A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late June, 1997

Sunday, June 22, 1997

6 PM. At the last minute Judi decided her back hurt too much and she didn’t want to go with us to Kenosha for dinner.

That was good, actually, because it was a tight fit with me, Kerry and Scott in the back seat of the car; Judi would have had to sit on one of our laps.

It also made us feel less guilty about not asking Mike along when he asked what I was doing for dinner.

Theresa put on lipstick and a nice outfit and good shoes, and I traded my t-shirt and shorts for a button-down sports shirt and Dockers-type pants. We both felt like dressing up a little.

The ride on U.S. 41 (which I suppose is the same road that is the Tamiami Trail in Florida) wasn’t very scenic; just before going over the Wisconsin state line, the highway merges with I-94.

We took the first exit at Kenosha and drove east into town, passing the strip mall area to the west with the requisite motel chains, national “family” restaurants (Shoney’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, etc.), other familiar stores and fast-food outlets.

America, as big as it is, is so homogenized that it’s nearly impossible to find something special to any particular region.

We drove through some nice neighborhoods and a typically run-down downtown and checked out the lake before finding a place that looked halfway decent: Villa D’ Carlo.

It looked as if it was the place to go to in Kenosha for a Saturday night Italian dinner, and the food was in fact okay. The spinach ravioli I got was handmade and tasted good.

(Later I learned that lots of Sicilian immigrants settled in Kenosha. I had expected mostly Germans and Slavs.)

We had a pleasant dinner in the crowded dining room. Surprisingly, the meal was not as cheap as we expected, but in the end our bill – I put it on my MasterCard so I could get cash back from the others – came to $60, including tip, which is not bad for a party of five.

It was Scott’s birthday the other day, but I didn’t know till he told me at dinner that he was only 39; I had figured he was older than I. Either I have no conception of how I look or I do look young for my age.

In today’s New York Times, I spotted the name of “Dr. William Breitbart,” chief of the psychiatric service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, who was quoted in an article on how depression in the dying may lead to patients to call for assisted suicide.

The last time I saw Bill Breitbart was at my March 1983 book party for I Brake for Delmore Schwartz at B. Dalton in the Village.

The Supreme Court still hasn’t ruled on assisted dying yet, nor on the Internet decency law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and most of the important cases.

They’re announcing decisions tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday, so it should be a big week for us Court-watchers.

On Friday, Internet laws from New York State and Georgia – one on pornography, the other banning anonymous mailings – were struck down by federal judges in Manhattan and Atlanta; I’d like to read the opinions.

After reading the Sunday Times, I walked downtown and caught a shuttle bus to the tenth birthday bash for Lake Forest’s beach.

It is truly a gorgeous stretch of beach, down from cliffs, with Lake Michigan’s clean blue water edging up to sand on the rocks.

Wandering around, I tried not to ogle shirtless guys, though there haven’t been many chances to do that lately and there was a really cute Chinese lifeguard.

I watched an elderly magician entertain kids (he wasn’t bad) and got a free FrozFruit bar and passed up carnival games and the usual street-fair food.

It was pretty hot today, and I wish I’d had some sunblock on. My arms are tanned but my legs are pale, so I feel unbalanced.

I took the shuttle bus back to a school west of Green Bay Road, so I had a long walk back home; luckily, part of it was in the shade.

After reading the Sunday Tribune, I tinkered with “Anything But Sympathy,” finally getting the 24-page story into a form I think may be publishable.

Today Mike asked me how I “keep at it, working so hard.”

“I’m the laziest person here,” I replied, laughing. “I hardly ever work.”

It’s true. As I get older, I tend to consider my laziness one of my prime virtues.

Monday, June 23, 1997

1 PM. I just had lunch, and sitting next to Carolyn, for some reason I felt unaccountably and strongly attracted to her. She was wearing a white cotton men’s shirt, and the top couple of buttons were undone, and she looked luscious.

