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


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What’s unfilmable?

July 8th, 2019

Now that Netflix has taken on adapting Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — with Mr. Gaiman on board, thankfully — the internet is once again having the discussion of “what are some unfilmable books?”

Let me settle it:  There are no unfilmable books.

There are also no filmable books. And no bookable films.

These are separate media, and even if you do your best to closely approximate each, it’s impossible.

Last week, I was going on about Dan Simmons’ novel The Terror. The book was excellent. So, in numerous ways, was the miniseries. But there are seemingly subtle differences that dramatically alter the shape of the story, differences of character and motivation — but also necessary plot differences, because of what is lost in a film lacking interior monologue and epistolary exchanges, versus a novel where those literary elements were crucial. (And, also, in a book where we can conjure an image of the devastating monster stalking the explorers, versus the miniseries where the CGI thing just looks silly.)

Samuel Beckett and Nathalie Sarraute, among others, wrote anti-novels. Some form of those could be filmed, but does anyone want to watch a two-hour movie about someone slicing a tomato? (Anyone other than Andy Warhol, who did the same sort of thing with film.)

So the question isn’t what’s an unfilmable book. The question is:  Do we really want to make a film version of this book? Does it add anything, or does it just damage our fond memory of the book?

Weekend revelations!

July 7th, 2019

1.

On Friday night at almost midnight, I finally finished humping all those heavy boxes of comic books back and forth. At some point in my past, I weighed some comics boxes and discovered that each one, fully loaded with comic books, weighs about 60 pounds. Did I mention that I was moving 20 of these boxes from the “office” in my house to the kitchen to a staging area to sort, then out to the back yard, and some of them back inside? So that’s 1200 pounds hither and yon for about 12 hours.

My first revelation was:  Maybe I should give up that gym membership and just do this three times a week.

My second revelation was:  My life would have been completely different if I had collected baseball cards instead.

 

 

2.

On Saturday, my playwriting workshop resumed. I started running this workshop, “Words That Speak,” in 1993. Twenty-six years later, it and I are still here, and in the same location. (Moving Arts, in Silver Lake.) We’ve got stick-to-it-iveness.

When you invest three hours most Saturdays for 26 years in going over people’s pages and trying to relate why something is working well in them, or is not working well, or could work better, you dip into not only past playwriting and teaching experience, but also life experience. I heard myself share this, about how your perspective changes as you age:  “When I was a kid, I was always right, and my parents were doing everything wrong. Now I’m mostly a parent, and it’s my kids who are doing everything wrong.”

Driving home, I realized:  Hey, but I was always right!

 

 

3.

Most Sundays, I do the grocery shopping. That’s because I have a budget of $180/week and I stick to it. I mean, If I had extra money to throw around on groceries, I’d rather spend it on more comic books or more theatre tickets. (My wife’s version of grocery shopping is to spend twice that amount and crow about how much she “saved.”) I make a grocery list, yes I clip coupons, I stick to my list, I tabulate the expenditures as they pile up in the cart so as to ensure that I’m within budget, and then I carefully select a preferred checker, one who will ring me up correctly and accept all my coupons. Last year, there was a lady who not only rang me up wrong three weeks in a row but was quite nasty about it even when, I promise you, I was quite nice about her almost costing me six dollars extra. The whole endeavor takes me 45 minutes. You could set your watch by it. I don’t know how the invasion of Normandy was planned, but the weekly incursion of Ralph’s supermarket is plotted to a tee.

My favorite checker is a guy about my age named Raul. I like Raul for three reasons:  He rings me up right; he’s a store manager, so if there’s anything questionable, he never has to call for a store manager; and if there’s ever any question about any of my coupons or any sale item, he just takes my word for it. (As he should; I would never cheat them.)

Today he asked, “Why’s your hair look different?”

“I just left the gym,” I said, thinking momentarily of the dime I’d found at the gym and slipped happily into my pocket. “I took a shower there and dried my hair, but I didn’t style it. If I put in styling paste now, then I’d have to wash it in the morning, when I don’t need a shower — because I just took that shower at the gym. This way, I can just wet it and go. And get 10 minutes’ more sleep.”

“You’re like me,” he said, “always thinking two steps ahead. You have to when you have kids!”

