Screen Shot cover
Taos, Writing

My Writing Companions

I am lucky to have two offices. One is a room inside our home where I write in the early morning, usually with a large cup of coffee. The other is outdoors in the ramada.


Three years ago Hank, with help from our son Zack, built the ramada, which by description is an open shelter. But being a skilled woodworker and a bit of a perfectionist, Hank built a ramada that is timber-framed wood with a tin roof. The floor has slabs of sandstone. It comes with views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the sage-filled mesa, plus a nice breeze and wi-fi from the house.

What more could I want during this spell of hot weather?

But I am not the only ones who feel that way. A bird has built a nest beneath the eaves in a spot that’s inaccessible unless you can fly. (Last year, a bird built a nest in another part of the ramada, but that didn’t work out.)

I am not a birder but my best guess from checking a bird book is that it’s a canyon towhee. The feathers are light gray and there’s some buff color.

Things must be getting serious because mother and father don’t like it when I — or anyone else for that matter — sit in the ramada. The father perches somewhere above in the ramada’s beams or on the house to sound a warning chirp. Sometimes he puffs himself up. He is relentless. The mother chirps too when she’s not sitting on the nest. (I can only see her tail when she does.)

Here is a recording of the father I saved on my phone:

I’ve tried talking in soothing tones to the birds. “I come in peace,” I tell them. But they don’t believe me. I resist trying to see if the eggs have hatched although last night the mother had a worm or something in her beak as she was returning to the nest so maybe they have.

It’s a dilemma. I enjoy working outside. Hank built the ramada because we need shelter and shade from the strong sun. But I don’t like stressing the birds.

I once had an agent who wanted me to join writing groups, because he once heard a famous author say he had been a member of one. I told him I am not a joiner of any group, that I’m a solitary writer. I don’t like sharing my writing until it’s done or close to it. But these days, alas, that’s not true.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s the ad for my novel Peace, Love, and You Know What that is running on the website of The Taos News, which is Designer Jason Rodriguez created the ad, which takes anyone who clicks on it to Amazon. Thank you to my former colleagues, especially publisher Chris Baker, at The Taos News for their support.

Here is the link Peace, Love, and You Know What on Amazon

book review, Taos

The Write Stuff: Two Books on Life and Death

Here is my first book column, which appeared in the May 19 fiber edition of Tempo, the arts and entertainment magazine of The Taos News. I was away at the time, so here it is.

The two books have common themes about life and death. A Taos artist, known for using images of death in her works, reflects on having a life in full in her food-infused memoir. Meanwhile a psychic shares interviews she collected of people whose lives were never the same after undergoing near-death experiences.

Coyota in the Kitchen: A Memoir of New and Old Mexico

Artist Anita Rodríguez aims to nurture readers with recipes and stories about her life in the two Mexicos.

First, an explanation about the book’s title is in order: coyota is a term for a female of mixed heritage — half-Hispanic and half-gringa.

Rodríguez’s father was a Taoseño who worked as a druggist on the Plaza. Her mother, who had a genteel Southern upbringing, came from Texas to study art.

She recalls classmates taunting her for being a “coyota,” which inspires her to create stories in which the animals are her real relatives.

“Don’t pay attention to those two-leggeds. They’re stupid. Come with me. Let’s go steal chickens and howl at the moon!” she imagines a coyote saying.

Such cruelty makes one sad for that little girl.

But then again, Rodriguez’s own opinions about outsiders come through with such observations as: “A person doesn’t exist in Taos without an identifying family. Until you have lived here for two generations, you are transparent.”

In her take on the food-based memoir, Rodríguez recalls good cooks and some really horrible cooks such as her paternal grandmother Hipólita Ramírez Trujillo. Grandmother’s food had one constant ingredient: rancor.

“Occasionally, Mother’s food was good, but mostly it was just so-so. Once in a while, it was a disaster,” she writes.

Likewise Rodríguez gives unflinching descriptions of her relatives.

