Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: A Year in Review

Oh 2011, how I will miss you.

This year has been very good to us, and very cruel to us, sometimes at the same time.

We started the year off in a very rough way, with our van breaking down in downtown Orlando in the afternoon on New Year's Eve. I had multiple migraine headaches over that. You can read all about that fiasco in one of my blog entries from earlier this year.

That same van later broke down during a rain storm, and with the warranty running out, and so many issues with it, Jenn and I decided to trade it in for a new Nissan Sentra and somehow make the difference in size work for us.The gas savings alone has been a blessing.

My grandmother, Ellen Jane Van Vorhis, died Feb. 20, 2011, at age 87.

My great-aunt, Eileen Becker, died March 30, 2011, at age 92.

On October 9, 2011, Jenn's grandfather, Ralph Bruns passed away at age 89. His death inspired us to "raid" Jenn's grandparents' house and scan as many pictures as we could find and share them with the family. The grand total of photos was 6,308. And I hear Grandma and Aunt Judy just found some more.

As a family, we did a LOT of camping this summer. A couple of the nights were so hot that we bought fans for the tent, but still suffered. We learned that to get Kaleb to sleep while camping, we would drive around and look at wildlife at twilight. All of the deer come out at twilight when we camp, and it was fun to watch.

The biggest thing that happened in our family was that we began attending Cedar Creek Church in Perrysburg. It has been a life-changer for us. We volunteer there in the book store. We are in a Bible study. We have taken several classes and have made many friends, and we willingly give to the church. We have participated in Operation Christmas Child, providing Christmas gifts for children in need. We provided backpacks full of school supplies at the beginning of the year, and in 2012, we plan to "adopt" a child from a foreign country. Think Sally Struthers infomercial at 3 a.m. That's what we plan to do. We just need to pick a program, choose a child, and commit.

Me and my amazing and beautiful wife Jenn.
Jenn took a brave step and got a new job as a scheduler for a company in Toledo that assists the elderly. She misses her personal visits with clients, but overall, this is a much better situation and she truly likes her co-workers.

She is such an amazing cook. I have put on several pounds just because of her cooking. I joked with her throughout the year that she should "forget helping old people. Open a restaurant and serve THIS!" I have said that for her homemade mac and cheese (really) and her unbelievable Philly cheese steak open-face sammich. As I write this blog entry, one of her cookbooks is sitting in front of me awaiting a new binding. One of her co-workers broke the comb binding in her exuberance to copy all of Jenn's delicious recipes. One weekend during the Christmas months, I literally ate 3 bags of her Chex mix it was so good. We're almost out. I'll have to ask her to make some more. I could eat that all year.

Evan and Papa Van Vorhis. While he didn't win the race, Evan did win
best design for his Pinewood Derby car.
Evan is doing extremely well. He is a smart, caring second grader who is reading near third-grade levels. He is doing so well that for Christmas, we gave him a Nook e-book reader from Barnes and Noble. He is into Beyblades, Bakugan, Zhu Zhu Pets, Pokemon, and pretty much anything else that has a Japanese name and/or animation.

He plays soccer, basketball, and baseball. He is a blue belt in karate, and a wolf in Cub Scouts. He has made it very clear that he intends to play football this year, as well. This kid is good at every sport he attempts. He can even switch-hit in baseball, and will bunt and slide into bases without the coach's approval. It has gotten him in trouble a couple of times, but after the coach yells at him for doing it, he will tell the assistant coach "wow, I can't believe how well he did that." That has happened several times. One time when he bunted, a coach from the other team said to Evan's coach, "Wow. Did you teach him that?" It blows my mind how good he is, and how easy it comes to him.

Currently, he is in CCD, preparing for his First Communion this spring. Evan is always concerned about other people, and while that causes him some unneeded anxiety, I adore that about him. I can totally see him becoming a doctor or a psychologist, based on his concern for others.

Kaleb is our outgoing and precocious 3-year-old. I think we are out of the Terrible Twos, which lasted for-freaking-ever. Maybe we're not out of it. Every time I think we are, something happens that tells me that we aren't quite through the woods yet.

Kaleb is our musical child, and I am SO looking forward to watching that develop. Currently, he runs around in public singing (at the top of his lungs) C and C Music Factory's "Everybody Dance Now." It has turned many, many heads and gotten a lot of smiles. I can't wait to watch him learn an instrument (if he chooses to), to introduce him to my favorite music at the appropriate ages, and take him to concerts.

We moved Kaleb from a private babysitter to a Christian-based daycare. While Kaleb learned and grew so much during more than two years with his private babysitter, his language development took off at the daycare. People can't believe that he is speaking in complete sentences. Personally, I can tell you how very, very grateful I am for these sentences. I understand what he wants so much better with words than I did with grunts and whines.

The coolest thing that has happened with Kaleb this year is that he has started to put himself to bed. When we started 2011, bedtime was a horrid, awful, ugly, nasty fight with him. Now, we send him to bed at around 8:30 with his Fisher-Price iXL (which he calls his DS). He plays it for about 10 minutes, then brings it to the living room, puts it on the book shelf, and announces that it is time for prayers. We pray, and each of us says something we are thankful for that day. He then chooses either mommy or daddy to sing him a song (I pretty much only sing a highly obnoxious version of "Little Red Caboose," while mom sings stuff like "Twinkle Twinkle" and "This Little Light of Mine" and "Bushel and a Peck.") And that's the end of it. No kicking, screaming, fighting, "yes you are/no I'm not." He goes to bed and sleeps through the night.
Kaleb shown sleeping, feet not touching the floor.
Just to prove it wasn't a fluke...Kaleb shown sleeping, feet not touching the floor.

Somehow, he found this to be comfortable. Whatever.
He's almost completely potty-trained, too (yeah!!!)

As for me, I continue to teach a class called "The Parent Project." I trained for it during summer of 2010, and have taught the adult component twice and the teen component once. I love it. I am looking into getting my license to be an Ohio Certified Prevention Specialist.

I got my first filling due to a cracked or crushed tooth the day before I wrote this blog entry. And they didn't use anesthetic. That's how I roll. My new glasses come the first week of January.

I began reading the Bible purposefully from cover-to-cover, and I am almost 2/3 through. What an amazing story.