Raul’s always grumbling about his kids. I didn’t know what they had to do with it — but on the other matter, the more I thought about it, I thought he could be right:  Maybe I am always thinking two steps ahead!

In 2006, I took the employee of a client out to lunch so I could learn more about the client’s company. She asked me what I was doing for them, and how it worked, and then when she fully understood, she turned to me and said, “So you think all the time? How exhausting!”

Well, it can be exhausting. (And it sure isn’t helpful for sleeping.) But… maybe… it also helps me stay two steps ahead.

I’ll have to think more about this.

Not Mad

July 5th, 2019

Worry

No, I’m not happy either that Mad magazine is going under.

But — sorry — here goes:  How many of the people bemoaning its loss were still reading it?

I know there was me, and one good friend, and another friend I know who got it briefly and then I believe let it lapse, and… about six other people. According to reports, before its relaunch about a year and a half ago, it was down to 123,000 readers — and, after that, even fewer. That’s down from a one-time number of 7 million.

I think the time of Mad magazine was over before this announcement.

Let’s look at it this way:  The people before me were into coonskin caps; my generation, not so much. My kids have always had zero interest in reading Mad magazine, and believe me, I tried to get them interested. Lately, my interest in it, even as a subscriber, has been about zero; nothing in it compares with the heyday of Don Martin except, of course, Sergio Aragones — and he’s a holdover from that heyday. I’ve got three of the recent issues waiting for me to read them because I just couldn’t muster the interest. It’s not because I’m no longer 12 (and it’s no longer 1974); it’s because Mad is irrelevant. The Onion is doing a far better job in a far better way — in byte-sized bits, frequently the day-of the thing they’re satirizing — and so are  John Oliver and others on TV.

What will I miss about Mad? The comics from Sergio Aragones, and knowing that 98-year-old fold-in artist Al Jaffee still has a regular gig. That’s about it.

For me, the true upset is this:  the company that owns Mad (Warner Communications) has pulled the plug on a fan-oriented publication with a readership hovering around 100,000. Last month, except for the top five, every comic book published in America sold fewer than 100,000 copies. Batman sold 82,000. Avengers sold 49,000. When the Avengers can’t sell 50,000 copies, the end is near.  (Black Panther sold 20,000 copies. Twenty thousand! On what Earth is that sustainable?) Most of these comics are published by the same Warner Communications or their cross-town rival here in my home town of Burbank, CA, a little company called Disney. The only way these blockbuster corporations are going to keep the lights on for these little comic-book things is to serve as the equivalent of a think tank, supporting new ideas for movies, television, games, merchandise, and licensing.

Barring that, what happened to Mad is going to happen to the equally outmoded comic book.

 

Collecting value

July 4th, 2019

We’ve got guests coming next week — guests we actually want to visit, but thank you for wondering — and so we’ve resolved to make further accommodation here at our hostel-in-waiting. Yes, we have… let me count … six bedrooms, or potential bedrooms, but one is my writing room (and so, nonot a bedroom), and one we still call “the office” although it was originally a master bedroom when built in the 1950s, as it also has a bathroom with shower. Our daughter moved to the unfashionable state of Florida last year, but our two sons are still with us, so that fills three bedrooms. Accordingly, we decided to house my great-nephew in our daughter’s former room, and to clean out the “office” (more properly, the “former office”) and turn it back into an en suite suitable for our much-loved friend from college.

In addition to bookcases stuffed with books, and one of the computer stations, what else is in the “office”? Part of my comic-book collection. By part, I mean about 20 long boxes. I know what you’re thinking:  only 20? That’s what I would think too. But there are another 40 in the garage. And two upstairs in my writing room, for… um… reference. And half of one in the master bedroom; those are the comic books I’m actively reading. So that puts me at owning about 19,000 comic books.

Such a small number for a grown man.

When I look at them, frequently all I can see is the ones I don’t have. Can you believe that I’m still missing a few issues of Herbie? I can’t.

