A Young Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-December, 1983

Monday, December 12, 1983

6 PM. Last night, first Teresa and then Lisa called, waking me up both times – but I was glad for the chance to speak with them.

When I told Teresa the story about Sean’s calling me on the radio, at first she thought it was mean, and then, on reflection, said, “You know, he’s just a kid and maybe your relationship didn’t mean all that much to him and he figures it didn’t mean all that much to you.”

Perhaps. Well, I did know, back in August of 1982, that I had to let Sean go. We were so different; a permanent relationship was out of the question. Maybe one day I’ll learn why he cut me off the way he did.

On Friday night, Teresa went out to a bar with Judy and Juliana. She was in a mellow mood and started talking to this guy, who asked her out for coffee and said he’d take her home.

The guy was an amiable loser, too much of a failure for Teresa (“he didn’t even know what gentrification meant”) although he was sincere.

However, what bothered Teresa was that neither of her friends called to find out if she was all right and what had happened.

“In the old days, that never would have happened if it was Diana, Barbara or Jan,” Teresa said – and it pointed out how isolated she feels.

Not only is she without a man, but she doesn’t have women friends she feels comfortable speaking with.

She seems to be at loose ends these days; the absence of a real job is a problem, but she’s working on Frank and on Richie Kessel, the new consumer affairs commissioner.

Lisa’s problem was different: she feels wasted and bored in her job at the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. The workload is enormous and the pay is negligible. And she just doesn’t have the same sympathy for upper-class kids she did for the working-class kids at the Y back in Brooklyn.

Although Lisa tends to romanticize her days at Brooklyn College and the MFA program, I can tell that she’s very frustrated. She still loves teaching and feels that’s something important to do.

When I asked her if she could see herself at BBYO a year from now, she said the possibility revolted her. But still, there’s the nagging feeling that she’s turning her back on her people if she quits.

“That’s just Jewish guilt,” I said. “But BBYO isn’t Judaism.”

Up early this morning, I drove to Broward Community College in a bad storm, but skies cleared up by noon.

I collected and began grading the term papers today, and I should have everything under control if I pace myself. Naturally, I also collected a number of lame excuses for missing term papers.

After a workout, I drove back home, where I collected lots of mail.

Miriam writes that she and Robert plan to stay in San Francisco until May, and then go to her family’s house on Martha’s Vineyard for the summer. She invited me to visit, and maybe I can go there after MacDowell in early June. It all sounds so lovely.

Eric Willcocks sent me a nice note from London. Unhappily, he misread his plane ticket and arrived at Fort Lauderdale Airport after his plane had taken off. Yet he still thanked me for my hospitality; the British are so polite and generous.

Also, Stephen C. Levi, the editor of Harpoon, an Anchorage magazine that once published me, wrote after he heard about my campaign from a friend who read about it in some Arkansas newspaper. He’s doing a book of Alaskan humor and wanted some marketing tips.

The Associated Writing Programs Job List arrived. Perhaps I could now get jobs at some schools, but I don’t want to live in Minnesota or Ohio.


Wednesday, December 14, 1983

6 PM in Davie. Last night I decided to fight whatever I was coming down with by taking large doses of vitamins, and it seemed to work.

I slept fitfully at first, but after some major dreams, I did feel rested. (I don’t know if I’m unusual, but it’s dreams, not sleep, that refresh me.) My contacts continued to bother me, so I took them out and put on my glasses.

After looking at my calendar, I realized I had a radio interview with Kenny Hazeletta at KPEL in Lafayette, Louisiana, at 9:30 AM, so I hurried off to school to take his phone call in my office.

The interview was half an hour and it went well; I was relaxed and tried out some new “material.” I like the challenge of having to respond quickly to reporters’ questions.

I graded term papers for the next couple of hours, as my MWF 11 AM class took its final. I made good progress, marking all the papers I have for tomorrow’s 101 class.

I now have about 18 papers to grade by Friday, and I’m sure four hours of finals tomorrow should provide me time to do that. I’ll even leave some till Friday morning. I can save all the final exams, the late 101 papers, and all of the 102 papers for the weekend.

Monday I can come in and make out all my grades, and on Tuesday we get our last paycheck. We did get a check today, and I discovered I have three sick days in reserve.

As I expected, Dr. Grasso completely changed my schedule for next term to one that isn’t so great. I just might take up an offer from North Campus, provided I could teach the second summer session there rather than in May and early June.

With the afternoon free, I decided to go back to North Miami Beach to pick up my mail (not much of interest), shop for groceries, and do some chores.

Then, after lunch at Corky’s, I came back to Davie, stopping off at the credit union to deposit my paycheck. I have almost $4000 in share draft – their balance shows over $4200 – and I’ll be depositing another $500 next week.