Her life story thus far includes working in a California restaurant, where she learns about good cooking from its owner. Later, as a single mother in New Mexico, she raises a daughter under harsh living conditions. She searches for gainful employment and finds it as an enjarradora creating mud plaster for adobe structures and building fireplaces, hornos and mud floors. She lives in Mexico for 15 years before returning home.

Rodríguez is an artist whose paintings and illustrations typically contain images of death — skeletons enjoying what the living do. “Besides, death is so deeply a part of the human story that omitting it diminishes life, takes away its wholeness. If that’s not enough, you can blame my love of painting skeletons on a near-death experience, after which I became an artist, hiding in plain view the knowledge that life is eternal.”

“Coyota in the Kitchen,” a paperback published by the University of New Mexico Press, contains her illustrations and several paintings, including “Pie for the Dead” featured on its cover. Unfortunately the plates inside the book are not large enough to do her art justice.

Now about the food: Rodríguez includes numerous recipes throughout the book from Biscochitos to Frijoles con Chile Colorado to Chicos from the Ground Up. Several recipes were discovered during her travels.

Her advice for making Chile Caribe begins: “If you are going to make a lot of chile caribe, use rubber gloves. If you handle enough of it, your cuticles and hands will begin to burn.” Readers certainly will be grateful.

Life After Near Death: Miraculous Stories of Healing and Transformation in the Extraordinary Lives of People with Newfound Powers

lifeDebra Diamond left behind a successful career as a Wall Street money manager and university professor after discovering her psychic and clairvoyant powers during a transformational experience in 2008.

Diamond, who is a part-time Taos resident, shares first-person accounts of “science-based, cognitive and physiological near-death aftereffects.”

The people she interviews developed such new skills as heightened musical and artistic talents, spontaneous healing and electrical super-sensitivity. A man she meets in Taos has enhanced hearing among other gifts.

Given the subject matter, this should be a fascinating book. Perhaps it will be for those involved in the field. But as a layperson, I wanted to know far more about the people Diamond interviewed and less about her psychic abilities.

Do we really need to know she took a sip of lemonade while talking with a subject or that she put two crystals beside her computer before she did a Skype interview? I wanted to read about the transformation her subjects underwent.

Life After Near Death, published by New Page Books, is available in paperback.

books, reviews, Writing

The Write Stuff

In my new life, I am a book author and a book reviewer. I will be writing a twice-monthly column called The Write Stuff in Tempo, the arts and entertainment section of The Taos News.

For those just catching up, my last day as The Taos News’ managing editor was May 5. After nearly an eight-year run in that position, I felt it was time for a change. Now I will concentrate on writing fiction, promoting it — such as my newly published novel Peace, Love, and You Know What now on Kindle — and doing freelance gigs, including this column.

I presume most of the books I review will be ones that arrive at Tempo Editor Rick Romancito’s desk. From the pile he’s already given me, I envision books, non-fiction and fiction, published by university and museum presses. There will be books by writers lucky enough to get a contract with a publishing house and those who have taken that on themselves. Many will be local writers, which given Taos’ creative energy won’t surprise me.

I’ve already sent Rick the first column with reviews of two books. I reviewed an album of black and white photos taken during the early ’80s. A newcomer to New Mexico, the photographer turned his camera’s lens on a few of the state’s Hispanic communities.

An academic wrote the second book about author Jean Toomer and his unfinished play about Taos. Toomer, part of the Harlem Renaissance, came to Taos in the ’20s at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan, the grand dame of the arts.

I have always been a big reader. As a kid, I was holed up in my bedroom with a pile of books from the library. My favorites are the ones that make me forget that I am reading. My bookcases at home are filled with them.

I don’t anticipate every book Rick hands me will have the same effect. But my goal is to read them through to the end before I give a thoughtful but fair review. If the book has faults, I will point them out. I won’t gush.

Of course, reviews are subjective. Someone might love what I don’t and visa versa.

I’ve already read the next two books. I’ve taken notes and used pieces of paper to mark the pages that contain something significant I might want to note or quote.

Writing about writing: I like the idea.

