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


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Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Book return

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

One night last week, after about 20 years, I had a guy I know over for drinks and cigars and to talk about theatre and writing and books and music.

One thing about the pandemic: Suddenly we both had time. The social options normally available have telescoped down into almost nothing.

We already knew we had some things in common: We’re both playwrights and stage directors, we’ve both done work with Moving Arts (which is how we know each other), I’ve seen his plays and he’s seen mine, we both have wives and kids, and we both live in Burbank — within walking distance of each other. I learned the latter fact some time last year when he told me that whenever he’s at his kids’ school, he sees the fundraising tile my wife and I sponsored some years ago. More recently, he and his wife bought one too, so that’s something else we have in common.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours in my back yard under a glowing patio heater and during half a bottle of bourbon, we took turns shooting references at each other that, yep, the other would actually get. When I compared the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby dynamic with the Edison / Tesla dynamic, both of them revolving around a genius largely unrecognized during his life, he was armed and ready with the tragic details of Tesla’s last years. We shared our admiration for the work of Ayad Akhtar. When we wandered into music, and the role of noise, and John Cage, and I inevitably brought up Pere Ubu, and he offered his love of their songs as songs, and then added Wire, I just about fell over. How often can one find someone equally capable of discussing Marvel comics, brilliant 19th century inventors, particular contemporary playwrights, semi-obscure postpunk bands, the practice of being a writer, Fran Lebowitz, and, especially dozens and dozens of books you’ve read?

What are the odds of this, and with regard to the books in particular? Not to put too fine a point on it, but it takes time to read a book. Most Americans read four books a year. In 2020, I read 33 books; my average is 26 books a year (I just checked; thank you, GoodReads), which I think is pathetic. Although it’s possible to read 100 books a year, distractions like eating and sleeping and other functions get in the way. So finding that you’ve both read Paul Auster and Joan Didion and Julian Barnes and Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and some of the Russians and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and on and on while also having all those other interests in common is a bit… disconcerting. Wasn’t the final grandmaster chess tournament in “Queen’s Gambit” like this?

It did turn out, though, that there were two books I’d read and heartily endorsed that he hadn’t read, and two that he swore by that I hadn’t read. The next day, still thrilled and knocked off-kilter by the experience of having someone walk over to my house and have that sort of conversation with me over bourbon and cigars for almost three hours, I went on Amazon and sent him the two books I love that he hadn’t read: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

He texted me two days later to thank me and to say that he’d already gobbled down the Barnes book, adding a few salient points about it. And then the other day, when I opened my front door to see why my annoying dogs were raising high holy hell this time, I found a package from Amazon on my own doorstep: He had sent me the two I hadn’t read, pictured above.

After I read these, we’ll have four more books we can discuss. And this time, we won’t wait 20 years. We’ve already set the date.

Against self-expression

Saturday, February 13th, 2021
Painted (on commission) by Hieronymus Bosch

Today, on a Zoom call, David Thomas of Pere Ubu was saying again that “self-expression is evil.” He said it twice — once, 30 years ago, in a television interview that a couple dozen of us were now watching with him, and again, afterward, to us.  And of course many other times over the years in other interviews.

Thus the answer to why in its 45-year history Pere Ubu has recorded almost no love songs. 

This served as a reminder that this tough-mindedness is part of why I could never cozy up to the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, but instantly sutured myself onto Pere Ubu 35 years ago when I first heard them.

But before I go on let me be careful not to ascribe to David, whose work I admire tremendously, opinions that are mine and not his. Whatever he means by “self-expression” may not be what I mean by “self-expression.” I generally mean that baring one’s soul through art is not in and of itself interesting; a few drinks with a friend at a pub would sort that out better. Doing it through what you think is art is actually quite boring — as evidenced by the sort of poem that used to appear in Reader’s Digest, and also by countless high-school journals, including mine, in which I endlessly pined for girls in ways that still embarrass me, 40 years later, because I can’t forget my own adolescent weakness.

If you’re lucky, people will be interested in your art.  If they were primarily interested in you, you’d be a reality TV star.

And that’s the way it should be for artists. Art first. Confession and “self-expression” never.

