A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early January, 1990

by Richard Grayson

Wednesday, January 3, 1990

4:30 PM. With my word processing workshop at Miami Springs Senior High tomorrow, today is officially the last day of my vacation.

When I dropped by my parents’ house by an hour ago, I found that Mom was quite sick with the flu.

I’m trying to stave off aggravation until tomorrow, so I’m not going to call State Farm about my car until then. By now I wish I’d simply taken care of the repairs on my own.

Two things I hate are cars and insurance.

After making myself oatmeal early this morning, I read the papers and then worked out.

The Times had an article about how diets are out and eating habits are in.

Diets – especially crash diets – don’t work, and the only way to maintain weight loss is with a change in behavior.

Oprah Winfrey, who lost 67 pounds by using the Optifast powder, has regained much of the weight.

I remember how impressed Teresa was with Winfrey, but Teresa would be because it’s just the kind of think she would do.

Teresa has no discipline, and all her efforts to diet or exercise never last.

While I often debate berate myself for a lack of discipline, it’s mostly in the area of writing that I feel lazy.

Of course, by now come to accept the fact that I’ve lost interest in writing fiction. Unless my life changes radically, writing fiction will never be more than a hobby with me.

Perhaps my interest would have remained had I gotten more encouragement. Still, I’ve had books published and reviewed and I’ve received fellowships, residencies and the rest. (I’m waiting for my annual NEA fellowship rejection, due any day now.)

Have I stopped writing fiction because I’m afraid of failure? Perhaps, but I can’t deny I turn to other parts of the Sunday paper before I get to the Book Review.

Having said that, I sent back my cover and proof pages to BookMasters, and I expect to have Narcissism and Me out by March.

It’s listed in Forthcoming Books in Print, where I also saw Wade’s Henry James book from Cambridge University press listed.

Wade said something about sweating out his tenure decision this year.

Being a full-time professor of English is something else I’ve lost interest in.

While I know this sounds like sour grapes, I feel I’m lucky to have had the small successes I did, and I no longer regret my lack of literary acclaim or academic tenure.

After all, my life is more interesting than that of most middle-aged white English professors who write fiction, and I feel there are still possibilities I still haven’t uncovered yet.

Friday, January 5, 1990

8 PM. The story with my car is that there is no story. As of 4 PM yesterday, no claims adjuster had seen the car even though it’s been at JM Pontiac for eight days.

Every time I call the insurance company, they tell me someone’s going to see it the next day.

Marc said that’s standard practice because the insurance companies have 30 days to pay a claim and they wait as long as possible to do so.

I phoned my State Farm agent from Miami Springs High School yesterday afternoon, but I’m not optimistic about his speeding things up.

The whole experience is a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic incompetence and greed.

I know communism seems to be dead, but the current gloating about “the triumph of Western values and capitalism” is nearly insufferable.

Maybe Abbie Hoffman knew what he was doing.

Okay, I’m nowhere near suicidal, but I don’t see justice on the horizon for America.

This morning I deposited $3500 in cash advances and credit card checks into the bank to cover the month’s bill payments.

Three years ago, I wasn’t at all sure I could keep my credit card chassis going until now, but as long as the U.S. is escaping judgment for its profligacy, so am I.

After doing aerobics and reading the papers, I got out my NEA fellowship application, an annual ritual since 1978 or so.

While I haven’t yet gotten last year’s rejection, that’s only because it’s being forwarded from my old address.

It was another gorgeous day, the kind that makes me wonder why anyone would live anywhere but South Florida during January.

Mom is feeling a little better, but the flu has really knocked her out. Next year, she vows, she’ll get a flu shot like I did.

Dad looked tired, too, after working with samples that came in the mail.

Both of my parents are starting to show their age, and while Mom made a face when describing her friend Joyce’s interest in moving to a retirement community, Mom will be 59 this year and Dad 64.

I can remember when my grandparents were that age. Mom and Dad will probably soon start getting health problems the way their parents did.

Hey, soon I should start feeling the aches and pains that are supposed to come in one’s forties.

I got a note from Mrs. Lipton, thanking me for the condolence letter I sent her after I read the obituary notices for Dr. Lipton.

She wrote, “Abbott took pleasure in your progress.” I guess there’s been some since I was a fucked-up 15-year-old experiencing daily panic attacks.

Karen sent me a Christmas card. She said that my students’ resistance to process writing discourages her. Karen has finished her coursework at Teachers College and starts student-teaching this month.

Crad sent a letter and some photos of Toronto, including the view from his fire escape and scenes of the strip on Yonge Street where he sells his books.

He earned $13,000 in 1989, but only a third of that is profit.

This weekend I still have to work on the FIU Technical Writing syllabus, and BCC’s spring term begins on Monday.

Crad correctly says that he’d make a terrible teacher because he would always tell the students how stupid they are.

I wonder if Crad is fit for any profession. His personality is so rigid and prickly that I hope he doesn’t fall into a rut with his writing and street-selling.

Of course, this is coming from a guy who doesn’t write at all these days – except in my diaries.

