Wednesday, January 14, 2009

November 2008: Was it the Weirdest of Times?

My good friend and best man, Jack Hachigian, was visiting a few weeks ago. He and his wife Niky were visiting to attend the Michigan State vs. Northwestern football game. We have a lovely time catching up with old friends, the weather was great, and the Spartans were victorious.

During the weekend, we talked a lot about this and that: the then upcoming presidential elections, college football, and reminiscing about the days of our youth. While talking about our adolescent years, Jack said “I will always remember what you told me once.”

I am not sure how often I hear friends tell me this. I have no clue if I hear this more or less than others, but it always piques my interest for two reasons. First, it is most flattering to hear that I have said things people will always remember. Second, and this is true in each and every case, I wonder “What the hell did I say?”

What I had told Jack was that “We grew up in a very weird time.” I did recall saying that and believe it to be true. We came of age in the late sixties and early seventies. To me, increasingly so with each passing year, it was a very weird time.

I am not sure if any time was good or bad, weird or not, to grow up in. Were the 1930s any better? They were overwhelmed with the great depression. How about the 1940s? World War II certainly dominated the first half of that decade. While there was the Korean War, the 1950s were certainly a period of growth and prosperity in the US lasting until the mid-1960s when the turning point was somewhere between the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, the heating up of the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968.

My parents’ generation was in grade school during the great depression. They were in middle school during the trying times of World War II experiencing rationing and seeing their mothers joining the workforce for the first time ever to support the wartime production of munitions and supplies. By the time they were in high school, the war was over and they were beginning their adult lives as the US entered a great period of prosperity.

The 1950s were not all peaches and cream. Beyond the aforementioned Korean War, there was nuclear proliferation and the development of the hydrogen bomb. The Cold War, the Iron Curtain and the Red Scare were realities of the era that clouded the decade with an underlining fear and paranoia that spawned what I have seen called “the American Inquisition” of McCarthyism.

Why do I think our time was so weird? Certainly it was a time of a lot of change. We were in an unpopular war, we had this thing called The Generation Gap, recreational and mind expanding drugs entered the mainstream, censorship in films vanished, and then there was that odd concept called Free Love. A lot was piled into a short period of time, it was tumultuous. It was a period of desperation filled with hope. Maybe is it was a period of great hope sprinkled with desperation. It was a time of dichotomies. And then… we had to get jobs, work, and be adults. It really seemed to be a transitional era. We were the transitional generation and, oh yeah, the Pepsi Generation at the same time.

In trying to make sense of my adolescence, I have tried to think about what the main drivers were for the abovementioned changes. What are the underlying factors?

The first thing that comes to my mind is drugs. By drugs, I mean both the getting high kind and pharmaceuticals. Penicillin was created in the 1920s and mass produced in the 1940s. Stronger and better antibiotics were developed and marketed making such life threatening diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis practically eradicated. By the time my generation baby boomed into the world, there were vaccines, first for polio and then quickly for other childhood diseases such as rubella, measles, mumps, and whooping cough.

Mine was a generation, the first, to be freed of childhood illnesses that could cripple and kill. We were decades away from realizing we were breeding antibiotic resistant bacteria. It is not too far out of the realm of possibility that we may have a flu or plague like pandemic of drug resistant bugs that could kill millions. Even today, we are only speculating on the side effects of immunizations. What is their role, if any, in the spike in both severe allergies and autism.

A major breakthrough came in the early 1960s with the introduction of what simply became known as The Pill. The Pill was perhaps the first of a plethora of what are now called lifestyle drugs. The Pill was the oral contraceptive composed of synthetic hormones that fooled the female body into thinking it was pregnant and thus suppressing the production and release of eggs. Thus, a women taking The Pill would not get pregnant. For the first time in history, women could engage in sexual relations without fear of becoming pregnant. Women in this sense were liberated… until the really scary side effects of became known and widely publicized.

