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


Good news from the WSJ

March 29th, 2021

The big news is that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Ship Blocking Suez Canal Is Partially Freed“! This is great news for people who were actively concerned about this, and also of some note to all the rest of us who were sure it wasn’t going to take long to resolve. At the same time, I confess that I don’t know what “partially freed” means — isn’t something freed, or not? — but I’m not so animated about this to register a red alert.

In other news, ever since my post bemoaning the hit-or-miss delivery schedule to my doorstep of the WSJ Weekend edition, the paper has reliably been there on Saturdays. While I prefer to believe that after seeing my post, which I tagged them with on Twitter, they swung into action, the realist in me thinks they’re just continuing their mind games by lulling me into false reassurance.

Fine dining (and not) in wine country

March 28th, 2021

The City of El Paso de Robles, also known simply as Paso Robles, has a well-earned reputation as a deserving destination for a brief relaxing jaunt, someplace ideal to take your wife who is a healthcare professional and has spent a year tending those sick and ailing with COVID-19 and other misfortunes when you can see that she needs to restore and recuperate.  The city is home to olive groves, hot springs, and more than 200 wineries; with only 32,000 Paso Roblens living there (and that’s counting what one hopes are non-wine-drinking children), tourism is clearly a necessity for consuming all those libations.

While everyone talks about the wineries, far less is known about the extent of the dining choices in Paso Robles. In an attempt to fill even a gill of this oversight, I offer this list of dining establishments sampled in our four-day trip this past week, in descending order from best to worst.

  1. Catch Seafood Bar & Grill
For the first time in a year, something you’ll want to catch

With the lamentable recent demise of Farallon in San Francisco, the unassuming Catch Seafood Bar and Grill represents perhaps the world’s only seafood restaurant that offers absolutely everything one could ever want in seafood, but done even better. YES, they have buckets of steamers — but theirs come with some buttery vegetable admixture you’d never considered, one that makes you pale when you see it, but which teaches you that the people at Catch know better than you do, and so after sampling these minuscule clams surrounded by diced tomatoes, garlic, and some greenery you cannot identify, you know you will never again think of clams unadorned in this way without a wistful sense of loss. YES, Catch proffers an oyster platter, one of mollusks so delectable that your oyster-hating wife, bowing to pressure, will not only try one, but will also exclaim a la Sam I Am, “Oh! I DO like oysters!” and then have another. Catch’s non-seafood offerings excel as well:  the garlic toast is crisp but moist, the green salad is simple but reassuring, the nutrient-rich escargot, perhaps plucked off nearby vines by angry farmers, simmer deliciously on the tongue. My wife, a contrarian, ordered a steak but relished that, too. Also noted:  your server will do absolutely everything within the law to accommodate your every wish.

Awarded:  Top Honors

2. Impromptu picnic at Graveyard Winery

A bucolic setting with lake, wildlife, and grassy hillside — all of it outside this frame.

Graveyard Winery is called such because of its location up the hill from an abandoned graveyard, and not because it’s “spooky,” to the chagrin of your reviewer’s wife. The winery’s owner and her assistant will offer you a tasting of six very good wines for the cost of $15, which is discounted to free when purchasing wine. The economics of this did not escape me, and so we purchased wine — amply so. Because we arrived at about noon and were still happily imbibing the liquid of the grape two hours later in the lakeside shade, I inquired if there might be “nibbles” available in some way. Directed to the appropriate location inside the winery, I snatched up crackers, a block of French cheese, Italian olives, and a sampler of uncured meats, buoyantly suggesting that it all be added to our tab as I returned to our table with it all in tow. It beggars description just how good this impromptu picnic was. Free of the need to do anything or be anywhere except right there, remarking upon the tern on the lake or the squawking ducks, one is able to sink into the rustic pleasures of such a simple yet sophisticated repast. The atmosphere, the wines, the repast, the atmosphere, the servers, and the company all receive the highest rating.

Awarded:  Best al fresco dining

3. Negranti Creamery

Yes, one can order a flight of ice cream samples. Heavenly indeed.

