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


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Assorted good news

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

We’ve all heard the bad news. Occasionally, I like to share some good news here in a vain attempt to balance it out. Here goes.

  • Last month, the California Department of Motor Vehicles fined almost 500 not-disabled people for using parking placards reserved for disabled people. Those who were caught had their disabled parking placards taken away and now face fines ranging from $250 to $1,000. This makes me absolutely delighted. My late brother-in-law was in a wheelchair his entire life, my mother now occasionally uses one, my brother is fighting Parkinson’s and has difficulty walking, and I have several friends in wheelchairs.  That’s who those placards — and parking spaces! — are reserved for. They’re not meant for people who just want to park a little closer while they run in to buy coffee — they’re meant for people who face real challenges getting into and out of vehicles and need to park closer and in wider spaces. I wish the DMV great success in finding and fining even more of these thieves.
  • On a personal note, my new play is moving along nicely. I knew you were wondering. Plus, my back is, well, back to fully functioning.
  • Earlier this week, the great band Devo was nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While this is not as momentous as if the even more revolutionary and distinctive band Pere Ubu had been nominated, this is still well-deserved, and I rejoice in their nomination. Their rendition of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” remains the superior version, far outclassing the first version, by those Rolling fellows. I hope they get inducted and only wish that Bob 2 had lived to see it, but I’m glad I got to see him and the rest of the band while he was still around.
  • Incredibly, another band high on my list was nominated at the same time. I have every Roxy Music album and listen to them endlessly. Ditto for Bryan Ferry’s solo disks — every one of them, except that one where he covered his own songs in a precious 1920’s style (no thanks); I’ve also got five or eight of Brian Eno’s albums and one of Phil Manzanera’s. The later Roxy Music albums are filled with beautiful yearning; the early Roxy Music albums are raucous and twisted, stuffed with songs that started fake dance crazes,  proselytized the delights of anonymous post-midnight pickups, and pledged love to a blow-up doll. When you can deliver an anthem built around lyrics like “Plain wrapper baby, your skin is like vinyl … deluxe and delightful, inflatable doll,” you deserve to be in a hall of fame.

So: There. It’s not all bad in the world.

Surveying my health

Sunday, October 7th, 2018

For four days last week, I was in the Mojave desert, parched, wandering, and bedraggled. The Mojave may have changed somewhat over the past hundred years, but in other ways it remains every bit as treacherous as ever. Luckily, in my travels there, I was able to find friendly watering holes when necessary, as well as the rejuvenation I desperately needed.

At a watering hole in the desert.

At a watering hole in the desert.

On Friday, freshly returned and physically replenished, and with a full day’s reacclimatization to the pleasant climes of Los Angeles, I opened my mail to find that someone had sent me a crisp two-dollar bill. The letter that came with it explained that I was free to keep the two dollars (as though they could have gotten it back from me!), but that the senders hoped I’d agree to participate in a health survey with the goal of better understanding the health needs of Californians and how to provide better care. I read the fine print to see who was behind this survey, and recognizing all the affiliated organizations as being in no way associated with Donald Trump or the Grand Ol’ Trump party or others who are hellbent on better understanding how to reduce the health of Californians, I decided to participate.

My reasons were several:

  1. Again, trying to be a good sport
  2. Hoping it’s in some way a middle finger to Trump and his co-conspirators
  3. I trust UCLA, who is conducting the survey, and I know people at First 5, which is one of the other organizations
  4. I actually had nothing scheduled for that half hour
  5. I was curious to hear what the questions would be and how I’d respond. Just participating, I figured, would give me a clue as to how I rank

What was not one of the reasons? The $2. Except for some poor unfortunate sleeping out on the sidewalk, I couldn’t imagine anyone exchanging half an hour of time, as warned in the letter, for two bucks. So… why send it? Because hard currency in an unsolicited letter gets attention, that’s why.

So I called the number on the letter, and then the people on the other end called me back to verify it was me. The survey did indeed require 30 minutes and went without a snag. I answered some UCLA student’s questions completely truthfully, including how many times a week I get exercise (seven, because they were including walking), how frequently I eat fresh fruit (every day), do I ever vape (no), how many cigarettes I smoke (zero), if I didn’t smoke cigarettes then did I smoke cigars and how many per month (two or so), how much heroin I’ve ever used (zero), and whether I use prescription drugs such as oxycodone without actually having a prescription (I don’t), and when I had my last physical (6 months), and whether I’ve had blood work and a range of other tests (yep, as part of that physical), and so forth. They asked me everything except what I thought of the season finale of “Fear the Walking Dead,” which was truly awful and about which I would’ve liked to give them an earful. I got off the phone feeling incredibly fit and incredibly lucky.

