A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-August, 1991

by Richard Grayson

Friday, August 16, 1991

8 PM. Today was a long day, as I was orientation from 8 AM till 4 PM. I’m already tired, so I’m not even going to think about law school tonight. I’ve put away all my papers and materials.

Law school obviously is going to be an intense experience, and one person in today’s blur of speakers and faces said it was akin to being immersed in a foreign culture: the new language, customs and norms are strange, and their presence in your life becomes overwhelming for a while.

What makes it easier is that everyone is a bit scared and rather confused at this point. And the University of Florida seems like a law school where you’re not just left to sink or swim; we were put in small groups with an older student, and our group had a very caring adviser, Cheryl, who plans to get together with us regularly and who said we should call her at any time.

The eight of us exchanged phone numbers, and I was in the same group as the people who sat on either side of me in the auditorium: Barry, a former IBM salesman from Boca, and Angelina, a Gainesville English teacher.

Both are married but at least a decade younger than I, and I didn’t see too many people in our class of 200 who looked 40 or older. Still, I didn’t want to join the special nontraditional student group for orientation.

After coffee and cake and numb chatter, we sat alphabetically for 3½ hours, listening to speeches and filling out forms. I didn’t remember much of what any of the people said, but the Dean (in law school there are several deans but only one guy – in our case, Jeff Lewis – is The Dean) talked about really loving the law.

I can’t see loving something I don’t understand, although in my reading so far I’ve come across one elegant phrase by Holmes (“words are but the skin of living thoughts”) and a brilliantly argued, eloquent decision by Cardozo. (Byron White’s opinion, however, seemed muddled and awkward by comparison.)

Diane Ferrara, the president of the John Marshall Bar Association, the student government that ran orientation and which runs the Justice Story Book Exchange and most activities, spoke (she’s from Fort Lauderdale), as did Abbey Milon, a UF grad and president of the local bar association, who jokingly told us to leave Gainesville after graduation because too many people want to stay on here and the attorneys don’t want more competition.

Cheryl took us to lunch with a faculty member, Prof. Peterson, a torts expert that none of us have – he seemed nice so I was surprised to hear later that his students call him “The Devil” – and then we saw the library, the offices, classrooms, etc.

Some of the sights may stick in memory, but now I remember more the hints older students (you know what I mean: second- and third-year students) gave us, and the warm sympathy of Marty Peters, a woman who’s the school’s counselor.

I was impressed with the care UF takes in helping students and hope it’s for real. Cheryl said that most of the deans and professors are accessible. Anyway, I absorbed a great deal today, and I’m not sure recording it would do much good now.

I can see that being a first-year law student is probably like being in boot camp, and I hope the feelings of “we’re all in this together” continue to outweigh the competition among students.

The reports on our section’s professors are pretty good – even Davis, the Contracts prof, who’s hard but fair, intimidating but not sadistic.

Tired at 4 PM when I got home, I ate some needed veggies and took off to NCNB so I could deposit my two unemployment checks (one forwarded from Rockaway by Aunt Tillie and the other sent to my apartment here in Gainesville) in my new checking account. (Bush declared he won’t let us have extended benefits, so I don’t have many checks left.)

On Monday, we have the financial aid workshops, registration (cost is about $1500), ID cards, and filling out more forms. There’s a party at some third-year student’s house tonight, but I’m too tired and need to just veg out. I do feel an age gap; people kept asking me where I “went to college” when my undergrad years at Brooklyn seem like such a faraway part of my life.

Saturday, August 17, 1991

7 PM. My exhaustion led me to fall asleep at 9 PM yesterday. I slept fairly well until 4 AM, when I started having nightmares, one after another. The images weren’t monsters but those of intense anxiety as I felt myself in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Rockaway and Broward County with friends and family.

The dreaming was lucid, however; I knew that if things got too intense, I could open my eyes and the anxiety-provoking images would disappear and be replaced by that of the lamp on my night table.

Insight strikes: I used the phrase “if things got too intense.” Intense was a word I used yesterday to describe the law school experience. Eventually my dreams settled down, but I didn’t awaken until after 8 PM, meaning I slept nearly 11 hours.

