When you get older, you get crotchety.
My landline in New York rings constantly, even though I’m on the No-Call list. Sometimes it’s the Daily News trying to sell me a subscription. Then it’s an energy company trying to get me to switch providers while refusing to tell me what it will actually cost. And every few days it’s the same robo-caller tape that begins “Ahoy, this is your captain speaking …” and wants me to push ‘1’ in order to get an implausible free cruise in the Bahamas and ultimately buy a time share.
When it occasionally gets too much for me, if there’s a human being somewhere on the other end, I childishly give them false names (Augustus Pinochet, Dolf Eichmann, Eddie Amin are not eyebrow-raisers) and reams of false personal information in order to waste their time and mine and prevent them making money. At other times I curse them in foul language and hang up. I don’t feel bad about being rude to telemarketers because the essence of their job is to harass me.
In order to keep her job
I buy a cheap down vest at Uniqlo on Fifth Ave. I wait for one of the cashiers to call me; when I reach the head of the line she beckons to me by shouting: “Can I help the next guest?” I explain to her I’m not a guest but a customer. “Would you like to make a donation for Hurricane Sandy?” she replies. “Definitely not,” I say. “You shouldn’t ask guests to give you money.”
I buy toothpaste at the Duane Reade drugstore across the street; the woman at the cash register says to me: “Would you like to make a donation to help cure Breast Cancer/Aids/Constipation.”
“No,” I say. I am polite with her because the essence of her job is not to harass me but to take my money. “I know you have to say this to me in order to keep your job, but it’s very irritating.”
Because of my endogeneous irritability
Centerpoint Energy in Houston has been automatically direct-debiting my bank account for six months even though I am not a customer. They won’t correct the error until I give them my customer number, which of course, since I am not a customer, I do not have. My bank refuses to deny them debit access to my account. I cannot get hold of a human being at Centerpoint. I fill out a complaint form on their website and a few days later receive as email that begins: “As one of our valued customers, we want your experience with CenterPoint Energy to be exceptional.” A corporation never lets go.
An idealistic young relative of mine reprimands me for using foul language to telemarketers. “They’re simply trying to make a living,” she tells me. “Cursing them isn’t helpful, for them or for you.”
But I find it helpful. I must defend myself from the corporate onslaught. The people who call me are only pawns, but I have no access to the king.
These are all exogeneous irritants, but my young relative is correct. They bother me because of my endogeneous irritability. Endogeneous characteristics can get you into trouble even when no one is after you.
Every correction becomes the next mistake
You confide your troubles to a friend; a few days later he suddenly start to speak to you about them, unbidden, perhaps even in front of other friends. You are embarrassed to be troubled and pitied, and you brought it on yourself through too big a mouth. You hate yourself.
Someone tries to take credit for your work. You cannot decide whether to ignore his attempt or to confront him. To confront means admitting the attack bothered you, a sign of weakness. To ignore it is to pretend that it doesn’t. But it does.
You can repay violence with violence and anger with anger, and then regret it, or you can turn the other cheek, and regret that too. Every correction becomes the next mistake. Or, as T. S. Eliot put it, “In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
My personal extenuating circumstances
When I was young and had no doubt that the future was going my way, I ignored occasional put-downs, and imagined I could afford to be above it all. When I grew older and got an inkling of what time can do to your hopes, stray harmful remarks bothered me more.
But I’m not consistent either. Over the years I’ve become increasingly aware that I apply different standards to other people’s (bad) behavior and my own. I tend to treat other people as though they are responsible for their actions. When they do something that hurts or harms me, I regard them as free agents who could have done otherwise.
But when I am”compelled” to do or say something harmful to someone else I often feel as though I’m in the grip of tidal forces beyond my control that make do things I wish I hadn’t.
Observing others from outside their bodies, I hold them responsible. Observing myself from inside, I can always think of my personal extenuating circumstances. Their stubborn Schopenhauerian Will drives their unforgiveable behavior, but I -- I have my reasons and explanations.
Humbert Humbert’s discovery
I still struggle with trying to figure out how to deal with life’s minor assaults. Occasionally I get a momentary glimpse from the extremes of fiction of how to deal with such contradictions.
Take Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert Humbert is a self-described vile creature who craves her magical nymphet body and soul and commits unforgiveable acts to appease his uncontrollable yearning. Five or more years later, after she’s escaped from him, he tracks her down to discover that she is no longer a nymphet at all but a pregnant thickened woman carrying the child of a simple, almost stupid, unglamorous man.
Then, Humbert notes: “...there she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was, hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby … and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am going to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.”
Outside of fiction it’s not so easy
Lolita is really a book about love, says Lionel Trilling on the back of the old paperback I own. It is, and these two impossibly compatible things – Humbert’s perversity which he knows is wrong, and his inability to avoid it – become a little transformed by a genuine love. Not that it does Lolita any good.
There’s a much more easy-to-accept transformation in the movie „The Lives of Others,“ about the Stasi, in which the initially repulsive secret-police eavesdropper becomes humanized, step-by-step, so that by the end of the movie he’s metamorphosized into a redeemed and totally sympathetic character.
Outside of fiction it’s not so easy to transcend reason and accept duality. It’s hard to remember that almost everyone deserves mercy and understanding, maybe even robo-callers.