A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early April, 1990

Sunday, April 1, 1990

9 PM. Today felt like the first day of summer, not only because it was about 85°, but also because it didn’t get dark till a little over an hour ago.

I slept later than usual, until 8:30 AM. After I got the Sunday Times, I went to Albertsons and loaded up on groceries for the week.

I won’t need to buy all that much for the month that I’ll still be in this apartment, and I should make sure I use all the food and supplies I’ve got.

After putting the stuff away when I got home from shopping, I did aerobics and then settled down with the Sunday papers.

Lola Szladits’s photo jumped out at me from the obituary page. She died at home, of cancer, on Friday night at the age of 67.

What a nice woman she was, and how kind she was to me. I’ll be in New York one day too late to attend the memorial service for her, but I plan to contribute to the fund the library is setting up in her memory.

She and the Berg Collection were synonymous, and the obituary described how she called Auden “Wystan” and Virginia Woolf “Virginia” as if they were her intimate friends – which, in a way, they were.

I remember the time she showed me a letter Henry James had written to Mrs. Leslie Stephen, Woolf’s mother; Lola remarked that I’d handled it gingerly, with respect.

I’ll never forget her including me in that exhibit of dedications to books.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I’ve been feeling more like a writer again lately; I even have had (gasp) ideas for short stories.

Tom sent along a note from Paul Fericano, who’d requested a copy of The Greatest, which he said was listed in  the February issue of his newsletter (probably in their monthly “picks” – if it had been reviewed, he would’ve said that).

I’ve neglected to send Paul my books, probably because he’s not listed in the Poets & Writers Directory. (He was blacklisted after that Howitzer Prize hoax, remember?)

Michael Kasper ordered the book, too. I often forget that there is a network of people out there who are in sync, more or less, with what I’ve done in fiction.

Tom appreciated my good words on his “Letter,” which was indeed excellent.

Debra is coming for a visit for Easter week (“a good thing: a young Yalie is after me, and I’m lonely”), and the week after, Tom’s father will be visiting New Orleans.

I read and commented on about five English 101 papers, and I’ll get to the other five in the morning. And I caught up with all the Creative Writing assignments handed in so far.

At 6 PM, I went over to my parents’ house and spent time in the backyard with China and Jonathan, whom I persuaded to take photos of me in a tank top and shorts.

I may not be 135 pounds for long, and I figured I’d like to prove I looked like this. I’d also like to see how I appear in the photo: Am I too thin?

Mom has been leaving birdfeed outside, and many birds are spending time in the backyard. A baby starling hatched in a nest in one of the oak trees.

Really, today was the first day I enjoyed that backyard. Imagine if I’d been able to grow up in a house like the one in Oak Knoll; it’s the first real suburban house, like the kind my aunts and uncles had on Long Island, that my parents have lived in.

Dad called Jonathan and said that the menswear show was very slow – quite unlike the last few years, when he could not even stop to have lunch.

The 9 PM radio news said the Tokyo stock market lost 2% in its first hour of trading, but I expect it will rebound. The Japanese government won’t allow a crash, and they can probably control the market.

But Japan no longer seems economically invincible, and if their housing market ever crashes, look out.

Yes, I have already spent too much time thinking about what Chauncey’s article about me will say. Today he profiled Tim O’Brien, whose new novel about Vietnam uses “Tim O’Brien” as narrator and character; I didn’t think Tim approved of tricks like that.

Anyway, it looks as if it will be another interesting week.

Monday, April 2, 1990

11 PM. Tom just phoned. The fourth of five candidates for the position of NOCCA poetry teacher (including Michelle, who Tom described as “the wet matzo ball,” which is what I had said she was as sharp as after seeing her in workshop), was in New Orleans and preparing to teach a sample lesson today.

It was Debra Allberry, and Tom wanted my opinion of her once he realized I knew her from MacDowell.

