Thank You, University of New Mexico

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.


I See by My Outfit, Part 1

Meanwhile, I had one more piece to write for my master’s thesis: my overview of eastern New Mexico’s Great Plains and a profile of a plains resident.  My time spent on the shortgrass prairie of Colorado 15 years earlier was too epiphanic not to repeat in New Mexico, with the added pleasure of writing about it at considerable length. 

I connected with Bobby, an 84-four-year-old semi-retired cattle rancher, with the help of the district ranger of the Kiowa National Grasslands, which surrounded Bobby’s house in the northeastern New Mexico town of Mills.  Mills was effectively a ghost town.  Its only residents were Bobby and his wife and those of a nearby house.  A post office in Mills served the surrounding countryside. 

Before meeting Bobby, I spent several autumn days wandering around Harding County, in which Mills is located.  One night, I stayed in an old hotel in Roy, New Mexico―and a better name for a ranching town I could not imagine; the “King of Western Swing,” Bob Wills, once cut hair there.  Although tiny, compared to Mills, Roy was a bustling population center.  Another night, I camped out on the prairie not far from Bobby’s house, where the yawning plains and occasional headland spread and rolled gently west to the surprisingly grand canyon of the Canadian River. 

During this time, I reveled in my fantasies.  In my pickup (a Toyota, so three-tenths deduction in that buy-American country) and wearing my cowboy boots from my days of hitting the Denver country-and-western nightclubs with Linda, I was the cowpuncher of my childhood fantasies―and, I admitted, Ed Abbey’s despised “instant redneck.” 

I thought of movies.  I was Paul Newman in the “modern-day western” Hud (“the man with the barbed-wire soul”), Kirk Douglas in Lonely are the Brave, and Robert Duvall’s down-and-out country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies.  In another corner of my imagination, I was Brooklyn’s Truman Capote (minus the cigarette held delicately aloft between two fingers) when, decades earlier, he arrived “out there” in western Kansas for a rather run-of-the-mill investigation; six years or so later, that investigation resulted in a favorite book of mine, In Cold Blood, which dazzled the literary world, made Capote rich, and began his ruin.  Out there, I even entered the skin of Dick―“Deal me out, baby, I’m a normal”―Hickock, one of In Cold Blood’s crudely handsome, masculine murderers.  (But this was my overripe imagination back then.  Out there today I would prefer to think of myself as cutting a more decolored figure: say, 19th-century prairie wanderer, intellectual, and health-seeker Josiah Gregg or 20th-century nature writer and eastern Colorado native Hal Borland.)

All the while, I made merry in the explosion of space and sky, the weird emptiness, the monolithic sameness.  A land wrapped in sky.  A land of appalling horizontal depth in which my presence spread unobstructed for miles in all directions, thinning and threatening to dissolve.  A land of the pronghorn, the deerlike creature who found safety in space because hyper vigilant and fleet of foot, the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere.  As N. Scott Momaday observed of his plains-dwelling Native American ancestors, “The Kiowas reckoned their stature by the distance they could see, and they were bent and blind” in the forests.

A land where heights are few―the windmill, the grain elevator, the Siberian elm, the Baptist steeple, the Baptist―and acrophobia is bored.     



Professor Davis, I Presume, Part 2

What I quickly came to dread, however, was reading, commenting on, correcting, and grading the students’ papers―six per student, 700 to 1,000 words per paper.  In the words of Thomas Wolfe, briefly a college instructor himself, the “huge damnation of that pile of unmarked themes.”  The grammatical ruin and ideational impoverishment of 80 percent of the papers throughout the semester staggered me.  Every 10 days or so I’d face another mountain of tenses in disagreement; sentences incomplete; capital letters disregarded; periods missing; ideas tangled and incomprehensible; Liquid Paper applied with all the delicacy of a bricklayer; margins, lines, and paragraphs ill-formatted, even with papers obviously “word-processed.”  Slack-jawed, staring into space, I wondered: Have any of these kids ever read a book cover to cover?  And: How many hours of MTV have contributed to this rhetorical wreckage?  And: Which concerns “Destini”―a student of mine rarely modest in matters of midriff―more: her ability to write or the visibility of that lightning bolt tattooed on the base of her spine?[1]  