The next morning I was still radiating peace and joy. I’d gotten out of that tricky out-of-state den of iniquity whole and healthy, and now I was back here eating my fruits and vegetables and being responsible and healthy and fit. Some of it is habit, sure, I reasoned, but a lot of it is also luck:  not being genetically at risk for the sorts of addictions that too many of my friends have had; not having (so far) been so unlucky as to have rolled snake eyes at the cancer table; having gotten hit at full speed and with high impact in a car crash on a freeway some years ago, yes, but having gotten out and walked away.

I was further savoring this moment in that next morning in my bathroom while brushing my teeth. I bent over the sink to rinse the toothpaste from my mouth, coughed — and threw out my back. I heard a *pop* and felt a harpoon of pain shoot up the lower right side of my spinal column. I grabbed onto the sink before I could fall over, felt my legs go weak, and steadied myself as the realization hit that I’d have to leave in five minutes to drive to Silver Lake to sit in a chair and teach my playwriting workshop for three-and-a-half hours… and then, after that, drive back.  I did make it, but almost all the rest of the weekend was spent lying in bed gobbling down Aleve, with the next day (today) being even more painful than the first.

Good thing it was on Friday night that I took the survey.

This episode, of lying about all weekend doing no writing, called to mind Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules for writing. Rule Number 5 is:  “Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.” Yet again, Margaret Atwood is right about something.

So much writing (so little posting)

Sunday, September 30th, 2018

I wanted to get one last post in for September before ringing out the month, so this is that post.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing, just not a lot of posting.

Sometimes — frequently? generally? — I can do both. But lately I’ve been trying to finish a draft of my new full-length play, a play that I have been working on off-and-on for years, and what has helped me make real progress has been staying in the universe of that play. That means:  restricting my writing to being writing about that play. About those characters. About their overall situation. Even when I’m writing scenes and bits and pieces that I suspect won’t wind up in the play. So, in addition to the play itself, I’ve got a notebook full of scenes, and monologues, and notes, and other bits… and I think they’re adding up to something.

For most of my writing life, I’ve written more than one thing at the same time. Sometimes, I’m writing three plays at the same time. I’ve written my share of short stories, a couple of abandoned novels, dozens of terrible poems, innumerable essays and book reviews and blog posts and what-have-you, as well as about sixty plays of varying length and plenty of folderol and also lots and lots of advertising and marketing copy. I’m always writing something. So it’s been strange to restrict myself, as much as possible, to this play, but it’s a play I’ve wanted to finish for a while and I decided to make this change.

You know what else consumed some time? Well…. Last week I had promised to send a director friend the pages that I had so far. That means about 60 pages plus scattered notes and a general structure, with lines in the play that sometimes read “Scene 5. Missing.” or summations like “in this scene, X will do Y.” In other words, not a finished draft. I opened the file on my laptop to work on it and started to read it from front to back just to check that structure and see if it would be clear what was going on to someone unfamiliar with the project. When I saw what state it was in, I was alarmed:  What was this? It was a mess! I thought I had straightened all this out, and toned down the embarrassing lapse I had committed in presenting one of the characters as an obvious, unsympathetic, antagonist; not only was he clearly a two-dimensional villain, but things seemed to be in the wrong order everywhere. How had this happened? So I spent an entire evening two Fridays ago fixing all of that, smoothing out that supporting character and letting him have a fair point of view; moving scenes around; clarifying the general arc of the play; and then adding several pages of new copy over the course of the play. Satisfied, finally, I went to save it back onto the laptop into the directory where it should be…

And I found another version of the play, from earlier in the week, in that same directory.

And when I opened that version, I found that in that one, I had indeed fixed that character, and straightened out the arc of the play — and also had written eight new pages that now weren’t in this new draft. Which also had five pages of new copy.

So, in other words, somehow… I have been working on this play in two different drafts. Updating them both. Adding to them both.

Am I busy? Sure. Distracted sometimes? You bet. But I don’t think I have Alzheimer’s.

