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


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The good news

February 10th, 2016

For Carly Fiorina, ending her campaign provides another opportunity to fire people.

Lost Weekend

February 7th, 2016

So this is what it feels like to be sick for three days running.

Late Thursday afternoon, I was driving back from San Diego when my nephew called. He wanted to know if I was going to watch the Democratic debate that night. I took the hint and invited him over and asked him if he’d like dinner too. “Sure!” he said excitedly. When I got back home, I scribbled an order for Ameci Pizza — a large pepperoni pizza, and a large feta cheese pizza, with two dinner salads — handed it and forty bucks to my daughter, and crashed upstairs for half an hour. An hour later, we were all downstairs, the debate on, with me chewing away at my pizza and trying to hear what anyone on the screen was saying while my nephew and my adult son engaged in a loud conversation seemingly about politics but actually about nothing, much in the way that the endless footnotes, end notes, and side notes in a piece by David Foster Wallace claim to shed further light but generally occlude anything that’s happening in the main body.

The debate over, I raced glow-in-the-dark cars for 20 minutes with my daughter, then said I was going to bed, and at the very unfashionable hour of 8:30, because suddenly I wasn’t feeling well. In bed, I checked some things out on my laptop, including an animation of the eruption of Vesuvius that should have served as a cautionary tale. Because within an hour it was being re-enacted in my bathroom — both the eruption and the hot lava.

As in the video, my own version went on for hours and hours, but with one difference. In the video, there’s only one eruption. In my version, there are seven. Plus the concomitant lava flows. That ended, finally, at some point yesterday after first light, followed by two days of sweats and chills and countless gagging threats to repeat the entire ordeal.

Some takeaways:

  • If you’re going to be vomiting anyway but desperately need something to drink because now you’re so dehydrated, allow me to recommend Coca Cola. I say that because it takes pretty much the same going up as it does coming down. The same cannot be said for other liquids.
  • If you ever sense in advance that you’re going to be ill for hours on end, I recommend that you do not eat the feta cheese pizza. Feta is a pickled curd cheese that has been submerged in brine. Let that sit in your thoughts for a minute
  • If you’re home in bed for a few days, nothing, nothing you have recorded on your DVR to watch at a later date looks any good
  • Finally, given what you’re going through, when you finally struggle downstairs to watch “The Martian” with your youngest, you can’t help feeling that the guy stranded alone on Mars for a year and a half doesn’t have it nearly so bad

Today, I’m feeling a little better. (After all, I’m writing this.) But yesterday, I was determined to feel better, and stripped the bed and washed the sheets and the comforters, only to wake up soaked again this morning. Either way, I’m not spending another day mostly in bed.

My Iowa caucus prediction

January 31st, 2016

The Iowa caucuses are tomorrow. I’ve been following the polls closely, as well as a great deal of press coverage. Also, I have been to Iowa, to lose about a hundred bucks in a casino a few years ago, and to stop in at a strip club with friends. (Female friends who thought it would be fun. But the club was closed.) Given my obvious expertise, expertise that puts me on equal footing with anyone on MSNBC or Fox News, I feel confident that I can make this prediction regarding the caucus results:  I predict that the winners will be a Republican and a Democrat that the majority of Americans don’t want as president.

In fact, I 100% guarantee this will be the result.

“Heroes,” track by track

January 27th, 2016

If you’re at all interested in how a song recording gets built, or in the music of David Bowie, you’ll want to check this out:  Bowie producer Tony Visconti breaks down the elements  of  “Heroes” into separate tracks, and discusses the recording process. It’s 20 minutes very well spent. (And provides a welcome companion primer to the release of The Beach Boys’ “The Smile Sessions” from a few years ago, which included several discs of bonus tracks where you could hear the “Smile” pieces separately, before they came together.) I especially enjoyed hearing the result of Brian Eno’s “synthesizer in a suitcase,” as well as Bowie’s isolated vocal.

If you’d like to watch this — and, again, I promise you it’s 20 minutes well-spent — do it now. This is from the BBC, and generally they don’t leave special content like this up for long.

 

Three days post-Bowie

January 14th, 2016

I’ve really had it with this. Instead of all this misery and loss, we need to focus on bringing Bowie back. Who’s in?

Ashes to ashes

January 11th, 2016

Last night at a quarter to midnight, I saw a link on a friend’s Facebook page to a statement saying that David Bowie had died. “Is this true?” she was asking. I did some quick checking around the Internet, didn’t see anything, and responded, “This is bullshit. It pisses me off when people pull hoaxes like this for their own enjoyment.”

