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


A play for Keith

May 13th, 2024

Setting: Lee, 61, is sitting comfortably in a cushioned chair on his mother’s enclosed porch on a warm late afternoon. To his left is his friend Keith, a good-looking man in his late 60’s with warm eyes and a voice touched by honey and silk. Also present, Lee’s mother, aged 98, and her old friend Sue.

Lee (to Keith.): It’s nice to see you.

Keith (cheerily.) It’s nice to be here!

Lee sips coffee from a flowered teacup, part of his mother’s set that she’s used for thirty or forty years or more. Keith also has a cup, as do Sue and Mom.

Lee: Did you hear me on National Public Radio today?

Sue: I did!

Mom: I did too!

Keith:  Sorry, no.

Keith’s phone buzzes. He looks at it.

Keith (cont.): Sorry, I have to take this. It’s London.

He rises, phone in hand. He starts to walk inside.

Lee(calling after.): Keith, wait. Wait! Keith! Before you go!

Keith comes back in, barely.

Lee: Before you go. Didn’t you… die? I remember you dying. A few months ago. Didn’t you die?

Pause. Finally:

Keith (it dawning on him.): I… do remember that.

Lee: Me too.

Now no one knows what to say. 

Lee (Cont.): Go take your call, then we can talk. But you come back, hear? You come back.

Keith:  Okay.

Keith goes back inside.

 Mom: I thought he was dead. That’s why when I heard he was coming over I waxed the floors!

 Lee: Yeah, he died in January. I don’t think either of us expected it.

Sue: Who is he again?

Lee: One of my closest friends, for a period. We did a lot of plays together. I really loved him and miss him. I didn’t expect him to die!

Sue: Oh, nobody ever expects it.

Keith returns.

Lee (re the phone call.): Well?

Keith: It was nothing.

Lee: I was just telling Sue and my mom how much I miss you. Miss knowing you’re around. Really didn’t expect you to go.

Keith: No, me neither.

Mom: That’s what Lee was sayin’!

Lee: It’s nice that you came back to say hi.

Mom (to Keith.): Did you eat yet?

Keith: I’m good, thanks. (He gets up.) Well….

Lee: Well. (A beat.) Is it nice?

The setting melts away, and Mom and Sue with it. Now Lee and Keith are in a mausoleum of sorts: Keith’s final resting place as envisioned by Lee in this dream.

 Lee (cont.): Looks nice! For… y’know.

They walk down three steps, taking it in, and come to Keith’s casket, tucked around an inside corner. It’s open. Keith runs his hands over the fabric within.

Keith (with appreciation.): Velvet…!

Lee: Very nice.

Keith: Feels soft. 

Lee: (ruminating.) I just realized that Mom is dead too.

Keith: Really.

Lee: Yeah. One month before you. But she was 98! Sue died a long time ago; I always liked her.


Keith (eyeing his coffin.): Well….

Lee: Nice seeing you, Keith! Didn’t think I’d get the chance. Be well.

Keith: You too.

The setting shifts again, to the morning of May 13, 2024. Now Lee is in his bed, having just awakened.

Lee (To us.): Hah! I guess I got to do one last play with Keith. (A beat.) Although given the chance, I would’ve done better. Given them more to say to each other. It was just so nice to see him that we didn’t need to say much.


By any other name

April 21st, 2024

One of my neighbors, a middle-aged Latino in his front yard on the block behind my house, introducing himself while my son and I were walking by with our dogs:

“My name is Jose…

“But people call me Tony…

“Neighborhood Tony.”

Oh. Of course.

Dearly departed

March 22nd, 2024

Every time Facebook prompts me to wish Happy Birthday to a friend who’s dead, I rush over to their Facebook page to confirm that, yep, they’re still dead.

Nevertheless, it’s a friendly reminder every year of how much the dead friend meant to me.

I just wish I weren’t piling up so many of them in recent years.

Missing persons (in bands)

March 20th, 2024

I was excited last week to go with my son and a friend to see Buzzcocks and Modern English in concert at a smallish club here in Los Angeles. I’m a fan of both acts, and while I’ve seen Modern English several times, I’d never seen Buzzcocks.

