Denial, My Only True Friend

When I was seven, I wanted to be a professional baseball player when I grew up. I wanted to play third base like Clete Boyer. I wanted to bat cleanup like Frank Howard. I wanted to be decent like Lou Gehrig and my father.

Age 11 swinging a bat in our backyard

Age 11 swinging a bat in our backyard

When I was 14, I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer. I watched the Olympics and wanted to break records by not just tenths of seconds, but by full seconds. I wanted to stand on that platform with a gold medal around my neck, like Mark Spitz.

David Groves as a swimmer

When I was 21, I wanted to be a world-renowned author. Hemingway was my guiding light, and like him, I wanted to have four homes: in Idaho, Cuba, Spain, and Key West.  I wanted to write in the morning and go out on my fishing boat in the afternoon. I wanted to put on boxing gloves and fight with other authors, as he did. I wanted to drink fine wine and know what it was that made it fine.

David Groves post college 1a smaller

I have not achieved those goals.  And in the ensuing decades, I must confess that I’ve had many more unfulfilled dreams. I would tell you about them in detail, but the closer we get to the present day, the more it would hurt. At the moment, it seems that the best solution is to deny that I’ve failed at them, because I tell myself that achieving them is still a possibility.  Denial often seems the most rational course these days.  I deny that I will fail at my now ridiculously scaled down dreams.  I deny that my life is over. I deny that anybody has beaten me. I trust in denial.  It is my only true friend.

Take one small example. I can’t take a large one because that’s too personal. In the late ‘90s, I invited a magician I admired and his wife to my annual birthday party. He came and had a great time. His wife suggested that my girlfriend Debra and I get together with them as couples.

“Great,” we said.

But Debra and I were just about to break up, and it’s not the same with just three. The following year, he had a significant role in a Tim Burton movie that you all know. Then he became a third banana on a popular TV series, and then another one, and now, he’s not just a TV star, but a major luminary in the magic world.

When I see him around, he says hello, but we don’t get together for dinner. He doesn’t invite me to his fabulous home.  He doesn’t pass along my script to Steven Spielberg. I missed that train.

These days, I strap on my bicycle helmet and ride. I know what 100% exertion is. At 7:00, I start pedaling up the big hill. At 13:00, I start pedaling down it. At 25:00, I pedal up Hill 2, and at 30:00, pedal down it. I consider that level of exertion 100%, which amounts to 47:00 for the full course. And while I’m swimming inside that pool called exertion, it’s all about the metaphor, it’s about goals and successes. I’m pedaling to succeed where I’ve failed so often in the past.

After exercise on hottest day ever in LA 9 27 10 d

But then one day, I surprise myself.  I suddenly remember that I can push myself beyond what I thought was 100%, and at the end, red faced and panting heavily, I clock in at 41:00. That’s 110%. Then I go out and hit 41:00 every day for weeks. I consider it a challenge that I have to meet.  Claire says that I seem perkier and more energetic around the house. When I push my body harder, it responds with more energy. I feel I can do anything, that there are no limits.

My high school friend Chazz (not his real name) has gotten old. He had a kidney transplant and he almost died three times while in the hospital. His most simple dreams, like performing magic at a downscale restaurant every week, are now gone like the road behind him. His wife died of cancer. In his condition, he could no longer do his job selling computers, so he sold his house and now lives with his mother in Atlanta. He walks with a cane and she has Alzheimer’s. But every day, I do 41:00, or if I’m ambitious, a 51:00 course that I used to do in 57:00. Because for me, the game isn’t over.

Sometimes, I play games in my head. Before I hit the road, I put myself in a dire situation.

“You have to make it in 30 minutes or you and everybody you love will die,” says God or somebody like him, somebody who has ultimate power.

In my head, the roads are cleared. There’s no traffic. I hop on my bike and start my wrist chronometer. I start pedaling. From the very beginning, I push push push.   Every push of the pedal is 110%. I push hard because otherwise, nothing else will matter. As I pedal, I suddenly discover increasingly deeper levels of exertion, levels that, in my mind, seem like caverns, exotic and unexplored, grottos that I never knew existed, plains that stretch into a beauteous skyline, beautiful visions of the future that are my familiar optimism.

