A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early June, 1997

Wednesday, June 4, 1997

3 PM at Ragdale in Lake Forest. I just phoned my parents to tell them I’d arrived safely, and Jonathan answered because they’d gone to take China for a ride. I’d forgotten about the hour’s time difference.

We don’t have dinner here till 6:30 PM, and that will be really late for me, but I have enough munchies to keep me okay.

It’s warm and sunny here; in fact, I’m a little concerned with how I’ll deal with the lack of air conditioning. But for now I’m fine, and I cannot complain, especially after not being able to warm up most of time while I was in New York.

Yesterday afternoon at 4:30 PM, I decided to walk off my pre-trip nervousness by taking a long walk in all directions through the “town” part of Locust Valley. Nearly all the stores there are pricey, quaint, white-shoe affairs that sell nothing of any use to me: French provincial antiques, for example.

I did find a Gristede’s near Teresa’s other house on Birch Hill Road where the wealthy locals must have their house accounts. Back home, I got a call from Mom to wish me a happy birthday and a good trip today.

I had a little of the dinner Teresa made for herself and Paul, but mostly I ate the rice and broccoli and my own sweet potato. In the evening, I completed packing and did laundry and watched TV with Teresa and Paul.

They do bicker a bit, but I’m not competent to judge if it’s any more than any married couple does, and I suspect that that they do it so openly in front of me is a healthy sign.

My sleep wasn’t that restful, but it was enough so that I didn’t feel tried traveling. Teresa and I left the house at 9:15 AM, and she took a short cut to LaGuardia that got me there by 10 AM. I kissed her and thanked her profusely but didn’t want to say goodbye, as I hate goodbyes.

The United flight to Chicago took off on time, and it wasn’t at all crowded. I had nobody sitting next to me, so I could relax a little. I started to think about it being my 46th birthday.

I’m quite unsure what to say about that except it’s better to celebrate it on one of these strange days when I’m moving from one place to the next. Sixteen days ago, Locust Valley was unfamiliar to me, but I’d driven through it starting in the 1970s; by comparison, here in Illinois, I really feel lost.

On the ground at O’Hare, it took me a long time to get my lenses in, and then, famished, I stopped to get a turkey sandwich as a foreign voice over the PA system paged, “Ad-lie Stevenson, please meet your party at the United counter.”

By the time I got to the baggage claim area, everyone else on my flight had already taken their luggage. Of course, I had too much – way too much – stuff: two heavy suitcases and several little bags I combined. But I got a luggage cart, which eased my burden, and I called a limo service, which arrived in ten minutes.

I shared a ride with a woman going to Lake Forest and arrived at Ragdale fifteen minutes ahead of the check-in time of 2 PM.

Ann, the caretaker, helped show me to my room after I picked up the packet on the porch at Ragdale House. I’m in the Beech Room, a bright, light room in the Barnhouse, upstairs from the kitchen and dining room.

Apparently all twelve of us are arriving today, and I saw a couple of the residents but didn’t introduce myself to anyone but the women in the office, who embarrassed me with a round of “Happy Birthday.”

It took a while to put everything away, and I still don’t feel comfortable yet, but holy cow, I’ve been here only two hours. Right now I think I’ll lie down for a little while. I can’t even think about getting work done today.

Friday, June 6, 1997

5 PM. Last evening I would have liked to socialize with the others, but I was too tired. While I didn’t go to sleep immediately, I managed to spend a restful night that got rid of some of the cobwebs in my head.

Up at 5:30 AM, I considered it progress to sleep half an hour later, and after I had my first bowl of cereal, I got back into bed and listened to the heavy rain.

I went downstairs again at 8 AM and had a bowl of grits and a grapefruit and read the New York Times out by the porch, although it was necessary to wear a sweater and a jacket over my t-shirt to stay warm.

After working on “Anything But Sympathy” for an hour, I walked to the Burger King and ordered a Diet Coke so I could sit and observe the lunch crowd: lots of workers who toil for the rich people in Lake Forest – the cashiers spoke Spanish to nannies, gardeners and construction workers when they ordered – as well as kids with or without parents, a few white-shoe Lake Forest types, and the occasional old geezer like me, eating alone but glad to be in a public space.

At the Jewel supermarket I picked up a bag of frozen “California mix” – broccoli, cauliflower and carrots – and nuked the entire bag when I got back to the kitchen, much to the wonderment of Judi Komaki, who detests vegetables and whose headaches were recently diagnosed as “water deprivation.”

That’s one problem I’ll never have; I just hope my incessant use of the bathroom during the night doesn’t disturb Matt Iribarne.

At the supermarket, a human-sized Pillsbury Doughboy stood in the bakery section, and I poked his belly as I passed; he responded by pretending to be tickled.

