20 Sep

Rooming with The Muppets

Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog

 

“Muppets inspire us to make world a better place” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (September 22, 2015).

It’s time to get things started … again.

Kermit the Frog and company make their way back to network television when The Muppets premiers Tuesday evening on ABC.

I know where I’ll be: sitting in my family room, laughing and smiling along with the colorful creatures on the screen, just as I was nearly 40 years ago when the original Muppet Show aired (1976-1981). The gang is back together, and this time I get to share them with my children.

Shot in documentary format and complete with behind-the-scenes interviews and glimpses into the personal lives of the felt-covered stars (a la 30 Rock), this new incarnation of the show finds the Muppet gang producing a late-night talk show hosted by Miss Piggy.

The premise harkens back to the original show, which likewise covered the behind-the-scenes antics of Kermit and friends creating a variety show. While the historic vaudeville Muppet Theater has been traded in for a television studio, the cast has not.

And it is the cast that has drawn generations of children and adults into the Muppet family, characters that are loving but not without fault, irreverent but not without kindness, hilarious but not without sincerity, and struggling but not without hope. It is a cast not unlike us, or the human hands that brought the Muppets to life — Jim Henson.

Henson was a childhood hero of mine and an icon in our family, an inspiration of creativity, hopefulness, and kindness, someone whose ambition in life, as he once stated, was to “leave the world a better place than when I got here.” When he did abruptly leave the world in 1990 at the age of 53, he most certainly had achieved that goal.

Shortly after his death, while sitting with my family on my childhood back porch and discussing Henson, I remember looking out the backyard toward our garage. I wondered aloud: “Wouldn’t it be great to paint a mural of the Muppets all along the side of the garage?”

To which my father, always one to prod, nudge, and support the dreams of his children, replied: “You can’t paint one on the garage, but you can in your bedroom.”

That was all we needed to hear. In the ensuing months, my brothers and I — with the much-needed assistance of a future sister-in-law who happened to be an artist — sketched and painted the Muppets on my bedroom wall. There was Kermit, of course, and Miss Piggy. Fozzie and Gonzo. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Even Lew Zealand and his boomerang fish made an appearance.

When finally finished, more than 30 colorful characters smiled from the plaster canvas that was my bedroom wall. Jim Henson, sitting in a director’s chair, was painted on the door. Not a bad group of roommates to have.

I was reminded just how special that wall was — or rather, how special my parents were for allowing us to paint it — when Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch gave his famed “Last Lecture” in September 2007. My father was dying of cancer at the time, and so was Pausch.

During his lecture, Pausch reflected on his own childhood and recalled asking his parents’ permission to paint on his bedroom wall when he was a teenager. “I want to paint things on my walls,” he said, “things that matter to me.”

Pausch’s father, like my own, gave him the green light. “He encouraged creativity just by smiling at you,” recalled Pausch.

So it was that he set to work painting the things that mattered to him: a quadratic equation, chess pieces, a rocket ship, a submarine, and Pandora’s Box. Inside Pandora’s Box the young Pausch wrote the word hope.

To me, Pausch’s wall and my own Muppet mural embody what is at the heart of Jim Henson and his furry friends. They are lovers and dreamers, filled with passion and hope, working together to leave the world a happier place, and inspiring us along the way.

Tuesday night, when those rainbow-colored teenage roommates of mine come to life in our family room, I’ll watch in gratitude as Henson’s legacy inspires a new generation of lovers and dreamers.

I’m curious to discover what they’ll paint on their own walls.

13 Sep

On the lookout for Ole Snappy

On the lookout for Ole Snappy

 

“On the lookout for Ole Snappy” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (September 13, 2015).

A late summer morning, and the lake is still. The paddle pulls us forward as we glide across its surface, our kayak’s ripples the only sound on this glistening mirror to the heavens.

Armed with binoculars, my 6-year-old helmsman sits perched in the bow of the boat. He scans the lake, on the lookout for Ole Snappy, an elusive 500-year-old snapper turtle the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and known to occasionally snack on the stinkin’ feet of unsuspecting swimmers. Never mind that this particular manmade lake is less than a century old. Boys, like lakes, deserve mythical creatures, and Ole Snappy is ours.

We paddle our way across the lake, ours the only boat on the water. For this moment it is as if the world has just begun, and we are its first explorers. We float along, daring young men in search of legends, myth-making, and immortality.

As we reach the other end of the lake, we spot a log jutting out from the water amid the reeds and lily pads that shroud the shallows. Binoculars confirm our suspicions: a family of turtles sun themselves on their own private floating dock. It dawns on me that we humans spend most of our vacations trying to be turtles. Shelled away by the water, we spend our days swimming, sunning, sleeping, and feeding on seafood. Turtles do this year round, and I begin to wonder who is more evolved.

With the tip of the kayak aimed at the turtles on their dock, I give one more stroke and then quietly place the paddle across my lap. We drift, ever so slowly, toward Terrapin Station.

All is silent as a soft, wind-blown current creeps us along.

We watch, and we wait.

As do the turtles.

Then, without warning, one of the four turtles on the log quickly shuffles off its perch and plops into the water. His companions follow suit, like paratroopers leaping from an aircraft in quick succession. They disappear, leaving behind only concentric circles rippling through the water. Quickly, they too disappear.

A shadow on the water draws our attention elsewhere. We look toward the shadow, then to its skyward source, and gaze in awe at the creature soaring just above us. A great blue heron wings across the lake. Its pterodactyl wings beat in prehistoric time, slowly and stately. Feathered slate never looked more majestic.

