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


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The post I was going to write

Sunday, April 4th, 2021

This isn’t the post I was going to write.

The post I was going to write was going to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and would be thematically unified.

But this isn’t that.

When I was at the gym earlier, I had a different post in mind to be writing right now. But even as I think about that, what I’m really thinking is this:  Dear God, it felt glorious to be back at the gym! Hooray for reopened gyms! No this wasn’t the gym that had shit in the showers  — I quit that gym — this is the new gym, new to me and new to everyone, that had to close last year because you-know-why. And now it’s reopened, because you-know-what is subsiding. I was so happy to step across that threshold that if they’d charged a “convenience fee” at the door I just would’ve handed it over. I had a terrific workout, admittedly far superior to the one accomplishable in the setup in my garage, and thanked everybody there on the way out.

The gym’s been open for a week. Why did I wait? Well, on Friday morning, I got the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. The tradeoff:  You only have to go once (perfect for me, because I’m generally impatient), but the reported incidence of side effects is greater. Then, very late Friday night, I started to feel strange. Like, somehow I couldn’t make any sense of what was happening in “Godzilla versus Kong,” and I mean even more than the “plot” and “dialogue.” When the big battle ended with them joining forces against a common enemy — so unexpected! — and I was trundling off to bed, I started shivering hard, and then had a very flu-like not-great time all night, resulting in my not feeling great on Saturday. I don’t think I could even tell you what I did on Saturday. Oh, wait, I finished one game of Civilization VI (playing Trajan) and then immediately started another as Saladin. That was about what I could accomplish.

But today? Today I sprang awake, ready to do stuff! Like:  get over to that gym! Finally put things away, for God’s sake! And write a perhaps-one-day-print-worthy blog entry, something with pith and insight and clever word play. (This is what I aspire to, anyway.)

Four minutes before I got home from my workout, my wife texted me to say that “the painter” that I didn’t know would be coming would be at our house any minute now and did I want to talk to him. I suspected even then that she meant, “Do you want to grill and flambé him?” because that’s how she thinks I go about hiring contractors. That’s not my method at all. I just want to know what we’re getting, what our options are, how long it’ll last and for God’s sake how much it’s going to cost. I did take a liking to Robert, who spent a cool two hours on Easter Sunday detailing for us his 43-year-history as a house painter, starting with his emigration from Korea, then work in Colorado Springs, followed by Texas, and since 1987 Southern California. At age 29, he realized that he needed a wife “to cook and keep house” and so he got married. (At age 25, I got a wife because I liked her company. But people’s reasons vary.) He also volunteered that Koreans are reliable and hard-working. I actually think that many (most?) people are reliable and hard-working irrespective of nationality, but I may be in the minority on this one. Robert (not his birth name) will be getting me a bid, and we’ll see what it looks like.

(At one point, the post I was going to write was a litany of household improvements and repairs. I was already tallying it in my head:  the tree service was $4225, the plumbing was about $2,000, the new dishwasher and sink came in just under $1,000, the new fence will be $8,000 to $15,000, lord knows how much Robert will want… maybe I’m lucky and his kids’ college is already paid for. But I decided that I’d rather not think about it, let alone write about it.) 

Danny from the neighborhood also came over. Danny from the neighborhood is a short solidly built man originally from the nation below us who worked for the studios for years. I’ve been watching in fascination the past two weeks as he erected and stained a new fence on the property across the street. I’ve seen many, many fences in my life, around this country and in others, and Danny’s fence may be the nicest-looking one I’ve seen. So I called him over to give us an estimate on ours. The last bid we got was that $8,000-$15,000 one, and you would be right if you sense my hesitation at contracting that fellow, but it’s immaterial because he never returned our calls afterward anyway. The other unspoken pandemic problem:  finding available contractors. So many people have turned to home improvement as entertainment in lieu of actually going anywhere and doing anything that these guys are booked up.

By the time Robert and Danny left, two-and-a-half hours had slipped by. So it seemed like time to pull out some of that wine we bought last week on that tour of wineries.

Free tip:  If you ever want to get into the habit of spending a lot more money, one great way to go is to finally discover the difference between shitty wine and good wine. Shitty wine can be had for less than ten bucks, and sometimes for as little as two or three bucks. Our local liquor store ran a sale on cases of Spanish wine at $1.99 a bottle because it wasn’t moving, and most of it was corked. That is, after you could even get it open, and that would be with destroying the cork, the wine inside was bad. Meanwhile, the fabulous wine that rolls down your gullet and reminds you that there is love and light in the world, and that other delights await you? That wine costs many multiples of the cheap shitty wine. How do I know that? Because now I’ve bought it. And now that I’ve bought it, it’s already proving difficult going back to the cheap shitty wine.

After that one glass of the delectable pricey wine today, I switched back to water. Really trying to make this bottle last….

