Pamela Harris

Coming and Going December 22, 2018

Photograph by Christopher Payne

On Monday I took the dog for an early walk and babbled to myself like a lunatic the whole time. It was five am and we were out for over an hour. Construction workers are plentiful at that time, but they’re yelling with each other or half asleep in their cars waiting to get a legal parking spot.

I wasn’t yelling or screaming, just quietly blasting profanity onto the sidewalk. I don’t even know what I was falling apart about: the non-stop noise from one construction site that pours concrete at three am and another that grinds garbage at two, that my go to restaurant for meetings closed, the way it feels like the whole world is at the edge of no return.

The day before I had finished writing Joyville. It’s the project I took to The Writers Lab last September. Since then I’ve written and rewritten it, put it down to work on something else then picked it up to try again. It had so many moving parts I wasn’t sure I could get them all facing the same direction.

The story is set in the near future and is about a scientist and her ass of a neighbor who she develops a strange, psychic connection to. This leads her to discover an even more spectacular connection to a trio of wildlife that live in the woods nearby. There’s an ecological and moral collapse occurring the whole while, and the script fundamentally questions whether humans are worth saving.

As I wrote my way through drafts I got closer and closer to the finish, but something was missing. As a woman from the Lab put it, the script wasn’t fully cooked. I did another draft, another woman from the Lab read it and she described it as a beautiful tragedy. That’s what I was going for, but there was still something missing. She casually asked how it was personal, and I surprisingly burst into tears. In that second I knew I was writing about grief.

In the past I’ve felt rage, loss, emptiness, resentment, but all of it was a cover for something deeper. I’d glimpse the grief of finality, I’d have a passing bone-deep sadness, but I never had hopelessness.

It started creeping in a few weeks ago. A hopelessness for not just my future but the squandered potential of humanity. Are we worth saving?

I went back to the Joyville rewrite and knew I had to answer that vs leave it hanging. I let myself really feel the hopelessness, the absolute tragedy of it all. A few days later I came out the other side in a simmering babbling fury. I finally had a fully cooked draft.

Earlier this week I had a breakfast with a good friend and told him about my dog walk rant, how I can’t fully shake this rage. He had an interesting take on it, since he’s been here in the past. He equated it to a fighter in the ring waiting on the bell. It’s exactly how I feel.

This is the year the fight woke in me. I’m bringing it into the new year with me.

With work, I’m done waiting. I’ve always been proactive, but the urgency I have about getting Joyville made is new. Instead of picking off contacts, I’m going wide.

We’re buying a place out of the city this year. We haven’t found a house yet, we have no plans to go see any particular house yet, but I’m making that declaration. I need to feel grass under my feet. No sleep has been brutal, and it’s now within our means to change this.

I want to meditate more this year, develop a practice. When I meditate regularly I’m more grateful, and when I’m more grateful I’m not a lunatic ranting on dog walks. Looked at another way, I’m hopeful.

This last year I’ve rewritten a ton of projects, wrote a new pilot, was invited to Stowe Labs in May with a pilot, and had my short film play all over the festival circuit. It was a great year in terms of expanding my network and making work. I got quite a few gigs consulting and coaching on pilots and a feature being created by really good writers. This year I want to keep the momentum going and write a musical. But I also want to focus more on life. I want to take a class, maybe ceramics or dance. Get back to going to galleries regularly. Try a less rushed rhythm, live a little less hurried.

Joe got a great job this year. Ginger is still the king of her domain, but she’s sleeping less at night. Which means we are, too. Please let this change.

What I’m bringing with me front and center is my community, which includes all of you. I was on Instagram a lot more this year because it’s faster.

Lastly, faith not fear. Bringing the former in, leaving the latter behind.

Thank you all for reading this year. The happiest New Year and holiday to you.


Grand Jury Duty April 24, 2018

In February I got a notice in the mail that I was being called up for jury duty. I’ve lived in NYC a long time and have opened mail with that familiar logo, but this time the notice was different. There was no real option on it for deferral, and it cited that failure to show would result in a subpoena, or something like that.

I went down to the court the date I was supposed to show up, early to avoid the security snarl. There was something more urgent, even somber about the courtroom we were led into. The jury wardens weren’t dicking around with their phones, and clerks were questioning people heavily if they needed to step out of the room.

An hour and a half later it was packed, and that’s when we found out we were called for grand jury duty. It’d be for Manhattan, which meant all of us lived in this borough, and the cases we’d be hearing were for crimes committed here. Our service would last a month and only a doctors note or proof you were a sole caretaker for someone would get you out of it. For any other reason, you’d be allowed to defer once. After that, no matter what you’d serve.

