A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late February, 1991

Tuesday, February 19, 1991

2 PM. This is the most depressed I’ve felt it along time, and only part of it is because I feel so rotten physically. Everything in my life seems beyond my control.

When I was in the MFA program, I borrowed a book from the college library: Helplessness by Martin E.P. Seligman, a psychiatrist who described how, in laboratory animals and human subjects, feelings of powerlessness affected the body’s will to survive and its health.

Now Seligman’s got a bestseller, Learned Optimism, which suggests that pessimism itself can kill a person, that optimism can be learned, and it is the optimists who are life’s healthy, successful winners.

Although I believe in that thesis, today I just feel I’m without reserves to draw upon.

Grandma was put into a hospital mental ward again. Marty called this morning; he was out of the country when the convalescent home phoned Jeff to say they were putting Grandma into Franklin General.

There’s nothing wrong with her except mentally – isn’t that enough? – and in the hospital they’ll try to find an antidepressant that can help her without the side effects the other one gave her.

She still wants only to die, and Marty said she’s disoriented. Grandma Ethel may never get out of that mental ward.

God, I feel somehow I let her down by never being able to shake her out of it, jolly her along, or be there with her these last six months.

Last summer I felt as if I were trying everything but standing on my head to help her. Now I don’t even feel I can help myself.

Yes, I know: I’m not my grandmother (or my father), and I’ve always managed to get myself out of these funks easily . . . well, relatively easily.

I barely slept last night, and when I did, I had dreams in which I felt nauseous – and I felt nauseated when I woke up, too, and I had chills but no fever.

My head is very congested and I feel so tired that I can hardly move; of course, that could be depression as much as illness.

I just took my car in because it was leaking oil and Mom started freaking out over the oil in the driveway: another problem I can’t control.

But I did the only thing I could: take it over to Firestone.

Preparing for tonight’s American Lit class, studying for the Food and Nutrition midterm, getting through my classes the rest of the week – all of this is going to take an enormous effort the way I’m feeling now.

I wanted to be out of the house this Tuesday because I can’t stand being here with Mom. Now that she works only three days a week and has this house, she’s reverted to the same type of obsessive cleaning behavior I remember from childhood.

Of course, when she got like this in the last few years, I could always run back to my own apartment, so I never stayed long enough to see her in action.

My stomach is churning, and it’s rage, not illness. Can I talk this out? I feel overwhelmed.

Last night Pete and I ate at a Vietnamese restaurant in Tamarac. Vietnamese is Pete’s favorite cuisine, and while he pronounced the food here mediocre, I enjoyed my sautéed ginger chicken – and drinking lemonade and just being out help me feel better.

I even took Pete over to Sawgrass Mills for a long walk and didn’t come home till after 10 PM.

Pete never seems to succumb to despair. What’s his secret?

Long, enormous sigh . . . I don’t know. Everything in my own life seems like a fucking mess right now.

I did get a haircut, at least, and I even tried light exercise for fifteen minutes. I guess I’m more in control than I think I am.

Maybe I have the flu, a mild case because I was vaccinated.

But this is the third cold I’ve had since coming to Florida in September. If my diet is so healthy and I work out every day, why am I fighting illness so often? Is it because this is such a hard time in my life?

I was sick a lot like this in the fall of 1971, when I broke up with Shelli, and all through the winter and spring of 1980, when I was belatedly trying to grow up as I lived in my little studio apartment in Rockaway adjusting to living on my own.


Wednesday, February 20, 1991

6 PM. Once again I feel exhausted, but at least my depression has lifted.

Despite my cold – and I’m even more congested now, with a tissue never far from my nose – I’ve managed to get through my BCC classes last evening and today and my midterm at FAU this afternoon.

Now I can try to get the rest that I wasn’t able to get the past two nights, when I was kept awake by illness and congestion.

I kept my American Lit class past 8:30 PM, which was longer than I expected; I was also able to discuss the work of Malamud and Ellison with my students until I ran out of energy.

I thought about calling in sick today, but I felt well enough to go to school even on only five hours of sleep.

After my 8 AM class, I shopped it Albertsons and returned home, where I found enough energy to exercise lightly and then take a shower.

My noon class, on Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” went well.

I tried to get my car fixed, but yesterday Firestone and today the Chevron station on Davie Road and Nova Drive refused to do the repairs because it involves taking out the oil pan. Dad found a guy I can bring the car over to on Friday morning.

