Film, Thoughts: Midnight Special

As the eponymous character Mud says dreamily in the Jeff Nichols film Mud: “She is like a dream you don’t want to wake up from.”

This is how I feel about Jeff Nichols’ oeuvre: He creates films grounded in reality, characters bogged down by darkness that are trying, desperately, to do right, and yet there’s something hazy, surreal, even, about them that draws you in, hypnotizes.

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Nichols has said in interviews (this is me paraphrasing, natch) that he does not care for weighty, unnecessary exposition. That he strives for emotion over plot. This, I think, leads to a richness and depth to his characters, which compliments the natural unfurling of his stories (with zero info dumps, I might add, to date!) he’s known for. There is plot in each of his films, absolutely, but it’s secondary to crafting very real worlds, wherever/whatever they may be, and very real characters. In the case of Midnight Special, we believe in Michael Shannon’s pain, his love for his enigmatic/alien son. When we see glimpses at the end of a world that sits atop our own, see beings made of pure light walk among us for a moment, towering, otherworldly structures twisting up and peering down at us…it’s not silly. It’s gut-wrenching and tender. Like the gobsmacked bystanders we hover over, we’re in awe, too.

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I think, if pressed, I’d say Take Shelter is my favorite of Nichols’ films, but there’s something so wonderful about Midnight Special, its frenetic energy, its ability to pierce my nostalgia center while still giving me something new and startlingly unique, that makes me think I may, upon subsequent viewings, change my mind and re-order this list someday.

Look, this is everything I want a movie to be. We’re drenched with stellar performances, and even the background players—whose characters aren’t nearly as fleshed out (nor need to be), such as Adam Driver and Joel Edgerton—are lush and full of life and histories. We don’t see these histories on screen—for example, we don’t find out where Kirsten Dunst’s character has been the past couple of years—but we believe that there are stories there, events that have happened, and see this guilt and weatherdness and history in the dialog (written) and the performances (acted). And, again, there’s no unnecessary info dumps here—Do we ever really know what The Ranch is? What they were previously doing prior to Alton’s downloaded sermons? No, and it doesn’t matter)—and the film is better for it. We get what we get, when we get it, and not a moment before. And that, to me, is a strategy I wish more filmmakers/screenwriters would embrace (which The Witch also did so well): to trust in our ability to figure it out.

This is a pulpy chase film with serious heart, serious acting chops, gorgeously shot and scored, with a supernatural third act that’s incredibly moving, and I can’t stop thinking about it, can’t recommend it enough.

My score: 5 out of 5 swim goggles


2016 Waasnode Fiction Prize runner-up

I am absolutely thrilled and honored that my story “She Lit a Fire” has been selected as runner-up for Passages North‘s 2016 Waasnode Fiction Prize runner-up.

Judge Tiphanie Yanique had this to say about it:

This story is written smartly from the first person perspective of a father who is witnessing his transgendered child’s transition from male to female. Though the father is a dead beat and the child an angsty young adult, the reader feels for both of them as they navigate the American wilderness on an impromptu camping trip. A darkness at the heart of the trip keeps the reader feeling on edge. Ultimately, it is the dad who undergoes at least a couple of transitions over the course of the story.

“She Lit a Fire” will be appearing in Issue 38, which is due out in 2017. I am humbled and so excited and can’t thank the judges enough for selecting my piece. Eep!

Check out the Passages North site for more information.

Interview at WMUK (NPR)

I was recently interviewed by Zinta Aistars for her WMUK (NPR Affiliate) program Between the Lines about my work with the non-profit Writers’ Center Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters (GLCL):

Robert Russell is the director of development at GLCL. Asked about what GLCL does, he brims with enthusiasm. “Literary arts are open to everyone. Anyone can write down thoughts. You don’t have to be published. There is healing in writing. It’s a kind of therapy, and it also connects people. I’ve always thought the literary arts are vastly under-appreciated.”

You can listen to the entire interview at the above link. And you can find out about GLCL here.

Thanks to Zinta and everyone at WMUK for having me—I’m beyond honored to be able to participate in this important conversation.