There’d be a morning session and an afternoon session. Almost everyone wanted morning, but it’d all depend when your name was called. I got one of the last morning seats left.

For the rest of that day and the next, we were told what a grand jury is. There’d be 23 of us, 16 needed to be present to hear a case, and 12 needed to vote the same way for a majority. There would be no trials or judge present. It wasn’t about whether someone was guilty or not. We would hear evidence, and then vote on whether there enough presented to suggest a crime was committed. If so, we’d vote to indict. If not, we’d vote not to.

We filed into a small courtroom and each took a seat. We were assigned a number based on where we sat, and that number became our identifier. (We got to know each other’s names and such, but if we’d be late one day or had to miss a day the wardens ID’d us by our number.) Fifteen minutes later, we heard our first case.

The way it worked was, an Assistant DA would present evidence for a new case. Sometimes we’d hear from a witness, either a victim, a cop, a detective, a loss prevention specialist, etc. We’d hear lab results if needed. We might watch video surveillance from a store, a corner, a hallway. I got the sense that we were hearing just enough to make a decision. Some cases would be continued, but they’d always come back before our month was up.

When we voted, everyone left the room except the jury. Most cases were pretty straight forward, but if any jury member wanted or needed to, we’d discuss what we heard. We could call the ADA back in to clarify something, but the only thing they can clarify is the law, not what we heard. For one instance where we couldn’t agree on what we heard, the court stenographer read exactly what was said from the transcript.

At times it was tedious, but it was almost always fascinating. The cases gave me a window into what a month of crime looks like in NYC. (There are quite a few grand juries going on at once, so we only saw a percentage of cases.) What stood out is how much Facebook is used as an investigative tool. A forensic specialist managed to link people in crime through FB pictures despite defendants using fake names, fake numbers, fake everything. I was also surprised at how cameras truly are everywhere. We saw video footage of a suspect exit a store, cross a major intersection, walk up a street, etc. It was all from different cameras, carefully pieced together.

The hardest cases for me were those that dealt with sexual assault. Or violence. A rape case had many of us break down after we indicted. The drug cases - there were a lot - were almost all there because of a dumb mistake on a dealer’s part. And there were two instances where we all burst out laughing at the brashness of a thief. Some days we heard case after case. Other days dragged.

We heard from only one defendant. For this their lawyer was present, as well as other court clerks. My takeaway from it is it isn’t a good move for the defendant to appear.

Our jury was as interesting as the process. The 23 of us were a mix of age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomics and politics. Lines got drawn, blended, reversed, and altered as the month went on. I walked away from it relieved to feel this part of the process works.


Bringing and Leaving December 31, 2017

I want to post this before the end of the year, which is in a few hours. Right now I’m a little overwhelmed, distracted, because I’m wrapping up a project my head has been deep in for the last few weeks. There’s been very little socializing, lots of pastry and cake and coffee, and in the last few days I’ve realized that I still haven’t figured out how to work and live at the same time. It means the first thing I want to leave behind in 2017 is this urgent obsession I bring to work, since if anything it makes what I’m doing harder, not easier.

I’m writing this without editing. Warts and all are going on the page. That’s what I hope to bring in with me, acceptance of warts in all.

What a year it’s been. The election and the shitshow that followed feels like a culmination of sorts, yet the march and everything Weinstein cracked wide open feels like a new beginning. There’s a sense in all of it of ‘no going back,’ and I want to believe it’s good. I want to think of the current POTUS as the end of something that’s been building for decades. That gives me hope, which I’m definitely bringing into next year. Next year can’t be tougher than this one, right?

Last year I wanted to bring risk in with me. Not the reckless kind, but the capacity to be embarrassed kind. The be who I really am kind. That’s who I was at the Writers Lab. The Lab was a high point for many reasons, but that's a big one.

Last year I wanted to direct something. This year I did. Even when I didn’t know what I was doing, I loved doing it. We got into festivals and keep doing so, and seeing it play on a big screen in a theatre with an audience made me want to make a feature. That’s a future goal.

Between the Lab and making that short, I learned that I have a community around me. As a writer of specs - scripts that are written before they’re sold - I’m always reaching out, reaching far past my community. A major shift is happening where I don’t want to do that anymore. From now on I want to only write what I can make or produce. I have a nice body of work that’s ready to sell, but, just for today, writing on spec has zero appeal.

