A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early July, 1989

by Richard Grayson

Saturday, July 1, 1989

8 PM. I’ve been pretty dizzy today, the way I was in Florida the first few weeks after my initial attack of vertigo. Maybe I will see a specialist if this keeps up.

It was bad last night and this morning, but it’s possible that the motion of the long train and bus rides from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn to Rockaway today further upset my equilibrium.

I needed Triavil, so when I got off the IRT at the Junction, I took the Flatbush Avenue bus to Deutsch Pharmacy.

My arrival was fortuitous, as Mr. Deutsch had just mailed out a package to Mom that morning; I paid for Mom’s drugs as well as my own Triavil and Antivert.

I walked around the old neighborhood, which looked as pleasant as ever with its brick houses and shady trees, to Kings Plaza, where I got the Rockaway bus.

Today was a real beach day, of course, and to avoid the crowds, I purposely didn’t want to arrive before 4 PM.

After dinner – salmon croquettes, my favorite – Grandma, Lillian Goldberg and I went over to the next building to see Aunt Tillie, whom I told how sorry I was about Uncle Morris’s death.

Tillie explained that after she took Morris in for his cataract operation, he had two heart attacks in the hospital. Because he was without oxygen after his heart stopped, he would have been a vegetable had he survived.

Tillie asked me to get her one of her prescriptions, and although I was tired and dizzy, I went to Ark Drugs.

As long as I felt I had to go, I tried to race-walk the two miles there and back to get in some aerobic exercise.

Back at Aunt Tillie’s apartment, I sat and talked more with her, Grandma and Lillian.

Tillie told stories about Morris’s various illnesses, from a burst appendix early in their marriage to her recent intensive nursing of him over the last decade.

(Grandma has told me that Tillie confided in her that she should have divorced Morris when she was younger because they never got along. But divorce was a major shame in those days, so instead they spent over sixty years of marriage together.)

After picking up Tillie’s mail for her, I excused myself, saying I needed to go back to Grandma’s apartment to take my medicine.

While I feel dizzy, there are worse places to be than at the beach.

Monday, July 3, 1989

7:30 PM. I just finished watching NBC Nightly News.

Did anyone but me notice the startling resemblance between former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and comic actor Jim Backus, both of whose deaths were reported today? Were they ever seen together at the same time?

Joking aside, tonight’s news was very grim. At 10 AM today I was watching for the Supreme Court decision on the Missouri abortion case.

As expected, the justices ruled 5-4 that the law, which placed restrictions on abortions and declared that life begins at conception (at least within Missouri’s borders), was okay and that states are free to chip away at the right to abortion.

Roe v. Wade wasn’t overturned, but obviously the Court is heading in that direction. It’s scary to think that women could lose their rights – at least in most states. (New York and a few other states are considered safe.)

Now the issue goes to the states, and one pro-choice woman said abortion would be the Vietnam of the ’90s.

Obviously, the pro-lifers are committed; if you believe abortion is murder, you have to be. And Bush, as usual, is pandering up in Maine, as he declared his satisfaction with the ruling and the hope that doctors performing abortions will be considered criminals.

Just as I’d burn a flag if that constitutional amendment forbidding it passed, I’d learn how to perform an abortion and do it if they couldn’t get anyone else to.

One by one, our freedoms are being taken away. This decision makes me as sad and angry as did the decision a couple of years ago – also announced just before July 4 – that homosexual relations aren’t covered by the Constitution’s privacy right.

So the government decides what people can do with their bodies. Pathetic.

Last evening I got a call from Kevin Urick, who got Grandma’s number after he tried to reach me at my parents’.

Kevin just bought a house in Baltimore – for $30,000, I can’t imagine what it must look like – and has been working as a prosecutor for the state attorney’s office for the past few months.

Kevin said that Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog still sells 10-15 copies a year, mostly to libraries. He hasn’t married and feels it’s too late to have kids if he ever does get married. His goal is to someday open a comedy club in Baltimore.

I got the impression that Kevin is still a somewhat naïve idealist. He says he wrote a novel in law school and hopes to send it out soon.

Kevin is a nice guy, and I was glad to hear from him again after all this time.

About my night’s sleep, the less said, the better. I was as dizzy as the night before and managed only four or five hours.

I stayed up late reading Sondra Perl’s Through Teachers’ Eyes, an ethnographic study of teachers in a Long Island school district who taught writing as process over the course of a school year.

