Sunday, December 27, 2020

Life Lessons Learned Late and other thoughts on December and Friendship, Beatles and Sentimental Education and Revolution


Image of December and 
"Protest of Amazon and its multi-billionaire CEO Jeff Bezos today in NYCWednesday, Dec. 23rd -- 212 Fifth Ave., Manhattan, NYC 6pm -- Bring your Amazon boxes and your masks Tis the Season To Rise Up (if you don't have Amazon boxes, find them on the street or trash/recycling bins)"

These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about friendships, past and present, Paul and John in the Beatles, Fred and Deslauiers in Sentimental Education,  Karl and Fred in the critique of capital, and many of my own. 

I’ve always been a Paul fan.

For some, such a statement is a confession of vacuousness; for others its a step away from false binaries.  It doesn’t mean I don’t love John.

I always have. 

 “Instant Kharma” and “I Am Walrus” are seminal songs of my life.

"We all shine on.

On and on and on and on."

But Paul wrote, "Blackbird" and "Give Ireland back to the Irish" about civil rights at home and abroad, in an homage to freedom of bodies and minds, rejecting racial and colonial shackles. 

 I still listen to Paul and "Hey Jude", even his new music.   

Its still comforting and occasionally moving.

No doubt, the schmaltz is always there.

But his body of  work is still growing, all these years later.

And in it, there’s a story of music as a poetry and social change, across lives and cohorts. 

 In the Jim Crow days, they refused to play in segregated venues. 

The early shows in 1964 were some of the first integrated performances in the US South.

"“We played to people,” says Ringo Starr. “We didn’t play to those people or that people – we just played to people.”

 I spent the days before the holidays listening to Paul croon on about silly love songs, friendship an loss, grading the piles of papers: 

Yeah, tomorrow may rain, so

I'll follow the sun…” Paul sang in 1964. 

Its not quite, Bella Ciao, but this is song of parting. 

"And now the time has come
And so, my love, I must go
And though I lose a friend
In the end, you will know

I'll follow the sun…”

Paul's best words and music came with the help of his collaborator John, toning down his worst instincts, reminding us we can all follow the sun, we all can. 

And together they were stronger, writing about each other, sympathizing with their pain, inviting the audience to sing along to the chorus of "Hey Jude" on the David Frost show in  early September 1968; there everyone saw the "sort of possibilities of community that the band, at its best, signified to the world outside."

Friendships move through time, with collaboration, conflict, resolution, and sometimes splitting. 

The two songwriters grew up together, making sense of a post-war world, family dislocation, and connection.  They fought, talked, made music, became famous, and the partnership ended. 

In the years to follow the dissolution of the Beatles, they talked and they didn't talk, free love flourished and dissipated, and rapprochement followed by the end of the 1970's. 

"Lennon and McCartney, the most important songwriting team in history," writes  MIKAL GILMORE,   "repaired their friendship somewhat over the years, though they stayed distant and circumspect, and never wrote together again."

The conversation continued until Lennon's death.  

And years later, Paul could look back on all the messy, violence and raunchiness of growing up with John:

“I think in the end this was one of the strengths of the Beatles, this enforced closeness which I always liken to army buddies,” Paul said. “Because you’re all in the same barracks. We were always very close and on top of each other, which meant you could totally read each other...In music, it made us a very tight band, but as friends, it made us able to read each other.”

The tensions around friendship fill bookshelf after bookshelf. 

In book group, we've been reading Sentimental Education.

Themes of friendship and revolution course throughout the tome.

“Frederick invoked the right of resistance; and, remembering a few phrases Deslauriers had used in conversation with him, he cited the … Bill of Rights and Article 2 of the Constitution of 1791…."

The two friends had been quarreling throughout those days, but they both grew together. 

"On hearing the lawyer’s name, Frederick was seized with a keen desire to see him again.  He was intellectually isolated …

And Deslauiers to had felt a gap in his life ever since their quarrel, He responded promptly to Frederic’s friendly advances.  The two of them embraced and then started talking about unimportant matters….”  (p. 241).

Reading this, I find myself thinking about the Ditchdigger, wondering how his travels are going, out West, questions in the air of December. 

My students’ papers are rolling in, trauma informed practice paper after paper, story after story, many on childhood abuse and neglect; some seem particularly autobiographical.

One said goodbye after years of classes together, calling it a bittersweet moment.

She wrote a small note.

Another says, 

"It seems like each time we think 2020 cannot get any worse, another event occurs and proves us wrong. These last four years felt like a never ending episode of the show You got Punk’d."

The virus left inequalities exposed, many of us thinking about class struggle, now and then, 1848 revolutions, the "spectre is haunting europe..." back to 2020, pandemic raging, death rates rising, inequality expanding.

Before the holidays, the teenager and I walked through the snow to get tested in Red Hook.

The skies had opened up the night before, leaving the neighborhood white. 

A dozen tests later, we're still negative.

Snow in the ground, as we walk home.

A friend has worked in the hospital for months.

Its wearing on him.

Its wearing on us.

Not much of a senior year for the teenager.

The freshman is coping with her first year at a new school online.

But they are not living in an attic, like Anne did, I say to my friends in the park the night before.

