Almost a Hippie

by Denis Clifford © 2004

Hippies were cool–rebels, free. I'd first learned that in the mid-1960s, while living in Manhattan and finishing up a clerkship after law school. Reading Tom's Wolfe’s tale of those archetypal hippies, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, stimulated my dreams of escaping stifling East Coast culture.

I arrived in San Francisco at the end of "The Summer of Love"–Labor Day weekend, 1967. But I was no hippie drop out. Indeed, I was excited about my new job, working for Legal Services in an Oakland ghetto. Joining in the struggle for social justice was to live in the heart of my times.

My wife, Ronnie, had an old friend who knew a guy from the San Francisco Art Institute who played drums and had joined a band with some kids who lived near him. That first weekend, we set off to hear them play.

The band turned out to be Big Brother and the Holding Company, the singer Janis Joplin. The opening bands were the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. A wild crowd jammed the Fillmore, dancing, leaping, laughing, hugging, kissing. Men wore Mexican shirts or loin cloths and bangles or billowing pantaloons or were bare-chested or wearing god knows what. In my Manhattan circles, men still wore ties to dinner parties. Luscious women writhed in see-through blouses or swirled in frayed gossamer gowns, or tie-died skirts, or gypsy garb or very little, with shiny silver things on their foreheads or tiaras or flowers in their flowing hair. I smelled, then saw, marijuana everywhere. Strangers handed me joints. (Well, at least I wasn't a novice there; Ronnie, a bohemian Californian, had introduced me to dope a few years before.) After the first two bands finished, the crowd seemed exhausted; people sprawled on the floor or slumped against walls. Big Brother came on, Janis belted out the start of "Combination of the Two," and the instantly-frenzied crowd leapt in near unison to their feet, ecstatic. I felt excited, confused, and, deepest, unnerved. To paraphrase the prophet Bob Dylan, Something Was Happening Here and I Didn't Know What It Was, Did I, Mr. C?

For years, I’d managed to convince myself that I was cool; now I suddenly felt shaken. Real hippies were uninhibited, sexual, and at the glowing center–where I never managed to be. Worse, I sensed something ominous about their wildness, or perhaps wildness in me. But I was a twenty-seven year old Irish-American from a New Jersey suburb, reared to deny disturbing emotions. I told Ronnie I’d loved it all.

Within a few months, I had the hippie style down. My hair was growing towards shoulder length, I’d loved rock ‘n roll since first hearing Elvis and Chuck Berry as a teenager, and I surely didn’t have to fake the attitude that the grown-up world was a drag. I'd known since high school that joining what I was now sneering at as the "straight world" would break me. (Dylan, "twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.") I'd read enough about alienation in college, lived it enough working two years for Manhattan publishers before law school. There must be some way I could live authentically, from my core. "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more," Dylan, again.

Ronnie and I, drawn to hippie virtues of spontaneity and exploration, smoked more dope and roamed through San Francisco, meandering around Haight-Ashbury, the original hippie center, or hanging out in bohemian coffee houses in North Beach, or marveling at gorgeous stained glass windows in Victorian houses. With new friends, fellow seekers, including kindred spirits at Legal Services, we speculated on our futures, agreeing that Hippie could be more than escape, and deeper than sex, drugs and rock and roll. We were going to create a new world. I had little vision what that would be, beyond the elimination of corporate hierarchies and neckties.

Ah well, vision wasn’t my job. Passionately working for legal changes benefiting poor people, I focused on Governor Reagan’s "welfare reform laws" which were often illegal under federal law, and sometimes unconstitutional as well. Within a year, I felt hopeful. We’d won some major cases. A federal judge had prohibited enforcement of the Reagan-rule allowing a welfare department to deny money for two months to an otherwise eligible family because the department previously had mistakenly overpayed them. Under the rule, it was immaterial that the parent–almost always, a single mother–had no idea she’d been overpaid, and had no other resources to support and feed her family.

I became head of a nine-attorney, twenty-employee neighborhood law office in East Oakland. Thirty, thirty-five, sometimes forty clients a day flooded into our office with their miseries. Aside from individual service work and law reform–law revolution was more my dream–we’d begun to work with some community groups, from the East Oakland Black Panthers to nascent welfare rights organizations.

