A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-October, 1997

by Richard Grayson

Saturday, October 11, 1997

7:30 PM. Driving home just now, I marveled at the stark contrast of the white clouds against the indigo sky – and it seemed as if I were looking at the South Florida sky for the first time in the two months that I’ve been here.

I’d forgotten how I used to be amazed at the sky here, and the quality of the light, and the frequent rainbows.

It’s now cool enough that I can ride without the air conditioner, so I had opened the car windows and felt really comfortable being here – and I felt ashamed at how much I’ve complained the past couple of months.

I’ve forgotten to write about – to think about – what a pleasure it is to have my own apartment, even one that’s sparsely furnished and in which I have to keep taping up pillowcases and sheets to block the light from the windows. (The sheets in the living room fell down again during the night.)

It’s so wonderful not to have to endure sharing a bathroom in the morning or feeling like a child living with his parents. The solitude rarely gets oppressive, and mostly I treasure a domain in which I can run around in my boxer shorts and not worry about keeping things spotless.

I don’t even have to be the good houseguest, as at Teresa’s, or eat dinners I didn’t make at pre-arranged times, as at Ragdale. No, being here in Davie has had its pleasures.

Today was Yom Kippur, but of course that barely registered with me. Sometimes I think I’d be a better person if I were spiritual or had some interest in Jewish tradition. But that I think – Nah!

I just came from Winn-Dixie. At 7:30 AM, I went out to Walmart on Flamingo Road to buy generic Drixoral and then I did a big grocery run at Publix, but only Winn-Dixie has the frozen mango chunks I’ve become habituated to since I discovered them at Key Food in Williamsburg.

Besides, I’ve gotten a $2-off coupon for purchases of $20 or more in a mail circular from Winn-Dixie. Why their store strategy seems to be to locate only in the most downscale neighborhoods, I have no idea.

Unlike the crisp, modern, bright Publix and Albertsons, a Winn-Dixie supermarket is like those old ones in New York City, kind of dirty and disorganized.

But somehow the urban poor in New York are less horrifying to me than the white trash down here: the skinny, heavily-tanned guys with cigarettes and too many tattoos of the unfashionable variety; obese women in muumuus with leathery skin and every conceivable variety of limp; blowsy young mothers in polyester smacking their barefoot blond brats.

Even the stock boys at Winn-Dixie look sleazy and unhealthy. God knows who buys the health foods in their quarter-aisle of organic cereals and Health Valley products.

I did all I could to avoid grading any papers today, of course. I’ve got eight to do tomorrow from the 8 AM class, and another couple from the Monday night class, and a whole dozen from the Saturday class.

Once again I got up at 5:30 AM today. This morning I wasted time on the Web and Lexis, but I also read the two chapters on globalization and American business that I’m going to cover next Saturday.

I also read for English 102: essays by Lance Morrow and Gloria Steinem and also Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a story that made me realize I’ve underestimated Carver all these years.

Last evening Mom called to annoy me by reading a letter she’d gotten from the college students renting the house next door, saying they know Mom called the police on their pool party last Monday.

Mom didn’t have the slightest idea what they were talking about, and she asked if I’d call them and straighten it out.

I said okay, but as she started to give me the number, Jonathan started screaming in the background not to, that he would take care of it.

“He won’t,” Mom whispered, so I said, “So then give me the number,” to which she replied, “Jonathan will be mad at me if I do.”

Exasperated, I hung up, telling Mom not to bother me with stuff like this anymore.

At 4 PM, when I went over to the house to collect my mail for the past couple of days, I tried to get out as quickly as possible. What’s so horrible is that Mom rarely leaves the house, so I can’t go over there without seeing her and having her hock at me about something.

The only mail was a credit card bill, and by now I should have most of them transferred to this address, though I did use 2001 SW 98 Terrace on my self-addressed stamped envelopes to little magazines.

I filled out the University of Maryland grad school application, but they want you to wait until you’ve got all your transcripts and letters of recommendation and everything else to them before you send in your application.

