I composed my master’s thesis on the word processor of an IBM personal computer, which I had now owned for some five years. The final draft of my master’s thesis, printed on my dot matrix device, numbered some 29,000 words. I successfully discussed―as opposed to “defended,” which smacks of an adversarial relationship that did not exist―my manuscript with my thesis advisors. Today, my thesis, along with thousands of others with nearly identical bindings, rests in the basement of UNM’s Zimmerman Library, accessible to all, likely read by none. I completed my requirements for my degree by taking a seminar in metaphor, somewhat leaden if not for of its bubbly instructor.
I wish I could say I owe any talent I now have as a writer to Mrs. Seery, my second-grade teacher who hugged me before the entire class after I delivered my written re-cap of the class’s visit to the Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, bakery.
Or to Mr. Chaffee, my English “master” at the boarding school―a navigator of a World War II airborne “bomb group” and Yale graduate. Delicately accusing me of plagiarism, “No boy could have written this,” he said of a short story―a tale of love and death that aspired to Hemingway―I submitted to the school’s literary magazine, of which he was an advisor. But I did write it, and I later proved to his satisfaction that he was mistaken. I held no grudge, for with those few words he had in a way granted me not only literary worth but a sprig of manhood. (I subsequently withdrew the story for consideration. Anonymity was perhaps my main defense against a boarding school I disliked, and I suddenly realized my story would have revealed too much of me; besides, Tom Chaffee’s impression was far more important to me than an appearance in a prep school literary magazine.)
But I cannot honestly extend the line all the way back to these two people, and a few others. Too much alcohol, marijuana, intellectual laziness, distraction, and loneliness existed between them and my matriculation at UNM. No, it was the university that was responsible for whatever succeeded in my master’s thesis. I’m grateful to every one of my professors at the place, particularly John Nichols. That said, my readings of greater and lesser authors; my limp analyses of Dickens, Graham Greene, and George Lakoff; my discussion of the iconic San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, which, as a non-Catholic, I should never have attempted―all take a back seat to my master’s thesis, the only achievement of which I’m truly proud as a graduate student.
Throughout my time at UNM, forever the solitary reader and writer, I had given virtually no thought to attending the university’s graduation ceremony. Linda, however, had given it plenty. She practically insisted that I don gown and mortarboard cum insouciant tassel. No surprise. She was, after all, proud of me. And she did support us throughout my education. So, of course, I agreed.
It was a typically sparkling early-summer morning in New Mexico when I graduated. At 44, I was undoubtedly one of the oldest students to be honored. A decade earlier I would not have imagined such a moment. Still, it was strange being decked out in a gown and cap. I don’t doubt I looked dignified, even “scholarly,” but at times throughout the ceremony I felt like a woodchuck draped in a lace mantilla.
Strangely, my father opted not to fly out to New Mexico to witness the event, choosing, instead, to go fishing in Maine.