The impulse to believe the absurd when presented with the unknowable is called religion. Whether this is wise or unwise is the domain of doctrine. Once you understand someone's doctrine, you understand their rationale for believing the absurd. At that point, it may no longer seem absurd. You can get to both sides of this conondrum from here.


Postby admin » Fri Mar 18, 2016 7:19 pm

The Other Side of Eden: Life With John Steinbeck
by John Steinbeck IV & Nancy Steinbeck
© 2001 by Nancy Steinbeck




This book is dedicated to our children, Megan and Michael Steinbeck.
What a long, strange trip it's been

Table of Contents:

• Acknowledgments
• Foreword by Andrew Harvey
• Introduction
• 1. Entropy
• 2. Mom and Pop
• 3. The Wound
• 4. The Wild Tibetan
• 5. Naropa Nights
• 6. Chateau Lake Louise
• 7. Room Service
• 8. Prince Charming the Fourth
• 9. Outside In
• 10. Boarding School
• 11. Trouble in Paradise
• 12. Revolt
• 13. A Geographic
• 14. The Rose Garden
• 15. At War with Dad
• 16. Home-1967
• 17. The Scene
• 18. Saigon Again
• 19. The Coconut Monk
• 20. The Turn of the Screw
• 21. Broken Taboos
• 22. Decent
• 23. Billy Burroughs
• 24. Kissing Trains
• 25. Whip Stall
• 26. Close Encounters
• 27. The Kerouac Festival
• 28. Apocalypse Now
• 29. Magical Thinking
• 30. Mother
• 31. Our Magical Kingdom
• 32. Impermanence
• 33. 1984
• 34. Blood, Sweat, and Tears
• 35. Hell Bent
• 36. Last Ditch
• 37. Last Straw
• 38. Pentimento
• 39. The Two-Foot Drop
• 40. The Receptor Site-My Father's Grave
• 41. Larger than Life
• 42. Grace Notes
• 43. Icarus's Flight
• 44. The Karma of Words
• Appendix: Time Line
• Bibliography
• Index
• Photos

JOHN: It is my fate, and perhaps my disease to be considerably self-involved, with a head full of thoughts about myself ... I have always tried to make sense of the world around me as if, by way of understanding it, my confusion would be transformed into wisdom. This is possibly a clever case of putting the cart before the horse....

I believed Laura Huxley when she wrote You Are Not the Target, and in the cosmic sense I think this still holds true. But I have to tell you, by taking this panoramic stance in Absolute Truth, I have often hidden from myself many important relative truths along the road to this ultimate view of things. I think that much of my attachment to a sweet, pacific, and perhaps reductive nirvana was due to my fear in facing the more common and coarse weave in the tapestry that ordinary people toil with.... Consequently, I feel that along with so many other things, deft transcendence became just another painkilling habit.... I find that every day now I have to give myself permission to not understand and be genuinely frustrated by what I see....So, I try to dose it down with some sort of desperate comprehension to dispel the motion sickness of impermanence on any scale.... Many of the crosswinds swirling from my head and my heart cannot be followed objectively, especially by me. And though sometimes I might want to, the idea of defending them then becomes truly ludicrous....

It seems that when all is said and done and in spite of all intent and schooled purposes, the most identifiable quality of what I have come to think of as the Father Principle is anger....The father as "The Fool" tries to teach: "Let me tell you about life, son."... the father does seem to do good, but can also do very bad things... He seems to be always indignant or mad, and always moving away from contentment and happiness to a state of irritation.... what he does see you learn, like sexuality, somehow threatens the hell out of him. So he wounds you some more, and a scar begins to grow....

Sometimes I think that perhaps it's the knowledge that there is so much that can't happen between people which turns out to be the real essence revealed....There are no straight lines in life, and the phenomenal world is unconditionally unconditioned. It's raw and wild.... From this ugly cut of primal insult comes oozing the immensity of one's loneliness and total separation, and then, if you have survived and have been rendered haplessly honest by this trauma, you are finally set free into a world of your own determination....

I think the spirit of life really has much slyer dynamics than are contained in mere tribal campfire tales about this chimera of growing up. Notwithstanding a genuine poetic and collective unconscious, modern family evolution is less dramatic and thus even more insulting in its galling demonstration than a white man's reconstruction of an aboriginal dream. Though myth helps to organize our romantic image of ourselves, in real life, it is about as useful as a bidet in a gorilla cage.


NANCY: Our destination was Halifax, where [Trungpa] Rinpoche had moved the center of Vajradhatu, the Buddhist organization. He claimed that the Canadian soil was more fertile for meditation practice, the natives less aggressive than Americans, and the lifestyle more in keeping with the gentleness of Buddha dharma. Secretly, we were privy to the real reason: he wanted to establish an enlightened society. He had come to the alcoholically grandiose conclusion that the best structure for a spiritual utopia was a monarchy. Indeed, the formation of his kingdom was the latest assignment on our spiritual path.

After extensive research by his minions, he decided Nova Scotia was most appropriate for his vision, a small foreign province with little political influence. He established his own army, navy, and even an air force, staffed by weekend warriors, sailors, and aviators. Former hippies were now being told to find lucrative jobs, buy elegant houses, and dress in three-piece suits in order to build a power base. The more financially endowed were buying boats and planes, and sleek new Mercedes became ubiquitous.

He assigned a battery of henchmen called the Guards, and suddenly large men in pinstriped suits appeared at Rinpoche's talks, flanking the auditoriums like Nazi bouncers. We were told they were there to establish a sense of "container" at all the functions, standing at attention on the periphery. Some students were disturbed by these developments, but the dissenters were cajoled back into the herd by the party line that we were serious students of Buddhism, weren't we? No longer hippy trippers browsing a spiritual supermarket, we needed to manifest in a more orderly fashion. Like many Boomers, we were mutating into Yuppies, but our impetus was at the invitation of our guru, which made us superior to the others, whom we scorned because they were doing it out of greed. Advanced practitioners were told that the plan was to infiltrate Nova Scotia and eventually we would take over, thereby creating the Kingdom of Shambala. Rinpoche claimed this would happen, not by force, but by example. The simple people of that impoverished maritime province would be so impressed by our ways that they would want to join our utopian society. Rinpoche, as the universal monarch, would govern the people with his fearless proclamation of sanity.

Having lived in British Columbia for seven years, I was intimately familiar with the Canadian mentality and I was disgusted at his naivete. Most Canadians are fifties-types with distinct family values, and they don't like their boats rocked. I once asked Rinpoche in front of a room full of people if he really thought Nova Scotia would secede from Canada to become the Kingdom of Shambala, and he didn't bat an eyelash. He claimed that it would happen perfectly naturally. A few years later the Canadian government placed the Vajradhatu community on their subversive list.

John and I were uncomfortable about the direction in which Rinpoche was headed, and especially by his spiritual chauvinism, which touted his particular lineage of Tibetan Buddhism as having all the answers. Students adapted a sense of superiority based on the access he provided to teachings that had previously been kept secret within the confines of Tibet's isolation. Again, we were helplessly uneducated. The same lack of awareness about chemical and codependency extended to our ignorance about belonging to a cult. Later, we were astonished at how his tactics fit the mold.

Rinpoche played into Western greed. He took fifteen hundred hip students and encouraged us to shed our counterculture plumage for a formal lifestyle, which he claimed would be a reflection of our discipline and exertion. We were ordered to stop tripping and make enough money to support him in the lavish elegance to which we were all about to become accustomed. He began to insist on a courtly style of life. Indeed, his home was now referred to as "The Court." We were to treat him like a king; his middle-class British wife was to be called "Her Highness, Lady Diana." His head honchos were titled "Lords" and their wives became "Ladies." Students who had come off of communes a few years before, or from the sweat of the antiwar movement were now lapping up the very bourgeois lifestyles we had all protested. Livelihoods changed from subsistence to opulence. We were encouraged to study the Shambala arts of ikebana flower arranging, calligraphy, archery, and dressage. Ragged-assed hippies became monkeys mimicking English nobility. It was hysterically funny and perturbing at the same time. There was a Mouse that Roared quality, and there was also an underlying oxymoronic undertow, of which John was particularly suspicious. What did this have to do with Buddhism?


NANCY: People still ask me how I managed to stay in the relationship. In those early years, despite John's mood swings and heavy drinking, we clung to the sweetness we saw in each other. Our survival-mode living skills dovetailed beautifully. We had both grown up in a war zone, so we were addicted to a constant crisis and drama. As children, when insanity screamed from the rafters, no one was allowed to speak about it. We learned not to trust or even feel emotions. However, as is typical in recovery, those childhood safeguards eventually stopped working. The strength of our emotions was so powerful that we were forced to deal with feelings directly, instead of using the habitual defense of stuffing them.

As our relationship deepened, we dredged up the unimaginable and unmentionable from each other's psyches. Our psychic Roto-Rooting turned our safe haven into the trench warfare of our childhoods. In his search for recognition at any price, John had become a master manipulator. Abandoned by our parents as they chased after their own narcissistic reflections, we both had self-esteem issues, which resulted in the deleterious practice of people pleasing. Since neither of us knew how to communicate discomfort without anger, our fights became more frequent. And then, strangely, in the midst of our mutual napalm, we could drop the rage enough to give comfort, to search for meaning and hope. We never gave up on each other.

Later, when I became personally familiar with the private lives of my existential heroes, Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, I learned those guys had grappled with the same painful issues. For many years I have corresponded with beat icon Neal Cassady's widow, Carolyn, who was also Kerouac's longtime lover. She is one of the few women I've known who can truly understand my journey with John. Once Carolyn told me:

"People, especially feminists, ask me constantly why I didn't dump Neal. The circumstances he provided me were tailor-made, exactly what I needed to jolt me out of attitudes blocking my growth. Suffering is necessary in order to change. I pity those who aren't strong enough or too blind to have known such men as Neal, John, and Jack."

Psychiatrist R. D. Laing's widow, Marguerite, has also given me enormous solace about that chaotic period. Ronnie was a consummate alcoholic, yet Marguerite stayed with him because every other man paled in comparison, drunk or sober. She knows the magnetism of a man who reveals the full sweep of human emotions, from drooling drunkard to a brilliant, creative cult hero. We've spent hours talking about what it's like to live out the myth of Beauty and the Beast, as Ronald Colman morphs into Quasimodo.

William Burroughs watched his son die of a failed liver transplant in his twenties because he couldn't stop drinking and wore out the new organ. Born to a drug-addicted mother, Billy emerged from the womb craving a fix. Although William wrote with a tough veneer, the death devastated him. Watching a loved one possessed by the demons of addiction is heartbreaking.

Allen Ginsberg struggled to detach from his lifelong lover, Peter Orlovsky, when he drank. "We made a vow to enter Heaven together," Allen said. "It's hard to break that vow."

The radical feminists and recovery police would prefer us to toss guys like Ronnie, Neal, Jack, and John aside. They would chastise Carolyn, Marguerite, and me for our weakness and lack of self-esteem. But it's never that black and white when you love an addict, especially when you stop pointing the finger at their transgressions and look at your own character defects.

Robin Norwood, who wrote the codependency gospel, Women Who Love Too Much, is a pioneer in understanding the nuances of tempestuous relationships. In her subsequent book, Why? she explores the link between childhood wounds and an inclination to attract certain events and people into our lives. To toss John's problems out like yesterday's garbage would only have meant I would have attracted another difficult relationship. In order to clean up the mess in my own psyche, I had to develop stronger boundaries to keep from getting sucked into John's maelstrom. That cannot be done in a vacuum; I need to practice in a relationship.

Norwood goes so far as to question whether the prevention of addiction is even desirable. She claims that although the stakes are high and the price one pays for failure can be immeasurable, addiction can create a pressure which results in personal transformation. I am grateful that there are some veterans of the recovery movement who have emerged with such outrageous insight. I rode astride the razor's edge with John, and although we placed our bets on victory, the odds were on insanity or death, mine or his. As a result, I learned about the true nature of unconditional love. There is a bond so profound that it can surpass the ravages of child abuse, a garbage pail of addictions, and finally, even death. Nine years later, when John embraced sobriety wholeheartedly, he made his amends to me. "My drinking must have taken years off your life. Can you ever forgive me?"

Norwood examines the theory that people with AIDS can be seen as a group of souls dedicated to expressing universal laws of sacrifice. Their suffering may be the catalyst that advances the evolution of humanity toward compassion and acceptance. Similarly, in the early eighties, I believe many addicts worked on a soul level to raise society's awareness about the effects of drugs and alcohol. When the dust settled, I felt that we had bitten off a huge chunk of the collective consciousness by striving to heal those ills on a societal level, as well as in ourselves. When the nights are darkest, our souls labor toward a quantum leap in spiritual evolution. I would have walked through fire in order to free myself from dependency, rage, and fear. My quest began when, as a thirteen-year-old beatnik, these words of Rimbaud's Illuminations were etched on my soul.

My eternal soul,
Observe your vow
Despite the night alone
And the day on fire.


NANCY: Then [William Burroughs] brought out a primitive, long, and lethal blowgun. With a devilish glint, he deposited a dart in the column and poised the gun on his lips, aiming it at my head. Laughing, I ducked around the corner. "Oh, no, you don't," I chided him. "I'm not as game as I used to be! Now I know when to get out of danger." In the hands of another man, it would have seemed a gesture of insanity. In William, it was a cosmic acknowledgment of the humor, however black, in every situation.

He told me his theory about World Assassination Day. ''That's when you get to shoot all the assholes." "But William," I protested. "How do you know who's bad enough that he deserves to die?" "Oh, you know," he said, grinning emphatically.

I remembered a time when my world had gone mad, and the only comfort I found was when Johnny told me sometimes William wished he could put an atom bomb in the Dharmachakra of the universe. His audacity put things in perspective.



You might have been a writer, musician or a saint
You might have been an actor or told your tale in paint
But now you're just a hustler who travels with the tide
An easy riding con man who never even tried.

Son of famous father, you work hard having fun
Everyone hurries forward to meet your father's son
You started in your childhood to play a special game
Bearing a special burden, your famous father's name.

The people ask you questions about your father's life
His habits and his pastimes, his crazy second wife
You answer them with patience, supply the missing link
The only thing you ask them is buy another drink.

Women are what you win at, you never do them right
Watching the way they wind up is not a pretty sight
Women can hear your nightmares, they love the game you play
Somehow you must destroy them before you slip away.

Whenever you get busted somebody bails you out
With all your charm and talent you only fuck about
You can't ignore his footsteps on any side of town
He's too much to live up to and so you live him down.

You can't avoid his shadow no matter what you do
Though he was loved by many, he had no time for you
How could you ever touch him when all is said and done?
Son of a famous father, you load your father's gun.


NANCY: Immediately after returning from Nepal, I started to experience flashbacks of my father sexually abusing me as a young child....The first flashback hit me in the hotel bed, cuddling with John. I saw myself as a tiny baby. My mother was bathing me but something felt wrong. A man was looking at my body in a sexual manner. I realized it was my father....Determined that my father would never attack me again, I held my head high, but my heart was broken....Now that John was ready to talk about his childhood, we faced our sexual abuse issues together. While mine was more blatant, John became aware of the degraded atmosphere in which he'd been raised, where Gwyn's friends had drunkenly fondled him as they removed their coats from the pile on his bed....When John realized what my father had done to me, he stopped feeling so misunderstood about his own miserable childhood.

Tanya sent me to a therapist who specialized in sexual abuse. Under hypnosis, I saw my father molest me repeatedly as an infant. It continued up to age three. I had very few memories, but my therapist claimed that feelings were the evidence, not the concrete recollections. Surprisingly, my brother supplied the missing pieces. "When I was nine," he said, "you accused me of doing something sexually inappropriate and I got punished. I remember thinking you couldn't have made it up, because there was no way a three-year-old would imagine something that explicit." Blaming my brother had been safer than blaming my father.

Although it was excruciating, I went straight to the heart of the abuse. After a session with my therapist, I would cry into my pillow until the kids came home from school. Johnny was at his supportive best, fascinated by the process. He wanted to hear everything; he never judged me, and I was grateful for that, because sometimes I felt so dirty.


NANCY: After his death, a Buddhist teenager asked me, "Did you know that some guys used to pimp for Rinpoche? They'd find him new women to sleep with." She was talking about the sharks that sought out eager new females, either at Rinpoche's request, or on their own recognizance, hoping to win favor with him. We discussed the obvious oxymoron to which everyone turned a blind eye, that an impeccable warrior's path cannot incorporate a voracious and sloppy appetite for drugs, alcohol, and hundreds of sexual encounters. While everyone was busy honoring Rinpoche's courage for being so blatant about his massive indulgences, his henchmen constantly skimmed the various centers for new blood. Women were trained as "consorts." That meant they knew what to do when he threw up, shit in the bed, snorted coke till dawn, turned his attention to other women, and maybe even got in the mood for a threesome.

Our little band of recovering Buddhists began to ask people if they thought this flagrant behavior constituted religious or sexual abuse. The standard answer you get from the male good old boys who buy into the system because it means their coffers will also be full to feed their own addictions, is that they never, in all their pimping, heard any woman complain about sleeping with Rinpoche. (I use that term loosely, because for years he was alcoholically impotent and would devise little sexual games such as using a dildo known as "Mr. Happy" or insisting women masturbate in front of him.)


