In Praise of Foolery (Or: Cartoons Can Save Your Life)

David Corbett

I’m what’s prosaically referred to as a lapsed Catholic (think laissez-faire agnostic with sloppy Buddhist hankerings). So I’m not sure how the Mass begins anymore, but last time I attended Sunday services, the first exchange between the priest and the congregation quoted the 43rd Psalm:

            I will go to the altar of God

            To God, the joy of my youth

Or, for those who gaze back longingly at the Latin Liturgy:

            Introibo ad altáre Dei

            Ad Deum qui laetíficat juventútem meam

I puzzled over this line when I first heard it, wondering why God evoked—or might even be equated with—the happiness of childhood. And I assumed it meant that beholding the sacred is much the same as the sense of astonishment that characterizes our earliest perceptions, that sense of boundless wonder, both inviting and frightening in its mystery.

But if I’m perfectly honest, the joy of my youth was largely defined by cartoons.

Of particular influence was the inimitable Michigan J. Frog:

(YouTube won’t let me embed the video, but to watch the full cartoon, click here.)

Among all the cartoons I watched as a kid, this one stuck with me more than most, because of its cosmic punch line: Every silver lining has a cloud. Somehow, even at the wee age of whatever, I was already an ironist.

My oldest brother, who ultimately became a research psychologist—excuse me: Human Factors Engineer (ahem)—for the Defense Department, said it was “frightening” to observe how much of my personality was formed by Rocky & Bullwinkle:

I’m not sure how “frightening” I was—or am—but I’m a little stunned at how unfunny that cartoon clip is. (I included this particular one because it has two characters named for my original and current hometowns, Columbus and Vallejo—again, that little noodge of irony).

As I grew up I put aside childish things—yeah, right—until college, when I discovered you can indeed learn a lot from Lydia:

Groucho, Chico and Harpo reacquainted me with the daring face-slap of the absurd, the mad grand fun of chaos—the sanity of craziness—and did so in a way that Duchamps and Breton and Artaud couldn’t touch. I realized that in the eternal bout between scholar and clown—I mean, come on, is it even fair?

Later, I’d become entranced with The Simpsons, of course, the best satire ever to appear on TV:

But I don’t think I ever quite understood the full, life-affirming, soul-saving necessity of cartoons until I met my late wife Terri.

Terri left home at the age of fifteen for reasons too personal to disclose here, but as she was big sis, and big sis was basically mom, her younger brother and sister trailed along, and she supported them all by working as a piece-rate seamstress, the same trade as her beloved Italian grandmother.

But Terri’s brother John was troubled, and when he unwisely dropped a tab of acid at age sixteen it caused a psychotic break. His incipient schizophrenia came on full-blown, and as the only responsible adult in the family anyone could locate, Terri had to go to Herrick to approve treatment. The doctors wanted to give John electroshock, and trusting them, she gave her consent—resulting in her little brother’s now being not just schizophrenic but brain-damaged.

This threw Terri into an emotional tailspin she would spend the next ten years trying to pull out of. And John’s schizophrenia didn’t drop out of the sky. The term “schizophrenogenic mother” has fallen on hard times, diagnostically speaking—no point blaming the primary caregiver for the patient’s illness—or, as one researcher put it:

From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, the concept of the “schizophrenogenic mother” was popular in the psychiatric literature. Research later confirmed that the mother who could cause schizophrenia in her offspring did not exist. Such a blame-levelling concept, which had no basis in scientific fact, may have caused a great deal of harm.

All of this is true, I suppose. But Terri said when she read the diagnostic description in a textbook she suffered an epiphany: That’s Mom. (I had the same experience when I saw the DSM précis for Borderline Personality Disorder and thought it read like my mother’s bio, but I digress.)

I don’t mean to hammer Terri’s mom. She had her own broken soul and deserves as much compassion as anyone. But what Terri found familiar in the diagnostic description was the pendulum swing between distant and judgmental on the one hand, and overly involved, even intrusive and oblivious to boundaries on the other. Nothing was ever quite what it seemed, words often meant nothing, and emotional ambiguity was coin of the realm. “I love you” could be rendered with such indifference or even jealousy that it was easier just to wait, watch and live in a shadow state of denial—until that was no longer possible, as became the case when Terri, at age eighteen, had to deal with the guilt being the one who’d approved John’s destructive “treatment.”

Terri’s ten-year emotional deep freeze only thawed after intensive therapy, aided by—you’re way ahead of me—cartoons.

You never have to guess what a cartoon is feeling. No ambiguity here. When Bugs is happy, he’s reeeeeaaaalllly happy. When Sylvester the Cat is sad, the slobbering tears can’t come fast enough. And when Yosemite Sam (or Riff-Raff Sam, as in the above clip) is mad, well, you get it.

