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


Blog

Thought for the day

October 12th, 2020

‪Christopher Columbus was misguided.‬

A dish served rarely

October 11th, 2020

Los Angeles has always been a city of changes, famous for bulldozing historic haunts that in other cities would be preserved for their character and celebrity. In January, I took my daughter to the oldest restaurant in the world, which is in Madrid and which opened in 1725, and which appears to still employ some of the original waiters. In LA, that restaurant would have long since been turned into an apartment building, and the waiters shifted into tenants.

Actually, this dynamic hasn’t troubled me much. One of the gifts of Los Angeles is that it’s a forward-looking city, always chasing what’s new — and I’m wired the same way. Plus, if we want rent to be more affordable for people, we need more apartment buildings, and many of our edifices live on in the culture: the Brown Derby exists as a simulacrum at Disneyland and Disney World. Which is the highest tribute Los Angeles can provide.

Still, even as someone with a predisposition to look at, say, Blade Runner, and think, “Wow — that looks cool! Might be fun to live there!” something happened last month that robbed me of my impassive attitude: my favorite restaurant, Pacific Dining Car, went out of business.

After 99 years in business. Because of this pandemic.

Pacific Dining Car wasn’t just the toniest restaurant I could barely afford (or not, for many years), it was also just west of downtown, and open 24/7. That meant that a theatre guy like me could wrap up his show, hang out with the cast afterward, and still go get a real dinner and quality drinks at, oh, 2 a.m. It was a place you could stop in any time between midnight and sunset and have a nice aged steak with a side of asparagus and a baked potato for just under the cost of a car payment. In 2007, I took a colleague there for lunch and it was $250. (To be fair, we ordered wine.)

I have many fond memories of the place. Many of them without my paying, but some with.

About 20 years ago, having an unexpectedly good year, and coming off a year so bad that I’d actually started selling possessions (glorious old comic books and original art that I still miss, dammit), I invited two theatre friends out to dinner after one of our shows. It was almost midnight and we hadn’t eaten. One of them suggested the Astro, a nearby retro diner that is revered among Los Angelenos and that has been featured in many movies that I’m not going to look up at this moment, and where an entree is about ten bucks. Perfect for theatre people! But I said, “Let’s go to Pacific Dining Car! It’s on me!” One of my theatre pals protested that it was too much, but I insisted, and I wore them down, and y’know what? We had a great time, and it’s a cherished memory… because the one friend is now dead. I miss him terribly, think about him often, and I’m glad I got to buy him a goddamn expensive steak and also the split-pea-and-turtle soup.

At some point about 15 years ago, I had a writing client who wanted to meet only there to discuss his work. Which was fine by me. He’s a good writer; like most of us, he wanted someone to bounce his work off of. We met there once a month for about a year, maybe longer, and he picked up the tab and paid me my fee and my waistline visibly expanded in all the photos of that time period.

Another time, when I was still driving convertibles (and what I did to lose my mojo and give up convertibles two years ago I don’t know, but I’ve got to get that back), I was shuttling around a good friend from out of town. I said, “Hey! There’s this great restaurant, Pacific Dining Car! Want to go?” He said that’d be great, and I said it’s kind of pricey, and he said he’d pay, if only I’d put up the top. Sure, it was after 10 on an evening in November — but why have a convertible if you’re not going to put the top down?

I pulled over and put up the top. He paid.

So, now, in this annus horribilis, Pacific Dining Car, a restaurant built out of railroad dining cars and summoning up an era of classy white-glove service at a rarefied price since 1921, is closed.

The last time I ate there, May 30 of last year, I took my wife. I’d had dozens of business meals there that I’d dutifully itemized off my taxes over two dozen years , but I’d never taken her, and shame on me. I’d always bring home the plastic-wrapped and chocolate-dipped mint candy sticks they offered, each labeled with the name of the restaurant, and occasionally a piece of steak, but I’d never taken her. Thank God that last year I set about to set that straight. She never would have gone had she known the destination (she is a frugal person), but I told her that I was taking her somewhere for dinner and that it was a surprise, and that she wasn’t to ask me about it. When we pulled into Pacific Dining Car, and her eyebrows rose, I said, “Don’t even think about it.” We ordered everything and anything we wanted, and when the check came I wouldn’t show it to her and told her not to ask and we were both thrilled about the food and the service.

