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


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Out of focus

August 24th, 2017

The irony of Evernote sending me this email may be lost on them. (As is the irony of my taking the time to post it here.)

And no, I didn’t read more.

Avoid focus-stealing traps: Four tips for improving concentration
Between phone alerts, social media, and tasks competing for our attention, we’re in a constant state of distraction. How can we stay focused? Read more about how focus works and get tips for maintaining concentration.

How the Millennials are killing Applebee’s and 18 other familiar things

August 23rd, 2017

I have no great love for Applebee’s (but I’d take it over the local Big Boy) — and neither do the Millennials. According to this article, their “psychological scar” resulting from the Great Recession has them attacking all sorts of formerly favorite American hangouts and activities.

Either that, or — and this is my theory — they’re so stressed for money due to their underemployment and relative low pay that, no, they can’t go hit the golf course.

A third theory:  Maybe they just need some Irish to straighten them out.

How the Germans saved Western civilization

August 22nd, 2017

On Monday, I took an old friend to lunch. He’s an old friend secondly because we’ve been friends for 11 years, and firstly because he was born in 1928. I told him I’d take him anywhere he liked for lunch, and unfortunately it turns out he likes Bob’s Big Boy.

I liked Bob’s Big Boy when I was 10, because the Big Boy had his own line of comics — “Adventures of the Big Boy” — and while they were lame, hey, at least they were comic books. Whenever our family would drive from our home in southern New Jersey the six or so hours to my mother’s birthplace of Johnstown, PA for a visit, I’d scream to stop at either the Bob’s Big Boy along the way so I could get one of those comics, or the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant (aka “HoJo’s”) because it had the most bizarre vending machine, where you could get miniature flashlights, and pocket knives, and rabbit’s feet, and other sorts of novelties and useless gadgets manufactured precisely to delight 8-year-old boys. Although five Bob’s Big Boy locations remain in Southern California, and several dozen in the midwest, they’re all gone now from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and there is only one HoJo’s left anywhere in the universe, in snowy upstate New York.

It had been about 10 years since I’d eaten at the Bob’s Big Boy that my friend had selected, not since the time I had lunch there with Robert Patrick, who played the evil Terminator in “Terminator 2.” I don’t know what Bob had — I couldn’t quite see over to his table near me — but what I had that time would have been turned down by a vulture. Still, I was game to see my friend because I like him, because he’s my friend, and because, well, tempus fugit (remember, born in 1928). I had a hankering for fried chicken, so when we sat down, sandwiched in as we were in a booth sideways along the backsides of a row of middle-aged people in a large booth enduring the offspring of their offspring, that’s what I ordered.

My friend was eager to tell me all about a few different books he’d recently read, all revolving around the premise that it was the Irish who had won the American Revolution, the Irish who had enabled all of our advances, and the Irish who had saved Western civilization. (I should note that, shockingly, he is of Irish descent.) Not having been aware that anyone had saved Western civilization — I’ve actually been rather worried about it, especially the past eight months — I leaned in to hear more. I also leaned in to hear more because, while my hearing is pretty good, the Big Boy’s acoustics are pretty bad, especially against the din of many diners. My chicken arrived, extra salty and deeply coated in impregnable roofing shingles, and as I struggled to eat any of it or the gluey mashed potatoes snuggling against it, I started to listen.

It turned out that the Irish had won the American Revolution because they stayed in the field at Valley Forge while others went home; that they had saved Western civilization because they made a secret deal with Rome to save all the best knowledge; and that they were connected to every essential advance because, I think, there was always some Irish guy around at the right time. That seemed to be the gist of it.

He offered to lend me one of the corroborating books that prove all of this beyond any doubt, but I begged off. “I have 78 books in my reading queue,” I said, which is true. By the time I would get to reading his book, we’d need some Irish to save us from the war with our own Martian colony.

“I haven’t read these books–” I started.

“I’ll lend them to you!” he offered again.

“–But these sound like they selected their facts. You know:  You decide the story you want to tell, then you choose the facts that fit and build your interpretation around them.”

To support my point, I said I was going to write a book entitled “How the Germans Saved Western Civilization.”

