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1. MINI-PUTT RAGE

Possibly it only happened once, me flying into a rage while mini-putting with my maternal grandparents, but I remember it as a series. What I remember is that whenever I went mini-putting with them on our cheap summer holidays in New York State, and once in our hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, I ended up in a rage. There is a listing in the OED for “golf rage” and while I actually have been involved in an incident of golf rage, this mini-putt rage had more to do with the collision of the following facts:

  1. 1.My grandparents disliked me.

  2. 2.My grandparents believed that girls were terrible at all sports, including mini-putting.

  3. 3.I was determined to prove them wrong.

  4. 4.I was terrible at mini-putting.

  5. 5.My grandparents believed I had a temper and frequently commented on it.

  6. 6.Nothing made me angrier than being told I had a temper.

The therapists I would later require would call the scenario “crazy-making,” and, indeed, later in life I was crazy-made. At the time all I knew was that the tension was tightening in my muscles; I was steaming like a pot about to boil over. If only I could have been calm and observed myself with amusement. If only I could have risen out of my body. But my body had me trapped there, filling up with the chemicals that would make me react: adrenaline, cortisol, whatever.

I had a temper that I couldn’t control. People’s comments on it did nothing but set me off. I was a puddle of gasoline, ready to ignite. Ten-, eleven-, twelve-year-old me, taking everything seriously, unable to let anything slide, and quickly, predictably riled. An easy target. It was not a good time in my life; everyone in my family was unhappy, I was unpopular at school, and my awkward stage was threatening to stretch on indefinitely.

In “Anger Management,” an Adam Sandler comedy, one character is provoked to anger over and over again and then told he has an anger management problem. I find this set up so distressing that whenever I see a trailer for the film, I have to leave the room. It is not hilarious. It is my life.


• • •


My grandparents lived a day’s drive away in suburban New Jersey. My mother had moved to Canada as a young woman and married a Canadian, and so it was that the four of us lived far enough away from them in the fruit belt of Southern Ontario that we only crossed paths once or twice a year. They were not like other people’s grandparents, the grandparents you hear so much about. They did not squeal delightedly at getting to see us. They shook their heads, clucked their tongues. Whenever we stayed with them or housed them, we awaited their judgments like a lineup of guilty cons.

They were godlike in their power over us, but, unlike the hero of my Calvinist upbringing, they lacked mercy. My grandfather’s first words about my baby brother were said to be, “That’s not a boy.” And then, “What kind of name is Eric?” They believed we were spoiled, and not attractive enough, and had bad personalities. From around the age of seven, I was told I was too fat—they said things like, “You know it’s easier to lose weight when you’re young,” and “Are you sure you want to eat that?” I was mannish and too big and unlikely to be marriageable. When I was twenty-two and, as in a fairy-tale, marrying the man of my dreams, my grandfather said, “I still don’t know how you got that man to marry you.”

What could you say in response to the heavy facts laid out to you like this? What were you supposed to feel about a world in which you were such a loser even your grandparents took a stern tone about it?

Well, you were expected to demur. You were expected to nod your head, to thank them, to save your tears for a private moment. You were not supposed to be dramatic about it. You were not supposed to rage.

We never travelled except to see them. We did not go to exotic beaches or European museums. Disneyland might as well have been make-believe. My parents lived on a very small income—my mother worked part-time at the public library and my father was an underpaid Christian-school teacher—and a big chunk of our income was spent on tithing to our church and paying for Christian education. We could not and did not expect cool clothes or new technologies. By the time we finally got a VCR, DVD players were the thing, and for my birthday parties my mother borrowed a film projector and Laurel & Hardy reels to watch in the basement. The same episode every year.

My grandparents, by contrast, were rich. They were living the American dream. My enterprising grandfather had, with only a high school education, learned to invest in stocks and real estate and, by their fifties, they were worth about a million dollars. They owned three properties, one of which was a trailer with a screened-in porch that sat just beside Lake Pleasant in the Adirondack mountains of New York. It was there that we went on all of our vacations, the six of us housed together in that two-bedroom, two-hundred-square-foot space. And we were expected to have fun.

For several of those painful years, a shabby mini-putt place was attached to the trailer park. Every year my family, out of optimism or stupidity, decided that we ought to go mini-putting. It was cheap, it was nearby, and the ice cream cones you could buy afterwards were less than a dollar apiece. I was just as optimistic and just as stupid as they were. I never foresaw that I would end up angry and ashamed because of my anger and then further ashamed when my desire for an ice cream cone was identified and, within my earshot, diagnosed.