I’ve worked with hundreds (and hundreds) of playwrights over the past 30 years. And, of course, actors and directors and scenic designers and musicians and visual artists and choreographers and so forth. I take it for granted that they’ve all had hurtful childhoods — some of them actually hurtful, some of them a hurt of their imagination (which doesn’t make it any less real). Even after all these years, while I like almost all these people and am glad to know them, I find it hard to get worked up about their personal pain. By its nature it’s so self-involving that it just can’t be interesting. How interesting can childhood trauma be, if everyone’s had some version of it? Childhood trauma isn’t unique — it’s universal.

Art, on the other hand can be profoundly interesting when people put their hurt into it in service of the work. I’m not sad to say that I can’t get moved by the early death of John Lennon’s mother — but him screaming about it on Plastic Ono Band certainly gets my attention and approval. That isn’t self-expression, that’s art that includes self-expression. (And, anyway, was Julia’s death bad luck for him — or was it what he needed to become a Beatle? We should note that Paul McCartney also lost his mother in his childhood.) We know almost nothing about Hieronymus Bosch’s life, but I know all I need to know from his paintings, and I can assume that some of him is in there, even though they were painted on commission.

That’s how it should be.

If the art is interesting, the self that comes through that art is interesting. Art that serves as self-expression is best kept with your middle-school participation trophies, forgotten in a closet filled with such clutter.

In the other practice, self-expression is presented on a platter, a la those mawkish TV romances made for dowagers. Most of the explicit self-expression I see in would-be art is handed to us as confession. Confession and sharing are antithetical to conflict, and it’s conflict that makes art powerful. What are those classic three storylines? Man versus man; man versus nature; man versus himself. Note that each of those has a “versus.” On the other hand, when a character sits down and earnestly tells another character how sad she feels, you can feel the play sink like the House of Usher. This is why for years in my writing workshop, I’ve railed against plays whose central story is this:  “Grandma’s dying, and I feel sad.” Well, that’s you. How do we in the audience feel about it?

Pere Ubu, meanwhile, has achieved 45 years of powerfully moving work that is utterly devoid of sentimentality. Is it filled with feeling? Absolutely. Does it elicit feelings in the audience? Of course. The staying power of the music, and the thrill it engenders in its adherents, provide testimony to that. So too is attending a live show and seeing the impact of the music on all those assembled; there is a charge in the air, every time. But none of it is saccharine, none of it is handed to you, and none of it asks you to crank up emotions you don’t have. Like all great art, Pere Ubu respects the work too much for that. It would be degrading to stoop to mawkishness.

How it’s going

Sunday, January 31st, 2021
Everything’s fine.
  1. Back in this post, I noted that I even though I’m a committed reader of books, I make little headway on the number of books in my reading queue, because I’m buying more than I read. Yes, I’m guilty of tsundoku (an excellent word I learned only recently), or owning a growing pile of books I may never read. So when Taschen targeted me on Facebook with their goddamn ad highlighting a big sale they were having of their beautiful art books, of which I’d like to own all, I did not buy any. I did send the link to a friend who I knew would appreciate it, but I didn’t even glance at their offering of what’s on sale, and I didn’t buy any of it.
  2. When I was on Facebook the next day, the ad came back and I bought two books from it. But they were big beautiful books and I needed them! Baby steps, okay?
  3. I was also targeted on Facebook by some product that promised to remove the bags under my eyes. (The fact that they knew I had them screams out for further regulation by Facebook.) I bought this stuff too. Usually, I’m a bit of a tightwad — I really don’t want all this stuff in my house! — but I do have the eye bags, even if only in the morning (I tell myself). The product promptly arrived, and I put it in my bathroom, but so far there’s been no improvement. Next step: Tomorrow morning, I’m going to take it out of the box.
  4. On Saturday after my playwriting workshop, I came across a tweet from a business guru I follow who shared how the pandemic was affecting him. One idea he floated: Rewatching The Walking Dead, but this time taking notes. The Walking Dead being about, essentially, a pandemic, I thought that funny. So in a welcome interlude from attacking all these books with a pickaxe, I wound up rewatching Season 1 (six episodes, requiring only about five hours) and then this morning, while putzing around and putting off other things I should be doing, I watched a couple more. Season 1 is a masterpiece, and I say this seriously. It’s an emotionally devastating, grinding, unforgiving look at the apocalypse (or, as I like to refer to it, Trump’s Second Term). No one gets off easy, and no one is miraculously saved. Every moment is earned, and the acting, writing, and production values are superb. Seeing it again for the first time in 10 years and now watching it straight through helped me see how terrific it is — and especially how much money was lavished on what was essentially a six-episode miniseries. There is no one set location, so every scene is a new location shoot; locations include a hospital that gets trashed, the Center for Disease Control (which gets blown up), a roadway with a huge car collision and shootout; a skyscraper; sewer tunnels; downtown Atlanta with hundreds of extras and a freaking tank and God knows what else… the list is endless. It’s jaw-dropping.
  5. In Season 2, our hardy band of survivors mostly hangs around a farmhouse and discusses their feelings for 13 interminable episodes. Looks like: All the budget got blown in Season 1.
  6. Back here, I said that theatre on Zoom is not theatre. Since then, we’ve done another reading of a new play from my workshop, and done it on Zoom. The script, by a talented playwright, is strong, and the actors were real pros: working actors you’d recognize, who brought their all. But, still, it was on Zoom. Something about a live “theatre” performance on Zoom just screams, “Hey, check your email.” That’s because the delivery vehicle — Zoom, on your computer — is the same delivery vehicle for your email and your Facebook and your Twitter, etc. The actual theatre demands that you sit there in a darkened room without your smartphone and pay attention. When you’re watching “theatre” on your laptop, though, all those other options lurk in the same dimension as the performance and, if you haven’t turned off texting or email or Facebook or notifications, you’ll be getting those interruptions throughout. The playwright asked me afterward if I thought the play ran a little long and maybe should be trimmed — this, by the way, is #1 on the frequently asked list from a playwright after a reading — and I said there’s no way to know, because it was on Zoom.
  7. By the way — of course! — I’m writing a play that takes place over Zoom. It’s seven scenes long, is intended to run 70 minutes, and I’ve finished the first draft. I’m in rewrites. I would have already finished the rewrites — except I’m writing it on a machine that also has email, and Facebook, and texting, and notifications….