I usually graded the papers in my study at home.  However, when I began to sense that my desk was weakening beneath the blows of my frustrated fist, or that the spine of my often airborne-and-crash-landing American Heritage Dictionary was further deteriorating, or that my next-door neighbor was about to call the police and report what he erringly believed was a domestic violence incident, I’d shove the loathsome papers in my Samsonite, drive to my lonely BNSF railroad crossing in the desert 30 miles southwest of Albuquerque, and grade the travesties in relative composure while imagining hopping the Amarillo- or Flagstaff-bound cars of the passing freights or summiting the ethereal peaks of the Sierra Ladrones in the distance.

Meanwhile, I knew the exasperation would only repeat itself, for I was certain that 90 percent of my students, upon receiving the graded paper, flipped immediately to the final page and, with yet another shrug of resignation, merely looked at the familiar “C-” and headed to the student union for a cup of coffee or the Frontier Restaurant on nearby Central Avenue for a sticky bun, forever ignoring my written comments and corrections smeared by my blood, sweat, and tears.  As the term progressed, I had a terrible feeling that my students were perceiving me less as an advocate and more as an adversary. 

Given this, how I looked forward to the day of the final exam, although not simply because it meant the beginning of the end of reading those papers.  In a clever stroke, the UNM English department (and, I suspected, many other higher-education English departments across America) designed the exam and its method of evaluation in a way that I was certain would relax those teaching assistants who, due to lack of experience, likely needed some soothing justification for their unpleasant plans to flunk one or more of their students. 

The department fashioned three different topics for the exam―for example: “What did Ralph Waldo Emerson mean by ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .’”one of which the student was free to choose.  Each exam was identified only by the student’s university identification number, and each was graded on a pass/fail basis by three teaching assistants, with the majority grade―or, in the case of complete success or failure, the across-the-board grade―determining the student’s fate.  A failing grade theoretically meant the student was required to repeat the course.  Ideally, such a blind “pass” or “fail” evaluation confirmed the assessment of the student’s regular instructor.  The failing student could challenge his or her evaluation with the English department, with the student’s instructor perhaps acting in the student’s defense.  

On a December afternoon, as the fall semester neared its end, in a spare room of the Humanities building, I and about a half-dozen of my fellow assistants, brandishing pens, sat on the carpeted floor or at desks amid stacks of exam “blue books.”  The atmosphere was buoyant, even giddy, as we read exams and gaily entered our “P”’s and “F”’s―and, mercifully, not a damn thing more―on the insides of the books’ back covers.  No holds were barred, no imagined feelings spared.  Occasionally a direct quote from an exam was tossed out by a grader for the group to . . . consider.  Some quotes amazed us with their insight, even their poetry.  More, however, were received with incredulity and merciless, chortling ridicule.  (To wit: “I question evolution.  How does a cell walking out of the ocean for the first time know its going to some day be a guys ear?”)  Because that was the point: It was finally our turn to kick back and let go. 

Several days later, I received the results of the evaluations of my students . . . and was rather amazed―and heartened―at how my standards aligned with those of my fellow instructors. 

A final, traditional letter grade―that is, “A” through “F”―for each student who passed the final exam was assigned by the student’s personal instructor based upon the student’s performance throughout the semester.  Several of my students who had performed poorly during the fall, yet had somehow managed to pass the final, put me in that twitchy “D” realm, twitchy because a “D” student was required to repeat the course as well.  However, after several beers at a popular bar on Central Avenue, the alcohol managed to unlock a tender spot in my heart and I issued each of those theoretical “D” students a “C” and hoped each was going to major in engineering.  In each of my two fall classes I awarded several “A”’s and about as many failures, with no students contesting my grades. 

Nonetheless, throughout the semester, I had an increasingly nagging feeling that I, my fellow assistants, and even the English Department were lowering the bars for each of the passing grades; that is, grade-inflating.  However, several beers, once again, with said assistants would make this feeling go away.  I went on to teach another semester. 

