On Wednesday it seemed as if the headline in every newspaper in America said the same thing: Good grief!
Indeed, what more was there to say? How else could we respond to the news that Charles Schulz is hanging up his drawing pen? No more "Peanuts." No more Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Marcie or Schroeder. And worst of all, no more Charlie Brown on the pitcher's mound, hoping against hope that this time he'll put it over the plate.
You knew this day was coming. After all, Schulz is 77 and was recently diagnosed with colon cancer. It made sense that someday soon, he would decide to call it a career, decide it was time to focus on his health and his family.
You knew the day was coming, but still it caught you off guard. It seemed like the news announcer must have misspoken. What do you mean, "retire"? How can Charles Schulz retire? Isn't there something in the Constitution that prevents this? Can't Congress pass some kind of law?
As Charlie Brown himself would put it: "Aaaugh!"
The simple fact is, it's hard to imagine a world without "Peanuts." Heck, it's been 49 years since such a world even existed.
That's a number worth chewing over for a bit. After all, pop culture is justly criticized for jumping around like a caffeinated gnat, for hopping from this! to that! to the other! with a manic zeal that is rooted in nothing firmer than the present moment.
But every once in a while, that same culture produces something else. Something that enters the language and becomes a binding tie, a touchstone of cultural literacy, a thing that everybody knows.
Like Johnny Carson's golf swing, Ricky Ricardo yelling, "Looocy, I'm home!" and George Bailey running through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls. And yes, like that silly beagle in aviator's goggles, sitting atop his doghouse dueling the Red Baron.
Even before last week's announcement, reams had been written celebrating the work of Charles Schulz. From the beginning, "Peanuts" was an anomaly in the world of the comic strip. Where most of his peers concentrated on straightforward gags with neon punch lines, Schulz went for a gentle, personal humor that sprang less from setups and jokes than from the well-defined personalities of his characters: Lucy the egocentric fussbudget, Linus the gentle philosopher with anxiety issues, Snoopy the dog who didn't know he was and, of course, the lovable loser, Charlie Brown.
The shy and unassuming Schulz is said to have patterned the little round-headed kid after himself and to have been surprised that so many people saw themselves in him. But really, who among us has not, at some time or another, been Charlie Brown? Who doesn't know what it's like to feel like a pair of brown loafers in a black patent leather world?
Here's what you had to admire about Charlie Brown, though: He kept coming back. He never gave up. Never gave up on winning the love of the little red-headed girl. Never gave up on trying to pitch one over the plate. Never gave up trying to kick that football. Never gave up hope.
You kept wishing he'd succeed, just once. But he couldn't, could he? It was the not succeeding that defined him -- the not succeeding but never surrendering. Which is why the character with whom Schulz thought people would find it difficult to identify became an icon for the stubborn struggler who lives inside us all. An icon so universal that he brought an estimated 355 million readers to 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries in 21 languages around the world.
Now it's all over and done. Oh, some are holding out hope that Schulz would decide to unretire upon beating cancer. We can only hope. And pray.
But as things now stand, the strip's final daily installment runs early next month and its last Sunday appearance will follow in February. Then "Peanuts" will be gone and mornings spent lingering over the paper will never be quite the same again.
The work is immortal but the worker, alas, is not. We're going to miss you, Charlie Brown.