There was truly a “Better Living Through Chemistry” feel in the nation. This phrase was a variant of the DuPont company slogan that became a tongue and cheek mantra of the generation of which I am writing. Not only did we take advantage of the marvels of modern science for physical health, there was a large segment of the population that used drugs both natural and pharmaceuticals to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” and “think for yourself and question authority” per Timothy Leary.

People did just that. They used natural opiates and hallucinogens such as marijuana, hashish, opium, cocaine, psilocybin, and peyote to alter their consciousnesses and see things in a different light, from a different point of view. Many did exactly what Timothy Leary prescribed.

I first heard of Dr. Andrew Weil back in 1972 when he authored a book entitled The Natural Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher Consciousness. He was advocating drugs as one path to a higher consciousness but natural drugs like psilocybin and peyote versus their laboratory equivalents such as LSD and mescaline. He theorized that in their natural forms the drugs are better tolerated than the refined versions. In retrospect, he was using a precursor to simple carbs are bad and complex carbs are good argument. I read the book, understood what he was saying. I had never used a hallucinogen and did not experiment with any after reading his book. I felt enlightened enough already. My consciousness was sufficiently altered.

That era was also a time of liberation movements. There was the Civil Rights Movement followed quickly by the Migrant Workers Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and Gay Rights. While it might be a debatable point today, this country was run by white males back then. These other segments of society were most definitely second class citizens. Winning World War II and the subsequent global pre-eminence of the United States business, military, and culture led us all to believe in the superiority of our democracy and the way we governed ourselves. The words “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were taken ever more seriously… by every segment of society. Everyone wanted a piece of the American Dream. Everyone felt like they deserved it. No one wanted to wait any longer.

Television contributed to this. Ours was the first generation to grow-up with television. From Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo to The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. We are a generation of unique independent individualists all fed the exact same pabulum of the 1950s and 1960s American Dream. Beyond this, we also watched the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald real time. We had front row seats to what Michael Arlen Jr. called the Living Room War: The Vietnam War.

Television, in my view did two things to contribute to the attitudes of my generation during those times. First, idyllic lifestyles were beamed into every house every day. I referred to Leave it to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show… nice houses, upper middle class… life was good. All of a sudden, people could easily see that their lives did not measure up and they wanted a piece of it. It was no longer an abstraction of haves and have nots. People were impressed, surprised, with just how many “haves” there were in this country. It was beamed in front of your face, every day, in living color. There was an attitude of I want it and I want it now that fed into the revolutionary mindset of the times.

The second major influence of television was that in every major drama problems were solved in less than an hour including commercial breaks. There was nothing that couldn’t be solved quickly. Some of the bigger problems, like world hunger, plagues, nuclear terrorism or earth destroying asteroids, required an hour and half maybe two hence requiring the length of a feature film to solve.

The point is that we were geared to want quick answers and quick solutions with minimum sacrifice. After all, how much do you really have to sacrifice in an hour to solve to resolve a major crisis or solve a major problem? Sure, you might have to walk 200 miles across a burning desert. But what does that take 5-6 minutes tops? This social impatience evolved to the instant gratification of the 1980s and 1990s. We want it, we want it all, and we want it right now.

There are many reasons for the generation gap. This attitude of wanting change and wanting it now was a contributor. Drug use, long hair, loud outrageous rock music, and dressing certainly widened the chasm. Our parents had experienced the depression and World War II. They knew you had to hunker down, work hard, and endure hardships and then maybe, with the grace of God, your dreams might come to fruition. You had to pay dues. You had to earn your dreams. “Hell with that,” we said. We want it and we want it now. These two mindsets were doomed to clash and create a generation gap.

