Take the Detour

Take the Detour

Many people have asked me how I made the decision to leave my decades long corporate career and jump into to something so completely different, especially at my age. The answer is, I took a detour one day and it led me to where I am right now.

I had been to a particularly depressing meeting about Social Security Disability on Capitol Hill.  I was lamenting the whole way home about the lack of progress this group was making.  I say that as a fact.  I had been visiting Washington D.C. regularly over the years to work with groups that were trying to improve the Social Security Disability Program. The meeting I left that day in March of 2014 was a replica of the many meetings I had attended previously.  Progress and postivity was not in sight.  I was frustrated and certain that nothing much was going to change in my lifetime.

Instead of returning to work I needed an escape and called a good friend that I had not seen in about a year.  She only lives 7 miles from me but my work schedule and her busy family schedule made the year fly by.  When I called Laurie she agreed to grab lunch and asked me to ride with her to pick up her youngest daughter from school and drop her off at the horse barn.  I was up for anything that didn’t include work that day and was excited to get to spend some time catching up.

Little did I know that would be the day that changed my life and set in motion one of the most exciting times I have experienced.

It was a cool, overcast day in early March.  The drive up to the horse barn was eerily beautiful with some slits of sun breaking through the dark navy sky.  It looked like there could be a storm coming any minute.  As we drove up the dirt road Laurie pointed to an old stone farmhouse set back down a long dirt driveway lined with craggly trees on each side. She said she thought someone must be making a movie there because every day when she traveled this same route she saw big lights and lots of commotion, and knew the house had been empty for a long time.  Sure enough.  There were dozens of large film lights inside a barn and numerous vans and people milling around the area. Laurie’s instincts were correct.  I mulled over the scene and wondered who might be filming there as we dropped Grace off at the barn.  We headed back down the road and I asked Laurie to pull over as we approached the farmhouse.  I took a picture of the driveway.  The way the light was hitting the trees along the driveway was beautiful.

I had a feeling I knew who might be filming there and threw out a name.  M. Night Shyamalan. He films in PA.  He is into the spooky/thriller genre.  This looked like a good spot for one of his wildly dark stories to unfold.

As we sat parked on the side of the road I accessed the internet on my iPhone and searched for “M. Night Shyamalan new movie.”  There was an immediate response showing he was currently making a micro-budget film in Chester County.  We were parked in Chester County.  I got kind of excited and talked with Laurie about how I always dreamed of being a filmmaker.  Laurie suggested I get out of the car and go say hello but I knew that probably wasn’t a good idea.  Instead we sat there as I pulled up M. Night’s website.  There on one of his feeds was the exact same picture of the driveway and trees.  His was black and white. We were both kind of spooked by the coincidence and confirmed it surely was M. Night and his crew in the barn with all the lights.

We continued to sit there as I read aloud about the film he was making. I noticed a link to his foundation (MNS Foundation) so clicked on it and was surprised to learn that his wife ran a foundation that invested in leaders who are changing the world with a specific interest in education. Who knew?  We learned more about the work the foundation does and while reading I noticed a red button on the screen that said Charity Buzz.  I pressed the button. The screen filled with M Night’s smiling face and a banner that said “WIN A DAY ON THE SET WITH M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN.”  Seriously?  I had never heard of Charity Buzz, the organization that manages the process of these types of fund raisers, but I was intrigued. The money would go to the foundation.  I liked that.  By this point Laurie was yelling at me to bid. So I did. It seemed at that moment like a sign.

I was in a bidding war the next couple weeks with a Dentist from New Jersey. Each day I would check status and bid a little higher.  The Dentist did the same.  I was wondering how high he would go and wondering the same about myself.  I think my husband, John, thought I was crazy but he was being supportive.  Long story short, I won the bid.  I was at work when the notice came through on my iPhone.  I was beyond excited.  I sent a text to Laurie first and then to John.

Within a day I was contacted by the MNS Foundation Coordinator and plans were made for me to spend a full day on set at the end of March.  The film shoot was at the Philadelphia 30th Street Amtrak Station and I arrived promptly at 6:30 am, not knowing what to expect but assuming I would be put in a chair to watch the scenes unfold.  I was introduced to all the crew first.  One of the cameramen told me what a terrific Director Night was and how he would drop anything he was doing to work with him. Then M. Night arrived. We were introduced and I was immediately taken with his warmth and sincerity. He had never done anything with Charity Buzz before and I suppose was a little reluctant.  He seemed relieved that I did not appear to be celebrity stalker and did not have a script in my bag that I wanted him to read.

