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


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Mysteries of the dead

Monday, December 25th, 2023

My family and I knew that my recently deceased mother, Mollie Wochner (nee Dickert), seemed to have had two birthdates, September 10, 1925 and September 11, 1925.

Here are her birth certificate, issued on September 27, 1925 and stating her birthdate as September 10, and here is her record of confirmation, issued May 21, 1939, and listing her birthdate as September 11. If there’s another, more official birth certificate, I don’t know about it.

But that isn’t the biggest discrepancy.

We always knew that “Mollie Wochner” was a nickname, that her real name was, as my father often said, “Amalia Emilia Wochner.” Except in studying these, we’ve learned that her birth name was “Amalie Emilia Dickert” — unless it was “Amalie Emilie Dickert.” Note the differing middle name in the documents.

My brother tried to clear this up last week when we survivors gathered to rummage through hundreds of old photos and documents and write identifying names and probable dates while we ourselves were still alive. He said that not everyone is a good speller.

Except:  This means that even my father, who was married to my mother for about 45 years, didn’t know his wife’s name. Because, again, he said it was “Amalia,” which appears nowhere.

Meanwhile, to write her eulogy, I confirmed with my sister how many siblings our mother had.  I knew it was either 10 or 11, and I believe I met all of them except my Uncle George, who in the 1940s long before I was born died from the flu at age 16. (Yes, young people used to die from the flu.) My sister informed me that Mom was one of 10. Given her proximity to my brother, who wrote the family tree, I figured that was right.

This week, my older cousin related to me stories of my mother’s 10 siblings — which would mean she had 11. When I recounted my memory of Uncle Gus, the eldest, born in Germany, she corrected me:  That was Uncle Gust, with a “t” at the end.

At the funeral service, a man I hadn’t seen we were boys came to pay his respects. We grew up across the street from each other, and we fought a lot — fistfights — as boys of that era and locale were likely to do. In the mid-1970s, we were evenly matched in size and age, with only two days between us. Although we were generally friends, we’d physically mix it up practically every weekend, rolling around in the grass and throwing punches, mostly for reasons I can’t remember except, maybe, young male energy.

I had shared that reminiscence with my girlfriend who, upon meeting this long-ago friend at the service, mentioned to him the fisticuffs of our youth. He told her something like, “Whaat? That didn’t happen. We were friends!”

Sometime after the service, when my family and I were hanging around my sister’s house and swapping stories, someone bemoaned the college nickname that my beloved friend K. still carries. Is it nice that she’s still called this? I think so, because our whole group loved her in college, and still does. Why did they think it was mean? 

It turns out that, for 40 years, everyone has completely misunderstood where the nickname came from. No, I assured them, it’s not about her physical size at the time — she got it from having too much to drink at one party almost 40 years ago and rolling around on the floor.

When no two stories even among close friends, relatives, siblings, institutions or even married couples jibe, and even when you write it down, what can we truly know about the past?

Eulogy for my mother

Friday, December 22nd, 2023

Delivered by me this past Tuesday, in Galloway, NJ, at Wimberg Funeral Home.

A couple of years ago, drinking beer with Mom outside Smitty’s Clam Bar, Somers Point, NJ.

A week and a half ago, on Friday December 8th, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend, mentor, and role model Mollie Amelia Dickert Wochner passed away.

I say “passed away,” because that’s what she did: She passed away. Only 1 in 10 people actually die in their sleep, and most of them have heart attacks. But Mom, in her last remarkable act in a remarkable life driven by determination, decided her time had come, and lay down and simply passed away. She said that she thought the good Lord had forgotten her, and so she took it upon herself to go see Him.

She believed in Heaven, and I believe in her, so I’m sure she’s there.

She was born on September 11, 1925, making her 98 years, 2 months, and 28 days old. That is, unless she was born on September 10, 1925 — a day earlier — which she started claiming after the attacks of September 11. Mom could be, um, insistent. About September 11th, she started saying, “Hey! That isn’t my birthday!” She said back in her youth, the church would wait a day until registering your birth, in case you didn’t make it. Never mind that we have her birth certificate. But she was a rock and we were movable objects.

