Monthly Archives: January 2020

Remembering Mr. Rogers

Mr. Rogers in his iconic zippered sweater.

The murder of eleven Jews while they were observing Shabbat occurred in the heart of  Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood.

The Reverend Fred Rogers and his wife Joanne owned a home and raised their two sons in Squirrel Hill, just two blocks from Tree of Life, the scene of the October 27, 2018, massacre.

Who was Fred Rogers? Why did his former neighbors in this predominantly Jewish section of Pittsburgh turn to Mister Rogers for comfort after the tragedy? And why, seventeen years after his death has he become everyone’s favorite neighbor?

For several months, I had been reading reviews and seeing the trailers for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the biopic starring Tom Hanks. I decided I wanted to learn more about Rogers before I headed to the multiplex.  I borrowed from our library Maxwell King’s biography The Good Neighbor: The Life and Works of Fred Rogers. I found the well-written, thorough account compelling and—well—fascinating. 

I was surprised. To be honest,I had not been a huge fan of the pleasant, bland man in the zippered knitted sweater and blue sneakers. My children frequently watched it when it aired on our local public broadcasting station (PBS). For me, the timing was perfect, as it acted as a calm, caring “baby sitter” as I prepared dinner. Years later, my children had only vague memories of watching the program.

But there was much to learn about the man behind the myth. I read about his difficult, lonely childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania; the taunts and bullying he endured (“Here comes Fat Freddy!”), and the respect he earned from his high school classmates through his music and leadership roles. I read about his meeting his wife Joanne at Rollins College, whose beautiful campus in Winter Park, less than an hour from us, has been a favorite place for us to visit.

I learned that Rogers originally planned on a career as a musician. After viewing television’s early programming, (“There were people throwing pies at one another!”) he decided that he wanted to find some “way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.” And who best to nurture than pre-schoolers?

I learned about his initial television experiences in New York and Toronto first behind the scenes as a puppeteer and later reluctantly as a person in front of the camera. I learned that his interest in public television and the promise of commercial-free programming lead to his move to Pittsburgh to join  the local National Educational Television (changed to Public Broadcasting Corporation [PBS] in 1970) WQED in 1953.

I learned that he had gone back to college in his thirties to complete a divinity degree and was an ordained Presbyterian minister. His lifelong interest in religion and theology expanded to his studying Catholic mysticism, Judaism, Buddhism, and other faiths. Most importantly, I learned that Fred Rogers values were those shared by all religions: civility, tolerance, sharing, and self-worth. Combined with his grandfather’s affirmation to his sickly, over-protected grandchild, “I like you just the way you are,” these principals shaped not only the person but the message he repeatedly emphasized in all 912 episodes of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. 

Despite his saintly, other-worldly demeanor, Rogers—as his wife repeatedly proclaimed—was NOT a saint. He had a temper, was prone to self-doubt and depression. In order to vent after a bad day, he would bang loudly on the piano. In one of my favorite passages in King’s book, Rogers stubbornly refused to give into the demands of PBS executives regarding a small element of the script, and angry words flew. “Tell me,” one of the executives said to the other, “how old do you have to be before Mister Rogers no longer likes you just the way you are?”

Armed with all this knowledge, I recently went to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I was surprised that the script, based on a 1999 Esquire article by Tom Junod, focused less on Tom Hanks’ Fred Rogers character and more on the troubled angry reporter who is assigned to interview the television icon. But I loved the story, the acting, and the cinematography, which included miniature scenery that imitated the colors and scale of the original set.

In one of the tenderest moments in the movie (and based on a real life incident) Fred Rogers was riding on a New York City subway filled mostly African-American and Hispanic children on their way home from school. Rather than approaching him for an autograph, the children quietly began singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the program’s theme song. Soon, the entire car joined in. It brought tears to Mister Rogers’s eyes..and mine.

As noted in both the book and the movie, Rogers had never been afraid to tackle difficult topics for pre-schoolers—the death of a pet, sibling rivalry, divorce, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Whether through his well-worn puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe or through his “field trips,” Mister Rogers reassured children that there was good in the world.

