A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late March, 1996

Friday, March 22, 1996

9 AM. It’s 35° on this cold morning. I called in sick today after another nearly sleepless night.

“Insomnia was relatively easy to survive” is the last sentence of the title story in I Survived Caracas Traffic, but right now I might disagree with it.

I know I would have at 3 AM, when I felt frustration beyond tears. Obviously I’m working through something emotionally, and I expect to have more sleepless nights as I come to the end of my years in Gainesville.

Yet after last evening’s law review dinner, I feel more certain than ever that I’m doing the right thing in leaving.

Actually, I had a rather good time; my social skills need refining, but I can handle myself adequately at these kinds of events.

But the hothouse atmosphere of a law school never seemed more precious than around people from the law review with their self-congratulatory, tradition-obsessed attitudes.

I can understand why someone like Russ loves that, but he’s a snob. He and I were seated on either side of retired Judge Robert Smith, an elderly lawyer who comes in from Tallahassee to teach Florida Administrative Law two days a week.

Smith was an erudite, learned man: a former editor-in-chief of the law review who could discourse on many topics and recall verbatim a quote by John Steinbeck in an interview in Colorado Quarterly 40 or 50 years ago.

It was chilly when first I arrived at the stadium. I followed Professor Collier, his date, and retired Judge Bob Mann into what turned out to be the wrong entrance. We ended up walking around until we spotted Dean Lewis, his wife and Betty Taylor at the entrance to the North End of the stadium.

Touchdown Terrace was the name of the restaurant – or maybe it’s just a very large banquet room – and there were cocktails for an hour and then dinner.

I chatted with Rosalie and her husband, Brian Burns and his very pregnant wife, and with my old classmate Duane, a former law review editor, and his wife.

Duane is now practicing in Clearwater. He seems like a smart, stolid, dull lawyer, but he enjoys his work and especially going to court.

I still feel intimidated talking to law professors and did no more than say hello to Chris Slobogin, Don Peters, Walter Weyrauch and others. Most of the newer, younger law professors weren’t there.

On the other side from Judge Smith, my dinner companion was Anne McClain, one of the women who works for the law review. She’s an interesting lady, but either the snobbery of the law review has rubbed off on her over eight years or else she was pretentious to begin with.

Still, it was a pleasant evening. Russ remarked that he knows that he’s providing me with a wealth of material for a satirical novel in which he expects to find a character based on himself.

He’s no dope – but I never said he was. Anyway, it was freezing when the two of us left the stadium after 10 PM.

I thought I could get to bed early, but then I tossed and turned. At 2 AM I decided I wouldn’t go to work today.

I still have car and motel reservations for Tampa, but I’m so tired that I’ll just see how I feel later before I decide if I want to go to this dinner.

Sunday, March 24, 1996

1 PM. Forty-eight hours ago, although I was still feeling tired and cranky, I drove to Gainesville Airport to pick up my rental car. Budget gave me a familiar Mercury Tracer.

I left for Tampa around 2:30 PM. Driving down I-75, I played Green Day’s Dookie over and over. The loud teenage angst somehow satisfied my need to stay awake and to feel cranky at the same time.

It was about 4:15 PM when I got to Fletcher Avenue from I-275, where the only motel that I could get reservations at was located.

Any place that has a sign that says “low rates” can be expected to be a bit like a welfare hotel, and I was somewhat concerned at first. My room was a tiny dump that reeked of tobacco, but I decided I’d probably be safe there and that I’d make the best of it, so I bought an air freshener at Publix.

Everyone in Tampa looked very bizarre to me. Probably it was a combination of my exhaustion and bad mood and the fact that I’m just not used to seeing the weirdos of a big urban center.

Although I felt thoroughly discombobulated, I put on my nice shoes, tie and sport jacket, shirt and slacks and drove in traffic to the USF campus about two miles away.

At the reception area, I was told to follow the car in front of me to Lifsey House, the college president’s mansion, a modernist 1994 addition to the university.

I spoke with the man I had followed, Jim Peters, a grey-bearded philosophy professor at Hillsborough Community College. We were led into a tony reception area for wine and soft drinks.

I introduced myself to USF president Betty Castor, a former education commissioner and legislator; both she and her husband Sam Bell (who wasn’t there) served with Jon in Tallahassee.

Most of us Authors Guild members wondered why we’d been invited. It turned out that Doris Weatherford, a member who wrote a book on women and immigration, had brought up the possibility to Robin Davis Miller, the Guild’s then-executive director, whose parents live in Tampa Bay.

