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


Hot tub time machine

September 6th, 2020

Finally, after almost 25 years of talking about it, I put a hot tub in my back yard. Turned out it was far easier than I ever expected: All I needed to do was stick a giant tub of water out there. Voila, instant hot tub.

Okay, I didn’t do that. But I could have. The temperatures in Los Angeles County this weekend — and, yes, I know, it’s been widely reported — have been in the 110s. That’s 100 degrees, plus between 11 and 19 more degrees. And higher. A sub-headline in the LA Times read (and I sure wish I had screen-grabbed this): “Temperatures in the triple-digits could go even higher.” If or when the temperature goes higher than triple digits — like, to quadruple-digits, which could be any day now — none of us will need to worry about it. So there’s some good news.

Pretty much every day, I hop into my mental time machine so as to instruct younger people in how things used to be. Usually it takes this sort of format:

  • “We didn’t used to have all these homeless people on the street.”
  • “You used to be able to work your way through college without all that debt.”
  • “You won’t believe it, but it used to be called Kentucky Fried Chicken, and you could actually eat it.”

Now I’m adding, “It didn’t used to be this hot.”

As in, it hasn’t been this hot in at least 125,000 years. (But who’s counting?)

Y’know, not to be Mr. Naive Polyanna here, but the temperature situation (and that’s my new name for it, as I remain ensconced inside: The Temperature Situation) wouldn’t be hard to improve. Here’s what we’d need to do:

  • Stop burning coal
  • Phase out other fossil fuels
  • Plant lots and lots of trees

I know, it can’t be that easy, right? But it is, once you get past the first two steps, which seem somehow harder: Put people who actually believe in science in charge around the world, and then get those people to actually cooperate globally.

Maybe the hottest weekend in 125,000 years will help move that along.

On the beach

September 2nd, 2020
Zuma Beach, 9/2/20

After somehow becoming alerted last week that September was looming, and so, also somehow, was the end of summer — a summer without live theatre, without concerts, without parties and without Comic-Con for God’s sake — I decided to go to the beach. That was one thing, at least, that I could do this summer. So, today, I went to the beach.

At 4:18, newly planted onto the sand at Zuma Beach, I cracked open my journal and wrote this:

The sea side of the beach is a cliff of sand about four feet high — beneath that it’s a straight drop to the water.

I brought the wrong sort of towels, of course, in my rush. Turns out I brought smallish bath towels. The wind keeps blowing and lifting the exaggerated hand towel I’m sitting on. My backpack — with phone, added towel, lotion, shorts, jacket — rests on the sand because the towel is too narrow to accommodate it. Or me.

But if I hadn’t left in a hurry, I wouldn’t have made it at all. There are always a hundred things to do — that must be done! — and without picking up and heading out with determination I’d still be at the office, or at home, doing them. Life is one endless to-do list.

The wind is strong, pelting me with sharp bits of sand.

Fifteen minutes later, at 4:33, I added this:

It’s actually pretty boring at the beach.

As usual.

Zuma Beach, 9/2/20

I’ve lived most of my life near a beach. Where I grew up, we were only eight miles inland, and we went to the beach now and then, sometimes in Atlantic City, sometimes off Brigantine Island. I never knew what to do there, and usually took comic books with me. (Today, I took Ron Chernow’s massive biography of George Washington, which I’m about 20 percent through.) As a young man, I lived for four years within two blocks of the beach and went there, I think, twice. When I moved to California 30 years ago, the idea of going to the beach was briefly novel, because now the ocean was on the left — but who could continue to care about that?

Within 45 minutes today, I was ready to go.

Now, I will say that once — one time — probably 15 years ago I had a terrific beach experience. I rented a shabby motel room up the coast near a penitentiary and went down to the beach and found that I was the only person there. I took a folding chair and a bottle of whiskey and a couple of cigars and my laptop and something to eat just in case and happily sat out there for hours writing. At one point a lone fisherman came from somewhere and walked past me and we exchanged nods; otherwise: no one. Just me and writing and the familiar vices. Because, of course, who would go to a prison beach, and during the middle of the week?

That’s the beach I can see going back to.

Shows I’m sad I missed

September 2nd, 2020

A new look at a modern classic.

