The fact that we had to make an emergency roadside bathroom stop at South Pass, only 30 miles outside of Farson, Wyoming, was entirely my fault.
We’d stopped in Farson, of course, because…well…we always stopped in Farson when we were driving to my grandparents’ house in Lovell, Wyoming, because the Farson Mercantile offers two irresistible enticements to the weary traveler:
The last public restrooms for a hundred miles.
Ice cream cones with scoops of ice cream as big as a five-year-old’s head.
My mother always required us to make use of the former before we could partake of the latter, so I dashed into one of the stalls (rather than using one of the urinals since I was a shy, modest young man), deposited 1/2 oz. of urine into the toilet (so I could say that I’d gone), splashed some water on my hands in the sink (so I could say that I’d washed them), and then dashed back to receive my massive frozen dairy orb. Half an hour later, my ice cream cone was empty and my five-year-old bladder was not.
My father pulled the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser over to the side of the road and we all piled out. My Aunt Carol and her kids, who were caravanning with us, also stopped and the adults stood chatting by the cars as the kids scattered into the brush beside the highway. (Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had rushed his visit to the restroom.)
Roadside bladder relief is a tricky business under the best of circumstances, but the desolate high plains of Wyoming offer their own unique set of complications. For one thing, there are no trees to be found. And while there’s an abundance of sage brush on the side of the highway, the specimens closest to the road are quite scrawny. So, if you want any privacy at all, you have to venture farther out where the brush is a little taller. But it’s a delicate balancing act. If you don’t go far enough, you’re still perfectly visible from the road. But if you go too far, your odds of encountering a rattlesnake or being mauled by a prairie dog go up exponentially.
On this particular occasion, being sensitive to my aunt’s presence, I opted for distance over safety. I knew I was taking a chance venturing so far from the road, but I figured that if I was fast I could heed nature’s call and still sprint back to the car ahead of any rabid antelope that might be in pursuit. In my haste to finish, however, I didn’t—how shall I put this—“ensure that all my items were properly stowed in the overhead compartment” and…
To fully appreciate this story, one must keep in mind that the zippers of 1968 were not the Teflon-coated wonders of sartorial engineering that we enjoy today, with their perfectly-aligned, microscopic teeth and smooth, flawless action. No. Back then, zippers were primitive contraptions with jagged teeth the size of your fist that were smelted from raw iron ore and crudely forged by amateur vikings in factories that manufactured zippers during the day and razor wire at night, since little or no retooling was necessary.
The zippers of 1968 were also prone to getting stuck. If you didn’t zip them up in a single, swift motion with plenty of follow-through, they’d get stuck halfway up and you’d have to wrestle them back down and make a second run at it. I wasn’t sure what the National Park Service’s Rabid Antelope Threat Level was that day, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. I knew that I had to get it right the first time, so I gave the zipper on my pants a firm, decisive yank and…
My mother had been standing next to the car talking to my Aunt Carol, but my first blood-curdling scream brought her running. Unfortunately, it brought my Aunt Carol running too.
The Women: (Running toward me.) “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
As I mentioned before, I was a shy, modest young man, so I was not about to let a female relative see me with “Shackleton trapped in the pack ice,” if you will. So as they ran toward me, I turned and hightailed it in the opposite direction.
Me: (Running.) “AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!”
The Women: (Chasing.) Where are you going? What’s wrong?
Me: (Still running.) “AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!”
The Women: (Still in pursuit.) “Stop running! What happened?”
Me: (Not stopping.) “AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!”
At this point, I realized that I was a good 25 yards from the road, and suddenly remembering the rabid antelope threat, I executed a wide, arcing turn that would take me back toward (but not too close to) the road. Unfortunately, my mother and aunt followed me on my new trajectory and I grew increasingly frustrated that these seemingly intelligent women couldn’t seem to take a hint.
The Women: “Stop running!”
Me: (Finally able to form words.) “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”
The Women: “Come back! Come back!”
Me: “GO AWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!! GO AWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!!”
The Women: “Tell us what’s wrong!”
Me: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! GO AWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!!”