I was not put in a chair.  Instead, he invited me to stand beside him as he directed the scenes and was very animated in educating me about the process and what he was looking for in each clip.  He is an amazing Director.  Fascinated, I watched as he directed Kathryn Hahn, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould.  One of the scenes was shot on an Amtrak train, rented for the film, and I got to watch this part of the film come to life as we traveled from Philly to Harrisburg and back again.  It was incredible to be in such close proximity to the cast and crew and listen to every discussion.  If you watch The Visit you may see me briefly at the beginning of the train scene when Ed does his “Rap.”

We took a break for lunch and Night and I sat together.  He asked me what I did for work.  I told him and his immediate reaction was a big smile and the question, what do you really want to do?  I didn’t even have to think about it and said, “I want your job.”  His smile grew and he enthusiastically said I should go for it.

That experience and that simple, very short conversation was all it took for me to make the decision to retire from my career and move to my second act as a film director. Why should I not try something new?  I gave an 18 month notice to my company and planned my new adventure during that time. When I said my goodbyes to Genex at the end of 2015 I had decided on the Documentary I wanted to film, had partnered with Expressway Productions and filmed my first three subjects. The rest continues to unfold and the Beyond Sixty Project is in the beginning stages of being crafted into a feature film.

What if I had gone back to work that day after my meeting in D.C.?  What if I hadn’t called Laurie out of the blue and hadn’t been in her car when she drove Grace to the horse barn? What if I hadn’t taken the picture of that long driveway with the craggly trees? What if I wasn’t a curious person and hadn’t looked up M. Night Shyamalan?  What if I didn’t link to his Foundation and click on the Charity Buzz button?

Take the detour.  It may lead you somewhere you would not have gone on your own.  I am so happy to have taken a detour from my usual routine on that particular day.

Special thanks to Laurie for being there and to Night for opening my eyes to a dream that was buried away deep inside me.

Stay tuned.

Love, Melissa

 

 

 

Women and Black History Month

Women and Black History Month

I watched last night as Viola Davis accepted her best supporting actress Oscar for her performance in Fences. She is the first black star to win an Oscar, Emmy and Tony for acting. Bravo!

Oscar nominated film Hidden Figures star, Taraji Henson, who plays the role of Katherine Johnson, brought the real NASA physicist Katherine Johnson out on stage.  Johnson, now 98, made history as one of the first black women involved in the space race during the 1960’s. The film, an adaptation of Margot Shetterly’s book, tells the story of a group of NASA engineers, all black women, and how they computed the math that sent John Glenn into orbit. Henson, along with Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae did a fabulous job of making this piece of history finally come to life on the big screen. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie you should do both. My favorite film this year.

Throughout time there has been a long list of black women who have fought for freedom, made political and business history, and continue to fight for their right to inclusion and diversity in society today. In this country and countries throughout the world, black women continue to play a critical role in the past, present and future of our history.

A few that come to mind for me:

Hattie McDaniel was a 1940’s actress and radio personality.  She was the first black woman to win an Oscar for her performance in Gone With the Wind.

Rosa Parks, one of the most influential women in the fight for racial equality, refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus, leading to the desegregation of buses across the country.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the world’s first elected black female President and Africa’s first female Head of State. Liberia has continued to move in a better direction since she took office. Ms. Shirleaf helped my friend, Katie Meyler, build her first school for girls in Liberia.

Maya Angelou was an actress, screenwriter and director who became a legendary poet and award-winning author. Her book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Cries, remains one of the most inspiring autobiographies of all time.

Dame Eugenia Charles, better known as Mamo, was the first female Prime Minister of Dominica. She was a tough woman who survived a coup led by the Ku Klux Klan and went on to reshape her country.

Madame CJ Walker, born to slaves in Louisiana, became the first black millionaire businesswoman with her successful line of hair care products. Her philanthropic efforts included donations to the YMCA and NAACP.

Dorothy Height, one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington was the only woman seated on the speaker’s platform.  She spent decades working for racial equality and women’s rights.

Ella Baker held posts with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP during the Civil Rights Movement.  She helped to organize the 1961 Freedom Rides, fighting segregation and promoted black voter registration during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

This is just a short, very incomplete list of the many black women who have made significant contributions in history.

