Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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Horrific health care story

July 3rd, 2018

In Boston on Friday, a woman got her leg caught in the gap between the platform and the train. People heard her scream.  A scrum of people ran over to help her, leaning against the train to push it away so they could lift her up.

The gash in her leg resulting from this incident cut five inches in, down to the bone.

What did she keep begging people? “Please don’t call an ambulance!” Because she couldn’t afford it.

For most people in America, that is the state of health care. Better to lose a leg than be bankrupted by care and treatment.

 

He had a mouth, and he could scream

June 29th, 2018

HarlanEllison

When I read yesterday morning on Twitter that the combustible writer Harlan Ellison had died, and then saw on Mark Evanier’s blog that he was sorely tempted, so tempted, to write his true (negative) feelings about Harlan Ellison but couldn’t bring himself to do so yet, I decided that nothing was keeping me from doing so, and from writing about my long-ago literary run-in with him.

After all, nothing ever stopped Ellison from attacking anyone.

In my teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction, I read what there was of Ellison to read. Here’s what that meant:  short stories, his intros and outros to other people’s short stories in “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions,” and comic-book adaptations by other writers of his work.

That, plus 27 teleplays, looks like the bulk of his work.

He wrote a couple of dime paperbacks when he was young, and what the Internet is generously calling “novellas” (one of them weighing in at 91 pages, no doubt with wide margins), and… not much else in a writing career that theoretically encompassed 60 years.

For many years now, I have checked in on the Ellison oeuvre to see what I’ve missed, or to see if that long-promised “real” novel would finally get finished and printed, or if the “Last Dangerous Visions” collection of short stories (again, by other people) would ever get printed. Nope, and nope.

There is no law that writers should write a lot, and sometimes it’s better if they don’t. Harper Lee famously wrote one novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and infamously had her poor first draft, “Go Tell A Watchman,” published by her caregivers just before her death. Ralph Ellison, justly acclaimed for “Invisible Man,” struggled to finish a second novel; his posthumously published “Juneteenth,” cobbled together from drafts and notes, did nothing but harm his reputation. But the difference between those notably unprolific writers and Ellison is that they weren’t so mouthy about their supposed status as great writers. Ellison was a poseur.

As a teenage writer, I started to get published. I published some non-fiction first in amateur, non-paying markets (comics and science-fiction fanzines), and then started to get published in actual paying markets. In addition to news and features, I was writing a lot of essays and reviews, mostly, as I recall, of music, comic books, and science fiction. Somewhere in that span of time from about age 14 to 18, I got into a literary feud in print with Harlan Ellison.

I wrote something that was published.

He wrote in a response that was published.

I wrote a reply that was published.

And so on.

And so on.

I don’t remember where this was published, and I don’t remember even what it was about. But what I do remember is that I was in a tit-for-tat with a well-known, television-appearing, minor-celebrity writer who was extremely well-known and lauded in genre fandom circles.

And who was I? I was a 16-year-old kid typing away in his parents’ basement.

And at some point in all of this, something occurred to me:  I was 16. He was about 44. It was cool picking on him and having him respond… but why did he have time to do this? Shouldn’t he be writing? And, toward the end of my Ellison-debating, Ellison-reading stint, I started to ask, Shouldn’t he… grow up?

And that’s what happened: I grew up.  He didn’t.

One week when I was an undergrad studying writing, my fiction professor got called away for the week, so he hired me to substitute-teach one of the class sessions in his absence – an absolute thrill! – and I assigned the Ellison short story “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktock Man!” because I remembered it fondly and because we hadn’t read any science fiction. The class dutifully read that assignment and whatever other story I assigned and we discussed it. When the professor, a widely published writer who won the Pulitzer and who still frequently publishes in The New Yorker, returned, he wanted to talk to me about that Harlan Ellison story I’d assigned. And here’s what he pointed out:

The Ticktock Man is a straw man, set up to be easily knocked down. You are set up to disagree with him from the beginning; he makes no great case for himself; and in the end, he is proved to be a hypocrite.

Easy.

And by easy, I now mean: adolescent.

That’s about when I realized that Harlan Ellison’s life work was adolescent. It could be fun, in the way that good low art and good popular art can be fun, but it couldn’t be grown-up. It wasn’t serious. It didn’t require any work on the part of the reader. Everything was easily handed over, and quickly, for instant gratification.

The truth wasn’t that Harlan Ellison had plenty of time to argue with a pimply boy 30 years his junior (although he did). The truth was that it was a priorityfor him because that’s how adolescents are. And that adolescence, which I don’t think he ever shed, informs all of his work.

