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


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Down by the River II*

September 9th, 2018

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Two Saturdays ago when it was actually early Sunday morning, in a small field betwixt a river and a towering cornfield, Steve Mehlman, the drummer for Pere Ubu, handed me that set list because I asked for it and also because, I guess, it seemed like fair trade for the bourbon and beers I’d brought to the party and was now sharing with him. I had just spent almost twelve hours surrounded by musicians and a select group of invitees to this family-barbecue-like invitation-only event, had come from meeting a writer friend in the flesh for the first time the previous night, and was just hours away from joining another band member in the ancestral home of Thomas Edison. It was a heady weekend.

As I shared before, I couldn’t quite believe my luck in being invited to this event a few weeks earlier. Since then, people have asked me what I did to get invited — almost as though I campaigned for the honor. Here’s my answer:  I’ve closely followed this band for more than 30 years, and I’ve been vocal about it, in conversations online and off (including with the band’s lead singer over dinner in 1999 in London when I had a play opening there), here on my blog (where their publicist noticed it about 10 years ago) and in print, and then, blessedly, on Facebook. The Facebook connection in particular proved powerful and led to Robert Wheeler, the band’s synthesizer and theremin player, asking why I wasn’t coming up to say hi before or after shows.

(The reason:  No one who knows me thinks I’m shy, but I am careful about some things. While I love all the arts, from sculpture to dance and opera to painting, and everything in between, including even accordion music, there is no artistic expression I relish more than that of Pere Ubu. Where some people get a feeling of elevation from religion, I get it from the arts, and nothing elevates me more than Pere Ubu. Throughout its history and in all its incarnations, Pere Ubu has crafted bracing, idiosyncratic music that confounds easy explanation. No one else sounds like them, perhaps because no one else practices their particular ideology (whatever that may be). No matter what all of that adds up to, with its yelping vocals interplaying with squonking electronics against the backdrop of a driving rhythm section and hammering guitar, interspersed with occasional unexpected horn or music box, I’m a sucker for it. An addict, more like. A supplicant. Because not every run-in in my life with an important or well-known artist has been a positive one, I have always wanted to be careful about this relationship in particular.)

Since the time Robert asked me why I wasn’t saying hello, I’ve seen the band in Los Angeles, in San Diego, in Chicago last November, in London this spring, and now in Milan, OH, and I’ve said hi each time.

EasyDeathThe evening before the concert — should we call it a concert? it was more like a private festival — I flew into Columbus, Ohio, about a two-hour drive south of Milan, where the event would take place the next day. I did this because I wanted to make the drive (David Thomas of Pere Ubu having written many lyrics about driving around Ohio and Pennsylvania and environs, it seemed appropriate); because I was interested in meeting Dan Stumpf, a writer I’d gotten acquainted with through the internet; and because, frankly, I could make all my frequent-flier miles work and do the flight for free if it was into and out of Columbus. Dan proved to be smart and quirky, as all writers are in some measure, with good taste in restaurants and an admirable collection of esoteric paraphernalia:  genre movie posters, pulp novels, silent-era relics, the occasional Big Little Book, and other artifacts from our lowbrow/no-brow cultural history. Surrounded by such inspiration in his writing room, and writing under the pseudonym Daniel Boyd, he turns out novels such as this one, which looks immensely fun and which I’ll be reading soon. (He generously gifted me with a copy.) We shared good conversation about writers we read and admire, the APA where he met my friend and mentor Rich Roesberg, all sorts of literary fandom, movies, and the awful current state of politics, first over steaks at the terrific restaurant he recommended, then later in his leafy and expansive back yard over cigars.

The next morning, I went first to the Edison Birthplace Museum. Robert, being the great-grand-nephew of Thomas Edison, is the president of the nonprofit managing the place. I got the tour, which was illuminating in the ways of the past, and also in clarifying where the expression “put a sock in it” comes from. Evidently, when the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph when on sale, in 1911, parents irritated with its lack of volume control as their children played it constantly instructed them to “put a sock in it!” so as to dampen the sound. The next generation of this machine included a “volume control” of sorts — which turned out to be a rod that would insert a spongy cloth cylinder into the bell, thereby dampening the sound… much as, previously, a sock had been doing.