Eons after animal husbandry was invented, humankind has stumbled upon the ultimate purpose of sheep:  to provide the milk needed to formulate this delectable iced treat. Less fatty than cow-milk iced cream, yet flavorful and providing an excellent base for a wide range of flavors, the sheep’s milk ice cream at Negranti Creamery adds a surprising crisp bite to an old favorite. The confectioners here are not so hidebound as to reject mixing in, say, basil with strawberry, or lavender with blueberry, and you shouldn’t be either. “Half the fat, all the flavor,” their tagline proclaims, and while it’s nice to see their desire for truth in advertising this is, if anything, too humble by half.

Awarded: Most surprising in a good way

4. Paso Robles Inn Steakhouse

Inside this unassuming exterior lurks an unassuming meal.

The Paso Robles Inn Steakhouse is not only associated with the Paso Robles Inn, it also shares a roof. Similar to the general hilly terrain of Paso Robles, the meal has its ups and downs. Your rib eye will arrive appropriately seasoned but not quite as you’d requested, while your baked potato will be intemperately cold. Your wife, again a contrarian, now that she’s in an actual steakhouse will order a salad, which she finds serviceable. The vodka gimlet is excellent, the pinot noir commendable, and the service willing and able, as when you pointedly tell both the hostess and your waiter that there’s a nice tip in it for each if they’ll just move you away from the fucking swinging doors that allow repeated blasts of cold air to suck the life from your lungs. 

5. Templeton Market & Gas

When queried “Where is the best fried chicken in town?” those in the know locally respond, “Templeton Market & Gas.” And they are right to do so. Templeton Market & Gas is what used to be called a “food & fuel,” a small establishment that serves petrol and also some comestibles in an adjacent shack. Templeton Market & Gas, bearing a notable deli, also fries up its own fried chicken. The skin is crispy, the meat moist, and the seasoning perfection. Diners are encouraged to eat this chicken hot from the Styrofoam while sitting outside in their parked car. The accompanying “potato logs” are thick and dull inside, akin to actual logs, and are not to be discarded casually where unsuspecting animals might attempt to eat them. It is the chicken that one comes here for. The chicken, and perhaps the gas.

6. Buttonwillow Truck Stop Popeye’s 

While technically en route to Paso Robles and not within its confines, I would be remiss not to recommend this truck stop for having the best Popeye’s chicken to be found anywhere. I speak from authority, having sampled Popeye’s chicken both hither and yon; none can compare. The service may be surly, with Hector behind the register only very desultorily providing your order or, later, a spork with which you can eat your mashed potatoes with Cajun gravy, but the meal itself is everything you ever hoped a Popeye’s box would contain. Although this is the best Popeye’s chicken found anywhere, I would be remiss if I failed to note, again, that Templeton Market & Gas serves the better chicken.

7. McDonald’s in Paso Robles

A noontime Egg McMuffin? No problem, at McDonald’s in Paso Robles! Ordered appropriately after the mad rush of earlier hours, God’s gift to breakfast food is served freshly made and steaming. Beware, though! Connor, the gangly youth who fixes your coffee for you, unexpectedly doses it with unrequested and undesired Splenda, resulting in a sticky sour taste you’ll discover miles later.

8. Yanagi Sushi & Grill

At Yanagi, the appetizers and beer will arrive instantly, but your main course waits in anticipation of the Japanese new year. The gyoza with finely minced shrimp are delectable, but the pungent clotted salad dressing earns a mixed opinion. As your beer slowly warms, the sushi is finally served, and is fresh yet somehow tasteless. If  if you choose to dine outside, you will find that small groups with rambunctious children waiting for your table will look at you with menace for taking so long.

9. Homemade popcorn with beefstick

Decades of experience have left this seasoned traveler wary of unexpected interruptions in the food chain. Foreknowledge being fore-armedness, one learns to travel with “just in case” snacks, in this case liquor-store beefsticks and a quart-size baggie of homemade popcorn. The beefsticks, when still within their sell-by date, are tender and filling and mix well with bourbon or even water, while the homemade popcorn, popped to perfection in a recipe that includes carefully apportioned extra virgin olive oil, butter, and Himalayan sea salt, beats any and all comers. This meal, coupled with hot coffee from a Keurig, was devoured on the morning of the second day by your travel writer on the patio of his room as his wife slept until noon until finally he couldn’t bear it any more and gently (opinions differ) awakened her. He was admonished that in future such situations, he could make his way to a breakfast of his own elsewhere.

