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


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Dead letter office

August 14th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Bill Gates’ open letter to hobbyists.

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, this idea should be Returned To Sender.

The price of admission

August 11th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seems fair, right?

(Not) government work

August 3rd, 2018

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

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

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

 

Dynamic!

July 31st, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

But… dynamic?

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

 

A better Comic-Con, and the usual Harlan Ellison

July 25th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Horrific health care story

July 3rd, 2018

In Boston on Friday, a woman got her leg caught in the gap between the platform and the train. People heard her scream.  A scrum of people ran over to help her, leaning against the train to push it away so they could lift her up.

The gash in her leg resulting from this incident cut five inches in, down to the bone.

What did she keep begging people? “Please don’t call an ambulance!” Because she couldn’t afford it.

For most people in America, that is the state of health care. Better to lose a leg than be bankrupted by care and treatment.

 

He had a mouth, and he could scream

June 29th, 2018

HarlanEllison

When I read yesterday morning on Twitter that the combustible writer Harlan Ellison had died, and then saw on Mark Evanier’s blog that he was sorely tempted, so tempted, to write his true (negative) feelings about Harlan Ellison but couldn’t bring himself to do so yet, I decided that nothing was keeping me from doing so, and from writing about my long-ago literary run-in with him.

After all, nothing ever stopped Ellison from attacking anyone.

In my teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction, I read what there was of Ellison to read. Here’s what that meant:  short stories, his intros and outros to other people’s short stories in “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions,” and comic-book adaptations by other writers of his work.

That, plus 27 teleplays, looks like the bulk of his work.

He wrote a couple of dime paperbacks when he was young, and what the Internet is generously calling “novellas” (one of them weighing in at 91 pages, no doubt with wide margins), and… not much else in a writing career that theoretically encompassed 60 years.

For many years now, I have checked in on the Ellison oeuvre to see what I’ve missed, or to see if that long-promised “real” novel would finally get finished and printed, or if the “Last Dangerous Visions” collection of short stories (again, by other people) would ever get printed. Nope, and nope.

There is no law that writers should write a lot, and sometimes it’s better if they don’t. Harper Lee famously wrote one novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and infamously had her poor first draft, “Go Tell A Watchman,” published by her caregivers just before her death. Ralph Ellison, justly acclaimed for “Invisible Man,” struggled to finish a second novel; his posthumously published “Juneteenth,” cobbled together from drafts and notes, did nothing but harm his reputation. But the difference between those notably unprolific writers and Ellison is that they weren’t so mouthy about their supposed status as great writers. Ellison was a poseur.

As a teenage writer, I started to get published. I published some non-fiction first in amateur, non-paying markets (comics and science-fiction fanzines), and then started to get published in actual paying markets. In addition to news and features, I was writing a lot of essays and reviews, mostly, as I recall, of music, comic books, and science fiction. Somewhere in that span of time from about age 14 to 18, I got into a literary feud in print with Harlan Ellison.

I wrote something that was published.

He wrote in a response that was published.

I wrote a reply that was published.

And so on.

And so on.

I don’t remember where this was published, and I don’t remember even what it was about. But what I do remember is that I was in a tit-for-tat with a well-known, television-appearing, minor-celebrity writer who was extremely well-known and lauded in genre fandom circles.

And who was I? I was a 16-year-old kid typing away in his parents’ basement.

And at some point in all of this, something occurred to me:  I was 16. He was about 44. It was cool picking on him and having him respond… but why did he have time to do this? Shouldn’t he be writing? And, toward the end of my Ellison-debating, Ellison-reading stint, I started to ask, Shouldn’t he… grow up?

And that’s what happened: I grew up.  He didn’t.

One week when I was an undergrad studying writing, my fiction professor got called away for the week, so he hired me to substitute-teach one of the class sessions in his absence – an absolute thrill! – and I assigned the Ellison short story “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktock Man!” because I remembered it fondly and because we hadn’t read any science fiction. The class dutifully read that assignment and whatever other story I assigned and we discussed it. When the professor, a widely published writer who won the Pulitzer and who still frequently publishes in The New Yorker, returned, he wanted to talk to me about that Harlan Ellison story I’d assigned. And here’s what he pointed out:

The Ticktock Man is a straw man, set up to be easily knocked down. You are set up to disagree with him from the beginning; he makes no great case for himself; and in the end, he is proved to be a hypocrite.

Easy.

And by easy, I now mean: adolescent.

That’s about when I realized that Harlan Ellison’s life work was adolescent. It could be fun, in the way that good low art and good popular art can be fun, but it couldn’t be grown-up. It wasn’t serious. It didn’t require any work on the part of the reader. Everything was easily handed over, and quickly, for instant gratification.

