Commentary Magazine


Remembrance of Cultural Revolutions Past

Direct from the People's Republic of China she came to San Francisco with the glad tidings!

In the early 1970's, we were invited to gather at the apartment of our friends, the Natters, to hear a woman named Myrtle Ferguson describe her experience at the center of the Cultural Revolution, about which so many lies were being told in the imperialist bourgeois media.

1 Myrtle taught English in a Beijing school; like millions of her fellow strugglers, she wore a monochrome uniform; her hair, brutally cropped, fell over her forehead in a slab no one would dare call bangs. Now, she was traveling in America on a tour of enlightenment. Zucchini and Monterey Jack cheese would be served, along with wine and, at my request, beer.

Piled democratically on the floor, leaning on giant Esalen pillows, we turned our yearning faces toward oblong Myrtle, standing in her high-collared suit in front of the fireplace. Flirtation and gossip were shushed by our host. We were ready to be instructed.

“My former parents in Swarthmore, that's Pennsylvania, tried to mold me into someone like them, an Amerikan female,” she bitterly confessed.

Thanks to her clipped and crunched pronunciation, we all knew that there was a “k” in “American.” “I came to understand my destiny lay in the People's Republic, home to the Chinese people. In the East, land of the mighty Red River. . . .”

After the groundwork, she got into the more advanced stuff. “So I took a job teaching English in Beijing”—the name of the city, articulated by Myrtle in a no doubt authentic accent, sounded to my ears like amplified granola. Wind chimes rang out in the evening fog on Russian Hill. Myrtle had brought them as a house gift for her hosts, Marjie and Ted. The bringing of house gifts was another gracious custom she had learned in the People's Republic.

These were days that tried persons' souls. Myrtle was resolute, stern of demeanor: she had found the truth and intended to share it. The room was crowded. I leaned with my wife against the legs of a couple who had taken the couch. Ted Natter borrowed the neck of my beer bottle for tapping purposes and asked that we discontinue our private whisperings. There was an endless war in Vietnam, and Amerikans were out of step with history.

My teeth bit down hard on a crisp vertical slice of zucchini. I nibbled a cube of Monterey Jack, and offered my new young wife the first sip of my second beer. She delicately swallowed from the long neck. I loved her every gesture.

Stalwart, serene, Myrtle was describing how the People had settled a troubling question about the principal of the school where she taught. “The masses entered his office and determined that he had a landlord mentality, which he had craftily hidden from everyone.”

I raised my hand, uncertain if this conformed to the rules. “Crafty and deceitful,” she was saying, “like all those with landlord mentalities.”

I waved my arm. She ignored the disturbance. In my eagerness, I had spread a mist of beer over our neighbors on the floor. Melissa, my well-mannered wife, prudently removed the bottle from my foam-covered hand. “How?” I asked Myrtle. “How did you find out about his landlord mentality?”

“The masses looked into his desk. We opened a drawer.” But they didn't harm him, she explained, because this was not the way of the Great Leader. Instead, in their just desire for the re-education of a cadre gone astray, the masses asked the principal to sit in the courtyard of the school with a dunce cap on his head. Then the masses lined up in an orderly fashion and, to express their sincere outrage and urge him to reform his thought, urinated on him.

I murmured, not even certain what I was saying. Perhaps it was a question about whether the bladder-voiding method of re-education enlisted both students and teachers, or perhaps I wanted merely to clear up a technical detail about how the female masses positioned themselves if they remained standing. Revolutionaries, of course, can always find a way, just as the turbulent waters of springtime rains in the People's Republic rush down the slopes of the mountains, finding the correct channels.

Having murmured, I spoke aloud. “Did he reform?”

Myrtle Ferguson regretted to say that the answer remained uncertain. Having taken the capitalist road, he chose instead to commit suicide. He made this decision without consulting his colleagues; it was typical of a capitalist-roader to deprive the people of their labor. Our guest of honor, a seeker of the righteous path—as were most of us—might be kind in the future, and so might the masses, but today, this year, this century, was no time for weakness.