As a rock, she raised everyone to be strong and resilient, her children and her grandchildren alike. You can look around us today and see all the strong people she raised and inspired. The resilience, the tough but caring attitude you see in this room, is a testament to her own Depression-era upbringing and the matter-of-fact way she performed child rearing.

Complaining and crying were actively discouraged; the lesson was that if you’ve got a problem, you should just deal with it. If you were a child and you hurt yourself, she offered a mild, “Let’s take a look at you. … Oh, you’re fine.” If you wanted to cry about it, you had to go cry on the steps — and the steps were outside. Where nobody would have to hear it. 

My mother was always strong for her children. Once, when my sister was having a challenge in school, Mom went to meet with the teacher and said, “Show me how you teach my daughter.” The teacher started to write on the blackboard, her back to the classroom, and my mother said, “You have to FACE my daughter when you talk – she reads lips!” When I was ten, Mom insisted to my father that we move to a different area so there’d be other kids around for me to play with, and so I learned to have friends. Thank you, Mom.  

She was feisty. She loved to play cards — mostly pinochle and 500 rummy, solitaire and double solitaire — and would look askance at you if you were her partner and playing badly or, worse, not paying enough attention. Her scowl was something to be dreaded, and her judgment could be quick, her humor sharp.

One time my college friend Jim Markley was over, lamenting the latest passive-aggressive actions of his girlfriend Ashley — was she in the relationship, was she out? — but after listening to him, Mom was decisive:  “Dump her, Jim! Dump her!” … … So he did. 

When I was 19 and Mom got wind that I was going to move out, her immediate reaction was, “Hey! I’ll help you pack your bags!”

But months later, when I was really really broke and would sneak into our darkened house late at night to steal food from the refrigerator, I could see she’d always cooked extra for me to steal. I remember one time sneaking off with probably half of a pot roast.

Feeding people was first nature to Mom. Her first question, always, to everyone, was “Didja eat yet?” Because she would always feed you. As a child of the Great Depression in her native Johnstown, Pennsylvania, when not everyone had enough to eat, she learned early that you shared. She told the story that when she was a girl in the 1930’s her mother, my grandmother, would always take pains to feed anyone who came by, including the man who delivered heating oil because he didn’t have enough to eat. If the soup my grandmother was serving had ham in it, the man, who was an observant Jew, would talk himself into it: “This is some good beef soup!,” he would say. “Thank you!” 

No matter who you were or where you came from, my mother would feed you.

She befriended and embraced and tolerated people of all sorts — me when I was an oddball teen printing God knows what with my amateur publishing empire in her basement, my offbeat pack of oddball friends (some of whom are here today), whom she loved and lit up for whenever she saw them, the Chinese family who moved in down the block, all sorts. 

In her younger years she worked and kept house and raised children and learned Chinese cooking. In her retirement years, she traveled the world with my father — Egypt, Germany, England, even California (!) — kept beating people at pinochle and rummy, and was active in her church. My father noted with pride that during the Great Depression, he and all his friends would pool their money, so that everyone had a dime to get into the movies. My mother said of her own childhood friends and siblings that not one of them had even a single dime to get into any movie. So she spent a lot of her retirement catching up on all those movies on TV. 

While those  movies were on, she crocheted. In fact, just a few years ago, she crocheted lap blankets for “the old folks” in the retirement home — old folks who were mostly far younger than she was. How many lap blankets? SIXTY. That’s a lot of lap blankets, and a lot of old movies and episodes of “Law and Order.”

I’ll miss my mother. Nothing goes on forever, although at times she seemed likely to. I asked my brother Michael how much longer he thought Mom had to live. “A good 10 years,” he said. That was 25 years ago. 

Mollie Wochner outlived all her siblings and all her close friends, except one. She is survived by perhaps her greatest friend, the one who has done the most to repay the service received — my sister Lorie. When you grieve my mother’s loss today, think also of my sister, who with my beloved brother-in-law Steve set aside so much in recent years in her own life for our mother. Lorie has lost not only her mother but also her best friend. 