Even now, my wrists and ankles ache, and I’m sure that’s because of the tension yesterday. Perhaps UF deliberately scheduled orientation on a Friday to give us the weekend to recover. In any case, I’m grateful.

I went out only twice today: this morning to get the papers and some veggies at Publix, and at 4 PM, when I took a walk to the main campus and wandered around the older brick buildings near University Avenue.

I feel very comfortable in Gainesville, but of course the settling-in process has barely begun, and I’m sure things will change drastically when all the other UF students – undergrads and grad students – arrive in town this week.

I read the materials given out yesterday, including the law school catalog, an issue of the alumni magazine, and an article – yet another – on how to be successful in law school.

I’ve got to avoid the tendency to get too caught up in the young students’ feelings about law school. Most of them have their whole identities tied up into being lawyers, and they’re already worried if they don’t do well, they won’t have the good life they envision.

At 40, I know that many lawyers are unhappy and even abuse alcohol and drugs; many have poor family lives and feel they’ve sacrificed a lot of life in pursuit of whatever the rewards billable hours bring.

Even though some people might view my presence at law school as an indication that I’ve failed as a writer and a college teacher, I refuse to define myself as anything but a roaring success.

And I’ll be successful whether or not I get my J.D.

Just coming here to Gainesville and living on my own, testing myself like this, not being in a rut, means I’m growing – and that, to me, is success.

Yes, I plan to study hard because studying hard is fun (well, not much of the time, but the process can be enjoyable). Law school may be difficult (but a wag on TV said last night, “If it’s so hard, how come there are so many lawyers?”); however, everything that’s worth doing is difficult. The easy stuff, you tend to devalue.

I don’t want to lose sight of my goals and my mission: to enjoy life and to see what I can do to express myself and maybe make a difference. Cornpone time, huh?

Aside from studying hard – but smart – I want to make time to eat right, sleep enough, exercise daily, read the papers and keep up with the world, and also make friends.

I’d like to go to a meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Student Union so I can meet other gay people. Obviously, there are other gay people at law school, but in my class of 200, it would be hard to locate one, I’m sure.

I’d also like to take part in some literary activities at the main campus. If Santa Fe Community College does come up with an evening or weekend class for me, I’ll take it. I need to be more than just a law student.

Mom said I got a letter from a professor at a SUNY college, asking for a suggestion for an academic to do an article on me for a volume of The Dictionary of Literary Biography for something on Post-1945 American Short Story Writers.

That’ll be giving my fiction the same legitimacy that inclusion in Contemporary Literary Criticism did, and of course that pleases me. Anyway, I shouldn’t forget that my physical and mental health and my friends and family are more important than law school grades.

Sunday, August 18, 1991

7 PM. Tomorrow is the second day of orientation, and then on Tuesday, law school really begins. A couple of times today I thought I was coming down with the flu or something, but probably it’s just nerves.

I slept okay last night, and now I have something to do when I can’t sleep, as when I got up at 4 AM: I can always read my law books. When I taught at Broward Community College, grading papers was always hanging over my head, but I expect reading cases is easier.

I haven’t briefed any cases yet, but I’ve read my assignments for the week, finished most of Effective Legal Writing, and gone through the first chapters of Prosser & Keaton on Torts, a hornbook that summarizes rules and principles in the field.

I don’t have the proper terminology yet, but I’m sure there are a few of my fellow students who don’t yet know what a tort is. I can see I’ll be hard-pressed to avoid pressure imposed by myself and my peers, but I’ve got to remember that I’m not betting the farm on law school.

Up at 7 AM today, I got the New York Times and Gainesville Sun and read both quickly, finishing before noon. I also did low-impact aerobics this morning.

Because my TV choices are limited to PBS, ABC and Fox, I’m not tempted to watch all the Sunday news shows I used to catch, and while WUFT runs Weekend Edition on Sunday morning, it doesn’t put on All Things Considered on Sunday night.

I spoke to Alice yesterday. She put in a successful bid at an auction and got a brand-new two-bedroom apartment on the 26th floor of that building across from Baruch College at East 23rd and Lex.

By the end of the week, she should know if her mortgage application will be approved. Banks are hesitant about lending money these days, and Alice is a freelancer who owns other property. Although she’d be tripling her rent, the auction went so badly that she’s getting a terrific deal.