The truth wasn’t that Harlan Ellison had plenty of time to argue with a pimply boy 30 years his junior (although he did). The truth was that it was a priorityfor him because that’s how adolescents are. And that adolescence, which I don’t think he ever shed, informs all of his work.

Because, really, what is his legacy? F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of schlock – the Pat Hobby stories are really terrible, as are many of his other short stories – but, BUT, he did write “The Great Gatsby.” Isaac Asimov was a genre writer who wrote about 300 books all tolled, but some of them are magnificent, and leave a last legacy – certainly the Foundation books, and some of the Robot series.

Really, what is Harlan Ellison’s legacy? Writing a good episode of “Star Trek” (which he was on record as hating) and a good episode of “The Outer Limits.” Editing the two “Dangerous Visions” collections of others’ work. Having a run-in with Frank Sinatra that became a set piece in a magazine article 52 years ago. That’s more than most of us get, but it’s nowhere near enough to justify the fame that he worked so hard to establish and keep.  And it’s not enough to make up for all the goddamn arrogance.

Addendum. The British writer Christopher Priest, who to my immense delight once commented on this blog, legendarily took Harlan Ellison to task for his hypocrisy in never completing “Last Dangerous Visions” while holding all the other writers’ stories hostage. His popular piece demythologizing Ellison and recounting the “Last Dangerous Visions” nightmare is available for free reading here. I recommend it.

The strange dream of Yoko Ono

June 7th, 2018

Last night, I dreamt that a small group of us, really just a handful, were in our theatre, Moving Arts, where Yoko Ono started performing a song. It was just Yoko and an abbreviated electronic getup, something computerized.

When she had finished, I turned to the colleague next to me and asked, “Did you record that?” and when I found out that she hadn’t, I was pretty annoyed, even though no one had known that Yoko was going to burst into song.

Then I realized that I was being unreasonable, and that the person I was actually mad at was myself. (Not an unusual occurrence.)

So then I decided I’d be happy with a photo. Yoko agreed to pose in a photo with me. She stood to my right, and I was ready to do a classic arm-around-your-shoulder pose when I decided that that was too passe, and that instead, we should stand very stiffly next to each other, almost like mannequins shoved up against each other, and wearing blank expressions. Yoko played along, but said to me, “You’re strange, Lee.” Which, coming from Yoko Ono, is remarkable and possibly a compliment.

Then someone I used to know well, a wealthy patron of the arts I knew 15 years ago and had a falling out with, showed up and it turned out that Yoko was staying with her, and then I was really annoyed.

And then I woke up.

I should add that I’ve always been a fan of Yoko’s work, that for 40 years I have been the proud owner of her double album “Fly” on vinyl (which has more ideas on any given side than most artists will have in their lifetime), as well as other recordings of hers on various formats, and that I don’t care if you think she broke up the Beatles. (And I like them, too.) Why she would stay with that disreputable person from my past when I would gladly put her up I don’t know.

Jerry Maren, R.I.P.

June 6th, 2018

JerryMaren

I’ll keep this remembrance of Jerry Maren, who died today at age 98 and was the last living Munchkin, short.

(Ahem.)

One of the interesting by-products of living in Los Angeles, and Burbank in particular (where Warner Brothers and Disney and other production companies and studios are based), is that you have odd run-ins with famous people — people you’ve seen for much of your life on various screens or printed paper, but don’t expect to see when you’re, say, walking your dog. One time I parked my car and got out, being careful not to ding the car next to me. The gentleman getting out of that car was William Shatner. Another time, I was in line at the Ford Amphitheater donating canned goods, and the fellow in front of me was Keanu Reeves. I once wound up having lunch with Richard Benjamin, who came across as a very nice man, and chatting with Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson) while waiting to order food.

But it certainly was surreal some years ago to be next in line at the barbershop behind Jerry Maren. Yes, I frequented the same old-time barbershop here in Burbank as that Munchkin I’d seen in that movie a countless number of times over the decades. I remember his wife fussed over him, as did the barber, and I just sat there feeling that this was somehow surreal. Of course, he had appeared in “Superman” and many, many other things — but this was like a visitation from Oz, a few blocks from my house.

And, naturally, at the end of the haircut, the barber offered Mr. Maren a lollipop.

Acceptance

June 5th, 2018

My sons were watching “Defiance” last night, the movie where Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests in order to protect themselves and about one thousand Jewish non-combatants from the Nazis.

I reminded them, “Remember, there are good people on both sides.”

They seemed skeptical. So old-school.