Personal Pieces postsThursday November 26, 2009
Happy Birthday, Charles M. Schulz
Charles M. Schulz, who created some of the first fictional characters I ever cared about, was born on this day, November 26, 1922, in St. Paul, Minn. There's a good personal essay on the “Peanuts” universe by Jonathan Franzen in his book of essays “The Discomfort Zone,” which I read about five or 10 years ago in The New Yorker. You can read it here. At one point Franzen writes:
Schulz never stopped trying to be funny. Around 1970, though, he began to drift away from aggressive humor and into melancholy reverie. There came tedious meanderings in Snoopyland with the unhilarious bird Woodstock and the unamusing beagle Spike. Certain leaden devices, such as Marcie’s insistence on calling Peppermint Patty “sir,” were heavily recycled. By the late eighties, the strip had grown so quiet that younger friends of mine seemed baffled by my fandom. It didn’t help that later “Peanuts” anthologies loyally reprinted so many Spike and Marcie strips. The volumes that properly showcased Schulz’s genius, the three hardcover collections from the sixties, had gone out of print. There were a few critical appreciations, most notably by Umberto Eco, who argued for Schulz’s literary greatness in an essay written in the sixties and reprinted in the eighties (when Eco got famous). But the praise of a “low” genre by an old semiotic soldier in the culture wars couldn’t help carrying an odor of provocation.
All of which I agree with, particularly the Spike criticism; but even in his later years Schulz had his moments. This is one of them. In a series from 1988, Charlie Brown is outside the house of the little red-haired girl, hiding behind a tree and lost in his usual reverie. Then suddenly she comes outside:
When I first saw this I was living in Taiwan and dealing—with about as much courage and luck—with my own little red-haired girl, albeit the tall, brown-haired version. I identified, in other words. As a child I identified with Snoopy and as an adult with Charlie Brown. You can argue that Charlie Brown is the most adult character in the strip: he feeds Snoopy, takes care of Sally, organizes the little league team, sees the psychiatrist. Linus may be the philospher, the potential minister, but Charlie Brown is already the nervous, overworked parent.
I wound up cutting the strip out of the English-language newspaper in Taiwan and bringing it home with me seven months later. Ever since I've kept it in an old cigar box (PHILLIES BLUNT), along with autographs, old political buttons, my high school tassle. Stuff that's tough to throw away.
I recommend the Franzen book. I recommend The New Yorker. I recommend a song called “Charlie Brown” by Gavin Osborn:
It's all a lot of oysters and no pearls
But I recall the little red haired girl
How I used to sit on this bench in school
And stare at her across the playground
All I wanted was to sit next to her
Talk to her just be with her
That wasn't asking too much was it
But it never happened
Then she moved away
And I don't even know where she lives
Still got my lunchbox just in case
I even saved her a sandwich and a drink
Happy thanksgiving, everyone. Happy birthday, Sparky. Good work, Google, combining the two:
Why Blogging Isn't Writing—I
The other night my friend Tommy and I were talking about a game we both play. When the latest New Yorker arrives in the mail we turn to the “Talk of the Town” section, read the first graph of the first piece, and try to guess whether it’s Hendrik Hertzberg. Usually we can tell. His writing tends to be clearer, more insightful, more playful than the other writers—often very good writers—who also appear regularly in that space.
But I admit I play that game less often now. That first section of the “Talk of the Town,” which once seemed so essential, increasingly feels like old news. Which it is. I think: “They’re still writing about that?” (Something that happened last week.) “I want to read about this.” (Something that happened yesterday or today or an hour ago.) In this way the Internet has made children of us all.
And that’s because blogging isn’t writing. Writing is rewriting, and usually rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, and hardly anybody spends much time rewriting a blog post. “To get it wrong so many times,” laments E.I. Lonoff, Philip Roth’s fictional writer, of the many drafts he goes through before he gets a novel or a short story or a sentence just so. His line could describe our online world, which is about immediacy rather than getting it right. It could be the epitaph for our age. We get it wrong so many times.
Me, too. I’m the first to admit that after two years I haven’t figured out what this thing is for yet. In the best blogs—such as Andrew Sullivan’s—the internal process, the thinking process, how one arrives at the thoughts one arrives at, is presented externally. That’s fascinating. But it’s not writing. It’s something else. Milan Kundera has written essays about sweeping up around the final product (the essay, the story, the novel) so that the process is not visible to the reader, so that the product stands alone, like Stonehenge, leaving readers to wonder, “Wow. How did this thing get here anyway?” That’s 20th century thinking. We’re process now rather than product. Even if there is a product, we use the process to sell it. DVD extras and cut scenes. Alternative tracks to popular songs. Here’s what we deemed uncecessary. Here’s where we got it wrong so many times.