Even locked up in Nazi occupied Holland, Anne believed:

"in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart."

She still found a way to see the wonder, to see the beauty.

We all try to, even within the struggle.

On Sunday, friends from Italy to California are talking about the-last-years-of-karl-marx in book talk on zoom. 

Ron and Victor are there, all of us chatting about Marx and Balzac

"Marx was famously combative," I say in one of the final questions.

"Did he ever fight with Engels?  If so, how did that go? Are there accounts of conflicts that upset him?"

Bob Ware says they seemed to be very close, worked together.  But he acknowledges Engels was hurt when Marx didn’t  send condolences when his partner died. There might have been more to say when they were in the pub. Engels almost broke with Marx over his writing partner always asking for money, without sending condolences.

Marcello added:

"While great intellectual companions, the sentimental relationship between the two men was even more extraordinary. Marx confided all his personal difficulties to Engels, beginning with his terrible material hardship and the numerous health problems that tormented him for decades. Engels showed total self-abnegation in helping Marx and his family, always doing everything in his power to ensure them a dignified existence and to facilitate the completion of Capital. Marx was ever grateful for this financial assistance, as we can see from what he wrote one night in August 1867, a few minutes after he had finished correcting the proofs of Volume I: 'I owe it to you alone that this was possible.'"

People grow in the world.

It’s the development of the individual over the course of a life, not just the young or older Marx.

They also fight over money and prestige, orthodoxy and ethics, sex and romance.

Its all there in Sentimental Education, the subject of our reading group, tracing the stories of revolutionaries and friendships of Paris of  the 1840's, trying to find a model for a revolution.

Flaubert was not the only writer who took inspiration in this epoch, especially as the revolution turns inward, with liberation replaced by dictatorship. 

"On December 2 1851, followers of President Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon's nephew) broke up the Legislative Assembly and established a dictatorship. A year later, Louis Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III."

In "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" Written: December 1851-March 1852, Marx sees a pattern:

"Hegel remarks somewhere1 that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851-2 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire. Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language."

Finishing book group, Virginia sends an email, inviting us to walk to the park.

"Dear friends who live sort of near the park and/or love Unsilent Night and might travel:

"Unsilent Night is a four-part, 45-minute boombox symphony... on every sweater and long underwear you own, gather with people holding your portable speaker, we all push Play at the same time, then walk together.  It usually goes from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square Park and it's like caroling, in that people outside are pleasantly surprised by this gorgeous, shimmering music walking by. But pandemic, so I propose we do the walk within dark, snowy Prospect Park. Walking six feet apart will probably make the piece sound even more mysterious and beautiful.    Let's meet at Grand Army Plaza at quarter of 6. Please forward to Brooklyn friends. And bundle up! "

The park is eerie and quiet, a few kids out sledding in the snow, as we used to do with our kids, before their interests moved elsewhere. 

Finishing grading, I join Billy and Savitri and the Church of Stop Shopping on Wednesday.

We'd been walking all afternoon, past Tompkins Square Park where a ragged guitarist plays a firebomb symphony, channeling his inner Townsend, destroying a ukulele, jamming on reverb, the crowd cheering along.

Up to Union Square we walk to:

"Protest of Amazon and its multi-billionaire CEO Jeff Bezos 

Wednesday, Dec. 23rd -- 212 Fifth Ave., Manhattan, NYC
6pm -- Bring your Amazon boxes and your masks
Tis the Season To Rise Up (if you don't have Amazon boxes, find them on the street or trash/recycling bins).... as we March on Jeff Bezos 80 million dollar mansion for Xmas Christmas tree ..."

There, Billy and I talk about a renaissance of friendship we've enjoyed, a year of walks in the cemetery and stoop hangouts. 
Jay and I chat about the end of the Trump years and the singing that got him, got us, through, laughing and crying and moving forward. Some hunkered down as loneliness gripped and others acted out.
Savitri kept on making art and I thought about the trials of friendship. 
Here, we build monuments, people come, go; we encounter strangers who change our trajectories, and they depart.
Some despair, while others follow the sun.

After posting, a few friends commented:
Peter Nardi, who first turned me onto the topic years ago, 

Walt Whitman: "I dream'd in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;
I dream’d that was the new City of Friends."

Alexis Danzig, of Rise and Resist,added:

 "Thelma and Louise. Gertrude and Alice. Harold and Maude. Sappho and the girls. Friendship!!"

A favorite demonstration with the teenager from a decade prior.

And a few snapshots in the snow. 

Movie theater closed on Court Street. 

A theater closed and a demo still happening in a cold December. 



  1. ive been thinking alot about friendship, the pandemic drew the circle in a little closer, required more communciation, and it became clear some could do that "better" than others, i've always been able to be friends with the saltiest, craziest and most unpleasant people, i jsut don't care about personality that much -- and so its made my life more interesting but also more painful, because those people hurt you more, faster and their knives might be very sharp or very dull, both will fuck you up! but anyway i have to go to bed, this is an interesting topic.... your a good friend Ben! to so many of us, and now over so long....savitri

    1. i love it savitri... this is my next book. lots to talk about. big love to you rad.

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