It's a Wonderful Life

Southwest Airlines, Zuzu's petals and big lives treated small

It's a Wonderful Life
George, Zuzu and Zuzu’s Flower.

I watched It’s a Wonderful Life with Riley and our kids on Christmas.

You’ve probably seen it, but if not here’s a quick synopsis:

George Bailey grew up watching his father hold together Bailey Building and Loan, a business that helped people get mortgages through a cooperative funding business model. Each mortgage holder is also a shareholder. The most powerful man in town, Mr. Potter, hates the Building and Loan because it gives mortgages to people the bank would refuse. Potter loses a renter in his slums each time a new Bailey Building and Loan mortgage is issued. 

George doesn’t want to do his father’s work. He wants to leave his small hometown and live a big life. But when his father dies, he stays home from college and takes over the Building and Loan so that the town’s people won’t be subjected to Potter. He sends his brother to college instead. He falls in love with Mary Hatch, a woman who has loved him since she was little girl. Together, they protect the small town from Potter while serving the community in little and big ways. 

They keep the Building and Loan afloat through Depression bank runs, reminding their customers that the only way everyday people can qualify for mortgages is to stay invested in the fund so that the fund can keep investing in affordable home loans. They answer to each other and George answers to all of them.  (It’s true. It’s also an imperfect solution in a country where housing is not a right. Housing should be a right.) The Bailey’s have four babies along the way. They have a big life, and Mary knows it. But George feels small. 

After a Building and Loan bank deposit is lost by an employee, George has a breakdown. He cannot replace the money, so the mortgages are all at risk of being bought and exploited by Potter. And he cannot prove he didn’t steal it. He decides it will be his final failure. He goes to throw himself off a bridge. His life insurance money will cover the lost deposit. 

Just before he leaps off the bridge, his guardian angel, Clarence, intervenes and saves him. George does not believe Clarence is an angel. He does believe that everyone would be better off if he’d never been born. Clarence decides to show George what the world would be like without him.  

Spoiler alert: Reality is much worse without George Bailey in it. 

I’ve always loved this movie. My first child is named after one of George and Mary’s children, Zuzu. On the night the deposit disappears, Zuzu asks George to paste the petals back on a wilting flower. He hides the petals in his pocket and fluffs the flower a bit before handing it back to her. George realizes he’s been erased from existence when he reaches into his pocket and Zuzu’s petals aren’t there. I guess when I named my daughter Zuzu, I hoped her name would help Riley and I remember the petals in our pockets. 

Watching It’s a Wonderful Life at 37 is different than watching it at 27. The older I get, the more apparently flawed George Bailey becomes. And the more I can see myself in both him and Mary. 

I recommend this Clare Coffey essay about how There is No Mary Problem in It’s a Wonderful Life when you have a chance,

It’s a Wonderful Life is, in part, the story of someone becoming, kicking and screaming, against all intentions and desires, a big man. Mary sees the big man in George from the first, because she is a big woman.”

From the beginning, it is Mary who chooses George, not the other way around. In a scene from their childhood, she sits on the counter and whispers in his bad ear, “George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die,” while George, oblivious, drones on about coconuts.”

When we got to this scene, my eleven year old said, “Mom! Weren’t you Mary’s age when you decided you’d marry dad?” I was. I’ve loved Riley since we were both twelve. Like George with Mary, he took a little while to come around to seeing things my way. When we were kids, Riley wanted to be a sports agent who wore suits every day and lived in a new city every year. And now we have kids, a mortgage and there’s not one suit in his closet. Sometimes I imagine buying him a really nice suit. Just one.

I wish I was all Mary, but I’m not. I’m also a lot like George, and not always in the best ways. I used to think a good life required greatness. And it was the work of my late twenties and early thirties unthinking that little thought. 

By the end of the movie, George wants to be alive. Clarence returns him to his reality. It’s only after he’s decided to live that George learns he has been saved by Mary and the other big people in their small town. They show up to his house with jars full of cash, to help save him the way he’s saved the Building and Loan. In a community, we’re stakeholders in each other too. 

We all cried. Well, all of us but Brontë, who is just four years old. She declared that she liked the part “where George gets a thousand dollars for Christmas.” 

Last night, Riley’s parents called to tell us they may not be able to make their planned visit this weekend. They’re supposed to fly into Denver on Friday. But they got their tickets through Southwest Airlines, the airline that’s had to cancel thousands of flights this week because of inadequate staffing and antiquated scheduling software.

You see, Southwest’s customers are not Southwest’s shareholders. They do not really answer to their customers. So Southwest has paid out hundreds of millions in dividends to investors, while devaluing operations, employees and the customers who fly with them. Their business isn’t getting people places, it’s profiting off the idea of getting people places. 

I wonder how many people missed weddings, funerals, birthdays, and Christmas mornings this week because Southwest decided again and again to serve shareholders over the people on their planes. We’ll get real numbers from all the airports and investigations that follow this debacle. For now, I know that on Monday, at least 1000 Southwest passengers slept in Denver International Airport instead of the place they were meant to be. That’s a lot of big lives being treated like they’re very small. 

I wonder, a little, when enough of us will finally shake our fists in Mr. Potter’s face and decide to invest in building something new. Maybe tomorrow? Or the next day? Want to do it together?