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


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Year-end update

December 31st, 2020

No, no, I won’t be doing a look back on 2020, because as I recently noted here, Who’d want to? But it’s not a bad day for housekeeping, even blog-housekeeping, so here goes:

In this post, I related that my reading pile continues to grow. When I’d had the conversation with my friend about my stack of books-in-waiting, there were 78 books on the list; after reading 32 books over the course of 2020, the number of books had somehow risen to 103. Since then, two things have happened. First, I finished reading another book. (No cause for applause; it just happens.) Secondly, my family and I went to pick up sushi on Tuesday night, but we arrived early and the order wasn’t ready. So, looking around, my wife suggested we drop into Barnes & Noble. “Um, I said, it’s a book store….” Because we knew what would happen. So, yes, while in there for all of 10 minutes, I wound up buying two books. So now my number rests at 104. If book publishers had one ounce of moral fiber, they’d stop publishing books until I could catch up.

In this post, I exposed the true nature of one of our dogs. Unfortunately for him, it seems that every member of my immediate family also read that blog post and is now onto him as well. Instead of seeing him as “goofy” (their term), he’s now viewed, and treated, as cunning. Sorry, pal.

Back here, I was bemoaning all the theatre that didn’t happen in 2020 and that, therefore I didn’t get to see. I also said that “theatre” on Zoom is not theatre. (I don’t know what it is, because it isn’t TV either, but it isn’t theatre. Theatrical, sure, potentially. But not theatre itself.) On Tuesday night, before the unfortunate bookstore visit that further extended my reading pile, I took my wife and two sons to see “Stranger Things – The Drive-Into Experience.” If watching a play on Zoom isn’t theatre, neither is sitting in your car for an hour and wending your way through a dimly lit parking structure while young actors jump around outside your car, pantomiming actions to prerecorded dialogue being played over your radio while video screens run loops behind them. I’ve enjoyed watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix (mostly because it captures the teen experience of the 80s so well), and wish I’d enjoyed this. But if you’re sitting in your car watching video screens of excerpts of the TV show, why not just stay home and watch the TV show? Right off the top of my head, three very creative and inventive stage collaborators I’ve had the good fortune to work with — Paul S., Matt A., and Ross K. — came to mind as people who would’ve made this actually theatrical. At one point, my wife looked over at me from the passenger’s seat. “Why are you on your phone?” she asked. Well, I couldn’t see the screen in front of me, being completely blocked by a large SUV, and didn’t much care. I checked the reviews online and they were effusive, which just made me realize that these other attendees had no idea what they could’ve had in the alternate-universe production in my mind. Best line goes to my older son: “This is the perfect show for Los Angeles: Everybody gets to stay in their car and drive around inside a parking structure.”

Finally, it behooves me to say, as I’ve been saying for so long, that “years” and “decades” don’t really exist. We’ve manufactured these concepts. Our need to create these organizing principles is a direct output of the way our brains are wired; we need to collect time into buckets of meaning that we can make sense of, and that we can remember events by. Why do most of us associate a specific year with, for instance, a certain album or movie coming out, or a presidential election, or a life event? We do so to provide a hook for related memories to hang on.

I can prove to you that decades don’t exist: Think of, say, the 60’s. Okay, got it? Well, that period that we associate it with was actually more like 1958 through 1974. See? Not contemporaneous with “the sixties.” The 1970s, which I remember vividly, and which were exceedingly weird and somewhat terrifying, ran from late 1974 through 1980. Which made it, thankfully, a short decade. Meanwhile, the 1300’s lasted for about two hundred years. When you think about 2020, aren’t you really thinking about mid-March through now? Or maybe somewhat into 2021? 2020 was not actually 2020.

I share this by way of noting that tonight is New Year’s Eve, and we treat it as a way to intend a better year for the next year, and to plan our better selves. So perhaps it is useful. But I would remind us that every year, every day, every minute, is what we make of it. Don’t let a single moment slip down the drain hole unappreciated.

Stuff happens

December 29th, 2020

So that we could select and purchase the large Christmas present I’d promised her, my wife and I drove two hours roundtrip yesterday through a monsoon that ripped the roof off the house of someone I know. The entire way down, she asked how I felt about driving in the rain, and shouldn’t we turn back?

