Being funny is a pain - Cartoonist SHARY FLENNIKEN delves into life's 'downside'

Before Shary Flenniken was born, her parents and two other daughters of theirs lived in Hawaii, where her father, a Navy officer, was stationed. A skilled diver, he performed the grim task of extracting dead sailors from the USS Arizona and other sunken ships when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

In 1946, one of the daughters, Sally, died of rheumatic fever. But a few years later, Shary's parents had two daughters once more when, in 1950, she was born near a Navy base in Virginia. The family moved to Kodiak, Alaska, and then, in 1954, to Seattle, where Shary's father worked in Navy intelligence at Pier 91 and Sand Point. Shary's parents liked the area so much they bought a house on Magnolia.

"My dad was an archconservative," says Shary, "and my mom was a typical '50s mom. Happy hour at 5 and all that." After a couple of years on Magnolia the family relocated yet again - to the Panama Canal Zone. When that stint ended, they moved back to their Magnolia home, and Shary's father, by then a rear admiral, retired. He became a stockbroker, calculating stock movements on a slide rule.

Shary was still young, so despite her nomadic Navy-brat beginnings, she can say she grew up on Magnolia. She spent many idle days on the beach north of what is now Elliott Bay Marina. "All those little houses on stilts," she says. "I can still smell the creosote in the logs."

When she was about 11, Shary made her friends laugh. She can't remember the joke she told, but she vividly remembers the result. "It was a rush," she says, "a feeling of power. I felt like I had discovered a treasure."

She attended Magnolia Grammar School, Catharine Blaine Junior High and Queen Anne High schools. "I grew up on the 'poor hill' of Magnolia," Shary says, "and I was continually reminded of that.

"I didn't like the caste system among kids. It's not defined, but still felt. I wanted to be just a person, not part of any group."

At age 15 she sold her first drawing at the Magnolia street fair, a seminal event. Graduating from high school in 1968, she took off across Canada with her boyfriend in a VW bus. They re-entered the United States in Vermont and continued south to Washington, D.C., where they dropped acid and toured the pulsating monuments.

Shary returned to Seattle and enrolled in the Burnley School of Commercial Art downtown. While there, she began to draw cartoons and contributed some to an underground newspaper called Sabot, which eventually was taken over by the Weathermen.

After art school, Shary moved to San Francisco where she joined a group of cartoonists called the Air Pirates, who taunted the Disney conglomerate by turning Mickey Mouse into a villain.

In 1971 she married Bobby London, a fellow Air Pirate. Soon she began to freelance cartoon for national magazines, including National Lampoon. The marriage ended after five years, and Shary "followed the sun," first to southern California, then to Key Largo, Fla., where her sister Judy lives. Like their father before her, Judy is a diver. She and her husband travel the tropical world installing mooring buoys in coral reefs.

In 1979, Shary headed north to New York City, where she worked as an editor at National Lampoon for two years. Following that, she resumed freelance cartooning for many publications, including Mad, Premiere, Kidstar and Savant Woman.

"Cartooning is a powerful, satisfying medium," she says. "You're in complete control. It's a done deal - there is no editing.

"But there's a downside to cartooning," she says. "To continually process your pain through humor stunts your evolution."

In the '80s, Shary met Bruce Paskow at a folk music concert. He was a guitarist with the Washington Squares, an electric folk band that had been nominated for two Grammies. Shary and Bruce shared a love of folk music, and eventually each other. They were married in 1987 at the United Nations chapel.

Two years later, Shary's mother died (her father had died years before), and she and Bruce moved to Seattle, into the house on Magnolia in which she grew up.

They thrived for several years, Shary gardening and writing comic strips, and Bruce writing songs, performing and producing several albums with folk/rock legend P.F. Sloan.

Then, in 1995, Bruce died suddenly, of a mysterious brain infection.

On her own again, Shary found a job at Builders Hardware. She started packing boxes, but over the years she assumed an array of other responsibilities. After seven years, the company downsized and she was let go. She briefly went on unemployment ("Unemployment is a good thing for freelancers," she says) but regularly applied for jobs, as required.

She saw an ad for an administrative assistant position at Compassion and Choices of Washington, an organization that provides advocacy, counseling and emotional support to terminally ill people seeking a peaceful, humane death.

"It sounded right up my alley," Shary says. "I have a raft of dead boyfriends."

Continuing to reveal the downside of humor, she adds, "Once I even wrote an editorial for National Lampoon entitled 'Dead Boyfriends.'"

She applied, got the job and has been there for more than three years. "It really fits with my life," she says.

Compassion and Choices provides palliative care, or care that soothes without curing, because there is no cure. They work with hospice to comfort people and manage their pain. They do not gloss over the topic of death but speak about it frankly. They help people write "Advance Directives," documents that clearly state their end-of-life choices. The organization also helps people who want to spend their remaining days with someone not in their family.

When Shary's work ends at Compassion and Choices, it begins at home (still the childhood house on Magnolia). "I hold a day job so I can do my own spec work," she says. She continues to freelance cartoon, she is illustrating some fairy tales she wrote and she is writing a novel. "I'm not a genre-type writer," she says, "but you could say it's a thriller."

Shary also serves on the Magnolia Community Club and is actively involved in Magnolia land-use issues. One is the replacement of the Magnolia Bridge. She's in favor of the idea to do away with a bridge entirely and replace it with a road.

Shary is also concerned about the issue of disaster preparedness in the community. Possible disasters include earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks and hazardous cargo spills. "Magnolia is pretty isolated," she says. "Only three bridges lead into our neighborhood. Residents couldn't get out fast enough in a serious emergency."

She organized the "Survivor Magnolia" meetings in February and March to discuss this issue with representatives of the Department of Transportation (DOT), Port of Seattle, Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad and the Army Reserves, to name a few. Attendees learned the varying degrees of readiness of these agencies. DOT, for example, rates the Magnolia Bridge "poor" and Dravus and Emerson Street bridges "fair," but spokespersons assured attendees that they would provide safe emergency routes out of Magnolia if the bridges were to collapse; basically, they would bulldoze paths through the rubble.

THERE ARE THREE parks near Shary's home, and she finds time to walk her dog Jack for two hours every day, listening to books on tape on an old Sony cassette player. Right now she is fascinated by the Plague that raged through Europe in the 14th century, killing 25 million people. "I'm interested in how disease affects history and politics," she says.

Shary also has a cat, and hundreds of walking sticks in a terrarium. These harmless insects are related to the praying mantis and reproduce without mating. "I started off with two," says Shary. "One of them, Twiggy, died a horrible, dramatic death." She splays her limbs and throws her head back. There's that downside again.

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