What sets your hair on fire?

By Caitlin Kelly

Leaf Blower Vac
Leaf Blower Vac (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I flipped my script the other day.

Totally lost it.

My temper, that is.

My husband is a Buddhist, so I’m very aware of all the mature, adult arguments for staying calm, breathing deeply, counting to ten before reacting, (or to 100), that we are all in control (hah) of our emotions and can always choose another reaction beyond anger.


It was a combination, with the usual final straw: endless noise of garbage trucks, leaf blowers and children shrieking plus a delayed assignment I feared might head south, (and with it my budgeted income).

After doing an eight-day silent retreat two years ago, I returned to normal life with a much deeper appreciation of — and deep hunger for — silence. Silence unbroken by, (as I write this, another fucking jet has just screeched over my head, thanks to changed airport traffic patterns since we bought this place), endless, endless, endless noise.

I wait all year, desperate to flee our small apartment, to enjoy the additional 60 square feet of our top-floor balcony, at the treetops, where I work, read, nap. Relax. In New York, we get summer from May to September, at best, and I’m eager to enjoy being outdoors, finally, day and night.

After the umpteenth scream from the kids playing below, (shared space we all pay for), 100 feet below my balcony, whose parents were both deafened and stupid, I called the management company for our co-op apartment building to complain.

When the manager there called me rude and hung up on me, I thought my head would explode.

Only in New York has anyone ever dared to tell me “You’re rude” when I’ve lodged a complaint. Whether I am, (and it’s entirely possible by the time I call, completely fed up), or not, is not the issue.

If you’ve chosen — and I did 2.5 years as a retail associate — to serve others for a living, part of your job is to resolve problems. Politely. You don’t call someone names because you don’t like what they’re telling you.

I can’t stand being interrupted, not listened to when there is a legitimate problem — and being name-called on top of it.

The results are not pretty. Not pretty at all.

I have a temper.

Which any of you regulars here already know!

In our family, anger was too often the primary language, the go-to choice. Instead of actually explaining that something we’d just heard — or acknowledged we’d said — was hurtful, we’d just hop the express train to full-on hostilities. I can still quote verbatim, decades later, some of the  phrases family members tossed my way.

It creates an opposite-but-equal reaction, then as now.

Fuck you!

No, fuck you.

I know my temper, and my very quick rise to rage on occasion, is both a professional and personal liability.

But people who didn’t grow up in the toxic stew of anger have no idea. Emotional armor becomes normal, and a vicious retort your quickest and most reliable/legal self-defense.

I could meditate for another fucking century  — and being disrespected would still make me crazy.

Selfishness — screaming brats in a public space — drives me crazy. The laziness of not disciplining said brats, by their parents or their kids’ friends’ parents, drives me crazy.

A lack of accountability drives me crazy.

We ate out recently in an indie restaurant recently that had done something (blessedly!) radical — posted prominent signs saying “Your children are welcome. We expect them to behave in a manner that allows all our guests to enjoy their meals” (or some variation of that.)

We plan to be return soon.

Here’s a great post by Dara Clear about his anger:

The bottom line is you don’t want fights and conflicts to choose you. It’s a much stronger position to be in when you are in control of your entry point into the fray. But how do we encourage that control when our anger is screaming war cries in our ear, urging us fearlessly into battle? As the cliche has it, let cool heads prevail. When you are under attack are you willing to bypass your ego and consider a non-violent response? Equally, can you still feel empowered if you haven’t raised fist or voice in anger? I think the idea of self-empowerment is at the root of the expression of anger and I would argue that there are people who love their angry selves because it makes them feel so empowered. But we need to get beneath the anger to work out what’s really going on.

This essay, from The Rumpus, is one of the very few I’ve ever read by a woman admitting what rage does for her, that rage is her:

For years, I would say that my father gifted me with rage. This may sound like “I tripped into the door again” dressed up in riot grrl bravado. But I am never sugar and spice and everything nice. I am piss and vinegar and what the fuck do you think you’re looking at?

