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


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The life and death of Barbara Ann Weaver

February 12th, 2018

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I did not know Mrs. Weaver, who died January 18th, at all.

Until now.

I think it was her photos that caught my eye in the obituary section of the Los Angeles Times, a section I generally skip, as does everyone else probably unless they’re looking for the writeup of someone they knew. In both photos, one of her young, one of her old, she’s beautiful and radiant. In the younger one she looks filled with promise; in the older one she is filled with joy. Judging from her obit, she fulfilled a lot of that promise.

According to this piece, she loved to sing, was a skier and a horseback rider, a dancer, a valedictorian, earned a degree in English and a Phi Beta Kappa key and then, 30 years post-graduation, got a Master’s in reading instruction from Loyola Marymount.

She played golf and other games, indoors and out.

She married, and had children, lived a very full life, then died.

We should all be so lucky.

Again, I did not know Barbara Ann Weaver. But I would also say she was lucky in death. Because I don’t know anyone else who has ever gotten an obituary so beautifully written.

Here’s the opening:

“Barbara Ann Weaver, December 4, 1922 – January 18, 2018, rode her sorrel pony Skookum bareback over the wheat fields her daddy farmed in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, skied those hills on pine planks with her beloved siblings Fritz and Margaret, learned to read and write in a one-room schoolhouse on Coppei Creek, learned to dance as her aunt and uncles played at the community hall by the homestead on Jasper Mountain, graduated valedictorian of Waitsburg High School’s class of 1940, went to Washington State University on a scholarship and earned a degree in English and a Phi Beta Kappa key and made her professors cry when she couldn’t stay in 1945 to help teach all the returning GIs.”

Whoever wrote this has a thing or two to teach Cormac McCarthy, and I say that as a fan of Cormac McCarthy. Listen to the rhythm of “rode her sorrel pony Skookum bareback” and “learned to dance as her aunt and uncles played at the community hall by the homestead.” The whole thing is positively stuffed with active verbs. “To be,” with its variants of “is” and “are” and “were,” is the weakest verb in the English language; you won’t find one iteration of it in that entire long, plainspoken but poetic sentence.

Here’s another evocative example. Note how the line lengths and cadences vary:

“Raised eight children with boundless love, infinite patience, sly humor, and humble wisdom. Weathered many a storm through her steadfast faith in God. Read voraciously,  watched ‘Days of our Lives’ loyally, completed the Times crossword diligently, played Scrabble and Bridge formidably, and generally enjoyed golf except when she was four-putted.”

Again:  not one “to be” verb; instead, we get a clever anaphoric use of adverbs that pulls us right along from the divine to the commonplace. I like how it lands on the joke, and how that tiny flaw humanizes Mrs. Weaver and spares her from hagiography and our disbelief. This was written by a writer. Among all her other accomplishments, we can add this one:  She merited the time and effort and tremendous skill someone applied to writing this record of her life.

Here is how the biographical section ends, before the list of those left behind: “Was, in short, a goddess who surprised us all by not being immortal. We feel so blessed to have known her.”

This is the most effective piece of writing I’ve come across in quite a while. Because it leaves me wishing that I, too, had known her.

Honest answers (the latest in a series)

January 31st, 2018

A website form just asked me, “Is there anything else you’d like us to know?” So I answered: “Trump is terrible through and through.”

Life and death

January 30th, 2018

I just came back tonight from a weekend visit to see friends and relatives on the opposite coast. One relative was having cancer surgery; I learned that another now has cancer; a close friend may have cancer; and over the past several months, my 92-year-old mother has had a succession of small strokes.

At the same time, one great-nephew celebrated his third birthday, and another, formerly the youngest, is now six, and a third, now 13, was thrilled to confide to me that he’d gotten his first kiss from a girl earlier that day.

So I spent some time thinking about life and about death.

Last night at 6:30, my much-loved brother-in-law came home and announced that there was a skunk caught in his trap (I grew up in the woods), and to be aware of that skunk and not to go near it. I didn’t know where the trap was that we shouldn’t go near, and I forgot to ask why he had a trap in the first place — what was he trying to catch? — although I did remember he said he’d been trapping squirrels and shooting them and he’d been giving the squirrel meat to some foreign man locally, until the foreign man’s friend finally told him, in English, that the foreign man had now had enough squirrel to eat and didn’t want any more.

Late at night, at 10:30, after hours spent playing pinochle with my mother and sister and my 38-year-old nephew, I went outside on the porch of the house to check on the weather because I was hoping not to have to drive through snow on the way to the airport in the early morning. It was bitter cold — 38 degrees; bitter to me, after 30 years in L.A. — and raining, and I was confident that it would turn to snow.

