A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late April, 1997

Tuesday, April 22, 1997

4 PM. I couldn’t sleep last night, so I got online with Delphi and went to the New York Times website to see if they printed my letter. Yesterday I’d gotten a call saying they were considering it.

It was an e-mailed response to an op-ed piece on Sunday by Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian, decrying “social studies” and its thematic approach rather than teaching public school students under rigorous history standards.

My brief letter noted that the social studies movement isn’t incompatible with thoughtful teaching of history and that “thirty years ago, when Mr. Wilentz and I were students at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School, we learned our history lessons in rigorous classes that were known to faculty and students only as social studies.”

Now that I’ve learned that the Times accepts only 2% of the letters it receives, I feel even better about getting published.

Okay, my letter is a little self-serving, injecting myself into the debate and having the temerity to remind the famous scholar that we both went to high school together.

(In homeroom, he was always “Robert,” not Sean, though I don’t think we said two words to each other back then We didn’t talk until he’d see me hanging out with other writers at his father’s bookstore seven or eight years later.)

Probably few people will pick out my name, and it doesn’t have the Center for Governmental Responsibility staff attorney tag like the last letters did, but at least somebody will see it.

A letter in the New York Times is almost like a column in the Gainesville Sun; actually, it’s probably harder to get published in the Times.

It also cheers me up that in the past ten days, even though I’m moving, I’ve managed to get my ideas across in three different newspapers. That means my life isn’t so discontinuous.

Up at 7 AM, I went out right away to get the paper at the law school; after bringing home some groceries at Publix, I made copies of the letter.

Last evening I read The Nation’s issue on the publishing industry: it was pretty depressing stuff, but nothing I wasn’t already aware of. The articles seem to indicate that even the Barnes & Noble/Borders superstore war would end with an implosion. What then?

I called the Florida Unemployment Claims Information Center, and after keying in my Social Security number and my PIN, I learned that my benefits year began on April 13, that I’ll get the maximum $250 a week for a total of $6,500 over 26 weeks or however long it is that the $6,500 holds out.

Because of low unemployment rates, Florida’s insurance fund currently has a big surplus and next year they’re raising the weekly maximum to $275.

Well, at least I know that at the very worst, I’ve got $10,000 coming in over the next six months, assuming I net $3,500 from the Nova check.


11 PM. I got home from teaching not too long ago. I had said that I’d stay until 10 PM or whenever the last student finished the exam, and of course I had one perfectionist in the class. I practically had to grab the paper from her at 10 PM.

When he handed in his paper, Paul, the prison guard with the impenetrable Southern accent, said he would miss me as a teacher “because we speak the same language.” That made me feel good – even if I’m not sure it’s literally true.

Tomorrow evening in Ocala, I’ll skip my hour-long lecture and discussion on public speaking – or at least considerably shorten it – so I can get home at a reasonable hour.

I just read a sweet e-mail response to my earlier letter to Kevin. He gets depressed sometimes about his job (I probably shouldn’t have told him how much money I made), his acting “non-career,” and his lack of a social life; I’ve got to stay in touch with Kevin because I really care about him.

Earlier, I made the mistake of calling my parents’ home while they were gone. Jonathan answered the phone, and to my “How are you?”, he replied, “Not great,”

I was worried that he was ill, but he said it was “what was going on at home.”

When I asked him what that meant, he said Dad’s being unemployed and money being desperate and everyone fighting.

“You’d probably be better off not coming here,” he said.

I told him I had to come there, but I wouldn’t be staying long, and I said that they’d all have to adjust to a different lifestyle.

I know Dad must be depressed and they’re all upset, but I wish they could see the changes they’re going to have to make as a blessing in disguise.

At first, I got depressed myself after the phone call. What am I letting myself in for? I thought.

But five minutes later, I reminded myself that I’ll be going far away before the start of June.

Just to reassure myself, I called Ragdale and they said everything with my residency was fine, the acceptance letters just haven’t gone out yet because of an office problem. And although I haven’t heard from Teresa lately, I don’t see her retracting her invitation.

The situation with my family only makes me that much more secure in the knowledge that I’m doing the right thing in leaving CGR and Gainesville.

I’m being proactive, not waiting around for someone to tell me I have to leave my job. This transition may be painful, but not nearly as much as that would be.

My parents and brothers all have choices that they aren’t considering yet. There’s no reason they all have to live together, and there’s no reason they have to live in Broward County.

