The soft simple lesson of Mr. Rogers

I am sure this story by Tom Junod is the best thing ever written about Mr. Rogers. It might be the best thing ever written about anybody, for that matter. So I am not going to embarrass myself by attempting to write some terrific Mr. Rogers thing.

But for the last 24 hours I have been thinking about Fred Rogers without stopping. It started when I saw that haunting and catchy “Garden of your mind” remix somebody did on YouTube.

I then went to Wikipedia, and found this wonderful quote, which Mr. Rogers said in court in the now-famous Betamax case. He was defending the use of recording devices like the VHS:

“Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions’ … I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.”

Then someone sent me a link to Junod’s piece. Then I watched Mr. Rogers give a speech to Congress, defending PBS back in the 60s. Watch him melt this senator:

Then, maybe the greatest moment of all is the one Junod mentions near the bottom of that story. It is Mr. Rogers accepting a Lifetime Achievement award at the Emmys– one of the biggest celebrations of self in our culture — in 1997. By that time he had spent almost 30 years as the host of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” a children’s show unlike any other. He wasn’t teaching us to count or spell, he was teaching us how to be human, how to handle our feelings, how to believe in ourselves. It was his vision and he had turned it into one of the most iconic television brands in history.

There he was at the Emmy’s, among the glitterati, on stage being honored for a lifetime of his work. You only get a couple of minutes up there, and this is how he used them:

Mr. Rogers died of stomach cancer in 2003, so he is no longer around to care about the way children are talked to or the things they’re learning from the medium he cared so much about, and mastered.

There will never be another Fred Rogers. Some people are one-off creations, and he was one of them. It is fitting that his message orbited so tightly around individuality. Mr. Rogers was never afraid to be who he was, to say what he felt and to work for what he believed in.

So even though there will never be another, I think we can take something from Mr. Rogers that even transcends his simple message. And I think what we can take from him is the incredible power of sincerity.

Mr. Rogers could pulverize you with it. Watching him speak in those videos made me feel like he crawled inside me and just started mixing everything around like a pot of stew.

Watching Mr. Rogers can give you the sensation the he was not of this world. You’ll see that idea in the comments on YouTube. But I think that’s the wrong idea. It suggests that he is gone for good and everything he was about left with him.

I hope that’s not the case, and I don’t think it is.


A brief word about crying babies on television

The season finale of Mad Men tonight included a crying baby scene, and all I could think was “can somebody please just shut that kid up?”

This is a pretty common human reaction, I think, to any crying baby, whether that crying baby is mediated or not, and especially if that crying baby is not your own. Call me insensitive or whatever. That’s fine. You know you’ve thought it.

However, I think most of us are reasonable enough to understand that crying babies are simply a part of life. We try to reduce our exposure to them, in the same way we seek to avoid watching other people defecate or reduce our exposure to house music, but a total elimination of crying babies from the human experience would not be a human experience at all.

And yet TV shows are constantly shoving crying babies onto the screen for no reason. The Mad Men scene to which I referred was not a baby-centered scene. The scene was not about the baby, and yet there was a baby, on the screen, bawling. If you’re like me, all you could think of during that scene was how much longer you were going to have to be listening to this baby. In my mind, nothing else was happening in the scene. They might as well have gone to a black screen and played crying baby sounds for five seconds.

Once again, I understand that crying babies are a part of life and, I don’t know, maybe if it’s your crying baby things are different. But a crying TV baby is nobody’s baby. It’s just a crying baby sound they probably recorded in the 70s. It is a minor irritation of everyday life that for some reason gets special treatment on television. They don’t show people taking poops on TV unless it’s a pooping scene. They don’t show people with little pieces of food on their face unless it’s a food on face scene. They don’t show people randomly getting flat tires on the way to something unless it’s a plot point.

And yet: crying babies.