I talked about being here. Alice said her favorite TV show is L.A. Law (which I’ve seen only rarely) and she can see me being interested in complex legal issues.

When I went out today, I saw lots of cars at school, as freshmen moved into the dorms, their anxious parents hovering nearby. I’m humiliated to admit that my experience last week with my own parents was nearly identical.

Monday, August 19, 1991

4 PM. Law school classes begin tomorrow. But as a reminder that the world doesn’t rise or fall on my little life, I was awakened by my radio at 6 AM and heard, “Russian leader Boris Yeltsin calls for a general strike to protest the ouster of Soviet President Gorbachev.”

At about midnight our time, Tass announced Gorbachev had “resigned for health reasons” and was being replaced by an emergency committee consisting of the Vice President, KGB head and military chief.

A hardline coup has taken place just one day before the new union treaty with the republics was to be signed. Gorbachev is apparently under house arrest, tanks and soldiers are in the streets, protests and demonstrations have been banned, and reformist city leaders have been replaced.

The U.S. government was caught off guard; only three weeks ago Bush was in Moscow to sign the START treaty, now on hold along with the Mideast peace conference, trade agreements and the whole of Bush’s New World Order.

As it did in China after Tiananmen Square, in Iraq after the defeat of Saddam, in Yugoslavia and the Baltics, the U.S. will probably just give lip service to the democratic aspirations of the people but will support the strong central government in the end.

I’m glad to see Bush’s foreign policy “genius” exposed and to see him totally lose control of the world situation. We were always too dependent upon Gorbachev remaining in power. What next?

Back in Gainesville, I had another hectic day. At school at 8 AM, I sat with Larry, who’s kind of goofy but okay, until 9 AM, when we went into the auditorium for our fingerprints and photos for Bar applications.

I’m not going to fill mine out until I can figure out how to deal with the extensive forms. I may never take the Florida bar exam, anyway; if I do intend to practice, it will be in another state.

At 10 AM we had the financial aid workshop for first-time UF borrowers. Since my SLS loans are for the spring and summer semester, I really am not concerned yet. Mostly they want to terrify you into not defaulting and making the loan morass even worse.

I thought the worst was over, but the long line for our “all-in-one” photo ID took over an hour. However, I liked speaking to Karin and other classmates, as I discovered that many are in their thirties and my age; at least I don’t feel like a total oddball.

Dean Patrick explained that I’ve got to take all my classes in Law this year, and next year I go to the Master of Arts in Mass Communication program, and for two years after that I’m in both the law and the journalism schools.

I wrote a letter to Dean Kent of Journalism to make sure he knew, and at Criser Hall on the main campus this afternoon, I got the word to the admissions office. I also paid my tuition with my Dollar Dry Dock Visa, got papers so I can defer my existing student loans, and bought the remaining books I needed.

With a horde of undergrads and grad students about, the campus is feeling like a college. I stumbled over to the English Department and read the class schedule and bulletin boards for old times’ sake. I like the idea that I’m just going to law school till next July, and next year I can have more free time in grad school and learn different stuff. If I decide not to continue with law, at least I’ll have the basics of a first-year education.

Tomorrow I’ve got Torts from 9:10-10:10 AM, Contracts from 11:30 AM-12:30 PM, and Jurisprudence from 3:00-4:00 PM. I’m going to try to go home for lunch and see if I can get parking in the afternoon.

My main non-academic worry is making sure I can get a decent lunch. As it is, I’ve missed the salad bars at Albertsons in Fort Lauderdale and the Korean groceries in New York City; here, I’ve relied on Publix’s small salads and frozen veggies. Well, I’ll manage.

I start school at 9:10 AM every day but Friday, and I’ll be at school till 3 or 4 PM, so I’ll have to get used to long days. I hope I can keep up, but at least I feel many of my classmates share my apprehension.

I still have to review my readings for tomorrow and do my Legal Research and Writing assignment. I slept okay once I got to sleep after midnight. One woman, Emira, told us she just got into the law school last week; on Wednesday she was working in Los Angeles when Dean Patrick called and said she was admitted. At least I’ve had months to get used to the idea of coming here.