Though I’m tempted, I’m not going to give my family unsolicited advice, but they certainly could live much more cheaply in Ocala, Gainesville or another part of the state. If Dad is truly unemployed, why do they need to be in South Florida?

It’s not as if any of them except Marc have close friends there (other than the Littmans) or a job or need the culture of a metropolitan area.

Mom might say she wants to live near other Jews, but she’s not a member of a synagogue or a JCC; she doesn’t even celebrate Passover.

Well, it’s easy for me to say, I guess. What’s happening to my parents is what happens when you live in denial of what the future can bring. It’s not as if Dad couldn’t see this coming, especially after almost losing his job with Guess just a few months ago. They’ve lived above their means for years.

Despite his drug problems, Marc is the one that has the most hold on reality. But the rest of them will make the painful adjustments in the future, if only because they’ll have no other choice.

It actually could be exciting and liberating for them to change their lives and move to a new place and do new things. I’m so glad I don’t think the way they do.

Friday, April 25, 1997

3 PM. I’ve just walked over to the Publix at Butler Plaza to put the Ocala Wednesday night Business Communications class’s grades into the mailbox so it can get picked up in an hour; Nova’s College of Business should get it by Tuesday.

It’s odd that my Ocala class is so much less-prepared than the Gainesville cluster; although I grade very high, I couldn’t give more than two A’s. (Two students got A-, five got B+, two got B.)

I do like the closure of handing in final grades, which is why I wish there hadn’t been a snafu over the American Lit grade rosters.

It’s warm and sunny though not yet quite Florida-hot.

This morning I said hi to a couple of neighbors.

Arthur, the blond pony-tailed martial arts enthusiast next door, told me he’s graduating and moving to Atlanta to work in post-production at a broadcast studio while he waits to hear from graduate schools in film. (His idea of a great movie is Braveheart, so he could do well in Hollywood.)

At Publix I bought some cookies (nonfat, because I’m so used to it) for my students tomorrow, as well as my vice, Diet Pepsi with caffeine. (I would have gotten caffeine-free, but it wasn’t a selection in the vending machine.)

Last evening I read the paper and fell asleep at around 11 PM. It’s getting easier for me to just lie in bed after I wake up around 6 AM, but the NPR station is running their annoying pledge drive.

Laura called at 8:30 AM to ask if I’d send in the DOE memo because they haven’t gotten any money. I know they must be annoyed, but I haven’t had any time. I’d actually planned to just send the stuff back to Chuck with my apologies, but this made me say I’d try to have it in two weeks.

But I know I won’t, and that will just make everything worse. Still, CGR has no more hold on me than it had on Ellen, and it’s not as if I didn’t work for which I’ve already been paid; this money will go to them, not me. Still, this irresponsible of me, a byproduct of my tendency to seek closure prematurely.

I spoke to the Sun-Sentinel’s Buddy Nevins, giving him more than enough animal puns for him to use in his Saturday column if he wants. He definitely knew who I was and said to keep in touch.

I phoned Teresa in Fire Island and left a message asking if I can come on Monday, May 19. I’ll need to get the tickets on Monday, which is the 21-day deadline for discount fares.

The mail brought the bill for the last remaining credit card that I hadn’t yet changed my address on, as well as the AWP Chronicle, which I can add to the pile of magazines I haven’t read yet, along with Poets & Writers, the last three issues of Wired, and a few others.

I threw out a little more: the bathroom garbage pail itself, a t-shirt with a hole in the armpit, the soap dish.

I think I’m going to have less trouble adjusting to life away from UF College of Law than I had expected. In fact, it’s already a bit of a relief.

Despite nearly six years at the law school, I never defined myself as someone whose life was bound up with legal culture.

My strength and my weakness is that I’ve never defined myself as anything. Being a writer comes closest, a teacher next – but I dread being limited by a role.

I read all these memoirs and articles by people who define themselves as gay and lesbian: books about “growing up gay,” for example. I didn’t “grow up gay” or grow up Jewish or grow up anything except Richard Grayson.

Maybe it’s just that being me is so weird that it trumps whatever other parts of my identity there are. That’s probably why I feel that if a tornado came and plopped me down anywhere in the U.S. – I am culturally bound to America, at least for now – without any possessions, somehow I’d manage.

