A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late August, 1988

by Richard Grayson

Tuesday, August 23, 1988

8 PM. The cleaning woman came at 8:30 AM today and I went out to a bench on Riverside Drive to read the Times. Although I was wearing a heavy denim shirt, it still felt cool out.

At the Teachers College bookstore, I picked up some books on teaching writing to youngsters: Lucy McCormick Calkins’s The Art of Teaching Writing, her mentor Donald Graves’s Write from the Start, and Free To Write: A Journalist Teaches Young Writers.

I feel desperate for ideas and strategies. But fifty pages into Calkins, I’m delighted to find a reassuring, common-sense, process approach – so different from the product-oriented, teacher-centered composition instruction I was supposed to emulate.

I hated teaching writing the way I was doing it at Broward Community College. Last fall, when I took over those courses mid-semester, I felt I couldn’t radically alter the way the previous instructor had taught.

Besides, it was so much easier to teach the rhetorical modes and thesis statements (which Calkins points out are basically nineteenth century approaches): for $19 an hour, I certainly wasn’t going to drive myself crazy.

Good writing instruction requires not only preparation but structure. On the other hand, I feel very comfortable with the idea of teacher as fellow-learner and coach.

I’m getting really excited, not only about the work I’ll be doing in the schools, but also about taking the Teaching of Writing class with Calkins.

I love intellectual stimulation and I think I may benefit greatly from working with children’s writing. It’s just new to me, but teaching computers was new to me four years ago.

I left a message at the Sloatsburg Elementary School but haven’t received a reply yet. I won’t be getting any messages myself until I can figure out how to fix the answering machine the cleaning woman left broken.

She also managed to press the button undoing the VCR timer. Remember how she somehow accidentally pushed a button that kept the stereo inoperable for weeks? That woman can destroy any electronic appliance or device.

The doctors called Grandma Ethel, who’s going in for tests by a gastroenterologist tomorrow. She was feeling very, very bad today.

In the library, I checked out all her prescriptions in the Physician’s Desk Reference and looked up some things in a medical dictionary: enteritis is an intestinal inflammation.

It seems to me that her symptoms do match the current diagnosis, so I don’t understand why the medication is having no effect.

Last night I called Justin when, in horror, I realized I’d forgotten his birthday on Saturday. I felt terrible about missing the occasion, but Justin said it was okay.

He and Larry and Ali went out to his boss Florence’s wedding in Smithtown that day, and on Sunday, he and the cast of What Would Esther Williams in a Situation Like This? took the ferry to Staten Island to get the feel of the place.

Justin loved the ferry and Snug Harbor and South Beach and the other places on the tour the Werbachers took them on.

Rehearsals are going well, especially since they’re now in the theater; Justin is happy about that because he had allergy problems with the cats in the West 73rd Street apartment where they’d been rehearsing.

Wednesday, August 24, 1988

9 PM. I just got off the phone with a woman who interviewed me for The West Side Spirit. Probably I sounded like a total idiot.

Earlier in the day, she called me to arrange a time for an interview because I won first prize in their short story contest.

I felt funny telling her I’d had books published, because entering a newspaper fiction contest is not something an “author” is supposed to do.

The story will probably come out in the paper next week, although you know me: I’m not going to believe it until I see it.

The prize, I believe, is $100, though I can’t really remember – and I seem to recall something about a reading at the West Side Y.

Well, if it’s true, August has certainly been my lucky month. I’ve got two new lines on my résumé, and I’m beginning to feel more like a writer again.

Up early this morning (the night was chilly), I read ahead in Calkins’s book after I exercised to Body Electric.

I didn’t get as far as I had hoped because the Spirit thing happened and I had other stuff to read: Mom sent a package containing Poets & Writers, the AWP Job List, Short Story Review, and the Authors Guild Bulletin.

Reading all about the award and grant winners in Poets & Writers, at least I could tell myself that I’m not a total washout. Maybe I should try to apply for some of the creative writing professor positions in the AWP Job List.

