It’s a Wonderful Life
Doug types too much...
December 31, 2019
Frank Capra was an Italian-American who created some of America’s most beloved films. He was an Academy Award winner. Ever heard of It’s a Wonderful Life? Okay, well, he made that movie. He was a man who was in love with the idea of a country like America. So he created films that reflected his love for this country and the spirit of its people.
It’s a Wonderful Life did poorly when it was released in 1947. It’s funny to think that a movie we now regard as Christmas royalty was then dismissed by critics and audiences alike.
Frank Capra’s heart was broken. His incredible career was on the downhill slide and he really believed in that movie. And it failed.
Frank Capra believed in the justice America could offer. He chose to see America at its best.
I am a news junkie. Aggravatingly so. People close to me know this. But I have to tell you, even though I think I am living through unparalleled political history (and we are), I have days where this self-confessed news junkie just says fuck it and turns it off. Sometimes for days at a time. Years in Doug Bari time.
In the latter half of December, I felt like I was up to my neck in political bullshit.
I was nearing my 16-day vacation over Christmas and New Year’s. I’d projected it back in March. I had engineered my time so I was only going to have to work 6 hours my final day before checking out. I would be walking out the door at noon on a Friday to kick off my holiday season.
I’d been sent jury notices before. Several times in fact, and each time when I checked, I got a recording telling me I would not be needed.
The night before I went to kick off my 6-hour-get-off-at-noon Friday, I got a call. Good news. We need you as a jury candidate. DAMMIT!
We were short-handed at work already. So I went in and covered the first couple of hours before heading off to jury selection. I was surprised how many people were in the pool. Probably 50. For a 7-person jury. They called 12 names to come sit in the swivel jury seats. I was one of them.
But I’ve read how these things go. They look for things to throw you off the panel. I was convinced I could argue my way out of serving.
It was a personal injury case. A guy in his late 20s who worked at Burger King had been a passenger in a car rear-ended by a large pick-up. The Honda Civic the guy was in was completely stopped, signaling to go left on a side-street, waiting for oncoming traffic to clear. The large truck that slammed into them without braking knocked their Honda 20 feet forward and off into the oncoming lane where the Honda was struck by an oncoming car.
We were interviewed before final jury selection. One of the questions was: Have you or a close relative ever been involved in an accident where you had to seek damages?
Perfect. I raised my hand. “My wife was T-boned by a guy who went through a stop sign at 45 mph in a residential neighborhood.”
I was asked how that resolved. “She got medical and $4,000. Her lawyer told her she healed too fast.”
I thought sure this anecdotal stuff would exonerate me. The prosecuting and defense attorneys strike the ones they don’t want and submit their lists to the judge who speaks calmly and reminds me of Forest Whitaker. The judge calls out 5 of our names to be released. I am not one of them.
I am on duty as a juror. I had planned on being released and still starting my holiday vacation at noon. No such luck.
I am an asshole on certain days. And this was one of them. Because I should have been glad to serve my civic duty. Instead I felt inconvenienced.
During the course of the day, I changed my mind about my selfishness.
The guy we studied from our juror seats was seeking damages in the 175K range. He’d been a passenger behind the driver’s seat. The sedan’s rear-end was compressed, leveled even with the back window of the car. That’s how hard they got hit.
He was seeking medical damages and some compensation for issues he’ll never recover from. Back compression that will never get better. Nerve damage to one side of his face and occasional clouding of one eye. The accident happened 4 years prior. He now works as a plumber. His work day strains him. At home, his pain prevents him from picking up his 3-year-old daughter and he often retires to a bedroom and shuts the door.
The damages were supposed to address past and future expenses. When you calculated it out in your head, it was surprising they’d asked for so little.
Spoiler alert: He got what he wanted. Unanimous. And it didn’t take us too long to come to that unanimous decision.
The judge’s instructions were simple. We were to listen to a variety of witnesses and weigh their individual credibility. Guilt had already been determined for the crash – our only job was to decide whether to fork over the full amount of damages requested.