As if I didn’t see enough injustice at work to enrage me, the Vietnam War continued to poison my life, as well as the country’s. I screamed anger during protest marches, rallies, Stop the Draft Week, and admired both those committed to non-violent civil disobedience and the angrier radicals who called for moving "from protest to resistance."

In contrast to that fury, my hippie dream was becoming more alluring. Theodore Rozak’s writings spoke of the new "Counterculture" hippies were creating. Charles Reich's The Greening of America described our new consciousness, free of materialistic values. The core would be community. "Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose," D. H. Lawrence proclaimed. The essence of our new community would be cooperation, perhaps even love, not the destructive American competition I'd first experienced in Cub Scout baseball, when angry, uptight men (not my Dad) dominated our games and inflicted their "must-win" tensions on us kids.

As 1969 passed, I realized that I wasn’t willing (yet?) to experiment with radical new forms of community. I didn’t want to live in a commune, or become a member of a work collective or move "back to the land." (I joked that it was only three generations since my Irish forebears had wisely fled the land.) Happily, the hippie spirit, seething with change, also encouraged less drastic experiments.

With Adrian, a friend from work, and a fellow book lover and East Coast escapee, as well as a dashing adventurer–he owned a motorcycle–I organized a weekly dinner meeting of several office colleagues and mates. Perhaps we’d evolve into a commune. Also, I signed up for a class in making stained glass windows, a craft just being liberated from church-guild secretiveness. Since I’d first seen stained glass windows in my hometown Catholic Church, they’d thrilled me. But–me, try to make some art? Fortunately, the liberating hippie ethos urged everyone to be creative. Why not try?

"Break on through to the other side," the Doors urged. I hadn't broken through yet, but perhaps soon … Curious about LSD, I held back. Smoking dope had occasionally released feelings of "paranoia." I instinctively buried the fears I’d felt at a rock show in l968 with Ronnie, and another couple. Stoned, anxiety throbbed inside me, screeching that I knew nothing of the core of any of them. Nor did I mention to Ronnie, who’d become increasingly remote since deciding to drop her art history Ph.D. and become an actress, my experience at a workshop of Anna Halprin, dance experimenter. She’d directed our group to roll over onto each other. I’d rolled onto a woman’s body, feeling illicit thrills as she’d writhed sensually, then languidly rolled on top of me. And I surely wouldn’t divulge my attraction to beautiful Cathy, who worked for a foundation-funded group trying to reform Oakland schools.

The War dragged on; Nixon was apparently impervious to dissent. The U.S. cultural war grew nastier. One night, walking in San Francisco's North Beach, I passed a crew cut, stocky, middle aged man who sneered "Hippie'' at me. I turned toward him. "My kind hates your kind," he snarled. Asshole, I glared silently back, I'm not a kind–but I’m on the right side. Your world is dying.

Mine definitely had better music. Joan Baez sang at non-violent civil disobedience actions. The Grateful Dead played for hours at a benefit for radical lawyers. Protesting the War with tens of thousands at Golden Gate Park, I roared exuberantly with Country Joe and the Fish "And it’s one, two three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a Damn, next stop is Vietnam."

By fall of 1970, my passion for Legal Services work was dwindling, although my job provided some wonderful benefits. I’d made several good friends, including Al, the first close black friend I ever had. And I received a salary, so I could postpone figuring out what I’d do for a career. But the ocean of clients wore at me. What we really needed, our increasingly morbid office humor concluded, was a drawer of money, so we could hand some to each client. Worse, practicing law, from handling an individual’s case to law reform, was a cumbersome and rarely effective way to help our clients. Our welfare victories were usually negated by some new maneuver of Reagan’s minions. The Reagan welfare overpayment rule, returning from the dead, was now a "presumption" that a recipient who’d received too much money knew that. The fight began again.

Major social/economic change was needed, which required a mass political movement. Which wasn’t happening, "Counterculture" or not, aside from the still surging force of the anti-war Movement. Beyond all that, I just wasn’t enjoying lawyering. Legal struggles felt artificial and draining. Fighting the Man was frustratingly distant from evolving a saner, authentic life. So what to do?

