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


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.

Werner Herzog on skateboarding (and success)

February 3rd, 2021

How it’s going

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….

The best Cloris Leachman story I’ve heard

January 27th, 2021

Cloris Leachman, who died yesterday, was wonderful in everything she appeared in. Including, it seems, real life. Here’s a story that my friend Shanti Reinhardt, an actor and playwright here in Los Angeles, put on Facebook earlier today, posted here with permission.

1984. I was walking to class during Summer Congress at The American Conservatory Theatre. Being from Hawaii, I didn’t quite understand that even if it was “summer” it was freezing in San Francisco. I remained in denial of the weather as I strolled happily along, wearing tiny shorts and a tight T-shirt with my wild curly hair blowing in the wind when suddenly a woman catches up to me from behind and says, “Hi!”

I turn to look and it’s CLORIS LEACHMAN!

How could this be? She was one of my all time favorites. A genius comedienne.

I acted cool. “Hi.”

She walked with me. Cloris: “Where are you going?”

Me: “To class at A.C.T.”

Cloris: “Oh, you’re an actress?”

Me: “Yes.”

Cloris: “I’m an actress too. I’m currently starring in Sister Mary Ignacious Explains it all for You.”

Me: “Oh, my god! I’m working on a monologue from that play!”

Cloris: “Wonderful! Would you like to go out on a date with my son?”

Me: “Huh?”

Cloris: “I saw you from behind with all this positive energy surrounding you — the sunlight bouncing off your hair — and I thought, ‘That’s the kind of gal I want dating my son. He’ll be visiting next week.’ “

Me: “Oh! I’d love to but I’m going to London next week to visit my grandmother who I’ve never met before.”

Cloris: “Oh, how exciting. Well, give me your number and I’ll call you when you return.”

So, I gave her my number and she disappeared.

A few weeks later, I came home to a message on my answering machine. “Hi, it’s Cloris. Be at the ready at 10pm.”

I didn’t know what the term, “Be at the ready” meant. I thought it might have been a restaurant or a club. I call information but they say there is no listing under that name. I usually was asleep by 10pm anyway so I got into PJ’s and crawled into bed.

Sure enough a horn starts beeping outside of my apartment window at 10pm. I open the window to see Cloris standing in front of a stretch limousine yelling up to me, “Hi Shanti! Are you ready? We’re going to have a night on the town!”

Well, the story goes on. The original son she wanted me to go out with was no longer in San Francisco but this was another son she wanted me to meet. He and I had no chemistry but the night was one I’ll never forget as Cloris made an entrance wherever we went.

Years later, I was in a Groundlings class with my teacher Cynthia Szigeti and the assignment was to bring in a character that was a relative. A guy went up before me and started doing his character.

I yelled out, “Wait a minute– are you doing Cloris Leachman?”

The guy was stunned and said, “Yes.” Cynthia was surprised as well, “How did you know that?”

The guy and I looked at each other and then we both realized at the same time, “Oh my god– you’re her son that I had no chemistry with!”

Flight of comedy angels, Cloris! You were the best.

Year-end update

December 31st, 2020

No, no, I won’t be doing a look back on 2020, because as I recently noted here, Who’d want to? But it’s not a bad day for housekeeping, even blog-housekeeping, so here goes:

In this post, I related that my reading pile continues to grow. When I’d had the conversation with my friend about my stack of books-in-waiting, there were 78 books on the list; after reading 32 books over the course of 2020, the number of books had somehow risen to 103. Since then, two things have happened. First, I finished reading another book. (No cause for applause; it just happens.) Secondly, my family and I went to pick up sushi on Tuesday night, but we arrived early and the order wasn’t ready. So, looking around, my wife suggested we drop into Barnes & Noble. “Um, I said, it’s a book store….” Because we knew what would happen. So, yes, while in there for all of 10 minutes, I wound up buying two books. So now my number rests at 104. If book publishers had one ounce of moral fiber, they’d stop publishing books until I could catch up.

In this post, I exposed the true nature of one of our dogs. Unfortunately for him, it seems that every member of my immediate family also read that blog post and is now onto him as well. Instead of seeing him as “goofy” (their term), he’s now viewed, and treated, as cunning. Sorry, pal.