After the two-hour drive and the hasty visit to the museum, I drove the final few miles far off the beaten path to Robert’s farm. It was 3:30 when I drew near, and, as always confused about directions, even when there’s signage, I pulled over to ask a grouping of five men where to park — and immediately spotted Tony Maimone, the bassist for the band from 1976 to 1993, who was now temporarily back in with the band because of longtime bassist Michele Temple’s unavailability. He saw that I was carrying bourbon and asked me to save him some for after the show. (I absolutely did that. Believe me.) Then another invitee,  a fan named Todd who owns a record store in Athens, GA, kindly drove me down to the site and he and I and his friend John spent hours off and on sharing our enthusiasm for various bands, but none moreso than Pere Ubu.

The music started at 4, and, running a little late as of course it would, continued until almost 11. Here was the lineup:

4:00 – 4:45 Flaming TailFins
4::45- 5:15 Emily Keener
5:15 – 5:45 Mister Moon
5:45-6:15 Great Grandpa Beebe
6:15-7:00 Midnight Brothers
7:00- 7:30. Emily Keener
7:30 – 8:30. Numbers Band
8:30 – 9:00 Great Grandpa Beebe
9:00 – 10:00 Pere Ubu

Except it didn’t quite work out this way. I recall the great (great, great) Numbers Band immediately preceding Pere Ubu. The Numbers Band has been playing together for 48 years, and in knowledgeable circles their incendiary style of evangelical blues is taken as holy communion. A friend and I had seen the lead singer and guitarist, Robert Kidney, and his brother Jack Kidney, perform at David Thomas’ Disastodrome! weekend extravaganza at UCLA in 2003 and were blown away. We still talk about that performance and threaten to go to Cleveland some day just to see this incomparable band, which plays locally with some frequency. I told Robert Kidney this while we were both in line for the port-a-potty, it being that kind of event, and he told me, “If you haven’t seen the whole band, you ain’t seen shit.” After the performance of the full band, he came and found me and said in a way equally charming as demanding, “So what did you think, motherfucker?” I thought I could see why David Thomas says it’s his favorite band, that’s what I thought.

After that, Pere Ubu set up and played a set every bit as powerful and dangerous as I’ve seen them play anywhere. It was, to some degree, the set listed above, although I know very well that they did indeed play “Laughing,” a very early track (first album; 1978)  from this very longtime musical endeavor, because I was pleased to see David pull out the little horn that creates the sinuous squawk at the heart of the track. The play list was similar to the London play list, heavy on a mixture of songs from their most recent album plus tracks from the late 1980s and early 1990s when they were signed to a major label and proving to the world that, yes, they could even do “straightforward” songs that could qualify as “pop.” They have a boxed set of those albums out on vinyl, and so are promoting that as well, Tony pointed out to me later.

The music ended, and people started to say their farewells and drift back to their cars, and a paved road. Todd and his friend and I hung out for a long, long time with the band members who were still there — two or three hours. From a local chef who happened to be there, Tony learned the best way to cook scallops — something to do with white wine and searing them just so, but I couldn’t follow it — and talked about the recording studio he now owns in Brooklyn. I passed the bourbon around until it was gone and then we pulled out beers. Finally, Robert kindly drove me back to my car and I pledged to return in the morning and help clean up.

One final thing:  The following morning, Robert and I exchanged texts and agreed to meet at his house. I pulled up into the driveway, confused yet again in my lifelong way about where to go or park, but, when I finally believed I had figured it out, I got out and walked onto the porch of a beautiful, expansive Victorian house and rang the bell. Robert admitted me and showed me a framed photo on the wall of the parlor.  In the photo, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone are chatting away on that very porch. The photo was taken in 1931. “My father took that picture,” Robert told me. “He was 18.” That made me feel very close to history. But then, so did the entire weekend.

The "band shell."

The “band shell.”

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The Flaming TailFins

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Mister Moon.

