Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More, Please

Mostly at Thanksgiving we split our time between the Biltmore pool, the Biltmore fire-pit and my cousin Nate's place. This year we had 65 people for Thanksgiving dinner and I was related to most of them.

Round about September, when the wind changes and the season starts to move on in to the next, everyone in the Mervis clan starts thinking about how soon it is we're going to be seeing each other or how sad it is if we won't make it this year. My great-grandparents, Ruth and Mike, had five daughters and one son and they had seventeen children between them and they had twenty-three kids between them and, with the exception of my great grand-father who died before I was born, I knew or know and love every one of them.

On the phone, Jeff asked how my Thanksgiving was and I told him, "It's been the best Thanksgiving ever."

He said, "Michael, you tell me that every year." and I said, "Jeff, I've never lied to you . . . "

And then there's the expanded family. This year we showed that divorce can't keep people away--once a Mervis, always a Mervis. Then there's the wives, husbands, sisters, in-laws and friends who've become part of the family. This year we welcomed Chris's soon-to-be in-laws--two of the nicest people you're ever going to meet. Allison's folks were there too, along with an only slightly bewildered-looking John--and the bean'll be there for supper next year, just a few more months of cooking and he or she will be done. Heck, Joanne's been around so long she could compete for the Drunkest Cousin Award if she drank enough to be a contender.

Actually, this year was a pretty poor showing for the Drunkest Cousin Award. We must be getting old.

Even Joey was there, returned from the desert with a mantra, a nice chant or two and tales of a journey he's smack dab in the middle of. Joey's come a long way from that morning long ago when, on a visit back to Chicago after I had moved to Virginia, I was sleeping on Alan and Adrienne's pull-out couch in the basement when he ran downstairs, pulled down his britches and showed me he was wearing big-boy pants for the first time.

Gee, Joey, aren't you glad I didn't mention that once the whole weekend? See, I saved it for the internet . . .

After dinner, we all collected in front of the big TV and watched a DVD Nate had made, drawing from family photos and old films. It started with a shot of the globe and Google-Earth-zoomed in on Honey Lake, right outside of Chicago where my great-grandfather moved the family to a horse-farm in 1948.

That farm was the only constant place in my life when I was a kid.

And up there on that screen, there was Carolyn and her generation sitting at the picnic table smiling and laughing and strutting for the camera. There was Buddy grabbing Pook and smothering her with kisses and Uncle Joe holding Jimmy up on a wooden fence post--I could smell the cigar on his breath--and Mike flexing his muscles like he had something to prove. There they all were on the tennis court in shorts we'd all be embarrassed by if this family knew anything about being embarrassed.

Late Wednesday night, Chris gathered Stephanie and Whitney and Lindsey and Pete and Adam and Joey and I and we wrapped our arms around each other's shoulders in a huddle and Pete put his digital camera down on the ground below and we took a picture of the trickle-down Mervis's--the Schwartzes and the Retchins and the Druckers and the Drys and the Nathans . . .

We children of the children of the children of the Oaks Farm at Honey Lake . . .

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


My grandmother once told me that everything good in the world happens because of love and the rest is because everyone's crazy.

The day she died, I was standing beside her bed, watching as she slept, soaking in every last moment of her. I got . . . uhm . . . distracted . . . and when I turned my attention back to her, she had opened her eyes and was looking at me picking my nose.

"Great, " I said. "Your last sight is going to be me with my finger up my nose."

She smiled through the haze of her painkiller-cocktail and said, "Yes. It's good. Eat it."

A few years earlier, her daughter--my Mom--lying in a hospital bed, early in the process of her dying had encouraged me to steal the clamp that had just been removed from her chest-tube. "It will make a great roach-clip," she said.

"But Mom, it's been used in a medical procedure on you."

She rolled her eyes, sighed like genetics was a complete mystery to her and made me pocket it.

Monday, November 20, 2006


So, last Wednesday I watched the Hot Tub Variety Show at Comix. Michael Showalter, John Oliver and David Cross each performed and Kurt and Kristen hosted. There was even juggling.

