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


Blog

Reading through

September 28th, 2021

My house is a cornucopia of books. And like a legendary cornucopia, it is always filled to overflowing: Just as soon as I’ve finished a book, more arrive. Either I order them online, find myself while walking my dogs picking up tomes from the Little Free Libraries liberally scattered around my neighborhood, occasionally getting them gifted to me, or buying them from bookstores. Bookstores especially are Venus fly traps for me — I have to work to avoid them, even the little ones in airports and bus terminals and the like, because once I’ve stepped inside, I’m sure to be walking out with more books.

We have bookcases throughout the house, and they are all stuffed with books. I do read these books, by the way. Just not always as soon as I’ve acquired them. A friend told me that when we’d had a party here at some point, someone stood back looking at some of our bookcases and said almost to himself, “I wonder how many of these he’s actually read.” And my wife responded, “All of them.” “Really?” “Really.”

Well, yes. Because those bookcases are downstairs. Upstairs I have two bookcases of books I haven’t read yet. But plan to.

The Japanese have a word for the endless accumulating of books that you intend to read but haven’t yet and maybe never will. Whatever that word is, it applies to me. A few years ago, when I was out of town at a conference with a friend and colleague, we fell into a discussion about books because I recognized David McCullough (!) at a table next to us and thanked him for his books and then he joined us at our table. Of course, I bought McCullough’s latest book directly from him (the one about the Wright brothers, from which I learned a lot*), and had him sign it. That kickstarted the later discussion about books, in which I told my friend that I had 78 books waiting to be read. “You’ll never read them all,” he said. So, ever since, I’ve been making a concerted effort to reduce the number of unread books I have, the books waiting in the queue, even while new ones arrive. (No thanks to Julian Barnes and Jonathan Franzen, and the other living authors I follow who keep coming out with new books!)

(*including about the vagaries of fate, the development of the airplane being immediately traceable to Wilbur Wright lying bedridden for months after a hockey injury, which afforded him the time to study birds and their flight from his window.)

Today I finished The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which I heartily endorse, and so, just before turning in for the night and after reading the requisite comic book or two, I went to get one of the unread books. I scanned the shelves to see what might interest me right now (generally, I look for a book unlike the one I’ve just read, in this case a novel set in India and the Pacific Ocean) and came across A Tale of Love and Darkness by the Israeli writer Amos Oz. This had been on my Christmas list one year, and my wife had filled the request for me, but I hadn’t read it yet. A memoir by a superb writer seemed like a great idea for right now.

I wondered how long I’d had this book.

It might’ve been four or five years since that Christmas.

Probably more like five.

I looked in the indicia to check.

2003. I’d had this new book almost eighteen years. Waiting to be read. In that timeframe, my youngest had gone from an infant to a strapping college student running an e-commerce business from my house. In that time, the book had been made into a movie — five years ago — and Amos Oz had died.

But, there’s been progress. I’m now reading the book. And remember the 78 books waiting to be read? I just did a count, and I’m happy to tell you that after five years of great effort, reading about 30 books a year, I’ve got the number of unread books down to just 94.

Double Fantasy

September 27th, 2021
K-rails

I’ve got a copy of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams that I keep meaning to get around to, and now might be the time. Because while I can usually figure out where my dreams have come from, I have zero idea about the one I woke up from this morning.

The dream had two narrative elements. In one, I was hugging an actress I did a number of shows with back in the 90s, and I pressed myself very firmly against her, and she pressed very firmly back, and then we both knew we were off to the races. Mind you, this is a woman who stirred nothing in me at the time (and whose memory still doesn’t) and whom I’ve given absolutely no thought to in probably 25 years and whom Facebook now informs me lives outside the continental United States, so I’m unlikely to run into her. What was she doing suddenly in my dreams?

Even more baffling is the other narrative. In this one, I’m driving my car, and in the passenger seat is someone I’ve known for more than 10 years, and whom I wrote off about two years ago. I usually try to keep friendships (who doesn’t?), but at some point when I found myself deleting yet another shitty comment or retort or message to me off of social media, I had this sudden insight: “I’m friends with this person why, again?” And realized: Hey, I don’t have to be. So I unfriended and blocked her and that was that. But this morning, there she was in my dream in the passenger seat of my car; even in the dream, I couldn’t figure out why she was there, because I was done with her and happily so. Now she was in my passenger seat harping at me! Moreover, no matter which way I tried to drive, there was construction or a narrowing of roadway, or obstructions, or other things that kept me from actually getting anywhere closer to where I was trying to go. I kept doing k-turns, backing up, swerving, turning around, and otherwise making every attempt to get away and make headway on my (our) destination despite what looked like the aggravating and never-ending construction maze encircling LAX. Finally, our car got wedged in on both sides by mammoth k-rails that loomed over us and formed the tiny tip of an isosceles triangle of cement that I was now stuck in. My car, and we, were completely jammed in, our doors unable to open, and no way to turn or back out.

