Sunday, December 17, 2006

Blue Christmas

Well, it’s coming up two years on Dad’s passing. I wouldn’t say things have gotten better so much as one learns that kids are meant to outlive their parents. It’s one of those levels in life you have to get pushed through, something nobody wants to do. Like getting your ass kicked. Just bad shit that happens to you, and you decide how you’re going to handle it.
Christmas has grown pretty subdued since then, mainly because it's Mom’s wish that everyone lay low for the holiday. And rather than force the issue, it makes more sense to follow her lead. About the one insistence I have, and ditto Brother J, is that we have a full turkey dinner, which both of us are capable of making, but we got Mom back into the groove last year after handling the duties while Dad was in the hospital. Come hell or high water, that turkey dinner is happening. Fuck the presents – that’s the one thing that will always make sense to me.
I guess things are better, because it doesn’t get much worse emotionally than getting slammed with that sort of shit full-on. I had come home a few days early that Christmas, for no other reason than I could. Late summer, Dad had been diagnosed with esophogeal cancer in a later stage of development. All that year, he had been losing weight -- and actually looking great -- but after a few months, it became obvious to Mom that the reason for this was because Dad was having trouble swallowing food, and she finally hounded him into seeing a doctor, when we learned this.
In September, Dad was given the opportunity to have the cancerous tumor attached to where the esophagus meets the stomach removed, but for whatever reason, he listened to the majority opinion of his crack team of asshole physicians, and he decided not to -- which might have saved his life, although who knows what his health would have been like after that operation. I was never that hot on doctors before this; now I despise them and will see one, or go to a hospital, only if absolutely necessary. This is what killed Dad? Well, we all die of something, and I can't help but thinking that when people get old and reach the end of their mortail coil, the name of the game with the medical profession is getting as much money as possible out of the patient. I didn't think this before -- I think it now. In the old days, people just dropped dead. Now, they hang around for years in a state of constant decline, while the medical profession hits them up for a steady stream of income. If you had told me this a few years ago, I'd have called you cynical. Now that I've seen it in action, I believe this completely and accept it as an unfortunate truth that no one in the medical profession would openly admit.
Just before Christmas, Dad had been in the hospital about a week, after having a fitful December. He had been in for a few days, starting Thanksgiving afternoon, got a little better, came back home for about two weeks, then started tailing off as what would eventually be identified as pneumonia was kicking in. I don’t think anyone knew how to gauge the situation – doctors, family members, anyone. Probably a lot of denial going on, too. Next time I know when things get hazy like this, that’s a sign to spend more time back home.
As it was, I got off the bus then got myself to the hospital after some lunch. Court rooms and hospitals: two places I want to spend as little time as possible. Doctors and lawyers: two kinds of people I want to deal with as little as possible. All of them make my skin crawl. The smell of those places, the attitudes, the various levels of tension you can feel oozing from each passing room. Just bad news.
And seeing him was quite a blow. He had lost about 100 lbs. or so, was gaunt and thin in a very bad way, looked like he had aged about 30 years since I last saw him a few weeks earlier. He had on an oxygen mask and was watching the History Channel – about the only normal thing going on. He was coherent, but was clearly so weak that getting out of bed wasn’t a possibility right then. And I can tell you – seeing the man that brought you into the world and raised you in this sort of condition is a knockout punch to your senses. Numbness is the reaction, not sorrow or weeping – you just don’t know what the fuck to make of it. If there's any emotion, it's anger at having to see someone you care about so weakened -- and you don't know who to get angry at.
We talked about the weather, Penn State football, how things were going in New York, etc. The usual stuff. Nothing dramatic. About the only dramatic thing was when I mentioned the bus ride back, he said, “You’ll have to get that ticket that takes you straight by the house. I don’t want your mother driving all the way up to Hazleton to get you.” Which was his way of saying he wasn’t going to be able to do that anymore, which had become a pleasant ritual for both of us over the past few years.
I was there for about an hour and figured I could do this every day while I was back there, assuming this was a bout of pneumonia he was going to beat, and I’d go back to New York two or three days after Christmas. I told Dad I’d be back tomorrow, he said, no, come back the day after, I think Mom and your sister will be here a lot tomorrow, we’ll have more time then. With that, I got up, and when I did, Dad stuck his left hand out and grabbed mine to shake hands.
Right there, he was saying goodbye, because we never shook hands. I gathered that he must have been worried about his situation if he was touching me like that, and it unnerved me, but I didn’t make a huge issue out of it and just left. Not having any experience with a parent who was deathly ill, I had no idea how long he had left, whether or not this was a scenario that would play out dozens of time over the next year, etc. This was all new to me, and I didn’t like it.
Next day passed, and nothing major happened. The following day was one of those strange off-season days in December – in the mid-60s and drizzly. I decided to head down to see Dad that morning, then do some shopping. I got down there mid-morning to find his room dark, with the door halfway closed. Not sure what that meant, but I walked in anyway.
