FIVE DEER MICE IN SEVEN DAYS. Not too shabby. This was the first one. I named him (?) “Victor” after the trap and no I didn’t catch him in a tree but in the kitchen. I’ve caught all of them in the kitchen. There hasn’t been any mouse poop, nothing gnawed on, not a single solitary sign of any rodents until I happened to be in there late one night and saw him sneak behind the washing machine. Yes, there’s a washing machine in the kitchen. A water heater, too. (This is “old Taos.”) I hook the drain hose over the edge of the sink and anchor it in place with a big cast iron frying pan. Sometimes I forget and then the floor gets mopped so that’s okay. I don’t know why the mice are in the house if not to eat, stay warm, or raise a family, none of which I’ve seen. The species carries hantavirus, by the way. That’s cool too. Everybody dies.
As I write this on a Sunday night the wind is blowing hard outside. I can barely hear a thing but it is there. If you even catch a whisper from behind the thick mud walls you know the blast is major. Big-time. What would be a harbinger of spring if such existed here at 7,000 feet, but never mind. You really came for this, recorded roughly 40 years in quite a different place and time. Listen and read on and maybe understand.
Sometime back in the early to mid-80s I applied for and received a local Maryland Arts Council grant to write two sets worth of original songs and put on a rock and roll show. I use the term advisedly but we were loud. The venue was a basement performance space at the local college where Kathy (now my angel wife) toiled all day long with joy and zest. She has little connection to this story other than being there for me in those heady times when everyone we knew was still immortal and all you had to worry about was better sex and Ronald Reagan. If only we had known.
We lived then on a 70-acre property in a huge eclectic farmhouse built years before by a local self-taught artist and likely madman who lived out his last years 20 miles away in Millington building life-sized concrete dinosaurs on a hilltop. “Our” 70 acres was called Castle Hill Farm, cost $120 per month, and sat beside a wide primeval tidal creek where deer and foxes emerged from woods and marsh to lap the brackish water while I puttered with my boat. The surrounding forest was filled with impossibly huge deciduous trees, paw-paws, birds, and poison ivy. There was a fountain beside the house with a deep 12-ft diameter pool where multi-colored goldfish lived year round until the herons found them. The sandy lane was almost a mile in length and turned to quicksand in the rain. We saw Halley’s Comet late one night standing in a frozen field of corn stubble while sleepy Canada geese murmured and squawked. In summer we took the crabbing skiff to town to buy a Sunday paper, seven miles each way along the river just for kicks. There were abandoned dairy barns and even a gigantic silo which took me several years to find, all covered with kudzu in the wildest kingdom I had ever lived before we ended up at 8,000 feet in San Cristobal here in Taos County.
It was something of a paradise, all right. Kathy worked, I stayed home to write my songs, produce cassettes, and mail them off to bewildered record company execs in London and Los Angeles. As far as working remotely goes, I was ahead of my time and also doomed. You had to live there, obviously, and hang out with these people in the clubs and bars. But still I persevered, my goal for the upcoming gig being to obtain a live recording of all my songs performed in front of an actual audience that I could edit and send out. Maybe that would punch things up, who knew? I used the money from the grant to hire my friends to form a band for just one gig. The college wouldn’t let me charge admission at the free venue so I paid them each myself. We practiced in the big old house beside the creek and called ourselves the Zoo Pilots.
L to R: John Hansen, Kate Bennett, Dale Trusheim, Johnny McBride, and me
The gig went fairly well. A couple dozen people I knew clapped and yelled and seemed to have a fine time. Most of them had never heard anything like “You Have Been Blown Up in the Name of the Lord” and I was happy to bend some minds. The one-shot wonder of the Zoo Pilots was exciting for the band and there was talk of our next gig, but as for me I’d already been around and gravitated to the comfy life. I had a great job as a faculty spouse although the pay was lousy. No charm in hanging out in smoky bars and staying up till 3:00 a.m. but ain’t it crazy how late I stay up now. I wanted royalties from selling songs, not drudgery and stage fright. Freedom, baby!
My friend Kate Bennett [above] fronted a band you may have heard of called Cowboy Jazz that played mostly Western swing and whatever else she felt like singing. I sat in briefly with them (if not someone else) one night at a local dive to play a song or two, but hauling my amp out to the car past open doors that smelled of piss and stale beer sealed the deal for me. One delayed benefit of putting on the show with friends however was that given everyone’s propensity for jamming, we did have fun reliving highlights. At one memorable party in the middle of the little village of Still Pond, we set up amplifiers in the back yard and made so much noise the neighbors called the cops. Talk about validation. I felt like teenage Buddy Holley for a good half hour.
Famed Horned Obelisk in contemplation
Being of an age considered nearly dead (supposedly) is strange. I feel fine, if it comes to that, but oh the mind… Losing my life partner focuses me on questions I would never think of otherwise, like did I help to kill her even just a bit by taking such a long time to grow up? She loved me though and always said she knew right from the first I was the one. There’s a host of things I’d take back if I could but she got through them and moved on. Please note I didn’t say forgot—that isn’t how this works—but one examines things when picking broken pieces from the floor. It’s natural.