I was well aware that I was riding two horses, as I had for years–the "real" (now the hippie) me, and the me who could maneuver in conventional society. If I cut my hair, my resumé remained dressed for success: Cum laude at Amherst, Columbia Law Review, federal court clerkship. Perhaps I could become a law professor? At least I’d get the summer off. Ah, I didn’t want to teach law. Maybe, I groped, becoming a revolutionary was the answer. How about exploring Cuba, a revolutionary society?

A severe white woman and a stoic Asian man interviewed me for admission to the next Venceremous Brigade, radical gringos who cut Cuban sugarcane. They asked me if I agreed that "black people were the vanguard of the revolutionary struggle in the U.S." I replied that I didn't, adding that, "Most of the welfare mothers I've worked with dream their children will to go to college." They scornfully dismissed me; yet once again, I'd flunked an attitude test.

Then–Boom! Ronnie announced she no longer loved me and was moving out. She stayed mostly gone, but returned occasionally for a cold, non-communicative night. For weeks. I catapaulted between agony and lethargic despair. An excellent judge bawled me out for sloppy work I'd submitted in a test case. Knowing the judge was right, I was stunned at my indifference. I don't care, my soul's misery wanted to scream.

Struggling to comprehend Yeats’ "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart," I sought comfort and insights from friends. After a few months, their aid, plus introspection, and, eventually, glimmers of boredom with self-absorbed wretchedness, revived my spirit so I could act. Weeks after I’d first tried to pick up the phone to call Cathy, I finally grasped the courage to make the call. Astonishingly, she said she’d love to go out. More astonishingly, we laughed heartily and talked merrily–not that I revealed my torments to her. Most astonishingly, soon we were lovers, making love with a passion I’d never felt before. Amazing–the "sexual revolution" was not mostly media hype as I’d thought, but real, and I was included.

Months after she’d first left, Ronnie returned one evening and announced that I was invited to join her at a party of her theater crowd. As we left on a warm Spring afternoon, she produced some LSD. Afraid as I was of it, I impulsively decided to take some. What the hell–how much worse could I feel? Was I an explorer or not?

Standing near a tree, I felt extreme weirdness, as a sort of metallic energy coursed through my body. My knees trembled, as if I'd descended thousands of feet on a steep trail. My entire body vibrated. The party crowd swirled like a movie out of focus. Images, thoughts, feelings flashed though me at light speed. I sank down and gripped the ground, as frightened as a baby on a roller coaster.

Time crumbled. Unable to stand, I was engulfed in shuddering hysteria. Randomly, words emerged from the whirl: "fool," "real," "fear." Then the swirl roared on ominously. My face trembled; I was starting to whimper. I pressed my hands into my thighs, craving that the fact that I existed would halt this madness. It didn't. Some wall had crumbled in my soul, letting out hundreds of accusers. "You knew we were here all along," they cried in vicious triumph. "You fool!" "Look at Ronnie!" a voice howled "Who is she?" When I looked, the stranger I saw chatting merrily with others terrified me.

Cowering under the tree, shaking, I snorted air through my nostrils. "What is it?" a stern voice demanded. "Love?" " You can't name it," a shrill voice mocked. "It doesn't have a cause. It is the cause." Images from my past–lies, public disgraces, cowardices, evasions, failures, most long forgotten–flashed in my mind. "And you think of yourself as a rebel," a voice sneered. "Fool. You've always taken the safe road."

Suddenly aware of my breathing, I poked my stomach–spongy, blubbery. Jabbing my shoulders, and my chest, I felt no strength there, no muscles. "And you pretend to be an athlete?" a voice sank beneath scorn to revulsion. "You've always been skinny, and now you're fat too."

I sat under the tree for hours, as waves of fear and self-loathing slowly receded, the babble of voices slowly subsided. But I knew they'd spoken the truth: I hated Ronnie, my body, and myself. I was alone and afraid–that was all I really knew.