As I pedal, I don’t glance at my watch because that could lose me half a second. I look out for traffic, but in my mind, the traffic is all gone because, after all, everyone else is dead. As I approach the final hill, I push even harder, up to what might be 111% or higher. First, there’s pain. As I push harder, it’s impossible to hold a complex thought in my head. As I get up to 112%, it’s like all my thoughts are gone like a film peeled from my eyes, and all that’s left are the sealife of my unconscious swimming by. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a sitting wolf. Perhaps he is guarding me, or perhaps waiting for me to fall, I can’t tell. Below me, the road rushes by, and two seconds later, I wonder if I’ve been pedaling seconds or days. My ambition is all stripped bare

.After exercise 7 17 10 a

I log in another 41:00. If I were actually given that ultimatum, though, I know I could chisel my 41:00 down to 31:00. Okay, I didn’t make it to the Major Leagues, or to the Olympics, or to Hemingway’s level of fame, but I know that I could, if I just pushed hard enough. That’s just the way my mind works.

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I Came from Somewhere

My grandmother Paula Cruz was from another time and place. Born in 1908 in Leon, Mexico, she emigrated to the States in 1915 with her family to flee a bloody battle that was brewing in the area, and which eventually wiped out most of the population, thanks to the Mexican Revolution. At age 12, she was living in sleepy Azusa, California, according to the 1920 Census.

Through the years, my grandmother had to fight many things—poverty, a violent husband, the pervasive racism of the times, her own low self-esteem. Among the most revealing fight, though, was the one she waged against the Department of Motor Vehicles.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

My grandmother Paula (R) with her sister Helen in 1929, when she was still single.

You see, Nana (we pronounced it Naw-naw) could only barely read and write. Her father had died when she was in third grade, so she and her other 12 siblings were quickly pulled out of school and put to work picking fruit in the fields. Another strike against her was her dyslexia, which in those days went by another name: stupidity.

Paula and Jesus wedding photo 1a smaller

As an adult, Nana got a job working at the Wilson meat-packing plant in Vernon. I visited her once when I was four. It was an ugly old factory on a nondescript industrial street south of downtown. If you’ve never driven down those streets, you don’t know how ugly an industrial section can be, because it’s still that way. Last year, I got stuck in a freeway traffic jam, exited below downtown, and had to drive through that hell.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula is second from the right.

Paula Martin with coworkers at the meat packing plant

As a 4-year-old, I remember visiting her at Wilson. I remember being lifted up onto the receiving dock and walking in. Inside the factory, it was dank and reeked of freshly cut meat. In a room with only high windows, I saw a row of workers, my grandmother among them, rolling sausages with her bare hands. She seemed happy to see me, and gave my tiny face a kiss, then went back to the sausages. It was the job she did for 40 years.

My grandmother and I were very different. Take the war.  In 1957, Nana’s third husband died and her war against the DMV began. Suddenly, she had nobody to drive her places and had to obtain her own driver’s license. The written tests were difficult for her from the start. She had to sound out the words phonetically, like a first grader. As the years went by, the tests became increasingly difficult. I don’t blame the DMV. It’s good to have drivers who can read and understand what they’re doing. But it was hell for my grandmother.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

Paula and her third husband Leonard.

My mother would drill my grandmother on practice tests. She enlisted the help of relatives, asking them to save their written driver’s tests so she could coach my grandmother from them. Nana would sit at the dining-room table and try to read the questions, sounding out each word. Every so often, my mother would help her or correct her. Once the question was read aloud, my mother would reason out the answer with Nana.

We were always worried that she wouldn’t pass, that she would lose her driver’s license and be homebound. My mother would drive her to the test and sit nearby, waiting for her. It wasn’t a quick visit. Nana took a long, long time with those tests, sounding out each question and then trying to “think it good,” as she put it. Miraculously, she always passed. To be sure, she earned those passing grades.

Interestingly, Nana took great joy in her cars. In the 1960s, she started buying Camaros, which were a big deal in those days. There was a yellow one, followed a few years later by a green one, followed a few years later by a red one. Nana would drive around town in that hopped-up car and feel young again. We all called her the “hot-rod Nana.”  Later, my mother bought a Camaro, too. It was kind of the family car.

In her eighties, it was in one of those Camaros that Nana got into a serious car accident. She was turning left against oncoming traffic and was hit broadside. It was clearly her fault. I was called to her bedside, because, my mother said, she might not make it this time. She had some broken ribs and internal damage.

She was lucky though.  She healed up.  We all debated whether we should take away her keys. Her eyes and her reaction time were getting worse. But we were also worried about taking away her independence. We worried that without her independence, she might just wither away and die.

