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Remembrances & Lessons: In Search of 1968 @ 68, and where do we go from here?

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Party at Berkeley, 1971

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Same guys 2016

We don’t notice it  at the time, but time passes…quickly.  The above photos from college days and retirement days reflect the essence of each man and the nature of life:  We age.  For me it is a summing up time and a time to make an offering to my peers and younger generations.  We Boomers had a wild ride from our typically youthful idealism to the undeniable failures to achieve them.  That’s life, but ours was an unusually emphatic generation.  Propelled by resistance to  the  horror of Vietnam and political assassinations to demand change, we’re leaving the millennials quite a mess.  The environment is much worse, social/ ethnic relations are more polarized, and income-equality is more extreme  than in the Gilded Age.  What did we achieve with our fervent idealism?  I think  about that a lot these days.

It haunts me as I attempt to make sense of my fifty years of adulthood.  When I write about the old days, I often think of the seminal movie Easy Rider which is an accurate mark of the Sixties culture.  At the end of the movie after the cross-country odyssey sitting around a campfire, Captain America (Peter Fonda) says to Billy (Dennis Hopper), “We blew it.”  ‘Why’ is left hanging.  Perhaps he was prescient in assessing what would come out of all that youthful idealism.

Most of us tempered our ideals or put them in a locked closet and then engaged the world of responsibility and pragmatism. But for many Boomers that time of hyper-adulthood is ending.  The Baby Boomer generation is now retiring or at least at that age.  Many are disoriented by retirement, as I was, and need some direction.  For my own resolution and to assist others, I wrote a book on re-invention for Boomers. Not a how-to book with five-step plans or a collection of success stories, but a memoir of my journey of discovery, inner and outer.

Writing in installments, I compiled my insights and stories into Living the Dream Deferred:  A Boomer’s Reflections, Reconnaissance, and Redemption on the Road to Reinvention.  Each essay shares my personal lessons from real world experiences.  Along the way, I visited Venice, CA, Sayulita, Mexico, Santa Fe, New Mexico and many other places and found my process of renewal, after career.   But these are not just travel stories; I examined different theories on reinvention and successful exemplars of living well later in life.  Each essay ends with a two-step process, inner and outer, to fuel the reader’s own renewal.  By the time I published and promoted the book, I had fully embraced my transformation in ‘retirement.’

After that odyssey, I wanted it to be a legacy, not my name on a scholarship or a building, but a chronicle of life lessons through the my generation’s story:  The highs and lows of our youth, what became of them, and how they apply today.  I’m now on a quest for the famous and not so famous counter-cultural history of LA, the USA, and beyond.   Expanding on the first book’s theme of learning and renewing in ‘retirement,’ my new memoir presents and evaluates the stories, places, and ideals of the Boomer generation—What did we do, what was the impact, and what can we learn from the youth-quake of fifty years ago?

Looking at nine general themes, from anti-war politics to hippie communes,  I go to places that contributed to the era’s ideals.  As a start, I’ve visited Elysium Fields, a clothing-optional human potential center in Topanga, CA, to Venice West, the historical beatnik/ poetry coffee house in LA, and the original love-in at LA’s Griffith Park.  And most recently, the hippie-trail of Central  America.

Not nostalgia, not just golden oldies, remembrance is an attitude of respect for past events and how they inform the present.  The idea is to re-member, that is put back together the pieces into a whole.  As the quotation says, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.  The Sixties had a lasting impact on our world, not all of it positive, but the hopeful ideals of the first mass counterculture offer a guide to working through the divisive tribalism that plagues us today.

What can we learn from that era? What can we revive?  What should be avoided? Looking back on that time with sentimentality feels good, but there is more.  At the 2017  fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Griffith Park love-ins, I interviewed  attendees who waxed euphoric about that bygone era like a misty-eyed veteran who remembers his days in World War II.  Unfortunately, hindsight is NOT 20/ 20.  Too often, truth is submerged in conflated memories seen through rose-colored lenses, my mission is to clear the mind weeds.  At the same event, I interviewed several young people who heard about the event as a Sixties revival and they loved it. Ideals of peace, community, sharing, and non-corporate fun resonated with them.  They wanted more of it.

In this pivotal transitional period of our history, Sixties ideals are still valid. As Johnny Echols guitarist of the seminal interracial LA rock group, Love, said to me at the 2017 love-in, “We’ve gone backwards, sadly.”  In this era of tribal conflicts, massive economic injustice, and environmental devastation, it behooves us to awaken the long dormant values of  freedom, community, creativity, and justice.

The Sixties were not an accident of history, but an expression of humanity’s striving for hope and possibility.  Join me in a campaign of hippie redemption.  We can stop the current  backsliding by taking steps forward.  We hippie veterans and younger fellow-travelers need to work together for the healing of society and our planet.  As John Lennon said in 1970, “Let’s Come Together.”

An invitation:  Anyone out there who has an inquiring mind and wants me to investigate some place or story that fits broadly into the above format, please contact me. I’m really excited about local stories of peace, love, and freedom.  In return I’ll gift a free copy of my book, Living the Dream Deferred.  I’m looking forward to connecting with the cultural roots of our city, state, nation, and world.  Peace, freedom, and love.

 

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Belize: Paradise Found and Lost

 

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RW used the backdoor in 2015, Placencia

“Ciao bella.” Not my most original pick-up line, but I figured my American accent would give me an edge on this off-the-cruise ship route island just off the coast from Mexican mega-resort, Cancun. Mesmerized by her long, curly black hair and the signs of hippie-ness (beaded and macramed necklace and bracelet, hairy underarms, and hoop earrings), I had stared at her lounging with two friends on the beach for an hour.  I overheard them speaking Italian and considered this a good omen, since Italian is one of the three languages I mangle on my foreign trips.

She smiled and said, “Grazie” and I tapped my limited Italian vocabulary. “Come ti chiama?” Dusky eyes stared at me for a long 30 seconds and laughed, “Daniela. E tu?” And so began my first Belize adventure and a transcontinental, summer romance. The magic was on; me on the rebound from a devastating break-up and she a free spirit wandering through Central America on the ‘hippie trail.’ Although from different countries, culturally we matched; both members of a distinct cohort of that era; disappointed political and cultural radicals, or as she said, i frustrati (the frustrated ones).

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RW & the royal treatment, Isla Mujeres—1979

Belize is a Central American country bordered by Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea. As the only English-speaking country in the area, it attracts a lot of American expatriates due to pensioner attractive laws such as tax-exemption. To encourage development and avoid the occasional hurricane, the capital Belmopan was established in the interior in 1970, but the major city is Belize City. Once a ramshackle, dangerous, and tourist-free backwater, and now on the cruise ship circuit, Belize City offers a typical Caribbean port experience complete with horse-drawn carriages tours of sanitized tourist attractions.

Those with a more adventurous bent (or not as we’ll see) head for the outlying cayes or islands on the barrier reef a dozen miles off-shore, to Placencia Peninsula in the south, or to San Ignacio near the Guatemala border. Placencia had been on my short list to explore for years, so in 2015 when an ex-girlfriend said she needed a getaway, I suggested Belize (which I had first visited in 1979), which offered beach-chilling, caving, and Mayan ruins. I didn’t plan to visit Caye Caulker.

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Classic tropical resort vibe in Placencia, 2015

As we swooped down to the landing field/ pasture outside Placencia, in a six-seater prop plane with my 1970s soulmate Lynn (not her real name) and now fellow sixty-something retiree, my mind flashed back to that first trip to Belize over thirty years before and the jaw-dropping beautiful Italian girl on the beach. I had traveled to Mexico with a couple of guy friends, heart-broken from ten months of emotional roller-coaster break-up with the same woman sitting next to me on the prop plane.
Delia and I met on Isla Mujeres, Mexico a couple days before my flight home to my job as an inspector with the United States Immigration Service. We squeezed a lot of fun into those two days; discovered a secret, isolated beach and rolled in the pebbly sand (not like California sand, it is crushed coral), drank margaritas at the beach bar, and discussed the future of former radical youth like us. I fell in love. She and her two friends, another single woman and their older, male friend (who served as the two girls’ porter in exchange for the privilege of traveling with two attractive women) were leaving the same day as me, but they were headed overland to Belize.
Infatuated with Delia, I woke up at the hotel in Cancun and totally out of character, I cabled my job at LAX that I’d missed my flight and would return in one week. I raced down to surprise my new love arriving on the ferry from Isla Mujeres. She cried in surprise and joy.