A couple of years ago, my eldest son recently read my entire run of Lucifer, which I testify to you is gobsmackingly good and nowhere near as dopey as the idiotic television show theoretically derived from it. (Hey, let’s take the former angel of light, the Macchiavellian schemer with his own side of things as portrayed in the comic book, and in the TV show have him solve cases for the homicide bureau. ‘Cause, why not?) The entire run of Lucifer consists of a 3-issue miniseries, and a 75-issue main run, providing in all one of the comic-book-reading highlights of my life. In reading this run, my son said said, “Hey, you know you’re missing one issue.” “No, I’m not,” I countered cleverly. He said, “No, you are.” Then he showed me. There was indeed a gap in the run. … You have no idea how frequently I’ve thought about that gap in the run since this exchange of two years ago. … I know I bought all 78 issues, and read all 78 issues. This means that, somewhere within those 19,000 comic books in those 60ish boxes, there’s a misfiled issue of Lucifer. At some point, I will pay someone, one of my offspring, or maybe someone else — maybe even the great-nephew who’s coming to visit — to look carefully through all of those and find it, goddammit, and put it where it belongs.

Today, sizing up the available space in the “office” collection of comic books, and eyeing the “garage” space of comic books, I decided I’d pare back a little. I mean, common sense, right? Why did I have a few issues of Transformers? Channeling Marie Kondo, I figured that I could probably identify 600-1800 comic books that I could part with, if I could pull all the comics out simultaneously, cull the runts quickly with no further thought, thank them for their service to me and wishe them well in their next life, and if they were mostly from the 1990s when the artwork was truly abominable and the stories unmentionable.

The good news:  Eight hours of hauling 60-pound boxes of comics inside from room to room, and outside to a staging area, and I’m halfway done. And it’s only 7 p.m.!

I approached my two sons and asked if either wanted to put the soon-to-be sacrificed comic books on eBay or Local5 or whatever the hot selling site is these days. One begged off, having been down this route before; the other looked at me and, sizing up my state of mind, took pity and agreed to do it if he could keep half the revenue or even all the revenue. Once he signed on (although the specifics aren’t finalized), I started lugging all the comics destined for a new home outside under the carport (“out of sight; out of mind”). As the number of comics there grew, and as I threw out comments like, “This is the entire Ed Brubaker run of Captain America!” and I shed inward tears, I heard myself lapse into self-pitying and aggrandizing comments about how brave and noble I was to sacrifice even one — and look how many I was willing to forsake! My wife, inspired by my actions and now emptying an entire Honda Odyssey load of undesirable detritus from our garage into our van, knew to say nothing. My elder son looked at the comics I was putting out and said, “You certainly have enough of them!” He caught my glare and then quickly corrected himself:  “Well… you certainly have a lot of them.” I said quietly, “There are never enough.”

So, now, I’ll be parting with 600 of them. I’ve already got those set aside, and I’m not thinking about them any more. (Well, maybe those Brubaker issues of Captain America. They were so good!) This isn’t the first time I’ve sold comic books, God knows; I’ve been selling comic books in one way or other, professionally or just as part of, um, late spring cleaning, for 45 years.

But here’s what I think about:  Imagine if I hadn’t been selling them for 45 years. Imagine if I still had that copy of Avengers #1 handed down to me from 1963. Or that precious copy of Fantastic Four #1 that I bought for $85 in 1976. Now I could probably buy a house — even in overpriced Los Angeles! — just with those two! I also had all the early Amazing Spider-Man comics, and Journey Into Mystery with Thor, and at one time or another probably every key Silver Age comic from Marvel and DC. If I still had all those, can you imagine what they’d be worth? … No, not in money. To own! The good news:  I’m going to Comic-Con in two weeks; maybe I can get some more of these back.

In the meantime — interested in 600 or so awesome comics? Let me know!

He speaks my mind

July 3rd, 2019

In facilitator talk, “he (or she) speaks my mind” cuts through a lot of time and clutter. When someone says something you utterly agree with, rather than recap it all and tag your reasons for agreeing onto the end, you can say, “He speaks my mind.”

Rather than go into why, I’ll just link to a post from Mark Evanier. In this post, He speaks my mind.

The reason, as you’ll see, is self-explanatory.

And now:  onto brighter perspectives.

The question that keeps me up all night

July 2nd, 2019

No, it’s not about one’s place in the universe. It’s this:  Why can’t I sleep tonight?

For me, at least, it seems completely unrelated to stress — because I sleep poorly most nights, and most days (pretty much all days) are good days.

