Essay 54: Oh Sister
I want you to know that I love Peanuts. It’s important to get that out the way before I even start. I had a dream once that I was a judge in an Idols-style scenario, except with art. People had to bring their paintings to me and my panel, and then we would give our scores. Scoring worked like this: I would hold up cards on which different numbers of Snoopies were painted. One Snoopy for terrible, unredeemable paintings; ten Snoopies for Good Art. I was known, in my dream, to be strict but fair. I gave a lot of people a solid six Snoopies. And then this woman came along with this extraordinary painting, so beautiful, of some strange men on a red boat in the middle of a jungle. All the judges were just crazy about it. I want you to know that I gave that painting 12 Snoopies.
I am not sure what this story reveals, except that other people’s dreams are the worst, and that I think very highly of Snoopy indeed. It’s not only Snoopy, though. I want you to know that I identify with Woodstock in ways I can only graze the surface of here. The Wikipedia entry for Woodstock is as good as summary of my personal qualities and characteristics as I could ever hope to find: small but scrappy, a natural sidekick, bad at accepting help, good at things that no one else cares about. Our souls are cheerful; our intentions are nearly always good. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry on Woodstock’s personality pierced me to my core with these sentences:
For all of Woodstock’s acumen and talent, he is physically a very poor flyer…He flutters around in erratic fashion, often upside down, and frequently crashes into things. He usually manages to get where he wants to go as long as he doesn’t have to fly too high.
This works on the literal and the figurative level. I too would be a very bad flyer. I too am always crashing into things but if you just leave me alone I will accomplish what needs to be done. Woodstock c’est moi. I should find the person who wrote Woodstock’s Wikipedia entry, and have them come and be my best friend. Clearly there is no one who will understand me so well, or so deeply. I like to imagine, actually, that Woodstock himself wrote the entry, pecking away with either his beak or his claws. He writes something mean about Snoopy and then deletes it. He types “Woodstock is the true star of Peanuts” and then deletes that as well. He tries as hard as he can to be honest about himself.
One day I will write a book about all this and become extremely rich. For now, though, it is important only to know that I love Peanuts so much, and that if you gave me a jersey with Woodstock on it, I would wear it every single day.
It’s not often that this information is relevant. There is usually no good reason to include my feelings about Snoopy’s best friend in the things I write. It doesn’t come up. This essay, though, is different. This is the essay where my love of Peanuts is crucial to the narrative, so buckle up.
The other quality that Woodstock and I share is that we are both somewhat aggrieved, by nature. It’s bad. Woodstock and I both feel a vague but persistent sense that we have been wronged. Not about anything terrifically awful, but just a niggling unease that we have been ever so slightly ripped off. I like to think that my awareness of this deeply unappealing facet to my personality prevents it from ever getting out of control. Is that really true, though? Does knowing that you can be something of a pain ever really mitigate the fact of your being a pain? Probably not.
I don’t know where I get it from. I had a childhood that was absolutely free of being hard done by in any way, and I do all right as an adult, too. I have never, for instance, been the victim of an elaborate long con. I’ve never been fired without extremely good reason. I have never been bitten by a bad dog, or been turned away from any parties. Once in India I had all my belongings stolen, all of them, and even then there was a voice in my head saying This really is not so bad. One day this will be a good story. The name of the story can be Hard Times for Rosa. And it really wasn’t so bad! It did, indeed, end up being a very good story. I stayed for an extra week on a beach in Goa and ended up doing a lot of yoga with a mega-sensual instructor. It was great.
I have always been a fortunate girl. I know that. So then where, exactly, does this feeling come from? When I was a kid, my dad’s regular refrain to me was Oh for god’s sake don’t look so hard done by. I would try and rearrange my features into something more stoical, but what I was thinking was But I AM hard done by. I have once again been cheated of what is due to me.
Woodstock is the same. He is always worrying that Snoopy is hiding something big, or going to the movies without him. But Snoopy is his best friend and would never do him that way! So then why? What is that we think has been cruelly wrenched from our hands/beaks/claws? What is mine and Woodstock’s problem?
Woodstock is easy to answer, really. Even though Snoopy is his best friend, the celebrity beagle can sometimes be a bit cold and inscrutable. There have been some practical jokes that got out of hand. There was the time that Snoopy pretended to be reading War and Peace and it drove Woodstock out of his mind with rage. Woodstock is also a small bird who cannot communicate with anyone except Snoopy. He once got mistaken for a glove. Many of the other characters think he is a duck, or else do not think of him at all. It’s easy to see that Woodstock has real troubles, and that the world has not always been generous to him.
