Monday, October 30, 2006

Why Not?

It was opening night of The Martha Graham Company's last season at City Center a couple of years ago. Ronit and I were sitting in the front row, dressed in our finest-but-not-finest-enough, because the house was packed with fashion industry big-wigs and their friends. The woman sitting to my left was a friend and patron of my ballet drawings, so she wanted to see the work I had been doing with the Graham Company.

I pulled out my pad and was showing her the art when the woman sitting to the right of Ronit noticed and asked to see what the fuss was about. She was a short, grandmotherly figure with piercingly intelligent eyes, dressed in black with a fuzzy, fur-like wrap and pearls and she flashed a smile that allowed her to say anything and everything that came into her head. She liked my drawings and she and Ronit began talking while I wandered around trying to mingle. I wasn't having a great night and when I came back, dejected, feeling like my work and I had been taken advantage of, I told Ronit and the kind woman next to her that they were my favorite people at the dance.

This woman then proceeded to give me a critique of my drawings which was razor-sharp and spot-on accurate, and told me I should be working for the New Yorker and how was I going to accomplish that? Then she started to introduce me to everyone sitting around us as if I were an old-friend of hers. She called me a Gifted Artist as she introduced me to a publicist and A Wonder as she tried to get an indifferent friend who worked for Calvin Klein to look at my drawings.

As the lights dimmed for the second act I leaned over to Ronit and asked, "who is that woman?" and she whispered, "I think I own shoes by her."

And that's how I met Joan.

Last Wednesday I was sitting in a class-room over at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University watching this "international fashion leader, designer and entrepeneur" lecturing a group of rapt and attentive students on how to turn a bunch of random circumstances into a succesful business career. Joan was dressed in pretty much the same outfit that she had been the night I met her at the Martha Graham opening. She spread her arms and looked down at her outfit and said, "See? I'm a fashion genius."

This weekend I watched the new Jeff Tweedy DVD. Twice. At one point he quotes Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth who, speaking about Rock and Roll concerts, observed, "People will pay to watch other people believe in themselves."

I have been especially blessed when it comes to mentors. I have a father who's pretty much the best acting teacher out there. I've got an art-historian step-mother who once took Mrs. Pennington, my junior-high art-teacher, to the wood-shed for complaining about the unrealistic elements in my drawings. I had a step-father who once told me "take some time, figure out what you want to do and then figure out how to get people to pay you to do it." I had a Mom who never met a situation she wouldn't go to bed with--I'm speaking (mostly) figuratively here. My college acting teacher cast me in parts I should never have been playing and then took me out for drinks when I failed. And in grad-school I spent eight years as the research assistant for the world's leading theatre historian. When I moved to New York, I got to meet, receive encouragement and become friends with a man who changed my life just by looking at a photo of him sitting in a theatre seat, drawing.

And then there's Joan.

See, Joan was a teacher and administrator and then her life took an unexpected turn and she started designing shoes for the first large wave of women entering the workplace as executives. Without a plan, without a publicist and without any experience in fashion she created a little hands-on empire that became so popular that it was name-checked in the premiere episode of Friends. That career ran its course and now she's a teacher again.

You know, like you do.

Joan sort of adopted me as a protege, so I was excited last week to get to go and watch her in the class-room doing her thing. And I have to say, it was pretty inspiring. I had some important meetings and introductions last week and a bunch of good things happened and God knows where they will lead or what comes next, but sitting there in the classroom with Joan as she looked out at her students I found peace as she said to them, "don't ever think for a moment that you know where anything leads or that the things you learn here are the only things that will carry you forward into a career. The most important thing in the world is to be happy and to do the things that keep you happy. The rest will follow."

OK--I'm essentializing her lecture; those may not be direct quotes. But her main piece of comfort, her mantra and the phrase she's saving for the title of her memoirs I did take down in the precise wording. And last Wednesday wasn't the first time I had heard her say it. "Joan," I sometimes say, "why would anyone allow me to do this thing I've decided to do? Why would the New Yorker hire me? Why should I think I can succeed at this?"