Tuesday, August 20, 1991

4 PM. I’ve survived my first day of law school classes. Up at 6 AM after a decent rest, I worked out to Body Electric at 6:15 AM and then I wanted to get to school early to ensure that I’d find parking, so I was on campus at 8:15 AM, when spaces were already at a premium.

I walked into the “alpine room” where we have our big classes about 25 minutes before Torts began, at 9:10 AM, but already most of the seats in the middle rows were taken. Because of my vertigo, I didn’t want to sit up high, so I wound up in the first row on the extreme right and nobody sat near me until the room filled up.

I felt somewhat lost because most of the people in the class seemed to be talking animatedly. I do like Nancy Dowd, the Torts professor, who’s about 42. She gave us one way to do a careful brief, said we should do our best efforts in our class participation, and told us to use hornbooks and nutshells but not canned briefs.

What she stressed, as did Prof. Davis, a gruff but hearty man in Contracts, is that it’s the process of analysis that’s important. Davis warned us not to miss the forest for the trees, even if in his classroom, we’re going to go tree by tree by tree as we’re called on to recite cases.

Dowd said we’ll go about 600 pages in the casebook, starting at 15 pages a week and going up to 50 or 60. She began discussing her hypo (the Cipollone case against the tobacco companies, though it wasn’t identified as such) and we all (well, those who were called on; I wasn’t) discussed the injuries to each possible complainant. (I have no idea if that’s the right term.)

Davis is more intimidating; our class won’t really start till next Monday, he said, and we’ll do two or three cases a class, so we’ve got to stay that many cases (20 to 30 pages) ahead of him. It’s important we don’t “learn” cases or rules but concentrate on analysis and application.

He said to ask ourselves why each case is in the particular section of the book and to try to figure out what we’re trying to learn. “Don’t get seduced by minutiae,” he warned us, and there’s a ton of minutiae in law school.

I like the emphasis on process, which I’m familiar with from learning to play with computers and from teaching writers writing (I wrote “teaching writers” first, and I see now that’s what I really meant; Davis and Dowd would probably prefer to think they’re teaching lawyers, not the law of torts and contracts).

Both Dowd and Davis seem accessible. I went home for lunch at 12:30 PM, but I made sure I got back to school an hour later so I’d find parking. (Today was a relatively cool, rainy day.)

I skimmed the Times and read materials for Legal Research and Writing, though I still have to do the case briefing for Thursday. There’ll be seminars and workshops we have to attend outside of class.

I sat with Karin and Larry for Jurisprudence. Prof. Charles Collier is a young 43 or so, and he reminds me a little of me. He made sure we knew what to expect from the course in so much detail that it became boring, and he also talked about his prior experiences teaching Jurisprudence and related things to stuff in the news.

I expect I’ll like his class; for Thursday we’re to read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I can see one problem will be not spending excessive time on classes I enjoy and short-shrifting the ones I find tedious.

I got that letter from Prof. Patrick Meanor of SUNY Oneonta, who’s editing The Dictionary of Literary Biography volume on Contemporary American Short Story Writers Since World War II. He wants me to suggest an academic familiar with my work who could write a comprehensive article of 7500 words on it.

Wednesday, August 21, 1991

4 PM. Gorbachev is apparently back in control again, as the Kremlin coup failed. It’s quite confusing, but I’m suspicious as to how these events unfolded. Did Gorbachev mastermind a KGB “coup” to give more time for reforms and a stronger grip on power? It’s odd that the coup folded so swiftly. But perhaps democracy really has taken hold in Russia.

Law School, Day Two, went okay. I got home after 3 PM today and I just worked out and took a shower and wrote Prof. Meanor, suggesting writers for the article about my work (in order of my preference, Bob Siegle, Wade, Tom and Patrick).

Up at 6 AM today, I stayed in bed until it got light and I’d heard the latest news from Moscow. At 8 AM I was on campus, reading the Times before I went to get a seat in Torts. I sat next to Karin and Angelina in the center of the second row, and that’s my permanent seat for that class and for Criminal Law immediately afterwards.

Later, we got similar seats for Civil Procedure, along with Shay, Midori, and this guy Dwight. Gradually I’m learning people’s names. I enjoyed Torts as we had a continued discussion on the hypothetical; today I participated.

Our Criminal Law teacher, Prof. Kenneth Nunn, is a dynamic young black man who’s been a prosecutor in D.C. and San Francisco. He said if we like Oprah’s TV show, we’ll like his class.

