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Well and Good and Just Fine, Thanks

by Julia Sneden

The other day I was back at the supermarket, greeting my friend, Chandra, the cheery checker.

"How are you?” I asked.

"Good,” she replied. “I’m good.”

I had to fight the urge to smile sweetly and say: “Well of course you’re good: you haven’t beaten your dog or tripped any old ladies lately. But how are you feeling?”

The modern-day confusion of the word good with the word well just drives me crazy. One can, of course, feel good about something, but when it comes to the self, one feels (or does not feel) well.

Good pertains to behavior. It’s not an appropriate response to “How are you?” unless someone wants to know if you’re on the side of the angels or on the side of the forces of evil.

Well, on the other hand, describes one’s health.

Perhaps we need to print a bumper sticker that says: “I’m feeling well. I’m a good person. Thanks for asking.”

The confusion of good and well has taken an even wider dimension: One of the hurricane Katrina cleanup workers told a reporter that: “It’s looking well out there.” He meant, I think, that it was looking good, or at least better.

Of course, if people are confused about responses to “How are you?” they can always just say: “Fine, thanks.” “Fine” is indeed a fine old word, useful in many circumstances, and highly recommended for those uncertain of their adjectives and adverbs.

Thinking of all these semi-important matters, I found myself in a mental riff on the ways we describe behavior. “Good,” and “best” will do nicely for behavior that pleases, but there are many more adjectives to describe undesirable behavior. Try “bad,” “rotten,” or “appalling.” Try “despicable,” or “unspeakable.” Try “disgusting” or “dangerous.” The list goes on and on.

I think I prefer the simpler days of my childhood, when there were really only three designations for behavior: good, bad, and naughty. We knew very well what was meant by them.

We didn’t have a lot of rules in the house where I grew up, or rather, the rules were pretty much unspoken. We knew what was expected of us, and most of the time, we came up to the tape.

Naughty didn’t really count as bad. It lay in a territory that only a frisky child would enter, somewhere north of bad, but definitely south of good. Naughty connoted a minor sin. Naughty was transitory. Naughty was behavior that happened at home. Bad, however, was a disgrace to the reputation of the whole family. Bad was behavior that happened out in the world. This difference was never discussed. It was just something one understood.

Bad was the time my brother and I were waiting in the car for our mother who was finishing her grocery shopping, and we sassed an unknown woman who was walking by. We had expected the woman to rush away, but to our horror she stopped, gave us a tongue lashing, and waited for our mother to appear.

Our mother rarely scolded us. She almost never lost her temper. Her disciplinary style involved explanation and reasoning. On that occasion, however, we could see the tears in her eyes as she let us know in no uncertain terms that we had embarrassed and disappointed her. I have rarely felt worse in my long life. The one good thing you can say about bad behavior is that when it’s really bad, the lesson is so traumatic that it stays with you forever.

Naughty behavior, on the other hand, quickly disappears from the memory, unless it is so amusing that the family remembers it and embarrasses you by bringing it up in later years. For instance, there was the time that I had been left with my grandmother while my parents, cousins, and older brother were going off to the ocean for a swim. I was all of three, and it was my naptime. For some unfathomable reason, my parents drove off before I’d been put down for my nap, and I, in a tearing rage at being left behind, took off after the car on my bare little feet. My grandmother called to me, but I didn’t stop. In fact, I was quite sure she couldn’t catch me, so I turned my head and stuck my tongue out at her.

Of course, she could and did come after me. She scooped me up and administered a good swat to my rear, saying sternly: “You’re being a very naughty little girl.” The swat was the end of it, however, and I soon forgot the incident … until years later, that is, when my brother turned the story of Julia chasing the car in her little, bare feet into a cautionary tale about my temper for my then-fiancé.

As for good behavior, that was just something that was expected of us. Nobody made much fuss over good. It was the grease that kept our squeaky family wheel turning. I did have one great aunt who would occasionally murmur: “You’re a good child,” which from her was high praise. But by and large the adults in my life didn’t feel the need to tell me that I was good. There was plenty of non-verbal approval in the form of hugs and attention, and plenty of verbal approval in the form of pleases and thank-yous that let me know I was on the right path. And when I veered off that path, there was always my spry little grandmother who watched me like a hawk because, she said, I reminded her of herself when she was a child. She seemed to know when I was about to fall from the straight and narrow even before I began to teeter.

It wasn’t until years later that I decided that being like her was just about exactly the right way to be in this world. I’ve been reaching for it ever since.


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