 

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Transport to Caye Caulker in the hippie  days

 

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5x per day ferry to Caye Caulker, 2015

I joined their trek and off we went to Belize. My rudimentary Italian provided less than first grade communication, but the language of love sufficed most of our week together. I served as the Caribbean-English interpreter in on the hippie trail to our destination—Caye Caulker. As young, ex-hippie/ radicals, we traveled on the cheap. When we couldn’t get a bus or taxi, we hitch-hiked.  Imagine two young white women with their thumbs out, with two scrawny guys lurking with the backpacks in a culvert. But somehow we got to Orange Walk town and my first experience of Caribbean local-style accommodations—bare planks semi-separated ‘rooms’ where one bare bulb flickered off and on and the bathroom was an outhouse. After the sun sets, then the mosquito coils came out. I later learned that faint incense-like smoke was toxic.

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Only accommodations back in the day, dinner prix fixe but only lobster, Caye Caulker

In those days, Caye Caulker was the archetypal, untouched tropical island. The only way to get there was by hiring a motorboat, which dropped you at the wooden pier. Our party doubled the number of travelers on the island, and this was the summer season, With only three choices for accommodation in those days: four luxurious, new, and empty condos, and two rooming houses, neither of which had A/C or window screens. We got a couple rooms that faced the wooden pier with the outhouse perched at the end. A couple of local women served meals on order: You would place an order at noon for dinner. Every meal included some form of fresh lobster. Entertainment was limited in those days on Caye Caulker. We couldn’t even find a rum shop.  In the evening, the locals walked around the square and ate ice cream. We enjoyed a few bliss-filled days, before the Italians continued to the next stop on the hippie trail—Tikal, Guatemala, and I returned to my job at LAX.

That old story was the farthest thing from my mind in 2015, as we embarked on this escape without itinerary or reservations, except the first hotel. I looked forward to seeing caves, ruins, and Placencia. An old-school overland travel adventure, like back in the old days. Caye Caulker was NOT on the itinerary. I know you can’t go home again.

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RW & ex-pat hoteliers,  Placencia

We collected our bags, the two other passengers disappeared into the mangroves, I breathed deeply of the moist air and relaxed. She was a bit antsy and called the hotel, “Where is our ride?” A middle-aged guy with a four-day beard, a scruffy baseball cap, rolled up in a beat-up van. Out of the corner of his mouth with eyes barely open, he slurred a few words inviting us to get in. I figured the proprietor of the hotel hired a fellow American who was down on his luck. I was wrong. He was the owner of the place and that was his standard look and condition.
Placencia straddles a twenty-mile long lagoon on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. On the seaside, before you see it, you smell it—the stench of decomposing kelp or seaweed. The smell and the debris keep most people from sunbathing on the beach, but the gusty wind attracts avid kite-boarders and windsurfers.
A scruffy little town with a few hide-away resorts, Francis Ford Coppola owns the most up-scale hotel in town.  A few restaurants, an outdoor beach bar, a couple juice bars, dive shops, general stores and banks comprise the business district.  The tourist shops feature over-priced Mayan woven goods, which enticed Lynn with ‘fantastic’ deals. As the owner of a women’s wear boutique she was in heaven until a week later she discovered the same items at half the price in Mayan country.

Placencia reminded me of many tropical resorts around the world.  Like many it has a scruffy business district with half-finished mini-centers and guesthouses coupled with a nearby marina with boat slips, boats, villas.  Ninety percent empty, it waits for the tourist throngs. A few miles farther out of town several up-scale beach resorts wait provide five-star comfort for a few upscale visitors. Being an adventure traveler for over forty-five years, I go for comfort AND soul. Although I’ve moderated my style a bit, to me the higher the star rating, the more insulated from the local vibe and less appealing.

 

Caged plaster jag

No live jaguars so they put a plaster rendition in a cage

After a few days lounging around, we took a day tour to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, known as the only jaguar preserve in the world. Set in a virtually pristine forest we hiked a while and rode inner-tubes on the meandering stream. Strangely, no one, not even our guide, has ever seen a live jaguar in that park, so they have a life-sized plaster replica in a cage.
It reminded me of a tour in Namibia, when we hiked on a couple miles into a rocky canyon, to see an ancient petroglyph, among the oldest in the world we were told—maybe 3000 years old. Outside, unprotected, easily touched, well-preserved drawings of cattle and people glistened with paint that couldn’t have been over ten years old. But the guide shook his head several times, “No sir, this is the original paint.” Tourists are known to be gullible. After all, we all have a confirmation bias according to research psychologists. Most people tend to see what they’re looking for, but in Belize no jaguars.
Fully rested after a week in Placencia, we hit the road to adventure. We planned to travel to San Ignacio, a town near the Guatemalan border, and check the myriad caves in the vicinity and the Tikal ruins. To really see a place overland travel is critical, and even better on local transport.  En route to San Ignacio we took a ferry across the lagoon to the mainland, a taxi ride to the bus stop, and public buses. On the bus we saw ‘real’ people doing their life, from the police chief in full uniform to the white German-speaking Mennonites with long beards and hats to the indigenous Mayans in traditional dress.

 

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Overland bus is for everyone, even the police chief

On that first trip with Delia and her friends, the two-lane, often unpaved ‘highway’ impressed me with the re-purposed American school buses as the primary transport. This time I expected the bus would be like overland transport in every other country I’ve visited in the last ten years from Mexico to South Africa to Turkey, their version of a modern Greyhound. Not in Belize, the Bluebird converted school buses still prevail in Belize. How could that be in a country where a two-star hotel room runs $125? I later learned that a certain family has the monopoly and has no motivation to upgrade—take it or leave it.

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Buses haven’t changed in 35 years

Heading north from the low-key tourist zone of Placencia, fields of mango, corn, and sorghum are interspersed with faded bus terminals, mini-marts, rum shops, and the ubiquitous rebar poking out of half-finished houses. At Dangriga, we jumped off to go the restroom.  When we returned, the bus had left with our bags on board. We asked the station’s various fruit vendors and lotto sellers, ‘Where’d they go?’ Jumping in a cab we caught up with them ten miles ahead.
San Ignacio borders Guatemala and functions as the Belizean gateway to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. A calm and prosperous city of 20,000, nearby charms include numerous cave systems and the Mennonite town of Spanish Lookout.  We took pleasant day trips to the ruins and the caves with our amiable Rastaman guide, David. Satisfied with traditional tourist excursions, Lynn wanted to rest at a beach, the Barrier Reef and Caye Caulker beckoned. A two hour bus ride to Belize City followed by a one hour ferry ride across the channel, and I was back in my 1970s paradise.

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the new, unimproved Caye Caulker with miles of shops

Starbucks across the street

Even a Starbucks in 2015

But paradise no more, Caye Caulker is now like the old prostitute that still wears hi-heels, short skirts, red lipstick, but isn’t even a shadow of her former self. The difference being, Caye Caulker prospers financially, but its ‘hippie trail’ days are long-gone. A big sign at the police station at the ferry quay announces severe penalties for possessing cannabis. Stepping out to the sandy street in front, a guy brusquely offered to sell me some herb. I was not surprised. Bars line the sandy main street, dozens of restaurant hawk their happy hour specials and touts pitch for boat trips to outer cayes and the divers’ mecca the Blue Hole. Across from our hotel, a Starbucks pimped its tropical frozen coffee drinks.
Determined to see if there was any remnant of the old Caulker, we rented bikes one day and rode around the island. Except for the airfield, mangrove swamps and residential neighborhoods cover almost everything not in service to tourists. On the leeward side, fishing boats, no longer efficient for catching lobster, decay on the sand. At the point at one end of the island, a beach bar provides the obligatory cheap rum drinks and people watching.

