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


Blog

Whoooo boy!

October 14th, 2019

 

Three big shocks from one evening last weekend:

1.

A friend and I went to see The Who on Friday night on what I’d been calling their “Who’s Left?” tour. I wasn’t especially interested in going — I’d bought the tickets as a present for my wife, who loves “Tommy,” but she was ill — but I came away impressed with the show, and impressed as hell with Roger Daltrey. Daltrey is now 75, and not only does he look fantastic, but he can still really sing, and really belt out those screams. This is a man who has taken care of himself and continues to do so! The set is cleverly constructed to allow him strategic use of those screams — before each song requiring a huge vocal blast, there is a long orchestral interlude, or a song sung by Pete Townshend, or a more low-key song, or all three  — and that’s only one sign of the incredible professionalism The Who brings to their show. At this point in their careers, and their lives, Townshend and Daltrey could be coasting; each could have all sorts of backup people supplying actual vocals and actual guitar work while these two breeze through the show. Far younger acts than these guys rely on just those tricks. The surviving members of The Who, though, seem committed throughout to delivering a high-caliber evening and doing it honestly.

Moreover, they’ve got a new album coming out. Not because they have to, but because they want to. Specifically, in interviews, Townshend has said he wants to prove that he can still write good songs for Daltrey to sing. Their occasional recent (past 20 years) forays into new material have shown he can. “Real Good Looking Boy,” from 2004, matches up well with most of their catalog, has a real depth of feeling, evoking as it does childhood hurts, and Daltrey sings the hell out of it.

The shock of this was just how freaking good this band is — still! — live in concert.

2.

The opening act, by contrast, was Liam Gallagher, formerly of Oasis. Let me just say, whoever booked Liam Gallagher to open is a genius, because he and his band are so terrible that they make The Who look all the more brilliant! Large barnyard animals sing better than Gallagher and bring more to a stage presence as well, and his band did nothing to hide this fact. He seemed to have two drummers on stage — one of them also named Gallagher, so I’m assuming that particular drummer isn’t on the tour purely on talent — and I’m reasonably certain I can play drummers better than they… and I don’t play the drums.

I’m shocked that, ten years after the final death knell of Oasis, Liam still has a career. Of sorts.

3.

At some point, one can’t help but tally what an evening costs. Most of these charges come as no surprise.

The tickets were $80 each — plus that lovely “convenience” charge — so they were about one hundred bucks each. Okay. A Broadway show costs more, and so does a massage you’ll forget about in a week.

My friend and I met beforehand for dinner (sushi and drinks), and that was $80 in toto with tip — not a bad deal for a Friday night dinner at a nicer restaurant.

Parking was $30 each — ouch! — but another friend of mine runs this particular church and if some entity is going to get $60 in parking money, I’m glad it’s this one. They do good work in the community and help a lot of homeless and bereft people, and the parking is a short, invigorating walk from the Hollywood Bowl, with easy get-in, get-out for your car.

But here’s where I draw the line:

The tickets (purchased, again, as a date night for my wife and me) were on me. Because my friend bought dinner, I offered to buy snacks at the Bowl. Here’s what two pretzels and two beers cost at the Hollywood Bowl:  FORTY-EIGHT DOLLARS.

Let me repeat:  Two Pretzels and Two Beers cost FORTY-EIGHT DOLLARS at the Hollywood Bowl.

That was by far the biggest shock of the night.

Unfitness

October 12th, 2019

My friend and fellow playwright, Ben Kawaller, writes hilariously on the dangerous idiocy that is Crossfit.

Sample choice line (one among many):

At one point he barked at me, “This is CrossFit, not art class!” Derision being the key to my heart, I took this as a clear sign that he was in love with me.

Too naturally skeptical to join a cult, I never did Crossfit. But I did do Beach Body Fitness, and so thoroughly janked my right arm doing pull-ups at ultra-speed as instructed that, six years later, it’s still not quite right. So, yeah, people might occasionally shit in the shower at my gym, but otherwise I can leave there unharmed.

