riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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Some Enchanted Evening (day 2/30)

All of us, at one point or another, have asked our parents how they met. This story is based on what my mother told me…

July, 1958. My mother was a 22 year old student at the Cleveland Institute of Art, sitting in the back seat of her American cousins’ Buick on the way to her first summer job. Her first job ever. She had grown up in a wealthy family with cooks and maids, and had a history of medical issues, so she had never worked a day in her life. Now, she was to be the art counselor at Bellefair, a summer camp for emotionally disturbed children.

The cousins hadn’t anticipated how far Bellefair was from the city. When they pulled up to the entrance of the grounds it was already sunset and the gate was closed. There was no phone to call anyone, so all they could do was wait. After a while, the cousins got antsy. They couldn’t wait all night.

“Just go,” she reassured them. “Someone will come for me. I’ll be fine.” The husband didn’t want to leave her standing alone in the darkness, but his wife reassured him. “She’ll be fine. It’s the country,” she pointed around to the empty fields.

As they drove away, the Buick’s tires crunching on the gravel, my mother sat on one of her suitcases and looked up at the sky. It looked different than the sky in the city, which always had a haze to it. This sky was a deep almost-black navy blue highlighted with millions of stars. She lit a cigarette and studied the constellations. She was nervous about what lay ahead, but also excited. She couldn’t put her finger on why, but she had a feeling something was going to happen to her this summer.

At the same time, in the soft light of the camp’s office, the camp director was reviewing the list of expected arrivals for the day. Everyone had arrived except the art counselor. “Take the jeep and check the gate,” he told one of the male counselors, throwing him the keys. With any luck, she’d be there.

My father lit a cigarette before hopping into the jeep, and then drove through the bucolic grounds towards the gate. There in the distance stood a shadowy female figure, whispers of smoke rising from her cigarette. When he made the last turn, the jeep’s headlights shined on the woman for a few seconds before throwing her into complete darkness again. She had jet black hair in a close-cropped pixie style, full, naturally red lips (she wore no make-up), and, though he couldn’t see them yet, he would soon discover that the had large ocean-blue eyes.

As the jeep approached, she couldn’t see the driver because his brown skin blended with the darkness. All she could make out was his white uniform until he pulled up and hopped down. His skin was the color of honey. “I’m Harold,” he said, extending his hand. “Varda,” she said, shaking it. Their eyes met in the darkness, then he turned to pick up her two suitcases and a box, which, he noted, contained only records by black musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.

He drove slower back to headquarters so that the suitcases wouldn’t fall out, and so he could talk to her for a few extra moments. She was from Israel. Her name meant “rose” in Hebrew. She was an artist, 22 years old, in her second year at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He was 29 years old, born and raised in Cleveland, and had served in the Army.

“Are you a doctor now?” she asked him.

He laughed. “No, why would you think that?”

“Because you’re wearing all white,” she answered. He shook his head, still smiling. “I’m a counselor, just like you. But I live with the kids. We all wear white uniforms.”

She nodded. He was so handsome, she couldn’t think straight. His shaved head, skin tone and body type reminded her of the actor Yul Brenner. Her left thigh was only three inches from his right thigh, her torso even closer than that, and she felt heat on the left side of her body. She felt the urge to place a hand on his right arm, outstretched towards the steering wheel. Instead she gripped the jeep’s frame just above her head as they bounced along towards the office.

In the next few days, they would see each other again, first by chance on their respective ways to work, in the cafeteria, at counselor meetings. Then they began taking walks together, sitting next to each other at meal times and during meetings. The first time they kissed, they found it difficult to stop. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen.

He had dated more beautiful women than her before, but none as intelligent, exotic and kind. He could talk to her about history, art and traveling. She made him laugh. But what really captured him was her innocence and lack of prejudice. The more time they spent together, the more people began to stare, and then to frown. Progressive as Bellefair was, it still didn’t approve of a black male counselor consorting with a white female counselor. Varda didn’t seem to notice the growing tension around them. Or if she did notice, she didn’t care. She was oblivious to social mores. She related to him as a man, not as a black man, though he sensed that his blackness was part of the attraction.

