Monthly Archives: February 2014

Under Construction

We’re all works in progress.  Right now, feverish and bronchially challenged, I am working on ridding myself of this parasitic virus which claims squatter’s rights to the lining of my lungs and the lion’s share of my energy, the little fucker.  In my delirium, an idea of late has loomed large enough to allow an assembly of some words in some order; maybe I’ll wait to edit when I’m well and will laugh and laugh.

I have a tendency to categorize people and dig in my heels to make them stay in that category.  I want ALL KINDS of room for others to allow me to change, to make mistakes, and to learn from them, but grant very little space to others to evolve.   I know I’m not alone in this sloppy way of thinking, and I try to be conscious of it.  It’s human, I know– but it’s not humane.

When I was going to school for different types of counseling we learned to avoid labeling people by their varying afflictions– so very PC, but, necessary too– someone is not “a schizophrenic,” but rather a person– a whole person,  with dark hair, and blue eyes, and a memory of grandma’s pie from childhood, who played the bassoon in high school and had his first girlfriend sophomore year in college, and who found out that same year that he suffered from schizophrenia. But something puritanical in us wants to make sure an addict is continually reminded of the past, of his affliction, and shamed for it too.  “I know exactly who and what you are, you opioid addict!  Hide the valuables, Clyde!”  We want to keep that person in the small box of shame.  In that vein, an ex-smoker is not a smoker in recovery– I am an ex-smoker, but I would never define myself by the absence of cigarettes.  But other addicts remain labelled addicts for a lifetime.

The dryly funny Jon Ronson is writing a book on public shaming, the fun new game to play on the internet.  Public shaming, Ronson says, was outlawed as inhumane beyond Colonial times because it attempts to permanently define us by our worst aspects. Attempts to PERMANENTLY DEFINE US BY OUR WORST ASPECTS.  Puts each of us in a classification and throws away the key.  It doesn’t matter that last week you rescued kittens; this week you were caught driving drunk.  So now you’re a drunk driver, no longer a kitty-hero.  We want people to stay within our own (changing) definition of what’s “normal,” what’s “acceptable” (this sin, not that one– or, no, that one is now OK provided it meets criteria 2-B and 192, see codicil A).  When people don’t, we make them hurt for it.  We label them, forget them, avert our eyes, secretly ashamed not of them or for them but of ourselves, fearing most the very thing we suspect exists in us.

People are amalgams, shape-shifters, changelings.  Ask any college freshman at Christmas break and he will tell you what we all need to hear, again and again:  “I’ve changed.”  Sure, there is a core, you can see the six year old girl in the 93 year old’s rheumy eyes, but the thick nougat outside the core compresses and changes color, gets smashed and extruded by life experiences, is kneaded and proofed and allowed to rise.  ALLOWED.  That’s what we must do for each other– give permission to one another to surprise, disappoint, go crazy, become unrecognizable–and then revert back.  See?  See me?  It’s the same core– the same eyes you knew.  We have been under construction, and will continue to be so for some time.  We are not just one thing, we are a billion things, a mosaic of good things and bad, a soupcon of evil, a measure of selfish, bits of nasty and a truck load of trying.  Until the last day, we keep trying.  In the meantime, excuse the dust.


Courage is defined as the capacity to move forward despite fear, and I have rarely been afraid.  Sure, when the prince has been sick, or certainly when I knew my mother was dying, but those ordeals never came with another option.  I couldn’t opt out, I couldn’t ask someone else to suffer the worry or spend the night watching over my feverish kid.  So being brave really means moving forward despite fear when there is another option.  And that is noble.

In modern life, there are few opportunities.  Firemen, police, people whose job it is to be brave, of course.  But for the rest of us… there is little opportunity for nobility.  We are not the greatest generation, asked to make sacrifices at home and abroad during WWII.  We are the fat generation, toiling away at computers to give our kids dance lessons and dinners out.  I once complained to my brother that I would never be noble, nothing requiring nobility was ever asked of me and I’m too lazy to seek it out.  We are too soft, we have come to accept too much as our due.

