It's A Wonderful Life (Black & White Version)

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Unhappy Christmas

I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass.  – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar isn’t an obvious Christmas book but I always remember this scene and how it perfectly sums up that feeling when you’re a grown up of it mostly being disappointing.

I’m fortunate in that I had great Christmases growing up, so I love Christmas. There’s one thing you know about me. The other thing is I’m not that happy. I’m not that bad most days, I’m Wednesday Addams, more cynical that miserable, but my idea of a good day is if I get through it without crying or if I pet a dog or don’t spill anything down myself.  Long gone are real notions of happiness. I will gladly take alive, safe, warm, fed, loved, petted a dog, over happy any day.

But I love Christmas and I always worry that I won’t have a happy Christmas. Most of the year I’m ok with not being that happy but at Christmas I want it.

Obviously a lot of this pressure to be happy comes from the movies and fiction we are surrounded by. When people think of festive fiction they think of Charles Dickens and The Kranks and The Grinch, which are all about Christmas miracles and warm fuzzies. You’re supposed to wear ugly sweaters and drink egg nog whatever that is and sing nonsense songs, preferably round a piano — shouting Mariah Carey in a karaoke bar doesn’t count. You’re supposed to be glad to see your family, eat a big dinner, fight with your siblings but then make up when you remember the time one of you got up in the night and opened your presents and then wrapped them back up again, because that happens.

But people forget that those stories are all about how awful Christmas is really and it’s only at the end that things turn out ok. It’s a Wonderful Life was based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern and is the perfect example of this. People love it for its hopeful message at the end but really it’s mostly about suicide. (It’s also important to point out that in this story the worst fate that could befall Mary is that she becomes a librarian.)

Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm is one of my favorite miserable holiday books and films. Set during the holidays in New England in 1973, everything is falling apart for the Hood family. The adults are fighting and cheating and barely holding it together and the children are going off the rails. The daughter Wendy turning A Charlie Brown Christmas up louder on the TV to drown out her rowing parents sums it up for me. And reminds me of the patron saint of miserable Christmases himself, Charlie Brown.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is another holiday classic about a dysfunctional family who are summoned together for one last Christmas. Obviously it doesn’t work out because the dad is sick and they’re all nuts and this has become the classic Christmas scenario in both literature and film. The message being families and holidays just don’t mix.

Christmas with the Kranks is based on a John Grisham book called Skipping Christmas and it might be the only John Grisham book I’ve read. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie, it’s about how awful the holidays can be and how sometimes you just don’t feel like it only eventually you’re pressured into it and have to just give in, let Christmas take over.

My recent favorite Christmas book has to be the outstanding Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. She truly sums up how bleak and depressing the holidays can be. “I had hard feelings around the holidays, the one time of year I couldn’t help but fall prey to the canned self-pity Christmas prescribes,” Eileen says, she also says she can’t be done with the charade of it. Which is exactly what it is. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it but you will never read about such a depraved Christmas party in your life.

Christmas is also something we do for other people. It’s something that can hold us together when we’re falling apart. Nothing makes me think this more than the wonderful book All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. This is a devastatingly beautiful book about two sisters, one of whom kills herself just before Christmas. Her death is imminent throughout the book so when it actually happens you almost feel relief then watch as the family push on. “We had to get a Christmas tree” says Yoli right after because that’s what you do. And later her daughter says “Let’s not have forced gaiety this Christmas” but she says “We’ll have a tiny bit”.  Because that’s what you do.

One of my favorite writers, Augusten Burroughs, wrote a whole book dedicated to Christmas called You Better Not Cry and it’s a perfect balance of wonderful and awful. His stories make you laugh and cry and that’s what the holidays are about. I think once you dispel the myth that it’s all about being happy you are much more relaxed to just take it as it comes. If Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas taught us anything it’s that the man in the red suit is pretty grumpy himself and I love him more for it. Bah humbug forever.

One year I was so worried I wasn’t going to be happy I just got very drunk because drunk people are always happy I thought only it turns out I’m not a happy drunk, I’m a shouty crying drunk. I realise I could do that skipping Christmas thing but that’s so passé now and I had a friend that did that who went to some party island and she still hasn’t come back but I can’t dance nor do I like the heat. But also, I love Christmas. I don’t want to skip it.

So when I say I’m dreading the holidays I mean I’m worried I won’t feel how I want to feel. I’m putting the pressure on myself really so I need to learn to give myself a break, to say ok, so it’s not going to be like the movies and books but it won’t be as mad as Eileen’s Christmas or as bad as Tiny Tim’s. Reading about dysfunction families at this time of the year makes me feel better about my own and that’s obviously the point. Christmas is going to be what it is and it will all be over soon anyway and then you can go back to being your miserable self and no one will make you wear a hat or sing a song or eat a Brussels sprout.

I just want an ok Christmas and for everyone else to be ok with that.

Image: Flickr user forayinto35mm

Comfort Objects


1.
My animosity toward musicals began in my youth, when I was still in elementary school in the late 1970s. My hatred of the art form stemmed from mother’s love of it. My mother, Carmella, never watched much television and had little interest in the arts. But whenever The Sound of Music was broadcast on television, she would claim the TV set in our house.

