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On Being Green

A thank you to felt frogs and difficult moms.

 

When my mother was ill, in the late 1980s, she watched a lot of Sesame Street. We had what was probably first generation cable. If memory serves, the channels were letters….can that be right? Anyway, she had choices, but she’d always been an avid supporter of Public Television, and she chose Sesame Street.

 

We were a Children’s Television Network kind of family. We partook of all the offerings — Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Electric Company, you name it. I understand that Morgan Freeman looks back on his Electric Company days as difficult times. I’m afraid if I ever met him I’d just hug him and not let go. That voice narrated my early years. Bob McGrath, from Sesame Street, lived in my hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey, and my younger sister was the same age as his daughter. She played at their house! One day I called over to see if my sister had headed home for dinner yet, and got completely tongue-tied when I realized I was talking to Bob. The Bob. From Sesame Street. He answered his own phone! I couldn’t have anticipated that.

 

I have such fond memories of that show. It was a constant in my at times confusing childhood. And while it’s true that the TV in general was often my babysitter, Sesame Street has a special place for me. I still have warm feelings for the people who kept me company. It’s an impressive list, including Ray Charles, The Count, Gordon, Lena Horne, Prairie Dawn, Lily Tomlin, Big Bird, and Guy Smiley (the best Muppet name ever.)

 

It’s not that easy being green

Having to spend each day the color of the leaves

When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold

Or something much more colorful like that

 

On my mother’s gravestone we wrote, under her name, Artist, Wife, Mother. It wasn’t a dig, it was just the truth. She was first and foremost an artist, and a brilliant one, but a difficult personality and hard to live with. When the symptoms first showed, she made adjustments. She moved from printmaking to water colors and collage. But eventually she couldn’t do those things either. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but I should tell you that there were no half measures with that woman; she never had a mild case of anything. So true to form, she got hit pretty hard. She couldn’t walk much of the time. She retained urine but was also incontinent. Her hands were numb and shakey, and her memory got increasingly bad. She would get our names right most of the time, but she’d also obsess over certain things and return to them repeatedly. “That stupid man, my father,” she’d say, over and over. For a long time, she’d keep telling you the color of her eyes, which were green. And she’d repeat everything she heard, even the announcements over the paging system when she was at the hospital. She’d say, “Dr. Patel, extension 2541” in the exact same inflection as the voice of the pager. When a patient down the hall would yell for the nurse, Mom’s voice would follow immediately after. “Nurse!”

 

She also benefited from the Spanish language instruction on Sesame Street, and would practice it all the time.

 

“Mom, are you ready for lunch?”

“Sí.”

 

Or,

 

“How many cookies would you like?”

“Dos.”

 

Once she said, about something or other, “Wunderbar. I don’t know why I’m speaking Spanish all of a sudden.” We were like, “Ma, that was German.” “It was?”

 

My dad moved his business home, to what had been her basement studio, so if she needed something, she’d call his office number from the bedroom phone upstairs. Once, he came home from a quick errand and found this collection of messages, all left within a few minutes of each other.

 

Beep. Pete? It’s a little cold up here, would you bring me a blanket?

Beep. It’s me. Pretty chilly, when you get a chance.

Beep. Pete, are you there? Still need that blanket, I’m cold.

Beep. It’s not easy being green.

 

I told you she was really into that show. But this phrase came up again and again. She said it all the time. And it seems significant to me. It’s one of my favorite songs ever. Just the simplest, most beautiful argument for being who you are that I know of. It was written by Joe Raposo and though first made famous by Kermit the Frog, it’s been covered by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Bob McGrath and Oscar the Grouch to name just a few, but the standout version for me is by Van Morrison.

 

The writer was Joe Raposo, and he died young just like my mother did, and in the same year, 1989. Studies done that year about the song, which made its debut in the first season of Sesame Street, showed that most little kids didn’t get the fact that Kermit ends up happy about his greenness. They come away with the idea that it’s all melancholy. And thinking back, I might have felt like that too. I know I didn’t love it then like I love it now. And maybe it’s because of Van Morrison that I ever perked up and realized that it’s the best freaking song ever. His version will give you the chills.

 

It’s not easy being green

It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things

And people tend to pass you by 'cause you're

Not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water

Or stars in the sky

 

My mother was not a gentle teacher, but the lessons were good ones. And the wondering why that comes when your mother dies at the age of 47 – way before you would ever have even started making peace with her – may lead one to read too much into the little things at the end. Even so. She knew how to be who she was. It wasn’t all that easy for us kids to be who we were, what with her being who she was all over the place. But she was better at accepting herself than most people I know. Certainly better than I’ve been at accepting me. Some days I’m not even close. But this song is there to teach me, over and over, since it’s somehow so easy to forget, that there’s another side to the being you coin that is completely and unequivocally awesome, no matter who you are. And she said the title a hundred times before she died. It seems to me that even if that doesn’t mean anything, it’s okay to pretend it does.

 

Because green's the color of Spring,

and green can be cool and friendly-like.

It can be big like an ocean,

or important like a mountain,

or tall like a tree

 

There was a special done for Jim Henson a little while after he died. In it, Fozzie Bear gets a note from Kermit asking that the Muppets put together a tribute to Henson. But none of them know who he is. (Cue heartbreak.) So they talk to friends of his like Steven Spielberg, John Denver, and Frank Oz. And there are home movies and early show clips from the Muppets before there was Sesame Street. So in the end, they plan a big production number with Vikings, a whoopee cushion and some marching accountants. But then they find a stack of condolence letters from little kids to Kermit, with their little pictures and everything, saying how sorry they are that his friend died. But they hadn’t realized he was dead. And Gonzo says, “But we were just getting to know him!” And now that he sees how beloved Henson was, Fozzie loses faith in the production number being a fitting memorial. But wee Robin the Frog convinces him, and they all join in on a song called “Just One Person,” and even Big Bird shows up, in case you weren’t sobbing already, and then – THEN, in walks Kermit. And anyway, that’s the story of the time I thought I’d never stop crying.

 

I think we should pay tribute to the people who helped form us, so I’m here to thank Jim Henson, Joe Raposo and Florence Noa. Who all caught on early, thank goodness, about who they were and what they would spend their lives doing. I’m almost two years past the age my mother was when she died, and I’ve barely even gotten started. And it sometimes feels like I’ve wasted a lot of valuable time worrying about things it’s pointless to worry about. But I guess I shouldn’t worry about that either.

 

When green is all there is to be,

it could make you wonder why,

but why? Why wonder why?

I am green and it’ll do fine.

And it’s what I want to be.

 

 

Thanks for reading. Bein’ Green is also known as Being Green and It’s Not That Easy Being Green. It was written by Joe Raposo (February 8, 1937 — February 5, 1989) in 1970, and first made famous by Jim Henson/Kermit the Frog.