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


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Archive for the ‘On being’ Category

Turning gold into lead

Friday, July 18th, 2008

One of the projects my company is working on involves training 10 young people (ages 16 to 20) in writing, setting them up on a blog, and having them go out and report on city-funded cultural activities and social service programs in the city of Santa Monica. All this week I’ve been driving to Santa Monica to run workshops with these youths. I like this project immensely: it involves young people, and writing, and getting the word out about arts activities and about programs that help people who need a little help.

What I don’t like is the commute between Burbank and Santa Monica. The distance is about 25 miles, and no matter what time of day I’m going there or coming back, it takes about 25 years. Yesterday’s workshop was actually in Marina del Rey (about 4 miles further). It took me an hour and a half to get back to Burbank. Imagine driving for an hour and a half at 15 miles per hour. I would have pulled over to go see a movie — as I did on this infuriating day — except lately that makes no difference; if it’s daylight, traffic is impenetrable. Plus, I wanted to get home for my daughter’s 10th birthday party. I got home all right, finally, in a miserable mood for being boxed in on all sides by cars and crawling along for ever. This must be what trench warfare felt like. News reporting would have you believe that people are abandoning their cars for bicycles because of high gasoline prices; I haven’t seen that, but I’d like to.

What are elected leaders in California doing about the traffic situation, which is clogging our roadways and choking our economy? Little or nothing.

We also have a little deficit here in the Golden State. It doesn’t matter what the number is (it’s massive); by the time I type it in here, it will have metastasized further. At various times recently it’s been pegged at $8 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b,” please note) or $12 billion, or $16 billion, or any number between, or larger. Here’s your first indication that the people running the state aren’t doing a good job: They have no idea what the size of the budget deficit is. Without an understanding of the problem, how can they be expected to fix it? The deadline for a new budget — one theoretically in balance — was July 1st. They missed the deadline. So here’s what they did: They went on break. That’s right. They left Sacramento to return to their (other) homes. Anyone doing business with the state of California right now isn’t getting paid — except, I’m sure, for the people on the state payroll, i.e., those people who didn’t come up with a budget.

Someone up in Sacramento — not sure who; finger-pointing varies — is proposing raiding embargoed funds. These are the funds that a plurality of voters (not including me) voted as set-asides for specific projects. I almost always vote against these funds because they almost always get raided for something completely unrelated to the proposed project — and this is something I told one of the governor’s emissaries recently when I led a little charge against one of them. And now, here we go again. What are some of the funds being raided? You guessed it: highway funds, originally intended to ease traffic congestion.

Aren’t ironies wonderful?

I don’t think that all problems are easily or well solved. I do think, though, that everything is improvable. Will California, where in addition to other problems 25% of high schoolers are dropouts (while we have some of the nation’s best-funded school districts), ever again earn the sobriquet of “The Golden State”? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t expect a return to the past so many people who have lived here longer than I have are yearning for. But I do expect people who are public servants, and well-paid ones to boot, to do the job they were elected to do. And although I know several of these legislators personally and like them greatly, I’m of a mind right now that all of them across the board ought to be sent packing. And I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t just what voters might finally do.

Banking on irony

Monday, July 14th, 2008

As you’ve heard,  the Feds seized IndyMac Bank on Friday. (And here’s the latest on that, by the way.) It’s the second-largest U.S. bank default in history.

On Saturday, we got a letter from the bank, which holds our mortgage. I assumed it was news of the default, with information about the status of our mortgage.

No. Of course not. How silly of me. It was an offer of an additional $100,000 from the bank, if only we’d fill out the teeny form and return it.

If only the letter had arrived a day earlier! Because, as my wife said, it’s not like they’re going to be around to collect it.

A gift from Jesse Jackson

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

If Jesse Jackson wanted to do something nice for Barack Obama — which he didn’t — I can’t think of a nicer thing he could’ve done than this:  say on Fox’s “O’Reilly Factor” (of all places), with regard to Obama, “I wanna cut his nuts off.”

Now if only Osama bin Laden would endorse John McCain, the day would be complete.

