Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Power of Felt and Ping Pong Balls

[This was inspired by someone else's article, which, along with a film clip, can be found here: Saying Goodbye 20 Years Later You don't have to read that article first, but it provides far more historical context than I'm going to, and I think it's worth your time.]

Jim Hensen was my introduction to the idea that you didn't have to shackle your imagination. The idea that if you could dream it, and believe in it enough, you could make it real. You could turn it into something you could share with other people, even entertain them with. The idea that the stories clamoring to get out of your head had a place to go where they would be welcomed and where you could revisit them.

I don't remember how old I was when I first saw The Muppet Show. I doubt I watched it during it's initial run, given the time frame and my age, so almost certainly I saw it rerun in syndication. There were, of course, Muppets on Sesame Street, but to this day they feel slightly different than the rest of Hensen's creations. They cater to an audience that is primarily children, and in short spans at that. The average Bert and Ernie segment probably doesn't last more than five minutes at most, and even if there was a running storyline - such as the time the Count stayed over at Bert and Ernie's - it was broken up across the hour. (Such is my age that I remember when this was the format of Sesame Street, in the days before Elmo.)

Fraggle Rock was different. So was the Dark Crystal. The latter is one of the first movies I distinctly remember being in a theater for. (My mother insisted I sat rapt through Star Wars, but being about five or six at the time of the first re-release just prior to Empire, I don't really remember it.) The Dark Crystal I remember. It blew me away then, and aside from being one of my earliest movie memories, it was also my first real introduction to the fantasy realms. The Fraggles were one of the first shows I made it a point to watch, each and every week. I can still sing the theme song.

Just as importantly, these were worlds. Complete, whole, and though in the case of the Fraggles occupying a space alongside ours, they were entirely different places. (We can't eat our architecture, for example, and my trash has never spoken to me. For which I am both grateful and yet disappointed.) Here was a lesson for a young creative mind like myself. You could give free reign to your imagination, and more importantly, if you worked at it, you could see it brought to life. Labyrinth just reinforced this a little later. (While also giving me a lifelong appreciation for David Bowie, and a lifelong crush on Jennifer Connelly. But, again, another entry.)

The non-Muppet movies didn't do very well, of course, and the Fraggles eventually went into reruns themselves. By that time, I had sort of out grown them, having hit an age where the bright colors and generally upbeat messages (though at times serious) were something I was disdaining a bit. I wasn't done with all things Hensen, though, because then came the Storyteller. Like the Fraggles, this was must-see tv with me before such a phrase had been coined. And I remember the Storyteller being the first series cancellation that bothered me. This was the first series to have the plug pulled where not only did I miss it, but I wondered what idiot had made the foolish decision to yank such an incredible show off the air.

(Wasn't the last time I had that thought, just the first.)

And he was the first celebrity whose death I mourned.

Hensen's legacy lives on, of course, and the Muppets continued. Yet, to me at least, these post-Jim projects have lacked some of creative vision of the mind behind the Fraggles and the Storyteller. They have been "Muppet Treatments" of other things, and even the original storylines have not had the force of imagination, nor the completeness of story that came with Hensen's works. There have been no more worlds. (There is another Dark Crystal movie in the works, though, so we'll see.)

More so than anyone else, and as much as I can claim to have been inspired by anyone, Jim Hensen is it. (Yeah, sure, George Lucas is in there somewhere, but he's a one trick pony.) Hensen had multiple worlds in his head, and expressed them in a media that few else would have dared to. I'm sure someone, somewhere, early in his career told him there was no future in puppets, and I think on that every time I hear someone say there's no future in print, either. You can't separate them, either, as Hensen's vision and his legacy would not have been the same if he'd been a cartoonist, or just used actors. He worked in the format that called to him, making the stories that called to him, regardless of the critics, and while I have read that he took a lot of the criticism to heart, he kept at it anyway. There are lessons in that for anyone.

