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


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About death

May 15th, 2022

Every morning when I wake up, I remind myself, “I’m going to be dead soon.”

You might be surprised how inspirational that is. Rather than depress me, it jars me into making the most of every day.

 “Making the most” can be advancing my business career, or my writing career, or reading, or handling a bunch of niggling tasks so they can be out of mind, or spending time with friends or loved ones, or even just playing “Skyrim” for an hour on the PS4. But whatever it is, I do my best to make sure it was what I felt I should be doing.

Because I’m going to be dead soon.

Over the years I’ve been accumulating dead friends. A couple of them killed themselves, some of them were much older than I was, some of them misused drugs or alcohol or both, and some died relatively young of terrible diseases or accidents. Someone I went to high school with died on his motorcycle shortly after graduation when a car hit him on a back road. A very close friend died seven years ago last month; tomorrow, he would have been 66. I still miss that guy every day.  Another friend I started my theatre with died of ovarian cancer probably… 10 years ago? 15? I’m not sure because I can’t find her obit on the internet any more. That alone should tell you how fleeting life is. 

I’ve also got dead relatives. My father died 30 years ago. (Still miss him.) My grandmother died when I was 8. Every single one of my many aunts and uncles are dead, and some of my cousins, too, including my cousin Suzie, who was a dwarf and who was my favorite when I was a boy. My mother is 96, strongly aiming for 97 in September, but in a reasonable amount of time she’ll be dead too. And so will I, and you, and everyone else, too.

So it’s best to appreciate people while they’re here, and to enjoy every day possible.

I think often about death because I also ask people what they think happens after we die. When I asked my father in 1992, shortly before he died from cancer, he instructed me about ancient history. “When Pharaoh wanted a pyramid built, he invented Ra the Sun God so those guys would build it for him.” Solid practical insight from an atheist. My friend who would have been 66 tomorrow believed that variations of himself would live on in the multiverse. Meanwhile, ironically, my practicing-Catholic dating partner doesn’t believe in an afterlife, while my non-practicing Lutheran self does. 

I’m generally healthy, generally well-situated, and generally filled with joy. I don’t know why. I certainly have known plenty of depressed or depressive people; I’ve just rarely been one of them. When my wife of many years left me last year, I was sad for a bit, but it didn’t last. I wish her well, we’re parting amicably, and I’m very happy with a woman I’ve been dating seriously for five months now. (In fact, my soon-to-be ex-wife said to me recently, “I’m glad you’re dating. I want you to be happy.”) Life goes on (until it doesn’t). You just have to remember to do your best to treat people as well as you can. It’s true what they say:  You get back what you put out. So if you put out positive things, you’re generally more likely to get positive things.

I don’t know that I always knew this, but I know it now.

Via Twitter, I know a writer dealing with perhaps the worst affliction to get:  amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka ALS, aka “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” It’s hard to imagine anything worse than gradually losing complete control of your own body and getting locked into it — unless you’re lucky enough either to die first or to take action on your directive and get a friendly attendant to end your life for you. Every choice associated with ALS seems horrible. And yet:  This writer has said that now she values every moment, has a new book coming out, is traveling, and is starting another book. Good for her.

And, no. There’s nothing wrong with me, yet. I plan to be here as long as I can — even though I have little literal control over that. The most you can do is increase your odds:  eat right, exercise, and don’t be an idiot on the freeway or the slopes. And so that’s what I’m focused on:  increasing my odds, and putting every day to best use.

Because while death may be around the corner, in the meantime there’s life.

My life as a publisher

April 10th, 2022

The pages of the next issue of Woof just weren’t flowing well. On some pages, the graphics were bumping up harshly against other graphics. On other pages, whole vistas of white space held just a tiny carryover paragraph of text — what would fill the rest? The freshly transferred press-apply lettering (ah, Letraset) was peeling in more than one place, and I suddenly had a flash of insight that I’d completely forgotten to mention more than one important thing — like my playwriting workshop! — that was relevant to one story and that presented a real signup opportunity! I also wondered: Was it permissible on one page to run a list of names of subscribers whose addresses I’d lost? “Have you seen these people?” might be the headline, in the hopes that others would know them and would contact them.

