I know, I know, I disappeared from the blog!  The overtime at work combined with the awesome-but-hectic Writers on the Verge schedule has kept me hopping, but I was determined to write some kind of entry before the year was out.

I’m not a resolution type of person.  I feel like I set goals all the time, and they don’t get bogged down with the implications of January 1st and a new year, so rather than think about what’s to come, I thought I’d take a minute and think about the five best things I did in 2011.  Some of them were fun, some were about hard choices, but all of them helped make this a huge year of change and growth for me that I am incredibly grateful for.

1.  Mother’s Day at the Greek

My mother isn’t really a concert person, but I felt a very strong urge to do something really memorable for Mother’s Day this year.  I was worried that when I proposed my great idea, she’d turn her nose up at the whole concept of coming to LA for a girls’ night out.  So imagine my surprise when she said yes… and not only agreed but was excited about the prospect.  So I scored us tickets to Wavefest at the Greek Theatre, which in a few short years of patronage has become my favorite LA concert venue.

We had our moments to be sure… she does not like having to walk anywhere, and it’s always a walk, even from the new unstacked parking, and she refused to stand still while I tried to find our way back to the car, leaving me terrified she’d fall in a hole along those terrible dirt patches and make me rush her to the hospital (both typical conflicts when Mama Levy and I are out together; that’s just how we roll).  But those little downs were nothing compared to the ups.  She thoroughly enjoyed the E Family, one of the main draws because we both love Sheila E.  And then she became an instant fan of Macy Gray, who is a phenomenal live performer.  It was a great night; well worth the effort it took to make happen; and a memory I know I’ll hold on to forever.

2.  Farewell Modesty Blaise

When I was 13 years old, my mother bought me my first Modesty Blaise book… “Last Day in Limbo.”  She bought it largely because she was tired of hearing me go on and on about some clearly important moment in my teenaged life and sent me off to find a book to read so she could enjoy her own trip to the bookstore, and since it was the only book I asked for, she couldn’t say no.  Neither of us knew that she was introducing me to my favorite fictional character of all time.  In the years since, I have hunted down both classic copies and new printings of every Modesty Blaise adventure and even have a collection of some of the comic strips.  But a few years ago, one of my best friends bought me the final collection of Modesty Blaise short stories, and while I tore through the majority of the book within a week or two, I left the final story unread, knowing that the end was really the end.

But this year, I was in this great groove of finishing things and moving on and letting go (more on that later,) and so I picked up “Cobra Trap” and finally… finally… read the last story.

It was a little heartbreaking to be sure, and I am incredibly sad there will be no new Modesty tales to come.  And yet I’m so grateful that Peter O’Donnell made the choice to end his character’s story in his own way and let her go.  Because one of the main reasons I’ve always loved the way he writes her is also the main reason I think no one has made a good adaptation in film or TV of the material… everyone else focuses on Modesty’s badassness–her criminal history, her physical strength, her ability with weaponry, her use of sex to get what she wants.  But O’Donnell always perfectly balanced all of those elements of Modesty with the very complete woman who survived a hellish childhood and emerged determined to live a full life.  She loves, deeply, built herself a family of treasured friends because the world had stolen away whatever biological connections she’d once had, and her later life, spent largely saving strangers and her loved ones from all kinds of nefarious characters, is rich and as often tinged with laughter and the ridiculous as it is shrouded in danger.

But now I know how Modesty’s story ends.  It suited her.  And thanks to the vivid books he left behind, Peter O’Donnell has made sure that just like Sir Gerald and Willie Garvin, I can always find her when I need her.

3.  Writing. Portfolio. Explosion.

Considering there have been years where I worked upwards of 65 hours a week, I used to feel pretty darn good about myself if I got one solid spec out in a year, let alone two.  So this year, thanks to the inspiration from the CBS Writers’ mentoring program and the demands of the NBC Writers on the Verge schedule, I got myself kicked into a new gear. (It didn’t hurt that my life just demanded I cut back on work hours and hover somewhere around a much more livable 48-hour-a-week range).  So I will exit 2011 with four specs and three pilots and two other pilots in stages of plotting and/or outlining.  And I can’t wait to see what my brain and keyboard conspire to come up with next.

4.  Balance, balance, and more balance

I was born with a workaholic gene, and while it has been of fabulous use to me during the years I was working my way through school or taking on a ton of responsibility that required a lot of sacrifice at my various jobs, it has tended to make it hard for me to just throw my hands up and say “yes, I want to do that” sometimes when my friends want to run out for a spur-of-the-moment happy hour or when a great opportunity for adventure appears out of nowhere.

This year, I made a promise to myself I’d do better; and I did.  I found enough Saturday evening dinners and Sunday morning brunches to stay in touch with my incredible friends, I got better at texting for the friends who love to communicate that way, I gave in and bought the last-minute tickets to see Idina Menzel (also at the Greek) for my birthday because I deserved it, and even if I had to cut down a workout from 60 minutes to 30 because of some other personal or work demand, I gave myself credit for doing the 30 minutes and stopped lamenting what there wasn’t time for.