Our eyes followed the heron until it came to roost atop a pine tree far across the lake. Branches bowed as the bird seemed to dwarf even the tree itself.

There it would stand.

And watch.

And wait.

As would the turtles, safely hidden in the cool darkness of the lake.

Picking up the paddle once again, the boy and I slowly make our way back across the lake, leaving nature’s inhabitants to their patient game of hide and seek.

“Is Ole Snappy really real, Dad?” the boy asks.

I think of the turtles huddled together below the surface, wondering how much time is time enough. Chances are the same question is being asked there too.

I smile, and glance toward the great blue heron in his roost.

“He’s real, all right, son,” I finally answer. “He certainly is.”

And bringing paddle below water, I pull us toward home.

03 Sep

Share a Coke with a Commie!

Pepsi, better known as Satan's Swill, with Devils Tower (Wyoming) fittingly shown in the background.

Pepsi, better known as Satan’s Swill, with Devils Tower (Wyoming) fittingly shown in the background.

I have to hand it to the marketing folks at Coca-Cola. They’ve got me praying a lot more these days.

The “Share a Coke” campaign, with personalized labels of the 1000 most popular names in the country, is a stroke of marketing genius, one that has folks not only buying more Coke, but sharing the experience with others as well – both virtually and in person. Rifling through the soda case looking for a friend or loved one’s name, snapping a selfie with the bottle, then sharing on social media or through a text? Coke has somehow made purchasing a soda a shared experience. And in my case, a spiritual one as well.

When I reach into the soda case at Wawa and grab a Coke, I stand in line and ponder the name in my hand. Perhaps it holds the name of relative, an old classmate, or a childhood friend. The bottle suddenly brings back long forgotten memories and friendships, and I find myself saying a prayer for that friend while waiting in line at the register. I may not Tweet or text, but I do pray. I wonder how the marketing folks at Coke measure spiritual media metrics.

Recently, the bottle in my hand prompted me to “Share a Coke with Dennis.” The irony of Dennis’ name on a Coke bottle was not lost on me, and I flashed back to our fourth grade classroom.

There was Dennis, pulling out a can of Pepsi from his brown lunch bag.

“Pepsi?” I blurted out, astonished to discover that there were actually people in this world who drank such swill. I was raised in a good, Catholic, Coke family, and Dennis’ soda was an affront to my core values. “You like Pepsi?”

Dennis was matter of fact in his reply: “Yeah. Coke sucks.”

I sat there in disbelief. Dennis, raised by a Pepsi family, had insulted my beloved Coke in pretty strong words for a 10-year-old. I had to defend God, country, and Coke.

“You commie scum!”

This was 1985, with the waning years of the Cold War not yet fully given over to the coming threat of masked terrorists. Yes, G.I. Joe cartoons had begun to tell kids that its special mission force was dedicated to “defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless, terrorist organization determined to rule the world” (sound familiar, anyone?), but movies like Indiana Jones and Rocky IV told me that communists were still the enemy of choice.

Dennis did not take kindly to my socialist slur, and summarily threw down the obligatory challenge: “Call you out. 3:00 – Holy Child schoolyard.”

The fight was on.

3:00 came and went, though, and I sat nervously in my house with our mutual friend Kevin, trying to ignore the agreed to appointment. Perhaps Dennis will forget about the fight, I tried to convince myself. The doorbell rang, and my hopes vanished. This was Dennis, a kid literally from the other side of the tracks, and he might just be brazen enough to knock up for a fight.

Instead, he sent his representative. My mother answered the door.

“Mrs. Dolan, Dennis is up at Holy Child waiting to beat Mike up. Is he home?”

Kevin, my representative, went to the schoolyard to broker the peace. A deal was reached (an apology from me the next day at school), and a lesson learned.

“You have to be careful what you say to people,” my mother said afterward. “People believe different things. Be careful with your words.”

Indeed, people do believe different things. I was from a Coke family and couldn’t see that perhaps others felt differently. After all, passion runs deep when it comes to the sanctity of God, country and Coke.

It was just such passion that caused an outcry from Coke’s family of soldiers when the company decided to tamper with its secret formula in the spring of 1985. New Coke lasted just 79 days, thank God, and this summer marked the 30th anniversary of the return of Classic Coke to store shelves. I remember well those dark days 30 years ago. I was in a fourth grade classroom, calling a friend a commie.

Dennis and I remained both friends and adversaries over the years, running in the same pack of friends but never quite seeing things from the same side. We finally came to blows in our senior year of high school, a fight that had been brewing since my no-show 30 years ago. It was brief as far as fights go, and our friend Kevin was there to broker the peace once again.

Under the light of a streetlamp, Dennis and I leaned against the hood of a car and made peace for the last time.

“We never did get along,” Dennis started.

I agreed.

“I’m not sure why,” he continued. And then we both wondered aloud.

“Maybe it was the way we were raised.”

“We’re different people.”

“Our parents are nothing alike.”

“We have different backgrounds.”

“You love Pepsi. I love Coke.”

We laughed.

Acknowledging our differences did not necessarily lead us to respect those differences, but it did allow us to accept that there are differences. And that’s a start.

It gives one hope for the future – hope for a world furnished with love, with apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves.

Indeed, I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

If Coke and Pepsi can co-exist in peaceful harmony, perhaps world peace is possible after all.

That, my friends and commies, would be something worth sharing.