As I paged through the mockups, all of them lovingly crafted by hand, with rubber-cemented columns of type and illustrations, and lots of Liquid Paper applied, I wondered if I could fit in any more comics from Rich Roesberg. I’d already used the good ones, but I still had that white space, and I could dig further into my archives of “just in case” illos from him.

I wasn’t even sure the pages were flowing correctly. Where was page 20? I turned to the small staff helping me — two other people I now can’t identify — and shrieked, “Who laid this out?!?!?”

The answer, of course, was ME.

Then I woke up, my heart thrumming, my mind churning, scrambling desperately to figure out what I was going to write to fill that white space.

Gradually, as light started filtering into my bedroom from the sun rising outside, it dawned on me that there was no new issue of Woof, and that there would be no new issue of Woof, and that there had been no new issue of Woof in more than 40 years.

My publishing empire was no more.

It had started in my adolescence, with Amazing Comix, a fanzine about comics that I published out of my parents’ basement using a hectographic printing system. “Printing system” while, technically true, is putting it kindly. With a hectograph “machine” (ha!), one would create an original on a master, carefully imprint that negatively on a tray of jelly, then lay each individual copy of a blank piece of paper onto that tray of jelly, pulling up a positive imprint. This is a process still used for making temporary tattoos, it’s long obsolete for printing on paper, but, in its heyday was, as Wikipedia notes, useful for printing “small runs of school classroom test papers, church newsletters and science fiction fanzines.” I don’t remember from which of those sources I learned this process, but somehow I got a hold of a hectograph kit and started printing fanzines. The hectograph was cheap and easy, yes, and thrilling as a way to launch the publishing empire of a kid in the 1970s. It was also messy, printed everything in lavender ink, and would sometimes leave globs of jelly on the pages, which I’d carefully try to pluck or scrape off.

You may wonder, “Why use hectograph and not, say, Xeroxing?” Well, in the mid-1970s, black-and-white Xerox copying cost 25 cents a copy. That was in 1970s money, when a full 32-page comic book in glorious color on newsprint with a glossy cover cost between 25¢ and 35¢. Xerox copying cost the equivalent of $1.25 a page. (I share this as a reminder for those who think that prices go only up. I also share that the first computer printer I bought, which printed on 4″-wide strips of what was like aluminum foil, circa 1980 cost an astonishing $800. Nowadays you can get a printer for about free because they just want to sell you the ink.

I don’t remember how many issues of Amazing Comix I put out, and no, I’m not going to look right now, and I don’t know how many copies, either. Given the tedium of the process, I’m thinking I might have done 100, which makes my constant monitoring of the fanzine history sites on Facebook, in the hopes that one of my old publications will turn up, ludicrous. Still, I did have readers, and contributors, and I may have done six or seven issues. I can’t remember. Somewhat fewer than 10. My contributors and included writers and artists around the U.S., and England (!), and so did my readers. One of the readers who became a contributor was a gentleman named Richard F., who was active military, and who came to visit me when he was on leave. There we were, in my parents’ basement, me at age 14 and he at around 27, were he gifted me with $40 to help with publishing some upcoming issues; when I demurred, he said that if I didn’t take it, he’d just “spend it on whores.”

So you see, publishing was an educational endeavor for me, too.

Prior to the publishing wing of my enterprises, I had started a comic-book retailing company, Dungeon Ventures (again, because it was run out of my parents’ basement — and thank God for basements!). I had talked a local bank into giving me a checking account by lying to them, saying it was a “Christmas club account.” A Christmas club account was where someone would save money to buy Christmas presents at the end of the year (and, I add, with the insight of an adult, the bank would gather interest without paying any out). Once I had the “Christmas club account,” I ordered checks in the name of Dungeon Ventures. Now that I was a publisher, I had business cards made with my name on them, the company name, and “Publishers/Retails in Comics.” The card is a blur of mixed messages — bad company name, having nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons, with which it was constantly confused; publishers and retailers; poor branding — but, still, it screamed “legitimacy” when your main facial feature was acne.

