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


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Archive for the ‘On being’ Category

Biting wit

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

I woke up this morning feeling pretty good about a whole bunch of things, but by luck three hours of extensive dental work put a quick ending to that. Yes, there’s nothing like dental work to give you a good dose of reality.

This particular session with my dentist — excuse me, team of dentists, in this case, this job being too big for any one person to manage alone — certainly sharpened my perceptions. Over the course of the morning, I found time to debate which drilling sound was worse (the low rumbling blaster-drill, or the high shrieking needling drill?), and to generally imagine all the ways in which I might improve my life if I survived this. Throughout, the team did its best to provide comfort and alleviate suffering, and they certainly went the extra mile. Most of us have had dental anesthesia injected into the gum area where the dentist is going to work; I suspect far fewer of us have had the good fortune to have injections all across the top gum line, all along the inside of that top gum line, and then in the roof of our mouth as well. Just another mark of distinction for this case, I guess.

As the drilling and sawing and scraping and jackhammering and power-washing and, yes, the actual use of pliers, was going on for, oh, about a century, I also reflected on how much worse this would have been in the old west. We don’t get to see too many dental scenes in Westerns — I suspect mostly because the people who’ve made such movies have rightly concluded that no one wants to see them — but I have an expansive imagination capable of filling in the missing scenes. We would have seen our hero chugging down a bottle of whiskey first, then lying there with his head tightly belted down to a table while the “dentist” (more likely, town doctor — which would also save on casting another role, given that most of those movies already had someone playing town doctor) works at him with  hammer and chisel and two attendants struggle to hold him down while we see his legs flailing wildly in the air. My feet stayed firmly placed atop the chair’s footpad, although my head jerked powerfully each time my palate was pierced with an injection needle. So my experience seems like an improvement.

Once it was all over, my entire cranium, jaw, and face felt like the aftermath of explosive demolition, with smoke still rising from the blast site. I managed to struggle out of the chair and pick my way back to my car and home, where I addressed the situation with two Alleve and a tumbler of bourbon and attempts at distraction. I looked at the newspaper, but that made my head hurt worse, so then I looked at Facebook and Twitter, but containing as they did most of the same outrage reflected in the newspaper, that was no help, so finally I went online and did a mega-Sudoku puzzle. That was a pretty good 23 minutes. The rest of the day, I dozed on and off, made two phone calls where I had to explain why I could barely talk, and generally moped around.

In all things, I believe in balance. So, given this travail and the need to counter it, and because I had clearly survived, I decided to go to Spain in a few weeks. In a stroke of good timing, it turns out that while I’m there I can see this universe’s foremost band, Pere Ubu, in concert in Madrid. Sure, it might be that I had already bought the ticket to Spain and the ticket for the concert, but I’m still mentally connecting it to the ordeal of the dental work. I already feel better.

Outcomes

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

Yesterday, exasperated in a discussion with someone who has all sorts of advantages but told me he didn’t “have any meaning” in his life, I posted this on Facebook:  “A meaningful life comes from helping others. It isn’t fucking complicated.”

As of now, I’ve got 119 people agreeing with that on Facebook, and lots of comments.

No, Moses didn’t come down off the mountain with a third tablet intended for each and every one of us with a secret message giving us a life mission. If you’re waiting for something like that, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But the life mission of most mammals is clear:  help each other. If you keep a keen eye out you’ll see it, certainly in dogs but also in rodents and birds and most warm-blooded animals.

The other thing I had to say, when I was tired of hearing the same complaint, the complaint of seven years now, from someone so close to me, was this:  a good life is made up of daily actions. Sitting around and agonizing about your misery isn’t going to get you anywhere. If you truly have some misery, you’re entitled to do some of that — but I’d much rather take the example of my beloved oldest brother, who has a terrible case of Parkinson’s disease but who hasn’t complained about it once. He has noted, as the years have passed, the things he can’t do — when I saw him two months ago he said he had to use an iPad to read now because he can no longer turn pages, and he’s shared other circumstances like that, and I can see how unsteady he is in walking or moving in general — but an actual complaint? No. Not one that I’ve heard. And I would think, given how debilitating this has been for a formerly very healthy and vibrant man, that this has been extremely frustrating, and that he’s earned the right to complain.