Balance made some very hard days in 2011 much easier to endure because I had the reserves to get through them.  It made it easier to come to terms with letting my baking business go because my writing career is simply demanding too much of my attention (which is to be celebrated and enjoyed, believe me!).  And when a day was really bad… I let it be bad.  Because I knew the next day, I could take a deep breath and start all over again and maybe that day would be better.

I’m going try to do even better in 2012.  I sense some travel in my future… because in 2011, I also FINALLY got a passport.  Yeah, I have no clue how that never happened before, but now it’s time for some stamps!

5.  Embracing the New

This past year has brought so much new into my life… new demands, new people, new interests.  And I am welcoming it in and trusting that who and what are meant to stick will and that everyone and everything else will provide the lesson meant to be learned and then become a part of my past.

If you know me, you know that’s kind of revolutionary in my way of thinking.  Because new isn’t always my favorite thing.  But this influx of energy and experiences has been so important to me this year, giving me chances to be there for others, to find out how can I payback some of the kindness that’s been given to me, to enjoy the strength of some new shoulders to lean on when I need them, and to broaden my universe through the relationships that have come my way.

 

There’s a promise of a lot new to come in 2012… beloved nephews who are now old enough to drive, a niece who owns a wedding dress and is eyeing a “Mrs” at the front of her name, and another staffing season looms.  So thanks, 2011, for all that you brought to the party.

2012… what you got for me?

 

Advertisements

I recently picked up a copy of Sela Ward’s book “Homesick: A Memoir” because I’ve been missing my father a lot lately, and since Sela grew up in Mississippi, too, I figured it would, at the very least, make me smile.

It did, and it also reminded me of some of the silly and great things about our family visits to Yazoo City to see my father’s family.

Trips to Mississippi were always met with both a “yay!” and a groan in our house because as much fun as we knew we’d have once we got there, we also knew it meant the car ride from hell.  My parents weren’t into planes.  They flew when they had to for work or emergencies, but given the chance to drive somewhere, drive we did.

I don’t know if you’ve ever driven from California to Mississippi, but let me tell you, it is not fun.  We always had to go in summer because my parents would never let us miss school for a vacation, and so it meant heat that made the car feel like an oven even with the air conditioning on.  And my father was that father who only wanted to stop the car when he wanted to stop it.  That always led to some pretty tense moments between my parents, and inevitably, my mother asking me or, if they were on the trip, one of my older siblings, to tell him we “had to go” so he’d grudgingly pull over at a rest stop or restaurant.  For us, he would stop, but he wouldn’t be happy about it.

Texas… dear Lord, is there anything worse on a road trip than driving across Texas?  I’m gonna say no.  It would take us forever to get to the border into Louisiana (we were also visiting New Orleans to see Mama’s family, but that’s another blog entirely!), and on almost every trip, by the time we reached said border, my mother was no longer talking to my father, so I was in the front seat with Daddy, and we’d have a little celebration to mark finally being free from Texas as we made it onto Louisiana soil.

But the Texas crossing did bring one of my best and fondest memories of those trips.  After a long day of driving, we checked into a motel and went to get dinner.  Finding that they had “breakfast all day,” I excitedly ordered a full stack of pancakes and took insult when the waitress told my mother “you might want to get her the short stack.  They’re kinda big.”  My mom told her to let me have what I wanted, and then my dad ordered “the biggest beer you have.”

Oh, my goodness… the biggest beer they had proved that “everything is bigger in Texas.”  The mug was big enough to fit over my father’s head like a helmet, and it was filled to the brim.  I don’t even know how that woman carried it to the table, I just know even my dad had tears in his eyes from laughing over how ridiculously large that beer was.

Then my pancakes came… four of them, every single one an inch thick and about the diameter of a full-size dinner plate.  My mother eyed them and then looked at me, and we both knew the short stack would probably have been a better idea.  Still, I tried my best… but half that stack of pancakes never left the plate.

Another thing I loved about those trips was all the little roadside stores we’d stop at (when we forced my dad to stop) and the souvenirs I convinced my parents to buy me.  I loved these cheesy wooden games we’d find made out of tree sections and golf tees, and had I not lost them by the end of every trip, I’d have quite the collection.  But this was before DVD players came mounted in cars, and anything that kept me from asking 200 questions was a welcome friend to my family.  And of course, there was also the Whee-lo, which could keep me quiet for hours until the wheel eventually flew off and fell under my parents’ seat, and then it turned into my mother swearing a lot while she looked for it.

But then finally, we’d be in Yazoo City, where my family lived in three houses placed along the same street.  My grandparents house was up on this hill and I remember always being terrified I’d fall while trying to walk down.  My aunts, Joanne and Rosie, lived on opposite sides of the street a little ways down.

