dreadedcandiru2: (Snarky Candiru2)
The fact that Mike does bring most of his troubles on himself by letting his issues do his thinking for him is, oddly enough, what made the Middle Years the golden age of the strip. This is because Lynn actively remembered something her mentor Schulz told her about the Round-Headed Kid and why we shouldn't feel all that bad about him. According to Sparky, Good Ol'Charlie Brown is a self-pitying, dithering moaner who brings most of his trouble on himself by punching way out of his weight class and trusting people he should know don't have his best interests at heart. You can feel bad that crap happens to him but you also know that his being a blockhead who never manages to clue in to the fact that he's a crappy pitcher and a worse manager.

Similarly, Lynn makes it quite clear that Michael stupidly blunders into one bad situation after another because he's sort of clueless, really self-absorbed and above all, convinced that there's this big conspiracy to make him miserable because bad people don't want to admit that he should never have to be unhappy ever because he's special and everyone else is dirt under his feet. As by way of example, I'll remind you of the thought processes that convinced him that yes, he should peel the carrots despite that making him some sort of housewife. A normal human being would be happy that he's trusted enough with that sort of responsibility to be allowed to help and do so gladly; self-defeating Michael does so to avoid a bullshit apocalypse because he's a negative jerk who thinks that everyone ever has a plan to make him miserable and taunt him for wanting to enjoy life because that's pretty much what he'd do to everyone in the world if he were in charge.
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What bothers me most about having someone with the profound ignorance (and even more profound reluctance to enlighten herself) of the comic book world as Lynn has parading around giving her anti-advice is that it extends even to material she likes. As an example, Lynn loves to talk about being Schulz’s greatest fan, but my gut says that she doesn’t actually understand Peanuts at all.

Not, of course, that she's alone in this. As she once said, her idiot grandfather rejected it sight unseen because "Children didn't talk that way." The reason for this refusal to understand framing devices is, of course, a cultural thing. My real-life experience teaches me that there are scads of Northern Europeans who give the flaw of narrow-minded stupidity the noble name of practicality. This sort of fool's practicality is, of course, why John didn't see that addressing the emotional issue he wouldn't allow himself to see would be a more effective means of curing Liz of sucking her thumb than putting an appliance in her mouth that might have solved the merely mechanical problem but worsened the emotional one.

I can think of an on-going pitched battle in the void in which Charlie Brown lives that allows us to see what it is that Lynn doesn't get: the constant need that the Van Pelt family has to rid themselves of Linus's security blanket. As we know, Lucy seems hell-bent on destroying it because she's a mean-spirited little brat who needs to be taken aside and told "Family is family so quit picking on your kid brother." The problem is that the Van Pelts seem to be convinced of the same stupid, limiting motion that messes up the Pattersons; in their minds, children are supposed to behave like crabs in a bucket. What we see as a defense mechanism, they see as a shameful sign of weakness. The problem is that Schulz seemed to be aware that a shameful something was happening but it wasn't one that anyone was supposed to do anything about.

What this means is that we contrast a Lynn Johnston who lets her characters do stupid things because she doesn't realize that they're stupid with a man who let his character do stupid things he knew to be stupid but were also obligatory. This resulted her in laughing when Charlie Brown let all those "nyaaahs" eat him up inside without realizing that her mentor was a man who was raised in a society that turned "not being a total freaking idiot and letting the random comments of irrelevant people who barely remember you bother you decades after the fact" into "having the word 'WELCOME' tattooed on your hindquarters." Deep down, he knew it to be a foolish thing that he wasn't allowed to not do; she doesn't.

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As you may or may not know, the people at Fantagraphics have set themselves the task of publishing the complete Peanuts. Having been exposed to the issues from the Pre-Woodstock era, I can state quite clearly that they're infinitely superior to the unprofessional mess Lynn is allowing to see print. The people at Fantagraphics, you see, seem to care about historical accuracy, presentation, logical coherence and a host of other things that Lynn wouldn't recognize if they seized up and bit her.

That being said, you'd think that when it came time to let one of his peers do the foreword to a collection, someone like Guisewite who, despite having certain body image issues, wouldn't use it as a forum to disseminate silly, self-serving comments about herself, the reputation of her alleged patron be damned.

