Journal 1993 is the ninth in a series of yearly journals by San Francisco author Joseph Sutton. This journal shows the ups and downs Sutton experienced as a dedicated but unpublished writer. It covers the relationship that he, a former college football player, had with his baseball-loving 12-year-old son. Also included are two important things he learned from his therapist—how to deal with a meddlesome, controlling mother-in-law and how his athletic ability saved him from being stifled as a young boy.
Monday, January 4, 1993 – The Most Important Room in the House
Home. What does it mean to me? It means closeness. It means my mother and father and five brothers.
The true meaning of home to me were the dinners we ate together. My mother, may God rest her soul, was one tremendous cook. We all sat around the breakfast room table in the evening, six hulking boys and our thin father, and we dug into her fabulous creations. It was mainly regular fare during the week, but come Friday night, Shabbat, that was special, that’s when we all stood, with Dad saying a prayer in Hebrew, a glass of Manischewitz in his hand. After finishing the short prayer, Dad took a sip of wine, handed the glass to Mom, who took a sip, and then passed it on to our oldest brother Charles, and so on down the line to Dave, Bob, Maurice, me, and Albert. We kissed our parents on the cheek and shook hands with each other, saying “Shabbat Shalom”—a peaceful sabbath.
Then the Friday night meal of our Syrian Jewish heritage was served. It consisted of white rice and a large chicken roasted in the same pot with diced potatoes. Mom made a vegetable topping for the rice called sour soup—a lemony tasting concoction made up of little meatballs and cut up celery. She would maybe make a vegetable dish of string beans or of zucchini stuffed with rice and ground lamb called mechshi.
Home wasn’t home without all of us sitting around the breakfast room table. Mom didn’t sit until the meal was almost finished. Most of the time she was going into the kitchen for more food or arguing with Dad to eat more.
Why didn’t Dad eat much? He was a depressed man. He drank whiskey on the sly to escape his depression. He never showed that he had taken a swig or two or three, but sometimes you could smell it on his breath, or you could smell Sen-Sen, a breath freshener he took to hide the liquor smell. He didn’t want to be bothered with anything when he left his small retail linen store on 7th and Hill Streets in downtown Los Angeles six days a week to take the bus home to Fairfax Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. He didn’t want to be bothered by his wife or sons. Oh, sometimes he’d complain about business being slow, but most of the time he and Mom would be arguing at the dinner table. “Raymond, eat your food. You can’t survive if you eat like a bird.” “No, Jean, I’m not hungry.” Dad was skinny, almost all bones. I, along with my brothers, didn’t say anything to them while they argued. All we did was eat the food of our ancestors while we discussed President Eisenhower’s decisions, Marlon Brando’s roles in Viva Zapata and On the Waterfront, or whether Bob Waterfield or Norm Van Brocklin should play quarterback for the L.A. Rams.
“Eat, Raymond, eat.” “No, Jean, no.” “You need strength, Raymond.” “I’m not hungry,” he’d say. She would then go into the kitchen for more food. While in there, Dad would quickly transfer half the food on his plate to one of my brothers’ plates or mine, depending who was sitting next to him. When Mom came back with more food, she never seemed to notice Dad’s almost empty plate.
Home was the breakfast room where we ate dinner because it was closer to the kitchen than the much larger dining room. Those Friday night meals were warm and filled with mountainous plates of Middle Eastern fare. It was all of us being together that made the breakfast room the most important room in the house.
Wednesday, January 6, 1993 – Family
I’m at the Koret Center at the University of San Francisco. Koret has all the exercise machines I need—bicycle, step, treadmill. I’m going to set a weight and get down to it, no matter what. My goal is to get down to 185 pounds. Will I do it? Right now I weigh around 200. If I lose 10 or 15 pounds I’ll feel better about myself. I’ll be lighter, stronger, have more energy, and look better. I’m determined to do it. I’m committed to do it. I will do it. I’m doing it.
I saw my therapist Richard Vogel this morning. He thinks I’m making great progress. My former therapist at Kaiser gave me the shock of my life when she told me I was a depressed person. Richard thinks differently. He said that a depressed person doesn’t do what I’m doing, like exercising and setting goals for my writing and weight.
Our visit to Los Angeles in December was very rewarding—especially for our 12-year-old son Ray. He got to see and know his cousins better. He has no cousins here in San Francisco. The three things that stick out in my mind are the conversations I had with my three older brothers.
Bob, five years older than me, while we were eating lunch in L.A.’s Chinatown, said to me, “I never got married because I didn’t want to give up my acting career.” Bob has gotten a bunch of small roles in movies, TV, and commercials over the years, but never a big role. He was a great athlete in his day—a three-sport man in basketball, football, and swimming. Growing up, he was my role model. He was our mother’s favorite, in that she was always boasting to guests about Bob’s athletic accomplishments, showing them his many medals and trophies that were on display in our living room.
Maurice, four years older than me, a successful wholesale womenswear salesman, who is now living alone after his second divorce, asked me a question that has stuck in my mind: “Do you do any charity work?” I told him that my helping coach Ray’s baseball teams was, in a way, similar to charity work. Writing and exercising take up a lot of my time, too, I told him. “No, I don’t do charity work. Am I supposed to?” Maurice didn’t answer my question. He just said he was thinking of retiring from sales. Maybe he’s thinking of doing charity work after retirement.
Dave, as his wife Bertha calls him, was the “black sheep” of the family. Dave said he learned at an early age to stay away from the house. That was his survival technique, just like athletics was a survival technique for Bob and me, and getting different jobs in high school was for Maurice. Dave eventually worked in our father’s small linen store. He and Dad became partners. He probably knew a side of our father that none of us ever came close to knowing. He became the darling of our mother’s eye in the latter part of her life because he was her handyman.
I brought up to Dave how dysfunctional our family was because of Dad’s drinking and withdrawing and Mom’s hollering and having no patience. Dave thought differently and defended our parents.
Richard Vogel, my wonderful therapist, thinks I’m on the right track by exercising, by talking with my brothers, by being involved in my son’s life, just the opposite of my father. He sees my present family life as being healthy and vibrant, which makes me feel good inside.
Twelve-year-old Ray had a basketball game yesterday. It was the first game of the season. His role is much different from a year ago. Last year he was a reserve and sat on the bench most of the time. This year he’s playing the most important position on the team: the point guard, the playmaker, the leader. He started out terribly last night. It surprised me, though, that he could dribble with both hands, but he was making too many mistakes. He was getting down on himself. Then a remarkable turn of events took place. He started shooting, dribbling, and passing better. He was getting the feel of the game, and when that happened his team went on to win the game by two points.
At first I was ashamed of his performance. At the end of the game I was the proudest person in the gym. In just one game I saw great improvement. He used his brains, he gained confidence in himself, he hustled. He’s my son Ray.
Wednesday, January 27, 1993 – Three Things
What I want to write about now are three things that took place at Richard Vogel’s office today:
1) My son Ray. I told Richard how exasperating it is to see Ray gripe to the referees on the basketball court. Richard told me not to mention it to Ray anymore, to leave him alone, because that’s Ray, that’s his originality on the court. “You shouldn’t suffocate his essence, his creativity,” said Richard. “That’s how he’s going to act until he matures. It’ll have to be up to his coaches to help him mature, or if he asks you how he can improve, that’s when you can tell him what you think.”
Richard thinks I should write about the relationship that Ray and I have with sports—from the time he was 11 months old and was sitting in front of the TV when Dwight Clark caught Joe Montana’s pass (known as “The Catch”), to hitting a sponge baseball with a plastic bat in our living room, to pitching a tennis ball to him outside and using the garage door as a backstop, to coaching him for two years in Little League, to seeing him sit on the bench last year in basketball, to be the leader of his team this year, to whining to the refs in basketball and how we both learned and grew from all those experiences.
2) Writing. For instance, if I want to write about Ray and our sports relationship, all I have to do is write as fast as I can, no looking back, get everything down that comes to mind, and after I finish the first draft, it’s time to start revising. As long as I stay in shape, as long as I exercise, I’ll have the strength to revise. Revising is the hardest part of writing, it’s like forming and shaping a piece of clay, getting it ready for the final revision of glazing.
3) Quitting therapy. Richard and I talked about it more today than ever before. I told him I was satisfied with myself now. I’m stronger, I’m exercising every day, and writing with confidence. I feel I don’t need to come to therapy any longer. He was happy, he really was. But he told me to come to four more sessions and then we’d evaluate it again. How many times am I going to hear the word evaluate from him? I’ve heard it three or four times already. I’ll go another month. When the fourth meeting comes, I’m going to have to be strong and say it’s time for us to part.
Richard asked me to go home and look at why I want to go and why I want to stay.
To Go. I’m strong now. I exercise, I write. I’m more sure of myself. I’ve got that yoke of writer’s block off my shoulders. It’s time to leave, to create, to fly.
To Stay. Richard has wonderful insights and ideas. He’s like my personal cheerleader. He’s telling me I’m all right, I’m fine, to have faith, everything will work out for the best. He shows me that I’m unique, observant, loving, caring, sympathetic. He’s on my side at all times. He’s my right-hand man.
Tuesday, February 3, 1993 – Behavior Management
Dr. Vogel and I spent most of our time talking about my son Ray, the class clown, the troublemaker, the kid who wants to play in class more than he wants to learn. Richard said that Joan and I can change his behavior in class with Behavior Management, which includes communicating with his teachers and following up with them. If he’s starting to change for the better it would be good to reward Ray. If he doesn’t change, then he’s going to have to be grounded.
We have to let him know we’re going to follow through with this because we care about him and consider him more important than anything in the world. He can’t pass the buck for his behavior. We should tell him, “We’ll be doing everything we can to help you.” We’ll be calling his teachers. We’ll ask them about their seating arrangements. We should let Ray know that it makes a lot of sense to change seats.
Behavior Management. The stick and the carrot. Pavlov’s dogs. If Ray does good we’ll let him know by complimenting him. If he doesn’t change, we’ll ground him—no going out with his friends.
Wednesday, February 10, 1993 – Son #5
Richard Vogel has helped me immensely. I’m about to part company with him in two weeks. He’s done his job, which was to get me out of my depressive state, out of my writer’s block, and to find out where my anger comes from. My anger, says Richard, comes from my father not caring for me, by his escaping from me and my brothers with his drinking and running his business. It comes from being suffocated by my parents who didn’t understand that I needed attention, affection, loving, understanding, and an outlet for expressing myself.
What caused my anger? Mainly my dad. He played the victim’s part and it rubbed off on me. He made us all feel sorry for him, sorry about his business relationship with his brother and sorry about his business not doing well. He always played the victim. It held me back in my business, unable to write because what’s the use, I’ll get rejected anyway. My anger stems from my parents having too many kids to really love and cherish, which led to my father’s depression and drinking and only having his mind on his business instead of being the leader of the family.
Those are the basic reasons why I was “hurled” out of my family, so to speak, why I was forgotten, suffocated, inhibited, ground down, never listened to, thrown away, discarded, and every word you can think of when a son is not cared for or nourished.
Here I am today, not able to make a living out of my chosen profession, but always trying, always striving. I ain’t gonna give up like my dad. I’m going to keep on writing until I die. I’m going to keep sending my work out or maybe publish my own books.
Where do writers and other artists get their stamina to keep on going? I don’t know where they get their drive, I can only explain where I get mine. It originally started with athletics. If it wasn’t for sports I’d truly be a victim in this world. Thank goodness I found sports as an outlet. It’s where I found my self-esteem, where I found that I was as good or better than most guys my age, it’s where I gained glory and notoriety. Sports was my savior.
