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A beautiful day in the neighbourhood

by Deb Harratsch, editor, portHOLE[tm] by GoobNet

I arrived in the office on THU 27 FEB 2003 expecting a thoroughly rotten day.

Fred Rogers had died, a mere twelve hours earlier. That was such an immense bummer, I thought that it would make my day lousy. You can wake up in a bad mood and spread that bad mood around the office, which starts a vicious cycle that makes your mood even worse. Hell, I'd brought bad moods into the office several times. This seemed like the same sort of thing.

In some ways, sadness is worse than anger. When you're mad, you at least have some tangible target of your anger [usually, anyway]. But when you're sad, it's tougher to identify a solution. Besides, being mad usually motivates me to do something, either destructive or constructive; being sad doesn't motivate me to do anything.

The longtime host of the children's PBS programme Mister Rogers' Neighborhood had died the night before in Pittsburgh, PA. Why should that make me so sad? He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer at the start of this year, so his passing should not have come as a shock. I hadn't watched the show in something like twenty years, so it wasn't as though I felt an ongoing connection.

For a while I was the only one in the office, and so I had a lot of time to consider why it was that I felt so sad. It eventually seemed to me that I felt that sadness precisely because I hadn't seen the programme in so long. In my youth, I had watched Mister Rogers' Neighborhood many times. Mrs Anderson, who lived in the apartment two doors down from my mother and myself, would look after me after I returned from school each day, and so I spent many an afternoon there with Mister Rogers.

But I hadn't tuned in since I was about seven or eight. The general phenomenon in this country is that you avidly follow a television programme, fad, or whatever for a while, and then you "outgrow" it, whatever that means. I don't know when I felt that I'd outgrown Mister Rogers; it must have been about when I started first grade, when I started arriving home from school later.

It was at about this point in my musings that Edvard van de Kamp arrived in the office. He said hello, and when I turned around to greet him in response, he must have noticed my mood. "What's up?"

"Did you hear that Mister Rogers died?" I'd wanted to say "Fred Rogers", but the word "Mister" was easier for my tongue to create.

Edvard said that he'd heard something about "a kids' TV guy" on the radio. I asked him, "Didn't you get Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in the Netherlands?"

He said, "No. What was it?"

So I told him. I told him that Mister Rogers had been on the air for thirty years; that he wrote his own words, sang his own songs, and voiced his own puppets; that he had numerous special guests on his show. I described Mister Rogers' sweaters, his loafers, the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, Picture Picture, the Speedy Delivery man, King Friday XIII, the aquarium, the piano. In short, I tried to show him what he'd missed.

But I didn't feel as though I'd succeeded. He still seemed to lack a grasp of what it felt like to watch Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I started to think that this was what was making me sad. A new generation of children would have to grow up without the wisdom, guidance, and friendliness that my generation got from Fred Rogers.

It was about then that Reg Goober showed up. "Reg, help me out here," I called out. "Edvard's never seen Mister Rogers."

"You didn't get Mister Rogers in the Netherlands?"

"Nope. Deb's told me what it was like."

"I don't think you really get it, though," I told him.

"Of course not," Reg said. "The show was for young kids. If you'd seen it then, you'd get it. You won't get it now."

I wasn't so sure. I'd been thinking back to what I'd seen on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood back in the day, and I don't think it was just for kids. In fact, I think maybe I should have paid more attention to him. I've long kept my feelings to myself, but one thing that Mister Rogers told me was that it's okay to share my feelings, and it can even help.

It seems odd that I should think of that as something that Mister Rogers "told me". I've never met him; he's never walked into my living room, swapped his sport coat for a sweater and his dress shoes for loafers, and sat down in front of me. But it always felt that he was talking to me. When he brought us to a school or a shop in his Neighborhood, I could actually imagine being there and meeting everyone whom Mister Rogers introduced us to.

And that always made me feel awkward. I knew his name, but he could only introduce me as his "television friend". When he did that, I'd say to the television set, "My name's Deb".

Reg said exactly the same thing to Edvard. "It's like spending half an hour with a neighbor. I always felt as though we were spending that time together, like he was actually in my house. It didn't seem odd that he didn't know who I was; he'd always say, 'I like you just the way you are'."

"Exactly," I added. "It didn't matter that there was a screen in between us, or that he had to speak to us without assuming anything about us. We weren't good kids or bad kids or tall kids or short kids or nice kids or mean kids or boys or girls. We were just kids."

We wanted to show Edvard what Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was all about, but we'd missed the day's show. We would have a chance on Friday, though.

What really got to me was that I couldn't recall any specific occasions from the show. I wanted to recount the details of a programme to him, to tell him about one thing I had seen, but I just couldn't come up with anything.

Later, when Nathan arrived, he told a story. "You know, a while ago I couldn't get to sleep, so at 07:30 EDT or so I got up and turned on the television set. And who should I see but Mister Rogers himself? So he came in and sang 'Won't You Be My Neighbor', and then he said something like, 'It's been a while, hasn't it?' So I was like, 'It sure has, Mister Rogers'."

I jumped in, "See, I'm not the only one who talks to the TV."

"Well I didn't actually say it." He told us a little more about the show he watched: Mister Rogers and he [see? this was the first interactive TV] went to a dance studio, and then Mr McFeely brought a video about a marble factory. "Apparently they installed a VHS Picture Picture. In my day, it was always film reels." In the Neighborhood of Make Believe, King Friday didn't just say he was sorry, he actually was sorry.

Finally it was time for me to go home, but I still felt as though I'd let Edvard down. Did he really know what Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was like?

So I asked him, "Do you see what Mister Rogers was about now?"

He replied, "I think so. Seems like it was kind of like visiting a neighbour, someone whom you have fun with but who can also help you be a better person."

"I guess you do understand. See you tomorrow, neighbour."

On my way home I realised what it was that had been making me sad. I'd stopped making my regular visits with Mister Rogers years ago, and I'd never watched since then. Consequently, I'd never had one more visit, where I could show him the person I've become. Thanks, Mister Rogers.

It wasn't until I got into bed that night that I noticed something: My lousy day hadn't materialised. I sorted out my feelings just by telling Edvard about Mister Rogers, and I had a good day doing it. I really do make each day a special day by just my being me.