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


Heat index

September 5th, 2022

Update: I’m outside working on my new play — outside because I’m having a cigar with it — and I just confirmed the temperature: It’s 1,000 degrees out here.

That’s according to my phone, and to the t-shirt shirt I’m wearing.


September 5th, 2022

That’s German for “hot” — a word I heard a lot from my German-American mother when I was growing up. And it’s certainly a word I’m thinking about today.

Because boy is it heiß.

Yesterday a friend in Napa Valley was complaining about the 109-degree heat up there. Well, lucky him:  It was 111 degrees here in Burbank, CA. It’s been so hot that the normally shy baby lizards are out in force, scampering into the shade wherever they can find it.

(Unlike my dogs — who, it turns out, are maniacs.)

On Saturday night I had a couple of friends over for cigars and drinks in my back yard. I sardonically reassured them that if it got chilly I could turn on my patio heater. No one laughed. There was no need for the heater; when the party broke up at 1:30 a.m., it was eighty-nine degrees outside. That’s eighty-nine with an 8 and a 9, ninety minutes after midnight and long after that great hot glowing orb in the sky had revolved away. 

I just now came in from my front yard, where I was yet again trimming my giganimous tipuana tree. I decided to do this because the temperature was a mere 98 degrees, so why not? My elder son and I planted this tree on October 19, 2003, and had I known what a curse I was bestowing on myself, I would have planted something else. It turns out that the tipuana tree is registered by many nations as an invasive species — but, of course, that’s what our city’s arborist happily recommended that I install. This tree grows faster than our national debt. While cutting off its tendrils, I started to mentally calculate just how much of my life I’ve spent trimming this tree over the past 19 years; I could’ve used that time to paddle out to Australia instead. I last trimmed the tree in late May (so: three-and-a-half months ago), and every few years I have to hire a squadron of tree-climbing men with power saws and a crane to scale its heights and lop off the branches that, left untended, would shear the roof off my house and plunge holes through my windows. So there I was just now, yet again, dragging around a ladder and hoisting my branch cutter and guillotining off all the hanging branches I could reach. There’s no money or joy in this, but I know there would be a lot of expense and heartache in not doing it. 

While I was out there, I started thinking about my uncle Art Miller, late of Johnstown, PA. Sometime in the 1970s, Uncle Art went out to trim his hedges and rose bushes and dropped dead of heat stroke and a heart attack. To me, he was a warm presence who wore corduroy slippers around his house, always smelled pleasingly of cigars, and had a general air of kindness and mild joy. I loved my Uncle Art, and think about him fondly, but I’m in no rush to join him. So now I’m back inside, writing this.

Battling busters

September 5th, 2022

The UPS workers are fast, but those Teamsters have the upper body strength. It’ll be an interesting fight to be sure.

What I write (and what I don’t)

August 31st, 2022

Although I haven’t been doing a lot of writing here of late, I have been doing a lot of writing. So if you’ve been worried about that — and I know you have! — please release that sigh of relief. I think, all things considered, my output remains about where it should be.

I’m about a third of the way into a new full-length play. I say a third, because I’ve got 46 pages, but I’m sure a bunch of those are going to get cut.

I’ve actually started writing a short story* — my first in years. The entire reason I came to Los Angeles 34 (gasp) years ago was to attend grad school at the University of Southern California, and the entire reason I chose that program was because it encouraged writing in more than one discipline, and I was writing both plays and short stories. I’ve never stopped writing plays, but the short stories have become more sporadic. At some point — and I swear this is true — I got tired of seeing them in print. Because: It didn’t compare to hearing live audience reaction to my plays, or reading the reviews. (Even the bad ones.) With all the short stories and, yes, poems (don’t look at me that way) that got published, the magazine or journal would come out… and then the silence would ensue. It didn’t seem to build into anything. Put another way: I just became a junkie for audience response.

*(Confession: When I say “started writing a short story,” what I mean to say is that I have written the notes for that story. I sure hope it follows — and this weekend! — or I’ll lose the thread.)