But, no. Instead, someone who is healthy and young is the one moaning about meaninglessness. Let me add this:  Camus and Sartre may have had their doubts about meaning, too — but at least they wrote books about it.

Allow me a moment to put a brighter spin on this.

This morning, I was the moderator at the Hollywood Economic Summit for a panel discussion about the intersection of live entertainment and economic impact. This is a topic I’ve been talking about, in one way or another, for more than 25 years. Ask any restaurant owner next to a theatre what business is like on a performance night, versus business on a dark night; add into that the parking lots, and cocktail lounges, and even babysitters, and certainly the cast and crew, and the vendors associated with the production, and you start to get a picture. The Pantages Theatre in Hollywood will see 850,000 people this year. That’s a lot of people, bringing a lot of money to Hollywood, and that’s just one example.

After the panel, a guy stopped me at the door and said, “Lee, you may not remember me, but you changed my life.”

(And, before I go on, let me apologize for what’s going to wind up being a story congratulating myself. But I didn’t do what I’m about to tell you about for any congratulations or reward — but I am trying to pass along a lesson that I believe in. So please excuse me.)

I didn’t remember him, until he reminded me of the full story. In 2001, I was the president and CEO of LA Stage Alliance, the performing arts service organization serving greater Los Angeles. This man, Jeff, called and asked if he could speak with me, and said he was new in town, and was a theatre guy, but didn’t know anyone and was looking for a job. I told him to come down and see me. He came down for what was supposed to be 30 minutes, and, he says, I spent a lot more time than that with him — and then picked up the phone and called the Shubert Theatre and asked someone I knew there if he’d see Jeff. Jeff went over, and got hired, and now, 18 years later, Jeff works at the Pantages in Hollywood. He handed me his card, and I looked at it, and saw his title:  General Manager. “Jeff!” I said. “You’re a big muckety-muck!”

And he is.

And he thanked me profusely because I had made that introduction that got him launched.

But let me tell you where I learned to do things like that:  from a man named Lars Hansen. When I met Lars, circa 1996, he was the Executive Director of the Pasadena Playhouse and a major fixture in Los Angeles theatre and I was the Artistic Director of a 36-seat theatre called Moving Arts. We were both serving on the board of Theatre LA, and Lars and I hit it off. He had a vision for the audience experience, and the intersection of the performing arts and commerce that spoke to me. Lars was generous by nature, and just kept giving me stuff:  advice, connections, and whatever he could spare at the Playhouse — including, once, hundreds (yes, I said hundreds) of tickets at his theatre to use for a fundraiser. It was partly because of Lars’ influence and generosity that I wound up as CEO of LA Stage Alliance — I have no doubt of that — and it’s because of that that I was in a position to help Jeff, and because of that, Jeff and I ran into each other today, completing a circle that has taken 23 years.

So when Jeff’s thanking me, he’s actually thanking Lars, who I think of almost every day… even though he died 10 years ago.

Lars led a life of impact. He certainly impacted me. I still have friendships that I developed completely through Lars. And I’m still grateful to him.

Lars wasn’t the only helper in my life. In fact, my life has been filled with helpful people. My business partner says that when you put something out into the universe, it comes back to you, and I’ve found that to be true. When I was a boy, I remember watching the Philadelphia newscast one night with my father, and seeing the story of a poor black boy in that city who’d gotten burned in a fire. My father never said anything about it, but he was obviously moved — and shortly later I learned from my mother that he wrote a check and mailed it in anonymously to the boy’s family. He never said anything about it to me and he never wanted any credit for it. That’s a lesson I never forgot, and an image that remains burned in my memory, of watching that newscast.