I had an emergency appendectomy in June. The outpouring of concern from family, friends and co-workers was mind-blowing. It really made me re-evaluate how I look at my relationships with others.

Teaching Evan what little I knew in November, 2010.
The coolest thing to happen to me actually occurred on Christmas, when Jenn and the boys gave me the gift of guitar lessons. At face value, the idea is pretty crazy. I mean it was a check written to my teacher out of our joint checking account, for 1 lesson. You don't learn anything from 1 half-hour lesson. But Jenn and the boys didn't give me one lesson. They gave me permission to leave the house and pursue something I am passionate about on a regular basis for an undetermined amount of time, and permission to take as many lessons per month as I want. The amount of love and understanding and freedom that gives me is indescribable. I am so grateful.

I'm pretty sure the idea came from this fall when an "open mic" was announced for all musicians at church for the Cedar Creek Church band. This isn't just one band, but four, with extras in the wings to take over in case someone can't perform due to illness or other reason. Cedar Creek has an amazing wellspring of musical talent. I thought about trying out and floated the idea past Jenn. Ultimately, I put the kibosh on the idea myself, with the determination that "I suck." I'm pretty sure Jenn saw that twinkle in my eye when I was thinking about trying out and wanted to push me to not suck anymore. These lessons are something I have wanted to do for a long, long time, but it was never something I was willing to allow myself to do.

I hadn't had a guitar lesson in more than 20 years. It was so weird to take that first lesson the day after Christmas. I am learning new ways to form chords, and I'm actually learning arpeggios and scales other than the pentatonic scale. I have entered these lessons with focus and purpose. My goal is to learn theory and technique, not to learn just enough so that I can sit with a CD player and figure out the latest songs because they all sound the same. Heck, that's how I learned how to play AC/DC songs. I want more than that.

Some other highlights and events for 2011 include:
  • The Pinewood Derby featuring a car Papa Van Vorhis helped Evan build.
  • Many, many Easter egg hunts.
  • A one-on-one quality-time day with Evan, during which we went bowling and played some card and board games.
  • Kaleb's many funny sleeping positions (partially illustrated above).
  • Awesome water gun fights.
  • Getting serious about this blog.
  • Water balloon fights.
  • Kaleb's funny words like "pahcoin" for "popcorn," and "booferries" for "blueberries."
  • My pride in Evan as he helped to tell the story of Christmas during their school performance this year.
  • Finding the snake at Maumee Bay State Park with Evan.
  • Kaleb's fascination with firefighters.
  • Evan mastering riding the bicycle without training wheels.
  • Backyard picnics, fireworks and concerts with dear friends.
  • My Father's Day hammock.
  • Being asked if I am a Jesus Freak, and deciding that in fact, I may well be.
  • Seeing Poison in concert for the 15th time or so.
  • Evan losing his first two teeth...which took forever.
  • The Amazing Failure called Kaleb playing organized soccer.
  • Evan's first model rocket launch.
  • Family pictures
  • Greeting Honor Flight on their return home from the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  • Evan and "Seniorville."
There have been other good things that have happened this year that I am not willing to mention in this blog. Suffice it to say that they are game-changers for our family, and for that, we are grateful.

While I can't speak for Jenn or the boys, my personal goals for myself and my family in 2012 include:
  • Adopting a child Sally Struthers-Style.
  • Remove clutter and reduce the need for "stuff" in our home.
  • Finish reading the Bible.
  • Join a men's Bible Study/accountability group.
  • Replace our computers.
  • Pay off more debt.
  • Possibly start our own Life Group (which is another name for a Bible study).
  • Get a used pickup truck to better facilitate camping.
  • Tithe.
  • Find more ways to help people in need.
  • Continue my guitar lessons with dedication and a focus on theory and technique.
  • Get serious about publishing my book about It's a Wonderful Life.
I usually end the year glad to see it go away. Thanks to this exercise (inspired by something Jenn read and told me about), I find myself thankful for all this year has given me. 2011 has been very good to our family.


Friday, December 23, 2011

My lesson in faith and the meaning of Christmas

These are news stories I wrote, which appeared in the Dec. 21, 2000 issue of the Sentinel-Tribune, a Bowling Green, Ohio newspaper. The second story references "It's a Wonderful Life," but read the first story first to get the necessary background.

Come One, Come All

One year ago Wednesday, fire destroyed the home of Kevin and Faith Olson, located on the corner of (address deleted). One year later, they held a party to show their new house and to thank everyone who has helped them.

The invitation was general; family, friends, neighbors and strangers alike were welcome. Faith Olson also invited students from her past three semesters of health education for elementary school teachers class at Bowling Green State University. "I've said from the first day 'there's a party at my house on the last day of class.'"

Kevin Olson was sick and could not attend the party, but their daughters, Tanaya and April, were there.
Visitors parked at City Park and were taken to the house by a horse-drawn wagon hired by the Olsons for the evening. Even though last year's fire was caused by an unattended candle, the family didn't shy away from their use and luminaries met visitors along the walkway to the front door. "They're outside," Faith said about this year's candles.

Inside, visitors were met by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, of which the Olsons are members, and could watch a video of the old house being town down and browse through a photo album of the old home.

On the walls were signs thanking and recognizing businesses and individuals who were involved in the construction of the house and who provided services for the party, along with messages drawn by several children. One message from a girl who signed her name only as Chelsea wrote "I hope you never have another fire. I hope you have Merry Christmas."

As a thank you gift for all of the help they received in the aftermath of the fire, the Olsons gave everyone a copy of "Mr. Krueger's Christmas," a film starring James Stewart and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that was produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (see related story below). "I thought what can we give people to thank them for what they've done for us," said Faith of the videos and the open house.

She thought the film was appropriate as the family does not watch R-rated movies and the message of the film was appropriate to show their thanks.

The family had a lot to be thankful for. When their home burned down last year, the Olsons lost everything except the clothes on their back and some jewelry that belonged to Faith's mother.

In response, neighbors banded together to help them out. Jerry Ricahrdson, who lives a block away, was on his way home from a BGSU basketball game when the fire was still raging. He stopped down and talked to the Olsons. "Faith said she knew me," but Richardson didn't remember her. Since then, they have become close friends.

