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


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Noted

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2023

Like probably every writer ever, I make little notes on scraps of paper about things I’ve thought of, or thought about, or overheard, that I thought would be useful later.

Useful in a play. Or an essay. Or a blog post or even just a Tweet.

And then, again like probably almost every writer ever, I lose track of these notes. They wind up in my car, or on my nightstand, or if I’m lucky on my desk in the writing room, or if I’m unlucky in pants pockets that wind up in the washing machine.

Sometimes, it’s months or even years later when I find them. And then comes the real work: trying to figure out what they mean. The Egyptologist Champollion had an easier time figuring out hieroglyphics than I have with some of these.

One recent note reads, “Last time he got his line wet.” Now, see, with that one I’ve helpfully added “The last fishing trip” to remind me that this was a friend’s story of the last time an old fella got taken out on the ice for a final fishing trip. What I liked about it was that phrase, “it was the last time he got his line wet,” and I figured it would be useful in the play I’m writing.

Another note says, “Leonardo.” Not having anything to say about DiCaprio, I know that’s about da Vinci — but I don’t know what it’s supposed to prompt me to remember.

(OH, holy cow, I do now! I was floating my personal observation that the supposed polymath Leonardo was actually a genius in only one field — the arts — and a disaster in others, such as armaments. Which tied in with a discussion about Elon Musk, who hubristically decided that because he’d succeeded in one or two places he could succeed in all.)

“Publisher v. platform.” That one I know — it’s for a little commentary I made about Twitter’s difficulties, which might lead me to write about it.

Others say:

  • “circulator pump”
  • “a period of hard choices”
  • “not just returning to ‘the good old days’ where they were”
  • “black dress shoes”
  • “PREHISTORIC CREATURES with a vicious bite”
  • “Super Nice Hostility”
  • and so forth

Today, determined yet again to manage a cleaner desk and going through papers and sorting or trashing or shredding them, I came across a folded sheet of notepad paper with columns of numbers, and three letters across the top: “L,” “M,” and “D.”

Then I looked at the date: last September.

And I realized it was the score for a game of 500 Rummy with my son and my mother.

Looks like I won.

A death with dignity

Monday, January 2nd, 2023

Went to the gym today. Not as crowded as I’d feared / hoped. “Feared” because when it’s packed and you’re standing in line for equipment or weights, your workout can take twice as long. “Hoped” because I’m always rooting for the new people who arrive at the gym every January armed with determination. As for me, an hour at the gym put paid to a lower backache so profound it was cranking my hip around as well. 

When I got home I found out on the Internet that Cai Emmons, a novelist and playwright I’d met through Twitter a few years ago, had ended her life with dignity. After just under two years of fighting ALS, she’d announced in advance that today would be her last day. 

Here’s the email from her that some of us woke up to this morning:

Farewell

Dear Friends and Readers,

Happy New Year! I feel an unexpected optimism about what 2023 might bring. I’ve seen promising signs recently of the backlash of love against hate, and I think that backlash is likely to grow. No one can say for sure, but my fingers are crossed.

It is January 1st, 2023 and I am planning to depart from life as I’ve known it through death with dignity on January 2, 2023. I have had a rewarding life and I love everyone who has been a part of it. Remember me with joy.

My body has become so weak that I have lost agency over my life and need help for most activities. We all have a line we draw in the sand regarding how much helplessness we can take, and I have reached mine.

I do not dread death. In an unexpected way I have come to look forward to it. I have no idea what awaits me–my only regret is that I won’t be able to share it with you.

The timing of my demise is odd because my career is currently in an upswing. Since 2018 I have published five books, and I am completing a new one now. There is interest in turning my blog posts into a book; a Hollywood producer is interested in optioning three of my books; and a documentary film is being made about me. It is not a bad way to go out, though I regret that I won’t live to see these efforts fully realized.

I can also see from my perch on the cusp of death that no amount of worldly success matters in the end. It is such a cliché thing to say so, but the thing that means the most now is human connection, friendship, and love in all its manifestations. I have a feeling that I’ll be returning to haunt a number of people–in a good way. So be on the lookout for me!

I encourage you to keep reading my books and to look for a new book (as yet untitled)–or books–from me down the line. My blog will be active until my death, and it can be found on my website www.caiemmonsauthor.comMediumFacebook, and Twitter.

So, farewell all, and thank you for the various ways you have supported me. Whether I’ve met you in person or not, I feel entangled with you all.

Much love,
Cai

I want to acknowledge here the legislators in the state of Oregon who 25 years ago wrote Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act into law, which allows terminally ill people to end their lives sensibly. I wish it were federal law, but I’m glad it exists in at least some places.

I didn’t know her well — not at all really, just through exchanges on Twitter — but I also have to note the clarity that her terminal diagnosis seems to have given her, and the bravery with which she approached her final days. All those words written these past two years while dying! And all the warmth that flowed through her interviews and her postings.  

Seems like a good way to go.

Ah, that special feeling…

Sunday, November 27th, 2022

… that comes from two hours of work on your new play that result in exactly one new page of writing.

It was Dorothy Parker who said, “I hate writing. I love having written.”

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!