Take-Aways from George Bailey

It’s a Wonderful Life has been a meaningful part of my Christmas season for decades.  I find as I get older small things such as my love for this classic are enduring.  Every year I’m inspired by George Bailey and his truly blessed life.  George is a regular guy with big dreams who feels beholden to do the right thing, which often means foregoing his own desires.  Even as a kid, George Bailey is an unintentional hero who risks his own well-being for the greater good.  He still wishes for a million dollars like everyone else does.  Hot dog! Opportunities to make a difference in other’s lives are usually unexpected, but I love this movie because we and George get to see the impact of his actions.  That there are often unknown ripple effect of our actions is my truth, but then movies and books have gifted me with what some people deem as an unrealistic outlook.  I call those people “cynics” and try to ignore them even when life is tough due to my take-the-easy-way-out inability.

But, I know I am not the only one.  In 2007 Vince Gill released a song written by Al Anderson with the chorus, “All that you can take with you is what you give away”, which is very close to a framed quote under the picture of George Bailey’s dad in the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan.  George is sometimes reluctant to give up his plans to “shake the dust from this crummy little town off my feet” and see the world, but by the time he forks over his honeymoon fund during a run on the bank he has embraced his role in Bedford Falls.  Mary’s hair must have smelled heavenly to him when they were on the phone with Sam Wainwright.  His dreams were thwarted so many times by that point that he trades them in to forge a new life path with his bride.  George didn’t forget his desires, his big dreams, but adjusted to life’s reality, a reality rich in intangible treasures.  The George Bailey line I relate to most is when Clarence explains that he knows so much because he is George’s guardian angel and George says, “Well, you look like the kind of angel I’d get”.  I feel ya, George.

Along those same lines is the trouble he faces when Uncle Billy loses the Building & Loan’s deposit.  You would think that after all the good George spread around he might have softened old man Potter’s greedy mean heart, but that is not the way it works, is it?  A person rarely goes against their nature.  It is George’s friends that come through for him, the very ones that motivated his detour.  Sometimes I think my choices have not been appreciated a whit and are likely forgotten.  It’s a Wonderful Life implies that is not the case and if I consider the impact others have had on my life, my dark thoughts are rendered senseless.  I take away so many lessons from George Bailey.  I may be uncertain of my financial future, but no man is a failure who has friends.  Heehaw!

Deck the jail cell with filet and whiskey

Throughout the world cheese is the most popular food item to shoplift, but in the states steak rules the hearts and minds of one in eleven who walk out of a store without paying for an item.  To deal with that pesky conscience, Jameson whiskey comes in second as the most stolen item this holiday season.  I know, I know.  Everything gets blamed on the Irish, but keep in mind that there are a ton of wannabes in the U.S. that think drinking Jameson makes them Irish.  That is simply how Jameson operates.  Daniall Ashley, a Florida man caught this week while attempting to steal four steaks and 2 candles from a grocery store, may have had a jig or two before he stumbled upon his romantic notion.  While police blame drug addicts for meat thievery, the majority of carnivorous shoplifters caught pinched enough meat for a meal.  One would assume that people are stealing because they are in need and/or young and stupid, but it is estimated that 75% of shoplifters are adults with jobs.  Perhaps they are hard workers that do not have enough money left over after paying for necessities to afford these luxury items that used to be their rewards.  Steak is termed “luxury meat” and while many of us cannot afford filet mignon, a 15% increase in the price of cattle has lassoed all steak cuts of beef into the luxury category.  I understand loving steak and Jameson, but I have never met a steak that was worth jail time.  Jameson on the other hand…let’s just say “stuff happens” when he is on board, but once in a while it is worth the risk as long as I’m not running a tab.