If there has to be a last time, I’m glad that was it. It meant a lot to her, and to me. For me, it’s a cherished memory, just like so many other memories there, and while the restaurant is gone, the memories persist.

Except… in the true fashion of Los Angeles, where there’s always the chance of a sequel or a revival… this may not be the end. According to LA Eater, PDC may be coming back. The great-grandson of the founders says he’s using this time for a remodel and will reopen.

Let’s hope so. I’d love to go back, I’m not the type to ever visit the eventual knockoff at Disneyland.

Travel plans

September 19th, 2020

For my friends around the country, and in other countries, I’ve firmed up my travel schedule through the end of 2020. Please see below as to when we can hopefully get together. Here goes:

My travel schedule has me in Burbank, California this Sunday, and then next Sunday I’m in Burbank.

Looking ahead, I’m going to be in Burbank, and then in Burbank, and then sometime throughout the end of the year, I’m going to be in Burbank.

Early in 2021, it looks like I’ll be in Burbank.

Yes, I’m booked ahead on all of these trips.

I was actually supposed to be in TEXAS this Sunday, but, hey, there’s been a lot of plan-changing globally, so it looks like I’ll be in Burbank instead.

Will there be further changes? Dear God, I hope so.

Oh what a world, what a world

September 7th, 2020
“I’m melting!….”
“…Melting!”

When is a temperature of 94 degrees pleasant? When it was 115 degrees the day before. Today is so balmy by comparison that I’ll probably move outside later to do some writing.

In the meantime, here are a couple of photos showing one unpredicted impact of the weather yesterday. These were shot in downtown Los Angeles, and no, before you ask, they haven’t been photoshopped. Except by nature, I guess — because these images otherwise border on the inexplicable.

Prediction: There will be more of this to come. Unless we actually do something about it. Here’s something that a friend of mine did, and that I think I’ll do when it becomes possible again. That, plus turn off every unnecessary appliance, drive as little as possible, and work to elect science-believers.

Hot tub time machine

September 6th, 2020

Finally, after almost 25 years of talking about it, I put a hot tub in my back yard. Turned out it was far easier than I ever expected: All I needed to do was stick a giant tub of water out there. Voila, instant hot tub.

Okay, I didn’t do that. But I could have. The temperatures in Los Angeles County this weekend — and, yes, I know, it’s been widely reported — have been in the 110s. That’s 100 degrees, plus between 11 and 19 more degrees. And higher. A sub-headline in the LA Times read (and I sure wish I had screen-grabbed this): “Temperatures in the triple-digits could go even higher.” If or when the temperature goes higher than triple digits — like, to quadruple-digits, which could be any day now — none of us will need to worry about it. So there’s some good news.

Pretty much every day, I hop into my mental time machine so as to instruct younger people in how things used to be. Usually it takes this sort of format:

  • “We didn’t used to have all these homeless people on the street.”
  • “You used to be able to work your way through college without all that debt.”
  • “You won’t believe it, but it used to be called Kentucky Fried Chicken, and you could actually eat it.”

Now I’m adding, “It didn’t used to be this hot.”

As in, it hasn’t been this hot in at least 125,000 years. (But who’s counting?)

Y’know, not to be Mr. Naive Polyanna here, but the temperature situation (and that’s my new name for it, as I remain ensconced inside: The Temperature Situation) wouldn’t be hard to improve. Here’s what we’d need to do:

  • Stop burning coal
  • Phase out other fossil fuels
  • Plant lots and lots of trees

I know, it can’t be that easy, right? But it is, once you get past the first two steps, which seem somehow harder: Put people who actually believe in science in charge around the world, and then get those people to actually cooperate globally.

Maybe the hottest weekend in 125,000 years will help move that along.

On the beach

September 2nd, 2020
Zuma Beach, 9/2/20

After somehow becoming alerted last week that September was looming, and so, also somehow, was the end of summer — a summer without live theatre, without concerts, without parties and without Comic-Con for God’s sake — I decided to go to the beach. That was one thing, at least, that I could do this summer. So, today, I went to the beach.

At 4:18, newly planted onto the sand at Zuma Beach, I cracked open my journal and wrote this:

The sea side of the beach is a cliff of sand about four feet high — beneath that it’s a straight drop to the water.