Dad was asleep, naked, with his sheets kicked down around his knees. Again, a bit shocking to see him that thin. I pulled the covers back up over his chest, but made sure not to wake him. His breathing was labored, like a raspy snoring, but I could tell by the rhythm that it was regular, sounded like he was in a deep sleep. At this point, my mind played a very bad trick on me, that I thought Dad’s eyes were open, and they were black slits. What it really was: he had lost so much weight that his eye lashes now looked much bigger than they had when his face was more full. This is what I was seeing, and imaging this horrible vision of him with black eye sockets. I hung around a few minutes, realized there wasn’t much to do there, used his bathroom, took one last look to make sure everything was still cool, then left. No nurses were around – didn’t talk to anybody.
I went shopping at a local Walmart, picked up some DVDs, drove home – about an hour after I had last seen Dad. It was drizzling. As I got out of the car, my sister pulled by in her car with Mom in the passenger seat. Mom rolled down her window and said, “Your father just died. We’re going down there to take care of things.”
And I stood there with a look on my face that must have been something else. I had seen him sleeping about an hour ago. I couldn’t believe it.
“I saw him sleeping about an hour ago,” I said.
“Well, they called fifteen minutes ago. It just happened. Do you want to follow us down?”
“No. I’ll stay here in case anyone calls. Not much I can do anyway.”
“All right. See you later.”
And, so I went inside and chopped potatoes and celery for the turkey stuffing. Had to do something. This was the start of that hazy period of shock between his passing and the wake, lasting from that day, through the day of his wake. Those days floated by in a haze. Had some bad nightmares about the eyes that first night, really horrible dreams. I tried to do as much normal stuff as I could – that night, went out and had drinks with my friend George, who bought me a few free ones when he heard the news. (And knew where I was at as both his parents had already passed on.)
Mom learned that Dad had woken up that morning, told the doctor he was going to die that day, asked if he could get an extra dose of morphine to get some sleep, and told him not to alert the family, because they’d been through enough. He took the back door, which was his way, not to be a burden, or the center of attention in any way. And I can tell everyone weeping about my dad dying alone, bad news, folks, we all die alone, whether that room is packed with loved ones, or you’re all by yourself. Wherever you’re going, nobody’s going with you. I don’t think my life would be any better now if Dad had jolted awake while I was there and told me he was about to die. Gone is gone, and all I can suggest is that you get as squared away as possible with people who you sense are getting anywhere near that awful place. That’s all you can do. You’re not going to jam revelations and finality into those last few minutes – you’ll be dealing with this shit a long time afterwards, whatever does or doesn’t happen.
Like I said, the next few days were a haze. Thank God for our relatives from Virginia, my Dad’s sister and her two sons, who came up early to spend time with us. They always have a very relaxed, open quality to them, and the three of them coming up to comfort my Mom was a tremendous boost, and helped jolt all of us back into the reality that we had to deal with a wake and a funeral in short order.
I should also note here how great everyone was in the neighborhood, although we had to deal with a constantly ringing phone. (Hint: don't call people when someone in their family has just died. They're dealing with a lot of shit, and answering a phone every five minutes is a bad burden.) But all the neighbors came by at one point or another to offer food and condolences. The night of his passing, someone must have walked through our kitchen door, left a case of Yuengling Black & Tan, and left, totally unannounced and uncredited.
(On the other hand, the crack team of asshole physicans who had assembled to save my Dad's life ... not one of them acknowledged his passing in any way. No cards. No follow-up calls. Nothing. I've got nothing worthwhile to say about these people -- they were bad a their jobs, and their callous non-reaction to one of their patients passing on says it all for me. Just assholes making money at the expense of good people going through terrible times. If you are a doctor and reading this, and you do reach out to a family after a patient has passed on, I apologize. Otherwise, you can go fuck yourselves, and use the $100 bills you've stolen from your patients to wipe down. The only person from the medical profession who reached out was our family dentist! The only note we received from the doctors was on the day we buried Dad: a bill from the radiologist. Mom tore it up and refuses to pay it even now.)
I was expecting the wake to be a very bad time. It started off that way. They had Dad done up like The Scarlet Pimpernel – his face had way too much pancake make-up on it, and he just looked deeply unnatural and off. I’ve seen this before at other wakes and funerals, but it’s jarring with a family member, to have his body on open display in a living room while people come by to pray and offer respects. If Dad had been at his own wake, he would have took one look at himself, sighed, and left.
But I have to say, once people started arriving, I felt a sense of purpose I hadn’t in days, that I was glad and relieved to see friends of the family and relatives coming in, even some strangers to me, and that whole process had a very healing quality to it. I felt like a lost kid before that wake, but during that wake, I felt like I was getting some kind of grasp of what it would mean to go on without Dad, that I’d simply have to, and the best thing to do was absorb people’s sympathy and good thoughts, and keep moving forward. Something valuable learned – and that’s not regarding death alone, but everything in life. Seems like a simple thing to understand, but until something that harsh kicks open that door, sometimes it’s hard to see.
