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


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Good news for 2018 — #1

December 20th, 2017
  1. The mid-term elections look promising for Democrats.

If, like me — and most of the electorate — you’re horrified by the GOP tax law that just got passed, not to say things like eliminating environmental regulations; attacking the FBI every day; working to ban people of some religions from entering the country; subverting the Constitution to steal a Supreme Court seat; selling off public lands; and much much more, then you might be cheered to know that, at the moment at least, Democrats are poised for a big blue wave election next year. With any luck, that’ll happen — and slow down (or reverse) some of this nonsense. Democrats recently won in areas as far-flung as Alabama, New Jersey and Virginia, and should be able to expand on that in 2018.

Assuming, that is, that there actually are elections.

Good news for 2018

December 20th, 2017

Here’s some Pepto Bismol for that pit in your stomach.

Yes, if you follow the news every day — as one unavoidably must now — things look bleak. But there are some bright spots on the horizon. So throughout the rest of this month, I’m going to post a few of them just to help get us through this holiday season.

The book deal

December 17th, 2017

“Literary fiction in crisis as sales drop dramatically,” the headline reads. And that’s in England, which is theoretically filled with readers.

The story in The Guardian, which you can read here, posits that part of the decline is due to free, easy, readily available entertainment in the form of Candy Crush. I know this to be true. Someone I’m close to has, throughout her life, been an inveterate reader; now, though, she’s always “feeding her chickens” on some digital farming game on her iPad. I understand the temptation. A couple of weeks ago on a day during a particularly draining spell of flying around the country on brief trips; being over-scheduled here, there, and everywhere; and getting pulled in multiple directions simultaneously by the necessities of career, family, writing and more, and feeling that I couldn’t read another paragraph of anything or write another word of anything else, let alone think straight, I hopped on Amazon.com and bought myself a PlayStation 4 and a copy of “The Last of Us” and spent two blissful worry-free weeks shepherding a digital young girl through the post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. Since then, I’m navigating another post-apocalyptic scenario courtesy of “Fallout 4.”

At the same time, somewhere in there, I did read two novels, what the The Guardian would call “literary” but which I call “novels,” or “fiction,” both of them debuts by former graduate writing students of mine at USC. I knew they both could write, and given that both books were from major publishers, I assumed they were good. What (pleasantly) surprised me was how good they both were.

UsKidsKnowI found JJ Strong’s “Us Kids Know,” about three teenagers in post-9/11 New Jersey getting deeply into bad trouble, unputdownable. While always advancing the plot, JJ alternates each chapter from a differing point of view from one of the three protagonists — a device I first encounter in Philip K. Dick’s “The Confessions of a Crap Artist,” the only one of his mainstream novels worth reading, and a book I recommend wholeheartedly and frequently; the net effect is to constantly keep you reading a bit further because you want to see what’s next, and because you want to get back into a previous character’s voice. It’s a sly form of plotting, and incredibly suspenseful. When I was an undergrad studying writing, a long long time ago, my writing professor said to me, “Suspense is cheap” — but having read many writers who have no clue how to create suspense, I’d say that suspense is valuable; you may not always know you need it, but when you don’t find it in something you’re reading, you sure know it’s not there. (Besides, I can’t help throwing in that that professor was a poet — so what would he know about this?) My recommendation to JJ, and this is a serious recommendation, is this:  I encourage him to write a literary horror novel. Stephen King can write suspense, but not literature (the proof I offer of his awful, clunking, lurching writing, can be found here); while any number of major literary writers can write well, but without suspense. (T.C. Boyle being an exception.) Imagine a well-written, beautifully evocative horror novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat and features characters whose entire personality isn’t summed by a King-like quirk like, say, the big killer Indian chief collecting shoes. (That would be King’s “Firestarter,” which was even more ludicrous than most of the rest of them.) JJ Strong is the man to write that novel (and rake in the sales, The Guardian be damned).

TheMostDangerousPlaceonEarthThe other novel I just completed, on the flight back from Portland on Sunday, “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” by Lindsey Lee Johnson, follows a group of students and an idealistic new teacher through high school. Filled with penetrating insights into what in untalented hands would be archetypes — the hippie chick; the striving Asian kid; the handsome jock; the beautiful but aloof girl; and more — the novel builds into an emotionally devastating conclusion, leaving all of us glad to no longer be in high school. While I don’t think I learned anything additional about why I so completely hated high school — the forced regimen; the bad teachers; the sense that I was in the wrong place for me and at the wrong time, when I could be learning a lot more in some other way at some other place — I did learn a great deal about student behavior these days, and about what it might be like to be the beautiful girl who doesn’t want attention and doesn’t seek it but who is misunderstood as being an aloof bitch, or the poor dullard whom teachers view as a menace to teaching and everyone knows to be a troublemaker but who finds out far too late that others will actually have a future, and are planning around it, and that those others will soon be leaving him behind, and that, already, his life will be going nowhere rewarding. Somewhat like JJ’s book, chapters are told from alternating perspectives, but here each plausibly could stand alone as a short story; (tenuously) like “The Canterbury Tales,” these are standalones that add up to a whole, with an arc.

