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


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Annals of travel

November 16th, 2017

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I ask you:  What exactly is this thing for?

I’m staying in a rather nice hotel in a very nice area of Chicago — Lakeshore Drive, in Magnificent Mile — and am confronted, as one generally is in such a place, with this pillow log.

It is too stiff to function as a headrest.

It is too long to fold into a headrest.

It is too narrow and, again, immaleable, to serve as a body pillow. (If one were the type to use body pillows.)

So what is its purpose?

I consulted Mr. Google, who yielded this listing on, of course, Amazon, where one may buy varieties of this trunk of pillow. You will note that it is listed as a Marriott Hotel Decorative Bolster Pillow. (The accent on “decorative” is mine.)

So this thing is pure decoration. Because, lord knows, to the consumer, it’s useless.

But I think it has one other function. Its presence helps to justify the price of the fancy-schmantzy hotel. When you check into your room and see the decorative bolster pillow, you realize, “Hey! There’s a Decorative Bolster Pillow on the bed! Of course! Now I know why this room costs six times as much as Motel 6!”

(Well, that, plus the clean sheets. And the lack of toenail clippings on the floor.)

I will not be buying a Decorative Bolster Pillow for my home. Because I already know that that place is not a Motel 6.

Where’s Superman when you need him?

November 14th, 2017

Just when you think some things in the world can’t get worse… a comic-book convention gets shut down by an armed group.

Saturday / Sunday

November 12th, 2017

After leading my playwriting workshop yesterday, I drove down toward San Diego to see a couple of friends, a married couple who were in town. They’re housesitting, and here for a while, and they’re very good people I’d like to see more of, but they don’t live around here, and given what my schedule’s been like lately (as reflected in the dearth of posts), Saturday into Sunday was the only chance I had to see them.

As is the way with things, in Southern California at least, Mr. Google promised that the drive would take me an hour and nine minutes; instead, it took about two. This was late on a Saturday afternoon. Why was traffic backed up on a Saturday afternoon? Because traffic is always backed up. Years ago, my friends and I settled on this great idea to avoid traffic coming back from San Diego Comic-Con:  go see a movie early Sunday evening after the convention, and by the time it’d be over, traffic would have cleared. These days we still see the movie — but the traffic is pretty much 24/7. It never clears.

I stopped and picked up a nice bottle of wine — a red blend that the wine-shop owner strongly recommended and that my friends effused over after we opened it — and they grilled beautiful ribeye steaks from an upscale supermarket where I’m too cheap to shop, and paired them with squash and cucumbers and other delights. We swapped all sorts of stories from the past year, and thoughts about current events. Eventually, the husband and I broke out cigars, and his wife went to bed, and he and I sat out back under a heater and smoked those cigars and drank scotch and worked on the world’s problems while one of the dogs kept coming back to me with a tattered chew toy. After Tuesday’s Democratic sweep of just about everywhere, I was feeling hopeful, but truly no one knows what’s going to happen — with anything — so it’s all wait-and-see.

My friend is living in Germany right now; that’s where he came in from. He was surprised how relatively cheap it is. The nice apartment, the healthcare insurance, food, and other costs total out at $1800 a month. My mortgage alone is just under $4,000 a month. Our cable/internet/phone package runs $275 a month. Food — for four of us, sure — is $775 a month, and at that amount, people around here can’t believe that’s all I’m spending. The more he talked about Germany, the better it sounded:  great cultural institutions, nice people, high walkability and easy access to cheap public transportation…. “Sounds great!” I said. “All I’d need is about 1500 certain people to move there with me.” Because there’s a very good reason I stay in Los Angeles:  all the people here I get to work with and socialize with — theatre people, business friends, friend-friends, some family. Actually, there’s another great reason I stay in Los Angeles:  I love Los Angeles. I’m crazy about it. Really. It was having this discussion with my friend last night that helped crystallize for me that I don’t foresee ever living anywhere else. Never say never — as Sean Connery learned when he said he’d never play James Bond again, only to return as Bond in a movie called “Never Say Never Again” — but the odds seem slim.