Back here, I was bemoaning all the theatre that didn’t happen in 2020 and that, therefore I didn’t get to see. I also said that “theatre” on Zoom is not theatre. (I don’t know what it is, because it isn’t TV either, but it isn’t theatre. Theatrical, sure, potentially. But not theatre itself.) On Tuesday night, before the unfortunate bookstore visit that further extended my reading pile, I took my wife and two sons to see “Stranger Things – The Drive-Into Experience.” If watching a play on Zoom isn’t theatre, neither is sitting in your car for an hour and wending your way through a dimly lit parking structure while young actors jump around outside your car, pantomiming actions to prerecorded dialogue being played over your radio while video screens run loops behind them. I’ve enjoyed watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix (mostly because it captures the teen experience of the 80s so well), and wish I’d enjoyed this. But if you’re sitting in your car watching video screens of excerpts of the TV show, why not just stay home and watch the TV show? Right off the top of my head, three very creative and inventive stage collaborators I’ve had the good fortune to work with — Paul S., Matt A., and Ross K. — came to mind as people who would’ve made this actually theatrical. At one point, my wife looked over at me from the passenger’s seat. “Why are you on your phone?” she asked. Well, I couldn’t see the screen in front of me, being completely blocked by a large SUV, and didn’t much care. I checked the reviews online and they were effusive, which just made me realize that these other attendees had no idea what they could’ve had in the alternate-universe production in my mind. Best line goes to my older son: “This is the perfect show for Los Angeles: Everybody gets to stay in their car and drive around inside a parking structure.”

Finally, it behooves me to say, as I’ve been saying for so long, that “years” and “decades” don’t really exist. We’ve manufactured these concepts. Our need to create these organizing principles is a direct output of the way our brains are wired; we need to collect time into buckets of meaning that we can make sense of, and that we can remember events by. Why do most of us associate a specific year with, for instance, a certain album or movie coming out, or a presidential election, or a life event? We do so to provide a hook for related memories to hang on.

I can prove to you that decades don’t exist: Think of, say, the 60’s. Okay, got it? Well, that period that we associate it with was actually more like 1958 through 1974. See? Not contemporaneous with “the sixties.” The 1970s, which I remember vividly, and which were exceedingly weird and somewhat terrifying, ran from late 1974 through 1980. Which made it, thankfully, a short decade. Meanwhile, the 1300’s lasted for about two hundred years. When you think about 2020, aren’t you really thinking about mid-March through now? Or maybe somewhat into 2021? 2020 was not actually 2020.

I share this by way of noting that tonight is New Year’s Eve, and we treat it as a way to intend a better year for the next year, and to plan our better selves. So perhaps it is useful. But I would remind us that every year, every day, every minute, is what we make of it. Don’t let a single moment slip down the drain hole unappreciated.

Stuff happens

December 29th, 2020

So that we could select and purchase the large Christmas present I’d promised her, my wife and I drove two hours roundtrip yesterday through a monsoon that ripped the roof off the house of someone I know. The entire way down, she asked how I felt about driving in the rain, and shouldn’t we turn back?

I said, “Boy, you really have lived in L.A. for 30 years now. It’s just rain.”

To be fair, it was just rain in the way that the federal debt is just like owing somebody a fiver. At one point, I saw a truck coming up the freeway run through a puddle and the resulting wave washed entirely over a car in front of me.

But I was on a mission to pick up this Christmas present that day, because of scheduling and also because of the planning we’d have to do around its placement.

The object in question is five feet tall, three feet deep, and three feet across, weighs about as much as a football huddle, and is clearly functional in purpose, but my wife thinks it’s also decorative because it’s so nicely made. In representing permanence, it reminds me of the heavy furniture Kafka so feared in all the letters he wrote to the fiancee he never married.

In practical terms, this means we don’t know where to put it when it arrives.

I proposed upstairs in the walk-in closet. She said downstairs in the guest room. Later, she offered the idea of putting it in the room we’re turning into a library. Both of us nixed the garage as a place for it. No matter where it goes, we’ll have to rearrange everything else already in that room.