_____________

I could have used another long-necked bottle to share with my wife. During the post-lesson group discussion, Ted Natter sought me out. He must have suspected that I was the victim of my own landlord mentality, a recent perpetrator of murmurings. He wanted to rescue me by Socratic, or perhaps Hegelian, interrogation. He asked: Was I opposed to culture?

No.

Was I opposed to revolution?

Uh . . . depends.

He ignored this. So, culture and revolution, you put them together, and you get synergy, two conjoined, unbeatable goods. “Look at yourself, Herb. Look at history.”

I looked at myself and history, now located in an apartment in San Francisco. Peace picketers (I among them), red Mao buttons (well, Melissa had sewn rainbow ribbons on my shirts), and earth shoes were on the march. I was noticing cartridge belts with bullets on some of the more stylish women and asked one of them, whom I'll call Trenda, why. “It's a neat look,” she said, “kind of edgy.” Later she would explain further: “pushes the envelope.”

But no bourgeois exploiters with landlord mentalities were being shipped from post-Summer of Love San Francisco to work on pig farms in, say, New Jersey or Tennessee. Along with Maui Wowie, a much-favored brand of grass, Little Red Books were being imported to expand the consciousness of zucchini-nibbling, wine-sipping exploiters on Russian, Nob, and Telegraph Hills, not to mention Pacific Heights.

Ted Natter had recently taken to reminding Melissa: why don't you tell Herb to stay home and look after the children so you can go out and write books? Gazing at him with a smile that removed the sting from her sentences, she explained: “He does what he does, and I do what I do. And we have nice babysitters, this Filipino and tonight this girl from the Art Institute—”

“Filipina, not with an o. Woman, not girl. But hiring slaves doesn't—”

We'd had our beverages, our cheese, our zucchini, our lecture, and it was time to leave, saving an hour off the cost of our slave. Often the best part of an evening out was the stroll home in the San Francisco damp, Melissa's hand on my arm, letting the night settle silent around us.

_____________

Love Thy Sisters

Like so many middle-aged others in San Francisco during that interval of glorious Unreality Check, I had been reinfected with adolescence. But I was doing adolescence better this time, giddy with the music (the “San Francisco Sound!”), the dancing, the avid look of the young as they danced, grokked & grooved, and read Herman Hesse for life guidance. Burdened with a sanity I couldn't quite overcome, I did take exception to Hesse on the grounds of excess mysticism, and to Chairman Mao on other grounds. But Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, even Country Joe with his “gimme an F” antiphonal chant against the Vietnam war—goddamn but it was fun. Blessed indeed was it to be alive in Golden Gate Park. Was that eucalyptus I smelled, or was it weed? Space travelers who had no need of NASA equipment launched themselves from Hippie Hill day and night, bongos and guitars supplying soothing jet propulsion.

For a season or two, the new world began on any day when the troops of the children's crusade climbed off the Greyhound bus from Galveston, Ithaca, or Cleveland. I was already living here, smelling the flowers, the patchouli, the eucalyptus, and my wife's hair. We consented to be very young, very happy—for now youth could be wasted on everyone. We looked deeply into each other, often seeing only ourselves but sometimes, sometimes, the other. My new wife and I brought into this new world the three children we wanted, all in a row, bringing my own total to five.

But the ecology of Eden would not be complete without apples and snakes. Timothy Leary preached freedom, wrote psychedelic prescriptions, and covertly dosed his visitors' drinks. Our friends the Natters set out to change the nature of marriage in general, and our own in particular. Unmet requirements were a challenge to them, especially in a time that demanded change “by any means necessary,” as Malcolm X had put it.

Marjie and Ted launched a lightning campaign to save our souls. Foremost on the program was that child and household duties must be moved from the wife to the spouse. Next, the writing trade needed to be transferred to the wife. Unfortunately, we balked at reform. I continued practicing prose; Melissa believed it was her own choice to spend much of the day with our children, who wore gender-specific clothing except for diapers. Marjie and Ted had their work cut out for them.