At that point, while in high school and running my comic-book business (now with a slightly older business partner I’d met through the pages of a comic-book letters column) and working 20 hours a week at The Atlantic City Press taking classified ads over the phone and gloriously exploring the world of teenage girls, I started adding titles to the publishing house. I don’t remember the second one (wow) or if it even got off the ground, but I do remember the next three. One was Axes, a rock-and-roll newspaper with professional newspaper printing and actual distribution and ad sales that was distributed around southern New Jersey, mostly to record shops and clubs. One was the aforementioned Woof, which was a Xeroxed (!) humor publication, and one was the ill-fated Screw Iran Coloring Book, for which Rolling Stone rejected my ad buy because they thought I was trying to capitalize on the hostage situation in Iran — an understandable but questionable ethical leap from them, considering the flagrantly illegal sex-and-drugs ware they were admitting into their ad pages. For the full story of the Screw Iran Coloring Book, look here, then here. (And if you want to order one because they’re highly collectible, let me know, because I’ve got a few left — and Dan Stumpf, I still need to send you yours!)

Axes lasted three issues, not being the first new publication to collapse due to advertising and distribution problems. I also did several comics catalogs, cheerily illustrated by Roesberg (who remains my favorite cartoonist) and in my files somewhere. And then I stop publishing at some point during college, when to work writing and editing for the Gannett newspaper chain, then became a copy editor and production editor at the not-cleverly renamed Press of Atlantic City, then moved out here to Los Angeles to go to grad school.

Where I re-emerged as a publisher, putting out 75 issues of The L.A.. Gang Bang, a ‘zine about the personal lives of four transplants (myself and my roommates) to Los Angeles. In all the hubbub of the 1990s zine craze, we got somewhat known for it, were frequently reviewed in other publications, had hundreds (hundreds!) of subscribers and readers in the U.S. and Europe, got written up in the Los Angeles Times, and didn’t get a book deal out of it (as others did) because I was either distracted or stupid. Or both.

The L.A. Gang Bang wrapped up 28 years ago and, with it, my publishing career. I did put together seven or 10 bound copies of samples from my work, which I called Wrench and distributed to close friends and family members, but that also was in the neighborhood of 30 years ago. And we self-published our programs at Moving Arts during the 10 years I was artistic director (with intros written by me), but I stepped down 21 years ago.

After all this time, there’s something I miss about being a publisher. I loved putting together the issues. I loved going to the mailbox and seeing what subscriptions had arrived, and what letters of comments, and how much money. I loved the smell of it all, even of the funky hectograph ink and jelly. Even after awakening, fully awakening, I thought: Maybe I could do another issue of Woof. The 40th anniversary next issue. In time for my 60th. Because I miss publishing.

And then I realized that my publishing career has actually continued. Because I’ve been publishing this blog since 2004.

Dazed and confused

March 17th, 2022

There is little in this world that I fear more than a running toilet.

When I hear a toilet running — in my house or in my office suite — I rush to find out just how long it’s been running, and to listen out to make sure it’s going to stop.

That’s because three years ago, a toilet in the bathroom connected to my then-office in my then-office building, which I had flushed on a Friday evening before running out to a meeting, ran continuously until my discovery noontime the next day, when I happened to stop in at the office and discovered that the entire two-story office building had been flooded by, yes, that one little overflowing toilet. Which led to a cascade of problems — extremely expensive remediation, relocation of our business, restoration of all our files from the cloud, buying new furniture and fixtures and hardware and supplies, and a daily, grinding, maddening, escalating set of screaming arguments over 10 freaking months with my insurance company, who will go nameless (but whose initials are “The Hartford”), and that resulted in my legitimately threatening to sue them unless they sent me $xxx,xxx immediately… which they did. Finally. Just before I flew down to Texas and plunged knitting needles into their eyes.

(Even with all that, and with their agreeing to the $xxx,xxx, I think my company is out another $xxx,xxx+.)

After that debacle, I took three weeks off. For the first time in… decades? Ever? Because it was either that, or kill someone. Slowly. With malice.

All because of one malfunctioning toilet.

So now I have plumbing PTSD. Justifiably so. Just so we understand.

So last week, when at 4 a.m. I heard the toilet in the bathroom at home adjacent to my bedroom running, I sprang out of bed to go check on it. I beat a path to that toilet like I’d been set on fire, throwing open the door to the bathroom and plucking off the tank lid and grabbing a hold of that fill valve and wrestling it into resting position like my existence depended on it. Despite my ministrations, making all the adjustments I now know so well thanks to my toilet-mania, every action was to no avail. I couldn’t get the toilet to stop running. Water kept coming up from the plumbing and shooting straight down a pipe back into the system. So I turned off the valve at the water supply, in order to cut off all incoming water flowing to the toilet… and it still wouldn’t stop. Water kept coming in, inexplicably, even with the water valve turned off.