“You have to be more careful when you drive,” my mother told her.

“I will.”

“You’re getting older.”

“I know.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yes, of course.”

So we never took away her keys, and neither did the DMV. She drove until two years before the end, increasingly cautious.

My Nana was a throwback to a harsher, more complex time. It was never simple. Without the ability to read or write fluently, much was denied to her. The DMV was a house of horrors. Ingredients lists on canned foods were of no use to her. Electronics were impenetrable and users’ manuals were no help at all. Many movies were puzzles ready to be misinterpreted.

Once, I tried to tell her how she was mispronouncing a particular word.

“It’s spoon,” I said. “Say it. Spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, spoon.”

“Spoom.”

“No, there’s an n at the end. Like in Nancy. Spoon-nah.”

“Spoom.”

At my first performance at the Magic Castle, Nana sat in the front row. It was a highbrow show, and my grandmother, who never finished the third grade, misinterpreted one of my jokes. In the middle of the show, I saw her urgently shaking her head and shushing me, thinking that the joke was a humiliation for me in some way, or a vulgarity that she thought I might go to hell for, or something, I don’t really know. It wasn’t.

In many ways, I was like the DMV to her, estranged because of my education and difference. She grew up in poverty and violence. I grew up in middle-class comfort. By the sixth grade, I had already had twice the education that she ever had, and the estrangement worsened. By high school, I was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and reading my published articles would have been an ordeal, so she didn’t. By my twenties, I was publishing articles in Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mademoiselle, and we lived in different worlds. I flew in to New York City twice a year to receive assignments from my editors, and was living in a whole different world. Later, I was appearing alone on stages at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, and on television, as well.

When Nana died at age 90 and three months, I was sad, of course. But in some ways, it was also like an ancestor dying in 1722. At the same time, though, it was like my own mother dying. She had babysat me as a child, rocked me in her arms, stroked my face, kissed my forehead. My most vivid memory of her is of my lips touching her wrinkled cheek. I can smell her makeup even now. I can feel those wrinkles on my lips.  At family dinners, she would sometimes stand in front of the stove and make corn tortillas by hand. She would wink at me and smile. With her very presence, she reminded me that I wasn’t just a television kid with no past, but that I came from somewhere.

Paula 11a

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula (R), making tortillas, with her daughter Sally.

Paula holding the author's hand.

Paula holding the author’s hand.

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.

The Train That Is Coming and Will Plough Through You

Now, years later, I remember my seventh summer as an unblemished stretch of pure happiness. I believe this not to be some kind of wishful idealization by a foggy-headed adult, but an accurate memory. The reason is that I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I wish this summer would never end.

David Groves around 1962 age 7 smaller

That summer had everything. Unbelievably blue Los Angeles skies. A backyard with a tree. A wiffle ball, a bat, and two best friends, Scott and Gary, to play wiffle ball with every single day.

A sidewalk to run fast down, because running fast made me happy. I remember saying that very thing to myself at the time.

I will always love running.

I was a pitcher on my Little League baseball team, the Beavers. I felt like a king whenever I stood on that pitcher’s mound and commanded the game. I was the cleanup batter, too, and I hit the ball out of the park once, which was a big deal at age 7. Afterwards, we all ate our fill of pepperoni and sausage pizza at Shakey’s and horsed around. The pizza chef liked us and told us his name was Peter Rabbit Cottontail Sunshine Snowball. We all laughed. My teammates and I were all the best of friends.

I will always love cartoons, I would also say to myself.

In time, the subject of movies came up, but I didn’t even want to try them out. I wanted to hang onto that totem of childhood, cartoons. I shunned other adult totems, too, such as coffee, smoking, adult foods such as green olives, and adult words such as accommodation and Plantagenet.

Of course, change is the train that is coming and will one day plough through you. Eventually, a hair sprouted on my chest. Another boy spotted it at the local pool and razzed me for it. I was appalled. It was a distressing development that threatened to end my summers of bliss. I plucked it out. Another soon appeared, and I pulled out that one, too. But you can’t fight forever against the encroachment of that particular forest, so eventually, I gave up fighting altogether on that front.

David Groves age 8

But there were so many other fronts. When I was 11, my parents wanted to tell me about the birds and the bees. They found it awkward to talk about in the first place, but I made it even tougher on them. One day, my mother walked tentatively into my bedroom with a book called For Boys Only, saying that it would tell me everything I needed to know, if I wanted to.