Muppet-Style Capitalism

In an all-too-familiar effort to draw attention away from the world’s economic and political angst Fox Business Network recently accused the Muppets of brainwashing our children with liberal anti-capitalism ideology.  Anchor Eric Bolling kicked off the discussion by stating that the new Muppet movie teaches children class warfare by pitting the iconic Muppets against the villainous and hugely wealthy oil baron Tex Richman.  Walt Disney furthers their anti-capitalist agenda by energizing Miss Piggy, Kermit, and their friends to revive the defunct Muppet Movie Studio or lose it to Tex who will bulldoze it to drill for oil.  The Muppets do not have the $10 million in the bank needed to save the studio , nor are they good friends with Sam Walton’s family, so their only option is to complete repairs on the run-down property and put on a vaudeville-like Muppet Telethon.  I would definitely scrape up some change for the Muppets if they held a telethon and I think my friends would, too.  In short, they work their little felt bottoms off to save the studio.  Angles Tantaros of Fox News agreed with Bolling’s assessment of this diabolical movie, saying “It is brainwashing in its most obvious form.  I just wish liberals would leave little kids alone.”  In the real world where liberal and conservative parents’ wallets have been lightened by the Walt Disney corporation for decades, our littlest capitalists are immune to such imaginings.  My 4-year-old niece said to her mom last week, “You NEVER buy me anything!”  You gotta give her credit.  Perfect timing with Christmas on the horizon and I am all too familiar with her precocious delivery.  What my niece will likely take away from The Muppets movie is that if the Muppets can raise 10 million dollars by working hard then her mom and dad need to try harder so they can provide her with more of what she desires.  This Christmas she desires a touch-screen phone.  Our children are not in any danger of seeing money as a bad thing because of an evil oil baron that The Muppets trounce with hard-work and help from their community.  If anything, Miss Piggy dripping in jewels and wearing sequined high heels with a feather boa will revive the Muppet dynasty for another generation.

Spending it all on Christmas

When Josh Brolin’s character in Wall Street Money Never Sleeps is asked how much is enough he replies, “More”.  It must have been the Christmas season.  Although we do not openly agree with him, most of us, deep down, wish we had “more” even as we tout how grateful we are.  We talk about the reason for the season, but the truth is Americans plan to spend an average of $700 on Christmas gifts and we all know how those well-planned budgets fail at Christmas time.  The electronic gadgets we crave are guaranteed budget-breakers; my iTouch comes in a close second to the best Christmas present I ever received.  I do not expect anything will ever beat the joy I felt upon discovering an orange Huffy under the tree when I was six.  Why do we get caught up in frenzied over-spending during what is supposedly the most blessed time of year with family and friends?  Is it our herd mentality that is so evident on Black Friday?  Is it our desire for our children to feel the kind of joy I felt when I spied my Huffy?  Is it the endless TV ads, emails, and catalogs that lure us in with their touted deals?  I keep telling myself that I have everything I need, but the diamond commercials make me drool.  My husband puts me in check by yelling “Blood diamonds!” with faked indignation.  I never should have let him watch that movie. Honestly, what makes me overspend is that I want to buy special presents for everyone I love.  We get more pleasure from giving than receiving, but I wouldn’t try telling that to a six-year-old.

Paris Hilton more popular than Congress

The U.S Congress has hit a new low with a dismal approval rating of 9%, the lowest since the New York Times began tracking it over 30 years ago.  Is it any wonder that Paris Hilton is now more popular than Congress?   Although many of us are perplexed by Ms. Hilton’s fame, even more confusing is what those people up on the hill are doing, or rather not doing for the people they purportedly represent.  Paris’ inane “that’s hot!” ratings of who-cares subjects hold more weight than the President’s, “we can do this” assurances.  I say we cancel their show.  It has gotten stale with the same old plot being reworked month after month.  There aren’t any good guys to root for nor any bad guys that ever get their comeuppance; very unsatisfying.  I am eagerly looking forward to piloting third-party candidates in the 2012 election.  I hear the man responsible for making Paris Hilton famous, Jason Moore, is available if a Libertarian or Tax Payer party candidate is looking for a campaign manager.  Or perhaps Paris should be on the ballot.  During her service as an ambassador for the USO she stated, “There is nothing more worthwhile and patriotic than supporting our troops.”  She should have been made an ambassador to the Super Committee.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Wal-Mart

