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


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Sunday

February 9th, 2020

I didn’t work on my play and I didn’t go to the gym and I didn’t do any real reading or writing and I didn’t continue the Civilization 6 game against my 17-year-old where I’m actually winning. So… what did I do today? At just after 10 p.m., near the end of the day, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

I started off the morning by prepping for an interview. The (highly recommended!) Pere Ubu podcast — accessible here and elsewhere — is doing an episode about “super fans,” with an interview scheduled with me at 10 a.m. This necessitated my getting up early, quickly sampling from the two dozen Pere Ubu albums I’ve got, and, impossibly, selecting my “favorite” track. The interview lasted 20 minutes, and will no doubt be boiled down to two minutes, and was completely unenjoyable, dealing with one of my favorite subjects.

Then I did the Mega Sudoku. Every Sunday that it’s possible, I do the Mega Sudoku. Here’s where to access it. Some Sundays it takes 20 minutes or so; sometimes it’ll take an hour or more. Today I had to redo it four times (and there went a chunk of the day to be sure) because I’ve got a new MacBook Pro with a menu bar that I kept accidentally hitting with stray finger strokes and, somehow, wiping out entries. I finally finished the puzzle by switching to the old laptop. (Note to self:  Learn how to turn off the accidental entry-clearing function.)

Listening to the torrential downpour outside made me wonder:  Now that it frequently POURS in Southern California, does that mean I’ll never have to hear “It Never Rains in Southern California” again? (God willing.)

I read part of the LA Times.

I talked to the wife.

I spent too much time on Facebook and Twitter.

I kept thinking about things I was going to write but didn’t. And things I was going to read but didn’t.

I fixed some lunch and read more of the LA Times.

I took a nap.

I woke up and found that my wife had left for work and my son was over at a friend’s. I made a salad for dinner and read more of the LA Times. I texted the son to see when he’d be home, given that it was a school night, and he texted back to tell me that it wasn’t a school night, and I checked the school calendar and learned that, indeed, there is no school tomorrow, that even with the invention of “presidents’ day” they still get two days off, one this week, and one next week, and I grew mad about this as just the latest example of our kids getting under-educated while some other nations are clobbering us with their early education.

Then I had more flavored seltzer water and popcorn.

I was never going to watch the Academy Awards because I have a hard time understanding why anyone would. I feel the same way about the Super Bowl. If I were up for an award, I wouldn’t just watch the ceremony — I’d attend. Barring that, I have zero interest. I’m also of the opinion that most awards are undeserved (unless they’re to me). So I was surprised an hour ago to learn that the actual best picture I saw last year, “Parasite,” won for Best Picture. To quote the great arts programmer David Sefton on Facebook:  “Bloody hell. They just gave best picture to the year’s actual best film! Has that ever actually happened before??” Not to my knowledge. I view this as a partial make-good for “Crash.”

Now I’m going to dig into the stack of “Doctor Strange” comics I’ve been stockpiling. Maybe even make some progress in Kafka’s first novel, which I’m making my way through.

Tomorrow will be more action-packed.

Election results

February 5th, 2020

OK, the Iowa Caucus vote count is now 96% complete — and I got just as many delegates as billionaire Tom Steyer and without spending one penny of my own money. Sweet!

Action over despair

January 31st, 2020

I try my best to be a Stoic.

No one is a true Stoic, at least not as outlined in the Enchiridion of Epictetus. Being a true, complete, Stoic would be to renounce joy and happiness (in addition to the more negative emotions), which would also mean rejecting everything, outside work, that makes life meaningful and enjoyable. Even when I first read the Enchiridion, decades ago, I realized this… and realized that Stoicism is best employed as a practice, and not as a goal.

That practice, which has brought me great relief throughout my life, is summed up best as this:  “There are things within your control, and things outside your control. Things within your control, you may exert your power over. Things outside your control, you should let go.” Applied well, this can be awfully soothing. Plus, productive. It counsels correct action, and relieves frustration.

After a glorious 18 days off — from any kind of work, from even thinking about anything troubling, as I went to Spain to see the world’s actual greatest rock band and also to New Jersey (twice) to visit my birth family, and even from writing anything in any form — this week I found myself clenching my jaw and my shoulder muscles as I bore witness to the presidential impeachment “trial” unfolding. So far, the result isn’t any different from what I thought it’d be, but its lack of suspense doesn’t drain me of my dread and outrage; a country in which, evidently, anything a sitting president might do to ensure his own re-election is permissible surely isn’t the country the Founders conceived, nor is it the one I thought I lived in. Tonight, after the Senate voted 51-49 not to hear from witnesses (and after more than one of the GOP Senators voting against witnesses said they believed that the Democratic House managers had proved their case — but they still didn’t care), I decided to come home, grill a big steak, drink an entire bottle of red wine, and watch something distracting on Netflix. Because what they had done was infuriating, but it was outside my control.

