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


The human(less) condition

May 15th, 2017

Are advancements in technology primary aimed at improving the human condition — or eliminating human interaction?

David Byrne lays out an interesting argument that it’s the latter.

Here are just a few formerly human interactions that are now mostly replaced or on their way out:

  • Buying books — replaced by Amazon.com
  • Banking with a teller — replaced by ATMs
  • Grocery checkouts — replaced by self checkout or ordering online
  • Customer service phone calls — routinely handled by automated phone trees and responsive bots
  • Board games — replaced by video game consoles, online video games and smartphone apps

Byrne’s got a much longer list than this, which you can read here, along with his analysis of the situation.

As for my own brief list above:  I’m not missing my interactions with bank tellers; I alternate between buying books online or in person (at comics shops and book stores); I hate the automated telephone situation more than I can express; I still play board games with family (and card games), and also play on an xBox; and I make a point of having humans check out my groceries because it’s quicker than me at the self checkout and because I get to brag about how much I saved through coupons and also because I’m trying to help humans somewhere stay employed.

Because, unlike machinery, humans need to eat.

This is so haggard

May 14th, 2017

What’s a “shit show”?

Recently, I’ve gone from never having heard the term “shit show” to now hearing it, as they say, “all the time.”

I’ve been trying to figure out a) the source of its sudden popularity; and b) what exactly it means, and by that I mean literally.

I get hung up on things like this. When I hear things like “I thought to myself” (the rejoinder I rarely pull out for this redundancy:  “Oh, I didn’t know you were telepathic and could think to others!”) or “it was really unique” or “very unique,” it hurts my ear. I am a lover of language, and of colloquialism — give me Chaucer or Twain or great rock or blues singers any day — so I’m not a stick-in-the-mud, but these particular examples don’t exalt idiomatic English, they drag it down. “That dog won’t hunt” is a great regionalism meaning “that won’t work”; saying “I thought to myself” just means that you actually haven’t done any thinking about it, whatever it is, and similarly, “frankly” generally means “I’m not being so frank” and “at the end of the day” means absolutely nothing unless it’s a time you plan to meet someone. They’re just vestigial bits of utterance that add nothing, and therefore subtract.

I know that “shit show” (or, as the Oxford English Dictionary would have it, “shitshow”) means a bad situation. But what is the origin of this saying?

According to this piece that I just found courtesy of Google, “shit show” dates back to 1964 and an exhibition at the Gertrude Stein Gallery that was, actually “21 piles of sculpted mammal dung” — i.e., an actual shit show. So now we have one more thing to thank artists for:  the term “shit show.”

Why I’ve never heard this term before, even though it’s been in use for 53 years, is a mystery, as is the question of why I’m now hearing it so frequently. And no, not in reference to Donald Trump (although it would certainly apply).

I’m interested in how words come to be, and die off, and morph. The other day, I learned that “behoove” has a noun form:  “behoof.” This caught my attention because “behoove” happens to be a word I hear myself using not infrequently, when I’m trying to get a group of peers to join me in doing something:  “It behooves us to….” is something I said twice last month — I heard it come out of my mouth. “Behoof” is a noun meaning “benefit or advantage”; what a great word! Although I have no doubt I’ll have far less luck getting anyone to join in on doing something for the “behoof” of us all.

A similar discovery, five or ten years ago:  “contempt” has a verb form! Yes, you can hold someone in contempt, but you can also contemn them. This one I used for a while, with no one blinking an eye — I think because they heard it as “condemn.” Admittedly, “contemn” is hard to say with enough distinction to help it stand out from “condemn” — you really have to hit that “t” — but it’s such a great word that I am determined to resurrect it.


I’m reading “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt — a gift from a writer in my playwriting workshop. However enjoyable, I’m not sure I’m tailored for this sort of book — a rambling 800-page picaresque with plot roundelays a la Dickens — but the author’s wordplay keeps me going. She’s aces at the English language. She plucks from the ether words I’ve long forgot or never learned, and uses them to great impact. Her long set pieces about furniture restoration reminded me of Harold Pinter’s catalog of nuts and bolts and bits and bobs in “The Caretaker,” a laundry-list style of storytelling that I’ve been heavily indebted to (i.e., swiped from) for 30 years now. The richness of the words is too delectable for someone with my ear to resist.

