Five Meanings of I Love You

[This is Chapter 3 of an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 2 is here.]

1. I want to be closer to you

Evan had learned something about his mother that had robbed him of his smile, she couldn’t figure out exactly what, Kara wished to God she knew, it killed her that she didn’t know.

What is it? You can trust me.

I know I can, but…

That’s what I’m here for.

…but I need to sit on this one for a bit.

That’s what love is all about.

I know.

Then why don’t you tell me?

It’s just that—

Is it something about me?

No, it’s just that some things take time to process.

The look on his face broke her heart.

It was like the ancient Rapa Nui written language. They have ancient writings, but nobody knows what it means because the Spanish conquistadores killed all of the Rapa Nui scholars by 1888. Today, we look at the writings, but they’re absolutely impenetrable. That was sometimes how Evan seemed to her.

There were so many things that Kara wanted to do with Evan. Go on a train trip with him. The idea of bumpy train sex made her wet.  Life was all about rhythm, she knew, figure out how his rhythms counterpointed with her rhythms and make a song, and whether that song was a good song or a tired-ass clunker. Rhythms explained everything. Once, she had stood onstage with her lead guitarist playing a solo behind her, and just from the rhythm, she realized that his girlfriend had just broken up with him. She turned around and looked into his eyes incredulously.

Really, her eyes said.

Yes, he nodded.

It was all there in the rhythm: details and concepts, math and emotion, pink and zigzaggy and booyah, everything.

The next morning, Kara wrote up a list of other things she wanted to do with Evan, too. She so liked lists.

• Hike in Red Rock Canyon till we’re knackered.
• Sing him my best songs. In the living room.
• Not talk about coke ever.

2. If I can’t love, I can at least pretend to love

After a set in the casino, someone with a loving face came right up to Kara and killed her with kindness.

Oh my goodness gracious, your voice is such a blessing. You songs open up my heart, I can’t tell you how much. We’re from Indiana.

But, Kara thought as she showed her lovely smile, she still lived in a crummy apartment and drove a crummy car. Sometimes she heard somebody on television, some real person in an interview, who said to a girl, I will transform everything, and he did. The guy who married Mariah Carey. The guy who married Celine Dion.

I want to meet one of those guys, she thought. I could pretend to love him, too.

Sometimes Kara wracked her brain for something that would change things—a new song, a new band, new chops, a new writing partner. But the thought that tortured her was—What if I need a new heart?

3. I have the right to take what I want

It was 8 at night and Kara was on her way to surprise Evan at his apartment, but for some reason, she veered into a Catholic church. Inside, it was so empty and shadowy that it made her think of an ancient Italian cathedral she’d read about once that had a splinter from the True Cross. She couldn’t imagine being that close to Christ. She walked up the aisle and the tile echoed off her heels, the proof of her own aloneness. Kara had never felt close to Him, only far away, so far away that He’d always been nothing more than a vague concept. Written on a piece of paper. Stored in a vault. Bolted to the bottom of the sea. On Jupiter.

The sound of her own heels hurt her so much that she started to cry.

There was a young priest there. He patted Kara on the back and said, There, there. They ended up at Ichabod’s for a late dinner, and then at her place at 1:30 am. They nestled together on the sofa and he was saying, I’ll tell you everything, and then he did, not like Evan, who wouldn’t talk. The priest was young and handsome like Jesus, but humble and kind like no handsome man ever is. When he took off his clothes, Kara saw he had a scar on his side.

Is that where the centurions stabbed you? Kara joked.
He became solemn and spoke softly.

You know, there’s a lance in St. Peter’s Basilica that they claim is the lance that the soldiers used to stab Jesus.

Really.

Yes. And another one in Paris. And other ones in Vienna and Krakow and Istanbul. So don’t worry about feeling far from God.

Kara pushed her head into his chest. There was so much consolation in his attitude towards despair, as if despair were simply proof that we can be happy. She made love to his despair more than anything else. Afterwards, their conversation settled upon their pasts. He talked about trying to please his Mexican father, who was so obsessed with not going to hell that his son wondered what horrible thing he had done. His father had indeed done a horrible thing. One day, he discovered what that sin was: him. That’s what made him join the priesthood.

It was my way of committing suicide, he said.

Kara talked about what was consuming her, the old love that was ruining everything.

Harris left me.

Oh no. Tell me what happened.

November.

What, you mean…last November?

