The coffee shop named Graham’s 318 is where I often sit to write this blog. It is situated in a pretty section of Geneva, Illinois collectively known as Third Street. Like many shops up and down Third Street, Graham’s is located in a former residence. From where I sit the view out the big porch windows includes the corner where the Community Classic 10K used to start. The race was discontinued several years back after 30 years in existence. But my running history includes winning the first and third editions and a course record of 31:52 that stood a long while. Someone told me it was never broken but I have my doubts about that.
Years ago I also exhibited my artwork on the sidewalk right in front of Graham’s. There was a fantastic annual show called Artists in Action associated with Festival of the Vine, a September tradition in Geneva. I often sold quite a bit of art through that show. The connections earned by demonstrating your painting style in public often led to sales and commissions.
Little brick bungalow
For eleven years between 1986 and 1997 I actually lived with my family in Geneva. Our little brick bungalow was the modicum of small decorum. 750 square feet of family togetherness.
As a bachelor, I’d rented a square coach house not far from that bungalow. It was the site of many a party with my friends. There were beers and pot and sex on the couch during those fun years. Largely innocent debauchery among twenty-somethings. Nothing that young people have not done for generations.
You may recall that in the early scenes of the amazing film It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey and his brothers cavort and flirt and live it up in true period style. Bailey even winds up holding his lady friend’s clothes as she covers up her bare skin inside the hydrangea bushes. “This is a very interesting situation!” Bailey chortles into the night.
Seconds later, his life changes as the police roll up to inform him that his father has just suffered a stroke. Bailey’s face goes from joy to dread in that moment.
I’ve lived that reality. Gotten that phone call telling me that my father just had a stroke. I turned to my wife at that moment and said, “Well, my life just changed.”
It would lead to fifteen years of caregiving for my father through multiple care facilities and finally at-home management with caregivers who became part of our lives. Within five years of my father’s stroke, my mother passed away from cancer and stroke. At the same time, my late wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and that resulted in eight years of survivorship filled with challenges and blessings that were unimaginable to me as that cavorting youngster living and partying with my friends in the coach house.
Through it all, my running and riding have been sanity keepers. And while I ceased hard competitive training upon once my children were born, there have been many great times training with old and new friends. My two best buddies are guys with whom I raced and trained in high school cross country and track. One of them was a college teammate as well. We later lived together in Chicago. All of us take care of each other in manifold ways. I am so grateful for these friendships. There have been thick and thin times for all of us raising kids and managing marriages for better or worse.
And recently we carried the casket of our high school coach to its final resting place in a grave under an oak tree outside Big Rock, Illinois.
All these milestones resemble the wins and losses of life in Bedford Falls, the fictitious community where the movie It’s a Wonderful Life takes place. Yet Bedford Falls is based on a real place called Seneca Falls, New York. It sits on the northern tip of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. That’s where I was born and lived the first five years of my life.
So when George Bailey goes joyously trotting through the snow after his revelatory experience in another dimension… learning what life would have been like in Pottersville had he never been born, I feel a particular connection to the skinny form of Jimmy Stewart and George Bailey. The real lesson of It’s a Wonderful Life is found in this dramatic contrast between a life lived with concern for others and a life centered only around the selfish plot to gain more money.
The parallels between the last eight years of Bedford Falls and the potential Pottersville we now face are disturbing. Recall where we were eight years ago. That’s when Bush and that mimic of Henry Potter named Dick Cheney had made a miserable wreck of things. The economy and financial institutions were collapsing under their own unregulated weight, yet were deemed “too big to fail” and in dire straits.
Millions of people were also living without health insurance. The world had a rough and depressing feel to it, just like Pottersville, as millions more people that formerly held good jobs could not find work. The middle class was reeling while the wealthy seemed untouched by it all. It was Pottersville to the max.
George Bailey and Barack Obama
But then the economy was rescued from disaster by public assistance. Remember that scene at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey’s friends all rush to his financial rescue by throwing cash into a big basket so he could meet his obligations and save the savings and loan? Well, that was America in early 2008 when President Obama, thin as George Bailey and just as considerate and caring, was called upon to bring Bedford Falls back from the lurches of Pottersville.
Obama did not stop there either. He moved to make health insurance available to millions of others who could not get it. People with pre-existing conditions, and twenty-somethings trying to get their start in the world could stay on their parent’s insurance until they got employed. All these moves were compassionate attempts to leverage the benefits of democracy to all. And that included full civil rights for gays so that they could get married and enjoy the legal benefits of domestic partnership.
Trump and the Potters of this world
But the Henry Potters of this world found all this disgusting. Their selfish forgetfulness about the ugly truth of 2007 and Pottersville was lost to their shortsighted memories. Some of the wealthier citizens even scoffed at the supposed rescue of the economy because its effects had not reached them. Their investments rebounded after the recession and it was easy to dismiss all that as normal market cycles. They’d forgotten what Pottersville really felt like for milions of people in America. They even promised it would be better for everyone if Bedford Falls was pushed to the trash heap of history.
In the runup to the 2016 election, people seemed to lavish in the allure of Pottersville’s tempting delights. Their candidate Donald Trump bragged about his burlesque past and made promises for an even sexier future when people would not have to apologize for their politically incorrect lusts and prejudices. A good portion of formerly upright citizens of Bedford Falls fell for the sex appeal of a celebrity candidate with more money than brains. Pottersville started to creep into the public consciousness as a reality.
The George Bailey’s of the world resisted its pull, and were mocked for it.
Such is the cynical nature of the Henry Potters fo this world. And now we have the White Elephant President about to take office and create Pottersville all over again.
Which is why I wake up every day wondering whether we’ll be living in Bedford Falls or Pottersville in the very near future. I’ve seen the results of both in my lifetime, and the lessons are not lost on my conscience. Pay close attention if you watch It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas season. Because just like the chief priests who had Jesus arrested and killed to protect their status on this earth, the dynamic is at large again in this world. Vicious selfishness demands a sacrificial lamb. We love that George Bailey was able to rescue that old Savings and Loan and protect the humble livelihoods of all those modest homeowners and immigrants in Bedford Falls. But if all those people had thought it best to vote for Potter rather than trust George Bailey to their best interests, where would they be?
That really is the question of the season, isn’t it? Do we want to live in Bedford Falls where consideration and compassion lead to prosperity for all, or fall into Pottersville where greed and selfishness rule?
Want to read more by Christopher Cudworth? Click here to read yesterday’s humorous yet pointed commentary about America’s First White Elephant President. Follow Chris on Twitter (@gofast) or Instagram. (genesisfix) His other blogs include: GenesisFix and The RightKindofPride.com.