Without having read Freud’s treatise on dreams (yet), I believe I recollect that he’d theorized that dreams are “disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes.” If I have a repressed wish to see either of these women, it’s truly a revelation to me. Because I believe I don’t. He also wrote about manifest content, which is as it seems, and latent content, which is symbolic. If there are hidden meanings in these dreams, they are truly hidden, because I can’t figure how they relate to anything going on in my life or in my thoughts.

Which is why I’ll stick with the more recent and scientific explanation of dreams: that they result from a random reshuffling of our thoughts while we sleep, for easier retrieval later by the brain. Kind of like an automated backup system to the cloud.

In that context, I think I’ve just figured out just now while writing this where these came from.

On Friday night, I’m having a close, longtime friend over for dinner. He and I did shows with that actress, and have spent many many hours together over the past 25+ years, but during COVID I’ve seen him just once, and that was only a couple of weeks ago and briefly… which led my mind to extrapolate to the other woman, representing another friend who’d drifted out of my orbit.

Still not wish-fulfillment, though. Sorry, Dr. Freud.

The return of youth

September 26th, 2021

The latest innovation to come from Japan is the recategorizing of those under 75 as “pre-old.”

Japan is by far the world’s oldest nation, with more than 29% of the population 65 or older, compared with 17% in the U.S. and 21% in Europe. Efforts to get younger have gone nowhere. The birthrate is still falling and immigration has nearly ground to a halt with Covid-19.

Linguistically, however, Japan is at the forefront of change. Millions of people have learned they no longer are old, but merely “pre-old.”

That is the terminology suggested by both the Japan Gerontological Society and the Japan Geriatrics Society, which say the 65-to-74 range now should be called “pre-old age.” The government says the idea is worth looking at and has modified its annual White Paper on the Elderly to make clear it isn’t necessarily calling people in their 60s elderly.

Wall Street Journal, 9/24/21

I could not have been more delighted to learn of this yesterday.

No, I’m nowhere near 75, but if the people in their 60s and 70s just got recast as younger, then clearly I did as well. I’m now pre-pre-old.

I’m read to embrace my younger status.

  • Maybe I’ll re-engage with the club scene. (I’ve been away for some time.)
  • Or I could become a social-media influencer. Or finally get onto “League of Legends.”
  • Improve my workout for consideration in the latest “Baywatch” revamp.
  • And for God’s sake: Stop reading Henry James!

The nuisance of availability

September 25th, 2021

When did the PHONE become such a nuisance?

I’m taking a friend to the opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Monday night and needed to confer with her re their COVID policy and other arrangements. So, of course, I texted her.

Then she texted back.

Then I texted her again.

Then she texted.

As this went on, it struck me that I could CALL her. So I did. Many rings later, she finally picked up.

“When did it happen,” I asked, “that we all agreed that we HATE THE PHONE? Remember back in the 1980s? We all would’ve killed for a phone! We were always looking for phones — especially pay phones — and trying to coordinate around calling each other! Now that we have a phone readily available at all times, nobody wants to use them for phone calls!”

We agreed that it’s a nuisance when someone calls us. I hate being called. And not just when my phone clearly marks something as SPAM. Even when it’s a friend! I’ll see the friend’s name come up (as it did with my friend M— the other day) and I’ll hear myself sigh audibly. “Oh, God, there’s M—….” Even though M— is one of my closest and dearest friends!

Is it because the smartphone has fooled us into thinking that we can master our own communication decisions? (Even though, clearly, it controls us?) And so getting “interrupted” by someone else’s need is irritating?

I remember back when we used to just call each other, in this way: “Hey, I need to find something out from S—. I’ll call him.” Now, I find that S— will text me, or I will text him, to see if the other might be up for a phone call. That’s right, we seek permission first.

