The Muppets Get Their Star

On March 20, the first day of spring, The Muppets received the 2466th star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.  The cast, which has charmed TV and movie viewers for 50 years, now joins a select group of “fictional” stars, which includes Mickey Mouse, Godzilla, Shrek, and The Simpsons.  Miss Piggy pointed out during the news conference, however, that all movie stars are fictional.

Photo by Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Lisa Henson, CEO of Jim Henson Enterprises remarked that The Muppet’s star, in front of the El Capitan Theater, is very close to her father’s.  Henson created Muppet prototypes in 1955, for a show called Sam and Friends, which ran for six years on WRC-TV in Washington, DC.

Jim and Jane Henson with the cast of "Sam and Friends"

Henson died in 1990, at the age of 53, of complications from a severe strep throat infection.  Associates and family say he was so busy working, he didn’t seek medical help until it was too late.

During the last year of his life, Henson negotiated to sell the Muppets to Disney. The sale was finalized in 2004. The latest Muppet movie was released to DVD yesterday too, a seemingly successful effort to revitalize the cast and introduce Walter, a new character, who was present at the dedication ceremony.

Kermit received his own Walk of Fame star in 2002, but Henson’s little frog would be the first to say The Muppets are a group effort. The group finally has the recognition it deserves.

Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson – An Appreciation

Twenty years ago, Mary and I got our first real home computer (the Commodore 64 didn’t quite count).  With an Intel 486 processor, 500k of ram, an 8k external modem, and AOL memberships, we were wired!  Full-fleged members of the information age, at least by the standards of the day.

The same year, 1992, Neal Stephenson published a visionary novel called, Snowcrash. In retrospect, it merits the word, “prophetic,” for its sketch of life in the metaverse – a word Stephenson coined – and in the inconvenient world we call “reality.”


In Snowcrash, Stepenson posits a world where nation states have transferred most of their power to corporations. Most people are corporate citizens and live in corporate enclaves, or less prestigious burbclaves.  The hero of Snowcrash, Hiro Protagonist, is a citizen of “Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong.”  Military power belongs to private contractors, as do the roadways, which vie for driver/customers.  The post office is gone; private couriers deliver snail-mail.  The United States occupies a smallish territory centered in the Mohave Desert, and keeps it’s employees busy with make-work projects.  The former United States economy hinges on two industries – computer microcode and high speed pizza delivery, which has been revolutionized since the Mafia took control.

Though Hiro is a citizen of Hong Kong, as a pizza driver, he can’t afford to live in their enclaveclave.  Home is a self-storage unit under the flight path at LAX.  Like most of his hip and cyber-savvy generation, he spends most of his time online in the guise of his avatar, navigating virtual worlds.  But something is happening in the online world.  A strange new computer virus, when opened, generates a graphic pattern that scrambles the brains of the user.  They are dazed and speak in tongues.  With a young woman named YT, for Yours Truly, Hiro sets out to unravel the mystery.

The villain turns out to be a charismatic preacher.  In his attempt to secure both temporal and spiritual power, he has tapped into the ancient Sumerian glyphs that first scrambled human speech patterns in the event known as the Tower of Babel.

It’s been 20 years since I’ve read Snow Crash, so I’m writing this from memory.  I’m not necessarily recommending the whole novel.  The first jaw-dropping 100 pages, where Stephenson built his world, flew by and still leave me in awe.  I remember the rest of the book dragging in parts, but I still think of the story all the time.  Most futuristic fantasies prove as silly as the 1930’s movie shorts that show humans zipping along in their air cars between high rise buildings, happy and without any accidents.  This book is different.

In 1992 there were no virtual worlds.  Now there are, and you have to create an avatar to negotiate them.  These days, it isn’t so hard now to imagine a bright young man living in a self-storage shed.  But above all, Snow Crash comes to mind because in the wake of “citizens united,” it’s so easy to see corporate power growing while government power wanes.  With Super Pac money rolling the election year dice, does the government control corporations or do corporations control government?  Neal Stephenson saw this and other aspects of our world coming 20 years ago.

Snow Crash, is a visionary novel that all lovers of fantasy should know.