Team’s work

October 12th, 2019

Last Monday, when I got back from a weeklong trip to Jacksonville, FL on business, I was pleased to see that the nice folks I work with at Counterintuity had indeed installed a new desk and seating area and office chair and wall screen and rolling file cabinet in my office. It’s been a pleasure having these new articles appointed here, and especially rewarding working at the big new desk, which affords me plenty of additional space to struggle to keep clear of the sorts of papers and pens I inevitably clutter everything with.

One thing I don’t have any longer, amidst all this workplace splendor, is a couch.

For years, my office has had a couch, but we had a flood in the Counterintuity office back in May — long story; don’t ask; wasn’t our fault; it was the fault of a faulty pressure regulator outside the building that delivered too much pressure and broke the plumbing. Everything has been rebuilt, refurbished, replaced or upgraded since then, including all the furniture and fixings in my own office. So now I have this nice seating area, but I don’t have a couch.

Which means:  I just took a 15-minute nap on the floor.

For 26 and a half years now, I’ve run a Saturday morning playwriting workshop out of Moving Arts’ theatre on Hyperion Blvd. down in Silver Lake. And then, after that, I’ve physically crashed. Because while leading the workshop is thrilling — and it is! — it’s also exhausting. I’ve got lots to do at all times, and plenty of energy to do it most of the time, but staying that focused — on following the goings-on in new pages among the seven to nine playwrights in attendance each week and leading the discussion and trying to make positive impacts while monitoring the time — is utterly draining. In a fulfilling way, like, well, running a marathon of the mind. So, after this weekly concentration of disciplined thought, I generally go home, shut down utterly for an hour or so, and then either go to the gym or do some writing of my own.

But today, I wanted to catch up on some things in my office, having been away for that week. Except there’s no longer any couch. So I took a nap on the floor. Which was fine, really, what with its brand-new and nicely padded carpeting.

When your angle of approach to life changes, you notice things. Here’s something I noticed from my unexpected perspective, eye-level on the floor:  a little sticker notifying me that my new desk has passed the test for compliance with formaldehyde! Now I need never worry about that. Mind you, I never had worried, ever, in my life, about a desk being dangerous for formaldehyde. But as for this desk, now that I’m alerted? I should have no reason to worry at all.

Of course, it depends upon what you make of “compliant” in the phrase “compliant for formaldehyde.”

Should I worry?

Formaldehyde1

Formaldehyde2

Memories

September 27th, 2019

Several years ago, a guy I knew told me that when you turn 50 it’s like flipping a switch and suddenly you can’t remember names.

As I’ve done with so many of these things, I thought, “Yeah, that’s not gonna be me.”

I share that because when I turned 50 that flip got switched, and because it’s good to admit to past hubris. (I think it’s also good to resist the inevitable tide, so there.)

Everything always used to be at my fingertips, certainly including names, and now I have to reach for them. Sure, the last kid who still lives with me, I can hang onto his name, and the names of our dogs, but much beyond that and I’m either playing the “sounds like” game in my head or free-associating:  “Hm. I know I did this with this person, and those other people were there, and I remember these things about that time, so the name is attached there somewhere in my brain….” And at some point, I get it.

Yesterday, I spent the day in a meeting room with two other members of the Counterintuity team and the facilitator we’ve hired to lead us in some extensive planning. Early in the day, the name Steve Jobs came up, as it inevitably does when you’re discussing vision and leadership and the intersection of tech and creativity. I’m of the strong opinion that Jobs was a needlessly terrible person, and that his terribleness is unconnected with his success — i.e., he didn’t need to be that way to achieve much of what he did. Others heard me, and then we moved on. Meanwhile, this stated opinion of mine led me down a rabbit hole of conjecture about Steve Jobs, and the nature of being terrible, and how awful he was to his illegitimate daughter and his legitimate business partner and select employees and even the idea that he needed to be a responsible member of society, and then my thoughts wound around to his early employer, who always made a place for Jobs to succeed because he could see Jobs’ potential, and even though Jobs, as a barefoot, stinking, only-eating-carrots hippie had driven everyone else crazy at the workplace, this brilliant entrepreneur whom I admire arranged for Jobs to work a night shift all his own, wherein he succeeded. Yes, I’d been an admirer of this visionary business leader for many years, the man who founded both Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, and of course I was thinking of….

