All Men Are Walter Mitty…with apologies to James Thurber and the movies

It’s true. We are. Deep in our hearts, all men are James Thurber’s creation. Well, not all. There those few who actually do incredibly brave and dangerous things. They are the police officers, soldiers, mountain climbers, firefighters, deep sea divers, and others like them, all of whom possess extraordinarily stout hearts and levels of courage. And let us not forget men with multiple mothers-in-law, and veterinarians who endeavor to clean a cat’s teeth without putting them to sleep first.

Most of we male specimens, though, regardless of how brave we talk and how hard we squint, are Mitty rather than intrepid gun toting, whip wielding, two fisted, and by the way brilliant archaeologists. We’re quite satisfied, we day to day average Joes, to derive our excitement vicariously, from our literary and especially, movie heroes. It’s sufficient that we can cheer those bigger than life fictional conquerors of evil, those champions of virtue who are chased by hordes of delirious beautiful women clearly unattainable by . . . well, us. The women who chase us, are usually throwing rocks. But in that darkened palace of celluloid dreams, we only have to manage our popcorn and soda, and let our screen counterparts do the hard part. They are us. We are them. Cue the deep throated growl.

Of course, we closeted saviors of the weak and helpless have to mask our fearless, unflinching, unshrinking, undaunted, bold, adventurous, indomitable,  and don’t forget gallant, heroism most of the time. I mean, those guys in the movies don’t have to worry about buying groceries, getting the oil changed, putting up with stupid bosses, or taking the kids to soccer and dance lessons. Still, in our minds and hearts, we know who we really are. Take me, for instance. I can go into my Mitty trance at any time, under the most innocent of circumstances.

For instance, I can be taking a casual walk on a lovely day. I reach the path where I’m going to turn the corner and suddenly I’m no longer me. I’m Kevin Kline, strolling easily, my left arm hanging casually, my right hand barely brushing the butt of my Colt revolver as I lean gently into the turn. On the far side of street, Linda Hunt, her name is Stella, cringes anxiously  beside a lamp post. Out of the corner of my left eye, further down the street, Brian Dennehy sits in a chair in front of the sheriff’s office, waiting. He sees me, gets up, and walks to the middle of the street.. My pace is steady, my pulse a calm sixty-eight. I don’t blink.

I stop twenty feet away from him. The brim of my hat shades my eyes, but not too much. Dennehy says, “Hello, Paden.” I say, “Hello Cobb.” He tells me what a waste it was, what a sweet deal we could’ve had. I say “Yeah, Bad luck.” A moment passes. Then I say, “Goodbye Cobb.” He says “Goodbye Paden.” He reaches for his gun. I reach for mine. My gun roars. He staggers. His gun drops from his hand. He drops to his knees, then to the dirt. Justice is served. I look at Linda Hunt. I still don’t blink. I never blink. Fadeout.

Of course, not all of my Mitty moments are long ones. They are often no more than a momentary diversion. My daughter sees a small spider and screeches. I rush over to find it. By now it’s in hiding, and Robert Shaw’s Quint almost says, “He’s under the boat! I think he’s gone under the boat! He’s under the boat.”

You may start to give something to me, and it falls out of our hands to the floor. You’re not even aware that you’ve instantly become Lee Marvin, and that my inner John Wayne is thinking, “You, Liberty. You pick it up.”  Ask me how I want something done. You’ll find yourself facing my Harrison Ford, in the desert, bloody from killing a Nazi soldier, grumbling, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.” That’s an especially good one, by the way. When I’m Indy, I can swim. And I can lie back against the sofa imagining Karen Allen dabbing at my wounds, blurting out, “Dammit Indy, is there any place that doesn’t hurt?” I pause for two seconds, then point to a spot on my face, then one on the corner of my mouth.

I have to confess that my Mitty movie personas also don’t respect gender lines. Sometimes when every possible thing has gone wrong, I close my eyes and I’m Vivien Leigh, crying and crumpled on that glorious curving stairway wondering, “Where’ll I go? What’ll I do?” But then I straighten, wipe my eyes, and exclaim “After all, tomorrow IS another day!.”

They also have (of course they do) their superhero moments. Let something go horribly wrong, and that’s Superman screaming to the sky “NOOOOOOOOO!”

Being an actor, some of my Mitty moments take me into more villainous territory. Actors love to play bad guys. I can be in a dreary conversation with someone who just insists on droning on about two or three hundred trivial things that don’t interest me in the least. With my eyes politely remaining open, my mind begins to gauze over until I’m Hugo Weaving’s wonderfully sinister Agent Smith, sitting across the desk from Keanu Reeves’ Neo. He’s panicking as his lips start to blend into each other until they become a smooth surface. I take snide pleasure in saying, “Tell me, Mister Anderson. What good is a telephone, if you cannot speak?”

Oh, I could go on and on, and in far greater detail, about my Mitty moments. As I said, all men have them, the realization of which was part of James Thurber’s greatness, that insight into the smallest tics of human idiosyncrasies. I think this tendency is more attributable to men than to women. Of course women have their own myriad of dreams and fantasies, but this need to be a dashing, swashbuckling, hero sort seems to me to be particularly male. We are stuck with it.

Now, there is the definite possibility that some of you started thinking, about two pages ago, what in the world this silliness has to do with, well, much of anything. And there I go again, fading, fading, becoming Clint Eastwood in a dusty saloon with Gene Hickman lying at my feet, growling, and I growl, “Deserving’s got nothing’ to do with it.”

But it does have a lot to do with movies and books. Consider it a gentle homage to the world of adventure fantasy, to the marvelous, gifted authors and actors who give us heroes to emulate, characters who take us out of our everyday world and into worldwide adventures. They vanquish the bad guys and always get the girl. And they make us think, even if we don’t admit it, ahhh, to be that guy. Colorful, strong, stalwart and heroic, they make us want to reach for the same qualities within ourselves. And that’s not a bad thing.