Our friendship with the Natters might have become monotonous, except that monotony was not allowed during this time of the Summer-of-Love hangover. Although Ted was pinched in judgment and vindictive when disagreed with, and Marjie virulent in her anger against whatever violated her (evolving) code, they both had wide, generous, bright, and happy smiles. That's almost the same as having large, generous, accepting hearts.

Melissa and I tried to rescue our friendship by any means necessary, even a bourgeois dinner involving porcelain, crystal, and normal conversation about children, psychedelics, and the war in Vietnam. Ted and Marjie were happy to join us, not even asking who was doing the cooking. Our own last-ditch campaign, envisioning light at the end of a tunnel of dissonance, featured rack of lamb, brown rice, and a salad with baby shrimp and a delicate vinaigrette dressing, the last ingredient included by Melissa so that she could pronounce it like the waiter at our favorite North Beach restaurant: “vinegar-et.” (Sometimes her jokes were tainted by elitism.)

The feeding neared its conclusion with crème brûlée prepared from a secret recipe Melissa had inherited from her mother and had promised to give to no one but her own daughter. We bit the crisp caramel, we licked the high-cholesterol spoons, Marjie put her hand on my wife's hipbone and announced: “We can only destroy patriarchal control of Amerika if we learn to love our sisters.”

_____________

This was not a stab at learning a secret recipe. This was a pass. Melissa's delicate Celtic skin turned purple with embarrassment, both because of the polemical nature of the pass and because of the presence of respective husbands witnessing it. The passee moved away. The passer's hand was detached, slipped off. There was a difficult moment of silence.

As a typical sexist host, it was my duty to say or do something. “Uh,” I said. And then: “So, Ted, what do you think about this?”

His voice, normally high, turned higher, as if his chest had tightened. “I totally respect it,” he said.

“Do you want to love your brothers, too, uh, that way?”

“I do, I do! Problem is . . . you wouldn't be up for sharing the experience with me. Most of my friends have bought into the straight thing. And the kind of man I could pick up . . .”

He read my mind. I was thinking of the cluster of Polk Street hustlers near Hard On Leathers, Gray Wolf Clothing, and the White Swallow bar.

“It would be, I don't know, sort of like, uncomfortable?”

Right. It took two to tango, even a tango like this one, confined to the portion of the cortex that measures moral imperatives. “Some day,” I said, and he gazed expectantly into my eyes, “some day we'll have to not talk about this.”

The evening ended with insincere vows to meet again soon. I told Melissa that I loved the way she blushed a deep purple; due to my darker skin, I could never provide so dramatic a portrayal of embarrassment. “We Scotch-Irish-English have all the luck, don't we?” she said. She sighed. Our friendship with the Natters seemed to be suspended.

Nevertheless, in the metropolitan village of San Francisco, we met and remet. That was the deal, one of the peculiar aspects of living in a metropolis, with all its eccentricities and dangers, that was also a village with its proximities and interconnections. During an afternoon espresso run to the Café Trieste, flagship of the Beat flotilla, I found Ted. Great minds do not always think alike, and not all minds are great, but espresso is a valuable common lubricator. We moved our chairs to sit together. Instead of commenting on the niceness of the weather and the steamy warmth of the Trieste, I asked Ted if he thought Marjie in recent years had developed some kind of suspicion of men.

“Oh, no,” he declared, defending her consistency. “It's longstanding. Not me, of course; we're super-close.”

“I know you're an exception. But why the hatred of other men?”

He struggled for a succinct explanation. “Well, she's studied history. Hitler was a man.”

And Aristotle was a friend of mine (not him personally, but his writings). The syllogism implied here lay beyond my grasp.

Ted hastened to assure me that it was nothing personal and that remedy was available. Ever since they decided not to be husband and wife but spouse and spouse, equal, level, parallel, and sharing, all discord had evaporated from their partnership. They didn't eat grapes (Cesar Chavez). They sewed their own rainbow flag to hang at the door (gay rights). They chose Halloween as their major holiday because witches can be of any gender, no matter what people think. And he had agreed to clothe their two sons in dresses so that they would appreciate what women face in the patriarchal world.

