And you know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? —Bob Dylan
Back when I was a non-conformist and had long hair like everyone else, I would, on occasion, foolishly wander away from campus. This gave the older townies, primarily men in their fifties and sixties, a chance to practice their stage whispers. In a voice that could only be heard by someone in the same zip code they would make clever comments like, “Look, it’s a couple of girls. No, wait, I guess they’re boys. They sure look like girls from here.” Steve Lipson became a campus hero by whirling around and perfectly mimicking his deriders. “Look, it’s some young guys. No, wait it’s just a bunch of old men. At first I thought it was young guys.”
I vowed that I would attempt to stay– if not current– at least within shouting distance of the music, technology, and culture of the young. This promise lasted well into the Carter years. Then came the blur of punk, rap, and MTV. I was clueless, and my new mantra became “If you can’t understand, at least don’t criticize.” With frozen smile I would tap my steering wheel politely to the screaming inferno that the driver beside me at the stoplight was listening to. On occasion I would make the high sign and call out “Crank it, dude.” This mortified JoAnne and brought a sneer from the tunesmith, as I am now the age (if not the mind-set) of those long-ago hippie-mockers.
Because I have felt the sting of derision, I do not believe I am as cruel as my 1960s tormenters, but I am slipping. For example, I do not understand the whole bulked up, shaved head, scraggly beard, and barbed wire arm tattoo look of generation Y (or is it Z). With sunglasses on and a cell phone the size of a candy bar in their ear, they look eerily like something George Orwell warned us against. They seem to work on looking exactly the same. Is this a statement? The barbed wire around the biceps scares me. Are they welcoming totalitarianism? They are buff but robotic looking. Is it intended to lampoon conformity, parody corporate culture, or protest the erosion of civil liberties and the extension of The Patriot Act? It is an odd feeling to stand in a group of men half my age and be the only one with hair on my head.
My take on young women is equally uninformed. In the summer we wear less clothing, which is a good thing. Yet I am amazed by the number of seemingly professional women sporting tattoos. Many have probably never served in the merchant marine, but they are nonetheless adorned with blue ink drawings in semi-public areas of their bodies. Although navels, ankles and thighs are popular sites, a large tattoo of an eagle on the small of one’s back seems to be de riguer. It is for public view only at the beach or when fixing a sink. Unseen at a downtown business meeting, it may be a post-feminist plea, a statement about sky rocketing real estate prices, or just artistic expression, but it rarely looks good.
If I wanted a tattoo, I know there are endless choices. There is a name in script above my heart, or a symbol of my religion on my arm lest I forget how important it is to me. The left calf is a good location for a bird/snake/bear/lion. A python motif contrasted with a tasteful mix of armaments (hatchets, daggers, swords, guns) is best reserved for the back and shoulder area. A patriotic gesture such as a flag tattoo is also better on the back, unless there is a paucity of chest hair, in which case a flag in front with the saying, “These colors don’t run” will rout the Iraqis as successfully as my long hair shortened the war in Viet Nam.
Remember: writing on the chest is for the viewer. It will always look upside down or backwards to you unless you are dyslexic, or choose to have it written like they do on an ECNALUBMA. Sadly, even nice drops of red blood that accent a blue switchblade piercing a well-drawn heart will all turn the color of a varicose vein in time, so be sure your tattoo is not thematically color dependent.
There it is: I have become old and critical. Rather than agree or disagree with the philosophy of the young, I fear that many are bereft of ideology. The music makes no sense, the young disfigure their bodies with tracts of violence, and I cannot access the new technology to get a feel of what is going on.
Tom H. Cook purposely did not begin this piece with “Back in the day.” Unless you have ridden the rails with Woody, been a sharecropper, caught Satchel Paige, or played blues harp with Lightnin’ Hopkins, you sound ridiculous using the expression. (His wife maintains he’s talking like an old coot nevertheless. He is returning for a visit to the old neighborhood the last week of September. If you see him, suggest a Tweety Bird on his ankle.)