I smiled a wide grin as the meeting of the Jim Henson Club began. Of all the clubs I belonged to, this was my favorite. The creativity was palpable and the camaraderie a sheer joy.
Jim Henson lived almost a hundred years ago. He was a puppeteer, artist, and producer who broke all the conventions of his day and brought puppets to adult shows, commercials, and even blockbuster movies. In the height of his career he made a deal with Disney Time Warner (then just Disney) to take over his puppet company so that he could focus entirely on the creative. He had something big in mind, but then unexpectedly died before even sealing the deal. What was he planning?
"Henson was making puppets not only more realistic, but more technical." Asma explained to the group gathered. "Dark Crystal and Labyrinth had puppets that looked like they could be alive. Some of them even breathed."
The Jim Henson Club had a little contest going, seeing who had the best idea for what Henson's next creation would have been, and Asma was trying to convince us that he wanted to populate a theme park with puppets.
Maybe I was being catty, but she was wrong. It sounded amazingly cool, I give it that, but it also sounded amazingly hard and a bit limited. Henson was always big on imagination, not reality.
Asma continued, "Henson said he wanted to find a way to let people see muppets other than through a TV screen."
"Scooter," I said, "find me that last reference from Asma." Technically I didn't 'say' it. I mouthed it, but a sensor on my glasses monitors muscles in my throat, tongue, and lips and it understood me as if I had spoken clear as day. My virtual assistant responded through my glasses 'earpiece', 1970. With respect to his attempts to produce a Muppet Broadway play.
Instantly a newspaper article appeared in front of me. It wasn't really in front of me, just on my augmented reality lenses, but, for that matter, none of the people were really in front of me either. I was at home in an empty room, and these, my best friends were only images on my lenses. Only a slight transparency distinguished them from real people, which is why everyone has one room in the house that is without windows, furniture, decoration or even wallpaper. It makes what your glasses show you seem very, very real.
"Broadway play?" I said to my computer. "I didn't know there was a Muppets Broadway play." Asma may be onto something here.
"There wasn't." Scooter responded, "It was in the pre-production stages in 1972 when it fell apart and Henson aborted it."
I perused the text still floating in front of me. It had some interesting quotes. Evidently Henson loved the idea of a play where people get to see puppeteers as they make the puppets move. Again he was ahead of his time as that sort of thing was . . .
"Bekka," Scooter interrupted, "they're asking you a question." And he replayed the last few seconds of conversation that I hadn't been paying attention to.
I heard Asma's voice saying, "Okay, Ian doesn't like it. What about you Bekka""
"Hmmm?" I mused loudly, indicating I had heard the question, and then silently, "Scooter, replay Ian's opinion."
A scene popped up in front of me showing this room a minute ago. Ian was going off on the technical infeasibility of what Asma described, but people were frowning and didn't seem too keen on his opinion. Never tell this group there's something Jim Henson couldn't do.
"Oh, I think Henson could have done it if he wanted, but a TV studio has always given him such control that he was able to work sheer magic. Even a live stage has far more potential for magic than out on the grounds of a theme park. I don't think he would have been happy with what he would have been able to do."
Nods from everyone, except Asma who pouted. Good. I still had a chance to win this.
The trick was that Henson was constantly breaking down barriers that have long since been forgotten. We know he was always trying to "make a difference in the world". Those were his words. But what did he feel constrained by? Figuring that takes as much understanding as it does research. And that's what I'm good at. I intended to win this little contest of ours.
Despite an ocean separating us, Asma and I were cooking together in the kitchen. We looked much more see through with all the kitchen appliances behind us, but it worked. Asma actually puts a lot more effort into her cooking than I do, so while she braised lamb shanks with anise, I boiled pasta.
She had forgiven me about not backing up her pitch for Henson's unfinished plan, but I think she was secretly delighted that my pitch was still so incomplete (completely incomplete). My idea that I needed to "understand" Henson rather than "research" Henson was showing its flaws. In truth, I had no context to understand him.
