How to be a Curmudgeon

by Mark Blackwell

I have been noticing a distinct shortage of curmudgeons as of late. It’s been quite a spell since I heard anybody start a conversation with “Back in my day…” or even heard the word ‘newfangled’ used. Seems to me like critical thinking and plain speaking are going out of style.

Used to be that a curmudgeon got some respect. They gave lectures people attended and wrote books that folks read. Henry Thoreau was the curmudgeon who said, “Beware of all enterprises requiring new clothes”—and they teach him in school. And then there’s Mark Twain, H.L Mencken and my favorite, Gabby Hayes. W. C. Fields made a respectable career out of being a curmudgeon in the movies. And of course the greatest of ’em all was the feller that wrote the book of Ecclesiastes there in the Bible.

There was a time when Brown County was known for its’ own collection of curmudgeons. We had a passel of ’em or at least our fair share. Folks like Chris Brummett and Allie Ferguson come to mind. Abe Martin was fictitious but he made a fine curmudgeon anyhow. But it seems like nowadays folks are either opting for being bright, sunny and insufferably optimistic, or going way off on the contrary.

I expect that you’re asking, “Well, what is a curmudgeon anyways?”

Principally, the curmudgeon is a mature person who has taken the time and intellectual effort to reflect upon and critique the world and the way it is constituated and has concluded that, given half a chance, they could run things a heck of a lot better.

Have you ever seen TV commercials trying to get you to part with your savings and invest in some stock or commodity? The tag-end of the thing says, “Past performance is not a guarantee of future returns.” The curmudgeon knows that past performance is about all you got to go on. When people say, “Things are different today,” the curmudgeon knows that the medicine show might be new but they’re sellin’ the same old snake oil.

In short, a curmudgeon is a realist of the highest order, not only seeing things the way they are, but the way they have been and most likely the way they’re gonna be.

Like Henry Thoreau, they are wary of ‘all new enterprises’ and new anything else, for that matter, and that makes it derned hard to put anything over on ’em.

Curmudgeons know that the present doesn’t really exist. The present is both the past and the future. The moment you say the present, it’s already gone, so the ‘present’ that folks talk about is the future and the future is just an illusion because it never really gets here. Back in the 1950’s Popular Science magazine promised that in the future we would all have twenty-hour work weeks, personal helicopters and robot valets. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get mine. P. T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute”, and that’s what the whole ‘future’ racket is built on. Being a curmudgeon is the one sure way to avoid being a sucker.

So, how does a person become a curmudgeon?

Well, there’s a couple of different ways. One is to age into it, start out being a sucker and then getting some experience and at some point wising up. Or, you can follow these handy tips.

First, slow up on the TV watching. Television exists first and foremost to sell you something new or something old, that is ‘new and improved.’ What TV sells is oxymorons. They came out with ‘reality television’ and that’s about like ‘military intelligence.’ Go out and take a walk and see what is real.

Second, quit paying any mind to so-called celebrities and most especially to politicians. They are folks just like you and me in most ways except, they’ve figured out how to live off the money other people give ’em. If you want to be interested in other people’s business, you can get nosy about your neighbors and save the price of the gossip rags. Why, you might even want to spend time finding out who your neighbors are and what they know. Or you could be an interesting sort of person in your own right.

Third, make connections. Everything is related in some way or another to everything else. You will begin to see patterns in happenings and history and then you can start prognosticatin’. That is, predicting future results from past performances. Curmudgeons are especially good prognosticators because they never let anybody convince them that ‘things are different this time.’ A real good definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again but expectin’ a different result. Curmudgeons don’t participate in craziness of that sort nor do they let anybody convince ’em of anything they know for a fact violates natural law or historical precedent. Curmudgeons are the folks that refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They are the bulwark against societies’ lemming-like proclivity to run head-long towards the precipice of new bad ideas.

I got to warn you that the rewards are meager. Most folks won’t pay any attention to what you say until they have reaped the rewards of their own foolish ways. All you will have in the way of satisfaction is knowing that your pronouncements are generally correct and the curmudgeons’ right to say “I told you so.”