A Young Writer’s Diary Entries From Early April, 1984


Monday, April 2, 1984

3 PM. I just got out of the shower after being all sweaty from lifting weights for a couple of hours. Yesterday Alice said that my arms and shoulders had gotten noticeably more muscular.

“Just fatter,” I said, and she said, “No, muscular” – but I still felt very fat, at least next to all the good-looking guys around us in Coconut Grove.

It will be nice when I’m at MacDowell in May and can wear more clothing in New Hampshire’s cool weather. But living in Florida, I’ve gotten accustomed to being in scanty clothes, and I guess I should try not to feel so self-conscious.

Last night I slept very well, with one major interruption: a phone call from Barbara de Lamiere, the woman who wanted me to be the cover person on Home Planet News.

I’m fairly skeptical about the whole thing because she sounded a little dippy.

She asked me my sign and made sure she told me that she is now “post-op” although she’d already written me about that. Also, she didn’t know that newspapers don’t take photographs from negatives.

Up early and feeling good, I was on campus by 7:30 AM. My classes went okay – they really sailed by – as we discussed A Doll’s House.

In the break between classes, I graded as many of tomorrow’s 8 AM 101 papers as I could. I still have four more papers to do before morning.

The task is so distasteful because they’re such bad writers – they’re not even good plagiarizers – but all I care about is getting the damn thing over with. And the term will be over in a couple of weeks.

After paying ahead for next month’s phone, electric and cable TV bills (so I won’t have a balance due after I’m gone), I have almost nothing left in my checking account.

The only mail today was from Neil Schaeffer, asking for my résumé for the Brooklyn College English Department appointments committee so he can get things “squared away” as soon as possible.

Two classes at BC this fall will be a kind of security, I suppose. The work won’t be that hard, not after teaching full-time at Broward Community College, and the money will be relatively good.

Remember, kiddo: this fall is not a change in your life.

Well, okay, yes, it’s a change, but it’s not permanent: you’ll be back in Florida next January, maybe at BCC, maybe doing something else. I want a chance to broaden myself, and I can’t do that if I stay on at BCC.

Besides, after three years of full-time work at BCC, I’ve taught 36 classes since the spring of 1981, and I need a break. If Neil is kind enough to give me one, why shouldn’t I take it?

And Brooklyn College is hardly a new place: not only have I taught there for two separate semesters, but I went there as a student for four years of undergraduate and two years of graduate work.

Maybe being in that environment again will give my novel about my BC undergrad days a push. Remember the novel about LaGuardia Hall that I wrote in the summer of 1976?

Even if I’m working on the same campus, with the memories everywhere, now I can write a lot more objectively, not being so close to that time. I also know that life is a lot more than student government writ large.

Since I have some time to kill, I’m going to do some errands and read more of Beat Not the Poor Desk, whose authors have good ideas about teaching writing, if an odd prose style of their own.

Today, when I saw Mom briefly, she said that yesterday was one of the best days they’d ever had at the flea market.

Tuesday, April 3, 1984

7 PM. It’s pleasant to be home early for the first Tuesday since this year started; the FIU spring break was a relief for me, as I could skip my graduate class in PILOT.

Tonight is another primary night, but it looks like Mondale has won New York and probably the nomination, though I’m certain he will lose to Reagan in the fall. I myself am so turned off by Mondale’s negative campaign against Hart, I don’t think I’ll vote for him in November.

I know, I know: Last time I voted for Anderson and am therefore responsible for the last four years of Reagan. But the Democrats are going to lose again – certainly they’ll lose Florida, and my vote wouldn’t make any difference – and maybe the party needs to be taught another lesson.

Yesterday I ran into Irv Littman at the post office, and as usual, he talked my ear off – but still, I enjoyed seeing him. When I spoke to Grandma Ethel yesterday, she said she hadn’t been at all well, with dental, stomach and rectal problems.

After a pretty good night’s sleep – although I was as horny as all get-out – I went off to BCC this morning, honking to catch the attention of Dad, who was jogging down Nova Drive.