Jaime can’t make lunch on Tuesday, so my latest e-mail suggested Thursday or Friday. On Friday, I only have to teach at FAU, because it’s the end of the first eight-week session at Nova.

Yesterday another FAU paycheck for $432.23 got deposited in my account.

Wednesday, October 15, 1997

9:30 PM. I’ve just gotten home from Boca. There’s a full moon tonight, and it’s cool enough so that I needed to open only the driver’s side window as I sped on I-95 early this evening.

It’s a relief not to have the Nova composition class this Friday. Unlike my other classes, it meets three times a week, and compared to the other sections, it’s a pain in the ass in terms of the workload.

That’s probably why I replied to Lynn Wolf’s e-mail evaluation by thanking her for her criticism. She said I tend not to clearly acknowledge student comments that are off the topic or not very interesting; also I need to better explain how the reading relates to my teaching them rhetorical modes.

Actually, most of Lynn’s comments were favorable: the discussion was “lively, especially for an 8 AM class” and “the students obviously like you.”

But I think Lynn’s (valid) criticisms annoyed me because teaching first-year comp is doing something that any jerk can do, something I myself did over 22 years ago at LIU.

Tonight at my FAU class, we had an incredibly good discussion about the meaning and value of work– so good that the class stayed over our allotted 80 minutes and talk to me even after that.

It’s such a pleasure to discuss ideas with students. Someone complimented me by saying I know so much about different things, like the economy and law.

The part of teaching I dislike is the nuts and bolts instruction in the dreary, the rote and the mundane.

I know other teachers who are much more organized than let’s less spontaneous than I are probably teaching students more about the narrow subject matter – but I still feel my students learn a lot from me.

I love watching their minds work, and I do love seeing students engaged the way the class was tonight, with ideas going back and forth furiously.

Last night I didn’t sleep all that well in my first night in my queen-size bed, but I slept enough so that I wasn’t exhausted today.

This morning I was horrified to find on Lexis that the Orlando Sentinel published a 1200-word story on Representative McCollum’s bankruptcy bill in the Sunday paper.

Even if it was buried in the real estate section, I’m pretty sure that will kill any interest in the guest column I sent them. On the other hand, they might think I wrote it in a response To the article.

At 3 PM, I picked up my Nova paycheck from Santa; it was for $1,375 out of $1,650 – not bad, but on the other hand, considering half of it is for 23 days of teaching at 8 AM and the other half is for a handful of Saturday classes, I don’t think I’m wrong to not want to teach Language 1500 again.

Jaime didn’t call or e-mail. I’ll phone him tomorrow, I guess, but I won’t grovel any more than that.

Monday, October 20, 1997

9:30 PM. Today was an incredibly long day. Just as I think I’m starting to get a grip on my schedule, I realized that I never will, at least not for the next eight weeks, so I’d better just resign myself to it.

Much of today’s running around was a problem I inflicted upon myself by writing too good a letter to the New York Times on Friday in response to a column by Judge Bork assailing “virtucrats” who would ban alcohol and tobacco.

I said that in Bork’s books, he supported laws banning marijuana use and gay sexual activity and accused him of hypocrisy.

I knew that when I got home from work at lunch, there’d be a phone message would be from the Times, and there was. The problem was they needed verification of Bork’s positions.

So I spent an hour on Lexis downloading and searching and then editing and then having difficulty e-mailing Mary Drohan at the Times.

Finally she called and asked me to fax page references, or better yet, the pages themselves, so I said I’d go over to Nova to get the book.

But Slouching Toward Gomorrah wasn’t in the law library; rather it was in the Einstein library, right where I teach. I had to go over to the FAU library at Broward Community College to find his other book, and neither had any reference to marijuana.

So I xeroxed page references that criticized the Bowers v. Hardwick dissent (although Bork was really saying that he supported the right of the state to criminalize gay sex even as he personally was dubious about it).

