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


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Thank you, Mr. President

April 14th, 2014

A week and a half ago, my friend and his wife went in for full physicals. This was the first time in 10 years they’d done this. Why not sooner? Because they’re both healthy and fit, and because they’ve been keeping a close eye on their medical expenses due to being self-insured for years — about 10 years, actually, since they closed their business. Their plan cost them about $900 a month, with a $15,000 annual deductible. Which has meant that they’ve been spending about $20,000 out of pocket every year on health insurance and medical expenses. Or, over those 10 years, about $200,000.

When you pay this way, they tell me, you really see what medical expenses cost. At one point, one of them went in for a relatively minor procedure, one that had them visiting the hospital for maybe two hours, and seeing a doctor for less than half an hour. Total bill: $7600. Which they paid out of pocket. With costs like that, you start to see why they’ve worked to keep their medical expenses as low as possible.

But now, newly insured under the Affordable Care Act (which, compared to the $20,000 or more a year they had been spending, is living up to its name), they were covered for full health exams. So they went in. And found out that my friend has cancer. One large-ish tumor that was classified as either a Stage 3 or a Stage 4 carcinoma, along with two smaller tumors. When he told me this late last week, it felt like the world had caved in on me; if it felt that way to me, I definitely cannot grasp how it felt to him and to his wife.

I didn’t post this until today because today was his surgery, and it sounds like everything went fine. I expected it to go well — I spent some time reading up on the kind of cancer he has, and checked in with some professionals about it — and even told him yesterday over the phone that while I care about him, I wasn’t worried about him, because the odds of his success were so very great, and that I was certain we’d have another 30 or 40 years to this great friendship because the statistics were good, and also because I need those years and am counting on them. Nevertheless, I was expecting a call from his wife early afternoon today, but as the day wore on and still I hadn’t heard anything I felt a thick dull heaviness descend upon me. Finally, at 7:15 in the evening, she called to tell me everything had gone right.

This is the story of only one of three close friends I have who are fighting cancer. I have another friend who just beat it. The odds are almost 50-50 that you and I will get it too. These other friends, and I, have robust health-insurance plans — but now I’m thinking about the many, many friends I have who in the past couple of months have gratefully posted on Facebook that now, finally, they have health insurance, thanks to Obamacare. They were unemployed, or self-employed, and they never could have afforded even the high-deductible plan my friends had. Under the old system they would have just died, or they would have gone to the hospital and been bankrupted. Now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and thanks to the president who was determined to make it happen, they’re covered.

As my friend’s wife said to me yesterday about my friend, “Basically, Obamacare saved his life.”

How to start writing a new play, the easy way

April 5th, 2014

1. Go see a really good play that winds up inspiring you.
2. Come home and in a matter of minutes write five pages of a new play.

At least, that’s what I just did. Congrats to Trey Nichols for Fathers at a Game, now running at Moving Arts. Thanks for the five pages (so far) that that has led to.

When good writers write bad plays

April 2nd, 2014

I’m just back from a 110-mile roundtrip drive to see a play that isn’t any good. I didn’t know in advance that it wasn’t going to be any good — and how could one know that? — but I discovered it almost as soon as it began. Almost nothing in it was believable; the dialogue was uninspired; two of the characters seemed dropped in from another play, largely for easy comic relief; and it isn’t clear whose story this play is, or what’s at stake.

I’ve seen bad plays before. In fact, after seeing hundreds, or perhaps thousands by this point, of plays before, I’ve seen plays far worse than this. I just wish this weren’t a bad play by a gifted playwright whose last play I so thoroughly enjoyed. I wish I weren’t writing about Rest by Samuel D. Hunter.

His last play at South Coast Repertory, The Whale (which I wrote about briefly here), left an indelible impression on me. Its portrayal of a morbidly obese man endlessly apologizing for his existence while trying to leave a legacy for his daughter was shocking in its depth of feeling and its piercing insights into that situation. Moreover, the play was filled with conflict and also with genuine humor that arose from the inner workings of the play. After seeing the play, which has stuck to me like a second skin, I decided that I wanted to see anything and everything by Samuel D. Hunter. Hence the 110-mile drive, through pouring rain and backed up freeways and construction: a three-hour commitment just to get there and back.