This was straight out of a horror movie.

One written especially for me.

The toilet wasn’t overflowing, but water kept coming into the tank and then draining right back into the system. So I went back to bed… and tried to sleep… as I listened to the toilet run for four hours.

Edgar Allen Poe couldn’t have dreamt this up.

Believe me, at 8 a.m. on the dot I was on the phone, booking a plumber.

I present all this as preface to help you understand the magnitude of this plumbing issue. It wasn’t “just another plumbing problem.” Who could imagine how this could intensify? Me! In my water-logged brain, the situation conjured up another epic 10-month round of water torture, with my entire house being swamped with moisture and all my possessions ruined, and me back in a death match with some faceless and uncaring insurance company in a far-off land. Did I want a plumber? You bet.

Forty-five minutes later, Levon presented himself at my door. When I saw who the plumbing company had sent, I was relieved. We’ve gone through a succession of plumbers in recent years — truly, almost no one can live up to my expectations at this point, but if there is one exception, it might be Levon. He’s a seasoned, capable, even-tempered and fair plumber, the horse whisperer of plumbing and plumbing fixtures. Levon knows how to calm and settle toilets, sinks, dishwashers, washing machines and every other plumbing unit he’s come across.  His very presence gentles plumbing hardware and also skittish plumbing neurotics like me.

Unfortunately, his presence agitates something else:  my high-strung dog, who is three-quarters fox terrier, one-quarter neurotic chihuahua, and 100% a pain in the ass when any living thing comes within half a mile, all six pounds of her set on high alert. She has asserted themselves to such a degree that she owns the other dog living here (the poor fella), and to a lesser extent my son and me, the mailman, and every guest who doesn’t sufficiently kowtow to her and bestow edible gifts and continuous wary petting. Because of this dog, even the most ardent of door-knocking evangelical missionaries avoid my house. In Levon’s case, my dog was so riled up that he felt actually threatened. No, she has never bitten anyone, but I don’t blame Levon for worrying about it:  Whatever charms he uses to soothe major appliances were having zero effect on her. Clearly, they needed to be segregated. Somehow or other, after much cajoling, I was able to isolate her and her cowering canine companion downstairs, and then put in place the dog gate we have that restricts their access to other rooms. The two of them, the tetchy fox terrier and the somewhat dopey and embattled dachshund-beagle mix, were now safely ensconced away from Levon and any of the plumbing action going on two stories above. They could romp around the family room downstairs, and, because I’d left the back door open for them, also go into the enclosed back yard if they liked and terrorize the wildlife.

But I wanted to see what Levon was doing — how he was assessing the ceaseless privy, and how he was going to fix it — so that I could watch and learn. As I made my way upstairs, though, he was coming down:  He couldn’t get the water to shut off at the valve behind the toilet either, so he needed to go turn off the water main… which was outside, in the back yard. Which meant he’d be back in the land of the fierce dog. Tiny, but fierce.

Levon walked out the front door to circle around back, and I beat a path ahead of him to get to the back yard and the back door ahead of him. While he moved to shut off the main, I corralled the dogs back into the family room and firmly shut and locked that sliding back door behind them, securing them in the family room and away from the plumber. Through the glass, I saw Levon start to make his way back to the front of the house and to his truck, readying to re-engage the upstairs toilet. Again, I wanted to watch all his actions, so I ran past the dogs and through the family room to get up into the kitchen and the house and up the stairs but —

SLAM!

— I forgot about the gate I’d put there.

All I knew was that suddenly I was flying through the air and then I was landing Very Hard with a sickening SMACK on the impregnable Spanish tile of my kitchen, first on my right kneecap, then on my hand, then immediately on my forehead.

I lay there stunned for possibly an entire minute.

I was sure I’d broken my kneecap. It had to be broken. I’d hit it with such force. And then I remembered reading somewhere that if you actually break your kneecap, you’ll always have a limp.

Then I was sure that I’d broken at least one finger on my right hand, because I’d landed on it funny, in a bent way.