“She’s got quite the appetite,” my grandmother clucked.

“Lotta calories in ice cream,” said Grandpa, shaking his head.

“What do you think is wrong with her?”

We got our clubs, we got our brightly coloured balls, we got the little score sheet; we got the tiny pencils. We stood there, the six of us, deciding who would go first. The AstroTurf was waterlogged and squelched under our feet, emitting a mildew smell. Nearby mosquitoes whined in our ears. My brother, youngest and most athletic, would ably make each hole in two or three shots, while I gripped my club and gritted my teeth, praying for his demise. When it was my turn, I stood with the putter in my hands, arms straight, and drew from a deep well of patience as I waited for the little teal ball to settle into a slight dip in the green. In that moment, perfection was still possible, and in my hope and stupidity I imagined what my grandparents would say:

“Wow, Liz, you are really good at mini-putting.”

“I had no idea how graceful you were.”

“I guess we were wrong about you.”

Of course, I would not make the shot. I would take four strokes, then five. The ball would roll over the hole without going in. By the third hole, I would once more find myself being heckled:

“Look how serious she is.”

“She’s awfully competitive.”

My mother’s smile would stretch tight as a wire. My brother smugly shrugging off praise. At the fourth hole, a tricky one, my ball might drag in its approach and then, as though it too desired to thwart me in all my endeavours, would hit the plywood arm of the slow-turning windmill and return slowly to me. “I am not competitive,” I might say, picking up the ball and nearly falling flat on my face. The last thing I need, right at that moment, is to fall flat on my face.

Then Grandma whispers to Mom: “Oh, Ger, she still has that temper.”

And then it happens. The frustration snaps into rage like the snapping of teeth. Before I know what I am doing I slice at the ball with my putter, with enough force to launch it into the air past the windmill where it smacks against a wooden fence post and then ricochets in the direction of some other group, nearly hitting some stranger in the face. I have already half-screamed, half-grunted, “Argh!” and the strangers, with potbellies and fanny packs and unhappy children of their own, gape at me.

“Liz!” Everyone is shocked and horrified.

I want to insist that I do not have a temper, but the proof is there. The heat of the anger, somewhat dispersed by my violence against the tiny ball, has morphed into some shaky aftereffect. I drop the putter and stomp away. My skin is prickly and red, and I sit down on a curb in the parking lot and scowl.

“Liz!” My grandmother says it sharply, aghast and chagrined, a familiar pose. My name said in that particular tone so many times that even now, some twenty years later, when I hear it in her mouth my blood starts to boil.




2. Irascible

We all know what anger is, and how it feels, and what it does to us. It is, as the OED tells us, “hot displeasure.” Many of our idioms about anger involve heat or explosives: the fiery temper, the short fuse, the hot head. We even believe that redheads with their fiery hair are more prone to it.

In his taxonomy of the passions, Aquinas divides them into the concupiscible—desires that reach in a linear way from the agent to the object, like hunger or lust—and irascible, those passions that arise when man or beast is thwarted in achieving the object of his concupiscible desires. When a person is vexed, when a dog steals another dog’s bone, anger erupts, arises, develops a life of its own. As Aquinas points out, it’s not about chewing on the bone anymore. Now a new desire has arisen—the irascible desire—to destroy one’s enemy. Perhaps we are at the mercy of anger, then, the way we are often at the mercy of our hunger and our lust. Because we have bodies. Because we are beasts.

Once the heat of anger has cooled, we can take account of all that we’ve destroyed. Anger is the gateway to regret: it vexes me, and then it vexes me again.

Who wants to be the attack dog? Nobody feels like a predator; we all feel vulnerable as prey. We are all hissing, or puffing up our chests, or baring our fangs in order to defend our helplessly driven bodies. It damages me—my ego or my self or my soul or whatever tender part it is inside me that all of the barbed wire is trying to protect.  I feel like Frankenstein’s monster, or like some other ogre with a heart of gold. I feel like a giant stomping around so that the earth quakes while the villagers flee.