You’ll need that: A cautionary tale

August 30th, 2020

(Except I’m not quite sure what caution you should take.)

I’ve moved myself, and my stuff, many times over the years. Just like everyone else.

Kindergarten through grad school, I went to nine different schools.

I moved with my family to a different house when I was 10.

When I was 19, I rented a house in Ocean City, NJ. After almost a year, I moved back in with my parents. (Awkward!) Then I moved back to that same house. Then I moved back in again with my parents. (Yikes.) Then I moved with my girlfriend into an apartment inland from Ocean City, in Somers Point. Then I rented a house with her in, yet again, Ocean City. Then she and I got married and moved to California, where we lived in an apartment for a few years, and then a house for a few years, and then, in 1996, we bought the house we still live in.

In all of those houses and apartments I’ve also had a place for writing. Mostly, it’s been a room all its own: a writing room. I still have one today.

I’ve also had lots of offices. When I was running Moving Arts, from 1992 to 2002, I had an office at our theatre on Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles. When we added our spaces at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, I had an office there, too, in downtown. When I became President & CEO of the Los Angeles theatre alliance, I gained an office in that space, meaning that I now had three offices: the one at home that I wrote out of, the one at the theatre center where I produced theatre, and the one six blocks away where I ran the alliance of local non-profit theatres.

For the past 16 years, instead of producing theatre and running a nonprofit or two (or three!) simultaneously while being a playwright, I’ve been someone with a consulting business who is also a playwright. From 2004 to mid-2006, I ran that business from my home office, but then opened an actual external office, across the street from City Hall in Burbank. I took on a partner in 2007. The company now has 11 employees, which has necessitated larger offices. We moved about 10 years ago to San Fernando Boulevard (still in Burbank) and then six-and-a-half years ago we moved to Burbank Boulevard (still in Burbank) and then last week we moved to Magnolia Boulevard (still in Burbank). We like Burbank.

Oh, and last May we had a flood at our office — a real calamity — that required us to relocate to another office for four months… and then move back.

So, for almost 50 years, I have been on a conveyor belt of living spaces, schools, and offices. I am tired of moving.

I’m tired of moving me, and I’m tired of moving my stuff. It’s physically taxing, it’s time-consuming, and it’s mentally draining. I have a problem finding things to begin with, so imagine how it must feel to always be unpacking and wondering just where something is.

But there’s something else that gets moved now. Something that we sometimes don’t think about. Something quieter and even more important than all that stuff, something that’s always getting moved.

Our data.

In all of those moves, of course, I’ve also been moving computers. And servers. And backup drives. And disks. And multiple laptops, and iPads, and handheld devices (iPhones, Handspring Treos and Handspring Visors, Palm Pilots) and more. Some of those devices are now defunct, and the ones that still function get system updates and software updates. In one of the recent moves, I discovered that I had four old iPhones. And that was after having sold one.

Nothing is constant.

A year or so ago, I found a virus on my laptop that, to my horror, had corrupted dozens (maybe hundreds) of my files. Files of my writing. Plays, short stories, poems, essays — about 15 years of work had been wiped out, just turned into .exe files. When I calmed down, I remembered that I had print copies of all this in my files (always keep print copies, people!), but I didn’t want to type or scan all that back in and wondered if there was some way to rescue the files. Plus — if my files had gotten corrupted, I needed the situation addressed! So, I had the owner of the IT firm that services my company take a look at my laptop and see what could be done. He examined it and clarified the entire situation for me.

I hadn’t gotten a virus, and I hadn’t gotten hacked. Everything was still there and uncorrupted — it was just unreadable.

All of my old files had been written in software that was no longer supported. Even though there were many, many versions of that software in the 1980s and 1990s, as it went from Appleworks to Clarisworks to Appleworks and then ultimately away, in one of the many file transfers from older laptops to newer ones, those versions of word processing programs had fallen by the wayside, and now all these data files were unreadable .exe files. There was no application program to match them with.

So: Just to clarify: I had successfully transferred the data every time. I had also backed up every file onto first storage disks (which were now unreadable; who has a disk reader?) and, later, digital files (in the cloud, or on local networks, or on a backup drive). None of that mattered. The data was now unreadable.