That’s what Stoicism does for you — it helps you question what you can affect, and what you can’t, and constantly raises for you the question of what, if anything, you could do.

I grilled my ginormous tomahawk steak (freshly purchased from Ralph’s on a WooHoo! deal) outside, cracked open a bottle of Spanish red wine, and sat out there enjoying both, while occasionally throwing a piece of the steak to my two dogs and petting them to our mutual satisfaction. It was pretty good.

Except — I was still seething.

So I went on ActBlue and donated a shit ton of money against those GOP assholes in the Senate running for re-election, and against Mitch McConnell in particular, because y’know what? It may not seem very Stoic, but  THAT was within my control.

So now I’m thinking: Just watch what the 58% of us who hate all this are going to get up to in the next 10 months. There are millions of us. And that action is within our control, too.

I.T. Came From Beyond!

January 7th, 2020

Last week, just before New Year’s Eve, I got a new MacBook Pro. It arrived here at my company, our friendly trusty I.T. company came to set it all up — and then discovered that Apple has yet again forged ahead with new hardware that leaves mere mortals behind. The last time I got a new laptop (four years ago), we discovered that there was no longer any way to play or burn a CD or DVD. (In fact, I now have no way to play a CD anywhere, because my car won’t play one either.) And of course the powerpack attachment is different every time — sometimes the new version inserts straight in; sometimes it’s a different attachment; sometimes it’s magnetic. In this particular case, we found that Apple has removed both the Cat 6 cable (which I need to connect to something here in my office) as well as all the USB ports. Instead, I’ve got these nifty little slots that, well, nothing plugs into except the new Apple powerpack.

Now, as a longtime Apple user (happily using Apple since 1982), I have to admit that I appreciate these cutting-edge advancements. I just wish they didn’t always cut me at the last minute. For context:  I’m leaving for Spain on Saturday and I need all my stuff to work.

So, we ordered a thingamajig that slots into a couple of those nifty little slots and now provides a couple of USB ports and a Cat 6 port. So now I can do things like, well, attach my iPhone and iPad that are clearly also from Apple. No, I don’t like to think that Apple removed those ports in order to force me to buy a new iPhone and a new iPad. I would never think that. Instead, I think that the new MacBook Pro has a hidden cost of an additional $79, because that’s what the cigarette-lighter attachment that we had to buy and that I think everyone will need costs.

With that safely overcome, last night I set out restoring my iPad. I say “restoring,” because when I went to update its operating system two months ago, the screen froze and no manner of ministrations would thaw it out. Instead, I just didn’t use the iPad for two months. But now my plan is to take it, and not a laptop, overseas, thereby cleverly keeping me from doing any corporate work while I’m there, because I haven’t loaded the corporate-work email on it. Instead, I’ll go to see Pere Ubu (!) play, and check out Hieronymus Bosch and Picasso, and nibble on boquerones and sample tapas and down glasses of tempranillo without ever once wondering what’s going on with my email. I devoted almost two hours last night to restoring my iPad, synching it to the new laptop, confirming that everything on the old laptop was now running and working on the new laptop, and went to bed feeling happy and satisfied, delighted with my accomplishment and proud that I hadn’t needed the I.T. people or even my friendly and helpful colleague at the company to rescue me on any of it.

The next morning, ensconced at my desk and well aware that my task list was lengthy but ready to get absolutely everything under the sun done so that I’m fully prepared to leave for my trip, I opened up the new laptop and logged in — but it wouldn’t take my password.

Wha…?

So I did what anyone would do:  I typed the password in again.

And again.

And again.

Because why would we assume that it wouldn’t magically be different on the third try?

But it still wouldn’t work.

Which was puzzling — because my password hadn’t changed. Or… had it? Because, it suddenly occurred to me, I’d synched it with the iPad, and that has a different password, one all its own, so I tried that one. And when it didn’t work, I tried it again. And again.