I brought the wrong sort of towels, of course, in my rush. Turns out I brought smallish bath towels. The wind keeps blowing and lifting the exaggerated hand towel I’m sitting on. My backpack — with phone, added towel, lotion, shorts, jacket — rests on the sand because the towel is too narrow to accommodate it. Or me.

But if I hadn’t left in a hurry, I wouldn’t have made it at all. There are always a hundred things to do — that must be done! — and without picking up and heading out with determination I’d still be at the office, or at home, doing them. Life is one endless to-do list.

The wind is strong, pelting me with sharp bits of sand.

Fifteen minutes later, at 4:33, I added this:

It’s actually pretty boring at the beach.

As usual.

Zuma Beach, 9/2/20

I’ve lived most of my life near a beach. Where I grew up, we were only eight miles inland, and we went to the beach now and then, sometimes in Atlantic City, sometimes off Brigantine Island. I never knew what to do there, and usually took comic books with me. (Today, I took Ron Chernow’s massive biography of George Washington, which I’m about 20 percent through.) As a young man, I lived for four years within two blocks of the beach and went there, I think, twice. When I moved to California 30 years ago, the idea of going to the beach was briefly novel, because now the ocean was on the left — but who could continue to care about that?

Within 45 minutes today, I was ready to go.

Now, I will say that once — one time — probably 15 years ago I had a terrific beach experience. I rented a shabby motel room up the coast near a penitentiary and went down to the beach and found that I was the only person there. I took a folding chair and a bottle of whiskey and a couple of cigars and my laptop and something to eat just in case and happily sat out there for hours writing. At one point a lone fisherman came from somewhere and walked past me and we exchanged nods; otherwise: no one. Just me and writing and the familiar vices. Because, of course, who would go to a prison beach, and during the middle of the week?

That’s the beach I can see going back to.

Shows I’m sad I missed

September 2nd, 2020

A new look at a modern classic.

You’ll need that: A cautionary tale

August 30th, 2020

(Except I’m not quite sure what caution you should take.)

I’ve moved myself, and my stuff, many times over the years. Just like everyone else.

Kindergarten through grad school, I went to nine different schools.

I moved with my family to a different house when I was 10.

When I was 19, I rented a house in Ocean City, NJ. After almost a year, I moved back in with my parents. (Awkward!) Then I moved back to that same house. Then I moved back in again with my parents. (Yikes.) Then I moved with my girlfriend into an apartment inland from Ocean City, in Somers Point. Then I rented a house with her in, yet again, Ocean City. Then she and I got married and moved to California, where we lived in an apartment for a few years, and then a house for a few years, and then, in 1996, we bought the house we still live in.

In all of those houses and apartments I’ve also had a place for writing. Mostly, it’s been a room all its own: a writing room. I still have one today.

I’ve also had lots of offices. When I was running Moving Arts, from 1992 to 2002, I had an office at our theatre on Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles. When we added our spaces at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, I had an office there, too, in downtown. When I became President & CEO of the Los Angeles theatre alliance, I gained an office in that space, meaning that I now had three offices: the one at home that I wrote out of, the one at the theatre center where I produced theatre, and the one six blocks away where I ran the alliance of local non-profit theatres.

For the past 16 years, instead of producing theatre and running a nonprofit or two (or three!) simultaneously while being a playwright, I’ve been someone with a consulting business who is also a playwright. From 2004 to mid-2006, I ran that business from my home office, but then opened an actual external office, across the street from City Hall in Burbank. I took on a partner in 2007. The company now has 11 employees, which has necessitated larger offices. We moved about 10 years ago to San Fernando Boulevard (still in Burbank) and then six-and-a-half years ago we moved to Burbank Boulevard (still in Burbank) and then last week we moved to Magnolia Boulevard (still in Burbank). We like Burbank.

Oh, and last May we had a flood at our office — a real calamity — that required us to relocate to another office for four months… and then move back.

So, for almost 50 years, I have been on a conveyor belt of living spaces, schools, and offices. I am tired of moving.

I’m tired of moving me, and I’m tired of moving my stuff. It’s physically taxing, it’s time-consuming, and it’s mentally draining. I have a problem finding things to begin with, so imagine how it must feel to always be unpacking and wondering just where something is.

But there’s something else that gets moved now. Something that we sometimes don’t think about. Something quieter and even more important than all that stuff, something that’s always getting moved.

Our data.