Sadly, this is not the case; Lynn seems to have volunteered to remind us that she had and has a silly, embarrassing crush on him. If I make that sound enticing, it's not; that's because she seems to want to depict the man not as she first met him but as a crabby, creatively bankrupt, physically decrepit old sourpuss who took credit for other people's hard work. Someone with a nasty sense of humor would look at all this and make a snotty remark about how greater love hath no woman that she lay down her idol's credibility to salve her own ego.
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As [livejournal.com profile] josephusrex pointed out yesterday, Garfield isn't really a cat at all; what he is is a short, fat, mute human being doing a rather poor impersonation of a cat. A real cat isn't nearly as smart as Garfield nor is it filled with contempt for its owners because, well, disdain requires it to have intentionality. Also, what looks like a cat turning down unfamiliar food out of snobbery is really the result of the poor animal simply not being able to cope with novelty in its environment. Garfield is thus best understood as being a cast member of the strip "Get Fuzzy" who's taken a vow of silence; he, like Snoopy, is an animal in name only. About the only thing that Lynn Johnston ever did right was to avoid the temptation of personification; Farley was all dog, all the way; granted, she did it for a stupid reason (namely to complain that he insisted on being an animal when the media led her to believe he was a man in a suit) but she does a lot of good things for dumb reasons so that's about par for the course.
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Another symptom of Watterson's refusal to cheapen his creation is that we don't have a Calvin and Hobbes animated series to comment on; Schulz's reluctance to tempt fate by not refusing an opportunity to promote the franchise has resulted in something of a televised legacy to point to and has been remarked on. There is a third person that can be discussed, however: Jim Davis. As I said before, he managed to turn what used to be an underground comic about a single cartoonist and his cantankerous pet cat into a franchise monster; this is because he likes his money green and in pile-high helpings. He doesn't live like a hermit because he fears corruption by the material world and he seems to not have as nearly as many hang-ups as Schulz did. What he does have is an instinct for what sells in this world and not much desire to lecture people about what he holds to be true, good and beautiful; if one were to state that he regards himself as a commercial artist instead of a preacher, one could be sure that he wouldn't take much offense.


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There's another huge difference between Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes; Watterson never really went in for licensing the crap out of his characters the way Schulz did. What little the very private man does say on the matter is that turning his characters into corporate shills cheapens them in much the same way that not leaving the party after saying what he had to say about the characters lessened the impact they have. He even did a Sunday strip that discussed his feelings on the issue; after about eight panels of Calvin in monochrome talking about how color had somehow vanished from the world, he'd snapped back to our reality whereupon his father accused him of only seeing things in black and white. Calvin shot back with a testy "That's the way things are!!"  Schulz, on the other hand, had less of a problem with making a buck off of things; this is probably because he was slightly more social and, if his deal with Met Life in which they'd sponsor some cause he championed on the QT if he let them use Snoopy in their ads, a bit of a better businessman. 
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As I mentioned earlier, Snoopy's rich fantasy life is a defense mechanism he uses in order to avoid have to face how awful it is being a dog in a human world; every so often, we'd see certain reminders that he really doesn't much like being a dog and sort of wishes that he weren't. The problem that he runs into is that he hangs out with a bland, boring little git who yearns to be as dull, grey and conventional as possible; it embarrasses the Blockhead that his dog isn't normal like everyone else's. What's more, the other bland, boring little children in the neighborhood also wish that the beagle on the doghouse would conform to the norm. Calvin, on the other hand, would probably think it was cool that Snoopy did all this neat stuff; that's because he, unlike the angst-ridden drones that moan in their adult-free void, has an active fantasy life. Part of this life, of course, is Hobbes; Watterson specifically said that what he was in reality was pretty much up for grabs. Calvin sees him as being a real anthropomorphic tiger while everyone else sees a stuffed toy; the creator said that both interpretations are, in their one way, correct. No matter what Hobbes really is, though, one thing we can rely on is that Calvin likes it that he does all the stuff we see him doing because, as I said, he's got a pretty active imagination, a lot of energy to spend and not much liking for conventional reality.
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I think it’s fairly safe to say that Charlie Brown has, to coin a phrase, let Stalin into his soul; you’d have to be fairly inured to the prospect of being regimented if, at eight years of age, your fondest dream in all the world was to drive the cross-town bus. Since he’s got his life all planned out, it should come as very little surprise that he obsess over an unrequited crush like a man in his early twenties. Calvin, on the other hand, is by no means adult; he almost thinks of his parents as being a different species than he is. He looks at them with their wrinkled, sagging faces, their sour attitudes, their inability to have fun, their hatred of his having fun, their obsession with mysterious things called mortgages and insurance premiums and thinks that becoming an adult is a far more horrifying transformation than anything he’s seen in the comics. This is pretty much why he avoids the company of Susie Derkins and more or less regards her as an enemy; to him, she’s not just a gross, slimy old girl, she’s a collaborator bent on turning him into another grey-faced adult who hates kids like him. This is because the Calvin we saw was not old enough to realize that a parent can love a child but at the same time not like the things he does. Once he managed to separate his parents' immediate reaction to his odd behavior from how they feel about him as a person, Susie probably became more tolerable company.

