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


Blog

Day one

January 1st, 2023

Especially for southern California in our era of creeping climate dread, this will sound like apostasy, but: Okay, I’m good with the rain now. It can stop now. That’s quite enough for now. Thank you. Especially since some of my friends at last night’s party said, “Uh, Lee, you’ve got a problem here….” and pointed me to the water dripping onto the couch and floor from my downstairs ceiling. They wanted to know what I was going to do about it. Here’s what I wasn’t going to do: Go out in the driving rain, clamber up onto the sheer roof and do anything up there at about 11 o’clock and especially not when I’d already had a few drinks into me. So what will I do? Call a roofer. Seems like the thing to do.

Today I’m cleaning up from last night’s party, in stages. Just don’t feel like doing it all at once. So: Let the dogs out, and carry some recycling out to the bin while doing that. Walking through a room and tossing some trash. Fixing breakfast and dumping half-finished drinks into the sink while it’s cooking. Yesterday I said to my son, “You want to know what I’m doing tomorrow? Nothing. As in, No work. Nothing.” So that’s my approach for day one of the new year. Just lots of reading, and some writing, and doing the mega sudoku online.

Not the worst way to start the year.

The night before the night before the new year

December 30th, 2022

On the night before the night before the new year, I’m not working on my new play, and I’m not working on anything in particular, but I am thinking about all the things I’ll be working on in 2023, and about all the things I did in 2022, and about what I’m going to say about those things here, and what I’m going to forget to say.

Once thing I did in 2022, effective last week, was get a divorce. That wasn’t something I had ever foreseen doing. It wasn’t even something I was eager to do. But it was something that became inevitable, and I’m glad that my ex-wife and I were able to do it amicably. I still care about her, and I imagine I will always care about her, and I certainly don’t want anything damaging almost 40 years of almost entirely positive memories of our relationship. She said pretty much the same, but more eloquently: “We’ll always be family, you and I just won’t be a unit any more.” That’s pretty good, and I’m hanging onto that. Although, honestly, it takes something out of Christmas when 40% of that always-family is in one state, and 40% is in another state, and 20% is in Korea.

Speaking of Korea, one thing that happened in 2022 was that my son, my U.S. Army son, got stationed to Korea. Good for him. During Covid, he and his fellow soldiers spent a lot of time quarantined in barracks first in Georgia and then outside Seattle; judging from his texts and photos, Korea looks more enjoyable.

In 2022, I started a play that I’m still deep into. Usually I write one or two a year; this year it’s not even the one, but at least it’s a lengthy one and I think it’s a good one.

And I read 28 books, some good…

(The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy; The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston; both of Elizabeth Strout’s exceptional novels about Olive Kitteridge)…

…some of them terrible: (The End of Men, by Christina Sweeney-Baird, seemingly written by a naive but eager 10-year-old; and, astonishingly, Falconer, a true dud of a novel written by John Cheever of all people)…

…and some of them in-between, most spectacularly A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara which at 900 pages is intermittently badly written and frequently laughably over-the-top in cataloging the tribulations of its hero, who manages to avoid only the plague of frogs, but which is at other times compelling and authentic, so much so that one wonders if two different people wrote different sections, or if the author has a split personality.

In 2022, I went places.

I went to England, and not just London this time. London, yes, where I saw a middling play with some terrific actors, but also Birmingham where I got to meet a good Internet friend in the flesh and where he and his wife and I stayed up ’til 3 in the morning drinking wine and talking in an evening I never wanted to end, these being good smart interesting people. (I knew I was in the right company when I went into the bedroom where they kindly put me up and I scanned the bookshelves and saw that I’d read fully three-quarters of the same books, and that the others were on my to-read list.) And then we made a pilgrimage to Canterbury to see the world’s greatest rock band, Pere Ubu, and then from there I went to Brighton and spent a few days in the lovely entertaining company of another good friend who very kindly devoted an inordinate amount of her time to showing me around a fascinating city I never would have visited but for her.