But aren’t most of us like that, really? Aren’t most people good? Don’t we do what we can, when we can?

It doesn’t take heroics to help somebody else, not usually. It takes a little time, and a little awareness. And really, isn’t that what we’re here for? To help each other?

Don’t get distracted by the terrible people. They’re a minority. Honest. If you want a meaningful life, make one by helping others.

p.s. Here’s some info about my friend Lars and here’s his obit. He was a great guy.

A period of transition

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

I was just searching for something in my Evernote file and found this:

We’re in a period of permanent transition. Nothing will settle.
It’s not an age of reading — it’s an age of looking. Looking at print or looking at screens — some of the print is interactive with sound and motion.

The old forms needn’t die. People are still buying tickets to the theatre, which has been dying for thousands of years.

I wrote that on July 25, 2014 (at Comic-Con in San Diego), no doubt as a jumping-off point for something I didn’t wind up writing. Since then, the permanent transition has continued, and nothing has settled.

By happenstance, I went to WonderCon today. I spent half of my time in the exhibit hall searching for just where comic books might be, then discovered that I was in Hall C of the Exhibit Hall — an area mostly devoted to independent artists and people lumbering around in gigantic bulky clumsy costumes representing things I didn’t recognize — and that comic books were in a small quadrant in a corner of Hall A. I’m now calling that one of the sections where “old forms needn’t die.”

I’ve been going to comics conventions for 54 years, and can remember when the exhibit hall was a smorgasbord. You’d have a comic-book dealer next to a science fiction dealer next to somebody selling Tribbles and around the corner from somebody hawking his own new board game. That’s how you’d come across new things you never knew about or thought about. Now we’ve got redlining:  comics way over there; whatever Funko Pops are and similar novelties in a separate hall, gaming stuff way back there, and so forth. At a time when the people of the U.S. seem more divided than ever (almost; we haven’t hauled out any cannons yet), someone has now split fandom down into its constituent elements too.

I remember being warned about this in the 2000s:  that, increasingly, we’d get served only the news we wanted, and blithely ignore the things that didn’t pertain to us, that we didn’t select. Take a look at Twitter or Facebook and tell me that that isn’t exactly what’s happening. And who is the perfect avatar of this dynamic? The guy who lobs one distracting new “emergency” after another into the chattersphere. It’s aggravating how much oxygen and attention he consumes.

Still, the old forms needn’t die. We’ve carved everything and everyone into smaller and smaller niches, just as the Alvin and Heidi Toffler predicted in “The Third Wave.” It’s all still here, just smaller and discrete. Which is fine in many ways. A lot of the mass market didn’t serve a lot of people, including me. Television was very bad when I was a kid; ironically, there’s so much great television now that no one could possibly watch all of it and most of it looks bland. Turn on your TV (or device) and there are so many high-quality choices that none of them seems compelling. A lone diamond sparkles against velvet, but looks lost inside a gem mine.

Now we search, in a time when everything is findable. Nothing need go out of print (or “print”) any more, and no market is too small for some attention. At the convention, I picked up a newly published book called “Comic Book Implosion:  An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978.” The book relates the story of DC Comics announcing a big “DC Explosion!” of new titles in 1978 — and then canceling the entire effort two months later. Not exactly “The Story of Civilization,” right? Pretty arcane — but, still, there’s some interest in the topic somewhere (like, here — with me), so it exists. I also would assume that the topic exists on Wikipedia, and it does. In 2001, I attended a speech by Thomas Friedman wherein he talked about what he called the “Evernet” — being ever-available, ever-on, because of the cellphone and the internet.

That was six years before the iPhone, which solidified the Evernet, increased immediate access to information, and also increased the immediate sharability of information — as well as disinformation. Since then, the permanent transition has continued abated. And now, thanks to speed and availability, fluctuations will increase (economic; sociopolitical; cultural) and nothing will settle.

