Be Yourself

Teresa in the back yard

In the back yard in Austin

That’s my sister Teresa in the center with her husband on the right. And yes, those are what you think they are—I still have a baggie full of seeds and wonder if they’re any good. She died of liver cancer in 2010 and hardly a day goes by without my thinking of her. A lifelong artist, she settled in Austin after graduating from U.T. and never left. For years she supported herself by selling her silk-screened art works on the Drag across from the student union building. If I started telling stories about her now, I’d never stop, like how she used to rollerblade on windy days with a handheld sail she built with a hula hoop, or the time she invented “cat fishing” by casting a fuzzy lure down a long steep hill above the original Whole Foods store and getting the neighborhood cats to follow it up to her house. She had her life and I had mine in mundane day-to-day existence, but the thing was we were close in spirit…

As far as I know, she never spent a day in the hospital her entire life. When the doctors diagnosed liver cancer, she immediately ruled out surgery or life-extending therapies and devoted herself to preparing for the next adventure. That was Teresa, all the way. I was shocked at first, but part of me was grateful—there’d be no denial or false hopes, all of us would have to focus, be there with her, pay attention. Going back and forth to Austin that summer was a bitch, all the more so since I hadn’t seen her much those last few years. She was bright and cheerful the entire time, as far as I could tell. One morning in August I got the phone call here in Taos and fell apart. Soon after she died, my cousin Joyce emailed me, “She worshipped you, Johnny, did you know that?”

Oh my. Maybe. There was so much in the way. Three years after she died, on this exact same date in late November, I wrote a blog post called “Dead Sister’s Radio” that comes to me now, so here you go:

It was several years before she died. In the Christmas package from Austin was (among other things) a little red wind-up AM-FM radio with a solar panel for recharging. I’d always wanted one, and there it was. She must have known or guessed right, since she knew me.

A radio for someone in the boonies used to be a precious thing before you just picked up your phone and watched TV. When I was living in my eight-by-sixteen handbuilt shack in Arkansas in ’71, I had a small transistor radio—that’s what we called them then—I’d bought in high school years before. I was so proud because I’d earned the money for it working after school folding ladies’ blouses at Mays Department Store in Massapequa, NY, and no one else I knew had such a thing. How this one followed me to the Ozarks is a mystery, but there it was. I’d stand there in my hut, freezing and stamping my feet, and listen to a station out of Fayetteville. My favorite song was “Maggie May.” To this day it takes me back to wet snow, the smell of rotting oak leaves, and enfoldment by surrounding woods where I was the only one around for miles.

As it turned out, I didn’t use the little red radio from Teresa all that much. I had the Internet for news and music. But I took it with me when I camped and kept it on a shelf here, just in case. A couple of months ago I dusted it off and set it where I could see it, who knows the reason why. Two days ago it snowed again and gloomy clouds hung low like they still do. The frozen mud and isolation of el Norte settled in like truth and gave me pause. I placed the radio in the kitchen window sill, where it might pick up a little charge, and this morning turned it on. All alone at home, I tuned it to an Alamosa, CO public station 90 miles away. The sense of deja vu was palpable: my sister, Arkansas, the winter, all the rest. A Roy Buchanan guitar solo crackled through the speaker while the battery ran down, and then all was still.

I’ll leave it there switched on. When the sun comes out again, the battery will charge, and slowly, quietly at first, the radio will come to life again, all on its own. Are people like that, do you think? When something greater than us reaches down and touches us, do we come back from the almost-dead and have another chance? Or do the years we missed corrode us so we drag the rust around forever?

I still can’t think of her without the tears. When I left Austin in May of ’75, I was so fucked up and drama-ridden, I’d forgotten to say goodbye. She came to the door the night before, her eyes all red from crying. (She’d even baked some cookies to take with me on the road.) I see her now, and I could sob all day.

