A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night


One of the great things about modern music services is that it has allowed baby boomers like me to rediscover music that we loved much earlier in life then misplaced along the way.

In many cases I never actually owned these albums but listened to them on friend’s stereos playing records that they owned.

I was poor in college. I didn’t own the great status symbol of that era – a component stereo system. And I only owned a few records- ones I bought when I was a bit more “flush” from working on the highway crew in the summer when they were punching I-90 through eastern Montana.

One of my favorite recent rediscoveries is Harry Nilsson. And one of his best is albums “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night”.

I always loved his music. But I never really understood what a genius he truly was until I started listening to this album again. This collection of songs from the great American songbook are gems in every way, but the genius of his interpretation is stunning. And never mind how revolutionary it was to record an entire album of these songs in the middle of the Rock era. The fact that he recorded this album something like 30 years before Artists like Rod Stewart ever even thought of singing songs like this is astonishing.

Songs like “Its Only A Paper Moon” or “Over The Rainbow” are among the best versions ever recorded. But my favorite is his rendition of “Thanks for the Memories”, a song that I previously only knew from the bits Bob Hope would sing closing his TV performances.

It is not surprising hearing this now how he counted folks like The Beatles as some of his most ardent fans.

He passed on way too early but I am glad that our modern music services make it so easy to find treasures like this to listen to and enrich our lives with such beautiful melodies so wonderfully interpreted.

p.s. I made several different attempts to paint Harry.  Here are couple of others.


Jerome Brown and Customer Service

There’s been a lot of talk in the past couple years about customer focus in business. Companies have built their entire business model around differentiated customer service.

Nordstrom has been the traditional example of a company where laser focus on customer service has driven highly loyal customers.   It’s also an example of a company that doesn’t have a massive rule book for employees to follow in this regard.  Just take care of the customer – this idea is shared from the top.  Good, hard working employees can take it from there and make it happen.

More recent examples include Zappos, the online shoe retailer, who early on, decided to use their entire marketing budget to focus on customer service.  The result – a wildly successful ride and eventual acquisition by Amazon.

We could look at data all day long, but sometimes it’s is a lot simpler to just look at a real-life example of what world class customer service looks like on the ground. My friend, Jerome Brown, is a good example.

Jerome works at the service desk at my local Mercedes automobile dealership. I bought my first Mercedes a few years ago, because my wife had an illness and I wanted her to have a comfortable car. To be honest we liked that car so much that we’ve continued upgrading every few years there. That’s how I’ve come to know Jerome.

Jerome is the perfect example of what great customer service means.

He always greets you with a smile. Often, he will share stories while you wait for your car to be done. He is the epitome of a gentleman and is good natured, calm, and helpful. He seems to genuinely love his job and interacting with customers. He is always impeccably dressed – often sporting a color coordinated bow tie.

If you run a business, here is something to think about. I interact only once with the person who sells me the car. In fact, Typically, I never see them again.

However, I see Jerome every single time I get my car serviced or have an issue with it. So I am at least like 10 times more likely to interact with Jerome than anyone else at the dealership.

Therefore, Jerome is not just someone who works at the Mercedes Dealership in Bellevue Washington. He IS the Mercedes dealership. My experiences with him, more than anything else end up what forms my opinion of the dealership.

I wanted to paint a watercolor of Jerome mostly because I think he is interesting and I wanted to surprise him with it as a gift. But then I thought, no, – I have to write a post about what a great example he is of customer service. Lots of companies talk about customer service. Jerome lives it every single day.

When I think about Jerome, here are the attributes that make him so great:

  • He is cheerful and friendly – always
  • He remembers names – he must have hundreds memorized
  • He asks how YOU are doing
  • He makes sure you are taken care of – he goes the extra mile to assure that you got your issues resolved
  • He cares about you in a way that I don’t believe can be faked
  • He is engaging – with his own stories while you wait, but he also listens
  • He has a generous sense of humor that draws you in
  • There is always a twinkle in his eye
  • You always leave with a good feeling
  • He is calm – he never gets upset.

Calmness may be the most important attribute . A service desk guy will deal with plenty if irate customers – believe me I started my career doing technical phone support. Staying calm makes stops things from escalating.

I wonder how many businesses have a Jerome and don’t understand how valuable they are?

I know this much. The day Jerome Brown is not working the service desk at the Bellevue Washington Mercedes dealership, it will never be the same.

Martin Luther King and Leadership

Isaiah 40: 4-5 “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain….”

This is a painting I did of Martin Luther King over the past week.   This is based on a Charles Moore photograph of Dr. King being arrested in Sept 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama.

His right arm is being forcefully wrenched behind his back. At the same time, he is being shoved from behind, so that his body is being pushed forward onto the countertop. He is being held down by force – like a common criminal.

He later said they nearly broke his arm and that they kicked him as they pushed him into the jail cell. Think of it – this great leader – this revered and respected minister, this courageous champion of justice – being kicked into a jail cell.

Here is what I see in the picture. I see a man whose bravery and courage are profound. I see a man whose superior intellect and character count for almost nothing in the moment because HIS ADVERSARIES HAVE HIM IN THEIR PHYSICAL CONTROL.

But despite that, his eyes are clear and he seems almost ethereal.   He is “beyond the moment” because his vision, which he shared so eloquently on the Capital Mall four short years later, was already what drove him. The struggle for freedom from oppression – the struggle for equality – had crystalized in him. The movement was gaining momentum but it needed a clear leader – as it always does. Dr. King stepped forward knowing it could mean death. But it is as he said:

“If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”.