_____________

Not so much later, spouse and spouse would get divorced anyway.

It was a divorce of the new no-fault variety and of the even newer everybody-wins persuasion. They still shared picketings, marches, and custody of the sons, who objected to their dresses even after their father took to referring to them as caftans. On the playground during soccer practice, it seems, their fellow students sneered at such linguistic distinctions.

My wife with her well-exercised love of comedy proposed that she invite Marjie's ex-husband on a date. This too was an idea in accord with the times, as well as a comment on the Natters' abstract theories. Melissa telephoned Ted, and he was thrilled. “Lunch?” she asked.

He started to name a time when he would come for her. She interrupted: “I'll pick you up.”

That was the drill. It was 1972, after all. Only sexists of the 50's and earlier would expect the XY chromosomes to call for the XX chromosomes. In the terrible history of oppressive social conditioning, men had usurped sexual vehicle-transport privileges.

Melissa giggled; I, being an XY chromosome non-giggler, chortled.

On the appointed day she arrived at Ted's door with a corsage for his Mao jacket, which he wore over a Mexican shirt. Green illicit herb embroidery sprouted behind the live, legal gardenias she pinned to him. He stood stiffly at attention.

“Relax,” she commanded. Ted had trouble relaxing. Sometimes grooviness was asking a lot, even of a cutting-edge thinker. At the restaurant, she whispered loudly to the waiter to be sure to give her the check. But she did not make advances on him because in truth he had always had difficulty adjusting to Marjie's multicultural, polyamorous principles—and he may also have been suspicious of Melissa's sudden embrace of them. So, except for the price of lunch, there was no damage to our household. Melissa came home, still giggling, and that evening our children reflected our good humor out of the normal mysterious reasons of children.

Nevertheless, family stress occurs in general, and in the early 70's, with three babies in diapers, a mere fifteen-month-space between our daughter and the twin boys, stress occurred in our family in particular. The times were ones of marital breakdown—nothing new, but the intensity of it was special.

My wife's history was that of a well-brought-up Ivy League young woman; most of her friends came of similar backgrounds, academically replete, trained winners. Their husbands were the same. But, one by one, the marriages were cracking. I would appear at the end of the afternoon, and she would say, “Muffie has left Glenn.” A month or two later, Polly had departed her marriage with Devon.

It felt ominous. When the fourth pal danced off in her Capezios, I was superstitiously relieved, and referred to the group as the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse. Then there was a fifth. There was a sixth, a seventh. In each case, the bereft husband seemed not to be a brute, conspicuously unfaithful, an alcoholic, or a negligent provider. He was a husband; that was the problem.

The eighth horsewoman of the Apocalypse was Melissa.

Being a reasonable person, generous and fair-minded, she agreed to see a therapist. She was sad about my sadness. She was considering our children, too. The therapist recommended by one of her friends lived in outer Marin County, but she made the drive anyway. One session was all the treatment necessary, since she entered the office and the psychologist asked what was the problem and she said, “I want to leave my husband.” The therapist looked warmly into her eyes. “Well, then, you're okay,” she said.

My wife returned grinning with the information. We adjourned to the bedroom. She noted that the therapist had been divorced three times, and confided that she now thought she might be more fond of women than of men. She shrugged. “Those are the breaks, Herb.”

_____________

Not Letting Go

The leaves of the calendar drop, the snows melt, the potholes grow deeper. Years later, I decided to invite Ted for lunch to revisit our shared past. No longer married to Marjie, he was also no longer married to his next wife. His grown sons no longer wore dresses, unless during secret fashion shows before bedroom mirrors in their suburban tract houses. Ted's hair was still ample, but fluffy and white. He had passed through his spasm of Maoism and his longing to share sex with the proper same-gender partner.