My writing “career” now has the appearance of forward movement – and success tends to breed success. I wouldn’t be shocked to get the Florida Arts Council grant next, either, if only because I’m no longer so desperately in need of money and recognition.

I went out today to deposit Teresa’s tenants’ rent check (very late) and to get my photos: I sent two to the Rockland Center, two to Mom, and kept the negative.

Tomorrow I’ll try to get in touch with the Sloatsburg public schools again to discuss my possible residency there.

Grandma said that the doctor didn’t give her any new prescriptions and told her to just continue taking the Carafate for her stomach trouble.

She said she felt worse than ever. I’ll go to see her this weekend when I’m supposed to be in Brooklyn for Alice’s mother’s barbecue.

I’m a person on the verge right now – but I’ve been there before.

Saturday, August 27, 1988

10 PM. I left Teresa’s at 4:30 PM yesterday. Crammed into the subway just as rush hour was beginning, I felt very glad that I’ve never had to be a commuter.

I got off the 3 train to New Lots at Grand Army Plaza with the other white people and found a hair stylist where I could get a cut right away. The stylist did a good job; for the first time in years, I had her cut it with a side part.

Unable to get Larry or Justin at home, I figured I’d have a baby pizza alone at Roma, but Pete walked in just as I was beginning to eat so I ended up with company.

Pete and I chatted about the neighborhood and his upcoming trip to San Francisco, and I told him about the West Side Spirit contest and my Rockland plans.

He walked me to Eighth Avenue, and I went on to Flatbush Avenue, where I decided to take the bus rather than the subway to the Junction. It turned out to be a mistake because the heavy traffic meant it was forty minutes before I got the Rockaway bus, which also got stuck in a monumental traffic tie-up by the Junction.

It was practically dark when I got to Grandma’s.

She hasn’t been feeling at all well, with her back “on fire” and her mouth and tongue with “that awful bitter taste.” Just now, she went to bed, and I have to admit that it’s hard being with her.

I know she’s sick, but she’s complained so incessantly over the years that it’s hard to distinguish real suffering from kvetching. Every sentence is punctuated by a sigh.

Actually, I didn’t feel very well myself today. Shortly after I awoke from a rotten night’s sleep (as you can see, I’ve learned how to kvetch from my grandmother), I had stomach cramps and diarrhea which persisted through the day.

Nevertheless, I went to Alice’s mother’s house for the barbecue and managed to make it to Brooklyn and back.

When I got there, the only ones home were Alice’s mother and brother, who were just starting to light the charcoal briquettes.

When Alice arrived from the hairdresser, it was a shock to see her: all the grey was gone, replaced by a deep brunette.

Although I though it looked great and made her look years younger, Alice said she hated it. Probably it was too much of a shock, and she’ll gradually get used to it.

Michael, who’s considerably less grey than Alice, said that now he’d have to go back to being her older brother.

Three of his friends – Henry, Terri and Jo – were also guests at the barbecue, and they were all nice, witty, friendly people and good conversationalists.

In three weeks Michael leaves for a trip which will ultimately take him to his new post in Canberra.

Lately, foreign service officers have been reported to be unhappy as Reaganite political appointees have made life miserable for them, and Michael seems kind of fed up with his career.

I think he’s pretty conservative and doesn’t want to work in a Dukakis administration.

When I told him I knew Joyce, he said that Missing was the most offensive film he’d ever seen, I guess because it presented Kissinger and the American foreign policy establishment as complicit in Charles’s death and the deaths of so many others in Chile.

Which they were.

If he weren’t Alice’s brother, I’d probably despise Michael.

Anyway, there was a lot of good food – chicken, vegetables, steak – but I ate sparingly because of my diarrhea.

The day was cloudy and humid but not very hot, and we ate outside in the backyard, at a table under a big yellow umbrella.

I left at 6 PM, after dessert (I did eat the ice cream) and made good connections from the Utica Avenue bus to the Green bus to Rockaway.

Home an hour later, I’ve been sitting here watching TV with Grandma, reading today’s Times, and trying to concentrate on the Calkins book.