 

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Last remnant of the hippie trail in Caye Caulker, 2015

My 21st century trip to Belize seemed destined to close that circle opened almost forty years before. Like young adult visions of like becoming the president or selling a million records, a dream unexplored lingers to haunt us until it is acknowledged and resolved. For me, the tropical idyll of the old Caye Caulker, was one of my fantasies—A place at the end of the world, where love prevailed.
Caye Caulker has its merits, but it isn’t what it once was. Not even a shadow remains, that’s not just my fantasy, but what made it special is gone. Few places even honor their simpler past, much less preserve its’ soul. At least Waikiki has a statue to Duke Kahanamoku next to the luxury shops; Caye Caulker doesn’t even have lobster on the menu.  To paraphrase Bogart in Casablanca, ‘I’ll always have Isla Mujeres.’ That’s one island, I am NOT returning to.

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A sign pointing to possible members of the tribe, San Ignacio, 2015

 

 

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More than Ecstacy, MDMA is Medicine

 

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Celebrants at the MAPS conference, April 2017

 

Walking around the Marriott hotel ballroom in downtown Oakland, amongst swirling images of hallucinogen inspired paintings, dozens of clinical study bulletin boards, and bean-bag chairs, I had a natural flash-back.   The colorful denizens of this conference reminded me of  my psychedelic-infused college days in the 70s at nearby UC Berkeley, except this time they came from all over the world and were all generations from Millennials to Boomers.  Except, in this crowd,  you couldn’t tell the straights from the freaks.  But times have changed, most overtly in the toking space outside of the Marriott Hotel in downtown Oakland, where bongs and vapes were freely passed around in the open.

Coinciding with this year’s 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love and prohibition of LSD, the worldwide  community of psychedelic therapists, researchers, and enthusiasts emerged from the shadows.  I joined over three thousand  at the quadrennial MAPS (Multi-disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) conference in Oakland, CA last April. From the large conference halls to the smaller workshop rooms to the marketplace of psychedelic art, I experienced a new confident exuberance. No longer confined to secretive latter-day hippies or the laboratories,  psychedelics came out this year. For this old Sixties psychonaut, it felt like reconnecting with my long-lost tribe. We spoke freely about inner journeys without couching personal stories in the third person or providing a lot of explanation.

 

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Psychedelic inspired painting, MAPS

 

But more than a party, data dominated the conference.  I attended several lectures that elucidated the therapeutic benefits of MDMA, ayahuasca, ibogaine, LSD, and cannabis. MDMA has shown promise in treating PTSD and addiction in numerous studies both here and abroad. First synthesized by Merck chemist Anton Kollisch in 1912, former Dow chemist Sasha Shulgin discovered its’ relaxing properties accidentally and used it as his evening cocktail.  Soon it occurred to Shulgin that MDMA may be helpful with psychotherapy and shared it with therapist friends. Quickly spreading within that community, it proved too much fun to keep in the doctor’s office. Perfect for the 80s party culture, it became a staple of  rave culture worldwide from Ibiza to Dallas.  The genie had again escaped from the bottle.  The liberated and joyful mood generally experienced attracted the attention of the DEA,  placed MDMA in Schedule 1. Schedule 1 drugs are deemed to be of no medical use and pose serious health risks. Included in Schedule 1 are cocaine, heroin, cannabis, and MDMA. That effectively ended its use in therapy until MAPS associates began to use it with Iraq War vets suffering from PTSD.

The recent approval of MDMA (also known as Ecstacy, Molly, Adam, and dozens of other names) for study by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for phase three clinical trials culminates a long struggle for scientific support of its efficacy. If these are successful, then the possibility is for doctor prescriptions with very narrow guidelines. If approved,  it would have limited availability.  But that is how medical marijuana opened, first approved twenty years ago in California the door for legal cannabis . Regardless, not only a new found respectability, but I noted a new honesty  with researchers reporting the results of studies of psychedelics from Brazil to Israel some of  which have not been met expectations.  Seeking to not repeat the mistakes of the Sixties of overpromising the virtues of the drugs and incurring a the backlash from conservatives, MAPS and its executive director, Rick Doblin, proceed methodically .

Attending the MAPS conference was like visiting a long ago friend who had been on a long odyssey: She had changed, wiser and more nuanced, but still offered a familiar essence—freedom, expansion, and bliss. One thing has changed now, fellow-travelers include science and business types, along with the counter-culturalists, the artists, and the curious.   Perhaps Doblin is on the right track and going through channels will lead to respectability.   And that we can learn from the past, and treat these entheogens (god chemicals) with the respect and love they deserve.

 

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RW enjoying a toke of the sacrament at the Marriott, April 2017.  It took over forty years, but societal change is often slow

 

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Strawberry Alarm Clock Is Still On Time in 2017

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Strawberry Alarm Clock plays Venice, CA—2017

One minute I’m a 17 year old kid in the high school gymnasium listening to the coolest sound of the year, the next I’m on Venice beach with mike in hand interviewing them—50 years later. Out of the mists of history and the utopian haze that enveloped our generation reappeared this summer. Wearing the flowing kaftans with brightly swirling flower and paisley designs, the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s sound hasn’t changed. Rare among old rock bands that do the legends thing, the majority of its members were there at the beginning. But more importantly, they sound the same. Even the new songs are in the pocket of Incense and Peppermints, their number one hit.

 

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Strawberry Alarm Clock’s first album—1967

Last year all over the San Francisco Bay Area 1967’s Summer of Love was celebrated with numerous art exhibits, concerts, and tours. Heavily supported by the local political establishment, weekly reports of happenings were published in the San Francisco Chronicle. Notables from that era were so heavily interviewed that Peter Coyote (one of the original Diggers) said, no mas. But here in LA hardly a whimper was heard.

 

But being a Venetian (LA local) and life-long fellow-traveler with the hippie movement, I can verify we had a scene and we are celebrating the LA hippie era. The epicenter of LA hippie was Venice/ Ocean Park with local faves; the Doors, Canned Heat, Spirit, Chamber Brothers, Love, and many more.

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Venice hasn’t forgotten the Sixties. For the past twelve years the Venice Music Festival has hosted hippie era performers the Chambers Brothers (‘Time Has Come Today’), Country Joe and the Fish’s Barry Melton and last year the Strawberry Alarm Clock headlined. As the sunset and a marine chill settled in, I smelled patchouli and herb in the air. It felt like we’d taken a magic carpet ride back in time fifty years.

Before the show, representing the legendary LA Free Press, I interviewed the band. Friendly and natural, they could have been your local BMW sales agent or fish store owner (which are the day jobs of a couple of the guys). In response to my inquiry on changes to their music, Greg Bunnell (the bassist) said it is the same. I can vouch for that— flute and organ highlights and ethereal harmonies replicate the sound of fifty years ago. New songs contained a gentle social commentary, just as the old songs were played with passion and fidelity.
The Alarm Clock insists that psychedelia lives and they do a great job of maintaining that vision of flowers, peace, and love. At least for a couple hours in Venice time-travel was possible.

 

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50 years on, RW & the Alarm Clock pose with a copy of the original LA Free Press ad for their 1967 show at the legendary Cheetah Club, Venice

In search of hippie, I’ll be on the look-out for revivals of the hippie era through-out 2018.  If you know of an event you think might fit, please send me a line and I’ll gift you a free copy of my memoir, Living the Dream Deferred.

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Free Speech Icon Is Still Free: Deena Metzger

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A throng of young protesters wearing masks and wielding clubs attack ‘conservatives’ at a rally at UC Berkeley, the home of the original free speech movement. Back in the Governor Ronnie Reagan days, the attackers would have been the ‘Blue Meanies’ as we students nicknamed them in the Sixties.  But now these opponents of speech pose as progressives and claim to be ‘anti-fa;’ (for anti-fascist) protesters who claim lineage to the fully exposed demonstrators of over fifty-years ago. Mario Savio must be spinning his grave.

What has happened to the left? What would the anti-fa do if an Allen Ginsberg look alike pulled one of his anti-establishment rants at a rally protesting conservatives? Would they accuse him of sexual harassment for micro-aggression for his unconventional stunts like disrobing at a poetry reading? Would the words in his seminal poem, Howl, like ‘cock’ and ‘pussy’ offend? What about the frequent speeches like those by ‘Jesus freaks’ on the plaza in the 70s?

Who are these people? Are they FBI undercover agents seeking to disrupt legitimate complaints about conservative positions? That did happen back in the day, and given the level of surveillance and the authoritarian nature of the Establishment today, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.  But on its face, it is not inclusive.  Authoritarian and intolerant, its’ posturing is antithetical to the values and ideals of the New Left of fifty years ago.