Always new

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

Imagine if you read this and then moments later looked at it and it seemed brand new, like you hadn’t read it before.

Imagine if you read this and then moments later looked at it and it seemed brand new, like you hadn’t read it before.

Imagine if you read this and then moments later looked at it and it seemed brand new, like you hadn’t read it before.

That’s a taste of what it’s like being Clive Wearing, as profiled in this New Yorker piece by Oliver Sacks. Twenty years ago when in his mid-forties, Wearing was struck by a brain infection that affected his memory. Since then, he has been reduced to a memory span of only seconds. This means that for Wearing, every experience no matter how often repeated is new.

It also means that Wearing lives his life on the surface. He has to. It takes time, and thought, and experience, to delve. Wearing is capable of only snap judgments (and these he would have to make again and again), and so his best adjustment to the terror of instant experience is to deal only with the surface of things. He is an everflowing fount of jokes, puns, and wisecracks. Like the obnoxious jokester most of us avoid in life, Wearing is doing his best to mask a deficiency.

When Wearing was first struck by this malady, he took to keeping a journal. The entries, a page of which is provided in the magazine but sadly not online, provide a terrifying look into the abyss. “I do live!!!!” reads one entry. Another from the same day on the same page reads, “Hurrah [times infinity] — I DO live. (First time known.)” There are endless repetitions of this theme: that for Wearing every moment is not just a waking moment but a birthing moment.

I am interested in this story for several reasons. There is of course the obvious bizarre subject, and the relief at not being that subject myself. Much of what passes for our entertainment is relief that we are not as bad off as those entertaining us. (Comedy is nothing if not savoring the thrill of others’ pain and misfortune.) I’m also enchanted by the way Oliver Sacks interacts with Wearing with all the objective expertise of a neurologist; our profession often prescribes our behavior. Sacks ascribes Wearing’s jokiness to “a weakening of the usual social frontal-lobe inhibitions.” As a playwright concerned with character and motivation, I would focus on Wearing’s moment-to-moment actions — how he copes with a daily life too similar to a needle skipping over the groove — and what that says about human experience, and our existence. Most (or all?) of my plays ask who are we, and how do we fit? If for Clive Wearing every moment is like being born, every moment before must be like being not-born, or dead.

Imagine the terror.

What I’ve learned about my daughter

Friday, June 27th, 2008

When I was invited to a good friend’s wedding in Washington DC, I decided to bring my nine-year-old daughter Emma. I’ve taken her brother Lex to DC (to lobby for the arts), to Arizona (to stump for Kerry, to no effect), to Lone Pine, CA (camping), to the San Diego Comic Con (!), to Philadelphia (to wonder what happened to our country), and probably other places I’ve forgotten. He’s 17 now, so I figured it’s her turn. Plus, he’s off hanging out with Arnold Schwarzenegger and others all week in Sacramento.

I don’t expect my kids to be the same as each other. As I remind my wife, “They’re different people, you know.” In her mind, what worked with one at a certain age should work with all; given what I saw of 12-year-olds when I was growing up, they would all be in the boys’ room smoking cigarettes. But no, times change, and people are individuals.

Although I did once before take Emma to southern New Jersey on a trip, she was instantly absorbed by an agglomeration of uncles, grandmother, aunt, cousins, and cousins-once-removed; here, it’s just the two of us. I’ve never spent concentrated time with just her before, and it’s been a learning experience. Here’s some of what I’ve learned.