Doris is a Democratic Party consultant whom Governor Chiles appointed to the Hillsborough Community College board of trustees; her husband Roy is a UF philosophy professor who used to head the statewide faculty union.

Doris asked her friend Betty Castor to host the gathering, and Betty readily agreed. In the interim, however, Robin had taken maternity leave and left the director’s job to return to being general counsel.

Anyway, I made small talk with some of the twenty or so guests. Most were fairly old, ranging from 65-ish to doddering.

There was Robert Schachner, a music promoter who wrote a book called How and When to Be Your Own Lawyer, and Diane Wolff, a bright Chinese scholar who had that slightly neurotic edge I’m familiar with from artist colonies.

Everyone seemed quite nice, but when we entered the room for dinner, I picked a table for four with Doris Weatherford and a younger (50s) couple who looked interesting. It proved to be a good choice.

The couple was Gay Courter, a best-selling novelist whose novels, like The Midwife, are all set in the past, appeal to women, and often have Jewish themes, and her husband Philip, a documentary film director and producer.

Gay’s most recent book was a nonfiction account of her work as a guardian ad litem in Florida. Philip recently completed filming a PBS show about abused and neglected children and is a Chiles appointee to the Health and Rehabilitative Services Board in Citrus County.

So I got to sit with three sharp, politically active Democrats with either a New York City or Jewish or academic sensibility rather than with very old women who wrote children’s books or engineering professors who wrote textbooks. Consequently, I had a very good time.

They made us all stand up and introduced ourselves, and I volunteered to go first. I’m glad I was able to mention last Sunday’s New York Times review –  though it seemed that everyone knew about me from Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog or thought they did.

One guy there who is interesting was J. Joaquin Fraxedas, who spoke at the law school last year. He’s Sam Bell’s law partner and the first novelist in the United States whose book was published simultaneously in English and Spanish.

About a Cuban rafter, it sold quite well, and his screenplay of the novel is somewhere in development limbo at a film studio in Hollywood.

The Courters also write for Hollywood. They are obviously wealthy, with a private plane in Crystal River, where they’ve lived since 1980.

The youngest couple at the dinner were Castor’s daughter Kathy and her husband Bill, attorneys who shared a table with Castor’s mother. It must be awkward to have one’s family home double as the university’s reception center, though it’s quite a wonderful house.

They had the fireplace burning as we ate, and there was a ceiling that went up to the roof, with a second-floor balcony and good contemporary art on the walls.

We had a conference call in to Robin Davis Miller, and after she spoke, all of us once again introduced ourselves, getting close to the phone in what I suggested was a manner (slightly bowing) that reminded me of primitive tribes worshipping an inanimate object as their goddess.

Many of the members praised the Guild for helping them with difficulties with publishers and agents, and there was a good discussion about how we can do more to highlight the Guild members in Florida.

Betty Castor also asked for suggestions about what the state university system could do to help us as writers, and she seemed genuinely interested – although with politicians, it’s always hard to tell.

The dinner was great. I ate most of my salad and the main course – stuffed shells and zucchini – but just took a forkful of dessert.

My position as a lawyer and CGR staff attorney seemed to make everyone take my ideas seriously. (That’s an understandable mistake on their part.)

Just before we began to leave around 9 PM, I chatted with Jay Fraxedas, who told me – apparently without sarcasm – that while “best-sellers like us” don’t need the University of Florida Presses to publish us, “other literary writers” in the state did.

As we were leaving, I took Doris Weatherford’s card and spoke to the Courters, who told me that both of their sons went to private school in Gainesville and they’ve been coming into town lately because Gay’s been doing research for her next novel at the medical school library.

It was a clear chilly night in Tampa, and I thought I could just manage to see the head of Comet Hyakutake in the sky, though I can’t be certain about that.

Back in my motel room, I undressed, watched TV, read the paper and thought about the evening as well as the one before.

At two formal sit-down dinners, I was able to exercise my social skills, and apparently I can do okay in these situations.

Unfortunately, being in a strange bed made my insomnia even worse, and for the fourth straight night I got very little sleep. It was awful: I tossed and turned till 4 AM and woke up at 7:30 AM.

I went out to McDonald’s and Publix to bring back yogurt, a banana, orange juice and hot water (for oatmeal and tea) to my room so I could have breakfast.

After checking out at 8:30 AM, I decided that as tired as I was, I still wanted to explore Tampa Bay a little. My only previous visit was that Saturday in July 1994 when I had a cold and stayed only a few hours in the USF area.

