Center for Ethics and Leadership

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Here’s to Whimsy – Especially at Christmas


Wandering through my mind looking for something to contribute to the holiday fun . . . Nathan Thomas and I were talking yesterday about working as an actor. If you want to work as an actor, the saying goes, you can always find work. We got to talking about character actors. Like Walter Brennan, who played a crotchety old man from the time he was young and always worked. From there the conversation moved to two of your favorites, I’m sure – Thomas Mitchell and Henry Travers. That’s Uncle Billy and Clarence the Guardian Angel from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. They were not particularly attractive any of these men, and they had funny voices. They certainly were not leading men. They played characters, just characters. Can an actor like that work today? Not as easily. The roles aren’t being written as they once were. We left it at that.

Then it was time for me to think about my Christmas wish list. I had not been able to come up with a story line for my Alvernian column, so I decided I might as well tell my wife what I want for Christmas. The Incredible String Band. Was their vinyl ever converted to CD? Yes and yippee!

Yippee for the group that was among the first of the flower children. The Incredible String Band made Donovan, he of Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow fame, sound like Lawrence Welk, and they did it entirely acoustically with about a dozen instruments ranging from flute to sitar to, well, you name it. Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, and a few others here and there. I loved them. They were whimsical:

Oh ah ee oo there's absolutely no strife
living the timeless life
I don't need a wife
living the timeless life
If I need a friend I just give a wriggle
Split right down the middle
And when I look there's two of me
Both as handsome as can be
Oh here we go slithering, here we go slithering and squelching on

The above, from The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, released in 1968, was a welcome daydream, a tonic coming in the same year that The Rolling Stones asked Lucifer to introduce himself as a man of wealth and taste.

And then it hit me. Who would listen to ISB’s silly lyrics today? What scriptwriters would provide a multi-decade career for Brennan, Mitchell, or Travers? Where has the whimsy gone? Lost perhaps in our self-serious search for leadership. Fortunately, it’s still here at Christmas, a season so joyous because of its very whimsical truth claim – that God wanted to become human rather than the other way ’round -- that flights of fancy are often thought of as the perfect way to capture the Christmas spirit. So here’s a Christmas column dedicated to Clarence, Kris Kringle (for which Edmund Gwenn won a Best Supporting Oscar), Buddy the Elf, red-nosed reindeer, and of course The Waitresses singing Christmas Wrapping. From Robin, Mike and me:

May the long time sun shine upon you
All love surround you
And the pure light within you
Guide you all the way on.