Thoughts about writing on Saturday night

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

I was going to post all sorts of things on this blog tonight, but wound up writing 10 pages of my new play tonight instead.

Late last year, I started going to the gym regularly. Mostly to deal with chronic pain I’ve been experiencing since a car accident (not my fault) two-and-a-half years ago. It’s not something I talk about too much, and it’s not something I believe I’ve written about here before. At first, I started going to the gym just to loosen up, and to sit in the jacuzzi as often and for as long as I could. But then, sometime in February, something started to happen: I started to feel like I needed to go to the gym. Like I had things to work out. And now I’ve further turned that corner: Now I’m someone who looks forward to going to the gym.

For years, I posted on this blog every day. Every single day. Lately, it’s been more sporadic. I’ve wondered why that is, especially since I write every day. It’s not always playwriting (or, clearly, blog writing), but every single day I’m writing something, some of it for a fair amount of pay, some of it for some small amount of pay at some point (those tend to be plays), and some of it, I’m sure, for no pay whatsoever (those would be poems and short stories, which I haven’t even bothered to send out for years now). The itch I now get when I don’t go to the gym or get some other physical activity — the sense of feeling “rammy,” as the adults used to say about the overly rambunctious son of my father’s friend — is akin to the itch I get when I’m not writing.

But here’s what I think spurred an unexpected 10-page writing session on my play tonight: the miracle of seeing four compelling, enjoyable, thought-provoking plays recently, which were like finding water after being in the Mojave of bad theatre for the past two years, and the resumption of my playwriting workshop today. My workshop is stuffed with good writers writing good plays. When you’re in the room with that, you’d have to work not to be inspired by it.

The play I’m writing is a memory play. That’s not what I normally do, or, more appropriately, it isn’t what I’ve mostly done. (Or done at all?) But that’s what this play is. Tomorrow, we’re removing the seats from Moving Arts, the seats that we installed in 1993 or 1994, the seats donated to us that came from a silent movie house in the Bay Area where they were installed in 1916. We’re doing that because we’re putting in new seats. Parting ways with these seats that we’ve had for 20 years, and which have seen almost 100 years of audience derriere, will certainly spark more feelings fit for a memory play. But I’m excited to be part of taking them out for two reasons: because a number of them are going to a good new home where they’ll be cherished; and because while it’s good to appreciate the past, the future always beckons. And we’re already there, all the time.

Email to a young director

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

When I was a kid, comic book editors were thoughtful enough to include the mailing addresses of fans who wrote in. There’s a whole generation of us who made a lot of good friends that way.

Now we have the internet.

Which is how I received this communication today:

Hi, my name is Isabel R–. I am 13 years old, I live in Mexico City and I now study in the American School Foundation. Right now in my civics class we are making a project about our future. I currently love theater, and it’s my lifetime dream to be a part of it and spend my whole life on it. I want to study acting, but I seriously don’t think I could be that good, so instead I would just love to direct, be in charge of everyone and be responsible [for] the whole play. This is why I was wondering if you could answer me an interview about your studies. I seriously respect you because you are a director, and in my opinion it takes a lot to be one.
I hope you will answer,
Isabel R–
P.S if you don’t have the time to answer or email me back, don’t worry I know you must be full of work 😉

Here’s my reply:

————

Isabel, I am indeed full of work. (And full of a lot else, too.) But I’m happy to answer you. The theatre is a wonderful thing to devote your life to. If you want to, you should do it.

