Saturday, October 31, 2015

Roll Over, Walter Mitty — Make Way For Chris Offutt & His Deep-Fried Slim Jims With Powdered Sugar & Chocolate Sauce!!

Drollery reigns supreme as Chris Offutt describes his domestic life with a straight face. Offutt has a Thurberesque relationship with WoW. (To non-video-gamers, that's "World of Warcraft.") Mixed into his account of domestic bliss, Offutt reveals that he has gone commando for several years (for economic reasons). If this is a (fair & balanced) risk of TMI (Too Much Information), so be it.

[x Oxford American]
Slim Jims And Monster
By Chris Offutt

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Recently my wife suggested I write a column about meals I actually prepare. She was making fun of me in that good-natured way of couples (vicious passive-aggressive combat) and I huffily pointed out that I’d already written about omelets. Uh-huh, she said, breakfast. Yes, you can make eggs.

The subtext of our conversation was typical of married people—in our case, ten years now. She cooked more than I did, far more in fact, and was undergoing one of those moments of minor resentment. She’s a much better cook than I am, but more importantly, she cares deeply about food. She studies cookbooks like a scholar and can talk quite capably with chefs about the intricacies of what happens unseen in a heated pot. (My layman’s understanding is that food cooks in there.) Until meeting her, I ate a lot of breakfast and sandwiches. My sole foray into making tacos ended up burning the windowsill so badly that it ripped a layer of paint away. I tried spaghetti once that wound up mostly on the ceiling, stuck so tightly that I just painted over it a few years later.

My wife reminded me of two culinary successes, or at least meals that my sons enjoyed. One was called “Monster,” and consisted of a giant pancake filled with peanut butter and chocolate chips. Another was a special dessert I prepared the night before leaving town for a prolonged stay in Hollywood. It has never received a name but involved the breading and deep-frying of Slim Jims with powdered sugar and chocolate sauce. I resisted writing about these remarkable recipes because there’s not much more to be said beyond the preceding descriptions. Both turned out great, though my wife demurred when it came to taking a second bite of either.

As a young man I lived in Salem, Massachusetts, with two roommates. David was a painter and cartoonist from Kansas. Jim was a local boy who worked for a machinist and wanted to be a physicist. I washed dishes at a lunch restaurant fifteen hours a week and spent the rest of the time reading and writing. At a certain point the three of us decided to save money by eating at home. One night per week, each of us would cook a meal. The extra cash would go to beer. Jim’s specialty was tuna-mac with cheese, an amazing creation for mortaring a stone wall, but less so for eating. It was impossible to remove the leftover food adhering to the plates and the pot. Instead of washing them, Jim tucked them under his bed and hoped no one would notice. In fact, we didn’t, and eventually ran out of plates.

David made a variation of tortilla Espanola [sic, Española], which means Spanish omelet. It was allegedly invented by Tomas Zumalakarregi Imatz, a Basque general known for consistent victory in the Carlist War by using guerrilla tactics. My roommate tended to cook with a similar guerrilla mentality: slicing potatoes of various widths, dicing onions so old they were sprouting, and shredding moldy cheese. He beat all this together with a dozen eggs then dumped it in a pan and baked it. Since we lacked a pie plate, he used a skillet. The hard plastic handle softened under heat, and Dave used a hand towel instead of an oven mitt. (He eventually threw out the fused skillet and towel.) The ensuing “meal” stuck to the pan because he didn’t coat it with oil. Lacking plates, we ate it off a pile of discarded copies of the Salem Evening News.

I managed to put off my turn in the rotation by bringing food home from the restaurant where I worked. The next time my turn arrived, I took them to a nearby tavern that put out a big happy-hour spread for free, and told them to eat all they wanted. Despite the chips, dip, cheese, crackers, and summer sausage, they objected. I pointed out that I had “provided” a meal, which was the same as cooking, and the conversation moved toward a debate on semantics. That suited me, since the focus was now shifted away from their deluded perception that I had shirked my culinary responsibilities. My technique of providing worked well for several months until we got thrown out of the Knights of Columbus hall for reasons unrelated to lack of Italian lineage. It was over thirty years ago, but I seem to recall a problematic blend of beer, a microphone, and a hat with rabbit ears.

I’m not sure if my old friends still cook, but I am proud of how they turned out. David is an infographical artist for the Boston Globe. Jim is a physicist who once worked at the Sandia National Laboratories and now raises champion orchids. They are quite dismayed that I have a quarterly food column. In a Facebook message Dave suggested that it be retitled “Not-Cooking with Chris, Bless His Heart.” David always did think he was a funny fellow.

Many years later I found myself in a similar situation regarding the division of household chores with my wife. Most couples have conversations along these lines. As a man who has had the dubious fortune of cohabiting with four women in my life, I have learned various methods of negotiation. First, I open with the offer to do all the outside work—mowing, raking leaves, picking up sticks, cleaning the gutters, and shoveling snow. As a bonus I always pledge to take out the garbage. That usually gets affairs off to a good start since the women in my life are not particularly enticed by outside labor.

The laundry is another matter altogether. I’m not opposed to doing the laundry. In fact, I enjoy transforming dirty clothes to clean, plus there is nothing better after a shower in winter than a towel fresh from the dryer. However, all the women I have ever known, including my mother and sisters, go through clothes like Sherman through Georgia. More perplexing is that they also enjoy the habit of leaving their clothes scattered about various rooms on furniture and the floor. More than once I have sustained vitriolic admonishment for committing the sin of mixing delicates with non-delicates.

Recently, my wife and I came to a detente after I ruined a flimsy blouse with enough doo-dads hanging from it to outfit a rockabilly star in the 1950s. That, combined with my inability to fold certain clothes, created a great marital drama. It should be noted that my wife removes all her clothing inside-out, and apparently there are some workout tops that have a sewn-in flap that serves as a brassiere. I could not make heads or tails of it when it came to folding. Finally I concluded it was some sort of trendy skirt. I dutifully clipped it to a hanger and hung it in the closet among her dresses. There it remained for months while she sought it, and I denied any knowing where it was.

