A Tiny Voice Screaming

We had just had a fabulous vacation through England and Ireland.

Standing in front of "The Needle" on O'Connell Street in Dublin.  People wonder what the monument means.  To me, obviously, it's a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Standing in front of “The Needle” on O’Connell Street in Dublin. People wonder what the monument means. To me, obviously, it’s a celebration of the Irish junkie.

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Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

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But two weeks is as much fun as anyone in my income range is allowed, so were heading back home. We were in an airport kind of mood, that is, that particular brand of autopilot where you tell yourself that there’s nothing to see here, nothing important to do, you just have to go through the motions, stand in the required lines, show the required documents, take off your shoes when told, and finally, only when you’re tired beyond imagining, get back to your own bed, where you will crash for 12 hours or more.

Claire at the airport.

Claire in an airport kind of mood

We boarded an Aer Lingus plane in Dublin that took us to London’s Heathrow, debarked that plane, then took a bus from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3.

It was on that bus that I reached for my fanny pack. It was gone.

Inside the fanny pack were some important things. My new cell phone. My wallet. And inside the wallet, my driver’s license, my credit card, and about $400 in cash, both English and American.

That was the beginning of a panic that was not a panic, because I don’t believe in panic, I believe in remaining calm because it’s much more useful, panic being a version of fear and insecurity and other useless emotions, because you really should remain calm and ask, What emotion will get me what I want? What action will get me what I want? But beneath it all, there was this tiny voice screaming.

Aughhhh!

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First, we jumped off the bus and I backtracked. I looked at the seats we had been waiting at. Not there. I checked twice and thrice and even six times. Still not there.

I stood up and cast my mind back. I quickly narrowed it down to only three possibilities:

1) I had left it on the bus that had taken us to Terminal 3, or

2) I had left it on the plane, or

3) I had dropped it while walking down the debarkation gangway.

I glanced at my watch. We still had two hours before our flight, but at Heathrow, that was precious little time, since everything is so far away from everything else. So I parked Claire and my mother and went off in search of the Aer Lingus desk. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get somewhere in Heathrow without following the rest of the herd to Baggage Claim, but trust me, it’s extremely difficult. You ask questions of airport workers. You get vague answers. You scramble. You go down elevators and hit dead-ends.

Ten minutes later, I found myself looking through a huge window one floor down at the Aer Lingus desk, but there seemed to be no way to get down there.

“You have to go through security first,” an employee told me.

Okay, ugh, so I stood in line to go through security, which of course is the slowest thing in the world when your fanny pack is lying on the ground somewhere. I took a deep breath. I glanced at my watch and cringed. I took off all my metal objects and dumped them into the tubs. I walked through the metal detector, trying not to evince panic, because that’s what suspicious people evince, and who wants to be unnecessarily frisked and questioned when you’re looking for your fanny pack on deadline? I gathered up all my metal objects and put them on again. Then I lit out for the Aer Lingus desk.

The woman at Aer Lingus made a quick call to Lost & Found.

“It’s not there,” she said. “It might not have gone through the system yet. But right now, your problem is that you have very little time to get on your flight. When you get to L.A., you’re going to have to email Aer Lingus Lost & Found.”

“Can’t I just spend the night here?” I asked.

“You’d have to buy a whole new ticket. You need to start thinking about your connection.”

So I made the decision that I didn’t want to make. I would leave my fanny pack behind.

It was such a long, long flight back home, 13 hours in the air. I tried to divert myself with movies and reading, but I kept thinking about my wallet, which was somewhere out there, I didn’t know exactly where. Maybe I had left it in the airplane seat. Before leaving, I had glanced at the seat and seen nothing, and Claire had asked, as well (“Did you leave anything?”), but perhaps I had left it beneath the seat. Or maybe it had come undone walking down the gangway. Or maybe it had come undone in the first bus. I replayed moments over and over again while watching a bad Kevin Costner movie on the seatback in front of me.

I wondered, as well, about the person who would find it. I’ve discovered that there are strangers who surprise you with their integrity, but I’ve also been surprised by those who consider petty larceny to be their God-given right. I once had a roommate who found a wallet and considered himself a saint because he took the cash and dropped the wallet into a mailbox. He was so proud of himself, like maybe that alone would get him into the pearly gates. You never know what kind of punk schlub dufus you’ll get.

I worried about the bureaucratic forest that lay before me, as well. I hated depending on email. I was determined to use their phone lines instead, but worried about breaking through the Kafkaesque levels of voicemail hell.

Suddenly, my mother was talking to me on the plane.

“When you were a child, I was doing laundry in a laundromat,” she said. “Later that day, while I was cooking dinner, this policeman appears at my door with a wallet. ‘Is this yours?’ he asks. ‘Oh yes, it is,’ I say. I didn’t even realize I’d lost it. And he says, ‘I’m sorry, but the money’s gone.’ I had about $25 in it. So I took it and looked into my secret compartment. I breathed a sigh of relief and said, ‘Well, at least they didn’t take that bill, because I was saving it up,’ and pulled out my emergency $100 bill, which was folded into a little little small piece. And the look on his face, I have to tell you, was, like, ‘Oh God, I missed it.’ And that’s how I knew that that cop was the one who took the rest of the cash.”

When we finally got back to our home in Los Angeles, we had been up for over 24 hours, but it was still only early evening, so I got onto the phone and started calling overseas. I spent a couple hours that evening, and then another couple hours the next morning, just calling and filling out forms online.

All the while, I was wondering how the dice would roll. One of the things that I’ve realized in my life is that humans are not basically good, but they’re not basically bad, either. They have the capacity for both. There are some humans who have done bad things, such as Adolph Hitler (who was a person, after all, not just an epithet), Ty Cobb, Shannon Doherty (whose heart leaps, I’m sure, being mentioned in the same context as Hitler), Charles Manson, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, OJ Simpson, Susan Smith, Tonya Harding, Timothy McVeigh, Donald Sterling, et al.

Conversely, there are some humans who have done wondrous things, such as Mother Teresa (who was a person, after all, not just an icon), Oskar Schindler, Miep Gies (who helped hide Anne Frank), Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Franklin Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Bill W., Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, et al.

I was searching for a good person. Someone who would pick up the wallet and have not a question in their mind.

Oh, this goes to the Lost & Found, they would say to themselves.

Not:

Yes! My lucky day!

I envisioned travelers, each eager to reach their destination. I thought the probability was high that they would do the right thing. After all, when you’re traveling, your mind is focused on getting your ordeal over, not gaming the system. But when it came to employees, I was a little more apprehensive. Once an employee gets used to a job, his or her real self comes out.

So it was that I was on the line with a woman who worked in Aer Lingus Lost & Found. She was idly instructing me how to call back when she stopped, as if she had spotted something on a computer screen.

“What color was the wallet?” she asked.

“Brown,” I said.

“Black,” Claire said.

“My girlfriend says it was black.”

“And how much was in it?”

“About $300 in American dollars and $100 in British pounds and euros.”

“And what brand was the phone?”

“LG. It’s a new phone.”

It turned out the bag and its contents had been found and returned. That, however, wasn’t the end of it, not by a long shot.

“You’re going to have to send somebody down here to pick it up,” she said. “Do you have a friend in London?”

I couldn’t really think of anybody who would fit that description.

“Well, then I recommend that you hire a courier to come down here to pick it up,” she said. “They can then put it in a Fed Ex box and mail it to you.”

She gave me some sort of identification number for the items and told me to hang up and organize the retrieval.

Things were looking up, to be sure, but couriers sounded expensive. I turned to the computer and inquired about sending a package weighing .99 pounds from London to Los Angeles. It turned out to cost $139. In fact, taking the courier/Fed Ex route might easily eat up all the cash I had in that wallet.

Kind of defeated the purpose.

So I turned to another strategy: friends. To be frank, I really had no friends in London at all. We had spent three days there, but more as tourists than anything else. The only possibility was a fabulous magician I had seen at the Magic Circle. We had spent a couple hours watching his charming and amazing tricks, and I had shown him some wonderful ones, too, and at the end, he had given me his business card. I had meant to call him, but only to tell him how much I enjoyed his magic.

Now, I realized, I was in a position to manipulate him into helping me as if he were a friend.

That didn’t feel good.

Instead of doing that, I decided to make it a financial transaction. I would ask for the name of a young magician who could pick up the bag from Heathrow in return for a fee of 50 pounds. Surely Chris wouldn’t have the time or incentive to do that kind of job, but perhaps a trusted 22-year-old buddy might.

So I called him. In fact, he was happy to talk magic with me, and we stayed on the phone for a full half-hour. We talked about many things. His day job, which was a secure job with a city council. The transition he hoped to make to full-time magician. The great magician Michael Vincent, whom he had known since he was a teenager. Vincent’s recent descent into deafness, and the effect that might have on his career. A half-hour later, I felt like the victim was sufficiently softened up to refer me to a young magician.

“Listen,” I said, “I was going to call you, anyway, but I have a favor to ask. I need a young magician who could do a gig for me. It doesn’t pay enough for you, but here’s the gig.”

