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


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Heat index

Monday, September 5th, 2022

Update: I’m outside working on my new play — outside because I’m having a cigar with it — and I just confirmed the temperature: It’s 1,000 degrees out here.

That’s according to my phone, and to the t-shirt shirt I’m wearing.

What I write (and what I don’t)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2022

Although I haven’t been doing a lot of writing here of late, I have been doing a lot of writing. So if you’ve been worried about that — and I know you have! — please release that sigh of relief. I think, all things considered, my output remains about where it should be.

I’m about a third of the way into a new full-length play. I say a third, because I’ve got 46 pages, but I’m sure a bunch of those are going to get cut.

I’ve actually started writing a short story* — my first in years. The entire reason I came to Los Angeles 34 (gasp) years ago was to attend grad school at the University of Southern California, and the entire reason I chose that program was because it encouraged writing in more than one discipline, and I was writing both plays and short stories. I’ve never stopped writing plays, but the short stories have become more sporadic. At some point — and I swear this is true — I got tired of seeing them in print. Because: It didn’t compare to hearing live audience reaction to my plays, or reading the reviews. (Even the bad ones.) With all the short stories and, yes, poems (don’t look at me that way) that got published, the magazine or journal would come out… and then the silence would ensue. It didn’t seem to build into anything. Put another way: I just became a junkie for audience response.

*(Confession: When I say “started writing a short story,” what I mean to say is that I have written the notes for that story. I sure hope it follows — and this weekend! — or I’ll lose the thread.)

And I write a lot of copy for marketing/advertising clients, and I write a lot of funny emails to family and friends, and a couple of weeks ago I wrote an assigned piece for a magazine in Canada, and I’m writing this right now.

Today I wrote something for people who spend their lives in service of justice, frequently for poor people and for people facing discrimination. They needed this written, and I was proud to do it. I also wrote a candidate statement for someone running for office, someone I believe in. I also wrote a press release recently for a community group. I think these things are important.

Someone (I think Dorothy Parker) said that when you’re a writer, you face a life of homework. (Maybe it was Fran Lebowitz. In fact, I now think it was Fran Lebowitz.) Anyway, imagine working all day in a job you created and that’s centered around writing, editing, and communicating… and then coming home to do more of it. Plus weekends. So it’s like that.

Not that I’m complaining. I love working with words. I’m a sucker for alliteration and anaphora and all puns, good and bad. Plus, something John Steinbeck once said about writing as a career should silence anyone who’d complain about it: “It sure beats working in the mud with a stick all day.”

Something I haven’t been writing here for quite a while now are blog posts about politics. I swore them off for what boils down to two reasons:

  • I wasn’t saying anything that somebody else wasn’t saying better
  • And I wasn’t being funny or clever, because I was just so outraged

The related reason is that we have an ex-president about whom I’ve discovered I have zero sense of humor (which is shocking to me: having zero sense of humor about anything), and he dominates enough of the news every day. My little victory is that he’s no longer appearing in my blog.

So that’s what I’m not writing.

About death

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

Every morning when I wake up, I remind myself, “I’m going to be dead soon.”

You might be surprised how inspirational that is. Rather than depress me, it jars me into making the most of every day.

 “Making the most” can be advancing my business career, or my writing career, or reading, or handling a bunch of niggling tasks so they can be out of mind, or spending time with friends or loved ones, or even just playing “Skyrim” for an hour on the PS4. But whatever it is, I do my best to make sure it was what I felt I should be doing.

Because I’m going to be dead soon.

Over the years I’ve been accumulating dead friends. A couple of them killed themselves, some of them were much older than I was, some of them misused drugs or alcohol or both, and some died relatively young of terrible diseases or accidents. Someone I went to high school with died on his motorcycle shortly after graduation when a car hit him on a back road. A very close friend died seven years ago last month; tomorrow, he would have been 66. I still miss that guy every day.  Another friend I started my theatre with died of ovarian cancer probably… 10 years ago? 15? I’m not sure because I can’t find her obit on the internet any more. That alone should tell you how fleeting life is. 