Again, despite the frustration, I enjoyed teaching, including the camaraderie with my fellow assistants, many of whom were pursuing their doctorates.  Yes, they were busy cranking out those “scholarly” papers I so poked fun at.  Yet I respected their hard work, their love of literature, the pleasures they took in reading and writing, and their eloquence and wit on any number of topics literary or mundane.  Finally, I was as proud of being a teacher as I was of being a hard-rock miner or a computer nerd.

[1] Speaking of which, the older I get, the more I am of the opinion that the masters distinguish themselves with education; the rest, with tattoos.  


More of My Craft and Sullen Art

Another early class at the university was “Creative Writing/Prose Fiction,” taught by Rudolfo Anaya.  Today, Anaya, a New Mexico native and long-time Albuquerque resident who died in 2020, is known as the “dean of Chicano Literature.”  Yet even three decades earlier, nearly any resident of New Mexico with a fondness for literature was familiar with his work, particularly his celebrated debut novel, Bless me, Ultima. When I arrived in New Mexico, there wasn’t a bookstore, and likely not even a gift shop in a museum or hotel, that didn’t have copies of Ultima for sale.  Thus aware, I, too, read the book, and enjoyed it.  What engrossed me about the novel is its evocation of place―the high plains of eastern New Mexico, which recalled for me my Pawnee Grasslands due north in Colorado―and the door it opens to the family life, society, customs, and religion of rural Latinos.  Except for the setting, it was a world unlike any I had ever known.

Rudy was soft-spoken, his words coming out slowly and measured.  He had a full but trim mustache and a head of thick, wavy hair.  He was serious but not in an intimidating or overbearing way, for there was a great calm at his core.  He dressed smartly: slacks and button-down shirts, although the shirts were always unbuttoned at the collar and sometimes adorned with a bolo tie.

There were some one dozen students in his class, and we all sat in a rough circle around a couple long tables pushed together.  During class we would exchange and discuss photocopies of our stories-in-progress.  I wrote two stories for the class.  One of the them I based upon a personal experience as a 1960’s teenager.  It included an expression, a common putdown among us boys back then: “Smell me.”  I’ve never forgotten how Rudy, no stranger to juvenile cuts in his fiction, erupted into a rare, high-pitched cackle when I read aloud the passage containing the putdown to the class.   

I finished each story mentally exhausted.  Rudy gave me reasonable grades for both stories, even suggested I attempt to publish one after I “re-work” it.  However, I didn’t care to return to either of them.  I told myself I had described the setting of each more than adequately.  I felt each one had a satisfactory narrative arc.  But neither of them glowed like, say, a tale by Cheever or Malamud, and I wondered if I was designed for fiction writing; if I had the imagination; if I had the radar required to constantly scan for life’s conflicts and possible resolutions of those conflicts; if I even had the meagerest philosophy of life or moral grounding that I could summon to explain or justify such resolutions.   

But I was certainly capable of reading fiction, and I consumed plenty of it for my various classes: Dickens, Faulkner, Garcia Marquez, Proust, Greene, Hemingway, Forster, Woolf, Kafka, Lessing, Camus.  I took “Chicano Literature,” in which I read Anaya, Ernesto Galarza, Tomás Rivera, Sandra Cisneros, northern New Mexico-born Sabine Ulibarri.  Yet, although I rarely took more than three classes a semester, I felt that I never had enough time to carefully read many of the assigned books.  Nonetheless, I read them all, and without amphetamines.  I took a seminar on metaphor.  I even cranked out several of those dreaded “scholarly papers,” including one on Dickens’s Hard Times and another on Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, the title of the latter aptly describing my condition upon finishing both papers.  Neither paper was suggested by a professor for publication in an academic journal.  Mr. Davis, meet Perish.

Two years into my studies, I decided to give fiction writing one more try, and signed up for a creative writing course to be taught by novelist and “visiting professor” John Nichols.  At the time, New Mexico mystery writer Tony Hillerman had likely sold far more books than John.  However, John, a longtime Taos resident, was equally well known in New Mexico, his popularity having taken off with the publication, in 1974, of the novel The Milagro Beanfield War.  Prior to meeting him, my favorite book by him was The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, a memoir, with John’s fine photographs, about his life and friends during that season in northern New Mexico.  The writing in the book is vivid, candid, probing, and seasoned with just right amount of John’s characteristic humor.  I figured that if I did nothing else in Nichols’s class, I would try to learn from his admirable style.