After executing a few more broad sweeps through the brush, I looked back and was relieved to see that the women had finally stopped chasing me. But they hadn’t given up. Instead, they were pointing to either side of me and making sweeping gestures as they conjured up some diabolical plan for my capture. It was like something out of an African nature documentary where two lionesses single out the the weakest member of the herd (in this case, the baby wildebeest with the crocodile clamped to its loins) and conspire to take him out.
I knew I had to think fast, and it suddenly occurred to me that if they could not be deterred, perhaps they could be deflected.
Me: “GET DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!!!”
The Women: “What?”
Me: “GO GET DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!!! I NEED DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!!!”
Thankfully, this had the desired effect. After conferring for a moment, they walked slowly back to retrieve my father and I found a mercifully tall clump of sage brush to stand behind while I awaited rescue. Back at the car, there was a brief, animated discussion between the two women and my father as they recounted the tale up to that point (though, if you ask me, their haphazard serpentine gestures didn’t do justice to my brilliant evasive maneuvers in the brush), after which my father started hiking out to my location. As he approached, I stepped out from behind the sage brush, looked down at my fly, then back up at him, and announced, “I’m stuck.”
My father was a fighter pilot during the Cold War and it is a testament to his military training that not a flicker of emotion crossed his face as he crouched down and surveyed the situation. He made a few attempts to dislodge the zipper, but the tiny pull-tab on my size-5 jeans was difficult to grasp with his large man-fingers, so after fumbling with it for a few minutes he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I need to go get something from the car. I’ll be back in a minute. Will you be OK?” I sniffed and nodded and he returned to the car where my my mother and aunt were huddled waiting for news.
My father is nothing if not a man of discretion, so I was confident that he would provide the ladies with enough general information to put their minds at ease without revealing the exact intimate details of my predicament. Whatever he told them, they seemed to take it well, but I could still tell that they were deeply moved because they turned their faces away from me and I could see that their shoulders were shaking slightly.
After rummaging around in the back of the station wagon for a minute, my father closed the tailgate and began hiking back to my location. It wasn’t until he was about twenty feet away that I saw the pair of pliers in his hand.
And it was then that I contemplated abandoning the life and people I had come to know and love and taking my chances on the open range.
I imagined that one day Shoshone tribal elders would tell their grandchildren stories of a mysterious feral child who roamed the plains, howling at the moon, wearing nothing but a pair of ill-fastened blue jeans. Who knows? Maybe I would have gotten a cool Native American nickname out of it. But before that scenario could play itself out in my head, my father had the pliers on the zipper’s pull-tab and a firm grip on my waistband…most likely for leverage, but also, I think, so I couldn’t make a break for it.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
I wiped the tears from my cheeks with the back of my hand, put my hand on his shoulder to steady myself, and nodded my head resolutely.
“OK, here we go,” he said, gripping the pliers tightly.
We both took a deep breath.
As you can see from the photo above, I suffered no long-term ill effects from my self-inflicted (and, might I add, totally redundant) high-country bris. But if you’re ever driving through South Pass, I would encourage you to pull over to the side of the road, turn off the engine, step outside for a moment, and listen.
Of course, you’ll hear the wind as it whips across the Continental Divide, and (depending on the threat level) you might even hear the distant frothing of a rabid antelope. But even decades later, if you listen very, very carefully, in the upper registers you might still hear the faint echoes of the plaintive howl of the pathetic creature who, if things had gone differently, the Shoshone tribal elders might still be referring to as “Little Pronghorn.”
I was hoping to avoid this entirely. I figured that if I didn’t say anything, people wouldn’t start worrying about something they didn’t need to worry about. But as word has leaked, the accuracy of the reports on the state of my health has degraded to the point that yesterday I received an email message from someone who asked, “So, how long do you have?”
Well, since I’m 42 years old now, I would guess I’ve got at least another 58 years, thank you very much. But there is a small chance that my kidneys might be on a slightly more abbreviated schedule.
To make a short story shorter, I had a routine physical on my 42nd birthday and the blood tests showed some unusually high serum creatinine levels, so that led to a visit to the nephrologist, which led to me driving around town for two days with a half gallon of urine riding shotgun in a picnic cooler, which led to a tentative diagnosis, which led to a biopsy to confirm said tentative diagnosis.
When they checked me into the hospital for the biopsy, the “reason” they put on my chart was “chronic renal insufficiency,” which sounds more like a personality flaw than a medical condition to me, but I guess that’s the general term they use when your kidney function falls below the 50% mark, no matter what the root cause.