Film, Thoughts: High-Rise

tumblr_o2a5fep0Gf1uwj95yo7_400What a nutty, screwy, wonderful, beautiful, sense-tingly film High-Rise is. This is, after all, based on the Ballard novel of the same name, so there isn’t much I can dissect that hasn’t already been dissected from the source material, I’m sure, so instead this will be a bit ramble-y and love letter-y…

First, though: I’m stumped as to some of the backlash this film has received (last year, when it was touring festivals, especially). While I am, in no sense of the word, a critic—able to critique with any substance, I mean—I do wonder if the notion of Ballard’s novel escapes some: a fable reminding us that we’re only just removed from being wild animals, the fabric of society, the invisible barriers and rules and laws we surround ourselves with, that command us, are so easily made to crumble, giving way to frenetic chaos.

I don’t know. I think that the source material, the story, speaks for itself. I don’t think there’s much else we need to gleam from it.  So it being lost, what the story is trying to do, say…I don’t know.

tumblr_o0l8br7hCj1qhtpi8o1_500But! I do know this was a feast for the eyes, the ears. The acting—most notably from Luke Evans—was as good as it gets, the sets were meticulously luscious, the cinematography was some of the best (outside of The Witch) I’ve seen this year, and the soundtrack, the sound mixing, was impeccable. Again, the movie wears its themes on its sleeves, there isn’t any guessing as to what it’s trying to talk about, so going into this, watching this, as it unfolds, just enjoying it through your senses, was the way to go, I think. It all came together as a work of art in every sense of that phrase—where peeling back meaning wasn’t crucial to the fable being spun—so sitting back, taking part as spectator in the visceral brutality, the Bacchanal revelry, is refreshing…necessary.

I should also note that I am a huge fan of Ben Wheatley’s work, and this is his sharpest, best-dressed film to date (although, Kill List remains my favorite of his body of work). He’s a talent on the rise, and this movie shows he can handle bigger budgets, bigger actors, and still give us something wonderfully wacky and beautiful and poignant.

Aside: Why isn’t this a straight 5 for me? I’m not sure. I loved this movie—a lot. I don’t know why something is a 4.5 or a 4 or a 5…it’s just a gut feeling. It wasn’t perfect, this film, but it nearly was. Re-watchability, maybe? I’m not sure, and, anyway, it’s nitpicking. This was a gloriously mad romp indeed.

My score: 4.5 out of 5 paint cans


Essay: The Days After

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The following is a micro-essay that first appeared on Twitter, which I’ve edited and pasted here in its entirety. Here are the others, in this, my series of micro-essays:

The Horizon Eaters
We Buy Gold
All the Boys and Girls
Infinite Ocean


 “Now, my straw reaches acroooooooss the room
and starts to drink your milkshake. I… drink… your… milkshake!”
—Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood

Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds is a shit tipper.

I know this because for a brief moment in time I waited tables at a (now-closed) ‘50s-inspired diner in Redondo Beach, California, and at said diner, on my first day of training, I saw the man, Donald Gibb, in the furthest-back booth, a behemoth of a man hunched over and wearing a too-tight leather jacket, wild long hair, a beard, the same beard you can see him wearing in pretty much every movie he’s ever been in. And yes, you do know this man: Beyond his most famous role in Revenge of the Nerds, he starred alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport, and has had bit parts in way-too-many-to-name TV shows and movies. He’s iconic, in his B-movie kind of way, and me, a fan of Nerds, of Bloodsport, recognized him instantly.

“That’s Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds,” I whispered to my trainer, a wiry guy from Virginia that had been trying to “make it” in Hollywood for years, his slight drawl indicating he had been trying, too, to eradicate any accent he had come to La La Land with.

This job was, in hindsight, weird and awful: a poorly-run diner that, in addition to the usual greasy fare, had an impressive and head-of-its-time “health menu” that lured in an eclectic crowd (at best). (I will never forget that, yes, they did have a jukebox, but hardly anyone put in money for it so it would cycle through the usual Oldies fair and then, randomly, the entirety of Beck’s Sea Change. How’s that for mood-setting.)

Anyway, I said, “I’m a huge fan. That guy’s great!”

“Well, just so you know, he doesn’t pay for anything. Ever.” Virginia Guy was serious, filling his apron with straws and napkins.


“[Manager/Owner] just told us, Ogre ever comes in, he doesn’t pay. No one with Ogre pays, actually.”

I looked over and realized, then, who was with him—eight additional adults, no children, and they looked hungry. I didn’t recognize any of them as actors (I’m good like that), so assumed it was family, friends. I didn’t press, and off we went to give our spiel as if he hadn’t been here before (I’d learn soon enough his trips in were frequent, frequent).