Thing is:  I still don’t think I’ve seen Buzzcocks — and never will. “Buzzcocks” as we know them, are gone, their lead singer/guitarist/songwriter dead and his beautiful pitch with him, his role now filled awkwardly by their former bassist. I think of this incarnation as Buzzcock, singular. Buzzcock is enthusiastic, but he isn’t a lead guitarist and he certainly isn’t a lead vocalist and he clearly isn’t a frontman, because he doesn’t know how to get the audience going or how to command attention or even how to dress the part, looking very much like he’s a bloke who wandered in from the pub. He and the three fill-ins will, though, play most of the five songs you know, minus one of their hits because even he knows he can’t hit those notes. 

(The opening act for the evening, by the way, was The Reflectors, a young San Diego band whose members appear to be about one-third my age. My 21-year-old son disagreed, stating that I can’t accurately ascertain youth anymore, and that to him they looked to be in their 40s. “Even the 15-year-old Latino bass player?” I asked. “Oh, well, not him,” he replied. 

I do have some advice for the band:

The Reflectors’ drummer kept stretching to hit his cymbal in a way that I can confidently predict foreshadows a future rotator cuff injury, having one myself. It’s no fun. Maybe pull that drum kit together a little more. Which is what the drummer for Guns ‘n Roses once advised a drummer friend of mine; she said it worked miracles.

Second bit of advice:  Maybe vary the songs a bit. So that, y’know, 45 minutes sounds like there are individual songs in there. As my son said, “They need to find a new beat.” Exactly.

The final bit of advice:  If you’ve got two “lead” guitarists who both play the same three chords at the same time, fire the blond one who doesn’t sing and split your fee three ways instead of four. Instant payday!)

As for Modern English, my interest in them stems primarily from their keyboardist, Stephen Walker. I’ve been listening to this band for 40 years, and I can tell you that most of what’s interesting is coming from Mr. Walker. Modern English’s music is primarily power pop — a harder sound than mere new wave — but what sets it apart is the fills and the soundscapes and the occasional leads that Stephen Walker adds to everything. I like their songs, but it’s their sound that gets me, and that’s mostly Stephen Walker. I advised my son to watch the keyboardist when the band comes on, because that’s where it’s really happening.

So imagine my distress when the band came on without Stephen Walker, their member throughout their history.

Or their lead guitarist.

Instead, it was lead singer Robbie Grey, and their longtime bassist Michael Conroy with some drummer and a guitarist. And no keyboardist whatsoever.

Meaning that it didn’t really look like or sound like Modern English. (Even though, evidently, they’ve sampled some of the keyboard effects.) This was more like post-Modern English.

Their other members are still on their website, still listed on Wikipedia, and on their new album… so I dunno what’s going on. But I sure missed them!

All of this got me to think about music acts that are on tour. Are they really those acts?

I like The Stranglers, but I won’t go see them again, because, again, to me their keyboardist was essential to their sound and he died during the COVID pandemic. Now there’s only one original member left (a bassist again!), and I think of them as The Strangler. Singular.

Echo and the Bunnymen put on an erratic show, given the proclivities of their erratic frontman, but I recall the band as a foursome. Now there are two Bunnymen:  the singer and the guitarist. Is that really Echo and the Bunnymen?

I don’t like The Eagles, but is it still The Eagles without Glenn Frey? Even when you’ve replaced Glenn Frey with his son, Deacon Frey — who has now left the band anyway? Who’s going to be the next Eagle? Glenn Frey’s great-nephew?

I’ve seen The Beach Boys many times, dating back to the 1980s both on the beach in Atlantic City and at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and since then in Dallas in 2012 for their 50th anniversary tour and a few years afterward in a concert in Pasadena I was helping to promote. What’s touring under that name now is enjoyable, but it’s not The Beach Boys. There’s not one person named Wilson in it (understandable given that two of the Wilson brothers are dead and that the third sadly has dementia), it’s got one longtime replacement Beach Boy (that’d be Bruce Johnston, who by this point has earned the title Beach Boy having joined the band in 1965) and it’s got one actual key member of the band:  Mike Love. Is this the Beach Boys?

