Closing the Wagon Doors

Today, we met at City Hall to pack away the puppets for the summer.  They were to be stuffed back into their respective boxes (a “mass grave” as I told my friend Megan) where they would wait for the next batch of puppeteers to come and greet them. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect as Mom drove me in, as I sipped coffee, hung-over from a night of getting drunk on writing and reading Sandman by Neil Gaiman. The writer in me said “this is deep, this is going to mean something, and you better be ready.”  The practical side of me said “don’t try too hard and just clean up the wagon.”

When I got there, we gathered at the wagon, grabbing at the puppets and shoving them into the plastic bins.  Some of them we laughed about, like Pinky, and Steve took a couple photos with Sparky.  Then, we gathered the cords that had coiled all around the wagon, took down the curtain one last time, put the lid on the bins, and slid them into the top shelf in storage.

That was it.  Half an hour.  Done.

Patty then called us into her office as we turned in our time cards. 

“So, did you guys have a fun summer?”

Did I?  I guess it was a topsy-turvy summer, one where at times I wanted to pull my hair out, at others wanted to leap all the way into the sky and dance with the stars.  But with every segment of 24 hours, I change into someone imperceptivity different, as we all do.  Biologically, our cells change enough that we can be made of completely different particles within weeks.

But it’s a fairly simple question, just as packing up the wagon is a fairly simple procedure.  It doesn’t need to be mulled over, tossed about, or even questioned for hours at end.  Sometimes, a simple “yes” is all you need.

Sometimes, the writer in me needs to sit back and be okay with not overcomplicating an already multi-faceted world.

So we talked a bit about the summer, and then went our separate ways.  In all likelihood, we aren’t going to see each other again, as we’re all heading in very different directions.  But, as we’re asked over and over again if we’re ready, a simple answer will do.


Because, like it or no, we’re heading there already. 


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.

Playing pretend

“I’m sooo strong!”

“Oh, really?  Flex your muscles for me.  Go ‘Grrrrrr’!”


“Wow, you ARE really strong.  Are you a dinosaur?”

“No, dinosaurs don’t exist anymore.”

The kids press up against the black metal tire cover on the wagon, patting my shoulder to tell me something else they know: their age, how to count to 10, what ‘carnivore’ means.  One girl has a necklace with a butterfly on it that she made herself.  She sways back and forth with her hands flapping like a butterfly and tells me that she loves Sparky, the dog puppet we brought back.

“We’ll be sure to tell him.  He loves you, too.”

“You don’t need to tell him.  I know you put him on your hand and you make him talk.”

“What?” I try to act shocked.  “He’s real, you silly goose!  He’s just sleeping, that’s all.”

She nods, but I can tell she’s not convinced.  She, along with the other kids thirst for knowledge, and are more than eager to learn and share it with everyone else.  It brightens my day to see this.  But at the same time, the facts are already diminishing the magic of a hand inside a doll.  She tells me she saw a hand one time when a puppeteer held the puppet up too high.  I wonder what will be next for her: staying up late enough to see her parents filling the stockings on Christmas, finding out that eating carrots won’t help you think like a rabbit, seeing her mother’s fingers underneath her pillow when she loses a tooth.  A kid is more observant than we give them credit for.

Kids inherit the magic their parents pass down: the ability to take a swath of fabric and make a friend out of them, or to create a game out of an empty box.  They still know how to pick up a stick and pretend it’s a sword or wand.  But I know that it can’t last forever, and a part of me wonders when the curiosity to figure out what’s REALLY going on kicks in.  It’s a little sad for me, seeing the doors of imagination close.  Because then, a cloud is just a cloud, and the rain falling on the roof isn’t a collection of tiny tap-dancers.

I want to play in the land of Make Believe, but it gets harder the more defined our world gets.  Every day, I try to close my eyes and imagine, not what I’ll see when I open them again, but what I don’t see, and what I could if I wanted to see it.  I want the world to be magical.  So when I close my eyes, I paint the impossible.  Because through that, anything becomes possible.  Through reality, we see the un-reality of the world, and even if it can’t be written down the same way in a science textbook, it speaks to us for reasons we can’t articulate.  The un-real becomes very much real.  And because of that, we dream once again.

I climb into the wagon, the show being about three minutes from starting.  The kids are chanting “puppets, puppets, puppets” to get the show started.  Stephanie tries to explain that we can’t yet.  The kids ask the puppeteers to hurry up.  I think again of the girl who saw the hand inside the puppet.  She shouldn’t disbelieve, not yet.  So I pull out my mic and start snoring into it.  The crowd of kids hush.

“Do you hear that?” Stephanie asks.  “They’re snoring!  The puppets are snoring!  We’ll have to wake them up, okay?”

As they do the dance to wake up the puppets, I feel good.  Even if the magic won’t last forever, it’s nice to know that, for twenty minutes, a crowd of kids can suspend their disbelief, close their eyes, and see the impossible when they open them again.