Oh sure, I had many setbacks in athletics, one of those being that I played sparingly for the University of Oregon football team for two years. But it was sports that made me, it was sports that got me through college. No one but me was going to be responsible for my education. No one! My goal was to graduate college. I achieved that goal through my athletic ability and perseverance.
My son loves sports—maybe not as much as I did. He doesn’t have to love it like I did. He has a family that cares for him, that loves him, that knows how to nourish him.
It’s interesting how I survived my upbringing. The minute I was born in August of 1940, because I wasn’t a girl, I wasn’t loved by my mother. It was a transition period for the whole family—we were about to move from Brooklyn to Hollywood. We couldn’t move when we were supposed to because I was having convulsions and a fever as a newborn. My dad called my mom from L.A. in 1941: “What’s taking so long, Jean? Come already.” Mom didn’t want to scare my father. She answered, “Joe’s not feeling well. We have to wait until he gets better.” “What’s the matter with him?” “Nothing serious,” she lied. Dad kept calling. “Come already,” he said. “We can’t,” Mom said, “Joe is recuperating. We’ll be out as soon as possible.” My father’s reply was, “Are you going to wait until it’s his bar mitzvah?”
My parents’ second child was a girl, Luna, but she died at the age of five of pneumonia. That’s why Mom hated me when I was born. She wanted a girl, but gave birth to me, son #5. I was the youngest until I was eight, when the sixth boy, Albert, was born in 1949. Albert, now known as Avram, lives in Jerusalem with his wife and seven children. He and his family are very religious orthodox Jews. Out of all my brothers, he’s the only one who became religious.
No one ever listened to me. My own family took advantage of me. I wasn’t beaten or anything like that, but I was abused by being suffocated by my older brothers, by my mother yelling all the time, and my father drinking. I would have dried up on the vine if it wasn’t learning about sports from my brothers. My brothers were both my bane and my boon. Bane—they held me back from expressing myself. Boon—they taught me to love sports.
Friday, February 19, 1993 – Back on Track
I’ve been doing well in my life these past few months. I’m out of my depression and starting to produce. It was a long, long depression, but I finally broke out of it and intend to stay out of it for the rest of my life. How did I do it? Three things: 1) Richard Vogel. 2) Listening to Tony Robbins tapes that my friend Ralph Yanello was kind enough to lend me. 3) Exercising on a daily basis.
So them’s the reasons for my feeling good about myself. I know what to do now, thanks to Tony Robbins, whenever depression begins to take hold, and that is to snap my fingers, rub my knees, rub my hands together, breathe deeply, stand up, move around. In other words, quick physical movements until I get out of the funk I’m in.
A depressed person is slow-moving, his facial expression points south. An up person moves fast, is confident, and his facial muscles are extended north. You can get out of a depressive state by immediately changing your physical state. There’s no waiting, no therapy, it’s just zip, bam, and you’re instantly out of that killing field of depression and into an energy field of being alive again.
Think of a depressed person. He’s sitting at his desk, head down, hardly breathing, his neck and back slouched forward feeling sorry for himself. He can’t do anything because his body is telling him he’s depressed. Then think of a person who’s feeling good about himself. His head is high, he’s breathing deeply, his shoulders are back and he’s rarin’ to get to whatever needs to be done. That’s what I learned from the Tony Robbins tapes.
I also learned that exercise is really and truly tied in with our mental state. A person who exercises is not depressed. He’s moving and living that very second. He’s not moving slowly, he’s moving quickly. He’s doing something. Any time a person is doing something physical—either walking, jogging, swimming, bicycling, lifting weights—that person is not depressed.
And Richard Vogel, what a fantastic therapist he was. He was my advocate. He helped me gain back my self-esteem. He told me I was doing the right things to get back on track. He showed me my past. He made me see it objectively—my brothers, parents, upbringing, schooling.
My mother was the sergeant or authority figure in the house. She was always commanding us to do this or that, especially me, it seems, because I was the low man on the totem pole who had no say in anything. I just followed orders. I didn’t rebel because I knew my parents had gone through plenty with my four older brothers. They didn’t need another son to go against their wishes. Thank goodness for athletics. It’s when I wasn’t home that I could be myself totally. I was me as an athlete, just like I’m me as a writer.
I’m not going to be a victim like my father. I’m not going to shy away from my family like he did. I’m not going to drink like he did. I’m not going to yell at my family like my mother did. I’m not going to push food away from my wife like my father did, although I wish I could push it away more often because I need to lose weight. I’m going to show my love to my wife and son.
I had to make my own path as a young boy and teenager. No one helped me or gave me guidance. At least my son Raymond is getting guidance from Joan and me. He’s learning. You can see his intelligence. I see, though, that he gives up too easily. I love my son. If he needs my assistance I’ll give it to him. But he’s going to have to do the brunt of what is expected of him. For instance, he’s working on a science project now. He needed to get a lot of cardboard for his project. So he and I drove to a few markets yesterday to get cardboard boxes. He immediately plunged into his project after we got home. He worked on it today. He’s doing the brunt of it, actually all of it, except for yesterday when Joan and I helped him get started.
The three of us went to see a very thought-provoking movie last night, Groundhog Day with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. It’s about a man who gets stuck in one day in his life. Every morning he wakes up it’s the same day, which happens to be Groundhog Day. It shows what he does in that day. God knows how many days or years or decades he lived the same day. It was an interesting concept—to live the same day over and over again. What does one do? He gets to know everyone in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which is about 50 miles north of Pittsburgh, and where groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, comes out of hibernation on February 2 every year to see if winter will last another 6 weeks or not, depending on whether he sees his shadow or not.
What does Bill Murray do when he keeps waking up to the same day? He gets to know everyone in town. He learns new things. He commits suicide in a hundred ways. He does every bad deed he can. He does every good deed he can. Finally he breaks out of this one day he’s stuck in when he gives of himself to everyone. And everyone shows their love for him, especially the lovely Andie MacDowell. She falls in love with a real man and not a man who’s out to get something from her.
Monday, March 1, 1993 – Here I Am, World
What am I happy about? I’m happy to be alive, to have a wife and son, to have good friends like Sky Diamond, Alan Blum, Jerry Lipkin, and George Krevsky. I’m happy to be a writer. I’m happy to have Bill Clinton as our president. I’m happy that spring is about to burst onto the scene.
What am I excited about? I’m excited about a writing class I just started at University of California Extension. I’m excited about revising a story about my parents called “American Doll.”
What am I proud of? I’m proud of a story I recently finished, “Family Traits,” about accidentally meeting actor Danny Hedaya (a cousin of mine) while Joan, Ray, and I were in L.A. I’m proud of my writing production.
What am I grateful for? I’m grateful for all the rain that came down this winter. It got us out of a drought. I’m grateful to be healthy and vibrant.
Who do I love? I love my family, my friends, my work, and clean air. I love being healthy.
Monday, March 8, 1993 – Ray’s Basketball Team
Ray’s team lost their semi-final game to St. Peter’s of Pacifica by two points, the team they barely beat in the season opener in January. It was a battle of two evenly-matched teams. Both teams gave their all. You can’t ask for more than that. All of Ray’s team cried after the game.
The night before that, his team won a thriller in overtime. It was another great battle, but they prevailed. Ray gained confidence this season from his coach David Schaefer. Ray was surely one of the major cogs on the team.
Tuesday, March 16, 1993 – Depressed
Boy, was I depressed today. “American Doll” was read aloud by the teacher at the Fiction Workshop class I’m taking at University of California Extension. It was torn down so much that I don’t even know if I’m a writer anymore. God, the class made me feel ashamed to have written a story about my parents. I liked it when I wrote it. But now, I don’t know what to believe. Should I believe in myself or should I believe what others say about my writing?
It was the story I had heard all my life from my mom. It was about how my parents met, raised a family, and how my mother fought with my dad to break away from Syrian Jewish tradition of just being a homemaker. She wanted to get a job. No one in the workshop liked it. “Simple people,” is what I heard. I was a simple writer. I honestly don’t know what to think, which is 24 hours after it was read. If I ain’t a writer, then what the hell am I? Here I am 52 years old and I don’t know anything anymore.
If the sun were shining today I could at least go for a walk. But no, the heavy rain won’t stop and it’s making me more depressed. What can I do instead of wallowing in self-pity? I’ll tell you what I can do. I can snap my fingers, take deep breaths, lift my eyes to the ceiling, smile, rub my knees, and move around the house. That’s what I can do.
Friday, March 19, 1993 – The Nose
I want to find something to write about for the Fiction Workshop class. I’ve been thinking of writing a story within a story. For example, the Fiction Workshop teacher is reading my story about a young girl who lost her father who once abused her, and so on and so forth, and while this is going on, I want to show the reaction of the writer as his work is being read and eventually critiqued by the teacher and the class. Too complex? Probably. The stuff of incidents, episodes, and anecdotes—that’s where my strength lies. If I get too complex, like I did in the story about my parents, it gets too simplistic. Does that make sense? What I’m saying is, I was writing about twenty years in the life of a couple and it turned out to be too simplistic. I do better writing about situations, incidents, episodes. For instance, the last story I turned in was accidentally running into my cousin Danny Hedaya in L.A. It was an incident. That’s all it was, and I made a story out of it, and most of the class liked it.
What if I write about my nose? Because three months out of the year it’s always running. It won’t stop unless I take a pill for hay fever. But the pill always makes me drowsy. So which should I choose? Should I choose the runny nose route or the drowsy, sleepy route?
Once upon a time there was a nose. For nine months out of the year this nose was well-behaved. But when spring was about to burst forth and pollen started to circulate, this nose was in a constant state of trauma and tension. It was always running and it ran the person who belonged to the nose to the ground. For instance, last week—this man was laid up in bed for a three days. He didn’t know whether his sickness was caused by the flu, a cold, or hay fever. Then when he got out of bed his nose started running again. The man had a dilemma. He didn’t know whether to take a hay fever pill for his runny nose or to let his nose run and use eight or nine handkerchiefs a day. Every day the man would be torn between taking a pill or using handkerchiefs. His runny nose wouldn’t stop, in or out of bed. What was he to do? To this day, the man doesn’t know. All he knows is that he can’t wait until the beginning of May so he doesn’t have to suffer any longer.
Every year it’s the same: To have a runny nose and use a lot of handkerchiefs or to take a pill that will dry my sinuses and make me drowsy. Hay fever is a killer. Maybe hay fever is not only triggered by pollen but by the food and drink one puts into one’s system? Joan tells me to stay away from mold and fermented foods, such as vinegar, dairy, dried fruits, peanuts, mushrooms, and alcohol.
Last night Cal beat LSU in the first round of March Madness. Jason Kidd and Lemond Murray are two great ball players. They’re the heart and soul of the Cal team. That Kidd kid is one of the smartest players I’ve ever seen. He’s only nineteen and he’s practically ready to play professional ball. He’s quick, aggressive, smart, can pass, and play defense extremely well. He’s a perfect example of a man who takes advantage of his skills. He doesn’t shoot that much because he’s not the best shot in the world like the Warriors’ Chris Mullin. But Jason Kidd is a leader, a coach on the court, a playmaker, a catalyst.
Now I’m thinking of another Cal athlete, Ron Vaughn, who, like Jason Kidd, is a very light-skinned black man. I played football with Ron at Los Angeles Valley Junior College. Everyone knows Kidd is black. Not many people knew that about Ron. He was a man without a race. He was too light for black people and scared off white people with his black blood. He was a torn man. I just read about him in Goat Brothers by Larry Colton. Ron lived a nightmarish existence. One woman he really loved in college broke up with him when she found out that he had black blood in him. In high school his girlfriend gave birth and he took the baby and left it at a hospital. The guilt is with him to this day. He was never happy. He went to different psychiatric wards. He was schizoid. He lived an ugly existence. He couldn’t be natural in either the black world or white world.