“The Last of Us” and “Fallout 4” are incredibly diverting and entertaining. But I haven’t learned anything from them — except, perhaps, the bad lesson that ultimately global nuclear war isn’t so bad, because our species survives, just in degraded situations and without cable TV. (I prefer to think that global annihilation means global annihilation, and we’re better off just avoiding it.) These novels, on the other hand, are incredibly diverting and entertaining — and illuminating as well. They’ve made me feel in a different way. While I think all day long and generally in the middle of the night, too — it’s impossible to turn off — feeling is different; so much of everyone’s day is spent in so much rote behavior that it can be hard to feel something. That’s a gift that literary novels provide. Some of us will always understand that. Others never will. (And maybe they turn to music for the same sensation, or movies, or art, or food, or drugs. I like all of those too (if the “drug” is cigars or bourbon). )

There will always be some sort of market for literary fiction. I say this with authority, because the art I express is mostly in the theatre, and that’s a form that’s been written off as dead or dying for millennia now. But I saw a new play just recently, I’m writing one myself, and I’m directing one now. It’s scheduled to open in January. And I’m ready to start reading another novel.

Helping out a new Friend

December 15th, 2017

A very pretty young girl on Facebook wants to Friend me. I can see why! She has NO Facebook friends. I should accept her invitation, and help her out. I’m surprised she’s from Lagos, though, because her photo looks like a white girl from SoCal. Well, such are the mysteries of life.

Yes, I’ll have the Blue Wave special, please

December 12th, 2017

I’m glad to see this on the menu. It’s been a hit in Alabama, Virginia, and New Jersey. Look for more locations in November of next year.

Unneeded, and unloved, books

December 12th, 2017

 

I love books. Many, many books. But I don’t love all books. (For examples, see: The MartianDhalgren; Rich Dad, Poor Dad; and any cat-focused books found at cash registers.) Still, I’ve always assumed there was someone for every book; right now, I would imagine there’s a booming business in Mein Kampf among many of the president’s supporters who show up at rallies (if I also assumed they read books).

But in all the glories I found today in the four-story book mecca known as Powell’s Books in Portland, I came across many, many books of arcana that I can’t imagine anyone, anywhere, will ever need.

No, not just the outdated and therefore uselessly old books, such as science books or medical books now proved wrong; they might be a curiosity. But what need does the world have, exactly, for “Game of Draughts” (below), which recounts 24 tournaments of checkers that took place across the British Isle in 1905? By “recounts,” I mean that literally — it is a book almost entirely composed of columns of numbers. While I have no need of this book, someone at the time evidently did; the pages are filled with pencil notations. But I can’t imagine that Powell’s will ever ever ever sell this book. I almost bought it out of pity, the way one would adopt the one-legged dog who’s had both eyes poked out — but even then I didn’t buy it. If you’re interested, I’m told that every book of Powell’s is on their website for sale. Now’s your change. It’s $9.95.

 

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This book, astoundingly, was not the only such book from that golden era of hard-fought checkers games. It turns out that the War of 1812 was not the last time that Britain fought the United States; no, there was also the 1905 war of checkers between the two great nations. This book too contains pages upon pages of columns of numbers.

 

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Although as a people we’ve lost our excitement for checkers, here is one consolation: The spine serves to remind us that whose who came before us were not wiser than we.

Finally, here is a more recent book that I can’t imagine wanting, although it did spur thoughts toward many sequels and, indeed, a full potential series, with titles like: “How to Drink Water from a Glass,” “How to Look Out Your Left Eye,” and “How to Not Buy Useless Books No Matter How Sorry You Feel for them.”

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Strange dream of the Russian woman

December 7th, 2017

I’m at some sort of early evening outside barbecue awaiting the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife. I’ve been emailing back and forth with her — we’ve grown to be close friends online — and now I’m looking forward to meeting her in person.

At some point, I have to be part of repairing a mid-size flat-bed truck so that someone else can drive it as part of this mission. I also drive it for a bit, too. But then I’m back at the barbecue.

Mrs. Gorbachev arrives.  She’s a middle-aged platinum blonde in a slightly tarnished white fur coat, standing apart on a small patch of grass near the barbecue pit. I introduce myself and she’s glad to speak with someone she knows. Black-suited secret service agents mill in the background. My daughter takes a photo of the two of us, Mrs. Gorbachev and me, and I have the idea to also get one with my daughter in it, but now there’s a line to see the former first lady of Russian (and the Soviet Union), and the man at the front of that line, who is also barely constraining a large dog on a chain, is growing irate and saying that he’d already been jumped in front of.