“It’s simple,” I said. “They set such a terrible example in the 20th century, what with those two world wars and all that genocide, that suddenly people had to set up systems to protect us from them! After World War II, it became clear that we needed a United Nations, and the Geneva Convention of 1949, and the Germans needed to learn the lesson of their history and teach it to future generations. Now, in our apparent absence, they seem to be the keepers of the flame of Western democracy. Thank God for the Germans!”

(Perhaps I should note that I am of German descent.)

After lunch, I dropped my friend off to the dentist. He is able-bodied, but was in for a painful procedure. Looking on the bright side, I told him he was lucky he still had his teeth. (We’ll see how well I do, 35 years from now.)

Tonight, while at the gym, I was reminded of our lunchtime discussion of the previous day. While I was working out, Republican President Donald Trump — and that’s what I’m going to keep calling him, to make a point and to keep making it — Republican President Donald Trump came on the television with remarks from his campaign rally in Phoenix. I had gone to the gym to lose weight, and wound up losing my mind instead, suffering through this insufferable speech against the backdrop of 30 minutes on an elliptical trainer set to level 10. Trump went on and on about how the “fake news media” had inaccurately reported his comments about Charlottesville, VA — but then carefully elided the words that got him into deservedly deep water:  “on both sides.” He kept reading, and rereading, the sections where he condemned the actions of people in the event, but never once read three words:  “on both sides,” as in condemning the violence “on both sides” and blaming people “on many sides.” He seemed to find all the words surrounding those words — all the others that sounded better — but left out the precise ones that everyone else, particularly Klan leader David Duke, heard and seized on. To support his latest version of the argument, he had selected only the words he wanted.

Ah, I thought, I recognize this sort of argument. It’s a sort of fake news of itself — the selective use of facts, leading to selective interpretation. Kind of like how the Germans saved Western civilization.

 

I’ll save you the money

August 6th, 2017

“Dunkirk” is overly loud and underly plotted, with artsy time-shifting that does more to confound than to explicate, while deserving of a Best Actor nomination for Tom Hardy’s left eye, which is all we see of him behind goggles throughout the movie.

Why you may not have seen this post

August 4th, 2017

Because, as of this writing, there were 3.6 million other blog posts today.

We have to figure at least a few of them were more interesting than this one.

“We didn’t have to talk”

August 2nd, 2017

Smith-My-Buddy

Patti Smith’s terse but beautiful remembrance of her close friend Sam Shepard.

Sam Shepard, R.I.P.

July 31st, 2017

I was sad to awaken this morning to the news of Sam Shepard’s death. Shepard is one of those playwrights who reignited my passion for the theatre while I was in college. I had a copy of “Seven Plays,” which includes Buried Child, True West, La Turista, and other plays I’ve grown to cherish. At one point, desperate for cash, I sold that book back to the college bookstore — and, of course, found several years later that I just had to buy it again.

Shepard’s dialogue and prose were seductively plainspoken, but the meaning of his work was always deeper and more elliptical — something that, to me, made his writing a cousin to that of Cormac McCarthy. I strongly recommend his book of essays, The Motel Chronicles, and the excellent filmed stage production of True West starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, which is available in full on YouTube.

I’m just sorry there won’t be any more.

The terrible prescience of “Glengarry Glen Ross”

July 30th, 2017

On this blog, I write about Donald Trump as little as I can bear; he already hogs too much of my day everywhere else, so I don’t want it here as well.

But I can’t resist linking to this terrific little piece that compares Trump, and his latest amanuensis Anthony Scaramucci, with a character in the 1992 film version of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” As this piece notes, the stage version doesn’t include the much-loved opener with Alec Baldwin, which has continues to serve as an unfortunate model for some. (Just this past week, someone in the business world brought the Baldwin character up to me — and was dumbfounded to learn that it isn’t in the stage version.)

Anyway, here’s the piece. It’s an all-too-true characterization of the current president of the United States.

The weekend

July 30th, 2017

FRIDAY

On Friday night I was supposed to go to the gym. “Supposed to” means that I had put it into my schedule, so that if I didn’t go, I had broken a promise to myself. On Friday I thought about this and decided that I didn’t owe myself any favors — what had I ever done for myself anyway? — so I broke that promise and went home instead to spend some time with my wife and our teenage son and daughter. Instead, my wife and daughter decided that they were going to the gym. This is the point in the story where, not wanting to be Alanis, I once again look up “irony” to see if this fits.

