A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early March, 1990
by Richard Grayson
Thursday, March 1, 1990
2 PM. A gloomy start for March.
Mom will hear from her doctor late today, and I’m still worried that it might be bad news. I won’t find out till 8:30 PM, when I get home from Southwood Junior High School.
Last night I had trouble sleeping because I was so worried. I remembered ten years ago in 1980 when Grandpa Herb was diagnosed with lung cancer and how terrible that was.
That whole year was a tough one: not only was I living by myself in Rockaway, alone for the first time, but I was sick with labyrinthitis, my parents were far away in Florida, I had no money and hardly any work, Janice was dying, and I felt like a total failure.
Of course, going through those bad times made me stronger.
I remember how I would lie in my bed on my fifth floor apartment and look out the window at Jamaica Bay, watching planes land and take off; below them were the Cross Bay Bridge and the subway trestle to the east and the Marine Parkway and Verrazano Bridges to the west. In my mind’s eye I can see the ship’s-bottom roofs of the houses on my block and I can hear and feel the roar of the Concorde four times each day.
That summer of 1980 I began listening to classical music and reading Emerson. I’ve always found a way to come out of bad periods in my life.
In 1968, when the panic attacks led me to confine myself in the house, I had a really rough time. But when I got better in the spring and summer of 1969, it was like I was entering the world again. (I’ve always liked what Mike Winerip called it in his Herald profile: “a classic rehatching.”)
And starting that fall, I appreciated my college experience that much more because every day in the world felt precious to me.
Two years later, when Shelli and I broke up, I felt I was going crazy again. Now I understand that it was the normal intense pain adolescents feel when their first relationship ends.
But as depressed as I was in the fall of 1971, when I look back now at that time, I treasure the moments I spent turning inward: taking long walks on the beach and learning about herbs and wearing flannel shirts and strawberry body oil and feeling the luxury of my tears and misery.
If Mom is very sick – and I’ve already had that heroic and narcissistic fantasy of donating a kidney to save her life – we will all get through that, too.
When I called Grandma to wish her a happy 80th birthday, she said she wasn’t feeling well and had terrible diarrhea.
I asked her she ever thought she would live to 80, and she said – honestly, I’m sure – that she had never thought about it.
“Being 70 didn’t seem old,” Grandma said, “but 80 does.”
Ronna’s grandmother died soon after her 80th birthday; I remember in December 1988 how excited Ronna and her sister and cousin were as they planned to celebrate the occasion, not realizing their grandmother’s life would soon be over.
Grandpa Herb didn’t live to see 80, and Grandma Sylvia died maybe eight months after she turned 80. Grandpa Nat had his heart attack or stroke around that age, too: although he lived another decade, his mind had died at 80.
Look how reflective this has made me: I’m not writing about school or credit cards or world events.
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on.
I’ve got to get to South Dade soon.
9:30 PM. When I stopped at Mom’s an hour ago after my long drive on the Turnpike, I-75 and I-595, Mom, Dad and Jonathan were on the couch watching a movie on Cinemax. (Jason Gedrick, bare-chested, was playing a love scene.)
“I guess you don’t have to give me your kidney,” Mom said. The doctor told her that her kidneys look fine. She’ll go for another exam to see if they can find what’s causing the problem.
Feeling much relieved, I happily went through my mail and took the smallest of the four cartons with copies of Narcissism and Me that had arrived via UPS this afternoon. (Dad said nobody was home so the deliveryman just let the boxes there.)
Back in my apartment, I made myself a Healthy Choice turkey dinner, paid a couple of bills, laid out my clothes for tomorrow, took off my lenses to disinfect them, put out my Nutri/System food for the morning and recorded today’s calorie intake (1165 so far).
Obviously I let my mind run away with me regarding Mom’s medical tests, but I feel life is fragile.
Anyway, I have a much greater appreciation of my life because I spent the last couple of days worrying.