The last episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired on August 31, 2001, but he came out of retirement to tape shows focused on the September 11 terrorist attacks. Rogers initially expressed concern that the specials would be of little value but then turned to a basic Jewish tenant to support his decision to go forward. “We all are called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation,” he said.

On September 11, 2002, he shared his first anniversary message on prime-time.  “I’m just so proud of all of you,” Rogers told his viewers. “And I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead.” Soon after, Fred Rogers was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer and passed away in February 2003.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood continued on PBS as reruns. In 2006, Fred Rogers Productions began the development  Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, an animated children’s television series based on Rogers’s Neighborhood of Make Believe and premiered the show on PBS Kids on September 3, 2012.

Three months later, on December 12, 2012, a 20-year-old  killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In the midst of parents trying to explain the inexplicable to their own children. 170 Million American for Public Broadcasting shared on the internet an image of a tiny boy cradling Mister Rogers’s face. It was accompanied a passage from his1983 book, Mister Rogers Talks to Parents: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words.” The image went viral on Facebook, and within three days was shared over 88,000 times.

The “helper” quote went viral again after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, and the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. As Aisha Harris wrote in a 2013 article for Slate, “[The message] serves not only as a comfort to kids, but to adults as well, a reminder to ourselves that there is still much good amid the bad.”

The message was especially poignant for his former neighbors after an anti-Semite gunned down Jewish worshippers on October 17, 2018. The Fred Rogers Center, established at St. Vincent’s College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania under Rogers’ guidance before his death, immediately posted on their Facebook page a message tying the tragedy to Squirrel Hill’s favorite neighbor. “We’re holding Squirrel Hill in our thoughts today. “While we always believe in ‘looking for the helpers,’ we long for a day when there is no more tragedy born from hatred.” 

In an article published soon after in Yahoo news, Karen Struble Meyers, spokesperson for the Center, reflected on the question of what would Mister Rogers say. “Despite the deep grief in neighborhoods across the country, he would encourage us, just as he did after 9/11, to be good neighbors and to help the children in our lives to feel safe. His affirming message about our inherent likability and worth would bring comfort to many.” 

Mister Rogers’s legacy lives on not only through his quotes but also through television, books, movies, DVD’s and the Internet. This summer, my four-year-old granddaughter and I watched her favorite episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood  on You Tube videos and played with the small miniature replicas of the characters. Recently, she and I read A Busy Day in the Neighborhood together via FaceTime. “Daniel Tiger is always doing something new,” she announced. “I just like him.” And then she sang. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day….” I happily joined in, as I wiped the tears from my eyes.

First published in (Capital Region, New York) Jewish World, December 26, 2019.

Marilyn Unplugged(?)

Marilyn surrounded by her screens

Thanksgiving is over! That means Cyber Monday was not far behind.

The term Cyber Monday was coined in 2005 by Ellen Davis,  the senior vice president of the National Retail Federation Senior Vice President of the National Retail Federation to encourage people to buy on-line. According to Adobe Analytics, Cyber Monday 2018 generated over $7.9 billion in sales, with one of the top sellers spent on smart phones. 

I will be one of those in the market. My iPhone 7, approaching its third year, is losing battery power. And, to be honest, the newer version offers a great camera. But when my cell phone cross the line from being a toy, a luxury, a “nice-to-have-one-but-I-don’t need it” to my constant companion? 

I didn’t feel that way about my first flip phone. In 1999, I talked my husband Larry into purchasing a Nokia 3210, convincing him for its necessity if we were stuck on the Adirondack Northway in a snowstorm. (That never happened.)The first model was followed every couple of years by the newest innovations. I probably misplaced those phones more times than I could count (See my earlier essay on losing things). 