King of Morning, Queen of Day by Ian McDonald: An Appreciation

My recent discussion of unlikely mentors and guardians reminded me of Tireseas and Gonzaga, two “mystical vagabonds” (book jacket description) in one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.

Ian McDonald, a visionary author who lives in Belfast, published  King of Morning, Queen of Day in 1991.  I still pick it up to read certain passages or a random chapter, to study and enjoy the ideas, the writing, and characters.

The narrative follows three women of three generations who are alternately attracted and attacked by creatures of the Mygmus, a technical name for the infinitely overlapping worlds of Faerie.

“The Mygmus may be viewed not so much as a place, a spatio-temporal relationship, a quasi-Euclidean geometrical domain, but as a state.  The concept is a familiar one in modern quantum physics, in which time is not considered a dynamic process, but a succession of recurring states eternally coexistent.  Such thinking liberates us from our essentially linear concepts of time, with past, present, and future.”  So reads a manuscript given to one of the women by a strange group of deformed, “Midnight Children.”

The first of the women, romantic, Edwardian Emily, dreams of a faerie lover and seeks him out.  First her rapes her, and then she disappears.

Gonzaga and Tireseas help Emily’s daughter, Jessica, battle free of the otherworld threat, which is personified by her mother, who has become a demonic force.

Jessica’s daughter, Enye, modern young woman in Dublin, battles Otherworld manifestations at night with martial arts swords.  Gonzaga and Tireseas charge her blades with high tech wizardry as well as ancient charms that allows her to win her way into Faerie, redeem her grandmother, Emily, and return to modern day Dublin.  The author gives the ending a contemporary twist that I won’t reveal here.

McDonald’s characters are among the most vivid in any novel I can remember, painted with a sure touch both in broad stroke and detail.  Every December, for instance, I reread “Enye’s soliloquy” – my name for it, with a nod to Molly Bloom.  It’s her internal monologue, in response to the question, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have Christmas all year long?”  It’s a long single sentence paragraph – not quite as long as the one that ends Joyce’s Ulysses, but then Joyce doesn’t make me laugh out loud.  I’ll quote the whole thing next December.

With his first book, Desolation Road, 1988, Ian McDonald won critical acclaim, and an Arthur C. Clarke award nomination.  Like other cyberpunk authors at the time, his vision of the impact of  technology at the birth of the internet age continues to amaze.  As a quick aside in King of Morning, Queen of Day, McDonald throws out a challenge to fantasy writers that has largely remained unanswered in the 21 years since it was written.  In the same manuscript that defined the Mygmus, Enye reads:

“I have this dread that…somehow we have lost the power to generate new mythologies for a technological age.  We are withdrawing into another age’s mythotypes, an age when the issues were so much simpler…and could be solved with one stroke of a sword called something like Durththane.  We have created a comfortable, sanitized pseudo feudal world of trolls and orcs and mages and swords and sorcery, big-breasted women in scanty armor and dungeon masters; a world where evil is a host of angry goblins threatening to take over Hobbitland and not starvation in the Horn of Africa, child slavery in Filipino sweatshops, Colombian drug squirarchs, unbridled free market forces, secret police, the destruction of the ozone layer, child pornography, snuff videos, the death of whales, and the desecration of the rain forests.

Where is the mythic archetype who will save us from ecological catastrophe, or credit card debt…where are the Translators who can shape our dreams and dreads, our hopes and fears, into the heroes and villains of the Oil Age?”

Ian McDonald

I haven’t kept up with the work of Ian McDonald in the two decades since I first read King of Morning but returning to the book via the characters of Tireseas and Gonzaga reminded me to do so. McDonald published Planesrunner, his first YA fantasy, in December, 2011. Here’s the blurb:

“When Everett Singh’s scientist father is kidnapped from the streets of London, he leaves young Everett a mysterious app on his computer. Suddenly, this teenager has become the owner of the most valuable object in the multiverse—the Infundibulum—the map of all the parallel earths, and there are dark forces in the Ten Known Worlds who will stop at nothing to get it.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but this is my very next read.