Before we get to the questionnaire you attached, I’d like to say this:  You should study acting. Why? Three reasons:

1.    Because you want to. Thirteen is far too young to decide that you can’t be good at something. Know what the right age is? Never. Last month I heard a radio interview with an 82-year-old woman who had just piloted a plane for the first time. At age 80, she decided that she wanted to learn to fly, and now, two years later, she was flying solo. It’s not a good idea to limit yourself at any age. (It’s also good to have grandchildren to take away the keys, if necessary.)
2.    You should act because you want to, and you should act because it will help you as a director. Directors work with actors. That means you need to understand acting and actors. No, I was never an actor. But I did some acting in both high school and college (poorly, I might add), and since then I’ve done staged readings that I’ve been drafted into. And every Saturday I get to read at least one part in my workshop. Do some acting. It’s fun. And even if you’re bad, nobody dies as a result.
3.    It’s good to fail. Failure teaches you things. It’s also good to succeed. What isn’t good is to not try. Don’t avoid failure, or you won’t try enough new things.

Okay, let’s tackle that questionnaire.

1.    What did you study?

I have no formal theatre training. None. I have degrees in Communications (Associate of Arts), Literature and Language (Bachelor of Arts), and Professional Writing (a Masters degree). This qualifies me to answer your questionnaire, and to answer things for people even when I don’t know what I’m talking about. You learn that how you say things can lend a certainty to your tone that convinces others; that’s useful. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you sound confident. I also took a lot of science in college, and I’m glad I did. Other than the writing classes, the classes that stuck with me the most were probably Logic and Philosophy which, compiled with the others, form the backbone of criticism. Oh, I did study playwriting in graduate school, but it didn’t teach me how to write plays – I was already getting produced, after all. But it helped build my circle of contacts.

2. Where did you study?

I think you’re asking me theatre-related questions. What I would say is this:  To learn the theatre, you get involved with theatre. You attend plays, you volunteer, who do photocopying and script reading and chewing-gum-scraping and whatever else they need. And then, one day, an actor doesn’t show up and you read that part to help out. Or, in my case, the cool kids are putting on a high school play and even though you’re invited to participate, they don’t invite your other friends (the non-cool kids), and you don’t feel good about that, so you wind up writing your own play expressly for those uncool kids.  And then when you hear people in the audience laugh at your funny lines, you are hooked forever.

The simple lesson:  In most things in life, you learn by doing. So go get involved with directors and actors and playwrights and costume designers and stage managers and lighting designers and all the other theatre people and you’ll learn everything. Because theatre people – honestly – can do everything. They have to.

3. How long?

To this day. On Saturdays I convene a playwriting workshop (for almost 20 years now), and I’m always glad to learn new things from the smart talented people who come. And at least a couple of times a month, I go see plays. Even bad ones are useful (although annoying). You can learn good things from bad plays.

4. Did you study an MBA?

That’s a business degree. (Now I own a business (not my first) and am once again completely self-taught. Libraries and book stores and the internet are wonderful things.) I believe you mean an MFA. I have an MFA-equivalent degree. It is a terminal degree, but I am living with it.

5. If yes, where did you study it? How long?

The University of Southern California. In general, a graduate degree requires two years. What you learn may not be as important as who you meet. Building a network of contacts is important.

6. After studying, in what have you worked?

I have written radio commercials, billboards, plays, advertising copy, fundraising letters, essays, poems, cartoon strips, short stories, websites, interviews, speeches, public service announcements, headlines, newspaper stories, technical specs, instructions, magazine articles, and just about everything else you can imagine. At some time or other I’ve been paid in almost every conceivable field of writing. (Yes, I even got paid for poems once.) I own a creative marketing agency (with another theatre person!) named Counterintuity. That allows me to offer creativity all over the place. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist and a scientist; Benjamin Franklin was a writer and statesman and scientist and inventor; Will Eisner was one of the founders of comic books and graphic novels, and also a businessman. I am inspired by their greatness.

7. What have you been doing lately?

See above. Plus, I travel frequently. And I read a lot. And I like to take long walks with friends and my dog and smoke cigars. (The dog doesn’t smoke.) And I like to play games with my family and by myself (“Risk” on my iPhone, “Civilization” on my laptop, and “Oblivion” on the xBox.) I also go to the theatre, of course. Last night three friends and I went to see a play that we didn’t like at all, but we had great fun afterward, and that made it worth it.
8. As you have worked in plays, what have been your favorite or most famous?