The best Cloris Leachman story I’ve heard

Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

Cloris Leachman, who died yesterday, was wonderful in everything she appeared in. Including, it seems, real life. Here’s a story that my friend Shanti Reinhardt, an actor and playwright here in Los Angeles, put on Facebook earlier today, posted here with permission.

1984. I was walking to class during Summer Congress at The American Conservatory Theatre. Being from Hawaii, I didn’t quite understand that even if it was “summer” it was freezing in San Francisco. I remained in denial of the weather as I strolled happily along, wearing tiny shorts and a tight T-shirt with my wild curly hair blowing in the wind when suddenly a woman catches up to me from behind and says, “Hi!”

I turn to look and it’s CLORIS LEACHMAN!

How could this be? She was one of my all time favorites. A genius comedienne.

I acted cool. “Hi.”

She walked with me. Cloris: “Where are you going?”

Me: “To class at A.C.T.”

Cloris: “Oh, you’re an actress?”

Me: “Yes.”

Cloris: “I’m an actress too. I’m currently starring in Sister Mary Ignacious Explains it all for You.”

Me: “Oh, my god! I’m working on a monologue from that play!”

Cloris: “Wonderful! Would you like to go out on a date with my son?”

Me: “Huh?”

Cloris: “I saw you from behind with all this positive energy surrounding you — the sunlight bouncing off your hair — and I thought, ‘That’s the kind of gal I want dating my son. He’ll be visiting next week.’ “

Me: “Oh! I’d love to but I’m going to London next week to visit my grandmother who I’ve never met before.”

Cloris: “Oh, how exciting. Well, give me your number and I’ll call you when you return.”

So, I gave her my number and she disappeared.

A few weeks later, I came home to a message on my answering machine. “Hi, it’s Cloris. Be at the ready at 10pm.”

I didn’t know what the term, “Be at the ready” meant. I thought it might have been a restaurant or a club. I call information but they say there is no listing under that name. I usually was asleep by 10pm anyway so I got into PJ’s and crawled into bed.

Sure enough a horn starts beeping outside of my apartment window at 10pm. I open the window to see Cloris standing in front of a stretch limousine yelling up to me, “Hi Shanti! Are you ready? We’re going to have a night on the town!”

Well, the story goes on. The original son she wanted me to go out with was no longer in San Francisco but this was another son she wanted me to meet. He and I had no chemistry but the night was one I’ll never forget as Cloris made an entrance wherever we went.

Years later, I was in a Groundlings class with my teacher Cynthia Szigeti and the assignment was to bring in a character that was a relative. A guy went up before me and started doing his character.

