Sympathy/Empathy for Matt

Every whisper
Of every waking hour I’m
Choosing my confessions
[…]
Like a hurt, lost, and blinded fool–
Oh no, I’ve said too much.”
–R.E.M “Losing My Religion”

I look at what I posted yesterday, and I cringe.  The jokes that I made were intended to be jabs at the absurd situation in which we find ourselves, but reading them today, they look like nothing so much as mean-spirited digs at Matt Vogel, which was not my intention at all.  Frankly, I’m ashamed of myself; I usually make a point of thinking about the words I use before I use them, specifically what effect they might have on the feelings of others.  Yesterday, I just went for the punchline.  I was angry and upset myself, but that’s no excuse.

Regardless of what I said in my annoyance and frustration, I do have sympathy for Matt.  I might even have empathy for him, but to explore that, I would have to break a good-faith agreement–or at least come close to breaking it–that I made eleven years ago, and I’m not prepared to do that.

There is one–and only one–sentence that Steve Whitmire has written on his blog with which I take issue.  And actually, it is not even a complete sentence:  “I am having trouble understanding his [Matt’s] support of the recast…”  To be clear, I am sure that Steve intended no disrespect, which is pretty clear from the context.  Nevertheless, I don’t think it is fair to say that Matt “supports” the recast.  Based on my own past experience, I think that it is one thing to go along and try make the best of a bad situation, and it’s quite another thing to “support” the bad situation.  One could consider it tacit approval to go along without resisting, and maybe it is, but I’m not qualified to throw stones at anyone in that regard.

But the important thing to remember is that this is not a matter of “Steve versus Matt,” or vice versa. The people who claim otherwise are trying to create a false dilemma, to distract from the real issue of Disney’s ambivalence toward the Muppets; to say nothing of Disney’s complete and utter disregard for the people who work for them, who are viewed as disposable, tradeable, negotiable commodities rather than human beings.

Let us not forget that Disney is the author of all our problems.  If they hadn’t decided to muck things up, we’d have Steve performing Kermit, Matt performing Jerry’s characters, everyone would be right where they belong, and all the Muppet fandom would be perfectly happy about it.  

Or, as Wembley Fraggle might put it, “Instead of recasting Kermit and making everyone unhappy, why not just let Steve perform?

Severing the rainbow connection

Well…Disney finally released the Muppet Thought of the Week video with Vogel!Kermit.  You can watch it here:

Oops!  Sorry, wrong video!  This is the one:

But seriously, I think Matt is great…as Uncle Deadly.  His Kermit, though…sheesh.

Okay, that sounds harsh.  I’m sorry.  I usually don’t go for the joke at the potential expense of other people’s feelings like that.  I’m just feeling bitter and, well, it was right there.

But I certainly mean no disrespect toward Matt.  He’s not the one I have a problem with…

…(but part of me is hoping that he’s purposely trying to be terrible as Kermit so that Disney will bring Steve back.  I’m not proud of myself for hoping that, but there it is.)

I said at the beginning that if Disney insisted on this course of action and refused to be dissuaded, Matt was an excellent candidate to play Kermit because of his talent and his ethos.

But having actually heard Matt do it…I’m sure it’s NOT something that he’s doing on purpose, but Matt’s Kermit sounds too much like Constantine.

HOW CAN I TRUST A KERMIT THAT SOUNDS LIKE CONSTANTINE?!?!?!?!?  

If I may paraphrase my thesis statement from my review of the first episode of the muppets. (2015), this video made me want to cry…and NOT in a good way.

And I reiterate again, this is nothing against Matt.  But just as a Doozer can’t become a Fraggle, Matt cannot become Steve.  It’s not a bad thing, and it’s nobody’s fault.  It’s just the immutable laws of nature; they’re there for a reason.  And I have my doubts as to whether a Constantine can become a Kermit…but, in fairness, I suppose it is a little soon to judge.

I remember when Muppet Christmas Carol was about to come out back in 1992.  I was talking to my eldest brother about it, and he said that he couldn’t bear to watch it because, regardless of how close the voice was, he would just know that it wasn’t Jim Henson performing Kermit.  And I don’t think that that was supposed to be a slight against, or a criticism of, Steve in any way (I’m not entirely sure that my brother knew specifically that it would be Steve performing him–I certainly didn’t); I just think that the wound was still too fresh.  

At the time, I rather thought that my brother was cutting off his nose to spite his face in regards to the Muppets.  Just because Kermit was different doesn’t mean he would be bad, and my brother might have been missing out on something great.

But now…I kind of get where my brother was coming from.  I don’t know–I sincerely don’t know–if I’ll ever be able to bring myself to watch new Muppet stuff ever again.  And I reiterate, yet again, that it is nothing in the world against Matt; if it be so that he is not purposely trying to be bad, I am sure he will get better over time, just as Steve did.  But it’s something that he should never have been asked to do in the first place–certainly not under these circumstances.  

At the risk of sounding like Sarah in Labyrinth, it’s just not fair.  It’s not fair to Steve, to Matt, to Jim, to Kermit, the other Muppet performers, or to us fans.  The whole thing is just so contrived, so corporate…so artificial, so unnecessary…so WRONG!!!

I’m sick of trying to be diplomatic about this; this whole thing is WRONG!  It is WRONG to casually and cavalierly sever Kermit’s connection to Jim like this.  It is WRONG to rip Kermit’s soul away from him!