Today I got my pathetic paycheck. Because I took off that Friday for my bankruptcy hearing, I netted only $483.06, which really is slave wages.

FIU had an ad in the Herald several weeks ago, and today I got a form letter from the head of TIFE, the Training Institute for Educators, that they didn’t want me as a part-time teacher-trainer, precisely the same job I did for FIU’s Teacher Education Center, which no longer seems to exist.

My Food and Nutrition midterm was as easy as pie, though somewhat less satisfying; I can’t imagine getting less than 92 on it.

Still, I’ve gotten stuff out of the course, if only from my reading of the text and some of the projects we’ve done.

I just had dinner. Mom and Dad went to Publix, and I guess Jonathan is asleep in his room.

Since Friday, it’s been another nerve-wracking series of days turning on CNN. Will Gorbachev’s peace plan be approved by the Iraqis? And if it is, will it be acceptable to the U.S.?

We’ve got the allied forces massed for the start of the ground war, which for a week has been reported to be “imminent.”

I think that Soviets are helping the Iraqis to jerk us around, but I don’t feel sanguine about a ground war.

However, perhaps the optimists are right and Saddam’s army is ready to surrender without much of a fight. It would be wonderful if massive casualties could be avoided.

I’m so sick of the war, I just wish it would end, and I don’t really care how it does.

Pete’s letter about his travels in India and Nepal was a superb piece of reporting. He should write up all his trips, and I bet he’d have a book more marketable than his experimental prose.

I missed Richard Kostelanetz’s call before he left Florida, but I apologized with a message on his New York City machine.

Sleep is what I want now – or at least deep rest. While I don’t think I have temperature, I feel feverish.


Sunday, February 24, 1991

8 PM. The first news of the ground war started coming over TV about 9 PM last evening.

We all gathered by the electronic hearth in the family room to watch the sketchy reports of allied forces moving into Kuwait and Iraq.

The President came on with a brief statement at 10 PM, and a news blackout was put in place, although there were unconfirmed reports from the front.

I’ve just turned off the set. The video of the tanks in the desert is already familiar after a day of watching the same scenes over and over.

As of now, the allies seemed to be euphoric; the campaign is going “better than expected,” with 10,000 or more Iraqi troops surrendering to Saudi and American forces.

I’m skeptical of these claims – and the reports of very few casualties – because I remember the first night of the air war, when we seemed on the verge of winning within a week.

Now, too, they are telling us the war will be over in “days, not weeks.” I only know that the war is a horror and I want to see this one end as quickly as possible.

Without this war, Bush wouldn’t be popular these days, and while I don’t accuse him of deliberately starting the war to take our minds off his domestic failures, I’m certain he’s happy people aren’t concentrating on the economy, the environment, education, homelessness, the crumbling infrastructure.

If a smashing victory prolongs the patriotic fervor – it’s as if we’ve rewritten Vietnam with an alternate ending we’re more comfortable with – that can’t lead to anything good.

Lately I’ve thought a lot about eventually emigrating to another country where I might feel more comfortable; from my naïve viewpoint, half the nations of Europe seemed to fill the bill.

But I’m very much an American, and to me, the best thing about this country is the diversity, especially now that immigrants have made us a totally international, multicultural society.

In Broward County, there are dozens of ethnic restaurants, mosques, Buddhist temples, Sikhs, Koreans, Vietnamese, Peruvians and Brazilians, Guyanese and Trinidadians, Bengalis and Nigerians, Palestinians and Israelis.

That’s our future and our best hope to avoid becoming a third-rate jingoistic right-wing police state whose main export is mass entertainment.

I slept soundly and got up a little after 6 AM. After making pancakes for breakfast, I read the Times (most of it, anyway), did aerobics, watched war “news,” and called Franklin General Hospital, where Grandma has been transferred to “medical” from the psychiatric ward that Marty gave us gave us the phone number for.

But although I know Grandma is in room 230, she doesn’t have a phone yet. I’m sending her birthday card to the hospital, and I hope she gets it.

Because Dad’s back pain was so bad that he could hardly move, and Mom now has a bad cold, I went to Marc’s to take China for her walk and to bring her back here.

Later, because Marc and Jonathan had to stay till 7:30 PM at the flea market due to a 6 PM Barbara Mandrell concert, I took China with me as I picked up Chinese food for the rest of the family’s dinner. The four of them are it eating right now.

