Five Signs That I’ve Become a Grumpy Old Man Before My Time

I once had a boss who called me “the most congenial guy you’ll ever meet” while toasting me at my last-day exit party. If only he knew what was simmering underneath my generally agreeable surface, even at that very moment.

I appreciate the generous comments, but I was hoping to slip out of here quietly, without all of the fanfare. My face is starting to crack from the weight of this heavy smile.

Betrayed by my innermost thoughts. Not so congenial, after all, huh?

Actually, though, my soon-to-be ex-boss didn’t get me all wrong. Despite the evidence presented above and below, I really am quite congenial — on the outside. On the inside, however, I get up on the wrong side of the bed pretty much every day. Call me crank. And I’m getting crankier by the week.

It’s not me, it’s you. Not you specifically, but the world in general. More specifically, it’s the people in it. I’m never actually cranky on the inside or bitchy on the outside until I’m in the orbit of others. I’m typically in the best mood if I’m by myself. When Jean-Paul Sartre said (via a character in one of his plays), “Hell is other people,” he was truly onto something.

Like Garbo in Grand Hotel, I want to be alone (except when I don’t, which is where the few friends and loved ones in whose presence I delight come in). I’ve always enjoyed my solitude, perhaps more than I should. That’s nothing new. But as the years pile up in my rear view, I’m finding that human interaction is getting trickier — and increasingly often, unpleasant.

I doubt most people who encounter me even realize I’ve been going through the change. I think I do a pretty good job of covering it up with my mask of congeniality. But I know the day will come when the mask and the mic will drop and make quite a dramatic thud.

Before you dismiss me as an old phony, reconsider. There’s nothing fake about my Mr. Congeniality. A mask can reflect who we really are, and I like to think of myself as being genuinely pleasant. But a mask can present one side of the person who wears it while covering up the complexities that lie beneath.

My mother recently had an interesting response after seeing pictures of me in Ljubljana, Slovenia. “You look happy and lonely at the same time,” she wrote to me in an email, proving that as my mom, the person on earth with the longest-lived connection to me, the contradiction at my core hasn’t gotten past her.

“To be honest, I’m never lonely,” I wrote back. “I’m probably happiest when I’m alone. I think what you’re seeing is sadness, but that’s always been a huge part of who I am. If you go back and look at any photo of me, even from my childhood, there’s always sadness there. You’re one of the only people who has ever noticed it.”

It’s that melancholy, which I’ve carried around my entire life, that allows my lonerism — and perhaps by extension, my increasingly grouchy inner disposition — to flourish.

I don’t smile like I mean it for any personal gain. I just don’t see the point of being nasty or unkind to people just because I’d usually prefer to be somewhere else, alone. And I look much better in photos when I smile.

But the dark side is always trying to emerge, and as I get older, it gets stronger. The mask/mic drop might be just around the corner. The signs are becoming harder to miss. Here are five telltale ones.

(Credit: The navel-gazing herein was made possible by hours of solitude.)

1. I simply cannot bear virtual introductions anymore.

Dear friends: My days of indiscriminate socializing are over. I don’t like it when Facebook and LinkedIn try to connect me with people I might know (whom I usually don’t know), and you should feel free not to play platonic-match maker.

Chances are I don’t want to meet your acquaintance who lives in the city I am/will be visiting or the one who’s going to be in mine. I struggle enough to honor plans with people I already know. I’d rather not spend the afternoon praying your friend I’ve never met will cancel so I won’t have to.

No, I haven’t given up on strangers completely. I haven’t even given up on Grindr. But I do find myself scrambling to find ways to get out of Grindr dates the minute I make them, too. I mean, I’ve met some decent men on the grid, but it’s not like a single one has ever remained a significant presence in my life. I can say the same thing about every set-up with the friend of a friend that’s happened outside of Melbourne, Australia.

In other words, I appreciate your looking out for my social life, but I’m good.

2. I’ve never been more likely to RSVP my regrets to any dinner invitation that’s gone out to more than one other person.

Why? Because I enjoy one-on-one meals sparingly and my attention span isn’t suited to parties larger than three. I can’t remember the last time I was in a group dinner setting where I didn’t have to pretend to give a damn about what some stranger sitting next to me was saying. Can I please be excused?

3. I fume on the inside (and occasionally on the outside, where everyone gets to inhale the unholy smoke coming out of my ears) every time someone makes me repeat myself.

I’m not only talking about dealing with the hard of hearing, the hard of listening, and the hard of understanding. Sometimes I even let them slide. I’m talking about members of the local population who insist on making this weary expat answer the same questions over and over and over. They’ve been especially relentless in Belgrade, Serbia, where I happen to be at the moment and where gay men, in particular, all seem to be working from the same script.

I understand their curiosity, but that doesn’t make it any less trying when I’ve already had to answer “So what are you doing in Belgrade?” 100 times. I wish I could simply say “Visiting” or “Working,” but it’s not that simple. I’m here because I’m a nomad and I’ve tagged Belgrade, which is not the sort of explanation you want to put on repeat for it only invites more same-old, same-old questions: “Why Belgrade?” “Do you like it here?” “How do you find the people?” “How long have you been/will you be here?” “Where are you staying?” “Hotel or apartment?” And inevitably, “What do you do?” Zzzzzz…

I’m actually seriously considering returning home to the U.S. partly because I miss the good old days when "What do you do?" was the only small-talk question you could always count on.

4. Sentence-by-sentence text and messenger communication annoys me more than it probably should.

Do people even realize that every one-sentence message is announced in a notification that interrupts whatever I happen to be doing on my Samsung phone? Has communicating in paragraphs gone completely out of style, even among people close to my age? Can we only communicate in one tweet-sized thought at a time? Warning: If you can’t say it in three messages, I’ll probably tune out by the time you get to five.

5. I struggle to connect with anyone born more than five U.S. presidencies after I was.

What I learned the other night when I went out for the first time in three and a half months: Apparently, phone numbers are passe. These days all the twentysomethings (and a few teens!) who approach me (at least in Belgrade) seem to want either my Instagram and/or my Snapchat. I’ve got neither to give, partly because I can’t be bothered, but mostly because I can’t be bothered to spend all that time smiling for the camera.

I’ve never been so happy to be a grumpy old man who’s completely out of touch with youth culture. See? I really do have something to smile about. #Pushing50AndLovingIt

Songs for Loners: A Spotify playlist