My Grandma Levy was a character and a half, and I know much of my father’s no-nonsense personality came from her.  She was famous for responding to a greeting of “hey” with “Hay is for horses.”  My grandpa, who everyone called Daddy Red, loved that I loved to dig for worms for fishing trips.  It was one of my all-time favorite parts of our visits there… digging in that warm mud and trying to find the best worms for my dad and grandpa.

One of those fishing trips turned into another family classic.  My mother, who is nobody’s outdoorswoman, trust me, got a bite and pulled in her line.  But she hadn’t caught a fish… she’d caught a snake.  My father, much to my Aunt Rosie’s amusement, responded to my mother’s screams and, seeing the snake, put his hands in his pockets and said, “Well, what do you expect me to do about it?”  Me?  I was busy ducking because my mom was waving that thing all over creation.

One not so found memory?  I was helping my Aunt Joanne take some jars of something into the house… preserves maybe?  I can’t remember to tell the truth, though I have a good excuse.  I stepped on an area rug with my hands full, and said rug took off across the wood floor with me along for the ride.  I saw the edge of a wooden table coming toward me and then the next thing I knew, I was on the couch in my grandparents’ house, my dad saying “She’s fine, she’s fine,” my mother crying, and my grandma looking down at me trying to decide if I needed a doctor or not.  They opted for not, and I survived, so it must have been the right call.

Those summers were full of my crazy cousins trying to teach me tricks on their 10-speeds, which were way too big for me, and riding bikes with the local kids who lived up the street, and trips into town to buy Munchos (but never alone; Levy kids never went into town alone because our family was a little too racially mixed for anyone’s liking, and you never wanted anyone to catch you alone), and thunder storms that could scare the daylights out of a kid from the California desert.  And as much as I hated being eaten alive by the mosquitoes, I always hated leaving more because there was just something so amazingly freeing about being able to wake up in the morning, walk down the hill (without falling!), visit both aunts’ homes, and then run back up to my grandparents without ever having to tell anyone where I was going or have someone worried about where I’d gone off to.  It was a sense of freedom I never got to experience at home, where there was constant calling in to say I’d gotten here or was going there, and for those few days every summer, it was heaven.

I haven’t been back to Mississippi for years now, real life, school, work, and trying to build a career all taking up too much time to make the trip.  But as Sela’s book drew out my own memories, it made me want to go back again so badly, not just because I want to see what it all really looks like now compared to my memories, but because, I think, there is something oddly poetic about the fact that my father passed away in the town of his youth on a visit home.  I know that even though he’s buried in California in my hometown, the fact that Yazoo City is both where his life started and ended will always make it a place of special meaning.

Of course, if I do go back now, I’ll have to wear a suit of armor.  Turns out adulthood has made me allergic to mosquito bites.  Oh, and I’ll be flying… because you can’t drive and play Whee-lo at the same time.

Once, an acquaintance of mine overheard me telling someone a story about my favorite football coach.  When I was finished, she asked, “how exactly does someone end up with a favorite coach?”

I explained to her that football is one of the true deep loves of my life, and that while I admired many players and had a few beloved teams, yes, I did have a favorite coach because he’d not only changed the way I looked at the game, he’d changed the way I look at my life as a person and as a writer.

Tony Dungy is a man who lives in faith, and I respect him immensely for it even if my own relationship with it can best be described as “rocky” and “under construction.”  But he’s one of those people who walks the talk that comes out of his mouth, and as such, he coached both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts in the manner in which he lived… quietly, thoughtfully, earning respect by giving it, and by instilling a sense of discipline in those around him.

He didn’t scream at people to get them to do what he wanted, he didn’t curse at officials or badmouth management, even when he had good reason.  In fact, there were times I kind of wanted to see him lose it, but just when you’d think Coach was finally going to lay into a player who was putting self ahead of team — one of the biggest sins you can commit in Dungy football — he’d just get this look of utter disappointment on his face.

And his players would tell us in interview after interview… disappointing Coach Dungy was the one thing you never wanted to do.  I remember one player saying he begged coach to yell at him after getting into some off-field trouble, but that calm voice remained steady, and the player said he’d never felt worse in his life.

I’ve often posted on Facebook after an episode of “Friday Night Lights” where fictional coach Eric Taylor was especially awesome that every kid should have a Coach Taylor.

Every kid should have a Coach Dungy, too.

Coach had lost his job in Tampa for not having the killer instinct, but found a job in Indy because Jim Irsay wanted a man to lead the Colts on and off the field, and he more than got his money’s worth.  And still those rumblings began again, because every year it seemed the Colts just had to finally be ready to win it all and then every year, they came up short.  So there it was… Dungy will never get them to the Super Bowl… Dungy’s too conservative… too nice.  Dungy doesn’t have the killer instinct…

Then the world reminded us there were more important things than trophies and win-loss columns.

