“A Cult of Ignorance”

A few weeks ago I was cashing a check. Since my bank currently allows only a certain number of customers inside at a given time, I ended up standing outside with some other people while we waited our turn.

One man, probably in his late-fifties, struck up a conversation.

“Nice mask,” he said.

“Thanks. Yours too.”

“My neighbor’s daughter made it. It’s my third one in two months. In construction you tear right through them. Lungs get a good workout, too. Kind of sick of the whole thing, but what can you do?”

And so on. He asked what I did for a living, and I told him I’m a teacher.

“Oh, I feel so bad for the kids,” he said. “Especially the high school seniors. They lost the whole end of their year. Same for the college kids. It’s a sad way to end things.”

I agreed, and so we chatted along like that for another five minutes or so. He was a friendly guy, affable and kind of funny. It felt good, having a nice, unexpected conversation with a stranger. The last few months hadn’t provided many chances for that.

“But that Bill Gates,” he said abruptly, during a lull.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

“What about him?”

“I don’t trust that f_____.”

I exhaled. “What? Why not?”

“He’s developing a vaccine. All that money he’s giving to charity to get it made…He’s going to make that back ten times over. And you know what else?”

“No,” I said quietly. “What else?”

“They’re going to implant everyone who gets it with a microchip to track us. He wants our information. F___ that. No way in hell I’m ever taking a vaccine. Especially from him.”

Sometimes less is more, so I kept my response brief: “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” I said.

And that ended that.

But the whole thing kind of broke my heart. I like exchanging pleasantries, joking around, and meeting different people. That moment outside the bank was a small, nice chance to simply interact with someone new…And there had been plenty of common ground.

Until, suddenly, there wasn’t any left at all.

The thing is, when it comes to certain issues, I just don’t have the patience any longer for ignorance…willful or otherwise. The man outside the bank was a nice guy, except for…

And that’s what I can no longer overlook: the “except for,” that awful blind spot on an issue that grown people simply can’t afford to be blind about. It’s a deal-breaker. A brake slam. Years ago I might have overlooked it, but these last few have been eye-opening. A statement like that is now all it takes for me to step back and say, “I don’t want to know you any longer,” because it’s the kind of absolute nonsense that costs people their lives.

One of my favorite quotes is by Isaac Asimov. It’s been making the rounds again lately, since science, education, and fact-based knowledge (as well as a great deal of common sense) have been taking some hard hits these last few years:

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

I find myself simply unable to excuse that cult any longer. “Well, that’s just how she was brought up,” doesn’t cut it. Neither does, “Oh, he’s older, and his generation believed…”

And as for, “Well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” please re-read the quote above.

The same arguments are used to defend racists, too. Our little exchange outside the bank, by the way, was just days before the horrific murder of George Floyd. As I write this, worldwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality have entered their 11th day. I wonder what the gentleman who thought Bill Gates was out to get him thinks about that? I wonder what he’d randomly bring up in conversation now?

I’ll never have to find out.

Sometimes people disappoint us. Sometimes they anger us. And many times they can be forgiven. Hell, we all make mistakes, even big ones, and if not for the understanding of others, none of us might find the strength to change for the better. But when it comes to some issues, explicit, clear outrage toward ignorance – and the hate that often goes hand in hand with it – is appropriate. And when faced with it, the ignorant can either try to change, grow, and learn along with the rest of a maturing society, or be held accountable for their inability – or unwillingness – to do so. For me, holding them accountable includes dropping them like a bad habit, and if they ask why, telling them. “Putting up with it” or “letting it slide” is accepting it, and that is no longer acceptable. Anger is healthy when the stakes are high enough.

Now is not the time for silence. Without doing harm, speak up in your own way.

Without doing harm, be loud in your own way.

And make sure everybody hears.

 

 

 

 

 

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Some New Glimpses of Uncanny Valley…

I’m extremely happy to report that John Randall York, who has done the covers and interior illustrations for all my books since 2009, is on board for the third installment in The Uncanny Chronicles. Entitled Echoes from the Valley: The Uncanny Files of Emil Fitzhugh, I’ve been working slowly but steadily on it, and currently have 25 story-chapters written with around 15 more to go. Meanwhile, a few months ago I began sending some of them along to John, and he’s already completed several interior illustrations. Below are three, showing, amongst other things, some extremely traumatized citizens of Still Creek, the town closest to Uncanny. Beyond that, I’ll leave them here without comment, save for the story titles. I think they serve as a good taste of what’s to come…at least in part. There is always another side at work, too.

