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


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Closing Windows

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

If I owned Microsoft stock, I’d strongly consider selling. Like, right now.

This isn’t because of any great fears about the stock market in general. Lately, I’ve been buying a little stock. And it isn’t because of my long-standing ambivalence toward Microsoft, which stems from my background as an Apple user since 1982.

No, I would sell Microsoft because I think the Third Wave 2.0 is about ready to wash over it.

(In his 1980 book “The Third Wave,” Alvin Toffler posited that the First Wave was the settled agricultural society that replaced hunter-gatherer cultures; the Second Wave was the industrial age society; and the Third Wave was the post-industrial, or information-based, society. I think we’ve already seen a lot of that — and now we’re in the first shakeout, or Third Wave 2.0.)

Problems come in threes, goes the saying. Here are Microsoft’s:

  1. For the first time, sales of Windows are down. This is at the same time that world demand for “netbooks” is going to skyrocket. What are netbooks? They’re small, cheap, portable computers that retail for about $300. These are the machines that will get outer Mongolia online, and the projected adoption rate is staggering. How easily will Microsoft be able to sell an installation of Windows onto these machines for $100, when the machine itself costs only $300? Not easily. Especially when Linux is free.
  2. Microsoft was famously late in recognizing the possibilities of the Internet. Google owns the search-engine business that could have been Microsoft’s, and the Yahoo deal didn’t happen. Now Gmail is going to eat Outlook’s lunch. If Google controls the search business, and Firefox rules the browser world, and Google (again) takes over email, what’s left online for Microsoft?
  3. Problem #3:  pessimism. Yes, I have heard the rumor that the economy is bad. But do I think it’s going to permanently “reset” at a lower level? That’s what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer thinks. Really? Even with continued population growth, and new economies coming online all over the world, it’s going to be smaller? Or is it just that Microsoft won’t be able to adapt to new realities? “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” Colin Powell famously said. (And no, I don’t think he was prescribing a Candide-like naivete.) The opposite is certainly true:  pessimism is draining. I suppose such sourness is understandable, coming on the heels of Vista’s grand kerplunk, and those bad commercials with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates buying shoes. But still.

I don’t know what Microsoft is going to do from here on out, except lose market share. (Especially to Google.)

By the way, I would sell Apple stock, too, if I still had any. Not because I think they’re falling behind or screwing up. I’d sell because the performance of the stock market relies  upon perception, and whether or not it’s true, the perception is that Steve Jobs is Apple. That’s the downside of running a personality cult:  There’s trouble when the personality proves to be all too mortal.

The comic book he had to have

Friday, November 28th, 2008

A few nights ago I had a dream in which I broke into my neighborhood comic-book store in the middle of the night because I just knew a comic book I was waiting for was finally there and I couldn’t wait any longer. So I smashed the store’s display window, gingerly stepping over the shards of plate glass jutting from the casement, and headed directly for the display bearing that choice book. And, indeed, there it was. But as I reached out to grab it, I stopped to realize what I was doing, and whom I was doing it to, and how this was in no way the person I think I am. So I left the comic, and the comic-book store, and got home as quickly as I could, my own shame following closely behind. After a sleepless night (still in the dream), I couldn’t bear it any longer and drove back to the comic-book store to confess and to offer to pay for the broken window and to throw myself onto the mercy of the store’s owner — but when entered the store I found him sitting bereft on the floor, having thrown tarps over all the comic-book displays after deciding to leave the business because he couldn’t imagine how someone who loves comic-book could have done this to him. After voicing my sympathy, I left and decided my only course of action was to mail an anonymous cashier’s check and then leave town and hope to rebuild my dignity elsewhere.When I woke up in the morning, I still felt like I had done this to the owner of the comic-book store. It was a hard feeling to shake. For almost 10 years, I’ve never done anything there except pay for comic books and engage in idle chitchat. But now I felt soiled by something I hadn’t done. To even think it made me feel grimy. Because the dream had posed the operant question: How could someone who loves comic-books do this?