At the West Regional Library this afternoon, I got the video of the PBS series that had John Cheever’s O Youth and Beauty! I thought I could use it for my American Lit class as a counterpoint to their reading “The Country Husband.”

Similarly, I borrowed Mishima’s story collection Death in Midsummer because I thought his elegantly plotted “The Pearl” could serve as a companion to “The Necklace,” which my English 102 class read last week.

I also read some Malamud criticism at the library. I identify with Malamud because he got started as a published writer so late and he toiled in Oregon teaching composition when he finally got out of teaching in New York City’s public schools.

But of course, I’ve got only a limited time left to think of myself as a late bloomer – unless I can convince myself I’ll suddenly achieve my potential when I’m 74.

Right now I doubt I’m anything but a widely-read dilletante, but I still believe in my ability to do important stuff.

In any case, I’ve learned a much tougher lesson: how to enjoy life.


Monday, February 25, 1991

8 PM. The U.S. and its allies faced a bit more resistance today, but lots of Iraqi prisoners were taken, and casualties on our side are light – except for a Scud attack on an American base in Saudi Arabia that may have killed 40 people.

But tonight Baghdad radio is reporting that Saddam Hussein has ordered his troops to leave Kuwait.

This can cause a problem, of course, since the UN mandate calls only for the liberation of Kuwait, not the overthrow of Saddam.

While this could be a trick, it also could force us to accept Saddam’s remaining in power.

CNN and the broadcast networks are giving us information piecemeal, and who really knows what’s going on?

Last night at 10:30 PM, Libby called from California. She said I sounded just the same, and so did she.

Five-month-old Wyatt and 3-year-old Lindsay were with her, and I could hear them in the background. Libby says the kids are doing fine; being a mom is obviously a great joy for her.

Libby and Grant will be happy to have me stay with them in their little guesthouse, and I’m looking forward not only to seeing Los Angeles, but to spending time with them.

It will be a short trip: I won’t get to L.A. till late one Thursday and I’ll leave early the next – and I’ve got to be at the hotel in Long Beach working at the writers’ conference for the weekend.

I’ll make sure that I’m a considerate guest – something I haven’t also done – and I’ll bring gifts for the kids and for the house. Maybe I can even watch the kids one night so Grant and Libby can go out.

She said the weather is usually great in mid-April. I said I’d call her before I leave Florida.

While I’m certain this trip will be anxiety-provoking, I’m excited about finally seeing Southern California, if only for a week.

Last night I slept sporadically, waking up to the alarm at 6 AM.

I had lots of absences in my 8 AM class – it’s probably the cold and flu going around – but I introduced comparison/contrast and will try conducting writing workshops the rest of the week.

I ordered a TV and VCR to show the Cheever story in tomorrow night’s American Lit class and a tape recorder to play the cassette of Six Northern New Mexico Poets that Miriam and Robert sent me.

Today in English 102, I read aloud Mishima’s “The Pearl,” and I think at least a few people were as delighted by the story as I was when I first read it as a college student in Prof. Sungjoo Han’s poli sci class on East Asia.

I’m really indulging myself this term, but maybe if I’m enthusiastic and enjoying the curriculum, my students will also get something out of the classes.

During the morning break, I busily graded papers on censorship so I could hand them back at noon.

Rosemary Lanshe said she heard I was “a good English 101 teacher” from one of my students, Kathy Cleaver.

Home at 1 PM, I put on a tank top and gym shorts and worked out for thirty minutes, then read all the newspapers.

Dad went to the chiropractor who said his problem is caused by a disc. But the x-rays showed the disc hasn’t degenerated in the five years since his last x-ray.

There’s really nothing Dad can do except rest and perform exercises tonight in the doctor’s classes.

In today’s mail, I got a letter from the English Department at Cal State Long Beach: the English position I applied for, along with all other openings, has vanished in a hiring freeze brought on by the state budget cuts.

Another letter, from the Florida Cultural Affairs Division, urges me to write legislators to stave off – what else? – drastic cuts in their budget.

Even if the end of the war brings with it a surge of consumer confidence, I can’t see how we’re going to be pulled out of recession when all the states are broke and cutting jobs and services.

Once again it’s 8 PM and I’m feeling exhausted. Although my cold is nearly gone, I’m dizzy due to head congestion.

Where can I find the time to do more reading for pleasure?