Some of us wake up with optimism for the day. There’s the beautiful sunrise, the first sip of hot coffee, the satisfying task of writing a to-do list full of lies. Others wake up ready to throw that coffee in today’s face. The grumps. And god, do I love a grump.
I love a grump because they’ve been handed one wild, precious life and found it unsatisfactory. Not only that, but they go ahead and let us know. “All of this” — the grump implies when they ignore your cheerful hello on the sidewalk — “sucks.” In many ways, they’re not wrong.
It’s hard for me to pluck a favorite from my deep roster of grumps. There’s the neighbor who has yard signs that say “KEEP OFF!” on what appears to be normal grass, a decor choice that makes the pristine lawn hideous. There’s the relative who sends back anything short of actively boiling water for tea. The friend who thinks farts are deeply unfunny. Can you imagine?
But one grump is grumpier than the rest. Summer in Ann Arbor is idyllic. Blue skies, 74 degree days, no humidity. My partner Bill and I bike to the outdoor pool for lazy laps. The water is never too cold, never too crowded, and it stretches out, Olympic-sized, as long as the August evening.
And yet. There’s Brenda.* (Name changed so I don’t get sued.) Brenda is known far and wide in the parks department and by the swimmers who fear her wrath. She’s a fast and strong swimmer, her feet propelled by the hate within her. If a swimmer joins her lane who isn’t to her liking, she’ll kick them out with feedback: “You’re too slow!” Yelling, so much yelling, ensues. For some reason, in this beautiful place with a pool big enough to never pass the person you’re swimming with — she’s so, so grumpy. I love it.
I just finished Fredrik Backman’s novel A Man Called Ove (and the fabulous movie on Prime right now), which is a much better love letter to grumps than mine — I highly recommend both versions. Ove has given the world everything it asked of him and the world responds by bestowing upon him one tragedy after the next. We realize that grumpiness begins as a fleeting mood but it can concentrate and compound over time, until it overshadows all other inklings of happiness, and suddenly you hate dogs. The story unpeels Ove to reveal a loving inner core, which we know is inside every grump. “Not Brenda!” says Bill, but I disagree. This summer, I’m finding it.
On TV, grumps are usually comic relief. Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey is an iconic grump: “No life appears rewarding if you think too much about it.” Stanley Hudson from The Office is invited to all of my parties. These fictional grumps are a reminder that grumpiness is often performative, often a veil. Misery loves company, and maybe it also loves a stage.
The funniest grump I’ve ever met in real life is the owner of Dimo’s Donuts in Ann Arbor, who greets every customer with “whattya want?” When I asked what’s better, the custard-filled long john or the creme-filled one he said, “I dunno, if you don’t like it, don’t come back!” And then he always fills your donut bag with a few freebies. He gets it.
The grumps in my life are a reminder that in the spectrum of emotion, grumpiness is just as valid as joy or grief, and thankfully, it’s usually funnier. The grumps in my life also help me keep my own in perspective. I don’t want to find things like birds chirping or undersalted popcorn worth getting my panties in a bunch about. Biologically speaking, positive thinking is good for your heart, your immune system, and your birthday present quotient, which I have yet to find a study to back up but must be true. When my life has let me down, I haven’t let it pull me under, and I’ll try not to let it pull me under yet. It’s too nice in this pool to do anything but float around the slow lane, where I’m content.
Alex Beggs is a writer and copywriter who lives with her partner in Michigan. She writes a monthly Trader Joe’s review column for Bon Appétit and has also written an etiquette column and a Thanksgiving piece that won an ASME award in 2020. You can find her on Instagram, if you’d like.