In 1970, I knew a Black Panther and attended a  Panther meeting with him. At that meeting at a coffee house in San Francisco, a lively discussion explored the likelihood of FBI agent provocateurs in the group. By that time, J. Edgar had almost no inhibition in his war against the radical movement.  He planted undercover agents in radical groups around the country in addition to inciting violence at anti-war demonstrations.   And it worked. Discredited by faux radicals and overwhelmed by Establishment newspapers maligning the New Left, the movement disintegrated into squabbling factions like Weather Underground and the SLA.  Fortunately, underground newspapers like the Los Angeles Free  Press and the Berkeley Barb exposed this undermining of progressive politics.

A period of exhilaration occurred when President Richard Nixon was driven from office.  His misdeeds combined with J. Edgar Hoover’s disregard for the constitution validated the radicals suspicion of persecution.  After the Freedom of Information Act was passed, evidence of the government’s harassment of the left was exposed.  In the 1976 presidential primaries, Jerry Brown’s populist campaign and forward thinking ideas reaped the scorn of liberals because he didn’t conform to Establishment dogma. Instead, a mild-mannered but non-innovative peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, was elected. His moderate policies were easily exploited by the former movie actor and governor who blamed the country’s ills on Berkeley radicals. Seduced by the smiley face of Reagan and his cowboyism, a weary public caved to repression stronger than ever. Most of the radicals cut our hair, got graduate degrees, and/ or built fortunes. In other words, we were co-opted.

20171004_203840RW and Deena Metzger at her reading at the Topanga Public Library, October 217

A few months ago, I finally had the opportunity to meet a local Los Angeles hero of free speech—Deena Metzger. Ms. Metzger was a cause celebre’ at Los Angeles Valley College in 1969.  I was a sophomore and anti-Establishment.  At this suburban community college, her cause became our local version of the free speech movement .  Deena Metzger went on to be a prolific novelist, writing teacher, and shamanic healer. But in 1970, she made the front page of the Los Angeles Free Press after she was dismissed from her teaching job for “immoral conduct.”  To illustrate censorship, she wrote and used in class a sexually graphic poem, Jehovah’s Child.  The Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees voted to terminate her.  According to Ms. Metzger, the only vote against her dismissal was from newly elected trustee and later four-time governor Jerry Brown. True to the ‘cheap’ reputation he later earned as a higher office holder in California, Brown’s reason was that it would be fiscally irresponsible, Metzger said.*

LA Valley College Free PlazaFree Speech Plaza, LA Valley College, 2016

The scandal was a big sensation at the college. Demonstrations were held in the quad, later renamed Free Speech Plaza, supporting Metzger. Detailed stories were published in the LA Free Press, along with fragmented reports in the campus newspaper. The importance of free speech was brought home for me in the Metzger incident, but I had not met her until just last month. It was during my weekly writing session at the Café Mimosa in Topanga Canyon, that I noticed a flyer announcing a reading by Deena Metzger. A  cycle had come full circle and right on time. The time was ripe for a  glance back, the familiar issue—free speech, is back. Decades later I finally met Deena Metzger, especially satisfying as a reporter for the LA Free Press.

Like visiting a relative after many years absence, I felt like I was returning to a familiar person, and wanted to present myself as successful in life. Kind of like an accounting: What have I done? Did I stay true to the values? I’d never met her, but for me she represented that era’s hope and possibility for one’s self and society. I wasn’t disappointed. Remembrance of that old story added reality to my youthful memories.

A soft-spoken woman, with an earth mother quality accented by her many scarves and rings, Deena Metzger conveyed a grounded power. Still radical, her focus is now on the natural world and the pressing need to take care of our world. Comprised mostly of women from her long-running writing group, the audience seemed to absorb more than the words but also her essence. She spoke from experience within herself and the world.

Like a time-warp in that library room, I remembered how exhilarating those times of pushing the socially condoned boundaries felt as a 20 year old college student. After the talk, I bought one of her books and told her my story. She inscribed, “Many blessings for our shared history.” Meeting Deena contributed to my resolution of that long ago era of freedom when it was our zeitgeist. My soul felt freer knowing one of LA’s vanguard in free speech is unbent.

The soul of the Sixties still lives, grows, and teaches with Deena Metzger. Freedom is just that and the real heroes of freedom like Deena put their careers on the line and showed their faces. Metzger stands as an icon of the rich Los Angeles and Topanga iconoclastic history.  And real progressives are those who show their faces.

*In 1969, I was fired from a tenured teaching post at a local community college for reading to my students a poem I had written on censorship and pornography.  The case soon became an occasion for the advocates of censorship to organize themselves against the students’ right to  know and the teacher’s right to teach.  After three years, I was restored to  my position by the California State Supreme Court.

From Deena Metzger’s Writing  for Your Life.   1992

Inner Journey:

Imagine your  life at 20.  What did you believe in?  What did you strive for?  Who were your  academic heroes?

Action Steps:

Did you sustain those values through the decades?  Perhaps you can revisit one of those inspirational individuals and renew and act on that principle.

FOR A COPY OF DEENA’S NOTORIOUS POEM, JEHOVAH’S CHILD, PLEASE SEND a REQUEST TO THE ADDRESS ON THIS SITE.

 

Categories: Creative Expression, Exemplars, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

There’s Still Love-In the Park

Just loving in the park fifty years ago, even ‘The Man’ had fun

Rummaging in my souvenir clothes, next to the glitter cowboy shirt and the Moroccan jelaba, I found my 1967 paisley shirt and multiple-patched bell-bottoms. Somehow without popping the buttons, I squeezed into the shirt with only my belly exposed (After all it’s been fifty years.) Properly outfitted, I gathered a friend who dressed the part too with a flower crown and ripped jeans and my brother, the cameraman and experimental musician, and journeyed back to the merry-go-round in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.

Over the decades the Sixties has achieved a kind of mythic reputation for its music, drugs, free love, and protests, but at the core of it was something more organic, more timeless, and more ephemeral—Community. That deeper impulse of the movement has often been forgotten in last year’s 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, 1967. What brought it all together was the almost pied-piper like call and mass response by the youth of the day. No social media to provide an ersatz sense of connection, a gathering could only be physical; the only virtual experience was on TV or in some kind of psychedelic haze.

We young people wanted to be with our tribe, whether at an anti-war march, a concert, or a love-in. In the late Sixties and early Seventies in LA’s vast Griffith Park, around the merry-go-round, hosted a weekly Sunday love-in. At the love-in (as long as you were cool without bad vibes) you could get a free meal provided by Cleo Knight and his Green Power, play bongos and guitar, share a joint (no bogarting allowed), and essentially just hang-out without supervision. Going from my suburban home to the love-in meant leaving a world of tract houses, shopping malls, and stifling conformity, and entering a place where friendliness, love, individuality, and kindness ruled.

Love-in Griffith Park, 2017 by RW

Connection with like-minded individuals fuels many gatherings, but our zeitgeist called for personal expression and freedom as well. I recall snide comments by college professors (who mostly wore white shirts and ties) back then that we hippie youth were conformists. Nothing could be farther from my experience. In fact, within certain parameters (long-hair, jeans, beads) we created our own styles. Like the bell-bottom jeans I had patched or the military jackets that I confiscated from my father. Almost anything old, different, or colorful could qualify as hip. Special clothing stores popped up that catered to the new styles. Expressing a rebellious streak, for a season or two, the American flag inspired shirts and accessories. Anything that pushed boundaries of ‘normal’ was OK.

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Photos from LA Free Press, 1967

 

In August, 2017, dressed in my authentic hippie clothes, I attended the fiftieth anniversary of the first LA love-in hosted by Georgianne Steele-Waller. I expected to see a few dozen old hippies nostalgically rewriting history, but the majority of the 150 attendees weren’t even born until the 80s. I met a twenty-something young woman from Australia who called herself Serenity, a serious young Latino man from Garden Grove who came to make a political statement, a thoughtful thirty-something man, Alejandro, and an assortment of millennial generation vendors selling Indian trinkets and incense and organic ‘wonder’ potions.