At the physical office of my company, I practically jump when I hear the phone ring. That’s because it rings maybe once or twice a day… and we’re busy. The sound of a ringing phone is so rare that it’s unexpected. And it’s not like it should be ringing more often; it’s just that everyone emails us, or messages us on social, or we’re talking on Zoom or Skype, or the person texts us.

Is this phenomenon — hatred of the phone for actual phone calls — akin to the hatred of writing by hand? My handwriting is lousy (my very best handwriting was recently registered as indecipherable by close relatives), and writing by hand is slow and tedious compared to my keyboarding capabilities.

Which, by the way, is another reason I prefer to text: I can type a response quickly and PASTE IT right into a text bar.

What will be the next innovation, the one that leaves texting in the dust? Holograms? Or, heaven forfend, all of us connected in a neural net where we’re never left to our own thoughts? At the least for now the phones can still be turned off.

Dream of 9/6/21

September 6th, 2021

Woke up just before 4 a.m.

I was in some sort of abandoned old factory or other industrial building, with large open sections in the walls where glass had once permitted a view outside into woods.

I was up on a stage of sorts — a raised platform — and the man on stage who kept making requests of me, who kept trying to get to the bottom of my many odd unassociated talents and experiences, was, improbably, the actor and comedian Paul Reiser. 

There was someone else on the platform too, someone seemingly incapable of doing any of these strange assignments, assignments that incredibly lined up perfectly with my own life history. This other person was eager to please, but couldn’t pull any of it off; meanwhile, even with my limited skill set, I seemed able to play a significant role in all of it. And I found that I too was eager to please — to show how capable I could be.

One of the assignments, unbelievably, was to make sense of decades of Lucas automotive parts. Paul Reiser had all of these Lucas automotive parts (and perhaps this factory full of them) but couldn’t make anything of them. What was the function of each? What was the value of it all? How to sort, categorize, organize? It was a real head-scratcher… until I offered that, years ago, I sold Lucas automotive parts, and had developed a real interest in British cars (Lucas being a primary manufacturer for British cars), and indeed had even worked a deal to serve as a small-time local supplier of JRT (Jaguar-Rover-Triumph) parts when British Leyland was down on its knees and parts, including the notoriously unreliable Lucas parts, were nearly impossible to get in the U.S. I even offered a joke I’d written at the time, more than 30 years ago, when I was doing this work:  “Why do the British drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas refrigerators.”

Paul Reiser chuckled agreeably. But perhaps I should have left the idea of comedy to him.

Nevertheless, when I explained that all he needed was a database as the first step to organizing all this and turning it into cash, he was happy to enlist me in this endeavor… when something caught my eye outside that cinder block window. Outside the building, and just having emerged from the woods, was an ancient indigenous Indian — a dark-complected scowling man with thick black face paintings who was taking in the scene, and me in particular, with menace and dire warning. That was when I remembered the character Paul Reiser played in Aliens and that he couldn’t be trusted.

And so I woke up. Less than an hour after falling asleep.

Background on the dream:  Recent thought has it that when we sleep our brains shuffle our memories around for easier retrieval; the odd connections we make in our dreams are merely a side effect of this storage process. Sleepwalkers and lucid dreamers such as myself try to control what they’re thinking about before they go to sleep, because of the potential impact of those thoughts on their sleep experience. Three things before bed coalesced in this dream:

  1. I’ve been watching the Netflix show The Kominsky Method (which fell off a cliff after Alan Arkin left it); the final scene of the episode I was watching before bed featured Paul Reiser’s character scheming, and reminded me what a dolt Michael Douglas’ character is
  2. I’ve been thinking about my brother, whom I’ll get to see this weekend when I’m in New Jersey, and he’s the person who employed me in the exciting world of imported auto parts 40 years ago
  3. The 500th anniversary of the Aztec surrender to Mexico has been getting a lot of press here in California, and dovetailed with my reading of the incredible book 1491 (highly highly recommended); late last night I read a newspaper article where some parents are suing a school board, claiming that part of the literature they’re reading is an “Aztec prayer” and that teachers are trying to indoctrinate their children into an “Aztec religion”

All of this serves as a reminder that it’s probably best for me to stick to reading comic books before bed.

Same as it ever was

August 23rd, 2021

New Town Buffet has been open for 20-30 years.

Now there’s a new restaurant coming to New Town Buffet.

The new restaurant is called New Town Buffet.

Or, it might be a NEW Town Buffet.

Opinions vary.

Box office bomb

August 22nd, 2021
No thanks!

