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


Blog

State of fear

February 26th, 2014

Here in southern California, we’re in the midst of an epic drought, among the worst on record. I took my family skiing last week; here was the immediate response from friends who heard we were going: “There’s snow?” The answer: yes, but only because some of the resorts make snow. The skiing was wonderful, especially if your preference is snow skiing in 55-degree weather. (Ever wonder, back in the day and as I did as a 14-year-old boy, how Playboy bunnies could stand being photographed skiing around in the snow naked? Now you know: They were skiing in southern California sometime between February and March.) Outside those manmade snow areas, here’s how our usually snow-crested mountains looked: long runnels of dirt and rock, dry as a bone, down to the skeleton of the mountain.

So, now, it’s going to rain. The weather forecast is 100% for rain tomorrow and Friday. As my dentist remarked yesterday, when is the last time you saw a weather forecast predict 100% there was going to be rain? Usually, they’ll leave themselves at least a small margin of error. Nope, now we’re predicting 100% chance of rain. And now here’s the additional forecast: moving out (temporarily) of the epic drought, now we need to fear epic car crashes, mudslides, and drownings, because it’s going to rain. As I was writing this, I got an emergency text alert (!) from the California Highway Patrol. Here’s what it says: “Rain Expected in LA County. Are You and Your Vehicle Ready for Wet Weather Driving?” As though I should go out and throw a poncho and some wellingtons onto my car. Or something.

These latest fear alerts are brought to you by the state that previously gave you mud slides, earthquakes, the Manson Family, the real killer whom O.J. Simpson still hasn’t been able to find, the mystery man who killed Robert Blake’s wife in the exact minutes while Blake was out retrieving something from his truck, plagues of crop-eating bugs, gang wars, riots, and so much more. We survived all of them. That we’re now getting whipped up to fear the rain that we so desperately need tells you much about the fear-industrial complex.

The wait list

February 19th, 2014

Today I politely told four more people that my eight-week playwriting workshop, Words That Speak, is sold out. I take only 10 playwrights at a time, and then only five times a year (for a total of 40 weeks); the only time someone new gets in is when someone doesn’t renew. In the course of a year, five slots might open up.

I don’t enjoy turning people down. I really don’t. But I haven’t had extra room in this workshop for quite some time now, and I’m not going to add another workshop because that will cut into my own writing time. If someone doesn’t get in, I offer to put him or her onto the wait list; after which, if there is an opening at some point, I read sample pages and do a phone interview.

But in all the years (21 of them) that I’ve been leading this workshop, I’ve never gotten an entreaty like this one, which I got tonight in an email from someone I don’t know:

Dear Lee,
I want to get information on your play writing workshops. I am working on my first play and it means a lot to me since it has to do with my daughter’s suicide. I really have to make it happen.
Thank You so much.

My heart sank when I saw this; I can’t imagine the despair behind it. As politely as possible, I emailed back, and offered a slot on the wait list.

Bob Casale, R.I.P.

February 19th, 2014

A few days ago, I advised seeing acts you care about (and even good ones you don’t), while you still can. And then today guitarist Bob Casale of Devo, pictured second from the right above, dropped dead from a heart attack.

I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Devo twice in recent years — in November of 2009 at the Henry Fonda in Hollywood, and August of 2011 at the intimate Canyon Club in the LA suburb of Agoura. On stage, Casale was a big, rambunctious, gleeful personality, sweating profusely in a Devo “radiation suit,” putting everything he had into a lively performance that belied his size and age. I have loved Devo since their first album, almost as much as he clearly loved being in Devo.

I don’t know if Devo will continue performing, without their founding guitarist (who was also the brother of one of the band’s guiding presences, bassist and songwriter Gerald Casale). But I’m glad to got to see them with him. I should also add that Devo’s first new album in 20 years, Something for Everybody, which came out in 2010, is pretty terrific. I’m glad Bob Casale got to make that.

What sets Americans apart

February 18th, 2014

This list, of Ten Japanese Travel Tips for Visiting America, reminds me of old Star Trek episodes where Kirk or Jean-Luc would get tips on correct cultural behavior on an alien planet.

But here is something I have found, in my trips around this country and others, to be true:

“In America, you can make mistakes, fail, and it doesn’t matter. It is a fundamental feeling that to sometimes be incorrect is natural. In addition, rather than thinking about mistakes and failures, Americans have curiosity and say, ‘Let’s try anyway!’ ”

There are worse things than being the curious people who say “Let’s try anyway.” That’s the spirit that put a man on the moon.