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It was nice to meet Craig Bell (in the black hat), founding member of Rocket from the Tombs, and his wife Claude (left) in the flesh. I saw that band in 2003 at UCLA as well.

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With founding Pere Ubu guitarist Tom Herman. An unexpected surprise!

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With Emily Keener. She was on “The Voice” and was described to me as “a darker Joni Mitchell.” I enjoyed her set.

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The Numbers Band. Their music is like something out of the Old Testament: biblically powerful.

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Robert Wheeler (obscured), Tony Maimone, David Thomas, Steve Mehlman and Gary Siperko — Pere Ubu !

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Robert Wheeler (obscured), Tony Maimone, David Thomas, Steve Mehlman and Gary Siperko — Pere Ubu !

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With Tony Maimone and Steve Mehlman of Pere Ubu!

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Robert giving me a ride back down to the site the next morning. He holds 113 acres of farmland.

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With Robert and Linda Wheeler. I’m incredibly grateful to them.

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*with apologies to Pere Ubu.

Where I grew up

September 7th, 2018

My sister’s house is on the left, my brother’s house is on the right, and in the far distance there’s someone else’s light. Be patient.

Not working out

August 28th, 2018

Two Fridays ago, I suddenly and mysteriously threw my back out, really with no warning and with no apparent cause, so I didn’t go to the gym that night as planned.

This backache persisted, again inexplicably, so I didn’t go on Saturday or on Sunday, or the days following, and then as it drew close to my trip to Ohio to see Pere Ubu in what’s essentially the vast back yard of my friend the synthesizer player, I didn’t want to risk some recurrence or furtherance of the mysterious back outage, so I didn’t go then. (More about this trip, and my getting to meet a fascinating writer friend in person, soon.)

I assure you, honestly, none of this was procrastination — zero; zip — because I actually like going to the gym. I do. I go every other day. By happenstance, my sister texted me this morning to say that her hands ache from painful carpal tunnel and she knows I have some condition (I’ve had genetic, painful, early onset arthritis for about 10 years now, mostly in my hands and neck; thanks, Mom). “I remember you having a problem,” my sister texted, evidently not remembering in detail the exchange earlier this year when I was visiting her in New Jersey and we were playing pinochle and she looked at my fingers when I was dealing the cards and audibly gasped and said, “Oh, Lee! Look at your fingers!!!!”  in a clear indication that I have visible arthritis and its effects, and as though I haven’t been looking at my fingers every day of my life but especially a lot more lately. Now she asked, via text, “What did you do for treatment?” And I replied, “I go to the gym, which reduces systemic inflammation.” And I do. I go for that reason, and because going helps the confoundedly insomniac me sleep better, and because the competitive me likes increasing his weights and his routines and pushing himself.

Tonight, with that glorious trip to Ohio safely in the rear-view mirror, and feeling completely blocked while trying to write something, I went to the gym.

I like my gym.

I like the attractive young people who greet me at the desk without ever look askance at me because I’m no longer in their age group.

I like the easy camaraderie and courtesy offered by fellow workers-out. They’ll offer to let you “work in,” or they’ll politely ask if you’re almost done, or they’ll step aside if they’re blocking your locker.

I like the hours. The gym is called “24 Hour Fitness.” Guess when it’s open. Works for me.

I like its availability. There are 400 locations throughout California and across most well-populated areas of the country — which leaves out where I grew up, of course, where I had to join another gym to use when I visit, but I’ve been able to visit outposts of 24 Hour Fitness up and down California and in Omaha, NE and New York City. My membership works at all of them. It’s handy!

I like the offering:  sauna; jacuzzi; free weights; machines; cardio; showers; lockers. Basketball courts, yes, but I don’t use those, just as I don’t do Zumba or spinning or any other group activity. I do enough group activities in the rest of my life — when I’m at the gym, I’m there for me, solo.

What I don’t like about the one I go to — and this is the only thing I don’t like — is the soap. Or, better, the lack thereof.

