Sunday, July 19, 2015

Claim to Fame

For my first paying job, I worked the cash register, folded sweaters, and, on a few shockingly neither disastrous nor hilarious occasions offered fashion advice to paying customers. I worked at a clothing store at the Sangertown Square Mall, performing all of these tasks against a back drop of purple carpeting and a soundtrack split between top 40 and sundry European electro-pop.

Capers, an imprint of Rue 21, specialized in trendy looking clothes that weren’t especially well made, but that were sold at discounted prices. As such, the store drew a varied crowd--from high school and college kids on budgets, to money-conscious moms bringing a similar population to the happy mid-point between K-Mart threads and the clothes their kids really wanted from The Gap, to the older segment, which was particularly inclined to accumulate massive orders of jeans and fake leather jackets that they’d pay for on layaway.

One autumn night in 2000, a middle-aged couple visited the store, the man with curly hair, equal parts dark brown and gray, sunglasses perched atop his head, clad in a black button up lined with metallic studs, over ripped blue jeans. His bleached blonde wife carried an assortment of tops and two pairs of jeans to the front counter where I rung them out.

“That’s it?” the man said, eyeing the total of just under a hundred dollars.

“I know, this place is always so cheap.” White bubble gum smacked between the woman’s tongue and the roof of her mouth. She spread black top in front of her, with princess written in glitter across the chest. “And they have the cutest stuff.”

The man handed me five twenty-dollar bills. I punched the keys on the register in time with the song playing over the speakers.

“You seem like a personable dude,” the man said. “What’s your claim to fame?”

“Excuse me?” I counted his change.

The woman put a hand to the man’s chest, her fingernails flecked with chipped neon pink polish. “He means what do you do. Where do you go to school? What do you want to be?”

I told them I was senior in high school. That I hoped to be a writer.

The man pointed at me with both index fingers, thumbs up as though he were miming guns. “An artist, I like that,” he said. “Tell me something, have you seen Almost Famous?”

“Not yet. I heard it’s good.”

“Man, we just got out of the theater, and that movie is the best.” He ran his hand through his hair, unconscious of the sunglasses which he knocked right back over his head, all the way to the floor. The woman scurried to pick them up before he backed up and stepped on them. “It’s all about rock and roll and love and dreaming. You’ve got to see it.”

I told him I would.

The man carried the two plastic bags full of clothes, a long white receipt dangling precariously from one of them. The woman took his shoulders and steered him to face toward the exit, back out to the mall. She took one last look at me, smiled and waved one finger at a time on her left hand before they walked out.

In retrospect, one or both of them may well have been stoned. But I prefer to remember them as a grown-up couple that never forgot their love of rock and roll, love, and dreaming—the very stuff of youth; I prefer to remember as intoxicated by a movie that reminded them of a time when they were closer to my age.

And I liked that question—about the claim to fame, and have since appropriated it every now again for my own conversations, particularly with younger people. I prefer not to assume that a young man would define himself by his job or his school or any other particular socially normed dimension of his identity. I prefer to offer room for him describe himself--even if he needs to ask me what the hell I’m talking about.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Lovers, Dreamers, Me

I have this recurring conversation, sometimes in my head, and sometimes out loud in bits and pieces with people who think me or themselves to be straight-laced and professional, or people. The conversation revolves around a simple, seemingly innocuous question:

How could you like the Muppets?

Liking the Muppets isn’t so much a matter of taste as of social station. After all, Muppets are at their base felt puppets made to approximate talking frogs, pigs, bears, and whatevers. They’re fine to entertain children, but surely a grown up couldn’t take them seriously—and if I were to indulge in children’s entertainment, shouldn’t it be any of the glossy new animated features that surface theaters every few months?


Unlike their Sesame Street counterparts, Jim Henson launched the Muppets as entertainment geared equally toward children and adults—family entertainment in its truest form with characters and stories that were accessible to children with more than a few subtleties for grown ups to enjoy and for younger viewers to grow into.