And then I explained my predicament with the wallet.

“As you can see, I need someone to pick up my wallet from Heathrow and put it in the mail for me,” I said.

Chris laughed. He was way ahead of me.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” he said.

That was Saturday morning, and strangely enough, he said that his daughter was flying into London on Sunday evening. But there are four airports that serve London, and the odds that she was coming in at Heathrow were less than even.

“Honey!” he called over to his wife. “What airport is Shana flying into?”

Turned out it was, indeed, Heathrow. That moment seemed delivered by an angel, although once you start thinking of everything in terms of angels and devils, the devils seem to vastly outnumber the heavenly beings, which seems to diminish every good thing that has ever happened to you, and you certainly don’t want that.

I emailed Chris instructions on all the details of the pickup. Then all I had to do was wait for 28 hours. It was strange to depend on someone so many miles away, and not only that, but to sit back and do nothing. After all, I’ve always felt that it’s only diligence and focus that is rewarded. But in this case, there was no alternative.

By 3 pm the next day, I was sitting at a Father’s Day party in Brea, Claire sitting beside me. I was talking to my cousin Maria about Israel, which is ridiculous because we’re not Jewish and know nothing about it, but still, we were talking about the latest trouble in that troubled land. That’s when I checked my email with the message that I had been waiting for.

“Just to let you know, mission accomplished,” Chris wrote. “All went like clockwork and everything seems to be there as described….Going to bed now.”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But the marathon wasn’t over yet, and it certainly had gone into marathon territory, and if anybody is left reading at this point, you’re running a marathon, as well, and wondering whether the finish line is anywhere nearby, I’m sure. The thing is, though, we still had to get the items safely into my hands in Los Angeles.

The next day, I left a message for Chris, but didn’t hear back, either by phone or email. That was strange. Something suspicious within me started to wonder whether I was going to have trouble getting it back from him, whether he had lured me into choosing him just so he could screw me over, and for a short moment, I was absolutely convinced that he was a conniving con man.  It’s a small, suspicious part of me, clearly, because that suspicion was based on absolutely nothing at all.

The next day, I talked with Chris. We went through the items one by one, and yes, everything was there.

“Okay,” I said, “just throw away the fanny pack. It’s old and will just add weight to everything.”

“All right,” Chris said. “I’ll put everything else in a bubble pack and send it.”

“Great,” I said. “Use the pounds in the wallet to pay for the postage.”

After I hung up, I wondered what it would all cost. I wondered whether I should have told him to throw away the wallet, too, to cut down on the weight. And other people had second thoughts, too.

“Did he send it registered mail?” my friend Rich asked.

“No.”

“Oh man! I told you to send it registered mail. It’ll take a million years to get here, if it ever arrives!”

I inwardly bemoaned Rich’s cynicism with regard to government services. I wondered if he would’ve voted for The Great Satan, Margaret Thatcher. Still, the proof would be whether the damn thing arrived or not, and nobody could tell me for sure whether it would. Once again, my zen challenge would be my patience.

So I waited. Breathed deeply. Tried not to think about it. There’s no use in feeling disappointment twice, after all. On top of that, I tried to drive perfectly, since I didn’t have a driver’s license on me. I started carrying my passport wherever I went. I activated my old phone. I went on with my life.

Finally, six days later, an Asian postal carrier arrived at the door.

“Do you know what amazing story lies behind this package?” I said, smiling widely as I took the package.

“No.”

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So I gave him a quick rundown, then let him go. It didn’t do the saga justice. Maybe an HBO series or a Netflix contract like “House of Cards.”

I smiled. It was so unlikely. The wallet had made its way from London to Los Angeles, passing through so many hands along the way, making so many precarious stops where it could have been snatched up and kept, never to be seen again.

And ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what it all means about human nature. After all, there are some wonderful people in this world, people like my girlfriend Claire, who will do a favor to anybody if asked, and Chris Wood, who went out of his way to help a Yank, and that Aer Lingus lady, who gave me such good advice, and then, going back all the way to the beginning, whoever it was that found it in the first place, that faceless person who was honest enough to turn in a wallet in a fanny pack and log it into the system, not keeping even a dollar for herself. Thinking about it that way, it was a little miracle, a chain of good people I had happened upon, unblemished by even one bad person.

Oh, I thought, if only I could spend the rest of my days walking only among people like that.

An Outburst of Pure Irish Passion

There’s a guy in Ireland who bought my book, Be a Street Magician, a few years ago. He gladly paid the extra postage and ordered a couple other tricks, as well, the bill exceeding $100. He was trying to get the nerve to go out on the street and perform magic, which is a kind of dragon that some of us have to slay. But Jack wanted to read up on dragon slaying before he went out to fell the beast.

“After reading your book, I strapped on a set of balls and just did it,” Jack told me.

He didn’t just do it, he’s won awards for it.  It’s gratifying to know that you inspire people to be bold.

Later, when I looked at his YouTube video, I was mightily impressed.

This guy has talent, I thought.

This year, I finally traveled to Ireland, and when I met Jack Wise, I put a face on a reader. He was a muscular fellow with the kind of face women love, but with one Achilles heel: He loves magic. I would’ve hated him if not for that one fatal flaw.

Brian Daly (L) and Jack Wise (R)

Brian Daly (L) and Jack Wise (R) in Murray’s before the lecture.

We were sitting in Murray’s, a traditional Irish pub, having dinner and a pint, and one by one, the Irish magicians wandered in.

Brian Daly, a working pro who is an officer in the Society of Irish Magicians, and who is terribly witty in front of an audience.

Gary Michaels, who had just come from working the streets, where he shocks people for a living.

Gary had the look of someone who doesn’t need to prove himself.

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Gary being Yiked.

Steve Thompson, who is a brilliant inventor of magic tricks, such as Glance.

In fact, Steve invented something astonishing just while we were sitting around chatting.  Steve’s mates were joking about not wanting to hug him when they saw him, and I took the joke a step further.

“I don’t want to hug, but could we just cuddle?” I asked.

It was an excellent joke and everyone laughed heartily, but truth be told, it remained a wall between us for the next hour. It’s a guy thing.

Later, we all crossed over to Cassidy’s Hotel, the lovely Irish establishment where I would be lecturing to the society at 8 pm, and had another pint. They all wanted to see some magic, but nobody wanted to ask. So I just stood up and launched into a trick called Torn and Restored Transposition, a trick that was invented by a wacky Ohio magician named David Williamson. The trick kicks magicians’ asses, not just because the individual sleights are tough, but also because the sleights have a rhythm that is extremely difficult to master.

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Ah, rhythm. When it comes to rhythm, I’ve always had an ear for it, whether it be musical or magical. I love the Irish rhythm of Luke Kelly and Van Morrison and the Chieftains and U2. I was always astonished that someone like Van the Man, who has such a horrific voice, could entrance me with such incredible rhythm, melody, and musicality. The Irish, it seems, are in touch with everything that makes you tap your toe, because sometimes, that’s all the downtrodden have, is some weird beat that the privileged could never imagine because, well, they have everything.

In the case of my magic trick, the rhythm was BAM SWISH RIP BEAT SWISH TURN APPLAUSE SWISH CLENCH OPEN SWISH BAM. It’s a tough one to tap your toe to, I must confess.

After I performed the trick, there was a kind of silence.  Of course, silences mean different things to different audiences. In time, it became clear that this fine Irish silence didn’t mean Meh, but instead, Wow. Later, Jack tried to explain the silence to us, talking about how Irish audiences differ from American audiences. He discovered the difference while performing at busking festivals in Canada, which he does every year.

“You invite an Irishman up onstage and you say hello, and he says hello wit his head down, like, ‘Uh….’” Jack said. “But you invite an American or a Canadian up and say hello, and he’s like, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’ And we Irish tink, like ‘What?!’ We can’t understand tat reaction. It’s da result of 800 years of oppression.”

Everybody was laughing about that one, but when the laughing was over, the truth of it remained at the bottom of the glass.

While Claire, my mother, and I were in Ireland, we picked up a boatload of phrases. You tell people that you went into town to see the Irish dancing, and an American would say, Great. But the Irishman takes it one important step further.

Grand, he says.

But it’s not just grand, it’s grawnd, in such a friendly, open accent that makes you feel like a million euro!

Language can unlock a people. For example, whenever they say a word that contains a th, they pronounce it as if the h were a traitor to the Irish cause for freedom, that the h has to be kicked out of the country to connect themselves back to the ancient Celts, which gives rise to such strange sentences as:

Ta ting is, I can’t tank you enough, Teodore, for being so totful wit me tirteen kids.

I had prepared for this trip. Before getting on the plane, I bought a 400-page history of Ireland called The Story of Ireland, the reading of which consumed my evenings and weekends before the trip. One of the tings I learned: By all rights, there should be two-tirds as many people living in Ireland as there are living in England, given the size of the land mass. Strangely, though, Ireland has only 5% as many. The reason, put quite bluntly, is a centuries-long policy of murder and expulsion.

There, I’ve said it.