Virginia Guy turned it on, introduced me, the new waiter who was training, read off the specials. Ogre didn’t really meet our eyes, had his slightly lowered to match his hunch, his massive puddled forearms on the Formica table. After the talking stopped, Ogre looked at everyone at the table individually, whispered to them, then, menus set down, seemingly ordered half of it. No one looked at us, or each other, everywhere but us. But Virginia Guy took it down, smiled, and I smiled and followed him back to the prep area.

One of the diner’s specialties was milkshakes, thick ones. And this would be my trial by milkshake. Virginia Guy told me to make the three that Ogre ordered for the table. I had only made one that day, previous, only one ever, to be honest (and under great supervision), and Virginia Guy left to smoke, so here I was, alone at the milkshake station, a busy Saturday, no one giving me the time of day.

See, you ever make a really good milkshake? It’s a messy affair, ingredients flying everywhere, your hands get messy, your polo shirt-as-uniform gets messy, hair, too, all of it. It takes effort, especially when adding in Oreos, not trying to grind them too much, leaving some crunch, but when you’re done, when it’s there, thick and piled high, when you can turn the tin upside down and see none of it spill out because of its thickness, you know you’ve done something pretty neat: transformed milk and ice cream into something else altogether, a caloric dairy nectar bomb.

Somehow—somehow—I managed to make the milkshakes, and, since Virginia Guy was still gone, I took some initiative and went to the table by myself. As I approached, balancing them carefully on my tray, the group, who were otherwise engaged in some sort of conversation, stopped, watched me. Ogre, that 6’4” beast of a man, looked up only once, at me, through me, then back down, quiet, waiting. I dropped them off, smiled. No one talked—no one said a thing. I hovered a moment. “Anything else?” I asked. Ogre shook his head, couldn’t say a thing, didn’t even grin.

Later, reeking of Parliaments, Virginia Guy yelled at me for bringing the milkshakes out. “He’s a special client,” he told me. “A special customer. Have to treat them with respect.”

I apologized, and we moved on. Ogre and his crew devoured everything—every last bite. And when it came to the bill, as had been foretold, there was none. A polite exchange of pleasantries, Virginia Guy telling Ogre he was “all set,” and he and I retreated, watched as Ogre and his crew hunkered out into the night, not looking back once.

Back at the table, waiting for us: a few dollar bills, crumpled, yes, and paper-weighted down by the ketchup bottle. I was angry. “How can he not leave a good tip? We just gave him like fifty bucks of free food? And it took me so much energy to make those milkshakes.”

“It’s the arrangement,” Virginia Guy says. “Besides, I try to be cool so maybe he’ll think of me, get me a part.”

“Ogre? He hasn’t been in anything in…who knows how long.”

“It’s LA. You never know until you know.”

I spent the rest of the night—back at home in the one-bedroom I shared with a friend from college instead of working on my “screenplays” I was sure would make me rich and famous—thinking about this, absorbing the whole situation. This guy, who happened to star in a couple of hit things, decades old, even then, entitled his way to free food whenever he wanted. And everyone just thought it was okay. I mean, who wouldn’t want that, but me, being on the other end, couldn’t fathom—thought it was wrong. Thought he should know better.

I worked at the diner for about six months and did wait on Ogre a couple more times, and yes, every time, a shit tip, but I started wondering if, maybe, he was doing it on purpose. Maybe he was saying, in his own way, “I’m not going to give you a leg-up. I’m going to make you work for it the way I had to.” The last time I waited on him he came in alone, same booth as always. He ordered, among other things, an apple pie milkshake made with real apple pie blended in. It took me nearly ten minutes to make it just right. When he left, like clockwork, a couple dollar bills waited for me. He had barely acknowledged me, left only when I had been back in the kitchen looking for another order. So, yeah, maybe this guy—not king of the world, not by a long-shot, a guy I’d later learn would open up his own bar in Chicago (still open, I hear)—is teaching me a lesson about perseverance, about working hard for what I want in life. Or, maybe, probably, Ogre thinks 5% gratuity is enough.

GLCL Digital Fundraiser

Flier - GLCL digital fundraiser

In January 2016 I started working as Director of Development for the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters, a non-profit Writers’ Center dedicated to encouraging, promoting, and celebrating the craft of writing, the endeavors of writers, and the importance of the literary arts in the communities of the Great Lakes region.