Having finished pleasantries with my friend Mrs. Gorbachev,  I go inside the nearby house to use the restroom and pass a television set that’s playing a commercial. It’s a commercial for pet food that mentions my daughter by name, and also shows her and her dog playing around. This reminds me that recently she’d won a contest to be the person featured in this commercial campaign. I also know that, resulting from my belief that dogs are dogs and should be happy with what they get, we don’t buy this pricy pet food at home, so now I’m considering, again, the hypocrisy over our family now being affiliated with this pet food.

I go into the restroom and I see the shambles created by dozens or hundreds of guests using a small, suburban bathroom. The trash can being full, a succession of people have stuffed their used paper towels into the sink, backing up the sink. I patiently pull all of that from the sink and jam it down into the trash can, and now the sink is back to functionality and I use the toilet.

Then I wake up.

Almost none of this dream bears examination or interpretation in the morning light. Except for one thing.

I assume the reason the dream featured Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife and not Vladimir Putin’s wife is because Vladimir Putin’s wife is the president of the United States, and I don’t want that guy showing up in my life, let alone my dreams.

Why I hate Trader Joe’s

November 20th, 2017

My wife wanted to know why I didn’t want to go do the Thanksgiving grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. I would be perfectly happy doing it at Ralphs — I adore Ralphs, and especially the colorful and valuable coupons they send me — but Trader Joe’s? No. Sorry.

“You don’t like the TJ food or the actual store?” she asked in a text.

No, it goes much deeper than that.

  1. The parking situation is irritating. Outside every Trader Joe’s you’ll find about 100 shopping carts — and 50 parking slips. This to me means that they are intentionally creating buzz by showing how in-demand it is. My theory is supported by the constant sight of cars circling in vain looking for a parking space. God help you if you get one because the circling cars get so excited by the prospect of being able to park that they reach a frenzy that practically guarantees a collision.
  2. Trader Joe’s is made for browsing. I don’t want to browse for food — organic dandruff-dusted sugar cookies from Krygystan is not what I came for. I want to get what I came for.
  3. But it’s hard to do that, because whatever I came for, it’s not there. Either it’s too normal to be found at a Trader Joe’s — unlike, say, “Creamy Toscano soaked in Syrah wine” (an actual product featured this week) — or, if you do find something you like, they’ve discontinued it by the next time you get there.
  4. Because their signage changes constantly in (non-) cute ways, it’s impossible to find things. This is especially challenging to someone with a lifelong problem finding things. (That would be me.)
  5. I don’t want to think that hard about groceries — I just want them — and I don’t need to feel smugly superior in the experience of getting them. So the whole scene at Trader Joe’s with shoppers who are delighted not to be one of the great unwashed willing to slum it out at Ralphs is not something I enjoy.

Other than that, I think it’s great.

I don’t get a charge out of Vegas

November 19th, 2017

McCarran International Airport (aka “Las Vegas Airport”) has rows and rows and rows of seats with helpful charging outlets.

Well, they would be helpful — if someone wired them to electricity. Or plugged them in. Or something.

As I was reminded on Thursday, and again just now.

Grammar gone bad

November 19th, 2017

There’s a t-shirt I’ve seen for sale on the Internet that reads, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.” Whenever I share this saying with a fellow sufferer of synesthesia — those of us whose ears hurt when someone trips on the language — they smile and nod. I can’t speak for them, but I really do, honestly, try to keep my mouth shut. I love the English language and I know that it’s fluid, and I have a deep appreciation for regionalisms and the musicality of slang and patois, whether it’s Spanglish or gullah or good ol’ boy tongue or whatever we’d call the voice of Chaucer and Twain.

But just now I couldn’t help myself.

I’m at Chicago Midway airport waiting for my flight. Seated next to me was a dad and his wife and their three small children. One of the kids said she’d “sneaked” over to do something, and the dad immediately said, “Snuck.”

And before I could catch myself, and because we’d already had a conversation where he’d apologized for his rambunctious toddlers and I’d said, “It’s okay — I traveled with three of them myself,” I volunteered, “Actually, it’s ‘sneaked.’ ”

Some would say that both “sneaked” and “snuck” are proper (and that’s where Merriam-Webster lands, and I live by the AP StyleBook, which says “sneaked” is preferred), but “sneaked” has about 300 years of history on the latter — and it sure sounded to my ear like someone miscorrecting a child who was actually right.

The dad said, “Is it? Oh, okay,” in a nice way — he didn’t seem to mind at all — but what left me feeling crummy was the one kid who said, “Wow, did we video that?” because now he wanted a record of his dad getting corrected, which the other two children joined in on.

Next time I’ll just remember to stick with silently correcting people.

Unless it’s my own kids.