Of course, I’m not going to be getting any money for over a month because we temporaries won’t get a paycheck till late January. Therefore, I’m not going to rush to pay all my bills at once.

After watching some TV and reading the papers, I went to Bodyworks at 4 PM, slowed by a University Drive traffic jam.

Yet another blue ribbon commission on education has sounded an alarm.

This one, on graduate education, headed by NYU President Brademas, urged more funds for graduate study, not only in the sciences and engineering, where the brightest people get jobs in industry, but also in the humanities, where graduate enrollment is dropping and whole areas of knowledge, especially dealing with foreign languages and cultures, go begging for new scholars.

The phrase “lost generation of scholars” crept up into official use as the commission decried the very low faculty turnovers of the past few years.

Demography, aided by the usual American lack of foresight, will produce more stupidity. Good: the people get what they deserve.

And if 62% of Houston’s public school teachers fail a reading test – well, you get what you pay for, folks. Yessir, the Dumb Decade is upon us. But I refuse to be a statistical victim.

Gary called from New York, apologizing for not getting back to me (I’d taken my phone off the hook anyway), and said that on the plane, he saw my name in Time. Oh, well: now it’s last week’s news.


Friday, December 16, 1983

4 PM. Right now it’s pouring – very odd for usually dry December – and it’s been New York-grey for days. At the moment, the glazier is working on my door. It’s a kind of a sleepy afternoon.

The fall semester has ended. I just have an hour or two of grading left, and as usual, generosity overcomes good sense. But I have given F’s to people who stopped showing up or who did not hand in all their papers.

For a while, this fall looked as though it was going to be really bleak, but BCC saved me. I haven’t been as disgruntled as I was last year, but that may be because Lisa, Patrick and Bob aren’t around and I really have no one to share my complaints with.

Complaining tends to breed complaining; if I don’t hear it or express it, the anger tends to dissipate. (So maybe Carol Tavris’s theory is correct: “ventilation” exacerbates, rather than dissipates, rage.)

Anyway, this term at BCC, I had smaller classes, nicer classes, fewer preparations, and of course, any job is better than no job.

If I hadn’t gotten work at BCC, this fall might have been a real mess. What would I have done? In September, I was on the verge of getting very desperate, I think.

One week after the North Campus interview, I now want that job – which means, in our ironic world, that I surely won’t get it.

My eyes bothered me less today, though I still had some discomfort. I graded while my students wrote, from 10 AM till 2 PM.

Not much mail – though Citibank Visa increased my credit limit from $500 to $800. (“You earned it!” says the print-out on my statement – and the terrible thing is, I almost feel proud.)

I now have about $10,000 in credit if I need it. With inflation almost nonexistent, it’s pretty stupid to borrow these days, though.

I guess I feel pretty satisfied – until I see that the average ’83 college graduate in business will earn $19,400 – over $3000 more than I make.

Sometimes I hope the entire world becomes totally illiterate until finally, one day, someone wakes up and realizes that people like me are important.

Ten years ago, I may have been a wimp (but a nice one). Now I believe in my own worth and I’m not going to let anyone define me or exploit me.

*

Midnight. As I expected, the readers practically outnumbered the audience in the media room of the new South Campus library.

Patrick was a good host, and he introduced me by saying it was I who inspired him to again write, send out stuff, and restart his little magazine.

I had the ironic feeling that out of everyone there, I, the only real “author,” was probably the least reverential toward literature.

I can see that Patrick – or Scott, a clearly brilliant if not-altogether-of-this-world fellow – or Barbara, who invited me to tape her cable TV show this Friday – or Mick, who read poems that really aren’t bad at all: all of them really care about writing and literary stuff more than I do.

In a way, I just used writing to get somewhere. Any of them would be thrilled to have real books published and reviewed, but to me, it’s no big deal.

I guess Susan Schaeffer – who was in the Times, in an article about the film being made of her last novel – is right, and one adjusts to any level of “success.”

Sometimes I feel like such a fraud, because I haven’t really written much at all in the last four or five years. Since 1979, I’ve completed only a handful of new stories compared to the 200 or so (good or bad, there were 200) I wrote between 1975 and 1978.

Why did I stop? Was it the classic failure’s syndrome: quit just before I get really successful? Is it my Gemini restlessness? No, I don’t believe in astrology. But I’ve always been a person who gets bored quickly and wants to move on to the next thing. (Have I really?)

Weird: I know so many people there tonight, from BCC or Poetry in a Pub or elsewhere – and just about everyone knows me. (When introduced to Eric Reno, the BCC-South dean, I got, “Yes, I read about you in Time.”)