In all of those moves, of course, I’ve also been moving computers. And servers. And backup drives. And disks. And multiple laptops, and iPads, and handheld devices (iPhones, Handspring Treos and Handspring Visors, Palm Pilots) and more. Some of those devices are now defunct, and the ones that still function get system updates and software updates. In one of the recent moves, I discovered that I had four old iPhones. And that was after having sold one.

Nothing is constant.

A year or so ago, I found a virus on my laptop that, to my horror, had corrupted dozens (maybe hundreds) of my files. Files of my writing. Plays, short stories, poems, essays — about 15 years of work had been wiped out, just turned into .exe files. When I calmed down, I remembered that I had print copies of all this in my files (always keep print copies, people!), but I didn’t want to type or scan all that back in and wondered if there was some way to rescue the files. Plus — if my files had gotten corrupted, I needed the situation addressed! So, I had the owner of the IT firm that services my company take a look at my laptop and see what could be done. He examined it and clarified the entire situation for me.

I hadn’t gotten a virus, and I hadn’t gotten hacked. Everything was still there and uncorrupted — it was just unreadable.

All of my old files had been written in software that was no longer supported. Even though there were many, many versions of that software in the 1980s and 1990s, as it went from Appleworks to Clarisworks to Appleworks and then ultimately away, in one of the many file transfers from older laptops to newer ones, those versions of word processing programs had fallen by the wayside, and now all these data files were unreadable .exe files. There was no application program to match them with.

So: Just to clarify: I had successfully transferred the data every time. I had also backed up every file onto first storage disks (which were now unreadable; who has a disk reader?) and, later, digital files (in the cloud, or on local networks, or on a backup drive). None of that mattered. The data was now unreadable.

Fuck it, I thought. I’ve still got all those paper copies. I’ll worry about this another time.

Several months ago, my great-nephew in New Jersey asked to see a copy of one of my plays. He’d heard about it from his brother and had placed third in a statewide acting competition with a monologue from another of my plays, and he wanted to read this one. When I looked for it on my laptop, I discovered that, yep, it was one of those unreadable ones. Well, no problem, I’d just go pull the paper copy and scan it and send it to him that way.

Except when I looked in my files in my writing room there was no paper copy.

I looked again and again, the way a person in a thriller looks again and again at the dead body of the person he’s accidentally killed just to make sure he’s really seeing what he’s seeing, but, no, there was no paper copy.

Then I had a big fat drink.

The play that had some of my absolute best work, a play that had been done in London and New York and Los Angeles and elsewhere was… gone. Evidently, somehow, in one of the moves of my paper files, it hadn’t moved. Its entire redwell folder, overstuffed with drafts and notes and a completed final copy, was missing.

I had become one of those creative artists with lost work.

It didn’t feel good.

I started to piece together where I might — might — be able to get a copy. Well, there were the actors from the various productions. And the directors. And — for some reason — I’d sent a copy to a friend on the East Coast back in 1995 when the play was new. I reached out to him, and he offered to go look for it in his storage space… some day. I asked twice, displaying as little anxiety as I could, and finally he told me he’d get around to it. I understood. I did. There’s so much to get around to. Our lives are one endless to-do.

I tried hard to put this out of my mind.

But I couldn’t.

In all these moves, what else hadn’t moved? What else was I missing digitally, and what else, for God’s sake, had disappeared from my paper files as well?

And — let’s be honest — did it really matter?

I mean, really?

I consoled myself by deciding that I’m always focused on the future anyway. Wasn’t all that old stuff just… old stuff? Who really cared?

(We call this “rationalization.” Talking oneself into okayness.)

Last week, because, as I said, my company was moving offices again, I resolved to strictly separate what should be there and what should be here. Oh, I was observing the same protocols as before, but now even more strictly. I brought boxes and boxes of papers home — papers that more directly relate to my playwriting career than my marketing and consulting career. In order to ensure that I had enough space at home for all this additional paper, I cleaned out a closet in my previous writing room at home. (Yes, I have even moved writing rooms at home. I forgot to mention this.) From that closet, I pulled out boxes of tax filings and receipts from the 1990s and early 2000s, birthday cards, ancient office supplies, and… an old iMac.

Good timing, because the city where I live is doing an e-waste drive this weekend. I would be able to trash ancient machine for free. But first, my wife wanted to make sure our data was removed.

My son and I booted it up.