There’s no way to make footnotes interesting, so I bored my 8 AM class, and then I graded papers for the 11 AM class, where I did some exercises from Beat Not the Poor Desk. The exercises also worked pretty well at 2 PM with my best 101 class.

It’s sort of sad that I’m learning how to be a better teacher just when there seems to be no future for me in education. Or is there?

I sent out an application for admission to FAU’s M.Ed. program in Educational Research/Computer Education for January 1985. If I went to school full-time next winter and spring, perhaps I could get my masters soon after that.

FIU’s program will be in Elementary Education/Computers, but that’s obviously not for me. I just wish teachers were treated better and paid a lot more. The more I think about my salary, the more helpless I feel.

Rather than get angry or depressed, I’d better do something about it. My latest is to apply for the job of Broward County Superintendent of Schools; if it makes others laugh, fine – but I am sure I could do a pretty good job if I had to.

Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of running for state Commissioner of Education in 1986; that would really give me a platform to get my ideas across. Delusions of grandeur? Am I starting to take myself too seriously? We’ll see.

I substituted for an ailing Jacqui at 12:30 PM so I taught four classes today – no wonder I’m tired. Also, that workout with free weights yesterday made me achy; it’s a different kind of soreness than the charley horse I feel after doing Nautilus.

The Times today had an article about leave-taking, one of the most important steps in an adult’s life. Research has come up with two extremes, people who cannot say goodbye and those who cannot stay.

Separation anxiety used to be at the top of my neurotic’s list of fears, but lately I’ve had trouble making commitments. I always seem to feel the need to be in a temporary situation in regard to my job, my career in general, and my home.

A hallmark of maturity, the article said, is to be able to “leave well, without undue anxiety or precipitous flight.”

I have lots of anxiety about leaving BCC, but I definitely plan to “leave well” so I don’t close the door on a possible return. It’s foolish to burn bridges behind you.

Friday, April 6, 1984

7 PM. It may be a little hard to believe, but I have only three weeks left in this apartment. This weekend, with no essays to grade, I should be able to make a major effort in getting ready for the move.

Yet it all seems manageable, for I have very little in the way of possessions. Books and magazines are pretty easy to move, and about half of them are still in the boxes which I brought them here in last August.

Next week Dad will help me move the couch; this weekend he’s got the menswear show in Miami.

Last night I got started on the project of taking notes from my college-day diaries. It was interesting to poke around in my head in 1971, but what fascinated me about the diary entries is that often the most resonant memories are entirely missing from the page.

Perhaps that’s the key to the difference between a journal and a fiction.

In the past hour, I’ve read about three contemporaries of mine: Jayne Anne Phillips sold subsidiary rights to her forthcoming novel for phenomenal amounts, so she’s probably set for life, according to Publishers Weekly; in the Washington Book Review, there were interviews with Ted Mooney and Gloria Naylor.

Naturally, I can’t help comparing their success with mine (note I did not say “with my lack of success”), and I basically feel that all of us are doing the best we can.

When I read that Mooney wrote Easy Travel to Other Planets over 3½ years, from 4 AM to 8 AM before his full-time job, I was more impressed with him than I had been after reading his terrific novel (still the best baby boomer book to come out).

But both Mooney’s parents were published authors, and I’m sure that background gave him a boost, if only psychologically.

The same can’t be said for Naylor, who spent seven years in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and only recently graduated Brooklyn College.

I’m willing to bet the furniture (easy for you, Grayson: all you’ve got is one couch) that they’re better writers than I, that they work harder – oddly enough, I’ve published more books than any of them – but we all have to play to our strengths, and I think I know what mine are.

This may be crass, but though they’re better writers, I’d be the better talk-show guest.

Having written that, I immediately feel a sense of shame, but I think I may succeed where they can’t because of that – just as I’ll never be the writer they are. None of them are humorists.

Do I sound like I’m putting them down? Oh, I don’t want to.

Last night I slept well, and I was up before 5 AM today. I had great classes on A Doll’s House, and in between them, I researched the subject of censorship in the library.