Still, I felt like such a stranger: I’ll never feel really at home in Florida, no matter how long I live here. It’s not the way it was in New York.

I first came to Davie on vacation four years ago, just weeks after I left our Brooklyn house for good. In the past four years, I’ve accomplished a lot, but I lost that sense of place, of home, of all’s-right-with-the-world I had until then.

Leaving college, breaking up with girlfriends, quitting therapy: none of those separations was as hard as leaving East 56th Street. That was my link with being a kid.

Now, with that house in the past, with Grandpa Herb and Grandma Sylvia dead, with me being a fat, bearded, 33-year-old “author-humorist” and college professor, I feel I’ve lost so much.

Ah, I’m rambling. It’s late.

Patrick got a course at FAU, and it looks good for him in the fall because they’ve put in for full-time positions.

Scott said his interview at North Campus was brief, and he didn’t like the place or the people, and figured he’d never get to do much beyond the basics there. He really wants to do interdisciplinary stuff.

I had to leave during his reading of an endless early Flannery O’Connor story, one I’d like to read myself but which was hard to listen to.

And yes, I wanted to see the last half of Dallas. Some literary person I am.

Where do I go next?


Saturday, December 17, 1983

8 PM. Further reflections on last night’s reading: Patrick and Greg both read stories that I could barely follow; my mind kept wandering as they went on.

It’s clear that my interests as a writer are much different than theirs. Although they’re only five or six years older than I, they seem men of the past – they worship Hemingway and his generation – while I’m a younger, future-oriented person.

And, yes, I’m also a better writer: best not to be coy about my superior bullshit detector. Of course, I’m also superficially trendy, snotty, too cute, self-conscious and all the things I’ve been accused of (more or less accurately) by reviewers.

Do you know that practically every day of my life I see cows and don’t even think about it? Before four years ago, if I ever saw a cow, I’d remember – and probably note it in my diary. Now I hardly even see the cows as I pass them on University Drive at least twice a day.

What the hell that has to do with anything I don’t know, but I’m feeling very drowsy.

Earlier today, I had great energy. Up at 8 AM, I was at the eye doctor in Fort Lauderdale by 9:30 AM and got new lenses and glasses. From there, I went to the gym, where I had an outstanding workout, and then read the papers and showered in Davie, went to the library, to FIU, to the drugstore and to Publix.

I even sat out by the pool during one of the sunny interludes between downpours.

I called Kevin, who’s almost finished with classes, still hoping to get a job in Nigeria, also hopeful about his score on the LSATs, and very disappointed over the complete bomb Al Drake’s latest book was: Library Journal didn’t even mention it in the Small Press Roundup in its year-end issue.

Oh, Kevin: I wish you had the mindset of a winner. Like me? Well, yes. I’ve learned that while hard work works, perception and image are more important.

“Success” equals success. The halo effect does work. Time magazine thinks I’m funny enough to quote.

I may still be a failure, but now that I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a failure, I don’t feel like one – and people don’t treat me like one.


Sunday, December 18, 1983

5 PM. I’ve just come in from ten minutes of sitting by the pool and reading. Today was glorious, as it was sunny throughout the day and about 80°.

Florida can be heaven in the winter. I have so much more freedom than when I was confined by the cold, ice, wind and snow in New York.

Of course, here we pay for it with a brutal summer half the year. The snowbirds have the best of both climates, but somehow that seems unnatural. Shouldn’t one have to suffer a little for paradise?

My supply of Triavils is getting low. Deutsch Pharmacy has yet to send the new box I ordered, so last night I tried to sleep without taking a pill.

It worked, more or less: I fell asleep at 10 PM and awoke an hour later, was up for an hour, slept again, awake, slept, had dreams, pretty much as usual.

My biceps and chest ache from the workout yesterday. And I felt incredibly sexual.

Last night I masturbated twice, yet this morning I found myself so horny that, for the second time in my life – and the first time was only months ago – I had a sort of ejaculation while trying to urinate, just minding my own business and not erect or consciously aroused.

Guys – all I can think about are guys. And I see so many great-looking guys every day, not just at school, but on the roads, in stores, malls, at gas stations and restaurants.

This morning I went to Davie and passed Mrs. Alving’s house. Seeing the tan Nova in front of it, I figured maybe Sean was on vacation and visiting.

So when I got to my parents’ house, my heart racing, I dialed the number – I still know it by heart – and said, “Hello. Is Sean there?”

“Sean doesn’t live here anymore,” said his mother, sweetly adding, “May I help you?”

“No, that’s all right,” I stammered, and then I hung up, feeling a little foolish.