Well, I got the biopsy results on Monday and they confirmed my nephrologist’s suspicions: IgA Nephropathy. It’s a condition where Immunoglobulin A (IgA) gets deposited in the microscopic filters (glomeruli) in the kidneys and slowly shuts them down.
Right now I’ve got a GFR (Glomerular Filtration Rate) of around 45, which means I’m down to about 45% kidney function. You don’t get into serious trouble until you get down to about 30%, so if that ever happens I’ll have to attend some “Renal Replacement Therapy” classes and have a fistula or shunt installed in my arm. Then, if I get down to 10-15%, I’ll have to start dialysis or have a kidney transplant.
So, how long before I get to that point? There’s absolutely no way of knowing. It could be next year, it could be 10 years from now, it could be never. It’s essentially a race to see who dies first, me or my kidneys. But there’s a good chance I’ll die of old age long before my kidneys give out.
Even though there’s no way of predicting exactly how (or if) things will progress, there are some prognostic indicators that might provide some clue. Here’s how they line up for me:
Male. (Curse that blasted Y chromosome!)
Late-age onset. (Although I object to the term “late-age.”)
Decreased GFR at diagnosis.
Elevated serum creatinine levels.
Cholesterol within the normal range.
Only moderate proteinuria.
No glomerular crescents. (Or, as I like to call them, “glomerular croissants.”)
So, it’s kind of an even split. But there are a few other factors that need to be taken into consideration:
Other than my “chronic renal insufficiency,” I’m in excellent health.
I come from hardy Wyoming stock, so I’m genetically predisposed to living well into my 90s.
Diseases with cool, mixed-case acronyms (IgAN) have been clinically proven to be less serious than those with regular acronyms (MI, DVT, TB, PMS, etc).
If he comes before I reach the age of 100, I will require the Grim Reaper to say “Immunoglobulin A Nephropathy” ten times fast before I will consent to go with him. (I have yet to find someone outside the medical community who can say it properly even once.)
So, what now? Well, they’ve put me on an ACE inhibitor, but that’s about all that is required at this point. And now that they’ve established a baseline I’ll be getting blood tests every few months to monitor my kidney function.
But, as I said, as word has spread, some folks have presumed that things are much worse than they really are. I’ve already had about 20 kind souls offer me a pound of their flesh (or 5 oz., in this particular case), but everyone can keep their kidneys for the foreseeable future.
As Karen Bartholomew said when she heard about my “condition,” “I guess you just have to pee every day and hope for the best.” Which is exactly what I plan to do.
“So,” I ask, “when you explain to your new ‘friends’ why we got divorced, what exactly do you tell them?”
And the words come, well-rehearsed, as if she’s reading from a brochure. “I tell them that I made some mistakes, but that wasn’t the only reason. It’s more complicated than that. There are shades of grey…”
And my mind starts to wander because I’ve heard this “shades of grey” speech so many times now that I’ve got it memorized. And I think about how remarkable it is that the script for this conversation hasn’t changed in five years. And I think about how happy I am that we haven’t had this conversation in a very long time. And I think about how happy I am that this will probably be the last time we will ever have this conversation.
But then, perhaps because I just finished reading another one of his books, something about the “shades of grey” speech triggers the memory of a story in Oliver Sacks’ The Island of the Colorblind:
“As a child I had visual migraines, where I would have not only the classical scintillations and alterations of the visual field, but alterations in the sense of color too, which might weaken or entirely disappear for a few minutes. This experience frightened me, but tantalized me too, and made me wonder what it would be like to live in a completely colorless world, not just for a few minutes, but permanently. It was not until many years later when I got an answer, at least a partial answer, in the form of a patient, Jonathan I., a painter who had suddenly become totally colorblind following a car accident (and perhaps a stroke). He had lost color vision not through any damage to his eyes, it seemed, but through damage to the parts of the brain which ‘construct’ the sensation of color. Indeed, he seemed to have lost the ability not only to see color, but to imagine it or remember it, even to dream of it. Nevertheless, like an amnesiac, he in some way remained conscious of having lost color, after a lifetime of chromatic vision, and complained of his world feeling impoverished… — his art, his food, even his wife looked ‘leaden’ to him.”