And that’s when I blanked.

Meanwhile, of course, the meeting was going on and I was fully participating — at least outwardly — although I saw this very smart facilitator look at me repeatedly because he saw my eyes doing the upward-left look, which signifies either lying (but I wasn’t saying anything) or imagination. Imagination is related to conjuration, and I was trying to conjure up the name of this business leader I’d learned about in the 80s and followed off-and-on ever since.

My hand itched, naturally, because I was ready to pluck my iPhone from my pocket and type in “Chuck E. Cheese,” and then there it would be, presto:  the owner’s name. But I knew I knew his name — it was lodged somewhere in my memories, so all I had to do was retrieve it. And, hey, I’d be at this event of our own making for another nine hours, so at some point it would come to me.

This happens to all of us, the delayed memory. Fishing for a word or a name and then, hours later, unprompted, it comes to us. But in this case, I was determined to work for it and not to take the easy route and look it up on the wonder killer (invented, ironically, by Steve Jobs’s company). So, in off moments, I started jotting down little bits related to this guy.

“Chuck E. Cheese.”

“Atari.”

And I remembered Steve Jobs, and the story that he’d decided to eat nothing but carrots for two weeks, which turned his complexion orange. And that he smelled so bad that no one else would work with him, so he got that night shift. And the name of the guy who was determined to keep the brilliant young Steve Jobs employed was…

Mason.

Mason?

It wasn’t Mason, but I wrote it down.

Maybe half an hour or more later, “Gordon” came to me.

Gordon?

It wasn’t Gordon. But if it wasn’t Mason, and it wasn’t Gordon, it at least ended in an “uhn” sound.  Memories attach to other related memories, so fishing up bits of context is a reliable way of remembering something. If I could just figure out that first name, the rest would come. Except now I was struggling to think of other names like “Mason” and “Gordon.” This grew into such a distraction that I kept itching to pull out that iPhone. Finally, I just set it aside. It would come to me — or it wouldn’t — but for now, I needed to focus.

Finally, I had it. The name just came to me, in a flash of not-thinking. Just setting it aside took care of it.

I had been thinking of Nolan Bushnell.

Total time to remember his name? (I wrote down the starting time.) An hour and forty-five minutes.

There are two lessons here:  1. Yes, all those memories are indeed still stored in  your head. You can retrieve them.  2. But sometimes, it’s much faster just to use your iPhone.

Today’s music

September 21st, 2019

My 17-year-old son had plans today to spend the day with some friends. Getting ready to take a shower, he asked, “Do you mind if I play some music?”

I was lying down in the adjoining bedroom, hanging out with the dogs and reading.

“No,” I said, bracing myself for some harsh rap.

But instead I heard some sort of modern rock come on. It sounded pretty good! In fact, song after song sounded pretty good. I recognized the Killers, a band I like, and some others; one song summoned a sense of familiarity, but I couldn’t place it, so I got closer and hit the Shazam app on my phone and found it was by Foster the People. Of course! It sounded just like Foster the People, and I like Foster the People. I went back to my reading.

When he came out of the shower, I called for him. He came into the room. I was thrilled to hear all this new music and wanted to share my excitement. I’ve been concerned that I was finally falling behind in what’s current in music, or what I could relate to — but this was good stuff! Maybe I’d find out what it was and load it onto my phone.

“Hey!” I said. “I liked what you were playing. In fact, I liked all of what you were playing! That was really good.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s the music of my childhood.”

“Huh?”

“The music of my childhood. That music is from the 2000’s. My childhood.” Then he left.

Well, it’s still new music to me.

(un)fitness

September 21st, 2019

I could probably write a book about my experiences with my gym, and maybe, with this blog, I am. After all, I’ve written here about possible mistaken identities, the lack of soap, shit in the showers, and so much more.

Just after writing that last post, I decided to fulfill my pledge of earlier that day to absolutely, positively, go to the gym. Even though it was 11 p.m. As I’ve said here before, one of the things I like about 24 Hour Fitness is that 24 hour part. It eliminates excuses. No matter when you’re ready, the gym is there and open.

