I try to write about my dad each August because it was at the end of that month, six years ago, that he left this mortal coil, all too soon. For most of his 74 years, my dad recognized himself as a Tweener, someone who didn’t belong to a specific or at least any commonly recognizable generation. For example, consider the Baby Boomers, who comprise the cohort that took shape once World War II had concluded, when my dad was already 9 years old. The parents of Boomers were, of course, the folks who fought The Big One as young men. So my dad arrived on this mortal coil in between these two sharp-elbowed generations. So did my mother. So did all the parents I knew growing up. Their kids (my cohort) were similarly “tweened” by our Boomer elders — the largest, most consumptive, coddled and self-indulgent generation America has yet produced — and their children, known as Xers. In many ways, these populous and impetuous Boomers overtook my dad’s generation, while his son (i.e., me) has lived all his days in their voracious shadow.
William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of “Generations: A History of America’s Future, 1584-2069”, would quibble with “Tweener”. They classify my dad as a member of a distinct cohort, the Silent Generation, or those born 1923 to 1942. These Americans, unlike members of the preceding G.I. Generation (1901-1924), were born too late to participate in WWII. Yet most Silent citizens came into sentience during the war, were hugely affected by it, as children, and developed a lasting respect for the way their G.I. elders rose to that occasion (and subsequently shaped the post-war world). All this influenced the way my dad, mom and other Silents saw the world, their country, their child-rearing and educational habits, their roles in the public square. Silents were again buffeted by forces outside their own generation when Boomers, the sons and daughters of G.I. folk, overturned then rerouted the culture in the 1960s, by which time my parents were married with three kids.
They didn’t invent it but Strauss and Howe were the first to map this generational theory onto American history. It’s complicated but fascinating stuff (see a more thorough summary of its tenets here). S&H postulate that there are four distinct types of generations — Civic (G.I.s, for example), Adaptive (Silent), Idealist (Boom), Reactive (Thirteenth, my own generation) — that cycle in the same order throughout U.S. History, going back to the Puritans (who, if you think about it, are the offspring of some ongoing English generational cycle). Before reading this book, I’d never encountered history told quite this way. It feels a bit pop-psychological at times but the patterns do fit together with remarkable logic, precision and predictability.
Though “Generations” was published in the early 1990s, my dad never read it. Didn’t know about it all, though it’s exactly the sort of thing he liked to read the last 20-30 years of his life (then pass to me when he was done). In the six years he’s been gone now, I’ve had the urge to discuss with him hundreds, maybe thousands of things. This seems to me the most striking and unchanging aspect of his death — the fact that I still instinctively think of matters to discuss with him but cannot.
Strauss and Howe struck a chord with me because if there are four distinct generations of Americans alive at any one time (they refer to these groupings as “constellations”), then my longtime complaints about being sandwiched between Boomers and their children in Generation X are not outlying but grounded in a kind of understandable framework. What’s more, this sandwiching has been going on forever. My mom and dad dealt with a variation on this theme: They led their Adaptive/Silent lives between one highly successful Civic generation (which won us the biggest war ever and presided over the largest economic expansion in the history of mankind) and their Idealist kids, the Boomers.
This dynamic has not changed the way I think of Boomers, ultimately a feckless lot of shallow, navel-gazing spiritualists. But it did change the way I think of modern U.S. history, my dad and the 1970s.
The past few years I’ve been working on a book concerning a specific generation of U.S. soccer players, and this too makes me think of my dad — and the 1970s. My reporting leads up to a moment in 1990 when this cohort of footballers (exactly my own age) broke through to qualify for the World Cup, something no generation of American players had ever done. Today the U.S. qualifies routinely. These guys, these peers of mine changed the U.S. game, modernized it and ushered in a entirely new and more successful era — but their story begins as youth soccer players in the 1970s, a dense thicket of cultural ferment and a time when folks my age first encountered Boomers, our next elders.
Yet the 1970s were also the time when Silent generation folks like my parents should, according to the S&H framework that has held serve for 250 years, have ascended to a place of dominance in the culture. That never happened, largely on account of this hulking mass of entitlement known as the Boom. No member of my parents’ generation ever got elected president, for example. That’s extremely unusual; this is the only American generation of which this is true. Their years in charge of the body politic, economy and media apparatus were all similarly diminished/truncated. After growing up in the shadow of overbearing but undeniably capable G.I. types, only to see libertine Boomers ascend and ultimately supersede them on account of sheer size and bluster, my parents’ generation on many levels got skipped.
Robert Pirsig passed away this year. In 1974, he published “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, a remarkable account of what it was like to be a Silent in the 1970s and experience this cultural skipping. My dad read this book in the late ’70s, and it made a big impression on him.
I remember asking my dad about the Summer of Love. We had lived an hour or so north of San Francisco at that time; surely there was some spillover — if not in 1967 then some time later. My dad just laughed: “I was 30 years old, married and raising three kids in the summer of 1967.” He was too young for the Korean War, too old for Vietnam, too old for the Summer of Love. By 1976, when I was asking questions like this, he surely felt as if he and his peers were somewhat out of sync with the culture. Like Pirsig and millions of others, he was just the sort of mildly disaffected 40something who was then watching norms and traditions fall away on account of this Boomer-led upheaval.
