From Star Route Journal, September 1988, photos and links added to blog. Photos are unidentified hippies, including myself, as they looked at the time this article was published, and later.
Gracefully Aging Hippies
by Jentri Anders
I saw it again today–a reference to that alleged ‘60s motto, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” and thought “oh, no, not again!” I was not in the room when Free Speech Movement activist Jack Weinberg said that, but I’ve seen film of him telling the story. Reporters, on instructions from their editors, no doubt, were trying to establish that the Free Speech Movement (December, 1964, Berkeley, California, for those too young to remember) was a Communist plot to spread disorder in the universities. Back in the days of in loco parentis, when college students were considered adolescents in need of stern guidance, it was reasonable to expect that the McCarthy-trained populace would be able to see the FSM as too well-organized to be the collective effort of college students. Some reporter asked Weinberg where the orders came from, or something like that, and he said, with an exasperated expression on his face, “Oh, come on, it’s a student movement; don’t you know we have a saying that we don’t trust anyone over thirty?”
Context is all, isn’t it? The joke was easily taken out of context and twisted to imply that student activists in the 1960s thought they would never grow old. If you accept the remark out of context you can then say, “Ha, ha, they’re over thirty now; the joke’s on them.” As an attempt to trivialize what was a major historic event, it has worked fairly well because it dovetails so neatly with the American attitude towards the aging process. Expanded to include the counter-cultural movement as well as student activism, this mindless version of Weinberg’s remark was much more a reflection of the American attitude that youth is better than “oldth” than it was of any attitude held by the activists or the hippies. The cruel joke is the way our society denigrates aging, not that what was called the “youth movement” matured.
Student politicos of my post-Beatnik, pre-hippie age group used to matronizingly call the hip baby boomers a few years younger than we “teeny-boppers” and, initially, “hippie” was more than a little derogatory. But, in my crowd at least, both words always had an affectionate connotation. There was a sort of back-door respect implied, a recognition that whether they understood their historical, political and philosophical context or not, and even if they affected an attitude of anti-intellectualism, they were expressing something valuable with their beads and fringes and feathers. Later, when the repression became unbearable, these nuances became irrelevant and we accepted the artifacts and the style in a spasm of anomie that made absurdity feel like preventive medicine.
Still later, it became clear that, insofar as any labels at all could be applied to that social phenomenon, it was the straight journalists and social scientists, hung up in their preoccupation with aging, who called it a “youth movement.” In practice, chronological age per se never had much to do with anything and there were “drop-outs” of all ages (Tim Leary, Ram Dass, John Lilly come to mind) as well as dropouts who felt themselves very much a part of a tradition of freethinking and tolerance that stretches back through the Beatniks to the turn-of-the-century European Left Bank Bohemians and beyond.
We may take heart in the thought that those worthies, who occupied the same social space now occupied by us dropouts, were in the course of time more or less accepted. The artistic productions of some of my deceased heroes and heroines now sell at high prices, bought by people who would have shunned them in the street when they were alive. I know of at least one ‘60s person who has always been proud to identify with the continuation of that tradition and I see her every morning in the mirror. When that ancient, pacifistic free-love advocate, Bertrand Russell, sent a telegram of congratulations to the Free Speech dissidents after their arrest, I received my 1/800th of the praise with satisfaction and vindication. I had been nearly expelled from high school for reading his “Marriage and Morals” behind my (ahem) Home Economics book in study hall. He was in his ‘80s at the time of the telegram—don’t you dare dismiss us as a flash-in-the-pan youth movement controlled by Communists!! And by twisting an off-hand joke made by a frustrated activist under fire. For shame!
The ‘nyah-nyah’ attitude which grabbed at the over thirty remark is the same one that inspires the sneering reference to “aging hippies” in periodicals like Time and Newsweek and which prompts San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen to refer to Garberville now and then as if it were some sort of quaint time warp. Again, the implication is that anyone who retains their personal integrity into middle age and resists the capitalistic pressure to constantly change their style (you consume more that way) is somehow a fool. Oh, they have gray hair, pot bellies and double chins now, yet see how they cling to the symbols of their wasted youth, never moving onward, never growing up. “Progress,” after all, to quote Ronnie (Reagan) in his Fifties incarnation, “is our most important product.” And here are all these people not progressing.
Or, supposing you did, in the natural process of maturation, revise or modify a few ideas, reinstate a few abandoned pieces of technology in the light of new evidence (telephones, computers). Well, that’s obviously an admission that everything you did before was wrong, is it not? Frustrating, isn’t it?