Sid Caesar, R.I.P.

February 12th, 2014

Sad to learn of Sid Caesar’s passing. Well, somewhat sad. Sad in that an era is passing — if it hasn’t already left us entirely; that would be the era of gifted comedians and actors who came up through stage comedy such as vaudeville. That generation had incredible chops. Not said in that Mr. Caesar was in very poor shape in recent years, and this is probably a blessing.

I’m glad that, about 15 years ago (maybe more, at this point), I got to see him with Imogene Coca doing a “Your Show of Shows” revival live on-stage here in L.A. My wife and I were the youngest attendees by centuries. (She said to me, “We’re seeing WHO?”) Actually, as I recall, Mr. Caesar was 68 at the time, so, given that he died at 91, that was… an incredible 23 years ago. Could it be? Here’s how I know that: During one sketch, he took off his shirt and my wife exclaimed loudly, “WOW — he’s built!” All of the bodybuilding paid off, at least then. (And partly offset the drinking, I guess.) He and Ms. Coca were fantastic — endlessly funny and entertaining — and, well, I’m glad I got to see it. That turned out to be Imogene Coca’s last live performance, and now we won’t be seeing Sid Caesar anymore either.

I’m glad to say I saw Rodney Dangerfield. And I’ve seen Bob Newhart. If you have a chance to see classic comedian while they’re still here, you should do it. They’re not going to be here much longer, and the new people are funny — but they aren’t classics.

High-flying fun

February 12th, 2014

Despairing over the loss of Flappy Bird? Don’t. Flappy Bert is better.

Race to the bottom

February 10th, 2014

What’s the best way to get millions of more people working? Why, by dropping the minimum wage — to five bucks an hour.

I know, you wouldn’t have thought of that either. But this guy who wrote an op ed in today’s Wall Street Journal did.

Granted, that’s behind a paywall — a paywall operated by no one making $5/hour, I’m sure — so let me share a few of the key points:

A Minimum Wage That Will Work
There’s a way to create millions of jobs for people the stimulus didn’t help.

The president’s call for a $10.10 minimum wage applies the worn-out notion that higher wages create more jobs. Despite repeated minimum-wage increases over the years, we have seen a continued flight to the sidelines by people who are unable to find jobs because they don’t exist. Many jobs don’t exist because employers refuse to hire people at such wages. Isn’t it obvious that, with a higher wage, McDonald’s $1 menu, for example, would cost $3, few would buy it, and Mickey D would have less revenue and far fewer jobs?

As a volunteer interviewer of the poor at a religious charitable organization in southwest Florida, I have come to believe that the most effective step we can take to ameliorate poverty, kick-start job growth and invigorate hope in every social stratum is to experiment with a $5 minimum wage.

A $5 wage will put money and hope into the lives of our poor in immediate, powerful and enduring ways. For all its $4 trillion stimulus, mere nickels of quantitative-easing funding “trickled down” to where the poor reside. But a $5 minimum wage will “trickle up,” directly from employer to employed—creating millions of jobs rapidly and putting them within reach of huge numbers of the poor.

Three enormous labor pools of can benefit immediately. The most dramatic change among the poor that our charity serves right now is in the demographic sector of hardworking lower-middle-class families who are being squeezed into poverty by ever-increasing food, housing, transport, medical, drug, insurance and other costs they are unable to pay. These include:

• Intact low-income families, where three or four persons have the capacity and desire to work, but only one has a job, often at a near-minimum wage that typically generates about $15,000 a year. A $5 wage that opens full- or part-time jobs for the remaining three can change that single survival income into a $30,000-plus income stream to help produce a life of reasonable comfort and dignity.

• Single-parent families, often headed by an educated young woman with one or two infants who supports a live-in partner on an entry-level job income. He cannot find a job and her hours are reduced: As wage-earner, mother and caregiver, she is in extreme stress and they are in crisis. A job-fostering program that helps the partner find work can bring immediate and potentially long-term relief to these folks.

You’d think no one can value making $5 an hour. But for those in poverty, a primal need is immediate and reliable access to an income of one’s own. When one has nothing, anything becomes priceless. Watch the expression on the face of a poor person when you provide him or her with $2, $3 or $5 to put gas in a neighbor’s borrowed car so he can bring free groceries, clothing, linens, housewares or furnishings from our organization back home. You’ll see then the value of such a “trivial” wage.

