The Torch is Passed -- Finally

"Drugs have gone all to hell," a veteran of that halcyon era of ingestion, the 1970s, complains, his main quibbles being that they aren't as good as they used to be, they're harder to find, and they're more expensive. A recent college graduate sounds a similar lament about scarcity and cost, although she can't make quality comparisons with the earlier decade's product, because she wasn't even alive then. She has heard tales, however, of sticky gold buds, and dark, fragrant hash, from people like the veteran, who pass along such testimonials as proof that there once was a kind of Periclean Age of Pot. That Age had as its hallmarks both better, cheaper stuff and a greater public acceptance of the smoking of it, as well as numerous other freedoms that exist now only in hearsay.

As one generation gathers around the metaphorical campfire with another, reciting stories of memorable Mary and its brazen consumption, a kinship is formed, and a big slice of our culture is perpetuated. Reportedly we're in the throes of what the Department of Justice terms a New Marijuana Epidemic fueled by the usage of teens and twentysomethings, and it's giving those who participated in the Old Marijuana Epidemic something to share with the young folks. What's held in common isn't just literal pot smoking, however, but a certain slant of sensibility which came into full flower in the 70s, skipped over a whole group, and now seems re-emergent in our new adults.

It was at the numerous college alumni events I've attended that I became really conscious of the passed-over people. When I first started going to those things, I assumed that I would be able to relate to pretty much anyone who had graduated a few years before or after my class of 1981. What I've found is that alums who matriculated throughout the 70s tend to have similarly insouciant attitudes and familiar testimonials to the freewheeling student culture of that time. Alumni from the classes of about 1983-88, however, seem like a drabber race who inhabited a diluted place, while the 90s-and-up grads start to have a recognizable vibe again. This puts me in the position of relating more overall to people from another generation than I do to some of my supposedly fellow Baby Boomers.

The Baby Boomer generation officially encompasses those of us born between the years 1946 and 1964. In Generation Jones, Jonathan Pontell proposes that the group be separated into two sub-sets, and the second one labeled the name of his book's title. I think there are actually three divisions, and appropriate designations are the warriors, the revelers, and the reactionaries.

The first Baby Boomers did the serious work of the war, both the fighting and the protesting of it, rallied en masse against injustice, and showed considerable guts in challenging social convention. They swept the deck clean of restraint for the next group, the revelers (in which I include my age group), who made irreverent hay among the ruins of the old order. While the warriors' intensity caused them to push their youthful pursuits, both noble and debauched, to extremes, we revelers self-protectively stepped back from the edge and behind irony's buffer. The reactionaries, born in the 60s tail-end of the time span, shrank further from all that wide-open, ill-defined space, and retreated into the confining "isms," like consumerism and elitism, that the trailblazers and tastemakers thought had been permanently booted to the culture's sidelines.

Who are those people? I'm referring to the ones who were so not cool during the 80s, and who continue to exhibit that they just don't get the drift by doing things like having too many kids, and walking around in phone headsets, which is the single most screechingly uncool thing you can be doing right now (although asking for a Starbucks sleeve for its status value runs a close second). Granted, there was a gritty, hungover, living-in-a-giant-ashtray quality to existence at the end of the 70s, but that alone doesn't explain the sprouting of these susceptible, irony-deficient individuals. It's as if the Baby Boomer generation was one extended family, and its final, duller issue was the result of blood-thinning. Perhaps they missed out on the kindred slant because they chose binge drinking over pot smoking during their formative years.

A fear factor could well be a crucial part of it. Even with the specter of Vietnam looming, the earlier segments of the generation came of age essentially unafraid, perhaps the last in our lifetimes to do so. There was a core confidence in the warriors and revelers that we were right about a lot of things because, well, we were, but our cockiness also came from not yet being presented with the bill for our extended throw-down. That arrived in various forms, including AIDS, which was first publicly noted in June 1981, one month after my class graduated. It was as if at the end of the 70s, an iridescent bubble hovering over the country's youth burst, leaving those below slightly sticky, and scanning the darkening cultural landscape for familiar forms of solace, such as wealth, religion, and stylized hairdos.

Yet even if the Baby Boom butt-enders were motivated to scramble for conventional cover by fear, that still doesn't explain how the new, younger people are evidencing cool, because they've grown up in a veritable Age of Apprehension. No doubt they've been helped along by having warriors and revelers as parents, and by the hip vein that courses through the Boomer-dominated media, all the way down to the knowing shows that make up Snick, Nickelodeon's Saturday night lineup. Maybe their skepticism and heightened powers of absurdity-detection have come about in part from their bombardment by all-channels, all-the-time reality, and in part from their inclination to smoke.

The irony is that their generation is doing what ours did, possibly in even greater numbers, and yet they're doing it in a cultural climate so much more constrictive than the one in which we lit up that it could be on a different planet. They're receptive to hearing about and able to envision the past Liberty Epoch, however, and maybe in its tales' telling lies the germ for some version of its return.


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