Labels are funny things. Sometimes they are simply name tags, conveying no image in particular. Generation X comes to mind. Anyone who says “Generation X” or writes “Gen X” is forced to explain exactly who they mean and what characteristics they think they have.
Other labels convey a picture so complete, vivid and detailed that they cannot be used without having to explain what part of the picture we don’t mean. The Sixties come to mind. Once I say I am a Child of the Sixties, graphic pictures replete with flower children, Woodstock and anti-war demonstrations automatically flash across the mind.
Actually, I was never a flower child, missed Woodstock and saw the anti-war demonstrations the way the rest of America did, on TV. Instead, I was a fairly nerdy (a term not then in common use) kid so absorbed, as most of us were, in day to day living that the stuff that the history books are full of today was just on the periphery of my awareness, important but not really central. It is one of the ironies that history likes to inflict on us that that peripheral stuff is now treated as the main events of the times, while the central places where we really lived have been demoted to become the margins.
Still, I call myself a Child of the Sixties, and so I am. But to be a child of the Sixties, you had to grow up in the Fifties. That was where we learned how John Wayne won World War II, how nice girls didn’t and all about the horrors lurking for our innocence in something called “Reefer Madness.” Also, we learned to “Duck And Cover” under our school desks for a nuclear attack.
Then came the Sixties, adolescence and changes. I registered for the draft in 1964. The pill appeared the year I went off to college and sex migrated from a distant (married) dream to a probable reality to an expectation. I was a physics major, but I hung out with the theatre crowd, from whom I learned about Sgt. Pepper, the Doors and marijuana.
If there was a checklist of items that could qualify you as a Child of the Sixties, I think I would be entitled to quite a few. However, if one were to look closely, to really check out my bona fides, a glaring exception would be revealed: I failed one of the central rites of passage of the era.
In all that glorious decade, I never managed to meditate — transcendentally or otherwise.
Let me hasten to add that while I do carry this mark of shame, it is not because I was unaware of all of the Om Mane Padme Oming going on around me. Nor was it due to some scientific skepticism about all of the mystical importations that flooded our time.
The truth is that I tried…and failed. I tried over and over again…and failed. I worked for and waited for that gradual quieting of the clamor of conscious thought that was the hallmark of true meditation. And waited…and waited.
Nothing worked. No matter what I did, the thoughts just kept whirring along, as noisily as ever.
At first, my theatre buddies were only too happy to offer their expertise. I could tell that they thought that I was simply too out of touch with myself to really let go and find my true center. With their superior help (and good grass) they knew they would be able to lead me to the promised land.
After a while though, repeated failures began to have a different affect. My hippiest friends began to sort of look at me strangely. I seemed to sense a withdrawal.
They had been willing to ignore my lack of long hair. (It was not a good time for those of us with fine hair. My attempts to grow it long left me looking like a wet Afghan.). My lack of paisleys, bell bottoms, et al they had ascribed either to poverty or cheapness. After all, I smoked grass and was living with a girl. I had to be O.K.
But now they began to wonder. Perhaps the problem was that, despite all indications to the contrary, I was, deep down inside, really…straight.
As I said, labels are funny things. At that time there was no darker, more damning, more beyond any hope of redemption designation we could bestow.
Thankfully, the dread word was not spoken aloud. But as the years passed, it stood like a specter, haunting its own corner of my self-doubts.
Sometimes cures are funny things, too. Many years later a girlfriend of mine was able to diagnose the problem (and render it painless). Although besotted, she too, was bothered by the fact that the mental engine never shut down, no matter what she did.
Finally, in one of the most backhanded compliments I have ever received, she said, “You’re just about perfect. God just forgot to give you an OFF button.”