After my workout and the steam room, I always shower. I want to, and believe me, if you were around, you’d want me to as well. I’m kind of old-fashioned in this regard:  I like to use soap when I shower. To do that, there would have to be liquid soap in the showers. Now, there are definitely liquid-soap dispensers, but too frequently they’re empty. All the soap has been used, one can infer, and the dispensers have not been refilled. And I don’t mean in just one shower — I mean in every shower.

I have complained about this.

Politely.

Repeatedly.

Sometimes not politely.

I have even taken to interrupting their sales tours, when a manager is walking around a prospect who has no idea that this is a friendly and well-outfitted gym that is customarily out of soap, and saying to that manager in direct proximate earshot to the prospective member, “There’s no soap in the showers. Again.”

For a long time, this accomplished nothing.

Then:  a miracle happened. Several months ago, I arrived to find that, now, every shower had been equipped with two soap dispensers. (Or, at least, the men’s showers had. I can’t vouch for anything that happens in the women’s showers. Although I’d like to be able to.) Mind you, this didn’t strike me as the best solution — I would have just had someone go around on a regular check-up basis throughout the day and night, say once every two hours, and refill the single dispensers — but I was glad to accept their solution. It seemed idiotically bureaucratic, but hey, now we’d have twice as much soap!

And that seemed to work well. There was always soap.

For a while.

I say that because tonight after my workout and the steam room I discovered — you’ve seen this coming — that, throughout the men’s shower complex of eight showers, each with its own shower door, every one of those dual soap dispensers was empty. And this wasn’t the first time. In a way, the problem of empty soap dispensers is now twice as big.

What I was thinking while pulling apart all of the dispensers and trying to squeeze out just enough soap to be able to use was this:  Yes, I could go on Yelp!, and other social-media platforms, and I could really raise a stink. (Which is what will indeed happen if I never get any soap.) I could write a letter to corporate. I’m certainly not going to complain to managers again; that’s pointless. Even though it seems stupid because, after all, they’re theoretically offering it, I guess I could bring my own soap and then find a way to deduct that cost from what I’m paying them every month.

Or maybe this is the best solution, one guaranteed to get some sort of a result:  After getting into the shower and then finding no soap, I could walk naked to the front desk and ask for some.

That out to have a cleansing effect.

Down by the River

August 23rd, 2018

It’s been 12 years since I’ve been in the friendly state (that would be Ohio, because it says “hi” in the middle), but I’ll be there tomorrow through Sunday. The reason I’m going makes the place seem even friendlier.

About a month ago, I got a strange invitation on Facebook. It was to some event called “Down by the River… We Had a Party!” and it seemed to be… I wasn’t sure what… some sort of outdoor event in a rural area about an hour west of Cleveland… but what it was was uncertain.

And then I got a direct message from the man who had invited me to this event, a gentleman named Robert Wheeler whom I’ve gotten to know better in recent years.  His message read: “I don’t expect you to make it, but I didn’t expect you to fly to london either….”

That’s when I realized that Robert, who plays synthesizer and theremin for the band Pere Ubu, was inviting me to a private concert with the band at his farm.

Jeez!

Yes, I did fly to London a few months ago to see this band. And, yes, I flew to Chicago about six months before that to, again, see this band (and my son, sure — but also to take that son to the concert!).

And, yes, I saw the band in LA less than a year before that, and in San Diego the night after the LA concert, and I’ve seen them… I don’t know… a dozen times before that, stretching back to 1989 I believe. I’ve seen them at the Roxy on the Sunset strip, and at a bit of a low point for them at a little guitar shop in West LA, and anchoring an entire weekend at UCLA. I’ve seen them many times, and I sure hope to see them many times more, because they are the best and smartest band anywhere around. (I could go on about why that’s true — trust me, I could go on about why that’s true — but not right now. But believe me, their music is open-minded, wide-ranging, heartfelt, noisy and consistently astonishing. And in 40 years of it, there is not one bit of treacle in it anywhere.)

So I have seen the band in all these locales over all these years… but I’ve never seen them at an invitation-only event at the farm of one of the band members.

But I will on Saturday!

This is a lucky time to be alive.