During the seven years of the potato famine alone (1845 – 1852), approximately 1 million souls died of starvation, which, by the way, is a horrific way to die. Another million emigrated, many of them to America. One may assume that the Irish were responsible for their own famine deaths, but they weren’t. Since the English had centuries earlier made it illegal for the Irish to own land in their own country, or serve in their own legislative bodies, or even benefit from laws outlawing murder, theft, and fraud, there evolved a kind of well-enforced poverty.

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I’m not saying that Americans were any better. We were toying with our own minorities at the time, which included the Africans, the Mexicans, the Chinese, the Jews, the Catholics, the Italians, and yes, the Irish. It was what you did in those days. You slapped people around. You shot them. You killed them.  You stomped on their grave.

So when the potato blight arrived (the microscopic fungus that invaded the Emerald Isle and destroyed potato crops wholesale), the poverty-stricken Irish were already on the verge of starving. The Phytophthora infestans simply pushed them over the edge. On top of that, the British government refused to offer adequate help, and crime and other unrest skyrocketed. Carts filled with wheat and oats were looted on their way to market. The Irish countryside descended into chaos. Families huddled in their squalid homes, hungry and desperate, many of them dying there. Starvation ravaged immune systems and a typhus epidemic raged. Villages became ghost towns and every town seemed to have its own mass grave.

The Times of London complained that the Irish were exaggerating, declaring that “it is the old thing, the old malady breaking out. It is the national character, the national thoughtlessness, the national indolence.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the Irish are known for their drinking and brawling. My own Mexican grandfather, who was a mariachi singer in La Ciudad de Los Angeles in the 1930s and ‘40s, could never catch a break from the gavachos who ran the system, and consequently turned to drinking and fighting. His children grew up in domestic chaos, and as a result, I feel the effects of that desperation even now, two generations later.

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Drinking and fighting. While traveling through Ireland, I took photos of both. The first was outside a pub in Drogheda, a half-hour’s drive north of Dublin, where we caught a staggering, drunken man trying to light a fag.

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The second was in the Dublin Airport, where we were waiting for our flight to Heathrow. There, we saw a man who was trying to blend into the vinyl airport furniture, but who had obviously been in a recent fight.

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I can sympathize with fighters. They refuse to lay down.

God invented whiskey, the saying goes, so that the Irish wouldn’t rule the world.

Finally, at 8 pm, I stood in front of the Society of Irish Magicians and started my lecture. In the room was lots of expensive wood and chandeliers, and the audience was of a healthy size. I was enjoying it, imparting my deep, dark secrets to a group of fellow deceivers, and I could feel them enjoying it, too.

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Then I launched into my climactic piece of magic, The Silence of the Lemons, which involves me raising my voice and haranguing the audience like a Southern preacher.  In their view, I was coming alive, and I could feel them come alive, too. One fine magician named Gary couldn’t stop laughing when I started tearing his 5-euro note, and that expostulation of laughter gave me such joy that I can’t describe. Afterwards, Silence is the trick they couldn’t stop talking about.

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On the left in this photo is Gary, who couldn’t stop laughing when I tore his 5-euro note.

“You can tell that you’ve performed that trick thousands of times,” Jack said. “It’s like you could just turn it on for that trick.”

But I think they were drawn to the trick for other reasons, too. It’s essentially an outburst of pure passion, and the Irish love passion.  It’s what they live for.  The music of Luke Kelly is such an outburst. So is the poetry of James Stephens. So is the drinking of James Joyce, which is the stuff of legend. Many an evening in Dublin, so they say, Joyce ended the night in a passionate embrace of the pub floor.

I may not be terribly religious, but Joyce, now there’s a god to worship. Sacred be his nouns and hallowed be his verbs. Drinking and freedom are intertwined in his pages like vines crawling up the brick walls of Trinity College Dublin. Joyce drank with his countrymen and woke up with the same hangovers. His heart broke when he heard about the deaths at the GPO in 1916 and he mended it in the best way he could. Sometimes, his heart could not be mended. And when Joyce wrote, he remembered it all, he was honest about it all, and it all bled out of that fabulous pen like green Celtic blood.

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“It was cold autumn weather, but in spite of the cold they wandered up and down the roads of the Park for nearly three hours. They agreed to break off their intercourse; every bond, he said, is a bond to sorrow.” (from “A Painful Case,” in Dubliners)

True enough, Messr. Joyce, sorrow is everywhere, it’s general, it’s the human condition.  Still, the only sorrow that I feel from my bond with the Society of Irish Magicians was the sorrow of leaving. They were all such a joy, even the old white-haired mage who challenged one of my sleights for being overcomplex, God bless him, even the skinny 11-year-old who looked so forlorn and friendless that his mother brought him to a magic meeting to connect with some kind of something, God bless him, and especially the tall young master magician named Andy who earnestly promised to get me onto cruise ships, God bless him especially, God bless every single minute of his life, that I cannot adequately put it all into words.

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Therefore, I will end not with a cuddle, nor with a thrown punch, nor with an embrace of the pub floor, but with a fine Irish toast.

May you never lie, steal, cheat or drink.
But if you must lie, lie in each other’s arms.
If you must steal, steal kisses.
If you must cheat, cheat death.
And if you must drink, drink with us, your brothers in magic.

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In the Magicians’ Library

I was in the library of the Magic Circle, looking at the first magic book published in the English language, which is titled Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584).  I was also looking at another early magic book, Hocus Pocus Junior (1634).  It’s hard to describe the feeling, just looking at those first editions. The librarians keep them behind a locked glass case. When they bring them out, they treat them gingerly, as if they were sacred texts.  In the strictest sense, they are.

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What I’m getting at is the feeling I had looking at this artifact.

Okay, try it this way. That same feeling can be seen in a photograph I had taken of my mother a couple days before. We had been visiting the Roman ruins in Bath, which date from the time before 410 AD when the Romans ruled the Celts.  My mother was marveling at the antiquity of those ruins. You could see my mother’s soul in the picture.

I’m touching brick that the ancient Romans touched,  she was thinking.

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You could see her imagination cast back, trying to visualize it, what it must have been like to live back then, to walk in a toga in the baths.

Or try it this way. That same feeling can be seen in photographs I had taken of both my mother and my girlfriend Claire nine days earlier. We had been visiting a 12th-century castle in Carlingford, Ireland, an old Viking town. The castle was commissioned in 1186, and then named after King John in 1210, when he visited it. King John was portrayed as rather an imbecile in the movie The Lion in Winter (with Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, and Anthony Hopkins). In the history books, we are told that his father, King Henry II, sent him to Ireland to make peace with the various clan leaders, but he repeatedly antagonized them, pulling the long beards that were the Irish custom in those days.

You could see my mother’s and Claire’s imaginations try to cast back and visualize what it was like.

I’m touching stone that the ancient Celts touched.

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My mother (see two photos, above) was astounded at the antiquity of King John’s Castle, circa 1186 AD, in Carlingford, Ireland, as was my girlfriend Claire (below).

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In the same way, while standing in the library of the Magic Circle, I was trying to cast back to 1584, when Reginald Scot first wrote this book. There were people performing magic and passing themselves off as real. You can gain an advantage if other people believe you have spiritual powers. People will fear you. They will do what you say. Unfortunately, they will sometimes accuse you of cavorting with the devil and try to burn you at the stake.  In fact, that’s why Discoverie was originally written. He saw the proliferation of witchcraft trials, primarily in rural courts, and thought it a travesty. Thus, he studied magical methods, many of them from Latin sources, and set them down in print.  Only a decade or more later, Shakespeare used Discoverie as a source for the witches in Macbeth. His work helped illuminate the ignorant Puritans, although it didn’t stop the buffoons in Salem Village to go on a rampage more than a century later, in 1692.

Look more closely at this page and you will see a trick that I have used in my shows, Knife Through Arm.  In fact, I used it yesterday.  It got big laughs.

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Reginald Scot’s historic trick in action.

To be honest, just walking around in the Magic Circle was a complete and total treat.  It’s not a prominent landmark, as is its counterpart in Los Angeles, the Magic Castle. Instead, it’s set down a lonely, ancient street near Euston Station, more like an alley that nobody ever drives down, and has a nondescript door. Step inside, however, and worlds will open up to you—if you have permission to enter, that is.

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I gained entry through my acquaintance with Matthew Field, a prominent figure in modern magic. For years, Field has reviewed instructional videos for Genii, the most prominent magazine for magicians. Unbeknownst to me, however, he has edited some of the most influential books in the magic field.  These are just a smattering of selections from his resume:

The Uncanny Scot, by Ron Wilson, a book from the 1960s that contained numerous cutting-edge magical methods from a Scottish magician who wore a kilt when he performed. See Ron Wilson’s performance video here.

Williamson’s Wonders, by David Williamson, a late 1980s book that contained many brilliant methods from an up-and-coming mage.  Gambling books by such luminaries as Darwin Ortiz, Gary Kurtz, and Martin Nash. See Williamson’s performance video here.

The Secrets of Brother John Hamman, the life’s work of the wheelchair-bound clergyman who loved magic.

