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


Booked up

October 5th, 2015


I’m usually reading a novel and a non-fiction book at the same time (as well as, of course, comic books), but right now I’m between novels.

I finished “Nora Webster” by Colm Toibin (which I completely recommend; it’s one of the most deeply felt and deeply moving novels I’ve read, on a par with “Anna Karenina” by that Tolstoy guy), and then, unfortunately, read “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen, which seemed both shallow and false (and occasionally badly written).

After reading two novels newly bought while ignoring the stacks towering alongside my bed and overfilling the bookcase next to it, I had the idea that perhaps I should pick a book out of there and read it. Because, y’know, they are stacked and placed there to be read.

Except a closer examination revealed that I had already read almost all of them. Except, that is, for “The Nightclerk.”

“The Nightclerk” is a “cult classic” from 1965 that seems to promise, judging by the cover image and the jacket copy, to be a forerunner of “A Confederacy of Dunces.” To wit:

“J. Spenser Blight — ‘the fattest man in American literature’ — whiles away the long night hours with a number of passionate pursuits: reading twenty-five-cent paperback erotic epics; cutting up old magazines; and, above all, reminiscing about his impossibly beautiful and equally corrupt wife Katy. Blight dreams of his long-lost travels with Katy around the world to exotic erotic climes, recalls how he rescued her from the clutches of a Hollywood bogus mogul, and dwells fondly and at length on Katy’s subsequent career as a caterer to the sex-fantasies — the comic-trip erotic desires — of customers Blight brings home to her. …”

Read closely, and you’ll find the problem I had fully identified by page 21: no forward motion. Even in the synopsis, Blight is “whiling away time” while dreaming and reminiscing. If I’m going to read a book that involves dreaming and reminiscing, its author should be named Proust. That, plus the tiresome writing style — acid-induced late-60′s quasi-hipness — sent me back in search of a novel.

So now I believe I’m going to try again, for the third time in recent years, to read the expanded version of “Creation” by Gore Vidal. I read the original, Herculean-length version, when I was 19; the Atlas-sized version has thus far daunted me. That, plus with 30-odd additional years of reading wisdom behind me, I now see that Vidal doesn’t know how to set a scene well or give dimension to his characters.

So, perhaps I won’t be reading that. Which means, I’m open to input. Because I believe I’ve read every other novel in the house. At least every one that doesn’t have dragons in it. (Those belong to other tenants.)

Who is the worst CEO in history?

October 4th, 2015

I’ll give you a hint: She’s running for President.

Awful Depot

October 3rd, 2015

Like many writers, I have had a lifelong love affair with office supplies. As a young boy who was not only writing but also acting as an earnest amateur publisher, I would save up my money to go to the mom-and-pop office-supply store in the nearest town, plunking down my money for onion-skin typing paper, Letraset, Liquid Paper, and even a new font style for my IBM Selectric II if I’d managed to save the eight bucks needed for a new font ball. The store was small with a limited selection, and the prices were dear, but I was glad to have it.

You can imagine, then, my delight when Office Depot arrived upon the scene. I loved Office Depot. The store was massive, the selection deep, and the hours long, meaning you could breeze in, get what you wanted, check out quickly, and be gone. And really, that’s all that I ask of any store: have what I want, and let me buy it. But that is only barely the Office Depot I’ve been encountering lately, and certainly not the one I witnessed today.

We’ve had a little home-office shuffle in my home, my having belatedly realized that I could never recapture access to the “office” in our house once it became the nesting place of the home computer fated to do nothing but host “League of Legends” tournaments commanded by rotating shifts of my three children. Morning, noon, night, breakfast, lunch and dinner, even during midnight snacks, the “office” and its computer is constantly engaged in battles between trolls and spacemen or something like that. Finally, two weeks ago, the question came to me: “If I’m the one paying the bills (with my wife), then why am I the one sitting outside writing in the cold and dark?” Then I realized that one of my offspring effectively had two rooms — he had his “room,” and he had the “guest room” that he’d moved into because it was larger and had better cable. So I gave him his choice: he could have his room, or he could have the “guest” room, but not both. He kept the latter, and I set about transforming the former into a new home office, one where there’d actually be office-like things happening in it.