Fuck it, I thought. I’ve still got all those paper copies. I’ll worry about this another time.

Several months ago, my great-nephew in New Jersey asked to see a copy of one of my plays. He’d heard about it from his brother and had placed third in a statewide acting competition with a monologue from another of my plays, and he wanted to read this one. When I looked for it on my laptop, I discovered that, yep, it was one of those unreadable ones. Well, no problem, I’d just go pull the paper copy and scan it and send it to him that way.

Except when I looked in my files in my writing room there was no paper copy.

I looked again and again, the way a person in a thriller looks again and again at the dead body of the person he’s accidentally killed just to make sure he’s really seeing what he’s seeing, but, no, there was no paper copy.

Then I had a big fat drink.

The play that had some of my absolute best work, a play that had been done in London and New York and Los Angeles and elsewhere was… gone. Evidently, somehow, in one of the moves of my paper files, it hadn’t moved. Its entire redwell folder, overstuffed with drafts and notes and a completed final copy, was missing.

I had become one of those creative artists with lost work.

It didn’t feel good.

I started to piece together where I might — might — be able to get a copy. Well, there were the actors from the various productions. And the directors. And — for some reason — I’d sent a copy to a friend on the East Coast back in 1995 when the play was new. I reached out to him, and he offered to go look for it in his storage space… some day. I asked twice, displaying as little anxiety as I could, and finally he told me he’d get around to it. I understood. I did. There’s so much to get around to. Our lives are one endless to-do.

I tried hard to put this out of my mind.

But I couldn’t.

In all these moves, what else hadn’t moved? What else was I missing digitally, and what else, for God’s sake, had disappeared from my paper files as well?

And — let’s be honest — did it really matter?

I mean, really?

I consoled myself by deciding that I’m always focused on the future anyway. Wasn’t all that old stuff just… old stuff? Who really cared?

(We call this “rationalization.” Talking oneself into okayness.)

Last week, because, as I said, my company was moving offices again, I resolved to strictly separate what should be there and what should be here. Oh, I was observing the same protocols as before, but now even more strictly. I brought boxes and boxes of papers home — papers that more directly relate to my playwriting career than my marketing and consulting career. In order to ensure that I had enough space at home for all this additional paper, I cleaned out a closet in my previous writing room at home. (Yes, I have even moved writing rooms at home. I forgot to mention this.) From that closet, I pulled out boxes of tax filings and receipts from the 1990s and early 2000s, birthday cards, ancient office supplies, and… an old iMac.

Good timing, because the city where I live is doing an e-waste drive this weekend. I would be able to trash ancient machine for free. But first, my wife wanted to make sure our data was removed.

My son and I booted it up.

It was filled with old data: family photos and emails and stuff. We found movies that I’d shot and edited in which he and the rest of the family appear, he at age 3. He’s just turned 18. My heart skipped a beat.

“I wonder if my old plays are on here…” I said.

They were. I could see their icons nested in their little folders. They weren’t .exe files.

My essays and my poems and my short stories and everything else were there too. But I would need the old software on there, too, for them to be readable.

I clicked on the icon for the missing play — and it sprang to life on the screen. There it was. All one hundred pages or so, in glorious glowing type. I haven’t done a full inventory — but it sure looks like everything that was missing is now back. This must be how an amnesiac feels when he snaps back into full awareness.

What is the lesson here that I would share with you? Is it to back everything up? Well, I did that. Is it to save paper copies? Well, I’ve always done that. Is it to transfer your files? I’ve always done that as well. The only lesson, it seems, is to never throw anything away. Because some day, you’ll need it.

Now there’s just one thing left. I need to figure out how to get those files off this computer in a format that I can still access. And, I guess, to print more paper copies.

Nyuk nyuk yuck

August 24th, 2020

When he was down on his luck, Buster Keaton made his living, what there was of it, writing bits for The Three Stooges. He didn’t hold the Stooges in high regard — having Keaton write for the Stooges was like having Michelangelo paint your living room ceiling off-white — but he no doubt figured that if they were ripping him off anyway, he might as well get paid.

