Directions in the Fogg

For the last few weeks, bedtime has been a race. And now, at last, Missy has pulled up smiling at the finish line.

A trip around the world can do that.

No, we’re not defying coronavirus restrictions and dashing through international borders one step ahead of the health authorities. Heck, at the rate baseball has been going, even state borders are starting to look like an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.

But Missy’s bedtime reading has opened a lot of doors over the years. We’ve journeyed through Middle-earth. We’ve battled evil at Hogwarts. We’ve traveled the stars with Madeleine L’Engle and solved mysteries with Ellen Raskin.  And since Missy’s online activity group has been “visiting” a lot of countries lately, the time felt right  to introduce her to an old friend.

Once again, it was time to travel with Phileas Fogg.

If you’re not familiar with “Around The World In Eighty Days” – is there anyone left? – you have quite the journey ahead of you. I was a kid on summer vacation with my family when I first read Jules Verne’s tale of the incredibly precise 19th-century Englishman who accepts a 20,000 pound wager to circle the world  in the stipulated time without being a single minute late.  It’s a short novel and one that moves as quickly as its characters as they jump from trains and steamships to sailing craft and elephants, efficiently racing the clock (and a misguided detective).

Like a lot of older books, some bits age better than others. But the story still draws like a magnet because the central idea still works.

No, not the idea of circling the globe in under three months. Anyone with access to an airline ticket and a passport – a combination which, admittedly, has become a piece of fiction itself lately – can travel at a pace that leaves Fogg and his friends gasping in the dust.  But the challenge behind Fogg’s wager is still part of us today.

Namely, the idea that with enough planning, even the unexpected can become predictable.

At this stage of 2020, the idea sounds almost humorous. Anything we may have expected on  New Year’s Eve has surely gone through the paper shredder as we’ve grappled with seven months of upside-down events. It’s always hard to grasp how little control we truly have, but 2020 seems determined to remind us of that constantly … with a Louisville Slugger, if necessary.

The thing is, Fogg’s friends back home seem to have already absorbed the lesson. From the start, they remind him of all the things that could go wrong – breakdowns, bad weather, local violence and more. And in a way, they’re right. Fogg’s ability to take advantage of the good and improvise around the bad gets absolutely derailed on the final lap, disrupted by the one complication he hadn’t foreseen. Disaster looms.

It sounds like a pandemic lesson. And I hope it is. Because – spoiler alert! – that’s not the end of the story.

There’s a second complication. A positive one that gives Fogg more time than he thought he had. But without his planning, he would never have been in position to take advantage of it. And without learning to recognize and return the love of others, he would never have seen the opportunity at all.

And that is the lesson we need to learn.

Not to give up. Not to say “Nothing we do will make any difference.” But to plan as best we can, improvise where we have to, and recognize that ultimately it’s our compassion for the people around us that will get us through this. When we look out for each other instead of grasping desperately at normal, we win – because every one of us is “each other” to someone else.

Like all adventures, this will leave us changed. But it can be a change for the better.

Maybe, just maybe, a little Fogg can help us see clearly.

Tall Tale

The man known as Shi seemed to move through life with ease. Not many could claim a billionaire status, a friendship with the likes of Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, a resume that included fighting poverty and directing an internet economic research center. But, inevitably, the Chinese authorities caught up with him.

Why inevitable? Well, to start with, Shi is 17 years old. And a junior high-school dropout. Oh, and one other thing – not one of his accomplishments actually existed. Except maybe for having 10,000 followers on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter until his account disappeared.

“Shi went viral on Chinese social media websites after his crafted online identity was exposed,” Reuters reported in its Sept. 12 story, which noted the Photoshopped pictures, the false claims and even a faked official Chinese  news release that had gone out before northern Chinese police announced their investigation. The story also included a statement from the authorities that “we will punish those who spread rumors online with an adverse impact on the society.”

Is it just me, or could they be busy for a while?

By now, I hope, it’s not exactly news that it’s easy to lie online. In the early days, a New Yorker cartoon famously claimed that “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Today, the fictions and false claims fill our world.

We know about the fraudulent warnings about computer security , complete with viruses ready to infect the unwary.

Or the posts that call for an “Amen” for a (nonexistent) sick child or claim to break a (false) limit on the number of Facebook friends you see.

And of course, there’s the  zillions of political claims and “articles” that fall apart with 30 seconds of research or less, but get circulated and recirculated, because – well, everyone knows it’s true, right? (And the tendency for real articles to get denounced as “fake news” by their subjects doesn’t help matters.)