Almost all the plays I have directed are new plays. The theatre I founded in 1992 does only new plays. I’ve directed world premieres by Trey Nichols, Werner Trieschmann, Sheila Callaghan, EM Lewis, and many others. I don’t direct as often any more because I don’t have time, but I make an effort to do it at least once a year. Last year, I directed four times and am still unclear how that was possible. Famous playwrights whose work I like include Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Mamet, Labute, Albee, Kushner, and August Wilson. I think that Shakespeare guy is pretty good too. I am a big fan of Buster Keaton, so any well-done commedia del arte excites me; a couple of years ago I flew across country just to see Bill Irwin’s new show. It was well worth it.

9. In the play, what is your job?

To make an impact other than boredom on the audience.
10. What [do] you get out of this career?

Brief bursts of intense satisfaction. Followed by an addictive need for more.

11. Do you live well with your job?

I’m not sure what you mean, but I’m going to try to answer what I think you mean. I make my living being a creative storyteller, sometimes for business clients, sometimes for audiences or students. Stories are at the core of who we are. The human brain has grown and expanded because we developed language, and we developed language because we needed to share stories – about the hunt, about our struggles, about who we are and want we want. Without stories, we would all still be in the trees. It’s enormously gratifying to move an audience with a story you’re telling – whether it’s a ticket-buying audience watching one of my plays, or an audience of two in a business setting. It’s also enormously gratifying to get pulled into the stories of others whose voice you respond to. I’m lucky enough to have very smart, very funny friends who keep me surprised and entertained.


12. Has this career choice made you happy?

I don’t believe in happiness. Pursuing it is fine, but I don’t know anyone who has gotten it, and if anyone were to get it, I don’t know what he or she would do next. I do believe in work, good work, and in remembering that on any given day, most people in the world are worse off than I am. Bear that in mind and it’s easier to focus on your work.

Thank you for emailing me. Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll always be someplace interesting. I apologize if my reply isn’t as good as Rilke’s, but no one’s is.

Things I would be blogging about if my neck wasn’t killing me

Thursday, September 10th, 2009
  • President Obama’s health-care speech last night (great job!) and his killer tactic of inducing that thick-necked GOP jerk to yell out “You lie!” That alone will have swung enough support. Once again, other people have misunderestimated you, sir president. We watch and learn.
  • The Gallup-originated “Strengths-Based Leadership” test I took today, which sized me up as having strengths in Strategic, Activator, Individualization, Responsibility, and Input, resulting from oddly dichotomous choices like “You believe in ghosts” vs. “You like chocolate.” More on this tomorrow, I think, when my neck isn’t killing me. I also would have preferred that the test conclude in words of the same form — all adjectives or all nouns or all gerunds or all something the same. These qualities — Strategic Activator, etc. — sound like mistranslations from the Chinese, like Glorious Serving Sword of Destiny.
  • My second night of rehearsals with my cast, and hearing my rewrites for the first time. Short version:  New opening line sucked (and my actor rightly asked for the old one back); new purposely bad poem is deliciously bad and probably earns a laugh right where I planned because, as I suspected, the actor has the chops to get that laugh and got it right away; still very glad to have the director and actors I have. The director has better ideas than I do, so again, I’m glad he’s directing and I’m not.
  • How “lack mentality” drives me crazy. Brief definition:  “I lack [fill in the blank], so I can’t do [fill in the blank].” It’s just reflexive with people. (Most people?) Once you’ve trained your ear to hear it,  you hear it all the time. Why not instead:  “I want to [fill in the blank], so I have to [fill in the blank].” That’s more actionable; you can actually do something about it. I think today I heard the lack mentality about six times. In one case, I’m concerned that an important arts institution is going to go under — or at least suffer greatly — because of all the lacking going on.
  • My thrill at getting a new script by one of my favorite playwrights. In fact, right now I’m going to go read it in the jacuzzi because, for some reason, my neck is killing me.