By the way, Kristen Schaal's myspace page has the coolest icon ever.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Cut-Out, Trickled Down and In The World

One of the great days of my life happened about a year ago, sitting on stage at Carnegie Hall with the Juilliard Orchestra. I had been asked to do some drawings of the Juilliard School as part of my exhibition for the windows of Lord and Taylor. Now, for the most part the drawings chosen for the windows were kind of "my greatest hits." The way it worked was I went through six years of theatre and dance drawings and chose my fifty or so favorites and then the art-director at L&T went through those and chose his 15 favorites.


Because Lord and Taylor had already planned on featuring Juilliard in the windows they asked if I would do some additional drawings. Furthermore, because it was the end of the school year and because the whole thing was pretty much done at the last-minute, I only had five days to do these drawings. Also, they said, they would use one of the drawings in an ad in the New York Times. "How many do you think you can do?" they wondered.


Five days to do several drawings, one of which would be my Times debut and all of which had to be able to sit in the windows next to the best work I had done over a period of six years.

It's a good thing I like pressure.
One of my favorite things in the world is going into a CD store and flipping through the cut-out discs and finding some new music that I've been wondering about for five dollars. They're usually promo copies that have leaked out.

Or maybe it's an album that I think is great but, for whatever reason, it didn't sell and there are a bunch of extra copies that the universe is just trying to make a little money back on.

I love, love, love these CDs and my devotion to the process of finding them is one of the qualifying elements that makes me a bona-fide music geek.

But I've often wondered what an artist would feel like going in and finding his life's blood sitting in the rebate bin. Authors probably feel the same way, wandering into the Strand and seeing boxes of their hard-work piled up, priced to move and selling for a buck.
So, I get there a few minutes early and enter through the stage door with the musicians and my mind flashes to the Beatles making the same entrance all those years ago. There are theatres and performance spaces as famous as--or more famous than--the performers who perform there and I've been blessed enough to get to draw in a couple of them--The Metropolitan Opera House, City Center, The Public Theater. But there's something about coming up those stairs, turning left and walking out on to the stage of Carnegie Hall that forces you to remember that excellence is the expected standard. I went and sat out in the empty house, watching the orchestra assemble and tried not to think about it.

I was just starting to choke back the fear, when Ed came up to me and suggested that I sit on the risers behind the orchestra, that maybe it would offer a unique view of the rehearsal. The risers were upstage of the musicians, which would mean I was looking out past them into the empty seats of the hall from the upstage center of the stage. Now I have a general impulse in any situation like that, a desire to see the thing-being-seen from an angle that makes it different, that makes the thing you know new. But sitting there in the sea of empty seats. looking at the stage, all I could see was The Thing, the stage of Carnegie Hall. It's impressive and awe-inspiring, but it's impressive and awe-inspiring because it's been done so many times that you've seen it before you see it.

"Really?" I asked Ed, "I can sit up there?"
Last week, I was sitting, drinking my coffee, when Henry, the owner of the Fall Cafe came up to me excitedly. "I bought your book!" he said. It was morning and I wasn't quite awake yet and I certainly wasn't understanding what Henry was saying to me because I have no books.

Well, there was this one book I did with Mike Renquist where I provided some illustrations for his motivational thinking. That book was published by a small press and every six months or so we each get a residual check. The last two checks, sent in envelopes with fifty cent stamps, were literally made out for "zero dollars and zero cents."

They issued checks and paid postage to tell me that.


I had no idea what Henry was talking about.
So, I sit down and look out and, while the orchestra is tuning, I pull out my cell phone and call my Dad from the stage of Carnegie Hall and share the moment with him. I believe the conversation went something like this:

"Hey, Dayo (Note: I have always called my father "Dayo"), how do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

"I don't know, Mike; how do you get to Carnegie Hall?"


And we laugh because that joke is especially funny when you're sitting on stage at Carnegie Hall--try it some time. Then I tell him I have to go and I can't really hear too well--la de dah--because there is an orchestra sprawled before me.

And then they ripped into Mahler's 3rd and I think I passed out because the next conscious thing I truly remember was looking down and seeing this drawing that had appeared in my pad and realizing that, at some point, a large choir of women had surrounded me and were singing like angels.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," I said to Henry.

"There's a man that sells used books on his stoop up on Clinton and he had a copy of your Juilliard book. I bought it--will you sign it?"

"Oh. Really?"

