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

Wednesday, June 11, 1997

930 AM. This morning I woke from a deep sleep without a toothache. Actually, the pain was something I forgot about soon after I went downstairs last evening.

David, Kerry and a couple of others were going to Matthew’s studio to look at his artwork, and I joined them, astonished by the charcoal and pastel representations of a big-bellied, babyish yet muscular Matthew in three self-portraits, one in which the figure is embraced by a frog.

Matthew said that his work, once angry, is taking a whimsical turn lately. Anyway, I was able to forget my dental woes.

Others wanted to see my room, and I let them in, and then opened my book of clippings, pulling out articles and reviews that I knew they’d find amusing. I’m such a ham.

Later, we went to see Matt’s room (The Hayloft), Judi’s room (The Playroom) Theresa’s room (Sewing Room) and finally Matthew’s room (Yellow Room), where we settled down – me, Matthew, Judi and Theresa – to chat for hours.

I couldn’t believe that when we finally called it a night, it was 11:30 PM. Still, I managed to fall asleep fairly quickly.

I suspect that my toothache will come and go, and that it may be the receding gum problem I had six years ago. I’ve been eating grapefruit almost every day, and that’s probably not doing the enamel in my teeth much good.

Anyway, I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30 AM to exercise to the same Body Electric show that I worked out to yesterday afternoon. Then I went down to breakfast, where I read the first section of today’s Times.

I wanted to write in my diary now to counteract the impression of yesterday’s entry, which I wrote while I was in terrible pain. If I’d written it at any other hour of the day, it would have been less neurotic. And yet that neurotic writing is also a part of me, and while I may be embarrassed by it (as I am by my early fiction), I can’t and won’t disown it.

But I regret not writing about my dinner conversation last night with Amy, who held her worn and eyeless teddy bear José on her lap as we talked about Chicago’s museums and different neighborhoods.

A Times article and NPR report yesterday about the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project on the edge of downtown reminded me that be beyond the glitzy skyline is a highly segregated city where people live the meanest lives I can imagine.

I could have also written about Matt liking my I Brake stories – at least some of them – and David and I wrestling with the issue of why we write in a culture which provides few extrinsic rewards for a decent short story – or, in my case, an indecent one.

Next Tuesday, after two weeks, David, Matt, Amy, Laurel and Glori are leaving, and so last night some of us who were staying for a month or longer wondered how we’ll adjust to the new people coming.

I do like that all of us at Ragdale now arrived at the same time so we could more easily bond together. At other colonies, I used to feel myself growing antsy and thinking about going home, but I don’t really feel that way here – and I’ll be staying longer than I stayed anywhere else except Millay, where I left several days short of the month I was supposed to stay.

While I haven’t been all that productive, I’ve got at least one completed new piece and I’m more than halfway through another, and I’ve had time to myself and I’ve been invigorated by the conversations with other residents.

I suspect that I’m too caught up in the present – my daily New York Times and NPR news – to ever lose myself in a long writing project. I really feel I need to get into journalism to express myself the way that suits me.

But I still retain an interest in public policy work. I’ll apply to grad schools and maybe LL.M. programs this fall.

I see my next year in Florida as a transition period perhaps it’s time to leave that state for good – or to move from my family’s base in South Florida to Tampa or Orlando. The $12,000 I have in secured and unsecured credit lines provides me with a little cushion.

Thursday, June 12, 1997

3:30 PM. The last couple of days have been rainy, with violent storms. Each day I added about three pages of narration to “Salugi at Starbucks.”

The story will end up between 33 and 40 pages long at this rate, and God knows who’ll take it then.

In a couple of days I need to go back to “Anything But Sympathy” as well.

I thought I’d catch up on back issues of Wired while I’m here, and I need to write the book review for American Book Review, which of course means reading Robert Allen’s book.

