Sulking and Skulking: Two of My Favorite Things

Nobody’s been asking me recently what I think about Caroline Kennedy’s being the new senator from New York, but I continue to dither, anyway.  That’s something I do quite well.

So, I read an essay that said oh, yes, of course, Caroline would be a great senator.  Sure, she’d never run for office or anything.  But she’d grown up around Uncle Teddy and a bunch of other high-flying politicos — so how could she not know a lot about politics?

Interesting, very interesting, but only to a point.  I immediately stopped thinking about Caroline Kennedy and all her high-profile problems and started thinking myself.  If I were ever being considered for a position I might lack experience for, what would people say I would have inhaled by virtue of being brought up in my particular family?

Unfortunately, I knew the answer: sulking and passive-aggresive behavior.  I don’t like to brag, but I’ve been trained by the best.

“Nothing’s wrong,” my mother would say, sighing, gazing mournfully and tragically out a window that usually featured a gray, cloudy sky or a dark and stormy night.  (Or, as my sister once wrote me, Mother often “smiled bitterly.”)

“So what if it’s my birthday?” she once told my father.  “Go ahead and go bowling.”  He did and there was hell to pay.  He never learned that — or maybe he did and it didn’t do him any good.  It’s hard to fight and win against a passive-aggressive person.

So I’d been well- — or even brilliantly — trained by the time I got married.

“What’s wrong?” my husband would say.

“Oh, nothing.”  And then I’d sigh portentously.

I’d wait for him to barrage me with questions since, after all, another person lying around with a tragic and wounded look on her face who sighed all the time is kind of hard to ignore.  Somehow, though, he managed to do it.  I swear to God, he even went around whistling.

Listen, have enough of those demoralizing experiences, and you start to doubt the efficacy of sulking as a communication tool.  Besides, sulking is very hard work.  You have to stay silent for hours or even days at a time.  It’s not a quiet kind of silence, either; it’s looming, omnipresent, obvious.  You have to draw attention to yourself and your deeply suffering silence on a minute-by-minute basis or, watch out, you’ll be ignored.  There is nothing worse than being ignored when you’re sulking.

The years passed and I finally gave up on sulking and being passive-aggressive, which is really a shame, since I’m quite good at it.  Only now and then have I found occasionally good uses for it — namely, standing in line.  As a passive-aggressive person, I can stand in line and hold my place and shut out any place-jumpers better than anybody you’ve ever seen — all the while maintaining a placid, if not sweet, facial expression.  It is, believe me, an art form.

In fact, when I visited my sister in Israel in 1999, she commented that she’d never seen someone get to the front of the line at the Wailing Wall faster than I did.  And this involved competition against Israelis, who are notorious when it comes to line-hopping.

Anyway, I just hate it when you’re really talented at something and have nowhere to practice it.  It’s like being proficient at Gregg shorthand, which I also am; I occasionally dream that someday there will be a great mystery that’s solved with a knowledge of Gregg shorthand — and I’m the only person on earth who still knows it, a human Rosetta stone.

In the meantime, if any job requires aggressive waiting in line, I’m your woman.  It’s in my blood.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

9 comments… add one
  • Chloem Link

    I, too, know Gregg shorthand.  In fact, I increasingly use it these days at work and ponder whether the Homeland Security folks would be able to read it.

    Really sucks to be passive-aggressive when no one notices…sigh…I speak from experience.

  • Wow, you know Gregg shorthand!  My Dad bought a book and taught himself Gregg shorthand in 1946 by practicing transcribing song lyrics while playing big band music.  It got him a job with IBM which he stayed with for 40 years. 

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I still love shorthand — use it in really boring meetings to write things like, I am going completely insane and How long will this person drone on, repeating himself?  Now that I think of it, it’s a great passive-aggressive tool.

  • Cindy A Link

    In high school, I went to UIL competition in shorthand.  It is excellent for cursing and expressing general hostility whilst people look on thinking you are jotting down important notes.

    Twenty years ago, my husband was a champion sulker.  He could go as long as a week without ever saying a word.  He stopped when he realized I was enjoying the peace and quiet way too much. 

    Cindy A

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I went to UIL shorthand contest, too.  You didn’t compete in Big Spring, did you?

  • Hate to interrupt this Gregg lovefest, but I’m a Pitmans shorthand girl myself. When I went to university in my late 40s, I hauled it out of mothballs and soon regained all my old speed. I guess it’s another of those skills that are like riding a bicycle. Taking notes in a lecture one day, I noticed a young lady gawking at me and when I looked inquiringly at her, she asked “Is that Arabic or something?” May not have been a foreign language, but I was the only one in the lecture hall with verbatim notes. 

    Never got to enter any competitions when I was learning shorthand, because I was expelled from secretarial college for skipping classes to go to the pub.  


  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I am eternally loyal to Gregg, since the resulting symbol for my first name looks like a bird in flight.  Can’t believe it would look better in Pitmans — or in Arabic.

  • Cindy A Link

    I can’t remember where the regional shorthand competition was in 1975, but it could have been Big Spring.  I choked.  Sat there and couldn’t move my hand at all.  Terribly disappointing as our school was expecting a first place out of me.  Good lesson, though. Now I’m the one you want to swoop in when there’s a crisis. 

  • It’s aawyls a pleasure to hear from someone with expertise.

Leave a Comment