'Cathy' cartoonist returns to humor writing with her first book of essays

From the forthcoming book 'Fifty Things That Aren't My Fault' (G.P. Putnam's Sons)
From the forthcoming book "Fifty Things That Aren't My Fault" (G.P. Putnam's Sons)

When the iconic comic "Cathy" comic strip ended in the fall of 2010, the final panel bid farewell by introducing a third generation: Cathy announced that she was pregnant with a girl, and Cathy's mother fell to her knees, celebrating the realization she was becoming a grandma.

In her own life at that time, cartoonist Cathy Guisewite was experiencing a different sort of cross-generational moment. After 34 years of creating "Cathy," she had decided it was time to devote all her energies to helping her own child and parents go through life transitions.

"When I stopped the comic strip, it was because for once in my life, I wanted to really (just) be caring for others," Guisewite tells The Washington Post by phone. "My daughter was just starting her last year of high school. My parents were turning 90. I wanted to be a full-time mother and daughter — a loving, benevolent guide for them, in opposite directions — guiding my daughter toward adulthood and guiding my parents toward the end of their lives."

While meeting others' needs, Guisewite says, she also went as long as she could without doing any writing. "And then," she says, "I just felt like I was going to explode."

"So I started writing about the experience of flying back and forth across the country" — between her daughter in California and her parents in Florida — "kind of commuting between generations," says the Reuben Award-winning cartoonist, who's based in Southern California.

Now, the creative result is Guisewite's debut essay collection, "Fifty Things That Aren't My Fault: Reflections and Rebellions From the Grown-Up Years" (G.P. Putnam's Sons), featuring her humorous, self-deprecating observations about life in transition. The book is due out this fall.

People "talk about the 'sandwich generation,'" the cartoonist says. "It much more feels to me like the 'panini generation,' where we're squished between them" — facing the heat of responsibility from both sides while "trying to be a loving guide," yet still making time to meet some life-goal deadlines and take "all those selfies that no longer resemble myself."

Even though such mass events as last year's inaugural weekend Women's March also inspired Guisewite's writing, this new book will be much more personal than political.

"In the comic strip, I was just a daughter," Guisewite says. "In this book, I write a lot about (toggling as) a mother-daughter-mother-daughter."

Guisewite's hope for the book, which will feature some of her spot illustrations, is that it will be the reader's "compassionate companion for the 'grown-up years' the same way the comic strip was for our younger years," she says.

In other words, the author says, the book is "part reflection on how the world has changed for women in the last four decades. Part frustration at what hasn't changed. Part rebellion against the many, many things that weren't and aren't our fault. Part annoyance that the seniors in the commercials are reinventing themselves so meaningfully while I'm still working on a 'to-do' list from 1999."

Plus, she adds, "Part exasperation that, with all my empowerment, all my wisdom and maturity, I still lose almost every battle with the frozen Girl Scout cookies."

The cartoonist underscores that the Trump-era political climate only amplifies the angst. "In this phase of life, it isn't only that everything in our personal lives is changing without our permission, but that everything in the world suddenly feels so unsettled and less secure," says Guisewite, who during the '70s wave of feminism became one of the few female writer-artists at the time to enter into large mainstream comics syndication. (At its peak, "Cathy" was syndicated to about 1,400 newspapers.)

"No matter which side of the politics a person is on, the combo platter of all of that works on us the same way," she says of the travails of this panini generation. "The job of letting go and hanging on is wrenching. Watching beloved touchstones disappear and knowing we're next in line to not be here is scary. Trying to raise children when modern life is so complicated is even scarier."

"I want to help all women," Guisewite says. "None of us can take on what's ahead if we can't get through the next five minutes without a little bit of hope and humor."

 

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