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Another way in which we can tell that Charlie Brown and Calvin are on different trajectories in life is their vastly different annual traditions; as we know, every year, the Blockhead swears that he's going to kick that ball clear to the moon and every year, Lucy pulls it away at the last second and makes some nasty remark about how she's right to crush his hopes over and over again. The fact that he doesn't react appropriately tells me that he accepts the bully's authority over him and is doomed to be the sort of Nice Guy who has no hooooooooome and dreams of opening up a bed-and-breakfast. Watterson, on the other hand, doesn't try to humanize his bully, Moe; his comment about how people like him spawn fully-formed from the ooze in order to terrorize small children tells me that he doesn't accept their presence any more than Calvin does. The odd annual tradition of creating bizarre snowmen that alarm the neighbors tells me that Calvin has a low boredom coefficient, a lot of energy to spend and a slightly-overheated imagination; once it's seen as a good thing instead of as a source of embarrassment, he's on his way to the same sort of life as his father: a good job, a nice home, a kid that exasperates him and a father who brings up all the crazy crap he did as a kid.
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One of the things you never saw in Schulz's void that should have appeared was that fixture of American life known as the babysitter; had Mr Reichardt thought to pay a teenager trying to save up money for some minor purchase instead of leaving his rare gem to shift for herself, it's quite possible that instead of being a totally clueless little girl whose poor performance at school comes from her not sleeping, Peppermint Patty would be the lesser sort of mediocrity that the boy she playfully calls Chuck is. Calvin's parents are not so broke or stupid that they don't want to make sure he's left to his own devices; this desire is not, as he believes, totally because they don't trust him, it's that they don't trust the world to keep him safe. His refusal to deal with authority being imposed upon him without his consent tends to make Rosalyn's life somewhat more difficult than it would otherwise be; all she wants is for him to go to sleep after she arrives, his regular bed-time be damned so that she can do her homework and talk to her friends without having to contend with whatever his favorite shows are. Since a seven-year old simply cannot see that this young girl is testy not because she hates him but because she's responsible for his well-being and he won't listen to her, she usually has a hard time dealing with him. Eventually, though, she outsmarted him by using Calvinball to her advantage; since this happened towards the end of the strip, it tells me that she finally started to figure him out. One should think that the Rosalyn of today is telling her babysitter about the fast-talking, genius pain-in-the-neck she used to sit for and how he's some brainiac hotshot living large; one should also suspect that a certain rare gem aspires to one day be a mediocrity.
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Let’s imagine for a second that Charlie Brown were to actually meet Calvin; odds are that they wouldn’t get along too well. First off, the Blockhead is fairly tiresome company and would tend to irritate the boy with the is-it-a-toy-or-not tiger with his endless whining about how bad his life is, how nobody likes him, how he alllllways loses, how he can never seem to make any headway in life. Since none of the things that Charlie Brown obsesses about mean a blasted thing to Calvin, he’d probably try to steer the conversation to something that does matter to him. Let’s also not forget that the reason that Calvin finds the sort of obedience and conventionality that the Round-Headed Kid takes as a given so hard to bear is that he’s almost inhumanly intelligent; having to play by the rules is something like agony to him which means the isolation that Charlie Brown thinks he lives in would be a state to envy, not dread or moan about. It would be something approaching Nirvana to live his life in a void wherein no bullies, teachers, parents or any other unwanted company could intrude.