Through this ingenious if unorthodox psychoanalytic technique, Terri got back in touch with her emotions. And it gave her a marvelously goofy quality. One day, puzzling over the curious fit of a real-life PI with a closet cartoon character, she confronted me with: “What you need is a moxie moll. What are you doing with a goonybird like me?”

And I thought: God save me from moxie molls.

To the horror of her more uptight lawyer friends, we spent one of her birthdays roasting weinies and eating frosted animal cookies. “David didn’t take you out to someplace nice?” one woman asked. Terri almost bounced: “Nope. It was so cool.”

Don’t get me wrong, Terri was as down-to-earth a person as I’ve ever met, congenitally practical in the way only Italian women can be. And she was smart—she didn’t just sofa-surf cartoons, she read Nietzsche and Toni Morrison and Edna St. Vincent Millay. (I led her astray, turning her on to Robert B. Parker and John Harvey.) But cartoons saved her life.

Not surprisingly, her favorite movie was Roger Rabbit:

Terri was an estate planning and probate lawyer, married to a man who, like Eddie, has a short fuse, so you can imagine how much she enjoyed that ending. And I sometimes wonder if that scene weren’t a reasonable facsimile of the world Terri inhabited most days, at least until ovarian cancer made foolery a bit less fun. Still, even as death crept closer, she retained a pretty good sense of humor, despite the fear, the disintegration of her body and her hope, the dementia. Cartoons couldn’t save her then.

She loved life like no one I’ve ever met, which made seeing her lose her life so young feel so cruel. She was the bravest, kindest, silliest, smartest, most fundamentally honest person I’ve ever known. She remains my hero. I hope, in some small way, I live up to her example.

But there’s a coda, and it involves a caramel-colored pound poodle named Bugsy. (Please excuse the small image; Squarespace and I are having our issues over photos.)

We adopted him and soon discovered he was, to quote Groucho, “the most glorious creature under the sun.” He looked like a Paddington bear. I have friends who still talk about him glowingly–he was that kind of dog. He bounced. He buried his ball in a blanket so he could pretend it was hidden, then dig it up. His stubby tail wagged like a hummingbird. He was the closest thing to a living cartoon I’ve ever known.

Bugsy survived Terri by five years, and was as clownishly sweet as she was right up until the end. The circumstances of his passing eerily mimicked hers, so much so I wrote about it in the following poem, and I add it here not to crank the sad into maudlin, but to add a final and appropriate touch of wonder. These two incomparable beings returned to me the joy of my youth. I’m grateful.


Same disease, same lousy luck.

Dogs get cancer, who knew?

Worse, poor guy’s resistant to his chemo,

like you were, all that muck rattling in his lungs.

And it’s that time of year, so close

to the five-year mark of your death.

To be fair it’s not so terrible. Not yet.

Credit the steroids, I suppose.

Got the appetite of a hobo,

still fetches his ball some, nuzzles my hand,

but his hair’s going, each breath brings a cough.

As for me, in five years I’ve learned to let go.

I get it, the finger-snap of life, drinking

from the dharma’s clear, cold well

or whatever Buddhist bullshit applies.

I recall your take on such things.

Phooey, to be brief.

I wonder if that’s changed,

where you are. If anywhere.


I remember the last place you were too well—

tube jammed up your nose, down your throat

into your gut to pump out the shit-brown sludge

that would rot your insides if not drained away.

Belly like a watermelon, your gaze a howl—

you wandered the cancer ward day and night,

bed to chair to hallway to bathroom to bed again,

tidal surge of morphine in your veins,

the doctors baffled by your pain.

Vomiting, pissing yourself. My bride.


For all that, though, I pity

those unscathed by great love.

What I know of things divine, I learned

from you. You and this rascal dog:

rescued from the pound, spared

the killing needle and nursed back

from kennel cough and garbage gut

and, once, less ominously, a bee sting to his nose—

taffy colored, the moist rough flesh ballooned—

then, in later years, pancreatitis, viral warts.

The whole doggy diagnostic, now this.

Through it all, he’s been gentle, honey-hearted.

He’s grateful—freed prisoners don’t forget—

but uncanny as well. After you died,

he began each day by crawling onto my chest,

curling his paws onto my shoulders, licking my nose.

Slowly. Mindfully. Old dog, new trick.


It’s what the holy rollers crow about,

ripping open their hearts to the Lord.

That aching, mad want: He listens.

He watches. He knows. Loves.

If true, pity it didn’t count for more

when you were dying, or now,

as this minor, magical creature

noses toward his own death.