It’s been a long time since I felt a rush like that, especially as a result of sitting next to a woman. Even after Theresa joined us and we all started talking, I felt as if I wanted to be funny to impress Carolyn.

How weird. My testosterone level must be reaching new heights or something; I still feel a bit weak-kneed.

Last night we had a great dinner: turkey burgers on pitas with mustard and chutney sauce. I didn’t feel like hanging out with people afterward so I went to the living room and watched The Simpsons and King of the Hill, and then, upstairs, I finished the last of the three Wired issues I’d brought.

Up at 5 AM, I lay in bed until 6:30 AM, when Body Electric came on; yesterday, apart from calf raises and side bends, I didn’t really exercise, so I’m planning on exercising to today’s 2:30 PM show, too.

After showering, I got dressed and walked to the library to be there when it opened. Their computers are wonderful. I was able to print out and download to disk the syllabi of today’s Supreme Court decisions and the Internet decisions from the two federal district courts on Friday.

ACLU v. Reno didn’t come out today, but other important decisions did, and the results show the five conservative justices are really changing the Court’s outlook on the Establishment Clause, overturning a 1985 case that wouldn’t let public school teachers in New York City teach remedial classes in parochial schools.

I also printed out maps of Williamsburg, with the groceries and drugstores put in, and best of all, I was able to print out beautiful versions of “Anita Hill at the Roller Derby” and “Anything But Sympathy.”

At Walgreens, I bought today’s Times so I can read it in my room later. I also got the Wall Street Journal and a card to send to Ronna and Matthew.

When I called their house, Chelsea answered the phone and put Matthew on. He said everything is fine but Ronna was unavailable to talk for the next hour.

Matthew said, “I’m sure she wants to speak with you, so give me your phone number, and she’ll call you back,” but I explained that would be difficult since it was only a phone booth, and that I didn’t want to be a bother and that I’d phone again in a few days.

As long as I know Ronna and the baby are fine, that’s all I need; I don’t want to intrude.

“We have plenty of room in the new house,” Matthew said, and they would like me to visit, but with a new infant, I don’t think they really need a houseguest in July. Instead, I’ll probably just drive down from Brooklyn for the day.

It’s pretty hot today, but here in the Midwest, 92° doesn’t feel oppressive when I’ve got air conditioning. I expect it to be very hot when I arrive in New York a week from tomorrow, but I’ll just have to deal with it.

Mom sent a couple of bills which I’d paid ahead, but the letter from Villa Montalvo didn’t arrive yet.

Well, I’ve got stuff to read and I’m not worried about writing. There’s talk of people going to a movie tonight.


6 PM. I just made the mistake of calling my parents. Dad gets on and says, after some banalities, “I lost my job today,” in his victim voice. I said, well, he knew it was coming, and he replied that it still hurts.

I probably sound cruel and heartless, but Dad acts like such a loser, he makes me angry rather than evokes my sympathy. All these months and weeks, he and Mom and my brothers have refused to face reality and their changed financial circumstances.

Then Dad puts Mom on: “I want to ask you a question.”

“If it’s quick . . .”

“Would you consider living here . . . rather than getting an apartment?”


“Definitely not?”

“Definitely not.”


“I might not even come back to Florida.”


“I don’t know, I’ll see . . . Ma, I gotta get off, someone wants to use the phone.” (An excuse.)

She figures I’ll live in that little room in that house and help them pay their bills. As much as my parents have done for me, there’s no way I’d do that.

In fact, I think the best thing for them would be to sell the house, that Mom and Dad move to a cheaper condo and let my brothers strike out on their own.

If I moved in with my family, not only would I be doing what the recovery people call “enabling behavior” by a “co-dependent,” but I’d be making myself miserable. Besides, it would only put off the inevitable, and they’ve put it off too long already.

I feel quite upset that Mom ever asked. I’d been thinking recently that if I taught at Nova, I’d probably want to move near the school – but I’m certain I don’t want to be living with my parents.