 

Letters, we get letters

August 23rd, 2018

In response to this post about the service Lovejoy, which provides quasi-facsimiles of historical letters as a monthly subscription, I got this nice email from its proprietor, Michael Sitver:

Lee,
I read your article on Letterjoy. I want to clarify a few things:
1. Most of our plans are way less than $17/mo. Most are $13-14/mo.

2. Many of our letters either aren’t available online or are hard to find online. We work hard to find unique letters from all around the country. For example, I spent 4 hours the other day in the National Postal Museum searching through their archives for a story (and letters) that would meet our criteria. Only 7% of their archives is available online.

3. Our goal isn’t just to send you mail. Our goal is to recreate the experience of receiving important letters, and to provide context, so you experience not only the content of the letter, but the context in which it was received. We restore handwriting and letterhead to a format that’s authentic, but readable.
Regardless, thanks for writing about Letterjoy.
Fair enough. I remain doubtful that there’s a large enough audience for this to be sustainable, but I respect Mr. Sitver’s entrepreneurial effort to find out. Even more, I appreciate his equable tone. That’s something generally more associated with letters from an earlier era than the social-media responses of today — and thus represents something lost when we moved into the digital age:  manners. I wish Mr. Sitver luck with this enterprise, and his next one.

Dead letter office

August 14th, 2018

The Internet gave rise to lots of new kinds of services, including lots that I just don’t understand. Here’s one of them.

For about $17 a month, this service called Letterjoy will send you a weekly reproduction of a historically notable letter, mailed directly to your house, and using, as their website notes, a real stamp.

Are people this desperate for mail that now they would look forward to one-way communications with people who are long dead? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the mail — but that’s because for almost my entire life, right up to now, people have been mailing me checks or comic books through it. And, yes, sometimes letters. And, in an earlier age, acceptance (or rejection) letters. But this was correspondence from living people, people I could correspond with should I choose.

The other mystifying thing about this is… aren’t these letters available somewhere on the Internet? These aren’t the real letters, or even copies of them — instead, as the site notes, “Many letters from within the last 150 years are typed on our Smith-Corona typewriter. Others are hand-written by our designers, then enhanced with advanced graphic software.” So if, say, George Patton hand-scrawled his letters on the insides of cereal boxes, you’d never know it, and instead you’d get something typed on a Smith-Corona and then, I suppose, Xeroxed. If Letterjoy can find Patton’s letters and use them, you probably can too, somewhere on the Internet.

Here’s Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Here’s Bill Gates’ open letter to hobbyists.

Here’s a 14-year-old Fidel Castro’s letter to Frank Roosevelt.

Here’s Adolf Hitler’s first letter about Jewry (and wouldn’t you like to receive this in the mail next month?).

This is only after a 30-second cursory search of the great World Wide Web.

So, if you can find letters you’re looking for, and if we now have a thing where you can get instantaneous communication, and if this service doesn’t even send you reproductions of the actual letters in question… I really don’t understand.

Is it just for the elderly and extremely, chronically, lonely?

Otherwise, this idea should be Returned To Sender.

The price of admission

August 11th, 2018

Yes, I want to see Public Image, Ltd. in November at the Fonda Theater with a friend of mine. Johnny Rotten is probably the last “get” for me — a music hero I haven’t seen who I’d like to see. The tickets are $50.

But NO, I don’t want to pay $16 for a “convenience fee.” That’s thirty-two percent of the ticket fee!

A few years ago, I read four extremely dull books on pricing, because I was curious about the subject and wanted to see what I could learn. I learned a lot. One of the things I learned about, for example, was anchor pricing. Once you know how to recognize it, you’ll see it frequently on menus and in other places. Here’s how it works:  In a clearly visible area of the menu, you place something outlandishly priced, like the frutti di mare at $200 a plate. You’ll think, “That’s crazy!” and not order that — but now that your eye has been drawn to the crazy price, the nearby lobster, at $69, looks like a deal. You’ve been anchored at $200, so now $69 is reasonable. Watch for that dynamic and you’ll start to see it everywhere.