If I were in small-town Nebraska, in a year I’d have my place in the community. I were in the biggest city, I’d eventually find kindred souls and my niche. Yes, I still have the old I’m-not-going-to-survive nightmares of my childhood, but that fear has receded with age and experience.

I had a nice dream last night, a rare one in which I did not appear. Instead, Ronna was the dream’s protagonist, and in it, she was meeting Matthew for the first time.

Saturday, April 26, 1997

7:30 PM. I had a bad time with insomnia last night. Because it turned quite humid and rainy, my sinuses hurt so much that I couldn’t doze off.

My mind kept racing to the point where I knew it was useless to try to sleep, so I got up after midnight and read today’s New York Times on the Web for an hour or so.

After only four hours of light sleep, I was groggy this morning, but I managed to get through my last big Saturday of work, arriving in Ocala before 8:30 AM.

In both classes today, I played segments of a Bill Moyers PBS tape from the series done at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival featuring Adrienne Rich, Victor Hernandez Cruz and Michael Harper. I also went over some poetry I’d assigned and a couple of stories by Denise Chavez and Bobbie Ann Mason before they wrote their final: just one essay.

The morning class all wished me well as they left, and Daste, my Rastafarian student, gave me a batik shirt and a bar of Nigerian black soap; I accepted the gift, as I always do from students, with reservations.

Before heading back to Gainesville, I picked up another box of Entenmann’s cookies for the afternoon class, who barely touched it – unlike the ravenous Ocala group.

While eating lunch at my apartment, I found an e-mail from Teresa saying May 19 was okay, so I booked the cheapest flight I could find, $112 on US Airways from Lauderdale to LaGuardia.

Teresa’s working some party on May 24, so she and Paul decided not to go away for the Memorial Day weekend.

In the afternoon class in Gainesville, Phil had them do teacher evaluations and buy their texts for their next classes; they have a two-week vacation now. While they were writing their final essays, I graded the morning finals and also finished reading the New York Times.

A lot of students shook my hand at the end and said or wrote embarrassing stuff. The only thing that irked me was a comment on one final that I taught “too many black writers.” I counted all the writers I assigned, and about 55% were white males; 18% were blacks. But I’ve had this comment before in Gainesville, when I taught at Santa Fe Community College.

After dropping the Moyers video off at the library, I came home to try to unwind. My mail is now being forwarded to Fort Lauderdale, so my mailbox was empty. I know I probably need to do stuff in preparation for moving, but I’m giddy from the end of the semester and tired from lack of sleep and a long day of work.

As much as I dreaded it, I called my parents this evening – but everything sounded reasonably okay. According to Mom, they all seem pretty adamant about continuing to live together in that house. Mom is talking about Dad selling tuxedo shirts, but it sounds like it’s just a grasping at straws, a half-baked plan.

Mom doesn’t plan to work herself. She scorned my suggestion that they consider moving to a cheaper area, like Ocala, Palm Bay, or Pasco County, and she said, “Ugh!” when I suggested a retirement community or a condo. “That’s not me,” she said.

Mom seems to feel she’s too good for that. It’s like her refusal to use Scott Tissue instead of that more expensive, supposedly softer, toilet paper: Mom has the sensibilities of – well, this is sexist and bigoted, but it gets my point across – a Jewish-American Princess, but without having the means to live that lifestyle.

But, hey, that’s fine with me. I don’t want Mom telling me how to live, either; I may be wrong thinking that if she’d be more flexible, she’d be facing reality.

Still, unlike my parents, I do know how to live like a poor person; they’d never live in most of the places I’ve lived in.

When I was in Rockaway and asked them to pick out an apartment for me in Gainesville, they selected something way beyond my means because it was new and had a washer/dryer, microwave, etc.

But I’ve lived just fine in my little dingy efficiency here – without cable TV, even. And when my Bonneville died at the end of 1993, I went without a car for five months until one was absolutely necessary.

While I appear to be in danger of dislocating several joints by patting myself on the back, it’s undeniably true that I’ve learned that one can do with a lot less. It’s not as if I’ve even felt I made any sacrifices; after all, compared with much of humanity, I live in great luxury.

I’m gonna goof off for a while.

Wednesday, April 30, 1997

10:30 PM. I’m in room 106 of the Econo Lodge on State Road 70 in Fort Pierce, between the Turnpike and I-95.