Which made me think of this skunk (was it a skunk? I wanted to see) and even moreso reminded me of my father’s having told me when I was a boy that he’d come home and found that Sophie Paulsgraf, our neighbor, had left her dog chained up outside in the snow, where Dad saw the dog shivering and miserable, so Dad marched over to the Paulsgraf house and told Mrs. Paulsgraf that she ought to be ashamed of herself, whereupon Mrs. Paulsgraf followed him outside and let the dog into the abandoned car it was chained to, so it could sleep inside. Which brought me back around to the idea of this animal, this skunk perhaps, caught inside a trap, a cage, in the cold rain soon to be snow, all night, until morning and then whatever my brother-in-law would do with it.

I got my adult nephew to go look at the animal with me. I got an umbrella — he had a hoodie — and he got a flashlight. We didn’t draw too close — we were careful not to draw too close — until finally the beam picked out the markings of the animal, deep furry black with white tracings, an animal larger than I would have expected, about the size of an overfed midsize dog, and it was definitely a skunk. I told my nephew that I couldn’t bear the idea of leaving it in that wire cage all night, exposed to the rain and cold and snow. I assumed that left to itself, it would burrow under cover — but caught in this cage, there was no protection in the offing. At the same time, we couldn’t approach to release it, because we’d get sprayed.

“I can shoot it,” he said.

“Yes. Please,” I said. Because that was what my brother-in-law would do in the morning anyway; better to do it now, and spare the animal a night of torment.

My nephew, an experienced hunter, went inside to get one of his rifles. He came back out with it and started to load it from the porch, a safe distance where he’d shoot from, while I’d cautiously approach from a side angle, down below on the ground, training the flashlight on the skunk so my nephew could see the target, trapped in its cage, just off the edge of the driveway in the brush, the site of what had sounded like dozens of squirrel murders.

I watched the animal intently from about twelve feet of distance, heard a *pop* and saw the animal flinch. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The animal had been hit, but was still moving. I said to my nephew, about his gun, “What is that? That you’re using?” I was afraid I knew.

“Air rifle,” he said.

“You’re using a pellet gun??” I said. “To kill a skunk?!?!” Growing up, I’d known kids who shot each other for fun with pellet guns.

He assured me that this was “high-powered” as he pumped the stock several times to work up air compression to take another shot.

He shot the skunk again.

“Still moving,” I said.

So he shot it again.

“Still moving,” I said.

So he shot it again. It lifted its eyes to look at me. “Still moving.”

He shot it again. The animal’s eyes caught my flashlight again.

“I’ll go get the other bullets,” my nephew said, while I mentally corrected him:  These weren’t bullets, these were pellets. Bullets were what I had expected.

He came out with new pellets.

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“The others had flat heads. These are sharp.” He showed me. The expectation:  These would penetrate better.

I resumed my position and he shot the skunk again.

“Still moving,” I moaned.

He shot it again. Each time it got shot, the animal jumped. Clearly, it was getting hit. He kept shooting it, and it kept moving, and I kept repeating its movements back to him. I lost count after twelve direct hits.

“Dear God,” I said.

“I keep hitting it!” he said.

I tried to think of another way to kill the creature without getting sprayed, something quick, but I couldn’t come up with anything. I was surprised that it didn’t make a sound. Not a squeal, which I’d expected, not a grunt or a groan — nothing — but in my mind’s ear, I could hear it all.

My nephew shot it again. I saw the skunk spasm again, and this time I smelled its spray. Maybe it was dead. I’d heard that they always spray when they die suddenly, in the way that a hanged man will shit his pants.

But no, the skunk moved again.

By now, I was struggling to stay calm. “Can you maybe come down here and shoot him in the head? His head is pointing at me.”

“I’m shooting it in the head.”

“You’re shooting it in his flank. His eyes are staring at me.”

My nephew came down off the porch, away from the railing he’d been using as a gun rest during this very long, very slow ordeal. Now he took up a station beside me, pumped the air rifle again, and shot the animal in what we took to be his head.

We paused. That should have done it.

Then the skunk moved again, but more slowly.

“For God’s sake,” I said.

My nephew, reading my mind, explained why he couldn’t use a more powerful weapon at this hour in these woods and with these laws.

“Okay,” I said. “Please shoot it again.”

He shot it again. It made another movement. We repeated the pattern some more — “Please shoot it”; the shot; the skunk moving again — until finally, finally, there was another burst of skunk spray, an awful silent fog of odor that washed toward us as we backed away.

“I think it’s dead,” I said. “But let’s give it a minute.” We waited, then waited some more, then decided that it had to be dead — I hoped to God it was dead — and went inside.

