riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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HuffPost Live interview with Nancy Redd

I’m back from Los Angeles and happy to report that it could not have gone any better (proof that worrying is a waste of time/energy). I’ll be posting about different aspects of the trip in the next few days, but first wanted to share the interview I did on HuffPost Live with host Nancy Redd right before I left.

The segment, called “Newlywed Widows: Starting Over,” featured John McFadden, a widower who lost his wife on their honeymoon, Jennifer Cutler, a psychotherapist who specializes in grief therapy, and me. We talked about the particular challenges faced by people who lose their spouses shortly after marriage. We also talked about how writing helps in the grieving process. John blogs about his grief at Lindsey McFadden: The Love of My Life.

The full interview with all of us is here (28:14):

http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/newlywed-widows/54daea6f02a7600e1f000159

My portion of the interview is here (7:33):

http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/highlight/how-this-widow-coped-with-losing-her-husband-11-days-after-their-wedding/550b3febfe34447e3600008f

The day after the interview I flew to LA and spent the next ten days in a whirlwind of meetings, both professional and personal. At the end of the week, I attended a conference of women writers, where I sat on a Writing About Loss panel with five other women, including two NYT best-selling authors.

More about the LA visit to come.

Now I’m back home in upstate New York, decompressing and processing everything. I feel incredibly humble and grateful, and wanted to take a moment to say Thank You to all of you for being part of this journey with me. Some of you have been following the blog since the beginning. Some of you are newer. Many of you have lost loved ones. Each and everyone of you has helped me cope with my grief. You have made me feel less alone and more understood. You have taught me so much. I can’t thank you enough.

– Niva


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Who Is Responsible for the Death of Sarah Jones?

[Photography by: Randy Thompson]

[Photography by: Randy Thompson]

Have you been following the accounts of the tragic death of camera assistant Sarah Jones? If not, read this Hollywood Reporter article, which details for the first time how the incident unfolded using descriptions from other crew members who witnessed it. Warning: reading this article will make you queasy with disgust and anger. It did me. And like many in the film industry and beyond, I keep wondering how in the hell did this happen? And who is responsible? Is it the Director? Producer? Unit Production Manager? Assistant Director? Location Manager? All of the above?

There are two schools of thought on who is ultimately responsible for a film. The first is that the director is responsible because he (or she) is the film version of the Ship Captain, War General, Leader of the Free World, i.e. the person with whom the buck stops. At the beginning of most movies there is title that says, “A (director’s name) Film.” And if a film bombs, usually the director gets the brunt of the blame.

The other school of thought is that the producer is ultimately responsible for a film. After all, it’s the producer who accepts the Academy Award for Best Picture, the producer who finds the money, and the producer who can hire and fire the director, the actors and just about anyone else. If the film is a studio movie, the only one who can fire the producer is the studio. If the film is an independent, most likely, no one can fire the producer.

But a film is the director’s vision. The director controls a film’s artistic and dramatic aspects, and visualizes the script while guiding the technical crew and actors in the fulfillment of that vision [Wikipedia]This means once a film is put into production every creative decision comes from the director. He consults with the department heads, but the director has the final creative word.  

Then again, the producer (or studio) has the final financial word.  A Unit Production Manager is usually hired by a film producer or television producer and is responsible for managing the production and regulating the costs of delivering the expected film or television show on budget at the end of principal photography [Wikipedia].

Let’s look at it from another angle. Before that fateful day two weeks ago when the crew of Midnight Rider assembled to shoot a dream sequence, this is what probably happened in the days leading up:

– The location manager scouted more than one train tracks and took pictures of each to show the director.

– The director chose the tracks that run over a 110-year-old bridge over the Altamaha River, in Wayne County, Georgia. At this point, if not before, the location manager would have informed him, “These are live train tracks.” To which, the director probably replied, “I want to shoot there. Figure it out.”

– The location manager attempted to get a location permit for those tracks. The permit was denied (most likely because it’s a live train track).

– The location manager informed the director that the permit was denied.

– The director, in consultation with the producer(s), assistant director and/or cinematographer, decided only those tracks would do and suggested, “Let’s shoot there anyway, guerilla-style.” (According to Hollywood Reporter article, he’s done this before.)

– The producer then approved this decision to shoot on a live train track without a permit.

– The crew was informed the morning of the shoot where they’d be filming that day, and what they should do in event a train came hurtling towards them, i.e. “run for your life.”

On top of that, these additional things DID NOT happen:

– The producer didn’t ask for a schedule of the trains that use those tracks, or calculate how often they come through.

– The producer didn’t inform the train company there would be a film crew on the tracks that day.