Hmm. I haven’t thought about her in a long time, but I told Tom she seemed smart and easy to get along with; while I wasn’t sure how tough she could be, I felt she has the capacity to surprise us with unexpected grit.

Tom said her poetry was expansive – those long, unanticipated emotional narratives I remember from her reading – but felt she often missed the right word.

Oddly, Debra said she’d dreamed of me just a few nights ago, and in the dream I was thin and very sick.

Well, okay, I’ll eat more fat so that I don’t throw my electrolytes off balance!

Tom was kvelling about the Walser book, which I must order. He’s heard from the Brothers Quay after he sent them the book; those filmmakers want Tom to visit them when he’s in Europe with Debra this summer.

Speaking of filmmaking, Tom is playing the part of Jeweler #2 in a film directed by one of his ex-NOCCA students, and he has to show up at 5:30 AM for shooting on Saturday.

Incidentally, this guy – who Tom threw out of the writing program – actually got to speak with Russell H. Greenan, the reclusive author of It Happened in Boston?, whose wife is a diplomat in Rome; he’d like to film the novel.

Tom ordered the texts for his Loyola creative writing class for the fall; it will be interesting to see how Tom finds college teaching after being the ultimate boss of the NOCCA program.

He’s concerned about my impending bankruptcy and wonders if the best thing I can do is get myself a fellowship in some Ph.D. program in the social sciences “because you won’t be able to do the credit card thing again.”

No, I won’t. But the business pages these days are full of articles about defaults, bankruptcies, loan losses. While there may not be a recession evident in the statistics yet, I think I was on the mark about what would happen as a result of the ’80s credit binge.

Crad didn’t send Tom his audiotape, probably because of Tom’s pronounced lack of enthusiasm for the last tape.

This morning I read and commented on English 101 papers after breakfast, and then I exercised before showering, dressing and leaving for BCC.

I caught nearly all of a 10 AM lecture by a Hungarian law professor, Laszlo Kecskes, whom Peter Hargitai brought to the campus.

Basically, he gave a rundown on the situation in Hungary over the last year and gave what even he realized was probably a futile plea for more U.S. aid to his country.

He noted that the U.S. had failed to back up its verbal support in 1948 and during the 1956 revolution, when all we sent was surplus food.

“Gift of the American People” was written on the canisters of cheese his mother stored sugar in, and every morning – he was three years old in 1956 – he’d see those words, the first English he would read, not understanding their meaning.

I spoke with him afterwards, and he said he was worried about anti-Semitism in Hungary and other nations in Europe, particularly in regard to the unification of Germany.

He observed that people in America look so much younger than people the same age in Hungary or other Eastern European countries.

Comparing my looks to his worn face, I thought he’d made an interesting point: the Americans of my generation have generally lived lives of comfort, even luxury.

I would have liked to go to lunch with him and Peter, for I’m fascinated by the changing face of Europe.

Right now Gorbachev is still engaged in a war of nerves with breakaway Lithuania.

I can understand the caution of Bush and other world leaders, but if they play Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938 and allow Lithuania to be sacrificed the way Czechoslovakia was then, they’re making a big mistake, morally and politically.

In Creative Writing, we went over a long poem of Michelle’s; Reyna was particularly weird and obnoxious today.

I had my English 101 students work on topics for their term paper and past due assignments while I had conferences with all of them, including three who just showed up today after weeks of absence.

I had lunch with Michelle at Wendy’s. She’s 40, married, a recovering alcoholic, and a lifelong Hollywood resident with a B.A. in English from UF.

She took my class to see if she really wanted to write or go back to school for a master’s in a different field like psychology, and she said she’s now more sure than ever that she wants to be a writer.

I suggested the MFA program at FIU, telling her it would probably be helpful and that I thought she’d enjoy it. I said I’d happily write her a recommendation letter if she needs one.

While I talked far too much about my own life as a writer and creative writing teacher, Michelle seemed interested.

She may or may not become a published writer. But in any case, I do feel I’ve accomplished something if I could produce that much interest from a student.