I’ve also got dead relatives. My father died 30 years ago. (Still miss him.) My grandmother died when I was 8. Every single one of my many aunts and uncles are dead, and some of my cousins, too, including my cousin Suzie, who was a dwarf and who was my favorite when I was a boy. My mother is 96, strongly aiming for 97 in September, but in a reasonable amount of time she’ll be dead too. And so will I, and you, and everyone else, too.

So it’s best to appreciate people while they’re here, and to enjoy every day possible.

I think often about death because I also ask people what they think happens after we die. When I asked my father in 1992, shortly before he died from cancer, he instructed me about ancient history. “When Pharaoh wanted a pyramid built, he invented Ra the Sun God so those guys would build it for him.” Solid practical insight from an atheist. My friend who would have been 66 tomorrow believed that variations of himself would live on in the multiverse. Meanwhile, ironically, my practicing-Catholic dating partner doesn’t believe in an afterlife, while my non-practicing Lutheran self does. 

I’m generally healthy, generally well-situated, and generally filled with joy. I don’t know why. I certainly have known plenty of depressed or depressive people; I’ve just rarely been one of them. When my wife of many years left me last year, I was sad for a bit, but it didn’t last. I wish her well, we’re parting amicably, and I’m very happy with a woman I’ve been dating seriously for five months now. (In fact, my soon-to-be ex-wife said to me recently, “I’m glad you’re dating. I want you to be happy.”) Life goes on (until it doesn’t). You just have to remember to do your best to treat people as well as you can. It’s true what they say:  You get back what you put out. So if you put out positive things, you’re generally more likely to get positive things.

I don’t know that I always knew this, but I know it now.

Via Twitter, I know a writer dealing with perhaps the worst affliction to get:  amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka ALS, aka “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” It’s hard to imagine anything worse than gradually losing complete control of your own body and getting locked into it — unless you’re lucky enough either to die first or to take action on your directive and get a friendly attendant to end your life for you. Every choice associated with ALS seems horrible. And yet:  This writer has said that now she values every moment, has a new book coming out, is traveling, and is starting another book. Good for her.

And, no. There’s nothing wrong with me, yet. I plan to be here as long as I can — even though I have little literal control over that. The most you can do is increase your odds:  eat right, exercise, and don’t be an idiot on the freeway or the slopes. And so that’s what I’m focused on:  increasing my odds, and putting every day to best use.

Because while death may be around the corner, in the meantime there’s life.

My life as a publisher

Sunday, April 10th, 2022

The pages of the next issue of Woof just weren’t flowing well. On some pages, the graphics were bumping up harshly against other graphics. On other pages, whole vistas of white space held just a tiny carryover paragraph of text — what would fill the rest? The freshly transferred press-apply lettering (ah, Letraset) was peeling in more than one place, and I suddenly had a flash of insight that I’d completely forgotten to mention more than one important thing — like my playwriting workshop! — that was relevant to one story and that presented a real signup opportunity! I also wondered: Was it permissible on one page to run a list of names of subscribers whose addresses I’d lost? “Have you seen these people?” might be the headline, in the hopes that others would know them and would contact them.

As I paged through the mockups, all of them lovingly crafted by hand, with rubber-cemented columns of type and illustrations, and lots of Liquid Paper applied, I wondered if I could fit in any more comics from Rich Roesberg. I’d already used the good ones, but I still had that white space, and I could dig further into my archives of “just in case” illos from him.

I wasn’t even sure the pages were flowing correctly. Where was page 20? I turned to the small staff helping me — two other people I now can’t identify — and shrieked, “Who laid this out?!?!?”

The answer, of course, was ME.

Then I woke up, my heart thrumming, my mind churning, scrambling desperately to figure out what I was going to write to fill that white space.

Gradually, as light started filtering into my bedroom from the sun rising outside, it dawned on me that there was no new issue of Woof, and that there would be no new issue of Woof, and that there had been no new issue of Woof in more than 40 years.

My publishing empire was no more.