After that discovery, which as you can imagine was not a happy one, I spent further hours straightening all of that out, at least preliminarily, so I could send the pages to my director friend. When you find you’ve got two separate suits you’re tailoring and then realize that really they should be one unified piece, it takes some ripping and tearing and redesign to make that work.

My goal is to finish a good strong draft of this play by the end of this year, and then have a reading in January. I should be able to do that, so long as I don’t start working on a third version of it.

In the meantime, now that I’ve written all of that other stuff going on in it, I should feel more secure in that universe, and able to post here more frequently.

Down by the River II*

Sunday, September 9th, 2018

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Two Saturdays ago when it was actually early Sunday morning, in a small field betwixt a river and a towering cornfield, Steve Mehlman, the drummer for Pere Ubu, handed me that set list because I asked for it and also because, I guess, it seemed like fair trade for the bourbon and beers I’d brought to the party and was now sharing with him. I had just spent almost twelve hours surrounded by musicians and a select group of invitees to this family-barbecue-like invitation-only event, had come from meeting a writer friend in the flesh for the first time the previous night, and was just hours away from joining another band member in the ancestral home of Thomas Edison. It was a heady weekend.

As I shared before, I couldn’t quite believe my luck in being invited to this event a few weeks earlier. Since then, people have asked me what I did to get invited — almost as though I campaigned for the honor. Here’s my answer:  I’ve closely followed this band for more than 30 years, and I’ve been vocal about it, in conversations online and off (including with the band’s lead singer over dinner in 1999 in London when I had a play opening there), here on my blog (where their publicist noticed it about 10 years ago) and in print, and then, blessedly, on Facebook. The Facebook connection in particular proved powerful and led to Robert Wheeler, the band’s synthesizer and theremin player, asking why I wasn’t coming up to say hi before or after shows.

(The reason:  No one who knows me thinks I’m shy, but I am careful about some things. While I love all the arts, from sculpture to dance and opera to painting, and everything in between, including even accordion music, there is no artistic expression I relish more than that of Pere Ubu. Where some people get a feeling of elevation from religion, I get it from the arts, and nothing elevates me more than Pere Ubu. Throughout its history and in all its incarnations, Pere Ubu has crafted bracing, idiosyncratic music that confounds easy explanation. No one else sounds like them, perhaps because no one else practices their particular ideology (whatever that may be). No matter what all of that adds up to, with its yelping vocals interplaying with squonking electronics against the backdrop of a driving rhythm section and hammering guitar, interspersed with occasional unexpected horn or music box, I’m a sucker for it. An addict, more like. A supplicant. Because not every run-in in my life with an important or well-known artist has been a positive one, I have always wanted to be careful about this relationship in particular.)

Since the time Robert asked me why I wasn’t saying hello, I’ve seen the band in Los Angeles, in San Diego, in Chicago last November, in London this spring, and now in Milan, OH, and I’ve said hi each time.

EasyDeathThe evening before the concert — should we call it a concert? it was more like a private festival — I flew into Columbus, Ohio, about a two-hour drive south of Milan, where the event would take place the next day. I did this because I wanted to make the drive (David Thomas of Pere Ubu having written many lyrics about driving around Ohio and Pennsylvania and environs, it seemed appropriate); because I was interested in meeting Dan Stumpf, a writer I’d gotten acquainted with through the internet; and because, frankly, I could make all my frequent-flier miles work and do the flight for free if it was into and out of Columbus. Dan proved to be smart and quirky, as all writers are in some measure, with good taste in restaurants and an admirable collection of esoteric paraphernalia:  genre movie posters, pulp novels, silent-era relics, the occasional Big Little Book, and other artifacts from our lowbrow/no-brow cultural history. Surrounded by such inspiration in his writing room, and writing under the pseudonym Daniel Boyd, he turns out novels such as this one, which looks immensely fun and which I’ll be reading soon. (He generously gifted me with a copy.) We shared good conversation about writers we read and admire, the APA where he met my friend and mentor Rich Roesberg, all sorts of literary fandom, movies, and the awful current state of politics, first over steaks at the terrific restaurant he recommended, then later in his leafy and expansive back yard over cigars.