So, he had found his cause and the cause had found its leader.

Realize that this is taking place in a time when a black man who is considered a “trouble maker” in the Deep South was putting his body, indeed his life, in danger at every turn. If he went to jail, there was a likelihood of being beaten – at a minimum. If you went in to the jail on a Friday, your exit could very well have been to the morgue over the weekend.

The charge? Loitering.

It was 5 years later, in August of 1963, that he gave the greatest speech given in my lifetime. I was 9 years old and watched it on the Evening News.

I remember the “I have a dream” speech vividly. I remember how impactful it was as his voice alternated in a mesmerizing sing-song, strengthening its emphasis with each “chorus”. I remember his voice booming “And I have a dream that…” over and over. I remember his vision that his own “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”. And I remember thinking that is exactly how it should be – no question about it.

But as good as those points were, the one that struck me to the core as both a righteous principle and counterintuitive fact, was when he said, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” That one line was so profound that it lifted me to another sphere and I felt connected to something eternal. The idea is revolutionary – the concept that the “Lies” cannot and do not outlive the “Truth” was then, and still is, a revelation to me. It is a statement about the ultimate victory of light over darkness. I never forgot it.

Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights work provides a tremendous illustration of the characteristics of great leaders. They include:

  • Eloquence in Expressing the Vision
  • Certainty in the Worthiness of the Endeavor
  • Courage and Determination in The Face of Profound Resistance
  • Incredible Personal Commitment to the Cause, No Matter the Cost
  • A Willingness to Walk at the Front of the Line- to Do Nothing Less Than He Was Asking of His Followers


Driving change is no easy task, whether you are trying to change the world or just take your company or your team in a new direction. Dr. King provided us all with one of the best examples of all time of what it means to be a courageous leader.

And as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, I think it’s worth it to take a minute and internalize just how impactful his leadership was.

It changed us all. It made us better. And, ultimately, it changed the world.


Heavy Machinery

I think it is fun to sketch and paint heavy machinery.  This one was from a picture I found of a Soviet Era scoop shovel.

I thought it was good to have the people in the picture for a sense of scale and I like that you can just barely make out some type of housing complex in the distance.

One of my favorite artists now is a guy named Felix Scheinberger and this was painted a bit after his style.

Here is a link to a Bing Search that will return a bunch of his watercolors.  I especially like the ones of big heavy machinery:  Images of felix scheinberger artist.

I stumbled on to his book, “Urban Watercolor Sketching”, and just fell in love with his style.   I highly recommend the book to artists and non-artists alike.  I found his style very inspirational because it is so fluid, fresh, and carefree.   He leaves a lot of unpainted areas in his sketches and that is something that I don’t do enough.  And it shows you don’t have to paint pastoral landscapes or perfect images – you can be inspired by the architecture and landscape of the urban settings that most of us live in.

I think I’m also drawn to painting big machinery because all of these machines are extensions of us.  To quote Ray Kurzweil: “Our technology, our machines, is part of our humanity. We created them to extend ourselves, and that is what is unique about human beings”.

Painting Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway spent  a good amount of time hanging around Montana.  In fact, one of my Uncle Clarence’s brothers, Ivan, used to guide him in the mountains there.

This last summer, I walked up the canyon on part of the Clark’s Fork  River where it flows out of the mountains, just before it breaks out into the flat sage brush ground on it’s way to join the Yellowstone near Laurel, where I grew up.  It was the best day of my vacation last year – walking for miles all by myself in that beautiful canyon.

I kept thinking about Hemingway that day – how he was there in that country in the 1930s and how pristine it must have still been then – and how good the fishing must have been.

I have to admit to not being a prolific Hemingway reader.  I read “The Sun Also Rises” in college for a class.  I read “The Old Man and the Sea” for a book report in high school (it was short and good for a quick book report when needed).  I read it because it was short, but man is that a great book. I think The Old Man and the Sea is one of the best book ever written.

I’m constantly reminded in life how the hard thing is not getting something great, it is holding on to it once you have it that is the most difficult.  The Old Man fights that giant fish for two days and lands it – and then… the sharks come in…

Or maybe I am just drawn to Hemingway because he loved the outdoors like I do and was very committed to it – he pursued fishing, of all kinds, with an unparalleled passion.

I started the project right before Christmas and it took me 3 days just to sketch him.  I’ve learned that if the sketch isn’t right, I can’t go on.  The sketch has to be right or the watercolor that comes from it will not be right.  So I labored.

This particular watercolor was good, I think, but it does look a little bit “controlled”.  And with some spontaneity missing, it is not as good as some others I’ve done.  Still I was pleased with it.

I painted a second picture of him in a bit more spontaneous style.

This time, I stared with a simple sketch.

And then painted this watercolor to conclude the Hemingway effort.

All of these pictures are of him when he was older.  What I see in his face is someone who was unrelentingly focused on honestly and telling it like it really was.   It seems as if Truth to him was like his religion.

All this reminded me of a poem I wrote a long time ago that I never even gave a title to but I’ll give it one now..

For Ernest

A woman lives in rhymes and rhythms.
Like a poem, she asks you to give
what you think you don’t have
She has her own logic
and her own destination
The melancholy of a last line
is that you will never understand her
But this is not important
It is as insignificant as
the Poet himself,
who dies in a dark corner
of a lost Shakespearean Sonnet
curled up against a metaphor
holding a bottle of Truth
in his loving drunken arms

– By Mike Blaylock