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


My dog the jerk

November 26th, 2020
Looks so innocent.

Around our house, this dog has a great reputation. He’s a real charmer who loves to play, is always happy to see you, and radiates gratitude for walks and attention. As my son says admiringly about this dog every time we take him out around the neighborhood, “He’s a jaunty boy!”

But this morning it occurred to me that he’s actually a jerk.

The reversal in my thinking came on me suddenly today — but that’s after almost four years of being under this dog’s spell. Yes, we knew that he’s clever enough to understand a fair sampling of the human English language — especially his name, and “toy” and “walk” and “Where’s Lamby?” (the name of that favorite toy, which he will wrestle you for). But now I realize very late in the game that this dog is even cleverer than we thought, and he’s been hiding his evil intelligence right under our noses.

I concluded this as I found myself cleaning up his shit from our floor yet again.

My first thought, of course, was, “Well, when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.” No one had been up yet to let him out, so it was our fault. Plus, to give him credit, he’s always thoughtful enough to do it in a secluded spot only we are aware of, and one that’s easily and neatly picked up, cleaned up and sprayed. (In other words, not on carpet.) Then I thought, “Oh, if only he’d go out at 11 p.m. with the other dog, who faithfully does her business out in the back yard every night with no complaint.”

And that’s when it hit me:  He could go out every night before midnight, and I certainly cajole him to do so!, but he refuses. I have tried to drag him from his bed, and yes, he gets an evening walk every day, but he will not go outside late at night. He’d rather stay inside and shit in the house. On purpose.

Not only that! Now that the scales had fallen from my eyes, the rest of the pattern emerged.

My wife works nights. I work days. Our son works swing shifts — sometimes at 7 a.m., sometimes at 7 p.m.; his schedule is utterly unpredictable. But, among the three of us, there is almost always someone up and ready to let this dog out. That means that the dog is waiting for us to be unavailable so that he can exert his will on our floor!

Other details pulled into focus. Wasn’t he the dog who always ripped up Lamby and left poor Lamby’s guts strewn all over the living room floor? Yes. When my poor tired wife has retrieved all those bits and sewn Lamby together yet again, isn’t he the one who can’t wait to perform the same evisceration? Yes. On those walks, hasn’t he always insisted that we go the way he wants to go, with no care for our preferences, or the preference of his fellow dog? When there’s some leftover yolk or something made available, hasn’t he run over as quickly as possible to get the first few laps and then left the merest traces behind in a haughty manner for the other dog? Yes. Definitively yes to all of it.

Lying in wait for my wife.

Let’s speak for a moment of the other dog, who was after all here first. Adopted as a rescue from a mad puppy hoarder who later faced charges, this little fox terrier has a bad rap. On the surface, she seems noisy and excitable, ever suspicious and high-strung. When any living creature comes within half a mile of our house, she tears into the very notion that someone or some thing is approaching. On walks when she comes across even much larger dogs getting their own walk, she can be a terror, snarling in a very unneighborly way to communicate, “You better not come over here! Boy, if I could just get at you, there would be Hell to pay!”

Plus, she sheds. Unlike the other dog.

But this morning, as I was reappraising their two characters, and as some blissfully unaware runner sailed past our house and the fox terrier jolted into high alarm, I noticed the behavior of the other dog, which I will sum up as this:  “Oh, shit! She’s barking at something! I’d better join in so I look useful too!” Completely calculating.

Yes, much like the title character in “All About Eve, ” all of his outward charm is a mask for his insidious scheme to have his way at all times.

Now, as I’m writing this, the fox terrier is in here in the living room with me, standing watch. Meanwhile, the scheming mutt is lying asleep curled up around my wife in bed. She didn’t want him at first, but he won her over long ago, in a playbook right out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” She thought he was funny-looking, bony, and kind of pathetic. Within weeks, she started cooking meals expressly for him. Now, when she’s at work, she wonders what he’s up to. Of course he greets her at the door when she comes home. Even tries to follow her into the bathroom, which she delights in in a mock-outraged voice. He somehow cajoled her into moving his dog bed from the floor up onto the couch! Y’know — where I used to sit!

His name is Thor. We didn’t name him that; when we adopted him from another house that “needed to rehome him” – wonder why???— my wife floated the idea of renaming him Toby. “He just seems like a Toby!” she said. She took him for kind of goofy. But that’s just part of his scheme.

As a playwright, I tend to think I have insights into human behavior. But in retrospect it’s clear that it never occurred to me to apply those skills to these two dogs. Now I see that the one who’s vilified for being a noisy nuisance is doing her best to protect us and gets few rewards for it — and has been warning us about this other dog all along, to no avail. She’s actually the hero of the piece! Meanwhile, the one who likes to “play”? He’s Machiavelli from tip to tail, undermining his rival and pursuing his desires. 