Twenty minutes later, I felt I had to delete that response. Unfortunately.

I texted my friend Trey with the news. He was similarly in shock. We exchanged several more texts, and then he sent one that said, “I could be at your place in about 30 minutes.” And so, until 2 a.m., we sat outside and drank drinks and smoked cigars and listened to the music of David Bowie and wondered aloud about each other’s health and mortality.

David Bowie was more than just an innovator. He was an explorer. An adventurer. Because he seemed to live every moment to the utmost, infusing our world with art of all sorts (making music, but also film and stage and paintings and more), constantly surrounded by art and artists and never looking backward, in an effort to prove that Bowie must after all be human, one publication saw fit to collect a series of photos of Bowie doing ordinary things. It is by far the most unusual photo series about the man, because Bowie appearing down-to-earth looks so out of context.

In addition to his superhuman accomplishments,Bowie  also was an avatar for people who wanted to be themselves, no matter what society thought they should be, or do, or look like, as so many friends have reminded me today. One, a gay man, said that Bowie was seen carrying a purse in the 1970s, and that made things seem easier. Holly Hughes posted this on her Facebook page:  “Like many queer people of my generation I can’t overstate how much I loved David Bowie. He was the first pop star I loved.”  Bowie made it okay to be different.

Even more than the essential reality check he brought to every moment, in which he reminded you that what others thought shouldn’t matter because, as Jim Morrison wrote, “no one here gets out alive,” Bowie provided music that always sounded somehow very right by sounding somehow a little wrong. In the way that my favorite Fitzgerald novel is “Tender is the Night” because the structure doesn’t quite work and its imperfections make it seem more true, the dissonance and off-kilter rhythms Bowie brought to his best work could snap you out of the conformity of sound. Whether it’s the achingly slow vocal in “Cat People,” the surprising double-tracked piano solo in “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” or the alien aural landscape of Low, Bowie’s work demanded attention. Muzak it wasn’t.

Today, I’m grateful for several things.

That I got to see him perform live — including on his very last tour, in April of 2004 in Anaheim. I’d seen him in the 1980’s on the “Serious Moonlight” tour, when he traversed the globe with a massive set and special effects, and that was wonderful. But seeing Bowie 12 years ago with a stripped-down band on a nearly bare stage, performing in jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers and seeming every bit of 20 or 30 years younger, was powerful. Here was someone stuffed to the gills with life.

That he was such a powerful gateway drug. Is it because of David Bowie that I was introduced to Devo, and Brian Eno, and TV on the Radio, and Robert Fripp, and so many other things that made me sit up and ask “What is that???” Perhaps not all of it — but a lot if it. Bowie had taste. I was willing to eat anything he was serving.

And I’m grateful for so much more, including all the wonderful music, but I’m especially grateful that I got a full day of listening to “Blackstar,” which I bought immediately upon release, before I learned that he was dead. The album had one meaning for me — “Here’s Bowie’s latest! What crazy shit is this?” — before it had another:  “Here’s Bowie’s last. It fills me with joy, and with ashes.”

I bought “Blackstar” on Saturday and listened to it that night while my wife and I drove to hear the Pasadena Symphony. It sounded exotic, and difficult, and haunting. It played through once, and then I changed it — but she stopped me and asked, “What are you doing? I want to hear that again.” Something hypnotic and unknowable that I hear in most of Bowie’s music had grabbed her. The next day, I lay on the living room couch, drinking coffee and reading the LA Times while playing the CD loud in the background. “Why is this so loud?” one of my children asked. “Because it’s fantastic,” I said. I will always cherish that moment — listening to the new David Bowie album, really letting it sink in, admiring the adventure of a 69-year-old international celebrity daring to do something brand-fucking-new-sounding at that advanced age.

Twelve hours later, the album held a very different meaning.

Three final thoughts.

Of all the messages and thoughts I’ve read — too many to read them all, given that literally hundreds of millions of people are mourning —  this is my favorite. It actually makes me feel better:

 

David Bowie has returned to his home after an all too brief sojourn amongst humanity.

The departure means that sadly it is the world that looks very different today.

He leaves behind a substantial body of work, including several autobiographical albums about the experience of being something more than human amongst mere mortals.

The singer’s home is believed to be somewhere in the constellation of Sirius but, like so much about him, this was left extremely ambiguous.

Bowie took up residence on this planet after falling to Earth, but it was generally accepted that no one planet could sufficiently contain him for long.

Fans are comforted with the knowledge that life continues somewhere, if not necessarily on Mars.