The Muppets Get Politicized

That's, Comrade Kermit, according to Fox

This began as a simple post over the weekend, after I spotted a story on Facebook about Fox News’ recent attack on the Muppets.  On Dec 2, Fox business anchor, Eric Bolling was shocked – shocked, he said, that the villain of  The Muppets Movie was an oil baron named Tex Richman.  Bolling asked his guest, Dan Gainor, if Hollywood was trying to brainwash children.  “Absolutely,” said Gainor. “And they’ve been doing it for decades.”  Bolling “wondered aloud why the Muppets couldn’t, for once, “have the evil person be the Obama administration”

Silly me!  I thought the Muppets were all about friendship and kindness.  Now we learn that Fozzie and Gonzo are really Occupy operatives!  I guess the 1% need hugs too!

The Guardian article, referenced above said, “The discussion…didn’t just typify the Fox News mission to recast the outside world as leftwing propaganda; it threatened to usher in a whole new paradigm of stupid.”  My initial post  ended by questioning the phrase, “usher in,” since the new era of stupid has been here for a while.

But I held up my posting because Sunday night, I witnessed an escalation:  the Administration struck back, via the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony.  It was broadcast at 11:00pm – sensible, since it wouldn’t have drawn many prime-time viewers.  In essence, it was a boring political add, thinly disguised as a heartfelt “event.”

“Reality TV,” I said.
“You mean surreality,” my wife replied.

In a word, it was yucky.  Nothing spontaneous or from the heart – the whole thing was as carefully choreographed as an episode of Glee, but without the humor, (good) music, or fun.  I took the dogs out and was ready to call it a night when I heard Kermit’s voice.  There he was, part of the festivities, ushering in a new era of political celebrity wars.

Kermit and Michelle Obama read The Night Before Christmas (courtesy, Disney Corp.)

Celebs always appear in political dog and pony shows, and the Democrats usually win the game.  They have the likes of Springsteen and Joni Mitchell.  Hank Jr. is no match for them by any measure.  And now the Dems are poised to win a war of non-human stars as well.  Sure, the GOP can draft Buzz Lightyear, but Kermit and Piggy will always be fuzzier.  And yet…

The whole thing strikes me as sad. I’m really sorry to see Jim Henson’s creations dragged into political nonsense.  We’re used to a popular culture of false fronts and illusion, but I always hope our politics will be a little more real than commercials of happy shoppers dancing through K-mart.

Ain’t gonna happen.  The parties learned their lesson from Jimmy Carter – only smiley faces get elected.  [**for those too young to remember, during the 1980 presidential campaign, after a decade of stagflation, Carter said the country was “in the grip of malaise.” He lost the election by a landslide.]

My hope is that our collective attention-span for news has grown so short that the Muppet foray into politics will soon be forgotten.  Let’s hope the PR machinery will roll on and focus on human folly, leaving the Muppets alone to be what they always have been – ambassadors of joy and goodwill, regardless of anyone’s politics.

Back When Vampires Were Vampires

Bella Lugosi's Dracula

When I was 15, my family lived in Europe.  My room, at the far end of the house, opened onto a patio through French doors that you could unlatch with a butter knife.  I decided it would be fun to read Dracula late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed.  Dumb – really dumb!  I know I’m not the only one to seek the thrill of a scary movie or book and get a whole lot more than they bargained for.  Let’s just say that for weeks after that, I took a clove of garlic to rub the French door frame every night before bed.

When I first went to college, we had a saying:  “Wherever two or more are gathered, they will start a film society.”  Friday nights on campus, I watched, Nosferatu, 1922, which made Bela Lugosi’s count seem tame.

Count Orlock in Nosferatu

Then there was Carl Dryer’s 1932, Vampyr, a movie whose plot I have never been able to decipher, but whose haunting imagery gives a truly creepy feeling of being in a coffin and seeing the face of the vampire who killed you peering through the glass in the lid.

The young protagonist of Vampyr. Is he really dead or only dreaming?

Once upon a time, vampires were not sensitive hunks and hunkettes.  Team Orlock?  I don’t think so!  And trust me, you don’t want a date with Dracula’s brides:

Dracula's better halves? Don't you believe it!