I also went to San Diego for the annual Comic-Con, and also to San Diego for a much smaller comics fest, and to Atlanta with a beautiful woman, and to New York to see clients and friends, and to New Jersey to see family and friends, and to Hawaii (a place I’d never wanted to visit, it being bereft of metropolis, but a place I really enjoyed nonetheless), and to St. Augustine, Florida on business with the added bonus of seeing my beautiful and smart daughter (and where, to her delight, we got to visit the Museum of Torture, which left me wincing, and also a 17th century Spanish army hospital, which also left me wincing) and to Denver with a good friend to see a show and drink some drinks, and probably other places too that now slip my mind.

In 2022, I turned 60. It was as much a surprise to me as it seemed to everyone who proclaimed nicely, “Sixty! Really? You look so young! I never would have guessed!” (And I don’t even pay these people.) I don’t know how I could be 60 when I still feel 34 inside, although every morning the mirror is happy to educate me on this subject.

My mother called me last week to say how much she enjoyed the Christmas gift I sent her (a Hickory Farms meat-and-cheese selection, she being happily a meat-and-cheese-eating lady of German extraction), and I said, “Mom, I’m 60! Can you believe I’m 60?”

She said, “Well, how old am I???”

I said, “Mom, you’re 97.”

“Ohhh, wow!”

Exactly.

She also told me that her leg hurt. “What did you do?”

“Oh, I had a shot of whiskey. Now it feels fine.”

Right-o. I come from good stock. The sort of stock where everything’s fine, we’ll all be okay, and no one should make a fuss.

And that’s my expectation of 2023 in general. Sure, I have my goals, and I also have my plans. But 60 years have taught me that you can control only so much, and that you can control almost nothing except yourself, and then not even enough of that. Still, one way or another, in general, everything’s fine and we’ll all be okay.

So: 2023. Here’s to it.

Dreams from this morning

December 17th, 2022

In the first, I’m with two other people who are waiting to work on some project with O., a woman I haven’t seen in person since 1995. She’s got some sort of scientific lab out in the woods — the sort you’d see on television or in a horror movie — and we’re now just inside, waiting in an industrial corridor outside a locked door that will lead farther inside. Finally, impatient as ever, I try the door and find that it’s now unlocked. I open it and call out, “Hello? Hello? O., are you ready? We’re coming in,” and I and my companions start to head down some steps into what looks like a large basement complex and see a figure — but it turns out to be a pizza delivery guy, who is leaving through a separate door farther back. Was O. waiting for the food to arrive until inviting us in? Or going to eat it before admitting us?

In the second, my friend B. has had surgery. Someone (I think his wife) has told me it’s gone well, but not to tell anyone. Now I’m in a recovery room of some sort, the type where you might find victims of a disaster who’ve gotten triage, and it’s filled with such people and their moans, and a woman in the far corner with a bandaged head says, “I just wish we had news about B.” I say, “Well, he’s out of surgery—“ and the woman sitting on my left, I think my friend Amy, nudges me to keep quiet, so I add, “— but that was days ago. My information is old. Sorry.” 

2:47 a.m.

December 1st, 2022

Yep, still awake.

And despite all attempts to be otherwise.

Sure wish I didn’t have to be up at 7.

By the way, I’m posting this in bed from my iPhone. Because why not?

Ah, that special feeling…

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.”

Thanks / giving

November 26th, 2022

I think the true meaning of Thanksgiving is being thankful that:

  1. You’ve finally finished preparing this gigantic meal
  2. You’ve finally finished cleaning up after the gigantic meal
  3. You’ve finally finished the turkey leftovers

One should also be thankful that one’s made-from-scratch apple pie turned out well enough that everyone — your son, your guests, and even you yourself — ate it and expressed vast gratitude for it, even though one knows that it in no way resembled the way it was depicted in glorious technicolor photos online of desserts baked by people who can actually bake.

Making the apple pie, from scratch, including the dough. Looks casual, but actually stressful. Not audible: The brilliant Pere Ubu repertoire playing in the background, played on a setting I call “Invigorate.”


