They can drop all the atom bombs they like for all I care : I'll never call it war, and wear a soldier's uniform, because I'm in a different sort of war, that they think is child's play. The war they think is war is suicide, and those that go and get killed in war should be put in clink for attempted suicide because that's the feeling in blokes' minds when they rush to join up or let themselves be called up.
Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, 1959
Back in the heyday of Tricky Dick and Spiro, Annie and everyone she knew lived their lives at the edge of society. The straight world called them crazy and the feeling was surely mutual. Faced with the multiplying insanities of Selma, Watts, My Lai, Kent State ... what could the young folks do but listen to a rock'n'roll band?
Life did get very weird, for a while back there, and the freaks got ripped out of their skulls. Getting by, high and strange.
Not again, she hoped, wasn't once enough? Was it all coming back? Heaven preserve us, that'd be a scary thought.
In the time between Watergate and Desert Shield, Annie tried, they all did, to reach an accommodation with the outside world. Getting high gradually dissolved into just getting by. Dope stopped being important, and who the hell felt strange anymore?
Not Annie. As the nineties began, she was working as a physical therapist and, as far as she could tell, blending right in. She still didn't buy the hierarchical crap that went along with the sale of medical services in her country, but that was normal most of the other workers in the industry didn't either. And, as in any job, she mostly talked to her co-workers, not her customers and certainly not the big boss, whoever that was. Some group of doctors, she presumed, or other rich people. It made no difference to her.
The PTs, like the X-Ray technicians, the nurses, and all the other subgroups in hospital society, were not a bunch of clones. It was a matter of scale, of course. From far enough away, or from microscopically close, they were all essentially identical carbon-based life forms, but that's not the human experience. When you looked at them as people, no two seemed to be quite the same. They defined themselves by the choices they made, and Annie had come to think of the selections as parts of a multiple-choice list, a social smorgasbord, itself the local variant of some greater grouping. For example:
And so on. Pick all (d)'s and you'd be pretty unusual; but not much odder nowadays than a straight-(a), generically known as the Ozzie & Harriet. Annie saw herself as a babcd... and reckoned she was normal. She liked to work rather less than most, and not many others thought that it was worth quitting a job in order to spend the winter in Thailand, but that just made her kind of interesting. Her choices generally fell within current definitions of acceptable behavior, which are rather more elastic than once they were.
She knew very well that the men who signed the checks and put their names on the invoices set up the system and profited from it. And that part of their trip was to convince themselves that they were normal. More precisely, that everyone else either was or wanted to be like them. No one else seemed to be taken in, which put the bosses in the minority and made them the strange ones, right?
The customers probably assumed that anyone in uniform was a fully paid up supporter of the régime. That didn't necessarily mean they approved they didn't have anywhere else to go. Anyway, there wasn't much time to chat and most of them were too sick and self-absorbed to get into political discussions, unless they were about health insurance.
It's just the way it is, the way Annie saw it. It's a dumb old system if you take it at face value but no one does; so, like everyone else, you find a way of working around it, or through it, or under it like some tropical weed that hides under the concrete until it can work its way through the cracks and force them apart and bring the building down and dance over it in flowers.
Let's face it, Annie was an old hippie and proud of it.
She may not have looked like it (oh yes she did) but then she never did (oh yes she did). This was a woman who refused to do without eye shadow, even when living in the Haight in its heyday. "I'm doing my own thing and I like eye-liner," she said, foiling her hippie critics with a call to the higher dogma of self-expression. Besides, face-painting was fun and Keef Richards was getting into kohl ... but that was a long time ago.
A couple of decades later, Annie had, according your point of view, sold out (cheap?), bought in (dear?), found her place, lost her way, given up, hunkered down, gone to sleep, woken up, forgotten the question or found the answer.
Interpret it as you will, she wasn't fighting her surroundings so much anymore. Sure, to some extent she'd gone along to get along but, hey, it had worked both ways. Hadn't it? She might not like the way a lot of things were around her, exactly, but they were better than they used to be. She remembered people laughing at her and calling her a screwy eco-freak as she flattened her cans and separated her bottles in the early days of volunteer recycling; now, when she volunteered to help with the local (20th anniversary!) Earth Day celebration, everyone thought it was a good idea except a couple of idiots on the radio she never actually met anyone who said they were anti-environmentalist. That's progress, right? We used to be the cranks and now they are.
The planet might be collapsing but at least the country was at peace. The Cold War was over and if the superpatriots wanted to say we won, well it was sort of true so let them have their fun. Just so's we weren't doing any fighting. The Vietnam War was long gone and no one would dare do anything that crazy again. Would they? If anyone tried, everyone would just stop them. Wouldn't they? Wouldn't they?
It didn't work out that way.
During the build-up to the Gulf War, in October 1990, she found the precisely right peace-symbol brooch in Macy's. It was silver, about an inch and a half around, with the angled lines not squished too close together and not splayed too wide apart, solid enough but not clunky, just the exact thing. She wore it on her uniform the next day, kind of nervous and ready to justify it. She would talk to anyone about war and how idiotic it was, patients, doctors, anyone. Really she kind of wanted someone to object, so she could stand up for her beliefs but her principles wouldn't let her force her views on anyone, so they'd have to complain first.
No one actually told her to take it off. They just put on their stars-and-stripes lapel pins and smiled, or in some cases glared.
Strange? Her? Again?
Annie picked up on this sense of distinction and figured out how to ride with it. She could have decided to bury herself a little deeper, to encourage the sense of identity she wanted to feel, even with the straightest of her co-workers; she could have flung her differences in their faces and pursued politics in the workplace, at some risk of reprimand or worse. Characteristically, she considered and compromised. It was one thing to take risks, quite another to do so blindly. She did, however, refuse to deny her self, and in so doing began again the great task of
defining and discovering and celebrating the truth of who she was.