Actually, my teaching has gone well. On Sunday I found an AppleWorks tutorial video at the library, and today I took it out and had my workshop look at it; they found it helpful, and it’s a great tool for teaching.
Yesterday’s FIU Tech Writing class went okay: I showed visual aids and had conferences with people.
Maybe I’m not the most prepared or organized teacher, but I understand the needs of adult students and make allowances for Ryan’s traumatic divorce or Carol’s hospital meetings or the illness of Andrea’s mother.
Next week there’s no FIU class because it’s spring break, so I teach only the six hours at BCC and the Thursday TEC workshop. Maybe I’ll have time to catch up with my life.
I want to send out all those copies of the new book to friends and to periodicals. Perhaps it’s foolish of me to be so generous with copies, but I want to be.
It occurs to me that I’ve accomplished most of the goals I set for myself last summer: I lost 45 pounds, published the new book, taught college English again, went to New Orleans.
I hardly have taken time to reward myself. But after I do that, I need to start thinking about new goals.
Tuesday, March 6, 1990
10 PM. I just got off the phone with Teresa, who congratulated me on the book.
She said she had just walked down the path to get the mail. On Long Island, there’s six inches of snow on the ground and it’s still coming down.
“But it’s beautiful,” she said, “not cold, with a silvery, very bright moon.”
Teresa’s still having real estate trouble. That East 87th Street apartment is an albatross around her neck. Last weekend she painted it and cleaned, but after putting a lot of ads in the paper and contacting many agents, she’s had no response, and the apartment is still vacant.
Somehow she’s managed to scrape together her mortgage payments late, but she hasn’t paid her maintenance since last year.
Not only at the city’s real estate market imploded with the loss of jobs in the financial services industry, but the apartment’s location – all the way east on York Avenue – isn’t desirable for young people, most of whom much prefer the West Side.
Yesterday Teresa signed a new two-year lease on 350 West 85th Street, and she reminded me I can stay there on the weekends in May because her tenant lives on Long Island with her boyfriend from Friday evening till Monday morning.
Although Teresa has made several good friends in Oyster Bay, she’s detected subtle anti-Semitism among them. “It makes me very uncomfortable,” she said.
It was good to talk with Teresa.
Earlier, I spent an hour on the phone with Adrienne, who’s really into her second novel, writing five and six hours a day. I bet she’ll be successful because she’s so dedicated.
Adrienne is hoping Tony will now do most of the work to bring in the money – she was the one who worked full-time last summer and fall – so she can keep up her writing pace.
Although I stayed up late, I again woke at 6 AM as NPR’s Morning Edition came on the radio. This seems to be my natural rising time.
I worked a little on my old stories today. Paris Review already rejected “In the Sixties,” which I sent out only a couple of weeks ago. I’ve also got the piece at seven other “big” little mags.
The Hollywood Sun – I still think of it as the Sun-Tattler – called to say they’re going to print a letter I wrote supporting a referendum to allow condo and apartment complexes to ban senior citizens.
Next week the County Commission is voting on amending the Human Rights Ordinance to allow housing developments to bar children, so what I did was take the arguments used by elderly people against children and say almost the same exact thing about the elderly themselves.
To these old Jewish people in their condos, kids are seen as a nuisance. Well, I consider old retirees to be a nuisance, too.
My letter should rile up some senior citizens, something I seem to have a knack for and which gives me great pleasure.
Although I’ve been starving all day, I’ve controlled myself.
Wednesday, March 7, 1990
4 PM. I just did twenty minutes of exercise to Homestretch to add to the half-hour Body Electric tape I worked out to this morning.
Exercise is an integral part of my life, and now that I’ve lost weight, it shows. While nobody else may be admiring my body, I’m pretty impressed when I take off my shirt and look in the bathroom mirror, especially when I think about where I started out.
I always figured my forties would be the decade in which I finally got myself together.
Of course, I said the same thing about my professional life coming together in the 1990s, but right now it doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere.
Still, there’s nine years, nine months and 24 days left in the decade, and who knows where I’m going and where I’ll end up?