This is a link to my farewell column in The Taos News

And here is the link to Peace, Love, and You Know What (soon to be out on paperback) on Kindle:

PHOTO ABOVE: This is the first year since I planted our lilac bushes eight years ago that they’ve bloomed. (Maybe there is something symbolic.) Each spring I would cheer on the buds but then a cold snap would take them. This year we had cold but also snow, which might have insulated the buds. The bushes are outside the door we use the most. I plan to clip a few buds to bring inside because they smell so damn sweet.

I am sitting in somebody's car while wearing big, pink sunglasses.
books, friends, hippies

From One Who Was There

At first, my friend Fred Fullerton was going to hold off reading my novel Peace, Love, and You Know What until it came out in paperback. But then he couldn’t resist. After all, he makes a cameo appearance.

Fred is one of the party-goers at the three-day graduation bash held at a slummy, college apartment. Joey, a brainy but nervous guy who loves poetry, is one of the roommates. It’s the first night of the bash. Here is the excerpt:

Joey sat several feet away, talking it up with another heavy thinker, a guy who returned to Westbridge on the GI Bill after being stationed in Europe. He was into that expat thing, wearing a beret and smoking a pipe. The two were deep into William Carlos William’s Kora in Hell Improvisations. Joey rushed to the attic to get his copy, dog-eared and filled with his notes. The two passed a joint and read the best passages aloud while the expat’s foxy German wife chain-smoked unfiltered Gauloises.

“Read that line again. I think I heard something new there,” Joey told the expat.

Fred attended Bridgewater State College, now a university, in the sixties. He went into the service and was stationed in Germany before returning to finish his degree. He moved back to Germany after he graduated, but now lives in the U.S.


Fred shortly after he moved back to German in 1974.

I met Fred during his second go-round at the college. We have remained very good friends since, keeping in contact via letters, emails, and visits when I am back East. Yeah, he’s a heavy thinker with a great sense of humor. He’s also a reader and writer. And, he’s also one of the few people I used directly as inspiration for this comedy from the seventies.

So, although Fred read earlier drafts of the novel, he downloaded the Kindle app to his computer April 18. Then, the emails began.  I am going to quote from the less personal messages.

Here’s the first: I downloaded the Kindle edition of Love, Peace & You Know What and want to read the final version since the last time I read it was while you were still editing it. I chuckled at the party scene where Joey and the expat are discussing and read William Carlos Williams Kora in Hell: Improvisations. I guess I’ll have to read it so I can discuss it with “Joey.”

Yup, Joey is another of my characters inspired by a real person. But this is fiction, not a memoir.

Then, I asked Fred to check the acknowledgements at the end of the novel. He’s in there.

The back and forth began. Fred would read a little. I would find a question in my email, several times a day.

Curious …who was the gay prof at the 3-day party at 221 Winter St.?

He asks about other characters. He recalls dear friends from our tribe who died. I let him know which characters are total fabrications, which are most of them.

I’m having a ball reading this book. Even though I read earlier drafts, this is much improved and really funny! It’s also bringing back lots of memories … the coffee shop (I lived in the boarding house above it my freshman year), and other places. I spent many, many evenings at Westbridge Apartments, which you accurately rename the Roach Motel!

Yes, it was an apt description of the row of apartments that resembled more of a motel than student housing. It’s no longer there. Also, 221 Winter Street is a variation of an actual address. The layouts of the campus and town were as I remember it then. (I haven’t been back since I graduated but I am planning a field trip soon.)

I’m reading your book as if I were drinking a fine wine or whiskey in small sips. At this rate, I might have a review for you by this weekend.

The emails sped up.

I also like how the music at Ned’s [Professor Ned Burke AKA Professor Groovy] memorial service is Edith Piaff’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.” It’s as apropos as his dying “in the saddle,” so to speak.

I listened to her sing that song a few times while I wrote the scene.

On April 22: I love the part where Joey teaches Beowulf to Mack’s class. Yes, Beowulf is a terrific tale. I can’t remember when I first read it, perhaps in high school, but I’ve read it a few times since.

I tell Fred I had to teach Beowulf to high school freshmen when I was a student teacher. I don’t think I was very successful. I only got a B.