“I don’t want it,” I said, turning away.

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s, when she was working on her BA

My mother as a housewife in the 1960s.

“You’re starting to go through adolescence,” she said, “and you’re going to need to know about this.”

“I don’t care.”

“I’ll just leave it in your bookshelf,” she said, and walked out of the room.

Over the next couple years, that book was an abomination in my otherwise lovely room. It was offered to me out of love, but on principle, I never touched it. It seemed as if my mother had said something horrible to me.

I’m going to kick you out of paradise.

Paul Simon writes about this transition in his song, “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean”:

Once upon a time there was an ocean.
But now it’s a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

I hesitate to call what happened to me adolescence, or even that uglier word, puberty. In fact, it was an immense tragedy and the world should mark the year with wailing and sackcloth and memorials for the dead. Everything that followed it was more complicated. Suddenly, I stank when I sweated. Girls could wrap me around their little fingers just by wearing a short skirt. I had to choose my own future, which was terribly complicated.
And when I tried out for the high school freshman baseball team, I didn’t even make the cut. All my dreams came crashing down like a Lego skyscraper. Somewhere along the way, I had lost my grace.

What was so wonderful about my childhood isn’t hard to pin down. I had an overprotective mother whose heart was as big as a Barbra Streisand song. Years later, she told me her attitude towards motherhood.

Sally Groves with her new baby

I wished I could just put you inside a big bubble and protect you from the big, bad world.

I was happy to live in that bubble, but it was bound to burst. I came home from kindergarten one day with amazing news.

Did you know, they invented this great thing! I told my mother excitedly. It’s called candy!

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My mother had never given me candy, wanting to protect me from cavities and misbehavior.

My father played a big part in my happy childhood, too. I remember him standing a couple steps up from the rest of us, resting his elbows on the railing and watching the family he loved. The phrase that best described him was without guile. To this day, I measure every person I meet against him. Most don’t measure up.

Combo David and Donald shot closer

Perhaps my allegiance to childhood arose in part because I’m constitutionally resistant to change. It is an unfortunate character trait. I tend to hang onto things like a bulldog, including places of residence, business cards, to-do lists, anger, old books, and outdated life goals. I sometimes hold onto them until they’re rotted and unrecognizable, and yet still I hang onto them. I remember with great fondness what they once were.

Like clothes. I recently discovered five pairs of Levis that I wore in my twenties. I pulled them out of storage and held them up to examine. They were beautiful, faded and blue. When I gained a few pounds, I put them away and swore I’d fit into them again. I’d work out like crazy. I’d diet. I’d do what it took. I would not throw those Levis out. Years later, I continue to work out daily on my bike, pushing myself mightily up huge hills for an hour or more, rivulets of sweat coursing down my brow and down my nose, never laying back and coasting, but pushing my thighs and glutes to 110%, because, I tell myself, 110% is where it’s at, baby, 110% is a locked door that you throw yourself against and nobody ever thinks about busting through because, goddammit, it’s locked, but hey, I bust through that door, I bust through like a warrior because I’m The 110% Man, because 110% is my solution for everything, dude, it’s the solution that most people never have the courage to try but which is my badge of superiority, and when I was seven, my mother told me I was better than everyone else, well, maybe not told me, more like imparted it to me and I’ve felt it in my bones ever since.

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Perhaps what I’m giving 110% to is getting back, as they say, to where I once belonged. But I don’t belong there anymore. They don’t want me.

There is a simpler explanation for why I clung so tightly to childhood. Maybe it wasn’t a psychological construct at all. Maybe it was indeed a great time in my life. My parents loved me. My father was a coach on my baseball team. Nobody was abusing me. I had been born with a happy disposition. I was well. I was living in the richest country in the world. It was the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Years later, though, I stand on a railway overpass, my elbows on the railing, gazing down on those train tracks. It’s a hot summer day with skies so blue that it hurts just looking up. How I wish I could run.

Yikes! It’s Carnevale!

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Americans call it Mardi Gras, but Italians have a more elegant name for it: Carnevale.  This week, the fabulous restaurant il Fornaio imported me from Los Angeles to Carmel to perform magic from table to table.  It resulted in six full hours of gasps and laughter.

There was 8-year-old Emma and her 8-year-old friend Emma—“The Emma twins!” I exclaimed—who couldn’t get enough of the multiplying sponge balls.