I talk with my hands

Rule number one of the Puppet Wagon: don’t let the children hear the panic in your voice.  Rule number two: START PANICKING!

I’ve been told what the first day of teaching is like, and I think I ran that gauntlet today, my first day in the Puppet Wagon.  As I hopped into the City of Lakeville truck and we rode around in circles trying to find the first park, I thought about what at all this experience would contribute to my time teaching college-level students in Hangzhou, China.  I’d always joked with my friends that it was literally the opposite thing that would be useful for that transition, and we’d laugh, knowing that I’d have a good time nontheless.  

I’ve thought about teaching.  Mostly, I’ve thought about all the potential failures of trying to assert authority or communicate lessons.  One of the former teachers I talked to told me “Some of your lessons are going to suck.  That’s just what’s going to happen.  You figure out pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t.”  Little did I know that there would be no better teacher than a pile of puppets.  

“Okay, seriously, where is this park?”

“There!  It’s right there!  Turn right there!”

“What? Where?”

“Oh, sorry, should have said ‘left.'”

We only had about 15 minutes until the show when we arrived, and a lot more to do than we would have liked.  We hadn’t run through the script with puppets yet, we needed to change the sign, pull-start the generator, test our mikes, decide WHICH puppets we were going to use, and get everything set up.

Rule number one.  Don’t let the panic show.

Last year, the puppeteers used a dog puppet named “Sparky” to get the kids excited about the show.  The show started with the dog peeking out of the window, a puppeteer outside talking to it, and lots and lots of puns and songs.  Then, they would do this routine called “checking the mailbox,” which is a tradition of children writing the puppets messages and sticking them in the mailbox outside the house-shaped wagon.  

This year, we decided to shake things up a bit.  Sparky would be no more.  Instead, it would be “Bernie,” a blue puppet with an oblong head.  We’d introduce a note from Sparky saying he’d found a new puppet family and might come back to visit sometime. So we took the curtain with his name on it, ripped off the letters and let it hang there with the flowers in the background, like a skeleton hanging in the gallows.  A bit brutal, now that I think about it.  

But then we quickly learned rule number three: kids like predictability.  

All of the letters in the mailbox were addressed to Sparky, and the kids were really upset that the dog wasn’t there.  Not only that, but without rehearsal, the first show was full of quick puppet-changes, dead silence, and voices blending together.  At one point, the puppet on my hand almost flew off into the audience.  The cotton was slipping along my skin as my character “Pinky” sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” faster and faster.  I had a horrible vision of an empty puppet carcass landing in a child’s lap, but luckily that didn’t happen.

I thought I heard a child yell out “You FAILED!” and was ready to hang my head in shame, but they were only saying “You have MAIL!”  We hastily promised to check it next week, played Hot Potato with them, and drove away.

That’s when the wind started to pick up.  

It wasn’t so bad for the show at North Park.  The kids danced, called out to wake the puppets up and even returned a fallen prop into a puppet’s mouth.  They were excited, so we were excited, thinking that we were getting the hang of it.

We figured that the last park would be a breeze.  It was, I guess.  The wind was blowing the curtain so far back, the kids could have seen everything.  Inside the wagon, all of the puppets are hanging there, lifeless, on a series of hooks in the walls.  Some of their mouths are hanging open, some of them are dangling upside down and some are even missing eyes.  In other words, it really looks like a puppet massacre.  So our #1 priority is to keep kids from seeing that.  

We pressed our forearms into the wood to keep the curtain down, our other hands gesturing wildly as we tapped our mics to see if ANY sound was coming out.  And the kids were still wailing about Sparky being gone.  

“Sparky will be back next week,” we said, desperately hoping to placate the audience.  Already, rule number 2 was blaring in my head, a giant red PANIC PANIC PANIC! banner scrolling in front of my eyes. 

I, with my face mashed against the curtain as my mic failed, as both of my hands were occupied by puppets, as the script blew around the wagon, sputtered out nonsensical words to entertain the children.  A mother came up to the side to tell us that the speakers were off.  We know!, I wanted to yell.  Stephanie was trying to fiddle with the stereo with her one hand that wasn’t attached to a puppet, Steve and I trying to keep the curtain down.  Kids didn’t want to sing, or couldn’t hear when I asked.  

Then it was over, we were playing “Simon Says” with the kids, and we drove back to Maintenance to clean up.

In a weird sort of way, this next step of mine–right into the Puppet Wagon curtain, makes sense.  Because you do learn quite quickly which bits work the best, which ones are doomed to fail, which things you really have no control over and can only go with when they crop up.  And that’s kind of what my life is like right now.  I can predict what next year, or even next week will be like, but it’ll only ever crop up, and I will deal with it as best as possible–making sure not to let the panic show as I do.  Because no one can actually be in control of their lives (at least, the outside forces that work upon them every day).  All we can control is how we respond to them, and whether or not we will let them knock us over.  In a classroom, this might be an unresponsive group of people.  Or, a fire could break out and knock a tank full of Pit Vipers over.  There’s no predicting it.  So you might as well go with what makes sense through the panic.  