So I took I-275 and got off in downtown Tampa. Once again, it’s heartening to see tall buildings in a skyline; living in Gainesville, I miss that so much.

I ended up taking this causeway across Tampa Bay and going into St. Petersburg through a kind of back route. I drove around downtown St. Pete, passing the art museums and the bayside attractions.

Starting to get very drowsy, I felt the need to stop for a Diet Coke’s caffeine at a convenience store. I even took a can of Diet Mountain Dew to make certain I didn’t doze off at the wheel.

I now wish I’d planned my ride better so I wouldn’t have gone out of my way; I might have had time to get to see the beach, as I had originally hoped I could.

Instead, I got to see a lot of Pinellas County, which I liked a lot: it has a light, vacation/retirement area atmosphere, and everyone seemed at least middle class.

Returning to Tampa, I took the bridge that’s on I-275 and started to head home because I realized that if I didn’t leave then, I wouldn’t get to the airport in time to return my rental car.

Although the drive back was pleasant, I tended to get stuck in inexplicable slowdowns. But at least by then, the caffeine had begun to kick in and Green Day’s music helped me stay alert. After getting off I-75 at Ocala to go to the bathroom, I came back to Gainesville with U.S. 441.

The car and motel cost me more than $100, but it was worth it, and if I make money this year, I can take it off next year’s taxes.

Tired and hungry, I still stopped off at the office to look at my messages, though there wasn’t much I couldn’t delete immediately.

It took me a long time to get everything put away at home, and then, after I had eaten and rested, I did laundry, shopped at Target and Albertsons, and read the New York Times. On Lexis, I researched some of the people I met at USF.

I fell asleep around 9:30 PM, and praise God, I slept deliciously. My dreams were complex, and I could just feel my system getting back to a state resembling normal.

Wednesday, March 27, 1996

4 PM. Last evening’s Nova class went okay. I’m not doing a great job teaching this semester, but I’m doing the best I can, and my students seem satisfied.

While I don’t know how much they’re getting out of the course, they seem to like me and I haven’t gotten any complaints. I try to explain everything clearly, grade generously, and not overwork busy adults who have full lives outside of my class.

When I got to my car at 9 PM, I heard the good news that Sande and Pegeen had won their City Commission seats in today’s runoff.

It was very close in both districts, and according to what Richard Hamann told me today in the office – he was at the Supervisor of Elections office – both women were behind until the last precinct in each district came in.

Robert Edewaard, the hateful attorney for Concerned Citizens, assaulted an 80-year-old Jewish man who was working as a polling deputy after the man told him to stop handing out his anti-gay leaflets at the polling place.

Edewaard was charged with assault on an elderly person. (Old Mr. Kaplan punched him in the face after he was knocked down and got up, but police considered it self-defense because Edewaard was still threatening him.)

The Concerned Citizens are also in trouble for election law violations regarding their homophobic leaflets, and one private community may charge them with trespassing when they delivered the leaflets to all the homeowners’ mailboxes there.

Today everyone from Kathy Lawhon at HRC to Linda Baldwin at CGR expressed satisfaction that the religious right ended up looking so bad.

It’s possible that a backlash against gay-bashing provided the margin of victory, giving the Gainesville City Commission a brand-new 3-2 progressive majority.

I put the finishing touches on my speech for tomorrow and printed out my notes, using a large font and triple spacing. No matter how bad I am, it will all be over in ten or fifteen minutes.

Jon brought into the office a copy of a lawsuit filed by eccentric former Governor Claude Kirk, who’s suing the sugar companies “on behalf of the state of Florida” as a public nuisance.

It’s weird that Jon has conservative Russ working on all these liberal projects, including an amendment to raise the sales tax a penny, with the proceeds to go to education.

There’s a problem, however, with the single-issue requirement for initiatives because they want to lower property taxes as a tradeoff.

After speaking to Tucker, I agreed to help him come up with the final draft for the CGR business plan.

Kevin sent me some playful creative writing today, and I responded with some equally playful stuff. I’m trying to reassure him but I haven’t lost interest now that I know he’s decided to move to Los Angeles.

Thursday, March 28, 1996

7 PM. Last night we had a big turnout for the Human Rights Council board meeting, and because of the way the city election turned out, we were all in a celebratory mood.

Craig recounted what happened with the election, and I got to see the hateful leaflets of the Concerned Citizens (“The ‘gay rights’ crowd will turn out to vote – but will the people of God?”), which has now made our newsletter, The Guardian, much better known in the community than it ever could have been otherwise.

