The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s the book I want to write, am writing, and lived and loved through. Walls’ matter-of-fact telling of what for most people would be a bizarre, unconventional upbringing—reminds me that there are many ways to experience family. Our families are not good or bad but make us who we are. Outstanding.
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In December of 1969, we—along with 300,000 other people—descended on the Altamont Speedway for the giant outdoor free concert that was to be the West Coast’s answer to Woodstock, featuring the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana. I was a hippie-baby at Altamont, about fourteen months old at the time.
When I was growing up, my mother would often retell the story of the woman who wanted to hold me at Altamont and next thing they knew she had wandered off with me.
“There we were stoned immaculate when your father realized she was trying to take you.”
I have this image of my father sprinting after the woman, dodging all the drunk and stoned hippies sprawled on blankets.
Years later, my father would insist in a letter to me, "I was not stoned—on anything—I was watching her every move."
In one photo of me, there’s a giant wine jug situated at my feet. Everybody at Altamont can be seen swilling from these massive jugs and passing them around.
We were way far back from the stage like most everyone else, unaware until the next day of Meredith Hunter, the Black teenager who had been stabbed to death by two Hell’s Angels. The Dead had hired a bunch of Bay Area Hell’s Angels to run security at the event. Up by the stage, the Angels had been hostile and brutal. Not the kind of peace and love people were used to. Even Mick Jagger couldn’t get things under control, as you can see in theRolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter, which chronicled the whole debacle.
The footage also shows people completely tripped out of their minds in a display of debauchery that even makes me feel a bit uptight. One clip shows a naked woman, totally tripped out of her mind, being led by the hand by two guys on either side of her. Equally disturbing are scenes of people having bad acid trips and being whacked out in general, behaving like the freaks the previous generation must've perceived them to be.
It’s like being the only sober person in the room watching everybody get embarrassingly drunk and stupid. You just wanna flee. Any romanticized view I previously held of Altamont went out when I watched that movie again after many years. (Though I'm still glad it's on my life experience résumé.)
Ultimately, there would be four deaths at Altamont (not all related to the Angels) and a clear signal that something had shifted. Rob Kirkpatrick, author of 1969: The Year Everything Changed, writes:
Left on its own at the end of the decade and seemingly gathered at world’s end, the Altamont congregation straddled the line between freedom and anarchy and experienced the ugly underside of a generation’s collective dream.”
I’ve never been sure if it’s my own imagination and “created” memories of being out West at that time, but internally, soulfully, I have always felt the weight of it, a bygone disappointment weighing down on our little triad as though the end of the era signaled the end of us, and we were so unbearably entangled in music and hippie culture and a certain time and place that there was nothing left to do with the relationship. Like it had run its course. ⏤ excerpt from Letters from East of Nowhere, a memoir due out Father's Day 2022
Music continued to keep the lines of communication open between us. I remember for my 12th birthday Daddy brought me a Walkman cassette player with headphones. For my 14th it was an all-in-one turntable with radio and cassette. My gifts to him were often record albums my mom knew he would appreciate, like Eric Clapton’s Slowhand or Bob Dylan at Budokan.
1972 photo of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Left top-Dino Valenti, drums-Greg Elmore, guitar-Gary Duncan. Author; Capitol Records
I remember my father’s sheer delight when he heard I was reading J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in 8th grade, saying it was one of his all-time favorite books ever, so literature, too, became a shared interest. In high school I was soon drawn to Kerouac novels from my mom’s bookshelves and I knew I was drinking from the same fountain as my father. In my mother’s paperback collection, I also discovered the likes of Carlos Castañeda, Henry Miller, Ken Kesey and Anais Nin.
When I later attended University of San Francisco, my father turned me on to Richard Brautigan, another late-Beat generation writer, handing me a collection of short stories, including one particularly haunting one called “The Abortion” set in San Francisco in the 60s.
Brautigan had been a voice for The Summer of Love and parts of his top-selling book Trout Fishing in America were first published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the legendary proprietor of the City Lights bookstore where the Beat poets and authors all hung out in the 60s. Ferlinghetti was still there during my time in San Francisco and for many years after. I saw that he just died in February 2021 at 101 years old.
“Vida was very amused by what was going on. She certainly was pretty. We were all very relaxed lying there on the bed. The whiskey had made us mud-puddly at the edges of our bodies and the edges of our minds. ‘This is delightful.’ Vida said.” — 1970 The Abortion: An Historical Romance
Taking another hit of sweet California sunshine (Quicksilver Messenger memories)
When Daddy came out to San Francisco for my graduation in 1995, we had some time together in my apartment at Stanyan and Oak. One quiet afternoon when everyone else was out, we sat in my living room with the bowed windows facing out over Golden Gate Park, listening to Quicksilver Messenger Service at top decibel.
“I took you with me to see Quicksilver in concert, you up on my shoulders,” Daddy’s voice is low, a little slurry from the wine. He keeps a jug hidden in his duffel in our extra bedroom. I'm kind of half-asleep, or pretending to be, on the futon sofa and he's sitting on the floor in front of me, leaned back against the futon frame. At some point I drape my right arm over his shoulder.
