Mannequin Monday – Here’s Joe Cool…
Here’s Joe Cool, appearing in the first Mannequin Monday blog post of the new year. This week, an insightful article from The Atlantic on Charles Schulz’s character Snoopy. Snoopy, “realizing that he’s tired and cold and lonely and that it’s suppertime.”
And, as always, a writing exercise of my own.
What I’m Reading This Week
A 2005 article in The Atlantic caught my eye this week: “The Exemplary Narcissism of Snoopy” by Sarah Boxer. Boxer began the article with a short history of the comic strip as it developed from its inception in 1950.
“Peanuts was deceptive,” Boxer wrote. “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?”
Every character… had at least one key prop or attribute.
Boxer’s description of the workings of the comic strip offers solid advice for any story writer. She wrote: “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.”
I see a connection between writing a comic strip and storytelling at large. Any fiction writer will struggle to create characters with distinct personality traits, quirks, foibles. Even a tic unique to them. I think, for example, of Hemingway’s Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea. The story is all about the fisherman’s quest for a large fish, but we readers revel in hearing him talk about American baseball teams.
“Have faith in the Yankees my son. Think of the great DiMaggio.”
“I fear both the Tigers of Detroit and the Indians of Cleveland.”
“Be careful or you will fear even the Reds of Cincinnati and the White Sox of Chicago.”
Santiago reflects the Cuban love of baseball while focusing on the great fish.
Boxer goes on to quote Schulz’s guiding principle: “A cartoonist,” Schulz once said, “is someone who has to draw the same thing every day without repeating himself.” Is that not true of any storyteller? Write the same character through an entire story without repeating oneself on the page.
Boxer’s primary focus in the article: “And then, of course, there was Snoopy, who had been around from the outset… 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!?’”
While many readers were captivated by Snoopy’s personality, there are some who are not. Boxer said, “(His) 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.’”
Snoopy allowed him to be spontaneous, slapstick, silly and wild.
Lynn Johnston, a close friend of Shulz, took a more endearing viewpoint: “Snoopy was the one through which (Schulz) 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 Schulz’s freedom.
Boxer offers her own view of Snoopy: “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.”
When my wife Lynn and I first met, 50 years ago, she was not initially enamored of me or my personality. She likened me to Snoopy’s Joe Cool. With good reason. I’d like to think I’ve outgrown the persona, thanks to her lifelong inspiration. But today I find myself tired and cold and lonely…after losing her last month. I long for suppertime, with both of us at the table. I’d like to think that I can continue to give myself to writing, to self-discovery, to storytelling. Sitting atop my doghouse with my typewriter.
What I’m Writing This Week
Here’s a short writing exercise of mine, following Ray Bradbury’s guideline of “nouns and titles.” Make a list of words and titles that occur to you, then craft a story sparked by those words. Enjoy.
I Love My Job
Seven thirty a.m. Raul and Dorothy stepped into the hospital room, carrying an armload of sheets and towels.
“Good morning, beautiful,” Raul said. “How are you feeling today?”
He looked at the woman lying in the hospital bed. She wore the usual hospital gown, covered by a thin white blanket.
A weak voice: “I’m okay.”
“That’s it? Just okay?”
Dorothy opened the blinds. “How about a bit of sunshine, mama?”
“Let’s get you cleaned up before breakfast.”
“I want to go home.”
“I know you do,” Raul said. “You gotta get stronger first. Get up on your feet. Take a few steps.”
“I’m too tired for that.”
“Yeah…” He took off the blanket and sheet.
“Let me wash you,” Dorothy said. She dipped a washcloth in a basin of warm water.
“How’s your family doing?” Raul asked.
“Good. I called them last night. I wish they could visit me.” Tears rolled down her face.
“COVID lockdown sucks.” Raul washed the woman’s legs. “No visitors at all.”
Dorothy spoke to Raul in Spanish. The only word the woman could make out was cansado.
“You like music?” Raul asked.
The woman nodded.
“Ever hear of Wynton Marsalis?”
“When you get home, go on YouTube, find Marsalis and his quintet playing “Joe Avery’s Blues.” Jon Batiste jams with them on that number.”
“I know him. Colbert’s Late Show, right?”
Dorothy interrupted. “We gotta turn you. Pull yourself to your right.”
Raul and Dorothy kept washing the woman. Tossing soiled linens into the laundry bin. Making sure she was spotless.
“When you talk to your family again, get them to play the number for you over the phone. It will cheer you up…You sound sad.”
“I’d rather listen to it at home.”
“I know, honey…I saw they got PT scheduled for you this afternoon. Work on that physical therapy. Build up your strength.”
Dorothy put a fresh gown on the patient. Covered her with a clean sheet and blanket. “You’re good now. Rest till breakfast.” She left the room.
Raul said. “I’ll be back.” He smiled at her. “I love my job.”