NANCY: My Al-Anon sages managed to impart the profound notion of powerlessness to me.


JOHN: Writing this book is going to bring me to the Source. All I saw was God.

-- The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck, by John Steinbeck IV & Nancy Steinbeck
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Postby admin » Fri Mar 18, 2016 7:25 pm


I would like to thank my agent, Laurie Harper, for her unwavering enthusiasm, and my editor, Steven L. Mitchell, for believing the two voices could work together.

I am grateful to Paulette Mariano for her humor and encouragement, to Cynthia Lester for her insight, and to Brad Paulson for his love, wisdom, and inspiration.

Special appreciation to those who sustained and maintained me during the writing of this book: Pete Beevers, Beth Robinson, Andrew Harvey, Eryk Hanut, Jay Rosenthal, Mimi Gladstein, Ted Hayashi, Louis Owens, Mary A. Read, Carol Hammond and the Wichita girlz, Kim Wann, Irma Preston, Shannon Smith, Lisa Buchanan, Missy Wyatt, Pat Lawler, Nan de Grove, Luigi Tindini, Marie and Sean Warder, Carol and Jim Heidebrecht, and Duncan Campbell.
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Postby admin » Fri Mar 18, 2016 7:26 pm

Foreword by Andrew Harvey

I am honored to write a foreword to this lacerating, profound, and exquisitely written book. The Other Side of Eden has harrowed and elated me, shattered my heart, and made me laugh raucously out loud. In John and Nancy Steinbeck's sophisticated and naked company, few extremes of human emotion go unexplored, often with a brutal brilliance that is as purifying as it is terrifying. This is one of the most original memoirs of the twentieth century. Anyone who finds the courage to read it as it deserves to be read -- slowly, rigorously, bringing to it the whole of their feeling and intelligence -- will find themselves changed.

All great memoirs are a clutch of different books marvelously conjured into one. The Other Side of Eden is no exception. It is at once an exorcism of family wounds and secrets, an expose of the projections of religious seekers and of the baroque and lethal world of New Age cults and gurus. This poignant unfolding of a great love affair between two wounded, difficult, but dogged lovers is also the account of a journey into awakening through the massacre of illusion after illusion, to the awakening that lies on the other side of Eden. Few books risk, or achieve, so much under such blisteringly candid authority. Reading it is as much a rite of passage as a literary experience.

First, the exorcism. Many readers will undoubtedly be attracted to the most "sensational" aspects of the book -- John Steinbeck IV's terrible alcohol-and-drug-ravaged struggle with the shadow of his famous father. Anyone hungering for cheap dirt or the easy satisfaction of the destruction of a celebrity idol will go away disappointed. The younger Steinbeck shirks nothing of his father's violence, inner desolation, addictions, occasionally pathetic and outrageous phoniness, and is honest about the lifelong, life-sabotaging wounds these caused him. He is far too intelligent, however, not to know and celebrate also how generous and tender his father could sometimes be. John is also far too wise not to understand that the very terror of his father's legacy was itself a kind of appalling grace -- one that would nearly kill him again and again, yes, but which would also constantly goad and harass him, against great odds, to discover his essential self and the supreme values of spiritual clarity and unconditional love. Those who admire the elder Steinbeck's writing, as I do, will find nothing here that sours their admiration. If anything their respect for both the work and the man will only grow sadder and more mature as they acknowledge the struggles both had to endure. Dreadful though his father's legacy partly was, the younger Steinbeck did not allow it to annihilate him. He fought it, and himself, with agonizing courage to finish his life at peace with those he loved, with his past, and with the world. His father left two or three real masterpieces as signs of his truth. The younger John's masterpiece was the scale, reach, and passion of his life, a life that could only be written by a combination of Thurber, Dostoevsky, and Milarepa. The marvelous writing he achieved in this memoir is also in itself a victory, all the more rare because of the atmosphere of forgiveness and awareness that bathes it with a final, and healing, light.

This light of rare, bald awareness also bathes Nancy and John Steinbeck's expose of their disillusion with Tibetan Buddhism and its guru system. Searching for a spiritual truth that could spring them free of their inherited agonies and also for a "good parent," they both became in the seventies, like so many other seekers, enamored of the "crazy wisdom" teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche. As Nancy Steinbeck writes, "A magnetic aura surrounded Rinpoche .... Infamously wild, in his mid-thirties, wearing Saville Row suits, he smoked Raleighs, drank whiskey, ate red meat, and sampled the entire panoply of hippie pharmaceuticals." Initially intoxicated by Trungpa's extravagance and brilliance, the Steinbecks came gradually to see how abusively and absurdly, dangerously grandiose he could be. They began to understand how sick with denial of his alcoholism and sexual cruelty the community that surrounded him was. This shocked them both into awakening from "the guru dream." Inspired by their own struggle with abuse and codependency, they were compelled to speak out, especially when Trungpa's successor, Tom Rich, ran the risk of spreading AIDS with a complete lack of conscience and with the corrupt connivance of his "henchmen." Just as the Steinbecks had both lived through the exposure of their own family myths, they now lived together through the equally anguishing process (one that I know too well) of recovering from the delusion of projecting their own power onto a so-called enlightened master and from the savage, intricate cruelties of a community rotten with denial. Their account of this devastating time is one of the triumphs of their book. Both admit they learned a great deal from Trungpa and praise his sometimes astounding acumen. It is this fairness that makes all the more unarguable their analysis of his hypocrisies and ruthlessness, along with those of his community. All those who continue, despite a mountain of damning evidence, to believe that Trungpa and his obscene Regent were "enlightened masters" and who, in the name of "crazy wisdom" continue to threaten and deride their critics, need to suffer and read The Other Side of Eden. So, in fact, do all serious seekers, especially those still in the thrall of the various contemporary manifestations of the guru system. The New Age at large is still horribly vulnerable to the fantasies of brilliant maniacs and the all-explaining, all-absolving circular rhetoric of a guru system that is now, to any unbiased eye, wholly discredited. The Steinbecks make clear that the alternative to the worship of false gods is not despair; it is freedom and self-responsibility, the dissolving of a brilliant illusion into a far more empowering if less glamorous truth.

The most moving of all the different facets of The Other Side of Eden is that it is a great love story, all the more greater and challenging because it shows how the jewel of unconditional love is only revealed when all the fantasies about love are incinerated. In the course of their extreme and extraordinary marriage, the Steinbecks explored and exploded all love's ravishing but lesser myths. In the end, they were left not with disillusion, but with a mystery, the mystery of a love that transcends all known categories to exist simply in the boundless and eternal. As Nancy Steinbeck writes, "1 rode astride the razor's edge with John and although we place our bets on victory, the odds were on insanity or death, or both. As a result, I learned about unconditional love. There is a bond so profound that it can surpass the ravages of child abuse, a garbage pail of addictions, and finally even death." The road to such a love cannot be smooth or dragon-free. Because it gives everything, it costs everything. One of the permanent contributions this book makes to the exploration of the nature of love lies in its blistering honesty about the price of authentic commitment and about the continual leaping-off into darkness and mystery beyond all dictates of sense or even, sometimes, self-preservation. At stake in the alchemy of such a love is nothing less than the forging of the whole human and divine self of both partners. The final, amazing grace of the Steinbecks' marriage reveals that this, in fact, took place. Their long, often tormented struggle yielded the golden peace that passes understanding and the divinity of human passion lived out to its end in acceptance.

If The Other Side of Eden were simply an exorcism, expose, and account of a transfiguring marriage, it would still be a most haunting and remarkable book. It is, however, something more than the sum of its parts. After many readings and rereadings, I have come to experience it as an account of the cost and joy of real awakening in a modern world largely controlled by competing lethal myths.

Those who want true and unshakable self-knowledge have to be prepared to sacrifice every inner and outer comfort, every consoling fantasy or dogma, every subtle hiding place, everything that prevents them from taking full, stark, scary responsibility for themselves and their actions in and under the Divine. There is no other way to full human dignity and no other way to the radical self-empowerment beyond the betrayal of dogma, religion, and system of any kind. The human race now needs to reach for this degree of honesty if it is going to meet, embrace, and survive the challenges of our time.

All systems, religious or political, have clearly failed us. We stand, naked and afraid, before doors that are opening into the apocalypse of nature and the massive degradation of the entire human race and Creation. If we go on letting the lies or half-truths of the past haunt and mold us, we will die out. If we risk the terrible and dangerous journey into naked truth beyond illusion, we have a chance of discovering what John and Nancy Steinbeck both discovered at the exhausting but exalted end of this book -- an unshakable belief in the sacred power of true love to overcome and transform extreme disaster. The Steinbecks' eventual ferocious spiritual strength allowed them to witness truth and justice in all circumstances against all possible opposing powers. From this marriage of what Jesus called the "innocence of the dove" and "the wisdom of the serpent" outrageous possibilities of freedom and creativity can still -- even at this late hour -- be born.

The questions that this wonderful book leaves us all with are these: Are we willing to pay the price for this marriage of unillusioned hope and illusionless wisdom to be born in us? Will we risk, as John and Nancy have done, the stark and glorious alchemy of honesty and embrace the spiritual Darwinism of the survival of the most candid? Are we ready to travel through the incineration of every false truth to arrive in the Real, empowered with its hilarity and mystery? One of the most moving legacies of this book is that for all its exploration of horror, agony, betrayal, tragedy, corruption, and sheer brutal psychic suffering, it leaves us with the conviction that the truth is worth everything it costs because it sets us free. Free to love and weep and laugh and rejoice, free to witness, with steely and beady eyes, the rigors of justice. Free to become as Nancy and John Steinbeck became, electric nuisances to all myth-making systems -- personal, political, and religious -- that in any way diminish or imprison the secret of our splendor.

[Andrew Harvey] You got to do what you got to do !
[Torture Victim] Are we done yet?
-- Andrew Harvey's Quest for Truth, by Tara Carreon
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Postby admin » Fri Mar 18, 2016 7:28 pm


My husband, John Steinbeck IV, started to write his autobiography, with some mixed feelings and much trepidation, in the spring of 1990, after two years of sobriety. He was excited about finally receiving recognition for his talents, and felt a renewed sense of direction based upon the positive reaction of his agent and editor. By that winter, he had traced the serrated edge of his life up to 1979, the year we fell in love.

John had lived with Promethean intensity. Surrounded by celebrities of the forties and fifties, he was raised in an atmosphere of shameless, alcoholic abuse and neglect. At the age of twenty, he was drafted into the Vietnam War. After a year of service, he remained there for five more, as a civilian and Emmy award-winning journalist, as a Buddhist monk, and as a father and a junkie. Back in the States, he became a voice in the antiwar movement. In 1969 he published In Touch, [1] a highly acclaimed book about his experiences in Vietnam. He also studied Tibetan Buddhism with the notorious Crazy Wisdom guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in Boulder, Colorado, where we met in 1975.

John's mother, Gwyn, had launched his massive addiction to various chemical substances when she medicated him with codeine at the tender age of four. In the last decade of his life, battling with those demons brought him to death's door and a miraculous recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous.

The gentle magic of his writing profoundly touched everyone who read the first draft of his autobiography. As he mailed it off to his editor, Linda Cunningham, he threw a handful of mylar confetti in the envelope. He knew how hard it is to vacuum up the vivid stars and hearts. "I want her to see those sprinkles on her office floor till they publish the book, so she'll remember me." Linda was ecstatic about the manuscript. After he died, she called to tell me the confetti was still in her carpet.

Since he had quit drinking and using drugs, John replaced alcohol sugars with pints of ice cream, tranquilizing the pain of unearthed memories with fat-filled food. His health had been precarious during the 1980s. He was hoping that along with his recovery, his metabolism would eventually stabilize and he would lose the excess pounds he had gained. We joined an exercise class together; it was so touching to see his painstaking concentration on the workouts, and he was enthusiastic about the endorphines they released. Sadly, it was too strenuous for him and in November of 1990 he ruptured a disc. He worked with a chiropractor for three months in the hope of avoiding radical procedures. When he grew impatient with the intense pain, he decided to undergo surgery in February of 1991.

Unfortunately, we were not made aware that the tests taken to clear John for the operation had come back with abnormal results, though we had cautioned the doctor of that possibility. Ignoring the red flags, he mindlessly misjudged my husband's candidacy for surgery. We had no idea that some surgeons are addicted to cutting. The knife wields power and, for them, the slash is the answer to everything. Mirroring John's needle jones, the orthopedist lusted to use his scalpel.

John died immediately following the operation. He suffered cardiac arrest, though they tried for an hour to revive him. When I left the hospital with our children, after saying a final good-bye, my first thought was to finish John's manuscript. Through the shock and pain, I felt an enormous responsibility to complete his work. I spent the next six months writing about his last years and the story of our love affair.

Being married to John was like having Scheherezade on call. He enjoyed telling tales and he recounted them dozens of times. His stories, and his life, were like music to me, leitmotifs as familiar as Beethoven; though there were times, especially when he was drinking, when I was convinced he would never shut up.

John was the only person who could write the chronicle of his family, a story that is much more than the voyeuristic and lurid expose of Steinbeck family secrets that readers have come to expect these days. His working title for the autobiography was Legacy, which speaks of the many qualities handed down from his ancestors, often simultaneously virtuous and twisted, sacred and wounding. He did not intend his book to be a scholarly evaluation of the immense talents of his father or mother, and it was not to be an entertaining journal of his wayward youth. Nor did he want to glorify his emotional pain. His story of the Steinbeck family was to be a process through which he could heal his own very deep and personal wounds.

John's story is not unique. Statistics claim that 98 percent of families are dysfunctional. Where it becomes exceptional is the way it speaks so eloquently of such archetypal themes as power struggles between father and son, psychological suicide, abusive mothers, calculating stepmothers, and so much more. He wrote about the three rules that render families psychologically sick: Don't talk. Don't trust. Don't feel.

For years, John kept the secrets of his family, a conspiracy that eventually killed him. As a wounded warrior, he lived his life partly as the dutiful son, trying hard to win his father's love and approval, even long after Steinbeck's death. The loyal part of him kept his mouth shut to protect his parents, all the while committing emotional suicide. In the process he became an alcoholic and an addict, just like his mother and father.

In family photographs, John is always impeccably groomed, with a stiff posture that displays an anguished attempt to appear dutiful. He reminded me of one of those pictures when, on the day he died, he asked me: "Have I been a good boy through this?" Of course, he meant the debilitating agony that eventually forced him to take the very painkillers to which he had previously been addicted. I told him he'd been wonderful. At the height of his addiction, John was accustomed to taking quadruple doses of his medication. Concerned that the children and I might be distressed by his mood swings, he had been very conscientious during the past several months about letting us know when he took the prescribed amount.

For John, writing his autobiography was about balancing the ledger. Until he got sober, John had few choices in life because his addiction drove him. His healing produced a physical and emotional calm that brought him a measure of confidence in his ability to overcome his past. John's successful effort to recovery from alcoholism was probably the single greatest Steinbeck family achievement since The Grapes of Wrath. While this achievement would not win him a Nobel Prize like the one bestowed upon his father, it is far more pertinent to the human condition in America today. He refused to be victimized by his alcoholic genes or the suicidal dynamic between many famous fathers and their sons, in which the father's presence overshadows the son's sense of himself. From the sons of Cronos, whose jealous father swallowed them whole as they were born, to those of Bing Crosby, we know the archetypal tragedy and waste that occur when a father's persona devours his offspring.

John made a profound impression on everyone he met, no matter how casually. People sensed a depth of compassion, humor, and dignity in him, which they wanted viscerally to bottle, later to uncork and relive the impact. As one whom he intimately affected on a daily basis, I wanted to preserve the memory of his uncanny instinct for waking people up.

I needed to finish his manuscript for our family. As a survivor of severe childhood abuse, I, too, am balancing a ledger by lending completion to the process John started. Nobel Prizes and international acclaim do not sustain a family, or even the person getting the awards for more than the time it takes to receive them. By the time John Steinbeck accepted the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature, John IV and his brother, Thom, were already alcoholics and addicts. Their mother was in the late stage of her own alcoholism and Steinbeck himself was burned out on life, alcohol, and drugs. These awards did not help him or his family get better. They merely provided more varnish to cover up the pain, their collective illness, and their profound vulnerability.

John Steinbeck Sr. knew life at a readily observable, but illusory and transitory level. John IV, however, discovered what his father and much of his adoring public missed. That The Grapes of Wrath kind of poverty was Steinbeck's own. Not the poverty of corporeal substance that the great author immortalized, but a deeper, more insidious and lethal poverty of the soul and the spirit.

By slowly working through his recovery, John emerged victorious over anger, resentment, rejection, and humiliation. He could take his seat as a person in his own right, removed from the shadow of his father's haunting presence and his mother's violent temper. Writing his autobiography allowed him to heal the emotional wounds buried deep in his heart. He was finally looking ahead to a life he himself defined, a life that included loving friends and family instead of heaps of abuse and both physical and emotional toxicity.

In the years before his death, John was joyously playing with the different hats of a contented midlife man, a father, a husband, and a sober friend. Johnny would proclaim, "No drug is as potent as sobriety. Accepting life on life's terms is the strongest dope on earth. I wish I had known that twenty years ago." He found it amazing that creativity and joy were the extraordinary fruits that freedom from addiction offered.