The funeral was the exact opposite of the day he died: a bitter cold, windy, sunny day. Everything in stark clarity as opposed to that murky weather in which Dad passed on. The weather suited the purpose of putting a loved one in the ground. So many odd little moments that day. The absolute worst was having Mom and the rest of us kids being the last people in the room at the funeral home to close the casket. Frankly, I wish I could have avoided the situation, but it was tradition. We all stood there looking like we’d been shot, because we had in a sense, and just before closing the casket, Mom let out a sob and touched Dad’s face for the last time. Whatever weird shit I’ve gone through in my life, very few things are going to affect me as much as that moment. This was all horrible shit to go through, but in that hard way death has, it seemed necessary. The priest had earlier said something to the effect of, “Living on after a loved one has passed is like walking alone through the desert” – and I thought, boy, truer words were never spoken. That’s exactly how I felt those few days.
We then drove to the cemetery on the hill in our hometown and went through the ceremony. The last time I had done this for a family member was with our grandmother, back when I was 17, a few days before my birthday in June, and I had no concept of what was really going on, or how adversely affected my father and his siblings must have been. There were so many people hovering around our house those few days, most of whom I didn’t know, that us kids (Grandma had lived with us) kept to the background. I recall sitting with my brothers at the top of the cemetery in our Sunday’s finest, with our shoes and socks off because it was so hot, sitting there as people arrived for the funeral and not wanting to participate. Kids have no concept of what death means, as well they shouldn’t. Afterwards, there were so many strangers around that Brother J and I got in the car, went to the mall, and saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, which helped clear us out a bit. I don’t remember a lot about that day, save that it was strange and disorienting more than sad, as we’d been watching our grandmother slowly fade out over the course of about five years after having a severe stroke.
Dad’s funeral went off without any issues, then we all went to the horrible Dutch Kitchen Diner for the post-funeral dinner. This is a minorly famous diner just off Interstate 81 in Frackville, PA that serves the worst fucking food I’ve ever had. Really, I don’t know who eats there regularly, but the place has been around for decades, so someone is. As with all bad places, I stuck with burger and fries, which were mediocre, at best. Everyone ate, and talked, and then we all parted, a few of the relatives coming by the house to say goodbye. The sense of relief after all this, to clear everyone out of the house on a sunny, cold-as-hell winter's day and have silence, was palpable – it felt good.
I hate to say it, but all these rituals, the wake, the funeral, the dinner, while I thought they were bullshit before this, now made perfect sense to me. They were rituals allowing people, step by step, to put death into some type of context in which one could say goodbye, seek comfort, grasp the finality of seeing someone who in a sense is no longer there, close the lid, and put the box in the ground. A very hard, black-and-white proposition, but when you pass through each step, it guides you in the right direction, that life has just shit on you, as it must, or at least as it should (our parents burying us would be a much worse deal), and that you have to piece together how you feel about this in pretty short order, accept it, pick it up, and keep moving. If you had any doubts about being a grown-up before something like this, this sweeps them all away.
What have I learned since then? Nothing concrete, just that sense of how to live, not to sweat little things, to only have people in your life who genuinely care about you, to value time over money (which I always did anyway). Money’s been tighter since then. About two months after that, my boss at the investment bank I was working at got canned. Things were left in a very vague position, so I pretty much threw in the towel and went back to temp and freelance work. I sure do miss that big money, but the pressure I’d have been under the rest of that year, on top of still feeling very raw over Dad’s passing, would have put me in a dark place emotionally, and I knew well enough not to go there. Life is like that. It’s pretty rare that you find everything you want in one neat little basket. One thing moves forward, another falls back, a few years later, those things reverse themselves, and you learn to roll along and not sweat it. Or at least that’s my take on it. If you want to sweat things, sweat away! But it’s all going to seem pointless when you watch one or both of your parents die. And I can only imagine how empty and senseless so many things are going to seem when it’s our turn to die.
Keep moving. That’s the main thing I took away from Dad’s passing. Take care of yourself physically – work out and eat right – because when you’re health goes, forget it, you’re truly fucked, nothing compares to losing your health. You lose your health, you've lost everything, over money, over love. It’s best to move with time, because that’s reality, it doesn’t stop, and when you try to stop it at important moments, to take it in, you’re not grasping any sort of truth so much as you’re either holding on to a good moment that won’t last, or pitying yourself. There’ll be enough pain and happiness coming up as you move along. Just keep moving the best you can until you stop. This is how I get through Christmas now that this unwanted weight has been added to it. That fucking turkey keeps me sane and alive, and you better believe I’m going to eat my fill.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Music Class