We finally called it a night at 2:30 in the morning, so I went upstairs to the bedroom where I was staying and pulled out the book I’m reading, “Us Kids Know,” by my friend former student, JJ Strong. I downed one of what I call “Sleepytime Alleve,” with a seltzer water, because every joint in my body ached just from being alive. Around 3:15, I switched off the light and snuggled in to sleep, but kept hearing this nearby crashing sound coming from outside. It was somewhat regular, and infinitely distracting to someone trying to sleep, like something coming in and hitting something, and then pausing, and then hitting it again. Finally I realized I was hearing the surf crash onto the beach. I wonder if whoever first romanticized the pounding of the surf actually tried to sleep near it.

At 7:46, the dog walker arrived to walk the housesat dogs; I know this because the dog pandemonium woke me up. I drifted back to sleep, waking up a few hours later, checking the news and social media and my email and going downstairs for a beautifully cooked and served breakfast, before driving back. I left around 1 p.m. — a good time, I thought — checked my phone, and saw that Google was predicting an hour and nine minutes to get home.

It took about two.

A monk, a clown and a convict walk onto a porch…

October 31st, 2017

…And yell out, “Trick or treat!”

Much like the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the number of kids we get for Halloween can fluctuate wildly. Two years ago we had 110; this year we had 27. In addition to the monk, the clown, and the escaped convict, we had a toddler princess, a vampire queen, a dinosaur, a bunch of bananas (kids from the same family, I assume), a Harry Potter, the Evil Queen from “Snow White,” a failed attempt at the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and assorted tries at terrifying get-ups. We had none of the most terrifying get-up — that would be Donald Trump as president — and also a middle-school kid who came as a bear. I found that one most puzzling:  Who goes out for Halloween as a bear? Where do you even get a bear costume? It’s things like this that really make Halloween the occasion for people to express themselves as individuals.

This Halloween coincides, as all Halloweens do, with my wedding anniversary. As of today I’ve been married for 30 years — to the same woman! When I shared this with somebody today he was dumbstruck — like he’d spotted a unicorn or a visitor from another planet, or even a kid who dresses as a bear for Halloween. “You should write a book!” he said in all seriousness. When he learned that I’m not originally from L.A., and that Valorie and I got married when we still lived in New Jersey, that lessened his shock, before he said, “But still!”

Our wedding was a big costume party at a rented hall that I’m told doesn’t exist any more. (Similarly, three of the theatres where I’ve been produced are no more either. One thing about living long enough:  You close down venues.) We didn’t tell people in advance that we were going to get married; we simply sent out invitations that read “You are invited to a masquerade ball.” Then, in much smaller lettering beneath that, it read: “Plus a wedding.” There was much initial tsuris about this among some family members — were we serious? marriage isn’t meant to be a joke! what if we’re the only ones to come in costume?!?!? — but on the day about 200 people showed up in costume. Today, a good friend of mine posted a whole bunch of photos on Facebook from that party. It was nice to see so many friends and family again:  Groucho Marx and Mae West, the Arab sheik, the jester, the knave, Gomez Adams, the flasher, and others. This was one ceremony where when the bride said her new mother-in-law was a witch, it was true.
Halloween2015Valorie had to work tonight (she saves lives three or four nights a week at our local hospital), so we exchanged cards and a kiss. We’re crazy busy this time of year, but we’re going to celebrate a little tomorrow night, heading out to dinner at Salt’s Cure, which made Jonathan Gold’s List of 101 Best Places to Eat in L.A. (while draining your wallet), then we’re seeing Ricky Gervais at the Dolby Theatre. And then we’ll take a trip in the spring, when our schedules permit.

This morning, I shared this photo on Facebook of us in our Halloween costumes from two years ago. Look how beautiful this woman is! I kept going back to it throughout the day. Meow! We took this photo just before heading over to the party of a couple who have since then sadly divorced. Realizing that just makes me feel all the luckier.