In response to the news, people worldwide are politely requesting that Tom Waits and David Attenborough go to bed early and take care of themselves, as there’s only so much of this we can stand.

Jodrell Bank have confirmed ground control will continue to call for him into the silent, eternal void, hoping for a signal.

 

Hats off to whoever wrote that.

Secondly, my daughter, who had gone with me on Saturday to buy the new CD, told me today when I picked her up from school that she was glad she knew David Bowie’s music while he was alive. In her view, everyone at school had climbed on board because he was dead, but she had been there first. I know that view well, having been there with Bowie a long, long time ago. She also bemoaned the music of her generation:  “What do we have? ‘Whip Nae Nae’?”

Finally, by the end of today, a different feeling came over me. A deterministic sense that because our own path lies within each of us, we can make of everything what we will. Therefore, now that it’s The Next Day, I’ve decided not to buy into the whole David Bowie is Dead hoax and to just go on in happy anticipation of his imminent tour.

It’s better this way.

David Bowie lives on.

Not funny about money

January 10th, 2016

Eric Idle being straightforward about how much money he’s made — from Monty Python and everything else. Until very recently, it’s been surprisingly little.

When you read this, bear in mind what he leaves out:  the cuts taken by managers, agents, and the lot.

I know a well-known and highly regarded, somewhat legendary, star of Broadway, dance and choreography, a person who is a two-time Tony winner and who was a key element in major premieres (including by Sondheim). I used to visit him in his very nice home that had once been Gloria Swanson’s. One thing he clarified for me:  All of his money actually came from real estate — flipping houses, including to Jack Nicholson, who simply wanted to knock down the adjacent house (my friend’s) and paid dearly for it.

So part of me isn’t surprised that Eric Idle didn’t make bank until he was 61. At age 72, and having been famous for about 50 years, Idle is reportedly worth $15 million, and most of that is recent. Given his profile, that’s not a lot of money in Los Angeles, and it’s not a lot when  you consider he’s paying tax in three countries (the U.S., England and France).

Not-thinking

December 31st, 2015

On some New Year’s Eves, I’ve gone to parties. But mostly, I’ve stayed home to write.

For several years, I’ve been trying to finish a full-length play. I’ve got about 60-70 pages, but haven’t been able to finish it. Mostly, I knew it was missing something — a certain scene that would raise tension and increase dread — but I couldn’t figure out what it was. And thinking about it — actively thinking about the play you’re writing — is never the solution. The better way is to not-think it; to feel it; to act on impulse.

Today while washing my hands at the sink after eating some raspberries, it came to me. The whole scene. Who was in it, what would happen, and how it would be played. It was like magic:  one moment, nothing, then presto! a whole new scene appearing out of nowhere.

This sort of thing has happened to me my entire life. It happens to every writer I know. Sometimes not-working and not-thinking is better than working and thinking.

Now I’m off to write it!

Happy New Year’s.

Calling all copy editors

December 27th, 2015

Dear Los Angeles Times, I write about you out of sorrow, not anger. (Far be it from me to kick you while you’re down. I am rooting for you, Los Angeles Times.) But in the spirit of love, I have to ask, Do you still employ copy editors? Is there anyone — even one person — assigned to read the paper before it goes to print?

I’ve read only half of the Arts & Books section so far this morning. I’m going to keep reading, but it’s going to be difficult to forget these two things I’ve found already.

Here’s the second-worst thing I’ve found, in the Ask Amy column, where Amy advises a person not to tell her (or his) boss about future plans to leave the position and move away:

Work toward your goal, and once you have protected for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.

Fine advice, if you can understand it. In this use, “protected” is a transitive verb, meaning it requires an object. Without that object, the verb makes no sense, and we’re left to wonder just what should be protected. Herself? Her own ass? Let’s see what happens if we supply our own potential objects for this verb.

“Work toward your goal, and once you have protected humankind for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.”

“Work toward your goal, and once you have protected Cthulhu for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.”

“Work toward your goal, and once you have protected Ted Cruz for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.”

Really, it could be anything.

Granted, this was in the Ask Amy column, but given her response, I wouldn’t Ask Amy anything. She can’t communicate. You might Ask, but her response is a Zen riddle. Perhaps a copy editor should have caught this and inserted the most likely object:  “yourself.” Now it would read, “Work toward your goal, and once you have protected yourself for your own downside you can disclose your plans to everyone.” It’s still clumsy, because, again, Amy’s no writer, but it’s more intelligible. Maybe the best response Amy could have written would have been this one:  “No. Don’t.” Which is awfully direct — but I have to think that anyone who writes to a newspaper column to seek advice on whether or not to tell her boss months in advance that she’s considering moving to the big city, and that therefore said boss should strongly consider hiring the new applicant for the assistant position who would be ideal for taking over her job, well, I think that person needs a stern talking-to. About not being a bonehead.