Something else to be thankful for: that the after-meal screening of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” delivered everything one could wish for. I’d seen the movie only once — when it was released, in 1987 — and lobbied hard for screening it now, over my Gen Z son’s objections that it was “some movie from the 80s” and “looked stupid” and a friend’s hard press for some indy film starring James Urbaniak the trailer of which made it look, to me, painful to behold in the way of “trying too hard to be clever.” I’d seen “Planes,” etc. only the once, as I said, but I remembered it as pure joy with big laughs, and my son had never seen it, and neither had a good friend in attendance, and no, neither I nor our guests wanted to watch the movie about concentration camps or whatever it was that my son had flagged for our holiday enjoyment. Apologies to the friend who informed us that he’d seen “Planes,” etc. “five or six times already” — sincerely, buddy, sorry — but luckily “Planes, etc.” held up well and delivered as promised and was loads of fun, with everyone laughing big laughs, including the offspring and the assembled guests and me. Even though, I hasten to add: The 1980s were filled with truly wonderful music, but not one iota of that is in this movie, the soundtrack of which resorts to precisely the worst auditory excrescence of that era, leaving everything sounding like a terrible collage of Herbie Hancock, MC Hammer, and simpering men begging women to return to them. Otherwise: a fine, fun movie.

Thanksgiving, as I’ve discovered by hosting it more than once, is a costly affair. Not in money (that’s the least of it), but in time. All in, it took up 14 hours, from pre-ordering elements of it to two supermarket visits, prep, cooking, eating it, games-playing, the movie, and cleanup. But it’s worth it. It’s good to have family and friends ready to participate — in fact, it’s good to have family and friends, period. And it’s good to give things away, including your time, to people you love and enjoy.

Although next year, I might just take them all out to dinner.

Mr. Peters

November 22nd, 2022

Astonishingly, I went to sleep last night at 9:37 p.m.

And I don’t mean just to bed — I mean to sleep. I looked at my iPhone before drifting off and it read 9:37.

Usually, I go to sleep around 12:30 a.m., sleep for 46 minutes, then wake up and think about what I’m going to do until I’m finally able to fall asleep again hours later. But this time I felt like I was one of those parents in a comic strip that the teens make fun of for going to bed so early.

And not just going to bed so early. Falling asleep at 9:37 meant I’d be back up very early. Which I am. I woke up at 4:37 a.m. After having a dream about Mr. Peters.

Who is Mr. Peters?

Mr. Peters is the name I gave to a character I was writing in my sleep. His original working name, in my dream, was The Man Who Pees Anywhere.

Yes, I was writing a sketch comedy show in my sleep. And in that dream, I was making up a list of characters I thought I could play. One was The Older Man Who Yells at Younger People. (Perhaps based on a friend.) And another was The Man Who Pees Anywhere.

In the sketches with The Man Who Pees Anywhere — later dubbed in the same dream, as I noted, as Mr. Peters or, sometimes, “Mr. P.” — people would be talking to him and he’d just turn slightly, whip it out, and urinate wherever. In one scene I imagined, students in a college hallway would be speaking with him, he’d turn his back to them slightly, and he’d start urinating into a hallway trash can. The young woman would be appalled, but to everyone else it would be business as usual: “That’s just our Mr. P!”

In my dream, I was sitting on the floor of my parents’ house, circa the 1970s when I was still a boy, and mapping out situations for The Man Who Pees Anywhere. The other three men — younger than I am, being in their 30s, and two of them based on guys I’m in a meeting with tomorrow (well, today), and one of them being a guy I know who was actually in a performing comedy group — were reliving their glory days of several years ago when evidently they were already sketch comedy sensations. They had memes and t-shirts and videos and everything. I just had the back of a piece of construction paper and my ideas.

Originally, we were just putting together one show. Then I said, “Let’s do six. That’s how many you need to pitch HBO.”

They didn’t want to do six. In fact, I’m not sure they wanted to do anything except relive those past successes.