Then I was thinking about all the things I’ve done over the years without breaking any bone, including once falling 30 feet out of a tree fort, which led me to think back to some of the kids I knew when we moved from Devonshire to Galloway when I was 11 and then I was thinking about how lightly violence is taken in the movies, especially the superhero movies, while even this stupid at-home incident could have major repercussions ….

Then I realized I wasn’t sure I was thinking quite right, so maybe my forehead — my head in general — was the main issue.

Then I realized I was making groaning sounds.

Then I decided to just get up.

Just get up.

I tested my right leg. Put weight on it. Moved it a bit. Surprisingly, the kneecap didn’t seem to be broken. How was this possible? In my head, I recounted the incident. I figured out that my kneecap hadn’t hit first, that it had actually been the flesh above the knee that had hit right into one of the steps. So while the whole area panged with agony, I could still walk.

The finger, indeed the whole hand, seemed miraculously intact as well. 

Still felt woozy, though. 

Determined to beat Levon upstairs, I summoned up the willpower and hobbled quickly upstairs to the bathroom, reaching into my dopp kit to secure two Aleve pain tablets.  I knew I was going to hurt far worse later, and I still wanted to go to the gym that night if it were at all possible, knowing that once you get off that gym schedule it’s hard to get back on. I was able to grab my bedside water bottle and down the two Aleve before Levon arrived back from his truck with some parts in hand.

Masking any discomfort, I watched him work on the toilet. The cause had been not one problem, but several plotting together — yes, the fill valve, but also the water valve, and also the seals inside the tank that had worn away. He could fix it for now, but ultimately I’d need a new toilet.

I dully took all this in. The threat of recreating “Waterworld” in my house was gone, but now I was preoccupied with how I was feeling. I thanked Levon, paid him, and sent him on his way. Then I drove to my office.

I had a whole host of things to do there. People wanted my opinion about things, and there were things to write, and things to check off a list, and numbers to look at, and emails to deal with… but I couldn’t seem to make sense of any of them. My thoughts were a jumble, my perceptions merely glimpsed through fog. Even the most mundane or routine assignment seemed inexplicable. I couldn’t figure out anything.

I wondered if I needed to go to the hospital. Maybe that hit on the head was the real problem. I went into the office bathroom to take a look at myself in the mirror. I imagined seeing a giant brick-like welt at the center of my forehead, or a thick blue splotch where blood was forming under skin, but I didn’t see anything like that. Everything looked normal. 

I went back into my own office and sat down in my chair and looked again at everything I normally could do so effortlessly and just couldn’t ascertain what any of it was or how to do it.

Then I got the idea to lie down on the floor. 

Once on the floor behind my desk, I had the fleeting thought that maybe my brain was even then filling up with blood and I’d never wake up and people would find me there and notify my family and I was trying to remember how much the insurance payout would be….

And then I woke up, about an hour, hour-twenty, later. Still on the floor.

I struggled to my feet, still feeling off but somewhat better. So I went into the main office area and had a cup of coffee. After a while, that made me feel even better. I still couldn’t accomplish anything, and my entire consciousness felt submerged under water, but I was alive and functioning, somewhat.

Bit by bit I got closer to the surface of normal.

So after another hour or two of puttering around insensibly, I decided to go to the gym.

At the gym, 20 minutes of stretching started to reacquaint me with my body and my thoughts. So I moved on to the treadmill. At first I tried running, but after two sprints I could feel my right knee flaring up, and I thought, This is just plain stupid, so I reduced down to a brisk walk. At that pace, I got through all 45 minutes, then gladly moved on to weightlifting.

My workout finished, I actually felt normal. All the fuzziness had gone. I was myself again!

By the time I got in the door at home, I was eager to tell my son the story of my day:  how I’d had the plumber over, how the one dog was a menace, how my concern over that, matched with my eagerness to watch the plumber work, had led me to crash down hard onto our tile floor, how I’d run upstairs to take two Aleve —

And as I was relating this to him, recounting every step and visualizing every bit of it, my entire day came into focus in a new light.

Because now I could see what had happened.

How it was that, no, I hadn’t had a concussion, but still had all that fogginess.

How, when I ran upstairs to take two Aleve, I’d grabbed the blue bottle of Aleve out of my dopp kit.

Not the white bottle, which contains Aleve. The blue bottle… which contains Aleve PM.

I had spent the day trying to shrug off sleeping pills.

Let me tell you, those Aleve PM really work as advertised.