Money. This year I want to make more. Yeah, that may seem obvious, but I’m looking at money differently after this year. It's not that it hasn’t mattered to me in the past, because that’s not true. But money has always been this thing that exists out over there. This year I’ve been looking at how I see money. When I’ve tried to do this in the past white noise takes over. This year I swept my brain clean of that. I want to make more.

We’re still house hunting for a little country place with a tree. This year we put a few offers in, but for one reason or another the sale didn’t happen. May we find a house this year.

Ginger had a pretty good year. She’d like more of Joe’s meatballs and I bet he’ll oblige her. That right there, that’s what I’m definitely bringing in with me. Family and friends are what matter the most, no matter how obsessed I get with work. Some of my happiest nights are simply being on the couch, Ginger curled around Joe’s feet, watching GLOW (the Netflix series).

I say it every year, but the emails and comments I get here mean a lot. As do you. Thank you for all of it.

Change is coming in 2018. Everywhere. Brace yourself, Effie.


Where To Begin October 25, 2017

I've been mulling over a post about the new retail paradigm, how it's all changing.

Then I wanted to write about my experience at the Writers Lab, which was amazing. For real. Life changing in how I see my own work.

But right now I'm stunned, awed, hopeful and anxious over, as Lynda Obst perfectly put it, "a volcanic outrage that has erupted over the charred ground of the (Hollywood/Weinstein) business this week ... A long-suppressed fury has spread throughout the land."

From women joining the conversation with an effective 'Me, too" post on FB or Twitter, to the onslaught of words about it, it's exhilarating to see that fury.

And the unity. That's what the Writers Lab showed me, the power of unity.

Even if the outrage doesn't last - the headlines will be replaced in time - sexual assault and harassment has come out of the dark in a way that it can never go back in. May the effects of now crack foundations everywhere.


The Writers Lab August 7, 2017

For years I've had the fantasy of wallpapering my bathroom with rejection letters. Over time the amount of rejection necessitated growing that bathroom into a master en suite that comes with an airplane hangar. My rule for the Plastered Walls of Failure is I have to get some kind of correspondence, so there will be no silent responses included.

Rejection is what happens in the world of what I do. Though I feel it every time, the pain is usually fleeting. The times it’s harder to get over is when I get a pass from something I was sure I had a shot at. Or it was something I really wanted.

The Writers Lab is something I wanted to be a part of. It’s put on by New York Women in Film and TV (NYWIFT), IRIS and the WGA East. It’s funded by Meryl Streep and, this year, Oprah Winfrey. I got rejected last year and it was one of the harder emails to get over. Some rejections come with a moment of disbelief. How could they reject that project? I love these moments because they show me I believe in what I do. And they counter the moments of headf*ck I have, though these, mercifully, come less frequently than they used to.

A few weeks ago I got a ‘Dear Applicant’ email from the Lab and my heart froze. It wasn’t a rejection; it let me know I was a finalist. Up to this point the screenplays were read blind since the Lab wanted to go by what was on the page vs a resume. The email said we’d know in August. I’ve had a lot going on and am juggling this and that, but August kept coming into my head and it took effort to chase it out.

Last Monday I got a phone call instead of a letter from the Writers Lab. I was on foot, dodging Holland Tunnel traffic and all I heard was “blghblgh New York Women in Film and TV glhglg.” I immediately moved to the side of the road in time to hear the woman on the phone say, “How are you?”

“Holding my breath,” I blurted. I was. Phone calls are good, great, since I’ve never been called to be told I didn’t get whatever it was I applied for. When Terry, the woman on the phone, told me I got selected for the Lab I burst into tears and blubbered about how the last thing I won was a turkey when I was fifteen at a shooting range in Andover, Massachusetts. And then the disbelief hit, like, I really got this?

This year, I am honored and beyond thrilled to participate in the Writers Lab. If interested, you can read about it here The Lab environment is something I’ve craved and feel so ready for. I’m very, very excited.


En Route July 2, 2017

Last month I directed a short film called "En Route." I ended up co-writing, it, too. The photo above is a production still from the set, a car. That’s me in the way back, making notes. In front are the actors getting ready for the next take. The arm you see is the DP resetting the camera.

The opportunity came in the side door versus my trying to push through the front, which is how a lot of breaks happen in my life. An actor from Wynn’s asked me if I’d give her notes on a short film she was writing for herself and another actor (who was also the producer). The script was about estranged sisters, something I know a lot about. In the film, the sisters drive together to the one-year memorial of their deceased brother and need to find the connection they lost long ago. The story was extremely ambitious for a six-minute short film.