I bought lunch; no corsage. With my purchase, I assumed the right to ask questions. Beginning abstractly in order to ease gracefully into my personal concerns, I brought up the People's Republic of China. “Well, it didn't work out,” he said, and shrugged. The broken eggs hadn't made a viable omelet, or even a tasty egg foo yung. “Also, now they've got a lot of . . .” He considered how much to grant me. “Pollution?”

He still ended his sentences with an upward-swinging question, in the California manner.

So then, cautiously, I brought up my own marriage, declaring that of course I didn't exactly blame the Natters for causing trouble—the trouble went deeper into the times than anything they were responsible for—but suggesting that bad will hurts friendship.

He looked sad, concerned, very much like a person who regretted accepting a free lunch. “Well, Herb, you were a sexist, you know.” He gathered defensive momentum. “You wrote all those books, but Melissa didn't get to write any. Who knows if, instead, you . . .”

What?

“. . . if the world had been different?”

He too had regrets. He too had lost a few things. He picked at his non-farmgrown salmon. Writing books is a dream for many; even Ted had written a couple of prescriptive manuals, and Marjie had formed a publishing house with her womyn partner to issue works of feminist anti-revisionism.

“So how are the kids?” he asked.

He took the words right out of my mouth. “Fine, how are yours?” And once more we vowed to meet again before too long, because time passes so quickly and a shared history must be respected and, after all, we used to be friends.

_____________

Nostalgia, like jealousy, may do no good work, but remembrance provides the necessary fuel for taking stock. And so, although we had insincerely promised that we would meet again, we actually did. Once more I invited Ted Natter for coffee, lunch, or dinner—his choice. My telephone heartiness seemed to make him cautious. “Coffee,” he said.

As we settled in at the café, I reminded him that the price of their brew had gone up, and we both recalled the pretty German hippie who used to serve the coffee, with her proud display of American idiom skills—“gut vibes,” “hup tight,” “Miles Davidtz.” We were two old friends whose friendship had been a casualty of the times. The bond of dead friendship is still a bond.

I told him about the Weatherperson who had visited me to ask for money, seeming to offer her comely person as a door prize. Also about the Maoist of the Revolutionary Communist party, Splinter Faction Direct-Action Committee—not precisely its real name—a San Francisco social worker who came to ask for a contribution for Bob Avakian, the faction's chairman-in-exile now carrying on from the 13th arrondissement in Paris. Subcommander Helen did not offer sex or even hint at it. “Bob has read your works,” she said. “He thinks you're salvageable.”

Ted listened attentively, letting me ramble. We had lived a history together.

“Yeah, that Avakian faction,” he said. “That activist, did she have a Frida Kahlo decal on her Corvair?”

“She came by bike.”

“Was it a ten-speed?”

Details, details. I didn't remember everything.

After his stint as a Russian Hill Maoist, Ted had settled into ameliorating the world's ills on a freelance basis. No longer a revolutionary, he was an evolutionary. Frontal opposition seemed counterproductive; it was better to save the whales incrementally, one by one, and then move on to the dolphins. He wrote mailings for a foundation opposed to child labor and shark fishing (the whales being saved by others). “I'm doing a job,” he said, “and I'm doing it good.”

_____________

Now that Ted was no longer married—“between marriages,” he said—and his child-support days were over, the living was pretty easy. The trousered sons were doing okay for themselves, one as a chef, the other as a middle-school teacher. He rented a bachelor apartment with cotton balls heaped in a glass jar, a stack of the Nation on an end table, shampoo and conditioner from a worker-owned store on a convenient shelf in the shower. He had earned his comfort. A Spanish-speaking cleaning woman came every two weeks, checked the cat box, changed the sheets, dusted and vacuumed, and what he didn't know about her legal status hurt neither of them.

The suffering urge for female companionship had also faded, calmed by regular payments to the jukebox at the Puccini Café, which stocked music from Turandot and La Bohème and gave a fellow between marriages his space for sentimental meditation.

And that stuff about wanting, if he could, to be bisexual?

“You remember that, Herb?”

“I do.”

“That was just, I don't know, Marjie thought it was part of the program. Like McLuhan said, it was a probe.”