  1. She never goes to the bathroom. It’s true. When we get up in the morning, I’ll ask if she’d like to use the bathroom. No, she says — and apparently she has no need to. I don’t see her going in there before bed, either. Yesterday day and evening we walked just about all 10 squares miles of DC in heat that shrank my clothes two sizes and quaffed: a coffee, half a “homemade” lemonade, an Italian ice, a Smithicks Ale, two whiskey & sodas, and about two gallons of water. Well, that’s what I had. She had about a quart of water, the other half of that lemonade that wasn’t actually made in a home, a root beer, an orange juice, and a Coke. I used probably ever relieving station in our nation’s capitol. She skipped into one near the duck pond to wash her hands and promptly returned with damp hands. Not once have I seen her relieve herself.
  2. She doesn’t eat. Well, barely. For breakfast yesterday she had one quarter of a Krispy Kreme donut. I had my donut, then my other donut, then the remaining 3/4 of hers. For lunch, I had the barbecue sausage special offered by the state of Texas as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the national mall. She picked nine beans out of the corner and ate them. And was full.
  3. She is impressed by small new things. Her first remark upon this hotel room was about the beds:  “Dad, put your hands under the cover! It’s so silky!” It turned out to be that beige-ish polyester throw we’ve all seen at Motel 6. Further checking out the room, she exclaimed, “The bathroom is beautiful!” Yep:  a toilet, a sink, and a tub with shower, all in white. (Not that she’ll ever need to use most of that.)
  4. She is drawn to squirrels and birds, and shares several qualities with them. She roundly dismissed the statue of Alexander Hamilton, but judging from her behavior with trees nearby would have gladly run up and around him if possible. She has pointed out and interacted with every squirrel DC has to offer, noting the whitish patch on one and the daring puckishness of another. She roared at the birds sitting inside the bowl of the water fountain intended for humans outside the Washington Monument. She’s remarked upon every red-bellied whatever. This interest extends to larger birds. She wanted to walk the length of the reflecting pool so she could make personal contact with every duck and goose. One goose hissed violently at me in warning, but didn’t seem disturbed by her presence at all.
  5. She loves stickers and tattoos and art projects, but she has no interest in the space program or technology of any sort. When I brought Lex here we spent an entire day at the Air and Space Museum, going into and out of space capsules and space stations and eating space food. Emma flatly told me she had no interest in any of that. She did insist on doing every NASA-related kid activity at the aforementioned festival on the mall, though, when she learned that she would receive an activity book as well as a special sticker at every station and, if she completed them all, a special commemorative pin. In about one-million-degree heat we dragged around for what seemed like eternity to, for example, drop different sized balls and marbles into cake mix to simulate moon cratering. This, so we could get that elusive cratering sticker. She was enormously thrilled to get a tattoo of the Hubble Space Telescope applied to her arm. I’m just hoping it’ll scrub off for the wedding.

I’m sure I’ll discover more about the ways of daughter in the days remaining here, but right now I’ve got to go out for a run. When I return we’re going to the museum she said she wanted to visit — the Natural History Museum, home to many ages of birds and squirrels, held firm by fixative and easier to study at length.

Take that, “moral” “majority”

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

Congratulations to my friends Grover and Marc on their wedding day.

Can a night owl become a morning person?

Monday, June 16th, 2008

That’s what this piece on Slate asks.

In a word, the answer is: No.

At least, from all evidence, not this night owl.

Some time even before puberty, it became almost impossible to go to sleep at what most people would consider a “reasonable” hour. I remember as a boy reading comic books by flashlight under the blankets so that my parents wouldn’t see my light on. By age 12 I gave up on that and just used the lamp, because my parents had given up on trying to get me to go to sleep early. In adulthood, here’s what I’ve discovered: My body wants to fall asleep somewhere between 3 and 4 a.m., and get up at 10:30. To prove it once again, I set no alarm clock when I was in Nebraska and just let my regular cycle happen — and I fell asleep between 3 and 4 a.m., and woke up at 10:30.

In addition to being a night owl, I have a further complication. Just about everyone in my family has what I’ve come to decide is a sleep disorder:

  • My father was a somnambulist (sleep walker)
  • So was his father
  • I am a somnambulist and a nocturnalist (someone who can’t fall asleep early, and doesn’t sleep well)
  • Both my brothers are nocturnalists
  • My sister is a somnambulist
  • I believe all five of my adult nieces and nephews sleep talk or sleep walk
  • My elder son sleepwalks
  • My daughter sleepwalks and sleep talks
  • My younger son sleep talks and, if I read the signs on the landing correctly the other night, was walking around doing something in his sleep

Clearly, there must be something genetic behind all this. Given the other maladies one can pick up genetically — say, sickle-cell anemia or the sort of cancer that has torn a hole through Jimmy Carter’s family — this isn’t so bad. Although I do wonder on occasion what a full good night’s sleep might feel like.