The morning following the fire, Richardson visited another neighbor, Jean Blechschmidt. "I said 'we've got to do something.'" Richardson and Blechschmidt began talking and came up with two ideas. Richardson went out and opened a bank account for the Olsons. The banker that helped him set up the account "kicked in $50 of his own," said Richardson. "I don't think he even knew (the Olsons)."
Blechschmidt hosted a collection for the family, where they collected money and food and other necessities. Other neighbors also got involved in helping out.

The night of the fire still haunts Richardson. While driving over to the party from the east side of town, he saw a fire truck with its lights and sirens running. "I though 'oh no, not tonight.'"

The new house, which is smaller than their old house, is expected to be completed by the end of February. For now, there still are bricks piled outside and scaffolding reaching up to the ceiling inside. The drywall still needs tape and mud.

When completed, the house will include a finished basement and an open loft that overlooks the great room where she plans to sit and grade papers and look out the large windows onto the city park and golf course.

"I can't wait until it's done," said Olson. "I'm going to have a party every night. It will be so much fun."
The party also gave her an opportunity to find some potential problems in the house, such as the draft in the great room as visitors opened the front door. "Maybe the door should be open the other way," she said.

Olson needs to pay attention to details. Not only does she own the house, but "I'm the general contractor," she said. She decided to serve as her own general contractor in order to save money and to hire the contractors she wanted for each specific job. "I'm pretty sequential," she said.

Her holiday spirit even extended to her housing inspectors. "People complain about the inspectors but they've been wonderful for me," she said. "If there's a problem, they point it out and I fix it."

Everything good about Christmas
A commentary

Following the loss of their home last year, the neighbors of Kevin and Faith Olson banded together for a collection to help them. 

It was a scene reminiscent of the final scene in the classic holiday film "It's a Wonderful Life," when family and friends gather at the home of George Bailey (played by James Stewart) to give him money to save his failing business and to proclaim him the richest man in town.

George was not the richest in terms of money, however. Henry F. Potter (portrayed by Lionel Barrymore) was the Scrooge-like old, mean, rich man in the film who did not have any friends. Instead, "It's a Wonderful Life" portrayed George Bailey as rich in family, friends, faith and hope, which, in my opinion, makes "It's a Wonderful Life" the best movie ever made.

On Wednesday, a year after the fire, the Olsons held an open house at their new home to thank their family, friends, neighbors and strangers for their help. As a token of their thanks, they presented each visitor with a copy of another James Stewart movie, "Mr. Krueger's Christmas."

This 1980 film produced for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is less than half an hour long, but it has a message just as powerful as the message in "It's a Wonderful Life."

A religious movie, "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" does not try to hide its religious tone. Instead, it bathes itself in religion.

Stewart, portrays a poor widowed janitor named Willy Krueger who lives in the basement of the building he maintains. He has a cat named George, harkening back to his role in "It's a Wonderful Life."

He is a lonely man and imagines himself in different situations to escape his lonely life. In one scene, he imagines himself conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In another scene, he fancies himself as a rich man of culture.

On Christmas Eve, carolers begin singing outside of his basement apartment and he invites them in. Krueger is drawn to a little girl named Clarissa, who is with the carolers. Clarissa, who is about six years old, inadvertently leaves her mittens at his home when they leave to do more caroling.

Mr. Krueger finds her mittens and places them on his tree, which is a tree Charlie Brown would be proud of. He then escapes into another daydream where he visits Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem.

In an emotional scene that likely reflects the feelings of the Olsons toward those who helped them after the fire, Mr. Krueger talks directly to baby Jesus.

"Thank you for everything you've done for me," Mr. Krueger tells Jesus in a stuttering, awed, and humbled voice. "As long as I can remember, you've been right by my side...I've always been able to count on you when I've felt dark inside. You're right there every time...even when I didn't feel good about myself."

It is a message similar to how George felt toward those who gave him money to save his business after he had considered suicide.

Clarissa and her mom return, waking Mr. Krueger from this daydream. Clarissa sees her mittens on the tree and asks Mr. Krueger about it. 

"You remind me of everything good about Christmas," he tells her.

Clarissa invites Mr. Krueger to sing with the carolers and he snatches his coat. "I love you," Clarissa tells Mr. Krueger when they get outside. 

"I love you," says the narrator. "That's what Christmas is all about."

Two movies, vastly different in length, similar in sentiment, similar in message, representative of the spirit found in the Olsons, their neighbors and in the hearts of strangers.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Me and Zuzu over a cup of coffee

This blog entry covers my experience with "It's a Wonderful Life," and my visit with Karolyn "Zuzu" Grimes-Wilkerson on Nov. 29, 1997.

My interest in "It's a Wonderful Life" began sometime in the 1980s. My uncle Tod told his wife, my aunt Lora, about an old film called "It's a Wonderful Life." She loves old movies, so she watched it one year and liked it, so she told my mom about it.

My mom is a Christmas junkie. She buys books of Christmas stories she will never read and decorates for the holidays like a real pro. Additionally, she likes old Christmas movies, and if it has anything to do with angels, she has it. In fact, she has an angel Christmas tree ornament that she had as a child that she insists must be hung on the very front of the tree at eye level. That is okay except for one minor detail. The angel is stark naked!

Since the movie is so old, and she likes angels, she fell in love with the movie. Clarence reminded her of my Grandfather, who later died in 1995 of cancer. Clarence did, in fact, remind me a lot of Grandpa in both looks and actions. When he died, we put a guardian angel near his headstone and named it Chloe, a combination, I guess of Clarence and Cloyce, my Grandpa's name. Grandpa is my Clarence.

Since my mom is a sentimentalist, she made her family sit down and watch it on television with her. My father likes it a little. My brother, who hates movies, likes it enough to tolerate it, but I fell in love with it. When the film was in public domain, my mom and I would sit and watch it over and over, scanning the channels when one was over for a new one that still had the most remaining to watch.

It got to the point that my mother and I would dialogue with the film, answering each other in character. One day when shopping, back when VHS was king, the Internet as we know it didn't exist, and old movies were not readily available, Mom found a copy of the film at a dollar store. She bought two copies and gave one to me. At that time, I didn't even have a television of my own.