I only realized recently the consequences of a life of fear. Imagining the worst and trying to prevent it. It always seemed so sensible, too. What my parents wanted for me, absolutely. About six weeks ago, however, I was outside in the sun up on a stepladder tying something useless to a branch when I missed the last step coming down. I fell over backwards in slow motion totally amazed and hit my head quite hard against the ground. In these parts that means dried clay hard as concrete with a blanket on it. Nothing broke apparently and I was fine although the headache lasted several hours and I was shaky for a time. That last part bothered me the most because that’s how Kathy described herself a few times in her last five years. “A little shaky,” and she’d take my arm. These could have been the kind of quiet heart attacks that women have and no one pays attention, as suggested by the clot inside her heart they found after the stroke that cut her down two years ago. (30% ejection fraction, people.) More to the point this day however was the cantaloupe-sized rock just two feet from where my head had struck I saw when I stood up. We’re all walking tightropes. I’m always careful on a ladder and I fell.
When my father officially retired from the Federal Aviation Agency, he and my mother left Oklahoma City in a pickup pulling a large travel trailer to vagabond around America. They left their home precipitously, giving all the furniture to a lady across the street the day they hit the road. My sister Mary had already absconded to New York City to marry her Colombian boyfriend she’d met while learning Spanish down in Mexico. All this after refusing an offer of paid college expenses from our parents if she stayed. They recruited me to ply her with dire tales of what might befall her if she left. Useless, obviously. As it turned out, she and Alvaro eventually moved to Tucson to work for IBM, had two kids, and eventually got divorced. So what. There was another marriage, she went to nursing school (I may have the order wrong), had a fine career, and now lives with her daughter out in Phoenix. She has my medical power of attorney and I’d trust her with my life, so everything is fine, I hope.
My father thought unencumbered life on the road was glorious. They’d stay here or there, visit family, oh what a wonderful time. He got up at dawn, downed a tumbler of vodka, smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and rode his bike for hours. I don’t know what he did the rest of the day or what my mother ever did. Plotted, I would think. Eventually she made them stop and buy a home in Tucson. To this day I don’t know how or why that happened or the hold that Helen had on John. The house was a pleasant if unremarkable place in a normal neighborhood with silly lawns. Dad had the good sense to hire a crew of lesbian xeriscapers who Southwesternized the place right smartly but then he started worrying. What if it affected resale value? Word was he couldn’t sleep. Eventually he freaked out, had the ladies take out the cacti and the rocks, and somehow put a lawn back in. I think. They sold that place and moved to a double-wide in the desert that was better anyway and then he died of cancer.
What you feel is gonna get you. ‘Nuff said.
View east across the Talpa valley with more editing than God intended
So here I am in yet another paradise. Some people would sell their soul to move to Taos like we did—and then she died, but no one thinks about the second part or should. It’s Tuesday afternoon as I sit here now, freezing with a down jacket on inside and I haven’t caught another mouse since Sunday. The sky is mostly gray, the wind is picking up, a little snow is on the way. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life living where Kathy left for angel school. That said, a new home has to rise out of the ether. There isn’t any plan. I’ve been pretty down about that for a while but someone special set me straight by telling me I was too old to spend my remaining years “operating out of fear,” and it was like a match to tinder…
Immediately I felt more energy, and that’s still there. Shooting down bad thoughts is easier. I can let dilemmas be and not demand they fix themselves to save me worry. Something like a faith that “everything is fine” is growing in my heart. I have no plan for old age, either. Someday I’ll hit the rock, my heart will stop, and folks will cry. I’ll look down from the clouds unable to relieve their pain or save them from the chore of cleaning up. If I can do it, so can they. In the meantime here I am.
I get to be an artist all day long. I’m confident that dollars will flow into my bank account. I trust myself a little more. I’ve been writing, taking photographs, and playing music. Improvising, mostly. Yesterday I played about an hour on a hand drum and the worries went away. There’s a state of consciousness accessible this way that changes things. I have five (?) stringed instruments, two Native drums, some wooden flutes, and a piano in the storage unit. None of them however is a six-string electric guitar. I’ve always wondered what kind of sounds I’d get from something physically easier to play than my beloved 12-string ES-335. This thing crossed my gaze and wouldn’t go away. It’s me. I want it. Kathy would approve.
Neither my photo nor guitar but the exact same model
Long story short, the vintage cherry Epiphone SG Standard ’61 Maestro Vibrola is on the way. If I never picked it up and tried, I’d still be almost dead and never know. Instead of charging, I took cash right from precious savings, ordered a hardshell case besides, and added “pleking” for another three hundred bucks. If you know me at all you realize how radical this is although it’s still lots cheaper than the brakes and ball joints that my truck needs or whatever the hell is wrong with the Vibe. But I’m not worried about any of that or where I’ll live six months from now or who I’ll see or what. Those days are over. America will make it, too. As I tweeted out this morning:
There really isn’t any answer anywhere. Enjoy the Mystery, much love to all. – JHF
Magic Window in the old adobe