The clarity and serenity that John had achieved in his last years were a great solace to those of us who were close to him. His difficulties with finances, setting boundaries, and trying to please people stopped being so unmanageable. He was proud of his maturity. The old feelings had not completely disappeared. Instead, they merely lost their crippling power to cramp his self-image.

Johnny used to tell me how lucky I was that he was even alive because of the short-lived track record of sons of famous fathers, such as John F. Kennedy, Paul Newman, and William Burroughs. I am grateful for every day we spent together, in spite of the pain and confusion of the early years. The success of our journey to heal childhood wounds eventually left us breathless and secretly believing we had discovered an enlightened kingdom in the heart of our relationship.

Unfortunately, the wounds were too deep for John's body to recover enough to grant him longevity. For some, the diseases of child abuse and addiction are fatal. Left untreated, they end in death or insanity. Johnny worked diligently to achieve his emotional recovery. He regained his sanity, but the abuse heaped upon his body proved too much for his system. His loyal heart gave out. Perhaps abuse and sorrow were the lessons he had to master, even if it cost him his life. The joyous rewards ahead were not the harvest he was destined to reap. In his life and his death there are messages John would have wanted to transmit, to ease the suffering caused by poisonous family dynamics.

The night before John's operation, I had a dream that Sable, our German Shepherd puppy, had died. A voice said, I am taking my angel back today. I want you to have acceptance about the death, and never doubt that it was not meant to be. You must not feel sorry for yourself. This sacrifice is evidence of a greater plan.

Johnny and I lay in bed the next morning, drinking coffee, sharing dreams, as we did every morning of our lives together. We never tired of that ritual. Born in the Chinese year of the Fire Dog, he groaned, "I hope that dog in your dream isn't me." I had never thought about his dying in surgery until then. I looked at him in horror.

"Johnny, if something happens, will you promise to come back as our guardian angel?"

He didn't miss a beat. "If I die today, I will always be with you and Megan and Michael. I will never leave you."

I didn't miss a beat either. "What about the book? Do you want me to finish it ... you know, like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir?" That was our favorite movie, about a woman who writes best-selling adventure stories dictated by an adoring, phantom sea captain.

"Absolutely," he said, before I could finish the sentence. "It'll be easy. I'll be there to finish it with you."

And then we laughed. We thought it was banter. We thought we were cute. We never thought either of us would die young. We finished our coffee and drove to the hospital. A few hours later, John was dead.


Our daughter, Megan, went on a personal photographic expedition the summer after Johnny's death. She stopped at the Steinbeck Library in Salinas, California, to find photographs of him for the book. She called to tell me about one picture in particular that had a powerful effect on her. It was taken a few days before John and I met and fell in love, at the commemoration ceremony of the Steinbeck postage stamp in Salinas. When Megan came home, we looked at it together and I experienced a similarly intense reaction.

There was the Johnny I'd fallen in love with. Gorgeous. To-die-for gorgeous; hair tousled by the wind and his wise, bemused smile. I finally shed the tears that I never unleashed when the grief first started, when his drinking was relentless, when the diseases such as cirrhosis, diabetes, and hemochromatosis started coming like locusts during a summer plague. I cried for the beauty lost and for when it was regained in his sobriety. Johnny called them "Tara Tears," after the Tibetan goddess who wept when she saw the relentless suffering that is the fabric of human existence.

I wept for the pain that engulfed Johnny and for the nobility and integrity that dwelled in his heart. For the humor, the generosity, and the wisdom that spilled out onto everyone he met, in spite of his ailments and depression. The complexity of his life, his mysticism and depth, is a Gordian knot that still challenges me. Just as our marriage provided emotional and spiritual growth, I became stronger as I emerged from my grief. Johnny relied heavily on humor just to get through a day. When I see him in that picture -- young and vital and the charisma glowing from every pore -- the paradox slices clean through me. My only solace is to remember how much he loved paradox.

After his death, I thought of all the resolutions and convergences that allowed John to regain his dignity and to step out of his father's shadow, events that eased his transition and allowed him to establish his sense of self. One of the most significant was Johnny's delivery of an acclaimed keynote speech at the 1990 Salinas Steinbeck Festival, a memory of which we were enormously grateful.

For years, John had avoided appearing at any Steinbeck celebration because he dreaded having to answer questions about his name. He had little patience for sycophants, and he was not interested in playing the "I knew your father" game with Monterey Peninsula locals. He couldn't even make dinner reservations without someone saying sarcastically, "Any relation?" People would ask, "If it's that bad, why don't you change your name?" The dead sons of Errol Flynn and Bill Cosby were not named after their fathers. The curse is not in the name. Those modern sons of Cronos, swallowed alive by their father's fame, cannot change their fate with their name.

Robert De Mott, one of the foremost Steinbeck scholars, wrote his impressions of John's speech for the John Steinbeck IV memorial issue of the Steinbeck Quarterly. "All I can say I knew of John IV in his various selves is that he seemed to have had a roller-coaster life, which he approached with the nervous abandon of a man looking for his own name. Lately, he seemed to have found his name, for that evening in Salinas I felt again both a shock of recognition and a frontal assault on my half-baked, conflicting store of rumors and hearsay. I sensed an unanticipated calm, a Buddha-like repose, as John IV read from his movingly written, calmly measured prose memoir, Legacy, a personal study of the inheritance of addiction handed on from fathers to sons. This once-turbulent and clearly talented man stepped out of the long shadow his father threw. He wasn't shining, he wasn't reveling in self-pity or victimization, but he was settling the score with his inherited and self-created demons by enacting his own healing process, in which the gift of language became an act of homage and a celebration of an enduring link. John IV's words may have been too little, but now in the wake of his untimely death, I prefer to think that they were not too late."

After the speech, Johnny and I took the kids to the merry-go-round on Cannery Row, Monterey's historical fish-packing district which Steinbeck memorialized with his unforgettable characters. We observed a family ritual we had started years ago. After riding the ancient carousel, we matched wits with the caged chicken who faithfully plays Tic Tac Toe and wins every game. Then we posed for the last family portrait we'd ever have taken. Finally, we patted the bust of John Sr. as we paid him homage. And then we drove back to our hotel in Carmel Valley. As Johnny was hanging up his suit jacket, a piece of paper fell out of the pocket. It was a note someone had slipped him unnoticed, after his speech. Written in the quivering hand of an elderly woman, this is what it said:

How cruel it seems to me to be that John Steinbeck's own flesh and blood have to play the game I call Who Knew John Steinbeck Best. Any boy suffers when there is a divorce and his father leaves the family home. I found it very sad that someone in the audience would question just how well you knew your father. You handled it extremely well. He lives in you. Godspeed. A friend.

This was about a question about how well John had known his father, since his parents were divorced when he was two.

As we read the note, we were moved to tears, because someone had been sensitive to the immensity of John's burden. This woman's sympathy for his peculiar fate touched him and us as his family. The audience had appreciated him for his own unique and brilliant self, for the magic of his words and the gentleness of his presence. It was a homecoming, a reunion, rich in its outpouring of genuine mutual recognition. After years of being treated as the black sheep of the family, the event gave him great pleasure. We were looking forward to future appearances, and often spoke of moving to the Monterey Peninsula after John published his memoirs. We dreamed of building a house in Carmel Valley, with room for our animals and grandchildren. Long before Fate brought us together, it was mutually our favorite spot on earth, and we decided it was time to surround ourselves with its beauty.

Many of my dreams died with Johnny, but one will always live on within me and the friends who loved him. We hope that the impact he had upon the people he touched will always be remembered. Later, we may make some sense of his death. Much later, there may even be certainty. For now, there exists only the rawness and the sadness that such great gifts were silenced much too soon. And gratitude for the arc of his white-hot clarity, which lives on like a perpetual shooting star.

When my publisher suggested the book be titled The Other Side of Eden, I was quite intrigued. It intimated the shadow side of fame, an underbelly of which few are truly aware. I was, however, a bit taken aback by the subtitle, Life with John Steinbeck. It seemed to be a stretch, considering that I had never met John's father, and anyway, the book contains the epic sweep of our lives, much of which happened long after Steinbeck's death. However, as time went by, I began to understand the levels on which my life with John Steinbeck operated.

It has often felt strange, being married to and now the widow of a man named John Steinbeck. The name summons up two mental and emotional images which I have to sort through whenever I hear it. The image for Steinbeck Sr. is an almost Jehovah-like figure, formidable, brooding, melancholy. When I think of it as Johnny's name, I feel a sense of warmth and resolution which overshadows my memories of darker times. I am, after all, Mrs. John Steinbeck. In the past twenty-five years, I have come to terms with the effect John's father had on him. Those negative aspects had a profound developmental impact on our children. Ten years after John's death, the three of us continue to heal from the gothic Steinbeck legacy.

In that sense, there has been a running conversation between Steinbeck and me that resembles Abra's pleas in East of Eden, as she begs Adam to bless his son so that Cal may individuate and mature. And so, I came to accept that it was fitting for my memoirs to contain the subtitle Life with John Steinbeck.

This phrase also refers to John's life with his father, mother, stepmother, and brother and how he came to terms with his immediate family. John's memoirs are also a personal account of his attempt to come to grips with his own life and what it meant within and independent of the Steinbeck myth. The Other Side of Eden blends these three psychological portraits, sometimes like well-mixed paint and other times like the clash of fire and water, but always in the spirit of genuine, unadulterated realism. They intermingle and interact as John, in the present, reflects about his life as a boy, a Vietnam vet, a journalist, and a struggling addict. Toward the end of the book, John reflects on the process by which he came to terms with his father, his addictions, and our marriage, which was often torn apart by his substance abuse.

This book is uniquely neither biography nor autobiography, but rather a conversation with two people that provides discrete insights into our enigmatic family. Because my husband's manuscript was unfinished when he died, there were various gaps in the chronology which I have filled in order to give the reader a greater sense of continuity and understanding. John's writing sheds light on his father's character in a way that Steinbeck would never have explained himself. The inclusion of my memories about our life together lends an additional perspective that neither writer might have ever revealed. In order to weave our voices together, John's memories are interspersed among mine throughout the book in a way that requires the reader to dwell in the present moment of each vignette. This format seems particularly fitting; drunk or sober, the Now was always John's favorite state of mind. A time line is available at the end of the book for readers who prefer a more linear approach.

At a bookstore reading last year, I was put on the spot by one of those colorful Steinbeck Country old-timers who think because they've lived in Monterey for eighty years, they can claim a peculiar proprietariness about their town's favorite son, a man they never met. "Your husband speaks of Steinbeck in such a negative way," he said belligerently. "As one of our greatest authors, don't you owe him more respect?"

It was a fair question and I had to think for a moment before replying. "If Steinbeck were to portray himself as a fictional character, he would not have hesitated to show the reader the full sweep of his spirit, his darkness, his shadow side, as well as his exalted, enlightened qualities. Steinbeck dove into the deepest recesses of his complex psyche and surfaced with an uncanny insight into the human condition that few authors have ever accomplished, before or since. In that sense, this book both explains and honors his amazing ability to create unforgettable characters."

Three days before his death, John asked his brother to create a logo for my psychotherapy workshops, which he had christened "Plan B" in reference to the escape hatch every codependent needs when relating to insanity and abuse. John had in mind an image of a briar intertwined around a rose, taken from the old English folk ballad Barbry Allen, which I used to sing in San Francisco's North Beach coffeehouses as a teenager.

Barbry Allen was buried in the old churchyard
Sweet William was buried beside her
And from her grave sprung a red, red rose
And from Sweet William's a briar

They grew and grew up the old churchyard
Till they could grow no higher
At the end they formed a true love's knot
And the rose grew 'round the briar.



1. Please refer to the bibliography for a complete list of all books mentioned.
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Postby admin » Fri Mar 18, 2016 7:28 pm

1. Entropy


In 1949, New York City in spring was as beautiful as any vaulted redwood forest might have been to a country child of three. Sunlight splashed on iridescent pigeon wings turning them into birds of paradise, and when the rain came to our brownstone glade, it made the pavement smell sweet and cool as it dripped from the elms that lined my block.

What I think of as solid facts are nearly impossible to isolate even in the present, and then the distant past echoes with such an enormous range of dream bytes that interlock so faithfully to themselves with tongues in grooves that they speak to me almost past meaning. A flavor happens, but my childhood impressions are so thoroughly mixed in with things that I remember, things I have heard and things that my nerves prefer, that I have no need for conscious fabrication. I do know that I remember big. My red wagon was the size of a stagecoach in the little garden that was Sherwood Forest. Feelings follow suit as they get lacquered back and forth from the present to the past, building up in layers until they glow alluringly like a black pearl.

I am told that I was a very sick infant with a convulsive stomach that brought me little agonies. Still my brother, Thom, who is twenty-two months older, tells me I was a mild child. He says he determined this in part as a result of an early art experiment that he performed when I was age two. Inclined from birth toward graphics and costume design, he used me as his constant subject. His medium in this particular case was a pint of liquid ox-blood shoe polish. This day, he had decided to paint me red, "like an Indian." He remembers standing me in the tub where he started out with just the war paint thing in mind. However, going off in the other direction from the sort of amateur barber who continues to shorten sideburns into nonexistence, in Thommy's search for perfect symmetry the effect here started to grow into total coverage.

After he had gotten through with my face and chest and then on to my back, the liquid polish started to drip down my butt and legs splashing luridly into the tub. Suddenly startled by the sight of his creation, he thought he had finally crossed the line and begun to kill me. Perhaps somewhere in his unconsciousness was imprinted the specter of human sacrifice, we don't know. It is true that he gestated in Mexico, but notwithstanding the possibility of some remembered Aztec codex, aghast and horrified he ran downstairs screaming of murder. He shrieked to my mother and her gaggle of afternoon guests that I was bleeding to death up in the bathroom. The assorted friends, who in all likelihood were gassed on afternoon screwdrivers, flew up the three flights of stairs to find me waiting passively for more detail work. But then, surprised as well and seeing the expressions on this horde, I must have realized that something untoward and probably dangerous was afoot. I immediately went square-mouthed into tears, stamping and looking wildly around for what the peril might be. I think I actually remember this part, as soon something started to sting.

My mother's friends, the New Yorker crowd, continued to have their cocktail hour at our home, and my brother maintained his talent for art. With fondness and a kind of pride, Thom tells me that at this age anyway, I somehow remained a stalwart and trusting sort, and that I accepted further experimentation at his hand without much blame or suspicion.

By four, I was accosting most everyone on the street with what I thought was my extraordinary ability to count to ten and spell my name ... "You wanna hear me?" Then, to amuse his friends, my father had carefully taught me to respond by rote to the question "What is the second law of thermal dynamics?" In what I am told was a deep froglike croak, I would answer, "Entropy always increases." Indeed it does, but precocious as I must have been, outside of breaking some of my toys, a real grasp of systems and the notion of an integral disintegration from order to chaos was difficult for a four-year-old to really cotton to. Nonetheless, I was well warmed and surely nuzzled in the glow of after-dinner conviviality and the adult enjoyment of this feat.

My father, with too much time on his hands, was given to developing a lot of theories about child rearing. He could be a very kind and wonderfully funny man, but he was also his father's son, and I think a too-casual admirer of ancient Greece. When his mind was idle, I'm afraid it sometimes turned toward Sparta. He had a feeling that training a small child to jump off a high chair into the arms of a parent taught one thing, but allowing the child to fall to the floor at random was the better and deeper lesson. With this grave instruction, a child might learn something about physics, but more importantly he would also learn about life: that the parent would not always be there for him and then he would be better "prepared" for any eventuality. This approach did not entertain the possibility of causing paranoia or bodily injury, so father was quite sure that this was useful and right. Taking everything into account it probably was good to be classically prepared when it came to surviving such a creative family as mine, though the invitation to jump into anyone's open arms remains a sticky business for me and I'm almost never to be found standing on a high chair.

We lived in a four-story brownstone on East Seventy-eighth Street in Manhattan. Though it was surrounded by large apartment buildings, our house sat alone and even had a little wrought-iron fence right on the sidewalk in front and a large pebbled yard in back. All spring and summer, morning glories mixed in with ropes of ivy covering the entire front of the house.

The subway was still elevated on that part of Third Avenue and the sound of the "El" had a comforting quality that made me feel connected to all sorts of strange and exotic things and also to the characters who came walking off the train and up the street. Though some of these folks muttered angrily to themselves and jousted at invisible enemies, New York was a safe place. You could sleep in Central Park without fear.

Organ grinders with monkeys and photographers leading ponies came past my house like a circus train, along with ice cream vendors, hoboes, and tinkers who could fix anything. I watched and saw that the hoboes would make secret signs on your front steps or near the door to signal to other floaters that the family within was good for a cup of coffee or maybe even a sandwich. Since I was often unsupervised and it was the only thing I could make, I was a master of a Blue Plate Half-Pounder baloney special. We got a lot of hoboes.

In summer, everyone talked about the beach and something called Coney Island. The name told me that it was probably the home of ice cream. There was also some kind of a field apparently owned by a Mister Ebbetts where the Brooklyn Dodgers played baseball. This was really very important to know about if you wanted to get a smile of benediction south of a place called the Bronx. There were mean and bad people called the Yankees way up there in the Bronx.

