Sorry about not posting yesterday. I spent the entire running errands, visiting a sick friend, and then playing music for church services.
I have something special for you guys. It's my 2013 Christmas essay. I hope you like it.
Merry Christmas to all. Saint Marty has to go to Christmas dinner at his cousin-in-law's house now.
Anatomy of a
Southern California. One of the
hottest on record. During that June,
July, and August, a film crew covered four acres of land in Encino with 6,000
gallons of artificial snow. Three city
blocks coated in foamite, soap, and water.
Up the main drag of this movie set, a tall, lanky screen idol ran in
nearly one-hundred degree heat, sweating like a marathoner at the end of mile
star stumbled onto a bridge above boiling black water. He glowed with perspiration as he whispered
his lines, “Please, God, let me live again.”
Out of the humid air, more foamite, soap, and water began to fall,
stirred softly by wind machines.
Frank Capra said of It’s A Wonderful Life,
“It’s the picture I waited my whole life to make.” Jimmy Stewart named George Bailey his favorite
movie role ever. Neither of them spoke
of that 1946 summer or the time Capra had to give his entire cast and crew a
day off to recuperate from filming in the heat.
But there’s no escaping the fact that, when the Baileys gather around
the tree to sing “Auld Lang Syne” with family and friends at the end, there
were men in tee-shirts and khakis off-camera, probably dreaming of a tall, cold
beer instead of a white Christmas.
The central Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Typically the hottest month of summer.
Cicadas sawed the air.
Blueberries swelled in the forests, and Lake Superior rose to
temperatures above glacial. In the cool
of evening, I’d lace up my Nikes and head out for a run. Sometimes, I’d follow U. S. 41, semis and
cars blowing by me at fatal speeds.
Other times, I’d hit the streets of downtown Ishpeming, past the
Carnegie Library, Mather Inn, old Butler Theater, chasing the ghost of George
I had big
dreams as a kid. Not of anchor chains,
plane motors, and train whistles like George.
I didn’t want to design new buildings and modern cities. I wanted to write. Bestselling novels. Poetry collections. Histories.
Biographies. I was going to be a
mash-up of Dickens, Frost, Capote, Faulkner, without the mental illness or
alcoholism. When I was 15, I listed in
my journal two goals: (1) win the
Pulitzer Prize for anything by the age of 30, and (2) win the Nobel Prize by
40. Big, George Bailey-sized dreams.
The central Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Snow still on the ground. A
passenger train slid into the Ishpeming station, stopped. A crowd of close to 200 locals had
gathered. A door on the train opened,
and George Bailey stepped out, squinting, probably, at the dance of sun on ice
years after It’s A Wonderful Life,
Jimmy Stewart spent four months in the Upper Peninsula, in my home town, making
a film with director Otto Preminger.
Stewart lived at the Mather Inn, worshipped at a local Presbyterian
church, ate pizza at the Congress Lounge, strolled up Main Street some
evenings. Maybe he thought of George
Bailey once or twice during his stay.
Maybe he was tempted in those first snowy weeks, as he walked past the
Peninsula Bank, to yell out, “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old building and
the villain of It’s A Wonderful Life,
describes George Bailey’s life like this:
“But George Bailey is not a common ordinary yokel. He’s an intelligent, smart, ambitious young
man who hates his job, who hates the building and loan almost as much as I do.
“A young man
who’s been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man—the smartest one of the crowd,
mind you—a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because
he’s trapped. Yes, sir, trapped into
frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters.”
Downtown Ishpeming, Michigan.
Heavy construction equipment, deep trenches, mountains of dirt blocked
my usual running route. I took a
labyrinth of side streets, alleys, bike paths to negotiate my way through the
hadn’t turned out the way I thought it would.
I was seven years older than George Bailey at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life. I worked two part-time jobs. Played the pipe organ at a couple of local
churches to supplement that income. I’d
published one collection of poems, earned three college degrees. I had a wife and two kids, but no Pulitzer
Prizes. The closest I’d come to the
Nobel Prize was a plate of Swedish lutfisk one Christmas. As I ran up Main Street, I felt old man
Potter’s breath in my ear.
Stewart stepped onto the set of It’s A
Wonderful Life in 1946, he hadn’t made a movie in five years. In that time, he served in the Air Force,
officially flying 20 bombing missions over Europe, rising from the rank of private
to colonel. Stewart was unsure of his
acting abilities after his military service, even though he’d already won the
Academy Award for Best Actor in 1941. He
questioned whether moviegoers would still pay money to see him on the screen.
nervous and hesitant, haunted by half a decade of war. And he was portraying a man scared and
desperate, haunted by a lifetime of cancelled dreams.
full-time poet is like being a full-time cloud watcher. Nobody will pay a person to lie on his back all
day and gaze at formations of cumulus, nimbus, or cirrus to find Charlie Chaplin
twirling his cane. A mastodon rolling in
snow. A hummingbird sipping an apple
blossom. An encounter with a full-time
poet is as rare as a sighting of Sasquatch, and, unless you have photographic
evidence, nobody will believe you. You
can’t pay for a pound of hamburger with a sonnet, and you can’t buy your kids’
school supplies with a sestina. That’s
why William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and Wallace Stevens sold insurance.
why I was working as a part-time bookstore clerk in 1996. And, because I couldn’t afford to buy
presents that year, I wrote a Christmas poem to give to family and friends. Metaphors were cheap, and microwave ovens were
not. I did spring for picture frames
(two dollars each at Walmart) and some nice, cream-colored paper on which to
print the poems.
weren’t much to look at. The word
“shabby” comes to mind, like George Bailey’s tiny office. Like a wingless angel.