Yes, at age 98, Mom was the last of her parents’ 10 children, our last family member in that generation. There are no more grandparents or aunts or uncles from that group. My siblings and I are now the elders. Now it’s up to us to carry on, with quiet strength, good humor, an open-mindedness that accepts people for who they are, an impatience when you’re taking too damn long to play your card, and a heartfelt determination to feed you.

We’ll be fine. We’ve been trained for this.

Happy Days

Tuesday, November 14th, 2023

In his lifetime, Samuel Beckett was full of surprises, writing plays where nothing happens, where people are stuck in urns or in a giant mound, or in a rocking chair that rocks on its own, or where the only thing on stage is a talking mouth.

But nothing in his repertoire either dramatic or prosaic prepared me for this.

Beckett wrote that we’re born astride a grave. What he didn’t tell us was that he’d be using his Facebook account to serve as a porno site, doing it from beyond the grave, and also enjoying the photos of this Unnamable young woman so much.

I guess as Endgames go, Beckett could be doing worse.

Hidden agenda

Monday, November 13th, 2023

Last night over dinner, my girlfriend asked me what my biggest pet peeve is.

I rolled around in my head vocalizing the first to come to mind: always seeing the shoes of my 21-year-old son scattered around the house. There’s always a pair of his shoes resting beneath the island in the kitchen, always a couple of his slides inside the back door, and sometimes another pair of his footwear cast about in the living room or the family room, and frequently accompanied by damp-looking black socks that prohibit me from touching any of it myself.

But then I reflected further and my true greatest pet peeve swam into view: people who drive in the passing lane without any intention of ever passing. These people just roll along blissfully unaware of the long chain of us trapped behind them in a slow centipede of automotive slowdown. It’s the law that they should pass and then get the Hell out of that lane, but they never do. They simply toodle along, rapturously unthinking. In a better world, they would be pulled over and ticketed for this nonsense, and then only if they couldn’t just be tossed into some gulag and their cars trash-compacted into neat little cubes.

I shared that with my girlfriend, who listened sympathetically, and then I added the one about my son with his shoes. Both of those peeves have to do with the ignorance of others; it’s not willfully bad behavior, it’s just ignorant behavior. And then, because I do my best to be a communicator, I asked her what biggest pet peeve is.

She said, “People who don’t make the bed.”

Oh.

Where I’ve been

Sunday, November 12th, 2023

Old Blighty.

Just under three weeks of business travel, and then one week of being sick, and then a week of catching up on things. That’s what I’ve been up to. 

Spent a week in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I got to revisit the Salvador Dali Museum, which I’d seen with my then-girlfriend (later wife) almost 40 years ago when we were mere children operating on the mistaken belief that we were adults. On that first trip, I drove her new car over the parking block I was pulling up to, stranding the car atop it and sending a shot of panic through my system because we were broke college kids far from any sort of help. The only thing to do was what I did:  Drive the car forward, all the way over the cement block, and pray. After a bad scraping sound, everything turned out fine. No such drama this time, because I walked from the hotel. It also turned out that the Dali Museum had moved:  No longer a low-slung ramshackle building of a single story, it’s now a multi-level building proudly designed by a real architect and with big signs all along the way directing one to it. It was perfectly Surreal to return to a museum that was now in a different place; I like to think Dali would have approved.

Weeks later, even tonight, out with my girlfriend and a bunch of her friends, everybody’s asking me how London was. “Surprisingly,” I say archly, “it was cold and rainy.” That comes with the territory (and is why I carried a telescoping umbrella in my jacket pocket). This was my fourth visit, and every time I add something new; this time it was a river cruise on the Thames, and a walking food tour of the East End, which included a visit to the shop that originated fish and chips, and also a divey local restaurant serving the best Bangladeshi food I’ve ever eaten. I also got to see London’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, which certainly felt longest-running just during my visit. It also wins for most obvious. I took my 21-year-old son with me on this London trip, and he easily guessed the “shocking twist” long before the end as well. 