Of late I have come to understand that the noble thing, the brave thing, can be very quiet, very subtle.  It can mean accepting a diagnosis and going ahead with the chemo when you want to quit.  It can mean thinking “Why me?” and saying “Why not me?”   It can mean attending the arraignment, accepting what lies ahead, and acting on plans for the future.  Because there will be a future.

Because there WILL be a future.  Sometimes being brave means walking through dark times, just breathing, just taking this next meal, this bad medicine, because you MUST, because there is the future to think of.  This time, when you must be brave, will be a horrible story ten years from now.  Horrible stories don’t kill– giving up, that kills.

Head up, shoulders back.  Hard times ahead.  Don’t give up.  Be brave.

…Don’t hide in the corner, pointing fingers at your past. Don’t sit under the table, talking about someone who has hurt you. Instead, stand up and face your past! Face your fears! Face your pain! And stomach it all! You may have to do so kicking and screaming and throwing fits and crying- but by all means- face it!

This life makes no room for cowards.

-C. Joybell C.

For NPR Fans

First and most obvious: in a rubric of hiring appeal, do you get extra points if your name is way cooler than the average Jane’s?  The correspondent whose name I hold most dear is Ofaebia Quist-Arcton.  Names just do not get cooler than that.  But they get close: Neda Ulaby.  Doualy Xaykaothao.  Lakshmi Singh. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.   I want all these women to come to dinner at my house, I will cook them anything they like if they’ll just talk, about the world and issues that are beyond me, in those lovely quirky voices.

My favorite ones to listen to (content aside, this is just ear candy) are Ofaebia, with her serious, raspy Ghanan-accented voice, and Sylvia Poggioli, with her lilting Italian, pursed-lip pronunciation.  She sounds like she could deliver the worst news in a voice of crying itself: so sad!  Her voice is so sad!  I want Michele Norris near my death bed; her voice is pure comfort, breathy but substantive, low-pitched.  I hear her saying, “It’s fine, you’ll be just fine where you’re going,” and I’ll believe every softly proffered word.  You know you want Renee Montaigne at your next party; she seems like two glasses of wine away from hilarity.  And Audie Cornish could talk about anything: this woman sounds like high IQ anthropomorphized.

I love Fresh Air with Terry Gross, but I do no love her voice.  And, baldly, two others are worse: Diane Rehm is impossible to listen to.  I understand she has had a medical issue which has compromised her voice and that is sad, but no sadder than Bo Jackson with a broken hip.  Sometimes you have to limp off the field and leave the harder stuff to people who remain whole.  And– ew.  Zoe Chace.  Zoe, Zoe, Zoe.  I just googled her and there’s a short clip of her on youtube.  Seeing her talk is better than hearing her talk, I’ll admit that.  Up until now I pictured her as the Wendy’s restaurant “Wendy” all grown up, with broadened nose and bright red hair and freckles, all eager and clumsy and earnest.  She looks much more polished than that but her voice?  OUCH.  Also she has GOT to learn how not to say “like,” as she much as she does, which is, like, way too much.  Remember the old insult: “he has a face for radio?”  Zoe has a voice for Sign Language.

Finally, if you’re a fan and you’ve never heard Fred Armisen “do” Ira Glass, you must:


John 8:7

Pick a sin, any sin.  How about adultery, to which this bible verse refers.  How about theft, or killing.  These are things we all would not do– not for any amount of money, not under ANY circumstances.  Right?

Ethics and morals are situational– they are seated in context.  So although I think of myself as someone who would never lie, I would in fact lie about Anne Frank in my attic were Nazis at my door.  This is called responding to the appeal of higher loyalties, or deciding that my personal ethic of never lying will be overthrown for the higher loyalty to saving Anne Frank.

I am someone who would never kill, but I would if it meant saving my child’s life, or saving the life of someone else I love, including myself.

