A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late August, 1989

by Richard Grayson

Monday, August 21, 1989

9 PM. Today was a day of big changes for me, but I’m fascinated by them.

I slept well and was at North Campus for the social hour at 8:30 AM.

I said hello not only to Patrick, Peter, Scott, Barbara and the others from the department, who expressed pleasure I’d be joining them at South Campus, but also with old colleagues from Central Campus like Lynn, Casey and Luke, and people from all campuses who remembered me.

Will Holcombe, as president of BCC, provides a contrast to Dr. Adams, and there’s much less tension; in fact, one of the first announcements was a tentative settlement for the new contracts with a 5% raise.

BCC’s enrollment is up, but because of new, higher passing standards for CLAST exams, our students’ pass rate is in jeopardy of falling below 50%. So the college is getting pressure from the state to raise our students’ scores.

Naturally, this political decision is another example of the bureaucratic tail wagging the teaching dog.

I felt odd being introduced by Dr. Edy Williams, the South Campus academic dean, but I did sense genuine affection on the part of people as they applauded.

Of course, all the new faculty got applauded.

It’s hard to believe I was first introduced as a full-time instructor at a similar meeting eight years ago.

Our South Campus meeting of faculty was scheduled back in Pembroke Pines at 1:30 PM, so I had time to have lunch at Gaetano’s pizzeria and check out the courses FAU and FIU are offering.

I’ve pretty much decided not to be a student this term; there’s no sense making life harder than it has to be.

Betty greeted me effusively with a kiss on the cheek, and at our all-campus meeting, she introduced me with embarrassing praise.

I like Dr. Carl Crawford, our provost (Larry McFarlane, now provost at North, was arrested for soliciting prostitutes in a Friday night police sting; that made the papers the day I got here), and South seems like a friendlier, more informal place than Central.

I’ve got Greg’s office while he’s on sabbatical, but I need to get my key for it. I also have to get downtown to Personnel to fill out all the forms for my employment.

So far my schedule has only three classes: two  English 102s and one English 101 at 8 AM, 9 AM and 10 AM on Monday/Wednesday/Friday.

Betty said she’d have the other two classes for me at our department meeting tomorrow morning.

It was good to schmooze with Patrick and Barbara again, and also with Eileen, who’s in one of the new college prep positions (where she’ll teach only remedial classes).

Leaving campus at 4 PM, I feel I’ve got tons of work to do. But I’ll get everything done as best I can. I do feel excited about the job.

At home, I exercised and paid the three credit card bills that came today with three credit card checks on my Monogram (formerly Goldome) Visa, which raised my limit from $2000 to $3000.

The Greatest books arrived in four boxes this afternoon so I can get started sending them out.

Last evening Dad called from Los Angeles. He seems to be doing okay; yesterday he was out at the beach in Venice with his fellow sales reps.

Marc left China here, and she couldn’t stop licking my hands and arms when she saw me. I’ve never had a dog show me such affection.

Marc rented a new apartment today, on Nova Drive between University and College Avenue.

In all the frenzy of moving from New York to Florida, I forgot to record that on Friday night Josh called me on my last night in Manhattan.

He was surprised I was leaving so soon and said he was sorry we’d “lost touch.”

Tuesday, August 22, 1989

8 PM. Last night I slept deliciously and had several dreams about helping a pregnant man about to give birth. That man was probably symbolic of the way I feel, full of life and about to begin a new life.

This evening I went to Nutri/System on State Road 84 and Hiatus Road, where I signed up for their program.

On Thursday I’ll come back to get my food and be oriented to the program, but I feel confident I can make it work, as it seems to be based on sound principles and has worked for others.

My goal is to lose 35 pounds, to go from 185 to 150. I’d actually be thrilled if I could get to 160, which I haven’t seen in years.

Imagine how it would – how it will – feel to be thin again. They say I can lose the weight by November, but I’ll be happy if I can do it by January.

I actually didn’t want to start now, but they’ve got a half-price special for this week only, and as long as all the other changes in my life are going on, why not change my eating habits as well?

I really like the English Department at BCC-South, where Betty sets such a warm tone. She hired another one-semester replacement for Judy Nichols today: this woman, Adrienne, who just got her MFA from McNeese and who has a first novel at Simon and Schuster.

The others in the department – Barbara, Scott, Patrick, Janice, Chris, Peter, Vicki, Eileen – are all interesting and friendly people who are working writers and have varied specialties.

In addition to my two English 102 and one English 101 classes tomorrow morning, I have a fiction writing workshop on Wednesday evening and a remedial class on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 AM to 12:30 PM, so two days a week I can sleep a bit later.