One of the very obvious and overused Stooge bits that Keaton objected to was one of them reaching for the wrong thing and then using it, with hilarity ensuing. (If you were of a mind for that hilarity.) Larry might set down, say, a cup holding turpentine next to Moe’s cup of coffee, and guess what? Moe picks up the cup of turpentine and drinks it down. Ha ha ha. No, it’s not fair to try to capture that gag in print, minus the staging and the reaction shots, and expect it to be funny. For the record, I’ve always enjoyed The Three Stooges in small doses. In large doses, they’re as tedious as anything is in large doses.

What makes those gags seem obvious is the endless repetition — they appear in most Three Stooges shorts, and certainly the ones where the boys are doing some manual labor. If they’re painting, they’ve confused the paint with glue or something; if they’re doing plumbing, they’ve connected the wrong pipe; if they’re cooking, they mixed gunpowder into the cake… you get the idea.

And, I assure you, every single person who has ever watched any of these: 1. saw it coming; and 2. thought, “What an idiot! I would never do that!” Because the joke is built around the notion that we would never do that.

All of which ran through my head this morning when I started brushing my teeth and realized that it wasn’t toothpaste I’d squeezed onto my toothbrush and brushed liberally all over my teeth. It was this stuff.

At least my gums won’t itch.

Great stories in vice-presidential-candidate history, #1

August 13th, 2020

In 2016, when Kamala Harris was a Senate candidate and I was a state delegate with an endorsement vote in the California Democratic Party, her campaign invited me repeatedly to meet with her. They called me, they emailed me, they wrote to me, and they texted me. Repeatedly. Obstinate as ever, I refused to meet with her — just because I didn’t want to. I didn’t have anything against her; just didn’t want to, and didn’t appreciate the repeated invitations after I’d said, politely at first, no.

And so, I’m probably the only Democrat in the past five years in California politics who doesn’t have a photo with her. (It’s nice to be known for something.)

I have met at least one other vice-presidential candidate, though.

In 1988, my wife and our two roommates and I were fresh transports to Burbank from southern New Jersey. We were thrilled that Lloyd Bentsen, the courtly Texas senator who was the Democratic vice presidential candidate that year, under Michael Dukakis, was going to land at Burbank Airport — so close to our apartment! We liked Lloyd (far more than Dukakis), and were eager to meet him. One of the roommates and I hustled over there early, and I got right up at the front of the assembled crowd on the tarmac, against the rope line. When Bentsen descended from the plane, and started to work the line, right as he was coming across to where I was, the crowd surged forward, and as I stretched out my right hand to shake hands with him, my left hand, thrust forward by the crush of people, wound up firmly cupped and pressed over the entirety of his male apparatus. We locked eyes in a moment of recognition about the special moment we were sharing, his left eye twitched faintly and he moved on down the line.

When my roommate and I got back to our apartment, the other roommate, a young woman, asked, “Well, how was he?”

I replied, “Hung like a horse.”


July 28th, 2020

A couple of days ago, a group of doctors calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors” made a number of what appear to be inaccurate claims about hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19. Here’s a link to Politifact’s debunking of those claims. Setting aside why someone should trust a primary care physician and minister who has previously discoursed on alien DNA and demon sperm, one might wonder why we would gravitate to opinions from a small clutch of doctors in Texas as opposed to those of, say, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and an epidemiologist named Anthony Fauci with 50 years of acknowledged expertise in the field.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about. Part of me thinks that if you want to take Hydroxychloroquine to prove Dr. Fauci and, well, me wrong — then have at it. I actually hope you’re right. I would love for you to be right. I just hope that if you’re trying this experiment you’re not someone I actually care about, because in that instance I sure as Hell don’t want to be right.

No, what I want to talk about is the uproar over Facebook and Twitter removing videos exhorting the claims of “America’s Frontline Doctors.” These social media giants are doing that because they believe the video is essentially an exhortation to suicide, and I guess for some reason, this morning Facebook got a good look at itself in the mirror and didn’t like what it saw. And so it and Twitter are shutting down the video wherever it pops up on their sites in a frenzied game of Whac-a-mole.

Which presents a problem for them. A problem of exposure.

