True story: on the day John Lennon was killed, I had turned in a paper I wrote for my high school sociology class concerning gun control. And as a young smartass and White Album fan, I had titled the paper, "Happiness is a Warm Gun."
I was a senior in high school and learned the news as I sat at the dining room table, which was where I typically did my homework in those days. I had lugged out the massive, cobalt blue IBM Selectric typewriter that my dad had brought home from the office. I was typing up a paper for my high school English class that was due the next morning. You could see the television set in the living from there and at the end of the 10 p.m. news, a late bulletin arrived. John Lennon had been shot dead in New York City.
It's easy to forget now, but it was the beginning of a very violent 10 month period. At the end of that long winter of 1980-81, President Reagan nearly died at the hands of an assassin. Not long after, Pope John Paul II nearly met his maker. By the fall, Anwar Sadat was felled.
My generation was too young to really understand the events of the 1960s, especially the toll of the assassins of that blighted decade. We had come of age in the 1970s, a time that seems especially grim in retrospect. It was pretty easy for me, and for a lot of my classmates, to adopt a mask of adolescent cynicism and to sneer at a lot of what we saw in front of us.
When Lennon was killed that night, I remember thinking that cynicism I felt about my life and future prospects was somehow justified. I felt like a caged animal in those days, believing that I was being constrained by the petty, small-minded town I had called home. I kept thinking to myself -- I just can't wait to get the hell out of this place. It wasn't for me, this silly backwater of Appleton, Wisconsin. There was no way I would ever come back to Podunk and I sneered at my classmates who seemed content to stay and settle for the blandishments of a boring little town, a suburb without a city attached to it.
The thing was, that cynicism had a very thin veneer. I remember that when we were discussing the murder in school the next day, one of my friends reported the reaction of Mick Jagger, who called Lennon's murder "a good career move" or something like that. We were all convinced it was the worst thing we'd ever heard and some of my friends vowed to get rid of their Stones albums. They didn't.
Adolescents are like that -- simultaneously full of dreams and full of shit. 30 years later, I now have an adolescent son, who has a far sunnier disposition than I did at the same age. That's a good thing and will serve him well, because cynicism at a young age can corrode your soul in ways that are difficult to understand until years later. He's coming of age in a time that's like the late 1970s in too many ways. He even prefers 1970s era music -- if you grab his MP3 player you'll find a lot of AC/DC and Aerosmith. He's at the age where he's starting to question many things and he's discovering that the world can disappoint you if you let it. My job is to ensure that he sees the opportunities that remain, even in a low, mendacious time.
Many, many things have changed in the 30 years since John Lennon died. One thing hasn't -- I still do a lot of my writing at the dining room table. And while I look at John Lennon's more fuzzy nostrums with a gimlet eye these days, I'm actually a lot less cynical than I was in 1980. No matter how rotten the world might look, there are always opportunities if we choose to see them.