Hell, I’ve only walked on the prairie behind the house once, and I’m embarrassed to admit to anyone that I’ve been here eight days and have yet to explore the treasures of Ragdale House itself.

Somehow so much of my day gets taken up by my usual routines: reading the Times, exercising half an hour to Body Electric, and listening to all those hours of news on NPR. Unless I drastically change my habits, I will never be able to write a book.

Of course, Ragdale does provide me with a lot more opportunity for stimulating conversations with intelligent, creative people than I normally have at home – wherever home is these days.

Paradoxically, I spend less time alone here than I did in Gainesville after I left my job at CGR or at my parents’ or even at Teresa and Paul’s, where I looked for opportunities to be by myself.

I’ve also learned that I need resolve to listen more and talk less. Until today, I hadn’t realized that Matt had published Anything Can Happen, a book of stories (because he won a prize at San Francisco State) or that Karen grew up in Brooklyn and also wrote fiction. I guess I’m so self-centered that these things escaped me.

So I tried to shut up for a change. I did find interesting the conversation between Matt, who adjuncts at San Francisco State and works in a law firm, and Kerry, a Cornell MFA who’s a full-time lecturer at the University of San Francisco. They talked about Bay Area writing programs and professors.

For me, it’s a point of pride that I’ve not been a part of the MFA/academic creative writing world. Maybe the reason I feel superior to it is because I couldn’t get into it, but that’s vanity and hubris.

Yesterday I took a walk from 4 PM till 6 PM, finding a trail to the east of the railroad tracks. I also discovered the opulent Lake Forest Public Library, which has a dozen high-powered computers with unlimited Web access.

So I surfed my favorite sites yesterday and again today. I also bought frozen veggies, sweet potatoes, nonfat cheese slices, and other Grayson favorite foods at Jewel Osco, and I went to Häagen-Dazs to get nonfat chocolate frozen yogurt from the cute muscled Filipino boy who works there.

As Judi said this morning, we are really pampered here. It’s hard even for me to resist the fabulous rich foods that Barb or Ian puts out at 6:30 PM every evening.

Today our linens were changed, and there’s always fruit and milk downstairs, and I needn’t have bought oatmeal packets because they have all that, too.

Sometimes I can’t believe I’m in Illinois. I know that sounds like a childish thing for a 46-year-old man to say. I do feel as though I’m in a very different phase of my life from the one I was in when I lived and worked in Gainesville.

While I’ve yet to have written confirmation of next winter’s residency at Villa Montalvo, I feel that is an opportunity I really don’t want to turn down. The San Francisco writers say it’s a wonderful place, on the edge of Silicon Valley and only a little more than an hour from San Francisco itself.

Maybe that can be the start of my moving to California and starting over there – perhaps in the world of Silicon Valley high-tech firms, where they’re starting to realize the next big batch of money is going to be made with entertainment. (Bill Gates has bought WebTV and is investing in a big cable TV company, Comcast.)

The one thing I’ve been unable to do here is sleep well; I’ve had maybe one good night out of the last eight. This causes me to have to lie down during the day. If only I could sleep as late as the others.

Last night I didn’t watch the Bulls/Jazz game, but from my room I could hear the shouts of Scott and the others as Chicago pulled off a last-minute win.

This time of day, I start to feel logy, but I want to avoid caffeine.

Sunday, June 15, 1997

6:30 PM. I’ve just come back from a walk into town, and it’s so beautiful out that I’d wax lyrical about it if I had wax anywhere but my ears.

It’s warm but not hot, breezy but not windy – so I was comfortable in a plaid sport shirt and khakis (and flattering myself that I could be taken for a resident of Lake Forest).

It’s been an altogether delightful weekend. Yesterday morning I called Fort Lauderdale, but Dad was out, so I had to phone back this morning to wish him a happy Father’s Day. (He said it was very thoughtful of me to call, but how could I not?)