“You know who Dino Valente, the lead singer is, don’t you?” he asks.
“Mmm-nnnh.” I muster.
“Dino Valente’s real name was Chet Powers, ‘fact he just died last year. Guy’s a brilliant musician, also went by Jesse Oris Farrow. He wrote the song ‘Get Together’ you probably know, by the Youngbloods.”
I always felt completely inadequate when it came to such knowledge of music while Daddy was this living, breathing historical reference.
“Yeah, you up on my shoulders at that concert; everybody thought you were al-right, kid.”
I try to imagine my one-year-old self with my father squeezed into a packed indoor concert hall in San Francisco in 1969. Without any other details, the vision fades out. But as I’m lying here, together with my father in the city of my birth for the first time since we both left it when I was barely two, I am profoundly aware of why the music—particularly the Sounds of San Francisco like Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, not to mention Dylan, the Stones, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield--it has always felt familiar, like it’s way down in my bones and deep in my soul.
Daddy gets quiet again. We’re just taking in the music and lyrics, probably the only time we’ve ever listened to Quicksilver together like this, ever. Previously, we might have shared only in conversation. The music somehow just didn’t show up when we were together. (And hell, when were we ever really together, anyway? Rarely just the two of us during those 25+ years since he'd left me and my mom.)
But now Quicksilver croons, telling me to hold on girl and not to be blue. It's “Light All Your Windows,” the song that does it for both of us.
Daddy takes my right hand there over his shoulder, pulls it more snugly against his chest and pats it.
“Aww doll,” he says with effort, as if the weight of it all—my whole lifetime, mostly without him—is here in this moment, in the music.
Some years later, the first seven words of that song would be how Daddy communicated with me from Beyond. The lyrics “bleeped” across my forehead like a radio station tuning in momentarily and then gone again, when I had asked for a sign.
Be first to know when Letters from East of Nowhere: Daddy's Words to Live, Drink & Die By is available.
When I came across this poem my father wrote, I decided to get interested in Route 60 and found that it runs from Virginia Beach right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, launching westward for 2,655 miles by way of Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, and landing somewhere around Brenda, Arizona (pop. 676). Los Angeles is about four-and-a-half-hours due west while San Francisco—where my father would always end up—is a good 10½ hours further north of that.
Highway 60 would have been like an old familiar friend to him, traversed both ways numerous times by car, 18-wheeler, and motorcycle as well as with thumb or “palm a-waving” many a time, in all kinds of weather--trying to get east of somewhere he’d rather not be.
It is “here” I allow myself to be in the moment with Daddy, to grant him human being-ness outside of being our father, and just let him be who he knew himself to be for a moment. Let him be Neal Cassady, living with wild abandon on the road with nothing to tie him down and no one to answer to and no responsibilities to anyone. Just the call of the highway, warm smell of colitas rising up through the air in dingy rooms with mamacitas to drink and lay with and never see again. - Excerpt from Letters from East of Nowhere
No Pianos, Pets or Foreigners! My Life in Japan in the 80's by Joe Palermo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Having lived in Japan myself and participated in the same Japanese government teaching program, I found Palermo's anecdotes of life in Japan, endearing and nostalgic--and spot on for cultural quirkiness and awakenings. The author captures what it's like to be a "gaijin" (foreigner), in between worlds, as it were, sometimes a celebrity, sometimes overlooked/forgotten. A few times I felt the author indulged too much in cliches but quickly recovered with the substance of the stories carrying the necessary weight.
This is light, relaxed read of a complex cultural experience. Definitely recommend it for anyone with a "yen" for Japanese culture.
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The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I knew I would find this book enchanting, even before I read it, as I've been fascinated by marine life consciousness these last few years. From the first pages, I found the author's writing familiar and inviting, taking us up close and personal, enchanting us--like she had been--with the stroke of an octopus.
I also felt the author's disappointment with each loss, and the wonder at each new love. The quirky aquarium staff and characters further humanized the story and though their entrances were brief, I experienced them each as three-dimensional and worth getting to know.
At times I felt like the story would never end (and it wasn't necessarily a story I didn't want to end...) but given the individual relationships with each octopus, I can see why the author strung out the story as she did.
I am left fully aware that the octopus is one of the earth's most misunderstood creatures, having gotten a really bad rap, while in fact it is, as the author suggests, possibly one of the most wise and wondrous, as would be an intelligent being from outer space.
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The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was drawn into The Midnight Library when the main character (Nora's) depression surfaced as "I don't really feel like living any more," which eventually points to existential depression. This resonated with me and I've talked to at least half a dozen women for whom it is the same. My life is good, everything's going along fine, but I'm kinda over it all.
Nora's exploration of the different paths and exponential possible outcomes for every action taken in life, is intriguing up to a point. If it were "new" to me, I would've been more fascinated, but this is a familiar topic so it didn't blow me away, by any means.
What did keep me reading, however, was that Matt Haig identified this malaise and has authentically experienced it himself. I felt slightly less alone in the darkness.
As for Nora and how it all wraps up, I'll leave that for the reader. Hint: I did smile and have a moment with myself, especially after the Jean Paul-Sartre quote:
"Life begins on the other side of despair."
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