John was a character.  Although he owned an old pickup truck, he arrived on campus on a well-traveled, one-speed, fat-tired, Huffy-styled bicycle.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if he never cabled-and-locked it on campus.  If some poor soul had needed it more than he did, I suspected John would have figured, fine.  His jeans and sweater might have been purchased from a used-clothing store, his tennis shoes found along a Taos highway at the end of a long, hard winter. 

John was lean, loose-limbed, and boyishly handsome, extroverted and charming.  I imagined him a lady’s man.  That said, I wondered if he was a tad vain: On the back cover of The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, there’s a photo of him, probably about age 40, hoisting a wheelbarrow stacked with split piñon and juniper in front of a dilapidated garage door and a wall that needs re-plastering.  Wearing jeans but naked from the waist up, he reveals vein-popping arms and a muscular torso.  Cheekbones flushed with fall’s bite, he stares into the camera with the slightest smile, as if to say, “Sure, there’ll be a wood stove, outhouse, and a lot of pinto beans, but look at what else you’ll nightly get, muchacha.”  Well, maybe not nightly: John told us he regularly writes throughout the night. 

Into the classroom John would dance, grinning, singing Buddy Holly’s “Oh, Boy!” (“All my love / All my kissin’ / You don’t know what you’ve been a-missin’!”).  Yet for all his energy, he always spoke softly and eloquently.  He was an unabashed liberal; Marxism, even, seemed to be at his philosophical core.  However, he never proselytized.

I struggled through two stories in John’s class, dissatisfied with both.  They were largely autobiographical, and the writing of one was more cathartic than creative.  When the course was over, I knew I wasn’t destined to be a fiction writer. 

Yet John taught me a number of things I’ve never forgotten. 

Above all else, writing for a living is a job.  “Every day,” he told us, “you grab your lunch bucket and hard hat, and you go down into the salt mines.  You may be tired, hungover, fretting about next month’s rent, but you go to work.”  And the writer works for a set number of hours, without interruption.  But John was no typewriter-bound hermit existing only in his head: Every fall, he told us, he takes a one-month vacation from writing, which he often spends grouse hunting in the mountains above Taos. 

One learns to write mainly by reading, voraciously.  And by writing, constantly.  Thus, I secretly wondered if John thought creative writing classes were a waste of the student’s time.

Writing is revision.  You get that first draft out there as quickly as possible, and then you revise it, and re-revise it, and re-re-revise it.  And no matter how discouraged you become with a manuscript, you finish it.   

Use a dictionary, not only for spelling, but also for . . . diction, of course.  It bugged John that in his published novel An Elegy for September a pair of sneakers are described as “aerobic.” Sneakers don’t exercise, John reminded us.  People do.  And when they do, they often wear “aerobics sneakers.”  He failed to catch this difference while reading the galley proofs for the novel.  Carlos’s “pebble in the boot” was now also John’s.

Writing is disappointment, oftentimes crushing disappointment.  John told us of the many finished manuscripts stacked around his house: novels rejected by publishers, even after he had published a half-dozen. 

Writing for a living likely means, if not abject poverty, living close to the bone.  John was brutally honest about the monetary rewards, or lack thereof, of the writing life.  He once shared with us his most recent annual income from advances and royalties: the meager figure stunned me.

John shared with the class the following metaphor about the craft of writing.  His fans know he’s an accomplished fly-fisherman who, likely during his annual vacation, can also be found in Rio Grande Canyon near Taos.  He told us that writing is often like casting for trout: throw out too much line, and you get tangled up.  In other words, understand and accept your intellectual and creative limitations; exceed them, and you wind up lost and looking like a fool or a fraud. 

I left John’s class knowing I never again wanted to write fiction, but I also left a far better writer.  I would watch my line, write vividly but simply and coherently, and accept that I would never be a sui generis stylist like Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy. 


