Good Grief

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Yesterday I drove the family up to Santa Rosa for a fencing tournament, and since it was going to be a long day, I decided to take my daughter ice skating and to the nearby Charles Schulz museum (I took a couple of photos, shown below). I had been there years before, and I really enjoyed it, but she had never been.

0128-peanutsComics have always been a big part of my life, and I've got many thick volumes of comics that I enjoy. They tend to be more out of the ordinary stuff, such as Zippy and This Modern World, but I've also got my fair share of Dilberts and the like. I've never had any Peanuts, pretty much because they're all stored in my head anyway and I don't need a book.

Indeed, comics are such a big share of my cultural touchpoints that, before Slope, I was seriously going to focus my blog on bitching about comics. I was going to call it The Comics Curmudgeon, and I already had my sights set on inexcusable crap like Garfield, Cathy, and Family Circus. Of course, that blog would have starved itself of material pretty fast, so I never really bothered. The world will never know of Barfy's Theorem and other pontifications I planned.

Since I grew up reading Peanuts (a strip name, by the way, that Schulz always hated; the syndicate dreamed it up in the early 1950s), I was well-versed in the land of Charlie Brown, but my little girl wasn't, so we went into the museum's theatre to watch a half-hour interview that 60 Minutes had done with Schulz.

It was a fascinating interview, particularly since the setting (where Schulz was showing the interviewer
0128-peanutsstain his beloved ice rink that he built in the 1960s) was just outside the door. Schulz spoke of how each of the characters represented a tiny piece of his personality (Linus for his spirituality; Schroeder for his love of music; Lucy for his grouchy side; Charlie Brown for his insecurity; Snoopy to represent his dog Spike he grew up with; and so on). And the unrequited love of his life – a "little red-headed girl" whom he adored from a distance as a young man – was also featured in the strip for years as a form of therapy.

Even though Schulz was pulling down between thirty and forty million dollars every year from the Peanuts empire, he was still visibly insecure about just about everything. He wasn't sure if 60 Minutes was going to show up to do the interview; he wasn't sure he was going to be interesting enough; he wasn't sure, once the interview was done, if they would broadcast it. He was clearly a man with self-esteem issues, in spite of his unprecedented success.

My favorite part of the interview was when they talked about Schulz's morning routine. Every morning, at 8:30 a.m., he would be sitting in the Warm Puppy Cafe (which was the ice skating rink's food and drink area) drinking a coffee and eating an English muffin. Once he was done, he would walk across the street to the studio he had built for himself; he sat down and went to work on his strip for the day.

It was his own little world. He loved hockey and ice skating, so he built his own rink (it's a public rink, used by thousands over the years, but he was an avid hockey player there himself). He loved expressing himself through cartoons, so he had his custom-built studio where he would exercise his craft. He loved his independence, so he never had anyone draw a single inkstroke – – – or even offer up a single idea (he would stop them before they could say it) – – for Peanuts. It was his.

This is the kind of person I deeply admire. Each of us comes into this world with certain talents, biases, strengths, and weaknesses. The world is what it is, and it is our job to try to mesh the gears of our personhood with the gears of the world as we find it. Bill Gates in 1943, Steve Jobs in 1672, or Charles Schulz in 2015 may not have had the success that they enjoyed in their actual lifetimes; and there may be an impoverished old man in India right now who, given different circumstances, might have cured cancer in 1992 if only his birthplace or opportunities had been different, given the wild winds of fortune.

These are the questions I struggle with every day, and I suppose those among us prone to thinking have wrestled with the same questions for thousands of years: who am I? What is the world? Is there something I can offer to the world that it wants? Can I make my way in this world and support my family with whatever skills I may have? And, in particular, can I do so in such a way that I do not relinquish the independence that I have craved and defended all my life?

Charles Schulz certainly was able to say "yes" to the above, although he never fully believed it. And, most touching of all, is this: he refused to let anyone else take over the strip, even after he was gone (Garfield's Jim Davis farmed out the work to his lame strip eons ago, contenting himself with cashing royalty checks from the stream of junk they spew out; did you hear Garfield likes lasagna? Heh. Heh-heh.) And so, Schulz composed his final strip which printed February 13, 2000:


As the paper was churning through the presses around the country, printing up this last strip, Charles Schulz died quietly in his sleep. He lived a life of freedom and creative expression. I would pray that each of us was somehow able to strive to do the same.