When James Dungy took his own life at 18, Colts fans mourned with the Dungy family as best we could, but we all knew that they were facing a tragedy we couldn’t even begin to imagine.  And yet there Coach stood, delivering a eulogy for his son that celebrated the gift of the 18 years they’d received with James, and somehow lifting up everyone around him on what was surely one of the most difficult days of his life.

And then Coach went back to work, and the Colts didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.  In years past, that would’ve left me cussing out my television and hating on whoever had beaten them, wishing them defeat at someone’s hands so they could get what they had coming.  But in January of 2006, when the Colts went home, it felt like a relief… Coach could be with his family, the players had time to grieve the kid they’d known so well, and we could all just take a moment to hope that everyone left behind who had loved James would be okay.

The next year, Coach Dungy returned to his team, and the Colts returned to the playoffs.  But there was no week off in the 2006-2007 playoffs, no dominance that screamed the Colts were a shoe-in for the AFC title game.  First there was a wild card game against Kansas City; then the Baltimore Ravens, who routinely made it their life’s work to beat Peyton Manning to a pulp, but somehow… a win; and then… the New England Patriots, who lived to destroy the Colts’ playoff dreams.

The Colts were behind the majority of the game, and I couldn’t imagine that the team and the fans had come this far to not make it to the promised land once again.  My heart ached a little at the thought of watching Coach Dungy have to shake hands from the losing sideline again… not after he’d come back, not after what his family had sacrificed for him to have another shot at the big game.  And then one of my closest friends, who is also a huge football fanatic, said to me, “Just have a little faith.  You know they can do it.”

So I had a little faith… and just said over and over again, “they can do it.”

And they did.

Now I’m not trying to take any credit for that… no magical thinking here.  What was more important was the reminder from my friend.  The Colts had done everything the way they believed was right for them… they had followed Coach Dungy’s lead, held firm to their philosophy of how to win, and they had earned that win with every second of hard work they’d put in all year… in all the years since Dungy had come to Indy… through that final whistle.

Their belief was rewarded even bigger on February 4, 2007, when the Colts took home the Lombardi trophy and made Tony Dungy a Super Bowl winning coach.

And what in the world, you ask, does all this have to do with me, my life, or writing?  Well, it has to do with what I learned by watching Coach Dungy walk through his coaching life back from his assistant days with the Minnesota Vikings, which is where I first became acquainted with his coaching philosophy.  You don’t have to be the loudest, you don’t have to ignore everything else in your life except the job, you don’t have to listen when people tell you that you have to change who you are to get where you want to go if you’re sure who you are is the best person you can be.  You can instead keep working and moving forward and doing what you believe in your soul to be right.  And even if it takes a little longer… it will still get you to where you wanted to be all along.

This last year of my life has been filled with more excitement and optimism and more stress and disappointment than any year I’ve lived so far.  I like to think of it as the featured roller coaster in “Niceole Land,” and the ride is poised to continue.

But when it starts to feel like… well, like the downs are little more frequent than the ups… I think about Coach Dungy and how he got to where he wanted to be by doing the things he believed in his soul to be right.

It might take a little longer… but I’ll get there.  And I’ll still be me when it happens.

If you want to read something both entertaining and full of inspiration, pick up “Quiet Strength” by Tony Dungy.

What’s in a Name?

August 3, 2011

Naming characters is part of what we do as writers, and while I have a few names that I have to constantly remind myself to not use again (I have a thing about Gabriel and Emma… I constantly have to steer myself away from those for some reason), I mostly enjoy the process of figuring out what moniker goes with the latest characters I’m crafting.

I do try hard, though, not to spell names too oddly, which is a byproduct of my own name, no doubt.  I used to joke that my parents spelled it the way they did so I’d have to spell it for the rest of my life.  And in fact, I have to spell it and explain it constantly.  So for the record it’s pronounced Nicole but spelled Nice*Ole.  That’s how I teach people to spell it… “It’s Nice and then Ole.”  I still get all manner of spellings, though, and mispronunciations… most commonly, I get something that sounds like Neecee-ole, or Nichelle, and for some reason, people will look right at my name and call me Michelle.  That one’s just weird.

I found out a few years after I moved to Pasadena from my French chiropractor that mine is the antique French spelling of Nicole, before they dropped the extra “e.”  That makes sense… my mom’s people in New Orleans are the ones who came up with the spelling.  I love them, so I try not to be too mad, and really, everyone notices it, so I guess for a girl who got involved in entertainment, it worked out okay.

For some reason, Niceole was never hard for me to spell.  But my middle name?  There were many hours spent trying to comprehend how Rachel could sound like RayChul and not be spelled Raychel.  I used to get red check marks on my papers because I was sure everyone else was wrong and kept spelling it with the “y” until finally my favorite teacher managed to convince me to let it go.

