You better not cross me these days. I’ve turned into a holy terror. Uh-oh, bad choice of words. Let’s just say that ever since we went to war, I’ve turned into an extremely disagreeable and short-tempered person whose priorities have been turned upside down. Like this phone call I got this morning. It was one of those organizations that was raising money for drug education. "Enough with this drug education!" I screamed. "You know how to keep kids off drugs? Have their parents beat the crap out of them!"
I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, and the more I think about it, my solution would probably make more kids take drugs, particularly painkillers. But I think you get the point. I’m mad. I have no time or patience for issues involving narcissism, self-indulgence, frivolity or self-pity, unless it’s my own. We’re fighting a war here!
Of course I do need an escape every now and then from my constant updating of security procedures, my battle planning, my anthrax investigations, my propaganda efforts, my constant e-mails to government officials telling them exactly what do to, my follow-up e-mails chastising them for not doing what I tell them-believe me, it’s exhausting. I’ve found that a well-timed tumbler of Canadian Club helps. As does watching Jay Leno or David Letterman. But perhaps my favorite way to escape is to linger every morning for a few moments in the calm and gentle world of "Raising Duncan."
"Raising Duncan" is a new comic strip by Sarasota cartoonist Chris Browne. Actually it’s not so new; it’s been around since July 2000. I read it sporadically at first, but after a couple of months I really felt it "kick in" and start speaking to me. It deals with the day-to-day life of a married couple, Big Daddy and Adelle. They are both writers; he of romance novels, she of mysteries. They have a dog, a Scottie named Duncan, and a cat, Brambley. The recurring themes are love, family, and working at home. (Big Daddy and Adelle work at opposite ends of what looks like a big dining room table, she somewhat more efficiently than he.)
These are the big themes. The small themes are just as interesting, especially the theme of Sarasota.
Yes, this is where "Raising Duncan" takes place, and it’s always fun to look for real places and things. SARASOTA Magazine has put in an appearance, along with the Beneva Animal Hospital, and Jack Vinales’ antique store. And I love Big Daddy and Adelle’s house. It’s a little tiny cartoony version of the Siesta Key house that Chris and his wife Carroll live in.
But raising Duncan does more than just take place here. It is a chronicle of the Sarasota lifestyle, as lived by several of its more creative-and affluent-practitioners. Everything is always bright and sunny and clean. Clothes are informal but important; Big Daddy has quite a Hawaiian shirt collection and Adelle’s favorite pastime seems to be shopping. She’s the only cartoon character I know with a Fendi bag. Naturally, they drive an SUV. They have a view of the water and a go-fer named Buzz. They attend various events around town and often drop by Barnes and Noble for a book signing, or eat at the Café Coco, a charming but rather inept downtown bistro. (I’m dying to find out which real downtown bistro it’s based on.) So from the point of view of delineating life in Sarasota as it is actually lived today, "Raising Duncan" has no peer. They’ll be studying it a hundred years from now, that is, if there is a hundred years from now.
Another important theme is the bond between humans and their pets. Just look at the title: Duncan and Brambley are the ultimate cartoon example of pets as children. They get much more love and care than they actually need, but they don’t seem to mind a bit. Sometimes they think like animals, sometimes they think like people. And at certain times, when Adelle and Big Daddy are out of view, they do the jitterbug. Many times the strip seems to stop in its tracks, storywise, and that day’s installment will be a beautiful and loving valentine to one of the animals.
And finally there’s the weight issue. Neither Big Daddy nor Adelle are what you would call skinny people. They try to lose weight, they really do, but the pleasures of food ultimately win out. We’ve all been there. It’s the strip’s keen appreciation of human frailty that makes "Raising Duncan" stand out from the pack. It could never be mean (like, say, me) but it often is rueful and bittersweet, particularly when that bittersweet is a chocolate bar and Big Daddy and Adelle are both staring at the very last bite.
I suppose that on a more intellectual level you could say that "Raising Duncan" is a study of the Baby Boomer generation. It sure is all there: the affluence, the possessions, the worries about health, the general insecurities, the quest for reassurance, and an unhappy awareness that the aging process is starting. It tells the truth, but in the most charming way imaginable.
Of course it’s no secret that Big Daddy and Adelle are Chris and Carroll Browne, and that "Raising Duncan" is the story of their life. True, a few things have been embellished and a few things subtracted. (More on this in an upcoming column, when I disclose hitherto unverified details about Carroll’s first marriage and her brand-new tattoo.) But they have figured out to turn life in Sarasota into a little work of art that leaves you feeling, if not good, at least better.
In an act of generosity unheard of for an employer in Sarasota-hint, hint, Jimmy Dean-Michael Klauber and Phil Mancini have given catering manager Patt Lamb a new car. Yes, at a recent gathering of the Connoisseurs Club, they called Patt on stage to recognize her 20 years of hard work. Then they handed her a small box which turned out to contain a key. Then the door opened and a brand-new Prowler rolled in, with Patt’s mother sitting in it, flown in for the occasion. Pat says she doesn’t know what was more exciting, her mother or the car. I pointed out that while everyone has a mother, very few of us have free Prowlers, so get real.
Pat is, of course, one of the great characters of the Sarasota social scene; as manager of catering, she attends more parties than anybody in town. And she recently produced "Living with AIDS, What a Drag," as a benefit for Bethesda House. Bethesda House is a drop-in center for people with AIDS and is run by the Catholic Church. The show featured some of Sarasota’s best drag queens. Imagine-100 female impersonators raising money for the Archdiocese of Venice. If this doesn’t ensure their social acceptability, I don’t know what will.