A bad trip? Sure, but deeper, my introduction to LSD as the poor man’s psychiatrist. With the mess that I’d discovered I was, I was going to change the world? Time to start trying to save myself. I had to change. Some changes merely took discipline, like beginning regular workouts. But how to access my "feelings?" I was an emotional teen-ager. Could I love, or learn to love? Romantic love seemed to require such unfamiliar virtues as trust, candor, openness.

What a joke the "cool" I’d hungered for turned out to be. There was no glowing center; cool was merely the pretense of emotionally invulnerability.

While I struggled to free myself from spiritual quicksand and leave Ronnie, Cathy and I remained lovers. She told me she loved my seekings, and that the conversations of my dinner group were the most stimulating talks she’d ever been involved in. Knowing she’d like more certainty–though she didn’t ask for it–I floated, even after I broke with Ronnie, more out of curiosity about sexual adventuring than from marital wounds. Then I met Liz, a sensual, insightful Cal English major. Our souls meshed in mutual love of books, as mine and Cathy’s never had. And perhaps because I was starting fresh, I fully revealed myself to Liz. Still, for a few weeks I waffled between the two women, until the evening Liz and I walked from our apartments to meet each other. A half a block apart, a romantic-magnetic field enveloped us, drawing us together with energy that stunned us both. Within hours, I knew my decision had been made–I’d be with Liz. A decision based on instinct, and I had no trust in my romantic instincts. But trust or not, the decision was made.

After over three years running my Legal Services office, I demoted myself back to staff attorney and created a 2/3rds work program: 8 months on, 4 moths off , 2/3 rds pay. Freedom proved even more fun than I’d anticipated. Purchasing good equipment–pattern scissors, tapers, pliers, and beautiful hand-blown glass, I set up a mini stained glass studio in my and Liz’s flat. Struggling to master the basic craft, I wrestled through pulling slivers of glass from my fingers or shattering a beautiful piece of glass or creating a lousy design. After a few months, I created my first windows, using designs based on things I loved–butterflies, human figures, rock singers, swirls of pure color. My favorites were hung in the front windows of our ground floor Berkeley apartment.

So much to do! Make love with Liz, or go for a ride on my new motorcycle, or go backpacking with Adrian, who’d introduced me to it. Talk, read, explore, connect, live to the fullest. "Be Here Now!" Ram Dass urged. Right on, I agreed, not that I was drawn to meditation.

So much to try! I dug and planted a vegetable garden–starting organic, getting overwhelmed by pests, ending up declaring "It’s me and Dow Chemical against the invaders." OK, some experiments taught what I was not meant to do. In contrast, playing street basketball, a passion of my youth, revealed a new dream, "to be the world’s oldest basketball player." And I risked LSD again. Experiencing ecstatic voyages into what Adrian call "the old cosmic perspective" unleashed many dreams, from spending time in Paris to becoming a writer.

Sadly, the evolving hippie world wasn’t faring as well as my personal experiments. The Haight was degenerating into a district of lost souls and violence. Many of my almost-hippie friends were going through what we called "heavy stuff"–divorce, disorientation, identity crises. Hippie life was splintering, fragmenting. People left–to travel to Guatemala or Morocco or to be with a guru or to move to the country, or, strangest of all, to take straight jobs. Communes, a tremendous amount of personal effort at best, broke up, sometimes with bitterness. Our weekly dinners ended after some enjoyable years. Most of us were getting busier. Worse, the husband of one friend was distraught that we weren’t "really relating deeply" and demanded that we all go away together for a therapeutic weekend. Adrian and I doubted that the fact that we found him boring could be overcome by an encounter group. Deepest, our dream that we might somehow evolve into a commune had evaporated.

In the spring of ‘72, Liz and I rode my motorcycle through rural Marin County and stopped to watch a Little League baseball game in a rustic field. The parents of the Point Reyes Station team were hip–stylishly rebel clothes, men in ponytails, women in granny dresses or cut-off shorts or some other latest hippie fashion (or non-fashion). Before the game, they smiled and laughed, mellow, occasionally nipping on a joint. The Nicasio parents, many drinking Bud, were farmers and ranchers–burley men in blue work-shirts, with gun-racks in their pickup trucks; the women were hardy, pioneer-looking.