Though we lived right in the heart of the city, hummingbirds drank nectar from the flowers by the balcony outside my third-floor window. Once I woke up to discover a praying mantis on my pillow case. It turned its wonderful head to look at me, I swear it smiled a hello, and I saw it was enchanted.

There was real magic everywhere I looked. Most of it I didn't understand. I became quite busy trying to, but the fact of the matter was that it was impossible to get the world to stay the same long enough for me to figure some of it out. There were a lot of mysteries.

Eager to get a handle on the big stuff, I snuck into the local church on a weekday. After going as high as I could by the stairs, I found a dusty ladder and searched around for God way up in the rafters. I had seen the priest often point and say He was "up there." I was disappointed at not finding Him or much of anything but some old light bulbs and newspapers. I really sensed that the priest was earnest though, and I knew that only big important people read the newspapers, so I figured that God had probably just gone out somewhere. Shopping? Getting groceries maybe?

I was fairly convinced that there was a landlocked crew of desperate Em-pirates on top of what they called their "State Building," and when people complained that they had to make money, I couldn't see in my mind's eye what was so bad about standing by a machine that probably stamped out all those shiny bright coins that could buy candy. But no matter, I could count to ten and spell "Johnny," my mother was pretty, I had a brother named Thommy and a cat named Doctor Lao from Siam.

I don't remember winter as much. I expect this is just an attempt to block out the agony of galoshes and snowsuits and vaporizers, as well as the bizarre emotional calamities that percolated all through the holidays with the spiced cider. Any four adults obviously had at least twelve personalities. It was deeply confusing. In spite of all the nice smells, the atmosphere sometimes just hung dangerously. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's were for me an immediate source of primal apprehension. They were always festooned, but with a weird melange of turkey dressing, hurt feelings, pine needles, scotch and soda, anger, gifts, violence, and tears, and all of this was called a celebration. Now that was especially hard to figure out. The God thing was much easier. The presents helped a lot though, and anyway, I know my parents tried. I felt sure that they were very smart and presumably knew best. After all, they were very big, and all grown up.

My parents were divorced in 1949. After a while Dad fell in love with Aunt Elaine and moved to his own brownstone six blocks away on Seventy-second Street. Mother had been a singer, and my father wrote about the dusty song of eternal hope that common people share with their dogs. She never forgot a tune, and he could repeat to perfection the tones of the stories that he heard. He heard them so often that eventually he could just make them up and they remained true. She had perfect pitch, but without any sin, she was just compelled to lie. He wrote skewered parables, while she was a paradox. For the most part hers were haunting lies, intended to make the listener wonder and shiver with her hints of magic. Both he and she were rich with wide-eyed fantasy and inspiration despite their own deep and hidden despair and a glimpse of impermanence. Either way, it was the song and the stories, and the karma of words that drew them to each other; and then, it was the wine with its sorry bite that severed the eloquence and the charm and pulled them apart.

By the time I was five years old, under some East Side Knickerbocker's stewardship, I, too, drank a lot of champagne to ring in the New Year. So it was, that on the first day of 1951, I woke up from my first blackout in a little ring of vomit, but by then I could count much higher than ten and entropy was definitely increasing.
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Postby admin » Fri Mar 18, 2016 7:29 pm

2. Mom and Pop


Salinas, California, today looks like many towns, almost any town in the area. Though he wrote about it, and the valley that shares its name had almost mystical significance for him, Salinas was not my father's favorite place on earth. And even though today we have the Steinbeck Library, and a Luncheon Club signals the institutionalization of the house where he was born, when he was alive, John Steinbeck was never his town's favorite son.

My father's grave site is in an old, run-down cemetery, near the Shillings Spice Company's truck yards. It's by the highway past a small airport, in the shade of a spreading Denny's and various warehousing concerns. His ashes are under a cracked slab with those of his mother, Olive; his father, John Ernst Steinbeck; and his little sister, Mary Decker. The scene in this tiny Hamilton family plot is more apt than the monumental hypocrisy of the people who swear they knew and revered him.

My father was by many accounts a bad boy, and the only boy in a brood of four. His three sisters spoiled and idolized him and though two of them were older, he was the family's hero. The family was Welsh-Irish-German. My paternal grandmother, Olive, was the Irish daughter of Samuel Hamilton of East of Eden fame, and almost as humorless as her mother, Liza, though she was more refined and loved books. By all accounts, Samuel was a strong and extremely decent man. My father's interest seems to have dwelt on Samuel and his aunts and uncles far more than on his own parents or siblings. Precious few people can recall my dad ever talking much about his parents or growing up with the girls. The exception was his beloved sister, Mary.

My father's Aunt Dessie, Olive's sister, appears in some detail with her brother Tom in the Hamilton sections of East of Eden. Tom was Dad's favorite uncle. Since Olive was made of sterner stuff, Dessie was the sweet Hamilton girl. Sadly, she died of appendicitis while staying out in the country alone with Tom, a tragedy for which he blamed himself unto suicide. Apparently, thinking it only a tummy ache, he gave her a bromide and before morning came, both their lives were fatally ruptured.

Tom was in his early thirties when he died, but he was a lost child in his generation. He was a lovely man caught up in a time that was becoming mechanical in a way that he did not choose to understand. The industrial haughtiness of the day had a withering effect on his being and he retired away from town until his soul finally winked out in grief. And in truth, my older brother, Thom, who bears his name, is another man with his heart in a more graceful past.

There were a lot of stillbirths and fatal childhood accidents in the world of the Steinbecks and the Hamiltons. This was true in the Old World that they had left as immigrants a generation earlier, and carried right through into California where three generations of John Steinbecks lost lots of sons to disease or misadventure. My father, too, almost died of pleurisy shortly after his birth in 1902, but a drunken country surgeon tunneled into his chest by way of his armpit, and drained his lungs in time.

In the Salinas Valley, life could be very raw, even for what passed as the middle class. That term simply meant that you knew where tomorrow's meal was coming from, a condition that more and more resembles today. Nonetheless, long before the Great Depression, times could be hard, and small accidents could prove lethal.

Most people couldn't wait for John Steinbeck the writer to leave Salinas. His books, which used his hometown as background, reminded them of their foolishness. He made delicious mention of their whorehouses and the people's ambient racism, too. His deceptively folksy attitude also spooked them with the possibility of just plain spontaneity coming from ... why anywhere! It somehow frightened them. His personality had a prankster's twist to it that would last a lifetime in one form or another. His mad, merry eyes exuded it. When drunk, he sometimes spoke mischief under his breath in a mumbled darkness.

Though in person Dad was considered a shy man, today he would be described as distinctly passive aggressive. In any case, the town didn't trust him and they didn't like him much. People aren't stupid; they knew this man had real resentments, and could explode on them, possibly with reason. Indeed, eventually he did; and he did it memorably, with his fine craft, even cunning. My father always had a taste for the grapes of wrath and he knew a revenge of good vintage with just one whiff.

Beyond all of that, he is now remembered with a kind of reverence by many. In a lot of ways, my father convinced people that it was all right to read. When he was a boy, among the people he grew up with, if you had time to read it meant you were probably lazy. Most people needed that time to do their chores. Abstract thinking, or thinking too much was the Devil's work. The Bible was the only book that really required reading, and that was reserved for just before you went to sleep and a little bit on Sundays. If you weren't lazy, then you were probably an "egghead" and that was just a little bit better than being a queer. Reading was something done by city people or the schoolmarm, and anyway, books were probably difficult to begin with and the ideas that they contained were for great men, or dangerous men. But underneath this there was the fear that one wouldn't be able to understand a real book.

My father wrote simply; not in the way that Hemingway is thought to be "simple," but rather he wrote about common things, things that everybody knew to be true, and if they weren't offended by the truth, they were glad to see these things written in books by this man. It sort of legitimized them, and John Steinbeck became their voice ... in books!

By the time my generation started exploring their truth in the post-Hiroshima environment of the day, another reactionary loop had developed. For a while, history was not kind to John Steinbeck, especially during the sixties, when he lost favor for supporting the war in Vietnam. Hurt, reacting to this rebuff, he at times seemed to begin to take on some of the values of those narrow-minded folks that he wrote about; the ones who actually hated his books and had given him hell when he was young, for wasting his time by indulging in the demonic enterprise of literature.

Driving around Salinas, I was reminded of a time not so far back when I was flat broke, and without any health insurance. I spied a car with a bright red bumper sticker emblazoned with a common AA slogan amended to read: EASY DOES IT IN STEINBECK COUNTRY. I was in bad shape and thought of applying for a loan at the Steinbeck Credit Union to get some cash to pay for drug/alcohol treatment. It was my plan to apply to still another local facility with the really unlikely name of the John Steinbeck Recovery Home. When, incognito, I called up to see if they had an open bed, I could barely believe my ears as I was transferred to the office of the clinical director, a Ms. Hemingway. I was sure I was losing my mind. She must have concurred on general principles, as not knowing who I was, she sagely advised me to come on in and get help immediately. Most of their clientele were alcoholic migrant farmworkers from way south and future candidates for membership in Alcoholicos Anonymoso. After some consideration, and feeling sure that the credit union would never believe my story, my disease and I took a pass on the whole thing, and swallowed another percodan with a tequila chaser. It was all very strange. I was very strange, but my predicament was anything but new to the area.

The Civil War had brought laudanum, and soon codeine and morphine into wide use, thus introducing the possibility of controlling all sorts of pain and despair from physical or situational difficulty. Self-medication was common, and with the help of the village pharmacist it became ultra-strong folk medicine. Opiates had a powerful and revolutionary effect on the way people began to deal with outrageous fortunes. We can follow this trail in letters from Coleridge, to Cocteau, to O'Neil to Burroughs.

Of course, these things were old as man, though they were not as available as alcohol, the barbiturate of Ferment and the potion that could often cause it. That was the real stuff that satisfied a bunch of repressed German Protestants. It had also heated the Welsh-Irish gene pool since the days when we painted each other blue and wore seductive fur on our backs, as well as our tongues. In my particular case, adding further to the Welsh-German-Irish brew, my mother, Gwyn, also brought some Indian blood to my family's outrageous potlatch.

When I close my eyes I can summon up my mother's face and the tide of her moods a little more quickly than I can my father's. People have always said that physically I resemble Gwyn more closely than I do John, though, with little effort, I can feel both of their departed beings move inside my own. As a child growing up in her household, there were many moments, indeed whole weeks that filled me with terror and surprise. However, there is a singular episode that has always stuck with me like the bubble gum I use to fall asleep with, only it was possible to have that cut out of my hair in the morning.

On a beautiful spring day in 1953 I came skipping home from the Allen Stevenson School which was barely a block away from our house. I remember the year because even at six years of age I had been struck by the impact of the adult world's reaction to the death of Stalin. I had watched the funeral over and over again on our new Sylvania TV, which, with its special glowing border, made nearly everything that appeared on it indelible in the vivid creche of childhood memory.

Gwyn Conger was a bright and witty Wisconsin girl who had been a big band and radio singer in California before my father married her in 1943. Then, after their divorce she had her own fame as the ex-wife of one of America's most loved authors. With this dubious credential and the traditional half of the couple's sympathizers, my mother had begun her new life. At this particular point she embarked on the slippery career of a socialite and community organizer. For important widows or the celebrity divorced, this role was the standard then as it is now. Though she was quite brilliant, my mother was not from a particularly sophisticated background. I don't think she had a clue as to what this type of society figure would actually be like other than what she might have seen in the feathers- and-patent-leather movies of the thirties and forties. Also, by 1953, bitter about the choices she had made, she was a thorough alcoholic. When under the influence of spirits, my mother became somewhat grand and pretentious. This trait is shared by others in my family and it is common to many alcoholics of a certain type. She also could become rather troublesome when she drank. To put it mildly, eventually I would understand the awful pith of this phenomenon from the inside out as it ripened and rotted in my own life and behavior.

As I ran up the stairs to the living room this day, I stumbled in on my poor mother's latest Titanic adventure; the doomed maiden voyage and grandiose first meeting of what they called the Albert Schweitzer Brownstone Committee. They were gathered to try and arrange something in support of the celebrated humanitarian's clinic in Africa. Enthroned on the huge divan under the many oil paintings by her drinking buddy Luigi Corbalini, darling of the social set, sat my mother in a beautiful silk caftan. She was surrounded by recorded organ music and six or seven neighborhood patrons and matrons of the arts.

As she fixed me on top of the landing, I could tell by the slack line of her jaw and the "you better not blow this" look in her swimming eyes that she was positively plowed under with screwdrivers or some other polite beverage. I should have known when I didn't see the family Siamese basking in the downstairs kitchen window that the cloudless spring afternoon would be dismantled in one way or another. In a voice that was completely unrecognizable as that of my mother, she introduced me to the assembled company as "Young Master John," who had just returned from my "studies at the Academy." The only way I can describe it was that she had that theatrical European accent, like some tortured Hungarian-Irish-Spring-Mueslix commercial, with all the false tones of a bad Mission: Impossible episode. Then, to my horror she began to speak to me in what she thought might resemble French. Now even at six, with only a little Babar under my belt, I blushed with embarrassment at this sad attempt to be Continental. Perhaps sensing this, she turned to the assorted members of the Albert Schweitzer Committee and explained that she had told me to express my gracious farewells and then retire to my room to continue my studies in Latin. Getting this cue, I happily squirmed away with what I thought would be a helpful Au revoir, and ran for my life upstairs to the third floor. After I shut my door loud enough so that it could be heard, I crept back to the top of the long curved staircase to watch with morbid fascination for what would happen next.

Mom had obviously tried to vanquish her deep-seated self-consciousness much too early in the day. She had begun to soar, and was becoming enthralled with her own jokes and the increasing bite of her insight. As I watched and listened to her tongue get thicker and begin to repeat its stories over and over again, I sensed a change in the atmosphere of the room. I saw the people begin to look sideways at each other and become uneasy, even as they laughed with polite enthusiasm.

Though very drunk now, Mother was no fool. That same self-consciousness made her wary, and she sensed the dead sea change too. She was caught in a situation where she was not in control of her behavior but conscious enough to see its unwelcome effect. Then, a fury came rushing in to satisfy the gap. Like a scorpion stinging itself in paroxysms of self- hatred, her humors turned darkly sarcastic and corrosive. Projecting the rapacious demons inside on to anything that moved, she began to openly disparage the folks in the room as if they were but feeble ghosts spoiling at her stabilities.

Soon, the committee began to excuse themselves. Her American vernacular had returned like a squad of Marines. Mother's language and temper had now turned really foul. When the synapses shorted out and finally erupted into a full-blown brainstorm, her adult dose of Flathead Indian blood caught fire. With that potential engaged, anything could happen. Within a few minutes, I saw an old-fashioned glass explode against the wall near the head of the last of the Schweitzer group to beat it down the stairs and out the kitchen door to the street. I watched as my mother continued to curse and scream and begin to break up furniture and throw more things. That continued on and on to the majestic background of Notre Dame's monumental organ with Dr. Albert Schweitzer himself performing Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion." But now, even that, too, had begun to malfunction and skip on the 78 RCA record player in concert with the increasing havoc.

After a while Mother collapsed in sobs and I ran quickly to my bedroom. I had learned that it could be dangerous to try and console her when she was in this condition. Just in case she came to and went hunting, I locked the door and slipped under the bed where I was greeted by the huge eyes and tense hiss of Dr. Lao, the Siamese cat.

What appears to serve justice or even humor in some situations can be experienced as genuine cruelty in others. I for one am often appalled and perplexed at some of the "inventive" and hazardous nurturing that I received at the hands of both my parents. But when I look back at this with self-pity, or reach for my preferred uniqueness, there is also something vaguely insulting in the realization that in so many ways, my family, with all its maniacal behavior, was not too much different from other folks that I know.

After Prohibition, the Depression, and the happy conclusion of World War II, the majority of Americans, including my mother and father, were like grown-up kids, gleefully dancing on broken eggshells and gobbling the shards in a brave new world. Part of their generation had escaped drudgery into the life of the mind. Art, writing, humor, and just plain thinking was now a fine and proper birthright. The Depression had forced my parents to become extraordinarily creative. Mother's family relied on her precocious beauty to generate the income she received from her performances on radio and in nightclubs. Accompanied by her mother, fifteen-year-old Gwyn came to Hollywood from Wisconsin, where, in 1939, she met Dad, who was riding high on the acclaim of The Grapes of Wrath. Mother was twenty years old and Dad was thirty-nine when they fell in love.

America was at the end of its greatest expansionist era. World War II intensified nearly everything, as wars will, and when it was over the ticker tape only signaled the beginning of our sundance.

We were the richest country in the world. Floating on a mixed genetic alloy in the melting pot, we were a powerful recipe for great assets and heroic joy. Anything was possible and everything was fast, but now, thanks to Hollywood, it was even in technicolor. It was to get a lot faster in my generation, but at the end of the war in 1946 when I was born, the short-term-goal ethic had already been institutionalized as the essence of modern living at its best. Things like ecology took it on the nose of course, but no matter; there were new and great things ahead. We were certainly a lot more enjoyable and just plain more fun than our real ancestors or the Teutonic and Slavic types that we had sent scurrying into the endless winter of Eastern Europe.