I know that seeing what’s left of these bands provides some real enjoyment to many people. If nothing else, it’s a chance to hear the songs you love played live. And in some cases, the replacement players are terrific. Poor Phil Collins can no longer play drums due to nerve damage, but I can tell you with authority that his son is a sensational drummer who manages to replicate his father’s drum sound and style while bringing added power. 

But I do wonder: If Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr went on tour as The Beatles, how would we feel?

What if Micky Dolenz toured as The Monkee? And, actually… he kinda does, and puts on a great show. But shouldn’t he change the lyric to: “Hey, hey, I’m the Monkee. People say I’m monkeying around….”

Not drinking with Bukowski

March 10th, 2024

I’m at a small-bore writing retreat somewhere in a small town in middle America at a string of scrubby individual motel rooms like one used to see, or still sees in resorts near, say, Big Bear, California, where each room is its own little building. Nearby there are classic decaying school buses, shallow puddles, patchy grass, and what looks like a rundown convenience store with some gas pumps.

I’m standing out there with my fellow five writers when our special famous writing guest walks up: Charles Bukowski. He looks the same as from all the photos we’ve seen. Except he’s wearing crocs. And he’s not drinking or smoking. Also, he isn’t ornery, just contrary. And useless as a writing instructor. When it comes time to read the first attending writer’s work, we settle into a circle of chairs and Bukowski decides that he will read the work aloud with her, and when he does so, he reads his parts as he imagines various characters would sound, filled with bellicosity for men or an off-putting flutiness for women. He’s putting his all into his terrible theatricality, at the expense of understanding any of the material. He’s so delighted by his own performance that he goes on far too long, leaving the rest of us to worry that he’s never going to get to our own material — although I’ve begun to think that I don’t want him to read any of mine anyway.

Recalling all the well-known people I’ve met in my life and never got a photo with, when we break and start for some reason to move into the surrounding woods, I ask Bukowski if I can take a photo with him. (I don’t use the word “selfie” because I hate the sound of it and because I’m sure Bukowski will mock me for using it.) He says, “Sure. Let me show you how it will look,” and takes my phone and starts taking photos purely of himself, framed by the trees and murky pools of water. I say no, that I want to be in it too, and he reluctantly allows this. The other writers stand around in judgment because I wanted a photo.

Somehow or other, we’re now inside in a cafeteria and Bukowski is getting passive-aggressively interviewed by a reporter. It’s clear she doesn’t like him and now I don’t either. Where did his fire go? Is this really the person whose novels I gobbled down, maybe 15 or 20 of them? Where’s the fun? Now she’s remarking to him that he hasn’t written a book in 20 years, and why not? And I think, Well, for one thing, he’s been dead for 40 years. Then it hits me: Waitaminnit, he’s dead!

And then I woke up.


February 7th, 2024

That’s how I feel about the death of a friend of 30 years, someone important in my life.

More about this when I gather myself up from it. (Probably this weekend.)

Glad I got to speak with him recently. At least I can say that.

Popular for whom?

January 30th, 2024

Popular Mechanics sent me an email promising to show me “How to Use a Tape Measure.”

I thought I knew how to use a tape measure, having used one since I was, oh, probably 6, and having grown up with a father whose company was always measuring and building things — like schools, gas stations, and roads and bridges.

But Popular Mechanics advised me that “There’s more to it than stretching it out and making a mark.” So I figured I’d open the email to learn more.

Never mind that I hadn’t subscribed to this newsletter of theirs, and in fact hadn’t even realized that Popular Mechanics is still being published. (Even if only digitally. Is there a print version? Who knows? I don’t.)

So, sure, I thought, count me as a click. I didn’t ask for this, but I’ll take a look.

Clicking to read produced this:

Leading me to wonder, if Popular Mechanics, a publication that’s been around for 122 years, hasn’t yet learned how to build readership through the internet, why should I trust them to show me how to use a tape measure?

Awards and rewards

January 23rd, 2024

“It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

That’s what someone I used to know would say during her Oscar party whenever the phone rang and she answered it. The joke being, of course, that that’s what nominees used to say in the press interviews when they’d lost:  “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

I say “used to say” because I haven’t watched the Oscars since I stopped going to that party, and that was… about 30 years ago… so I don’t know if the losers still say this. I don’t have anything against the Oscars, but I don’t have anything for them either. I don’t see many movies, the show isn’t very entertaining, if there is something entertaining no doubt it’ll be shared a zillion times on social media where I’ll come across it regardless, and overall I figure that rich celebrities already get enough attention.