Aside from Judi and Scott Eyerly – a composer, originally from this area, who now lives in Park Slope – and earlier, Matthew, I didn’t see much of my fellow residents today. I imagine they were all working constantly while I seemed to dawdle.

In the afternoon I sat at the computer for ninety minutes, but I didn’t produce much; mostly, I just fiddled around with ideas. I do love the terrific screen I’ve got on the rented computer and the ease of Works for Windows, so I certainly can’t blame my lack of productivity on inferior tools.

Although everyone seems to see Ragdale as a low-pressure place, I felt guilty every time I ran into Sylvia in the kitchen or when I was walking around with my headphones on, listening to All Things Considered.

At 2:30 PM, I took a break to exercise to Body Electric. I haven’t told anyone I have a little TV in my room, and I’d be embarrassed to let them know that I brought it just to work out to an exercise show. (Still, I’d be just as uncomfortable if they assumed I was watching sitcoms or soaps, which I’m not.)

Finally catching up with back issues of the New York Times, I felt relieved to know that others, like Judi, are just as obsessive about reading the paper though I can’t imagine that anyone else manages to read nearly every article the way I do.

This is only my second full day at Ragdale, and by next week, I should develop a routine that will continue for the rest of my stay here – until July, when I go to Brooklyn and have to adjust to living in a completely different environment on a totally new schedule.

But if I worried about getting so set in my ways – that curse of the middle-aged bachelor – when I lived in Gainesville, the last six weeks have at least given me a start toward developing more flexibility and adaptability.

As always, residencies in artists’ colonies are times when I take stock of my life, and since I’m in a period of transition, that’s particularly true right now.

Six years ago this summer, I moved to Gainesville and got so wrapped up in the life of law school that I wasn’t sure I’d ever publish anything again. But as I’ve told some of the younger writers, getting involved in law school freed me enough to start writing again – both stories and nonfiction.

I don’t know what to expect for the 1997-98 academic year. I guess I’ll teach part-time at Nova, but I have to do more than that.

Sometimes I think that my stories – the ones I tell orally, not my fiction – about my adventures in publishing, politics, and publicity – could be turned into a real good one-man performance piece.

But I don’t know how to go about shaping one, and I know even less about how to get one produced – if that’s even the term.

The NPR station, WBEZ, gives traffic reports, and the big roads around here seem to be the Dan Ryan, the Eisenhower and the Stevenson.

God, it just struck me that I’m in the northern suburbs of Chicago. How weird! It’s an hour before dinner, and I think I’m going to catch up on reading some of the magazines I brought with me.

I really have no feel for Chicago or the Midwest yet. Perhaps that’s because it’s so typically American that it’s like everywhere else. I don’t see why I couldn’t live here – but I could probably live in any urban or suburban area in the United States.

Saturday, June 7, 1997

3 PM. It’s a dreary, chilly, rainy day. I wrote for a few hours today, although I didn’t accomplish much. I’m working with the pastiche form, trying to come up with a story about Anita Hill that has her as a roller derby star.

I also composed a poem composed entirely from TV commercials slogans like “Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself,” “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” and “Sorry, Charlie.”

I’ve just taken off my contacts, which I probably should have done before because the computer gives me eyestrain. (Now I understand why I’ve been able to read the New York Times without reading glasses since I left CGR, where I stared at a monitor all day.)

Last evening we had our usual pleasant meal, cooked by Ian, who comes in on Fridays and Mondays, rather than Barb, who’s cooking all the other nights except Saturdays, when we’re on our own.

Ian lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which is only a few miles north of here via the Metra train. I wonder if I should go there just to say that I’ve been in Wisconsin.

I stayed downstairs till 10 PM, chatting with the others and watching a bit of the Chicago Bulls/Utah Jazz basketball championship.

Everyone here is very nice. Among the writers, I like Matt Iribarne and Kerry Dolan from San Francisco; Glori, a poet and recent MFA from the University of Michigan; and also Judy and David.

All but Judy and I are young people who’ve gotten their MFAs recently and don’t yet have a book published. (David is 38, but his University of Florida MFA is from 1994.)

I especially enjoy talking to Theresa, a painter who comes from suburban D. C. – Springfield, Virginia – and is about my age or a little older.

Amy and Matthew are both younger recent Art Institute of Chicago students. Scott, the composer, is also genial and pleasant. Some people are staying for only two weeks and some will be here two or four weeks after I leave.

Although I tried to stay downstairs later so I could shift my sleep later, I couldn’t fall asleep till about 1 AM and I woke up at 6 AM. Soon after that, I came downstairs and had breakfast and read the New York Times, which I picked up from the front doorstep.