Probably the most interesting thing I saw on the trip was a mob outside Parliament protesting the looming end of cash. As I was to find out, practically nobody is willing to take cash any more in London. Birmingham, which we visited for two days, proved easier, but in London whether it was a restaurant or a shop or any other sort of place where money would seem to change hands, most establishments reject currency; they just want plastic. The people protesting outside Parliament rightly pointed out that poor people don’t always have such things as bank accounts and credit cards; more alarmingly, they noted that if the government doesn’t like you, it can cut off your access to your digital funds. As for me, I took $1200 in cash to the UK, but converted only $500 of it to pounds sterling — and was damn glad to find a few places to pass it off, most of that in a restaurant in Birmingham. As it is, I came back with a £20 note that I’ll be mailing to a friend who was good enough to ship back to me a book I’d accidentally left behind; I’ll still owe him £5.15.

When asked about London on this trip, I mostly I say that I came back with a viral infection that ravaged my voice, dropped a hacking cough into me, and sapped my energy, even though I was determined to play through at work. (My business partner later awarded me a recognition for being Committed — but that was after she’d pointedly Sent Me Home.) It started on a Thursday, and when I still had it the following Thursday, and my ex-wife could hear over the phone that I could barely squeak out a syllable even though I could cough plenty loud, she said, “You’d better go to urgent care!” Which I did, and got a battery of tests and a diagnosis of “viral infection,” and was packed off to my pharmacy. Even a week or more after that, I’ve still got a bit of it lingering. My CPA said to me the other day that it’s impossible to travel any more without getting sick, but I dunno:  I’ve traveled a lot the past two years and hadn’t had a problem until now.

So, where to now? Unless something unexpected comes up, nowhere far ‘til next March. 

No-labor days

Monday, September 4th, 2023

Contrary to personal type, I did pretty much nothing all Labor Day weekend. Well, no work of any kind anyway. Didn’t even work on the play I’m writing (decided to do some submissions instead).

I did see the excellent production of the excellent play “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” at Rogue Machine Theatre. It runs until October 2, and gets a “highly, highly, highly recommended” from me. A play that drops us into the deeply intellectual and passionately expressed arguments of conservative Catholic evangelicals during the Trump presidency, it’s brilliantly written and unnervingly well-acted. Yes, there will be walkouts (there were two behind me); go see it and don’t be one of them.

And I did things like go to the gym, cook a mean Irish lamb stew, read comic books, take my dogs for walks, pine after my girlfriend (still on a family vacation in Europe) and… watch several episodes of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.”

If you ever doubted the importance of William Shatner in helping to launch the Star Trek phenomenon, this current show will convince you. Say what you will about Shatner, he fills every moment with something unpredictable. The lead in the new show, Anson Mount, is no comparison. Granted, Mount is saddled with playing Captain Pike, an anodyne character without a hint of flavor or spice, so dull that he is referred to by his own crew as “The Boy Scout.” But one could argue that the episodes where Mount is freed from this charmless character do even more to reveal his limitations as an actor, as in a truly childish episode where the crew is magically transformed into characters in a fairytale setting; tasked with playing a cowering quisling, Mount dives right into the cliched. In other episodes, you’ll see the setup for a reaction that he never quite brings. When one can remember Captain Kirk’s derring-do, his bet-it-all gambits, watching Pike shrug and smile wanly just doesn’t carry the day. “Star Trek: Discovery” at least had one strong season before sliding into juvenile concerns. Nine episodes in, “Strange New Worlds” starts off dull, then gets duller. When you’re reduced to doing a show that weakly rips off the movie “Alien” 44 years later but with far less suspense, isn’t it past time to try something new?

If Quentin Tarantino isn’t going to be allowed to rescue this franchise, can we find some other audacious brat somewhere to do it?

Coincidence or premonition?

Thursday, August 31st, 2023

Nightmare the other night:

It’s approaching midnight and I’m in the dining area of my house, just inside the front door, speaking with my sister Lorie, who is apparently visiting from New Jersey and cleaning up after our late dinner. There’s a loud knocking at the closed door and Lorie and I look at each other; we aren’t expecting anyone. Neither of us moves. It stops. Then it starts again, so I steel myself and open the door and look out, but there’s no one there, just my porch, followed by endless pitch blackness. Lorie says, “They want you to go out and see.” But I don’t move.

Then I woke up.

Two days later, I’m alone in my company office recording a podcast episode over the internet. There’s a loud knocking at the office door. I tell the podcast producers and our guest that I need 30 seconds. I go over to the office door and open it and look out into the foyer. But there’s no one there. 