And she tells me what she tells all her students.

"Why not?"

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Let There Be Light

I've been the official rehearsal artist for Drama Dept. for a couple of years now. I'm not really sure what that means other than that I get to say that I'm the rehearsal artist for Drama Dept, and, historically speaking, that's a first. Aeschylus didn't have an official rehearsal artist and he was state-sponsored. I mean, the prestige is implied.

It's a good gig because it's a special company with funny, talented people and there are often free drinks and good appetizers served at the fund-raisers. And free Tupperware.

The project they've been working on lately is called The Cartells by Douglas Carter Beane and it's a ridiculously good deal for anyone looking for a rocking time on a Monday night. I mean, it's 35 bucks and you get Joanna Gleason, Elizabeth Berkley, David Rakoff, Kristen Schaal, and Alana O'Brien among many others. That Alana is especially difficult to draw by the way--she's got good curves and stuff, but I just can't get the face. I think I'm getting lost in the glow--what can I say? It happens when a legend is being a'born. And don't tell Equity, but I tried.

Equity, by the way, doesn't want me to draw the actors because they're working mostly for love and the free burgers and no one wants them exploited by an artist out to make a fast buck by posting their drawing on a blog.

So, this is Kirk Bookman, the lighting designer (with Julie Seitel), who I was drawing anyway because I'm a company man and Kirk is Drama Dept's go-to guy and I always look forward to talking to him over appetizers, free drinks and Tupperware.

Y'all should really come next Monday . . .

Sunday, October 22, 2006


So, the F train is only running in portions, weekends and late night until late November--change at Hoyt-Schermerhorn (climb the stairs and cross to the opposite platform for the Crosstown G to Coney Island--don't accidentally get on the Manhattan-bound F). Also, the A is running local because there is no C on the weekends. The 4 isn't working on the weekends either. The Upper level of the Manhattan Bridge is now closed and they're still doing the bottleneck at either end of the Brooklyn Bridge; expect delays.

And how was your weekend?

Friday, October 20, 2006


"How do you not make a mistake?" the woman in the coffee shop said looking at the drawing.

"They're ALL mistakes . . . "

There was this wall behind our house in Harrisonburg. Well, there still is.

On our side of the wall, it was about a two foot step up, but on the other side, it was about a ten foot drop into our neighbor's yard. There were three pretty sisters who lived in the house on the other side of the wall. I used to walk along this wall on the way home, thrilled by the balance and the contrast of the right-side drop and the left side step. Also, there was always the chance that I would be invited to come play and that would turn into kissing and touching and stuff.

It never did.

So, this one time back in high school, I'm walking along the precipice and one of the daughter's comes out and shouts something to a friend and I turn my head to see what's going on and my foot steps out into space and my other foot follows and I have a moment out of a Warner Brothers cartoon where I am floating in the ten foot space above their yard.

Then, just like Wile E. Coyote, my legs fall and then my torso falls, and then my head, with the frozen look of "What the . . . ?" still on my face, falls. Then my backpack crashes on top of me and my papers, books and quizzes go everywhere. And I am on my back in a crumpled heap in their back yard.

I look up to see the pretty middle daughter staring at me, jaw dropped, just like I am a pimply, plump teenager who has stupidly fallen into her back yard, like I am what I have always feared I was.

But I am resourceful and clever and I think fast on or off my feet. So I stand up, clap my hands together and loudly say, "I knew I could do it!" And I gather my books and quizzes and exit the scene with grace and dignity.

And a slight limp.

It just looks better when I do it with ink . . .

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Waiting On A Train

Downtown platform of the F train at 14th, last week . . .

Monday, October 16, 2006

Do You See What I See . . . ?

I'd like to say that Kara Walker was my inspiration.

I'd like to say that I was responding to Ashley when she told me that if I wanted to get attention for my blog I should be controversial.

I'd like to say that the minstrel character is as American as Mickey Mouse because, well, Mickey Mouse is a minstrel character--and, if he wasn't, we wouldn't be changing copyright law for The Walt Disney Company.

