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Jim Fish, Renaissance Man

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on June 6, 2017

 

Jim Fish   KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Found out that Jim Fish died last evening. Collapsed up on a mountain where he’d been hiking, but I’m sure glad he was able to have that experience as one of his last.  His nephew was also with him, and they were good buddies.

Jim Fish was originally from a ranch in Texas, and loved his horses, and the outdoors. He was also a retired chemical engineer, had once worked for the Sandia National Laboratories on nuclear safety. He was concerned about the destruction possible with a core meltdown, and came up a way to reinforce nuclear plants so they wouldn’t melt into the ground, but his superiors didn’t want to implement the solution, due to cost concerns. Jim took an early retirement from the labs.

He lived in Placitas, New Mexico. After retirement, not knowing exactly what he was going to do, he one day looked around the village, and lamented the waste of fruit, like apricots, plums and peaches, that grow in profusion all over Placitas and don’t get used. He decided to try making wine from those fruits. Over the years he made wine from all the fruits that grow in this part of the country, including a few grapes, and he even made wine from cranberries he had to buy from Ocean Spray, because they sure as hell don’t grow around here. It was, as he often said, “A hobby that got out of control.” He eventually built a structure and opened a winery to share these wines with people. He never got rich. In fact, the early retirement from Sandia labs meant his retirement pay was delayed until just a few years back. Jim turned 68 a few days ago.

Jim loved to ski, and in fact, had skied this past winter, despite a bad knee resulting from an injury a little while back. He got a brace for his knee, and skied, he said, the best days he ever had in his life with that brace on. Besides writing books on hiking and the local geology, he recently self-published a book on skiing, titled Dancing The Snow, (A Guide to Skiing for Old Men). It is full of detailed descriptions of trails, techniques, tips, photos and anecdotes. He also wrote poetry all the time, and published a number of poetry books. Poetry occurred often at the winery. There were poets who came from all over as part of the Duende Poetry series, and poetry continued after that series ended. Jim also carved and polished old pieces of “found” wood into fantastic sculptures mounted on large stones and rocks. His sculptures appear all over the winery, and quite a few homes.

While the wines are numerous and often fantastic, like the Wild Cherry wine, and Chokecherry wine, and Synaesthesia – a three-grape wine – the winery hosted many events besides poetry. Belly dancing is a regular event. Food-wine-pairing dinners is another, as well as wildlife presentations, and community meetings, and political events. Placitas is a very old village, yet still very small. There is one church and one school. There are no stores or gas stations in the old village. The Spanish moved in centuries ago, but Native Americans lived there for thousands of years, growing corn, and hunting, as is evidenced by the petroglyphs: designs etched into rocks found all over Placitas, featuring corn stalks, and animals of all types, like cougars and turkeys. In the Southwestern USA, the original inhabitants are known to their modern-day descendents as the Anasazi, or “the ones who went before.” So Jim called his winery: Anasazi Fields Winery.

Jim was a friend to all he met. He encouraged young people to work at the winery, and hoped one day to turn it over to a younger group. Then he would just sit and watch and drink old wines. Jim loved his wines, and found ways to improve them using old European techniques of slow, cool, sugar-starved fermentation, without fertilizers, chemicals or preservatives. In fact, using the whole fruit as part of the fermentation, he found that the fruits’ natural preservatives and antioxidants kept the wines good for three weeks or longer after a bottle was opened! (Even longer if kept in a dark and cool place).

Some of the wines that have survived from the early days, in 1995, 1996, etc. have cellared very well, and it’s always a treat to open one of those. It is difficult to keep wines around there long, as they sell very well, even when Jim had to raise prices to keep the winery in operation. He has a special wine, that one I mentioned called Synaesthesia, that ended up selling for $125/bottle, and no matter what the price, it always sold out. Fortunately, most of the fruit wines are priced far lower than that! Sounds like Jim would have gotten rich, but there are few grapes growing here, and late frosts, birds, wasps, and even bears took their share of those. He always said that he made a grape wine just to prove to his fellow vintners that he could. In fact, using grapes from other vintners, and his own techniques, Jim was able to make those wines taste even better. He liked that a lot.

There’s so much I could tell you about Jim Fish. He was an amazing man. Much of the wine sold was sold through his personal attention to customers, and through the stories he’d tell. He loved to talk about the wines, and skiing, and trails and mountains. He loved to introduce people to the fruit wines, and see their reactions when they paired something like an old tawny-colored and intense apricot wine with venison, or salmon, or blackened tuna. I was amazed to see how much fruitier the wine seemed, and how much better meat or cheese tastes with a complementary wine.