In the United States, Black history month is an important part of our nation’s tradition helping to create awareness of the historic challenges African Americans have faced and continue to face today. But, should we only be reminded of this rich history during the month of February?  There are a number of museums and institutions that offer a year-round opportunity to learn more about our African American history.   As Morgan Freeman once said, “I don’t want a Black history month.  Black history is American history.” He makes a very good point.

Peace and Love,

Melissa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks Zac

Thanks Zac

Making a film is an amazing experience. Sometimes I feel like I won the lottery.  To learn something new at my age is exhilarating and exhausting in a good way.  This past year has been a tremendous opportunity to test myself, make mistakes, correct them and feel a great sense of accomplishment.

I just got back last night from Arizona where we filmed the Sun City Poms, a rather famous cheerleading group, all between 55-85 years of age. It was a long trip with a major flight delay getting out of Philly, but we made it in time to get some sleep and wake up early for our first interview of the day. Actually a rooster woke us all up at 4 am, but that’s another story!

Traveling with an experienced crew is awesome.   I travel with a Director of Photography, a Second Camera person, a Sound Mixer and a Production Manager. Each plays an integral role in the filming of the subjects and uses multiple pieces of equipment to ensure we get exactly what we need. I can’t begin to describe the amount of equipment that goes into a film shoot like ours.  I wish I had taken a picture of it all gathered together in the many shipping containers, special cases, etc.  Hours are spent packing, unpacking, building and dismantling cameras and other equipment.  It is a major process for each crew member.

Zac, one of the owners of Expressway Productions, is our Director of Photography, or DP. He has been with me since the beginning of the project and truly understands what I am looking for when interviewing the women.  He manages the rest of the crew to ensure lighting, sound and alternative film shots are capturing all possibilities.  Aside from that he is the “King of B-Roll.”  That stands for background footage.  No matter where we are, or who we are shooting, there is ample time set aside to capture film footage related to the subject we are covering.  A most recent example: picture me driving a 12-Passenger van/bus (the kind that almost needs a ladder to enter) slowly through the streets of Sun City, AZ with a huge camera set on a tripod, touching my right shoulder and completely blocking my view to the right.  The lens is pointed out the front windshield and is capturing the neighborhoods, the orange trees and the senior citizens on golf carts.  This goes on for an hour or two until Zac feels we have enough footage. On occasion he asks me to stop and he hops out, grabs another camera for a close up shot of a sign he likes.  Little pieces of this footage will make it into the film.  I love waiting to see what catches his eye.

Zac is a perfectionist.  He does not quit until he gets the lighting just right or the shot framed exactly as he wants it.  I watch him.  He’s watching the light fade to night and he is springing into action to go outside and secure a light panel against a picture window.  That amount of light coming in through the blinds keeps the lighting consistent and we go on. By the end of the filming, forgetting about the panel,  I am tricked into thinking it is still light outside.

We ended our second day of filming in AZ with the Wickenburg Rodeo Days Parade.  Two and a half miles. Zac, Ian and Sean walked, jogged and ran the distance getting shots of the Sun City Poms from every possible angle. Sometimes they wore harnesses that held their heavy equipment, sometimes not.  They kept up with the 80 year old baton twirler and the rest of the Poms, with an average age of 74, performing to the tune of Achy Breaky Heart. It was quite a sight. I don’t know who amazed me more, the Poms or our camera crew.

I have no doubt that when I begin editing the many hours of footage from Sun City it will all be good and once again I will have trouble choosing what to use in the segment. Stay tuned!

Thanks Zac, for being a great partner and a truly exceptional DP.

Have a great day!

Love, Melissa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is Something About Vermont

There is Something About Vermont

I have lived in a number of states and climates throughout my lifetime. I have been fortunate to have visited all but two states in the U.S. and several different countries. That said, I feel justified from an experience standpoint to say “there is something about Vermont.”  Those of you who know me have often heard me say I wished I was still there.

My family moved to Vermont when I was entering 10th grade.  I wasn’t happy about it then as you may imagine. Coming from a more urban area it was an adjustment. Walking into a new high school, (Go Rutland Raiders!), not knowing anyone, registered about a 7.5 on my anxiety scale.  Luckily I have the kind of personality that allows me to walk up to strangers and introduce myself.  Luckier was the fact that the first people I approached were kind and curious about the new kid.  It did not take me long at all to form friendships and get introduced to my new town.