Most of the young people didn’t even know there had been love-ins fifty years ago. By way of introduction, I shared the front page of the LA Free Press from those days to one circle of young people; one would’ve thought it was precious artifact from a lost civilization: Passing it around, someone asked if it was real. “Not only that,” I explained “20,000 showed up on that Easter morning, 1967.”

A spontaneous eruption, the original love-in went off without a hitch to the surprise of the mainstream media of the day. A simple announcement in the Free Press, LA’s underground weekly, got the word out. From sunrise to sunset a variety of rock bands played, people danced, and loving community prevailed. Even the few LA PD officers went along with the vibe and accepted flowers from the hippies. Good vibes wafted in the air, like the patchouli incense and marijuana smoke.

Young people want to congregate and party in any era, but in those days teenagers were just discovering the freedom to hang out and the opportunities were rare. Not like now, when an outdoor concert such as the Twilight Concerts on the Pier in Santa Monica, attracts 10,000 partiers and the police worry about security to the extreme.  In 2017, Santa Monica Police marked lanes in the sand to be able to make quick incursions into the crowd for ‘emergencies.’  Too much of a good thing, the Santa Monica City Council has terminated the annual pier concerts.

Front page announcing Love-inLA’s original love-in followed the previous year’s police riot on the Sunset Strip. Heads were banged and many youths arrested, while protesting the demolition of a popular teen hang-out (Pandora’s Box). Immortalized in Steven Stills’ For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield, the song announced a new, assertive attitude from teenagers. Rather than turning up the pressure, the police took a different tack at the Easter love-in a year later, very few arrests were made and even the Los Angeles Times gave a neutral, if muted report.

San Francisco paved the way with its’ Human Be-in. (The suffix –in came from the civil rights movement where protesters would stage a sit-in at a segregated café and then in the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley which held teach-ins). At the January 1967 Be-in a line-up of notable speakers that included Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and others heralded a new era of the various counterculture ‘tribes’ of liberal San Francisco coming together. In keeping with ideals of freedom and community, the Diggers (one of whom would later become a well-known actor under his assumed name Peter Coyote) distributed free food, clothes, and sometimes crash pads (place to sleep). SF planted the seed with the Be-in, but LA’s version kept up the tradition for many years.

RW & Richard Easton from the Hollywood Hemp Museum

And now, fifty years later some of the originals returned. Mercy from the GTOs (Girls Outrageously Together, a Frank Zappa group) shared some of her memories and her friend, Corby reported how she used to hitchhike from her home in the Valley until the Hells Angels began to disrupt the scene.  Johnny Echols from the seminal LA interracial progressive rock band, Love, expressed his concern that the goodwill and racial unity of that time has regressed, but he remains hopeful for a renewal.  A wild guy dressed in cannabis inspired clothes and hat promoted the marijuana museum on Hollywood Blvd.  One slightly drunk/ stoned fellow claimed to have attended when he was a kid and his aunt brought him.  Everyone had a big smile.

 

For that one day in August 2017 the ideals and dreams of the hippie movement lived again. Cross-generational, inter-racial, and un-commercial, people of many backgrounds came out and fanned the embers of a long ago time, when anything was possible together. Not a mirage or a myth, the Love-in expressed the yearning that dwells in many; not a brand, not a programmed show, and not a celebrity showcase, just the authentic yearning of people for community, expression, and freedom.

YouTube and social media may entertain, but the desire for live human connection still exists. The human spirit wants community. Events like the Griffith Park Love-in peep into that part of us that yearns to reach out of boxes and labels of generation, nationality, race, and class. And come together in love and harmony.

love in poster by Cleo Knight

Ad from the LA Free Press for the Love-in hosted by Cleo Knight

Inner Journey:

Where did you find community in high school or college?  If you were around in the Sixties, where did you connect with like-minded young people?

Action Steps:

How do you find community these days?  Is it commercial or organic?  Step out and try a new activity with the only goal of enjoying yourself.

FOR VIDEOS FROM THE 2017 LOVE-IN, PLEASE CHECK OUR FACEBOOK PAGE

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Going back to Paradise, Elysium Fields: Topanga’s Clothing-Optional Club

 

Elysium today 2017

Gate to Elysium Fields site, 2017

“Five dollars please young man,” requested the mustachioed thirty-something man wearing only flip-flops and beads.  I handed over the money and proceeded to the men’s changing room.   Slowly I undressed for this first time in public nudity, anticipation rising I joined the crowd in the park-like grounds.  Even though it was 1971, still a bold act for a 21-year-old kid from the suburban conformity of the San Fernando Valley.  Just ten miles from my childhood home, I had landed at Los Angeles’ haven of the liberated human body and mind.

Given the zeitgeist of these times of building twenty-foot border walls, ethnic registries, and 24-hour surveillance, I wondered ‘could that memory have been real?’  Not just the practice, but the ideals. Audaciously the founder, a journalist and father-figure of American nudism, Ed Lange called his human potential naturist (or nude) club—Elysium Fields referencing the classic Greek mythology of the after-life playground.  In the Sixties such idealistic names were the norm.

I learned about Elysium in a purloined copy of Playboy magazine, but it took several months for me to find out its exact location.  Being young and fairly inexperienced, I was curious and excited about the expanding sexual/ social revolution and Elysium sounded like a perfect place to join it.  Being a hippie radical, I regularly visited the Free Press Bookstore (ground zero for the counter-culture in LA) on Fairfax Ave, and one day someone slipped me the directions to Topanga Canyon’s clothing-optional club.   The two canyons that mattered in Los Angeles back in the Sixties and early Seventies were Laurel and Topanga.  Over-looking Hollywood, the former was the vortex of the burgeoning hippie rock scene of LA, whereas the hard-core back to the land hippies landed in Topanga.  LA’s closest alternative to San Francisco’s Marin, Topanga hosted love-ins, festivals, and other hippie events back then (and still does to this day).  With lots of open space, it epitomized local favorite, Canned Heat’s hit song, ‘Goin’ Up the Country.’

 

Elysium sign

Classic 70s look of Elysium Fields, Topanga

 

In those revolutionary times, a few experimental communities, each with its own flavor, emerged in Topanga,.  The most notorious, Sandstone required a special invitation due to its partner-swapping parties.  Another was known for esoteric spiritual rites like yoga, incense, séances, chanting and so on.  And then there was— Elysium Fields.

After numerous successful lawsuits the LA County Supervisors gave final permit approval, and Elysium Fields flourished as a private membership-only club until the 1990s.  A good neighbor, the club was well-respected member of the Topanga community.  Unfortunately, after Ed Lange died in 1995 his two daughters sold the property for $2.5 million.  The executive director, Betty Meltzner and her husband poured their personal money into a new property in Malibu, but it soon floundered.

On a hot summer’s day, I enlisted my buddy, the Silver Tongue, (whose soft, understated voice was like a FM DJ) and raced  through the mountain curves in my Triumph sports car (top down), a potent mix of anxiety and fear kept my pedal on the floor.   Just north of the center where the Post Office, a head shop and the general store served local residents, a plain street sign announced Robinson Rd.  Twisting and turning uphill for a couple miles, we arrived at a solid, wooden 10 foot fence with a regular house gate and purchased our temporary memberships.  Forking over the high admission charge (in those days $5 would buy two record albums or a ticket to see the Animals at the Hollywood Bowl), we summoned as much cool as possible for a two horny, young guys from the Valley.

Once we got over the initial jitters, we had fun sipping wine, looking at the girls behind our sunglasses, and cooking in the hot tub.  I envied the regulars who had booked the private meditation room in advance.   I made a few contacts but didn’t get lucky that day.  In addition to the recreational activities, human potential workshops (a la Esalen) were offered on various days.   I planned to come back for enhancing my aura, thinking it may help me get girls, but I never did.  My consciousness was still wrapped up in my Berkeley college days and the political revolution, not personal enlightenment.

Although I embraced the counterculture ethos of skinny dipping at youth hang-outs like Tahquitz Falls in Palm Springs, Elysium was more than kids self-consciously jumping into the water.  Distributed around the lush lawn a couple dozen ‘grown-ups’ ranging in age from 25-50—all naked—‘frolicked.’  Not just lying around, but playing volleyball and shuffleboard or chatting and sipping wine, while several waited for a turn in the sauna/ hot tub.  All in all, a civil, calm adult scene.  We meandered on the look-out for young women to ogle among the mostly ‘mature’ women in the grounds.  Feeling quite exposed and nervous the whole time, it felt like a dream, a Maxfield Parish painting from the 1920s, all fuzzy and ethereal.  Mentally I took notes:   Life lesson #1 most bodies are average, more or less, without clothes.  Lesson #2 when nudity is the norm, it isn’t titillating, but actually relaxing, pretense is dropped along with clothes.