I realize the diet and exercise can’t keep me young or healthy – I could get a brain tumor or MS or get my legs paralyzed in an accident – but at least I know I’m doing what I can.
It’s like in the Serenity Prayer.
And of course my regimen helps me feel sanctimonious and excuses my failures.
Hey, Adrienne may write six hours a day, but she lives on coffee and cigarettes and is always working on her tan.
Seriously, I wouldn’t trade my life with that of a conventionally “successful” writer. Day by day, I’m having fun. It may be a very peculiar sort of fun, but I feel good.
Again, despite not falling asleep till midnight, I woke up at 6 AM. Maybe I need less sleep these days. Tomorrow I can sleep late if I’m able to.
I ate two portions of whole wheat cereal this morning; eating more early in the day seems to help me control my appetite. Unlike yesterday, I’ve been barely hungry and couldn’t even finish my lunch salad. I also skipped my mid-morning fruit and the dressing on my salad, too.
Out of the house before 10 AM, I deposited $1300 (in cash advances and the money Mom gave me for Dad’s car repair) at the bank; later, I deposited my BCC paycheck.
I’m trying to make higher payments to each credit card to avoid another cancellation like Bank One’s.
To show my creative writing students what poetry is, I brought in some classic poems from the early twentieth century that don’t rhyme.
But the old ladies looked at Eliot (“Prufrock”), Yeats (“Sailing to Byzantium”) and Cummings (“anyone lived in a pretty how town”) and wanted to know why it was poetry.
I told them this stuff was written between fifty and ninety years ago and compared it to painting: “After all, people today don’t still think Picasso is weird, do they?”
But then I realized that the old ladies in my class, and probably some of the young students, do.
Adrienne said her students think she’s conning them when she tells them that poems don’t have to be, and probably shouldn’t be, rhyming couplets.
I become pretty agitated when confronted with my class’s incomprehension. It’s not that they don’t understand that bothers me; it’s that they aren’t curious enough to try to understand.
Tom Person’s review of The Greatest Short Story That Ever Was in his Laughing Bear Newsletter began:
“Richard Grayson’s short fictions have been a delight for the last 15 years or so. They add spice to innumerable small magazines and here, his sixth book, they’re gathered in irresistible collection. Reading to review, I was going to read one at a sitting and let them digest, but I was drawn into the next and the next after that without being able to stop.”
Today’s English 101 class was freeform and had few students.
Patrick showed me that the cinema verité documentary maker Frederick Wiseman will be teaching a class on four Fridays in April at FIU, and students can get one to three credits for it, depending on how long a paper they write.
I’d like to take Wiseman’s class, but first I have to call Sophie to see if that Sunset High School TEC workshop has fallen through.
Saturday, March 10, 1990
9 PM. I slept from 11 PM to 9 AM, and although I have seem to have a slight cold, basically I’ve fought it off so far. We’ll see how I feel during the night and tomorrow.
But at least I caught up on my sleep, and I had exciting sexy dreams about co-starring in a movie shot on location in New York City.
Although I felt pretty good this morning, I decided not to work out on the Nautilus machines at BCC; instead, I did my usual half-hour to Body Electric.
Then I shaved off my beard. In July 1985 (or was it 1986?) and in December 1987, when I shaved my beard, it wasn’t planned, but today I worked it out carefully, and it was a tedious process.
Without my beard, I feel naked, and somehow my face looks bland and uninteresting. But I’m not going to grow it back immediately the way I did the last two times. I’ll give myself a week.
The layer of fat under what passes for my chin is still there, but I probably lost some of it since I got thinner.
I’m not used to seeing my bare upper lip and denuded facial pores. As Pete and Jonathan, both of whom had beards, said, pimples tend to break out when you first shave.
When I went over to my parents’ house with my laundry, Mom said I looked younger, but I don’t think I do.
Mom seemed surprised that the dog recognized me without a beard. I played with China for a while and had a salad in the kitchen.