But, the truth is, I was sitting alone on a cold island in Canada last night and I had stopped the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because the commentary by Marti Noxon and David Fury was . . . uhm . . . kind of boring. I wasn't really paying attention to what happened to the TV screen when I stopped the DVD, because I started playing guitar; but when I looked up . . . there it was. The screen-saver, DVD logo was looking at me and it looked like a face.

I've always been fascinated by the subliminal. I never get tired of pointing out that arrow in the Federal Express logo (thanks 60 Minutes). Still . . . This is creepy . . .

And, yes--I was.

Friday, October 13, 2006

It's A Big City

When Linda and I were reaching the end of our time in Chicago, and dreaming of the simpler life that lay ahead of us in Austin, we would respond to the everyday harshness of city life by looking at each other, shrugging and saying, "it's a big city." We were both convinced at the time that we were done with city living.

Well, now we both live in New York and we never see or talk to each other. But that's ok; it's a big city.

I'm not sure what made me think of that, except that there's something about a city that I didn't appreciate back then. Something about the way that the hard walls, sleek glass and sidewalks, the indifference and the blank, sad looks of the subway make the little bits of beauty and magic that much more wonder-filled. Sometimes living in New York is like wrapping Tom Waits's voice around you like a blanket, all harsh and torn, worn and weary and still filled with sighs about love and meaningful connections.

The other night a homeless man came up to me, gripped my hand with a soft touch and told me to look deep into the red in his eyes. I allowed it because many years ago I saw a vagrant outside of Embankment station in London, weeping as he quietly repeated, "I just want to know what time it is" to an endless pack of people looking at the Anything That Wasn't Him. It's a risky guilt, but more often than not, I get through it safe enough, with only a little weight of sad. Anyway, he explained to me that he was a fixture in the neighborhood where I live, had been for years, and everyone knew that he just needed money for his insulin. I gave him a bit of change, talked to him for a while and moved on, allowing him the satisfaction of his bluff.

He really had very soft and warm hands.

And very red eyes.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Random Events

Sometimes it's not enough to just draw in ink; sometimes you go through a day and just follow the lines wherever they take you. The best days, like my best drawings, happen without a plan.

I got my hair cut this morning and left Sonya's place on the Lower East Side without much of a schedule for the day. I sent a package of drawings to The New Yorker yesterday and it should be a couple of weeks yet before I get the rejection letter. I've finished enough of the new play now that I just have to wait until tomorrow's reading to figure out what I'm going to write next. I had a rehearsal scheduled for the show (which is now called "Here and Gone") at seven, but that was an entire afternoon away.

So I looked out over East Chinatown and decided to start walking until I felt like stopping.

I wandered over past the end of the Manhattan Bridge and came upon the Golden Unicorn, a dim sum place that I went to with my cousins and brothers and parents last January when everyone was in town for the Lord and Taylor windows. It was about noon so I wandered in and started chowing down on dumplings and shumai and green-tea-rice while drawing the other diners. Soon I had all of the waiters at my table passing around my drawing pad, pointing to the waitress who I'd included in the drawing. They seemed to really like the drawing, but they were all speaking Mandarin, so I'm mostly going on the thumbs-up and smiles they kept flashing me, together and individually.

When I left, full of food and stoned on MSG, I decided to wander over to Tribeca and say hello to the folks at the mighty Drama Dept. I walked into the office just as Alana was leaving to take stuff over to a rehearsal that I had no idea was about to happen. She grabbed me and told me to come along. So, one quick cab-ride later and I was over at Comix, a new club at 14th and 9th where Drama Dept. is presenting The Cartels, a soap opera spoof written by Douglas Carter Beane. If you liked Dynasty and dislike Republicans, this show is probably for you. Also, it's funny and has a crazy, star-studded cast, so I pulled up a chair, grabbed a bottle of water and settled in with pad and paper in front of me.

And that's how I ended up drawing Elizabeth Berkley and Joanna Gleason and David Rakoff (who John and Shana and I just watched the other night on The Daily Show) and the rest of the gang as they made me giggle and got ready for next Monday's show (not necessarily in that order).