I don’t know what will happen to the winery now. We’ve all learned a lot about winemaking, and we have a lot of stock, so I’d imagine we’ll stay in business, for now. There are around four-dozen partners who have invested time or money into the winery; perhaps they’ll want to sell it. That was always the long-range goal. It won’t be the same without Jim Fish, without that boundless enthusiasm of his, his optimism, and his stories. Perhaps, in his memory, we’ll be able to keep it going.

I met my step-daughter Maya and her friend Jennifer today near the village, at the Placitas Cafe down the road towards I-25. They both had worked at the winery, helping to bottle, label, and sell the wines. When they found out about Jim’s death, they were thrown for a loop, so they drove out there from Albuquerque. We sat for hours talking about Jim, with tears in our eyes, and sadness in our hearts. We tried to focus on Jim’s friendliness and great heart, and not be sad, but it is too soon. I can barely write about him without an overarching melancholia. I have too few friends and family that I care about so much, and losing someone like Jim is gut wrenching. You never know how much you care about someone until they’re near death or gone.

So, I keep trying to say good bye to Jim in this post, but I can hardly type. I know I’ll feel better in a while. After all, Jim Fish made me smile, and I always enjoyed making wine with him. He was passionate about his life, whether it was winemaking, hiking, camping, hunting, wood-carving, or poetry. When I found my ownself retired, divorced, and aimless, Mr. Fish added some hard work to my life, giving me a new-found appreciation for wine-making, farming, a caring kind of entrepreneurship, and friendship.

 

Posted in friends, Life, opinion, wine | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

40 Years and a Retirement Hike

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on November 2, 2009

After spending nearly 40 years of my life working, post high school, I retired from my last job after 25 years there.  unm_logo

In high school I flipped burgers, but after leaving high school, my first real job was running equipment in a physics lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. JHUPhysicsLab-1 It was a good job, working with a machine that used x-rays to measure molecular spacing in crystals, like silicon and germanium, which would prove vital to computers later on.  It was, however, boring and repetitious, but I took night classes for free there.  I stopped working full time to attend the University of Maryland Baltimore County UMBC_Seal for two years, but continued working part time as an independent contractor.  I simply typed up a bill for my time every week.  As good as that was, I was also involved in anti-war and anti-government protests, as well as volunteer work with a free clinic, caduceus classes with a chapter of the Black Panthers, Free Breakfast Program and experiments with sex and drugs, so college work seemed irrelevant.  The University finally told me my grade-point average was too low to continue, so I’d have to drop out for a couple semesters.  Instead, I left town with my bicycle, riding through parts of Michigan, Canada, Wisconsin and North Dakota.  Short of money, I took my second real job, as an electrician’s assistant for a large mid-western carnival: Murphy Brothers Mile Long Pleasure Exposition. Murphy Brothers 001 I spent a full season with them, running cables to rides, troubleshooting, and maintaining the generators.  Then, when my final pay was stolen by Toothless Lester, so he could go on a binge, I stayed on and worked small fairs in Oklahoma and Florida.  Florida in winter is nice, and I got to swim in the ocean in December, but the ride I was with didn’t get enough business, for the four of us it took to set up and run, for us to eat all that well.   I split to Virginia to visit people I’d met in Canada.  The only work I could find there was helping out on a small goat farm, so I passed on that, and hopped a train back to Baltimore.

I got another job at Johns Hopkins LogoJhu after a short search, and this time I was preparing genetics and developmental biology laboratory materials for the pre-med students there.   That job got short circuited when a graduate student opened a drawer in a chicken egg incubator, and left it open.  The large rotating drum full of dozens of drawers full of eggs then tilted forward, and the drawer slid out.  It didn’t have far to go, and could have slipped back in, but ventilation was maintained by aid of a wooden blade revolving around the drum.  The graduate student was long gone by the time the wooden blade slammed into the open drawer, jamming the whole device, and causing the premature hatching of 50 to 60 chicks.  I was blamed.  As it was, there had been complaints from the students of contaminated agar plates, which was also blamed on me, even though the students did not follow instructions very well, and violated every protocol they were given to prevent contamination.  Another job down the tubes.  I knew exactly what to do: get on the bicycle again.  This time I left Baltimore directly, and rode west to Arizona.  After hiking across the Grand Canyon and back, I ended up in Scottsdale, Arizona, working for a crafts foundry run by Paolo Solari, a visionary architect building an “Arcology” in the desert.  I made bronze wind-bells, melting bronze, ramming clay/sand mixtures around molds and then pouring the bronze, cleaning up the raw products, assembling and even selling them. arco-santi-bells Sometimes I helped out by giving tours to tourists and other visitors.  It was a fine job, but I met some bicyclists traveling through who were doing advance work for a cross-country bicycling/networking trip.  I agreed to join them when the group arrived from California.