Black Friday even sounds ominous.  Signifying sales that retailers hope will push their profits into the black, it also represents the dark side of Christmas.  A California shopper felt the frenzy of competition when she turned on her fellow shoppers with pepper spray in an L.A. Wal-Mart last night.  That is what the news reported the incident as this morning- competitive shopping.  On any other day pepper spraying a crowd of 20 adults and children would be labeled outright as assault, but in the name of consumerism today it is deemed part of the competition for deals that can only be attained today, unless you shop during the two weeks before Christmas.  I know a lot of people who shop at Wal-Mart because I know a lot of people who do not have much money.  I have found that the irritation is not worth lower prices and does not make me “live better”.  Perhaps there is something in the air in Wal-Mart that brings out the worse in shoppers, and most of the minimum-wage clerks.  Perhaps I am only justifying my own bad behavior.  The only time I embarrassed myself by losing control and screaming at a store clerk was in Wal-Mart.  I told the guy checking me out that he double-rung an item, so he finished ringing me up and said that I would have to go to the courtesy desk to get the overpayment back which I had not even given him yet.  After a half hour in the “courtesy desk” line with at least 25 other people, another clerk snapped at me that the cashier would need to take care of my refund.  I let her know in my not-so-nice, barely restrained voice that they should change the sign because I certainly was not receiving any “courtesy” and she would take care of my refund or let me speak to a manager.  I also told her that it is common sense to apologize to an inconvenienced customer.  But, at Wal-Mart it isn’t.  Once again displaying her polished customer service skills, she told me to watch my language.  I do not know what overcame me.  I laughed like a maniac and yelled, “Watch my language?  Well, here’s some language for you…”  I am at a loss to repeat exactly what I said because I sort of blacked out.  I remember flinging quite a few expletives and the people in line clapping and saying, “Yeah!”  I swore I would never return to the place of my shame, where I became another crazy Wal-Mart shopper.

Marriage 201 (Prerequisite Marriage 101)

The syllabus for Marriage 201 includes an independent study portion during which the enrollee identifies a specific challenge and develops a plan to address it.  Many of us wish to skip the fundamental lessons of Marriage 101, mistakenly thinking that we do not need it.  It is basic knowledge, after all.  Although the syllabus for Marriage 101 may appear to include sparse enlightenment, these lessons are so difficult that half of the enrollees either drop or fail the course.  There are several variations of Marriage 101, but courses typically contain the following lessons:

  • Another person cannot complete you or fill an empty hole inside that only you feel.
  • Your spouse is not responsible for your happiness.
  • No matter how long you dated or lived together, marriage will change your relationship.
  • Changing your spouse is a futile and destructive endeavor.
  • Physical intimacy strengthens your bond.
  • Monogamy equals trust, and is required.
  • You have the power to hurt your spouse more than any other person on earth.  Do not be mean to him or her.
  • Learn to apologize for bad behavior without excuses.
  • Do not hold grudges; they add up quickly in marriage.  Either forgive, or drop the course.
  • Neither husband nor wife can unerringly read their spouse’s mind all the time; do not assume that you know what your spouse is thinking.
  • Communicate your needs even when you think your spouse should know.  (See previous lesson)
  • Take a team approach to finances even though there is typically a Captain.  Be transparent and share.
  • Have fun together.  It will sustain you during serious reality.
  • Do not consider divorce an option and never threaten to leave.  You will work harder on your marriage if you believe that there is no way out.

Successful completion of Marriage 101 assumes that both parties possess basic knowledge such as the importance of similar core values, how to drop off excess baggage from past relationships, and primary communication skills.  If these lessons have not been previously learned, Marriage 097 should be taken prior to Marriage 101, preferably before entering into a marriage contract.

Subsequent marriages require a repeat of Marriage 101 because each marriage is different, even if it is to the same person.  Many spouses skip the familiar territory of Marriage 101, preferring to address specific needs prior to building a foundation.  60% of second and third marriages fail, many because participants are not entirely healed from the first go-round (see Baggage lesson).

