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


Civilization for the win

June 6th, 2016

The video above, in which some guy starts out with nothing and builds a kiln and a hut out in the woods, has been getting a lot of shares across my Facebook wall, eliciting responses like “Wow — I want to learn how to do this!” and so forth.

Once again, I feel compelled to stick up for civilization.

We spent thousands of years getting away from any of this nonsense, and now, people who haven’t thought it through clearly express a yearning to return to the dirt and the sticks (and the bugs and the sweltering heat, and many more truly rural experiences).

I say, thank God we don’t have to do any of this any more. All the time I’ve saved from not having to do any of this — not having to build stone age axes, not having to contend with crawlies in the woods, not having to work in the muck all day on the off chance I’d be able to cook a stray lizard — has allowed me to read books, attend the theatre, write plays, travel, and enjoy time with friends.

I’m also glad not to be hunting and gathering. Which, as I understand it, consumed every waking moment.

Yay, civilization. For those who feel differently: Hey, your savage experience awaits. Head on out there.

Plot lines of your life

May 24th, 2016

At some point or other, and as along as they’re still living, you will once again run into everyone you’ve ever met. Sometimes we can thank chance for that (as I’ve seen every time I’ve visited Las Vegas in the past few years, including last week, and come across someone I know), and we can thank the Internet, and Facebook most specifically, for that. And when running into them, you can sometimes piece together elements of your life in new and surprising ways.

My childhood friend Keith Reamer, whom I haven’t seen in the flesh in 37 years, Facebook-tagged me tonight on a post about the Little Art Theatre, a single-screen movie house of the 1980’s that was tucked away back in the woods of Bargaintown, NJ. I wrote about that cherished movie house, and how much it affected my life, in this post from October, 2007. I thought Keith was just nicely tagging me because he knew I’d been a devotee of that space (as was everyone in that time and space who wanted offbeat or obscure film offerings).

No, it turns out that this remembrance of the Little Art Theatre quotes my piece on this blog — and then the author states, “Disconcertingly, this is the only direct recollection of the theater’s existence I can find online.” Disconcertingly because it was a big part of his young life:  He was the son of the owners. Which means he was the kid taking my tickets before showings.

He also mentions the Atlantic Film Society. When I was 14, Keith Reamer invited me to the premiere Atlantic Film Society event. The entry was a door in an alleyway in what I recall as a not terribly inviting area of Atlantic City; inside, in a small dark room, about 16 of us watched films screened from a portable projector (16 mm? 35 mm?), and one of the films shown was “La Jetee,” the inspiration for “12 Monkeys,” which scared the bejeebers out of me. I knew no one there but Keith… but over the years, I came to meet probably every other person who was in that room that night, including someone I later did a newspaper feature on (who, it turned out, also knew Keith), various friends, the woman who was to become my dearest college professor eight years later and, I’m now assuming due to the story linked above, the couple who later opened the Little Art Theatre.

Working backward from all this:  When I was 12 or so, I started writing letters to other comics fans with New Jersey addresses. We’d find each other through the letters pages of Marvel and DC comics or through fanzines. That’s how I meet Keith. Keith and I start doing fanzines together. He’s more interested in movies than comics, and invites me to the Atlantic Film Society’s inaugural screening. There, I meet a handful of people who will later make a significant impact on my life (what Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle called a karrass, a “group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident”). One attendee will introduce me to Theatre of the Absurd and will get me a scholarship in exchange for writing a play — which turned me into a playwright, and which led to graduate school, which is what brought me to Los Angeles. Two of the other attendees will start the movie house that happens to be the site of my first date with the woman who turns out to be my wife.

Without these odd connections, I might have become, say, an unmarried electrician living in Mullica Township, NJ.

Maybe not a bad life — but certainly a very different one.

Keeping trim

May 22nd, 2016

On October 19, 2003, my eldest son and I planted a tree in our front yard. (I remember the date, because I landed a client that day, the first client of what would eventually morph into the far larger business I still have.) Since then, what had been a stick with a ball of earth at its bottom has grown into a 30-foot-tall tipu tree that shades my lawn and has crested my roof.



This isn’t my particular tree, but it sure looks a lot like it. I got this tree as a sapling those 13 years ago after fierce El Nino winds uprooted our previous tree and felled it across my neighbors’ front yard, its limbs punching holes in their driveway and front yard and narrowly missing their house. (Had it fallen another way, I wouldn’t be writing this post right now.) As a replacement, the City of Burbank offered this tipu tree, because it offers a lot of shade that can cool a house and also cut down on utility bills.