There was the table of eight art students who came for pizza after art class.  When I magically made a half-dollar appear beneath a man’s watch, he said, “Either he’s really good or I’m drinking too much!”

There was the family of six that I approached whose father said, “Okay, one trick.”  I blew them away with that, and 10-year-old Rachel said, “One more!”  So I did one more.

“One more!” Rachel demanded again.

“You’re the boss, aren’t you?” I said.

“Yes, I am,” she said, a look of certitude on her face.

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Linda, the manager who orchestrated the whole event, was dressed in a fabulous silver and green robe that she expropriated from a Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Macbeth and seemed very Carnevalesque.  I suppose the Shakespearean connection explains the lines she muttered continually throughout the evening with an evil cackle: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand?  Mwahahahahaha!”

But the highlight of the evening was a middle-aged couple from Sacramento that seemed so happy with each other that they seemed like newlyweds (see photo above).  I was surprised to discover that they had been married for–get this–23 years.

“It helps to marry someone who’s smiling and pleasant all the time,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

There wasn’t anything else I could do.  I performed the Anniversary Trick, which is a trick that celebrates love.  At the end, they posed for the photograph, which inducted them into the Yikes-the-Magician-Freaked-Me-Out Brigade, not to mention the This-Is-True-Love-and-Don’t-You-Forget-It Club.

The 8-year-old Who Knew Everything

I did a late closeup show at a party in La Mirada.  In general, the audience was great, but one man, named Steve, seemed a little odd.  I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was, but I was sure there was something wrong with this guy.

I put in a great performance, up there with my best.  After the show, Steve came up.

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“When you get a chance, there’s a little boy who wants to talk with you,” Steve said, a smile on his face.  “Because while you were performing, he was standing next to me, and he was saying, ‘I know that one, I know how that one is done, yeah, that one, too.’  Because he’s a magician, too.”

“Maybe he thinks he knows how they’re done….” another guest, a magician, said.

“No, he really knows how every single trick was done,” Steve said.  “So when you have a chance, could you come talk to him?  It’ll really give him a thrill.”

When I was done repacking my gear, I walked over to see what the deal was.  The kid, who was named Quinten.  He looked like a regular 8-year-old in eyeglasses.  He didn’t look as brilliant as Stephen Hawking, but at that point, I reserved judgment.

“Yeah, I knew how all the tricks were done,” Quinten said.

I was curious.

“So how were they done?” I said, a smile pasted on my face like a shield.

“Well, on that last trick, you touched your sleeve.”

I waited for a full explanation, but none was forthcoming.  And knowing how the tricks are indeed done, I can tell you that his explanation was nowhere near what the actual explanation is.  Quinten mentioned a couple of my other tricks, too, taking wild, flailing, self-destructive stabs in the dark–all the time with complete certainty in his voice–about each feat of magic.

I just continued smiling throughout, because it’s not polite to tell someone else’s child that he’s just a child.  When Quinten had finished with his fantasy explanations, Steve came in with the kicker.

“So Quinten wants to talk with you about the explanations,” he said.

“Oh, I don’t talk about how the tricks are done,” I said.

“But he knows how they’re done,” Steve countered.  “He just wants to talk about them with you.”

There is an art to letting a conversation trail off, smiling politely, and slipping away.  And that night, I mastered it.

Her Daughter’s Homeless Parents

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine came onto the Facebook page for the ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors), saying that she was going through something extraordinary: Her adopted daughter’s birth parents had just become homeless.

Vanessa asked where she might pitch this great article idea she had.  It was indeed a great article idea, and we helped by suggesting outlets, including third- and fourth-tier publications.

But Vanessa didn’t have to settle for third or fourth tier.  The idea was so good that she got an assignment from the august New York Times.  Not only that, but she did such a bang-up job on the execution of the article that today, it was published.  I defy you to read it and not say, Wow.

http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/26/the-birth-parents-move-in/

A Child’s Dream

Last weekend, I did a stage show.  As usual, I started off with my butterfly trick, in which two butterflies magically appear flying around me, and for a finale, they multiply into a couple hundred.  In the end, they all float to the floor and the audience discovers they’ve transformed into paper butterflies.

Later in the show, I noticed that 5-year-old Ethan had one of the red butterflies in his hand.

“These butterflies are magical,” I told told him and the audience.  “If you put a butterfly under your pillow tonight, in the morning, there’ll be a one-dollar bill.”

I winked at his Dad and the audience got a good laugh out of it.