That was the second-worst thing I found in today’s paper. Here’s the worst-written thing I’ve found. (So far. Bear in mind, I’m only a few pages into today’s edition.)

In a roundup about the 2015 edition of “Best American Comics,” Carolina Miranda writes of one artist:

“Originally born in Ireland, David Sandlin moved to the U.S. as a teenager and now lives in New York, where he teaches at the School of Visual Arts.”

Okay, hands up, who knows what David Sandlin has in common with Jesus. Anyone? That’s right — each of them was born more than once. Jesus was born, died, and then was born again as a grown man coming back from the dead in a cave. David Sandlin was originally born in Ireland, and then I guess he was born somewhere else (it goes unnamed), and then he moved to the U.S. Given his two births, Sandlin must be an interesting character. I was born only once (that I know of), and I don’t remember it at all. I’d like to ask Sandlin about his own experiences.

I wonder if the unfortunate construction of “Originally born in Ireland…” is actually the result of bad editing (as opposed to no editing). Or if it is indeed Carolina Miranda’s mistake. If it’s the latter, it’s the sort of mistake that we all make at one point or another, and I’m sure she winced when she saw it in print. I enjoyed the rest of her piece, and was thrilled to see alternative comics given a two-page spread in the sadly dwindling newspaper — but now the big takeaway is the glaring error.

More of these errors were caught and corrected when newspapers could afford more and better copy editors.

Sometimes I wish I could read the way most people read. But mostly, I wish we had more and better editors.

The shape I’m in

December 23rd, 2015

 

Recently I had an injury that was only getting worse. This was despite my steady application of my mother’s remedy for all ailments. That’s right, I was ignoring it.

To be accurate, Mom actually has two treatments she prescribes for whatever ails you. They are:

  1. Tell yourself you’re fine, and it’ll just go away;
  2. Take a shot of whiskey and go to bed.

These have served her well. At age 90, she’s still robust and stern and will gladly set you straight if you don’t stop it right now. (Whatever it is you’re doing.) So for the past two or three years, I’ve been telling myself that this leg problem was just fine and that it would go away. Unfortunately it hasn’t, and treatment #2 hasn’t made a dent in it either. In the past couple of weeks  the pain had grown so distracting l that I felt like the guy in the Magritte painting who can’t see around the apple. So, reluctantly, I turned to a different sort of healer, the sort with no reported success in our family history. I called a doctor.

I’ll set aside for the moment just what it took to get in to see said doctor, a doctor on my “plan” (whatever that means), and one whom I’m theoretically entitled to see. I will say that I made this call in early December, explained the situation (“I’m healthy and fit — except I can barely walk! It’s excruciating!” and was offered an appointment on… February 23rd, a full seven weeks later. “But… I can’t walk!” I repeated to the young woman on the phone. As with most people I’ve encountered in positions of low authority, she was eager to flaunt her power to disappoint. “We can prescribe medications to alleviate the pain,” she chirped. Evidently, it was okay if my leg fell off, so long as it didn’t hurt so much will it do so. So I called the same doctor’s office in the neighboring city, poured on as much honey as possible, made a friend, and presto! got an appointment for the next day to see the very same guy.

I’d been to this doctor for this same condition two years before, when he gave me a cortisone shot and told me that this problem, which feels somewhat like a buzzsaw cutting into my right flank, would go away. “It’s bursitis,” he said. Eventually it would clear up. And he was right. But he never said that it would come back. In fact, it’s never fully gone away; it’s always lingering there, waiting to reassert itself, like the Clintons. Sometimes it’s more powerful, while other times it’s just nagging away at the edge of my perception until it gets its way. Again, like the Clintons.

The doctor asked me what I was doing that was causing bursitis in my right leg.

“What do you mean?” I asked. How do I know? I didn’t even know it was bursitis.

“You’re doing something to aggravate it.”

“Walking on it,” I said.

“Something else.”

“Everything I do with the right leg I do with the left leg. The left leg is fine.”

“But you’re doing something.”

“Again, walking. And seriously:  I use both of these legs in tandem. When I’m using the one, I’m using the other. It’s not like I’m hopping around town just on the right leg.” This line of questioning seemed like an exact replica of his fruitless interrogation from two years earlier.