She possessed a rebellious, independent spirit similar to his. Her history of bad health – rheumatic fever at three years old, cancer at 15, surgeries and a permanently scarred neck which she would always cover with a scarf or turtleneck, thin sleeveless ones in the summer – her being Jewish and an artist, all lead to her identifying as an outsider.

He was an outsider too – an educated, intellectual, world-traveled black man in a white world that refused to see him as anything other than “just another Negro.”

By October, they had married. It all happened so fast that they didn’t think it through, or maybe they did. They would always be outsiders.


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A Life Worth Living (Daily Prompt)

Yesterday, I ran into a colleague and fellow writer in the hallway at work. “I gotta get outta here,” he said, shaking his head, “THIS year.” “Me too,” I responded and raised my right hand. We high-fived each other and parted in opposite directions back to our assistant desks. 

When I interviewed for this job, my late husband Kaz had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and we had just become engaged. We had no idea how long he would live, let alone work. We needed another steady income, support network, all the benefits and stability that come from a regular 9-5 gig.  

The following year, as life became a swirling storm of stress, unknowns, and emotional highs and lows, my boring assistant job became an oasis. A place where things were normal, where my responsibilities were easy and banal, even pleasantly (at the time) mind-numbing, and where the stakes weren’t life or death. I was so grateful, I started baking things and bringing them to work. Even Kaz was surprised by that. I worked full-time throughout his illness until he went on hospice. Then I took several weeks of personal leave. I returned to work three weeks after he passed away. May 2014 will be my four year anniversary, the longest I’ve been at any job.

I had wanted to quit immediately. After seeing his young, vibrant life end so short and so quickly, my soul screamed for a more purposeful existence. The banal, mind-numbing routine that I once appreciated now seemed like a dead-end, and I suddenly realized everyone I worked with was miserable. But I could no more leave my job than I could lift a car. Grief was like a choke-hold, making me physically weak and mentally delirious. Depression lead to a complete lack of motivation. Even after the depression lifted, I still felt utterly confused as to what do do with my life.

I can’t say any of those reasons are why I’m still here now. Now, I’m basically biding my time, building up my arsenal and stockpiling my supplies for the day I eventually leave. Ever since the Vermont residency, I’ve been slowly but consistently making progress towards my career goals. In the past six months alone, I have accomplished the following:

Made an exploratory trip to Georgia and new contacts, completed a new director’s reel (you can see it here), took a television pilot writing class and a seminar on how to write a film business plan, continued writing memoir and received valuable notes from a trusted/respected colleague, wrote a new bio, continued developing feature film screenplay and received notes on that too, joined several professional organizations and started networking again, applied to two fellowship programs, did my taxes (early!), started Tweeting (@nivaladiva), accrued almost 2,000 followers to this blog, and almost 1,000 followers on Instagram (@nivaandruby).

Life has been hectic lately, and it’s about to get more so. I recently blogged about dating, but honestly, that’s not a priority right now. What matters most to me, other than my health, family and friends, is my career. Call me crazy, but I don’t want to work merely to pay the bills (which this job barely does anyway). I want to enjoy and be mentally and creatively challenged by my work. I want to work with people who inspire and push me to be a better artist. I also want to make significantly more money than I do now.

My finger has been on the “quit” button for some time now and pretty soon, I’m gonna pull the trigger. It’s scary as hell to think about what will happen after that. I literally wake up nights thinking: “I know how I plan to make money, but will that plan actually work? Can I make enough money?” The optimist in me says “Yes! Just stick to the plan.” The doubter in me is tied up and gagged until further notice.

In response to today’s Daily Prompt: If You Leave


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Words To Remember: Lights, Camera, Action!