Yes. I always think about him when I’m making love to Evan. Sometimes I start crying when he’s making love to me and I have to make an excuse, like I say, ‘Oh, I’m only crying because it’s so awfully beautiful.’

You do what you have to do.

Exactly.

I mean, I do what I have to do.

Of course, I paid her back…

Who?

My sister. She stole Harris. She dug a grave in my heart.

I’m sorry.

My boyfriend Evan is a complete mystery to me. I wish to God there were an Evan-to-Kara dictionary.

I’m sorry.

It’s so beautiful that you apologize. I wish everybody would apologize to me. All the time.

I’m a great apologizer. Give me a sin and I’ll apologize for it. I’ll apologize for Saddam Hussein’s sins. I’ll apologize for the weather. Hey, you want to do some more blow?

4. Don’t blame me, I’m a mess

Five days later, Kara made a list.

• Organize papers
• Do delicates
• Never go back to church ever

Kara loved making lists. She did it because her life was a shambles. She made lists and she sang for the same reason: so that she could live with the chaos. Singing elevated the mess into art. She’d heard that in ancient Greek, chaos comes from the word yawning, which meant that every time she opened her mouth to sing, chaos came out.

5. I must control everything

Kara was out shopping with her friend Riley Ann, who was a costume designer for performers on the Strip. They were eating frozen yogurt in the mall and talking about clothes. One thing they had in common was late paychecks. One thing they had in common was they both worked in entertainment, and both their employers commonly delayed payment. Another thing was sobriety.

So how are you doing with your twelve steps? Riley Ann asked.

Kara had forgotten that Riley Ann was her AA sponsor, they had so much fun together.

I don’t know.

That doesn’t sound good.

I mean, look, the Big Book says to be “searchingly honest.” Why can’t we just be honest? Isn’t that a bit obsessive, I mean, like, trying too hard, to be “searchingly honest”?

You are too much, Kara, that’s why I love you. What brought that up?

Oh, I guess I’m having a little trouble with control issues.

Like what?

You really want to know?

Yes.

I’ll be searchingly honest, then, all right?

Okay.

Okay, here it is. I want Evan to talk to me. It kills me that he holds back secrets from me.

You think he’s cheating on you?

Could be. All men are dogs.

What are you going to do about it?

And then Kara began to cry and people at other tables started peering over their shoulders.

I just…I just….

What?

I hate myself for loving him so much.

[To be continued.]

Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy

In high school, Lily was a cute, bubbly girl. I knew her from the born-again Christian youth group to which we both belonged, called Young Life. Kids in Young Life were their own clique of “good kids.” They met monthly in kids’ homes, sang songs together, went on campouts together, and generally tried to channel the energy and humor of youth into something that didn’t involve substance abuse, depression, and lawbreaking, but instead, involved God and Jesus.

http://www.younglife.org/About/Pages/History.aspx

We grew up in Orange County, California. There was a lot of wholesome whooping it up. There was a lot of guitar playing and sing-alongs. There were a lot of Praise the Lords.

“Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy is the people whose God is the Lo-or-o-ord!” went one of our favorite songs. We would clap together while singing it. It was a bright and perky song, and it was great fun to sing.

Lily was the cutest of the bunch, I always thought. A few times, I got the look. You know the one, the one that says, Maybe I like you. But nothing ever happened between us because, in my mind, she wasn’t good enough for me. Through the years, it turned out that nobody was ever good enough for me. But hey, that’s a whole other story.

After high school, my born-againism faded. There was so much that born-againism prohibited me from experiencing. For one thing, sex. For another, poets like Dylan and Plath and, on the music side, Beck.  For still another, thinking for myself. For still still another, doubt.

Happy, happy, happy, happy, now that’s an interesting subject. Within ten years of leaving born-againism, I was much happier. To be specific, I was happier using my own logic to decide whether something was wrong or not, like abortion, or watching violent movies, or whether all indigenous people should be converted to Christianity. I was happier sleeping in on Sunday mornings. I was happier reading pagan literature in bed.

Decades passed. You can live several lives in that amount of time, and I certainly did. I was first a journalist, then a New Yorker, then an uncle, then a famous magician, then “a guy who never married.” I had so many different identities. I was political. I was an exercise fiend. I was a guy who had been with his girlfriend for 14 years and had never married her. I was a world traveler who published accounts of his journeys in the New York Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/travel/palau-splendid-view-pacific-paradise-article-1.290314

Then Facebook comes along. This weird free network puts you in touch with people you haven’t thought of in years. And one day, we all “friend” Lily. I was so happy to see her smiling face, which still lit up any room she was in. I started having chats with her, and discovered that she still lived in the area. One day, I called her.