Sleep talk

Tuesday, August 29th, 2023

The other night, in a brief conversation with my girlfriend’s son, I volunteered that I had a polyphasic sleep pattern. Charitably, this means I sleep more than twice per day. Uncharitably, it means I wake up constantly.

Last night was typical.

Although completely wiped out from a very active day, including a full-on gym workout, I went to bed early for me (11 p.m.) and fell asleep even earlier than usual:  11:30. But then, of course, I woke up at midnight on the dot.

Why?

To play the damn New York Times Spelling Bee game, of course.

This game invites you to make as many words of four letters or more as you can from the seven letters they’ve chosen, making sure that you use the central letter at least once. Example:  Today’s letters were F,E,I,X,A,D and the must-use letter of T. From that, you can spell “Fixated,” and “diet” and “dieted” and on and on. If you score enough points, you achieve “Genius” level.

Whoever invented this has done me wrong, because I’m addicted to it. After all, it involves words and spelling, vocabulary and reading, i.e., just my principal interests in life. But now the problem is that I’m so excited about this game that my brain wakes up at midnight every night to play it instantly upon its release. When the letters offered are as common as, well, F,E,I,X,A,D and the must-use letter of T, I can finish it in about 20 minutes and go back to sleep. But when the letters are something like G,L,X,S,P,T, and Z it can take me 90 minutes or so.

To be fair, I had a polyphasic sleep pattern even before the diabolical New York Times Spelling Bee. At one point 10 or 15 years ago, I was waking up every 46 minutes for no good reason. What corrected that? A hypnotherapist who told me that while she couldn’t erase the behavior, given my brain’s need to know what’s going on at all times, she could reduce it to just once per evening. And she did! I’d go to sleep, wake up 46 minutes later, check my phone for the time, weather, and news, and go blissfully back to sleep. Given that eventually hypnotherapy wears off, she even programmed me to return after five years for a tune-up, which I did. When I called to book a return visit, you cannot imagine how eerie it was to hear her say, “Well… you’re right on schedule.”

Unfortunately, during the pandemic she moved out of state and I haven’t found another hypnotherapist for in-person sessions. (Yet.) Other attempted solutions, like THC oil, drugs and sleep aids, extra-heavy-duty gym workouts, and just lying there refusing to get up, have done nothing. Last night I awoke at midnight, 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 6 a.m., and then very rudely at 7:30 due to my alarm when I was actually well and good asleep, dammit.

Which also means that I was asleep from 11:30 to midnight, from 12:30 to 2, from 2:10 to 3, from 3:10 to 6, and from 6 to 7:30. Just to put a more positive spin on it. Also noted:  I got nine minutes’ sleep on my office floor in the middle of the day when I was so momentarily tired that I couldn’t think straight. Nine minutes may not sound like a lot, but it recharged me enough to make it to the gym at 6:30.

What’s the solution to this? I don’t know, and I’ve been searching for one most of my life. But part of me thinks I don’t really want to fix it. I feel terrific. I’m very happy in the relationship I’m in and with how my kids are doing, I’m getting loads and loads of good writing work out at my company, and I’m making great progress on my new play. Do I really want to tamper with that? 

Don’t know.

Maybe I’ll sleep on it.

Bound for glory

Monday, August 28th, 2023

My friend Adrian is shedding books. Not all of them, just some.

About 10 years ago, my friend Doug, on the other hand, got rid of all of his books. He now has a Kindle. But when he’s come to visit, he has stood and reviewed and admired my bookcases crammed full of books — and I don’t foresee my ever standing back and admiring whatever books he’s read on his Kindle.

The opposite example is provided by post-punk legend Tom Verlaine, of Television fame, who died some months ago and left 50,000 books. The brilliantly inventive singer and guitar-slinger seems never to have let a book escape his grasp. I might be willing to say that that’s overkill, having 50,000 books, but for my jealousy. My son tells me it’s accepted wisdom that if you have 1,000 books “you have a library.” I went and counted and although I’m drawing closer, I’ve just missed the mark. But I’ll never reach the heights of Verlaine, dammit.