I imagine I watched the film at least once a month, and at least once a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every time I watch it, I find something new. My viewing of the film and frequency with which I view it changed drastically during my college career.

When I was in college, Republic bought the underlying rights to the film and limited its viewing from nonstop during the Christmas season to only once a year on NBC. My friends at college thought I was nuts when I would tell them to shut up while I was watching the movie. I don't blame them, especially considering my hypocrisy. I think I turned more than one friend away from the movie, or at least toward duct tape because I kept saying all of the lines in character. It drove them nuts.

Also during my sophomore year, I found the movie on CD ROM. Between my mother and I, I think we have nearly 10 copies of the film floating around. I myself have five.

During my senior year, I had to do a year-long research paper on a subject pertaining to communication. Early in my college career, I knew I wanted to write it on this film, but by the time I got to the class, I forgot. So during a brainstorming session, I decided to research Civil War and World War II newspapers, comparing the language used during the two wars.

When I took my notes back to the class to discuss them and hash out different ideas in a large-group setting, a floor mate of mine said, "I thought you were going to do your paper on "It's a Wonderful Life." He had a better memory than I did ! Within ten minutes, I had written a page of notes for a reader-response paper about the film. I presented both ideas to the class, stressing my want to do the "It's a Wonderful Life" project, and my classmates and professor loved it. They said they would prefer to read something about the movie than about the Civil War. That suited me fine.

One of the suggestions my professor had (one of many, may I add) was that I change the focus of the film from reader response to an examination of the representation of money and social class. I kind of blew it off at first. I didn't want to write a paper for him; I wanted to write it for me. But I thought about the film more and I realized that I couldn't get away from money and social class when writing my paper. 

Curiosity got the best of me, so one night I put on my rhetorical/analytical thinking cap and sat down to analyze the movie with money and social class in mind. I found that I had to pause the movie numerous times to take notes. Every scene in the movie has something to do with money, whether it is on the surface or somewhere deep below the surface that effects the thoughts, actions and speech of the characters. The more times I watched it, the more things I found.

I even found a number of conflicting facts. In all of my reading, I every reference to the kissing scene states it was shot in one take. Everything I read told me that, but my eyes and ears told me different. The answer lay in the movie's trailer. Simply stated, it was different from what was in the movie. The inflection is different, George's actions are different, and the stress is on different words in the trailer than in the film.

The paper is finished and I still find something new each time I watch it. On November 1, 1997, I noticed that Mary touches her stomach like pregnant women often do, two scenes before she tells George she is pregnant. Capra's attention to detail is precise and unfailing.

By the time I was finished with the paper, it was 36 pages long with six pages of bibliography, including between 40 and 60 sources. I have expanded it into a book, and hope to publish it one day.

While researching the paper, I ran across an interview with Karolyn Grimes-Wilkerson, who played George and Mary's youngest daughter, Zuzu. In the interview, which I had clipped from the newspaper nearly three years prior, she said that she often got fan mail, saying that the envelopes were often simply addressed to "Zuzu, Stillwell, Kansas." (She has since moved, so this won't work anymore)

Again, curiosity got the best of me, so I wrote a letter to her. I told her I didn't want anything from her and I explained my paper and what I was trying to do with it. Two or three weeks later, I got a response from her on an "It's a Wonderful Life" greeting card designed by Todd Karns, who played Harry Bailey. She said she wanted to read my paper when I finished it and thanked me for not wanting anything.

To be honest, I thought someone else may have written the letter, not knowing if she read the mail herself, or if she had someone else reading letters and responding to them. I knew that she was a busy woman.

I wrote back to her, anyway, hoping that just maybe she was really reading them. This time, however, I did ask her for something. It was a simple request, but one that I expected to be denied, just the same. I asked for Jimmy Stewart's address. I told her that I wanted to send him a letter similar to my first one to her, explaining my paper and love of the film. To my surprise, she sent it to me. I filed the letter away, finished the paper, graduated, and moved back to my parent's house. I printed five copies of my paper, using an entire ink cartridge in my printer. I gave one to my mother, sent one to Karolyn, and kept three for myself.

After finding a job just two days graduated from college, I continued living at home until my Cleveland-area girlfriend and I decided to move in together in an apartment in my hometown, Bowling Green, Ohio. Interestingly enough, we moved just down the street from my parents, making us the fourth Van Vorhis household on the street. The other three were my parents, my great uncle, and a man with the same first name as my dad, so the mail carrier was quite confused, I'm sure. We moved into the apartment in June, just two days before I started my new job as the religion and auto editor at the local newspaper.

I was soon to learn a hard lesson about not putting off until tomorrow what I can do today. On July 1, 1997, I was sitting, probably working on my computer, when I realized that I hadn't yet written to Jimmy, even though I had his address for nearly two months. It was late, so I decided to write to him the next day. As you may recall, he died July 2, 1997: the day I was going to write to him. That was a rough day for me.

I wrote to Karolyn again, offering my sympathy. She wrote back a letter that was lengthy for her, thanking me for my thoughts. Soon after, she wrote again, responding to my paper, giving it a thumbs-up. She told me she had let other people also read it and that they thought it was accurate.

We kept in touch, writing to each other usually once a month. Out of the blue, I received a letter from her inviting me to Cleveland to meet her. She said she would be in town November 28-30, 1997 for the opening night of the "A Wonderful Life" musical and at a book signing. I jumped on the chance to go. I got my tickets a week before the show, so opening night was sold out. I settled for Saturday evening tickets, hoping that I would get the chance to meet Karolyn at the book signing.

In the meantime, Karolyn began e-mailing me. We wrote back and forth quite often, trying to organize a meeting in Cleveland. Nothing seemed to be working out, so she asked for my phone number, saying she would call me when she arrived in Cleveland.

My work schedule got hectic that week, and I was forced to schedule a meeting that Friday afternoon. Karolyn hadn't received my last e-mail telling her my schedule, so on Friday morning, she called the phone number I gave her.

For better or worse, I gave her the wrong number. Instead of my home phone number, I gave her my parent's phone number. My mother took the call at 7:50 Friday morning. Mom called me at work immediately after to tell me about her discussion. Suffice it to say that having Zuzu call the house made her day.

