So for some reason, I absolutely LOVE to know people’s random irritants. I can’t get enough. I love knowing the stuff people don’t like. I’m not talking about reasonable, universal dislikes (spiders, Paris Hilton, interpretive dance) or ideological dislikes (Bill O’Reilly, Michael Moore, whoever is currently president or was president most recently, and whatever they did or are doing that you don’t like). I’m talking about the seemingly trivial and insignificant things that get under your skin for absolutely no discernible reason and just make your skin crawl, and when someone mentions them you just explode and they look at you like, “Dear God, what just happened?” and you feel really embarrassed because there is absolutely no way to explain the sheer thundering magnitude of your loathing for this thing that the other person has probably never thought twice about.
I used to think I was the only person this happened to. Then I invented a game called “Hell Triathlon” and suddenly a whole new world opened up before me. Allow me to explain.
So, my three great hatreds are quite familiar to those who know me, but in case you and I have only a passing acquaintance, let me break it down for you:
#1) The DaVinci Code. Okay. My issues with this are threefold.
A) The book itself is terrible. I’m sorry, but it is. It’s just absolutely dreadful. The writing is horrendous. It’s expository and uses cheap linguistic tricks and the plot is stupid. However, I read plenty of not-that-well-written, that is to say “dumb”, books – at the beach, during summer vacation, when I’ve had a stressful day, etc. So it’s not like I have an ideological opposition to cheap thrillers, per se. That’s just the beginning.
B) The book paints itself as a “mystery”, but that is patently false. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote mysteries. Wilkie Collins wrote mysteries. AGATHA FREAKING CHRISTIE wrote mysteries. Here’s what makes a book a “mystery” by definition. When Sherlock Holmes is trying to solve a case, you the reader have exactly the same facts he does. It’s just that he understands what they mean quicker than you do. But there’s always a chance for you to solve the crime. So the footprints on the carpet, or the dropped matchstick, or the odd pattern in the snow outside the window, or whatever it is that helps Holmes or Poirot put it all together – that’s information that YOU also have. Good mystery writers make the hints so subtle that they might just fly past you. But they’re THERE. Whereas in The Stupid DaVinci Code, every “clue” is like some arcane and ridiculous piece of Italian sculpture lore that no normal human being except Dan Brown’s fictional genius-of-all-trades could POSSIBLY know, leading to exchanges like this: “The key is hidden somewhere but we can’t figure out where it could be! All we know is that it’s somewhere in Europe! And this strange triangle symbol was slipped underneath my door!” “Well, luckily for you, I have just happened to remember that that strange triangle symbol is carved on the bottom of an enormous statue in the church of Saint Somebody-or-Other in a tiny obscure town in Southern Italy you’ve never heard of! The key must be there!” I mean, it’s just ridiculous. The WHOLE BOOK is like that. To make sure I was giving Dan Brown a fair shot, I also subjected myself to reading Angels and Demons. It was exactly as bad, if not worse. He’s just a terrible, terrible writer. But, again, if it was just a bad book, written by an author who thinks he’s way more talented than he is, I wouldn’t care so much, if it weren’t for. . .
C) . . . the legions of numbskulls the world over who totally think it’s real. Look, I sometimes get a hankering for trashy chick lit, or John Grisham. I don’t judge people’s taste in literature. I have been known to purchase books at Rite-Aid. No judgment. But I just can’t stand the whole cult around The Freaking Ridiculous DaVinci Code where people with absolutely no other facts about Catholicism are now suddenly convinced that it’s a shocking insider’s look at the REAL Catholic Church, and Dan Brown only published it as a novel because otherwise the Pope would have him killed, and let’s by all means create an ENTIRE SPINOFF INDUSTRY of books, TV shows and movies with titles like Inside The DaVinci Code, The Real DaVinci Code, The Secrets Behind the DaVinci Code, and on and on, plus a whole new fiction genre of Books That Are Kind Of Thematically Like The DaVinci Code (“In a race against time, a group of ________ scholars attempt to unravel a long-hidden mystery concealed in a ________ while an evil cult called the _______ attempt to destroy them!”), until we reach a point where – and this has actually happened – I enter a Barnes and Noble and the first thing I see is a massive table display consisting of only books with “DaVinci Code” in their title, none of which are the book The DaVinci Code. It makes me want to light things on fire, it really does.