Five years later I was out walking at Taos Valley Overlook, far out on the mesa with no one else around. At a certain spot, I took off my hat, stood up straight, and tried emptying my mind in stages—deeper, deeper, deeper—like I sometimes do in special places. It can take a while to just be blank and listening, but if I’m calm and present, something always happens. This time I heard words quite clearly in my head. “Have fun,” twice, for emphasis, loud and in no voice I recognized. Had the angels finally found a nail to pound into my skull? Stepping back onto the trail, I thought of Teresa, who would have had no problem with this teaching. A couple years before that in the same location (!), I’d heard her in my mind—it was absolutely her—far away and oh so quiet, like the echo of a whisper, “Be yourself,” in fact.

Earlier this year back in August, I woke up before dawn, shaken by a dream. (The good ones do that.) I didn’t write it down the way one must, but lay there turning it over and over in my brain until I thought I had the lesson. The holograms faded quickly, but I remember about being okay, how the course of my life was blessed after all, and all I had to do was be myself. No societal approval needed, no self-help manual, no “sensible” way to do a goddamned thing. No tragedy, no missing love. All is well. Just do it. Be myself. Wow, just like she told me as a ghost! Later that morning it hit me:

The date.

August 23, 2020.

Ten years to the day, the very moment, that Teresa died!

Soul Map

Soul Map post image

Just posted at GODDAMN BUFFALO (Substack). You’ll have to view it there this time, too many images for me to format here. Took me a good six hours as it was. It’s a purely experimental piece. Let your eyes roll over it slowly and see what associations might come up.

Charles Whitman’s Bloody Socks

Charles Whitman’s Bloody Socks post image

You can read about it here, but I was there and this is how it was for me. I don’t know why I’m publishing this now, sitting here at 7,000 feet in northern New Mexico so many years later. I actually tried to write a song about it, and I’ve rewritten this essay over a dozen times in the last few weeks. The goddamn thing has strangled me and I have had enough. I think I simply need to tell someone about the blood…

After I published this, I learned of the amazing film from 2017, “Tower,” by Keith Maitland, available for free streaming at that link, and strongly urge everyone to watch it for a greater understanding of my own recollection below. Most of the action of the film focuses on the south side of the Tower. Though I spent most of my time that day on the north side, there are a couple of very brief scenes in the film where I was only a few feet out of camera range. Strangely, the photo above appears for about half a second also. I thought I’d cropped it out of a much larger photo I found online, but perhaps my memory fails me here.

It was gut-wrenching to watch “Tower.” My few memories fail to convey the full impact of that day, which came back with a wallop while I watched. Mysteriously, one of the persons featured in the film appears to have been living at Stag Co-op, where I also lived the year before. Every location shown is somewhere I walked or sat every single day I was a student. Absent the gunfire and the drama, someone could have been following me around with a camera. The “coincidences” are unnerving. – JHF

Walking toward the Tower at the moment that it started, bang-bang-bang, people dropping on the sidewalk a block ahead before it curved into the shade of big green live oaks. I thought it was a rush week stunt at first I swear, firecrackers, maybe, except the people on the ground were lying still on noon-hot concrete. Someone started screaming.

I’d just stepped off the curb to cross the street. No way. I must have turned around and retreated into the Littlefield House, an old two-story limestone building used for music practice rooms, because I remember sitting downstairs hearing bullets go through the wooden roof like metal bumblebees. That drove me outside to the alley, separated from the yard and sidewalk by a four-foot wall. There was an Austin policeman with a revolver and a civilian with a deer rifle hunkered down behind it, shooting up at the Tower. I didn’t see how they could possibly be effective. The shots coming from the Tower were professional, loud, and dangerous. At this point, people were still driving onto campus 30 feet away because no one had thought to block the entrance. How would you know it wasn’t just another day? I remember being much more excited than scared.

The University of Texas Tower (Main Building) was the center of the campus. Most people passed by or walked through every day if just to hit the bathrooms and the water fountains. Administrative offices below, the huge Main Library above, and then the tower itself, 27 levels of offices and library stacks with study carrels around the perimeter where anyone could sit. Graduate students had reserved carrels on the quieter upper floors where you could keep your books and papers spread out. The elevator ran through the center of the Tower, all the way to a room below the observation deck. There were stairs you walked up one more level to a kind of waiting room with windows and doors that led outside. At the top of the stairs was a desk where a Texas granny-lady welcomed you and had you sign the guest book. What a great job she had, I used to think. (He killed her with a shotgun.) All of this was free and easy. The view from 300 feet up outside in the open air, with my elbows resting on the wide smooth masonry wall, made me feel a privileged son of Texas. It was never crowded up there and I often wondered why.