He spent most of the time going around to us and putting our names on the seating chart as he introduced himself to us individually. I’m glad he’s running a relaxed class.

Our Civil Procedure teacher, Amy Mashburn, seems more traditional, and tomorrow she’ll start calling on us. If we’re not prepared, we’re in big trouble. She and Davis seem like the biggest sticklers, but we heard that in one of the other two Jurisprudence sections yesterday, this older prof, Probert, immediately called on a student to state the facts and sadistically tortured him and others, shaking up many students.

At least Davis and Mashburn lectured the first day. I’m a little nervous, but as long as I prepare, I’ll be okay. Nunn said that the secret of law school is that there are no wrong answers, that there is no “the law,” and some of the opinions in the casebooks are badly reasoned.

Basically, I see the process of molding minds as beneficial. Everyone says after this year, we’ll always think differently from the way we did before.

Tomorrow I’ve got a long day, my only day with four classes – plus our group meeting Cheryl for lunch at 12:30 PM. I had no problem leaving at 11:20 AM after Crim and going shopping, having lunch at home, and returning to find a parking space; I don’t mind walking far as long as I can get a spot.

Late yesterday I went to the public library and did research on Jackson’s “The Lottery” and I read one of the cases for next week’s Jurisprudence class. This evening I have to do briefs for Legal Research and Writing, which is at 9:10 AM tomorrow, and for Civ Pro – but right now I’m briefing without knowing what I’m doing.

I can see why reliance on canned briefs doesn’t help; one must learn to analyze cases by oneself. I’m tired, and I’ll probably be more tired tomorrow, but I have only two classes on Friday, and that morning I don’t have my first class till 10:20 AM.

Little by little, I’m meeting people and trying to remember their names. Karin and Angelina are good people to talk with. On Saturday there’ll be an afternoon orientation party at the lake – or a lake – and I’ll go, though I also wanted to attend a book signing by Padgett Powell.

Perhaps I shouldn’t bother to attempt to get into Gainesville’s literary scene; I might fit in better with my law school classmates. We shall see. Meanwhile, every day is an adventure. This sure beats teaching English at Broward Community College, though the truth is I enjoyed doing that, too.

But it’s fun to lead different lives – if that is what I’m doing.

Thursday, August 22, 1991

4 PM. I just got home and I’m thrilled that tomorrow’s Friday. Not only do I have only two classes tomorrow, but I also don’t have classes the following two days. Last night I barely slept as cases kept impinging themselves on my consciousness.

I’m finding the transition from college teacher to law student frustrating. Probably that’s magnified because today in Collier’s class we discussed “The Lottery,” and I kept wanting to run the discussion differently. I may have come off like a know-it-all asshole, too.

And earlier, in Nunn’s class, I felt stupid because I made a comment someone else had apparently said earlier. Plus, it bothers me when Nunn says “antidote” when he means “anecdote” and makes subject/verb agreement errors.

Maybe I’m too old for this. I have to deal with problems my young classmates don’t, but I also have to deal with the same kind of confusion they’re having, too. I’ve never felt as stupid as I’ve felt the past week, and I think that’s only a hint of what’s to come – although I’d bet it gets better eventually.

Last night I kept getting so frustrated trying to brief cases for Civ Pro, and then today in Mashburn’s class, I see I missed seeing important points and issues. She uses the Socratic method without intimidation, so at least we students don’t have to worry about being devastated, just slightly humiliated.

My Legal Research and Writing group consists of about 35 people – the only guy I knew in it is Greg – and we’re going to be learning how to do the really important stuff lawyers do.

Our instructor, Pat Thomson, is a genial woman, and she did help me understand more about doing case briefs. I guess once I brief enough cases, I’ll develop my own style and method. It’s all process, process.

In Nunn’s class, I felt our discussion really bogged down, and then I felt like an idiot for having contributed a redundancy.

At 12:30 PM, our group met Cheryl for lunch, and we talked a little about our difficulties, but of course guys just don’t open up, which is probably why I feel closer to Angelina and Karin than I do to the others. Maybe I need to get some non-law school friends.