Midlife tristesse had replaced indignation as his driving force. Without actually losing weight, his cheekbones had become more visible. He apologized for the hoarseness of his voice. “A little acid reflux, too much fried food,” he explained, “and I ran out of Tums last night.” So he had something else to believe in: calcium carbonate in an over-the-counter formula. With my normal kindliness, I asked him if his activities on behalf of the Cultural Revolution had been funded by others. “Are you a man of dependent means?”

“Pardon?”

“I mean, did you have . . . did your parents leave you a little something?”

“Herb, that's a low blow. Nothing major at all. A little house in, what difference does it make? But some, yes, so I did feel I needed to pay back.”

He had paid back with strips of zucchini, squares of Monterey Jack, and drinks in his apartment with a view above North Beach. Some San Franciscans of insufficient faith had learned from a visiting ex-Quaker Maoist to have a little more faith. After a proper silence and mutual staring into the middle distance, we found ourselves recalling that last family dinner together. We were both embarrassed for me that I was still dwelling on the subject.

I consoled him by saying that, from this distance, Marjie's public pass at my wife, in the presence of the husbands, seemed to have the purity of heroic theory. Although it was doomed to be rebuffed and to cause purple blushing, it achieved its real goal as a demonstration. And when Ted had said, “I'd like to, but I just . . . can't find the right man,” he had proved he was not yet pure enough. There were still obstacles in the way of sex as a political statement; he was still the selfish victim of his personal desires and appetites. For Marjie, on the other hand, the issue of whether she desired or not, whether she had an appetite or not, was irrelevant. She was proving a point. She was making a revolutionary gesture.

Like many fanatics, Marjie was consistent. She burned with the heat that enabled her to put dresses on her sons, those two boisterous and charming kids, kicking a soccer ball in their encumbering skirts. What other people called love was, for Marjie, a continuation of the war, and not merely the war between the sexes. It was a war against imperfection in the world, a struggle to the death.

_____________

The More Things Change . . . The More They Change

Peggy, a free-lance seeker who left part of her cerebral cortex on pawn with her LSD dealer, had a revelation, quite a few of them, and took up a new profession as seer of all things, past and future. She had brought her tarot cards to the apartment where I was living with Melissa, then still my wife-to-be, and offered her a reading, free of charge. She shuffled the cards, turned one over, perhaps another, mumbled, and pronounced: “A tall red-headed man will be most important in your life.”

“But,” Melissa said, “I'm going to marry Herb, and he isn't so tall or red-haired.”

“Those are mere details,” said Peggy. “But hey, congratulations.”

Of course the cards must have meant me. I was of upper medium height, and black is just a short jump from red on the color spectrum.

Melissa and I may have thought we were immune to nonsense because we were entertained by the fads, by what everyone now calls the herd of independent minds, but we too breathed that air. Restlessness was seductive, the sweet sounds of young voices raised along with Grace Slick to invoke Alice when she was ten feet tall; it was contagious. Add the scent of eucalyptus and patchouli; add eyeballs revolving with medicated intimations of permanent youth and infinite pleasure. To experience the intoxication of the endless Summer of Love, you didn't even need the eucalyptus.

By the early 70's it seemed that every well-brought-up sensible woman was growing less sensible and less married. Donna, an entitled Old San Francisco hippie with whom I sometimes car-pooled to school functions and other childcare duties, reproached me for writing for Playboy.

“Herb, that is a disgrace. You must stop. You owe it to yourself.”

Her VW van was painted with flowers and mandalas. “Donna, I have five children to support. I can't do it writing for the American Scholar.”

“You could try.”

“You don't understand. You have a tax-free income of over a hundred thousand a year.”

She was driving indignantly now, knuckles white on the steering wheel. “Herb, that is a dirty rotten lie. Ninety-seven thousand.”

“Plus a house without a mortgage on Telegraph Hill.”

