Today in History – February 14

On this day in 1932 my father was born. Were he still alive, he’d be celebrating his 80th birthday. In his memory, I’m reposting an article I published in July of this year, titled The Last Curmudgeon:

The origin of the word “curmudgeon” is lost to antiquity. These days it is construed to mean “a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man.” Were I a zoologist, I suppose I would classify true curmudgeons as a subset of the human race: Homo irascibilis.

To be sure, the specimen with whom I was familiar was a bigoted, misogynistic, misanthropic, reactionary, atheistic recluse whose outward appraisal of the human race made Montgomery Burns look like St. Francis of Assisi.

The rest of the world (which for him in his waning years, consisted of a handful of people who shared the rural Adirondack environs he called home) thought he was “lovable” in his own, well, curmudgeonly way. I suppose this made sense. Most folks – at least Americans – are remarkably tolerant people who will overlook a haystack of personal defects if they can spot just one glimmering needle of goodness or merit – hence the election of most U.S. presidents and the incomprehensible popularity of most Hollywood celebrities.

I guess he must have possessed that glimmering quality because they saw it in him. As for me, I had to pitch a lot of hay before I spotted it – and only then, I saw it only after he passed away. He died in much the same manner he lived: on his own terms, in his own time, as he and he alone would have it.

Now let’s get one thing straight before I continue any further: there is a difference between a true curmudgeon and some guy who has a chip on his shoulder. God only knows the world is full of bilious people, some of whom have managed to mold an angry façade into a successful career: Denis Leary and Louis Black immediately come to mind. However, what these guys do is schtick: they may act like curmudgeons, but that’s about as far as it goes. No true curmudgeon would stand up in front of a crowd of strangers and rant for their amusement.

Simply being angry does not a curmudgeon make, any more than being an oddball or a weirdo gives one leave to call himself a “character.” The Curmudgeon made this abundantly clear to me many years ago after having watched a promo spot for the USA Network on television. Their marketing strategy at the time was to highlight the “characters” featured in their program line-up.

The tag-line was “USA Network…characters welcome” and the various spots featured an assortment of certified whack jobs, social outcasts and other psychological misfits who labored under the delusion that they were “characters” in the mold of the network’s best known character, Adrian Monk, the so-called “Defective Detective.”

Sorry, guys. True characters are ostensibly normal individuals who stand apart from the crowd by virtue of an inchoate but highly tangible uniqueness, not idiots who rollerblade into live volcano cauldrons or tattooed breakdancers who can juggle chainsaws. The former carve for themselves in our minds and later, in our hearts, a niche they occupy for the duration of our lives, while the latter are forgotten as quickly as the next freak show comes along. It is the difference between Bette Davis and Dame Edna.

To the Curmudgeon, the promotion was a reprehensible slight to his intelligence and an affirmation that, in his words, “the creative executives at every network should be lined up and shot.”

While a true curmudgeon is not necessarily angry, he or she certainly is a character. One cannot be a curmudgeon without assuming that mantle. It’s simply part of their nature and can no more be stripped from them than one can change a carnivore into an herbivore – PETA to the contrary notwithstanding. And the Curmudgeon was certainly a character, as anyone who knew him would attest.

But why call him the LAST curmudgeon? Surely, as long as Homo sapiens endures, the world will continue to be replete with Homo irascibilis, yes?

I suppose so, but, like the Curmudgeon, I don’t really care about the rest of the world. I care only about MY world, and my world is here in the U.S. – specifically, the East Coast. And the U.S. is not the same place it was ten years ago, much less a century in the past.

Here in the early 21st century it seems that the increasing freedom we THINK we have is, in reality, less freedom than we ACTUALLY have. American culture – once derided and scorned by Euro-sophisticates as crude and obnoxious – was a celebration of individuality and expression, free from the shackles of peerage and class structure that smothered our own cultural ancestors in England.

Sadly, these days American culture is a cesspool of mediocrity and venality, where the oxygen is depleted by an algae-bloom of materialistic greed and the sunlight is blocked by a surface scum of ignorance, stupidity, apathy and politically-correct conformity. This is nothing new, but only the predictable outward manifestation of human nature. And human nature – as every philosopher knows and all pseudo-intellectuals deny – is immutable.

The days of our kind,” he once told me, “are over.”

I could not be sure if he was referring to the human race in general or curmudgeons in particular or both. With regard to the human race, I’ll plead ignorance, as I am not clairvoyant. With regard to curmudgeons, however, I believe he was right. Homo irascibilis once populated the American cultural landscape and from the Algonquin Roundtable to just about any small town in the heartland, you could spot one. For the most part they were solitary creatures and in his case it made perfect sense that he lived alone, as one would not ordinarily find his sort in either a stable marriage or a coffee klatch for the simple reason that he despised women and loathed gossip.

That’s okay, Pop,” I would dutifully respond. “I still love you.”

He bristled whenever I told him I loved him because he hated to hear the word. In his mind, love was ever and always a pretext for something far more sinister.

Perhaps he might have found some respite in the Algonquin Round Table. Then again, probably not, as I can’t imagine him abiding the likes of Dorothy Parker, an embittered alcoholic who could find happiness only the misery she inflicted on herself or on others. My suspicions were confirmed when I mentioned the Algonquin clique in a subsequent conversation. He summarily dismissed Parker as a “snotty, boozing cunt” (which, in fact, she really was, although no one then or now would dare describe her – or any other female for that matter – in such offensively vulgar terms).

Even sans Parker, the Round Table (also known as “The Vicious Circle”) would have been out of his league, in spite of the fact that he was a remarkably intelligent man. Hell, it was out of MY league, and I’m no cranial slouch. Intellectually, it was a quantum leap from the world I inhabit, and I was light-years ahead of him, so he would have been completely lost. Not that it would have mattered: a true curmudgeon has no use for social rank or standing. And the luminary curmudgeons who made a lunch table at the Algonquin Hotel a household word – no longer exist.

The modern world – that is to say, American culture – no longer sustains a climate suitable for Homo irascibilis to flourish and, like the dinosaurs that were unable to adapt to changing climates, they are disappearing from the landscape as cultural evolution produces mutant strains of Homo irascibilis-quasiensi, those annoying poseurs who fancy themselves curmudgeons when, in fact, most of them are inane, self-absorbed neurotics in need of serious couch time.

He, on the other hand, was most definitely a true, bona fide Curmudgeon. And, after giving the matter up to some serious introspection followed by a intense scrutiny of the present cultural landscape, I can honestly proclaim that he was the last of his kind, the scion of Brokaw’s “greatest” generation, who hailed from the days when folks could enjoy the comfort of a cigarette in a crowded movie theatre and not have to endure persecution at the hands of what he would later denounce as “the Tobacco Gestapo.” That, of course, was before he quit smoking. Not that it encouraged him to don a fresh-air brownshirt –the opposite, in fact, was the case. He ardently defended other people’s right to light one up – just not in his house.

Yup…my father was the Last Curmudgeon. I was at his side when he passed away on March 16, 2006 – and I haven’t stopped missing him.

Happy Birthday, Pop. I still love you.

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