Rumplestitltskin–Puppet Wagon Style!

This is the final weekly show of the Lakeville Puppet Wagon, and we end with a bang! It might be hard to hear some of the lines, since my mic doesn’t run nearly as hot as the others. The video is courtesy of Steve’s family (he’s one of the puppeteers). Enjoy!

This is the final weekly show of the Lakeville Puppet Wagon, and we end with a bang! It might be hard to hear some of the lines, since my mic doesn’t run nearly as hot as the others. The video is courtesy of Steve’s family (he’s one of the puppeteers). Enjoy!

Meet the Puppets

A lot of people have been asking what exactly goes on in a Puppet Wagon.  Sometimes, I tell them about the curtain flailing in the wind, or the animal noises I’ve made to entertain children (like the squawking I did as a peacock), or the sensation of realizing that, even though you’re picturing an entire kingdom in your head, the kids really only see a curtain and a puppet.  But I haven’t taken the time to really lay out what kinds of puppets we deal with.

So, that’s what I’m going to do.  Introducing…the Lakeville Puppet Wagon puppets!

Sparky: A Dalmatian, who used to have a proper tongue, but somehow lost it prior to this summer.  He starts the show from the orange Sparky window.  The kids write him letters every week, usually saying “I love you,” and drawing pictures that look a lot like random scribbles.  He also tells jokes every week, which the kids sometimes rebut by writing more in letters the following week.  When he was gone for a week, we pretended he was in Germany.  (Not “Doggy Heaven” as Maren suggested).

Pinky: This is an oddly-torpedo shaped pink cone-head puppet who sings songs with the kids for intermission.  There’s an odd arrow of yellow hair on the top of her head, and when I showed the video of the wagon to Laura, her reaction to Pinky was “Wow, she’s really ugly.”  I play her, and her voice gets progressively shriller with every show.  She likes to make up words for the songs and really likes to sing fast, because she loves sugar.  I never read from the script.  She has a mind of her own.  For example, the kids are taking pictures with the puppets this week, and one kid forgot his camera.  My thought: “Oh well.”  Pinky’s reaction: “Ohhhhh that’s okay!  Just stare really really hard and you’ll remember it like a picture!!”  Same difference.  Likewise, we’re singing “Apples and Bananas” with the kids this week, and with their suggestions and Pinky’s…pep, we’ll call it…it became “Waffles and Ice Cream.”  Hopefully we don’t get letters from parents asking us to be better examples of good health.  Then again, they’d be writing to a dog.

Human Girl: The only human girl.  She has really coarse brown hair put up into pigtails and has played Red Riding Hood, Snow White, a random kid, a magician, and a princess.

Human Grandma: She’s one of the only puppets with non half-lidded eyes, which makes her look like she’s constantly alarmed about something.  Her hair is in a bun, but still seems to fly all over the place.  She’s only ever played a grandma, but in “Little Red Riding Hood,” she defeated the lion/wolf because she knew Kung Fu.

Human Grandpa: He has this funky bow-tie, which we thought made him look a little Spanish.  We tried to make him the Spanish puppet “Roberto,” but it never stuck.  His mouth is falling apart, which makes him look like he has more than one.  Along with being Roberto, he’s also been Jello, the rapper in “Puppet’s Got Talent.”

Frog: This one (which we call Kermie to narrowly dodge lawsuits) has non half-lidded eyes too, and one of the eyes is almost falling off.  He’s a dark green frog that wears a vest and a white long-sleeved shirt.

Other Frog: Another green frog, but he has a bushel of yellow hair on top of his head.  He has this rumpled white shirt with green spots.  One time, Steve used him to play “Happy” the dwarf, and used a Southern accent and the phrase “Mmmboy!” from time to time.  His reaction: “I keep trying to change it, but it just sticks!  I’m getting a little creeped out…”

Bernie: Steph grabbed this one right away, hoping to make it the new host (rather than Sparky).  He’s a blue oblong-headed creature with a plaid shirt and overalls.  I liked him, but the kids were already attached to Sparky, so he did not stick as host.