Me, though? I’m not a bird, and no one has ever lied to me about reading War and Peace. So? The answer, I think, lies with another Peanuts character: Lucy van Pelt. Here she comes, everybody. Lucy is a towering creation of comic genius. She is the absolute pits, and I love her to death. Here, again, is Wikipedia’s beautiful genius Peanuts expert:
“Lucy is characterized as very loud-mouthed, violent, aggressive and temperamental. She often mocks other characters such as Snoopy, his owner Charlie Brown and even her younger brother Linus van Pelt. But she’s a very nice girl at heart.”
She is a faintly nice girl at heart, maybe. She has begrudgingly bailed her brothers out of one or two scrapes, and if that is your criteria for what constitutes a nice person, then I wish you all the best. The main thing she is, undeniably, is a terror. She bullies Charlie Brown, and hates Snoopy, and complains about everything, all the time. For an eight year old, Lucy is weirdly fixated on money. Her favourite noise is the sound of cold hard nickels falling to the ground. She will sell her own small brother’s comfort blanket just to hear those sweet, sweet nickels tumbling down. She is a hostile and violent presence, in her little blue dress and her saddle shoes and her psychiatric booth.
Lucy’s pals and acquaintances come to her in her little booth for advice, and they should not be doing that. Her advice is never good: she tells people that they are nuts, or that if they don’t shut up she will give them a knuckle sandwich. Somewhere in this ridiculous world there exists an academic paper on Foucault and the role of the psychiatric subject, and the writer has used as evidence Lucy’s abuse of the power accrued to her simply because she is standing in a booth that says THE PSYCHIATRIST IS IN. Tell me I’m wrong.
Lucy is the best. She is an eight year old Iago, a tiny Count of Monte Cristo. Most importantly, she is the pure distilled essence of big sister. The Wikipedia entry, again: “She is the main antagonist and the older sister of Linus and Rerun.” It explains everything, no? Take out the information that Lucy is a big sister of two much cuter boys, and she makes no sense as a character – too devilish and fixated on revenge. Her being an older sister is the key to understanding her little raisin of a soul. I feel that it lends her a tragic and noble air. Lucy is always stealing other people’s footballs and feeding them knuckle sandwiches because she is a big sister, a deposed princess, a bitter old queen looking out on the lands that belonged once to her. Yes. Accept this fact.
Big sisters of cute little brothers are in a weird position. This, at least, is what Lucy and I think. Lucy and I think that the world has little time for a big sister: not in charge like big brothers, and not sweet like little sisters. The world does not know what to do with them. Big sisters of little brothers appear infrequently in fiction, and when they do, they are either strident or suffering from a bizarre and irritating ailment. They are clever in non-useful ways. I’m sorry, but when you google “older sisters” this is what you get:
“older sisters younger brothers”
“older sisters are mean”
“older sisters fatter”
Yes. If one was in a certain kind of mood, one might point out that the blame for this could be laid at the feet of the patriarchy, that a big sister is a discordant presence because girls are meant to be protected, on the one hand, but older siblings are meant to be protective, on the other. Does this make sense? Or does this sound like just the sort of thing that a crabby older sister would say? Supporting arguments could be made by pointing out that Older brother/little sister is an extremely popular fictional combination:
Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird, Holden and Phoebe Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, Bart and Lisa Simpson.
This pairing makes sense: the brother can be brave and/or tormented, and the sister can be adorable and/or wise. The brother can pull himself together because of the way his little sister looks up to him. He can stand in front of the mirror and wish he were as good as his little sister thought he was. If he is Bart Simpson, he can be annoyed with his sister, but never too annoyed, because really she is only small. Big sisters are afforded no such charity.
As must be clear, I am myself the big sister of a little brother. It’s true that I am mostly Woodstock, that I am a cheery and scrappy sidekick on my best days. But there is always a tiny bit of Lucy van Pelt lurking in there too, scowling away in her little blue dress and her saddle shoes. There are days when I feel as if it’s written somewhere on my forehead: OLDER SISTER COMING. GET READY, EVERYBODY. Here she comes, feeling somehow hard done by, somehow as if the natural order of things has been knocked askew. It would be nice if people attributed every shitty thing I had ever done or said to this aspect of myself. She can’t help it, they would say. She is a big sister and must be indulged. Check out Lucy and I, marching through the world, stealing other people’s footballs and kicking over their sandcastles, asking to be understood.
this essay appeared first in Prufrock magazine. As ever, I would like to make it very clear that they are the best, and that everyone should buy a copy immediately.