What I Learned From the Cows
By Brad Newsham
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
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