 

Another reason that they wouldn’t get along is pointed to not only by Charlie Brown’s non-stop pessimism but by the fact that Calvin is very much his parents’ child; he draws his keen mind from his father and his imagination from his mother so it’s clear that sooner or later, his intellect would be recognized for what it is and he’d be able to channel it into the same sort of constructive channel as his former pain-in-the-ass-as-a-child dad; the Blockhead is on a bullet train to mediocrity and knows it and would then tend to resent anyone who’ll outshine him. 

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One thing you have to admit about the world of Calvin is that his parents are definitely a presence. We don't know their names and only have the vaguest idea of their backgrounds but they are an active, visible part of the strip. Mom is usually seen having to drop something in mid-stream so she can deal with whatever odd thing Calvin is doing but what little we know of the woman suggests that she's a lot more than simply a comic foil for an over-active first grader; she clearly seems to have had a fairly interesting life before deciding to become a SAHM and clearly longs for the day that her son stops doing outlandish and aggravating things. She also clearly shares Calvin's dislike for patent attorney Dad's character-building vacations of suck and long-distance bike riding. Also, while they both clearly love the main character, his antics drive them up the wall; not only do they have to deal with the consequences of noodle incidents, he's a reminder of the anarchic crap they both used to do when they were his age. Contrast them with the invisible, voiceless and remote versions of adult authority that the children who inhabit Schulz's void invoke and you'll see that the younger, more hermit-like author is slightly better.
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To further my look at the Peanuts franchise, I'd like to examine his influence on other creators. The two I have in mind are Cathy Guisewite and Lynn Johnston; both women point to him as an influence and both remember him with some fondness. What distinguishes them is that Guisewite's strip is far closer in spirit to his than Johnston's. First off, one can list the principal characters in Cathy on the fingers of one hand; this is not the case in Milborough at all. We have to not only remember the Pattersons and their close associates and assorted sidekicks, we have to keep track of at least twenty secondary and tertiary characters. Second, Cathy has a less complicated backstory; in this, she is of a kind with the Blockhead or Lucy. Third, we have a clearer idea of what makes her tick; we know that she sort of enjoys a helping of guilt as much as the Round-Headed Kid manages to puff himself up a bit because he likes the idea that the whole fricking world wants to crush him. Elly is far too hard to figure. Last but not least, both strips haven't managed to completely destroy their legacy. Just as Peanuts still resonates a very little, Cathy's absence will mean that a lot of people won't have a voice on the page any more.
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 It's now time to discuss what I think is the real source of the problem with the Peanuts franchise: the animated specials. The first five or so were well worth watching and deserve to be not only be called classics but to be preserved as part of any legacy still remaining. The rest, well, are sort of on television for the sake of being on television. You might think that the specials which were broadcast after Schulz's passing represented a nadir but you'd be wrong; the title of the worst can be split between the wanna-be Roger Rabbit thing that only had one scene with Charlie Brown as he started to narrate a letter from Spike and the one with the home-coming game. The reason I say that is that they had to scramble to edit it due to viewer complaints about the gang's knuckle-dragging, jaw-dropping, stomach-churning idiocy. Y'see, in the original version, they were at some big game and the ol'Blockhead was their place kicker; there he was in a game that mattered and Lucy smiled her smile filled with idiot malice and yanked the ball away. The reason Schulz got what was probably his first hate mail ever was that they all blamed Charlie Brown for losing the game by one point. Leaving aside how dickish they always were for lining up to verbally abuse him for his near-misses and how self-serving the logic of "Of course I have to taunt that young boy with the stripe on his shirt; how else would he know that he's inferior?" is, their not seeing what's going on right in front of them baffled and enraged the viewing audience so much, they had to edit out the worst and stupidest of the verbal abuse. It was about then that I started to realize that just maybe it wasn't worth my while to watch dumb mean children pick on a dumb whiny child. Also, having realized that it took him to be on his deathbed to admit that he went God-damned overboard with the suffering he inflicted on his avatar tends to make me not as inclined to trust his judgment on matters like who's responsible for a near-drowning.  