Life was sleek, and in the postwar euphoria Americans were destined to be slick. Though a bit dated, Nick and Nora Charles defined intelligent affability in their Thin Man movies. Maybe it was something in the martinis, or were they whiskey sours? Whatever, it was very impressive and urbane stuff for country folk who caught on quickly and adapted a veneer of sophistication.

Alcohol was the leading character and even the hero of a number of movies that I loved along with my parents. I don't mean just the green whiskey westerns, but films like The Philadelphia Story. Why, if Katharine Hepburn had not gotten drunk and embarrassed everyone at her high society wedding, she would never have gotten back together with old Cary Grant, now would she? People really thought along those lines. I know I did! We were rich and right and free and not to be contradicted.

With a mixture of zeal, ignorance, and fear, many of my parents' generation also felt that they must swim for their lives in this basically immature and bruising society of ours. Of course they called it opportunity instead of the blind panic that America's new power carried with it. The seeds for today's ethical predicaments were deceptively optimistic, even uplifting in a Deco sort of way. Like Sea Biscuit, the famous racehorse of the day, America was coming up fast on the outside, with lots of opinion and lots of style. We had also become the self-appointed spokesmen for social, though not individual, morality. But this was all still long before the days of "personal issues," or even much reflection for that matter. All anyone knew in the late forties was that Lucky Strike had gone to war and come back a winner, but it had come back with little patience for reflection, and less foresight.

There were also all of the new babies and we whippersnappers had better not contradict too much either. After all, we had not lived through the Depression or known war. Democracy, the Founding Fathers, GI Joe, and our parents were the source of our lush success.
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Postby admin » Fri Mar 18, 2016 7:29 pm

3. The Wound


In what increasingly feels like a lifelong search for equilibrium in these matters, it has occurred to me more than once that everyone is the child of a famous father. When you are little, he is the opening to the outside world and he actually begins to represent it. No matter if he is the postman or the shoe salesman or whatever. If he is the shoe guy, the postman knows him and can't work without knowing him. If father is the postman, the shoe salesman gets his mail, maybe even all those boxes of shoes from your dad, and so on. When I was a kid, the other thing that amazed me was that at least in the other kids' minds, their mother was the prettiest woman they knew. I know mine was, and when my best friend told me that his mom was the prettiest, I was struck dumb. He wouldn't lie about such a thing, you know. Somehow his dad was more famous than mine, too; perhaps because he was a painter, and his grandfather was famous, too. This stumped me. I didn't know anything about that, but then again I wasn't hurt or anything since nearly everyone was essentially famous to me.

Realistically, I have found that there are different ingredients involved in being the son of John Steinbeck than were first considered when the doorman who worked the apartment building next to our brownstone told me that my daddy was famous and that everybody knew who he was. The attendant repercussions extend out and snag me like vines on different planes all of the time. Often when I just say my name I get back, "Yeah, and I'm the queen of England." Twice, a lady at my father's literary agency just hung up on me, and this was years after he was dead. Maybe that was the problem!

I'm not really sure how hard I've tried, but my father is a tremendously difficult person for me to get away from, particularly when I am being haunted by my usual coincidental reality routine. For instance, just this morning I went into a small "Foodierie" in the nowhere coastal town of Encinitas, California, to grab a bite to eat, and the cash register is sporting a cartoon of an angry French cook with the caption "The Crepes of Wrath." I have seen my father dolefully staring up at me from strange wastebaskets, his likeness celebrated on fifteen-cent stamps. In drunken or drugged states I have seen his name fly by me on papers in the wind, and bumped into statues of him while innocently looking for a quiet, private place to vomit.

In 1983, my wife, Nancy, and I traveled with our children overland from Nepal through the Himalayan foothills to the mountain kingdom of Sikkim to visit the remote monastery of Rumtek. We went to pay our respects to the then recently deceased Karma Kargu Lineage Holder of the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist Teachings, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, the beloved Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. We had received his blessing and teaching many times in life and had traveled far to bid his remains farewell. After meditating very late in the main shrine room that looks over an enormous valley through these mountains to a silent, snow-covered infinity, Nancy and I gingerly found our way in the starry night to the little hut where we had been given shelter. Trying not to wake our host, out of curiosity, and half expecting to hear from the planet Neptune, before going to sleep we turned on the tiny shortwave radio, just in time to hear some histrionic voice from the BBC World Service intone, "And now ... chapter 1 of John Steinbeck's immortal story, The Red Pony." When this sort of thing happens enough, my incarnation as "Son of ... " takes up quizzical new meanings.

It is my fate, and perhaps my disease to be considerably self-involved, with a head full of thoughts about myself, about my ignorance and the probable mistakes in how I interpret things. It feels like I'm always translating something to myself: the news, the weather, its symbolism, and especially other people's moods. I have always tried to make sense of the world around me as if, by way of understanding it, my confusion would be transformed into wisdom. This is possibly a clever case of putting the cart before the horse. I also believed that if this desire for comprehending life's predicaments was unselfishly motivated and came from my version of kindness and fairness, I would be protected from the terrors that my confusion could bring. I guess I still believe part of that.

I believed Laura Huxley when she wrote You Are Not the Target, and in the cosmic sense I think this still holds true. But I have to tell you, by taking this panoramic stance in Absolute Truth, I have often hidden from myself many important relative truths along the road to this ultimate view of things. I think that much of my attachment to a sweet, pacific, and perhaps reductive nirvana was due to my fear in facing the more common and coarse weave in the tapestry that ordinary people toil with. This is not to say that I am "sweet." Instinctively abhorring that silly fabric, sometimes enshrined in notions of "Love and Light," I have also invariably tried to give my philosophies a good test-drive on difficult tracks, like dropping LSD in Vietnamese war zones, or just before being manacled to a wall for an indefinite period of time in a Thai jungle prison. (I took a two-month rap for a woman who had transported a small amount of heroin over the Thai-Malaysian border.) But now all that seems to be merely radical, and today it doesn't appear to say much of anything about what actually counts in the real world of gradual spiritual experience. Consequently, I feel that along with so many other things, deft transcendence became just another painkilling habit.

I find that every day now I have to give myself permission to not understand and be genuinely frustrated by what I see. In trying to prepare this book, my vacillations between a seemingly profound and compassionate view of my formative life, and the sad powerlessness of my actual experience, sometimes make me ill. It's awkward. So, I try to dose it down with some sort of desperate comprehension to dispel the motion sickness of impermanence on any scale.

For many people this cognitive approach of constantly interpreting what goes on around them might be all right, but for me it feels like I've worn it out, and the other approach of nothing means anything feels like dope. In truth, I'm generally all over the damn place. Especially when I think back on the really bad things that happened to me, I start looking for a reason, for the "good sense," and then I begin to envelop myself in metaphoric pardons of all kinds. Then an attitude might appear and masquerade as if it had, or could beg for, a rational at the Geneva Convention in my mind. This is entirely my own self-consciousness; I have to continually remind myself that even these filaments and elliptical reflections are dignified as thoughts and feelings, and that they don't have to make sense on the hard turf of logic or be metered out with Republican prudence. As feelings they are legitimate and can stand on their own, alone, and even apart from themselves. Many of the crosswinds swirling from my head and my heart cannot be followed objectively, especially by me. And though sometimes I might want to, the idea of defending them then becomes truly ludicrous.

For the sake of my greater ease, I have concluded that these oscillations of opinion and emotion, ignorance, and intellect are in themselves part of a legacy that I was given. I don't think I'm alone. Of course much of this depends on one's point of view, and as I've said, mine never stays the same for very long. Though some would say it is terminal ambivalence or indecision, I will say it is a gift of equanimity, and so I am willing to share some of this without too much fear of the perpetual contradictions inherent to my nature.

On the emotional platform erected by my parents, there were many and various planks that served to cripple as well as support me. But despite the copious mix of messages I received from both of my parents, the inheritance, whether stolen or bequeathed, was more than just a rat's nest of neuroses. In its way, it contained the map for survival through the sacred and profane aspects of my life. The aberrant behaviors and the mechanism for coping with the results all came in the same package. These are the deep autonomic styles behind the wisdom of DNA that allowed me to grow my hands and also mend some of the things that they broke.

I've come to think that in many families, the holders of that clan's special knowledge must pass away before the next generation can actually get at the signals being sent. This was definitely true for me. The reasons are sad but simple. Sometimes my family's wisdom was garbled by my father's peevishness or my mother's drunkenness, or sometimes it was delayed by the static of our mutual anger camouflaged as disinterest or plain boredom.

When I say wisdom, I don't necessarily mean something wise or good in a moral sense, but rather just what works. When I sharpen a pocketknife the way my father did with hands similar to his, it is not because it is the right way to do it, but it is the way that he discovered kept the stitches and the Band-Aid bills down to a minimum. There is always room for improvement and rebellion however, so the few scars on my hands could be seen as rings of evolution as I hasten to add that I can get my knives a lot sharper than he could.

When people are guided by their own defensiveness, they are by nature left ignorant of the other's emotional needs. These days, important transmissions from father to son are usually grotesque. The presumption on both sides is that someone here is an asshole. Often the situation is so self-consciously painful and the lessons so harshly applied, that something strong like time or anger or, in my case, chemicals is needed to cushion the fractured exchange. This was true for both me and my father, and my brother and mother.

It seems that when all is said and done and in spite of all intent and schooled purposes, the most identifiable quality of what I have come to think of as the Father Principle is anger. That type of anger is in itself, an energy that is intrinsically unconscious, but, when met with pompous or conscious application, it inevitably goes the way of the best-laid plans of mice and men. In other words, burdened with a false sense of power in shaping young lives, most modern-day paternal tutorials go completely awry. This leaves the children confused at best, and the father with terminal disappointment in what he imagines to be his creation. Then, the Father Principal becomes associated not only with anger, but with a festering disappointment that feeds on itself. Indeed, for my brother and I, this myth/fact of life was confusing as hell. It is even probable that my father, the creative artist, had a genuine problem distinguishing between what should have been manageable in shaping our characters and his masterful and successful efforts at developing literary characters. For the most part, they cooperated from the ground up as his creation. The comparison between his real children and his literary children was no doubt a painful difference for him. Our real-life response or lack of it, when it came to his sculpting and his often shaming goad, was rarely up to snuff, at least not for long.

In some modern homilies, fathers are traditionally called the provider, but what does the father really provide? It has taken me nearly forty-five years to come up with an answer that satisfies my need for equanimity, and eases the little horrors of recollection, and I must say that I've had a lot of help mining for it. On one special level, the helpless father has the thankless task of acting as sort of a representative of the world. This is not a political role exactly, but rather, he is the courier of both extreme engagement, and also cold-blooded indifference; literally reality's agent. And guess what; though it isn't the last word on creation, the world hurts. It even kills, often quite accidentally.

Despite the efforts of poet Robert Bly and the men's movement to help males understand their roles as parents, husbands, and members of a larger society, this is a real problem. This mythic principal defies interpretation in our society. The father is the bad guy if he does or if he doesn't participate in his role as father in the Hallmark card sense of the word.

Within the contemporary notions of neglect or abuse (both of which we deem as abuse), the father must be the bad guy. It feels like there are at least two different planes operating here. Though I believe what we all know as abuse to be always unacceptable, whether or not the child feels abandoned by a negligent father or abused by an overbearing monster, as an ignorant representative of the phenomenal world, the father is a bastard, and a wound inevitably occurs, and that wound, those hurt feelings and the scars that they leave, is the mark of initiation into the real world.

For me, and for my older brother, these things were felt in a terribly -- and I mean terror- bly -- personal way. Without a doubt this business could be made only more insufferable if the father consciously knew what was going on and was really guiding the process. Most of the time, my father really did think he knew what was going on. The father as "The Fool" tries to teach: "Let me tell you about life, son."

So, I see that along with anger, fathers are significantly ignorant people. I speak from experience here as a father. In fact, as it happens, I am the same age as my father when I was born, forty-four. However I have a twenty-two-year-old daughter, a twenty-year-old daughter, an eighteen-year-old son, and a one-year-old grandson. In short, I have been on more sides of more parenting than my father could have dreamed of as he set out to address East of Eden to his two little sons when he was about my age.

My father was not very good at all in the role of mentor. Looking at other cultures, this seems to be a rather common complaint. Native Americans give that task to an uncle or some other elder in the tribe. The father has a duty to protect and provide for the family, but as a teacher, he is often as not a washout. Predictably, he is too busy with trying to resolve the deeper issues inherited from his own father to be of much use in teaching his son about life.

No one is particularly happy about what's going on here. Not me. Not in either role. Neither the patriarch nor his issue seem to have a terrific ride. The father doesn't like being angry and can't figure out why he's acting like his father, something he promised himself he would never do. The young sons don't even have that perspective to confound them yet. All they know is that the father does seem to do good, but can also do very bad things to them. He acts cruelly. He seems to be always indignant or mad, and always moving away from contentment and happiness to a state of irritation. He is never satisfied. He is demanding. In other words, he is like the goddamned world. Worst of all, he doesn't seem to ever be able to recognize, or acknowledge that the son is actually learning and growing. And then, what he does see you learn, like sexuality, somehow threatens the hell out of him. So he wounds you some more, and a scar begins to grow. It grows until it's an angry red, like the one he wears from his father.

Though nobody likes it, this nasty scar is the father's gift. Actually it is really all he has. Even if it is the father's fate to commit suicide, he has left the son, indeed the family, with the reality of death, and facing it. Even that terrible scar is an organic gift spat out from his role; and what I am talking about here is roles, not what is or is not "appropriate" behavior. From my memory, such things as that are purely for gentlemen and not part of my experience.

Today, we try to talk a lot about all of this in terms of an initiation that must take place between fathers and sons, and as we all know, most initiations are painful and disorienting by design and definition. Sometimes I think that perhaps it's the knowledge that there is so much that can't happen between people which turns out to be the real essence revealed within the lack of recognition that only a certain few things can be shared directly, and even these only by outrageous, nonsensical gesture that might include all sorts of unconventional, surprising, and even shocking behavior. The meaning? There are no straight lines in life, and the phenomenal world is unconditionally unconditioned. It's raw and wild. With Dad out of the picture, this is the dreadful wisdom of the wound. From this ugly cut of primal insult comes oozing the immensity of one's loneliness and total separation, and then, if you have survived and have been rendered haplessly honest by this trauma, you are finally set free into a world of your own determination.

No doubt, this all may sound rather dramatic, and when put in mythic terms it is. But you know, I think the spirit of life really has much slyer dynamics than are contained in mere tribal campfire tales about this chimera of growing up. Notwithstanding a genuine poetic and collective unconscious, modern family evolution is less dramatic and thus even more insulting in its galling demonstration than a white man's reconstruction of an aboriginal dream. Though myth helps to organize our romantic image of ourselves, in real life, it is about as useful as a bidet in a gorilla cage.


It was a long time before I actually read my father's work. I had to read him in school, of course, and I liked and still like the short stories. They were fun, but it was all rather like hearing him talk after dinner. I accepted his genius for storytelling as an environmental given, bordering on the pedantic. This now happens to me with my children, and it kind of hurts.

Though he would never say it, I know that not taking his work as completely seriously as even a stranger might, hurt my father. But what can you do? Take away your kids' allowance if they don't read your stuff? Still, it hurts. It creates a stew. Though I don't do it as long or as deeply as my father, I can begin to brood about it sometimes. I think what a waste that my kids don't know the exquisitely wise and subtle techniques of mind that I use just to get through the day. If they did they would be so impressed, so proud. They would show me so much respect and wonder out loud at my many accomplishments. They could learn so many wonderful things from me. I could teach them much if I only had their undivided attention. But no, the ingrates think they know it all. They will undoubtedly be sorry after I'm dead and unavailable to them; when they realize what treasures they were missing. Just being close to me was a blessing that went the way of broken toys.

Yup, I know what it was like with my dad. I read his letters and see how his resentments closed in on him. The fact is that I am sorry, and I probably did miss a lot. But then again my father's temperament couldn't handle anything like undivided attention. Certainly I can't. That kind of scrutiny might reveal that most the time we are full of shit, running on fear and educated lucky guesses, in art as well as life.

Some things did get through though. Today I feel that sifting amongst the little things, the almost unconscious things hold as much meaning and usefulness as the grand lectures and pronouncements that mostly served to point out the vast hypocrisies of parenthood.

The main problem in living out the convoluted setup of fathers and sons is that neither of us can know the exact character or mode for the transmission of family wisdom. On the average it is just as likely to be the least flattering and heroic exchange; not at all like some Hemingway-esque dialogue on an elephant hunt. After all, both my father and I were sensitive and easily injured. We were also mutually disrespectful and suspicious of the other through past experiences. Ours were reincarnate feelings resounding back and forth through dysfunctional generations and radiating in every direction.

My father and brother and I actually did go fishing together a lot, around Sag Harbor on Long Island. I learned a great deal, but not the things that Norman Rockwell might have had in mind. The signals were subtle and not intentionally sent, but they were picked up invisibly like a skin disease. These queer potentials and tics are the kinds of things that now my brother sees in me and I in him, though we only catch the shadows in ourselves. I learned, for instance, what a bad and really sloppy fisherman my father was, but most importantly, despite his earnest facade, I also learned how little he cared about being a good one. That was great stuff.

