The next steps in “my semi-charmed life of the mind”


I’m stepping down as director of the UNM Water Resources Program at the end of summer semester to write another book.


When I was happily toiling those many years as an inkstained wretch, I had secret fantasies of leaving newspaper work to spend my waning years on the campus of the University of New Mexico. It’s a short bike ride to campus, which has trees and libraries and people thinking slowly.

Building another pirate ship

I loved what newspaper work gave me – Michael Hirschorn called it “a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who … live semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind.”

The publisher paid me to spend my days learning all the things – reading, calling people to explain things to me, trying to figure out what was the most important stuff, then typing it up so people could stay up all night printing thousands of copies of whatever I wrote and then driving around and throwing it on people’s driveways.

It is impossible to oversell how sweet a gig that was for a curious guy with good typing skills.

But over time the model was a poorer and poorer fit. As I wrote back in 2016 after leaving it:

It was a decent model for a long time. But the institutional constraints were substantial. For me, it was the form of the newspaper story. It was ill suited to the depth and complexity of the issues I was trying to understand – demanding of narrow story lines and uncomfortable with uncertainty.

So I quit newspapering to w r i t e  a  b o o k, in the process stumbling into a side hustle teaching and working with students in the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. The then-director Bob Berrens, who is clever, gave me an office on campus, a title (I was for a time the WRP’s “Writer in Residence”), and the all-important library privileges. Slowly, the secret fantasy became reified. I commuted by bicycle to the leafy campus, wandered the shelves of its many libraries, engaged in hours of conversation with smart colleagues.

I slowed my thinking down, and the result was the best writing of my life.

In the summer of 2016, UNM’s Department of Economics invited me to join its faculty, and UNM Dean of Graduate Studies Julie Coonrod appointed me the director of the University’s Water Resources Program.

The job has exceeded the idle fantasies of my younger years. So much fun to teach, and learn from, UNM Water Resources Students. So much fun to spend my days on a university campus with all the thinking and libraries and trees.

But as I began seriously contemplating The Next Book, I had to conclude I no longer had the mental energy to continue as the WRP’s Director. “You may be actually writing only two or three hours a day,” John McPhee wrote in Draft No. 4, “but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day.” This is for me a joy, but it also is the central responsibility.

I did manage to write another book while in the job, riding the intellectual coattails of my brilliant co-author Eric Kuhn. But it was hard. Being WRP director presented my poor aging brain with competing loyalties – the program’s needs grabbing spare cycles from my idle brain.

I had to laugh through my enduring imposter syndrome when Dean Coonrod today announced the finalists to take over the program. All four are on my list of “smart people from whom I’ve learned everything I know about water.” For the program, which I love, exciting times are ahead.

For me, I’ll have more to say as we firm up my post-directorship plans. I’ve got some super fun ongoing work with a number of students that I’ll be seeing through, and we’re looking at the possibility of a continued role for me at the university, doing work that dovetails with the book.

As McPhee says, twenty-four hours a day. I’m really looking forward to that semi-charmed life.


  1. Congrats, John. Happy to hear this. It’s inspiring to see people embracing change and growing. I can relate. I feel like I’m in another phase of my life now as an empty nester. Good luck on your next adventure.

  2. Exciting! As long as you stay in NM, you can change chairs and desks : )
    Remember to visit the Gila someday. It’s in the CO River Basin.

  3. At every step of your writing journey, I’ve admired and marveled at your inspiring spirit and mind-changing results. Look forward to the next book and–with McPhee lighting the way–perhaps more beyond. –Nolan

  4. congrats! 🙂

    always looking forwards to reading interesting things about western water and of course the history behind it.

    the other day i found a movie about the Lake Tulare and for some reason in my previous readings the name had either never been mentioned or didn’t stick but now it has. of course my readings about Owens Lake and Mono Lake and now i find out about Walker Lake too. so that has been a fun few days of learning more. for what purpose i don’t really know, but i do find the water issues in the west facinating along with all the water projects.

  5. Congratulations, I will miss you and your sensible approach to ag water. I hope your replacement has your appreciation for on-going conservation efforts and the value of local food production. If you ever need to talk to local farmers and ranchers let me know, they’ll be eager to speak with you.

  6. Congrats, John! Have always appreciated your insight and commentary on the most fascinating resource. Looking forward to the next book!

  7. Congratulations, John! Any arrangement that keeps you thinking and writing and facilitating discourse about water in the West, is good by me. Look forward to your next book!

  8. As a previous student at UNM, and fellow writer, I’m delighted to hear that you are carving the time to share your unique insight and arresting writing to capture the hearts and minds of climate change advocates. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to meet you in the classroom and hope our paths continue to cross.

Comments are closed.