I got to Cleveland late Friday evening and was forced to stew around my girlfriend's parent's house until noon the next morning. While we were sleeping, her cat jumped on the bed, catching my nose with its claws. I had a sizable scratch on my nose when I got to meet Karolyn. I felt like a putz.

I know I was a bear to deal with for that 17-hour period when I knew Karolyn was less than an hour away from where we were staying. Danielle made me well aware of that fact. I had hoped to take Karolyn out for dinner and spend some time talking, but although we tried, we hadn't figured out how to make it work.

We finally got to Borders for the book signing about ten minutes before it started. Karolyn was no more than ten yards in front of me as I stood in line. I kept wanting to walk up to her and introduce myself, but I remained calm and stayed in line.

This was Karolyn's reaction when I told her my name.
When I finally got up to the front of the line to meet her, I handed her a book to sign. She commented on my tie, and I asked her if she was tired yet, not telling her my name. When she asked who to sign the book to, I told her my name, and you should have seen the look on her face. It was a mix between recognition, surprise and excitement ... a lot more dramatic that I had expected. She jumped up and gave me a hug and asked me how I was. We talked for a while and she signed a book for myself, a copy for my mother, and a copy of the Zuzu newsletter that she published one of my letters in.

I gave her Danielle's cell phone number and told her we would be around the area and to call me when she was finished. She agreed to have a cup of coffee with us.

We went shopping for a little while, until the ants in my pants drug us back to Borders. We sat in the cafe for over an hour, waiting for Karolyn to finish. After a long and as patient a wait as I could manage, she came over with her friend Chris, to talk. I bought all of us something to drink, and we spent about an hour talking about the movie, my paper, and careers.

She gave me some wonderful insight about the film and we discussed the film on big screen and movie rights, referring a number of times to what she calls the "Potter-like Republic pictures." She told me that "It's a Wonderful Life" would be on the big screen in Cleveland at Cedar-Lee Cinema around December 12-14.

We also talked about the musical, which I am glad we did. She told me about the main differences between the film and the musical, including the fact that George tries to throw himself in front of a train instead of jumping off of a bridge.

Karolyn and I after coffee in Borders bookstore, Cleveland
We left and I thanked her for everything, and we were off to the musical. We got lost and had to call the theatre to get directions from where we were, which was right by Gund Arena and Jacob's Field. We arrived at the Cleveland Playhouse just as the lights were dimming.

The tickets were $39 apiece, but they were well-worth it. I enjoyed it a lot, and as a rule, I hate musicals. I think they interrupt the plot and prevent the story from moving forward at an understandable pace. However, I will say that I enjoyed this production and would pay the money to go again.

One last side note about the musical: the children were played by different children each night. Emily Krassen, who played Zuzu the night Danielle and I saw the production is absolutely an adorable child. When she came onstage and said that she was feeling better, she said her temperature was normal, back to 68 degrees. It was so cute.

While I hope to eventually spend more time with Karolyn, talking about the movie and more about each other, my experience that weekend was a chance of a lifetime (you hear me, the chance of a lifetime!!) and I'm glad I got it.

Visit Karolyn's site at

Why I Love "It's a Wonderful Life"

I talk about the film a lot at work. My former co-workers at the Sentinel-Tribune used to pick on me because I love it so much. On Dec. 4, 2001 the entertainment editor asked if I would write a column about the film. Naturally, I agreed to do it, and asked if I could write ten sidebars or so. Instead, he gave me a topic: Why does a guy your age (under 30 at the time is all you need to know) like a film that is over 50 years old? What's the draw, and why the mania? Here is what I came up with, as published in the Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune in December, 2001:

Why I love 'It's a Wonderful Life'
My co-workers think I'm crazy.

Around Christmas each of the five years I have worked for the Sentinel-Tribune, I have raved about the film "It's a Wonderful Life."

Even my family — many of whom like the film — won't let me play the "It's a Wonderful Life" trivia game, because as my Aunt Lora says, I "know too much."

I'll admit that I can recite every line, in character, from the beginning to end. I will also admit that it was very hard to keep from doing that when I watched it on the big screen for the first and second time at the Cla-Zel on Dec. 1 and 2 (many thanks to Kelly Wicks for bringing it to town). I plan to go again when it is shown in North Baltimore on Dec. 23.

I also admit that I have lost count of how many times I have seen the film. It's in the "several hundred" range. For about a month, I watched it three times each day for a research paper I wrote while in college about how family, friends, religion, and capitalism all combine in the film.

People often ask me why I am so infatuated with this film...especially such an old one, when I am still (barely) under 30. Since Mr. Miller won't let me fill the whole paper with the reasons, I will give you a few.

I refer to "It's a Wonderful Life" (from here on referred to as IAWL, like my license plates used to say...did I mention I was a big fan?) as a film.

For me, there are movies, and then there are films.

Anything Jim Carey appears in (up until that time, anyway) is a movie. The title of "film," for me, is reserved for something worthwhile: A movie that goes beyond just entertaining and touches on something else. "The Wizard of Oz," "Harvey," and "When Harry Met Sally" fall into this category.

Ask people what their favorite movie is and many will rattle off one that is still in theaters, or that just came out on video or DVD. Not me. A sad majority of current movies do nothing but attempt to entertain. The question any more appears to have changed from "what message can we get across" to "how many explosions, crashes, murders, or fight sequences can we squeeze into an hour and a half?"

Let me clarify right now that I am not talking about all movies; only a vast majority of them.
Beyond "Forrest Gump," and maybe "Toy Story," I can't think of one modern film truly worthy of "classic" status.

IAWL tells a long story at its own slow pace. It has what many films today lack: Content and meaning. It entertains as it teaches several lessons in a soft-handed way, but it doesn't preach.

Among these lessons are:
  • Family and friends are more important than money.
  • Everything works out, despite how bad it may seem at the worst of times.
  • Each man's life touches many other lives.
  • You don't have to travel to have adventure, or to have a wonderful life. Adventure is as close as your back yard. You just have to find it.
IAWL also does something that most current movies would never even consider: Confronting religion and its importance without belittling it with jokes, as "Keeping the Faith" did. That was just a two-hour-long "a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar" joke.