I’ll say just this: If we want to slide back to being a pre-Colonial banana plantation of low-wage workers, this is the way to go. Germany is the powerhouse of the EU — and they aren’t paying anyone the equivalent of five bucks an hour. Henry Ford created the $5 workday almost a hundred years ago (over the outrage of his competitors) so that people could afford to buy a Ford. Creating an economy where no one can afford anything isn’t going to serve anyone.

Dog days

February 7th, 2014

When I got home today and looked deeply into my dog’s eyes what I saw was lingering resentment. They seemed to say, “I know where you took me this morning, and I haven’t forgotten.”

Because this morning, my wife and I took her to the vet. With an option to die.

Opinions vary as to this dog’s age. She is a 3/4 Australian Shepherd and 1/4 Labrador Retriever we rescued from a disreputable shelter in February of 2000. A veterinarian at that time told us that she was probably one-and-a-half years old. This morning, my wife told our current vet that the dog is 16; I offered fifteen-and-a-half; as I said, opinions vary.

Last June, while our good friend Ross was housesitting for us and we were in either Florida (wife and kids) or Omaha, NE (me), the dog went for a misadventure in our back yard and let out a loud yelp. (This is from Ross.) Thereafter, she had a limp, which turned out to be a torn cartilage in her left rear leg. We popped for surgery (not quite the cost of a car, but certainly the substantial downpayment on a lease), then when that didn’t take, we cracked open the credit card for another go-round. But neither took, and our heretofore athletic and boundlessly energetically crazy but faithful dog was limping around on three legs. My wife has been medicating her, and stretching that leg out and massaging it, and cooking special meals for the dog, and really doing even more than any dog should ever hope for. And the dog has been bright and shiny and incredibly resilient — but limping around.

This morning with the vet, I asked the hard questions. Starting with:

“What is the life expectancy for this dog?”

Answer: “You’re at it.”

We were evaluating another surgery, not because we were thrilled with the potential expense, but because the dog is clearly a part of our family. Her name is Gem — named by my eldest, now 22, when he was seven and was enamored of the computer game “Heroes of Might and Magic II,” wherein “Gem” is a sorceress character one can play — and she has been here through most of the life of one of our children, most of my daughter’s life, and every bit of the life of our youngest. Gem’s time is coming, as it is coming for us all, but unlike the rest of us, Gem can’t communicate when it’s time to give in. So I had to ask on her behalf.

Decision: No further attempts at surgery, because we would be looking at diminishing returns, and because the recovery period (nine weeks or more) may outweigh her remaining time on this plane. But, also, no need to help her out of immediate pain with what I’ll call “the big needle.” As the vet said, “We go by whether or not the head is happy.” Her head is happy. As my wife said, Gem is bright-eyed and eager to play; she just seems to wish she didn’t have this annoying limp.

She’s happy — except today when I came home. Think your dog doesn’t know what’s going on? Then I wish I had videotaped the greeting I got a bit ago. Yes, I may be reading into it something that isn’t there — a resentment at even considering having her “put down” — but at the same time, I have lived with this dog for 15 years, and I know her moods. An elephant never forgets. This dog is a rememberer too.

So, she lives on. For as long as either God or nature or she herself decides, or until my wife and I decide that she’s had too much, and that all further returns are diminishing.

At some point, I will be in the same situation. I certainly hope so, because I’m planning on a long life — there is a lot, lot, lot that I intend to do still. I hope that some day my children gather around and decide whether to turn me off or not, and I fight them every inch of the way.

For that reason, I’m awfully glad to see the glare in my dog’s eyes.

The 100%

February 7th, 2014

I got a letter today from my Congressman. In it, he boasts that he is proud to have earned a 100% rating from a group of organizations that he enumerates. Most of these organizations I would probably agree with some or most of the time. But here’s my thought: I don’t 100% agree with anyone. Even myself. Because, after all, I have been known to change my mind.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I abide by that.

My suspicion is that that anyone who agrees 100% of the time with 13 different national organizations isn’t doing much thinking for himself.

Today’s helpful tip: cynicism

February 4th, 2014

Don’t get sucked in by anyone’s cynicism. There are many good people in the world — far more than the narrow slice of people who ruin it for others — and every day, there’s something each of us can do to make it better for each other. While we can’t all rescue 669 children from the Nazis (because, thankfully, that time has passed), we can see in this brief video the impact just one person can make.