The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green

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.

When he calmed from his own self-amusement, he began chatting with me in a rather adult way. “What do you like to do,” he asked? “I like to draw pictures.” The conversation went on as I explained how I found master paintings, and how I liked to copy them. And I wanted to grow up and be a master painter, too ... even though I was a girl and everyone says girls can’t do that. We actually dialogued as the puppet flowed with expression and questions for me. Kermit gave me some really good advice. He told me, “Do what your heart wants you to do. No matter what anybody says, your dreams are yours and if you think you can do it, then you can do it; even if you are different from other people who paint. That’s ok. Look at me. I’m green and you still talk to me.”

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.

I watched the first episode of 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.


courdeleon said...

What a beautiful and inspiring story! I find it interesting how certain things that come into our lives can change our direction. How would your life have been different had a little frog not had talked to you:)

As to the kid in the beginning, I have often thought of how each young generation seems to have to do something to shock their older generation. When my Mom was a teenager, her parents disapproved of Frank Sinatra he was very controversial. Then came Elvis. Parents were shocked at his "swivel hips"! Next the Beatles, kids wore, OMG long hair!! Then goth, body piercings, baggy pants.
How much farther can things go??
I believe things like this are just symbols that some big changes are coming. We seemed to have reached the end of our way as it is. I see us as a world changing to something we have never seen before. We won't go back to the "good old days" but create a better more connected with the earth way. Perhaps we will learn to live like other creatures and plants. They only take what they need and don't create waste....what a novel concept! Where the "norm" will be "different":)

Irelock said...

Hi, Courdeleon! If you really think about it, Henson was amazing for taking the time it took to inspire a little girl. I couldn't tell you how long we spent chatting, but I know it was long enough to completely discuss my ambitions. He was more than kind ... My meeting with him didn't change my direction at all, it simply re-affirmed that what I was doing was ok. I've always been drawn to people who believe anything is possible with hard work, so that drive he promoted was also done through many other sources. Another of my inspirations was Donna Hillman (a first generation female horse jockey) and she's one of my best friends today. My life would not have turned out differently not meeting Mr. Henson - but it was enriched because I did. And that's what I mean about the kid on the sidewalk. He doesn't have heroes like we did back when. Really, think about that and you'll know what I mean. The heroes of before (and I'm not thinking in terms of my own good ol' days ... that's too limiting ... we have to look at the really, REALLY big picture) ... those heroes were heroes because they performed amazing feats - or they invented something so different that we were awed at the concept, or discovered new reality, or were braver than the bravest because the did things like ... say ... walk on the moon ... or they wrote sonatas that touched our very soul ... they always accomplished things the average person could not do. And, they encouraged us to believe we could do those things too, if we only tried and became the best that we could be. A brain has to work a certain way to live like this (both the heroes and the students) and the kid on the sidewalk is missing that completely. I saw a poll recently that stated people his age believe they will find fame by being the subject of interest in a reality TV show, and most believed it would happen! WHAT?! The future you imagine cannot happen with minds that have been turned off to creativity. You and I maybe would survive a big upset with our culture, but that 19 year old wouldn't. He would not know how to survive without technology and he wouldn't have clue how to even feed himself. Because that rule of nature that is SO prominent and true ... survival of the fittest? ... nature would do in the young man right quick. Perhaps we need to find a way de-evolve for a while! Or, at least hold up as example great minds and heart again, instead of the dribble that has become our culture today.

courdeleon said...

I do see your point, but for me I also see many young people NOT like this kid. There are small pockets of truly unique thinkers who see solutions to problems we have never had before. It is just those "under the radar" people aren't out there drawing attention to them selves with their no direction, no clue what life is about.
I know it is hard to see hero's as we had in the "good old days" Maybe because they aren't being noticed or breaking barriers.
Some of my hero's are young people who are making a difference.
One is 20 years old and works as a milk maid in a small town. She has rescued and saved so many animals both wildlife and dogs and cats. Her young heart gets broken all the time but she is making a difference. She also educates others about spay and neutering pets.
I could list many like this in many different areas of life. Maybe I am a pollyanna (I have been accused of this before!) but I do see a new world that will be something we can't comprehend now. And Dribble is a wonderful way to describe what is out there now. It is what main stream media presents as well as our "me first" and consumer driven society. In some ways this is a hard time. I think we have reached our breaking point. We can't really go backwards yet going forward as we are won't work. That is why I think we are going to change into something that will combine the best of the past and the best of the future....weird as that sounds...maybe I am from another planet:)

courdeleon said...

I forgot to comment on what you said about Jim and how he probably didn't change you, only encouraged you so your journey would be recognized and help you to keep on your driven path. I see that is true with you, you are a very strong determined person:) Nothing would have stopped you from doing all that you wanted, it just never hurts to be validated! I think some people trying to be a square in a round world do need some "yes you can" people or they turn back. Others are just destined to be great, like you as an artist nothing could have kept you from being you!! I even bet that YOU made an impression on Kermit:) (and Jim!)

Irelock said...

Ha! ONLY if you count me as one of the multitudes of children that he met ... we all made an impression on him and that, of course, would have been his driving factor. But, that is a nice thing to say, Courdeleon, and thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Olivia,
I'm a "nervous Nelly" when it comes to new things very unfamiliar to me and Facebook and Twitter are two of them.
That's the reason I haven't entered into that mysterious world. However, I do enjoy your wonderful observations on
life in general and today's Jim Henson story was so moving and loved it.
I don't want to unsubscribe because your "columns" (and you should be on the Sunday Morning show as reporter of
observations) are right on.
Just didn't want you to know I had abandoned you. I'm just chicken!
Continued success with your fabulous talents.
Jackie and Roy

Leslie Lee said...

Thanks Olivia.

Irelock said...

Thanks for reading, Leslie!