This is the dumbest promotion I’ve seen in a while.

As a streaming service, Paramount+ (until recently known as CBS All Access) is at best an iffy proposition. The “peak streaming” that it promises is shows generated by CBS, BET, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV and the Smithsonian Channel. Hardly an all-star lineup. I have some idea of original shows on MTV because those are the ones I skip at the gym. Comedy Central? Well, if you’re really interested, the highlights are mostly available as clips on social media.

The service also offers some originals. Once upon a time, I subscribed to CBS All Access, so I have some familiarity with the lineup. I will grant them that “The Good Fight” and “Evil” are two terrific shows, both of them from the same writer-producers. But the Star Trek shows are very definitely a mixed bag; “Star Trek: Discovery” has more ups and downs than a roller coaster, and “Picard” was downright terrible. Seriously terrible. The latest adaptation of “The Stand” was laughably bad — miscast, never interesting let alone frightening, and so insipid that my wife and I suspected it was intended ultimately to air at some point on the safe-as-milk CBS. (Evidently, whoever did this show never noticed that pay cable / streaming grew up a bit with “The Sopranos.”)

I might resubscribe to CBS All Access — oops! Paramount+ — at some point just to watch “The Good Fight” and “Evil” and then quit all over again. But what I won’t be doing is resubscribing so that I can get… free movie tickets.

What we have here is an inducement to people like me who’d quit a streaming service to, for some reason, rejoin the streaming service so they can use eight free movie tickets out at a movie theatre.

Isn’t much of the point of streaming precisely not to go to the movie theatre?

Moreover, I have zero interest in seeing the movies they’re offering. I’m not 8 years old, and I’m also not 12.

What might work? A discount. Or a better pricing structure overall. Or my actually wanting to watch TV, which I mostly don’t. But I don’t think this is a bad promotion just for me. I think it’s a bad promotion: It’s like offering people a free tank of gas when they buy an electric car.

The good ol’ days

August 16th, 2021

Imagine yourself 30 years from now, looking back on our time now and sharing your personal reminiscences about these times to… your children, or your grandchildren, really just anyone decades younger that you.

What would you call these times?

That’s right, you’d call them “The good ol’ days.”

I know it doesn’t seem that way. Just scan social media, or the gossip among friends, or that truly horrific environmental outlook from the U.N., and on and on.

And yet, even with that, you’ll think of these days as “The good ol’ days.”

It always sounded like the good ol’ days from my parents: those times in the 1930’s and 1940’s when everything was bright and shiny and full of possibility. Everything, that is, except the Great Depression, and poliovirus, and World War II.

Family members of the 1950s have related to me how it felt to ride around in hot rods, go to the choc’late shop, wear poodle skirts, and that whole scene, and it sounds glorious indeed. Except for the Korean War, segregation, the threat of nuclear armageddon, McCarthyism, censorship, and so much more.

When you see movies that depict the bucolic past — times from the Dark Ages through the Renaissance, I always wonder, “Where’s the filth? Where’s the famine? How are they handling the Black Plague off-screen?”

I read enough history and play enough Civilization VI to think about what it must have been like being an ancient Roman, subject to the vicissitudes of that year’s emperor, or the whims of the Inca leader who utterly controlled your fate. How was it to be pre-penicillin, pre-effective surgery, pre- the Enlightenment, and the idea of human rights?

Yes, by comparison to every other period in history, these are the good ol’ days. At the very least, these will be our good ol’ days.

So if these are the good ol’ days, maybe we should take a moment to recognize it.

And whatever isn’t so good? We could just work on that. Try to make it better. Try to take care of the future.

So that those can be good ol’ days too.

Calculations

August 1st, 2021

Our conditioning to note only the bad things in life makes it hard for us to see the good things.

We get so consumed by everything that’s terrible (and there’s plenty, and always has been) that we have a hard time taking notice when something truly wonderful arrives in our lives.

I speak of course of the Popeye’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich.

How did I not know, before Friday night, just how glorious the Popeye’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich is?

What friends should have told me, but never did?

The Popeye’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich features a hearty serving of moist chicken breast marinated in Louisiana seasonings, then battered and fried in a buttermilk coating. That may sound like enough, but there’s more. The filet is served with barrel-cured pickles and a spicy mayonnaise on a buttery toasted bun. Moreover, it comes in a heat-sealed foil bag that keeps it piping hot until you get it home. Not that you’ll wait until you get there — no, you’ll find yourself gobbling it down in the car, as I did, unable to wait once you’ve had the merest whiff of the aroma that fills your auto. Even after sales tax, all of this comes to you for under five dollars.