When I was back in New Jersey recently, my birth family and I were discussing all this. (Yet again.) Treatments we had tried came up. My one brother takes sleeping pills, which I have relentlessly avoided because I don’t want to spend the next day feeling drugged. (I have a low tolerance for medications.) My other brother, the one who gets up at 5 or 6 a.m. (!) just stays up late. I’ve tried acupuncture, which worked brilliantly, but it wears off and I get tired of building it into my regular routine. I’ve tried exercise to tire myself out, but weight training, racquetball, firewood-chopping, and even marathon training isn’t putting me to sleep. Hypnosis was the single best remedy yet, resulting in an immediate sleep benefit that shocked my wife (“I kept checking on you because I thought you were dead!”), but gradually it wore off and now I need to find a new hypnotist.

Yes, I’ve read books with titles like “Get a Good Night’s Sleep.” I’ve tried herbal remedies and, as I said, hypnosis and acupuncture, and also resetting my circadian clock, and taking vitamins, and drinking warm milk, and laying off caffeine and on and on. I’ve done everything but go to a sleep lab for testing, which I’ll get around to at some point. This would be less of a problem if two of my three school-age children didn’t need me to get up with them at the ungodly hour of 7:06 a.m. twice a week, roughly four hours after my body would actually like to be asleep. If I could figure a workaround — some other way to get them up and out on Mondays and Tuesdays — the world would be a better place. But in the meantime, whenever I come across an article like that one on Slate, I always read it in the hopes that it has something new to say. So far, it never has.

Best promotional item ever?

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

I have an Obama bobblehead on my desk. Now I’ve found a wonderful companion piece, if only I could get my hands on it:  this promo piece for the Saint Paul Saints, which depicts some of the prominent parts of Larry Craig in his most famous public works project.

Anyone know how I can get one of these? My birthday is in July.

Sound communication

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Marshall W. Mason is one of the esteemed guests here at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. He’s a legendary director and, indeed, directed the first show I ever bought a ticket to, in 1980:  Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July,” starring Christopher Reeve, Jeff Daniels, and Swoozie Kurtz.

While he’s here, Marshall has been directing a snippet from a Doug Wright play as part of a tribute that was performed last night. Tonight, we’re all going to see “I Am My Own Wife,” a remounting of a production that ran here recently, brought back especially for the conference. The director of that production, a local whose name is Kevin and who seems like a very nice man, is noticeably caught up in the anxiety of remounting a small-town small-theatre production for the benefit of the visiting Pulitzer- and Tony-Award-winning author. Marshall, who shows every sign of being the kindest director I’ve ever met, has been nothing short of warm and supportive.

One of Kevin’s concerns has been about the theatre, a beautifully appointed mid-sized house with a colonnade supporting a balcony trimmed in warm wood. The theatre is undeniably attractive, but those stone columns add an echo to the acoustics. So Kevin had requested that thick black stage drapes be used to dampen the echo and support the actors. He had requested this in a friendly but firm fashion for several days, but nothing had come of it. Then, yesterday, Marshall had his tech runthrough for his segment of the tribute to Doug Wright, and now the black curtain was up. At dinner, he was eager to share this with Kevin and allay his fears about the acoustics.

So the execrable Robert Caisley and I are having dinner at our end of the table with Marshall when he politely excuses himself. “They’ve put up the black drapes and I must go tell Kevin,” he says. “He’ll be relieved.” He runs over to a table near us and leans in to someone he mistakes in the dimness for Kevin, someone who turns out to be Doug Wright’s partner David, in other words, someone who has no idea of the desire for dark sound-muffling curtains. Marshall leans over the table excitedly.

“Good news!” he proclaims. “They’ve hung the blacks!”

Much explaining of that gleeful statement ensued.