Books by Phil Goldstein, Martin Gardner, JK Hartman, Paul Cummins, Jon Racherbaumer, Eugene Berger, Dai Vernon, Michael Vincent, Patrick Page, Paul Curry, and so many others, all edited by Matthew. This may not mean much to non-magicians, but to a magician, it’s like discovering that someone was a kind of magical Zelig—that is, was present at dozens of historical moments.

“Yes, I do have some stories to tell,” he admitted with humility.

Matt seems to have the personality of a critic—that is, he has strict standards for the execution of magic. There is no excuse in his mind for inferior methods. Matt sees all of a magician’s assets, but also, all of his shortcomings. Because of that, I was sad that I didn’t bring my best magic with me, so that I could show him all the magical advances I’d been making recently.  I was thinking in particular of a gambling routine that I’ve added to my repertoire that blows lots of boats out of the water, a plot that most of the magic world has given up on because it’s too difficult. But I’ve been waking up every morning for months now, placing a closeup pad in front of me, and while television plays in the background, perfecting it. That’s a really great way of improving your magic, just practicing all the time.

Matt’s high standards also led him to introduce me to Chris Wood. For two hours, Chris dazzled me with magic of the highest quality, as you can see here. The kind of magician whom I most admire is the sort whose way with people is as advanced as his sleights. If he can’t make eye contact, can’t show his audience the twinkle in his eye, can’t let the audience know that he likes them, then all the best sleights in the world can’t help him.

That’s why I liked Chris Wood. So I countered with a few tricks of my own, and Chris was delighted with those, too. Eventually, Chris handed me his business card.

I’m going to call him, I thought.  This guy is top notch.

I was also delighted to meet a 95-year-old legend in the Circle, Henry Lewis, who still performs shows every Monday morning at the Circle.

“If you play your cards right,” he told me, “I’ll invite you to my funeral.”

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The Magic Circle is an amazing place, I must say. Just like the Magic Castle, you have to prove yourself a proficient student of magic just to be admitted, and the English standard for excellence is high indeed. The Circle was founded in 1905 by a circle of famous magicians, and for the first few years, they met in a pub in Soho. Later, they moved into their current location, which is down a kind of nondescript alley near Euston Station.  Step inside and you’ll discover four stories of rooms filled with magic and magicians.

“I thought the cabbie was taking us down an alley to mug us,” my mother later told me. “Then we saw the sign on the door: Magic Circle.”

It was a very small sign.  Very understated and very English.

The Circle’s members include all the best English magicians, including Charles, Prince of Wales, who performed the Cups & Balls for his audition. It is packed with photos, memorabilia, fabulous old books, and the best magicians in the British Isles.

At the Magic Circle

At the Magic Circle

I would have loved to spend more time at the Circle, but they closed at 10 pm. So we straggled down the street, accompanied by three lady magicians, including the famed Fay Presto. She tried to coax us to an after-hours magic session, but my flu was threatening to return, so we begged off.  But I was still high from the experience.  You could tell it from the look on my face.

I can’t believe I was considered a peer with these excellent conjurors.  What a fine tradition!

 

A few days later, while walking through Heathrow Airport on my way back home, I suddenly grabbed my waist.  My fanny pack was gone. In it were my wallet, $400 in cash, my debit card, my driver’s license, 50 pounds sterling, and my cell phone. I panicked for a couple hours, then finally realized I would have to return home immediately or miss my flight and have to buy a whole new airplane ticket.

Claire at the airport.

Claire at the airport.

Back home in L.A., I worked the phone for three hours until I located the fanny pack–in the Aer Lingus Lost & Found.  Yes, somebody had turned it in, cash and all, so there are good people in the world.

“But we can’t just send it back to you,” the Aer Lingus rep said. “You need to send someone down here to pick it up and put it in the mail back to you.”

But I didn’t really have good friends who lived in London. Matthew lives in Hastings in the south.  So I called Chris Wood, the only person I knew in London proper, talking to him for a full half-hour about his fabulous magic. I was blown away by it, and was interested in all the little details of his performance, especially his patience with pacing, which is all too uncommon in magic.  Honestly.  I wasn’t just buttering him up.

Then I gingerly broached the subject of Heathrow.

“I promise I was going to call you anyway,” I said, “but I’m looking for somebody to go down to Heathrow and pick up my fanny pack….”

He laughed wholeheartedly.

“I’ll do it,” he said easily.

Turned out that his daughter was arriving at Heathrow on a flight the next evening, so he wouldn’t even have to make two trips.  It was so synchronous that I felt it was meant to be.  I worried that it was too perfect, and held my breath for the next 25 years.  Nevertheless, everything went like clockwork, and as we speak, the wallet is on its way back to me, thanks to Chris. He’s a prince (although not of Wales).

Through my association with the brotherhood magicians, it turns out I had friends in London, after all. Who would have known?

At Sevens and Nines in Someone Else’s Country Not Your Own

I woke up sick. I had been sick for nearly two weeks now, and had actually lost ten pounds. I hadn’t been able to eat or drink water and had gotten quite thirsty and quite weak. It was a huge inconvenience, since we were on our big hurrah traveling through Ireland and England, and as everyone knows, big hurrahs cost money.

It’s hard to get well when you’re at sevens and nines in somebody else’s room not your own, and someone else’s country not your own and you don’t know what their name is for Kaopectate.

But I didn’t want to ruin my traveling companions’ trip, so I insisted that my mother and girlfriend go off on their own and visit Windsor Castle. By noon, they were taking off for the London underground, determined to have an adventure. I would be seeking an acupuncture appointment and then meet them at the Magic Circle at 5 pm.

“I’ll take the key,” I said.

We were staying in a friend’s vacated flat, so there was only one key, and no one to let them in if our wires got crossed.

Our flat in London

Our flat in London

“If you run into problems, you can always call my Meteor phone,” I said.

I immediately got onto the mobile phone and made an appointment with an acupuncturist near Buckingham Palace. Before I left, however, I realized something aggravating: I had bought the Meteor phone in Ireland, and so to call the phone from a pay phone in England required a special international prefix that I hadn’t told Claire about. In addition, my regular cell phone suddenly died.  I should have recharged it the night before.

Suddenly, we weren’t connected by phone.

Still, we had a fallback plan. We would meet at the Magic Circle at 5 pm.  I brightened.  Everything would work out.

At 2:30, I had my acupuncture, and by 5:15, I was walking into the nondescript doors of the Magic Circle. I was a tad worried that I was running a little late. I was met by a huge black man wearing a snappy suit.

“No, they haven’t arrived yet,” he said.

 

At the Magic Circle

At the Magic Circle

Well, no need to worry, because I was always convinced that worry itself created its own constellation of problems. I would explore the Magic Circle and enjoy myself. My host, Matthew Field, who is a prominent member of the magic community, showed me around. We finally settled into a small group of magicians showing each other their best stuff.

I had expectations for the Magic Circle. I was hoping to see my favorite magicians. I wanted to see the fabulous Michael Vincent, a wonderfully dignified performer whose sleights routinely fool magicians. I wanted to see Mel Mellers, a fabulous stage performer whose humor is brilliantly naughty. I wanted to see Paul Daniels, who has for decades been the most famous English magician on television, even if he’s hardly known in the States. I wanted to see Derren Brown, the brash icon smasher who’s the newest English television star.  I wanted to see James Brown, a brilliant award winner.

My smile fell a bit when I realized that none of them were there.

My table had four magicians gathered around it. It didn’t look promising. This is how some local Southern California magic clubs looked, no-name hobbyist magicians with no real-world show experience trying out insignificant tricks on each other. I wondered whether I was going to waste another precious couple hours in London.

But immediately, my impression changed. In front of me, unexpectedly, was a real performer. His name was Chris Wood, and he performed with experience, elan, and charm. He performed as if he had performed his chosen tricks thousands of times. He performed for us many of the tricks that he has posted on YouTube, including here, here, here, and here. In these videos, you can see his skill shining through like a brilliant light.

I was riveted while Chris performed his magic, but every couple minutes, I would glance at the door. The girls were an hour late and counting. I wondered how they had lost their way.

Claire, after all, isn’t the best navigator in the world. When parking in a lot, for example, she always has to count the number of spaces she has parked from the store, whereas I can always make my way back by instinct. When printing out directions, she always has to print them out in words, whereas I can simply print out a visual map and follow it on the fly. On top of all that, this was London, one of the most congested and confusing cities in the world.

But my inner voice argued against panicking.

There’s never any use in worrying, he said. You just work yourself into a state, and after all, what can you do about it except see what happens? Just enjoy yourself.

I showed Chris and the group some of my own tricks, some of them original. There’s an amazing card trick that I learned 20 years ago and has been a mainstay of my act ever since.   Many magicians know it by the name Transpo.  When I first saw it, it seemed so incredibly magical but at the same time so incredibly difficult that I had to learn it. So I went out onto the street and performed it, over a period of three years, approximately 25,000 times. Soon, the sleights and moves had become stamped into my autonomic nervous system, so that now, I don’t even have to think to perform it, my body just performs it without thought or worry.