I’d like to believe that the ideal spirit of Kermit exists somewhere on the platonic plane, so that he will continue to live no matter who’s performing him…but I’m not sure I believe that anymore.  If this had been a necessary course of action, and if Steve had been allowed input into the decision, then maybe the spirit of Kermit could continue to flow on through Matt (or whomever Steve had chosen) and into the puppet.  But maybe the circumstances have to be exactly right; maybe it can’t happen when the decision is made arbitrarily under false pretenses.

I don’t know.  All I know is that today has been an awful day.  And I feel so bad.

Neither Constantine nor Matt Vogel can give me what I want: I want Steve back as Kermit.  Only Disney can give me what I want, but I don’t believe their promises are any more sincere than Constantine’s are.

Fraggle Friday: Skenfrith

Skenfrith monster

Skenfrith needs our help.  You see, we’ve gotta believe he’s not a monster […] He hates being a monster; only we can help!”
–Wembley Fraggle

I recently read a post by my friend Marni Hill on her blog, Just for the Halibut.  (Fair warning: her post contains explicit language, but if that’s not an issue, you can read it here.)  In it, she described feeling skeptical and working through lingering doubts she still had about Steve Whitmire as a result of the nasty rumors and snide insinuations that have swarmed unpleasantly around him.  It was a challenging piece, and I had difficulty processing it.  As I was thinking about how to respond, I was suddenly put in mind of an old saying, regarded as something of a cliché, if not an outright glurge: “Believing is seeing.”

It made me smile.  It reminded me of my best friend from college, who hated that expression and wasn’t shy about saying so.  (Truth be told, I’ve never known him to be shy about saying so when he didn’t like something.)  I’m not necessarily inclined to agree with him, however; I think there’s some truth in the saying.

Then that put me in mind of the Fraggle Rock episode “Believe It or Not,” which introduced us to Skenfrith, a magical shapeshifting creature whose form changes as a reflection of the beliefs of those around him.  To put it another way, he becomes whatever others believe him to be.  It’s kind of a complicated concept; why I don’t I just let Skenfrith himself explain it:

When Jocelyn Stevenson created the character of Skenfrith for Fraggle Rock, she was trying to make the point that “belief affects perception [and] perception affects belief […] what you believe about things is then how you see them.”

And whether we’re aware of it or not, our beliefs about other people also affect our perception of them.  For example, I recently read a fascinating article about how preconceived notions about another person’s emotional state can influence how we interpret their facial expressions.  Not only that, but as we interpret the facial expressions of others, we subconsciously reflect the emotions that we are interpreting on our own faces.  So, in a way, we’re all kind of reverse Skenfriths.

As I was thinking about all this, I was suddenly hit with another epiphany:  What if Steve Whitmire is Skenfrith?

Not literally, of course.  I’m well aware that Dave Goelz played Skenfrith on Fraggle Rock, (and, as far as I know, Steve is not a shapeshifter).  But in a metaphorical sense, suppose that Steve is Skenfrith, and suppose that Disney and the Henson children are the Gorgs who–with a depth of malice only rarely plumbed by the actual Gorgs themselves–have gone out of their way to convince the Muppet fandom that Steve is a monster: a disrespectful, unacceptable-business conducting, outrageously demanding, understudy-eschewing, blackballing, destructive-energy emitting, brinkman-shipping, bitter, angry, depressed, unfunny, monster.

I’ve now come realize that, for the fans who have been convinced of Steve’s multihyphenate monstrosity, everything that he says and does to try to justify himself gets filtered through that perception, like a funhouse mirror that twists and distorts the reflected image, so that the things that he says in his own defense are perceived as reinforcing Disney’s claims instead, and he is perceived as some sort of unhinged, bullying diva when, really, all he’s trying to do is stand up for himself.

And while I am dismayed and frustrated by this…*ahem*…phenomenon,  at least now I understand how Steve can post fundamental Muppet truths on his blog–stuff that I consider to be really basic, like “the Muppet performers are not interchangeable“–and be met with eye-rolling contempt by certain factions of the fandom.  While I don’t agree with the people who say things like, “Steve should have taken the ‘retirement package’ from Disney…he’s so disrespectful of Matt…he’s just digging himself in a hole…who does he think he anyway is to dictate what’s best for the Muppets?…” etc., at least now I understand where those comments are coming from.  To me, it’s similar to what Red says in “Believe It or Not”: “I know that [Skenfrith’s not a monster]…but I found the two heads very convincing!”  

One of my favorite authors is Madeleine L’Engle.  Best known for writing A Wrinkle in Time, she was a prolific and eclectic author.  There’s an idea that shows up in several of her works, but is perhaps best expressed in her novel The Young Unicorns: “People become trustworthy only by being trusted […] Not stupidly, you understand, but fully aware of the facts, we still have to trust.”

Notice that she doesn’t say that we have to be aware of all the facts.  That would be ideal, of course, but oftentimes in situations like this, facts can only take us so far.  And when it gets to that point, that’s when we have to make a choice whether or not to make a leap of faith in trusting someone.  That’s a difficult, dangerous thing to do; to trust someone else is to make oneself vulnerable, to risk being hurt.  It’s much easier and safer to sit back, to be passive, to accept what those in authority tell us.  But the easiest choice isn’t necessarily the right one; in fact, in my experience, it’s more often the opposite.