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“When They Come Calling”

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“Learning to Fly”

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“The Fire Hag”

Thank you, John, for going on another adventure with me.

Exciting things are under way for this series on another front, too. I can’t say more yet, except that there has been significant outside interest in adapting the books in a different medium, and a contract has been signed. But with so much still up in the air, I’ll leave it at that for now. That said, it makes me so happy to see The Uncanny Chronicles gaining additional recognition from people I highly respect professionally, and at a time when I’m having so much fun exploring that world once again.

This summer will therefore be a “deep dive” into the remaining chapters of the new book, and I’m sure that as I work, I’ll still encounter plenty of surprises along the way. Endings may seem clear at times, but we seldom wind up exactly where we expect when we begin…or even as we go along.

Isn’t that wonderful?

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“Trout Fishing on the Bevel,” by Richard Brautigan

There is no author like Richard Brautigan (1935-1984). His writing is utterly unique, and in a society where so much is built on the shoulders of what came before, that’s very special. Early on he had literary influences, but then sailed off in his own direction, and in the process created some of the finest, most idiosyncratic, personal, and addictively readable works in modern American literature. No one has come close to capturing his style, and no one has been able to write about the (supposedly) mundane aspects of the world around us in a way that imbues them with such magic.

To Richard Brautigan, the most overlooked and seemingly trivial things — and people — were worthy of respect, appreciation, and remembrance. This can be seen not only in the subject matter of his poems, stories, and novels, but also in the way he wrote them. He is the master of the unexpected simile or adjective, and somehow, amazingly, they always work. The normal, prismed through his extraordinary mind and talent, becomes precious.

And during this time when, perhaps more than anything else, most of us just want to sit in a café with a cup of coffee, have lunch with a loved one, walk into the building where we work to begin a normal day, or go to a movie…or even just buy stamps at the post office without a plastic barrier separating us, sit on a public bench without concern, or chat with a stranger in a bar…Brautigan’s appreciation for the overlooked and trivialized has not only become particularly relevant, but also worth emulating in our own ways. Deprived of aspects of our normal routines both large and small, we need to find pleasure and fulfillment in things that previously would have gone almost unacknowledged…little things that, given proper attention, can be both meaningful and significant.

Brautigan’s “breakthrough” novel was Trout Fishing in America, first published in 1967. You’ll never read another book like it. My dad bought his copy when he was 20, at a small news store in State College in 1968. I read that same copy for the first time in 1998 when I was 20. The chapter that always stuck with me the most, and still moves me to this day, deals not with the things that are overlooked and trivialized, but the people, and how he would honor them if could. And, movingly, he did honor them, simply by writing the story. It’s called “Trout Fishing on the Bevel.” My reading of it is below.

(With special thanks to Ianthe Brautigan Swensen, for permitting me to record and post it.)

PS: the last novel Brautigan saw published in his lifetime, the elegiac So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, isn’t as well-known as Trout Fishing in America, but also addresses the forgotten and overlooked in our society in a haunting, poignant, often loving way. It is a work written by an author still at the height of his powers. In it, Brautigan wrote, “In those days people made their own imagination, like homecooking.”

We still can.

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“This Attic Where the Meadow Greens,” by Ray Bradbury

“This Attic Where the Meadow Greens,” by Ray Bradbury, has very personal associations for me. I hadn’t planned on posting a reading of it now. In fact, until this evening I hadn’t read it from beginning to end in a number of years, because, like most things that carry deep emotional weight, the time has to be right.

For some reason, the time was right again this evening, several years after I last read it to myself, and almost eight years after I last read it aloud to others. Times of transition and uncertainty are when we begin to fall, but are often caught up in the strong and reassuring arms of those who helped to make, and help to maintain, the best parts of who we are.

Those arms usually belong to the few, great people in our lives who truly, unconditionally love us. They are the people whose love, we know, will last up until the day they die – which means, of course, that their love will never really die at all. It is with us now, and it will stay with us, powerful and omnipotent, for the rest of our lives.