After that, I took our two neurotic uncontrollable dogs for a nice long walk. On that walk, I thought a lot about the post I was going to write. Now it was going to be about wine. As I watched the male dog urinate at length on his favorite bush, I wondered if I’d made a mistake sampling really good wine. Just how much was this going to cost me? Were we going to be offering this to guests?  I was balancing these questions against my impulse to go online and order a case of that one red of which we already have only one bottle left!

When the dogs and I got home from our walk and our run, I decided that I didn’t want to think about the wines either and I certainly didn’t want to write about them and that’s when I pulled the water out of the refrigerator.

Next project, after dinner, in this day of projects:  putting hundreds of comic books safely and securely into plastic bags with nice firm acid-free cardboard backings in them, and then organizing them in their storage boxes. Noted:  these boxes of comics have gotten a lot heavier over the past 40 years.  They certainly didn’t weigh this much when I was 18!

And then, because it’s Sunday night and that’s when you’ll find the best auctions ending, going on eBay to source more of these heavy comic books. And then, also because it’s Sunday night and that’s one of my nights to clean up the kitchen, cleaning up the kitchen.

So now it’s almost 11 p.m. and no, I’m not going to write the post I was going to write. What am I going to do? Do some reading, and probably get back to Civilization VI and converting the German cities to my religion; no, Frederick Barbarossa doesn’t like it, but if wants to do something about it, hey, have at it, pal.

Tomorrow’s another day. Maybe then I’ll write the better post.

Book return

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

One night last week, after about 20 years, I had a guy I know over for drinks and cigars and to talk about theatre and writing and books and music.

One thing about the pandemic: Suddenly we both had time. The social options normally available have telescoped down into almost nothing.

We already knew we had some things in common: We’re both playwrights and stage directors, we’ve both done work with Moving Arts (which is how we know each other), I’ve seen his plays and he’s seen mine, we both have wives and kids, and we both live in Burbank — within walking distance of each other. I learned the latter fact some time last year when he told me that whenever he’s at his kids’ school, he sees the fundraising tile my wife and I sponsored some years ago. More recently, he and his wife bought one too, so that’s something else we have in common.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours in my back yard under a glowing patio heater and during half a bottle of bourbon, we took turns shooting references at each other that, yep, the other would actually get. When I compared the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby dynamic with the Edison / Tesla dynamic, both of them revolving around a genius largely unrecognized during his life, he was armed and ready with the tragic details of Tesla’s last years. We shared our admiration for the work of Ayad Akhtar. When we wandered into music, and the role of noise, and John Cage, and I inevitably brought up Pere Ubu, and he offered his love of their songs as songs, and then added Wire, I just about fell over. How often can one find someone equally capable of discussing Marvel comics, brilliant 19th century inventors, particular contemporary playwrights, semi-obscure postpunk bands, the practice of being a writer, Fran Lebowitz, and, especially dozens and dozens of books you’ve read?

What are the odds of this, and with regard to the books in particular? Not to put too fine a point on it, but it takes time to read a book. Most Americans read four books a year. In 2020, I read 33 books; my average is 26 books a year (I just checked; thank you, GoodReads), which I think is pathetic. Although it’s possible to read 100 books a year, distractions like eating and sleeping and other functions get in the way. So finding that you’ve both read Paul Auster and Joan Didion and Julian Barnes and Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and some of the Russians and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and on and on while also having all those other interests in common is a bit… disconcerting. Wasn’t the final grandmaster chess tournament in “Queen’s Gambit” like this?

It did turn out, though, that there were two books I’d read and heartily endorsed that he hadn’t read, and two that he swore by that I hadn’t read. The next day, still thrilled and knocked off-kilter by the experience of having someone walk over to my house and have that sort of conversation with me over bourbon and cigars for almost three hours, I went on Amazon and sent him the two books I love that he hadn’t read: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

He texted me two days later to thank me and to say that he’d already gobbled down the Barnes book, adding a few salient points about it. And then the other day, when I opened my front door to see why my annoying dogs were raising high holy hell this time, I found a package from Amazon on my own doorstep: He had sent me the two I hadn’t read, pictured above.

After I read these, we’ll have four more books we can discuss. And this time, we won’t wait 20 years. We’ve already set the date.

Against self-expression

Saturday, February 13th, 2021
Painted (on commission) by Hieronymus Bosch

Today, on a Zoom call, David Thomas of Pere Ubu was saying again that “self-expression is evil.” He said it twice — once, 30 years ago, in a television interview that a couple dozen of us were now watching with him, and again, afterward, to us.  And of course many other times over the years in other interviews.

Thus the answer to why in its 45-year history Pere Ubu has recorded almost no love songs. 

This served as a reminder that this tough-mindedness is part of why I could never cozy up to the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, but instantly sutured myself onto Pere Ubu 35 years ago when I first heard them.

