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


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Poleaxed

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.

Romance

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.

Music

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.

Theatre

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.

Mysteries of the dead

December 25th, 2023

My family and I knew that my recently deceased mother, Mollie Wochner (nee Dickert), seemed to have had two birthdates, September 10, 1925 and September 11, 1925.

Here are her birth certificate, issued on September 27, 1925 and stating her birthdate as September 10, and here is her record of confirmation, issued May 21, 1939, and listing her birthdate as September 11. If there’s another, more official birth certificate, I don’t know about it.

But that isn’t the biggest discrepancy.

We always knew that “Mollie Wochner” was a nickname, that her real name was, as my father often said, “Amalia Emilia Wochner.” Except in studying these, we’ve learned that her birth name was “Amalie Emilia Dickert” — unless it was “Amalie Emilie Dickert.” Note the differing middle name in the documents.

My brother tried to clear this up last week when we survivors gathered to rummage through hundreds of old photos and documents and write identifying names and probable dates while we ourselves were still alive. He said that not everyone is a good speller.

Except:  This means that even my father, who was married to my mother for about 45 years, didn’t know his wife’s name. Because, again, he said it was “Amalia,” which appears nowhere.

Meanwhile, to write her eulogy, I confirmed with my sister how many siblings our mother had.  I knew it was either 10 or 11, and I believe I met all of them except my Uncle George, who in the 1940s long before I was born died from the flu at age 16. (Yes, young people used to die from the flu.) My sister informed me that Mom was one of 10. Given her proximity to my brother, who wrote the family tree, I figured that was right.

This week, my older cousin related to me stories of my mother’s 10 siblings — which would mean she had 11. When I recounted my memory of Uncle Gus, the eldest, born in Germany, she corrected me:  That was Uncle Gust, with a “t” at the end.

At the funeral service, a man I hadn’t seen we were boys came to pay his respects. We grew up across the street from each other, and we fought a lot — fistfights — as boys of that era and locale were likely to do. In the mid-1970s, we were evenly matched in size and age, with only two days between us. Although we were generally friends, we’d physically mix it up practically every weekend, rolling around in the grass and throwing punches, mostly for reasons I can’t remember except, maybe, young male energy.

I had shared that reminiscence with my girlfriend who, upon meeting this long-ago friend at the service, mentioned to him the fisticuffs of our youth. He told her something like, “Whaat? That didn’t happen. We were friends!”

Sometime after the service, when my family and I were hanging around my sister’s house and swapping stories, someone bemoaned the college nickname that my beloved friend K. still carries. Is it nice that she’s still called this? I think so, because our whole group loved her in college, and still does. Why did they think it was mean? 

It turns out that, for 40 years, everyone has completely misunderstood where the nickname came from. No, I assured them, it’s not about her physical size at the time — she got it from having too much to drink at one party almost 40 years ago and rolling around on the floor.

When no two stories even among close friends, relatives, siblings, institutions or even married couples jibe, and even when you write it down, what can we truly know about the past?

Eulogy for my mother

December 22nd, 2023

Delivered by me this past Tuesday, in Galloway, NJ, at Wimberg Funeral Home.

A couple of years ago, drinking beer with Mom outside Smitty’s Clam Bar, Somers Point, NJ.

A week and a half ago, on Friday December 8th, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend, mentor, and role model Mollie Amelia Dickert Wochner passed away.

I say “passed away,” because that’s what she did: She passed away. Only 1 in 10 people actually die in their sleep, and most of them have heart attacks. But Mom, in her last remarkable act in a remarkable life driven by determination, decided her time had come, and lay down and simply passed away. She said that she thought the good Lord had forgotten her, and so she took it upon herself to go see Him.

She believed in Heaven, and I believe in her, so I’m sure she’s there.

She was born on September 11, 1925, making her 98 years, 2 months, and 28 days old. That is, unless she was born on September 10, 1925 — a day earlier — which she started claiming after the attacks of September 11. Mom could be, um, insistent. About September 11th, she started saying, “Hey! That isn’t my birthday!” She said back in her youth, the church would wait a day until registering your birth, in case you didn’t make it. Never mind that we have her birth certificate. But she was a rock and we were movable objects.

As a rock, she raised everyone to be strong and resilient, her children and her grandchildren alike. You can look around us today and see all the strong people she raised and inspired. The resilience, the tough but caring attitude you see in this room, is a testament to her own Depression-era upbringing and the matter-of-fact way she performed child rearing.

Complaining and crying were actively discouraged; the lesson was that if you’ve got a problem, you should just deal with it. If you were a child and you hurt yourself, she offered a mild, “Let’s take a look at you. … Oh, you’re fine.” If you wanted to cry about it, you had to go cry on the steps — and the steps were outside. Where nobody would have to hear it. 

