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


Lifelong battle

December 18th, 2019


The heart-rending obit of William Ebeltoft, who physically died on Sunday — but who died inside 50 years ago during the Vietnam War. Read it here.


December 14th, 2019

I got three pages into reading the article in the new issue of The New Yorker about the disintegrating cross-Atlantic marriage between two poets in 1970 before realizing that I didn’t give a shit about this at all.

A real nightmare

December 13th, 2019

I refer not just to the British election, which I watched with real interest before going to bed.

Oh no, I thought:  What’s this portend for my friends in the (soon-to-be former) United Kingdom but also for the rest of the world, for the global economy, and for our own elections in November?

So, of course, I had a dream — some would say nightmare — where at the last minute I ran for city council here in my town on a whim, and showed up to make my announcement speech at a city hall gathering barefoot and wearing shorts, going on about collapsing infrastructure and moral turpitude.

Some time ago, I read that dreams result from your brain’s nighttime filing of memories and thoughts from the day for easier later retrieval, and that in that filing process bits get shuffled around into strange new combinations. Running on a platform of infrastructure, for example, comes from a call I’d had earlier in the day with someone in the Silicon Valley area with a replacement scheme for our power shutdowns.

But what to make of finding in my dream that my former friend Jack, whom I cut ties with in 2005 because he’d disappointed me one times too many, was firmly ensconced on my city council already and that I’d need his help to get elected?

I woke up from this an hour ago, and since then have been reading the wailings of my friends in the U.K. over their election results. Doesn’t feel good.

Weighty matters

December 12th, 2019

When my cellphone rang in my car with an incoming call from an unidentified number I didn’t recognize, I answered it anyway, hoping that it was who I thought it would be.

It was.

It was my gym.

On the electronic survey I’d filled out, they asked when I’d like to be called, and I said 6 to 9 p.m. The call came in at 3 p.m. The fact that they got that wrong? That’s what confirmed for me that it was them calling.

In many ways, I like my gym:

  • First of all, there are locations in almost all the areas I frequent around the country (except where I grew up; I have an additional membership to a local gym there).
  • Secondly, they’re open 24 hours. That works with my schedule!
  • They have free classes, one of which I look forward to every week.
  • They’ve got a full menu:  free weights, lots of cardio machines, a pool, a sauna, a steam room, a basketball court I don’t use, and more.
  • I’ve never had anything but a positive experience with other people working out there.
  • There’s plenty of free parking.
  • It’s not a meat market or pickup scene. All different shapes and sizes and and ages and types come to this gym, and I like that. I wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds myself, and I’m always rooting for the people with much larger challenges than I have who are there and committed to what they’re trying to do.
  • But it didn’t hurt when, a few years ago, a woman who was new in town propositioned me in the steam room about joining her on New Year’s Eve. I didn’t accept, but the flattery added inches to my ego.

What I don’t like about my gym, well, I’ve written about it here several times, and you’re about to hear it again.  So when they blithely announced via an email that they were raising my monthly gym fee again, and then sent me that survey, I took the opportunity to tell them what I thought. When the survey asked if I’d like to be contacted, I put in my phone number.

And then more than a week went by. I just figured that, once again, they weren’t going to respond to anything I had to say. Until, that is, they called.

The woman on the phone was named Kendra and was a new assistant manager, and before she could get too far, I told her how glad I was that she’d called, because although I’d responded to their surveys before, and posted comments here and on Facebook and on the local groups on Facebook, and had used Twitter to voice some concerns and at-tagged them, and dropped comments in their suggestion box with my name scrawled onto them, and had even spoken directly to people working the front desk, nobody had ever responded to or dealt with anything I’d brought up.

“Kendra, I’m on my way to a meeting, so I’m sorry to rush, and I’m very glad you called me, but I’m going to dive right in because I’ve got about three minutes.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Twice, I’ve found shit in the showers. I know you can’t control whether or not people are going to shit in the showers, but you could run a check more frequently and clean it up. The soap and shampoo dispensers are usually empty — so now I bring my own, which is a cost. You got rid of towel service, so now I bring my own, which is also a cost.  There’s a lake of urine and mud in front of the urinals at all times. It’s revolting. The men’s locker room is disgusting. It’s never, ever, clean.”