Of course, Niceole and Rachel both pale in comparison to the spelling and nickname nightmare my life would’ve been had my mother gotten her way about naming me.  The woman gave birth to me, and did so at great risk to her own life… I realize this. (My parents were Rh incompatible, and thus, my siblings and I should not exist, and yet, we do).  But had my father not shown up at the hospital in time to thwart her, my name would’ve been, I kid you not, Sacagawea.  It’s a lovely name if you are a historical figure who helped blaze a trail in the new world.  But consider it… my name would have been Sacagawea Levy.  You can see how, by comparison, being tortured with spelling Niceole over and over again is nothing.  Especially since I’d probably have massive therapy bills from growing up being called by every permutation of “Sac” imaginable, everywhere I went through childhood and adolescence.

By coincidence, at least, so says my mother, I discovered while I was in grade school that her two favorite soap opera characters were Nicole Drake on “The Edge of Night” and Rachel Cory on “Another World.”  But she swears that has nothing to do with the name I ended up with.  I’ll let you all draw your own conclusion, but I think you can guess what I think of that denial.

While we’re on the topic of names, a tip to my fellow writers… did you know that until your character is referred to by name on screen so the hearing audience has heard it, your closed captioners cannot use their name to identify them?  Yeah… I once had to identify a main character in a show as (woman) for three episodes because no one would say her name.  Just a little fact to file away for when you watch cuts of your pilots before they finish post.

So what are some of my favorites from the character names I’ve come up with?  Tops is from a short story I wrote called “How to Be a Man” about a young boy learning how to pick his battles thanks to a story his grandfather tells him about a legendary moonshine runner named Shamus Amos Jamison.  And you always had to call him by all three names… never just Shamus.  I’m also pretty fond of the lead in my pilot “Thin Air” because Emerson Carter’s name somehow conveys the weight she carries on her shoulders.

And what about my favorite character names from that long list of TV shows I’ve watched?  Here’s a few I really loved:

Frank Pembleton… Tim Riggins… Addison Montgomery… Sonny Crockett… David McNorris… Denny Crane… Jonas Blane… Miss Parker… Liz Lemon… Wilhelmina Slater…

I could go on and on.  But of course, no name will ever top one I have loved unconditionally since hearing it… a gem from my love of cheesetastic movies which may be one of the most unforgettable monikers ever:

Sho’Nuff, The Shogun of Harlem (God love you, Julius J. Carry III).

And OMG I just discovered you can watch “The Last Dragon” at Crackle — get the to the cheesetasticness!

http://www.crackle.com/c/The_Last_Dragon/The_Last_Dragon/2460332

When I started the CBS Diversity Writers Mentoring Program, we had to submit a little bio about ourselves.  Mine started off like this:  “Niceole Levy has watched more than 700 prime-time television shows in her lifetime and often jokes that her Master of Professional Writing degree from USC was simply a way to justify all that TV time as ‘advanced research.’  Now she also calls it work, her position as a closed captioning supervisor providing access to hours of drama and comedy programming for her viewing pleasure.”

A few clarification points:

1. The actual number of television shows has just hit 746.

2.  I really do get paid to watch TV, so a lot of those shows were watched for income, though some of those were certainly enjoyable and a few became favorites.

3.  I know it’s hard to believe after seeing how much TV I’ve watched, but I do not spend all my time sitting in front of a television.  On top of the obvious — writing — I cook, bake (a lot), do Pilates and dance workouts, walk, shoe shop (more than I should), spend time with family and friends, and go to a lot of summer movies where pretty boys blow up lots of things.  In other words, I actually have a life that doesn’t involve TV.  So how do I manage to watch so much?  I apparently sacrifice sleep over a chance to hang with my favorite characters.

So, yeah, there’s been a lot of TV.  I love it… not a bad thing to love the industry you want to spend the rest of your life working in, right?  But out of that 746 shows (Wow.  That really starts to look like A LOT of TV when I keep typing it), there are 5 key shows that had the biggest impact on the writer I have become and the one I continue to strive to be.  And clearly I’m about to tell you what they are and why, but with this note — your 5 is probably different, and more power to you.  There are some amazing shows that I love that won’t make this list (“China Beach,” “The Unit,” “The Sopranos,” “Boston Legal,” and the single-season gem “Terriers” to name but a few.)  But these are the ones that, as I sit down to craft pilots, I think back on in the hope of trying to create something that is even a fraction as well-drawn, moving, and memorable.