Today while running errands, I saw that I was passing the comic-book store and decided to stop in. I saw Paul, the store’s owner, and decided to tell him my dream; I figured that that way, I finally would be rid of it. I shared it with him, along with Freud’s analysis that there are only two sorts of dreams: neurotic and wish-fulfillment. Clearly, this neurotic dream revealed how much the simple pleasures of comic books – so far removed from the pressure of work and responsibility associated with writing, teaching, business, and political activism – mean to me. I closed my narration of this dream with the rhetorical question he had posed in it: “How could someone who loves comic books do this to him?”

He looked at me and said, “That’s funny, because someone just did.”

A few days before, someone else in the store had alerted Paul and another worker in the store that he thought the person who’d just left had swiped two hardback collections by putting down the stack of comics he’d just purchased, looking around, then picking them back up but with these hardbacks underneath. Paul couldn’t believe it and paid no attention; after all, this was a longtime customer, someone who came in with a closeknit circle of friends, someone who came from an affluent family. But then he remembered that a month or two earlier someone else had noticed something missing at the same time this person had just left. So he and two others scoured every corner of this rather large store, looking behind every stack and every rack, nowhere turning up these two $25 hardbacks, until he reluctantly concluded they indeed had been stolen. Next time this customer came in, they asked him about it and, Paul says, his denials were so strenuous they seemed like playacting, and so this customer has been banned from the store.

In my dream, the comic-book store shuts down and I exile myself. In reality, the store catches the thief and he is exiled.

I shared all this with my wife. She often says I have low-level ESP (while I think I’m just sensitive to subtext, as all playwrights should be). Now she wondered if I were precognitive, too. If that were true, our lives would be a nightmare, given some of these dreams. But what truly interests me in this are the intertwined tales of one man afraid that through an unthinking act he will ruin something important to him, and one man who does precisely that not to save fifty bucks that he assuredly has, but to substitute for the fun of escapist fiction the real-life cheap thrill of theft.

No laughing matter

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

It’s finally happened: I’ve lost my sense of humor. About one thing, at least.

The other morning as I was driving my son to take his driver’s license test, we passed a billboard for the new Oliver Stone movie, “W.” Guess who it’s about.

“Dad, are you going to go see that?”

“No,” I said rigidly.

“It looks really funny in the trailer.”

“There’s nothing funny about him,” I said, noting to myself the irony of the word “trailer” in connection with the infamous subject of this film. “Trailer” as in “FEMA trailer.” As in: rusting hulks bought for too much money from private contractors for the scattered survivors of Hurricane Katrina. More reasons not to be amused.

In today’s LA Times I came across a caption about the movie that said it was the story of one man’s rise “from riches to more riches.” I guess that’s humorous too.

I haven’t lost my sense of humor about everything. I’m always cracking wise on those marathon training runs; it’s a good way to deal with the seeming impossibility of running dozens of miles, or other ordeals. I’ve written comedies about cancer and suicide and incest, and even my recent play about the son of a serial killer was good for a few laughs. But it’s hard to imagine anything funny about “W.” or the creature the film is named after. Maybe the scale of impact is too great to laugh away. The serial killer in my play killed a few dozen women; the Bush death count is in the hundreds of thousands (Iraqi civilians; Afghani civilians; U.S. soldiers; Katrina victims; old folks shooting themselves because their retirement has been wiped out and they can’t pay the mortgage; and on and on). I don’t think I’m alone in this sentiment: I don’t want to spend any more time with him, real or fictional.

Except in one case.

If there is a sequel, one in which he’s tried and convicted, I will gladly buy a ticket. Many of them.

I don’t think I’m alone in that, either.

Favorite moment of the day

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

Someone just sent me an email telling me she was going to fax me something because her email isn’t working.

Has the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the world yet?

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Click here to find out.

(And check back frequently for updates.)

What I’ve learned from running

Monday, August 11th, 2008

Since May, I’ve been in training to do an AIDS marathon this fall. (If you’d like to sponsor me and haven’t already done so, please click here.) In that time I have learned many things — things so astonishing to me that I’m considering collecting them into a book. Maybe it wouldn’t be this generation’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” or even close, but it would be by me. Here’s just some of what I’ve learned.