Except for a couple of adjunct classes, there’s really nothing to keep me in South Florida at all. I can always pick up the stuff I need and take it with me, wherever I end up. I do know I’m going to California in March.


Midnight. Before dinner, I confided my distress about Mom’s question and whole state of my family to Theresa and Matthew, who were sympathetic.

I guess I was too rough on my parents. It’s just that I want to shake them. No wonder I never write about my parents or brothers; I can’t deal with the issues that would raise.

My hope is that they’ll eventually make the wrenching changes they’ll be forced to in the next few years, if only for financial reasons.

Though the changes will be painful, they’re strong people and will eventually adjust to a scaled-down, different kind of life.

All I can do is be more supportive of them and make sure I do what I need to do for myself. I certainly have to make difficult changes in my life as well.

This evening I flirted more with Carolyn; she’s really funny, and we enjoy teasing each other. I doubt my sexual attraction to her is reciprocated, but it adds zest to my remaining days here at Ragdale.

After a great deal of discussion during and after dinner, five of us decided to go to the movies.

Theresa drove me, Matthew, Andi and Kerry to the Northbrook Court mall, where we went to the multiplex to see My Best Friend’s Wedding.

It was a predictable romantic comedy that I enjoyed more because of its scenes in now-familiar downtown Chicago. I know enough to spot the inconsistencies of a car chase that begins in Lake Forest and five seconds later is taking place in the Loop.

I had a pleasant evening out, but it’s going to be hard to get to sleep because we stayed out so late and only just got home.

Wednesday, June 25, 1997

6 PM. Yesterday I spoke with Jim Kropp of The Creative Edge for 105 minutes; most of the time he was unobtrusively taping me with a tiny digital videocam.

He asked all sorts of questions about my creative process, my work habits, and my feelings about my writing. I was very comfortable and gave in-depth answers, often moving from one topic to another.

There was no reason for me to have to give succinct sound bites, and after two months of not teaching, I miss the pleasure of being able to spout off my ravings to a captive audience.

Although I didn’t get any new insights, it was useful to me to articulate some things I’d only mused about in private.

Dinner was pleasant, but I went upstairs at 8 PM rather than socialize; I wanted to read the paper and do some stuff. The Villa Montalvo acceptance letter came, along with pages of material.

Today I sent back my signed acceptance, a $100 deposit (to be returned at the end of my residency), the photo Mom found and sent to me; and a bio note I printed out at the library. I’ll be there from March 3-27.

I’ll have my own apartment, but I’ll probably want to rent a car for most of the time I’m there, as it’s up a steep hill in an isolated nature path, even if the town of Saratoga is within walking distance.

The plane fare and the rental car will cost me a lot, but Villa Montalvo has no fees. There will be five residents, and they allow spouses and overnight visitors. (But weirdly, they wanted to know now who’s coming, their license plate number, and what nights they’ll be there. How could anyone know eight months in advance?)

People here say Villa Montalvo is nice, and Mike told me that while Northern California can be rainy in March, it won’t get below 50° and will usually get up to 70°, with barely any humidity at all.

I may use Villa Montalvo as a way to get myself to move to California for a while – either to the Bay area or to L.A. Perhaps I could stay with Libby and Grant either before or after my residency. I could also live in San Francisco, Berkeley or in Silicon Valley near Villa Montalvo. This is something to think about.

I slept well, and after I exercised, had breakfast, showered and dressed, I went to the library as it opened. Last night there were heavy thunderstorms, but it cleared up nicely, and today the high was about 85°.

I printed out the syllabi of today’s Supreme Court decisions and downloaded all the opinions in the case overturning the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Tomorrow the Court should rule on the Communications Decency Act, the line-item veto, the Brady gun law, and assisted suicide. For a Court junkie like me, this is an exciting time.

Last evening Judi started organizing all these readings and studio tours. Kerry and I agreed that it’s gotten out of hand, and I probably won’t attend everything, certainly not the second reading of Judi’s play tomorrow evening.