So when Greta Gerwig got snubbed, with no nomination for Best Director, I couldn’t get worked up about it. I didn’t instantly assume that it was part of a vast anti-feminist conspiracy led by Academy voters, as evidently everyone on social media immediately began to claim. I just figured that most of the people who vote for these nominations gave more votes to other directors.

For the record, I thought “Barbie” was an astounding achievement. (Hey — a movie that I saw. And in a movie theatre!) But if we’re going to talk about theoretically deserving artists who never got the award that they were theoretically entitled to, well, that list will be very long indeed. 

Among many other distinguished personages, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, Akira Kurosawa, and Stanley freaking Kubrick never won an Oscar for Best Director. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a Pulitzer. Although Edward Albee did win the Pulitzer (three times), in 1963, the advisory jury nominated “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but the board awarded the prize to… no one. (Maybe it’s not always an honor just to be nominated.)

The enormously influential Gertrude Stein never won the Nobel Prize for literature. (She did win the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.) Franz Kafka never won a prize of any sort (although there’s now one named for him).

Five times, Mahatma Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, without winning once. Meanwhile Henry Kissinger won the peace prize for murdering millions of people, and Barack Obama got one for doing nothing that merited it.

I could go on with lists of scientists, writers, painters, playwrights, business heroes both local and not, animal saviors, environmental champions, people of high talent or a do-gooding nature and on and on, who never got properly recognized, sometimes because people didn’t like their work, sometimes because they preferred other people’s work, sometimes because they just didn’t like these people, and sometimes because the decision was arbitrary.

Case in point:

One story goes that in 1969, the jury deciding the Nobel Prize for literature was evenly split between Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, three-to-three, with much heated debate. It was finally resolved when, after lunch, one of the Ionesco supporters, who also liked Beckett’s work, simply changed his vote. Result: a Nobel Prize for Beckett (who called winning it “a catastrophe”) and none for Ionesco, whose plays are less widely recognized and less frequently produced.

What will be the result for Greta Gerwig of this terrible snub? Probably $20 million to direct “Barbie 2.” Not the worst outcome.

The Big Uh-Oh

January 20th, 2024

Last night at the roller rink, a grown man about 15 years younger than me took a tumble and broke his wrist. They stopped the music, but even before that, you could hear his screams all through the hall. 

Uh oh. 

Last week I was thinking about a friend — actually, I got to thinking about him because I saw a writeup on a blog about a commercial he’d once done, with the recently departed Tommy Smothers — and so I messaged my friend and when days later I heard back from him I learned that he’s in the hospital. A fit man several years older than me, he was in the shower one morning when he found he couldn’t stand any more. Doctors are unsure, but believe he’s got Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Uh oh.

And then the other day I discovered that a former colleague, someone I saw a lot of from the mid-90s to the mid-aughts, had died from ALS. He died from it only a year or two after he retired.

Big uh oh.

Early last year, ALS also took the novelist Cai Emmons, whom I used to correspond with. 

(ALS, by the way, tops my list of Don’t Get This. Parkinson’s is in the top five, and now I’m adding Guillain-Barré syndrome. I don’t know how to Not Get These (no one does), but I certainly hope to find out and to pass it along.)

Oh, I’ve got my own little thing too, and it’s not going away, and it troubles me occasionally in bigger ways and chronically in smaller ways, but it in no way compares with, oh, multiple sclerosis. Or Crohn’s disease, which a longtime female friend of mine suffers from. 

About six months ago, a friend I’d drifted apart from in recent years let me know that he had cancer. Specifically, a large cancerous tumor, in an unimaginably bad place:  his anus. (If you just cringed, you’re in good company.) I think I can imagine how he found out; it seems like the sort of thing you’d notice when sitting down or, um, cleaning oneself.