It had started in my adolescence, with Amazing Comix, a fanzine about comics that I published out of my parents’ basement using a hectographic printing system. “Printing system” while, technically true, is putting it kindly. With a hectograph “machine” (ha!), one would create an original on a master, carefully imprint that negatively on a tray of jelly, then lay each individual copy of a blank piece of paper onto that tray of jelly, pulling up a positive imprint. This is a process still used for making temporary tattoos, it’s long obsolete for printing on paper, but, in its heyday was, as Wikipedia notes, useful for printing “small runs of school classroom test papers, church newsletters and science fiction fanzines.” I don’t remember from which of those sources I learned this process, but somehow I got a hold of a hectograph kit and started printing fanzines. The hectograph was cheap and easy, yes, and thrilling as a way to launch the publishing empire of a kid in the 1970s. It was also messy, printed everything in lavender ink, and would sometimes leave globs of jelly on the pages, which I’d carefully try to pluck or scrape off.

You may wonder, “Why use hectograph and not, say, Xeroxing?” Well, in the mid-1970s, black-and-white Xerox copying cost 25 cents a copy. That was in 1970s money, when a full 32-page comic book in glorious color on newsprint with a glossy cover cost between 25¢ and 35¢. Xerox copying cost the equivalent of $1.25 a page. (I share this as a reminder for those who think that prices go only up. I also share that the first computer printer I bought, which printed on 4″-wide strips of what was like aluminum foil, circa 1980 cost an astonishing $800. Nowadays you can get a printer for about free because they just want to sell you the ink.

I don’t remember how many issues of Amazing Comix I put out, and no, I’m not going to look right now, and I don’t know how many copies, either. Given the tedium of the process, I’m thinking I might have done 100, which makes my constant monitoring of the fanzine history sites on Facebook, in the hopes that one of my old publications will turn up, ludicrous. Still, I did have readers, and contributors, and I may have done six or seven issues. I can’t remember. Somewhat fewer than 10. My contributors and included writers and artists around the U.S., and England (!), and so did my readers. One of the readers who became a contributor was a gentleman named Richard F., who was active military, and who came to visit me when he was on leave. There we were, in my parents’ basement, me at age 14 and he at around 27, were he gifted me with $40 to help with publishing some upcoming issues; when I demurred, he said that if I didn’t take it, he’d just “spend it on whores.”

So you see, publishing was an educational endeavor for me, too.

Prior to the publishing wing of my enterprises, I had started a comic-book retailing company, Dungeon Ventures (again, because it was run out of my parents’ basement — and thank God for basements!). I had talked a local bank into giving me a checking account by lying to them, saying it was a “Christmas club account.” A Christmas club account was where someone would save money to buy Christmas presents at the end of the year (and, I add, with the insight of an adult, the bank would gather interest without paying any out). Once I had the “Christmas club account,” I ordered checks in the name of Dungeon Ventures. Now that I was a publisher, I had business cards made with my name on them, the company name, and “Publishers/Retails in Comics.” The card is a blur of mixed messages — bad company name, having nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons, with which it was constantly confused; publishers and retailers; poor branding — but, still, it screamed “legitimacy” when your main facial feature was acne.

At that point, while in high school and running my comic-book business (now with a slightly older business partner I’d met through the pages of a comic-book letters column) and working 20 hours a week at The Atlantic City Press taking classified ads over the phone and gloriously exploring the world of teenage girls, I started adding titles to the publishing house. I don’t remember the second one (wow) or if it even got off the ground, but I do remember the next three. One was Axes, a rock-and-roll newspaper with professional newspaper printing and actual distribution and ad sales that was distributed around southern New Jersey, mostly to record shops and clubs. One was the aforementioned Woof, which was a Xeroxed (!) humor publication, and one was the ill-fated Screw Iran Coloring Book, for which Rolling Stone rejected my ad buy because they thought I was trying to capitalize on the hostage situation in Iran — an understandable but questionable ethical leap from them, considering the flagrantly illegal sex-and-drugs ware they were admitting into their ad pages. For the full story of the Screw Iran Coloring Book, look here, then here. (And if you want to order one because they’re highly collectible, let me know, because I’ve got a few left — and Dan Stumpf, I still need to send you yours!)

Axes lasted three issues, not being the first new publication to collapse due to advertising and distribution problems. I also did several comics catalogs, cheerily illustrated by Roesberg (who remains my favorite cartoonist) and in my files somewhere. And then I stop publishing at some point during college, when to work writing and editing for the Gannett newspaper chain, then became a copy editor and production editor at the not-cleverly renamed Press of Atlantic City, then moved out here to Los Angeles to go to grad school.

