Here’s Your Quintessence

[Editor’s Note: All three illustrations used in this essay were created by students in a Visual Art class at Cobourg CDCI West high school, under the tutelage of Ms. Sarah Tye. The first is from Tobijah Parker, the second one is from Mandy Toope, and the last one comes from Alyn Woolsey.]

“God, you’re noteworthy!”

I work with teenagers that come from terribly unstable backgrounds. They live with maybe one parent, or a slew of older brothers and sisters, younger cousins, “street sisters,” aunts, uncles, social workers. Most don’t attend school regularly, and the ones that do, do so begrudgingly. Many have been to jail, or at least to court. I’m not a social worker, so I’m not responsible for helping these kids amend their behaviour. I’m a recreationist; my job is to provide a safe environment for kids from low-income families to take part in positive-minded activities with their peers. This mostly takes the form of dodge ball tournaments and internet access with a healthy snack and a no-swearing policy. Spending time with these kids, their patterns of behaviour crystallize pretty quickly; they’re better than you are at just about everything. They’re faster than the police. They’re smarter than their teachers. They’re fluent in obscure languages, and they’re the only ones who know how to bypass the internet firewall, which is pretty complicated and you wouldn’t understand anyway so whatever. After knowing them for two years, I’ve seen their real, genuine personalities only a handful of times.

Everyone pretends.

“I pictured you as a little grey piece of paper.”

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is not a particularly mentionable person. He leaves his eHarmony account largely blank because he’s only ever been to Phoenix, Arizona, though he can’t remember why he made the trip. He works in a darkened office with one other coworker in a job he’s held for sixteen years. Walter is the guy behind the guy: a negative assets manager for LIFE Magazine. Daring, intrepid photographers go on stunning adventures, braving ungoverned regions of the globe to capture images of warlords and endangered animals—and then they mail their blood-stained film to Walter, who processes it for them. Walter is a pretender; he has a tendency to “zone out” when things aren’t going his way. When his boss makes a crack at his expense, he imagines himself delivering the perfect zinger (or, in one particularly spectacular sequence, beating him up and throwing him out of an elevator); when he overhears the object of his affection, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), joking that she spent the weekend being read poetry by her Latin lover, guess who suddenly fills the role of the honey-tongued love interest? Walter’s daydreams are an eccentricity at best; more often than not, they’re interpreted as a symptom of something worse. More than once, his mother, his sister, or his coworkers roll their eyes at his little trances, tacitly implying that Walter will never move beyond his station if he doesn’t snap out of his own little world.

“I used to have this idea of who I wanted to be.”

I understand where the kids I work with are coming from. I’ve had more imagined conversations than real ones. Fully-realized scenarios in which I am offered grandiose apologies from tearful ex-girlfriends; brutal takedowns of sneering part-time bosses; even something as simple as a passing compliment in the hall during high school. My ego growing up was as fragile as crystal, and I often used fiction as an escape. I admired protagonists like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Beach, and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (to a somewhat less tortured degree); I longed to be able to abandon everything in search of an adventure while simultaneously sporting a look that would make the girls in my class wish they were Kate Winslet or Claire Danes circa 1997. In my mind I was solitary; imaginative; dreamy; instantly resourceful; and desperately, romantically lonely. I was Walter Mitty. I still am.

Walter’s work is misunderstood and overlooked, most of all by Ted Hendricks (a pitch-perfect Adam Scott), the managing director overseeing the purchase of the magazine; its transition into an online entity; and its final, historic print issue, complete with a cover photo by renowned photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). If Sean is the adventurous ideal, then Ted represents all the things that attack us. Both are difficult models to deal with—Sean is quixotic and near-impossible to find, jumping from place to place around the globe. Ted is the kind of person who demands that you repeat what he asks of you so he has proof that you heard him. Sean: the beckoning id. Ted: the overbearing superego.

When the negative for the final issue’s cover photo can’t be found, Walter answers his beckoning id. Following a hunch, he boards a plane to Greenland, jumps out of a helicopter into shark-infested waters, skateboards down a winding stretch of highway, and barely escapes a volcanic eruption. A genuine adventure.

It’s thrilling and more than a little uplifting to see a person following their bliss. When I first heard about this film, I hadn’t read the 1939 short story by James Thurber, or seen the first film adaptation from 1947 (starring Danny Kaye as the title character). I grew up in a filmic milieu that suggested that dreamers (or just generally inward people) all secretly wanted to be brought out of their shell; I’ve seen too many films in which a character’s problems can be solved if they simply take off their glasses, let their hair down, skip work, skip school, or any number of other clichés that telegraph that they’re throwing caution to the wind. So I worried that this new interpretation would be the story of a quiet character who is pressured to leave his dreamer’s ways behind, that Ben Stiller’s incarnation of the character would be subject to some heavy-duty criticism for his dreamer’s ways. I can’t get behind a story that posits that dreamers are maladjusted. I certainly don’t agree that there is such a thing as “too much imagination.” I feared that Walter would go out into the world because he thought it would make him into something that Cheryl would want—or, worse, something that Ted saw as acceptable. That he would kill his dreams with forced experience. That all he needed was to “get out of his own head.”

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to; to see behind walls; to draw closer; to find each other; and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”

Thankfully, Walter goes on his adventure at his own behest because he sees its importance. He’s following a true passion—for Sean’s work and his own. It’s not a journey undertaken for self-improvement, although that is one of the side-effects; rather, Walter’s adventure is driven by a commitment to something bigger than himself, by a sense of duty—a rare characteristic these days.

My father had a friend named Myrtle Lane (affectionately known to us as Aunt Myrtle) whom he met while on a work placement in university. She lived to be 99 years old, and was one of the most remarkably kind people I’ve ever encountered. She regularly set the table for myself and my brother and sisters with $500 worth of antique china, waving off any concern with a sassy remark. “If it breaks, at least it was broken being enjoyed. There’s not a thing in my house that you can’t use.” As a child, Aunt Myrtle had suffered from an illness that drained much of the family’s meagre bank account. Strong-armed by no one but herself, she vowed to repay every cent that her parents spent to keep her healthy. Aunt Myrtle was a schoolteacher at a time when you couldn’t be both a teacher and married, and when the love of her life got down on one knee, she turned down his proposal because it would mean that she couldn’t earn her own money to give back to her parents. Eventually, her father died and she took her mother into her home, caring for her as she lost her sight and ultimately died as well.

I’ve been told that Aunt Myrtle’s story is a sad one, but I disagree. Hers was a life spent following her truth, her commitment to her family, her personal code of duty. Hers was a rare life indeed—and while she may not have climbed the Himalayas I believe that she could have done anything she wanted.

“Can you hear me Major Tom?”

Admittedly, I still get annoyed when one of the kids I work with tells some tall tale designed to win attention, as the attempt is usually transparent, and—more often than not—humourless. (“Really? You threw your desk against the wall and spit on your teacher because they asked you for your homework? That’s incredibly intense.”) They take these ruses very seriously because they come from a place where care is at a marked deficit. What they really desire is to be recognized as strong individuals who want for nothing, and I can’t fault them for that. I’d love to want for nothing. But the truth is that I do sometimes find myself dreaming of a more exciting life, just as they do.

And here’s where I want to make myself clear: the way to a more exciting life is not to stop dreaming. This iteration of Walter Mitty daydreams because of the all-too-human tendency to want what we want right now – a familiar sentiment to the crew of troubled teens I see four times a week. If claiming to be the best at something gets these kids through the day, then who am I to take that away from them? I’m not Ted Hendricks, after all. But I’m not quite Sean O’Connell either. I’m Walter Mitty…or at least I imagine that I am.