And I write a lot of copy for marketing/advertising clients, and I write a lot of funny emails to family and friends, and a couple of weeks ago I wrote an assigned piece for a magazine in Canada, and I’m writing this right now.

Today I wrote something for people who spend their lives in service of justice, frequently for poor people and for people facing discrimination. They needed this written, and I was proud to do it. I also wrote a candidate statement for someone running for office, someone I believe in. I also wrote a press release recently for a community group. I think these things are important.

Someone (I think Dorothy Parker) said that when you’re a writer, you face a life of homework. (Maybe it was Fran Lebowitz. In fact, I now think it was Fran Lebowitz.) Anyway, imagine working all day in a job you created and that’s centered around writing, editing, and communicating… and then coming home to do more of it. Plus weekends. So it’s like that.

Not that I’m complaining. I love working with words. I’m a sucker for alliteration and anaphora and all puns, good and bad. Plus, something John Steinbeck once said about writing as a career should silence anyone who’d complain about it: “It sure beats working in the mud with a stick all day.”

Something I haven’t been writing here for quite a while now are blog posts about politics. I swore them off for what boils down to two reasons:

  • I wasn’t saying anything that somebody else wasn’t saying better
  • And I wasn’t being funny or clever, because I was just so outraged

The related reason is that we have an ex-president about whom I’ve discovered I have zero sense of humor (which is shocking to me: having zero sense of humor about anything), and he dominates enough of the news every day. My little victory is that he’s no longer appearing in my blog.

So that’s what I’m not writing.

Men’s home furniture

August 29th, 2022

Whenever I’m out of town, I try to stop into a local comics shop to see if I can fill in some missing issues in whatever I’m collecting. This past weekend, while I was down in Carlsbad, CA, just north of San Diego proper, I found a large and overall excellent comic-book store that actually had five of the issues I’m looking for to fill in a run, and all of them reasonably priced. The comics shop was in a mall, so that’s how I happened to find myself in a mall. (Because, really, who goes to malls any more?)

And that’s also how I came across Macy’s men’s home furniture of Carlsbad, California.

Now, I don’t know what men’s home furniture is, and because of that, I don’t know if I need or want any. I mean, I have the standard furniture, like couches, chairs, a recliner, a dining table and chairs, a bed, and so forth. How would men’s home furniture differ? Is men’s home furniture, say, a La-Z-Boy with a beer holder and built-in remotes? Sunken into the left arm is there a humidor? Or is it a gamer’s chair that has a PlayStation 5 controller built right in, maybe with a VR headset? Is men’s home furniture something more, um, personal that I won’t go into detail about here? What is it?

My girlfriend tried to convince me that the sign tells us that this Macy’s offers, wait for it, men’s clothing, home items, and furniture, and that it’s not all one thing. Could she be right, and this signage is just evidence of bad kerning?

If that’s the case, that makes this just another Macy’s. But if, as I suspect, it’s a place that has men’s home furniture, then it’s got something distinctive to offer, in the form of a line of products I haven’t seen in any other department store, let alone any Macy’s.

If they’d listed comic books, I would’ve gone inside to find out.

Phase 3

July 31st, 2022

I had a big birthday two weeks ago, which prompted me to run some of those life-expectancy calculators once again. They agree that, barring the proverbial misfortune of getting hit by a bus, I should live to age 90 or so.

So: sometime next year, I’ll be in Phase 3. Meaning I’ve got 30 more years to potentially read all of the thousand books piled up in my writing room.

In celebration of the big birthday, I threw a big birthday party for myself. My girlfriend strongly suggested that I hire a party planner and caterers — and even referred me to a party planner — but my own plan was to spend a carefully budgeted amount at Costco* and then enlist my three adult children in preparing and serving it all. This saved me an amount calculated in the thousands, and everyone seemed happy… even those children**, and even the one who is in the Army and who has bulked up extraordinarily and who was on the receiving end, in the kitchen, of a longtime friend of mine ordering him several times to “drop and give me 10!”