I was thinking of writing a story about Ron Vaughn. Oh, man, here I go again, trying to write over my head. I ain’t using my skills. My skills can best be used by writing about incidents like running into William Saroyan at a San Francisco produce market, like searching for a bag of diapers at the city dump, and accidentally running into my cousin Danny Hedaya.
Thursday, March 25, 1993 – Smog
In 1949, when I was nine years old, I hiked up in the Hollywood hills near our house and stood on a plateau overlooking all of Los Angeles. What I saw below me was a brown layer of smog that blanketed the city. I remember playing in a football game in high school and you could barely see 50 yards down the field. Except for the three years I went to college in Oregon, I lived in smog until I was 29 years old. Smog was one of the major reasons why I moved out of L.A in 1969. The other reason: I wanted to live in Berkeley to begin my writing career. I had saved enough money as a teacher to work on the first writing project of my life—A Class of Leaders, a novel about my teaching experience at an all-black high school in L.A.
Yes, I grew up breathing bad air all those years. I remember my eyes and lungs would burn on really bad smoggy days. L.A. is the land of cars. Cars were, and still are, the main culprit of smog.
Monday, March 29, 1993 – A Kaleidoscope of Thoughts
My relationship with my son has to improve. How? By complimenting and not criticizing him. The boy will flower if I compliment him in anything. He needs positive feedback, not negative. That’s what Dr. Richard Vogel told me a while back. “Don’t find fault; find what he does well and compliment him.”
So now I have to figure out the good and bad points of our relationship to sports.
First of all, how did I get involved with Ray’s sports activities? Joan placed him on a soccer team about four years ago. I didn’t go to any games until she needed me to drive him and a few of his schoolmates to a game one day. From that day on, I was caught in the web of sports with my son. I pulled for him with everything I had. Every moment he was in a game my eyes were riveted to his every move. I wanted him to succeed so badly. After soccer came baseball. I volunteered to become a Little League manager. That’s where our sports relationship really began. I kept a diary of that 1990 season. For the 1991 season I wrote Diary of a Little League Manager, about the journey our team went through to win the championship of our league. I didn’t try publishing it. I gave a copy of it to every coach and player on the team. I have notes of the 1992 baseball season, especially about the day I got extremely mad at Ray and his teammates for not hustling. As for the 1993 season, I haven’t written anything yet.
Somehow I don’t have it in me to write about Ray and me right now. I don’t have it in me to dig deep into any subject. I feel like searching around for something else to do other than writing. What do I want to do? Be a gardener? Work in a bookstore or hardware store? Go back to substitute teaching? No, God no, no more substituting.
I was thinking of going to the Koret Center today for the first time in a couple of months. I haven’t been able to do much physically in a long time because of a bad groin. It feels better, but I can tell it will tear again if I strain it. Plus my left knee hurts every once in a while. It’s the first time my left knee has bothered me. It’s always been my right knee that has given me trouble, ever since I tore a ligament in it when I was 13. I wrote a story about how I tore it, “Steve Spangler’s Knee.” I’ve written many stories. They’re all related to my life experience. There’s the story called “At the Store,” about going downtown to help my father when I was maybe nine. There’s “Hollywood Story,” about my childhood and adulthood mixed together. I look back into my past and make stories out of them.
What am I thinking? I’m thinking of Alan Blum, Jerry Lipkin, and George Krevsky. I’ve been close friends with them over the years. But now I feel I’m not close to them. It’s my fault. I don’t take the initiative to call them and do things with them.
My mind is becoming mush. I can’t stick to one subject. I’m flitting from this to that without digging into the nitty-gritty of anything. I feel like Matt Williams of the Giants, a guy with all the talent in the world but who really hasn’t shown it in his career. I’m the Matt Williams of writers, a guy with potential who hasn’t shown it yet. Everyone is giving Matt advice. He’s listening to too many people. I too am listening to many people. It’s killing Matt and me—it’s ruining us, destroying us. I know exactly what he’s going through. He’s going through torment, doubt, frustration. He has power, ability, great hands at third base, knowledge, experience, things that I have as a writer, but, like him, I’m dying in my tracks.
Now I’m thinking of Kabuki Springs and Spa in Japantown. I’m thinking of going there and relaxing and getting the poison out of my system and immersing my aching body in hot water so it can heal.
I feel like a schlemiel, one who keeps beating his head against a wall.
I want to go to Wilbur Hot Springs tomorrow. Something is telling me I need a change of scenery. Why? Every day, it’s the same old routine. I wake up, stretch, go to the treadmill in our living room, sweat for a half hour, eat breakfast, read the newspaper, drink tea, shower, shave, take my vitamins, then sit down to write. And what am I writing? Crap. But other writers say writing crap or anything helps a writer. So I keep writing crap, hoping that someday it’ll turn into gold. But writing crap will tell me what I’m going to write next.
So what’s next on the agenda? For a while I thought it would be about Ray and me, but I soon lost interest in that. Should the subject be about the friends in my life? No. The coaches in my life? No. So why do I keep writing? I don’t know. I probably want to find something to grab hold of. What is it that I want to write?
I believe the hay fever pills I’m taking are affecting me. The pills tire me. They’re not good for me. Or would I rather be drained of energy with a runny nose and sneezing all the time? Can a person with hay fever win during the hay fever season? I don’t think so.
I want to bust loose, like the character Action in the movie West Side Story. I wanna breathe without having to take pills.
I don’t have the energy that I want and so dearly need. I’m half asleep after taking a sinus pill.
My stepson Sol, who now lives in Maine after graduating Bowdoin College, says he’s homosexual. If that’s who he is, then that’s who he is. The pollen is going crazy with my sinuses. My brother Maurice had pneumonia a couple of weeks ago. I wanna bust loose from San Francisco. I wanna go to Wilbur Hot Springs. I wanna work out at USF’s Koret Center. I wanna go to Kabuki Springs and Spa. They have a hot water pool, cold water pool, a dry sauna, and steam room—all in one large room. Everything water for $10. Or go to Wilbur Hot Springs for $30 a night. Or read or write.
Or go to the library. But it’s closed on Monday. No money, they say. Closing libraries on Mondays in San Francisco—what a disgrace! God, our priorities are out of whack.
Hay fever is taking its toll on me. Baseball is about to begin. Daylight Saving Time will begin next week. Rent is due this week.
Joan and I, on our walk yesterday, saw a hawk. It hovered in the air just above us. Scary, like it was going to attack us.
I don’t know what the hell I’m doing except putting words on paper. I don’t have the energy or patience to go into detail today.
I want to call my brother Maurice to see how he’s doing. I want to call Ed Mycue, an old friend, a poet, a man I met on one of my walks in San Francisco in late 1976 before moving to San Francisco in early 1977. I’ve met Ed twice in the last several weeks, by accident, in two book stores: Green Apple on Clement Street and Aardvark, the store next to the Hong Kong Restaurant on Church and Market Streets.
What kind of work can I do? Maybe I’ll just walk along Clement Street today and figure it out. A hardware store? Green Apple Bookstore?
It’s too late to go to Koret Center or Kabuki. What should I do? I’m doing it now. I’m writing. But this writing has no feeling behind it, no depth. Why am I always putting myself down? Why am I always self-flagellating? I’m writing. I’m trying to lubricate my mind. I’m writing, writing, flying, flying. There’s a dichotomy in my mind. One side wants to write a story a day like Saroyan, the other wants to get out into the world and do something useful.
I’m getting thoughts of walking through Golden Gate Park or along Crissy Field. I wrote a poem about a day like this more than 20 years ago in Eugene, Oregon, when I lived there in the early ’70s with Sharon Murphy. It’s called “Freedom.” It was about a writer who couldn’t make up his mind whether to write, go for a walk, clean the house, or read a friend’s manuscript. God, I don’t want to end up that way. I want to choose to do something today before I go to the Fiction Workshop. What’ll it be?
Ray has some sickness. What it is we don’t know. He’s just very weak, quiet, not hungry, his joints ache in the evening. People say it could be mononucleosis. It better not be mono.
Do something, Joe!
I’m doing. I’m writing. But the writing has no center of gravity. I’m picking up on all thoughts coming into my brain instead of focusing on one thought.
I hear birds outside. Ever since I’ve lived here I notice so much life below my second floor bedroom/office window. Birds, birds, birds. I see three cats always waiting patiently to catch them. In all the time I’ve been looking out the window, I haven’t seen a cat get anywhere near to catching a bird. But they keep trying, just like Matt Williams keeps trying to get a hit, and just like me trying to find a story.
Wednesday, March 31, 1993 – Mutiny
I was talking to Tamim Ansary last night in a coffeehouse after the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop in the Main Library. Tamim is the leader of the Workshop. We were talking about my “American Doll” story and he told me it was the worst story he ever heard me read. And you know what? I felt good when he said that. I told him it was the worst story read in the Fiction Workshop I was taking with Tom Parker at UC Extension. I told him I was depressed after Tom read my story to the class. Tamim replied, “You should have been depressed. You shouldn’t have turned that story in. You tried to write an epic in 12 pages. It didn’t work.”
I felt good because it really was a story I didn’t give much thought to. I wrote it at a fast and furious clip and it just didn’t work. I guess I just ain’t a swift writer. My writing takes time to gel. So to get back to the subject at hand, I felt good because Tamim said it was my worst. He said, “Turn in something good, then they’ll recognize your talent.”
I told Tamim I was having trouble getting an idea to write about.
He offered this advice to me. “Pick out an incident in your life,” he said. “Write about it and it will blossom into something you never imagined.”
I can write about Ray and me! I don’t have to write about the four years I’ve been involved in his athletic activities, I can start with just an incident. The incident will be when I lost my temper coaching in a baseball practice last year.
Eleven-year-old boys. The Braves. The team already had a few games under their belt. I was one of three coaches. The head coach couldn’t make it to practice that day. The other coach was hitting fly balls to the outfielders. I was hitting ground balls to the infielders. It seemed like there was a conspiracy against me that day, with my own son being a part of it. I was trying to get the boys to hustle, to move, to run, to cover the base. I didn’t mind if they made an error, what bothered me was their aloofness. Peter at first base was in on the conspiracy, as was Ray at second, Corny at shortstop, and David at third. Ian, the catcher, was the only one hustling.
I hit a ground ball to David at third. He picked it up and overthrew it to Peter at first. Cornelius at shortstop didn’t back up the play at third. Peter didn’t hustle after the ball. Now it was Corny’s turn. He was standing straight up before I hit the ball and so I stopped and told him he should crouch in the ready position. He didn’t do it. I hit a grounder to him and he muffed it and laughed and started walking after the ball. “Run after it, Corny!” I yelled. “Hustle!”
“I don’t want to,” he replied.
“Then sit down on the sideline till you’re ready to play baseball.”
Oh, no, I thought, a mutiny. Corny was a cancer on that team. He was always fooling around. He was the head coach’s son. The infield picked up on this cancer that day. I was mad at him but didn’t say anything. He was so on/off. One second he’d look like a million and the next he’d look like trash. He was unpredictable. He could’ve been the leader of the team if he gave his all. Because he rarely gave his all, I held him in low regard.
Ray was next. I hit a grounder to him at second and the ball went through his legs. He, like Corny, walked after it. I prodded him to hustle. He wouldn’t do it. I walked out to him and said, “You have to hustle, son. What’s wrong?” “Leave me alone, Dad.” “What do you mean, leave you alone? You have to hustle in this game!” “Don’t yell, Dad.” “You’re making me yell!” “Leave me alone,” he said. “You see that bench over there? Sit on it. We’ll play without you and Corny.”