The upshot was that we divvied the laundry chore equally—she’d wash hers and I’d wash mine. Naturally she pointed out the dire injustice of our arrangement. She changes clothes at least twice a day, sometimes three times if there’s an evening event, producing an inordinate amount of laundry. My habits are simple—each week I wind up with two dirty shirts and three dirty pairs of socks. Pants I typically wear for two weeks at a time. I gave up underwear twenty years ago for economic reasons.

My wife’s agenda for our next official House Meeting prioritized cleaning the indoors. Since moving to Mississippi, I no longer needed to chip ice or shovel snow, and my wife suggested I do a little extra indoors. I heartily concurred. Our agreement was this: she’d wash all the dishes every day and I’d vacuum twice a week. We have a built-in automatic dishwasher, and a part of me suspected that I got the short end of the stick in terms of time and effort. However, my wife had consistently criticized my style of loading the dishwasher, which apparently complains if the items lack the correct proximity to each other. It’s possible the machine communicates with my wife when I’m asleep.

Complicating matters, my wife is one of those people who believes that every dish, utensil, and glass must be washed before going into the dishwasher. I pointed out the obvious fallacy to this. She countered with the fact that certain pieces of food actually harden on a plate in a dishwasher. My point that it would be sanitary fell on deaf ears.

To correct the obvious imbalance of domestic duties, I purchased a robot vacuum cleaner and quickly became a fan of the Roomba. It wanders around the house picking up dog hair and dirt with an admirable diligence. Best of all, when the battery runs out, it returns to the charger on its own! I came to cherish our intimate evenings while my wife washed the dishes, the Roomba carried out its chores, and I played video games.

My wife commented on the unevenness of our chores due to the Roomba, and I suggested a compromise. If she rinsed the dishes and filled the dishwasher, I’d run it. She frowned, saying all I had to do was press a button. I nodded. She was right, of course. In a sudden fit of madness I said I’d cook a meal a week. She shook her head emphatically, refusing on the grounds that I might begin “providing” meals, as I had for my roommates long ago, and she had no desire to eat stale peanuts fingered by dozens of customers at a bar. I promised her that would never happen. With a great deal of unwarranted reluctance she agreed to my offer, pointedly staring at me while using steel wool to scrape a miniscule piece of hardened food from a plate.

I activated the Roomba and embarked upon the next leg of a multi-tier quest in World of Warcraft. The reward was a special recipe for Sleeper Sushi that would increase my mastery wielding a sword. First I needed to level up my in-game cooking skill. I decided against informing my wife of this vital chore. Keeping certain things to oneself contributes to a happy marriage just as much as telling lies. She has never once suggested I bathe with regularity or put in less time playing WoW. For my part, I can rise from a deep REM sleep and compliment her shoes. They’re cute!

The following day while my wife was conveniently gone from the house (she leaves every day; where does she go?) I applied myself to the dual tasks of cleaning and cooking. The dishwasher gets very hot, so it seemed reasonable that I could steam some items, even bake, or perhaps boil them. I experimented with eggs in a seal-tight canning jar, the kind with a built-in rubber gasket and locking lid. In one jar went an egg, intact in its shell. I cracked another egg and dumped its contents into a second jar. Next came the crucial decision of placement—top rack or bottom. I initially reasoned that since heat rises, the top would be better for cooking, until recalling my wife’s insistence that Tupperware never goes on the bottom because it will melt. Therefore, I concluded, the heating element must be at the bottom. I carefully placed my egg jars on the lower rack and turned the machine on. Then I set the Roomba going. With two machines working on my behalf, I had time to run a few quests in World of Warcraft.

Later I cleaned the Roomba hopper, marveling at the amount of dog and human hair, and checked my egg jars. The one inside the shell was semi-softboiled, which I considered less than a success. However the egg white-and-yolk in the second jar turned out pretty good. Next I tried a few baby potatoes in a separate jar. They didn’t cook through and I started fresh by quartering the potatoes. At the last minute I decided to use the dishwasher to thaw out some frozen fish which was in a vacuum-packed bag. I placed several jars of potatoes and eggs in the machine and pressed the button, thinking that if my experiments failed, we’d at least have some pristinely cleaned dishware!

That gave me an hour and a half of video game time, which I confess did not go as well as I’d hoped. My avatar, Thorken the Paladin, “died” several times, which cost a lot of virtual gold in armor repairs. I didn’t mind the expense, and my pride wasn’t damaged by his repeated “deaths.” What irritated me was the long run as a ghost from the graveyard to the corpse for resurrection. Worse, as soon as I returned to life, the same mob attacked me again. In my weakened state I died once more. After the third time I wondered if actually vacuuming or cooking might be more satisfying, but I quickly blocked that thought as immature. Instead I resolved to be a better corpse.

My wife tends to stack up errands when she goes out—taking on more and more, then later being exhausted, and often resentful of me for refusing to leave the house. Thorken had received gold and magical items for completing several quests, and I decided to grant my wife a similar reward for her errands, which could be regarded as a quest for dog food and household goods. I prepared a surprise meal: poached salmon, poached eggs, boiled potatoes, and extremely limp green beans. My wife was impressed, grateful, and complimentary. She didn’t complain about the relative humidity of the house due to the dishwasher’s steam and ate every morsel.

Afterwards she spent an inordinate amount of time scraping a piece off her plate, hardened to stone by five trips through the dishwasher. I considered making a joke about the plate being stoneware but knew such humor might fall flat. Instead I distracted her by mentioning dessert. I had an idea for baking a pie under the hood of my truck with the engine running. Ω

[Chris Offutt is a freelance writer in Oxford, MS. He is the author of Kentucky Straight (1992), Out of the Woods (1999), The Same River Twice (1993), No Heroes (2003), and The Good Brother (2008). He has written screenplays for "True Blood," "Weeds," and "Treme," and TV pilots for Fox, Lionsgate, and CBS. Offutt received a BA (theater) from Morehead State University and also received an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop where he studied with Frank Conroy.]

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Friday, October 30, 2015

Great Snark On Today's Menu: Eags Serves Up A Steamin' Bowl Of Jebster Tartare!!