#2) The Red Hat Ladies. People always look at me like I’m nuts when I try to explain this. The Red Hat Ladies are like this social network for old women – they have clubs and annual conferences and all manner of hideous merchandise, all depicting red hats with purple feathers, or some such. Red and purple should never, ever be combined, so if you ever see a person or item wearing those colors, it is a sure sign that they belong to this cult. Especially if it’s a friendly-looking elderly woman. This is why I hate them.
A) THEY DON’T DO ANYTHING. I am all for old ladies having fun. Join a book club. Play bridge. Take classes. I wholeheartedly support mental stimulation in the elderly. But the Red Hat Ladies serve no function. They just sit around, wearing colors that don’t match, and doing nothing. You can’t tell me there is NO better use for your time.
B) They’re hypocrites. Yes, I know that sounds harsh, and I guess it’s not each individual old lady I think is hypocritical, so much as the organization and their massive onslaught of franchising. The idea of being a red hat lady comes from that stupid poem “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat” and blah blah blah. It’s about how once you’re an old woman and society stops noticing you, you’re completely free to do whatever you want. It’s about celebrating independence and free-spiritedness. So by all means let’s honor that sentiment BY DRESSING EXACTLY ALIKE. Honest to God.
C) I really cannot stress this enough, but RED DOES NOT GO WITH PURPLE. The woman who wrote the poem was using that as a METAPHOR. Surely she was not attempting to create a private militia of grandmothers wandering around downtown Portland during their “Annual Fun-Vention” wearing red baseball caps with purple feathers from Michael’s Craft Emporium scotch-taped to the brim.
#3) The Ove Glove. The Ove Glove is the most useless product since the dawn of time. It’s a glove made of like silicone or something which is apparently heat-resistant. FINE. That’s why God made hot mitts, but whatever. I don’t dispute its value in, I don’t know, taking things out of the oven. Whatever. Where the Ove Glove really lost my favor, though, was in this scene from its horribly low-budget commercial: a man goes to unscrew a lightbulb WHICH IS STILL ON, wearing his Ove Glove to protect his hand. Okay. Let’s break this down. Why do you unscrew a lightbulb? Presumably, to change it, if it no longer works. But if it’s ON, clearly it works and doesn’t need to be changed, so the whole action is futile. And even if, for some reason, you DID need to change a lightbulb that is still perfectly functional (excessive caution?), there is absolutely no earthly reason to invent an item for the sole purpose of protecting the hands of people too stupid to TURN OFF THE LIGHT AND LET IT COOL. These people infuriate me. They’re the same ad geniuses who spend billions of dollars in the expensive-razors-for-women market, trying to convince me – by means of an increasingly-absurd “How many times has this happened to you?” angle – that shaving my legs could kill me. These people invent a product that no one needs, and then they concoct an elaborate message to create a problem for which the only solution is that product. “I have to change this perfectly-fine lightbulb that still works! But who has time to turn it off and let it cool? I want to change it now! But what if I burn my hands?” “Try the new Ove Glove! It’s heat-proof up to five billion degrees and keeps your hand safe during all kinds of household chores!” “Wow! Thanks, Ove Glove! Now I can change my lightbulbs whenever I want!” Shudder.
I hate these things. If you have ever made the mistake of casually mentioning in passing that your fave summer read is “anything by Dan Brown,” and then witnessed the steam coming out of my ears, then this won’t be news to you. I am used to people looking at me like I’m crazy when I mention these three things, and my loathing for them, but I always assumed this was part of my genetic makeup. My family has very strong opinions about things. My mother, for example, would lose it if we were driving somewhere and she saw a house with a Christmas wreath still on the door in March. I actually witnessed her (twice) stop the car, get out, walk up to the house, remove the wreath, toss it on the ground, get back in the car, and drive away. I never saw her intervene when it was a pumpkin on the porch well into December, but that incited a comparable level of rage. My dad, a very even-keeled man, has an intense dislike of un-ironic rhyming greeting cards, while my sister gets seriously worked up when people gratuitously and inappropriately use the word “Nazi” as a catchall negative term. I’m trying to get better about this. “OMG, the salesgirl was like a Nazi about letting us look at stuff!” I know, I know. It’s an offensive and inappropriate comparison. I’M TRYING, I SWEAR. Meanwhile, my two brothers are wildly antagonistic towards 1) people who say “soda” instead of “pop” and 2) Rachael Ray, respectively. We all have these things. We discuss them at length. We torment each other with them (did I subscribe Colin to Rachael Ray’s e-newsletter? Only after he got me an Ove Glove, with a Red Hat Ladies card, for my birthday. Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it). We share them with others. But I guess I always sort of assumed that this level of inappropriately strong reaction to basically harmless stuff was a family trait no one else shared.