Then I went to Mom’s, where Marc helped me fax the six pages over to the times. If the editors at the Times really look at the pages, they’ll see they shouldn’t print my letter. The distinction between what Bork said and what I said he said is a fine one, but as a lawyer, I can see it clearly.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt from his speeches and rulings where Bork really stands, and if the paper did print my letter, it would be fun to see Bork write in and admit he doesn’t support criminalizing sodomy or pot smoking when he’s the darling of the Christian right.

Anyway, I spent nearly four hours on a letter that probably won’t get printed. This will teach me to make sure I can back up what I say next time I shoot my mouth off. It wouldn’t be a bad lesson for my students, either.

Last night I decided that instead of grading the remaining English 102 papers, I could xerox them, have my 8 AM Nova freshies critique them and save myself the trouble of preparing for the morning class and doing more grading last night.

As usual, I barely slept. I was up at 1:30 AM and my mind simply wouldn’t stop racing, and it was at least 4 AM before I fell back to sleep.

Tired, I managed to stuff myself with enough caffeine to get through the day. It was actually chilly this morning with the temperature around 64° when I left for Nova at 7 AM.

Although I made copies of the three student papers, we had time only to do one of them in class because the class made so many comments.

It was a good experience to have them see a student paper – and boy, were they critical, saying it deserved a D. Of course, I’ll give it a C+ or a B-.

The papers I hate grading the most this semester are the Bible-quoting West Indian women who think premarital sex is a sin. Even in class discussions, these moralists scare off the students whom I’m sure don’t agree with them.

In Creative Writing today, when some girls who lambasted this guy’s story just because he used the term like “raggedy-ass bitch” (which was entirely appropriate for his sleazy narrator), no one defended him.

Not surprisingly, the best writers in the class tend to be students like this guy, who are a little looser and wilder and write about drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll.

In Teachers As Writers, Writers As Teachers, Jon Baumbach wrote about trying to reach the “secret outlaw” in “good” students.

My secret outlaws may be my best writers, but they get short shrift from the middle-class future high school English teachers who dominate the class. These women are in Creative Writing only because the state requires them to take the course to get their teaching license.

Back at FAU tonight, I has another good class discussion. On my way in, I ran into Dan Murtaugh, who said he’d like to observe me after he gets done with all the English 101 adjuncts next week.

Thursday, October 23, 1997

It’s barely Thursday, 1 AM, and I just got home from the hospital in Coral Springs. Dad had a massive heart attack in the store tonight.

When I arrived home from Boca at 9 PM, exhausted after teaching, I found two messages on my machine from a hysterical Mom, urging me to call her immediately.

When I called, she told me that Dad got the heart attack at work and they were taking him to the hospital. Immediately, I took off and went to Mom’s but I couldn’t understand why she wanted me to go with Jonathan, but that she was staying home.

We screamed at each other, and I ended up following Jonathan in my car. The admitting nurse told us Dad was being TPA’ed, that he’d had “the big one.”

“Is he dead?” I asked.

No, she said.

A nurse from the emergency room came out and told us that Dad was having a heart attack right then and they were giving him TPA as well as morphine and nitroglycerin, that a lot of people were working on him and he was very unstable.

Jonathan tried to call Mom but got no answer. Panicked, he couldn’t understand why Mom wouldn’t answer the phone unless she were ill or had collapsed, and the only thing I could think of was to call 911 and talk to the sheriff’s office.

I told a deputy the story and he said Mom might be suicidal; I said I doubted it, but he said he’d send someone over to the house, and Jonathan was going to drive back, but after he left, he came back, saying Marc had just driven up to the parking lot with Mom in the car. I called back and canceled the 911 message so the cops wouldn’t break into the empty house.

The cardiologist spoke to Jonathan and me and said the usual; there are no guarantees, the next few days are critical, that Dad had suffered the attack in the left anterior chamber – the worst place – and there wasn’t much they could do now except let the medications work.