A sudden appearance

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

So this morning I’m sleeping in my room here at the Great Plains Theatre Conference and I’m awakened by a phone call from my wife. I’m glad she’s calling — I wanted to check up on our little boy, who’s been ill — but it’s awfully early, i.e., around 10 a.m. She thought I would be engaged already with adjudicating duties, but someone here at the conference knows me better than my wife of 20 years, because the schedule has never mandated an appearance by me before 3 p.m.

She updates me on the condition of our youngest (improving: good), and hurries off the phone because she can hear that she woke me. But now I’m up. So I read a little more of the Edward Albee biography I’m reading, and I do some further rumination on my new play, make some notes, and go downstairs and have coffee and shredded wheat with Silk. (Again: some wonderful person at this conference has channeled the inner me, because I don’t do milk if I can help it.) Then I throw some laundry into the washing machine in the basement. Now I’m back up in my room. I decide to check the schedule and find out what sort of thing happens before 3 p.m. On my personal itinerary that the helpful person or people have provided, it says, “12:15 — Metro & More taping.” I figure, Hey, they’re going to interview the conference guest of honor, Doug Wright, and I would indeed like to go see that: I’ve met Doug the night before and like him and his work (“I Am My Own Wife,” “Grey Gardens,” “Quills”). So I shower and shave and because I’m also now halfway into doing laundry, I put on last night’s clothes — the semi-casual clothes from last night — well, early into the morning — the clothes that a quick sniff tells me don’t smell too much of cigars and bourbon. Having miscounted the underwear I packed, I have no choice but to put yesterday’s back on, but it seems fine for now.

Just then, my cellphone rings again. It’s a weird phone exchange — 402 or something — nothing I recognize.

“Lee? This is Shanda.”

Shanda is one of the incredibly helpful conference people. Whatever you write on a list on the refrigerator, she provides. Someone else here wrote down “grapefruit,” and they arrived. Someone wrote “eggs,” and they arrived. I wrote down “Impeach Bush/Cheney.” I’m hopeful.

“Hi, Shanda,” I say.

“Are you coming to the Metro & Me taping?” she asks.

“Y’know, I am,” I say. “I’m just now heading out.” I can see by my Treo that it has started 10 minutes ago, but I figure I’ll slip in the back.

She says, “Would you like me to pick you up?”

Her ongoing thoughtfulness astounds me. “That would be really great,” I say. “Thank you.”

So I make some last-minute dabs and pats at my wet hair, glance again at the shaving cut on my neck, and walk downstairs, and she’s there already. I climb into her car and make some small talk.

“Who are they interviewing?” I ask. I know it’s stupid – they’re interviewing Doug Wright – but I have nothing else to say.

“You,” she says.

Ha ha. That’s a good one. “That’s funny,” I say.

She looks at me as she maneuvers the car onto the road. “No, they’re interviewing you.”

“What?” I say. Except it looks and sounds like this: “WHAAAATTTT?!?!?!?!”

“They’re interviewing you,” she repeats.

Suddenly I’m going to a very different sort of taping than I had imagined. Until one moment ago, in my mind I’ll be in the back of a studio audience enjoying the wit and wisdom of Doug Wright. Now with no notice I’m being asked to perform. It’s the actor’s nightmare: finding yourself on stage with no clothes and no lines.

“Am I dressed right for this?” I screech. “I just got out of the shower! I cut myself shaving! Are you serious? You’re kidding!”

She assures me that she’s not kidding, that I look fine, and that it’ll be fine, and I start to wonder if she’s polite or if because she hasn’t commented on it I can assume she can’t smell last night’s porch party on my clothes. About one nanosecond later I’m in the studio skirting cameras as I’m prodded toward the moderator’s desk and fitted with a lavalier mic. At no time is there a makeup person to check in with, which has me wondering just how greasy my forehead is at the moment, and how, by the way, is that cut on my neck doing?