It is now incumbent upon each of us Muppet fans to make a choice:  Are we going to make Steve trustworthy by trusting him?  Or are we going to make him into a monster by making him out to be a monster?

Empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
             ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

I have empathy for Steve Whitmire.  Let me tell you why:

During my brief, undistinguished teaching career, there were two separate occasions in which students misrepresented things that I said, took well-intentioned statements that I’d made and blew them all out of proportion.  I wrote about it last week, but because it was lengthy and not strictly Muppet related, I put it on a separate page.

One thing that I didn’t put in that story is that during the first year of my teaching assistantship in grad school, I had a student who was clearly guilty of plagiarism.  It was a dead giveaway when the paper used the wrong documentation style, because we only taught MLA in Comp 101, and this paper used APA documentation.  When I had to confront the student about it, the director of writing backed me up all the way.  Because of that, I felt that he was on my side, that we were all on the same team, that I could count on him to support me.  I don’t know exactly what changed over that summer between the first and second years of my teaching assistantship.  I hadn’t changed in my approach to school or to life; I was still working to juggle the demands of being a teacher and a student at the same time, but always trying to conduct myself with integrity and stay true to my own personal ethos.  In the past, that had always been enough…but apparently it wasn’t anymore.

Because of that experience, I know what it’s like to feel betrayed and abandoned by someone whose support you believed you could count on no matter what.  I know how frightening and lonely it can be to have to stand alone in the face of baseless accusations and (for lack of a better word) trumped-up charges.  

It feels exactly like this:

I can only imagine how disheartening it must be to have many, many people–who had previously claimed to love you–either turn against you outright, or else just turn away, stand back and watch while others are ganging up against you.

Two different students, on two separate occasions, bore false witness against me, dragging my name through the mud.  But I think it’s important to think about their motivations.  I think that the college student, in her panic at the prospect of potentially failing a required class, in her heightened state of emotion, exaggerated the event in her mind.  I think that she believed that she was being honest, that she told the events exactly as she remembered them, even though her version was grossly inaccurate.  I bear her no ill will.  

Perhaps the high school student believed that she was being honest too, but she had nothing to gain by rehashing the story over and over again except for the satisfaction of provoking my righteous indignation.  It wasn’t that she cared about the substitute teacher, either.  She was motivated purely by the thrill of causing a sensation, by the pleasure of inflicting pain.  

Basically, she was trolling me.  She was a real-life, flesh-and-blood, in-your-face troll.  And now that I think about it, in a way I have to admire that, albeit grudgingly.  At least she had the courage to stand up and say those things right to my face, instead of hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet and harassing me from behind an assumed name and a bunch of virtual sockpuppets, like a coward.

Therefore, I know how it feels to have people saying things about me that are exaggerated at best and, at worst, are outright lies.  I know how frustrating it is to feel powerless to defend yourself from people (a) bearing false witness against you, and/or (b) outright verbally attacking you.  

“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”
–A quotation that has been falsely attributed to Mark Twain, ironically enough.  (Still relevant, however)

That’s why I empathize with Steve.  And why I stand with him.

 

 

Sesame Saturday: Ernie’s new job

The Count hires Ernie to answer his phone.  It’s not as easy as it seems.

For nearly the past seven years, I worked as a medical transcriptionist for a local orthopedics clinic.  Then, unfortunately, that particular job ceased to exist.  (And then it sort of came back, and then it went away again.  It’s a long story.)  

Then I got a new job with a nationwide transcription company.  Suddenly I’m processing reports in from all over the country, in all different specialties.  It’s a bit like having spent seven years wading in a kiddie pool, and then suddenly being thrown into the deep end. It’s exciting, it’s frightening, it’s challenging, it’s frustrating, it’s exhilarating, and it’s bewildering, all at the same time.

It can be a bit like trying to answer the Count’s phone.  But whatever else it may be, it is certainly not boring.

Fraggle Friday: Episode 406 “A Tune for Two”

It goes without saying that we’ve all witnessed some horrific events over the last week, and it’s hard to know how to address it.  I want to acknowledge it in a way that’s respectful and sensitive to the pain that people are feeling.

At the same time, I think it’s important that, in the words of Jon Stewart, we grieve but we don’t despair.  The moment that we give into despair, the moment that we start believing that nothing can change and what we do doesn’t matter, is the moment that our enemies win.  

And by “our enemies,” I mean those who foster divisions among us, those who embrace the darkness at the expense of the light, those who seek to build walls instead of bridges. They are easy to recognize, especially when they march through the streets wielding torches (tiki or otherwise), as well as when they get up and make speeches that give comfort to the violent agitators while blaming the victims.

So we need to fortify ourselves against the despair by affirming hope, and there’s a lot of hope to be found within Jim Henson’s body of work.  In fact, this is exactly the sort of situation that Fraggle Rock was created to address.  And when it comes to addressing the events in Virginia last week, one Fraggle Rock episode immediately came to mind: “A Tune for Two,” which deals with the issue of racism perhaps more directly than any other episode of Fraggle Rock.  Now, I could just  focus on the song “Children of Tomorrow,” which is the triumphant culmination of the episode and its message of unity, but I think that won’t mean as much unless we really delve down into the episode.  So that’s what I’d like to try to do now.