The Carnegie Library in Ishpeming.
Closed to the public for a day.
It was getting warmer in the U. P., moving toward those blueberry months
of summer. Jimmy Stewart stood among the
stacks on the second floor, above the circulation desk, pretending to be a
lawyer for the movie cameras below. It
was a short scene, less than a minute or so in the final film. A shot and a reaction shot. Stewart searching for a legal precedent. Not guilty by reason of insanity. Innocent due to overwhelming passion. Something like that. An urge to do something crazy. Skinny dip in a moonlit pond. Climb Mount Bedford. Smell the pines. Watch the sunrise.
to George Bailey: “Georgie, don’t you
ever get tired of just reading about things?”
The Carnegie Library in Ishpeming.
Summer was winding down, the fields and culverts of the U. P. swelling
with Queen Anne’s lace, delicate as tissue paper frost. I stood in the same place Jimmy Stewart stood
almost 60 years before, on the second floor above the circulation desk,
wondering what books he’d found on the shelves before him that day. Maybe law books with sections like “State of
Michigan v. Henry F. Potter.”
Travelogues on Fiji, Tahiti, the Coral Sea. Poetry about having a mind of snow. I ran my fingers over the spines, their
cracks and tears. George Bailey reached
out, took my hand.
twenty years of part-time jobs.
Bookstores. Medical offices. Schools.
Churches. Twenty years of
disconnect notices and overdraft statements.
Day-old bread pudding. Ramen
noodle casseroles. Of chasing cirrus swans
and nimbus bears.
years of writing poems for Christmas gifts.
Some years, haiku. Others, free
verse. A sonnet about Robert Frost’s
last stop by a snowy woods. A lament on
lost love by Ebenezer Scrooge. A
meditation on Mary Bailey, naked, in the hydrangea bushes.
an angel second class: “Strange, isn’t
it? Each man’s life touches so many
other lives. And when he isn’t around,
he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Early summer. 1959.
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Jimmy Stewart climbed aboard a train and disappeared.
on how to write a Christmas poem:
early, July or August.
- Play Christmas music. Bing Crosby or Dolly Parton. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” or “Hard Candy
- Think about the dreams you had as a child. Santa Claus.
Monsters behind the shower curtain.
Rooms made of chocolate.
Asteroids and luna moths.
- Remember the Christmas your daughter was 20 days
old, no bigger than a loaf of sweet cardamom bread.
- Remember the Christmas you had to explain to
your daughter why mommy wasn’t living at home any more. How you waited until your daughter was asleep
and then went into the kitchen and washed the dishes with water so hot your
hands stung until New Year’s Eve.
1947. The Shrine Civic Auditorium. Los Angeles.
Jimmy Stewart lost the Best Actor Oscar to Frederic March for The Best Years of Our Lives.
1960. The Pantages Theatre. Hollywood.
Jimmy Stewart lost the Best Actor Oscar to Charlton Heston for Ben-Hur.
comment by an angel second class:
“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”
Ishpeming. Maple leaves the color
of pumpkin and crabapple outside my living room window. I finished writing my Christmas poem, closed
my journal. The Chinese writer Mo Yan
had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In a few
weeks, I’d bring boxes of garland, wreaths, and lights down from the
attic. Heavy snow wouldn’t come until
early December. On Thanksgiving night,
I’d watch It’s A Wonderful Life with
my wife in my shabby house, and we’d talk about what we could afford to buy our
kids for Christmas.
Above us, an
angel of blue and brown construction paper, studded with pink dots. Made by my daughter nine years ago, “for good
dreams,” she said.
A poem for
everyone we love, Christmas 2012.
Ox and ass
aren’t good enough
for my son
claims Teal Lake and snow
hangs in the
air like clean sheets
clothesline. He stares
bisque Mary and Joseph,
tiny as my thumbnail,
while I sing
him a psalm of hay, cattle,
burning over a barn,
But my son
wants more than herders,
camels, a trio of sad
their unimpressive myrrh and incense.
He wants the
Child to have a universe
with dove eyes, superheroes
red as pomegranate Jell-O,
roar like angel choirs.
deserves all this, my son believes,
more. One night, I find
tyrannosaur at the manger, paying
tooth and claw. Yesterday,
kiss sat beside Mary,
shimmering, silver comet.
My son keeps
bringing gifts to the stable,
find his place among angel
cow. I don’t tell him about
innocence can be lost
in the time
it takes for a school bell
to ring, or
a soldier to raise a sword
and cut the
young flocks in two. No.
I’ll let my
son return again and again
to share his
stuff. Unicorn. Harmonica.
wing. Dragon. Chocolate
and dark and sweet.
My son waits
for the Child
The way he
waits for the neighbor boy
dinner. He stands
driveway at dusk,
the neighbor’s house,
out Come play with me
toast: “To my big brother, George—the
richest man in town!”
On my pillow
last night, a purple rubber band. A gift
from my five-year-old son.
I tuck it in
my pocket, save it, like Zuzu’s rose petals
|No man is a failure who has friends|