Carolyn was disappointed that she wouldn’t hear my work, so I practiced on her at the kitchen table before I met the docents at noon. I’m still very attracted to Carolyn, perhaps because she seems kind of wild compared to me.

There were five or six ladies (I use the term deliberately) in the Ragdale living room with Sylvia for my talk. I spoke about my so-called career, read “But in a Thousand Other Worlds” and excerpts from Eating at Arby’s, cracked jokes, talked seriously about the oddity of being a literary author, and answered their questions.

In all, I was with them for 96 minutes. As with the videotaped interview, I welcomed the chance to interact and yakety-yak.

Sylvia seemed quite pleased afterwards. “You don’t understand what a treat it is for people to meet and talk with a real writer,” she told me. Of course, it’s also a treat for me to be treated as if I’m a real writer.

That’s why, although I may not have been as productive as I might have liked here (I did print out all 40 pages of “Anything But Sympathy” this morning), Ragdale has made me feel good about myself as a writer.

If I could be as determined in my work habits as Jane Hamilton is, it would be nice – but as a best-selling author, she not only has a greater incentive to get her work done: she’s also facing a strict deadline.

I read, listened to NPR and exercised this afternoon, and I even sent a copy of “Anita Hill at the Roller Derby” to Kalliope, which advertised in Poets & Writers that it’s looking for stories by men about women.

Friday, June 27, 1997

9 PM. This morning I got up at 4:30 AM, so I decided to go into Chicago really early, as I wanted to experience the city one more time.

I managed to make the 7:35 AM train, a rush hour express that got me to Northwestern Station by 8:20 AM.

Walking along Madison Street with the rest of The Loop’s office workers early in the morning gave me a sense of what it would be like to work there.

Whenever I’d see something I’d missed before – the Morton Salt Building on Wacker, say, or the Chicago Stock Exchange, I felt bad that I wouldn’t be coming back to the city.

On Michigan Avenue, I walked south across from Grant Park – where today the 17th annual Taste of Chicago food and  entertainment fair was setting up.

I made my way to the Harold Washington Library, an architectural marvel from the early 1990s. The ten-story building is well-designed and inviting; I wandered through most of the floors, finding interesting stuff here and there.

After putting my name into their computer catalog, I could see what branches my books are in, and on the seventh floor I found three copies of With Hitler in New York and two each of I Brake for Delmore Schwartz and Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog (which had the most recent “last action”: 02/07/95).

Stopping at the Burger King across the street for a Diet Coke, I had to move when I kept overhearing two middle-aged men – one black, one white – in a homophobic diatribe supporting the Southern Baptist Church’s Disney boycott.

They said if Walt Disney came back, he’d throw Michael Eisner out on his ear and returned the company to family-friendly roots. (Yeah, like Disney’s racism and anti-Semitism.)

But I wasn’t going to let two bigots spoil my day; they, like us, are everywhere.

I decided the best way to see Chicago neighborhoods away from downtown was on the L – the elevated subway – so I paid my fare and went up to the La Salle/Van Buren station.

Most, if not all, of the lines make a loop around The Loop so they don’t begin or end. I got on the Brown Line (Ravenswood), transferred to the Red Line (Howard – Dan Ryan) at Belmont, and at Howard, the last stop, I transferred to the Skokie Swift Yellow Line.

During the trip, I got to see many different kinds of neighborhoods. In Chicago’s grid pattern, streets are given their distance from Madison and State, with 800 being a mile so that Dempster Avenue in Skokie is 8800N.

On the trains, I passed Wrigley Field – tiny for a baseball stadium – where people were getting off for a Cubs game, Loyola University, and a block that seemed to consist solely of Vietnamese stores. Most neighborhoods were either totally black, mostly Latino or predominantly white.

My fellow L riders included a lawyer with a cell phone who sat in front of me reading Reno v. ACLU from today’s Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, artsy white guys with goatees, black grandmas with whining kids, and teenage Chinese girls.