Literary Theory

The graduate program had a “foreign language” requirement, so during my first year I took elementary Spanish, which was taught by a vivacious female, a South American doctoral candidate.  The irony of Spanish as a “foreign language” in New Mexico was not lost on me.  For two-and-a-half years prior to entering UNM I had heard it spoken, surely not always with perfection, on the sidewalks of downtown Albuquerque and in the lumber yards of Española and Cuba, New Mexico.  During that time, I made an effort to properly pronounce the few words of Spanish I did understand―beyond those that had to do with Mexican food―although to this day I can’t roll an “r” down Mt. Everest.  Two additional semesters were spent taking a course in translating Spanish. 

Another first-year requirement was a course entitled “Introduction to Professional Study,” taught by an amiable long-time professor who had long, thinly-whiskered sideburns and particularly admired some ancient novel named Tristram Shandy.  Among other things, the course dealt with the rules for producing “scholarly” papers, including their proper documentation.  As monsters who had managed to wreak havoc for a dozen years, Nazis had fascinated me since adolescence, so my term paper for the course dealt with the early-1980’s hoax known as the “Hitler diaries.” 

The course also reintroduced me to that thing known as “literary theory”: the various methods of interpreting, for instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, interpretations that are galaxies beyond what one understands upon merely reading Gatsby for enjoyment, escape, beauty, and perhaps a little edification.  Indeed, forget merely struggling to divine a “theme” in a Fitzgerald novel: that is so high school.  At Hobart, literary theory was the province of many-lettered men like Allen Tate, Northrop Frye, John Crowe Ransom, and M.H. Abrams; yet during classroom discussions of their stellar contributions to literature, my mind often wandered to the next pick-up basketball game, the sly observations of bluesman Lightning Hopkins, or the Dexedrine I planned to drop at an upcoming mixer at a nearby women’s college.  As an undergraduate, I found literary theory hopelessly dense.  Couldn’t the reader, I wondered, simply be moved by the haunting image of Hemingway’s bereaved Frederick Henry walking home alone from the hospital in the rain?  (An ending that allegedly required 40 drafts before Hem was satisfied―try that, Leslie Fiedler.) 

An appallingly sophomoric attitude, I now admit. 

At UNM, I was introduced to a whole new generation of literary string theorists who had entered the spotlight during my academic locust years, among them two French philosophers named Foucault and Derrida.  Grappling with ideas developed on our side of the pond was difficult enough; now the Continental perspective, which had given the universe Being and Nothingness, had been stirred into the intellectual gruel.  The new theories included “deconstruction” and “post-modernism.”  I, who was still familiarizing himself with the “modernity” of the compact disc, videocassette recorder, personal computer, and freestanding backpacking tent, now had to fathom the meaning of the “post-modern novel.” 

However, I was now among students who not only enjoyed good reads, but were prepared to churn out mind-numbing interpretations of them; students, that is, who were pursuing their doctorates in English; PhD candidates nurturing dreams of a tenured professorship in a college or university.  They knew they had to publish these interpretations and plenty of them.  Indeed, the expression “publish or perish” had now entered my consciousness.  Yet at least one of my early UNM professors seemed to acknowledge the folly of it all: “PhD?  Pshaw!  ‘Piled high and deep’!” he laughed in front of a packed class.  I suspected he echoed the cynicism, if you will, of many another professor across America.  But, of course, he could afford to: he was a tenured Dickens scholar, and, wearing sandals, a very interesting and enjoyable one.

Before entering UNM, I often fantasized about one day turning “my students” on to Whitman or Hemingway, maybe even Edward Abbey, but now the thought of creating a pile of murky articles―or, God forbid, an entire book on a single author―in order to have the hope of doing that dampened the fantasy.  After all, I merely wanted to write, and write well, about inspections of arroyos.[1] 

[1] Frank Waters about summed it up for me when, writing in the appendix of his marvelous book about the Colorado River, he stated: “To append a complete list of references consulted would be both needless and misleading. It would fall far short of being a complete bibliography on the Colorado . . . and it would imply, like most imposing lists, an academic interest in its history which I have never had.”