Closing Windows

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

If I owned Microsoft stock, I’d strongly consider selling. Like, right now.

This isn’t because of any great fears about the stock market in general. Lately, I’ve been buying a little stock. And it isn’t because of my long-standing ambivalence toward Microsoft, which stems from my background as an Apple user since 1982.

No, I would sell Microsoft because I think the Third Wave 2.0 is about ready to wash over it.

(In his 1980 book “The Third Wave,” Alvin Toffler posited that the First Wave was the settled agricultural society that replaced hunter-gatherer cultures; the Second Wave was the industrial age society; and the Third Wave was the post-industrial, or information-based, society. I think we’ve already seen a lot of that — and now we’re in the first shakeout, or Third Wave 2.0.)

Problems come in threes, goes the saying. Here are Microsoft’s:

  1. For the first time, sales of Windows are down. This is at the same time that world demand for “netbooks” is going to skyrocket. What are netbooks? They’re small, cheap, portable computers that retail for about $300. These are the machines that will get outer Mongolia online, and the projected adoption rate is staggering. How easily will Microsoft be able to sell an installation of Windows onto these machines for $100, when the machine itself costs only $300? Not easily. Especially when Linux is free.
  2. Microsoft was famously late in recognizing the possibilities of the Internet. Google owns the search-engine business that could have been Microsoft’s, and the Yahoo deal didn’t happen. Now Gmail is going to eat Outlook’s lunch. If Google controls the search business, and Firefox rules the browser world, and Google (again) takes over email, what’s left online for Microsoft?
  3. Problem #3:  pessimism. Yes, I have heard the rumor that the economy is bad. But do I think it’s going to permanently “reset” at a lower level? That’s what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer thinks. Really? Even with continued population growth, and new economies coming online all over the world, it’s going to be smaller? Or is it just that Microsoft won’t be able to adapt to new realities? “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” Colin Powell famously said. (And no, I don’t think he was prescribing a Candide-like naivete.) The opposite is certainly true:  pessimism is draining. I suppose such sourness is understandable, coming on the heels of Vista’s grand kerplunk, and those bad commercials with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates buying shoes. But still.

I don’t know what Microsoft is going to do from here on out, except lose market share. (Especially to Google.)

By the way, I would sell Apple stock, too, if I still had any. Not because I think they’re falling behind or screwing up. I’d sell because the performance of the stock market relies  upon perception, and whether or not it’s true, the perception is that Steve Jobs is Apple. That’s the downside of running a personality cult:  There’s trouble when the personality proves to be all too mortal.

The comic book he had to have

Friday, November 28th, 2008

A few nights ago I had a dream in which I broke into my neighborhood comic-book store in the middle of the night because I just knew a comic book I was waiting for was finally there and I couldn’t wait any longer. So I smashed the store’s display window, gingerly stepping over the shards of plate glass jutting from the casement, and headed directly for the display bearing that choice book. And, indeed, there it was. But as I reached out to grab it, I stopped to realize what I was doing, and whom I was doing it to, and how this was in no way the person I think I am. So I left the comic, and the comic-book store, and got home as quickly as I could, my own shame following closely behind. After a sleepless night (still in the dream), I couldn’t bear it any longer and drove back to the comic-book store to confess and to offer to pay for the broken window and to throw myself onto the mercy of the store’s owner — but when entered the store I found him sitting bereft on the floor, having thrown tarps over all the comic-book displays after deciding to leave the business because he couldn’t imagine how someone who loves comic-book could have done this to him. After voicing my sympathy, I left and decided my only course of action was to mail an anonymous cashier’s check and then leave town and hope to rebuild my dignity elsewhere.When I woke up in the morning, I still felt like I had done this to the owner of the comic-book store. It was a hard feeling to shake. For almost 10 years, I’ve never done anything there except pay for comic books and engage in idle chitchat. But now I felt soiled by something I hadn’t done. To even think it made me feel grimy. Because the dream had posed the operant question: How could someone who loves comic-books do this?