“We should get together for coffee,” I said. “Catch up.”

“Sure,” she said.

And then she popped the question.

“How are you with the Lord?”

Ugh God, she wasn’t still into that, was she?

“I’m not,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry, what happened?”

“Jeez, it’s a long story. I’ll tell you when we get together, if you like.”

I wasn’t interested in being converted, that was for sure. But if all she wanted to do was hear the story, I could do that.

In the end, we never got together. In June, I read on Facebook that Lily was dead. I was stunned. She was far too young. I scrolled through her Facebook page, but nobody was being specific about what had transpired. She died around March 1, but her friends didn’t seem to have been invited to the funeral, if there even was one. A memorial had been promised, but that had fizzled out, too.

There were so many mysteries. To me, it seemed to reek of bad family. I mean, what kind of family wouldn’t invite friends to a funeral? There are so many ways for families to be dysfunctional.

Last night, I went to Lily’s wake. It was held five months after she passed, at a sports bar in Newport Beach.

http://www.clubplanet.com/Venues/124022/Costa-Mesa/Skosh-Monahans

It seemed like a weird place to celebrate someone’s life, more like an Irish wake, with the dark lighting and all the alcohol flowing. The young waitresses wore tight black shorts and skimpy black tops and had lots of weird tattoos and sneered. For the wake, there were lots of middle-aged women, all chatting, laughing, and raising a glass to Lily.

“How did you know Lily?” one of them asked me.

“I knew her in high school,” I said.

“Did you know her as an adult?”

“I hadn’t seen her since high school, but in the last year, we were planning on getting together. It never happened, though.”

“That’s sad.”

I listened hard, trying to figure out how Lily died. It was weird. I wondered if she had died of something that some consider shameful, like AIDS. For example, one of my friends has rectal cancer but finds it embarrassing to talk about, so he just leaves it at “cancer.” But you have to die of something, and nobody was talking about what the cause was in Lily’s case. Finally, I leaned over and asked a woman named April in hushed tones.

“So how did she die? Cancer?”

April locked onto my eyes. She pursed her lips and shook her head no. She became very quiet. I leaned in even closer. I waited expectantly, but she didn’t answer, she just started telling the story.

On a convention trip, April had roomed with Lily. Watching her day in and day out for several days, she quickly realized.

Realized what?

April recounted the conversation she had with Lily that brought it all to a head.

“Lily, you’re going to kill yourself if you keep drinking and doing pills the way you are. I’ve seen this so many times,” April said.

Turns out that April has worked for years as a substance-abuse counselor at a local hospital.

“You’ve got to promise me,” April said, “that you’re going to stop tonight.”

“Okay, okay, I know it’s bad for me, I promise I’ll stop,” Lily said. At this point, Lily was in tears.

April called Lily the next morning.

“Hllo?” Lily said.

And April lost it, because she could hear the pills in Lily’s voice. This wasn’t just a patient, this was her best friend.

“You promised me!” April said.

“I know,” Lily said, “but I had insomnia last night, I had restless legs.”

And that’s how it was every time Lily made a promise to April.

Throughout the evening, I heard other stories from other people.

From a blonde with a determined mouth: “Lily loved my husband. He was her knight in shining armor. We would go on those conventions, and we would go down to the Jacuzzi and she would drink, and it would get to the point where she couldn’t drag herself out of the Jacuzzi. And my husband would always pull her out and help her back to her room. And she was always so thankful, it was, like, ‘Henry, you’re my knight in shining armor.’”

From a woman with long grey hair who was sitting at what seemed to be the alcoholics’ table: “Yeah, I met her here, at this bar, when I moved down the street seven years ago. She met us here every Tuesday for seven years.”

From a brunette: “Oh man, she could do great Blow Jobs—you know, the kind of shot drink where you can’t use your hands? She was the best at Blow Jobs.”

Happy, happy, happy, happy.

You can see a video of anonymous stupid girls doing Blow Jobs at 7:50 here:

April told me about another conversation she had with Lily just a few months before she died. April and her grown daughter were at a party that Lily was at. April’s daughter, who had known Lily since she was ten, was bartending, and her daughter came up to her.

“Mom, I think Lily is dying,” the daughter said. “She looks so bad, with her eyes sunken in and everything and her skin translucent.”