By now I’d have been beyond this stage if only he hadn’t called that talk show. It was like playing some sick game the way Shelli used to after she left me for Jerry.

The fact that she could be vicious in a way that Sean is incapable of doesn’t take away from the pain and powerlessness I feel.

I sat out by the pool in Davie, had lunch, read the papers, and then came back to Dade to visit Grandpa Nat.

With his restraints on, I could wheel him into the community room where some of the more human residents were singing Christmas carols around the piano.

Grandpa seems to have deteriorated a great deal. For one thing, his body is shriveling up and his shoulders are getting high.

For another, he babbles nonsense words; he kept repeating a sound that may have been “Baltimore.” Still, there were flashes of recognition, mostly when I shook his hand and repeated key words I said.

He answered questions with an “I don’t know” or occasionally, “Sydelle.” I don’t believe he had any idea who I was. Still, I left him in the room and we parted with genuine affection: I could still hear him saying “Bye” repeatedly as I was halfway down the corridor.

It’s good to remember that that is how we end up, and that really, we’re creatures of incredible vanity. Still, it also shows us we’ve got to live while we can.

That’s banal, yes, but all major truths are banal.


Wednesday, December 21, 1983

8 PM. Winter is here, so why am I sweating? (Because it’s 79°, that’s why.) I’d get no sympathy from most Americans, who still have to deal with frigid temperatures.

Last night I could not keep my eyes open, though there were several PBS documentaries I wanted to watch. I slept like I was drugged and awoke at 7 AM.

Luxury is being able to loll in bed and read the paper, listen to the news on National Public Radio, and then watch Donahue.

I got my mail early, and I took some time answering that.

I applied for the James Thurber Writer-in-Residence position at his house in Columbus, Ohio. Naturally, I won’t get it. But I figure it doesn’t hurt to apply because at least the judges will be a couple more people who’ll be familiar with my work in the future.

At noon, I was in Tamarac, and from there Pete and I set off for the Sackners’ home on Rivo Alto Island, one of the isles off the Venetian Causeway.

I got a little mixed up and took the other causeway, so we had to back-track through downtown Miami Beach – not a bad detour for Pete to see (he said it looked like the tackier parts of L.A.).

Ruth Sackner was there to greet us at the door. A warm, handsome, tasteful woman, she made us feel quite welcome.

I was familiar with the Sackners only because of that Herald article on their collection several months back.

Usually they shun publicity because visual and concrete poetry is so easy for the general public to make fun of, but the Herald reporter did a very sensitive job.

What a collection the Sackner Archive is!

They’ve got anything and everything related to visual poetry, concrete poetry, and books, paintings and art objects related to words, letters and languages.

Their new wing held some major art objects and a carefully cataloged collection of books, magazines and stuff that is somewhere in those categories.

Pete is completely familiar with the New York art scene – or that particular branch of it involved with printing, binding, book arts, etc., so a lot of the names I heard were unfamiliar to me.

But of course I’m conversant with Kostelanetz, Cage, bpNichol, Opal Nations, Bern Porter and all the other people I know from the small press world.

The Europeans and Latin Americans I knew little about, though I was astounded at some of what I saw.

Marvin Sackner is a thoracic surgeon at Mount Sinai, and he and Ruth began collecting Dade and Russian futurism and then got into visual poetry on one of their many travels.

The whole house was filled with beauty: I don’t even want to describe some of the art I saw because with my poor sense of description, I’d only demean the work.

(Probably more up my alley, Ruth talked about how Marvin periodically gets a lot of newspaper and radio attention for his 1978 study showing that chicken soup actually does make people with colds and flu feel better.)

Ruth looked at Pete’s stuff from Purgatory Pie Press: the brilliant books that Dikko Faust and Esther K. Smith have done at the Center for Book Arts. She was delighted with the books and postcards and wrote out a check for them.

Upstairs, there was more – so much – and we looked at some new arrivals as one of those new audio discs played Pinchas Zukerman.

They’ve cataloged everything they have. My God, what special people! We were there nearly three hours.

Ruth is a good friend of Mitchell’s from Books & Books and told us to go to the store, but unfortunately I had to get Pete back to catch a People Express flight out of West Palm Beach.

I wish I knew one quarter of what Pete knows about the art scene; I know only what I’ve gotten from my stays at artist colonies.

But I feel very excited by the possibilities in that world. Visual stuff looks “easy” even when it’s not, and it doesn’t evoke the smug ponderousness so prevalent in the literary world. People in the art scene seem much less pompous.

Maybe I should go back to writing “easy” pieces, things that are simple and joyful. By now, I really doubt I’m cut out to be a serious novelist.TC mark

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