Life Is Beautiful / Life Sucks

“Joyce’s moods were fragile, ephemeral things, subject to dramatic shifts; she could go from euphoria to rage with astonishing speed.”

In late 1981 the Great Falls Tribune ran an article about a married couple, Gary and Joyce Mundt. Gary was sixty-one, Joyce twenty-six. Gary had previously worked for a feed producer, but now suffered from emphysema and was unable to work. The article provided some details about Joyce’s early life. As a child, she recalled, “I was a slow learner and I felt like none of the schools wanted me.” As a result, she was shipped off first to Boulder and later to a Great Falls group home. Eventually she found herself in a run-down hotel where drunks beat on her door at all hours.

According to the article, however, her life turned around because of her marriage to Gary. Joyce took on most household responsibilities, including managing their money and doing the cooking. Friends said she started feeling better about herself and paid more attention to her appearance. They said she was happier, and she and Gary obviously cared about each other. Despite the age difference, some health problems, and a tight budget, they were doing well. The article ended with a prayer that took Joyce eight years to write, asking God to heal all who are sick and handicapped.

I saw Joyce from a different vantage point.

Gary and Joyce were married in the late 1970s, around the time Joyce came to the Center. In 1980 she spent most of the year working in the shop, but when production needs in that area went down, she was transferred to the Glass Department. I had never worked with her, but had heard she was a capable worker, if a bit prickly. The afternoon she arrived, we sat down for a few minutes and I showed her how to do the glass sanding operation.

After the mosaic pieces had been glued to the outside of a glass, but before it could be grouted, emery cloth had to be rubbed lightly around the outside in order to make the edges of the pieces less sharp. This was a quick, relatively easy task; one client could do all the sanding for the Glass Department in two or three hours a week. After showing Joyce how to do it, I held out a glass for her to try.

For several seconds she clenched her fists and gritted her teeth. Suddenly she snatched the glass from me. “Do you know what I think I just might do?” she snarled, seething over this job change she hadn’t asked for and didn’t want. “I might just take this glass and sand it with my face.” She brought the glass, with its sharp, protruding pieces, within an inch of her face, then slowly twisted it back and forth as though she were grinding it into her cheek.

I tried to respond as casually as I could. “Well, Joyce, instead of doing that, why don’t you sand the glass with the emery cloth? It would really help me out if you could finish this tray of glasses by the end of the day.” Then I walked away.

She spent the rest of the afternoon sanding glasses, and the next day she was assigned to my steelwooling crew. She again made clear her disdain for the Glass Department, but Joyce was skilled enough and energetic enough that within a few weeks she became a good steelwooler, cleaning about ten glasses a day. When things went smoothly she was upbeat, a jovial audience for my occasional jokes. Any time I told her how well she was doing, she’d smile at me almost beatifically, then speak slowly and with absolute conviction: “I really am pretty darn good at this, aren’t I?”

But if, a little later, I pointed out parts of her glass that needed additional cleaning, she’d study the glass with the most intense loathing, then growl, “I hate this job.” She’d hold up her left hand, which had a crippled, gnarled look, though it actually grasped things quite well. “And sometimes I can’t control this hand, so it might just pick up this glass and throw it against the wall.” She’d spit out the word throw with particular venom; and as she spoke, she’d grab the glass and make a violent throwing motion, but she never let go of it.

Joyce had the rough, belligerent air of a woman accustomed to walk-up hotels. She was about medium height and weight, and her brown hair always looked greasy. Her mouth seemed sunken, forming a dramatic valley between her large nose and jutting chin.

Some mornings she’d charge into the building, head down, seething with anger. “Good morning, Joyce,” I’d say as we passed in the hall.

She’d continue walking but would turn her head back toward me and snarl at the ground, “I don’t see what’s so good about it.”

Other mornings, just as the clients were streaming onto the workfloor, Joyce would waylay me in a corner of the basement. In a halting voice and with a dreamy look on her face, she’d say to me earnestly, “Glenn… could I please… talk to you for a minute?… It’s… pretty important.”

“Sure, Joyce, for a minute. There are a lot of people coming down now, and I’ve got to help them get started on their work.”

She’d nod her head, then speak in an agonizingly slow voice. “I just wanted to say… that I think you’re a really nice man… and just about the most fantastic supervisor a person could ask for.”

“Well, thanks, Joyce. I like working with you, too. Shall we get to work?”

“You bet,” she’d say, patting my hand and smiling.

Joyce would remain happy, even blissful, for an hour or so, but as soon as the work became boring, or she struggled with a difficult glass, or I showed her some excess grout on a glass she thought she had finished, then her job would change yet again from fantastic to loathsome.

It made for a wild ride, this temperamental instability of Joyce’s, as she careened from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. Her moods were fragile, ephemeral things, subject to dramatic shifts; she could go from euphoria to rage with astonishing speed. Her view of the world routinely underwent sudden and complete transformations. Now life is beautiful; now life sucks. Now life is beautiful; now life sucks. The intrusion of some seemingly small setback, some minor adversity, was all it took to shatter the serenity of the moment, turning the world once again into a hateful place.

Joyce’s anger burst forth with theatrical flair, but was no less genuine for that. Anger is a cumulative emotion; some residue of the anger that is provoked today is stored in our long-term emotional memory, where it adds to the intensity of the anger we may feel tomorrow. Joyce’s outbursts sprang, at least in part, from resentment generated by a lifetime of perceived insults and injustices, a bitter journey from schools that didn’t want her to an institution she must have hated to a hotel where she felt under siege. For Joyce, the adversity of the moment was just another insult thrown at her by the world, and it elicited anger that, although it may have seemed out of proportion to the precipitating event, was simultaneously a product of all the insults that preceded it.

A postscript: I worked with Joyce for several months, until March of 1981. She left the Center then, saying she’d been offered a job cleaning a motel. Whether the job didn’t materialize or simply didn’t go well, she ended up out of work and didn’t reapply at the Center.

At the time of the newspaper article, some eight months later, neither Joyce nor Gary was working. They were able to get by on Gary’s Social Security Disability, Joyce’s Supplemental Security Income, and food stamps. As for their marriage, Joyce was effusive about it. “It’s just beautiful. Everything that we do, we do together,” she said. “The only word for it is fantastic.”

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