Dr. Swamp Cooler

Being a professional writer carried with it, for me, a bundle of contradictions – the arrogance of the act (I have something to say that’s so worthwhile that you should spend your time and your money to read it!) crossed with the insecurity, the fear (Do I really have something to say that’s worth their time and money?).

Doing it at a daily newspaper, as I did for most of my adult life, involved living those contradictions day in and day out. Today’s paper, written yesterday, was already on their driveways and I had to embrace the tension all over again – do I have something new to say today?

Absent the swagger, it was impossible to enter the arena. Absent the insecurity, the fear of looking stupid, it was impossible to do it well once I got there.

When I arrived at the Albuquerque Journal in 1990, the columnist Jim Belshaw – then Jim Arnholz – was already a community institution. I was a scared shitless young beat reporter, but also cocky. I wrote my news stories and privately fantasized about someday having his columnist job – write about anything you want today! – while being simultaneously terrified at the prospect of finding something to say.

Working adjacent to him for two decades, the steady transition from awe to a complicated friendship rooted in the shared craft, was a thing. Jim, a respected elder (gawd he would have hated me saying that! and also laughed) modeled for me, the contradiction – talented, revered in the community, and always deeply insecure.

Here is Liz Staley, once copy editor, then Belshaw’s wife:

“Once his columns were in the paper, he refused to be in the same room while I read them,” she said. “But, if he heard me laugh, he’d have to know what I was enjoying.”

A mentor as I looked on? I suppose, yes, that word might work.

When Belshaw retired in 2009, I slipped into one corner of the Journal columnist world that had been his. In that role, I fantasized about reprising Jim’s “Dr. Swamp Cooler” persona, a self-deprecating schtick about the Albuquerque ritual of climbing on the roof each spring to set up the swamp cooler, and each fall to shut it down.

I never had the guts to do the column.

If I had it to do today, it would be a self-deprecating column about how, in my senescence, I now hire someone to do the swamp cooler for me. And I only wander into the writing arena now and then – still arrogant (though now I just ask for your time, not your money) and still terrified.

You can probably see where this is heading. Jim died over the weekend.

Sorry, Jim, for burying the lede.


  1. I still have a clipping of one of his columns in which he talked about New Mexico drivers’ habit of stopping at the end of an on-ramp. Paraphrasing: “Why rush into anything as dangerous as a freeway?” which made me laugh hard. I’ve used it ever since to keep me from yelling epithets at those folks. May his memory be a blessing to others as well.

  2. Fine column, as always, John. You never lost your touch and I do miss the well thought through and researched science articles you posted so often in the Journal. My condolences to you, the Journal staff, and Belshaw’s friends and family.

    Heh. As far as the arrogance vs. the insecurity, I recall those days when writing up a talk for a national meeting and then expecting to be hooted off the stage. There was only one obvious instance where someone caught me with my idea around my ankles, but it is always in the back of one’s mind. But the idea of a national meeting is to poke holes in each other’s balloons.

    I saw that Jim had passed on. I think someone tweeted it before Ollie Reed’s article came out.

    Hope all is well at your end. As retired journalist and bicyclist friend Patrick O’Grady, who lives down your way recently opined,”Time is a toll road, and the longer your journey, the more descansos you pass.”

  3. I’ll discount terror and suggest you had the good sense not to attempt replicating Dr. Swamp Cooler. Jim was such a compassionate wit and high-wire act it would be like trying to follow Groucho Marx and Mahatma Gandhi, who as far as I know never performed together.

  4. I was saddened to learn of Jim Belshaw’s death. During my reporter career, I had a seminar or two with him and enjoyed them immensely. I never look up on my roof at the remnants of the old cooler there without thinking about Dr. Swamp Cooler. I’m tempted to climb up there one more time and have a beer in his honor.

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