The Nicasio kids were up first. Whatever the kids did–often strike out–their parents called encouragement, cheered, while spending much of their time talking and laughing with each other. They did the same when their kids were in the field, no matter how poorly, or, occasionally how well, their kids fielded. When the Point Reyes kids batted, their fathers turned intense and fierce, hovering on each pitch, shouting instructions: "Keep your eye on the ball!" "Level swing!" "Follow through!" By the second inning, the Point Reyes dads were yelling orders at their kids in the field too: "Get in front of the ball!" "Two hands! Catch it with two hands!" "Down on grounders! Charge it!"

Plus ça change. Hippie had been a wonderful opening, but the vision had atrophied, or perhaps had never included how to live as a grown-up.

By 1973, I’d burned out with Legal Services. The Nixon Supreme Court wasn't going to allow reform through law. Radical political movements were shattered, ineffective. Welfare Rights groups withered, as the most astute members got jobs. The Panthers had been smashed by the police and their own self-destructiveness. And whatever community there might be in East Oakland, I couldn't connect to it. From the sea of clients, I almost never received a word of thanks, no matter what I managed to accomplish. Sure, I understood why. From a client’s eyes, I was just another part of the white system to be manipulated. Still, it compounded my weariness.

Most of all, I was fed up with the processes of lawyering: filing court papers, dreaming up arguments, drafting interrogatories, winning occasional "victories" that vanished, and, especially, fighting. A few years earlier, I'd vibrated to the Rolling Stones "Street Fighting Man" or the Doobie Brothers "We're taking it to the Streets." Now I felt drawn to the Beatles "Revolution" rejecting "minds that hate." Or The Youngbloods, "Love is but a song we sing, fear's the way we die … Try to love one another right now." Lyrics of hope. Crosby, Stills and Nash's moving "Teach Your Children" concluded "We can live in peace." My rage now felt destructive. Why was I so often angry?

What next? Three years earlier, in 1970, while still with Cathy, I’d tried part-time law teaching, civil procedure and a seminar in poverty law, at a reasonably prestigious local law school. Shortly after I’d accepted the job, Cathy had invited me to join her and some friends camping on a beach in Guaymas, Mexico, for the same week as my first classes. Without hesitation or reflection, I’d chosen to join her. Adrian had agreed to cover for me. Some cover. "Your teacher is on a beach in Guaymas," he’d told the students.

Not that it mattered. As the semester wore on, I accepted that I had no calling to be a law teacher. I enjoyed discussions with students, but had little intellectual interest in "the law" (except as a tool for social change) and no passion for legal scholarship. And grades? A detested part of the competitive system I wanted to escape. "I got plenty of letters," I told my classes, echoing Chico Marx. "Everyone gets at least a B; anyone who asks for an A gets one."

In Spring of ‘73, while doing some legal research at Cal’s Boalt Hall Law School, I visited a Legal Services colleague who’d become an adjunct professor. He sat fretting in a cubbyhole office with a tiny window, his desk awash with papers. I could feel nervous energy-tension pulsate off him. I left, walking outside into a lusciously beautiful day, on my way to make love with Liz in the afternoon. My chest radiated joy. I was out–goodbye to career, status, dead processes.

I can’t recall moments of grand perception–no acid insights here–but being an almost-hippie had somehow taught me that most all of life is process, not results. Process being what you are actually doing, and how you feel while doing it. If the process wasn’t satisfying, it was almost certain that the results would not be worth the cost. Satisfying didn’t exclusively mean fun, though there better be plenty of that. But struggle was also included. "Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes," D. H. Lawrence declared. With a satisfying process, struggles were enhancing, not debilitating.

In June 1973 I quit Legal Services and set off to live in Ireland with Liz. I had no idea what kind of job I wanted when I returned, but at least I knew I was not a crusader or a social worker. What I wanted from work was enough money to live in basic comfort. That was going to be a struggle; I’d have to hustle. Luckily, I lived in a rich country, and I was privileged–that Law Review credential should help.