Needless to say, many people are struggling right now, and in a myriad of ways, even if the root cause is the same. How we view the world is being slowly altered, just as our daily lives are being modified, and just as our greater societies are being restructured. We are being forced to adapt to new scenarios that, depending on circumstances, can range from generally stressful to profoundly catastrophic. In the worst-case scenarios, people are losing loved ones – or even their own lives. At the very least, all of us are losing other aspects of reassuring stability. On whatever level, the burden of change is there, and through it all runs an undercurrent of loss.

So maybe that’s why this evening, as I sat down to work on this entry, I’d planned to focus on one poem, and ended up reading and recording “This Attic Where the Meadow Greens” instead. Ray was a dear, dear friend – “Papa Ray,” my sons call him even now. And there are times, like now, when I still miss him greatly, along with others who were taken away by Death’s “older, stricter rules,” as Ray puts it.

Yet this poem serves to remind me of the gifts they left behind. For many years before Ray’s death, I read it and thought about my grandfather, who died when I was young. Now, when I read it, I think about my grandfather, and also about Ray. And, as always, I still feel those strong and reassuring arms around me that will never allow me to fall.

 

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“anyone lived in a pretty how town,” by ee cummings

Poet E.E. Cummings (aka ee cummings) realized something many artists – sometimes even very successful ones – never do: that in order to build something truly original, you not only have to recognize all the tools at your disposal, but also understand how and why they work. He was an absolute master of grammatical form and usage, knowing all the rules of the English language inside and out. In fact, two of his most famous lectures are about the importance of knowing those rules.

And then, in his work, he broke all of them. Beautifully.

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Sometimes, in the breaking, what he writes at first appears completely nonsensical. It never is, which is why his work always deserves more than one read-through or listen. The extraordinary thing about cummings is that he knew exactly what he was doing. And nowhere is this more evident than in my favorite poem of his, “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” It’s a brilliant, provocative, and meaningful work that, like all the best art, is open to a degree of interpretation, yet is also carefully, meticulously constructed.

The subject matter is both heartbreaking and beautiful. No amount of brilliance or cleverness can compensate for a lack of depth and emotional resonance. But “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” however you interpret its meaning, has plenty of both. It gets me every single time.

Anyway, here’s my reading of it:

On another note, this pandemic is hitting closer to home now. As I write this, a loved one is in the ICU with it, and two friends are also sick – one hospitalized for observation, one quarantined at home with a milder case but still showing symptoms after nine days. So until the next time, please stay safe and stay well. And may your loved ones do the same.

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“Time held me green and dying…”

“Fern Hill,” by Dylan Thomas, has been a poem of comfort ever since I “discovered” it when I was 20. As I write this, I have my copy of Thomas’s Collected Poems in front of me, with a sticker from Svboda’s Books in State College (long gone, and sorely missed) still on the back. Inside, I signed and dated it on February 5, 1999, the day I bought it with part of a meager paycheck ($6 an hour!) from Mike’s Movies and Music, and less than a week before my 21st birthday.

It couldn’t be more fitting that I bought that book just before reaching the symbolic age of adulthood in the United States. “Fern Hill” is a profound and lyrical rumination on the innocence of childhood Eden, and how Time, even as it lets us play in the garden, is also unrelentingly ushering us toward the wider, wilder world beyond its gates.

Over and over as the years pass, 22 as I write this, I return to it. I have heard it read aloud at the wake of a dear friend Time has taken even further afield. I have read it silently on peaceful summer nights, and in times of difficult transition and crisis.

We keep the art we love always close to us because of what it does for us. When we want it – or need it – it embraces us with the comfort of connection, and the sharing of profound truths expressed with grace.

And here is my reading of “Fern Hill,” for better or worse:

Until the next time, stay safe and stay well.

PS…I’ve always appreciated David Lynch’s hair (not to mention David Lynch). And now, with all the barbershops closed, I’m starting to get some Lynch hair myself…I don’t think it’s been this long since I bought that Dylan Thomas book. Another month without a haircut, and I should be there. Well, let’s see what happens…

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The Constancy of Stars

When I was seven years old, my parents and I moved from our small house in Lemont, Pennsylvania, just outside of State College, and into State College itself, to a house on a street called Old Boalsburg Road. For the first time in my life we lived on a street with sidewalks, so my dad would often take me on walks around the neighborhood after he got home from work.

In the winter, with night falling early, his work day ended at dusk, so we could only walk after dark. That’s when he would point out the constellations to me in the cold, frosty air. His favorite, and so my favorite too, was Orion.