But before I go on let me be careful not to ascribe to David, whose work I admire tremendously, opinions that are mine and not his. Whatever he means by “self-expression” may not be what I mean by “self-expression.” I generally mean that baring one’s soul through art is not in and of itself interesting; a few drinks with a friend at a pub would sort that out better. Doing it through what you think is art is actually quite boring — as evidenced by the sort of poem that used to appear in Reader’s Digest, and also by countless high-school journals, including mine, in which I endlessly pined for girls in ways that still embarrass me, 40 years later, because I can’t forget my own adolescent weakness.

If you’re lucky, people will be interested in your art.  If they were primarily interested in you, you’d be a reality TV star.

And that’s the way it should be for artists. Art first. Confession and “self-expression” never.

I’ve worked with hundreds (and hundreds) of playwrights over the past 30 years. And, of course, actors and directors and scenic designers and musicians and visual artists and choreographers and so forth. I take it for granted that they’ve all had hurtful childhoods — some of them actually hurtful, some of them a hurt of their imagination (which doesn’t make it any less real). Even after all these years, while I like almost all these people and am glad to know them, I find it hard to get worked up about their personal pain. By its nature it’s so self-involving that it just can’t be interesting. How interesting can childhood trauma be, if everyone’s had some version of it? Childhood trauma isn’t unique — it’s universal.

Art, on the other hand can be profoundly interesting when people put their hurt into it in service of the work. I’m not sad to say that I can’t get moved by the early death of John Lennon’s mother — but him screaming about it on Plastic Ono Band certainly gets my attention and approval. That isn’t self-expression, that’s art that includes self-expression. (And, anyway, was Julia’s death bad luck for him — or was it what he needed to become a Beatle? We should note that Paul McCartney also lost his mother in his childhood.) We know almost nothing about Hieronymus Bosch’s life, but I know all I need to know from his paintings, and I can assume that some of him is in there, even though they were painted on commission.

That’s how it should be.

If the art is interesting, the self that comes through that art is interesting. Art that serves as self-expression is best kept with your middle-school participation trophies, forgotten in a closet filled with such clutter.

In the other practice, self-expression is presented on a platter, a la those mawkish TV romances made for dowagers. Most of the explicit self-expression I see in would-be art is handed to us as confession. Confession and sharing are antithetical to conflict, and it’s conflict that makes art powerful. What are those classic three storylines? Man versus man; man versus nature; man versus himself. Note that each of those has a “versus.” On the other hand, when a character sits down and earnestly tells another character how sad she feels, you can feel the play sink like the House of Usher. This is why for years in my writing workshop, I’ve railed against plays whose central story is this:  “Grandma’s dying, and I feel sad.” Well, that’s you. How do we in the audience feel about it?

Pere Ubu, meanwhile, has achieved 45 years of powerfully moving work that is utterly devoid of sentimentality. Is it filled with feeling? Absolutely. Does it elicit feelings in the audience? Of course. The staying power of the music, and the thrill it engenders in its adherents, provide testimony to that. So too is attending a live show and seeing the impact of the music on all those assembled; there is a charge in the air, every time. But none of it is saccharine, none of it is handed to you, and none of it asks you to crank up emotions you don’t have. Like all great art, Pere Ubu respects the work too much for that. It would be degrading to stoop to mawkishness.

