The Secret Life of Riff Mortgensen

{Disclaimer: The name Riff Mortgensen was chosen arbitrarily. I know no person named Riff Mortgensen, and any similarities to anyone named Riff Mortgensen are purely coincidental. This story is a work of creative nonfiction.}

How do we deal with the fact that our dreams did not come true? How do we deal with the fact that we’ve turned out a lot more common than we ever dreamed possible? How do we deal with the painful reality that few will remember that we were even here, after we’re dead and gone?

A 1939 Reader’s Digest short story by James Thurber, called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a story about an ineffective man who spends far too much time imagining himself in heroic situations rather than pay to the real world. That story was an answer to the question how do some people deal with the fact that life has not worked out the way they planned, and Riff Mortensen is a modern manifestation of a Walter Mitty.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is about an excessively creative mind, by an excessively mind, and for excessively minds. James Thurber probably shared some of his excessively creative thoughts at various points in his life, and he encountered ridicule and scorn for it. My guess is that the people who loved him, his dad for example, said things like, “Get real, get a real job, and learn the ways of the real world,” whenever Thurber shared his dreams with the man. My guess is that the woman he fell in love with, loved his excessively creative mind, until he showed her how excessive it was throughout their years of marriage. She might have considered it endearing, beautiful, and even inspirational in the beginning, for who doesn’t love the creative mind? There is a line, however, when those closest to him want him to maintain realistic goals and pursue them. At some point, Thurber probably got beat down, and he learned to no longer share his dreams, even with those closest to him.

Thurber’s dreams might have even become his shame. My guess is that the Walter Mitty story was Thurber’s vehicle for relaying the dreams of an excessive daydreamer. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was Thurber’s way of laughing at himself in a way only creative types can. It might have also been a shot of laughter directed at those who suggested that his excessively creative dreams in life would never amount to anything. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is, after all, one of the most anthologized short stories in American literature, and it is widely acknowledged as Thurber’s masterpiece. Some might even say that the story’s success, and the success of the 1947 movie, based on Thurber’s story, were his last laugh. Thurber might have found the story to be the only way of expressing himself in a way no one, not even his wife, knew. Judging by the wife of Walter Mitty, Thurber’s wife may have been so ashamed of Thurber’s creativity that he learned to hide it so well that she totally forgot about that side of him, until he published it. 

Riff Mortgensen lives a life of similar glory, in his own mind, interwoven with an acknowledgement that he is a common man. Riff wants those around him to acknowledge his common man status, in a manner that he hopes belies expectation. He is a humble man who disavows greatness, and he hopes we factor that into our profile of him.

Like Walter Mitty, Riff Mortgensen lives with the dream that he is a man of greatness even though he knows that he has not accomplished much. He deals with the frustrations that life has to offer by supplanting them with his own characterizations of his daily life. As opposed to most daydreamers, the dreams of Walter Mitty and Riff Mortgensen occur in the present rather than in the past or future. It is a lie they told so often that they began to believe them.

By scale, Riff Mortgensen is nowhere near Walter Mitty. Riff does not dream in the grandiose manner the character Walter Mitty did, and that may be one of the keys to being a modern day Walter Mitty. Riff keeps his dreams reasonable. I’m sure that before the fictional depiction of Walter Mitty, there were a lot of Walter Mittys running around. After Thurber set the precedent with the original The Secret Life of Walter Mitty story, all of the Walter Mittys who followed adjusted their delusions to avoid the “Mittyesque” label that followed the story’s popularity.

My great aunt called me Walter Mitty once when I was very young. I had no idea what it meant back then, but the general idea of what she was saying was obvious through context. As a result, I adjusted my wild ideas accordingly, so that no one would reject my delusions via a lack of credulity.

We all deal with our frustrations in life in different ways. Some of us are embittered individuals who hate those in better, more prosperous, situations. We develop excuses to help us cope with the fact that others have succeeded where we have not. We engage in schadenfreude when others fail. Some choose to hate the world, in terms that are more general. They believe that the world is against them, and that circumstance has prevented them from gaining that jewel in life that they’ve always wanted. Some of us devote our time to something else to distract us from our current situation in life, such as entertainment or sports, and we derive vicarious enjoyment from their accomplishments in a manner that permits us from wallowing in our own situation in life. No matter what method we choose, we all have a way of dealing with our failures in life, and this defines who we are and what we are going to be.


“I spend my life trying to live up to the lies I tell about myself,” a friend of mine said. Riff did not say this, but it sums up his modus operandi well.

Riff is a quiet man who appears to be a man of action not words. He appears to be the strong, silent type who is laughing on the inside, at the manner in which the rest of us struggle. He appears to be the type for whom things come easily, and that’s exactly what he wants you to believe. He doesn’t want you to know.

