Muppet Christmas Lessons

[This is from a few years ago, but it’s still appropriate. And still a lesson I struggle with…although I hope I’m better. Anyway, ’tis the season.]

I am proud of Jason Segel.  I don’t know him.  Never met him.  I know being proud of someone you’ve never met is odd, but it’s true.  He brought the Muppets back to life.  The Muppets were essentially dead for over a decade, and now my whole generation has back this wonderful element of our childhood.  Better yet, as one of my friends pointed out, we are free to love the Muppets without irony (the culturally acceptable attitude painted over long-forlorn objects of childhood affection).

After watching the new Muppet Movie, which happened to release around my birthday, my friends went on a Muppet binge for over a month.  It helped that this was around Christmas, and the Muppets’ several Christmas specials fit with perfect timing.  Chief amongst these was, of course, A Muppet Christmas Carol.  Admittedly, I’ve always been partial to Muppet Treasure Island and hadn’t watched their Christmas Carol in several years, but it’s still one of my favorite adaptations.

This time, however, I for the first time noticed something about the general story of the Christmas Carol that got to me – Scrooge.  I’m sure several people who know me would say that I should always have identified with Scrooge, but that’s not exactly what hit me.  The thing about the story that I noticed this time was this:  After his midnight ordeal, Scrooge wakes up in the morning a changed man, and though we only see his first morning after, the projection implied is that Scrooge was a changed man ever after.  That made me think, as many a jaded adult should probably admit to thinking, “Yeah, but how long did it last?”

Then I watched Young Adult, where Charlize Theron plays a woman so self-important and miserable that she honestly thinks it’s not only a good idea but a possible one that she can steal back her now-married ex-boyfriend.  As I watched this movie, I couldn’t help make the connection – she’s a scrooge.  She’s entirely focused on meeting her own needs; she sees the world only from her own viewpoint.  However, unlike Scrooge, when her climactic moment of decision arrives and she realizes that she must change or else be miserable the rest of her life…she doesn’t.  She reverts.  She not only doesn’t learn her lesson but she believes that there was no lesson necessary to learn.  It’s a disturbingly accurate portrayal of our contemporary approach to choosing to be better people, I think.  (I never thought I would accuse Dickens of being optimistic, but by comparison to Diablo Cody, I guess he was.)  In Young Adult, this scrooge thinks there’s nothing really wrong with her, and it’s deeply disturbing because you come to want so badly for this person to grow up and be better.

So.  When/if we repent, change, heal, whatever, how long does it last?  At least for me, the answer is usually “not very.”  I have all the gusto in the world and have every honest intention of being a better person once I’ve been slapped in the face with my own idiocy, and I might even make a really good go of it for a week or two.  But pretty soon, old nature sneaks back in and my enthusiastic decency-revival fades.  Or, worse yet, like Young Adult, I talk myself out of needing to change because I’m so comfortable wallowing in my own mess that I can’t see how to do anything else.  I’m not really that bad, right?  Maybe it’s everyone else who’s wrong.   Maybe I just need to focus more on myself.

Example:  Lately (I use that liberally but feel free to replace with “for quite some time”), I’ve been a pretty sulky, victimized, snippy, unpleasant brat.  I can easily admit that my biggest problem is that I quickly find flaws in people and expect too much from them, and I was living from the position that all my problems were caused by everybody else.  (Let’s face it, this is an easy road to go down.)  The stupid thing is that I’m horribly self-aware and knew I was being an ass, but I have always been able to rationalize my behavior and thoughts – okay, maybe that’s my worst quality.  Anyway, I was definitely being a scrooge, pre-ghostly visitations.  Fortunately, what finally got to me was not as traumatizing-ly supernatural.  While reading Not A Fan by Kyle Idleman, I realized that I was being completely, self-righteously ridiculous.  The problem was me.  Yes, everyone else has problems and nobody’s perfect, but I CAN change ME.  For starters, I needed to at least realize I had a plank in my eye.  If I can rationalize my flaws, why can’t I do the same in others?  I needed to be more forgiving of other people’s flaws.  It’s only fair.  What right do I have to think I’m better than everyone I’m upset with when I know I’m being a jerk?  Why can’t I be as forgiving of other people as I am of myself?