I said, “Boy, you really have lived in L.A. for 30 years now. It’s just rain.”

To be fair, it was just rain in the way that the federal debt is just like owing somebody a fiver. At one point, I saw a truck coming up the freeway run through a puddle and the resulting wave washed entirely over a car in front of me.

But I was on a mission to pick up this Christmas present that day, because of scheduling and also because of the planning we’d have to do around its placement.

The object in question is five feet tall, three feet deep, and three feet across, weighs about as much as a football huddle, and is clearly functional in purpose, but my wife thinks it’s also decorative because it’s so nicely made. In representing permanence, it reminds me of the heavy furniture Kafka so feared in all the letters he wrote to the fiancee he never married.

In practical terms, this means we don’t know where to put it when it arrives.

I proposed upstairs in the walk-in closet. She said downstairs in the guest room. Later, she offered the idea of putting it in the room we’re turning into a library. Both of us nixed the garage as a place for it. No matter where it goes, we’ll have to rearrange everything else already in that room.

Here’s what happens when you live in a house for 25 years: You accumulate stuff. Especially if you have children who grow up in the house, but who then move away but leave all their stuff there, and especially if you have a large garage, and especially if you add a second story to the house as we did. If you live on a boat, or in a 200-square-foot apartment in lower Manhattan like friends of ours, you are careful about what you bring home; everything new coming in means that something old must be going. If you have almost 3,000 square feet of house, not counting that garage or all that space under the carport, then you gradually turn into the Collyer brothers, and find the show “Hoarders” oddly reassuring: “Oh, see? We’re not that bad!”

A few years ago, Marie Kondo’s book about all the joy that tidying up can bring you lit a fire under us, and bit by bit we’ve grown merciless about parting with some things, mostly old clothes, boxes of bills stretching back decades, and “fun” knick-knacks that neither of us will admit to having bought. We’ve pulled bag-loads of unidentifiable kitchen gadgets out of drawers, donated barrels of toys, and tossed away every dry pen and broken pencil. So there’s been some progress.

The true challenge is in the realm of large items (like our new purchase), or items that are so interrelated and numerous as to constitute a larger whole. Books, for example, fill about a dozen bookcases, and no, I won’t part with them, because I learned my lesson in college; after selling back my books one semester because I was destitute, years later I bought them all back — meaning I paid full retail twice! I have two lateral file cabinets of my papers (various drafts, plus correspondence), plus there are the family files. The garage has 25 years of camping equipment, sports equipment, holiday decorations, tools, bicycles, and the gym I set up this summer because the actual gyms are closed. And, I have about 50 long boxes of comic books, or, as I like to think of them, “almost enough.”

Tonight, while playing pinochle with our two sons, my wife returned to the topic of where to put the large object; once placed, it can’t be moved. I couldn’t concentrate on that, though, because I was working to hide my glee at the double-run of spades secretly nesting in my hand. She, meanwhile, was volubly considering laying in additional electrical work in one of the rooms for the new object. Gradually, this turned into commentary from both of us about how things would have to move, or go, and how to get rid of more stuff, and how we ought to do that tomorrow, while our big strapping soldier-son who loads and unloads large trucks for the Army is still here on leave.

At some point, I took something out to the recycling can, now curbside and awaiting pickup in the morning. I caught a glimpse of our neighbor’s house before coming back inside. The neighbor was supposed to be in Texas for a week now, but his truck was still there.

“Did he actually go on his trip?” I asked our younger son, who often tends to the neighbor’s house while he’s away. The neighbor, who is everything anyone could hope for in a neighbor, had left him with a set of keys.

Our son confirmed that our neighbor was still home.

“Well, if he’s going to be home all week, how are we going to be able to break in?” I asked.

“Oh God,” my wife said. “That’s the last thing we need: more stuff!”

“No kidding,” I said. “I figured if he wasn’t there we could break in and drop off some of our stuff. Just put a bit of it in every room to get rid of it. Maybe he wouldn’t even notice!”

Anyone want a large (but heavy) working TV? Or one section of a sectional sofa, brand-new in box? How about some fun bric-a-brac? These and more items are getting offered for free pickup starting tomorrow.

Not-year in review

December 27th, 2020

Today, the Washington Post unveiled its “humorous” 2020 year-in-review, courtesy of Dave Barry, which was even less funny than Dave Barry normally is.