At some point during this introduction I looked up.  I can’t remember the exact moment but I stopped thinking about what 15 year old girls think about and I noticed something. I saw the staggering beauty of the mountains that formed a circle around the town.  It was foliage season and the colors were spectacular.  The air seemed cleaner than what I had been used to and there was a slowness that existed around me that felt comforting.  It was like my breathing became slower there.  I actually recognized that at age 15, so there must have been something special going on.

Life went on, as it does, and I left Vermont for other places but came back twice and not because my family was there.  The second time I returned they had already moved away themselves.  I came back because I could breathe better.  I say that as a state of mind, not that I have breathing issues! It always felt safe and was a place where I could collect my thoughts and figure out my plan.  The combination of the natural beauty, the people and the simplistic way of life still suits me well.

Why then didn’t I stay?  Lack of opportunity for me back then was the real kicker.  I had two children I was going to have to put through college someday and the prospects of advancing my career were limited.  Add to that long, hard winters.  I was not financially equipped at the time to have the appropriate vehicle to live where I was living. Being semi-off the grid (only wood heat) in a drafty old farmhouse at the top of the mountain is a challenge in both winter and mud season.

Each year it took 9 cords of wood to heat the house using two woodstoves and I became adept at helping to split and cut wood. It was hard living but it was glorious.  Our view, all the way to the New Hampshire White Mountains, was breathtaking in every season. The kids could cross country ski out the door for as many miles as they wanted to.  The four room school house they attended had some of the best teachers they would ever have. My friends were the best.  There were locals and those who had come from all over the country because they too had felt that special something. I felt pretty rich then even though I had no money.

But it wasn’t to be forever given my nagging desire to grow and expand my future opportunities.

My last exodus from the Green Mountain state was 33 years ago. Seems I have lived a couple of lives since then.  I still go back, not nearly as often as I would like, and still dream of having a little house there that I can escape to.

Each time I go, as soon as I cross the border into Vermont, I take a deep breath and feel the same calmness wash over me that I felt 51 years ago when I was a sophmore in high school. It’s pretty magical and I have met others who say they have that same experience.

I get to have the feeling again this week as I drive north, entering into Vermont on Wednesday.  This time I will bring my work with me as I will be filming a woman in Lamoille Valley for the Beyond Sixty Project.  I can’t wait to get up there with the crew and hang out on Lake Elmore for a couple of days and take in the winter scenery.  Anticipating the feeling I will get is already making me smile.

I hope you have a place you can go to that gives you peace and calm.  Sure is worth the journey. If you haven’t tried Vermont I highly recommend it!

Love and Peace,

Melissa

 

 

 

A Look Back

A Look Back

2016 was quite a year. Unless you were hiding away all year in your safe place you know it was not a particularly good year.

In the United States we had a historic election. The battle to the White House was the nastiest in history. We had our first woman on the ballot.  She lost after securing the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes.  I will not elaborate.   It has all been said.

Europe saw continued focus on terror attacks with the worst assaults in Istanbul and Brussels.

In Orlando a mass murderer opened fire inside the Pulse Nightclub, our deadliest mass shooting of the year.

Britain voted to leave the EU, a real shocker to folks across the pond with rippling financial consequences. There are efforts underway to block Brexit so we will have to stay tuned.

Cyber hacks and WikiLeaks contined to make regular headlines.  The Russians have been accused of hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s email server, attempting to sway the election in Trump’s favor.  WikiLeaks may have conspired with them by releasing thousands of the hacked emails.  Data breaches at many of large US corporations may have put your personal information at risk.  Yahoo just announced this past week that their system had been hacked…..again.

Aleppo. A humanitarian travesty of epic proportions. Pray for these people if you pray.

Fake news.  Apparently it is everywhere.  Will 2017 give us a guide to help us find real news?

_______Lives Matter.

I will stop with this list.  It is not nearly complete but certainly highlights some of the top issues we have faced as humans during this year, 2016.

However, good things happened in 2016 too.

A woman was acutally on the Presidential ballot.  We have to remind ourselves of that milestone. The thick glass ceiling was shattered by Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris and Catherine Cortez Masto, when they were elected to the Senate. Pramila Jayapal and Stepahnie Murphy grabbed seats in the House of Represenatives.

The US women’s gymnastic team took home some gold!

Sexual assault survivors got a Bill of Rights ensuring their cases will be regulated fairly.

Friends of mine were married.  New babies were born. There is healthy food on my table. My family unit is well and working hard at their life interests.

