The Death of a Man

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Today marks the 32nd anniversary of John Lennon’s murder.

Some people forget that John Lennon was not a Saint but a man, an imperfect man. That does not make him a bad person. That makes him human.

Since his murder, he has been unfairly immortalized by the media and some of his fan base as this elevated human being, which he certainly was not. It’s ironic, given how cruel and dismissive the media were of him (and his wife) during the latter end of his career. It’s a frustrating image, as it is not rooted in reality, and Lennon himself would in all likelihood be amused and bemused by it.

Some like to focus on Lennon’s imperfections, make brash, outlandish, and unfair generalizations about him, and then proclaim those flawed generalizations as truth. I like to focus on how genuine and real Lennon was–and how honest he was about his imperfections.

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In “Getting Better,” Lennon contributed the lyrics: “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved/Man, I was mean,/But I’m changing my scene/And I’m doing the best that I can.” He elaborated on this in 1967, speaking about his possessive nature of his first wife, Cynthia, during their initial courtship: “I was hysterical. That was the trouble. I was jealous of anyone she had anything to do with…I was neurotic, taking out all my frustrations on her….I was in a blind rage for two years. I was either drunk or fighting. It had been the same with other girlfriends I’d had. There was something the matter with me.” Incapable of expressing himself, Lennon resorted to physical violence at times. These were, however, isolated incidents, and his relationship with Cynthia was, contrary to popular belief, a loving one.

Lennon’s chauvinistic views toward women really began to change, however, once he met Yoko Ono, which he explained further in 1972: “As a teenager, all I saw were films where men beat up women. That was tough, that was the thing to do, slap them in the face, treat them rough–Humphrey Bogart and all that jazz. So that’s the attitude we’re brought up with. It took me a long time to get that out. That isn’t reality. The way I started understanding it was thinking, ‘What would happen if I said to Ringo or Paul or George: “Go fetch that. Put the kettle on. Somebody’s at the door..”‘ If you treated your best male friend the way you treat your woman, he’d give you a punch in the face.”

Lennon was not proud of his behavior, but he was honest about it in an attempt to express how his views and attitudes were changing. This change of attitude does not excuse his violent behavior, but it is important to remember that he did change. We are allowed to make mistakes, learn from them, and progress, aren’t we?

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“I really miss him as a person now – do you know what I mean, he’s not so much ‘The Baby’ or ‘My Baby’ anymore, he’s a real living part of me now, you know he’s Julian and everything and I can’t wait to see him, I miss him more then I’ve ever done before – I think it’s been a slow process my feeling like a real father! I hope all this is clear and understandable. I spend hours in dressing rooms and things thinking about the times I’ve wasted not being with him – and playing with him – you know I keep thinking of THOSE stupid bastard times when I keep reading bloody newspapers and other shit while he’s in the room with me and I’ve decided it’s ALL WRONG! He doesn’t see enough of me as it is and I really want him to know and love me, and miss me like I seem to be missing both of you so much.”John Lennon to Cynthia Lennon, August 1965 (as recorded in her memoir John)

Abandoned by his own parents, Lennon unfortunately made many of the same mistakes with his firstborn son, Julian. Again, this was not something he was proud of, and, as indicated by the above excerpt from a personal letter to his wife, did love his son and was tormented by his lack of presence in his life, which sadly only grew as time progressed. In the 1970s, largely aided by May Pang, he began to repair and rebuild his relationship with his son, but that process was sadly cut short by his untimely death. Elliot Mintz, a close associate of John and Yoko, once recalled in an interview how John and Julian were nearly to the point in their difficult relationship where Julian could say to his father, “I love you,” and Julian could hear his father repeat the words back to him. It is sad that a man who proclaimed peace and love to the world often had trouble extending those feelings to his oldest son, but it is undoubtedly something he struggled with and was not proud of. And had he not been murdered, I believe that father-son relationship would have only grown stronger.

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“There is this period of John which is all pre-Beatles, pre-huge fame, pre-drugs – and it is another John completely – that was always there right until the end. He got much sweeter, too, once he settled in New York. Once he was reunited with Yoko, and they had Sean, he became this sweet personality again then when he was more comfortable with himself. But the acerbic John is the one we know and love, you know, because he was clever with it, so it was very attractive. But, for me, I have more than a slight affection for the John that I knew then, when we were first writing songs, when we would try and do things the old songwriters had done. I slightly regret the way John’s image has formed, and because he died so tragically it has become set in concrete. The acerbic side was there but it was only part of him. He was also such a sweet, lovely man – a really sweet guy.” — Paul McCartney

Known for his biting wit, Lennon could, too, be verbally abusive. As McCartney explained, however, it is important to look at Lennon’s words in context–a quote from 1971 or 1972 will undoubtedly have more bite than a quote from, say, 1980 or 1963. And there were always many sides to Lennon–but too many people have forgotten that kind and gentle side.