When they finally came home, we played Cosmic Encounter. Because I bought the first edition of this in 1977 directly from the game makers at a science-fiction convention in Philadelphia and have been playing it ever since, this game ranks as one of the best investments of my life. Certainly far better than my purchase about 15 years ago, of stock in a company manufacturing briquettes; the stock now being worthless, that money literally went up in smoke. We played two games, and I forget which alien race I was in each game, and I won one and lost one. Which is not how I like it to work. We’ve been a game-playing family through the ages, and throughout my childhood, my mother said, “Lee doesn’t like to lose.” Whether it was Risk, or Monopoly, or 500 Rummy, or whatever else, she’d note, “Lee doesn’t like to lose.” Finally, in a fit of exasperation, I said, “Who would like to lose? You know who likes to lose? Losers!” It’s still a head-scratcher to me. Regarding my 50% success rate on Friday night in Cosmic Encounter, I will just say “I’ll be back.”

SATURDAY

Saturday morning I got up early, as I have most Saturdays for the past 24 years, to go lead my playwriting workshop. The plays from the nine other playwrights in the workshop run the gamut of subjects: there’s a historical play; a play somewhat in the vein of something by Rod Serling; a personal memoir; a comic look at a potential impact of Trump’s immigration policy; and others. We also bade a sad farewell to a playwright who, for career reasons, has to move back to New York. I will miss that guy — a lot — but he’s promised to come back and visit.

Afterward, I stopped by my office (I must check the mail every Saturday, must!, due to my lifelong obsession with the mail and what it might bring). Then I went to Boston Market. Boston Market is a fast-casual restaurant with semi-healthy chicken and sides that I like, like green beans and steamed vegetables. In my middle age, I’ve become somewhat of a tightwad about certain things. I love it when my supermarket of choice, Ralphs, mails me coupons (in the mail!); I eagerly tear them along their perforations and carefully organize them by date and tuck them into a little folder packet (also mailed to me by Ralphs) and otherwise treat them like little baby chicks. Then, on grocery shopping day, I will triumphantly present them all at Ralphs and wow the checker and my kids with how much I’ve saved and how many groceries I got for so little money and will also tell everyone assembled yet again that I am charging my groceries on my credit card that accrues airline miles and that I’m going to pay the charge the moment I get home and that by using this system I’ve already got 25,000 more airline miles this year and can fly anywhere I want in the U.S. for free. Yes, I have become that guy. What does this have to do with Boston Market? In perhaps the strangest promotion I’ve ever seen at a semi-healthy fast-casual restaurant, Boston Market offers buy-one-get-one-free meals on Saturday. So now I’m going there about two Saturdays a month. On this particular Saturday, I took the extra meal home, where no one expressed any interest in eating it — not my wife, my daughter, her boyfriend, or my son. Certainly the dog would have happily eaten all of it, but she just lost a pound or two when the kids and I were out of town for a week and the wife wouldn’t give her any “people food,” and I didn’t want to find myself back in the dog house.

Instead, I took that meal to the Pasadena Pops at the LA County Arboretum that night. As sponsors, my company has a 10-top table. Interestingly, once the rejected free meal from Boston Market was presented atop a white linen tablecloth, with Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Symphony playing enchanting music and against the backdrop of a clear, warm evening, my wife and daughter became interested in the chicken, green beans, and macaroni and cheese. My wife also brought an array of snacks all made from figs (our fig tree has fruited), including fig cookies and fig bread and fig spread — I’m not exaggerating — and at least one of these was surprisingly good. At some point, Michael Feinstein introduced a song that I so thoroughly enjoyed (“Is You Is or Is You Ain’t,” recorded by Louis Jordan) that I promptly jumped onto my iPhone and bought it. He also delivered a striking impression of Louis Armstrong singing “Hello Dolly,” which reminded me that almost 30 years ago, I met its composer and lyricist, Jerry Herman, courtesy of my then-professor, the playwright Jerome Lawrence. Once upon a time, I didn’t much care about meeting people like Jerry Herman; now I look back and wish I’d taken some notes or something. As it is, the most I can remember about the encounter was wondering at the time whether or not Mickey Rooney was shorter.