25 years of drama

October 30th, 2017

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Two Saturday nights ago, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the opening of Moving Arts. But, actually, it’s tonight that’s the 25th anniversary.

I won’t go into our history again — I did that five years ago on that earlier commemoration; you can read that history here — but I do have to note a few changes, and one constant.

  1. Tom Boyle, who was a big part of that founding, and of many years of my life, died a couple of years ago. I miss him and think about him most days. I’d love to talk to him about the current political situation, or the recent crop of movies or TV, or just play a game or share a drink, and I do try to imagine how those conversations would sound, but my imagination is a poor substitute for Tom himself. Because he was smart and funny and loyal, he was everything I look for in a friend. I’m glad I got to spend as much time with him as I did before he finally pierced the veil and stepped into the beyond. I will say that his death has made me appreciate my still-living friends even more.
  2. Since that post of five years ago, we’ve gained some new board members who have done a lot to move the organization forward. We’ve actually got cash in the bank. (Which should in no way deter you from making an end-of-year contribution — we’ll always need more, and cheerfully accept it!) At times in the past, the cash in the bank was about five bucks. Now, in 2017, we’ve got more than five bucks. Significantly more. It’s not a buying-a-house-in-Los-Angeles amount of money — nowhere near — but it’s not five bucks. That’s saying a lot for a small-theatre company in Los Angeles.
  3. Probably a year (maybe two?) after I wrote that 20th anniversary post, we were incredibly fortunate to land a new artistic director, Darin Anthony. He’s a talented director and a visionary leader and it’s my pleasure to do what I can to support him. Everybody else on the board feels the same way. He wants to do big things, and he’s inspiring the rest of us to help him.

Here’s the constant (and you saw this coming):

Twenty-five years later, we’re still doing new plays. Sometimes I ask myself if I ever envisioned, in 1992, that we’d still be here in 2017. I don’t know. I do remember wondering in February of 1993 if we’d be there in March of 1993. That was tough — and there have been many, many other financially tough times — but we’ve gotten through them all, and in some ways we’re doing better now than ever. And we’ve got big plans for the future. It’s an exciting time for Moving Arts.

Was it five years ago, on our 20th anniversary, that Steve Lozier and some others produced an event at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax that featured celebrities doing roles from our first production? I can’t remember any more. But I do remember what we did two Saturdays ago:  We held a big house party in the Hollywood Hills that featured five short plays fully staged at different locations within that house. They were all new plays; the venue was packed (our biggest turnout ever for that event); and there were so many people having such a great time, myself included, that I actually sent out to get more alcohol delivered from the local liquor store. All of the plays were fun, and so was the event. At some point, I repaired outside up on the hillside terrace behind the house to share Cuban cigars with two other playwrights and have drinks and just talk. That cemented the evening for me:  new plays, great fun, and camaraderie among smart creative people.

That’s what we’ve been doing for 25 years: birthing new plays, and bringing smart creative people together. Every day you get to do that sort of thing is a celebration.

A suggestion for GOP members of Congress who oppose Trump

October 24th, 2017

Maybe stay and fight?

Even in an election you’re going to lose. Because then we’d really understand that, for you, it’s about country over party.

Or, how about this: switch party affiliation. Now. While you’re still in office.

Because, as someone noted on Twitter:

If McCain, Corker, and Jeff Flake want to stop Trump, they should LEAVE HIS PARTY.

52 Republicans in Senate

52 – 3 = 49 = no more majority

That’d make for real impact.

Eight minutes of comedy genius

October 24th, 2017

I’ve watched this about a dozen times now (either here or in the original films) and I can’t get enough. If you want to understand why Buster Keaton is one of the foundations of filmic comedy, this should help you figure it out.

If there truly is a Heaven, and I get to go there when I die, St. Peter will greet me at the gates by saying, “You’re just in time — we’re screening the new Buster Keaton film!”