For some strange reason, I’ve been thinking about the music classes we had in grade school. Do schools even have music classes anymore? Music teachers? I imagine private schools do, but I’m not really sure if such a thing is still a priority with public schools. They must, if they want to have marching bands in their high schools. I don’t picture many kids learning the piccolo or tuba of their own free volition.

Another of those rare things I’ll bust my parents on is that they should have made us all learn an instrument. Jesus, I was practically begging for a piano or keyboard of some sort when I was a kid. We had a play-by-number organ in my dad’s room that I learned. After I mastered the play-by-number book, I would take the sheet music from my sister’s flute charts (she played that in the marching band) and transpose the notes to numbers. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is burned in my mind as a result. Unfortunately, I think the coolest song they did was “Love Is Alive” by Gary Wright, which sounded fucking insane on a play-by-number organ. If I would have had one of those “samba beat” functions, I could have pulled it off.

That’s about as far as I got. Older brother M bought a shitty used acoustic guitar somewhere, and we all tried and failed at learning it, not even sure how to tune the damn thing. All we had was some instructional manual featuring a cowboy on the front – I’m sure those familiar with rudimentary guitar probably remember the book and/or title, which I’ve forgotten. Without a teacher, it was a waste of time. It seemed like most “musical” kids came from families where their parents or older siblings played instruments, too, and the kids would just pick it up as they went along.

