Monday, December 5, 2011

The Richest Man in Town

When I was in the eighth grade, a few days before Christmas Break, the religion teacher (I went to a parochial school) showed us It's A Wonderful Life, then asked us to explain what Harry Bailey meant at the end of the film when he declared his older brother was "the richest man in town." I had thought that the message was a pretty straightforward moral contrast. George Bailey was rich because he had friends who liked him and supported him in his time of need, a kind of wealth Mr. Potter, who had more money but no real friends, nonetheless couldn't buy. It turned out that mine was something of a minority position. Steve Pittert declared, to much agreement, that George Bailey would in fact now become even wealthier than Mr. Potter because of all of the money that people had brought to him that night. Soon, he explained, Bailey would crush Potter and restore order to Bedford Falls. The teacher worked us around eventually to the former interpretation, but the lines were drawn. It was one thing to root for the restoration and continuation of George Bailey's loyal opposition to Potter; it was another to root for the rise of Bailey, and the overthrow entirely of Potter's reign of terror.

Fifteen years later, I was teaching 7th grade social studies in a public school in Chicago, when a student asked whether we might watch a movie during the upcoming holiday party. We had agreed as a faculty to again order pizzas in for lunch before the break, and to have instructionally-driven "holiday parties," which might incorporate some aspect of instruction while also entertaining the students. The previous year, we had seen students from the higher grades roaming the halls in wild packs, seeking out pizza and soda from the lower grades, and so this year's festivities were meant to have more structure and order. I chose "It's A Wonderful Life" as the class movie, and posed the same question to my students. Their answer was the standard one, and when I posed the Bailey Rebellion thesis, no one took the bait.

It was my last year teaching at the school, for which I generally felt a sense of relief. It being the holidays, that relief was shaded with more than a little nostalgia for the job and work. Who was I meant to become, if not an enthusiastic and highly capable 7th grade teacher? What more should I expect from the world? These were easy, age-appropriate questions to ask, and it was wrong to feel overwhelmed by them. I had an easy enough answer. Already, I had applied to graduate school with the aim of studying and writing poetry. That afternoon, before the movie, I took time out to open presents from students. Among the cards, cookies, chocolates, etc., one student had given me a hip-hop hamster toy that started rapping every time you squeezed its stomach. I was thrilled. I took the toy with me to our various family holidays that year, though it became harder and harder to recreate the thrill in other settings.

Cait and I drove yesterday to Rancho Siempre Verde, where we spent the afternoon with friends and family making wreaths, looking at the trees, roasting s'mores over a fire, and swinging most of the various new tree swings installed this year. It was a beautiful day for it. On the way, I kept trying to find the right mix of Christmas music to start the season. I had very little success. Albums I liked as a kid felt too customary, while the newly-discovered stuff seemed derivative, even arbitrary. Where was that first thrill of nostalgia, uncomplicated by practice and intervening time? As is their annual custom, two local Bay Area radio stations have now switched to an all-Christmas-all-the-time format through December 25th. Their offerings during the drive were a mix of the truly awful alongside the interminably familiar. How strange to recognize the voice of yet another late-career rocker making a turn at Christmas crooning, to hear instead the superior precedents of Sinatra, Bennett, Crosby. A kind of staged sing-along, I suppose.

We watched Love, Actually the other night. It is a movie that thrills Cait, and I think the sort of movie one can really only oppose in the general sense--it's a manipulative, easy, bourgeois, sell-out of the worst kind of ensemble flick--or on gender grounds: men shouldn't watch and enjoy movies like this, and if they do, they should keep it to themselves. Since acknowledging the viewing on Facebook, I've heard much of the latter but none of the former. O, Christmas season, that makes annually even George Bailey unborn and born again. No doubt, this might be the year to get that fantastic gadget, to make each other happy, that Uncle Billy and Kid Brother Harry finally come home to say nice things to each other. Like Charlie Brown, Lucy Van Pelt, and the football: who knows, this just might be the year.

Here's my beef, now, with "It's A Wonderful Life." Who's to say who would be alive now had they not met us, and whether they would like their world more for our lack of arrival into it? That we are alive, and that we find some way to like some part of that continuing life, seems more honest, and much darker, than George Bailey's victory lap. If a better troop leader than George were organizing the sledding at the start of the movie, perhaps Harry wouldn't have fallen into the water at all. If George hadn't worked at the Savings & Loan, perhaps some of the residents of Bailey Park would have gotten free and wide of Potter's spider-web entirely. Or, perhaps one needs the settled life of a George Bailey in order to look back and declare, with certainty, that indeed the world is a better place for our inclusion in it: richer, warmer, generative to the lives around it. Certainly, Bedford Falls never gets the opportunity afforded Sam Wainwright, Harry Bailey, Violet: to forget about, and even ignore them, as things continue.

One aspect of grief that no longer seems present, for me, is a competing sense of obligations: old and new, there and here, then and now. There is plenty of space for the present and memory, and both bring forward those parts I love in a life. But it is my life I'm talking about, here. The terrible and unresolved question of how another life ends, on what terms and to what account, persists with all of the guilt and speculation of an annual season custom-made to accommodate both. Better, I think, to say that the gears turn a certain way with us stuck in them, and then, to allow more than a little whimsy in the appreciation of the many directions they might otherwise have turned, and do turn still.

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