The next morning, I went first to the Edison Birthplace Museum. Robert, being the great-grand-nephew of Thomas Edison, is the president of the nonprofit managing the place. I got the tour, which was illuminating in the ways of the past, and also in clarifying where the expression “put a sock in it” comes from. Evidently, when the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph when on sale, in 1911, parents irritated with its lack of volume control as their children played it constantly instructed them to “put a sock in it!” so as to dampen the sound. The next generation of this machine included a “volume control” of sorts — which turned out to be a rod that would insert a spongy cloth cylinder into the bell, thereby dampening the sound… much as, previously, a sock had been doing.

After the two-hour drive and the hasty visit to the museum, I drove the final few miles far off the beaten path to Robert’s farm. It was 3:30 when I drew near, and, as always confused about directions, even when there’s signage, I pulled over to ask a grouping of five men where to park — and immediately spotted Tony Maimone, the bassist for the band from 1976 to 1993, who was now temporarily back in with the band because of longtime bassist Michele Temple’s unavailability. He saw that I was carrying bourbon and asked me to save him some for after the show. (I absolutely did that. Believe me.) Then another invitee,  a fan named Todd who owns a record store in Athens, GA, kindly drove me down to the site and he and I and his friend John spent hours off and on sharing our enthusiasm for various bands, but none moreso than Pere Ubu.

The music started at 4, and, running a little late as of course it would, continued until almost 11. Here was the lineup:

4:00 – 4:45 Flaming TailFins
4::45- 5:15 Emily Keener
5:15 – 5:45 Mister Moon
5:45-6:15 Great Grandpa Beebe
6:15-7:00 Midnight Brothers
7:00- 7:30. Emily Keener
7:30 – 8:30. Numbers Band
8:30 – 9:00 Great Grandpa Beebe
9:00 – 10:00 Pere Ubu

Except it didn’t quite work out this way. I recall the great (great, great) Numbers Band immediately preceding Pere Ubu. The Numbers Band has been playing together for 48 years, and in knowledgeable circles their incendiary style of evangelical blues is taken as holy communion. A friend and I had seen the lead singer and guitarist, Robert Kidney, and his brother Jack Kidney, perform at David Thomas’ Disastodrome! weekend extravaganza at UCLA in 2003 and were blown away. We still talk about that performance and threaten to go to Cleveland some day just to see this incomparable band, which plays locally with some frequency. I told Robert Kidney this while we were both in line for the port-a-potty, it being that kind of event, and he told me, “If you haven’t seen the whole band, you ain’t seen shit.” After the performance of the full band, he came and found me and said in a way equally charming as demanding, “So what did you think, motherfucker?” I thought I could see why David Thomas says it’s his favorite band, that’s what I thought.

After that, Pere Ubu set up and played a set every bit as powerful and dangerous as I’ve seen them play anywhere. It was, to some degree, the set listed above, although I know very well that they did indeed play “Laughing,” a very early track (first album; 1978)  from this very longtime musical endeavor, because I was pleased to see David pull out the little horn that creates the sinuous squawk at the heart of the track. The play list was similar to the London play list, heavy on a mixture of songs from their most recent album plus tracks from the late 1980s and early 1990s when they were signed to a major label and proving to the world that, yes, they could even do “straightforward” songs that could qualify as “pop.” They have a boxed set of those albums out on vinyl, and so are promoting that as well, Tony pointed out to me later.

The music ended, and people started to say their farewells and drift back to their cars, and a paved road. Todd and his friend and I hung out for a long, long time with the band members who were still there — two or three hours. From a local chef who happened to be there, Tony learned the best way to cook scallops — something to do with white wine and searing them just so, but I couldn’t follow it — and talked about the recording studio he now owns in Brooklyn. I passed the bourbon around until it was gone and then we pulled out beers. Finally, Robert kindly drove me back to my car and I pledged to return in the morning and help clean up.

One final thing:  The following morning, Robert and I exchanged texts and agreed to meet at his house. I pulled up into the driveway, confused yet again in my lifelong way about where to go or park, but, when I finally believed I had figured it out, I got out and walked onto the porch of a beautiful, expansive Victorian house and rang the bell. Robert admitted me and showed me a framed photo on the wall of the parlor.  In the photo, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone are chatting away on that very porch. The photo was taken in 1931. “My father took that picture,” Robert told me. “He was 18.” That made me feel very close to history. But then, so did the entire weekend.

The "band shell."

The “band shell.”

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The Flaming TailFins

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Mister Moon.

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It was nice to meet Craig Bell (in the black hat), founding member of Rocket from the Tombs, and his wife Claude (left) in the flesh. I saw that band in 2003 at UCLA as well.

