It was bad enough to wonder whether I was a man or a Muppet. Now I spent all weekend worried that I was also the wrong kind of Muppet.
I blame Dahlia Lithwick, who wrote that there are two types of Muppets, “chaos Muppets” and “order Muppets,” and that, by extension, “every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.”
Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.
Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. […] It’s simply the case that the key to a happy marriage, a well-functioning family, and a productive place of work lies in carefully calibrating the ratio of Chaos Muppets to Order Muppets within any closed system.
Two things become pretty clear: 1) despite her ironic implications (”This is really just me having fun,” she protests a little too strongly; filing under “Dubious and Far-fetched ideas”), Lithwick takes her binary system pretty seriously; and 2) despite that “It’s not that any one type of Muppet is inherently better than the other,” she clearly prefers chaos Muppets. So do I. And, I’ll add, so does everyone. Chaos Muppets have all the fun, and order Muppets are the straight men, the ones who get flabbergasted and frustrated and freak out while muted trumpets go “Wha wha whaaa” at their expense.
Which is why I found it so disturbing to realize, as I was obsessively vacuuming the living room, that I was clearly an order Muppet. Even worse was the realization that my wife is also an order Muppet, even as Lithwick takes pains suggest that her classification system is crucial for life partners: “Order Muppets tend to pick Chaos Muppets for their life partners, cookies notwithstanding. Thus, if you’re in a long-term relationship with a Chaos Muppet, there’s a pretty good chance you’re Bert. If you’re married to an Order Muppet, you may well be the Swedish Chef. And by all that is holy, don’t marry your same type if you can help it. That’s where Baby Elmos come from.” No word on what becomes of the children of two order Muppets.
I didn’t feel this way after reading Heather Havrilesky’s “Steve Jobs: Vampire. Bill Gates: Zombie” in the New York Times Magazine last October, which suggested that “Vampires and zombies seem to reside at the polarities of our culture, telling us (almost) everything we need to know about (almost) everything in between.” It was clear to me that I was a vampire, and that the piece, like Lithwick’s, wanted us to feel as though the writer is disinterested in the distinction when really vampires come off far cooler.
As Havrilesky puts it,
Vampires are solitary and antisocial and sleep in the ground. Zombies are extroverts, hanging out in big, rowdy clusters, moaning and shrieking, and apparently never sleeping at all.
Why do these sound like people I know? Maybe because these two approaches to being undead mirror two very different approaches to being alive. You’re either a vampire or a zombie, and it’s easy to tell which one.
The vampires are the narcissists, the artists, the experts, the loners: moody bartenders, surgeons, songwriters, lonely sculptors, entrepreneurial workaholics, neurotic novelists, aspiring filmmakers, stock traders, philosophy professors. The zombies are the collaborators, the leaders, the fanatics and obsessives: I.T. guys, policy wonks, comic-book collectors, historians, committee heads, lawyers, teachers, politicians, Frisbee-golf enthusiasts.
This is all meant to be fun and funny. But we really are required to place ourselves in mutually exclusive binary categories all the time. There’s Male/Female, of course, and even if biology or culture weren’t forcing our hand, our English pronouns leave us no gray area. (“Ze” is not a viable option yet.) There is the dichotomy that still allows for, insists on, legal segregation: smoker and nonsmoker. There is the dichotomy that no one thinks about but may be the most intrinsically important one of all: to borrow from Sharon Olds’s book of poems, The Dead and the Living. There was the ancient Greek distinction, between themselves (Greeks) and barbarians (everyone except Greeks). That dichotomy was originally related to language, but like chaos Muppets/order Muppets and vampires/zombies, you know which side you’d rather be on.
In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Blondie (Clint Eastwood) says, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those with loaded guns, and those who dig.”
Tuco, though, has his own ideas: “There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: Those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting.” They’re the same two groups for both men, but sometimes the ones who carry loaded guns wind up with ropes around their necks as well. You have to wonder, though, about a movie whose recurring motif is “two kinds of people” when its title clearly suggests that there are three.
Yet in many ways, these writers aren’t so different from the psychologists who want to squeeze all of humanity into two boxes, despite that context and mood probably influence our actions more than a temperament derived from multiple choice testing: extraversion or introversion; sensing or intuition; thinking or feeling, judgment or perception. Nietzsche knew better. He didn’t think in terms of two types of people, but rather two human impulses, as anthropomorphized by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysius. Clearly, Apollo is an order Muppet and a Vampire, while Dionysius is a chaos Muppet and a Zombie. But as humans, we are both and neither, instead the product of constantly conflicting beliefs, moods, attachments, and desires. Putting people into simplistic categories has the potential to explain as well as dangerously simplify the world. As writer Tom Robbins put it, “There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know better.”
So now I know better.
Time: one hour.