Back at home, against my better judgment, I listened to the ultra-conservative talk-show host Mike Thompson on WNWS. (He’s the nebbishy-looking guy who opened the door for me when I was on Marshall Moore’s show.)
For two months he’s been leading a crusade against 2 Live Crew, a rap group produced by Miami’s Luke Skyywalker, and their filthy, sexist album As Nasty As They Wanna Be.
Yes, I’ve read the lyrics, and they are disgusting, treating women as worse than objects. But of course what Thompson is advocating is censorship.
Judges in several Florida counties, including Broward, have declared the album obscene, but Mike Thompson and his friend Jack Thompson have crusaded against Dade State’s Attorney Janet Reno for failing to bring charges in the case.
(Jack Thompson was the nutjob who harassed Neil Rogers; he ran against Reno in the last election.)
In what sounded like a frightening McCarthyite tactic, Mike Thompson asked listeners to write to him, anonymously if they wish, giving reasons why Reno might be “compromised” in this case.
My impression was that Thompson thinks Reno is gay. He’s a rabid homophobe and probably hopes to find some evidence of her sexual orientation that he can take to the governor.
(Why being gay would make someone favor this rap album is totally unclear, but then these right-wing nuts live in a paranoid fantasy world where logic is irrelevant.)
Governor Martinez, at Thompson’s urging, is using the rap record as a kind of Willie Horton in his reelection campaign.
By the way, the latest campaign commercial shows serial killer Ted Bundy onscreen as Martinez tells us killed a lot of scum like Bundy in his role as chief executioner.
Five weeks ago in New Orleans, I thought it was absurd when Tom called the U.S. a police state, but now I’m starting to think he was probably right about this.
(By the way, it’s bothering me a lot that Tom hasn’t written me back. Is he angry with me? Did I do something wrong while I was in New Orleans?)
Anyway, between the civil liberties we’re giving up in the phony drug war and the flag-burning amendment imbroglio and all this censorship, today’s “climate” – as it was referred to in a letter I got today from Poets & Writers – is chilling.
Poets & Writers sent me a form to update my Directory listing, but they also wanted us to write representatives and senators to tell them to support the NEA as it comes up for congressional renewal this spring.
With Jesse Helms and his ilk using “obscene” art as their 1990s version of the Communist menace, it’s almost scary to be a writer.
But as I said at that Miami Waves Festival panel at Miami-Dade Community College in 1984, maybe we are reversing places with Eastern Europe and that being repressed will mean our artistic work is taken more seriously.
I did something that might be stupid: I mailed copies of my chapbooks and the Florida Review story with its gay content to Jack Thompson with a letter (unsigned) that tells him of my Florida Arts Council fellowship and asking him to further investigate “state-funded filth.”
Right now I figure the publicity of attacks on me could only help my career as a writer.
But probably there’s no way my fiction can be considered obscene, even by a dirty-minded homophobic prude like Thompson; he’s got bigger fish to fry with 2 Live Crew.
Still, I am very disturbed by his going on the radio and attempting to get people to “inform” on Janet Reno’s alleged sexual activities.
If that’s not like being denounced in a Communist police state, I don’t know what is.
Sometimes I think I would have more freedom in Czechoslovakia, where Vaclav Havel is a president more to my liking than George Bush.
Our leader, with his 80% approval rating, constantly talks about improving health care and education and the infrastructure, but he won’t commit money to any programs.
He’s sneakier than Reagan, and I’m working up an animus toward Bush that I haven’t felt toward a President since the Nixon days.
Will people wake up and realize that Bush has no imagination? The U.S. is becoming an irrelevant bystander in a world making itself over.
But maybe the zeitgeist is changing. In the latest USA Today, stock analysts advise selling short any company that is related to New York City, “which will be the oil patch of the 1990s.”
The financial services industry and real estate market are in a depression – well, almost – and New York City’s problems are beginning to make it seem unattractive to both businesses and the ambitious bright young people who flocked there in the past.
I guess I’ll get a sense if the changes are real when I return to the city in May.