After the show, my guests and I went to the reception briefly and then spent some time driving around and around the nearby mall in an effort to find the tucked-away illegal spot where my nephew had left his car.

SUNDAY

I read the paper, uncharacteristically had a second mug of coffee, fielded an unpleasant email exchange, discussed family business with my family-business partner (repairs to her minivan; what to do with these rotten kids), and then our son clarified why he’d been so impatient to get into the garage and interrupt our business meeting: It had suddenly occurred to him that his older brother’s old Game Boy cartridges were in that garage somewhere, and could be sold at a local used-games store. Now the kid needed a ride. We negotiated a split — I wanted five bucks to drive him there and back, really, I promise you, because it’s my mission to impart the value of money and labor — and headed off for the store.

I was more than a little surprised when the handful of obsolete 15-year-old cartridges netted him $59.50. Rather than flat rate, I should have negotiated a percentage! When my ID was entered into their system, it turned out that I’d last come to this store in 2006, when his older brother was about the same age, so that he could sell off games even older than these. If we had a different president, I might imagine I could be making this same trip in another 10 years or more with a grandchild, but under the current administration all bets for the future are off.

On the way home, it being the weekend of National Chicken Wing Day, we went to Wingstop, where the lemon-pepper wings are very very good. (I offer this as free advice: Go to Wingstop and get the lemon-pepper wings. You’re welcome.) These were, as per usual, delectable. My only sadness: Noting that if we’d gone the previous day, on actual National Chicken Day, we could’ve gotten five extra wing pieces thrown in free! But, as you can see above, I was booked.

The surprise ending to the most frightening sequel

July 26th, 2017

“The Conjuring” scared the pants off me, and there’s a new sequel, “Annabelle: Creation,” opening soon.

But the frights to be found there pale in comparison to those forecast in “An Inconvenient Sequel,” the followup to Al Gore’s previous documentary warning about global warming. The new one opens this Friday.

Last night, I took my two teenagers and a friend of mine to an invited preview of the film at the Arclight Cinema in Hollywood. I wanted them to see what we’re up against with climate change, and also, I hoped, to see that there are people working on solutions (or improvements). But inwardly, I feared that the movie would be so bleak it’d leave us feeling hopeless — much as a close friend told me that a recent piece about global warming in The New Yorker left her feeling.

Yes, the film shows the ravages of melting ice, surging hurricanes and rising ocean waters, both here and abroad. But to my great surprise, it’s frequently funny and terrifically hopeful. The pace of technological advance is great, as are the numbers of people and nations working on solutions. If the movie sometimes candy-coats the situation — yes, we are moving away from fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be somehow restoring melted glaciers — it also ends with rousing optimism, as Al Gore documents the previous struggles that humankind has surmounted.

The former vice president was present at the theatre for a talkback. Yes, he said, sometimes he despairs — but he noted that even some naysayers are coming around, and that last week here in California eight Republican members of the state Assembly voted with Democrats to pass cap-and-trade legislation. (He also shared that one of his “personal heroes,” Governor Jerry Brown, was at that moment in the next screening room watching the movie.) Every great campaign for progress has setbacks: the film documents a particular instance with a research satellite getting decommissioned courtesy of Bush/Cheney, and of course also the perfidious presidency of Donald Trump. However: the film also shows Gore and others working a deal that convinces India not to build 400 (!) new coal-burning plants, plus an impressive graphic depicting the increase in renewable energy production.

I didn’t expect to leave the theatre feeling that my hope was renewed, but it was. My friend felt the same way, and told me he’d feared that it would be depressing.

Now I’m urging everyone to see the film. Go see it, learn about the real-world, right-now, impacts of global warming on places you’re familiar with — places like Miami (which is partly underwater), Nebraska, New Orleans, New Jersey, and Manhattan, all of them shown on-screen under siege from radical new weather.

And then see how tomorrow isn’t impossible. Want to feel that progress is possible about the greatest challenge facing all of humankind? Then this is the film for you.

One final thing: Al Gore has been working on this issue as a personal mission since the 1980’s — the movie shows scenes to this effect. Given the work he’s been doing in build coalitions and making deals that help address this issue, he may be our greatest ex-president. I was happy to shake his hand after the screening.