My usual habit at the gym is this:  I start with 20 minutes of “stretching,” which includes setups, planking, some other things, and about 10 minutes on a diabolical bicycle-like thing that contorts you into various positions as you tilt all the way back, like something being dumped into an imaginary hamper; follow with a circuit of lifting, then cardio. Because I don’t wear ear buds or head phones, or fiddle around with my iPhone — I’m not there to exercise my thumbs — I’m completely alone with my thoughts. During the cardio portion, my thoughts are generally this:  “Man, I can’t wait to get home and have a beer.” After cardio, I change into my swimsuit, shower off, use the steam room, shower off again, use the jacuzzi, then take a full-on actual shower after first using the swim-a-rator, or whatever it’s called, to drain the water from my swimsuit.

On this particular night I’m mentioning, I come out from jacuzzi and I’m standing there naked straining my swim suit in the swim-a-rator. A white haired little guy, also naked, comes over and stands slightly behind and next to me and looks at me, and says, “It’s cold standing there, no?”

I wonder what he means by that.

I tell him that I don’t think the swimsuit strainer is working well.

He says, “Are you from Russia?”

I say, “No, I’m from New Jersey. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Russia,” he says.

I think, gee, being from New Jersey, I can always tell a New Jersey accent; if this guy is from Russia, why can’t he tell I don’t have a Russian accent? He seems less Russian to me than… Armenian or something. I know a guy from the former Soviet Union whose country disappeared when the U.S.S.R. broke up. He’s not from Russia; he’s from one of the little satellite areas that no longer exists by that name or identity. He’s told me its name several times, but I can’t remember it and it no longer exists to look on a map. A similar thing happened to Franz Kafka, by the way – complete alienation from place – as a Jew growing up in an empire that dissolved in his lifetime, and speaking the language of his oppressor. So, now, whenever I see the guy from the country that no longer exists, I think of Franz Kafka. For a moment, I wonder if the man who says he’s from Russia is also actually from a country that no longer exists.

I’m thinking this while wondering if he’s ogling me.

I move away and go to weigh myself – once again, I’m the same weight I have been, which is simultaneously comforting and disappointing – and when I return holding a towel because I’m headed to the showers, the man is there again.

“How old are you?” he asks.

I’m wondering if, being from “Russia,” he doesn’t know how impertinent this is. “How old are you?” I ask.

“You first,” he says.

“57. Your turn.”

“I am 60,” he says. To me, he looks older. Do I really look three years younger than he does? And why am I having this conversation, both with him and in my head with myself?

“You look very good,” he says. “You have a good body. You are built.”

(I’m not.)

“Uhh, thanks,” I say. “Thanks.”

Then I walk to the showers, still naked, and go to a shower cubicle and close the door tightly.

When I come out, he’s gone.

Three weeks later, I haven’t seen him again. Not that I’m looking. Not that I would need to. I suspect he’d announce himself.

The Main Thing

August 31st, 2019

BryanFerry190829

On Thursday night, my wife and I went to see Bryan Ferry at the Greek Theatre here in Los Angeles. This was the eleventy billionth time we’ve seen Mr. Ferry in concert, so I think we qualify as committed fans. We’re not alone in that; the venue was sold out, and we fell into a nice exchange with other committed fans all around us. The singer, who doesn’t have a new album out, billed this world tour as doing songs from Avalon, by his old band Roxy Music, as well as solo hits, and at the end the guy behind me, of similar age as me, pointed out to me that Ferry hadn’t performed “To Turn You On” from Avalon. Which was true. So it was that sort of crowd.