Back in the jury room, after some preliminary multiplication and division was done in an earnest effort to figure out lost wages and pain and suffering, an older juror sat forward and cut the conversation short.
“He’s got a life expectancy of another 43 years and he’s gonna be in pain that whole time. Let’s just give him the whole amount.”
And that was that. Everyone including the foreman nodded and voted yes. Done in 20 minutes.
I watched the guy and his family when the verdict was read. It really was like something out of one of Frank Capra’s movies. They’d been downtrodden so long, they didn’t think they had a chance. And then they won.
Damn, man. I gotta tell ya – that felt good.
There was a singular moment that sold it for the jury.
They put the injured guy on the stand. The defense attorney representing the estate being sued wanted to know why the injured man had stopped going to physical therapy. If he was in such discomfort, why did he discontinue medical treatment?
Then came the moment. Like something out of a Henry Fonda speech in The Grapes of Wrath.
The guy winced, adjusted himself in his chair, and leaned into us a bit. “My Dad raised me to never ask for nothin’ unless you need it. Even though I was in pain, I had to decide if I was gonna go to 3 hours of physical therapy or make some money to feed my family. And at the end of the day, I thought it was more important to put food on my table.”
He had $24,000 in medical bills he’d never been reimbursed for.
He came across as honest as the day is long. I know lawyers coach their clients, but this guy projected a quality beyond coaching.
So our decision was easy.
But let me tell you what else happened that day. Let me fill you in on the rest of my Frank Capra day.
The judge was solemn, but kind. Firm, but gentle.
All of the police officers were professional. They were also nice. Extremely so. Willing to help.
Both of the attorneys were civil. Even to each other.
All 7 of us jurors got along right away. And we were a varied bunch. We had everything from a nurse to a university professor. And goofs like me. We never bothered to learn each other’s names. It wasn’t necessary.
And justice was done.
It was so refreshing. I thought to myself, “Man, this is the way justice should work. You couldn’t have started your vacation any better.”
Early this morning, like early early, I finished watching the lengthy new FX version of A Christmas Carol which warned of violence, language, and nudity. I love Guy Pierce. He’s great as Scrooge. And everyone else is stellar as well. Kudos to the set decorators, art directors, and costume designers. There wasn’t a scene in that movie that didn’t look bleak and cold. They went down a couple of dark alleys I would have avoided, but I endured.
I live in a different world now. I just have to get used to that. Apparently, A Christmas Carol is not the tale I grew up with because now you can incorporate language, violence and nudity that was not part of the original telling. Change is a struggle for me some days. My wife Judy prefers the Mr. Magoo version of A Christmas Carol. I’m kind of in agreement.
A Christmas Carol was considered a minor work from Charles Dickens. And yet it continues to outgrow and outshine works of more weight and importance. Perhaps because of the simplicity involved. Perhaps because we so desperately want to cling to the thought that no matter how many bad things we’ve done in our lives, we are capable of redemption.
I happen to believe in the redemption part. I throw myself on the mercy of the court every damned day.
The holidays don’t always go perfect. Fact. I know of 2 brothers who challenged each other to an arm wrestle after Thanksgiving dinner. The alcohol-infused proceedings quickly led to both brothers throwing each other around the family’s living room, knocking over chairs and lamps with their horrified relatives looking on.
I like to take a calmer approach.
I was home on vacation for 5 days before my shoulders started to let down a little. I am still working on full release more than halfway through my days off. I don’t relax easy. I remain a very nervous guy.
I’ve vegetated. Done nothing but a couple of prep things leading up to Christmas.
I don’t sleep through the night. Not for many moons now. Judy and I often slip off to bed by 10 PM. She sleeps through. I don’t. I’m usually up by 1 AM. Sometimes earlier, sometimes later. But I’m up. I watch a lot of documentaries and I binge watch TV series.
And let me tell you, I end up watching some pretty weird shit. Everything from people who track down internet cat killers to punk rock histories. Shit Judy would never sit still for.