Mom told me that Avisson Press had sent a flyer saying they’d cut the price of I Survived Caracas Traffic to $5, along with price reductions on their other books. She was afraid I’d be upset, but now maybe I can sell some books at that price.

It occurred to me that maybe I could have them sent to me in Brooklyn and try to sell them on the street for $10. Perhaps I could attract media attention in Times Square: an author reviewed in the New York Times Book Review selling his work on the street. Mom said she ordered three copies for herself.

Martin Hester probably needs money badly now that his books haven’t sold. I knew the book should have been published in trade paper, not hardcover, but I’m only the author, right?

Yesterday I got my $250 unemployment check in the mail, and I just dropped the mail deposit to NationsBank into a mailbox in town. While there, I met Matthew and Kerry coming off the train from Chicago, where they’d gone separately to spend the day.

I also got some Häagen-Dazs nonfat chocolate frozen yogurt, and I read the parts of the Chicago Tribune I’d taken with me.

The business section featured an article on the ongoing labor shortage, especially persistent here in the Midwest. Not only are store windows in town filled with Help Wanted signs, but employers are actually sweetening benefits and raising salaries for good jobs.

This week the Dow went past 7500, 7600 and 7700, and the Goldilocks economy – neither too hot nor too cold – keeps on trucking. Have we reached an economic nirvana? I just hope this lasts until I can get my next real job.

When I’m in New York, I might answer want ads or go to Manpower or another temp agency to see what I can get.

Yesterday afternoon, I finished “Salugi at Starbucks,” which ended up at 39 pages. All I need to do is some light revision and editing.

I didn’t work today, concentrating on reading the Sunday New York Times, which I began at 8 AM and finished after a makeshift picnic dinner that Glori, Matthew and I had on the Ragdale porch at 3:30 PM.

Last evening Matthew made the dinner with the stuff he and Amy had gotten in the supermarket that morning. Only Judi and I helped him, and we didn’t do that much.

Matthew told us he grew up in Santa Fe watching his mother cook Mexican food and he loved to work in the kitchen. For me, as for my own mother, cooking has always seemed like just a lot of trouble.

Matthew prepared fajitas and another dish mixing corn, cream and zucchini, as well as a bowl of beans. He also put out salsa and tortilla chips.

I enjoyed a fajita, but afterwards I felt ill and went upstairs, panicking a bit because I was afraid I’d be as sick as I was when I got food poisoning in 1990, but I soon felt better and went back downstairs, joining a few others.

Ann, who read one of my books, asked if I’d been agoraphobic. She, too, had panic attacks in late adolescence, and we shared our stories about being homebound and how fruitless talk therapy was and how we eventually recovered through medication. (She takes Paxil.)

Ann’s boyfriend came up on the train yesterday and stayed for dinner, though he seemed very shy.

Judi had rented Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and while others came and went, I stuck it out with her to the end before going upstairs and having a rare good night of sleep.

I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to be here at Ragdale.

Wednesday, June 18, 1997

3 PM. Last night there were only six of us at dinner – plus, of course, Barb, who cooked for us. But it feels sad that five of our friends have left; I’ll especially miss Matt and Amy, but it was also hard to say goodbye to Laurel, Glori and David.

Kerry isn’t happy that the guy who’s taking Matt’s room – I hope he’s not going to mind sharing a bathroom with me – is a colleague from her department at USF.

She keeps saying Michael is a nice guy, but I get the feeling that she’s not crazy about him.

Even if he were a saint, I could understand why Kerry wouldn’t want to be here with someone from her job: you want Ragdale to be a place apart from your life back home.

Five people arrived today, and on Friday we’re expecting Ann Hamilton, the best-selling novelist who’s much loved by the staff. They’ve assured us that even though she’s wildly successful – her book was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club – “she’s just a regular person.”

This morning I got up at 5 AM, dozed on and off, and exercised to Body Electric at 6:30 AM.