The most notable memory I have of those earlier years of mobile communication was the day it drowned. One minute it was in my front pocket; the next minute I was watching it twirl in the air and land in a toilet. Forget the “stick it in rice” trick. I was too eager to see if I really had killed it and turned it on. Goodbye phone. 

By the time I got my first iPhone in 2014, I was using it—well—unconsciously. On a beautiful fall day, Larry and I went out of donuts and apple turnovers at Lakeside Farms in Ballston Lake. As Larry was putting our food on the table, he said, “Marilyn, put the phone away.” 

“What phone?” I asked.

“The one in your hand that you are playing on.” 

Yes, I had gotten so used to it that it seemed like just an extension of my hand.

And what was I doing on that phone when I should have been focusing on my date with my husband? Email. A latest Facebook post. Whatever.

I had —and have—become one of THEM:  One of the saddest sights I see is  a couple sitting at a table in a restaurant, each looking at their cell phones rather than talking to each other, Even sadder is the sight of a mother and or father looking at their cell phone while their child or children are trying hard to get their attention. “Mommy, Mommy! I have something to tell you!” “In a minute, sweetheart,” And the minute turns into five or ten. 

 I would like to say my attachment to my phone has lessened, but it has only gotten worse. Since the 2016 elections, I added digital subscriptions to the Washington Post  and the New York Times. I have become a 21st century version of my father, who spent hours watching cable television news. My iPhone allows me to check my email—often previewed with “Breaking News” notifications on the lock screen.  And only tonight, as Larry and I drove home from a restaurant, I was on my phone checking the latest on the impeachment hearings. “You have become your father,” Larry said. “On second thought, you are worse than your father!”

Since 2013, my avocation as a writer has only extended my screen time through the hours I spend on my laptop. Yes, much of the time is legitimately researching and writing my articles. (Case in point, I am tapping away on my iMac at 10:30 pm in hopes to get this article to my editors by noon tomorrow!) Bu I also waste a ridiculous amount of time reading emails and news articles, checking my Facebook accounts, and editing my 5000+ photos, and updating  electronic To-Do lists and calendars. 

Not only has my husband pointed out the error of my ways. My daughter has commented on numerous occasion on our visits to Colorado that I need to shut down my electronics.The most revelatory comment came from my sister  after Larry and I visited her and her fiancé last spring. “What I will remember most about this trip,” she said, “was the amount of time you spent on your cell phone.”

It is time for me  to take the advice of Tiffany Shlain, American filmmaker, author, and Internet pioneer. In 2008, Shlain’s father, Leonard, a surgeon, was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. Recognizing the need to spend quality, undistracted time with him Shlain made a point to turn off her cell phone during her too short visits with him .

Soon after her father died, her daughter was born, and Shlain and her husband Ken Goldberg, decided to  extend the idea to a “Technology Shabbat,” a full day without screen use. Following the tradition and principals of their “close-knit Jewish family,”  they made the decision to turn  off all screens from Friday night through Saturday night, a commitment they have kept as a family since 2010. 

“The digital revolution has blurred the lines between time on and time off, and time off is disappearing,” she wrote in an August 11, 2019, article for The Boston Globe. “As for our leisure time, we’ve created a culture in which we’re still ‘working’ while we play: needing to photograph every moment, then crafting witty posts of our ‘fun, relaxing activities’ on Instagram, then obsessively checking responses. We can barely catch our breath in the tsunami of personal and work digital input, which results in us not being truly present for any of it.”

Shlain has published several articles and also has incorporated these themes in some of her films. In September,  she released 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day Week, a non-fiction account that according to the Amazon website “explores how turning off screens one day a week can work wonders on your brain, body, and soul.”

So, yes, I still want that new, improved iPhone for Chanukah. But  on Friday, December 27, before we go to our Chanukah Shabbat celebration at our synagogue, I will turn off new technological wonder, along my computer, my Echo Show and dots (Sorry, Alexa!),  and, hopefully unless Syracuse University has a  basketball game, even the television. And I will sit in my quiet house and read 24/6 to learn how we can create a “tech shabbat” in our own home.