How it’s going

Sunday, January 31st, 2021
Everything’s fine.
  1. Back in this post, I noted that I even though I’m a committed reader of books, I make little headway on the number of books in my reading queue, because I’m buying more than I read. Yes, I’m guilty of tsundoku (an excellent word I learned only recently), or owning a growing pile of books I may never read. So when Taschen targeted me on Facebook with their goddamn ad highlighting a big sale they were having of their beautiful art books, of which I’d like to own all, I did not buy any. I did send the link to a friend who I knew would appreciate it, but I didn’t even glance at their offering of what’s on sale, and I didn’t buy any of it.
  2. When I was on Facebook the next day, the ad came back and I bought two books from it. But they were big beautiful books and I needed them! Baby steps, okay?
  3. I was also targeted on Facebook by some product that promised to remove the bags under my eyes. (The fact that they knew I had them screams out for further regulation by Facebook.) I bought this stuff too. Usually, I’m a bit of a tightwad — I really don’t want all this stuff in my house! — but I do have the eye bags, even if only in the morning (I tell myself). The product promptly arrived, and I put it in my bathroom, but so far there’s been no improvement. Next step: Tomorrow morning, I’m going to take it out of the box.
  4. On Saturday after my playwriting workshop, I came across a tweet from a business guru I follow who shared how the pandemic was affecting him. One idea he floated: Rewatching The Walking Dead, but this time taking notes. The Walking Dead being about, essentially, a pandemic, I thought that funny. So in a welcome interlude from attacking all these books with a pickaxe, I wound up rewatching Season 1 (six episodes, requiring only about five hours) and then this morning, while putzing around and putting off other things I should be doing, I watched a couple more. Season 1 is a masterpiece, and I say this seriously. It’s an emotionally devastating, grinding, unforgiving look at the apocalypse (or, as I like to refer to it, Trump’s Second Term). No one gets off easy, and no one is miraculously saved. Every moment is earned, and the acting, writing, and production values are superb. Seeing it again for the first time in 10 years and now watching it straight through helped me see how terrific it is — and especially how much money was lavished on what was essentially a six-episode miniseries. There is no one set location, so every scene is a new location shoot; locations include a hospital that gets trashed, the Center for Disease Control (which gets blown up), a roadway with a huge car collision and shootout; a skyscraper; sewer tunnels; downtown Atlanta with hundreds of extras and a freaking tank and God knows what else… the list is endless. It’s jaw-dropping.
  5. In Season 2, our hardy band of survivors mostly hangs around a farmhouse and discusses their feelings for 13 interminable episodes. Looks like: All the budget got blown in Season 1.
  6. Back here, I said that theatre on Zoom is not theatre. Since then, we’ve done another reading of a new play from my workshop, and done it on Zoom. The script, by a talented playwright, is strong, and the actors were real pros: working actors you’d recognize, who brought their all. But, still, it was on Zoom. Something about a live “theatre” performance on Zoom just screams, “Hey, check your email.” That’s because the delivery vehicle — Zoom, on your computer — is the same delivery vehicle for your email and your Facebook and your Twitter, etc. The actual theatre demands that you sit there in a darkened room without your smartphone and pay attention. When you’re watching “theatre” on your laptop, though, all those other options lurk in the same dimension as the performance and, if you haven’t turned off texting or email or Facebook or notifications, you’ll be getting those interruptions throughout. The playwright asked me afterward if I thought the play ran a little long and maybe should be trimmed — this, by the way, is #1 on the frequently asked list from a playwright after a reading — and I said there’s no way to know, because it was on Zoom.
  7. By the way — of course! — I’m writing a play that takes place over Zoom. It’s seven scenes long, is intended to run 70 minutes, and I’ve finished the first draft. I’m in rewrites. I would have already finished the rewrites — except I’m writing it on a machine that also has email, and Facebook, and texting, and notifications….

Not-year in review

Sunday, December 27th, 2020

Today, the Washington Post unveiled its “humorous” 2020 year-in-review, courtesy of Dave Barry, which was even less funny than Dave Barry normally is.

Then the Los Angeles Times carrier dropped today’s edition on my front lawn, featuring its own year-in-review, which made me want to run after her car and take back the Christmas tip I’d given her.

Why would anyone want to perform a year in review on 2020? Except, perhaps, to learn what not to do.

2020 was the year in which I saw no more than one play. At least, not live on-stage — and, no, watching “theatre” on Zoom doesn’t count as theatre, so, yes, I saw only the one. Oh, I was supposed to see more, but I was out of town / out of the country for a huge swath of January, had only the one show scheduled for February, and then, well, you know what happened after that. I sure was looking forward to the revival of 1776 and also to a host of other shows, and I wish I’d liked the one I did get to see.

2020 was the year in which I wrote a full-length play, all 120ish pages of it plus notes, then realized I didn’t like it at all, then set about rewriting it from a different point of view and a different tone, then found that I needed to do research (!) and then realized that maybe this wasn’t the play for me to be writing anyway. Yes, it was that sort of year — in which one writes two versions of the same play and then isn’t satisfied with either.

2020 was also the year in which I saw one concert. Oh, I enjoyed that one tremendously (and we’ll get to that), but what might it have been like to see all the others that were scheduled? The Cruel World Festival alone (an instant sellout, but a friend and I scored great seats) promised sets from Morrissey, Bauhaus, Blondie, Devo, Echo & The Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs, the Church, Public Image Limited, and so many more. The fest was scheduled for May, then got rescheduled to September, but sometime around June someone woke up to what wasn’t ending anytime soon and just canceled it.

Should I point out that this was the year that Comic-Con was canceled? And, no, that valiant effort of doing a virtual Comic-Con was not Comic-Con. I know, because I’ve been to Comic-Con every year since 1988. Except for one year — guess which one.

2020 was the year in which a politician I’ve always liked and rooted for finally won the presidency — except the other candidate refused to admit defeat and half of his party in the House is still going along with it.

In 2020 in the United States, more than 300,000 people and counting died from what someone (see previous paragraph) kept saying was like the flu, and not to worry about it. So much winning!

2020 was the year in which one of my favorite restaurants, Pacific Dining Car, a place of many memories for me, went out of business… one year short of its 100th anniversary. That is so 2020! Now I’m afraid thousands of other restaurants are going to follow it into oblivion, if they haven’t already, taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with them.