Back home, I called Chauncey Mabe, who found the chapbook funny and wanted to do a story. He’s busy the next couple of weeks, so he told me to meet him at the newspaper office at 1 PM on Tuesday, April 17.

Chauncey said the photographers always wanted an interesting shot, and I suggested they could take me and my laptop to the Broward Mall, where I could pretend to be writing at a table in the food court.

God, why do newspapers insist on the silly photos?

Saturday, April 7, 1990

11 PM. I really did need to catch up on my sleep last night, for I slept more than ten hours and felt better upon awakening.

I had a number of vivid dreams, many of which led me to believe I’m anxious about the coming changes in my life: leaving this apartment, leaving the security of teaching at BCC and for FIU, leaving my parents and brothers, leaving Florida.

Probably it’s especially true because I don’t know where I’ll be living in May or what I’ll be doing, and what I do know is that this will definitely be my last Manhattan summer.

Next year Teresa’s apartment won’t be available, my credit card chassis will be kaput, and it won’t be the 1980s anymore.

Last night Jonathan and Marshall were disappointed by Ram Dass’s Miami talk because it wasn’t at all spiritual but about the coming political and societal changes.

“If you liked the ’60s,” Ram Dass said, “then you’ll love the ’90s” because a similar spirit will prevail.

It’s what I’ve been predicting since 1986, along with my predictions for the economy, which also finally seem to be coming true as the contraction of the debt buildup leads to defaults and liquidations.

It finally looks like we will have to pay for the 1980s excesses of greed – the prime example being the S&L bailout, which may cost half a trillion dollars.

When I spoke to Grandma last night, she wasn’t feeling well. But after that difficult series of tests she underwent, the doctor told her she didn’t have cancer.

(Grandma marveled at how bluntly he put it, but she’s a throwback to the time when the word cancer was never spoken.)

Grandma probably won’t be around next summer, and I’m not even sure I can stay with her next month.

She’s worried because she can’t cook for me, not that I’d now eat her kind of food. (I could never tell her that, of course.)

This morning I exercised and finally caught up on my back issues of the Times Book Review – so I can start getting behind again tomorrow.

After lunch, I drove to Miami Beach to meet Alice at the lobby of the Cavalier.

As I have on other days, I started getting a terrible niacin flush – I suspect I got a bottle of lousy niacin, which may be causing my eczema, too – but Alice didn’t notice my blotches as much as she did my thin body.

However, she felt I didn’t look too skinny, saying I looked “great – and younger, too.”

While Alice said she had gotten a bit drunk at lunch with the other travel writers, it wasn’t apparent to me.

I accompanied her to her tiny room – really small and tacky for $98 a night – where she changed out of her beachwear.

She was happy to accede to my suggestion that we go back to my parents’ house, even if time was so short that she could stay only 20 minutes.

On the trip to Broward, Alice told me about the press tour of the Miami area and then about her five-day visit to Australia.

Although she tried not to let her mother’s negative feelings about Liz, her brother’s bride, color her attitude, Alice found Liz weird and a bit of a cold fish. And she said her brother was difficult, too.

Liz had actually seated Alice and Peter at different tables and seemed annoyed when Alice asked her to change the arrangement so they could sit together; after all, they didn’t know anyone else there.

Even though they really didn’t see the country, Alice and Peter were glad not to stay Down Under for very long, and she now says she’s going to tell Michael she doesn’t want to buy a Manhattan brownstone with him.

“That’s good,” I said, pointing out that she’d be letting herself in for the same problems her mother and aunt had sharing a house.

While Alice feels trapped in her “dumpy” apartment on Waverly Place, she realizes a house with her brother and his wife, who will be moving to New York next summer, is no solution.

We got to Oak Knoll at 4:10 PM and left at 4:30 PM, but at least Alice got to see Mom, Jonathan, and China (Dad was at the track) and she got a grand tour of 2001 S.W. 98th Terrace.