And something clicks. And it’s suddenly clear to me that she has spent so much time in the “shades of grey” that she has lost the ability to see color. And it’s suddenly clear to me why these conversations are always so frustrating for both of us. Because it’s suddenly clear to me that I’ve spent years trying to carry on a meaningful conversation about the subtle and varied colors of love with someone who is colorblind.
One of the things that always disturbed me about the demise of our marriage was not just the speed and ease with which she tossed it aside, but what she tossed it aside for. I was baffled by the math. It had been a very basic value proposition for her, and I was simply on the losing side of the equation.
But it never made sense to me. (Nor to anyone else, for that matter.) How could I have been of so little worth to her that that seemed like an attractive alternative?
But worth is in the eyes of the beholder and hers had stopped working long ago. And with the beauty and color stripped from everything, to her it was all just shades of grey. And since every beautiful and colorful thing in life has a drab and monochromatic analog, a husband is the same shade of grey as a paramour, a friend is the same shade of grey as a lackey, a family is the same shade of grey as an entourage, and a life is the same shade of grey as a lifestyle. So what’s the difference?
Grey = Grey
And if both sides of the value proposition are equal, by all means go with the easier of the two. Husbands, friends, families, and lives are hard work…at least if you’re doing them right.
I was always curious about what my ex-wife would do after our divorce, when she’d have the freedom, the money, and the time to pursue whatever she wanted most in life. And, sure enough, she went after exactly what she’d wanted all along. And now she lives on the Island of the Colorblind, leading a grey life, with grey people, doing grey things. And she’s perfectly happy. Grey is popular. Grey is fashionable. Grey is sophisticated. Grey is the new black. And with all people of color long gone from her life, she no longer has to worry that the word “blue” will come up in a conversation and trigger some vague sense of just how much she has lost.
As for me, I give thanks every day that I’m no longer on the Island of the Colorblind. I lived in those shades of grey for a while and being surrounded by all the lies and the artifice and the relativism and the self-indulgence and the manufactured drama just about killed me. After you’ve lived in the shades of grey for a while, you see them for what they really are: varying degrees of the absence of light.
But I’m back on the Island today. My ex-wife wanted to talk. She’d had a great moral epiphany while watching a certain TV program (exactly which program is a hilarious, colorful irony which she, of course, is incapable of seeing) and she’d wanted to tell me all about it. But I’d managed, with one question, to get us back on the old script again. And now I’m sitting across from her as the historical revisionism oozes out and I’m thinking, “Surely, not even she can believe this rubbish anymore.” And I’m wondering how long it will be before she is completely blind. And I’m overcome by a profound sense of loss — her loss — and the conversation is no longer frustrating, it’s just sad.
But since we’re back on book and I don’t know what else to do, I stick to my part of the script…hoping, praying, that saying it just one more time will somehow remind her of what she can no longer see, or imagine, or remember, or even dream of.
“Blue,” I say.
“Red,” I explain.
“Yellow,” I insist.
“Orange,” I point out.
But the words have no meaning for her anymore, and my heart really isn’t in it anymore, and I feel as leaden as I probably look to her. So I turn and leave and as I walk out into the bright, white sunlight, I’m filled with a new appreciation for the fact that I can leave.
I wish my kids had that same luxury, but they live half their life on that island. Sure, they’re bright, adaptable kids and they’ll learn not to talk to their Mom about colors because it just confuses her and makes her irritable, but over time it can’t help but take a toll on their eyes and their hearts and their lives.
So when they’re with me, we’ll sit in a circle and, like little chromatic sorcerers, conjure up small orbs of colored light in our cupped hands. (Zoë will favor orange; Emma has always been a purple kind of girl.) And we’ll giggle to ourselves and marvel at the subtle variations in hue, cast, and shade. And we’ll put words to tints, and together we’ll learn the names of all the subtle and varied colors of love.
And we’ll start with the basics. Because the first thing you need to know about love is that a heart is red.
The girls and I finally had a chance to see Peter Pan again. We’d seen it once before and the girls had loved it, with Emma going so far as to declare it the best movie she’s ever seen. I’d loved it, too, but I wasn’t sure how much of my enthusiasm for the film was based on the film itself and how much was a result of the circumstances surrounding that first screening.