There were times when Dad just loved to catch things, and like all fishermen, he would talk to his slippery prey; scolding and advising them, sometimes complimenting them on their wily intelligence, or gloating at their foolishness for taking on such a keen mind as his; a storied master of predation. But slowly I learned that this alliance between fish and fisherman, even the so-called thrill of the chase, was not really the reason or the point of this, his almost daily endeavor. Basically it was a fraud, a fine and elaborately feudal style of daydreaming.

Sometimes Dad would work out problems he was having with his writing or his characters, or even his hysterically silly inventions, almost all of which he covered with glue and leather. When he thought I was old enough to understand and had my own little skiff, I remember that he told me that if I had something important to puzzle out, and if I was clever, if I didn't bait the hook even the fish wouldn't be able to bother me. Buying bait, on the other hand, was very, very important. His favorite was bloodworms.

My father would also wander around his workroom and whistle tunelessly with a whispery quality that was neither whistle nor "phew." Now I had inherited from my mother a near- perfect pitch and a fine musical sensibility, so this sort of thing would drive me absolutely crazy. When I asked him what he was doing to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" he would say defensively that he could carry a tune if he wanted to, but if he whistled in this way the melody wouldn't distract him. Distract him from what? From looking aimlessly for some sandpaper that he would use to mangle a piece of mahogany, so that he might free up his mind, or so he could figure out some new way to design a lure he could then cover with leather and glue to catch some fish, the hook of which he would not bait so the fish wouldn't interrupt his concentration.

With the exception of the business with the high chair, and a memory of him rubbing my face in dog shit when I was about three (I apparently let Willy, Dad's sheep dog, in the house when Father/trainer was out), I have many wonderful memories of my father when I was a child. In many ways, he was a secretive man, and this made him privy to the secret world of us kids. He could be extraordinarily helpful when I was in a special kind of trouble. For instance, right up until my late thirties I was a bit of a firebug, and once as a child I nearly burned my father's house down. Near the fireplace was an old-fashioned oil can that my dad used to ignite wet logs. I was forever playing with it, making designs in the dancing speculum of the flames which seemed to speak to me in black and orange calligraphy. At one moment, I tried to douse the little burning tip of the oil can out on the floor. I guess I had done this before successfully, but this time a lovely, almost invisible blue flame began to swiftly spread across the fine nap of the wall-to-wall carpeting. After admiring it for a second or two, I tried to stomp it out but the violet tide was too fast for me. I ran downstairs where my father was inventing something in the basement.

Despite the fact that my father had told me over and over again not to play with fire gods (my weakness for conspiring with them was infamous), I blurted out the truth of what was happening in the living room. With his help, we managed to get the situation under control before it had begun to eat the drapes as an offering. Relieved and exhausted, we sank to the sofa and looked at each other. After just a few moments, an expression came to his face which was almost immediately slapped on mine like fly paper which basically said, "Holy shit ... Aunt Elaine is going to get home any minute."

Without any time wasted in redress, anger, or apologies, we went for the solution to what we imagined to be a heap of woe. Whether it was attained in his naughty youth or as an adult with a vivid understanding of feminine wrath at any violation of the Hearth Principal, I don't know for sure, but Dad had obviously had practice with this sort of emergency. In an instant he had me working at the charred nap with a wire brush while he ran for the vacuum cleaner. Then, after opening the windows to get the smell of a tenement disaster out of the air, he vacuumed behind me while simultaneously spritzing the air with Florida Water, his all-time favorite cologne which he referred to as "Stink Juice." Almost miraculously, the red color of the carpet began to come back, though it was a touch too light. He solved this defect by going over it with a wet sponge mop which amazingly made it darker. As for the side of the leather lounge chair which had fairly well been melted up to the armrest, he spray-painted the frame a similar brown with a kind of camouflage stroke known to desert warfare. He then put a low brass table beside the chair blocking a clear view of this mess, and was sitting there smoking his pipe in feigned serenity as we heard the front door open at Elaine's return. I was to be seen flipping through the funny papers and stroking the poodle, Charley, in front of the new warming fire as if we were expecting Mrs. Kris Kringle to stop by for tea. When Aunt Elaine sniffed quizzically for a moment, and then left the room to start dinner, a breath of relief was the only statement my father ever made to me about the incident.
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Postby admin » Fri Mar 18, 2016 7:30 pm

4: The Wild Tibetan


I met John in Boulder, Colorado, during the summer of 1975. I had been living a chop-wood-carry-water existence for the past seven years with my husband, Paul Harper, in the wilderness of British Columbia. We had left San Francisco and moved to the back of beyond to insure that our acid trips would be totally undisturbed. We lived on a commune while raising our two children, Megan, age six, and Michael, age three, and a seven-year-old indigenous foster child who had fetal alcohol syndrome.

As a native San Franciscan, I had shunned the Haight-Ashbury ritual of dropping acid around hordes of people. Paul and I longed for nights of endless LSD communion with the Tao, the Source, and the assurance that there would be no intruders to bring us down. So we lived two miles from either neighbor, which meant long treks during the winter when the logging roads weren’t plowed. Snowed in for weeks at a time, we had all the comforts that didn’t require electricity or running water. Stacks of firewood and spiritual books. Horses, goats, kerosene lanterns, and a propane stove. A battery-operated phonograph to play Traffic, the Doors, Dylan. A community of friends who lacked boundaries and sensibilities, but shared equally fried senses of reality along with the responsibilities of children, gardens, and animals. Unlike the media’s caricature of the freewheeling hippie, we were on a rigorous spiritual quest that called for the destruction of our egos by severing all attachments. That meant letting friends borrow chain saws, vehicles, husbands, and wives. Often they would return broken, defective, unwilling to work again. Sometimes you had to go looking for them. Have you seen my drill bit? Did my wife sleep here last night?

I was the daughter of two award-winning San Francisco journalists. A musical prodigy from the age of six, when an IQ test explained the boredom I was experiencing, I skipped the second grade. At the age of thirteen, after refusing the opportunity to become a concert pianist (I had discovered boys), I made weekend pilgrimages to North Beach with my friends. We hung out at City Lights Bookstore, rapping with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and hoping to catch a glimpse of Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac. Having received the finest public education possible at Lowell High, which is still among the top ten in the country, I was steeped in literature and the arts. I was going to be a writer.

In high school, nuns in the street would cross themselves when they caught sight of our black leotards and leather sandals. Flabbergasted, the jocks and social queens didn’t know what to do with us. All they could come up with were unimaginative whispers of “whores.” They were so unhip, we’d just roll our eyes. The school administrators sarcastically called us “The Lowell Intelligentsia” in the same way the Cultural Elite is sneered at today. Despite the bravado over Lowell’s reputation, our academic rebellion threatened the administration. We rejected pep rallies and football games; we wanted to study poetry, art, and music. The girls’ dean declared it illegal to wear the handmade sandals we bought in North Beach, feigning concern lest we get our toes stuck in a door. So we’d don tennis shoes to walk the halls, and wear the sandals in class. If we dressed too outrageously in handmade tunics, they sent us home, claiming we looked pregnant. Confident we were part of an epic in the making, we survived humiliation by sticking together.

Only one teacher, Maurice Englander, really understood us. He quietly approved of our plumage and offered his classroom as a safe haven during sports rallies and lunch periods to study poetry and classical music, thereby escaping the ubiquitous ridicule that echoed through the halls. Later, when the rednecks came to town wearing dashikis and love beads, looking to get laid, we resented the price we’d paid in bloody tears for those fashion statements.

At San Francisco State during my freshman year, we met other baby beatniks and gave birth to the hippies. My kids teased me about that. “How can you invent the hippies?”

“Someone had to and besides, I read it in Rolling Stone. Ben Fong-Torres said the first hippies used to gather at a table in the Commons at State.” Kids think if it’s in Rolling Stone, it’s etched in stone. We were a bunch of rebellious, angst-filled teenagers, absorbing Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and On the Road, along with the incredible magic that backlit San Francisco in the early sixties. Distilling the creative fervor of the Beat Generation with our Boomer adolescent laziness, we created a societal sea change. I was there for that, for the drugs and the psychedelic music, the Charlatans, Janis Joplin, and the Jefferson Airplane. In 1964 I transferred to Berkeley just in time for the Free Speech Movement, majoring in philosophy.

I met Paul Harper at the San Francisco Juvenile Hall, where we worked with hard-core delinquents. Disgusted with the Haight-Ashbury pond scum that surfaced after the Hell’s Angels grisly debacle at Altamont, we were wary of the counterculture’s assimilation. Visions of love and light were disintegrating into drug overdoses and runaway tragedies. We fled the city and spent a year living in an abandoned cabin on a mining claim two miles up a dirt road from Callahan, a tiny lumber town near Mt. Shasta in Northern California, where Paul spent his childhood. That taste of country living sparked a yearning for unspoiled wilderness. The following spring, in a 1942 Ford truck loaded to the hilt, we immigrated to British Columbia. “You look like something out of The Grapes of Wrath,” my mother said prophetically.

For the next year years, we built our own houses and tended horses, goats, chickens, and gardens. When a social worker for the Canadian government came knocking on our door because she’s heard we had worked with problem children, we didn’t have the heart to refuse her request to take in an indigenous foster child. Andy Johnson was a crippled, brain-damaged four-year-old who was barely toilet trained. He had a sweet temperament and a certain magical detachment from the phenomenal world that made him irresistible.

Embracing voluntary poverty, without electricity or running water, we started a commune and wrote our own rules. Rumors about us practicing black magic began to circulate in the Kootenay Valley where we’d settled, spread by jealous husbands and wives who’d lost their spouses to the mystique of our merry band. It was a period of great pain and growth, laced with wild spiritual insights and abject ignorance. We prided ourselves on being so far removed from the agonies of the real world that we didn’t pay any attention to the Vietnam War, Watergate, or the moon landing, which we were convinced was a hoax.

Eventually, my smug complacency started to erode. I realized our rigid sanctions against mediocrity had us on the same treadmill as the bourgeois life we shunned. We were as attached to our trips, our tools and plumage, as a herd of male peacocks, or a gaggle of Junior Leaguers. My mother send me Meditation in Action, written by a young Tibetan lama, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who had come to the States to teach Buddhism during the early seventies. The book resonated deeply in my soul. Increasingly miserable in my abusive marriage to Paul, I decided to spend a summer studying meditation with Rinpoche in Boulder, Colorado.

One of the greatest benefits of communal living was that parents could leave their children in the care of extended family. Our foster child had recently been removed from our home by the Canadian government when they passed a law that indigenous foster children had to live with indigenous families. While I was sorry to say good-bye to Andy, who had spent four years with us, I was tired of merely surviving on the land and desperately craved a new life. After seven years of austerity, although I was still passionately attached to the natural beauty of our four hundred acres, my city-girl nature was starved for more intellectual stimulation than radio and the daily mail run.

Inspired since my beatnik days by the mystical yearnings of Rimbaud, Lao Tsu, and Meister Eckhart, I intensified my spiritual crusade to find eternal truth and wisdom. As if answering a call, every child of that lineage, all the hip quester heroes traveled to Boulder that magical summer of 1975. They came to study with the young Tibetan Rinpoche at his newly founded Buddhist university, the Naropa Institute. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso were there, as well as William Burroughs, Michael McClure, Kate Millet, and Baba Ram Das. It felt like the most happening thing since the birth of the hippies, a spiritual Woodstock. We hadn’t felt such palpable magic since the early sixties. We were relieved to find we hadn’t lost it.

A magnetic aura surrounded Rinpoche (a Tibetan honorific meaning “precious one” and pronounced RIM-po-chay). Infamously wild, in his mid-thirties, and wearing Saville Row suits, he smoked Raleighs, drank whiskey, ate red meat, and sampled the entire panoply of hippie pharmaceuticals. He’d had a son by a Tibetan nun and had run off with his blonde British wife when she was sixteen. As a holder of the exotic Crazy Wisdom lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, his outrageous behavior was traditionally viewed as teaching. His renegade flamboyance appealed to the artists, poets, and musicians who flocked around him.

Finally, we felt, here was someone who wasn’t trying to temper our passions, while proclaiming the possibility of enlightenment in one lifetime. Every other Eastern guru had admonished us to curb our intensity and deny our appetites in order to achieve detachment. I understood how attachment causes pain. If you encounter a dead dog on the road, you might feel a pang, but nothing like if it’s actually your dog. Nevertheless, I could never get behind the command simply to cut desire. Rinpoche’s method was to go into the depth of passion to wear out the samsaric impulses. Samsara is Sanskrit for the endless wheel of death and rebirth, the treadmill to which we slavishly return in our ignorance. It is the opposite of enlightenment. We liked his message. It gave us some more time to dally in the eternal youth zone that hallmarked our generation.

We had no inkling that his method would be so mutually painful. Disillusioned by the unhappy stasis of our parent’s lives, we were inspired to chart our course far from their moral guidelines. Years later, when Rinpoche’s behavior turned criminally insane and too abusive to raise our children under the umbrella of his trappings, some of us would come full circle and embrace the sanity of our roots with tremendous relief. By then, we were educated about the marks of a cult leader. By then, the traditional values of our childhood looked like an oasis of lucid simplicity. When I consider the extraordinary journey of this gifted man, who ended his life as a tragic alcoholic, I ultimately freeze in a morass of ambivalence. Men like Rinpoche and Johnny take you on their roller coaster, soaring from passion’s heights to the depths of degradation. It’s all a matter of being a spiritual gun moll, game enough to go along for the ride.

It was precisely this license to befriend our emotions that drew John to Rinpoche in 1971. He was living in Greenwich Village with the mother of his two-year-old daughter, Blake, whom he refused to marry. After a particularly ugly fight, he attended a talk by Rinpoche. Johnny lingered in the room long after the crowd left. Rinpoche4 was speaking with a few other students and finally turned to John, who blurted out, “Sir, I have a lot of aggression and anger that I cannot subdue.” Expecting the usual rap about conquering passions with meditation and developing a peaceful state of mind, Rinpoche’s reply startled him.

“You have a lot of anger? That is fantastic! Don’t try to get rid of it. Express it, make friends with it. That is the only way to tame your emotions.” John had been playing with Transcendental Meditation, a technique that attempts to suppress negativity. The problem with that is, where does it go? His friends were flocking to Spain with the Beatles and actress Mia Farrow. They had been admonishing John to control his drunken outbursts with TM and were less than charmed by Rinpoche’s tolerance of John’s anger. After all, he was supposed to be settling down now that he was a father.

Unfortunately, he flared with defensive rage at the suggestion that his emotions needed to be curbed. It takes maturity to harness the volcano that erupts from the soul of a true artist. Thanks to the alcoholic adults in his life, John’s emotional growth had been arrested during his childhood. For temperaments like ours, Rinpoche’s technique worked better than TM’s amputation of desires. He urged us to explore our dark sides. By illuminating the shadows, confusion would dawn as wisdom. He warned us it was not a path for the fainthearted. To a standup guy like John, this was a challenge he could not resist.

Rinpoche’s patience touched him deeply. That meeting was the breaking point of Johnny’s old relationships. A wedge was driven between those who favored the Maharishi’s blessed-out state and the Tibetaqn’s barbaric technique of exhausting negativity. “Don’t try to escape your emotions,” he taught. “Wear them out like an old shoe.” Later, when he wasn’t allowed contact with Blake due to his drinking, John would claim “Indians stole my daughter.”

We learned basic Buddhism that summer, starting with the Four Noble Truths. “The essential fabric of life is suffering,” Rinpoche claimed in a lecture that summer. “There is an element of pain in everything. You cannot even begin to experience the notion of freedom until you acknowledge this background of suffering. It comes from nowhere, yet it’s everywhere, because we want so much to like everything and be happy. We think that is our birthright. Suffering only ceases when we reach the realization that pain and pleasure are one. This one taste, with no duality, comes from the discipline of sitting meditation. Enlightenment lies beyond good and bad, past bewilderment and sorrow. It’s different from happiness. The important thing is to connect with the pain, instead of increasing speed and aggression to get away from it, as you do in Western society. Only then can one attain equanimity.”

We learned about the Buddha’s teachings on the Three Marks of Existence. If suffering is the first Mark, it is followed by the constant presence of impermanence, the second Mark. It takes a fundamental act of bravery to admit this but we really do conduct our lives on very shaky ground. Nothing is intrinsically solid. Chaos and strife, little hypocrisies, never disappear. The problem lies in learning to live with ourselves. Uncertainties and fickleness plague us relentlessly. All that is left is the continuity of discontinuity. And within that lies the egoless state, the third Mark, able to function without solidification or credentials.

Rinpoche proclaimed that learning at Naropa would be based upon a student’s experience and state of mind rather than memorization and regurgitation. As veterans of top universities and a variety of acid trips, this was welcomed. Traditional schooling frustrated us, and now Rinpoche, who was supposedly enlightened, confirmed our attitudes as no one else had.

Despite the superstars, Ripoche insisted there was nothing special about Naropa. Through the process of slowing down, practicing our sitting meditation, and feeling the haunting quality of impermanence, we would develop a new way of looking at things. Newer than acid, with none of the psychedelic fallout? We were ready for that! Many of us were parents with young children and although we were still into peak experiences, we were looking for a little less excitement. All-night acid trips lose their appeal when crying babies wake you early in the morning.