I couldn’t understand why my girlfriend’s friends didn’t want to join us for an evening of roller skating to the music of David Bowie: Clearly, this was going to be brilliant unusual fun. We could relive our teen years, including skating to the dimmed lights and high-school-romance music of the “couples skate” while we coursed around the rink holding hands and waving to a camera. I also couldn’t understand why, when I posted a video of my lovely woman and me skating together, a friend commented, “You’re so brave!” My girlfriend told me her friends had concerns about broken bones, but to me fractures seemed unlikely — what could be the odds of that? No, I couldn’t reckon any of that until I saw the poor fellow with the broken wrist and listened to his shrieks.

Uh oh.

Because at some point the big uh-oh awaits all of us. The uh-oh that isn’t fixed with a splint or a treatment or even surgery. The uh-ohs before that are just practice. They’re just an early warning system — except they can leave you wondering, “is this the fire drill, or is this an actual fire?”

By the way, my friend with the anal tumor? It looks like it’s all cleared up, and he’s back to work. Another medical miracle, and I’m serious about that.

And, not to sound hopelessly optimistic and naïve here, but I did share with my hospitalized friend a recollection I had of reading an article 37 years ago about novelist Joseph Heller, who’d had Guillain-Barré — and made an enormous recovery, going on to marry the nurse who helped him to recover. And that was almost 40 years ago: Imagine how much better the medical science on this is now!

And the guy who broke his wrist? He texted me. (Yes, I know him.) He texted me to say he needs surgery, but “It’ll be okay. Don’t worry about it.”

And, finally, I should add that I know many people who’ve gotten some hideous unexpected diagnosis, some with the clichéd advisory that they have “six months to live” — and years later, they’re still here, healthy and plugging along.

When you get the big uh-oh, take heart. Maybe it’s not actually the big one. Maybe it’s the one you get to beat, until the real one arrives.

And in the meantime, just stuff every day full with joy. I had an incredible time at the roller rink, skating nonstop for three hours to some of the best music ever recorded and, yes, doing the couples skate with my beautiful lady. I’m sure sorry for the fellow with the broken wrist, and for my friends with serious conditions; I know for now I’m lucky all around.

Again: for now.

A good year (in many ways)

December 30th, 2023

Every year, New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof shares the good news in what seems otherwise to have been a bad year. 

“[Even with Gaza, Darfur, Trump, and climate change], something else is also true: In some ways, 2023 may still have been the best year in the history of humanity.”

Two factors he lists: In 2023, global child mortality reached a record low, and extreme poverty also reached a record low (about 8% of people worldwide). 

It’s easy to overlook the positive, as Kristof notes:

“None of this eases the pain of those who have lost their children in 2023, nor is it a balm for those caught in war or climate catastrophes. Yet at year-end, it’s worth acknowledging this backdrop of progress — not to distract anyone from all that is going wrong, but to offer a reminder that when we try hard enough, we can accomplish amazing things. Right now, looking at the anguish worldwide, I’d say we’re not trying hard enough.”

In that spirit, and in recognition of the good luck I’ve been blessed with, and also with recognition that many people haven’t, both among my circle and elsewhere in the world, I have to acknowledge that I’ve had a good year. Maybe it also helps to be older, and wiser, and to recognize good happenings when they happen to you. 

Here are just some of the highlights.


Atlantic City, September 2023.

In May, I met and fell in love with my girlfriend. Instantly. I don’t understand how this happened, but when she showed up at the restaurant where we’d agreed to meet, I was struck by a thunderbolt that told me, “This is it. This is the woman.” I’d had many dates, and two previous actual girlfriends, over the course of two-and-a-half years, but this was instantly different, because she was and is instantly different. I’ve been in love before, and vividly recall how I felt when at age 20 I met my now ex-wife, but I don’t know if I ever before knew what romantic “butterflies in my stomach” meant. And every day since then, I ask myself what I can do to do even better, to keep this going, and if possible to keep it going for, oh, the next three decades. She tells me that she loves me too. I can’t believe my good fortune.

So, right there, that has made for a damn good seven months. Long may it last.


2023 was a terrific year for music, with spectacular new albums from old-timers like Yo La Tengo, Peter Gabriel, Blur, John Cale, and Pere Ubu. Even the Rolling Stones put out a new album that I think is pretty good — and I don’t generally care for the Rolling Stones.