Because, really, what is his legacy? F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of schlock – the Pat Hobby stories are really terrible, as are many of his other short stories – but, BUT, he did write “The Great Gatsby.” Isaac Asimov was a genre writer who wrote about 300 books all tolled, but some of them are magnificent, and leave a last legacy – certainly the Foundation books, and some of the Robot series.

Really, what is Harlan Ellison’s legacy? Writing a good episode of “Star Trek” (which he was on record as hating) and a good episode of “The Outer Limits.” Editing the two “Dangerous Visions” collections of others’ work. Having a run-in with Frank Sinatra that became a set piece in a magazine article 52 years ago. That’s more than most of us get, but it’s nowhere near enough to justify the fame that he worked so hard to establish and keep.  And it’s not enough to make up for all the goddamn arrogance.

Addendum. The British writer Christopher Priest, who to my immense delight once commented on this blog, legendarily took Harlan Ellison to task for his hypocrisy in never completing “Last Dangerous Visions” while holding all the other writers’ stories hostage. His popular piece demythologizing Ellison and recounting the “Last Dangerous Visions” nightmare is available for free reading here. I recommend it.

The strange dream of Yoko Ono

June 7th, 2018

Last night, I dreamt that a small group of us, really just a handful, were in our theatre, Moving Arts, where Yoko Ono started performing a song. It was just Yoko and an abbreviated electronic getup, something computerized.

When she had finished, I turned to the colleague next to me and asked, “Did you record that?” and when I found out that she hadn’t, I was pretty annoyed, even though no one had known that Yoko was going to burst into song.

Then I realized that I was being unreasonable, and that the person I was actually mad at was myself. (Not an unusual occurrence.)

So then I decided I’d be happy with a photo. Yoko agreed to pose in a photo with me. She stood to my right, and I was ready to do a classic arm-around-your-shoulder pose when I decided that that was too passe, and that instead, we should stand very stiffly next to each other, almost like mannequins shoved up against each other, and wearing blank expressions. Yoko played along, but said to me, “You’re strange, Lee.” Which, coming from Yoko Ono, is remarkable and possibly a compliment.

Then someone I used to know well, a wealthy patron of the arts I knew 15 years ago and had a falling out with, showed up and it turned out that Yoko was staying with her, and then I was really annoyed.

And then I woke up.

I should add that I’ve always been a fan of Yoko’s work, that for 40 years I have been the proud owner of her double album “Fly” on vinyl (which has more ideas on any given side than most artists will have in their lifetime), as well as other recordings of hers on various formats, and that I don’t care if you think she broke up the Beatles. (And I like them, too.) Why she would stay with that disreputable person from my past when I would gladly put her up I don’t know.

Jerry Maren, R.I.P.

June 6th, 2018

JerryMaren

I’ll keep this remembrance of Jerry Maren, who died today at age 98 and was the last living Munchkin, short.

(Ahem.)

One of the interesting by-products of living in Los Angeles, and Burbank in particular (where Warner Brothers and Disney and other production companies and studios are based), is that you have odd run-ins with famous people — people you’ve seen for much of your life on various screens or printed paper, but don’t expect to see when you’re, say, walking your dog. One time I parked my car and got out, being careful not to ding the car next to me. The gentleman getting out of that car was William Shatner. Another time, I was in line at the Ford Amphitheater donating canned goods, and the fellow in front of me was Keanu Reeves. I once wound up having lunch with Richard Benjamin, who came across as a very nice man, and chatting with Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson) while waiting to order food.

But it certainly was surreal some years ago to be next in line at the barbershop behind Jerry Maren. Yes, I frequented the same old-time barbershop here in Burbank as that Munchkin I’d seen in that movie a countless number of times over the decades. I remember his wife fussed over him, as did the barber, and I just sat there feeling that this was somehow surreal. Of course, he had appeared in “Superman” and many, many other things — but this was like a visitation from Oz, a few blocks from my house.

And, naturally, at the end of the haircut, the barber offered Mr. Maren a lollipop.

Acceptance

June 5th, 2018

My sons were watching “Defiance” last night, the movie where Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests in order to protect themselves and about one thousand Jewish non-combatants from the Nazis.

I reminded them, “Remember, there are good people on both sides.”

They seemed skeptical. So old-school.