I’m glad to be teaching at South Campus and I suspect I’ll enjoy the semester.

Today I had lunch with Patrick and Kyra, the artist and art teacher, and I gave Robert my union dues slip.

I had some good talks about films with Scott, who teaches Film and Literature.

Basically, I finally feel I’ve got intellectual comradeship here in South Florida and that’s exciting. Of course, I haven’t begun teaching yet.

Although I won’t have my syllabi ready till next week, I’ll try to make my classes feel as comfortable as possible this week. Hopefully, I can manage to do a decent job.

Coming home at 2 PM, I exercised to a Body Electric tape before I read the Times and showered.

The first week at any college is chaotic, and it’s especially true now, as I’m starting a new full-time job.

Thursday, August 24, 1989

10 PM. Last evening’s Fiction Writing Workshop had only seven people, including several I knew from last spring’s creative writing conference.

Betty said more will come next week, as they canceled the other creative writing sections.

We had a long, spirited discussion about commercial versus literary fiction, and I let everyone go at 8:45 PM.

Ordinarily, Thursday would be an easy day for me since I have just the remedial class from 11 AM to 12:30 PM, but today I had to be downtown at the BCC Fort Lauderdale Center for orientation at 8:30 AM.

First, we new employees – I was the only faculty member – had to watch a tape about toxic substances, and then we were given folders with forms to fill out.

Because my old information was on microfilm, they needed me to fill out a new application, and since I’d taken new graduate courses since I left teaching full-time at BCC in 1984, they needed me to send them my transcripts so they can figure out my salary.

I filled out the W-4, I-9 and other forms, but left in the middle of the insurance lecture – what good will medical or dental insurance do me, if it’s only from October to December? – to rush back to the Pembroke Pines campus.

I made it there just in time for the start of my class, who seem like a nice bunch.

I got them writing about their history as writers and broke them up into groups to share.

Some did a good job of sharing and a few were too reticent to share, but all in all, I was pleased with how the class went.

I hung around campus for over an hour afterwards, talking with Patrick and others. I can see how I could really waste a lot of time schmoozing.

On the other hand, think of how much companionship I’ve missed in recent years as I’ve worked solo.

Friday, August 25, 1989

9 PM. I feel very tired; last night I slept only four hours.

Probably I shouldn’t have rushed to start Nutri/System this week.

With all the adjustments I’ve had to make, completely changing my eating habits has been too much for me.

I’ve cheated all day when I started getting shaky or weak. Just as my dizziness is going away, there’s no sense making myself dizzy from hunger.

I can’t function on just 1000 calories a day, and though the Nutri/System entrees are good, they don’t provide the energy I need to be able to exercise, work, and think clearly.

Whatever weight I lose will be a bonus, and I’m not going to feel deprived just when I want to reward myself for adapting so well after a difficult week.

I enjoyed today’s classes. In the English 102 sections, I had the students write for ten minutes on their history as readers, and we went around the room, one by one, discussing our reading habits and likes and dislikes.

I asked probing questions – not “teacher questions to which I knew the answer, but real inquiries. I’m in search of those “teachable moments” this term, and I’ve already found a couple.

As I did yesterday, I wrote with the classes today, and I also tried out the CLAST prototype and seem to do worse than most of my students – at least as far as the essays I read.

They know how to take tests that offer essay questions, and I know how to write; those are two different things.

Their essays, as bad as they are may have been – and now I tend to look for what they did right – had a sense of organization and coherence that my tentative rehearsal jottings did not.

After my first week at BCC-South, I feel happy; the atmosphere there is pleasant.

I left shortly after noon today. No one watches to see if I keep office hours, and Adrienne, not knowing how paranoid we all used to be about being on campus, leaves right after her last class.

After all, I’m not trolling for a permanent job, and even if this term turns out to be wonderful, I still would like not to be here this time next year.

The South Florida heat is still hard on me, but it starts getting bearable after the sun goes down, as when I went outside an hour ago to meet my parents’ future next-door neighbors (whose house should be finished in a few weeks): a young black couple, Curtis and Zina, and their daughter Curtina.

I spent much of the afternoon working on my credit cards: paying bills, checking balances, making enough ATM cash advances to deposit $3000 to my California Federal checking account.

According to the paper, CalFed has sold its credit card portfolio to Household Bank, just like Avco did with my MasterCard a few years ago. So now I’ll get a Household Visa in addition to my Household MasterCard.

First Interstate may soon sell its credit card business as well; the industry is really consolidating.

Yesterday Whittle Communications, in a full-page Times ad, showed the covers of its latest Special Report magazines.

The Special Report: On Living issue on shopping featured the names of articles inside, including Gary Richardson’s “Living on Nothing but Credit Cards.”