I said at the beginning that this entry was inspired by another article. I said you didn't have to read it. You still don't. But, if you do, I would call your attention to the video clip at the end. If there is a better way for someone of such imagination to be remembered than by being mourned and missed by his own creations, I don't know what it is.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Smells of Spring

They say April showers bring May flowers. Around here, the seasons and the months aren't quite so clear cut, and this year it seems to be going backwards. We had April flowers first, and now we have May showers. Still, Spring has sprung, and aside from the usual harbringers of the season, I can tell it's here because of the way it smells.

All seasons have certain smells associated with them, of course, but I have found that Fall and Spring tend to be the two where the aroma of the season is most easily detected out of doors. The kinds of things you can have waft into your nostrils just walking around town. Winter is more indoor smells, such as fireplaces and the smells of the holidays. Summer is more localized, as for me at least nothing says Summer like the smell of the beach or the pool. In small town where I make my home, those smells aren't likely to be just wafting my way unless I hop in the car and do some driving.

Spring smells are sidewalk smells, and not really those of most flowers. There are exceptions, as some blooms are either close enough to the sidewalk or in a big enough bush that you catch them when the breeze is right, but for the most part you have to get your nose down into the flowers if you're going to smell them. (I was taken off guard by one such flower the other day, but that's another entry.)

Grass is different. Even when it isn't being mowed for the first time, the smell of it changes when it starts to grow, especially after it rains. That may sound crazy, but having lived most of my life in a place where we cycle through all four seasons, the Spring grass smells differently, even from that of a Summer lawn. It's slightly more earthy, in part I think because you also get the smell of the ground coming out from the Winter freeze. There's also the added smell from people putting down mulch and other fertilizer around their plants, which adds to it rather pleasantly, I think.

There's also something in the way the air itself smells just after a Spring shower. Rain has a scent. Yes, it's more accurate to say that the weather patterns that come before and after a rain storm alter our ability to detect certain smells... but this is one of those times where even though I'm a science geek, I'm going to take poetry over science and just say it has a scent all it's own. A thunderstorm in summer smells different, starting with the heavier ozone, and one in Fall carries different odors, too. Spring showers have a unique smell.

(Probably why shampoo manufacturers turn to that season when they market things. I have seen shampoo and body soap scents labeled "Spring Shower" but never one that said "Autumn Shower." Might also be the visual of showering in the cold as opposed to the warmer temperatures that supposedly go with Spring.)

It may also be that I am more apt to notice the smells of the outdoors in the Spring, especially when all Winter I've been most indoors. Even when I venture outdoors in the Winter, my nose is usually covered, and snow doesn't have a smell to it that I've ever noticed. Not clean snow, anyway. So Spring represents the first time the windows have been opened in months, the first time breathing outside air on a regular basis, even when inside the house. I think that circulation has as much to do with the association as anything tangible in the air. (All smells are based on particulates. It's really best if you don't think too hard about that.)

Whatever the reasons, Spring is firmly here, and aside from the dandelions and the little daisies, I intend to enjoy all the olfactory options the season has to offer.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Coming In Last

I realize the Winter Olympics are long since over, but I had occasion the other day to think back to them. Specifically to the Nordic cross-country event. I think it was on the last day of the Olympics, and for a change NBC was sticking with the coverage of the event all the way through the very last competitor. (Due, in no small part, to it being the last event and therefore there was nothing else left to cover.) The leaders had long since come in, and for that matter so had most of the pack, when the last competitor came into the stadium. Dead last, way behind everyone else, and yet the moment the crowd caught sight of him they erupted, just as much as they had for the medalists.

To his credit, whoever he was, he crossed that finish line as hard as he could. He could have slacked off, knowing full well he wasn't going to catch the person in front of him. At 48th, he was so far out of contention that the leaders had their skis off. Even 47th place was waiting for him across the finish line by the time he could see it. But he went at it anyway, competing as hard as he could until the end. And while he didn't come close to medaling, I feel confident in wagering that the sound of that Olympic crowd (granted, a small one, as it was the Nordic cross country event and the last event of the last day) made his struggle worth it, and perhaps inspired him to just a little bit more speed as he crossed the line.