Where I re-emerged as a publisher, putting out 75 issues of The L.A.. Gang Bang, a ‘zine about the personal lives of four transplants (myself and my roommates) to Los Angeles. In all the hubbub of the 1990s zine craze, we got somewhat known for it, were frequently reviewed in other publications, had hundreds (hundreds!) of subscribers and readers in the U.S. and Europe, got written up in the Los Angeles Times, and didn’t get a book deal out of it (as others did) because I was either distracted or stupid. Or both.

The L.A. Gang Bang wrapped up 28 years ago and, with it, my publishing career. I did put together seven or 10 bound copies of samples from my work, which I called Wrench and distributed to close friends and family members, but that also was in the neighborhood of 30 years ago. And we self-published our programs at Moving Arts during the 10 years I was artistic director (with intros written by me), but I stepped down 21 years ago.

After all this time, there’s something I miss about being a publisher. I loved putting together the issues. I loved going to the mailbox and seeing what subscriptions had arrived, and what letters of comments, and how much money. I loved the smell of it all, even of the funky hectograph ink and jelly. Even after awakening, fully awakening, I thought: Maybe I could do another issue of Woof. The 40th anniversary next issue. In time for my 60th. Because I miss publishing.

And then I realized that my publishing career has actually continued. Because I’ve been publishing this blog since 2004.

Reading through

Tuesday, September 28th, 2021

My house is a cornucopia of books. And like a legendary cornucopia, it is always filled to overflowing: Just as soon as I’ve finished a book, more arrive. Either I order them online, find myself while walking my dogs picking up tomes from the Little Free Libraries liberally scattered around my neighborhood, occasionally getting them gifted to me, or buying them from bookstores. Bookstores especially are Venus fly traps for me — I have to work to avoid them, even the little ones in airports and bus terminals and the like, because once I’ve stepped inside, I’m sure to be walking out with more books.

We have bookcases throughout the house, and they are all stuffed with books. I do read these books, by the way. Just not always as soon as I’ve acquired them. A friend told me that when we’d had a party here at some point, someone stood back looking at some of our bookcases and said almost to himself, “I wonder how many of these he’s actually read.” And my wife responded, “All of them.” “Really?” “Really.”

Well, yes. Because those bookcases are downstairs. Upstairs I have two bookcases of books I haven’t read yet. But plan to.

The Japanese have a word for the endless accumulating of books that you intend to read but haven’t yet and maybe never will. Whatever that word is, it applies to me. A few years ago, when I was out of town at a conference with a friend and colleague, we fell into a discussion about books because I recognized David McCullough (!) at a table next to us and thanked him for his books and then he joined us at our table. Of course, I bought McCullough’s latest book directly from him (the one about the Wright brothers, from which I learned a lot*), and had him sign it. That kickstarted the later discussion about books, in which I told my friend that I had 78 books waiting to be read. “You’ll never read them all,” he said. So, ever since, I’ve been making a concerted effort to reduce the number of unread books I have, the books waiting in the queue, even while new ones arrive. (No thanks to Julian Barnes and Jonathan Franzen, and the other living authors I follow who keep coming out with new books!)

(*including about the vagaries of fate, the development of the airplane being immediately traceable to Wilbur Wright lying bedridden for months after a hockey injury, which afforded him the time to study birds and their flight from his window.)

Today I finished The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which I heartily endorse, and so, just before turning in for the night and after reading the requisite comic book or two, I went to get one of the unread books. I scanned the shelves to see what might interest me right now (generally, I look for a book unlike the one I’ve just read, in this case a novel set in India and the Pacific Ocean) and came across A Tale of Love and Darkness by the Israeli writer Amos Oz. This had been on my Christmas list one year, and my wife had filled the request for me, but I hadn’t read it yet. A memoir by a superb writer seemed like a great idea for right now.

I wondered how long I’d had this book.

It might’ve been four or five years since that Christmas.

Probably more like five.

I looked in the indicia to check.

2003. I’d had this new book almost eighteen years. Waiting to be read. In that timeframe, my youngest had gone from an infant to a strapping college student running an e-commerce business from my house. In that time, the book had been made into a movie — five years ago — and Amos Oz had died.