These dull books were chock full of useful and enlightening information, but the major thing I learned is something that, in retrospect, looks obvious. All good pricing relies on fairness. If you believe you’re getting taken, you won’t buy. If you are spending a lot, you expect a lot:  either higher quality, or faster delivery, or better service, or scarcity of availability. I remember a story many years ago about the producer Joe Papp, and why in his Broadway production of “Angels in America” actors had to ride in already seated, and why in a previous production of something of his people had to have little working cars on the set, and so forth. (In LA, the actors simply carried in their chairs and sat.) Papp said the production always had to look like the high price was justified. Of course. Or people would resent it otherwise. You have to believe  you’re getting something in fair return for what you’re paying, or you feel ripped off.

Adding 32% (!!!) as a “convenience fee” when I know damned well that there is nowhere near a $16 cost in providing that ticket, there being no physical artifact and the electronic system to deliver that electronic artifact — the e-ticket — having been perfected and paid for years and years ago now, is unfair. I’m not paying it.

So, instead, I’ve asked my friend to drive into Hollywood and buy the tickets at the box office for us.

Seems fair, right?

(Not) government work

August 3rd, 2018

It isn’t exactly a revelation that the Trump disintegration — er, “administration” —  doesn’t know how government works (or, should work). But here’s the latest evidence:

  1. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that eliminating mileage rules on new cars would effectively reduce the ownership costs of a new vehicle by $2,340, or $468 a year over five years. Even if it’s true that this represents a cost saving, the job of the EPA is to protect the environment, not manage household budgets.  Or, at least, the job of the EPA used to be to protect the environment. (And the EPA, we should note, was started under executive order by a Republican president.)
  2. The Trump disintegration is also now saying that it should be the job of the ACLU to find those parents that the administration forcibly separated from children and then deported. Why a cadre of lawyers who work to protect our civil rights should do this — or even how — is anyone’s guess.

Given that this government isn’t doing its appropriate work as a government, it makes you wonder what they are doing.

 

Dynamic!

July 31st, 2018

We’ve started a thing at my company where every quarter we throw a party and somebody on our team of 12 shares a talent or interest that he or she is particularly passionate  about and then we play some fun office games. Today was the first one of these. We ordered in some pretty fantastic barbecue and one of the guys brought his snare drum and his practice pad and showed us how he learned to play drums, and then he screened a music video from his long-ago band that he toured the U.S. with. The music, in the style of that 90s rockabilly revival, was terrific, and so was the video, and we were suitably impressed. Like, bowled over.

Then out came the office games. The woman who coordinated all this drew answers from a bucket to the questions of “What was your first job?” and “What is something we don’t know about you?” and then everyone had to guess who each of these answers was from. My first job, for the record, was taking classified ads for the Atlantic City Press, starting at age 14. (That was my first job. My first income was when I started selling comic books through the mail, at age 11.) Something no one knew about me, and that I’m baldly going to confess here, is that I was once in a dance piece called “The Unicorn” in college, a humiliating experience I submitted to as a last-minute replacement for someone who dropped out, displaying a “talent” I promised myself I’d never repeat. Hey, at least I volunteered for that humiliation, right? Being a good sport and all.

Anyway, we also tied ourselves into a human knot that we had to untangle, which brought to mind uncomfortable thoughts about “The Human Centipede,” and we had lots of laughs. But before that, we played a game where everyone had a sheet of paper taped to his back and we were all supposed to write one or two words of what we thought about this person. Then, when everyone had finished writing on everyone else’s back, we were to pull off the sheets and read what had been said about each of us. Some people were “awesome,” “talented,” “reliable,” and so forth. Because I once used the word “bloviating” in our office about someone who had gone on at length in a meeting and four of the guys hustled to look it up, they’ve now adopted that as their favorite word in the English language — and so, of course, someone wrote “bloviating” on one of those guys’ backs. Which got a laugh.