The little secret that Riff doesn’t know is that he has potential, and he knows it. This intended contradiction spells Riff Mortgensen out better than any other characterization could. He knows he has potential to get things done, but what things should he do? Better yet, should he try to do any of them? It’s one thing to get things done, but it’s quite another to know one has the potential to do them. Give Riff Mortgensen parameters, provide him focus within a given main frame, and the man will succeed beyond our expectations, but he enjoys the idea of his own potential so much that he’s a little frightened of the reality. He’s a little frightened of knowing whether he will succeed, and this little granule of potential that he’s seen is, often times, enough for him to know.


He details for us the awe his compatriots have for him. He amazes them with his exploits.

“I can’t believe you knew that,” says one character to him. “You’re the best I ever saw,” says another. One wonders if Riff has watched too many Tom Cruise movies. The observer can’t help but think he identified with the characterizations of those Cruise characters so much that he’s begun to see himself as “the best anyone has ever seen.” 

I don’t hear the people say these things firsthand, but I have them repeated to me by Riff. In his mind, there is a daily parade put on by those who feel privileged just to have witnessed his daily routines. Some of it could be true, some might involve exaggerations, and some of it may never have happened at all.

This aspect of his personality was not clear to me at first. I knew he did it. He drove me nuts with it at times, and there were times when I wanted to pop his delusional bubble. It was not clear to me how prominent this delusional element was to him until we hung out with two co-workers. These two people interacted with him on a daily basis at our place of employment, and I’m sure that they held him in high regard, but they didn’t know him outside of work to that point. He’s a smart guy, and he’s good at what he does, but he has the same moments that the rest of the human race does. He just doesn’t talk about them.

The night was uneventful as far as I was concerned. Four people sat around and talked about the people, places and things that four people who share a place of employment discuss. One of the four, a man named David, held Riff to the mat on some matters that David considered pressing. David wanted to know Riff’s opinion on those matters, but Riff would not relent. I could sense it was an issue to some degree, but I had no idea how much it meant to Riff, until Riff said, “I don’t know if I want to hang out with those two anymore,” on our ride home. 

“Why?” I asked. “You two seemed to be getting along.”

“David knows how I think on matters.”

As with most covert, intimate revelations, I failed to gauge the import of it at first. I should’ve asked Riff what he meant, but I didn’t know we just tripped upon a core tenet of Riff’s constitution in the moment. I didn’t even sense that this revelation lay in a sensitive, vulnerable area that required slow digestion on my part at the time. I wasn’t an hour in my home when I attached some relevance it. I realized Riff feared that David’s interrogation came a little too close to penetrating Riff’s carefully constructed mystique. There were some matters discussed that Riff had opinions on that he did not want to discuss, but my guess is that those weren’t the matters that truly bothered Riff. My guess is that David wanted Riff’s expert opinion on some matters, and Riff didn’t have it. Inherent in those exchanges, Riff believed, was the little secret that Riff wasn’t as informed as Riff wanted David to believe he was. I wanted to tell him that this was a very natural fear, and that we all have these fears of others finding out things about us. That would not have been a quality answer for him though.

That night, and that particular exchange, revealed the essence of Riff Mortgensen, but it also revealed the essence of the delusional that we all know. It revealed that most of us erect a shroud of secrecy to prevent others from seeing how dumb, incompetent, fragile, and inconsequential we really are. Riff Mortgensen, like most of us who daydream our faults away, isn’t any of those things, but he fears that he is, and he fears that if he isn’t careful about the way he presents himself, people will find out that he is.

We all live in the fog of potential versus reality, but some of us are able to grasp it better than others are. Some of us try to do something about it, and some of us fall flat on our faces in the course of doing so. Putting our self-imposed potential to succeed on the line for the purpose of cashing in on it, can be a scary thing, for potential can be much more fun to dance around in. There does comes a point in everyone’s life when one must answers these questions of potential to make them a reality. Riff has never wanted to reach that point.

The other day, Riff informed me that he had an interview for a high-level person in our company. The interviewer suggested that she didn’t consider Riff qualified for the position, but she said that with Riff’s impressive resume that he should consider interviewing for another position in the company that was almost as prestigious. I was stunned. I was excited for him. “Go for it!” I said.

“It’s already closed,” he responded quickly.