She was driving indignantly and indignantly preparing her answer. She was used to being understood by men, or at least to seeing men furrow their brows with the effort or the pretense of understanding, because she was not only rich and Old San Francisco but also cute. Her dark glossy hair was sliced into bangs, shortening her forehead, making the large round blue eyes appear even rounder, bluer, more mysteriously baby-like in their rarely-blinking gaze. Such eyes were an important element in the will of many men, even liberated ones, to understand or pretend to understand.

“But I do all the cooking,” she said.

Her parents had a resident cook; she did without. Her parents drove a white Cadillac; she drove a VW van with flower decals. Her husband was a lawyer, but on weekends he wore a buckskin jacket with Indian fringes. Eventually, of course, she too joined the Horsewomen of the Apocalypse and struck out for the territory ahead, which in her case meant keeping the house and trust fund but shaving her pubic hair in the shape of a heart. (How do I know this? Everybody knew this.)

The reason our world is filled with peace and love today is that Donna kept the faith.

_____________

Despite their historical grooviness, despite the days of go-with-the-flow, of dancing in Golden Gate Park with the fragrance of fresh-smoked grass wafting above, the Natters' passion had not been to leap into the youth carnival as it then found us. Rather, they intended to control the world's unruliness with theory. For them, the necessary discipline could be achieved by surrendering control to a roster of distant perfect controllers, like Chairman Mao or, in moments of hectic inspiration . . . Germaine Greer.

Ted and Marjie's willingness to ride contentedly through the historical turbulence cried out for no explanation. They didn't need to justify themselves, because they knew. But after the unending Summer ended, folks were feeling angry in addition to groovy—irritated about parking meters, speed bumps, writers selling out to Playboy; mad about the justice system, not enough or too much affirmative action, abuse of food stamps. They were angry about not really ruling their own lives, as they had planned to do, after a season in which Freedom was the mantra. Sexual differences and gender confusions, mercury in the tuna salad, artificially ripened tomatoes—there was an all-ya-caneat buffet of life details. Directions for installing new electronic equipment were too confusing; hangovers lasted too long.

In some cases, enough details accumulated even to incite doubts about recently adopted truths. The Cultural Revolution turned out not to be so cultural, the revolution a retrogression in the world's food supply and in human kindness. The children of the Love generation, who had so sweetly burbled “No, no!” at their elders during their terrible twos, were now heading toward the truly terrible sullenness of adolescence.

The final bell has not yet tolled for most of these friends of middle age, before rock and roll finished doing its damage to the ears of a generation. But if it hasn't tolled, it's tinkled in the wind. Groovy had its price. Men now awaken at night to trudge toward the bathroom. Women have declared either victory over the patriarchy or, in that postmodern version of victory, defeat. New causes are no longer allowed to be called “crusades.”

Where are the flower folks now? Some live in Bolinas on the coast. A few cashed out before the dot-com crash and are tending to gated estates in Silicon Valley. Some, alas, have moved off this earth without making clear where they were headed. Donna is a doting grandmother with a succession of much younger lovers to dote along with her when she takes the grandchildren to Christmas productions of The Nutcracker.

Donna's hair is still glossy, the skin of her face unlined. Her well-managed trust has kept up with inflation, and she still lives the dream. Untouched by gray, but glowing with a mysterious purple radiance, her hair needs no chemical assistance to shorten her forehead, where it still emphasizes the untouched real estate of her very blue eyes. The face tuck is so tight that when she smiles, her ankles twitch. Even as she sails through later life, her choice of boyfriends remains curly-haired and smiley—young men who don't mind being taken care of.

“I'm a spiritual person,” she says, though more into spirituality than generosity; nurturing is not really her thing. But for the smiley, curly-haired young men, a trust with monthly disbursements can serve just as well.

_____________


Footnotes

1 In the interests of bourgeois kindness, some of the names have been changed in this chronicle.

_____________


About the Author

Herbert Gold is the author of the forthcoming My First Murder, among many other novels. His non-fiction books include Bohemia and Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth. A previous memoir by him, “In Bellow’s Company,” appeared in our September 2005 issue.




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