While at the Circle, I discovered that my host Matthew had edited the book that first brought that trick to the magic community.

“You wrote that book?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“Edited,” he said.

“Still….”

When I heard that, I knew I had to perform it for him. So I stood up and went through my paces. I knew he liked it by his smile.

“Excellent,” he said.

“Wonderful,” said Chris. “I’ve read about that trick, but I’ve never seen it performed.”

“I’m the type of guy,” I said, “who learns a trick and then immediately tries to change it. I’m creative in that way. But this trick is so perfect that it’s impossible to change it.”

“Yes,” Matthew said, “it is tight.”

I turned my head towards the front door. The girls still hadn’t arrived. I wondered what would happen if I got to closing time and hadn’t heard from them.

Don’t worry about it.

I looked around the room and saw lots of magicians at the tables, perhaps 120 or more. There was a cute cocktail waitress in a short dress who was serving them, but true to form, they were too nerdy about their magic to notice. They just wanted to talk tricks. There was one young magician who was sitting at my elbow who I immediately dismissed. He had a good physique and wore a shirt that showed it off. He had a cool haircut. He was handsome. He seemed like an arrogant young bastard who thought his tricks were the best in the world, but who was in fact deceiving only himself.

Still, the magician I wanted to perform for was Chris. I took out my cards and performed a spelling trick that was in the same category of tricks he was doing. I considered it in my third or fourth tier of my material, because I’ve always thought spelling tricks are inferior. They require attention and focus.  In addition, they may fail if the spectator can’t spell or tries to mess with you. Still, I launched into it, because the English have more patience than Americans.  But the magician who liked it the most was the arrogant young magician sitting at my elbow.

“Wow, that is incredible,” he said.  “I stopped doing my own spelling trick because it wasn’t as good as Chris’s, but this is really great, too.”

I was surprised. Arrogant magicians don’t watch other magicians’ tricks, don’t listen much, and certainly don’t compliment other magicians.   Turned out that I had misunderestimated this young bastard.  Humility of this sort is a mighty good sign in a magician his age.  Following my instinct, I offered him something.

“You can look that trick up,” I said, and then told him the trick’s provenance, which was through Michael Close’s instructional DVDs.

“Would you teach it to me?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

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It took about ten minutes to pass it on. I tried to give him all the work on it—the key sleights, what’s hardest about it, where it can fail. There’s a moment, for example, when you have to make a calculation.  If the audience members see you calculating, however, it’s all over. You have to be completely casual.

“Everything rests on that moment,” I told the young magician.

“Thanks so much,” he said.

And then, suddenly, the girls were standing behind me smiling.

When the Circle closed at 10 pm, we walked back to Euston Tube Station in the dusk, followed by a middle-aged blonde woman and her minions.

“After the Circle closes, we all go to a café and continue talking late into the night,” she was saying in a particularly bold voice.

But I couldn’t. I wasn’t completely well. Not only that, but the girls had a limit to the amount of magic they could stomach.

“Thanks,” I said, knowing I wouldn’t join them.

It was a night of surprises. That woman was Fay Presto, who won Closeup Magician of the Year at the Circle in 2012. Oh, and another surprise. She started out her life as a man.  Obviously, this is a woman who is thoroughly acquainted with deception.

Sitting in Bewley’s, Reading James Joyce Aloud

In college, I was particularly drawn to an author I’d never heard of before, a fellow named James Joyce. He wrote of complex thoughts and feelings but in a simple way. His sentences flowed like swiftly moving water. No author I have ever encountered had smoother prose. Not only that, but his prose never had a false step in it. Over time, he became a god.

During my recent trip to Ireland, I discovered that Joyce is revered over in Ireland, not just in American college English departments. We discovered statues, carvings, photographs, paintings.

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In Dublin, a couple magicians invited me to have lunch with them at Bewley’s Oriental Café, which is on the famed promenade called Grafton Street. I stepped inside and breathed in the glamour and the history. Over a fabulous scone and tea, we sessioned, as magicians like to put it, trading secret moves and conspiring, as we are wont to do. Everything we do is a conspiracy against the laity, ourselves being a kind of clergy.

Our magic session at Bewley's in Dublin

Our magic session at Bewley’s in Dublin

In the middle of my afternoon there, I discovered that Bewley’s is mentioned in Joyce. It’s in his short story, “A Little Cloud.”

Little Chandler had come home late for tea and, moreover, he had forgotten to bring Annie home the parcel of coffee from Bewley’s.

Suddenly, the place was imbued with a golden literary glow. I discovered that there’s a James Joyce balcony and a small painting of Joyce on the wall. I read the story in Dubliners, and discovered that it’s about the frustrating tension between our burning passions and the banality and drudgery that we call responsibility. That’s a tension I have lived, baby, baby.

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There were so many different moods and impressions that he wished to express in verse. He felt them within him. He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy. If he could give expression to it in a book of poems perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds.

I thought that when I published What Happens to Us.

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A street scene on O’Connell Street, the main drag in Dublin

Standing in front of "The Needle" on O'Connell Street in Dublin.  People wonder what the monument means.  To me, obviously, it's a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Standing in front of “The Needle” on O’Connell Street in Dublin. People wonder what the monument means. To me, obviously, it’s a celebration of the Irish junkie.

Later, Claire and I were walking down O’Connell Street, which was named after Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell. Look at a country’s patriots and you will discover the country’s soul. Born in 1775, Daniel O’Connell was a fiery orator who campaigned for the right of political representation in Parliament for the Irish people, which is of course what motivated the American colonists during the Boston Tea Party. In the 1840s, in his sixties, O’Connell campaigned for Irish independence and was jailed for it. His health suffered in prison, and when he was released, he made a pilgrimage to Rome. He died en route. Per his wishes, his heart was buried in Rome, and the rest of his body, in Dublin.

I was sick while traveling, as well. Some days, I simply couldn’t find the strength to walk around. In some photographs, you can see it in my eyes. It was like I forgot to wear mascara.

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You can see that I’m sick in this photograph

On one of my healthier days, we posed for a photo beneath O’Connell’s statue, then walked down the street and played around at Joyce’s statue. In one photograph, I’m aping Joyce’s dandyish pose. In another, I’m comically begging Joyce for the ability to write as well as he did.

In front of the O'Connell statue

In front of the O’Connell statue

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Joyce is one author to whom I truly aspire. When I first encountered his prose, I was astounded that he could express such complex concepts in such a simple and direct way. In college, I was a literary democrat, averse to such stylistic royalists as Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Thomas Disch. On top of that, Joyce wasn’t afraid of his heart. The people in his stories were regular people with regular concerns. A crying baby. A colleague who has surpassed the protagonist. Envy and disappointment.

When I begged a bronze Joyce on O’Connell Street for writing ability, then, I wasn’t being facetious, I was being sincere. One’s ability to write is renewed every single day in every gesture you make towards life, and the price you pay is humility, curiosity, and honesty. And if you don’t pay enough, that ability is revoked. At various times in their lives, many great authors have been denied that ability because they wouldn’t pay the price—Salinger, Hemingway, LeCarre, Delillo, and so many others.

But Joyce was an Irishman, as well, and in college, I couldn’t have understood what that meant. I now have an inkling of it. It meant being part of a race of people who were occupied and oppressed in their own country. It meant Irish people not being able to own property in their own country. It meant the occupiers taking land and belongings from them and giving them to colonists.

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One 12th-century occupier “writes scathingly of the barbarity and uncouthness of the Irish: their refusal to mine or till the soil correctly or to trade as they ought to trade, their cunning and violent ways, their lack of honesty.”

An earlier source claims that even “the most powerful go barefoot and without breeches, and ride horse without saddles.”

A 14th-century source says that the English occupiers’ “regular clergy dogmatically assert that it is no more a sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any brute….They have striven with all their might and with every treacherous artifice in their power, to wipe our nation out entirely….” (All of these passages were taken from The Story of Ireland, by Neil Hegarty(Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York).

Joyce, then, was part of the movement that was attempting to rescue Irish identity after centuries of being trampled in the dirt. Joyce’s ordinary people with extraordinary passions were an attempt at claiming an Irish literature. It was a literature that encompassed their great lights.

Charles Stewart Parnell, whom English Prime Minister William Gladstone described as the most remarkable person he had ever met. I walked down Dublin’s Parnell Street to take our laundry to the cleaners.

Sean McDermott, who was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916, which led to the Irish Free State in 1922. He was executed for his part in the Rising.  Today, there’s a Sean McDermott Street in Dublin.

Oliver Bond, a wealthy Irish revolutionary who was a leader in the violent demonstrations of the 1790s, and died under mysterious circumstances in prison in 1798.  Today, there’s an Oliver Bond Street in Dublin.

All of these men are luminaries in the blossoming flower that in 1922 became the Republic of Ireland.

As we all know, oppression has a way of enhancing a people’s literature, music, and other expression. Look at American blacks, South Africans, and yes, Irish writers from Joyce to Dylan Thomas to William Butler Yeats to James Stephens and others.