Lots of great concerts in 2023, too, most memorably Yo La Tengo (!!!) at the Teragram Ballroom, and Devo (even more exclamation marks) at the YouTube Theatre, at which I got so excited that my girlfriend caught me on video pogoing along to the music.

It was an honor to host two members of Pere Ubu at my house this summer (!), and for my sons and I to help the band load in and load out for their fine show here in Los Angeles. And I enjoyed meeting up with other longtime Pere Ubu fans for drinks after the show in New York, which I flew in to see.


Let’s be honest:  It’s always a dice roll going to see a new play. Jukebox musicals may be idiot-proof (enlist some great singers to do classic songs you love against the backdrop of a thinly concocted narrative), but the successful production of a compelling new play is a true highwire act. Forty years of attendance has taught me that if you expect a 90% failure rate, you’ll never be disappointed. There were other plays I enjoyed, but these were the two standout productions this year:

“Heroes of the Fourth Turning” at Rogue Machine, an intellectually honest look at extreme-right-wing evangelicals and their worldview, brilliantly written, acted and directed, was a production I doubt I’ll ever forget. I don’t go to the theatre to be entertained, I go to delve; one way I can be sure I’m in the right place is if a few disgruntled fellow attendees leave mid-scene. In this particular case, success! Those of us who stayed were riveted.

“Kill Shelter” at Theatre of NOTE, about a struggling single mom who also has to daily euthanize dogs who have no future, was both heartbreaking and uplifting — and, somehow, occasionally comic. When each puppet-dog was put down, I cried, even though it was a thing of wire and felt; to someone who has spent 45 years in the theatre, that was epic suspension of disbelief. The play also offered an even-handed defense of kill shelters, a subject I’m sure most people would rather not hear about. Ashley Rose Wellman is a young playwright of talent. I wish I’d seen this earlier in the run, because I would have gone to see it again.

Life and Death

My mother died. That might not seem like a good thing, but it was. She was 98, she figured her time had come, so she lay down, slept for a few days, and passed away. Making her, right to the end, an inspiration. If you pray to a god, you should pray to that god that some day you’re so strong and wise as to be able to do the same. Almost none of us will get this kind of death. Will I miss her? Absolutely. My father died 31 years ago, and I still miss him. But they both left me a lifetime of instruction, so I’m grateful.

Family and friends

Playing Cosmic Encounter, of course: me, son Dietrich, John D., son Lex, and great-nephew Brody, November 2023.

I took my son to London for 10 days, my other son came to join us for Thanksgiving, those two plus my daughter and I were all together for my mother’s services, my great-nephew has come to stay with me twice, and I got to spend five days with my whole extended family back East both in September and earlier this month. It’s been a good year for family.

It’s also been a great year for friends, both new friends, and friends of 40 years. 

If you’re lucky, your romantic partner will have quality family and friends of her own, and mine sure does. We’ve been having dinner and playing cards with her sisters and her brother-in-law (and at some point, I will win). We’ve gone to lots of events with her circle of friends — what I’ve started calling her Legion of BFFs — and always had a great time, whether it was the Pops in the LA County Arboretum, the holiday light show, a country-club fundraiser, dinner and drinks, or seeing the Barbie movie. Good people attract other good people. 

As for my own friends, the level of caring some of them dropped on me when my mother died, as well as the heartfelt way they embraced my new love, said everything about their friendship. Friends I hadn’t seen in decades showed up at my mother’s viewing to pay their respects. Others called me more than once just to make sure I was doing okay. My friend Ski single-handedly cooked and catered an entire evening for all attendees at my sister’s house the night before my mother’s funeral service. True friends show up for you even when it isn’t fun.

2023 and 2024

At The Americana at Brand, November 2023.

If you haven’t had a good 2023, I’m sorry.

I’m sharing all these successes because I know I’ve been lucky. And because I know luck runs out. Not every year will have as many bright spots. More people will die, you will meet with misfortune, your health will fail, some despicable figure might make a comeback.

But when you have this much love dropped on you in a year, you must acknowledge it. Both to get through the bad times, and because you want to do right. Only a churl would let good times go unrecognized.

My best to you in the new year. Even when trouble befalls – and it will — pick up on the positive.