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Harbin’s Temple before the fire

Both lessons were regularly affirmed for me years later during my annual trips to Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional neo-hippie resort north of San Francisco, until it burned to the ground in 2014.  On the other hand, non-participation invites the voyeurism seen at Black’s Beach near La Jolla in San Diego in the 70s.  When the word got out that people were disrobing at Black’s, the cliffs above soon became a magnet for all kinds of  with binoculars.  The scene was ruined.  That never happened to Elysium.  Maybe it was the admission fee and the secluded location, but it exemplified the highest hippie ideals; free love (not just physical), community, consciousness expansion, and fun.

Fast forward to 2016 and the emergence of my seniority in age, if not maturity, one of my interests now is pilgrimage to the old counter-cultural scenes.  What was the back story?  What was it about?  What did it contribute to my life and others?  What, if any, survives the decades?  We live in a continuous present with ever thickening layers of experience over experience, which often results in embellishment, denial, and puffery.  With that in mind and wondering if I could find any artifacts and spirit of the old Elysium Fields of Topanga, I drove up there recently.

The Robinson Rd sign still points to the highlands where bucolic spaces welcome dogs and beat-up old vehicles.  I passed fancy restored homes closer to the highway, and then higher up, California oaks thicken and the yards get bigger and some with old trucks and equipment rusting in the weeds.  My thoughts drifted back to that day decades ago and the spirit of possibility I felt.  This day I sensed or saw nothing evocative of that magical day in 1971, just a few Buddhist prayer flags and a phone pole with a flyer announcing a lost dog and guitar lessons.  Your classic Topanga life that could’ve been 1991, 1971, or 1951, still expressing eccentric individualism and California country living.  Although in my Porsche Cayman (still in a sports car), I drove slower this time taking it all in.   At the assigned address, a foreboding gate blocked the entrance.  My only option to get closer was farther  up Robinson Rd around the backside where I saw the familiar lush, green lawn, surrounded by a few out buildings.  And empty.  No people.  No dogs.  Like an empty movie set.  I tried to imagine that day with the hip, exploratory young and middle-aged adults of LA who came up here to explore consciousness and sexual freedom, but no ghosts appeared from the oaks and the luxury cars.

Today that site and most of Topanga look the  same, but the visit revealed the lessons of Elysium.  A significant element of those free-wheeling times in the Sixties/ Seventies, Elysium made a mark as a real-world example of progressive culture that transcended ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation.   For me, my vision of community, creativity, and expression was solidified in the rustling leaves of the oaks.  Now, I realized it is my turn to share the hope and the ideals that I tasted that day over forty years ago.  Even in these potentially dark days of moralistic, hypocritical family values national leaders, experiments in liberation and community continue and always have.  Deep in my heart and many others of my generation, the experiments of those days aren’t forgotten.     Its seeds continue to sprout in healthy, consciousness-expanding, uninhibited resorts and communities all over the world.   Elysium was a dream, but the dream didn’t die.

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The 2016 Election or What Happened to Boomer Ideals

Demonstrations and protests against the Vietnam War (1).jpeg

And it’s one, two, three what’re we fightin’ for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam And it’s five, six, seven open up the pearly gates Well there ain’t no time to wonder why, whoopee we’re all gonna die… Country Joe McDonald

 

Collection of the Oakland Museum of California

 

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McGovern

Forgive me, but I’m an addict; An addict for justice, peace, freedom, nature, and creative expression.  How’d I get this way?  Not like Bernie Sanders who was born into a family of progressives, I was born in a generation who thought we could change the world for the better.  Always curious and desiring to be where the action is, I attended UC Berkeley in the early Seventies and earned my radical bona fides on the front-line of political protest.  In those days I saw many of the leaders of what we called the ‘revolution’; Mark Rudd, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and even Tim Leary.  So, I’ve got a long memory and at this elder stage of life take time for reflection on the past and idealism for the future.  It’s like a trip of almost fifty years is finally ending politically this year.

Back in the Sixties many impressionable college kids (including  yours truly) believed our elders and expected political revolution—soon.  A major break-through came when George McGovern was nominated by the Democratic Party for president.  He campaigned on the most progressive platform ever and lost in the most overwhelming landslide ever.   After that defeat politically everything changed.  Within a few years the Black Panther party was decimated by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, terrorists posing as political radicals (Weatherman and Symbionese Liberation Army) bombed ROTC and robbed banks, Jimmy Carter (a born again Christian, a non-progressive view) was elected, and many of our leaders recanted and got regular jobs or became entertainers (think Eldridge Cleaver and Tim Leary).  To paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron the revolution was NOT televised; it was co-opted and forgotten until 2016.

Bernie-Sanders-Arrested-in-Chicago-for-Civil-Rights

Bernie Sanders arrested while demonstrating for civil  rights in Chicago

This year Bernie Sanders, a true blue radical and idealist who moved to Vermont during the seventies migration of hippies to the country, awakened the old ideals and hope for real change in his quixotic campaign for the presidency.  In him the great majority of youth saw not just a free ticket to college, but a politician who has lived his principles all his life.  But his candidacy came up against the Clinton machine (the Democratic establishment wasn’t going to allow another McGovern debacle) and the practical-minded older folks many of whom were idealists themselves back in the day.

HRC college

HRC in college

 

After a surprisingly tough primary season, Hillary Rodham Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for president capping her decades-long career within the system.  Demonstrating the qualities of successful individuals in any field; intelligence, networking, preparation, and perseverance, HRC is poised to become the first female president.  It hasn’t been an easy journey for her.  She has fought sexism, scandal, and scatology. Although given a head start in politics being the wife of a president, she kept on.  We can all learn something from her example; vision, adjustment, and perseverance.  But her dogged pragmatism is not the only story of this election cycle; Bernie Sanders’ idealism, Donald Trump’s anger, and Obama’s optimism reveal different strains of the Boomer generation’s likely last hurrah in the presidency.  Waiting in the wings are the next generation—Gen Xers; Cruz, Rubio, the Castro brothers from Texas, and others, who’ll in due time take bring different life experiences to leadership.

 

Bernie event June 7

Old radical (and pragmatist) at 2016 Bernie event

When Bernie Sanders finally endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, he also declared victory for the movement he birthed fifteen months ago.  Many of his proposals have been absorbed into the Democratic Party platform; health care as a right, fair treatment of all by the police, legalization of marijuana, breaking up the big banks, a 21st century Glass-Steagall for the financial industry, commitment halt global warming, free public university for middle and working class, and most significantly reducing the concentration of wealth.  But that’s just the beginning of his political revolution according to Sanders.  And this week opened his new movement, http://www.ourrevolution.com.

Although not a Boomer (born in 1941) Bernie Sanders resuscitated the ideals of the Baby Boomers in their youth, which resonated with the millennial youth of today.   Now with Sanders out of the running, we’re looking at showdown of the Boomer generation for the presidency.  Boomer presidents have been Bill Clinton, George W., and Barack Obama (born in 1961, so he’s on the cusp) and now Hillary Clinton (1947) or Donald Trump (1946).  And in this final call to leadership, the Boomers’ youthful dreams and anger has boiled down to two super-pragmatic, super-successful, millionaire plus candidates (Hillary for her political career and Donald for his pursuit of fame and money).