I decided to make my second trip into Chicago, and it was a close call for me to make the 8:24 AM train, but I’m glad I did because it skips stops and got me into Northwestern Station in 45 minutes rather than an hour.

I’d intended to take a bus to Michigan Avenue, but I couldn’t find the right one, and at a Starbucks just over the Randolph Street Bridge, I sipped iced tea and planned my strategy.

Today I wanted to see North Michigan Avenue’s shopping area, the Magnificent Mile, an area north of where I was on my last trip.

So I walked on, turning on LaSalle and making my way northeast past the Cook County courthouses to River North, and then to an area where there are a lot of blues clubs and tourist joints: Planet Hollywood, House of Blues, the Hard Rock Cafe, a “Rock ’n Roll” McDonald’s, with a Rainforest Cafe under construction.

Eventually I walked on Rush and State Streets until I got to the Visitor Center at the old Water Tower.

Stopping at the Borders bookstore, I had another iced tea and bought the New York Times – and, as at Starbucks, use the restroom.

There were mostly tourists around, so I decided, as I did with the Sears Tower, not to go to the observation deck of the John Hancock Center but just look closely at the building.

When the year-old Museum of Contemporary Art opened at 11 AM, I went in to check it out.

Although Amy said she hated the place, I rather enjoyed the selection from their permanent collection even though I’m not wild about Jeff Koons and Bruce Nauman.

I saw some interesting video pieces and installations, and I enjoyed their show Performance Anxiety, which required the participation of viewers.

While I didn’t walk barefoot across a stone installation, I gamely put on a Santa suit and hat and went into a plywood Christmas cottage, where I was assaulted with a video of elves disgustingly smeared with chocolate.

So was everything else there, making the clear the connection between chocolate and shit – just as a video I’d seen upstairs by the same artist, Paul McCarthy, in which he wore a chef’s outfit and Alfred E. Neuman mask, made the connection between ketchup and blood.

Other works included a groovy 1970 room with videos of Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Kent State killings playing (I enjoyed reading the 1970 World Almanac next to the lava lamp) and several works in which I put on earphones and listened to music or sounds as I played with clay or whatever.

After sinking into a ’70s “beanbag” chair that activated electronic noises, I was somehow able to arise from it even as I had to help the woman next to me get up from hers.

Leaving the museum, I walked a few blocks to the lake. At the Oak Street Beach, it suddenly became cold, so while it was pretty there, I didn’t want to stay long.

I walked north to what’s called the Gold Coast, an area of ritzy high-rises and nineteenth century greystones and brownstones that reminded me of the Upper West Side or Park Slope.

By then I was really hungry. The snacks I’d brought along didn’t satisfy me, so I got a plain bagel and orange juice at Einstein Bros. and later had a pretty good baked potato at Pockets.

Walking around the Miracle Mile, I went into Bloomingdale’s and some of the other posh stores on North Michigan until I realized I had about 45 minutes to make the 2:35 PM train back to Lake Forest.

The heat – by then it was about 78°– and my continuing hunger made me feel light-headed, but I pressed on through a different route, going southwest past the Merchandise Mart, over both the main part of the river and the North Branch.

Today I really did see a lot more of downtown and got a better feel for Chicago.

By the time I got on the train I had to take, the line going north to Waukegan, I was so tired that I was delighted just to be able to sit for an hour and take swigs from a bottle of Evian water.

When I got back to Ragdale at 4 PM, I nuked a big bowl of frozen veggies and had some of my stash of frozen yogurt.

Sylvia said that two of the new residents won’t be here by dinner time, but Judi (who took a bath in my bathroom last night because she has only a shower stall in hers) told me she’d met two thirtyish women in the other house.

Mom sent two letters. One contained the notice about the new reduced prices of Avisson Press books, the return of my $510 deposit for a secured credit card with Flatbush Federal, which rejected my application, and a couple of other little items. The other letter held a Sunday Miami Herald article I’d seen in Borders about Gainesville’s thriving music scene.