3. PREGNANCY ROAD RAGE

During my first pregnancy six years ago, I put on around seventy pounds. The bigger I got, the angrier I got. I was angry all the time for about five months of that pregnancy, a simmering rage that I was mostly able to keep inside. I didn’t yell at my husband. I didn’t yell at the friend who quoted to me the new finding that mothers who were stressed during their pregnancy would bear children who tended to be stressed. I didn’t yell at the customers at the library where I worked, though they said things which provoked me, such as: “Oh, you’re awfully big.” And: “Are you sure you aren’t having twins?” I didn’t yell at the irritating colleague who lectured me about eating peanut butter. Or the acquaintance who, seeing me with a coffee cup in my hand, pleaded, “But what about the bay-bee?”

What about the baby? I saved my rants for daily obsessive walks around the neighbourhood with my husband. What about me?

I watched a good deal of reality TV, got bigger and bigger. I was like a person in a sumo costume watching helplessly as it filled up with air. Partly it was water—I was water-logged, swollen in my feet and ankles and fingers and face—and the rest of it was baby and fat. Perhaps I would drown in my own flesh.

I was again becoming that twelve-year-old girl in her awkward chubby stage, bewildered by what was happening to her body and then being scolded for it. Everyone, even strangers, seemed to react with horror—the efforts my grandparents had made to police my body, ever failing, now being taken up by the general population. I wanted to be left alone and invisible, and everywhere I went I was a sideshow freak.

On one of the shows I watched in those days, trying to distract myself, Tori Spelling, likewise pregnant, said to her husband, “This conversation is giving me road rage.”

Despite being, strictly speaking, incorrect, her sentiment felt true. So many conversations were giving me road rage. I was trapped, like a person trapped in traffic. My body was heavy as a car, and people were being jerks, driving around me and shouting at me through their windows. I was too polite to give them the finger, to say “fuck you.” By the time I was thirty-seven weeks along I was so desperate to give birth I would have tried anything. But I was the watched pot, never boiling, and my impatience led me to agree to a cesarean section I didn’t need.

The rage Tori Spelling and I were experiencing was not road rage, of course. It was only the regular sort of rage, the build-up of frustration, the feeling that you are not in control—that other people are being unfair. Maybe most people are only familiar with this while driving, but, excepting “roid rage”, that rage common to people on steroids, I have experienced the range of rages, and some that have not yet been coined. Pregnancy rage, watched pot rage, mini-putt rage.

And then there are the rages tracked by lexicography. The following examples are listed in the OED:

“But after road rage and trolley rage, where a shopper attacked someone who complained about queue-jumping, could we soon be seeing ‘cash machine rage’?”

“The audible car alarm has become an appalling blight on our urban existence... It is beyond time for legislation banning these obsolete accessories before we have a case of alarm rage.”

“A schoolboy was throttled by a man in a ‘golf rage’ attack... [He] was attacked when he went to apologise to a family after his golf ball narrowly missed them.”

“I shudder to think what would happen were Bristol to become a cycle-only zone—cycle rage and accidents would become commonplace.”

Golf rage, alarm rage, cash machine rage, and cycle rage. The anger arises when we are impatient and other people are slow. People will not act as we want them to act. Or, in the case of mini-putt rage, the situation is set up to make a fool of you. We become angry not in response to threats to our safety but to our striving. Despite all of our advances and conveniences and our expectation for speed, the problem of our existence remains: we are driven and thwarted by powers beyond our control.




4. MOMMY RAGE

It helps when there are no bullies around to heckle you. Which is why when I see a person erupt into an angry fit, I usually do not feel fear but sympathy. I even sometimes feel relief: glad that it is not me with my finger in someone’s face, eyes bugged out. People race for the computers at the public library where I work, and fight over the machines or yell at each other about perceived slights, and it is usually proof of poverty and the cascade of stressors that come with it, because they are hungry and tired and frustrated and then other people cluck their tongues. I do not want to be like my grandparents, contributing to another person’s stress and then chiding them when they finally lose their temper.

And now that I’ve had children, my hard-won well of patience is growing deeper, my fuse longer. Especially for adults, even for ill-behaved ones, because even the worst of us are more civilized than toddlers. Toddlers are still beasts, wild and writhing and screaming, “No!” An angry person having a tantrum is really just a toddler.

