Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The night George Bailey saved my life

It was Christmas Eve and I was alone. I knew I deserved to be alone, but I was miserable anyway. My life was not turning out the way I’d planned it.

Dec. 24, 1984, was a miserable day. Oh, I don’t remember the particulars. I just knew I was going to be alone while the rest of the world celebrated Christmas. I was miserable.

I did have a job, and a modest but nice place to live in Green Bay, and a good dog and a cat. That was a start, but I had no human to share the season with. And I was mostly broke. I knew it was my fault and my choices that made it so, but that only made the holiday more miserable.

You might say I was so miserable, I wished I’d never been born.

So I sat down to turn off my brain with whatever dreck the television had to offer. The choices were limited; this was 30 years ago.

Public TV was offering some movie called “It’s A Wonderful Life” with lots of fanfare. They even called it something like “the beloved holiday classic.” Hmmph. I’d never heard of it. How could it be a beloved classic if I’d never heard of it? (Ah, the arrogance of the 31-year-old soul.)

Well, at least it had Jimmy Stewart in the lead. He was a pretty good actor. And there was nothing else on that looked interesting, so I settled my miserable soul down to watch it.

Two hours and a smidge later, everything was different.

The story is as transformative as the Scrooge story, except that George Bailey was not a miserly old curmudgeon. George was a normal, decent guy with big dreams who found himself constantly trading his dreams because people needed his help and he was hard-wired to take care of others. His life was not turning out the way he’d planned it.

Like Scrooge, though, George gets a chance to see what the world would look like if he wasn’t there anymore. As the story approaches its climax, George is so miserable he wishes he’d never been born.

“All right, George, you got your wish. You’ve never been born.”

It turns out the world without George Bailey would have been a nightmare for a lot of people. He was living a wonderful life, after all.

And I could see, with the little attitude adjustment that the movie provided, that so was I.

I was still deservedly alone on a Christmas. I was still mostly broke. But Frank Capra’s amazing fairy tale showed me how we’re never as alone as we think, and we each have the power to make the world a better place.

I hugged the dog and the cat. I called my family on Christmas Day and cherished them. I was Ebeneezer waking up to a fresh, joyful outlook. I was George Bailey finding Zuzu’s petals back in his pocket where they belonged. What do you know about that? Merry Christmas!

I wish I could say I stopped making bad decisions after that Christmas Eve, but I’m human, after all. Still, I’ve never again felt as alone and miserable as I did before I sat down to watch that film.

If all looks bleak and miserable this holiday season, hang on. You never know when things will turn around and get better, but they will. Your life may not be turning out the way you planned it, but you’ll see — it’s a wonderful life, after all.

Cross-posted to Door County Advocate

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Goosebumps: The people take action

© Veraseven |
My latest for the Door County Advocate ...

I’m starting to get the invitations for my 40th college reunion next summer, which means that next spring I will be completing my fourth decade of doing this “first draft of history” thing.

Some of it doesn’t get old. I still get goosebumps whenever I witness the First Amendment in action, and specifically the part about the right of the people “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I like working in small towns because it’s here where you see this rite of democracy in its purest form. There’s no more basic expression of the First Amendment than the room full of unhappy citizens letting their local government know why they’re unhappy.

The local government, which is comprised of our friends and neighbors who chose to get themselves elected, usually responds in one of two ways: They listen and change their minds, or they wait out the storm of public opinion and then go ahead and do what they wanted to do anyway. The latter course sometimes has repercussions in the next election.

This week we’re about to bear witness to two such moments. Shortly after typing these breathless words, I’ll be driving to Fish Creek to watch a crowd express themselves to the Gibraltar School Board. And Wednesday night, another crowd will march to Sturgeon Bay City Hall to present petitions to the Plan Commission.

In each case they actually won’t be “heard” in a literal sense. Neither body is likely to take testimony from their spectators. In Gibraltar, the agenda calls for a closed session to discuss the circumstances of Secondary Principal Kirk Knutson’s departure last week. The crowd’s sole purpose is to make a quiet statement of support for Knutson.

It actually has been anything but “quiet” in Northern Door since, by several accounts, Knutson emerged from a meeting with Superintendent Tina Van Meer and an attorney and walked out of the building. The School Board voted to accept his resignation a few hours later. Nearly 1,000 residents and students have joined Facebook pages and sent letters to the board demanding a better explanation than has been given so far.

In Sturgeon Bay, the testimony was taken last week, and it was largely disapproving of the plans for a five-story hotel where the West Side Waterfront Plan originally featured a year-round farmers market and festival area built around the historic grain elevator. Another local commentator calls it “bait and switch,” and it sure appears that way, with all due respect to the folks who have been working on the plans.

In most cases that bring out a crowd, people feel caught by surprise and want more transparency. Very often the surprise is partially our own fault; some people said they had never heard of the waterfront plan until now, even though it’s been the subject of more than one front-page story in this publication, for example.

But very often, too, officials have worked quietly with a sense of urgency that almost suggests a desire to get something done before too many people can get a good look and object – sort of like the football team that wants to snap the ball before anyone takes a careful look at the replay.

I don’t really have a dog in either fight (what an awful expression), except of course for the watchdog – the Wisconsin tradition that assumes the affairs of government by the people must be conducted out in the open where the people can watch if they so choose.

And that’s why moments like these give me goosebumps. Usually the government doesn’t have much of an audience. It’s thrilling when people actually do choose to watch and make their presence known.