I could have saved myself the money – especially since I was shocked by the moving expenses – if I’d just gone for another hundred miles, but I was tired, and besides, I wanted one more night to myself before I give up my privacy and solitude and go live with my family.

It was about 7:45 PM when I got here in Fort Pierce, and not only did I want to spend another night alone, I also didn’t want to miss the much-hyped “coming out” episode of Ellen DeGeneres’s sitcom at 9 PM.

When I checked into the room, I found it surprisingly nice for a $36 rate at a Patel motel. And I looked terrific in the mirror, probably because it’s backlit and the TV was on; everyone looks so attractive in the light of a television set. As I changed clothes to go out, I felt I really looked like I had a decent body; usually I can barely stand to look at myself.

At the Orange Blossom Mall, I went to Piccadilly Cafeteria, where I got the corn, broccoli, Cajun rice and a container of skim milk for supper.

Walking around the half-deserted mall, which is so obviously struggling to survive, I was struck that the last time I’d been there was the day in August 1991 when I was moving to Gainesville and my car broke down on the way and had to have a new hose installed at the mall’s Sears automotive center. So there’s a weird kind of symmetry here.

I didn’t sleep much last night. In the late afternoon yesterday, I grew restless and took a long walk.

Then I tried to transfer my “Ideas” file for writing from the desktop computer to the notebook, and I did it, but I became disgusted with the poor screen quality. I can’t write like this, I thought, and I went out to Electric Avenue (the store) to see about pricing word processors, but I calmed down.

Late at night I found e-mail from Elihu. The busy tax season is over, he’s given up his position on the co-op board, and he seems ready to move on with his life. On Saturday, he’s going to the 25th reunion for the Brooklyn College class of ’72 but doesn’t know anyone, so I told him Alice is also going.

I also got an e-mail from Patrick, who’s got the end-of-semester blahs; he didn’t seem happy with the new appointments of Broward’s dean, department chair and faculty members.

Somehow it helped me during the night to know that my friends’ lives are going on while mine is changing. Still, that comfort didn’t keep me from tossing and turning all night, and I doubt if I’ll get much sleep tonight here in the motel room.

This morning I was up at 5:30 AM after maybe three hours’ sleep. I spent a lot of the night on Lexis; I’m going to miss the ease of having all that information for free.

When I went out for the New York Times, I also got the Gainesville Sun because the above-the-fold lead was that the State Senate is defunding CGR because the Republicans are angry about Jon’s work for Save Our Everglades and the Center’s activist agenda.

It sounded as if there’d be some kind of compromise, but even if state funds stopped, CGR would continue with federal and private money. Still, it does show how insecure my job as a staff attorney there really was. I’m glad I was proactive and left before I was pushed out unwillingly.

This morning I had a lot of work to do, loading up the car with the computer and peripherals, the TV and VCR (after I worked out to a videotape) and other stuff I wanted to take with me.

And of course I had to get rid of everything in the apartment. I was shocked when I spoke to Stan and he said that the flat rate for moving would be $600, as I had been thinking it would be about half that. But I hadn’t asked for an estimate, something I’ll have to do the next time I move now that I’ve learned my lesson.

At the NationsBank ATM, I made my maximum withdrawal from checking of $500 and got a credit card cash advance for the rest.

The movers came at 2:30 PM and they methodically stickered each item of furniture and each box, noting the scratches or other imperfections on a sheet. It took two guys about an hour to get everything into their truck.

Soon after they left, I dropped the keys off in the Sundowne office and I drove out of the apartment complex for the last time. I was certain that the car was driving terribly and that it would break down.

If only I can get to Orlando, I thought – but the car was fine, the biggest problem on the drive being the love bugs smashing into the windshield. Although I didn’t have a tape to play, I made do with the car radio, and after that conked out, with the Walkman radio.

It actually seemed like a very quick ride although I probably drove over two hundred miles. Still, I’ve grown accustomed to long drives. I’m not going to push myself to leave too early in the morning, either.

Who knows? Maybe I can get a good night’s sleep here in Fort Pierce. I spent one night here in 1982, when I read at the St. Lucie County Library and after dinner was put up in a room on Hutchinson Island.

I thought about trying to find a gay bar in town to watch Ellen in, but it was nearly 9 PM when I finished dinner and didn’t want to miss the show. (It was okay.)

Tonight I’m between my old life and my new one, and this motel in Fort Pierce feels like a safe place to be.