Facebook (like Twitter, I believe) says their site is a platform and not a publisher; a platform merely hosts content for others, while a publisher necessarily adjudicates the relative merit of the content it publishes and therefore runs the risk of liability. If, say, the journal Nature publishes a scientific article, that’s because the editors and publisher of Nature believe it to be true. That applies to the Wall Street Journal, and CBS News, and the people behind OAN probably have talked themselves into believing it too. And so, in trying to take an active role now in adjudicating content, Facebook is blurring the line, leaving us wondering just what Facebook is. As we used to ask about Razzles when I was a kid, “Is it a candy? Or is it a gum?”

I’ll be interested to see where this goes. 2016 made it very clear that social media platforms have too much power, particularly in using algorithmic response to leverage mass action; in an earlier time, we would have broken them up already or regulated them. We went after comic books, for Pete’s sake, in the 1950s (with a House investigative committee), and we broke up Ma Bell when I was a kid, but Facebook and Twitter and, God help us, TikTok (which is a direct line to the Chinese government), are just doing whatever they like with no guiderails.

The Razzles controversy, you’ll be glad to know, was finally settled. Not just by me — at about age 8, I decided that it was a candy, because nobody should want to swallow gum! — but also by Tootsie Roll Inc. In weasely fashion, they’ve decided that “First it’s candy, then a gum!”

I expect a similar defense from Facebook and Twitter.

Not comical

July 27th, 2020

Last week, I did not feel great. Was, in fact, partially laid up here and there for days. Stomach virus? Or: was it weighing on me that Comic-Con was canceled?

To give you a sense of the role of Comic-Con in my life: I’ve been married to my wife only one year longer than I’ve been married to Comic-Con. Comic-Con and I have been an item since July, 1988; I got married the previous Halloween, so there’s not even a full year between these two anniversaries. Not celebrating the one felt wrong.

Oh, to be sure there was “Comic-Con @ Home,” in which the people behind the Con put together digital versions of what they could of the Con. And I give huge props to the very nice people who run Comic-Con for making the effort. Untold millions of people who’d wanted to attend for years and years (and years) were finally able to get some semblance of Comic-Con (even though that semblance essentially boiled down to watching prerecorded videos of people talking about comic books and, I guess, other, lesser, pop culture).

I too partook.

  1. I watched a panel covering the debate over who deserves what credit for the Marvel Age of Comics, Stan Lee or Jack Kirby. (On which panel former Marvel editor Danny Fingeroth, who worked with Stan, said the intellectual property was jointly created, but the brand was all Stan. He gets points from me re the brand statement — the way covers were designed and written with blurbs seemingly ripped from the sort of movie posters young people couldn’t resist in the 1960s, and the way the urgent, melodramatic dialogue separated the entire line from, say, the assembly line monotony of Justice League of America dialogue, in which every character, whether Batman or Wonder Woman, had all the personality of See Spot Run, Run Run Run — but re the IP, i.e., the characters and storylines, I’d have to point out that Kirby did that for decades before Stan, and also for decades after Stan, and Stan was part of that only with Kirby. Kirby invented whole genres of comics that are now generating billions of dollars of revenue, while Stan was succeeding mostly at promotion.)
  2. I started watching a panel on the recently deceased Denny O’Neil, one of the most influential comics writers. I knew Denny when I was much younger (as I wrote about here), and although I knew he wasn’t well these past few years, his death still felt like a shock, like another part of my own history slipping away. (One advantage of Comic-Con @ Home: I can watch the rest later.)
  3. And I completely loved the latest iteration of Scott Shaw!’s “Oddball Comics” slideshow. I’ve seen this presentation of the strangest, wackiest, lewdest, most just-plain wrong comics almost every year for 30 years, and can testify that this year was the best presentation ever. (Here, judge for yourself.)

But what made that so completely hilarious? Yes — Scott’s clever deadpan narration. And all the new books slotted in this year. But also: I was a little down in the dumps about not having a physical Comic-Con to go to — and so enlisted my friends Paul and Joe, who also love Scott’s show, and the three of us watched it at the same time and group-texted throughout. So: For those 80 minutes at least we had a more vibrant simulacrum of Comic-Con.

Because without driving down in a vehicle stuffed with friends and suitcases, and a suite we’d all be staying in, and cigars, and drinks and poker in the room, and meals around San Diego, and laughing our fool asses off for five days… it just wasn’t Comic-Con. I congratulate the Comic-Con organizers for making their best attempt, and they accomplished a lot, and a lot of people, including me, are grateful. Moreover, they made the entire affair free.