The messages in IAWL are so powerful that several judges have required suicidal criminals to watch it.
Most of all, I like George Bailey (portrayed by James Stewart). He has been described by many critics and researchers as portraying "Everyman." That everyone can see himself in George. For many of us, including myself, if we don't see ourselves in George as we are, we see something that we would like to be.

Stewart is likeable in IAWL, and in most of his films. His typical roles involve the idea of always standing up for what is right. His stuttery drawl catches your ear and your heart, and draws you in. Rarely is he referred to as James Stewart. Typically, his is called Jimmy, as if we knew him personally. There is a natural connection there that draws people.

I like him so much that I am jealous on George Bailey's behalf of his brother, Harry (Todd Karns).
Harry is a nice guy, and a World War II hero, but still, I don't like him. George sends Harry to school when he can't go. Harry gets to travel and get a good job, and he sees the world during his war service. George wants to do all of these things, but he is forced to stay home because he has the heart for, and conviction to, family and friends that Harry does not.

Harry loves his family, I'm sure. He flew home in a blizzard when George needed him most, after all. But where was he when George was supposed to leave for college and the building and loan was in danger of closing? He didn't stick around to help.

Most of all, this film has stood the test of time. Its lessons remain valid; it is more popular today than when first released; and it has gained a very dedicated following. The Internet is full of fan sites and a Web Ring dedicated to IAWL.

Seeing it on the big screen, my visit with Karoline Grimes (who played Zuzu) a couple of years ago over coffee in Cleveland, and my constantly growing collection of IAWL and Jimmy-related items have only fueled my love for the film over the last 16 or so years (more now in 2011).

It is a film that every American should watch and learn from.

"It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen

As you know, I am a HUGE fan of the film "It's a Wonderful Life." My honest estimate is that I have seen it more than 700 times. In college, I wrote my final huge paper about the film titled "The Affirmation of Civic-Minded Capitalism in Frank Capra's First Post-World War II Film, It's a Wonderful Life." I have since expanded that into an as-yet unpublished book I have provisionally titled "It's a Wonderful Life: The Scene-ic Tour." 

In order to do all of that writing, I had to watch the film over and over and over again. For a three-month period 1996/1997, I watched it 3 times a day in order to find symbolism, connections and nuance. It was an amazing experience. To this day, I still find new things every time I watch it.

I saw "It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen for the first time in December, 2001. I have seen it several times on the big screen since then. These are recaps of those viewings. These were written as they happened, and are, for the most part, unchanged for the purpose of this blog.

So here they are:

On Dec. 1 and 2, 2001, the Cla-Zel theatre in Bowling Green, Ohio, showed "It's a Wonderful Life" for free. The film was shown at noon and 3 p.m. both days.

I was able to attend the very first and the very last showing. I took a crew with my the first time, with my aunts Lora and Dona, cousins Brooke and Emma, and friend, Faith (a friend, whose store I hope to tell in this blog), to see it. The second time I went, my mother (who introduced me to the film) and my father went with me.

The copy they had the first day was old and was crimped in the beginning credits, so the started it where the people begin to pray for George. This copy also cut off the bottom portion of the image, so Mary's chin was cut off in the dance/pool scene, as were the poison pills George looks at when his father sent him away.

The second time I went, they apparently got a different copy, because they showed the opening bell and credits with no trouble. It also was lined up properly, and I could see everything on the lower portion of the screen that I had never seen before. The problem with this copy was that the sound cut out occasionally, and the picture would go blurry sometimes.

Not that I'm complaining. All in all, it was an amazing experience. I have been hoping to see it on the big screen for years, and I finally got to do it.

It is a very large movie theatre/old-fashioned opera house, so it was only about a quarter full the first showing and about a third full for the final showing. I don't know attendance rates for the middle two showings.

Knowing the film as well as I do, it was very hard to keep myself from calling out the lines with the characters. I caught myself doing most of the hand movements throughout, though.

What I found most entertaining was the crowd reaction. Both times I went, people laughed at parts I forgot were funny...especially during the hydrangea scene, and George visiting Mary just before Sam calls. I'm pretty sure some of those who attended the second time had never seen the film before because they laughed very hard at the "He's making violent love to me, mother," line. They also gasped when Gower slaps Georges ears, when George yells at Billy for losing the money, and again, when he yells at the children and destroys his home office. Those scenes took them by surprise.

I was able to see things I had never noticed before in watching "It's a Wonderful Life" in my own living room, including the fact that "City Hall" really is written on City Hall, and the Civil War memorial right in front of City Hall and just behind the Welcome to Bedford Falls sign. It truly is amazing once you see something on the big screen to try to figure out how in the world you missed such an obvious thing.

Many scenes had surprising effects on me, as well, including all of the scenes I mentioned when people gasped. I found myself crying (200 times and I still what?) four times each viewing: Once at George and Peter talking at the table before the dance, once when George prays at Martinis, once when George prays to live again, and the very end, at the very moment Harry toasts George at the richest man in town.

A lot of people have raved about the telephone love scene between George and Mary, and I never really got it. The walk home from the dance, and the final scene always have been my favorite. The big screen changed my opinion of the phone scene. While still not my favorite, it carries more impact on the big screen than on television. Wow! I never saw George's nose touch Mary's forehead at the hairline before. I never saw all of the small nuances and the attraction and hidden love in that scene before. It packed a huge punch.

Another thing I noticed is the number of references the film makes to alcoholic drinks. I'm don't preach about "the evils of alcohol," though. I'm just making an observation. I will have to make a list of those references some day.

Bottom line: This film has always been amazing, but on the big screen it is larger than life, and better than ever. If you have a chance to see it in a theatre, I strongly encourage you to go...multiple times.

I had the opportunity to watch "It's a Wonderful Life" on the big screen for the third time this year during the village of North Baltimore, Ohio's closing ceremony for its 125th celebration on Dec. 23.
The area's first measurable snowfall set the perfect scene for the evening, starting to fall just minutes before the film started. The snow was enough to make the trip home after the film very scary. We were traveling 15 MPH on I-75, where the speed limit is 65.

