When life hands you chilies, it's time to make con carne.
The contrast between New York City and Santa Fe could not have been greater -- one, a man-made mountain range of glass and metal with human wildlife scrambling up and down its slippery slopes all day long; the other, a cluster of adobe-built dwellings tucked between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and a rust-red desert that stretches for hundreds of miles north, west and south, where an unbroken horizon and brilliant sunsets always hint at another beautiful day tomorrow.
When I finally fled Manhattan and landed in New Mexico, I had no money, no job, no car, no furniture, no friends, no prospects. But at least I no longer had to struggle with the urban tussle and tangle around which I had skirted and stumbled for three long and impossible years.
First things first, I found an apartment in a complex on the edge of town and a middle school nearby for my ever-patient, ever-game 12-year old daughter, Jennifer. Then I found a job waiting tables at a fancy restaurant beneath the aspens and ponderosa pines about a mile up Canyon Road.
I would at least, if I learned how to get plates of poblanos and lamb chops to the tables on time, be able to pay the rent.
Full-time, respectable jobs are about as scarce in Santa Fe as skyscrapers but I knew I could not and would not be a waitress the rest of my life, so I decided to turn my still-nascent writing skills, those plied mostly by writing low-level cable news shows in New York, into print.
I nervously walked into the newsroom of The New Mexican, Santa Fe's city rag, was directed to see the editor of Pasatiempo, the paper's weekly entertainment supplement, and immediately assigned to profile a local artist, whose name escapes me at the moment and will likely never come back.
I would go on to write hundreds of artist profiles for the newspaper, sometimes two or three a week, over the next three years.
I soon figured out why it was so easy to get a freelance gig with Pasatiempo -- with the paper paying just 40 bucks an article, writers weren't knocking down their Water Street door. But it was a little gold mine for me and, over time, I figured out how to pump out those articles, from beginning to end, in about an hour and a half, so I could pat myself on the back for making 25 bucks an hour.
And despite the speed, if I do say so myself, those little profiles did do those artists and their work a fair amount of justice. As time went on, I started writing lengthier and better-paid articles for regional magazines.
When I started that Pasatiempo gig in October 1987, I had no computer of my own, not unusual at the time, which meant creating and writing on one of the clunky MS-DOS IBMs the paper kindly and by necessity set aside for freelancers. The letters were beige on a greenish-black background and stories were saved on floppy disks -- there was no hard drive -- but I was just glad not to have to write them all out by hand.
One day, Denise Kusel, that editor, asked me if I'd like to become the paper's classical music critic. Knowing next to nothing about classical music, I immediately said yes.
For the same 40 bucks per article, I attended concerts around town -- using free tickets from the orchestras, ensembles, choruses, opera companies and schamber groups -- and passed judgment on the quality of their performance.
It didn't take long for some of my readers to read between the lines and figure out I had no credentials, no background, no knowledge to draw from, and, really, no clue. In short, they called the editor and denounced me as a fraud.
Yes! It's true! I cried, hands held up to the sky, seeing no benefit in denying the obvious truth and prolonging my own and the readers' agony.
But not kicking me to the curb, the editor asked me to write weekly previews of the classical music events instead. I would still get free tickets but now provide just history, context and promotion for local musicians and composers, helping to usher locals and tourists into the concert halls and keep the Santa Fe cultural machine humming and happy.
The outraged calls to the editor ceased, I kept learning and writing about classical music and I held onto my 40 dollar-per article freelance gig.
Soon, I realized that some of the music being made and performed in Santa Fe, especially the Santa Fe Opera, where new operas were premiered every summer season, might be of interest to a national audience.
Having been a cub reporter years earlier for WBUR-FM, a National Public Radio station in Boston, I contacted NPR's Washington office and discovered a producer I had known in Boston was producing Performance Today, a two-hour morning show about music, mostly classical.
I dusted off my radio production skills and started reporting from Santa Fe, gradually segueing onto Morning Edition and other general news shows, and adding more subject areas, especially Native American culture and southwest
I didn't just write about the Southwest, I gradually became a part of the Southwest -- wearing cowgirl boots and a Stetson, shooting bottles from the sky, wielding a chainsaw, staying on a horse, dancing the two-step and eating jalapeños without shedding a tear.
More on those wild, crazy and so very delightful days coming up. Stay tuned!
Kachina painting by Dan Namingha, a Hopi artist I admire and had the honor to profile for several magazines, though for more than 40 bucks a pop.