Sunday, March 9, 2003

Uneventful lives often ones
with most meaning



map
Being a husband and father is heavy lifting. What you want to do is lost to what you have to do. It's the difference between dreams and responsibility. If you're lucky and you stay with it, the two will eventually meet, and you can consider your life a success.

"I used to think destiny had tapped me to be a great man,'' Jack Nicholson says, in the movie About Schmidt. Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a newly retired middle manager. Schmidt has the sort of sturdy and world-weary bearing of a man grateful to have led an uneventful and unexamined life.

He is confronted with considering his 66 years when his wife dies suddenly and his only child, a daughter, prepares to marry a lovable loser Warren can't stand. Until the movie's final minute, Schmidt concludes his life wasn't much, especially when he compares it with the ambitions he once had. "I was going to be one of those guys you read about,'' he says.

All of us think that, at some point. All of us could have been contenders. Then life happens and changes everything. You don't write the Great American Novel. You pay the utility bill instead. That's not so bad, especially in January.

What's great about About Schmidt - beyond Nicholson's nicely understated performance - is that, in some, small way, it celebrates the triumphs of the everyday man. It is hard being an everyday man, hard getting up in the morning, hard raising children, tending to a marriage, hard holding everything together when everyone expects you to do exactly that. Hard being responsible and selfless and strong.

Being The Man of the House is exhausting work.

What's hardest, though, is choosing to do it, and staying true to the choice.

Schmidt was married for 42 years, lived in the same house, paid the bills, raised a daughter and stayed faithful to his wife. He did the hard work we tend to forget about, especially in popular culture. Schmidt could be any of us fathers and husbands, who defer our own desires to satisfy the needs of others.

He couldn't convince his daughter not to get married, so he offered a gracious toast at her reception. Because it was the right and fatherly thing to do. Afterward, he retired to the restroom, where he bent over in private unhappiness.

He does the right thing, to make others happy. That's the essential, noble part of being a father and a husband, and so often taken for granted.

After his daughter's wedding, Schmidt goes home to Omaha. His wife is gone, the house is an empty mess.

He parks the Winnebago in the driveway. He and Helen were going to see the country in the Winnebago, and then they weren't. Warren didn't miss Helen until she was gone.

"What kind of difference have I made?'' he asks near the end of the movie. Days after retiring, Schmidt became a foster father to a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu. He offers this admission in a letter to the boy, along with his monthly $22 support check. "What in the world is better because of me?

"I am weak and I am a failure. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all.''

Schmidt opens a letter from Ndugu. In it is a picture the boy has drawn, of two stick figures, one short, the other tall, holding hands.

It is enough to convince Warren he has mattered. He should have known that before then, however.

He was a good husband and father. Remarkable, in an unremarkable way.

E-mail pdaugherty@enquirer.com




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