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My mother listening to James Joyce at Bewley’s

A bronze statue in Bewley's Oriental Cafe

A bronze statue in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe

A beauty mimiicking a bronze statue in Bewley's Oriental Cafe

A beauty mimiicking a bronze statue in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe

So, when I was sitting in Bewley’s, I read James Joyce aloud.

I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

It was lovely to read Irish authors in Irish places.  When I was taking a dawn walk in the beautiful wet bogs and heath of County Louth, I read Yeats aloud.

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An Irish farmhouse at dawn

An Irish farmhouse at dawn

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

And whenever I saw a photo of an Irish author, I had my picture taken. I aspire, I aspire. Responsibility beats me back, but then I advance again. Back and forth, to and fro, discouraged and imbued, isn’t it always the way?

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Mimicking James Joyce, which I’ve done all my life

The Queen’s Nude Pool Party

The queen. Across the pond, her name occupies immense psychic space.  While in Ireland, for example, I made a joke to a cab driver.

“Yeah, we had dinner with the queen the other night,” I said. “I’ll tell you, she was drunk as a skunk.”

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If I’d told him my brother was skunk-drunk, that wouldn’t have gotten the merest rise out of him. But Queen Elizabeth II soused on her ass? That cracked him up.

When I visited the Magic Circle last Monday, I talked with the grand old man of magic, Henry Lewis, who has been a member of the Circle for decades.  His big claim to fame is having performed regularly for the royals.  Ask him and he’ll bring out his iPad and show you where he claims it on his Web page.

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At the Magic Circle with 95-year-old master magician Henry Lewis.

“If you play your cards right,” Henry likes to say with a wry grin, “I’ll invite you to my funeral.”

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the queen. A few years ago, I made my views known to a visiting British author at a party.

“She hasn’t earned her position,” I said. “She wasn’t elected, she wasn’t promoted, she didn’t work her way up through the ranks. She doesn’t do anything in particular. She’s like an appendix, really. It’d be better if you just cut her out.”

The British author started to sputter, as the English sometimes do, muttering some indecipherable defense, or more appropriately, defence. She never did fully articulate that defence. That hostess never invited me to another party.

On our trip to England, though, the queen and the royals hung in the air like a heavy Saxon mist. Harry and William were on the front page of the Times promoting a charity. My mother and Claire spent a few hours at Windsor Castle, where the royals reside. I visited Buckingham Palace on my way to an acupuncture appointment, and in the ever-present souvenir shops, saw Union Jack paperweights, double-decker bus keychains, books about royal genealogy, and all manner of royal detritus.

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We didn’t see the queen, though. Maybe we should have called first. Mayhaps she would have invited us over to take a dip in the pool.

“Bring your swimsuit,” she might have said over the phone. “We’re all taking a dip au naturelle.  No need for sunscreen, though. This is England, after all, not fucking St. Tropez, ha ha ha!”

Maybe the conversation wouldn’t have gone exactly in that way.

On Tuesday, we hopped on a train in London at 9:10 am and headed north for Wales, where we were to catch a ferry across the Irish Sea, landing in Dublin at 5:25 pm. It promised to be a nice, relaxing trip on a fairly empty train.

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But there was a man sitting across the aisle from us. He had dark hair and was plugged into a lot of technology. A conversation ensued, and then, as often happens, I was performing a magic trick for him. I must confess that I’m a little promiscuous with magic in that way, performing magic for strangers at the drop of a bowler hat. Then I was teaching him a magic trick, because, as he said, “I work with kids and I need tricks sometimes.”

So I taught him a killer trick that’s fairly simple. Cross-cut force with a bet as a revelation.  After teaching that, I became Bill’s lifelong friend.

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Bill and I began chatting about all sorts of things, starting with history. Oliver Cromwell’s ill treatment of the Irish. Whether the Chinese were better off after communism came in in 1949.  What kind of man Mao Zedong was. Why rich countries are often flanked by poor countries that provide cheap labor.

“I’m reading lots of histories, making my way around the world,” I said. “One history leads to another which leads to another. It helps me put together a picture of the world.”

Somewhere into the third hour together, Bill mentioned casually—not gratuitously, but apropos to the conversation—that he had had dinner with the queen the night before.

“William and Harry were there,” he said, “and Andrew, as well. It was as part of a charity that I run called Coderdojo.”

In that moment, something changed. One of two options applied. Either he had been in the company of the queen the night before and we were actually in the presence of someone extraordinary, or he was a fraud or delusional or both, and everything he had been saying previously was now suspect.  Our world hung in the balance for a while.  It recalled for me the day I met a named Peter (last name withheld) of Orion Entertainment, who gave me his card and promised to get my magic show on television.  He never did return my calls, but pretty quickly, I discovered online accounts of how he had defrauded numerous people, writing huge bad checks and promising people things he couldn’t deliver.  Turned out that Orion Entertainment was not a legal company, just something printed on a business card.  He had lots of fraud convictions, including larceny charges in New York state, wrote $60,000 in bad checks to a winery, $30,000 in bad checks to a woman he “hired,” who promptly quit her job in Northern California to move to L.A. before she discovered the scam, and numerous other scams and frauds.  Needless to say, I was skeptical.

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My gut told me Bill was for real, and soon, I had the opportunity to check it out on the Internet. Happily, my gut feeling was right.  He’s the author of a book with, of all people, Desmond Tutu.  He’s lectured at the London School of Economics and at TED.  He’s got quite an impressive resume.

Amazingly, Claire, my mother, and I were one degree of separation removed from the Queen of England.

In fact, we were sharing a train with Bill Liao, an investor who made over a billion pounds in tech, then cashed out and now spends all his time running various charities designed to save the world.

Amazingly, Bill wasn’t traveling first class, perhaps because he was charging it to one of his charities.

“I like to sit in this car because the next car is first class, and you can get free Internet access if you sit right next to it,” he said.

Strangely, he was one of those guys you hear about in movies but hardly ever see, a superrich guy who likes to rub elbows with “real people.” In my experience, most rich people find that too much of a bother.  They might run into a bore. They might discover that there’s some money to be made off you.  They might zero in for the kill when your bodyguard is seeing a man about a horse.  In my experience, there are always several layers of protection between the superrich and the outside world, and those protectors are vicious when they need to be.

“Power changes you,” he said at one point. “They’ve done studies on it.”

Bill lives on a farm in Cork, Ireland, with his wife and three children. Throughout the eight hours that we spent together, we talked about everything. While we passed through quaint Wales towns, he would point out the castle on the side of the mountain or the windpower generators in the bay or the longest place name in Europe (Llanfairpwllgwyngyll), which is written across the train station–alllll the way across it.  At one point, he commented on my personality.

“Yes, you seem to have a personality with all the hard edges cut off,” he said.

I’m still wondering whether that was a compliment.

I guess I was waiting for something. I performed a couple of my best magic tricks for him, and he said he was mightily impressed. So I waited.  The conversation would have gone something like this.

You know, the queen has simply got to see your magic. You’re fabulous. Why don’t you stay with our family for a few days, and then I can arrange a dinner where you can dazzle the queen and the royals with a show.  I would think that Kate would find you physically attractive, as well, and would like to take a skinny-dip with you.

I could do that, I would say.

It wouldn’t be an inconvenience, would it?

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Unfortunately, that conversation never took place. But the next best thing happened. We talked about the future of humanity, about how to teach the next generation of children in a better way, about whether children need authority figures more or freedom more, about whether the world was getting less violent. I had a fascinating conversation, one degree removed from the Queen of England, for eight hours.

A Pint of Good Intentions

During this trip, we left a lot of things behind. You’re always having to keep track of so many things.

In a pub in the 13th-century weavers’ town of Bradford on Avon, we sat down at the Dandylion Pub and ate a lovely cottage pie dinner, which is a meat pie with mashed potatoes on top, “mash,” as they call it. Leaving the restaurant, Claire left behind her rust-colored scarf. We sauntered back to our room through narrow and winding cobblestone streets, then discovered our mistake. Turning around, it was our pleasure to take the 10-minute walk back in the falling dusk. When we arrived again, the 16-year-old girl who was working the tables gladly handed it back to us.

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Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England

 

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Loovely, as the British say.

At the Shipwright Inn in Dublin, which was barely a hotel, not even a motel, more like a working-class pub with rooms and no front desk, I was starting to get seriously sick. So I ducked into its pub at midnight for some lemon wedges and honey, to mix with some hot water in order to stave off my oncoming sickness. Waiting in the pub, it was so terribly attractive to see a 60-year-old woman, probably newly divorced from her dock worker husband, strut her stuff to old Bee Gee disco songs, and the fact that she was drunk and stupid was just a bonus. The next morning upon leaving, my mother neglected to collect her three-legged cane. Four days later, we called from England and they held it in Lost and Found.

Grand, as the Irish say.

We stumbled, as well. Upon arriving in London, we made our way during a crushing rush hour through the London Underground with baggage. Each of us was pulling a suitcase and a carry-on, plus a couple bags, a major camera, and other bits. Given my mother’s arthritic hips, she tended to lag behind. At several points, we encountered stairs, which were an immense effort. I had to do all the lifting. I would carry two suitcases at a time up the stairs, my mother would guard them at the top and Claire at the bottom, and then I would return back down to haul another couple suitcases, and so on.