I promise I’ll hold him at the end,

stroke his head and flank and

tell him he was the best damn dog,

remind him that you thought so, too.

Then, if you can—though the smart money

says you can’t—guide him to wherever you are,

call his name (he’s hard of hearing these days—

will death cure that?) and open your arms

as he steadies his legs and shakes and

cocks his head, then figures it out,

starts to run.

* * * * *

So, Murderateros: What was the joy of your youth? Have you revisited it — or it you — in adulthood? Does it carry for you an element of the divine? Has it, in even some small way, saved you?

No need to stick to the Q&A. Feel free to make any comments you please. I’ll be happy to respond however, to whatever.

BTW: For a fictional version of a gifted young woman saved by cartoons, check out Nadya Lazarenko in my second novel Done for a Dime, most of which was written after Terri’s passing. My attempt at homage.


Jukebox Hero of the Week:  Terri didn’t live to see the Scissors Sisters, but I think she would have approved of dancing eggs, singing watermelons, and a giant pink goonybird:

28 thoughts on “In Praise of Foolery (Or: Cartoons Can Save Your Life)

  1. Catherine

    The joy of my youth that carries me through is a love of nature. My Granmother lived next door and some of my earliest memories involve her showing me what had bloomed overnight and looking at what might bloom tomorrow. It wasn't just teaching me to appreciate the form, the colour, the scent of her garden, but also the surprises.

    My Granfather loved growing vegetables and he would explain the soil, and building it up, and aerating it. I grew to appreciate structure in a myriad of forms.

    I had a creek across the road that I played in for hours. I had a tree I disappeared up with books and a apples also for hours. My cousin and I would scamper up a lemon tree and gross out everyone by eating them without sugar, smiling through the tang.

    We didn't have a lot of holidays as kids. Dad was working most days. When I was about 12 we started going to a guesthouse up in the rainforest. This was a really big deal for us. My parents would point out different varieties of trees and we'd try to work out why a tree smelt like steak and kidney when it flowered. Mum had a particular love of birds.

    I realise that nature is not always kind. Cancer sucks. Mum is dying slowly and has chosen to not have chemo. She is spending a lot of time sleeping, watching the birds on the lake that abuts my parent's home. Each moment with her seems to have a bittersweet edge. Her sense of humour still pops up when you least expect it but laughter wears her out.

    However the thing that is getting me through this (helplessly watching someone I love erode away) … apart from people I love…in the times where I can't stand being around people is immersing myself for a time in the natural world. Hooking back into that childhood joy.

    When I walk in the rainforest it is to me like a big green cathedral. It renews me in ways I don't fully understand but accept as necessary. It helps me breath.

  2. Catherine

    I thought I should mention the nature not being kind comment extends to encompass all the people affected by flood, and earthquake, tornado …the losses have been mind blowing and other people suffering ill health.

    I'm lurching about a bit at the moment between things I am grateful for logically and emotional responses that are being stirred up from I don't know where. Mum has had a good life. I've had her guide me for a long time. Not everyone is so lucky…balanced against the emotional that she has had some very tough health issues throughout her life that she has overcome and that I hate that it is likely she will suffer more before she is released from pain.

    And yet for solace I'll still be going to some form of nature.

    David, thanks again for your eloquence in honouring your loved ones.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    As poignant as I’ve come to expect from you, David.

    I found out on Monday that a just friend lost her 6yo granddaughter to cancer. Desperately sad.

    But revisited my childhood? I never left.

  4. David Corbett

    First: I'm seeing that none of the videos are working. We seem to have a problem with Squarespace and this glitch may or may not be rectified. I'm working on it as I type, as it were.

    Katherine, Reine, Phillipa, Zoe, David: Thanks for the kind words.

    Catherine: One balances the "she had a good life" with the obvious pain both she and you are suffering. There's nothing small about the grief felt for one's mother, or the helpless rage at seeing how, yes, cruel nature is. Camus calls it "the benign indifference of the universe." It takes a certain level of insight and courage to understand, like Rick at the end of Casablanca, that the concerns of you and I don't add up to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But losing your loved ones hurts. It hurts terribly. There's nothing worse. Your stories of the rain forest as a girl enchanted me, and I'm getitng them second hand. I feel you marveling and loving those vast green spaces, with or without lemon.

  5. MJ

    Amazing post – I laughed at the cartoons and at Terri's recovered cartoon life and joy (oh, I wish I'd known her!) and just cried a bit at my desk at the poem (because art that reflects life and truth back that well always touches me and makes me cry).

    You have me worried though – I used to love Pepe Le Pew. What if those cartoons really aren't funny either?