When a friend needs to get stuff out of her asshole ex’s apartment, she calls me. When a landlord suggests that, instead of asking him to expend “money and energy” on fixing my toilet, I simply turn off the water pressure when I’m not using it, I photograph every code violation (however minor) and call the board of housing. I bankrupt him. When the resident creep in my building mails me a letter saying that he’d like to be my “friend” (quotation marks his), I don’t just knock on his door, I throw my shoulder against it. I tell him it doesn’t scare me that he knows where I live. I know where he lives, too. He doesn’t so much as look at me again.


Anger is an arrow: a sharp point with a clear path. Once it has struck, there’s a victor. A victim. My mother’s arsenal is stocked with fluttering laughs, “Oh honey” and “please, don’t.” Just be quiet, she says. He’s had a bad day. Don’t bother him. Don’t bang the cabinet.

What makes you totally lose your shit?

29 thoughts on “What sets your hair on fire?

  1. What makes me totally lose my shit is when the New Zealand Council of Legal Education decides to tell me — a week before the ridiculously arduous overseas lawyer bar exam that I’ve been studying for for 3+ months (while working my fair share of 12-14 days at the office) — that my US qualifications are not sufficient to allow me to take all parts of the exam, that I can only take 4 out of the 6 parts, and that I need to undergo a year or so of undergraduate study in subjects I’ve already taken (in my prior 7 years of undergrad/graduate studies), and that the process will cost me about another $7,000+! To say I’m about to lose my shit is an understatement. So now I get to deal with the bullshit bureaucracy of appealing their baseless decision — all a week before I get to undergo a 2-day exam on all aspects of NZ law!

    The only thing that could possibly top off my day is if I had some screaming children around me. I had to deal with that — get this, in a LIBRARY — when I was studying for the CA bar. I complained to the library about it (isn’t this supposed to be a QUIET place?!) and was basically told to find a new place to study.

    I feel your pain.

  2. Even with all the meditation and whatnot I do, my sisters get to me like no one else can. That, and when life throws so many curveballs that I’m left without energy. The latter happens about once a semester.
    And who is this manager of your co-op? Calling you rude because you say the children below are too loud? If you can hear them 100 feet up, you have every right to complain! Call the cops next time. That’ll send a message.

    1. Sisters? Interesting.

      So true, when you’re worn out, patience is impossible. It’s one reason I get a LOT of sleep! 🙂

      Cops would say I am (which is true) wasting their time. If it continues, I’ll slide an anonymous note beneath the kids’ parents’ door — they are triplets and all have a mouth on them.

  3. Nemesis

    Just between the two of, Ms.Malled…. Buddhists? You might be surprised to discover that your own AngerManagement issues pale in comparison to some of them… Or perhaps it’s just that all that burning incense makes them a ‘tad’ cranky?

    [AlJazeera] – Is this the ‘face of Buddhist terror’?: Time cover featuring Burmese monk Wirathu comes under fire


  4. When you are under stress as you are, you need the peace and quiet to get your work done. I have issues with noise – the TV, the radio, etc. It can drive me insane. You have every right to complain and this world is too damn noisy. I can relate about the home life of your childhood – I am sure the neighbors on the block were well entertained by the daily screaming going on at our house. So I do have a trigger point – abuse of children or animals. And I have been known to turn my car around to try and find the anal opening who yelled at me to get out of the way. Somehow I manage to not totally lose it very often – every few years perhaps. I don’t understand why that is, considering I was raised in such chaos. It is not because I am indifferent to things – I do get very angry sometimes. It may be that I live in a place where there is lots of space and not as populated.