The Dumbo/Teabagger Klown Kar rolls on as the pundits assess the just-concluded third act of Meet The Dumbo/Teabagger Candidates of 2016. Two of the Klowns have hit the eject button, to dater: Goodhair of Texas and The Dropout of Wisconsin. Most of the punditry guesses that The Jebster of Florida will be the next Dumbo to cut-and-run. If this is the (fair & balanced) equivalent of dead man walking, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Jeb Bush's Mayday
By Eags (Timothy Egan)

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Good to know that you may soon be able to bring guns to Donald Trump’s casinos — a great combination — that Ben Carson’s crackpot worldview extends to a questionable dietary supplement made of larch tree bark, and that Jeb Bush’s fantasy football team is 7-0 and totally crushing it.

Bush will soon be free to spend his days on his little football empire with other early retirees in the Sunshine State. His hapless, hollowed-out performance in Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate seemed like a call for help and a not-so-subtle signal that he wants out. He telegraphed this earlier, of course, with his whiny complaint about all the “really cool things” he could be doing if didn’t have to put up with the indignity of running for president of the United States.

And he telegraphed his one punch — perhaps his last — in letting the world know that he planned to smack down his former mentee, Senator Marco Rubio, for missing 34 percent of his votes in the Senate this year. Rubio was ready with a counter-jab: “Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”

Bush never recovered. Later, his people complained about not getting more questions. No, no, no. Better to pass away with a mercy killing.

You could blame political malpractice — bad aides, bad advice, bad strategy. A hundred million dollars doesn’t buy what it used to. But the fish stinks from the head down, as any Sicilian grandmother will tell you. Bush owns this debacle, the third in a row. The debate broke him. And the only question remaining is whether he’s deliberately managing a slow exit consisting of cringe-worthy moments, or if there’s something deep in his subconscious driving him to quit. In any event, I’m sure he can hear his mother’s admonition rattling through his ears: “We’ve had enough Bushes.”

Too bad. For the sanity wing of the Republican Party is now down to Governor John Kasich of Ohio. Rubio will get some attention and a bump in the two weeks leading up to the next debate. The scrutiny will not be helpful. He’s a man too eager to crush his mentors, and looks like a little boy lost. But more than that, he has a sketchy personal financial background to go with a really sketchy tax plan. (The nonprofit Tax Foundation concluded it would give nearly twice as much gain in after-tax income to the top 1 percent as to middle-income people.)

Senator Ted Cruz, the most hated man in Congress by his colleagues, went after a perhaps even more hated target, the media. Good show. Good fun. Felt great to tell those CNBC people how shallow and inconsequential they are. And then Cruz proved himself to be, yet again, more shallow and inconsequential than anyone on the panel. The betting money is that Cruz, a vulture whose demagogy is so pitch-perfect you could have taught it at the now-defunct Trump University, will swoop in to claim easily confused primary voters as the unelectable front-runners fade. But don’t actually bet on it.

With Bush neutered, stunned and stricken, it fell to the likable Kasich to inject the rarest of modern Republican commodities into this show — common sense. But he also telegraphed his moves. (Didn’t these folks ever watch a boxing movie?)

“I’ve about had it with these people,” said Kasich, leading up to the debate. “I’m done being polite and listening to their nonsense.”

In the debate, he listened to only a few minutes of nonsense before attacking. He warned that “we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job.” Duh. It was aimed at Carson and Trump. Neither man was touched by the blow. What Kasich has yet to realize is that their selling point is being ill-qualified to do the job.

Still, Carson and Trump proceeded to prove Kasich right. Carson avoided his usual ahistorical grab bag of Nazi and slavery analogies. Score one for his keepers. But he could not begin to explain how his bizarre, biblically based tax plan would do anything less than “put us trillions and trillions of dollars in debt,” as Kasich charged.

And he said it was “propaganda” that he endorsed a nutritional supplement peddled by a company, Mannatech, that paid $7 million to settle deceptive marketing claims that its products could be used to cure autism and cancer. Carson appeared in promotional videos and made paid speeches for the company. PolitiFact ruled his claim of noninvolvement “false.”

Trump got fact-checked in real time. It took only a few seconds after he denied calling Rubio a stooge of a program backed by the Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg for people to find that very statement on Trump’s website. Ah, well. As he’s proved, veracity is for losers. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

Copyright © 2015 The New York Times Company

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

From The Sublimer To The Sublimest: Sarah Boxer Rocks!

On the eve of the arrival of Linus' Great Pumpkin, Sarah Boxer has deconstructed Peanuts and the world Charles Schulz created in 1950 and maintained until his death in 2000. Boxer is a fan, but a critical fan. She sees the good, the bad, and all of the imperfections in between. Amazingly, Peanuts lives in daily reruns of the original 17,897 strips that Charles Schulz drew. If this is a (fair & balanced) rendition of a shaggy dog story (even though Snoopy is smooth-haired), so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
The Exemplary Narcissism Of Snoopy
By Sarah Boxer

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It really was a dark and stormy night. On February 12, 2000, Charles Schulz—who had single-handedly drawn some 18,000 Peanuts comic strips, who refused to use assistants to ink or letter his comics, who vowed that after he quit, no new Peanuts strips would be made—died, taking to the grave, it seemed, any further adventures of the gang.

Hours later, his last Sunday strip came out with a farewell: “Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy.... How can I ever forget them.” By then, Peanuts was carried by more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and read by some 300 million people. It had been going for five decades. Robert Thompson, a scholar of popular culture, called it “arguably the longest story told by a single artist in human history.”

The arrival of "The Peanuts Movie" this fall breathes new life into the phrase over my dead body—starting with the movie’s title. Schulz hated and resented the name Peanuts, which was foisted on him by United Feature Syndicate. He avoided using it: “If someone asks me what I do, I always say, ‘I draw that comic strip with Snoopy in it, Charlie Brown and his dog.’ ” And unlike the classic "Peanuts" television specials, which were done in a style Schulz approvingly called “semi-animation,” where the characters flip around rather than turning smoothly in space, "The Peanuts Movie" (written by Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan, along with Bryan’s writing partner, Cornelius Uliano) is a computer-generated 3-D-animated feature. What’s more, the Little Red-Haired Girl, Charlie Brown’s unrequited crush, whom Schulz promised never to draw, is supposed to make a grand appearance. AAUGH!!!

