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Single Life

Cartoonist Twists in the Wind of Singlehood

July 01, 1988|SUSAN CHRISTIAN | Susan Christian is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Peter Kohlsaat draws from experience.

So while vacationing in the Bahamas with a girlfriend last spring, he collected an arsenal of material for his cartoon, "Single Slices," which runs every other day on the comics page of The Times.

"We had a five-minute walk to the Caribbean and a 15-minute walk to the Atlantic from the house we were staying in," Kohlsaat said. "We'd get into these ridiculous arguments over which ocean to go to."

In one of the "couple on vacation" cartoons sprinkled among his slices of single life, Kohlsaat features a man and woman quarreling over whether to head for the beach or the pool. "That's the way I usually write the cartoon--with a slight twist on reality," he said.

The 36-year-old Minneapolis resident used to chronicle the agonies and ecstasies of romance in his diary: "Whenever things got tough in my life or I was at a crossroads, I would write everything down, and it would help me to sort things out."

A picture tells 1,000 words; one day the part-time dentist/part-time political cartoonist decided to try sketching out rather than spelling out the heartbreak of breaking up. "About two years ago, I had a relationship end," he said. "Instead of writing about it in my journal, I thought, 'Let's see what happens if I put this stuff in cartoons.'

"My girlfriend called off our relationship without giving me a good reason, and she still can't give me a good reason. But I started to find a lot of humor in what I was going through--the rationalizing, the things your ego does, how your self-defense mechanisms kick into gear."

Kohlsaat's stockpile of casually scrawled illustrations, spiked with pithy witticisms, became "Single Slices," copyrighted and distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

The yearling was born a decade after Cathy Guisewite hatched her lovable character, "Cathy," whose universal challenges and insecurities epitomize the adventures of single women.

"I like what (Guisewite) does very much," Kohlsaat said. "We deal with a lot of the same issues. But she's more slapstick than I am. 'Cathy' is always pulling her hair out and turning her workplace into a tornado field."

Unlike "Cathy," "Single Slices" does not star recurring characters but rather personifies Everyman and Everywoman in ephemeral, generic embodiments. Kohlsaat's brainchildren are neither attractive nor unattractive, svelte nor corpulent, fashionable nor frumpish.

"I'm a much better artist than what appears there," Kohlsaat said. "I chose a real simple style that doesn't detract from the punch line. I consider myself more of a writer than a cartoonist. Most of what I'm trying to say is through the words, and what the people look like doesn't matter. I wanted them to be people anybody could identify with."

A perplexed female character asks her boyfriend: "It's time to take a break? Just what kind of break do you mean? A 15-minute break? A winter break? A clean break? A heartbreak?"

A perplexed male character confides in his dog: "Ain't that the way it is. . . . Yesterday I join an expensive dating service and today I meet the perfect girl on the bus."

Perplexity--the bottom line in dating.

Why is there such a huge market today for cartoons about the downside of dating, for books about commitment-phobia, for articles about how to find Prince Charming?

"Because there are so many singles today," Kohlsaat concisely answered. "The baby boom generation is marrying later in life than the generations before it did. We are a confident bunch. We went to college, we can take care of ourselves. We learned that we don't need to rely on somebody else so single-mindedly.

"And women have been given new opportunities to do whatever they want to do, to forge new roads, which has changed the way both sexes look at relationships."

The mushrooming divorce rate, Kohlsaat added, has expanded the pool of singles. "Once, getting a divorce was the worst thing that could happen," he said. "But now it's no big deal to be single at an older age because there's always someone to go out with.

"I know I've never been in a hurry to get married. I don't see any point in it until you're ready to have a family. The problem with marriage is that people grow at different times and at different rates and in different directions. So some people might not have a clear idea of what they're about until they're 40."

Describing himself as "in between relationships right now," Kohlsaat admitted that his new profession gives the women he dates cause to pause.

"It's a problem," said Kohlsaat, who retired from dentistry last year at the ripe old age of 35. "Women worry that if they say something stupid, it will end up in print. But I never try to use the cartoon against them; I never say, 'You better watch out, or I'll put you in my cartoon.' "

Years of dating have provided Kohlsaat with "a wealth of possibilities for the cartoon." He also derives inspiration from friends who come to him with their tales of woe. "I've always been a sounding board," he said.

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