It also needs trimming now and then. A lot of trimming.

In fact, here’s something I just found online:

Tipuana tipu is viewed as an invasive weed in some countries and is known for having a very aggressive root system. The tree roots can easily lift up concrete and asphalt. Precautions should be taken when planting near buildings, homes, or pools, as they are likely to be damaged.

Thanks, City of Burbank. Good thing I planted this near my home.

Regardless of its predatory (or Alien) nature, I still love this tree and do my best to keep it in shape. That’s why I was out there today lopping off branches by hand with a pair of loppers, hopping up and down a ladder, cleaning out my gutters, using the chainsaw when needed, and generally giving this tree the nicest and most necessary haircut since… well, I guess six months ago. I was also up and down that ladder out to the sidewalk, and over into my neighbors’ driveway because, yes, the tree has extended over the sidewalk and over into other people’s greenery. Invasive, indeed.

Once I’d cut out everything I wanted, I of course left all the branches and clippings and cuttings for my children to come break down and put into green waste. Why have children, if you’re not going to do this? They did a fine job, one of them gleefully trading these duties for the right to use the chainsaw occasionally (sure), and the other scowling at me while inventing reasons to need to go tend to the dog, who was utterly fine and needed no tending.

After that, I moved my cleaning crew into the back yard, finally sorting and cleaning up after a yard sale these children had held a few months ago.

Then I went inside and lay not he couch to take a break and the dog jumped up onto my chest… and suddenly it was 40 minutes later or so. Yes, I pretty much passed out, after just three or three-and-a-half hours of yard duty. That seemed strange, until I consulted MyPlate.

MyPlate is an app that tracks your calories — your caloric intake, and also what you burn off through exercise. (It had been called Livestrong, after Lance Armstrong, but for some reason they decided to change its name. Hunh.) Here’s what I learned:  that, according to MyPlate, trimming trees by hand consumes 400 calories per hour. Multiply that by two hours and you’ve got 800 calories. And that’s probably without counting the stair stepper — in this case, a ladder — or the back yard cleanup.

Which means that while I was trimming the tree, it was keeping me trim.

So tomorrow night:  it’s drinks and cigars with friends.


Moving forward

May 20th, 2016

I just got in from the staged workshop reading of a new play by an emerging playwright, at Moving Arts. It was incredibly rewarding to be in a space that a handful of us turned into a theatre in 1992 and to marvel that there it is, 24 years later, still open and operating and doing new work and doing a really, really good job with that new work. Many of the faces have changed, of course (including mine, when you think about it), but the spirit of doing adventurous new work and doing your best to make it good — that has stayed.

The playwright, who is a genuine talent and someone I’ve known for probably eight years now, said during the intermission that she’d been concerned during act one that the actors were holding back too much, so she’d just come outside from having “unleashed” them. That proved true. Because near the end of the play, the actor playing Apollo moved into a frenzy and threw himself against a back wall — a back wall that, as I knew, was actually a thin painted piece of wooden shielding hiding our electrical panels. Which promptly cracked in half, prompting laughs from the audience, as the play continued, broken skewed wall panel and all. When the play was finished, he came over sheepishly to greet me and two of his friends and I said, “Well, 24 years later, that was something new.”

But there was a lot that was new: the play, most of the talent involved,  most of the audience, and more. One thing that’s never gotten old:  doing what’s new.


May 16th, 2016



May 15th, 2016
  • The show was advertised as starting at 8. And, technically, it does — but the advertised band doesn’t come on at 8. No, there are three — three — unadvertised bands that come on first. Which means that the band I came to see will come on… some time this week. So that’s why I’m now sitting in the far back of this club ignoring a couple of pretty ignorable opening acts and posting this.
  • Today’s LA Times had only two front-page stories that dealt with Donald Trump. They better pick up the pace over there. Bernie Sanders got some sort of write up on about page 20. I don’t know why they couldn’t have given that space to Trump. C’mon, guys, get with it.
  • I’ve been traveling so much, and keeping such odd hours, that today I took three naps. I guess my body (or psyche) finally threw in the towel. Me, to my wife: “I’m going to take a nap.” Her, incredulously: “You just took a nap!” Me: “Guhhh…” and moving off to the writing room to take a nap there.
  • Mystery solved: Comics friends on Facebook are wondering why the new Captain America movie has done so much better than the Batman vs. Superman movie. Simple: the latter was no fun.
  • Speaking of travel — I’ve recently been in Baltimore, DC, San Diego, the SF Bay Area (San Jose, Santa Clara and Redwood City (birthplace of playwright Trey Nichols)), then back to San Diego, and Las Vegas next week. And then…  nowhere for a little while. But you know what platform I really really wish a serious presidential contender would run on? Infrastructure. To take California alone, the roadways are worse than the jungle trails in an Indiana Jones movie. In the past week, I’ve been on the 101, the 110,  the 210, the 134, the 2, the 5, the 605, and for all I know every other possible combination of numbers, and I’ve just about dropped a transmission in each of them.
  • Hey, the name act — Modern English — comes on in just another hour. (11 p.m.) Excitement mounts.