Do I wish the play had been better? Absolutely. Did I almost leave during intermission? You bet — I even texted two trusted theatre friends to say I was thinking about it. Instead, I stayed for act two — and thought it was even worse than the lifeless and meandering first act. Everything now seemed so arbitrary: characters in a nursing home that’s going out of business now eat in the main room ostensibly because the dining table suddenly has been packed up. Real reason? Because there’s a single unit set (i.e., one location, so we need to keep everything set in this main room). When the power goes out during a bitter snow storm, the remaining residents sleep in that same room — which is the entry way, with large glass doors and windows, and which would therefore be the coldest room. Why are they all sleeping individually there, with thin blankets, rather than in their rooms with full bedding? Again, it’s an excuse to keep them in that sole location. At another point, two people are theoretically captivated watching some reality TV, while another couple have an earnest heart-to-heart not five feet away. These are just three examples. When the underlying mechanics of a scene don’t work, it’s hard to invest in anything going on with the characters. Judging from both of his plays that I’ve seen, I would speculate that Mr. Hunter is kind-hearted. Based on just this new play, it might be good if he were more tough-minded.

And yet, despite all this, I’m glad this play got produced and I’m glad I went to see it. Why? Because good playwrights need productions. And because we need to support our artists — the playwrights and the actors and the directors, and all the rest of them. I don’t expect every work by anyone — playwright or novelist or musician or painter — to be great. Or even good. As much of an admirer as I am of Harold Pinter’s work, I can’t stand The Lover or No Man’s Land (I saw the latter years ago with Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards in it and even they couldn’t save it). I don’t expect all of Julian Barnes’ novels to be on the level of, say, “The Sense of an Ending,” but I’ll read whatever he writes. In supporting all of the work by an artist I admire, even the bad work, I’m supporting the factory that produces the good work too.

And playwrights need productions. Not just readings and workshops — productions. Plays are a performance vehicle. Until a playscript is produced, it’s just a script, not a play. I don’t begrudge a playwright for a misfire, and I don’t think less of him or her. I’m not even surprised any more. My theory is this: Sometimes you write a good play, and sometimes you don’t. It’s probably the same way with pro athletes — sometimes they’re at the top of their game, and sometimes they aren’t. I didn’t like Paul Auster’s last novel at all, but I’m still looking forward to the next one. Just as I’m looking forward to the next play by Samuel D. Hunter.

Road rage slip-up

March 27th, 2014

This guy is tailgating a woman who is doing 60 on a slick road… until suddenly he isn’t. Priceless.

Communication problem

March 25th, 2014

I started today with 82 “real” emails. All day long, I have assiduously worked these emails, handling what needed to happen, deleting as I’ve gone along, and dealt with as many new ones as possible. None of these are spam, or special offers, or links to “funny” pet videos.

Now it’s 5:11 p.m. and I’ve got… 82 emails. And new respect for Sisyphus.

Comics reading

March 24th, 2014

I had the great pleasure tonight of going to comic strip artist Stephan Pastis’ “reading” from his strip Pearls Before Swine at Vroman’s Books in Pasadena. Pastis is an affable and funny public reader of his own strip, accompanying himself with projected images of the panels he’s reading. My kids and I had a good time; so did the other 200 or so people jammed into a small upstairs room meant to accommodate perhaps 75.

During the Q&A, I couldn’t help noting the turnout — a standing-room-only crowd aged 8 through 80 — as well as his story of large crowds at all his bookstore signings. (For one in Texas, his event was moved from a bookstore to a church able to handle more people, where he delivered his remarks from the preacher’s post.) All across the nation, how did people learn of his strip and fall in love with it? Through newspapers. And how are those newspapers responding? By cutting down on the number of comic strips they carry, and shrinking their size. I have pretty good vision, but it’s gotten to the point where I have difficulty making out what the daily strips in the LA Times are saying. Moreover, the LA Times used to carry two sections of Sunday comics; now they carry three pages. When I pointed these things out, Pastis said, of course, “You’re preaching to the choir. We all tell them that. The comics are the most popular feature in the newspaper.” One would think that the publishers would want to run more of the most popular feature, not less. (But then again, one might think that newspaper publishers wouldn’t have gotten their classified-ad lunch eaten by a guy named Craig starting something called Craigslist.)

I also had a great time standing in a seemingly endless line talking books and reading with other people in that line. I discussed Hemingway, newspapers, and nearby over-priced bric-a-brac with the retired guy behind me, a teacher of economics for 35 years at a high school in a poorer area of Los Angeles who decried the complete lack of reading among children these days, despite the evidence all around him in the store, and espoused a love for the Wall Street Journal and a disdain for the slant he’s sure he’s reading on the front page of the Los Angeles Times every day. (“They should keep their editorials off the front-page reporting!”) At one point he mentioned his grandchildren in Texas; the guy behind him asked what time it is now in Texas, to which I said, “1956.”