Saturday, January 6, 1990

8 PM. This afternoon I went to the movies at Ridge Plaza and saw Born on the Fourth of July.

Oliver Stone isn’t a subtle director, and by the end of the movie, I felt emotionally exhausted after crying through a lot of it.

Tom Cruise gave an amazing performance, and the film was the first one I’ve seen that dealt not only with the combat experience in Vietnam but also the antiwar movement.

Abbie Hoffman, playing himself in a scene at a Syracuse University campus rally after Kent State, says he’s just been to Brooklyn College. Of course, I was standing in front of Boylan Hall that day in May 1970 when he spoke.

And like Ron Kovic, I was at the Democratic conventions in 1972 and 1976, if only on the periphery.

The demonstrations against the war in the film made me cry because they were so much like the ones I was part of – including being harassed by “love-it-or-leave-it” Americans.

Maybe the film is a sign that the ’90s will not be a continuation of the ’80s.

In Top Gun, Tom Cruise starred in what I thought was an offensive recruiting film for the military. Now he’s made up for that by being in a film that takes a complex view of an unpopular, immoral war.

As divided as the country was then, as crazy as it got, there was a sense of possibilities, of something new happening. Today we get that feeling only in the demonstrations in the old Communist countries. In the U.S., everyone is simply numb.

Pete called last evening, saying I had been unable to reach him because he was in Caracas and Trinidad and Tobago for two weeks. He said he’ll tell me more about it next weekend, when he’ll be in Florida.

Pete did mention that after 32 years, he’s “discontented” with his life in New York City.

“Oh, so this is the winter of your discontent?” I said.

“Well, after living here for 32 years, I think it’s time I went somewhere else.”

When Pete, the quintessential New Yorker, starts talking like that, I can only wonder who’s next. But then, I was surprised when he left the East Village for Park Slope.

I think people need to change if they are going to grow and not stagnate. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to spend the last six years moving between New York City and South Florida. I don’t feel an urgent need to live anywhere else.

Last night I slept well. Just before I got up at 8 AM, I dreamed I was back in Midwood High School and it was exam time and I was frantic, unable to find the room where my exam was to be given.

I’ve been reading a lot about Thomas Pynchon’s new novel Vineland.

The only book of his that I’ve read and loved is the short Crying of Lot 49, which I associate with being in high school.

I fondly remember the psychedelic drawing on the cover of the Bantam paperback I bought at the old Bookworm bookstore on Flatbush and Church in the spring of my junior year.

Wanting to reread it, I couldn’t find the book in any library the other day.

I seem to keep circling around the subject of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

From her sickbed, Mom looked at me and said my new thinness reminds her of how I used to look when I was in high school.

I’ve thought of that myself. When I took my senior photo for the yearbook, the photographer said that if I turned to the side, I’d disappear. I think I weighed about 105 when I was 16.

Mom stayed in bed again today; although her fever is gone, she’s still weak from the flu.

I just realized tomorrow is Marc’s birthday, so I got out the card I bought him last week. (It’s about those three little words we often exchanged in childhood: “Don’t tell Mom.”)

Marc is 35 tomorrow, and that makes me feel old.

As long as I’m on the subject, my draft physical for the Army at Fort Hamilton was just about exactly twenty years ago today.

Monday, January 8, 1990

8 PM. As I expected, things didn’t go as scheduled at BCC.

When I got to school at 10 AM, I greeted everyone in the department, including Greg and Judy, who are back from sabbatical.

Betty told me there wasn’t much chance my 11 AM creative writing class will make because only nine students had registered and they need 15 for it to go.

Dismayingly, she also never took me off the English 101 class as she had said she would.

Betty told me to meet the creative writing group today and give it till Wednesday to get up to 15.

The only student I had before, Lori Willis, was disappointed, as were the others, including two older women.

But maybe I’m better off if the class doesn’t make: there’s this chatterbox with no impulse control there, and half the class wants to write children’s stories.

Barbara’s poetry writing class didn’t make, either, nor did many lit courses, so Betty is struggling to find replacement courses for the full-timers.

If things don’t change, I’ll probably stick with the English 101 class at noon. Today I had them do the CLAST diagnostic and told them I might not be their permanent teacher.

Several of my nice remedial students from last term are in the class, though, as are people in their mid-twenties and enough Haitians and blacks to provide a counterweight to the wiseass white kids just out of high school.

(At BCC, blacks take their classes more seriously than whites do and are better students even when they don’t write as well.)

So it appears that I made up the English 102 and creative writing syllabi for nothing. Now I’ll wait till Wednesday before I make up an English 101 syllabus.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind just coming in for the noon English 101 class; then I could have the whole morning at home.

No word from FIU canceling my technical writing class, but if they do, it will open up Wednesday afternoons for Teacher Education Center workshops.

Barbara said that Adrienne is teaching two English 102 sections at FIU, but Barbara will bump her from the Wednesday night BCC creative writing workshop with my old gang.

Peter Hargitai spent the vacation in bed with the flu his kids brought home from college. He and his wife have bought a two-bedroom condo on Ocean Drive in Hallandale that sounds really nice.