You rascal! You put your dad in there as Coach Tony Madrid! 😀

Yes, I used my father for the character of the man who was retiring after coaching generations of high school students. Tim, one of the main characters, is covering his retirement sendoff for a newspaper.

I’m almost done. Your book is laugh-out-loud funny. I especially cracked up when Manny said, “I feel like I’m in somebody’s acid trip.” You’ve got so much going on in the book. It’s not only a roman à clef but also a Bildungsroman with a good dose of Sturm und Drang!

I tell Fred I still find the book funny after reading it a zillion times.

And on April 23: The review is “alive” on Amazon. It was fun to do!

Yes, you can go to Amazon and see it for yourself. Fred gave the novel five stars. Thank you dear friend.

Here’s the link:

Peace, Love, and You Know What will be out in paperback hopefully soon. I am going to attempt audio, even with my New England accent.

PHOTO ABOVE: I used this photo once before for my piece about my obsession with Bob Dylan’s music. My sister sent me this photo. I am sitting in somebody’s car while I am wearing big, pink sunglasses. I don’t remember who took it or the occasion. But I like the stray curl.


Joan SF smaller
books, hippies, Writing

So Darn Close

Yup, the launch of my novel Peace, Love, and You Know What is imminent, likely this week. And, yes, you will be among the first to know.

Michelle is tweaking the draft’s design. Perfectionist that she is, she isn’t happy about the big first letter at the start of each chapter. I did take a look at the draft online and found a couple of small things to change: two chapter headlines that weren’t in the right format, a line from a poem (quoted by the nervous nut Joey, one of the characters) that wasn’t in italics. Nothing big really, but important to me because they would be a distraction to readers.

I did panic when I accidently hit “save” on the pricing page, which apparently means publish. There is no one to talk with in person, but an email to support stopped the process and put me at ease. Peace, Love, and You Know What is in draft form again, unless we click otherwise. (I did send a nice note to support that they might want to add “and publish” to that button. I am certain I am not the only author to do that by mistake.)

I’ve filled out the necessary publishing info and created my author page.

I am excited and nervous about the next step in this grand experiment.

So in the meantime, here is an excerpt from early in the book. The chapter is called The Hard Truth. Four of the main characters are in it: roommates Tim, Manny, and Mack, who have just taken a geology final after pulling yet another all-nighter. Of course, it helped that Mack had managed to get a copy of last year’s exam. And then there is the entrance of Lenora, a key person in their lives.

Heads down, Tim and Manny staggered through the campus of Westbridge State College. They were semi-sure they’d get a decent grade on their geology final, thanks to Mack. But this being their third all-nighter in a row, and with another ahead, they were out of it.

“I think you’re right. It was quartzite. I put that down, too,” Tim said.

“How about five? Pre-Cambrian shield?”

“Think so.”

Manny gave him a scared smile.

“Shit, maybe we did okay.”

The two bumped shoulders, drunk with fatigue, swapping answers, as they jaywalked the quadrangle’s grassy square toward the administration building. They ducked through the auditorium door, propped open because the weather was warm, and hit a left to the newspaper office. The office, if it could be called one, used to be the ticket booth for the auditorium. It was all the college spared for The Hard Truth.

Mack, the editor-in-chief, was already there, moving and stacking bundles of newspapers printed specially for graduation. He was the second person to finish the geology final, and he had a smug smile when he handed the bluebook to the professor, telling him, “Thanks, I got a lot outta your class,” which made the man nod and grunt. Then Mack gave Tim and Manny two thumbs up before he split.

Mack tossed copies of the newspaper to Tim and Manny. The headline across the top of the front page said: “Hello cruel world!” It was Tim’s idea. He was one of the paper’s reporters, actually assistant editor, but as usual, Mack took his idea and ran with it. The paper was chock full of anti-war, anti-Nixon, and anti-establishment stories.

Lenora wrote her farewell column, called “Who the heck is that?” Her last was about the janitor who’s been cleaning up after students for over twenty years, watching as one class leaves and another takes its place. Tim murmured. He recognized the guy. He had a profound limp because of a clubfoot, and Lenora wrote he took off his shoe so she could see it. She got him right as she did the other people she wrote about, like the retarded guy who rode his bike around campus. Then there was the cook behind the counter of Jimmy’s Coffee Shop. His name wasn’t Jimmy, it was Ralph, and he named the joint for his older brother, who got killed in Korea.

