15 January 2008

Peace, Man

I don't know if all Christian churches do this, but quite a few do: at one point during the Mass/services, everything stops for a minute while members of the congregation exchange handshakes and say "Peace be with you" or just "Peace" to each other.

Having been raised in a very old-fashioned Catholic church which of course didn't have any truck with that kind of Protestant nonsense, I was surprised to see that the handshake/sign of peace had become a standard part of the liturgy during my approximately 40 year hiatus from religion. At first I found it a little off-putting - I mean, unless you're a politician, who wants to shake hands with a bunch of strangers, right? - but I've adjusted, and have even begun to tolerate - if only just - prayers said in English instead of Latin.

The other day I was attending Mass for the first time in a while - I trust my new improved God is not going to send me to Hell for that, but I suppose one can never be too careful - and during the sign of peace, I noticed a slightly grizzled gentleman several rows ahead of me turn around and wave the old two-fingered hippie peace sign at those around him. Allergic as I tend to be to almost any residue of the 60s, my normal reaction would have been to think something uncharitable about the old coot, but being in an especially good mood today, I instead reminded myself that the old coot was very possibly younger than me and that regardless of his choice of symbols, his heart was obviously in the right place.

I was never a big fan of the V-for-peace thing, it's true. The first time I saw it being used was at the October 1967 antiwar march in Washington, the one where the hippies promised they were going to levitate the Pentagon. Being as high on drugs as I typically was during those days, I never did notice if the building had left the ground, but I did have my first experience - to be repeated many, many times - of being tear-gassed and - hopefully not to be repeated - being charged by troops with fixed bayonets.

After we'd been pushed back to a perimeter deemed acceptable by the military, bonfires sprung up at various points across the Pentagon lawn and protesters huddled around them against the autumn chill. I was thinking that the overall spectacle reminded me of a movie I'd seen as a kid about the Sons of Liberty and the American Revolution when I noticed people flashing the V sign back and forth from bonfire to bonfire.

I assumed they were reviving Winston Churchill's V-for-victory sign from the Second World War, and that this meant we had stopped demanding merely an end to the Vietnam War and were now in the throes of a full-fledged revolution. As I noted earlier, the drugs I was on - possibly an acid-and-Robitussin combo could have contributed to this perception, but it wasn't too many months later that everyone - well, everyone with long hair and on the same kind of drugs as me - was talking about a revolution. By 1968 or 69, when it had become common for hippies to flash the V-sign whenever they met, my gang started saluting back with the raised fist of the Black Panthers to show our contempt for namby-pamby "peace" activists.

A couple more years and the V had become completely institutionalized and co-opted, appearing in ads selling everything from waterbeds to "groovy" bank accounts. It was so ubiquitous that I couldn't even bother to be annoyed by it anymore, and eventually no one but the most diehard hippies and the most desperately ironic hipsters used it at all.

Which brings me back to what was presumably the diehard hippie in church today, which in turn got me pondering how I, who was once as obnoxious a flower child as any spawned by that obnoxious era, had come to feel so far removed from even the faintest vestiges of hippiedom. After all, the man flashing the V-sign could have been one of my comrades in the old days. We could have boogied side-by-side at the Fillmore or marched together through the streets chanting "Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

So why do I think of him as practically an alien presence in my world (not in a bad sense, more in the "Oh, look, those people are from Uzbekistan; I've never met anyone from Uzbekistan, have you?" sense)? Or, maybe more to the point, how did I myself become so alienated from my generation and my (counter)culture?

But never mind - water under the bridge and all that - what I'm really wondering is what if anything of the 60s has survived in me? I've read enough statements from members of The Most Annoying Generation to the effect that "the 60s changed everything" or that "the world would never be the same again," and the massive egocentricity of baby boomers notwithstanding, there's got to be some truth to that. There's no doubt that the world I'm living in today is dramatically different from the one I grew up during the 1950s, and I have to believe at least some of that dramatic change resides in me personally.