The music classes we took as part of the curriculum in grade school were something else entirely. I recall them lasting up through the 8th grade and being an excuse for most kids to laze around. Music teachers tended to be a pretty weird lot. The weirdest was Mr. M in our 5th and 6th grade classes, a very small guy who looked like a skinny eskimo and was very prissy. I remember the time a bunch of bigger kids saw him on the sidewalk in front of the school wearing a gigantic parka, and the kids surrounded him, poking fun at his choice in outerwear. All he did was stomp his foot and say, “Are you done with this infantile tom foolery? This type of cavalier behavior is unacceptable.”

The kids didn’t get into trouble. Your average male teacher would have beat the shit out of them, which wasn’t a capital crime back then and probably changed the course of a few rowdy kids who really needed that sort of ass-kicking.

By the same token, the 7th and 8th grade music teacher, Bruce M, who had Bruce Dern’s psychotic demeanor, yet was about 5’ 2”, never had any sort of respect issues with kids. I once saw him make Rick G, the toughest kid in our grade, openly weep after getting him in a headlock. Rick was probably about four inches taller and 50 lbs. heavier than him at the time. Mr. M was a bad ass who eventually was asked to retire early because he was still throttling misbehaving kids. (From what I see of kids, he was probably right 99% of the time. But with how litigious society has become, and the “enlightened” new rule that teachers can’t lay a finger on kids, it was probably for the best that he left early.) Bruce M was a pretty good guy if he liked you, and he liked most kids. He was in a band in the 60s that nearly broke the Top 40, but never quite made it. Thus, he gigged around with his band in the area, making good money in the process, and he could make all the girls cry by playing “Nadia’s Theme” on the piano. We got along like gangbusters.

Music class started out being fun, because when you’re seven years old, it’s a kick to sing out loud with a group of other kids. We’d have a ball singing “Senor Delgato,” “Where Have You Gone, Billy Boy” and “My Hat It Has Three Corners.” People not raised in the 70s may listen to that Langley Music Project CD and think all kids in the 70s were singing “Desperado” and “Space Oddity” in their music classes. Guess again. Those kids in that Canadian school had a hippy music teacher who has pushing the envelope. Contemporary music was looked at as being barbaric and inferior. I also couldn’t see us grooving to “Satisfaction” and “Stairway to Heaven” – hard group sing-a-longs and strange lyrics for kids to be singing. I once recall we had a mandatory talent contest in the second grade, which amounted to nearly every kid doing an acapella version of “Joy to the World.” I’m picturing myself in my skintight plaid red bellbottoms, doing my Brady Bunch dance moves and fearfully warbling “Jeremiah was a bullfrog/Was a good friend of mine” in front of 20 other equally scared shitless kids waiting their turn to be publicly humiliated.

The only times I can recall having fun in music class were when we’d break out the percussion instruments and, with the teacher’s encouragement, get some sort of tribal rhythm thing going, sometimes to the tune of “Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, although that was our “play time” song where we’d rock out before taking naps on wrestling mats set up in the coat room. (Why can’t work be like this?) There’d be 20 kids banging away on tambourines, jawbones, bongos, cymbals, woodblocks, maracas, snare drums, and sometimes each other for the more forward youths. The teacher would have to flash the lights off and on and raise her voice to let us know we were going too apeshit.

Later, with Bruce M, he somehow got the school to buy him a Moog Synthesizer. This was about 1978, and synthesizers were still a fairly new instrument on the music scene. He had a few classes where he tried to teach us how to use it that ended with everyone making the synthesizer blast out a farting sound, thus reducing all of us to tears of laughter. We loved playing with that thing, and I understand there were a few talented older kids in Mr M's homeroom who actually knew how to play thing and were doing Moog versions of “Nights in White Satin” and “Iron Man.” He should have had a class focused solely on playing that synthesizer, but that would have been a pretty radical departure for a rural high school in the 70s.

There were some kids who took a real shine to music class and singing in public. My old friend Rod W in particular. We called him “Hot Rod” because he was a bit nerdy – the kind of guy who sported a peach-fuzz mustache at 15 and had this odd weezing laugh. He used to beat me with a tree branch during recess at the grade school next to my house, then would whine like a lost dog when I avoided him for weeks afterwards. A strange kid who eventually got around that sort of stuff.