“A Tune for Two” is episode 406 of Fraggle Rock.  Of the main Fraggle characters, it features Wembley most prominently.  The episode was written by Laura Phillips, whose work on Fraggle Rock I consider to be a bit uneven, but she always gives good Wembley.  She really gets into the character and brings out all his subtle nuances, all his various lights and shades, and whenever she and Wembley come together, something magical happens.

Like all Fraggle Rock episodes, this one starts out in the workshop with Doc and Sprocket, and while we’re on the subject, this may be an opportune moment for me to point out something about Sprocket.  Sprocket was performed by Steve Whitmire, but I keep forgetting that, because Steve makes Sprocket seem so lifelike that I keep forgetting that he is not a real dog.  Jim Henson said in the documentary “Down at Fraggle Rock” that Steve’s performance as Sprocket was “very doglike, and also somehow more than human,”  and I humbly and wholeheartedly concur.

Anyway, Doc’s houseplant “Lucinda”, a spathiphyllum, is wilting, and he declares that “the way to give a plant the will to live is to talk to it.”  Personally, I would have tried watering it first, but to each his own.  Doc’s attempt to revive his plant by talking to it will absorb most of the rest of his portion of the episode.

Meanwhile, down in Fraggle Rock, Wembley is beside himself with excitement about the Duet-a-thon, an event that we’ve never heard about until now but is apparently Wembley’s favorite Fraggle event.  Following some obligatory exposition from Red and Mokey, Wembley goes bouncing off to his room to ask Gobo what they’re going to sing.

Gobo, meanwhile, is working on writing a new song, which I always think is kind of funny that Fraggles can just make up songs as they go along, but then when they sit down to try to write a song, they have trouble.  In this case, Gobo is trying to think of a word that rhymes with “treacherous.”  Here is where it makes a difference if you’re like me and you’ve only gotten to see Fraggle Rock as an adult: the first, and perhaps only, word that comes to my mind when trying to think of a word that rhymes with “treacherous” is “lecherous.”  Of course, if you were a kid watching, you would never think of such a thing.  It doesn’t make sense in a Fraggle context either, and indeed, Wembley instead suggests the nonsense word “bletcherous,” but this is one instance wherein watching Fraggle Rock as an adult kind of ruins the joke for me.

Anyway, just at this moment Traveling Matt arrives from Outer Space, saying that he has returned for the Duet-a-thon and that singing a duet with his nephew Gobo will make him the proudest Fraggle in the Rock.

Obviously this puts both Gobo and Wembley in an awkward position.  And, in all honesty, I have to admit that if I were in Wembley’s position, I probably would have just stood there quietly to watch what Gobo would do, hoping all the while that he would end up picking me.  But not Wembley; he insists that Gobo sing with Uncle Matt:

GOBO: Hey Wembley, you don’t think I’d let you down, do you?
WEMBLEY: I think if you don’t sing with your uncle Matt, it will break his heart; that’s what I think.  Now, get in there and start rehearsing!
GOBO:  Yeah, but–
WEMBLEY: March!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Wembley Fraggle, a character whose primary trait is supposed to be indecision, but in reality, his primary character traits are empathy and selflessness.  His goodness makes me feel ashamed of myself.

Wembley’s self-sacrifice necessarily comes at a personal cost.  Holding back tears, Wembley goes off by himself and meets Cotterpin Doozer, apparently for the first time.  It’s funny to me how four of the Fraggle Five become friends with Cotterpin, but only ever one at a time.  But no matter.  Wembley gives a brief explanation of why he is so upset, and Cotterpin tells him that he shouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

Encouraged, Wembley bounces away again and runs into Boober.  He asks Boober to sing with him in the Duet-a-thon but Boober, being Boober, refuses and says that he hates the Duet-a-thon.  At that moment, Tosh shows up with a special song that she wrote especially for Boober: “The Sun Set in the Sky Like a Rhubarb in a Pie.”  Enticed by the prospect of…pie, perhaps, Boober agrees to sing in the Duet-a-thon with Tosh.  Wembley doesn’t take this well; his angry face is absolutely priceless.

Alone and depressed once again, Wembley sings “Duet for One,” which is truly one of my favorite Fraggle songs of all time.  “Children of Tomorrow” gets most of the attention in this episode, and deservedly so, but this one…I don’t know, maybe it just resonates with me because when we had to pair off in school, I always seemed to be the odd one out.

Anyway, Cotterpin finds Wembley in tears yet again, and even though she doesn’t quite understand what the Duet-a-thon is at first, she comforts him.  And when she finds out it’s a singing contest to find out who can sing the best duet, she offers to sing with him.  They have a hard time coming up with a song at first because Wembley can only think of songs about “Fraggle stuff” and she can only think of songs about Doozer stuff.  Wembley acknowledges the difficulty but suggests that they write a song about “friendship stuff.”

Meanwhile, Gobo, Red, and Mokey are trying to figure out a way to include Wembley in the Duet-a-thon.  Gobo starts out by asking Uncle Matt to drop out so that he, Gobo, can sing with Wembley per the original plan, but of course, Uncle Matt misunderstands and decides to sing with Wembley instead of Gobo.  Then we have some funny Abbott-and-Costello-style antics wherein the Fraggles keep switching partners trying to resolve the problem.  The effort everyone goes to is nice, but they expend a lot of effort trying to fix a problem that no longer exists, and if they would just talk to Wembley, they would know that.

Unfortunately, Wembley is about to have an even bigger problem.

