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


You’ll need that: A cautionary tale

(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.

2 Responses to “You’ll need that: A cautionary tale”

  1. Dan Says:

    So now you’ve had a chance to see what the world would be like if your play had never been born.
    It’s a Wonderful File.

  2. Joe Stafford Says:

    It’s with a kind of guilt feeling that I read this, some boxes of papers are stored at my brother’s. Sorry that I wasn’t able to look for the papers you mailed, if they were home with me, I would have checked. I’m very glad you found a way to access them. It seems to me that with the right geek, the right collection of archived computers, cables, printers and software that the file transfer process could be replicated so that your files get brought to the present. For the time being I’m hope that old i-Mac isn’t going to recycling.

    I do remember that the only way I was able to send you some voice files you sent to me in the mid-90s could only be duplicated and saved was by videoing off the screen of a mid-00s Mac with a 2017 i-Phone. I still have them stored on YouTube.

    I counted my homes of the past too. There’s been 6 of them. Two of them centered on my chosen profession (I say ‘chosen’ here, with tongue firmly in cheek because it chose me, I didn’t choose it.) of over 32 years. In 1966 we moved into ‘the old funeral home’ it was a massive house with an attached garage big enough for 14 Priuses. Upstairs over the garage was a casket showroom where families would select among 20 or so pieces of funeral hardware. My grandfather built a funeral home and raised my mom, aunt, and uncle at the place. From 1916 to 1939 he had a thriving funeral business with my grandmother. (She deserves her own separate story, if only I knew what it was.) 911 Pacific Avenue, Atlantic City was a castle-like old summer house when it was built, at 4 towering stories high in the 1880s, it would match any example of the grand houses found in Cape May today that are priced in the millions. Embalming was performed in the ground level basement, the public spaces were on the floor above, the ‘house’ was on the 3rd and 4th floors.

    From the paper records of my grandfather’s funeral business, he was always a really hard worker. In the 1920s and 30s business boomed. He had all the latest technology, 3 separate candlestick telephones on his desk, had a desirable location and a fleet of cars. Undertakers in that period, would have walked (and drove) the entire town, making sure they were recognizable. Death in the home was very common until the early 1940s. Even into the late 1920s, my mother (in her mid-teens) could remember my grandfather being hailed down while driving on Atlantic Avenue, that a death had taken place and he needed to come over immediately. He would carry a large leather wallet about 6 by 9 inches, with a booklet that fit inside with about 60 tabbed pages sewn together, flip it up vertically from the bottom, fold over to a new form and you’d be in business – as rapid a recording device as any iPad it had preprinted boxes, lines, info points. Every other two tabbed pages contained all the data on the ‘case’ that the undertaker needed to take the funeral order, destination cemetery, pricing and casket choices were also calculated there. Lots of the information passed verbally by family members right there within earshot of the deceased. Place the body in the wicker removal basket with your assistant, and into the hearse and back to the funeral home for the prep. Socially speaking, undertakers in a community were as welcomed into a home as a doctor or clergyman, plus their common-man quality was such that families looked upon their services as practical and accessible. Grandfather was a tea-totaller, and didn’t gain as much work from bars as his competitor brother (another story). A few years older, the brother got hold of HIS father’s funeral business ahead of grandpop – so grandpop built his own.

    He got a rocky start. Early on, from 1908 to 1916, he rented a storefront for a funeral home at 704 Atlantic Avenue, where my grandmother gave birth to my mom in May 1910. His leather wallet i-Pad booklet, just one – 20 or 30 cases for those years. Because of his location in the city, many of those cases were for embalming of the remains, and placing them on the train back to Philadelphia. He was busier in the summer because of visiting families, when summer vacation meant leaving Philadelphia for the whole summer. The neighborhood was very diverse, but a large proportion were Irish working class Roman Catholic.

    But in mid-1918, something happened to the little iPad booklets, there were dozens of them – close to 40 full booklets. For a paper I wrote for a humanities class in high school in 1971, I read every single one of them. The Spanish Flu Pandemic was a shocking event, to a person. To every person. Altogether, in the period from mid-1918 to late 1919, my grandfather dealt in the disposition of over 1100 dead. All that, just out of a small beachside neighborhood in Atlantic City. A number, that to this day, I find to be an unfathomable amount of work. For the record, the pandemic spiked the death toll at 50 million world wide. Just a fraction of the current data (August 31, 2020) for Covid19. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3291398/

    In his first years booklets up until 1918, my grandfather’s handwriting, in fountain pen, was a very skilled, cursive and elegant 19th Century style. Even-though he had space limits on paper, there’d always be little flourishes in his text, but as he worked thru 1918, his writing changed. It was easy to see, page by page there was an increasing strain on him, that he was writing rapidly because of the additional work. He switched to pencils. Reading his booklets, the comparison to earlier work began to eerily reveal his stress level. Sometimes, there’d be an erasure, his writing remained legible, but it was like the 19th Century was being squeezed out of him. It was. Many of the cases were immediately buried in Pleasantville, in canvas body bags. The section of the cemetery for this period is enormous.

    The booklets also contained pages near the back flap, that fit into the leather wallet. In extra pages unseen by customers were ledgers to add up the accounting of funeral bills, costs, markup and accounts receivable. His 1918 gross sales outpaced his 1917 sales in the triple digits, tens of thousands of dollars instead of 2 or 3 thousand. His handwriting became more block print-like, rapid, and super businesslike. From 1919 onward only place you still saw the filigree and flourish was in his signature. The money he made would have been a fantastic windfall, my grandparents bought surrounding property. They took trips to Europe. One block from the world famous Steel Pier, in the 1960s, my mom could bring in almost the same income from parking lot fees as she could from the funeral business.

    My Grandfather, Dennis A. Gormley died in 1939 suddenly, a stroke, at age 65, while seated at the dining room table. Family bardsmanship tells that he possessed a wicked temper, suffered headaches, and was generous with those around him. He didn’t keep a diary, and he never caught the flu – ever. Everyone else in the funeral home that year, my mother included – did – and survived without complications. He kept one funeral director assistant from 1917 he stayed the family employ until 1957.

    After his death, my mother, a high-school English teacher, with a Bachelor’s Degree in English, went back to school to obtain an “Embalmer and Funeral Director” license attending The Eckels College of Embalming on Diamond St., Philadelphia.

    In 1933, a new data point got added to the little booklets, a Social Security Number. Around 1945 the little booklets were no longer used. Arranging funerals became more complex, and 8.5 by 11” paper records started use until the computer age in 1993. Altogether, there were about 80 of them, about half were from 1918 and 1919.

    They’re all gone now, when I had to leave my business in 2006, it meant leaving my permanent home of 40 years – the SECOND funeral home. I still have a great deal of information contained in indexes and records that I have in storage, but nothing like the information in the little booklets. Stories about the deceased, addresses, obituary and death notice drafts, birthplaces and cause of death. The records had to be destroyed because of the personal data, and about 10,000 Social Security Numbers. I burned them in the backyard of my brother’s large property in Mullica Township in a huge burner to ashes. I’ll never forget that box of little booklets.

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