Bank shot

May 31st, 2018

The other day, I got a sinister and threatening letter from Bank of America telling me that “immediate action is required to update your information by June 20, 2018” or, I guess, the government would force them to buy another purveyor of failed subprime mortgages and stick us all with the bill again.

The thing that made this a head-scratcher is that the letter arrived at my home (not my corporate office), and seems to indicate that I, Lee Wochner, am a business. I am many things, but I am not a business. Corporations may be people, as we know, but this person is not a corporation.

I do have a corporate entity, but it operates under a different name — okay, you can find it here — and it doesn’t operate from my home address. So, shockingly, somehow this big banking entity has made a mistake.

I figured I’d do something about the letter, that something being visiting my longtime banking officer at Bank of America, because I also needed to order checks for my writing account, and I wanted to make sure the info was right since I no longer had any of the checks on hand. (I keep separate books, and therefore separate checks, for my income and expenses as a writer. I do this because it’s proper, and because the GOP controls the White House and Congress, and I want them having as little of my money as possible, and this proves the tax-deductibility of all those expenses. From some of the savings, I make repeated contributions to Democrats. So I think it kind of balances out.)

But before I could set up an appointment with my banking officer, Bank of America called me. (They must have answers to this form!) Unfortunately, the very nice but extremely solicitous and sloooowwww-talking southern lady named Helene called me right when I was on deadline, and right when I was 70% of the way through writing the thing I had a deadline on. My assistant asked me if I wanted to take the call, and I did, but I wanted to get off as quickly as possible before I lost the thread of what I was writing. So, about 60 seconds into Helene being very nice and very kind and very slow, I said, “I’m sorry, Helene, I’m going to fast-forward. You’re being absolutely terrific, but I was in the middle of something and I need to get back to it. So here’s the situation.” And then I laid out for her that I don’t own a business that runs from my home, the business I do own doesn’t operate under my name, and I don’t know how to properly answer the questions that Bank of America suddenly needs to have answers to, questions like “Country of legal formation”; “State of legal formation”; “Physical location” that to me sound, well, ill-intended. Why now? Did I mention my (justified) paranoia about Trump?

(Side note: Two days ago, Robert Reich said there were six political parties in America. Evangelical Republicans; Mainstream Republicans (i.e., Wall Street); Populist Republicans (Tea Party & Libertarians); Mainstream Democrats (i.e., Wall Street); Progressive Democrats; and — wait for it — “Trump.” Yes, “Trump” was a party unto itself. Then, today, former Speaker of the House John Boehner, a guy who should know about these things, said there is no Republican party, that the thing he used to belong to is gone, and now there is only Trump. So you start to see why Trump colors my thoughts about so many things.)

Seven minutes of conversation with Helene revealed that she had no idea how I should fill out the form properly. Yes, I do some banking with Bank of America. I have several accounts with them and — full disclosure — also own some stock in the company. I like the convenience of Bank of America, I like my personal banker a lot, and whenever I feel they’ve overcharged me for something (some fee), I’ve made a call and they’ve reversed it. But this form was positively Kafkaesque. I had been invited to a special audience at the Castle, as it were, but there was no way into the Castle and no way to keep the mandatory appointment. Helene was sure that I own a business named “Lee Wochner,” which I don’t, but she could also see that I have a business relationship with Bank of America under another name and address, while I do have a personal banking relationship that operates out of my home address. So, really, there was no way to respond to Bank of America’s insistent query (both the letter and form, plus the phone call), because their baseline information was wrong.

This afternoon, after going to the swearing-in of a very good man (a close acquaintance) as the chief of police of a neighboring city, I stopped in to see Jackie, my banking officer. She’s been my banking officer for more than 15 years. She read the form, she logged in and looked at my account, and said something like “This is all wrong.” So tomorrow she’s going to call corporate, back East and down South, and try to straighten it out. She asked to keep the letter they’d sent and wanted to know if I wanted a copy. “It’s not my problem, Jackie. It’s Bank of America’s. So I don’t care.”

She also ordered new checks for my writing account. She suggested that I place the order for 42 checks. That seemed like too few. Then we confirmed how many checks I wrote in 2017: All of 19. (Everybody else, I paid online somehow.) So, yes, I ordered enough checks to last more than two years. That’s the state of banking today.

Equivalency

May 29th, 2018

Roseanne can say what she likes, but ABC didn’t have to keep paying her to say it.

Colin Kaepernick can say what he likes, but the NFL didn’t have to keep paying him to say it.

Neither was robbed of a fundamental right to speak, because each was in a contractual arrangement with a private employer.

