Saving Mr. Banks / Reckless Man

Editor's Note: I wrote this several weeks ago.  I wasn't sure whether to post it or not, because I'm not 100% clear how it connects to Fezywig, but here it is nonetheless.  

Saving Mr. Banks.  I realize I’m a bit late to the party.  The movie has come and gone, so to speak.  But I just watched it, first with Emily and then again as a whole family.  Since I’ve got a head full of ideas about it and I haven’t been able to move on with my life, I figured I’d better write those ideas down.  Then I can, well, get on with my life.

I’ll start by saying that I was both inspired and frightened by this movie.  I should also say, that I think this is one of the great screenplays to come along in quite a while (giving Dan in Real Life a run for its money).  Every now and then I see or read something and think, “Dang, I wish I’d written that.”  This is one of those stories.

I’ve never read Mary Poppins, but I have always loved the Disney film.  And I’ve long held a special place in my heart for Mr. Banks.  In fact, that feeling came at a time when I was casting about for a job.  I’d just produced a show Off-Broadway, and it didn’t go so well.  I was lined up to interview for a job at Disney Theatrical.  It was a senior management position overseeing their touring department.  This was my specialty at the time.  So I got the idea to read Walt Disney’s biography.  I like reading biographies about influential people throughout the ages, and--like it or not--Walt’s been pretty influential.  Ironically, I finished the book on the subway ride down to my final interview.  By the time I got to the end of his biography, I thought to myself, “Walt would never take this job.  Walt would take a big risk.  He’d follow his dream.  He wouldn’t go to work for somebody else.”  In the end, that’s kind of what I did. 

And that’s where I get frightened.  PLOT SPOILER ALERT.   P.L. Travers’ (the author of Mary Poppins) father was a dreamer.  He worked at a bank, but he was a dreamer.  It was working at the bank that depressed him, pushed him to drink and ultimately killed him.  Dreams and reality can mix with dire consequences. 

For me this movie tackles a conundrum faced by so many fathers:  Do you do what you love and hope it all works out?  Or do you do the responsible thing, knowing the only redemption may be that you provide for your family?  For Travers Goff, her father, it didn’t work out.  He died in shame and disgrace, at least in the eyes of the community, but certainly not in the eyes of his daughter.  Walt Disney, triumphed and his legacy lives until this day.  Now before anyone gets too bent out of shape, I recognize that these are broad generalizations.  But please bear with me. 

I suppose I feel all this acutely because I would put myself more in the ‘dreamer’ category than the ‘pragmatist’ group.  I’m living on a boat in the Caribbean.  In the Mary Poppins sense of things, I'm off flying kites with my wife and kids.  But over our eighteen years of marriage, Emily and I have kept a roof over our heads and our kids have always been fed and clothed.  We’ve had lean years, and we’ve had bounteous years.  In the end, we consider ourselves blessed and fortunate, and we try to be grateful.

So why am I frightened?  Because all that could change.  And this is the constant worry of fathers.  (I’m going to generalize here.  I know there are plenty of mother’s who also have these same worries.  But again, please bear with me.)  Fathers have dreams.  They also have responsibilities.  How do we balance these?  How do we build a great life for ourselves and our children?

When I was in between jobs I attended a conference for theatrical professionals.  The Mary Poppins tour was going out that year, and they were pitching it to all the booking agents and tour venue managers.  I attended the luncheon for all the conference attendees.  Bob Sherman, one of the song writers for Mary Poppins was in the room.  For me, it was a magical moment, to be in the same room with one of the men who created such beautiful, simple, charming songs as “Step in Time”, “Feed the Birds”, “Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious”, etc.  They gave out copies of the cast album to everyone at the luncheon.  I went home and gave it a listen.  The one song that just grabbed my heart was Mr. Bank’s duet with Bert (A Man Has Dreams) after he's been fired from the bank:

A man has dreams of walking with giants
To carve his niche in the edifice of time
Before the mortar of his zeal
Has a chance to congeal
The cup is dashed from his lips
The flame is snuffed aborning
He's brought to rack and ruin in his prime

These are the words of a man whose hopes have been crushed.  Of her father, P.L. Travers said, “He was not a cruel man, he was not a harsh man, he always had a good heart.  But he was worried with the cares of the world.”  I’m paraphrasing here.

So what is a father to do?  It can’t be all flying kites and dancing penguins.  And it can’t be all nose to the grind stone.  Either one will kill you.  I’m pretty lousy at giving advice.  And even worse at ‘how to lists’, but it kind of feels like this is where this is heading. I’d like to avoid that, but here are a few things, I’ve found that have helped me:

  1. Keep a journal. Its always good to have a place to write down any random thoughts or feelings.

  2. If you are unhappy, find gratitude. It’s out there. You just need to find it.

  3. The best way to show your children how to have a great life, is to build one yourself. We all learn best by example.

  4. Understand how money works. If you don’t control it, it will control you.

  5. Stay hungry, stay foolish (thanks, Steve Jobs)

  6. Put your wife first. She came before the kids, and she’ll be there once they’re gone.

  7. Put first things first (thank you, Stephen Covey). Put in the big rocks first, then the medium, then fill the rest with sand.

I’ll stop there.  It’s already sounds preachy.  And nobody likes that.  I’m just spouting this off because this movie really struck a chord with me.  The women who wrote and produced this movie understood something truly rare.  They understood the worries and concerns of men (and for that matter women, and daughters and sons, and and and…)

The movie is full of beautiful parallels between Travers and Walt, between Pamela’s life as a girl and her life as a woman, between the classic film and real life.  It’s full of subtle nuance and plain charm, snappy dialogue and visual metaphors.  I’m not much of an answers guy, but I do like to write.  And I think it was when I was struggling with these same Mr. Banks issues that I wrote this song.  I don’t think I ever came to a solution, but I felt good talking about the question.  I’m grateful to everyone involved in Saving Mr. Banks for taking us a step closer to the answers. 

Here's a song I wrote a while back when thinking about similar stuff (Reckless Man).  This is a scratch recording I made late one night at home.  

When I was a young man
I dove off of cliffs
I drove with the top down
And spent summers adrift 

When I was a young man
I walked across glaciers
I climbed up to summits
And jumped out to the sky 

Now I’m older and see what life can bring
I’m a reckless man whose done responsible things

I went off to college and got a degree
I took a one night trip to Vegas
To enjoy the warm breeze
I drove from coast to coast
Without a wink of sleep
I surfed out in the ocean as far as the eye can see 

Now I’m older and see what life can bring
I’m a reckless man whose done responsible things 

I landed a job and moved out to New York
I married my wife and welcomed the stork
Now we Christmas with my parents
And pay the ConEd bill
When the kids are in bed is when things are mostly still 

Now I’m and see what life can bring
I’m a reckless man whose responsible things

Now I work straight the night
Until the sun comes up
But before my work is done
The kids have grown up
Now *they are* driving with the top down
And diving off of cliffs
Once I was a young man who spent summer’s adrift 

No I’m older and see what life can bring
I’m a reckless man, who’s done responsible things.