I know this, because in parenting under stressful circumstances, I have become a toddler. Nothing is more humbling than discovering that there is a person inside of you capable of feeling murderously angry at a baby. The baby is angry because you are taking away a toy she might choke on, or because you are strapping her into the car seat to protect her life, and you are supposed to accept this unreasonable behavior. They are cute and volatile, like aspiring actresses, and you are supposed to be responsible, adult, and calm. You are not supposed to scream at them. I know I am not the only one because I have seen plenty of uses of the term “mommy rage” in forums and blogs online.

The struggle, and often the failure, to have patience for my children has brought me so low that I have often wished for a group more like AA than church, where sins really are accepted and forgiven. Near rock bottom, three years in to parenthood, I said to a Catholic friend that I was praying for patience.

She laughed. “Oh, there’s your mistake. You don’t pray for patience or God gives you more ways for your patience to be tested.”

Oh. Damn. That seems right. Because any patience I now have has been won through the difficulty of dealing with unreasonable children, and through the work I’ve done to overcome my rage in therapy. Or through reading, crying, running long distances, meditating, yoga, and anything else I could think to do.




5. SERENITY NOW

Five years into motherhood and pregnant with my third child, all of these things had somehow managed to help. I was a distant relation of that enormously angry, enormously pregnant woman I had once been. I was calm, and happy, and, sometimes, even, a font of wisdom. I had a sense of humour about my size; I had tried everything to keep from gaining weight during my pregnancies—diet and exercise and acupuncture—and nothing helped: the pounds piled on through each one and then peeled off afterwards. I accepted that I was not in control of this or anything. Found the serenity to accept that which I could not change. I no longer got angry at people for having reactions about my size. It was not their fault that they were walking straight into a complex I’d long had, and nothing they could say about me would change the facts. What did it matter what anybody said about you? What did they know? How had I not known this before?

It is unfortunate for me that I was not born a lioness or a bear or hunter-gatherer in some environment where threats were numerous and my explosions of adrenaline would have come in handy. There are plenty of threats now, but most of them will not be defeated by my rage: traffic, pedophiles, commercials, junk food. Instead, they are contributing factors to my growing anxiety, an anxiety that, I’m learning, is a trigger for my anger. If you are a recovering rage-aholic, like I am, deeply ashamed of your last outburst, it really can help to acknowledge that which you cannot change.

One thing I cannot change is my grandparents. For many years, I attempted revenge. In high school, I developed a serious eating disorder in an attempt to prove something to them, and ended up hurting only myself. And when I got married, I hoped that my happiness and apparent marriageability would do something to change their opinion of me. But nothing could make them budge on their assessment: I was a fat loser with a bad temper. I was, as they say about anger, drinking poison and expecting my enemy to die.

I eventually dropped out of the fight with my grandparents, conceded defeat, stopped drinking poison. Besides, it is more difficult to want to throttle an eighty-five-year-old with a bad heart than a sixty-something gazillionaire. The last time I saw them, my grandfather told me a story about my cousin’s daughter, a child they had deemed “too frisky” and “too active” and, shaking their heads in dismay, “a real handful.” My own frisky, active, handful of a child they had deemed perfect and sweet for equally obtuse reasons. As evidence, my grandfather told me this story:

“We were having dinner with N______, and she—you know she was only one year old—she picked up a knife and threw it right at me!”

My grandparents had looked at a perfectly normal toddler picking up an object and throwing it and deemed her a psychopath wielding a weapon. How could anybody get angry about something as silly as that? Perhaps age has worn away my ragged edges, but sometimes I see now how useless getting angry can be. My grandparents have always been unreasonable; perhaps they always will be. This is, I realize now, not a threat to my dignity, nor is it a frustrating misunderstanding that I could waste all my energy trying to set right. And so, realizing this, when my grandfather told me this story I did what I had never been able to do. I did the thing expected of me, for once in my life. I nodded and smiled.

“So you’re telling me that N_____ threw a knife at you? On purpose?”

My grandmother shook her head woefully.

My grandfather said, “Well, you know. She’s very, very frisky.”

“I think maybe you mean feisty?” I said. But they have hearing problems now, and didn’t hear me, and so I nodded, and I smiled,, and soon it was time for me to go.






ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liz Windhorst Harmer lives in Hamilton, Ontario. In 2013, her creative non-fiction won The Malahat Review’s Constance Rooke Award and was first runner-up in The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest. Her fiction can be found at Little Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Vanderbilt/Exile award. She is at work on a novel and an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.


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BT #002 © 2013 Liz Windhorst Harmer. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, November 2013.

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