And for now, I think that’s puppets.

Puppet Wagons, ho!

Puppets are in all likelihood the creepiest thing you can ever see amassed in a pile in a box.  They look worse than something you’d call dead, since they still smile at you (though some are lacking eyes) and look as though they could give you a hug.  That is, if you want one.

I and my fellow puppeteers reached into the box, Steven immediately trying on different voices.  We quickly established that the puppet with the bow was going to be Mexican, and that we would incorporate the Grandma character no matter what it took.  And the rest of the puppets, well, they just sprawled all over the counter like a sack of potatoes no one wanted to claim.  

Then, we sat in front of the computer to write the script.  Three seconds in, we realized that none of us actually knew what we were doing.  

“Wouldn’t it be funny if there was this guy swimming around pretending to be Jaws?”

“Five year olds.  Remember?”

“Duhhh-dun!  Duh-Dun!”

“Five year olds.”

That’s going to be the challenge for all of us, really: making sure it’s humor than five year olds will love.  I’ve only ever seen one show done by the Lakeville Puppet Wagon, which was cute, though not all-instructive in terms of any kind of guideline.  Our first script is about going to the beach.  There will be sandcastle-competitions.  There might be swimming lessons.  Who knows?  We might add Jaws just to fill some time.  

All I know is that I might be grossly unprepared to slap on some silly voices.  I used to read “Artemis Fowl” to my dad and make voices for each of the characters, but since being in speech, have since lost the spark for silliness.  It’s coming back, but in very ill-timed ways, like giving our cat a Jeff Bridges style narration, or my sister a nurse voice for when she realizes she has been trying to find a dead person’s pulse (something that has only happened in my imagination, I think).

So this is what the Career Center hasn’t told us about, I thought as I tried to think of which puppet I wouldn’t mind trying to embody for an entire week.  Well, it beats sitting in rush-hour for a job I hate.

Plus, there’s always China to consider.

I’m oscillating between several different worlds right now.  One, the student eager to engulf as many lessons as possible with the time she has.  Another, the driftless girl who decided that this summer would be the last chance to be a puppeteer before it got weird.  Another, the girl preparing to be a teacher for what was, until recently, her peers.  They say you wear many hats.  Maybe if I recruit some puppets into the mix, I can wear as many as I like.

Not two hours before staring at the box of lifeless puppets, I was in Bloomington talking to a former teacher at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University, whose house was filled to the brim with tapestries, paintings, teapot sets, rug cozies as prizes, newspaper clippings and ANYTHING from her time in China.  She told me about how much the students would love me and how she might be a little more than envious of me for going there because she misses the food.  

“Within a day, you’ll know you’re in a completely different place.  You’ll love it there.”

The more she talked about “there,” the more I realized that “there” was exactly where I wanted to be.  True, there are mundane things like “don’t drink the tap water” and “don’t serve anything in fours” (the Chinese word for 4 四, sounds very similar to the word for death 死), but even the mundane things got my heart racing.  We talked about classroom ettiquette, lesson-planning, being in China, traveling, packing, eating, making friends…really just about anything I could have wanted to know.  

“Don’t worry.  They’ll take care of you, I promise.”

Not only that, she told me with strong fervor to do EVERYTHING.  She said the school sometimes does outings and wants foreign teachers to tag along.  True, it’s a tactic to show how worldly the school is, but she said that it’s also a great way to get out there and do some things you might not have been able to otherwise.

Uh, I’m in.

Eventually, she had to kick me out of her house after three hours just so I could make it  to Puppet Wagon orientation on-time.  I’m sure we could have talked about China for six hours.  My head buzzing with all things China (except the corner of brain niggling me to somehow incorporate the first four lines of Chaucer’s “General Prologue” to demonstrate how much English has changed), I was a little more bubbly than usual when meeting the puppeteers for the first time.  We sat around the table in City Hall, eating our Kit-Kats and listening to Patty tell us about what it’s like to drive a trailer.  It’s a good age-range: Stephanie, a graduating senior in high school; Steven, a college kid studying Japanese and Creative Writing (and violin, seriously, we’re going to get along famously), and me, the college graduate playing the dancing monkey for five year olds before jetting off to China to teach college kids.  We’re rag-tag, but I think that gives us moxie.  

But, with a ludicrously short script about sandcastles, we might need to do more than that.

There’s time.  I’ll figure out how I fit into my many hats, and learn that everyone can switch roles depending on where they are at a particular moment.  Lessons come together.  Puppets grow on you….so long as you don’t think about it too much.  And close the lid on the box before turning the lights out.