Then the Los Angeles Times carrier dropped today’s edition on my front lawn, featuring its own year-in-review, which made me want to run after her car and take back the Christmas tip I’d given her.

Why would anyone want to perform a year in review on 2020? Except, perhaps, to learn what not to do.

2020 was the year in which I saw no more than one play. At least, not live on-stage — and, no, watching “theatre” on Zoom doesn’t count as theatre, so, yes, I saw only the one. Oh, I was supposed to see more, but I was out of town / out of the country for a huge swath of January, had only the one show scheduled for February, and then, well, you know what happened after that. I sure was looking forward to the revival of 1776 and also to a host of other shows, and I wish I’d liked the one I did get to see.

2020 was the year in which I wrote a full-length play, all 120ish pages of it plus notes, then realized I didn’t like it at all, then set about rewriting it from a different point of view and a different tone, then found that I needed to do research (!) and then realized that maybe this wasn’t the play for me to be writing anyway. Yes, it was that sort of year — in which one writes two versions of the same play and then isn’t satisfied with either.

2020 was also the year in which I saw one concert. Oh, I enjoyed that one tremendously (and we’ll get to that), but what might it have been like to see all the others that were scheduled? The Cruel World Festival alone (an instant sellout, but a friend and I scored great seats) promised sets from Morrissey, Bauhaus, Blondie, Devo, Echo & The Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs, the Church, Public Image Limited, and so many more. The fest was scheduled for May, then got rescheduled to September, but sometime around June someone woke up to what wasn’t ending anytime soon and just canceled it.

Should I point out that this was the year that Comic-Con was canceled? And, no, that valiant effort of doing a virtual Comic-Con was not Comic-Con. I know, because I’ve been to Comic-Con every year since 1988. Except for one year — guess which one.

2020 was the year in which a politician I’ve always liked and rooted for finally won the presidency — except the other candidate refused to admit defeat and half of his party in the House is still going along with it.

In 2020 in the United States, more than 300,000 people and counting died from what someone (see previous paragraph) kept saying was like the flu, and not to worry about it. So much winning!

2020 was the year in which one of my favorite restaurants, Pacific Dining Car, a place of many memories for me, went out of business… one year short of its 100th anniversary. That is so 2020! Now I’m afraid thousands of other restaurants are going to follow it into oblivion, if they haven’t already, taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with them.

In 2020, many of my friends lost their jobs. Their long-time jobs. Hard-to-replace jobs.

In 2020 it cost a small fortune and a short lifetime to get a package from the U.K., thanks to changes made by our postmaster. Some delivery days, the U.S. mail didn’t arrive at all, a true first in my lifetime, and yet another achievement for the current administration.

2020 was the year in which one of my kids came home for Christmas, but the other didn’t because of our reasonable fears during the pandemic.

2020 wasn’t a total bust. As the year opened, my daughter and I went to Spain to see Pere Ubu play, and also spent time in the same room as Hieronymus Bosch paintings I’ve admired for decades, and rode high-speed rail from Madrid to Segovia, and ate in the world’s oldest restaurant, and went to a flamenco show and did some shopping and had an altogether excellent time. I sometimes think that reflecting on January is what kept me together through March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December.

And, y’know what? I’m healthy and alive and so are my family, the sun is shining, and I don’t own a restaurant. If 2020 has one lesson for us, it’s this: Be grateful for what you have, and do your best not to spread misery around, because many people have it far worse. If we’re going to review 2020, we should celebrate it for leaving us with that lesson.

Voltaire said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that man is essentially optimistic because he goes to bed making plans for the next day. In that spirit: 2021, I await you!

Like Sisyphus

December 26th, 2020

A few years ago, when I was making my way through David McCullough’s biography of the Wright Brothers, I fell into a discussion about reading with a friend. I was extolling the virtues of the Goodreads app, which helps me track the books I’ve read as well as, especially, the ones I want to read. This has proved very helpful at Christmastime when family members want to know what books I want, or when I’m in a bookstore readying for travel to another city and looking for something to read on the trip.

“How many books do you have on that list?” my friend asked.

“Seventy-eight,” I said.

“Seventy-eight!” he said. “You’ll never read them all.”