My biggest surprise came after the show, when Ethan was saying goodbye to me.  In his hands, I noticed, were 40 or 50 paper butterflies.  His smile was wider than the Mississippi as he said: “I’m rich!”

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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.

Kicked out of Vegas

It started with a dim memory from childhood.  I was seven and the Groves family was holding a reunion at a park.  This older man in a stylish suit arrived with a flourish.  He was tall, white-complected, and looked like a variation on my Grandpa Roy.

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Me around age 7

“This is your Uncle John,” my mother said.

It was actually my great-uncle.  I shook his hand.

“Pleased to meet you, son.”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t say yeah,” my mother prompted, “say ‘Pleased to meet you, too.'”

“Pleased to meet you, too.”

John Wesley Groves circa 1934

Uncle John around 1934

All around at the reunion, there were introductions, handshakes, jokes, laughter, and catching up.

A bit later, in a moment when everyone’s attention was averted, John took me aside.

“I have a gift for you,” he said in low tones, squatting down to my level.

Uncle John took out a maroon velvet cardboard box.  I opened it up.  It contained two new decks of playing cards.

“These are yours,” Uncle John said.  “They’re marked.”

He used the term marked as if it were illicit–that is, prohibited and quite sexy.

“Marked?”

“Yes, you can tell what card it is by looking at the back.”

And so Uncle John proceeded to show me how to read the backs.  Once I understood, I smiled at the deception.  It was like I was one of the few people in the world who had the secret of winning.  It was one of my earliest joys in the art of magic, and to tell you the truth, even now that I’m a professional, learning those secrets is still quite a thrill.

That’s when Uncle John glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure nobody was listening.

“I’ll tell you the secret to winning at cards,” John said.  “The only way to win is to cheat.”

That’s when my mother came over.

“Hey, what’s going on here?” she asked.

“Don’t tell her,” Uncle John said.  “It’s our secret.”

“David, what’s going on?”

“It’s a secret,” I said with a grin.

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Later, I learned that Uncle John was a professional gambler.  He wasn’t a weekend gambler, but was actually the real thing, my parents said.  He had been kicked out of Vegas for cheating.  He was the proverbial black sheep of the family.  And when I say kicked out, let me emphasize that getting kicked out of Vegas in the 1950s was quite a bit different from getting kicked out today, which is more akin to getting escorted out of Disneyland for smoking marijuana on Tom Sawyer’s Island.  You could sustain bruises.  You could fall down a flight of stairs.  They could make you cry.

Years passed, and as an adult, I eventually became a professional magician.  I learned card sleights, learned to treat 52 as 1, learned how to use gravity to my advantage, worked for 20 years on my double until it got really good, and even once performed an exceedingly difficult card trick 25,000 times over a period of three years to make it really sing.  To this day, it’s my calling card, the trick I do if I really want to impress someone.

There’s a subcategory of card magic that focuses on gambling sleights.  The holy grail in this arena is a trio of sleights that makes people believe you’re dealing off the top of the deck when in fact you’re not.  There’s the second deal, in which you deal the second card down from the top while seeming to deal from the top.  There’s the bottom deal, in which you deal the bottom card while seeming to deal from the top.  And there’s the center deal, which is the holy grail of holy grails, and I can count on one hand the number of people worldwide who can competently pull it off.

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One of my early promotional shots. Notice I’m holding five aces.

Once, I asked a gambling magician how long it took him to learn the second deal.

“About 20 years,” he said with a sad grin.

I’ve experimented with it, and can clumsily execute something approximating “a second,” as they call it, but I wouldn’t try it under fire.  It’s just not ready for prime time.  And besides, once you’ve mastered it, you can’t really show it off.  It looks like nothing.   It’s designed to look like nothing.  If it looks like something at a poker table, you can come down with a case of lead poisoning.  On top of that, the types of magic tricks you can do with it aren’t that amazing, and you can pull off the same effect with much easier sleights.  The only arena in which they can accomplish miracles is at a real-life poker table, where false deals can earn you loads and loads of money.

