Forever Young

This 1969 photo of the Claude Jones group won a national award for Washington Post photographer Steve Szabo.
This 1969 photo of the Claude Jones group won a national award for Washington Post photographer Steve Szabo.

Perhaps it’s the passing of Walter Cronkite, the last trustworthy newsman, who talked us through so many national dramas – the first steps on the moon, Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, Watergate – or maybe it’s that magic number – forty.  Forty years ago so many things seemed to take a sharp turn toward a brave new world.

For many of my generation, forty years ago this summer will always be remembered for the concert that changed everything. Before Woodstock happened, thousands of young people across the country were listening to a new kind of music, dreaming of peace and a future without discrimination of any kind. Many of us were new to discrimination as a firsthand experience. We came from middle-class  homes and had always operated under a banner of acceptance from the establishment. But then we grew our hair longer, and began to question government policies, and we dared to suggest that there could be a better way.

“Freak!” “Get a job!” “Get a haircut!”

Total strangers would slow down as they drove by to yell at us as we stood on the sidewalk. It was a kind of revelation. It seemed funny, and sad too, that people could get so worked up over some long hair and tie-dyed T-shirts. But, in 1969, such simple things were viewed as signs of moral decay, right up there with the easy availability of birth control and recreational drugs.

In 1969 I had already been labeled a hippie for some time, and I scorned the judgment of the straight people who tried to convince me I was headed down the wrong path. I thought I knew where I was going.

In the summer of 1969 many people I knew went to Woodstock. I didn’t. Didn’t want to. Have never regretted not going. But  I do appreciate what Woodstock did for the nation. For one thing it forced the whole country to recognize that those hippies might be crazy but they sure knew how to get along, and that’s more than you can say about a lot of people. And I was proud of the way my brothers and sisters managed to get through what was without a doubt a fantastic concert, but also a grueling physical ordeal, peacefully and even joyously.

But even though I wasn’t there, I consider myself a member of the Woodstock generation, and I respect how their shared experience has the elements of classic myth, where the hero/heroine goes on a journey and faces hardships and discovers wonders, and returns forever changed by the experience.

The reason I never missed Woodstock was a band called Claude Jones. Claude Jones began in the summer of 1968 in Washington, DC. My husband was the bass player in the power trio that got it started. As the band grew in size and following, it took on a life of its own which we called the Amoeba.

The Amoeba was my Woodstock. Only instead of three days, it lasted three years. The shadow and shine of that experience changed me fundamentally. Sure, some of it was carefree stoned fun. But a lot of it was an education in trust and hope and limits.

We were a communal group. It was a sort of family redefined as those who willingly joined to work for the good of the whole. Of course, human nature being the flawed thing that it is, such idealism may seem somewhat naive. But, if you can avoid the pitfalls of personality, you may be lucky enough to ascend to the next level where you feel truly connected, heart and soul, to a larger purpose. Kind of like religion but without the dreary dogma and threats of punishment.

Anyway. It was pretty darned great while it lasted. I don’t know if future generations will manage to override the seemingly unstoppable human drive to self-destruct. Maybe all this Twittering and internet jabbering will lead to a virtual Woodstockian harmony that will actually bring about the world peace all of us hippies never managed to secure.

But I like to think we got the ball rolling.

Finding My Nietzsche

I take comfort in geology.

It wasn’t a science in which I excelled. Let’s face it, there is no science in which I excel. However, among the handful of science-like subjects I studied in college, only geology spoke to me. And what it said was: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Actually, what it said was more like, “There’s no point in worrying about the future of mankind, Con, because in another million years or so humanity will be gone, the only evidence of its brief existence a slim stratum of compacted plastic and radioactive waste in the layer cake of geologic sediment.” Yum.

My geology professor said that humans were a “niche species,” likely only to be around for a million years or so, the blink of an eye, geologically speaking. In the 80’s, I found this idea strangely liberating. Back then there were plenty of experts predicting the end of life as we know it (though none of them seemed to see the internet coming, or reality TV, so, once again, we find that the world is full of experts, whose sound and fury don’t necessarily count for much). Yet in spite of the gloom sayers, the greater number of Americans were blithely consuming non-renewable resources as if they were serenely confident that, when the time comes that we actually do run out of petroleum, clean water, air, etc., there will be another planet coming on the market in our price range, fully furnished, with cable.

Yeah. The Reagan years. Good times for some.

But though I, too, am a hopelessly deluded escapist, even I know that a Battlestar Galactica finale isn’t likely.

Nope. I’m all about acceptance now. President Obama recently compared the task of trying to change the direction of the economy to trying to turn an ocean liner—a slightly more complex maneuver than reversing a rowboat. But, even if that were true, it’s impossible to turn anything around if the people holding the steering wheel won’t cooperate. And, in our current financial and social mess, an unholy alliance of corporate and congressional “experts” have driven our ship of state into pirate-infested waters and the prospects for a happy ending look slim.

I love humanity. Really. I’m just enough of a sap to feel a shiver of hope and courage whenever William Shatner, as Captain James T. Kirk of the original Star Trek, launches into one of his trademark, “what makes humans great is that they thrive on challenge” speeches. I believe it’s true often enough to make it worth holding onto—the idea that when the going gets tough, the tough get going and all. But, I also think that when the going gets tough, the tough damn well ought to lend a hand to the ones who aren’t quite tough enough to stand on their own yet.

There’s no doubt in my mind that when we put our minds to it we humans can accomplish great things. But unfortunately our best intentions don’t protect us from making catastrophic errors. Sure, we put a man on the moon. That was pretty neat. But meanwhile, back on Earth, in our efforts to “improve” the food supply, our corporate farming policies in the last forty years have driven almost all of America’s family farms off the land. And our new “improved” food supply hasn’t solved the problem of hunger in America, although it has led to making us more obese and increased the risk of food-borne diseases.

Still, I guess it doesn’t matter, since in the long run, geologically speaking, we may be on our last legs. I never studied Nietzsche in college, when the phrase “God is dead” got a lot of lip service. These days more people seem to be calling on the god or gods of their choice to help us find our way back to the glory days of peace and prosperity that some like to think of as America the Beautiful. I don’t know if God is dead, but He sure doesn’t seem to be returning His calls these days, so I think it might be up to us to sort this mess out ourselves.

Yeah. It looks pretty bad in places. But, you know, we humans, we do our best work when the stakes are high. Sure, one person alone can’t do it. But if we all push really, really hard, maybe we can turn this beast around and ride it into the sunset. Now that’s a finale William Shatner would pay to see.