The first time I saw Bryan Ferry was with Roxy Music, in 1983 in Philadelphia, on what was also the last time anyone saw Roxy Music for a very long time. (They did a reunion tour in 2001, and a few since then.) When you’ve seen the same performer many, many (many) times, and you’ve also seen many, many other concerts (I’m seeing three within the course of eight days — Ferry, King Crimson, and Karen O & Danger Mouse) you can tell the people who are really committed to their act and to their performance. I have a close friend who adores Sting and who has complained about the times when Sting has phoned it in. Mike Love’s version of the Beach Boys, which sounds great in the way a well-trained Beach Boys cover band that happens to have Mike Love and Bruce Johnston in it would sound great, plays for 90 minutes on the dot, and then they are out of there; Brian Wilson, meanwhile, will give it his all, but his all is vastly diminished from what it once was, and the last time I saw the legendary and extremely important-to-me Brian Wilson, well, he sang off-key, and it broke my heart. I’ve seen Elton John all of once (not a fan of his music), but after seeing him early this year at the Staples Center, I came away understanding people’s fanatic devotion to him. I still don’t like his records  — much of it sounds like rollerskating-rink music to me — but in concert, it turns out that he lives up to his reputation as an incredible showman, but that he delivers like a blues singer. I don’t know if that’s because his register has dropped, but whatever the cause, the vocals were administered in an almost thunderous gospel sense, and the tinny sound of the records was gone, his aged three drummers can really hit it, and his show was 100% incredibly enjoyable, especially to a non-fan who quickly found himself converted.

What I would say about Bryan Ferry — in every concert I’ve seen him play and, seriously, that’s at least 10 times  — is that he loves performing and that he brings everything he’s got every time. He also seems to love Los Angeles. In 2014, we saw him in Santa Barbara; he put on a fine show, but it wasn’t the love fest we’ve seen in L.A.  At the Greek the other night, he was positively beaming, because we were beaming at him. He sounds great, and he’s got a great band who’ve been with him a while and who seem to know the entire catalog. On any given tour, Ferry will play the Roxy songs you want, many of his own songs that you want, and then do unexpected deeper cuts you didn’t expect. This time, he played “The 39 Steps” from his 1994 solo album Mamouna, which I think I last heard him play… never.

Top to bottom, we had a glorious evening. The tickets weren’t inexpensive — let’s just note here that the parking was $45 — but our seats were 13th row, which afforded enough proximity to get the full physical effect of a band right in front of you, without getting your ears sheared off. The Greek has excellent acoustics, and its open-air quality assists the atmosphere immeasurably. When you’ve got seats like that, you’re less likely to be obstructed by a human wind sock dancing for two hours directly in front of you, as happened once to a friend next to me in a cheap seat near the back of the venue. You’re also less likely to encounter a middle-aged boozer couple tormenting their young children by 1) bringing them to a Monkees concert they’re not interested in, and 2) getting thoroughly smashed in front of them. No, down in the 13th row, it’s the responsible people, who have made an investment in the evening and are now seeking their return on investment.

Back in the car, and on the way home, and in our house, neither of us had one negative thing to say about the show or any aspect of the experience. We are smart, educated people, surrounded by offbeat highly educated intellects who come to our house and promptly debate things, which means that at heart we are critical people. Even when we’ve said nothing, usually, we’ve made critical notes.

This time? Nothing. It was all splendid. We felt fortunate.

Then, just before bed, the dogs having been patted and the house secured, my wife said, “You know… I hate to say anything… but I hated that jacket he was wearing. It was like… an old man jacket.”

I looked her in the eye and said, “I know! Did you see the cuffs on his shirt? The cuffs of his shirt were huckered! And what about that cheap-ass tie? I used to have a tie like that — when I was 18!”

Bryan Ferry, who from Day One has been an immaculate fashion plate, a rock star noted for performing in tuxedos and for starring in glamour layouts, in our eyes showed up looking like a geezer waiting at a bus stop. We couldn’t believe it.

Otherwise, though, great show!

How to never finish anything you write

August 18th, 2019

Sit in judgment of yourself while you’re writing it.

Oh, I know the temptation is great. You sit down and soon the questions build:

  1. “Is this as good as that other thing I once wrote?”
  2. “Is this any good at all?”
  3. “Am I any good at all?”
  4. “What’s new on Netflix instead?”

The solution to this is to separate the editing function from the writing function. The editing function is to catch mistakes, or find improvements, but, and here’s the fun part, for that to work you must have written something first. So do the writing function first:  Just free yourself to write what you’re writing; write what may, and leave the editing for later, after you’ve done the writing.

For those of us who write plays, there’s also a fifth question:

       5. “Is anybody actually going to produce this?”