Before all that happens, before the next generation gets a warped view of what Peanuts is and was, let’s go back in time. Why was this comic strip so wildly popular for half a century? How did Schulz’s cute and lovable characters (they’re almost always referred to that way) hold sway over so many people—everyone from Ronald Reagan to Whoopi Goldberg?

Peanuts was deceptive. It looked like kid stuff, but it wasn’t. The strip’s cozy suburban conviviality, its warm fuzziness, actually conveyed some uncomfortable truths about the loneliness of social existence. The characters, though funny, could stir up shockingly heated arguments over how to survive and still be a decent human being in a bitter world. Who was better at it—Charlie Brown or Snoopy?

The time is ripe to see what was really happening on the pages of Peanuts during all those years. Since 2004, the comics publisher Fantagraphics has been issuing The Complete Peanuts, both Sunday and daily strips, in books that each cover two years and include an appreciation from a notable fan. (The 25-volume series will be completed next year.) To read them straight through, alongside David Michaelis’s trenchant 2007 biography, Schulz and Peanuts, is to watch the characters evolve from undifferentiated little cusses into great social types.

In the stone age of Peanuts—when only seven newspapers carried the strip, when Snoopy was still an itinerant four-legged creature with no owner or doghouse, when Lucy and Linus had yet to be born—Peanuts was surprisingly dark. The first strip, published on October 2, 1950, shows two children, a boy and a girl, sitting on the sidewalk. The boy, Shermy, says, “Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown! Good ol’ Charlie Brown … Yes, sir! Good ol’ Charlie Brown.” When Charlie Brown is out of sight, Shermy adds, “How I hate him!” In the second Peanuts strip the girl, Patty, walks alone, chanting, “Little girls are made of sugar and spice … and everything nice.” As Charlie Brown comes into view, she slugs him and says, “That’s what little girls are made of!”

Although key characters were missing or quite different from what they came to be, the Hobbesian ideas about society that made Peanuts Peanuts were already evident: People, especially children, are selfish and cruel to one another; social life is perpetual conflict; solitude is the only peaceful harbor; one’s deepest wishes will invariably be derailed and one’s comforts whisked away; and an unbridgeable gulf yawns between one’s fantasies about oneself and what others see. These bleak themes, which went against the tide of the go-go 1950s, floated freely on the pages of Peanuts at first, landing lightly on one kid or another until slowly each theme came to be embedded in a certain individual—particularly Lucy, Schroeder, Charlie Brown, Linus, and Snoopy.

In other words, in the beginning all the Peanuts kids were, as Al Capp, the creator of Li’l Abner, observed, “good mean little bastards eager to hurt each other.” What came to be Lucy’s inimitable brand of bullying was suffused throughout the Peanuts population. Even Charlie Brown was a bit of a heel. In 1951, for example, after watching Patty fall off a curb into some mud, he smirks: “Right in the mud, eh? It’s a good thing I was carrying the ice cream!”

Many early Peanuts fans—and this may come as a shock to later fans raised on the sweet milk of Happiness Is a Warm Puppy—were attracted to the strip’s decidedly unsweet view of society. Matt Groening, the creator of the strip Life in Hell and The Simpsons, remembers, “I was excited by the casual cruelty and offhand humiliations at the heart of the strip.” Garry Trudeau, of Doonesbury fame, saw Peanuts as “the first Beat strip” because it “vibrated with ’50s alienation.” And the editors of Charlie Mensuel, a raunchy precursor to the even raunchier Charlie Hebdo, so admired the existential angst of the strip that they named both publications after its lead character.

At the center of this world was Charlie Brown, a new kind of epic hero—a loser who would lie in the dark recalling his defeats, charting his worries, planning his comebacks. One of his best-known lines was “My anxieties have anxieties.” Although he was the glue holding together the Peanuts crew (and its baseball team), he was also the undisputed butt of the strip. His mailbox was almost always empty. His dog often snubbed him, at least until suppertime, and the football was always yanked away from him. The cartoonist Tom Tomorrow calls him a Sisyphus. Frustration was his lot. When Schulz was asked whether for his final strip he would let Charlie Brown make contact with the football, he reportedly replied, “Oh, no! Definitely not!... That would be a terrible disservice to him after nearly half a century.”

Although Schulz denied any strict identification with Charlie Brown (who was actually named for one of Schulz’s friends at the correspondence school in Minneapolis where Schulz learned and taught drawing), many readers assumed they were one and the same. More important for the strip’s success, readers saw themselves in Charlie Brown, even if they didn’t want to. “I aspired to Linus-ness; to be wise and kind and highly skilled at making gigantic structures out of playing cards,” the children’s-book author Mo Willems notes in one of the essays in the Fantagraphics series. But, he continues, “I knew, deep down, that I was Charlie Brown. I suspect we all did.”

Well, I didn’t. And luckily, beginning in 1952 (after Schulz moved from his hometown, St. Paul, Minnesota, to Colorado Springs for a year with his first wife, Joyce, and her daughter, Meredith), there were plenty more alter egos to choose from. That was the year the Van Pelts were born. Lucy, the fussbudget, who was based at first on young Meredith, came in March. Lucy’s blanket-carrying little brother, Linus, Schulz’s favorite character to draw (he would start with his pen at the back of the neck), arrived only months later.

And then, of course, there was Snoopy, who had been around from the outset (Schulz had intended to name him Sniffy) and was fast evolving into an articulate being. His first detailed expression of consciousness, recorded in a thought balloon, came in response to Charlie Brown making fun of his ears: “Kind of warm out today for ear muffs, isn’t it?” Snoopy sniffs: “Why do I have to suffer such indignities!?”