1. Your achievement is your own. No one else cares.

On Sunday, I ran my furthest distance yet — 13 miles. To me, this is an amazing accomplishment. I came home and told my little boy and he said, “Oh, yeah? I can run a thousand miles.” His dead certainty was disconcerting. I told my wife I had run 13 miles and she looked at me said, about my forthcoming marathon trip in the fall, “I guess you expect me to change my work schedule.” Nobody at the training site was impressed either, because they had just run the same 13 miles.

2. The foulest place on Earth is not where you think.

Is it the bottom of the world’s largest garbage pit, in Lagos, Nigeria? No. Is it the drinking water beneath Pittsburgh, PA? No. It’s not even the dark thoughts in the furthest corner of Larry Flynt’s mind. The foulest place on Earth is the freestanding porta-potty in Griffith Park next to the training site. It is so foul that if I were to post a photo of its interior, the internet would shrivel and die. If I were to describe it in terms too readily understood, you would never return to this blog for fear I might do it again. Just imagine the very worst toilet situation imaginable, extending your imagination to all surfaces within (including the ceiling), and then add in the stench, then multiply by infinity. That approaches the state of this, the foulest place on Earth.

3. The laws of physics don’t apply to running.

I’ve been running since May, and I’m now running between 14 and 34 miles per week, depending upon what week I’m on in the training schedule. I don’t eat fast food, I don’t drink soda, I eat fish twice a week and plenty of fruits and vegetables, and I’ve cut out most alcohol. Guess how much weight I’ve lost. If you said “none,” you win. Not one ell-bee. Not a gram. Inevitably when I tell people this, they’ll say, “You’re gaining muscle.” I haven’t seen that. I have large calves, so you’d expect it there, but nope — same level of (or lack of) definition. How is this possible? Yesterday on that long run, I shared this question with a fellow runner. She replied, “Well, your ass looks great.” I didn’t ask if she meant it looks better now than it did, and whether therefore I had a saggy ass or maybe fat ass before this. In fact, I dropped the whole matter, though I did feel compelled to first respond, “Uh… yours too.”

4.  It may indeed be true that your parents walked nine miles uphill both ways to school through three feet of snow.

I say that because the training course — through Griffith Park, through the Equestrian Center, through the Rancho District, into Burbank and back — is uphill both ways. However, I can’t vouch for the three feet of snow.

5. Bum smell is mostly sweat.

You know that smell that bums get? Of course it comes from poor hygiene, unclean clothing, and bad diet. But I now suspect that, specifically, it’s mostly sweat. That’s because I’m smelling it on myself after long runs. Yes, after a long run I smell like a bum. (Or someone from a distant land with different bathing rituals. Say, France.) Of course I take a shower when I get home after one of these runs, but first I have to come inside. My children greet me this way: By covering their noses. Literally. This Sunday, my daughter and my little boy stood in the room adjacent and looked at me, each of them peering over an arm stretched across to cover a nose. They wouldn’t come any closer. At one point, my daughter added a comment:  “Ewwwwww.” I had suspected the situation even before getting home, when I stopped at the Smart ‘n’ Final two blocks from our house to get orange juice and hazelnut creamer so I could enjoy the sort of breakfast I now felt entitled to, having run 13 miles. Still wearing my soaking running clothes and staying respectfully distant from others, I grabbed what I needed, placed it on the checkout conveyor belt and backed up several feet. The cashier, a man in his mid-20’s, greeted me. Then there was silence as he scanned my goods. Finally I said, “I just ran 13 miles.” Without looking up, he said, “That explains it.”

More observations to follow, I’m sure.

Con-nections

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

I’m off in 5 minutes to the San Diego Comic Con, my 21st annual attendance. Back in 2008, my then-roommate and I took a drive, so to speak, down to San Diego to check out the Con for a day. We liked it so much we decided that the next year we’d actually stay over and go for a couple of days. Now it’s a five-day affair, with a rotating lineup of friends and allies sharing a large suite. Last year there were seven of us, this year there will be six, and next year there may be eight or nine (depending upon the college destinations and summer plans of my son and his friend, as well as what is a promised “Return to the Con!” by pop-culture-ephemera inspiration Joe Stafford — for whom there will Always be sleeping room on the floor by the window).

As this piece in today’s LA Times (hey, look: They still publish that!) details, the idea of “dropping in” on the Con is now quaint and ludicrous. The Con is now big business. But y’know what? The people running this very large, very sprawling, very economically and culturally important event are doing a great job. Really. That it’s a non-profit run mostly by volunteers makes it all the more amazing.

