It has been more than 15 years since that August afternoon when the idea for a book bit me on the leg.

The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation: The Counterintuitive Approach to De-stressing

The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation: The Counterintuitive Approach to De-stressing

I was sitting beside a pond, lazily contemplating the way the sun reflected off the ripples in the water, when my reveries were interrupted by the itchy poke of a mosquito boring into me with her sipper. My mind was filled with questions. Why do mosquitoes flock to me more than to other people? What makes that lump appear on the skin? What makes it itch? Why are there annoying things like mosquitoes on the planet, anyway? It occurred to me that other people must wonder about this kind of thing as well. Why do I keep losing socks in the wash? Why am I always in the slowest queue at the supermarket? Is there a correct answer when the policeman asks, ‘Do you know how fast you were going?’ I did not know, at that moment, that I was about to write my most successful book, and that 18 or so books later I would never surpass it in sales. (Annoying!) Who knew that pet peeves could be so profitable?

It seems there is something gratifying in the realization that other people have been bugged by these little occurrences and even more gratifying to know why they happen. (Not as gratifying as were they not to happen in the first place, mind you, but gratifying nonetheless.) People are frustrated by thousands of little things, from hangnails and paper cuts to the mother of all aggravations – telemarketers, who are, incidentally, making a comeback. When the futurists of days gone by imagined a brave new world full of robots, they never dreamed these advances in technology would be used to call you in the middle of dinner to sell you something. It seems nearly every step in the march of human progress lands in dog doo.

No one is immune. On several occasions, the experts I consulted – scientists with long titles and multiple PhDs – ended our conversation by ranting about those little threads that hang from sweaters, people chewing on pencils and fitted sheets that don’t.

For example, I contacted Dr Ron Grassi, DC, MS, DABDA, FACFE, Diplomate American Boards of Forensic Medical Examiners & Physical Disability Analysts, with a question about why stiff necks hurt so much. (An entry which, incidentally, did not make the final cut. Sorry about that.) Along with my answer I got the following: ‘Why do people scream on mobile phones like they’re yelling across a canyon? They don’t do this on a regular phone. How about someone scraping the ice cream bowl with a spoon (after there is hardly any left) while you’re lying in bed at night watching a movie. And the DOOR SLAMMERS!!!!! Do you know how insulting that is to a Corvette convertible?’

Other experts were not as amused by the concept. A representative of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute seemed a bit annoyed when I phoned to ask if there was a mechanical engineer who could explain why a handheld can opener slides off the rim, leaving that little bit of joined metal that you can’t seem to cut through when you start with the opener again. (I never did get an answer to that one.) One local librarian was confused when I came in and explained that I was looking for the psychology books because I wanted to find out why two pedestrians trying to get out of each other’s way both dodge in the same direction, then both dodge to the opposite side and end up doing an odd pavement dance. ‘You’re not going to find any books on that,’ she said with a squint that clearly indicated she was sure I was insane or making fun of her, or both.

In my original introduction, I wrote that we should be optimistic about the fact that we are obsessed with the dust on our computer monitors and the amount of legroom on planes. You can only muster the energy to get upset about these things when the outer world is in a state of relative peace, tranquility and prosperity. Although I have not found statistics to back it up, my guess is that scientists spend much less time and energy trying to figure out the exact chemical composition 

of intestinal gas or how long it takes a biscuit to turn to mush in your mug when the nation is in the midst of war, famine, plague or economic depression. In the absence of a huge national crisis, we have the freedom to ponder the little things. In that spirit, this is a highly uplifting work. That’s what I wrote just before my book came out – in the week of 11 September 2001.

Given my reasonable hypothesis, I was sure The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation was destined to disappear without a trace. But we returned to life and laughter and, importantly for me, complaining about the little things that get on our nerves. There is no escape from aggravation. People who live and work in cities deal with smog, long queues, traffic jams, noise, crowds and an ever-more fidgety, tension filled lifestyle. People who live in the country have their own annoyances: insects, roadkill, stepping in cow dung and having to drive 20 minutes to get to the nearest post office. Some people choose to work in offices, where they deal with difficult co-workers and bosses, uninspiring environments of office cubicles, and having to plan months in advance to get days off. Others avoid those hassles by being self-employed.

They deal with self-employment tax and not having a regular salary.

People who live alone have to pay all the rent and there’s no one at the house to call for help if the car breaks down. People who live together have to compromise more. I have come to the conclusion that the key to life is choosing which annoyances you prefer to deal with and adjusting your lifestyle accordingly.

Annoyances are subjective, I know. I once worked as a mime. One person’s noise is another’s symphony. One person’s aromatherapy is another’s loud perfume. I compiled my original list of annoying things from personal observation and suggestions from friends and acquaintances. If I had written entries for all the items on my master list, it would rival the Oxford English Dictionary for shelf space. For some reason, my publisher thought that might make it hard to sell. I reduced the list by focusing on the aggravations that seem to elicit the most venom, and those that have the most interesting explanations.

Over time, however, The Pocket Encyclopedia had become a bit stale. In the intervening years, the word ‘cyber’ went from futuristic to old-fashioned; they decided to take the hyphen out of the word email; and the jury is still out on whether or not to capitalize Internet. We managed to make it through an entire decade without ever coming to 

a consensus about what to call it. The Noughties? The 2000s? The Aughts? CDs skipping, the laser pointer fad and VCR clocks that flash 12:00 because you can’t figure out how to set them lost their power to drive us nuts. A recent study concluded that men no longer hog the television remote control. We have reached a golden age of remote control parity . . . just as we are starting to watch videos on devices other than televisions. Beginning in 2009, a law in the United States reduced the number of hidden fees and penalties that credit card companies can charge. The amount of luggage that gets misrouted by airlines has been significantly reduced thanks to better computer tracking systems.

There were even aggravations that came and went before I could document them. For example, the iPhone was introduced and it came with pre-installed apps you were not allowed to delete. So, you had to put them in their own special folder called ‘Apple Junk’ that you hid on the fifth screen. (I’m talking to you, Stocks!) In 2016, Apple finally decided to let you delete them, and a decade from now no one will remember they ever annoyed us in that way. I have confidence, however, that Apple will find new ways. (This is, after all, the company that removed the headphone jack and sold you an expensive dongle to replace it, calling it a brave innovation.)

On a personal note, since the last edition of this book, I’ve come to know the frustration of having your reading glasses always in the other room. You see, botheration is a constant. The inhabitants of Teletubbyland that we loved to hate in the 1990s were replaced with Pok.mon Go. Cassette tapes that unwind and get eaten by the machine and video rental late fees may be things of the past, but they were replaced with buffering delays, selfie sticks and a whole host of social networking woes. Ten years from now, there will be something new, wondrous, consequential and full of unforeseen side effects.

Before we get to the main event, I want to take a moment to address one of the frequent complaints of grammar purists who gripe about such things in their blogs. There are those who feel that ‘aggravation’ is the wrong word to describe life’s little frustrations. Aggravation, they say, is making something worse. Indeed, this is the first definition of the word. Using aggravation to mean irritation or annoyance is, however, an accepted usage. If you don’t think it ought to be, you’ve been outvoted by the people who write dictionaries. So there! For some reason, I’m not as much on board with dictionary authors’ decision in 2013 to include the popular use of the word ‘literally’ to mean not something that is actually true but literally its opposite (as in ‘My head literally exploded’).

On the subject of linguistic annoyances, one thing that has not changed since the first edition is that an inordinate number of vexations seem to start with the letter ‘C’. What are you going to do?