I don’t steal.  But if stealing meant I could feed my hungry child, I would have zero problem hiding that loaf of bread or can of tuna in my coat.

These examples all are simplistic, the easiest way to make the point.  What would you do given these circumstances?  It’s obvious.  But sometimes an occasion of sin is much more complex.

Would you kill, not for someone you love, but in a rage of withdrawal symptoms while trying to procure the precious drug?  You can’t know that unless you’ve been possessed by the demon of addiction.

Would you steal to cover up a gambling problem?  Again, unless you have a gambling problem, it’s hard to make that call.

What if your kids aren’t hungry, but are disappointed in the life you’ve been able to provide?  What if you’re looking at Christmas with a negative bank balance and children at the point of tears?

I posted an answer over at Quora about Cash Assistance clients, nearly all single mothers, and their occasional dips into committing welfare fraud:

Where I sit at work I’m privy to interviews the agents from the Office of Investigator General conduct on just these cases.  The OIG agent begins by showing the client this application and that form, completed without the unreported info.  “Is this your signature?”  “Can you tell me why, if you began work in February at XYZ, you waited until August to report that income?”  And the answers are: I forgot, I thought I did, I tried to call, I meant to, I didn’t think it mattered, I didn’t think it counted.  None of those answers are true.  Just once, I’d like to hear someone tell the agent:  “I know I should have.  I was just trying to get ahead, feed my kids, save for Christmas.”

So, take a single mom.  A woman.  This woman can’t make enough to provide for her children.  Let’s make it more complex.  Let’s make her a survivor of a Fellini-esque childhood of nightmares.  Let’s have her bear her first child at age fourteen.  Let’s make her the victim of an abusive first husband.  Let’s give her a few more attempts at trusting men enough to have children with them, too.  And let’s allow those men to leave her, each time a little poorer, a little less trusting, a little more damaged by a largely misogynistic society that allows women to flounder alone, with pitiably little financial help from her children’s fathers.  As if this cake of pain needs icing, let’s allow her to suffer terrible loss- say a sister murdered, or a child having committed suicide.  Let’s watch her try to recover from that, with never enough money, with no one to help carry the burden of the already difficult day-to-day life.

Take this woman.  Watch her commit a crime, one that temporarily eases the financial strain, relieves the pressure of providing for the children.  Watch her enjoy a meal out with the kids.  Watch her buy a child a new pair of fancy shoes.  Watch the child smile and hug Mommy.

Can you imagine it?  Ask yourself: under that much crushing disappointment in life, what would I do?  Can you admit how that could be you?  Or are you like the Pharisees, rushing the harlot to Jesus, “look, look Master, she was caught in the act, see how awful she is…?”

WWJD?  This is what Jesus did:  “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”  Stone her, put her to death, if you will, if you must, but only if you yourself are without sin.  Only if you have never stolen a bit, say, from the IRS.  Only if you have never found an extra item in your bagged groceries and didn’t rush to bring it to the clerk’s attention, “hey, I didn’t pay for this.”  Only if you have never been a tiny bit dishonest for profit of some kind.

A sin is a sin, a crime is a crime, and victims should have their day, their say, and their justice, as is fitting.  That’s what Jesus called for: Justice– but not without mercy.  For those of us not victimized, those of us who admit, “I am not without sin, I will not throw that stone,” our job is to ask for and have mercy –for that woman, and for ourselves.

Ice Dream

No wind yesterday to strip the snow from the puffy white pipe cleaner tree limbs, which bent gracefully earthward like overweight balletic arms.  Sky pinked at dawn, fog rising from the snow in the bitter air, it was a tableau from a Frost poem, from a Kinkade painting, from a wistful Winston winter melody,

Today the same trees are encased in half an inch of ice.  No grace.  Aching arthritically, breaking, broken to the ground, the same limbs wet, blackened, and surrendered.  This is the nightmare in a Poe poem,  a Munch painting, a Mahler symphony.