“Hell with that” turned into “Hell no, we won’t go” the chant my generation used to protest the Vietnam War. The older generation was used to supporting the government and the troops no matter what. There was simply no questioning. In World War II, we were good, the Axis powers were evil. We had a job to do, and we did it. We were in the right. We were noble. They were WWII and Korean veterans. They did their duty and expected the youth, their children, to do the same. No no, Uh-uh… Nay nay…

There was another reason we were able to be so independent, so free, and so “revolutionary.” Looking back now, this might have been the important reason of all: the economy was amazingly strong. You just needed to graduate from college, not get drafted, and you could get a job. The American Dream for many was on autopilot. As hard as that is to do today, it was just that easy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As soon as the economy and jobs tightened up with oil crisis of 1973, the movement began to erode. It became more important to do well in school in order to get a job. It became more important to do well on the job in order to keep your position and advance. The party slowly ended.

I saw cracks in the wall of the Utopia we thought we were creating. When I went to the University of Michigan, as a freshman, I saw things that made me truly question the whole movement. Everyone, well 99.9% of the students wore blue jeans. Not only blue jeans but Levis. Hell no… we won’t conform. We all adopted the same damned look, in the name of freedom, non-conformity, and liberation. I will be different by, uh, looking like everyone else. It is pretty comical when you look back on it and it is more amusing with each passing year. But, to us back then, it was important stuff.

Back in college, I saw students who were wearing jeans but had really expensive and very fashionable boots. It just didn’t go. Lots of people were wearing army field jackets or shirts but one fellow donned a red ringmaster jacket complete with tails and gold braiding. He was a charismatic guy but revealed too much of his need to lead, need for attention ego with that outfit.
We used to fight with our parents about getting haircuts. The more they insisted, the more defiant we were. In the early 1990’s, I recall that my cousin’s son wanted to get a buzz cut. My cousin, his mother, would not let him. She didn’t allow it. I remember thinking, “Oh my, we have come full circle.” But even that was a humorous exchange and had none of the drama such altercations in our era would have had.

What began as liberation and personal growth, peace and freedom, flower power turned to something else. Drug use morphed from turning on, tuning in, and dropping out to more and more simply “getting wasted.” Jeans were still the fashion but the fashion industry adapted and began capitalizing on the look. I recall the emergence of and rage around Jordache as a chic and trendy take on jeans. Jeans became part of fashion and no longer an icon of the counterculture. For some reason, I was truly offended when “they” started marketing pre-faded jeans.

Rock and Roll the soundtrack of our generation became more about Alice Cooper and Kiss donning gothic make-up and doing outrageous things on stage. I never saw the point in biting the head off of a bat in front of thousands of “totally wasted” fans. In fact, it was about this time I turned from pop music to a full time devotion to Armenian and Turkish music. The clear defining point for me was watching an Elton John performance on TV where he was playing a piano while he and the piano was suspended above the stage and actually rotated and flipped. I knew then and there that something had fundamentally changed. The era whatever it was had ended.

I will still listen to the music of that time and think back. I listen, occasionally to Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane. But moreso, I listen to Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. They provide a smoother path to the past.

As one segment of the youth turned down the path of progressively getting more and more wasted, another wanted to get more dressed up, dance, and have a good time. Saturday Night Live and Disco was their answer: Polyester, wide lapels, dance moves, and dance floors that lit up. The times had certainly changed.

I was pleased, delighted, that my children had a more sane time traversing adolescence. Sure, we had the normal and expected stresses as young adults want more autonomy and parents are not quite ready to give it up. But, it was not all knotted up with major social and lifestyle changes as it was back in our day.

I was right in what I said to Jack. It was a weird time. But, for better or worse, it was my time, it was our time, the time of my generation.

My Generation

People try to put us d-down (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Just because we get around (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

This is my generation
This is my generation, baby

Why don't you all f-fade away (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
And don't try to dig what we all s-s-say (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I'm not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I'm just talkin' 'bout my g-g-g-generation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

This is my generation
This is my generation, baby
- The Who

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road isRapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn

The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.
- Bob Dylan

1 comment:

  1. I recently came across your thoughtful blog.

    Hatchoghoutioun in 2009!