I like to think that Peanuts and identity politics grew up together in America. By 1960, the main characters—Charlie Brown, Linus, Schroeder, Snoopy—had their roles and their acolytes. Even Lucy had her fans. The filmmaker John Waters, writing an introduction to one of the Fantagraphics volumes, gushes:

I like Lucy’s politics (“I know everything!”...), her manners (“Get out of my way!”...), her narcissism... and especially her verbal abuse rants... Lucy’s “total warfare frown”... is just as iconic to me as Mona Lisa’s smirk.

Finding one’s identity in the strip was like finding one’s political party or ethnic group or niche in the family. It was a big part of the appeal of Peanuts.

Every character was a powerful personality with quirky attractions and profound faults, and every character, like some saint or hero, had at least one key prop or attribute. Charlie Brown had his tangled kite, Schroeder his toy piano, Linus his flannel blanket, Lucy her “Psychiatric Help” booth, and Snoopy his doghouse.

In this blessedly solid world, each character came to be linked not only to certain objects but to certain kinds of interactions, too, much like the main players in Krazy Kat, one of the strips that Schulz admired and hoped to match. But unlike Krazy Kat, which was built upon a tragically repetitive love triangle that involved animals hurling bricks, Peanuts was a drama of social coping, outwardly simple but actually quite complex.

Charlie Brown, whose very character depended on his wishes being stymied, developed what the actor Alec Baldwin, in one of the Fantagraphics introductions, calls a kind of “trudging, Jimmy Stewart–like decency and predictability.” The Charlie Brown way was to keep on keeping on, standing with a tangled kite or a losing baseball team day after day. Michaelis, Schulz’s biographer, locates the essence of Charlie Brown—and Peanuts itself—in a 1954 strip in which Charlie Brown visits Shermy and watches as he “plays with a model train set whose tracks and junctions and crossings spread... elaborately far and wide in Shermy’s family’s living room.” After a while,

Charlie Brown pulls on his coat and walks home... [and] sits down at his railroad: a single, closed circle of track … Here was the moment when Charlie Brown became a national symbol, the Everyman who survives life’s slings and arrows simply by surviving himself.

In fact, all of the characters were survivors. They just had different strategies for survival, none of which was exactly prosocial. Linus knew that he could take his blows philosophically—he was often seen, elbows on the wall, calmly chatting with Charlie Brown—as long as he had his security blanket nearby. He also knew that if he didn’t have his blanket, he would freak out. (In 1955 the child psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott asked for permission to use Linus’s blanket as an illustration of a “transitional object.”)

Lucy, dishing out bad and unsympathetic advice from her “Psychiatric Help” booth, was the picture of bluster. On March 27, 1959, Charlie Brown, the first patient to visit her booth, says to Lucy, “I have deep feelings of depression.... What can I do about this?” Lucy replies: “Snap out of it! Five cents, please.” That pretty much sums up the Lucy way.

Schroeder at his piano represented artistic retreat—ignoring the world to pursue one’s dream. And Snoopy’s coping philosophy was, in a sense, even more antisocial than Schroeder’s. Snoopy figured that since no one will ever see you the way you see yourself, you might as well build your world around fantasy, create the person you want to be, and live it out, live it up. Part of Snoopy’s Walter Mitty–esque charm lay in his implicit rejection of society’s view of him. Most of the kids saw him as just a dog, but he knew he was way more than that.

Those characters who could not be summed up with both a social strategy and a recognizable attribute (Pig-Pen, for instance, had an attribute—dirt—but no social strategy) became bit players or fell by the wayside. Shermy, the character who uttered the bitter opening lines of Peanuts in 1950, became just another bland boy by the 1960s. Violet, the character who made endless mud pies, withheld countless invitations, and had the distinction of being the first person to pull the football away from Charlie Brown, was mercilessly demoted to just another snobby mean girl. Patty, one of the early stars, had her name recycled for another, more complicated character, Peppermint Patty, the narcoleptic tomboy who made her first appearance in 1966 and became a regular in the 1970s. (Her social gambit was to fall asleep, usually at her school desk.)

Once the main cast was set, the iterations of their daily interplay were almost unlimited. “A cartoonist,” Schulz once said, “is someone who has to draw the same thing every day without repeating himself.” It was this “infinitely shifting repetition of the patterns,” Umberto Eco wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1985, that gave the strip its epic quality. Watching the permutations of every character working out how to get along with every other character demanded “from the reader a continuous act of empathy.”

For a strip that depended on the reader’s empathy, Peanuts often involved dramas that displayed a shocking lack of empathy. And in many of those dramas, the pivotal figure was Lucy, the fussbudget who couldn’t exist without others to fuss at. She was so strident, Michaelis reports, that Schulz relied on certain pen nibs for her. (When Lucy was “doing some loud shouting,” as Schulz put it, he would ink up a B-5 pen, which made heavy, flat, rough lines. For “maximum screams,” he would get out the B-3.)

Lucy was, in essence, society itself, or at least society as Schulz saw it. “Her aggressiveness threw the others off balance,” Michaelis writes, prompting each character to cope or withdraw in his or her own way. Charlie Brown, for instance, responded to her with incredible credulity, coming to her time and again for pointless advice or for football kicking. Linus always seemed to approach her with a combination of terror and equanimity. In one of my favorite strips, he takes refuge from his sister in the kitchen and, when Lucy tracks him down, addresses her pointedly: “Am I buttering too loud for you?”

It was Lucy’s dealings with Schroeder that struck closest to home for Schulz, whose first marriage, to Joyce, began to fall apart in the 1960s while they were building up their huge estate in Sebastopol, California. Just as Schulz’s retreat into his comic-strip world antagonized Joyce, Michaelis observes, so Schroeder’s devotion to his piano was “an affront to Lucy.” At one point, Lucy becomes so fed up at her inability to distract Schroeder from his music that she hurls his piano into the sewer: “It’s woman against piano! Woman is winning!! Woman is winning!!!” When Schroeder shouts at her in disbelief, “You threw my piano down the sewer!!,” Lucy corrects him: “Not your piano, Sweetie.... My competition!” Now, that’s a relationship!

