I was an early and persistent fan of Charles Shultz’s “Peanuts” comic strip. I named the first dog I independently owned, a beagle my parents gifted me one Christmas, P’Nuts. He went through graduate school with me and survived the move to North Carolina only to fall in love with Margaret’s dachshund.
We later jointly owned the first of two cairn terriers, a litter runt who showed up at Margaret’s school for someone’s Show and Tell and spent much of the rest of the day under a desk in her office. Ugly, but scruffily loveable, he came home with her “on spec” and never left. He’s the Rerun of my email address. If you’re a serious Schultz fan, you know that Rerun is the name of the third Van Pelt child, a sibling to Linus and Lucy. Because he was a male child and because Linus already existed, Lucy named him “Rerun.”
When I worked as a principal, I kept Peanuts books in my office next to a rocking chair. Not surprisingly, an angry or unhappy middle schooler becomes less agitated after about fifteen minutes of solitude, rocking and reading comics. That “time out” space always made our conversations more productive.
So, it’s not surprising that I’ve applied Shultz wisdom to parts of my life. For example, I know basically no phonics. My mind is a pure visual learning machine. Tell me something and it’s likely to disappear; let me read it and it remains intact usually for a very long time. That means that I also can’t pronounce things well, at least until I’ve both seen and heard them. So I took great solace in the Van Pelt remedy for engaging with the names of characters in War and Peace. They are to be “beeped.” I still do that today with unusual names in novels – at least until I find someone wiser who can pronounce them for me.
“Lookiting” is also a Shultzism. In response to his sister demanding he admire her rope jumping, Charlie Brown declares, after multiple requests, that he is “lookiting!” It’s a play on an experience probably all of us have had. Someone, usually quite young, demands our attention, using the phrase “look it” over and over until the targeted by-stander does. Linus, in the last panel of the strip, gazes at the reader and asks “Lookiting?”
Over the years I’ve found that all of us use that demand, although we may resort to other words as we get older and slightly more sophisticated. Attention is something most of us seek often unconsciously. It’s a way of affirming we’re here. But most of us outgrow the daily need to demand that attention. Not so, however, our current President. What, after all, is the point of MAGA rallies and COVID-19 virus briefings other than an opportunity to say, without actually saying it, “look at me?”
Almost all regular briefing viewers can see that what our national leader is doing is only tangentially related to our current pandemic. They are, instead, about him. Lookit how many masks we found. Lookit how many ventilators we gave out. Lookit the big ships I sent to two cities. Lookit how many field hospitals I ordered. Lookit my perfect signature on your pandemic chek. Lookit. Lookit. Lookit. “Everything we did was right.” We’ve done a “great job” and made “tremendous progress.” By April 26, Trump had, according to the New York Times, spent most of his 260,000 words at the podium self-congratulating, exaggerating or lying. And at many of his performances he spends time telling us how many people are lookiting; his daily briefings are “a ratings hit.”
Compare a typical COVID-19 briefing with President Obama’s performance during the H1N1 breakout. Kent Sepkowitz did precisely that in a March 16 piece in Slate, an on-line news magazine. His conclusion:
We knew how to diagnose and treat H1N1, even if it was different than normal. Clinicians did not require much help outside of the ordinary—though we got it, maybe too much. In contrast, the current governmental response to COVID-19 is disorganized, disinterested, dishonest, and, worst of all, cruel to everyone in the country.
Granted, there are some things that the Obama Administration did that were less than ideal when it came to, say, refilling our national stockpile (the GOP helped with their budget demands). However, he never resorted to a series of “look at me” moments. He relied on scientists to lead the way when it came to outbreaks of epidemics; refrained from giving unproven and sometimes dangerous medical advice; modeled appropriate behavior; did not resort to finger pointing or blaming; abstained from denigrating his critics; and managed to talk in complete sentences arranged in coherent vocal paragraphs.
Stay safe. Stay home. Wash your hands. Wear a face covering. But also take a very close “look at” what’s been happening and ask yourself if these are the people who can lead us out of this mess.
And, yes, I know writing these mini-essays is a form of “lookiting,” too