In 2020, many of my friends lost their jobs. Their long-time jobs. Hard-to-replace jobs.

In 2020 it cost a small fortune and a short lifetime to get a package from the U.K., thanks to changes made by our postmaster. Some delivery days, the U.S. mail didn’t arrive at all, a true first in my lifetime, and yet another achievement for the current administration.

2020 was the year in which one of my kids came home for Christmas, but the other didn’t because of our reasonable fears during the pandemic.

2020 wasn’t a total bust. As the year opened, my daughter and I went to Spain to see Pere Ubu play, and also spent time in the same room as Hieronymus Bosch paintings I’ve admired for decades, and rode high-speed rail from Madrid to Segovia, and ate in the world’s oldest restaurant, and went to a flamenco show and did some shopping and had an altogether excellent time. I sometimes think that reflecting on January is what kept me together through March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December.

And, y’know what? I’m healthy and alive and so are my family, the sun is shining, and I don’t own a restaurant. If 2020 has one lesson for us, it’s this: Be grateful for what you have, and do your best not to spread misery around, because many people have it far worse. If we’re going to review 2020, we should celebrate it for leaving us with that lesson.

Voltaire said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that man is essentially optimistic because he goes to bed making plans for the next day. In that spirit: 2021, I await you!

Like Sisyphus

Saturday, December 26th, 2020

A few years ago, when I was making my way through David McCullough’s biography of the Wright Brothers, I fell into a discussion about reading with a friend. I was extolling the virtues of the Goodreads app, which helps me track the books I’ve read as well as, especially, the ones I want to read. This has proved very helpful at Christmastime when family members want to know what books I want, or when I’m in a bookstore readying for travel to another city and looking for something to read on the trip.

“How many books do you have on that list?” my friend asked.

“Seventy-eight,” I said.

“Seventy-eight!” he said. “You’ll never read them all.”

I did some basic math, and even while knowing that the average page count of books varies greatly, I figured I’d get them all read in four years or so. Sure, “War and Peace” was on there — a second attempt — but I’d knock that off at some point. And this year, it turns out, I read Ron Chernow’s magnificent (in content and in length) nearly 1,000-page biography of George Washington. I wasn’t intimidated.

But just now I checked to see, four years after our discussion, how many books remain in my queue.

One hundred and three. Numerically at least, that doesn’t equal progress.

See, what happens is this: Other books come along! So that even as you’re reading your way through the list, new books line up alongside them!

Someone should have told me this. Like, decades and decades ago.

I’ve read 32 books so far this year, a good number but not a great one, and that’s with counterbalancing the Chernow doorstop with two collections of the mildly diverting The Immortal Hulk. (It seems that, almost 50 years on, no matter what he’s getting up to, life is an ordeal for the Hulk. But somehow, yes, I do want to know more.) Before the year ends in a few days, I’ll definitely finish at least one of the books I’m reading now (The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball) and probably one of the ones I was gifted for Christmas.

My Christmas haul, by the way, included: two novels ( Luster by Raven Leilani — seeing it on Barack Obama’s best-of list was not an inducement; I had read an excerpt and was drawn to the writing; and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell); two non-fiction books (1491 by Charles C. Mann, about pre-Columbian culture in what’s now the Americas; and Uncanny Valley, an expose of sorts of Silicon Valley by a young woman who worked there); and what I can assure you was the terrifically fun “graphic novel” (we used to call them comic books) Black Hammer/Justice League:  Hammer of Justice!, which I read immediately, and which is filled with laugh-out-loud wit and clever insights and playful mockery of the history of superhero team-up comics, although — warning — you need a familiarity with the Black Hammer universe to make sense of it).

Others here got books for Christmas too: my eldest got The Ministry for the Future by the great science-fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson (also on my list, and Barack Obama’s too) and the fourth book in a fantasy series I hadn’t heard of; my youngest got a fistful of financial management and investment books and also a memoir/self-discipline book with this pugilistic title: Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds (this son of mine is an extremely determined 18-year-old); and my wife got a crime novel set in Los Angeles and also a photo book of grinning dogs with fun captions, the sort that should lift anyone’s day. To our daughter, down in Florida, we sent books exploring and depicting the inner workings of the human body, and also a book of pharmacological concoctions. She also asked for books on “murder and horror” — as though the medical books wouldn’t be enough.

A close friend also sent me three very well-selected books (and thank you again, sir!) one of them a biography of legendary stage director Alan Schneider, who worked with Beckett and Albee; the second an exploration of Tennessee Williams’ work; and the third an overview of Jack Kirby’s Silver Age work for Marvel Comics. So, no, my reading list hasn’t gotten shorter. But: Why should it? Even with a supermarket shopping list, you may buy all the food items you wrote down — but you’ll be back and buying others next week. Isn’t this like that? Who ever said one should finish one’s reading list? I doubt I’d feel a sense of satisfaction after actually reading the next 103 books and then having none on the list. Instead, I think I’d feel bereft.