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You might have noticed that I'm skirting around the real issue I have with zombie strips taking up the newspaper page; what I've noticed is that certain claims are made that should not be. To be specific, the claim that a strip is somehow timeless, that it resonates and will continue to resonate with a mass audience. This, to me, seems to be somewhat misguided; that's because it seems to me that a given work is more or less fixed in a particular era. I'll explain what that pretzel of a sentence means by giving you an example; it seems to me that Charlie Brown and his friends could only have existed from 1958 to 1974. Any earlier and they'd still remember rationing; any later and they'd wonder why the school board had such a thing as a dress code. The reason I selected such an arbitrary cut-off date is that 1974 was when more people thought of the franchise as a source for prime-time specials than as a comic strip. Once that happened, once Schulz started thinking of creating a cinematic masterpiece, the strip had lost its edge and turned into a cavalcade of leaden whimsy where freakish beagles and birds wondered why the Round-Headed Kid sighed so often.
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A lot of people tend to blame the feathered Scrappy that is Woodstock for the strip's decline into the mess that overstayed its welcome far into the eighties and nineties. The thing is that he's not so much a cause as he is a symptom of the disorder; Schulz's need to focus on the defense mechanism Snoopy used to shield himself from having to remember how awful being a dog was started to turn the void in which he and the rest of the gang lived from an absurdist anteroom to Purgatory into a surreal cloud-cuckoo land. I, for one, could have done with more of Charlie Brown asking how it is that Violet's parasol can be three-D and less of his having to contend with kite-eating trees. I also question the over-emphasis on Snoopy's freakish clutch of littermates and their weird lifestyles. I mean, there I was hoping to see if Charlie Brown was ever going to kick that football and I'd end up looking at Spike chilling with a cactus, Snoopy acting like a scout master or (worst of all) more of the screwball whimsy that is Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin, Easter Beagle, Kwanzaa Kumquat, et cetera, et cetera. What I'm basically saying is that you shouldn't overstay your welcome.
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There's another way in which Peanuts started to resemble a sitcom as time went on; not only did cast members fade from view, background characters started to be promoted to lead performers to replace them. The best example is Snoopy's sidekick, Woodstock. As we sort of know, Schulz had started to have a flock of local birds land on Snoopy's doghouse in order to avoid the cat next door; eventually, one of them started to develop a personality and was given a name ripped from the headlines. The rest would be history were it not for how divisive characters like him are; most people, having noticed a slow decline in quality, blame it on an over-focus on a little yellow bird when it isn't quite that simple. Since Schulz found it harder to keep his edge when he wasn't as depressed as he used to be, we'd have shook our heads and said that Shermy took the bite with him when he left had Woodstock remained an extra.
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One of the things that Schulz advised anyone who'd listen to do was to keep the regular cast of a comic strip as small as possible; this seems to have been as much for the artist's benefit as it was for the readers'. From what I understand, he seems to have thought that having to keep track of a cast of thousands got in the way of telling the story; his idea of perfection is what he did with his own work. What that meant was that when he could no longer see any use for a particular person, that character faded from view. The sterling example of this was, of course, Shermy. He'd started out as being more or less the guy who fed Charlie Brown straight lines and set up a bunch of strips that had the Round-Headed Kid use his "I can't stand it" catchphrase by outclassing him in anything that mattered to him. The problem is as the cast started to fill out, he'd been reduced to a sort of spear-carrier who only showed up when Sparky needed someone without a real personality to make a joke work. Eventually, he'd sort of vanished, having taken Naturally Curly-Haired Frieda, Violet and Not-Peppermint Patty with him to where ever it is that comic strip characters who outlive their usefulness go. I should think that he's probably hanging out with Richie Cummingham and Jeremy Duncan's older brothers as well as Christopher, Richard and Leah Nichols in Limbo.
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As you know, not all the characters in Schulz’s little corner of Purgatory have been identified by their full names. As an example, we have the child known as Pigpen. It doesn’t really astonish me as much as it should that he’s known by a silly and somewhat demeaning nickname instead of a form of his legal name because that’s something that happens. We’ve all known a child who got tagged with a nickname that he never really managed to shake. Similarly, we have the following thing to consider: we know that we can call Charlie Brown and Sally’s parents Mr and Mrs Brown but we tend to forget that we have to call Schroeder’s parents Mr and Mrs Schroeder. Just as Pigpen is known by a nickname, Schroeder is referred to by his last name as if he were Beethoven. What his first name is is not germane to the discussion. It doesn’t mean that we cannot speculate, though. The people on tvtropes.org have a clever theory when they point out that having the girl named Poochie being the one to start everyone referring to the Blockhead by his full name is only part of the story. According to the blogger, she did so because there was another child with the name Charles in the gang. Presumably, this other Charlie started answering to just his surname in the interests of saving time. This theory is not the only one, of course; it could also be that Schroeder’s first name is too ridiculous-sounding for public consumption.