My mother was always strong for her children. Once, when my sister was having a challenge in school, Mom went to meet with the teacher and said, “Show me how you teach my daughter.” The teacher started to write on the blackboard, her back to the classroom, and my mother said, “You have to FACE my daughter when you talk – she reads lips!” When I was ten, Mom insisted to my father that we move to a different area so there’d be other kids around for me to play with, and so I learned to have friends. Thank you, Mom.  

She was feisty. She loved to play cards — mostly pinochle and 500 rummy, solitaire and double solitaire — and would look askance at you if you were her partner and playing badly or, worse, not paying enough attention. Her scowl was something to be dreaded, and her judgment could be quick, her humor sharp.

One time my college friend Jim Markley was over, lamenting the latest passive-aggressive actions of his girlfriend Ashley — was she in the relationship, was she out? — but after listening to him, Mom was decisive:  “Dump her, Jim! Dump her!” … … So he did. 

When I was 19 and Mom got wind that I was going to move out, her immediate reaction was, “Hey! I’ll help you pack your bags!”

But months later, when I was really really broke and would sneak into our darkened house late at night to steal food from the refrigerator, I could see she’d always cooked extra for me to steal. I remember one time sneaking off with probably half of a pot roast.

Feeding people was first nature to Mom. Her first question, always, to everyone, was “Didja eat yet?” Because she would always feed you. As a child of the Great Depression in her native Johnstown, Pennsylvania, when not everyone had enough to eat, she learned early that you shared. She told the story that when she was a girl in the 1930’s her mother, my grandmother, would always take pains to feed anyone who came by, including the man who delivered heating oil because he didn’t have enough to eat. If the soup my grandmother was serving had ham in it, the man, who was an observant Jew, would talk himself into it: “This is some good beef soup!,” he would say. “Thank you!” 

No matter who you were or where you came from, my mother would feed you.

She befriended and embraced and tolerated people of all sorts — me when I was an oddball teen printing God knows what with my amateur publishing empire in her basement, my offbeat pack of oddball friends (some of whom are here today), whom she loved and lit up for whenever she saw them, the Chinese family who moved in down the block, all sorts. 

In her younger years she worked and kept house and raised children and learned Chinese cooking. In her retirement years, she traveled the world with my father — Egypt, Germany, England, even California (!) — kept beating people at pinochle and rummy, and was active in her church. My father noted with pride that during the Great Depression, he and all his friends would pool their money, so that everyone had a dime to get into the movies. My mother said of her own childhood friends and siblings that not one of them had even a single dime to get into any movie. So she spent a lot of her retirement catching up on all those movies on TV. 

While those  movies were on, she crocheted. In fact, just a few years ago, she crocheted lap blankets for “the old folks” in the retirement home — old folks who were mostly far younger than she was. How many lap blankets? SIXTY. That’s a lot of lap blankets, and a lot of old movies and episodes of “Law and Order.”

I’ll miss my mother. Nothing goes on forever, although at times she seemed likely to. I asked my brother Michael how much longer he thought Mom had to live. “A good 10 years,” he said. That was 25 years ago. 

Mollie Wochner outlived all her siblings and all her close friends, except one. She is survived by perhaps her greatest friend, the one who has done the most to repay the service received — my sister Lorie. When you grieve my mother’s loss today, think also of my sister, who with my beloved brother-in-law Steve set aside so much in recent years in her own life for our mother. Lorie has lost not only her mother but also her best friend. 

Yes, at age 98, Mom was the last of her parents’ 10 children, our last family member in that generation. There are no more grandparents or aunts or uncles from that group. My siblings and I are now the elders. Now it’s up to us to carry on, with quiet strength, good humor, an open-mindedness that accepts people for who they are, an impatience when you’re taking too damn long to play your card, and a heartfelt determination to feed you.

We’ll be fine. We’ve been trained for this.

Happy Days

November 14th, 2023

In his lifetime, Samuel Beckett was full of surprises, writing plays where nothing happens, where people are stuck in urns or in a giant mound, or in a rocking chair that rocks on its own, or where the only thing on stage is a talking mouth.

But nothing in his repertoire either dramatic or prosaic prepared me for this.

Beckett wrote that we’re born astride a grave. What he didn’t tell us was that he’d be using his Facebook account to serve as a porno site, doing it from beyond the grave, and also enjoying the photos of this Unnamable young woman so much.

I guess as Endgames go, Beckett could be doing worse.