The personal experience of this particular aging hippie (45 and a half, which I report without the slightest compunction) has not included any major changes in the basic values I hammered out from my ‘60s experience after having chucked 80% of the ones I was raised with, and thank you very much Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells, Phil Wylie, Franz Kafka, Simone de Beauvoir and others for your help in this process. The 20% I retained, strangely enough, were the true Christian ones of pacifism, tolerance for diversity, and racial, sexual and economic equality. If you don’t believe me that those exist in Christianity, try reading only the words of Christ and forget the patriarchal revisions of Christianity that began with that misogynist, Paul the Apostle (St. Paul to Catholics), which have proliferated these last twenty centuries. (I owe Phillip Wylie bigtime for turning me on to THAT trick.)
So what is the reality for the aging hippie? Cling we blindly to the symbols of our youth? I’ve been asking around, looking around, here in the Land of Shum (S. Hum.), and I’m happy to report that whatever this is we’re doing, most of us are facing middle age every bit as gracefully and, I contend, more gracefully than our non-Shumian friends and relations. Descriptions in the S.F. Chronicle notwithstanding (a review of our “Jazz on the Lake” event in that paper referred to “pony-tailed doctors” and “tie-dyed lawyers,” a reference I imagine must have incensed some of our local professionals), I’ve noticed that some people I’ve known for fifteen years have sprouted gray in their beards, ponytails and braids. On the other hand, many of the beards, ponytails and braids of others have disappeared.
I see two explanations for this latter event. One is that a deeper, community-bred confidence in responsible social deviation has replaced the need for external statements in those for whom those hair arrangements were principally statements. The other is physiological. I cut my formerly waist length hair because my aging neck can no longer support the weight without pain. Also, it has a lot of significance as a sexual flag and my changing views of sex have rendered that particular message inappropriate.
As for beards, I have been pleasantly surprised in recent years to become acquainted with the lower half of so many masculine faces I had previously only known through the hairy mask. Forbidding-looking men turned out to have gentle humor lines around the mouth, hitherto unsuspected. Patriarchal elders became downright androgynous, and men I considered nondescript turned out to have been hiding handsome jawlines and sensuous lips all this time.
This is not to exclude a few Alfred E. Newman lookalikes who must have originally grown their beards in order to attain a dignity otherwise denied them. (How did shaving originate, anyway? I recently came across the idea that early men shaved their faces so as to more closely resemble the Goddess. I’m fond of that one.) I suspect that some latter day rearrangements of hair might have been inspired by a desire on the part of observant residents to distance themselves from the in-migration of non-resident growers wearing camouflage clothes who grew their beards to blend in more easily with the back-to-land hippie population.
So much for superficials. What about the deeper maturation changes? One of the more interesting aspects of our local culture is that individuals are not required to be particularly consistent. Sudden about-faces are usually tolerated, even expected, and likely to be interpreted as spiritual growing pains. The fluctuations accompanying the natural growth stage known as the “mid-life crisis” needn’t be so sudden and dramatic here as they are elsewhere because they have, like earthquakes, had their force reduced by many smaller shifts preceding them. The more elastic one has been so far, the less shattering need be the changes that hit at mid-life. Perhaps only the individual knows whether the latest change is a crisis motivated by the realization that half of one’s life is over or whether it represents an attempt to address the great question of what to do with the second half. At any rate, I see my contemporaries taking up scholarly studies abandoned twenty years ago and with a much clearer focus now, or becoming politically active after twenty years of hermitism or cynicism (Vietnam vets!), or becoming hermits after years of frustrating activism. A wave of secular agnostics my age have recently formed new religious groups or joined existing groups who can tolerate their spiritual eclecticism. They include Quakers, Jews, Fundamentalists and Presbyterians. Former Krishnamurti non-followers (you can’t be a Krishnamurti follower since the major tenet of his philosophy is don’t follow anybody) now wear pictures of gurus around their necks, and women my age who used to walk three feet behind their men carrying the children and the packages, have recently discovered feminism and/or political Lesbianism. If there is a point to these ruminations, it becomes more obscure the more directly I look at it. I’m not worried that this is a symptom of senility, however, since astronomers and optometrists can attest to the value of peripheral vision. Perhaps this is a plea for tolerance on the part of those spiritual seekers younger than I who have been lately tormenting me with pop psychology. This is not ageism. It is an acknowledgement that our society is so fast-changing that five years difference in age can mean a cultural difference so great that it invites ethnocentrism. Translation: you share a lot with people who are the same age at the same time.
Former teeny-boppers, I love you, but hear me. I know I look negative to people who can’t clearly remember the Vietnam conflict. I know you think that my memories of the Sixties have trapped me into being the perpetual victim. My Goddess, I even had a cute late-twenties masseur trying to convince me that I, too, could be rich if only I could rid myself of that old sixties belief that rich people are evil. (Where have all the Marxists gone, long time passing?) Please don’t try to sell me a $400 “Life-Spring” course in the city, even if you think it worked for you. I’m too old to be a yuppie. Just let me flounder along trying to sort it all out in a manner consistent with my historical period. I’m sure my slightly older, Beatnik-era friend is correct when he says, “Wait five years. It gets better.”