Then I wondered, Hm, if maybe it hadn’t somehow defaulted to one of my other passwords that I use for the other electronics and the other accounts. After all, they’re all synched. So I put in the password for my phone. But that wouldn’t open the laptop either. Then I put in my master password (well, one of my master password — yes, my passwords live in a house with two masters, and also 10 mistress passwords). That didn’t work. Then I wondered if I’d used the right case, because for some of them I’d gone from upper case to lower case, about 12 years ago, when I was in a business meeting and my wife texted me to ask for one simple password of mine and had somehow unknowingly changed every password I had anywhere and completely discombobulated my synched systems when she changed that one password.

(Isn’t life so much simpler with modern technology?)

So, now I got out some very old tech — what we call a pad and pen — and I wrote down every password I use. Yes, I have them memorized. There are 12 base passwords in all, as well as a variation system that, no, sorry, I can’t disclose here. Then after typing each of the 12 passwords in, and it not working, and then typing it in again, and it not working, and then typing it in a third time, and it not working, I scratched it out. When all 12 got scratched out and I still had no access to my new laptop, I started to feel the creeping dread of a man lost in a labyrinth in a horror movie:  What if it takes all day to get this resolved? What if I never get “that” document back? What if this never gets resolved? I’m leaving on Saturday!!!!

Finally, we put in an electronic support ticket with the friendly, trusting I.T. company and they called.

I love these guys, and told them so yet again, but did ask, “Um, how long do you think this will take? I’m always glad to see you, and to talk to you — but I’m really jammed at the moment.”

They said maybe very little time, maybe longer. (This is a response I will be adopting myself in the future.)  They told me to manually shut down the laptop, which would bring up an admin screen upon reboot, and they could help me reset a password from there.

“Great!” I said. These guys have always solved every problem, and I was feeling confident I’d be back on my way quickly. But I didn’t know how to manually shut down the laptop; Apple seems to have removed that button.

“You know where the digital fingerprint button is? It’s that one. Just hold it down.”

So I looked at my keyboard — really closely looked at it, to find the digital fingerprint button — and noticed something else.

A green light.

Signifying that…

My Caps Lock button was on.

I pressed that off, entered my password…

… and my laptop lit up faster than you can say “Open Sesame.”

I guess I left the Caps Lock button on somehow from before…?

This is why I have an I.T.  company on retainer.

And why I should just stick to what I do better.

Goodbye and good riddance!

January 1st, 2020

This morning I did what many people do on the first day of a new year:  I slept until two in the afternoon.

Well, technically, no. I slept until 8:30 a.m., which was ruinous, given that I’d gone to sleep just four hours or so earlier and then on a bellyful of vodka gimlets after a six-hour party with two dozen guests. At 8:30, finding myself ruefully fully awake, I fixed myself a cup of coffee and an English muffin, watched an episode of the new “Lost in Space” on my laptop, then went back to sleep. Then I woke up at two in the afternoon.

This is the third year in a row that we’ve hosted a New Year’s Eve party mostly built around drinking and then playing charades. This is not charades for the faint of heart. The only way this could be made harder would be to write the prompts in hieroglyphics. It’s a cut-throat game designed to prepare you emotionally for just how difficult and challenging the new year might be.  The guest list gets split into two teams and then each team makes up their own prompts for the opposing team to act out and guess, with a focus on making the prompts just about impossible to act or guess. Obscure books are a favorite; so are “famous people” that no one has heard of, and little-known Yugoslavian action movies that are available in the backwoods of Netflix. One example:  “The Enchiridion,” which I submitted last year to the immense fury of my wife’s team. Hey, it’s not my fault that none of them ever read it.

While I like being alive, and so do my best to enjoy every bit of the experience of living, I can’t say I’ll miss 2019. Goodbye to bad rubbish, I say! Three members of my family had serious health issues (and one nearly died), more than one friend died, I had a truly delightful professional calamity that still has me fighting with my insurance company for a settlement eight months later, my credit cards and ATM cards got stolen and used, I set aside a full-length play I was writing that I suddenly lost faith in, and somehow or other my subscription to “Fantastic Four” has stopped appearing in my mailbox.  Finding out in concert that Roger Daltrey can still sing astonishingly well did not provide enough counterbalance.

So, I’m approaching 2020 with optimism. I’m going to Spain in two weeks to see Pere Ubu in concert, and while I’m there for that I think I’ll take in some of Spain as well. I have to think at some point there will be an insurance resolution (and at that point, perhaps I’ll share actual details here). And I’m almost 90 pages into a play that’s working far better than the other one. I’m ready to twist the throttle of 2020 all the way.

Lifelong battle

December 18th, 2019

LifelongBattle

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.

Timesaver!

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.