Dead-smack in the middle of this page on the left from Tartt’s book, you’ll see the word “haggard.” “Haggard” holds special significance for me because in the late 90s and early aughts I made a concerted effort to introduce it into the language with a slangy new meeting.

At the time, my son was bringing home all sorts of slang from grade school, some of it exciting, but some of it irritating. He was also spending time with other kids around the neighborhood, including a dimwitted boy down the block who always came calling for him, and blond twins across the street who at an early age seemed reckless and somewhat untended. (In adulthood, one of them straightened out in the armed forces; the other one I believe went to prison.) These kids, like all kids, were fast and loose with language, so I tried an experiment. Every time I was called to witness on some exploit, to watch a video game or a scooter trick, or to admire some new possession, I’d say, “That’s so haggard!”

“Haggard,” we may recall, means “having a gaunt, wasted, or exhausted appearance, as from prolonged suffering, exertion, or anxiety; worn.”

But I wanted to see if we could change that. Change it into meaning, say, “exciting,” or “awesome,” or “astonishing,” or “unexpected.”

After all, “cool” (as in, “that’s cool!”) can also mean “hot” (“That’s hot!”) and “fuck” can seemingly mean absolutely anything, so why can’t “haggard” be extrapolated into meaning “exciting” or “awesome” or “astonishing” or “unexpected”?

So I started using it that way with these kids. I figured these boys would take it around the block, and take it to school, and I’d watch to see how it would spread to other kids, and then maybe to adults.

The first time I was called outside to watch something — a trick on a bicycle, I think — I said, “That’s haggard!” The other kids immediately nodded because they could tell from my tone that, yes indeed, that trick was haggard.

After that initial success, I started proclaiming all sorts of things haggard:  new shoes, a new haircut, an incredible story from school, success with grades — it was all haggard. I was careful not to overexpose the term, and to use “cool” and also “the bomb” (which was in explosive use at the time) so as not to be too obvious, but I was dutiful in salting my exclamations with “haggard.” So every third or fourth event or action was “haggard.”

I cannot fully convey the thrill I felt the first time I heard one of the twins exclaim that a trick performed in front of my house on a scooter ramp I’d built for them all was “haggard!” “That’s so haggard!” one of them screamed. I positively glowed in triumph.

What I hadn’t counted on was my son’s reaction.

“It doesn’t mean that!” he burst out.  The other kids looked up. “He’s just saying that! ‘Haggard’ doesn’t mean it! So don’t say it!”

I don’t remember whether I’d told him of my scheme, or if he’d caught on, but now the language of his friends was infected by my ruse, and he didn’t like it. As the days unfolded, I used “haggard” a few more times, but as I watched his agitation and scowling grow with each incident I could see it wasn’t funny to him, and so it wasn’t funny to me, and I let it drop — although I did still hear it, occasionally, from his friends, before finally its new meaning ebbed away.

The other day, when I came across “haggard” on the page in “The Goldfinch,” I took the photo above and texted it to my son, who now lives in Chicago. I didn’t append any explanation; just sent him the photo.

He texted back, “Is this you still trying to make haggard cool? Because I never doubted it was a word.”

(What he doesn’t realize:  He’s probably picked up that pattern of answering the question by starting a phrase with “because” from me; it’s a hallmark of my writing — like it or not — and I probably picked it up from reading (and corresponding with) Harlan Ellison in my teens.)

My reply:  “Just look how cool it is! Haggard is so cool that it’s, well, haggard!”

He responded:  “It’s a great word in its own right. Does a wonderful job of describing someone who is tired yet hard working, a person who is being worked to the bone is well-described as haggard. But it is not cool.”

And my reply, of course, was:  “It will be.”

So:  Please help me with this.



The view from afar

May 4th, 2017

FutureArchaeologistI’m on a road trip (southern New Jersey, NYC, Las Vegas, South Lake Tahoe, then Kansas) that, with a brief interregnum, will keep me out of LA for the most part of three weeks.

On my flight last night from Denver to Philadelphia, we hit major turbulence. As the plane bucked and swerved, and rose and fell, the woman next to me grew anxious and the woman next to her, on the aisle, started to openly pray. I kept reading my book. (“The Goldfinch.”) The woman beside me turned to me and said, “You seem okay. You’re just reading your book.”

