I saw something very strange the other day ... it made me stop and stare in a way that I knew was impolite, but I couldn’t help myself. Walking along the sidewalk was a young man, somewhere between the age of 15 and 22 (It’s hard to tell these days). He was very skinny and looked like he’d never had a healthy meal in his life. The pants he wore were baggy-assed jeans, where the crotch came in at the knees and boxer-shorts stuck out the top (still showing butt-crack, go figure). His body looked twice as long as it should have been, and his legs appeared stunted (reminding me of Dorf, that very funny character Tim Conway used to perform back when). I wasn’t sure if his slouchy posture had to do with simple laziness, or if it were an effect caused by trying to keep his pants up (either way, when that kid gets old he’ll be shaped like a letter ‘c’, no doubt). Adding to the silly effect of body proportionment, he walked with his legs spread as far apart as possible (which wasn’t that far - his crotch was at his knees, for cripe’s sake), not bending his knees at all ... just a waddle, like a penguin out of water. I actually laughed out loud for a moment.
As I watched him I thought, “How strange. Is that good looking today? Does he gaze in a full length mirror in the morning before he goes out and say ... damn .... I’m hot?” And then I wondered, “What is wrong with young people today?” That frightened me because suddenly I sounded just like the old people did when I was a teenage girl. Crap.
As usual, one little visual like that can make my mind ponder and cogitate so many different things. No matter what angle I thought about, things always came back to a notable point. I was trying to figure out exactly when it was that our sense of good taste collapsed.
Good taste is relevant, I know. So are good art, good movies, good books, good music, and anything else made from a creative mind. I had this debate in collage years ago, where an art history professor tried to convince me that the isms of our times were brilliantly conceived by exceedingly enlightened individuals. I thought not then, I think not now.
But, let’s think about this kid for a moment. Let’s average what I thought and say he’s 19 years old. What was it like for him to grow up? He would have been born in 1991. He would have been terrified at the year 2000. (Y2K, remember?) He would have grown up with computers and 180 or so channels on his tv. In school he would have sat at round tables with 8 other kids and the smart one would earn the grade for them all (this kid wasn’t the smart one, I could tell - and yes, I’m profiling - that’s ok, too). Political correctness would rule his day and dooms-day prophecy regarding earth and warming and destruction would all pick at his little brain. The only presidents he would have known were named Clinton or Bush. His early years were much different than the early years I experienced.
I was born the year the Berlin Wall was erected. I was terrified of the Russian communists and the cold war kept our bomb shelters fully stocked and loaded. Computers were a fantasy that blinked and blipped on Star Trek; and I typed on an IBM monster of a machine learning finger positions and speed without errors (I could compose and type a formal business letter before I hit puberty). Television, on a good day, gave us 3 fuzzy channels and programs made family friendly the only game in town. In school we sat at single-student desks, in neat alphabetically ordered rows. I even had to take etiquette classes where I learned table manners and how to eat soup without slurping. Polock and Irish jokes were heard daily and dooms-day prophecy regarding earth and cooling and destruction would all pick at my little brain. The presidents I knew were Nixon, Carter, and Reagan (kind of a conservative, liberal, conservative treat; where Carter was the gooey center between a couple of really tough cookies). But, there was something else about my childhood that is missing for people like that 19 year old I saw wabbling down the sidewalk.
When I was in third grade a visitor came to our school and performed a puppet show for us kids. It was a charming presentation; funny, thoughtful, and held my attention better than most things could. The puppeteer’s name was Jim and he was promoting a new show that would begin airing on television soon. He wanted us to tell our parents about it, and hoped we would watch. After his performance we were allowed to go speak with him if we wished; ask questions and look closely at his puppets. He sat on a folding chair near the middle of a large gym. Most kids sprang off the bleachers and headed for the playground, running widely around the fellow who just spent a good while entertaining them.
I was very curious about the puppets and shyly walked over to the bearded man. “Hi.” he said as he smiled at me. “Hello.” I awkwardly replied, very quietly. I wasn't comfortable talking with a strange bearded man and he could tell. So, he switched his voice to the puppet’s on his right hand, and the imagined creature with his happy-go-lucky attitude spoke directly to my face. “What’s your name?” the frog asked me. I blushed and tried to stare at my feet as they shuffled. But, I couldn’t help but look at the puppet. It was making faces at me … cocking it’s head and puckering and crunching it’s nose. “I’m Kermit. Did you like our show?” I shook my head yes and found myself really rather amused by this ... sock of a thing that somehow seemed alive.
