The W. M. Syndrome

Sister Chantal paced across the front of my seventh-grade classroom listing what assignments she wanted us to complete by the end of the school day. Her pretty young face, framed by her white wimple and black veil, looked thoughtful. Her black habit accentuated her thin body. Only the toes of her small black shoes showed below the hem. “Read the next story in your English book. It’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber. To test your reading comprehension, I will hand out a paper while you are reading. Answer the questions about the story to the best of your abilities.”

I loved reading. Opening my English book, I quickly began mentally absorbing the story. It didn’t take long for me to realize it was about an odd man who couldn’t function properly because he was always daydreaming. His ineptitude made me suffer second-hand embarrassment. I wanted to escape from the uncomfortable situations that resulted from his stupid behavior.

What made me truly hate “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was that I saw myself being like him. I daydreamed more than I thought I should. Did I act weird because of my daydreams? I shuddered and fervently hoped I didn’t.

Staring at the floor next to my desk, I pictured Sister Chantal announcing, “Kathy, I already know you have good reading comprehension, so you don’t have to do this assignment. I’ll have you hand out the test papers.”

Sighing, I went back to reading the story. Walter Mitty seemed crazy. Did that make me crazy, too?

Several times during my childhood I remember asking my parents and siblings what they were thinking. I wanted to know if all the storylines constantly streaming though my brain were normal or not. At times I felt the imaginary stories kept me on an even keel. At other times I worried about their content.

When I married and had children, I discovered that my children began daydreaming in toddlerhood. Until they became self-conscious, I often saw their lips moving as they acted out their imaginary stories.

My grandchildren showed the same daydream behavior. If I saw them talking and moving around like they were acting out a play, I never bothered to ask what they were thinking. Even at a very young age, they know it is a story belonging exclusively to themselves.

Daydreams are a symptom of what I call the W M (Walter Mitty) Syndrome. I have decided that daydreaming is a normal part of human life. As adults we can stop and redirect when the dreams are interfering with life or are inappropriate.

Lately I’m starting to wonder lately if daydreaming is strictly a human trait. My daughter Tammie brought her two cats with her when she came to shelter in place with me this year. Mac is an orange and white male. A catnip-infused, canvas banana is Mac’s favorite toy. I’ve seen him hold it and give it bunny kicks with his hind legs and then noisily lick it with his raspy tongue.

Carla, his litter-mate sister is small gray tabby. Carla Cat seems aware that female lions are the hunters who bring food back to their pride. Her play makes me wonder if she experiences W M Syndrome.

Her favorite toy is a little gray felt mouse with knotted string eyeballs. One eye was long ago pulled out and dangles gruesomely. The toy appears frequently in so many places I’ve started to think there are more than one, or else it is alive.

The other day I witnessed how the toy mouse relocates. The mouse lay in the middle of the shadowy hallway between bedrooms. Carla Cat sat on her haunches at the other end of the hall. Her eyes fixed on her prey. Creeping closer and then crouching lower, she silently arranged and rearranged her hind legs for a fast pounce. Nothing existed for her in the whole world, except the prey.

Suddenly, Carla leaped and landed on the mouse with claws extended. Her landing pushed out a soft, “Eph!” sound. Grasping the hapless mouse in her jaw, and strutting down the hallway, Carla announced her kill in a low, proud voice, “Merooow, Meroow, Meroow!”

Mac heard the call and came to see. I opened the door of my room more to lean out to see. They stopped in their tracks and turned to stare at me. I am positive I interrupted two cats acting out a Walter Mitty jungle cat daydream.

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