As he was walking off the field, he threw his new $50 glove into a patch of ivy.
That infuriated me. I said “Fuck you” to him, just like I would to my worst enemy. I was fuming. Even though he was the son I held in my arms the minute he was born, the son that I gave my life and love to, is this what he thinks of me? I wanted to show the other boys that no one was going to get special treatment from me. I was going to treat my son the same as everyone else. If they hustled, they got positive feedback. If they lazed around, dogged it, didn’t care, then they’d hear from me.
What I should have done that day was to gather the boys in a circle to find out what was going on. I didn’t do it. After that incident I dropped out of coaching the team and became a spectator at their games. I eventually eased back into coaching them again. I made sure not to raise my voice at them anymore.
Monday, May 3, 1993 – Hot Diggity Dog
Last week I was at City Hall to protest getting three parking tickets right outside our duplex while Joan, Ray, and I spent three days at Harry Fish’s condo in Lake Tahoe. My parking permit ran out on March 31st. I was expecting a renewal in the mail, like all the years before, but nothing came. Hence, a day in court to tell the judge that I didn’t deserve the parking tickets.
While standing in line before going into the courtroom, I met Nick Lambo. He, like me, was from Hollywood. He went to Hollywood High around the same time my two older brothers Charles and Dave did. Nick is 63 now. Dave is 61 and Charles, who died of a massive heart attack while chasing after a thief at 61, would have been 65. Nick, as it turns out, owns a hot dog stand on Lombard and Scott in San Francisco. I asked him if he remembered Pink’s Hot Dogs in Hollywood and he answered that Pink’s was the inspiration for him starting his own hot dog stand. He said he serves the same hot dogs and chili that Pink’s does.
So after we had our parking tickets suspended by the judge, we drove in separate cars to his hot dog stand. I tried out a hot dog with chili and it tasted just like Pink’s.
Friday, May 14, 1993 – The Daring Young Man on the Base Paths
Ray did very well yesterday. He went two for three at the plate and was the Daring Young Man on the Base Paths. Here’s how he does it. He takes a big lead off second and the pitcher turns and tries to pick him off. Instead of going back to second, Ray lights out for third and makes it easily. He’s done that three times in the past two weeks. He’s stolen home twice this season using the same tactic. He’s a demon, a tyrant, on the base paths. It’s a joy to watch him. He has confidence now, both as a batter and a base runner. The Star Hawks are headed for a championship season.
I’m helping John Ferrara coach the Star Hawks. John, because he’s been coaching young boys for a long time, is known as Pope John around San Francisco.
The Giants are in first place, ahead of Houston and Atlanta. Barry Bonds is hitting in the .420 to .430 range.
Monday, June 7, 1993 – Joan’s Mother
Joan’s mother wants me to get a job, and she’s starting to influence Joan. It makes me furious. We have enough money so I don’t have to find a job. Joan loves what she’s doing (telling stories to children) and I’m doing what I want. Peace. Harmony. But along comes her mother, Sue Bransten, to stick her nose in our business. She’s got evil in her soul. Oh, I can see her thinking—that a writer doesn’t do anything, that he’s lazy and has no ambition. That’s not the case. The truth is, I’m a very ambitious writer. I send my work out more than any writer I know. I work at writing every day. I’m always trying to figure out how to make it in the writing world. The thing is, I keep getting rejections: “Sorry, this is not for us. It’s only our opinion. Try another publisher.”
I’m getting tired of receiving rejections. “Why don’t I publish my own book?” I ask myself. I’ve been thinking about it for years. I’ve got the money, I’ve got the energy. All I’ve got to do is choose one book to publish? Should it be A Class of Leaders, Highway Sailor, or The Immortal Mouth and Other Stories?
Ray is one of the better hitters in the Bronco B Division of the Pony League. Why one of the best? Practice, practice, practice. Since he was old enough to stand and swing a plastic bat, I started pitching a sponge ball to him in the living room. He’d hit it, run around the bases, touch home plate, and then bow. Would he be the one to fulfill the dream I had as a kid? I wonder, though, will it be his dream or mine?
I’ve instilled it in my son’s mind that he was born with a pen in one hand and a baseball in the other. I’m far from being the perfect father. I’ve yelled at my son, I’ve put him down, I’ve probably abused him in ways I don’t even know. But I’ve given him quality time that most kids don’t receive from their fathers. I’ve taken him to Giants games, pitched to him, hit grounders to him, coached or managed four of his baseball teams, driven him to doctors, Hebrew school and summer camp, and now I’m teaching him how to drive on the empty streets of the Sunset District.
Monday, June 14, 1993 – Self-Publish or Not?
I’m still getting rejections for my work. I’m seriously thinking of self-publishing. Should I do it or not? And the answer is, I don’t know. Something is holding me back. Is it money? Is it distributing my own book? Is it that I think I can still find a publisher? What is holding me back from publishing my own book(s)? Is it that underneath I feel I’m not a worthy writer? No, I believe I’m worthy. I want to publish my own work. When will I get to it? When? I’m tired of getting rejections. How can I stop them from coming? By writing to the best of my ability is what it all boils down to. I love writing. Writing is like running with a football or hitting a baseball solidly. It’s like running the 100-yard dash and being the first to break the tape. It’s like taking a jump shot in basketball and all the ball meets is net. It’s like when I saw my son being born. Writing is getting away from people and doing your own thinking. It’s one of the great feelings in the world. It’s like bodysurfing at Santa Monica beach when I was a teenager—you catch a wave and ride it until you roll over in the wet sand along the shore, to get up and run back to catch another wave.
So I have to decide whether to self-publish or not. I need to feel like a whole being again. I need to feel like I felt when I was an athlete. How am I going to feel that way? Getting published is the answer. But all I get are rejections. I’m not a bad writer. In fact, I’m a damn good writer. There are a lot of damn good writers in San Francisco, in California, in the USA and around the world, but goddammit, I’m just as good as any of them. How do I know? Because I like my writing better than any writer I’ve ever read.
So the question arises, should I self-publish or not? And the answer is, I still don’t know. Why is there always that doubt holding me back? Maybe I should seek advice from other self-published writers. Joan’s first husband and Sol’s father, Ramon Sender, has published his own books. Leonard Irving, a member of the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop, is another self-published writer.
Tuesday, June 15, 1993 – Backyards and Baseball
The sun is out. The trees are a vibrant green. Birds make up most of the life going on in the backyards of the block we live on. Cats are plentiful, as are those night scavengers, the raccoons. I sometimes hear them fighting each other in the middle of the night. There are also a few dogs in the neighborhood. In other words, day or night, there’s a lot of life is going on in the backyards of this block.
The Star Hawks have a semi-final playoff game coming up at 5:30 today at Rossi Playground. We’ll be playing a team we beat twice in the regular season.
Monday, June 21, 1993 – Intimidated
Ray’s team got to the championship game, except we lost in a rout 15-5. We gave up too easily. We were intimidated by the other team’s bigger players, all of whom were black. When a team is intimidated, they don’t hustle, they give up too easily, they don’t take chances, they strike out, they make mental and physical mistakes. The only good thing we did was catch all the fly balls that came our way in the outfield. Otherwise, we struck out too much, we made base running mistakes, and we flubbed easy ground balls. All because of being intimidated by the size and color of the players on the other team.
Tuesday, June 29, 1993 – Ray’s All-Star Team and Dishonest Agents
Ray made the All-Star team. He’ll be playing all this summer. I’m very proud of him. He’s proud of himself. The team had their first practice yesterday. For 12-year-old boys, they looked pretty good. The coaching staff was responsible for this. They knew what they were doing.
I hope Ray gets to play. He’ll do good if he plays regularly. He won’t do good if he has to sit on the bench most of the time. He’s the only B Division player on the team, the rest are A Division players.
Early this month I sent a query letter and two short stories to 55 agents about my short story collection, The Immortal Mouth and Other Stories. I’ve heard back from three who want to read the complete manuscript. The thing is, they want money up front, ranging from $75-$100 for a reading fee. Agents aren’t supposed to ask for money. It’s only when they sell a writer’s story or book that they can collect 10% or 15% of the sale. It’s a racket that some agents have concocted to prey on writers, like me, who are desperate to be published.
Wednesday, June 30, 1993 – Mother-in-Law
Joan and I have been seeing Dr. Richard Vogel. Today was our fifth session. All the sessions have had to do with Joan’s mother, who happens to be a very sick woman, both mentally and physically.
Joan and I came to the realization today that her mother will never be pleased with anyone in her family. She’ll always be disappointed at Joan, Joan’s brother Jim, Sol, Ray, and me. We are zilch in that woman’s eyes. None of us will ever be able to please her.
Negative is the only thing in her mind. If we fail, in any way, it will please her because it will affirm her beliefs. She’s such a negative force. No matter how well we do in our lives, we will never be able to please Sue Bransten.
If we’ll never be able to please her, what’s the use of trying to please her? If that’s the case, then we have to stay away from her as much as possible, especially Joan.
Friday, July 2, 1993 – Words of Wisdom
If I were to teach a course in writing, what would I teach? What would be my words of wisdom?
Well, I’d say to writers that you have to stick to writing for as long as possible. I’d say you should never give up, that you should keep at it and persevere. Someday something good will come of your work. But that something, that publishing of your article, story, or book will probably not do much for you financially. So why keep writing? Write because you feel that you want to, have to, that you don’t want to do anything else in life but write. Write because you are an individual who has a unique way of expressing yourself. And the world, if it’s lucky enough, might get a chance to read your distinct style someday.
If you have the will to write, that push, that urge, then write and send your work out so you can get it published. Make your writing you. Make it stand out like a beacon in the wilderness. Make it throb with life. Make it so you’ll be satisfied with what you’re saying. Make it. Write it. Be it. See it. Feel it. Know it.
What if you have a great urge to write but don’t know what to write? Write down anything and everything that comes to mind. Write without stopping until you come upon a subject you truly feel you can dig your claws into.
Wednesday, July 7, 1993 – Stars Trekking
After attending the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop last night, I went Stars trekking with poet Teddy Weiler. A couple of blocks from where the Writer’s Workshop is held, Teddy and I walked into Stars Restaurant. I should say, I walked, Teddy limped, due to a stroke he had in 1988.
As we were about to sit down at the bar, Teddy said, “Drinks are on me, Joe.”
“Thank you, Teddy, that’s very kind of you.” I thought Teddy was a down and out poet. It surprised me that he was going to spring for the drinks.
A young bartender, blond, stood in front of us. “What can I get you fellas?”
“I’ll have a lemon Calistoga,” I said. “White wine for me,” said Teddy.
Stars is one of the most opulent and expensive restaurants in San Francisco. The crowd was made up of people in their 30s and 40s, with the women dressed elegantly and the men dressed handsomely. All were dressed to kill.
Teddy said, “This place is decadence, Joe. Pure decadence.”
Our drinks came and the bartender said, “That’ll be eight dollars.” Teddy had only seven dollars on him. I went to my wallet and put a five-dollar bill on the counter. Teddy took back two dollars and left his five and my five on the counter. The bartender brought back two dollars in change.
Teddy snatched the two dollars with his good hand and put it in his pocket. I thought he was going to eventually give it to the young bartender for a tip. He saw his wine glass wasn’t filled to the brim, so he asked the bartender, “Could you please fill it to the top?”
The bartender replied, “These are big glasses, sir, that’s as far as we go with the wine.”
Teddy argued a little with the bartender until he made him fill his wine glass to his liking. I surely thought that deserved a tip, as I’m sure the bartender did, too.
I asked Teddy about his stroke.
“I didn’t do any kind of physical activity for six months,” he answered. “I just sat and sat and sat. I was depressed.”