Now I’m seated between the interviewer and my colleague, playwright Robert Caisley. Caisley has had more time to prepare than I: He found out about this five minutes before I did. He bears a similar surprised expression, although he’s had the savoir faire to grab the stage-left seat, so that he can hold forth, pontificating with ease and waving his arm about freely, as he’ll do throughout the interview in the periphery of my vision, resulting in a constant twitching blink from me every time his index finger draws close to my eye. I, in the middle seat, will be caught up in the ping-pong match between the host and the erudite Caisley. I decide on the spot that I hate Robert Caisley and for that chair would gladly run him through. I lean over to the interviewer, a cleanly composed gentleman with the bearing of a professional talk-show host.

“How long is this interview?” I ask. I’m trying to devise a strategy: perhaps a few pithy comments and I’ll be out. I’ve done interviews before; on radio they sometimes go 20 minutes, on television you’re looking at a couple of minutes and plenty of editing later.

“An hour,” he says.

I laugh. “That’s funny,” I say. “How long is this—“

“An hour,” he says again. He’s not laughing. He tells me it’s syndicated to about a bajillion different markets through some network or other, but I can’t hear anything except the surf pounding in my ears. He looks at his notes and tape begins to roll as I ponder my coffee mug.

For the next hour, I do my best to sound like I know something – anything – about writing and the theatre, all the while wondering about my forehead, my absurd clothes, my stale underwear, and the overarching all-informedness of Robert Caisley, who seems to know absolutely everything about everything, including the complete origin of Aristotle’s Poetics. Being better versed myself in the origin of Ant-Man, I realize I can’t compete on Caisley’s turf, so I blithely volunteer that I haven’t read Aristotle because I don’t want it to infect my own writing. (Caisley later congratulates me on this tactic.) I throw in a couple of bon mots about Arthur Miller and… someone else, I can’t remember… and the interviewer applauds me on my being able to capture in one short phrase what he himself has been wandering on about at length. This has me wondering if I’m stepping on his toes and now he’s punishing me for it. At some point, I launch into an anecdote about a play that my wife Valorie and our good friend Joe Stafford were in together in college. In this play, Joe’s character goes offstage to the bathroom, but because someone blew his cue and all the actors got lost in the action of playing Monopoly onstage, Joe’s character never made it back on stage – to this day, 20 years later, that character is still in the bathroom. The interviewer loves this story, and to illustrate his love of it, uses my coffee mug to represent a Monopoly piece in that play – and moves it over to his end of the desk, away from me, where it stays for the remainder of the taping. Now I’m sure that he’s in an unspoken power struggle with me. Meanwhile, Caisley is referencing great Russian directors that I’ve never heard of, and sharing stories of his father’s illustrious acting career in England and his own early introduction to the professional theatre back when I was building tree forts, and I start to fall back on my humble origins and my lack of formal training in the ardent hope that, as Americans, we will once again root for the underdog (in this case, me). Caisley impresses all and sundry with an impromptu discourse on the aesthetic unities, while I try to sound clever about what one’s chosen Monopoly piece says about one’s character. Who are these people who choose the thimble, and what does it say about them? (I am the horse and rider. Make of it what you will.)

The taping ends and while I now understand the feelings of the deer narrowly missed by a truck, everyone seems quite happy with it. The producer and the crew and the host are all upbeat. I’m still not sure what just happened. I congratulate the host on his sterling work — he was an enrapt and engaging conversationalist and I tell him this because it’s true and because perhaps it will prod someone in post-production to be kind to me on tape and use ProTools to erase the shine from my forehead. I’m led to another room to pick up a takeaway lunch and Caisley and I stumble out into the drizzle. I can’t help noticing that now that the taping is over, there is no ride back.

“What just happened?” I ask him. I tell him I had expected to be watching Doug Wright getting interviewed. Or, perhaps, someone else. I was not prepared for it to be me. He doesn’t understand it either, and relates that he had been lolling around outside in shorts and a hoodie when Shanda found him. He had run back to his lodging at breakneck speed to get dressed.

What now? Now, we wait. At some point or other, an hour of myself and Robert Caisley will be popping up on a channel near you. They’ve promised to send us each a DVD. If they host it online I’ll link to it — after I’ve reviewed it. In the meantime, I think I’ll study the rest of my conference itinerary very, very closely.