I have hope for 2017.  Even though I consider myself a realist, I am also optimistic.  I have seen countless tragedies unite people to improve common causes.  I have a feeling we will see more of this in 2017. I will certainly continue to do my best to be a part of something larger than myself.

I was supremely fortunate in 2016 and for that I am very grateful. I hope you can say the same. Thank you for following my blog and reaching out to me with ideas and suggestions for my new venture. Your kindness and support is a part of what keeps me grounded and moving forward.  I appreciate each of you and wish you all good things in the year to come.

Peace and love,

Melissa

“You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one”

John Lennon

 

 

 

 

I Met Santa Claus: He is Real

I Met Santa Claus: He is Real

Santa Claus.  You may know him. He is also known as Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas or just plain Santa.  Our modern Santa is based on the traditions of old St. Nick, a fourth century Greek Bishop and giver of gifts, as well as the British version Father Christmas.  Santa’s place in history is well established.

I know him as very jolly, with a white beard, small spectacles and wearing a red velvet suit with beautiful white fur trim.  He lives at the North Pole and has a workshop there where he employs elves to help him create and assemble toys and games.  I am pretty sure he keeps a list of all children that tracks their naughty and nice behavior throughout the year. All well-behaved children receive gifts from him each Christmas morning. He seems to be a forgiving man.

This year at Thanksgiving I was having a conversation with my oldest brother.  We were talking about Christmas Eve 1957 or 1958 when we lived in Fairfield, CT.  I was shocked to learn that he too saw Santa Claus flying through the air with his sled and eight famous reindeer that night.  I have known since then that I saw him.  For sure.  I don’t bring it up much. Who would? But now I know it’s true.  It’s like when two people see the same UFO. You can confirm it!  We saw Santa Claus.  It made me feel vindicated and happy.

This weekend I took my youngest grandson, Owen, to Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA. They were having a winter festival and we thought it would be a nice drive to the country, away from the holiday shopping crowds.

When we arrived we parked the car and talked about how it seemed cold enough to snow. No sooner had we finished our short conversation and little flurries started falling from the sky. It felt kind of magical and we looked at each other in that knowing way, where you don’t have to say anything but your thoughts tumble out. Magic!

As we walked toward the little shop we noticed Santa Claus sitting in an old sleigh out in the yard.  Owen grabbed for my hand and slowed his pace.  He said, “Hey Grammy, let’s go in the store first.”  I sensed his hesitation about going to meet Santa and we headed into the store to browse.  When we had browsed thoroughly we headed out. Once again he grabbed my hand and steered me in the opposite direction of Santa.  We found ourselves at the organic hot chocolate table and ordered one.

Looking for a place to sit we found benches around a roaring fire pit, situated about 15 yards from Santa.  Owen made it clear that he wasn’t interested in going over to the sleigh to meet Santa but he was enjoying watching him from a distance.  Occasionally a small child would be lifted into the sleigh to sit with Santa and we watched as he talked with them. He seemed very interested in what they had to say, spending a good amount of time with each child.

Soon the short line was empty and we watched as Santa climbed down out of the sleigh. He started slowly walking in our direction and stopped at the fire pit, warming his hands. Not looking at us he said, “sure is cold today, isn’t it?” Owen stiffened a little next to me and I answered that yes it was cold.  We started a little conversation and eventually he asked if it was ok if he sat down on the bench with us.  Owen, eyes averted, nodded yes.  Then there we were. The three of us sitting on a bench by the fire talking about Christmas, the weather, about friends and elves and favorite toys, especially Legos.  Owen told him all about his friend Roman and they both agreed Roman might make a good elf someday.  As Owen and Santa continued their conversation I noticed a few children lining up at the sleigh to meet Santa.  Santa saw them too but he hadn’t finished his conversation with Owen yet and seemed in no hurry.  He was busy telling Owen how he had made a birdhouse out of Legos that was later destroyed by squirrels!  They have squirrels at the North Pole!

When it was time to leave and let Santa get back to his sleigh and the waiting children, we wished each other a very Merry Christmas and then Santa winked at me. He had a real twinkle in his eye. I saw it. Owen was silent on the walk back to the car.  When he was all buckled in he said, “Santa Claus is real Grammy, and he is very nice.”

I met Santa Claus on Saturday and he was as real as real can be.

I hope your holiday season is filled with magic!

Love, Melissa (aka Grammy)