I definitely plan to go to whatever of the campus gay group events I can get to, given my schedule. I’m lonely, and Mom’s phoning every night doesn’t help. Last night I told her I was fine and very busy.

I got coupons from her in the mail today, and a rejection from The Writers Film Project, and Josh sent an article he wrote for the New York Post about his assault. I don’t know whether he’s brilliant or paranoid or both. At least he’s getting constructive mileage out of his psychosis. Am I?

I came home for an hour between classes at lunchtime and watched Gorbachev’s news conference.


9 PM. Here’s an example of why I may be stuck with being an English teacher: I was just reading our Legal Research and Writing Course Materials to prepare for our visit to the library with a teaching assistant on Monday, and twice the book referred to a “pneumonic” device, when of course the word is mnemonic.

Should I go tell them at the office? I know it’s the kind of error they’d rub in our noses. But I risk being thought of as a know-it-all. My big weakness is trying to prove how smart I am – which is probably pretty dumb.

Friday, August 23, 1991

3 PM. “Well, we’ve survived our first week of law school,” Karin said as we left Mashburn’s class fifteen minutes ago. Yeah, but just barely.

I scanned a note from Tom and caught this sentence: “I know you won’t take it [law school] so seriously that it’ll damage you.” I wonder.

Mashburn’s class had me sweating. How did I miss those details in Fuentes v. Shevin? Does my brain have the necessary muscles to perform the mental triathlon?

Time and again, I see I don’t dig deep enough, don’t clearly delineate the issues. I see I’ve been reading like a literary person, not like a lawyer. Well, maybe after this year I’ll learn this is not for me and I’ll go do what I did before, or something else.

Part of me wishes I’d just gotten some fellowship to grad school here so I could have had more fun. Yes, there’s an intellectual excitement in seeing the issues Mashburn brought up and brought out of my classmates, but I’m not certain that it’s enough to sustain my interest.

That same part of me wonders why I’ve done this to myself, and if I can, contrary to Tom’s assumption, damage my ego or whatever.

On the other hand (well, that’s lawyerly, anyway), I like the fact that I’ve challenged myself at age 40 in a way many people wouldn’t. Comfortable in a field, they see no reason to become a novice in a strange area of expertise, especially one as demanding and competitive as law school.

I think I’d be thrilled to be a C student, actually. And perhaps being a C student for the first time in my life wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I’d learn that I can’t do everything – or maybe that I don’t want or have to do some things.

Confronting failure – or what other people consider failure – could spur me on as I learn from it.

There’s something very odd about my life here in Gainesville. In a way, I feel I’m living someone else’s life, that the real me is back in Rockaway or Fort Lauderdale doing the stuff I’ve been doing for years. Boy, is this stretching me.

I couldn’t sleep last night after a phone call to Ronna. Contact with the real world was so jarring, I kept thinking about my life – or lives – and the people in it.

Ronna was in Orlando till Wednesday, her return to New York City delayed by Hurricane Bob – but I’m glad she didn’t call from there because I was so involved in adjusting to law school.

Her brother and sister-in-law will be starting school on Monday, so they’re coming here this weekend. Already the town is filling up with young people, a change from the quiet of the past few weeks.

I needed to talk with someone about law school, and Ronna was helpful, but in a way I feel nobody who hasn’t gone through it would understand – although Ronna does know the scene, having experienced it through Jordan, who loved law school.

My mind is going blank. I’m going to need this weekend with my law books, reading carefully and slowly. The orientation party’s been postponed, and I’ll be glad to be away from law students for two days.

I probably should go over my notes from Mashburn’s class now and try to make sense of them while I slightly comprehend what’s going on. And I need to work out.

I did report the “pneumonic” misspelling to Pat Thomson, who took it good-naturedly, saying it had been put there as a test. But nobody in the Legal Research and Writing office had noticed it, and it got by the spell-checker because pneumonic is indeed a word dealing with pneumonia.

Pat did say aloud to the others, “A little first-year student has to tell us this,” or something like that.

People like Nunn’s Crim Law class, but I find his discussions rambling. In a way, I prefer hardball Socratics like Mashburn and Davis to teachers like Nunn and Collier (whom many students find pedantic and boring).

Well, Karin was right – and I’ll never again have to experience the first week of law school. It’s really interesting watching myself do this.