(*Yes, I rejoined Costco. Which is not for the faint of heart — and surely not for those of us who like to spend only 30 minutes grocery shopping, working directly from a list. Oh, the things I’ll do for a party!)

(**Well, to be honest, my daughter was a bit put out that my birthday party was being held on her actual birthday. So much so that she swiped my “It’s my birthday!” sash and wore it for herself, posing for photos in it. I myself never got to wear it… which I’m not counting as a loss.)

After all the weeks of prepping and sweating over the party — which included developing three sets of custom games, because I’m a lunatic and thought it would make things more interesting — Comic-Con was right around the corner. With all these doings, July was a write-off, and by the end of it, my house looked like a tornado had struck it. Only yesterday were my son and I finally ready to start restoring order, he by vacuuming and cleaning everywhere, and me by putting away all the detritus: empty boxes, assorted decorations, read or unread magazines and newspapers, clutter, and many many many birthday bottles of bourbon.

Perhaps I should also mention that I started the month recovering from a case of Covid, which put me behind a bit….

But, I’ve moved on. I neatly sorted and put in order all the comic books and magazines and books I’m in the process of reading. I washed all the bed clothes. I trashed/recycled debris. And I’m at my office right now, having brought here some things better suited for here. (Like soda, which my son and I generally don’t drink. And like lots of receipts I’d piled up at home.)

Yesterday, I put away my suitcase for the first time in months. Actually stored it in its storage space. That’s because I’m not going anywhere for six weeks. What I’ve reluctantly learned is that even if I unpack and restore right after a trip or an event, it still takes days or weeks to set everything straight — for me, at least.

Maybe I can do better in Phase 3.

COVID: the rebound

June 24th, 2022

I have a long history of being stubborn and willful and then getting smacked in the face with reality. I don’t know where Steve Jobs got his reality distortion field — which never failed him until… um… uh oh, it turned out that medical doctors actually knew things and were right — but I have frequently acted as though I had one, and sometimes (sometimes) it has worked for me.

So here were my willful self-reinforcing beliefs — or dictates to myself, really — about COVID-19.

“Great! It’ll be like a week’s vacation!”

“I can just lie about and read!”

“I can catch up on some tasks while I’m home, too!”

“Ugh — I’m so tired of other people. This’ll be a break!”

These came crashing into the reality. And periodically I hate reality like this:

That work you had to do? It just piles up. You still have to do it — either now, or later. Some vacation!

Those books you were going to read? Who can read, with this going on? When every book seems “boring,” you know it’s YOU.

If by “catch up” you mean “wander listlessly and look at home-improvement projects you should be doing but that you can’t even work up the energy to write down right now — then yes.

Tired of other people? Nay — just TIRED. Like:  taking multiple 2-hour naps during the day while still sleeping for 8-12 hours at night.

Let’s talk worst side effects. No, not the flu-like symptoms or the lack of energy or the persistent cough or the aggravating throat-clearing. The worst side effects were, in ascending order: skipping a ticketed event at UCLA that I was very excited about; reassigning my tickets to see one of my favorite bands, Modern English, at a tiny venue in a performance that my friend later reported, damn him, as “I’m almost embarrassed to say it… it was one for the history books. Utterly amazing…” the bastard; and, even worse than those things, not seeing my lovely girlfriend in the flesh for two weeks. Yeah, thanks for FaceTime, and I’m grateful, but it doesn’t measure up to in-person real life.

But this morning, I decided, Fuck it, I’m done with this. Nietszche and I have learned our lessons and are stronger for them. And so I have rallied.

Now that I’ve been able to sit up for more than two hours.

Father’s Day

June 19th, 2022

My father, extreme right, some time in the 1940s, long before I was born, out for drinks with my Aunt Anne, my Uncle Heinrich (“Heinie”), my maternal grandmother, and my mother. Before the kids came, my parents were young and beautiful. 