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With founding Pere Ubu guitarist Tom Herman. An unexpected surprise!

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With Emily Keener. She was on “The Voice” and was described to me as “a darker Joni Mitchell.” I enjoyed her set.

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The Numbers Band. Their music is like something out of the Old Testament: biblically powerful.

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Robert Wheeler (obscured), Tony Maimone, David Thomas, Steve Mehlman and Gary Siperko — Pere Ubu !

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Robert Wheeler (obscured), Tony Maimone, David Thomas, Steve Mehlman and Gary Siperko — Pere Ubu !

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With Tony Maimone and Steve Mehlman of Pere Ubu!

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Robert giving me a ride back down to the site the next morning. He holds 113 acres of farmland.

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With Robert and Linda Wheeler. I’m incredibly grateful to them.

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*with apologies to Pere Ubu.

Where I grew up

Friday, September 7th, 2018

My sister’s house is on the left, my brother’s house is on the right, and in the far distance there’s someone else’s light. Be patient.

Not working out

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

Two Fridays ago, I suddenly and mysteriously threw my back out, really with no warning and with no apparent cause, so I didn’t go to the gym that night as planned.

This backache persisted, again inexplicably, so I didn’t go on Saturday or on Sunday, or the days following, and then as it drew close to my trip to Ohio to see Pere Ubu in what’s essentially the vast back yard of my friend the synthesizer player, I didn’t want to risk some recurrence or furtherance of the mysterious back outage, so I didn’t go then. (More about this trip, and my getting to meet a fascinating writer friend in person, soon.)

I assure you, honestly, none of this was procrastination — zero; zip — because I actually like going to the gym. I do. I go every other day. By happenstance, my sister texted me this morning to say that her hands ache from painful carpal tunnel and she knows I have some condition (I’ve had genetic, painful, early onset arthritis for about 10 years now, mostly in my hands and neck; thanks, Mom). “I remember you having a problem,” my sister texted, evidently not remembering in detail the exchange earlier this year when I was visiting her in New Jersey and we were playing pinochle and she looked at my fingers when I was dealing the cards and audibly gasped and said, “Oh, Lee! Look at your fingers!!!!”  in a clear indication that I have visible arthritis and its effects, and as though I haven’t been looking at my fingers every day of my life but especially a lot more lately. Now she asked, via text, “What did you do for treatment?” And I replied, “I go to the gym, which reduces systemic inflammation.” And I do. I go for that reason, and because going helps the confoundedly insomniac me sleep better, and because the competitive me likes increasing his weights and his routines and pushing himself.

Tonight, with that glorious trip to Ohio safely in the rear-view mirror, and feeling completely blocked while trying to write something, I went to the gym.

I like my gym.

I like the attractive young people who greet me at the desk without ever look askance at me because I’m no longer in their age group.

I like the easy camaraderie and courtesy offered by fellow workers-out. They’ll offer to let you “work in,” or they’ll politely ask if you’re almost done, or they’ll step aside if they’re blocking your locker.

I like the hours. The gym is called “24 Hour Fitness.” Guess when it’s open. Works for me.

I like its availability. There are 400 locations throughout California and across most well-populated areas of the country — which leaves out where I grew up, of course, where I had to join another gym to use when I visit, but I’ve been able to visit outposts of 24 Hour Fitness up and down California and in Omaha, NE and New York City. My membership works at all of them. It’s handy!

I like the offering:  sauna; jacuzzi; free weights; machines; cardio; showers; lockers. Basketball courts, yes, but I don’t use those, just as I don’t do Zumba or spinning or any other group activity. I do enough group activities in the rest of my life — when I’m at the gym, I’m there for me, solo.

What I don’t like about the one I go to — and this is the only thing I don’t like — is the soap. Or, better, the lack thereof.

After my workout and the steam room, I always shower. I want to, and believe me, if you were around, you’d want me to as well. I’m kind of old-fashioned in this regard:  I like to use soap when I shower. To do that, there would have to be liquid soap in the showers. Now, there are definitely liquid-soap dispensers, but too frequently they’re empty. All the soap has been used, one can infer, and the dispensers have not been refilled. And I don’t mean in just one shower — I mean in every shower.

I have complained about this.

Politely.

Repeatedly.

Sometimes not politely.