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To further our look at the key personalities who inhabit the sort of adult-free, timeless void Schulz created, it's time to turn our attention to Snoopy; his slow evolution from a sort of mascot of the group to more or less a co-lead occurred more or less in lockstep with the decrease in the rather bleak tone of the strip. The more he escaped into his fantasy world to avoid facing how awful it was being a dog in a human world, the more human-like and central to the action he became and the less depressing and awful it was to read the strip. When you contrast him with Farley, the difference between the two is somewhat alarming; on the one hand, you have a super-intelligent, super-competent dog who forgets that he's an animal half the time (and is treated as pretty much human by those around him) and on the other, Johnston's lumbering imbecile who was only trotted out every few months or so to remind us that the Pattersons had a pet. The reason I link the two otherwise unrelated entities together was because of something Schulz said when Johnston floated the idea of killing Farley off; the man responded by threatening to have Snoopy hit by a truck so nobody would read her strip. The reasons for this are as follows:

  1. Schulz's competitive nature: Schulz was a lot of things but one of the things he seems to not have been is all that gracious when confronted with competition. The idea of someone catching up to him or surpassing him in anything seems to have brought out the surly, ill-tempered, defiant child in him. The visual of a character standing around ranting in a blind rage because of a mild reverse in fortunes is too common not to have come from some drive within him.
  2. Sentimentality: It seems clear that he was also distressed by the idea of Farley ever passing on at all; it seemed to him that killing off the Pattersons' dog was a nasty trick to play on the readers. It so alarmed him that he was willing to become a four-panel Samson and more or less destroy his own strip to stop it.
  3. Love of timelessness: Another sticking point seems to have been Lynn's baffling-to-him decision to age the characters in real time; he might not have appreciated humor like this but he did agree with the idea of keeping the characters a specific age. In his mind, the best time scale was a sliding one; to him, the Pattersons should have been like every other family and stayed roughly the same age. The year on the calendar could change but Mike was supposed to be seven forever.
  4. The method: What really seems to have enraged him was the way it happened; in his mind, the poor animal died because a child didn't listen to her parents. What his constant hammering away at how if the stupid girl had not opened the gate, the dog would have lived tells me is that he had a bit of a blind spot. He seems, at least to me, to have been so focused on Elly and John saying that April should have obeyed them that he lost sight of what was to be obeyed. It would, I should think, simply never have occurred to him that since the 'command' was so vague and equivocal as to be worthless, his need to blame April made him look like a crabby, purblind old fool playing "blame the victim." He also seems to have forgotten that it's a parent's job to exercise diligence, to make sure that their children are listening to their advice instead of simply saying "Mission accomplished" and going back to drinking coffee and boasting about a cruise.


Then again, I could be reading too much into it; it might be that he was really irritated by being the victim of a vast game of bait-and-switch. Anyone of average intelligence would clearly see that when Elly looked out the window, said "So THAT'S how she does it" and told April not to ask a parent but a generalized someone if she could leave the yard, a catastrophe was inevitable; making crabbed-up, off-the-cuff remarks based on one's being deceived into thinking that Elly was competent would be a humiliation that he'd never own up to.

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