Hey, that’s me.

Saturday, August 26, 1989

11 PM. Last night I slept a delicious ten hours even though I had hunger pains.

Today I did a little better on my diet, but I still had to add two bagels to the Nutri/System food to survive.

As Marc said when he came over here this evening, the first week is the hardest and eventually you get used to the diet.

So there’s no reason for me to excoriate myself; in fact, I think I’m doing fine.

I exercised to a Body Pulse aerobic tape this afternoon and did muscle toning with Body Electric in the morning.

Later, I called Grandma, who sounded very ill. Her tongue has a black spot on it, and she’s going back to the doctor on Monday.

Perhaps she has cancer of the tongue, or maybe her lymphoma has returned.

I feel bad about leaving Grandma in New York, but I can’t make myself crazy. I don’t expect her to live much longer.

I typed up the syllabi for my courses and sent copies of The Greatest Short Story to my friends and to local newspapers, and I filed a copyright form for the book with the feds.

And for Bowker’s Forthcoming Books in Print, I filled out an Advance Book Information form for Narcissism and Me.

I also went shopping for supplies at Kmart – Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi was only 89¢, so I bought a dozen two-liter bottles – and did other chores.

This evening I went to the fortieth birthday party Barbara threw for herself. Actually, her husband Jesse was the host at their home in Hollywood.

I knew many of the guests. Some were from the old Poetry in a Pub days, like Magi Schwartz and Lenny Della Rocca. Many were from BCC: Peter and his wife, Gary Kay, GL and Kira Sullivan, Janice and Vicki, Kit and others.

I saw Joe Cook for the first time since I finished editing his training manuals.

His date was Patricia, an administrator at the Medical Campus of Miami-Dade Community College, so I guess he’s not with Mary Jo anymore.

It was good to talk with Joe again about higher education in Florida.

I also learned a lot by peppering David, Betty’s husband, with questions about his (fundamental, not quantitative or technical) analysis of the stock market. David manages a portfolio worth $80 million.

His signals are bullish now, but he foresees only a 10% run-up over the next year. He says American stocks are not overvalued, as they were at this time in 1987 before the crash.

But David does think Tokyo is an overvalued bubble, and if the Japanese investors need to cover their margins by pulling cash out of U.S. securities, we might have a really bad economic disaster.

I spent a lot of time with Adrienne and her husband Tony, who are very nice. They met at Columbia College in Chicago and went to McNeese together for the MFA program.

Tony is probably going to student-teach; he’s been phoning and visiting schools and colleges for work.

Living in Lake Charles was difficult for them since they were accustomed to the big city, but at least they had each other there – as well as a community of writers (though some were the usual MFA-student birdbrains).

Tony and Adrienne moved here last week mostly because they like the area and her parents live in Hallandale.

I suspect we might become friends; I feel like we’re on the same wavelength.

Wednesday, August 30, 1989

2 PM. After just finishing my lunch – a salad, chicken soup, and a roll – I took off my lenses and got into a t-shirt and gym shorts.

I’m going back to school this evening for my Fiction Writing Workshop, but I need to rest now even though I slept okay last night.

It will be nice when I’m settled in my own apartment at Sun Pointe Cove.  I won’t have to feel I’m always surrounded by my family.

Still, I’ve felt comfortable here at their new house. While I could probably adjust to it if I had to, I prefer living alone.

It’s way too early to judge whether I want to continue to teach college English after this term as a full-time sabbatical replacement.

But right now I expect that after it’s over, I won’t want to apply for any full-time community college teaching positions in California or elsewhere for next year.

As long as I have to fight the bureaucracy, it doesn’t seem worth it.

Last night I was thinking about the BCC grammar test.

After reading Frank Smith’s Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms, I realize it’s important for me to take a stand and help my remedial students see that English isn’t all grammar drills.

Yes, I used to teach using constant grammar and usage drills, too – especially at LIU and Kingsborough when I first started out. I wondered why it never worked to help students improve their writing.

But at this point I know the answer to that question. Thanks to what I’ve learned from Lucy Calkins and others, I’ve found a better way to teach writing.

This morning I met Bill from the Writing Lab, who told me he wasn’t sure how our campus grammar test came to be, who made it up, or what its reliability or validity was.

Yet he said he was sure of its importance and its value.

To me, he didn’t sound very intelligent; basically, he seemed like a typical civil servant, just putting in time.

When I asked my English 101 students at 11 AM to discuss their own history as writers, I heard some horror stories showing how teachers taught them to hate writing.

So much of it seems to be teachers telling students, “I have power over you.”  Probably a lot of teachers are fucked-up.