This post, too, is process. It's not leading anywhere. It's not really suggesting anything. It's just pointing out mixed feelings.
Dying for Tomatoes
So Patricia and I were driving home after two days of camping with my sister's family at Moran State Park on Orcas Island. The plan was to buy tomatoes, etc., on the way home, which is why, after the ferry-boat docking at Anacortes, Wash., P and I left Highway 20 and headed south toward La Conner, home of the tulip festival in April. It was after 6 p.m. and most stands were closed, and most of those stands just sold blueberries and raspberries anyway. We were on Samish Road, a two-lane highway (one lane heading north, one heading south), when we spotted a more-promising stand to the left. I slowed the car, put on my turn signal, and was beginning to turn...when the car behind us barreled past us in the left lane, the lane I was turning into. If I'd turned a second earlier he would've slammed into the driver's side of our car going 50 and we'd be dead.
It shakes you up. It's such a nothing moment and an everything moment. It shouldn't have nearly happened but it did (nearly happen), and some part of me keeps imagining the wreckage in the silence after the crash, and the people who came upon us, and the gawkers. It's like something out of an old drivers ed movie. Sudden death. Because we were looking for tomatoes and the guy behind us couldn't wait.
The promising stand, by the way, was closed.
"I Know, Captain, a Thousand Questions..."
...or 50 anyway. This is a Facebook meme but I'd rather you read it here than on Facebook. There's usually an intro but you get the idea. There are questions and I answer them. You can, too, if you like.
1. What time did you get up this morning? 6:00 A.M.
2. How do you like your steak? Medium rare.
3. What was the last film you saw at the cinema? "Funny People." Recommended. Highly.
4. What is your favorite TV show? "The Wire"
5. If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be? Paris
6. What did you have for breakfast? Coffee. Joe's O's with blueberries.
7. What is your favorite cuisine? If I had to pick one I'd go Italian, but Thai and Indian are close.
8. What foods do you dislike? "Honey?! What foods do I dislike?!"
9. Favorite place to eat? Cafe Presse.
10. Favorite dressing? What Patricia makes.
11.What kind of vehicle do you drive? 2000 Specialized Crossroads.
12. What are your favorite clothes? What Patricia likes
13. Where would you visit if you had the chance? I do have the chance.
14. Cup 1/2 empty or 1/2 full? Both answers are correct.
15. Where would you want to retire? Someplace to warm my cold, cold bones.
16. Favorite time of day? Early morning. Before the world is up and causing problems.
17. Where were you born? Minneapolis, Minnesota
18. What is your favorite sport to watch? Baseball. There is no second.
19. Who do you think will not tag you back? Irrelevant.
20. Person you expect to tag you back first? Irrelevant.
21. Who are you most curious about their responses to this? Sorry.
22. Bird watcher? No. But I love people who have that kind of knowledge and passion, who do the thing for the doing of it.
23. Are you a morning person or a night person? Morning.
24. Do you have any pets? Jellybean, the cat. Who's crazy.
25. Any new and exciting news you'd like to share? I'm going to L.A. tomorrow. Don't know if it's "new" or "exciting" or "news," but there you go.
26. What did you want to be when you were little? Fireman, policeman, baseball player.
27. What is your best childhood memory? Best as in happiest? Happiest then or happiest in memory? Whichever way, I'm not sure. Rehoboth? Bedstefar? Kickball? Camera Day? Fireflies? Charlevoix? It was a pretty good childhood, considering.
28. Are you a cat or dog person? Dog, generally. But condo life is tough for a dog. I feel bad enough cooping up Jellybean.
29. Are you married? No.
30. Always wear your seat belt? Pretty much.
31. Been in a car accident? Fender benders. Not for a while, though. Knock wood.
32. Any pet peeves? Many. Here's one: Capable people who stand on escalators, who don't walk up or down. Here's another: How about using your turn signal? And before you enter the intersection. To quote George: "We live in a society!"
33. Favorite Pizza Toppings? Pepperoni, sausage.
34. Favorite Flower? Whatever Patricia likes.
35. Favorite ice cream? Sebastian Joe's Angelica (hazelnut + coffee)
36. Favorite fast food restaurant? Probably Dick's. Every once in a while I get a craving for a Big Mac. But probably a Big Mac circa 1972.