This quick mercy killing had taken almost an hour. It was impossible to sleep after that.

My own test for cancer is in a couple of weeks.

 

(un)professionalism

January 22nd, 2018

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It was the best of (theatre) times, it was the worst of (theatre) times.

I was going to write a long post about professionalism, and actually had most of it written in my head, but I can boil it down to this:  Professionalism is like what Justice Potter said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Just over a week ago, we had our tech rehearsal for The Car Plays, which is running now at Segerstrom Center in Orange County. (It’s sold out. Don’t even try.) I directed a play called “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”; here are a few words about my cast. We rehearsed over the holidays; for this 10-minute play, one of the actors would spend five hours on LA’s notoriously convenient buses (two-and-a-half getting to rehearsal; two-and-a-half getting back home), and another one of the actors would drive about an hour each way; the third actor changed her work schedule whenever needed; one of the guys rehearsed a few days after painful, extensive abdominal surgery (!); and our artistic producer drove two hours out of his way to check on our show when we decided we needed to rehearse all the way across town and down south in order to accommodate the guy who had surgery. Meanwhile, three people coordinated and scoured the area for the necessary costume bits and props. Oh, and the tech? The tech involved about four dozen people and 15 plays, and top-to-bottom was probably the most well-produced, well-run, efficient tech rehearsal I’ve ever seen in the 40 years I’ve been doing theatre.

Meanwhile, in the past two weeks I saw an improv show billed as featuring “the top improv teams in LA” where people had no idea how to do improv — low energy; no projection; no familiarity with the announced-in-advance script prompts, and I assure you, these were very well-known script prompts; and where the second team, given its prompt (“It’s a play”) rejected it (“Actually, we’re doing a documentary”), which is a complete no-no in  improv. Rarely have 40 minutes seemed so long. Dying painfully of a gut shot would’ve seemed quicker. During the third of these internal skits, I leaned in to my wife and whispered harshly, “We’re leaving” and grabbed her and ran for the exit, past the audience, who consisted almost entirely of the other people waiting to do “improv” and a scattering of friends-of-the-performers who kept shilling for the performers in a recognizably false way.

The photo above is from a show I saw this weekend. You’re seeing the stage action from my seat. Some members of the audience dragged their chairs left and right in an effort to see something; I just gave up and decided I was attending a radio play. Before the play, the playwright introduced me to “the greatest director in the world”; judging just from that photo, I’m still waiting to meet him. I couldn’t quite figure out why this playing space had the absolute worst sightlines I’ve ever seen, until I turned around and saw that 20 feet behind us was an elevated stage! For some reason, the greatest director in the world decided to stage the play in a slightly elevated room across from the stage. This meant that, as you can see, we couldn’t see; it also meant that the actors’ words were lost to the depth of the room, and, given that there’s no light plot above a room (as opposed to, say, a stage), the actors were frequently in dim. It’s a real shame, too, because the play is better than that. But, the director and his cast found ways to bury the laugh lines too.

My best advice:  Surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. Whether it’s doing live performance or changing the oil in your car.

By the way, the young woman in front of me, in the center above, had beautiful ash-blonde hair, as well as an attractively smooth back, both of which I got to admire closely for an hour and a half.

The physics of physique

January 17th, 2018

 

 

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Sports Illustrated shows what 239 pounds look like. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t look like Donald Trump.

 

Good news for 2018 – #7

December 31st, 2017

7. The availability of the arts will increase.

Incredibly, everything is available, and in 2018, the end of net neutrality notwithstanding, there will be more of everything, and it will all be available.

It used to be (he said, tugging on his white beard), that the available of culture, even pop culture, was limited. Television programs were on at specific times, books went out of print, movies were in theaters only briefly and then gone, newspapers had a one-day life, and all the live performance events such as concerts, and opera, and dance, and poetry readings, and standup evaporated immediately afterward. Let me take you back to why so many of us went to science fiction and comic-book conventions in the 1970s in particular:  Because it was in those screening rooms, which ran 24 hours throughout the convention, that you might actually get to see the Bruce Dern environmentally conscious science-fiction movie “Silent Running” or horror films like “Suspiria” or “Dawn of the Dead,” and because it was on the dealers’ floor that you could pick up the key issues you needed to understand the ongoing, intertwined, novelistic, Marvel comics series. Just how did the Hulk get out of the Leader’s all-encompassing jelly-like mold that turned the behemoth’s blows back against him? No idea if you couldn’t locate that missing issue.

But now everything is retained. And collected. And archived. And shared.