Peter Pan opened on Christmas Day, a day that I hadn’t been looking forward to. The holidays are already stressful enough, but this would be our first since the divorce. The plan was for me to go over to my ex-wife’s in the morning so we could all open presents as a family and then the girls would spend the rest of the day (and the weekend) with me. I was afraid that the painful fact that we weren’t a family anymore was going to weigh too heavily on the proceedings. Instead, it was one of the best days I’d had in a long, long time. The morning was tolerable, the girls and I had a ball all day, and that night we carried on a long-standing Christmas Day moviegoing tradition by seeing Peter Pan.
Again, we loved the film, and while we were in the theater it had snowed pretty heavily, so we emerged from the theater to find one of those bright winter nights where the whole snow-covered world is almost completely silent. Huge snowflakes meandered so slowly to the ground that everything seemed to be in slow motion. As we walked to the car I had one girl on either side of me. Emma, who was holding my left hand, was humming and swinging my hand back and forth as we walked. Zoë, who was holding my right hand, was stomping in every puddle that came within range, coating the right side of my pant legs with a heavy layer of slush. It was just one of those perfect moments where everything makes sense, even if only for a second or two.
So, given the circumstances, the film would have a special place in my heart even if it had been dreadful. But seeing it again just reaffirmed my opinion that Peter Pan was one of the most under-appreciated films of 2003.
It was directed and co-written by the matrimonially-obsessed P.J. Hogan, who directed both Muriel’s Wedding and My Best Friend’s Wedding. Looking at his filmography, you’d be hard-pressed to explain why someone would hand him $100+ million and send him to the southern hemisphere to make a special-effects-laden, big-budget-box-office-star-less adaptation of a cherished literary classic (now referred to as the “Peter Jackson Deluxe Package”), but I’m very glad they did. Because Mr. Hogan gets it and his script is, by far, the best adaptation of Peter Pan I’ve ever seen.
The dual role of Mr. Darling/Captain Hook is played by Jason Isaacs who is probably best known in the United States for playing villains. Bad villains. Very bad villains. Really very bad villains. The problem is, that’s all they are. There’s not much substance behind the sneer. Take, for instance, the really very bad Colonel Tavington in The Patriot or the really very bad Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. He doesn’t merely chew scenery; he tends to swallow it whole.
But Mr. Isaacs’ Captain Hook is absolutely pitch-perfect as Captain Hook and his performance is so nuanced, so layered, and so rich that it reveals things about the character that may have never occurred to you before. He’s still really very bad, but there’s a heck of a lot more going on than that and it’s fascinating to watch.
He’s also excellent as Mr. Darling, a role that’s usually a toss-off, a way for an actor to kill time until he gets to change into his Hook costume and do some real acting. This production is the first I’ve seen where Mr. Darling is more than just a blustering plot device. He’s given a humanity and depth here that is usually denied him, even in the original text. For instance, as Mr. and Mrs. Darling are leaving for a party, the children try to convince their mother to stay home:
Wendy: Mother, must you go to the party?
John: Yes, mother, you don’t have to go. Father can go by himself.
Mrs. Darling: By himself? Your father is brave man, but he’s going to need the special kiss to face his colleagues tonight.
Wendy: Father? Brave?
Mrs. Darling: There are many different kinds of bravery. There’s the bravery of thinking of others before yourself. Your father has never brandished a sword nor fired a pistol, thank heavens, but he has made many sacrifices for his family…and put away many dreams.
Michael: Where did he put them?
Mrs. Darling: In a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. And it gets harder and harder to close the drawer…but he does. And that is why he is brave.
That exchange isn’t in either the play or the novel, but it’s brilliant. Not only does it set the kids up for some of the emotional discoveries they’ll make later on in the tale, it transforms their father from the traditional, one-dimensional blowhard into a man you can actually care about.
We’re never given the opportunity to see this bravery, but when Mrs. Darling tells her incredulous children that their shy father is, in fact, a very brave man, we’re perfectly willing to take her word for it. Her love and respect for her husband are obvious.