So they walked up to Lily and April’s daughter says: “Lily, you look terrible. What’s wrong with you? I think you’re dying.”

Lily immediately burst into tears.

“I know something’s wrong with me,” Lily said, “but I don’t have the money to see a doctor.”

It was a strange thing to say, because she was working for AAA at the time.  I can’t believe that a full-time employee at AAA doesn’t have medical insurance.

“I work for a doctor,” the daughter said, “and I know I can get him to see you for free.”

But Lily turned down all offers.

“I don’t want to do that,” she said, “I just don’t want to do that.”

Remembering back to high school, I recalled that Lily had had scoliosis and had to have a rod surgically implanted in her back. Perhaps the painkillers were originally prescribed to treat that. Perhaps she still had lots of pain.  Perhaps the alcohol was another form of medication.

Suddenly in April, people were notified that Lily had been admitted to the hospital. April came to see her, and when she entered the room, she saw a woman who was a shell of her former self lying in the bed. Lily’s hands and feet were in restraints so that she couldn’t leave the bed and look for alcohol. Worst of all, Lily had incredibly sad eyes. Almost immediately, though, April was approached by a friend named Samantha and told to leave. April was escorted out with the help of several nurses while Lily kicked against her restraints, perhaps to object wordlessly to ejecting her best friend from the room.

“Samantha is sitting right over there,” April said, pointing at a steely blonde sitting at the alcoholics’ table. “When I leave, I’m going to give her a piece of my mind. She had no right to turn away all these people who loved Lily. They stole our goodbyes from us.”

The hospital visit was on a Tuesday. By Saturday, Lily was dead. Her friends never did give a name to Lily’s cause of death, but it was clear by the description. It was cirrhosis. It was liver failure. Or, as one family member kept telling people, “liver cancer.” In essence, it was like a cancer, relentlessly eating away at Lily.

I told April about my phone conversation with her about “the Lord,” and April was shocked.

“I never ever ever heard her talk about ‘the Lord,’” April said. “You mean she was a born-again Christian?”

“Yeah, we all were.”

“And she implied to you that she was still one?”

“Yeah, basically.”

“My God, that’s so hypocritical what she said to you. It makes me mad.”

Everything had been turned around, and I told them about it.

“You know, when I came here tonight, I thought I was going to a memorial for a woman who might have died a virgin,” I said. “I mean, I heard she’d never married and never had children, so maybe she just followed that born-again stuff to its logical extreme.  And she even told one of her high school friends that she was a virgin.”

But April just shook her head solemnly, an ironic twinkle in her eye.

“No, trust me, she wasn’t a virgin.”

It was in that moment that I realized what had bothered me about that song Happy all these years. It was the enforced happiness. It was the denial of any other feelings except happiness, with an emphasis on denial.

When she left, April passed by the alcoholics’ table and had a brief conversation with Samantha, who looked like a hard woman with no illusions and no pity. Since I knew the confrontation was coming, I’d had time to reposition myself so I could hear it.

“We were all wondering why none of Lily’s friends were allowed to see her in her last days in the hospital,” April said calmly.

“Well, it was Lily’s wishes,” Sam said sadly.

“Well you know, all of her friends think it was you.”

“What?”

“They think it was you who blocked all of us from seeing her.”

“Well, I don’t give a shit.”

Sam began to get visibly hot under the collar.

“And you know, I think it was you, too.”

“Well,” Sam said, her voice rising, “I. Don’t. Give. A shit.”

That’s when April walked away. At that point, Sam turned back to her alcoholic friends, clearly pissed. She took a few sips from her red wine, trying to calm down. Finally, she emptied the glass in a single gulp.

“What?” one of the friends said. “What’s wrong?”

“You see that woman April?” Sam said, pointing at her as she walked out the exit.

“Yeah.”

“Well, they told me she was a troublemaker.”

“That woman over there?”

“Yeah, what a bitch.”

Strangely enough, I believe Sam. It would be just like Lily to block her friends. She didn’t want her friends to see her die from an excess of Blow Jobs. It would have been humiliating. She wanted to just disappear. And that’s kind of what she did.

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 t’ink, 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 weak people around. You shot them. You killed them.  You stomped on their graves.

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.