Gillis Fraggle is registering Fraggle pairs for the Duet-a-thon.  Now, I have to take a moment and mention how much I love this character.  He is performed by Richard Hunt, who used exactly the same voice for Gillis Fraggle that he did for my beloved Don Music on Sesame Street.  I’d like to think that Gillis Fraggle is really just Don Music in Fraggle form (minus the headbanging).

Unfortunately, Gillis Fraggle is not so awesome this time around.  He initially laughs  when Wembley says that he wants to sing with Cotterpin, and then he says that Cotterpin can’t participate because the Duet-a-thon is a “fine old Fraggle tradition.”

Wembley’s response is lovely: “If this contest is a ‘fine old Fraggle tradition,’ then I don’t know if I want to be a Fraggle anymore!”  And he storms off.  Gillis Fraggle isn’t impressed, but I think it’s one of the greatest Wembley moments ever on the show.

Unfortunately, Cotterpin doesn’t get to see Wembley’s noble freak-out on her behalf.  She’s too busy excitedly discussing the Duet-a-thon with other Doozers, who try to convince her, as bluntly as possible, that Wembley is going to let her down:

DOOZER #1:  My mom and dad told me you can never trust a Fraggle.
DOOZER #2:  They’re just too silly to depend on.
DOOZER #1:  My mom and dad told me Fraggles lie all the time.
DOOZER #2:  And they forget everything they say right after they say it.
DOOZER #1:  My mom and dad said all Fraggles hate Doozers.
DOOZER #2:  And they don’t care about what we feel at all…

The Doozers’ description of Fraggles sounds more like Donald Trump than any Fraggle I’ve ever seen.  But I guess that the point; the Doozers regard Fraggles as outrageous caricatures rather than seeing them as they really are.

Of course, Fraggles don’t always present themselves in the best light, either.  Just at this moment Wembley rushes up and says, “Cotterpin…you can’t be in the Duet-a-thon,” thus seeming to confirm the worst suspicions of Cotterpin’s Doozer colleagues.

Dear little Wembley, why on earth would you start off like that?  Why didn’t you start off with the line about how you don’t know if you want to be a Fraggle anymore?  Cotterpin would understand that; she’s been there herself.

But then Wembley redeems himself, at least as far as I’m concerned:  “All I know is you’ve got just as much right to sing in the Duet-a-thon as anybody else!  And I’m going to go back and tell the other Fraggles that a Duet-a-thon without you in it isn’t worth having.”  But poor Cotterpin, nursing a raw wound and poisoned by her Doozer friends, doesn’t believe him…at least not yet.

And now we come to the last scene before the finale.  I’m mostly just going to quote from it because it’s so good on its own:

WEMBLEY:  The Duet-a-thon is supposed to be fun, but I don’t see how it can be if it means leaving someone out!
GILLIS:  But we’re not talking about “someone,” you foolish fellow!  We’re talking about a Doozer.
WEMBLEY:  Well, SO WHAT?!?

“So what?!?” indeed!  This is so ironic for us in the audience because we’ve already seen the Gorgs make similar assumptions about Fraggles, that they’re little more than garden pests without the dignity of names.  The Fraggles aren’t much better when it comes to the Doozers.

GILLIS: The Duet-a-thon is just for Fraggles!  That’s the way it’s always been!
WEMBLEY:  Well, I’ve got news for you: just because something’s “always been” doesn’t make it right! […] And if my friend Cotterpin can’t be in the Duet-a-thon, I don’t want to have anything to do with it!

At this point, Gobo speaks up:

GOBO:  I agree with Wembley!  If Cotterpin Doozer can’t sing in the Duet-a-thon, I won’t either!

And what with Gobo being the designated voice of reason for all of Fraggledom, all the other spectating Fraggles start up a chant of “WE WON’T SING!  WE WON’T SING!”

By this point, Cotterpin has arrived on her little scooter thingie and has heard every word.  Meanwhile, Gillis is distraught by the turn of events:

GILLIS:  But that leaves no one to sing in the Duet-a-Thon!  We’ll have to call the whole thing off!
WEMBLEY:  Listen, I’ve got a better idea.  Instead of cancelling the Duet-a-thon and making everyone unhappy, why not just let Cotterpin sing?”
(beat)
GILLIS:  Why, that’s the most brilliant idea I’ve ever heard!

At this point, I’d like to point out, in case there was any doubt in anybody’s mind, that Fraggles are much nicer than humans.  Not once do any of the other Fraggles accuse Wembley of having ulterior motives, of championing Cotterpin’s cause just because he wants someone to sing with in the Duet-a-thon…make of that what you will.

Cotterpin and Wembley reconcile, and they enter the Duet-a-thon together; Wembley wearing a visor like Cotterpin’s, and Cotterpin wearing a tiny banana-tree shirt like Wembley’s.  And so they sing, with Wembley taking the gorgeous harmony line:

And everyone in Fraggle Rock joins in, including Junior Gorg and Sprocket, whose singing revives Lucinda the houseplant.  “There’s something magical about music,” Doc observes.

I had always thought the world was full of mystery.
I had seen so many faces that were strange;
And it sometimes seemed that each one was my enemy,
And I said our fighting ways would never change.

But I learned to meet my brother and my enemy,
And I learned that we are none of us alone.
For I found a friend who’s different, and he cares for me,
And I know a place we share can be our home.