5 plays in 4 weeks

March 14th, 2022

Let me first just share the jubilation: Returning to the theatre — to the live performance of plays with actors physically present — is a cause for celebration. More than maybe any other factor, it’s the reason for my elevated mood this past month.

Here’s what I’ve seen, ranked from worst (sorry) to best. All opinions expressed are mine, and subjective, but utterly reliable — trust me.

5. “The Forest” by Florian Zeller, Hampstead Theatre, London, seen 2/11/22

While in the U.K. four weeks ago, I had only one night in London, and thus only one night to see a show, and this was what I chose. This is the world-premiere production of a new play by the acclaimed author of “The Father” (which became a theatrical sensation, and then the movie starring Anthony Hopkins), and I was able to score the last ticket for the only night I could attend. Unfortunately, in this case, the playwright can’t see The Forest for the trees because he can’t seem to make any decisions about how to dress up what is a humdrum storyline, whereby — get this — a man is cheating on his wife. And must suffer the consequences. Shocking, I know. (Especially from a French writer.) Rather than make decisions and increase tension, the writer dilly-dallies with strange stagecraft that does absolutely nothing to elevate the proceedings. Unfortunately, a storied cast (including Toby Stephens and Paul McGann (much-loved by me from “Withnail and I” (!!!) and, okay, “Doctor Who”) is wasted in the process. Full disclosure: The critics disagreed with me about this, but this is yet another case where they’re wrong. Any play in which our hero of sorts prostrates himself and weeps and cries throughout is not worth seeing. (And, no, that isn’t what Hamlet does.)

4. “Slave Play” by Jeremy O. Harris, Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, seen 2/13/22

The opening vignettes, portraying interracial sexual shenanigans during the antebellum South for comedic effect, certainly make their point, tangling up repressed lust with forthright racism. The ending of the play, in which a white husband finally is forced to listen to his black wife, certainly lands, so much so that I wish the entire play had built to that. Unfortunately, the dead center of the play revolves around an endless therapy session in which two hyperactive interlocutors harass and cajole three interracial couples about their relationships and their sex lives, which went on… and on… and on… to no greater effect. The (black) woman in front of me started reading her email. Twice. And I started reading it along with her, over her shoulder When the play was over, I texted another playwright, who’d hated it and was curious what I’d thought; for the most part, I told him, I wanted my 90 minutes back. He corrected me, “It was two hours long.” Which clarified something: Yes, I did fall asleep in the middle.

3. “What I learned in Paris,” by Pearl Cleage, South Coast Rep, Costa Mesa, seen 2/26/22

South Coast Repertory’s 2022 production of WHAT I LEARNED IN PARIS by Pearl Cleage, directed by Lou Bellamy. Cast: James T. Alfred (John Nelson), A. Russell Andrews (J.P. Madison), Celeste M. Cooper (Le​na Jefferson), Erika LaVonn (Eve Madison) and Kaye Winks (Ann Madison). Segerstrom Stage, February 19, 2022 – March 19, 2022

I wanted to see this for three reasons: I’d never seen a Pearl Cleage play, although I’d heard of her; South Coast Rep does strong work; and I was interested in a play about the election of the first black mayor of a major American city (in this case, Atlanta, in 1971). Unfortunately, the play didn’t much deal with the latter, and instead was mostly concerned with a couple that shouldn’t get married and a returning ex-wife who was clearly destined to be awkwardly reunited with her ex-husband for strictly convenient plot reasons. My guest remarked at the Act One curtain that she was curious to see what would happen; unfortunately for me, I wasn’t because I’d foreseen it five minutes in. That said, some of the cast was delightful, and I got a few chuckles here and there.

2. “The Power of Sail,” by Paul Grellong, Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles, seen 3/8/22