And here’s the answer for that:  Have you ever seen a bad play? I have — plenty of them. If people are going to produce other people’s bad plays, they might as well produce yours. So don’t worry if it’s any good. So just keep writing it the best you can.

Lesser greatness

August 18th, 2019
scythed-chariot

Impractical war machines of Leonardo da Vinci

Last Sunday, I went to see the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the Reagan Presidential Library not too far from my house. This was the second time in a year I’d been to the library to see a special exhibit — last summer, it was the spectacular Genghis Khan exhibit — and also the second time I breezed through the Reagan section without looking at any of it. (Having lived through it suffices.)

Leonardo has been a lifelong subject of interest for me. When I was a boy, I saw a television special about him that left an indelible impression. Then, I was interested in the gruesome dissections, the high weirdness of writing everything backward, the fantastical war machines and flying machines, and the paintings not at all. As an adult, I’m interested in the exact opposite:  the paintings, and his life as an artist. It wasn’t until reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of the man two Christmases ago that I really came to understand perhaps the most significant aspect of Leonardo’s personal history:  As a left-handed, vegetarian, illegitimate, gay man growing up in the mid-1400’s, he almost had to become a genius — all of the peculiarities otherwise added up to too much. That I got through twelve years of elementary education and high school without being taught that makes a sad statement about how we whitewash history.

The other signal impression left by the Isaacson book was this:  that Leonardo’s genius lay in a heightened curiosity matched with impeccable powers of observation — hence, the hydraulic machines resulting from closely watching how water works; the proposed flying machines emulating the structural flaps of birds, long before the Wright Brothers — and that Leonardo’s fault lay in a perfectionism that too frequently left his works unfinished. According to Isaacson, Leonardo appears to have completed only about 12 paintings (estimates vary) and kept others traveling around what is now Italy with him as he dabbled at improving them; did not publish a book in his lifetime; performed exquisite dissections and examinations of corpses and perfectly illustrated the full interior and exterior of the human body but never published an anatomy, therefore ceding the credit to Henry Gray, for Gray’s Anatomy, published almost 400 years later; and more. What Leonardo was able to accomplish is a testament to his astounding genius; what he left unfinished speaks to the perfectionism that simultaneously reflects that genius and confounds it. In a time that predated the distractions of Netflix, the Internet, video games and more, how much more could Leonardo have achieved had he stopped reworking even the minor pieces?

My son, in reviewing the models and prints of various proposed fantastical and wildly impractical war machines designed by Leonardo, said, “These are like your story about ACC, when you just kept stuffing the ballot box with ideas.”

When I was a student at Atlantic Community College, in the 1980s, the college ran a contest for best new marketing slogan. I zipped off about 50 of these, each on a separate entry form, and stuffed them into the box. Among them:

  • “ACC for me, see?”
  • “ACC — Route 322 U.”
  • “ACC — Harvard on the Highway.”
  • “ACC — A Great Place to Go to School Because Marge Battestelli Works There.”
  • and on and on

I later heard that the administration was rather peeved by this. No award was ever made.

Looking at the war machines, I could see what Dietrich meant. Like my (intentionally) bad slogan ideas, these were reckless whims put forth at speed. One was a floating ship entirely encircled with cannons, somewhat guaranteed to hit one’s own forces as well; another ship had a giant claw intended to swoop down and cleave an enemy ship in two — leaving out the fact that to get close enough for use, everyone on that ship would be shot dead first; a rolling wooden tank of sorts was supposed to cut and gouge people on three sides, ignoring somehow the force (and people!) needed to move it into action.

Dead set on becoming a munitions manufacturer of sorts, as per the Isaacson biography and the sheer volume of wacky weapons of war proposed, Leonardo lost sight of the thing he was actually good at:  reflecting artistically what already existed in nature. With war, he was a dilettante; with painting, he was a perfectionist.

What leads to mass shootings (and what doesn’t)

August 4th, 2019

What are the 4 things all the mass shooters have in common? The people who run the Violence Project helpfully tell us in this piece in the Los Angeles Times. I have lots of friends on Facebook who are ready to blame Donald Trump — and, look, I can’t stand the guy either — but his name isn’t on the list of causes.