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


Archive for the ‘On being’ Category

Has the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the world yet?

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Click here to find out.

(And check back frequently for updates.)

What I’ve learned from running

Monday, August 11th, 2008

Since May, I’ve been in training to do an AIDS marathon this fall. (If you’d like to sponsor me and haven’t already done so, please click here.) In that time I have learned many things — things so astonishing to me that I’m considering collecting them into a book. Maybe it wouldn’t be this generation’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” or even close, but it would be by me. Here’s just some of what I’ve learned.

1. Your achievement is your own. No one else cares.

On Sunday, I ran my furthest distance yet — 13 miles. To me, this is an amazing accomplishment. I came home and told my little boy and he said, “Oh, yeah? I can run a thousand miles.” His dead certainty was disconcerting. I told my wife I had run 13 miles and she looked at me said, about my forthcoming marathon trip in the fall, “I guess you expect me to change my work schedule.” Nobody at the training site was impressed either, because they had just run the same 13 miles.

2. The foulest place on Earth is not where you think.

Is it the bottom of the world’s largest garbage pit, in Lagos, Nigeria? No. Is it the drinking water beneath Pittsburgh, PA? No. It’s not even the dark thoughts in the furthest corner of Larry Flynt’s mind. The foulest place on Earth is the freestanding porta-potty in Griffith Park next to the training site. It is so foul that if I were to post a photo of its interior, the internet would shrivel and die. If I were to describe it in terms too readily understood, you would never return to this blog for fear I might do it again. Just imagine the very worst toilet situation imaginable, extending your imagination to all surfaces within (including the ceiling), and then add in the stench, then multiply by infinity. That approaches the state of this, the foulest place on Earth.

3. The laws of physics don’t apply to running.

I’ve been running since May, and I’m now running between 14 and 34 miles per week, depending upon what week I’m on in the training schedule. I don’t eat fast food, I don’t drink soda, I eat fish twice a week and plenty of fruits and vegetables, and I’ve cut out most alcohol. Guess how much weight I’ve lost. If you said “none,” you win. Not one ell-bee. Not a gram. Inevitably when I tell people this, they’ll say, “You’re gaining muscle.” I haven’t seen that. I have large calves, so you’d expect it there, but nope — same level of (or lack of) definition. How is this possible? Yesterday on that long run, I shared this question with a fellow runner. She replied, “Well, your ass looks great.” I didn’t ask if she meant it looks better now than it did, and whether therefore I had a saggy ass or maybe fat ass before this. In fact, I dropped the whole matter, though I did feel compelled to first respond, “Uh… yours too.”

4.  It may indeed be true that your parents walked nine miles uphill both ways to school through three feet of snow.

I say that because the training course — through Griffith Park, through the Equestrian Center, through the Rancho District, into Burbank and back — is uphill both ways. However, I can’t vouch for the three feet of snow.

5. Bum smell is mostly sweat.

You know that smell that bums get? Of course it comes from poor hygiene, unclean clothing, and bad diet. But I now suspect that, specifically, it’s mostly sweat. That’s because I’m smelling it on myself after long runs. Yes, after a long run I smell like a bum. (Or someone from a distant land with different bathing rituals. Say, France.) Of course I take a shower when I get home after one of these runs, but first I have to come inside. My children greet me this way: By covering their noses. Literally. This Sunday, my daughter and my little boy stood in the room adjacent and looked at me, each of them peering over an arm stretched across to cover a nose. They wouldn’t come any closer. At one point, my daughter added a comment:  “Ewwwwww.” I had suspected the situation even before getting home, when I stopped at the Smart ‘n’ Final two blocks from our house to get orange juice and hazelnut creamer so I could enjoy the sort of breakfast I now felt entitled to, having run 13 miles. Still wearing my soaking running clothes and staying respectfully distant from others, I grabbed what I needed, placed it on the checkout conveyor belt and backed up several feet. The cashier, a man in his mid-20’s, greeted me. Then there was silence as he scanned my goods. Finally I said, “I just ran 13 miles.” Without looking up, he said, “That explains it.”

More observations to follow, I’m sure.


Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

I’m off in 5 minutes to the San Diego Comic Con, my 21st annual attendance. Back in 2008, my then-roommate and I took a drive, so to speak, down to San Diego to check out the Con for a day. We liked it so much we decided that the next year we’d actually stay over and go for a couple of days. Now it’s a five-day affair, with a rotating lineup of friends and allies sharing a large suite. Last year there were seven of us, this year there will be six, and next year there may be eight or nine (depending upon the college destinations and summer plans of my son and his friend, as well as what is a promised “Return to the Con!” by pop-culture-ephemera inspiration Joe Stafford — for whom there will Always be sleeping room on the floor by the window).

As this piece in today’s LA Times (hey, look: They still publish that!) details, the idea of “dropping in” on the Con is now quaint and ludicrous. The Con is now big business. But y’know what? The people running this very large, very sprawling, very economically and culturally important event are doing a great job. Really. That it’s a non-profit run mostly by volunteers makes it all the more amazing.

If you’re going to the Con and things like poker, whiskey, and cigars interest you, drop me a line.

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.