Today while running errands, I saw that I was passing the comic-book store and decided to stop in. I saw Paul, the store’s owner, and decided to tell him my dream; I figured that that way, I finally would be rid of it. I shared it with him, along with Freud’s analysis that there are only two sorts of dreams: neurotic and wish-fulfillment. Clearly, this neurotic dream revealed how much the simple pleasures of comic books – so far removed from the pressure of work and responsibility associated with writing, teaching, business, and political activism – mean to me. I closed my narration of this dream with the rhetorical question he had posed in it: “How could someone who loves comic books do this to him?”

He looked at me and said, “That’s funny, because someone just did.”

A few days before, someone else in the store had alerted Paul and another worker in the store that he thought the person who’d just left had swiped two hardback collections by putting down the stack of comics he’d just purchased, looking around, then picking them back up but with these hardbacks underneath. Paul couldn’t believe it and paid no attention; after all, this was a longtime customer, someone who came in with a closeknit circle of friends, someone who came from an affluent family. But then he remembered that a month or two earlier someone else had noticed something missing at the same time this person had just left. So he and two others scoured every corner of this rather large store, looking behind every stack and every rack, nowhere turning up these two $25 hardbacks, until he reluctantly concluded they indeed had been stolen. Next time this customer came in, they asked him about it and, Paul says, his denials were so strenuous they seemed like playacting, and so this customer has been banned from the store.

In my dream, the comic-book store shuts down and I exile myself. In reality, the store catches the thief and he is exiled.

I shared all this with my wife. She often says I have low-level ESP (while I think I’m just sensitive to subtext, as all playwrights should be). Now she wondered if I were precognitive, too. If that were true, our lives would be a nightmare, given some of these dreams. But what truly interests me in this are the intertwined tales of one man afraid that through an unthinking act he will ruin something important to him, and one man who does precisely that not to save fifty bucks that he assuredly has, but to substitute for the fun of escapist fiction the real-life cheap thrill of theft.

No laughing matter

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

It’s finally happened: I’ve lost my sense of humor. About one thing, at least.

The other morning as I was driving my son to take his driver’s license test, we passed a billboard for the new Oliver Stone movie, “W.” Guess who it’s about.

“Dad, are you going to go see that?”

“No,” I said rigidly.

“It looks really funny in the trailer.”

“There’s nothing funny about him,” I said, noting to myself the irony of the word “trailer” in connection with the infamous subject of this film. “Trailer” as in “FEMA trailer.” As in: rusting hulks bought for too much money from private contractors for the scattered survivors of Hurricane Katrina. More reasons not to be amused.

In today’s LA Times I came across a caption about the movie that said it was the story of one man’s rise “from riches to more riches.” I guess that’s humorous too.

I haven’t lost my sense of humor about everything. I’m always cracking wise on those marathon training runs; it’s a good way to deal with the seeming impossibility of running dozens of miles, or other ordeals. I’ve written comedies about cancer and suicide and incest, and even my recent play about the son of a serial killer was good for a few laughs. But it’s hard to imagine anything funny about “W.” or the creature the film is named after. Maybe the scale of impact is too great to laugh away. The serial killer in my play killed a few dozen women; the Bush death count is in the hundreds of thousands (Iraqi civilians; Afghani civilians; U.S. soldiers; Katrina victims; old folks shooting themselves because their retirement has been wiped out and they can’t pay the mortgage; and on and on). I don’t think I’m alone in this sentiment: I don’t want to spend any more time with him, real or fictional.

Except in one case.

If there is a sequel, one in which he’s tried and convicted, I will gladly buy a ticket. Many of them.

I don’t think I’m alone in that, either.

Favorite moment of the day

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

Someone just sent me an email telling me she was going to fax me something because her email isn’t working.