Fraggle Friday: Episode 207: “Mokey and the Minstrels”

What follows is an open letter to Steve Whitmire:

Dear Steve,

Although I am a child of the ’80s, Fraggle Rock was, regrettably, not a significant part of my childhood.  I saw bits and pieces of it back in the day, but I never got to watch the series in its entirety until 2013–although I’ve been trying to make up for lost time ever since.  In a way, though, I think I’m kind of lucky because I think that maybe I get more out of watching Fraggle Rock as an adult, bringing my education and life experience to it, than I would have as a kid–a relatively blank slate.

Be that as it may, I identify strongly with Mokey.  Her abstract, fanciful, introspective approach to life, and her idealistic worldview, remind me a lot of myself.  In particular, however, I relate to Mokey in this episode of Fraggle Rock, in which she attempts to discern her vocation.  I’ve been trying to discern mine for 37 years, and I still haven’t quite figured it out.

In that respect, I envy you, Steve; you and Jim Henson and people like you who’ve known what you wanted to do with your lives from an early age and had both the clear-sightedness and the determination to take the steps that it took to make it happen.  When I was a kid, I had a lot of ideas of what I wanted to do when I grew up, but they were just that–ideas.  Like Mokey, I had a lot of romantic notions but not a very clear idea of what was involved on a practical level to make them reality.  

When I was in high school and college, I did what my parents wanted me to do; I got a series of meaningless summer jobs that I didn’t really care about, in order to make money, and forgot about them when summer was over.  By contrast, my younger brother–who is wiser than me in so many respects–followed his passions.  He would take volunteer jobs that catered to his interests over the summer and not make a dime.  My parents thought he was crazy, but he made a lot of valuable contacts in the fields that he was interested in that served him in good stead when it came time to build his career.

My brother is something of a wandering minstrel himself: a professional singer, sought after for everything from early-music chorales to experimental contemporary opera.  He travels all over the world (or, at least, the U.S. and Europe) performing in these various ensembles, and always has fascinating stories to tell when he does make it back home.

I envy my brother too, for so many reasons, but at the same time, I don’t think the minstrel life is for me.  South Dakota is for me what Fraggle Rock is for Mokey and the Fraggles, Doozers, and Ditzies; a beautiful, magical place where anything can happen.  Like in Fraggle Rock, every day living in South Dakota can be an adventure if you make the effort to look for it; I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.  And while I sometimes like to go off in search of adventure, my need for home and stability is pretty deep-rooted.  A lot of times, I just like to stay home and mow my lawn and water my flowers and cuddle my kitty.  I think you can relate to that, Steve.  In fact, I think you’ve rather had the best of both worlds in that regard; you’ve lived the wandering minstrel life with Jim Henson and the Muppets, but then you’ve also had your home base in Atlanta, where you can mow your lawn and care for your cats.

Joan Ganz Cooney once said, “One way you can tell a true genius from a near genius is in their need to keep creating.  With geniuses, the urge is unstoppable.”  It goes without saying that Jim Henson had that genius, and I think you have it too, Steve.  I know that I don’t have it, and the knowledge humbles me.  In that respect, I guess I get hung up sometimes thinking about what I’m not rather than what I am.  I can sing and play music, but I’m not a musician.  I can write poetry, but I’m not a poet.  I can manipulate a puppet, but I’m not a puppeteer.  I can teach a class, but I’m not a teacher.

That last one I learned the hard way, as I have detailed elsewhere.  I wondered for a long time if it was a mistake for me to go to grad school.  I think I’ve finally decided now that it was not a mistake.  Going to grad school solidified for me that I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher, not even at the university level.  If I hadn’t gone to grad school, I might never have known that for sure; I might have wondered for the rest of my life if I was missing out on something.

Grad school was a hard row to hoe, but in the end, I think that I came out of it better than when I went in.  I read so much literature there that I never would have been exposed to otherwise.  It was the biggest intellectual challenge that I’ve ever faced.  In grad school, or at least in our graduate program, students got divided into “creative” and “critical” based on what kind of thesis we were planning to write (and then, of course, some of us screwed up their categorizations by choosing the non-thesis option). When I first started grad school, I considered myself to be primarily a creative writer.  And yet, it was there that I kind of fell in love with the critical side of things, with researching and crafting a rhetorically effective argument.   I learned to appreciate the creativity that goes into crafting a critical paper.  Of course, I don’t have to tell you about that, Steve; after all, you (as Kermit) literally gave the TED talk on creativity.  

In true Muppet fashion, I really enjoyed bringing a subversive edge to my arguments as well.  I liked to take a contrary view on a given topic; it was one way to ensure that my work stayed original and didn’t lapse into the same arguments that everybody else had already made before.  And I loved taking potshots at the sacred cows of literary criticism, like Marxism and Freudianism, to call out their inherent hypocrisies.  

In my last semester in grad school, I took a seminar on John Milton and wrote a term paper on Paradise Lost that earned an A+.  I point this out not merely in the interest of bragging; it was also the last assignment that I turned in, and so I view it as the culmination of my entire educational career.  