After the exhibit I sent a thank you to the guy in development who was in charge of the Juilliard Centenial, a booklet of the best six pieces from my few days of drawing that I printed at home. I called the book "Five Days at Juilliard." and it looked good--a couple of drawings of the orchestra, one of the jazz combo and a backstage drawing of Marissa doing hair in the dressing room for a Brecht production. He liked the book so much that Juilliard bought fifty copies to distribute to the Board of Trustees. So I hand-made them, using my pigment-ink, archival quality printer and the binder I bought for just such occassions. The books turned out nice, but I hadn't really thought of them for a long time.

Somehow that book made its way from the Upper West side to a Brooklyn stoop three blocks from where it had been printed and bound in my front room.

Take it from me, because I've been there--The sound of a great orchestra reverberating around the stage of Carnegie Hall hasn't met a metaphor up to the task of describing it. But the echo . . .

How do you get to the Fall Cafe?

Practice, son . . .

Shout Out

Don't you just hate a crisis of confidence? I know I do.

There's this great line from The Cartells, the show I was drawing for the last month and I can't really quote it precisely because I was busy drawing, so get off my back. Anyway, at one point, Titiana, the family matriarch, buffeted by a series of troubling revelations says something about how life is like a roller-coaster. Immediately afterwards, someone else enters and delivers yet more bad news. Titiana (played by Joanna Gleason) replies, "This is a terrible roller coaster--it only seems to go down!"

Amanda and I love that line.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Balthrop Ballpoint

Thank God Chris had a pen in his pocket, because for some strange reason I left mine at home. It was a Fall-Cafe- ball-point pen, which makes sense because half the people in the band work at the Fall and the other half--like me--are there every day, drinking coffee.

Anyway, tonight I went to see Balthrop, Alabama performing over at the Red Hook Bait and Tackle and from the moment they started playing Waiting on a Train, a smile was on my face. Honestly, I sat there dreaming of a time when I would have a big fancy art-show and they'd play the party, because it's all about me.

Now, usually I'd be reluctant to put up a sketchy sketch like this, but it caught the mood and I promised I would.

Next week they're playing in Carroll Gardens at Rocketship. I'll put the details up here later or check out their website for further info. I'll be there because they are now one of my two favorite bands made up of people I know.

Also, be sure to sign up for their mailing list, because then you get access to a demo of their album which I am listening to right now and I swear you want it. I'm talking especially to you Jonny and Allison.


Ghost Runner
. That's the other band. And they've got a new album out and everything.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Reader

In The Fall Cafe the other day . . .

Monday, November 06, 2006


There's a nice article about me over at the New York News Network. Check it out . . .

Thursday, November 02, 2006


On Halloween evening--all thanks to Andi, Hamish and Deirdre--I went to see Borat as part of the CMJ Film Festival (click on that link back there for more info about that). It was the big premiere so he was there to introduce the film and I managed a quick drawing before he disappeared into the deep ocean of promotional appearances he is currently navigating.

I'm not generally a fan of comedy based on turning unwitting participants into punchlines. There is an inherent cruelty in filming people who think they're doing one thing only to find they're being made fun of.


This is a really funny movie and there's something sparklingly intelligent about how Borat zooms in on the hypocrisy of the people targeted. America's being made fun of in this movie and it's working on so many levels that if I were still writing scholarly articles I'd be whipping one out about the levels of cultural identity at play in the humor of Sacha Baran Cohen.

Also, in this age of DVD commentary, blogs, Boxed sets with explanatory essays and 24 hour news and information filled with behind the scene revelations, it's really a joy to have someone who's just doing the work. I mean, how many interviews have you read with Sacha Baron Cohen when he's not playing Borat or Ali G? Does he sit around and say, "oh yeah--funny story when we were shooting that scene, I was really worried that I was going too far, but then blah, blah, blah . . . "


Right now he's playing this character and before he was playing the other character and he's already working on the next character and I imagine that he and ten or so of his friends do hang out and have some really good laughs about what it takes to do the work, but for the rest of us, we just get to see the magic and not the thought-process.

You can do that when the work speaks for itself, but it's been a while since someone has trusted their work so much that they defy every convention of the "Behind-the-scenes" marketing black-hole and just do it.

I'd talk about that in my thesis if I was writing one.