Which, today, led me to Office Depot. I went there to secure three items: a new task chair, a new printer, and a ream of paper for said printer. I picked out a task chair with ease, securing one both firm enough and cheap enough for my tastes. The printer took a few minutes longer, as I dug around online via my phone to read sundry reviews, finally selecting a model from Brother that prints in color, scans, faxes (because that’s so important), will print on both sides of a sheet, is fully mobile- and wifi-enabled, and will butter my toast if I like. Plus, it was sixty-nine bucks. A bargain. We pull a boxed unit from the bottom shelf, my adolescent son hefts it and we head to the counter with it, and also with the purchase tag for the task chair, a ream of recycled paper, and a pack of inexpensive plastic mechanical pencils that said son insists on as some sort of recompense for his slight application of labor. There’s no one in line and we march right to the front, sure we’re soon to be on our way. We’re greeted by a cashier, a woman with unfortunate teeth and her hair pulled starkly behind her who looks to be in her early thirties, who scans the printer and the ream of paper and the packet of pencils. Then I hand her the pull slip for the task chair.

“Has anyone pulled this for you yet?” she asks.

“No,” I say. “I just brought the slip here.” I suppose if anyone had been working the furniture department, I could have asked someone, but my son and I had been the only ones out there, nomads drifting through a sea of empty chairs.

She jumps onto a little microphone dangling from one ear. “Juan, I need a chair pulled from the back.”

A guy from halfway across the cavernous store yells, “We already got it!”

The cashier looks behind the register and sees another boxed and disassembled chair of a different model, pulled, I gather, for someone else. “Oh, they already got it!” she tells me.

“No, that’s not mine.”

“Oh, but it’s right here.”

“Yes, but that’s not mine.”

She gets back on the mic. “We need a chair.”

“It’s right behind you!” Juan yells. He’s otherwise engaged in standing around talking to another Office Depot employee, a young woman, at a printing station where no one is printing.

“That’s not the one,” the cashier says into the mic.

“That’s the one from the slip!” Juan yells.

“That’s a different one,” she replies.

“We checked the slip!” he yells back.

“It’s a different one!” I yell.

“We checked it!” he yells.

She gets back onto the mic. “I need a chair, a 532613.”

Juan is still standing there, off in the distance, glowering in our direction. But now I get the sense that something is happening. Maybe. In the meantime, the cashier wonders if I mind standing aside so that she can help the one other customer in the store that six people are assigned to not helping very much. I say sure. An attractive young Latina, so tiny I could tuck her under my arm and walk her out unnoticed, buys some highlighters. I envy her because she doesn’t need anything pulled from the back. She pays and leaves and I wonder where she’s off to and start daydreaming about all the other things I could be doing right now. Cigar? Drinks? Writing? Reading? Changing the seal on the upstairs toilet? It’s a long list.

Time goes by. We draw closer to Daylight Savings Time. Geese flying overhead shift direction. The oceans ebb and flow.

I finally say, “Is anything happening?”

“Oh, yes,” the casher says. “Someone’s getting it.”

More time goes by. My arteries harden. Finally, yes, by God, a different person, certainly not Juan, Juan who believes I have somehow made some mistake because goddammit there’s already a chair behind the counter and why don’t I take that one?!?!, a different man, strawberry blond and thickish with a ruddy face, makes his way up to the counter with a box carrying a disassembled chair all ready for my assembly.

“It comes in blue and in pink,” I say. “I just want to make sure that’s blue.”

“It’s blue,” this man says.

“Aww….” my son volunteers, for some reason.

On the far horizon, Juan turns away at the injustice of my getting the chair of my request, deciding, I’m sure, that he will never, ever, no matter what anyone says, put away the other one waiting forlornly behind the registers, because I just should have taken it.