A significant number of Boomers freed from career and family responsibilities resuscitate ideals and dreams, and cast caution aside and go for it both personally and for society.  The post-career chapter of life can be a time of resignation or hope, off-the-track adventures or sanitized cruise ship ports, vision seeking or corporate consumerism, or even a political revolution or status quo pragmatism.  One type stays with the known and comfortable; they keep the old home, continue decades old hobbies, and seek security more than excitement.  And others strike out and explore the world on the ground not in a stateroom, move to fresh digs, and / or begin new, challenging hobbies and sports.  Uncovering, developing, and living a dream takes curiosity, courage, and commitment but often energize an individual’s senior years.

angela davis

Angela Davis

Maybe Hillary’s wonky and moderate plans will work the same for the country.  Although the ultimate insider now, she has  shown the courage to change her positions and the perseverance to pursue her dream.  As is said in the Bible, ‘a people without vision shall perish.’  Does she have clear goals and a vision?  Do we as a people?  Or are we on that decline as a nation that Trump rails about?  Perhaps we’re on cusp of a new vision.  Shifting direction of this cocky, behemoth of a nation would be slow and arduous. Is there the will?  Just as it takes will, intention, and effort to live a meaningful and satisfying life, our country needs to summon up the same qualities.

In my social circle on the Westside of the Los Angeles megalopolis, 90% favored Bernie.  That’s not too surprising since it is the land of the Hollywood dream factory and Bernie offered a hopeful dream.  But the results are clear, the majority of Democratic primary voters selected Clinton, in spite of her record high disapproval rating.  She is a known commodity and received the majority of the Boomer vote and who may prefer the status quo to the excitement of a Sanders (and Trump) who want to shake up the ‘system.’

EldridgeCleaver

Eldridge Cleaver

Let’s not forget, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders represent the sometimes op-positional and contradictory political and social currents of their generation.  I knew these types back at Berkeley in 1970; the sincere student government kid who supported the cause-of-the-moment with an eye on a career in politics (Hillary), the bombastic rich kid who grew his hair long so he could get girls but planned to go home and work in his father’s business (Donald), and the true radical from a working-class family who demonstrated against the war, yelled at the cops, and got arrested (Bernie).

 

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Budding real estate magnate, Donald Trump with his father Fred

As for Donald Trump, it is difficult to predict his policies since they seem to change daily.  But it is clear that if elected, anger wins.  His working-class supporters like the bellicosity and finger-pointing at the system, but his actions in business do not demonstrate interest in anyone other than himself.  If he is elected, it may be back to the future switching out the smiling optimism and smugness of Ronald Reagan to  snarling, name-calling Trump.  And we now see the consequences of Reagan’s Pollyanna theories —disappearing middle-class, environmental degradation, failed drug war, and record-setting incarceration rates.  But a significant minority of the country pines for that fantasy time of white privilege, USA hegemony, and simplistic solutions.  Donald Trump’s free-floating anger taps into that and attacks the Establishment.

A generations’ last hurrah in the presidency offers more than a choice between two unpopular candidates, but a call to vision and true leadership.  Will the next and probably last Boomer president contribute to progress for We the People or revert to the values of a time before the cultural revolution of the Sixties.

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Bobby Seale & Huey Newton

Sanders’ call to political revolution echoes the Sixties’ dream of living Elysium Fields-style in communion with each other, with the natural world, and in peace and justice with other countries.  It is an almost inconceivable vision, but in the eighties the end of the cold war was unimaginable until it happened. Whether it is possible or not is less important than making the effort to live the Founders’ dream for our country and us individually.  Although slow, our society and nation can be turned around.  Like personal change it takes intention, will, and work.  The reward is not only in the achievement, but in the effort.  Individually we don’t not take golf lessons or paint or exercise, even though we know we’ll never be experts.  We do it because it is better than not.  And that’s reward enough.

For the next two months, our national dreams, needs, fears, and resentments will be center stage.  As noted above, I’ve been a political junkie since my days as a student radical at Berkeley, but tempered by the ‘real’ world over the decades I’ve learned that positive change for the country and for me is usually incremental.  The show-down of Boomer presidential types offers a clear choice between anger and idealism tempered by pragmatism—The last battle of the Sixties Generation! And that is an example we can all use as we design our personal next chapters.

 

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Categories: Boomer Ideals/ Remembrance, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Venice West: No Longer Beat Down

Next time you sip that espresso with organic, gluten-free sesame muffin, and listen to a open-mike poet at your favorite local café, you’re in debt to a culture and a time long obscured by the flood of history.  A typical evening at the café included a round or two of poets reading accompanied by bongo drums, while fellow beats sat around sipping espresso.  At times a painter would use the blank wall as a canvas for his colorful expressions.  You might have heard Stu Perkoff reciting  his piece about  a physically and  spiritually complete life:

Feasts of Love, Feasts of Death by Stu Perkoff

sitting on the benches, bodies warm & throats  filled with joy & love

we offered worship

sitting warm, eyes & skin touching, love flowing 

we offered  worship

               we sang

& spoke languages & poems

offered worship & love

mixing the birds of passion & the swords of God

in our beautiful young eyes

 

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The  Beat scene 1959 at Venice West

If you’re in the LA area,  the direct line to your coffee place, the Osteria Venice West, faces the boardwalk in Venice.  Look across Dudley St. from Osteria Venice West in Venice (formerly Los Angeles’ beach slum and now the high-tech Silicon Beach) and you’ll see the restored, chic Cadillac Hotel.  In that beachfront block, where tourists, inner city visitors, homeless drunks, street vendors, and occasional locals like myself mix in a bouillabaisse of humanity, it’s not hard to imagine  LA’s fifties counter-culture congregating here 55 years ago.   Like today’s eclectic crowd, the beatniks, refugees from “squaresville,” hunkered down in this space then known as Venice West Café.  Some lived across the street in the Cadillac, at that time a low-rent boarding house.

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Original Venice West

This is the only site from that era recognized by a city of Los Angeles historic marker of the Beatnik scene of the Fifties in  LA. Other Venice Beat locations such as the Gas House (now a vacant lot filled with weekend vendors of tourist paraphernalia) and Lawrence Lipton’s house on  Park Ave don’t get that modest respect.  But Osteria Venice West houses the spirit and vibe of the beatniks that begat the hippie culture, which in turn continues to impact our world through the counter-cultural ideas of yoga, organic food, classic rock, environmental concern, and global community.

Although some of the heroes of the hippies in the sixties and seventies had their beginnings in the Beatnik world (Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, and others), I knew next to nothing about the Beatniks.  As a former history teacher and an original Hippie, soon after I turned 65 I began to look backwards to hippie’s forbears—the Beats.  (There’s something about reaching that magic  number,  which I’ll go into on  another occasion.)  After graduating from UC Berkeley in the seventies, I moved to Venice:  At the time the vestiges of what had been a slum and refuge  for artists, hippies, and other low-income individuals still lingered.  Funky (a word coined by the Beats) and casual, I felt right at home in Ocean Park/ Venice.

Alienated and not just a bit lazy, most of the Beats were young men who landed in Venice initially because it had fallen on hard times.  Once a bold and glorious real estate development, Abbott Kinney’s Venice of America offered the burgeoning city of Los Angeles a beach fantasy land complete with canals, luxury hotels, amusements, and casinos.  Kinney and his partner Francis Ryan had planned a massive project from Ballona Lagoon on the south to Santa Monica Pier to the north.   But due to a business conflict, they split and the northern piece, Ocean Park, went to Ryan and was eventually annexed by the city of Santa Monica.  Kinney established Venice of America in 1905.  It was an immediate big hit, but over the years as most flashy scenes do, Venice faded.  Starting in the twenties and with the advent of Prohibition a gang element took over. Followed by the Depression and then World War II, by the forties Venice’s former glory was just a memory with the old hotels turned into rooming houses for the elderly and poor.

Perfect for artists and bohemians with its cheap rents away from meddling by the power brokers of LA, it soon became a magnet for alienated young men and women who wanted to drop out from the mainstream.  To distinguish themselves from the squares, a slang developed that would assist a beatnik in determining a wannabee square from a fellow beat.  Many of their terms, ranging from “cool” to “cop-out” to “funky” to “turn on” to “shack-up”  and many others are still in use today.

Venice West Aug '16

The author on  the  scene 2016

On the contrary:  The counter-culture known as hippie, which grew out of the beat subculture, although also anti-establishment, had a vision more idealistic, hopeful, and celebratory.  Rather than sitting around in black turtlenecks and goatees reading Howl and listening to introspective jazz and hitting on  “horse” or heroin, Hippies wore colorful costumes and grew long hair and convened love-ins in parks where they danced, painted faces, and tripped on mind-expanding  drugs.  The Hippie movement caught on with millions in the sixties and its’ lifestyles and principles spread through out society, attracting young and young-thinking people world-wide with an optimistic vision for the future.