Basically, all I had to do was go through the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and look at article titles because I immediately recalled the incidents and issues mentioned.

While my reading five newspapers a day may not help me as a fiction writer – and it probably harms me – there are times when it comes in handy.

At Miami-Dade Community College’s New World Center – a very modern complex downtown – I was a panelist on “Censorship: Taste, Morality, or Ethics?” The panel was part of the third Miami Waves festival of video and experimental film art.

Dina and Jeffrey Knapp were there, of course, and I was on the panel with some pretty well-known fixtures (at least from what I read and hear): Steve Malagodi of WLRN, the guy who does the experimental music and poetry show; Thelma Altschuler of Miami-Dade, an intelligent humanities professor (at what seems like an exciting, liberal campus); Dan Paul, an attorney and head of the county art-in-public-places committee; from Tampa (“a very blue collar town”), Debra Gaventa, an artist with the community-based Artists Alliance; and a couple of other visual arts people.

We were introduced to each other by Marilyn Gottlieb-Roberts, the MDCC art professor who coordinated Miami Waves. Everyone said that she did a terrific job all week long.

I’m just sorry I had no time or energy to see some of the films, video (some from BCC with Steve Eliot) and performances that she and the talented artists produced.

The panel members were taken out to lunch by some MDCC artist, and over Cuban sandwiches, we discussed the format ahead of time.

We began the discussion before a surprisingly large audience at 1:30 PM and ended at 3 PM. I thought the others were too vague and abstract in their comments, but I guess I’m not a true intellectual like Steve, who has read much more than I have.

For my part, I wanted to deal with concrete happenings and specifics, and I tried to provoke controversy by discussing the artistic energy caused by the threat of censorship. (In America, I said, poets would never be jailed because they’re too unimportant.) And I also castigated liberal censors like feminists or gay activists – the way I did in my prize-winning essay from three years ago.

After the session, there was a reception, and I had some good talks with people. I spent time chatting with the brother of Sam Levenson.

Wendy Clarke, famous as “The Love Tapes” video artist, asked to meet me after seeing the Orlando Sentinel article and my “Legislators in Love” survey, both of which were printed in the Miami Waves catalog.

Several people talked about my survey as a “piece” or as “performance art,” and it was a pleasure to be taken seriously.

I wish I had stayed for the performances of Jeffrey Knapp and Ann Prospero and the showing of “The Love Tapes” made in Miami this week, but I truly was exhausted and also a little tired of being in a crowd.

Funny, I still feel like a stranger in Miami. Being so involved in Broward County makes me almost an out-of-towner, though more and more people in the Dade County scene now seem familiar to me.

I also see that BCC-Central is a very limiting place and that I must get out and explore other possibilities, even if it means going only as far as South Campus or Miami-Dade.

What I want for myself – a typically Gemini trait, I guess – is to be a little bit of everything: writer, performer, comedian/humorist, politician, teacher.

Sunday, April 8, 1984

8 PM. I slept very deeply last night, the way I always sleep when my sinuses are congested: I feel a heaviness in my head, and I’m drawn into one elaborate dream after another.

There was one extravaganza last night that took me from South Florida to the Upper West Side and contained a cast of dozens of friends and relatives.

Today was a gorgeous day. Since I got up at 10 AM, I didn’t get out of the house until nearly 1 PM, but I decided to go to the beach.

For a change, I went to Bal Harbour, parked my car at the mall and walked across the street to the Sheraton. At the public beach, I had the advantage of proximity to the pool, and I could hear the hotel’s mariachi band playing. It was a two-hour fantasy vacation.

On the beach, there were some really good-looking young guys, and seeing them made me realize how lonely I’ve been.

Yesterday, it struck me why it’s taken me so long to get over Sean even though it’s nearly two years since we started seeing each other and our relationship really only lasted that spring and summer.

Because Sean left for Gainesville that August, and I’d been away in New York and Virginia before that, our relationship never progressed to where the initial passion and romance faded. We never had arguments or felt bored, and for my part, the relationship was an ideal one up until its abrupt end.