But alas, we are so besotted with undead who love poetry and walks on the beach that not even the current owners of Bran castle in Romania, the one that inspired Bram Stoker, are immune to draw of vampire fandom.

Sign on the way to Bran Castle, Romania

It turns out that the castle that overlooks the town of Bran is not even scary, although the real Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, is supposed to have passed through the valley in the 15th century. And NPR correspondent, Meghan Sullivan, says it’s a little disconcerting to see t-shirts on some of the pilgrims proclaiming that, “All Romanians are Vampires.”

Castle Bran, which inspired Bram Stoker

I guess it will just have to fall to the next generation to restore a fictional world where, to paraphrase Garrison Keeler, “All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, all the children are above average, and vampires are nobody’s sweetheart!”


Recently I was chatting with a group of other writers about the rule of thumb that you have to grab your audience in the first few pages or lose them.  The consensus was that nowadays, you have just the first few lines.  One man said, “And you have to start with action.”

I don’t believe this, and said as much here last year (  For me, character is primary, and I also have a penchant for mystery.  Action for action’s sake usually puts me off – I need to bond with Jake and Elwood before I care about the car chase.

Yet the conversation started me thinking about the kind of books that instantly draw me in.  When I got home, I pulled down some novels with openings I admire to look again at what the authors do.

One of my favorite reads of the year was Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, a stunningly original story and beautifully written as well.  It includes one of the best openings I have ever read.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.”

In four sentences, we learn a lot about who we’re dealing with:  an articulate girl who notices details, loves her sister, does not have a father or very much money, and soon has to face something ominous called “the reaping.”  We meet an appealing character, two mysteries (where is her father and what is a reaping), and an instant sense of dread.  The opening of this best seller proves that you don’t need action to grab a readers attention:  nothing “happens” except the narrator reaches out and finds her sister is not in bed.

Another memorable book I read this year was The Cypress House by Michael Koryta.  The first two sentences drew me in:  “They’d been on the train for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first of the dead men.  To that point it had been a hell of a nice ride.”  Nothing “happens” except one man has a very unusual vision.

A favorite literary novel, Ariel’s Crossing, 2002, by Bradford Morrow starts like this:  “Dona Francisca de Pena never believed in ghosts, and even after she became one herself she couldn’t help but have her doubts.

Maybe its just the season, but half the stories I pulled down featured ghosts.  Here is another, a favorite YA novel, Ghosts I have Been, by Richard Peck, which begins:  “I tell you the world is so full of ghosts, a person wonders if there’s a soul to be found on the Other Side.  Or anybody snug in a quiet grave.  I’ve seen several haunts, and been one myself.”

Such a compelling hook does not happen by accident. Once at a reading, someone asked Richard Peck how many times he revised his opening pages. “Sixty or seventy times on average,” he said.  Because of that focus, you can open almost any one of his more than 30 novels to find an enticing beginning.  On the Wings of Heroes, an historical novel published in 2007, even begins with action, but it is not action for it’s own sake.  It is action crafted to draw in an audience of middle-grade boys:

“Home base was a branch box elder tree in front of the Hisers’ house out by the curb.  We could count on the Hisers not to mind when we pounded in from all directions to tag out on their tree.  We plowed their sod when we skidded home, bled all over their front walk when we collided, knocked loose the latticework under their porch.”

This is admittedly a small sample of books that appeal to my taste, but they prove several points.  Book openings are critical.  It takes real art and sometimes sixty or seventy drafts to draw a reader into a story.  At the same time, it is no more correct to say a book must start with action than to say that it can’t.  There are lots of ways to pique curiosity and interest, and that is what it’s really about.

The Hamish MacBeth Mysteries, by M.C. Beaton

“I was at a fishing school in Sutherland in the very north of Scotland, and I thought, what a wonderful setting for a classical detective story, 11 people isolated in this Highland wilderness. So Hamish Macbeth was born.” – M.C. Beaton

M.C Beaton is the pen name that Marion Chesney, a prolific Scottish author, uses for her mysteries, which include 28 titles featuring Highland constable, Hamish MacBeth, and 22 staring Agatha Raisin, a retired, middle-aged public relations agent who solves murders in the Cotswolds.