That was my longest break from working ever, although it involved riding a bicycle nearly every day for six months.  Sometimes we did odd jobs to supplement our communal income, and we all gave workshops in our specialties. ProjectAmerica1976 Mine was bicycle maintenance and repair.  The tour ended, and I tried working for a solar contractor in Philadelphia, but that didn’t work out.  I hadn’t enough experience in carpentry (none with solar panels) to satisfy my boss, who had wanted to have me work unsupervised.  So, I traveled to New York City.  I knew a few people there and had a place to stay.  Then began my fourth major job: bicycle messenger.  I pedaled letters, packages, advertising films and even artwork all over Manhattan on my trusty metal steed. traffic However, I had met a fascinating and very sexy woman in Albuquerque when the bicycle group had stopped there for ten days.  Although I had met several woman in my travels, she seemed like the one.  She wanted me to move there, and I wanted her, so I found my way back to New Mexico.  Unfortunately, there weren’t many jobs available in the Land of Enchantment.  After six months of looking, working odd jobs, and hanging around the unemployment office, I finally got a job at the University of New Mexico as a mason’s helper.  cement_worker For a couple of years I replaced broken sidewalks, mixed hod for block walls, and even laid a brick floor in the University President’s house.  There was also some remodeling and jack hammer work.  I transferred to a job at the Cancer Center for about a year and half, injecting and implanting, respectively, tumor cells or tumor chunks into rats and mice.  Then I would treat them with radiation and drugs, monitoring them, weighing them, and dissecting them. whitelabrats It was OK work, but the Director, and my boss, the Associate Director, took their grant money and moved to Philadelphia.  I had no desire to go there, much less to the east coast, so I was out of work for another six months, doing odd jobs, and even collecting unemployment while I searched for work.  I finally found a good part-time job, analyzing electroplating baths for a printed-circuit board manufacturer, plating which gave me a chance to take University classes again.  I did that for four years, but my quality control position was dropped, and I was looking for work again.  This time I ended up back at the University, working initially with mice, removing their glands for analysis and isolation of immunoglobulins, the wonderful molecules that protect our bodies from disease. Lab_mouse

This time the job lasted 25 years.  It changed continuously though.  I stopped working with mice, and ran machines again exclusively.  There were machines for determining the amino acid sequence of a protein, sequencing for purifying such proteins, generic HPLC for making short versions of such proteins, Peptide Synthesizer for analyzing the total amino acid content of biological samples, aaa and determining the purity of all of the above.  That changed too, as we obtained new machines: first, a machine for creating synthetic DNA.  Cool.  394 Then a machine for determining the sequence of various DNA samples. 3130xl That became my job then: making and sequencing DNA.  Interesting at first, but ultimately boring and repetitive, fraught with problems.  The problems could be fun to isolate and resolve, but dealing with an ever-changing clientele of Ph.D.s, graduate students, post-graduate students, undergraduates, and dealing with all the budget balancing was sometimes frustrating.  As this last and final job wound down, I went through the motions, doing the best job I knew how, but increasingly disinterested.  I could barely force myself to go to work, much less work all day, every day.  In the end, I suddenly decided I’d had enough, and retired.

So, what do I do the day after retirement? I went hiking in the Sandia Mountains here.  Hiking the entire 18-mile length of the Faulty trail from Placitas, New Mexico to Tijeras, New Mexico. palomaspeak It was fun, with beautiful views, a clear blue sky and leftover snowfall from a snowstorm four days earlier. Faulty Trail has a mysterious origin. Diamond blazes appeared on trees marking its route before any official Forest Service recognition, and it was unofficially called the Diamond Trail. Probably an old herding route, it was apparently cleared by a horse club. The Forest Service took it over and renamed it Faulty Trail in honor of the dikes—fissures filled with igneous rock that moved up from a lower fracture and created the limestone blocks—that appear alongside the trail. Working in a laboratory for twenty-five years, however, does not really prepare one for hiking rolling hills 18 miles at almost 8000 feet above sea level, even with some hiking experience over the last year.  I saw wild turkey, Turkey_trackrabbit, rabbittracks raccoon, coonwalking deer, tracks and even fox tracks fox_tracks in the snow and mud.   Many of the trees date to the 1700 and 1800s, and some have been cored and marked with their age,  so that is a wonderful experience.   I even saw a large black coyote near the crest of the mountain. black It was one hell of a long day however, from the meet-up at 7 a.m., to the timely lunch break halfway, to wandering off the trail for a bit, to the final late, forced steps on the darkened trail in the light of a full moon at 7:30 p.m. (2 1/2 hours beyond schedule).  Tired, sore, and as hungry as a bear, I ate, went home, and crawled into bed early that night, and slept the longest I have in fifteen years: 8 and 1/2 hours non-stop!

Now that is worth retiring for.

Posted in Bicycling, hiking, Life, My Life, Travel | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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