Lion: Well, it’s a yellow lion with an orange mane.  We substituted the lion for the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood,” and right now, Steve is doing a Mufasa impression for the show this week.

Black Puppet: There’s only one black puppet, and when we first started in June, we saw that it was missing an eye.  Not to be deterred from using him, we made an eye-patch and turned him into a pirate.

Sergeant Doogle: This is the Scruff McGruff-style police dog investigator (complete with a trenchcoat).  He’s the only puppet with a full body, and when Steve used him for the first time during Pan-O-Prog, a kid came up and started petting it during the show.

Other Dog: A yellow dog with floppy brown ears, and tiny T-Rex-like arms dangling from its body.  Stephanie gave it a Southern Belle voice.

Demon Butterfly: It could have been a normal orange butterfly, but since both of the eyes are peeling off, it looks more like something you’d want expelled from your house than asking you to play.

Raccoon: Just a normal raccoon, except that many of the kids think it’s an owl, which they yell to us during the show.  (Along with the one girl who yells “You’re a baby!” whenever Pinky comes out.)

Monkey: A brown monkey that squeaks.  We actually wrote an entire script based around the fact that Steve really wanted to use the monkey in a show. (The storyline boiled down to: Where’s the monkey?  Yell Monkey when you see it!  There it is!)

2 Tall-Headed Orange Things: They have really tall orange heads, which make it almost impossible to talk normally with them.  I almost got away with not using one the entire summer, but then Steph thought the monkey script would be better with the orange things.  My orange thing had a really thick Iron Range accent, being from Minnesoooooooota.  (Am considering breaking it out in China, if any other Americans ask where I’m from).

Dumb Bunny (“Chuck”): He’s not actually dumb, but when I used him one week for a treasure hunt, his voice got progressively stupider-sounding, so I can’t think of him as anything else.  The foam inside of his head is also really old and has a crevice running through it, which I didn’t realize until I was speaking with him and got my hand trapped up where his brains ought to have been.  Maybe that’s why he’s forever a dumb bunny for me.

Our scripts vary, but one thing that never changes is how much the kids obviously love the puppets.  And, you know?  As much as I might make it sound like a janky job, it’s actually been fun.  Laid-back, entertaining as all hell, and something that’s an endless supply of weird stories.

The Decorah Story

When Danielle and I got out of the car, happily stretching our legs after a 2 1/2 hour drive to Decorah, my first thought was “Oh, this feels strange.”

It has nothing to do with the atmosphere comprised of drunken Norse blowing horns or the shock of a silent sidewalk leading into my old neighborhood on Fifth Avenue.  Being English-y people, the only way we could really describe it was: “This feels like a story, which might not necessarily be mine.”

A lot of phrases in the English language use books or stories to talk about transition, like saying “I closed the book on that one,” or “It’s time for the next chapter in my life.”  In fact, most phases (phrases, if you will) end with a period or an exclamation point, rarely an ellipses or something with less finality.  (A Dickinson-esque dash, perhaps?)  Without degenerating into a full-out syntax romp in the woods, I will say that much of the language I hear regarding graduation or moving on has some tinge of finality to it.  “Keep moving forward,” as I’ve heard.  And it’s true: time doesn’t play trickster with a hop, skip and jump to past moments, though we all wish we could be Time Lords.

Graduating from Luther was the moment that the book closed on Luther.  I would not come back in the thick of action, or even anywhere near the climax.  Instead, it would be the epilogue, if anything.  The “in case you wanted to know” moments that are usually skipped for the sake of time.  We were welcome back into the town, but it wasn’t with the same sense of belonging, or it was with a very different sense of belonging.  It’s the question of what happens when you open a book you thought was closed.

I’ve been re-reading the journal(s) I kept throughout college lately, and it’s surreal to look around the places I am now and see the ghost of my former self mulling over issues, pondering new acquaintances, and trying to see where my feet could go without tripping over themselves.  A fun moment: doing a norm violation on Matt and Megan, who would ultimately end up being very close friends, only to realize that they thought I had a lazy eye the whole time.  Or, meeting Xiao, a good friend of mine because another friend wanted us to smile and eat ice cream in a video for the school.  Or even my friend Sally and I staying up until 4 AM chatting, only to be wrenched out of bed for a 4:30 fire alarm.  When I thought that the moments would scroll along and keep coming–when I was in the rising action part of the Luther story– I paid less attention to them, though they all became the particles making up the “modern me.”  I didn’t write them down, but rather committed them to the corridors between words.  The moments passed, I closed the book, and moved on to the next entry.