Some common causes to eliminate:

  • I don’t do a lot of blue-screen viewing before bed (I read for an hour or so)
  • I don’t ingest sugary snacks or things with caffeine late at night
  • I get plenty of exercise: I go to the gym every other day, and do plenty of walking the rest of the week
  • I drink very little alcohol any more, and none right before bed
  • I don’t stay up all night worrying, because Stoicism has taught me that there’s nothing I can do about most of those things anyway

I actually think it’s mostly this:  excitement. Voltaire said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that Man is basically optimistic because he goes to bed every night making plans for the next day. That’s me for sure. There are things to do, and I’m looking forward to them.

That doesn’t feel so great, though, the next morning. This morning I got up at 7:30 so that I could go get some blood drawn. It would’ve been nice to get more than three-and-a-half hours of sleep before that. When you’re getting blood drawn for lots of routine testing, you have to fast for at least eight hours before. So you know what else would’ve been nice? Being able to have a cup of coffee after those 3.5 hours of sleep.

Tonight was going to be my gym night. Now I’m thinking I may have to change my plans — at this point right now, I can’t quite see benching weights later. So, instead, my plan is to read an especially dull book to see if that’ll help.

Except:  Watch me get too caught up in it. And then be up all night.

Not-great literature

July 1st, 2019

Orla Ryan writes in The Financial Times about the benefits of reading trash.

This seems true:

Read, say, Kerry Katona’s life story and you learn about a child so deprived she sold her pet parrot to buy tampons. Read a book written to sell rather than to indulge the author and you get less of the impressive wordplay, but great stories and sharply executed plots.

Yes. But. As I wrote here yesterday, those just slide off.

This is particular statement is particularly about her:

I am busy. I can no longer disappear into the Russian steppes for days on end. I have less time for intellectual self-improvement and more interest in escapism in the form of thrillers, chick-lit and celebrity biographies.

To which I’d reply:  In every day, you have the same amount of time as everyone else. And we’re all busy.

So while I find her piece threaded with excuses, it seems that she makes reading lowbrow lit sound like a guilty pleasure. But part of the joy of reading lies precisely in the back-and-forth between highbrow and lowbrow. The Superman comics I was reading last night were immensely clever and fun — but so, in a different way, was the collection of essays from a British museum director about the joys to be found in the crumbling palaces of ancient Rome, Sicily, Zanzibar and elsewhere.

Nobody is making her choose.

Great literature

June 30th, 2019

TheTerrorI don’t spend a lot of time trying to discern the difference between great literature and everyday entertainment. I read all sorts of things, sliding on an average day between, say, the novel I’m reading, the non-fiction book I’m reading simultaneously, whatever’s in that week’s New Yorker, assorted comic books both old and new, and other magazines and newspapers.

I do hold onto one personal theory, though:  great literature sticks with you, while entertainment slides off more easily.

Case in point:  About 15 years ago, I read a novel by Brad Meltzer. I had met Mr. Meltzer, a best-selling novelist who also happened at that time to be writing comic books, at the San Diego Comic-Con. A very nice guy, he gave me one of his novels, a thriller about two brothers who happened to somehow come across a load of cash. I read the book, as they say, cover-to-cover, in about… I don’t know… a week or two. It was gripping, fast-paced, enormously enjoyable, and completely forgettable. The limited plot summary I just gave you is the extent of what I can remember about it. Beyond that? Nothing. I can’t even remember the title. Hang on, I’ll go check Wikipedia. … OK, I’m back. I still didn’t recognize any of the titles. I had to read the summaries online. The book I’m talking about is The Millionaires. Every chapter end was a cliffhanger, in the style of those great pulp novels of the 1930s and 1940s, and as with those novels, of which I read probably 50, I now can’t remember any of it.

Contrast that with:  The Road (Cormac McCarthy) or Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald) or The Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare or 1984 or any of hundreds or thousands of other things I’ve read. The difference is that the plot isn’t the point. It’s what lies beneath the plot; it’s the theme that makes up the entire point of the enterprise.

That’s what I’m getting at in my workshop, Words That Speak, when I ask the playwrights, “What’s this play about?” I’m not asking in terms of plot — I’m asking in terms of theme. Because it’s got to be about something, and not just about what happens.