My whole life, books have been my friends. Although I’ve argued with them at times, they’ve never argued with me. They’ve gone away for weekends with me, and had dinner with me, have gone camping with me, and have even climbed into bed with me. They are endlessly loyal and interesting.

Moreover, I’ve made friends through books. I met Doug of the Kindle 22 years ago this October when we were both at a conference and bonded over a book we’d both read. (And, yes, some whiskey.) Since discussing David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, Doug and I have talked about books for months and years, in California and in London, over the Internet and in person over bourbon and cigars. But through it all, I’ve been unable to keep myself from wondering where his books went, and where they live now….

A couple of years ago, when I was in England and stayed over at the house of Adrian and his lovely and smart wife Kathy, I knew I was in the right place when I saw the guest room: not just stuffed with books, but well-equipped with smart books, safe for me to say because it was mostly books I’d read, tastefully chosen to be sure, and the ones I hadn’t read I’d wanted to read but hadn’t gotten to yet. And on the nightstand? A book that Adrian was gifting to me, a book I hadn’t heard of, a great big thick wallop of a book, seemingly several thousand pages, which I found completely unputdownable. Adrian not only knows books, he seems to know me.

Thomas Jefferson so loved books that he shipped barrels of them back to Virginia from France. In fact, he so loved them that he died indebted — but some wise graybeard of the time had the brilliant idea of bailing out his estate by having the nascent U.S. government buy them, thus creating The Library of Congress. Or: Did Jefferson brilliantly plan that all along anyway, costs be damned? If you’ve been to the Library of Congress, you’ll note a much-deserved bust of Jefferson right at the entryway; this is why. No books? No Republic.

Even the thought of getting rid of books pains me. I know that times change. Case in point: So far as I know, no one is emptying their chamber pots into the street any more. So maybe we should be trading in our bound books for digital versions, so much more easily stored, so environmentally responsible. Maybe it’s a good idea for a good future. I just know that the one time I parted with books, when I was a penniless college student and sold my books back to the college bookstore, two things happened:

  1. My favorite professor happened by at precisely that moment as I was exchanging my hard-earned books for pennies on the dollar and looked at me sorrowfully and said quietly, “Monsieur Wochner, you are selling your books…???” Quel dommage, I was.
  2. I missed them so much that later I wound up buying the fucking things again, and at retail again.

I don’t want to judge my friends. If you have to prune, I get it. Doug went on an around-the-world motorcycle trip and couldn’t exactly have dragged hundreds of books around behind himself in a cart while traversing sub-Saharan Africa. Adrian is donating books to a good cause, keeping armsful, and will no doubt be stocking back up. As for Tom Verlaine, well, like Tom Jefferson, he died, so his books should go to someone else.

And, no doubt, when in 2025 I probably vacate the house I’m living in, it’ll be me trimming and purging. If I can bear it.

Unraveling quickly

Saturday, July 8th, 2023

I signed up for Threads on its first day. Partly to check it out, and partly because since Elon took over Twitter, every new follower I get is a scantily clad sex worker with a linked porn site. Hey ladies, take it elsewhere — I’m already doing far better than you.

Day 1 on Threads was filled with messages of welcoming! Welcome to a new place, far better than the old place. Phew! We’re glad to be out of that place, with the jackboots in the street! We’re cheering on its demise! 

Day 2 found me unfollowing all sorts of people I never followed. Except there’s no way to unfollow them. So I started muting them. They may still be talking to me, but at least now I can’t hear them. The very first ones I muted had the last names Kardashian and Jenner. I am not kidding. At least in the previous place I’d never had to see these names or come across whatever they were pressing on us in service of peddling their empty fame.

Day 3 saw the beginning emergence of the radical grifters we’d been running away from, and also entreaties by people to try to keep this the sort of place we were hoping for on Day 1. Political strategist Mike Madrid of the Lincoln Project shared a thread reminding people not to interact with these mercenary mouthpieces because your engagement is precisely how they build their audience on new platforms. Someone else asked, Can we be nice here, at least? 

And I posted, “It took Threads all of 10 seconds to get overrun by celebrities and also discussions of a certain ex-president. What a refreshing change from that other platform!”