A couple years ago, I read a book about the center deal.  The Magician and the Cardsharp is about Dai Vernon, the 20th century’s best closeup magician, who moved to Wichita in 1930 after the Stock Market crashed.  While there, he met a Mexican card cheat named Amador Villasenor, who had been charged with murder and was being held in a local jail.  Vernon met with him because of his prowess with card sleights, and during the conversation, was told that there was a man in the Kansas City area who could deal from the center of the deck.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsDYNz3iCfY

Vernon lit up.  Up to that time, the center deal was merely a theoretical dream for magicians.  The world of gambling cheats was necessarily a secret world.  If people knew they were cheating, nobody would ever again let them sit down at a poker table.  Unfortunately, Villasenor didn’t remember exactly where this man lived.  He knew his name was Allen Kennedy, that he worked crooked card games in the greater KC area, and that he could execute a perfectly undetectable center deal, but that was it.

So Vernon set off on a months-long search.  The book chronicles Vernon’s quest, which ended in the little town of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, in a session with this Allen Kennedy, who had worked five years to build up the muscles in his hand well enough to master the sleight.  He died in the early 1950s in obscurity, the Pleasant Hill town drunk who was once the greatest gambling cheat in the world–and only a handful of people ever knew it.

Magicians idolize such characters, for they can borrow from their real-world sleights and tales.  They are exciting.  There are anecdotes involving deception and retribution.  Sometimes, people die.  In fact, there are several magicians today who have staked their reputation on being students of gambling cheats and other con men.

When I became a magician, then, I began to wonder if I could find my Uncle John.

About five years ago, I became interested in genealogy, and one of the first things I did was look up Uncle John.  Unfortunately, I discovered that he had died in 1990.  However, he had a daughter, Carol Ann, and I wondered about her.  I asked my mother about her.

“Oh, she married a rich lawyer in the late ’60s,” Mom said.  “I think they live in Huntington Beach.”

I did some Internet research, and after a few weeks, discovered a disappointing document: her death certificate.  She had died in Broward County, Florida, in 1995.  The trail for my Uncle John went cold.  My mother said that they never had children.  I wondered where the photographs had gone.  I wondered about the stories that I could have been told.

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Over the next couple years, I continued researching my roots.  It became a true obsession.  Then a couple days ago, I received an astonishing email from a long-lost Groves relative.

“We’ve been exchanging Christmas cards with Carol Ann for the past few decades,” he said.  “Carol Ann is alive.  Here’s her phone number….”

This morning, I called Carol Ann.  She was delighted to hear from me, and at 76, sounded 20 years younger than that.  Her mind was quick, her voice, strong.

“I heard you thought I was dead,” she said wryly.

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, I’m not!”

We talked, and as we did, tears filled my eyes and I worked hard to hide my cracking voice.  We talked about many things.  Their retirement in Hansville, Washington.  My father’s death.  The fact that so many people in our line had died of respiratory ailments.  My life, first as a journalist, and then as a magician.

Carol Ann had never met me.  She’s many years older than me and our family was not particularly close.  That side of the family never had holiday parties, for example.  However, she mentioned that she had always regretted that.  My parents had met her a couple times.  My mother said that she was a statuesque redheaded beauty.  Talking to her, it was clear that she was pretty smart, too.

As the conversation stretched to 20 minutes and longer, I began to worry whether I should mention her father or not.  After all, children of con men are often filled with anger and shame.  Perhaps her father had been narcissistic and selfish.  Perhaps I shouldn’t mention John until the third or fourth conversation, if there even was one.  I didn’t want her to clam up and close off communication.

Still, as the conversation came to a close, I felt like I had to take the risk.

“Since I’m a professional magician, I do a lot of card magic,” I said, “and I heard growing up that your father was a professional gambler.  He must have been good with cards.”

“I have to tell you up front that he was a card cheat,” Carol said.

And then Carol proceeded to tell me the story of her life.  Her parents divorced when she was 7, and after that, she rarely saw her father.

“He made his living driving a cab in Los Angeles,” she said.  “He would pick up fares and then steer them to a poker game.  He would sit in on the poker game and secretly work with a partner.  Together, they would take the fare’s money by cheating.”

It was a life that sometimes had deleterious consequences, though.  Once, he had a pool cue broken over his head.

“I have a bunch of his marked decks,” she said.  “I’ll give them to you, if you like.”

Carol’s 12-year-old grandson is crazy about magic, and I promised I’d send her a copy of my instructional magic DVD.  It’ll make a great Christmas gift.  By the end of the conversation, Carol invited me to visit her up in Washington, and I look forward to the visit.  At the moment, though, I’m flying high, not just to be reunited with a family member that I thought I had lost, but also, to be exposed to the world of my most colorful relation, the scoundrel who was kicked out of Vegas.