When we moved to Maryland two years later, and everything seemed new and strange, it was odd and comforting to see Orion in its same place that winter, completely unchanged, although so much else in my life was different.

And now, over 30 years later, with just about everything different from the way it was when I was a kiddo holding my dad’s hand, listening to his stories as we looked up at the sky, I still find great comfort in the constancy of the stars…especially when Orion rises up over the trees in the winter night, still hunting.

So I think the reason why one of my favorite poems is “Winter Stars,” by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), will become clear very quickly. Here, for what it’s worth, is my reading of it:

Although very popular in her time, Teasdale’s work is often unjustly overlooked today, and she deserves more recognition. Ray Bradbury used her most famous poem, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” in his haunting short story of the same name. I highly recommend her collected works, which can be found here.

Thank you for all the emails and tweets about my previous post, and for the unexpected but very welcome poetry recommendations! I’m enjoying them, and I’ll try to use some in the future. I’m also going to continue to post these readings once or twice a week, until things calm down a bit and some normalcy returns…or until enough people tell me to shut up.

In the meantime, take care and stay well.

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Certainty in an Uncertain Time

Well, here we are, and all our lives have quickly changed in many ways both big and small – hopefully temporarily, but I think we’re beyond presuming to know what will happen next, or how long it will take before the crisis fades and we can truly take stock of things. Meanwhile, for the time being, and for the first time in our lives (at least to this extent), we are living in oddly repressed conditions, with degrees of fear and concern always casting long and shifting shadows over us. Being less active than normal has seldom been so hard.

During times of difficulty, such as we are all sharing now, I think we tend to desire the basic pleasures of normalcy more than anything else – the little things so often taken for granted because we don’t, at the time, think they can ever really be taken away. Then they are, and we want them back: a visit with a family member, a cup of coffee at a café, a romantic dinner out, a drink downtown with friends, a casual trip to a “non-essential” store…or maybe a day at work around colleagues, an open business, a hug or handshake without hesitation, or a paycheck.

Yet we adapt, temporarily or otherwise, to whatever the occasion requires of us. And as we all do our best to adjust, I’ve noticed a trend on social media over the last week that has provided a much-needed emotional break.

People are posting photos of their favorite paintings. Reviews of their favorite movies. Recommendation lists of their favorite books. Playlists of their favorite songs. Pics of their collections. Details about their hobbies. Collections of their favorite quotes. Small performances and readings. On his website, Brian May of Queen is posting daily “MicroConcertos” and other things from his home – guitar solos, snippets of Queen songs, brief tutorials, daily thoughts, and good, reasoned information on the pandemic – and they are a wonderful, warm comfort.

All of these are passions, both large and small. And sharing them allows us to stay connected to each other by focusing on what we love in the midst of difficulty…which is exactly when such passions really matter the most. It is gratifying to be reminded that art and artistry, in all its many forms, can always, always be counted on to comfort and inspire us…and also bring us together.

For the last week and a half I’ve been teaching my classes online, and I miss seeing my students every day. Much of what made me want to be a teacher is the enjoyment I receive simply by being around people, and it looks as though we won’t be together again in an actual classroom for a long time. But two days ago I started using QuickTime to record mini-lectures and respond to their questions…It seemed far more organic and natural than trying to type everything out. The response was very positive, so I’m now getting into the routine of making daily recordings for them. Again, it’s creating a form of connection.

This led to another idea, also related to the topic above. I thought I’d try reading and recording some of my favorite poems and short stories – pieces by some of my favorite writers that I’ve gone back to time and again over the years – then post them here every few days. It’s something, like the recorded mini-lectures, that I’ve never tried before. Now seems the right time.

I’m starting out with a piece by Alfred Lord Tennyson, called “Nothing Will Die.” David Lynch used a portion of it at the end of The Elephant Man, and ever since I first heard it there, it’s been a favorite. It also seems appropriate.

Wishing good health to all, until the next time. And remember, “Nothing is worth more than this day.” — Goethe

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Happy New Year!

Amazing! Here we are, on the cusp of a new decade. Personally, 2019 began in a very uncertain fashion and definitely had its ups and downs, but ended on several exceptional high notes that are hopefully just a prelude of things to come in the new year and beyond. I also had some fine adventures along the way. So, farewell 2019, and bring on 2020. Happy New Year, everyone! May you experience much love, health, prosperity, and happiness in the year (and decade) ahead. Life is beautiful.