A lesson in perseverance, and in sportsmanship, and a little bit in the spirit of the Games which, romantic that I am, I choose to still believe exists even in these modern times of pro-athletes and big name sponsors.

As for what this has to do with writing, and why I'm bringing it up several months after the fact, the event that triggered it came with one of those little community support rallies that occurred in the online writing community I hang out in. (Link is to the left) I don't remember the exact event, only that it wasn't anything big like landing an agent, more of a small victory, and the way everyone rallied around this person and offered congratulations - like they had, in fact, landed an agent or book contract - brought the Olympics example back to the forefront of my mind.

(In complete honesty, I had jotted the skier's victory down as a potential blog entry all the way back in January. It just never materialized.)

Now, the analogy with the Olympian only goes so far. I have in other entries here decried the existence of those "cheerleaders" who cheer on everyone and everything, regardless of actual merit. As I have also mentioned before, not everyone can write, and the numbers are far less than those who persist in thinking they *can.* We'd all have been spared some really bad poetry if enough English teachers had the guts to take an aspiring poet aside and politely suggest they ought to write just for themselves. Certainly that creative writing class in college would have been a lot less painful for me. The equation may only be 10% talent, but it's an important 10%.

The Olympic skier was no Eddie the Eagle. Because of Eddie, there are certain standards you have to hit in order to compete at the Olympics. So you have to have a basic level of talent and ability in order to compete in that venue. No backyard skier is going to be getting there, let alone coming in 48th (out of 52, by the way, so not everyone finished). However, armed with those caveats, I think it's an apt analogy.

As long as you have what it takes to get there, and are willing to push for it and keep at it, you can find some measure of recognition and adulation. Not everyone gets a medal, and not everyone gets the multi-million bestseller book deal, but that doesn't mean you can't celebrate the small victories you do achieve.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Case for a Reread

When I moved a little over a year ago, one of the challenges I didn't face was what to do with all my books. This had been an issue in moves past, but this time around it was much less so, because a few months prior I had finally given away a lot of the books on my shelves. I donated them to a library, and this was done to get the boxes out of my closet. At one point they had all been on shelves, but I had simply run out of room.

I also realized I was probably not going to get around to rereading most of them. Not because they weren't good books, because they were, but simply because they weren't really books I was going to re-read anytime soon. Eventually, yes, but in the meantime they were taking up space, and with a few exceptions when the time comes I'm sure I can find them in a library or used book store all over again.

I did hold on to my collection of Stephen King books, but I confess that at one point I belonged to that "King book of the month" thing. Not quite as bad as some other things I could confess to, sure, but I still feel a little foolish about it. Most of those I won't reread any time soon either, but there are two exceptions.

That there are only two is not a reflection on my fondness for the author. Truth is, most of the things I read get read once and then shelved. Part of that is just that I remember the plot for them, and so I won't get more than thirty pages in before everything clicks into place. With the mysteries I like to read, that takes away some of the joy. (I say this as someone who skips ahead to the end of the book, but that's different.) Part of it is just sheer voraciousness on my part, reading lots of different genres and authors and subjects.

Which means that I have no shortage of new books to read. So why go back at all, then, to something I've already read?

The short answer is that some books are just so complex, they require a reread. This is why 'The Stand" is on my list of books to go through again this summer. It's been far too many years since I read it last, and I think this is the summer to amend that. It's also why every few years or so I drag Tolkien, or Herbert, back off my shelves (or the library shelves) and read through stories I am quite familiar with already.

That familiarity is also a part of it. While reading new books by favorite authors reunites me with their voice and mannerisms, it's not quite the same as stepping back into a favorite story by a favorite author. The first is like reconnecting with an old friend, the second is like reconnecting with an old friend in the places you used to hang out, sort of recapturing the past. Of course, it's never quite the same because you're in a different place than you were then (which is why nostalgia only goes so far), but it's close enough to provide a certain kind of pleasure you just can't get anywhere else.

Which is why some books will always be on my reading list, no matter how many times I've been through them. Sure, I'll continue to read new things, yet it's comforting to know that, should I ever come up empty at the local library - only because my local branch is quite small - there's something waiting for me at home.