The puppet technology of the time that I knew I knew mostly because Henson had invented all of it. Hell, he invented the felt puppet, because carved marionettes were too emotionless for television, and he continued to push the edge of technology for his entire 30 year profession.
Fraggle Rock for instance: Jim Henson wanted to play with perspective and make little Doozers one tenth the size of Fraggles and big Gorgs ten times the size of Fraggles. He created the puppets in different scales down to 2 inch tall robots that could walk, talk, and gesture all through remote control.
It amazed and enchanted. But on 20th century culture and society, I was clueless. that's where Asma came in. She knew more about Henson"s time than anyone else in the club. But while she was eager to share what she knew, she wasn't talking so much about what things were like in Henson's time as about how much Henson would have enjoyed living today.
"Look at what drove him." Asma lectured, "Sesame Street was created to give poor kids a good education. Now all kids get a good education. Fraggle Rock was made to put an end to war. Now there is no war."
"Jim Henson wanted to put an end to war?", I asked. And when Asma nodded emphatically, I was impressed. "It was designed to be easily produced in multiple languages and ended up being shown in dozens of different countries. Dozens of different countries all growing up loving Fraggles." It was a good try.
But I was a bit more cynical than Asma. "First off, there is war. Only now when countries disagree they try to eviscerate each other with silent, financial war." In truth, one country hadn't attacked another with guns or bombs in thirty years. It hurt too much to be shut out of the global economy.
"And if they don't have another country to disagree with, they wage silent, financial war on their lower class."
"Secondly, how can you say that all kids get a good education?"
"Investing in early education", Asma explained, "is one of the most profitable, low-risk ventures there is. I don't know when the actuaries figured that out, but the private investors jumped on it. If even 1 of 5 kids earns a technical degree he can net significant profit for the investor."
"Yeah, and the other 4 of those 5 are weeded out as quickly as possible and sentenced to a life of hard labor."
"Even the poorest countries have well educated middle classes now, and you're starting to sound like one of those socialist nuts."
I tried hard to hold back a pout. I was just pointing out that the status quo isn't as rosy as the news reports sensationalized. I hardly thought that should draw the label of "socialist nut".
Asthma continued, "Look at all the firsts that Henson accomplished that are blas now. First interracial couple in children's television and now racism is dead, first homosexual couple in children's television . . ."
"Who?" I interrupted.
"Bert and Ernie."
"They weren't gay."
"Of course they were. Have you watched them?"
"You couldn't be gay on television. Hell, sometimes it was a jailable offense."
"Bekka, they shared the same bedroom. I've seen them crawl into bed with one another."
"What! On a children's show""
"Ernie had cracker crumbs in his bed." she stated, as if that explained everything, "that's how gay couples were portrayed then, not gay but obviously gay."
"But it's the exact opposite!" I insisted, "Henson created Bert and Ernie to be friends - just friends - to show kids that friends can disagree." This was a fact I had uncovered more or less by accident during my sad attempt at research.
"Really?" she wondered, quite shocked. She considered it a moment. "Who'd have guessed?"
I was going to argue the race comment, too. She had a point that racism was pretty hard to find, and, in fact, I'm not even sure I understand race, since it's evidently different than ethnicity, but there's a darker side to that. While some argue that four generations of interracial families killed racism, and others cite the "Sneetches Effect" of the 30's, I believe people simply traded racism for classism. But I wasn't about to tell Asma that. Not after being accused of being one of those socialist wackos.
I was tired of arguing the point with Asma. In fact, the whole experience had been more argumentative than I had imagined. I hated arguing with Asma - with anyone really. I liked collaborating and sharing ideas and making them laugh. My pasta was done, so I politely agreed with Asma and signed off to eat my dinner.
"5 minutes to car, Bekka Lin." Scooter warned.