Although I think about this frequently, about the easy availability of, say, Wallace Shawn’s essays, which in an earlier time may have gone out of print or been impossible to locate, lurking on some dusty shelf in a bookstore in Cleveland, I was reminded again this morning because of this:  The Los Angeles Times devoted an entire glorious page of its Sunday Arts & Books section to a review of two new collections of Jack Kirby’s work, specifically his Fourth World omnibus (collecting all 1500+ pages of his early 70s Fourth World series), and archive collections of his Newsboy Legion series from the 1940s. (Here’s the review; it’s joyous, and well worth reading.) There are 59 individual issues that make up the Fourth World series; tracking each down and then paying for them all would certainly eclipse the cost of a mortgage payment — but now they’re available, all collected, in lovely hardback editions.

In addition to the joy that the easy availability of such treasures delivers, there is also another impact:  the ready availability of the arts increases the potential for thought and rootedness. We have not been mistaken, these thousands of years, in cherishing the arts and noting their impact on humanity. As Charles McNulty states (also in today’s LA Times), the arts provide a corrective, and especially to our current times, in forcing us to confront our lack of thought:

The humanities in higher education have been forced to defend their usefulness, as though college were merely a form of career training. But artists should liberate themselves from the worry of utility. The service they provide is so intrinsic to the flourishing of humanity that creativity shouldn’t ever have to justify itself.

McNulty is writing largely about the role of theatre — a generally unifying force which, new research claims, synchronizes the heartbeats of audiences. But his idea that coming together, and escaping the rigors of daily reality for the passions of creative unreality, forces us to think and to experience anew, applies across the board. There’s also a political component to this, as McNulty notes. The frisson of the arts — the slapping-awake that it provides — makes us harder to subdue. The Czech government pestered, surveilled, harassed, banned, and jailed playwright and essayist Vaclav Havel for 20 years of his life with no success; the struggle was resolved only by Havel becoming president of Czechoslovakia.

All of Havel’s works, by the way, are now readily available.

 

Friday evening

December 29th, 2017
  1. I’ve been posting here about all the things that will be better in 2018. Michael Grunwald tried to outdo me by saying “Everything is Awesome!” — except, well, not quite. (Capsule version:  The economy is awesome — but Trump isn’t.)
  2. After more tax discussions and end-of-year tax maneuverings — which at one point had me paying my California taxes early, until a recalculation and revised advise from my CPA had me not doing that — I’m not the only one left confused and in a state of pandemonium as confirmed by these reports from various states giving conflicting advice, and people waiting in line for hours to pay taxes they may or may not owe. I received an email today from the County Assessor advising me how to pay property taxes now, before January 1st, if I wanted:

    “Changes in the federal tax code have prompted some property owners to inquire about pre-paying property taxes prior to January 1, 2018, at which time a cap on deducting state and local taxes will take effect. Property owners who wish to pay the second installment of the 2017-18 tax bill may do so at this time. Payment options are as follows.”  And then a list of locations and payment methods.

    And then this addendum:”Property owners may not pre-pay 2018-2019 taxes at this time; these tax bills will not be generated until September/October 2018. Also, the Assessor does not accept payments; this is solely a function of the Tax Collector.”

    Uhh… If we think old folks in Florida are repeatedly confused about how to actually vote (and they are; witness the 2000 “butterfly” ballot), how well do we think this is going to work out?

  3. One thing that’s been really great about 2017 is that Donald Trump hasn’t visited California. Not even once! That’s one of the best Christmas gifts this year.

Tax change

December 27th, 2017

After filing my taxes next year, I’m wondering if change is all I’ve have left.

I say that because I met with my CPA today, and it seems that whatever tax maneuvers I was able to do before no longer apply. The good news (for me):  Because I own a business, I should qualify for a deduction on pass-through income. This is the thing that was added in the compromise legislation — so now I guess I owe Senator Bob Corker, who held out for this, a thank-you (even though I’d prefer to see him in prison for self-dealing). The bad news (for me):  My state and local taxes, and my mortgage interest, are no longer deductible. (And surely it’s coincidental that these provisions mostly affect such states as California, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, for example, which reliably vote Democratic. But I digress.) Minimum, my federal taxes are estimated to go up $1200 just because of losing that interest deduction.

So much for the tax “cut.”