I love this organization, this position. I love being able to help people discover the joys of writing, help them discover writers, new things to read.

However, we are a nonprofit, and we exist only with help from the public. That’s why through Saturday, April 23, I’m hosting a mini digital fundraiser. Our goal: $1,000 to be raised completely online. All proceeds will go to fund GLCL’s operational support, as well as projects and programs new and returning. (And we have some amazing things coming up—residencies, awards, manuscript consultations, panels…you name it.) These donations go towards keeping our doors open, making us space for writers, to bring in people who may not get to learn about writing and the importance of it otherwise.

What I’m asking from people—strangers, family and friends alike—is that even if you don’t live in the Grand Rapids/Great Lakes Region, to be a good literary citizen and help us out. Literally any amount helps—even $1. All supporters, too, will get added to our donor directory.

So, please: Give what you can. Help us out. Tell your friends. This is important and necessary and vital for our existence. Thanks in advance for your support!

And if you want to know more about the GLCL, we live here:


Essay: Infinite Ocean

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The following is a micro-essay that first appeared on Twitter, which I’ve edited and pasted here in its entirety. Here are the others, in this, my series of micro-essays:

The Horizon Eaters
We Buy Gold
All the Boys and Girls


I don’t come from a family of water-lovers. My dad can’t swim, is terrified of the open water, and my mom, even when I was a kid—bless her—refused to get her hair wet at the lake and would send her sister, my aunt, in to play with us instead. But this never stopped me: I took swim lessons when I was a kid, was on an intramural swim team in elementary school, played water polo on the high school team and swam for one season, too. And I was spoiled, when I was younger: I grew up thirty minutes from Lake Michigan, a fresh water sea with no sharks, no predators (but a dangerous undertow in parts, yes), so I’d go on weekends with friends, wade out as far as I could, feel the velvety sand lake floor on my feet, and play in it for hours. Even now, I love the water: I love how it feels, I love the mystery of it, I love feeling so small being in it. Some of my absolute favorite memories from trips I’ve had are being in the water, watching, from my vantage, the beach, the scenery, bobbing there in the waves, a voyeur watching that mysterious land, studying it, its people.

The summer after my senior year in high school, the last summer before college, all I could think about was saving money. My job at Subway wasn’t cutting it, and a friend from church who worked as an assistant manager at a boating store—a popular brand of chain boating stores—said they were looking for someone. I applied, and although my family did not have a boat—and I had only been on paddle boats up to that point in my life—I was hired…as a cashier. That was my job—that’s it. Cashier. There was a quiet dignity, I thought. Stand there, check people out, make nearly $10 an hour (which, in the late ‘90s, was H-U-G-E). Enjoy the summer, get ready for college.

Most of my early days were spent watching the Nicole Kidman/Billy Zane/Sam Neil thriller Dead Calm on the VHS/TV combo that was supposed to be used to play a loop cassette of a boat wax commercial. Most days…it was dead, just me and a manager working, and when the cool manager was working, my friend from church, this is what we did. But, you see, boating stores are weird like that: You don’t get a lot of customers every day, but the ones that do come in end up buying sonar for fishing or night vision goggles (no idea why, but we had a huge collection of them), boat shoes, polish, you name it…and it added up quick. And, as summer pressed on, my solitude changed: As the weather got nicer, more boating-friendly, we became busier. What didn’t change, though, was the staff: it was still a small store, and unless it was a Saturday or Sunday, it was just me and a manager working. And that’s when trouble started.

Boaters would come in, almost always precipitous and harried as if this was their natural state, and me, up at the cashier, plunked right up front, was the first person they saw. This was fine. This was part of the job, and I knew this. They’d ask what aisle the wax was in (such a popular item, boat wax!), and I’d smile, and point them to it. Shoes, gear? No problem. Line (not ropenever rope)—I got this. But then, it changed: “Say, guy, I have a 24’ Glassmaster 244 Cruiser…and I’m wondering if you can show me the spark plugs and tell me which ones to get. I need to get this thing fixed pronto.”