I did some basic math, and even while knowing that the average page count of books varies greatly, I figured I’d get them all read in four years or so. Sure, “War and Peace” was on there — a second attempt — but I’d knock that off at some point. And this year, it turns out, I read Ron Chernow’s magnificent (in content and in length) nearly 1,000-page biography of George Washington. I wasn’t intimidated.

But just now I checked to see, four years after our discussion, how many books remain in my queue.

One hundred and three. Numerically at least, that doesn’t equal progress.

See, what happens is this: Other books come along! So that even as you’re reading your way through the list, new books line up alongside them!

Someone should have told me this. Like, decades and decades ago.

I’ve read 32 books so far this year, a good number but not a great one, and that’s with counterbalancing the Chernow doorstop with two collections of the mildly diverting The Immortal Hulk. (It seems that, almost 50 years on, no matter what he’s getting up to, life is an ordeal for the Hulk. But somehow, yes, I do want to know more.) Before the year ends in a few days, I’ll definitely finish at least one of the books I’m reading now (The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball) and probably one of the ones I was gifted for Christmas.

My Christmas haul, by the way, included: two novels ( Luster by Raven Leilani — seeing it on Barack Obama’s best-of list was not an inducement; I had read an excerpt and was drawn to the writing; and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell); two non-fiction books (1491 by Charles C. Mann, about pre-Columbian culture in what’s now the Americas; and Uncanny Valley, an expose of sorts of Silicon Valley by a young woman who worked there); and what I can assure you was the terrifically fun “graphic novel” (we used to call them comic books) Black Hammer/Justice League:  Hammer of Justice!, which I read immediately, and which is filled with laugh-out-loud wit and clever insights and playful mockery of the history of superhero team-up comics, although — warning — you need a familiarity with the Black Hammer universe to make sense of it).

Others here got books for Christmas too: my eldest got The Ministry for the Future by the great science-fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson (also on my list, and Barack Obama’s too) and the fourth book in a fantasy series I hadn’t heard of; my youngest got a fistful of financial management and investment books and also a memoir/self-discipline book with this pugilistic title: Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds (this son of mine is an extremely determined 18-year-old); and my wife got a crime novel set in Los Angeles and also a photo book of grinning dogs with fun captions, the sort that should lift anyone’s day. To our daughter, down in Florida, we sent books exploring and depicting the inner workings of the human body, and also a book of pharmacological concoctions. She also asked for books on “murder and horror” — as though the medical books wouldn’t be enough.

A close friend also sent me three very well-selected books (and thank you again, sir!) one of them a biography of legendary stage director Alan Schneider, who worked with Beckett and Albee; the second an exploration of Tennessee Williams’ work; and the third an overview of Jack Kirby’s Silver Age work for Marvel Comics. So, no, my reading list hasn’t gotten shorter. But: Why should it? Even with a supermarket shopping list, you may buy all the food items you wrote down — but you’ll be back and buying others next week. Isn’t this like that? Who ever said one should finish one’s reading list? I doubt I’d feel a sense of satisfaction after actually reading the next 103 books and then having none on the list. Instead, I think I’d feel bereft.

This little lesson about the reading list illuminates just how right Camus was about Sisyphus when he said more or less that Sisyphus surprisingly leads a life of joy when pushing that boulder fruitlessly up the hill. Life isn’t about finishing things. It’s about doing things along the way.

My dog the jerk

November 26th, 2020
Looks so innocent.

Around our house, this dog has a great reputation. He’s a real charmer who loves to play, is always happy to see you, and radiates gratitude for walks and attention. As my son says admiringly about this dog every time we take him out around the neighborhood, “He’s a jaunty boy!”

But this morning it occurred to me that he’s actually a jerk.

The reversal in my thinking came on me suddenly today — but that’s after almost four years of being under this dog’s spell. Yes, we knew that he’s clever enough to understand a fair sampling of the human English language — especially his name, and “toy” and “walk” and “Where’s Lamby?” (the name of that favorite toy, which he will wrestle you for). But now I realize very late in the game that this dog is even cleverer than we thought, and he’s been hiding his evil intelligence right under our noses.

I concluded this as I found myself cleaning up his shit from our floor yet again.