I never really got to see Sean at his worst; I never got tired of him; and of course, I idealized him in memory. Anyway, I’m certain there will be other relationships in my future.

After getting enough sun to give my body some more color, I went to the nursing home to visit Grandpa Nat.

Even before I got to his room, I heard him saying some unintelligible phrase over and over again. Taking him out to the screened-in patio for some fresh air, I attempted conversation, but he has become even less coherent than he was.

His facial movements – Grandpa’s always bringing his hand up to rub his nose or mouth, and he chews (nothing) constantly – are getting worse, so that he almost resembles a monkey. But his blue eyes are clear, and looking at him in his wheelchair with his restraining jacket on, I could remember the man that he was.

He’s now 86 and has been like this for nearly seven years.

After wheeling Grandpa back to his room in time for dinner, I went to Eckerd to buy a birthday card for Ronna – I got a postcard from her yesterday – and then to Unicorn Village to get some salad and hummus for dinner.

Yesterday, I spoke with Josh, who was in excruciating pain from hemorrhoids. He thinks it started because he smoked cigarettes last weekend.

On Friday, Josh had been in a grocery store checkout line and noticed that everyone was buying cigarettes and decided he’d try them for a weekend to see what the attraction was.

Now that sounds like a pretty stupid thing to do, but I don’t imagine that can lead to hemorrhoids. Josh said that Todd was coming over with some Anusol with cortisone to try to relieve the pain.

Other than that, he’d gotten some more good responses to Grinning Idiot and told me he was going to reject the lousy poems John Clellan Holmes sent in response to Josh’s solicitation.

In the Times, the Guggenheim winners were announced. I was glad to see Susan Schaeffer got one, and I wonder if that means there’ll be an opening for a creative writing teacher at Brooklyn College this year.

It appears you either have to wait a long time, until you don’t really need the fellowship – or else be some well-connected person like Gordon Lish or Carl Dennis.

A best-selling author I really respect is Stephen King, who complains that the emphasis on making money, while it’s benefited him, has caused publishers to abandon and exploit non-best-selling authors.

Rereading Jack Saunders’ Screed, I still believe he has talent – but I agree with Crad that Jack has that dangerous combination of being both naïve and utterly egotistical.

Wednesday, April 11, 1984

9 PM. Everything turned out okay last night as I slept soundly in Davie. I was very tired.

Getting up at 7 AM, an hour later than usual, was a pleasure. I was really good in my classes today as I took my own poetry books – those by people like Edward Field, Siv Cedering, Rick Peabody, Brad Gooch, Harrison Fisher – and read aloud to my students.

I was trying to let them know that poetry is a living genre and that it can be funny, exciting, dirty or weird. Certainly, many of the students will never have the same view of poetry as they did, and if so, then I’ve done my job.

I left campus at 11 AM and came back to North Miami Beach. Stopping at the post office, I went for lunch to Corky’s, where I read my mail at the counter.

The Guggenheim Foundation sent their list of fellows to us rejects. Most of the writers were heavy-hitting academics, and I’m not surprised I wasn’t considered in their league.

I also got a notice that my student loan payments are to begin in August: $350 a month for five years.

Back at home, I mailed off some applications for academic jobs, though I’m sure none will come through; then I lifted weights for an hour.

All this exercising is fine, but I’ve got to get some pounds off by dieting. If I don’t lose weight soon, I’m going to be 200 pounds before I know it. Impossible? Well, I’d never thought I’d see 175, but it kind of sneaked up on me.

At 3:30 PM, I arrived at BCC-South for the general faculty meeting, getting there just as Dr. Grasso and Mrs. Burdick were also arriving. I’m glad they saw me.

If I’m leaving BCC, I want to leave in the best way. There was no reason for me to attend this meeting because most instructors skip it. But I did enjoy seeing Patrick and Fran and Greg and the others I seldom encounter during the course of a day.