As I was transcribing these lyrics for “Children of Tomorrow,” it suddenly hit me.  WE ARE, in fact, the children of tomorrow.  I, as a child of the ’80s, and any of you reading this who are my contemporaries or younger…we’re the ones the lyrics are referring to; we’re the ones the song was written for.

It’s a little bit humbling.  It’s a little bit frightening.  It’s a lot to live up to.

And as much as I want to use my own words to answer the charge, I find that my own words just somehow do not seem adequate.  So once again, I stand on the shoulders of geniuses and pull a paraphrase from J.K. Rowling:  Our enemies’ gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great.  We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.

Or, as the Fraggles–and all the denizens of Fraggle Rock–say, “Help us to live here with our other, our brother; one in heart, one in hope, one in pain.”

Housecleaning

I’m sorry for spamming you with a lengthy, off-topic post last night.  I’m trying to figure out how to get it to go under the menu instead of on the main page, but last night I got tired and frustrated and decided to delete the post and go to bed.  I think I figured out where I went wrong, so I’m going to planning to try again later today when I have the chance. However, that won’t be for several hours because I start my new job today.

Funny thing: I’ve been so preoccupied with all this Muppet stuff that I didn’t have time to be nervous about starting a new job.  I’m nervous about it now, though.

Salient Themes: Duality

Mercury revolves around our mutual parent sun in such a way that one face is always turned toward the sun and is brilliantly lit and burningly hot; and the other side is always turned toward the cold dark of interstellar space.  But Mercury oscillates slightly on its axis, and thereby sunside and nightside are integrated by a temperate zone which knows both heat and cold, light and dark. So the two disparate sides of Mercury are not separated by a chasm; the temperate zone mediates […]  thereby making wholeness instead of brokenness.”
                  –Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season

I see this as a theme in a lot of Jim Henson’s work; the disparate halves of light and dark, warm and cold, inward vision and outward vision.  And while I don’t claim to know what he thought and felt about things–while I always have to be very careful not to assume that I know–the fact that the theme showed up as often as it did in his work implies that he thought a lot about it, and perhaps he struggled to find that temperate zone between dayside and nightside.

This duality is present all through Jim’s work with the Muppets.  It can reach the greatest possible heights of silliness, with explosions, boomerang fish, and characters eating each other, but it can also plumb the greatest depths of poignant emotion.

On Fraggle Rock, Jim played two different characters: Cantus and Convincing John–or, as I call them, the sage and the showman.  I think that each represented a different facet of his personality.

(As an aside, I’m always amused by the fact that Convincing John’s baloobius, i.e. the tuft of fur at the end of his tail, doesn’t match the color of the hair on his head.  The implication being that he dyes his hair.  I think that’s hilarious.)

When you watch Jim Henson in interviews–particularly when he doesn’t have a puppet in his hands–he always seems very gentle and soft-spoken and often somewhat ill at ease, with a simultaneously endearing and infuriating habit of putting his hands up by his mouth, often muffling his words somewhat.  In interviews, I find Jim to be very much the sage; for example, here’s an interview in which he makes some very farsighted predictions about the future of television technology.  This interview is also interesting because you can see the difference between the way that Jim casually chats and laughs a bit with the people in the room before the interview starts (and after it ends) with his more calm and serious demeanor during the interview itself.

But he could also be a showman.  There was a pitch reel–which, unfortunately, I can no longer find–for an early iteration of The Jim Henson Hour wherein Jim himself gets up and gives a pitch for this kooky TV show he wants to make, with a rotating schedule of content.  From what I remember of it, he seemed much more comfortable in front of the camera (perhaps because he was working from a script and not answering questions extemporaneously); he assumed something of the energy, the gestures, and the vocal tone of the carnival barker, and his hands never went anywhere near his mouth.  It’s a completely different attitude from that which he has in interviews.  So, which is the “real” Jim Henson–the showman or the sage?

Well, that’s the thing–they’re both real.  Or, in a sense, neither is real because a human being is more than the sum of his multiple facets.

There are other examples of this duality in Jim Henson’s work–Bert and Ernie come to mind–but perhaps the most dramatic example is the Skeksis and the Mystics (or urRu) in The Dark Crystal.

(WARNING: Thirty-five-year-old spoilers ahead.)

The first time I ever saw The Dark Crystal was fairly recently, within the last five years or so.  I was completely blown away by it.  At first the story seems like a rather familiar story of good versus evil.  We have our protagonist Jen who–like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter–is a lonely young orphan, fostered by the gentle urRu after his parents were killed, with a special destiny to go on a quest and defeat evil by finding a MacGuffin, in this case the crystal shard with which he is to heal the eponymous Dark Crystal, by which the Skeksis will apparently be vanquished.

Ah, but then Jim Henson throws us a curveball: it turns out that the Skeksis and the urRu are actually the same creatures, unnaturally split apart when the Crystal was broken, and when Jen heals the Crystal at the time of the Great Conjunction of the three suns, he sets off a chain reaction that reintegrates the two divided halves–Skeksis and urRu–back into their singular selves; the glorious UrSkeks.

This is not a straightforward story about good and evil after all.  The Skeksis and the urRu need each other.  One cannot live without the other.  Without the Skeksis, the urRu lack agency.  Without the urRu, the Skeksis lack moral fiber.  It’s not that the Skeksis are evil and the urRu are good.  The real evil is the division between them.  