Steve, you once said to me via blog post, “I hope you and the others here who have realized that this is about Kermit and the whole gang can help me explain that bigger issue to those fans and executives, alike, who have not yet had their epiphany.”  If that A+ paper is any indication, my rhetorical skill is not insignificant.  I now offer that skill to you, as I believe it to be the one that will be the most helpful to you. 

(As a sidenote, I am so proud to see that “epiphany” has become sort of a buzzword in the Muppet Pundit comment section.)

Looking back on it, there’s an unreality to my grad school career.  Perhaps the fact that I missed my own graduation because I couldn’t get the time off from work accounts for that.

That was the bad job that I keep alluding to.  I’m not at liberty to go into details about it, but I will say that it was a disillusionment because I took that job with the intention of trying to do something good and helping people, but it was vulnerable to conniving people who only want to take advantage.  That’s the price we pay for living in a free society.  

Even though I can’t really talk about it, except in the vaguest of terms, I bring it up now because it speaks–however obliquely–to the point that I’m trying to make.  Even though it was the worst job–and arguably the worst overall experience–of my entire life, I gained skills doing it that are useful to me now.  For example (and this is only one example that I could give), when I started that job, my typing speed was (barely) 60 words per minute; as a result of all the typing I did there, I eventually reached a personal best of 83 words per minute.  By now, I probably average about 75 wpm.

Now I work as a medical transcriptionist.  I don’t necessarily feel that it’s my raison d’etre–that it’s the purpose for which I was put on this earth–but it is important, meaningful, challenging work, and I enjoy it (most of the time).  If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that time is the most valuable commodity that we have, because once it’s gone, there’s no getting it back.  Therefore, it is important to me that, if I’m going to invest so much of my time in something, it needs to be something meaningful and worthwhile.  

Becoming a practitioner of medicine was never an option for me because I get squeamish, but I’m proud and grateful to be able to put what skills I do have towards the purpose of healing.  And when I look back on the trajectory of my life, I see that most, if not all, of my prior work experiences–good and bad–have taught me skills that are necessary or helpful to me in my current career.

Which brings me to my point in all this, Steve, and the reason why I formatted this as an open letter to you rather than just an essay like most of my blog posts have been.

I know that being a Muppet performer is not only your dream job from when you were little, but your vocation, your calling, your life’s work.  Nothing could take the place of that or even compare to it.  But that doesn’t mean that life doesn’t still have something good in store for you–not better, you understand, but good in its own right.  And I hope that, just as the bad experiences in my life have nonetheless taught me hard-won skills that are useful to me on my current career path, maybe you will gain something from this unthinkably terrible experience that will be useful to you in the future.

With that said, however, I want to emphasize that I am not–repeat, NOT–encouraging you to move on from the Muppets before you are ready to do so.  I reiterate what I said before: healing has to happen in its own time; there are no shortcuts.  I work with people’s medical records, so I know that if one tries to rush healing, more often than not one ends up injuring oneself even more badly than one was injured in the first place.  And I believe that the same principle of healing physical wounds applies to healing wounds of the soul.

And to get back to Fraggle Rock, the other song from this particular episode is one of my favorite Fraggle songs of all time.  I know that you were one of the performers who sang it originally, and I want you to know that it really helped me when I was rebuilding my own self-concept after suffering the trauma of prolonged, persistent, intermittent, verbal abuse.  I think it speaks to healing wounds of the soul far more eloquently than I ever could.  Perhaps we can all derive some wisdom and comfort from it now:

And thus we come to a point where I would ordinarily start wrapping up a letter, and yet, there are still so many things I want to say to you.  (I apologize if I’m wearing out my welcome or taking too much of your time.)

When the news of the termination first broke in July, and they were trying to frame it as though you were retiring of your own volition, I was anxious for you.  From the interviews I had seen you give in the past, I understood intuitively what you affirmed in your first blog post, that you would never leave the Muppets voluntarily unless there was some sort of insurmountable personal issue that would prevent you from performing, like an illness or injury.  Therefore, as shocked and bewildered and heartbroken and infuriated as I was to know the truth, I was relieved to know that you are still well and healthy, and still willing and able to perform with the Muppets.

You also said in that first blog post: “I just want you all to know that I am sorry if I have disappointed any of you at any point throughout our journey.”  I didn’t expressly address it when I commented on that post because I felt that it went without saying that you hadn’t.  But sometimes things like that need to be said, and sometimes they don’t need to be said but it is nice to hear them anyway.  So let me state unequivocally, Steve, that you have never, ever disappointed me at any point of the journey, and it is very difficult for me to imagine a situation in which you ever could.  As grateful as I have always been to you for your work with the Muppets, I am even more grateful to you for inviting us to continue the journey with you, which is both a privilege and an honor.  In choosing to stand with you, to support you, and to travel alongside you, I believe that I–like my biblical namesake–have chosen the better part.  (Luke 10:42)

So I say again, with fervent sincerity…God bless you, Steve Whitmire.

With respect and friendship,
Mary Arlene

P.S.:  I want to wish you a very happy birthday on Sunday as well.  I know that you have a lot going on, but I hope that you get a chance to treat yourself to something that you enjoy.  And here’s hoping that this upcoming year will be better than the last one.

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