Sunday, July 22, 2018

Whose Neighbor?

I went last night to see Won't You Be My Neighbor, the documentary about the wallpaper to many of our lives,  Mr. Fred Rogers.   I say wallpaper as that who he was to many people, the paint, the carpet or the throw pillows in everyone's homes who grew up in the mid to late 60's and 70's.

I recall coming home after school and watching Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and then at 5 pm Mr. Rogers.  I never had a traditional upbringing but the balance that those men provided enabled a perspective about people who could talk, laugh, sing and be gentle kind people who simply wanted to provide a source of information and entertainment behind the box. 

I think for many the idea that Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street and other major children's programming that came of age during the nascent days of Public Television and the idea that it offered an alternative to the commercial stations of the day was and still is a reality that we think of as wallpaper, the background to our lives that we can opt in or opt out, like or as Mr. Rogers once said, turn off.  Funny how that PBS has often been a battering ram in endless budget debates and the infamous scene with Mr. Rogers testifying before Congress is one of another generation and by far more real than Steven Colbert's.  **(Remember that one, which was he. If there is ever a man in search of an identity it is he and no I am not a fan but I find his current monologues hilarious; however, Seth Myers is perfection in all aspects of a talk show host and reminds me of the Griffin's and Douglas of the day.  Colbert is no intellect, writer or performer but he does good in the first 5 minutes and that is enough)

But this documentary was powerful as it reminded me of how the show, this show alone,  clearly had and still has a powerful resonance to generations of families who grew up with the song that led the show, "would you be mine, won't you be my neighbor" and the message that being special, being loved and being different was okay and a privilege.  Cut to today and Mr. Rogers has since passed on and his message seems lost in the din of tweets, retweets, fake news, 24 hours news and tribalism that dominates the message.   We could use a little more cardigan, tennis shoe wearing singing gentleness in our lives.  I doubt today we would ever program let alone tolerate a man who had a religious background, who used puppets to share psychological messaging and in turn shared a pool to wash feet with a Black Gay Police Officer and in turn shared space with a mythical kingdom run by a confused but willing to learn Monarch.      Too close to home and not enough trigger warnings and no wonder at one point Fox News targeted his message.  Winnie the Pooh was too English I guess.   Guess what?  That is the same message that came from the great books by E.E. Milne and even the heavy religious messaging of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  But Mr. Rogers was always ripe for parody as he was on what? Television.  The message and the medium are always powerful regardless of the neighborhood.

This seems to be a time to reminisce and reflect as there have been movies of late to discuss the legacy of Pooh, finding Neverland and other storytellers and characters that came of age during times that were tough and in turn lent itself to the landscape of our lives and our own history.   As I write this CBS Sunday Morning is doing a look back to the year 1968 with some highlights that did not include many of the same topics Mr. Rogers was doing in his neighborhood during that time.  Funny how we like to look through photos of the past and our thoughts on history can be as bright or as faded as the colors.  Alas today with digital and social media that history and that story will never fade or change.   Shame really as we need sometimes to bury the past or embrace it in ways that enable us to recall the positive and the negative that can be as rosy as the glasses we need in which to see them.

I went to this movie only really knowing it was a tear jerker but the tears would be as original and unique to the viewers that watched and learned the lessons of this man whom they knew as the wallpaper to their lives, slightly dated, faded but still very much a part of their homes.  And that documentary does little to change that view.  You don't come away knowing any deep dark secrets or revelations about Fred Rogers as that was who he was, Mr. Rogers.  At one point I was hoping for some scandal or secret but no I did learn that he hated the parody's that Jim Carey, Eddie Murphy and SCTV did about him and yet I found that in the same way they chose to do so it meant that imitation was the serious form of flattery.  It was not to him as to him the children were all that mattered.

And from that lesson I realized how important that message was to me.  I don't think I every obviously channeled Mr. Rogers lessons or those of E.E. Milne or C.S. Lewis as they were all part of the fabric of my life but they were all just that, something that was once on my shelf or on my watch list but so was Phil Donahue and Dark Shadows and all that was on the playlist of music that today is now Elevator music and not a Top 10 song on anyone's list.   But you can still appreciate them and recognize them as a part of who you are and what matters.  The lessons we take from anyone can be as segmented or as holistic as we choose in the same way we choose to look through that photo album of times gone. 

As a "former" Teacher I have finally tossed my hat out in the same way Mr. Rogers finally did when he sold his house and moved out of the neighborhood but I like him see the faces of many of the children that crossed my path in my times in and out schools and for that I am grateful. And that is what shook me recalling how those of the past are very much a part of our present and that no wall, no hate, no rage or unkindness can take away from me.  The past is firmly in the past and the present is well today, right now and what matters is that, no tomorrow, not yesterday for all I can do is change what I do now that can lead to a better tomorrow.  And even then it is out of my hands.   Mr. Rogers was a Minister and his church was his home in the neighborhood and his congregation the children that sat not in pulpits but on floors on sofas in their living rooms.  And the only message that needed to be learned was that you mattered.  I forgot that about myself and today I realize that I matter. Maybe not to the children of Nashville and to their parents for that much is clear but I matter to me and it all starts somewhere.

Are you someone's neighbor?  Start there and ask them how they are, they matter too.


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