This is an old idea–dating at least as far back as Plato–with far-reaching social, political, historical, etc. implications around the world–but it’s applicable to the situation  that we, as Muppet fans, are in now with regard to the Schism between Disney and Steve Whitmire.

It is not, as one faction might argue, that Kermit is good but Steve is evil.  Nor is it, as another faction might argue, that Steve is good but Disney is evil.  It is not that one faction of Muppet fans are good and any and all other factions are evil.  But in each case, whenever we stop cooperating and start competing, whenever we start believing that some people’s contributions are not necessary or not important, whenever we start thinking, “I am right; therefore, anyone who disagrees with me is automatically wrong”…those are the things that divide us, and it is the division itself that is inherently evil.  As Dumbledore says at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

So how do we bridge the chasm between sunside and nightside?  How do we find the temperate zone that moderates the two?  How do we move from brokenness to wholeness without subordinating one side or the other?

The reason I started this blog is because I think it is imperative to keep the conversation going in a civilized way; to firmly but gently probe and palpate the bruises, the open wounds, and the recently formed scar tissue–not with the object of causing more pain but with the goal of diagnosing and treating the wounds that this Schism has caused.  

At the same time, I think it is equally imperative to respect and validate opinions with which we disagree.  All too often–not only as Muppet fans, but as human beings–we fall into the trap of thinking, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  We assume that the dissenter must necessarily be wrong.  We equate “having a different opinion” with “having a bias.”  We regard anyone who disagrees with us as an evil enemy.  I’m as guilty of that as anyone, by the way.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way.  It is possible to see things from another point of view without losing your own, and it is possible to recognize a valid viewpoint while still disagreeing with it.  The more we are able to have a respectful dialogue, and try to see things from another point of view, the closer we can move toward a consensus.  

If there’s one thing that I have in common with Jim Henson, it’s that I’m averse to conflict of any kind.  And speaking strictly for myself, the reason why I’m conflict-averse is that I’m terrified of losing my temper.  I’ve always seen myself as something akin to Jekyll and Hyde, or the Incredible Hulk; when I get angry, it’s as though I turn into a completely different person, and I’m terrified of what I might say and whom I might hurt while in that angered state.  And I do work on trying to integrate the light and dark sides, and to channel whatever anger I feel constructively–to turn a negative into a positive–but it’s a constant struggle.

That’s why I prefer to write a blog, so I have the chance to rethink and revise my words before they are published, and also, so that I don’t come across as spamming other blogs and forums through lengthy, in-depth analysis.  

It doesn’t come easily or naturally to me to jump into the fray and take the risk of being provoked into that angry state that I so fear, but if it helps to get–or to keep–the dialogue going, it’s well worth the risk.

Sesame Saturday: Ernie prepares for a possible flood

The weatherman on the radio predicts a chance of rain.  Ernie starts by grabbing an umbrella to take to the library, but then gets carried away:

This is a somewhat unusual sketch in that usually the camera stays static during Bert and Ernie sketches, but in this one it pans along with Ernie.

The thing that makes this sketch for me is the sound of Ernie’s galoshes.  Whether that was foley work or Jim Henson just literally put on a pair of galoshes, I don’t know, but the sound is hilarious.

There was once a young man of my acquaintance who went through a growth spurt and all his pant legs (trouser legs, if you prefer) were suddenly three inches too short.  His classmates made fun of him and asked him if he was expecting a flood.  He told me about it and I said, “Just say, ‘Yes, and when the flood comes, I will be ready and you will not, and I will laugh in your homely faces!  HA, ha ha ha!'”  He thought that was funny but, as it happens, schoolyard taunts go in and out of fashion like most things, and he never got to use it.  So I’m using it here instead, because I thought it was a pretty good comeback, if I do say so myself.

This is all in good fun, but I see that they are having literal flooding in Oklahoma right now, and that’s no laughing matter.  Stay safe, everyone.  My thoughts and prayers are with you.

 

Fraggle Friday: “A Friend is a Friend”

This is from episode 304, The Grapes of Generosity:

I assume that most people reading this know what’s going on in this episode, but just in case there are some other latecomers to the Fraggle party, I’ll give a brief synopsis:  Gobo discovers the magical Grapes of Generosity, which are so delicious that he refuses to share them with his friends.  As karmic retribution for his selfishness, Gobo becomes weightless as a result–because apparently Fraggle karma doesn’t follow any discernible logic.

The puppetry in this is quite impressive.  If I get the chance, I’d like to ask Steve Whitmire how it was all done.  I recognize a few effects, ChromaKey being the most obvious, and at one point it looks like they’re using a “throwable” Gobo, and towards the end, it sort of looks like Jerry was on a different, higher level from where Steve was on the floor.  So I can kind of piece it together from what I can see, but it’s always interesting to get the real behind-the-scenes story.

This song is an example of what I was talking about earlier in the week, about the otherwise indecisive Wembley always sticking up for his friends.  It’s interesting that when Wembley stops to think about what is the right thing to do, he gets bogged down by indecision, but when he reacts instinctively in defense of a friend, his instincts are always spot-on.  

I envy him that.  I have to put a little more thought into things.

For example, I have a personal policy of not feeding internet trolls.  It’s tempting to fight back, and I’ve been known to succumb to the temptation, but since they feed off of attention, to fight back against them is only to make them stronger and hand them weapons.  The only way to win is not to play.