I get tired again around 4 – 5 AM and I might doze on the couch or go back to bed. Maybe another hour of rest at the most. But it’s hit and miss. Most of the time I lie awake staring at the ceiling, worrying about things like my age and how many years of productivity I have left. On my last couple of physicals, my doctor was concerned. He asked if I felt fatigued only getting 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night. I told him I didn’t. And that’s when he confided I might just be one of those kooks who doesn’t need 8 hours a night.
Work of late has been strenuous. Lots of heavy lifting, lots of trying to keep track of moving parts. I was very happy to walk away from that for a couple of weeks.
We’ve lost several people at work this past year – I actually knew 3 of them. The latest death was a 31-year-old guy – found dead in his residence. We still don’t know what happened to him. But the other 2 were results of a self-inflicted wound and brain cancer.
The brain cancer victim was a boss of mine. When she went, it seemed fast. From the time she was collapsing at work, it was 6 months.
Right before she stopped coming to work, we were aware she was having issues, but her doctors hadn’t zeroed in yet. And that’s when she sat down with me – one on one. It was the last time I ever spoke with her.
“You have a beautiful wife,” she said as she stared at Judy’s picture on my desk.
I thanked her. It was unusual for her to discuss anything other than work.
She smiled and said, “You’ve led a very interesting life.”
How would she know that? I wondered. Maybe she’d cruised my website. Maybe she’d read my book. I wasn’t sure.
I smiled back and replied, “I’ve had my days.”
Then she seemed lost in thought. And that’s when she looked me solid in the eyes and said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the decisions I’ve made in my life. And if I had it to do over again, I would have done a lot of things differently.”
I am nearing the end of my life expectancy. I am painfully aware. While I thought her sentiment was sad, I could relate. If I could go back in time, I would reverse thousands of ill-conceived utterings and negative actions.
But I can’t. So now I’m stuck with redemption. Man, I can only hope that will save me. In the movie Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta tells his brother “I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, Joey. Maybe it’s all coming back to me.”
I ain’t gonna lie to ya. As lucky as I know I am, I’ve had those thoughts.
Sometimes I wonder why I deserved all the luck and love that came my way.
Over the holidays, I’ve reflected on things I could have done differently. In our 2004 movie Cold Readings, the main character laments something I paraphrased from a guy who’d served in a POW camp during the Vietnam war. He said you’d think his worst day was getting his plane shot down, crawling with broken limbs through dark jungle, being captured and tortured. But he said that wasn’t the worst day. His worst day was after spending countless hours in dark solitary when he realized there wasn’t a single thing he’d done in his life that he couldn’t have done better.
I went to see the new Star Wars movie the day after Christmas. Boxing day. Judy was never on the Star Wars bandwagon, so when a new one comes out, I go with my Faux Paws editor Anne. IMAX. 3-D. Surround-sound.
It’s the final film of the original series. Lots of arcs to connect. I was not disappointed. Far from it. I thought it was everything it should have been.
When George Lucas was showing an edit of the first Star Wars to test audiences in 1977, he was nervous as hell. Even his filmmaker friends didn’t know if it was good or not. But he said the turning point was when they tested it for an audience made up entirely of teachers.
If you’ve never seen the original Star Wars, there is an opening shot of a little ship speeding through space. As the tiny ship leaves the frame, the tip of a much larger vessel in pursuit lumbers in accompanied by a massive roar. Giving chase. Firing laser beams. But what’s cool is the enemy vessel keeps coming. The roar gets even louder. You keep thinking its size can’t keep getting bigger, but it does. It seems like it will never fully enter the frame.
Lucas said when the teacher audience saw that, they cheered. And that’s when he knew he had something.
I was working in Germany when Star Wars came out. In early 1978, I’d wangled a business trip to the L.A. area and I saw Star Wars at Mann’s Chinese Theater on 70mm widescreen with stereophonic sound. The movie was in its 33rd week and there was still a line around the block. Screenings were still selling out in advance.