Lucy had recommended it, and I found especially interesting the portrait of a teacher who was a total (well, not that, but close to it) flop because his ego kept getting in the way of his teaching.

I’m neither naïve or noble enough to want to become an English teacher again, but I’m interested in writing as process.

Of course, the product interests me, too, and mine arrived today. The Greatest Short Story That Absolutely Ever Was is a neat little book.

Reading it, I’ve found only one minor typo so far (for for of). The typeface size may be a bit too large, and maybe I should have done a back cover of blurbs and a table of contents, but I’m satisfied with the book – more than I thought I would be.

After I finished reading it, I went to have lunch at Ciro’s pizzeria, where I had to share a table with a kid, 19, who worked next door at Waldbaum’s.

We started talking, and when I told him I was 38, he said, “I can’t believe it. I thought you were my age. You must work out every day.”

For some reason, he asked me about Woodstock; he wanted to hear stories about the late ’60s and early ’70s. I’ve always felt that kids were not interested in those times.

Anyway, I felt flattered by his attention, and we ended up talking about rap music (he was black, and I’ve become very fond of the videos on Yo! MTV Raps!).

After lunch, I got Peri-Colace for Aunt Tillie at Ark Drugs and made up keys for Grandma at Brown’s Hardware. Then I looked through lots of medical books at the Seaside library.

As a last resort to stop dizziness, doctors can remove or destroy (with radiation) the labyrinth. Unfortunately, that leaves you deaf in one ear.

I suspect my problem is very much related to my sinuses. The local NBC Live at Five had a segment on dizziness today, and it showed sophisticated new tests doctors use to determine its course.

Grandma says she’ll feel “blue” when I leave because she gets accustomed to my company.

But sometimes Grandma drives me up the wall when she keeps repeating comments I’ve heard several times, if not dozens of times. Tonight she went out to play cards.

The next couple of days should be hot and humid, but here at the beach it’s breezy.

Tuesday, July 4, 1989

5 PM. I’ve been dizzy today, and last night I was extremely dizzy although I managed to fall asleep at 11 PM.

The vertigo is very disconcerting and jarring, and it makes the quality of my life so much worse than it otherwise would be.

I’m still at the stage, eight days after the latest attack, when I can’t do exercises in which I have to rest my head on the floor. For sleeping, the left side is only a bit more congenial than the right.

When I close my eyes and am left without visual clues as to my position, I feel like I’m spinning in space.

Doubling up on the 25 mg. of Antivert seemed to give me the relief I needed to fall back asleep at 4 AM, but I worry about taking too big a dose of the medicine.

I’m going to watch the second half of that report on new treatments for dizziness on WNBC-TV’s Live at Five later.

Last night and this morning, I watched TV with Grandma, who was sorry to see me go.

Although I’d thought I might take a taxi at least part of the way home, I stuck it out with buses and subways over the two-hour trip.

The mail included the book of writing by Sloatsburg’s fifth- and sixth-graders. I remember some of their pieces clearly, and it’s nice to see documentation of my residency. I’m glad Sloatsburg went so well.

I’ve been staying in Teresa’s room this afternoon, avoiding the cloudy, humid weather outside. It’s kind of a gloomy Fourth of July, but maybe I’m projecting.

I’m a little concerned about the Institute for the Teaching of Writing I’ll be attending for the next eight weekdays. How will I function without sleep and equilibrium?

Luckily, Teachers College is only a five-minute cab ride from my apartment.

I know I was dizzy for weeks this past March and April, and it finally went away: that gives me hope I’ll get over this, too. (On the other hand, the vertigo did return.)

Wednesday, July 5, 1989

5 PM. The bad news is that Teresa’s coming home tonight. The good news is that she’s quit her job (just before she was going to be fired; the boss called her into his office after lunch), so I’ll probably be alone here most of the rest of my stay in New York while she’s at the beach.

I was too dizzy to get much sleep last night although I tried hard, getting into bed at 9 PM. Despite that, I did make it okay through the first day of the Institute for Teaching Writing.

It started raining this morning, falling heavily throughout the day. I arrived at the auditorium at Horace Mann Hall at 9:20 AM, which I’d thought was early but was actually twenty minutes late.

There were over 500 people registered, and coming late, I didn’t get a nametag or a syllabus and course guide. I did check someone else’s to see where I had to go.

My daily schedule is:

From 9 AM to 10 AM, I’m in the big group section in the auditorium with everyone else; from 10 AM to 11:30 AM, I’m in a writing workshop with Dorothy Barnhouse, a fiction writer who’s going to MacDowell this fall.