My shyness was lessening as I leaned in and tried to see how it was made. The frog leaned into me and began checking out my head. Startled, I jerked back and shot a quick glance at the puppeteer. He was pretending not to see me and I was getting a bit annoyed by it all. I did not like being teased, so I glared at him, furrowing my brows to really let him know I didn’t like him after all. The puppet raised his voice a little, “Hey! Can I ask you something?” I looked back at the frog who appeared to be staring at me, tilting his head a little while he waited for me to answer. After a moment, I nodded a little yes, feeling more embarrassed and hoping none of my school friends were seeing this. “Why’d the elephant sit on the marshmallow?” he asked. Paleeeze … I thought … that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I pursed my lips and stared at the puppet, not saying a word. “Huuuummm....?” the frog urged me on. “I don’t know.” I finally whispered. “So he wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate!!” Kermit joked, then he laughed and laughed, mouth open wide as he bounced, his arms flying about. It was infectious, and before I knew it I was giggling with the frog.
Somewhere during our conversation I ended up on the puppeteer’s lap and became so engrossed in my moment with a very grown-up cloth-frog that I didn’t notice anyone else in the gym. Something snapped me back to reality and I looked around, suddenly realizing that very few people were there. I was the only kid left. The puppeteer was smiling with the kindest of eyes as I timidly said to him, “It’s just a ... puppet.” And Jim said, “A puppet that tells the truth.” I hoped off his lap and said goodbye to the frog, promising them I’d always remember and follow my dream. And Jim Henson rubbed the top of my head and encouraged me to keep practicing my drawings so I would become the painter I wanted to be. And I did practice harder because I believed them … the frog, and the man that could make it talk.
Sesame Street because Jim would be performing Kermit and I loved to watch the magic of a new way of puppeteering, not to mention I felt like they were my friends. I saw every show I could, and was delighted to share them with my children when they were small. Grover taught us all so much, and Grouch and Cookie Monster were simply delightful. We ended up watching full featured muppet movies and a prime-time adult comedy show. The success of the muppets was historic and astounding, and it proved to me that every word Mr. Henson shared with a little 8 year old was true. He became the greatest and most well known puppeteer in the history of the world … because he lived what he preached.
And then, in 1990 at the age of 53 ... he died unexpectedly. I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine life without Kermit and I spent some time reflecting on why I was so incredibly sad. I was lucky to have met them when I was young, and I felt a certain pride in all the successes that Mr. Henson found. He wasn’t family, but he sure felt like a friend.
My kids were young enough to still appreciate his company’s work and I tried to remain open to the idea that another voice was playing Kermit. I’d have to bite my tongue when the frog appeared. It wasn’t my frog anymore. This one would belong to a new generation of people, not mine.
Sometime later I saw Kermit being interviewed by several people, among them was Jay Leno. I don’t like Leno, I find his humour sexist and crude and, frankly, I can live without it. Not surprisingly, he could bring out the worst in the new Kermit. Sex jokes and nudity humour was unbecoming for the frog and I’d get angrier each time I saw stuff like that. I stopped watching anything Kermit or the muppets a few years after Henson died, and I’ve never regretted it. I rather like the frog and man I met when I was a kid and I prefer to remember them that way.
How does all this relate to the 19 year old and what he never experienced as a kid? It’s really simple, in a complicated way. Our culture has become such an ‘anything goes’ place that dress or hair or tattoo, or whatever, can’t shock the meekest of us any more. Sex has infected every aspect from movies to videos and books, and even children’s show characters. People are the complete opposite of beautiful, in looks and behavior. It’s like we’ve given up sensuality for dirty nudity and it’s come to the point of ‘who cares?’ anymore. They’ve made viagra for men to get them excited, and now they’re developing it for women, who need the sensuality more than ever in this very crude society. The fix isn’t drugs or pills or dirty naked people. The 19 year old may never figure this out, because all he’s ever seen is this modern side of chaos. That’s too bad for him. It’s pretty nice strolling on the beach, holding hands, talking sunsets with a person you love.
There was a time when clever words or general appearance invited appreciation and respect. And, those of us being inspired had a better life because our heroes cared about us and taught us well. I would bet dimes to dollars that the 19 year old’s heroes only care about themselves, or their own fame and how much money they can make from absolutely no talent. I hate to sound like the old people of my youth, but I’m saddened by what I see out there. Kids, like the 19 year old, who have very little respect for themselves, spend most of their time with a ‘bud’ in their ear, a video on their ‘pod’, and talk only about winning a never ending virtual game of fantasy war. Their world is violet and ugly, in an imaginary way, and that sort of creativity is destructive as hell. It certainly doesn't help it's students become the very best that they can be and with those thoughts I say thank you, Jim Henson, for inspiring so many little ones while you were here.