“Statistically, you’re safer in the air than you are on the ground,” I said. “Name the last commercial airliner that crashed.”

She and the other woman puzzled over it and finally fished up an example from five or seven years ago.

“Right,” I said. “And there are thousands of flights a day. Two others things,” I added. “First, I’ve been on a flight with far worse turbulence than this.”

“Worse than this?” one of them said.

“Uh huh. And you’ll note I’m still here. Plus:  This plane has to land safely because I have things to do tomorrow.”

The chuckled over that, and later said that helped, and thanked me.

And here I am.

My good friend Paul, a friend of 35 years, picked me up at the airport, his 80-year-old mother in tow. I said to Paul, “Paul, do you realize we’ve been friends for thirty-five years? You should’ve been more entertaining!” Actually, he’s been plenty entertaining, in his chronically even-keeled way, if you have a dry sense of humor. How do I know we’ve been friends for 35 years? Because, although I feel 100% 32 years old within myself, in the car, we started comparing ailments — he with a troublesome neck ailment that keeps his head straying over to the left, me with bursitis that sometimes leaves me limping around the block. I ventured the idea of medical marijuana — in Gummi Bear form. Next stop: Shady Rest.

One of the things I had to do, so that my plane had to land safely, was to take my great-nephew Brody out to dinner. He’s the middle son of my sister’s daughter, and a smart, interesting kid, newly aged 13, and we’ve been texting about exotic meals and things neither of us has tried. So I decided to take him out for a pricey dinner, where we could appreciate what we had and have a real conversation. I took him to The Knife & Fork Inn in Atlantic City, perhaps the only upscale restaurant remaining in that blighted seaside resort town that has seen far better days. His mother had cautioned him against ordering too big, but I told him to get whatever he wanted — he’s going to be 13 only once, after all — so he ordered the lobster tail and filet mignon, and I ordered the rack of lamb and a side of asparagus in a Bearnaise sauce, and we split an order of tuna tartare. While I was hoping for escargot as the dish he’d try, it wasn’t on the menu, but to my delight he scooped up the tuna tartare, found it to his liking, and kept digging in for more.

Throughout dinner, I got a reminder of what it’s like to be a 13-year-old boy.

Brody talked about his siblings — incredibly annoying, of course — and about video games and movies and about the best possible topic in the world, which is comic books, and also how awful and wrong it is when movies stray from the “true” story found in the comic books. As someone well-versed in the indignity of the omission of Ant-Man and the Wasp — both of them founders in the comics! — from the Avengers movies, I share his outrage. We’re both looking forward to Free Comic-Book Day this Saturday, and were debating whether we’d line up for the free comic books or just dash into the store to try to score bargains. He also talked about girls. He’s had four girlfriends so far, and he was man enough to share which ones had dumped him (those are his words) and which ones he had let go. I shared a story from my own youth, when I was about his age and at an 8th grade dance, and “Nights in White Satin” was playing, and I leaned into the girl I was dancing with and started to kiss her on the neck and she said, “Don’t do that,” and I asked why and she said, “Because my mother is standing right behind you” and I turned around and indeed her mother was.

He howled with laughter at that story.


He also shared once again his interest in old things and said he’d like to be an archaeologist. This is a boy who seems older than his years, and interested in things that wildly predate him, whether it’s history or the antiquity of cultural artifacts from his recent forebears. (For instance:  A few years ago, he desperately wanted a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. That was a fad 50 years before his birth.) Whether or not he winds up being an archaeologist, he seems to me to have a lot of intellectual capacity. Because I think my job at this point is precisely not to offer off-putting sentiments from a middle-aged-adult perspective, the only advice I gave him all night was this:  “Stay open-minded. Form your own judgments.”

But that’s the advice I would offer everyone.


One way to spot a surefire hit movie

April 24th, 2017

When people take photos of the movie poster.


Incredible, incredible dialogue

April 24th, 2017

Here’s the transcript of the Associated Press interview with Donald Trump. I don’t expect you to read it all. I certainly don’t expect him to.

I will say that this would serve as the script for my next play, but lately I’m not writing Theatre of the Absurd.

What I’d like to see

April 23rd, 2017

In addition to the Trump impeachment (and good luck on that one), here are some things I’d like to see this summer.

