Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My Fellow Boomers:

An Open Letter

"There is absolutely no greater high than challenging the power structure as a nobody, giving it your all, and winning!" – Abbie Hoffman, 1936-1989.

I remember walking through a parking lot with my mother when I was quite young.

“Look, Morrie,” she said, pointing, “a two-toned car!” She explained that this was a new fad in Detroit, where they made cars. I thought about it a moment and then asked why cars didn’t come in lots of colors.

Two-toned 1955 Packard

“Well!” she responded, “I think two colors are quite enough!” She made it clear from her tone that this was something dangerously close to cultural excess, a disturbing distortion of the envelope of propriety.

This was in the 1950s, just after many thousands of young men had come home from World War II, where they had all worn uniforms and functioned in a strict hierarchal system. They exchanged their old uniforms for new ones: the gray flannel suit, the wide tie, the fedora. Their wives wore gloves and hats with veils and only wore white shoes in months without “r”s, or whatever that rule was. Any deviation from the norm was unsettling and subjected the “deviant” to possible censure.

Making up for lost opportunity, they had lots of kids – so many that the press started talking about a “baby boom.” That’s where we came in.

Most everyone agreed that we were “spoiled,” that our generation was better off than any before it, but that didn’t mean we were happier. We had lots of toys and unprecedented opportunities, but we saw flaws in the culture that had provided them.

We didn’t want to wear gloves or fedoras and we saw nothing wrong with two-toned or even fifty-toned cars. We would have been satisfied with fewer toys if that had reduced the stress caused by our parents’ pursuit of material advancement and superficial appearances. The pundits of the day called it “keeping up with the Joneses,” and we didn’t buy into it. We had to live behind the façades. We were the Jones kids.

Eventually we went to college, or we went to war, or we went to the streets – or all three.

I entered college in the fall of 1965. In June there had been about 23,000 U.S. “advisors” in Vietnam or on the way. Before the year ended there were 184,000, and the charade that they weren’t simply soldiers evaporated. Ever more thousands were added, and before I graduated the total exceeded half a million. The draft was reinstituted and student deferments were cancelled.

Most of us smoked pot and a lot of us dropped acid, and so did the musicians we listened to. We turned on, dropped out, went back to nature, burned our bras (or stood by watching and enjoying it), let our hair grow, made love not war, invented ecology, took our shoes off, gave peace a chance, didn’t trust anyone over 30, ate brown rice, went to concerts with light shows, and participated in sit-ins, love-ins, and lots of other “-ins.” At least a quarter of our vocabulary was comprised of the words “wow,” “groovy,” “man,” “cool,” “like,” and “really,” usually in combinations like “Wow, man, like really groovy, man!”

(If you’ve forgotten what it was like, go back and read your Zap Comix and watch a few Cheech and Chong movies.)

We really thought we were changing the world, and for a while we really were. We ended a pointless war. We helped to break down centuries of prejudice against women and minorities and we ignored economic class distinctions. We respected not only fellow humans but all of Earth’s denizens. We crippled the power structure in the music industry and wreaked havoc on institutions of higher learning. We were open to new things. It was beautiful, man, really beautiful!

But of course it wasn’t. Not all of it. There were nightmares, too. The worst was the way many of us who weren’t soldiers treated those who were when they came home. Our “free love” was often used as an excuse to brush aside those who loved us. Our experiments with marijuana left some of us dazed and useless on some couch as the years went by, or even led us into the darker holes of harsher substances.

Perhaps the most disappointing shortcoming was our political evolution. We saw the excesses and injustices of the generations that came before us, and we all sang with Mr. Dylan as he wondered how many years it could continue. We took to the streets to protest these wrongs and make them right, but when Richard Nixon started replacing soldiers with bombers we sort of forgot about it. We had railed against our parents’ ridiculous social conventions, but we simply replaced them with new ones. It wasn’t the same line, but we all toed it.

And then it was gone. Money managers replaced flower children; cocaine and eventually double lattes replaced pot; sexting replaced free love; “drill down” replaced “groovy;” Beemers and then SUVs replaced hippie vans; and The Tea Party replaced the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. It isn’t the same line, but lots of us are toeing it.

Economic class snobbery and prejudice and pointless wars have made big comebacks, trashing the planet is in vogue again, and some of us have adopted yet another ridiculous set of social conventions. It’s “Alice in Wonderland” all over again, but this time with diamonds instead of hearts. The caterpillar still makes no sense. The Dormouse still ends up in the tea kettle.

After all these years, now that we’re all hitting thirty-something for the second time, can’t we sit back and look at where that “long, strange trip” has led us? We were always prone to take to the streets and yell and shake our fists, and less likely to listen and ponder and check things for accuracy. We think of ourselves as lone wolves, but we’re often just sheep in wolves’ clothing.

There are lots of problems left, and while we helped solve some of them, we also made some of them worse. Maybe we should look at ourselves through the same critical eyes that once stripped our parents of their pretensions. Maybe this time we can get beyond simplistic slogans and unquestioned assumptions.

There was a time when our generation woke up, realized that everything and everyone in the world was interconnected, and found the awareness that love was the most important thing we could give or receive. For that brief time, we knew that our fellow humans were infinitely more important than money or cars or a new dining room set or the guns and bullets with which they could be so easily killed.

It’s time to wake up again.

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