After three years, I know a good portion of the faculty and administrators. I was pleased to find out Phyllis Luck was named a Master Teacher; it could not have happened to a nicer person. Jonathan, who likes her a lot, will be happy, too.

We were shown a slide and video presentation, a sample of stuff done by the staff for various programs, and there were the usual reports.

After the meeting, I went to the library upstairs, where I found two of my students working hard on the term paper due for my class. It almost surprised me to see them so serious; the paper is more important to them than I would have thought.

After doing some research into this and that – I love the library – I came home, spotting Marc on 163rd Street as I drove by.

Dinner was tofu and salad, and then I typed up some letters and went through my files of xeroxes.

Doug Delp called from the Herald office after he’d read or heard about my application for the job of school superintendent. I was caught off-guard and didn’t have jokes prepared.

But that brings up a point I’ve been wrestling with: If I’m viewed only as a comedian, will that preclude me from ever being taken seriously?

Probably. It will be difficult to be perceived as an intelligent spokesman on any issue from here on in. That is too bad, but let’s see what I can get away with.

Thursday, April 12, 1984

6 PM. I haven’t written much about the news lately, but like many others, including the Republican-controlled Senate, I’ve been upset and angry over the CIA mining of Nicaraguan harbors.

Reagan’s paranoia about communism leads him only to crude military solutions, and his policies are sure to drive the Sandinistas and all others in the Third World who will see the U.S. only as an exploiter right into Moscow’s hands.

Why do we persist in treating the developing nations as children? There will be a reckoning someday.

Mondale’s victory in Pennsylvania on Tuesday pretty much gives him the Democratic nomination, but I can’t imagine how he could defeat Reagan.

I found my name in this morning’s Sun-Sentinel, in a story on applicants for the school superintendent’s job. They described me as a BCC professor known locally for running for various offices on whimsical platforms.

Bob Joffee, the political editor of the Miami News, called me at BCC today.

The background is this: Ed Meese, Reagan’s nominee for Attorney General, is being investigated for a serious number of loans he was given by numerous people who then – miraculously – got cushy federal posts.

So a few weeks ago, I sent Meese a letter of support and a check for $1,000, which I said was an interest-free loan. The hint – a joke – was that I’d get a government job, too.

On Monday, Meese returned the check with a nice letter on White House stationery, and I xeroxed his reply and the check and sent it off to various press people, including AP, who turned it over to Joffee.

I read him my letter (a remembered version of it I made up today) and he did an interview. They were going to send a photographer, but they later discovered several usable photos of me in the News files.

I hope it’s a front-page story tomorrow. (Boy, am I jaded!)

I hope Doug Delp’s story in the Miami Herald comes out tomorrow, too. Enough already.

Last night I spoke to Ronna. Her boss quit, and so she got a promotion but is still “talking money.”

Tomorrow she turns 31, and she told me that the other day she found some John Steinbeck books I’d given her for her 21st birthday. Ronna said they had a great inscription, but I don’t remember what I wrote.

For some reason, there are things I can talk to Ronna about that I don’t talk about with anyone else. I guess it’s like Tom and his ex-wife Jane: Ronna and I know each other so well because we were once in love and we’ve gotten past all the hurt and now are only supportive of each other.

Up at 5 AM today, I figured I’d take advantage of the early hour, so I packed up about five boxes of books and took them to the warehouse.

No one showed up for my 8 AM class – I’d told them to come only if they had a question about the term paper – and I had lots of time to catch up on my magazine reading.

In my 11 AM class, I went over poetry, and then I did some errands, including buying four black pocket T-shirts (Fruit of the Loom) at K-Mart. I think I look best in black T-shirts.

The only students who showed up with questions at 2 PM were the two black girls from Boyd Anderson High School who are going to Gainesville in the fall.

They are both pretty smart (they wouldn’t have gotten into UF otherwise), so I was surprised to hear I was “the strictest teacher when it comes to grammar” that they had ever come across.

In high school these days, the teachers probably don’t know how to correct grammar. Of course, when I become superintendent of schools, that will all change.

And so another term comes to an end. As usual, it all feels anticlimactic by now.