“How old were you when it happened?” “Forty-seven.”
“That poem you read at the Workshop tonight,” I said, “is it true what you said about your stroke?”
“Yes, it was a stroke of luck that I had a stroke. That’s when I discovered I was a poet.”
We were sitting in a plush restaurant owned and run by the famous chef, Jeremiah Tower. The food served had a reputation of being both excellent and expensive. A piano player was playing songs from West Side Story. It was 10:30 p.m. Stars was about a quarter full. I noticed actor Nicolas Cage eating dinner with a woman, maybe his wife, maybe a girlfriend. He was half-bald on top, like me.
Teddy was completely bald on top, but the hair he had on his sides and back hung down past his ears and neck. He was dressed in a tweed sport coat, a red turtleneck, and blue jeans. One side of his body was almost totally paralyzed. When he walked he had to drag one foot. He made an annoying clicking sound with his tongue every ten seconds that grated on my nerves.
A man sitting at a table next to our bar stools had very long, curly hair. He was smoking a smelly cigar. He wore a multi-colored sports coat. In his outer coat pocket were four cigars in their cellophane wrappers. When he stood up to go to the bathroom, we noticed he was wearing black tights.
“You see that man?” said Teddy. “Decadence. That’s why we have rich people and poor people. The rich don’t spread it around. They keep it all to themselves.”
Teddy was born in New York City. His real parents weren’t married. At three months, he was adopted by a Russian Jewish couple, the Weilers. He said his real father was a college professor and his real mother was an artist. He never sought them out. Teddy is my age, 52.
Teddy wore a pin on his lapel: Star Trek Trekky. He said Star Trek was his favorite TV show. “Earth’s a goner,” he said. “We don’t have a chance. A growing world population, a hole in the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, pollution—we’re committing suicide, Joe.”
I said, “Do you think it’s going to be easy living on another planet? What about oxygen and food? Do you want to live in completely unnatural surroundings?”
“It’ll be better than living here on Earth. We’re doomed. Florida will be under water in 60 years. Look at all the ethnic strife, the wars, the poison filling the air. We humans have to seek out another planet before it’s too late.”
“Don’t you have faith in the human race, Teddy?”
“No. Definitely not.”
That’s Teddy Weiler, a Trekky who’s published his own book of poems and loves to read from it at open poetry readings.
We got up to go. I thought Teddy was going to leave a tip with the two dollars that he grabbed earlier and put in his pocket. He didn’t do it. Instead, I was the one who left a couple of bucks on the counter for the bartender.
Tuesday, July 13, 1993 – No More Mr. Nice Guy
I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. Saroyan books, articles in magazines about Anais Nin, Robert Fulghum, Max Apple, Leo Buscaglia, and many more essays and articles and short fiction in the The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the San Francisco Chronicle and anything else I can get my hands on. I’m reading to get ideas. I’m reading so I can write. Reading is so important for a writer. But the main thing is to never forget to write—every day. Yes, a writer has to write every day. Just like a musician or athlete, a writer has to develop his art, his craft, his writing muscles.
Another important part of being a writer is that he has to get out into the world, which I’ve been doing very little of lately.
What is wrong with me? I feel like molasses. I’m always tired. I get to bed too late. I’m watching too much TV and not moving around enough. My back is tight all the time. I weigh too much. I’m not exactly in the doldrums, but I feel I’m on the very cusp of it. I don’t know why I feel this way. Is it my extra weight? Is it that I don’t have a direction to work toward? Is it that my back has something to do with it? I don’t know what it is.
Joan and I are the same age. She does much more than me physically and still has energy to burn. Why don’t I have energy like her? What’s going on? Is it that I lead an extremely quiet and sedentary life? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But maybe I do have the answers, for as J. Krishnamurti always says in his writings, “In the question is the solution.” Do I have a direction to work toward? No, I don’t have a direction to work toward. Do I weigh too much? Yes, I weigh too much.
Every day I wake up and say to myself, “You have to watch what you’re eating. Don’t eat too much today.” And so what do I do, I eat a decent breakfast, a decent lunch, but come dinnertime, it’s the same old story—I eat too much. How can I get out of this rut? I know it’s driving me to an early grave and I refuse to do anything about it. I always say to myself, “I’ll start tomorrow.” I need more energy to do what I have to do in life. The only way I can get more energy is to get to bed early, wake up early, eat less, and exercise more, especially in fresh air.
Ray just came home. Joan was supposed to pick him up at the Jewish Community Center and drive him to baseball practice. Now she’s out there wondering where he is and we can’t get in touch with her unless she calls here. If she doesn’t call by 4:30, I have to drive him to baseball practice. This is what my life is all about this summer—Ray’s All Star team.
I don’t have a minute to myself. The phone is always ringing. If it’s not for Joan or me, it’s a solicitor asking for money. It’s either the Sierra Club, the University of Oregon, the opera, ballet, or the ACLU. It’s never ending. People give out of the goodness of their hearts. When a person gives, he or she is put on a list of givers. That’s when the takers start taking over. They call and call and call. Without end. We, the givers, are then bothered by the takers. So we, the givers, are inundated with calls. It’s open to hucksters. I swear to God, I’m not going to act politely to these people anymore. No more listening to their spiels. I’m going to hang up as soon as I find out that someone wants money. I don’t care if it’s the president, the cancer society, the heart society, the arthritis society, the blood society, the anti-defamation league, or the poor children of China or India. No more Mr. Nice Guy.
Sunday, July 18, 1993 – Frustration
“Aaaarrrrrrgh.” My son has had a long frown on his face since he made the All-Star team. Either he doesn’t play or he’s injured. His frown won’t go away. No smiles. No confidence. Sitting on the bench in the summer heat. My having to take him to a game to sit in the stands in the heat. Eating crap food at the games. Gaining weight. This is not what I imagined our summer to be. But I’m stuck. I’ve got to take him to games and practices because someday he’s going to be needed.
I don’t have any time to myself. I’m driving Ray to practices and games almost seven days a week. And the uncertainty of games is also making me feel like what? A draught horse? A prisoner? Whatever it is, there’s always Ray’s baseball to think of.
I have no control over my immediate future. Almost every day a friend asks me, “Can we get together tomorrow or next week?” And my usual reply is, “I can’t plan ahead right now. It all depends on whether Ray’s team wins or loses.”
Frustrating. Extremely frustrating.
Monday, July 19, 1993 – Injuries
The kid came through yesterday in the most important game of the post season. He got two hits in the three innings he played. He really came through and showed Coach Mike Fagan that he’s no slouch, that he belongs out there on the field.
They beat the San Bruno team. That means they’re in the Championship game of this tournament, which means they’ll be going to the Regionals starting Saturday in South San Francisco. If they do well in the Regionals, they’ll go to the National tournament in Citrus Heights near Sacramento.
Today I took Ray to my chiropractor and friend, Sky Diamond. He has a sore arm. It’s in bad shape. We’re going to have to put hot and cold compresses on it and rub it down with that hot stuff called White Flower Balm.
What am my feeling when Ray gets injured? I completely identify with him. I see what happened to me when I got injured when I was 12 or 13. I’d come home and the first thing my mother would say was, “God punished you.” I sometimes treat Ray the same way. “Darn, why’d you have to go and get injured?” When he gets injured, I feel it will hurt his chances of playing more, just like it hurt my chances at Oregon when I injured my knee.
My thoughts return to that fatal day I woke up late on a hot, humid Saturday morning in Eugene, Oregon. I was a new transfer running back from Los Angeles Valley Junior College. It was the team’s first scrimmage of the season. I rushed (limped is a better word) to the locker room and found that everyone was already out on the field. No one was in the training room to help tape my knee that I hurt badly two days earlier in a drill where a ball carrier had to run between two tacklers. Without thinking, I got into my football uniform and hurried out onto the field. The scrimmage had just begun. I was standing on the sideline. All of a sudden I heard backfield coach Max Coley calling my name. “Sutton, get in on offense.” I stood there for a few seconds facing a dilemma: to enter the scrimmage and permanently damage an already weak knee or to stay on the sideline and be considered a zero in not only Coach Coley’s eyes but in the eyes of the whole coaching staff.
I shook my head.
If I had woken up on time and taped my knee, I wouldn’t have hesitated a single second to enter the scrimmage. Joan thinks I subconsciously woke up late so as not to further damage my knee, whether it was taped or not. Coach Coley came stomping toward me and shouted in my face for the whole team to hear, “Sutton, you’ll never play for Oregon as long as I’m coaching here!” He thought I defied him, hence I was in his doghouse and played only sparingly in the two years I was on the team. I didn’t explain my predicament to him because we were always being reminded that the coaches didn’t want to hear excuses from anyone.
That knee injury ruined my football career at Oregon. Every so often, to this very day, it swells up on me. That’s why I feel so much for Ray when he gets injured. I don’t want him hurting his chances of playing like it hurt my chances. I have to put myself in his position. If he hurts, he hurts. I can’t put him down for it. As a father, I’ve got to feel for the boy.
Friday, July 30, 1993 – Rid of the Negative
Ray’s team didn’t make it to the National tournament, although they’ll still keep playing in tournaments around the Bay Area.
The San Francisco Writer’s Workshop comes to mind. Dean Lipton was the leader and glue of the Workshop for 30 years until he died last year. I was a part of his tenure for 15 years. The Workshop was Dean’s life, his passion. After he died, the group chose Tamim Ansary to be the leader/moderator. We meet at the Main Library downtown. There are all types of people in the group, all types. One of us is Jerry Miley, a homeless writer who writes about homelessness. One night I offered him money to take a shower. He refused on the grounds that he wasn’t a true writer if he took a bribe. I can’t sit within ten feet of the man; he smells worse than the city dump. I can’t let him take hold of my mind.
I also refuse to let my mother-in-law take hold of my mind. She’ll never change her negative opinion of me or her daughter. She’ll always want to break up our marriage.
Our downstairs neighbor, Christine Solis, is another negative. She will always treat us like crap whenever we complain about her loud, blaring music. I’m not going to let these people take hold of my mind.
Then there’s our therapist, Dr. Richard Vogel. What a sharp mind he possesses. He doesn’t hold back from voicing his opinion. He makes great sense. I saw him for six months, said goodbye to him, and now I’m back to see him with Joan by my side. He’s helped Joan see who and what her mother is: a snobby, rich, controlling bitch. He said my fantasizing about punching Christine Solis in the stomach and making her fly ten feet backwards was all right to think. I don’t need Christine Solis to take hold of my mind. If she hasn’t changed in ten years, she’ll never change. She’ll always turn the tables on us by putting us on the defense whenever we ask her to think of others other than her sweet, attractive ass.
Richard Vogel has taught me to like myself, to express myself, to be proud of myself, to be assertive, to not take crap, to speak up, exercise, write, love, have compassion. He’s taught Joan about her mother. We’re blessed to have the man listen to us for $65 a session.
Tuesday, August 10, 1993 – A Man Over 50
When a man is over the age of 50 he begins to lose his hair. I, for one, have lost a lot of hair in the last few years. I’m almost bald on top. I have a lot of hair on the sides and in the back, but on top, wow, I don’t recognize myself sometimes.
The next thing that happens to a man over 50 is that he gains weight. And when he tries to lose it, he can’t. I work out and try to eat less and what happens? I’m either at the same weight or I’ve gained some. That’s what happens when you pass the 50 mark.