  5. Unwarranted disrespect will do for me every time. Only the anger is always held back at the teeth rather than lose my cool. A short put down usually serves to satisfy me these days since I found that the minute anger takes control you lose the argument. Out of control children has me gritting those teeth though since there’;s little one dare say to them these days without abuse. Don’t parents teach children manners these days? Do they teach them anything at all? xx Hugs xx

    1. Don’t forget…I live in the States, the land of “I can do whatever I want.” Children here often behave monstrously and woe betide anyone who tells them so. When I worked retail and saw plenty of kids in our store, it was always and only the European/foreign kids who behaved beautifully, even little ones, as their parents were quick to quietly discipline them. I miss that!

  6. Rich

    I just totally loved this post. You have a way of getting to the heart of things with no bullshit. I n my family growing up there was silent treatment when people were angry, which was often. Day after day of fucking silence. Then an explosion of anger. Things from when were young stay with us when we are older; especially on an unconscious level. You should consider making your posts into a book format much like Seth Godin did. It justs hits home….

  7. mylifeinfocusblog

    If you think you will find peace and quiet up in the rural part of New York, think again. We have cicadas! For 6 to 9 weeks. Their clatter is similar to a concrete ripping jack hammer! Now, it’s almost impossible to step outside my home because the cicadas land on my body and in my face. They’re all over my clothes. My dog likes to jump up and catch them in her mouth and then eat them! Disgusting. AND NOISY!

    Did you ever think of getting those noise reduction headphones by Bose? I hear (no pun intended) they work rather well to drown out the noise. My daughter uses a white-noise type of machine to drown out the traffic sounds she must endure while living in an apt right above the Lincoln Tunnel. UGH!

    Hope you find the peace you need. Good luck.

    1. Thank heaven we do not have those cicadas! Their noise is terrible indeed.

      It’s so hot and humid this week I’m indoors with AC, so all outdoor noise is muted. I may also spend more time at the library.

      My neighbor uses those headphones for everything.

  8. I used to be very angry. Then I cooled off, and for several years I was numb. A certain amount of anger is necessary for mental health, I think. I do agree with you re noise. Children do not “have” to scream and be at full volume in public spaces. These days, jackhammers are making me lose it. I used to be able to accept them as part of the background noise of living in the city, but by now I’m not so accepting.

    1. I hear you. Anger is exhausting, but so is endlessly repressing the reasons you are feeling that way, many of which are worth addressing, when possible.

      I do not appreciate screaming children because there is no excuse beyond physical pain or serious iminent danger. This is also cultural as some Americans really seem to not care if their children disturb others.

      Jackhammers are awful! So sorry to hear that.

      It’s fascinating to me that this post is by far the LEAST popular I may ever have posted. Trying to decide if people are wary of talking about it or horrified that I admitted to ugly behavior.

      1. Hmm, that’s a good question. My guess is that people don’t like to admit to their anger, even to themselves, because it so often represents deeper issues we all want to pretend aren’t there.

      2. I wonder if it would have garnered more responses had euphemisms been used. “Pissed off, annoyed, panties in twists…” Expressions to candy coat, pass off as momentary or even cute.

      3. Good point.

        The unwillingness to discuss it is all useful information. One of the things I enjoy with the blog is seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. Cute is easy…

        People clearly don’t “like” rage. In which lies the value of actually talking about it.

        Especially female rage, seems to be a rare public phenom. 🙂

      4. I wonder if female anger is so much more terrifying to people because it is usually so heavily hidden/masked. By the time we lose it, it can be explosive. Hence…female depression, which is usually diagnosed as anger turned inward. Not at our house. 🙂

      5. I’d rather be a mentally healthy “bitch” than a quivering people-pleaser. It took me many years to really understand why I get so angry, and accept it. Now my job is to manage it as best I can.

      6. That last bit is important too. I see a number of moms who seem to be encouraging no holds barred anger and aggression in their girls, saying they’ll need it. Produces an equivalent number/level of problems later on.

      7. This is really interesting…I agree, unmodulated rage is ugly and just off-putting. But I have seen so many women hurt professionally and personally by sucking up toxicity and nodding and smiling and loathing their lives.

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