I didn’t believe one bit of this play, about a liberal history professor who effectively makes a deal with a neo-Nazi but comes to regret it, but I enjoyed every moment of it. I didn’t believe that the university dean was an actual dean (primarily because she didn’t behave like one; I’ve served under deans); I didn’t believe the sequence of events that led to a “shocking” death; I didn’t believe that every character had a secret Machiavellian plot he or she was carrying out; and I didn’t believe there was any reason at all for the final scene, which adds a new location and new character. I also think that “filling in” events in the second half of the play in retrospective action just reveals how poorly constructed it is. Still, the evening provided an opportunity to see Bryan Cranston shine on stage (albeit in a role that stretched him in no way) and also Amy Brenneman (ditto), and one character’s reveal was, yes, absolutely chilling for what it portends for us. The storyline is easily dispelled, as I told two women I didn’t know while we were walking back to our cars: “Don’t break bread with Nazis.” (Good advice for all occasions.) Mostly, I think I just enjoyed taking myself to the theatre by myself and seeing a well-directed, well-acted, topical play, and in a playhouse where the melodious voice of God message booming from the rafters concluded with “Welcome home,” thereby eliciting a round of applause from all of us happy to be back in the theatre.

  1. “The Lehman Trilogy,” by Stefano Massini, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, seen 3/5/22

What a delight to say that this is an absolute marvel, brilliantly written, directed and acted, an event that communicates the capitalist history of the United States for all its promise and all its peril. THIS is the show not to be missed (it runs till April 10). Here’s the trailer from the London production (which is in LA with mostly the same cast). “An epic production” to be sure.

Whether you see any of these, in these productions or others, or none of these and perhaps something else — we can all celebrate the reopening of our theatres. Go see something.

I’m now scouting out other shows.

Wisdom

March 13th, 2022

I do my best to impart helpful insights to the boards I sit on. Yesterday at the board meeting for my theatre company was no exception, as I learned that we might have an improv class renting our space soon.

“Be careful doing business with improv actors,” I advised. “They just make it up as they go.”

Rhetorical question.

February 28th, 2022

Yet another organization is announcing a data breach — this time posting confidential information numbering 260,000 of its member records.

The organization? The State Bar of California.

The people whose records were released? Attorneys who were the subject of more than a quarter-million attorney discipline cases.

Think anyone will sue?

You never know

February 8th, 2022

I’m at the international terminal at LAX waiting in the bar before boarding my flight to London in a bit to see Pere Ubu.

I’m having a surprisingly good pizza — the only food the bar still has on offer, from a menu that was limited to begin with — and also a Sam Adams. No, it’s not a brown ale, but it fills the need for some sort of alcohol after the 90-minute ordeal of conflicting international travel dictates from British Airways, American Airlines (who are handling this leg of it), the UK gov’t. with some very shifting rules, and a whole bunch of confusion that resulted in me buying a COVID test in England that I’m pretty sure I don’t need for £49 (about $60 today) just so that I can complete a Passenger Travel Locator form that apparently will no longer be needed as of Friday.

So, all of that now resolved, and having a beer, and feeling more relaxed, I see a man come in with his two daughters and sit at the table next to me. It’s human nature, when stress is relieved, to suddenly become generous of spirit, isn’t it? It’s certainly my nature. It’s a way of saying back to the gods, “Okay, thank you, you resolved that, and now I don’t need to cancel my trip or burst a blood vessel, and so now I wish all a hearty hello.” I glance over at the dad traveling with kids and recognize a somewhat younger version of myself, a guy traveling with a kid or two, these two looking to be 7 and 9 or thereabouts, and it recalls for me those earlier days. He’s wearing a black ball cap, and the two girls are as well, each of them with shining beautiful blonde hair and they all are well-behaved, and studying their phones and chatting while awaiting whatever they’ve ordered.

“Beautiful girls,” I venture.

The man looks over.

“I have kids,” I say. “Two boys and a girl. I love them all, but there is something about daughters.” I don’t know what I mean by this, truly, because I love my three kids equally, and I’m proud of all three of them, except maybe I mean this: Good for you, pal, in having these radiant girls.

“Thank you,” he says, with a grin.

But there’s a bit of a smirk, and the one girl asks the other something, then the middle one says something to their dad. Now I’m wondering if perhaps they’re not both actually his. Maybe I’ve misread the relationship: Doesn’t the one look a little different?

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Did I get it wrong? They’re not both your daughters?”

“Actually,” he says, “they’re my sons.”

“Uh. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he says in a friendly manner. “They get it all the time.”

No doubt.

Note to self: The correct line is this: “Those are some very good-looking children.”

But I don’t envision ever again venturing down this path.

Stock point

January 19th, 2022
Good? Bad? I can explain all this for you simply.

The stock market was dramatically up last year, and so far this year it has posted dramatic declines.