Manny opened his copy to the centerfold where the names of the Class of 1972 were printed. His fingertip pressed the paper.

“Tim, your name’s here. See? Timothy Patrick Devlin. It’s above Lenora’s name. It says you’re graduating Sunday.”

Tim peered over Manny’s shoulder.

“My mother will like that a lot.”

“Huh? I thought you needed two more courses to graduate,” Manny said.

Tim grunted as he fell onto a chair beside the wooden table they lifted from a classroom. Manny sat beside him.

“You’re right. I don’t have enough credits, but I can’t tell my mother that. You met her. I’m supposed to be outta here and getting a job. She works the nightshift at the bread plant back home. You think she’d understand the five-year plan?”

Air came out of Manny’s mouth in one big “ha.”

“Tim, right now I can’t think of a damn thing.”

“That makes two of us.”

Tim’s elbow was on the table as he pushed his jaw into his hand. He shut his eyes and felt himself slip away until a girl’s laughter jerked him awake. He blinked. Lenora came through the door, wearing one of her costumes, a black skirt hanging to her sandals and a gauzy top with strands of beads. Hair so brown it could be black fell halfway down her back. She swirled around with her hands in the air and stomped her sandals.

“Alleluia, I’m done. Can you believe it? No more papers. No more finals. I finished my last shift at the dining hall.” She spun again. “Guys, I’m a free woman.”

Mack came toward her with his arms out.

“Jesus, Lenora, I’m gonna miss you.”

Mack hugged Lenora tightly and tried to nail her with a kiss. He thought it was cool to stick his tongue in the mouth of any girl he met. But Lenora told Manny and Tim he wasn’t very good at it. Too much spit. And his breath smelled like cooked meat.

She held her hand against Mack’s chest.

“Knock it off, Mack. I don’t want a kiss from you.”

Mack moved against her hand. His face came closer.

“Aw, Lenora, you don’t mean it.”

“Yes, I do. I’m not your girlfriend, and I don’t want to be. I don’t mind you giving me a hug, but keep your tongue to yourself. Or next time I’ll bite it off.”

Mack stepped back.

“Whoa, I guess she told me off good.”

Manny glanced up from the open newspaper.

“You mean well, don’t you Mack?”

“Shut up, Manny. I don’t need a fuckin’ grammar lesson, especially from a history major.”

“Hey, don’t insult me. You’re the one who’s supposed to be the English major.”

Mack shuffled to his desk, muttering, but Tim was positive he’d get over it. Lenora was too important to all of them. The girl had been with them during good trips and bad trips, protests and parties. Once, she talked a cop out of giving Mack a ticket after he got caught driving through a stop sign. The way she worked the pig was pure magic. By time they drove off, the man had lost his blank cop face and started smiling.

Tim couldn’t forget how she held his hand as they watched the draft lottery on TV, and then cried when he pulled an eight, which meant he was heading to Vietnam for sure. Lenora found a friendly doctor to write a note that Tim had a chronic skin rash, so he wouldn’t have to go. She went with Tim to the induction physical, and when he came outside, she hugged him and said, “They’re not taking you from me.”

Why did she have to leave?

Lenora sat on the table.

“How’d you guys do on your geology final?”

Tim glanced at Manny.

“We made out okay. I mean the answers came to me almost like magic.” Tim paused. “Hey, Lenora, what are you doing Friday, Saturday, and Sunday?”

Her legs swung beneath her long skirt.

“Except for graduating? I’ll be packing. Why? What’d you have in mind?

Tim eyed Mack, who had his back to him.

“See, we’re having a little party at the house, and we wanted you to come.”

“Three days? A little party? You’re putting me on.”

“No, I’m not. Right, Manny?”

“It’s true, Lenora. So, are you coming?”

“Of course, I will. It’s my last weekend in Westbridge.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s me in San Francisco.