I yelled out, “Wait a minute– are you doing Cloris Leachman?”

The guy was stunned and said, “Yes.” Cynthia was surprised as well, “How did you know that?”

The guy and I looked at each other and then we both realized at the same time, “Oh my god– you’re her son that I had no chemistry with!”

Flight of comedy angels, Cloris! You were the best.

Year-end update

Thursday, December 31st, 2020

No, no, I won’t be doing a look back on 2020, because as I recently noted here, Who’d want to? But it’s not a bad day for housekeeping, even blog-housekeeping, so here goes:

In this post, I related that my reading pile continues to grow. When I’d had the conversation with my friend about my stack of books-in-waiting, there were 78 books on the list; after reading 32 books over the course of 2020, the number of books had somehow risen to 103. Since then, two things have happened. First, I finished reading another book. (No cause for applause; it just happens.) Secondly, my family and I went to pick up sushi on Tuesday night, but we arrived early and the order wasn’t ready. So, looking around, my wife suggested we drop into Barnes & Noble. “Um, I said, it’s a book store….” Because we knew what would happen. So, yes, while in there for all of 10 minutes, I wound up buying two books. So now my number rests at 104. If book publishers had one ounce of moral fiber, they’d stop publishing books until I could catch up.

In this post, I exposed the true nature of one of our dogs. Unfortunately for him, it seems that every member of my immediate family also read that blog post and is now onto him as well. Instead of seeing him as “goofy” (their term), he’s now viewed, and treated, as cunning. Sorry, pal.

Back here, I was bemoaning all the theatre that didn’t happen in 2020 and that, therefore I didn’t get to see. I also said that “theatre” on Zoom is not theatre. (I don’t know what it is, because it isn’t TV either, but it isn’t theatre. Theatrical, sure, potentially. But not theatre itself.) On Tuesday night, before the unfortunate bookstore visit that further extended my reading pile, I took my wife and two sons to see “Stranger Things – The Drive-Into Experience.” If watching a play on Zoom isn’t theatre, neither is sitting in your car for an hour and wending your way through a dimly lit parking structure while young actors jump around outside your car, pantomiming actions to prerecorded dialogue being played over your radio while video screens run loops behind them. I’ve enjoyed watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix (mostly because it captures the teen experience of the 80s so well), and wish I’d enjoyed this. But if you’re sitting in your car watching video screens of excerpts of the TV show, why not just stay home and watch the TV show? Right off the top of my head, three very creative and inventive stage collaborators I’ve had the good fortune to work with — Paul S., Matt A., and Ross K. — came to mind as people who would’ve made this actually theatrical. At one point, my wife looked over at me from the passenger’s seat. “Why are you on your phone?” she asked. Well, I couldn’t see the screen in front of me, being completely blocked by a large SUV, and didn’t much care. I checked the reviews online and they were effusive, which just made me realize that these other attendees had no idea what they could’ve had in the alternate-universe production in my mind. Best line goes to my older son: “This is the perfect show for Los Angeles: Everybody gets to stay in their car and drive around inside a parking structure.”

Finally, it behooves me to say, as I’ve been saying for so long, that “years” and “decades” don’t really exist. We’ve manufactured these concepts. Our need to create these organizing principles is a direct output of the way our brains are wired; we need to collect time into buckets of meaning that we can make sense of, and that we can remember events by. Why do most of us associate a specific year with, for instance, a certain album or movie coming out, or a presidential election, or a life event? We do so to provide a hook for related memories to hang on.

I can prove to you that decades don’t exist: Think of, say, the 60’s. Okay, got it? Well, that period that we associate it with was actually more like 1958 through 1974. See? Not contemporaneous with “the sixties.” The 1970s, which I remember vividly, and which were exceedingly weird and somewhat terrifying, ran from late 1974 through 1980. Which made it, thankfully, a short decade. Meanwhile, the 1300’s lasted for about two hundred years. When you think about 2020, aren’t you really thinking about mid-March through now? Or maybe somewhat into 2021? 2020 was not actually 2020.

I share this by way of noting that tonight is New Year’s Eve, and we treat it as a way to intend a better year for the next year, and to plan our better selves. So perhaps it is useful. But I would remind us that every year, every day, every minute, is what we make of it. Don’t let a single moment slip down the drain hole unappreciated.