Mariachi promo pic 1Drinking 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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The Twisted Path of the Ming Vase

A few years ago, I attended the wedding of a wealthy friend.  It was held at her father’s house in Woodland Hills, a sprawling home with an elegant backyard worthy of a Julia Roberts romantic comedy.  During the reception, I wandered the grounds at my leisure.  It was lovely.  They had spared no expense, and it was like a labyrinth of beauty.  Finally, in a room that they probably called the primary living room foyer, I came upon a white and blue vase with Chinese markings that was the size of a 50-inch plasma television.  The bride’s sister told me it was a Ming vase.

“Oh, my father’s wife bought it for $40,000,” she said.

It would probably be $500,000 now, since the market seems to have appreciated, as reported in this television segment, below.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkALJbvIeiU]

“He doesn’t know anything about vases or China, but he had the extra money and his wife begged, so he bought it,” she said.

Lately, I’ve been reading about those famous Ming vases.  They were manufactured in Jingdezhen, in the approximate center of China.  Jingdezhen was blessed with the special clays required for the manufacture of porcelain.  It also had dense forest with lumber necessary for running kilns, as well as the Yangzi River, which allowed for easy transport of fragile items, rather than horsecarts.  By the 16th century, Jingdezhen was turning out hundreds of thousands of porcelains, from small plates and bowls to huge ones, like the one I’d seen, which were used in sacrificial ceremonies.

It’s amazing how the period Ming vases have made their way through the world.  After manufacture, they were sold, then kept or displayed or used, and then, decades later, passed down to the children after the owners’ deaths, then kept or displayed or used some more for decades, perhaps sold, perhaps stolen, perhaps being destroyed in or surviving war.  Many vases each century are broken, and the surviving number gets smaller and smaller.  Those pieces that have survived today go for exorbitant prices, though, such as the price paid by my friend’s father.

A year after the wedding, I asked the bride about that Ming vase, and she told me something that made my heart sink.

“Oh, somebody got drunk and knocked it over,” she said, laughing.  “Really, though, I don’t feel sorry for my Dad.  If you’re going to display something like that during a wedding, you’re asking for it, don’t you think?”

That was one of the more interesting stories I’ve heard, so I worked into the plot of my novel, What Happens to Us, available on Kindle for only $3.99, at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.  I believe novels should be a collection of the most interesting things that have ever happened to people.  I don’t like to bore readers, don’t like it at all.  Give the book a try.  I guarantee you won’t be bored.

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I Feel Them Still

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In writing this novel, I sometimes drew from and embellished on astonishing real-life events.  The above passage was spun off the story of a man named Walter Irving Scott, a Rhode Island magician who stunned the magic world in 1930 with his offbeat methods that fooled even the greats of magic.  He taught many of his most secret moves to a street magician named Gazzo, but in 1994, Gazzo had a stroke and lost all the moves that he had learned with his left hand.  Since Scott died in 1995, those moves were lost forever.

In addition, I’ve mixed in some details from the life of Dai Vernon, generally considered to be the best technical magician of the 20th century.  In fact, the magic world has many fascinating stories that the wider world has not been exposed to, and which will make for excellent reading in my future work.

In my early years as a writer, most of what I wrote was pure fiction, perhaps because I had lived so little of life.  I didn’t have a terribly eventful early life like Mary Karr or Ernest Hemingway.  In addition, I was a bit ashamed of my mundane suburban upbringing.  I didn’t feel that what I had experienced was literary enough.

Today, however, what I write is a somewhat equal combination of fiction, real life, and historical anecdotes.  By now, many extraordinary things have happened to me and I’m not ashamed to talk about them.  Now, I realize that my one childhood encounter with my Uncle John, who was a gambling cheat, is worth writing about.  Now, I’m discovering parts of my childhood that people want to read about.  Childhood memories are a bit like lost fingers, I guess.  I feel them still.

Feeling Matters

When I was at UCLA, I auditioned for and got into an Advanced Piano class.  This was the highest level of piano performance study in the Music Department, and I was honored to  have been accepted.

It was a salon, held from 2 – 5 pm once a week.  Students wandered in, waited their turn while others played, and then when it was their turn, played the piece they were working on, received criticism, and then left.  It was taught by Joanna Harris, who was the wife of the great American composer Roy Harris.  Joanna was by that time white-haired, flamboyantly dressed, and thought of herself as absolutely gorgeous despite her age, which was probably 75.  She would listen, critique, rhapsodize, and essay on her students’ musical assets and shortcomings.

David Groves with beard in twenties

The students were possessed of a wealth of musical talent, I must say.  Advanced piano students are truly la creme de la creme.  The best and the worst by far, however, was a man named Howard.