But, there’s been progress. I’m now reading the book. And remember the 78 books waiting to be read? I just did a count, and I’m happy to tell you that after five years of great effort, reading about 30 books a year, I’ve got the number of unread books down to just 94.

1 day left for 7 steps

Saturday, June 19th, 2021

My play 7 STEP PROCESS debuted last night, live on Zoom, where it went over better than I ever could have expected. More than 50 people stayed for the live virtual talkback, and flooded the cast and crew with questions and praise, making for an adventurous discussion about just what “theatre” is, especially when the actors have never even met in the same room.

I started writing that play in December precisely with the idea of getting it up on its feet — over Zoom — because not getting to do any theatre was weighing on me. Yes, I was writing all the time, but when you write plays, you want to see them get performed by actors. Plus, I wanted to explore this new medium of doing live theatre online, and turning the proscenium into a small rectangle on people’s computers. What would that be like? Would punch lines still work, in the absence of an audience? Plus plus, I wanted to write about change — because we’re in only the beginning stages of massive cultural and technological change, and not everyone is adapting well. (As we see in the play.)

The second performance starts in under an hour — and we’ve got audience members logging on from across the U.S. and other nations as well (which is thrilling) — but there’s still one more playdate, tomorrow at 3 p.m. Pacific, if you’d like to check it out. Here’s the link.

https://www.eventbrite.com/o/7-step-process-33397834725?fbclid=IwAR2PbSHkgg2cfokOCOIHSrYlN-Rr4CQ0nd1XCP3ZChA9XJWCqlpiV-B_pCk

The end-of-the-month post

Friday, April 30th, 2021

So, no, I can’t end April with only one post. So here we are, with the end-of-the-month post.

I remember the years when I used to post here every day. Maybe I’ll get back to that. If it gives you any comfort* — because I’m sure you no doubt want comforting about what I’m up to — I will tell you that I’ve been very productive during our little global pandemic.

I wrote three full-length plays**, and one of them is headed into production now with an opening targeted for June. (More about that soon.)

I also devoted a lot of time to listening to, and interacting with, and researching even more about, the world’s greatest rock band.*** Time well-spent indeed!

I bought about eleventy-billion more glorious old moldering comic books from the 1940s through 1980s and carefully curated them right into my collection.

And I’ve been doing a lot-lot-lot of reading, and I’ve been working on some exciting projects and initiatives at my company, and I’ve even occasionally had friends over to sit in the back yard and smoke cigars and drink bourbon and talk about writing and the theatre.

And somewhere in all that, I went and got vaccinated. I hope you do that too, if you haven’t already.

And we’ve had lots of repair work done around the house and yard, even up until today, and even more scheduled, and… ugh.

I thought I’d just catch you up somewhat obliquely on some of these things before May hits us smack in the face in the morning. And at some point — perhaps this weekend? — I’ll write one of the two longish posts that have been floating around in my head for literally months now, one of which I’ve actually written notes for, and one of which I’ve taken a photo for. The former one involves the Bee Gees, while the latter one involves Philip K. Dick and Adam Strange.

Stay tuned!

* It actually gives me comfort, as someone raised very German Lutheran, and therefore tied to work. Work is my joy. My people, when we die, say, “I wish I’d worked more.”

** When asked how many of his plays were full-length, Edward Albee famously replied, “All of them.” (Even his 10-page ones.) But in this particular case, I mean a running time of 75-120 minutes.

*** Pere Ubu, of course! There’s always something great going on over here!

The post I was going to write

Sunday, April 4th, 2021

This isn’t the post I was going to write.

The post I was going to write was going to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and would be thematically unified.

But this isn’t that.

When I was at the gym earlier, I had a different post in mind to be writing right now. But even as I think about that, what I’m really thinking is this:  Dear God, it felt glorious to be back at the gym! Hooray for reopened gyms! No this wasn’t the gym that had shit in the showers  — I quit that gym — this is the new gym, new to me and new to everyone, that had to close last year because you-know-why. And now it’s reopened, because you-know-what is subsiding. I was so happy to step across that threshold that if they’d charged a “convenience fee” at the door I just would’ve handed it over. I had a terrific workout, admittedly far superior to the one accomplishable in the setup in my garage, and thanked everybody there on the way out.