Another thing I said was, “Have you seen The Kids in the Hall? We can be funnier than them — easy!”

But I was unable to convince them, and then I got stuck trying to come up with a third great character for myself, and instead kept spinning on other places where The Man Who Pees Anywhere might relieve himself, thus reliving my own past successes (albeit much more recent), and then it was 4:37 and I woke up.

And went and peed where one should, in the bathroom.

Anniversaries

October 31st, 2022

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the founding of my theatre, and today is my 35th wedding anniversary.

The theatre company, Moving Arts, is going as strong as ever. As for the marriage, it should be legally ended in the next 60 days. So: a somewhat mixed pair of anniversaries. And with both of them right on top of each other for decades, you can see why this season, of Halloween and the night before, has always rung so loud for me. In fact, my wife and I not only got married on Halloween, our wedding was a big costume party with about 200 guests in all sorts of masquerades.

Back to the theatre company:  I remember when our 5th anniversary seemed like such a huge accomplishment. We had a 5th birthday party, and rented out a restaurant, and had shirts made and everything. There were all sorts of way stations we set up in the restaurant where you could try games of chance or get your fortune read or whatever, all as lures to spend more money at our birthday fundraiser. It was insane good fun.

For another anniversary (the 20th, I think), we took over the old Silent Movie theatre on Fairfax and remounted our very first plays for one night only, then had cake and drinks in the courtyard out back.

But somehow, despite the doggedness we showed right from the beginning, when Moving Arts’ anniversary rolls around it still surprises me. “Thirty? Wow!” For our 5th birthday somebody had the good idea of doing a mini documentary or series of interviews or something, and one of our resident producers said there that we were in it for the long haul. She was right. (And I hope we have that tape somewhere….)

Re the other anniversary:  My wife and I separated in July of last year when she went to Florida and decided to stay. We’ve been working on the divorce in fits and starts since then, with me getting waylaid emotionally or getting pulled away by business, and she suffering through the death of first her father, then her mother. But we’ve kept it friendly throughout, and we’re still friends. That’s the way it should be. This morning I awoke to a text from her that showed one of our wedding photos, with the two of us in the 17th century royal court costumes we wore to get married, and the note “Still best wedding ever. 3 terrific kids and three decades of life experiences. To us. Happy Halloween, my friend.” And a heart emoticon. That was nice. (I did not point out that it’s been four decades of life experiences; at a certain stage, no one appreciates that sort of reminder.)

On October 15th, I celebrated a new kind of anniversary:  nine months of dating my sensational girlfriend. We’re both busy working professionals with many responsibilities: She’s a nurse practitioner of nursing who works full-time plus has her own practice, plus a 3-year-old son, while I’m kept busy with my company, my playwriting workshop, and my own writing. But somehow in those nine months we’ve gone roller skating, miniature golfing, to the movies, and taken three trips together and shared many laughs and a lot of love. I’m just crazy about her, and she about me, and anyone can see it.

So, 30 and 35 years later, the future looks bright. Moving Arts has a new and better home and many terrifically talented people attached, and my ex and I are still friends and still care about each other and still text or talk regularly, sharing laughs. One thing is clear: She will be very hard to replace at charades.

I’m looking forward to more anniversaries of all sorts.

Where no man has gone before

October 10th, 2022

Y’know what? I’m not too proud to announce my absolute enduring love of William Shatner.

Shatner was a big part of the twin poles of my moral and ethical upbringing, those signposts being “Star Trek” on one side and Marvel comics on the other. I’m not sure I realized just how much my entire belief system was built atop these two pop-culture foundations, but reading Sapiens last year made it all clear. Sometimes, when you apply the animal/vegetable/mineral quiz, you realize you are undeniably bauxite. I didn’t want to belong to the church of liberal humanism — of higher expectations, in a belief that humanity can and should do better, in the way promulgated by both “Star Trek” and those great Lee/Kirby Marvel comics, both of which showed us that people of different races and even different species could work together for the common good, both of which showed us what was right and what was wrong, and both of which called upon us to be our better selves — but I do.