This little lesson about the reading list illuminates just how right Camus was about Sisyphus when he said more or less that Sisyphus surprisingly leads a life of joy when pushing that boulder fruitlessly up the hill. Life isn’t about finishing things. It’s about doing things along the way.

My Tweet with André

Saturday, November 21st, 2020

As I mentioned in my playwriting workshop today, I’m reading André Gregory’s memoir, “This Is Not My Memoir.” I track the progress of all the books I’m reading on Goodreads. When I update the app with my reading progress twice daily (once around lunchtime, and once around midnight) it puts out a tweet about my progress on reading that particular book. (I have it set up to do this; it’s an option.)

Last night I updated the app to log my progress on reading André Gregory’s memoir… and he saw my tweet and Liked it.

It’s the tiniest little thing, but it sent a thrill shooting through me. I’ve revered this man’s work for 40 years, since discovering him through “My Dinner with André.”  (My favorite film.) Mark Hamill once liked one of my tweets, and he seems like a nice guy, and some other well-known people have too, but to me it’s not like Andre freakin’ Gregory liking one of my tweets! A friend of mine interviewed André earlier this year, but this is as close as I’m likely to get.

By the way, his book is superb. Entirely engrossing! He’s a great storyteller, sharing tales in a limpid, crystalline style that communicates a great deal simply but deeply. He’s had quite a life! From encounters with Errol Flynn and Abbot & Costello and a host of surprising celebrities of the 40s and 50s to working with such varied characters as David Bowie and Helene Wiegel and Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese and, of course, Wallace Shawn and so many other colorful characters. 

On the beach

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020
Zuma Beach, 9/2/20

After somehow becoming alerted last week that September was looming, and so, also somehow, was the end of summer — a summer without live theatre, without concerts, without parties and without Comic-Con for God’s sake — I decided to go to the beach. That was one thing, at least, that I could do this summer. So, today, I went to the beach.

At 4:18, newly planted onto the sand at Zuma Beach, I cracked open my journal and wrote this:

The sea side of the beach is a cliff of sand about four feet high — beneath that it’s a straight drop to the water.

I brought the wrong sort of towels, of course, in my rush. Turns out I brought smallish bath towels. The wind keeps blowing and lifting the exaggerated hand towel I’m sitting on. My backpack — with phone, added towel, lotion, shorts, jacket — rests on the sand because the towel is too narrow to accommodate it. Or me.

But if I hadn’t left in a hurry, I wouldn’t have made it at all. There are always a hundred things to do — that must be done! — and without picking up and heading out with determination I’d still be at the office, or at home, doing them. Life is one endless to-do list.

The wind is strong, pelting me with sharp bits of sand.

Fifteen minutes later, at 4:33, I added this:

It’s actually pretty boring at the beach.

As usual.

Zuma Beach, 9/2/20

I’ve lived most of my life near a beach. Where I grew up, we were only eight miles inland, and we went to the beach now and then, sometimes in Atlantic City, sometimes off Brigantine Island. I never knew what to do there, and usually took comic books with me. (Today, I took Ron Chernow’s massive biography of George Washington, which I’m about 20 percent through.) As a young man, I lived for four years within two blocks of the beach and went there, I think, twice. When I moved to California 30 years ago, the idea of going to the beach was briefly novel, because now the ocean was on the left — but who could continue to care about that?

Within 45 minutes today, I was ready to go.

Now, I will say that once — one time — probably 15 years ago I had a terrific beach experience. I rented a shabby motel room up the coast near a penitentiary and went down to the beach and found that I was the only person there. I took a folding chair and a bottle of whiskey and a couple of cigars and my laptop and something to eat just in case and happily sat out there for hours writing. At one point a lone fisherman came from somewhere and walked past me and we exchanged nods; otherwise: no one. Just me and writing and the familiar vices. Because, of course, who would go to a prison beach, and during the middle of the week?

That’s the beach I can see going back to.

You’ll need that: A cautionary tale

Sunday, August 30th, 2020

(Except I’m not quite sure what caution you should take.)

I’ve moved myself, and my stuff, many times over the years. Just like everyone else.

Kindergarten through grad school, I went to nine different schools.

I moved with my family to a different house when I was 10.

When I was 19, I rented a house in Ocean City, NJ. After almost a year, I moved back in with my parents. (Awkward!) Then I moved back to that same house. Then I moved back in again with my parents. (Yikes.) Then I moved with my girlfriend into an apartment inland from Ocean City, in Somers Point. Then I rented a house with her in, yet again, Ocean City. Then she and I got married and moved to California, where we lived in an apartment for a few years, and then a house for a few years, and then, in 1996, we bought the house we still live in.

