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 taosnews.com. 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, Taos

The Write Stuff: Two books about life

Here is my book review column, The Write Stuff, which appeared in the June 9 fiber edition of Tempo, the arts and entertainment section of The Taos News. Every two weeks I review books that have a connection to New Mexico.

This column takes on recent releases that reflect on two lives: one is a collection of autobiographical stories written by a beloved local doctor; the other is a noted author’s account of a boy growing up in New Mexico.

A Life Well Worn: A Collection of Personal Stories

Memoirs can be a tricky genre. A no-holds-barred telling may be satisfying for the author, but unfair to those who appear in the book. Others may not have such an interesting life after all.

But that’s not the case with the late Dr. Larry Schreiber, who tempers his observations with humor and kindness as he shares stories from his life, which includes over 40 years as a physician and humanitarian.

Schreiber is also the father of 14 children, including 10 who were adopted from around the world. He co-founded Child-Rite, which for 20 years placed 240 children with special needs in New Mexican homes at no cost to the families. (His first contact with children who have special needs is when he volunteers as a teenager at the Cerebral Palsy Center in New York.)

After interning in Albuquerque, Schreiber remains in New Mexico to work in medically under-served areas, where patients are so poor, they barter for care.

“Wood wasn’t all I traded for. Without trading I wouldn’t have a barn (OB and tubal ligation), a chicken coop and goat pen (delivery of a baby), or fencing throughout my fields (pneumonia and gall bladder attack). I even traded medical care for house cleaning. How else do you keep a house clean with 13 children? Trading felt good. It worked.”

He writes about finding love with his second wife, poet Cathy Strisik.

He takes readers on hiking treks in the mountains. Of one adventure in Nepal, he writes, “Looking up the ice wall at 19,000 feet, I realized two things: my heart couldn’t go any faster, and I couldn’t go any slower.”

We also learn how he deals with the effects of Parkinson’s disease, likely caused by his exposure to pesticides while working in a hospital in Cambodia.

His writer’s voice is likable. I imagine a twinkle in his eye as he recalls his experiences and the people he knew.

There is humor — one story about what an elderly patient in a hospital calls him made me laugh out loud. Then, there is sorrow — his grief over the loss of one of his sons.

But such is the case, indeed, in a life well worn.

Of course, with Schreiber’s death Jan. 18 the book is a bittersweet reminder of his profound value here and elsewhere. He died as he wished, at his San Cristobal home with his family beside him and a view of Lobo Peak through the picture window. The book was completed shortly before his death.

“A Life Well Worn,” published by Nighthawk Press, is available in paperback.

Schreiber’s children will read from their father’s memoir at an event Saturday (June 11), 6-8 p.m. at the Harwood Museum. Strisik will introduce the evening, which will include a video of Schreiber reading one of his pieces.


The Sorrows of Young Alfonso

Rudolfo Anaya is a celebrated New Mexican author with an impressive body of work, including “Bless me, Ultima,” published in 1972. In his latest, Anaya writes about Alfonso, who at his birth was told by a
curandera, “The world is full of sorrow.”

Anaya chooses the format of the anonymous letter writer, presumably an old man, who tells Alfonso’s story to a person identified as “K.” The curandera’s prophecy comes true via an accident involving a train that leaves the boy handicapped. Later, he attends a university and emerges as a writer.

As Alfonso grows and changes, so does New Mexico.

“Now the prayers are being forgotten. This generation doesn’t pray like we did We spent hours on our knees. We had plenty to pray for. The war had taken the village boys; the Depression came, and with it the dust storms of the Dust Bowl. The way of living was changing from Spanish to English. There were new bosses and only menial work for the Mexicanos. The town banker spoke only English. Try getting a loan.”

Fans of Anaya and his writing style will undoubtedly enjoy this book. For others, reading “The Sorrows of Young Alfonso” may seem like dancing a slow waltz and wondering when the song will end. However, be prepared for a delightful dip toward the end.

“The Sorrows of Young Alfonso,” published by University of Oklahoma Press, is available in hard cover.


books, hippies, Writing

A Whole Lot Going On

First, to those who anticipate buying a paperback of Peace, Love, and You Know What, the only holdup is the arrival of the hard copy proof. That is imminent. The biggest concern for Michelle, the designer, and me is the layout. This is a first for us.

I will let everyone know as soon as I pull the trigger — and as loudly as I can.

PeaceLove_Cover smallOn related topics, the electronic equipment I ordered to record Peace, Love, and You Know What is on its way. The prequel, Professor Groovy and Other Stories is in the batter’s circle. I scheduled a solo reading at SOMOS of Taos for July 8, a week after I am in a marathon reading as part of the open house at its new location.

Meanwhile, I am copyediting the next book to be launched — The Sweet Spot. This is one of my hilltown books. Here is a teaser: A big scandal in a small town — love and mislove, secrets and discovery, rich and poor, old families and newcomers, deep roots and fresh starts, violence and peace.

The Sweet Spot takes place in 1978. It didn’t happen in the small town of Worthington, where I once lived, but it could have. This book is not a comedy, but a couple of the characters are, well, characters, who may generate a chuckle from the reader.