My first thought, of course, was, “Well, when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.” No one had been up yet to let him out, so it was our fault. Plus, to give him credit, he’s always thoughtful enough to do it in a secluded spot only we are aware of, and one that’s easily and neatly picked up, cleaned up and sprayed. (In other words, not on carpet.) Then I thought, “Oh, if only he’d go out at 11 p.m. with the other dog, who faithfully does her business out in the back yard every night with no complaint.”

And that’s when it hit me:  He could go out every night before midnight, and I certainly cajole him to do so!, but he refuses. I have tried to drag him from his bed, and yes, he gets an evening walk every day, but he will not go outside late at night. He’d rather stay inside and shit in the house. On purpose.

Not only that! Now that the scales had fallen from my eyes, the rest of the pattern emerged.

My wife works nights. I work days. Our son works swing shifts — sometimes at 7 a.m., sometimes at 7 p.m.; his schedule is utterly unpredictable. But, among the three of us, there is almost always someone up and ready to let this dog out. That means that the dog is waiting for us to be unavailable so that he can exert his will on our floor!

Other details pulled into focus. Wasn’t he the dog who always ripped up Lamby and left poor Lamby’s guts strewn all over the living room floor? Yes. When my poor tired wife has retrieved all those bits and sewn Lamby together yet again, isn’t he the one who can’t wait to perform the same evisceration? Yes. On those walks, hasn’t he always insisted that we go the way he wants to go, with no care for our preferences, or the preference of his fellow dog? When there’s some leftover yolk or something made available, hasn’t he run over as quickly as possible to get the first few laps and then left the merest traces behind in a haughty manner for the other dog? Yes. Definitively yes to all of it.

Lying in wait for my wife.

Let’s speak for a moment of the other dog, who was after all here first. Adopted as a rescue from a mad puppy hoarder who later faced charges, this little fox terrier has a bad rap. On the surface, she seems noisy and excitable, ever suspicious and high-strung. When any living creature comes within half a mile of our house, she tears into the very notion that someone or some thing is approaching. On walks when she comes across even much larger dogs getting their own walk, she can be a terror, snarling in a very unneighborly way to communicate, “You better not come over here! Boy, if I could just get at you, there would be Hell to pay!”

Plus, she sheds. Unlike the other dog.

But this morning, as I was reappraising their two characters, and as some blissfully unaware runner sailed past our house and the fox terrier jolted into high alarm, I noticed the behavior of the other dog, which I will sum up as this:  “Oh, shit! She’s barking at something! I’d better join in so I look useful too!” Completely calculating.

Yes, much like the title character in “All About Eve, ” all of his outward charm is a mask for his insidious scheme to have his way at all times.

Now, as I’m writing this, the fox terrier is in here in the living room with me, standing watch. Meanwhile, the scheming mutt is lying asleep curled up around my wife in bed. She didn’t want him at first, but he won her over long ago, in a playbook right out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” She thought he was funny-looking, bony, and kind of pathetic. Within weeks, she started cooking meals expressly for him. Now, when she’s at work, she wonders what he’s up to. Of course he greets her at the door when she comes home. Even tries to follow her into the bathroom, which she delights in in a mock-outraged voice. He somehow cajoled her into moving his dog bed from the floor up onto the couch! Y’know — where I used to sit!

His name is Thor. We didn’t name him that; when we adopted him from another house that “needed to rehome him” – wonder why???— my wife floated the idea of renaming him Toby. “He just seems like a Toby!” she said. She took him for kind of goofy. But that’s just part of his scheme.

As a playwright, I tend to think I have insights into human behavior. But in retrospect it’s clear that it never occurred to me to apply those skills to these two dogs. Now I see that the one who’s vilified for being a noisy nuisance is doing her best to protect us and gets few rewards for it — and has been warning us about this other dog all along, to no avail. She’s actually the hero of the piece! Meanwhile, the one who likes to “play”? He’s Machiavelli from tip to tail, undermining his rival and pursuing his desires. 

Well, I’m over it. From now on, he’s going out every night if I have to carry him there. At least until he gets my wife to make me stop.

My Tweet with André

November 21st, 2020

As I mentioned in my playwriting workshop today, I’m reading André Gregory’s memoir, “This Is Not My Memoir.” I track the progress of all the books I’m reading on Goodreads. When I update the app with my reading progress twice daily (once around lunchtime, and once around midnight) it puts out a tweet about my progress on reading that particular book. (I have it set up to do this; it’s an option.)