“Well,” he said, “You’ll figure it out. In the meantime, I’ll give you a cortisone shot for now. And then you’ll be fine and it’ll just go away.”

(Shades of my mother!)

So, two years later, same mysterious diagnosis — “You’re doing something!” — and same temporary treatment plan:  immediate alleviation, followed by a long period of hoping. Which calls for ignoring the time-honored saying “Hope is not a plan.” Given that I could barely stand let alone walk, and that my wife had taken to referring to my perambulations as “hobbling around,” meaning that now I was visibly lurching around town like Quasimodo, I opted for this incomplete treatment plan. At least it was something.

A few minutes later, a raven-tressed assistant in her mid-20’s was dabbing antiseptic wipe onto my bare flank while both of us tried to overlook the fact that I was mostly undressed in the crucial areas during this treatment. Then the doctor interrupted our special alone time to return with a needle filled with what looked like window sealant, which he injected deep into the internal cracks of my walking apparatus. He readied his exit, but not before giving me a final instruction:  Don’t go to the gym. For two to three months.

Now, I do my best to breeze through life. Really. But my best is pretty miserable; just the way I hear our language getting used is enough to wind me up. To the degree that I can seem calm and collected,  it’s because I go to the gym. Four times a week. The gym is my release valve. After 15 minutes of stretches, 45 minutes of cardio, half an hour of lifting, then the sauna, the steam room, the jacuzzi and a shower, I’m too bedraggled to have any stress. In fact, I’m so de-stressed, you could probably run over my sternum with a tank and I wouldn’t have it in me to worry about it. The idea of skipping the gym for two to three months seemed impractical in the extreme. I’d have to take up heroin.

I explained detail that there was no way I could lay off exercise for two to three months. Then he offered a compromise:  that after three weeks, I could take walks. Was he really suggesting that not only could I not go to the gym for up to three months, I shouldn’t take walks for three weeks? Why not order me up a wheelchair? Why not just put me in a home now and get it over with? Why not shoot his glue gun into my brain and be done with it?

“You don’t want to aggravate it,” he said. “Or do permanent damage.” This sounded reasonable. Even if it was advice about a condition that he’d assured me for two years now would just magically go away.

So…. I stayed away from the gym. For two weeks. In those two weeks, my stomach and my brain immediately lit up with the idea of “Vacation!” Like: “Hey… if we’re not going to the gym… we’re kind of on vacation! Let’s live large!” So for two weeks I just ate and drank whatever. Cookies? Hand them over. Popcorn? I’ll have three bowls, thanks. Late-night cereal? Sure — and two servings. No, don’t cut the fat off the ham. More butter, please! And crack open some more wine while you’re at it.  You’re not working out at the gym while watching their constant reruns of “My 600 Lb. Life.” Just eat and enjoy.

Two weeks of this and I felt like I was sinking into a bog. I was loaded with stress, and with food. I was notably less cranky now that nobody was spearing my hip with every step, but my brain and my entire being felt clouded  and anxious. Finally I got some advice from another medical person about cardio and routines I could do that would in no way involve putting weight on my right leg, and so on Sunday I went back to the gym, feeling very much like Moby Dick pulling into harbor.

After my workout and my shower, I crossed paths with the standing scale in the men’s locker room. My plan is to live as long as possible in good health because I have a lot of things I’d like to do and see, including attend Dick Cheney’s trial in the Hague. (It’s on my wish list.) So I weigh myself on this scale at the gym every time before getting dressed, to keep tabs on my progress, or lack thereof. Overall, the scale has reported happy news to me all year. (Setting aside that trip to New Jersey, The Weight Gain State.) But now it looked at me with sinister intent. “Oh, no,” I thought, “this is going to be bad.” I got on, naked in apprehension after  two weeks of eating crap and doing nothing, and found that… I’d lost four pounds. I got off the scale, zeroed it out, got on, set it again, and I’d still lost four pounds. As the French say, Incroyable! (And they know something about eating.)

The ways of the body are mysterious.

Sufficiently caulked, my leg isn’t hurting me any more, so I’m back at the gym, while being careful not to exercise that leg needlessly. But I haven’t changed my recent (over)eating habits, freshly armed with the excuse that, well, it’s the holidays. Regarding my weight loss, I don’t have an explanation. I do know that I haven’t eagerly shared it with the people I know who are working hard to lose a pound or even an ounce and getting nowhere. I’m sure that the story of my Christmas miracle — the miracle of weight loss through gluttony and sloth — isn’t one they’d appreciate.