Clothes shopping was one of the few things I couldn't do from home. The problem wasn't getting the right fit; submit a 3D body scan and the custom tailoring was pretty good. The problem was that I cared how something felt against my skin or how much it weighed on my shoulders. So I had to make a long trip to the fashion district on the other side of the city.
I hated the trip. I loved touring other countries and soaking in the countryside or walking the beaches. There wasn't a distant land that didn't fill me with wanderlust, but traveling across the city filled me with dread.
It was the wackos that I feared.
"Scooter, where are my sunglasses?"
"I"m reviewing, boss." came the immediate reply, and then, "Two days ago you put them in your Van Gogh backpack."
Oh, right. I arrived at the curb just as my car drove up. It wasn't actually "my" car. Once cars started driving themselves, it didn't make much sense to own them, and this was more an automated taxi. But taking a car all the way across town was expensive, which meant I would shortly rendezvous with a bus.
I hated buses. It was bad enough walking down the street and being inundated with crazy proselytizing disguised as advertisements or the obligatory wacko yelling some dogma from a street corner. But you could simply keep your head down and act busy. On the bus you were stuck, and there was always a wacko - at least one.
As the car drove through the city, billboards waved to me and tried to get my attention, but I filled my vision with pages of Henson research until I could barely see, though I don't remember reading any of it. When the car stopped at a bus stop, two people were waiting and three others were also disembarking from cars. I could see the approaching bus in the distance. Everything was always nicely timed.
"Scooter, are any of the people waiting for the bus members of extremist clubs""
"I can't see the face in the back", Scooter replied.
I leaned to my right. The car politely asked me to get out, but I waited.
"No. I have positively identified all five people and none are members of groups known for aggressively championing marginalized viewpoints."
Only then did I get out of the car. You can't be too careful. Why, just last month a boy in Germany knifed five people on a bus because European trade sanctions were supposedly killing Mali children.
Did I mention I hated the bus?
I only had to wait at the stop a minute and spent the time ignoring the poster behind me that was asking me politely if I worried that Libertarians were robbing my children of their safety net. We filed on and I quickly picked a single seat - most of the seats were single ones but they always filled up anyway.
Scooter interrupted, "I've identified all the people on the bus, and none are members of groups known for aggressively championing marginalized viewpoints."
Good. I slunk down in my seat and once again filled my vision with pages of Henson research. The pair of heads in the seat in front of me showed only dimly through the transparency, but I could hear them talking. They were complaining that the Asian's superior tech education was going to handicap our country.
Oh God. Science freaks. "Scooter, how about some traveling music?" Scooter knew what that meant, and "Moving Right Along" filled my ears. But as the discussion in front of me grew animated their voices grew louder.
".. but whenever you suggest changing education budgets, the art hippies go ballistic! As if they even deserved to be getting the money they do."
This was unfair. 50 years of data had been crunched and synthesized to map how investment in science education mapped to a country's technical caliber which mapped to GDP. Down to the penny they had calculated it. Arts were not so easily quantified. How do you put a value on art? Oh, they've tried. They've got supply/demand curves and consumer ratings crunched every which way to Mars. But in the end they have a much less satisfactory measure of the value of an Arts education, and trying to justify its funding in the same fashion as science funding was completely biased.
I was not going to sit silent and listen to them toss ignorant accusations unchallenged. I got up and moved to the back of the bus.
I immediately regretted it. All the single seats were full. I had to sit next to someone. I saw a woman staring intently at the floor with slight movements of her mouth indicating she was intensely interacting with her virtual assistant. That was a good sign. I sat down next to her, but she immediately looked up and appraised me, again talked to her glasses, and finally said, "I like the colors on your dress. They remind me of the Grand Canyon."
I don't know what I was thinking. Maybe it was the sudden change from the anti-art rhetoric to art appreciation. Maybe it was the flattery. It definitely was pure stupidity, for I engaged.
"Thank you. I designed it myself. It was actually inspired by Waipio Valley in Hawaii."