Modern life slaps, flails, at the landscape and Nature laughs.  The sane response is atavistic; curl up, stay warm, cower at the sight of the Ice Dream.  Go back to sleep, sleep another dream, a dream of spring.


Four inches of wet, heavy snow.  I’d been out twice since 6:15, clearing the snow from two cars, shoveling.  It was 10:30 now, and the snow continued.  “Sugar?”

“Yeah Mom…” He starts down the stairs and faces me.

“I’m going to need you to take a turn here, Dad was out once and I’ve been out twice…”

*eye roll, exasperated look, like he’s beleaguered by constant requests like these instead of largely spared*

Now at 11:30, with yet more snow on the ground, the plow had come through and boxed us in with another margin of packed icy shit at the end of the driveway.  I came in, sodden, pink-faced, glasses fogged, breathing heavily.

“…Phew, oh my god.  Wow…”

“Mom, you ok?”

“Just give me a minute to catch my breath, I– oh, wow. Phew.”  I milked it a bit, I’m actually fitter than this.  “I, uh, I just really need your help,” I said as I gasped and shook my head.  “I’m just not strong enough to move that heavy stuff at the end of the driveway…”

The prince widens his shoulders, shrugs on his coat, peels on his hat, and says with the authority of a man who’s got business to attend to, “I got this.”

Tell Me a Story and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

This week, This American Life featured an archived piece about parents and their adult children.  Of special interest to me was the assertion that some of the friction between people and their adult children stems from each having a different narrative about how the growing up years went.  Children generally have a darker view than do their parents, and tend to have a dimmer recollection of how well their parents did.

The same events, remembered differently, because we need to re-shape our stories to suit our ends.  We need to live with ourselves– we need to sleep!  We need to live with these stories.

The adult child struggles with a bad decision here, a lazy choice there, and it’s easier to evoke the flawed way we grew up as the cause.  The parent, ever aware that more could have been done, better choices could have been made, less selfish behavior employed, reframes the parenting as having been slightly better than it was, the good old days burnished a bit more golden.

We are nothing but a collection of our stories. Stuff happens to us, people are placed in our lives, we are thrust into circumstances not of our choosing (the prince consort and I began our parenting lives with the guiding light of a New Yorker cartoon, that of the harried New York couple bringing the baby home to a bare apartment for the first time and the baby deadpans, “oh great, humble beginnings.”).  How we react to our environment and its dynamics is what becomes the story.  Was the lighting dim and romantic or dark and sinister?  The tone of a single event is shaped over time to fit our characterization of our place in life.

I tend to self-deprecate– my narrative is generally that of the buffoon.  I have confidence that I will literally die of having slipped on a banana peel.  When asked to tell a story that defines me, it is likely to be something like the time I ran like the devil to catch a commuter flight at LaGuardia and made it on to the tiny plane just in time to take the last seat– which was covered in the last passenger’s vomit.  My stories are like that– hapless, failing.  This is important to my identity as the clown– not someone who is terribly funny, but whose efforts in life generally end up laughable.

My one sister can tell darling stories about me as a child– and as a teenager– things I don’t remember, but which characterize me as really lovable, bright, sweet.  What I remember, especially of myself as a teenager, is that I was moody, depressive, negative, fearful.  Another sister remembers our growing up as having been benign and wholesome, who recalls my father as having been hearty and good-natured.  There are seven other of us who say the same man was scary, ill-tempered, our house’s mood that of walking on eggshells.

We are stories, the stories we tell others and the ones we tell ourselves.  No iteration of the same event is the truth, but all are true in some way, and make us who we are: hero, victim, peacemaker, witness, or clown.

(Edit: It’s time those of us over 30 cut our parents a break.  They did the best they could for the most part.  They’re remembering as they need to.  We have one version: they have another– getting them to admit it happened exactly as we say serves neither party.  Time to let it go, and give them the space and forgiveness we’ll one day ask of our kids.)