Now, sure, there was a big yellow-page-sized book in the back that you could look up boat models and makes, find out what goes with what, and I could suss that out, sure, but I was dumbfounded. This wasn’t…my job, I thought. At first, when this started happening, I could pawn the customer off on my boss, whoever else was working. They’d know what to do without having to look it up. But when a rash of people would come in, all looking to me as some sort of expert (after all, I did work at a boating store!), I HAD to play along. At first I played up my ignorance: “I’m sorry, I don’t really know boats. I’m just the cashier.” But eventually that wasn’t good enough. Impatient boaters needed to get that ONE item so they could get back on the water, and I was standing in the way of that happening. So, I had to learn to play along. I had to become one of them.

So, I invented a fake history for my family—we were now a family of boaters who loved the water, loved everything about it. We were a boating family with a 30’ cabin cruiser of some kind—I don’t recall which…Arrowcat, maybe? Crownline? Chris Craft?—and we, gleefully, went to Lake Michigan on weekends and hung out and sunned ourselves and laughed together and lived the perfect life. (This pretend life was much better than we actually were, a dysfunctional family who didn’t really like spending time together, a family that had grown apart in so many ways.)

But it worked. Boaters began to trust me. It made my job easier. I went from getting side-eyed stares from my bosses (who, I think, didn’t actually like me), and stink-eye from the customers (Look at this non-boater who has infiltrated our realm!) to being king of the store. I would tell them what wax my family used, what shoes we wore, tell them about a vacation we took, and they took me into their fold: they told me jokes, anecdotes, gave me their names, their family’s names. They made me one of their own.

I hardly remember any of that now, any of my fake history. I do remember how easily I slipped out of it after that blur of a summer, back to my non-boating life. When I got to college I so easily left it all behind, the fake stuff, the hard stuff, to reinvent myself again—truer, this time, the real Rob for the first time, clawed out of West Michigan. It wasn’t the worst job I ever had, not by a long shot (looking at you, janitor job at the residence hall), but it was the strangest. I had never before been made to feel like I didn’t belong. I had never before been made to feel like I wasn’t good enough. That was what stuck with me—even to this day, all these years later: I still feel the need to prove myself, that I’m a good enough writer, publisher, editor, a good enough human being. I probably always will, too. Maybe this was part of my personality all along—brought out by a strange and odd lifestyle choice I still find utterly fascinating. Now, though, I’m comfortable with who I am, with who I’ve become, and I don’t invent histories any longer, I don’t gloss over the hard parts of life that are needed, I think, to understand where you’ve come from and where you need to go. But, if I’m being completely honest, a part of me will always be that awkward 18 year-old kid, eyes bugged out, palms sweating, listening to someone prattle on about their outboard motor, the cracks in their hull, the fishing trip they’re planning two weeks out, trying to get these people, these strangers, to like me.

Film, Thoughts: The Witch

There are a thousand different ways to read and interpret this film: religious, feminist, historical, or, as the sub-title of the film flat-out says, just as a folk-tale. But, no matter how you come away from this film and what it makes you think about, it is one of the finest, tensest, most masterful films I’ve seen in years.


I’m not going to talk too much about the plot, because, really, the marketing folks have done an A+ job of not giving too much of the story away, which is commendable, to be sure, and I think going in fresh, experiencing everything director Robert Eggers throws at you, is to your best interest. But, I will say this: I’m drawn to films about isolation, especially when it deals with landscape (books, too, really)—how do we interact with, survive, in some instances, in these types of places? What does it do to us? Can we see the beauty of an un-tampered-with forest? Or is it bleak, frightening, a place to never set foot in?—and this film is a masterclass in dealing with these issues.

But more than that, this movie is deeply unsettling, not in a “horror” way (in fact, I’d be more comfortable calling this a period psychological thriller, rather than a horror film). Puritans are an interesting case study, to be sure, believing America was a gift of god—the Promised Land—and believing every bump, every owl’s hoot, was some demon come to test them (or worst). And that is, probably, how this movie achieves this level of unease, start to finish, that I can’t compare to any other film: we meet these fanatical puritans from the get-go, too fanatical, even, for their own community, and we understand then it’s an us-vs-them mentality consisting, literally, of this new world against them. It makes it easy to be in their shoes, then, narratively-speaking, and we’re on edge alongside them. You see the surrounding forests near their homestead, and at first, you think, my god, beautiful (because, really, the cinematography is gorgeous), but then, quite instantaneously, we feel dread the way they feel dread. It’s a genius bit of filmmaking in that way, a miraculous way to get us to care about these characters and to indoctrinate us to their plight.