After getting back into bed and listening to Weekend Edition Saturday – which was broadcast live from here in Chicago – I tried to exercise but didn’t get much beyond 500 chest flyes with my five-pound dumbbells, using the footstool of the chair as a weight bench.

Despite the rain, I walked to the supermarket and bought sweet potatoes, frozen vegetables and some more low-fat cheese slices, which I labeled this time because someone else ate five slices from my last purchase.

The rain was hard enough that I knew I’d have to change my pants when I got home. Later, I lent Matt my umbrella because he wanted to go to the Lake Forest Public Library.

The office is closed on weekends, and a couple of residents went away for the day, so it’s pretty quiet here.

Last night people discussed walking into town to a restaurant tonight, but the weather is still horrible. I’ve got a sinus headache and feel groggy. Anyway, I don’t really want to attempt any more work today.

Sunday, June 8, 1997

11 PM. I’m having the nicest time here. This evening, like last, went on so long because the company is so good. I’ve missed being around intelligent, creative people with whom I can discuss art, literature, culture, politics and ideas.

Last evening before we went out to dinner, Mom called with a couple of phone messages. I’ve got to call Claudia at Nova’s Liberal Arts Department tomorrow, and Peter Hargitai called.

I phoned Peter in Miami today. He thought I was on the Literature Fellowship grant panel that met this week in Tallahassee and wanted to know how his application fared.

I’d actually like to know, too, if I got a fellowship, but given the makeup of this year’s panel, I doubt it. Still, I’ll keep hoping till I get my rejection letter in August.

Last night I got a lift, along with Matthew, who has a bad back, in Theresa’s car as the others walked downtown. We had dinner in The Lantern, the nine of us; they all had burgers and fries or onion rings, and I had a nice turkey sandwich.

The conversation was wonderful, as it was again tonight, and afterwards we were walking to Blockbuster Video when Glori found a baby cat resting on the tire of a parked car.

Most of the others went into Walgreens to call the Lake Forest police, but I stayed out in the brisk air with Kerry until a cop came and took the kitten away in a box.

Lake Forest is such a pretty place, and it’s so clean. Although the people here are probably very rich, they don’t seem snobbish when I meet them on the street – though that’s probably because they assume I’m one of them.

We all got back by 10 PM, and the others watched the video they rented while I read the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times, which I’d bought at Walgreens.

Again, I didn’t get to sleep for hours and I awoke at the first sign of light, at about 5:20 AM. (It makes sense it’s so early, as the Central Time Zone starts right about here).

The Sunday papers didn’t arrive until after I’d had my first bowl of cereal, showered and dressed, and gone down again to the kitchen. We had two New York Times because Judi finally got her subscription delivered here, and I had the Ragdale copy all to myself.

It was only about 53° so I needed to bundle up as I read it on the porch; eventually I had to move to the living room.

Between reading the Times like a good intellectual and doing laundry, I had a long, intense conversation with Judi and Matthew.

(Tonight I spoke for an equally long time with Amy, Scott, Matt and especially David, who was in a funk about his fiction.)

Later in the afternoon, I walked to Burger King and read the Times’s magazine section, a special issue on how other countries see the United States. We Americans are now in an odd time, a period in which the U.S. is the sole economic, military and political superpower in the world.

American culture – the worst of it, anyway: Big Macs and Baywatch, John Grisham and Arnold Schwarzenegger – rules everywhere.

With U.S. unemployment at 4.8%, the lowest since 1973, our free-market, low-wage, Reaganesque form of capitalism seems to have conquered the world, despite the recent Socialist victory in France, where workers (and the large number of unemployed) don’t want to tinker with the welfare state.

Luckily for sleazy Clinton, the U.S. is really prosperous now. So does this mean the pendulum will never again swing to the kind of liberal, reformist moods that permeated the 1930s and the 1960s?

Perhaps. But only a decade ago, people were decrying America’s loss of power and influence, and it seemed as if the U.S. was an empire on the wane.

So things change. Twelve of the fifteen European Union countries have socialist or social democratic governments, and some economists – I read this in today’s Chicago Tribune – are saying that free trade may not be the panacea for our society that everyone claims it is.

I walked around Lake Forest, hanging out by the train station with the piña colada frozen yogurt I got at Häagen-Dazs, smelling the lilac bushes, until finally I came back to Ragdale at 4 PM, in time for All Things Considered and half an hour of impromptu exercising.

Then I chatted with people before, during and after dinner.

No, I didn’t even attempt to do any work today, but instead felt as if I’m living – well, either the life of the mind, or more probably, the life of Reilly.

Monday, June 9, 1997

5:30 PM. Again last night, I couldn’t get to sleep until late and couldn’t stay asleep past sunrise, so I must be sleep-deprived.