How did I come to sample this?

For some reason, leaving the gym at 9:35 Friday night, I developed a hankering for a spicy chicken sandwich. Well, that reason probably had to do with a severe shortage of calories in my system, especially after my workout. But why a spicy chicken sandwich in particular? No idea. But as I got into my car, that’s what I wanted for dinner, as I mentally ran down a list of places to purchase one.

Burger King immediately came to mind, but I’d had one of theirs last year and it was pretty dry.

McDonald’s? Generally too processed.

Chick-fil-A? That was nearby, and so I actually drove over there before realizing that I didn’t want to navigate the crowd outside waiting to get in, and didn’t want to order from my car and wait in the parking lot. (And, yes, I’m aware of the political case made against them, which seems more complicated than generally reported. )

Then I realized: Hey, Popeye’s Chicken is near here, and I love their spicy fried chicken, which I have on occasion. They must have a spicy chicken sandwich.

Boy, do they!

Further context: As I said, this was a quick decision after leaving the gym. I’ve been going to the gym four times a week, plus walking (or running) my dogs every evening, plus tracking my calories. I’m trying to lose my COVID 5. As in, 5 pounds. I hadn’t gained any weight during the pandemic — in fact I had lost eight pounds… but I had lost those eight pounds in February and March when I was sick with a stomach ailment that left me unable to eat almost anything. The weight sure came off easily then. Unfortunately, once that got resolved, those pounds came back and brought five more with them, and I’m one of those people who believe that once you decide to just overlook the added five, they turn into ten, then twenty.

At the gym, I put in about an hour-ten, consisting of a warmup, then a solid 40 minutes on the treadmill, then weights. Treadmill time affords my only opportunity to watch TV (I don’t have TV at home). Nefariously, the gym generally runs The Food Network, which specializes in showing overweight bald guys eating food they shouldn’t while I’m trying not to fantasize about eating it myself. At my previous gym, the program that was on every single time I was there was My 600-Lb. Life, which as you can imagine was indelibly motivational. I haven’t seen it in years now, but scenes from it remain etched in my subconscious. These days, my gym is showing the Olympics. When you’re in your 50s, as I am, and you’re watching teenagers with perfect bodies compete on a screen right in front of you, it is you who suddenly feels like the star of My 600-Lb. Life.

So, yes, I’m going to the gym.

I will lose these 5 pounds.

By the way, a pound consists of 3500 calories — so if I short myself by an average of 500 calories a day, I’ll lose those 5 pounds in five short weeks.

Here’s where I should point out that my workout burns 475 calories.

And that the Popeye’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich contains 690 calories.

Maybe it’ll take six weeks.

Surprising returns

July 20th, 2021

I just had a visit from a retired colleague, T. This is an accomplished older person who ran economic development programs in various states and now, pamphlet in hand, had arrived in my living room to inform me that he’d started a company that plunges sewerage drain lines.

Yes, this was me waking up from a dream.

Also in this dream, I was expecting many, many checks in the mail — as I have been doing my entire life since I was 12 — but when the mailman brought the mail into the living room (as they are not wont to do, in my experience), it was only junk mail… but my newly giant-sized mailbox outside turned out to be overstuffed with garbage, as well as all the outgoing mail he hadn’t taken.

Meanwhile, I was politely telling T. that it was nice to see him and that I’d keep him in mind if I needed my drain line powered through, but I had to be somewhere in 55 minutes. (55 minutes: so specific!) Two other older gentlemen were in the corner having a somewhat loud chat and making themselves at home. T. took the hint and said farewell, and so did one of the others, whom I didn’t recognize, but after they left, the third man stayed to talk for a minute.

“I hope I’m in good stead with you and your family,” he said, or something like that.

I realized it was David K. A much older David K., my not having seen him in more than 20 years now. His hair was now a carpet of white, but he still looked trim and sounded amusedly ironic.

“No, David, we’re fine,” I said. “I always enjoyed seeing you. It’s nice to see you again.”

“So we’re okay?” he asked. “You’re not upset with me or anything?”

“Well,” I said, “I wish you hadn’t killed yourself. But otherwise, we’re fine.”

And it’s true. Decades later, I still wish he hadn’t killed himself.