Then Hell Triathlon was invented.
On my birthday, 2 or 3 years ago, I was with some friends and we were driving around Portland, it was late at night, we were all hopped up on nighttime coffee and dessert, and somebody, I’m pretty sure it was me, suggested we come up with three things we hated and combine them into some kind of Olympic event. Thus was born Hell Triathlon. Mine was “bicycling to a campsite where I have to eat bananas.” Jesse’s involved driving to suburban big-box retailers, while Sarah’s involved running in the rain. I pitched it to my brothers, which is how I learned that Christopher’s idea of hell involves an infinite staircase, while Colin doesn’t like suspension bridges. I told my friend Gaedwyn, then a high school graduate just heading off for college, that she should use Hell Triathlon as a way to get to know people in the dorms. The next time I saw her, she had a handwritten three-page list of her own random dislikes, and it KILLS me that I can’t remember any of them because they were all totally brilliant.
Since then, I have spread the gospel of Hell Triathlon wherever I go, which is how I have learned the following interesting facts about my friends. For example, my friend Daniel violently hates Papyrus font, which is totally legit and I know lots of people would agree with him, and emphatically second with Comic Sans. But he also, for incomprehensible reasons, hates baby elephants. I know! He claims it’s because, as he puts it, “they look retarded.” I hasten to assure you that Daniel is the nicest person on earth and you should not judge him by this; in fact, I think the reason why I think it’s so funny is that if you, like Daniel, kind of look like a Disney character yourself (in terms of being totally adorable), then another really adorable thing is an odd choice for you to hate. That’s a terrible sentence. But you catch my drift, yes?
I could go on and on about how I just learned that my coworker Erik doesn’t like the Muppets (I KNOW!), or how much my friend Bill hates Laila Ali (Bill being the person, may I just add totally off-topic, who called me at 3 a.m. from Singapore in order to inform me, quote, “I’ve discovered the world’s worst smell!”) , or how my friend Monica hates it when you set anything down on the dashboard of her car, or how much my friend Erin hates misplaced apostrophes and her husband Jordan hates hipsters, or how my friend and fellow ex-New-York-dweller Evan hates Times Square like it’s the ninth ring of hell (every time we had to walk down 42nd between Broadway and 8th, he would get this glaze-eyed smile of panic on his face like the look you get if you’re claustrophobic and the elevator you’re in has started making weird sounds and you’re like, “Be cool, man, be cool,” because you don’t want to cry or vomit and freak out the other passengers, but you’re pretty much totally dying inside).
Now, I have to admit that just listing people’s random dislikes doesn’t make them seem like very nice people . . . if you take that stuff out of context, everyone seems picky and overly critical. But stick with me, I promise I’m going somewhere. Here’s the deal. Every random little thing like this gives you an insight into someone’s character, even just a partial one. Take Jordan. He hates fake-y Portland hipsters. Why? Because he doesn’t like inauthenticity. He likes a lot of the same things that hipsters like, but his enjoyment of those things is honest and genuine and completely independent of whether or not anyone else thinks it’s cool. So when he rolls his eyes at some impossibly trendy Portland couple ironically drinking scotch in Hubers, his favorite bar (which is like 100 years old and a piece of local history), the part that annoys him isn’t that they’re THERE, invading his bar – it’s that they’re only there because someone else deemed it socially acceptable to be there. They don’t understand what’s really great about it. It’s all for appearances.
Jesse’s another good example. He hates driving. I don’t know exactly why, but I think at least part of it is ideological. He doesn’t like how car-dependent our culture has become, driving out to our big suburban superstores in our giant SUVs and living in an increasingly homogenous world. Jesse likes well-tailored clothes and one-of-a-kind furniture. He likes organic produce, and when he wants pizza he makes it from scratch, including the dough. He’s just not a gas-guzzling SUV, Wal-Mart kind of guy. That’s not his world. He’ll drive if he has to, but he’d always rather ride his bike.
I don’t know what the baby elephant thing says about Daniel. Maybe he can’t stand anything cuter than him. Maybe a baby elephant attacked him as a child. I really couldn’t say. Sometimes you don’t like something, and no one – including you – will ever really be able to explain why. I think that’s okay too.
The moral of the story: if you want to get to know someone, ask them to name three things that drive them absolutely crazy. I guarantee you will learn something.
If you are so inclined, you may post your own Hell Triathlon in the comments section here, so we can all share in the enjoyment.