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At one point, I looked back at my mother, who was attempting to swing her heavy suitcase around, and standing right next to her was a rasta man, his face as black as midnight, his dreadlocks hanging out of his knitted Jamaican snood, looking tough in his black leather jacket. If Mom had seen him, she would have been frightened. She’s not used to rasta men. I was trying to gauge whether he was a threat. My mother continued to struggle with the bag. Gradually, rasta man began to move towards her. I watched closely. I saw him lean towards her. I was ready. I was waiting. Finally, he lent a hand. He helped her disentangle her bag’s wheels and straighten it out. She thanked him and continued on her way.  Helpful rasta dude.

In all, four London strangers within the space of an hour offered to help my mother with her bags.

Another day, two waiters and a cab driver within the span of eight hours ran outside after us with articles we had left behind.

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When things like that happen, you ponder people’s intentions.

It brings to mind Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England starting in 1653. He was more a dictator than anything else. The English considered the Irish savages, and that was justification for all manner of rudeness. John Milton, for example, decried the country’s “absurd and savage customs” who had been made “devils by popery.” In 1649, Cromwell led the English army against the strategic Irish town of Drogheda, bringing it to its knees within a week.

Cromwell sent a note to the Drogheda commander, Sir Henry Aston, ordering immediate surrender. Aston refused. In response, Cromwell brought his artillery to bear on Drogheda’s medieval fortifications. The next day, the English poured into the town and 2,500 Irish were killed, including men, women, and children. A thousand civilians had taken refuge in St. Peter’s Church, and Cromwell ordered it set afire, burning alive all who were inside.  He beat Sir Aston to death with his own wooden leg.

Those English were not so accommodating. Perhaps they would not have run outside with Claire’s scarf.

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My mother in Antica Toscana restaurant in Drogheda, Ireland

Over 350 years later, we visited Drogheda. I drove our rental car through the frighteningly narrow streets. We parked in front of the medieval gate while a hen party (their term for bachelorette party) was passing by. We found a fabulous hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant named Antica Toscana and I had a fabulous dish of ravioli while the first glimmerings of sickness began to descend upon me. It took me three days to learn how to pronounce the town’s name correctly. Drogheda. DRAW-ha-da, not Dro-HEY-da.

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I wonder sometimes whether the state of humanity is getting better. There’s a new Stephen Pinker book that documents how the tragedy of war has lessened immeasurably over the last half of the 20th century, and one wants to concur. More people are getting educated. Racism is no longer acceptable. Diversity and tolerance are now considered positive traits. Calling somebody stupid or fat or retarded is socially wrong. It seems like progress.

Then yesterday, we arrived back in Dublin not having booked a hotel. I left Claire and my mother at a bus stop on Parnell Street and went out in search of a vacancy. While I was gone, they were confronted with a disheveled homeless man who loomed higher than six feet. He was mumbling and holding out his hand, which contained an array of coins.

“…All I need is 60 pence, and then I can….”

“No, I don’t have it,” Claire said.

“…But if you just gave me 60 pence….”

And that’s when my mother butted in, and she’s never been a wilting pansy.

“She said no!” Mom said.

The man took two steps back. For a moment, a storm gathered on his face. Then he started yelling at them.

“You fucking English!” he said.

Claire and my mother were stunned. The man continued his verbal abuse, but that’s when another Irish man intervened. He, too, was over six feet tall, and he stepped in between the man and the girls. He eased the homeless man back until the homeless man had wandered away.

One might be discouraged by such an incident. Then again, one might think about the second man, as well as the several Irish people who immediately stepped up to apologize.

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“I’m so sorry,” one woman said. “We’re not all like that.”

I choose to see the pint not just as half full, but nearly up to the brim, ready for drinking. It is Ireland, after all.

A Fighter’s Long Walk

It was twenty-four years ago when my mother took her last trip to Great Britain. She has yearned to return, and finally this year, in her 84th year, she convinced us to accompany her. She longed to see everything she had missed the first time. She wanted to visit the museums, see the Roman baths, see a play, maybe even take the train through the chunnel and visit France and Spain.

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“There’s something about England that I love,” she says.

She likes to tell the story about the mustard. While in London, she bought a hot dog from a vendor on the street corner. She asked him to slather on some mustard, because she’s always been a huge fan of that tasty spread. He gave her a tiny dab.

“More please,” she said.

So he gave her another tiny dab.

“More, more,” she said.

So he gave her a bigger dab, and by this time, people standing around were starting to stare in wonder.

“Much more,” she said.

The man gave her a strange look, but he complied. The hot dog he gave to her was literally smothered in mustard. The English were whispering beneath their breath at the strange American, anticipating what would happen when she bit in. When my mother finally did, she says it was like inhaling a nuclear blast up through her nostrils, past her sinuses, and into her brain. Turned out the mustard was Dijon, not French’s. But of course.

The other patrons politely stifled their laughter, a sign, she says, of the English character. In fact, she has told that story for years.

“The mustard is different over there,” she now likes to say, “but they were too polite to tell me.”

By 2014, my mother had developed hip problems. She could walk normally for about 25 feet, but after that, her arthritis would start to stab at her hips. Bone is rubbing on bone, her doctor tells her.

Watching my mother walk is sad and inspiring at the same time. She used to walk with the grace of a beautiful woman, but now, walking causes great pain, and takes the same courage with which she has addressed all the crucial issues in her life.

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In fact, there has been a lot in my mother’s life that has required courage. When food was scarce in her household in East L.A. in the 1930s, she would walk with her brother into the Chinese cemetery and steal the food that was left out for the dead. Her mother burnt her feet on the stove when she was 12 for coming home 10 minutes late, but the real reason was her developing curves, something that took her years to figure out.

My mother (R) in 1942 with her brother and mother (center).

My mother (R) in 1942 with her brother and mother (center).

Once, when her father came home drunk on a Saturday night from playing in his mariachi band, there was lipstick on his collar. Fighting ensued, he grabbed a kitchen knife, and it was a miracle that nobody ended up dead. But when he threatened to kill his wife and children, the kids were farmed out to Catholic charities for two years while her mother searched for a new husband.

Jesus Jimmy Medrano, 1930s

When my mother went back to school at age 21 to get her high school diploma, and then back to college at age 35, and then to get her Master’s at age 48, that took courage.

“I’m a fighter,” she likes to say.

So in Bath, England, when I see my 84-year-old mother walking the 100 yards from the train platform to the taxi stand, the repressed pain etched into her face, it also etches the portrait of a lifetime. I walk beside her, holding out my elbow for her to grab, steadying her. She’s had a couple strokes in the past 15 years, as well, that have compromised her balance.

“How much longer do we have to walk?” she says.

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“Not far,” I say.

And so she fights on. She’s a fighter.

When we arrive at the taxi stand, we talk to the first cabbie in line.

“We want to go to the Roman baths,” I say.

“It’s just up there,” he says. “An easy walk.”

“My mother has arthritic hips,” I say.

“We can’t do it,” the cabbie says. “We can’t turn right here. Go across the street and catch a cab. They’ll be headed in the right direction.”

So we hobble across the street and, after ten minutes, wave down a taxi.

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“We want to go to the Roman baths,” I say.

“I can’t do it,” he says, and he doesn’t even give me a reason.

So we hobble back across the street and ask another cabbie who is now first in the queue. He looks at me like I’m crazy.

“It’s just up there,” he says, pointing. “Up the road, two blocks up.”

“My mother has bad hips,” I explain. “Can you drive us?”

The cabbie seems upset.

“I’m not even first in line,” he says.

He walks over and gestures at the other taxi driver, who is busy chatting with a colleague.

“Hey, it’s your turn!” he says.

But try as he might, he can’t get the guy to take his turn, so he turns back to us.

“It’s just over there,” he says, pointing. “See that?” he says, pointing to a spot perhaps 50 yards across the street and to the left. “The baths are just 50 yards up from that.”

I know what the problem is: Nobody wants a short fare. Then he has to get back in line again. Uncertain, I think that maybe the best solution to this problem is to walk my mother 100 yards up. So we start out, get 50 yards up, and then I turn.

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“Wait here,” I say. “I’ll scout it out.”

I walk briskly up the walk-street, looking for the baths.  But when I get to the curve in the road, I ask a police officer how far it is. He points to a spot about a half-mile up another walk-street.

I turn back, now really angry. Just fifty yards up? Just fifty yards up?! What kind of person are you, to turn down service to an 84-year-old woman with arthritis, forcing her to walk a half-mile in pain?! I’m really pissed now, so I walk back to my mother.

“We’re going back to those damned taxi drivers,” I say, purpose in my voice now. “And we’re going to take down some names and kick some ass. It’s illegal what they’re doing, and we’re going to be driven to where we want to go, dammit, or we’re going to report them.”