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PS — It’s almost the ’20s again! I can’t wait to see three-piece suits and bobbed hair make their long-anticipated comeback.

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Everybody’s Neighbor

On April 19, 2002, just as I was finishing my M.Ed. and internship in Secondary Education at Penn State, Fred Rogers visited campus to give a lecture. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of National Public Television, a field my father also worked in for many years before and during his career in Distance Education at Penn State. Mister Rogers was the keynote speaker, his speech the capstone to a week of various events held to celebrate the milestone.

2002 was a challenging year for me – I think that all periods of transition, uncertainty, and change are inherently stressful, no matter who we are or what our circumstances happen to be – and on this particular evening I’d already taught all day, I had papers to grade, and I’d just started working on my final project for grad school, even as I was wrapping up my internship and beginning to think (or, more accurately, worry) about where I should apply for a permanent teaching position.

So I almost gave the lecture a pass, although the tickets were sitting right there on my desk. But due to some persistent encouragement, at the last possible moment I agreed to go. Of course I loved Mister Rogers, and of course he’d been one of the great heroes of my childhood…I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who grew up in the United States in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, or 00s who wouldn’t cite him as a childhood hero. But I went, not begrudgingly, but certainly without the automatic enthusiasm one might expect.

The auditorium was packed by the time I got there, and I ended up standing in the back. It was wonderfully full of people from all walks of life: PSU students, professors, and administrators…but also others, of every age and background, who had driven in from all over the eastern seaboard to see him.

And then Mister Rogers stepped up to the podium, and proceeded to give one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard in person. This isn’t hyperbole on my part, or a rose-tinted memory. I’ve re-watched the speech since, and it still resonates with immense power.

What I realized during the hour or so that he spoke is what everyone who met him or saw him in person quickly realized too: the Mister Rogers on the show is the real thing, and off the show he spoke just as empathetically, sincerely, earnestly, and meaningfully to anyone, from anywhere, and of any age, because none of it was an act…not a single bit of it. The added (and essential) beauty of this is that Mister Rogers never spoke down to children – he never spoke down to anyone. What he did do was kindly, clearly, and thoughtfully speak his mind, impart his wisdom, and defend the importance of care, love, and empathy, as well as the avenues for conveying it…in this case, public television, which served as the bedrock upon which his career flourished.

Because of this, as he spoke I saw caustic administrators, know-it-all college students (myself included), and jaded professors all let their guard down. How often, especially in public, does that happen? And all at once, too? It was extraordinary. This was a truly good man who, just as he refused to condescend, somehow calmly, kindly destroyed any condescending attitude that might be leveled at him, just by being himself. Within minutes, the auditorium was a great sea of attentive faces reflecting honest emotion…the shields were lowered, the masks removed. Everyone was suddenly vulnerable – vulnerable, but safe.

The most moving element of Mister Rogers’ speech was something he often did, and which has now become famous, in large part due to two recent productions: the excellent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, released in June of last year, and the major motion picture, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, currently in theaters.

He asked us all for one minute of complete silence, which he personally timed, during which he requested that we think about all the people – living and “in Heaven” – who helped us to become the best versions of ourselves…people who “…loved us into being.” The silence was complete, the time graced with the weight of deep personal reflection. And at the end of the minute, Mister Rogers said, “Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made.”

How typical, during an event largely honoring him, for Fred Rogers to honor others instead. It was deeply moving…something everyone present could take part in and share together, through the silence of individual remembrance and appreciation.

To the best of my knowledge, this was the second-to-last major speech Fred Rogers ever gave…the last was at Dartmouth College, his alma mater, a short time later. In February 2003, just ten months after he spoke at Penn State, he passed away after a brief battle with stomach cancer.

I look back on that special day in 2002 with deep gratitude…Gratitude primarily for Mister Rogers himself, but also for the fact that someone made the effort to repeatedly encourage me to attend, and was so convincing that I actually got off my butt and went. I feel that what we don’t do often haunts us more than what we do. It was largely due to this close call with Fred Rogers’ lecture back in 2002 – my God, what if I’d missed it! – that I began to consciously recognize the importance of taking advantage of opportunities both big and small. I’d already started trending in that direction, but this particular event allowed me to articulate to myself how important it is to actually do things you want, rather than just talk about doing them. That way, later on, you won’t find yourself saying, “I wish I’d gone,” but, instead, “I’m so glad I went.”