As a Christian, I believe that the great, great thing about God is that he’s just waiting for us to realize we’re idiots.  I always imagine a spiritual finger poking me when I need to realize I’m being stupid.  The scary thing about us humans (or maybe just me…but I doubt it) is that we get really good at ignoring the poking.  Sometimes it takes something to get our attention, and in my case is was Not A Fan (I’m really happy it wasn’t the Ghost of Christmas Future, because that guy always freaks me out, even in Muppet form).  As I finished reading a chapter, I felt a weight lifted, and I knew it was my own stupidity.  I acknowledged for the first time in way too long that I was being a self-righteous, judgmental idiot.  And just like that, I felt God going, “Ah-ha, there ya go.  Welcome back.”  I realized at once that this was yet another time when I had to decide where to go and how to be better.

  1. Be fair – treat people at least as kindly as I treat myself.  If I don’t like something about someone, first ask myself if that’s because it’s something I don’t like about me.
  2. Be a more invested friend – show up when people ask, because they might stop caring if I don’t.
  3. Get out of my own head.  Empathize more.
  4. Let things go.  People aren’t perfect.

Of course, in this approaching time of New Year’s resolutions, there is always the question of “How long will it last?”  There will be slips.  I’m not perfect, and no one ever completely changes.  Within a short time, I’m sure I’ll catch myself saying something or doing something that will make me feel that finger-poking rebuke again.  But I intend to remain aware and try to fix my behavior and thoughts as often as possible.  

NOT THIS:                                                         THIS:

adu       scro

NOT THIS:                                                          THIS:

adul                scroo

My brother’s first songs

[This Thanksgiving, my mom and I sat at the kitchen table listening to the cassette tape she’d recorded between 1985-1988 of my brother and me saying our ABC’s, singing “Jesus Loves Me,” etc.   It’s amazing to me how early our creative loves developed – I take every opportunity to tell stories; my brother wants to sing.  I took the tape home with me and uploaded it, and so here we are.]

As promised (or threatened, depending on who you are) earlier in the week, here is the recording of my brother’s first recorded performances.

He’s come along nicely in 20+ years, so feel free to check out his music at: ChrstnSmrvllMsc

My First Stories

This Thanksgiving, my mom and I sat at the kitchen table listening to the cassette tape she’d recorded between 1985-1988 of my brother and me saying our ABC’s, singing “Jesus Loves Me,” etc.   It’s amazing to me how early our creative loves developed – I take every opportunity to tell stories; my brother wants to sing.  I took the tape home with me and uploaded it, and so here we are.

My first story, which I have henceforth titled “MYSTERY” for reasons that will soon become obvious, was recorded when I was 4.  It’s full of twists and turns and beloved childhood characters, and it is a confusing gem, if I do say so myself.

The second story I guess should be called “Snowball and the B-B-B-B-Big Bad Wolf” and is from when I was 6 and had clearly developed my storytelling skills.

Enjoy.  And yes, my brother Christian is in the background and will later this week be embarrassed with a YouTube upload of HIS first performance.

Is My Nerd Showing?

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A common lesson of mothers everywhere is “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” This is bunk.  You ALWAYS judge a book by its cover and really should only NOT use this method in regards to people.  Failed metaphor, in my opinion.  Where was I going with this… Oh, yes – judging people.  I don’t know when it started for me, but at some point I developed a weird reaction to people’s covers.  I have a friend who admits she feels uncomfortable around rich people, and I think I’m this way with pretty people.  It’s not that I feel inferior or anything – I’m secure enough with my cover and am reminded I should be just often enough.  It’s not that I’m bitter and assume you’ve been gifted with blessings we mere mortals cannot hope to attain.  My real reason for not being crazy about pretty people is this:  I assume they will be boring.

I should clarify straight off that by “pretty people” I mean people who obviously care a great deal about their physical appearance, their projected persona, their level of cool.  Having worked with models, I’ve trained myself to look at people and figure out how much time they spend on the way they look. Tip: Shoes are always a good indicator.

Anyway, there are fortunately exceptions to this “rule.”  Some pretty people manage to be both cool and interesting.  One 6’5” model guy and I were once really good friends for about 10 minutes as we talked about his philosophy degree.  This is not, however, what I have come to expect, and I don’t find it true the majority of the time.  Take the girl I met a few summers ago who, while wearing an oversized scarf…in June, told me that she was a nerd because she had seen Star Wars.  Not liked Star Wars.  Not loved Star Wars.  Not memorized Star Wars.  Seen Star Wars.  Umm, thanks for playing; move along.