1.  “Hill Street Blues.”  One of the most striking things about Hill Street to me is that really, if you could CGI in modern clothes and switch out the giant hand-held portable phones for smart phones, the subject matter holds up remarkably well.  But one of the best things about HSB was that they were never afraid to reveal awful things about characters you loved… recovering alcoholic J.D. LaRue seemed to always be one step away from self-destructing, and even Renko’s friendship with Bobby Hill couldn’t always keep his old-school racism at bay.  The writers also didn’t hide from the emotional costs or the life-and-death realities of what it meant to live your life on a beat, and often delivered that message with a punch to the gut for viewers.  In a spoiler-free world, I had no idea Ed Marino’s Joe Coffey was going to be gunned down, and it absolutely broke my heart.

And to top it off, Frank and Joyce… who were the first couple I saw on television that made me think about what a real relationship should look like outside of all the romance and perfection so many other shows put on display.  What did it really mean for two strong adults to try to put their two lives together and make a marriage work?  I’m not sure I’d ever thought about that before these two forced me to think about relationships in more grown-up terms.

2.  “Homicide: Life on the Street.”  The true testament to the power of this show in my life can be summed up with one episode title:  “Three Men and Adena.”  The episode is so brutal and so upsetting that I have barely been able to rewatch it more than once since I first saw it.  Because if Frank and Tim are right?  If they’re right, then their inability to bring Risley Tucker (played by the always amazing Moses Gunn) to justice is injustice at its worst.  And if they’re wrong?  They destroyed a man emotionally and still couldn’t close their case.

Those were the stakes the cops of “Homicide” faced every week, and they pulled no punches, not when one of their own committed suicide or faced losing a part of himself after a stroke on the job, and not when one of Baltimore’s finest becomes a murderer rather than let a murderer go free.

3.  “NYPD Blue.”  I know, another cop show!  But while Blue yet again dealt with cops, it was the character arc of one Andy Sipowicz that made it one of the shows I cherish most.  If anyone had told me in year one that I would come to care so much for Andy, I’d have laughed at them.  He was everything you’d come to expect in the disillusioned depiction of a cop… a racist, a sexist, a bad husband and father, a drunk.  And yet piece by piece, we watched Andy’s life be rebuilt… destroyed… and rebuilt again.

It’s hard to say which of the tragedies Andy suffered broke my heart more… the day he found his son was the victim in the murder he’d responded to, the loss of his best friend Bobby Simone, or the death of his beloved Sylvia.  But there is no doubt what my favorite Andy moment of all was… the last one, with Andy, now a fully-realized, strong, sober, happy man, in charge of the squad he loved after putting in all the hard work it had taken to earn the job and the respect that went along with it.  It was one of the most amazing journeys I’ve ever been on with a character, and hey, as you know from the TV show total, I’ve been on a lot of them.

4.  “Once and Again.”  Gone far before its time, this show’s depiction of the complexities of life post-divorce, of falling in love again, of blending families, and of growing older never failed to move me.  There were no perfect people anywhere to be found in this tale, no white knights riding in on horses to save the damsel.  But there was such a level of honesty in how they revealed each layer to their characters, some hidden so deep that even in the final episode, Rick and Lily were still realizing that after they’d said I do and supposedly set out on their happily ever after, there was still a chance that they might want different things out of life, and what did that mean for their family?

Even when I wanted to yell at them, because everyone on this show could be a jerk, (because seriously, who can’t?)  I felt their confusion and their struggle with whatever was motivating the jerky behavior.  Years after the final episode, I still think of how much I would’ve loved to see Rick and Lily have their baby and face squeezing one more person into their already bustling lives or what a joy it would’ve been to see Karen finally… finally allow herself to be happy with Henry Higgins or how amazing it would’ve been to see this extended family that always found a way to tell the truth, even if it took a few lies or omissions to get there, discover and accept Jessie’s sexuality.

5.  “Friday Night Lights.”  The most recent entry to my Fantastic Five, but no less beloved than the others, from the very first episode of FNL, I knew I’d love this show forever.  Something about the way you felt everyone else’s reaction to Jason Street’s injury told you about what this show was and what you could expect from it, and even that one little misstep in season two (okay, not so little, but still, we all got over it, right?) did nothing to diminish my devotion.  This show faced the task of replacing treasured characters as the originals “aged out” and graduated, and I remember being so worried that I’d never feel for Vince Howard the way I had about Matt Saracen.  Who could touch my heart the way 7 had?  And yet I went into the final season of the show worried sick that Vince’s past might come back to destroy him and hoping against hope that he would stay on the path Coach Taylor had set him on.  And could I love any character more than Tim Riggins?  He was every guy you’ve ever known who is good at heart and can’t seem to catch a break.  And yet finally, even Tim Riggins seemed on the path to a good life because of the town that never forgot him and the people who loved him.

Much has been written about the Taylor marriage in FNL, and it is truly one of its finest aspects.  I won’t belabor it by repeating everything great that’s been written about it except to say that it was inspiring at every turn.  But one of the biggest things I will take away from FNL is the spirit of the show.  Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.  It wasn’t just Coach Taylor’s winning philosophy.  It was a summation of what you can do when you write from your heart and tell a great damn story.