It was filled with old data: family photos and emails and stuff. We found movies that I’d shot and edited in which he and the rest of the family appear, he at age 3. He’s just turned 18. My heart skipped a beat.

“I wonder if my old plays are on here…” I said.

They were. I could see their icons nested in their little folders. They weren’t .exe files.

My essays and my poems and my short stories and everything else were there too. But I would need the old software on there, too, for them to be readable.

I clicked on the icon for the missing play — and it sprang to life on the screen. There it was. All one hundred pages or so, in glorious glowing type. I haven’t done a full inventory — but it sure looks like everything that was missing is now back. This must be how an amnesiac feels when he snaps back into full awareness.

What is the lesson here that I would share with you? Is it to back everything up? Well, I did that. Is it to save paper copies? Well, I’ve always done that. Is it to transfer your files? I’ve always done that as well. The only lesson, it seems, is to never throw anything away. Because some day, you’ll need it.

Now there’s just one thing left. I need to figure out how to get those files off this computer in a format that I can still access. And, I guess, to print more paper copies.

Nyuk nyuk yuck

August 24th, 2020

When he was down on his luck, Buster Keaton made his living, what there was of it, writing bits for The Three Stooges. He didn’t hold the Stooges in high regard — having Keaton write for the Stooges was like having Michelangelo paint your living room ceiling off-white — but he no doubt figured that if they were ripping him off anyway, he might as well get paid.

One of the very obvious and overused Stooge bits that Keaton objected to was one of them reaching for the wrong thing and then using it, with hilarity ensuing. (If you were of a mind for that hilarity.) Larry might set down, say, a cup holding turpentine next to Moe’s cup of coffee, and guess what? Moe picks up the cup of turpentine and drinks it down. Ha ha ha. No, it’s not fair to try to capture that gag in print, minus the staging and the reaction shots, and expect it to be funny. For the record, I’ve always enjoyed The Three Stooges in small doses. In large doses, they’re as tedious as anything is in large doses.

What makes those gags seem obvious is the endless repetition — they appear in most Three Stooges shorts, and certainly the ones where the boys are doing some manual labor. If they’re painting, they’ve confused the paint with glue or something; if they’re doing plumbing, they’ve connected the wrong pipe; if they’re cooking, they mixed gunpowder into the cake… you get the idea.

And, I assure you, every single person who has ever watched any of these: 1. saw it coming; and 2. thought, “What an idiot! I would never do that!” Because the joke is built around the notion that we would never do that.

All of which ran through my head this morning when I started brushing my teeth and realized that it wasn’t toothpaste I’d squeezed onto my toothbrush and brushed liberally all over my teeth. It was this stuff.

At least my gums won’t itch.

Great stories in vice-presidential-candidate history, #1

August 13th, 2020

In 2016, when Kamala Harris was a Senate candidate and I was a state delegate with an endorsement vote in the California Democratic Party, her campaign invited me repeatedly to meet with her. They called me, they emailed me, they wrote to me, and they texted me. Repeatedly. Obstinate as ever, I refused to meet with her — just because I didn’t want to. I didn’t have anything against her; just didn’t want to, and didn’t appreciate the repeated invitations after I’d said, politely at first, no.

And so, I’m probably the only Democrat in the past five years in California politics who doesn’t have a photo with her. (It’s nice to be known for something.)

I have met at least one other vice-presidential candidate, though.

In 1988, my wife and our two roommates and I were fresh transports to Burbank from southern New Jersey. We were thrilled that Lloyd Bentsen, the courtly Texas senator who was the Democratic vice presidential candidate that year, under Michael Dukakis, was going to land at Burbank Airport — so close to our apartment! We liked Lloyd (far more than Dukakis), and were eager to meet him. One of the roommates and I hustled over there early, and I got right up at the front of the assembled crowd on the tarmac, against the rope line. When Bentsen descended from the plane, and started to work the line, right as he was coming across to where I was, the crowd surged forward, and as I stretched out my right hand to shake hands with him, my left hand, thrust forward by the crush of people, wound up firmly cupped and pressed over the entirety of his male apparatus. We locked eyes in a moment of recognition about the special moment we were sharing, his left eye twitched faintly and he moved on down the line.

When my roommate and I got back to our apartment, the other roommate, a young woman, asked, “Well, how was he?”

I replied, “Hung like a horse.”