I never planned to turn into a curmudgeon. My husband's late grandma Ethel had always been my gold standard for how not to kvetch in public. Whenever we flew down to the Sunshine State, we'd visit her before our clogged ears popped. At her favorite lunch spot, she'd lean over the table before we were even given menus to remark, "What took you so long?"
"We just landed yesterday at midnight," we politely reminded her.
"When will I see you next?" she whined in response.
Was Ethel losing her filter? I understood that elderly relatives were often lonely, but I vowed never to act that way, causing my family to want to see less of me.
Even though I was a shy child, my outspoken nature slowly crept up on me. First, as a professor, I grew comfortable speaking in front of groups. But my graying hair and senior discounts at the movies took me to another surprising level.
It all started in the pool. I surprised myself by lambasting a man who was sharing my lap lane. He was twice as big as me and one-third my age. The pool's constitution declared that freestylers swim in a circle. But this rule-breaker was passing me in the left lane like a flashy show-off in a Corvette convertible. Attempting eye contact through my foggy goggles, I lectured him about protocol.
"I know," he admitted, shamefully lowering his chin into the chlorine.
How empowering! Not only forcefully expressing a wrong-doing, but for being acknowledged as right.
Nodding to the designated fast lanes if Speedo desired a speedier workout, I didn't point out that he'd improve his stroke by cupping his fingertips. I know when to demonstrate restraint.
My next project was badass bicyclers. I feel enraged when they run the light or ride in the wrong direction. I may be older and wiser, but I also feel more vulnerable at times. I certainly don't want to end up on crutches because of a cowboy on wheels. For my own self-protection, I'm the fault-finder who growls at their dangerous lawlessness. Often they ride off sullenly into the sunset, giving me the finger as if I'm in the wrong. Since I won't see them again, I never fear retaliation.
I don't empathize with outright petulance and I have a low tolerance for my husband's uncontrollable filters in restaurants. "Can you turn down that blaring music?" he began demanding waiters when our daughter was in middle school. Her face would crush into humiliation as if he'd drunkenly danced on the table. I was concerned others would perceive me as an old crank married to the guy without filters.
Once I threatened to end our lunch date when my husband unduly barked at the maître d': "I refuse to sit at that table! The worst one in the place!"
"You should have expressed your discontent more politely," I gently reprimanded him.
There's more than one way to lose our filters as we age. Men have a brasher style, less afraid of the consequences, but outspoken women are still viewed as shrill, even witchy. Men, however, have been encouraged to win against all odds from their very first Little League game. Women of my generation were brought up to be subservient to men. As a tomboy in the '60s, I once came home from a paddle ball game against a male friend. "I beat him!" I proudly boasted to my mother. Instead of praising me, she gave me this admonition: "It's better to let the guy win. It makes them feel superior."
Did Billie Jean King let Bobbie Riggs trounce her? Many of us had few role models. We were raised to be nice, to study for MRS degrees in college. Then Gloria Steinem encouraged us to speak out. Sheryl Sandberg told us to lean in. We're not losing our filters. We're not just cranky. We're raising our voices, expressing our opinions. And it's about time.
Nora Ephron described how, at the age of 25, she "used to spend quite a lot of time lying awake at night wondering what I should have said earlier in the evening and revising my lines." Eventually, she realized that life wouldn't be much different if we could only "change a few lines." Maturity means taking the risk of simply saying what we feel.
I tried to explain this to my daughter throughout high school when she was overly concerned about what-she-said versus what-she-should-have-said. Adolescents feel so self-conscious, deeply concerned how others view them. "One day, you won't care so much," I assured her.
She rolled her eyes. It would be years before she could understand.
I told her about Hayes, my grad school mentor, who made me tremble with his blunt remarks—until I realized he was pushing me onto higher levels. Inside his gruff exterior, I discovered he was more toy poodle than pit bull. Now, as a professor myself, I'm surprised when friends remark, "You sound just like Hayes." After decades of teaching, I remind my students I've heard "my computer crashed" excuses more often than Apple has updated iPhones. I can identify and reprimand a student surreptitiously texting under her desk even when I'm writing on the SmartBoard. I'm not afraid to call her out.
I'm in control of my filters. Only I decide when and where to let loose.
My candor is selective, especially with people I love, as I try my best to craft my remarks in a way that will be helpful and supportive, rather than critical or stabbing. But swim in the wrong direction of my lap lane or nearly run over my foot on your bicycle when I'm in the crosswalk, and I'll reprimand you boldly for all the world to hear. Just today I reprimanded a man next to me in a coffee bar who was yelling into his cell phone about his stock market purchases. I may be Oscar the Grouch to strangers (and who doesn't adore that cute muppet?), but I vow to never ask my daughter why she waited so long to visit me. Some gripes are best left unsaid.