37. How many times did you fail your driver's test? Didn't.
38. From whom did you get your last email? Nathalie.
39. Which store would you choose to max out your credit card? I wouldn't choose to max out my credit card.
40. Do anything spontaneous lately? Bought a gelato on the way home from the movies. Hazelnut and coffee.
41. Like your job? Yes. Even before I was just happy to have a job.
43. What was your favorite vacation? When I was a kid: Rehoboth. As an adult: Probably the trip through Europe with Joan.
44. Last person you went out to dinner with? Patricia.
45. What are you listening to right now? Traffic on Boren. Jellybean meowing for dinner. Patricia getting a phone call. It's a wonder a person can think in here.
46. What is your favorite color? Blue.
47. How many tattoos do you have? I'm clean.
48. How many are you tagging for this quiz? Irrelevant.
49. What time did you finish this quiz? 5:36 P.M.
50. Coffee Drinker? Yes, but that's an odd last question. Shouldn't 49) be last? Shouldn't this one be earlier? Not to be an editor or anything.
Things I Learned on Vacation in Minnesota
- Legos are insanely popular.
- What Bakugan is.
- Left to their own devices, kids will reduce the vastness of the world to Wii and Cheezits.
- When attempting to extract young, Wii-playing nephews from the basement, even to go to a place where they want to go (swimming pool, Lego Land), never begin a sentence with: “Do you want to...?”
- Losing your temper with children is way counterproductive.
- “Tin Tin” still works for eight-year-olds. Even though it has “bad words.”
- For eight year olds: If you’re writing all the bad words you know for your friend, who doesn’t read and write as well as you do, and you don’t want his parents to know who the author is, don’t sign your name.
- The best time to go to the Mall of America is just as it opens, particularly on a holiday, say the Fourth of July. It’s still relatively calm and manageable. The huge crowds, and the unrelenting din, haven’t arrived yet.
- On a weekday afternoon, you can still walk for blocks in south Minneapolis and see no one.
- Kids in south Minneapolis still put up lemonade stands.
- South Minneapolis is still a great place to grow up.
- Roseanne Cash has pipes. Her voice transcends genres. (Thanks, Jim and Jean.)
- It helps to know someone at Coastal Seafood. (Thanks, Doug.)
- Minneapolis is solving the unemployment problem with more summer road construction than is humanly possible...and yet that stretch of Hennepin between the Walker and Franklin Ave. still sucks.
- When putting helium-filled birthday balloons into a car, make sure the sun-roof is closed.
- Eight-year-old nephews can almost outrun their 46-year-old uncles now. And around a bouncy house in the backyard? In socks? The uncles have no chance.
- When unable to win at conventional warfare, everyone resorts to unconventional warfare. And by “warfare,” substitute “a game of Monster versus four kids around the bouncy house.” And by “everyone,” substitute “me.” I.e., Unable to capture all four kids in the dungeon (the hammock) without one, usually the eight-year-old nephew, freeing them, tell that nephew, currently in the dungeon, that the other kids, currently on a “water break,” are enjoying cool, refreshing water while he has none. And yet who always freed them? He did! And yet were they helping him now? No! They were enjoying cool, refreshing water.
- Caveat: Such psychological warfare won’t help you win the game but it’s still satisfying.
- The kid version of this is to call for a water break just as you’re about to be captured.
- Iphones are great for checking work e-mail. Particularly to let you know you have no important work e-mail.
- The best time for a conversation with an eight-year-old is while biking to and from tennis lessons.
- Be grateful, and almost melt, when your nephew takes to heart your comments about tennis lessons, and pays more attention to the teacher, and acts more like an eight-year-old should.
- Don’t be surprised that he’s only doing this to get back his “T for Teen” Wii game, which his mother took away from him the night before “until he acts more like an eight-year-old should.”
- The best place for kids to pick out presents for adults, that the adults don’t need but can’t possibly give or throw away, is the Minnesota store at the Mall of America.
- Any woman who agrees, on her birthday, to go to “Star Trek” for the nephews, and then, when the six-year-old balks, to go to a matinee of “Ice Age 3,” is the best woman in the world.
- The best potato chips in the world are Old Dutch Rip-L potato chips.
- The best french fries in the world are at Nick and Eddies.
- The best ice cream in the world is Sebastian Joe’s.
- The time to go on a diet is after vacation.