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In addition, there are a lot of very interesting questions this film doles out regarding our relationship to nature even now; we feel as if we can tame it but never quite can—something always happens to remind us that Mother Nature is, indeed, in charge.

Regardless, this is a beautiful film. I understand the need to market this as horror in order to get people in the seats, but I don’t think that’s correct here. This is a period piece, a piece about a family, their struggles with an oppressive religion that offers very little actual insight into the world, and how they learn to deal with this new landscape as it pushes back. There are a lot of exciting films coming out in 2016, to be sure, but I’m finding it hard to believe there’s going to be one as exciting, as well made, as The Witch.

My score: 5 out of 5 nefarious rabbits




Essay: All the Boys and Girls

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The following is a micro-essay that first appeared on Twitter, which I’ve edited and pasted here in its entirety. Here are the others:

The Horizon Eaters
We Buy Gold


Or: Those Puppet Years

His name was Toby.

He had soft electric blue hair, yellow felt skin, and googly eyes. Toby was, yes, a puppet. I was at church—Sunday School—and in each of the rooms off the main hall there were groups waiting for students. The idea was that we would find a group (choir, volunteering for kitchen duty, etc.) to invest our time in. I was nine or ten, and I hated this idea: I already had to go to church for Mid-week classes (our version of Catechism), Sunday School, and church…and that was enough. But then I wandered into a room filled with puppets of all sizes, shapes, types. And, having grown up with the Muppets, with everything Jim Henson, I was hooked.

Puppets—a Puppet Ministry, they called it—was a new idea for my church. The Youth Group wanted a way to reach out to more people, more students, especially, not just in our church, but in churches throughout Michigan and the Midwest. And, as a kid who was really sheltered, the thought of going to some other church, meeting other kids who didn’t go to the same school as me—that new blood I found so mysterious and alluring—I was hysterically excited. Plus, it would get me out of going to church a couple Sundays a month for performances, so that was pretty swell, too.

My folks loved this, the idea of me being involved with the church, and they didn’t, always, go with me on overnight trips where we’d be touring, which I thought was very adult and absurdly cool. I was fast approaching the end of elementary school, excited to start middle school, excited to, eventually, be a teenager, and I was coming out of my shell a bit. (Just a bit.) And this Puppet Ministry was a chance to get out, to see other, new places, and to have a bit of independence, too. See, I joke—often—that any awkwardness I exude around other people, any self-perceived weirdness, is my latent Lutheranism rearing its head. But, I’ve come to realize it isn’t really a joke. I don’t consider myself an awkward person—prone to awkwardness, absolutely—but there is a genuine shyness that, I think, has to do with being from the Midwest and growing up Lutheran. And, even then, I recognized that I wanted more from life, so puppets, doing this, of all things…I saw it as a way to embrace what was churning inside me. And getting to hang out with church friends, a really hip Youth Pastor I greatly admired, travel around…an emphatic yes yes yes.


Here’s how the Puppet Ministry worked—what we did: We had puppets that we bought, all sorts of humans and animals and vegetables and angels, and a Jesus puppet, too, of course, and we would get these pre-recorded skit tapes and songs, all with Christian themes. We had this massive stage built with PVC pipe and thick black curtains; this was the performance area, which we had to assemble and disassemble before and after every performance. The puppeteers would enter from this little enclosed area from the back, through a slit in the curtain like we were going on some grand (hidden) stage, and we’d sit or kneel, put the puppets up so they appeared waist-high above the curtain (they had no lower halves, anyway), and then motion and mouth and move along to the recording.

And it was hard. Really.

It took a lot of practice to be good, to not just flap the puppet’s head so it looked like it a seesaw. (The key is to move just your thumb, snuggly fitted in the puppet’s lower jaw, keeping the top part of the hand, and by extension the head, as still as possible, to mimic the way we talk in real life. And, while this is going on, your other hand is responsible for articulating two metal rods attached to the puppet’s wrists, attempting any sort of realistic/feasible hand movements.) And, for whatever reason, I was born to do this. I could keep my arm up the longest, had the best rhythm, gesticulated the best, and my enthusiasm was unparalleled. I remember, in 7th Grade, maybe late 6th Grade, when they promoted me to Lead Puppeteer. I thought, Yeah, I deserve this. I had worked hard, and no one could puppet the way I could puppet. I even got to be the sole puppeteer of Gerbert.*

*Gerbert is basically the Christian version of Kermit the Frog, an orange-skinned and lemon-headed child in a baseball cap with a squirting, halting voice that hands down religious life lessons. He was famous (maybe still is?), had a TV show, and, again, we’d buy tapes with his skits and songs, had an official Gerbert puppet, too, and would perform these wherever we went. And, no joke: kids worshiped him. They cheered for Gerbert when he popped up, and me, being behind the curtain, hand in Gerbert, ate it up. After all…he was me. Those cheers, then, were for me, too.