Beaton at her 75th birthday party this year

The first MacBeth mystery appeared in 1985.  Agatha made her debut in 1992.  Beaton, 75, has not slackened her pace; she released new titles in both series this year.

Hamish MacBeth is likable constable in the village of Lochdubh (which means, “black lake,” in Gaelic and is pronounced Lokh-DOO).  Hamish loves the town, raises sheep and chickens, and occasionally poaches salmon.  He has a well earned reputation for laziness, and several times works to avoid promotion which would force him to move to the dreary industrial town of Strathbane.  For this and other reasons, his superior, Chief Inspector Blair, despises him and threatens to close the Lochdubh station.  MacBeth must often work around “proper” channels.  Sometimes he plies Blair’s subordinate, Jimmy Anderson, with whiskey to gain information and help.

In the early books, MacBeth had an on-off relationship with Priscilla Halburton-Smyth, but their engagement ended, and Priscilla, who is more ambitious than Hamish, moved away to become a newscaster.  MacBeth’s love life foundered, and now his closest companions are Lugs the dog (the word means, “ears” in Gaelic), and Sonsie, a “domesticated” wildcat whose name means, “cheeky.”

Robert Carlyle played MacBeth in a BBC Scotland adaptation that ran from 1995-1997

MacBeth solves crimes through intuition, curiosity, and an ability to charm various locals.  There is Angus MacDonald, and old man with a reputation as a seer.  Hamish thinks he’s a fraud, but a useful source of gossip.  Nessie and Jessie Currie, twin sisters and village spinsters are also a sources of gossip, though MacBeth must sit through their strange habit of repeating each other’s phrases – repeating each other’s phrases.

The MacBeth novels are proverbial beach reads, engaging escapism, starring a likable rascal who may poach salmon now and again, but restores the balance of justice to his little world of wild beauty and engaging eccentrics.  These books are perfect for rainy weekends, or any other time when you want to leave the modern world behind and root for a man who knows how to game the system, or at least the pointy-haired bosses within it.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims

In a recent interview on NPR, author Michael Sims discussed a project “that got really out of hand.”  He set out to do a natural history of children’s talking animal stories but became so fascinated by Charlotte’s Web that he never got beyond it.

Sim’s study, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, was published in June.  It’s interesting see what eccentricities and other facts Sims discovered about E.B. White.

White was quite a naturalist; on a farm in Maine, he studied spiders and raised pigs.  There really was a “Wilbur,” a pig that White was raising to slaughter in the fall, but it grew sick and died, despite all attempts to save it.  In his essay, “Death of a Pig,”  White recognized the irony of his sadness at the loss of an animal he had planned to kill, and his “sense of loss when the pig died, not as if he’d just lost some future bacon but as if he had lost…a fellow creature who was suffering in a suffering world.” 

Another time, while feeding the replacement Wilbur, White noticed a spider web with an egg sac.  The spider that wove the web disappeared, and White cut the egg sac down and carried it with him back to his apartment in New York.  He dropped it in a bureau drawer and forgot about it until the little spiders began to hatch.  According to Sims, White was delighted to watch them start to weave their webs in his room – that is, until the maid refused to work “in a spider refugee camp” and they had to go.

Sims explains that “eccentric” is a Greek word that originally meant, “off center.”  He goes on to say:

if ever there was a human being born off-center, it was E.B. White. He simply could not…follow in an established path if his life depended on it. And so he had his own quirky way. He was very fierce and funny hypochondriac. He liked to spend a lot of time alone. He loved working with animals, as much as possible. Even in New York City, even in writing for The New Yorker to begin with, he was off, you know, exploring what rats were doing in some alley.

Fans of E.B. White should enjoy listening to the interview or reading the transcript:  Of interest too, will be Michael Sims’s current project.  In keeping with his theme of “writing about how our imagination responds to nature in one way or another,” he is researching between the lines of Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond to see how that great naturalist and philosopher filled up his days in ways we don’t yet know about.