Here’s what happens when you live in a house for 25 years: You accumulate stuff. Especially if you have children who grow up in the house, but who then move away but leave all their stuff there, and especially if you have a large garage, and especially if you add a second story to the house as we did. If you live on a boat, or in a 200-square-foot apartment in lower Manhattan like friends of ours, you are careful about what you bring home; everything new coming in means that something old must be going. If you have almost 3,000 square feet of house, not counting that garage or all that space under the carport, then you gradually turn into the Collyer brothers, and find the show “Hoarders” oddly reassuring: “Oh, see? We’re not that bad!”

A few years ago, Marie Kondo’s book about all the joy that tidying up can bring you lit a fire under us, and bit by bit we’ve grown merciless about parting with some things, mostly old clothes, boxes of bills stretching back decades, and “fun” knick-knacks that neither of us will admit to having bought. We’ve pulled bag-loads of unidentifiable kitchen gadgets out of drawers, donated barrels of toys, and tossed away every dry pen and broken pencil. So there’s been some progress.

The true challenge is in the realm of large items (like our new purchase), or items that are so interrelated and numerous as to constitute a larger whole. Books, for example, fill about a dozen bookcases, and no, I won’t part with them, because I learned my lesson in college; after selling back my books one semester because I was destitute, years later I bought them all back — meaning I paid full retail twice! I have two lateral file cabinets of my papers (various drafts, plus correspondence), plus there are the family files. The garage has 25 years of camping equipment, sports equipment, holiday decorations, tools, bicycles, and the gym I set up this summer because the actual gyms are closed. And, I have about 50 long boxes of comic books, or, as I like to think of them, “almost enough.”

Tonight, while playing pinochle with our two sons, my wife returned to the topic of where to put the large object; once placed, it can’t be moved. I couldn’t concentrate on that, though, because I was working to hide my glee at the double-run of spades secretly nesting in my hand. She, meanwhile, was volubly considering laying in additional electrical work in one of the rooms for the new object. Gradually, this turned into commentary from both of us about how things would have to move, or go, and how to get rid of more stuff, and how we ought to do that tomorrow, while our big strapping soldier-son who loads and unloads large trucks for the Army is still here on leave.

At some point, I took something out to the recycling can, now curbside and awaiting pickup in the morning. I caught a glimpse of our neighbor’s house before coming back inside. The neighbor was supposed to be in Texas for a week now, but his truck was still there.

“Did he actually go on his trip?” I asked our younger son, who often tends to the neighbor’s house while he’s away. The neighbor, who is everything anyone could hope for in a neighbor, had left him with a set of keys.

Our son confirmed that our neighbor was still home.

“Well, if he’s going to be home all week, how are we going to be able to break in?” I asked.

“Oh God,” my wife said. “That’s the last thing we need: more stuff!”

“No kidding,” I said. “I figured if he wasn’t there we could break in and drop off some of our stuff. Just put a bit of it in every room to get rid of it. Maybe he wouldn’t even notice!”

Anyone want a large (but heavy) working TV? Or one section of a sectional sofa, brand-new in box? How about some fun bric-a-brac? These and more items are getting offered for free pickup starting tomorrow.

Not-year in review

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

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 dog the jerk

November 26th, 2020
Looks so innocent.

Around our house, this dog has a great reputation. He’s a real charmer who loves to play, is always happy to see you, and radiates gratitude for walks and attention. As my son says admiringly about this dog every time we take him out around the neighborhood, “He’s a jaunty boy!”

But this morning it occurred to me that he’s actually a jerk.

The reversal in my thinking came on me suddenly today — but that’s after almost four years of being under this dog’s spell. Yes, we knew that he’s clever enough to understand a fair sampling of the human English language — especially his name, and “toy” and “walk” and “Where’s Lamby?” (the name of that favorite toy, which he will wrestle you for). But now I realize very late in the game that this dog is even cleverer than we thought, and he’s been hiding his evil intelligence right under our noses.

I concluded this as I found myself cleaning up his shit from our floor yet again.