Speaking of copyediting, I got inspired while reading a friend’s non-fiction book to do it as a sideline business. When I was given a sample copy, I found the book to be interesting and well-written, but, alas, it contained so many typos. Hundreds of typos. My friend had just sent it to the publisher, and I advised him to take it back. I volunteered my services to copyedit the book. The book had been edited — for pay no less — but still I found spelling errors, lack of hyphens, improper punctuation, and so many inconsistencies. I did four go-throughs and was happy to do it.

The experience got me thinking about doing editing for pay. I have been editing and copyediting other people’s writing, never mind my own, for decades. I know how not to get in the way of a writer’s voice. If I have questions, I ask them.

My aim would be not to let errors be a distraction to a piece of writing. And with the self-publishing opportunities now available, would-be authors need that kind of help.

Right now, I am figuring out rates, how to get the word out — you know, the business end of writing.

One final note, which I am adding after the original post, is about a rattle snake. I was getting water from the back spigot when a young rattler ambled about six inches from my foot. I am pleased at myself for not freaking out. Instead, I watched it curl beneath one of the currant bushes. I am going to pay attention to where I walk from now on.

My neighbor just found one on her back door. She called a friend, who chopped off its head, skinned it and took the rest back with him. He will use the fat as medicine and eat the meat. So the rattler didn’t die in vain.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: This trio, playing lively Hispanic music, was part of the entertainment when Hank and I were at the Taos Farmers Market on Saturday.


Newspapers, Taos, Writing

I’m Outta Here

It’s official: I am leaving my job as the managing editor of The Taos News on May 5. I’ve been at it for nearly eight years. It’s time for a change.

I began working as a journalist 31 years ago, when I was a correspondent for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, one of the oldest dailies in the nation. I reported on the town where I lived, Worthington, population 1,400.

Worthington, a hill town in Western Massachusetts, had a surprising amount of news. The first lesson I learned is that I’d better get my story right because it was likely I would run into that person the next day at the general store.

At the start, I had to write my story on a typewriter and drive 40 minutes to the newsroom so someone could type it into the paper’s computer system. Then I was given a Radio Shack laptop that showed seven lines on its tiny screen. I plugged it into the phone jack to send my story and called to make sure the editor got it. Over the years, technology improved until now the web is a vital reporting tool.

Eventually I added several hill towns to my beat. I attended meetings (my favorite was the venerable Town Meeting although a Worthington Board of Health meeting about pigs was a close second). I wrote features and columns. Occasionally there was breaking news, typically a house fire. I did get big stories to cover like the closing of a nuclear power plant. I even went to the White House to interview Tony Lake, who was national security adviser during Bill Clinton’s first term and a Worthington resident.

I am grateful for the opportunity to report on those towns. I had to listen to the way people talk and observe how they behave. That’s been a great help for my fiction.

I became a line editor, then a copy and special sections editor at the Gazette.

As for managing editor of The Taos News, I sort of fell into that job. After Hank and I moved here in 2006, I freelanced for the paper before I was hired as its copy editor. After a year, I became the managing editor.

It’s not an easy time for newspapers. Reading habits have changed — moving from fiber to cyber. During my time as managing editor, I’ve watched many newspapers struggle to keep readership. Some have folded. But The Taos News remains strong.

Taoseños are engaged in their community, and frankly there is nowhere else to get the news our staff reports. I like to think the editorial team covers the heck out of Taos County. (I will miss my colleagues.) Of course, a paper can’t continue without the business side working hard as well. And to keep things on the up and up, a firewall exists between editorial and advertisement.

And those in the industry must feel we are doing right things because the paper has racked up numerous awards, including best weekly in the nation for six of the eight years I’ve been here.

While it has been a fulfilling job, it hasn’t been an easy one at times. I’ve been expected to write hard-hitting editorials and make political endorsements, which has often displeased folks. I’ve been sworn at over the phone. Once a group of critics holding a protest outside the newsroom over coverage chanted my name.

Fortunately I have a thick skin.

On Friday, the paper held a sweet party in my honor. As part of the sendoff, the editorial team created a fake front page for me. It’s hilariously funny with inside jokes. I plan to frame it for my office.

The only parts I will share are the banner headline: “Editor’s exit a boon for ill-behaving officials” and the cartoon, Bill Baron, created above.

The May 5 paper is my last. This week I am working with my replacement to show him the ropes.

Some people who know I am leaving the news biz have asked what I plan to do. I will concentrate on my fiction and other writing projects that have already come my way. We will stay put in Taos but be able to see our family — we have six grown kids and a granddaughter — that is spread around the country more often.

It’s been a great ride, but now I will be going in a different direction. Or as Joey, one of the characters in my novel, Peace, Love, and You Know What, says about Lenora, who is graduating and splitting for Europe: “That’s right. She’s outta here.”

PHOTO ABOVE: Bill Baron, political cartoonist for The Taos News, created that cartoon for me. Bill has been my co-conspirator on the paper’s op-ed page.