Silent folks had a choice to make during the ’70s: hew to the conventions still represented by their G.I. elders, or flout convention as Boomers had been doing for some 10-15 years by that point.
Pirsig was my dad’s contemporary. His book spoke to him directly, Silent to Silent. I wish I could speak to my dad directly, today, about how this book affected him. Because I have my theories…
Something else I’d want to talk with him about (because I’ve spoken to his wife about it): “MadMen”. Yes, the killer TV drama. I’m a fan (just prior to its finale, I fantasized about how the series might end). But I now realize the show grabbed me on a deeper level because it focuses entirely on this Silent Generation. The primary characters are all 30something, rising professionally through the 1960s. They are basically my parents — no accident because the guy who created the show, Matthew Weiner, a contemporary of mine at Wesleyan, has confirmed the show was based on his Silent parents.
And what, ultimately, did we learn about Silents like Don Draper and my dad? Draper closes the actual series finale chanting at an E.S.T. retreat in Big Sur. By that time (the show’s arc came to an end in the early 1970s), he’d had it with the gray flannel conventions established by his elder G.I. Generation. He was finally ready to step out a little bit, to act out a little bit — as Boomers had been doing so publicly and pervasively.
So how did Don Draper, my dad and millions of Silent men act out come the 1970s?
They started smoking dope, for starters. They stopped wearing ties, too. They read and responded to spiritual things like “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and E.S.T. They re-evaluated (in light of scuttled mores) their relationships to the larger conventions of politics, marriage and culture.
But mostly they smoked dope.
My dad’s predilection for pot is a subject about which I’ve never written. [Search halphillips.net for ‘my dad’ and you’ll summon past August essays/tributes — but no overt dope references.] I cannot attribute this silence to any taboo. It was more out of respect for him, my mom, and my own wife & children. But he’s gone now, my mother is busy wearing purple and not giving damn, and Silas & Clara are both in college, which means that horse has well and truly left the barn. What’s more, time moves on and conventions evolve. Recreational marijuana is legal today here in Maine, so historically accurate cannabis facts re. one’s father are perfectly fair game.
And his is a pretty damned good story — even without all the pseudo-intellectual, generational trappings I wave about here…
Every family has core of stories it tells about itself, some of them true and some less so. The Phillips family genesis story re. my dad’s pot smoking, while whimsical, is pretty free of myth-making. It begins with a 40something suburban square finding his 16-year-old daughter’s pipe one day in 1976, deploying it (on a whim), then sitting down and reading TIME Magazine cover to cover.
Unlike Don Draper, my dad had never been much of a drinker. Finally, after 40 years, he’d found a practical vice.
Inside the family unit, this proved something of a scandal frankly, though the 12-year-old me knew nothing of it at the time. Nevertheless, there was pushback. Establishment heads of households simply did not start smoking pot in their 40s. They did not, according to G.I. convention, go off and join E.S.T. either — or get divorced. But these were bizarre, unmoored times. (Divorce rates skyrocketed during the 1970s; divorce rates among Silent couples remain the highest of any generation in U.S. history, according to Strauss & Howe). There were swingers and freak-outs and therapy sessions and rehab stints. All manner of personal and social mores lay in waste across the breadth of 1970s suburbia.
My parents’ marriage would survive, but my mom was not at all keen on this dope development; she preferred a scotch and soda. Yet because she did, neither could she logically prohibit pot use when scotch was hollowing out livers, wrecking marriages and killing people on the roads at such an outsized rate. She ultimately made the accommodation but it remained a closely held secret for several years to come.
My sister also knew the score, pretty much from the get-go. It was her pipe. Indeed, she was saddled not merely with knowledge of this peculiar accommodation but also with the ongoing responsibility of procuring the chronic for my dad — because, back in the late 1970s, this act was awkward if not impossible for 40something novices. She would carry this burden through high school to college (at my dad’s alma mater). This I only learned when Janet was about to graduate from Lehigh and I was headed off to Wesleyan. “You’re in charge of buying dope for dad now,” she informed me.
I wasn’t so quick on the uptake back then. Even when, as a high schooler, I would arrive home late some evening to find him lying on the floor listening to a Bartok string quartet via the Harman Kardon and his super-fancy Ohm headphones, I did not develop a clue without Janet’s help.
My dad loved listening to music but he REALLY dug it whilst high. Same for movies, for reading (something he rarely did for himself, pre-pot), for concentrating on anything that was recreational as opposed to “process”. My mother would long and repeatedly argue that his insights into any of these things weren’t necessarily so cogent when he was high, not so cogent as his sober, quite sophisticated feelings on these things. But in terms of his own enjoyment? No contest, apparently.
The circumstances of this pot history meant my dad was a private smoker. Nine times out of 10, he got high late in the evening by himself and listened to some chorale from Estonian composer Arvo Pärt — or he’d watch some 3-hour In Depth profile of Gore Vidal on C-Span (actually one of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV). Once I’d taken up the cause to supply the old man with bags, which is to say I’d started to get high myself (in college), doing so with my dad became a big treat for him. A bit weird for me, at first, but I adapted.