The woman"s eyes went wide, "You've been to Hawaii? I've always wanted to go there, but I am still livid about the destruction of the lava flats."
Oh no. What have I done? She's an environmentalist.
Now there was a time when corporations did whatever they wanted and they were quickly killing the world as we knew it, and the Environmentalists with their picket signs and rubber rafts were the only ones fighting back. But since then we've modeled the complex interaction of the Earth's different systems down to which way a butterfly flaps. If you pollute a river today, they can tell how many millions of dollars it will cost the world 50 years from now, and they'll fine you for all of it.
This is no panacea, mind you. it's draconian and horribly money-centric. So while trillions of dollars have been spent expanding the rain forests, the glacial pocket deserts weren't deemed cost effective and have long been plowed over. I had no idea what had happened to the lava flats of Hawaii, but it sounds like the same fate as the pocket deserts, and this woman was too attached to them to accept the cruel fact that the environment's health has been improving for the last half century and this system has worked.
"Scooter, who is this woman""
"Her name is Amanda Williams. Age 33. Achieved her law degree from Oxford at age 24."
"Her clubs! What clubs does she belong to?" A person is defined by their clubs. My stupid computer should know that.
"I can't say. She doesn't publicize them. Her name has been attached to several public briefs from a small legal firm that specializes in environmental law."
I groaned. Well, time to end this conversation.
"I think the environmental protection laws work perfectly well and we should be grateful for the last half century."
"They were great 40 years ago." she immediately shot back, "but now they could use some tweaking. Do you know how much margin of error they put into their formulas for the chance of yet undiscovered bio-relationships?"
Uh oh. This seemed to be the opposite of ending the conversation. I didn't answer. She continued anyway.
"Zero! The Hawaiian lava flats were the last volcanic plains left in the world. If ten years from now we discover that volcanic plain bacteria had evolved special amino acids that nothing else does . . . we've missed it." That seemed both a good argument and far fetched.
I never really delved into the complexities of environmental science. I just like to look at nature. Amanda Williams barrelled on.
"Besides, how do you even put a value on the inspiring awe of witnessing volcanic plains""
That was my argument for art education not two minutes ago. Was there a parallel? Ok, I admit it. I now had questions, and I didn't know where to turn for answers. But then again, I certainly wasn't going to turn to HER for them.
"I told you. I think the environmental protection laws work perfectly well. And if you don't mind, I have work to do." I stared hard at the floor and began moving my mouth.
Scooter interrupted, "Are you giving orders, boss, or exercising your lips, because I don't understand a word you're saying."
"Just shut up! Do you understand that?"
Amanda Williams watched me for a moment, then returned to her own silent mouthing and didn't speak aloud for the rest of the bus trip.
At the fashion outlet I was flustered. Nothing felt right. Nothing looked right, even when I projected my favorite designs onto them. A fruitless trip, and all because of Amanda Williams.
"5 minutes to Henson Club, Bekka Lin." warned Scooter.
I sat in my chair in my empty room and schemed on how to bring up the environmental issue with my friends. I really did want some answers and I trusted them most. Finally I asked Scooter to connect me. Immediately I was no longer alone but surrounded by my closest friends, and they were smiling and joking and Andre was going to give us a puppet show.
Andre's puppet show was great, but his pitch for Henson's unfinished plan was lame - worse than lame. He had the nerve to base it on The Muppet Babies.
"They're not even puppets." Ian interrupted Andre"s excited ramblings, speaking what all of us were thinking.
"But as a cartoon Henson could explore imagination to much greater depths." Andre enthusiastically defended, "With Muppet Babies he was trying to teach kids creativity. Given a problem, each of the muppets had their own approach to solving it." He looked appealingly to the group but found only skepticism and annoyance.
"you're trying to tell me", Ian posited, "that Disney was buying Jim Henson because they needed help with making cartoons?"