The afternoon was ad hoc chaos. A private plane circled the top of the Tower with someone inside firing out the window. I was surprised that Whitman didn’t shoot it down. From wherever I happened to be one point—I roamed around a lot—I could see the barrel of the gunman’s sniper rifle poking out from the observation deck. Eventually I circled around on the east side to make my way to the Tower, keeping to the cover of the trees. I simply had to be there. I may have heard a radio and known the end was near.

There were dozens of people clustered around the west ground floor entrance to the Main Building, maybe more. I guess we figured he couldn’t shoot straight down. Campus police weren’t letting anyone inside. I maneuvered my way as close to the door as I could get, knowing that’s where they’d bring him out, alive or dead. All at once they did, moving quickly with the stretcher held down low. I’ll never forget what I saw:

The body was long and obviously heavy, covered from head to ankle with a sheet completely soaked in blood. I mean wringing wet all over, drops falling on the sidewalk. His feet were hanging off the end of the stretcher. The socks were soaked as well, bright red like the sheet. Where were the shoes, I thought. Did they blast the guy right out of his boots? (It happens.)* And how did the socks get wet like that? Did that much blood run down his legs before he cratered and the two cops emptied all their weapons in a final frenzy?

Afterwards I walked across the south mall, probably to retrieve my bike. There were dozens of students hurrying home or to a phone, whatever one does after a disaster. Several people had been shot out there in the blazing sun, though their bodies were now gone. What hadn’t been removed was all the blood, and there was plenty of it. A university groundskeeping crew was hosing it off the mall and down the steps into the storm drains. Most of it had already congealed into translucent slabs of reddish-purple jello.

Just like Whitman’s bloody socks, this was something I knew I’d never see again: an older fellow wearing overalls and a big straw cowboy hat, stoically hosing globs of human blood down the steps I climbed up every day heading from my classrooms to the Texas Union or the library. Everything about the cleanup scene was wrong, though.

Something in me wanted them to leave it like it was.

*In the film, Whitman is shown dead on the observation deck with his shoes on. What are we to make of that?

Hot Rod Anima Dream

Hot Rod Anima Dream post image

Seventeen years in this place, no wonder we’re going mad. The elms are eating the house, the spider webs and dust are eating me. We did all right for a long time: it used to rain, there were gardens, I even cut the grass—which means at least there was some. Now everything is weird and crispy. Somewhere in that time frame, everybody died: parents, in-laws, aunts, uncles, a couple siblings, two cats, old friends back in Maryland, even our very own landlord. (He lived on the other side of the wall.) Be that as it may, a lot of things have been in suspended animation since forever. I wish whatever scuttles away with a rustle-clonk in the bathroom late at night were one of them, but this is New Mexico and that wouldn’t be right. There needs to be a thing that pulls you under so you see the light.

The other night I dreamed a saga in four acts. Behold the power of the Void!

I’m on a newly-paved road near a city. The asphalt dark, still oily, with a splash of gravel on the edge that hasn’t been swept up. It’s raining just enough that all of this is wet. I’m trying to gun whatever car I’m driving off the sloping bare dirt shoulder up onto the road. The drive wheels spin, the engine falters. Traffic goes by in both directions, all I can do is look.

Then comes the bottom of a muddy ditch. It’s deep and has a v-shaped profile. Again the problem is proceeding. The mud is soft enough to take a footprint and almost wet enough to splash. How to make my way along? Somehow I’m now standing on a quilt or blanket, puffy like an unrolled sleeping bag. Aha, I think, I’ll just shuffle up the ditch on top of this, which works for several steps, and then I see the front end of the thing has gotten wet and soggy. I fold it over toward me, useless exercise—the magic carpet isn’t going anywhere. And while I have the vaguest sense of wraith-like figures in the ditch behind me, it’s really only me there, all alone.