I'd often prefer that weren't the case, however, especially when I hear the self-serving and self-satisfied encomiums to "the spirit of the 60s" constantly being served up by my fellow boomers. In the Jerry Garcia book I mentioned a week or so ago, members of the Grateful Dead camp sing praises to the spirit of liberation that permeated their culture and their music during that time, making it sound as though the proliferation of LSD and psychedelic music had ushered in a new Garden of Eden, and that if it hadn't been for the occasional interference of "the man" and his annoying drug laws, we all would have lived happily ever after.

Only trouble is, half the people making these sunny predictions are dead, and quite a more not much better than zombies, in large part due to the drug use that was supposed to set us free. "The man" had nothing to do with it; most of these casualties were self-inflicted.

Listen to Garcia himself (to be perfectly accurate, not a boomer himself; he was born in the middle of the war) on the subject of Janis Joplin's death at age 27: "It was just an accident, a dumb fucking accident. Accidents happen to everybody - driving a car or walking down a flight of stairs."

Well, yeah, Jer, but that presupposes that "everybody" is taking potentially lethal drugs as a matter of course, that injecting heroin is as normal an activity as driving a car or walking down a flight of stairs. Which in the realms of hippie rock stars may not be that far from reality, but wouldn't you have to be pretty addled to suppose a new and better world is going to be constructed by an army of half-dead junkies with needles dangling from their veins?

But rant as I may, I myself delved too deeply into the hippie drug culture (minus the needles and heroin but including almost everything else) to have been left unscathed. At 20 I deeply, earnestly believed that I and my LSD-taking buddies were far more equipped to run the world than the businessmen and politicians then in charge. I suppose some of this had as much to do with being 20 as with any great social movement, but also, there were so many of us: the largest population bulge in history, and a significant number of us were on drugs that made a mockery of "reality." Megalomania was an almost inevitable side-effect.

So I still seem to be dancing around the question, maybe because I don't know the answer. Whether I like it or not, the 60s were such a major part of my life that I undoubtedly carry part of their legacy with me, but what exactly that legacy is, I'm not sure I can say. I don't go flashing peace signs at people, and in fact will reluctantly support war or military action if it seems like the least bad way of resolving a situation, yet I still fervently wish and hope for peace. Some of the tactics and aspirations of the 1960s civil rights movement now seem counterproductive and self-defeating, but I still passionately support equality of opportunity for all.

I guess what remains most from the 60s is the spirit of questioning and, to a lesser extent, confrontation. I'm a pretty law-abiding citizen these days, and have been for quite a while, but if I think the President or the Pope is talking nonsense, I'm far more ready to say so than the average Joe would have been in the 1950s. And along with that comes a readiness to question anything and everything, including the leftist orthodoxy that prevails among most of my friends and contemporaries.

But is that really a legacy of the 60s? I was already driving myself crazy with questions - especially of the religious and philosophical variety - by the time I was in first or second grade, i.e., in the early to mid-50s. The 60s happened when a bunch of us thinking along similar lines were old enough to leave home and start meeting up with each other.

So I'm back to "I don't know," and for now I'll write off the 60s as one more of those youthful adventures that I'm kind of glad I had but would never in a million years want to do again. Like spending time in jail, hopping freight trains, visiting East Berlin, or tripping on acid and cough medicine. Did I learn anything? Well, finding out all the things that you don't want to do with the rest of your life is at least a start.


amy said...

I don't know what to tell you on all the hippie shit. As far as the greeting during mass goes, I didn't realize it was ever not a normal part. I don't remember what exactly Father Alex had us all say to each other but there was always a point when we all had to turn to each other and shake hands and smile and stuff. I didn't spend a whole lot of years being Catholic but apparently I never went to a proper Catholic church. I've only heard Latin used once and I was so young I thought he was just speaking English words I hadn't learned yet.

Kelly Lynn said...

I only read the first paragraph of this post, but Larry, we Catholics raised AFTER Vatican II have always had this "peace be with you" part of the mass. Embrace change, or I will steal your bike.