Ironic that today’s Daily Post is about filmmaking. If you were involved in a movie, would you rather be the director, the producer, or the lead performer? (Note: you can’t be the writer!). I actually AM a director, or at least I was. I haven’t directed anything since 2010, which seems like a distant memory.  My last project – a music video – was completed the day before my late husband Kaz discovered he had a brain tumor. Since then, I’ve been writing, but not directing. What’s the difference?

For starters, writing is solitary. Most of us write alone, or rather with the voices in our head to keep us company. Directing is something you must do with others. Like the captain of a ship or a general at war, directing requires not only interacting with real people, but also leading them. It also means “acting” like a director. 

A well-known director once told me, “Directing is at least 75% performance.” Writers usually only have to perform before they write (when they’re pitching), or after they write (when they’re on a press junket for their work), but rarely while they’re actually writing. Directors, on the other hand, are almost always “on,” whether with investors, agents, actors, the crew, producers, studio executives, festival audiences, reporters, and so on. The same director who said directing was performance also once remarked, “How in the world does one do this job without alcohol or drugs?”

Secondly, writing costs nothing. All you need is time, a computer or typewriter, or pen and paper. If you can’t afford a pen and paper, you could write on a free computer at the library and use email to save your work. Or I suppose you could whittle a stick and use blackberry juice as ink like Solomon Northup‘s character in 12 Years a Slave. The point is you can write with absolutely no money.  

You cannot, however, direct a film with no money – even if everything is donated, you’re shooting in your own home and not paying anyone,  money will be spent. There have been cases of people making films with as little as $7,000 (Robert Rodriguez’s first film El Mariachi), but still… that’s $7,000 and a WHOLE LOT of energy to call in all the favors you need to complete the film, favors worth tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars.  As a former professor once said, “The cheapest way to make a movie is to write one.”

Third, the writing process affords flexibility, in the sense that you can change things. Your changes will have ripple effects, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make them. Directing, on the other hand, requires commitment to the blueprint (i.e. the script) and laser focus to keep all the moving parts together in your head (especially when shooting out-of-order). You can change things here and there, but you can’t veer too far, especially once you’ve started filming. For example, you can’t change the sex of a character, or the tone of a movie, mid-way through production (unless that’s part of the story). You have to be flexible in other ways, but not in the same ways as the writer.

So, directing requires communication, performance, money, focus, and massive amounts of creative, mental and physical energy, none of which I’ve had much of in the past few years. I’ve gone from being a caregiver to a grieving widow, and now find myself in the process of redefining myself, both personally and professionally. I’m not the same person I was before Kaz. I’m not the same person I was when he was alive, or shortly after he died. I’m a combination of all of the above and something more, something new.

I’ve been re-editing my director’s reel over the last few months, and it’s been a great exercise in reflection, like a mirror to my past. Reviewing the films I wrote, directed and obsessed over for long periods. Remembering those moments and projects about which I felt such passion. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been challenging to feel that kind of white-hot passion again. Though I do feel myself slowly being drawn to it, like to a distant fire on the horizon of a very long night.

To answer the original question, if I were involved – when I am involved in a movie again – I will definitely be the director. Even though I haven’t done it in years, I know I still have it. I love telling stories with images and sounds. I love working with actors and other professionals, each department providing its own unique, delicious ingredient to the overall piece. I adore the editing process, which feels most like the writing progress, solitary (save for your editor), flexible, and terribly creative. There’s a reason why so many of us say, “I’ll fix it in post.”

When I get nervous about my hiatus I remember that Stanley Kubrick took 7 years between The Shining (1980) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), and even longer between the latter and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Terrence Malick took 20 years between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998)his second and third films respectively. They certainly didn’t stop being directors just because they weren’t actively directing.  No doubt when they returned to the director’s chair, their life experiences made them better directors.

I look forward to testing that theory. The chair awaits.

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Daily Prompt: An Unlikely Friendship

A while back I blogged about my mother-in-law. Today’s post is about my father-in-law, Ray. He is my late husband’s father, and like Kaz and my own father, is African American. Unlike Kaz, my father and me, he is also deeply religious. I mention this only to underscore that, despite our different views on many topics, Ray and I have become good friends. We’ve never met in person, but we’ve talked on the phone every 2-3 weeks since Kaz passed away two years ago.