Hot Rod could sing like a bird. If we wanted to piss him off, we’d call him Songbird, the insinuation that this made him somehow more effeminate. It didn't help that Hot Rod wasn't too coordinated and didn't like sports. In music class from the first grade onward, while other kids, including me, would cower in front of the class and warble something like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” when we had to sing for the music teacher, Rod would be leaning over the teacher’s desk, shot glass of gin in hand, wearing a leopard-skin cravat, and crooning away like Dean Martin, sometimes shouting “come on, everybody sing” before the chorus. He really loved singing in public and knew how to project a presence while he sang.

Guys like Hot Rod ended up in the glee club … dressed in blazers and striped clip-on ties, singing shit like “Sunrise/Sunset” and “What I Did for Love” … sometimes in period costume … dressed like peasants and Hawaiian natives … zoot-suited street hoods in a back alley. You’d get the more industrious/smarter athletes doing this stuff, too, although they weren’t anywhere near as talented as guys like Rod who lived for this. Glee Club was the gayest shit going around in high school, yet you had a few guys in it who could most likely kick your ass. I can still recall quarterback Dave M, in a monk’s robe along with all the other Glee Club guys, squatting onstage and singing that “Always Thought That I’d Be an Apostle” song from Jesus Christ Superstar. Dave looked a little too into it, like he was having a religious conversion.

But most glee-club stuff had that strange barbershop quartet/middle-aged people singing 'round the piano in the parlor vibe to it. They should have just given the guys Rob Roys and let them unloosen their clip-ons, so that they could really tear into “Blue Velvet” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” I actually like that sort of 1940s-60s pop stuff now, but hated it with a passion back then. Still, I’m thinking now, what were they supposed to do? The kids doing rock songs would have freaked out the parents and would have been even more gay presented in that sort of stilted/sterilized environment. Still, it would have been nice to see the choir take a stab at “Bohemian Rhapsody” instead of “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

A strange thing that I developed such a strong passion for music in my adult life, when I took so few of those small avenues open to kids to develop an appreciation. I’m not sure if things would have been any different if music departments geared their lessons towards music kids actually listen to. Or throw more money into music programs.

There’s a big deal made in urban areas about declining music programs, and how this has tied in with the birth of hiphop – yo, because the kids are creative and doing their own thang. Which is utter bullshit. Are you picturing a teenage 50 Cent playing a trombone in the marching band? Snoop Dog in a blazer and clip-on clicking his fingers while crooning, “Good Morning, Starshine”? Jay Z. manhandling a contra-bassoon? These guys were dealing crack at that age. They were probably beating up kids in the marching band and stealing their instruments. I suspect it’s much cheaper to buy a starter guitar at Walmart than it is to buy a beatbox and a PA system. And if a kid doesn’t have the inclination and discipline to learn either, doesn’t matter how much money his school district does or doesn’t have.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Sympathy for Scrooge/George Bailey, You Should Have Jumped Again

It’s that time of year for various versions of A Christmas Carol to blanket the TV schedule, and I’ve gotten in the habit of missing each one, much like I tend to miss It’s a Wonderful Life. Both are deeply problematic for me.

I may have touched on these issues before with each story line, but it’s good to compare and contrast. Charles Dickens is one of the greatest writers the world has known. I can recall reading A Tale of Two Cities in a factory lunch room during summer break at college, getting choked up at the end and pretending I had to sneeze. Even now, that particular story line rings true to me.