So as my latest pilot outline goes to script, many of the things I consider on the journey will be those I’ve mentioned here.  How can my couples’ relationships be as meaningful and as important as the ones I loved so much?  How can I write an episode that someone will remember years later and think, “and that’s when I knew I’d love this show”?  Find the honesty, find the thing no one’s expecting, mine the layers to reveal something no one can see in the character until you peel back the skin, write an episode so powerful, it’s almost unwatchable… those will be my goals… and now, off to write I go.

P.S. If you haven’t seen any of the above — get thee DVDs!  You won’t regret it.  And, fellow writers, what are the shows that made you want to write?  Hit the comments and share!  I can always use new inspiration!

As far as I can tell, everyone I know has been victimized by what I like to call “mom’s favorite phrase.”  Of course, most of us have a different one to relate… a mom’s response to how you dress (You’re really wearing that?) or how you do your hair (Did you see that on some TV show and think it looked good?) or that thing she says that makes it seem like she lives to embarrass you (Oh, I know she doesn’t like it, but I’m her mama, so I get to call her “baby doll” no matter how old she is.)

My mother’s favorite phrase is guaranteed to lift my shoulders to my ears, tense up my neck, and make me clench my teeth.  “I could be dead by… (insert necessary time frame here).”

–We try to plan a visit to my brother’s family in the fall.  “But I could be dead by October.”

–I invite her to spend Mother’s Day with me in the city.  “But I could be dead by that weekend.”

–A friend invites her on a road trip to Nevada.  “Well, she wants to go in April, but I could be dead by April.”

Why is that the phrase I wish I could get some higher power to permanently ban from usage where my mother is concerned?  Well, because frankly, I don’t like to be reminded that there will be a day when she will be dead by…  I know it’s inevitable, I know it’s the way things are supposed to work, but really, who wants to think about that?

She gets mad at me every time I remind her she’s not allowed to say that to me, and tells me that I take everything she says too seriously.  I’m sure that’s true to some extent.  She is, after all, the person who could pronounce a death sentence over my social life for days, week, and months at a time for an 18-year period of my life… I learned to take what my mother said very seriously during those 18 years.  And I know that what she really means is, “yes, let’s make plans, but just know that things can change and don’t get mad at me if they do.”

Recently, though, I’ve had a new thought about the dreaded “dead by” phrase.  And I think it’s bothered me my whole life not just because every time she says it, an image conjures of a world without my mother in it, but because those words have always sounded like a reason not to do things… not to make plans or chase a dream.  Instead of hearing it the way she meant it, I heard, “why bother?”

As I worked on my pilot “Thin Air” and as I struggle through the outline for my latest, I’ve realized that’s the question that interests me most about all my characters.  Why bother?  Why would I bother to write them?  Why would you bother to watch them?  What is it that makes them say “to hell with that, buy the plane tickets and let’s make the plans”?  And what makes them shake their heads and say “why bother”?  Exploring those issues with my detectives in “Thin Air” and with the driven and yet incredibly vulnerable McKellar family in the “in progress” script has led to whole blocks of writing time spent self-debating why a son comes home to a father he no longer believes in and why a daughter can’t begin her future until she confronts the worst moment of her past.  It’s finding those answers that reminds me, I’d do this every day for the rest of my life, even if no one ever paid me (but really, someone should pay me!)

As it turns out, for all my moaning and groaning about it, even when my mom says IT, she usually gives in and makes the plans.  Oh, there’s a lot of bitching and me having to plead and sometimes get a little snippy, but we usually end up on the plane to my brother’s, or she comes to the big city for a week of shopping and running around crazy with yours truly, or she accepts her friend’s invitation and goes on the road trip, which leads to her annoyance when I tell her to remember to call when she gets where she’s going (Since when do I have to call you?  I am the mama here).

Because sure… things can change, plans can blow up, and the risks… oh, torturous!  Technically, she’s right.  She could… we all could be dead by… but making the plans… making the plans means we hope we’ll still be here… which is why I like to think she always ends up making them.

And you know what she never says it about?  She never says it about the day she gets to see “written by Niceole Levy” on her TV screen.  She has definite plans to be here for that.  And I’m plotting away at this laptop, doing my best to deliver.

 Let’s make the plans!

Hello there, and welcome to what you could call “Niceole unplugged” but what I think of more as “rambling with purpose.”  Too many stories to share — that’s my problem, so I decided, hey, blog some of them!  But first… let’s have proper introductions.  If you’re going to jump on board this train and enjoy these nuggets o’ silliness in the proper context, there are a few things that you should know about me.

1.  My body is a character in my life.  Seriously — it has a mind of its own that is wholly separate from Niceole’s mind.  Friday night, for instance, I knew I had to go for a walk and my mind was in total agreement — no skipping the work out!  My body?  Not so much.  It filed three formal protests–a back spasm, a flare of knee pain, and just for good measure, a cramp in my calf muscle that remained post stretching.  My body’s mind is evil and it often does not like me.