I have been blamed for bringing the film to town, with some in North Baltimore saying I "rigged it." Here's what happened: As part of my job, I cover council, board of education, and other meetings within the village.

During a downtown improvement committee meeting, the village historian Bonnie Knaggs told me that as part of the closing celebration, the 125 Heritage Days Committee would show one of three movies. Area residents could call in to vote for their choice of "White Christmas," "Miracle on 34th Street," or "It's a Wonderful Life."

I voted on the spot for IAWL, and on my trip home from the meeting, I called my mother, and two aunts to ask them to vote for their families. My Aunt Lora called and the guy who answered asked her "Did you call before?" She said no, and the guy told her "We've got some guy trying to rig this thing and I just had to check," or something like that. I suppose that guy was me.

A month later, during another downtown improvement meeting, the Superintendent of Schools announced that IAWL was the overwhelming choice, and described the voting as a "Chicago election." He looked at me and said "That's the movie you wanted, isn't it?"

So back to movie night.

They could not get a regular copy of the film, so they had to rent special equipment to show the 16 mm version. I don't know much about film, but this version was a little bit narrower than the screen, and it was split into four or five reels. There was about a minute lag between reels.

I was joined by my (then) wife, my parents, my Aunt Lora, my friend, Kyle, and my (then) wife's two cousins, Marissa and Mallory, who were both under 15 and love the film. We made a special hour trip on Sunday to pick them up so they could join us.

The film started and after the second reel, my (then) wife asked Marissa and Mallory how they were doing. They said they were sad that I wasn't sitting between them because they wanted to hear me say all the lines. I changed seats so I could sit between them, but I only said three or four lines, because I didn't want other people to be mad at me.

The small Posh Virginia Theatre was only about 1/4 full, and I thought the crowd was reasonably rude. People were opening candy wrappers as loudly as they could, and there was a kid bawling in the front, and his dad refused to take him out for about 20 minutes. He finally left and I clapped for them when they did. Not quite the Christmas spirit, but hey, if you can't control your kid, get the heck out. I'm there to watch a movie, not to listen to the kid bawl.

There were also some junior high or high school kids constantly laughing in the back. It's hard to stay in the movie and focus on it when kids are giggling uncontrollably as George is standing on the bridge contemplating suicide.

Another guy was fidgeting and kept moving his leg, making his seat creak.

Maybe I'm just hypersensitive and think IAWL should be treated like church. I think that's probably it.

Despite all, the experience was spectacular. I noticed many, many new things I had never seen in the film before, including:

  • When the kids are walking George back to work after his dip in the pond, one kid is wearing a white shirt with black or red lettering that I believe says "BBBL," which stands for Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.
  • During the run on the bank, one shot inside the Building and Loan shows Cousin Tilly's name plate on her desk, reading "Matilda Bailey." I had never seen it before. Since she is COUSIN Tilly, I assume she is Billy's daughter, but she calls him "Uncle Billy" during the phone call with Harry.
  • When George visits Mr. Gower to thank him for the suitcase, they shake hands. I have always been so intent on George making his wish at the cigar lighter that I never noticed Gower slaps his hand and says "enjoy it."
  • Uncle Billy addresses George with the phrase "Avast there Cap'n Cook" twice: Once when he goes to visit Peter to ask him about the poison, and once when George is walking down the street with his suitcase.

My dad came up with this observation: After the party for Harry and Ruth, George visits Mary. She follows the exact same format of conversation as the one they had as kids at Gower's Drug Store about coconuts, using most of George's phrases, including "Have you made up your mind?"

I also came up with a question about the film: Do George and Mary talk about George's experience later on? When they are reunited, George tells Mary "you have no idea what happened," and Mary tells him "YOU have no idea." But do they share their stories? What does Mary think of George's story? At the very end, when George reads the inscription, he brushes off Mary's question of "who's that?" by simply saying "That's a present from a very dear friend of mine." Does he do that to end the conversation, or does he use the explanation to postpone a lengthy conversation about it until after the party?

On Nov. 20, 2004, I saw "It's a Wonderful Life" for the fourth time. The only two issues I had with this viewing were that: 

1) there were way too many children running down the aisles and making too much noise too often during the film (and I'm a father. A friend who went to the movie with me - a child care provider - also almost torqued off on these kids). 

2) I'm in the middle of a divorce (I was at the time this originally was written), so my head is not in it. I need a major attitude adjustment.

The neatest thing about this viewing is that even after 700 viewings, I made the following observations and had the following questions: 

1) What is Mrs. Hatch's name? 

2) Potter has horses, while there are poorer residents of Bedford Falls who have cars.

3) George kicks a lot of doors and fences open and closed.

4) Potter's voice-over of his job offer to George is different than the real offer.

5) Nicknames were big among George friends when they were boys.

In November of 2005, my girlfriend at the time took me as a surprise to see IAWL on the big screen in Toledo. Still fun.

I went to watch this alone on Nov. 25, 2006. I went to the Westfield Shopping Center to see it again. 

They played the 60th anniversary restored edition. I found myself watching the background details and I found a lot of things I hadn't seen before.

The audience was great, and I sat next to a woman who had never seen it before. Listening to her reactions was fun. When George had his melt-down and destroyed his home office, there is a moment of silence when he recomposed himself. During that moment, not a single person in the theatre spoke. It goes to prove that this film, at 60 (now 65 years old) years old, still has the ability to enchant the audience.

The is another opportunity to see It's a Wonderful Life at the Maumee Indoor Theatre tomorrow (Dec. 18, 2011). It is playing at 2:00, 4:30, and 7:00. Sadly, with my family celebrating a Christmas brunch tomorrow, I can't go to the early one, and my oldest son's return to his mother at 6, and the bed time of the youngest will likely prevent me from seeing either of the other two showings. It is sad that I will miss it on the big screen this year, but with more than 700 viewings under my belt, I can just imagine it instead.

A Movie Lover's Christmas List

I love movies. New movies, old movies, black and white. You name it, I probably like it. I love Netflix and libraries and video rental stores like the former Video Spectrum in Bowling Green that has not only the latest hits, but also the really bizarre and hard-to-find stuff.