Other elements of this are head-scratchers:

  • For some reason, the pass-through income deduction applies to product-oriented businesses, but not services. So if you’re an accountant, lawyer, doctor, or Indian Chief, no deduction for you. But if you’re manufacturing mousetraps, sure, you get the deduction. What exactly could be the rationale behind this? Except punishing service providers? And if so — why?
  • In 2018, entertainment deductions are no longer allowed. I’m shocked this made it through. Really? All those K Street lobbyists won’t be able to deduct their pricey lunches and dinners and travel and concerts and so forth? How did they miss this? Had they known, they never would have let it happen.
  • Also, medical and dental expenses aren’t deductible the way they were. Two years ago, I could have bought a good used car for what I spent on the interior of my mouth — and that’s not even with counting the agony that came with it. I got two kinds of relief:  When the pain finally subsided, and when I got a deduction for it. So:  Let’s strip out the Affordable Care Act as best we can, piece by piece — and let’s also limit or remove people’s deductions for medical expenses. One or the other change might make sense, but doing both just seems punitive.

I’m not opposed to change, but, in general, I like change for the better. This was supposed to be a simpler tax code that jump-started the economy. Just about nobody believed that, including the people who said it. For one thing, the economy is doing fine. For another, if you suck $1500-$5000 extra out of my finances, and then you multiply by the number of people like me in those blue states where we actually financially support the federal government (unlike, say, Alabama, Mississippi,Oklahoma and all the other red states that cost the feds more money than they send), what you’re actually doing is depressing our spending ability — which shrinks the economy.

I do wonder just how much informed thought went into this by our selected officials and the corporate overlords who own them. To wit:  Have they asked, if we all die sooner without health care, who’s going to support the 1%?

Good news for 2018 – #6

December 26th, 2017

6. There are lots of good people in the world. In fact, most people are good people.

Don’t believe otherwise. No matter what anyone tells you.

I’ve known people who’ve left high-paying jobs — in business, or as corporate attorneys, or what have you — to scrape by working at small non-profits because they believed in the work of helping other people and the world.

I also know people like Mark, my friend of almost 25 years. Here’s what he posted on Christmas Eve:

A Christmas / Holiday story. Yesterday, I had to do my laundry, but couldn’t at the apartment complex. So, off to the laundromat I went. Decided to go to a different location than usual. But alas, every washer was being used. Not pleased, I headed back to my car to go elsewhere (my usual spot), and that’s when a woman approached me, asking for a meal. Her husband was sitting nearby. I asked, “Only one meal?” To her surprise she replied, “You’ll buy two meals for us?” I nodded, and tears formed in her eyes. We walked up to the counter and placed their order, then chatted for a bit. …

Then Mark went back to his car and got two “blessing bags” — these are bags that they prepare at his church for handing out to people in need; they include things like toothpaste and a toothbrush, socks, maybe a little snack food, water, deodorant and such — and handed them to the couple. Mark keeps blessing bags in his trunk for things just like this.

There’s also the story from three weeks ago of the guy who ran into the fire to save the panicked rabbit. A passing motorist captured it on video, and spoke with the man, but the man didn’t want any credit for it — his sole purpose was in saving the rabbit. Whether or not you think people should rush into fires to save rabbits (opinions vary), you have to credit the man’s selflessness. As CNN headlined it, “Man rescues rabbit from fires, instantly restores our faith in humanity.”

We have all seen incidents like this — of the man who pays for the woman’s groceries at the supermarket; of the person who sends money anonymously to help a family in need; of all those people who volunteer for Habitat for Humanity on weekends to build houses for the homeless; of those volunteers who go out and clean the beach, or the park; of the doctors and nurses who go to poverty-stricken areas once or twice a year to dispense free medical care; and on and on.

The human brain is wired to store bad experiences up front, for quick and easy retrieval; that’s an evolutionary feature, and overall a good one. But we shouldn’t let it blind us to the obvious truth:  that on a one-on-one basis, person-to-person, almost everyone is good, and does good. We’ve been so beset by widely reported bad news in 2017 that 2018 will become the year that we remind each other of all the good.

Good news for 2018 – #5

December 24th, 2017

5.

In 2018, The Ocean Cleanup launches.

Floating plastic, which never decomposes, poses a threat to all levels of the food chain and sea life , including sea turtles and birds that mistake it for food; the undigestible plastic clogs up their digestive tracts and ultimately kills them. Scientists have estimated that there are 7.25 million tons of extractable plastic in the oceans. The Ocean Cleanup seeks to dramatically reduce the levels of plastic in the ocean.

The Ocean Cleanup is the result of a then-16-year-old’s high-school science project to figure out how to strip plastic flotsam and jetsam from the world’s oceans. The answer:  Use the motion of the sea to sweep plastic into large floating nets that skim the surface without trapping plankton or other sea life. His resulting non-profit organization estimates that a full-scale deployment of their systems will clean up 50 % of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years.

The system has been field-tested, and it works. Learn more here.

Human ingenuity created many (most) of the world’s problems. Certainly, most of them are solvable or, at least, highly improvable.