What else happens to a man over 50? Well, he gets tired more easily. He sweats a lot. Like yesterday at yoga class, my shirt was soaked in ten minutes. I was the sweatiest guy there. And two women next to me, they didn’t even show a sprinkle of sweat. And tiredness, I just got to my desk and I’m tuckered out already. What’s going on with my over-50 body? It just ain’t what it used to be. If I eat anything, I have to work out for a whole hour to shave off the extra calories. It’s getting to the point where I have to starve myself if I want to lose weight. I’ve got to get healthy again. I have to get in shape. That’s what I found out yesterday. I’m really out of it. Almost every muscle in my body is out of shape except my stomach muscle. I noticed it’s stronger than the people I was working out with yesterday. They were dying when we were in a yoga stomach position. Dying. Their faces were red, their legs were trembling, and there I was, I was lifting my legs off the floor with ease. Man, that was the only thing that came easy for me. Tony Sanchez, the man who established the SF Hot Yoga Center, said yoga uses 100% of our muscles. He said walking uses only 30-40% of our muscles.
My body is tired. Before I started writing this entry I had to take a little nap at my desk. I couldn’t open my eyes. I can’t get a good rhythm going. I do a lot of exercising in the morning, like I did today. I did yoga yesterday afternoon. I’ve got to keep exercising. The more I exercise the more weight I’ll lose. Although I’ve been exercising a lot, I still weigh 205. Just five or six months ago I weighed 195. I’m exercising more, eating less, and I weigh ten pounds more than I did five months ago. Damn, damn, damn.
Wednesday, August 18, 1993 – That’s Me Out There
It was a weekend of baseball, baseball, and more baseball. The San Francisco All Star team won their first game Saturday morning and lost the Saturday afternoon game. Sunday they played four games. Ray is in a deep, deep slump. He struck out seven out of eight times this weekend. Atrocious. He gets fooled by curve balls. My baseball career ended at Fairfax High when a curve ball hit me in the head in batting practice. There were no helmets in the mid-1950s. The next day, against Hollywood High, I struck out five times because I was afraid of every pitch thrown. Ray sees a curve ball coming and he freezes. No swing. “Yer out!” It’s not good for the ego.
The thing is, it’s hurting my ego more than my son’s. I take his strike-outs personally because he’s an extension of me out there. That wasn’t my son who struck out seven times, that was me. I was the one who taught him. When he does well or doesn’t do well, that’s me out there.
I struck out seven of eight times this weekend. I want to hit the ball so badly. I’m trying so hard to get a hit, and when I don’t, I feel like I’m letting my teammates down. We could have won the fourth game Sunday and gone on to the fifth game and won the championship of the Millbrae Tournament if it wasn’t for me.
I did pretty good in the field, though. Nothing got by me. I contributed. I give my all every second I’m out there. When you sit on the bench for more than half a game and finally get in, you over-try. You want to play more, and so you think that by giving more of yourself you can help your chances and the team’s chances. I tried so hard to get a hit that I struck out all those times.
Monday, August 23, 1993 – Birthday, Giants, Yoga, Writing
I turned 53 on Friday, August 20th. It must have been a hot, humid, summer day in the borough of Brooklyn the day I was born in 1940. We moved to Hollywood when I was a year old in 1941. I spent half my life in Hollywood and now I’m here in San Francisco, where I’ve been living since 1977.
I met Joan a couple of months after I moved to San Francisco from Portland. It was at Gay Smith’s and Stan Lipkin’s Moving Party. Gay and Stan (who I went to high school with) invited everyone they knew to help them move from their upstairs flat to the downstairs flat.
Joan took me to Greens, a vegetarian restaurant in Fort Mason, for a birthday dinner. The next day she bought me a sweatshirt and sweatpants and cooked a fabulous vegetarian dinner for me and a lamb chop for Ray. Ray and I went to a Giants-Marlins game Saturday afternoon that the Giants won. But yesterday would have been the best day to have gone because Robby Thompson, with two outs and two strikes on him, hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th. Final score: Giants 7, Marlins 6. It was one of the most dramatic endings to a Giants game in a long time, especially when they’re in a pennant race with a red-hot Atlanta Braves team breathing down their necks. The game was such a clutch win for the Giants that I have a feeling they’re going to be unstoppable from here on out. Destiny is on our side, or as the saying around town is, “Dustiny is on our side.” Dustiny is derived from Dusty Baker being the manager.
I’ve really become a Giants fan. Who wouldn’t? Barry Bonds, Robby Thompson, Matt Williams, Willie McGee, Will Clark, Darren Lewis, John Burkett, Bill Swift, Kirt Manwaring, Royce Clayton, Rod Beck, Mike Jackson, and Dave Burba. Other contributors have been Mike Benjamin, Bryan Hickerson, Trevor Wilson, Bud Black, Steve Scarsone, Todd Benzinger, Dave Martinez, and that big bopping outfielder, Mark Carreon.
I’m getting into the rhythm of yoga. Tony Sanchez is a good, caring instructor. He helps me quite a bit. Today there were about 16 of us in that small, heated workout room. I was the only man there. My eyes roam around every so often, but 99% of the time I’m into yoga. I figure it’s going to get me in shape, help me lose weight, get me into a rhythm, help me eat correctly, and all in all, I’ll feel better for taking the class.
So what do we do in yoga? We do breathing, stretching, balancing, and strength exercises. I’m sweating my ass off when class is over an hour later. My shirt is sopping wet. In another month or two I should be more lithe and flexible. I go three days a week—Monday, Wednesday, Friday. I’m feeling much better now than I did two weeks ago when I started the class. I’d come home and lie down on our bed until dinnertime. I don’t have to do that now.
I was thinking a couple of hours ago that I’m not a fiction person but an essay person. That’s what I am. I don’t care for all the nuances of fiction. I don’t want to think of everything that one is “supposed” to think of when writing fiction. Plot, building character, etc. I’m sick of giving my characters character. I ain’t good at it. I like to zoom along and write at top speed, like I’m doing now, and make something out of it. That’s why I like Saroyan. He wrote swiftly. I’m surely not out to copy his style; no one can do that. What I want to do is produce a story or essay a day like he did. That ain’t asking too much, is it? If I could do that, I’d be a very happy man. An essay or story a day will keep the doctor away.
Tuesday, August 24, 1993 – It’s Not What You Do but Who You Know
I’m going to write Clancy Sigal. He was a good friend of my oldest brother Charles, who is no longer with us. Clancy is my last chance for getting my collection of short stories published. I’ll tell him that I dislike using people but that, like everyone knows, it’s not what you do in this world but who you know. I want to tell him I’m deserving of being read by book editors, except my query letters just aren’t getting through to them. I need him to read my collection of stories to tell me if I’m on the right track or not. I’m not getting younger. I just turned fifty-fucking-three.
Friday, September 3, 1993 – Getting into Shape
I’ve been at my desk almost the whole day. I’m sending out my writings today. All I’ve done, in other words, is make copies of short stories to send out. I now have five manila envelopes ready to take to the post office.
What is going on in the world? Well, let’s see, I’m sending things out. That’s a positive sign. I did my stretching exercise this morning, the treadmill, and in another 45 minutes I’ll be going to yoga class on Filbert Street with Tony Sanchez. I like it there. Tony tries to help me, I’m getting in shape, it’s a camaraderie-like feeling amongst the class. The main thing is, I’m starting to get healthy. I can get even healthier if I don’t eat so much at dinnertime. It’s a very bad habit I’ve gotten into. Last night I ate too much meat and drank beer. I let my guard down. It’s not good for my body because I can feel it when I’m doing yoga. My body is tight and sweaty. My balance needs improvement, the same with my strength and flexibility. Both of my groins are weak. My knees are weak.
I’m coming to the conclusion that life, for me, is one big getting into shape. I wake up and exercise. I eat fruit for breakfast. I either get outside for a walk or use the treadmill, I do yoga, I try eating natural foods like fresh vegetables and fruit, and drink herbal teas. I drink filtered water. In other words, I’m trying my best to be healthy.
Tuesday, September 7, 1993 – Meeting Lois Lane
I met Lois Lane yesterday. Yes, Lois Lane, colleague and friend of Clark Kent, otherwise known as Superman. I met her in the Stadium Club at Candlestick Park before the Giants-Pirates game began. Now, how can I make a story out of meeting Lois Lane, going to a major league baseball game, and being with my friends Alan Blum and Harry Fish? How can I tie all that together? I guess by starting from the beginning.
Harry had four tickets to the game. We decided to scalp the extra ticket. So who’s the schmuck who volunteered to do it? Me. And because I took the responsibility, it turned out that I spent more money at the game than I should have. My mind wasn’t working correctly. The reason: the three of us got high on a joint while driving to Candlestick.
Alan and Harry said they’d meet me in the restaurant-bar called the Stadium Club after I sold the ticket. So as I’m passing by people in the busy parking lot, I’m saying under my breath, because I was paranoid of getting caught by the cops for scalping, “Box-seat ticket for sale.” After a few futile tries, I gave up that approach and actually offered to give the ticket to anyone who wanted it. No one believed me when I said I had a $17.50 ticket to give away. What happened was that I eventually gave it to a young parking lot attendant. He thanked me and I started out for the Stadium Club. And what was to happen there was both odd and special for me.
As I walked into the dark Stadium Club, I saw a cocktail waitress serving Alan and Harry draft beers. The waitress really stood out amongst the crowd, wearing a white sweater with a very low neckline. She left the table before I reached it, so I went to the bar to get a draft beer.
I was standing behind a woman who was sitting on a tall stool. She was wearing an orange coat and a black skirt—Giants colors. Her dyed-black hair was shaped oddly. It came way up in the back like a beehive. I asked her, “Do you think it’s all right to buy a drink here to take back to the table, or should I wait at the table for the waitress?” She said, “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” Her answer put me at ease. I got the attention of the bartender and ordered a beer. While he was tapping it for me, this woman wanted to know my name.
“Very nice to meet you,” she said. “My name is Lois Lane,” and she put her hand out to shake mine. “Oh,” she said as we shook hands, “your hand is cold. You know what that means? It means cold hands, warm heart.”
Now, who else but Lois Lane, a symbol of American womanhood, would say such a nice and comforting thing like that to me?
Lois must have been born in the thirties, around the time Superman was created. She was so nice, so congenial…so sad.
“It must be tough having a name like yours,” I said.
“Very tough,” she replied, with a whinnying laugh. No, it was more like a donkey laugh—hee-haw, hee-haw. Poor woman, that laugh must have turned a lot of people off in her lifetime. But it didn’t bother me a bit because I was talking to Lois Lane, the caring, assertive, naive friend and colleague of Clark Kent.
“Do you come to the Stadium Club often?” she asked as the bartender placed my beer on the counter and said, “Four dollars.”
“I only come when I have a free pass—like today,” I told Lois, handing the bartender a five-dollar bill.
After we chatted a few minutes, I said, “Lois, it’s been an honor and pleasure meeting you. I’m going to sit with my friends now.”
Where’s my story? Is it forming yet? I haven’t talked about the Giants-Pirates game which, by the way, drew 25,000 people. I haven’t mentioned what Alan, Harry, and I talked about when I sat with them.
The first thing I told them was that I met Lois Lane at the bar. They didn’t believe me. Although they thought I was putting them on, they went along with the toast I proposed. “Let’s salute Lois Lane,” I said, so the three of us raised our glasses and said, in unison, “To Lois Lane.” Lois turned around on her stool, laughed her donkey laugh, and graciously thanked us.
Harry asked me, “What happened with the ticket?”
I lied to him and Alan. I had to. They wouldn’t have believed me if I told them I gave it away. It was the weed; we don’t think straight when we’re high on weed. What I said was, “I sold it.”
Harry was curious. “How’d you do it?”
“Well,” I fibbed, “I walked around the parking lot for about five minutes and was about to give up and give it away, when I came across this guy who asked me how much I was selling it for. ‘Fifteen bucks,’ I told him.”