Olivia Williams has done some excellent work in the past (she played the object of both Bill Murray’s and Jason Schwartzman’s affections in Rushmore, starred as Bruce Willis’ [SPOILER ALERT] widow in The Sixth Sense, and was the “mysterious Jane Fairfax” in the mysteriously drab, non-Gwyneth version of Emma), but she is stunning as Mrs. Darling. She is beautiful, calm, and poised, but you can sense the strength and passions that lie just below the surface. It’s not a large role, by any means, but her presence is felt throughout the entire film.
And then there are the kids. Last year was the year of stellar performances by British child actors. Take, for instance:
With the exception of Peter, who was played by an American, the young cast of Peter Pan is the best child ensemble I’ve seen in years. Harry Newell is especially good as John and I can’t say enough about Theordore Chester, who is brilliant as Slightly. (He’s the one holding the telescope.) Mr. Chester has impeccable comic timing and every single line he utters he hits out of the ball park.
But it’s Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy that really carries this film. Because, despite the title, this really is Wendy’s story. She’s the one who goes on an adventure, learns lessons, and returns home a wiser person. (Peter has no character arc whatsoever. He ends the film as he began it.) And just as Mr. Isaacs does with Hook, Ms. Hurd-Wood gives such a rich performance that it transforms the whole film and gives it a depth that’s been missing in every other version of Peter Pan I’ve seen.
Now, having said all that about the film, you should know that I may be the only person who feels this way. The film opened to critical yawns and audience indifference. I think it managed to eek out $50 million at the box office. Both the misguided The Haunted Mansion and the unremarkable Brother Bear earned almost double that.
There are a number of reasons why people may have stayed away from the film, but the first hint of trouble came in 2002 when J.M. Barrie’s goddaughter gave an interview to the London Telegraph and was livid about plans to make an “adult” version of Peter Pan:
“It is a shame the play is being treated in this way. My father and Mr. Barrie would have been horrified. Mr. Barrie just was not interested in that sort of obvious sexuality and romance, and it certainly is not in the original story.”
That impression probably wasn’t helped by the casting of Ludvine Sagnier as Tinkerbell. At the time, the only other thing most people had seen her in was Swimming Pool, in which she played the [SPOILER ALERT] imaginary, sexpot daughter.
“If you can get past the ick factor inherent in these suddenly adulterized relationships — and there’s really no way this film should have received a kid-friendly PG rating — and latch on to the film’s wealth of metaphor, you’ll surely have something to discuss over coffee post-screening.”
And here’s Peter Travers’ review, in its entirety, from the December 23, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone:
“Big bucks have been spent on another go at J.M. Barrie’s fantasy, but despite a hint that Peter (Jeremy Sumpter) and Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) might get it on, there’s nothing to crow about.”
“Obvious sexuality?” “Adulterized relationships?” “Get it on?” You’d think they’d just seen The Dreamers in Neverland, with Peter, Wendy, and John lounging about Peter’s hideout, starkers, playing “Name the Fairy or Pay the Forfeit.” With rubbish like that floating around it’s no wonder parents weren’t dropping off minivans full of kids at the multiplex.
There is one slight hint of “sexuality” in the film, but it’s a prudish adult that introduces it. In an early scene, Wendy is asleep in her bed and she awakens to find Peter floating above her, watching her sleep. She gasps, frightening Peter, who flies out the window, leaving his shadow behind. The next day at school, Wendy is drawing a picture of herself in bed with a boy floating above her. The teacher catches her doodling, confiscates the drawing and interrogates her after school.
Teacher:(Sternly.) If this is you in bed, what is this?
Wendy:(Hesitantly.) A boy…
Narrator: Miss Fulsom dispatched a letter of outrage to Mr. Darling that set new standards for prudery, even for her.
There was nothing sexual about the picture Wendy had drawn. It wasn’t until it had been filtered through the teacher’s prurient mind that it became dirty. In much the same way, anyone who finds anything sexual in this version of Peter Pan has brought their own baggage into the theater, because it’s certainly not up there on the screen.
What is up there on the screen for the very first time, the thing that has everyone talking in the same disapproving tone as Wendy’s teacher, is the one thing that distinguishes a child from an adult. And it isn’t sex…
What is it? Well, to Peter, the defining characteristic of adulthood is going to work in an office:
Peter: Would they send me to school?
Peter: And to an office?
Wendy: I suppose so.
Peter: Soon I shall be a man. (Teasing.) You can’t catch me and make me a man.