The gym’s been open for a week. Why did I wait? Well, on Friday morning, I got the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. The tradeoff:  You only have to go once (perfect for me, because I’m generally impatient), but the reported incidence of side effects is greater. Then, very late Friday night, I started to feel strange. Like, somehow I couldn’t make any sense of what was happening in “Godzilla versus Kong,” and I mean even more than the “plot” and “dialogue.” When the big battle ended with them joining forces against a common enemy — so unexpected! — and I was trundling off to bed, I started shivering hard, and then had a very flu-like not-great time all night, resulting in my not feeling great on Saturday. I don’t think I could even tell you what I did on Saturday. Oh, wait, I finished one game of Civilization VI (playing Trajan) and then immediately started another as Saladin. That was about what I could accomplish.

But today? Today I sprang awake, ready to do stuff! Like:  get over to that gym! Finally put things away, for God’s sake! And write a perhaps-one-day-print-worthy blog entry, something with pith and insight and clever word play. (This is what I aspire to, anyway.)

Four minutes before I got home from my workout, my wife texted me to say that “the painter” that I didn’t know would be coming would be at our house any minute now and did I want to talk to him. I suspected even then that she meant, “Do you want to grill and flambé him?” because that’s how she thinks I go about hiring contractors. That’s not my method at all. I just want to know what we’re getting, what our options are, how long it’ll last and for God’s sake how much it’s going to cost. I did take a liking to Robert, who spent a cool two hours on Easter Sunday detailing for us his 43-year-history as a house painter, starting with his emigration from Korea, then work in Colorado Springs, followed by Texas, and since 1987 Southern California. At age 29, he realized that he needed a wife “to cook and keep house” and so he got married. (At age 25, I got a wife because I liked her company. But people’s reasons vary.) He also volunteered that Koreans are reliable and hard-working. I actually think that many (most?) people are reliable and hard-working irrespective of nationality, but I may be in the minority on this one. Robert (not his birth name) will be getting me a bid, and we’ll see what it looks like.

(At one point, the post I was going to write was a litany of household improvements and repairs. I was already tallying it in my head:  the tree service was $4225, the plumbing was about $2,000, the new dishwasher and sink came in just under $1,000, the new fence will be $8,000 to $15,000, lord knows how much Robert will want… maybe I’m lucky and his kids’ college is already paid for. But I decided that I’d rather not think about it, let alone write about it.) 

Danny from the neighborhood also came over. Danny from the neighborhood is a short solidly built man originally from the nation below us who worked for the studios for years. I’ve been watching in fascination the past two weeks as he erected and stained a new fence on the property across the street. I’ve seen many, many fences in my life, around this country and in others, and Danny’s fence may be the nicest-looking one I’ve seen. So I called him over to give us an estimate on ours. The last bid we got was that $8,000-$15,000 one, and you would be right if you sense my hesitation at contracting that fellow, but it’s immaterial because he never returned our calls afterward anyway. The other unspoken pandemic problem:  finding available contractors. So many people have turned to home improvement as entertainment in lieu of actually going anywhere and doing anything that these guys are booked up.

By the time Robert and Danny left, two-and-a-half hours had slipped by. So it seemed like time to pull out some of that wine we bought last week on that tour of wineries.

Free tip:  If you ever want to get into the habit of spending a lot more money, one great way to go is to finally discover the difference between shitty wine and good wine. Shitty wine can be had for less than ten bucks, and sometimes for as little as two or three bucks. Our local liquor store ran a sale on cases of Spanish wine at $1.99 a bottle because it wasn’t moving, and most of it was corked. That is, after you could even get it open, and that would be with destroying the cork, the wine inside was bad. Meanwhile, the fabulous wine that rolls down your gullet and reminds you that there is love and light in the world, and that other delights await you? That wine costs many multiples of the cheap shitty wine. How do I know that? Because now I’ve bought it. And now that I’ve bought it, it’s already proving difficult going back to the cheap shitty wine.

After that one glass of the delectable pricey wine today, I switched back to water. Really trying to make this bottle last….