Ray lives in Florida, about 1.5 hours away from Sanford. The other night, while discussing recent events in that city and how we wish people could relate to each other in a more humane way, Ray said: “Did I ever tell you about my friend in the KKK?”

Me: “Uh, no.”

Ray: “It started in the late 70’s. I was living in Tuson, Arizona at the time and had just joined this club for racing radio controlled power boats on the lake there. After a while, I noticed this one White guy wasn’t talking to me. In fact, he just ignored me altogether. I asked some of the other members, ‘What’s with that guy?’ They said, ‘Oh, don’t bother with him, he’s KKK.’

Well, I wasn’t gonna let something like that stop me from talking to him. One day I noticed that his boat wasn’t doing too well. So I went over to him and asked if he’d considered using a different propeller. He just looked at me strange. I told him, ‘If you use the __ propeller, you might get a better result.’ Then I walked away.

The next time I saw him, he said, ‘Hey, I changed my propeller. You were right.’ And we started talking. His name was Pat and his wife had recently left him for the preacher who lived next door.

After a few weeks of friendly banter, I said, ‘Pat, can I ask you something?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ I said, ‘Are you in the KKK?’ He said he was. I said, ‘Can you tell me why you don’t like Black people?’ He said that it says in the Bible that G-d cursed man by making him Black. I asked him to show me where in the Bible it says that.

For the next few weeks, he tried to find the passage, but of course, he couldn’t. Finally he came back to me and said, ‘I couldn’t find it.’ I said, ‘Cause it’s not in there, Pat.’ He said ever since he was a boy he was taught that Blacks were inferior. I said, ‘Do you think I’m inferior?’ ‘No,’ he said. I said, ‘Do you dislike me?’ ‘No, not now,’ he said.

After that, we became better friends. He left the KKK. The night he invited me over his house for dinner, my wife still stayed up all night worrying about me. We didn’t have cell phones back then. I told her I’d be fine, but you know, she couldn’t help it. When I finally came home, she was so relieved. I told her, ‘All we did was play pool.’

A few years later, we decided to leave Tuscon and move to Florida. When I told Pat, he started crying. ‘You’re my best friend,’ he said. We were both crying. It was sad. But you know what? To this day, Pat and I speak on the phone once a month. He’s still my best friend. I would do anything for him, and him for me.”

I thanked Ray for sharing this story, and all night kept thinking about it. The next day I called him again to ask if I could blog about it. “Sure,” he said with a laugh.

Ray, this one’s for you.

[In response to today’s Daily Prompt: A friend in need]


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The Ghost of LA Woman

Yesterday's sunset, corner of Olympic and Arlington Ave

Yesterday’s sunset, corner of Olympic and Wilton Ave

What’s lurking in the drafts section of your dashboard?

I couldn’t resist today’s Daily Post because I only had one draft post, which was just a title: LA Woman. The idea came to me a couple of months ago while driving around, or rather stuck in traffic going nowhere fast, in Los Angeles. I heard the song LA Woman by The Doors in my head and knew I had to write a post about this place.

I first arrived in LA in August 1995, a somewhat innocent 24-year-old, eager to start her first year at graduate film school. I drove here from Philadelphia in a two-door Acura hatchback, my first car, which I had purchased one week before I left, ten days after getting my license.

First impressions of LA: it was beautiful, hot, HUGE, a labyrinth of highways and streets I was sure I would never be able to figure out. On days off I would hop in my car, which had a sunroof, and drive around listening to music, not minding if I got lost (this was before Navigation and GPS so I got lost A LOT), from Hollywood to the Valley to Beverly Hills to Route 1 by the beach. Everything seemed to sparkle and shine. I felt both as if I knew this city, which I had seen umpteen times in movies, and as if I didn’t know it at all and would never truly penetrate its mystery.

