Tag Archives: subculture

Another Bozo on the Bus, by R.F. Part 1 of 4

31 Dec

R.F. lives in L.A. with a deaf, but talkative, elderly female cat. He is retired, meditates daily, practices tai chi and yoga, and loves his friends (including Kitty Kroger).

Part 1 of 4

I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, in August of 1948. I would have had a different life if my parents had raised me there rather than in Los Angeles, California, where we moved when I was five. I’m grateful that I was raised in “the Land of Golden Opportunity,” as my father liked to call it, because when I was growing up in L.A. there was a palpable sense that virtually anything was possible. This, in turn, produced an openness to the idea that you could re-invent yourself, which I’ve been wont to do a few times in my life. In addition, an open cultural climate fostered general support for social justice and tolerance for the differences between people.

Despite those advantages, the detailed and true tale I tell here is of a person who struggled to overcome bio-chemical and family-of-origin issues for decades. All of the following events actually happened, and I describe them, to the best of my ability, as I remember them. I am now living a content, fully functional life, but as you will see I almost didn’t make it.

Some Background

From kindergarten on, I had demonstrated artistic ability, which my dad discouraged unless I drew “technical” things like airplanes. “If you try to be an artist, you’ll starve and wind up being a soda jerk.” (Decades later I painted some watercolors and acrylics which were well received. I do plan to start painting again, by the way, for my own pleasure). I was also good at taking things apart and putting them back together, sometimes better than they were to begin with. Starting in Grade 7, I got straight As in all the shop classes the school had. Nevertheless, my dad repeatedly told me that I should plan to go to UCLA to study engineering. “Engineers are getting all the good jobs.” The space race, nuclear power plants, and nuclear bomb delivery systems, along with other cold-war military hardware, were all being heavily budgeted. Clearly he had a point. Besides, he worked for companies such as Litton Industries, and his income had enabled our small family to become solidly middle class. I came to believe that becoming an engineer was my destiny, although I had only a vague idea of what that meant. Dad never told me what exactly he did at work. I suspect that had less to do with national security (Soviet spies were supposed to be everywhere you know) than with vanity, the concern that his son would think less of him if he revealed that he was merely a cog in the military-industrial machine.

By the age of nine, I was aware of civil rights because my father talked about social causes and the liberal agenda of the time. I remember intervening when I saw two white boys calling a black boy (they were all about nine, too) the n-word and threatening to beat him up. I told them that he was a human being just like them and to leave him alone. They looked surprised and left. Thanks to my dad.

My father often spoke about the great historical figures, with whom he was obviously impressed. I acquired my love of history from him, and I’m grateful for that too.

Beginning in Grade 5, I chased high grades. That’s what all perfect sons are supposed to do, right? (I was reminded almost daily that I was expected to be perfect). Perhaps that explains why in the latter part of junior high I elected to take all the “right” college-prep courses and made “Scholarship” in Grade 9.

In the early sixties, mainframe IBM computers began to get media attention (Model 7040, for example). Dad tried repeatedly to instill in me an interest in the emerging digital technology. He seemed to be in awe of what could be done with zeros and ones. The implication was that this “new” digital numbering system was superior to the one I was using at school every day. I totally didn’t get it. To this day, I’m somewhat intimidated by the electronic magic (with all of its 1s and 0s) that goes on inside my laptop.

When comparing me with my dad, people would say that I was “a chip off the old block.” It puzzled me. In actuality, we were so different and never really understood each other. The scary reality, which my father only spoke obliquely about, was that I was more like my Uncle Jack, the troubled sibling of my dad’s generation–the only one of the three brothers who would spend time in prison.

All the talk about getting good grades, going to a big-name college like UCLA, and someday getting a great job meant nothing to me. Whatever I achieved was an attempt to win my parents’ approval by fulfilling their expectations–until I played H.S. football, as explained below.  As the only child of upwardly mobile, materialistic parents, I was showered with toys, most of which I didn’t want and had no use for. I usually felt shame, not joy, when I received these things. I believed I didn’t deserve them because I wasn’t perfect.

By the age of twelve I was aware of the emptiness of the middle-class lifestyle and the sham of the pursuit of the American Dream. I was unhappy with being me, and no amount of potential status in society could change that. I became cynical about what I perceived to be the hypocrisy, especially the seemingly pasted-on religious values, of the adults around me. These people were clearly not living by Jesus’ teachings that I’d been taught as a child in Sunday School. Looking back, I think that the mindless pursuit of materialism in the fifties and its inherent competitiveness by my parents’ generation produced these same sorts of reactions in a significant portion of my peer group, and that this disillusionment necessarily led to much of the radicalism that emerged in the sixties and that still resonates today.

High School: Football Plus Missed Opportunities

My feeling about high school, which I entered in 1963, was that it wasn’t worth a damn. It just seemed to be a social game I could not relate to, a lot of posturing and other “phony baloney.” In contrast, playing high school football was real. Get to the other guy. Push him out of the way so your guy could get over the scrimmage line and make yardage, maybe even score a touchdown. That was tangible, no bullshit involved there. Even the “stunts” we pulled off successfully in games were the result of hard work at practice, not whimsy.