Hidden agenda

November 13th, 2023

Last night over dinner, my girlfriend asked me what my biggest pet peeve is.

I rolled around in my head vocalizing the first to come to mind: always seeing the shoes of my 21-year-old son scattered around the house. There’s always a pair of his shoes resting beneath the island in the kitchen, always a couple of his slides inside the back door, and sometimes another pair of his footwear cast about in the living room or the family room, and frequently accompanied by damp-looking black socks that prohibit me from touching any of it myself.

But then I reflected further and my true greatest pet peeve swam into view: people who drive in the passing lane without any intention of ever passing. These people just roll along blissfully unaware of the long chain of us trapped behind them in a slow centipede of automotive slowdown. It’s the law that they should pass and then get the Hell out of that lane, but they never do. They simply toodle along, rapturously unthinking. In a better world, they would be pulled over and ticketed for this nonsense, and then only if they couldn’t just be tossed into some gulag and their cars trash-compacted into neat little cubes.

I shared that with my girlfriend, who listened sympathetically, and then I added the one about my son with his shoes. Both of those peeves have to do with the ignorance of others; it’s not willfully bad behavior, it’s just ignorant behavior. And then, because I do my best to be a communicator, I asked her what biggest pet peeve is.

She said, “People who don’t make the bed.”

Oh.

Where I’ve been

November 12th, 2023

Old Blighty.

Just under three weeks of business travel, and then one week of being sick, and then a week of catching up on things. That’s what I’ve been up to. 

Spent a week in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I got to revisit the Salvador Dali Museum, which I’d seen with my then-girlfriend (later wife) almost 40 years ago when we were mere children operating on the mistaken belief that we were adults. On that first trip, I drove her new car over the parking block I was pulling up to, stranding the car atop it and sending a shot of panic through my system because we were broke college kids far from any sort of help. The only thing to do was what I did:  Drive the car forward, all the way over the cement block, and pray. After a bad scraping sound, everything turned out fine. No such drama this time, because I walked from the hotel. It also turned out that the Dali Museum had moved:  No longer a low-slung ramshackle building of a single story, it’s now a multi-level building proudly designed by a real architect and with big signs all along the way directing one to it. It was perfectly Surreal to return to a museum that was now in a different place; I like to think Dali would have approved.

Weeks later, even tonight, out with my girlfriend and a bunch of her friends, everybody’s asking me how London was. “Surprisingly,” I say archly, “it was cold and rainy.” That comes with the territory (and is why I carried a telescoping umbrella in my jacket pocket). This was my fourth visit, and every time I add something new; this time it was a river cruise on the Thames, and a walking food tour of the East End, which included a visit to the shop that originated fish and chips, and also a divey local restaurant serving the best Bangladeshi food I’ve ever eaten. I also got to see London’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, which certainly felt longest-running just during my visit. It also wins for most obvious. I took my 21-year-old son with me on this London trip, and he easily guessed the “shocking twist” long before the end as well. 

Probably the most interesting thing I saw on the trip was a mob outside Parliament protesting the looming end of cash. As I was to find out, practically nobody is willing to take cash any more in London. Birmingham, which we visited for two days, proved easier, but in London whether it was a restaurant or a shop or any other sort of place where money would seem to change hands, most establishments reject currency; they just want plastic. The people protesting outside Parliament rightly pointed out that poor people don’t always have such things as bank accounts and credit cards; more alarmingly, they noted that if the government doesn’t like you, it can cut off your access to your digital funds. As for me, I took $1200 in cash to the UK, but converted only $500 of it to pounds sterling — and was damn glad to find a few places to pass it off, most of that in a restaurant in Birmingham. As it is, I came back with a £20 note that I’ll be mailing to a friend who was good enough to ship back to me a book I’d accidentally left behind; I’ll still owe him £5.15.

When asked about London on this trip, I mostly I say that I came back with a viral infection that ravaged my voice, dropped a hacking cough into me, and sapped my energy, even though I was determined to play through at work. (My business partner later awarded me a recognition for being Committed — but that was after she’d pointedly Sent Me Home.) It started on a Thursday, and when I still had it the following Thursday, and my ex-wife could hear over the phone that I could barely squeak out a syllable even though I could cough plenty loud, she said, “You’d better go to urgent care!” Which I did, and got a battery of tests and a diagnosis of “viral infection,” and was packed off to my pharmacy. Even a week or more after that, I’ve still got a bit of it lingering. My CPA said to me the other day that it’s impossible to travel any more without getting sick, but I dunno:  I’ve traveled a lot the past two years and hadn’t had a problem until now.

So, where to now? Unless something unexpected comes up, nowhere far ‘til next March.