From grackle to fraggle, from moppet to muppet

Last week the Muppets came to my rescue (again) when Adela caught the coxsackie virus and was feverish and in a lot of pain. She loves both Big Bird and Elmo, and when I’m really desperate, I let her watch El Mundo de Elmo on Hulu. Before the music even starts, she’s shimmying and shaking her head.

Around the same time, I also finished reading Brian Jay Jones’ biography of Jim Henson, a book so in demand at my e-library that I nearly went a year on the hold list before my name finally came up!

But it was a book I wasn’t going to pass up and I read it quickly. Jim Henson is one of the few famous people I consider an inspiration, and Jones had unprecedented access to Henson’s journal and family. While mostly a favorable portrait, Jones also includes the frustrations in Henson’s life. Namely, he had a relentless work ethic that frequently made his family and employees feel ignored, even if he was always kind and soft-spoken to them. His troubles communicating with his wife — Muppet co-creator, Jane — led to the marriage fracturing, but he did somehow manage to keep strong relationships with her and his five children until he died suddenly in 1990 (I still remember hearing the news, even though I was a young teen at the time).

But his troubles are minimal when compared to his endless creativity and lifework. As Jones convinces us, Henson was truly driven by filling the world with goodness, whether that was via humor (the Muppets parodied the news long before the Daily Show was around), storytelling or gorgeous filmmaking. He loved children (a “moppet” is a small, sweet child), he loved silliness, and he loved stories that ended absurdly — like a monster who devours all the cookies, or Grover being shot out of a cannon.

But what really sealed Henson’s status as God-like in my mind was reading about one of his most common inspirations: nature. I didn’t know he supported environmental causes and loved birding (Big Bird, hello? It just makes sense once you find out.). One of his favorite words, grackle, was the likely inspiration for “fraggle.”  (Which, if you’re not a dorky nature geek like me, a grackle is a social, chatty, skilled problem-solving sub-set of bird species which includes the whipsmart great-tailed grackle, a common bird from my homelands in South Texas.)

“Nature was both his muse and his solace. It recharged and re-inspired him,” Jones wrote.

I know exactly how that feels, though I’ll never match the creative output or impact of Henson. But I’m OK with simply introducing Adela to his incredible world, and to the world of nature.