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Archive for the ‘Setting: China’ Category

18. “The Wisdom of Big Bird,” Caroll Spinney

March 24, 2010 1 comment

I expected this book to be closer to what the title implies: cheesy bits of wisdom wrung from Sesame Street quotes. Instead, it was a thoughtful little memoir about Spinney’s puppetry career and life on the Street.

I thought the bit about Jim Hansen’s funeral was particularly touching. Spinney counted Hansen as one of his heroes even before being asked to join Sesame Street and became friends with him during his tenure. Hansen was renowned for his incredibly elaborate parties and apparently Hansen had said years before that at his funeral that people should wear bright colors and tell happy stories. His celebration (to use Spinney’s term, which is great) was open to the public and thousands of people came for it. People sang “It’s not Easy Being Green.”

I have always felt that my family does funerals right. Though I’ve fortunately been to only a few of them, we usually eat a lot and tell a lot of stories, which I like. When I was quite young, I went with my mom and her best friend, Bev, to the mall because Bev needed to buy a new dress for a funeral. I remember her talking about how cruel and ridiculous it is to make people who are grieving go out to buy new clothes, a chore that sucks under the best of circumstances. She declared that when she died, she wanted everyone to come in jeans, which always made sense to me. You go as the person you lost knew you. You go as the person they loved.

(Also, Bev decided to simply tuck in the tags on her dress and return it after the service, because she wasn’t dropping money on a black dress she wouldn’t wear again. Which is so Bev.)

So I was already predisposed to like Hansen when Spinney quoted from a letter Hansen had left one of his sons: “Be good to each other. Love and forgive everybody.” Which seems just like something Vonnegut would write to his son, and seems fitting advice from the most famous puppeteer in the world, a man who used that craft to teach children the alphabet and compassion.

Spinney says that he was struck with the importance of teaching children to be compassionate when he was walking home from the studio one night and passed a man standing in the snow, shuffling his feet on the corner of the curb. He initially brushed past the man, thinking he was homeless or drunk or dangerous, but when he glanced back, he saw it was an old man. He asked if the man was okay and the man responded that he was scared to step off the curb because it was icy and he might fall. (I’ll give your heart a minute to break.) Spinney walked the man home and the following day went to the producer about his idea for using Big Bird to teach children to be compassionate, which is obviously a tall order. Spinney resolved to simply be compassionate as Big Bird and make sure the Bird’s heart was always in the right place. Which has surely worked.

It seems also that Spinney is responsible (at least in part) for making the muppets into child-like characters. Originally, Big Bird was a “hillbilly” or “yokel” character, but when Spinney got a script about Big Bird wanting to be able to go into a daycare with the human children, Spinney realized that that action doesn’t make sense unless Big Bird is another kid.

While my favorite Sesame Street character is and always will be Oscar the Grouch (also played by Spinney), I have a special place in my heart for Big Bird. When I was little, my sister and I had a ViewMaster of “Follow that Bird,” and for some reason, Big Bird makes me feel close to her.

Pages: 154

Page total: 4,238

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64. “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” Jennifer 8 Lee

October 2, 2009 1 comment

I liked this book. Like most “a cultural history of [a noun]” books, it would have benefited from a good editor, but it’s no worse than most of these book, and much better than some.

I learned a number of things that it never occurred to me to wonder about. Among them:
-Those white cartons Chinese food comes in (in the US) are a purely American invention. They aren’t even in Canada. Some places import them in response to strong customer demand for those white things on “Seinfeld.”
-In the US, Chinese food restraunts out number McDonald’s 2:1
-In 2005, 110 people hit five out of six Powerball numbers one night– 104 of them played numbers from a fortune cookie.
-The PF of PF Chang’s is Paul Fleming, who also had a hand in creating Outback Steakhouse (18)
-In 1994, Philip Carlo served sixty days in Rikers for assaulting a Chinese food delivery man for leaving menus in Carlo’s building (33)
-“‘People consider it ethnic [food] when it’s new to them and they don’t understand’.” (19)
-Between 1850-1910 Taishan, China had 14 floods, 7 typhoons, 4 earthquakes, 2 droughts, 4 epidemics, 5 famines, and a 12-year ethnic war. Before the 1950s, 80% of all Chinese immigrants came from this region in the Guangdong province. (51)
-In a 1865 trial of a white race rioter, his white lawyer argued that Chinese people were inferior saying: “why, sir, these Chinamen live on rice, and, sir, and they eat it with sticks” (54)
-Chinese immigrants were referred to as “Celestials” by European-Americans who had never seen Asians before. (51)
-In the 1870s, (what is now) Idaho was one-third Chinese. (55)
-Fortune cookies are Japanese, but it was US Chinese restaurants that made them the cultural symbol they are
-The largest fortune cooking company in the US, and therefore the world, picks their lucky numbers by hand, out of a jar. When word leaked out that they were thinking about switching to computer-generated numbers, they received a number of letters including one about the small human connection that this offers that might have made me tear up a little on the train. (Judging by this blog, I spend a lot of time manfully blinking back tears on the train.)

Page count: 291
Page total: 24,830