I knew Alice would be impressed by the $145,000 price my parents paid for it, and Mom was glad to see her and talk a bit.

It was a tonic for me, too, to see my old friend. I just hope I didn’t hurt her when, on the trip back, I blurted out that her pseudonymous article in Glamour about growing up with a fat mother – she was on a Chicago radio station last week to discuss it – got a negative comment in 7 Days.

But of course I quickly added that any kind of controversy was better than being ignored, and Alice seemed to agree she’d written something which drew some negative responses, as it did among WGN’s callers.

Tonight I bought the issue of Glamour, and I liked Alice’s piece so much that I’m going to have my students read it and write an essay reacting to it.

Alice’s article was not self-centered at all, and it made me see how her extensive travels, numerous projects and self-help mania are ways she’s used to gain control over her life so she’ll never become like her mother.

I never before understood exactly what she must have felt like, growing up with a 315-pound mom (and this leaves out the deafness part).

Alice’s agent didn’t like the way she handled the lottery winner book (“too much of a downer”), so she’s got to revise it, but her collaborator seems restless.

At this point Alice seems to have accepted the fact that she and Peter will never get married, though I can’t see how it matters.

Anyway, being with Alice made it worth it to drive back and forth twice to South Beach in one day.

Tuesday, April 10, 1990

8 PM. I have six or seven stitches in my back from where a doctor removed my mole.

This morning I decided to make an appointment with Jonathan’s dermatologists. Since they were on Oakland Park Boulevard, I figured if I took the 2 PM opening, I could just drive down the boulevard to U.S. 1 to make my 4 PM eye doctor appointment.

But I didn’t realize I’d end up having what I guess is minor surgery.

The dermatologist, Dr. Siegel, as well as an associate, told me I definitely need to have a biopsy to check for melanoma, but he said in case the report turned out such that I have to get the mole removed, I might as well remove it then and there.

Almost before I knew what was happening, I was having it done. Neither the anesthetic needle nor the cutting itself hurt much, and the doctor gave me bacitracin and told me to put it on the scar twice a day, and to do the same with hydrogen peroxide.

Also, to avoid infection, I need to keep the area dry (that’s going to be tricky) and to avoid “heavy lifting,” which to Mom means I shouldn’t exercise, at least not until tomorrow.

I didn’t realize why the doctor said that until Mom told me the stitches could burst. Well, I don’t want that.

Although I felt fine during the procedure, I started feeling weird afterward: woozy and kind of sick to my stomach. I went to the bank to deposit checks, but once I got to the eye doctor, I rescheduled my checkup for Thursday.

It was Mom and Marc who told me how many stitches I had, as I only saw the scar an hour ago when I looked in the mirror to apply peroxide and change the original (bloodied) bandage.

I have to see Dr. Siegel a week from Saturday, when he’ll remove the stitches and tell me what the lab report says. He felt it was probably not melanoma (“I’m 99% sure”), and I don’t really think it is, but as I stood at the cash register at Eckerd Drugs, paying for my Band-Aids and peroxide, among other items, I started to feel myself about to cry.

Now, I know that if I do have melanoma, we’ve probably caught it early and I’m up to the challenge of coping with and beating cancer, but for a moment I felt so vulnerable and fragile.

This morning I felt rested after a 9-hour sleep, and after I got the Times at 8 AM, I took my car into Firestone to get new rear tires.

Back at home, I read the paper, did light aerobics, made phone calls.

When I walked into the FIU office at BCC to pick up my paycheck from Tammy, Joe Cook didn’t recognize me at first; when he did, he said I looked terrific.

I didn’t get a paycheck for the TEC workshop, just the one for teaching English, but I still had $1600 to deposit in my bank account.

I’ve graded most of the Technical Writing papers (memos) for tomorrow, so I won’t have to go crazy the way I did last week.

While I didn’t get around to grading the BCC papers or preparing my FIU lesson yet, I’ll find time for that later. I can pamper myself a little because I’ve had “surgery.”