Andre's face fell. We all knew that before those impossibly figured Disney Princess actresses plastered every backpack, band aid, and Jeep, Disney held the same marketing dominance with cartoon versions. I still had a chance to win this.
After that we fell in talking about random things, blue soda and puppet cars and jokes about science freaks, and I was having such a good time I had all but decided I wasn't going to bring up the environmental issue.
"Asma's asking you a question, boss." I had been looking up blue sodas. Scooter played it back.
"Bekka, how'd the shopping trip go?"
"Fine." I responded mechanically, "But I didn't get anything." And before anyone could probe further I asked, "Do you think we might be being too aggressive when we wipe out ecosystems that might have intangible value?"
Everyone sort of stared at me for a moment wondering where the question came from. Finally Ian asked, "Intangible value?"
"Well, like the glacial pocket deserts. They're all gone. Did we need to plow over every single one?"
"They weren't cost effective." Ian shrugged, "Not one of them was."
"But now there isn't anyplace in the world where you can go see a pocket desert."
"No one WAS going to see them. Or they wouldn't have wiped them."
"Bekka?" Asma broke in, "Is this something from one of the environmentalist wackos in your bike club? There are times I think you spend too much time with them."
Now I was annoyed. "No, my bike club doesn't have wackos, and it was on a bus."
"An environmentalist wacko on the bus convinced you we should have saved the pocket deserts?"
"Actually it was the Hawaiian lava flats, and she didn't convince me of anything. I'm just now realizing these formulas are all based on how much money someone will pay to own or visit or use, and we all know that how much money someone will pay can be very different than how valuable something is."
"Sure" agreed Ian, "but value is really subjective. You do the best you can. Every single place on Earth is unique in its own way. I bet if the environmentalists had their way, every microcosm would have inestimable value and would be sacrosanct and then all industry would grind to a halt."
"I bet it wasn't so much the lava flats," Asma injected with heavy sarcasm, "but the Lava Flat Mite whose survival is critical to the world. Without it, Hawaiians wouldn't have ankle rash."
"Actually it was volcanic bacteria she was worried about." I couldn't help the smile as it sounded so ridiculous.
"For real"" Asma cackled, "Oh my she WAS a lunatic."
"you're lucky she didn't take the whole bus hostage", someone threw in "and demand the lava flats be restored."
"Or kidnap you!" Asma again, "And brainwash you to fight for the rights of mites."
By now I was laughing out loud, and people started asking if I had an unexplainable urge to harbor fugitive volcanic bacteria. Amanda Williams was suddenly no longer weighing on my mind. I had my answers.
I was freaking out. I had less than a day before the next Henson Club meeting and I still had no idea what I should present. I wanted to win this! But it looks like my bid was going to be even more lame than Andre"s. The best I could come up with was "silliness." Something to get adults to be silly, because being silly is a form of being creative.
But I knew that wasn't it! Sure, that was a huge part of Henson"s ground breaking and success, but his later works got less and less silly and more and more real, and I was sure there was something more relevant that was driving him. Henson always said he "wanted to make a difference in the world." How?
In the last days I focused on his later works, his movies, The Storyteller, The Jim Henson Hour I even watched Muppet Babies. But it was all for naught. I didn't feel like I understood Jim Henson any better. I was desperate for anything, but I could never have guessed what I was about to find.
"Scooter, what haven't I watched?"
Scooter began listing off a list of one time shows like "Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas" and "The Muppets 30th Anniversary Special".
"Wait. What's that? The anniversary special?"
"it's a hour long retrospective on the first thirty years of Jim Henson's work. It contains a lot of clips from his TV shows."
A clip show. They were always lame. But then again, if Henson produced it, at least he was picking the clips. "Ok, show it, but be ready to fast forward through the clips I've already seen."
At first it wasn't promising. Blah blah blah clips from The MuppetShow. Blah blah blah clips with cool songs. Blah blah blah clips with monsters eating everything. But then my heart stopped. Kermit was asked what his favorite part of the last 30 years was. Was this Henson distilling what was important into a 3 minute montage. I don't think I was breathing.