Three months later, I was offered a full-time high school teaching position in Pittsburgh – Mister Rogers’ adopted home town, coincidentally — accepted it, and moved there. In the almost 18 years since, I’ve done my best, over and over, to take advantage of every good opportunity that comes my way and see it through, whether it’s attending a concert or lecture, going out with friends, cultivating love, spending time with loved ones, completing a new writing project, exploring a new hobby, teaching a new course, creating a new lesson, visiting a new place, or meeting new people.

With very few exceptions, I have never regretted pursuing any of those opportunities, even the ones that didn’t work out…and the few regrets I do have are easily overshadowed by the overwhelmingly positive and fulfilling experiences that have filled my life. Mister Rogers helped me realize the importance of living by that philosophy…just by being himself.

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Earlier I mentioned the new film about one man’s friendship with Fred Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. As I write this, it is still in theaters. It’s a beautiful film, based on a true story, and heartfelt and meaningful without becoming trite or sappy. In the last 18 months, the film, the award-winning documentary I mentioned earlier, and a new biography by Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor, have all been released to fine critical praise and warm public reception – further testament that the legacy of Fred Rogers is still as healthy and far-reaching as ever…and at a time when our society is certainly in great need of kind hearts and wise advice.

On a (very) incidental note, I had the pleasure of being an extra in the film, in a scene with Tom Hanks. The production spent the month of October 2018 filming here in Pittsburgh, and a few months earlier, on a whim, I “auditioned” (I use the term loosely, since it was basically waiting in line for hours with two thousand other people, getting my photo taken, and filling out  a couple of forms). After seeing the huge line, I almost turned around and left – but, due in large part to the lesson I learned back in 2002, ended up staying and seeing it through.

As the days of October passed by, I heard nothing from the studio…It seemed as though a fun and unique opportunity wasn’t going to pan out, and sometimes that’s just how things go…No problem, at least I tried. But then, at the very end of the month, two days before filming wrapped, I was called in.

I ended up being cast as a WQED crew member, and appear in the scene when “Mister Rogers” is filming a segment for his show with a string quartet. I like it because there were very few of us in the scene – just Tom Hanks, the string quartet, and maybe eight of us extras. We went through makeup, wardrobe, the whole works, and were on call for about seven hours. When it came time to film the segment of the scene in which I participated, they only needed four takes, but the whole thing from beginning to end was fascinating, and also a great deal of fun.

Even more incidentally, I did make the final cut. Twice, they show wide shots of Tom Hanks/Mister Rogers watching the quartet play and asking them questions, and you can see me in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. It’s more or less the back of my head, I might as well be a cardboard cutout, and if you blink you’ll miss me, but who cares? There I am, on screen with Tom Hanks for five or ten seconds. That’s a great little bonus, but the chance to see an excellent actor like him work, in person, is what makes the experience significant for me. He’s been one of my favorite actors ever since Big came out when I was a kid, and I can happily attest that not only is he a consummate professional, but also a very nice guy. (I know, because he caught me using his dressing room bathroom – I had no idea it was his, I swear – and was totally cool about it.) Between takes he’d joke with all of us, sit quietly off by himself texting, or compliment the musicians, and every single time he did a take, he nailed it.

So what a special opportunity, to see Tom Hanks portraying Fred Rogers in person. Somehow, a lesson I took away thanks to Fred Rogers’ speech in 2002 led me to another unique association with his life over 15 years later. I never could have anticipated that, but at the same time, I’m not really surprised. Sometimes elements in life, both great and small, come full circle…and all you have to do to allow that to happen is make the effort and show up.

Anyway, I hope you’ll go see the film, and enjoy what is, among other things, a fine tribute to a man who loved others more fully, more wholesomely, and more selflessly than just about anyone who has lived in modern times. It was his great purpose to make a positive impact on as many lives as possible…and he continues, through the legacy he created, to achieve that purpose to this very day.

What an extraordinary gift he had.

What an extraordinary gift he still gives.

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My parents at a reception with Fred Rogers shortly before his speech, April 19, 2002

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Me with David Newell (Mr. McFeely), shortly before Fred Rogers’ speech on April 19, 2002. I’m holding a photo he signed for me back when I was five, along with another one he signed for me that day, 19 years later. Just this past August, 17 years after this photo was taken, I met him again when he gave the opening day speech at the high school where I teach.

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