John Lennon was not perfect–but no reasonable human being has ever claimed that he was. He is sometimes unfairly portrayed as having attained a Saint-like status, but he is just as unfairly criticized for incidents and aspects of his life of which he was not proud and worked diligently and honestly to change. He was a great man, but he was only a man. And I miss him.

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A Christmas Memory

As the holiday season approaches so do floods of memories and traditions. I always read, or at the very least recall, one of my favorite short stories, “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, first published in 1956.

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Largely autobiographical, it details the relationship of a young boy named Buddy and his elderly, distant cousin (whom Capote refers to as “my friend” in the story), in whose care he has been entrusted due to the estrangement of his parents. There are other relatives who live in the house as well, but, as Capote writes, even “though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them.”

The story focuses on one particular Christmas and their tradition of baking fruitcakes for their friends, although not “necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share are intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt.” See, the only true friends Buddy and his friend have are one another, for they are both acutely different and lonely, although they never feel that way when with one another.

Buddy and his friend, followed closely by their orange and white rat terrier named Queenie, gather and purchase ingredients for the fruitcakes, using the money they’ve deposited throughout the year into their “Fruitcake Fund.” The most expensive and difficult ingredient to acquire is whiskey, which they must buy from Mr. Haha Jones, a gloomy man who never laughs, yet kindly gives them the whiskey free of charge, understanding how hard they have worked to collect enough coins to comprise the required two dollars. (This act of kindness prompts Buddy’s friend to proclaim that Mr. Jones will have extra raisins in his fruitcake.) Once they’ve finished baking the fruitcakes, there are just two inches of whiskey left, and even though Buddy is only seven, his friend divides the remaining whiskey between the two of them. They sing and dance, happy and carefree, until two relatives angrily enter and scold Buddy’s friend for allowing such a scene to occur. Buddy’s childlike friend cries and cries, and Buddy begs her to stop, telling her she is “too old” to cry. His friend replies that she is indeed too old–too old and too funny, and Buddy assures her that she isn’t funny but fun.

With their fruitcakes made, Buddy and his friend search for a Christmas tree, which attracts the envy of the rich mill owner’s wife, who offers to buy it. Buddy’s friend declares they wouldn’t sell the tree for a whole dollar, and the mill owner’s wife persists, telling her she can always buy another one. Buddy’s friend responds, “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

They are restless on Christmas Eve, confessing to each other they couldn’t buy one another the expensive gifts they feel the other deserves, and when they awake on Christmas morning, the wind is blowing–the perfect weather to fly the kites they have made one another. It is while they are flying their kites that Buddy’s friend has a revelation. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord,” she tells him. “And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are, just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

This Christmas turns out to be the last Christmas they spend together, as Buddy is sent to military school, and so they are both alone until one morning Buddy’s friend is too frail to proclaim that it is fruitcake weather and carry out her yearly tradition. “And when that happens, I know it,” Capote writes. “A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a knife on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”

I first read this story in 8th grade English. I loved it then, as I love it now, for its message of friendship and kindness, loneliness and understanding, the importance of what people mean to you over the material things they are able to leave behind. Every student feared Mr. Wilson, my 8th grade English teacher. He stood outside his classroom between class periods with his arms moodily crossed, and his face was always bright red as if he were a ticking bomb waiting to explode. And sometimes he did explode–onto students who forgot to write their names on their papers, use the margins of notebook paper properly (never write outside the red lines or on the white space), or students who just weren’t very bright.

Mr. Wilson had lost his family and home in a fire on Christmas day–or so the rumors said. That was why he was so grouchy, and that is why he made us read a story as depressing as “A Christmas Memory” around the holiday season. Mr. Wilson was grouchy, but he also a had a keen sense of humor, and he was a teacher who did not coddle but rather pushed and challenged. “A Christmas Memory” is depressing (to a degree) but it is more than that; it is a poignant and beautiful piece of literature. (I guess it never occurred to anyone that was the reason he assigned the reading.)

Buddy’s friend remarks that there are never two of anything–not Christmas trees and not English teachers. I never had another teacher like Mr. Wilson, a teacher who simultaneously terrified and inspired me. I am sure he has long since retired, and the junior high school I attended has sadly been demolished. We never exchanged kites as Christmas gifts. He simply inspired a further, deeper love of literature, bolstered my confidence, and left me with the memory of this brief, beautiful story. And so I read and think of it annually, and I hope, wherever he might be, Mr. Wilson does, too–and finds in it the same beauty and comfort.