Friday, June 20, 1997

6 PM. I slept pretty well, and I exercised to both the early morning and mid-afternoon shows of Body Electric on WYCC-TV/Channel 20.

Today we turned on the air conditioner in the Barnhouse because it got up to around 87°. I felt hot only at 3 PM when I went to an upstairs room to try to help Annie find an Edgar Guest poem on the Internet; they had AOL on the computer. I looked but couldn’t find the poem Annie wanted.

Tomorrow, they’re having a tree planting and memorial service for Piet, her companion (he was married to someone else) who died of a brain tumor last year. Eerily, Annie herself got a brain tumor after that, but she’s okay now.

This morning at 10 AM, I went over the Gorton Community Center to hear Judi speak, and with the help of Sylvia, Scott, Matthew and Theresa, read the lines to her play Seem.

It’s about the love affair between a Japanese-American woman and a Vietnam veteran who can’t reconcile the love he has for her with the knowledge that he killed people who looked like her in the war.

Like Judi, the woman in the play is a Catholic with a distant, querulous mother who was in a World War II internment camp. Judi can be somewhat ditzy at times, but I was pleasantly surprised at how good her dialogue was.

The people in the audience – senior citizens who belonged a play-reading group – were quite perceptive in their comments and questions after the reading.

They are affluent, mostly white – though the brightest person there was the lone African American woman – and obviously well-bred, whatever that means.

As I chatted with some of them, I realized once again how much money and class can greatly affect how well people age.

Afterwards I let Sylvia and the others drive back without me, as I wanted stop for frozen yogurt at Häagen-Dazs and then go to the public library, where I surfed the Net for half an hour while, next to me, Andi was printing out some of her writing.

Back at Ragdale, Sylvia asked if I would speak to or give a short reading to a group of the docents who give tours at their regular meeting at noon on Wednesday. I was delighted to be asked, as Sylvia has been inviting other residents – like Judi today – to do  community functions.

I also signed up to be videotaped by Jim Kropp, whose The Creative Spark is a pilot program on the creative process that’s being marketed to public TV. He’s also going to film us residents at dinner and is working on a video about Ragdale that will be shown on cable TV.

I wrote only a bit today, but I think I’ve come up with an idea of how to complete “Anything But Sympathy” and maintain the unity of the story. The trouble with working here is that I actually socialize a great deal more than I do ordinarily.

Speaking of socializing, I’ve got to go to dinner now.


10 PM. Dinner was congenial tonight, though Chuck continues to be a bit loud and opinionated. I sat next to Jane Hamilton, who’s very down to earth. But why shouldn’t she be? Before Oprah’s Book Club made her Book of Ruth a best seller, she was a simply a very well-regarded literary writer.

The other new resident is Carolyn, a visual artist in Chicago. She grew up on Long Island and is moving to Montclair, New Jersey.

When Jane learned I was from Gainesville, she asked if I’d read Andrew Hollernan’s The Beauty of Men, and that gave me a chance to talk about his books and about gay culture’s emphasis on youth and beauty.

With thirteen residents at table, things sounded noisier than before; I had a hard time hearing Theresa, who sat directly across from me. After the meal, Theresa, Kerry and I took a walk to the supermarket, where Kerry got some things.

It’s still fairly humid, and I’m glad we have air conditioning. This hot weather makes me wonder how I’ll manage in Brooklyn in July. I may end up buying a small air conditioning for the house in Williamsburg.

When we got back, Matt told me my mother had called, and after Theresa got off the phone with her husband, I called Mom back.

It was good news: I got the official acceptance letter from Villa Montalvo. I’m to be an artist resident there from March 3 to March 28, 1988.

Even though it may mean giving up a job, I definitely want to go to California next March. Mom said they asked for a photo, so she found one of my 1993 publicity shots and she’ll mail it to me with the rest of the material they want me to send back with my acceptance.