Like many an old scam, it seems so obvious from the sidelines, yet it keeps going and going. Why?

Easy. We love a good story.

We are storytelling creatures at heart. Where there are humans, there have been stories, whether it’s ancient hunters talking about their kills over the campfire, neighbors gossiping about their friends over the backyard fence, or Hollywood telling yet one more tale of love and glory. Stories excite and entertain, they inform and educate, they give us a way to make sense of the world  even when creating new worlds of the imagination.

It’s one of our best traits.

But … it also means that we can be quick to believe a story when we shouldn’t. Or to see one that isn’t there, pulling together unconnected events into deep conspiracy. And the more we get invested in a story, the harder it is to pull free from it, and the more vocally we defend it.

That’s something every con artist knows. Sure, it’s usually greed that initially hooks the “mark.” But the fuel that keeps a con going is the victim’s investment in the tale. The story has to be true, it must be true – not least because the consequences of it not being true are too embarrassing to think about. A true story means you’re smart or lucky. A false one means you’re a schmuck. Which one do you want to believe?

I’ll say it again – it is not bad to like stories. But like any of the best human instincts, it can be misused or waylaid. Check the stories you hear, especially if you agree with them. Test the claims, examine the evidence. Suspension of disbelief is great for enjoying a novel or movie, but it makes for terrible citizenship.

Be aware.

It’s the only way to know a sure thing from a Shi thing.

An Open Letter to Kermit the Frog

Dear Kermit,

Well, it finally happened. If the mainstream entertainment press can be trusted, you and Miss Piggy are officially kaput. Mind you, I’m still a little skeptical – when it comes to celebrities, the pen can be a dirty business, never mind the pigpen. But so far, you and she have backed this one up.

I wish I could say I was surprised.

I’m sorry if that sounds a little harsh. My sisters and I grew up on you, after all. We watched “The Muppet Show” religiously during its original run, objecting loudly when Mom wanted us to miss an episode for some silly reason like taking Dad to the emergency room. OK, granted, he had just fallen on the ice and needed several stitches in his forehead, but still – Muppets!

The show had it all. Good music. Intelligent humor. Projectile fish. To this day, I can quote several of the sketches by heart, and know that if I ever call out “Mahna Mahna,” someone in the room will respond with “Doot doo, do doo doo.” Classics do that to you.

But even then, I think we could all see the tension between you two.

Oh, the movies made a lot of the “meant to be” romance; Hollywood does that. But on the original show, it was pretty obvious what was going on. Half the time, Miss Piggy would chase you harder than Batman pursuing a villain of the week. The other half, she’d flirt non-stop with any cute guest star that caught her eye. (John Denver seemed to be a particular object of porcine passion – I suppose there’s something to be said for country ham.(

You? You were usually caught up in the latest drama of the moment, oblivious to – or even mocking of – any attempts at romance that were less subtle than a karate chop to the gut. Which you caught, more than once.

I hate to imagine the medical bills.

This isn’t a formula for long-term romance. Two people – or whatevers – who aren’t truly engaged with each other aren’t a couple, even if they share the same room most of the time. It takes attention and commitment, even when times are chaotic. Maybe especially then.

But we all wanted to believe. And for a long time, you seemed to make it work. No relationship is perfect and there’s something to be said for trying and trying and trying again. As I’ve said before, weddings are easy and marriages hard, even without storylines that regularly blow up your supporting cast.

But when the two of you were headed back to television, with its daily pressures – well, a storyline like this was kind of inevitable.

Did that sound skeptical? I’m sorry. Maybe it’s because it fits the general pattern of life in the old “Muppet Show,” where things always just barely came together in the nick of time, night after night. Jim Henson used to say that if the show were a basketball game, the final score at the end of each episode would be Frog 99, Chaos 98.

So having this tension coming in at the start of a new Muppet series is kind of dramatically convenient. You can’t start a story on a happy ending, after all. There has to be some sort of conflict, some challenge that takes a struggle to overcome. If it involves the leads, so much the better.

Funny enough, if it is just one big plotline, you’ll make a lot of people very happy. They’ll get to watch their favorite pair strike sparks again in their natural environment: utter insanity. Hey, it worked before.

And if it’s not – well, you’re professionals. You can work together even if it isn’t exactly hog heaven, right?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better let you hop. There’s a karate chop out there with my name on it, and I’d really hate to be here when it arrives. There’s got to be less painful ways to bring home the bacon.

Always a fan,