But it wasn’t Comic-Con.

The other thing I missed about the Comic-Con that wasn’t? Getting to spend hours pawing through thousands of glorious moldering old comic books. So I decided to pull out 15 of my own long boxes (about a third of my collection — er, “investment,” in case my wife reads this) and “reorganize” them.

Which not only made me feel physically better — but enabled me to make a list of the comics I’m going to look for at the 2021 Comic-Con. In person.

Actual Comic-Con at Home

Breaking with tradition

July 22nd, 2020

Any other year, I and between three and eight pals would now be tumbling out of a tightly packed minivan and into Comic-Con down in San Diego. But, this isn’t just any year. No, this is the year of the pandemic, when the Con is virtual (and, let’s face it, not really “the Con”) and I’m posting this blog from my bedroom. Insert sad-face here.

It is nice to see, though, that the convention center is missing us, too. Comic-Con has been held at the “new” convention center since 1991, so my relationship with the Con, which I started attending annually in 1988 predates that of the convention center. I hope we’re just taking a breather here and this isn’t the end of the relationship. I gather that the convention center feels the same way — hence this video.

Yes, I’ll attend some virtual panels. (At the very least, Scott Shaw!’s Oddball Comics presentation, tomorrow at noon.) And I recognize, in all fairness, that at least this year all eleventy billion people who’d like to go to the Con can finally get in. And although I can’t paw through hundreds of thousands of delicious decades-old comic-books at the Con, I did receive a couple dozen in the mail today courtesy of my pursuits on eBay. But what about poker parties in our hotel room? The virtual Con has no way to make up for that annual tradition!

What’s next

July 19th, 2020

This weekend, as with most weekends recently, has been consumed with straightening up my comic-book collection and working on my new play. I’m slowly running out of thousands of old comic books that still need to be paired with nice plastic bags and boards and carefully slid into comics storage boxes, and I also may finally be running out of ways to rewrite the same 119 pages, at least in a way that theoretically improves upon them. I’ve already got more delicious rotting old comic books on their way to my house, courtesy of eBay and Mercari, and at some point I suppose this play will be done.

This morning I had a very nice surprise on the weekly Pere Ubu live show on Patreon when the band’s manager, the smart and very talented Kiersty Boon, sang me happy birthday, which even earned a nod from David Thomas. Again, a nice surprise. If you’re not on the Ubu Patreon platform yet, you’re going to want to watch that and much here, so here’s the link. Earlier in the week, I had posted on Facebook that all I wanted for my birthday was a new-new Pere Ubu album (a new one having just come out a month or so ago), at which a fellow fan and friend remonstrated, “Oi, Lee! You’re such a greedy boy!” But on the show, Kiersty and David announced that there is now indeed a new-new Pere Ubu album available for download, proving yet again that when you want something, you should put that want out into the universe in order for it to happen. In retrospect, I wish I had wanted Donald Trump out of office for my birthday.

While doing my self-appointed chores today (laundry; work on play; straighten up more comics; complete the online Sudoku Mega; pick more avocados from our tree for my wife to barter at work), I still found time to take on a bunch of objectivists, libertarians and crackpots on the Facebook page dedicated to the late Steve Ditko, best known as co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and as an acolyte of Ayn Rand. The thread started when someone posted a lunkhead op-ed claiming that the nation had met its ruin because we weren’t adhering to the most extreme sort of religious evangelism, and equating protesters with rioters (never mind that the nation was founded protesters who rioted, and that most of us who have protested several times in our lives have never once rioted). When, finally, after much back-and-forth between myself and several other people posting, the original author admitted that he’d never even read the thing he linked to, for which he then got eviscerated by others, I declared victory and left the discussion. But not before one of the commenters assured us all that if he were in charge, this rebellion would be put down fast! I offered that Google could provide driving directions, should he gather the momentum, and that in the meantime he should beware paper cuts while reading those old comics.

Whenever I finish a TV show or movie or book, I get an email from Netflix or Goodreads asking me “What’s next?” Y’know what, guys? When I know, you’ll know. Let’s just leave it at that. Especially in 2020, no one knows what’s next.