Many people on campus commented on how thin I’ve gotten.

Home at 1 PM, I waited until after lunch to call State Farm, and the news was as unpleasant as I expected.

They still have the car at the body shop that refused to take it instead of at JM Pontiac. Nobody can see it until Wednesday at the earliest.

When I told Mom, she said we should all cancel our policies. She was so angry that she called the agent and started to complain, but they put her on hold for so long that she just hung up.

After that, she said we should definitely go to another company.

At least Jonathan has Dad’s car while Dad’s in New York on Bugle Boy business.

I hope my car is okay because it’s now been 16 days since the accident.

State Farm has 30 days from the date I filed the claim to pay me, but of course I couldn’t file on that Saturday, Sunday, Monday or Tuesday because my agent was closed for the Christmas holidays.

Even if Mom cools down, I’m going to take my own business elsewhere.

A guy from HBO’s new Comedy Channel saw The Committee for Immediate Nuclear War in the Encyclopedia of Associations and asked me to send them material on the group.

Of course, I’m also sending him a bunch of clips to show how funny I am, but I’m certain nothing will come of it.

Still, it’s always pleasant to fantasize about getting the proverbial “big break.”

Last night I called Ronna, and I was so startled when a guy answered and said, “Caplan residence,” that I hung up.

I assume it was Steve. I expect he and Ronna are now spending most of their free time with one another.

It made me feel a little weird, as it did the night he was pushing her to get off the phone, but I realize the best gift I can now give to Ronna is simply to get out of her way.

I did the same thing with her when she started seeing Jordan in 1979.

If her relationship with Steve is going to lead to marriage, I’ll be happy for Ronna, but I’ll feel a bit lost that our friendship will change and I’ll be less important in her life.

Still, I’d rather be friends who speak and see each other infrequently than not have contact with her at all.

And it’s about time that a guy recognizes Ronna’s value.

Dad said it snowed in New York today.

Wednesday, January 10, 1990

9 PM. Last night I slept soundly from 10 PM till 8 AM, but I was going to need that rest, for today was stressful.

However, I’ve gotten through it with only a neckache, caused by stretching to pick up a bottle of water in Jonathan’s car. My neck is always the most sensitive part of my body when I’m stressed out.

This morning at 8:30 AM, when Homestretch came on TV, I forced myself to work out to it, and that was a good thing because I don’t know when else I could’ve gotten the time in.

This morning I printed out the English 101 syllabus and other info sheets I’d done yesterday.

I figured I would cancel the 11 AM creative writing class and keep the English 101, but Betty said that she might need me for a different class at 11 AM.

After Betty gave me transfer cards for the creative writing students, two girls came into the office wanting to get into my class after their marketing class was canceled.

And two new students showed up today. Now there were 13 students in the class, so Betty told me to have them wait until Friday while she tried to get permission from the higher-ups for the class to run.

And that meant, since I was unsure whether I’d be teaching creative writing, I also didn’t know if I would be the teacher in English 101 – where today I gave a general preview of the course, the Gordon Rule, and CLAST.

The students really want me to stay as their teacher, and I like them pretty well, too. One thing is certain: by Friday, things will be definite.

I came home feeling worn out. But there was a message from JM Pontiac saying  they needed my signature to go ahead with the work on the car after the insurance claim had come through.

So after lunch, I drove to Hollywood and sign the damned thing: probably I’ll end up paying most of the money because my deductible is $250, but by this point, I just want my car fixed and returned.

Back at the apartment, I snapped my neck. Maybe would be worse if I didn’t do flexibility exercises, but it’s still very annoying.

In the hour I had left, I prepared for my FIU technical writing class and tried to relax.

Stopping off to scoop my mail out of Mom’s mailbox, I got my expected NEA rejection.

The odds of getting an NEA creative writing fellowship keep getting worse. They had 97 winners out of over 2000 applicants; I recognized only a third of the names as the usual suspects.

I also needed to put two quarts of oil in Jonathan’s car because his oil light flashed.

When I got to the McFatter Vocational Technical Center at 4:20 PM – before today, I’d been on that campus only to vote – things were quiet.

I found my classroom in the medical building, and one by one, for half an hour, students trickled in.

There are about a dozen students, from various fields – predominately nursing, healthcare administration and engineering – and most are close to graduation, having just discovered they need a writing class to get their degree.

My class was the only advanced writing section on any FIU campus still open, so some students are coming to Davie from Dade County.

It looks like a good class: it’s small, and they’re almost all working adults, the kind of students I like best and am most used to working with. They can see I’m serious but no slave driver.

I told them I understand the frustration at their having to take a required course so late in their college careers. (Some of them have already taken technical writing at BCC or other universities.)

I was prepared with handouts stressing purpose, audience, and the writing process, and I explained how we’d handle the workshop approach.

Just before I let them go early to buy the textbook at the BCC bookstore, Tom Riley, the FIU administrator, came in and said the class will run.

That’s good news for me, but even better news for my students, since they need the credit.

Sometimes things work out.