The big danger, of course, is another massive heart attack. We got Mom to come into the hospital and had the doctor speak with her. I went out and let Marc go in while I sat in his car with China, who was shaking with fear.

Jonathan, too, had been trembling in the ER waiting room, and Mom was hysterical, but very quietly, and Marc couldn’t stop belching and looked very ill. I alone seemed to be calm, so much so that when the doctor came back, he looked first to me to talk to rather than address the others.

The more other people panic, the calmer I always seem to get. Does my sang-froid signify that I’m a monster, or am I just expert in total denial? Just last week, I was so angry at my parents that I wished they were dead – and not for the first time.

Of course, what I really wished for was they they’d be different, not dead. Still, I had a feeling one of my parents would have a medical crisis soon.

Maybe that was why I was so calm: because I believe Dad won’t die, perhaps because I know I’d feel irrationally guilty if he does.

If he does live, Dad and Mom will have to sell the house and change their lives. A man his age shouldn’t have been putting in the backbreaking hours he has been at a job he dislikes. I figure Dad’s body, his heart, rebelled and couldn’t take it anymore.

I can’t believe I feel so calm because it’s very possible Dad will die in the next few days – but I guess I can’t fathom that possibility.

What does it say about me that I feel there’s absolutely nothing I can do at this point and there’s no sense in my worrying? That I’m well-adjusted? Or that I have no heart myself?

This is terrible to admit, but I’m annoyed with Dad for picking a bad time to have a heart attack: just when I was so exhausted that all I wanted to do was get some sleep.

How do I live with myself? Very easily, it seems. Am I naïve to assume that Dad will recover? In any case, my family’s life has irrevocably changed tonight.


4:30 PM. I saw Dad today at 1 PM in the Cardiac Care Unit. Mom and Jonathan had been there since 11 AM. He looked the way he normally looks, except he was in a hospital gown and had all these tubes coming out or going into different parts of his body (like his nose).

Dad knew he was having a heart attack, and he’d had a similar feeling the night before at just the same time. He said he didn’t feel a sharp pain or a pain near where his heart is: just a terrible dull pain across his chest and shoulders.

He lost consciousness in the store, but only for a very brief time. Dad told the paramedics that he was 61, not 71, because that’s the age he pretends to be for work, and only later when he got to the hospital did he tell them his real age because they needed to know he was on Medicare.

I sat with him for an hour after Mom and Jonathan left, and Marc is going at 5 PM. We were told that the CCU is open to visitors only at 11 AM, 1 PM, 5 PM and 8 PM, but they let us, as immediate family, stay there.

Dad described being worked on and said that he got scared when they all started to panic when his blood pressure dropped to 60 following increased doses of morphine.

He was hooked up to a monitor that measured his heart rate, which fluctuated a lot, and his rhythms had been irregular, the cardiologist said.

Well, I feel relived even if he’s still not out of the woods; he may need an angioplasty or surgery. But the longer he’s stabilized, I assume, the better his odds are.

I was up the entire night except for some half-sleep between 5 AM and 8 AM, and I felt awful this morning.

So naturally, I went out and got a haircut, and I exercised, and I was going to tell Jaime that I was still willing to meet him when he said he couldn’t make lunch because he had to take care of his dogs.

Yesterday he’d e-mailed that he was happy to be seeing me. Fuck him. Why do I spend my time on guys who aren’t at all as nice as they pretend to be? I’m so much better off taking care of my family, dealing with my real friends – I just had a great talk with Teresa – and doing my work.

Dad said he’d never thought he would have a heart attack, and I guess I don’t think I will, either, although I have a fast heartbeat (due to Triavil, perhaps) and low HDL levels.

I guess I probably will have “the big one” someday, though my personality is much different than Dad’s or Grandpa Nat’s. I’m more optimistic.

Well, now I’ve got to call Aunt Sydelle and listen to her go into hysterics. Jesus, what a life.