Everyone agreed that our gamble in publicly endorsing favored candidates, which could have backfired on Sande and Pegeen, paid off in a big way, mostly due to the ham-handed tactics of the religious right.

“But who could have imagined that Edewaard would knock down an 80-year-old poll worker?” Helen exclaimed.

Edewaard’s in big trouble, as assault and battery on an elderly person is a felony in Florida.

Craig cautioned that although the election made our side look reasonable and our opponents look like the fringe, we can’t relax our vigilance.

We passed motions to send various letters to people, and before we adjourned after the separate HRC and HRA (our political action committee) meetings, Kathy asked me if I would help them all make sure we were keeping the 501(c)(3) corporation separate from the PAC.

Javier used to do that, and I agreed to look into the law and call a meeting soon.

I showed Richard Smith my Times review as we went to our cars, and then I drove home in a violent thunderstorm.

At home early this morning, I spent time practicing my talk. Because it ran far too long, I had to cut a lot of it, though as it turned out, it wasn’t enough.

I didn’t get to work until 10 AM. Russ and Jon were leaving for Tallahassee just as I arrived.

Dressed in a suit and tie, and having shampooed and blow-dried twice – the first time left me with a bad hair day – I was only slightly nervous.

The Fellows were as busy as they could be: Joy doing publicity, Syles getting the food ready, and the others running around doing other preparation.

I got to the auditorium early, just after Matt, Felicia and Isabel got started at the door, handing out programs.

The turnout was incredible – maybe 350 people or more – with everyone who couldn’t get a seat lining the walls of the auditorium as they stood.

Christy Sheffield Sanford came despite a bad cold, as did other community people, and the radio station and newspaper were there.

Brian asked me to try out the microphone at the podium. Professors Quarles, Rush, Little and Nunn sat at the two tables flanking the moderator, Assistant State Attorney Phyllis Kotey.

After Monica greeted everyone with some introductory remarks, I went up to do my thing.

I did the best I could, and later, many people told me I did a good job of clarifying the issue for the panel’s discussion.

At times I could hear the microphone feedback, and my talk may have been disjointed because of the parts I skipped over as I watched the clock.

Still, I feel happy about my performance. Unlike in a classroom, in such a large crowd, it’s hard to gauge reaction because I couldn’t focus on individual faces. As people applauded, I sat down next to Liz in the audience and listened to the panel discussion.

Ken Nunn believes affirmative action is dead, Sharon Rush talked about cultural issues, and Joe Little took the thankless role of anti-affirmative action meanie. I found Jim Quarles surprisingly funny.

The exchanges were all polite even after pointed student questions from people on one side or the other.

Before the event ended, Liz went up to present Monica with a bouquet – the Fellows ended up doing a wonderful job – and then we ambled over to the faculty lounge for the reception.

With that crowd in the auditorium, Syles was terrified that we wouldn’t have enough food, but only fifty or so people came over to eat. (Everything there actually tasted quite good.)

I was very touched when, on behalf of the Fellows, Randall presented me and Liz with separate cards signed by all of them and elegant pens engraved with our names. I enjoyed talking to everyone.

At 2 PM, feeling relieved, I went back to the office. The first thing I did after closing my office door was to call Dad and tell him about the event.

After that, Kevin popped up with a sweet poem, “My Moons,” which I responded to with a breathless but probably dull reply.

It was so nice of Kevin to be there online so I could share how I felt at that moment. He seemed to understood the post-performance experience from all his work in theater.

After getting compliments from Ellen and Tucker, I read the rest of my e-mail and came home after I printed out one message.

It was from Frank Smith of White Eagle Coffee Store Press in Illinois, a micro-publisher which has a long story contest. They published Christy’s chapbook Sur Les Pointes and she was their contest judge last year.

Frank asked if I’d be interested in judging their next contest in exchange for them publishing 300 copies of a chapbook, provided I have a long story good enough for them.

When I returned to the office this evening, I wrote back and said we should talk further. What have I got to lose? The contest would be a good amount of work, but I will have free time coming up.

At home for several hours in the late afternoon, I read the paper and watched One Life to Live, which I hadn’t seen in months.

I also got on Lexis and Westlaw and sent out a query letter to Jesse Monteagudo in Plantation, who reviews books of gay interest for the Sun-Sentinel, to see if he wanted a review copy of Caracas Traffic.

Tomorrow’s Friday, and while I feel liberated after the symposium, I know I’ve got plenty of stuff to do.

Just now I emptied my pockets and found an envelope that Barbara had handed me before the symposium; in it was an invitation to an OutLaw dinner at Professor Pouncey’s house on Friday, April 12.