What I Learned From the Cows

MY FIRST BOOK'S publisher declined to advance me money to write a second, so I quit cab driving, packed up my credit cards and moved to Mexico. Mexico would be cheaper, I told myself, and not so distracting as San Francisco.

But Mexico has rather famous distractions of its own, and in the high- desert village of San Miguel de Allende they were even closer to my front door. I lived a block and half from the zocalo, the town square, and in my first week in San Miguel I met more people than in a decade in San Francisco. At least half the town's gringos and a good percentage of its natives were wannabe artists or wannabe writers like myself, and almost every night there was a gallery opening: free vino, free comida, loose talk...

Meanwhile, Book Two fought me like a guerrilla band retreating from a town, surrendering each building only after days of vicious fighting, and leaving all of them booby trapped. Every sentence, paragraph, page took an enormous toll on my resolve and on my finances; after several months my stack of pages was dwarfed by my stack of bills. $2,000 - ca-ching! $4,000 - ca-ching, ca-ching! One drizzly afternoon when I had ca-chinged past $10,000 and when the book seemed to have utterly defeated me, I hiked into the mountains, seeking inspiration, but willing to settle for a cease-fire.

HIGH ABOVE TOWN I came upon a lush meadow surrounded by a flimsy barbed wire fence. Long green blades of grass glistening from the rain grew on my side of the fence, but the other side had been eaten to a nub by the dozen dirty cattle that wandered over to check me out.

The sky was clearing now, blobby clouds massaging each other into ecstasy and then vanishing. In the valley below, distant San Miguel looked like a tic-tac-toe grid etched in sand. The shadows of two hawks traced circles on the grass around me; when I looked up they glided off.

The cows worked me with their sad droopy eyes: staring oh-so-innocently at my face, then letting their gazes wander toward the banquet on my side of the fence, then back at their own bankrupt pasture, and finally back at me. Come on, pal, unlatch the gate!

I thought: "Scratch with your hooves at the dirt around the posts until the whole wobbly fence topples, and then step right over it. Or tunnel under - it'd take you one hour, tops. And that latch! It's just a wire hook slipped into a wire loop - any one of you could nudge it loose with a nose."

But they just stared. The fence in their minds was a fixed, unsolvable barrier, and they were doomed to live out their pathetic lives in a barren field at the whim of a Mexican farmer who didn't even hang around to guard them. Yet with minimal inspiration - and even less perspiration - they could have reveled in the green stuff at my feet.

And then with terrifying clarity I saw a poor dumb idiot fenced in by delicate, razor sharp strands of barbed debt wire and so-called writer's block - praying for financial crumbs from New York, from anywhere, praying to be more than he knew he was.

AFTER EIGHT MONTHS in Mexico I slinked home to cab driving, $16,000 in debt, and in my spare time eventually finished Book Two. It's twice the book my first one was, and soon, I am sure, some lucky publisher will agree with me.

Sometimes I lie awake nights wondering if I didn't miss some important point up in that meadow, if I didn't fail to learn some crucial lesson - but if there actually was one it remains just beyond my comprehension. Only one thing is certain. If I had to do it all again I wouldn't think twice: I would walk right over, slip that wire hook out of its loop and let that gate swing wide open.

San Francisco Chronicle, September 16, 1999

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