The cashier pulls out her scanning wand and scans the chair and I hand her my Office Depot Store Purchasing Card.

Now, the Office Depot Store Purchasing Card is a card one uses to make purchases at Office Depot. This is implied by its name, emblazoned on the front, and verified in greater detail by the smaller print on the back. It is tied to my Business Development Account. I hand it over to the cashier and she looks at it quizzically. Figuring I’d head her off from seeking guidance from Juan or anyone else, I offer:

“That’s my Office Depot Store Purchasing Card. It’s tied to my Business Development Account.”

She slides it through the swiper at the register, and then says, “That’ll be $169.93.” And then waits pensively for payment.

“No, that’s my Store Purchasing Card,” I clarify, even though she’s holding it in her hand and, I believe, reading it. “I use that to purchase things, and Office Depot sends me a bill. And then I pay it. It works like a credit card.”

(I realize that in print this sounds mean. I wasn’t being mean. I was stating the obvious. Because the situation called for it. But when one states the obvious it frequently sounds mean or sarcastic. If anything, here it was just desperate. Because I was eager to go back to leading my life. Elsewhere.)

She’s puzzled. “Then why is it asking me for you to pay?” “It” means the register. She believes the register is instructing her to get cash (what’s that?) or a credit card from me.

“I don’t know,” I say. And I don’t. Because I don’t work at Office Depot, and I’m starting to wonder if anyone else there does either. I’ve handled every conceivable aspect of customer service myself — selecting the task chair and the mechanical pencils and the ream of paper and the multifunction printer — without a hint of assistance from anyone, or even the offer of assistance or aid. Now what I’m trying to do is transact this deal, under terms that Office Depot previously suggested to me: “Here, use this Store Purchasing Card we’re mailing you.” Which I’ve done. For years.

I start to imagine leaving everything there at the counter, but then realize I want these things today, and if I head over to Staples I may be in for another situation like this (one never knows), and just then, after the cashier does some gabbling with the cashier stationed next to her (no customers over there either), and just before the scowling Juan can make his way to the register to set me and this co-worker of his straight, she says, “Oh, wait, I figured it out,” and hits some onscreen button that I see is blinking like the warning lights on a melting down Japanese reactor, a button that has so clearly been demanding for some minutes now that it be pressed that one would have to be completely shut down to outside stimuli in order to miss it, and she sighs with relief and gratitude at her own success in completing the transaction. She says something to the effect that I should come back again some time soon and I say “No problem,” which all of my children recognize from me as a sarcastic response, and we make our exit, weakened but alive.

Later it strikes me that I’ve seen this sort of customer service before. It was at a place called Radio Shack. Ah, yes, Radio Shack, where in order to purchase a D battery, one had to agree to volunteer one’s full name, address, zip code, phone number, blood type, and Mom’s favorite recipe, a place where no one actually knew how anything worked, including especially how to ring you up and get you out.

Yes, that place. Office Depot, at least the one near me, is now like that place.

Dog-bites-man massacres

October 1st, 2015

If you haven’t yet, please invest the 12 minutes to watch the President’s statement about today’s mass shooting, at a community college in Oregon. I say “today’s,” because we now have one every day. Given that these shootings are now business as usual, you may not have seen this.

There’s an old saying in journalism, that dog-bites-man isn’t a story, but man-bites-dog is, because the latter is so unusual. I remember when the Colombine high-school-shooting massacre happened in 1999, the news was not just awful, as today’s was, but also breathtaking. How could this happen? It was so massive, so unusual, so man-bites-dog. I was in an airport — in Colorado, I believe — and started making and receiving cellphone calls about the massacre, as every television station in the airport started carrying news about it.

Now it’s 16 years later, and we’ve made zero progress on gun violence, and we now reside in a time when there’s a mass shooting every day, so it’s not unusual. It’s dog-bites-man.