Well, I’m over it. From now on, he’s going out every night if I have to carry him there. At least until he gets my wife to make me stop.

My Tweet with André

November 21st, 2020

As I mentioned in my playwriting workshop today, I’m reading André Gregory’s memoir, “This Is Not My Memoir.” I track the progress of all the books I’m reading on Goodreads. When I update the app with my reading progress twice daily (once around lunchtime, and once around midnight) it puts out a tweet about my progress on reading that particular book. (I have it set up to do this; it’s an option.)

Last night I updated the app to log my progress on reading André Gregory’s memoir… and he saw my tweet and Liked it.

It’s the tiniest little thing, but it sent a thrill shooting through me. I’ve revered this man’s work for 40 years, since discovering him through “My Dinner with André.”  (My favorite film.) Mark Hamill once liked one of my tweets, and he seems like a nice guy, and some other well-known people have too, but to me it’s not like Andre freakin’ Gregory liking one of my tweets! A friend of mine interviewed André earlier this year, but this is as close as I’m likely to get.

By the way, his book is superb. Entirely engrossing! He’s a great storyteller, sharing tales in a limpid, crystalline style that communicates a great deal simply but deeply. He’s had quite a life! From encounters with Errol Flynn and Abbot & Costello and a host of surprising celebrities of the 40s and 50s to working with such varied characters as David Bowie and Helene Wiegel and Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese and, of course, Wallace Shawn and so many other colorful characters. 

Election plans

November 3rd, 2020

It’s tempting to make a prediction, but I don’t know anything you don’t about this, and nobody really knows anything, and there are lots of potentially shifting scenarios… so I’m going to leave it alone. And, actually, I was going to spend it alone, both my wife and my son working that night — but yesterday afternoon I decided to invite one friend — just one — over on election night. He’s a close friend of almost 15 years, and we met through politics, and if it’s a result we prefer then we can celebrate, and if it’s one that we don’t, we can commiserate. In either case, it seemed better to invite someone, so I did. Hey, if nothing else, there’ll be pizza and beer — so that’s something.


November 2nd, 2020

Saturday night was Halloween, and my 33rd wedding anniversary. By chance, it also turned out to be my wife’s 33rd wedding anniversary, so we celebrated it together. She did a splendid job of decorating the house both inside and out, and if it weren’t approaching midnight and I was suddenly feeling lazy, I’d post pictures — but it is, so I won’t. We bought a bag of very bad-for-you candy to dispense to trick-or-treaters, even though we weren’t sure we’d get any. I did say to her, “Well, we’ll at least get those neighbor kids!” Those are three precocious youngsters who live next door, aged about 5 to 11 (I’m estimating here, hence the word “about”), who are quite smart and creative and who gleefully torment our neurotic fox terrier and who made for quite a babysitting income for two of my kids over the years. But then I saw their dad, who is just about the best neighbor one could hope for, a guy who will warn you if you’re parked on the ticketing side of the street, or apprise you via text of package deliveries or if your squabbling gardeners are having a drunken fistfight in your front yard and your teenage son has pulled up a seat to watch because he’s never seen a fight before, which necessitates your hurrying home as quickly as possible. (Yes, we still employ one of those gardeners. One.)

“Hey, your kids are coming over, right? To trick-or-treat?” I called out to him across my lawn the other day.

No, he explained, they were going to some sort of party on Halloween. It went unsaid, but I heard it: pandemic-safe. I completely understood. Still, I was forlorn at not seeing them in their costumes, whatever they’d be. I like kids and I like Halloween.

On Halloween night, nobody else came to our door either. So, for the first time ever, we got no trick-or-treaters. Zero. Which was dispiriting for at least one of the people who got married on Halloween. The other one, when I offered to just leave the candy in a bowl on our porch on the off chance that someone would come by, said, “No! I don’t want people coming onto our porch while we’re gone. In fact, I’m turning off the light!”

What is the version of “Bah, Humbug!” for Halloween?