In all of those houses and apartments I’ve also had a place for writing. Mostly, it’s been a room all its own: a writing room. I still have one today.

I’ve also had lots of offices. When I was running Moving Arts, from 1992 to 2002, I had an office at our theatre on Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles. When we added our spaces at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, I had an office there, too, in downtown. When I became President & CEO of the Los Angeles theatre alliance, I gained an office in that space, meaning that I now had three offices: the one at home that I wrote out of, the one at the theatre center where I produced theatre, and the one six blocks away where I ran the alliance of local non-profit theatres.

For the past 16 years, instead of producing theatre and running a nonprofit or two (or three!) simultaneously while being a playwright, I’ve been someone with a consulting business who is also a playwright. From 2004 to mid-2006, I ran that business from my home office, but then opened an actual external office, across the street from City Hall in Burbank. I took on a partner in 2007. The company now has 11 employees, which has necessitated larger offices. We moved about 10 years ago to San Fernando Boulevard (still in Burbank) and then six-and-a-half years ago we moved to Burbank Boulevard (still in Burbank) and then last week we moved to Magnolia Boulevard (still in Burbank). We like Burbank.

Oh, and last May we had a flood at our office — a real calamity — that required us to relocate to another office for four months… and then move back.

So, for almost 50 years, I have been on a conveyor belt of living spaces, schools, and offices. I am tired of moving.

I’m tired of moving me, and I’m tired of moving my stuff. It’s physically taxing, it’s time-consuming, and it’s mentally draining. I have a problem finding things to begin with, so imagine how it must feel to always be unpacking and wondering just where something is.

But there’s something else that gets moved now. Something that we sometimes don’t think about. Something quieter and even more important than all that stuff, something that’s always getting moved.

Our data.

In all of those moves, of course, I’ve also been moving computers. And servers. And backup drives. And disks. And multiple laptops, and iPads, and handheld devices (iPhones, Handspring Treos and Handspring Visors, Palm Pilots) and more. Some of those devices are now defunct, and the ones that still function get system updates and software updates. In one of the recent moves, I discovered that I had four old iPhones. And that was after having sold one.

Nothing is constant.

A year or so ago, I found a virus on my laptop that, to my horror, had corrupted dozens (maybe hundreds) of my files. Files of my writing. Plays, short stories, poems, essays — about 15 years of work had been wiped out, just turned into .exe files. When I calmed down, I remembered that I had print copies of all this in my files (always keep print copies, people!), but I didn’t want to type or scan all that back in and wondered if there was some way to rescue the files. Plus — if my files had gotten corrupted, I needed the situation addressed! So, I had the owner of the IT firm that services my company take a look at my laptop and see what could be done. He examined it and clarified the entire situation for me.

I hadn’t gotten a virus, and I hadn’t gotten hacked. Everything was still there and uncorrupted — it was just unreadable.

All of my old files had been written in software that was no longer supported. Even though there were many, many versions of that software in the 1980s and 1990s, as it went from Appleworks to Clarisworks to Appleworks and then ultimately away, in one of the many file transfers from older laptops to newer ones, those versions of word processing programs had fallen by the wayside, and now all these data files were unreadable .exe files. There was no application program to match them with.

So: Just to clarify: I had successfully transferred the data every time. I had also backed up every file onto first storage disks (which were now unreadable; who has a disk reader?) and, later, digital files (in the cloud, or on local networks, or on a backup drive). None of that mattered. The data was now unreadable.

Fuck it, I thought. I’ve still got all those paper copies. I’ll worry about this another time.

Several months ago, my great-nephew in New Jersey asked to see a copy of one of my plays. He’d heard about it from his brother and had placed third in a statewide acting competition with a monologue from another of my plays, and he wanted to read this one. When I looked for it on my laptop, I discovered that, yep, it was one of those unreadable ones. Well, no problem, I’d just go pull the paper copy and scan it and send it to him that way.

Except when I looked in my files in my writing room there was no paper copy.

I looked again and again, the way a person in a thriller looks again and again at the dead body of the person he’s accidentally killed just to make sure he’s really seeing what he’s seeing, but, no, there was no paper copy.

Then I had a big fat drink.

The play that had some of my absolute best work, a play that had been done in London and New York and Los Angeles and elsewhere was… gone. Evidently, somehow, in one of the moves of my paper files, it hadn’t moved. Its entire redwell folder, overstuffed with drafts and notes and a completed final copy, was missing.

I had become one of those creative artists with lost work.

It didn’t feel good.

I started to piece together where I might — might — be able to get a copy. Well, there were the actors from the various productions. And the directors. And — for some reason — I’d sent a copy to a friend on the East Coast back in 1995 when the play was new. I reached out to him, and he offered to go look for it in his storage space… some day. I asked twice, displaying as little anxiety as I could, and finally he told me he’d get around to it. I understood. I did. There’s so much to get around to. Our lives are one endless to-do.