She apologized and said that she’d been back to work for this gym after being away for some time and had been hired expressly to manage this better. She was just now getting to call people, and said she’d work to make sure that the men’s locker room and everything connected with it would be better.

“Given all this, how do you justify raising the price?”

She started by saying “inflation” and I immediately cut her off:  “Inflation is 1.8%.”

When she started to fumble around for something else, I told her, truthfully, that I was shopping around for a different gym. “Do you have any incentive to keep me while you’re addressing these issues?”

“I can discount your membership by 30% for the next three months.”

“Great!” I said. “I’ll take it. At the end of 90 days, we can both see if the gym has gotten cleaner!” I thanked her and hung up.

Later that night, my first stop in at the gym was to see her and thank her.

“I want to thank you for calling me,” I said. “I know it’s hard to call a list of people and listen to complaints, so I have a lot of respect for what you’re doing. This is the first time anyone has lent an ear, and I’ve been a member here for six years or more.”

“I know, I checked,” she said.”

“I like the gym. I’d rather stay. I just don’t want it to be so disgusting that I’m having a weekly chat with one of your own instructors about how disgusting it is.”

She told me she was instructing the front desk to do a better job — I had told her that when the “service announcement” goes out every hour, beckoning staff members to do a cleanup, the fit friendly good-looking young people at the front desk mostly just stand around and chat. She said she’d fix that, and that she was also having a meeting with the outsourced janitorial crew to make it very clear that they had to do a better job of servicing all areas of the gym or she’d replace them. Finally, she apologized for calling me at the wrong time, even though I was just glad to be called at all and hadn’t brought it up. I was impressed she’d noticed.

“Thank you,” I said, sticking out my hand. “I appreciate it.”

So we shook hands and parted as new friends and I felt really good about it. It was all friendly and businesslike, and now I could continue to enjoy the gym — with a discount that far outweighed the proposed price increase — and I would have a better response to local friends and acquaintances who occasionally say to me, “Ugh! How can you even go in there?!?!?”

After my workout, thoroughly pumped up from this little negotiating success, and after showering and changing, I got into my car and saw that I had a text from my business partner, wondering if I had tried to buy about six hundred bucks of stuff at Target. As if. The last thing I ever bought at Target, so far as I can tell, was… nothing; I can’t even remember the last time I went to Target. Then I got a text from Chase about my personal credit card, asking if a different charge, also at Target, was actually mine. One of these messages said that my card had been present, so I pulled out my wallet — and sure enough, my three credit cards, my ATM cards from two different banks, and my Macy’s card were all missing from my wallet. It had happened while I was in the gym.

I immediately went home and canceled all of those cards. That’s one gym experience I don’t think Kendra can help with.

Gods of karma, I attest to you that I was pleasant throughout and completely justified in my dealings with the gym, and in no way deserved this.

Biting wit

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.


November 29th, 2019

My wife decided that what she wanted to make for Thanksgiving this year was reservations.

Here’s how we arrived at that.

I told her that all I wanted to do on Thanksgiving was eat Thanksgiving dinner, and then watch the new Scorsese/De Niro/Pesce/Pacino film “The Irishman” on Netflix. Some years I’ll cook Thanksgiving dinner, sure, but not frequently and not this year, because all I wanted to have to do with it was eat it. It’s been a productive but stressful year, and recent weeks in particular have been jam-packed (as the paucity of entries here will confirm), and so I just wanted to eat, and watch a movie. Oh, and play “Skyrim” on the PS4 in the morning. That was it.

“Do you want to go out for Thanksgiving?” she asked.

“I don’t care. If you want to cook Thanksgiving dinner, great, I’ll eat it here. If you’d rather go out, great, I’ll eat it there. Either way is fine. Whatever you want to do.”

“Okay. So should we go out?”

“Er… I don’t care. Fine with me either way.”


“Okay,” I said. “So… what’re we gonna do?”

“Well…” she said, “should we go out? For Thanksgiving?”

This went on a few more times over a few days, until finally she texted me that the doves had been released, a decision had been reached, and she’d made reservations.

The place we went to is the local foothold of a middling chain of steakhouses that we’ve found we actually like. There’s a full bar of pretty good drinks, the steaks and sides are better than you’d expect, and the price can be shockingly low for this sort of thing. Our turkey dinners were twenty-one bucks each, and came with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, broccoli, your choice of soup or salad, all the water you can drink, and even a cloth napkin and cutlery. A friend joined us, and the friend amiably ordered the turkey dinner and seemed to enjoy it too. Our son ordered a steak, just to prove that he could have steak on Thanksgiving.

