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


Blog

Today’s (documentary) music video

May 8th, 2014

When I was 15 and unexpectedly editing a rock and roll newspaper that was distributed free around Atlantic County, New Jersey, free records were shipped to my home by record companies with delightful regularity.

One day I opened a thin square box and pulled out an album with the odd title Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! . I slapped that record onto my stereo, was jolted and thrilled by a sound I’d heard nowhere else, and played that record over and over almost until the groove on each side wore flat. To this day, the Devo version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is the right one, and those Rolling fellows are pretenders.

So imagine my thrill that someone is, finally, making what I hope will be a definitive documentary about Devo. Here’s a five-minute preview, covering the origin of the band as a reaction and response to lackadaisical hippies. (Which just makes me love them all the more.)

 

What post-apocalypse sounds like

May 7th, 2014

What does Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road sound like when “transcribed” by a computer into piano music? Like this:

 

 

Sounds about right.

A reminder not to be so quick to judge

May 6th, 2014

Muscle memory

May 5th, 2014

 

A week ago, my company moved to a new location, about a mile and a half from the old location, but far removed from the enormous infrastructural upset about to be occasioned by a massive freeway project. To give you an example of the impacts of said project:  In March, the state agency put up signs announcing that starting in May, San Fernando Boulevard would be permanently closed. What was our address? 2319 N. San Fernando Boulevard.

Given that we were moving, I decided to make some improvements in my own office, things that would help me keep my desk from looking like a landing strip for paper debris, and that would help me streamline my day so that I can do more writing. (That is, when I’m not on the phone. A few years ago when someone asked my wife what I do for a living, she said, “He talks to people all day and they give him money.”) If you’re going to move, you might as well move everything into a better position at the same time. So:  we’ve moved the file drawers of my plays and essays and short stories and correspondence and other miscellany that isn’t readily needed into an alcove outside my office, and we’ve freed up more room within arm’s reach for things I use regularly. The interior designers have come in several times and made small adjustments and it’s gotten better and better. As of today, I can shred documents, print papers, use my laptop, and otherwise lay hands on all the necessary equipment of my daily endeavors with a mere swivel of my seat. The ergonomic accomplishment of this reassures me that, yes, we will be able to put people on Pluto quite comfortably and soon.

But here’s what hasn’t kept up:  my brain. So far, my muscle memory is outlifting all of that spatial engineering.

Every time I go to get my car keys, I reflexively reach over to the left — where they are no longer kept. The printer is no longer behind me, but that’s where I’m always reaching. The used paper I flip over and feed into said printer, to save both money and the environment? No, it isn’t in a drawer beneath the printer now, it’s in a drawer to the left of that. And on and on. I almost feel like I’m performing that exercise Andre Gregory recommends in My Dinner With Andre, where you use your non-dominant hand all day and thus reawaken yourself to experience — but go psychotic at the same time, because everything is complicated by sudden awareness.

What I’ve become newly aware of is just how strong muscle memory is — how quickly the brain develops shortcuts that speed up our processes but diminish our sensitivity to experience, and how loath it is to give them up. Sure, I could put everything back where it used to be, but where’s the progress in that?  As a thinking person, as someone who believes in mind over muscle, I refuse to give in. Which just leaves me wondering:  Although we know it becomes harder to remember things as we age, just how long does it take for your muscles to forget?

 

Dick Ayers, R.I.P.

May 5th, 2014

 

I was sorry to learn tonight of the death of comics artist Dick Ayers at age 90. Ayers drew or inked a lot of notable comics, including Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos and Fantastic Four, and he may have been the last surviving Marvel artist of the early 1960′s*. The comic I most associate him with is the original Ghost Rider, a Western hero who predated the motorcycle-riding Ghost Rider (and who was later renamed Night Rider to eliminate that confusion).

But that’s not the primary way I remember Dick Ayers. Dick Ayers was also the first, or one of the first, pro interviews I got for the comics fanzines I published in my teens in the 1970′s. He lived in upstate New York, where a young artist named Rich Mayone who drew comic strips for my fanzine heard about him and was able to get an interview. Here’s how Rich pitched the interview to me (and I’m paraphrasing): “There’s a guy around here, an inker, who did a lot of Marvel comics. Mostly Westerns, but still, it was Marvel.” As is typical with 14-year-olds, neither of us had any awareness of, and probably not much interest in, what this artist had been doing even five years earlier.

 

*update, two-and-a-half hours later:  (Other than a guy named Steve Ditko!)

 

Hidden messages corrupting our children

May 2nd, 2014

From Disney and Pixar, no less!

Jim or gym?

April 30th, 2014

This morning I was awakened at the bloodcurdling time of 7:30 a.m. by a frantic call from my 15-year-old daughter. She had forgotten her homework on her desk at home, it was due today, and it was worth “FIFTY POINTS!” I didn’t know the relative value of that — 50 points out of 100? Out of one million? And points toward what? — and, in fact, I knew relatively little about anything at that hour, including who this was who was calling me so urgently (I announced myself as “Lee,” when my actual name in this circumstance should have been “Dad.”). All I could make out in my head-swimming confusion was that this sounded serious, so I agreed to get those papers and run them over to her high school.