Not-year in review

Sunday, December 27th, 2020

Today, the Washington Post unveiled its “humorous” 2020 year-in-review, courtesy of Dave Barry, which was even less funny than Dave Barry normally is.

Then the Los Angeles Times carrier dropped today’s edition on my front lawn, featuring its own year-in-review, which made me want to run after her car and take back the Christmas tip I’d given her.

Why would anyone want to perform a year in review on 2020? Except, perhaps, to learn what not to do.

2020 was the year in which I saw no more than one play. At least, not live on-stage — and, no, watching “theatre” on Zoom doesn’t count as theatre, so, yes, I saw only the one. Oh, I was supposed to see more, but I was out of town / out of the country for a huge swath of January, had only the one show scheduled for February, and then, well, you know what happened after that. I sure was looking forward to the revival of 1776 and also to a host of other shows, and I wish I’d liked the one I did get to see.

2020 was the year in which I wrote a full-length play, all 120ish pages of it plus notes, then realized I didn’t like it at all, then set about rewriting it from a different point of view and a different tone, then found that I needed to do research (!) and then realized that maybe this wasn’t the play for me to be writing anyway. Yes, it was that sort of year — in which one writes two versions of the same play and then isn’t satisfied with either.

2020 was also the year in which I saw one concert. Oh, I enjoyed that one tremendously (and we’ll get to that), but what might it have been like to see all the others that were scheduled? The Cruel World Festival alone (an instant sellout, but a friend and I scored great seats) promised sets from Morrissey, Bauhaus, Blondie, Devo, Echo & The Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs, the Church, Public Image Limited, and so many more. The fest was scheduled for May, then got rescheduled to September, but sometime around June someone woke up to what wasn’t ending anytime soon and just canceled it.

Should I point out that this was the year that Comic-Con was canceled? And, no, that valiant effort of doing a virtual Comic-Con was not Comic-Con. I know, because I’ve been to Comic-Con every year since 1988. Except for one year — guess which one.

2020 was the year in which a politician I’ve always liked and rooted for finally won the presidency — except the other candidate refused to admit defeat and half of his party in the House is still going along with it.

In 2020 in the United States, more than 300,000 people and counting died from what someone (see previous paragraph) kept saying was like the flu, and not to worry about it. So much winning!

2020 was the year in which one of my favorite restaurants, Pacific Dining Car, a place of many memories for me, went out of business… one year short of its 100th anniversary. That is so 2020! Now I’m afraid thousands of other restaurants are going to follow it into oblivion, if they haven’t already, taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with them.

In 2020, many of my friends lost their jobs. Their long-time jobs. Hard-to-replace jobs.

In 2020 it cost a small fortune and a short lifetime to get a package from the U.K., thanks to changes made by our postmaster. Some delivery days, the U.S. mail didn’t arrive at all, a true first in my lifetime, and yet another achievement for the current administration.

2020 was the year in which one of my kids came home for Christmas, but the other didn’t because of our reasonable fears during the pandemic.

2020 wasn’t a total bust. As the year opened, my daughter and I went to Spain to see Pere Ubu play, and also spent time in the same room as Hieronymus Bosch paintings I’ve admired for decades, and rode high-speed rail from Madrid to Segovia, and ate in the world’s oldest restaurant, and went to a flamenco show and did some shopping and had an altogether excellent time. I sometimes think that reflecting on January is what kept me together through March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December.

And, y’know what? I’m healthy and alive and so are my family, the sun is shining, and I don’t own a restaurant. If 2020 has one lesson for us, it’s this: Be grateful for what you have, and do your best not to spread misery around, because many people have it far worse. If we’re going to review 2020, we should celebrate it for leaving us with that lesson.

Voltaire said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that man is essentially optimistic because he goes to bed making plans for the next day. In that spirit: 2021, I await you!

My Tweet with André

Saturday, 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. 

Shows I’m sad I missed

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020

A new look at a modern classic.

You’ll need that: A cautionary tale

Sunday, August 30th, 2020

(Except I’m not quite sure what caution you should take.)

I’ve moved myself, and my stuff, many times over the years. Just like everyone else.

Kindergarten through grad school, I went to nine different schools.

I moved with my family to a different house when I was 10.