10. Leftovers from the only breakfast place still open

These are leftovers from the only breakfast place still open (see below), which turned out to be serviceably better than the same breakfast when it was newly placed on the plate. Now reheated via your room’s microwave oven, the eggs are better because you’re just glad to have something to eat, and because you’ve left the butter out in the room, therefore ensuring that it’s actually spreadable on the toast.

11. Park Cinemas

After almost a year-and-a-half’s absence from any cinema, you will find yourself enchanted upon entering Park Cinemas on opening night of “Nobody,” starring Mr. Bob Odenkirk in an improbable role. The cinema, with doors open and lights on and two accommodating young women behind the snack counter, will seem like a veritable wonderland, like a Brigadoon you never expected to see again. Unfortunately, Park Cinemas offers only Pepsi products and not Coke, and although the unsweetened iced tea will suffice, the popcorn, evidently popped those 18 months ago when last they were open, will not.

12. The only breakfast place still open

With more than 200 wineries, one might be hoodwinked into thinking that Paso Robles is a cultural metropolis, when actually it is closer to a scale reminiscent of Egg Harbor “City,” New Jersey. Accordingly, the town has odd hours and shibboleths of behavior; there is no need to roll up the streets at night, because there is nothing to do if one finds oneself on them.  After dark, visitors are left to wander aimlessly, conjuring up visions of what might be possible another time. This also means that some places close on odd days, some on odd hours, and many have hours taped to their windows that in no way match up with the hours given on Yelp or their own websites. So, at 1 p.m., one counts oneself damn lucky to come across the only breakfast place still open, after hitting up every other potential dining spot only to discover that each of them closes at 1 p.m.  for reasons that seem obscure yet somehow obvious to the locals. At the only breakfast place still open, you and your companion will agree that sometimes it is better not to find what you seek, and that neither of you has ever had a worse breakfast. The biscuits and gravy are served cold and congealed; the eggs with diced ham, although ordered lightly scrambled, will arrive with the consistency of drywall spackling; and even the grits, which seem impossible to fuck up, are dense and overcooked. Your companion may offer cheerily, “The pancake isn’t so bad,” leaving you to wonder just how one could make a bad pancake. The coffee, for an unfathomable reason, is terrific. “It’s Farmer Brothers!” your waiter will announce cheerily. Ah:  the only thing not made here.

13. The Arby’s outside Tejon Outlet Mall

Technically, this is not in Paso Robles, but you may find yourself tempted, on your way away from Paso Robles, to stop at this Arby’s. Do not do it. Do not do it even though your wife has exclaimed that “There’s an Arby’s!” and that she has been craving Arby’s. (Who says advertising doesn’t work?) Whomever Arby was, and whatever he or she did, Arby in no way deserved the lasting ignominy of having this establishment named after him. Your “roast beef” (please note the quote marks) sandwich will be so heavily processed as to arouse newly fond and undeserved memories of Subway. The “horsey sauce” will turn out to be watered-down horse radish with, probably, a heavy dose of high fructose corn syrup. The curly fries have curled from shame. Carlos, your server who occupies every square inch of the window he works from, will only reluctantly take your order, give you something that resembles what you’ve purchased, or hand over that horsey sauce. Not only that, the area turns out to be a full-on dead spot for internet reception, resulting in your total loss of GPS direction. Carefully scanning the horizon and all access points to identify the entrance back onto the freeway, your wife will sadly say, “I can’t believe I remembered this fondly” as she pitches the majority of this seeming-lunch back into the bag it came in.

I hope you’re found this helpful. In a future installment, we may investigate “best seafood somehow available in distant landlocked localities.”

Why is the WSJ doing this to me?

March 21st, 2021
My tormentors

Back in the olden days, when Barack Obama was president, I decided to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. I did that because I like to get a variety of opinions and insights, especially from people who are influential but consistently wrong. If their wrongness is going to influence my life, I’d like to know as soon as possible.

