Wisdom From the Fat Man

A line from an old movie with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason is worth remembering when you need a pick-me-up after a fall.

On a fishing trip a few years ago I had one of those humiliating days. My brother and I were working a lake in Ontario one afternoon into evening. He caught several big northern pike in a row, while I caught nothing, despite using the same lure and casting to the same kinds of spots.

Then a cold front came and the fish shut down, although we kept at it for a few hours. When all was said and done, I had fished hard for five hours, in Canada no less, and could not catch a single northern pike. It wasn’t that I begrudged my brother his catch. It was that I felt incompetent. Where fishing is concerned, I lose confidence easily.

Next morning, quite honestly, I barely wanted to get out of bed, and I dreaded going out on the water again. It was then I remembered the 1950s movie, “The Hustler,” and some words from Minnesota Fats.

Double lesson

By way of background, the movie starred Paul Newman as “Fast” Eddie Felson, a cocky young pool hustler, and Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats, the all-time great. The two hook up in an all-night, all-morning, high-stakes game at a pool hall in Ames, Iowa.

For most of the evening, Felson beats Fats repeatedly and takes him for a large sum of money. When they finally take a break, Felson looks sweaty, stubbled and worn. The Fat Man, in his suit with the rose in the lapel, also appears played out.

During the break, as Felson keeps drinking from his bottle of cheap whiskey, Minnesota goes to the back of the pool hall, washes his face, shaves, combs his hair and freshens up his suit. When he returns to the table, he looks as clean and groomed as when he had walked into the pool hall many hours earlier.

He looks at Felson, smiles and says, “Fast Eddie, let’s play some pool.” All that went before is forgotten. It’s a brand new game. And Fats proceeds not only to win back the money he lost but to take Fast Eddie’s entire bankroll. There’s a double lesson here: a caution against letting arrogance take over, and a reminder that defeats happen to us all but are only temporary.

Getting back up

Minnesota Fats knew who he was. He knew that when on top of his game he would eventually beat anyone. Part of his mystique was his class: Even in a down-at-the-heels pool hall, he wore a three-piece suit with a flower in the lapel. His standards never wavered. When he got beaten down, he came back stronger than ever.

Most of us over the years have learned that lesson one way or another. And yet when we have that rotten day (or week, or month), we still fall prey to low confidence, which if we’re not careful can start a downward spiral.

The thing we need to remember is that the person who failed that one time is not the sum and substance of who we are. We are the person who gets the job done, day after day; who in the final analysis is capable and successful.

There are many ways to express the basic lesson about perseverance and confidence. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. When you fall off your horse, get right back in the saddle. “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” (Billie Jean King). “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” (Franklin Roosevelt).

But I prefer the words of the Fat Man. When you fail one day, get up the next morning, shower and shave, put on a fresh suit of clothes, go face the world and say to yourself, “Fast Eddie, let’s play some pool.”

Ready to try again

That’s what I did the morning after that disastrous outing on the lake in Ontario. I got into my rain suit and went out with my brother to cast the weedy bays for pike. I wish I could say we both slayed them, but the cold front had taken full effect and the fish weren’t cooperating.

But on a few casts, a fish followed my lure back to the boat, and that was enough. I knew then that my long day of failure was just one of those things. My Canada vacation is long over, but I’m ready to get back out there — just tell me when and where. After the next of your bad days, I hope you can say the same.


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