When I was 19, I rented a house in Ocean City, NJ. After almost a year, I moved back in with my parents. (Awkward!) Then I moved back to that same house. Then I moved back in again with my parents. (Yikes.) Then I moved with my girlfriend into an apartment inland from Ocean City, in Somers Point. Then I rented a house with her in, yet again, Ocean City. Then she and I got married and moved to California, where we lived in an apartment for a few years, and then a house for a few years, and then, in 1996, we bought the house we still live in.

In all of those houses and apartments I’ve also had a place for writing. Mostly, it’s been a room all its own: a writing room. I still have one today.

I’ve also had lots of offices. When I was running Moving Arts, from 1992 to 2002, I had an office at our theatre on Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles. When we added our spaces at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, I had an office there, too, in downtown. When I became President & CEO of the Los Angeles theatre alliance, I gained an office in that space, meaning that I now had three offices: the one at home that I wrote out of, the one at the theatre center where I produced theatre, and the one six blocks away where I ran the alliance of local non-profit theatres.

For the past 16 years, instead of producing theatre and running a nonprofit or two (or three!) simultaneously while being a playwright, I’ve been someone with a consulting business who is also a playwright. From 2004 to mid-2006, I ran that business from my home office, but then opened an actual external office, across the street from City Hall in Burbank. I took on a partner in 2007. The company now has 11 employees, which has necessitated larger offices. We moved about 10 years ago to San Fernando Boulevard (still in Burbank) and then six-and-a-half years ago we moved to Burbank Boulevard (still in Burbank) and then last week we moved to Magnolia Boulevard (still in Burbank). We like Burbank.

Oh, and last May we had a flood at our office — a real calamity — that required us to relocate to another office for four months… and then move back.

So, for almost 50 years, I have been on a conveyor belt of living spaces, schools, and offices. I am tired of moving.

I’m tired of moving me, and I’m tired of moving my stuff. It’s physically taxing, it’s time-consuming, and it’s mentally draining. I have a problem finding things to begin with, so imagine how it must feel to always be unpacking and wondering just where something is.

But there’s something else that gets moved now. Something that we sometimes don’t think about. Something quieter and even more important than all that stuff, something that’s always getting moved.

Our data.

In all of those moves, of course, I’ve also been moving computers. And servers. And backup drives. And disks. And multiple laptops, and iPads, and handheld devices (iPhones, Handspring Treos and Handspring Visors, Palm Pilots) and more. Some of those devices are now defunct, and the ones that still function get system updates and software updates. In one of the recent moves, I discovered that I had four old iPhones. And that was after having sold one.

Nothing is constant.

A year or so ago, I found a virus on my laptop that, to my horror, had corrupted dozens (maybe hundreds) of my files. Files of my writing. Plays, short stories, poems, essays — about 15 years of work had been wiped out, just turned into .exe files. When I calmed down, I remembered that I had print copies of all this in my files (always keep print copies, people!), but I didn’t want to type or scan all that back in and wondered if there was some way to rescue the files. Plus — if my files had gotten corrupted, I needed the situation addressed! So, I had the owner of the IT firm that services my company take a look at my laptop and see what could be done. He examined it and clarified the entire situation for me.

I hadn’t gotten a virus, and I hadn’t gotten hacked. Everything was still there and uncorrupted — it was just unreadable.

All of my old files had been written in software that was no longer supported. Even though there were many, many versions of that software in the 1980s and 1990s, as it went from Appleworks to Clarisworks to Appleworks and then ultimately away, in one of the many file transfers from older laptops to newer ones, those versions of word processing programs had fallen by the wayside, and now all these data files were unreadable .exe files. There was no application program to match them with.

So: Just to clarify: I had successfully transferred the data every time. I had also backed up every file onto first storage disks (which were now unreadable; who has a disk reader?) and, later, digital files (in the cloud, or on local networks, or on a backup drive). None of that mattered. The data was now unreadable.

Fuck it, I thought. I’ve still got all those paper copies. I’ll worry about this another time.

Several months ago, my great-nephew in New Jersey asked to see a copy of one of my plays. He’d heard about it from his brother and had placed third in a statewide acting competition with a monologue from another of my plays, and he wanted to read this one. When I looked for it on my laptop, I discovered that, yep, it was one of those unreadable ones. Well, no problem, I’d just go pull the paper copy and scan it and send it to him that way.

Except when I looked in my files in my writing room there was no paper copy.

I looked again and again, the way a person in a thriller looks again and again at the dead body of the person he’s accidentally killed just to make sure he’s really seeing what he’s seeing, but, no, there was no paper copy.