After 29 years of wondering just who the Hell would ever read through the LA Times’ Summer Sneaks list, I did so this morning. So don’t let anyone ever tell you it’s too late to change.

Here are the films (and release dates) on my I’d-like-to-see list. Realistically, given time constraints, I might see 5-8 of these. At the top, I’m putting the MUST SEE list (barring nuclear holocaust, of course).

I’m not even a movie fan, per se — but there’s something about each of these that speaks to me.


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (5/5/17)

Alien: Covenant (I go to see all “Aliens” movies, so long as they don’t also involve Predators, because even I know to avoid those.)(5/19/17)

War for the Planet of the Apes (For five decades now, I’ve made it a practice to see all “Apes” movies) (7/14/17)

Dunkirk (TOM HARDY and MARK RYLANCE. ‘Nuff said!) (7/21/17)

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (the terrifying Al Gore documentary — I’ll need drinks afterward) (7/28/17)


Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (documentary; currently, I’m interested in development issues) (4/28/17)

LA92 (documentary about the LA riots; I want to see it because I was here) (4/28/17)

Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait (documentary) (5/5/17)

The Lovers (Aidan Gillen, Melora Walters) (5/5/17)

Obit (documentary, about the people who write obits for newspapers) (5/5/17)

3 Generations (5/5/17)

Burden (documentary, about the performance artist Chris Burden, who encouraged his assistant to shoot him in the arm during one live performance, and who was crucified onto a Volkswagen in another) (5/12/17)

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (5/12/17)

Whisky Galore! (it stars Eddie Izzard — that’s why!) (5/12/17)

The Commune (This is about a Danish commune in the 1970s. I think communes are ridiculous, and from the plot description this one sounds typically misbegotten, so I’ll be seeing it because occasionally it’s good to see your beliefs and values vindicated.) (5/19/17)

Paint It Black (5/19/17)

The Survivalist (post-apocalyptic thriller) (5/19/17)

Long Strange Trip (documentary about the Grateful Dead; I don’t like the Dead, but I’m still trying to figure out why so many people do. I feel similarly about Frank Sinatra.) (5/26/17)

Churchhill (Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery; I’m going because it’s a great cast, and because it’s about Churchhill.) (6/2/17)

Wonder Woman (Because it looks like great fun, and because she was the only fun thing in that wretched Batman v. Superman movie.) (6/2/17)

It Comes at Night (And hopefully it scares the bejesus out of me.) (6/9/17)

Nobody Speaks: Trials of the Free Press (documentary about the privacy trial between Hulk Hogan and Gawker Media) (6/23/17)

Baby Driver (from writer-director Edgar Wright, about a heist gone wrong) (6/28/17)

Good Fortune (documentary about John Paul DeJoria’s rise from homelessness and gang banging to become a billionaire philanthropist — I love this guy) (6/30/17)

The Journey (Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, John Hurt in a fictional account of two implacable enemies in Northern Ireland – firebrand Democratic Unionist Party leader Paisley and Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuinness – who set aside their differences and arrive at peace. I need more of this right now.) (June)

The Dark Tower (from the Stephen King novels) (8/4/17)

Annabelle: Creation (I see all “Annabelle” movies too. I’m a sucker for menacing evil playthings.) (8/11/17)

Tulip Fever (written by Tom Stoppard) (8/25/17)

The Unknown Girl (thriller) (August)

Paid vacation

April 14th, 2017

Paid by YOU.

Fear when flying

April 13th, 2017

All of the attention paid to the passenger forcibly ejected from the United Flight isn’t because we’re insensitive to the plight of Syrians or possible collusion with the Russians; the attention is being paid precisely because the rough treatment of the doctor who had already paid for his seat has so many of us asking what has happened to our society, and to our civility and principles, that we now find ourselves with this sort of episode. Put another way: It’s of a piece with many other things.

Laying down the law

April 11th, 2017

Some people are surprised that the Texas anti-masturbation law is moving forward.

But lawmakers have gone back and forth and back and forth with this. Now that it’s finally coming to a head, nobody should be surprised by the climax.

Punishment for violating the new law? Getting sent to the penal colony.

Why do old books smell so great?

April 10th, 2017

Three words for you: “woody,” “smoky” and “earthy.”

Thanks to Doug Hackney for letting me know about this!