Monday, January 10, 2000

How the Little Red Headed Girl Left Me So Sad

Linus asks Charlie Brown, "What would you say you want most out of life, to be happy?" Charlie Brown thinks for a second and says, " Oh no. I don't expect that, I really don't". PAUSE "I just don't want to be unhappy."

One of the loves my Mom passed on to me was her love for newspaper comics or as I like to call them, "funnies." Actually one of the first comics Mom pointed me to was Roy Crane's Buzz Sawyer which wasn't funny at all. As memory serves me well, Buzz was sort of the Lassie of comic strips. It was a daily serial chronicling the exploits of an average guy who liked to help people in distress. Reading Buzz was my introduction to newspapers, which I began to precociously and quite religiously read when I was in the fourth grade.

Indeed this was at the age where most of my philosophical faith was formed, and it came from that wonderful daily messy ink of newsprint. Far from being a Biblical scholar or a student of Buddha, if I could point to one solitary influence over my life's beliefs it would have to be Charles Schultz's Peanuts. Perhaps the moodiest comic strip ever penned, Peanuts could quickly (and quite skillfully) move from cute to melancholy, from wistful to witty. The strip was full of characters who were schooled in life's lessons.

There's the constantly crabby Lucy (who had an anger management problem long before that was a trendy term) who thinks the world would be a better place if only people would listen to her and her alone. Lucy's advice to others, often offered via her fast food like psychiatric stand (only five cents) usually makes logical sense if not always arrived at logically; though her advice is often not followed because of its abrupt honesty. There was a wonderful series when she decided to "cure" her brother Linus' dependence on his security blanket by grabbing it from him and secretly burying it. In her heart she is doing the right thing, and in actuality she probably is- Linus is too old to be sucking his thumb and hanging on to a blanket. But her lack of understanding of Linus' identification with his blanket makes her technique wholly inappropriate. In the series of strips it is up to Charlie Brown to try and convince her that she is being too harsh, and to stay up with Linus through his first night without his blanket. Ultimately Snoopy saves the day finding the blanket as Lucy gives up her attempt- "From now on I'm through trying to help people. They never appreciate it anyway," she says although it is inherently part of her makeup to keep on trying whether asked to or not.

Perhaps my favorite character is Linus, the sensitive soul of the group. Linus shows a premature creative intelligence yet is terribly naive to the world. He constantly seeks knowledge from others but blindly believes whatever they tell him. Linus despite his usual well grounded nature has his one eccentric quirk: his absolute conviction in the existence of the Great Pumpkin. Every Halloween he sits in a pumpkin patch, often alone, sometimes dragging with him an unsuspecting partner in hopes that it will be the year the Great Pumpkin finally bestows upon him gifts and treasures. My favorite Linus moment was a short story he wrote in which the main character is a boy who has a constant headache. Despite seeing the doctor there appears to be no cure until his brother comes along and loosens his ears making the headache disappear. I still refer to that story whenever I have trouble writing.

Snoopy of course was the breakout character of the strip becoming the marketing focal point as well as the central focus of the TV specials and movies. His overly active imagination makes him while not the smartest character, certainly the most erudite. While the average beagle probably doesn't spend much time pretending he's a World War I ace pilot or sleeping atop his dog house, Snoopy's actions are at their core rooted in being a dog. He likes to lie in the sun, likes to have his head scratched and is forever waiting for that funny looking bald kid to bring him his supper dish.

Charlie Brown symbolizes all of us who follow our dreams to their sadly inevitable unsatisfying conclusions. Just once Charlie Brown would like to win a baseball game, get his kite aloft, or talk to the little redheaded girl. His desire to kick the football before Lucy pulls it away from him (WHUMMP!!!) is perhaps the most familiar example of his boundless faith. His life indeed is so representative of the futility of life- there is a thin line between hope and hopeless that often is difficult to discern, yet it is the undying belief that the next time will be different that time after time keeps us trying.

The strip grew a tad stale over the years although that can easily be forgiven since Schultz began writing it in the late 1940's. There still was an occasional spark however, usually associated with the arrival of a new character (Frieda the girl with naturally curly hair; Marcie, Peppermint Patty's spectacled friend who, to Patty's chagrin, keeps calling her "Sir"). Until the end, the characters' plight remained interesting. Much of the life of the strip was rooted in the saddest feeling of all, unrequited love (Lucy's for Schroeder, Sally's for Linus, Linus' for Miss Othmar, Charlie Brown's for the little red-headed girl). That the characters were able to maintain a dignified hopeful skepticism in the face of all the disappointments was inspiring in itself. There was a little bit of all of them in all of us, and a little bit all of us in all of them and the world won't quite be the same without these dear wise friends.

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