Our server was a young man who introduced himself as *mumble.* As in, “I’ll be your waiter. If there’s anything you need, just let me know. My name is *mumble*.”

“Excuse me,” I said, “what’s your name?”

“Darwin,” he said. And instantly I knew why he’d mumbled it. Towering over me by about three stories, and with the scant and knobby build of a giraffe wandered in from the savannah, Darwin was also afflicted with a silly first name that probably made middle school difficult.  (Or, maybe not, this being California.)

Darwin’s service proved to be a mixed bag. He told my son that French fries weren’t available — although we later saw two tables directly across from us, each with towering piles of French fries. He also had a disturbing habit of holding some of the drinks near the rim — i.e., where your mouth would go. But most terrible to me was his inability to say “You’re welcome,” or even the miserable “no problem” that makes me cringe. When he brought me my carafe of wine (don’t judge), I said, “Thank you.” He said, “Uh huh.” When he brought my meal, I said, “Thank you.” He said, “Uh huh.” And so on. I wondered if anyone had ever introduced Darwin to the idea of saying “You’re welcome,” and that perhaps I should be the one to help this young man out in this way, being an educator as I am, but then I thought if there was one sure way to ruin Thanksgiving dinner for my wife, it would be for me to get into it with Darwin, no matter how well-intended. Another thing:  When we were seated at our table, we saw the receipt before us had a zero indelibly inscribed right on the tip line; that seemed pretty lousy to me, to stiff a waiter working on Thanksgiving, and said so volubly to our little party. So, even though I had some misgivings about Darwin’s professionalism, I did tip him, and reasonably — mostly because I didn’t want to be someone who’d stiff a waiter working on Thanksgiving. Especially after I’d maligned the previous people at our table.

Back home, we did watch “The Irishman.” It’s now late the next day, and my son is finally talking to me again; this is the third time in five months that he’s had to endure a movie that I “made” him watch without letting him first see a trailer that, armed as he is in his own eyes with an incredible power of discernment, would warn him off.  I’ll never live this one down.  “The Irishman” is overloMollieWochnerng and undramatic, and its few brief highlights seem cobbled together from previous mob movies and previous mob characters Scorsese introduced us to long ago. It’s a bad waste of 3.5 hours, which to a teenager must seem like a month, and proved to be a terrible way to cap off Thanksgiving. I promptly went on Facebook to savage it in a post that currently has 128 comments, almost all of them in agreement with me. One friend said she did “like” it, but then admitted to having dozed off — a ringing endorsement indeed.  I went on Rotten Tomatoes and saw that our nation’s finest film critics seem unified in their adoration of this film, leading me to conclude that we need new film critics. Either that, or we have a payola scandal.

Thanksgivings differ across the land, in nature and in form, and so, I leave you with this:  a photo of my indomitable 94-year-old mother enjoying her breakfast on the day before Thanksgiving. This is a woman who has never counted a calorie in her life but is in no way the worse for it, a woman who enjoys every single day and every meal, who has a shot of whiskey every night before bed, and who will be glad to tell you exactly what is on her mind at all times. Her meals are courtesy of my sister and brother-in-law, who lovingly prepared this one as well. We should all be so lucky. I’m sure every aspect of her Thanksgiving was flawless.

A secret of the universe — revealed!

November 1st, 2019


Remember the Nintendo game Duck Hunt, where you play a hunter trying to shoot down a badly pixellated duck as it flies by?

My friend, the playwright Ross Tedford Kendall, has revealed on Quora that you can also play as the duck.

Boo, humbug!

October 31st, 2019

Okay, so not everyone likes Halloween. (Like this guy, for instance.)

Or like these two, who really aren’t into it at all:




But I like it enormously.

  • I love it when costumed kids come to the door and get candy from me. (Finally, I think — somebody else gets to have all those dental expenses!)
  • I like seeing all the neighborhood houses done up for the event.
  • I like going to haunted attractions.
  • I even like office costume parties. Here’s a couple of photos from the one at our office. (I’m the one who came as our real president.)