But I have trouble with A Christmas Carol. In short, I don’t believe Scrooge, who is positioned as a lost soul in need of spiritual redemption, needs to be redeemed. Sure, he’s a prick. He’s going to bust Bob Cratchit’s balls by making him work on Christmas. I guess Scrooge is some type of loan shark, and we get to see his progression from an unloved child, to relatively cheerful young man working for a really cheerful older man, to a guy in his 20s who chooses money over a chick, and then somehow about 40 years are magically skipped, and we’re left with Scrooge as a bitter, angry, money-grubbing bastard. Not since Jesus has such a meaningful, decades-long time gap existed in an otherwise coherent story. I guess Dickens, had he detailed the lost years, would have had Scrooge spanking his monkey on a regular basis over that chick he left behind while he worked his way up to owning his two-man loan company. And who knows – that might have been for the best. Maybe if he’d chosen love over money, he’d be miserable and abusive to his wife, and felt trapped by his kids.

It’s my contention that I’ve worked for and with dozens of people who make Scrooge look like a pussy. There was no traceable downward trajectory into prickdom for these people: they always were about the money. Started out in life that way, raised by greedy parents who nurtured this way of seeing of the world, valued money over love, and saw it all the way through to their monied lifestyle. Oh, they had families and such. But they still valued money over love. A lot of them can’t stop working because they feel empty and lacking in any sort of power or identity without a high-powered job. Affairs. Backstabbing coworkers and leaving footprints on their backs. Business practices that would land them in jail if they weren’t white collar. Scrooge? You got a rich old bastard who needs to ease up on his lone employee a little around the holidays. He’s nasty to kids on the street? I got news for you. Kids on the streets of major cities have always been jerks. Hats off to Scrooge for getting the drop on them.

I don’t buy his redemption either: fuck Tiny Tim. Whether Bob Cratchit is a bachelor or has 20 kids shouldn’t be any of Scrooge’s concern or business. What the fuck is Bob Cratchit doing with a gigantic family when Scrooge is paying him shit? I gather this was Victorian England and things were pretty rough all over. But it seems to me that poverty was part of the landscape; Scrooge’s place looked like a dump, too.

I don’t get the Ghost of Christmas Future, pointing at Scrooge’s tombstone and having that send the final redemptive blow into Scrooge’s soul. Shit, man, we all die. We’ll all have tombstones. People will talk good and ill of us afterwards. Scrooge is an old man. Of course, he’s going to die soon.

Here’s what happened to Scrooge after he was redeemed. He made Bob Cratchit a partner in his loan-shark firm, taking in Tiny Tim as an intern. As the years went on, Scrooge kept seeming to make less and less money, but he didn’t really care, as he now knew the meaning of life was love. Tiny Tim’s legs got better, to the point where he grew into a fine young man. At that point, Cratchit let Scrooge knew that he had spent the last decade shaving shillings off every pound the firm brought in and now held a majority interest. Tiny Tim had also become an expert forger and signed over the deed of the company to him and his father: Cratchit & Son. Both of them then beat Scrooge to death with a hot poker and ate his corpse over the next few days. Cratchit & Son went on to became the most ruthless loan-sharking operation in all of London at the turn of the 20th century. Before Bob Cratchit passed on in 1910, Scrooge’s spirit visited him in hopes of scaring him into redemption, but Bob said he would be perfectly comfortable ruling in hell and sent him on his way.

I like the concept to a It’s a Wonderful Life, too: a suicidal man on a bridge, on the verge of losing his business, feels his life has been wasted by remaining in his hometown, jumps into the river and is saved by an angel, who then shows him what the world would have been like if he had never lived. Naturally, it would be a much worse place, and this knowledge gave the man, George Bailey, the will to live, and he runs back to his family and town, is accepted by all with open arms, all of them raining money on him so he can keep that musty old savings and loan running.

One problem I have, and I hate to say this, but if you could magically show some people what the world would be like if they’d never lived, the world would be a better place without them. And the angel would be doing a better thing to push them into the river. Jeffrey Dahmer? Hitler? Those are extreme examples. But you will find “every-day people” who sexually or physically abuse their children, have committed murder, rape and other horrible crimes against others, in short, spent their lives making the lives of people around them worse. I always thought it would be a wonderful idea to remake It’s a Wonderful Life with the old banker in a wheelchair deciding to commit suicide, wheeling himself off the bridge, and an angel shows him how the world would have been without him (i.e., virtually no different). After seeing it, the old coot moans “fuck it” and still wheels himself off the bridge, clutching the angel as he plummets over the railing in hopes that they both drown. Merry Christmas!