I have even taken to interrupting their sales tours, when a manager is walking around a prospect who has no idea that this is a friendly and well-outfitted gym that is customarily out of soap, and saying to that manager in direct proximate earshot to the prospective member, “There’s no soap in the showers. Again.”

For a long time, this accomplished nothing.

Then:  a miracle happened. Several months ago, I arrived to find that, now, every shower had been equipped with two soap dispensers. (Or, at least, the men’s showers had. I can’t vouch for anything that happens in the women’s showers. Although I’d like to be able to.) Mind you, this didn’t strike me as the best solution — I would have just had someone go around on a regular check-up basis throughout the day and night, say once every two hours, and refill the single dispensers — but I was glad to accept their solution. It seemed idiotically bureaucratic, but hey, now we’d have twice as much soap!

And that seemed to work well. There was always soap.

For a while.

I say that because tonight after my workout and the steam room I discovered — you’ve seen this coming — that, throughout the men’s shower complex of eight showers, each with its own shower door, every one of those dual soap dispensers was empty. And this wasn’t the first time. In a way, the problem of empty soap dispensers is now twice as big.

What I was thinking while pulling apart all of the dispensers and trying to squeeze out just enough soap to be able to use was this:  Yes, I could go on Yelp!, and other social-media platforms, and I could really raise a stink. (Which is what will indeed happen if I never get any soap.) I could write a letter to corporate. I’m certainly not going to complain to managers again; that’s pointless. Even though it seems stupid because, after all, they’re theoretically offering it, I guess I could bring my own soap and then find a way to deduct that cost from what I’m paying them every month.

Or maybe this is the best solution, one guaranteed to get some sort of a result:  After getting into the shower and then finding no soap, I could walk naked to the front desk and ask for some.

That out to have a cleansing effect.

Down by the River

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

It’s been 12 years since I’ve been in the friendly state (that would be Ohio, because it says “hi” in the middle), but I’ll be there tomorrow through Sunday. The reason I’m going makes the place seem even friendlier.

About a month ago, I got a strange invitation on Facebook. It was to some event called “Down by the River… We Had a Party!” and it seemed to be… I wasn’t sure what… some sort of outdoor event in a rural area about an hour west of Cleveland… but what it was was uncertain.

And then I got a direct message from the man who had invited me to this event, a gentleman named Robert Wheeler whom I’ve gotten to know better in recent years.  His message read: “I don’t expect you to make it, but I didn’t expect you to fly to london either….”

That’s when I realized that Robert, who plays synthesizer and theremin for the band Pere Ubu, was inviting me to a private concert with the band at his farm.

Jeez!

Yes, I did fly to London a few months ago to see this band. And, yes, I flew to Chicago about six months before that to, again, see this band (and my son, sure — but also to take that son to the concert!).

And, yes, I saw the band in LA less than a year before that, and in San Diego the night after the LA concert, and I’ve seen them… I don’t know… a dozen times before that, stretching back to 1989 I believe. I’ve seen them at the Roxy on the Sunset strip, and at a bit of a low point for them at a little guitar shop in West LA, and anchoring an entire weekend at UCLA. I’ve seen them many times, and I sure hope to see them many times more, because they are the best and smartest band anywhere around. (I could go on about why that’s true — trust me, I could go on about why that’s true — but not right now. But believe me, their music is open-minded, wide-ranging, heartfelt, noisy and consistently astonishing. And in 40 years of it, there is not one bit of treacle in it anywhere.)

So I have seen the band in all these locales over all these years… but I’ve never seen them at an invitation-only event at the farm of one of the band members.

But I will on Saturday!

This is a lucky time to be alive.

 

Letters, we get letters

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

In response to this post about the service Lovejoy, which provides quasi-facsimiles of historical letters as a monthly subscription, I got this nice email from its proprietor, Michael Sitver:

Lee,
I read your article on Letterjoy. I want to clarify a few things:
1. Most of our plans are way less than $17/mo. Most are $13-14/mo.

2. Many of our letters either aren’t available online or are hard to find online. We work hard to find unique letters from all around the country. For example, I spent 4 hours the other day in the National Postal Museum searching through their archives for a story (and letters) that would meet our criteria. Only 7% of their archives is available online.