I lift my head and take a long gaze upward. The ditch is deeper than I am tall, too bad, but even worse, it now goes all the way up the side of a barren brown dirt mountain, rising high and steep into the clouds. Even if I could make it all the way, I’d end up dead or useless from exhaustion. I stand there for a moment, letting the image burn itself onto my brain.

I’m in a residential neighborhood in a kind of funky mountain town you might see in Colorado, after sunset. Frame houses with little porches crowded up against the curbless sidewalk, vehicles parked alongside, here and there some folks around. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. Although the sun has set, there’s a brilliant strip of blue between the clouds and the horizon. A small group, maybe six or seven, crowds around a low-slung custom car and melt away as I approach. Hey look at that, I tell myself, a ‘37 Ford—which may be true—deep orange-red with flaring fenders and a chromed V-8. I’m standing there in front, admiring how smooth and solid the whole package is, when I notice someone in the front seat waving to me: a pretty blonde lady in a cowboy shirt and jeans, beckoning me over to the driver’s door. Who am I to argue?

This really is a hot rod. The “suicide door” opens from the front edge. She scootches over enough for me to sit a little bit inside, quite excited for me to see this. The interior is completely customized with shiny chrome-rimmed dials and lights. The most astonishing thing, however, is what I now perceive to be a wrap-around windshield that curves around and blends into the window glass. There are no A-pillars. Just a beautiful, seamless sweep of blue-tinted glass that glows against the twilight. I’ve never seen anything like it and can’t imagine how that’s done. I don’t recall the words she spoke or even if she did (telepathy?), but somehow I knew that she had driven this machine a long, long way to get here. I realize the privilege of her sharing this and that no one else but me has sat inside.

Once again I’m in the mountains, this time with my wife. Northern New Mexico where we live in real life, high and cold and clean. It’s winter now. The mountains are stupendous, the sky a brilliant blue, the clouds so white and sharp it looks like they could cut you. Everything is covered with snow, deep fluffy powder you can walk through even though it’s deep. We’re heading for the car to go to town, supposedly, misled by the weather report because it suddenly starts to snow again. Huge white flakes, in fact, a heavy squall, although the sky is bright. This isn’t at the old adobe. We’re pushing through the snow to reach a sidewalk where the cars are stashed—no sidewalks in our current neighborhood, of course.

Across the valley a huge white cloud is whipping by. “Hey, look at that,” I yell, “how fast it’s moving!” As we watch, it slows down, almost stops, and dumps an enormous pile of snow that lands with a whoomph, and then the cloud accelerates again! I’m happy and excited. Magic weather, magic landscape, no fear…

Every word I’ve written here is true. (That Buick’s not the same as in the dream, but carries a similar energy.) I think everyone should pay attention to their dreams. No one but you can know just what they mean. I still walk around with images in my head of dreams I had 50 years ago, powerful, archetypal, technicolor sonsabitches. This one comes at an important time. Maybe something resonated with you. Maybe not.

Though people are not always eager to recognize conflicts that are upsetting their lives, dreams are always at work trying to tell of the conflict, and of the creative fantasy that will lead the way out. – C.G. Jung

Crazy Wild & Busted

Lobo Peak


“Welcome to the valley,” Ricky Medina said when we signed up for a post office box. We had no idea what we were getting into. At that time, San Cristobal had the only legal water system in the entire United States that operated without a treatment facility: just pure water piped into a small number of homes from San Cristobal Creek high up in the mountains. Oh God. Almost 8,000 ft up with 90 mile views to the west. Mostly Hispanic with a few Anglo hippies, artists, and professionals who liked their privacy. A scattering of trailers and adobe houses up and down the two dirt roads. Wretched barking dogs. Elk bugling in the fall and running through deep powder snow illuminated in our headlight beams. Bears, coyotes, golden eagles, hawks, and prairie dogs. The occasional mountain lion. Hummingbirds that flew inside through unscreened windows for me to catch with my bare hands. Stars that strobed instead of twinkled. Bulls in the driveway, rats in the attic…

WHOA! Apologies, you’ll have to read this one at my Substack. There are just too many photos to make it work here. While you’re there, you might as well subscribe. If you do, it downloads in your email, formatted perfectly for phones and iPads. – JHF