I gave notes, she did another draft, and I gave her notes on that. After the third draft the script got very interesting to me and I told her I’d love to direct it. She said there was already a director attached. We went another round on the script and then a few weeks later I got an email from her asking if I still wanted to direct the short. I immediately said yes.

Directing is a crazy amount of work. I loved almost every second of it. There are so many moving parts to making a film and I don’t know how I knew what to do but I did. Years ago I spent a lot of time crewing my way around the set and all that experience was right there with me. Working with cast I got to put into play what I learned from Wynn. From start to finish, even during very stressful or intense moments - bad weather, camera glitches, losing light, editing - I stayed in the flow of it all. We all did. What helped was I had a very clear vision for what I wanted (and made look books to share that vision). Our shoot was calm and even fun, despite how dramatic the script was and the emotional places the actors went. The whole project was so satisfying. Now I want to make a feature.

I don’t know what made me anxious whenever I thought about directing my own project. Maybe it was not wanting to embarrass myself. Maybe it was old shit. Whatever it was, I’m way over it.


The Lawsuit May 22, 2017

(I apologize for the resend. I got the lawsuits backward.)

I think when it began it was friendly. Friendly in the way new neighbors might be toward each other, before they get to know each other.

Back in 2007, a church near us, Our Lady of Vilnius, was shuttered. The supposedly dwindling population who went to that church tried to fight the closing, and lost. Around 2013 the church sold to developers, who then bought the brownstone next to it. The developers flipped both lots to a new owner and in 2015 the church got torn down. The lot sat empty for a year. In the photo above, the building that’s starting to rise is on these two lots.

The empty lot in front of that construction was a parking garage. This parcel sold, and it too may have been flipped, but at this point I can’t keep up. Half our block has sold, including our building. The buying frenzy has been relentless.

The parking lot was going to be a twenty-seven-story residential tower. The church lot was going to be a seventeen-story residential tower. We heard the church group bought air rights from the building next to their lot, which allowed them to build higher. They got a permit from the city to go to twenty-five stories. This meant the higher floors in the parking lot's new building, touted as having 365 degree views, would no longer have those views. So the parking lot group sued the church group, stating a di Blasio lobbyist helped sway the Dept. of Buildings in issuing that permit, air rights or no air rights. Or something like that, since suits are flying and I can't keep up.

These buildings are being sold as high luxury and they need the views to combat the reality that they overlook the Holland Tunnel. You can’t see it in the image above, but the trees in the left of the photo line a side street that is actually blocked off near the white van parked (left) near the middle of the picture. It means whomever buys here can only walk one way when they exit their building. They'll hit a major city street and will have to cross it to get anywhere. Traffic here is bumper to bumper as cars fight to get to the entrance to the tunnel. Drivers won't stop for traffic lights or pedestrians or a local trying to wrangle sweet Ginger to Ginger's favorite poop spot at the height of rush hour. When I have to cross this traffic mess I can out-swear Teamsters.

On another side of our building, the quiet side, the Renzo Piano residential tower is going to be thirty stories. The photo below is where it currently stands, roughly six stories. This tower is luxury squared and supposedly it’s almost sold out. Rumor says most of the buyers are those who want a place to stay in New York City when they visit. Our neighborhood has become so expensive the only people who can afford to live in it are those who won’t.

Between all the sites there is constant chaos, so much so the birds are discombobulated. I hear them singing at 3:30 in the morning. We’ve had a large exodus from our building, the most vacant apartments since September 11th. The new owners are doing major renovations to the empty apartments and are trying to rent them at much higher prices. Our building is decidedly non-luxury, and though the new owners have dropped hints at wanting to make improvements, the only way to make this building nicer is to tear it down and start over.

We don’t know what the new owners plan to do with our building. Chances are they’re waiting to see what happens when all these towers are complete. We’re now looking for a weekend place, since we’ve decided to keep our home here. It means our budget for a house has been slashed. Bring on all fixer-uppers. Kitchen hasn't been touched since 1910? No problem! Rotted joists? To the lumberyard we go!


Hope January 31, 2017

In December I like to think about what I want to bring into the new year and what I want to leave behind. This year I found myself thinking about risk.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with risk. As a kid I took all kinds of bad risk, including using drugs and getting myself into awful situations with no plan for getting out. I went to art school versus studying something practical (I highly recommend doing this), and I move to NYC with $174 dollars in my pocket. When I came here I had no practical skills and barely knew anyone. While apartment hunting I got chased by a machete-wielding crack head when I fearlessly went into a rough neighborhood. All of it I took as part of being independent.