Lunch is in between 11:30 AM and 12:15 PM, and then I go to a study group led by Mary Savage.

That lasts till 1 PM, when Randy Bomer, a Rochester high school teacher, comes in and leads our Teaching of Writing group.

After ninety minutes, we go back to the auditorium for our final session.

There are interesting people with varied backgrounds in my group, and I know three people from Lucy’s fall class: Suzanne, who’s a teaching intern in Greenwich; Bill, a cute but dumb young guy who used to contradict Lucy; and Karen, who’s making a career change from advertising copywriting.

In the morning freewriting, I started writing about my diary and my agoraphobia. It was personal, but I read it aloud to the group of four I was assigned to; I think I could turn it into something. Or maybe not. My diary writing has enabled to me to write easily and fluently, but I have a hard time disciplining myself and my work.

In the afternoon sessions we discussed issues in the teaching of writing as process. Since we’re an “advanced” section (all of us have experience with the process approach), we were able to hear real stories from the front lines.

The interaction is very helpful. One man told me he successfully taught a college class using a writing workshop this spring, so I need to talk to him some more.

The big session at the end was about the relationship between reading and writing and featured two women poets and Rob Stone, whose new novel was highly praised in the Times recently.

I didn’t have time to exercise yet and I don’t think I’m going to get around to it today, with Teresa coming home and all.

I called Book Crafters, who said they’d phone me with the balance due on my account. Once I send that by wire transfer, they’ll ship the rest of the books.

I don’t intend to do the twenty minutes of freewriting that Dorothy told us to do. This is it, folks: I’m already a writer and don’t have to know about my “creating my process.”

Thursday, July 6, 1989

8 PM. Yesterday at 6 PM, I went out to Woolworth’s to buy a new, polyester-filled pillow because Teresa’s pillows are too mushy for me. Then I had a satisfying burger platter at the Ottomanelli Café.

I was reading the Times and had just finished watching the evening news (Oliver North got a suspended sentence) when Teresa arrived home.

We spent a pleasant evening together – less harried than usual – and she talked about the job she’d just left.

Her friends all tell her she was crazy to quit, but how can anyone say that? You can’t know what another person’s job is like.

It was cool last night, so I slept on the living room floor on the futon and had the best night’s sleep I’d had in a week.

This morning I got up early and was driven to school by Teresa when she went out at 8 AM to move the car for alternate parking. The Olds makes a lot of noise now, but Teresa doesn’t plan to do any major repairs.

I read the papers until the opening session began at 9 AM. Lucy talked about notebooks, and a lot of it was old stuff to me, but like a good preacher – and, really, the Institute is similar to a revival meeting in tone – Lucy’s always worth listening to, even when you’re hearing it for the second time.

In our session with Dorothy, I wrote about my misgivings about Lucy’s philosophy that writing makes you a better person. The history of literary biography teaches us that the greatest writers were often horrible people with little self-knowledge.

Karen said that many men feel the same misgivings toward the nurturing nature of Lucy’s ideas about teaching writing.

Lucy never mentions writers like Dostoevsky, Celine, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Jean Genet: people whose vision of life is dark.

Naturally, Lucy is healthier than those people – but sometimes I hate healthy people. Or a part of me does.

At lunch I spoke with Phyllis, who teaches special ed classes in Bergen County, and Dolores, who teaches at the American school in Cairo.

Mary said our study groups will be optional after today; tomorrow I’d prefer to see a film they’re offering in the auditorium.

Randy’s talk about notebooks got hung up on semantics (are they called notebooks, daybooks or journals?) and privacy issues, and I got bored, as did others.

Bill, whose experience in the classroom is a semester of student teaching, talked too much. How can such a cute guy be so pompous and stupid? I can’t imagine him being a good teacher because he thinks he knows everything already.

The closing session was good: three teachers talked about interesting projects, like reading about grandparents, inviting them to school, and using them as subjects for writing.

One school in Brooklyn did a whole unit on deafness and education. The students explored the subject in a variety of ways, including field trips, visits from deaf people, and other things besides listening to “teacher talk.”

Home at 3:30 PM, I did aerobics and gained back some sanity. It’s very hard to sit all day in classes. I feel as if I’m back in high school.

Then I phoned Book Crafters and got the news that I owe them $534. Claire from the Rockland Center called to ask for my current address, because she was going to send me a certificate of appreciation I got.