At the top of my list is the Frank Capra-directed Christmas classic "It's a Wonderful Life." I am fanatic about it. I offer my Web site as proof. While I no longer update the Web site, I don't plan to take it down. It's an interesting visit. I went back to it for the first time in about two years last week, and I was surprised by what I found. I had forgotten about some of this.

Between now and Christmas, I will post additional blog entries expounding on the virtues of "It's a Wonderful Life," but for now, I want to list my top 10 favorite Christmas movies. Actually, I need to make it my top 11.

This list actually appeared several years ago - I don't remember exactly when - in the Sentinel-Tribune in the early 2000s... probably 2004. I have added to/changed/and otherwise re-written this for the purposes of this blog.

You would think that as much as I love "It's a Wonderful Life," that I don't enjoy any other Christmas movies, let alone any other type of movie.

Interestingly, my top two favorite movies actually are holiday films: "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Story." What follows is my own top 11 favorite Christmas movies. I know it's missing a lot of classics, like "White Christmas," but "why I don't like musicals" is a story for another day. Instead, this list more reflects my taste in humor, and the child that still lives inside of me.

11) "Mickey's Christmas Carol" - Split into two sections, both parts are funny. This animated classic gets to the point of the story quickly, and along the way, you get to enjoy the smeshmashio ... smeshmizelshmoof ... the yogurt.

10) "Christmas Eve on Sesame Street" - As a child, I thrived on Sesame Street. One of my fondest memories was a record put out in 1975 called "Merry Christmas from Sesame Street." It was great.

There were original songs, and classics, as well as Sesame Street skits put on vinyl. For 15 years, I maintained the distinct memory of having seen some of these skits and songs performed on television. I was convinced there had to be a movie.

I spent those 15 years looking for that movie, and in 2003 or 2004, with the help of EBay and, I finally found it in "Christmas Eve on Sesame Street." It's the movie I remember from television: Ice skating at the beginning of the movie, Oscar singing "I Hate Christmas," and Bert and Ernie performing their own version of the Gift of the Magi.

I have taken my childhood vinyl record and converted it to CD and MP3. I continue to listen to this CD every year.

(This paragraph appeared in the 2004 version of this story): As a new father, I am looking forward to sharing this new find with my son. And it is my promise that he will know who Mr. Hooper is before he becomes brainwashed by "Hokey Pokey Elmo." Hokey indeed. (Post-Christmas irony, added for the benefit of this Web son got a Hokey Pokey Elmo for Christmas. Timing is everything!)

9) "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" - At a running length of about half an hour, it can barely be considered a movie. But the message in this very religious program is extremely strong, and is about the only movie on this list that looks at the true meaning of Christmas. You probably won't find this movie in your local video rental store, though. Ask a Mormon friend how you can get a copy of this movie, or look for it on

8) "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" - I am a huge fan of television shows made the way this movie was made. Rudolph would have made this list if it had been longer. This is the story of how Santa Claus came to be, and it continues to be one of my favorites. It features Fred Astaire, and it's a musical, which is interesting considering how I feel about musicals.

7) "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" - This annual television Christmas tradition was pulled off of the air many years ago, but it remained special to my mother and I. We used to watch it together every year.

It starred Mickey Rooney as a retired police officer living in California. He has promised to take his grandson to New York to show him a true white Christmas, but dies before he gets a chance to make the trip. He makes a deal with the Archangel of Heaven to return to Earth for a week until Christmas and show his grandson the wonders of a white Christmas in New York City. Thanks to my father and (again) to EBay for bringing this movie back into my life. I can't find it anywhere on DVD, except as a bootleg.

6) "Muppet Family Christmas" - While I watched the Muppet Show as a child, my ex-wife introduced me to the Muppet movies through this film. This one gets everyone involved, from the Muppets to Fraggles, even characters from Sesame Street. "Honk, honk! Pass it on!"

5) "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" - I don't like this movie only because Russ is watching "It's a Wonderful Life" when the grandparents arrive. Instead, I like it because it's funny. What can beat Cousin Eddie emptying the RV toilet into the sewer while dressed in his boxer shorts? And Clark's "Holy Shit" Christmas toast? And all of that sap? Classic.

4) "Miracle on 34th Street" - I will break my own rule of thumb of "classic film over modern" and say that I prefer the 1994 version over the original version, for the sole reason that Mara Wilson steals the show as Susan Walker. I can watch this movie any time of the year.

3) "A Christmas Carol" - Again, I will go with the newest version, released in 2009 starring Jim Carrey. This was was digitally animated and done in 3-D. While there are the usual 3-D gimmicks, like the horse hearse chase that lasts way, way, way too long (think pod race in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and how that made you want to bang your head against the wall...or take a bathroom break and still get back in time to know who wins the race). Yet despite that big fault, this movie is amazing. It is breathtaking in depth and camera angles, and special effects, and it is true to the original story in most ways, including language. Despite obvious stupid gimmicks, this was extremely well done.

2) "A Christmas Story" - One word: Fra-gee-lay. Would you believe I have two leg lamps because of this movie? One is a life-sized custom-made leg that my dad made for me for Christmas last year. The other is the night stand-sized replica. I also have been to The Christmas Story House in Cleveland on numerous occasions. Played on multiple channels all day long, like "It's a Wonderful Life" used to be, "A Christmas Story" already is a cult classic and is fast becoming an all-time classic holiday film.

1) "It's a Wonderful Life" - Not only my favorite holiday film, but my favorite film all-around. I usually take a positive approach, describing how this film is timeless and its two major themes of "no man is a failure who has friends," and "each man's life touches so many other lives" work today as well as they did when the film was made. This time I'll take a different approach.

I am naturally a pessimist, so I'll quote critic James Wolcott, who got downright nasty in a 1986 review of IAWL that was printed in Vanity Fair: "Perhaps what has made 'It's a Wonderful Life' such a beloved holiday tradition in recent years is that George Bailey now stands for what we want to believe, and Bedford Falls is the home we can't go home to again. "It's a Wonderful Life' is the perfect film for the Reagan era, celebrating the old fashioned values of home and hearth that everyone knows deep down have eroded."

Sadly, I believe that is true. But there is so much more to it than that. My goal is to dig deeper in upcoming blog entries. Stay tuned.