Marriage 201 builds on the 101 lessons, introducing complex problem-solving skills for a lack of communication, too much time spent on social media, runaway spending, alcohol over indulgence, chronic illness, and managing in-laws.  Participants are encouraged to assign themselves topics that are relative to their specific needs, and can propose topics as long as the subject matter does not involve changing your spouse.  Both Marriage 101 and 201 are given a passing grade when participants are still married at the time of death, as the vows state.

The Village

Relocating from the city to a village surrounded by apple orchards and woodlands has been a positive experience, for the most part.  The culture is simpler here; a local art revue with centerpieces of apple sculptures, a Celtic Festival, the annual Town & Country fair, and the small building whose only function is as Santa’s house during the three weeks of Old Fashioned Christmas, epitomize our small-town community.  We know our neighbors and everyone except one snotty couple waves to us when we turn onto our street.  If we want to know the happenings around the village, or even if we don’t, Johnny from across the street is a better reporter than those on the evening news, often delivering tabloid-type tidbits such as who drinks too much, who was arrested or picked up by an ambulance, and which relationship just broke up.  He inherited his reporting skills from his dad who will eagerly entertain us with both saucy and factual history dating back forty years.  They are the reason I pull our shades down the moment darkness arrives.  There isn’t anything gossip-worthy happening in our house, but privacy makes for more comfortable evenings.  Thanks to those two and the rest of our slightly less watchful neighbors, I do feel safer here than I ever did in the city where it seemed the primary goal was to avoid eye contact.  They tell me that most people do not lock their doors, but spending my formative years falling asleep to sirens instilled security habits that cannot be overturned.

My husband fits in here more than I do, probably because he grew up surrounded by seven acres of farmland and woods where he and his playmates had free rein.  He adapted instantly, often performing acts of kindness such as snow blowing the neighbors’ driveways simply because there is a foot of snow and they brighten our days with their waves and smiles.  They return the favor, too, showing up if they hear a hammer or power tools and snow blowing our driveway after a morning blizzard.  It is a sweet joy to discover a clean driveway when you are imagining and dreading hours of work during your commute home.  Our next-door neighbor Linda feeds our cat when we go on vacation and baked my husband cookies as a thank you for his thoughtfulness.  I can wander over there with any question or request and she and her husband Don are unfailingly helpful.

The tellers at the bank and clerks at the grocery store, gas station, and video rental recognize me and exchange friendly chit-chat when I am out running errands.  It takes a little longer, but a few minutes are a trivial price for the personalized service and feeling of belonging that they gift me with.  Slowly, but effectively, they are wearing down my unnecessary defenses.

The village has changed since we moved in eleven years ago.  Streetlights were replaced by retro-style lamp posts downtown where our village taxes also paid for brick walkways and benches outside tiny mom and pop shops and restaurants.  A couple of years ago they installed a traffic light by the new energy-efficient high school and a long-time resident opened a hugely popular Mexican restaurant that attracts folks from the city.  I can handle the rate of change here.  This village is my respite with the biggest disruption being the children playing at the park across the road.  I can face the world outside of our village because of the comforting balm of home that I begin to feel when I drive past Potato Joe’s farmer’s market sign which always sports common-sense quotes such as the current, “A clear conscience is usually a sign of a bad memory.”  Makes sense to me.

Chasing Z’s

Sleep is an elusive and unpredictable bitch that switches up the timing of her escape between very late at night and much too early in the morning.  She requires that I court her all day long in order to gain a slim possibility of a rare eight-hour stretch that will leave me feeling like I won the lottery.  At least once a week I see or hear the sleep courtship rules that we have all memorized by now.  The advice to not drink caffeine or exercise late in the evening is like receiving instructions on how to tie my shoes at this point.  The only reason I continue to tune in is my hope for a new fix, just as I continue to read money-saving articles in hopes of something other than the advice to skip $5 lattes.  Note Starbucks’ success and the public’s tendency to follow that advice.