I spoke to Julie Ramos, who liked the Sloatsburg anthology and who feels bad that the New York State Council on the Arts dropped the Writer-in-Residence program due to budget cuts.

I told Julie I’d send her the new book, and she offered to pay for it, but of course I refused.

The Sicilian pizza I had for dinner is playing havoc with my stomach now. My dizziness seems to be lessening, though.

Saturday, July 8, 1989

8 PM. Betty Owen called me last night, and apologizing for the delay, told me they’d be happy to have me join them on the BCC-South English faculty for the fall.

She needed my social security number and address for the paperwork; we both assume that the personnel department already has my files.

Betty said I’d have Greg’s office while he’s on sabbatical. The faculty report date is Monday, August 21.

She asked if I had any preferences as to times or courses, and I said not really, though I’d like to teach creative writing and wouldn’t mind teaching remedial writing.

I’ll probably get at least one 8 AM class, but Betty said she’d keep my schedule open after 1 PM; there aren’t many classes then anyway. I’d like to be able to teach a few computer workshops for TEC in the afternoons.

After some pleasantries, we hung up, and Betty said she’d be in touch with me soon.

This means that I’ll probably be back in Florida six weeks from today.

This year my summer in New York will be really truncated, and while I regret that, being at Broward Community College full-time gives me a salary I haven’t had in years. I’ll be able to meet my expenses without having to scramble for new credit line increases.

Besides, the experience will be good for me. I won’t be so isolated because every day I’ll be working among people, and I’ll be grateful for my leisure time alone.

Still, it’s going to be hard to leave New York City in six weeks; it’s not just Grandma, Teresa, Ronna, Alice, Justin and Larry that I’ll miss – it’s the city itself.

The truth is, I don’t have many close friends here anymore. I see Pete and Sat Darshan and Scott only sporadically, and I’ve lost Josh as a friend.

I know I want to be back here next May and stay at least four months and maybe more.

Last night I called my parents and told them about the BCC job. They’ll be happy to have me around again, though I’m not sure why.

Mom says Marc’s very thin now, and she’s sure I can lose weight on Nutri/System, too.

I want to try it: if I’m able take off 20 or 30 pounds, I can look the way I used to for the first time in my thirties.

Besides, the excess weight I carry around is a threat to my health and raises my risk of cardiovascular disease.

Last night I slept nine hours despite my dizziness. I had pleasant dreams, like one where Marc and I were in Paris.

Up at 8 AM, I exercised for an hour, getting in a hard upper-body workout and even got in some bench presses and chest flyes before the vertigo took over.

Today I did laundry and went to the 42nd Street library, where I caught up on issues of American Banker. (There’s now a Salvador Dali MasterCard with a reproduction of The Persistence of Memory.)

After lunch, I moved over to the Mid-Manhattan Library to gather some addresses and names for my mailing list for The Greatest.

In a letter, Tom said he’s glad the price of printing wasn’t too high because money has been tight since the purchase of the house, now set for the end of July.

Tom said “I told you so” about the Galileo Press contest: Pat Rushin is a good friend of the editors, so he was probably supposed to “win” the contest all along. But at least entering it gave me the impetus to complete a book manuscript.

Tom sent along some poems and a Times-Picayune book review he wrote. Debra has returned to St. Louis, and he misses her greatly.

I spoke briefly to Justin and Pete; both were busy writing, so they’ll call me back.

Judy, Brian and the boys left for their usual week on Cape Cod, so I’ve been deputized to feed the fish. I just pray none of those ugly crayfish die the way one did last summer.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. Approaching 40, I can see that I’m never going to be a great fiction writer; I don’t have it in me. I can continue to write and publish all my life, but I feel I should be doing something of more value to society.

Teaching is important, I know, and I want to continue teaching, but I also want to do something more. Politics, health care, the welfare of children, economics – I’m interested in so many things.

Do I sound more like an 18-year-old than a 38-year-old man? Good.

Donald Murray writes about never losing the capacity to expect the unexpected. It’s a nerve-wracking way to live sometimes, but I can’t imagine any other way.

Yet I don’t really know where I’m going. Well, yes, I’m going out for the Sunday Times in a minute, and in six weeks I’m going to Florida to teach English at BCC, but where will I be a year from now? Twenty years from now?

No, I don’t want to know; it would break my heart to see the future. For now, I want to drink in New York City every minute I have left here.