what to make for dinner, throwing a ball for the dog that gets lost among the un-mowed grass, remembering, thinking, scrolling Instagram.
Why reveal something personal in writing?
The Israeli sabre archetype is based on a cactus fruit: it is prickly on the outside but soft within.
“You’d be a grouch too,” Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch says, “if you lived in a trash can.”
I can’t find a TedTalk on being grumpy. I find some entitled: how to deal with difficult people, why are people irritable, want to be happy? None of these, though, speaks to the vulnerability of being grumpy. Being grumpy doesn’t mean you don’t care. It doesn’t mean you are not happy. A photograph of being grumpy doesn’t even mean you are really grumpy. A photograph, some theorists write, is simply a set of codes the viewer brings to the image: I know him. He seems grumpy in real life. He doesn’t smile in photographs. This photograph, then, must represent who he really is.
“I’m spunky. I like my oatmeal lumpy.”
What’s it like to pretend? I don’t need to pretend vulnerability. How are you? Is that a statement of pretend? Phatic interest. Do you want to know how I am? For real? I don’t feel grumpy, so I don’t say I am. I’m not pretending. I’m not grumpy. How are you? Doing ok. I’m not mad. I’m not irritated. I’m not really grumpy, I just appear in grumpy selfies with my daughter. How are you? Alright.
I’m trying to work on a new book about disappointment and disillusionment. I read through various websites: The Atlantic, Aldaily, Slate, Aeon, and so on. Where are my ideas? I start to think that all of my ideas are somewhere else waiting for me to show up. They are impatient. They want me to think. To understand. To find them. My ideas are online like the rest of us. I want to Google my ideas. I say to myself: let’s pretend we are really vulnerable for a moment. Where do we talk about it? How does one share vulnerability without talking to someone else? In a short essay? An Instagram story? A photograph taken with my daughter? I Google the word vulnerability. I don’t click on any of the links. These are not my ideas.
My father stressed the cliché “my way or the highway” throughout his life. He was truly a grumpy person. If we did not agree on where to vacation, where to have dinner, what was important, the answer was always: my way or the highway. Yet, when the highway was taken again and again and again in response, he never stopped to question this life motto or its lack of success as a persuasive tool. I never took his “my way.” The highway was walked year after year by my non-photographic representations, each walking down the highway’s length, not looking back, doing what each felt was more appropriate. “My way” must have felt quite empty. Probably still does. Such can be the origin or life giver of real grumpy, not this other grumpy I write about here.
Being grumpy is being vulnerable. While my daughter and I may look stoic in our pictures — our stares, our seriousness, our intensity — we are, in fact, being vulnerable. We are showing ourselves as we feel we want to be shown in a specific moment for a specific social media platform to be viewed by specific people who may or may not pathologize our emotive state. We are revealing and embracing a mood often treated as problematic or in need of fixing. Others depend on filters and poses and staged moments in order to present themselves to an Instagram public as worthy or as making an impression. These are not vulnerable photographs. They are fake. Pretend moments that only exist in an imaginary posture. Being grumpy or acting as if one is grumpy, on the other hand, is the most vulnerable position. This type of grumpy is not what it appears to represent. What it represents may, indeed, be serious or emotional or vulnerable.
I’ve spent much time dwelling on the need for vulnerability.
There are two grumpy states of being. The distraught. The given up. The upset. The irritable. The get off of my lawn. This is not what we are projecting. We are projecting the vulnerable. This other state is reflected in these photographs. That second state has nothing to do with the first one. That state is what my daughter and I share. In images. In selfies. In moments before tacos. In moments after eating. Together. We share together. And that final point, I think, is what makes these photographs important to me.