After that, I took our two neurotic uncontrollable dogs for a nice long walk. On that walk, I thought a lot about the post I was going to write. Now it was going to be about wine. As I watched the male dog urinate at length on his favorite bush, I wondered if I’d made a mistake sampling really good wine. Just how much was this going to cost me? Were we going to be offering this to guests?  I was balancing these questions against my impulse to go online and order a case of that one red of which we already have only one bottle left!

When the dogs and I got home from our walk and our run, I decided that I didn’t want to think about the wines either and I certainly didn’t want to write about them and that’s when I pulled the water out of the refrigerator.

Next project, after dinner, in this day of projects:  putting hundreds of comic books safely and securely into plastic bags with nice firm acid-free cardboard backings in them, and then organizing them in their storage boxes. Noted:  these boxes of comics have gotten a lot heavier over the past 40 years.  They certainly didn’t weigh this much when I was 18!

And then, because it’s Sunday night and that’s when you’ll find the best auctions ending, going on eBay to source more of these heavy comic books. And then, also because it’s Sunday night and that’s one of my nights to clean up the kitchen, cleaning up the kitchen.

So now it’s almost 11 p.m. and no, I’m not going to write the post I was going to write. What am I going to do? Do some reading, and probably get back to Civilization VI and converting the German cities to my religion; no, Frederick Barbarossa doesn’t like it, but if wants to do something about it, hey, have at it, pal.

Tomorrow’s another day. Maybe then I’ll write the better post.

Book return

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

One night last week, after about 20 years, I had a guy I know over for drinks and cigars and to talk about theatre and writing and books and music.

One thing about the pandemic: Suddenly we both had time. The social options normally available have telescoped down into almost nothing.

We already knew we had some things in common: We’re both playwrights and stage directors, we’ve both done work with Moving Arts (which is how we know each other), I’ve seen his plays and he’s seen mine, we both have wives and kids, and we both live in Burbank — within walking distance of each other. I learned the latter fact some time last year when he told me that whenever he’s at his kids’ school, he sees the fundraising tile my wife and I sponsored some years ago. More recently, he and his wife bought one too, so that’s something else we have in common.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours in my back yard under a glowing patio heater and during half a bottle of bourbon, we took turns shooting references at each other that, yep, the other would actually get. When I compared the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby dynamic with the Edison / Tesla dynamic, both of them revolving around a genius largely unrecognized during his life, he was armed and ready with the tragic details of Tesla’s last years. We shared our admiration for the work of Ayad Akhtar. When we wandered into music, and the role of noise, and John Cage, and I inevitably brought up Pere Ubu, and he offered his love of their songs as songs, and then added Wire, I just about fell over. How often can one find someone equally capable of discussing Marvel comics, brilliant 19th century inventors, particular contemporary playwrights, semi-obscure postpunk bands, the practice of being a writer, Fran Lebowitz, and, especially dozens and dozens of books you’ve read?

What are the odds of this, and with regard to the books in particular? Not to put too fine a point on it, but it takes time to read a book. Most Americans read four books a year. In 2020, I read 33 books; my average is 26 books a year (I just checked; thank you, GoodReads), which I think is pathetic. Although it’s possible to read 100 books a year, distractions like eating and sleeping and other functions get in the way. So finding that you’ve both read Paul Auster and Joan Didion and Julian Barnes and Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and some of the Russians and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and on and on while also having all those other interests in common is a bit… disconcerting. Wasn’t the final grandmaster chess tournament in “Queen’s Gambit” like this?

It did turn out, though, that there were two books I’d read and heartily endorsed that he hadn’t read, and two that he swore by that I hadn’t read. The next day, still thrilled and knocked off-kilter by the experience of having someone walk over to my house and have that sort of conversation with me over bourbon and cigars for almost three hours, I went on Amazon and sent him the two books I love that he hadn’t read: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

He texted me two days later to thank me and to say that he’d already gobbled down the Barnes book, adding a few salient points about it. And then the other day, when I opened my front door to see why my annoying dogs were raising high holy hell this time, I found a package from Amazon on my own doorstep: He had sent me the two I hadn’t read, pictured above.

After I read these, we’ll have four more books we can discuss. And this time, we won’t wait 20 years. We’ve already set the date.

Against self-expression

Saturday, 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.