Being an almost-hippie turned out not to be an identity, but the tumultuous, irrevocable start down a path less traveled. "You contain enough," Walt Whitman urged, "why don’t you let it all out then?" Great idea, Walt. Live my passions. Don’t let earning a living consume my time. And let out my intransigence. Forget teaching law–just take the summer off, period. Farewell to deep parts of U.S. culture I couldn’t abide, from competition to Puritanism. Without the hippie culture, I would not have had the courage to begin to discover what I had to let out. A heroic man–Thoreau, Whitman–can stand alone, outside his society. I’m no hero. I needed that hippie world breathing change and encouragement. I needed my almost-hippie friends, fellow seekers struggling to live authentically, who wanted out (at least for a while). "Yes," Adrian observed, some years later, about our life at Legal Services, "on-the-job therapy was where it was at."

Yeah, we were fortunate. As my father dryly noted during one of my rants against The Establishment, "Well, it’s not every government that would pay you to fight it." Now I can make a lengthy list of my good fortunes then, ranging from finding my home, Berkeley, to eating inexpensively at a lively new restaurant, Chez Panisse (revolutions happened where we least expected them), to making many of my still-closest friends.

Not to be nostalgic about the 60s. Beyond my personal torments and confusions, being conscious of the U.S. crime of the Vietnam War was not fun. And I was a lousy prophet. We certainly failed to create a new society. Instead, house prices and rents soared. Yeah, I quip now, I should have been buying real estate instead of trying to overthrow the system. Or marijuana: our ‘60s faith that in 25 years it would seem ludicrous that smoking weed had once been a crime vastly misjudged the perseverance of puritan America. Nor did my vision of our future include Ronald Reagan becoming President, or investment bankers becoming cultural heroes to hordes of suddenly-appearing Yuppies.

What I’d discovered as an almost-hippie was not sustaining clarity but a core vision of freedom. Certainties would always swirl, dissolve, and require restructuring. My demons remained cunning, not exterminated by acid trips. I remained haunted by a demon snarling that I’d failed to focus my energies on one process–financially successful artist was appealing. I wrestled for years before beginning to accept that I was O.K. having no clear vision, that living my passions meant unleashing a herd of turtles.

Money I was right about–I’ve always made enough. But rejecting the work ethic proved to be another of life’s trick bags. I’d linked the work ethic with money-making careers. So why did I remain so busy? My struggles to balance my activity ethic with some time for calm and peace remain ongoing.

Love seemed to spiral through endless uncertainties. With Liz, I’d begun by telling her the truth, and three years later lied to her about having an affair–as she did to me. Through our long, wretched break-up, I struggled yet again to understand how to love, how to move beyond my toxic mix of desire and emotional cowardice. After we ended, I added another struggle, against my demons’ new fears that love must end in disaster. Mix all that with doubts about self-love, and I needed help again–this time from a therapist.

Even my certainties about competition grew more complex. Competition was fine, as well as essential, when I played street basketball. O.K., but that did not require that I saw life in terms of "winning" and "losing."

When I’d wound down being an almost-hippie in 1973, I knew I was irrevocably changed. I meant to live passionately, really free, doing what I love. And I had learned that freedom wasn’t about dropping out, but dropping in.

Big deal, a condemning voice attacked. All your "authenticity," and love of "processes" is just a cover for selfishness. So what if your politics remain left-wing? You won’t actually do anything to help. You’re just going to take and not give back.

I’m with Thoreau, my intransigence growled back: "I did not come into the world to change it, but to live in it, be it well or ill." But also, I nurtured the vague hope that following my passions could lead to contributions I couldn’t anticipate. A few days before leaving for Ireland, I’d walked out of my ground-floor apartment one evening. As usual, I’d left the living room lights on so that my stained glass windows glowed radiant colored light out towards the street, often busy with people walking to the shopping district a few houses away. A conventionally dressed middle-aged couple, probably headed for the burgeoning Berkeley Rep Theater, paused, and the woman asked me, "Did you make those windows?" I said I had. "I just want to tell you how much pleasure you've brought us over the years. We always park on this street so we can look at your art."

Jerry Garcia surely got it right when he sang "what a long strange trip it's been." Buddha's ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows. It’s also been a whole lot of fun.