Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Friday, December 25, 2009

It's A Wonderful Town, George

Playing in the background: "Wings to Altair" by David Arkenstone

I love "It's a Wonderful Life." I watch it every year on Christmas Eve, all three and a half or so hours of it (with infomercials) and sob all the way through the last reel. Yeah, it's kind of sentimental and smarmy, but you really don't get the full emotional impact unless you watch it from the beginning. It's kind of like Sibelius's Symphony No. 2 in D-minor that way; the fourth movement is momentous, but you won't really understand it unless you watch the whole thing all the way through. (Get a copy of Symphony No. 2, preferably a nice Deutsch Gramophon pressing, and sit down with it for 45 minutes, uninterrupted. You will totally see what I mean.)

In case you recently arrived in America and they don't have TV or the Internet where you're from, here's the story: George Bailey, all-American family man and failed businessman, misplaces a lot of money belonging to his business on Christmas Eve (through no fault of his own). Facing bankruptcy and scandal, he considers suicide. Enter Clarence, Angel Second Class, who shows George what life in his home town of Bedford Falls would have been like if he had never existed. It's not a pretty picture. By reel's end George wants to live again, is restored to his life, and there's a big redemption that I wouldn't dream of spoiling for you. Believe it or not, the film was a flop when it first came out; the subject matter (suicide) was one of those things we don't talk about in 1946, and the fact that it was set on Christmas Eve relegated it to the "Christmas movie" category and it got little promotion. But this is a wonderful little movie. Every time I watch it I see something I hadn't noticed before.

This year, I noticed something that totally shocked me. George Bailey actually did everything he set out to do with his life.

Well, not in literal truth. George, again if you haven't seen the movie, dreams of seeing the world, going to visit lots of exotic places, and then to college, where he's going to become an architect. "I'm going to build things. I'm going to build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm going to build a bridge a mile long." Instead he ends up stuck in Bedford Falls, running the family business, the Bailey Building and Loan, the only competition to rival Mr. Potter's bank and, for the most part, the only place ordinary folks in the town can get mortgage loans. This is what I mean, when I say that George did what he set out to do in life. He builds a town.

Mr. Potter's rent collector, a "scurvy little spider," explains this to Mr. Potter in a pivotal scene; "You can't ignore this Bailey Park anymore. Dozens of pretty little houses, each one worth twice what it took the Bailey Building and Loan to build." Back up a second, there. Dozens of pretty little houses. George didn't build skyscrapers or bridges, he built dozens of houses, and made a huge difference in the lives of dozens of families. See what I mean? He built a town.

As for seeing the world, no, George never got to do that. But he saw a world. He saw a world nobody else had ever seen before; the world without George Bailey, where Pottersville (no longer Bedford Falls) had become a place of gin joints and strip clubs, all his friends were leading wretched lives, Bailey Park was never built and perhaps most important, his brother Harry died at the age of nine and never grew up to become a war hero and save the lives of hundreds of soldiers. After seeing a world like that, you can't wait to get home. And so George came home - having done everything he set out to do. Weird, huh? That Frank Capra was a pretty sharp guy.

(Side note: George Bailey also got me through paralegal school. No, really. The stuff we were reading was so dry I needed a glass of water before I even sat down, and the only way I survived it was to imagine George Bailey reading it out loud to me. Jen as Jimmy Stewart: "Now, when we have a contract, we have first an offer, then an acceptance, with consideration. Minus any of the three elements, a contract is not a contract." Mr. Smith from "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" also works, but George Bailey does it better.)

I bring this up for two reasons. One, it's Christmas. Two, practically all of us have dreams we never lived out. I, for example, have never moved to El Salvador and taught the dharma out of a little temple somewhere in San Marcos, thus doing my bit to spread Zen through the Spanish-speaking world. Nor have I written the book that will change publishing forever (well, I have, actually, but I haven't gotten it published yet. Still working on that though.) But I've done small things that I hope have helped some people somewhere, and maybe injected some new ideas here and there. Y'all are reading this, you tell me. But again, y'all are reading this. I haven't bored you senseless yet.

So anyway, I'd like to propose that this Christmas and on into the New Year, we stop kicking ourselves for the skyscrapers and mile-long bridges we never got around to, and take a look instead at the towns we built. George Bailey did, and look what happened to him. The rest of us don't even need to consider suicide first.


Marcia Wall said...

What a lovely little essay. You know, I've never seen the film. I may try to see it. Thanks for keeping this column. You do a great job and you inspire me to keep writing.

Jackie said...

Oddly, it was an episode of Joan of Arcadia that helped me reach the same conclusion that saved George Bailey's life.

I was in the throes of cancer...trying to discern what big, impactful thing I needed to do before I died. And Joan was having the same kind angst, although her life wasn't on the line... just surviving her teens. She was trying to find her "thing." All of her other friends had "things," and she didn't. So she joined the yearbook staff and made a huge mess of everything. But somehow in the midst of all of the mahem, she managed to comfort a friend and make her feel special. And if memory serves me, she actually had to go dumpster diving to accomplish that. But anyway, while Joan was antagonizing God about what big THING he had for her to do and coming to the conclusion that the little things along the way were the most important, I also had the epiphany that every day is important, and that little things do matter. How zen is that?

And as for your question about how you're doing.... I think Marcia summed it up well. (She's not nearly as long winded as I!)