SONOMA NEWS - June 4, 2015

The 'Irregular' Life of Peter Coyote

by Lorna Sheridan

After hitting it big in his early 40s with a role in the blockbuster 1982 film “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” Peter Coyote is now best known as a busy character actor and the voice of countless commercials and documentaries. He is also making a name for himself as a writer, thanks to excellent reviews of his two books.

Coyote was in Sonoma on May 28 promoting his new memoir “The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education” at Readers’ Books. The longtime Marinite’s commute to the Plaza wasn’t as long as it used to be – the actor-author made the move to Sonoma County this summer.

It hasn’t been widely known which town has lured Coyote from his former home in Mill Valley. While he said that he loves Sonoma and finds the Plaza charming, it turns out that he is a fan of the “fog belt” and is currently doing renovations at his new place in Sebastopol.

Coyote’s latest memoir is an eloquent introspection of his affluent but miserable childhood on the East Coast; his involvement in the counterculture movement at Grinnell College in the 1960s; and his years of poverty and drug use in California in his 30s – prior to finding success and happiness as an actor and dedicated Buddhist.

Today, Coyote takes writing and acting equally seriously.

“They aren’t that different,” he says. “Acting is an opportunity to share with people what you’ve gleaned about human nature. It’s just done in a different vocabulary, one of gestures and feelings.”

His greatest pleasure is actually the rewriting process. “My desire,” he says, “is to translate as closely as words will allow the tone and feeling and details of an experience of another person, and to wrestle with the language until the nuances all line up and are resonant.”

His new memoir centers largely on his early years – which raises the question as to whether his own difficult upbringing inspired him to do things differently with his son, Nick, and daughter, Ariel, both of whom are now grown.

“Well, I never terrified my children and I never intimidated them and I never threatened them with violence, so that was a big difference from my childhood. I tried to stimulate their sense of competence and their ability to triumph and that was very different than my own upbringing.”

Coyote says that he encouraged his children to forge their own path, an idea that sparks in him a passionate defense of college as a time of discovery.

“It’s sad to me when I see young people and they’re organizing their lives to be bureaucrats when they’re 18 and 19 – to be cogs in a corporate machine because they don’t quite have the courage to get out in the world and invent a life that they’d rather live,” Coyote says. “I think that liberal arts actually prepares you for that.”

Coyote returned to Grinnell College last year for his 50th reunion. It was at Grinnell that he jumped headfirst into the counterculture movement. “We were at the beginning of the student protest movement. It was kind of thrilling to reminisce with all my friends who tried to change the world that we were afraid was about to be obliterated.”

Grinnell helped shape Coyote into who he is today and he feels strongly that “there’s an inherent value to liberal arts.”

“The neurotic myopia of this culture is the desire to translate everything into something that generates capital,” Coyote says. “Any business can teach you everything you need to learn in six months – but they can’t generate curiosity, they can’t generate interpersonal skills, they can’t generate a breadth and scope and understanding of history and culture and how people are different.”

His memoir’s subtitle, “An Irregular Education,” refers in part to Coyote’s lifelong practice of gaining knowledge where he can get it. He greatly values the master-pupil relationship he had with a series of mentors, and he writes that each “became a part of my sense of self, and whatever I may be today that might be worth emulating is made of these men and women and of what I took away from them.”

What Coyote gained from these mentors was not advice, and you find none for his readers, unlike most memoirs on the shelves today. He said, “I shy away from advice because the truth is that no one else experiences life in the way that you do. It’s kind of almost a little aggressive to give advice because it assumes that you know all the content of other people’s dilemmas, and we really don’t.”

Coyote is now in his mid-70s, and with his move to Sonoma County looming, I asked him about his mood and feelings about the future.

“I practice something called radical optimism,” Coyote says. “It’s an incontrovertible fact that we don’t know how things are going to turn out.”

Adds Coyote: “If I were to just look at the facts, I’d say we’re screwed, but radical optimism tells me that something can always happen and always change, and it’s better for me to be optimistic.”


[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]