I also saw homeless people selling Streetwise, this town’s version of New York’s Street News, and I got a good idea what housing projects and newer condos are like in Lakewood, Ravenswood, Rogers Park and the Clybourne Corridor.

The Skokie line has just one stop between Howard, at Chicago’s north border, and the terminal in Skokie, where, when I emerged from the station, my first sight was Tel Aviv Kosher Plaza with stores like Chaim’s Kosher Bakery.

I went into Kaufman’s, which featured all the Jewish foods I grew up on, from “bubble’s kugel” to kasha varnishkes to Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic. There I bought some grapefruit juice and an oak bran bagel to eat as I walked to the Pace (suburban) bus stop.

I took the number 250 across Dempster – where it was a joy to see so many elderly Jews – into Evanston, getting off at Davis Street.

Then I walked through Evanston’s downtown, not far from the Northwestern campus, to the Metra station, where the train came at 1:55 PM, just three minutes after I got there. So I was back early.

Except for dinner, I’ve been exercising, reading and listening to NPR and writing.

Mom called this evening. I thanked her for sending the Villa Montalvo acceptance letter and all the material.

Mom called this evening. I thanked her for sending the Villa Montalvo acceptance letter and all the material. I told her I’d sent back everything to them.

Mom wanted to know when she can send my mail to Brooklyn because she got my contract for the Nova Saturday class in Business, Government and Society and some credit card bills (which mostly have credit balances).

Mom needed my advice about how to fill out an employment form for Dad as a salesman at a menswear store. Should she lie about his age because he’s not subject to the federal anti-discrimination law at 71? What should she put down for his required salary?

I told her to lie about his age, and for salary requirements, I spelled out commensurate as in “commensurate with experience.”

Part of me is glad that I’m coming in August to stay with my parents for a little while because it bothers me to see how helpless they sometimes seem.

I probably need to help them more. I can’t really abandon my family.

Saturday, June 28, 1997

5 PM. I had incredibly bad insomnia last night; consequently, I’ve been functioning on three hours’ sleep and am pretty fuzzy. Right now I’ve developed a humongous headache.

Luckily, today, like yesterday, was a fairly pleasant day: warm but not humid. (Yesterday, however, Chicago was on “ozone alert” and people with respiratory problems were urged to stay indoors, homeowners were asked not to use lawnmowers, and motorists were asked not to pump gas.)

I finally got to call Ronna and speak with her, although she needed to call me back. Jane Hamilton got on the phone in the interim, making such moaning sounds that I thought someone was getting sick in the bathroom. Matthew, too, came out to investigate the moans, but we never found out anything.

Ronna said Abigail is gorgeous: a Caesarean baby, she came out clean, and she’s got black hair and long legs and looks like Matthew. She’s a bit underweight, but she’s gaining, and Ronna is feeding her with a combination of breast milk and formula.

Ronna said they gave her an epidural, and Matthew was “surgically attached to my shoulder” during the Caesarean, and she was fine. But last Sunday night, she developed an infection and her stitches “swelled up like a football.” That must have been when I phoned on Monday.

She’s been back to her obstetrician several times and is on antibiotics, and Ronna says the incision is getting darker – Matthew told her that means it’s healing – “so I’m no longer swelled up like a tomato.”

But the bad news was about their parents. Ronna’s mother is in the hospital. Beatrice was complaining about loss of peripheral vision, and Matthew sent her to a colleague who discovered she’d had a stroke weeks ago, before she even came to Philadelphia to help with the move and the baby.

There are no other symptoms, but they put Beatrice into Matthew’s hospital in Philadelphia for tests. She says that because her son-in-law is such an important doctor there, she’s being treated like “an honored guest.”

And then last night, Matthew’s father had a heart attack. He’s 74 and he’s had cardiac problems before. On Thursday, while he was at the house, he admitted to his wife and to Beatrice that he felt weak and too tired to drive back to New Jersey, so Matthew’s mother drove them home.

Matthew went to the New Jersey hospital today, and it sounds serious: Ronna said her father-in-law is on a respirator.