2.  My family is crazy… but crazy in the good “hi-larious” kind of way and not the way that ends up with a Lifetime movie “based on a true story.”  I love them dearly and yet often threaten to give them up for adoption.  I’m sure they feel the same way about me, they just don’t blog it, so I get to live in denial.

3.  I really love what I love and I really hate what I hate.  I can listen to you tell me why you love what I hate or hate what I love objectively and respectfully, just know that it will not change my mind.  For reference, see “Faux ‘Battlestar Galactica'” and my friends who love it but know this O.G. “Battlestar” girl will never watch a minute of it.  Also see The Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins.  Nothing will ever make that hate go away, even if a few of my friends wish it would.  But I love them in spite of their poor football fandom and university choices, and they love my USC- and 49er-loving ass right back.

4.  I love shoes… more than someone should love shoes… and chocolate… and coffee… and television… and football.  These topics will probably pop up often, sometimes no doubt as part of or as a result of (see coping mechanisms) one of the crazy family stories.

Given all that, if you’re still reading, here’s the first crazy family story.  File this one under “parental contribution to the child becoming a writer.”

July 4th made me think a lot about my dad because I spent it watching documentaries.  One was “The Tillman Story,” which was great, though it broke my heart to watch this family have to fight so much ridiculousness just to get an answer to the question “how did Pat die?”  The second was “Lt. Dan Band: For the Common Good,” which detailed Gary Sinise’s work to support the troops, much of which involves his band, the aforementioned Lt. Dan Band, performing shows for the troops and their families at home and overseas.

My dad was a 22-year Navy man, and he told me about some of the shows he saw while he was in the service, so I know how important it is for anyone with talent and the will to share it to go and entertain our servicemen and women.  My friend Jackie Kashian, who is a great comic, has done so as well, and I admire her more for it than I could probably convey (though I hope the homemade “welcome home: you’re awesome” cookies were a decent attempt).

Anyway, thinking about the military reminded me of my dad, and brought to mind this day when I was probably about 4 years old.  I noticed that my father was mostly bald, and then I noticed that he was bald in every picture we had in the house, no matter how young he’d been.  He had a halo of dark, curly hair, but mostly, the whole top was bare as could be.  And being a kid who asked questions, I walked up to him one day and said, “Daddy, what happened to your hair?”

“Well, (embarrassing nickname withheld to protect the innocent),” he said, “when daddy was over in Vietnam, one day this grenade flew over top of my head.  And right when it blew up, it grabbed all my hair and just pulled it right out.”

I know what you’re thinking.  But in my defense, I WAS 4!  What 4 year old thinks her daddy would lie to her about anything?

A few years later, I was busy playing some form of cops and robbers on the playground when suddenly that story popped into my head, and I had that moment of “wait, what?! if a grenade went over his head, how is his head still on?”  I got my Mama to call my dad’s older sister and told her the story, my mother trying not to laugh in the background, but my aunt couldn’t keep it in.  She laughed till she cried and said, “Girl, don’t believe nothin’ that man tells you.  You know how he lost his hair?  He walked some girl home in the freezing cold with his head all out, and then didn’t listen when I told him he had frostbite and not to put hot water on his head.  He put that damn hot water on there, and all his hair fell out, and it ain’t never come back.”

For the record, I think my dad was just cursed with a receding hairline that took its toll by the time he was in his teens.  Which is not to say I haven’t Googled “scalp frostbite baldness” in about twenty combinations just to double-check.  I like to cover my bases.

When my dad got home that day, he was met with my stern little face, arms crossed in front of me, body planted on the front porch stairs.  No doubt my hair was in two super tight long black braids, one on each side of my head, which was my mom’s favorite way to do my hair and which probably made me look a lot like a furious munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Daddy, you lied to me.  No grenade tore your hair out.  Auntie said you got frostbite and that’s how you lost it.”

He laughed and shrugged.

“Well, I never told you it was the truth, now did I?”

Yeah, get hit with that when you’re 6 or 7.  I became super fact-check girl before I could write my name in cursive.  Suddenly every story my family told me was suspect… haunted attics in New Orleans?  Yeah, that needed research.  Mysterious graves with chains on them in Mississippi?  Someone would have to show me that in person before I believed it.

But I suppose my research skills had to come from somewhere.  A goofy story from my father about his bald head seems as good a place as any.  It’s just too bad I didn’t know about my dad’s love of a good fib before… like say when my siblings decided to tell me I’d been found in a trash can.  But that’s a story for another blog.

Stuff to check out:

http://www.tillmanstory.com/

http://www.ltdanbandmovie.com/

Jackie Kashian, Stand-Up Comedian