    My childhood joys, in a whacko family where words meant nothing and all but 2 people were just pinballs, tilting everytime we thought we had stabililty, were books, music and Warner Bros. Seinfeld and the Simpsons reruns got me through law school – my version of bizarro world (which planet did most of these people come from????).

    Adulthood is the same – to paraphrase my local Zen center's service – I go to music as my refuge, I go to comedy as my refuge. Listening to John Hartford and watching Old School and Arrested Development can get a person through a lot. Harold and Kumar got my husband through one particularly painful layoff, in fact.

    Terri needs to be my hero too. You can take a family that makes you sad, and crappy things that happen in life, and laugh or cry. Might as well laugh more – it's more fun for you and everyone else too. Be Buddhist about it all, don't cling, but then laugh at the universal comedy of it all.

  6. Judy Wirzberger

    The joy of my youth spills into my adulthood.

    The joy in innocence. I laugh now. I thought that guy we always ran into in the park was actually peeing.

    The joy in freedom. Ringing doorbells in the dusky evening and running to hide in shrubs.

    The joy of exploration, relationships, chunks of ice from the milk man, Dairy Queen cones dripping down my arm on a hot summer night, cannonballing into the aqua waters of the public pool, letting the wooden screen door bang behind me, saying ahhhh through the turning blades of the window fan, seeking solace in the branches of the willow tree, running in the sprinklers, knotting clover necklaces, running where there were no fences, especially running where there were no fences.

  7. Louise Ure

    From David, who's having trouble posting:

    Okay, now that I'm not obsessed with getting the videos working:

    Reine, I'm sorry the post was too much for you. I hope you're doing ok.

    Zoë: I'm sorry to hear about your friend's granddaughter. I can't imagine anything harder than watching a child get ravaged by that disease. Death renders us all helpless, but the death of a child undoes so much of what we think of as life here on this earth. And that pain lasts like no other. I know you're a brit, and the upper lip is congenitally stiff, but visit your friend, if only just to make tea, say nothing. What is there to say anyway, except: I'm here.

    MJ: You know, I never really got Pepe Le Pew until I was an adult, um, hitting up on women. And then it provided a very uncomfortable lesson. Kind of like the lesson I got from having my gay older brother's friends think I was cute. I learned what many women know almost from birth: With men, NO means Try Harder. I cringe at the realization that more than once, Pepe and I shared a few malodorous traits.

    Your trip down memory lane pulled a few triggers. John Hartford — man, haven't heard that name since forever. Gentle On My Mind, when played by him (not Glen Campbell) is such a time capsule.

    And Arrested Development: yes yes yes a thousand time yes.

    I wonder how many of us found the joy of our youth at the library. I did. Such a refuge. I should have mentioned that. (Glad I just did.)

    And yes, Terri was incredible in refusing to let her childhood dictate how she’d live her life. I will never forget her uncle Tony at her funeral saying, “This was a girl who at age sixteen turned herself 180 degrees and said I’m not going to be who my past says I have to be.” She was an amazing, courageous, huge-hearted lady.

    Judy: Fences may make good neighbors, but they make for lousy childhoods. Thanks for those images. I love the fan in the face. But mostly what I caught was the public nature of your memories. I thought of how air-conditioning and TV and now the internet have gradually walled us off, walled off our childhoods.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I want to go back and watch the cartoons, I really do, but I just have to react to your blog first. To the beauty of your words. To your fucking life-force, David.
    I feel like I've been hit in the head with a concrete brick. In a good way.
    I'm filled with such pain and emotion after reading your work, while at the same time your words console me with their humor–letting me know that laughter is the answer.
    Your poem is one of the best I've ever read. I want to read all of your poetry, down to the very last line you wrote this morning in the shower.
    You make me feel like I know Terri more than I know my own friends and family. You've brought her to life, David, I can see her quirky smile and feel the intensity of her stare.
    I don't know what else to say. You have captured me this morning. I won't get a damn thing done but think and re-think your words. Curse you, Corbett.

  9. Louise Ure

    Okey-dokey, Smokey. (Echoing Terri. I love that endearment.)

    What a beautiful and sad tribute you've written today, David. And I'm so glad to finally see a picture of Terri, although your words have described her beautifully in previous posts.

    I lost my sweet Golden Retriever, Cisco, to cancer, just five weeks after Bruce's cancerous death. Shit. Another goodbye to such a good, good friend and family member.

    No more dogs for me. And no more husbands. I couldn't handle the heartbreak again.

  10. David Corbett


    I didn't realize you'd never seen a picture of Terri. There are more on the page on my website dedicated to her: The text revisits some of what I posted here, but there's some other stuff as well.