If you’re going to the Con and things like poker, whiskey, and cigars interest you, drop me a line.

Turning gold into lead

Friday, July 18th, 2008

One of the projects my company is working on involves training 10 young people (ages 16 to 20) in writing, setting them up on a blog, and having them go out and report on city-funded cultural activities and social service programs in the city of Santa Monica. All this week I’ve been driving to Santa Monica to run workshops with these youths. I like this project immensely: it involves young people, and writing, and getting the word out about arts activities and about programs that help people who need a little help.

What I don’t like is the commute between Burbank and Santa Monica. The distance is about 25 miles, and no matter what time of day I’m going there or coming back, it takes about 25 years. Yesterday’s workshop was actually in Marina del Rey (about 4 miles further). It took me an hour and a half to get back to Burbank. Imagine driving for an hour and a half at 15 miles per hour. I would have pulled over to go see a movie — as I did on this infuriating day — except lately that makes no difference; if it’s daylight, traffic is impenetrable. Plus, I wanted to get home for my daughter’s 10th birthday party. I got home all right, finally, in a miserable mood for being boxed in on all sides by cars and crawling along for ever. This must be what trench warfare felt like. News reporting would have you believe that people are abandoning their cars for bicycles because of high gasoline prices; I haven’t seen that, but I’d like to.

What are elected leaders in California doing about the traffic situation, which is clogging our roadways and choking our economy? Little or nothing.

We also have a little deficit here in the Golden State. It doesn’t matter what the number is (it’s massive); by the time I type it in here, it will have metastasized further. At various times recently it’s been pegged at $8 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b,” please note) or $12 billion, or $16 billion, or any number between, or larger. Here’s your first indication that the people running the state aren’t doing a good job: They have no idea what the size of the budget deficit is. Without an understanding of the problem, how can they be expected to fix it? The deadline for a new budget — one theoretically in balance — was July 1st. They missed the deadline. So here’s what they did: They went on break. That’s right. They left Sacramento to return to their (other) homes. Anyone doing business with the state of California right now isn’t getting paid — except, I’m sure, for the people on the state payroll, i.e., those people who didn’t come up with a budget.

Someone up in Sacramento — not sure who; finger-pointing varies — is proposing raiding embargoed funds. These are the funds that a plurality of voters (not including me) voted as set-asides for specific projects. I almost always vote against these funds because they almost always get raided for something completely unrelated to the proposed project — and this is something I told one of the governor’s emissaries recently when I led a little charge against one of them. And now, here we go again. What are some of the funds being raided? You guessed it: highway funds, originally intended to ease traffic congestion.

Aren’t ironies wonderful?

I don’t think that all problems are easily or well solved. I do think, though, that everything is improvable. Will California, where in addition to other problems 25% of high schoolers are dropouts (while we have some of the nation’s best-funded school districts), ever again earn the sobriquet of “The Golden State”? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t expect a return to the past so many people who have lived here longer than I have are yearning for. But I do expect people who are public servants, and well-paid ones to boot, to do the job they were elected to do. And although I know several of these legislators personally and like them greatly, I’m of a mind right now that all of them across the board ought to be sent packing. And I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t just what voters might finally do.

Banking on irony

Monday, July 14th, 2008

As you’ve heard,  the Feds seized IndyMac Bank on Friday. (And here’s the latest on that, by the way.) It’s the second-largest U.S. bank default in history.

On Saturday, we got a letter from the bank, which holds our mortgage. I assumed it was news of the default, with information about the status of our mortgage.

No. Of course not. How silly of me. It was an offer of an additional $100,000 from the bank, if only we’d fill out the teeny form and return it.

If only the letter had arrived a day earlier! Because, as my wife said, it’s not like they’re going to be around to collect it.

A gift from Jesse Jackson

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

If Jesse Jackson wanted to do something nice for Barack Obama — which he didn’t — I can’t think of a nicer thing he could’ve done than this:  say on Fox’s “O’Reilly Factor” (of all places), with regard to Obama, “I wanna cut his nuts off.”

Now if only Osama bin Laden would endorse John McCain, the day would be complete.