For the last twenty plus years I’ve mostly depended on art and writing to make my living. Financial vulnerability is a reality for me, and though I now accept it, it doesn’t mean I like it. Once in a great while I’ll still have a moment of panic, but mostly I get on with it. It’s taken me almost twenty years of living this way to get used to it.

The risk I’m looking at now isn’t external. I’m looking at the kind of risk I haven’t taken, risk that pushes me past what’s comfortable and into a place that scares the shit out of me. For instance, I really want to direct and produce a short film and just thinking about it, I quake. Why, I don’t know. Especially since I feel very confident and ready when it comes to directing a feature.

Whatever it is, it’s a symptom of something bigger that’s starting to play out in me. For a long while I’ve proceeded with caution when it came to certain parts of my personality. There’s been a quiet soundtrack telling me to not get too full of myself, and nobody needs to see my rough edges, and don’t be too unpleasant, and don’t do anything that seems needy, and keep my fury in check. Really, try not to offend people.

It’s all a lot of fear. Over the last decade I’ve been taking baby steps toward trying to move past these thoughts and the steps have added up to change. Now, I’m discovering a new layer in that soundtrack. Something is shifting and I’m putting more of me into the world than I ever have before. The fear is only now starting to lessen.

This political climate helps. A good friend, Cynthia, chartered a bus to DC and a bunch of us went to march. What stood out was the feeling of community, a sense of purpose that united a gigantic sea of humanity. It was hopeful, and hope was something I’d been struggling with.

Since the inauguration and the tsunami of tsoris that’s come with it, I keep seeing glimpses of hope in the global protests that have erupted and in the pushback. The size of the protest no longer matters. I keep remembering Rosa Parks was one woman who sat on a bus and didn’t budge.

The point of all this is, the number one thing I need to take into the new year is hope. With it, no matter what I see or how scared or grief-filled I might get, hope gives me purpose. Hope lets me take action.

I don’t write shorts and on the whole they don’t interest me, but directing something does. I want to try to write one, or write a web series, or find something to direct. The last few months I've been filming a lot of art and construction and maybe a story will arise from this.

Our sweet and spicy Ginger is still up in the middle of the night, and Joe is still up and out with her. Moving is on hold right now, so I’m looking to find a way to bring more sleep into this year. It may mean looking for ways out of the city now and then. Maybe we’ll rent a weekend place.

I’m keeping all my friends and the people I know because I feel very lucky and grateful for the people in my life. I want to bring risk in with me. These posts, starting with this one, I no longer want to edit and edit and edit some more. That’s a step toward taking risk.

It's time to leave as much fear as I can behind. Leave behind doubt. Franz Kline said, "The real thing about creating is to have the capacity to be embarrassed."

Every time I get a comment or email about this blog, a surge of gratitude goes through me. Every single one of you who reads this blog, you’re coming with me for sure. Maybe we can all be embarrassed together.


Christmas Eve December 24, 2016

Happy holidays to you! Thank you for continuing your support here with your comments and emails. I appreciate all of it. May you get a soft elephant this year.

Pam


We Are Sorry December 12, 2016

Crushed. Devastated. I went to bed the night of the election long before results were in. At 3:00 in the morning I woke up, or really, Ginger woke me up. When I checked the NY Times on my phone and saw all that red on the USA map, I waited for my phone to fully wake so the map would turn blue.

It’s a call to creative arms. I am not one of those saying, “Let’s see how he does.” He’s shown who he is and for me that’s enough. Oprah once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

A surprising side effect is I feel reckless. Creatively, that’s good. Sometimes I wonder if I sand off the ragged bits in my work where an unfinished me lurks.

Over the years I’ve been working on a large installation and post-election I’ve discovered a fervor to continue it. In 1992, officials in Hannover, Germany, asked the artist Bruce Nauman to propose a Holocaust Memorial. His proposal was to create a sign that said, “We are sorry for what we did, and we promise not to do it again.” Nauman eventually decided against doing it, but his proposal stayed wth me. My stepfather is a Holocaust survivor, and that’s part of it, but so is the idea of remorse.

It’s too early to speak coherently about what I’m doing because a ton of images are flying around in my head. I do know it’s my way of protesting.

In 2008 I had an 11” x 17” tablet made (photo above) courtesy Dawn Carmilia and Visual Graphics Systems, and slightly changed the language Bruce Nauman proposed to make it mine. Then I made a maquette of what I want it to look like, did some drawings in Mr. Nauman’s style, and began amassing my own elements, i.e. paintings, drawings, word pieces, etc. The goal is to install it in a large gallery space, where I don’t know yet. I’m back working on it and that feels great.