    I remember you telling me about Cisco, and so soon after Bruce, and I didn't know how to help. Such a terrible twinning of savage loss. Our animals, for better or worse, reflect the nobler, truer, more innocent sides of ourselves, and something more than a four-legged beast dies when they go.

    I don't second-guess your thoughts on husbands and dogs. Having had a few loves, even one that was grand, since Terri's passing, I can confirm that love is it's own reward. But heartbreak is its own heartbreak, and it does get old.

    I've been toying with the thought of a new dog, but my future is a little uncertain right now, and if I have to move I want to be sure my new digs allow pets. Giving up a dog I've come to love would be too hard.

  11. Reine

    All right, David. By a level of coincidence I am beginning to notice here in Murderati Land — my husband could not have his cancer treatment this week, because he bled too much from last week's. And my service dog had a tumor removed from his mouth yesterday morning. After a long, long, long day I read your post in bed early this morning. The two of them were sound asleep. I'd relaxed a bit. Then it started again. xo

  12. David Corbett

    Thanks, Kay. Succinctly put.

    Reine: I'm afraid that no matter what tragedy we might touch upon, it will resonate with something in your life, if not recent then somewhere in the not too distant past. I hope both the husband and dog heal soon and fully, though I know too well those moments as you wait for the wound to get better. I hope today is better. I hope that for you every day.

  13. PK the Bookeemonster

    You're in my heart, David.
    Growing up in the 70s, kid programming was surreal. HR PuffinStuff? What the heck? My favorites were Underdog, Josie and the Pussycats and to this day I adore Schoolhouse Rock. Remember when they came on after cartoons? Of course Roadrunner and Bugs.
    Also growing up in the 70s, we had a lot more freedom and imagination. We didn't have the electronics of today. We played outside, sandboxes, climbed trees, rollerskated (metal with four wheels that if they came off your foot killed your back ankle), biked to the IGA for treats. I feel sorry for the kids today who are over-programmed and over-protected.
    I lost my dog in March — way too early; Tug was only 8 and he was my big baby (150 lbs). But in May we adopted 2 from a shelter and they're different and it is different and I love them. But they fill the empty space.

  14. Reine

    Yes. Of course, David. Both beautiful and sad. Happy celebration and misery. I am here for the resonance. Listen to the bells of the jingle dress dancers.

  15. David Corbett

    PK: Amazing how those three letters, IGA, conjure for me a time and place.

    I too wonder about today's kids and they're over-managed childhoods, but people my age have been fretting over people their age since apes stopped dragging their knuckles.

    Sorry to hear about Tug. I now what you mean about the difference. I doubt any dog will ever replace Bugsy, but that's my problem, not theirs. I'm glad the orphans are filling the void.

  16. David Corbett

    Thanks Alexandra. I'm not sure Fawlty Towers isn't a cartoon– it just isn't drawn. (That's a compliment, btw.)

    Also, though the losses have been tough, if Terri's love taught me anything it's that I can't let them crush me. I wouldn't be living up to her example if I let that happen.

  17. Allison Davis

    Good to read at the end of another long day.

    Still looking. Old dog, new tricks.

    (and what Stephen said…)

  18. Phillip Thomas Duck

    Whew! Emotional, poignant, eloquent as hell. It's not often I read a blog post over…then over again, but this was one that deserved several reads. I'm sorry for your twin losses, but buoyed by your spirit. I've had some terrible losses…and near losses, myself. Haven't we all? And I will revisit your words (seriously) upon the next. Bless you, brother. Now, for your question: I revisit my youth through my daughter. I see images of myself in her laughter, and creativiity, and affable spirit. She's just nine now, and but for the Grace of God, would have been seven forever. Car accident on her seventh birthday, flipped several times, my ex-wife ejected through the windshield, terrible tragedy. But my daughter lives and I'm spared the heartbreak and given an opportunity to revisit my youth.

  19. David Corbett

    Dear Phillip:

    I almost don't want to respond, because I can't think of a more beautiful, poignant and fitting ending to this chain of comments than what you've written. I'm sitting here, not knowing quite what to say, because how do you get at a loss like that — except to do exactly as you've done, raise your daughter, see in her the reason for keeping on keeping on. Not just that, but the joy of life, the crackle and spark, the irrepressible giggle of it. Our gifts are our gifts, they come from elsewhere and all we can do is be grateful. I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm so glad your daughter survived, and that you have each other.


  20. Pari

    I'm at work and needed a break to clear my head before starting to write another article.

    I was lured in by the pictures of cartoons (didn't watch, not enough time at work) but then the poem.
    Oh . . . crap.

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