Howard was Nerdus Maximus.  He had unfashionable curly hair, a big, block-like head, and an ability to block out everyone else’s conversations except his own.  He never listened.  He would barrel into the salon, sit down, and play the most extraordinarily difficult musical pieces.  They required incredibly fast and nimble fingers and contained extraordinarily complicated passages, but as a kind of display of skill, Howard would play them faster than they were meant to be played.  I remember labyrinthine pieces by Liszt that nobody else could play.  I remember them being banged out like mathematics.  And once he hit the last note, Howard would lean back on the piano bench with a smug grin on his face and wait for his praise.

A drawing of Orlando Alexander Groves

But Joanna didn’t play along.  To her, the nerd had no clothes, and she would criticize Howard mercilessly.  She would rant at him.  She would pick apart his performance measure by measure, and then send him on his way.

Once, after Howard had left the salon, Joanna held forth on him to the rest of the class.

“He comes in here and plays these incredibly difficult pieces,” she said.  “Well, of course he can play these pieces because he practices eight hours a day.  The problem is that he has no soul.  He has no feeling.  He doesn’t do justice to any of those pieces, and it’s really just such a shame.”

It was amazing to hear a professor criticizing a student so severely, not for his skill but for his very soul, and it seemed like she had stepped over some sort of line.  On the other hand, it also seemed that she had expressed some universal truth that I could not have received except at an extraordinary university like UCLA.  I was extraordinarily grateful that I had been in that room at the moment, and in fact, most of what I remember from that salon were those words.  It was an important truth: Feeling matters.  Sometimes, it’s the only thing that matters.

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I quit piano playing in my sophomore year and pursued writing with a vengeance.  Strangely, I discovered that feeling is important in writing,, as well, in pretty much the same way.  I’ve read authors who have no soul, for sure.  That’s one of my problems with The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, by Michael Chabon.  It’s the way I feel about Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore.  Writing isn’t some intellectual game that one plays in order to show off how attractive their cerebrum is.  It’s the mother’s milk on which starved people suckle.  It’s truth for searchers.  It becomes the fabric of our lives.

Fifteen years after that original piano salon, I was in a party store in Santa Monica buying glitter for my New Year’s Eve party.  My roommate had suggested that, to make things more festive, we should buy bags of glitter and toss them onto the carpet.  It turned out to be a great and a poor idea at the same time.  It was great because it made the place look like a funhouse.  It was poor because in the three years I lived there, I could never completely vacuum it up.  I was always finding little bits of glitter in some corner or other.

Anyway, that December 20, I had in my basket that glitter, plus paper streamers, paper cups, paper plates, paper flatware, and the like.  Suddenly, I realized that I knew the curly hair in front of me.  It was none other than Howard.

I tapped him on the shoulder.

“Are you Howard?” I said.

“Yes.”

“I recognize you.  We were in Joanna Harris’s class together back at UCLA.”

“Yes, I was in that class.”

After all these years, there was still no warmth in his voice.  He didn’t ask what I was now doing because he didn’t care.  However, I asked him what he was doing.

“Do you still play?”

“Oh no, I haven’t played in years,” he said.  “I’m a surgeon now.”

Hearing that, it all came together for me, and in the days and weeks afterwards, it helped me explain the world.  He wasn’t able to channel deep feeling through his fingers, but in surgery, that frigidity was an advantage.  His soul was cold and calculating.  It recognized nothing but complex patterns.  Although he would never have been able to move the hearts of an audience, he was at last able to do something that fitted his skills perfectly.

In writing my new novel, What Happens to Us, I incorporated that thought into one of the characters, Cat.Facebook page sample 7 12 13

Who Sez He’s a Dog?

In a previous post, this reader called my character Dante “a dog.”

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Some people are so eager to point fingers.  How can one be unfaithful to someone who’s never been your girlfriend?  Someone you’ve never kissed?  Someone with whom you simply have an unspoken attraction?

Once, a woman showed me a book she had bought.  It was called Men Are Pigs and Deserve to DieI thumbed through it and discovered that it was a spoof of feminist books.  The author, Sonya Steinem (a sure giveaway that it was satire), wrote page after page of humorous invective pretending that men were the root of all evil.  But the woman who showed it to me thought it was serious.  As hard as I tried, I couldn’t convince her it was satire.