“I don’t care,” I said. “If she said that, you need to seek a position close to the one you applied for, it’s almost your obligation to seek it.” The “she” in this equation was one of the top dogs in the Human Resources department, and she had an unquestioned ability to spot young talent. I would not let go Riff’s suggestion that she would consider him for a lofty position in our company. I threw out various positions I spotted on our company’s list of open positions, and Riff shot every one of my suggestions down with quick jabs. I wondered how a person could turn down such a grand opportunity, until it finally dawned on me that it probably never happened and that I ensnared myself in one of his delusions again.

The actual interview did happen. I don’t know what occurred in that interview. I don’t know if this powerful woman said something glorious about Riff, if she said something damaging to him, or if she dismissed him in a manner Riff found unceremonious, but that interview changed him. He pivoted after it. His delusions became much less reasonable after it. His delusions neared the Walter Mitty level of grandiose. That interview may have shattered some elemental delusions Riff had of himself. He couldn’t report such matters to me, of course, so he decided to make himself a shining star. She probably said something near the line he gave me, and he embellished it. I didn’t prepare for that delusion, and he knew it.

Riff brought this delusion up again, sometime later, in front of another co-worker. This co-worker asked me about it after Riff left the table. I was embarrassed for him. I decided that the next time Riff brought up this delusion, I would tell him not to bring it up in front of others, but that would’ve pulled a ripcord on his delusion. The two of us probably would’ve shared some kind of knowing smile, and I wouldn’t have been able to sleep that night.

Guilt would’ve been the source of my insomnia on that night if I said that, and it would’ve plagued me for the many days that followed. The reason being that I find that this world can be a cruel, little oyster at times. At times, people climb all over one another to tell everyone around them that they’re not as successful as they think they are. They pop our delusions and illusions, and they smile when they do it with a degree of satisfaction I find unsettling. They’re trying to be “real” with us. A “real” friend looks for a way to be brutally honest with their friend, until they have them crushed down to a little pebble. I have always viewed friendship as something of an escape from this “real” world, where two people can lay out their dreams and fantasies to one another without the fear of another crushing them in the aftermath.

I did want to pull the ripcord on Riff’s delusions a number of times. There were times when I thought I was enabling him, and that the cure to his problem might be a lethal dose of reality shot straight into his jugular, so that he didn’t go popping off with such nonsense, in front of our co-workers. I didn’t want to see my friend float one of these delusions on someone less delicate than me. I wanted to protect him and prevent him from going through what I knew was coming, but once you pull that chord there’s no turning back. This has caused me to be silent in the face of his delusions, and this silence has inadvertently given birth to a monster. Riff now has the notion that he is superior to me, and his definitions of himself have increased twofold on my back. He now comments on my naïveté, and he comments on the fact that I don’t have a college degree.

This charge that I might be naïve resulted from the fact that I qualify many of my statements with the fact that I could be naïve, and in doing so I inadvertently create a profile of myself as naïve when I repeat the qualifier too often. So, I understand when Riff does this, but when he then projects upon himself this characterization of himself, as one who is the opposite –a worldly, knowledgeable character– it goes beyond the definition of delusional at times.

My natural, competitive instincts may soon arise from these ashes, for I cannot take too much more. I may be naïve, and I would never argue this idea, but it is only through honest reflection that I admit this. I try to view myself in an objective manner, and I attempt to gauge how others may view me on a regular basis. I do not expect everyone to do so, but the exaggeration of the opposite grates on me at times.

The other day Riff informed me that our co-worker David was not intelligent, and as a result, the two of them did not have what he considered intellectually engaging conversations. I informed him that this might have something to do with the fact that David was considerably younger than we were. Riff agreed to an extent, but he stated that he thought it had more to do with the fact that David did not have a college degree. Riff quickly informed me that this is not the case with me. He said that even though I do not have a college degree, we have engaging conversations based on my well-rounded intelligence. I smiled. I don’t know why I smiled, but when he shared his delusional blanket with me, I found it warm and comfortable. I felt like an absolute fool a day later when I examined Riff’s characterizations of us, but the guilt thing would not permit me to lift the blanket from both of us and reveal us for who we are. The laughable thing about that comment was that Riff’s greater goal was not to compliment me or insult David, but to lift up his own image, as a college graduate, through comparative analysis.

I wanted to inform him that all of us progress through different channels of psychological dominance and subservience in different ways, on different days. The search for where we stand in this chasm between dominance and subservience can be a difficult one to traverse, so we usually attempt to answer these questions on the backs of others. This is a shortcut to self-examination and self-reflection. Some feel superior to another, based on the other’s religion, their politics, their race, or in the case of Riff Mortgensen their education level. Some base their search for definition on whether one brushes their teeth top to bottom or side to side. Others might base their comparative analyses on how a person shaves their pubic hair. If one-person leaves a strip and another person shaves Brazilian who is superior and who is subservient, and where does the person who lets theirs grow wild stand? I met a guy one time who professed a preference for sitting on one cheek. He would never try to call attention to himself by doing this, but he preferred sitting on one cheek. He said that he thought it gave him the appearance of being more eager and more involved. I considered it odd, but I wondered if he felt dominant to our kind, we two-cheek sitters, in anyway.