My preferred format for reading material is paper. Because I write most of the day every day, and do that on screens, I like to restrict reading, when possible, to paper. So I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal on paper, with delivery to my office.

And thus began my yearlong battle with the WSJ.

Because many days, it wouldn’t show up.

Oh, some days, it would be there. I’d arrive at my office, and there it’d be waiting for me on the doorstep, ready for perusal while I downloaded my coffee and breakfast. But then the next day, it wouldn’t be. So I’d notify people at the paper via their online customer complaint window, or whatever they call it, and someone there would cheerily notify me in return that they’d add another day to my subscription.

Except I didn’t want another day added to my subscription. I wanted the newspaper for that day. I actually wanted the news.

This may be the place where I’ll pause and state just how much I love the news. (Even when it’s terrible.) My parents always got the newspaper, and I started reading it at an early age. When I was 14, my sister noticed an ad in the Atlantic City Press (later renamed as “The Press of Atlantic City” in, I suppose, an effort to baffle people) for a part-time, after-hours classified ad agent. I called three times, with my 14-year-old squeaky boy voice, and finally persuaded the gentleman answering the phone and doing the hiring to at least see me. My mother drove me into Atlantic City to the newspaper’s offices, where I flawlessly passed a typing test, confidently fielded a couple of phone calls, typed up sample ads with aplomb, and against all odds became a 14-year-old boy hired to work alongside women in their 30s and 40s in an after-hours advertising department. All through high school, I worked 5 to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday, and thus always had plenty of money to take girls out. (Thanks, A.C. Press!)

While I was in college, I became editor of the college newspaper and also started freelancing for the newspaper chain Gannett. I wrote for the Mainland Journal, the Vineland Times-Journal, the Egg Harbor Journal, the Atlantic County Record, another paper that I can’t remember the name of, and often got distributed among the chain, so that my work appeared in the Detroit News (at the time the 7th largest newspaper in the nation) and other dailies and weeklies around the country. This was an exciting time for this 20-year-old.

After college, I was hired again by The Press of Atlantic City, this time in editorial, as a copy editor. The job entailed arriving at 4 p.m. (oh, the glory of a late shift for someone who has always hated mornings!), reading the newspaper front-to-back for a couple of hours, having dinner, and then editing copy and writing headlines for the next day’s edition. I loved that job, got promoted quickly, and only gave it up to move to Los Angeles and enter grad school. (The then-managing editor and my boss, Bob Ebener, very much in the cranky-but-lovable Lou Grant mold, was sure that I was lying and that the Philadelphia Inquirer was grabbing me up, and tried everything to keep me. Bob also never minded my ever-changing stylings, as I went from very long hair, to very long hair dyed red and me wearing blue suede shoes, to skinhead with combat boots, although he did say, “What is it with you, Wochner?”)

After moving to Los Angeles, in 1988, I started freelancing for magazines and newspapers, including the Press once again, the Los Angeles Times, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and others.

Throughout all of that, and ever since, as you may have guessed, I have read newspapers. I love newspapers. I love turning the pages, I love the comics and the puzzles and the advice columns, I love reading the letters from infuriated readers, I love admiring the captions and headlines written to fit the space (the Press used to have a weekly contest for best caption and best headline, each prize winning $25; I made it my aim to win those every week possible to supplement my income), and I even love looking at the sports section although I don’t follow sports.

So you can imagine my fury at the Wall Street Journal not delivering my newspaper. Especially given that I was paying for it and it was ungodly expensive and they weren’t delivering it.

As I said, I would complain online in the sanctioned place to do so. I also called them — more than once; more like twice weekly. I even took to reading the masthead, figuring out how email addresses were constructed, and emailing the publisher, a senior editor or two, certainly everyone named in circulation, and I think even someone with the last name of Murdoch.

Nothing worked, and delivery remained intermittent at best, as every day my chest would tighten as I approached the office and wondered if the paper would be there. Finally, I canceled my subscription. Fuck them.

(As an aside: What does the WSJ most frequently bemoan? Poor management. ‘Nuff said!)