Kermit responded that his favorite parts were the serious parts that weren't meant to be funny. What followed was a montage of muppets singing a return-to-nature calypso song, a 1960s protest song, and "it's Not Easy Being Green" - each moving enough on its own but not what you would call a distilled vision.
I must have missed something. "Scooter, replay that last montage again."
It started with the calypso singer, some guy named Harry Belafonte talking to the muppet crew.
"you're here for a very, very short time," Belafonte began. I hadn't even heard this part the first time. I had been looking up who Belafonte was. "...there really isn't any difference in any of us if we take time out and understand each other."
I wondered how he could keep a straight face. Here he was telling a bear and a dog and whatever that Gonzo character is, telling them there wasn't any difference between him and them.
"Do we care about each other? Cause if we do, together we can turn the world around."
Turn the world around. Make a difference in the world. Wait. He was serious, wasn't he? Was that it? Understanding each other and caring for each other changes the world. Was that Henson's vision distilled?
Suddenly thoughts started popping into my head. I thought about the Fraggles and the gigantic Gorgs and the tiny Doozers. In each episode they each had their own self-centered way of looking at the world and they never understood each other. It was a lesson. Those weren't Gorgs and Doozers. They were people in different countries.
I had thought Henson wanted to stop war by getting children of lots of different countries all to love Fraggles. But, no, he was teaching them all to love each other.
But today, it's not countries. it's social circles. I thought about my Henson club and my bike club and how they are so hostile to each other. Gorgs and Fraggles. I thought about Amanda Williams and how we both loved nature but showed it so differently. We were Bert and Ernie. And what about the whole world? The environmentalists, the socialist nuts, the science freaks, the art hippies? We were like those muppet babies, each coming up with a different solution to a single problem, and all the solutions were wacky.
I struggled to calm myself and express this in a clear thought.
Jim Henson, throughout his lifetime, was constantly telling us that there is value in the ideas of people who disagree with you. No, more than that. That you don't have the right answer and neither do they, and the only way to find the right answer is to understand each other.
That was it. I wanted to jump and dance. I wanted to scream and shout. But now the import of what he was asking broke on me. He wanted us to understand and care for each other. Now, I wanted to collapse.
I slumped back into my seat. "Scooter," I sighed, looking for distraction, "play me some music."
"Wait. Can you play 'Turn the World Around'? it's by Harry Belafonte""
"5 minutes to Henson Club, Bekka Lin."
"Thanks, Scooter." I smiled. Did I have enough time? I thought so.
"Scooter, I"m going to record a message. I need you to send it to Amanda Williams. Do you remember her? The woman I sat next to on the bus?"
"I've found her address, boss."
I sat in my chair and put on a meek smile. "Hi" I said and waved a small wave to the camera, "Remember me" The woman who was impossibly rude to you on the bus last week? I really wanted to apologize for that. I sometimes get flustered on the bus. "I've been thinking about what you said, and, to be honest, I have some questions. I'd like to ask you about it, though I would understand if you pretended this message was spam blocked, but let me know if you're game. - Send."
I took a deep breath. Now came the bigger challenge. I was ready. I was ready to tell the Jim Henson Club that I hadn't the slightest idea what Jim Henson was going to do next. But I did know WHY he was going to do it. I was convinced I knew what would have driven his next opus, even what he would think of our lives today, and what he would say to us if he were here. So I would say it for him.
Maybe I would get laughed off the club.
Maybe I would make a difference.
x x x
The Muppet Show was my all-time favorite TV series. Think about all the famous and talented megastars who actually BEGGED to do guest appearances on the show. Think about the pacing, the writing, the choreography, the effects . . . ground breaking triumphs in the musical variety genre. Henson was a genius and Mr Antonucci's delightful paean to him is more than worthy of inclusion in this year's AR lineup. Tell me how much you liked it on our BBS. -GM