In this deeply dystopic strip, there was only one character who could—and some say finally did—tear the highly entertaining, disturbed social world to shreds. And that happens to be my favorite character, Snoopy.

Before Snoopy had his signature doghouse, he was an emotional creature. Although he didn’t speak (he expressed himself in thought balloons), he was very connected to all the other characters. In one 1958 strip, for instance, Linus and Charlie Brown are talking in the background, and Snoopy comes dancing by. Linus says to Charlie Brown, “My gramma says that we live in a veil of tears.” Charlie Brown answers: “She’s right... This is a sad world.” Snoopy still goes on dancing. By the third frame, though, when Charlie Brown says, “This is a world filled with sorrow,” Snoopy’s dance slows and his face begins to fall. By the last frame, he is down on the ground—far more devastated than Linus or Charlie Brown, who are shown chatting off in the distance, “Sorrow, sadness and despair..., grief, agony and woe....”

But by the late 1960s, Snoopy had begun to change. For example, in a strip dated May 1, 1969, he’s dancing by himself: “This is my ‘First Day of May’ dance. It differs only slightly from my ‘First Day of Fall’ dance, which differs also only slightly from my ‘First Day of Spring’ dance.” Snoopy continues dancing and ends with: “Actually, even I have a hard time telling them apart.” Snoopy was still hilarious, but something fundamental had shifted. He didn’t need any of the other characters in order to be what he was. He needed only his imagination. More and more often he appeared alone on his doghouse, sleeping or typing a novel or a love letter. Indeed, his doghouse—which was hardly taller than a beagle yet big enough inside to hold an Andrew Wyeth painting as well as a pool table—came to be the objective correlative of Snoopy’s rich inner life, a place that no human ever got to see.

Some thought this new Snoopy was an excellent thing, indeed the key to the strip’s greatness. Schulz was among them: “I don’t know how he got to walking, and I don’t know how he first began to think, but that was probably one of the best things that I ever did.” The novelist Jonathan Franzen is another Snoopy fan. Snoopy, as Franzen has noted, is

the protean trickster whose freedom is founded on his confidence that he’s lovable at heart, the quick-change artist who, for the sheer joy of it, can become a helicopter or a hockey player or Head Beagle and then again, in a flash, before his virtuosity has a chance to alienate you or diminish you, be the eager little dog who just wants dinner.

But some people detested the new Snoopy and blamed him for what they viewed as the decline of Peanuts in the second half of its 50-year run. “It’s tough to fix the exact date when Snoopy went from being the strip’s besetting artistic weakness to ruining it altogether,” the journalist and critic Christopher Caldwell wrote in 2000, a month before Schulz died, in an essay in [the] New York Press titled “Against Snoopy.” But certainly by the 1970s, Caldwell wrote, Snoopy had begun wrecking the delicate world that Schulz had built. The problem, as Caldwell saw it, was that

Snoopy was never a full participant in the tangle of relationships that drove Peanuts in its Golden Age. He couldn’t be: he doesn’t talk... and therefore he doesn’t interact. He’s there to be looked at.

Snoopy unquestionably took the strip to a new realm beginning in the late 1960s. The turning point, I think, was the airing of "It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" in 1966. In this Halloween television special, Snoopy is shown sitting atop his doghouse living out his extended fantasy of being a World War I flying ace shot down by the Red Baron and then crawling alone behind enemy lines in France. Snoopy is front and center for six minutes, about one-quarter of the whole program, and he steals the show, proving that he doesn’t need the complicated world of Peanuts to thrive. He can go it alone. And after that he often did.

In 1968, Snoopy became NASA’s mascot. The next year, Snoopy had a lunar module named after him for the Apollo 10 mission (the command module was called Charlie Brown). In 1968 and 1972, Snoopy was a write-in candidate for president of the United States. Plush stuffed Snoopys became popular. (I had one.) By 1975, Snoopy had replaced Charlie Brown as the center of the strip. He cut a swath through the world. For instance, in parts of Europe Peanuts came to be licensed as Snoopy. And in Tokyo, the floor of the vast toy store Kiddy Land that is devoted to Peanuts is called Snoopy Town.

To accommodate this new Snoopy-centric world, Schulz began making changes. He invented a whole new animal world for Snoopy. First came Woodstock, a bird who communicates only with Snoopy (in little tic marks). And then Snoopy acquired a family: Spike, a droopy-eyed, mustachioed beagle, followed by Olaf, Andy, Marbles, and Belle.

In 1987, Schulz acknowledged that introducing Snoopy’s relatives had been a blunder, much as Eugene the Jeep had been an unwelcome intrusion into the comic strip Popeye:

It’s possible—I think—to make a mistake in the strip and without realizing it, destroy it … I realized it myself a couple of years ago when I began to introduce Snoopy’s brothers and sisters … It destroyed the relationship that Snoopy has with the kids, which is a very strange relationship.

He was right. Snoopy’s initial interactions with the kids—his understanding of humanity, indeed his deep empathy (just what they were often missing), coupled with his inability to speak—were unique. And that’s why whenever Snoopy’s relatives showed up, the air just went out of the strip.

But for many fans, it wasn’t merely Snoopy’s brothers and sisters dragging him down. There was something fundamentally rotten about the new Snoopy, whose charm was based on his total lack of concern about what others thought of him. His confidence, his breezy sense that the world may be falling apart but one can still dance on, was worse than irritating. It was morally bankrupt. As the writer Daniel Mendelsohn put it in a piece in The New York Times Book Review, Snoopy “represents the part of ourselves—the smugness, the avidity, the pomposity, the rank egotism—most of us know we have but try to keep decently hidden away.” While Charlie Brown was made to be buffeted by other personalities and cared very much what others thought of him, Snoopy’s soul is all about self-invention—which can be seen as delusional self-love. This new Snoopy, his detractors felt, had no room for empathy.