For the record, I like guns. I used to like them for hunting, and I’ve always liked them for target practice — either paper targets, or cans, or skeet. More than 40 years after learning how to shoot as a boy, I’m still a good shot. Most of my family shoots, most of them for target practice, some of them still for hunting. I’m not anti-gun. I’m anti-gun-massacres.

A few years ago, there was a study that showed that more gun laws equate with fewer gun deaths. Here’s some reporting on that. I don’t want all the guns rounded up. (That’s impossible anyway.) I want better profiling, I want a slower application process, and whatever else will help restrict crazy people from easily accessing automatic weapons and taking them to college campuses, shopping centers, movie theaters, and every single other place that we congregate.

I want the idea of mass shootings in this country to become unusual again.

Today’s cool art video

September 30th, 2015

For the past 25 years, Dutch artist Theo Jansen has created “living” sculptures, made mostly of trash, that traverse the beach in an amazing simulacrum of mammalian movement, powered by the wind.

This is only my most recent discovery of something artistically astonishing that I’ve been able to find through the wonders of social media. (Thank you, Facebook.) It happens at least once a day, and I’m always grateful.

More about Jansen and his creations can be found here.


September 29th, 2015

Jeffrey Toobin feels differently than I do about John Boehner.

Leadership is ultimately tabulated from results. I can’t think of any positive results for Boehner. But I still believe he wanted to do better.

Childhood’s end

September 28th, 2015

When I was in New Jersey recently I had the opportunity to take three of my great-nephews to their local comic-book store. I took some cash out of an ATM because I wanted to buy each of them something, and figured I’d spend about 10 dollars each.

All three of them were excited to be there (as was I, of course). The middle brother (aged 11, I believe) scored eight comics he wanted out of the dollar box; he was especially glad to learn about “Damage Control,” because he’d always wondered who cleaned up the messes left by superheroic battles, and to pick up an entire run of the miniseries for cheap was glorious. The youngest, who turned nine just this week, was interested in a lot of the things in the store, but decided he didn’t actually want anything. (I know:  remarkable wisdom in one so young. One of the things I want most at this point of my life is to be rid of some of the things I own, because it’s feeling like they own me. But it’s taken me decades of adulthood to realize this.) The eldest brother selected a small Transformer in a locked display case, and then said to me something I’ve been thinking about ever since:  ”We can say it’s my birthday present.”

I wouldn’t have said that, because I hadn’t known it was going to be his birthday a few days hence. And understandably so:  I see these boys once, or sometimes twice, a year. And I don’t think I’ve ever been there for the birthday of any of them. We’ve got a large extended family — my mother; my brother and his wife and their daughter and their son and their daughter-in-law; my other brother and his husband; my sister and her husband, and their daughter and her husband and their three children, and their son and his girlfriend and their son, and their daughter and her husband and their three children; plus myself and my wife and our three children. That’s 28 of us. This leaves out all the various aunts and uncles and cousins and so forth. Who could possibly remember all these birthdays? My policy is to send children random gifts when least expected, for maximum impact.

So when my great-nephew said, “We can say it’s my birthday present,” well… I hadn’t intended to get him one. But he assumed he was due one. And then I remembered what childhood was like. Childhood is that period of your life when you believe that people owe you something. I certainly felt that way at his age. When I was his age, I spent a month away from my parents staying with relatives in another state, and during that month my birthday came around. I got a card in the mail from my mother with some money in it — but I nevertheless fully expected a full-on birthday party upon my return weeks after the date. Forty years later, it takes no effort at all to conjure the shock I felt at no birthday party at all. I lurked around for two full weeks expecting at any moment for my family to jump out and yell “surprise!” and confront me with a full-tilt birthday party, with streamers and hats and balloons and a mountain of gifts — except I wouldn’t be surprised, because I knew, I just knew, all along that surely such an event would be coming any day now, there was no fooling me. Except it didn’t.