In all the years since, the Wall Street Journal has sent me a letter almost weekly begging me to come back. But I wasn’t yet over my upset.

Finally, almost six weeks ago, they emailed me an offer: Would I like just digital access for $4/month?

You know what? I would.

Because many times, they’ve got some piece I want to read, but it’s all blockaded. And $4/month seemed a paltry sum to be able to read those pieces. So, I clicked and, yes, for the first time in more than seven years, I was a subscriber to the Wall Street Journal! It was purely digital, I was only doing it to read pieces that I’d come across that I wanted to click to read, so I didn’t need to get all worked up about a print edition they weren’t delivering, and it was only $4/month. Done!

Then they emailed me and said, pretty much, “Hey! As a digital subscriber to the Wall Street Journal, you’re entitled to our Weekend print edition — free! Do you want it?”

The Weekend print edition, I thought? That’s with their arts section, which I’d always liked — with lots of books reviewed, and pieces about architecture and museums and paintings. Sure! I’d like that! So I clicked on the little “Yes!” button.

And that Saturday, when I walked outside to pick up my freshly delivered Los Angeles Times, there it was like a leprechaun sitting on my lawn: the Wall Street Journal Weekend edition! I picked it up, took it inside, and slowly read my way through it over the next three weeks.

Three weeks because: They didn’t deliver it the next week.

Or the week after.

My wife said, “I thought you were getting the Wall Street Journal Weekend edition now.”

Determined not to gnash my teeth, I simply said, “They’re not delivering it.”

“Why not?” she asked. Knowing me, she was ready for me to swing into action on this.

“Just not,” I said. As calmly as possible, I recounted for her my previous hostage drama with the WSJ.

Having relived it for her, I was determined now to let it go. I had arrived at a place of inner peace. This time I was not paying for the delivery of the Wall Street Journal Weekend edition. I was paying for digital access. They had offered to deliver the Weekend edition for free, and while it may have been their nasty little plan to snub me yet again, I wasn’t falling for it, because I refused to feel anything about it. I was getting what I was paying for — digital access — and their playing gotcha with print delivery was not going to have any effect on me.

And that’s how it stayed. Me, reading bits of the paper here and there online, and setting aside any feelings about the Weekend edition. Pure inner peace, well in control of what I could control, which was myself.

Then, yesterday, I went out to get my L.A. Times — and there was the Wall Street Journal Weekend edition lying next to it.

I brought it inside.

My wife saw it and said, “Oh! There’s your Wall Street Journal! I thought they weren’t delivering that!”

I just looked at her.

Lissen up, Murdochs. I know when I’m being gaslighted.

Timely career tips!

March 16th, 2021

Looking for work, but all the interviews are via video remote these days and you don’t want to come across as the star of “Ernest Goes on Zoom” ?

Worry not! Here are some great tips from my friend Oleg and the Los Angeles County Library.

Librarians truly do know everything!

Book return

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.

Today’s weather report

February 17th, 2021

A close friend back East serves as the volunteer meteorologist for our old college crowd, invariably posting on Facebook what the weather is, or will be, in his immediate neighborhood. Whether rain or snow or even clear blue skies, he provides a daily dose of dire warnings. If there’s even the barest hint of a potential calamity via hurricane or ice storm or meteor shower, he is on the digital scene first. Yes, we have access to weather.com, but traditional services such as that in no way compare. And, hey, forewarned is forearmed, especially coming from a trusted old friend.

Here in Los Angeles, we have someone else who provides a similar service. That person is David Lynch.

Here’s his weather report for today, delivered in a manner redolent of William S. Burroughs, but slightly less creepily.

Blessed intervention

February 16th, 2021

I give to you the best DVD commentary ever: that of Brian Blessed helping to remind us that “Flash Gordon” wasn’t supposed to be good — it was just supposed to be FUN.

Fixing the holidays

February 15th, 2021

Today is Presidents Day here in the United States. I no longer celebrate it. I hadn’t given it much thought before the ascendancy of George W. Bush, but once that came about I was out. It was much simpler, seeming eons ago, to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday and, until further investigation, to celebrate George Washington’s as well. Now that Presidents Day by title would seem to refer to Donald Trump as well, I’m so far out I’ve left the stadium and even the parking lot.