I tried hard to put this out of my mind.

But I couldn’t.

In all these moves, what else hadn’t moved? What else was I missing digitally, and what else, for God’s sake, had disappeared from my paper files as well?

And — let’s be honest — did it really matter?

I mean, really?

I consoled myself by deciding that I’m always focused on the future anyway. Wasn’t all that old stuff just… old stuff? Who really cared?

(We call this “rationalization.” Talking oneself into okayness.)

Last week, because, as I said, my company was moving offices again, I resolved to strictly separate what should be there and what should be here. Oh, I was observing the same protocols as before, but now even more strictly. I brought boxes and boxes of papers home — papers that more directly relate to my playwriting career than my marketing and consulting career. In order to ensure that I had enough space at home for all this additional paper, I cleaned out a closet in my previous writing room at home. (Yes, I have even moved writing rooms at home. I forgot to mention this.) From that closet, I pulled out boxes of tax filings and receipts from the 1990s and early 2000s, birthday cards, ancient office supplies, and… an old iMac.

Good timing, because the city where I live is doing an e-waste drive this weekend. I would be able to trash ancient machine for free. But first, my wife wanted to make sure our data was removed.

My son and I booted it up.

It was filled with old data: family photos and emails and stuff. We found movies that I’d shot and edited in which he and the rest of the family appear, he at age 3. He’s just turned 18. My heart skipped a beat.

“I wonder if my old plays are on here…” I said.

They were. I could see their icons nested in their little folders. They weren’t .exe files.

My essays and my poems and my short stories and everything else were there too. But I would need the old software on there, too, for them to be readable.

I clicked on the icon for the missing play — and it sprang to life on the screen. There it was. All one hundred pages or so, in glorious glowing type. I haven’t done a full inventory — but it sure looks like everything that was missing is now back. This must be how an amnesiac feels when he snaps back into full awareness.

What is the lesson here that I would share with you? Is it to back everything up? Well, I did that. Is it to save paper copies? Well, I’ve always done that. Is it to transfer your files? I’ve always done that as well. The only lesson, it seems, is to never throw anything away. Because some day, you’ll need it.

Now there’s just one thing left. I need to figure out how to get those files off this computer in a format that I can still access. And, I guess, to print more paper copies.

What’s next

Sunday, July 19th, 2020

This weekend, as with most weekends recently, has been consumed with straightening up my comic-book collection and working on my new play. I’m slowly running out of thousands of old comic books that still need to be paired with nice plastic bags and boards and carefully slid into comics storage boxes, and I also may finally be running out of ways to rewrite the same 119 pages, at least in a way that theoretically improves upon them. I’ve already got more delicious rotting old comic books on their way to my house, courtesy of eBay and Mercari, and at some point I suppose this play will be done.

This morning I had a very nice surprise on the weekly Pere Ubu live show on Patreon when the band’s manager, the smart and very talented Kiersty Boon, sang me happy birthday, which even earned a nod from David Thomas. Again, a nice surprise. If you’re not on the Ubu Patreon platform yet, you’re going to want to watch that and much here, so here’s the link. Earlier in the week, I had posted on Facebook that all I wanted for my birthday was a new-new Pere Ubu album (a new one having just come out a month or so ago), at which a fellow fan and friend remonstrated, “Oi, Lee! You’re such a greedy boy!” But on the show, Kiersty and David announced that there is now indeed a new-new Pere Ubu album available for download, proving yet again that when you want something, you should put that want out into the universe in order for it to happen. In retrospect, I wish I had wanted Donald Trump out of office for my birthday.

While doing my self-appointed chores today (laundry; work on play; straighten up more comics; complete the online Sudoku Mega; pick more avocados from our tree for my wife to barter at work), I still found time to take on a bunch of objectivists, libertarians and crackpots on the Facebook page dedicated to the late Steve Ditko, best known as co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and as an acolyte of Ayn Rand. The thread started when someone posted a lunkhead op-ed claiming that the nation had met its ruin because we weren’t adhering to the most extreme sort of religious evangelism, and equating protesters with rioters (never mind that the nation was founded protesters who rioted, and that most of us who have protested several times in our lives have never once rioted). When, finally, after much back-and-forth between myself and several other people posting, the original author admitted that he’d never even read the thing he linked to, for which he then got eviscerated by others, I declared victory and left the discussion. But not before one of the commenters assured us all that if he were in charge, this rebellion would be put down fast! I offered that Google could provide driving directions, should he gather the momentum, and that in the meantime he should beware paper cuts while reading those old comics.

Whenever I finish a TV show or movie or book, I get an email from Netflix or Goodreads asking me “What’s next?” Y’know what, guys? When I know, you’ll know. Let’s just leave it at that. Especially in 2020, no one knows what’s next.