– The producer didn’t insist a production assistant was stationed a few miles away to keep a look out for approaching trains (which might have given the crew more than 60 seconds to get out-of-the-way).

– The producer didn’t give the crew a choice of whether or not to participate in this risky scheme.

– The producer didn’t hire a set medic or railway safety personnel (the latter, probably because he knew they had no permit). 

The bottom line is they never should have been there in the first place. The fact that they went ahead anyway and took no extra precautions is what really gets me. It’s unthinkable and unforgivable because it could have been avoided. If only someone had said, “No film or director’s vision is worth putting people’s lives at risk. These are not the only train tracks in Georgia. Let’s shoot somewhere else.” (I know for a fact that every producer I’ve ever worked with would have absolutely said this to me.)

Time will tell who is ultimately held accountable for this tragic fiasco. The director Randall Miller is also listed as producer, along with 11 other producers, co-producers and executive producers. 

Meanwhile, a bright, energetic, hard-working young lady is dead — and for what? 

RIP Sarah Jones.


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How To Lose “The Coat of Desperation”

It’s been two weeks since my last post. Life, class, writing, friends in town, sick puppy, and other general distractions have kept me away, but everything is good. In fact, I’ve learned some things these past few weeks from a variety of sources, beginning with director/producer Ava DuVernay‘s incredibly generous, wisdom-filled keynote address to the 2013 Film Independent Forum on Sunday, October 27 (watch full clip here).

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay

If you haven’t heard of Ava DuVernay, don’t worry. You will soon. She has already made several feature films, including I Will Follow which Roger Ebert described as “one of the best films I’ve seen about coming to terms with the death of loved one;” and Middle of Nowhere, for which she won the Best Director Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the first African-American woman to do so. She recently directed an episode of ABC’s Scandal, and is slated to direct the upcoming Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic Selma.

She also has a distribution company called African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), whose mission is to empower Black independent filmmakers with collaborative, simultaneous, theatrical distribution in multiple markets. [I admit, I have not seen Ms. DuVernay’s films yet (I fell behind in a lot of movie/TV watching the past few years). But they are now at the top of my Netflix queue, and I will be following everything she does from hereon.]

If it sounds like I’m gushing, I am! And I’m not the only one who felt a shot of adrenaline watching this talk. Like the best words of wisdom, Ms. DuVernay’s advice on October 27 was geared towards a specific crowd (filmmakers), but also universally applicable.

She begins by encouraging the audience to live Tweet her speech. “It’s important to share what happens in rooms like these, beyond rooms like these.” She commends the audience for being there, saying it’s good to channel inquisitive energy into events, workshops, seminars and other “rooms with like-minded people.” She reminds us why Los Angeles is such a great place to be. “There’s so much you can get your hands on.”

She then cheekily explains what she’s wearing and why.  Her “directing uniform” consists of glasses, layering a thermal shirt with a hipster t-shirt (“embrace your nerd-dom”), a jacket, a hat (“don’t touch my hair”), and most importantly comfortable shoes (“these shoes are from Rite-Aid”).  In this uniform she is who she feels she should be. She also feels like this because she took off something three years ago that was preventing her from reaching her full potential.

She took off her coat of desperation

What is the coat of desperation? 

It’s the aura that surrounds you when you approach people you admire with questions like, ‘Can you help me?’ ‘Can you read my script?’ ‘Can I take you to coffee?’ ‘Can I pick your brain?’

It’s when you come from a place of ‘what can you do for me?’ instead of a place of empowerment. Taking off this coat is the only way to actually achieve your dreams and goals. But how do you do it? 

Ms. DuVernay’s advice is simple:

Stop asking people for things! Instead, tell them what you’re doing.

Yearning and Non-Action = Depressing and Stagnate (repellant)

Yearning and Action = Passion and Movement (magnet)

Stop spending time thinking about what you don’t have and focus on what you do have.

Ask yourself ‘what can I do?’ And ‘Who wants to come along for the ride?’ People want to be on a moving train. Be on the ‘yo, I’m making films’ train.

Do the work and rise above the chatter.

You don’t need to go to film school as long as you educate yourself. Watch director’s commentaries, attend workshops, read books, and make your own films.

Apply to labs, grants, seminars, etc. but don’t wait to be accepted to move forward (Ms. DuVernay never won a lab or grant and she applied to them all).

You should be thinking about what happens after the film is made, before you make it.

Failure can teach you who you are.

Best quote:  “I have more mentors now since I stopped asking for them. A mentor is someone who cares for you – and you can’t go up to someone and ask them to care for you.”