No matter how many times she had seen The Sound of Music, she would watch it again and again. Mom knew the words to all of the songs, and she would sit on the couch in the basement family room of our raised-ranch home in Rome, New York, a smile plastered on her face, her dark head bobbing to the music as she hummed or sang along to the tunes. Sometimes my father, my sister, Lisa, or I would humor Mom and watch the 1965 film with her; more often Mom watched it alone, drinking her coffee, smoking her cigarettes and munching on popcorn.

But although I appreciated the talent of Julie Andrews and felt some affinity for the von Trapp family, I could never make it through a full screening of the movie. Besides being long, The Sound of Music seemed sentimental and geared toward a female audience; as a ten-year-old boy, I was more interested in watching football, baseball, Wild Kingdom and Walt Disney specials. My interest in the musical waned after the opening sequence with Andrews prancing in a meadow and belting out the title track, with the words: “The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

If I did sit on the couch next to Mom and attempt to watch the movie with her, I would offer commentary and make fun of the action on screen. “This is so stupid,” I would say. I couldn’t understand why the characters would be talking normally one moment and then suddenly start singing. The gazebo scene with Rolfe and Liesl presents the most annoying example of this “breaking into song.” The two meet in a park and the conversation turns to Liesl’s age. Rolfe tells Liesl, “You’re such a baby.” Liesl replies, “I’m sixteen, what’s such a baby about that?” And then Rolfe begins singing: “You wait little girl, on an empty stage, for fate to turn the light on…” Soon they are dancing inside the gazebo, their figures illuminated by a stylized lighting pattern as rain streaks the windowpanes. It seemed ridiculous to me, and my mother never explained the concept of the musical genre, the goal of telling stories and conveying emotion through dialogue, song and dance.

Still, if Mom was watching the movie, I would try to stick around for the song “Maria” so I could sing along loudly, changing the lyrics to, “How do you solve a problem like Carmella?” Mom would become irate and order me out of the family room.

One year my father and I escaped the noise of The Sound of Music by hiding out in our mudroom, adjacent to the family room, where we played a game of Nerf basketball while Mom tried to watch her show. But even though the door was closed, we made too much noise, our bodies brushing against the drywall as one of us drove to the rim while the other tried to block the shot. Mom hopped off the couch, marched across the room and banged on the door. “Cut it out in there,” she yelled.

I don’t know why I resented the movie so much or felt compelled to disrupt her evening’s entertainment. I should have sacrificed my time and watched the film quietly with her, trying to learn from it and appreciate what Mom saw on screen; instead I made it difficult for her to enjoy the experience. I guess I couldn’t accept her need for the repeated viewing. I would argue with her about it.

“Mom, you’ve seen it a million times. Why do you need to see it again?” She would only say,
“Because I want to. That’s all.”

I didn’t understand at the time the lure of familiar works of popular culture and the comfort they bestow. The Sound of Music touched my mother in a special way and gave her momentary pleasure. For only a few hours one night a year the film made her forget her worries about finances or her unhappy marriage to my father. I have since discovered how we often return to our favorite songs, movies and books, seeking contentment or an escape from our daily lives.

For me it’s the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. I screen it every year during the Christmas season. I know all of the dialogue before it’s spoken, and my family gets annoyed with me over my repeated viewing. But just like Mom with The Sound of Music, I can’t stop myself from watching the saga of George Bailey’s frustrated existence in Bedford Falls — no matter how many times I have seen it before.

One of my favorite moments in the film comes when George proclaims to Mary Hatch (Reed):
I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.
But George never left Bedford Falls, becoming trapped by having to run the Bailey Building and Loan business after the death of his father. Growing up in the small city of Rome, tucked in the Mohawk Valley in central New York state, I could relate to George’s desire to flee the provincial setting of Bedford Falls, to explore the  world and to pursue his ambitions.

I recognized the same theme in Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical, coming-of-age novel Look Homeward, Angel, as the protagonist, Eugene Gant, sought to experience life beyond the hills of  Altamont, a fictionalized version of Wolfe’s hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. I carried the same urges as George and Eugene when I left Rome on a cold October morning in 1994 — my used, silver hatchback loaded with my possessions — and drove southbound to Florida, where I would stay with a friend of my aunt’s and search for a job in journalism or the Sunshine State’s burgeoning film industry. I had received my master’s degree in film and video a year earlier and wanted to travel the U.S. while starting my professional life.

When I was a bachelor in my twenties and thirties, It’s a Wonderful Life provided emotional succor when loneliness consumed me at Christmastime; George Bailey gave me hope that it wasn’t too late for me to fall in love — that I could find my own version of Mary Hatch, get married and start a family. This didn’t happen until much later in my life, but the movie always lifted my spirits and helped me to withstand the hard times while I remained unattached.

And the enduring lessons about the importance of family, friendship and faith make It’s a Wonderful Life worthy of repeated viewing. Clarence, George’s guardian angel, sums up the movie’s theme with his inscription in a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — left behind for George to read — “Dear George: Remember no man is failure who has friends.”

2.
After my mother remarried, and before lung cancer claimed her life in 2011, I watched The Sound of Music with her at her new home with my stepfather, Bill. My sister and I had bought Mom the DVD for Christmas or her birthday one year, sometime in the early 2000s.

I kept quiet while I sat on the couch next to Mom, glancing over at her occasionally, like when Christopher Plummer and the von Trapp family sang “Edelweiss.” Even though so much time had passed, the joy on Mom’s face resembled the delight she had exhibited when I was a child. Her face still looked the same while watching the movie, and this time I didn’t spoil her happiness.

Surprise Me!

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