My dad was a great father who always indulged my passions and whims, even when they didn’t align with his own. Took me to New York City and then other cities for comic-book conventions even though he hated cities and going to them, taught me to fish and shoot and canoe and camp, introduced me to the fellowship of men being men, inspired me to love history, taught me not to bet on the card to come, and most of all was open-minded about my strange array of friends, because friends are and were important and he had weirdo friends himself.

10 things that are great about having COVID

June 19th, 2022
  1. Not going anywhere means real savings!
  2. Close observation of your house leads to development of home-improvement list. Now you’re multitasking!
  3. The opportunity to finally watch last year’s sensation, “Ted Lasso” — and come away with the observation that it’s essentially an update on “Green Acres.” Proving that you’ve still got your faculties.
  4. Finally you have the time to catch up on all those issues of The New Yorker.
  5. All those things you were procrastinating on? Now you’ve got an excuse!
  6. More bonding with your dogs! (But maybe too much bonding.)
  7. That concert you had tickets for? Would’ve been loud. Hearing damage averted!
  8. That performance at UCLA you had tickets for? Well, at least now you’ve saved $20 on parking!
  9. Finally, a reduction in your hoard of canned apocalypse food.
  10. Just think how grateful you’ll be to be out and about with other people, assuming you make it out of this alive.

Blast radius

May 22nd, 2022

The Sheraton in downtown Atlanta has seen better days. 

As one of those older middling chain hotels that have outlasted the neighborhood that originated it, it has lost its luster and the sense that anyone working in it truly cares. One of the lamps in our room was clearly broken, its shade tilted at a maniacal angle — easily fixed with a new ferrule; the room came with samples of someone else’s hair left behind for the finding in the shower; and a half-used bottle of shampoo was placed back alongside the sink as though it were new. 

This hotel has another particular distinction, as I told the front desk clerk. “I’ve stayed in hotels of all sorts all over the nation, but never before have I stayed in a room that has had zero trash cans in the room. Can you please send up two trash cans, one for the bathroom and one for the bedroom?”

The sign above, outside the 8th floor elevators, tells you all you need to know about the hotel’s upkeep. None of this was apparent in advance from the hotel or online reviews, and none of it was upsetting enough to warrant switching hotels, given the plans my girlfriend and I had made.

One thing the Sheraton does have going for it is the saltwater swimming pool, a large protozoan shape with an actual deep end of 11 feet, an expansive lounging area surrounding it, and, best of all, a glass ceiling that opens to let in the sky and the sun. Swimming in this pool felt like swimming in an ocean grotto, as you float in warm buoyancy and bask in the mild sunlight to the backdrop of birdsong from outside. I suspect some people book this hotel purely for the pool. It played a big role for me. Even though I was in Atlanta for only two full days, I used it both days.

One of the people I saw enter the pool near me was a mutilated man who had clearly been caught in a blast radius. Judging by his age, I figure he got disfigured in Iraq or Afghanistan by an explosive device that went off near his right side. Most of the skin on that side of his head, and face, and arm, and back, had been shaped and restored with varying success, his right ear was surgically stapled shut with thick clamps of steel, and his right eye was reduced to a sliver of redness, like an open gaping wound with a bit of pupil left visible and seeing.

I did not take a photo. No one with any sense of decency would. I also didn’t stare, and for the same reason. But I did take it in, at a glance, as he bobbed near me, just as anyone would.

I don’t know this man’s story, because I didn’t ask, again because of decency. He’ll never again have a fully private moment in public, but he’s entitled to whatever vestige of that that he can get. I may be right (or wrong) about how he suffered these injuries, but there’s no dismissing the impact of them, physically or emotionally.

But we can take comfort in knowing that there’s more than one kind of blast radius.

Because here’s how he was swimming:  in the arms of his woman, an attractive blonde about his same age who held him and stroked him and kissed him. Anyone would be lucky to be within range of this sort of love. Not just the man, but also the rest of us who got to see it and feel it.

And because of the blast radius from this message, written by a Chinese student and seen this morning in the rose garden outside the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site visitor center by visitors from around the world, including me.

Sometimes when we don’t realize it, we’re about to be shattered by love.