What brings this to mind is the novel The Terror, which I finished reading at 3 this morning, all 771 pages of it. As I read this book about a true-life polar expedition that got trapped in arctic ice in 1845, which I had never intended to read, and which I had picked up thinking it was a thriller of sorts, the sensation started to grow in me that this was not only not a thriller, and not only not just literature, it was great literature. The list is short of contemporary novels that make up great literature;  you saw me put The Road on that list; I’d put The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) on that list as well, and then I’d have to think about it. What makes The Terror great literature is that it is not purely restricted to the issue-at-hand of the men’s survival; no, it occurred to me somewhere after page 700 as I began to wonder just why this novel was so engrossing, so impossible to put down, urging me forward to read 20 or 30 or 50 pages every night, sometimes staying up hours later than I should have, that this is a novel about the natural order — about man’s place in the universe, and of each individual’s place in his own natural order, his own life. The novel takes beautiful turns and, as one reviewer noted, is oddly optimistic for such a bleak tale of men freezing and dying in horrible ways in an icebound climate with little hope of rescue.

But the particular reason I bring this up is that, after finishing the book and still caught in its afterglow sometime around 3 a.m., I decided to go online and read the New York Times’ review from the book’s publication date of 2007. It’s a bad review. Here’s the concluding bit:

When a novel goes north of, say, 600 pages, we naturally become impatient, demanding, potentially mutinous, and the questions we ask of the writer can turn testy: Where are we going and why, and will the whole grueling experience be worth it? Or are we just stuck in something we can’t seem to get out of?

Oh, I realized. The fault in this review lies with the reviewer, who never adjusted his expectation. And I wonder if he ever got past those 600 pages — because it’s past those 600 that the depth and extent of this work comes clearly into view. The reviewer expected it to be a thriller. But it isn’t. It’s great literature.

It’s important to know the difference.

Now, today, I’m back to reading Action Comics for a while. I don’t expect it to enter the literary canon.

Special appearances

June 29th, 2019

Last August, I was unexpectedly invited to a private friends-and-family music festival Robert Wheeler and his wife Linda decided to throw on their farm by the river back in the outskirts of Milan, Ohio. I had met Robert, the synthesizer and theremin player for the world’s greatest band (that would be Pere Ubu) online a year or two earlier, and he knew I’d gone to their shows here in LA for decades, and then down to San Diego to see them on their most recent tour, and then went last spring to London expressly to see the only play date on their tour to feature all nine members who appeared on the most recent album. So for the third time in a year, I got on a plane to see the band — because who wouldn’t want to go see the world’s best band in a private concert on a farm long held by the family of Thomas Edison’s sister? I wouldn’t have missed that for anything.  I wrote about that trip, and that incredible homespun music festival here.

Last Saturday, a smaller, and very LA version of something similar played out here and I got to go again. And again, it was thanks to the internet.

Just before Christmas last year, I was reading the reviews of holiday albums posted by Rolling Stone online. Every year, I like to buy a new holiday album just to bring some new spark to the Christmas festivities. I had already bought The Monkees’ Christmas album, hoping for a repeat of their true final album, the sensational Good Times!, but was disappointed to learn that essentially it was two solo albums (Micky and Mike) sutured together with one abominable performance by the ailing and soon to be deceased Peter Tork. While it had its bright spots, it so hit-and-miss that I couldn’t imagine playing it when friends came over. So I was looking for another.

KringleTingleThe artwork for this one stood out, as did its title:  “The Kringle Tingle.”  Here’s the review, courtesy of Rolling Stone:

I look them up and see the words “country soul” and “swamp funk.”  A strong start with covers of “Linus & Lucy” and “Santa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and I love the sound of the horns.  It really kicks in with the original “Christmas Time In Bossier City” which feels like a song every radio DJ should be adding to their holiday broadcasts, it’s like the ghosts of vintage Springsteen and Van Morrison conspired to create a melancholy new holiday classic with some meat on the bone.  “Don’t Go Chasing Santa Claus” is a straight-up TLC spoof, believe it or not, and is the more festive option for that holiday party playlist.  “Santa Comes To Atlanta” is another original that is goddamn lovely.  Fuck it, I start skipping ahead a little, not because I am bored but because I am confident this is a solid record.  Good covers throughout, nothing too obvious, and even better originals.