3. Our goal isn’t just to send you mail. Our goal is to recreate the experience of receiving important letters, and to provide context, so you experience not only the content of the letter, but the context in which it was received. We restore handwriting and letterhead to a format that’s authentic, but readable.
Regardless, thanks for writing about Letterjoy.
Fair enough. I remain doubtful that there’s a large enough audience for this to be sustainable, but I respect Mr. Sitver’s entrepreneurial effort to find out. Even more, I appreciate his equable tone. That’s something generally more associated with letters from an earlier era than the social-media responses of today — and thus represents something lost when we moved into the digital age:  manners. I wish Mr. Sitver luck with this enterprise, and his next one.

Dead letter office

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

The Internet gave rise to lots of new kinds of services, including lots that I just don’t understand. Here’s one of them.

For about $17 a month, this service called Letterjoy will send you a weekly reproduction of a historically notable letter, mailed directly to your house, and using, as their website notes, a real stamp.

Are people this desperate for mail that now they would look forward to one-way communications with people who are long dead? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the mail — but that’s because for almost my entire life, right up to now, people have been mailing me checks or comic books through it. And, yes, sometimes letters. And, in an earlier age, acceptance (or rejection) letters. But this was correspondence from living people, people I could correspond with should I choose.

The other mystifying thing about this is… aren’t these letters available somewhere on the Internet? These aren’t the real letters, or even copies of them — instead, as the site notes, “Many letters from within the last 150 years are typed on our Smith-Corona typewriter. Others are hand-written by our designers, then enhanced with advanced graphic software.” So if, say, George Patton hand-scrawled his letters on the insides of cereal boxes, you’d never know it, and instead you’d get something typed on a Smith-Corona and then, I suppose, Xeroxed. If Letterjoy can find Patton’s letters and use them, you probably can too, somewhere on the Internet.

Here’s Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Here’s Bill Gates’ open letter to hobbyists.

Here’s a 14-year-old Fidel Castro’s letter to Frank Roosevelt.

Here’s Adolf Hitler’s first letter about Jewry (and wouldn’t you like to receive this in the mail next month?).

This is only after a 30-second cursory search of the great World Wide Web.

So, if you can find letters you’re looking for, and if we now have a thing where you can get instantaneous communication, and if this service doesn’t even send you reproductions of the actual letters in question… I really don’t understand.

Is it just for the elderly and extremely, chronically, lonely?

Otherwise, this idea should be Returned To Sender.

The price of admission

Saturday, August 11th, 2018

Yes, I want to see Public Image, Ltd. in November at the Fonda Theater with a friend of mine. Johnny Rotten is probably the last “get” for me — a music hero I haven’t seen who I’d like to see. The tickets are $50.

But NO, I don’t want to pay $16 for a “convenience fee.” That’s thirty-two percent of the ticket fee!

A few years ago, I read four extremely dull books on pricing, because I was curious about the subject and wanted to see what I could learn. I learned a lot. One of the things I learned about, for example, was anchor pricing. Once you know how to recognize it, you’ll see it frequently on menus and in other places. Here’s how it works:  In a clearly visible area of the menu, you place something outlandishly priced, like the frutti di mare at $200 a plate. You’ll think, “That’s crazy!” and not order that — but now that your eye has been drawn to the crazy price, the nearby lobster, at $69, looks like a deal. You’ve been anchored at $200, so now $69 is reasonable. Watch for that dynamic and you’ll start to see it everywhere.

These dull books were chock full of useful and enlightening information, but the major thing I learned is something that, in retrospect, looks obvious. All good pricing relies on fairness. If you believe you’re getting taken, you won’t buy. If you are spending a lot, you expect a lot:  either higher quality, or faster delivery, or better service, or scarcity of availability. I remember a story many years ago about the producer Joe Papp, and why in his Broadway production of “Angels in America” actors had to ride in already seated, and why in a previous production of something of his people had to have little working cars on the set, and so forth. (In LA, the actors simply carried in their chairs and sat.) Papp said the production always had to look like the high price was justified. Of course. Or people would resent it otherwise. You have to believe  you’re getting something in fair return for what you’re paying, or you feel ripped off.

Adding 32% (!!!) as a “convenience fee” when I know damned well that there is nowhere near a $16 cost in providing that ticket, there being no physical artifact and the electronic system to deliver that electronic artifact — the e-ticket — having been perfected and paid for years and years ago now, is unfair. I’m not paying it.

So, instead, I’ve asked my friend to drive into Hollywood and buy the tickets at the box office for us.

Seems fair, right?