Which leads us to the pain of adulthood:  the slow dawning that no one owes you anything, that, indeed, if you are to get anything in adulthood, you need to get it on your own. Heirs and princesses and landed lords and movie stars and billionaires born with the name Trump don’t need to learn this lesson, but just about everyone else does.

When we got back to my mother’s house from our comic-book-store spree, I saw that the Chinese food my brother had ordered for dinner with our mother had arrived. As I sat down to eat, I fished out a twenty-dollar bill to give to him. “No, that’s okay. It wasn’t much,” he said. “Besides, you bought at the comic-book store.” Spoken like a true adult.

Citizen Boehner

September 26th, 2015

I have a number of friends who have been influential and highly placed Republicans. (I say “have been” because most of them have left the party. Or, perhaps more appropriately, the party has left them.) They’ve run campaigns, or served in significant roles in various statehouse or federal administrations. Two years ago, I was having lunch with one of them when I heard myself saying, “I kind of like John Boehner. I don’t agree with him, but I think he’s an American patriot. And I feel sorry for him.”

Yesterday, when I saw that he resigned,  while my Democrat friends were cheering, my heart sank. As I posted on one liberal friend’s Facebook page, “We’ll see how much you like what comes next.”

Vitriol isn’t new to American politics, and isn’t new to politics anywhere. (As the histories of ancient Greece and Rome attest.) But I wish we had less of it, and more focus on areas where viewpoints converge to fix actual problems. One of my former-Republican friends advises people to find the area of agreement and work on that. To do that, people have to stay civil. We could use more of that.

I’ve done my fair share of mocking political leaders I don’t agree with; lately, unless they’re truly vile or evil (same word, spelled differently), I resist. I woke up this morning again to find hundreds of my Facebook friends going on about John Boehner’s “orange skin” and his propensity for tears, and giving ha-ha-ha’s at him. Here’s what I feel I know about John Boehner:  because he came from humble origins, he was indeed frequently moved by finding himself second in line to the presidency; because he actually cared not only about the aims of his party but the needs of the country, he tried to wrangle a recurring heretic mob into agreement. Was he a successful Speaker? No. Will we like what comes next? No. Part of me believes that Boehner is doing this now so that he can go out on his own terms — refusing to shut down the government again, because now he’s free to work a deal with whomever he likes.

One of Boehner’s stated goals was to be an historic Speaker. I can’t find a previous example of a Speaker stepping down in precisely this fashion. So now he’s made history. It’s not the history he wanted, and not the one we should have wanted either.

Become a patron of the arts

September 23rd, 2015

Got a spare room?

I’ve got a middle-aged playwright friend who needs an inexpensive, temporary, new living situation somewhere in Los Angeles effective next Wednesday.

He’s a non-smoker, knows his way around a kitchen, seems to me like the tidy sort, and, as he says, is “too old to party to excess or many any noise other than typing on my laptop.”

I’ve been friends with him for 10 years, and know him to be a good person who is also extraordinarily talented.

Please let me know if you’ve got room, and I’ll make the introduction. He’s a good guy. Thank you.

The Jersey diet

September 21st, 2015

The other night, I caught an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s latest show. In this one, he was partaking of the foods of his native New Jersey, dining at some spots I recognize, including Dock’s Oyster House and the Knife & Fork Inn, both of which are in poor, bedraggled Atlantic City.

During the course of the show, and at various restaurants, Bourdain eats:

  • a cheesesteak
  • pizza
  • two hot dogs, with french fries
  • clam chowder
  • deep-fried fish, with more french fries
  • oysters
  • a lobster stuffed with crabmeat
  • an Italian sub loaded with meats and cheese, heavy on the oil
  • spaghetti with meatballs

The closest thing to a vegetable in there was the spaghetti sauce.

Last Monday night, I got back from a brief trip to New Jersey to help celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday. Over the course of four-and-a-half days there, I gained three pounds. This was while going to the gym on two of those days.

So maybe Chris Christie isn’t a glutton. Maybe he just eats in New Jersey.