The number of adults that report trouble falling and staying asleep is on the rise, with approximately 17% reporting severe insomnia.  Ironically, as we become increasingly stimulated we are getting less rest.  The primary cause, however, is that the hypothalamus gland begins decreasing production of the human growth hormone associated with deep sleep in one’s early 30’s.  Peak production in the teenage years was responsible for those dreamy days of sleeping well into the afternoon (sigh).  I wonder if it is our body’s way of telling us that the older we get the less time we have to waste.I would love to wage an argument, but have learned that my body does not alter its’ course no matter how valid my debate is. A new study states that 80% of women report feeling too stressed or worried to fall asleep and 30% are now taking sleep aids.  According to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical intelligence agency, nearly double the number of women aged 40 to 59 were prescribed sleep medications than men in the same age group.  Perhaps this “intelligence agency” is somehow sabotaging our hypothalamus so that women do not take over the world…probably not, but that term makes me paranoid nonetheless.  The most prescribed sleep aid is Ambien.  I took Ambien for a year and it was very effective; knocked me out within 5 minutes.  The only side effect I experienced was sleep walking and eating snacks.  Potato chips were my sleep eating choice, but because I loved the deep Ambien slumber I ignored the chip evidence until I was busted.  During a visit my daughter and son-in-law witnessed me walk to the cabinet, grab the chips, and munch away on the couch with my eyes closed.  Of course they were laughing and asking me questions, but it seems my sleeping self was very focused on the chips.  Lucky for all of us, I had heard about the possibility of sleep walking, eating, and even driving, and always slept in pajamas.  I became afraid of what else I may be doing while asleep and night sweats began to make pajamas unbearable, so I weaned myself off Ambien with the help of Benadryl.  My doctor preferred that I try Trazadone over the Benadryl and although it is not nearly as effective as Ambien, it does make me drowsy enough to fall asleep by midnight most nights.  D.H. Lawrence expertly and lovingly described a night-long sleep:  And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.  Good night.

The case of the disappearing 401k

Either I am a cynic or the only one not drinking the Kool-Aid.  The bit I saved for retirement is invested in a 401k with a perfect risk ratio, according to the financial wizards, for someone who wishes to retire in 2035.  I followed the expert’s advice to not fret during the past year, which for me meant not even logging in to review the monthly online statements.  Stay the course is what they say.  The market has always had highs and lows and long-term investors always win.  Really?   I share both a blood type and a Myer-Briggs personality type with 1% of the population and my body temperature is 97 degrees, so 99 degrees IS a fever, damn it.  Based on these statistics and other life events I have learned to not depend on the word “always”.

But, I digress…likely because I just looked at my 401k balance and all I can see is 2035 turning into 2050, at which time I’ll be 82.  Judging from the European news, I could easily blame it all on Greece.  My inquisitive nature demanded that I take a closer look at what is happening there, and from what I found Greeks are not much different from us.  They work about 41 hours per week and the average age of retirement is 65.  But wait, there are differences in that they cannot count on being paid and average pay is between 600 and 800 Euros per month ($960-$1,280 per month).  What I found most interesting is that Greek citizens claim that their country’s financial crisis is due to tax evasion by the wealthy and corruption within the banking and political systems.  And then there is some nonsense about their banks being too big to fail.

While my brain tries to wrap around this global screwing of working people, it also races to figure out how I can stop the siphoning of my bitty retirement fund.  I may not be thinking clearly as I picture the richest men in the world sitting around a table planning to annually steal 5% of every retirement account in the world as if they actually need it.  I wonder if they think I am stupid, if we are all stupid.  The only course of action I can think of right now is to spend it all before they can get their greedy little hands on it.  Fortunately I have learned that when I am in a highly emotional state good decisions do not follow.  For now, we are stopping all 401k contributions.  The coffee can buried in the back yard savings plan is an option, but then there is China devaluing the dollar which has me imagining what it must have been like to have a bunch of Confederate cash in 1865.  I wish I would have continued my ignorance is bliss approach.  Where the hell is that Kool-Aid?