I bought each of my kids a book, and picked up the new Pearls treasury and got Pastis to sign it for me — “That’ll be worth money one day!” my junior Uncle Scrooge offspring exclaimed — and then somehow made it out of the store without arming myself and my kids with another five or 10 books each.

hot and young vs. cool and old

March 14th, 2014

South Coast Rep just mailed me a postcard for the world premiere of Five Mile Lake by Rachel Bonds. Here’s the description:

“Jamie enjoys a quiet life in his small Pennsylvania town, fixing up his grandfather’s old lake house and pining after Mary, his troubled coworker. But when his brother comes back to town with a new girlfriend, Jamie’s peaceful world is turned upside down. A tender story about those who stay and those who go away — by one of the country’s hottest young writers.”

It’s a long drive down to Costa Mesa, although I’ve done it often enough when it was a play or playwright that interested me. This doesn’t sound like one of those times. But here’s what I find annoying: when they bill someone as “one of the country’s hottest young writers” — I’ve seen this before — as though young is an advantage of some sort. It’ll be better somehow because the playwright is young. (Which makes me wonder just why Shakespeare and Beckett are done so frequently, because they’re not only old, they’re also dead.) Now I’d like to see someone do the new play by, say, Sam Shepard and bill it as “by one of the country’s coolest old writers.”

Funny IQ test

March 10th, 2014

Here are 20 jokes that only intellectuals will understand.

Many of these hinge on the relative literalness of language. Every time when I’m asked to RSVP for a particular board meeting, the request is phrased this way: “Please let me know if you will or won’t be coming.” At first, I was replying, “Yes, I will or won’t be coming.” (That answer is literally true, and is occasioned by the formulation of the question. The better way to phrase the question is, “Please let me know whether or not you’re coming.”) Then after a few instances of that, I realized it wasn’t funny, that I was just being a jerk. Whether or not they understand these 20 jokes, I don’t think the distinction between being funny and being a jerk is something most intellectuals will get.

This sort of thing should be illegal

March 6th, 2014

My business partner and I have started an additional business. It’s a sort of line extension onto what we already do. Because this new venture is a pretty simple formation, and we’re never going to market or sell anything under this name, we did it ourselves through an online company.

But here’s the thing. When we signed up for this LLC formation, the online service defaults you to an annual package that’s an additional $279. We don’t want this extra business/compliance package and don’t need it — we have attorneys and a CPA firm, and are quite used to running a business, thank you — but there was no way I could find not to buy it. So, in buying the services that we did need, we wound up opting in against our wishes for the “free trial” secured by my credit card.

They then emailed me to say that we have just 30 days to cancel, after which if we don’t, they will automatically bill us (ongoing) for that annual subscription.

So I calendared it to cancel it.

Tonight, I logged into the service to cancel the subscription that we don’t want and don’t need, and followed the instructions to cancel. When I hit the cancel button, I got a popup that says cancelation must be by phone.

So I called the number. The number tells me that I have to call during normal business hours.

Think this is on purpose? I do. How many more roadblocks can they set up?

And I’m sure when I call they will try everything to keep me from canceling.

This sort of thing should be ILLEGAL. It’s right up there with calling elderly people and duping them into “charitable” donations they don’t understand and can’t afford.

State of fear

February 26th, 2014

Here in southern California, we’re in the midst of an epic drought, among the worst on record. I took my family skiing last week; here was the immediate response from friends who heard we were going: “There’s snow?” The answer: yes, but only because some of the resorts make snow. The skiing was wonderful, especially if your preference is snow skiing in 55-degree weather. (Ever wonder, back in the day and as I did as a 14-year-old boy, how Playboy bunnies could stand being photographed skiing around in the snow naked? Now you know: They were skiing in southern California sometime between February and March.) Outside those manmade snow areas, here’s how our usually snow-crested mountains looked: long runnels of dirt and rock, dry as a bone, down to the skeleton of the mountain.

So, now, it’s going to rain. The weather forecast is 100% for rain tomorrow and Friday. As my dentist remarked yesterday, when is the last time you saw a weather forecast predict 100% there was going to be rain? Usually, they’ll leave themselves at least a small margin of error. Nope, now we’re predicting 100% chance of rain. And now here’s the additional forecast: moving out (temporarily) of the epic drought, now we need to fear epic car crashes, mudslides, and drownings, because it’s going to rain. As I was writing this, I got an emergency text alert (!) from the California Highway Patrol. Here’s what it says: “Rain Expected in LA County. Are You and Your Vehicle Ready for Wet Weather Driving?” As though I should go out and throw a poncho and some wellingtons onto my car. Or something.

These latest fear alerts are brought to you by the state that previously gave you mud slides, earthquakes, the Manson Family, the real killer whom O.J. Simpson still hasn’t been able to find, the mystery man who killed Robert Blake’s wife in the exact minutes while Blake was out retrieving something from his truck, plagues of crop-eating bugs, gang wars, riots, and so much more. We survived all of them. That we’re now getting whipped up to fear the rain that we so desperately need tells you much about the fear-industrial complex.