Best goal:  “I want to be old and making films like Clint Eastwood. I want to be like Werner Herzog and have so many films I can’t remember all their names.”

Sounds good to me!

Can you relate to the Coat of Desperation? To taking it off?!


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Loss: From Nightmare to Normal

Today a friend posted on Facebook a NYT article entitled No Husband, No Friends by Charlotte Brozek with the caption “Wow. This is scary.” In the article, Ms. Brozek, a widow of one year, explains that because she and her late husband had no single friends, and because her married friends now avoid her, she feels isolated, confused and understandably depressed.

My friends headed for the hills. In the last years of my husband’s life, we had come to rely on two or three couples for entertainment, but they disappeared after he died. Were they afraid to face their own mortality, or was it that the dynamics we presented as a duo were lost with me as a widow?

This statement made me recall what another friend recently said to me: “No offense, but you’re my worst nightmare.” She was referring to my being a widow, and I took no offense at all. In fact, I totally understood what she meant. I used to be my own nightmare too, in the same way parents who lose their children personify other parents’ worst nightmares.

In his memoir A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis describes the inevitability of death (i.e. separation) that we’re all aware of when we enter into romantic relationships, whether we’re conscious of it or not:

… this separation, I suppose, waits for all. I have been thinking of H. and myself as peculiarly unfortunate in being torn apart. But presumably all lovers are. She once said to me, ‘Even if we both died at exactly the same moment, as we lie here side by side, it would be just as much a separation as the one you’re so afraid of.’

We all know that one day our lives and our loved ones’ lives will end. Some say the words “till death do us part” when they marry, but really those words could be said upon the birth of a child or the beginning of any committed relationship where the understanding is “we will be together until one or the other of us dies.” Yet, when death actually happens, even if it’s expected, it is both shocking and agonizing to the ones left behind.
Another friend once said to me that death (nothing from something), like birth (something from nothing), is incomprehensible. Intellectually, we know that it happens and what it means. But when faced with the reality (no matter how much we have “prepared” for it), our minds cannot fully understand how it’s possible that someone can be alive one moment and the next moment not alive, and never to return. The power of this total and complete finality is what shocks the system, and it’s that finality that we hate to think about.
C.S. Lewis describes the discomfort that his widower status produced in others:
At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t. Some funk it altogether. R. has been avoiding me for a week. I like best the well brought-up young men, almost boys, who walk up to me as if I were a dentist, turn very red, get it over, and then edge away to the bar as quickly as they decently can. Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.
Ms. Brozek uses the analogy of Noah’s ark, where only coupled animals were saved, to describe the inherant isolation a widow can feel:
I understand Noah’s plan — the world needed two to tango in the face of an annihilating flood. But he should have designated a section on the ark for us.
Two and a half years after Kaz’s death, I’m still experiencing the awkward encounters, less so the isolation. For one thing, I have a diverse pool of friends, including couples (unmarried, married, gay, straight, with/without children) and singles. I also have no qualms doing things alone, and time has helped to reestablish my equilibrium. Ms. Brozek also writes:
Someone once said that being a widow is like living in a country where nobody speaks your language. In my case, it’s only my friends, family and acquaintances who all now speak Urdu — it’s not the whole country. I discovered strangers possess more compassion than my own friends and family. 
One of the main reasons I cherish this blog so much is that I can discuss things here that I cannot comfortably discuss with most people. This has made me feel less isolated and continues to help me heal.
So, while loss is inevitable, time and expression can help us transition from nightmare to normal. It’s hard to remember when we’re in the thick of it, but life is cyclical… nothing from something, something from nothing… in finitum.


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The Butler: A Conflicted Review

I’m in Brooklyn at the moment, visiting family and getting a boost of much-needed energy.  I met up with my father and got to drive the Porsche. On Sunday I’m having brunch with freelance journalist, memoir author and fellow blogger, Caitlin Kelly of Broadside. But this post is about none of the above because I just saw Lee Daniel’s movie The Butler.

[photo source: imdb.com]

[photo source: imdb.com]

The Butler is loosely based on the real-life story of long-time White House butler Eugene Allen who served every President from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. It was directed by Lee Daniels, who also directed Precious, The Paperboy, Shadowboxer, and produced Monster’s Ball, in addition to the aforementioned films. It shows the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of the White House butler, Cecil Gaines, and his son Louis Gaines, who participates in sit-ins, freedom bus rides, marches, the Panther Party and then traditional politics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for anything that educates and/or enlightens us on the Civil Rights Movement. But is there anything in this film we haven’t seen before? No, there is not. Is this a new take on the Civil Rights Movement? No, it is not.