So there we were, sitting at a small, round table sipping our draft beers in pint glasses. Alan Blum, a single man, the same age as me, 53, was telling us how hard it is to meet a woman nowadays.
Harry looked at the waitress. “There’s your wife,” he said to Alan off the top of his pot-loaded brain. “Turn around and take a look at her. She’s a little older than the women you’ve taken out, but she seems very stable and healthy and she has big tits.”
Alan actually got the notion to meet this cocktail waitress with the fantastic tan and big breasts. She was wearing a short skirt and that eye-catching sweater with the extremely low neckline.
The second she passed our table, I asked, “What’s your name?”
“Angela,” she said.
“Angela, I’d like to introduce you to my good friend, Alan Blum.”
Alan and Angela said a few sentences to each other. Angela found out that Alan wasn’t the man for her and Alan found out that Angela wasn’t the woman for him. End of relationship.
Harry, five years older than Alan and me, wanted to know what he should do when he retires in a few months after being with the same company for thirty years.
“Harry,” I said, “there’s one piece of advice I’m going to give you. I wouldn’t tell you this if I didn’t think it was worthwhile.”
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m surely not going to tell you what to do after you retire, whether to take up photography or write or go into your own business—no one can tell you that. What I’m about to tell you is just plain old good common sense.”
“I’m listening, Joe.”
“I’m only telling you this because this is what I did when I quit teaching nine years ago because of my health.”
Harry was on pins and needles. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t worry about a thing,” I told him. “The first thing I did was get my health back. I didn’t worry about how I was going to support my family or anything. I didn’t fight it. My first priority was to get mentally and physically healthy. In other words, I just went along with the flow, and because of that, everything fell into place and I became a costume jewelry salesman.”
“Thanks for the advice, Joe.”
Angela, the alluring waitress, stood over the three of us. “Lois Lane wants to buy you boys a drink.”
We couldn’t believe it. Why would Lois want to buy us drinks? Was it because I treated her like my dad used to treat older women in his small linen store in downtown L.A.—with respect?
When Angela brought us our beers, we looked at Lois and raised our glasses to her. She smiled, raised her glass to us, and gave us that crazy donkey laugh again.
During the game I bought the three of us hot dogs, peanuts, and beer with the money I told them I made on the ticket. It cost me thirty bucks altogether.
We witnessed a spectacular ending to a nail-biting Giants-Pirates game. There were two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the scored tied 1–1, and guess who hit the game winning home run for the Giants? None other than the Giants’ Superman, Barry Bonds.
I started writing this story almost two hours ago. It’s now 1:08 p.m. I seem to be concentrating better. Summer is over. Ray is back in school. Joan will begin her usual schedule of telling her stories to young children. I can now concentrate! Or is it yoga that’s helping me concentrate? You know, there’s no real answer to anything. There are so many variables going on at all times. It’s a million things working on us that make us the way we are. The temperature, the state of our stomachs, daytime, nighttime, who’s around us, the sights we see, whether we got a good night’s sleep or not, whether we exercise or not, and the list can go on and on.
Friday, September 17, 1993 – A Bad Back Day
This morning I read an article in Poets and Writers Magazine about Stephen Dixon, an extremely prolific writer. I too want to be a prolific writer. The thing is, I’m a slow writer. Ideas come to me, but it takes time for them to end up on paper. Why don’t I just force my writing out of me? Why don’t I get serious about writing? What’s wrong with me? I feel like I haven’t written anything in my life. That’s what it feels like nowadays. What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I just sit and write? Well, I have a goddamn bad back, for one thing. I just reinjured it this morning while doing either stretching exercises or walking on the treadmill. God, my back is back to square one again. It was improving so much in the last couple of days. Now it’s tight. I can’t move easily. It’s sore in the lower right region. I’m mad at myself. I was taking things easy this morning. I did my exercises slowly. I read the newspaper without rushing. It was like I was meditating with everything I was doing. I was eating my breakfast slowly and enjoying it. In other words, I wasn’t feeling rushed to get to my desk as is usually the case. So what happens? My back is sore again.
Joan and I saw Richard Vogel this week and we talked about her mother, who loves to invite Joan’s old boyfriend, Lamar Johnson, out to dinner for his birthday every year. It’s not Lamar’s fault. Joan and I go out to dinner with him once or twice a year and get along well with him. It’s Sue Bransten. She makes such a big deal out of Joan’s ex-boyfriend’s birthday. Everyone in Sue Bransten’s immediate family is crap to her. Anyone outside of it is worshipped. I refuse to be thought of as crap, so I’m not going to the dinner she’s throwing for Lamar. I’ve had it with that woman. And Richard Vogel, psychologist, praised me for what I was doing.
Now we have to work on Joan. She’s going to Lamar’s dinner even though she doesn’t want to. She’s doing it to make her mother feel better. Well, I’m tired of trying to make Joan’s mother feel better. I hope that Joan will someday feel the same way.
I’m really tired. My back is sore. I can’t move well. I have an ice pack on it right now.
The time has flown by so fast today. It seems like I just woke up a couple of hours ago. So why is it 3:45 p.m.? Damn. The workday is almost over. Ray just walked in the door. I have to drive him to get a haircut in an hour. Time flies, and here I am, in our flat every day and nothing’s getting done. I want to bust loose. I want to write a masterpiece every day. I want to hit the keys and sell my writings like John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates and whoever else sells their work to high-priced magazines and book publishers. I need some recognition. But to get recognized one has to follow the major rule of writing: “You have to develop your characters and make them believable.” Oh, there’s nothing wrong with that rule. It’s just that I want to write a story a day, and when I finish it, I don’t want to be told that the characters are weak or that I should do this or that because that’s how a story should be written. You know what I want to hear? “Your story was wonderful and we now welcome you to the fraternity of paid writers.” Am I deserving of being accepted? Yes and no. Yes, I’ve been at it for over twenty years. No, I sit and mope and struggle as a writer.
Today I’m writing. I’m not writing a story, although I wish I were. What story can I write? I had something in mind but I just forgot it. It was there. I had it on the tip of my mind. Now I’m floundering, I’m lost, I’m drifting, choking, starving, I’m thirsty for a story. I had it in my mind just a minute or two ago. I’ll have to forget what I forgot and think of the first thing that comes to mind: a story for everyone in the world to read and enjoy from my unique perspective.
What happened today? Jerry Lipkin called this morning. For a whole week Jerry, Alan Blum, and I were saying “Go Giants” to get them out of their rut, but it didn’t work. They’ve lost eight games in a row. Jerry told me I should let loose of my feelings for the Giants, that Atlanta has God on their side and that it’s useless to “pray” for the home team. But I’m still holding onto the thought that the Giants can and will win. Why do I think that? Because I’ve seen great sports comebacks in my life, comebacks I’ve personally been involved in. So if the Giants are faltering and Atlanta is on a roll, the Giants still have a chance. Both teams have 17 games left to play. Atlanta is four games up on the Giants. Atlanta won two games in the ninth inning in the past two days. The Giants, on the other hand, are anemic. They can’t hit. They can’t score. They can’t do anything right. They’re as anemic as I feel now with my bad back. The Braves are like Arnold Schwarzenegger. They’re strong and mighty and have destiny on their side. The Braves have the baseball Gods sitting on their shoulders. It’s unimaginable what’s happening to them. The other night they were four runs down going into the bottom of the ninth, and what happens? They scored five runs and won. And last night they were down 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth and David Justice tied it up with a home run. They went on to win in the bottom of the 12th. They refuse to lose. Barry Bonds has gotten only one RBI this month. Ron Gant of Atlanta got three RBI’s in the bottom of the ninth the other night. That ain’t fair. It was Reggie Jackson who was known as Mr. October. One baseball writer wrote that Barry Bonds should be called Ms. September.
Monday, September 20, 1993 – I Can
I haven’t been able to write since springtime unless you say journal writing is writing. I love writing in my journal. I’m not trying to follow any rules of building character or of keeping the reader in suspense. I’m just writing. I come to this journal not knowing what I’m going to write. Everyone tells you to have something in mind when you start writing, which is helpful, of course, but I don’t like thinking ahead or picking a subject before sitting down to write in my journal. To me, that’s cheating. Writing isn’t fun if that’s how you have to write. I know, I know, the only way to write is with a subject in mind, but writing in my journal I feel alive without having a subject to write about.
It would help my self-esteem if I could sell a story to a magazine or a novel to a publisher. I send my work out. But I haven’t been able to produce any stories since springtime. I always seem to have an excuse not to create stories, articles, or essays. Right now it’s my back that I hurt in yoga class. This summer it was Ray’s baseball. In the spring it was hay fever.
I can’t walk for long without my back hurting. I can’t write for long without my back hurting. I can’t lose weight if my back is hurting. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
You know what I want to hear? I can, I can, I can. I can get better. I can eat less. I can exercise more. I can write stories. I CAN.
Tuesday, September 21, 1993 – Memories
I had a recurring nightmare as a young boy about a burglar breaking into our house. I wanted to warn my family of the burglar, but no sound would come out of my mouth. Thinking back on it now, it might have been my father making sure I was covered with blankets.
I remember the first official competition of my life. It was 1948. I was 8 years old. I was a thin little kid. Part of that memory has to do with finding the pool. I was in Mr. Margolin’s car with his two sons Steve and Arnold, both older than me. It made me nervous that it took such a long time for the Margolins to finally find the Brentwood Athletic Club in West Los Angeles. It seemed like we kept going around in circles for close to a half an hour. And then it was time for my race to begin against five others in my age group in an outdoor pool. People were in the stands. “On your marks…get set…” and the gun sounded. I dove into the water and swam the length of the pool (maybe 25 yards) as fast as I could. And guess what? I won. A man handed me a medal with a blue ribbon attached to it, a medal I possess to this day. I was so surprised with what I had accomplished that I started crying out of happiness. I had no idea I was that good. There I was, 8 years old, at the beginning of my journey of an athletic career.
Russell Garrison—big, wide, heavy, blond—used to play ball with us 5th and 6th graders after school. He lived across the street from Gardner Street School, as did Don Adams and Dennis Richmond. Russell was going to Bancroft Junior High, Don and Dennis were students at Hollywood High. Don, tall and thin, played drums for the Hollywood High orchestra. Dennis was on the Hollywood High basketball team. Those three, plus Ray Meister, the playground director, were the ones who helped me hone my athletic skills in football, basketball, and baseball.
I remember the day I made a long touchdown run in the last second at Hazard Park in East Los Angeles. Our team, the Eagles, made up of 8th graders from Bancroft Junior High, were playing an all-Mexican team from Hollenbeck Junior High in East L.A. Eight men on each team. When we arrived at the park, all we heard was the name of Moose. Moose was really a moose. He was big and strong and fast and was the main man on the Mexican’s team. I was the main man on our team, although I was just average in size. It was the last minute of the game and Moose’s team was ahead 12-6. I took the pass from center and faded back into our end zone to pass. Nat Wirt was covered, as were Steve Richmond, Norm Shaefer, and Stu Gordon. On the line blocking was Tony Morano, Phil Klein, and Gene Rood. On the sideline were Barry Greene, Lenny Kitzes, Bob Lane, Ron Milstein, and Dave Kahn. All thirteen of us had piled into our coach’s blue two-door Plymouth coupe that day. Our coach, one of the best I ever had because he gave me confidence, was Mel Wopner. I couldn’t find an open receiver. I scrambled around in our end zone until I decided to run for it. I ran the whole field for a touchdown. We scored the extra point and beat Moose’s team 13-12.