So I sample it online, can’t believe how great this sounds — how incredibly fun and energetic and soulful and just filled with the joy of being alive, so I buy it. And then, from Christmas straight into January, I listen to it over and over and over and over and over again, knowing nothing about “Shinyribs” (is that a person? and band?) but loving every instant of it and wondering how the hell it wound up at NUMBER 50 on the list of 50 new Christmas Albums in a review that damned it with faint praise. If it shouldn’t have been number one, it still merited a ranking higher than FIFTY.

Come March, I’m on my way to another godforsaken dental appointment, wondering how terrible this one will be, and I’m listening to music on shuffle in my car, and damn if a track from this album did come up. Magically, I suddenly felt better. Sure, at some point I might have whole suspension bridges erected inside my mouth, but there will always be Shinyribs music, and it will always perk me up. Feeling extremely moved by music — as it is the job of music to do — I look up the Shinyribs website to see where and when they or he is going to play and see that it’s usually Texas (that’s where Shinyribs is from), and consider a trip to Texas, and wonder how I can wrap it up in some business work to write off the trip, but then I realize this is unrealistic for now given my schedule, but I do see evidence of a West Coast tour! I look at the dates… but somehow, inconceivably, there are no Los Angeles dates. Not a one. A little chastened, I find Shinyribs on Twitter, post a heartfelt tweet about how great the music is and how sad I am to see no play date in LA, but optimistically offer that at some point I look forward to coming down to Texas to see the show. Shortly thereafter, I get this unexpected private message:

Screen Shot 2019-06-29 at 10.45.36 PM

 

I couldn’t believe my good fortune! The kindness and generosity of these musicians and, in 2019, their lack of paranoia about my possibly being a nut job, still floors me. My business partner says that when you put something out into the universe, it comes back to you — so, yes, they are responding to my love for their music. But still:  They’re taking a risk on me.

As the date drew closer, and I exchanged a few more messages with Kevin Russell, the lead singer and guitarist of Shinyribs (yes, it’s a band), and after I’d watched all of their videos online and bought more of their music, this was sent to me:

IMG_2195

And that’s how my wife and I happened to be at a private backyard concert last Saturday, hoo-dooing with Shinyribs and about 50 strangers. Everyone we met was nice, the food and drink and hospitality of the host were incomparable, as promised we brought a nice gift for said host, and we had an absolutely awesome time. My wife said of the band, “They’re in the business of joy.”

My wife Valorie, Kevin Russell of Shinyribs, and me

My wife Valorie, Kevin Russell of Shinyribs, and me

The video snippet above unfortunately doesn’t include Kevin’s soulful, energetic, singing. But it does give you a taste of the band, which is in my mind somehow related to the band Little Feat, with similar energy but more heat. If this is how good they sound at a backyard function, imagine how great they were on Austin City Limits. (Or:  go watch to it.)

Two nights ago, my wife and I went to see Eddie Izzard at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Throughout the show, Izzard says you’d better make your life an adventure. I do my best to enjoy every day, and to help other people enjoy theirs if I can. But I will always remain dumbstruck by the sheer luck I’ve had throughout my life in meeting tremendously talented people who are also generous enough to invite me to things like this.

Outcomes

June 20th, 2019

Yesterday, exasperated in a discussion with someone who has all sorts of advantages but told me he didn’t “have any meaning” in his life, I posted this on Facebook:  “A meaningful life comes from helping others. It isn’t fucking complicated.”

As of now, I’ve got 119 people agreeing with that on Facebook, and lots of comments.

No, Moses didn’t come down off the mountain with a third tablet intended for each and every one of us with a secret message giving us a life mission. If you’re waiting for something like that, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But the life mission of most mammals is clear:  help each other. If you keep a keen eye out you’ll see it, certainly in dogs but also in rodents and birds and most warm-blooded animals.

The other thing I had to say, when I was tired of hearing the same complaint, the complaint of seven years now, from someone so close to me, was this:  a good life is made up of daily actions. Sitting around and agonizing about your misery isn’t going to get you anywhere. If you truly have some misery, you’re entitled to do some of that — but I’d much rather take the example of my beloved oldest brother, who has a terrible case of Parkinson’s disease but who hasn’t complained about it once. He has noted, as the years have passed, the things he can’t do — when I saw him two months ago he said he had to use an iPad to read now because he can no longer turn pages, and he’s shared other circumstances like that, and I can see how unsteady he is in walking or moving in general — but an actual complaint? No. Not one that I’ve heard. And I would think, given how debilitating this has been for a formerly very healthy and vibrant man, that this has been extremely frustrating, and that he’s earned the right to complain.