The only difference between this film and other films about the Civil Rights Movement is that the main character witnesses it from within the White House. While he’s serving tea, cookies, breakfast and lunch, he overhears his various bosses discuss, argue and make decisions about policies that will affect his and millions of other African Americans’ lives. This is difficult to watch because the entire time he cannot speak or react in any way. In fact, he is instructed to be “invisible.”

And therein lies the rub.  The main character is a passive Black man. His goal in the film is basically to not lose his job, to not rock the boat, to not offend his bosses or do anything even remotely controversial.

If my father had seen this movie, he would have probably walked out. Or he would have been mumbling under his breath the whole time, “This is bullshit,” and we would have been shushing him. I’m not going to judge the main character like my father would. He was a butler and there was dignity in not only his work, but also his role as a father and husband. But I do take issue with the producers. Why was this film made? What did it add to the conversation about race? How many times have we seen the African American experience told from this point of view? It’s similar to always seeing the Jewish experience told from the Holocaust point of view. The victim point of view.

This isn’t to say that the point of view isn’t valid or shouldn’t be expressed. I just don’t know that we need to see yet another rendition of a passive Black male unable or unwilling to do anything to change his genuinely painful situation. And I find it especially frustrating that this was the hero’s point of view. In my opinion, it would have been far more interesting and inspiring to tell this story from the son’s point of view on the front lines of the movement. He was the only active character.

If you think I’m being harsh, check out Harry Lennix‘s take on the film (slightly edited):

Harry Lennix [photo source: imdb.com]

Harry Lennix [photo source: imdb.com]

  “… Lee Daniels sent me the script for that film he’s making now, The Butler, about the black butler at the White House. I read five pages of this thing and could not go any further. I tried to read more of it, and I’m not a soft spoken guy, but it was such an appalling mis-direction of history in terms of taking an actual guy who worked at the White House. But then he “ni**erfies” it. He “ni**ers” it up and he gives people these, stupid, luddite, antediluvian ideas about black people and their roles in the historical span in the White House and it becomes… well… historical porn. I refused.”

Unlike Harry, I did go further than the first five minutes and I actually do recommend people see the film. Even though I had issues with it, I didn’t totally not enjoy it. It is well-made, has an all-star cast, strong performances and solid direction. Oprah Winfrey’s performance is absolutely delicious and reminds me of what a great actress she is. Also, the father-son relationship and conflict in the film is genuinely compelling.

But when it was over and my 11 year old niece turned to me and asked, “So, did you like it?” I had to pause. “Yes and No,” I told her. Yes… and no. Then we spent the rest of the walk home discussing why.

Have you seen The Butler? What did you think?

Related articles:

www.bellenews.com/search/cecil-gaines-wikipedia/#ixzz2dVrf8bDI

http://www.blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/harry-lennixs-take-on-lee-daniels-the-butler-and-it-aint-pretty


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Surviving “The Conjuring”

If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you know that I just saw the movie The Conjuring, a horror film about evil spirits who possess an old house and terrorize the unsuspecting family who moves in. Like The Amityville Horror , The Exorcist, and other films in this genre it is “based on a true story.” You can read about it here and here. I sent out a few tweets before the screening describing my feelings of anxiety, and afterwards describing my relief.

I’m the first to admit I’m a wuss when it comes to really scary movies, especially the paranormal kind. Years ago, I was so freaked out by the movie The Ring, I almost left the theater. The only reason I didn’t was because I was trapped on the inside of an aisle, and my friend kept urging me to calm down. I recently saw Paranormal Activity for the first time on an airplane and was clutching my airplane pillow under my airplane blanket. The only reason I agreed to see The Conjuring was because the friend who invited me worked on it. 

I literally spent the entire week mentally preparing. The truth is I’m less skeptical of “another realm or dimension” than I used to be, in part because I have sometimes felt Kaz’s presence around me. Before The Conjuring screening, I discussed this with a couple of friends at the movie theater bar, where we were gathering liquid courage.

The sensations I experienced occurred mostly during the first six months, but still happen on occasion. They were always accompanied by some slight shift in the air, like a light breeze or draft, not enough to move anything except the hairs on my arm. They could have been my imagination, but I found it comforting to think otherwise.

During that period, I actually felt like he was regularly visiting the apartment. We had married shortly before he died, so it felt natural to me that he would still be lingering on some level, perhaps not in a rush to move on. I would feel his presence on the couch while watching television, or standing behind me in the kitchen, or lying next to me in bed. A few times I left the television on with his favorite TV shows so he could “catch up.” I spoke to him, made jokes with him, cried to him. I was never scared. On the contary, I welcomed his presence, and when I began to feel less often, it made me very sad.