But then, what to do when a friend is being harassed by a troll?  I observed just such a situation earlier this week, and it posed a bit of a dilemma.  On the one hand, I had just got done talking about Wembley not standing by when someone is being bullied, and I felt it was incumbent upon me to follow Wembley’s example.  On the other hand, feeding the troll could make things worse for everybody.  Ultimately, I decided to ignore the troll completely but address a comment to my friend with words of support and encouragement.

As another example, what do you do when someone you care about has been accused of something awful?  

There was a time in my life when I suspected one of my dearest friends of untoward behavior based on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.  This is the first time I’ve ever been able to talk about it outside of a confessional.  I can’t even go into detail about what happened; it’s just too embarrassing.  

(Also, it requires too much exposition to be worth my time or yours.)

Suffice it to say, I was relieved when my friend turned out to be innocent, but I was wracked with guilt for having assumed the worst of him, especially for what turned out to be really no good reason at all.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to ask him about what happened instead of flying off the handle making baseless accusations, and I think I was successful in not letting on what I had been thinking about him–and, as far as I know, he still doesn’t know.

Nevertheless, I felt burdened by the knowledge that I had committed an act of betrayal against someone that I loved, even if it was only in the secret recesses of my innermost heart.  I had no one to blame but my own foolishness and credulity; it was entirely my own fault.  I never want to feel that way again.  So I decided that, from that moment on, I would rather give someone that I care about the benefit of the doubt and risk being proven wrong than to automatically assume the worst.  

Therefore, if somebody accuses someone whom I respect and admire of “unacceptable business conduct” or “brinksmanship,” etc., the burden of proof is on the accuser(s).  If they want to convince me, they’d better be able (and willing) to produce some incontrovertible evidence.  

I’ll check with Sam the Eagle but, as far as I know, in this country we’re all still innocent until proven guilty.

The False Dilemma Between Steve and Matt

They think me Macbeth; ambition is my folly.
                        –Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, lyricist)

It may seem like a bit of a strain to apply Hamilton lyrics to the Schism, but I use this particular passage to illustrate the unfortunate attitude of some in the Muppet community who have been unfairly characterizing Matt Vogel as some sort of undertalented, opportunistic usurper of the throne.  I condemn this attitude out of hand; not only is it cruel and unfair to Matt, but it makes no sense: Matt has no more control over who does or doesn’t get hired than Steve does.  

(Now that I think about it, you know what else doesn’t make any sense?  My equating Matt with Alexander Hamilton.  Steve is clearly Hamilton in this whole scenario.  There’s not a comfortable analogue to Matt at all–at least, not as far as I can see.  But I digress.)

Conversely, in other factions of the Muppet fan community, support for Steve Whitmire is sometimes being interpreted as disrespect toward Matt Vogel, and if one expresses the desire for Steve to go on performing Kermit, it is sometimes interpreted as a vote of no-confidence in Matt.  

Let me state unequivocably that, as far as I am concerned, nothing could be further from the truth.  I have complete confidence in Matt’s abilities and, more importantly, in his good intentions.  In fact, I’ve felt a little sorry for him as all this has played out; Disney has put him in a terribly awkward position.

Though Matt has a fairly significant footprint on social media, he has not commented publicly upon the Schism one way or another–at least, not that I am aware of.  Whether he has remained silent voluntarily or Disney has imposed a gag order on him, I don’t know.  If it is his own choice to remain silent, I completely respect that.  However, I don’t think he’ll be able to avoid it forever.  Eventually, Kermit is going to have to start doing interviews again and, given journalists’ penchant for asking Muppets uncomfortable questions, sooner or later someone is going to ask Vogel!Kermit about Steve.  What is he supposed to say?  

Even looking at this from an executive’s point of view and considering it strictly as a personnel decision, by every objective measure, Steve is simply more qualified for the job of performing Kermit–not for performing in general, you understand, but specifically for performing Kermitthan Matt is.  That is not to say that Matt is unqualified by any means; on the contrary, it is more to say that Matt’s time and talents would be better served elsewhere, like performing Jerry Nelson’s characters–in accordance with Jerry’s own wishes.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s think like an executive and take a look at the job description:  Kermit is supposed to be able to talk about working with Jim Henson. Kermit is expected to be able to reminisce about working on The Muppet Show.  On both counts–and through no fault of his own–Matt lacks the experience that Steve has in these areas.

Matt’s a qualified puppeteer.  No one is disputing that.  If it was a matter of necessity, I think he would be an excellent candidate to perform Kermit.  But there’s the rub; it wasn’t necessary.  Even if you take Disney’s vague rationale at face value, even if you genuinely believe that they were justified in dismissing Steve, the irrefutable fact is that they had a choice in the matter.  For better or worse, they made their choice, and now they’re going to have to deal with the consequences, as all responsible adults must.

But I do feel sorry for Matt.  I see him as a victim in all this too.  As terrible as Steve’s situation is, at least he’s free now to speak his mind.  On the other hand, Matt has been thrust into a situation over which he has no control and put on the frontlines in the charge to recreate the Muppets in Disney’s image.  And I imagine that the circumstances of Steve’s dismissal must be hanging over Matt like the sword of Damocles: do a good job–play it the company way–or we’ll serve you the way we served Steve.

I support Steve and I will keep fighting for him, no matter what.  I support Matt equally.  If he does his best performing Kermit–and I have no doubt that he will–I will be grateful to him, just as I have been grateful to Steve for all these years.