By the time I was there, I was fully awake, or at least more fully awake, or perhaps more honestly less completely non-awake, so I stopped at the local Fresh & Easy to pick up something to eat for breakfast. I was checking out various types of yogurt and of fruit when a dark-haired guy in a tank top whirled around and said to me, “Heeyyyy!!!”

I looked at him blankly and said back, with less enthusiasm, “Hey.”

“How are you?” he said. “You must live around here.”

“Not really. I’m just here because I had to run my daughter’s homework to her high school.” Even while saying this, I wondered why I was sharing this information so freely. Important rule: When in doubt, do not share information freely. Yes, I have watched too many spy dramas.

I eyed him further. He looked familiar — but frankly, who doesn’t? Everybody looks a little like someone else, unless you’re dealing with an outlier like Richard the Third or Peter Dinklage. Was he a former student from USC? Could have been. Support staff for a client? Long-ago member of my writing workshop? A guy from the gym where I work out? Looked like he could be one of those guys from the gym — but it was hard to tell because he wasn’t naked and sweating. (Thankfully.) “I can’t place you,” I finally said. This was a line I had heard on “Mad Men” the other night and liked.

“Jim,” he said.

“Oh. Jim,” I repeated. I still had no idea who he was. “Good seeing you.”

I went back to my shopping. A few minutes later, as he left, he said, “See you later.”

“Okay!” I called back, still puzzling over this. Then I wondered, was he saying his name is “Jim,” or was he saying that he knew me from the gym? Maybe this line from “Mad Men” wasn’t as useful as I thought it would be when I’d heard it — maybe it wasn’t specific enough.

Or, maybe, this guy didn’t know me at all, and was pranking me in a way my girlfriend and I used to do eons ago on the boardwalk of Wildwood, NJ when we would accost unsuspecting middle-aged women and address them as “Mrs. McGillicuddy.”

Unless I see this guy again — at the gym, perhaps — I won’t know if he’s Jim or “gym.” Or if I was a McGillicuddy.

The unreleased alternate opening to “Gravity”

April 21st, 2014

This really puts everything into a new light.

Thank you, Mr. President

April 14th, 2014

A week and a half ago, my friend and his wife went in for full physicals. This was the first time in 10 years they’d done this. Why not sooner? Because they’re both healthy and fit, and because they’ve been keeping a close eye on their medical expenses due to being self-insured for years — about 10 years, actually, since they closed their business. Their plan cost them about $900 a month, with a $15,000 annual deductible. Which has meant that they’ve been spending about $20,000 out of pocket every year on health insurance and medical expenses. Or, over those 10 years, about $200,000.

When you pay this way, they tell me, you really see what medical expenses cost. At one point, one of them went in for a relatively minor procedure, one that had them visiting the hospital for maybe two hours, and seeing a doctor for less than half an hour. Total bill: $7600. Which they paid out of pocket. With costs like that, you start to see why they’ve worked to keep their medical expenses as low as possible.

But now, newly insured under the Affordable Care Act (which, compared to the $20,000 or more a year they had been spending, is living up to its name), they were covered for full health exams. So they went in. And found out that my friend has cancer. One large-ish tumor that was classified as either a Stage 3 or a Stage 4 carcinoma, along with two smaller tumors. When he told me this late last week, it felt like the world had caved in on me; if it felt that way to me, I definitely cannot grasp how it felt to him and to his wife.

I didn’t post this until today because today was his surgery, and it sounds like everything went fine. I expected it to go well — I spent some time reading up on the kind of cancer he has, and checked in with some professionals about it — and even told him yesterday over the phone that while I care about him, I wasn’t worried about him, because the odds of his success were so very great, and that I was certain we’d have another 30 or 40 years to this great friendship because the statistics were good, and also because I need those years and am counting on them. Nevertheless, I was expecting a call from his wife early afternoon today, but as the day wore on and still I hadn’t heard anything I felt a thick dull heaviness descend upon me. Finally, at 7:15 in the evening, she called to tell me everything had gone right.

This is the story of only one of three close friends I have who are fighting cancer. I have another friend who just beat it. The odds are almost 50-50 that you and I will get it too. These other friends, and I, have robust health-insurance plans — but now I’m thinking about the many, many friends I have who in the past couple of months have gratefully posted on Facebook that now, finally, they have health insurance, thanks to Obamacare. They were unemployed, or self-employed, and they never could have afforded even the high-deductible plan my friends had. Under the old system they would have just died, or they would have gone to the hospital and been bankrupted. Now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and thanks to the president who was determined to make it happen, they’re covered.

As my friend’s wife said to me yesterday about my friend, “Basically, Obamacare saved his life.”

How to start writing a new play, the easy way

April 5th, 2014

1. Go see a really good play that winds up inspiring you.
2. Come home and in a matter of minutes write five pages of a new play.

At least, that’s what I just did. Congrats to Trey Nichols for Fathers at a Game, now running at Moving Arts. Thanks for the five pages (so far) that that has led to.