One of the friends at the bar said he could totally relate. He sometimes feels his deceased brother this way. Another friend said her deceased parents are definitely still in the house, but she has an “agreement” with them that they’re not to be too disruptive. “Not all spirits are bad,” we all agreed. Still, the woman with the big, old, empty house refused to see The Conjuring.

The movie was very good and quite scary. There were also moments when I laughed, partly because my friends and I kept giving each other “here comes a scary scene” looks, and partly because some of the scenes were so over the top scary, laughing was the only alternative to screaming.

Overall, I would give the film 4 out of 5 stars because it was very well executed. That said, it’s been hard to stop thinking about it since, because the idea of the film is very terrifying indeed. Times like these I’m grateful the “spirit” in my life is a loving one. I’m grateful to own a dog, and grateful to not live in an old, haunted house in New England (no offense, New Englanders).

Do you believe in spirits? Will you see The Conjuring?


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A State of Conflict

I haven’t blogged in a week because I’ve been unsure how to write about what’s been on my mind, namely the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy. I don’t usually post about politics and current events, but I really can’t move forward without addressing this event which has affected my country and me personally on a deep level. Not everyone will agree with what I have to say, and that’s okay. All I ask is that comments remain respectful.

What I find so upsetting about this tragedy is that a man shot a teenager and the teenager died… and it could have been so easily avoided. The man could have not jumped to conclusions about the teenager’s purpose in the neighborhood, conclusions which turned out to be wrong and lead to the teenager’s death. The man could have stayed in his car and waited for the police to arrive. The man could have identified himself to the teenager immediately. The teenager could have continued walking home and ignored the man. The teenager and the man could have confronted each other in a more diplomatic way.

The law in Florida says the man had the right to defend himself if he thought his life was in danger. And the teenager? All he knew was a man was following him in a car. In his eyes, the man could have been a murderer, a sex offender, a pervert, or just an asshole.

How many times had this young, Black teen been looked at suspiciously in his life? How many times had he passed a White woman and felt the tension and fear in her body language? How many times had he been followed in a store? Could that night have been the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back?’ Instead of ignoring this “crazy ass cracker” or running home, he decided to confront him. Would he have done so if he knew the man was carrying a loaded weapon?

When I was discussing this with an elderly Black man the other day, he countered that the teenager should have known better than confronting the man. “Where were his parents?” “Why hadn’t they taught him how to act?”

What he meant was that every Black man in America has been conditioned to act a certain way when confronted with a person of authority, especially a White person of authority. Even if you’re not a Black male, if you’ve ever had a run-in with the cops, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a right way and a wrong way to behave, and the wrong way can get you physically harmed.

But the teenager was not a man. He was only a few weeks into his 17th year. Should we expect him to have known how to “behave?” Should he have been chaperoned while walking to the store for some candy?

My feeling is that when there is an altercation between a teenager and a grown man, the onus is on the grown man to behave responsibly, especially if he’s carrying a loaded weapon. Why would a grown man who is not a police officer get out of his car to search for (what he perceives as) a potentially dangerous criminal alone on a dark and rainy night? What if the potential criminal (in the man’s eyes) had had a weapon too? The man knew he was dealing with a teenager, and he knew the teenager had seen him. Did he expect to pursue him  and NOT be confronted?

The case upsets me on so many levels, I find myself going in circles in my mind about what could/should have happened that night, how this death could have been avoided, what would that teenager have become had he lived, what the parents must be feeling, what do other parents tell their children now, and how something like this could be avoided in the future. I think the answer to the latter lies in PERCEPTION… as in, how do we perceive each other?

Would you perceive a Black male wearing a hoodie walking slowly through your neighborhood as a threat?

Would you perceive a Hispanic man following you slowly in a car through your neighborhood as a threat?

If so, what would you do about it? How would you handle the situation?

There’s a reason why this 1973 photo taken by Joe Crachiola of five children playing in a Detroit suburb has gone viral. It captures a spirit of innocence and acceptance that so many of us yearn for. If you’ve ever watched children at play, you know that they have no concept of these matters. They have no life experience upon which to build assumptions. They relate to each other on a core basic level.

photo credit: Joe Crachiola/Courtesy of The Macomb Daily

photo credit: Joe Crachiola/Courtesy of The Macomb Daily

Is it only possible when we’re young? Or can we see each other as human beings, not labels, races, genders, religions, nationalities, sexual orientations, etc.? Can we not jump to conclusions about each other and instead base our reactions on the individuals before us? Can we see each other as HUMAN BEINGS first?

I believe we can, and we must.