Andersen: Confessions of an old hippie
Last summer, I moderated a seminar series at the Aspen Institute for a group of international high school students. By way of introduction, I described myself, at their tender age, as a “hippie.” They looked at me quizzically.
I’m not the hippie I used to be. My freak flag has long ago flown. But that doesn’t mean I have lost faith in the ideals of the failed cultural revolution during which I came of age.
Those days of youthful idealism were rife with protests against war, police brutality, discrimination, environmental calamities, homophobia, gender inequality, materialism, overconsumption, etc. Not too different from today.
Maybe it was being young that made it feel so vital to take a stand against the man, the machine, the establishment and the system. Ironically, they all still exist, owned and run by folks my age who once claimed to be hippies.
Hippies projected a cool demeanor, and they could rally at the drop of a bandanna. Hippies demonstrated on everything from the extinction of eagles to support for the “ban the bra” movement. Protest was popular and fun.
Hippies grooved on an outrageous music scene charged with high decibels of sexual energy. Rock ’n’ roll was an aphrodisiac when combined with female fashions like halter tops, short shorts, miniskirts and long, straight hair. Hippie chicks were nice girls you could fall in love with in a minute.
Hippies gyrated to rock bands in midsummer heat on crowded floors or on muddy farm fields where bodies glistened and the air was pungent with transcendence. Free love before STD-phobia was an erotic act of civil disobedience.
But it had to end, and the beginning of the end came with flared pants and corporate sideburns. When flares went mainstream, they diluted the movement by negating the radical dress that had made radicalism so fashionably popular.
The revolution was televised, and that’s what stopped the war in Vietnam — home movies of our kids getting slaughtered. The flip side was TV as a commercial medium whose producers commercialized the hippie vibe, pandering to the fashions it spawned, inviting everyone to be as cool and youthful as the kids with long hair, beads and bell-bottoms.
When Bill Clinton and Al Gore took the White House to the theme “Don’t Stop Thinkin’ About Tomorrow,” by Fleetwood Mac, they never stopped thinking about it, even at the expense of forgetting about yesterday, which the Beatles kept current: “Yesterday / Love was such an easy game to play.”
Gradually and inevitably, my generation inherited and bought into the system handed down by our parents. It was difficult not to be seduced by material wealth, appeased by fancy cars and big houses, corrupted by fast money and subprime mortgages, cowed by fears of aging and mortality.
Those who complied were handsomely rewarded by the commercial culture that produced the goods and services everyone wanted. Materialism overshadowed free love, equal rights under the law, shared economic opportunities — all the values the hippie era personified and which Bernie Sanders has rekindled today into a new revolution.
My generation retreated from the moral higher ground, acquiesced to the tried and true of self-aggrandizement and fetish navel-gazing. We cut our hair, shaved our beards, changed into flares, got “real” jobs and joined the establishment — all without a complaint.
Now we’re retired, on Medicare, mostly overweight, with heart conditions and erectile dysfunction, looking for trained caregivers who give a damn. Finding none, we look forward to industrial nursing homes equipped with giant plasma screens and DVDs of Woodstock and “Yellow Submarine” where we can stare and drool and picture ourselves as young, hip and worthy.
If we pause for self-judgment, which we resist like hell, we see an old person staring back in the mirror wondering why we’re not treated better, only to realize that a lot of us didn’t treat the world very kindly, either. Or at least not for long.
We had our kicks and enjoyed our ride, and now the roller coaster is clicking back into the starting point. We feel dizzy and a little nauseated but still pump our fists at what a thrill it was.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays when he’s not patching an old pair of Levi’s bell-bottoms. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.