So my mother turns around, and we trudge the 50 yards back to the taxi stand. When we arrive, the previous cabbies are gone, but there are a couple new ones there. I walk up to one.

“We’d like a cab,” I say quietly, loaded for bear.

“Where would you like to go?”

“The Roman baths,” I say.

It’s a sixtysomething man whose cool sunglasses make him look like he was once a player in the singles clubs and nobody has told him it’s all over. I am ready for his evasions. When he starts his double-step, I will say something like, Excuse me?! Excuse me?! Do you know that my mother has arthritic hips and can’t walk 100 yards?! Then I will take out a pen and start writing down his license plate number while saying, I’m going to find the nearest policeman, or report you to whoever you report these things to, and your ass, as we say in America, is going to be grass…. And then we’ll see if turns me down, or if he suddenly changes his tune, saying, Okay, all right, calm down, I’ll drive you….

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We wait for the cabbie’s response. It takes a moment, but when it comes, it’s direct and friendly.

“Okay, hop in,” he says.

At first, it stuns me. I’ve got indignation in my shovel and nowhere to dump it. But then we’re inside the car and we’re driving. I immediately start explaining what had happened with the other cabbies and he shakes his head.

“That’s wrong,” he said.

“You should go home to your wife tonight and explain that you’re a hero,” I say.

Because my mother, who has gone through so much and whose courage knows no bounds, deserves to be driven around England in style.

[Here are some photos of my mother in Bath, England, where for 25 years she has dreamed to return.]

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Lemons Into Lemonade

Unfortunately, this trip has thrown a lot of lemons our way.

On the flight over, we got stranded for five hours in Kafka’s Airport (aka Heathrow) and lost a full 24 hours of our trip, gone forever.

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A couple days later, we rented a car and I began driving on the left. I concentrated hard while driving, because not crashing into things is good.  Then when we turned in the car, they spotted a small scrape.

“I didn’t hit anything,” I said. “I would’ve felt that.”

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“We didn’t feel anything,” my girlfriend Claire said.

“Still, the contract you signed says that you’re responsible,” said the imbecilic Sixt representative.

I didn’t hit anything, and for that, I was charged $250.

“$250 is cheap,” the man said gently, as if we were getting a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

I had the feeling that he said that to everybody in that situation.

That afternoon, I started getting sick, and that evening while lecturing, I became progressively sicker, until at the end of the lecture, I just wanted to crawl under a warm rock.

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At the lecture, trying to make the best of things.  You can see a leprechaun in the left front.

Then yesterday, we spent nine hours on a train, and when we arrived at our friend’s place at 11 pm, she said the key would be under the flowerpot. We rummaged around for a half-hour in the rainy dark before we found it–under the flowerpot.

Today on a train, I accidentally dropped my camera and bent the lens. Will have to buy a new lens.

But still, there are things to enjoy.

Every so often, I turn to Claire, point to a cloud, and say, “See that cloud? That’s an Irish cloud!” Or ”Claire! We’re in England!”

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Irish clouds outside of Carlingford, framed by Irish countryside.

On Monday morning, I got up at 5 am and took a long walk through the Louth countryside, trying to make friends with sheep and roosters and swans, none of whom were having any of it.  Man did I have a great walk, though.

An Irish farmhouse at dawn

An Irish farmhouse at dawn

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A mama sheep torn between feeding and fleeing.

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In Ireland, there was the charming Irish accent, which at once makes me think of singing and leprechauns, separately, not together, because somehow, I don’t think I’d like to hear a leprechaun sing. (He probably wouldn’t take my request, which would be a combination of two songs: Randy Newman’s “Short People” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?” I would call it “Who Let the Short People Out?”)

Then there are all the extremely old buildings in every corner of the country, it seems, and all the castles small and large, and the Irish cemeteries with all their political and overtones.

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An Irish patriot who died in the GPO in 1916.  He was buried in Dundalk near the border with Northern Ireland, an Irish flag forever flying his colors.

An Irish patriot who died in the siege of the GPO in 1916, just before the birth of the Irish Free State.  He was buried in Dundalk near the border with Northern Ireland, an Irish flag forever flying his colors.  It was starting to rain.

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Then in Ireland, there’s that charming sense of Irish doom, which is hard to explain except in a kind of reticence—not reserve, which the English are famous for, but reticence, which comes from a different place—and which my friend Jack Wise says “stems from 800 years of political repression.”

And then, most of all, there are friendly strangers. On the train through Wales, we ran across an English family that was playing cards. I looked at Claire.

“You know what I’m thinking, don’t you?” I said.

“Yes, I do,” she said softly.

So I volunteered to do a magic trick for them, launched into a set, and for the rest of the ride, we had tour guides eager to make our trip the best ever. They hailed from Chester, which is a city built by the Romans when they ruled the wild tribes who lived in these isles. In the Dark Ages, Chester residents dug up the corpse of a revered forebear, St. Werburgh, to avoid descration by the invading Vikings, and reburied it in Staffordshire.

I have a feeling these Chester residents had never dug up a corpse, although you never know.  (I see a bit of sociopathy in the face of the guy on the left, below.)  Still, they loved my magic, and treated me quite nicely.  They thought they were riding the train with a big shot. Of course, I am. I’m not one of those suckers who worships gratitude, but I am one who worships turning lemons into lemonade. And turning strangers into tour guides fits that bill nicely.

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Today, we walked into historic Bradford on Avon, and when I say historic, I mean that the church was built in 1150, the weaver’s cottage we’re staying in was built in 1400, and things that were built after 1800 are considered too new to be worth talking about.

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While in the tourist office, I ended up doing a little magic for a pretty blonde, a crowd gathered, and suddenly, the head of the tourist office had offered me a gig performing at the local festival on Saturday. I’m still feeling a little under the weather, but if I feel up to it, I’ll take her up on it. After all, at the first opportunity, I’m all about making a little lemonade.

But there’s another aspect of lemonade that has sprung to mind, too.  When I was 28, I was engaged to a young horsewoman named Suzy.  She roped me into taking dressage lessons, and we had quite a good time at it, too.  I rode a huge white former California jumping champion who knew I wasn’t experienced, and actually threw me a couple times.  I shook it off.  I was resilient.  I got back on.  For our honeymoon, we planned to go to Ireland and ride across the country.  Suzy said they had property laws that allowed you to ride across people’s land at will, staying at B & Bs wherever we went.

“It’s been my dream since I was a little girl,” she said.

But Suzy’s mother Rebel broke us up.  I wasn’t a born-again Christian, so Rebel was insistent that I would be a bad influence on her daughter, which I probably would have.  It was a bad breakup, filled with screaming, taunts, cat shit left on my front door, and finally, years of wondering whether I had made the right decision.  Suzy had been so beautiful and so brilliant.  I still remember her curves, which were even more alluring when she was wearing a tight black dress.  Growing up, she had skipped two grades, and tended to make the most original and shocking jokes.  Once, while we were both driving on the freeway at 65 mph, she pulled up beside me, honked her horn, pulled up her blouse and flashed me.

Years later, I’m finally in Ireland.  Looking on the Internet, I see that Suzy has become such a devout charismatic that she has home-schooled her four children.  The schools are way too secular for her.

Being here in Ireland without Suzy was a reminder of the dream honeymoon we might have had.  It was sobering.  But considering what became of her, I would like to think that the engagement itself was the lemon.  I’d like to think that being here with Claire, the lovely, lukewarm-religious Claire, the Claire who would never go braless, much less flash me on the freeway, the Claire whose gentleness is a constant lesson for me and my aggressive daring, which I always think is the solution to everything but really isn’t, the Claire who doesn’t sleep well without my warm body beside her and with whom I’ve consorted for nearly 14 years now, and who…well, let’s just put it this way: Whenever I’ve thought about breaking up with her, it’s always seemed out of the question, because hurting her would tear me apart…I’d like to think that because of all that, Claire is the lemonade.

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Dublin Troo and Troo

I haven’t lectured to magicians in seven years, but have invented a lot of new tricks in that time.  In the late 1990s, I performed about 80 lectures all around the world, including in Australia, Hong Kong, Alaska, all up and down the East Coast, throughout the South, and through Texas, which is a country unto itself.  Oh yeah, don’t forget Ohio, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri.  And New Orleans, where I had in my audience a midget and a man who’d had a tracheotomy and asked questions through a voicebox.

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The lecture I did last evening was held at Cassidy’s Hotel in central Dublin, and my hosts were the unusually talented Dublin Society of Magicians.  When I looked out at the audience, I saw 45 smiling Irish faces, and when they asked questions, it was in that lovely Irish lilt that is so cute, I mean, even if the guy asking the question was a hulking bouncer type, the minute he opened his mouth and spoke, that musical accent made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  They say things like ting instead of thing, troo instead of through, and DRAW-hada instead of Drogheda.

This lecture coincided with the release of my new magic book, Notes from the Red Spot, which is a compilation of most of the tricks I’ve published so far, plus a few new ones that I’m excited about.  Red Spot can be bought online here:

I performed about 15 tricks and explained each and every one, and at the end, the guys posed for the Yikes photo below.

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