Monday, September 27, 1993 – My Likes and Dislikes
What do I like? I like chicken and beer, being thin, and feeling lively. I like neat surroundings to live and work in. I like beautiful women, big boobs, and nice-shaped asses. I like sports because I played them, day in and day out, for the first twenty-one years of my life. It was my rush, my drug, it was using my brain and physical ability.
Why do I like sports so much? It makes the adrenaline move. You’re tested almost every second. When you’re hot you’re hot. I was mostly hot in my day as an athlete. It wasn’t until I arrived at the University of Oregon where it got cold. But going to Oregon on a football scholarship opened up a new world for me. I was a free man at Oregon. I was freed from the shackles of living in a strict, orthodox, Syrian Jewish home. I saw what college life was all about. Women is what it was about. The sex drive and being able to act on it. And then there was studying and living with my peers and learning to cook and disciplining myself time-wise. That’s what Oregon did for me.
Oregon is where sports became a business instead of a game. That’s where a coach’s job was on the line if his team lost. That’s where, if you got injured, they wanted you to get back into the game and ruin your body for the good of the team. It wasn’t junior high or high school where there was some compassion shown by the coaches. No, football at Oregon became a cold, cold world for me.
What else do I like other than sports? I like, actually love, Joan and Ray, my brothers, and my poker group, The Royal Flush. I like watching my son play baseball; I mean really play instead of seeing him brood on the bench.
I like walking, something I’m eventually going to do before the day is over. I like to be in good shape, something I’m not in at the moment. You see, my back has been sore for almost three weeks. Yoga—I overdid it in class one day. When I get better, I’m going to have to take it much slower. No one’s going to force me to go beyond what my body can take. I’m looking forward to going back, to getting in shape again, because when I’m in shape I feel good and from that stems good writing.
What is it that I don’t like? I don’t like liars, cheats, bullies, and greedy people. I don’t like guns. I don’t like snakes. I don’t like three or more days of rain, fog, or extreme heat. Three days is enough of anything. I don’t like a messy house or a dirty kitchen. I don’t like it when I don’t write or exercise each day.
Tuesday, September 28, 1993 – Fifth Boy
I’ve been reading Stephen Dixon, who writes about everyday things. Saroyan did, too. Why can’t I? I have to decide for myself because no one’s going to do it for me. Whatever my mind can conceive I can achieve. If it is to be, it’s up to me. That sort of thinking instead of procrastinating or feeling sorry for myself. It was Saroyan who wrote: “It is better to write what seems to be worthless than to sit and hope (some day) to write that which will seem worthwhile.” I have to get off my ass so I can sit my ass down and write. Write! But what? I’m going crazy not knowing what to stick my claws into. There are so many choices. I want to write about everything in one fell swoop. I have no patience. I didn’t have patience when I took yoga. I don’t have patience now. I need to get it back. I need it for my own well-being I have to find something to write about and stick to it until I’m finished.
Think of Stephen Dixon. The man is a great writer. I haven’t identified with a writer in a long time, not since Saroyan. Dixon writes about wanting to get married, getting married, having kids, getting divorced, working, doing. He writes without a plot. Plots are not important with him. Why do people always want plots? Why don’t people like good writing like Dixon’s?
Football. Oregon. Pete Holt and Bruce Snyder. I played with Pete Holt for two seasons at L.A. Valley Junior College in the late-fifties. Bruce Snyder played at Citrus Junior College, which is east of Los Angeles. Bruce had a car, a 1953 two-door red Ford. He was driving up to Oregon and so Pete and I arranged to ride with him. The three of us had just gotten football scholarships to the University of Oregon. Bruce was a little shorter than me but was heftier. He was a fullback. Oregon noticed his blocking ability. They needed him because Oregon used its fullback mainly as a blocking back. Pete Holt was a tricky runner. He was 5-foot-4, very small for a running back in college, or even in high school. He was quick and could cut on a dime. He was a forerunner of Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions. What did Oregon notice in me? My running and catching ability. Me, I was fast. I ran the sprints in high school and junior college. My best time in the 100 was 9.8 seconds. The irony of it all is, it was Bruce Snyder and Pete Holt who I had to run into in that football drill when I injured my knee.
Where should I begin this football story? “Begin anywhere,” Saroyan would say. He’d also say, “Deadline yourself.” A deadline will cut out all the doubts I’m getting now of where to start and what to write. Just write because “It is better to write what seems to be worthless….” wrote Saroyan.
I’ll start with Pete, Bruce, and me driving up to Oregon. I was leaving home for the first time. I had a big lump in my throat as I was saying goodbye to my mom. Bruce and Pete were waiting for me in Bruce’s red Ford. My mom and I hugged. Tears were coming down my cheeks. I was leaving a room of my own and great food my mother cooked. I was 19. I was going away.
“Allah-maak [God be with you],” my mother said.
I was leaving the woman who gave birth to me, who was my principal teacher in life. She was a strong, loud, disciplinarian. She had to be with five boys in the house. She was of medium height for a woman, stocky, her black hair graying. I was leaving the woman who didn’t like me when I was born, something I didn’t know until many years later. Why didn’t she like me? Because I was born a boy. I was her fifth son. Her second child had been a girl, Luna, who died at the age of five of pneumonia in the early 1930s. Mom hated me for being a boy. She wanted a girl to replace Luna. She was tired of giving birth to boys. But then, according to my mother, when I was a week or two old, she left me on her and Dad’s double bed. I was crying, crying, crying. She was cooking dinner and didn’t want to be bothered with me. All that is known is that she was in the kitchen and Dad was at his linen store across the street from the Empire State Building. 1940. Late August. Temperature and humidity probably in the 90s. My mother refused to attend to me. If she had cared, she told me, she’d have run to me. She wanted a girl to teach, to be her companion, but no, she gave birth to me. My cries were bursting through the walls of the house. Then, all of a sudden, there was complete silence. She sensed something was wrong. She ran to the bedroom. She didn’t see me on the bed. She went around the bed and found me on the floor as I burst out with a giant WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. From that moment on, she told me, she loved me.
Sunday, October 3, 1993 – The Giants
The Giants lost the pennant on the last day of the season today. They lost to the Dodgers 12-1. They had beaten the Dodgers three straight before today. If they had won today they would have tied Atlanta for first place. Both teams started the day with 103 wins and 58 losses, the two best records in all of baseball. It was truly a valiant effort by the Giants. They won 14 of their last 17 games. Before that they blew a comfortable lead in the standings by losing eight games in a row. They went down 4 1/2 games and fought back to even the race the day before the season ended.
The Giants had practically everyone on the injured list—Will Clark, Matt Williams, Robbie Thompson (twice), Darren Lewis, Willie McGee, Royce Clayton, Kurt Manwaring, Trevor Wilson, and Bud Black. Atlanta didn’t have one major injury. How lucky can a team get? Even so, the Giants fought to the very end. Dusty Baker did a splendid job of managing and Barry Bonds, Mr. Do-It-All, did it all.
The Giants made the season interesting. They got me to go to about 20 games with Ray and a few games with my friends Alan Blum, Jerry Lipkin, and Harry Fish.
Tuesday, October 12, 1993 – Bad Back Blues
My sore back has given me more trouble this past month. I got strict orders from my good friend and chiropractor, Sky Diamond, to rest it completely. I was in bed for three days on my back. I just got up at noon today. Maybe my body was telling me I needed to rest, rest, rest. I feel like doing a million things right now. I want to write, write, write. I want to walk, walk, walk. I want to get outside and observe and talk and feel and sweat and notice people and have experiences and just live, live, live. But I can’t. My back is stiff. It still needs rest. I shouldn’t even be writing now. I’ve been sitting at my desk for about fifteen minutes and my back is getting stiffer and weaker by the minute.
I just got an ice pack.
I’ll write about my three days in bed. It was all right most of the time. I slept a hell of a lot. While on my back I had my knees over a pillow at all times, or if I was on my side, the pillow was between my legs. I listened to the radio a lot. I didn’t read at all because it would have hurt my back. I was wishing I could write, but didn’t. I just laid in bed and rested. I didn’t think any deep thoughts. I believe the deepest thought I had was, “My body really must be tired and that’s why I’m dozing off and resting so much.”
I’m not going back to yoga. Look what it’s done to me. I haven’t been able to exercise or do anything physical for a whole fucking month!
Joan does so much. She goes to two night school classes every week. She’s busy telling her own original stories to little kids. She’s trying to push her “Three Bears” tape. She’s constantly on the run.
I listened to a lot of baseball while on my back. It was either the Toronto Blue Jays-Chicago White Sox in the American League Championship Series or the National League Championship Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies. Toronto and Philadelphia are leading their respective series 3 games to 2. Atlanta, in game five, had scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the score but then Lenny Dykstra of the Phillies hit a home run in the 10th to win the game. If only Atlanta had lost one more game during the regular season, it would now be the Giants playing Philly.
Tuesday, November 2, 1993 – Wake-Up Call
I didn’t sleep well last night. I woke up around 3:30 a.m. and started thinking about my hearing. As of late, I don’t hear the phone ringing up front in the kitchen when I’m at my desk in the back of our flat. In other words, I’m losing my hearing. I started thinking about that in bed last night and all I could think of was that I have to get my hearing tested. My mother was hard of hearing and had hearing aids. I might end up like her.
Clancy Sigal called this morning while I was in bed. He literally gave me a wake-up call at 8:00 a.m. “Wake up,” he was telling me. “Start writing about one thing, not twenty things, and send your work out. Get to it, Joe. Don’t be lazy or depressed.”
Yes sir, Clancy.
It was a call I wasn’t expecting at all. Funny thing is, last week I finished reading his novel for the third or fourth time, Going Away—an autobiographical road novel of life and politics in the mid-1950s. It was the first and most famous of his six books. He’s a tremendous writer. He keeps busy. I have to learn from him, because when one keeps busy one has no time to feel sorry for oneself. Also write with a deadline in mind, like Saroyan. Saroyan was always busy writing a story a day, getting out into the world, writing in his journal, writing plays and books, keeping at it every day. That’s what I have to do. No more floundering. None of that crap. I just have to get to work, exercise, get out and meet and talk to people. The way to quickly end depression, as Tony Robbins says, is to move fast, smile, look up, keep the back straight, breathe deeply, walk briskly, or rub your knees while sitting and say, “Yes, yes, yes.” A person gets out of a depressive state by changing his mental state, by changing it on the spot—no waiting, no therapy, none of that stuff. It’s just zip, bam, and you’re instantly out of that killing field of despair and into the energy field of life again.
Clancy said, “Choose one thing to write about, Joe. Focus. Don’t spread yourself out. Get to it. Stay with it until you’re finished. Discipline yourself.”
I can write about things, people, events, don’t worry about plot or essay or whatever, just write! I can write as good as anyone who ever lived if I can break out of this stupor. I’ve been in one since I took that Fiction Workshop with Tom Parker at UC Extension. I lost my confidence while taking that workshop. I want my confidence back. Stick to one thing and finish it. Don’t slide from here to there and everywhere. God, did I ever need that call from Clancy. “Stick to one thing, Joe. Send it out. Don’t brood, don’t feel sorry for yourself, don’t be depressed. Don’t lose confidence in yourself. Get to work.”
Saturday, December 11, 1993 – A House and Confidence
Joan and I are going to start looking for a house after the new year. We got a windfall from her mother’s sister, Aunt Norma, who died early this year. We can now afford to pay $2000 a month. Right now we’re paying $800 a month for renting this duplex we’ve been living in for the past 12 years.
Just yesterday I was listening to a psychologist talking to an athlete on the radio about Tony Robbins’ technique of picturing yourself having confidence in sports. The same can be said for writing. If you don’t have confidence as a writer, then picture a time when you had it. That’s the secret—confidence.