It’s when I decided to physically walk back down those corridors that things got interesting.  Suddenly, Decorah was not “my town” anymore, if it ever was, and I realized that I’m now lumped into the category “Luther alum.”  I ran into people who ask what I’m up to, and we mutually agreed that it was a mind-trip to be back, but not really back.  All around us, the next generation of Luther students prepped for the upcoming school year, agonizing over what classes they wished they had time for in their schedules.  And I sometimes scroll back through the pages, remembering when I used to do the same thing.

It sounds forlorn, but I was more curious than anything else to see an old home resemble more of a vacation spot.  You can travel 1,000 miles in your head and heart, but find your feet where they began.  Except this time, your heart receives it differently and it’s like starting over with perceptions, this time four degrees to the left. 

The temptation was very strong to run around and SEE EVERYTHING while I had the chance.  In every moment that I chose to do one thing, I wasn’t doing six.  But instead, I went into town solo on Saturday prior to meeting up with other people, sitting outside of the courthouse with a bag of ships and a bowl of guacamole.  It was like writing my own story again, instead of trying to pry open the pages of the old tome.  

I stood still, and the world introduced itself.

I ran into professors and had the kind of conversations that made an hour feel like an entire book, stopped into the Sugar Bowl to talk to Craig and got free ice cream just for “good luck,” and I made sure to peer into the windows of new shops, stopping to talk to anyone who seemed game.  I saw a dancer who bloomed and wilted as smooth as rainwater, and taught some of my friends (with help from others) how to talk in the “ermergerd” accent over drinks.  I did a lot of walking (getting rather burnt in the process) and walked down the sidewalk barefoot to get mud out of my toes.    

Here’s what happens when you walk back into a story that might not be yours anymore: you return to those corridors between words and remember the things that made you find them in the first place.  The funny or strange stories I have meeting people for the first time is my story, and all of them intersect occasionally in Decorah, where another story unfolds as the minutes scroll along.  I like to think of new moments in life as “redrafting,” or the process of rewriting a story from scratch.  It’s scary as all hell to see a blank Word Document staring at you, but once you start again, there’s more detail, it’s richer, and you know it’s more you than it was before.

And that, I think, is pretty invigorating.  And it’s something you don’t realize until you look back at the old story and see how far you’ve traveled since then.     


And then, Reality

I am now the owner of a one-way plane ticket to the People’s Republic of China.

I went through a site “” and found a, well, cheapo flight to China.  Then, I promptly started to panic as I saw negative reviews online and the words “SCAM!  SCAM!  SCAM!” lit up all over the place.  Then, I went to the actual United Airlines website and confirmed that, indeed, it was a flight.  It existed.  And it was cheap.  My friend, Xiao, called and also told me that Air China (my connecting flight) is pretty good, too.  So it’s okay.

Calm.  For a moment.  Then I start thinking “Oh no!  My dream is finally coming true!  This is the point in the movie where, as I see the ray of hope glimmering on the other side, the plane crashes in a fire-y maelstrom of pain and horror and I end up having to make a living on a desert island with only my socks as company.  And I want to be done with puppetry for a while!!”  So I start googling plane crash statistics.  And I think, hmm, the odds are pretty good that I won’t die.

“It’ll be fine,” I tell myself.  “Now shut up, subconscious.”

Ah, but then by thinking it will be fine, I certainly doom it to not being fine, right?

Me, upon realizing what it is I’m about to do.

(Sometimes the internet can be a cruel mistress, allowing me to snowball all of my fears with the click of a button.)  As long as I don’t focus on the fact that I’ll be in a flying box hurdling over the Pacific Ocean, then everything will be fine.  Heh.  Stop thinking about it.  Okay.