Monkee don’t

October 23rd, 2017

On Friday night, instead of going to see “Blade Runner 2049,” I almost went to see The Monkees 2049, the age that the surviving members are fast approaching. I was on Twitter when I saw that Mike Nesmith would be joining Micky Dolenz for his concert at the Canyon Club, not far from here up in Agoura Hills. Last year, and a few years before that, my friend Richard had gone with me twice to see the Monkees. (You can read about those concert experiences here and here.)  So I emailed him:

Late last night, I learned that Mike Nesmith will be joining Micky Dolenz in his little club shows this Friday.

It’s pretty last-minute — but I’m toying with the notion of going.

Want to go?!?!?

Nesmith has tweeted about it and said he and Micky are rehearsing “Me and Magdalena.”

My main interest here was, of course, in Mike Nesmith, who had said that last year’s appearance in Hollywood would be his final concert with The Monkees. Although I’m a huge fan of their 50th anniversary album of last year, I’m not much of a Monkees fan; what I am is a fan of Mike Nesmith’s singing voice and his Monkees songs. That this appearance would feature Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz and no Peter Tork just seemed like a bonus:  even more focus on Nesmith.

Richard passed on the opportunity. I’m not much of an agonizer, but I have to admit even after Richard said no I was agonizing a bit about whether to go to this show. The Canyon Club is not my favorite venue; to get a seat, you have to order a (bad) dinner. When I went to see The Tubes there, the steak I ordered could have doubled as home plate, and I think it cost me thirty-six bucks. It’s like dinner theatre, with aging rock bands or people who’ve been kicked out of their bands putting on solo shows. Some time ago, Adrian Belew played there with some other former members of King Crimson. I’m surprised Pete Best isn’t playing there as “Best of the Beatles.” So you can pay handsomely for both the concert ticket and an inedible meal but claim a seat, or you can buy just the ticket and stand in the back for hours, through the opening act(s) and the headliner.

Finally I decided that as much as I would have liked to see Mike Nesmith, especially singing “Me and Magdalena,” one of my recent favorite songs,  I’d pass. Instead, I took my wife and kids out to dinner and to Amoeba Records in Hollywood, where I bought myself another copy of Pere Ubu’s exceptional new album, “20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo,”and bought my wife a copy of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits because she wanted one and because I guess we were the last household in America to own one. Between dinner and the record store and my wife stopping in to ask excited questions at a sushi place where all the sushi comes along on a  conveyor belt and you just pick what you want, and then her oohs and aahs when we stepped into the Arclight Hollywood and then the Cinema Dome, movie palaces she hadn’t been to before, we were having a terrific time, and then we went to see “Blade Runner 2049” and all of that slowed to a crawl… much like the movie… which left me thinking that maybe I should’ve gone to the Micky Dolenz / Mike Nesmith show.

Except:

As Micky Dolenz continued to tweet (or retweet) promos for Mike Nesmith’s forthcoming appearance at his show, the message got subtly changed:

Tonight! Join @TheMickyDolenz1 & special guest Michael Nesmith (1 song) in Agoura Hills, CA at @canyonconcerts

Note the “(1 song)” part. I had read that at the end of dinner while I was waiting for the check to arrive. Somebody felt the clarification was important (perhaps Mike Nesmith himself) — but didn’t it come too late for all those people who’d already bought tickets?

Here, by the way, is that one song (although it appears that Nesmith joined in for an encore at concert’s end as well). It gives me no satisfaction to note that Nesmith isn’t playing guitar… and that his vocal is off-key. Ouch.

Our health care system

October 7th, 2017

The other day, I finally got in to see my doctor. I say “finally” because I’d waited three weeks for the appointment. Yes, it was mostly because of something routine that I was going (a physical check-up), but I do have this little rash — nothing extreme, but something small and itchy that doesn’t seem to be going away. I actually thought that while waiting for three weeks to see him about it, it’d melt back into wherever it came from, but that didn’t happen. He looked at it, prescribed some sort of heavy-duty two-day antibiotic and also a cream, and said he’d refer me to a dermatologist. Yesterday, when the referral from the dermatologist came in the mail, I called right away to schedule an appointment.