And then, later in the evening I had my own rehearsal and it went really well . . .

So, yeah, that's this Wednesday done; full of unplanned fun and a couple of drawings.

And, you know what? Elizabeth Berkley is pretty funny . . . even if she did take Bekkah's role that one time . . .

Monday, October 09, 2006

In The Air

Leaves are changing and winds are blowing. Everything's starting to look and feel a little different and it seems like it's everywhere.

Change is constant, yes; but, sometimes change can be more self-conscious. Sometimes we actively seek change and try to do something different for whatever reason and sometimes someone chooses change for us. These times can be especially disorienting because we know what we don't want to be anymore and we have a vision of something better, but we are who we are; the change we want to be is wholly theoretical until we wake up one day and find that things are different.

But we still have to live in the in-between where everything's new and scary. And it seems to me that the most important thing to do in those times is to approach the easy answers with a certain skepticism and wariness. Because if it's huge enough to shake you from your foundation, it's not a simple fix.

Anyway, that's what I think I was trying to say when you asked . . .

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Turning the Corner

The parts of the North West corner of 8th Avenue and 16th street that weren't moving between 11 and midnight, Saturday night.

When I shook my head and said I had nothing to give, the begging guy smiled and said, "Yeah, don't ever pay to ask an artist for money." Then he looked at my drawing and told me I could make a fortune if I became a cartoonist and had I ever thought of that?

I gave him 60 cents because every bit of encouragement helps.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

It's Not Safe

Last week I sat in on a couple of rehearsals over at The Irish Repertory Theater for their production of The Hairy Ape which opens tonight.

Whenever I'm sitting there in a rehearsal, with my sketch-pad out, someone always comes up to me and asks, "what is this for?" I usually shrug and say, "art," but this time I sort of felt like it was an audition for a job--not for the Irish Rep, which is as talented, nice and welcoming a group of people as I've ever worked with, but for a publication.

Now, the thing about rejection is that it doesn't always look like rejection. Sometimes it comes to you like neglect. Sometimes it's just a phone that isn't ringing or a blackberry that's only receiving e-mails from Eli Pariser and Travelocity. Sometimes it's just the dimming of the everyday wonders of life as they fall into the bleak relief thrown by what you don't have. And sometimes it just looks like rejection because acceptance can travel really slowly. I mean, how do you know?

That's the compromise that comes along with spending the days doodling and writing; like Aimee Mann says, it's not safe.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Concerning The Night The Trains Conspired To Make Arriving In New York A Challenge To The Expectations And Other Tossed Salads

I'd been looking forward to this concert for some time. Usually, me and expectations don't sit well together; but, I knew this was going to be special.

I've avoided reading reviews of Sufjan Stevens's shows because I wanted it to be fresh, but info had trickled in about the scale of his band and the presence of wings. And when the lights dimmed and the string section walked out, wearing masks and butterfly wings and just sort of lingered over on stage right, I found myself tearing up. Before a note had been played.

Nisi was recovering from a nuclear meltdown courtesy of the F and G trains, Ryan had brought some drawings he wanted me to see, and Jeff was pulling out my old position papers on Shakespeare and David Hare. I had left the drawing pads and the cell phone at home and was feeling a little bit like a kid at Christmas, surrounded by friends and anticipating good things.

And I actually don't have a whole lot to say about it, because it all ended up in the drawing which I started in the morning, while Cordelia fussed about hair and makeup, and finished in the evening, while watching Studio 60 and the Daily Show.

But it was special and if you get a chance to see Sufjan Stevens, you should; he's doing something whimsical, significant and deep and it's like he's just getting started . . .


I know; I'm running late today. It's been a busy week and I have a bunch of new drawings, but they're ear-marked for another place and another time.

The show went well last week, thanks for asking, everyone (well, Richard and Jonny anyway). Again, more details to follow--maybe as soon as tomorrow . . .

It's a beautiful day here in New York City and I hope y'all woke up as happy as I did . . . If you were at Sufjan last night, I'm pretty sure you did . . .