Last night I updated the app to log my progress on reading André Gregory’s memoir… and he saw my tweet and Liked it.

It’s the tiniest little thing, but it sent a thrill shooting through me. I’ve revered this man’s work for 40 years, since discovering him through “My Dinner with André.”  (My favorite film.) Mark Hamill once liked one of my tweets, and he seems like a nice guy, and some other well-known people have too, but to me it’s not like Andre freakin’ Gregory liking one of my tweets! A friend of mine interviewed André earlier this year, but this is as close as I’m likely to get.

By the way, his book is superb. Entirely engrossing! He’s a great storyteller, sharing tales in a limpid, crystalline style that communicates a great deal simply but deeply. He’s had quite a life! From encounters with Errol Flynn and Abbot & Costello and a host of surprising celebrities of the 40s and 50s to working with such varied characters as David Bowie and Helene Wiegel and Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese and, of course, Wallace Shawn and so many other colorful characters. 

Election plans

November 3rd, 2020

It’s tempting to make a prediction, but I don’t know anything you don’t about this, and nobody really knows anything, and there are lots of potentially shifting scenarios… so I’m going to leave it alone. And, actually, I was going to spend it alone, both my wife and my son working that night — but yesterday afternoon I decided to invite one friend — just one — over on election night. He’s a close friend of almost 15 years, and we met through politics, and if it’s a result we prefer then we can celebrate, and if it’s one that we don’t, we can commiserate. In either case, it seemed better to invite someone, so I did. Hey, if nothing else, there’ll be pizza and beer — so that’s something.

Hallowasn’t

November 2nd, 2020

Saturday night was Halloween, and my 33rd wedding anniversary. By chance, it also turned out to be my wife’s 33rd wedding anniversary, so we celebrated it together. She did a splendid job of decorating the house both inside and out, and if it weren’t approaching midnight and I was suddenly feeling lazy, I’d post pictures — but it is, so I won’t. We bought a bag of very bad-for-you candy to dispense to trick-or-treaters, even though we weren’t sure we’d get any. I did say to her, “Well, we’ll at least get those neighbor kids!” Those are three precocious youngsters who live next door, aged about 5 to 11 (I’m estimating here, hence the word “about”), who are quite smart and creative and who gleefully torment our neurotic fox terrier and who made for quite a babysitting income for two of my kids over the years. But then I saw their dad, who is just about the best neighbor one could hope for, a guy who will warn you if you’re parked on the ticketing side of the street, or apprise you via text of package deliveries or if your squabbling gardeners are having a drunken fistfight in your front yard and your teenage son has pulled up a seat to watch because he’s never seen a fight before, which necessitates your hurrying home as quickly as possible. (Yes, we still employ one of those gardeners. One.)

“Hey, your kids are coming over, right? To trick-or-treat?” I called out to him across my lawn the other day.

No, he explained, they were going to some sort of party on Halloween. It went unsaid, but I heard it: pandemic-safe. I completely understood. Still, I was forlorn at not seeing them in their costumes, whatever they’d be. I like kids and I like Halloween.

On Halloween night, nobody else came to our door either. So, for the first time ever, we got no trick-or-treaters. Zero. Which was dispiriting for at least one of the people who got married on Halloween. The other one, when I offered to just leave the candy in a bowl on our porch on the off chance that someone would come by, said, “No! I don’t want people coming onto our porch while we’re gone. In fact, I’m turning off the light!”

What is the version of “Bah, Humbug!” for Halloween?

The evening brightened after that, though, as the missus and I went to a nice restaurant for our anniversary dinner, one that offers al fresco dining. She had thoughtfully purchased masks from the dollar store (she’s a bargain shopper!), and we had dressed our best to color-coordinate with the masks. We sat down and she set about ordering her three drinks. I have been with this woman for a long time, and am now accustomed to the ritual of the three drinks:

  1. The first drink is a “fun cocktail” that she wants to try. And that’s great. It’s a fun evening out and she likes to try fun drinks. That is exactly in the nature of fun evenings out. This stage of drink ordering requires a degree of back-and-forth with the waiter or waitress, as my wife expresses her likes and dislikes, asks about various ingredients and consults the varietal makeup or herbal balance of others on her iPhone, and more, as the person awaiting the order assumes a patient role. Late in this set-to, I jump in decisively with both her order and mine (generally a red wine), to speed things along.
  2. The second drink, after just a sip or maybe two of the first drink, is an adulterated version of the first drink, which she has sent back for corrections. This also gets a sip or maybe — maybe — two.
  3. The third drink is also known as the replacement drink. Still not liking the first drink in either its pure or adulterated format, she now throws that aside and orders a drink unlike those first two. This one delights her!
  4. There is no fourth drink, and generally no second round of the third drink. We are not in our twenties and have both learned our lesson.