Snappy answers to stupid questions

April 29th, 2016

This morning I had my first physical therapy appointment in the latest round of attempts to cure the bursitis dogging me in my right leg.

Because this was my first appointment, I had to fill out the customary new-patient intake form. This one I actually puzzled over.

One of the questions asked, “What is your expected outcome for treatment?” I wrote down, “For it to get better.” Then added, “What else would people write here?” I was seriously at a loss.

For “What makes it feel worse”? I wrote, “Driving.” Again, an honest answer. And here was another one, in response to the question, “What makes it feel better?” I wrote, “Drinking.”

Reading that the therapist looked at me sharply and said, “What kind of whiskey?” “Oh,” I replied, “a glass or two of wine takes care of it.”

Within moments she had me twisting around into odd pretzel shapes and howling in pain.

This is the response one gets for honest answers.

Question / joke of the day

April 27th, 2016

Bernie Sanders is laying off hundreds of staffers.

What kind of socialist lays off people?

The urban jungle

April 10th, 2016


Boarded-up tenement. Residence. Boarded-up tenement. Boarded-up tenement. Residence.

Welcome to West Baltimore.

I’ve seen urban decay before, but nothing like this. Yesterday my 13-year-old son and I had the privilege of a guided tour through the worst examples of poverty and despair and hopelessness I’ve ever seen in this country. Worse than Newark, worse than areas of the Bronx or Coney Island, worse than the Atlantic City Inlet, certainly far worse than South Central Los Angeles, worse than, well, any redlined written-off ghetto anywhere near you.


In most of those places, whole neighborhoods are gone — people have moved out. Not in Balmer. In Balmer, the vacant and nailed-shut houses are threaded through the remaining living spaces, like a cancer woven around and penetrating essential organs. There’s still healthy tissue in there — the occasional house with a clean front porch, or bunting, or a mailbox with mail in it. But the dark spots are everywhere.



There’s also nothing to do. By that I mean there are no jobs. Because there are no businesses. There are still people living there, which ought to equal business opportunity (bearing in mind the entrepreneur Magic Johnson’s quote that “there’s always money to be made in the ghetto.”). But no, nothing. And later I learned that the area isn’t just a jobs desert — it’s also a transportation desert. There’s no subway or train or even bus line that comes here; in many cases, if someone could find a job, he’d have to walk two miles to get there. So there’s no way to get to a job, and there aren’t any jobs from neighborhood businesses because there aren’t any neighborhood businesses. Except one kind. The corner liquor store. Found on every corner. Just as you’ve seen on “The Wire.”



The city has counted 15,000 abandoned buildings. But there may be as many as 40,000. They can’t be sure. And judging purely from the evidence of their inner city, I wouldn’t rely on city officials to generate an accurate count because they don’t seem reliable in other ways. There’s also — of course! — a large homeless population that fluctuates between 3,000 and 30,000 people a night. So  you’ve got 15,000-40,000 empty buildings — and 3,000-30,000 people sleeping outside. I don’t need to say anything further; this makes its own statement.

I did get to meet a number of hard-working courageous people in the private and non-profit sectors who are trying to improve the situation. I’m impressed with the work of some of them, and I’m sure that this situation can be improved, because it’s hard to imagine it worse.  Finding a way to replace some of the 100,000 jobs Baltimore has lost in the last 50 years would be an excellent start. Finding a way to help neighborhood businesses sprout up with be great too.

I asked my son what was his impression of West Baltimore and first he said that there’s nothing for people to do there. (Especially children:  we didn’t see any parks, but we did see signs mandating “no ball playing here.”) Then he shared the image that will most stay with him. In some of these buildings, he said, with their windows shattered or a roof collapsed or a wall knocked out, he saw trees growing inside. Whole, large, growing, thriving trees.

West Baltimore is becoming a literal urban jungle.



How to know you’re not in L.A. any more

April 10th, 2016