We’d practice a couple nights per week, every week. My dad, an avid tinkerer, built props for us, giant neon-spray-painted and black-light-receptive signs to be popped up during the skit or song or whatever we were doing. Then, on weekends, we’d tour around and/or perform at our own church. We’d go to competitions a couple times per year, too, massive meet-ups of other churches and their puppet groups where’d you’d compete and be judged on the quality of the puppets and props, skill of the puppeteers, overall enthusiasm, creativity, etc.

I was having the time of my young life.


It all changed when I hit 8th Grade. I was starting to move away from the church and its teachings, questioning everything. (I can pinpoint almost exactly when it started, that year, when a Sunday School teacher of mine stumbled after I questioned about dinosaurs, why they weren’t mentioned in the Bible, etc., and she scolded me, said something to the effect of, “Don’t ask any more questions, Robby! Religion isn’t about questions!”) Because I’d been having doubts about it all, about everything, it made stomaching the saccharine songs and skits that much more difficult, but really, if I’m being honest, it was about the fact I wanted to talk to girls, to be a “normal” kid, and I didn’t see puppets as normal—I started seeing it as weird, an oddity. Gone was the pride I had only a year or so before, replaced now with a spiral of shame. No one could know I was involved with this—no one!

A friend from church made fun of me once in 9th Grade, the last year I picked up a puppet, in front of a whole bunch of non-church friends, and that was, as I saw it, the literal end. I had only agreed to do puppets again that year because my parents were gutted when I told them I wanted out, had lost interest. But now, with people at school hearing about this…that was too far. So I (graciously, as I saw it) kept it up until the “season” ended, then bowed out. My youth pastor was dejected, my parents disappointed, and none of the other puppeteers and parents could understand why I wanted to be gone.

And then I was. And I never looked back.

My non-church friends who didn’t know about this part of my life already were never told. Those that did were sworn to secrecy. And I moved on to other things in my life and put puppeteering, puppets, and church, all behind me.

But now, twenty-ish years later, still no longer part of any church (this isn’t about that), I find myself coming back to those puppet years often and remembering them fondly, almost longingly. I was a child, I wanted to explore, I wanted to be liked—and, really, I wanted to make a difference in some way. Puppeteering gave me all of that. I was still shy in high school, really didn’t emerge into Fully Formed Adult Rob until college, but I absolutely believe that time with the Puppet Ministry is when I began to move away from ultra-reserved hidden-away Michigan boy, letting the chatty, silly boy who lurked there beneath—the real me—break free. I’m thankful for that. And I get it: So many of us move away from childish endeavors (or, what we perceive as childish endeavors) during adolescence. I don’t regret that specifically—I don’t wish that I had become a professional puppeteer, or anything like that—but it is a weird duality: being a part of that Puppet Ministry that I hated so much in the end helped me focus on my writing, my drawing, too, and it made me fearless(-ish) in wanting to try out new things and experiences and meeting new people—which I still carry with me today. And, I have to think, that it was all worth it, no matter what Adolescent Robby thought.


At my folks’ house, when I visit, I occasionally rifle through bags and tubs of old toys and knickknacks from when I was a kid. Last time I was there I came across a wolf puppet—a puppet I loved dearly when I was a kid. I found myself on the couch, hours later, with the wolf still firmly attached to my hand, watching television, only half-paying attention to what I was doing, pantomiming the wolf’s mouth along to the commercials that whizzed by in thirty second spots. I petted his fur, lingered on the glass marble eyes staring blankly ahead, the white plastic teeth that looked good for their age, only just starting to yellow. I was smiling.


Side note: The title of this essay is taken from a Christian rendition of Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” that goes a little something like this:

Jeremiah was a prophet / Moses was a prophet too. / Jesus Christ was the Son of God / and man His love shines down on you. / Yes His love shines down on you. / Singing Joy to the World / All the boys and girls / Joy to children of Galilee / Joy to you and me. 

[and onward, etc.]