See for yourself.  Download the novel onto your Kindle for only $3.99 here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

What Dog Hath Wrought

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The woman who texted this to me had just found me on Facebook.  In high school, we had worked on the newspaper together.  In the years since, she had become very religious.

This text is a testament to how different readers read a novel differently.  When I was writing the novel, I never thought of Dante as “a dog,” but in all ways a nice guy.  However, he does fall in love with the protagonist and then not act on it.  While he’s living with her in exile, he ends up getting a girlfriend and spending nights at her place.  He’s unfaithful to a woman he’s not involved with.  He’s sleeping with another woman whom he’s not married to.  Does that make him a dog?

???

To download this novel, What Happens to Us, click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

Beverly in Movieland

A well-known author/blogger just blogged about my new novel, What Happens to Us.  Quite pleased, in fact, exzeedinglee pleeeeezd.

I’ve read Beverly Gray’s blog a few times and she’s really quite the excellent writer. She recently published a highly regarded biography of Roger Corman, for whom she worked for a decade.  Now, as a result of her frank biography, it seems that he hates her.  So much for honesty.

Take a look.

http://beverlygray.blogspot.com/

I Look at the World through Word-Colored Glasses

I’m not that good at math.  I majored in physics for a quarter at UCLA, and it was a disaster.  Somehow, I just don’t think that way.  I also don’t think like a bureaucrat or a bean counter.  But words, now there’s my territory.  Words, I like to say, are the sea in which I swim.  I think not in images or numbers or feelings, as some people do, but strictly in words.  During down times, words twist and turn in my head, re-forming themselves this way and that.  I look at the world through word-colored glasses.

Word colored glasses smallerThat became clear to me as early as junior high school, when I was a star student in Mrs. Robinson’s Spanish class.  I ripped through the assignments so quickly that she put me on an independent study program.  That freed me up to write, at my request, short stories in Spanish.  I remember writing a story about a nuclear war between the Land of the Pickles and the Land of the Meatballs.  The pickles were the first to strike.  They dropped radioactive pickle juice onto the meatballs.

By high school, I was spending most of my time working on the newspaper.  By my sophomore year, the newspaper advisor offered me the position of editor-in-chief.

Desmond Buzzell, my high school journalism advisor

Desmond Buzzell, my high school journalism advisor

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I’d have to order around the seniors.  They wouldn’t do what I said.”

“Of course they would.  You’d be the boss.”

But I couldn’t see it, so instead, I convinced him to make me the sports editor instead.  By the end of that year, I was winning awards for my sports column.  By junior year, I finally accepted the editor-in-chief position and was spending the summer at a highly competitive journalism camp and winning more awards.

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In college, I switched from journalism to literature, and began thinking about words in deeper ways.  Journalism consisted of quickly dashed-off flotsam about fleeting events, but literature consisted of deeply considered words about eternal subjects, topics that had occupied the minds of Socrates, Lao Tsu, and Dante.  I began to admire those who let their deep thoughts determine the words, and the words determine the form, such as Joyce, Tolstoy, and Didion, rather than deadline writers who settle for any sentences that piece themselves together before the 2 pm deadline.

I dove into great literature.  I was amazed at how Virginia Woolf’s meandering sentences could skillfully mimic actual thinking.  It seemed extraordinary that the lack of a simple period had such profound perceptual consequences.  Of couorse, that same lack of periods has through the years scared many people away from her prose.  To others, it has opened a door into the richest veins of the mind.  Without the imprisoning chains of those tiny little dots, Woolf was freer than any person alive at that time.  Her sentences had set her free.

I became obsessed with Hemingway’s spare language, a type of language that seemed less like prose and more like the building blocks of something deeper.  Using Hemingway’s model, I stripped down my own language to its own building blocks so that I could see it better.  It was like taking apart a car engine.  My father had done that in his own day, but I was doing it with language.  Once the engine is in pieces, you can then understand it fully, and in time, rebuild it in a different way to fit your own tastes.

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I began identifying the characteristics of famous writers, from the caricatured prose of Dickens to the self-devouring poetry of Hopkins to the conversational poetry of Whitman to the ego-made-incarnate prose of Roth, to many others.

In my twenties, I realized with some astonishment that one could consciously choose the way that one processes the world.  I can’t adequately express how revolutionary a concept that is, even today.  One could focus on details and minutiae all the time, thus engaging the left brain.  Or one could see the world through large concepts and artistic structures, thus engaging the right brain.  If one took the former option, the side effects seemed to be that one missed the big picture, didn’t connect with flow, and blocked one’s creative output.  If one took the latter option, the side effects seemed to be that one made more mistakes in grammar, spelling, and fact.