Sufficiently libated, we enjoyed our meals, she having the squash ravioli and I the lamb chops. We also had a charcuterie platter dressed with the little food fillips I enjoy: pitted olives, cornichons, tapenade, gluey balls of cheese, and strange meats from foreign lands. We talked about Halloweens past, tried not to make plans for our children who are now adults themselves, shot a little video of ourselves enjoying our desserts and posted it on social, and then watched as well wishes flooded in from near and far. It was a nice evening, even though when we got home our dogs were crazed as always that we’d gone somewhere without them, and deliriously grateful that we’d come back.

Whatever happens with this damn pandemic, it better be done by next Halloween, because I’m not eating an entire bag of candy all by myself again next year.

The dying economy

October 30th, 2020

I have a good friend who for many years was in a seemingly failsafe business: the business of dying. Funeral homes, like auto parts stores, seemed recession-proof. One would think that this business would be booming right now, what with all the death and despair.

But apparently not. Imagine my surprise in seeing this article about the very unhealthy pallor overtaking some funeral parlors.

“You have (L.A.) funeral homes that were doing 500 calls a year and are now doing 300 calls a year,” one casket industry veteran is quoted.

The economy is gloomy indeed when even the business of death is dying.

Perspective

October 25th, 2020

My son recently passed his driving test on his second try. The first try, a few weeks prior, had ended in a failing mark from a tester who, in my son’s telling, was the sort of person to keep you half-submerged in a tiger cage for months while he jabs you with sharp sticks and threatens you with piranhas. On this second attempt, he was glad to get someone different.

We were on a long evening walk with our dogs, each of us pensively awaiting a crouch from one of them with a cautionary plastic dogshit bag at the ready, so discussing his driving test made for a good talk. “What was this one like?” I asked.

“Oh, this one was really nice.”

I was starting to glean that, in his view, the percentage of pass-fail was somehow related to the relative niceness of the person scoring the test. I should note here that I had been riding along with my son for a month or two as a passenger while he practiced driving and that I was impressed with his watchfulness and his care to do things right. I didn’t want to tell him about my own experiences as a driver at his age, or the teenage friend of the time, a girl, who breathed a sigh of relief after another near-miss and called me “Mario,” after race-car driver Mario Andretti. (Unlike Mario Andretti, I was never in a car crash back then. So there.) In fact, reliving my own hellbent driving ways of my early years only made me more vigilant about his habits. Even if I didn’t tell him why.

Which reveals one of the things you gain as you gain years: perspective.

He went on. “She would tell me in advance where we were going to turn — the other guy didn’t do that. And she’d give me little tips.”

Ah. An actual teacher. I can always recognize one. “How old was she?” I asked, suddenly lit up by the realization that this second testing official was a woman. Part of me now flashed onto the old Van Halen video “Hot for Teacher.” I think this part never dies in the male brain, and thank God.

“Oh, middle-aged,” he said. Then he added, “Mid-30’s.”

Everyone in my age group I’ve shared that with has burst out laughing.

That was about two weeks ago and since then my son has used one of the family vehicles to drive all over town and into neighboring towns. There are people who’ve been driving in LA for 30 years who still avoid the freeways, but he was on them in a day or two. He’s always been independent, but recently he’s gained even more freedom: His own job, his own business as well, his own bank accounts (yes, plural), his own IRA, his own schedule. He also now has his own insurance bill, via me, to the tune of $157/month, because that’s what adding him to my policy cost. When he gets his own car (soon), it’ll go up further. Welcome to the economy and to early adulthood.

In the meantime, I welcome his perspective on what qualifies as “middle-aged.” He’s wrong, but that’s just because he’s never defined it, and I hadn’t defined it for him. Well, now I have.

“Middle-aged” is five years older than I am.

And always will be so.