Monday, August 29, 1988

8 PM. I slept very soundly last night on Grandma Ethel’s Castro convertible, and as morning approached, I had two dreams about Sean.

I rarely dream about him, but in the first dream, he was back in South Florida, surrounded by friends and relatives, and he seemed to have little time for me because he was in a rush to get back to New York.

In the next dream, I was watching him play tennis with his father on the boardwalk here in Rockaway. In neither dream could I get close to him. Although I’m incredibly horny, the dreams were not erotic; still, they gave me a good feeling even after I awoke.

Why, all of a sudden, do I feel this need to get in touch with Sean?

When he called me last year on his birthday, I was so confused. Not only had I just arrived in Florida after five months away, which is always disorienting, but I had a bad cold and was very tired.

Oh, fuhgeddaboudit.

Up at 8:30 AM, I exercised to Body Electric and left Grandma to her sighs at about 10:30 AM.

Missing several buses, it took a long time to reach the Upper West Side, and it was raining when I got out of the subway. Before coming home, I had lunch at the American Diner.

I did my laundry and went through my mail, paying off credit card bills and looking at USA Today and the Snowbird Edition of the Fort Lauderdale paper. Still no word on any of the secured credit cards or the student loan.

Teresa seems to be having trouble with her mortgage application. Apparently her bad credit history still haunts her. When we talked today, she bragged about grossing $14,000 this summer, but I don’t know what her net profit is, and to me, Teresa’s finances seem horribly sloppy.

(My own finances, while no doubt a horror show to anyone shy about debt, are as precise as I can be.)

Later in the afternoon, a woman called asking for Teresa, and I soon realized it was Amira, who sounded glad to hear it was me.

I’ve always been terribly fond of Amira, and I gave her Teresa’s number in Fire Island, as Amira’s heading out there this week.

When I called Florida, Mom said that Dad is very disgusted with his company’s incompetence and arrogance. They’ve caused him so many problems with department stores because of their failure to ship goods on time, and now they’re being nasty with Dad.

Mom and Dad did see a very nice house: it has four bedrooms with a three-car garage on a 100-square-foot lot. The price is only $130,000, but it’s very far out: by U.S. 27 and Hollywood Boulevard, out past the Sportatorium, just up at the edge of the Everglades.

It sounds like a good deal, and I’m sure the area will get populated and developed, but Mom thinks it may be too far a trip to the flea market. (Of course, it would be a relatively quick ride into Miami via I-75 or U.S. 27.)

Tomorrow I’m going to the Miller School in Nanuet, and I really don’t know exactly what to expect, what they want of me as their writer-in-residence.

I’ve gotten more than halfway through Lucy Calkins’s book and I’ve got some idea of what do with young children, but I wish I knew more.

I read a New York interview with Jay McInerney, who feels he’s got a lot riding on his new book – yet it’s the story of these shallow downtown club people, and I bet the critics will kill him on it. He’s in a really tough position.

Tuesday, August 30, 1988

8 PM. It’s a cool evening.

This morning I got my Dodge Shadow at ABC Car Rental at 9:15 AM, and I was doing fine until I missed the exit for the Palisades Parkway.

Instead of heading back and trying to find it, I decided I could figure out an alternate route, and I proceeded to get ridiculously lost in Bergen County, wandering around suburban roads with no major thoroughfares in sight.

Just when I was at my most frantic, I finally found a gas station and asked the way to Nanuet. “You’re about there, just up the road the way you were going,” came the reply.

By instinct, I’d actually managed to get where I wanted to go – though I’d figured if I kept driving north, I would eventually hit Rockland County.

I arrived at the George Miller School early, but soon met with the writing teacher, the PTA president, and the  principal, Dr. Arline Gold. They see my role in the school’s total language program as a model and an adjunct to their own teachers.

Dr. Gold knows her stuff in the field of teaching writing as a process, and she gave me some books (these are better than Calkins’s, she said) to help me. We talked for about an hour or so, and in the end we came up with this plan.

I’m to send her my résumé, and we’ll have an after-school meeting with the third and fourth grade teachers of the first five classes who want to have me come in. I’ll do 45 minutes in each of five classes on five Mondays from November 7 to December 5.