Rinpoche held up a fresh mirror, a way to get to know ourselves. His meditation technique, taught by the Buddha, was simply to sit quietly, follow the breath and notice how thoughts arise and fade. He gave us a magnifying glass to look at all the hidden crannies we rushed to ignore. We were encouraged to slow down and make friends with the process of our thoughts. There was no promise of a magical mystery tour. He scoffed at the aggressive search for religious highs. During his nightly lectures, he would challenge us in an impeccable Oxford accent: “When your mind stops revving, you might feel like a grain of sand in the Gobi desert, majestic and simple. At that point, you can cultivate a sense of precision. Your mind will click into how to deal with the situation at hand with little confusion.” For the refugees from Leave-It-to-Beaver-land, we fervently aspired to meet his challenge. Having watched our parents suffocate in their attempts to avoid suffering, we craved the heroic state of victory over ego-driven futility. Rinpoche’s brand of enlightenment had a gutsy quality that blended well with our increasingly grim view of the world. In that post-Kennedy assassination era, we were realizing our generation wasn’t going to change much of anything. The notion of individual salvation was extremely inviting.

When Rinpoche told us to view the entire phenomenal world as our friend, he appealed to our vestigial love-generation taproot. By transplanting this radically new outlook into our hearts, we could generate compassion, wakefulness, and the ability to be gentle. Bodhicitta, the essence of the Buddha, was the fruition of an awakened heart, arising from the confusion of pain and aggression. Enter Bodhisattva, that enigmatic term we’d learned from Kerouac, who wrote of mystical saints dwelling in an eternal present, with a Christlike compassion for all beings. We were offered Bodhisattva vows, a commitment to an endless cycle of rebirths, until the last sentient being in the universe is enlightened. As Rinpoche described the qualities of a Bodhisattva, the openness and clarity, the spontaneity and tenderness, we felt like we’d come home.

And then Rinpoche delivered the final coup. History had confined our literary heroes to the Mahayana, or Middle Way of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Buddhism. Rinpoche was the most brilliant pioneer of that passage. He transmitted the highest teachings of Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism in a language we could understand. Previously held secret behind the fortress of snow mountains surrounding Tibet, these teachings were considered dangerous if not transmitted by a Tantric Master, a guru who works directly with the student. Vajrayana practice requires the personal experience of initiation and empowerment directly from a teacher who provides an oral transmission of the teachings, the dharma, along with secret mantras and ritual practice.

Rinpoche carefully studied his Western students, their particular hang-ups, their attractions and addictions. Unfortunately, that study eventually caught him in his own wringer. Twelve years later, he would die of one of the worst cases of acute alcoholism and drug addiction I had ever seen. And I knew, because by that time I was working in a silk-sheet rehab center in La Jolla, California, and John was lying in some gutter in the Los Angeles Asian ghetto, having succumbed to his inability and unwillingness to curb his instincts. As they say in AA, it took what it took. Rinpoche’s drinking himself to death served to wake John up to his own hell-bent; shortly after that he got sober for good. So who’s to say who was wrong and what really worked? Rinpoche emanated from a lineage called the Crazy Wisdom gurus, commonly misunderstood by the Western mind. In this tradition, the teacher imparts his lessons through outrageous actions. Later, when John and I lived in Kathmandu, Tibetans would tell us in hushed tones how fortunate we were to have Rinpoche as a teacher. “Oh, he very enlightened being. He drink a lot, right? You no worry about that. All Trungpas drank.”

Rinpoche was the eleventh incarnation in the succession of Trungpas. However, the others had lived within the confines of Tibetan monasticism. In America, Rinpoche was on his own, in a jungle of Western temptations that the others had never encountered. Years later, in 1989, our friend the Dalai Lama told us privately that he would never trust a guru who claimed, as Rinpoche had, that he could turn alcohol into an elixir. “Changing religions is very difficult,” he said. “I do not advocate converting from Judeo-Christian traditions to Tibetan Buddhism. It is very difficult to understand a religion that is not of one’s cultural heritage. One must examine the teacher with the utmost scrutiny. There are many charlatans.”

In the early days, Rinpoche mirrored our wild ways. As we matured, he lost his hold over us. Eventually John and I voiced strong moral objections about the irresponsibility of Rinpoche’s teachings. The story of that harrowing journey contains grave admonitions about the methods and madness of certain Tibetan lamas. Now that Tibetan Buddhism has become chic, the hottest new religion, I have concerns about how these gurus come without operating instructions. Far removed from papal constraints, their freewheeling style usually results in severe abuses of power and sexuality.

I still don’t have a clear answer to the paradox of Rinpoche’s life and death. Sometimes I think he was just a garden-variety addict who died of his disease. Did he purposely drink himself to death so that we would quit depending on him? Did we kill him with our greed and manipulation as we clamored to be near him? The Tibetan party line is that the guru takes on the diseases of his students, and most of us were full-fledged addicts when we met him. There was a depth to the experienced I had with Rinpoche, similar to the chaos I went through with John, which taught me that sometimes the only answer is a silent dwelling in the grey area beyond right and wrong. Nothing is either black or white. It just is. And that does not excuse anything.

In the end, the final proclamation of a guru’s worth can be found in his students. Those who remain loyal to Rinpoche’s vision display the pathetic lack of identity found in every cult. They are unhappy pod people who toast his posthumous brilliance with pretentious, self-aggrandizing platitudes. Denying his abuse of power and his rampant addictions (a $40,000-a-year cocaine habit, along with a penchant for Seconal and gallons of sake), they exhibit symptoms of untreated codependents. In order to restore our sanity, John and I had to distance ourselves physically and emotionally. In that heartbreaking process, we were forced to acknowledge those qualities in us that were attracted to the cult of Rinpoche’s personality in the first place. Yet Rinpoche’s definition of a spiritual warrior is one who knows himself. And so, the fruition of our path was also the point.
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Postby admin » Fri Mar 18, 2016 7:30 pm

5. Naropa Nights


The first time I saw John, I was sitting in the audience waiting for Rinpoche to show up for his lecture. Playing to the crowd's fevered anticipation of his black Mercedes pulling up to the curb, he was notorious for arriving often an hour late. The frenzy wasn't just about him. There was an equal amount of concern about who was seen with whom. There was enough artistic glitterati that summer to make every night feel like the Oscars. The beats dressed down and the trust-funders, just back from trekking in Nepal, outdid themselves in ethnic chic.

The magic in the air was never purely spiritual. My irritation with that dynamic grew through the years. I was not there to worship in the cult of Rinpoche's personality. I was intrigued by the man, but I was there to study his teachings, not to fawn at his feet. The unspoken competition and jockeying for position in the scene, as they called it, unnerved me. Later, I would learn that fixation is common in many guru scenes. While Tibetans have been trampled to death waiting to receive a blessing from an exalted lama, Westerners merely play out their high school rivalry for the best outfit and proximity to the cutest jock. I assessed that to be a trait of human nature, but it disturbed me. Not that I'm a saint. I didn't mind being in the thick of it, surrounded and courted by beat poets and tantric playboys. We could have all been standing behind the velvet rope outside Studio 54. There was enough money, hunger, and panache to get us in anywhere. As my marriage was disintegrating, I didn't exactly present myself as unavailable, but coming from a Peyton Place scene where spouse swapping was already rampant, my priorities were different. I was seeking spiritual guidance. If I'd been looking to get laid, I could have stayed home.

We never knew how Rinpoche would manifest. Drunk, wrathful, hysterically funny, or gentle and magnanimous. It would take me years to realize that this uncertainty was the normal plight of all children of alcoholics, or students of alcoholic gurus. The chaos of waiting and not knowing which, Lama Jekyll or Mr. Hyde, would walk through the door, resonated with our habitual anxiety and adrenalin rushes. We figured we must be in the right place.

That night, John made a dramatically late entrance with a wasted, frizzy blonde, goose- faced woman. As they walked through the door, John hauled off and kicked her in the shin. She winced with masochistic delight, whining in protest.

"What a charming couple," I muttered. Shocked and repulsed, I made a mental note to find out who the sadist was.

Friends were quick to point out that was John Steinbeck IV, as if knowing made them hip. He and his brother, Thom, were fixtures at the picturesque Victorian red-brick Boulderado Hotel down the street. In fact, someone told me they owned Le Bar, the tiny bistro off the lobby. I wondered why on earth Steinbeck's sons would end up owning a bar in a Colorado college town. Did they lack imagination or education?

Later that week, I ended up at Le Bar. The room was the size of a closet, with space for maybe five tables. It was the place to go after Rinpoche's talks, so it was packed that night. You would have thought it was Warhol's Factory, the way people were carrying on, with those peculiar bright flashes glinting off their self-consciousness about being some place special. When I saw John again and someone pointed out Thom, I got an immediate hit off the brothers. Suddenly the room and the noise dissolved as a chill ran down my spine. A voice from deep inside said, John Steinbeck was a heartless father. His cruelty has crippled these boys.

I immediately fell into a dialogue with him, as if he were the only person in the room. What dark qualities caused you to ignore your sons and withhold your love? What is the family secret?

John and Thom were thirty-something, arrested little boys, larger than life, drunk, raucous, and center stage. Maybe they did own the bar. Horrified, I watched John deliberately turn over his table on the guy sitting across from him, drinks flying everywhere, broken glass and scotch slopping onto the tiny hexagonal-tiled floor. Again, I was not charmed.

In fact, for the rest of the summer his antics repelled me. He'd always show up late, after Rinpoche had started his talk, so he could make an entrance. I learned he didn't own Le Bar, but spent so much time in it that people thought he did. Invariably he would raise his hand during the question-and-answer period. To my consternation, Rinpoche would call on him every time. He would go off on a ten-minute monologue that I could never follow because I couldn't get past my irritation with this guy who was so obviously charmed by his own mind and the sound of his voice. (It was uniquely deep and sexy. Paul once said that John's voice sounded like it came directly from his balls. That was before we got together. After that, Paul would have never been so complimentary.) John was always drunk, so his questions would be horribly circuitous.

"Not him again," I hissed to Paul, who was down for a visit. "I hate when he does that."

"No, that cat asks good questions." I was appalled that anyone had the patience to make sense out of John's haze. I only felt exasperation.

Toward the end of summer, on my way to a party, I accidentally bumped into a car parked behind me. It was a new Mercedes and its grill melted like butter. Shaken, I placed my phone number under the wiper blade so the owner could contact me. Upset by the accident, I winced as John gravitated to me instantly as I entered the house. We had never been introduced and this obvious drunk was the last person I felt like encountering. "What a wonderful shirt!" he thundered, grabbing my sleeve. "Where did you get it? It looks handmade. It's fantastic!"

He went on and on about the color and the material, a silky tropical print.

Oh God, what am I going to tell this guy? I got it at the Salvation Army and I'm too flustered to make up a lie. What's Steinbeck's son going to think? That I'm a refugee from the backwoods? Yeah, it's handmade, it's homemade. I paid a dollar for it and he'll probably think I'm just some poor hippie chick from the sticks and oh, I wish he'd just disappear and let me by.

"I got it at the Salvation Army," I confessed, cringing.

"From the Salvation Army? Really? That makes it perfect! You shop at the Sally Ann? That is so hip!"

Suddenly, all my preconceptions stopped. This guy isn't a snobby rich kid. He has no pretensions. He's funky enough to know that shopping at the Salvation Army is hip, not embarrassing. He groks this shirt. He wants to wear it himself!

I slipped past him, looking anxiously for a place to collect myself. I ducked into the powder room and looked in the mirror.

What is going on? Accidents don't happen. That crushed grill meant something. And what a surprise to find out this guy who's been irritating me all summer is one of the more real people I've met in Boulder. He's like a wildcat. His life force is megawatts higher than anyone I've ever met.

Bewildered, I felt a strange energy welling up inside me. I recognized fear, but there was a deeper feeling of seeing my future flash in front of me. Sheathed in banter, his sharp claws had swiped clean through me. I didn't know that I had just experienced Johnny's most memorable talent, the uncanny ability to meet your mind. He could stop you in your tracks, like a tiger leaping out from its triple-canopy cover. That is what Rinpoche had been talking about. You're going along with this great discursive story line about your life, and you encounter these mind stoppers and suddenly there's a huge gap in what you've been telling yourself about your world. The secret was to explore the virgin territory in that gap, where you can find your true essence, stripped of affectation and false beliefs.

John had terrified me. I left the party and deliberately avoided him for four more years.
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Postby admin » Fri Mar 18, 2016 7:31 pm

6. Chateau Lake Louise


Reluctantly, as Naropa ended and the boys of summer fled Boulder, I returned to British Columbia in August 1975. My world had been blown apart, not only by the young Tibetan renegade, but by lovers and new friends. I could not wait to get back to Boulder. I told Paul I was moving there, with or without him. Weary of lazy, posing hippies, and starved by seven years of austerity and cultural isolation, I wanted to return to civilization, running water, and electricity. Paul had connected with Rinpoche during his visits and was eager to come with me. We sold the horses and chickens, boarded up the house, loaded up the kids, and by Thanksgiving we had moved to a cottage in the mountains above Boulder.

Paul and I survived four years while I progressed in the study and practice of Buddhism. He found a lucrative job selling cars at a Honda dealership. Soon he was wearing three- piece suits and making outrageous amounts of money. We lost our hippie vestiges, drove a brand-new car, and moved to the poshest street in town, across from Rinpoche's mansion.

It wasn't a good life, but there was definitely a thrust to it. Paul's drinking progressed to the point where he was in blackout most nights. He worked fourteen hours a day, six days a week, and watched football when he was home. After our divorce, on Sunday afternoons I'd get phone calls from his second wife, weeping because he forgot her birthday or was ignoring her. It was like looking down a hall of mirrors as I remembered the tears I shed trying to get Paul to relate to the kids and me. I could only sympathize with the heartbreaking bleakness she'd found in him.

I was raised in a family where no one spoke much, which might explain my initial attraction to Paul, who replicated those family dynamics. I never learned how to play with children; no one had ever played or read to me. Raised by a depressed, alcoholic harridan who screamed at me daily for hours, I had few resources for being a loving mother to my children.

My mother, Anna Sommer, had been an intrepid girl reporter in San Francisco during the Depression. The darling of the front page, she chose to abandon her career when she married the handsome crime reporter who wrote at the desk opposite hers. Coincidently, they both worked at the San Francisco News when that paper hired Steinbeck to research migrant workers in the San Joaquin Valley, which later became material for The Grapes of Wrath.

Like Steinbeck, my father tried to cage the bird. Both men were left with unhappy, creatively repressed women who turned to alcohol and bitterness in order to metabolize their unfortunate choices. Anna was forty years old when I was born; my childhood spanned the years between her raging PMS and menopause. Later, I discovered I had been molested as a baby by my father, until the age of three.

I desperately tried not to replicate those hideous family dynamics. I loved my children deeply and when I saw the fantastically creative, joyous parenting skills John exhibited when he met Megan and Michael, I knew we had a shot at ending generations of dysfunctionality. I learned how to just be with the kids, to hang out with ease. He had a way of making you feel so cozy, like there was nothing he'd rather be doing than lying around, making jokes, being silly, telling stories. He called us The Etruscans, like those you see on vases, in various states of repose.

"It's Giggle-Snort Time," he'd announce, patting the bed. "Come on up. Let's cuddle. Let's pack!" And the kids and I would be like dogs, lying around with those goofy grins on their faces when they pant, relaxed and happy. I think he must have learned it from Gwyn, who had a fabulous sense of humor. John and Thom inherited her comedic genius, with rubber faces, noises, and wicked, pee-your-pants monologues.


In the scene, a woman's catchet was based on a pretty face and her gameness. When asked to take a series of high-profile jobs, I went along for the ride. I started working at the Naropa Bookstore, selling dharma books, along with various Oriental tchotchkes like Japanese ikebana vases for flower arrangement, incense, and Tibetan iconography. Rinpoche encouraged the study of various oriental arts, painting, archery, and calligraphy. His wife, Diana, was training for the Olympics in dressage, and I took lessons at her equestrian academy. She was the only woman ever accepted at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, where she rode the famed white Lipizzaner stallions.

Rinpoche began urging me to attend his annual seminary. To be eligible, you had to sit a dathun, thirty days of rigorous meditation, from 6:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night. They were held at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center, our rugged land in the Northern Colorado foothills. During those fifteen hours, participants were instructed to practice Functional Talking, things like "Please pass the salt." You also had to do a ten-day retreat in an isolated cabin. Retreatants spoke to no one, except for a visit from a meditation instructor, usually a guy who tried to seduce the women. Without saying a word, there's a way you can let them know you're not interested.

Meditating for ten hours a day, I loved the solitude. I took long walks in the back country. Once I ran into a horse in a frozen field and we stood looking at each other, lost in white silence.

You could roam all over the Rockies up there and no one would ever find you. My heart was still in the wilderness then. The seclusion was delicious. Ten minutes later though, back in the cabin, I'd be dreaming about a steak dinner at the roadhouse in the little town an hour away. My mind bounced around; one minute I'd be raving on about how much I love being alone, and the next I'd be sobbing out of loneliness. Someone carved ALONE above the door, and someone else put a B in front and a Y at the end so it also read BALONEY. That said it all about how the mind works.