As an ardent participant in the hippie movement, I knew our antecedents were in the beats.  And I’ve lived in Venice/Ocean Park for over forty years, but I knew very little about them. Sure, I’d read Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Snyder, and Ginsberg, but knew little of their beliefs, values, and culture.  After reading a historical summary of Venice West, a visit to the seminal beat location seemed appropriate.  It  would  be a kind of pilgrimage to my cultural ancestors, akin to visiting Gethsemane in Jerusalem or Trieste Cafe or City Lights Books in San Francisco or CG Jung’s tower near Zurich.  Everyday places now, but sites of cultural significance.

Venice West Café Expresso was established by Stuart Perkoff in mid-1958 to capitalize on the growing trend in coffeehouses.  He and a partner bought 7 Dudley  Pl, former shul (a Jewish meeting house) and later bleach factory .   They ripped off the  plaster and exposed the brick walls.  On opening day a hand printed sign announced Art is Love is God.  Perkoff, one of the original Venice Beat poets, had recently broken with Lawrence Lipton, whose January 1959, firsthand account of the burgeoning Beat scene, The Holy Barbarians, attracted national attention to the area.  Feuding with Lipton and running short on funds Perkoff sold the café in Janaury 1959, just before Holy Barbarians‘ publication in February, 1959.

The book sparked widespread interest in the beats and soon throngs of wannabees, weekend Beatniks, and tourists descended on the area and Venice West Café.  At times a painter would use the blank wall as a canvas for his colorful expressions.  Often one could hear a poet spouting his (they were almost always men) verse backed by a bongo player and/ or jazz musicians.  The café flourished, but eventually after years fighting closure by the city due to complaints by uncool, non-Beat neighbors, Venice West closed in 1965.

venice west outside

Osteria Venice West Cafe today

On my visit to the site of Venice West, I noticed how much and how little has changed in Venice.  Within 50 feet of the now luxury café, Osteria Venice  West,  the homeless population congregates and hits up city day-trippers with crafts and sullen stares. Recently next door at the Candle Café, I attempted to have a calm conversation  with a friend while a rag-tag crew of ‘musicians’ played amplified instruments and passed the bucket.  Is it fair to say they are the descendants of the Beatniks?  They still play music, create “art,” and take a lot of drugs and alcohol.  Or is the proprietor of the organic, gourmet restaurant?

The borderlines of counter-cultures are never sharp and constantly shifting as ideas get absorbed and co-opted into the mainstream.  But in exploring the roots of bohemian Venice, I discovered that alternative values such as free-love,  creative  expression and individuality don’t belong to any one “movement.”  Like the flowing garb of the Hippies and the free verse of the Beatniks, the counter-culture is constantly shifting and not limited by any label.  Once the  site of an innovative tourist attraction, followed by decay, poverty, Beatnik drop-outs, Hippie idealists and today by Silicon Beach techies, Venice has always offered a break from the  cookie-cutter, ersatz world of consumer culture.

Although of short duration and small numbers, the beat influence has been surprisingly long lasting.  In addition to its gifts to the vernacular and our coffee tastes,  it also left us the drum  circle which continues to this day on Sundays on Venice Beach.   And like many counter-cultures, it encouraged sexual liberation, eschewed ethnic bigotry, and advocated an anti-war creed.  Its’ embrace of cool jazz and cannabis predicted the wide dissemination of such tastes.  And most importantly, the Beats recognized that mindless consumerism was a hamster-wheel, which research psychologists have confirmed does NOT lead to greater happiness or life satisfaction.

A key feature of Beat was the acceptance that anyone is a creative soul.  One didn’t have to get an MFA to spout poetry or write a novel or throw paint on a canvas.  What mattered was your authenticity and soul.  The Beat movement was the first counter-culture to practice and encourage that the freedom to create is available  to everyone.  Their vision seeded today’s creativity explosion seen in the availability of on-line video, print-on-demand books, blogs such as this, and sound clouds, where anyone with the courage and the urge can be an ‘artist’ and publish their creations.

More than a trend or a style, the Beats demonstrated that ‘living  in society and not of it’ is possible.  So, when you down an espresso or attend an open-mike, you’re sampling a bit of Beatnik.

plaque Venice West

Giving respect to  the  tradition (on the wall at the site)

Categories: Community, Creative Expression, Discover / Adventure, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Falling to Earth in New Mexico

 

panorama White Sands

coolio

picnic benches all in a row 102 degrees

David Bowie’s recent passing prompted tons of commentary on his unique contribution to pop culture.  More than a rock star (he never won a music Grammy), and not quite a movie star, his variety of personae invited the public to observe the variability of our personal identities.  His first film, The Man Who Fell to Earth established him as an actor (he studied acting before becoming a pop star) and as a shape-shifter.  Not unlike how we saw him shape-shift in public and musical life.  In it  Bowie portrays an alien who crashes to earth alone, a stranger in a strange land.  He soon finds ways to capitalize on his advanced knowledge and becomes an international economic power.  But his character always seems out of sorts, not fully present even as he takes on human characteristics and relationships.

During the film Bowie gets homesick and remembers his wife and kids and we see footage of their hollow faces and chapped skin.  Their world had dried up, gotten too hot and they sent Newton (Bowie) out to our water planet on a scouting mission.  We never really learn what he intended to do, because  while using his special knowledge and  powers to build  the world’s greatest corporation, the authorities catch on and he gets grounded on earth  and can’t go home to his dying  planet.

Released in 1974, it predicted the global warming, we’re grappling with now.  Directed by Nicholas Roeg  with many hard camera angles and cuts and populated by sharp-edged, one-dimensional characters, the message is clear: We’re too dumb to do what’s  good for us.  That contrasts with 2015’s trite,  all-American solution,  to earth’s drying up, Interstellar—planets are disposable, build on a new one.

wadda you see

I can see for miles and miles

The Man Who Fell to Earth uncovered the emotional nuance of  losing or leaving one’s home and its preciousness— where ever it is. Bowie played the role so well, as in most of his personae,  one can barely distinguish the character from  him.  In the film he slips into various guises, never ages, but ultimately falls into futility, wry cynicism, and drunkenness.  He fell to earth and found out we too were barren, but we hadn’t yet faced a reckoning.

Bowie is famous for his variety of characters and styles in music.  So good at it he convinced most of us that those roles were actually him.  The popular perception was that he had changed and become the Diamond Dog, the Thin White Duke, the alienated Brit in Berlin, and finally just disappearing until his recent album was released two days before his death.   Bowie kept us guessing all the time, but we put on him more than he really was, or perhaps he revealed something inside all of us that we didn’t know existed.  I attended his show at the Universal Amphitheater in LA during the Diamond Dogs tour.  And like most concerts it started late. Eventually, from  stage left, he floats down in some kind of a crane in full space costume, and if I’m remembering correctly singing ‘Uncle Tom  to ground control.’  So, Bowie.  He  proceeded to blow our  minds with staging that referenced the dystopian novel 1984 (mind the actual date loomed ominously in the near future in  those days).

alcohol in season

Beer allowed in summer.

Thinking about Bowie and the film, my recent trip to south-western New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument came to mind.  Driving through the gates I felt like I had fallen to another world.  Whiter than Vail in a good snow blizzard, even the road was a white out. Wary of striking out into the desert alone, I stopped and had a beer since  it was in season according to a sign.

Hot and tired after driving for five hours through some of the  most empty land in New Mexico, and eating an astro burger in the  military-oriented town near the park.   Sipping on the beer, I decided to stay close to the  car and shade in  this heat and did a few sand slides utilizing the technique I picked up in 2014 in Swakapmund, Namibia. Big fun,  but not so much fun to climb the hill in the heat.  I later learned that a German couple and their son died not far from the road the month I was there.  I guess Germans aren’t used to such heat, and the precautions required thereby.

Unexpected, unusual, and uncomplicated, White Sands feels like another dimension.  Totally unlike any other  place I’ve seen, expect  for the red sands of Namibia.  I felt Bowie-esque, alone,  a stranger in a strange land.  But that’s what I travel for,  the thrill of discovery of unique, beautiful, mind-blowing, heart-opening, experiences.

zen info board White Sands

A blank white board invites the visitor to the empty world

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Discover / Adventure, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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