Peter:(Very seriously.) I want always to be a boy and have fun.
Wendy: You say so, but I think it is your biggest pretend.
But I think we all know that working in an office has nothing to do with being an adult. Some of the most immature people I’ve ever known have worked in offices. So, what is it?
The thing they keep coming back to in the film is the concept of “feelings.” Not just any feelings, though. After all, even kids can experience all of the base emotions. Here’s a conversation between Wendy and Peter after a beautiful mid-air dance at a fairy wedding:
Wendy: Peter, what are your real…feelings?
Wendy: What do you feel? Happiness? Sadness? Jealousy?
Peter:(Free associating.) Jealousy? Tink!
Peter: Anger? Hook!
Peter:(Evasively.) I have never heard of it.
Wendy: I think you have, Peter. I daresay you’ve felt it yourself for something…or…someone.
Peter: Never. Even the sound of it offends me.
Peter:(Angry.) Why do you spoil everything?! We have fun, don’t we? I taught you to fight and to fly. What more could there be!?
Wendy: There is so much more…
Peter: What? What else is there?
Wendy: I don’t know. I think it becomes clearer when you grow up.
Peter: I will not grow up! You cannot make me! I’ll banish you, like Tinkerbell!
Wendy: I will not be banished!
Peter: Go home! Go home and grow up…and take your feelings with you!
Wendy:(As he flies away.) Peter! Peter, come back! Peter!
No, the thing that separates the men from the boys is love. And that’s what separates Wendy and Peter. The ability to recognize love, the ability to experience love, and the ability love someone in return.
Wendy eventually becomes so frustrated with Peter’s “deficiencies” in this area that she even considers joining Hook’s gang:
Wendy: It’s true, John. Your sister has been invited to piracy.
Tootles: But, mother! Hook is a fiend!
Slightly: And a bounder!
Wendy: On the contrary, I find Captain Hook to be a man…of…feeling.
(Peter, furious, goes after her and they engage in a sword fight.)
Tootles: Mother and father are fighting again.
Wendy: Sir, you are both ungallant and deficient.
Peter: How am I deficient?
Wendy:(Dismissively.) You’re just a boy.
And she realizes that’s all he ever will be. She knows that Peter will never be capable of real love and she knows that unless she grows up she’ll never be able to experience it fully either.
I know what you’re thinking. If love is at the core of the story, why has the subject been conspicuously avoided for the last 100 years? Well, it probably has something to do with the harebrained tradition of casting females in the role of Peter Pan. The very first Peter Pan was Maude Adams, who was 32 years old at the time. Mary Martin (41) had a successful run on Broadway in 1954, Sandy Duncan (33) revived the show in 1979, and Cathy Rigby (46) starred in the 1998 Broadway hit.
If people are having a problem with the depiction of the first stirrings of love between a young girl and a young boy, just think how they would feel about the first stirrings of love between an underage girl and a middle-aged lesbian.
(The first production of Peter Pan that featured a male in the title role was in Germany in 1952. England didn’t see it’s first pair of authentically packed tights until a 1982 production directed by Trevor Nunn, which was revived at the National Theatre in 1997, with Ian McKellen as Captain Hook.)
But the core of this story has always been Wendy’s discovery of the importance of love. If she flies away to Neverland because she doesn’t want to grow up, why does she return home? In most productions, her decision to return home is based solely on her loneliness for her parents but, sorry folks, that’s a cop-out. She must return because there is something about growing up that she believes will be even more rewarding than staying.
There is another reason that this version of the Peter Pan was especially poignant for me. Rachel Hurd-Wood is like a 12-year-old replica of a girl I once dated. Her hair, her eyes, her mouth, her voice, her mannerisms, her spirit. The likeness is remarkable. She, too, was a delightful girl…beautiful, calm, and poised, but you could sense the strength and passion that lay just below the surface. She was my Wendy.
We started dating when we were both in a production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Sundance Summer Theater. But after we’d been dating for a while, I noticed that the spark we’d had at the beginning of the relationship wasn’t there anymore. I just didn’t have the same intensity of feeling for her that I’d once had. To my mind, that could only mean one thing: I must not be in love with her anymore.