I’ve written about this before: My dad expressed intimacy by badgering one into enjoying a film or book or documentary or piece of music that he admired — and he wanted you to experience it ALONGSIDE HIM, RIGHT THEN. He loved nothing more. Sharing a bowl made the occasion even more special.
But I must say, his largely private smoking ethos, developed more or less in a vacuum, was oddly stunted by this lack of social experience. He didn’t understand, for example, that it’s rude to pack a bowl and not offer it to someone first… Because he had a job and the resulting cash flow, he didn’t understand the idea of NOT having pot. He didn’t smoke it every minute of every day, but he did have it on hand as a matter of routine — like scotch in a liquor cabinet… This is not the way most people learn to smoke pot, of course. Most start partying in adolescence or young adulthood, when one doesn’t have job, money, or perhaps transport. Pot smoking was approached from a general position of scarcity. When I think back on my college and young professional days, there were lots of times — most times actually — when one did NOT have a bag.
My dad never experienced this development stage, and so he would get itchy when he was about to run out of dope. I’d look in his little smoke box and see all sorts of pot.
“What about this?” I’d ask him.
“That stuff is old.”
Yes, in some ways, my dad was dope dilettante.
My father was also convinced it was particularly important to hold one’s bong or bowl hits in the lungs for a reasonable period of time, to maximize the bloodstream’s THC intake, I suppose. It became a running joke, where he’d chide me for not doing so and pretend to wring his hands and bemoan my disappointing behavior. “You think you’ve raised your kids right,” he’d say, rolling his eyes, “but then you learn they can’t even be bothered to hold their hits in!” In the passage of time, when the stigma of pot-smoking had faded considerably and, through me, he was smoking a bit more openly and socially, the old man got the opportunity to express this sentiment a few times in mixed company. Big laughs.
But mostly my dad, while he smoked for 30-plus years, did so in an incredibly low key and private manner. Today, while recreational marijuana is newly legal in Maine, the way I personally indulge in this vice hasn’t changed a lick since January 2017, when the law went into effect. But I hail from a different generation, reside in a different culture, and have lived my life in response to a different set of conventions/generations. [Someone raised this issue with me on some phone call the Tuesday afterward the new law took effect. He asked how I had celebrated — well, I had totally missed it… hadn’t even realized the new law was officially on the books. Next day I put a little mason jar in the liquor cabinet. Because I could.]
My father spent three decades enjoying but concealing this vice, quite happily, but rarely among peers of similar tastes. There were surely more Silent Generation dopers out there, just like him — I know because some did reveal themselves over time and the old man took great joy in flaunting long-held conventions with a like-aged drug buddy.
But I’ll also admit the private nature of his partying makes me sorta sad. As sad, I suppose, as someone drinking alone, though the latter has developed a far more negative connotation. To me, it’s yet another way his cohort got squeezed and ultimately hard done by massive generational forces beyond their control.
Strauss & Howe would remind us here that people from history aren’t 40-55 years old all their lives. They’re certainly in that range when we read about them in the traditional historical contest, when they’re pulling the levers of power, making economic change, fighting injustice, prosecuting unjust wars, etc. But middle-aged men were all young kids once — growing up together during a world war, admiring the generation then fighting that war, watching those same people build an empire, then positioning themselves in young adulthood to inherit the world and attendant conventions that haven taken hold.
But Strauss and Howe would also remind us that all of history can be told in terms of these generations, each measuring about 22 years. Of vital important are the relationships one generation has with others sharing the current constellation. The strongest relationships within that constellation naturally exist between parents and children: G.I.’s and Boomers, Silents and my own generation, the 13th. These couplet generations affect each other profoundly, of course; they pull for each other, coddle one another, or perhaps hold them to a stricter accounting, depending on the circumstances.
But there is always a generation in between parents and their children, a generation with entirely different characteristics and couplet relations.
My mother, father and their Silent cohort have lived their entire lives sandwiched between two massively influential generations. They’ve watched as hordes of spoiled Boomer youths, the spawn of world-bestriding G.I. elders, swooped in and supplanted their political and cultural power — on account of their great numbers, their ardent naval-gazing, their political convenience, their out-and-out avarice.
As the son of my father, I know these people too. I first met these Boomers when they taught in my schools (they are the reason I hope never again to hear “Moonshadow” or “Bless the Beasts and the Children”, two ditties drilled into us by young Boomer chorus teachers). Eventually I went to work for Boomers. I watched as these loud leftists moved relentlessly to the right, politically. Today I watch the news and sit by as the pharmaceutical establishment tries to sell them yet another geriatric wonder drug. I have lived in the cultural shadow of these Boomers my entire life.
If he’d had the chance to read Strauss and Howe, I bet my dad would better understand and articulate his own misgivings about where he’d been obliged to live his American life, generationally. Or maybe he would’ve been cool with it; he was never a bitter man. Either way we could have shared a bowl and talked about it at length…