To illustrate the tenuous balance between the foolish ways we attempt to define our superiority through comparative analysis, I wanted to ask Riff if his psychological profile of me would change if I changed the manner in which I walked down a hallway. If I moved quickly without moving my arms at all, would he consider a superior being or inferior? “Or,” I would say nearing his face, “would you then, finally, consider me an equal?”

Riff also developed a delusional fortress that he believed was constantly under attack. If one was to ask him how many friends he had, he admit that he has very few, but there is a subset of beliefs Riff has that this shortcoming is self-imposed. He informed me once that I was one of the few that he allowed into his fortress. I wasn’t aware that there was such demand for entrance, but I played along. He informed me that it didn’t matter how large their battering ram was, the others weren’t getting in, but he granted me the privilege of being in his inner circle. I ascribe to the notion that anyone that chooses to call me friend has granted me just such a privilege, but most people don’t spell this out in such stark terms. The truth is that he chose the middle of the desert for the location of his fortress, and it doesn’t matter how strong the fortifications are, no one will attempt to invade it until he moves it to a better location.

Riff Mortgensen is an excellent trivia master, until you play a trivia game with him. He’s a lady’s man, until the ladies come around, and he used to be a ball of greatness until a certain something came up and plucked him from greatness. The potential of one’s past can be as crippling as the potential one will dream up for their future. One would think that a Walter Mitty, or a Riff Mortgensen, would reach a breaking point in which they had to do something, but with so many realities swimming around in one’s head it can become difficult to pick just one.

Riff tired of the dominant and subservient games at one point. He moved. His desperation to move provided more questions than it answered. Did he move, as he stated, because he couldn’t stand our city or our state? He said our fair city didn’t have enough theater, or art, or that special metropolitan lifestyle that so many seek when they move. It could’ve been all of those things, but I think Riff moved to escape the fact that so many people knew him in our shared city. They knew his weaknesses, his frailties, and his vulnerabilities. They knew he wasn’t half the man he purported to be, even though he was. He was a good guy, a hard worker, and a recognized talent in his place of employment, but he feared that other people might know otherwise.

Former Walter Mittys may be better at detecting current Walter Mittys than most, in the manner that a former smoker can smell a smoker a mile away, but others shamed me out of my Walter Mitty ways long before I met Riff Mortgensen. They taught me the black and white truths of life that suggested even a creative stretching of the truth falls into the false category. For as different as we were, at the point in life where our paths cross, he and I connected on many levels before he left. One of the primary connections we made occurred in a discussion we had on losing a mother at a very young age. I was a mess of emotions on the topic. I informed him how difficult it was losing someone who genuinely cared about what happened to me. Riff informed me that he didn’t care. He didn’t care about losing a mother. He even stated that he didn’t care about his mother. The one substantial difference between our situations was Riff’s mother filed for divorce from Riff’s father, and my mother passed away. In my self-serving sorrow, I never considered the idea that as much as her death affected my life, it was better than experiencing the feelings of abandonment and betrayal. By Riff’s estimation, the woman didn’t visit or call. She simply started a new life, to experience all the youth she missed by marrying too young in life.    

Nestled within Riff’s external shell was another shell he created to prevent anyone, including him, from getting in. Laying beneath all these layers of delusions and illusions and obfuscation and redirects Riff engaged in was the pain he didn’t want anyone to see. Most people don’t care about others. As hard as it is for us to grasp, some mothers don’t care about their children. How does that child deal with it? I think that young boy, who became a man, learned that to display a form of psychological refraction, because he feared that if she didn’t care about him no one would. Most people don’t care. As hard as it is for us to grasp, even some mothers don’t care about their children.

An ailment forced Riff to endure a long hospital stay at one point in his life, and he had very few visitors. This may have reinforced his fear that no one cared. He also began refraining from telling people his birthday. He stated various reasons for doing so, but I believe it was a defense mechanism. I believe he used it to stave off the knowledge that no one cared. These people did. For whatever reason, these people began hounding him for his birthday. He must have enjoyed that, because he stuck to his guns. Either that or he feared that once he revealed that date, and it passed without anyone remembering to make a big deal of it, it might further his fear that no one cared. Maybe that’s why he eventually moved. Maybe that’s why he became a modern day Walter Mitty with all of the illusions and delusions of who he was, to try to get one listener out there to care that he was here.


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