My real issue with It's a Wonderful Life is the stereotypes of happiness and sadness the director Frank Capra places in the movie. The one that really grates on me is his wife, who is portrayed as the happy, strong-willed mother who bears George’s children and has a full, wonderful life with him, whether or not the old savings and loan goes under. The version of his wife without George: a pathetic old spinster/librarian who stalks the streets of their doomed little town at night like some dark specter of loneliness and dreams deferred.

How many older single women watching that movie thought, “What the fuck … that’s me they’re showing up there! Is my life that bad?” The gist is unless you reproduce and have a big, happy, wonderful family, you’re somehow not living right. Ditto the “floozy” girl George helps out with his savings and loan who, without him around, turns into a prostitute. What I don’t get is that the town of Bedford Falls, without George, is portrayed as a den of sleaze, sin and greed. Wouldn’t a prostitute stand to make a lot more money in a town like that than in the “clean” version of town created by George’s existence? Would making the jump from town pump to working prostitute be that much of a stretch? If I remember, the woman was having some kind of money issues that George helped with her. If she’s out screwing dozens of guys for money, she’s probably making better money than when she was just screwing guys for kicks. For however harder Bedford Falls would have become without George around to "save" it, one thing is clear: there'd be a lot more money going around.

Even the local bartender, who has Joe Palooka written all over him in both versions of the town, is made to be a somehow darker, badder guy for throwing the disgraced pharmacist, the now-unknown George and the angel out of his bar. I suspect the bartender, even in the real town, probably gave the bum rush in the exact same way to belligerent drunks, bums and people acting no more or less strange than George is in this alternate world.

Ultimately, I think the problem is that I was just never all that nuts about Jimmy Stewart as an actor. From all accounts he was a genuinely kind, decent man, which is far from the norm in Hollywood, and obviously one of the greats who appeared in dozens of classic movies. But I just don’t like the “aw shucks, mac” spin he put on most of his “everyman” characters, the same way I don’t like Jack Lemmon, another great actor, sputtering like a mental patient in most of his roles. (I think Glengary Glenn Ross was the best thing he ever did, where he portrayed a desperate real-estate agent about to lose his job in a cut-throat agency.)

I don’t dispute the theme of It’s a Wonderful Life – it’s a good concept to show a virtuous human in crisis that his life matters. What I dispute is that everything around him appears to turn to shit in that fantasy world where he never existed, and it’s my take that this world could be just as good without him, and this wouldn’t in any way detract from his existence. Instead, we get this ham-fisted version where Bedford Falls and everyone in it has gone to hell. I aint buying it. One of the other kids probably would have pulled George’s brother from the pond when the ice broke. His wife might have met someone better. Or met a butch girl named Spike, moved to Key West and lived happily ever after? The old pharmacist might not have put the rat poison in the wrong bottle. Someone might have shot the banker for being such a bastard. I have a hard time believing an entire town’s morality is going to hinge on one guy and his small savings and loan company, that it will turn into Babylon without him. A lot more shit would have to go on with that town than the lost presence of one person who played a small-but-vital role in the town’s well being.

And ultimately the problem with both A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life: Christmas is not a redemptive time. We like to think it is, because we give each other presents. Oh, and it’s Christ’s birthday. But it’s my experience that pricks go back to being pricks after Christmas, and even when they’re not being pricks during the holiday season, you get the vibe that the feeling is very forced and unnatural for the person. I think that’s why people get depressed over the holidays – they feel this fa├žade growing in the weeks leading up to Christmas and reject it out of hand, not quite understanding you should just accept kindness in whatever form it comes. Just a nice gesture that should be appreciated, and hopefully returned. Not redemption. A huge difference. Have you ever met anyone redeemed by the Christmas spirit?

MP3 of the Week #3

Simply stated, this is the best song I've heard about masturbation: "Cowboy Song" by Dan Reeder.

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.