One woman said an eleventh-grade teacher used to fail her papers because the teacher, a born-again Christian, found her ideas “anarchistic.”

Hey, I just got an idea for an assignment: Ask my students to write the worst paragraph they possibly can. What will they learn from that?  I don’t know, but I bet we’ll find out.

The “we” there is very important to me.  If I’m not learning, I’m not teaching.

That attitude, too, goes against the “power” attitude that some teachers have.

But I’m confident enough about my abilities and knowledge that I can concede I, too, make errors in writing, and like my students, I also need to learn to write better.

I’m not going to give up on my remedial students without a fight.

Last night I dreamed up an assignment where students interview each other as if they were doing the kind of celebrity profiles Alice writes and edits.

Maybe we could even publish them in a photocopied “magazine.”

I’d really like my students to think of my class as a writing club.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that worked?

Am I wrong to assume that if I treat my students as colleagues, they’ll rise up to the occasion?

I liked today’s discussions on O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in my 8 AM and 9 AM classes.

I read aloud some letters referring to the story, letters Flannery wrote, from The Habit of Being.  (One advantage to having classes in a public library building is easy access to books.)

I enjoyed reading the students’ stories from tonight’s Fiction Workshop class, though only one – Morris Weiss’s piece about the rational planning going into an elderly man’s suicide – was really good.

He even knew how to spell chaise longue, which impressed me, as I thought I was the only one who knew it wasn’t “lounge.”

Thursday, August 31, 1989

4 PM. I’ve been by myself in the house all afternoon, and that’s a pleasant change.

I just took a shower and changed my clothes after I spent the past couple of hours doing aerobics and other exercises.

I mailed out twenty copies of The Greatest to out-of-town Florida newspapers along with a press release whose header was “Florida Taxpayers Help Author Publish the Greatest Short Story That Absolutely Ever Was.”

I’d like to believe that some yahoo will get upset, as the Miami Herald did in their Neighbors article about Eating at Arby’s. (I enclosed that piece with of some of the press releases.)

It’s possible I could benefit from the Jesse Helms/NEA flap over government grants for controversial art shows.

Well, I’m sure Robert Mapplethorpe would be glad to see somebody benefit from the way he’s been crucified on Capitol Hill.

Last evening’s creative writing class went okay.

I had a couple of people who didn’t know what was going on, and they’ll probably drop.

One woman was told by a counselor that my class would help her in her new job of writing production notes for radio station. And a couple of younger students felt they needed more assignments and structure than the workshop format offers.

But most of the students are older adults who’ve already taken creative writing classes with Betty or other teachers and feel comfortable in a workshop.

We went over a very long SF cyberpunk story by Scott Coventry. Although I find the genre boring and unoriginal, and I had problems following the action, Scott is certainly a decent writer.

Morris Weiss, that slightly pompous old man, turned in an excellent piece, “The List,” about a Florida condo dweller’s plan to commit suicide. It was very thought-provoking and deeply felt.

One woman, a flighty Southerner, is excited about getting her romance novel published and gave me her first several chapters. She’s pushy and probably wacky, but so are several of the other students.

I expect most of their work to be dismal and to be surprised if I’m wrong. In a way, it’s depressing.

But so often I feel diffident about my own work, and it’s a confidence-booster to realize that I have far more talent than most people who want to be writers.

One of my English 102 students, Jed – the fat guy who comes from a Jehovah’s Witnesses background and who says he writes anarchistic poetry – asked me the other day if I was the author of the story “Ordinary Man,” which he liked. (I assume Scott Coventry had showed to him.)

I just got a letter from Tom, who said the book “looks wonderful . . . Your reputation will sell it, not blurbs.” I’m relieved to get Tom’s approval.

Tom will be teaching creative writing at Loyola during his lunch hours this spring. He’s getting  $3000 for the course, which Tom says is very little. (It’s still more than I make per course as a  full-timer.)

Last evening, as I was heading to school, in front of the nearby Forest Ridge development on Pine Island Road, I saw TV cameras shooting an archeological dig as they moved some 2000-year-old Tequesta Indian skeleton.

Apparently this whole area was a burial ground for those people, who lived here starting around 5000 B.C.

This morning my remedial class wrote diagnostic essays, and in the remaining time, we looked at some writings from the third graders at the Miller School.

I thought that would help them learn to talk about writing; the class seem to enjoy the kids’ work.

Moving to my new apartment tomorrow will be hectic, but at least I’ll have the Labor Day weekend to catch up on my work.

Tonight, after a week on Nutri/System, I weigh in there and attend my first class. I probably have lost little weight because I’ve cheated.

Can August be over already?