“Man, I lived such a dull life in Manhattan for years and now everything is happening at once,” Ronna said.


She invited me to come visit them at their new house, but God knows when things will settle down. At least the baby is fine, and Chelsea is “the best big sister in the world.”

It seems like Ronna and Matthew have to do a kind of triage and deal with the most important stuff. It makes my own family problems seem very small indeed.

Monday, June 30, 1997

It’s 1 AM, just into Monday, and I can’t sleep.

The phone rang just as we sat down for dinner, and Virginia said it was for me. I was concerned, as I’d just spoken to Dad fifteen minutes before. But it was Teresa, returning the message I’d left in Fire Island.

Teresa said she’d pick me up at the airport if I wouldn’t mind staying over at her house while she and Paul go to the beach for the long holiday weekend. They want someone there because of Jade.

I said sure, I’d say in Locust Valley. I can use the car if I drive them to the ferry and pick them up, and that way I don’t have to adjust right away to Brooklyn. In the meantime, I can go to Conselyea Street and set up the place so that I’ll be comfortable when I do stay there.

Ever since Teresa’s call, I’ve been distracted – through my conversations with Barb, Jane and Kerry at dinner, through our visits to the studios of Matthew and Theresa, and in the hours afterwards when Kerry, Theresa, Matthew and I sat on the porch.

Suddenly leaving Ragdale seems very real to me, and I don’t want to leave.

Kerry and I called and made a reservation for a limo to take us and Judi to O’Hare at 9 AM Tuesday.

I’ll probably will I awake most of the night again.


9:30 PM. I’ve just slipped away after a poetry reading by Chuck and Virginia in the living room.

I’m really tired, as I slept only from 2:30 AM to 5:30 AM last night.

This morning I began packing, and somehow I got most everything into my suitcase although I had to go to downtown to ship my box of manuscripts, clippings and stories to Locust Valley.

It was dark this morning, and I felt crummy, but I also felt I had so much to do. Still, I managed to exercise to Body Electric at 6:30 AM and 2:30 PM, so I don’t have to work out tomorrow. I did laundry, but so did most everyone who’s leaving tomorrow.

Theresa took me and Kerry to Mail Boxes Etc. when she and Matthew drove into town around 10 AM. By the time I walked home from town by myself, it was raining violently.

Hey, I just said “home” when I meant Ragdale. This place really does seem like home. I didn’t feel this sad when I was leaving the other artists’ colonies (MacDowell, VCCA, Millay).


10:15 PM. I just went downstairs and said goodbye to people. I gave Matthew a big hug.

He, Theresa, Kerry, Scott, Judi and I were the only ones here all month, so the six of us all grew very close.

I feel especially warm towards Matthew, Kerry and Theresa, just as I did toward Amy and Matt Iribarne, who left two weeks ago.

Kerry, Judi and I are supposed to be picked up at 9 AM. I filled out the exit interview and dropped it off with Sonya, who worked late.

It’s too bad Sylvia was off today, but perhaps I can say goodbye to her in the morning if she comes in early.

Laurie said she’ll be sad to see me go. I’d love to come back to Ragdale someday.

Other things I did today: took Works for Windows off my rented computer, called the computer rental place to pick it up tomorrow, and saved my work on the notebook computer and on diskettes.

I also chatted with the other residents about Hong Kong’s reversion to China and Mike Tyson’s biting off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear in their heavyweight fight Saturday night.


11 PM. Carolyn and I just hugged goodbye. She wanted to tell me how much she enjoyed talking to me and we agreed that we are both “fun persons.”

Clearly there was a sexual attraction between us. Carolyn and Matthew will be staying here all July, and I envy them.

In the two months since I left Gainesville, I’ve lived in three different households in different parts of the country.

While it’s wrenching to keep uprooting myself, I think of Emerson’s remark that for some fortunate few, life is a constant series of upheavals so that one gets used to it – and I hope, grows from it.