And so this is why I bought a ticket to see Sunday’s “Shatnerfest” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, so I could see the great man in person, even if it meant sitting through three of his middling (or worse) low-budget indie features of the 1970s.

Yes, sure, three low-rent William Shatner movies in a row. But then: William Shatner.

For the record:

“Kingdom of the Spiders” (1977) is one of the better “nature-gone-wild” horror movies of its era and, I think, of all time, and Shatner is honest-to-God impressive in it. He’s in his mid-40s, and looking fit and younger than his age, as he rides horses, ropes a steer, leaps around, and combats about a million actual live tarantulas. He’s witty and charming in the movie when it’s called for, he’s an action hero when needed, and he’s a good-looking roguish lover before Harrison Ford patented the character. Watching this movie allows you a glimpse into an alternative universe where William Shatner had a very different career.

“The Devil’s Rain” (1975) features Shatner in a supporting role, as both a 17th century reformed devil-worshipper and a modern-day combatant who loses his soul to the devil. The movie stars Ernest Borgnine and a bunch of other faded stars and soon-to-be’s, including Tom Skerritt and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him John Travolta. But it’s dull in the extreme, and, well, I drank a tall-boy beer during this one and fell asleep, safe in the knowledge that I was missing nothing. (You try staying awake for six straight hours of not-great 50-year old movies!)

Finally, “Impulse” (1974) is bad. Bad, bad, bad, in a way we once associated with drive-in movies later relegated to channel Z after midnight. It’s bad, but it’s not dull. The twin delights are Shatner as a ladies’ man who is also a demented serial killer (!!!) and a snotty pre-adolescent girl determined to foil his plans. No effort was made in making this a good movie. It was shot in 15 days (12 of them with The Shat) and for about nine bucks, but took in $4 million at the box office, making for a very good time for the director and the producers. And, judging by the audience Sunday, for audience members like me found it highly entertaining and howlingly funny.)

Then: William Shatner came out.

Shatner is 91 years old. I know other people in their 90s, and while I find them impressive in their own way, they haven’t been global pop-culture icons for going on 60 years, and they haven’t recorded albums and written novels and memoirs, and they for God’s sake have not gone up in space at age 90. They’re also not the sort of raconteur who can off-the-cuff keep an audience engaged for 45 minutes of freewheeling conversational fun without note cards and while doing lots of funny back-and-forth with the crowd.

Yes, I know The Shat has a reputation for being “difficult” (whatever that means), but I don’t care. I’ve never been called upon to make a TV show or a movie with him, and I never will be. I rely on Shatner for entertainment value, and he always delivers. Whatever he’s in, and whether he’s good in it, terrific in it, or just plain awful, he’s always always always watchable — unlike some highly regarded actors who get up their own backsides sometimes.

While I realize that William Shatner’s primary influence on my life is in playing a character he is not, I also credit him for his creativity and for his incredible drive, even at this advanced age. He is an inspiration — even to himself. One of the stories he shared Sunday was this one: When, last year, before setting sail for outer space courtesy of Jeff Bezos and earning his own “NBC News Special Report” on that spaceflight, he was given a last-minute chance while the ship was still on the gantry to change his mind and get out. He thought about it, he said… until his inner voice reminded him, “But I’m Captain Kirk!” The only course of action was onward and upward.

Shatner also said that, at age 91, he knows he’ll die soon. “Like…” he said, “in 20 or 30 years.”

Make it so.

Fail mail

October 10th, 2022

Good morning, happy Monday, and allow me to once again inveigh against postal holidays.

I hate them.

The post office is like a public utility — it’s not like we turn off the electricity or the gas 10 times a year!

Our first postmaster, Benjamin Franklin, a man who in his day (in the 1700s!!!) developed a system that was able to send a letter from Philadelphia to New York AND RECEIVE A REPLY in just 24 hours, is no doubt spinning in his grave.

Someone should stamp the idea of the postal holiday “Return to sender.”

Harumph.