Some fragmentary thoughts on being a hippie...

Written on the WELL a few years ago, and saved from the sands of time by "Laura Lee's Hippie Haven" which itself seems to have vanished into the sands of time.

Thanks, Laura, wherever you are!

There were all kinds of hippies. I was not a hardcore political type (I thought the Weathermen, etc. were totally nuts, and I would say that history has borne out that judgment). But neither was I an "Oh wow, man, like, peace.." sort of hippy. I was against the Vietnam war, but knew that the people serving in combat were not the problem ("there, but for fortune...").

...I guess that among the things I've preserved from those days are a sense of individual honor & fairness ("to live outside the law you must be honest"), a willingness to communicate with a wide variety of people rather than only with people like myself, and a feeling that it's better to delve into unpleasant truths than to hide from reality....

The 60s will always be my home, I think, and in that sense I'll always be sort of a refugee in time, but I didn't stop thinking new thoughts on 1/1/1970...

On the Sixties in General....

Overall, I have pretty mixed feelings about "The Sixties." For one thing I was sorta "little brother" age when the whole thing happened. So it's not like I went to Woodstock or joined the Weather Underground. In fact, as stated above, I thought the hardcore political types in those days were mostly opportunists, lunatics, horribly naive, or some combination of all three. To me, the most interesting thing about that time was the sense of possibility and community. Even though I was just a young teenager at the time, I was paying attention. There was a time when simply having long hair and wearing the right kind of clothes was an instant badge of acceptance -- or a reason for people to revile you. People came out of their shells, and I still like to do that as much as I can.

The Upside of Squareness

The Vietnam War was one thing -- I don't think there are many people around who still think that was a good idea — although it was far more popular at the time than the Iraq War is now. However, some of the other things that seemed like "the Enemy" back then, well now, I'm not so sure.

As much as I didn't care for the straight America of Reader's Digest and Lawrence Welk, now that they're not around and our popular culture has become such a sleazefest, I kinda miss 'em. Marie Osmond was not exactly my ideal, but she was definitely a few rungs above Paris Hilton.

During the years of maximum squareness, there was a lot of effort put into pushing what came to be called "middlebrow" culture. Playwrights were famous and married movie stars! When Ward sat down to enjoy the Saturday Evening Post, it might well feature the latest story by Hemingway.

Ok, Hemingway and the Post were both more critters of the 30s, 40s, and 50s than of the 60s, but my point is that back in the day the average Jane or Joe paying even a bit of attention managed to suck up some fairly decent and inspiring stuff along with the dreck.

It's true, Kerouac and Ginsberg had trouble getting published, but my grandparents, who were businesspeople from Moline, Illinois and avid Reader's Digest/Popular Science subscribers, also owned a hardback collection of Faulkner's stories, pretty well thumbed through (it's sitting on the shelf next to me as I write this).

In many ways, the America of the 50s and early 60s was oppressive. Certainly if you were Black or female or...

But it wasn't all bad. The upside of all that boredom and conventionality is that a lot of people got to lead fairly comfortable and secure lives -- the kind of comfortable and secure lives that only the affluent enjoy today. Yeah, that assembly line job might have been pretty awful, but you never worried about where the next check was coming from. As a result, you could get a little trailer and a boat and a cabin at the lake. And if they were so inclined, sending your kids to college was no big deal. It might be a budget "ouch" but not one of those things you had to save your whole life for.

America in those years was a country for ordinary people. You didn't have to be a senior partner at a law firm or a trust-fund baby to have a pretty decent life.

And the flip side of that for us hippies is that because the economy was good and the population was much smaller, it was much easier just to find places to hang out and explore — and fewer people to tell you you couldn't do it. Yes, kiddies, once there were no "big box" stores. Once there were apartments in Manhattan you could rent for $60/month (ok, actually, that was before my time and I hear they were pretty disgusting). I could give lots of "oh wow" examples of how much simpler and cheaper life was then, but here's a really stupid example. I used to read motorcycle mags when I was a kid. Used to think I wanted one of them murdercycles. I read a story in one of those mags about a long road trip. Guy was starting his trip in the city. What a drag to ride in city traffic, you know. So he bought a used VW bus for $200, put his bike in it, and when he got outside the city, took his bike out of the bus and pushed the bus into a pond!

Not exactly the sort of thing I'd give anyone a good citizenship award for, and absolutely absurd in the context of, say, a world where billions of people live on less than a dollar a day, but it gives you an idea of the abundance we all took for granted.

The hippies were not the first generation to discover the pleasures of dropping out for a while, but may be the last to enjoy it. When I look around me today, I feel kinda bad for people who are young now. Everything seems to hard, so expensive, choices seem so stark... And everything is so relentlessly commercialized. It's not that nothing was commercialized in the 60s, it's just that the intensity of it was so much lower.

Thayer Iacacci, a high-society gal who got caught up in it all, had similar thoughts recently about the difference between the 60s and today:

"Thereís a lot more pressure now. Itís hard to get jobs, even if you go to college, itís hard to make a living. Everythingís hard. Schools are awful, except the ones that cost $5 million a quarter."

Ay-yup, that's definitely a big part of it.

The Limits of Tolerance

The flip side of all the community spirit in the 60s was the "anything goes" attitude I ran into from time to time. A fair number of people who were dysfunctional, nuts, dishonest, and sometimes even evil were able to pass off their b.s. as "countercultural." I don't think that invalidates the good things that happened in the Sixties, but it certainly is a good lesson. The Sixties left me with a very great tolerance for all kinds of people, including very eccentric ones -- and no tolerance at all for malevolent people, scam artists, pyschic vampires, and nut cases.

Nostalgia and Bitterness

The New York Times' Holland Cotter says, in a May, 2007 essay that if you were there, it's almost impossible to talk about the Sixties without sounding either bitter or nostalgic. This is very very true. It was quite a time, even for those who, like me, experienced it as teenagers rather than young adults. He also advises that the best way for someone who wasn't there to comprehend at least a bit of what it was like is to listen to the music. I'd say that's very good advice. It won't give you the whole picture, but it's probably as good as you're gonna get. I would also highly recommend Jane & Michael Stern's "Sixties People," which I thought was a fair-minded and astute look at the various subcultures of the entire decade (including those that came before the counterculture).

Other Fun Links...

I'll try to add some from time to time....

And here's one from Time Magazine. A 1969 article on one of the more pathetic aspects of the period -- how easy it was for Nixon to mobilize well meaning (mostly) people to support his lies. "We support and respect the integrity of our elected leaders." Uh, why? It's tempting to point fingers at the hippies for being credulous enough to belived in (to quote Nick Lowe's song) peace love and understanding. But as loopy beliefs go, that hardly compares to believing in the ingegrity of Richard Nixon.

Last Updated November 23, 2007