There are probably all kinds of studies on how class, schooling, genetics, success, attractiveness, etc. are all related to what a person is interested in, but “pretty people” are generally not interested in the things that interest me.  I don’t care what car you drive.  I don’t care how much your apartment costs.  I don’t care how many touchdowns you threw in college.  My eyes roll up into my head a little bit whenever I’m with a group of people who can’t talk about anything deeper than the last party they went to.  And, more often than not, when I find myself in these situations, I’m surrounded by pretty people.  So, I blanket judge the lot of them.

Hypothetically speaking (translation: not hypothetically speaking), I have no interest in that pretty guy at a party who only wants to talk about how much money he makes while eating Twizzlers and accidentally flicking spit at me as he gestures with said Twizzler. However, I am VERY interested in the conversation going on across the table about the Avengers vs. the Justice League.

These are my people.

This is my language.

I was summing up this story with a friend last weekend, and he laughed at me, “So being smart and interesting means being a nerd?”  I blinked and realized that, yes, this is exactly what I mean.  So, I guess I judge in the opposite way that most people view pretty people vs. nerds.

To be clear, I’m not saying that being ugly or socially awkward is a prerequisite for being interesting or vice versa.  And I’m not limiting being interesting to only a quality of the nerdy.  What I’m saying is that nerdy people tend not to care about exteriors.  They’re much more all-inclusive.  With pretty people, appearance is everything.  With nerdy people, interests are everything.

I think this whole dynamic is much better as adults than as teenagers, obviously.  Bridging the gap is attempted more often.  At that party, for example, the dude-bro was welcome to sit and talk about comic books – even if he did eat his Twizzlers in boredom and play on his phone.  And he did invite me to the basement where the pretty people were playing beer pong. I went as a kind of experiment, and I was at least pleased to find that they were nice. They seemed confused why I was there – sheep in wolf’s clothing that I was – but they were nice.  (Sidenote:  The dude-bro made an honest mistake in assuming I was one of them.  On the rare occasion that I go out in public, I do take the opportunity to wear the better part of my closet – i.e. nothing from the sweatpants section.  I can care, but the majority of the time I forgo makeup and end up walking around the Knapp Meijer being judged by the natives.)  Anyway, nice as the pretty people in the basement were, I just didn’t fit down there.  I wanted to get away from the discussion about their last party and back to the convo upstairs about making homemade movies.

As an author bud told me recently, “You’re unique.  You don’t have to be pretty.” …I’m really not sure how to take that, but I think I thanked him.  I guess I like not worrying about being a pretty person and instead letting my nerd show.  That is what I want people to see of me.  That’s the interesting part of me that loves connecting with other people’s interesting, nerdy bits.  I guess it feels more real to me to get to know what a person loves.  Can you be a nerd about football? Sure.  Can you be a nerd about iPhones and the GAP and breweries? Certainly.  I’m not limiting my interest in what people love – just have interests that matter to you more than how you present yourself.

So.  Maybe I do judge people by their covers.  I’m delighted when I’m wrong.  But I think maybe it’s healthier for me to focus on being unique rather than pretty, and that attitude is certainly something I gravitate towards in others.

Apologies to Twizzlers Dude.

Zombies, Halloween, and Death

On Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton asks the question, “If Heaven exists, what do you hope God will say when you come to the pearly gates?”  Not that Lipton will ever interview me, but if he did I have my answer all prepped – I’ve always hoped God will smirk and be like, “That was interesting.” 

Of all the things I don’t take seriously, death should probably not be one of them.  But here we are.

halloween
Halloween 2011

I think about death probably a little too often.  I’m not sure when this started.  It may have something to do with wanting to be an assassin when I was little.  I also know that my “storylines” when we played as children often ended in my death(s).  Then there’s that recurring drowning dream I used to have where I would wake up choking.  I like mythologies about the undead and have enjoyed playing with the weight of immortality in my own fiction.  I really don’t know what the appeal (if that’s the right word) is, but I know that I’ve never been afraid of being dead.  This may be overconfidence that, when I wake up in whatever life is to come, God’s going to be happy with me and/or I’m not going to be reincarnated as a cow.  It may be that I have an unnatural detachment problem and am a little too curious about whatever comes when I’m gone from here.  But whatever the reason, I’m not afraid of Death.