I’ll let you return to the mundane real world no, after leaving you with one last little Mittyism. It’s one that I think of a bit more now, as I grow older. I like to envision, in those quieter moments, that when the final frame of the credits fades to black, and the projection light winks out, Brandon Dewilde will be standing at the corner of Crafton’s store, calling out, “Shane!  Come back, Shane.” Err, I mean Barry.

 

 

 

From the Department of Regrets- So Why Aren’t I a Piano Player?

I can never watch Casablanca without feeling a personal sadness and lingering longing. I’m not talking about the tragedy of Rick and Ilsa’s lost love. They’ll always have Paris. And she did have to get on that plane, for the good of everyone who wasn’t a Nazi. And we were buoyed as her plane climbed into the night, by the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Rick and Louie as they strolled off into the fog to do their part in the battle against Hitler’s tyranny.

No, my melancholy reaction to the film is that I would have loved to be Sam, the piano player. Oh to tickle those ivories with “As Time Goes By.”  I could have, too. My parents gifted me with piano lessons. My teacher thought I had wonderful potential. But children can be a short-sighted lot, clueless as to what’s best for them and what they really want in life. And so I convinced my parents to let me abandon the piano lessons in favor of a irresistible new fad, Saturday morning television. I have regretted it countless times since, most especially when I hear that song. “A kiss is just a kiss…” could have been the kiss of my fingers on the ivories. Could have been. So many beautiful and memorable songs could have been mine to play. Could have been. So many times have I wished I had committed to studying, and mastering, that beautiful instrument. So many times I have failed to act upon the wish.

I grew up in the tail end of what I think of as the great piano age. From jazz to romance songs to classical music, from movie screens to radio, the piano was the sound of the soul. Oh the clarinet was that, too, and he coronet had some nice moments, softer and more mellow than its brash cousin the trumpet. So did the saxophone. The violin, the harp, and other string instruments sang from the heart as well. But everything revolved around the piano, with its incredible range, its ability to frame our dreams and loves and memories softly one moment and drive our excitement and impetuosity the next, to lightly tinkle like the drops of a gentle spring shower and in an eyelid’s blink crash with the thunder of a summer storm. The piano was both king and queen of music before the electric guitar mugged it, before rock and roll and its successors pushed it aside, before synthesizers stole and distorted the beauty of its sound, before heavy metal and gangsta rap dragged the beauty of music into the alley and choked the life out of it, replacing it with yelling and screeching and angry pounding not knowing where it wanted to go, but determined to get there as loudly and offensively as possible.

How I wish I had not abandoned that beautiful instrument. My sister played piano, (she still does), My parents urged me to continue my lessons. My teacher loved my long fingers, prophesized that I could be exceptional. I was proud. My mother beamed. My father was glad the money seemed well-spent. But the endless study of scales and mechanics and drawing (badly) notes on paper ultimately bored me. The simple, and old, songs that were my ‘curriculum’ did not excite. And then there was that television show. It was black and white and somewhat grainy, but it was a cowboy show and much more exciting than scales and paper notes and repetition of boring ‘beginning pieces.’ I was very young, very short-sighted with an attention span to match, undoubtedly somewhat stupid, so I convinced my parents to let me give up the lessons.

Now, please understand that my parents were wonderful, loving, considerate, and wanted more than anything for me to be happy. I have wished, though. countless times during the intervening years, that just once, one time in my young life, they had put their two pair of feet down very firmly, directly on my short-sighted and stupid little head if necessary. But they didn’t, and it would be wrong of me, wrong and petty and ungrateful, to blame them for trying to make me happy. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in thy parents…..so on and so forth.

Sadly, I didn’t get any smarter as the years went by. I could have returned to study the piano at any time. Many people do. In my defense I can offer only the classic tepid explanations. I was too busy, or I didn’t want to spend the money. Or this. Or that. Even though I frequently, during my collegiate and young adult professional years found myself having a drink in a lounge, and being drawn to the sound of the piano playing softly in the background, or attending a party or other social gathering where someone sat down at the piano and immediately drew a crowd of appreciative listeners. In spite of wishing I had that skill, I never found the gumption, as my grandmother would have said, to follow through on the wish. Oh sure, I wanted to play, but I consistently found excuses to put aside the desire. Was I afraid, rather deep down, that I wouldn’t rise to the level of excellence I admired in others? Or was I making excuses for just not wanting to commit to the work? I would always circle back to remembering that I had attempted the task at a young age and not had the will to follow through with the effort and determination required. It’s a long journey from that first scale to the opening notes of a Gershwin piece. I had been given the opportunity once, and defaulted on the challenge. I would, the little voice whispered, likely do the same thing again. The surest way not to fail, is after all, not to begin.

Now the years have gone by. My fingers are not as supple as once they were, though they seem serviceable enough. I say to myself that the point of the whole thing has by now become lost, that even if I decided to take lessons, the long and uphill process would be doubly steep at this point in my life, so long a journey before I could begin to play well. And without being able to play well, without being able to play well enough that someone would start to sing, or maybe whisper, “… a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh…” there really would be no point at all. Chopsticks is fun I guess, but if you can’t play some Gershwin, why bother? I’d like to find someone to blame. I’d love to be able to write an indignant letter to the editor about the villain that cost me the beautiful experience of making lovely music on those keys. But I know too well who is to blame for my loss. I know him intimately. I wish him no ill, but I doubt that I will ever be able, quite, to forgive him. Our regrets, it seems, do indeed float beside us, taunting us, whispering their melancholy rebuke of our failure into our ear, as time goes by.