My first thought, of course, was, “Well, when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.” No one had been up yet to let him out, so it was our fault. Plus, to give him credit, he’s always thoughtful enough to do it in a secluded spot only we are aware of, and one that’s easily and neatly picked up, cleaned up and sprayed. (In other words, not on carpet.) Then I thought, “Oh, if only he’d go out at 11 p.m. with the other dog, who faithfully does her business out in the back yard every night with no complaint.”

And that’s when it hit me:  He could go out every night before midnight, and I certainly cajole him to do so!, but he refuses. I have tried to drag him from his bed, and yes, he gets an evening walk every day, but he will not go outside late at night. He’d rather stay inside and shit in the house. On purpose.

Not only that! Now that the scales had fallen from my eyes, the rest of the pattern emerged.

My wife works nights. I work days. Our son works swing shifts — sometimes at 7 a.m., sometimes at 7 p.m.; his schedule is utterly unpredictable. But, among the three of us, there is almost always someone up and ready to let this dog out. That means that the dog is waiting for us to be unavailable so that he can exert his will on our floor!

Other details pulled into focus. Wasn’t he the dog who always ripped up Lamby and left poor Lamby’s guts strewn all over the living room floor? Yes. When my poor tired wife has retrieved all those bits and sewn Lamby together yet again, isn’t he the one who can’t wait to perform the same evisceration? Yes. On those walks, hasn’t he always insisted that we go the way he wants to go, with no care for our preferences, or the preference of his fellow dog? When there’s some leftover yolk or something made available, hasn’t he run over as quickly as possible to get the first few laps and then left the merest traces behind in a haughty manner for the other dog? Yes. Definitively yes to all of it.

Lying in wait for my wife.

Let’s speak for a moment of the other dog, who was after all here first. Adopted as a rescue from a mad puppy hoarder who later faced charges, this little fox terrier has a bad rap. On the surface, she seems noisy and excitable, ever suspicious and high-strung. When any living creature comes within half a mile of our house, she tears into the very notion that someone or some thing is approaching. On walks when she comes across even much larger dogs getting their own walk, she can be a terror, snarling in a very unneighborly way to communicate, “You better not come over here! Boy, if I could just get at you, there would be Hell to pay!”

Plus, she sheds. Unlike the other dog.

But this morning, as I was reappraising their two characters, and as some blissfully unaware runner sailed past our house and the fox terrier jolted into high alarm, I noticed the behavior of the other dog, which I will sum up as this:  “Oh, shit! She’s barking at something! I’d better join in so I look useful too!” Completely calculating.

Yes, much like the title character in “All About Eve, ” all of his outward charm is a mask for his insidious scheme to have his way at all times.

Now, as I’m writing this, the fox terrier is in here in the living room with me, standing watch. Meanwhile, the scheming mutt is lying asleep curled up around my wife in bed. She didn’t want him at first, but he won her over long ago, in a playbook right out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” She thought he was funny-looking, bony, and kind of pathetic. Within weeks, she started cooking meals expressly for him. Now, when she’s at work, she wonders what he’s up to. Of course he greets her at the door when she comes home. Even tries to follow her into the bathroom, which she delights in in a mock-outraged voice. He somehow cajoled her into moving his dog bed from the floor up onto the couch! Y’know — where I used to sit!

His name is Thor. We didn’t name him that; when we adopted him from another house that “needed to rehome him” – wonder why???— my wife floated the idea of renaming him Toby. “He just seems like a Toby!” she said. She took him for kind of goofy. But that’s just part of his scheme.

As a playwright, I tend to think I have insights into human behavior. But in retrospect it’s clear that it never occurred to me to apply those skills to these two dogs. Now I see that the one who’s vilified for being a noisy nuisance is doing her best to protect us and gets few rewards for it — and has been warning us about this other dog all along, to no avail. She’s actually the hero of the piece! Meanwhile, the one who likes to “play”? He’s Machiavelli from tip to tail, undermining his rival and pursuing his desires. 

Well, I’m over it. From now on, he’s going out every night if I have to carry him there. At least until he gets my wife to make me stop.

My Tweet with André

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.