Meanwhile, we don’t truly celebrate Earth Day. Given the horrific implications of climate change, shouldn’t that be the day everyone should take off and commit to the environment? Even just the publicity surrounding that single day of activism would have a great impact. We could even roll in Arbor Day, in the way we rolled two good presidents into Presidents Day. As a federal holiday, the new Earth Day could effect dramatic improvement by encouraging you to plant a tree, keep your internal combustion vehicle off the roads, and stop littering the internet with cat memes and food photos.

Please contact your representatives in Congress.

Formative experiences in English!

February 14th, 2021
A bocadillo de jamón
  1. At a young age, I learned that the exclamation “Excelsior!” was intended for Stan Lee alone, and that the rest of us weren’t suited for it.
  2. I learned this after trying it out on my middle-school peers. Unfortunately.
  3. Also in middle school, we were assigned to write a book report of a biography. Mine was on L. Sprague deCamp’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft; a friend chose a book on Robert Goddard. I wound up reading that book, too. I learned two things from the Goddard book:  that Robert Goddard was the “father of the American rocketry program,” and that one could be both a genius and a terrible speller. Throughout his life, Robert Goddard spelled “failure” as “failor.” This is how I learned there is no correlation between good spelling and raw intelligence.
  4. This conclusion was supported in the 1990s when I was a literacy tutor, and I learned how to teach people to read. Reading is not primarily based on sounding out letters — if it were, we’d all get stopped in our tracks by words like “numb” ( which would be pronounced “noombuh”) and “phone” (“puh-hoooon-eee”). Reading is all about pattern recognition. If you’re a good speller, it’s because you’ve read enough to recognize the patterns, or you’re just naturally good at pattern recognition. 
  5. Further proof:  My wife is an intelligent woman, someone smart and capable who has saved people’s lives for 35 years as a healthcare provider. She’s also a prolific reader. But she still can’t keep two, too, and to straight. (Maybe she’s a genius, like Robert Goddard.)
  6. When I see a word misspelled, it’s like someone has jammed glass in my eye. It also hurts my inner ear. I probably outwardly cringe. If the misspelling is accompanied by certain flags and signs we’ve seen at, say, insurrections against the government, I admit to drawing an immediate conclusion. Barring that, I think the culprit is just not a good speller. A friend misspelled a word on Facebook earlier, in an exchange with me, and it took a force of will not to correct him on it — but why would I do that? He’s smart and accomplished, and maybe it was a typo.
  7. My children, on the other hand? I always correct them. That’s my job. They’re all adults now and I don’t care, it’s still my job.
  8. Although I steer away from correcting the spelling of non-offspring, except in professional settings where it’s important to get it right, I will correct a non-native English speaker on pronunciation. When I was studying French in college, my professor called that lovable rodent who torments your dogs a “SQUEE-rell.” Never known for shyness, I said, “It’s pronounced ‘squirrel.’” She said, “Thank you, Monsieur Wochner. No one ever corrects me, so I never get better.”
  9. She also told me, after much mutual effort to accomplish the opposite, “You will speak French with an accent.”
  10. Spanish being close enough to French that one should be able to make something of the same ingredients, I kept trying out Spanish last year when I was in Spain. While there, I came to learn that Spain is all about ham. So much so that their national flag should just be a flying pig, and so much so that, yes, there is a museum of ham. If you order coffee — and the coffee in Spain is incomparable, I have to tell you — you’re pretty much offered some form of pig with that coffee. Madrid is dotted with little sandwich shops that provide coffee and variations of little toasted sandwiches, all of them with varieties of bacon and ham, with or without cheese. On the first morning there, I left my daughter napping in our room while I hustled down to the streetscape and over to such a shop. I looked over the offerings, and read the signs, and very chestily ventured to the young man behind the counter, “Una pequeno bocadillo de jamon, y una mediano, y una  café  con leche, por favor.”  I was bursting with accomplishment — until he said, “Oh, American, yes?” And then conducted the rest of the transaction in flawless English.

Against self-expression

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.