I have 367 push puppets. That’s one for every day of the year including Feb. 29th, and two for Christmas.
These are push puppets:
For those of you who were born in an age before computers and talking phones and baby dolls that pee and poop themselves, allow me to explain how a push puppet works.
There is only one step. You push the bottom of the base, and the push puppet falls over.
I had the urge to be a collector starting as a young child, when I attempted various collections. First it was stuffed monkeys, but I outgrew that. Then it was those miniature bells from airport gift shops, but those were so stupid that I could barely stand to look at them without wanting to rip my arm hair out. Then it was business cards. I ran through Coomer’s craft mall one day, grabbing a card from each craft stand. I put them all into a small scrapbook and thought I must be the most successful collector in all the world to have so many (probably about twenty).
Then one day my mom threw away the scrapbook, mistaking it for garbage. This was a major devastation. It felt like the most unjust loss in all the world. I remember staying up all night sobbing and believing with my whole heart that everything in my life would be perfect from here on out if only I still had that small scrapbook full of business cards. I swore I’d never collect again. The pain was too great.
Sometimes it’s a blessing when the universe takes away something important to us. It means we have to try harder, and come up with something even better.
This is the first push puppet I ever had:
I was in 5th grade. I went to my friend’s house for a Girl Scout meeting. While the other girls sat around swooning over a Hanson poster while listening to MMMBop, I found the push puppet and made it collapse and could not stop laughing. And I’m talking full body, gasping-for-breath, I-feel-like-I’m-going-to-die-and-I-don’t-care belly laughs that lasted throughout the entirety of MMMBop and the rest of the Girl Scout meeting. I thought the concept was so fantastically morbid. A cute little creature that falls over dead. I loved it so much that my friend told me to keep it. (Thanks Julia Conrad, wherever you are!) From there, my push puppet family grew and grew and grew.
(One of the best things about photographing push puppets, I realized today, is that when you get up close it looks like they are having a wild dance party.)
One reason I like collections is because they make you more interesting. Someone you meet won’t necessarily know this thing about you for a long time. Then one day they come over to your house and are like, WHOA, I HAD NO IDEA. And then maybe they will think you are kind of crazy, but in a cool way. And then they might give you a push puppet the next time they see you.
Push puppets make a great collection because they are just rare enough that I experience a huge rush whenever I find one at a toy store or an antique store or in another country. Also, they are cheap.
One day in 2005 I went on Ebay and bought a push puppet from someone in the Netherlands named Rike. Rike wanted to swap me push puppets rather than accept my money. Turns out, Rike was a collector too.
Rike and I swapped push puppets for many years, and on Christmas he would send me cards that looked like this.
I never knew much about Rike beyond our push puppet-themed emails, but I secretly wondered if he and I were soul mates and tried to calculate his age based on the number of push puppets he had (hundreds more than me). I imagined that he looked like Topher Grace.
Then, years into our relationship, Rike got Facebook and friended me. I was quite surprised to see Rike’s gender listed as female. I did some quick, emergency Googling on the name Rike and found this:
Sometimes, when you have spent years assuming that your Dutch push puppet pen pal is a dude who looks like Topher Grace and then you suddenly find out she’s a woman, it takes a minute or two, sitting in your swivel chair at your college internship, to adjust to this new information.
I enjoy the social aspect of my collection, even with non-collectors. It’s fun when friends find push puppets and give them to me. Although, admittedly, it is getting increasingly difficult for people to find ones I don’t already have.
A couple months after we started dating, Doug went to New York with his family for Thanksgiving and brought me home a hand-standing clown push puppet that he bought at Grand Central Station. “Do you already have one like this?” he asked nervously when he gave it to me. “No,” I said. Because that is what you say when you are dating someone new and they bring you back a hand-standing clown push puppet.
A couple months later he visited me at my parents’ home in St. Louis, where my push puppet collection was at the time, and noticed his hand-standing clown hanging out with all his hand-standing clown friends. “You have a whole section of hand-standing clowns?” he asked, defeated.
“Guilty,” I said. “But yours is the only orange one.”