I was with the teachers. I was wowed.
Some 42 years later, I sat watching the final chapter. I thought I’d be a little weepy. But that actually happened the morning before I went. Spontaneously for no reason. Mainly thinking about Carrie Fisher having to have CGI treatment to make her a part of the final installment. But during the movie, I was just in wonderment. My God, man, she looked real and breathing in my presence.
Many of us grew up with Star Wars. And in turn, it grew up with us. And I was a minor witness to it all. I can’t really express my inner feelings – I’m still processing.
My vacation has been spent basically doing nothing. I remind myself constantly that I have it good. I have my health. I have a job. I have a roof over my head and food in the cupboard. I am deeply loved by my wife and our beloved Boston Terrier Sophie, a rescue entering her 10th year with us. It seems like she’s been here forever and it seems like she just got here. I have a home.
I’ve done a lot of reflecting during my time off.
The news has stayed off for the most part.
One of the holiday cable offerings was free Christian programming. I watched 4 different Christian holiday movies. As I finished each one, I thought to myself: Why am I not writing this stuff? I am over thinking things.
They are always small town. The characters are always returning from success in the big city to the roots and values they’ve forgotten.
Every story involved a diner or a bakery or a diner and a bakery. One featured 2 bakeries. The plot holes are massive – Mack trucks roll through them at regular intervals.
The acting is stiff. The editing is slow – I found myself fuming at the cut-aways. Yelling at the screen in my head. “Cut the shot! Cut the shot!” The frame setups are devoid of artistic choices.
The main characters are often blonde women who have a secret talent that has to be discovered by a well-to-do stranger who wanders in mid-way without explanation.
The last one I watched involved a single Mom raising her 10-year-old girl in an abandoned car. They wash up every day in a restroom at a diner where Mom is a waitress. It’s winter, but they are never cold. And the Mom is painting in oils in the front seat of their junkyard car at night.
The heroines are always man-free. Their husband has died in an accident. Or was a war hero. Or got some unexpected disease. They never seem to have been divorced by some clown who’s just an asshole. Like, nobody ever gets divorced.
In the end, the female lead’s secret talent gets discovered by some high-level art critic who just happens to stop by the diner.
But then I watched Ron Jeremy in a non-porn horror movie. I think it was called The Night of the Dead Friday the 13th. Like they tried to mash 2 famous horror titles together to make it come up on internet searches. Okay, this was a different level of unbelievable. Those faith-based movies I’d been watching were Academy Award winners in comparison.
Sometimes you’re flying by the seat of your pants. You don’t always feel like you have something. You need some cheering teachers to confirm your gut.
Hats off to Frank Capra for reminding us about our inner good.
When I served as a juror, I was happy to summon his spirit.
As I stared at that guy testifying, I was reminded of what I have. Most of us are pretty lucky. But some are not.
Life changes in the blink of an eye. As Mary Chapin Carpenter said, “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.”
We lost friends this year. And we have other friends going through serious illnesses.
Yeah, there’s a lot of bad shit that happens. Even though I had a milestone or two, I thought 2019 sucked. But sometimes, you can still summon the spirit of Frank Capra.
It’s in us. Way down deep. No matter what, it’s in us.
As jaded as we are about justice in this country, I was pleased to find that in my little corner of the world, things worked like they should. Just like in the movies. People can get along and do the right thing for the common good. And we don’t even have to know each other’s names to discover our mutual humanity.
In Frank Capra’s tale, Jimmy Stewart doesn’t think he matters. He has to be shown how wrong he is. I get it. I have those days. I don’t want to get to a place where I think I can’t right wrongs.
I believe in redemption. It took It’s a Wonderful Life years to find redemption. But it did. It found a place in our hearts where it is forever cemented. Maybe it took a while because we had to get into receive mode. Our hearts had to be open to redemption.
We can be good. Better. Always. We just need to believe.
We have not failed yet.
And I need to stay hip to that.