Monday, January 7, 2013

Merry Pranksters and the Way Out of the Reagan Years

Late Autumn 1988.  My senior-year Government class walked into John Cabiati's classroom (follow the link to read how great he was and is), and the only thing written on the chalkboard was "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."  Intrigued, the son of a US Senator asked Mr. Cabiati what that was, exactly.

"Sorry, guys, my sophomore class ran over and I don't have your stuff up yet," he replied.

Someone else pressed.  "But what is that?"

Hands in pockets as usual, he took a deep breath.  "You guys really want to know?"

Heads nodded around the room.   Cabiati dug in his briefcase and pulled out a 1967 issue of Time Magazine.

He flipped to an article inside that had a circle of not altogether clothed hippies dancing.  He pointed to one of them, fortunately mostly covered by another dancer in the photo and visible only to the shoulders.  "That's me," he said.

Being 17 and 18, naturally we all burst out laughing.  Cabiati had our attention.  (He always had our attention.  I'd already met all my high school credits with honors and been accepted to college, so I frequently did not attend my afternoon classes, but I came back to school to attend this last-period class.  How about that?)

"The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is the book started the 60s, folks," he went on.  "Tom Wolfe followed Ken Kesey around with the Pranksters, rode along on the bus, and chronicled the start of the 60s from the West Coast, where it all got going.  Technically it started with the Beat Movement, but Neal Cassady was the bridge between the Beats and the hippies.  Neal drove the bus, guys.  They went all over the country doing acid tests and waking people up who had been dozing since World War II!  They dropped a lot of acid, which I would not recommend, and found like-minded individuals who were ready to change the way things were done in this country.  And if that's not fun enough, you can read how the Grateful Dead got started right in front of him."

Cabiati was in school at Stanford at the time, so he saw The Bus in person when they rolled through California, met everyone in the book, and was part of history, which was often the case.  He was at the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park with Ginsberg and Leary and the Dead and the Pranksters.  He explained what the social climate had been like and why the counterculture movement evolved to push back against the normal-formal expectations that young people were simply not willing to accept.

Before the hour was out, we had a much better understanding of what went down in the '60s and why, and I was down a lifelong rabbit hole learning more on what this was all about.  I went to the bookstore right after class was out and bought the last copy on the shelf.  Cabiati was clever, to put it mildly:  the nation had just elected Vice President George H.W. Bush, locking in another four years of Reagan-style conservatism after the last eight. He was not a little disappointed, being a liberal-leaning Libertarian who was philosophically opposed to the direction the Republican party had taken.  I think he saw a lot of parallels between the social climate of the 1980s and the 1950s, and he wanted to influence at least a handful of people to question authority.

It worked.  I've been questioning authority ever since.  I went on to earn two degrees in social work, and learned the best way to game the system for my clients was by playing it from the inside.  I learned that when someone is not just like the others, to pay attention because there's value there.  I learned what a reviewer put brilliantly on the Great Teachers website regarding Cabiati:  he took us government service brats and taught us to understand the shortcomings of the big operation inside the Beltway.  I developed a healthy cynicism for government machinery while creating a working relationship with lawmakers who could influence legislation for my clients, and in some cases, directly assist them.  I learned to ask questions and not follow blindly.

This one book started it all for me-- I was a good little follower until I read this book and felt my mind open up.  There's no pontificating, no expository writing, just Wolfe reporting what he saw in his own fashion, and the reader must draw from the ensuing chaos and beauty the technicolor unfolding of the counterculture movement as it happened in real time.  If you haven't read it, it's worth the time.  Many of the people in it are still around and even have websites, so it's been fun to see how they turned out, or didn't.  I didn't turn out to be a hippie; quite the opposite, but I have the questioning voice over my shoulder all the time, asking why?  Why do we have to do it that way?  Is there a better way?

So, Mr. Cabiati, thank you.  Myself and countless others who experienced your class thank you for helping us out of the gilded cage of the Reagan years, for raising our consciousness and teaching us how to be real citizens in a democracy.   And thanks to Ken Kesey, who's on the other side, and the band of Pranksters for waking up a generation who had been raised to think and see in black and white-- and turning on the COLOR.  My life has been richer for it.

"You don't lead by pointing and telling people where to go.  You lead by going to that place and making a case."  ~Ken Kesey

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