I didn’t watch “Roseanne” — ever — and I don’t watch the NFL — ever. So I can’t get worked up about this. There is no free-speech lesson to be learned here.

The true lesson is this: Every large corporation and organization is now going to have to decide whether it is red, blue, or white.

If you’re, say, NASCAR, and your base is red, feel free to say what you think so long as it aligns with red.

If you’re, say, Starbucks, and your base is blue, feel free to say what you think so long as it aligns with blue.

If your base isn’t explicitly red or blue, say nothing having to do with red or blue.

That’s the true lesson.

Finished first draft

May 28th, 2018

Of all the feelings in the world, there is none that quite matches up with finishing the first draft of something you’ve written, especially when it’s something you weren’t sure you’d finish.

I’ve written 62 plays of various page count and in various stages of completion, of which 32 have been produced or workshopped. Every one of those, at some point or another, has felt impossible to complete. (And, you’ll note, I have 30 that I am theoretically still going to work on “when I get time or inspiration.” We’ll see about that.)

Some time during all that, I’ve also written about two dozen short stories. It might be more, but I’ve got 22 saved on this laptop — and, now, a 23rd. One that I started last August and worked on in the course of five writing sessions over five weeks. One that, throughout the process, I almost turned into a play. Maybe that seemed easier. I write one or two plays a year, but in recent years I don’t write a short story every year. Every time while writing this story, it was sorely tempting to turn it into a play.

Yes, there is a pride in doing something you didn’t know you could do. I didn’t know I could finish this story in a satisfactory way. (Satisfactory to me, anyway.) Now I’m just going to let it settle for a bit, give it a polish within a month, and send it out.

And, in the meantime, write something else.

Paper boy

May 26th, 2018

Being a writer in my era has meant a life of dealing with paper.

I’ve got two file cabinets filled with papers — many play scripts and developmental notes and drafts from various productions and readings and workshops, plus comic-book scripts and comic-strip scripts and essays and a well-into-it book about playwriting and many short stories and some poems and files of ideas and correspondence and copies of my reviews and God knows what else. That’s not even all of it. I have crates of papers from much earlier — I’ve been at this since I was a boy — in the former home office and in the attic.

I can safely say it’s been a weighty endeavor, because today I moved all of that paper, as well as those two file cabinets, from my corporate office to my writing office at home. Some of my papers have moved from Galloway Township, NJ (my parents’ house) to Ocean City, NJ (where I lived in the mid-80’s) to my first apartment in Burbank, CA, then my first house in Burbank, then to my second house in Burbank, then to my first corporate office, then to my second corporate office, then to my third corporate office (the company has kept growing), then, finally today, back home.

They seem to be getting heavier. Or something else is going on (I can’t imagine what), because moving them around is growing more taxing.

How can I have all this, when I’ve been writing on computers since my 20s? Well, you do printouts. And you edit by hand on those printouts. And then you keep various drafts to compare. And then you have correspondence. (Or, at least, you used to.) And here’s the big thing: You find out the hard way that digital records are never safe, so you always print out a copy.

Let me say it again: Digital files are never safe.

I know this, because I just lost some audio files I’d had for years. Why? Because they were done via AOL, and are no longer playable. (Although my good friend Joe Stafford, who owns some ancient tech, made a valiant effort to retrieve them for me.) One of them is my then 3-year-old son sending an audio file to Joe wherein he extols the virtues of the Flintstones movie.

Okay, you say, I couldn’t have saved those on paper anyway. Well, I have a whole bunch of plays and short stories from the 1980s and early 1990s that now read as .exe files. Why? Because, it turns out, they are on an old version of Appleworks, and now nothing will read them. Lucky for me — I have printed-out versions in my files.

Almost 20 years ago, Nicholson Baker wrote a book about libraries’ assault on paper as they switched to digital, and what was being lost in the process. His warning that some digital formats wouldn’t be playable in the future, and that the seemingly flimsiest format, paper, would prove to be the most durable wasn’t lost on me.

Digital has its place (he says, as he writes a blog post). But I still love paper, and not just my own. I own hundreds and hundreds of books, and I add more by the week. I love the feel of them and the weight. I love the snapping sound of closing a hardback book, and of running my hand across creamy illustrated paper. I love the smell of books and papers.

I’ll always be a paper boy.

A change in the weather

May 23rd, 2018

Everything really is topsy-turvy. Last night, I left London, where it was sunny and 71 degrees, to return to Los Angeles, where it’s cold and rainy. What gives?