But arguing the objective merits of any art form is largely useless. As Jeff Jarrett has purportedly said about another of my often misunderstood and unappreciated entertainment pleasures, professional wrestling, ‘To a critic, no explanation will do. To a fan, no explanation is necessary.’ Such is the case for the Muppets—if you accessed them at the right time in your life, and they struck the right chord with you, you’ll never question the brand’s inherent value and fundamental goodness. If you didn’t grow up on Muppets, and if you take yourself seriously, and you're cynical—the odds are you’ll never really get it.

But I did grow up on Muppets—most particularly The Muppet Movie. Though the franchise started with Kermit the Frog as a bit player on Sam and Friends and The Jimmy Dean Show, and then garnered the puppet crew their only night-time variety TV show, for me, the heart of the brand has always been their first feature film. The film functions as an origin story for the Muppet crew—featuring Kermit as an over-talented young frog, plucking his banjo in a Florida swamp when a Hollywood agent discovers him, and sets him on a course for a cross-country road trip to California to pursue a career in entertainment. Along the way, Kermit meets the rest of the Muppet crew.

The musical numbers alone of The Muppet Movie are demonstrative of so much of what the Muppet clan represents, and why I feel they are valuable as lessons, reminders, and anthems for viewers of all ages. “The Rainbow Connection,” the most famous of the songs is about a sense of destiny, disillusionment, and the pursuit of happiness as Kermit ponders what he’s supposed to be against the backdrop of his humble hometown setting. “Movin’ Right Along” is not just a great travel song, but a tribute to learning to share one’s dream, compromise, and work together for a greater good. “Never Before, Never Again” is a tidy reduction of every love at first sight sensation every na├»ve young person has ever felt—and better yet, an affirmation that if you let yourself fall in love, it can work out. “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along” is an only fooling yourself cynical drinking song for the heartbroken that demonstrates that despair touches everyone and is a natural part of falling in love—all put in perspective for the choice of a frog and dog to go back and forth singing the song. “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” is the song written from perhaps the most obviously mature lens, a wandering song about not knowing where you belong, but the just the same reassuring yourself that you must belong somewhere.

The Muppet Movie gave way to the not quite as epic, but nonetheless charming Great Muppet Caper and Muppets Take Manhattan. After Jim Henson had passed and Disney started co-producing Muppet films the brand grew less consistent with so-so Muppet Christmas Carol and embarrassing Muppets in Space and Muppet Treasure Island, followed by a little more inspired set of made-for-TV movies. A decade would pass before the franchise rebounded, now under Disney ownership to release a series of web shorts, leading up to The Muppets.

The Muppets is not as special as The Muppet Movie, but did marking a turning point when the brand recaptured some of the old magic and old spirit. Moreover, it was evident that the film was a product of a fan’s commitment to the brand—Jason Segel co-wrote the script, pushed for production and ultimately starred alongside new Muppet Walter, Amy Adams, and the traditional crew.

And it was Segel who delivered the moment that I—if no one else—will probably always remember as the best of the film. The moment that actually got me choked up watching The Muppets in the theater the first time. As good as the moments were, I’m not referring to Kermit’s admission that he needs Miss Piggy or his rousing speech that the gang shouldn’t give up toward the end of the film, or the gang irreverently ‘traveling by map.’ Rather it was the opening musical and dance number, watching Segel beam as he danced alongside Walter and then at the fore of an expansive crew of townspeople for “Life’s a Happy Song,” in a moment that felt like a dream come true, and thus embodied exactly what the entire Muppet catalog and legacy are all about.

I could go on about the Muppets and I fear this post has already grown a bit rambling and unfocused. The core of what I wish to distill is that the Muppets are all about what’s good and true. The world offers us role models of all shapes and sizes, willing and unwilling, intentional or not. But I dare say if we all aspired to Miss Piggy’s confidence, Gonzo’s rejection of social norms, Fozzie’s insistence on maintaining a sense of humor—well, we all might be a little better for it.

But as for me, I’ve always looked to Kermit as my guide. For his leadership. For his courage. For his ambition. And perhaps most importantly for his sense of loyalty to his friends and insistence on treating them like family as they pursue their dreams. Thus, to close on one of my favorite Jim Henson quotes, delivered through Kermit’s dialogue at the climax of The Muppet Movie:

I have a dream too, but it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. It’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And I found a whole group of friends who have the same dream, and that makes us sort of like a family.

Amen, Kermit. Amen.