So, at that point, the question became: How do I extricate myself from this relationship without becoming the bad guy? I couldn’t just say, “I’m sorry, but for reasons that I don’t understand, and certainly can’t explain, I’m not in love with you anymore,” because then she’d want to “talk about it,” or worse, “work on it.” But, surely, that magic spark that occurs between two people isn’t something you can talk into existence or work to create. It’s either there or it isn’t, and if it’s not there, it’s nobody’s fault…it just wasn’t meant to be, right?
So, what did I do? I did what any coward would do. I didn’t do anything. To my everlasting shame, I essentially checked out of the relationship emotionally and waited for it to die of (un)natural causes.
The real problem, of course, had nothing to do with sparks, or lack thereof. And it had nothing to do with her. It was me. I was, as Wendy would put it, “deficient.” I was just a boy, a Lost Boy, and I didn’t even know it. It’s not that I didn’t want to grow up, it just never occurred to me that I hadn’t. By all outward appearances, I was quite mature. I was bright, sensitive, caring, responsible, conscientious, attentive. But I didn’t have the slightest idea what love really was.
I blame society. Young men in America don’t have many opportunities to learn about relationships as they grow up. While nearly every young man will have someone sit them down and talk to them about the facts of life, there’s no corresponding discussion about the facts of love. There’s no Pee Wee Relationship League, no Emotional Economics class in high school, no Feelings merit badge. We’re pretty much left to figure out this whole love thing for ourselves. Alone.
Why alone? Well, we certainly can’t discuss it amongst ourselves. Opening up and sharing your true feelings with someone is a very intimate thing to do, and intimacy between males is not necessarily something that is encouraged in our society. It also reveals a certain emotional vulnerability, and “vulnerability” equals “weakness,” right? And it opens you up to possible ridicule, which is something adolescent boys are not especially keen on. So, the rules are simple: Sex, you talk about; feelings, you don’t.
So when I talked about love, I didn’t actually talk about love. I talked about the giddy, exciting, adrenaline- and hormone-induced euphoria that occurs at the beginning of a relationship. In other words, I talked about the sparks.
Sparks are certainly necessary in order to get a relationship off the ground, but sparks are cheap. Sparks fly millions of times a day between all the wrong people and for all the wrong reasons. Heck, a 1972 Buick dragging its muffler down the highway can generate sparks. But we often become so entranced by the bright, sparkly lights that we seem to forget that the whole reason those sparks exist is to produce a flame. And as any Boy Scout trying to light a campfire can tell you: sparks are easy, it’s the flame that’s hard.
Those sparks that occur at the beginning of a relationship can’t last forever. That intensity is, by its very nature, fleeting. The only way you can maintain the sparks in a relationship is to not maintain the relationship. When the sparks subside, which they inevitably will, your only option is to ditch the relationship and move on to someone else. Which is exactly what I did.
What every adult needs to learn at some point in their life is that what a relationship loses in intensity, it can gain in depth. What it loses in flash, it can gain in heat. Until you learn that lesson, every relationship you enter into has an expiration date in the not-so-distant future.
I broke one more person’s heart after I broke Wendy’s. Again, I checked out of the relationship when the sparks subsided, but this time there was this nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Deep, deep inside my shallow self there was this little pile of burning embers. This time, the sparks had actually done their job. I was in love. I sat up and thought to myself, “You idiot! What in the world are you thinking? Get off your butt and beg that girl to take you back.” I did and she did and we ended up getting married.
I often think about what would have happened if I hadn’t had that epiphany, if I’d stayed a Lost Boy. Craving love, but incapable of really experiencing it, I would have spent my entire life in an endless parade of relationships generating plenty of sparks and no real heat. Sure, the relationships would have gone to 11, but they would have been about one inch deep and had a shelf life shorter than most Hostess products. And I would have made myself, and everyone who truly loved me, miserable.
No, my marriage didn’t last, but it wasn’t because I was a Lost Boy. If anything, I’d learned my lesson too well. I stayed too long, I compromised too much, I kept on trying long after it was intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer that there was no hope. But if I had to err on the side of loving too much or loving too little, at least I finally did the right thing.
Today is the first anniversary of the worst day of my life. It actually occurred four years ago today, but that’s the beauty of finding out that your whole life is a fraud on a February 29th. You only have to endure the day itself every four years.