Then I had a big fat drink.

The play that had some of my absolute best work, a play that had been done in London and New York and Los Angeles and elsewhere was… gone. Evidently, somehow, in one of the moves of my paper files, it hadn’t moved. Its entire redwell folder, overstuffed with drafts and notes and a completed final copy, was missing.

I had become one of those creative artists with lost work.

It didn’t feel good.

I started to piece together where I might — might — be able to get a copy. Well, there were the actors from the various productions. And the directors. And — for some reason — I’d sent a copy to a friend on the East Coast back in 1995 when the play was new. I reached out to him, and he offered to go look for it in his storage space… some day. I asked twice, displaying as little anxiety as I could, and finally he told me he’d get around to it. I understood. I did. There’s so much to get around to. Our lives are one endless to-do.

I tried hard to put this out of my mind.

But I couldn’t.

In all these moves, what else hadn’t moved? What else was I missing digitally, and what else, for God’s sake, had disappeared from my paper files as well?

And — let’s be honest — did it really matter?

I mean, really?

I consoled myself by deciding that I’m always focused on the future anyway. Wasn’t all that old stuff just… old stuff? Who really cared?

(We call this “rationalization.” Talking oneself into okayness.)

Last week, because, as I said, my company was moving offices again, I resolved to strictly separate what should be there and what should be here. Oh, I was observing the same protocols as before, but now even more strictly. I brought boxes and boxes of papers home — papers that more directly relate to my playwriting career than my marketing and consulting career. In order to ensure that I had enough space at home for all this additional paper, I cleaned out a closet in my previous writing room at home. (Yes, I have even moved writing rooms at home. I forgot to mention this.) From that closet, I pulled out boxes of tax filings and receipts from the 1990s and early 2000s, birthday cards, ancient office supplies, and… an old iMac.

Good timing, because the city where I live is doing an e-waste drive this weekend. I would be able to trash ancient machine for free. But first, my wife wanted to make sure our data was removed.

My son and I booted it up.

It was filled with old data: family photos and emails and stuff. We found movies that I’d shot and edited in which he and the rest of the family appear, he at age 3. He’s just turned 18. My heart skipped a beat.

“I wonder if my old plays are on here…” I said.

They were. I could see their icons nested in their little folders. They weren’t .exe files.

My essays and my poems and my short stories and everything else were there too. But I would need the old software on there, too, for them to be readable.

I clicked on the icon for the missing play — and it sprang to life on the screen. There it was. All one hundred pages or so, in glorious glowing type. I haven’t done a full inventory — but it sure looks like everything that was missing is now back. This must be how an amnesiac feels when he snaps back into full awareness.

What is the lesson here that I would share with you? Is it to back everything up? Well, I did that. Is it to save paper copies? Well, I’ve always done that. Is it to transfer your files? I’ve always done that as well. The only lesson, it seems, is to never throw anything away. Because some day, you’ll need it.

Now there’s just one thing left. I need to figure out how to get those files off this computer in a format that I can still access. And, I guess, to print more paper copies.

Carl Reiner, R.I.P.

Tuesday, June 30th, 2020

The obit just now in the New York Times for Carl Reiner details his many, many talents:  screenwriter, novelist, director, actor, comedian, political commentator, and probably a lot more.

What they don’t mention is what a great host Reiner could be.

As I wrote about here twelve years ago, I went to the memorial service for a guy I knew and liked, my writing professor Bill Idelson, only to discover that Carl Reiner would be the “emcee.” (Or whatever one calls someone who officiates a memorial service.) Of course it made sense in retrospect — Bill had been one of the writers on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” in addition to playing Herman Glimpsher, Rose Marie’s diminutive suitor on that show. (In an odd coincidence, about 20 years ago, I produced a play that featured Seemah Wilder, never realizing until he showed up that she was Bill Idelson’s wife. Yet another case of “everybody knows everybody.”) I wrote about Bill’s (highly entertaining) memorial service here.

In the years since, I’ve been following Carl Reiner on Twitter; he’s been amusing at times, and certainly life-affirming (he’s got a new book coming out, posthumously now, completed at age 98), and certainly livid about the current occupant of the White House.

But now I’m left wondering:  Who will they get to host Carl Reiner’s memorial service? Who could possibly live up to that standard? The only other Renaissance entertainer I can think of is Steve Martin.