C Hallowwn 2019 2

C Halloween 2019 1

In fact, I love the occasion so much that 32 years ago I married this beautiful woman on Halloween and as part of a big costume party wedding. Here we are in the French court costumes we got married in, in the long-ago year of 1987. Remarkably, we look the same in those photos as we did then!

Lee wedding

Valorie wedding















So, no, I have no truck with those opposed to Halloween.

It’s Thanksgiving I can’t stand.



Whoooo boy!

October 14th, 2019


Three big shocks from one evening last weekend:


A friend and I went to see The Who on Friday night on what I’d been calling their “Who’s Left?” tour. I wasn’t especially interested in going — I’d bought the tickets as a present for my wife, who loves “Tommy,” but she was ill — but I came away impressed with the show, and impressed as hell with Roger Daltrey. Daltrey is now 75, and not only does he look fantastic, but he can still really sing, and really belt out those screams. This is a man who has taken care of himself and continues to do so! The set is cleverly constructed to allow him strategic use of those screams — before each song requiring a huge vocal blast, there is a long orchestral interlude, or a song sung by Pete Townshend, or a more low-key song, or all three  — and that’s only one sign of the incredible professionalism The Who brings to their show. At this point in their careers, and their lives, Townshend and Daltrey could be coasting; each could have all sorts of backup people supplying actual vocals and actual guitar work while these two breeze through the show. Far younger acts than these guys rely on just those tricks. The surviving members of The Who, though, seem committed throughout to delivering a high-caliber evening and doing it honestly.

Moreover, they’ve got a new album coming out. Not because they have to, but because they want to. Specifically, in interviews, Townshend has said he wants to prove that he can still write good songs for Daltrey to sing. Their occasional recent (past 20 years) forays into new material have shown he can. “Real Good Looking Boy,” from 2004, matches up well with most of their catalog, has a real depth of feeling, evoking as it does childhood hurts, and Daltrey sings the hell out of it.

The shock of this was just how freaking good this band is — still! — live in concert.


The opening act, by contrast, was Liam Gallagher, formerly of Oasis. Let me just say, whoever booked Liam Gallagher to open is a genius, because he and his band are so terrible that they make The Who look all the more brilliant! Large barnyard animals sing better than Gallagher and bring more to a stage presence as well, and his band did nothing to hide this fact. He seemed to have two drummers on stage — one of them also named Gallagher, so I’m assuming that particular drummer isn’t on the tour purely on talent — and I’m reasonably certain I can play drums better than they… and I don’t play the drums.

I’m shocked that, ten years after the final death knell of Oasis, Liam still has a career. Of sorts.


At some point, one can’t help but tally what an evening costs. Most of these charges come as no surprise.

The tickets were $80 each — plus that lovely “convenience” charge — so they were about one hundred bucks each. Okay. A Broadway show costs more, and so does a massage you’ll forget about in a week.

My friend and I met beforehand for dinner (sushi and drinks), and that was $80 in toto with tip — not a bad deal for a Friday night dinner at a nicer restaurant.

Parking was $30 each — ouch! — but another friend of mine runs this particular church and if some entity is going to get $60 in parking money, I’m glad it’s this one. They do good work in the community and help a lot of homeless and bereft people, and the parking is a short, invigorating walk from the Hollywood Bowl, with easy get-in, get-out for your car.

But here’s where I draw the line:

The tickets (purchased, again, as a date night for my wife and me) were on me. Because my friend bought dinner, I offered to buy snacks at the Bowl. Here’s what two pretzels and two beers cost at the Hollywood Bowl:  FORTY-EIGHT DOLLARS.

Let me repeat:  Two Pretzels and Two Beers cost FORTY-EIGHT DOLLARS at the Hollywood Bowl.

That was by far the biggest shock of the night.


October 12th, 2019

My friend and fellow playwright, Ben Kawaller, writes hilariously on the dangerous idiocy that is Crossfit.

Sample choice line (one among many):

At one point he barked at me, “This is CrossFit, not art class!” Derision being the key to my heart, I took this as a clear sign that he was in love with me.

Too naturally skeptical to join a cult, I never did Crossfit. But I did do Beach Body Fitness, and so thoroughly janked my right arm doing pull-ups at ultra-speed as instructed that, six years later, it’s still not quite right. So, yeah, people might occasionally shit in the shower at my gym, but otherwise I can leave there unharmed.