Since I didn’t know anyone, I would often go out by myself to explore the bars and clubs. It didn’t take long to figure out the best places to spot celebrities were at the fancy hotels like The Beverly Hills Hotel, The Four Seasons, The Peninsula. At the former, in the same night, I once saw Dustin Hoffman eating dinner and Barbara Streisand walked by me at the bar. I couldn’t believe it!

Over the years, I would meet many actors, musicians, directors, producers and other film folks at school lectures, various jobs and industry events. The novelty factor gradually wore off, as did the fascination with the nightlife, Beverly Hills, fancy hotels, and so on. The intense loneliness I used to feel in the first few years was replaced by a fluid sense of community, film school friends, colleagues and the few regular non-industry people I know.

When I met Kaz, who was from a D.C., the city came alive in a different way. We used to joke about our mutual love/hate relationship with LA, and love sharing those “I can’t believe I live here” moments. One time he passed Snoop Dogg in the hallway at work, and went to a party where Kobe Bryant showed up in a helicopter. Another time we went to a Passover seder at a famous director’s house with the granddaughter of an American film legend seated beside us. And many more such moments.

Since his passing, I’ve tried to redefine my relationship to the city. How long do I want to live here? Should I go back East and be closer to family? Should I hold out a little longer and see if I can get the career going? LA feels like a combination of high school and metropolis, playground and work center, a series of urban facades and breathtaking natural landscapes. It rarely feels as comfortable to me as the East Coast, but it’s home nonetheless.

These days, my favorite place to hang out is the dog park, usually with natty hair, dressed in my most tattered clothing. For some reason, Ruby loves rubbing her muddy tennis ball on my leg instead of just dropping it at my feet. I’ve even started meeting people there, and the other day I invited a friend to join me even though she’s dog-less. We sat on chairs in the shade and caught up, every now and then pausing to throw the muddy ball to Ruby.

Ah, how things change.

Thanks for encouraging me to finish this post, WordPress!


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Daily Prompt: Turn, Turn, Turn (to Life)

In Los Angeles seasons basically vary from warm to warmer to slightly less warm to warm again. Which is to say, they are subtle. It can actually be challenging to notice the passage of time because days often look and feel the same for weeks or months at a time. One day its January something, the next it’s mid-April. Weather is an anomaly. A cloudy day is something different. A rainy day is altogether exciting and the buzz at work. The lack of weather is one less thing to worry about in the daily grind of life. But it’s also one less thing to remind us of the awesomeness of Nature.

There are seasons, however, and my favorite out here is Spring because this is when you see the most change in the seemingly changeless environment. My favorite place to witness Spring is in the desert, where the renewal of life is bolder than in the city.

This past weekend I went with some friends to Joshua Tree, not to the National Park but to the city itself. I’ve written about coming to Joshua tree with my late husband, but (other than one camping trip) we always stayed in motels. This was the first time I’ve been behind the tourist line, where the locals live and raise their children.

Joshua Tree, CA

Joshua Tree, CA

At first glance, the landscape reminds you of pictures you’ve seen of Mars. Miles upon miles of dirt, rocks and (unlike Mars) small desert shrubs. But once you go a little further, get out of the car and start walking, you discover an entire world teeming with LIFE.

desert buds

desert buds

desert fruit

desert fruit

cacti

cactus flowers

 

Desert fruit, budding flowers, rabbits, lizards, beetles, ants, snakes, pheasants… there is actually constant movement in the stillness, plentiful sounds in the quiet.

I have always loved the desert for its purity, its cleansing, spiritual quality, its mystery. There is a reason so many prophets went to the desert to think and not, for example, the beach. The desert is as close as one can get to no distractions. Time seems to slow down. 24 hours feels like longer. And your mind is free to breath.

If ever one needs inspiration that even from something barren, life can grow… that life is cyclical and ever-renewing… that there is an almighty power in this universe called Nature… it is here, in the desert at springtime.

desert sunrise

desert sunrise