But, no. Instead, someone who is healthy and young is the one moaning about meaninglessness. Let me add this:  Camus and Sartre may have had their doubts about meaning, too — but at least they wrote books about it.

Allow me a moment to put a brighter spin on this.

This morning, I was the moderator at the Hollywood Economic Summit for a panel discussion about the intersection of live entertainment and economic impact. This is a topic I’ve been talking about, in one way or another, for more than 25 years. Ask any restaurant owner next to a theatre what business is like on a performance night, versus business on a dark night; add into that the parking lots, and cocktail lounges, and even babysitters, and certainly the cast and crew, and the vendors associated with the production, and you start to get a picture. The Pantages Theatre in Hollywood will see 850,000 people this year. That’s a lot of people, bringing a lot of money to Hollywood, and that’s just one example.

After the panel, a guy stopped me at the door and said, “Lee, you may not remember me, but you changed my life.”

(And, before I go on, let me apologize for what’s going to wind up being a story congratulating myself. But I didn’t do what I’m about to tell you about for any congratulations or reward — but I am trying to pass along a lesson that I believe in. So please excuse me.)

I didn’t remember him, until he reminded me of the full story. In 2001, I was the president and CEO of LA Stage Alliance, the performing arts service organization serving greater Los Angeles. This man, Jeff, called and asked if he could speak with me, and said he was new in town, and was a theatre guy, but didn’t know anyone and was looking for a job. I told him to come down and see me. He came down for what was supposed to be 30 minutes, and, he says, I spent a lot more time than that with him — and then picked up the phone and called the Shubert Theatre and asked someone I knew there if he’d see Jeff. Jeff went over, and got hired, and now, 18 years later, Jeff works at the Pantages in Hollywood. He handed me his card, and I looked at it, and saw his title:  General Manager. “Jeff!” I said. “You’re a big muckety-muck!”

And he is.

And he thanked me profusely because I had made that introduction that got him launched.

But let me tell you where I learned to do things like that:  from a man named Lars Hansen. When I met Lars, circa 1996, he was the Executive Director of the Pasadena Playhouse and a major fixture in Los Angeles theatre and I was the Artistic Director of a 36-seat theatre called Moving Arts. We were both serving on the board of Theatre LA, and Lars and I hit it off. He had a vision for the audience experience, and the intersection of the performing arts and commerce that spoke to me. Lars was generous by nature, and just kept giving me stuff:  advice, connections, and whatever he could spare at the Playhouse — including, once, hundreds (yes, I said hundreds) of tickets at his theatre to use for a fundraiser. It was partly because of Lars’ influence and generosity that I wound up as CEO of LA Stage Alliance — I have no doubt of that — and it’s because of that that I was in a position to help Jeff, and because of that, Jeff and I ran into each other today, completing a circle that has taken 23 years.

So when Jeff’s thanking me, he’s actually thanking Lars, who I think of almost every day… even though he died 10 years ago.

Lars led a life of impact. He certainly impacted me. I still have friendships that I developed completely through Lars. And I’m still grateful to him.

Lars wasn’t the only helper in my life. In fact, my life has been filled with helpful people. My business partner says that when you put something out into the universe, it comes back to you, and I’ve found that to be true. When I was a boy, I remember watching the Philadelphia newscast one night with my father, and seeing the story of a poor black boy in that city who’d gotten burned in a fire. My father never said anything about it, but he was obviously moved — and shortly later I learned from my mother that he wrote a check and mailed it in anonymously to the boy’s family. He never said anything about it to me and he never wanted any credit for it. That’s a lesson I never forgot, and an image that remains burned in my memory, of watching that newscast.

But aren’t most of us like that, really? Aren’t most people good? Don’t we do what we can, when we can?

It doesn’t take heroics to help somebody else, not usually. It takes a little time, and a little awareness. And really, isn’t that what we’re here for? To help each other?

Don’t get distracted by the terrible people. They’re a minority. Honest. If you want a meaningful life, make one by helping others.

p.s. Here’s some info about my friend Lars and here’s his obit. He was a great guy.