Given the depth of data provided every day about the doings of the stock market, shifts like these can seem confounding and, even, confusing. So I thought I’d share my own approach to it.

As with many things in life, I strive for a balanced viewpoint. Having a simpler approach to complex issues generally makes life itself simpler. So here’s my approach to the stock market, and it’s one that has informed my thoughts for decades now.

Here goes.

I’m opposed to market dips when they negatively affect me.

But I am in favor of them when they benefit me.

I apply the same sort of thinking to market increases: They’re good when they favor me, and they’re bad when they don’t.

I hope this easily grasped point of view serves you as well as it does me.

Hiring in 2022

January 9th, 2022
No, this isn’t my office. We do better signage. And where the Hell can you find a payphone???

Here’s what it’s been like hiring people the past year.

At my company, we have three open positions. We locked one in on Friday (phew!), but I also had interviews over Zoom with candidates for one of the other open roles. Here’s a verbatim quote from one of those interviewees, who on paper was well-qualified:

“I can get you where you want to be. I just need a little bit of freedom. Sometimes I’ll be gone for a whole week in the month, to South America or Europe. But I’ll come back.”

Mind you, this is for a key management position: receiving payments, making payments, handling HR, operations, insurance, etc. The sort of position most of us would assume requires reliability. As in: You’ll know consistently when she’ll be around. It isn’t the sort of position where on, say, Wednesday, one might say, “Where’s Carol?” and an acceptable response would be, “Ecuador. But she said she’d come back.”

I shared this baffling interview response on my business partner, whose reply was “Uh, no.” Then I tried it on a couple of friends, one a longtime business owner and another a close friend who runs a non-profit. Just to, you know, make sure I’m not being too demanding in expecting people on the payroll and healthy to actually show up as expected. One said, “Frankly, I don’t know how didn’t start laughing hysterically.” The other said, sarcastically, “Well, she said she’d be baaaaaaack…..”

I’m calling this applicant “Carol.” That’s not her real name; I’ve struck her real name from memory. Life being short, I’ve moved on. But if they rewarded confidence with dollars, “Carol” would be a billionaire. Because: She also wanted to know in this initial interview when she should start, but first volunteered that she’d “need to come by and check out the office first” for “the vibe” and offered to do that the same day, say around 2?

I was out having lunch at 2. And here was the vibe in the office the rest of the day: just me, and whatever my vibe is. With everyone else either out with COVID or working remotely anyway.

Judging the book

January 1st, 2022

The New York Times asked readers to pick the best book of the past 125 years. Here it is.

The “best” book.

Except that’s not the best book of the past 125 years.

Here are the books the readers picked as the second- and third- and fourth-best books of the past 125 years.

Except those aren’t in the top ranks of best books either.

Because there are no best books.

Oh, there are bad books. And there are good books. Even great books. But a “best” book? Even the idea is ludicrous.

All art reflects its time — as do the sentiments of the public.

As America again, continuously, explores its fraught relationship with race, “To Kill a Mockingbird” wins here partly because, yes, it’s so moving — but also because it provides hope and nourishment. Primarily, let’s be honest, for white readers. Yes, Atticus Finch will save us. (Just don’t read its “sequel,” “Go Set a Watchman,” in which he holds extremely racist views.)
The #3 book, “1984” is a clear reflection of our growing concern over the potential loss of the republic, the increasing privacy invasion attributable to both tech and government, and the creeping dread of getting canceled by all our friends on the extreme left for saying “the wrong thing.” Another perfect book for our times.

I could go on about the other books, but let me instead restate what should be obvious:  There is NO “best book” of the past 125 years. Books come and go in flavor and fashion, and are “lost” or “discovered” or never lost or never discovered.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was almost completely forgotten until Edmund Wilson, the NY Times and other critics revived his reputation. (The same happened with the justly revered  Buster Keaton, courtesy of James Agee.)  “Beowulf” has no relevance to my life — but was incredibly important to the people for whom it was written 1400 years ago. And so on.

What’s most important about this New York Times survey, it seems to me, is this:  that it brought together hundreds of thousands of people, including us, to discuss and debate books. The underpinning of our shared humanity lies in our cultural traditions; learning from each other and sharing those traditions holds the best hope for us all.

There’s no need to rank books by popularity, or bestow false acclaim on them. Just reading them provides achievement enough.