To his critics, part of what’s appalling about Snoopy is the idea that it’s possible to create any self-image one wants—in particular, the profile of someone with tons of friends and accomplishments—and sell that image to the world. Such self-flattery is not only shallow but wrong. Snoopy, viewed this way, is the very essence of selfie culture, of Facebook culture. He’s the kind of creature who would travel the world only in order to take his own picture and share it with everyone, to enhance his social image. He’s a braggart. Unlike Charlie Brown, who is alienated (and knows he’s alienated), Snoopy is alienating (and totally fails to recognize it). He believes that he is what he’s been selling to the world. Snoopy is “so self-involved,” Mendelsohn writes, “he doesn’t even realize he’s not human.”

Just as some people thought that Charlie Brown, the insecure loser, the boy who never won the love of the Little Red-Haired Girl, was the alter ego of Schulz himself near the beginning of his career, so Snoopy could be cast as the egotistical alter ego of Schulz the world-famous millionaire, who finally found a little happiness in his second marriage and thus became insufferably cutesy. (In 1973, Schulz and his wife divorced, and a month later Schulz married Jeannie Clyde, a woman he met at the Warm Puppy Café, at his skating rink in Santa Rosa, California.) Two-legged Snoopy, with his airs and fantasies—peerless Snoopy, rich Snoopy, popular Snoopy, world-famous Snoopy, contented Snoopy—spoiled it all.

Schulz, who had a lifelong fear of being seen as ostentatious, believed that the main character of a comic strip should not be too much of a showboat. He also once said he wished he could use Charlie Brown—whom he described as the lead character every good strip needs, “somebody that you like that holds things together”—a little more.

But he was smitten with Snoopy. (During one of the Christmas ice shows in Santa Rosa, while watching Snoopy skate, Schulz leaned over and remarked to his friend Lynn Johnston, another cartoonist, “Just think..., there was a time when there was no Snoopy!”) Schulz, Johnston writes in an introduction to one of the Fantagraphics volumes, found his winning self in this dog:

Snoopy was the one through which he soared. Snoopy allowed him to be spontaneous, slapstick, silly, and wild. Snoopy was rhythm, comedy, glamour, and style … As Snoopy, he had no failures, no losses, no flaws … Snoopy had friends and admirers all over the globe.

Snoopy was the polar opposite of Charlie Brown, who had nothing but failures, losses, and flaws.

But were the two quite so radically far apart?

Snoopy’s critics are wrong, and so are readers who think that Snoopy actually believes his self-delusions. Snoopy may be shallow in his way, but he’s also deep, and in the end deeply alone, as deeply alone as Charlie Brown is. Grand though his flights are, many of them end with his realizing that he’s tired and cold and lonely and that it’s suppertime. As Schulz noted on "The Today Show" when he announced his retirement, in December 1999: “Snoopy likes to think that he’s this independent dog who does all of these things and leads his own life, but he always makes sure that he never gets too far from that supper dish.” He has animal needs, and he knows it, which makes him, in a word, human.

Even Snoopy’s wildest daydreams have a touch of pathos. When he marches alone through the trenches of World War I, yes, of course, he is fantasizing, but he also can be seen as the bereft young Charles Schulz, shipped off to war only days after his mother died at the age of 50, saying to him: “Good-bye, Sparky. We’ll probably never see each other again.”

The final comic strips, which came out when Schulz realized he was dying, are pretty heartbreaking. All of the characters seem to be trying to say goodbye, reaching for the solidarity that has always eluded them. Peppermint Patty, standing in the rain after a football game, says, “Nobody shook hands and said, ‘Good game.’ ” Sally shouts to her brother, Charlie Brown: “Don’t you believe in brotherhood?!!” Linus lets out a giant, boldface “SIGH!” Lucy, leaning as ever on Schroeder’s piano, says to him, “Aren’t you going to thank me?”

But it’s Snoopy who is grappling with the big questions, the existential ones. Indeed, by his thought balloons alone, you might mistake him for Charlie Brown. The strip dated January 15, 2000, shows Snoopy on his doghouse. “I’ve been very tense lately,” Snoopy thinks, rising up stiffly from his horizontal position. “I find myself worrying about everything.... Take the Earth, for instance.” He lies back down, this time on his belly, clutching his doghouse: “Here we all are clinging helplessly to this globe that is hurtling through space....” Then he turns over onto his back: “What if the wings fall off?”

Snoopy may have been delusional, but in the end he knew very well that everything could come tumbling down. His very existence seems to be a way of saying that no matter what a person builds up for himself inside or outside society, everyone is basically alone in it together. By the way, in the end Snoopy did admit to at least one shortcoming, though he claimed he wasn’t really to blame. In the strip that ran on January 1, 2000, drawn in shaky lines, the kids are having a great snowball fight. Snoopy sits on the sidelines, struggling to get his paws around a snowball: “Suddenly the dog realized that his dad had never taught him how to throw snowballs.” Ω

[Sarah Boxer — a writer at The Atlantic since 2013 — is the author of a graphic novel, In the Floyd Archives (2001). After graduating from Harvard University (BA, philosophy), Boxer worked for The New York Times for 16 years — as an editor for "The Book Review," an editor at "The Week In Review," a photo critic, an ideas reporter, an arts reporter, and finally a Web critic. More recently, she has written Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web (2008).]

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

From The Sublime To The Sublimer

Yesterday, Andy Borowitz japes about The Hillster have morphed today in snark from The Wonkette hereself. Unfortunately, The Hillster's public life always seems to have something that doesn't pass the smell test from questionable business dealings in Arkansas to private e-mail servers in her NY residence. If this is the (fair & balanced) political conundrum of the age, so be it.

[x The Daily Beast]
The Dark Side Of Hillary Clinton’s New Inevitability
By Ana Marie Cox

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For her birthday, Hillary Clinton got some conventional wisdom.

In the wake of a dominating debate performance and equally impressive turn at the Benghazi hearings, the usual Washington suspects have decided being inevitable isn’t so bad after all. She became “the heroine of a captivating political drama,” says Reuters. Her 11-hour testimony was, says Vox, “her best campaign ad yet.” Once again, quoth The Fix at The Washington Post, “Republicans saved Hillary.” The Guardian saw a “triumphant October” and “political observers’ doubts fade.” “The Most Likely Next President Is Hillary Clinton,” declared Mark Halperin at Bloomberg News.