The evening brightened after that, though, as the missus and I went to a nice restaurant for our anniversary dinner, one that offers al fresco dining. She had thoughtfully purchased masks from the dollar store (she’s a bargain shopper!), and we had dressed our best to color-coordinate with the masks. We sat down and she set about ordering her three drinks. I have been with this woman for a long time, and am now accustomed to the ritual of the three drinks:

  1. The first drink is a “fun cocktail” that she wants to try. And that’s great. It’s a fun evening out and she likes to try fun drinks. That is exactly in the nature of fun evenings out. This stage of drink ordering requires a degree of back-and-forth with the waiter or waitress, as my wife expresses her likes and dislikes, asks about various ingredients and consults the varietal makeup or herbal balance of others on her iPhone, and more, as the person awaiting the order assumes a patient role. Late in this set-to, I jump in decisively with both her order and mine (generally a red wine), to speed things along.
  2. The second drink, after just a sip or maybe two of the first drink, is an adulterated version of the first drink, which she has sent back for corrections. This also gets a sip or maybe — maybe — two.
  3. The third drink is also known as the replacement drink. Still not liking the first drink in either its pure or adulterated format, she now throws that aside and orders a drink unlike those first two. This one delights her!
  4. There is no fourth drink, and generally no second round of the third drink. We are not in our twenties and have both learned our lesson.

Sufficiently libated, we enjoyed our meals, she having the squash ravioli and I the lamb chops. We also had a charcuterie platter dressed with the little food fillips I enjoy: pitted olives, cornichons, tapenade, gluey balls of cheese, and strange meats from foreign lands. We talked about Halloweens past, tried not to make plans for our children who are now adults themselves, shot a little video of ourselves enjoying our desserts and posted it on social, and then watched as well wishes flooded in from near and far. It was a nice evening, even though when we got home our dogs were crazed as always that we’d gone somewhere without them, and deliriously grateful that we’d come back.

Whatever happens with this damn pandemic, it better be done by next Halloween, because I’m not eating an entire bag of candy all by myself again next year.

The dying economy

October 30th, 2020

I have a good friend who for many years was in a seemingly failsafe business: the business of dying. Funeral homes, like auto parts stores, seemed recession-proof. One would think that this business would be booming right now, what with all the death and despair.

But apparently not. Imagine my surprise in seeing this article about the very unhealthy pallor overtaking some funeral parlors.

“You have (L.A.) funeral homes that were doing 500 calls a year and are now doing 300 calls a year,” one casket industry veteran is quoted.

The economy is gloomy indeed when even the business of death is dying.


October 25th, 2020

My son recently passed his driving test on his second try. The first try, a few weeks prior, had ended in a failing mark from a tester who, in my son’s telling, was the sort of person to keep you half-submerged in a tiger cage for months while he jabs you with sharp sticks and threatens you with piranhas. On this second attempt, he was glad to get someone different.

We were on a long evening walk with our dogs, each of us pensively awaiting a crouch from one of them with a cautionary plastic dogshit bag at the ready, so discussing his driving test made for a good talk. “What was this one like?” I asked.

“Oh, this one was really nice.”

I was starting to glean that, in his view, the percentage of pass-fail was somehow related to the relative niceness of the person scoring the test. I should note here that I had been riding along with my son for a month or two as a passenger while he practiced driving and that I was impressed with his watchfulness and his care to do things right. I didn’t want to tell him about my own experiences as a driver at his age, or the teenage friend of the time, a girl, who breathed a sigh of relief after another near-miss and called me “Mario,” after race-car driver Mario Andretti. (Unlike Mario Andretti, I was never in a car crash back then. So there.) In fact, reliving my own hellbent driving ways of my early years only made me more vigilant about his habits. Even if I didn’t tell him why.

Which reveals one of the things you gain as you gain years: perspective.

He went on. “She would tell me in advance where we were going to turn — the other guy didn’t do that. And she’d give me little tips.”

Ah. An actual teacher. I can always recognize one. “How old was she?” I asked, suddenly lit up by the realization that this second testing official was a woman. Part of me now flashed onto the old Van Halen video “Hot for Teacher.” I think this part never dies in the male brain, and thank God.

“Oh, middle-aged,” he said. Then he added, “Mid-30’s.”

Everyone in my age group I’ve shared that with has burst out laughing.

That was about two weeks ago and since then my son has used one of the family vehicles to drive all over town and into neighboring towns. There are people who’ve been driving in LA for 30 years who still avoid the freeways, but he was on them in a day or two. He’s always been independent, but recently he’s gained even more freedom: His own job, his own business as well, his own bank accounts (yes, plural), his own IRA, his own schedule. He also now has his own insurance bill, via me, to the tune of $157/month, because that’s what adding him to my policy cost. When he gets his own car (soon), it’ll go up further. Welcome to the economy and to early adulthood.

In the meantime, I welcome his perspective on what qualifies as “middle-aged.” He’s wrong, but that’s just because he’s never defined it, and I hadn’t defined it for him. Well, now I have.

“Middle-aged” is five years older than I am.

And always will be so.

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!….”

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.