Don’t get me wrong –  I think dying is terrible and agony is terrible and the pain it causes everyone involved is terrible.  I hate loss, grief, sorrow, sickness, despair.  When I see people cry, I cry (a reaction recently developed, as apparently my soul grew back or something, har, har).  Funerals, saying a final goodbye – all of that is awful.  It is the most painful thing to release someone from their life, our lives, and everything Known.  Suffering comes in some way with every death, and that, if nothing else, is a curse that touches us all.  I DO absolutely hate other people’s deaths.  I become semi-dysfunctional whenever someone I love dies.  I even have an odd reaction of anxiety whenever someone has an accident or goes ill or something – I become incredibly creative.  I don’t know why.  When I am anxious about someone else’s life or death, I go to a place in my head where I can’t stop myself from painting, or writing, or whatever.  It’s odd, I know, but for some reason that is my coping mechanism.

Sidenote:  I first noticed this uber-anxiety about others’ deaths when my great grandmother started fading.  I was a teenager.  Since great grandma lived alone (and there’s a wonderful story about her shooting a gun in her house to get the squirrels in the wall, btw), towards the end each member of the family took turns staying with her at night.  This usually meant my mom, my aunt, or my older cousins, but for some reason one night my mom made me do it.  Alone, with a person who could potentially die any minute, I don’t think I slept all night. It freaked me out.  When I finally got to go home, I remember sequestering myself in my room and writing for hours.

Anyway, while death is bad, I personally am okay with it, if that makes sense.  I accept that, at some point, I am going to die.  I don’t see the point in being afraid or taking it too seriously, letting it haunt this life.  It’s GOING to happen.  I don’t want to die of a long drawn out illness, a painful demise, or go screaming in flames or anything.  I certainly don’t want to leave behind my loved ones or have my life end before I’ve done and seen all I can.  But I find death a little bit fascinating.   It is the ultimate Unknown.  Death is the one thing that happens to us all that none of us can ever know about until it happens to us personally.  It’s the one thing we all have in common.  It’s what makes this life all the sweeter, because we know it’s going to end.  Death happens, and by searching to understand it as much as possible, I think we take as much of the sting away as we can.

My own faith and belief system obviously comes into play here.  That’s probably a big part of why I’m not afraid and have a kind of peaceful relationship with the idea of death.  It probably also explains some of my fascination with whatever comes next.  But the interesting thing to me of late – in this past season of Halloween especially – is that I’m clearly not alone in this curiosity about the afterlife.  I’ve been reading a LOT of zombie fiction lately, and everywhere you look these days there are books, movies, TV shows, etc. about what life would be like in a post-apocalyptic world.  (Don’t get me started on vampire fiction.) We seem really fascinated by the idea of The End and what comes after.  The thing that keeps standing out to me is that we are oddly drawn to the horror of death and kind of romanticize it.  I’m sure this says something about our culture at the moment, and that’s probably enough for a whole other blog post, so I’ll let it go for now.

I’m not saying that we should revel in the idea of death or have a blasé attitude about it.  I do think it is important to prepare for whatever you believe happens at death.  But I don’t think we should fear death or getting old – THERE’S definitely another possible blog topic – to the point that we let fear of the Unknown infect our daily, walking life.  Whatever your belief system, how you live in THIS life matters.  There is plenty to fear and worry about now.  There is plenty to make sure you get right now.  There are other, much more manageable fears to focus on and try to heal.

I know what makes me sad.

I know what makes me hurt.

I know what makes me unhealthy.

I know what makes me guilty.

I know what makes me regret.

THESE are things to fear to the point of doing something about them, if that makes sense.  These are things we have a shot of doing something about.  We’re all going to die – you can’t control that.  What you can control is how you live in this life.  The better you manage this life, I think the easier the idea of death becomes.

So, yeah.  Death happens.  But I guess the point is what we do before it hits us.  Suffering happens.  But I guess the point is how we react to it.  For me, I really do hope I can continue to see death as something that should make me appreciate life and joy all the more, death as the ultimate Unknown that reminds  me to instead focus on those things I can control.

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