When I turned around my sheet, here’s what it said:

  • Funny
  • Smart!
  • Observant
  • Charismatic
  • Caring
  • Positive vibes!
  • Insightful
  • Amazing!
  • Dynamic

Now, granted, I don’t think anyone was tempted to write, say, “shithead,” because it wouldn’t be too hard to quickly look around and see who had what color of marker. It was nice to see funny — whereas many people throughout my life would have said “irritating” — and, yes, I guess I’m smart (!) and observant, which has also created trouble for me most of my life.

But… dynamic?

I couldn’t have been happier to see “dynamic.”

Because lately, at age 56, I’m not sure I’m always presenting as so dynamic. I’d like to, that’s for sure. And I think I was dynamic — and maybe charismatic! — 20 years ago. But in 2018? Well, it’s nice to see that someone — and no, I don’t know who — thinks so.

Toward the end of the day, when I went downstairs for some coffee, I heard some of the staff still remarking over these insights from others. I volunteered how thrilled and somewhat puzzled I was to see “dynamic.”

Then I added, “But it’s kinda like the Dynamic Duo — Batman and Robin? — so maybe that’s not so great.”

One of the other guys shot back, “I guess it depends on which one you’d be.”

Right.

 

A better Comic-Con, and the usual Harlan Ellison

July 25th, 2018

This year the San Diego Comic-Con, which I returned from early Monday morning, seemed better planned than ever:  Although the event was as sold-out as ever, with an estimated 150,000 people packing the convention center and environs, there was a remarkable easing of the crush that has been squeezing all the attendees. How do you accomplish getting just as many people, but alleviating the sort of throngs we’re used to seeing in big-budget zombie flicks? You start by moving to RFID badges and requiring that attendees scan in, and out, of every passageway — thus eliminating all the counterfeit badges that, evidently, had been turning up. You move more and more events into adjacent locales, such as the Hyatt and the Marriott and the downtown library, thereby splitting up the horde. Finally, you work with the city to get the main thoroughfare closed to vehicles, and you restrict the main sidewalk to people with badges, thereby creating easier and more orderly passage for everyone who is there for the convention.

All tolled, it’s truly impressive how well-managed and well-organized this event is.

Because it was so much better organized, I was able to get into every panel and event I wanted to attend. In the past 10 years, it’s more of a crapshoot:  How early should I line up to see if I can get in? (Thereby missing other potential panels because I was in line early for something else.) This year? No problem. The result is that I went to more panels than ever, learned a lot, and had an all-around terrific time sampling from the wide variety of very well-programmed offerings.

I might want to go into detail here about some of those offerings later, but in the meantime, given my recent post here about the recently deceased Harlan Ellison, I thought I’d say that I went to his hastily organized tribute at the convention. I do not mean to poke fun when I note that the moderator spent much of his time choking back tears over Harlan’s demise (while noting that Harlan “hated crying” and would strenuously object were he there), and then devoted the first 23 minutes to an extremely mopey video from Neil Gaiman on the subject of how much Harlan’s writing meant to him. I am less of a fan, and didn’t enjoy my encounters with Harlan Ellison, so, as they say, your mileage may vary. Before arriving, I had been tempted to go to the mic during the inevitable Q and A and point out that Harlan spent a lot of time deriding fans (a visit to YouTube will help you verify this), fans being precisely the sort of people who were now attending this little tribute panel. But when I found out that his widow was seated in the front row, I thought better of it. She put up with him for 30 years; why add to her misery now?

What I will do, though, is link to three recent posts about Harlan Ellison on Mark Evanier’s blog.

Here’s the first one, in which Harlan insinuates himself front and center into someone else’s lifetime achievement award.  It seems like Mark thinks this is cute; I think it’s self-centered and childish.

Here’s the second one, in which Harlan runs around naked in front of other people because he believes he’s written the best sentence ever.

Here’s the third one, in which Harlan blows up a simple misunderstanding into an incident in which he’s physically threatening to beat someone, and urging the crowd to assist him. In this one, Mark, like some others, decides he’s had enough and keeps his distance thereafter.

I have a friend who suspects that Harlan Ellison was manic-depressive. That’s easy to say and impossible to prove. What it does seem fair to say is that he was a drama queen, and sometimes that was fun, and lots of times it wasn’t.