It was an easy choice.  I chose to think like an artist.  I suspect that’s why Claire often complains that my side of the bedroom is so messy.

But there was no other possible choice.  At the time, I was working as a freelance proofreader, checking book galleys for spelling and typing mistakes, and later, as a freelance copy editor, checking for grammatical and compositional errors.  Doing that kind of work for six to seven hours a day was grueling, and at the end of the day, I did not feel like doing my own writing.  My head was filled with other people’s words throughout the evening, and I needed a few hours to empty it before I wrote my own stuff.  By the time my head was emptied, it was time to fill it up with words again.  I never wrote anything creative.  It was an endless cycle of emptiness.

When I became a freelance writer, my inner life became much richer, to be sure.  Still, there were limitations.  Writing health articles for magazines like American Health, McCall’s, Psychology Today, and others was moderately rewarding, in the same way that it’s rewarding to date a woman whom only your mother finds attractive.  It wasn’t really what I wanted to do.  I wanted to write fiction all the time, but I was working so hard making ends meet that I just couldn’t find the time to finish anything.

David Groves with beard in twenties

All this time, increasingly, language was my life.  Foreigners were astonished that I could pronounce foreign words correctly upon hearing them once.  I never misspelled words.  My mind could tag-team with my fingers to achieve a 105 wpm typing speed.  While spending idle time–in a car, for example, or at a concert–my mind often drifted to words.  Often, my mind would latch onto a word or phrase–for example, ubiquitous–and type it over and over again on my thigh, counting the number of letters typed with each hand, subtracting one from another, and playing games with those numbers.  All my girlfriends knew the feel, while lying in bed with me during a romantic moment, of my fingers typing out words on their backs or arms.

I was seeing a therapist during that time, and I remember a session I had with her.  I had opened the door and walked into that session as I had done many times before, but this time, I smiled.

I was amused by something I hadn’t noticed before.  While walking through the door into her office, it struck me as extraordinary that the brain could execute an action so mundane as opening a door, which involved turning the knob, pushing it while walking through, and then pushing it back with the other hand at just the right moment to send the door closing at just the right speed, catch it with that original hand behind my back–behind my back!–and then gently close the door shut.  It was such a complex series of motor skills, and yet the mind perceived it as a single action.  It seemed like some neurological miracle.

“So what’s going on this week?” Honora asked.

“Well, I’m having trouble finding the time to write my novel.”

“Maybe you have nothing to say.”

Well, okay, therapists are paid to think the unthinkable.  She didn’t mean anything bad by it, but it irked me all the same.  Here was something I wanted to do more than anything–write my novel–and yet I could never find the time to do it.  And she was blaming me for it?

“I do have something to say,” I said with seething calmness.  “I have a lot to say.”

“Like what?”

“Well, it’s not like I’m a survivor of some holocaust or I’m a McMartin kid or anything,” I said.  “But you know how I opened that door?  It struck me as so amazingly complex, like something that…revealed the extraordinary complexity of the brain, and yet, we never talk about it.  I want to write about the things we never talk about.”

It made me think about a line from Tender Is the Night by Fitzgerald, which goes something like this:

“He went to the mail desk first.  As the woman who served him pushed up with her bosom a piece of paper that had nearly escaped the desk, he thought how differently women use their bodies from men.”

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It took me seven years to finish writing my first novel, ten years to finish my second, and six years to finish my third.  By the time I got to the third one, I had learned so much about writing and life that I would often finish at the end of the day with tears in my eyes, knowing that I had packed as much wisdom into it as I had ever seen in any piece of writing.

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But it didn’t always come easy.  My best passages often took 80 to 100 drafts before they were finished.  But when they were finished, they were so tightly and intricately woven together that it became nearly impossible for the reader to pull them apart and see where the passage originated or where one thought blended into another.  Eighty drafts tend to blend together like layers of soil, moisture, and time on an archaeological dig.

Now that the novel is published, it’s so layered that I could talk about it for years.  Every corner of it is a little universe.  Every plot twist has a complex history.  I was pleased when a reader told me she had read it a second time, because it bears rereading.  Give it a try.  Its roots, as you can well imagine, go deep.  And when you read it, wear your word-colored glasses.

What Happens to Us

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU

Only $3.99 to download onto your Kindle