Sometimes, the answering folks at medical practices are friendly, sometimes they’re helpful, and sometimes, rarely, they’re friendly and helpful. The woman on the phone made no pretense of being friendly or helpful. Answering the phone (on the twelfth ring — but I was determined) was the last thing on her mind. I gave her my info and told her what I was looking for.

“Our next appointment is January 9th,” she said.

“January 9th! Today’s October 6th.”

“I know.”

“That’s three months from now!”

“Yes. Should I schedule you?”

I was considering taking the appointment for three months hence — because who knew what would happen if I didn’t take this one? — but then happened to look down at the authorization that had been mailed to me.  “My authorization expires on December 15th!” I told her.

“Yeah, that happens,” she said airily. “You’ll have to go back to see your doctor. Ask for an extension.”

I said, “Goodbye” and hung up.  (Note the absence of “thank you” — because there was nothing to be thankful for.) Then I thought, “Maybe the rash will just go away by then.”

And, really, isn’t that the hope of every HMO and every insurance company? That whatever thing is ailing you, and maybe you yourself, will just… go… away?

Len Wein, R.I.P.

September 10th, 2017

Just before heading into the gym today, around 2, I learned from Kurt Busiek‘s Twitter feed that Len Wein had died. That made for a very thoughtful workout.

In my lifetime, I have read many, many, many comic books that Len wrote, including a landmark run of “Justice League of America” that reintroduced The Seven Soldiers of Victory and the Freedom Fighters (and which I bought again two months ago at Comic-Con), his Batman run in “Detective” and then later in “Batman,” and, at Marvel, his work on “Marvel Team-Up,” “Thor,” and, of course, “Fantastic Four.”

He was also the co-creator of many of the most significant new characters of the 1970s:  Swamp Thing, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm and Colossus. Without Len, there would have been no new X-Men comics, let alone the movies.

I knew him a little bit — enough to say hello and to say, “Hey, here you are again!” That’s because I kept running into him, and not just at comic-book conventions. Although I probably first met him when I was a kid and he was a force to be reckoned with at DC or Marvel, I can’t pinpoint when I got reintroduced as an adult, here in Los Angeles.  It might have been almost 10 years ago, when my company was the sponsor of a live stage revival of “What’s My Line,” hosted by a very clever guy named J. Keith Van Straaten. Len’s first appearance on the show was as a mystery guest. The next time, I saw him sitting in the audience. Finally, he was made a panelist. To my recollection, he was there week after week in some capacity or other, because he just loved the show. If that wasn’t how I (re)met him, then maybe it was at my friend Jackie’s improv show — because Len had studied improv with her and also loved improv. And I would run into him at the theatre all the time. In early ’09, I took my wife and kids to see the revival of “Pippin” at the Ahmanson — and Len Wein happened to be sitting in front of us. That happened to me lots of times in lots of different places. He was a bit of a theatre geek.

He was also a pivotal figure in comics. Of all his achievements, these three in particular cemented his reputation:  He co-created Wolverine, who is by far the most popular comics character introduced in the past 60 years; he launched the X-Men revival, which financially carried Marvel all through the mid-1970s, 1980s, and 1990s at least; and he hired Alan Moore to write “Swamp Thing.” That was Moore’s big break — and ultimately led to Vertigo comics and the more-literate line of comics since then. Without Moore there’d of course be no “Watchmen” — but probably no “Sandman” (Neil Gaiman’s big break), no “Preacher,” no John Constantine or “Hellblazer” (another Moore invention), no “Lucifer” and on and on.

Not just in comics, but in all the areas they now touch, Len Wein was a very, very big deal. I’m glad to see all the obits today acknowledging his impact.