Those will be long days, and I’ll have to prepare, but I’ve got over two months to work on it, and they’ll sort of be like the workshops I do in Dade County when I go to a school once a week for several weeks.

Maybe I’ll meet with the parents, or we can have an evening reading by the kids. The school seems like an excellent place where creativity is encouraged, and I think I’ll enjoy being there.

Still, it’s going to be a challenge because it’s something new. But in the end I’ll have exercised new muscles and have learned to do something I hadn’t done before.

On Thursday I’ll find out what we can do in Sloatsburg. If they want me only for January, then I might be able to leave New York in early December. I’ve already made reservations for a flight to Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, December 8 – and return a month later.

On my way home, I thought I’d stop by the Rockland Center for the Arts, but the road to it was blocked by construction, and rather than going back west on Route 59 and getting the Palisades, I opted to take the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Thruway south to New York City.

That was a major mistake, as I got caught in monstrous traffic jams. I do not like driving in the New York City area at all and was happy to return the rental car at 3 PM after I had some lunch.

The West Side Spirit did come out, and they put my story and the first prize poem on the cover; my story is continued on a full page inside. As usual, I’m too embarrassed to look at my work in print; I have so little confidence in my writing.

The first page has white type on black paper, and the inside page seems laid out okay. I sounded inane in the little biographical blurb, which mistakenly said I taught at City College and had 2000 copies of Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog in my basement.

The Spirit has a circulation of 80,000, so some people should see it, but I’ve been in lots of papers – in articles, anyway – and I know from experience that I never get anyone contacting me about it.

Still, there are some bright, influential people on the West Side – and they’ll probably hate my story.

Sonia Pilcer was the judge. I’m a great fan of hers; I liked Teen Angel and I-Land, but I hope I didn’t win because she’s on the PEN Writers with AIDS Fund Benefit Committee and she knows I contributed $100.

I guess I have such an inferiority complex that it’s hard for me to believe I won the contest on merit.

Wednesday, August 31, 1988

1 PM. With August over, I feel vaguely uneasy. Tomorrow I have to go to Sloatsburg, and I’m a little nervous about that, but it’s more because I’m fishing in uncharted waters.

I don’t know where I’ll be living a month from now. But I know I’ve been given a great opportunity. I was selected out of many writers for the Rockland residency, then I was picked for the NYSCA grant in a process where only one out of three get money.

Whatever her reasons, Sonia Pilcer selected my story out of the 500 which were submitted. That tells me – if I needed telling, and I did – that my writing really does have value. Maybe I’m coming into my time.

Newsweek’s cover story is “Will We Ever Get Over the Sixties?” Maybe I never have, and I still believe that that much-maligned time was an era that was good for me and other people, and yes, for the nation.

As one Newsweek writer pointed out, “do your own thing” meant tolerance for diversity. To use the word “freak” as a compliment said a lot to someone like me, who always felt like such an outsider.

The Quayle/National Guard flap has produced mainly mea culpas from Baby Boomer men who didn’t go to Vietnam. For me, I have no regrets. That war was a crazy war, and I knew that long before I turned 18.

Putting my agoraphobia aside, there was no way I could have ever gone into war and come back whole. Going to Vietnam was unthinkable for me; the draft physical at Fort Hamilton was hard enough. I was really just a little boy then.

God knows why my 1-Y classification (“till 1/71,” it said on my draft card) was never changed or updated or questioned. Maybe the story that the draft board secretary, who lived on our block, threw out my records in a bit of antiwar sabotage is true.

But I don’t feel guilty that I let others “do the fighting for me.” I protested that war in marches, letters, in the McCarthy campaign and others, and I didn’t want anyone to go to Vietnam. And I was right – we were right: Newsweek’s poll shows two-thirds of Boomers believe the war was wrong.

If we were naïve about the Communists – well, nobody can write a scenario that doesn’t end badly for Southeast Asia. But those 50,000 Americans shouldn’t have died.

Hopefully, the U.S. will never get involved another war like that again.