I guess it makes me think of what someone I met in Washington DC told me about airplanes: “Yeah, you might crash.  And if a plane crashes, you’re pretty likely to die.  But isn’t it comforting to know that it’s completely out of your control?  I mean, what would you do if the plane started crashing?  You are going down with that plane.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  It is your fate.”

I have my ticket.  I have my fate.  And I guess, no matter where it goes, no matter where it veers, I’m going to ride it all the way to the end, because that’s the trajectory I have.  Worry, don’t worry, I’ll end up on the plane no matter what.  And I’ll end up in China.

But until then, I guess I just have to let the useless panic bog seep through for a while.


The truth is out there, even if you have to search under a different name.

China News

On the Internet in China, the “truth” has vanished. The truth is not out there.

The Chinese word for “truth” (真相) has been blocked from Sina Weibo, China‘s leading social media site.

It might seem like a bad Orwellian joke, or a satirical headline from “The Onion,” but it’s true.

This is what CNN saw when they searched for “the truth” on Sina Weibo on July 13. And here’s the translation: “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for ‘the truth’ cannot be displayed.”

It’s not known how long the term has been censored, why the block was put in place, or when the censors might allow “the truth” to come back.

But it does mean that, for now at least, Sina Weibo can’t handle the “truth.”


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Historian of the Strange

It’s not generally typical to open your passport and squeal, but now that one page is devoted to my Chinese Work Z Visa, I can’t help it.  It’s official, it’s proof that all of the time I’ve spent gathering materials has not gone to waste and that China will let me be a guest for 10 months.  And, after reading Peter Hessler’s Two Years on the Yangtze, I’m already fantasizing about the people I’ll meet and the adventures I’ll have.  The current one: I’m carrying around my violin and break into “The Butterfly Lover’s Concerto” next to an erhu player, and we become fast friends.  Idealistic to the extreme, but I’d rather be heading over with a smile to rival the Cheshire Cat’s than to keep darting around with googley eyes at all of the NOT AMERICAN things around me.

From Hessler’s book, I can tell that my mantra’s going to be the Cardcaptors slogan: “Expect the Unexpected NOW!”  As I’ve said before, I can expect things to be one way (here’s looking at you, future erhu friend) but it probably will be very different from even what my understanding of “different” is.  So, I expect the unexpected, which is to say that I’ve stopped expecting things.

Which, as it turns out, is just as good a philosophy over in America as it will be in China.

My Aunt contacted my Mom yesterday to see if I’d be willing to go over to her house to clean the canoe my Dad would be using on his trip.  Expectation: one hour of spraying a hose.  Reality: not so much.  I drove over to her house at about 4:30 after ogling macbooks in Best Buy to be greeted by a sheepish grin and her two dobermans–Wicca and Griz.

“Well, here we go…” she said as we climbed over the tall plants in the wooded area to where the canoe was sprawled in the dirt.  Aunt Lori is the kind of person I see myself becoming–someone with enough eclectic tastes that you always want to ask her how her week has been.  (“Oh you know, bellydancing class this week was a little harder than usual, but it was still fun”).  Just this past week, my brother called to tell me some important news, and I missed his call because I was too busy riding a carousel with a stuffed turkey decoy in Mankato.

So, when we picked up the canoe and saw a mouse scurry from one end of the canoe to the other, I guess I wasn’t completely shocked, though we both yelled and set the canoe down very quickly.

“You’ve got to be kidding me…” she muttered.

We waited for a moment, occasionally kicking the canoe to see what would happen, until we gave up and decided to carry it to the front yard anyway.  We were both on mouse patrol, at the ready to yell if we saw the furry nuisance peek its head out.

Look at that menace to society. Rollin’ around on its scooter of hate.

When we set it down, we promptly turned on the hose and drenched the thing to see if the mice would come running.  They did not, and as the minutes stretched on, we saw no end to the gunk compiled in the buoys at either end of the canoe.  They’d taken up residence, and we were effectively the horsemen of the apocalypse, raining terror from above.