Now, Halperin’s judgments on candidates’ political fortunes are fickle enough that there could be a Hallmark card designed for those on their receiving end. (It’s shelved next to the “So I heard Bill Kristol thinks you should run for president” line.) Just last March, based on Clinton’s lackluster response to the revelation that she used a private email server to conduct some State Department business, Halperin got his syntax in a bunch and huffed that he had revised a yet earlier opinion: “I now think that she’s not only not easily the most likely, I don’t think she’s anymore the most likely.”

I’m probably the last one who needs to remind Clinton that the favor of the Washington media isn’t so much a gift horse that requires a look in the mouth as a pile of what comes out the other end. More enduring support has come in the form of dollars; the campaign claims to have had its most successful single hour yet between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. on the night of her Benghazi testimony and added 100,000 new donors in October.

That is clearly more encouraging news than whatever fresh-baked takes are wafting across Twitter, but the mechanism behind the outpouring of support isn’t an unalloyed gift. We live in the age of enemy-of-my-enemy politics, and analysis that stops with seeing Clinton benefit from the Republicans’ attack on her misses the equal and opposite reaction on the right.

At the moment, that reaction is diffused into the clown car of chaos chugging across the primary landscape. There are more than a dozen campaigns all trying to lay claim to the mantle of Clinton-slayer, and at the moment they look less like an opponent than a tribe of minions trying to scrabble to the top of a living pyramid. Once votes and money coalesce around a candidate, it will be more difficult to count Clinton as the winner in any given contest.

But look, I don’t think your average swing voter cares about the controversies that obsess the right. Republicans have a historically and hysterically bad record at overestimating the degree to which mere annoyance with the Clintons’ foibles translates into active support for their agenda. What’s more, the GOP seems determined to nominate someone whose views aren’t just unpopular with the vast majority of Americans but actively repellent to many. (If the right wants to die on the hill of fake “religious liberty” causes, it’ll die alone). The Republican Party has made little progress on defusing the demographic time bomb that will soon make winning the white male vote an even more dubious distinction.

So I’m not worried so much about the Republican nominee winning come next November, but I am worried that the Democrats’ best hope for holding the White House for the next eight years performs best from a defensive posture. She needs the GOP as much as it needs her. It’s a stance of mutually assured fundraising, a recipe for continued gridlock and a million clever social media memes, but not much progress.

On some level, this winningest loser strategy mirrors the exact scenario Clinton’s anti-Bernie Sanders surrogates stoke: He’ll never get anything done, they argue, he’s too polarizing and extreme! In real life, Sanders is one of Congress’s most successful brokers—the “amendment king” of the House and the co-shepherd of the last bill to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs, one of the Senate’s few bipartisan successes in recent years.

The somewhat sad truth is that Sanders is polarizing because of his positions, not because of who he is. Clinton’s provocativeness is, on the other hand, half intentional bluster and half protective coloring. As a woman, because she bears the burden of being first and among the few, her skill in turning these things into triumphs is an adaptation, an evolutionary advantage that ensures her survival—even as it draws into question her ability to build a legacy.

As it is, the higgledy-piggledy nature of the Republican debate field remains her best friend, even if what it takes to win isn’t the same as what’s required to govern. When the CNBC Gong Show ends Wednesday night, Washington’s wisest will no doubt find more proof of her ascendance. They should keep in mind that’s largely because the rest of the field has sunk so low. Ω

[In 2004, Ana Marie Cox became the founding editor of the political blog Wonkette. Cox and Wonkette gained notoriety in the political world for publicizing the story of Jessica Cutler, also known as "Washingtonienne", a staff assistant to Senator Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) who accepted money from a George W. Bush administration official and others in exchange for sexual favors. In July 2006, Cox was named the Washington editor of, where she also wrote The Ana Log. Presently, Cox is a Daily Beast columnist. Wonkette emerita, political junkie, self-hating journalist, and author of Dog Days (2006). She has worked for Time, GQ, Mother Jones, and, most recently, The Guardian US. She received a BA (history) from the University of Chicago.]

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

From The Ridiculous To The Sublime

Yesterday, Tom Tomorrow's 'toon had politicos morphing into ghosts and hobgoblins; today, Andy Borowitz of an actual faux news assessment of the recent 11-hour session of The House Select Committee on Benghazi as the Dumbos were baffled by The Hillster's rope-a-dope strategy and couldn't lay a glove on Her Inevitability. Borowitz makes masterful use of political bromides in this imagined thank-you to the Dumbos/Teabaggers who landed not a single blow during the entire day-long event. If this is (fair & balanced) comedic Kabuki Theater, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
Clinton Thanks Benghazi Committee For Invaluable Service To Her Campaign
By Andy Borowitz

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In an official statement on Friday morning, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton thanked the House Select Committee on Benghazi for what she called an “invaluable service to my Presidential campaign.”

In contrast with the adversarial tone of much of Thursday’s hearings, Clinton’s statement was characterized by fulsome gratitude as she singled out the Republicans on the committee for praise.

“For months, my campaign has been rocked by difficulties and doubts,” she said. “Yesterday, with your help, all of that changed.”

Clinton gave special thanks to the committee chairman, Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, who she said “went far beyond the call of duty to help get my candidacy back on track.”

“One lingering question about me as a politician has been whether people like me enough to vote for me,” she said. “I want to thank you, Trey Gowdy, for making me seem likable.”

The statement ended on an emotional note, in which Clinton said that, if elected, she “will never forget” the Benghazi committee’s role in winning her the White House. “You were there for me when I needed you,” she said. Ω

[Andy Borowitz is the creator the "Borowitz Report," a Web site that is a lot funnier than the stuff posted by Matt Drudge and his ilk. Borowitz is a comedian and writer whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker. He is the first winner of the National Press Club's humor award and has won seven Dot-Comedy Awards for his web site. His most recent book (and Amazon's Best Kindle Single of the Year) is An Unexpected Twist (2012). Borowitz is a magna cum laude (English) graduate of Harvard College.]

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