I played both offense and defense, lettering in all three grades. Both of my parents had opposed my playing football. Mother made it clear she didn’t want her “little boy” to get hurt. Dad feared the worst too, but was more concerned that football was another interest, like art, that wouldn’t lead to a good job.

Anyway, about a month after our last game (we had won the Northern League Championship), the assistant coach told me there would be an awards banquet and that I would be awarded the All-League Lineman of the Year trophy. That blindsided me. I said, “Coach, you’re lying.” During the games, I had done just what we’d practiced all week to do. I never had the sense that what I did was special in any way. I didn’t do it for praise (especially from my parents). I did it because it was my job. Being task-oriented in this way would later carry over into my military training and working life, and it seems to this day to be just about the only thing of significance that I got from high school.

At the awards banquet, when called up to the dais to receive the award, I was the only one introduced as “the strong, silent type” and with no humorous anecdotes. Apparently I had spent too much time doing my job and not enough relating to the other players. Nobody knew me, and later in life I would be characterized as being “personality free.” Ouch!

What I failed to understand about social life in the high school microcosm, which I dismissed as superficial and meaningless, was that social intercourse, even the most trivial, is what helps people to pull together to accomplish things that an individual acting alone can’t. Moreover, when people get along and form social bonds, it can be satisfying and add to their quality of life. I was a loner because socializing for long was too stressful and wore me out. It took a change in brain chemistry many decades later for me to understand what I’d been missing. But that’s another chapter in my story, better suited for a different blog.

Women’s Issues

I was quite young when I first became aware of a division of labor. People would say, ironically usually women, “Oh, that’s women’s work.” And I would think, What? That’s a bunch of traditional nonsense. I can do that too. My hands work just as well as women’s hands, and vice versa. Anybody can do these jobs. What’s wrong with equal opportunities for all? We are human beings first. Early on I was adamant about questioning many of the traditions people seemed to follow blindly.

In my early teens I began to formulate definite ideas about women’s rights. It seemed a great waste of human potential that girls often didn’t have an equal opportunity to grow up to be whole people, to have thoughts of their own, to have lives of their own, and to come to occupy positions of power and influence. I saw in my own mother what could go horribly wrong. To me she was an intellectually and emotionally stunted person because she bought into the myth that a woman’s role was to be a fashion plate, to constantly buy clothes, shoes and jewelry, to wear excessive makeup and buy the latest hairdos. Her hero was Marilyn Monroe!

Even as a child, by observing my mother and other women I knew, I sensed that Hollywood glamour was being set up as the desirable model for women everywhere. I was appalled by what I regarded as freakish images of women in various media. I was disgusted by the grotesque, unnatural visages I saw in tabloids, magazines, movies. It was a great relief to me when women, especially the young, began to rebel (to “burn the bra” and reject the polyester) and adopt a more natural appearance. I always wished my mom would “get it,” but she never did.

Politics

Beginning in adolescence, much of my political consciousness came from the Playboy magazines I had access to. There was the part of Playboy that was about sex and skin, obviously. You know by now that I didn’t dig the glamour part but did appreciate the nudity. (Who doesn’t see the intrinsic beauty and sexiness of a naked body?) There was also the “Playboy Advisor,” which was my go-to source for factual information about sexual function, an area of growing interest. Most important, though, was the “Playboy Interview,” where people like Malcolm X could actually tell millions of readers what was on their minds. That’s how my political consciousness was raised! I also read Newsweek, Time, U.S. News and World Report and other publications–anything I could get my hands on.

Suicide Attempt

By Grade 11, I was now in my first serious relationship and receiving flak about that from my parents. The girlfriend apparently didn’t meet their standards–not perfect enough I guess. Truth was, I had the sense that I wasn’t right for her. She had a sunny personality and lots of friends. I was judgmental, morose, and had no friends except for her. Depressed that I would never measure up or amount to anything, I began telling myself (about a year into our relationship) that if I continued to see her I would ruin her life. I allowed my stress to become acute and unbearable. I was used to my parents being unsupportive, so I had no thought of asking for their help. I decided the only way out was to kill myself. That way my girlfriend could go on with her life, free of all my negative energy, and I wouldn’t have to face the consequences of breaking up with her!

I went to the local pharmacy and bought a month’s supply of Sleepeze, which I thought would do the deed. That night before climbing into bed, I took the whole bottle. I left no suicide note, feeling that my parents didn’t deserve one! In the morning I was found in a kind of stupor with vomit all over me, the bed, and the floor. I was alive because I didn’t know that even a whole bottle of Sleepeze wouldn’t kill a healthy person. It would be years before I was to learn about which drugs can actually kill someone, but by then I was self-medicating with street drugs and was no longer suicidal.

Graduation

I pulled myself together emotionally somewhat, stayed in the relationship with my girlfriend (she was so tolerant of my personality deficits and other eccentricities that I later married her), and went on to graduate from high school in June 1966. After she graduated a year later, we broke up for the first time. From then on, seeking something or someone to connect with, I began to drift more and more into the hippie subculture, lured by the sense that it was the breeding ground for new ideas that would save the world, and, perhaps, me as well.

End of Part 1 of 4

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