Finally, a mouse peeked out (probably the sacrificial one sent to see if the danger had passed) and we tried to gently brush it out of the canoe and into safety.  Sadly, this is nearly impossible to do with hard bristled-brooms, so we ended up causing the mouse more harm than was entirely necessary.  We led it out eventually, only to see it die moments later.

That’s when we decided to just clean the other side of the canoe and leave the rest for the next day.  When I got home, my mom asked me if I remembered to pick up the canoe registration.

“Sorry, I was too busy trying to get mice out of the canoe.”

Needless to say, my Dad and I went back to Aunt Lori’s house to pick up the canoe, gingerly keeping our eyes open for dropping mice trying to escape.  Dad tied it onto the truck, and we went home.  It rained overnight, and I checked the canoe periodically to see if there might be dead mice in there.  The canoe was only full of pee-scented gunk and water, so I figured they were all gone.

But today was mouse apocalypse.  Dad (who’s generally not a fan of mice) unscrewed the panels blocking the foam buoys.  It felt like the moment in “How to Train Your Dragon” when they blast apart the dragon’s lair, saying “When this busts open, all hell will break loose.”  I was waiting to see intertwined mice hissing at us and scampering all over the yard.  My one consolation: at least I have my rabies shot.

When the panels came off, a few mice ran out (my Dad jumped back) and loose foam cascaded down like sand on the beach. Dad pulled out the foam, only to uncover an ant-hill like maze of tunnels and pathways that were chewed through and reinforced by repeated travel.

“Gross…” I said, being ever eloquent.

I was about to grab the broom to shoo them out like I had with Aunt Lori, when Dad said it might be better to use the Shop Vac and suck up the mice.

“What?” I thought.

“Do you want me to whack ’em first?” my Mom asked.  Dad nodded and when Mom came back with her spade, I knew what she meant.  I thought perhaps it would be a moment of dignity–after all, they were kind of cute when you weren’t trying to hose out their excrement. But then Mom started singing “Little Bunny Foo Foo” while smacking the mice in their spines with the shovel.  I’ll spare the details, but they were quickly sucked up the Shop Vac tube thinking “Go toward the light” which was the inner chamber of a vacuum.

Then, it was a matter of cleaning the damn thing, which didn’t take long once the scraps were taken care of.  I turned the hose on high power and sprayed out the crusted feces, the foam and the dirt which, by comparison, wasn’t so bad.

“Musta been a polygamist,” Mom said, noting the two different homes on opposite ends of the canoe.

Here’s what it probably was like for the mice: Settling into their burrowed home, nestling close in the darkness, until water began spraying at all directions.  They race for higher ground, wondering how the world came to this–this deluge of unhappiness.  They make it to the safe zone, only for a veritable monsoon to pound against the thick silver skin of their homes.

“Quick!  Check to see if the other clan is surviving!”

“I’ll do it,” a mouse volunteers and peeks his head out.  All is well until he screams as a wall of sharp bristles pounds against him again and again.  He is gone before the others can come to his aid.  The other mice huddle together, more determined than ever to stay put.

The monsoon picks up speed as unbelievable amounts of water come pounding against their homes, and when it lets up, still they do not dare leave.  It would not do to anger the gods, who have chosen this moment to test their strengths.

Then, suddenly, the sun glares down at them as an entire fortress wall is taken away, and they race out of their home, sure that this is not good.  Then, as swiftly as they enjoy the tart tang of freedom, they hear a sing-song voice chanting to them, and then they know no more.

Oh, cruel mouse-fate!

Usually, my adventures are more along the Laura lines, which end up with lots of pictures in odd locations.  This past weekend, I felt the wind through my hair as I rode a carousel, seeing the pulse up and down of the mountain goat I was riding, as Laura snapped pictures of me with the turkey decoy.  We raced around town to find statues and giggled as we walked through the mall–a never-ending social experiment.  When we settled back in her apartment, we recorded videos of the turkey attacking us.  And then, we brought it over to a peacock in an outdoor park to see how it would react.

I always assume that the weird things will happen when I’m far away, but if anything, they’re all the weirder when closer.  But, hey, I have my work visa now.  So, here’s to entering China in September!  And, here’s a rousing “Good luck,” to China.  I hope it can handle my capacity for oddity.