Learning that Body Electric is shown on WYCC/Channel 20 at 6:30 AM on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (as well as at 2:30 PM and 10 PM every weekday), I exercised this morning before breakfast so I could go into Chicago today.

It seemed like the ideal day since we’ve had cloudless skies and temperatures in the low 70°s. I was at the Lake Forest station at 9 AM and caught a train half an hour later for the hour ride into the city.

The Metra commuter line – the only left-handed tracks I’ve ever seen – has double-decker cars, and of course I was eager to see the view on the ride to downtown.

It’s always thrilling to see an impressive skyline as you approach a big city, and Chicago’s skyline is, of course, the most impressive I’ve seen outside of New York City.

The train left me off at a station that connected to city trains and buses at the Citicorp Center, but after I sat down with a Diet Pepsi at the food court – I spilled it all over me, but it cured my headache – I checked out a map from the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) and made out a tentative route myself.

All around me at the food court were these guys who work at the Merc. Easy to spot by their brightly-colored jackets with their incomprehensible badges, they are the runners or traders in the commodity pits.

The downtown area is divided by river crossings. I passed the famous Lyric Opera House and other landmark buildings. After crossing the Washington Avenue Bridge, I walked south until I got to the Sears Tower, which doesn’t give the impression of being as tall as it is.

Given that I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building, I decided to forgo the long ride to the top of the Sears, instead stopping at a Wendy’s across the street for a baked potato and an examination of the better map I’d been handed by someone pushing a trolley tour.

Continuing across Jackson, I went into the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue. There’s enough to see there that I could go back ten times and not see it all, but I concentrated on the basics: European painting and contemporary art.

There were more incredible Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works than I’ve ever seen anywhere except at the Met in New York: not just their most famous painting, Seurat’s Grand Jatte, but for me images like Picasso’s blue Old Guitarist and Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge, along with first-rate paintings by Pissarro, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, etc.

It was quite overwhelming, and I still went to see the Renaissance works (remembering some paintings from the class on Renaissance Art in Northern Europe that I took in the spring of 1971) and then great contemporary art, including favorite artists of mine like Ad Reinhardt, Jean Dubuffet and Francis Bacon.

Finally I was worn out and very hungry. It took lots of time to find the courtyard cafeteria because the Institute is composed of several adjoining buildings. I had a salad, grapefruit juice and an apple and munched on my own stuff once I got my backpack from the locker and went outside.

The weather was glorious, and it was a perfect day to walk down to Lake Shore Drive to the perimeter of Lake Michigan, where many small boats are docked.

I really walked far, through Grant Park/Daley Bicentennial Plaza, a gorgeous park and recreation facility right by all those familiar tall buildings.

Crossing Michigan Avenue – currently under heavy-duty construction, as is a lot of downtown – I went past the Amoco Building and the Chicago Cultural Center to Marshall Field, a department store so immense I can only compare it to Macy’s at Herald Square.

I also discovered the “Pedway.” I’d heard about the underground passageways in Chicago, which must come in handy during the long, windy winters.

In the basement of Marshall Field, I had some vegetable stir fry, which was greasier than I’m used to (and higher in fat) – but at least I got some veggies.

Bathrooms, by the way, are easy to come by in the Loop, unlike in Manhattan, and the city is much cleaner and more attractive in some ways.

Of course, I only saw tiny fraction of Chicago, but I guess that it’s the city’s heart, from Lake Shore Drive to the elevated trains to the office buildings along LaSalle Street and the monstrous James R. Thompson Center (which I’d known as the State of Illinois Building), City Hall, and the Daley Center.

Walking back to Northwestern Station, I discovered I had 45 minutes to kill before my train left, so I strolled around, called my parents, and read.

Eventually, I boarded the train early, going up to the upper level, and read the New York Times I bought this morning at the Walgreens in Lake Forest, where the cashier offered condolences to the customer before me about the loss of “last night’s Bears…uh, I mean Bulls, game.”

It was 3 PM, so I listened to All Things Considered on my headphones as I watched us go through Ravenswood, Rogers Park, Evanston, Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, etc. (My train’s final destination was Waukegan, which everyone my age knows because of Jack Benny.)

Chicago has a different look from Eastern cities, but I’m not sure I can define it. The row houses and free-standing ones seem narrower and taller, and a lot of apartment houses seem to have staircases that are open to the outside rather than fire escapes as in New York.

At 4:30 PM, we pulled into Lake Forest, and I stopped at the post office to mail a graduation card and a copy of I Brake for Delmore Schwartz to Jade, finally getting back here at Ragdale by 5 PM.

For two days I haven’t turned on my computer or worked – yet I’m glad I got to see a little of Chicago sooner rather than later.