Having fulfilled the prerequisite classes, dathuns, and retreats, I was ready to attend seminary. Each year, seminary was held at a different deserted-for-the-season hotel willing to accept revenues from four hundred Buddhists who could pay well for the facilities. Vajradhatu, the Buddhist organization, had not found a hotel yet. I remembered passing Chateau Lake Louise with Paul one winter, boarded up like something out of The Shining. I suggested it as a possibility to Rinpoche and shortly after there was a phone call from him saying they'd gotten the place.

There were usually three hundred and fifty students and a staff of fifty older students who did all the teaching, administration, and cooking. Although Rinpoche's lectures and the classes were the framework, the primary focus of seminary was on partying and sleeping around. If a husband or wife went alone, they would invariably have multiple affairs. John used to say, "You could power all of New York City on the calories it takes to sweat out those three months, if you happened to be the one who stayed home." Those who remained faithful, and therefore abnormal in our jaundiced eyes, were often miserable and lonely. Monogamy was an anathema. Couples who attended together (and didn't sneak around behind each other's backs) were considered pitifully enmeshed. They treated parents who brought their children like lepers, and relegated them to a separate dining room. It all seemed blissfully acceptable then, but now I shudder at the unspoken dynamics of our cruise through the sexual revolution.

Recent studies about cults show that control is gained by the encouragement of either celibacy or promiscuity. Rinpoche implied that extramarital affairs were a direct path to enlightenment. His underlings claimed the practice of monogamy was foreign to Tibetans, as was jealousy. That is simply not true. When John and I later lived in Kathmandu, I watched the wives of lamas who fooled around. I saw the women's wistful pain.

As our role model, our guru had a wife and a different woman every night. If a student were upset, sometimes Rinpoche would tell him to either meditate, drink, or get laid, as if any of the three would liberate equally. It was a razor's edge that cut both ways. We were supposed to be ridding ourselves of clinging ego trips in order to cultivate detachment. The desire for stability, trustworthiness, and peace of mind was dismissed as unenlightened weakness. Eventually, like many women who survived the sexual revolution, I woke up to the insanity. When I found fulfillment in John, I had no need to wander outside my marriage to satisfy my intellectual, emotional, and physical appetites, as I did with Paul.

Rinpoche did not attract me; I refused his advances. I had enough men in my life. Right from the start, Johnny and I decided we were through with affairs. "When your wife sleeps with the guru, you both get screwed," he'd laugh. Other men paled in comparison to John, so there was never any temptation. Ironically, it took someone as outrageous as him to tame me.

A month before my departure for Lake Louise, I started to make arrangements for the children, whom I would be leaving for ten weeks. I found a nanny to care for Megan and Michael, who were six and nine years old at the time. I worried about leaving them alone for three months. If I knew then what I have since learned about child development or realized how much they'd miss me, I would never have gone. Rinpoche encouraged us to cultivate detachment toward our children, another mark of a cult. My meditation instructor once accused me of hiding behind my kids when I refused to leave them with baby-sitters and do volunteer work. You were supposed to practice meditation, attend classes, and then do a lot of feudal peasant-type work for the organization "in order to progress along the path." I hated working for no pay, and I did use the kids as an excuse to avoid answering phones or stuffing envelopes at the community center. They acted as if the more enlightened you became, the better the volunteer jobs would be.

Rinpoche succeeded in the monumental undertaking of transplanting Vajrayana Buddhism from Tibet to the West. However, the foundation of his practical experience was based on a primitive, patriarchal, monastic tradition that was completely ignorant of Western values. Wisely, he didn't try to force us into the narrow confines of a monastic lifestyle, as some gurus did. Instead, he created a secular practice. Unfortunately, he presented himself as an authority on areas over which he had no expertise, such as child rearing and family dynamics. We blindly followed the piper. His dalliance with Western pharmaceuticals soon blossomed into full-fledged addiction that clouded his judgment. Although his drinking and sexual exploits were never kept secret, his staggering coke habit was well concealed from his students. Huge mistakes, too many broken hearts, far too much abuse would all trickle down like toxic rain on the heads of those children we so blithely left at home. Having no idea what lay ahead, I was on my way back to Canada, completely unaware that my life was to change forever.

As was John's, who was coming from a Hollywood burnout, where he pretended to make movies, but was really doing not much more than drinking a fifth of scotch a day to cover up a burgeoning inadequacy. He was beginning to notice that his youth was flying away and things would never again come as easily. Of course, he had to arrive fashionably three days late to create a stir. I was walking through the dining room after class and saw him huddled in a corner with Johnny Meyer, another infamous bad boy with an equally wild reputation for breaking hearts. They had their heads together, snickering. I took one look at the energy between them and thought, Damn John for being here. He is going to ruin everything.

Johnny Meyer's room was directly across from mine and John spent a lot of time there. When I'd walk down the hall to my room, they'd invariably emerge from Johnny's. I dreaded meeting them. John would always ogle me and I felt uncomfortable. His glances were penetrating. They conjured up the fear he'd sparked in me four years earlier when he grabbed my shirt. His reputation did intrigue me, however, so I'd send back a wash of coolness mixed with hostility that said I dare you. I never gave much thought to his famous father; I sensed he had been cut from his roots, orphaned.

Johnny Meyer's father owned the first failed California S&L. He and John Steinbeck IV had haplessly adapted an idle rich lifestyle. They were black sheep scions, wealthy when the inheritance checks came in but comfortable sleeping in gutters when the money ran out. Those funds, combined with their alcoholism, prevented them from ever getting their lives together. Cynical about their birthrights, John and Johnny were unimpressed by wealth or fame. The knife cut both ways; they had also turned their backs on tremendous advantages. They shared the disapproval of their successful fathers as well. Johnny's family was extravagantly eccentric. He once gave their pet chimpanzee a hit of acid. After that, the chimp attacked him on sight.

The first month of seminary was lonely. I ran the bookstore that sold textbooks, so I met a lot of people and I knew everyone's name. I flirted a lot. Flirting was encouraged in the scene. "Flirt to be real," Rinpoche often said. We would dally after his late-night lectures, a prelude to going upstairs to your room or his room, if one of you could get rid of your roommate. A chosen few had rooms of their own. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when I discovered I was one of those. Students who had major responsibilities like running the bookstore got preferential treatment.

There is a traditional party at seminary between the Hinayana and Mahayana periods of study. By the end of the Hinayana session, which emphasized individual salvation and the solitary path of a yogi, students are notoriously ready to break loose from the discipline of no drinking, functional talking, hours of sitting meditation and memorization. They bussed us into the nearby town of Banff for the day, where we could shop and have our minds blown by the real world. The plan was to meet at a disco that evening and then be bussed back to the Chateau.

I felt dressed to kill in red that night, dancing with abandon. Breathless, I sat at one of the tables to rest for a second. I'd closed my eyes and when I looked up, there was John standing above me. "You're really hot, Mrs. Harper," he said with a twinkle. Flustered, I recalled the last time he'd accosted me over my Salvation Army shirt. Oh, God, is he going to start in again? What does he mean by "hot"? What does he want? Why can he reduce me to a driveling idiot?

"It is rather warm," I said defensively.

"No, I mean hot, like the best dancer here. Don't you know every man watching you has a hard-on?"

Blushing, I laughed into his eyes. Then he made a very peculiar and symbolic gesture that always touched us in later years. He knelt beside me and buried his head in my lap. He left it there. What is this? What do I do now? Suddenly, coyness and flirtation dissolved. The room disappeared. I found my hand stroking his hair and then his back. It was just the two of us, with time stretching infinitely. This man needs your love in order to fulfill his destiny.

Delirious for a few seconds, I had no idea what hit me. Later, John's brother, Thom, told me that when knights surrender their colors to their fair ladies -- Lancelot to Guinevere -- they kneel and bury their heads in their beloved's lap. An ancient chord of memory was struck between John and me, of many shared lifetimes and the thread of a common myth that ran through them all. It was a sacred gesture met with deep emotion, a symbol of our eternal love.

Then John asked me to dance, which surprised me. I thought he'd be way too cool for disco gyrations. I was right, he basically stood in one spot and held me, pinning my eyes with his twinkle. Several times, guys would try to cut in but he refused to let go of me. I could tell music affected his senses, which I took as a good sign.

And then, as if we were on overload, we parted. He went back on his assigned bus and I went over to mine and chose to sit alone in the last row. Staring out at the night sky, the moonlight on snow mountains, the laden fir trees flying by, I suddenly felt an unearthly sweetness sweep over me. I thought about love all the way home, love as a sacred emotion, love of sentient beings, bodhisattva love. I wasn't really thinking about John specifically, just the spiritual ideal and definition of love.

During the next several days I decided to check John out before I made any decisions. Watching him walk across the shrine room one rainy afternoon I sensed that this guy has seen war. He's seen death. He is uncomfortable only with life. There is deep despair in him and there is a quest. I sensed shame, vulnerability, and abundant humor. I wanted him.

Fortunately, I was not predatory by nature, and I soon learned that John did not respect aggressive females. For the past decade, his feminine ideal had been a lovely older Vietnamese woman whom he'd met in Saigon. She was a recurring compensatory fantasy when his girlfriends became insane reflections of his drunken mother's tirades and promiscuity. He valued demureness, grace, and reticence in a woman. "I have never been so drawn to a woman since Thao," he proclaimed six months later, and I knew I had won his heart.

Every afternoon, I could feel John watching me from the hotel lobby as I chatted with customers in the bookstore. Sometimes he'd come in and leaf through the books, eavesdropping on my patter. "You had a fast mouth and an easy laugh. I knew you were my kind of girl."

A few nights later, John walked up to me while I was seated at the tables and flashed his most charming smile. "Do you have a quarter I could borrow? I promise to return it at two o'clock this morning in your room!" He told me later that he thought that was a pretty good line and sometimes it even worked. Bemused, I gave him a quarter, chuckling, "Don't bother waking me up." Whereas all the other guys' come-ons were painfully awkward, John's teasing was intoxicating. There was something deeply sensitive about him, simultaneously vulnerable and wary. Intrigued, I silently let him know it would be safe to come closer.

The next afternoon I was selling tickets to the formal banquet as part of my bookstore gig. I was seated behind a table in the lobby when I looked up and saw John standing in line. It was an event where people were encouraged to go as couples. He's the only one I want to go with. He approached me with that seductive grin.

"Since you're selling the tickets, I'll only buy one if you will be my date."

The banquet was a week away. I was delirious with anticipation. A few nights later I was sitting at the tables in the dining room, where everyone gathered after Rinpoche's talks. A guy named Gordon asked me if I wanted to go for a walk but I declined. John must have been listening. He strolled over and said, "I hope you don't turn me down for our date the way you just turned Gordon down for that walk."

"Not a chance," I laughed. "In fact, let's go!" The icy path around Lake Louise was slippery, so I had to hold on to his arm. The magic was instant. He clowned around and teased me. We laughed till we were dizzy. As I clung to him, he pressed my arm with every step. We were tight from the start. There was no awkwardness, no sense of getting to know him. It was easy and familiar and delicious. We made friends quickly and deeply. This man has an enormous heart.

I was wearing a red fox jacket and he asked me what kind of fur it was. When I told him, he took me in his arms and laughed, "You're my fox!"

"I called my grandmother and told her where I'll be for the next two months," he announced.

"Lake Louise?" she'd shouted. "That's where I spent my honeymoon. What the hell are you doing there? There is nothing to do there but fuck!" John painted a picture of her flamboyance, this maternal grandmother who seemed to be on very intimate terms with him, but he never mentioned his parents or brother. I didn't ask. We laughed a lot about the personalities of our fellow seminarians and discovered that the same traits irked us in similar ways. Though he could make merciless fun of the ones he called "pompous asses," his warmth, his capacity for intimacy, his unpretentiousness and spontaneity were startling.

As he walked me to my room, I wondered if he'd try to come in and what would follow. I really wanted to savor the courtship and apparently he did, too. He kissed me briefly and left me at the door. I was charmed by that old-fashioned touch. Later he would confide: "I wanted you to feel respected. You were, after all, a lady. I was very proud of my restraint." Considering that his friends had dubbed him "The Sex Czar," I was flattered that he hadn't tried to make me a notch on his belt.

We were assigned jobs on the day of the banquet. I purposely found myself in the kitchen with John, who was washing pots. I heard the conversations going on around him. One woman asked, "What's it like to be the son of a famous father?" I didn't hear his monosyllabic answer, but I sensed his discomfort. I was tearing up mounds of lettuce, lost in a bracero fantasy of the Salinas Valley. My mother was born in Monterey and we vacationed regularly in Carmel. I'd spent college summers living in Big Sur and loved Steinbeck Country with a passion. Although I had a million stories about my experiences there, I didn't mention them on our walk around Lake Louise. I'd played guitar with Jerry Garcia and Pigpen in the Salinas Greyhound bus station when we were in high school. I'd met movie stars and famous writers in Big Sur, but John and I didn't need to play name games. More than anything, he needed to be appreciated for being uniquely himself. I wished he could be in that kitchen without having his father dragged in. It was my first hint of how tiresome those encounters were for him. Through the years, as I watched hundreds of people ask that same question of John, I deplored their rudeness. Raised with a sense of old-world manners, I had been taught and learned on my own to treat fame as an unmentionable, like an affliction, or wealth.

During my seventeenth summer, when I worked at the Big Sur Inn, I often hitchhiked down to the hot springs, now known as Esalen, twenty miles south. One afternoon, an anorexically thin woman struck up a conversation with me as we sat in the baths. She asked about the local guys, whom she'd classified as mountain men types. I explained that they were mostly wounded loners, except for Henry Miller, who visited the inn on his motorcycle, and the guy I was madly in love with, who claimed to be the son of a French viscount. When she found out that I was hitching back to the Big Sur Inn, she offered to drive me. That was back in the days when they taped new car registrations to your window. As I was getting into her yellow Mercedes convertible, I noticed her name.

"You didn't tell me you were Jane Fonda!"

"You wouldn't have talked to me so freely if you'd known," she laughed.

Later that summer, as I wandered out on the patio on my afternoon break, I discovered a very attractive older man waiting to be served. When I offered to get him a cup of coffee, he asked me to join him. We sat for ages, talking about his race cars and what it was like to be seventeen in Big Sur. I went inside to get more coffee and my coworkers swarmed around me to ask what I'd been talking about with Steve McQueen. I was surprised, but when I joined him again, I never let on that I'd found out who he was.

Several days later, he returned for dinner with Jackie Gleason and Tuesday Weld. They had been filming Soldier in the Rain in Monterey. Tuesday asked me to give her a tour of the grounds, and Steve left me a huge tip. I never acknowledged their identity. Kim Novak became a regular and she, too, just wanted to be treated like one of us. Those experiences helped me cut through the awe that others felt about John. He seemed so alone, devoid of any connection to his father; all I could see was the pain it brought up.

Just before we left the kitchen, a guy staggered in. He drunkenly begged me to go to the banquet with him. John heard the commotion and came over. "Cool it, David. I'm taking her."

"Aw, come on, John. Let her go with me. I see this woman in the shrine room and she drives me crazy."

I sensed David's outburst was an omen and an indication of John's burden, which would eventually become mine. Over the years, people constantly tried to cross the boundaries of our relationship. I watched countless men and women get swept away by the headiness of charisma and fame. Forgetting their own good qualities and accomplishments, they wanted to become John or me.

I sang "Some Enchanted Evening" in the shower before I slipped into the long strapless silver evening gown that Megan called the "mermaid dress." We'd agreed to meet in the lobby, where everyone was gathered. I spotted John, elegant in his tuxedo, across the crowded room. I started to walk toward him but before I reached him, Sarah, my meditation instructor, strode up and hissed, "Be careful of John. He'll break your heart." I slipped away from her. I don't think so. He's going to marry me.

As if he'd overheard, another guy caught me and said, "John won't marry you. He has a girlfriend in Boulder."

"You're wrong, Ashley. Dead wrong," I laughed and flitted away.

That night set up an F. Scott Fitzgerald-type ambience that followed us through seminary and then for the rest of our lives together. Partly, the magnificent old Canadian Railway hotel and mostly John's old-fashioned style of courtship created a fabulous, romantic setting. We found ourselves in a long dreamy corridor of rapture, so deep was our enchantment. His charm, his wit, his urbane manners were hypnotic. We lingered in the lobby hours after the banquet was over, wrapped in each other's minds. People would join us and drift off, sensing the elegant web we were weaving between us. Toward dawn, we wandered up to my room. He sat on the bed and began telling me about his blonde seven- year-old daughter, Blake, whom he hadn't seen since she was two. He spoke about her birth in Vietnam, how he'd mixed her baby formula with water from the Mekong River. I was surprised to discover he was a father. He obviously had deep paternal feelings toward her, and a great deal of pain about the separation.

Something about the way he spoke of his daughter touched me to the core of my maternal instincts. I knew this man would become the father of my children even though they were already born. And something at that core told me to get naked and take that man into my bed without wasting another precious second. The silver mermaid dress slid to the floor.
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